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.
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.