Wednesday, 31 December 2014

End of Year Review

So it's that time of year once again. Another year has flown by and it's time to look back and reflect on the birding year. As usual my birding divides rather neatly into three sections: patch birding on Port Meadow, county birding in Oxon and out of county trips to work on my national list.

Port Meadow
I'm going to do a detailed review of the year on my patch blog at Port Meadow Birding so I'll just be very brief here. There are two main yardsticks that I use to measure how successful a year has been on Port Meadow: firstly what the year list total is and secondly how many rarer birds were seen. As far as the first measure was concerned it's been a poor year with only 125 on the year list, well below the usual total of 130+. Notable misses include Greenshank, Grasshopper Warbler, Barn Owl and Little Owl. As far as Rares are concerned though it hasn't been too bad: the first half of the year produced a Glossy Ibis (a Patch first), a brief Spoonbill (almost annual these days) and a fly-over Great White Egret that someone reported on RBA (a rather tenuous patch first). Patch Bird of the Year has to go to the Glossy Ibis.

County Birding
Unequivocally it's been a good year for me as far as county listing is concerned. Regular readers will know that I do find county birding difficult: one can go for long periods without getting a county tick and there's nothing that one can do about it. This year however, there was no such problem. I managed six county ticks this year, some of which were really top drawer birds.

It all started in January when a Glossy Ibis turned up at Bicester on a flooded field by a garden centre. I twitched it successfully on the breaking of the news that day only for it to turn out to be one of the best years for this species in Oxon birding history. It might have been the same bird all along but later on in the year a Glossy Ibis turned up for a couple of days on Port Meadow before decamping to Otmoor where it stayed for two and a half months. Still it was a nice county tick for me.

It's been the Year of the Glossy Ibis in the county

The next county bird of interest came in April when a Wood Warbler was found over in the west of the county. Whilst this species is reported more or less annually in the county, normally it's a single observer sighting of a bird passing rapidly through the county. However this bird stuck around for a couple of days enabling quite a few people to unblock this species.

The Wood Warbler (c) Ewan Urquhart

Just four days later I was just returning from a visit to the Meadow when news broke of a Whiskered Tern at Otmoor. To start with I couldn't go as I had to take my daughter to her martial arts class but then she decided she was too tired so about an hour after the news broke I was finally free to try for it. I ended up running most of the way from the Otmoor car park down to the first screen where in a farcical manner my optics were too steamed up from my exertions for me to see anything. Finally the fog cleared and I managed three minutes of crippling views before it flew off into the sunset. Talk about a close shave!

The Whiskered Tern (c) Tezzer

No more than two weeks later in what was a real spring purple patch for Oxon birding a Spotted Sandpiper was found at Farmoor. This proved to be a very elusive and difficult bird to catch up with: I managed brief in-flight views of it on the morning that it was found before it disappeared. It was then re-found a few days later when thanks to an instant response from me to twitch it I managed to get good views of it on the ground before it again disappeared. Thankfully eventually people worked out that it was roosting at Farmoor before heading off elsewhere during the day and the majority of the county's birders managed to catch up with it on a weekend dawn raid.

The elusive Spotted Sandpiper (c) Roger Wyatt

Regular readers know that my real county bogey bird has been Sandwich Tern. Whilst this species is quite often seen several times over the course of a year it's almost always as a fly-through at Farmoor. I've lost count of the number of failed twitches that I've made to try and see this bird. Well finally this year it fell when a pair lingered for a evening in June at the reservoir and I managed to catch up with them. I can't tell you how relieved I am that I no longer have to drop everything because a Sandwich Tern is flying through Farmoor.

At last a Sandwich Tern!

Whilst the spring passage had proved excellent in the county, it was a much more muted affair this autumn with very few good birds about. There was a twitchable Wryneck at Radley (which I didn't go for having fluked a sighting at Otmoor the previous year), an Otmoor Dartford Warbler that I missed as I was in Cornwall and a one day Red-backed Shrike, also at Otmoor that I dropped everything to go for and was rewarded with some stunning views at close quarters of what is sadly a very rare county bird indeed.

Red-backed Shrike

So six lovely county ticks and one bit of horrible Dartford Warbler grippage. It's been a good year! Other notable county birding trips have included a singing Spotted Crake, the regular Red-necked Grebe at Farmoor, some Sibe Chiffies at Abingdon and the showy pair of Curlew Sandpipers at Farmoor. My county bird of the year has to be the Whiskered Tern which was to all intents and purposes a county first as well as a lifer for me. The County Grip of the Year is of course Dartford Warbler.

National Birding
For birding purposes I mainly leave the county either to twitch something for my national list or to go to Cornwall though this year I can now add ferrying our eldest daughter to and from Durham University to this list. It's been a rather low key year as far as my national listing is concerned. Whereas last year I managed a stonking 21 lifers on my UK list this year it was a much more modest 13 species.

It all started in February when a Red-flanked Bluetail was found in a rather non-descript location in Gloucestershire. This species was once a top-drawer rarity though these days they are becoming much more common with annual occurrences in the country. Still it was a new bird for me and being only an hour away I didn't take much persuading to pay it a visit. A very nice bird it was too!

Red-flanked Bluetail
The next bird of interest was the Great Spotted Cuckoo in Pembrokeshire which I twitched on the way to Cornwall though even by my standards I was stretching this interpretation of en route! There's something wonderfully exotic about foreign Cuckoos to me that means I'll make an extra effort to go and see them. Fortunately the bird showed very nicely and I had a great time watching it.

Great-spotted Cuckoo
There then followed a straight-forward twitch to Cambridgeshire for the Baikal Teal and then the Otmoor Whiskered Tern which I've already mentioned in the county review.

The exotic Baikal Teal

Other notable trips in the first half of the year where down to Devon for the long-staying Ross's Gull, over the Norfolk for the Spectacled Warbler, to Gloucestershire for distant views of the Marsh Sandpiper, to Cheltenham to see the Night Heron and over to the Isle of Wight for distant views of the breeding Bee-eaters there.

You've gotta love a Ross's Gull
Autumn proper kicked off with a trip to Titchfield Haven to see the Siberian Stonechat, a lovely little bird. Then there was the first of what I'm hoping is going to be a long series of productive trips to the north east as I ferry our eldest daughter to and from Uni. On this first trip I managed to see the long-staying Masked Shrike at Spurn with bonus birds in the form of a Little Bunting and a Richard's Pipit - a very productive trip! 

The Spurn Masked Shrike
Titchfield Haven Siberian Stonechat

There were also a couple (see here and here) of rather low key trips to Cornwall that produced a few good birds but nothing outstanding. The pick of the bunch was a self-found Barred Warbler at Pendeen though I only saw it for about thirty seconds. There are also a couple of trips down to Hampshire to catch up with the Franklin's Gull that was coming in to roost there each evening. Fortunately on the second trip it came in nice and early and showed really well.

The Franklin's Gull
The only other trip of note was the return trip to Durham where I caught up with the Wakefield Blyth's Pipit and managed to photograph some Black Grouse at close quarters.

So a moderate year of national birding. As far as the national Bird of the Year award it's a tough choice. Short-listed contenders are: the Great Spotted Cuckoo, the Spectacled Warbler and the Masked Shrike with the Shrike just getting the award. There were several nasty dips this year with the failed trip to Lincolnshire for the Terek Sandpiper, the Yellow-billed Cuckoo miss at PG and my trip to Sussex for the Short-toed Eagle all memorable for all the wrong reasons so I'll award them the Dip of the Year prize jointly.

Insects etc.
Regular readers know that as well as birds I also do butterflies, Odonata and moths and this year I also started to look at flowers as well. On the butterfly front there was just one trip this year, to Gloucestershire for Marsh Fritillary followed by Pearl-bordered Fritillary in a nearby wood.

Marsh Fritillary
On the Odonata front, I made a couple of trips: firstly to the west of Oxon to catch up with Small Red-eyed Damselfly and then to the fabled site of Warren Heath where I managed to score both Emerald Dragonflies as well as lots of Golden-ringed Dragons and Black Darters.

Golden-ringed Dragonfly
I've been quietly mothing away for most of the year and steadily adding to my modest garden moth list. Highlights of the year included a small fern-loving micro (who's latin name I can't even remember) that was only the third record for the county, a Toadflax Brocade that is gradually colonising the county but wasthe first few records for my VC23 area of the county and a Brindled Ochre caught down at Pendeen that turns out to be a pretty scarce species.

Brindled Ochre
As I mentioned above, I've been starting to get to know my local plants as well, both in Oxfordshire and down in Cornwall. It's a great way to pass the time in the long summer doldrums whilst the birding is slack and I'm enjoying getting to know all the different species.

So there you have it, that was 2014 in what was probably far too much detail for most of my readers. Still it's been a great reminiscing opportunity for me whilst doing this write-up and I'm very much looking forward to the new year and wondering what great birds I shall see. Finally it only remains for me to wish all my readers a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year! I leave you with the now traditional Oxon county photo montage for 2014

Sunday, 14 December 2014

More Northern Birding

Readers may recall that back in October I took our eldest daughter up to Durham for her first term at University and how on the way back I'd managed to see the Spurn Masked Shrike and a bonus Little Bunting and Richard's Pipit. Time has since flown by and now that term had come to an end it was time to go and fetch her back down again. Of course we could have told her to come back on the train but I had really enjoyed getting to know the north east and was hoping that I could repeat the successful birding of the first trip. In the weeks leading up to the end of her term I'd been keeping an eye on what was around and could only watch in frustration as first an Isabelline Wheatear and then a Kashmir (Eastern) Black Redstart (both very much en route) came and went. However, on the Monday of the week that I was due to head up a Blyth's Pipit was found in about as en route a spot as one could get: literally two minutes off the M1. It had been found in a highly unlikely spot, that being a boggy field in a business park. Quite how anyone managed to find it is a miracle but fortunately the bird seemed to like the spot and was sticking around. As each day passed and the bird was still there I was getting more optimistic and as it was still there the day before I was heading up and was being seen regularly I felt that I was in with a good chance and started to plan my itinerary accordingly. From reading up on Bird Forum it was apparent that as the field had too much cover, the local birders were staging "organised searches" (i.e. flushes) for the bird twice a day to try and minimise the impact of hundreds of twitchers independently searching for it and tramping about everywhere. From what I read this approach seemed to be working well and the bird didn't seem to mind as it kept faithful to the same field the whole time. With the flushes scheduled for 9:30 and 12:00 I decided to set off some time after 8am to make sure that I would be there with plenty of time before the second flush. Thus it was on the Friday morning I guided the Gnome mobile out into the morning rush hour traffic and headed up north.

It was a three hour journey to get to junction 39 of the M1 at Wakefield though fortunately even at this time of day the traffic wasn't too bad and I made steady progress. Having learnt from my previous trip I decided to minimise my time on the actual M1 itself because of the many extended speed restricted sections so chose to head up the M40/M42/A42 route past Birmingham, joining the motorway at junction 23. This all worked out fine and with nice sunny (though very cold) weather and news already out that the bird was still there (having been seen at the first flush) I enjoyed a very pleasant journey with Radio 4 to keep me company. It wasn't until I was nearly there that news came through on RBA that the second flush was now brought forward to 11am. Curses! My ETA was going to be 11:10 a.m. - what rotten luck! I spurred on the Gnome mobile a little faster and sped northwards to see if I could shave a few minutes off the remaining journey.

I arrived as predicted at about 10 minutes after 11 a.m. Having done some research the night before on Street View I knew that there was a small lay by right next to the field with enough room for two cars. By some miracle this was free and I was able to park right next to the field by the end of the line of twitchers who were standing on the raised bank at the side of the field. I jumped out of the car and asked the nearest birder whether I'd missed the second flush. I was extremely relieved to be told that as the bird had shown voluntarily a short while back there hadn't been a second flush yet. Thankfully I got myself ready in all my warm clothing and joined the other birders looking at the field.

The Blyth's Field - a rather unlikely spot for such a Mega bird
Apparently the bird had flown down in front of some Willow Trees on the far side of the field. The grass there varied greatly in size with clumps up to a metre tall so it was going to be impossible to see the bird when it was on the ground - I could well understand the need for occasional "organised searches" now. A few Meadow Pipits were in the trees but nothing else. Time went by, a few Cormorants would occasionally fly over and the Meadow Pipits moved about distantly but it was hard to make much out. There were a total of about fifty birders present on the site and by watching the other people I soon began to work out which ones were the local birders: they were generally hanging back and chatting rather than looking out over the field. There seemed to be some discussion going on and I guessed that they were discussing when to do the next flush. About an hour after I'd arrived they seemed to decide that the time was ripe for another go and a selected few lined up along the top end of the field. We were told to stand about half way down opposite the trees in case the bird flew up into them but that if the walkers got as far as the trees without any success then we should follow them as they walked down the field. Accordingly I positioned myself opposite the trees and awaited the start of the flush.

The Flush Line preparing for action
There was no luck in the first half so we followed the line as it worked its way down the field. About two thirds of the way along various Pipits flew up distantly and headed off to the bottom of the field. One or two of the flushers were pointing towards the far corner though I must admit I hadn't really seen anything that I could safely say was a larger pipit: they'd all been too far away really. The voyeurs and the flushers assembled at the bottom of the field where a couple of Meadow Pipits could be seen in the boundary ditch and one of the flushers said that the Blyth's was probably at the corner of this ditch. Whilst the watchers waited at the end, the flushers went around to the far corner and worked their way back towards us, duly putting up all the Pipits again. This time I was standing next to one of the locals who called out the bird as the flock flew back towards us and then back into the field and I got a brief view of it in flight. Many of the twitchers started to leave at this point - presumably they'd had several previous views before I'd arrived and were satisfied. I however had only had a view of a few seconds so I joined the now much smaller group back on the side of the field to watch where it had come down. A few of the locals were walking back along the far side of the field and they soon put it up again where again I got some more flight views, clearly a large Pipit this time and it went down right in the near corner of the field, comparatively close to us. The remaining group moved over to this corner to see if we could see it on the deck but the grass was just as thick and impenetrable. A few locals who were still on the field moved closer and once again the bird went up, this time flying several times back and forth right in front of us, giving superb close flight views. I could clearly see the larger size, the relatively unstreaked belly and the rather strong bill as it flew past not more than 20 or 30 yards in front of us. It eventually flew back to the middle of the field and landed once more, again out of sight. 

One of a number of great photos of the bird taken by Graham Catley (c). See his great blog for more shots
By now I'd felt that I'd had about as good a view as I was going to get and started to head back to the car. The other remaining birders must have felt the same as suddenly the whole place was empty of birders with just two people left standing on the bank. The locals were all drifting away, happy that they had satisfied the visiting twitchers and that the bird could now be left in peace to feed for the rest of the day. There has been some debate on Bird Forum about the welfare of the bird, given all this harassement: after all I'd seen it kicked up four times in the space of about 15 minutes. In my experience Pipits don't really seem that bothered by all this: if they're really getting fed up they'd just fly off somewhere else and this bird really seemed to like this field. What's more having just two periods of flushing per day was a good compromise leaving it with plenty of other time to feed away. A good common-sense solution all round.

Anyway, I'd seen my bird and it was now 1pm. There wasn't anything else that I wanted to stop off at so I texted my daughter saying that I should be up there with her in less than a couple of hours so we could go out and grab some tea. I had a quick bite to eat from my lunch box whilst I warmed up again in the car and then steered the Gnome mobile back out onto the M1 and headed up north towards Durham, arriving more or less as predicted at a bit before 3pm. Durham itself consists of a small peninsula on a hill surrounded by the River Wear on three sides with the castle and many of the colleges crammed in on narrow but very pretty cobbled streets. I parked in the underground parking lot just at the bottom of the hill and soon rendezvous'd with my daughter half way up the hill. We then passed a very pleasant couple of hours catching up over some very nice tea and cake at her favourite tea shop (there are loads in Durham, nearly every other shop is a tea shop there). Then we wandered back to her tiny student room and chatted some more and I borrowed her computer to work out how to get to my B&B for the night. As there'd not been anything else of interest in the area I'd decided to have a crack at one of the local specialities up in this area, namely Black Grouse, which could be found up on the Durham moors in the west of the county. I'd therefore booked a small B&B in a village just on the edge of the moors for the night. After saying good bye to my daughter and arranging to meet up again next morning I headed off on the three quarters of an hour journey westwards to my B&B. There I settled down for the evening, munching on some food, watching telly and just chilling out. It had been a successful journey upwards but now I was very tired and by 10 pm I was crashed out in my comfortable bed.

The next morning after a nice cooked breakfast I stepped out into the frosty and icy world that greeted me outside the B&B. As we were down in a valley the sun hadn't reached us yet and it was very cold and rather dark but I was assuming that up on the moors it would be much brighter. I headed up the narrow single-track road that lead out of the village and up onto the moorland, being very thankful for ABS and four wheel drive and taking it very slowly in the icy conditions. I was soon up on the moor top where everything was covered with snow. Whilst it was only a few inches deep it covered everything as far as the eye could see, it really was spectacular and I was thinking that my outing was worth it just for these views alone.

Snowy moorland
Up on the tops of the moorland I started to see the odd Grouse flying about. First a couple of Black Grouse and then a few smaller Red Grouse though none were very close to the car and mostly I only saw them in flight. At the far end the moorland road joined up with a larger road as it headed towards a small hamlet. Here I found a Hawthorn tree full of female Black Grouse all precariously balancing on the flimsy branches and gorging themselves on the berries.

A tree full of Black Grouse
They seemed quite unperturbed by my presence as I sat in the car on the opposite side of the road and watched them. The sun was just coming up over the hill and the topmost birds were starting to be bathed in a lovely golden glow as they clambered around clumsily in the tree. I found another bird on its own in a neighbouring tree which allowed for a better photographic opportunity.

A hen Black Grouse looking very nice with its cryptic plumage
After a while I realised that time was marching on and I started to head back the way that I'd come, though I had to stop almost immediately to look at a smart male in a tree by the road.

A nice fat Black Cock, perhaps a first winter bird
Then it was back over the moors, stopping briefly for a Grouse that was posing by the side of the road, and then onto the main road back towards Durham, arriving some three quarters of an hour later back at the city. The underground car park that I'd used yesterday had cars queuing for it all down the street so instead I followed my nose down a side street on the other side of the river where I soon found some metered parking. I parked up and walked the short distance back into town (everything is nearby in Durham - it's so small) where I met up with my daughter and a friend of hers who also lived in Oxford and who wanted a lift home. We packed their things into the car and then went back to buy some sandwiches for the journey before finally setting off at around midday.

I wish I could say that the journey was uneventful but there were a couple of minor incidents to report: firstly I managed to cock up my navigation a little, missing my turn-off onto the M18 and found myself on the A1 heading south towards Nottingham. Now whilst I could go this way I preferred my tried and tested M/A42 route so I worked my way back towards the M1. We'd no sooner re-joined the motorway when all the traffic ground to a halt because of an accident so we came off at the next junction and headed towards Derby hoping to work our way down to the A42 from there. Another bit of navigational incompetence and I found myself instead eventually on the A38 heading towards Wolverhampton. We eventually joined the M6 Toll Road and were back on course, arriving about an hour late in the end. After dropping off the friend (in exchange for a nice bottle of champagne from the grateful parent who'd been spared the trip up north) we headed back home where I collapsed into the bosom of my family for a reviving cup of tea and a chance finally to relax after a long couple of days. 

It had been another successful birding excursion up north. So far that's two Mega's out of two trips to Durham - can I keep it up? Only time will tell though as I'm due to take her back up there in about a month's time I have my finger's firmly crossed for some more quality birds. I can't wait.

A final Black Grouse in the snow