Thursday, 21 February 2013

Golden Revenge

February is a quiet month in the birding calendar: in January you run around getting your patch or national year ticks, snapping up everything that's around. However, come February you've done all that and there often seems little to do but wait until the spring arrives. I have certainly been feeling like this of late - the county seems suddenly bereft of birds and even my beloved Patch at Port Meadow has gone very quiet which has left me rather kicking my heels. It was for these reasons that recently I'd been casting around for ideas for a birding trip. The only point of interest on my radar was the Pied-billed Grebe down in Somerset but I was hoping to see that en route to Cornwall as I need to pop down there in the next couple of weeks to sort out some things with the cottage. Thus it was that I started thinking about a revenge trip to Norfolk to see if I could finally catch up with one of my bogey birds, namely the elusive (though it feels to me more like "mythical") Golden Pheasant. On just about every trip I've made to Norfolk I've stopped off at the Wolferton Triangle and stared with increasing despair at the mass of Rhododendrons hoping that one of these wretched birds would actually show itself. It's funny but I've now started to develop a Pavlovian association between Rhododendrons and a feeling of failure! I was therefore most keen to put this bird to rest so that I wouldn't have to undergo the curb-crawl of frustration any more. My thoughts hadn't really got much further than a vague idea about this but over the weekend the Badger Birding Crew had gone on a trip down to Norfolk and they'd managed to score a pair of the bastard birds (see Ewan's excellent write-up here). Right that was it, I'd had to go! Badger helpfully pointed out that of late they were being reported every day on RBA and not just at first light so it really did look like now would be a great time to make a concerted effort. Thus it was that I hatched my plan. Badger et al. had gone for a four o'clock start in order to arrive at Wolferton. Having tried that in the past I was somewhat reluctant - I know I can't really call myself a hard-core birder if I wimp out of an early start and three hour drive before daybreak but the fact is that if I do that then I just feel really tired all day and it rather spoils the enjoyment for me (which I have to remind myself is after all what it's all about). Thus it was that I decided on my usual tactics of driving up the previous night and staying in a local B&B. and this way I didn't have to drive both ways in one day as well. A bit of consultation on the internet (how we managed before the internet I'll never know) and I soon found plenty of B&B's in Dersingham, literally no more than five minutes away from Wolferton. I picked out Ashdene House which had great reviews on TripAdvisor and booked in. After an uneventful drive up after dinner on Tuesday night I installed myself in what turned out to be a pleasant enough B&B and looked forward to the following day's birding.

I was up before the lark and in place at Wolferton just as it was starting to get light at about 6:45. The recent RBA reports had all been for the southern section so parked up perhaps two thirds of the way towards the apex of the triangle and settled down to wait. It was a cold and rather gloomy start to the day and without the car engine on (I assumed that this would deter the birds) it was cold enough for me to put on some extra layers. In the company of Radio 4 I watched and waited. There were quite a few small birds hopping about on the margins, mostly Blackbirds, Tits and Robins. Another car turned up and positioned itself on the apex looking back towards me. Time passed. I noticed a Blackbird in my rear-view mirror on the other side of the road. More time passed. At around 7:30 I noticed a very yellow blob moving behind the Blackbird in the rear-view mirror - that looked promising! I turned round and Halleluja there was a Golden Pheasant picking it's way along the margins in the gloom. I carefully opened the car window and leant out just enough to shoot some video footage. They truly were stunning birds to look at, a real riot of colours. Interestingly, their golden headdress combined with their black faces and throats really imparted an ancient Egyptian look to them. Apart from the ridiculously long tail, the body itself was smaller than a Common Pheasant, something which I'd not been expecting. The wings were a deep irridescent blue, with beautiful deep red underparts and a sprout of red alongside the greenish tail - all in all they were a marvel to behold. Incidentally, the black throats on these birds have been a point of contention, with some people postulating that they might be Lady A. hybrids though Martin Garner thinks (see here) that actually they are mutant pure-bred birds reverting back to the obscurus sub-species. Anyway, it foraged happily for a couple of minutes and then disappeared again. Elated at my success I could now relax and try and get some more views. I turned the car around so that it was facing the other way and waited to see if he would come out again. Another car turned up facing me and about five minutes later out came the pheasant again and walked across the road literally right in front of the other car to the obvious delight of the occupants before disappearing into the undergrowth. I decided to spend a little while longer to see if I could get any more views but at around 8:30 I started to feel hungry and decided to head back to the B&B for my well-earned full English breakfast and to bask in the glory of my revenge tick.

A videograb of the Golden Pheasant

..and some video footage. It's a shame it was so gloomy

Whilst enjoying my breakfast I contemplated what to do next. Although I had the whole of Norfolk at my disposal, the truth was that even Norfolk was rather quiet at present. There were one or two Rough-legged Buzzards knocking about, Snow Buntings at Salthouse and an elusive juvenile White-tailed Eagle in the Dersingham area but somehow none of those really appealed. I also wanted to get back home reasonably early so decided to concentrate just on the really good stuff. Thus it was that my second and final destination of the day was Thetford for the Black-bellied Dipper which was over-wintering in the area. About an hour later I pulled up in the car park by the Three Nuns Bridges on the south side of Thetford. As I got out of the car a birder and his son were just packing up. I enquired about the Dipper only to be told that he'd seen no sign of it in the hour that he'd been present. Bugger, I thought. Still as I was here I'd might as well have a look round. At the very least I could stretch my legs before the long journey back home. I got tooled up and set off for an explore.

It was rather an interesting little area with the Great Ouse and the River Thet running parallel to each other through two old stone bridges. In between was a small, fast-running stream, a tributory of the River Thet. From the pager directions I knew that the bird wasn't on the Ouse so I wandered over the metal footbridge and in to the muddy field behind. There was no one else about to give any clues to where the bird might be so I decided to follow my nose. The River Thet on the other side of the field was relatively deep and slow flowing, not really Dipper habitat so that left the small stream. I decided to follow this to see how far it went and although usually the bird was being reported as being east of the main bridge, today I found it on the west side, about 100 yards above the bridge. Over the next hour I watched it as it worked its way up and down the stream though in the end it spent most of its time back on the east side. It was a pretty confiding bird and one could easily see the all-dark belly, lacking the usual chestnut band below the white bib which our birds have. There are actually 13 or 14 sub-species of Dipper (Cinclus cinclus) though in this country the usual ones that one comes across are c.c. hibernicus in Ireland and western Scotland, and c.c. gularis everywhere else in the country. The Black-bellied c.c. cinclus sub-species breeds in northern Scandinavia but then migrates south in the winter, normally to Finland, southern Sweden and western Germany. Occasionally one will make it over the channel as this one had. Anyway, I had the bird to myself for a good period of time before other people started turning up and I decided to leave. A quick walk along the river Thet found some nice accompanying birds: a Lesser Redpoll, several Siskins, a couple of Marsh Tits and a Treecreeper which were all nice to see.

I used the youTube image stabliser function to get rid of the camera shake which is why the screen area is hopping around all over the place. I really should get a tripod!

Time was marching on so I headed back to the car, fired up the Gnome-mobile and set the Sat Nav for home. It had been an enjoyable February interlude in Norfolk and thank heavens I won't have to put in more hours staring at Rhododenron bushes at Wolferton in the future! Revenge is sweet.

Monday, 18 February 2013

Take Your Birding Where You Can Get It!

I've not been out for a major birding outing for a while now. I've been working away on my patch at Port Meadow and have been enjoying some good gullage there but apart from that there's been little to report. Weekends are generally tied up with family stuff so I don't get much chance to go birding. However, I'm always alert to the possibility of sneaking in a bijou spotette of birding and this weekend just such an opportunity presented itself.

On Saturday a family trip to London was mooted: my VLW and our younger daughter wanted to go shopping and L, our 6 year old son, didn't want to be left out so I offered to take him to some museums which he might like. We had been thinking of the Imperial War Museum which we've been told all young boys love but according to their web-site it was closed for refurbishment at present so we decided to try the Natural History Museum to see the dinosaurs. A quick preparatory look on the map revealed that Hyde Park was very close by where of course there are a couple of over-wintering female Bearded Tits in residence. Thus was hatched a plan for some opportunistic birding. 

We decided to have our picnic lunch in the park before visiting the museums and so we walked up from High Street Kensington. It was great to see and hear all the Ring-necked Parakeets calling away noisily within the park grounds. I know that they are viewed as pests in some quarters but I think that they're wonderful, lending a real tone of the exotic to the urban landscape.

The Bearded Tits were apparently located in a small reedbed right next to the Diana Memorial fountain on the south side of the Serpantine. When we got there L spent a happy half an hour running around and jumping over the fountain whilst I enjoyed seeing the Beardies at point blank range in what is a pretty tiny reedbed, being no more than a couple of metres deep and perhaps twenty metres long. They seemed completely oblivious to the people passing by and were busy feeding away on the reed heads. It was comical to watch them as they worked their way up the reeds until their weight proved too much for the stem which would suddenly bend over and the bird would disappear out of sight. I spent some time trying to photograph them with my Super zoom though they were tricky little things as they were continually on the move.

After a while L grew restless so we finished off our food and headed to the museums. The Natural History Museum had a huge queue by the entrance and they were only letting people in every few minutes which looked ominous. Inside it was absolutely heaving and altogether very unpleasant. There was a half hour queue to see the dinosaurs and L said that he didn't want to see them anyway so after a brief wander around some (mostly rather lame) volcano exhibits we left and went to the Science Museum instead where L amused himself for a while. When he'd had enough we headed back to the park for an ice cream and a wander around the Serpentine to clear our heads after the crowds. There was a surprising variety of birds on the water with Tufted Duck, Pochard, Shoveler, Red-crested Pochard, Egyptian Goose, Great-crested Grebe and Gadwall all seen as well as plenty of Black-headed Gulls with a few Herring and Common Gulls thrown in as well. It's great to have these park oases right within the centre of London. By this time L was getting tired so we wandered back to the tube and home to Oxford. It had been an enjoyable day trip with a bit of opportunistic birding thrown in to boot.