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.

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