Sunday, 21 January 2018

A Teasing Teal

Last year the best Oxon bird of the year, a Little Bunting, arrived in the normally unproductive month of January and this year the same month has once again pulled a bit of a county Mega rabbit out of the hat in the form of a Green-winged Teal. For some reason this species seems to be rarer in Oxon than the other relatively common yank duck, namely American Wigeon. In fact there have been several of this species during the ten or so years that I've been birding in the county yet this was the first Green-winged Teal during this time. It was first found by MC on Monday last week down at Pit 60 and reported as a "probable" since a hybrid had yet to been ruled out. In fact it wasn't firmed up until last light by which time it was too late to make the trip over there. I therefore had to wait until the next day where, due to work commitments first thing I decided to wait on news and then to head off mid morning if it was still around.

Fortunately, it was still reported first thing so it was that some time after 10 a.m. I found myself hurrying down the muddy tracks towards the Langley Lane hide on Pit 60 in the company of JD. There was no one in the hide itself so we had to open up the slats and find it for ourselves. Not that it took very long and JD had it almost immediately in the extreme left hand corner from where we were looking. It was very actively moving about and indeed all the Teal were rather flighty and the flock of four Eurasian Teal that it was associating with soon moved to the middle of the pit where there was more swimming around before they all went behind some reeds. A Peregrine on a distant pylon then put them all up and down again so that they were scattered throughout the middle of the pit and we had to start the whole search again.

At this point a couple of other county birders popped in and we tried to find it for them. We managed it in the end though due to the wind direction they were unhelpfully facing directly away from us and it was hard to pin our target down from this angle. In the end the others managed at least "tickable" views before the bird disappeared into the reed bed at the far end out of sight. The other two took this as their cue to leave whilst JD and I headed to the other hide to see if we could winkle it out again. With no luck there either I decided to head off and walked back to the car a happy bunny, basking in the warm glow of a new county tick.

I wasn't able to take any decent video at all so here's some superb footage
courtesy of Badger, the Video Master

Whilst in the area I thought that it would be positively rude of me not to pop into the nearby village of Northmoor to pay homage to the resident Hawfinches in the church yard there. In the sunny conditions I managed good views of them almost immediately - far better than the brief distant views of this autumn just gone. I took a few snaps with my super-zoom camera and then headed for home. It had been a most rewarding morning's county birding.

Northmoor Hawfinches

As a footnote, the Teal wasn't actually seen again after we saw it so I was actually very lucky to catch up with it in the end.

Wednesday, 17 January 2018

2017 Retrospective

It's time for some end of year navel gazing with a chance for me to look back at the year's highs and lows. As usual I'm going to divide my birding into three sections: patch birding, county birding and life listing.

Patch Birding
By all measures it was a rather poor year on my local Port Meadow patch. I've written up a more detailed review of the year here but the main issue was that the floods dried up very early (by the start of April) and didn't reform until the end of November so there was a large chunk of the year without any water including the vital spring and autumn passage periods. The year list total was a measly 114 compared to 120 to 130 in decent years and the bird of the year there was a Great White Egret that was seen by one lucky observer (not me, grrrr!) for just a few minutes up at the Wolvercote end. All in all its best to draw a hurried veil over the whole year and move quickly on.

County Birding
It was actually an OK year in Oxon with a number of nice birds on the county year list, not that I saw many of them. The start of the year saw a flurry of good local birds with some Cattle Egrets, Waxwings and my personal county bird of the year (and a county tick), a smart Little Bunting near Over Norton.

One of the three Cattle Egrets in amongst the pigs

Waxwings are always nice birds to see

The Little Bunting

After such a great start to the county year things went predictably quiet until April when a wonderful Bonaparte's Gull was discovered at Farmoor. Although I missed it's first appearance, about a week later it was back and indeed it lingered for a fair while.

The Bonaparte's Gull

There was also a lovely Wood Warbler at Spiceball Park in Banbury which I went to visit. Amazingly it was the second year in a row that this rare county warbler had been seen at this location.

The Wood Warbler courtesy of Ewan

After that I went into full-on botanising mode for the summer (which I'll cover later) so it wasn't until September that I was back into county birding. There was a visit to Farmoor for a serious Shagathon

One of the half a dozen or so juvenile Shags at Farmoor

Shortly after there it was back to the concrete basin of despair for the Red-necked Phalarope, not a county tick thanks to the one at Bicester Wetlands Reserve a couple of years previously but still a great bird to see.

Red-necked Phalarope

Later on in the autumn there were more local birds to see with a Water Pipit at Farmoor, a potential Lesser Scaup (that frustratingly turned out to be a hybrid, thereby denying me a county tick) and a some Hawfinches that were finally pinned down as part of the national irruption of this species.

A filthy mongrel!

So all in all, not such a bad county year. As usual I was charged with the county year photo montage which I'll post here in case you've not yet seen it.

These days of course I also have Kernow to include in my county listing. We went down quite a lot this year at the beginning but after our summer holiday that was it. The prevailing westerly winds were making for such poor birding in the South West that I didn't even bother with my usual October visit. Still I managed four county ticks: a Caspian Gull (a hard bird to get in Cornwall) at the start of the year; an Avocet in February and then in the May half term a Temminck's Stint and a Hobby (with a Green-winged Teal and a Woodchat Shrike as nice bonus birds). As you can see from this list there are still quite a few relatively common birds that I'm catching up on for my list which gives me some nice targets to chase down whilst I'm there.

Temminck's Stint showing well at Hayle

This August we had a couple of weeks down there and fortunately there were some reasonable winds for me to do a spot of sea-watching down at PG. I had a good couple of sessions seeing nice close views of Cory's and Great Shearwaters as well as plenty of Storm Petrels. However I ended up having one of the two most gripping birding experiences of the year there (see below for the second one) when I left the PG sea-watch an hour and a half before a Fea's Petrel and four Wilson's Petrel's flew past. I still scream internally at the thought of this. Of course the truth is that you can't be there all the time and I'd negotiated with the rest of the family just to have the morning off so I had to leave then but it still really stings.

National Listing
It was a bit of a low key year on the national listing front. As usual I went further afield mostly to add to my UK life list or because I had to do a uni run for one of my two daughters. This year I only managed 8 new UK lifers plus a potential future armchair tick, which is somewhat below my 13 or 14 that I've managed for the previous three years. Now of course as my list grows (I'm around the 400 mark now) there is an inevitable law of diminishing returns and so 8 isn't that bad but it could easily have been a few more if luck had run my way a bit. Still I can't really complain.

Things started well when I went on the January Uni Run back up to Durham. I had the Black Scoter up at Goswick in north Northumberland as a target and after some looking in the wrong spot on the first day I managed to find it the next morning. What's more on the way back down I lucked into a great Black-breasted Thrush, a fantastic bonus bird for the trip.

The next national trip wasn't until March for the return uni run leg where, with nothing of particular note on the radar during what is normally a quiet time of the year, I went via Skinningrove for the Eastern Black Redstart (surely due to be split some time soon).

Skinningrove Eastern Black Redstart
At the start of May I was finally able to put to rest a long-standing personal bogey bird in the form of a Kentish Plover that turned up at Pitsone Reservoir in Bucks. Knowing from past experience that they rarely linger it was a case of dropping everything to go and see it and fortunately I managed finally to tick off this elusive Plover.

Distant views only of my first Kentish Plover
The next national trip was down to Church Norton in June to pay homage to the bona fide DNA-tested Elegant Tern that had turned up. I was rather lucky to find it there on show as soon as I turned up which was really handy

Church Norton Elegant Tern
On the way up to Durham once again in July I stopped off in the Midlands for the wonderful flock of Bee Eaters.

Two of the seven Bee Eaters in the quarry
It wasn't until September that I was able to get my next national tick when a Least Sandpiper turned up at Lodmoor down in Dorset. I was able to connect almost immediately and had great views of the resident Stilt Sandpiper as a bonus.

The Least Sandpiper

Bonus Stilt Sandpiper
The last day of September brought another national tick when I went to pay a visit to a confiding Red-throated Pipit that had taken up residence at Landguard NR. This is a difficult species to catch up with normally so I made sure to make the effort to see this one.

Landguard Red-throated Pipit
Despite the "wrong winds" all autumn, a couple of eastern Mega's did manage to slip through in October. The first was a splendid Rock Thrush that turned up in Wales at Blorenge near where I'd been to see the Marmora's Warbler a few years back.

The light wasn't great on the day that I visited but it was still nice to see a Rock Thrush
The second was a real national Mega of Megas: a Two-barred Greenish Warbler turned up down in Dorset in a small quarry. I needed no further invitation but headed down there on news the next morning to see this wonderful bird well and at close quarters despite the crowds.

Two-barred Greenish Warbler courtesy of Tezzer
The last national birding trip of the year was to Staines Reservoir to see an American Horned Lark. It was reasonably distant on the day that I visited but still possible to make it out well enough. Not a full tick in it's own right at present, I am hoping for an armchair one in due course.

The American Horned Lark showed much better on the day that Ewan Urquhart (c) visited
So there you have it, a relatively modest year of national birding. I'm giving my personal bird of the year award to the Two-barred Greenish Warbler and the Horrendous Dip of the Year goes jointly to missing the Fea's and Wilson's Petrel at Porthgwarra and also not seeing the Scop's Owl on my summer Durham Uni Run.

Other Stuff
Over the last few years I've turned for solace during the summer doldrums to insects and lately flowers. In fact this year I decided to work mostly on Orchids, partially because they're a nice botanical sub-set of a reasonable size and partially because up until now I've not known much about them. So there were lots of trips about the place this year to see various Orchids. The list includes: Lady Orchid with Pasque Flower and Lodden Lily thrown in; Purple, Green-winged and Early-marsh; Narrow-leaved Helleborine, White Helleborine, Fly and Bird's-nest; what were formerly considered to be Narrow-leaved Marsh at Parsonage Moor (but are no longer); Military and Greater Butterfly at Homefield Wood; Lizard at Sydlings Copse; the rare Red Helleborine at Windsor Hill; various marsh loving Orchids at Kenfig dune slacks (but sadly no Fen Orchid); the beautiful Dark-red Helleborine up near Durham; Frog Orchid and Downy Woundwort locally; different Helleborines in various places and finally Violet Helleborine and Gentians at Aston Rowant.

Narrow-leaved Helleborine
Dark-red Helleborine
Military Orchid
Summing It All Up
As usual I kept a tally of my national year list though I make almost no effort to add to it, so just recording what I happen to come across on my various trips. This year came in at a paltry 188 which is quite a low tally. With 8 national lifers, 1 Oxon tick and 4 Kernow ones, there was enough to keep things "ticking over" (sorry!). Looking forward, it's probably going to be more of the same this year with the rest of the Orchids to try for and more birds for my national list. I'd also like to see Scarce Emerald Damselfly which is the last Odonata (excluding the remote Scottish ones) that I have yet to see. Onwards and upwards!