Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Clubbing at Goring

As May draws to a close it signals the start of the summer doldrums when the birding gets hard. In fact things had been positively dire on my local patch at Port Meadow for about a month now with the floods now dried up and the year list stalled at a very paltry total of 113. Because of this lull in the birding action it's at about this time of year that my thoughts start to turn to insects. Indeed, I've been mothing away like a good 'un for a while now in the garden but so far it's been a very poor season with the clear cold nights and cooler days making for dismal catches. Still, there are Butterflies and Odanata to hunt with several species that I've yet to see relatively close by. One of these is Common Club-tailed, which is a very local and hard to come by species though we're lucky to have a hot spot within the county on the Thames between Goring and Pangbourne. I'd only ever once previously tried to see them but had failed dismally so when Steve Burch managed to photograph an emerging Club-tailed at Goring about a week ago I resolved that this year I'd make more of a concerted effort. I did some reading up about them and it seemed that they were well known for emerging right by the railway bridge where it crosses the Thames at Goring. According to my field guide (Brooks and Lewington) the peak time for emergence was between 1:30 pm and 3:30 pm. However, apparently once they had emerged they usually fly off to nearby woodland as their preferred habitat so it was a matter of catching them shortly after this emergence that appeared to be the  key.

Armed with this knowledge it was just a matter of getting some decent weather so that I could have a go. However, finding a decent weather window has been no easy matter this spring and with the forecast for deteriorating conditions over the next few days in the end I decided to have a punt today late morning before the forecast cloud set in for the afternoon - at the very least it would be a reconnaissance trip for a site I'd not visited previously. Thus it was that at around 11 a.m. I set off in the Gnome mobile heading southwards towards Goring. I parked up at the end of Manor Road in Goring (as per Paul Ritchie's Hampshire Dragonflies web-site) and walked along the track, under the railway and down the farm track to the river. Here I found the old brick railway bridge that I recognised from photos.

Goring railway bridge
A quick scan all along the concrete embankment under the bridge revealed plenty of Banded Demoiselles though predictably no emerging Club-tails. Well it wouldn't be that easy now, would it? I started to explore along the river bank, nipping into each clearing by the river to see if I could spot any emerging dragonflies anywhere. Along the bank were singing Garden Warblers, a Whitethroat feeding a young fledgling and a singing Sedge Warbler. There were loads of wild flowers about and it was all very pretty. I came to an overgrown area and started to explore, looking for any Odonata that I could find. At this point a fellow Dragon hunter turned up. He'd been up and down the bank for some distance but had found nothing. We worked our way back towards the bridge together but to no avail. We bumped into another couple on the same mission who'd had no luck either but they soon left.

On the other side of the bridge was a lovely overgrown flower meadow which we spent some time exploring though the only Odonata action was from Banded D's. I did find a teneral Damsel though it flew off before I could get an ID or a photo. My companion, who lived locally, wandered back off home and I wondered what to do. I decided to give Peter Law, a keen Odonata'er a quick ring to see if he had any advice. It turned out that he was at Aston Rowant photographing Adonis Blues. He said that he didn't know the Goring site as he usually went to Pangbourne instead but he hadn't seen any there over the last couple of years. I was starting to appreciate just how hard it was to see this species. He suggested that we rendezvous'd there to try together and I agreed. I decided to have a last quick look around at Goring before heading off and did a quick circuit of the surrounding bushes and the bridge embankment. It was at the embankment when I stumbled upon the heart quickening sight of a dragonfly crawling up the side of the concrete. A freshly emerged Club-tailed was walking unsteadily up the side of the bridge right by my feet. Get in! What a last-gasp stroke of luck!

A freshly emerged Common Club-tailed working it's way up the bridge embankment
It was looking rather precarious and I was just wondering whether it might need a helping hand when suddenly it flew over my head and landed in a nearby small conifer right next to the bridge. There it sat at just about head height whilst it dried out its wings. I gave Peter a quick call saying that I was going to stay here instead and suggesting that he might like to come over. I don't know how long it takes for a freshly-emerged dragonfly's wings to harden but I imagined that it would be some time so Peter could probably get to see it.

Drying off its wings
How wrong I was! Five minutes later suddenly it took off and disappeared never to be seen again. I waited around until Peter arrived and meanwhile another hopeful hunter turned up. I explained to Peter exactly where I'd seen it and suggested that the best tactics might be simply to wait to see if any more emerge from by the bridge. However, the weather seemed to be deteriorating and whilst I wished him luck I did wonder how successful he might be as it became cloudier and cooler (sadly I later learnt that he drew a blank). Meanwhile I made my way back to the car and headed home to Oxford for my usual celebratory cup of tea.

I still don't really know whether I was just extremely lucky or whether on a good day at the right time of year it's fairly likely to see several emerge by the bridge. Reading Paul Ritchie's recent blog entry it looks like he prefers the Pangbourne site and that he had good success there last weekend. All I know is that I was extremely happy to have seen my first ever Common Club-tailed at such close quarters.

Sunday, 24 May 2015

Birthday Surprise

Today was my VLW's birthday. She's now in her very very very late thirties (or so she likes to tell me and who am I to argue). The only problem was that she was feeling rather under the weather today so it was a rather low key affair. She opened her cards in bed with her usual cup of tea and we had a nice roast lamb for lunch. We were just settling down for our post-lunch hot drink when my mobile rang: it was Justin Taylor calling to say that the warden at the Bicester Wetlands reserve had managed to find a Red-necked Phalarope! Normally Badger, who's very much the central hub of county birding information, would handle such a call but for some reason he wasn't answering so Justin had stepped into the breach and started calling around. I took down the details carefully in order to blog it but on this day of all days what my VLW wanted was going to be what we did and I didn't think that seeing a Phalarope would rate too highly on her birthday wish list. I went back to her to see what she wanted to do and the birding gods must have been smiling on me because miraculously she wanted to take a nap in order to try and recuperate so I had our two children for the afternoon. A quick consult on the map and I realised that Blenheim Palace wasn't a million miles from Bicester so quickly I hatched a plan: my VLW would go for her nap and I'd take the kids for a blitzkreig twitch of the Phalarope before we would head over to Blenheim where our younger daughter wanted to visit the Butterfly House and our son wanted to go on the little train there. I ran up to my office in order quickly to post the news on the Oxon Birding Blog (though I later realised that in my haste I forgot actually to save it) and I sent out a few texts to local birders. Then we hurriedly got our stuff together and it was off up the A34 towards Bicester. 

I'd only been to the Bicester Wetlands Reserve once before (for the Glossy Ibis last year) but I managed to remember where it was. I pulled in the car park right by the Tower Hide, got my gear together and run up the steps to the hide whilst the children amused themselves in the car. Inside I found the warden and also Justin, who was busy putting the news out and updating the blog. The bird was on view constantly though rather distant, busily feeding away like a little clockwork toy, pecking at countless insects on the water's surface. As I had only very limited time I hastily set about taking some digiscoped shots and a bit of video though back home I later discovered that much of it was too out of focus to use - had I had more time I could probably done it more justice. It was a very smart bird in full summer plumage - I'd only ever seen one once before in Gloucestershire in transitional plumage to winter so this was a real treat for me.

My rather crappy digiscoped efforts don't really do the bird justice
I'd have loved to have stayed longer to admire the bird in more detail but with two restless children in the car I stayed no more than about five minutes before hurrying back down to them and setting back off on the road. We then cut across country towards Woodstock where, because it was rather late in the day, I bit the bullet and actually paid the entrance ticket (rather than parking in town and walking in the townie's gate) in order to maximise our time there. Still it was definitely worth it for having been allowed to nip in to see the bird. We then passed a very pleasant afternoon together, first having a spot of tea, then the kids went on the adventure playground whilst I took a call from Badger: he'd apparently had such an epic night on Saturday drinking that he'd only just got up, staggered along half dressed to the Phalarope, ticked it and then staggered back home to bed. I'm glad to see that married life hadn't dulled his spirit! After that we went in the maze, then the Butterfly House and finally the train. All in all a very nice afternoon indeed which everyone enjoyed. We arrived back to find that my VLW had had a nice nap and was feeling much better. 

What a great treat it was to have such a county rarity drop in like that - the only one in the last fifteen years apart from the untwitchable "probable" June last year. A great time to get a county tick just before the summer doldrums kick in.

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Titchfield Haven Greater Yellowlegs

Given that May is one of the best months of the year for birding, you'd think that I'd be zipping all around the country at the moment, picking up ticks left right and centre. Not so, gentle reader, not so - in fact it's all been rather quiet. I went to Farmoor to see the gorgeous summer plumaged Black-throated Diver on the day that it arrived though by the time that I'd got there it was rather distant so I didn't bother with any photographs. Even then I thought that it looked rather unwell: it spent a lot of time floating on its side with its belly out of the water and photos on subsequent days have shown that it has a wound there. Let's hope that it doesn't get infected and that the bird manages to heal properly and to move on north to its breeding grounds in due course.

Apart from this diver-sion (see what I did there?), I've been stuck at home helping my VLW with her Art Weeks showing. This meant that when news of the continued presence of the Greater Yellowlegs down at Titchfield Haven came up this week, I was unable to do anything about it. This bird has been rather frustrating: it first appeared back in January of this year but has never been seen more than one day at a time before it disappears for days or even initially weeks on end - where it goes to nobody knows. It seemed that the only tactics for it are to go for it on the day that it's reported and to hope that it sticks around long enough on the day for you to get to see it. Also, very often it seemed to be reported on a Saturday which is about the worst day for twitching for me so I've been "frustrated of Oxford" for many weeks now. When it turned up on Friday I was all set to go until my VLW reminded me that she'd be out that afternoon so I had to mind the art shop. Grrrr! Actually it turned out well because it flew off about half an hour after the initial report and wasn't seen again that day so I inadvertently dodged a dip there. 

This weekend, for the first time it was reported on both days though of course I still couldn't go. Was it changing its habits though and sticking to the reserve? Finally today (Monday) I was free to have a crack at it. Given that Titchfield Haven is relatively close to Oxford I decided that despite this potential change of habits I would still wait on news and then chance that it stuck around long enough for me to get it though it was clearly going to be a bit of a gamble. That was the plan anyway but Monday morning found much of the southern half of the country under heavy rain and strong winds and I wondered whether anyone would actually be out on the reserve looking for it. At around 9:45 a.m. with no news so far I put out a tentative "RFI" on RBA and within half an hour I was rewarded with a "still present on the scrapes" message. Game on! I knocked up a quick packed lunch, bundled my gear into the Gnome mobile and headed off down the A34 in the torrential rain. Gradually as I sped southwards the weather started to lift a little so by the time I pulled up on the shores of the Solent by the reserve it was just the strong wind that had to be contended with. As I'd been starting my final descent into Titchfield Haven a new RBA text had come through so I hurriedly scanned through it: "still present and showing well from the Spurgin hide". Woo hoo! There was no time to go and get a ticket for the reserve, I hurried into my waterproofs, slung my gear over my shoulder and hot-footed it along the path. A helpful sign told me that the Spurgin hide was the furthest away at 950 metres distance. I hurried on, starting to feel rather hot and sweaty in all my waterproof gear. Finally I made it to the hide and entered to find just two birders there. Fortunately one of them had the Greater Yellowlegs in his scope and with a quick peek I could relax.

The bird turned out to be tucked right in the corner to the right of the hide, nice and close but partially obscured by some reeds and a bush that were both being blown all over the place and continually getting into the field of view. I peeled off several layers to cool off, set up my scope and tried to take some photos. It was hanging out with a flock of some thirty odd Black-tailed Godwits and gradually this flock moved out from its corner into a more open space where I was able to take some shots of it.

It was a very smart bird and I thanked the stars that I was able to enjoy such close views of it. From following things on the internet I appreciated that very often views were distant and hazy so to be treated to such grandstand views was a real treat. It looked just like it was supposed to: a larger and less delicate version of a Lesser Yellowlegs, a species that is forever ingrained in my mind thanks to the bird I found on Port Meadow back in October 2010. The bill wasn't as sharp as the Lesser and it had the barring down its flank and a general chunkier jizz to it. This very much made up for "Greenshank-gate" - the fiasco which saw a group of Oxon's finest twitchers (and me) bombing over to the Midlands to take a look at a "Greater Yellowlegs" that turned out to be a Greenshank. That had been really gutting, having wasted all that time and effort only to be disappointed. This on the other hand was definitely the real deal, and a very smart bird to boot.

Gradually a few other people started arriving though there were never more than a mere eight people in the hide at most, a very modest showing for such a rarity though I supposed many had already seen it by now. After a while I decided that I'd taken enough photos of it and had a look around at the rest of the area from the hide: there were loads of Black-headed Gulls everywhere you looked on the scrape, a few distant Avocets and Shelduck and the odd Common Tern. A few Swallows and a single Swift were zipping around in the wind, hawking for insects over the water. It was all wonderfully birdy and I gazed out of the window at it contentedly whilst I munched on my packed lunch. Then it was time for another quick gander at the Yellowlegs which had slunk back towards the corner again.

The view from the Spurgin hide
After that I decided to head back towards the car, stopping in at all the intervening hides en route to see what I could see. These hides offered various views of the North and South Scrapes which again was mostly covered in breeding Black-headed Gulls though with a few Mediterranean Gulls in amongst them. There were more Blackwits and Avocets, a flock of Oystercatchers and the odd Redshank.

It was nice to see so many breeding Avocets

As I walked it seemed that every few yards along the reed-lined path there was a Cetti's Warbler, belting out its strident song from the hidden depths. Reed Warblers were chugging away relentlessly with their songs and Reed Buntings called to each other as they bombed about in the wind. I listened out carefully for the pinging of Bearded Tits but didn't manage to hear any. As I wandered, I stopped to look at the various plants with one of the Comfreys flowering along the path and loads of (the highly poisonous) Hemlock Water Dropwort everywhere I looked, just starting to flower.

Hemlock Water Dropwort

Finally I was back at the car where I de-tooled and then drove the short distance round to the visitor centre. Here I belatedly paid for my entrance ticket and then went to the café for a celebratory cup of tea and a cake whilst I gazed out across the windswept Solent towards the Isle of Wight. Then it was back to the car and back off home, arriving back to the bosom of my family mid afternoon, just in time for yet another cup of tea. Why not - after all it had a been a very successful day out. I later learnt that the bird had stayed put until around 2:30 p.m. that afternoon when it had flown off, not to be seen again that day. So it had been on show for a total of four hours. Long enough for me to get down there and see it though, which was all that matters. Clearly, "he who dares, ticks the Mega Yank".

The Titchfield Haven Greater Yellowlegs

Saturday, 2 May 2015

Paying Homage to the Hudwit

Whilst I'd been away on my long Scottish birding trip fairly recently, I'd found that far from sating my thirst for birding adventure, instead it had only left me wanting more. Thus when on Saturday morning news broke of a Hudsonian Godwit down in Somerset at Meare Heath NR my interest was very much piqued. Of course Saturday is a bad day for me: I had the weekly family food shop to do and a series of DIY tasks lined up for the weekend. Still, if it stuck around then it would make a nice little target for an outing on Monday, usually the most convenient day for me. Sadly, late afternoon the bird flew off with part of the Black-tailed Godwit flock there and wasn't seen again for the rest of the day, nor for the following day. "Oh well, that's that", I mused and thought no more about it.

Well, I say I thought about it no more but actually it did prompt me to do some reading up on the species which isn't one that had ever crossed my radar before, chiefly because the last record in this country was over thirty years ago. It turns out that this Nearctic species breeds in north west Canada and Alaska, including along the Hudson Bay. Before migrating they gather in Hudson Bay (hence the name) and James Bay (the southern end of Hudson Bay) and then embark on an epic migration down to South America where they spend the winter. In terms of identifying them, they are similar to Black-tailed Godwits though with diagnostic black underwing coverts as well as a fainter white wing bar. So, at least now I knew a bit more about them. I switched on my RBA text alert service for this species on the off chance that it should turn up again and left it at that.

Several days passed with no more news and then on Wednesday afternoon it turned up again. Should I drop everything and go I pondered? I had quite a bit of work that I wanted to get finished that afternoon as well as an important economic news release to watch that evening. In the end I decided to leave it until the next day. Predictably that evening it flew off again with a sub-set of the Blackwit flock and wasn't seen again for the rest of the day. Given how it had been several days before it had turned up again last time I decided to postpone my trip the next day and instead to wait on news. So I went about my usual business in the morning until at some time after 9 a.m. it came up on the pager as back again. Game on! I hurriedly got together my stuff, made a packed lunch and shoved everything into the Gnome mobile. I had enough petrol to get there so pointed the car down the Botley Road towards the A420. This is where it all went a bit pear-shaped. The A420 road was blocked off completely at the roundabout with a diversion in place which cost me about 15 minutes to get back on track. Further down the 420 at Farindon there were single-file traffic lights and another queue which fortunately only took about 10 minutes though I could see the queue backing up for miles in the other direction and made a mental note to come back a different way. Given that in the past the bird usually stayed for most of the day before it would fly off I ought to have been reasonably calm about it all but I couldn't help be a bit on edge least I got the dreaded news that it had flown off before I got there.

Talking about getting news en route I should mention a new discovery I made. There is this problem when you're driving on your own to see a bird and then an RBA text comes through with news on it. It is of course dangerous to try to read it though I must confess to having done it in the past. What I really needed was for my iPhone to speak the text to me so I didn't have to take my eyes off the road. Well, a bit of Googling and I found out how to do it (see here).  After setting this up then as each text came through all I had to do was to touch the message and it would read it out to me, something that's easy to do whilst keeping my eyes on the road. A real help, in my opinion. Anyway, fortunately the message were all positive and once onto the motorway I started to relax a bit and to get back into the groove of driving to the South West that was so familiar to me from my trips to Cornwall. I made up some of my lost time and so it was that in under two and a half hours I found myself turning in to the spanking new huge (though nearly full) car park at Ashcott Corner. I was familiar with the spot as I'd been here twice before (though to the Ham Wall side) for the Pie-billed Grebe and the breeding Little Bitterns. Whom should I see just as I turned in but Keith Clack and the Witney posse, indulging in some post-twitch snackery. It turned out that they'd come first thing on spec as they were going out for a day's birding anyway and thought that it might as well be here as anywhere else. Of course when the bird had turned up again they'd been right on the spot. I didn't chat long with them as I was keen to see the bird myself before it flew off again so I hurried off to find somewhere to park and to get tooled up. Then it was a rapid yomp the quarter of a mile down the path to the relatively modest twitch line of perhaps a couple of hundred birders. Just as I approached I saw a flock of birds all fly up briefly and I sprinted the last 30 yards though fortunately they'd settled down again and were still there. I then walked along the line asking if anyone had the bird though quite a few of the people at the start of the line didn't. Eventually I found someone who had it in his scope and I took a quick peek and then I could relax finally. I got my scope out and after a bit of help managed to get on the bird itself which was fast asleep in amongst a flock of over 100 Black-tailed Godwits.

The wader scrape: sadly the flock was near the back of the pool
Once one got one's eye in it was relatively easy to pick out being much darker than the other birds with dark barring on its belly and very dark wings. It's neck was barred and it had a little rufous cap on its head. When it occasionally got it's bill out for a preen this was long and slightly more up-curved that its Palearctic cousins. I busied myself with taking some digiscoped shots though sadly the flock were right at the back of the pool, the bird was asleep the whole time and there was a crippling heat haze which meant that all my shots were absolute rubbish.

The best photo I could manage in the circumstances
As I stood and waited for some kind of movement from the Hudwit, there was plenty else to watch. A Great White Egret flew over, a Bittern flapped off from the reedbeds, there were hawking Marsh Harriers behind us and several Hobbies overhead. In amongst the Blackwits were a Ruff and a Dunlin and in the reeds Reed and Sedge Warblers could be heard singing away and there were plenty of Blackcaps and Garden Warblers warbling in the hedgerows. In the water-filled ditch in front off us were shoals of Rudd which would occasionally be attacked by a large Pike which would send fish and water flying everywhere. All in all it was a very pleasant pastoral scene. Talking of Bitterns, an RSPB chappy there said that there were over 40 males in the Avalon Marshes area, and apparently it was one of the top spots in the whole country for this species.

Of course with such a crowd there I was bound to bump into some people I knew and sure enough I soon came across Peter Law and also my good Cornish friends Phil and Hilary ("P&H", ) who'd come up for the Hudwit but also to meet up with a friend for a spot of local birding and butterflying. Whilst there P&H also met up with Mark Cocker (a tick for me) whom they knew from a recent crossing on the Scillonian. They'd not brought their scopes so I let them use mine but Phil had brought some image stablisation binoculars - not something that I'd come across before but they were pretty impressive. They were larger and bulkier than normal bins but gave you 15x magnification and there was a magic button which switched on the image stabilisation which meant that you could actually see properly whilst holding them. I was most impressed as you can hear from the sound track to the video below (which is of course otherwise sadly a bunch of hazy crap).

Time passed. I went to get my lunch from the car and came back to find there'd been no change at all.
P&H went off with their friend and the rest of us hung around in the sunshine though with a rather stiff breeze taking the edge off what would otherwise be lovely weather. I really wanted to see these famous black underwings though so far it had resolutely been just about the only Godwit not at least to have the occasional wing stretch. I didn't have unlimited time: there was of course a price to pay for this visit in the form of yet another trip to Ikea and I didn't want to get stuck in the rush hour traffic. I'd mentally given myself until about 3 pm and it was just before then that finally the birds seemed all to wake up and then they had a little fly around where suddenly the Hudwit stood out like a sore thumb from the rest of the flock.

Of course I wasn't able to photograph the birds in flight so here's a great shot by David Carr (c)
which clearly shows just how striking the bird is in flight compared to the Black-tailed Godwits

At last I'd seen what I'd been waiting for so it was time to head on back to the car. On the way back Peter and I managed to spot what was for me at least, my first Odonatae of the year in the form of a Hairy Dragonfly and a Large Red Damselfly. Nice! Then it was back to the car and back on the road. I knew the way to the Bristol Ikea from previous visits and when I arrived it was mercifully empty (there's nothing quite so hellish as a visit to Ikea when it's really packed). I quickly picked up the items I was after which were picture frames for my VLW's art as she was exhibiting for Art Weeks next week in Oxford (do come and visit if you want, she's at location 238 in the Jericho area). Next it was time for a quick tea and cake in the café before hitting the road again. Fortunately the traffic wasn't too bad and I remembered to go on the A34 which was fine as well. I arrived back early evening for a celebratory cup of tea and something to eat. It had been a very successful trip to see a genuine UK Mega and naturally I basked in the warm comforting glow of a successful twitch.

On other days the birds had been much closer on the scrape and the conditions less hazy. Here's one
of the best photos of the Hudwit that I've seen, taken by Gareth Jones (c). See his great blog here