Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Lists and a Good Day's Local Birding

In general I find county birding rather frustrating. Especially in a land-locked county such as Oxfordshire where the winter months can drag on. Finally, come spring you get all exciting about the mouth-watering Rares that are going to come your way but instead of course all the really good stuff is found on the coast. And don't get me started on the frustrations of a county list - I find it really difficult that one can go so long without a county tick even when, as a relative new comer to the scene, one is languishing near the bottom of the county league table. And then when you turn your back (or go down to Cornwall in my case) that's inevitably the time when all the good stuff goes through. I even keep a list (to torment myself) of what I've missed in the county through being away. Currently I'm on three gettable ticks missed for being in Cornwall (Red-necked Grebe, Purple Sandpiper and Red-throated Diver) and one because I was out all day with my VLW (Manx Shearwater).

I have this theory that the smaller the birding area that one is considering, the more frustrating it can all be. For example, if I really want to get a new tick on my UK list then I can at present relatively easily do this if I put in sufficient time to travel to twitch something. On the other hand, for my county list, there's nothing I can do to increase it other than to try to find something myself. And as for a patch life list, I don't even keep one: that way madness lies I feel. I'm reminded of Johnny Allan, a mad keen Surrey patch lister who packed it all in after missing the first Long Tailed Skua for Surrey which turned up on his patch, whilst he was there and he didn't see it - it's enough to push anyone over the edge. I generally like lists that you can keep ticking along easily so a patch year list is a good one that I work hard on. I include sightings from other people (i.e. a pan observer year list) so that there's less of an issue if I personally miss something. Thus it is that I have sought solace from the pain of county life listing in the world of Patch birding. I can get excited about finding a good bird for the patch which is why, if there's nothing exciting elsewhere in the county, you'll generally find me on Port Meadow wandering around looking to add that Patch Year Tick. The advantage of this is that I do put in a large number of hours per week on the patch and so I do manage to find the occasional good bird when it does turn up. Fortunately the patch is good enough that it will attract the occasional Scare or Rare and it's this outside chance as well as the Patch Year Ticks which keeps me going day in and day out.

I suppose that there is another issue which is the "maturity" of one's list. What I mean by this, is that I can easily go and find a new bird for my national list because I've not been birding that long so there's plenty I still "need". For seasoned birders this isn't the case and I expect that, like me for my county birding where my list is more "mature", they're waiting around for something they need actually to turn up. By that argument you'd probably expect a Patch life list to mature even more quickly so there'd be longer waiting around but as I don't actually keep one I can't really comment on this.

Anyway, time to talk about some actual birds. This spring has been a rather unusual one. The horrible cold weather that stuck with us for so long clearly held back the early spring migrants so that now that it's finally gone there's been a wave of migrants hitting the county with the normally early migrants coming in with the later birds all at once. This has, dare I say it, actually made for some quite good county birding as well as some fantastic Patch birding. Pied Flycatcher is a really hard bird to get in Oxon, sure a few are reported each year in the county but they are almost all untwitchable. Last year one finally stuck around at Farmoor for lots of county birders (including myself) to get it on their list (see my write-up here). Thus when Tom Wickens found one by the Thames behind the Oxford ice rink on Thursday evening, it wasn't quite the huge deal that it would have been last year but nevertheless a very nice bird. As it was so late, only a few people twitched it that evening and I think that everyone (including myself) just assumed that it wouldn't be there the next day. So it wasn't until mid afternoon when two keen student birders (Alex Martin and Liam Langley) decided to check it out that it was discovered still to be there, happily flycatching away. They kindly gave me a call and I came down to have a look. It had found a convenient tree that had recently fallen into the water which made an ideal perching spot from which to make flycatching sorties and it was remarkably confiding, unconcerned by people standing around watching it. As it was constantly on the move it was hard to photograph but I managed a few successful shots with my Canon SX30 camera which came out OK. 

After I put the news out a few more people managed to twitch it and even some people surprisingly high up the county league table managed to add it to their county list. In fact I was chatting to Ian Lewington about it and he confessed that before this year, where as County Recorder he was called to a private garden to check one out, he'd only ever seen one in the county which he'd found himself so they really are county Megas from a twitchable point of view. It just shows what an unusual spring we're having that there have already been three separate ones reported in the county. Incidentally Wood Warbler has the same untwitchable county status as Pied Fly so I'm formally putting in a request to the Birding Gods for one now.

Later that same afternoon I went for my daily check of the Patch. I'd met up with Tom Wickens, who is doing a county year list (it's getting quite competitive with Peter Law hot on his heels). In addition Tom does some sort of strange month listing where the average across all months of the year should be more than 100 birds or something. Anyway, he was keen to get a Redstart on both these lists and mirabile dictu Port Meadow was actually the place to get this species this year. Redstart is certainly less than annual on the Patch and in fact until this year I'd not personally actually seen one on Patch at all. But this year there'd been a wave of inland passage across the country and fortunately Oxon was getting in on this action. Burgess Field, the former tip turned nature reserve that adjoins Port Meadow, has always looked great for this species but up until now has never delivered on this promise. However, this year there'd been four found in one day and several other days of one or two which might be different birds so it was suddenly producing them in spades. So there we were looking for Redstarts and in the company of Liam Langley we soon found one at the apex of what I call the Triangle field, a triangle-shaped area bordered by hawthorn hedges on two sides. Shortly afterwards we found a second one half way down the field and then I spotted a Pipit sitting as calm as you please in the hedge. It was very cooperative, showing down to about 10 yards so we gave it a good grilling and I tooks some snaps. The upshot of it was that it was a Tree Pipit, again not by any means a rare bird but they no longer breed in the county and usually are only seen as a calling fly-over in the spring or autumn so it was great to get such close views and also to have the opportunity of wrestling with an ID problem as without calling you have to know what to look for to separate it from Meadow Pipit. So three great birds all within 50 yards of hedgerow.

The Tree Pipit

For those who are keen on the ID points they are:
1). Breast streaks get finer down the flank - this is the diagnostic measure that I usually use in the field
2). Two toned underparts: yellowish breast and flanks vs. white underbelly
3). Pinkish tone to the legs cf. yellowish for Meadow
4). Median coverts with strong whitish tips
5). Hind claw wasn't particularly long in the field though hard to see in the photo.
6). Quite a strong bill compared to the more delicate bill of a Meadow Pipit.

Incidentally, I recently purchased "Advanced Bird ID Handbook" by Nils van Duivendijk which is great for things like this. It doesn't have any illustrations but it's very useful for listing all the key ID criteria. Well worth getting.

So, a good day's county birding all within five minutes of my home. Going back to my original theme of national vs county vs patch birding, as I've been writing this up I've realised that of course the key to all birding is the relative scarcity: Redstarts aren't that big a deal in the county but I get really excited seeing one on my Patch; Pied Flycatcher and Tree Pipit aren't rare birds in the country but they're localised and happen not to occur in Oxon so one can legitimately get excited when one does see one. This of course extends to national birding: Hoopoes for example are always exciting birds to see in the country but on the continent they're not that big a deal. Birding all boils down to relative scarcity: how unusual is it to see that bird in that location. "No Shit, Sherlock!" I know but it puts it all into perspective. In fact I think it was Badger who said that Balearic Shearwater is probably the rarest bird globally that we seen in this country. By that measure, seeing a Balearic Shearwater on the Patch would be the pinnacle of birding achievements!

Monday, 8 April 2013

Another Quiet Cornwall Interlude

Once again a summary of a quiet trip down to Cornwall, taken from my Pendeen Birding blog.

Monday 1st & Tuesday 2nd April: Pendeen & Marazion
Well, I'm back down in my beloved Cornwall for another visit, this time with my VLW and our six year old son Luke. We're down to do some exterior decorating on the cottage as well as sort out a few bits and pieces and also to enjoy our favourite county some more of course. The decorating we're doing because the quote that we got from our builder (the reason for the last visit) was so large that we thought that for that price we could do it ourselves. On the birding front, there didn't seem to be much about in the county of late and with the family in tow as well I wasn't expecting much birding action. Nevertheless there's always something to see and I was hoping that at least I might be able finally to catch up with a Ring Ouzel in the county if nothing else.

We had family over for the Easter weekend itself so it wasn't until Easter Monday that we were able to get away and because we'd not had time to prepare before hand it wasn't until after midday that we finally set off. The traffic was rather busy and at one point we even opted for a detour around Bath and Bristol as there were signs reporting jams on the start of the M5. Thus we didn't arrive until late afternoon, where after a brief stop for some essential provisions we headed straight for the cottage. As I was unpacking the car I was surprised to spot a smart finch hopping around in front of the terrace of cottages next to our place. Closer inspection revealed it to be a smart male Brambling nearly moulted into proper summer plumage - very nice! A stroll at dusk down to the lighthouse and I just managed to make out the distinctive tail of a Wheatear flying off into the darkness.

The next morning I made no attempt to get up early and go birding but instead opted for a bit of a lie in with a cup of tea chatting to my VLW. It was nice and sunny outside and forecast to stay like that all day - much needed after the depressing greyness that we've had for so long. After getting up I made a quick stroll around the cottage area and down to the lighthouse where I found three Wheatears hanging about near the road but little else. There was alas also no sign of the Brambling. Next it was on with the work: to start with we had some new garden furniture to assemble (the last metal set had rusted away within a year so we'd bought a hardwood set instead this time). Then it was time to get up on to the roof of the building to see how windy it was. Fortunately, despite the forecast it didn't seem too bad and certainly good enough to do some painting so I passed the next few hours hanging over the edge of our roof using a roller to paint the walls of the top of the central tower part. Given how exposed the whole place is I was using proper lighthouse paint which hopefully would stay on longer than the conventional paint had done. I kept my bins and camera with me the whole time in case I should hear something good but the only distractions were a couple of Ravens and a couple of Buzzards.

Always a sign that spring is finally on the way

By lunchtime I'd managed to put a first coat on all around the top of the building where the paint had been coming off. After a mercy dash to St Just to pick up some tin foil to wrap up my brushes (Pendeen stores had run out), we had lunch and then decided to head over to Penzance for some food shopping and to see if we could score a tea somewhere. We were just sitting in the Renaissance Café munching on a brownie where an RBA text came through reporting a Garganey at Marazion. My VLW agreed that we could head back home "via" Marazion and so we finished off our refreshments and headed off. There I found Phil and Hiliary at the viewing point admiring the sleeping duck. They've finally made the move down here full time and were enjoying their first full week as Cornish residents. We chatted for a while, saw the Bittern very briefly and then I had to head back to the family who were waiting in the car to go home.

 Garganey is a Cornish tick for me

Back home I went for a brief stroll down towards Portheras beach before dinner. A Black-necked Grebe had been reported there yesterday but although the tide was right in all I could find were a couple of Shags and a Guillemot. Whilst walking down I got a text from back home in Oxfordshire saying that a 1w Ring-billed Gull had been found in the Farmoor roost by Nic Hallam. Whilst it's not that big a deal down here in Cornwall, back home that's a real county mega and I was suitably gripped off by this. I later found out that it had been seen briefly just by Nic and that Badger & the Wickster who were even already there at the reservoir didn't manage to see it before it flew off. So well and truly untwitchable and my emotional equilibrium was restored. 

As a nice bonus, at the end of the day the Brambling put in an appearance again and I was even able to take a few shots through the cottage window of it. A very nice end to what had turned out to be a nice albeit low key day.

 It's nice to see a Brambling more or less in full summer plumage

Wednesday 3rd April: Pendeen
Today was a very quiet but productive day - in fact it was quiet throughout the county with little of note on the pager and even yesterday's Garganey had moved on. The weather was beautifully sunny and out of the keen wind it was even warm! Once more I had a lie in and then did my morning rounds about the cottage, this time in the company of Luke who wanted to get out for a walk. There were two Wheatears along the road to the lighthouse today and on the lighthouse itself I found a lovely female-type Black Redstart but apart from that there was little of note.

A record shot of the lighthouse Black Redstart

The entire day was spent in painting the outside of the building, at least until the wind strength got up to the point where it was no longer safe to balance precariously on a ladder and try and paint. One benefit of being outside all the time was that one could hear the local birds: 2 Ravens today and 3 Chough were the highlights. After a cup of tea with our neighbours we went for a walk down to Fisherman's Cove (though apparently it's actually called Boat Cove) where I found a lovely Sandwich Tern hunting just off shore. I had a go at photographing it with my Superzoom and whilst the results weren't great you can at least tell what it is!

Pendeen Sandwich Tern

Thursday 4th April: Pendeen & Men-an-Tol
It's been another quiet day today. The weather wasn't as nice as yesterday with lots more cloud and the wind was stronger and in a north-easterly direction, making some of the exterior decorating tasks rather tiresome. Lying in bed this morning with my tea and chatting to my VLW I managed to see the male Brambling out of the window - a nice start to the day though I only managed to photograph the back of his head. 

Dunnock and the back of the Brambling

My morning rounds found very little of note apart from the two Ravens again and the Sandwich Tern close in off the Watch. The wind was so strong down by the lighthouse that it was a struggle to even breath so I didn't linger at all. After that we pottered around the cottage doing various DIY tasks and I bumped into John Swann and a friend at the bottom of the garden. They came in to have a look for the Brambling but it's very elusive: despite being around the cottage most of the time I've only seen him for a couple of minutes each day. It turned out that it was they who'd reported the three Ring Ouzels at Men-an-Tol the previous day and as I still need it for my Cornish list I took careful note of where they'd seen it. They soon wandered off to look for the Black-necked Grebe from a couple of days ago at Portheras beach and I went back to my chores.

One of the Ravens being watched warily by a Crow

Late morning we needed to pop over to PZ to run some errands.We picked up a couple of pasties whilst we were there and went back via Madron and stopped off at Men-an-Tol. Given the wind, Luke and my VLW decided to stay in the car, eat their pasties and listen to the radio whilst I when on an Ouzel hunt. Despite carefully scouring all the fields I drew a blank. On the way back I found a field which had large numbers of Wheatears in as well as a single Golden Plover and in the distance I managed to spot a variety of Thrushes which looked promising: there was a single Song Thrush, four Fieldfares, a couple of Redwings, a pair of Blackbirds and a bird which flew directly away from me and down over a dip which migh have been an Ouzel though I couldn't be certain. Despite trying to view the field from all angles I couldn't relocate it and with my family in the car growing impatient I had to admit defeat. We headed back home to do a few more tasks and then wind down for the day.

Later that evening a single Ouzel was reported at Men-an-Tol on RBA so I may well have to make a return visit tomorrow.

Friday 5th April: Men-an-Tol & Chyandour
Lots of decorating today but not much birding to report. My morning Pendeen rounds revealed little more than the two Ravens still hanging about. All of the morning and some of the afternoon was spent in finishing off the various outside decorating tasks that we had as this was to be our last full day down at the cottage. By mid afternoon this was all complete and it was time to head off for some non-decorating R&R. My VLW wanted to do a spot of shopping in PZ so I dropped her off and then Luke and I went back to Men-an-Tol to have another look for the Ring Ouzels. There'd been a "no sign" report first thing this morning but with little else around on the peninsula at present I thought that I might as well take a look. On the previous visit the two ploughed fields (the first two fields on the right as you walk up the track) had been full of birds with all the Wheatears and Thrushes on the first one and loads of Gulls on the second. However, today they were completely birdless. We walked up as far as the start of the moorland checking the fields on the left and right assiduously but the only bird that I saw was a single Golden Plover (presumably the same bird that I saw the other day). 

We went back to Penzance and as we had a bit of time left before our rendezvous with my VLW, Luke and I walked along the sea defences at Chyandour to look for the Black Redstart. There was no sign of it and the only things I could find were a couple of Turnstones on the rocks and five Common Scoter off-shore (two males and three females). We met up with my VLW and then went off for some tea and cake before heading home to pack, ready for leaving first thing tomorrow morning. That evening, to rub salt into my wounds, a tardy "still present" message came through for the Ouzel at Men-an-Tol for midday. I must admit that I do find that Ring Ouzels can be right little so and so's when it comes to twitching them - they seem to be very good at hiding!

Chyandour Turnstone

Saturday 6th April: Buttermilk Hill
Today it was a case of getting up early, finishing off packing and then head off back home. Of course typically today was by far the best weather of the week with lovely sunshine and for once very little wind. I have found that after a while the incessant wind does start to get to you and it was a relief finally to be out of it. We actually managed to stick to our plan reasonably well and left the cottage by nine a.m. I had managed to persuade the family to take the scenic route along the North coast and to allow me to stop off at Buttermilk Hill briefly to have a last try for a Ring Ouzel. It was a perfect morning and I would have loved to have had enough time really to explore properly but instead, with the others waiting back in the car I had to be quick. I yomped up to the saddle between the two hills and found the pond which I had been told was a good area to try. Sure enough there were four black thrushes loitering in the area but they turned out just to be Blackbirds. I went up to the summit and scanned the far side for movement but found nothing other than a few mipits. An impatient call on my mobile from my VLW told me that my time was up and I made my way back down to the car, reluctantly having to accept that I'd not managed to catch up with this species on this trip down. We made our way back to the A30 and after stopping off to buy lunch sandwiches at a convenient supermarket headed off north and back home. En route I got a text from Dave Parker telling me that there was a Ring Ouzel on Buttermilk hill late morning! I just laughed - clearly the birding gods didn't want me to see one on this trip and I just had to accept that. Oh well, they'll have to keep until another trip down here.

Reflecting on the trip on the way back home, it had been a rather low key affair from a birding perspective but then I'd been expecting that anyway: there'd not been much around to go for and the weather and the time of year combined to make it all rather quiet. I had in fact been extremely lucky to be around when the Garganey had turned up at Marazion: this species is quite hard to get in Cornwall (it was a tick for Cornwall visiting veterans "P&H" i.e. Phil Taylor and Hiliary Mitchell too) and it only stayed the one day so that had been a real piece of luck. The Brambling had also been a lovely bird to have around the cottage whilst we'd been decorating so there'd been some nice highlights to the trip. We'd not quite managed to finish all the exterior decorating so I should be back down fairly soon when there's some nice weather and the cottage is unoccupied. This should give me another chance to chase after Ring Ouzel which has now been promoted to the status of a Cornish bogey bird for me.

Bird of the Trip: the Marazion Garganey popped it's head up for all of five seconds 
whilst I was there. Fortunately I captured it on video, hence this rather crappy 
grab which at least allows you to see it's head properly.