Thursday, 29 December 2016

Rocking it in Stow

I'd more or less mentally shut up shop for the 2016 birding year. It had been a great year and I was starting to think about my end of year review and my bird of the year awards and I certainly wasn't expecting to make any more sorties before the New Year. However, on Tuesday afternoon news broke of a male Blue Rock Thrush in Stow-on-the-Wold - a tantalisingly short distance from Casa Gnome. Initially the news was no more than the fact that someone had posted an ID query on Twitter about a strange bird in their garden and the location hadn't been disclosed. However, when you dangle a carrot such as this before the twitching community it doesn't take much to bring out a twitcher's inner detective and by late afternoon someone had Googled the name of the Twitter poster to get their postcode and then had scoured the area until they'd turned the bird up. There was a bit of controversy on Bird Forum (see here) about the fact that the location had been posted on RBA without any prior consultation but with the genie out of the bottle there wasn't anything to be done except to plan my trip the next day.

The forecast was for fog for much of the county in the morning and also unfortunately for Stow as well which is just over the border in Gloucestershire. With that in mind, and also not wanting to have endure the inevitable dawn hoards I decided to play it cool and to aim to arrive late morning when the sun would have had a chance to burn off the fog and when numbers would have calmed down. After all, since the bird had apparently already been there for more than a week before being identified I wasn't particularly worried about it disappearing. I followed on-line as the dawn arrivals connected and photos on Twitter seemed to reveal a first-light crowd of more than 100 birders, all crammed into a small space so I was thankful to have given that a miss. At around 10 a.m. I started to think about heading over there and began to get my gear packed into the Gnome mobile. I was all set to head off when my VLW pointed out that news had just broken of a fatal accident on the A40, which was the route I was going to take. With the road closed both ways I decided to go via Chipping Norton instead and thanked the stars (and my VLW) for having learnt about the news just in time. So instead I headed off along the misty and frosty Oxfordshire roads, passing a couple of minor accidents along the way, testament to the treacherous conditions. Some three quarters of an hour later I arrived in Stow and tried to get into the closest car par only to find that it was full of twitchers so I headed back to a residential side road that was well away from the twitch area, got tooled up and dressed up in my warm gear to keep out the near zero temperatures and hurried over to Fishers Close, where the bird was located. There was a steady stream of birders coming the other way though numbers weren't too huge. 

I arrived at the Close to find no more than a dozen or so birders all scoping something which of course turned out to be the Blue Rock Thrush itself, conveniently perching on the top of a chimney pot of a more distant house. I quickly got my scope out and enjoyed my first views of this Mega rarity. 

Blue Rock Thrush on a chimney pot
After a few minutes it flew down into the garden behind the house and I could relax and go and explore a bit. I soon found the area which overlooked the original finder's garden and which I recognised from the photos that morning. Judging from the RBA reports and what I'd read on Bird Forum I had been expecting only occasional views but from talking to people who were already there it seemed that the bird was often on view and that one never had to wait more than fifteen or twenty minutes for a sighting and this did in fact prove to be the case. 

I'd been a bit surprised at the location this normally mountain-dwelling species had chosen, namely a residential housing estate.  On doing a bit of reading it turned out that it liked what seemed to be similar habitat to Black Redstarts and apparently it wasn't too unusual for them to be seen in villages though of course they should be much further south and east than this one was. It certainly treated the surrounding houses like some cliffs, often perching on them to survey the scene before nipping down to lower levels to feed. It seemed to have a bit of a circuit which included the original garden as well as quite a few rooftops on the surrounding houses. This made for nice easy viewing though in the bright sunlight it did make for difficult photography. In fact the best views of it were when it was low down in the deep shade in the garden. Then one could appreciate the deep indigo blue colour and make out the vermiculations on the plumage that I naively thought marked it out as a first winter male though apparently it's actually an adult (see here). The rest of the time against a bright sky it appeared almost black though with a very distinctive jizz that immediately marked it out as something special.

In the shade it was possible to appreciate the subtle plumage details

It's more usual roof-top pose
Over the course of about an hour and a half I took a number of photos as it appeared and disappeared though much of them ended up being the same silhouette on a roof top which only has limited photographic appeal. The number of twitchers ebbed and flowed though there were never more than about forty during the time that I was there.

Twitch Shot
Given the rarity of the bird and it's close proximity to God's Own County I was very much expecting to bump into other Oxon birders and sure enough I met up with Peter Law, Wayne and Julie Bull and also Keith and Shirley Clack. Given how well the bird was performing there was a nice relaxed atmosphere and much chatting was had.

Birders selfie: from left to right: Wayne, Julie, Peter and myself
Eventually I felt that I'd had my fill and wandered back to the Gnome mobile, de-tooled, had a celebratory mince pie to keep my energy up and then headed back home to Oxford for a late lunch. What a nice finale to what has been a special birding year.

Friday, 9 December 2016

Dusky Delights in Derbyshire

A little over a month ago there was quite a kerfuffle when a non birder in Northumberland photographed a bird that he didn't recognise and posted it on an internet forum to be identified. Amazingly it turned out to be an Eyebrowed Thrush, a quite extraordinary bird to just chance upon though sadly it was never seen again. A month later on Sunday Rachel Jones innocently posted pictures of three birds that she'd photographed in her Derbyshire garden and didn't recognise. To put things in perspective, two of the species were Starling and Blackbird so she was very much a beginner but amazingly the third bird turned out to be a Dusky Thrush, a massive UK rarity. In due course the location was revealed to be the small village of Beeley near Chesterfield in Derbyshire and so next morning the vanguard of keenest twitchers were there and duly managed to find the bird which was then reported throughout the rest of Monday. Being only some two and a half hours away, this bird was very much on my twitching radar and having missed the only other proper twitchable one at Margate a few years back I was keen to go and pay my respects. It was being reported fairly regularly throughout the day though by all accounts was rather mobile, moving between a number of different sites in the village so a certain amount of persistence and luck were going to be necessary. I had mentally pencilled in later in the week to go but on Tuesday I hit a quiet patch at work and was all set to head off when some family duties came up and I had to postpone my trip. So instead I elected to go on news on Wednesday morning when as an added bonus the weather would be much milder than the the rather chilly snap we were presently enduring.

Wednesday morning, before it was even properly light, the bird was reported again on Twitter as still being present so it was that a little after 8 a.m. I set off. According to the RAC web-site there were two routes which took the same amount of time: either M6 Toll and A38/A6 or up the M1 and then across at Chesterfield (where the famous Crag Martin had been located). In the end I opted for the first route and duly set off. The weather was rather murky and gloomy though the car thermometer reported a balmy 10 degrees outside as I negotiated the tail end of the commuter traffic whilst circumnavigating Birmingham. After Derby, the roads were slower and I was forced to crawl along at 40 mph along the Derwent river valley though regular views of old mill buildings gave a nice historic context to the region. Finally after about two and a half hours of travelling I turned off the main road and was soon pulling up at Beeley, a very picturesque village just into the Peak District National Park.

The village was quite a sight to behold with birders to be seen absolutely everywhere. Many were heading back down the hill, relaxing and chatting after having seen the bird whereas others who'd yet to see it were hurrying up the road, driven on by a mixture of the same excitement and anxiety that I was feeling. A car was leaving just as I arrived so I nipped into their parking spot just outside the pub, got tooled up and headed off up the hill after the other yet-to-see-its. I'd only gone a few yards when I saw the familiar faces of Ewan and Clackers, looking contentedly over their photos on the back of their cameras and clearly about to call it a day. They showed me some suitably gripping BOC shots and told me that the best tactic was to wait at the orchard by Dukes Barn rather than running around after every reported sighting. With the bird yet to be seen by myself I didn't linger but said goodbye and hurried on.

The whole village was absolutely heaving with birders, they were everywhere you looked. Twitching with big crowds is very much not my cup of tea but I did my best to ignore the hoards and to focus on the task in hand, namely locating a rather small bird somewhere in a fair sized village with lots of hiding places. As usual I'd done as much pre-trip research as possible and so knew where many of the locations were where it was often seen. The key spots seemed to be: the gardens and hedges next to the small playing field off Chapel Hill, the small orchard in the centre of the village next to the Dukes Barn activity centre and another orchard a bit further down School Lane. From what I'd read it was generally understood that the best location was the Dukes Barn orchard and as Ewan and Keith had backed this up that's where I headed. The orchard turned out to be a rather modest affair with just a few apple trees in it and a couple of rather cramped viewing points, either side of an adjoining building. I chose to stand at the first gap near the entrance whereas others were standing at the second gap by the rear car park where a number of canoes seemed to be stacked. Fortunately, some people in front of me decided to leave after a while as they'd already seen the bird so I was able to get a front row spot as we waited. There were lots of thrushes flying around overhead, mostly Redwings, and a Blackbird would pop down into the orchard periodically. A Nuthatch and a Coal Tit were two other regular visitors to the orchard but that was about it. Still, the weather was nice and mild and there wasn't too much inane conversation going on as we waited in quiet expectation for an appearance by the star bird.

The Duke's Barn orchard
After about three quarters of an hour of waiting I looked over to the other orchard watching group and noticed a certain change in demeanour. There was clearly something going on with people excitedly looking through the hedge behind the wall there. Could they be on the bird? Somehow the way the people were behaving didn't seem to suggest that they could actually see it though something was certainly afoot. Suddenly, without anyone actually saying anything, there seemed to be a determined movement away from the orchard area and off own the road. Without quite knowing what was going on I decided to follow and hastily gathered together my gear and hurried off down the road. The direction of travel was through the village and down Pig Lane where at the end I found a gathering of birders all focusing on a field in front of them. Someone was saying that he had the bird in his scope and I quickly took my turn at having a peak through it so I could finally see it and relax somewhat. Yes, there it was sitting in a Hawthorn bush on the far side of the field though the scope was slightly out of focus for me so it wasn't a great view. More and more people were arriving all the time and it was becoming quite crowded so I looked around and realised that there was a nice vantage point in a field next to the path where a few other birders had already gone. I made my way through the crowd and over into this field where I was able to set up with an unobstructed view of the hedgerow on the other side. I soon had the bird in my scope and was able to take it in in all its thrushy loveliness.

The bird was a bit larger than the accompanying Redwings and without the rakish jizz of that species. A mid brown colour on the back with reddish tones in the flight feathers, a striking white supercilium that flared out wider beyond the eye, a large white throat area and strong black speckling on the breast over a whitish ground colour, it really was a lovely looking thrush. I busied myself with my digiscoping, alternating between photos and video for all of the twenty minutes that it was on view.

Some video footage of the Dusky Thrush

Thinking about it, the location that it had chosen was actually a pretty good one from the point of view of accommodating the hoards of birders as there was enough room so that everyone (I estimated that there were about 400 people there) could watch it in relative comfort without getting in each others' way. Eventually it took off and flew back towards the village and that was my cue (and everyone else's there) to leave.

Just some of the twitchers all watching the Dusky Thrush

I felt that I'd had good enough views of the bird to start thinking about heading back home now but first I went back to the Dukes Barn area for a celebratory cup of tea and a chance to make a donation in their collection bucket. The Dukes Barn is an outdoor activity centre that relies entirely on donations and I felt that it was a good idea for sake of the reputation of the twitching community that they should be supported for offering their car park and grounds up for the use of visiting birders. I had a quick tour around the rest of the village just so that I could see the other favoured sites for myself. I'd already explored the village on Streetview as part of my preparations so felt that I knew it quite well already but it was good to see these sites in the flesh.

The second orchard site - at the bottom of School Lane
The playing field site off Chapel Hill
Finally it was back to the car where I had my packed lunch and then fired up the Gnome mobile. I decided to head back via the alternative route on the M1 just for a bit of variety. The journey back was uneventful but with the absence of a dangling new tick carrot to keep me excited, I felt more tired and had to concentrate to keep awake. Back home I had my usual celebratory cup of tea and the chance to bask in the warm glow yet another mega rare tick in what has been a truly memorable birding year.

Wednesday, 2 November 2016

Cornwall in October

Once more a compilation of posts from my Pendeen Birding blog.

Saturday 23rd October - Back Down
Finally I'm back down in my beloved Cornwall. Usually I would have come down much earlier in the month so this is unusual for me. However, I was watching events unfold in the birding world, keeping an eye on how things were progressing in Cornwall as well as marvelling at the autumn that the North East was having. Pendeen seemed to be doing OK with a Little Bunting seen on the road, several Lapland Buntings by the lighthouse and a Hooded Crow at Manor Farm. When my chum and bird finding machine Ian Kendall came down he managed to winkle out a Richard's Pipit as well as what he was pretty sure (but not certain) was an Olive-backed Pipit though it flew behind the coastguard cottages and wasn't seen again. Ian did mention that he was finding things rather hard work down here and my impression is that it's been a rather low key October down here so far. In discussions with my VLW, we decided that we would definitely be coming down at the end of October for half term anyway so in the end I decided that rather than coming down twice, instead I would do a few day sorties eastwards from Oxford and then just come down the once en famille at the end of the month. So I made a trip to Norfolk and one to Easington to catch up with the Siberian Accentor and so finally here I am. Of course I've missed the PG Red-eyed Vireo and this week the Isabelline Wheatear and the Siberian Stonechat which would have all been Cornish ticks for me. In fact the Vireo would have been a lifer (as would the Wheatear up until a week ago when I jammed in on one whilst twitching the Accentor). Still, I'm very much hoping that the fact that the Wheatear and the Stonechat arrived this week is portentous of good things to come for this week. We shall see.

Anyway, with nothing vitally pressing on the bird front to warrant an early start (I figured that the Cape Cornwall Stonechat which was around yesterday afternoon would either have gone or it would be around all day and sadly it was the former) we departed from Oxford at around 10 a.m. There was moderately heavy traffic on the M5 south of the M4 junction but nothing too serious. However the Bodmin roadworks on the A30 were as terrible as ever and in the end the whole journey took a gruelling five and a half hours instead of the usual four. We finally arrived mid afternoon for our customary cup of tea in the Sainsbury's café before doing our shopping and heading over to the cottage. As I was unpacking some movement caught my eye and I looked up to see a lovely Black Redstart feeding away quietly, using the surrounding buildings as a surveillance perch as they are wont to do. After it played run around with me for a while, eventually I was able to get a passable photo of it. I do love this species and really hopes that it sticks around for a while.

The Black Redstart
Later on my VLW and I had a wander down to the lighthouse to get some fresh air. Down by the Old Count House I heard a bird singing which I really couldn't place. It had a very rhythmic simple song that had me thinking of some New World Sparrow and I got terribly excited. After an agonising five minutes it seemed to move around to behind the garage and when I went round to look I saw it. It was a Robin - I couldn't believe it! I've never heard a Robin sing in such a way before, most unusual and really had me fooled. 

Anyway, after that excitement we headed back to the cottage where we ate and got settled back in. Despite the rather clear conditions I decided to put out the month trap and had a couple of Angled Shades come to investigate almost immediately. I'm still not expecting much in the trap tomorrow morning, we shall see. After watching a movie we nipped outside to look at the Orionids meteor shower which is reaching its peak this weekend. Fortunately it was very clear and we got good views of several though the wind was picking up and it was rather cold so we didn't stay out too long. Soon it was time to turn in for the night. It was good to be back.

Sunday 24th October - Pendeen
It was a very quiet day today. The forecast was for strong easterly winds and this was indeed what we awoke to so, with no overnight bird news that I needed to respond to, I decided to have a decent lie in today as I had a bit of a sleep deficit to make up from the last few days. Eventually at around 9:30 I got up and decided to do the Pendeen rounds though in the strong winds it was tough going and sadly there was no sign of yesterday's Black Redstart around the cottages at all. Down by the Old Count House I bumped into another visiting birder who'd just arrived for the week so we got chatting and exchanged mobile numbers in case either of us should find something good. I birded the patch diligently but with precious little reward with the highlights being 1 Redwing, 2 Chough, 1 Raven and 1 Peregrine. I worked my way down the western coastal path as far as the stream where it was mercifully more sheltered but I still couldn't find anything apart from a single Stonechat. In the end I gave up and came back to the cottage.

Next I decided to inspect the moth trap. I wasn't expecting much after the cold clear night but in the event I was pleasantly surprised as I had a trap full of Feathered Ranunculus with several dozen of them. Apart from that it was just singles of Angled Shades, Large Yellow Underwing, Lunar Underwing and a Setaceous Hebrew Character.

One of many Feathered Ranunculus

We didn't have any real plans for today so in the end we decided to do some light chorage about the cottage and packed away our garden furniture for the winter as well as bringing in a wooden bench from the shed which needed painting. After that we had lunch and then eventually decided on doing one of our classic local walks, namely down to Geevor tin mine, then up to the main road and stopping in at Heathers café for refreshments before returning along the road to the cottage. It was a pleasant enough walk and there were even a few flowers still out despite the lateness in the season. In the café we chanced upon Dave C, a fellow regular visiting birder to this area. He and his wife had also only just come down and given the windy weather had also decided to have a lazy day. We checked that our mobile numbers were up to date and both hoped that we'd see each other again later in the week at "the big one".


After our tea and walk back we mooched about the cottage doing nothing in particular. Our  eldest daughter who's currently at Durham University rang for a chat which was nice. Early evening the rain came in which put the kaibosh on any meteor spotting or mothing so we had a quiet night in. There'd been almost no RBA Cornish news today to shape any plans for tomorrow so all in all a very quiet day.

Monday 24th October- Pendeen & Polgigga
The weather was rather unleasant when we awoke this morning so my VLW and I stayed in bed for some time, sipping our tea and putting the world to rights. Eventually the rain passed and the wind abated and I decided to venture forth on the Pendeen rounds. Despite the improved conditions it was still hard work with not a great deal to see with 2 Raven, 2 Chough and 2 Redwing the best I could muster. Back at the cottage, given the still rather mediocre weather we decided to head over to Cape Cornwall for a swim. We'd learnt that the Boswedden Hotel has a small pool that you can hire out for an hour for a modest rate so we thought that we'd give it a try. We arrived just as the heavens opened and there was a torrential downpour. Eventually it abated and we hurried inside to find a nice small pool in which we spent an enjoyable hour splashing around. We shall certainly use this facility again next time the weather isn't that great. Our plan afterwards was to go for a walk around the Polgigga area but it turned out that my VLW had left her walking boots back at the cottage so in the end we picked up a couple of pasties from St. Just and headed back home for lunch. 

When the weather is half decent I love standing outside our cottage and staring over the fields towards the lighthouse with a cup of tea in the (usually forlorn) hope of hearing or seeing something good fly over. I was doing just this whilst I waited for the other two to get ready when I spotted a white Egret flying low over the fields in front of me. Quick as a flash I put down my tea and lifted up my bins (which I always keep close by for  just such a contingency). No yellow feet and a stubby yellow bill meant Cattle Egret - get in! I ran around the back of the cottage to keep track of it as it flew out of my sight. I soon picked it up again as it headed over to Manor Farm where it landed on a wall and surveyed the scene for a while before it flew over to the few cattle which were in the field and started walking about in amongst them. 

The Cattle Egret in flight
Standing on the wall at Manor Farm...
...and settling down in amongst the cattle

A neighbour, who'd seen me running around the back came over to see what was going on and I had to try and juggle having a coversation with him whilst sending out some texts to various local and visiting birders as well as getting the news out to RBA. Whilst Cattle Egret isn't a mega rarity, apparently it's still a description bird in Cornwall and it was certainly a Cornish tick for me as well as a very nice self-found bird. All the same I did my best to contain my excitment in front of the non-birder neighbour. He eventually went back inside and I headed back into the cottage to see if the other two were ready which they now were. So we got back into the car and headed south west once more though this time going through St. Just and on down to Polgigga.

The reason for going here was because a Barnacle Goose had been reported here yesterday, the last Goose that I still needed for my as yet modest Cornish list. The other two didn't really mind where we went and as a wild Goose chase wouldn't involve standing around for ages waiting for something to show it was decided that we could conveniently combine the search with a walk around the general area. We parked up carefully in Polgigga and headed off down the lane towards Bosistow Farm. Many years ago when we were still getting to know the area we'd stayed as a family at Faraway Cottage so there was a certain nostalgia in heading down this road again. As we walked down the road a very noisy gang of young children on bikes came bombing past with the youngest and wildest child nearly hitting us in his enthusiasm. Evantually they reached the end of the road and turned around heading back past us so that finally we were left in peace.

There were some small birds flitting in amongst the Sallows as we walked down the lane but our son L was himself intent on making so much noise that in the end I gave up trying to see what they were and instead concentrated on scanning the fields. There were quite a few Skylarks flying overhead and the usual Linnets buzzing about as well as some Mipits. Down by Faraway cottage there was a large grassy field containing lots of Gulls. In amongst them I eventually found the target Goose which posed nicely for a photo.

The Barnacle Goose
Pleased at having found the bird we carried on with our walk, deciding to head out to the coast and then down to Nanjizal. On the way I spotted a lovely corner field which had loads of really interesting arable plants in. I could have spent ages rummaging about through them all though the other two were getting impatient and started to carry on so I quickly took some snaps and then hurried to catch up. 

Cultivated Flax
Corn Spurrey
Field Woundwort
Out on the moors I found a couple of Stonechat for my troubles and then we headed down the steep path to Nanjizal. There I sat on a rock and surveyed the scenery whilst the other two went down onto the beach itself though as the tide was in there wasn't much to it. A couple of Chough came down and I busied myself with taking a few snaps.

Nanjizal Chough
Eventually the other two came back and we headed back up the Nanjizal path towards Bosistow Lane, thereby going around to the other side of the Goose field. I had a good look for the Goose but couldn't see it any more so it clearly has other locations that it also goes to. My VLW picked some blackberries for a crumble as we headed back to the car. By the time we got back to the car it was 6 o'clock already - far later than we planned as I had a meeting that night with some of the admin team for the CBWPS web-site who wanted to learn about my experience with running the Oxon birding site. We arrived back at the cottage at around 6:30, I hurriedly wolfed down some dinner and was out the door again in 10 minutes. The meeting, over in Marazion, was an enjoyable and productive affair and didn't go on too long as I was starting to feel rather tired now after what had been a long day. I stopped off at Sainsbury's for a quick shop on the way back and was back at the cottage by 10 p.m. After a chat and a glass of wine I tumbled into bed and was soon fast asleep, dreaming of my two shiny new Cornish ticks.

As we headed off up the hill I thought I saw bird-finding legend Lewis Thomson photographing something. It turned out that he'd been nearby and managed to jam in on the Cattle Egret on the back of my RBA message. What's more he got a superb shot of it as you can see here - far better than my puny efforts. (c) Lewis Thomson

Tuesday 25th October - Pendeen

I awoke this morning to a typical Pendeen fog that so often accompanies calm weather in this region. No point in doing the rounds in that I thought and boiled up a cup of tea and turned the computer on in order to catch up with my blogging. I just glanced out of the window a few minutes later and miraculously the fog had completely lifted. So I gave my freshly made tea to my VLW instead who was just herself waking up, and I quickly got dressed and headed out to see what was about.

In the calmer conditions there were noticeably more birds about with plenty of Robins, Wrens and Dunnocks to be seen. What's more the actual birding was so much easier without the wind to contend with. There wasn't much in the way of overhead movement however, with just the odd Chaffinch, a couple of Skylarks and a few Mipits passing over. In the event it was pretty much a case of the usual suspects with the two resident Ravens and the two Chough still about as well as a few Stonechats and the local Buzzard. Five Snipe flew over which was quite unusual for here. Up at Calartha Copse in the calm and now sunny conditions I soon managed to find Lewis T's Yellow-browed Warbler from yesterday and I spent some time enjoying one of my favourite species even though their currency has been somewhat debased of late by the vast hoards hitting this country this autumn.

With rarer Accentors stealing the birding headlines nationally at the moment, it's worth taking a moment to appreciate the humble Dunnock
Back at the cottage we weren't really sure what to do today and with no news at all on RBA to help us in this decision we hummed and hawed for some time before eventually deciding, given how lovely the weather was, that we would take a picnic down to our local beach at Portheras Cove. There were quite a few other people there all enjoying the wonderful conditions. Our son when for a paddle whilst I enjoyed a bit of a nap on the beach. There wasn't a great deal of activity on the bird front though a Grey Heron did come "in-off", two Rock Pipits were buzzing around the cliffs and a Little Egret flew overhead towards the lighthouse.

This seal seemed to have a huge grin on its face, obviously enjoying the sunny weather

On the way back we met some of our neighbours as well as a bride and groom treading gingerly along the muddy track in all their finery in order to have a wedding ceremony on the beach itself.

You couldn't ask for a better location to get married
Back at the cottage we pootled around for the rest of the day and vegged out in front of the telly in the evening before going to sleep quite early, tired out from all the fresh air that we'd enjoyed.

Given the exciting rare Wheatears that are hitting the country natiowide at present I've been looking out for them this week, though this one is sadly just a Northern Wheatear

Wednesday 26th October - Pendeen & Hayle
Whereas yesterday had been sunny and calm, I awoke today to find it much more cloudy and more breezy. Whilst the wind wasn't too unmanageable, it had shifted around to a more southerly direction and it just felt a little more exposed when doing the rounds this morning. It was hard work again today with very little reward for my efforts. Sure, there were the two Raven and two Chough and I managed to get Buzzard, Kestrel and Sparrowhawk today as well as a few Stonechat and Mipits but it just felt difficult and the birds weren't at all showy. Up at Calartha Copse I'd almost given up on the Yellow-browed Warbler when I spotted it flitting about in the bushes of a neighbouring garden briefly. In the end it was a relief to get back inside the cottage to warm up and have some breakfast.

There's always a Stonechat to photograph somewhere around Pendeen

Our plan for today was to do a spot of DIY first of all. Sadly, it seems impossible to come down to stay in our cottage without having to do some general maintenance of some kind and this time it was the exterior windows which were in desperate need of our attention. My VLW and I worked away at them whilst our son binge-watched some children's TV serial until around lunch time when finally some bird news came through on RBA: "adult winter Franklin's Gull at Hayle estuary from the causeway". Whilst this was defintely something interesting, it was reported a full hour and a half ago so the bird could be long gone by now. Still with nothing else to go for when it came to planning our afternoon excursion I suggested that we might do something which incorporated an attempt at seeing this bird. My VLW was quite keen to explore the shops at Hayle, which she'd not really looked at before so in the end we headed off with this as the plan. We'd just got to about half way to Penzance when "no further sign of Fanklin's Gull" came through on RBA. Hmmm, we started to think about some alternatives to our plan and had just decided to go there anyway for want of anything better to do when "still present in a field viewable from the causeway though distant" came through. Game on again!

Some fifteen minutes later we arrived at the causeway and I parked up and hurried to the small crowd of assembled birders whilst my VLW and our son headed off along the road towards Hayle. The tide was right in at the moment and the birds were all huddled up at the southern end of the estuary near where we were standing with the immature Spoonbill the pick of the bunch in a very brief scan. It turned out that the Gull had been seen right in the far distance on a hillside where there were a relatively modest number of Black-headed Gulls picking their way over a field. I later measured the distance on a map and it was a good 2 km away. Alex M, Brian D and Linton P were there - the latter had it in his scope and let me take a quick peek where the dark mantle colour and half-hood really stood out from the Black-headed's even at that distance. I tried to find it in my scope and had it briefly though it soon moved out of sight below the line of trees that were partly blocking the view.

At that moment I got a call from Dave Parker saying that some people were watching the Gull from the side of the road on the way up to Carbis Bay. I relayed this information to everyone else there and we all hurried back to our cars and set off in convoy. The traffic was painful but we eventually arrived at the obvious twitch spot with cars piled up on the verge everywhere and a dozen or so birders all scoping the distant hillside. Here, the distance was a little less that 1km and the whole field could be viewed with the Franklin's relatively easy to pick out. I had an attempt at digiscoping it though at that distance and given the rather sunny conditions my results fall firmly in the record shot camp.

The photos aren't too bad given the large distance

To get an idea of the context, the bird was in the large trapezium-shaped field in the centre of the picture.

It was good to catch up with everyone else there with P&H, Dave C, Tony M all in attendance as well as Dave P and various local birders were arriving all the time. Having seen the bird decently enough (it's a good thing a Franklin's is  relatively easy to pick out even at that distance - imagine if it had been a Bonaparte's!) and with no prospect of the views getting better, I didn't linger but instead headed back to the car where I drove the short distance back to Hayle to rendezvous with the others. They apparently had had a good time and even had a couple of purchases to show off. We next headed over to M&S to make use of the café and to do a spot of shopping before returning to the cottage for the evening. After a nice evening meal courtesy of my VLW we settled down to watch the Great British Bake Off final, then to play cards for a while before turning in for the night. It had been a good day in the end with Franklin's Gull being yet another Cornish tick for me.

Thursday 27th October - Pendeen
I awoke far too early this morning, something  that sadly I'm rather prone to do down here for some reason. Eventually I got up though the tiredness hung over me all morning. The weather was rather cloudy once more with a moderate breeze which once again made for a chilly feel in this exposed location. I dutifully did my morning rounds though it's starting to feel more like a chore now. Once more I turned up the same resident birds with very little overhead movement and seemingly nothing fresh in. Up at Calartha even the Yellow-browed Warbler had abandoned me and given the end of the easterly winds across the country, following things on RBA it seemed like over the last few days there's been a clear-out nationally.

Having started doing some DIY yesterday we had to follow through with this so spent the whole morning renovating our exterior windows some more. Naturally I always had my bins and camera close at hand should something fly over but nothing did. The only Cornish bird news of note all morning was the Franklin's Gull at Hayle still which had been showing much better from the estuary this morning and there were some gripping photos on the CBWPS site in the evening.

Sun Spurge

The delightfully-named Weasel Snout
We had our evening meal at lunch time today with some nice lamb chops then, after a quick walk down to the lighthouse to help with my digestion I went back to bed to catch up on my sleep. Feeling better after a good long nap we followed up on the DIY before I went with our son for a long walk up to the Pendeen stores and back for some shopping. That evening we watched telly and played cards. All in all a very quiet day.

Friday 28th October - Pendeen, Nanquido & Penzance

With the DIY bit now firmly between our teeth, after our ritual morning cup of tea in bed it was straight on with working on the windows. With my VLW and I working as a team we made good progress and by late morning we'd done our allotted taskage for the day. Whilst my VLW rested for a bit I did a shortened version of the Pendeen rounds (basically missing out the walk up to Calartha copse and back). It was basically still the usual birds though a couple of large flocks of several hundred Chaffinch passed high overhead which was a bit different. Whilst I'd been working around the cottage I'd seen a couple of Warblers in the form of a juvenile Willow Warbler and a female Blackcap, which made a nice change from just the usual resident birds.

The Blackcap was nice and showy
After our lunch we decided on our outing for the day. The other two wanted to play tennis in Penzance so I dropped them off by the free courts at the bottom of Alexandra Road and then headed over to Nanquidno valley where I wanted to look for some Woodlark that had been reported in the fields around Boscregan Farm a couple of times this week. I still needed this delightful Lark for my Cornish list and with nothing else of particular note to tempt me I thought that I might as well take a look. Nanquidno is one of my favourite of the Cornish valleys and is often a very populate spot with birders but it was amazing just how quiet it was and indeed I didn't meet a single other birder whilst I was there. I parked up in the usual spot and headed on down the valley towards Boscregan Farm. Whilst I wasn't giving the valley the usual attention that it warrants I still saw hardly any birds at all en route

Boscregan Farm

In the "rushy" area at the bottom I flushed a couple of Snipe as I headed over to the farm itself and started to wander around the fields which were covered either with weeds or with stubble. The weedy fields turned out to be a bit of a treasure trove of arable plants and I soon got distracted from my Lark-finding task by all the great plants there. There were plenty of Viper's Bugloss, Scentless Mayweed and Corn Marigolds and I turned up lots of other interesting things as I rummaged around but sadly there were remarkably few birds to be seen at all with just 8 Linnet and a couple of Stonechats for my troubles with 1 Chough and a couple of Skylark seen flying over. 

Corn Marigold
Field Madder
Field Pansy

Viper's Bugloss
Western Ramping Fumitory (I think!)

Time was marching on and with no Woodlarks to show for my efforts I headed back up the valley and then drove over towards Penzance to rendezvous with the other two by the bus station. Whilst I waited I had a scan of the sea there and turned up a drake Eider and a Guillemot, the latter looking somewhat sorry for itself as it bobbed about close in to shore. The others two had enjoyed a good game and had also slipped in a nice café trip as well so I had a bit of tea envy to contend with there. We headed back to the cottage for our evening meal, then did some preliminary packing for tomorrow's departure before turning in for the night.

Saturday 29th October - Homeward Bound
So it was time to depart already. First thing I had some last minute DIY to finish off, doing a bit of re-pointing on our garden shed which is letting in water. Fortunately a bag of ready-mix mortar did the trick and it all looks weather-proof now. As usual I kept my ears and eye open whilst I was outside but apart from a single Chiffchaff and a nice flock of Linnets there was little of note. Packing up and tidying up seemed to take a really long time this time though finally we were all done and heading off. We stopped off in Penzance so my VLW could nip into the shops to buy a present for our cat-sitting neighbour back home in Oxford and whilst she did this I had a quick scan from the PZ bus station again. The drake Eider was still there as well as a couple of Grey Herons and a Little Egret but there was no sign of the Guillemot today.

The smart drake Eider

The journey back was relatively traffic free to start with. Since we were leaving so late most holiday makers would have already been long gone and even the Bodmin A30 roadworks were fine. However, on the M5 at junction 26 the traffic ground to a complete halt and was completely stationary for a good three quarters of an hour, apparently due to an accident up ahead. We listened to the radio and I took the opportunity to rest a bit and eventually things started moving again. We finally got home after a total of five and a half hours on the road, tired but pleased to be back in our Oxford home.

1st November - Looking Back
Reflecting on the week, it was a reasonable enough one. However,I realise that I need to recalibrate my expectations somewhat for coming down to Cornwall in October. When I first started, I had a very modest life list and lots of the birds that I'd see down here were new for me. However, as a wise relative of mine once pointed out: "listing is a law of diminishing returns" and these days I've now seen many of the birds that in the past would have been "champagne birds" (UK lifers which I'd celebrate by buying a bottle of champagne). At least I can still get my "tick kicks" with my Cornish list, which is sufficiently small that there is still plenty of scope for getting something new. Indeed, I had three Cornish ticks this week with Cattle Egret, Barnacle Goose and Franklin's Gull all new for the county. Given these diminishing returns, I'm also starting to understand why many of the visitors who come down to Cornwall each autumn are focusing so much on finding birds for themselves and in fact this week I did concentrate far more on trying to find birds on my Pendeen patch. Indeed I had a modest amount of success on that front with a Black Redstart and a Cattle Egret both found on the patch. In between it was rather tough going however, with several days of slogging around the same bushes and fields and seeing nothing at all. That is of course patch birding for you and I'm more than used to it back on Port Meadow in Oxford. 

This week, the mothing was really at the end of the season with just Feathered Ranunculus to fill the trap. There were of course plenty of nice arable plants that I saw on this trip - there's always something of interest to see. So with three Cornish ticks and a few new plants, all in all it was a modestly successful trip down. I'm already looking forward to my next visit!

One of the resident Ravens on its usual perch. I realise that Pendeen can pretty much count on the entire set of corvids with Jackdaw, Carrion Crow, Rook, Raven, Magpie and Chough all see every day. A Hooded Crow was seen within the last month or so and I'm sure I've seen a Jay at some point - so the complete set!

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Easington Excellence

Any birder with even the most tenuous connection to the birding grapevine must know of the unprecedented arrival of Siberian Accentors to western Europe. Up until a couple of weeks ago this was a very rare visitor to Europe and indeed had yet to grace our shores at all but with several dozen having been reported across northern Europe it was only a matter of time before a first for Britain was found. Predictably, this did indeed happen with a two day stayer up in Shetland but to all intents and purposes it might as well have been on the moon for the likelihood of my twitching it. However, the obsessive few who successfully twitched the bird had scarcely arrived back home before another was found on Thursday afternoon at Easington, near Spurn in the East Riding of Yorkshire. This was tricky for me - at about four hours it's just a bit too far for me to twitch though I must admit that since doing my Uni runs up to Durham I'm less put off by this distance. I got a call from Badger that afternoon asking me whether I'd like to join a car load of Oxon's finest who were heading up there for first light the next morning. I mulled it over - not having to drive would be a great relief but the middle of the night start was rather off-putting (I'm such a wuss when it comes to twitching). In the end my keenness to see a first for Britain overcame my fondness for sleep and I said yes though when talking it over with my VLW it soon because clear that she was less than happy with my heading off all day once again having already been away at the start of the week in Norfolk. Explaining how it was the October peak season of a near record-breakingly good year didn't seem to cut it and in the end I had to duck out of the trip. I enviously followed events on social media from afar the next day though I must admit that the pictures of the vast hoards there for first light seemed most off-putting - that kind of mass birding really doesn't appeal to me at all. Over the weekend several more were found up in the North East and I had everything crossed that one would be found closer to Oxford that I could have a go for the next week. Come Sunday afternoon and the only reliable one seemed to be the Easington bird and so, despite the distance, I decided to have a go for it on Monday. As it seemed to be pretty predictable I decided to wait and go on news - whilst it would make for a long day, it would remove the need for overnight accommodation and the stress about worrying if the bird was going to depart overnight.

Monday duly arrived and as usual, my excitement at the prospect of my trip meant that I awoke earlier than I would have liked. Still, by 7 a.m. I was up, dressed and breakfasted and waiting on news. Sure enough a tweet on Twitter at shortly after 7:15 gave the green light on the trip and after doing a bit of last minute chores I was in the Gnome mobile and heading off on the familiar trip to the North East. The traffic was reasonable, the sun was shining and with Radio 4 to occupy me, the miles slipped by. I wasn't particularly expecting any more RBA updates en route - the pattern seemed to be only to get a few throughout the day, partly as the phone signal is so poor in the general area but from previous performance it seemed to be that once it had been seen, it would be around all day. In three and a quarter hours I was at Hull and then into the slow back-roads of the hinterland heading eastwards. I'm starting to get familiar with the sequence of villages that you pass through on this route: Keyingham, Ottringham, Patrington, Welwick and Skeffling before finally seeing the large, rather unsightly Easington gas terminal buildings in the distance. Normally at the T-junction it's a right-turn for Spurn but this time it was left for the gas terminal. There were quite a few cars parked up at the side of the road and I carefully parked up, tooled up and hurried towards Vicars Lane. This was the moment of truth: three days of fretting, four hours driving (well 3.75 to be precise) and it all came down to what I would find around the corner. 

The news was bad (-ish)! The bird had been all morning but hadn't been seen for half an hour. Apparently rather than loitering in the old car park of the Old School where it had been giving crippling views down to a few metres, recently it had taken to working its way along under the metal fence of the gas terminal works where it was much more hidden and that's where it had been so far today. However, with its current absence, a few later-comers such as myself were morosely searching around and scoping the large strip of wasteland in front of the fence whilst those who'd already seen it were hanging around chatting or looking through their photos on the back of the camera. Several Chiffchaffs were flitting about as well as a couple or Robins and with every movement there was a flutter of excitement - could this be it? With it only having disappeared for half an hour I was still fairly optimistic and sure enough within about twenty minutes or so a group of birders at the far end of the fence had found it again and I hurried over to see it. Finally there it was,  an exotic looking Dunnock with striking head markings creeping around under the fence and working its way through the weeds, feeding very actively. I won't bother to describe it as I'm sure everyone has seen enough Siberian Accentor porn on the internet now to last a lifetime but it was a very pleasing bird to the eye and actually, somehow it skulking around and giving tantalising views seemed more appropriate for such a rarity rather than it parading itself on the car park in a rather demeaning manner as it had done previously. I started taking snaps through the rather narrow gaps in the fence the best I could.

Yet more Siberian Accentor porn

There were relatively modest numbers today in contrast to the hoards on Friday morning

The bird liked to feed at the back of the weedy area right under the metal fence
As I was papping the Accentor, I overhead a birder nearby talking about a Wheatear. I wondered what he was going on about and so whipped out my RBA app to check on the news. Whilst the signal is very poor in this area fortunately it was just good enough to get the latest news and blow me, there in red was the news "Isabelline Wheatear, Easington"! I hastily asked the nearby birder for details and was told that it was just the other side of the village on the beach down Seaside Road. With the main target already in the bag, I decided to head off immediately to have a look for the Wheatear and then to return for seconds of the Accentor afterwards. I hurried back to the car and drove the couple of minutes through the village where, instead of following the road around to the right towards Kilnsea I turned off left down Seaside Road. With lots of cars on the sides of the road there was the usual gamble about how far down the road you park - do you take the first place that you see or try for one nearer? In the end I got it about right and the road turned out not to be very long anyway. I changed into my walking boots, grabbed some food to eat en route and yomped off down the road. 

I turned right at the end of the road by the beach and could see the twitch line in the distance. A few minutes later I'd joined them and was watching the distant Wheatear in a freshly tilled field. Unfortunately viewing conditions were less than ideal as it was very sunny (which made for rather "contrasty" views) and there was a very blustery wind (which shook the scope a lot). Mentally I went through what I could remember about Isabelline Wheatear and how to tell it apart from Northern. I remembered the upright stance and this certainly had that. There was also the supercilium which on a Northern extends well beyond the eye whereas on Isabelline it's more confined to in front of the eye. On this bird the super was rather poorly defined so it was hard to tell but it certainly wasn't as strong as on a Northern. A neighbouring birder helpfully chimed in that there was the lack of contrast between the colour on the coverts and the back but in the end I resorted to my trusty Collins app where I learnt that the black on the tail is much more extensive than on Northern and this was by far the most obvious feature, with there being noticeably more black on this bird. With a couple of Northern Wheatears also in the same field it was very useful to compare. I busied myself trying to digiscope in the difficult conditions though the harsh lighting made everything blow out despite turning down the exposure. 

A rather overblown Wheatear. You can see the extent of the black on the tail though

Blurry flight shot - again showing the extent of the black on the tail

After a while it flew over our heads and down to a pool on the beach where it proceeded to have a good wash before heading back onto the field to carry on feeding. As more and more people started arriving I decided that I'd had my fill and headed back towards the car and drove back to the first site for seconds of the Accentor. This was still working its way up and down the fence line and was just as hidden as ever. I took a few more shots and then pondered what to do. 

I saw a local nearby and wandered over to ask him what was about on the radio. This turned out to be a couple of Dusky Warblers and an Olive-backed Pipit down on the Point, the Pallas' still at the Kew Villas area, Shorelarks still at the car park by the Bluebell Café and the Bean Geese in the overflow parking field from the weekend's twitch. I asked about Radde's Warblers and he said that none had been reported today though apparently one had been seen by the village pond yesterday evening. I asked for details about where this was (opposite the Driftwood caravan site apparently) before thanking him and heading off.

Returning to the Gnome mobile, I first headed just to the other side of the village where the overflow car park was (now shut as it had got waterlogged). There I met another birder who told me that unfortunately the geese had flown off. No point in wasting time here then so I headed down the road towards Kilnsea scouring the fields on both sides for geese. I could see the Wheatear twitch on the far side of the fields on one side but there were few birds in the fields apart from pigeons and gulls. I arrived at the Driftwood caravan site, parked up and decided to give the pond a good grilling. It looked like a perfect spot, being reasonably sheltered from the strong wind with lots of cover for a Radde's to creep around in. I gave it a good twenty minutes but all I saw was a Goldcrest, a Blackcap and several thrushes. 

The village pond
I next headed the short distance up to the Crown and Anchor where I parked in the layby opposite the pub and contemplated my next move whilst I ate the remains of my lunch. Out on the estuary there was a flock of five nearby Brent Geese and the usual smattering of waders. It's such a lovely peaceful place here, it really gets under your skin.

Brent Goose

I wandered around the corner and found a small twitch staring up into the trees opposite the front of Cliff Farm. A Yellow-browed Warbler and a Pallas' Warbler turned out to the object of their interest. I decided to have a little wander around and had a quick look around the churchyard and Church Field but there was nothing of note. In the end I decided to wander along the Canal Scrape where another Radde's Warbler had been reported all day yesterday to see what I could turn up. It was very exposed along the ridge but just as I was approaching the start of the Canal proper another birder popped up out of the ditch. He'd apparently spent the last half an hour looking for the Radde's but had no luck. As he headed off I went to take a look where he'd been standing and found a nice sheltered spot which had clearly been well trampled so was obviously the Radde's spot. Down in this hollow one could view the reeds and the sheltered side of the hedge so I decided to stake out this spot. I gave it a good half an hour if not more but apart from a couple of Goldcrests, a Blackbird and a Reed Bunting there was nothing of note. So I gave up and headed back towards the road. 

A Reed Bunting in deep shade
The twitch group there had got larger and the Pallas' was on show, enabling me to year-tick this species on a brief view. As time was marching on I decided to head on down to the Bluebell Café car park to check out the Shore Larks whilst I was in the area. Here a small group were watching the two larks which were hunkered down on a small ridge at the end of the area behind the parking area. One boso photographer had decided that it would be a good idea to get really close and whilst he was tucked well down and not disturbing the birds when he moved to get up the birds flushed and flew a short distance away onto the beach. I really can't understand this sort of behaviour by photographers - so selfish! Anyway, the birds flying off was my cue to leave.

Half-hidden Shore Lark

Back at the car I pondered my next move. Time was marching on and I was now thinking of heading for home. Still on the cards were these elusive Bean Geese which had now been reported in a field near Easington gas terminal and a Siberian Stonechat up along the north coast though when I checked on the Sat Nav it told me that it would take a whole hour to get there so I quickly dropped that idea. Instead I decided to head off for home, keeping an eye out for the Geese as I went. Predictably there was no sign of them though I later found out that actually they were to the north of Easington so I'd gone the wrong way to see them. No matter. I headed contentedly back through the villages, admiring the combination of stormy clouds and late afternoon sun that made for a most interesting landscape. I hit the Hull rush hour which was rather tedious but eventually I was through it and back on the nice and empty M62 that was bathed in the golden glow of the setting sun. With the radio for company I made steady progress and I decided not to be put off by the "45 minute delay" signs for further ahead on the M1 south. I stopped at my "usual" M&S for my gluten free sandwich on the way down and by the time I was back on the road again the delay signs had gone. The rest of the journey was uneventful and I arrived back at Casa Gnome at around half past eight, tired but very contented after what had been a most successful day. Not only had I seen a first for Britain I'd also lucked in on another Mega in the form of an Isabelline Wheatear which was a new bird for me. I sipped my celebratory tea and caught up on the day's news with my VLW. It had been a grand day out indeed!

My obligatory estuary shot