Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Kicking Off the Butterfly Season

As May draws to a close my thoughts have increasingly been turning to the pending June & July birding doldrums which I usually pass chasing after insects instead of birds. The arrival of the fine hot weather conditions have had me thinking of butterflies and so it was that last Saturday I negotiated with my VLW to nip out for a quick butterfly hunt in the morning and then to do the weekly supermarket shop in the afternoon instead. As I only had limited time I decided to go somewhere fairly close by and so chose to try out Barbury Castle, an iron age hill fort on the Ridgeway just over the border in Wiltshire. What was particularly appealing about this site was the possibility of seeing Marsh Fritillaries there though it was by no means a top site for this species and in fact I later found out that numbers have been in sharp decline there recently. Nevertheless it was only an hour's drive away so I thought that I'd give it a go. 

A short five minute walk from the large car park soon found me at the fort which consisted of a central area with a large deep ditch all round. I was told that walking along the bottom of the ditches was the best place to look and this I duly did. The weather conditions were good but I was worried that I was a tad too early for Marsh Fritillaries and in hindsight this turned out to be correct: according to Ewan Urquhart's excellent write-up here the Marsh Frits were only just hatching on this same day in the sheltered and more southerly Dorset site that he chose to visit so if there were any left at Barbury Castle then I was too early to see them anyway. Still I found quite a few Dingy and Grizzled Skippers along with a few Small Copper and the usual Peakcocks, Small Tortoiseshells etc. There's always something to look at and I passed a pleasant couple of hours scouring the grassy slopes with the sound of Skylarks and Meadow Pipits singing away in the background.

Dingy Skippers

Grizzled Skippers
Ruby Tiger moth
Small Yellow Underwing moth
Broad-bodied Chaser
So not the result that I was really hoping for but it was nice to be out in the sunshine and getting to grips with butterflies again.

Sunday, 11 May 2014

Spotty & Evasive Part II

Still Spotty & Evasive
At the weekend my VLW and I like to start the day sitting in bed, drinking tea and putting the world to rights. Mrs Gnome was telling me about an interesting article that she'd been reading. Just at this moment my mobile rang: it was Dai John who had re-found the Spotted Sandpiper at Farmoor on the northern shore of F1 near the outflow pipes. Now whilst I had definitely seen the bird last time it had been a brief in-flight view so I'd mentally made a note that should it turn up again I would go and see it so this call meant yet another Code Red Scramble. I hurriedly got dressed and promised my VLW that I would do the weekly shopping on my return though I could tell that this was going to cost me quite a few Brownie Points. I rushed downstairs, updated the Oxon Bird Log, got my gear together and fired up the Gnome Mobile.

Whereas last time the traffic had been horrendous, this time the journey was perfect. There was no outbound traffic that morning and even all the traffic lights worked in my favour. Given where the bird had last been reported I decided to head into Farmoor village and to use the Meadow Close entrance which would take me right to the NW corner of F1. A quick sprint down the track and I was up on the bank. There about 100 yards away I could see Steve Young standing by the outflow pipes and between him and me were two Sandpipers, one of which I could clearly see in my scope had a nice spottty tummy! The wind was phenomenally strong and I was looking into the light so I thought that there was little point in trying for a photo. I had just decided to head over to where Steve was, being careful to keep well down the bank so the birds couldn't see me, when for no reason that I could make out the two birds flew off and headed to the NW corner on the other side of us. In the scope-shaking wind I tried to keep on it but a fisherman was walking around the shore and soon flushed it right down into the north east corner. At this moment Joe Harris arrived so I tried to put him onto it though now it had moved again to the east shore and we were basically looking the entire length of the reservoir. I spent some moments putting out the news and then decided to drive around to the main car park to see if I could see it from there. 

As I arrived in the main car park the usual county birders were all turning up so I spent a little while catching up with them. There was no sign of the bird where we'd last seen it and I met up with Joe who'd just walked around from where we'd first met without having seen it at all. Having had a good view of the bird already and knowing that I was bleeding Brownie Points by the minute I didn't linger and soon headed back to the Gnome Mobile and back to Oxford. Later I got a text from Joe who did manage to see it once more back in the original spot at 11:30 though no one else saw it. So this time only four of us had seen it: Dai, Steve, myself and Joe. What a little blighter this bird was proving.

Another great flight shot courtesy of Roger Wyatt (c)

Glossy & Windy
Back at my desk and about to head off for my shopping penance I noticed an e-mail from Cherry Robertson who'd apparently found a Glossy Ibis on my local patch Port Meadow. Now, I'd been expecting this species to turn up on for a couple of years now so it was great finally to have one on the patch list though I was keen to see it for myself. I therefore loaded my bins and camera in the car along with the shopping bags and set off for my shopping trip via a quick stop at the Meadow. As I parked in Aristotle Lane I met an elderly gentleman who described the Ibis to me, wanting to know what it was. I enlightened him and then made a quick dash up the Aristotle Lane footpath to scan the wind blasted Meadow. I found the two Black-tailed Godwits but try as I might I couldn't see the Ibis. At this moments the heavens opened and without my coat I was soon getting soaked. Disappointed I made a dash back to the car and headed off to do my shopping chores.

Back home a while later, the shopping safely done and lunch delivered to a hungry family, I got news from Pete Roby that the Ibis had returned and he was watching it now on the floods. I wasn't able to drop everything immediately so put the word out and bided my time. As afternoon plans were made my son and I decided (with a bit of prompting from me) to go and fly his kite in the wind on the Meadow. A quick stop off at the sweet shop en route meant that he was happy for us to check out the Ibis before we flew the kite. However, as we were walking along the footpath towards the Meadow we met Pete Roby coming the other way. He reported that the Ibis had flown off, circling higher before headed eastwards. Disappointed we headed on up to the Meadow to fly our kite.

Up on the Meadow a quick scan revealed no sign of it as expected. We were just walking over to where there was enough space for kite flying when I met Ewan Urquhart. He'd been having a rather tough time of it today. He'd been on the way to the Lincolnshire Serin that morning when he got my text about the Spotted Sandpiper. As there'd been no news of the Serin on the pager so far (usually it was reported first thing) he'd assumed the worst and turned around at that point to try to get the Sandpiper instead. By the time the Serin came up as still present at 11:30 he'd been nearly back at Farmoor where of course he'd failed to see the Sandiper at all. Hoping for a consolation Ibis he'd come to the Meadow and now I was going to have to disappoint him again. When I told him there was no sign of it he said that actually Andy Last who was on the other side of the river had told him that he had it in his scope. There then followed a rather difficult conversation with Andy in the howling gale where we eventually ascertained that the Ibis was still present but very distance on the grassland well north of the floods. Eventually we managed to find it and got some distant views in Ewan's shaking scope. Joe Harris, Mark Chivers and Lee Evans were also around by this stage and all saw the bird. This is still quite a county rarity, being only the 5th Glossy Ibis for Oxon I believe and a first for Port Meadow so I was very pleased to have seen it.

Pete Roby (c) took this great shot of the Ibis when it was much closer
My son and I went off to fly the kite though he was a bit scared about unleashing it fully in the wind so it was rather a muted effort. Then it was off to the playground for a quick play on the swings (for my son at least) and back to Chateau Gnome for a nice cup of tea.

Whilst kite flying we saw this wild version

Spotty & Confiding
Ewan and I had discussed the Sandpiper whilst watching the Ibis and had both agreed that a dawn raid at Farmoor before all the wader-flushing fishermen arrived would probably be the best tactic for seeing this elusive bird. Whilst I had the luxury of not needing to do this, he and several others were there at 5:30 the next morning and I was pleased to hear that they were successful, finding the bird in the same spot on the NW corner of F1. In fact the bird lingered until mid morning allowing everyone to come and see it in all its spotty glory. So it was a case of third time lucky for most birders and even Badger, who'd arrived back yesterday evening from his three week sojourn at Lesvos managed to see it.

So it's been a pretty good spring so far in the county with Wood Warbler, Whiskered Tern and now Spotted Sandpiper all being county ticks for myself with a nice supporting cast of Spoonbill and Glossy Ibis on the Patch as well as a heard-only Spotted Crake. I'm just hoping that we might be able to squeeze in one more county mega before the June doldrums set in. Fingers crossed!

Thursday, 8 May 2014

Spotty & Evasive

This is turning out to be a very promising yet strangely frustrating spring here in Oxon. Yet another Code Red scramble occurred yesterday with yet another county Mega after the recent Whiskered Tern but once again the bird proved elusive and once more many county birders were left frustratingly high and dry.

It was proving to be a rather dull Wednesday morning with my work. Once again the markets were lifeless and I was casting around for something to do. My business partner called up and we started to chat when suddenly my mobile rang (always an exciting sound at this time of year). I cut short my conversation and turned my attention to the mobile.  It was Dai John - could he have found something at Farmoor? It turned out that he had, a Spotted Sandpiper no less! This was a county Mega: only two previous records, one in 1989 and another the following year, both at Farmoor which seems to hold the monopoly on this species.

I hurriedly posted something on the Oxon Bird Log and started to get my gear together. At that moment Dave Lowe called - he was stranded in south Oxford without a car so I agreed to pick him up en route. The traffic was surprisingly bad all down the Abingdon Road and much of the ring road and we seemed to crawl along for ages. Finally though we were heading out towards Farmoor and as we neared we could see a group of three birders standing on the embankment of F2 (the larger of the two concrete bowls that make up Farmoor) by the car park - that looked promising and also made for only a very short walk from parking the car!

We finally arrived, got our gear together and hurried up the embankment to join the birders which turned out to be Wayne Bull and Barry Batchelor, with Roger Wyatt having walked off. The news wasn't good: the bird was flushing every time a car or walker passed by and in fact only Roger and Dai had managed to see it. The good news was that it seemed to be favouring the south east corner so we decided to hang around here. I called Roger who was by now half way along the south shore to check how he was getting on but he'd had no sign. The weather was incredibly windy and the strong westerly was whipping up waves as it blasted into our faces. It was also very changeable, with squalls of rain interspersed with periods of bright sun so the light was constantly changing. Swifts and hirundines were battling against the conditions and a few Common Terns were zooming around. All in all it had an exciting and yet somehow very chaotic feel to it - no wonder the bird was so flighty. I started to get calls from various birders wanting to know what was going on so spent quite a while on the phone. Whilst talking I picked out a Sandpiper flying low over the water towards us and put Dave onto it. It landed about 150 yards from us though turned out to be a Common.

We decided to spread out a little to increase the chance of finding it. So leaving Wayne Bull staking out the south east corner we wandered back towards the tower by the car park. At that moment a couple of Sandpipers flew in front of us, flying just above the waves. The weather was very dull at this moment but we could all pick out the two birds and excitedly noted that one of them had much reduced wing bars compared to the other which had a strong bar all the way across the wing. It looked promising! The birds flew in to the south east corner and as soon as they landed Wayne started waving at us! We ran towards him and there then ensued a scramble to get on the birds. I hadn't even assembled my scope yet so hurried to do this. At this point the inevitable happened: one of the Thames Water white vans came round to the corner and of course the birds flushed, flying out past Roger Wyatt who managed to get some flight shots before he lost sight of them as they headed towards the causeway.

Some superb flight shots of the Spotted Sandpiper taken by Roger Wyatt (c)

At this point Ewan Urquhart turned up and gradually all the local birders who were in the county (a few are away at present) arrived. However sadly the bird was never seen again despite some heroic searching from people like the Wickster who'd jumped on a bus from Wallingford when the news broke and subsequently walked the entire perimeter of both reservoirs all to no avail. We did find a few Common Sandpipers along the north shore of F1 where it was quieter as F1 had been closed for works there but sadly no sign of its rarer cousin. News broke on RBA about a Spotted Sandpiper which had turned up at Draycote Water in Warwickshire, some fifty miles away though it seemed unlikely that the bird could have made it that far in such a short period of time since it was last seen.

So in the end it all turned out to be very frustrating. Only six of us got to see the bird and for most of us the views were very brief either in flight or on the deck for a matter of moments. Congratulations should of course go to Dai for finding such a rarity but for most us (even those of use who saw it), it was ultimately a very frustrating experience. Let's hope that it gets refound and lingers long enough for us all to enjoy it properly.

At least these Common Terns sat obligingly still while I photographed them