Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Crouching Spoonbill Hidden Crake

On Sunday I was checking out my Port Meadow patch once more. It was late afternoon, nice and sunny with just a gentle breeze. The Meadow floods have been rather empty of late - all the winter birds have cleared off and we've had surprisingly few spring passage waders so far by way of compensation. I was heading north between the river and the floods to my usual scanning point in the "elbow" of the L-shaped flood waters when up ahead I happened to notice a large bird fly in and land on the flood waters. A quick look through the scope immediately identified it as a Spoonbill. Now from past experience I know not to hang around when one lands on the floods. The first one that I ever found on Port Meadow was back in the day when they were still something of a rarity and it would have been an Oxon county tick for quite a few people. However that one had immediately flown off before I could take any kind of record shot. I've subsequently had a pair of Meadow Spoonbill fly off on me before I could take a photo so I didn't hang around and immediately took some digiscoped video footage. I then set about putting the word out. As I said, it's not the county rarity that it once was but I thought that some people might be interested so I sent a few texts to local birders and county year listers and put it out on RBA. I'd just finished doing that and looked up to find that all the gulls and also the Spoonbill had been spooked by something (I think it was a deflating helium party balloon coming in to land). Anyway, the bird didn't linger but flew off south roughly following the river. As it flew I could see the black tips to its wings which made it a 1st winter bird. A nice bird - shame it didn't stay around for others to enjoy. At least I'd not dallied and had consequently got some sort of record footage of it for posterity.

A grab of the Spoonbill...

...and the video it came from

The next day on the Meadow I met Matthew Foster who birds there regularly. He's a very interesting chap who's birded locally for decades and can tell you about how many hundreds of Lapwing there used to be on the Meadow in the 70's etc. and how there used to be Tree Sparrows nesting in the trees around the edge of the Meadow. He doesn't seem to have a mobile phone, nor access to the internet at all so is completely off the birding grid, just quietly going around and taking handwritten notes in his notepad. Anyway, having in the past lived up in Wolvercote (which is why he knows so much about Meadow birding) he now lives in Kennington. He told me that he'd heard a Spotted Crake singing away in Kennginton by the river yesterday evening. I diplomatically asked him about the call and his description was spot on (he's quite good with bird calls). I put the word out on the Oxon Bird Log and the next night someone else checked it out and confirmed that it was indeed a singing Spotted Crake. 

Having never actually heard one sing before I decided I'd go to check it out for myself so at around 8:30 pm yesterday evening I set off in the Gnome Mobile and parked down the end of Heyford Hill Lane (about here) which by studying the map I reckoned would put me right next to the Crake field. According to Google maps this contained a nice looking small pond surrounded by lots of reeds and scrub. Sure enough as soon as I arrived I could hear it calling intermittently though it would stop for periods; however once it got properly dark its singing became stronger and more regular. There was no chance of seeing it of course but I passed a very enjoyable three quarters of an hour watching the night fall whilst listening to the call of a hidden Spotted Crake.

Some video footage of it calling

Here's a reminder of the very showy bird from September 2010 at Radley which was uncharacteristically quite happy out in the open. See here for write-up

Sunday, 27 April 2014

The Tale of the Otmoor Whiskered Tern

It's not every week that you get two Code Red Scrambles within the space of five days but after the Wood Warbler excitement on Monday that is what happened in this one. This is the tale of how it happened.

It was a dreary Friday and despite the rain having been falling all day I needed to get out of the house so at around 5pm I went to check out the Port Meadow floods. I'd foolishly chosen the wrong footwear, opting for trainers rather than my walking boots so my feet were getting rather wet. Despite the rain I made a careful inspection of the floods and managed to winkle out a couple of Ringed Plover with an accompanying Dunlin (it's funny how these two species often migrate together or at least hang out together on passage). The pair of Shelduck were still around as were a few straggler ducks and Swans and a pair of Common Terns that seem to have made the floods their home for now. All in all it was rather quiet. I spent some time watching the Swallows and Martins hawking very low over the flood waters in the rain. It was great to have them back on the Meadow and I never tire of looking through them just in case they've brought a rarer cousin with them. Time to head back home so I squelched my way back towards the Walton Well Road gate and started to trudge up the hill. 

I was just about 100 yards from my house when at around 6pm I got a text from Ian Lewington: "Possible Whiskered Tern from the 1st screen at Otmoor". At first I was somewhat sceptical as at this time of year the Common Terns, just like the ones that I'd just been watching, can look very colourful with grey breasts. In fact in years past I've been caught out in this way though back then Ian had pointed out that as marsh terns, Whiskereds would of course have the short tail without the streamers so these days I knew what to look for. I sent him a text asking who the observer was. It was all rather academic anyway since my younger daughter had her Tae Kwan Do class this evening so there was no chance of a twitch on my part. Oh well, I sighed - if it stays there's a chance I'll be able to get it on a dawn raid tomorrow. Ian called me back: it turned out that Joe Harris (the Otmoor warden) had described the bird to him and it sounded like the real Mccoy. Drat and double drat! I went to change out of my wet clothes and then to check that my daughter was indeed still keen on going to her class. She seemed keen enough. I sat down to dinner with the family and tried not to think about it. I got a call from Pete Barker giving more details saying that a couple of the volunteers, Zoe Edwards and Adam Reid, had seen and even photographed the bird and that it definitely looked the real deal. By this time I was getting more depressed. I tentatively floated the idea that my VLW might want to take our daughter to her class though needless to say this idea didn't go down too well. At this point Daughter Number Two pipes up that actually she's feeling very tired and that she would be happy not to go tonight. A few minutes of cross interrogation followed, checking that she wasn't just saying this out of generosity on her part but in fact she'd had a couple of exams that week and had been working very hard on revising for her forthcoming AS levels and she was just plain exhausted. Game On! I got my gear together and fired up the Gnome Mobile. It was some 30 minutes after the initial text from Ian but the weather was still dreary so with any luck the Tern would stick. There was lots of traffic around on a Friday night so there was no chance of giving the Gnome Mobiles its head - even in Elsfield I was stuck behind a slow car. Eventually I was nipping down Otmoor Lane and into the car park. Here I found Geoff Wyatt getting tooled up. He hurried off and I followed behind as Wayne Bull too pulled into the carpark.

The weather seemed to be lifting so I hurried as quickly as I could with a mixture of running and brisk walking. I caught up with Geoff and at the kissing gate decided to break ahead in my keenness - having got this far I really really didn't want to have a near miss. I arrived at the first screen to find the usual hardcore county birders all looking happy and watching the Tern. What a relief! There then followed a comical (in hindsight) minute or so whilst I desperately tried to get on it but my glasses and bins kept steaming up so hot was I from all my running. People were helpfully calling it out to me and eventually the optical mist cleared long enough for me to see it. And what a stunner it was. It really stood out in the gloom with its bright white cheek contrasting sharply with a deep sooty grey and stunningly silvery looking wings and of course its short marsh tern tail. It came closer and closer as it hawked its way along the channels between the reeds until we were treated to a fabulous fly past at no more than twenty yards range. What a gorgeous bird this was. Having been treated to such great views I decided to move from my cramped position to somewhere less crowded where I could get settled, sort out my scope and perhaps think about trying to take a photo. I moved to just outside the hide where there was more space and found myself next to Ewan Urquhart. He was still on the Tern which was now apparently climbing higher into the sky. He and Pete Roby watched it as it gradually circled higher and higher though try as I might I couldn't get onto it again. A minute or so later and it was gone, having flown off high to the North.

I never got a chance to take a photo though Terry Sherlock (c) kindly let me use some of his shots

It gradually sunk in just how touch and go it had been for me: I'd watched the bird for all of three minutes in the end. Had I taken any longer or not run then I would have missed it. Fortunately Geoff and Wayne had both come just in time to see it as well but Steve Jennings and Paul Jepson had arrived a couple of minutes too late. How gutting for them! Gradually people started to leave until it was just the two of them, Terry Sherlock and myself. I suggested to the two dippers that, having had experience of this in the past, it might well return if it can't find any decent water after a while of travelling north. Terry chipped in saying that it had disappeared for 15 minutes earlier on so they decided to give it a while. Meanwhile Terry and I headed back chatting amiably about birding as we went. I got a text from Badger (who was abroad) masochistically wanting to know the details. Each year Jason plays Russian Roulette with his county list by going to Lesvos for the top three spring weeks of the birding calender. Up until now he'd managed to dodge all county listing bullets - a Dotterel even stayed an unprecedented two weeks so that he could see it but his luck had finally run out on this trip. He'd not only missed the Wood Warbler but also now the Whiskered Tern. I'd said to him before he went that it was probably better not to look at the Oxon Bird Log to keep track of what was being missed but I know that I would keep checking it were I in the same situation. I filled him in and he put a brave face on his texted reply.

Terry and I had just got to the pump station when I got a text from Steve Jennings. Apparently the Whiskered Tern had indeed come back and was looking very much like it was settling down to roost! How lucky for the two of them - I was pleased! That was also good news for the numerous county birders who'd not been able to make it that evening with a second chance dawn raid the next day for them. Terry and I walked the last few yards to the carpark, stopping to listen out for Grasshopper Warblers in their favourite field though sadly we confessed to each other than we both had difficulty in hearing this species these days. Whether it was that they weren't singing or that we were just too deaf to hear them, either way we had no success though a distant Cuckoo serenaded us as we got back to the car park and went out separate ways.

The next morning sadly there was no sign of the Tern which I was somewhat surprised about: I'd have put good money on it being there at least at first light. Over the coming days I learnt a bit more about how the Tern was found. Apparently a chap called Paul Thomas had seen it at 2pm on Friday but had just thought that it was a colourful Common Tern. Zoe Edwards and Adam Reid had been tipped off about a strange dark bellied tern by a member of the public and went to check it out at 16:30. They then came back to the office with their photos and checked with the field guide before calling Joe Harris who went to check it out. He then called Peter Barker and Ian Lewington with whom he discussed the ID before the initial text went out at 6pm.

So that was the tale of the Otmoor Whiskered Tern - the only other Oxon record was on the 2nd May 1970 at Sutton Courtenay GP (which stayed for five days). So not quite a county first but certainly one for this current generation of birders. Someone put the tally of birders who saw it at around 14 so sadly plenty of others missed it. With a probable sighting last year at Farmoor though I can't help feeling that it won't be too long before there's another in the county.

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

The Fall of the Elusive Wood Warbler

There was a good vibe going on in the county today. With Badger being away on his annual spring jaunt to Lesvos I was left holding the county birding blog fort so all news was coming directly to me to post rather than Jason. The morning started well with several texts before I'd even gotten out of bed: Ring Ouzel still at Linkey Down and then Turnstone plus 2 Little Gulls and then 8 Little Gulls all at Farmoor. Once finally up I checked the Oxon Bird Log and the Black-necked Grebe was still at Pit 60. What's more a Pied Flycatcher had been found in the county and looked like it was sticking rather than just passing through. This species used to be extremely sought after by county birders though a couple of birds that had stuck around in the last two years meant that it wasn't quite the county birding gold that it used to be. RBA was also buzzing with all sort of goodies appearing all over the country. It was all happening. I went for a yomp around the patch. The Port Meadow floods held 3 Little Ringed and 3 Ringed Plover. In Burgess Field the place was alive with singing Whitethroats: there must have been at least a dozen. The highlight was when I got brief views of a fly-over dove with reddish brown upper wings. Very possibly a Turtle Dove though the views I had weren't good enough for me to tick what would be the first one for a very long time on the Meadow as well as the first of the year in the country.

Back home, gradually the flow of news slowed down and it started to look like that was it for the day. It had gotten very hot and humid and I was feeling less than enthusiastic as I pottered around doing some outdoor chores. Suddenly my mobile rang, it was Paul Wren - he was watching a Wood Warbler in Shipton under Wychwood. I hurriedly took down the details and posted them to the Oxon Bird Log. This was big, very big for the county. It's one of those birds which, like Pied Flycatcher, is reported less than annually but which is almost impossible to twitch as usually it's just moving through the county. Since 2001 there have been six birds in the county with none of them being twitchable except for a one day bird at Otmoor in April 2005 which is when many county listers managed to catch up with it. Sadly I didn't take up birding again until 2007 so this was something that I very much needed. What made me think that this might actually be gettable was that Paul had cycled past there a good couple of hours earlier and had then though that he'd heard it singing but hadn't been able to stop. It wasn't until mid afternoon when he was able to come back to check it that he found that it was still there. So this bird was actually sticking around. Game on!

I got my stuff together, quickly studied the map as it wasn't an area of the county that I was at all familiar with and told my VLW that I was heading out. I'd got the call at around 15:30, and was finally out the door at 15:50. The traffic was interminably slow as usual though I was able to make up some time on the dual carriage way section of the A40. Finally at around 16:25 I got to the bridge over the river Evenlode just to the north of Shipton under Wychwood where I found Paul and Vicky Wren staring at some trees by the side of the road. I parked on the verge and hurried to join them. It turned out that the bird was frequenting three trees right by the side of the road and having been rather elusive had now started to show regularly. I soon got my first glimpses of the bird as it flitted through the trees though it was little more than fleeting views. It was singing occasionally and the song took me back to Welsh woodlands where I'd last heard one. I hurriedly sent out a few texts to those who I thought might still need it for the county. Keith Clack and Shirley came to join us just as the bird moved to a tree with less foliage and we were all able to get much better views. It's always very striking just how large they are compared to other Phylloscs. It's pale yellow supercilium and yellow face were very striking as it moved about constantly. A pedestrian came by, asking us what we were looking for and I realised that I was blocking the pavement and went to move my car. 

The grounds of The Old Prebendal House (a nursing home) as viewed from the bridge. 
The trees in the centre are around the pond but fortunately the bird was favouring the 
roadside trees when I was there.

I'd just got back to the viewing spot when the first drops of rain that had been threatening for some time, started to fall. Keith and Shirley, having got good views, decided to move on as did Paul and Vicky now that others had come to take over the baton. I hurried back to get my coat from the car and then resumed my vigil though there'd been no sign of the bird since the rain had started. After about half an hour of standing in the rain and seeing nothing Jon Prowse and another local birder turned up. I filled them in on the details and handed the baton on to them. It was time to head home to the bosom of my family, basking in the glow of having finally caught up with one of the most difficult of county birds, the elusive Wood Warbler.

There was no further news that evening and I started to think that sadly only five of us had seen this gorgeous woodland beauty. The next morning though Ewan Urquhart bravely the miserable weather only to find that the bird was still around in the same spot. He'd got permission to enter the grounds where he found that the bird was hanging out in one of the Willows by the pond. He even managed to get some shots in the gloom. Later the same day he came back for seconds and miraculously the bird was still around. At the time of writing the bird is still present more than 24 hours after it was first found and more county birders have managed to connect meaning that this species is well and truly unblocked for relative new-comers to Oxon listing. Personally I'm just glad that I won't have to chase after every Wood Warbler sighting in the county any more, having finally got my Oxon tick.

A photo taken by Ewan Urquhart (c) the next day. 
See the superb Black Audi Birding for his write-up

Sunday, 6 April 2014

Farmoor Red-necked Part II - The Return of the Grebe

Regular visitors to the Oxon Bird Log may well have noticed the preponderance of Red-necked Grebe photos dominating the personal blog thumbnails down the right-hand side of the blog over the last couple of days. The reason for this is of course the discovery of a gorgeous summer-plumaged specimen by the Wickster on Saturday morning. Most of the hardcore county twitchers visited the same day where by all accounts they were treated to some cripplingly close views. Now my non-patch county birding is rather limited: I tend to keep my powder dry as far as spending brownie points until something comes along that I need for the county list, especially at the weekend which is generally considered to be family time so I didn't even try to see it on Saturday. However on Sunday my VLW was going to London to catch up with some old school friends so I generously offered to give her a lift to the station (gaining a few BP's) before heading on to Homebase to buy some more lightbulbs (a few more BP's) and then to nip over to Farmoor to pay my respects to the Grebe.

For birds on F2 (the larger southern half of the Farmoor reservoir complex) there are a few choices for parking and as the bird was last reported along the southern shore of F2 I elected for the layby half way along the road to Lower Whitely Farm. This turned out to be the wrong guess as the bird was actually working its way along the western shore so that involved a good fifteen minute walk to get over there. Still it was nice to be out and about and I was in no particular hurry - I even saw a couple of Swallows as I worked my way along the shore. I eventually spotted the Grebe in flight with a Great-crested cousin heading towards me. It seemed to be working its way along the western shore all the way up to the causeway whereupon it would fly back to the south-west corner and start again. Anyway, in what was a rather stiff breeze I tried to photograph what turned out to be a rather fast moving bird so it wasn't at all easy. Still I managed to get some shots in the end though the light was pretty crummy. It was altogether a gorgeous bird and I think that I'm right in saying my first one ever in summer plumage. I couldn't help wondering if it wasn't actually the same long-staying autumn bird, now working its way back north again (see here for that encounter).

The lovely summer plumaged Red-necked Grebe

I soon gave up trying to photograph it and just watched it swimming around in all its grebiness. I wonder where it will be heading to after Farmoor - where ever it is I wish it the best of luck.

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Fen Drayton Baikal Teal

A Baikal Teal hit the information services on Saturday morning in Cambridgeshire at Fen Drayton RSPB. Apparently actually present for two weeks already, it had been dismissed as an escapee by the original finders before being independently found by someone else who thought to put it out. As we all know, determining the plasticity of wildfowl is a real minefield with no easy solution though apparently this one was unringed, with feathers in good condition and it seemed wary, keeping its distance out in the middle of the lake where it had been found.  It had also turned up at about the right time of year and if it does the decent thing and disappears fairly quickly then it must be in with a shout. Not that I rely on committee decisions for these assessments anyway - I prefer to make up my own mind on what goes on my list. Judging by how frequent the RBA updates were over the weekend plenty of people were paying it a visit. For myself, I was tied up with visiting relatives over the weekend and to be honest I don't get quite so enthusiastic about ducks as some other species so I wasn't exactly champing at the bit anyway. I decided to see how I felt on Monday.

Monday dawned and a full moth trap to sort through put me in a good mood. I'd managed a couple of new garden ticks in the form of a (rather battered) Herald and a worn Small Quaker as well as good count of 27 moths in total, which is not bad for my small urban garden at this time of year. I sat down at my desk and took a look at the financial markets - they were turgid and uninteresting. After a busy weekend I wasn't exactly raring to crack on with my work and the Teal had come up as "still present" so I decided to give it a go. What's more there was an Ikea en route so I could pick up some brownie points to counterbalance my outing. Not that weekday outings tend to cost much on the brownie point front for me anyway but it always helps.

Fen Drayton RSPB lake complex

I went for my usual route de choix to Cambridgeshire, namely via Milton Keynes, the A421 and A1 up to the A14. The journey was uneventful and in about an hour and forty minutes I arrived at Fen Drayton, a new reserve for me. From the map there were several routes to get to Moore Lake, the most westerly of the half a dozen or so lakes in the complex but a passing birder directed me (and a convoy of two other cars) to the best car park half way along the southern edge of the complex in the south east corner of Elney Lake. From here it was a (sometimes muddy) twenty minute walk in the warm spring sunshine to the hide on the east side of Moore Lake with singing Chiffchaffs and Blackcaps to serenade me as I went.

When I arrived at the hide there were only a handful of people there and the Teal was immediately visible, actively swimming around behind a small island and seemingly picking up flies of the surface of the water. It certainly was a very smart bird with its striking black Pierrot tear stripe down its golden yellow face that contrasted nicely with the bottle green rear half of the head. Throw in some foppish feathers á lá Garganey and a Green-winged Teal white vertical breast stripe and you have a very handsome duck indeed which looked great in the spring sunshine.

I spent the next hour trying to digiscope it - the light was good but it was a bit hazy and distant. I then took a break for lunch, letting others admire the bird in my scope before trying to shoot some video footage. Other birds of note on the lake were a smattering of Wigeon and Teal and on the islands a few Redshank, Lapwing and my first Little Ringed Plover of the year. It was all very pleasant.

Moore Lake - the teal is one of the duck blobs behind the island

The best digiscoped shots I could manage - it was rather distant and it was a bit hazy

Fortunately the youTube stabilisation function salvaged this video footage from the Recycle Bin. 
The hide floor was shaking about so much that the image was jumping all over the place.

After a while the hide started to fill up and get too crowded so I decided to leave. I wandered back slowly, listening to the singing warblers and enjoying the sense of spring about to burst forth in the hedgerows. Reed Buntings and Bullfinches offered quick glimpses as they flew across the path. Back in the car I finished off my packed lunch and then pointed the Gnome mobile in the direction of home. The journey back was uneventful and I even remembered to nip into Ikea to pick up my brownie points. A very smart duck that was certainly worth a visit whatever its provenance.