Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Farmoor Phalarope

There seems to be a bit of a pattern emerging down at the concrete basin over the last couple of weeks: for the last two Sundays a decent bird has been found at Farmoor in the morning when Dai et al have been doing their morning rounds. The previous week it was a top-draw inland bird in the form of an adult Sabine's Gull. Along with the great and the good in the county I hurried down to take a look but sadly it didn't linger and in the end it was only Dai who saw it. This week it was instead a text about a Farmoor Grey Phalarope that interrupted the usual Sunday morning tea-in-bed and put-the-world-to-rights routine that my VLW and I like to indulge in. Not quite in the same league as a Sabine's but still a nice bird to see. I told my wife how confiding Phalaropes can be and how you can see them really well though she still wasn't interested in coming along so I headed off on my own with a modest post-twitch Homebase shopping list in my pocket with which to earn my trip.

I arrived to find the Phalarope was as far as way as it was possible to get, literally right out in the middle of Farmoor 1. Humph! It actually looked a bit closer to the far bank and I could see Badger and a few other birders on the far shore so in the end I got back in the car and drove around to Farmoor village in order to come in on the far side. However, my plan was rather foiled by Thames Water who have seen fit to mend the fence that used to be so easy to hop over by way of a short cut. In the end the long walk all the way around to the nearest access point meant that it hadn't been any quicker than walking from the original car park. Oh well! What's more the Phalarope seemed just as far away from this side - the old "Farmoor Paradox", I was told. It seemed to be heading back towards the causeway so after a short while I drove back to where I'd started from and viewed from there. Whilst it was easy enough to pick out in the flat calm conditions it was still a distant blob. In the end I left to do my DIY shopping and then headed back home, just thankful that my VLW hadn't come along to see it after all - she wouldn't have been impressed.

Pushing digiscoping to its limits for not much reward
On Monday morning when it was reported as still there and this time much closer I decided to have another try. I met Tezzer, Dai and Ewan close to the car park who'd all seen it right in the corner by the start of the causeway though of course they reported that it had now moved back into the middle. I wandered over to the causeway and soon picked it out, a small white blob, moving about rapidly in the centre of the reservoir. It looked a little closer to the far bank so I decided to walk over to the north shore, partly to loosen up my back which, although much better than it had been, was still taking a long time to heal and required lots of walking to alleviate the tightness. I met up with Barry Bachelor and we walked around together to find a few birders on the far side and miracle of miracles, the Phalarope now installed right on the shore line by our feet. This was more like it! I got out the superzoom and snapped away.

They're such lovely little things, I never tire of watching them. It's amazing to think of such small fragile little birds spending their time being tossed about on the ocean's waves but that's what they normally do, wintering at sea on warm tropical oceans. Whilst it's not particularly warm here in Oxfordshire compared to the Tropics, at least it was having no trouble finding food and seemed to be feeding constantly. No doubt it will soon move on but it was very nice to have one stop by in our humble land-locked county for a while.

Eventually I moved on around the rest of the reservoir in order to complete my walk, seeing a Dunlin, four Redshank, a Kingfisher, two Grey Wagtails and a couple of Mipits en route. A very nice morning's interlude and a great opportunity to re-acquaint myself with a beautiful little bird.

Farmoor Dunlin

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Martin Mania at Chesterfield

Birders with their finger on the national bird news pulse will no doubt be aware of the Crag Martin currently in residence at Chesterfield in north Derbyshire. Found last week flying around the wonderful crooked spire of St. Mary's Church by a local birder checking out the Peregrines there, it led many birders on a merry dance of unpredictability last week. It was first found on the Monday, was seen regularly on and off on Tuesday around the spire before disappearing on Wednesday. In fact I'd been on stand-by on Wednesday morning to go for it on news but never got the green light. Things got a big vague over Thursday with some possible sightings which were then proven to be an aircraft (??) but it was back on Friday for much of the morning. In general it had a pattern of turning up mid morning at the spire and hanging around until early afternoon when it would suddenly disappear again. No one knew where it went to until Saturday afternoon when someone spotted it flying around the football stadium during a game. It turned out to be roosting in the shelter of the stadium roof (sensible bird!) and on Sunday morning birders there were able to watch it from first light for a couple of hours before it headed off to the spire where it stayed for it's usual late morning/early afternoon stint before it returned to the stadium again to roost.

An amazing shot of the bird taken over the weekend by Alan Lewis (c)
With the puzzle of it's routine now seemingly solved, a Monday sortie for it seemed like a good idea to me. I pondered what the best approach was: I could just set off at around 8 a.m. to catch the main showing at the spire though this would miss out on the most reliable chance of seeing the bird leaving the roost. Alternatively I could set off in the dark in order to be there for first light at the stadium though in general I hate doing this as I never sleep well if I have to get up at stupid o'clock and the tiredness ends up detracting from the whole experience. In the end I opted to go up on Sunday night and to find a local B&B to stay in - lazy I know as it's only a two hour journey (mere bagatelle to a hard-core twitcher) but it was nice to break up the journey and I should be able to enjoy the whole experience a lot more this way. I set off at around 7:30 p.m. on Sunday evening and enjoyed the wonderful emptiness of the roads at this time of night as I sped northwards. The journey was uneventful and a couple of hours later I found myself on the bypass around Chesterfield, admiring the views of the flood-lit spire as I went past. I'd booked myself into a little pub in a residential area just a few minutes from the football stadium though sadly the place turned out to be rather run-down. The Sunday night pub quiz was going on with a loud P.A. system blasting away directly underneath my room until about 11:30 p.m. so I wasn't able to get to sleep until then. The lack of double glazing on the windows meant that the noise of the rush hour traffic which seemed to start at around 5:30 a.m. woke me and I didn't go back to sleep after that. Still, at least I could rest in my bed and in due course I showered, dressed and was out the door and heading over the to stadium some time after 7 a.m. 

I parked up in the large Tescos car park and strolled the few yards to the stadium where a few birders were already gathered. One could view into the ground in the gaps between the stands and I busied myself with looking under the rafters with another birder to see if there was any sign of it. No luck at the south east corner so I wandered over to the south west corner where a "Hello Adam" got my attention. It turned out to be Ewan Urquhart (see his great Black Audi Birding blog), who'd driven up from Oxfordshire that morning (he's more hardcore than me of course!) and we chatted away as we scanned the birds that were starting to fly around now as it got light. A few flocks of Redwings went over, there were quite a few Starlings perched up on floodlights and a Sparrowhawk went by. I was in a fairly optimistic mood about the whole situation after yesterday's showing and felt confident that any moment now the Martin would appear. It would be a UK tick for me though it turned out that Ewan had found what had been just the second for Britain down at Beachy Head many moons ago. 

Time passed and then just before 8 a.m. one of us spotted a lone birder standing at the north east corner of the stadium who was gesticulating and pointing strongly over to the west. We following his direction and there was the Crag Martin! It was hawking away near some Poplar trees on the other side of the road: unmistakably a Hirundine though much chunkier than any House Martin could be - I'd seen one before in France so knew what they looked like. We watched it for all of thirty seconds, trying to give directions to some birders next to us who'd not got on it yet. Suddenly it flew behind the Poplar trees and was gone. We fully expected it to return and so wandered over towards the west side to see if we could pick it up but there was no sign of it. I sent out a Tweet to RBA about the news so far as I knew that people would be wanting to know what was going on. We hung around for about twenty minutes just to see if it would return then Ewan suggested heading over to the spire where it had probably gone. From my journey yesterday and my pre-trip research I knew exactly where to go and so Ewan followed me into the maelstrom of the Chesterfield rush hour traffic and some fifteen minutes later we pulled up at what was by now (from the large numbers of photos that I'd seen on the net) the very familiar sight of the crooked spire.

The famous crooked spire of St. Mary's Chesterfield
There were a few birders there who reported that there was no sign of it so far so we settled down to wait, either for it to show up here or for news of its return at the stadium. Ewan went off to score some hot drinks and doughnuts and we admired the spire which was indeed very impressive. This location was much more picturesque than the stadium and would afford lovely close views of the Martin should it put in an appearance. Ewan spotted a skein of Pink-footed Geese going over in the distance and a Kestrel came and settled on a vent hole near the top of the spire.

Kestrel cubby hole
Several birders whom Ewan had met on some of his recent long-distance twitches (the Wilson's Warbler twitch and his Chestnut Bunting dip) were there, including a Scottish birder from Glasgow who'd dipped the Martin on Wednesday and who'd been unable to make first light this morning as he'd been tied up the previous evening. What's more he had to get back soon for a night shift that evening so he didn't have long and he was fretting about the absence of the bird. Ewan and I chatted away amiably, Ewan telling some great birding tales which had us both in stitches and in the sunshine the time passed pleasantly enough. 

Twitchers waiting in the car park
Ewan was thinking of heading on to catch up with a Pomarine Skua that was feeding on a gull carcass up near Morcambe Bay after this and I was originally intending to head home for lunch so, with a sighting already in the bag, we weren't going to give it too long. As we waited I messed about on Twitter posting news (or lack thereof) and a photo of the spire, reporting my Re-tweets and Likes to Ewan. He gave me a lot of good-natured stick about this accusing me of being a total Twitter Tart and promising a scathing write-up on his blog (I await with trepidation!). Ewan's Glasgow pal had to leave, totally gutted to have dipped yet again. Eventually at midday, some four hours after our brief sighting,  Ewan decided to head off for his Skua and I decided to head home. 

There was this wonderful wooden bee sculpture in the churchyard
About an hour into my journey the bird came on RBA as showing again and I did briefly contemplate turning around though I was already half way home and frankly by now I just wanted to get back so instead I continued homewards, arriving back at Casa Gnome at 2 p.m. where I had some welcome lunch, a cup of tea and then a nap to catch up on my disrupted sleep. It was just as well that I didn't turn around as I later discovered that it had shown for all of ten minutes by the spire and then that was it until last light when it put in a two minute showing at the stadium before roosting under the east stand. So it had been very uncooperative today with just a few minutes worth of views all day.

Reflecting on my day, it would of course have been fantastic to have seen the bird up close by the spire but at least I'd seen it which by all accounts was no mean feat. Chatting to other birders there, quite a few had already dipped this bird and apparently a couple of Oxon birders had dipped last week as well so I considered myself lucky to have seen it at all. My thoughts went out to the poor Glasgow birder who would have been on his way home again when he would have got the news of the bird showing at the spire. Birding can be a cruel game though fortunately the birding gods had seen fit to bestow at least a modest blessing on me today. Should the bird become more reliable then I won't rule out a second helping though for now I was content to rest easy and bask in the warm glow of my shiny new UK tick.

Sunday, 1 November 2015

Otmoor Shrike

When I came back from my Cornwall trip naturally I caught up with the Oxon sightings on the Oxon Birding Blog. It turned out that the only bird that I'd missed had been a Brent Goose which had dallied at Farmoor reservoir for part of one morning. That really brought home to be the difference between Cornwall and Oxon - it's just so depressing birding in an inland county. I wouldn't mind so much if my Port Meadow patch was back on form but whilst the floods are gradually starting to re-form it's still depressingly birdless there. Still, we were due back down in Cornwall for the half term holiday so I was expecting soon to be back amongst some birds. However, the weather forecast wasn't exactly looking great and my VLW and I discussed the possibility of delaying our visit by a few days, though we still intended to go down there.

Fate however had other ideas and last weekend I manage to put my back out - too much sitting in front of the computer screen the previous week sadly. I was reduced to hobbling around the house like an old man, not able to do any work and just getting bored. I found that the only thing that alleviated my symptoms was walking so I'd hobble around the Patch at least twice a day and each time by the end of it I'd find that it had loosened up a bit, only to tighten up again when I sat down. So when news came out early afternoon last Tuesday of a Great Grey Shrike that Tezzer had managed to find down at Otmoor I decided that by way of a break from the monotony of walking around Port Meadow I'd go down to Otmoor instead. I'd get a reasonable walk in along the bridleway to July's Meadow where the Shrike was and with any luck I'd get to see a nice bird too. So this is what I did. 

It was rather gloomy when I arrived at July's Meadow mid afternoon. I'd made the mistake of bringing my tripod and scope with me which wasn't helping my back at all so it had been a rather slow progress hobbling walk along the bridleway and down to July's Meadow. There I met up with Tezzer and another birder who reported that the Shrike was favouring an Ash tree along the left-hand side of the Meadow though it hadn't been seen for about half an hour and that they were going to look for it. I'd had enough of walking so leant against a wooden post scouring the Meadow whilst they conducted their search. Time passed, they returned, Badger arrived, we all chatted but there was no sign of the Shrike. Eventually we gave up and wandered back along the footpath to the car park and I made my way home.

The next morning of course the bird was reported again in the same place and with nothing else to do and still unable to sit down and work I decided to have another go for it. This time I left my scope behind and armed just with my bins and super-zoom camera I hobbled off once more to the Meadow. There I soon spotted Pete Roby, clearly watching the Shrike which was in the top of it's Ash Tree so I went over to join him. Tezzer came to join us and we passed a very enjoyable hour or so watching the Shrike, looking at the Yellowhammers and Redpolls in the nearby plantation and generally chatting. It was a shame that I didn't have my scope and digiscoping gear with me as I wasn't able to take any decent photos but it was nice to see the bird which was nicely lit up in the morning sunshine and my back was certainly grateful for not having to lug my heavy gear around.

This was the best that my super-zoom camera could do

Having had my fill of the bird and with my back now nicely loosened up again I made my way back to the car and back home again. It's always nice to go and see Shrikes as they really are the twitcher's friend: sitting up on high vantage points for long periods and generally remaining faithful to one area. It certainly made for a nice local mid-week outing.