Thursday, 14 June 2018

Catching Up

Readers may well have noticed the distinct lack of posts here over the last few months. The reason for this has largely been that I've been tied up on the work front and haven't been able to go out on many trips at all. That's not to say that I've not done any, just they've mostly been relatively minor ones or alternatively unsuccessful ones (which one always feels less inclined to blog about). So I thought that I'd do a round-up of what I've done over the intervening period, partly just as a personal reminder though of course I hope that readers also enjoy them.

Hunting Yellow Stars
Back at the end of March I went on a relatively local trip to look for the elusive Yellow Star of Bethlehem (Gagea lutea) which I'd recently learnt from the very informative Hooky Natural History blog could be found locally at Whitehall Woods along the backs of the River Evenlode . It had been a very wet early spring and I arrived at the location to find that the river had burst its banks and at first it looked completely hopeless. Fortunately however, the bank on the footpath side of the river was very steep so it was still possible to work my way along it and to look out for this plant though according to the aforementioned blog source there weren't any actually in flower this spring so it was a matter of looking out for the subtle pointers that marked this species out from the similar Bluebell leaves. Fortunately I managed to find a few specimens as well as some emerging Toothwort. It would be nice actually to see some in flower so I'll try again next year.

The flooded River Evenlode
Toothwort just coming out
Yellow Star of Bethlehem, munched by deer (presumably)

That Chiffchaff and Bittern Dipping
Much has already been said about the "Iberian" Chiffchaff that turned out to be something else. The morning the news broke I was just about to leave to spend a day over in Suffolk to have a crack at the American Bittern that had appeared at Carlton Marshes and a quick detour around the ring road to get a cracking county tick was going to be a great bonus. Suffice it to say that the song (which you could hear from the car park) seemed good enough to me as well as quite a few other county birders. To his credit it was the Notorious LGRE who first cast aspersions on it's identity and gradually over the coming days as we all learnt more about what constitutes a bona fide Iberian the horrible truth dawned on us all. For me the most interesting part was the three parts to a true Iberian's song which Ian Lewington describes as ‘jip jip jip jip jip weep weep weep chitachitachita’; this bird on the other hand was going ‘jit jit jit jit jit juda juda juda juda’ without any middle "weep"-ing. I'll know what to listen out for in future. An educational bird as they say (grrrrr).

Superb video of the Chiffy from video genius Badger

Anyway, I didn't even get to see the American Bittern. Despite spending five long hours staring at the reedbed with a number of other birders (including master lensman JH) there was no sign of it that day. Lots of Marsh Harriers, a pair of Whimbrel, a heard-only Eurasion Bittern and a close Yellow Wagtail were quite frankly poor compensation for a long and ultimately fruitless day and even my consolation county tick was later snatched away from me. Gah!

Farmoor Bonxies & Terns
After the excitement of the Green-winged Teal back in January and apart from the bitter disappointment of that Chiffchaff, it has been a rather quiet spring in the county. I've been working away diligently on the patch (see Port Meadow Birding for those who don't know about it) but when a pair of Bonxies turned up at Farmoor I thought that I'd have a change from the daily patch routine and decided to go and pay a visit. They were immediately on view when I arrived albeit a long distance away and I couldn't be bothered to slog all the way up the causeway so contented myself with very distant views from the bank by the car park.

 Distant misty Bonxies

For me the highlight of the visit was the presence of both Arctic and Common Terns flying really close in just in front of me. It was a wonderful opportunity to compare and contrast the two species. Despite being able to rattle off by heart the list of the field guide differences there's nothing quite like seeing them side by side in the field for getting a feel for the two species and I came away much more confident in being able to tell them apart from flight views.

A fabulous set of photos taken by camera legend Roger Wyatt who was there watching the Terns with me.
Top two Arctic and bottom two Common

Patch Mega
I mentioned my patch birding earlier, well it's been a reasonably good year there so far with decent amounts of flood water (always a critical factor) lasting all the way into June. We've had a good selection of species though it's been a quiet spring for waders. So, after having had a very busy day with work, when I decided to pay an evening visit to the floods I was pleasantly surprised to find 20 or more Ringed Plover right at the start of the floods - a record count for the year so far. Conditions were very gloomy and overcast as I worked my way northwards up the floods but I kept finding more birds with a pair of Redshank, some Oystercatchers, a couple of Greenshank and a few Sanderling to add to the total - it had been a real fall! The highlight however was to be found right at the end. I spotted someone on the north shore with a pair of bins looking at something very intently. "What could he be looking at?" I wondered as I scanned over the northern section of flood water. I soon found the answer when an adult summer plumage Red-necked Phalarope came into view! I recognised it instantly from the one at Bicester Wetlands that I'd seen a few years previously so I busied myself with taking some video footage and then putting the word out. Most of the Port Meadow locals came to see it as well as a few county birders from further afield though with this being the third record in the last four years it wasn't the draw that it used to be.

The best I could manage on the video front given the distance and the gloomy conditions

I watched it until dusk in the company of various fellow admirers and as I was leaving four out-of-county people arrived to see it so in the end more than a dozen people came to pay their respects. As to be expected for a migrating spring bird, there was no sign of it the next day.

As a matter of interest (thanks to JU for the info), past records of this species are:
Shotover (found exhausted) Winter 1884
Sandford Sewage Farm Sep 1944
Marsh Baldon June 1960
Stanton Harcourt June 1969
Farmoor May 1974
Farmoor June 1974
Dix Pit  Sep 1995
A "probable" at Balscote Quarry June 2014 Bicester Wetlands: May 2015
Farmoor: Sep 2017

It was nice finally to find something good on the patch again - it's been a while personally though thankfully we now have a good team of dedicated birders who are collectively finding stuff to keep the patch rare list ticking over.

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