Saturday, 21 September 2013

Leiston Shrike

That familiar urge had been becoming more noticeable of late. Day by day it had been increasing again until I had to act on it - yes, it was time for me to go on a twitch again. This lack of a patch is just making it worse for me - normally I can get at least some sort of birding fix by checking out Port Meadow but I haven't even got that crutch to lean on any more so I had to get my birding in more distant locations. Anyway, I'd been keeping an eye on what was about and over in East Anglia there were a couple of birds that I was interested in which were nicely bedded down and predictable, namely the Lesser Grey Shrike at Leiston in Suffolk and the Two-barred Crossbills at Lynford Arborteum near Mundford in Norfolk. Both had been around for several days at least and were being reported on a daily basis. The only trouble was that I had family commitments over the next couple of days in the late afternoon or evening so I would have to be back by then. I'm not too keen on the getting up at stupid o'clock for twitching so I eventually decided that the best course of action would be to drive over the previous night, stay in some B&B somewhere nearby in order to be on site nice and early and thereby be able to get back home in time for my family duties. Thus it was that on Thursday evening after dinner I packed up the Gnome-mobile and headed off to Suffolk, arriving after an uneventful journey at a small but cheap hotel somewhere north of Ipswich at around 9:30 pm. I would have got somewhere closer to stay but for some reason hotel prices were incredibly expensive around there, perhaps something to do with the Sizewell power station.

The next morning I was up bright and early and arrived at the Halfway Cottages just outside Leiston at around 7:30 a.m. Parking was a bit tricky and the road was very busy but I managed to find somewhere safely off the road before wandering down the track behind the cottages. The area was dominated by some huge electricity pylons underneath which were several horse paddocks fenced off by wood posts. The ground itself was rather scrubby with some gorse and small bushes and plenty of bracken. It took no more than a minute to find the bird perched on one of the posts and throughout my stay it spent most of its time sitting very still on these vantage points looking out for beetles. It would make the occasional sortie to grab one before returning to the post the pick them apart.

A very obliging bird, spending almost all of its time sitting nice and still on various posts

It was an interesting bird to look at. Superficially looking like its Great Grey cousin though its shape was very different. The bill was more prominent and stubby and it had a much longer primary projection. The pale tips to the coverts was another diagnostic feature of this species for a first winter bird such as this. I watched it for about an hour, with it being almost constantly on show before I decided to move on.

A bit of video for good measure

Next stop was Lynford Arboretum, a relatively short distance as the crow flies but a frustratingly long drive from Leiston. Indeed it was about an hour and a half before I finally arrived at the parking area at around 10:15 a.m. Across the road there was a phalanx of birders staring intently into their scopes so I hurried over in case they were watching the Two-barred's but they turned out just to be grilling a flock of Commons intently without success. Indeed it turned out that the Two-barred Crossbills had not been seen so far that day at all. I knew that trying to twitch Crossbills was always going to be a very hit or miss affair and that I could well come away empty handed but as I'd managed to see my first target so quickly I had a few hours to give this a go.

"Number 1 - the Larch" as Monty Python used to say (see here). These were the 
Crossbill trees that we were staking out by the visitor's hut.

After a short while the entire flock of Common Crossbills flew off and it was then very quiet and slow for a long long time. I even attempted a nap, with one ear cocked for the sounds of either some incoming Crossbills or someone calling out a sighting. After midday things seemed to pick up a little: a few Crossbills flew in, a Firecrest and a Spotted Flycatcher were seen but still no luck with our target bird. A large moth (a Red Underwing I think) was fluttering about and a couple of Southern Hawkers and a Common Darter were also good distractions. At around 1:30 pm as I was thinking that I was going to have to leave the Crossbill flock flew in, settled in a tree behind up and then flew down somewhere out of sight to drink. They then returned to the trees though despite a thorough grilling from the assembled birders (about twenty five on average though people came and went) there was no sign of the Two-barreds. It was amazing though how you could seen a flock of fifteen Crossbills fly into a tree and then not be able to find more than a couple as you searched through the tree with your bins or scope. Finally at 2pm I realised that I would have to leave (especially with the Friday afternoon traffic to negotiate) so reluctantly headed back to my car.

These are not the Crossbills you are looking for

The Sat Nav was suggesting a new route (for me) back home via the A428 and A1 to Milton Keynes. As I was keen to avoid any motorways given that it was a Friday afternoon I decided to give it a shot and I was very pleasantly surprised. All the traffic was queuing up on the slip road to the A14 but the A428 and A1 were both blissfully empty and it wasn't until Milton Keynes that I hit any traffic at all. So it ended up taking exactly the 2.5 hours that the Sat Nav suggested it should (a great result for a Friday afternoon) and I arrived back at Chateau Gnome in time for a nice cup of tea with my VLW & family, nicely in time to undertake my family duties. 

That evening RBA reported that the Two-barred Crossbills had finally turned up at around 4:15 p.m. so at least they hadn't put in an appearance an indecently short time after my departure. All in all a successful trip though it would have been nice to have come away with both targets. Still, you can't win them all.

Monday, 9 September 2013

Farmoor Bound

As regular readers will no doubt already know my patch at Port Meadow is bone dry and fairly birdless at present. What's more this state of affairs could last some time - it's going to take quite a bit of rain to replenish it given how dry the summer has been. Therefore, I've decided that I'm going to have to make a bit more of an effort to get out for my local birding. I freely admit that I am very spoilt having such a good patch on my doorstep and that I've gotten rather lazy about venturing forth elsewhere as a consequence. Therefore I was going to have to get of my backside and get out there again. Now the birds that I liked best on Port Meadow were the waders and the gulls so the obvious place to head to is Farmoor. It's got the best gulls in the county (though they are distant compared to the Meadow) and whilst Otmoor might have better waders one can often get cripplingly close views of them at Farmoor. For some reason waders which would normally run a mile if you get too close to them anywhere else will sit quite happily down on the shore line whilst you observe them from the causeway no more than a couple of metres away. Thus it is that for the last couple of weeks I've been heading out once a week to Farmoor to get my gull and wader action. Not that there's been anything particularly good but there have been a few Yellow-legged Gulls to enjoy and I did have some fantastically close views of a pair of juvenile Little Stints. You can really appreciate how gorgeous they are close up. Of course it is a bit of a concrete basin of dullness as far as scenery is concerned but then you can't have everything. Expect more Farmoor postings in the coming weeks until the Meadow floods are restored.

Hot Close-up Stint Action!...

Distant Gullage

Some video footage of the two Stints- it's great to be able to see all the detail of their plumage so well

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Wryneck Revenge

Have I mentioned recently how much I dislike county listing? Of all my lists it's the one that I like the least. Especially in Oxfordshire where you can remain stuck on a particular total for more than a year before something decent turns up which you might need, and that's even for me - a relative new-comer to Oxon listing who is languishing near the bottom of the table. And when that particular something turns up you'd better not be out of the county or otherwise engaged or you could be done for. Events from the last few days admirably illustrate this point.

Saturday morning and I'd decided to get up early and check out Port Meadow (my local patch). Now that all the flood waters had dried up it was a shadow of it's flooded self but I wanted to see if I could find some autumn migrants, perhaps a Redstart, Whinchat or Wheatear. So I had a good yomp around the place and managed to turn up a lovely Wheatear as well as twenty or so Yellow Wagtails. I arrived back at around 10:30, very pleased with my efforts and entered them onto the Going Birding web-site. Just a quick check of the Oxon Bird Log to see what else was around before I had to get ready for the family gathering that we were attending down in Surrey that day. Bang! That was when I saw the news: a Wryneck had been seen that morning on the downs near Wantage. That in itself wasn't so bad, it was the "still present at 10 a.m." bit that got me. More or less each year in the county a Wryneck makes its way onto the county year list but almost invariably it's been in someone's garden and is only reported long after it's gone or it's flushed and only seen once. "Still present" means that it was hanging around in one spot and could even be twitchable. I phoned Badger (the font of all county birding knowledge) though his phone was engaged. I left a despondent message asking for details though knowing there was nothing that I could do about it anyway. For the rest of the day I followed from afar as the BBC (Badger Birding Crew) rocked up and unearthed the Wryneck which continued to be seen on and off (actually more off than on - see Ewan's splendid write-up here) for the rest of the day. Damn & Blast! For what it's worth, I did have a very nice time at the family party and was glad that I went though of course I would have liked it to have been on another day!

This is what I missed - a nice shot of the Wantage bird by Ewan Urquhart (c)

Of course I was going to try the next day in case it had hung around though to make things more difficult we were meeting up with some old college friends of mine mid morning. Thus it was that I got up at the crack of dawn and headed out to Wantage, arriving just before 7 a.m. There I met up with a visiting Northumberland birder, Graham Lenton (who'd seen it yesterday and who was back for seconds) as well as two seasoned county birders both of whom still needed Wryneck for their county lists. One had been working yesterday and one had had a three line whip from his better half to go line dancing so they'd both been unable to see the bird yesterday. It was rather scary how these two, one of whom had been birding in the county for over 35 years, still needed Wryneck. They were telling me just how long it was since the last twitchable one and I started to realise that if this bird wasn't still here I could still be needing it in 10 year's time! Needless to say there was no sign of it and a Corn Bunting year tick was the only consolation that I could manage. To add insult to injury, on the way back to the car I got an irate phone call (a bollocking actually) from my VLW wanting to know where I was as my friends were due shortly. I arrived back just in time and we had a nice morning punting on the river and catching up. I did my best to forget about the Wryneck, or rather just to accept that I was destined never to see one in the county.

Centre-barred Sallow

Two days later and I was glumly staring at my computer screen. The markets (with which I work) were turgid and I was still smarting from missing the bird. The highlight of the day so far had been a Centre-barred Sallow in the moth trap that morning. Suddenly I get a text from Ian Lewington: "Wryneck on Otmoor near second screen". A quick call to him revealed that Graham Lenton had found it but little else. Oh well, I'd better try for it I thought. I threw my stuff in the car, had a quick chat with my VLW who was going to text me a Summertown shopping list for on the way back and I was off. I gave the Gnome mobile its head and she roared off along the roads, only to come to a grinding halt in Elsfield where a huge lorry delivering timber was blocking the road. At that point Badger called, just checking that I'd got the message. He added a new snippet of information in that it had been seen twice. That sounded a bit more promising! I swung the Gnome mobile around and decided to head off to Noke instead - it was about the same distance to the second screen from there. Naturally I got stuck behind someone crawling along but eventually I turned off for Noke. The village seemed to go on for ever until I finally got to the parking spot. I grabbed my gear and set off hurriedly. I tried to run all the way but weighed down with all my bird gear I wasn't able to manage more than a minute or two before I had to slow to walking pace again to recover before starting to run again. In this way I half ran, half yomped my way towards the second screen - which is of course as far away from the parking as it's possible to get on Otmoor. Finally I arrived where three birders were standing staring at the bushes. The time was about 12:45 having received the original text at 11:56 - not bad going but I was shattered! Graham was there who informed me that he saw it originally fly from the reedbed over the path into the extensive hedgerow where it sat for a minute - long enough for him to get a shot of it. Then whilst he was ringing Ian Lewington with the news it popped up again briefly in a willow scrub but he'd not seen it since, getting on for an hour and a half ago now. As my body started to calm down from my exertions to get there (I was very sweaty and not a little whiffy by now) my mind started to grasp the harsh realities of the situation. I was almost certainly going to spend the next two hours (my usual time limit in such situations) staring blankly at the hedgerow before slogging back home empty handed. My heart sank! I started to ponder what the best tactics were in the situation - stand in one place or walk up and down the hedgerow.

After about ten minutes Joe Harris, the warden at Otmoor turned up in his smart blue RSPB shirt with Paul Greenway close behind him. "Isn't that the Wryneck in the tree there?" Joe asked. I dropped everything and sprinted over to where where he was standing. Holy Crap - he was right! For there, right at the top of a neighbouring hawthorn bush was the Wryneck sitting quietly with its back to us, not thirty yards away I hurriedly shot off a few photos and we all crept closer and shot off a few more. After about a minute of quiet contemplation the Wryneck flew off along the hedgerow towards the corner and dipped out of sight on the far side of the hedge. We all stood around chatting excitedly. I just couldn't believe that I'd actually seen it - what a piece of luck!

The Wryneck on top of the Hawthorn bush...

...and zoomed right up until the pixels squeak!

There was little point in hanging around after that. It had rather looked like it might have flown away from the site and I wasn't going to get any better views than I'd just had anyway so I headed back towards the car. It was a surprisingly long walk back to Noke from where we were all standing. As I went I thought about just how lucky I'd been. If I had got there more than ten minutes later I'd have missed it so all the fast driving and running had paid dividends. What's more if Joe hadn't have turned up we might have missed it as it was some thirty yards from where we were all staring at the brambles.

I headed for home, stopping off at Tesco's in Summertown for the shopping. In order not to offend too many people in my sweaty state I opted for the self-serve machine and hurried out of the shop as quickly as possible. Back home, I later found out that the same line-dancing birder who'd missed it on Saturday had been stranded at home whilst his wife had been out with the car. He'd got the text the same time as me and had he had his car he should have managed to see it. As it was he'd hurried down as soon as he could but it wasn't seen again after the six of us who were there had seen it. This just shows what a cruel game it can be. Despite my very lucky revenge Wryneck tick, I still intensely dislike County Listing.

Monday, 2 September 2013

En Vacances en Famille

As you may have guessed from the title, this year the Gnome family holidayed in la belle France. We'd booked a week in what was billed as a characterful old building in the Aveyron department and were going to take a few days to drive down and back, stopping off en route to look at stuff. This was going to be a strictly family holiday in a relatively birdless area so I wasn't holding out much hope of anything. Still, I wasn't going to leave my bins at home and in order to generate some sort of birding interest I decided to resort to that timeless birding tool, namely The List. A list of all the birds that I saw in France would at least give me something to do on the birding front and even common species would afford some interest as a result.

On the way down we stayed the night at Rouen, went to Giverny for Monet's Garden, stayed the night at Bourges and then drove down through the Auvergne region before arriving at our cottage on Saturday evening. My list by this point was a stunning 34 species, mostly made up of what I could glimpse through the car window as we hurtled along the motorway though Monet's Garden added a few species including a surprise Little Ringed Plover in the car park briefly. I say "cottage" though in fact it was a Medieval fortified manor house on a hill overlooking a valley. Mrs Gnome had wanted to stay somewhere characterful and it certainly was that. It was over 700 years old with a a large gate and protective wall, small tower, a pool area, a terrace overlooking an orchard and a couple of donkeys in a paddock below the house. There was even a consecrated chapel in the building should one feel the need for religious solace. All this was perched on top of a hillside of fields and woodland.

The "cottage" was full of character!

I soon slipped into the habit of getting up at some time after 7 am and having a wander down the road to the bottom of the hill to see what I could find. It was then back for breakfast and a morning which was often spent on the terrace chillaxing and looking out for birds in the garden there.

 The Orchard overlooking the valley

This routine turned out to be surprisingly enjoyable with plenty of bird life to look at. There was nothing rare but it's just interesting to see some birds which aren't so easy for us but which are common over there. In the garden itself and surrounding the house there was a large colony of House Sparrows and about fifty Swallows (with a few House Martins). A Blackcap pair had clearly raised a family as there was almost always several of them flitting about the garden. A Golden Oriole family lived somewhere on the hill and various members of this family would occasionally pop in to the garden though they were predictably rather shy. A pair of Serin would sometimes pop in and trill away though not every day. I also saw both Black and Common Redstarts regularly and even had a Melodius Warbler visit the orchard briefly on one day. Each morning at some time between 10 and 11 a.m. once it had got hot enough, a pair of Honey Buzzards would soar up into the sky from their roost somewhere close by and there were plenty of Buzzards and Red Kites about.

Soaring Honey Buzzard record shot

 Common Redstart

 Skulking Serin

There were Lizards everywhere about the garden

There was also plenty of interesting butterfly life to look at with Silver-washed Fritillaries, Great Banded Grayling, Scarce Swallowtail, Clouded Yellows and plenty of Wall Browns visiting the various flowers in the garden. I didn't spend too much time on the moths whilst there though I did come across a few of interest including White Point (seen in Britain as a migrant).

Clouded Yellow
Great Banded Grayling
Silver-washed Fritillary
Scarce Swallowtail

Snout species - perhaps a White-line Snout
White-spot - a less common migrant to the UK

This black Bee in Monet's Garden was absolutely huge

A freaky-looking Centipede

This large beetle's "horns" were at least twice its body length - a truly bizarre creature

On my daily morning walks I soon found a family of Pied Flycatchers in a nearby orchard and a male Cirl Bunting who was rather skulking though his simple song (which sounds like a Yellowhammer doing a Lesser Whitethroat impersonation) would give him away. Further down the road there was a steep scrub-covered slope by the road that always caught the morning sun and I would spend quite a bit of time here looking for warblers. On a couple of occasions I managed to see or hear a (Western) Bonelli's Warbler and there were plenty of young Willow Warblers and Chiffies about. I did also see a female-type Collard Flycatcher on one occasion. There were plenty of woodland birds on show including loads of Nuthatches, Greater-spotted Woodpeckers, Marsh Tit and Short-toed Treecreepers. In addition one would occasional hear the fluty calls of the Golden Oriole from deep within the wood.

As well as working on my list there was a second reason for my early morning birding trips. As I've been getting older of course I've noticed my hearing starting to deteriorate. As a birder naturally I often rely on song and call to help locate and identify birds so it's a very sad thing to find myself starting to lose this ability. Now, I read somewhere that musicians tend to keep their hearing longer than the average person because they're using it all the time and I've presumed that using my hearing for birding would have the same affect. I've noticed however that it seemed to have got a lot worse over the last couple of months and realise that this is because I've not been out birding nearly so much - instead I've been concentrating on the moths and butterflies over June and July. Therefore, in order to sharpen up my hearing again I wanted to spend lots of time trying to winkle out warblers and other passerines from within deep cover using my hearing to assist. I'm pleased to say that over the course of the holiday I noticed a definite improvement so I'm definitely going to keep up this exercise.

The Cirl Bunting, making a brief appearance

Whilst most of our afternoon excursions were fairly uneventful from a birding point of view, one trip did stand out, namely a visit to Conques. This is a Medieval village with church on the Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage route, set high on a mountain side by a river gorge. There I managed to find a Crag Martin soaring over the valley, distinctive with its large sze and black armpits, along with several Common Swifts. I also heard a Rock Bunting singing away though I never managed to see it.

The picturesque Medieval village of Conques, perched on the mountain side 
overlooking the river gorge.

All too quickly our week was over and we started to work our way back north. On our return journey we clipped the west side of the mountainous CĂ©venne region where we managed great views of a Golden Eagle as we drove by - the low cloud cover was keeping it down to just above the road level. We also came across a thermal packed with several dozen soaring raptors. I'd have loved to have pulled over to take a good look but there was no where to stop.

We spent a couple of days in the volvanic Auvergne region again where we saw quite a few Black and Red Kites whilst driving around. Further north we stopped off at Chambord to see the castle (where I managed to add Reed Warbler and Tree Pipit to the list) before heading up to Rouen for the night again. From here it was back to Calais for the ferry.

 Black Redstart at Chambord Castle

Usually the Dover-Calais ferry crossing is pretty crap for birds but coming back we had an hour to kill before boarding so I wandered down to the docks where I spent an enjoyable time checking out the gulls and boosting my French list - by this stage I'd got to about 70 but hadn't seen any gulls to speak of so far. The crossing itself was surprisingly good for birding. We'd settled in the dining lounge right at the front of the boat where we had good views over the bow. Heading out of Calais harbour there were at least 50 Common Terns, a few Kittiwakes, a Common Scoter, three Arctic Skuas and two Bonxies, all passing close to the boat and giving great views. I reflected as I munched my food what a pleasant way to sea-watch this was - warm and comfortable with close views and no eye-watering wind to contend with.

 Calais Juvenile Herring Gull

After that it was back in Blighty with an uneventful journey back home to chateau Gnome. It had been a surprisingly productive trip from a birding point of view. I suppose that the key is to go in with no expectations - that way you can only be pleasantly surprised. My list total ended up at a pleasing 80 species - not bad considering that I'd not seen any ducks apart from Mallard nor any waders apart from the passing LRP and a flock of Lapwings from the car. The highlights for me were: Golden Oriole, Meloldius Warbler, Bonelli's Warbler, Serin, Cirl Bunting, Common Redstart, Black Redstart, Honey Buzzard, Black Kite, Red Kite, Golden Eagle, Crag Martin, Rock Bunting, Collard Flycatcher and Pied Flycatcher. The only common local speciality that I might have expected but didn't get to see would have been Hoopoe and Wryneck. I would have also liked to have seen some of the mountain specialities and some of the less common raptors but we weren't really in the right area. Oh well, there's always next time. At least I now have a continental list to work on.