Monday, 31 December 2012

That Was 2012 That Was

So it's that time again when one looks back at the last birding year, a chance to reflect on what I saw, what I missed etc. The first thing that struck me as I looked back at the entries for the last year is how much I enjoy reading my blog! I'm not boasting about the (frankly dubious) quality of my scribblings, what I mean is that it's a great way for me to reminisce and reading back over past entries brings back to me all the highs and lows of my past birding year. It's also a way for me to see just how I've progressed - I'm still very new to all this having started in the autumn of 2007 and my beginner's enthusiasm is now (I hope) starting to be tempered with a bit more experience and perhaps occasionally some actual ID skill. Personally I very much treat my blog as my own birding diary which a few other people just happen to read as well

My birding tends to follow a pretty regular pattern these days: on a daily basis I'm down on Port Meadow checking out the patch. I'll also nip out locally within the county for good birds, particularly if they're county ticks for me. About once a month on average I'll go for a full-on twitch somewhere and in addition a few times a year I'll go to Cornwall. There have been some good birds in each of these four categories over the last year.

Starting with the Patch, it was a rather strange year with all the rain ensuring that the floods were there all year round (always an important factor for attracting good birds) but somehow that extra special bird just seemed to elude us. Normally we'll get things like a Temminck's Stint or a Spoonbill in May but it It wasn't until November in fact that it finally came up trumps when I found an American Golden Plover. After that it seemed to pick up with four different Caspian Gulls and an Iceland Gull and we ended the year with 134 ticks for the Patch, which is a good year.

The Port Meadow Bird of the Year - American Golden Plover (c) Badger

One of the four different Caspian Gulls on the patch this autumn

The county had a pretty good year with a real purple patch in the spring. January saw some unseasonal birds in the form of a Temminck's Stint and a Grey Phalarope. It all kicked off in the spring with a Black-winged Stilt, a Dotterel, a Pied Flycatcher and four White Storks all appearing in the county. May added another cracking county bird in the form of a Red-rumped Swallow - a bird that I was very pleased to catch up with as they can be so hard to twitch. June added a heard-only Corncrake embedded deep in the fields of Otmoor. After that the county went rather quiet until the last couple of months when the American Golden Plover turned up and then in December the gorgeous drake Falcated Duck at Farmoor.

My personal county Bird of the Year - the Farmoor Red-rumped Swallow (c) Nic Hallam

The Farmoor Falcated Duck

As far as my out of county twitches have been concerned, looking back on the list I managed to see quite a few nice birds this year. In January there was the Hampshire double of the Spanish Sparrow and the Dark-eyed Junco. February saw the fabulous Common Yellowthroat in a very unlikely location in a field in Wales. In May I went to see the Blagdon Lake Squacco Heron and the gorgeous Cream-coloured Courser in Herefordshire. September was a good month with my trip to Norfolk for the Booted and the Barred Warblers, the Rainham Baillon's Crake and the Lodmoor Short-billed Dowitcher. In November I went to the Pits of Desolation in Staffordshire for the White-rumped Sandpiper and December hosted the dash to Queen Mother's Reservoir for the wonderful Buff-bellied Pipit.

The Stunning Common Yellowthroat (c) Richard Stonier

The Blagdon Lake Squacco Heron

Despite several trips to Cornwall, only two of them produced noteworthy birds. In spring there was my trip in May where I found a Night Heron in Kenidjack, as well as seeing a Hoopoe at Brew Pool and the female Blue-winged Teal at Walamsey Sanctuary. In October I had the first of what I hope will be many autumn trips to Cornwall in future for some full-on family-free birding where I was rewarded with the wonderful Paddyfield Warbler and the Olive-backed Pipit on my doorstep.

The Paddyfield Warbler

The Olive-backed Pipit (c) B. Rankine

The only other point of note from reading through the blog was the increasing interest in insects. There were quite a few butterfly trips (such as seeing my first Black Hairstreak) as well as my first tentative steps into the murky world of moths and even a dragonfly hunting trip. I'm sure that I will continue to look at these wonderful creatures in the year ahead.

A Frosted Orange - this year I took my first tentative steps into the murky world of moths

So, do I have any conclusions to draw from this past year or any predictions for the year ahead? Not really, it's been a good year and I hope that next year is more of the same. In terms of my bird of the year it has to be the wonderful Cream-coloured Courser - what a stunner that was!

The Cream-coloured Courser - my Bird of the Year 2012

Saturday, 15 December 2012

Queen Mother's Pipit

I don't generally drop everything and go for an out of county bird. I will do so for something within the county if I need it for my county list but for longer distance stuff I like to prepare, namely read up on site access, check that the bird is being seen regularly etc and generally plan things at least a day ahead. In fact that only times that I can recall going for anything on the spur of the moment are the Cream Coloured Courser (well worth it!) and the Drayton Greater Yellow-legged Greenshank (definitely not worth it!). However on Thursday I did another Code Red Scramble and in my defence I blame Badger and his insidious texts!

It all started innocently enough: I was chatting to Badger yesterday morning about some blog-related stuff and he happened to mention an American Buff-bellied Pipit which had turned up in Berkshire at Queen Mother's Reservoir. I hadn't checked the RBA web-site yet that morning so this was news to me though apparently the bird had only been seen first thing in the morning before going missing. Now most Oxon county birders will have this species safely under the belt thanks to the Farmoor bird in 2007. However, I'd only just started birding then and due to sheer ignorance of just how rare it was, hadn't bothered to go and see it then. This therefore would be a chance to see a species that is normally found in the furthest corners of the country as far away as possible from Oxon so I was definitely interested though as it was not currently on show it was no more than Code Amber at best. I switched on my RBA text alerts for just this bird and soon forgot about it. However at around 1pm a text came through that it had been refound. This was shortly followed by another saying that it was showing well and then one from Badger saying that the pipit was back. He then sent another pointing out what a relatively short drive it was from Oxford and at this point I started to weaken. I floated the idea with my VLW and there didn't seem to be anything family duties standing in the way until the evening. Suddenly it was Code Red: I got my gear together and at a little after 2pm I was edging the car out of the drive and heading off down the M40. 

As I drove along admiring the frosty scenery and waiting for the car heating to kick in I started to think a bit more about what I was doing. Realistically I wasn't going to get there much before 3pm which would give me about an hour of daylight. I'd looked on the map and the reservoir was huge so unless the bird was actually being watched when I arrived there wouldn't be much time to even walk around it yet alone find the missing pipit. I just had to hope that it was showing constantly and not too far from the car park entrance. Oh well, there was no chance of me seeing it sat at home at my desk so I might as well give it a whirl.

A little before 3pm I arrived and managed to squeeze the Gnome-mobile in the last remaining space outside the sailing club car park. There I found a birder who was just leaving so quizzed him on the state of affairs. It turned out that the pipit was showing well and not too far to walk, in fact one could see the line of birders silhouetted on the skyline. I hurried inside and started yomping towards them. There turned out to be two lines of birders and the bird was clearly going to be located between them on the grassy path itself. In the company of another birder I power-walked onwards get ever closer. Suddenly when we were less than 50 yards away the two lines broke up and people started to walk away. This did not look good - to miss by that distance would really hurt! Fortunately it turned out that the bird had just flown down onto the reservoir shore and was now working its way along the shoreline again. It had a tendency to work its way in one direction consistently, either on the shore or on the grassy path. I wasted no time in setting up my scope and giving it a dammed good grilling.

Not having seen a Buff-bellied Pipit before I'd assumed that it would be fairly distinctive but in the poor light it wasn't so easy to tell apart from a Rock Pipit and I had to look carefully at it. It had a fairly uniform warmish mid-brown back with just very faint darker markings to it as opposed to the usually more grey-toned and darker colour of a typical Rock Pipit. The tertials and coverts had a very strikingly light brown border to them which stood out strongly. The bill was not the particularly strong bill of a Rock Pipit, and was yellow with a darker tip. There was a modest supercilium with no noticeable dark loral stripe and the face had rather an open "pleasing" appearance. The underparts had an off-white basal colour with smudged dark brown streaks and the diagnostic brown wash over the flanks and belly. The legs were dark coloured.

Here are my best videograb efforts - you can just make out
 the salient features in the gloom

 Here are a couple of cracking shots taken by the finder 
Michael Mckee (c) earlier in the day - see his great web-site here
You can easily see all the diagnostic features on these shots

 The light was pretty poor but it was on show constantly and one was able to approach reasonably closely. I busied myself with trying to digiscope video it though the light and the constant movement meant that it was rather hard. Towards the corner it turned round and suddenly was coming back towards us. I abandoned my scope and managed to shoot some footage with my handheld Canon superzoom camera though the hand movement rather spoils it. At that point it flew off and relocated further down the path back towards the car park. 

Some hand-held HD video using the Canon super-zoom. I got youTube 
to stabalise it so it's not quite as shaky as the original.

It was nearly dark by this time and in the sub-zero conditions I was starting to feel very cold so I decided to head back to the car. I came across the bird again half way back though as the light had basically gone I decided not to linger. I headed back to the car and set the co-ordinates for home. Interestingly the iPhone Sat Nat app decided to take me back via the "short-cut" along the A4 and A355 rather than along the M25. This turned out to be a bit of a mistake and with the traffic it took a lot longer to get back though all the same I was easily back in time for my family duties. It had been an exciting Code Red Scramble and I once more basked in the warm internal glow of a successful outing.

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

En Cherchant le Canard

There must be some conservation law regarding the amenablity of birder's wives to the sudden disappearance of their spouses due to the Call of the Mega. I postulate this as a result of reading Ewan Urquhart's latest (and excellent as always) Black Audi Birding update during which he describes his wife's remarkable lack of concern as he "ducked out" of a trip to visit friends in London leaving him free to spend the day en cherchant le canard. The sum total of amenability must be conserved so the same story from my perspective couldn't have been more different...

I was just getting ready to go out for a quick morning run around the patch. We'd had the usual Sunday morning lie-in with a cup of tea whilst our six-year old chatted away to us. Later on we had my VLW's niece and her boyfriend coming over for Sunday lunch so there was just time for me to nip out to check the patch before having to help with peeling some potatoes. It was at that point that Farmoor stalwart Dai John (see his blog here) called to report a Falcated Duck at Farmoor. I posted the news on the Oxon Bird Log and then suggested to my VLW that perhaps I could have my run at Farmoor instead of Port Meadow. This suggestion was met with a very frosty response and I decided that perhaps an afternoon visit would be more diplomatic. After a heavy bout of peeling vegetables (to try to restore some brownie points) it was then that my VLW discovered that the oven wasn't working and that the chicken inside the oven was as uncooked now as when it had left the fridge. A bit of fiddling around determined that it was just the fan setting that wouldn't work (the fan element had clearly gone) and that it would still cook on the conventional oven setting. This did mean that the whole meal was delayed by an hour and wouldn't now be ready until 2 pm. With nearly two hours to go until then, I tentatively suggested that I could nip out in the mean time and would still be back in time. Apparently this wasn't a good idea either as our guests would be arriving in about an hour. I mooched around despondently. Badger helpfully texted me to tell me that the duck was still there and showing well. Our guests then called to say that they were running late. I mooched some more. The guests texted to say that they would be even later and in fact conveniently wouldn't now arrive until the chicken was actually going to be ready. I mentally decided that it would not be helpful to work out how many times I could have been to Farmoor and back that morning before our guests did actually finally turn up. In the end they arrived, the chicken was very tasty and enjoyed by all. I quickly did some washing up after the first course and said that I wasn't interested in any dessert thanks and if it was ok I'd be nipping out now to Farmoor before it got dark. With the relief of a successful roast now out of the way my VLW was in a much better mood and agreed to my suggestion.

I hadn't entirely wasted my time that morning: whilst waiting for our guests I'd done some research on the mythical Third Way into Farmoor. There is of course the usual car park entrance and walk along the causeway. For birds in the south west corner of F2 there was the Whitley Farm entrance but legend told of a way into the north west corner of the reservoir from Farmoor village itself. I consulted an ancient oracle (Streetmap) and discovered a footpath to the reservoir from Meadow Close in Farmoor. With there not being much daylight left I wanted to maximise the time that I had with the duck and as this entrance brought you out right at the north west corner of F1 where the duck was located, it was the obvious choice. After fighting my way through the Botley Road traffic I eventually found myself in Farmoor and navigated my way to Meadow Close. I located the footpath without too much difficulty and a short time later I was on the bank in the north west corner of F1 in the company of the Mr. Two Eyes himself (back for seconds), as well as Peter Law, Paul & Vicky Wren and a non-local birder. The Falcated Duck turned out to be a very smart drake bird that was hanging out with a flock of Mallard. I wonder whether it felt that the green-headed Mallards were close enough in appearance to be acceptable company.

A couple of digiscoped shots of the smart Falcated Duck

As well as the star duck there was a Slavonian Grebe in the same corner and a little further around the three Scaup were still about. As it was getting rather dark now I didn't loiter much longer but headed back towards the Third Way footpath. As I approached the north west corner again I noticed that most of the ducks had now come out of the water to hang around on the bank, presumably to roost for the evening. The Falcated Duck was in amongst them but as I approached it shot off back to the safety of the reservoir, long before any of the Mallards had moved. It clearly was rather "wary" of my approach and others have subsequently reported similar behaviour. I soon found my way back to the car and headed off for home and a nice cup of tea.

A bonus Scaup, one of three

There is of course the thorny question of the provenance of the bird. Ducks are always a bit of a minefield when it comes to ascertaining whether they are truly wild or just freshly escaped from a local collection. During the day Roger Wyatt had obtained some photos of it in flight thereby confirming that it was un-ringed and fully winged. We can add wary to this list but then there's the question of carrier species: apparently (according to BirdForum anyway) Wigeon and Teal are better carrier species than Mallard though there has been a large movement of ducks over the last week due to harsh winter conditions on the Continent. So to sum up:
  • Fully winged
  • Un-ringed
  • Wary
  • Consorting with some carrier ducks after a large harsh weather movement from the continent
You're never going to know for certain and my view is that if it ticks all the above boxes then that's about as good as it's going to get. Those who do competitive listing of course have to have some official arbiter of what they're allowed to tick though I personally list only for my own benefit and am unconcerned about official decrees on the provenance of birds. As Ewan points out, we all see it, send in our reports only for a panel of wise men to make a somewhat arbitrary second-hand decision about it which we then moan about. As he concludes, it's up to each of us to make up our own minds. So, am I "having" it? Well, quite frankly it would be rude not to.

Monday, 10 December 2012

More Waxwings

A flock of Waxwings has been frequenting St. Giles churchyard in central Oxford on and off for a while now. They were there for a few days just over a week ago and I managed to see them on several occasions but only managed some very crummy photos taken in the gloomy half light that was prevailing at that time. However after an absence of a week or so they were reported again on Friday morning - what's more it was a gloriously sunny morning. After a hard week wrestling with the twist and turns of the financial markets I felt that I really needed a break. I therefore chose to take some time off to nip down into town on foot to see if I could get some better photos. There I met a couple of photographers (whom I didn't know but who turned out to belong to the Oxford Photographic Society) staking out the berry tree next to the memorial. Incidentally, I'd love to know what species of tree it is if anyone knows (see the photos below). I joined them and a short while later the Waxwings flew back in and almost immediately descended on the tree to indulge in a berry feeding frenzy for several minutes before someone spooked them all back up into their tree. They didn't really hang around after that though I did spot the odd one or two in the churchyard itself for a while. Still I had managed to take a few photos in actual sunlight (a first for Waxwing photos for me!). I just can't get enough of these gorgeous birds.

Not SLR  quality but they came out well enough using my Canon SX 30is super-zoom.