Tuesday, 22 March 2016

Durham March 2016

It was time to fetch daughter no. 1 back down from Durham already. Having had a long tiring couple of days in Cornwall last weekend (see my Pendeen Birding blog for details) I wasn't exactly relishing the prospect of slogging my way northwards, especially at this time of year where you're left with the dregs of winter birding yet it's too soon for any migrant action. Still, I kept an eye on what was happening in the North East and North West and come Friday there were a few things on my radar: the over-wintering Hoopoe in the West Midlands would be more or less on the way, in Yorkshire there were a couple of long-staying Richard's Pipits at Flamborough and a Surf Scoter at Filey, in Cleveland there were two Shore Larks still at Hartlepool and at Saltholme there was a Green-winged Teal and a pair of elusive Penduline Tits. The most interesting bird though was a Demoiselle Crane which had turned up in Cumbria on Friday. Now this species is rather problematic as there are a large number kept in captivity and so it's rather hard to tell a genuine vagrant from an escapee and there are no officially accepted Category A birds on the UK list. Still, it would be an interesting bird to see and it too went on my list of possible stop-off birds. I wasn't sure what to go for and decided to try for the Hoopoe first and then to play it by ear according to what was on RBA so with that as my plan on Friday night I went to bed.

On Saturday I didn't bother racing out of the door at first light but instead had a more leisurely start and so didn't set off until about 8:30 a.m. The Hoopoe was about an hour and a half away and I headed off for that first as planned. En route the Crane came up as still present and then "flown off". "Oh well, at least that makes my decision for me" I mused as I sped westwards around the always-busy M42. After a rather tedious last portion of the journey I eventually arrived at the correct location where a few other cars were already parked. I tooled up, donning plenty of layers to combat the rather biting northerly wind that was definitely taking the edge off what should otherwise be a nice mild first day of spring. I hurried through a gap in the hedge and headed up the hill, following another birder. This whole site used to be a quarry and indeed if you look on Streetview you can still see the excavation works but it's now been filled in and landscaped with grass growing over the rather sandy soil and an interesting variety of plants to be seen. In fact I was rather disappointed that it was so early in the season as otherwise I'd have like to have spent some time botanising here. At the top of the hill I could see a handful of birders down the other side all surrounding a fenced off area that was half way down a rather steep slope so I went over to join them.

The twitch arena - the bird was skulking in the scrubby grass the whole time
It turned out that the bird was hunkered down not moving in the long scrubby grass not more than a few yards away and in the bitter wind I didn't really blame it - it was looking rather sorry for itself. I took a few snaps and then we all waited for it to do something.

The hunkered-down Hoopoe
After a while it got up and started to feed, moving stealthily through the long grass away from us until it was soon entirely lost to view. I tried various different vantage points from around the fence line but there was no sign of it. Given the wind it was probably going to stay hunkered down so having already seen it and with a long journey still ahead of me I decided to quit whilst I was ahead and made my way back to the warmth of the car.

The Coltsfoot was just coming into flower there

Back in the car I consulted my Sat Nav which suggested going north along the M6 and then cutting across on the M62 to get to the North East. I therefore had until that turn-off to choose what to do and if there was no further news on the Crane I decided to head over to Saltholme where there were quite a few birds to chase down (as well as a nice warm café!). Off I went through the rather tortuously slow suburbs of Wolverhampton before re-joining the motorway and speeding off northwards. Not too long into the journey the Crane came back on RBA as present again and "showing well". "Oh well, I might as well give it a go" I decided and chose to stay on the M6 all the way up to Cumbria. En route I munched on my sandwiches and listened to Radio 4 and some time around 2:30 p.m. I reached the Penrith junction and turned off along the familiar A66 just as the sun broke out and bathed the lovely Lakeland scenery in beautiful sunlight. I know this route reasonably well as my VLW's sister lives just outside Cockermouth and indeed I followed the road all the way to the Cockermouth roundabout before turning the other way and heading along the road to where the Crane was supposedly located. As I drove along I looked at the miles of wide open grassy fields and thought to myself that if the bird wasn't where it was supposed to be (and there'd been no further news for several hours) then there'd be almost no hope of finding it, so vast was the area where it could be.

Eventually I arrived at the layby next to Mockerin Tarn where I was greeted by a pair of birders parked up by the entrance. They informed me that the bird had flown off at 12:40 though they'd only arrived at 1 p.m. so with the time now being 3:15 there'd been no further sign for a good couple of hours. "Bother", thought I (or words to that affect). I parked up and went for a stroll in the now-calm conditions and warm sun in order to get my bearings and to stretch my legs.

Mockerin Tarn
There was the rather picturesque Tarn (hosting a few Goosander and a Tufty) next to the layby with a large field next to it which the original birders were dutifully staking out. I wandered up the layby and around in a large circuit, scanning all the fields as far as I could see. From certain spots you could see a long way across the fields but I couldn't see any Cranes and eventually I gave up and came back to the original field. With another birder now having turned up so there were several pairs of eyes on hand, I decided that a nap in the car would be in order and I soon drifted off into a light doze.

I was woken by another car turning up and I thought I recognised the chap in the back. Indeed I was right - it turned out to be Liam Langley (one of the so-called Next Generation Birders) whom I knew from when he birded Port Meadow with me. I went over for a chat and we caught up on each other's news. He and his two companions seemed quite philosophical about the lack of the bird but also appeared to have done their homework because they immediately set off across the road and up the hill on the other side to where there was a footpath to a local summit from which to view. For want of anything better to do I decided to follow and from there we all had a good scan around. There was nothing to see but we carried on chatting a bit before I decided that really I ought to get going. I wandered back down towards the car and was just chatting to yet another birder arrival before getting in the car when there was a shout from back up on the hill and I turned to see them all waving and pointing. I immediately sprang into action and ran back up the hill towards them, spotting much to my relief the distinctively rectangular shape of a Crane in flight over the field next to us as I climbed. The bird had apparently come from over behind some distant conifers and had landed in the field on the opposite side of the road to the tarn which would have been entirely hidden from view had we all stayed in the layby. "Thank heavens for the enthusiasm of young birders!" I thought as I took some snaps with my superzoom and enjoyed the relief of having seen the bird at the last gasp. Having genned up on the subtle differences between Common and Demoiselle Cranes, I took in the long droopy tertials and the more extensive black colouring down it's front - it really was a very smart bird.

The Demoiselle Crane
As time was marching on and I still had two hour's driving ahead of me to get to Durham I didn't stay too long but headed back to the car and set off back the way I came. When I reached the motorway I stayed on the A66 which took me cross country up onto the wildness of the moors before I turned northwards as the night began to fall, eventually reaching my daughter's student house just before 7 p.m. There I gratefully accepted the proffered cup of tea before we ordered a take-away curry and settled down to watch the England vs. France rugby match in which England rose to the occasion and ended the series with a Grand Slam. Then, tired from my long day I wished my daughter good night and turned in early. It had been a full but very productive and enjoyable day.

The next day I woke up at around 6 a.m. to sunlight pouring in through the rather ill-fitting blind in the room I was sleeping in. I hummed and hawed about whether to bother going out birding but since my daughter probably wasn't going to be ready until mid morning at the earliest I thought that I might as well get out there and enjoy the sunshine. I dressed, grabbed some fruit for breakfast from the kitchen, headed out the door and fired up the Gnome mobile. I had been wanting to pay a visit to Saltholme but since it didn't open until 10 a.m. I decided first to head over the Hartlepool Headland once again to have another go at the Shore Larks that I'd failed to see last time I'd been up in the North East. Last visit I'd been troubled by the "south of the cemetery" description which didn't make sense but having thought about it in the intervening period and having asked on Bird Forum I'd discovered that they actually meant east south east of the cemetery - and thinking about it there was no where else where they could actually be anyway. I arrived nice and early to find that I had the place to myself. I tooled up and decided methodically to walk over the area in order to find the birds.

Steetley Pier was looking good in the morning sunshine
I'd covered about three quarters of the area when I spotted one of the Larks in front of me and it soon flew over to join the other one. I busied myself with taking a few snaps with the superzoom.

Hartlepool Shore Lark
Other cars were starting to arrive now so with the Larks in the bag I decided to move on. Next stop was a few minute's drive away to the Memorial Gardens where a first winter male Black Redstart was supposed to be hanging out. After asking for directions from a passer-by I soon found myself in a small public garden along with half a dozen photographers and their long lenses but no sign of the bird. After a while I heard an unusual snatch of bird song and soon spotted the Redstart sitting on a nearby roof top and singing away. In due course it ventured down into the garden area where I was able to take a few snaps whilst the lensmen papped away busily.

The 1w Black Redstart
It was still quite early and though Saltholme RSPB itself wouldn't be open yet I decided to head over there to see if I could bag the Penduline Tits which were supposedly hanging out in a field outside the centre and which therefore would be already accessible. It took only about twenty minutes in the car to get there and I parked up near the fire station and wandered over to join the handful of birders who were staking out the marshy field of Reedmace and Phragmites. I'm always amazed at the scenery around here: tundra-esque flat wilderness punctuated with pools everywhere yet with a huge array of industrial complexes all along the horizon: it's such a strange juxtaposition of man-made and nature.

The Bullrush field
There'd been no sign of the birds so far apparently, so I found myself a gap in the hedge to view through alongside some other birders.  It was rather perilous standing a few feet from the roadside and one had to be careful not to step backwards suddenly into on-coming traffic. Time passed and apart from the odd Reed Bunting, a Robin and few Blue and Long-tailed Tits there was nothing of note. My daughter called me to say that she'd more or less done her packing and when was I going to be back. This was her way of saying that she wanted to get on now. I said that I'd be about another three quarters of an hour which gave me just a little while longer but I'd soon have to head off back to Durham so it looked like I was going to dip this last target.

Suddenly a shout went up from the next gap in the hedge. "Got them!" - I hurried over along with the other birders who'd been close enough to hear his call. "They were over there at the back of the field, near the large pylon and by the black sign". Eventually we all worked out where he meant and peered through out bins at the distant bullrush heads, looking for movement. A few minutes passed and then "I've got them again, they're much closer now, right at the front of the reeds" and sure enough eventually I picked them up, looking surprisingly small compared to the size of the rushes. We followed them as they worked their way amongst the rushes at quite close quarters. I even had a go at photographing them though it wasn't easy in the jostling crowd and looking partially through the hedge but luckily one photo came out OK.

One of the two Penduline Tits
Very pleased at having made my last target but with time now marching on, I headed back to the car and drove the half hour or so back to Durham. There we had a nice brunch of left-over re-heated curry and then packed the car and set off for the long slog back to Oxford. As I drove I reflecting on the trip: it had been nice to connect with all my target birds and after the frustration of not seeing anything in Cornwall this had been refreshingly successful. As far as the status of the Demoiselle Crane was concerned, as I've said before, I don't religiously adhere to what some record committee says but instead like to make up my own mind. The Gnome Rarities Committee will therefore be sitting in due course to decided the status of this bird - we shall see! Our journey back was uneventful and we arrived back at Casa Gnome mid-afternoon for a welcome cup of tea and to enjoy the buzz of the whole family being re-united once more. It had been a much better than expected trip up north with some nice birds seen.

Wednesday, 16 March 2016

A Patch Mega on the Trap Grounds

I don't normally write about my local Port Meadow patch in this blog as usually it's all covered separately on my Port Meadow Birding blog. However, occasionally something good enough will turn up that will warrant inclusion here and fortunately this happened last week.

I've been visiting the Trap Grounds quite a lot over the last few weeks. In an effort to spend less time crouched in front of my computer screen, mid to late morning I like to head out the door and wander around this small area which has now been designated a village green and so is protected from the greedy clutches of marauding property developers. Apart from locals, not many people know about or visit this spot. It consists of a small pond, half covered with reeds, a side stream and a patch of overgrown woodland with a small clearing. Recently enthusiastic locals have been developing the whole area as a nature reserve, adding a boardwalk so that one can walk around the area when its flooded, clearing out some of the more overgrown areas and planting lots of wild flowers. It's a very pleasant place to have a mid morning wander around even if normally there's not a great deal to see on the bird front. In the winter there are Water Rails skulking in the reed bed and there's been a male Cetti's Warbler singing away in their depths for the last few weeks. During the summer there are butterflies and dragonflies to search for and always lots of flowers to look at.

On Friday morning I was having my usual wander around and was just heading back to the pond area when an unusual call penetrated my preoccupied mind. I looked up to see what was clearly a woodpecker flying away with it's undulating flight. "Interesting, I didn't realise that Greater Spotted Woodpeckers called like that", I mused. I clearly wasn't on the ball that morning!

A short while later when I was back on the boardwalk I could see a Greater Spotted Woodpecker flying around and clearly hassling something. I lifted my bins to see a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker sitting there, trying to ignore its larger cousin. Partially obscured by branches I struggled to find a clean line of sight and took a few snaps with the new superzoom.

I then called over to one of the local photographers who I was sure would be be keen to see it. She came over but the bird flew off towards the canal area before she could see it. I tried to re-find it for her and we saw what was probably it fly off north along the line of the stream - sadly that was that, it was all over in a few minutes.

It's all rather embarrassing that I was so slow on the uptake when I initially heard it calling, after all it is a call that I know reasonably well. In my defence all I can say was that it was very much out of context and fortunately it stuck around long enough for me to see it and identify it properly. Certainly a Patch lifer for me and only the second one I've ever seen in Oxfordshire, it's gems like this that keep patch workers such as myself going week in and week out.