Saturday, 30 September 2017

Larking (or Pipiting) About at Landguard!

It's been a rather tantalising few days recently for me. I'm due to go on the autumn Uni run up to the North East in a few days and when news broke of a Scops Owl just a short drive from Durham during the week I got all excited and nervous at the same time. Could it stay for four days until I was due to head up there? I did try to persuade my daughter that she might want to go up early but alas this wasn't possible. One day later it was still roosting in the same general area but on Friday morning it was reported as having gone - I was most disappointed! Partially out of "revenge" for having missed a great opportunity and partially because I'd been having a difficult week at work and needed a break I decided to take Friday off anyway and to do a spot of filthy twitching. The most obvious candidate was a Red-throated Pipit at Languard NR in Suffolk, next to Felixstowe, which had been present and "showing well" for a couple of days now. Now, this was a species which I'd not seen before and which is normally very hard to twitch as it usually is seen just as a fly-over, making it's distinctive down-slurred call. I did rather regret not going for the twitchable bird in Derbyshire a few years back so when this one seemed well-settled and relatively easy to connect with it was very much on my radar. The only trouble with this plan was that come Friday morning there was reportedly no sign of the bird! That rather put paid to my plans though at around 10 a.m. news came through on RBA that it was still around and so I hurriedly put together a packed lunch and loaded up the Gnome mobile and headed off eastwards.

The Sat Nav was saying about two and a half hours though I was somewhat sceptical. Still I made good progress along the M40 and around the north side of the dreaded M25 though when I turned off onto the A12 it was very busy. Eventually I was on the home straight towards Felixstowe and turning off down some side streets. There was a little hiccup in my plans in that the Sat Nav mistook a path for something navigable and so took me down the wrong road and I had to double back before finally parking up in the correct location that I recognised from Street View and tooled up. There had been no further news on the bird at all since the initial message which was in stark contrast to previous days where there had been a steady stream of updates and to be honest I'd started to resign myself to this all turning out badly. As I walked through the entrance gate I met a birder who confirmed my worst fears, informing me that sadly it hadn't been seen since the initial report more than three hours ago now and so it was with a heavy heart that I headed up the path to see what I could find. This disappointed birder had clearly come along way and his parting words as he was about to leave were "no doubt you'll walk straight into it now that I'm leaving". Sadly I thought that this was rather unlikely.

About fifty yards down the track I found a promising line of birders all looking intently through their scopes.

Always a good sign when you arrive at a twitch!
I hurried over to see what was occurring to discover that they were grilling a candidate Pipit intently trying to work out if it was the Red-throated. They'd just come to a positive conclusion on this as I reached them so in a panic I assembled my scope and tried to get on the bird. It was remarkably close and relatively easy to pick out from the three or so Meadow Pipits it was with. The birds were frequenting a large close-cropped flat grassy area bordered by bramble bushes and despite the poor light conditions it showed continuously at relatively close range as it fed contentedly

The grassy area the Pipits were favouring
The most striking thing about the bird was the strong contrast between its paler and darker feathers compared to the Meadow Pipits. In particular the two "tram lines" down the back were very bright and really stood out in comparison to the dull "tramline-less" backs of its commoner cousins. Also the pale edges to the tertials were very striking in this respect. As far as the head was concerned, it had a pinkish blush to the lower throat area and a very strong black wedge on the side of the throat below the end of the moustachial stripe. All these subtle diagnostic clues were easy to pick out at the close range of about thirty or forty yards distance at which the bird showed. 

The Red-throated Pipit

Some digiscoped video footage

In the twitch line one person mentioned how someone else had come all the way down from County Durham to see this bird but had had to leave without seeing it. Could this have been the birder I'd met as I arrived? I thought back to his prophetic words and wondered whether he was going to turn around again now that the news was out on RBA about it being around again. There's nothing worse than dipping only for the bird to be reported as still present on the return journey.

I watched it contentedly for about twenty minutes before deciding to have an explore around. I was rather conscious of the time as I didn't want to get too caught up in the rush-hour traffic around the M25 on the return journey. However as the whole reserve looked fantastic I wanted to have a good look around whilst I was there. There was a roped off shingle area for nesting birds and to protect the plants (Yellow Horned Poppy and Sea Pea apparently) and I'm sure that had it been earlier in the year I'd be constantly distracted by all the interesting plant life there

Sea Spurge - looking very striking in its autumn colours
I wandered around in a contented fashion taking it all in. I met up with another visitor who was a regular local visitor but not particularly a twitcher so he wasn't interested in seeing the Red-throated Pipit as apparently, it wasn't striking enough to look at.  Over by some houses we spotted a bird flitting on and off a wooden fence which turned out to be a rather nice male Redstart. There were at least four Wheatear knocking around, a Swallow zipped over heading south and quite a few House Sparrows and a Stonechat were hanging out by the buildings.

Landguard Point

Viper's Bugloss
Someone told me that the rare Stinking Goosefoot was to be found over near the observatory so I went to see if I could find it. However, despite a good search over the entire area I couldn't turn it up - I guess it was too late in the season.

I headed back to the main Pipit area to find that it had flown a while ago and was presently not to be seen. I milled around for a bit longer before decided that it was time to hit the highway so I headed back to the Gnome mobile, quickly finished off my packed lunch and then fired up the car and headed for home. The traffic was predictably full and there was some modest stoppage on the M25 but all in all it wasn't too bad a return journey. I arrived back home at Casa Gnome just before 6 p.m. with a shiny new tick to my name and feeling pleased with the spoils from my excursion.

Wednesday, 27 September 2017

Farmoor Phalarope

Last week was rather frustrating. With an easy Arctic Warblers at Wells Wood in Norfolk alongside a really hard PG Tips at Burnham Overy dunes (see write-ups by EU & PL here and here) I was champing at the bit to head off on the long slog to Norfolk for some autumn twitching. However, on Tuesday morning when I was all set to go I found myself feeling so incredibly tired (my on-going sleeping problems not helping in that respect) that despite these tempting offers, I couldn't bring myself to go. Usually such extreme tiredness is a prelude to a cold and sure enough I was laid low for several days by one which my daughter had brought into the house a few days earlier. Towards the end of the week I was starting to feel a bit better so when news broke of a juvenile Red-necked Phalarope at Farmoor reservoir I decided to pay a visit. This was an extremely rare visitor to the county though fortunately a bird that was at Bicester Wetlands NR for one day in May 2015 had meant that many (like myself) had it on their county lists. Still, prior to this one there'd only been a couple of previous records: one in a tiny village pond at Marsh Baldon (back in the '80's I think) and one on Dix Pit again a good few decades ago so this was a real county mega. At Farmoor, walking down the causeway it was like a parade for the great and the good of Oxon birding. The usual suspects were either hurrying around to the far side of the reservoir (the bird being about as far away as possible from the car park) or strolling back in a leisurely fashion chatting, having paid their respects already. I'd heard that there was also an eclipsed drake Scaup present and en route to the Phalarope tried to convince JT that I had it at the start of the causeway only subsequently to find it at the other end on the other reservoir. Doh!

The Scaup

Round in the north west corner of F1 I came across the star bird and took some photos and a bit of video though reviewing both back home, neither came out particularly well. Not to matter, the bird was wonderful to watch, constantly picking flies off the surface of the water, unphased by the waves that were continually tossing it hither and thither. It was such a small thing that it's incredible to appreciate that it spends much of its life out at sea.

The video footage though the bird was so close that it's hard to
follow as it is tossed up and down by the waves

The Red-necked Phalarope
I watched it for a while in the company of IL & BB. This was by far the best views of a Red-necked Phal I'd had, though it's commoner Grey cousin is a regular visitor to the county and generally provides crippling views when it is around. After a while I headed back to the car in the company of IL, talking gulls as we went (what else!). On the way back we stopped to admire the "Snow Martin" - an albino House Martin that was most striking as it hawked insects over the causeway. I idly wondered whether it might be possible to string it into an albino of something rarer (Crag perhaps?) though the size was clearly just that of a House. Never mind, it was most striking to see it floating ghost-like over the causeway! It had been a very pleasant interlude and went some way to make up for my Norfolk grippage.

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Not in the Least Bit Stilted at Lodmoor

My apologies firstly for another dodgy post title - I feel that there has to be a decent pun in there somewhere but that's the best I can come up with at present!

Regular readers may have noticed the paucity of birding trips that I've made this year. My Gnome sorties in general are to add birds to my UK life list though, as I've previously mentioned, I tend to constrain my trips by distance and likelihood of seeing the target so it's a rather slow process. Even so, I'm now closing in on the iconic 400 level for this list though this does mean that more and more birds have already been seen and consequently won't warrant a sortie. In the past few years I've managed a dozen or more "lifers" each year but this year I've been languishing on a paltry four so far (Black Scoter, Black-throated Thrush, Kentish Plover and Elegant Tern, since you ask) and I've been champing at the bit to try and get this number up to a more respectable level before the year end. Now that we're into autumn it is of course prime time for this sort of thing and sure enough on Monday evening a Least Sandpiper (which I still "needed") was found early evening at Lodmoor RSPB, a location that certainly falls within my twitching distance, being about two and a half hours away or so. What more, it was found just an hour or so after a juvenile Stilt Sandpiper which was a species that I'd technically seen before (see here) though my views then were so poor in the heat haze that I couldn't really tell you much about it. So, would I head off on news the next morning? Well, there was a distinct fly in that ointment as the car had been booked in for some minor repair work that day. I'd originally been intending to take it in late morning after some work and then to pick it up in the evening but with the finding of this bird I was in a bit of a quandary as to what to do. I tried to concentrate on work but in the end I decided instead to take the car in early and then, if it was ready by say lunch time, I would be able to do a cheeky trip down to Devon for the afternoon.

Fortunately things more or less went to plan: the car was with them by 9 a.m. and I was soon back home and indulging in a preparatory "power nap" to make up for a rather restless night. At some time after midday I got the call from the garage that all had been finished so I hurriedly got together my things, ordered a taxi (there was no time for the half an hour walk this time) and headed off to pick up the car. At around 1 pm I was re-united with the Gnome mobile and was speeding off southwards along the A34. Things rather abruptly ground to a half near Didcot however when a broken down lorry forced the two rather busy lanes down into one so twenty minutes was spent crawling along at a snail's pace for a while. After that things flowed freely and the rest of the journey passed pleasantly enough. About half way along my drive, with no further news having come through on RBA, I did start to feel that gnawing doubt about whether this wasn't in fact a really stupid idea. I was going on a five hour round trip where I'd only have three hours at best of decent light left to see the bird. What's more it was rather hard to judge how regularly it was being seen from the RBA notices: it appeared to being reported every couple of hours or so but sometimes that didn't give an idea of how often it was actually on show. Oh well, I'd committed now and I'd just have to accept what the Birding Gods were going to grant me. Still, after all this effort I would be gutted to dip.

Shortly before Dorchester the "still present" news came through and I relaxed more as I negotiated the back roads of Weymouth before turning along the coastal road and pulling in at the beach car park on the western side of Lodmoor Reserve. This is a reserve that I've visited a number of times before and on every occasion in the past I'd been successful with firsts of Long-billed and Short-billed Dowitchers and also my first ever Red-backed Shrike all seen at this lovely wetland site. Would this be the first time that I struck out? I was about to find out! I paid for four hours of parking just so that I wouldn't need to worry about it at all, hurriedly tooled up and headed off to the viewing shelter on the south shore that had been mentioned in the latest RBA message as the location of where the Least Sandpiper was. As I turned the corner I could see a few birders peering intently through their scopes - always a good sign and my nervous enquiry as to whether "it was still there" was met with an offer to look at it through a scope ....and relax! All the planning and stressing had been worth it, all my doubts about how stupid the trip was melted away and another lifer was in the bag! I hurriedly set up my own scope and started digiscoping away taking both video and some shots though in the strong winds of the prelude to Storm Aileen it wasn't easy.

The pick of my digiscoped stills of the Least Sandpiper

...and some video footage in the wind

I studied my first Least Sandpiper closely: it was easy to see how this bird had actually been mis-identified as a Little Stint originally at the weekend though it was easy enough to see the diagnostic greenish legs and the dark loral stripe when you knew what to look for. After about five minutes the bird, which had been feeding away actively in front of the viewing shelter, moved down to the hidden side of one of the many islands that broke up the shallow waters there and was out of sight. Having successfully connected with my target bird so easily I enquired as to where the bonus Stilt Sandpiper was, to be told that it was presently frequenting the western shore and was showing well. I headed off on the five minute walk to that end of the reserve to find a gaggle of photographers frantically papping away. Apparently it had just moved from its usual location to a really close spot and they were all trying to take advantage. I whipped out my super-zoom and joined in though after a couple of minutes the bird had had enough of the whirring shutters and flew back to its usual more distant location

The Stilt Sandpiper showing at a nice close distance

When I'd first clapped eyes on the bird, my immediate reaction was "Curlew Sandpiper" and the scaling back feathering certainly was reminiscent of this wader though on close inspection that's where the similarity ended: there was no peach blush to the breast and instead of the decurved bill, it was long and straight with the hint of a droop at the tip. The legs, instead of being black were green and very long (hence the name). It had a strong supercilium which gave it a bit of a look of a Knot about the face. All in all a very striking bird. The other photographers couldn't be bothered with any more photographs at this greater distance so I had it to myself for a while as it picked its way through the roosting Black-headed and Mediterranean Gulls.

More Stilt Sand Porn

After a while I too had had my fill and I decided to head back for seconds of the Least Sandpiper if it was now showing. I wandered back towards the southern shore munching on a packet of crisps as I went. Back at the viewing shelter I discovered that it had been on show again but had been flushed and had flown off towards the eastern end so I headed off that way to see if I could find it. One of the viewing areas had a Great White Egret on show (not the rarity that it once was), I spotted a Common Sandpiper in amongst the rushes and down near "the Hump" another birder had found a Wheatear but that was about it.

Nice close views of a Great White Egret

As I was heading back towards the viewing shelter again another birder turned up who, by going somewhat "off piste" had found the Sandpiper feeding away on a hidden area. I joined him to watch it feeding away with a couple of Ringed Plover and a Dunlin for company. It was good to see it next to some standard waders for comparison where it's diminutive size was all the more obvious. The other birder had to leave and I took a few more photos.

Size comparison with a Dunlin
I looked up from checking the back of my camera to find that all the waders had suddenly disappeared. I guessed that they might be back at the viewing shelter and headed off that way to find that this was indeed the case. At this point I got a call from home asking what time I was intending to be back so that they could plan dinner. Thinking about it, I more or less decided that I'd seen everything as well as I was going to be able to and with time marching on, that I would head back home. So I wandered back to the car park and fired up the Gnome mobile. Despite it being the rush hour, fortunately all the traffic was heading in the opposite direction to me and the journey back was uneventful. I arrived back at around 7:45 in time to sit down with my family for an enjoyable meal and a chance to catch up. It had been a very successful outing indeed.

Monday, 4 September 2017

Shagging At Farmoor!

My apologies for the title of this post, but quite frankly it had to be done. After my resolve to return to birding now that autumn is upon us, the most obvious target in the county was the unprecedented number of juvenile Shags that had turned up at Farmoor reservoir last week. The highest total there was 13 at the start of the week and though numbers had been decreasing ever since, still there were quite a few on offer by Thursday when I decided to pay a visit (since my work was so slow).

I arrived mid morning and decided to take things at quite a leisurely pace. At first I could only see Cormorants on the floating pontoons on Farmoor 1 so I set off along the causeway with a single Dunlin and the obligatory Yellow-legged Gull on a buoy for my troubles. However, at the far end of the causeway by a small outlet there was a single juvenile Shag, completely unperturbed by the close proximity of myself and one other photographer.

Dunlin on the causeway

Adult Yellow-legged Gull on a buoy

Juvenile Shag looking fed up
I decided to wander over towards the "bus stop" area, as I'd read that some of the Shags liked to hang out at the pontoon there. On the way I came across a pair of Egyptian Geese and an obliging Wheatear on a fence. There were Chiffies absolutely everywhere in the hedgerows and trees, calling constantly. 

There's something very appealing about Egyptian Geese

Wheatear on a fence
I was about half way to the pontoon (about in the "Red-necked Grebe" area) when I spotted a gull on the shoreline. Now I'd been paying close attention to the gulls, picking out the Yellow-legged from the Herrings etc. but this one caught my eye though unfortunately it flew out about forty yard as I approached so I took some video. To my eye it looked very much like a juvenile Caspian Gull with the classic long parallel-sided beak, not at all like the relatively brutish Yellow-leggeds.

Juvenile Caspian Gull

Fortunately, when I got back home and posted it for Ian Lewington to take a look at, he agreed with me. I was most chuffed as it was my first juvenile Caspian that I'd seen. It quite made my day!

Over at the pontoon there were three more Shaglets, looking very petite compared to the hulking Cormorants though they were all rather distant.

The Shags were dwarfed by their huge Cormorant cousins
A thuggish Yellow-legged Gull (2nd winter I think)
I then retraced my steps and headed back along the causeway where there was nothing new and back towards the car par where I found one more Shag sitting on a pontoon outside the café and looking very cute.

A cute Shag
So, my first birding outing in a while and one which I thoroughly enjoyed. It's rather telling of course that whilst the various coastal areas are enjoying Pectoral Sandpipers and all sorts of hot drift migrant action, here in Oxon we're left with juvenile Shags to get the juices going. Still, beggars can't be choosers.

I'm going to slip in a plant photo at the end here. This is Skullcap, growing in the cracks in the causeway.

Sunday, 3 September 2017

Aston Rowant Revisited - The End of the Plant Season

In my last post, I'd mentioned that I'd been too early for the Violet Helleborines and had been looking in the wrong place on Bald Hill for some of the specialities. Added to that, it was finally time to go and look for Gentians - clearly one more visit was called for. So, having come back from our Cornish trip, when a reasonable opportunity presented itself I headed off once more to the Aston Rowant area.

First stop was to look for the Violet Helleborines though to be honest I'd left too big a gap since my last visit and they would almost certainly have gone over now. The ones that I had found last time had all been munched by deer (presumably) but fortunately my local orchid guru Wayne (see his great blog here) had told me the exactly locations of several others elsewhere in the wood. His instructions were so precise that I managed to find all four plants that he'd located. Half of them had already gone over but a couple still had some flowers of some sort on them.

Violet Helleborines flowers - just clinging on still
Then it was back to the car and a few minutes up the road to Bald Hill once more. Eschewing the first slope that had been my search location of previous visits, instead I headed further along the path and once I was past the large "scrubby" area, I started to find Gentians everywhere I looked. The vast majority were Chiltern Gentian, distinguished by the wrinkled appearance on the outside of the flower but tucked away and looking much smaller there were a few smooth-sided Autumn Gentians in amongst them.

Chiltern Gentians with their wrinkly sides

...and the smaller, smooth-sided Autumn Gentian

I also managed to find a few Frog Orchids that were very much on their last legs. At least it was nice to know the proper place to look for next year.

A couple of knackered Frog Orchids

In previous visits I've found Yellow Wort still in bud. Despite managing to miss the vast majority of them I did manage to find one or two actually in flower this time round

So, that is probably it for the flower season this year (unless I happen to get a hankering to see some Autumn Lady's Tresses) or something. So with the insect season all but finished as well, expect some post about actual birds next.