Friday, 20 December 2013

Gnome Goes North

Regular readers of this blog will have noticed that I don't do much birding in the north of the country - of course this is obviously because of my self-imposed restriction on how far I'm prepared to travel. This year, apart from my trip to Scotland the furthest north that I've gone on a trip has been just north of Stoke for the Caspian Tern. There is therefore a whole chunk of the country which I've never visited and this does of course mean that all sorts of goodies pass me by. As it had been a few weeks since my last birding trip I was naturally starting to get "those urges" again and was therefore casting around for things to see. The most obvious birds were the Parrot Crossbills at Budby in Nottinghamshire which were just about within striking distance though apparently they were best seen in the morning so it would mean an early start, something I'm not usually that keen on. I therefore contemplated my usual tactic in such circumstance of going up the previous night and staying somewhere cheap and cheerful so that I could get an early start the next day. There was another factor to consider of course, that being the weather. With very strong winds forecast for Wednesday and for the whole of next week it looked like Thursday and Friday were the only two possible days. In the end I decided to head up on Wednesday night despite the terrible forecast for that evening and to spend Thursday chasing the Crossbills. So after dinner with my family and despite my VLW's warning that she'd never contemplate driving with such a bad forecast, I put my gear into the Gnome mobile and set off. After all "how bad could the weather be" I thought.

The answer was "pretty terrible". The rain was constant and torrential. That coupled with strong and very blustery winds made for tricky driving conditions. Fortunately there were not many other cars about that time of night and everyone was sensibly driving more slowly but one had to concentrate hard the whole time. To avoid distractions with the Sat Nav I had carefully memorised the route: M40, then across the M69 past Coventry, one stop north on the M1 and then the A46 northwards. I'd not been on the A46 before and was keen to see what it was like. It turned out to be a great little road: a nice dual carriageway with very little traffic on it. As I worked my way northwards I wondered what the scenery was like though in the darkness I had no idea. Towards the end of the journey the constant rain turned into a sudden cloud burst that completely overwhelmed the wipers and I could not see anything ahead of me. I had to slow to a crawl but fortunately there was no other traffic about and in a minute it had passed. Finally after about two and a half hours I arrived at my B&B, a very nice farm house situated just a few minutes to the north of Budby village and very reasonably priced. Tired after my difficult drive I soon settled down for the night, wondering what the next day would bring.

The next day dawned clear and sunny as promised with only a moderate breeze. I left the B&B at around 8am and five minutes later pulled up in the cul-de-sac that comprises the southern half of Budby village. As I was tooling up another car arrived which turned out to be a couple of birders from Humberside. As we walked along the track together I naturally asked them about their star bird, the first winter Ivory Gull on the Humber estuary. They'd been to see it twice already and told me how it was almost always on view but occasionally it would come in to feed on the fish that have been left out for it where it would show down to a matter of fifteen yards or so. I was suitably envious.

The gateway to the heathland...

...and the heathland itself with scattered conifer trees

After about half a mile we came to the start of the heathland area where the Parrot Crossbills were usually seen. The heathland itself was mostly heather with scattered trees including coniferous ones that the Crossbills frequented. It turned out that my two companions didn't know where to go at all so we relied on my rather sketchy knowledge gleaned from pouring over maps, RBA reports and asking Ewan who'd visited a few days earlier. We went along the main track across the heath and after a while came to a crossroads with a couple of cattle grids on either side. I thought that the birds were frequenting the puddles just to the west of this area and there were some good trees nearby to back that up. As we stood around my northern friends gripped me off with some crippling photos of the Ivory Gull on the back of their camera. The sun had not yet reached us but we were in a sheltered hollow so out of the wind. It was remarkably quiet with just a few Chaffinches calling occasionally to break the silence - definitely no Crossbills to be heard though. After a while another birder turned up who confirmed that he'd seen the birds a few days earlier where we were standing. We waited around a bit. Another birder arrived who seemed to know my northern friends. He'd been before too but said that the birds often showed along the path on the other side of the crossroads where there was a pool. He also said that whilst the birds called in flight, once they settle in a tree to start feeding they were completely silent and were very hard to spot. We decided to head over to the other side to check out the pool - at least we'd be in the sunshine on that side I thought. We had just got back to the crossroads when we heard the distinctive "jipping" of Crossbills. Two of them flew low over us and then joined up with a flock of a further dozen before the whole flock circled back round and headed off to the east where we were headed. What was most noticeable was that their call was distinctively different from Common Crossbills: to my ears it was much more tinny sounding as if being played through very poor speakers with the bass turned right down. On this alone I was happy to ID them as the Parrot Crossbills though the fact that there were fourteen of them (the correct flock count for the Parrots) and that RBA hadn't been reporting any Commons at all at the site both helped in this respect!

We headed east scanning the surrounding trees and soon spotted them in the distance sitting on the bare branches of a deciduous tree by the hidden pool. As we drew nearer they flew up into the tops of a rather small neighbouring conifer tree and we hurried into position to start taking photos, me with my didiscoping gear. In the bright sunshine it was easy to see all the ID points: the bull-necked appearance and the very deep bills were obvious even to the naked eye. After a short while they flew to another tree nearby to the left of us and we hurriedly changed position, taking a few more snaps before they gradually melted away down into the depths of the trees to start feeding. It was amazing how quickly the entire flock of fourteen became invisible with just the occasional glimpse of one as it moved around in the depths of the trees. As predicted, they were indeed totally silent. In fact so invisible were they that one birder (the first to join us) assumed that they'd gone and went off back to the other area.

Digiscoped Parrot Crossbills

As I stood in the warm sunshine waiting to see if they would re-appear I took stock of the situation. It was now 9:30 a.m. and I'd pretty quickly achieved as good a view of the birds as I was likely to get. They might well appear again after their feed but by all accounts they could often be rather elusive so it wasn't guaranteed. My thoughts started to turn towards a cheeky foray north for the Ivory Gull which had come up as "still present" that morning on RBA. If I set off now I could be there by midday I reasoned. Of course there was going to be a long four hour drive back home at the end but to see an Ivory Gull it would be worth it. I gave in, said my farewells to my fellow birders and hurried back towards the car.

On the way back whom should I meet but Ian Kendall, from October Cornwall birding fame. It's a funny coincidence as the last Crossbill twitch I went on for the Two-barreds, I'd met up with Dave Chown whom I also knew from my Cornish adventures. Anyway, Ian told me how after Cornwall he'd had a very poor autumn, having missed the Porthgwarra Hermit Thrush through being on a course, dipping the Mourning Dove on Rhum and not having enough money for the Cape May Warbler. He was there not to see the Parrot Crossbills, but instead to look for the Great Grey Shrike which had been reported recently and which he still needed for his year list (he was on 295). I told him that there'd been no sign of it so far and gave him the Parrot location should he be interested. We parted company and I headed on to the car. There I de-tooled, set the Sat Nav coordinates for Patrington Haven which I "just happened" to have programmed in the day before on the off-chance that I'd get the Parrots early and would have time of the Gull. The official ETA was in two hours but I reckoned that the Sat Nav was being overly pessimistic and that one and three quarters was going to be more likely. I fired up the Gnome mobile, pointed her northwards and set off.

The journey proved uneventful and it was indeed an hour and three quarters later, at around 11:45 am that I pulled up by a long line of cars on the single-track road that led to Outstray Farm on the north bank of the Humber estuary. The last leg of the journey after Hull had been rather long and tedious but I was there now. Just as I arrived a message came through on RBA that the Ivory Gull was "feeding on fish by the pumping station". This was the hoped for holy grail of Ivory Gull viewing as my northern Crossbill chums had told me. Would it stay there long enough for me to get to it I wondered as I hurriedly got my stuff together and yomped down the path.

As I went I met a large mass of satisfied birders coming the other way which was not a good sign and I hoped that it didn't mean that the bird had finished with its fish lunch and moved off again. I heard various gripping comments such as "you couldn't really ask for better views..." as I hurried along. I kept being asked whether I had any fish in the plastic bag that I was carrying though it only held my lunch that I'd bought from a petrol station en route. In the distance I could see the pumping station but there didn't seem to be many birders near it and I started to realise that I'd missed the Ivory Gull porn fest. Finally after a twenty minute slog I arrived to discover that the bird was about 150 yards out on the shoreline having a post-feed wash. I set up my scope and had a good look at the bird. It had a strange pigeon-shaped head, almost pure white feathering all over except from the usual black dots along the leading edge of the wings. The dusky markings about its head were modest and the dark bill seemed to have a paler tip to it. The jizz was very strange for a gull, and in some respects it almost looked like a large white dove instead. I set about trying to digiscope it though the fact that it was an all-white bird at a distance in bright sunlight and in a very strong wind meant that it wasn't at all easy. What's more it was constantly on the move as it kept on compulsively washing itself so in the end I just held the shutter down and hoped that a few of the hundreds of shots that I took might come out OK. I also took some video footage though I was very much relying on the youTube image stabilisation function to salvage something from the shaking blur that I could see in the view finder.

Given the conditions I'm very pleased with how these shots came out

To appreciate just how good the youTube image stabilisation function is,
take a look at the unstabilised footage here. It's a miracle how well it works.

After a while and with the Gull  still vigorously washing away (it must have been a very messy meal) I took a break from grilling it in order to look around at the surroundings. The vast expanse of the Humber estuary stretched away in front of us with a salt marsh to our right and a large reedbed behind us. On the estuary there were hundreds of wading birds including Golden Plover, Godwits, Redshank, Curlew and Dunlin as well as lots of Shelduck. It looked at great spot though it could benefit from a hide I thought as the continuous wind started to wear me down. Behind us someone spotted a male Hen Harrier working its way over the reedbed and we all got nice albeit distant views. A few Little Egrets were flying around and one could hear the occasional distant Curlew cry. All in all it was a wonderfully bleak setting in which to watch an Ivory Gull. I munched on my lunch as I 'scoped the Gull washing away for a total of at least fifty minutes before it finally went on to preening itself vigorously, which wasn't much better from a photographic point of view.

The view across the Humber. You can just see the Ivory Gull as 
a white blob on the shoreline roughly in line with the distant tower

The salt marsh to our right

Gradually more people arrived to pay homage to the Ivory Gull which showed no sign of finishing its cleaning routine. With a long return journey ahead of me I started to think about the time which was by now marching on. I'd told my VLW that I'd be back my 6pm and it was now about 1:30 pm. Time was always going to have been tight on this cheeky bonus twitch and the chances of it coinciding with a porn session were always going to be slim at best. Reluctantly I realised that I would have to settle for my perfectly reasonable but not crippling views. I packed up my gear and started on the long slog back to the car where I de-tooled, fired up the Gnome mobile and pointed the her south. I felt confident that I could navigate my way back home sans Sat Nav and headed off towards the maelstrom of traffic that is the M1. The travelling gods were kind to me and there were no major hold-ups though the traffic was heavy at times. Thus it was that at a little before 6 pm I arrived back home at Chateau Gnome, tired but very pleased with my northern foray and having seen some great birds.

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Farmoor Mega Scoter!

Twice already this autumn I have blogged about some rarity (at least at the county level) that has turned up at Farmoor. First of course it was the Red-necked Grebe and soon after that was the Arctic Skua. There's no doubt that the concrete basin is having a good autumn as far as county listing is concerned. Today however it pushed it into a different league with what is by all ways of measuring it a county Mega. 

It was around noon when it all kicked off. I was staring vacantly at my computer screen and starting to think about lunch when I was woken from my reverie by the familiar "boing" of an incoming text. "More spam messages I suppose" I thought but no it turned out to be a Badger text: "Velvet Scoter currently on F2 per Dave Daniels" it read. It took a few second for this to sink in. Yes, it clearly says "Velvet" rather than "Common". Velvet Scoter was a monstrous rarity in the county with the last sighting being from the 1990's! I started to gather my wits and my birding gear together. Badger called to check that I'd got the message - he was already on his way. I left a note for my VLW and hurried out the door with all my birding clobber.

I arrived at Farmoor to find Dai and Badger scoping something in the distance. Fortunately that something turned out to be the Velvet Scoter - result! It was right out in the middle from where we were watching though drifting in towards the causeway slowly. Bark, Oz, Lew, The Wickster & The Law all turned up and we moved en masse along the causeway to get better views even though this meant that we were now looking into the winter sunshine. It was at this moment that Lew's ancient scope chose to disassemble itself so he had to get down to the fiddly business of trying to sort it out in the chilly wind on the causeway. Apparently it had done this once before about ten years ago so he knew what he was doing. Two-Eyes, the Paranoid One and Elementerry arrived shortly afterwards to join the throng. 

The bird itself was an adult female with a nice white wing stripe and some white markings on its cheek and the back of its head. I tried to take some digiscoped photos though it was diving actively about 200 yards out and partially into the sun so it wasn't easy. In the end by cranking up the exposure and doing a fair amount of Photoshop tweaking I did manage to take a few that came out ok. 

Lew ruefully commented on the passing of a great county blocker that only the most senior county birders had on their lists - it was indeed a most welcome grip-back for the younger generation. There was much banter and joviality amongst the assembled crowd though quite a few people had to get back to work including me so some of us soon headed off. As we retraced our steps more county birders were streaming towards the causeway to pay homage to this county Mega.

Happy County Birders!

What a great interruption to the working day and yet another stonking county bird from Farmoor. This site has now provided me with three county ticks this autumn. What will it turn up next?

I got an e-mail later on from an out-of-county birder called Ray Reedman. Apparently he and a couple of chums had originally found the Scoter between 10:30 and 11am that morning though due to technical difficulties they hadn't been able to report the news on Going Birding. Fortunately, Dave Daniels independently found it anyway and got the news out. Well done Dave!

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Gloucester Cross-bars

With the success of my last Blitzkrieg twitch for the Dusky Warbler now just a distant but happy memory I was starting to hanker after more hot out of county twitching action. The only game in town at present seemed to be exotic Crossbills and I'd been tracking the various sightings of Two-barred and Parrots at various locations in the southern half of the country for some time now. After my dip a couple of months ago at Lynford Arboretum I felt that it would be useful to have reinforcements: two sets of eyes and ears would be better than one and at least I'd have someone to talk to whilst hanging around waiting for the bird to appear. Tom Wickens ("The Wickster") still needed Two-barred so we pencilled in a trip though a combination of Wickster commitments and Gnome illness meant that it was quite a while before we were both finally free to make a sortie. In the end we found ourselves both free on Tuesday of this week and so a plan was hatched. After some discussion it was decided that the near record breaking flock in the Forest of Dean was probably the best option to try for though from reading around on the web it appeared that they were by no means easy. Still, nothing ventured and I felt in need of a trip anyway if only to get out of the house for a few hours (one of the perils of being a home-worker). Thus it was that I picked Tom up bright and early from the centre of Oxford and we headed west along the A40, most thankful that we were going against the commuting tide as the traffic jam seemed to go on for ever at that time of morning.

We made good time in bright sunshine that lit up the beautiful frosty countryside and a little after 9am we arrived at the Speech House car park. Unfortunately as we'd approached the Forest we'd noticed an ominous wall of cloud ahead and sure enough the sunshine soon gave way to dark and gloomy greyness which stayed with us all day. We quickly tooled up in the car park and yomped off along the Gloucestershire Way toward the Crossbill area. I'd been doing my homework and there seemed to be two key areas: the Western Hemlocks at the start of the gravel path had been the main location on the pager and on the Gloster Birder web-site for some time though I'd noticed that over the last few days there'd been no reports from there. Instead sightings seemed to be coming from the east side of the clearfell near the Crabtree Hill summit. We soon came to the Hemlock spot where a few birders were camped out. They'd been there for about an hour with no luck at all. Tom and I surveyed the scene: the track was dwarfed at this point by some very large trees (presumably the Hemlocks) and one had to crane one's neck to see the tops of them where a large number (100+ at times) of Siskins together with a few Redpolls were hanging out though there were no Crossbills to be seen at all. The deep shade from the trees and the neck craning meant that it was a rather uncomfortable and cold place to stand around at for any length of time and both Tom and I didn't really fancy it. Instead we decided to have a yomp around the whole area first to get the lie of the land and to warm up properly before starting a stake-out. Accordingly we set off up the path where the trees soon gave way to the clearfell area, a large aread of scrub, grass and a few isolated trees.

The Clearfell from the top of Crabtree Hill - looking 
grey and  bleak in the overcast conditions

We wandered up to the top of Crabtree Hill to get a feel for the area. We met a couple of birders who'd been watching the Great Grey Shrike that had been reported there on and off for the last week or so though there was no sign of it at present. Whilst wandering around we bumped into Dave Chown, whom I knew from my regular autumn Cornwall trips and whom I'd last seen in Pendeen churchyard with his wife in October. We had a natter and exchanged mobile numbers in case either of use found anything. After wandering around a bit we decided to head back to Base Camp by the Hemlocks with nothing to show for our efforts apart from several fly-over Redpolls and few very distant heard-only Crossbill flight calls.

Back at the Hemlock Base Camp (where there'd apparently still been no joy), despite our resolve to stick it out neither Tom nor I could stomach more than about ten minutes there. Instead after a quick snack we decided to head back out for another circuit. This became the pattern for the visit: we'd go for a walk around the clearfell then back to Base Camp where there'd still been no sightings. We'd put in a token few minutes and then we'd decide that we'd rather be walking than craning our necks. After about our second circuit we met a birder who'd been at Base Camp and who'd actually seen a Two-barred there though apparently a Sparrowhawk had flushed it and all the Siskins before anyone else could get on it. Well, at least there was one of them still around so it wasn't a completely hopeless situation though both Tom and I were feeling rather deflated now by our conspicuous lack of success in seeing anything at all really. We decided to go a bit more off piste and so tried a different track though it too was fruitless. As we headed back towards the Clearfell we bumped into a couple of people who turned out to be there for a spot of Mammal watching (mammal'ers? animal'ers?). They'd seen some Wild Boar and had been looking for a white Deer there. Apparently though they'd seen the Two-barreds at Base Camp first thing that morning (about 7:30am they said). Perhaps first light was the best time to see them we pondered. The two animal'ers went on ahead but then started gesticulating to us - it turned out that they'd found the Shrike sitting on top of a tree by the north end of the Clearfell. We hurried to join them and got nice views of it at a medium distance. I felt relieved finally to have seen something noteworthy and took a few digiscoped shots for posterity.

The Great Grey Shrike - at least we'd finally seen something!

After a short while the Shrike flew off out of view so we made our way back to the top of Crabtree Hill. There we met up with Dave and his companion again - they'd apparently just had a flock of six Crossbills that had flown over them a few minutes earlier. Their call had been much softer and they were both pretty sure that they had been the Two-barred though neither had been able to see a clinching wing-bar in the brief underneath views that they'd got. We took stock of the sitation: after some three hours we'd managed to see the Shrike and a couple of Common Crossbills. There had been to our knowledge three separate Two-barred sightings: one at first light and one mid morning, both at Base Camp and a flock of six "almost certains" along the tarmac road. Both Tom and I were starting to flag and to feel that this twitch was slipping away from us. I was feeling hungry by this time and the cold was starting to get to me. We decided on a power yomp back to Base Camp to warm up and then to put in a good session there before heading home.

Back at Base Camp, having at least warmed up en route we found a gathering of about a dozen birders including one who'd sensibly brought along a chair though he didn't seem to spend much time actually looking up at the trees, letting the others do the work. There was a lot of good natured banter going on and it was quite a pleasant atmosphere. This time Tom and I stuck it out for getting on for half an hour before deciding on one final circuit before heading off home in defeat. In retrospect we both agreed that we were each a bit reluctant to bite the bullet and "call it" - had either of us been there solo we'd probably have left earlier. Still, between us we decided on a final throw of the dice though mentally both of us had already given up on the day and were basically going through the motions.

We decided to concentrate on the tarmac road section along the east side of the clearfell and trudged off towards it. There we slowly covered the few hundred yard length up to the top of the hill once more though predictably without success. A quick scan for the Shrike but there was again no sign of it - it clearly had somewhere else that it was going in addition to the clearing. So we turned around for the final descent to Base Camp and then the long gloomy drive home of failure. About half way back down the tarmac road we both heard the unmistakable calling of Crossbills and moments later a flock of about ten burst into view and flew across the road and out of sight on the other side. There'd been a lot of swearing from us during out brief view as we'd both known that we had but moments to get a clinching view. Sadly we'd failed as neither of us had seen sufficient to be certain of a wing bar from our underview sightings. We did both later remark on how pale they looked from underneath though. Down the road we could seen three birders looking at something in the trees where the birds had gone to and then one started to gesture to us. "Run" I yelled and down we sped, covering the fifty yards in a matter of moments. We came to the clearing and, not wishing to flush the birds, cautiously peered round the end tree. There in the trees were some Crossbills. "There's two in the top of that tree!" I exclaimed, pointing. Bingo! Two cracking male Two-barred Crossbills were in the top of the trees, filling our bins with all their Cross-bar wonderfulness. They were stunning birds with a bright, almost raspberry-pink colouring and unmistakable huge great wing-bars. Really special looking birds! We both drank our fill for the ten or so seconds that they were on view before suddenly they dropped down out of sight. A quick scan around revealed that all the birds were now out of sight and a short while later the flock exploded out of the trees again and back across the road where they'd just come from, followed a few moments later by a straggler female. It had all been over remarkably quickly though we'd had excellent views of our two males during that time. 

At this point Dave and his companion turned up. They'd been on the road as well though at the other end from us. Instead of running they'd walked towards the area (in order not to flush the birds apparently) and consequently hadn't seen anything apart from the final departure - once again not getting views that they were happy to tick. There then followed a debate on what one can tick in such situations. Others has clearly seen the birds well enough to be certain of the ID but not they themselves. Dave's companion (I never got his name) espoused the theory that you can only tick it if you would have been sure of the ID had you seen it on your own and by that criteria they weren't happy enough. They decided to hang around on the off chance that they might fly out again. Tom and I kept them company for a while, neither of us still quite believing how we'd managed to snatch a successful tick from the jaws of certain failure.

After a while with no further sign we decided to head off back to the car, feeling rather sorry for Dave and his buddy who'd put in a long day like us and had been seconds off seeing the birds well enough. Still that's birding for you. Tom and I headed back down the road with a renewed spring in our step. We both felt that we'd been very lucky to have scored as we did on our last throw of the dice. I pondered that that was the second time this year that running for a bird had made the difference between success and failure (the first being the Otmoor Wryneck). Back at Base Camp we passed on our success to the Base Campers there, trying not to be too smug about it all. Having had no luck at all by the Hemlocks they all decided en masse to try the tarmac road instead and they all left. Meanwhile we headed back to the car park via a brief detour to the Lodge which was a known hot-spot for Hawfinches though we didn't have any luck during the few minutes we lingered. We didn't care though, we'd seen our Cross-bars and were flushed with success. The car journey home was a contented and uneventful one. The Wickster indulged in a celebratory nap and I had a few flapjacks to keep my energy levels up. We both felt that we'd really earned our tick.

A male Two-barred Crossbill is a thing of beauty. Here's a reminder taken 
by Alan Dalton (c). See his excellent blog here

Back home that evening I got an e-mail from Mark Ribbons, who'd been part of the Base Camp throng. It turned out that after we steered them all to the tarmac road, a flock of nine Two-barred came back again and everyone got excellent views which was great to hear. That clearly seems to be the tactic of choice for this site at present. I also got a text from Dave Chown to say that he too saw these birds so everyone came away happy in the end.

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Farmoor Strikes Again!

Farmoor is having a great autumn in terms of good county birds. It's already scored four Bonxies, a Gannet, a Slavonian Grebe and the recent Red-necked Grebe that I twitched a couple of weeks ago. Yesterday it struck again in the form of a juvenile Arctic Skua. The first I heard of it was when I was hanging around whilst my daughter had her Tae Qwon Do class. A Badger text came through saying that an Arctic Skua "was still present at dusk" at Farmoor. "Still present?" I pondered - that was the first that I'd heard of it. It turned out that Barry Hudson had found it at around 4pm but hadn't been sure of the exact ID so didn't want to put it out until his photographs had been checked. Meanwhile Nic Hallam had independently stumbled across it on the causeway as he was driving back from his nightly gulling session. Barry had thought that it didn't look that well so there was a realistic prospect that it might well linger tomorrow morning. A dawn start beckoned. I made arrangements to sleep in the spare room so as not to disturb my VLW and set the alarm for 6am.

The next morning I pulled up along Lower Whitely Farm lane at about 6:45am just as Ewan Urquhart was arriving. It was most interesting to see the Reservoir "waking up" with gulls streaming off it and calling noisily. Most of the gulls had of course gone by the time we could see properly and the ones that were left were speeding off as we watched. I quietly hoped that the bird was indeed unwell and would linger - that's what county listing does to you, it turns you into a bit of an uncaring monster! We scanned away but couldn't pick it out. I heard rustling in the bushes and Peter Law, Andy Last and Barry Batchelor all appeared and set up their scopes. Shortly after that Ewan said "I think I've got it" and indeed he had. Right on the opposite shore of the reservoir, hard up against the causeway was a small dark blob. However, it was a small dark blob with a distinctive high-riding rear end and as the light improved we could all make it out as the Skua. Shortly after that it flew off low and dropped down out of sight onto F1. 

Ewan and I decided to drive round to the other side whilst the others elected to stay put. We nipped back onto the road and down a side road in Farmoor where we finally emerged on the north west corner of F1. There was no immediate sign of it and we got a call from the others that it was back on F2! We decided to head over to the causeway where we found it back on the water. By walking down a little way we were able to get some pretty decent views of it in the end.

Grounded juvenile Skuas can be quite tricky to ID so I'd done a bit of reading up last night. It seems that the bill is quite a good diagnostic pointer: Arctic has a slender bill with only the tip dark; Long-tailed has a fairly short bill which is about half black and Poms have a much heavier black-tipped bill. The bill on this bird was noticeably slim, looking almost out of proportion with the rest of the bird and just the tip was black so definitely an Arctic.

After a while it flew off and started harrying the gulls. It was amazing how what looked like a very docile and indeed perhaps moribund bird suddenly shot to life, twisting and turning as it chased a couple of gulls with amazing speed. It didn't persist very long though and soon settled back on F1 with a rather inelegant splash.

By this time I decided that I needed to get back home to work and headed back, leaving Ewan to continue admiring the Skua. As I headed along the west bank of F1 I spotted the bird flying towards me and was treated to some great views as it literally flew low right over me. It made a dart for a Meadow Pipit that was flitting about and then carried on with its circuit of the reservoir. I could see why it's likened to a falcon in flight, definitely not the steady and deliberate flight of a Pom.

Back in the car I negotiated the painful rush hour traffic back into Oxford and the last I heard it had flown off at 8:45 to the North West. A great bird, a personal county tick and definitely well worth the early start.

Saturday, 2 November 2013

Dusky Delights

It's been three weeks now since I got back from Cornwall, a decently long enough period without any major excursions. I've been checking out the Patch each day and of course there was the quick dash down to Farmoor yesterday to see the Red-necked Grebe but in general I've been keeping my head down and accruing Brownie Points to make up for the ones that I spent on my Cornish trip. Naturally after such a length of time my twitching urges have re-surfaced once more so by the middle of this week I was casting around for something within striking distance to go and see. I had been thinking about a trip over to Kent for the Parrot and Two-barred Crossbills but the Great Storm of last week seems to have blown them all away as there have been no consistent reports since then. Thus it was that on Friday afternoon when a Dusky Warbler was found in the West Midlands at Marsh Lane NR (only about an hour's drive from Oxford) I keenly marked it down as a possible trip. Looking at the weather forecast for the following few days it was going to get rather dodgy by Saturday afternoon with rain and strong winds so somehow I managed to blag a Saturday morning excursion rather than the usual supermarket visit for the family food shop. Thus it was that after dropping my VLW and our son off for his Saturday morning tennis at around 9am I pointed the Gnome-mobile north and headed up the M40. 

In a little over an hour I pulled up at the rather full car park at Marsh Lane NR, paid my £4 to the gatekeeper for non-member's access to the reserve and hurried up the road to join the assembled throng of birders who were all lined up in one corner of a rather small neighbouring field. It turned out that the bird had been showing on and off all morning in one general location but apparently views were often very fleeting. I was treated to an example of this almost immediately when it soon flitted around one a pair of pollarded Willows that it seemed to favour. One could see something moving but it would have been hard to ID it as a Dusky Warbler without prior knowledge. Shortly after that it went rather quiet for about three quarters of an hour. All around me the hum of conversation grew progressively louder as people who had already got decent views turned their attention to chatting rather that staking out the undergrowth. I must admit that I found myself getting rather wound up by the noise as I couldn't really hear whether the bird was calling. A few Siskins were flying about and Skylarks would pass over periodically. The odd Chaffinch and Goldfinch were also knocking about in the hedgerow. I watched and waited quietly for the bird to reappear. Fortunately after a while the chatterers mostly left and then the bird called a few times briefly below one of the neighbouring Willows. Shortly after that I got a brief view of it flying across a gap - a definite view of the size and colour and that coupled with the distinctive call was much closer to a definitive ID. It showed very briefly and called a few more times as it worked its way along the hedge and then seemed to disappear in the end hedge for a while.

After a period I thought that I heard it calling again in the other corner of the field and made my way over there. Another birder was heading there at the same time and I presumed that he'd heard it too but it turned out that he was just going over on spec. It didn't call again and I started to wander off only for the other chap to start staring intently through his bins and I hurried back over again. It turned out that the Dusky Warbler had re-appeared and was finally showing well in a couple of sheltered pollarded Willows. Indeed it remained within these two small trees for a good ten minutes giving excellent views for almost the entire time. As I'd been nearby at the time I was right at the front of the hurriedly assembled twitch phalanx and got great views of the bird less than twenty yards away. It was a gorgeous little thing with its dark brown upper parts, strong pale supercilium and rather greyish underparts. It regularly flicked its wings as it hunted around in the trees, often concentrating on the "knuckle" of the pollarded area. As it was constantly moving I was content to spend my time just watching it rather than trying to photograph it.

A Twitch Shot, all lined up in the corner watching the Dusky Warbler

A superb shot of the bird taken by Chris Bromley (c)

After a while it was getting time for me to head back to the car as I'd promised my VLW that I'd be back for lunch so as the first few drops of rain started to fall I hurried back to the car and pointed the Gnome-mobile towards home. As I raced back down the M40 I savoured the warm glow of a successful twitch - it had been great to get such good views of what is normally a very skulking species, definitely four hours well spent!

Friday, 1 November 2013

Farmoor Grebe Revenge

Amongst the many lists that I keep one is my Oxon County Grip List. This is the list of birds that I have missed over the years which would have been county ticks for me had I been around to get them. For them to go on the list the bird has to be reasonably twitchable so obviously a single-observer sighting doesn't count. Mercifully, this list is rather small and comprises: Manx Shearwater, Red-necked Grebe, Purple Sandpiper, Citrine Wagtail (which we don't talk about), Red-throated Diver (though this only hung around for about an hour so wasn't very twitchable) and Sandwich Tern. The latter is my county bogey bird - often just a fly-through at Farmoor though there have been a couple recently (Pit 60 and Grimsbury Reservoir) that have stayed for twitchable lengths of time though the news was never put out. Anyway, all these birds, whilst being fairly common or garden nationally have somehow eluded me within the county. So when Dai John phoned me this morning saying that he had a Red-necked Grebe at Farmoor I didn't hang around at all but threw my gear into the Gnome-mobile and headed off to the concrete basin. As I drove my thoughts went back to the last one which had been found three years ago in October 2010 whilst I'd been down in Cornwall. The one before that was 2006 so this species is definitely a good bird for the county and I was keen to make up for my miss.

As Dai had found it on the south side of F2 I parked up along the Lower Whitely Farm road to save time (and money) and soon found myself looking at a Grebe though it turned out to be the long-staying Slavonian. A quick call to Dai ascertained that the Red-necked had moved round to the west bank of F2 so it was a 10 minute yomp around to that side before I arrived, out of breath to find Dai and Terry Sherlock watching the bird. And what a cracker it was too - I set about taking some digiscoped photos of it.

The Red-necked Grebe

After a while I decided to walk around to the causeway to pay my respects to the male Long-tailed Duck that was hanging out by the hide - it had been around for several days now. As he was going that way Dai kindly gave me lift which saved a good ten minute slog - Farmoor is just so big compared to Port Meadow. The Duck was diving away quite close in-shore so I took some snaps with the super-zoom.

The Long-tailed Duck

On the way back to where I parked I managed to find a Common Sandpiper near the car park, the first for a few weeks on Farmoor apparently.

Common Sandpiper

Then it was back home to bask in the glory of a revenge tick and ceremoniously to cross Red-necked Grebe off my Oxon County Grip List.

Farmoor is having a real purple patch at present what with Long-tailed Duck, Gannet, two or three separate Bonxie records, and now the complete set of the rarer Grebes. What will turn up next?

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

The Annual Visit to Cornwall in October

Once more here's a compilation of my Pendeen Birding blog postings for my now annual October birding trip down to Cornwall

Sunday 6th October
It's been far too long since I was last down in my beloved Cornwall. We've been rather busy en famille with our two daughters both taking important exams this summer and then we stupidly forgot to reserve the cottage for ourselves so that it ended up being booked solidly right through the summer holiday period. This was great on one level, but not very useful from the point of view of being able to come down ourselves. Anyway, we've resolved not to make the same mistake again next year. At least I did remember to book the cottage in October for the all-important peak birding season. So I'm back down for about a week and without the family. Of course I'll miss them greatly though it does leave me free for unimpeded birding so I'll be too busy to miss them much! My brother-in-law is planning on coming down for a few days at some point in the week to help with a few minor tasks around the cottage so I will have some company for some of the time.

I had been humming and hawing about when exactly to come down but when the wonderful Daurian Shrike turned up at Pendeen it was sufficiently tempting to push me into action. I had originally intended to come down on Saturday but I don't generally like travelling down on that day because of the traffic and I also had a couple of social events to go to that day so I decided to head down first thing on Sunday morning instead.

As usual I looked around to see if there was anything of interest en route to stop off for. A Radde's Warbler in Devon caught my eye though from reports it seemed rather elusive and I wouldn't have time to hang around staking it out so in the end I opted for a Red-breasted Flycatcher at Wyke Regis, near Weymouth which seemed to be showing really well. I set off at around 8:30am and by this time both the Pendeen Shrike and the Flycatcher had been reported as still present so it was a relatively stress-free drive down to Dorset.

I'd been to Wyke Regis once before for a Hume's Warbler on the way back from Cornwall but that had involved a bit of a walk from the main road. The Flycatcher on the other hand could be viewed from the road itself and it was literally a 20 yard stroll from where I parked to the twitch line. There were initially only about ten people present but what seemed like a whole coach-load of birders suddenly turned up. It turned out that they were on some club birding outing and their noisy chatter and enthusiastic ignorance rather changed the atmosphere of what had previously been a rather sedate and peaceful twitch. Anyway, back to the bird - it turned out it was showing periodically on its favourtie branch of some ivy be-decked tree and a bit of patience was soon rewarded with some sightings though it was a good 75 yards away in dappled shade so the views weren't exactly crippling. There was also a nice Red-backed Shrike in the neighbouring hedge which I hadn't know about - a very nice bonus bird.

Little more than record shots of the Flycatcher sitting on it's favoured branch

A Bonus Red-backed Shrike

I wanted to be in Cornwall in good time so that I could go to the supermarket before Sunday closing and my detour via Weymouth had added a good bit of extra time to my journey so having seen both birds reasonably well I didn't hang around and after a quick cup of tea from the flask I headed off on the A35 towards Honiston and Exeter where I could rejoin the M5 and get back on the main route. I made good time and managed to arrive in Penzance just after 3pm. My first priority was to get some more fuel and to buy some food before the supermarkets closed (I'd been caught out with this on previous visits). After that I was free to get down to some birding.

A Lesser Yellowlegs at Hayle had come on the pager. I wasn't so interested in that as the Osprey whcih was also mentioned and which I still need for my fledgling Cornish list.  I therefore headed back the way I'd come to the Hayle estuary causeway. I parked up and immediately came across John Chapple and Kate Thornton by the causeway. They'd already done all the hard work for me and pointed out two Med Gulls, a dark-bellied Brent Goose, the long staying Black-winged Stilt though the Lesser 'legs had apparently flown over towards the far side so that one would need to view from the station. We managed to find at least one of the two Little Stints in amongst the wader flock and there was the usual supporting cast of Wigeon, Teal, Curlews, Geese and Godwits.. They hadn't seen the Osprey whilst they'd been there and I didn't really have time to go chasing after the Lesser Yellowlegs so after a short period I decided that I needed to go and pay homage to the Pendeen Shrike.

Some 20 minutes later I pulled up at Pendeen by the coastguard cottages where, judging by the number of cars parked up there, the Shrike was obviously still about. Indeed it didn't take too long before I was watching what turned out to be an absolutely stunningly beautiful adult male Daurian Shrike. It had a wonderful peachy wash over its white breast and underparts, a smart black eye mask and a strikingly rufous tail that really caught the afternoon's sunlight nicely. In fact I can honestly say that this was the most beautiful Shrikes of any species that I'd seen - it really was a special bird.

What a stunner! The Pendeen adult male Daurian Shrike

There was a supporting cast of several Stonechats, at least one Whinchat and plenty of Mipits buzzing around though there was no sign of the two Wrynecks that were supposed to be in attendance - I guess that there were too many people around. John Swann was there so we had a little chat and I caught up on some of the local news. Apparently a very confiding Snow Bunting was hanging out by Boat Cove and the long-staying Wryneck down by the lighthouse was still about. Apart from that there were a few Wrynecks and Yellow-browed Warblers in other locations. He also confirmed something that John Chapple had mentioned about a Bonelli's Warbler down towards the St Levan area which piqued my interest.

I was in two minds about going for it and had started to walk down to Boat Cover for the Bunting but when John later passed on a message saying that the Bonelli's was still about I decided to have a shot even though by now it was getting rather late. Thus I sped off in the Gnome-mobile along what were by now very familiar roads to me. I wasn't at all optimistic but at least it would be a reconaissance trip for tomorrow when I could come back if the bird was still about. At the site I met up with Ian Kendall and his partner Jackie, Tony Mills and Paul Bright Thompson. Paul was a Bershire birder who had found the Pendeen Shrike (& a Yellow-browed in Pendeen churchyard) and Ian I knew from last autumn when he'd found the Pendeen Olive-backed Pipit. I'd forgotten just how sociable birding down in Cornwall was in October - it was really nice all chatting away together. Anyway, things weren't looking good on the bird front - it hadn't been seen since about 4:30pm when it was briefly spotted by someone else - none of the people present had seen it. What's more it had got rather cloudy and it was starting to get foggy. We all started at the sallows intently but there was remarkably little movement of any kind. A water rail was squealing away in some nearby Phragmites but it was a fruitless effort. In the end it got too dark and we had to call it a day and headed off on our seperate ways.

I went back to the cottage to unpack my stuff, sort out some food and to set up my moth trap for the night. It had been a very enjoyable first day back down here with a nice tally of good birds already under my belt. Let's hope that something really stonking turns up this week (and that I get to see it of course!). It's good to be back!

Monday 7th October
Today dawned reasonably pleasant on the weather front with only a gentle breeze and sunny intervals. I decided to get out and do the Pendeen rounds as soon as it was light but was beaten to it by Ian K and Paul BT who had more or less finished by the time I was out. The wonderful Daurian Shrike was still about and a steady passage of birders came and went throughout the morning. I managed to get down to see the Snow Bunting this morning just above Boat Cove which showed down to a few feet in the morning light. I also took a little wander along the southern coast path just down to where the stream crosses the path and on the way managed to get nice views of a Wryneck for a couple of minutes. I even managed a crappy record shot. I was back home for breakfast when Ian texted from up the road saying that he'd had a possible fly-over Serin headed down to the cottages so I went out to take a look but couldn't see or hear it. There was a single Wheatear knocking about and a couple of Ravens cronking around but that was it.

The Boat Cove Snow Bunting

Wryneck Record Shot

The Stonechat - the photographer's friend as they pose very nicely

I returned to the cottage to finish off breakfast and to sort through the moth trap. There were about 30 moths in total, most of them Feathered Ranunculus, but with a few Autumnal Rustics, Square-spot Rustic, Black Rustic, a couple of Rosy Rustics, a Dark Sword Grass, a Setaceous Hebrew Character, Angled Shades and a Feathered Brindle plus some other bits and bobs. Nothing out of the ordinary but it's always interesting to trap away from home to see what turns up.

Feathered Brindle - thanks to John Swann for confirming the ID

I was wondering what to do next when a message came through on RBA about the Lesser Yellowlegs still being at Hayle first thing that morning along with the Osprey. With nothing else to tempt me I thought that I'd go to take a look and have another attempt at getting Osprey on my Cornish list. The tide was right out by the time I arrived and many of the birds were rather distant. There were two Med. Gulls and the dark-bellied Brent Goose still though no sign of either the Stilt or the 'Legs. Over on Ryan's Field there were a couple of Ruff and a Knot along with the usual suspects. There was of course no sign of the Osprey and I realised that high tide was probably going to be much better for seeing it as well as all the wading birds so I made a mental note to come back in the evening.

Hayle Med Gull

On the way back to Pendeen I stopped off to check out the churchyard (nothing), the copse by Boscaswell Stores (a Spotted Flycatcher) and the Calartha Farm copse (a probably male Pied Flycatcher). The latter bird was only "probable" because at that moment the Bonelli's warbler came up on the pager as showing again so I decided to give up on trying to nail down the Flycatcher and instead to head back to St Levan for another crack at the Bonelli's.

 Pendeen Stores Spotted Flycatcher

The journey down to St Levan was even more tortuous than usual: I got stuck behind a huge coach which had great difficulty down the narrow roads and then had to wait five minutes whilst an entire herd of cows crossed the road for milking. Eventually I arrived and hurried back to "the spot". It turned out that it had been seen a couple of times but nothing within the last hour. With nothing better to do I was happy to spend some time on staking out the bird and settled down for a long vigil. Gradually others arrived including Ian K & Jackie, John Swann and Lewis Thomson. After a while I managed the briefest of views of something which flitted down into a clear area and then straight back up again. It was the right size, shape and jizz but not enough to be certain of it at all and nobody else saw it. As time wore on with no further sightings gradually people started to leave and eventually there were just a few of us left. Finally between us we managed some more views - some people got enough to be happy with whereas I got the most fleeting of flight views which others assured me was the bird. Not really satisfactory as far as I'm concerned so I may well have to return a third time. This bird is proving to be a bit of a bastard. Grrrr!

Tuesday 8th October
I was up and about at first light this morning as I wanted to do a quick tour of Pendeen before heading out. As I mentioned in yesterday's blog posting, neither I nor Jackie had felt that we'd got good enough views to tick the St Levan Western Bonelli's Warbler yesterday so we had agreed to meet up at the car park at around 8am today for another crack at it. Before leaving for that rendezvous I had quick yomp down to Boat Cove where the female Snow Bunting was still quietly pecking away on the path. There was also a single Wheatear nearby but little else of note. I had a quick thirty second scan of the Shrike area but couldn't see it though I didn't have enough time to search for it thoroughly. After that it was off to St Levan to meet up with Ian and Jackie.

 St Levan Church - the rendezvous for Operation Bonelli's - Day Three

We were the only people in the car park when we arrived and with the sun coming out we were feeling cautiously optimistic as we headed along the path towards the Bonelli's favoured area. As we were nearing the site Ian and I heard a wader calling in flight overhead. Ian initially managed to pick it out and track it, remarking on how long-winged it looked. I eventually managed to get on it as well and it was clearly a Golden Plover species. The call was a very distinctive di-syllabic one, reminiscent of a Spotted Redshank. That, combined with the extremly long-winged look to it meant that both Ian and I were confident in ID'ing it as an American Golden Plover. We watched it as it flew away towards Porthgwarra.

At the warbler spot, we managed to get quick glimpses of what was probably the bird almost immediately though after that it went a bit quiet. Yesterday at the end it had been Ian who had got by far the most views of the bird so I'd mentally made a note to stick close to him today and for about an hour or so this I duly did though we didn't manage to see anything at all. Eventually I started to get restless and wandered off a bit only for Ian to call out that he had the bird whilst viewing from the other (west) side of the stream. He managed some great views of it though it of course disappeared before Jackie and I could get over to him. However on this other side we had a fresh perspective as well as having the sun behind us and shortly afterwards the bird showed fleetingly at the end of the sallows before it flew back on itself into one of the larger trees there. I'd managed to see it but Jackie still hadn't managed a tickable view. We then lost track of it for a while and got sidetracked by some movement a bit further away. Whilst waiting for it to reappear we heard the AGP again but couldn't see it this time. Eventually we heard the Bonelli's calling repeatedly where we'd last seen it. Ian of course managed to get some excellent views but both Jackie and I were once more looking somewhere else. We hurried back to where Ian was but predictably it had popped down again. After an agonising wait it started moving near the top of the tree where we could all get on to it and then it came out and revealed itself in all its glory for about a minute or so so that both Jackie and I could get our fill. It was such a relief to all three of us that we indulged in a celebratory group hug. I totted it up and realised that I'd spent seven and a half hours trying to get a decent view of it so the sense of relief at finally having seen it was tremendous. I really felt that I'd earned that tick!

Back at the car park I had a quick look around the turning circle but there was little of note so I decided to head back home. En route I stopped off at Polgigga sports field (30 Pied Wagtails), the Sennen School Quarry (one Chiffy), Pendeen Stores copse (nothing) and Calartha copse (also nothing). I spent ten minutes looking for the Shrike but still couldn't find it so it looks like it had finally left. I did manage to see a single Whinchat and a Raven for my troubles though. After that it was time to empty the moth trap. The weather hadn't been that great during the night and there were only a few moths in the trap with a Delicate being the pick of the bunch. I then had some lunch, followed by a nap to catch up on some sleep.

 The aptly named Delicate

So far on the trip down I'd only been birding so I felt that it was about time that I started earning my keep. Accordingly I got out the DIY stuff and started to work on one of the outside walls that needed painting. The filler that I'd put in previously had all been washed away so I used some Extreme Exterior Caulking instead which seemed to do the job nicely. A cup of tea and a scone as reward for my work and then it was time to head out again. 

I still hadn't caught up with the Hayle Osprey so I thought that I'd give it another go as the tide would now be quite high though the weather was very "driech" as the Scots would say. At the causeway I met up with Phil and Hiliary and we passed the time catching up on news and chatting. Needless to say the Osprey never showed and there was no sign of the Lesser Yellowlegs either so it looks like that has moved on. We did get very nice views of the Black-winged Stilt and at the end when I was the last person left by the bridge it came very close - a gorgeous looking bird even in the half-light of dusk.

The lovely Black-winged Stilt

After that it was back home to the cottage to sort out some food and set up the moth trap for the night. It had been another successful day with a nice Bonelli's sighting as a reward for a lot of hard graft and a bonus American Golden Plover to boot. I wonder what tomorrow will bring.

Wednesday 9th October

I was up with the lark this morning. In fact I woke up ridiculously early again. I sometimes get into a cycle of waking up far earlier than necessary (often when there's some exciting birding to be done) and it then takes a while before my system gets back to normal. Anyway, I did the usual rounds of Pendeen, today in the company of Ian Kendall. With the wind having increased and shifted to north westerly it was noticeably quieter with hardly any birds to be found at all though the Snow Bunting was still on its favourite bit of path and there were three Wheatears and a Raven knocking about. Even the Meadow Pipits seemed to have buggered off - it was all rather bleak if truth be told. 

After breakfast it was once more off to Hayle estuary to try for the Osprey yet again. I'd been told that mornings were generally much better so today I made sure that I arrived in good time and sure enough within about half an hour the Osprey duly arrived and spent the next half an hour hunting the length and breadth of the estuary - the tide had just turned from high so there was lots of water. It was great to be able to watch it hunting in the bright sunshine. Also present on the estuary were a couple of Med Gulls, the dark-bellied Brent Goose, 2 Greenshank new in and a female Pintail. The Stilt was apparently still there on Ryan's Field though I didn't bother to go and take a look. Whilst there I bumped into the "Paranoid Birder" from Oxfordshire, down for a few days with Mrs. Paranoid - it's a small world!

I even managed a photo of the Osprey with my Superzoom camera

An obliging Hayle Curlew

After finally having got my Cornish Osprey tick I went back to the cottage for a celebratory cup of tea and to check out the moth trap though apart from a couple of interesting micros that I still need to ID there was nothing of note.

Next on the agenda were some Hawk Moths: RBA had reported that a couple of Death's Head Hawk Moths had been trapped in Cot overnight and were on display there. John Swann had also texted to say that he'd caught a Convulvulous Hawk Moth and that he would keep it so that I could take a look. With nothing else to tempt me I thought that I would take the opportunity to lose my moth twitching virginity. Thankfully as I was driving into Cot I met up with Phil and Hiliary who told me where the moths were as otherwise I would never have found it. Whilst wandering around looking for the right location I heard a "buzzy" pipit call as it flew overhead - it was either a Tree Pipit or an Olive-backed though I never saw it. Using the guiding principle of it's more likely to be a Tree in September and an Olive-backed in October, it was certainly interesting though I guess that we'll never know. Anyway, the moths were awesomely huge - far larger than I was expecting. I'd heard that Death's Head Hawk Moths sqweaked if you prodded them so I had a go and indeed it did! They'd also caught a Convulvulous which they'd put on a wall near by so I took a look at that too.

This picture doesn't convey just how massive a beast it was...

...and the Convulvulous was pretty big too

With my first moth twitch under my belt it was back to St Just to pick up some lunch, a quick wander down Kenidjack as far as the water treatment works whilst I ate it (I didn't see anything at all) and then back towards Pendeen. I stopped off at John Swann's house to have a quick cup of tea and a natter and to check out his Convulvulous Hawk Moth - I really was being spoilt on the Hawk Moth front today!

 John reckons that both today's Convulvulous were females - the males are more richly marked.

Then it was back to Pendeen, stopping off to check out the Calartha Farm copse which had quite a lot of birds in it today though nothing of note. The afternoon I spent in doing some DIY and then I wandered down to the lighthouse for an hour's seawatching though I only had a single Balearic to show for my efforts.

With the forecast for more notherly winds over the next few days I'm wondering what affect this will have on the birding. It can be rather bleak and depressing when it's very windy - all the birds hunker down or just bugger off altogether. Ian K was saying that in the past he's found that Yellow-browed numbers actually go up with northerly winds and there did seem to be a flurry of reports on RBA this afternoon. We shall see. I may try some more sea watching tomorrow morning if there's nothing else of note to tempt me.

Thursday 10th October
As forecast the north westerly winds were swinging around to north easterly this morning, but unlike the forecast, they were stronger than predicted. This  prompted me to try my arm at a Pendeen sea watch despite the fact that the wind was too far east really. I arrived to find two groups already installed underneath the lighthouse but they'd not had much go by so far. The trouble with winds that are too northerly is that there is no shelter at Pendeen - it's full into you which isn't so nice. That would have been ok had there been something to watch but if truth be told it was a lacklustre session with very little of note. One of the two parties seemed to be spotting some stuff but as they were downwind of the rest of us and didn't seem at all inclined to share what they were seeing it didn't really help much. In the end with an ominous looking squall looming up on the horizon I gave it up as a bad job and beat a hasty retreat back to the cottage.

After some coffee and toast and with the weather brightening again I decided to do the Pendeen rounds but there isn't much shelter with the winds in this direction and the whole area was virtually birdless with one Wheatear, two Swallows (the first I've seen down here this week) and two Ravens the only noteworthy sightings - even the Snow Bunting had departed. With very little coming through on RBA I decided to crack on with some DIY on the exterior of the house, fortunately on the sheltered side from the wind so that it the sunshine it was actually very warm and pleasant. I had lunch outside in a sheltered spot and enjoyed the sunshine some more - it really was a bit of a sun trap out of the wind.

In terms of my afternoon birding outing I had hoped that something would come up on RBA or from other birders that would dictate what to do but in the absence of anything tempting I decided to head down to the south coast where I hoped it would be more sheltered. Just to do something a bit different I chose to go to Porthcurno - not somewhere that I've birded before. En route I popped into Pendeen churchard where I met up with regular Cornish visiting birder Dave (I can't remember his surname) and his wife though even the combined efforts of the three of us couldn't turn up anything at all. I did notice lots of Red Admirals about there, and in fact everywhere today, presumably pushed south by the winds.

There was a bit of a mini Red Admiral invasion today

At Porthcurno I had a good wander around there but it was virtually birdless: a few tits, a wren and a robin were about my only sightings. I decided to head over to the café there only to discover that it was closed. I started to drive home, checking out the Polgigga sports pitch en route - three Buzzards, all looking rather ungainly on the ground, and a single Wheatear. The Apple Tree Café at Trevescan was also closed so I decided to have something at home instead. On the way I picked up a Belgian lady hitchhiker who was stranded at Sennen with no further buses to take her back home. It turned out that she was staying in Pendeen so she was very pleased to get all the way back so quickly. We talked about Cornwall and how much she loved the scenery here in Penwith, much better than further north at Tintagel where she'd visited previously. I could only agree with her on that point - it's easy to get rather blasé about it all but the scenery is indeeed stunning here.

Back home at the cottage I had a cup of tea, did a couple of small DIY tasks and then had a quick nap before dinner. I have found in the past that when the winds get up the birding can often be difficult here in Cornwall though quite a few Yellow-browed sightings came through on RBA later on so other people seemed at least to be seeing something. I may need a change of tactics tomorrow if the forecast for strengthening north-easterlies proves correct otherwise I can see myself getting rather fed up slogging around for little reward.

Friday 11th October
After yesterday's meagre returns I decided to adopt some different tactics today. In view of the continuing strong north-easterly winds I didn't bother with Pendeen this morning but instead decided to head off to the south coast which would hopefully be more sheltered. I therefore started at St Levan at the turning circle where I found someone staring intently at the trees. He'd found a Yellow-browed there yesterday evening though had seen little that morning apart from a few Redwings over. I joined him in his vigil but the area wasn't as sheltered as I'd hoped and the birding was difficult. After a while with nothing of note apart from some more Redwings over I decided to have a bit of an explore as this wasn't an area that I knew very well (apart from the Bonelli's site a few fields away which I felt I knew far too well!). I therefore took the footpath from the church over to Roskestal Farm though I had nothing to show for my efforts apart from a Fieldfare, a Dunnock and a few loafing gulls. On the way back I met Mark Wallace and we got to chatting. It turned out that he'd seen the American Goldie fly in off the sea at Porthgwarra about fifteen minutes before Ian and I picked it up at the Bonelli's site a few days ago. He'd not been absolutely certain of the ID so was interested to hear what we'd seen and heard. He'd seen very little this morning apart from a Yellow-browed at 60 Foot Cover - it was clearly going to be another tough day. After a while we went our separate ways, he to explore the fields whilst I headed back to the car.

Next stop was Nanquidno, which fortunately was at least fairly sheltered from the wind and here I did manage to see a few birds though they were few and far between. I even walked all the way over to Little Hendra and back though the only sightings of note were: one Blackcap, four fly-over Siskins, a fly-over heard-only Golden Plover and a Firecrest that someone else found and saw and that I only heard though it's slower, more deliberate call was noticeably different from the nearby Goldcrests. I did also get a very brief view of an interesting bird of prey that could have been a Hen Harrier though I didn't see it for long enough to be anywhere near certain. Interestingly, I later found out that someone else had seen a Hen Harrier in Kenidjack earlier that morning. The highlight of the trip turned out to be a Yellow Wagtail (not that common down in Cornwall) though the fact that it was sitting on a roof and somehow seemed to have a very long tail meant that originally I dismissed it as a juvenile Grey.

Yellow Wagtail at Nanquidno

By now it was lunchtime so I headed back to Pendeen, stopping at St Just to pick up a sandwich for lunch. Very little else was being reported on the grapevine or RBA so I more or less gave the rest of the day up as a bad job. With the winds forecast to continue for tomorrow as well I decided to spend the afternoon finishing off all the DIY tasks that I had and then to get ready to leave tomorrow morning rather than on Sunday as I'd originally planned. I thought that instead of slogging around some windswept and deserted valleys tomorrow here in Cornwall I could instead stop off somewhere on the way home where perhaps there might be more to see. Whilst doing my exterior painting work I got chatting to a decorator who was working on a neighbouring cottage. It turned out that he'd actually seen the Daurian Shrike down here a couple of days before it was officially discovered. He'd seen it perched by the roadside whilst working down at Pendeen and knew enough about birds to realise that it was something very much out of the ordinary (he even described it pretty well). When suddenly a whole bunch of birders started appearing down there he realised what he'd seen. Interesting!

I duly finished off my painting work, had a brief nap and then went into PZ to get some food for this evening's dinner and to fill the car up for tomorrow's journey home. After eating I packed up the cottage as much as I could so that I could get an early start the next morning.

Saturday 12th October
As I mentioned yesterday, I'd decided to head off home a day early due to the continuing high winds. Also my VLW was getting a bit fed up with having to hold the fort without me and had hinted that an early return might be appreciated. I'd scoured RBA the night before for something to stop off for and a Short-toed Lark at Portland Bill had caught my eye. It had been there a couple of days and was apparently showing very well on and off on a path right next to the Observatory. I've only once ever been to Portland years ago to try and see a Balearic Shearwater for the first time. I only had a very crappy little scope and if I recall the trip was a bit of a failure and I didn't really see anything. I therefore felt that it would be interesting to explore there a bit more even if the Lark wasn't about. I'd set up my phone for RBA Scarce+ alerts from Devon and Dorset so that should something more tempting turn up en route then I could divert to that instead. Fortunately the Lark came up as still present just before I was about to leave so duly encouraged I set off just after 8am.

I'd just stopped off at Hayle to buy some lunch when I got a text from Dave Parker saying that there was a Barnacle Goose in the NW arm of Drift Reservoir. I cursed inwardly: this was the one common goose that I still needed for my Cornish list but it would take more than an hour from where I was to get there and walk down to the NW arm and then get back to where I was at Hayle. I decided to leave it and continue with my original plan.

The journey was uneventful though rather long, so I that I arrived at around midday at the Portland Bird Observatory. There'd been ominous radio silence on the Lark front from RBA but having read up Sean Foote's excellent blog, I knew that it was often flushed from the path but could very well return to it later. I nipped into the Obs to find the latest news ("still about as far as I know" I was told) and to get some directions. The path was literally right next to where I'd parked and I walked up it scanning ahead carefully. Near the top a flock of Larks flew up from a neighbouring field, flushed by some birders there. There was clearly a smaller one in amongst them with no trailing white edge to the wings. Nice but not the views I was hoping for. At the top of the hill I found out from other birders that it had been on the path about ten minutes earlier giving crippling views (of course) but had then been flushed as the path was in regular use.

A short while later another small flock of Larks came by a flew around a bit. Once again I could pick out the smaller Short-toed which seemed to be rather aggressively chasing one of the Skylarks. A few minutes later someone whistled from the top of the path that they'd had the bird. I hurried over to find that, sure enough, there it was feeding away on the path again only some twenty yards away. There were only half a dozen of us there looking at it and we all set about scoping it and trying to photograph it. However, for some reason one chap took it upon himself to start creeping down towards it next to the path and sure enough he eventually flushed it, much to everyone's disgust. I'm not quite sure why he did this  as he didn't even have a camera. Still I'd got nice views and some reasonable photos. I wandered back down the now-Lark-free path to the car to pick up my lunch.

Some nice views of the Short-toed Lark before it was flushed

Next I thought that I'd wander over to the Observatory to see if they had any good moths on show. It turned out that they'd had nothing special but I was free to rummage through the egg boxes in the big plastic bucket if I wanted. This I duly did and came up with a couple of moths that I didn't immediately recognise and so photographed for ID'ing at home.

The famous Portland Bird Observatory

 Beautiful Gothic
 L-album Wainscot

After that I went back to see if the Lark had returned yet. Still no sign though I did find a Wheatear passing through. From my vantage point I saw a bunch of people scoping the Observatory Quarry so I went over to see that was going on. It turned out to be a coach party of enthusiastic club birders all looking at one of the resident Little Owls which was hiding deep in one of the cracks in the stones. As I wandered back towards the Lark spot for one final look a couple of them started shouting out "what's that bird in the bush there". getting rather animated about it. In the end I had to put them out of the misery and tell them that it was a Linnet.

Back at the Lark location there was still no sign of it so I would have to settle for my one set of views. As time was marching on I climbed back into the Gnome mobile and headed north back towards Oxford. It had been a very successful stop-off though with three hours of driving ahead of me still I needed to press on.

Portland, with the harbour, Weymouth, Wyke Regis and Chesil Beach in the background

I arrived back without incident into the bosom of my family at about 5pm for a most welcome cup of tea and a chance to catch up on the family news.

End of Trip Round-up
Well, that was my October Cornwall trip for this year. All in all I have to say that I'm very pleased with it. I'm glad that I came down when I did as there was a good selection of nice birds on offer and I managed (eventually) to see all of them apart from the Lesser Yellowlegs (which would have been no more than a Penwith tick for me anyway). The highlights of the trip for me were the Pendeen Daurian Shrike, the Hayle Black-winged Stilt, Western Bonelli's Warbler, American Golden Plover, Wryneck the Hayle Osprey, not forgetting of course the en route birds, namely Red-breasted Flycatcher, Red-backed Shrike and Short-toed Lark. There was also a supporting cast of Spotted and Pied Flycatchers and Firecrest. I managed four ticks for my Cornish List this time: the Shrike, the Bonelli's, the American Golden Plover and the Osprey so it's moving along slowly but steadily. Interestingly enough I never actually got to see or even hear a Yellow-browed Warbler whilst down here this time though it wasn't a very high priority for me, especially since I'd managed to find one back in Oxfordshire on my patch a few days before. It was a shame that the winds picked up half way through which rather put an end to the birding but at least it wasn't windy and birdless the whole time. So not a legendary trip down but plenty of birds to keep one interested.

I'd mentioned that there were a few outstanding micro moths to ID. At the risk of boring all but the most dedicated of moth'ers the missing moths were:

From the left to right: Agonopterix yeatiana, A. propinquella & Depressaria radiella (Parsnip moth).

One of the aspects of this trip that I'll take away with me has been the social aspect of the birding: it was great to catch up with everyone down here and really added to the whole experience. As you may have noticed, my brother-in-law never came down in the end so it was just me rattling around in the cottage. Not that I really mind being on my own but the fact that there were a lot of people down here that I know meant that it wasn't an issue at all.

So finally we come to the coveted "Bird of the Trip" award and there are no surprises that it's going to go to the wonderful Pendeen Daurian Shrike - it truly was a beautiful bird. Special mention should also go to the Bonelli's Warbler simply for being so hard to get. This of course made the eventual sightings all the sweeter. Since my brother-in-law didn't come down I wasn't able to do half the DIY tasks I wanted to which of course means another trip down in the near future. I can't wait!

The Bird of the Trip, the stunning Daurian Shrike at Pendeen.