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.

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Farmoor Strikes Again!

Farmoor is having a great autumn in terms of good county birds. It's already scored four Bonxies, a Gannet, a Slavonian Grebe and the recent Red-necked Grebe that I twitched a couple of weeks ago. Yesterday it struck again in the form of a juvenile Arctic Skua. The first I heard of it was when I was hanging around whilst my daughter had her Tae Qwon Do class. A Badger text came through saying that an Arctic Skua "was still present at dusk" at Farmoor. "Still present?" I pondered - that was the first that I'd heard of it. It turned out that Barry Hudson had found it at around 4pm but hadn't been sure of the exact ID so didn't want to put it out until his photographs had been checked. Meanwhile Nic Hallam had independently stumbled across it on the causeway as he was driving back from his nightly gulling session. Barry had thought that it didn't look that well so there was a realistic prospect that it might well linger tomorrow morning. A dawn start beckoned. I made arrangements to sleep in the spare room so as not to disturb my VLW and set the alarm for 6am.

The next morning I pulled up along Lower Whitely Farm lane at about 6:45am just as Ewan Urquhart was arriving. It was most interesting to see the Reservoir "waking up" with gulls streaming off it and calling noisily. Most of the gulls had of course gone by the time we could see properly and the ones that were left were speeding off as we watched. I quietly hoped that the bird was indeed unwell and would linger - that's what county listing does to you, it turns you into a bit of an uncaring monster! We scanned away but couldn't pick it out. I heard rustling in the bushes and Peter Law, Andy Last and Barry Batchelor all appeared and set up their scopes. Shortly after that Ewan said "I think I've got it" and indeed he had. Right on the opposite shore of the reservoir, hard up against the causeway was a small dark blob. However, it was a small dark blob with a distinctive high-riding rear end and as the light improved we could all make it out as the Skua. Shortly after that it flew off low and dropped down out of sight onto F1. 

Ewan and I decided to drive round to the other side whilst the others elected to stay put. We nipped back onto the road and down a side road in Farmoor where we finally emerged on the north west corner of F1. There was no immediate sign of it and we got a call from the others that it was back on F2! We decided to head over to the causeway where we found it back on the water. By walking down a little way we were able to get some pretty decent views of it in the end.

Grounded juvenile Skuas can be quite tricky to ID so I'd done a bit of reading up last night. It seems that the bill is quite a good diagnostic pointer: Arctic has a slender bill with only the tip dark; Long-tailed has a fairly short bill which is about half black and Poms have a much heavier black-tipped bill. The bill on this bird was noticeably slim, looking almost out of proportion with the rest of the bird and just the tip was black so definitely an Arctic.

After a while it flew off and started harrying the gulls. It was amazing how what looked like a very docile and indeed perhaps moribund bird suddenly shot to life, twisting and turning as it chased a couple of gulls with amazing speed. It didn't persist very long though and soon settled back on F1 with a rather inelegant splash.

By this time I decided that I needed to get back home to work and headed back, leaving Ewan to continue admiring the Skua. As I headed along the west bank of F1 I spotted the bird flying towards me and was treated to some great views as it literally flew low right over me. It made a dart for a Meadow Pipit that was flitting about and then carried on with its circuit of the reservoir. I could see why it's likened to a falcon in flight, definitely not the steady and deliberate flight of a Pom.

Back in the car I negotiated the painful rush hour traffic back into Oxford and the last I heard it had flown off at 8:45 to the North West. A great bird, a personal county tick and definitely well worth the early start.

Saturday, 2 November 2013

Dusky Delights

It's been three weeks now since I got back from Cornwall, a decently long enough period without any major excursions. I've been checking out the Patch each day and of course there was the quick dash down to Farmoor yesterday to see the Red-necked Grebe but in general I've been keeping my head down and accruing Brownie Points to make up for the ones that I spent on my Cornish trip. Naturally after such a length of time my twitching urges have re-surfaced once more so by the middle of this week I was casting around for something within striking distance to go and see. I had been thinking about a trip over to Kent for the Parrot and Two-barred Crossbills but the Great Storm of last week seems to have blown them all away as there have been no consistent reports since then. Thus it was that on Friday afternoon when a Dusky Warbler was found in the West Midlands at Marsh Lane NR (only about an hour's drive from Oxford) I keenly marked it down as a possible trip. Looking at the weather forecast for the following few days it was going to get rather dodgy by Saturday afternoon with rain and strong winds so somehow I managed to blag a Saturday morning excursion rather than the usual supermarket visit for the family food shop. Thus it was that after dropping my VLW and our son off for his Saturday morning tennis at around 9am I pointed the Gnome-mobile north and headed up the M40. 

In a little over an hour I pulled up at the rather full car park at Marsh Lane NR, paid my £4 to the gatekeeper for non-member's access to the reserve and hurried up the road to join the assembled throng of birders who were all lined up in one corner of a rather small neighbouring field. It turned out that the bird had been showing on and off all morning in one general location but apparently views were often very fleeting. I was treated to an example of this almost immediately when it soon flitted around one a pair of pollarded Willows that it seemed to favour. One could see something moving but it would have been hard to ID it as a Dusky Warbler without prior knowledge. Shortly after that it went rather quiet for about three quarters of an hour. All around me the hum of conversation grew progressively louder as people who had already got decent views turned their attention to chatting rather that staking out the undergrowth. I must admit that I found myself getting rather wound up by the noise as I couldn't really hear whether the bird was calling. A few Siskins were flying about and Skylarks would pass over periodically. The odd Chaffinch and Goldfinch were also knocking about in the hedgerow. I watched and waited quietly for the bird to reappear. Fortunately after a while the chatterers mostly left and then the bird called a few times briefly below one of the neighbouring Willows. Shortly after that I got a brief view of it flying across a gap - a definite view of the size and colour and that coupled with the distinctive call was much closer to a definitive ID. It showed very briefly and called a few more times as it worked its way along the hedge and then seemed to disappear in the end hedge for a while.

After a period I thought that I heard it calling again in the other corner of the field and made my way over there. Another birder was heading there at the same time and I presumed that he'd heard it too but it turned out that he was just going over on spec. It didn't call again and I started to wander off only for the other chap to start staring intently through his bins and I hurried back over again. It turned out that the Dusky Warbler had re-appeared and was finally showing well in a couple of sheltered pollarded Willows. Indeed it remained within these two small trees for a good ten minutes giving excellent views for almost the entire time. As I'd been nearby at the time I was right at the front of the hurriedly assembled twitch phalanx and got great views of the bird less than twenty yards away. It was a gorgeous little thing with its dark brown upper parts, strong pale supercilium and rather greyish underparts. It regularly flicked its wings as it hunted around in the trees, often concentrating on the "knuckle" of the pollarded area. As it was constantly moving I was content to spend my time just watching it rather than trying to photograph it.

A Twitch Shot, all lined up in the corner watching the Dusky Warbler

A superb shot of the bird taken by Chris Bromley (c)

After a while it was getting time for me to head back to the car as I'd promised my VLW that I'd be back for lunch so as the first few drops of rain started to fall I hurried back to the car and pointed the Gnome-mobile towards home. As I raced back down the M40 I savoured the warm glow of a successful twitch - it had been great to get such good views of what is normally a very skulking species, definitely four hours well spent!

Friday, 1 November 2013

Farmoor Grebe Revenge

Amongst the many lists that I keep one is my Oxon County Grip List. This is the list of birds that I have missed over the years which would have been county ticks for me had I been around to get them. For them to go on the list the bird has to be reasonably twitchable so obviously a single-observer sighting doesn't count. Mercifully, this list is rather small and comprises: Manx Shearwater, Red-necked Grebe, Purple Sandpiper, Citrine Wagtail (which we don't talk about), Red-throated Diver (though this only hung around for about an hour so wasn't very twitchable) and Sandwich Tern. The latter is my county bogey bird - often just a fly-through at Farmoor though there have been a couple recently (Pit 60 and Grimsbury Reservoir) that have stayed for twitchable lengths of time though the news was never put out. Anyway, all these birds, whilst being fairly common or garden nationally have somehow eluded me within the county. So when Dai John phoned me this morning saying that he had a Red-necked Grebe at Farmoor I didn't hang around at all but threw my gear into the Gnome-mobile and headed off to the concrete basin. As I drove my thoughts went back to the last one which had been found three years ago in October 2010 whilst I'd been down in Cornwall. The one before that was 2006 so this species is definitely a good bird for the county and I was keen to make up for my miss.

As Dai had found it on the south side of F2 I parked up along the Lower Whitely Farm road to save time (and money) and soon found myself looking at a Grebe though it turned out to be the long-staying Slavonian. A quick call to Dai ascertained that the Red-necked had moved round to the west bank of F2 so it was a 10 minute yomp around to that side before I arrived, out of breath to find Dai and Terry Sherlock watching the bird. And what a cracker it was too - I set about taking some digiscoped photos of it.

The Red-necked Grebe

After a while I decided to walk around to the causeway to pay my respects to the male Long-tailed Duck that was hanging out by the hide - it had been around for several days now. As he was going that way Dai kindly gave me lift which saved a good ten minute slog - Farmoor is just so big compared to Port Meadow. The Duck was diving away quite close in-shore so I took some snaps with the super-zoom.

The Long-tailed Duck

On the way back to where I parked I managed to find a Common Sandpiper near the car park, the first for a few weeks on Farmoor apparently.

Common Sandpiper

Then it was back home to bask in the glory of a revenge tick and ceremoniously to cross Red-necked Grebe off my Oxon County Grip List.

Farmoor is having a real purple patch at present what with Long-tailed Duck, Gannet, two or three separate Bonxie records, and now the complete set of the rarer Grebes. What will turn up next?