Wednesday, 18 October 2017

No Holds (Two)-Barred in Dorest

After a rather lean year on the twitching front things are suddenly coming alive for me this autumn with my second twitch in just five days. I was still basking in the fading warm glow of my successful Rock Thrush twitch last week when news broke on Tuesday of a Two-barred Greenish Warbler down in Dorset. This bird had originally been identified as a possible Arctic at last light on Sunday though with Storm Orphelia bearing down on the country it had meant that it wasn't checked out the next day. However, on Tuesday the legendary Brett Spencer went to see if it was still about and managed to re-identify it as a Two-barred Greenish Warbler with news breaking mid afternoon. Now this species is currently a subspecies (Phylloscopus trochiloides plumbeitarsus) of Greenish Warbler (P. trochiloides) here in the UK. However, with the adoption in the new year of the IOC species list by the UK, it will be elevated to full species status (P. plumbeitarsus) so it was offering the dangling carrot of an impending full species tick. What's more, with only half a dozen or so prior sightings in this country, it was a genuine Mega so definitely worth making a bit of an effort for. That evening, DL messaged me to ask if I was interested in going for it on news the next day so we arranged to head down there together if it was still about. The only possible fly in the ointment was the weather which was forecast to be rainy and misty for the morning though at least the poor conditions would mean that it was less likely to do a bunk overnight.

The next morning it was reported as still present surprisingly early (it was barely light outside here in Oxford) so I arranged to pick up DL from south Oxford in the Gnome Mobile and set off. The trouble was that road works in the centre of Oxford meant that I had to head around the ring road for the pick-up and the rush hour traffic was horrendous so it took absolutely ages to get around there. Still, eventually we had rendezvous'd and we were heading down the A34. Now, I'd been to the Studland Peninsula just once before to Durlston CP for Lullworth Skipper and that time I'd thought the Sat Nav route, which had taken me through Poole and Bournemouth, had been a rather poor choice so this time I followed my usual Lodmoor route on the A31 until it intersects the A350 which I took southwards, thereby neatly avoiding all the built-up areas. This worked really well and so it was that some time after 11 a.m. we were heading down the worryingly misty roads leading to Renscombe Farm near St. Aldhelm's Head. Due to the large expected numbers, a dedicated parking field had been laid on in which there must have been well over fifty parked cars as we turned in, paid our £2 fee and got tooled up. Then it was a twenty minute walk southwards down the track in the mist, both of us worrying if the bird would be easy to see in the mist. We asked a returning birder who told us that he'd seen it just three times in the two hours that he was there which was acceptable, though not as good as one might hope for.

Finally we came to the twitch crowd and had to work out where to stand. This wasn't as easy as it sounds as the actual viewing area was rather small and people were standing several deep. The problem was that one was looking down into the trees from our vantage point so standing behind someone made things really difficult. I found myself standing behind someone who wasn't too tall and DL headed further to one side to carve out a space of his own.

A rather small viewing area given the numbers

The atmosphere was rather tense as lots of people (including myself) had yet to see the bird. After about ten minutes, someone to my right called it out and the people over there watched it for a bit though from my angle it was impossible to see and I could only listen in helpless frustration to the instructions. Fortunately a little while later the person in front of me decided that he'd seen enough and I was able to take his spot right at the front. The view before me consisted of a row of Field Maples with a couple of gaps in them ("the left gap" and the "right gap" as they were called out), with an Ash tree behind on the left and a couple of tall Sycamores at the back.

The Twitch Arena - Field Maples to the front, Ash & Sycamores to the back
After a while I heard a familiar voice and turned to see EU and KC behind me and as others turned to leave they came to stand beside me. Shortly after that TS turned up so it was an excellent turn-out for the county. There was the usual large twitch tensions going on with one birder nearby struggling to see much and continuously asking in a loud voice "what's that?" and "where are you looking?" until someone snapped and explained as if to a child, where all the key locations were. After that, he kept quiet. EU kept making comments under his breath about the annoyances of the other birders and I had to keep from laughing at some of the things that he said.

Another twitch photo courtesy of Joe Tobias (Twitter: @ja_tobias) showing me (with my fluorescent hood lining) at the front!
There was plenty of movement with several Chiffies moving about and a really showy Firecrest which gave excellent views at the front. A good half an hour had passed so far with only a couple of glimpses of what had apparently been the bird though I'd not personally seen it well enough to be sure. Then suddenly someone called it in one of the Field Maples at the front and suddenly out it popped, showing cripplingly well right in front of us in some bare branches. Several people let slip a stifled cheer at this point, relieved finally to have seen it and the mood of the crowd changed markedly with the release of all the tension. Indeed one person's audible relief was so marked that EU quipped that "he was having an orgasm!".

Some cracking photos (especially give the prevailing conditions) courtesy of Tezzer

The bird was a gorgeously striking thing, superficially like a cross between a Yellow-browed and an Greenish. It had a rather Greenish-like head and super, with a strikingly pale bill, especially the lower half, a fairly long primary projection with a really broad and wide lower wing bar and a fairly reasonable upper one: not quite Yellow-browed proportions though not far off. However, there were none of the darker colouring on the wings that a Yellow-browed might have and the tertials were plain and unmarked. So in reality it was most like a Greenish Warbler but with much more pronounced wing bars. Once one had got ones eye in, it was possible to pick the rather unique colour combination out instantly in flight from the less contrasty Chiffies that were also present.

After that initial show stopper, the bird showed fairly regularly and seemed to be doing a fairly small circuit right in front of us so that we all got excellent views. I tried half-heartedly to take a photo with my superzoom though the light was very poor and a small phyllosc flitting about is not easy for a rather slow-to-respond bridge camera so in the end I gave up and just enjoyed watching the bird. Eventually I started to feel rather tired so went to sit on a nearby wall and to have my packed lunch. DL came to join me and we discussed whether there was time to nip over to Portland but in the end decided that it wouldn't be worth it given that I had to be back by 6 pm. So instead we went back for seconds and again got some more great views of the bird which was showing every few minutes by now. KC had had to head back to the car early because of back problems but the rest of the Oxon crew eventually decided that they'd had their fill so after posing for a squad selfie we all walked back together, chatting and gossiping as we went, all in the best of moods after our grandstand views.

Successful Oxon Squad Selfie

Back at the car park we parted ways and headed off into the mist of Dorset's back roads. I drove back the same way though the mist now seemed to have crept up from just the peninsula to the whole of the South East and it was very gloomy all the way back. After dropping DL off I then had to endure half an hour of traffic jams just to drive the short distance back to my house. Not that I cared, having had such a good day out. Back at Casa Gnome it was time for the usual celebratory cup of tea and a chance to catch up with the family. It had been a grand day out.

Monday, 16 October 2017

Blorenge Revisited

It's been a somewhat frustrating couple of weeks since my last posting though it ultimately ended with a most rewarding twitch. I mentioned the impending North East Uni run in my last post - well, sadly that turned out to be most disappointing due to the vagaries of the tantalising Scop's Owl. Having apparently disappeared on the Friday (when I went to Landguard), it then re-appeared on Saturday leading me to re-kindle my hope of a great potential tick on the Uni run the next day. However, Sunday morning it was AWOL (or AOWL - absent owl!) once more so in the end my daughter and I headed off for the North East late than planned at around 10 a.m. and with no other obvious targets to aim for (there were prevailing strong westerly winds which is generally pants for east coast birding) I just loafed around at my daughter's place all afternoon with a plan to try for the owl again on the Monday morning. After all if it had disappeared and the re-appeared once before then there was a chance that it could do so again. 

On Monday I was up early and headed off on the thirty minute drive from Durham to Ryhope where, in very strong winds I headed hopefully down the path under the railway line to Ryhope Village Dene (a dene being the local name for a small valley that follows a stream to the sea). Mercifully the small valley itself was nicely sheltered though despite extensive searching in it's usual Elder (which I recognised from internet photos) as well as every other possible tree I could find, there was no sign of it. A showy Spotted Flycatcher and a fly-over Redpoll were little consolation for what would have been a great tick had it been present. In the end I had to endure the long slog back down south having had no proper trip birdage at all - most uncharacteristic for the October Uni run which is usually far and away the best Uni trip of the year.

No compensation for the lack of Owlage

Since that ill-fated trip I'd not really done much birding at all. My local Port Meadow patch is still non-existent thanks to the lack of sufficient rain to re-create the flood waters and I've mostly been occupied with work and other matters. I had been keeping half an eye on Cornwall with a view to making a dash down there should the birdage warrant it. However, with strong prevailing south westerlies the whole time there was precious little to tempt me. Finally on Thursday afternoon something cropped up on the radar to alleviate the bordeom: a first winter male Rock Thrush had been found at Blorenge of all places. This was a name that I recognised, having been there once before back in June 2010 for a wonderful male Marmora's Warbler (see my write-up here). Well, it seemed that this most improbable of locations had once again pulled in a rarity. As this site was only just over two hours away and well within my acceptable twitching distance I pencilled in a trip the next day on news. Sadly with the dawn came no news and by 9 a.m. I'd resigned myself to another boring day of work. Miraculously however, at just after 10 a.m. it was re-found, frequenting a different location from the previous day but I was reasonably confident that now that it had been re-located, it would be around for the rest of the day so I set off just after 11 a.m., opting for the more pleasant and scenic A40 route rather than down along the M4 and up again. Occasional news came through of the bird's continued presence during my journey and so it was that a little after 1 pm I found myself driving up the familiar Blorenge mountain before turning off for Pwll du Garry where I added my car to the large collection there and in a very strong wind, got tooled up before heading off on the fifteen minute walk towards the quarry area. 

As I walked there were birders coming back the other way though rather unusually for such an occasion there was little friendly chat as we passed. I don't know if it was the strong wind or the bleakness of the location but it was a strangely quiet affair each time as we trudged past on our respective paths. I got to the first quarry where I'd sort of expected the bird to be located only to find that this impressive area was completely deserted and I had to head on further. Past the first quarry there was a small path off into the bracken and up the hill where others were coming back - had they not been there I'm sure that I would have missed the turn-off. Here there was actual communication and I was told that the bird was showing every ten or fifteen minutes or so and just to keep going to the end of the line of twitchers which I duly did. There seemed to be some uncertainty as to where exactly the bird was located. Three people were intently looking into one side of the screen slope whereas most others were spread out along the path all staring at different places. In the end I headed to the far end of the line where I soon spotted a familiar face in the form of DL from Oxon. It didn't take him too long to spot the bird briefly in the rocks that were at the top of the slope - not an easy spot to view from where we were all located.

The bird was frequenting the top line of rocks where it was relatively sheltered from the very strong wind
After I'd got my eye in, it was relatively easy to find the bird. As promised, it was showing every fifteen minutes or so, in amongst the rocks. Sometimes it would just perch there not doing much, other times it would hop relatively slowly from rock to rock before dipping down to feed where it would be hidden from site. I set about trying to take some digiscoped photos though in the very gloomy light and scope-shaking wind it was a near impossible task and they all came out pretty poorly.

Rocky in the gloom
The bird was very striking - moulting from juvenile to first winter plumage it still had the very mottled appearance of a female Rock Thrush but with the adult male red breast and tail feathers starting to come through. It was similar in size and shape to the Blue Rock Thrush that I'd enjoyed in the Cotswolds at the end of last year - who would have though that I'd be seeing both Rock Thrush within the space of a year, both relatively close to Oxfordshire!  

People came and went and after the usual initial panic as they arrived, everyone managed to see the bird. Viewing conditions were never ideal, with the poor light, strong wind and difficult uphill viewing angle all making it rather difficult but the bird was pretty cooperative and one couldn't really complain. As time wore on the weather worsened and a mist started to descend on the hill which clogged up my lenses and I eventually gave up trying to take any better photos.

Twitchers admiring the Rock Thrush

Eventually, at some time after 3 p.m. I decided that I'd had my fill and started on the long slog back to the car in the strengthening wind and increasing mist. Back at the car I was just watching another birder striding down the road towards me in the ever deteriorating weather when I realised that I knew him - it was MS from Cornwall! He told me that he'd started out from PZ at 5 a.m. that morning and had got as far as Bristol when the dreaded "not present" news was posted. So he'd turned around and had got all the way back to Truro by the time it had been re-found. So it was back around once more and he'd only just arrived as I was departing. That was a long old time on the road to get there! I wished him luck, fired up the Gnome mobile and pointed her in the direction of home. With the dulcet tones of Radio 4 to keep me company the return journey's miles slipped away and I was back at Casa Gnome before 6 pm, in time for my usual celebratory cup of tea and dinner with my family. It had been a great day out with a most rewarding new tick to my name.

The were all sorts of amazing fungi around the hillside - this striking red one caught my eye, one of the Waxcaps apparently