Friday, 10 July 2020

Surviving the Lockdown

With things slowly starting to get back to normal I thought that I'd reflect on the lockdown period, a strange twighlight world of home confinement punctuated by furtive forays out somewhere you hope you'll not meet too many other people. As a family at the weekends we've all needed to get out of the house and so we've been exploring some of the many BBOWT reserves within the county. Whilst I've been a long-standing member of BBOWT if truth be told I've not actually been to that many of the reserves. So when at the first weekend when we were all allowed out for socially distanced walks and the family asked where in the countryside would be a good place to go I suggested that we start to explore some of these locations. Whilst a café visit normally features strongly in any family outing, in these unusual times we resorted to a large flask of tea and some snacks to keep us going. Below is a summary of the various places that we've visited.

Sidling's Copse
I've visited Sidling's Copse a couple of times previously, once with my son in tow and once on my own but it was the first time for the rest of the family. Orchids and grassland flowers are a key feature here and there were still some Early Purples about though many of them were now swamped in the undergrowth.

Early Purple Orchid

The wooded area was completely carpeted in Ransoms (wild garlic)

Yellow Archangel

Bernwood Meadows
The next day we decided to go to Bernwood Forest. A nice bonus on the way there was a Spotted Flycatcher on the telegraph wires at Horton cum Studley. As we approached the main Bernwood car park we could see cars parked all along the approach road - clearly, as it was the first weekend of being allowed out, it was going to be heaving. So with a quick change of plans we headed instead to Bernwood Meadows where there was no one else. With a Cuckoo calling distanly as a backing soundtrack we wandered around the ususually dry Meadows. I was surprised at how few Green-winged Orchids were about and how stunted they were - I guess the very dry weather had taken its toll. From there we ventured into the wood and as we were some distance from the main car park and we kept off the main drag we hardly saw anyone else. We were lucky enough to spot a herd of deer running down one of the rides briefly before veering off into the forest.

Adder's Tounge Fern

Green-winged Orchid

Forester Moth - actually the first time I'd seen one. There were quite a few of them flitting sbout the place

Ardley Quarry
This turned out to be a bit of disappointment. It was an interesting enough site but smaller than we were expecting and whilst I rummaged about for butterflies the others soon exhausted the walking possibilities. I did spot several end of season Grizzled Skippers for my efforts but in the hot conditions they never settled long enough for a photo.

Bix Wood
This turned out to be a lovely wood. We approached along a footpath across a field and in the hot conditions enjoyed the coolness of the woodland shade. There was nothing of particular note on the nature front apart from some stunning Honeysuckle trailing down from the trees. A nice site though that I'd definitely want to visit again, just for the pleasure of the woodland walk.

Whitecross Green Wood
Personally this was the highlight of the various walks we did. This is always a less well know site and with the main car park closed we had the entire place to ourselves. What's more the rides were absolutely filled with butterflies. I know that the narrow rides there tend to concentrate all the butterflies in a relatively small area but it was full of them. It was mostly the usual stuff with Marbled Whites, Ringlets, Meadow Browns and all three Skippers but it was such a delight to see them all in such good numbers. Of course these woods are well known for rarer species such as White Admirals, Silver Washed Fritillaries and even Purple Emperors. We managed to spot several White Admirals and a fleeting glimpse of HIM though I didn't manage a photo of the latter. I heard several Marsh Tits calling and with some Common Spotted Orchids dotted around it was a great visit.

Beautiful Demoiselle

Common Spotted Orchid

White Admiral

Thursday, 2 July 2020

Hail to Thee Blyth Spirit

Regular readers will have noticed a distinct lack of posts over the last few months here. The reasons for this are several: I'm now working full time, albeit from home at present, so don't have the opportunity so easily to take the day off to go and twitch something. Weekends are taken up with family activities and in these present difficult times, I'm trying to keep as strictly "family time". Also, at the start of the lockdown due to Government restrictions twitching wasn't even an allowed option and it was only later on (which happily coincided with the Hoopoe and the Red-footed Falcon in Oxon) that it even became a possibility. Not that there's been a great deal that I would have wanted to twitch. I've watched with interest as we were invaded by Rose-coloured Starlings and Marsh Warblers but not enough to want to do anything about it. However, the sudden jump in Blyth's Reed Warblers records has been something that has picqued my interest. This species has been on my wanted list for a few years now: mysterious skulking birds which can only be identified by experts unless they are singing males and with only one or two records per year they would be a highly sought after life tick. That's all changed this year with dozens of records in the last couple of months mostly along the east coast. Most of them have still been rather skulking and most have been discovered through their song so there's probably an equal number of undiscovered females out there. Whilst most have done the usual "arrive exhausted, spend a day or two recouperating and then leave" routine, one bird up in Lincolnshire decided that he liked it so much that he set up territory. For the past week or so (at the time of writing) he's been belting out his song at point blank range in a desperate attempt to attract a mate. Given the numbers arriving in this country it's not altogether impossible that he might find one though the odds are of course heavily stacked against him. Still, a nailed down showy Blyth's was too good an opportunity to miss. I still hadn't really decided to go for it but just happened to mention to my daughter that if she wanted to head up to Edinburgh anytime soon to retrieve her stuff (which is stranded in her student room there at present) then that would be good. She replied that she wasn't allowed to do this just yet but a friend of hers in Doncaster has something that she needed. Now Doncaster happened to be rather near to my target bird so I didn't take much persuading to run this errand for her. So on Monday morning I waited until there was news of the bird's continued presence (which came soon enough - the bird was an early riser!). Then it was a matter of seeing if I could the day off at short notice from work. This was duly agreed upon and so shortly after 9 a.m. I was on the road.

My sat nav app was suggesting that rather than slogging up the M1, then cutting across the M180 instead to take the scenic route via the A46 and A15 past Lincoln. As this wasn't a route that I was that familiar with I thought that I'd give it a try. This turned out to be a nice, reasonably quiet way of getting there and with Radio 4 for company the miles slipped away. I'd left Oxford in bright sunshine but after a while I hit a wall of dull murk. To be honest I was quite pleased about this. The one concern I had was that I'd read reports of the bird stopping singing late morning and becoming much more skulking. My guess was that this might happen sooner the hotter it was so a bit of murk might help in this respect. Eventually I reached the turn off from the A15 and started to see signs for Far Ings Nature Reserve. The iconic Humber bridge hove into view - I was nearly there at last!

The Humber bridge
I parked up at the Ness End Farm, the Lincs WT centre, got tooled up and hurried up the road. As I went I met several other birders coming the other way. I'd forgotten how friendly people are up north - they all wanted to stop and chat. I obliged as much as was polite given that I'd yet to see the  bird though they all said that it was singing continuously. Eventually I reached the twitch area which basically consisted of a couple of Hawthorn bushes next to a ditch by the side of a single track road.

Staking out the two Hawthorn bushes
I could hear the bird singing away immediately so my concern about it stopping and skulking had proved unfounded. My main concern was the number of people there. This was my first proper out of county twitch since the pandemic and with a dozen birders crammed in a small space any kind of social distancing was going to be difficult. To start with I hung back and used my scope. After a few mnutes of singing hidden away my target bird flew up into a bare branch at the back of the larger Hawthorn where it continued to sing away and I was able to get my first view.
This seemed to be what a number of the present birders (mostly camera toting) seemed to want and after it soon ducked down into the ditch again a good half dozen of them left leaving a much more manageable number behind and I felt safe enough to move closer and to start to wield my superzoom camera. The bird was quiet for no more than a few minutes at a time though would often sing for prolonged periods out of view, sometimes down in the ditch. I'd listened to a number of recordings so knew what to expect though I must admit that I was truly entranced by it's lovely song. It would methodically and deliberately repeat each phrase a number of times and throw in lots of mimicry. It was fun to play "spot the impersonation" and this bird had quite a repertoire.

Occasionally it would fly up onto a bare Hawthorn bush where it was much more easily viewable and then everyone would pap away like crazy. The rest of the time it would skulk around out of  sight though with a bit of observering you could often see the reeds moving as it worked its way through the ditch and thus work out what angle to view from. So a number of times I'd manage to find an angle to view it from and would start taking some shots. The first time I did this some photo birder came and stood literally right next to me in his desperation to get a shot. I really couldn't understand  it - it wasn't like the bird  had been skulking away for hours. I told him in no uncertain terms that he was standing too close to me and that there was plenty of time to see the bird and he backed off apologetically. I just can't understand this craziness that besets photographers in situations like this. They seem so desperate for that money shot that all reason and etiquette goes out the window when they see their target.

I passed about an hour and a half in this way, enjoying listening to the bird and following it as it alternated between singing on an exposed branch and then skulking around in the ditch. By the end I felt that I'd well and truly seen a Blyth's Reed Warble and could head back for home content. I wandered back to the car in a peaceful frame of mind, stopping only to admire a Pyramidal Orchid standing all alone in an otherwise closely cropped lawn.

On the way back to the car I spotted this single Pyramidal Orchid that someone had carefully mown all around to leave it standing on its own
Back at the car I did contemplate going for the Rose-colourd Starling about an hour further northwards at Collingham in Yorkshire but there had been no news on it since first thing this morning. Whilst it was probably still there, after some deliberation in the end I decided to head back for home instead. I had to stop off briefly to pick up something for my daughter (thus making it an official errand rather than just some random twitch) but apart from that my journey back home was uneventful and I arrived back at Casa Gnome late afternoon for my customary celebratory cup of tea and a catch-up with my VLW.

Addendum: ID Breakdown

My interest in the whole identification headache for the Reed, Marsh, Blyth's complex was picqued recently by a great blog post by Gavin Haig on Not Quite Scilly - see here. In it he went into all sorts of detail regarding the recent Beer Head Blyth's, which was most educational as up until now all that sort of stuff about emarginations of P4 had completely gone over my head. I felt pretty confident that I could successfully identify a singing male from these three species without any difficulty but I was suprised at how tricky the Beer Head bird's song was (see here) - I would certainly have struggled. But what would happen if I came across a non-singing bird, would I be able to do it? Maybe it was time I finally got to grips with the differences. Accordingly and largely for my own benefit (though in passing I hope that this is also useful to others) here's the Gnome Guide to Reed, Marsh and Blyth's.

Feature Reed Marsh Blyth's
Head super stops at eye,
eye ring stronger than super,
dark lower bill
super stops at eye,
eyering same as super,
yellow lower bill
super extends beyond eye,
eyering same as super,
yellow lower bill
rufous tinge
yellow tinge
all over underside
dark grey tinge
warmer brown rump
than mantle and tail
rump concolourous
with mantle and tail
rump concolourous
with mantle and tail

7-8 tips
beyond tertials

7-8 tips
beyond tertials,
pale tips
6-7 tips
beyond tertials
little P4

little P4

little P5
tertials shorter
than secondaries

tertials extend
beyond secondary

tertials shorter
than secondaries

So, let's look at some photos  to illustrate all of the above.

Blyth's (courtesy of Ewan Urquhart)
supercilium extends beyond eye,
no contrast between eye ring and super,
yellowish lower bill

Reed Warbler (courtesy of Nick Truby)
supercilum largely stops at eye
eye ring stands out compared to super
dark lower bill
Marsh warbler (courtesy of Roger Wyatt)
super stops at eye
no eye ring contrast with super
yellow lower bill

Reed Warbler, courtesy of Roger Wyatt
rump a warmer brown than mantle & tail
rufous tinge to flanks

Marsh Warbler courtesy of Roger Wyatt
hint of yellow to underside

Blyth's courtesy of Ewan Urquhart
Short primary projection ~ 50%
strong emargination P3, P4, hint on P5
Short tertials don't reach secondaries

Reed Warbler courtesy of Roger Wyatt
Primary projection ~ 75%
strong emargination P3, hint on P4

I've certainly learnt a lot from putting all this together and now feel that with a half decent photo of a  bird in the field I'd be able to nail the ID. I just have to go and find something now!

Wednesday, 27 May 2020

Double County Unblocking: Hoopoe & Red-footed Falcon

There are a couple of species that are recorded almost annually in the county yet which are incredibly difficult actually to see. For both these species the records are usually post factum single observer records, often from people who aren't regular birders or sometimes just photos sent to the county recorder asking "what's this bird which was in my garden recently". Each year I think "this year we'll get a twitchable one" but each year I am once again disappointed. Well, finally this was the year, for both species in fact: Hoopoe and Red-footed Falcon.

Three weeks ago on a Thursday news broke at around 11 am of a Red-footed Falcon right on the border between Oxon and Bucks at Piddington. The original source of the news was a Tweet by a worker on some railway embankment works who'd taken a picture of what turned out to be a female Red-footed Falcon looking for worms that were being dug up by the earth works. The modern world being what it is he was soon contacted by various keen locals asking for more information. He then asked his site manager who told him in no uncertain terms to delete the Tweet and that no access was going to be arranged for birders. In the end he deleted his whole Twitter account, such was the interest that he had inadvertently generated. 

There was a certain amount of intense discussion within the Oxon birding community about the bird and some people seemed to know more details about where it actually was than others. What's more with COVID19 restrictions having only just relaxed to allow travel within your car for your "daily exercise", there was some debate as to whether twitching should even presently be contemplated. However as it was not thought possible to view it in anyway we all marked it down as yet another tantalising yet untwitchable record. A couple of enterprising young county birders even cycled out there and one or two county birders did go to case the joint by car but by mid afternoon the general conclusion that it was a non starter.

That lasted until about 5:15 pm when one of the young birders reported that he'd seen the falcon in flight from one of the two railway bridges that cross the line either end of the works. That was enough to kick the most twitchy county birders into action and a posse of Oxon's keenest duly sallied forth. Now, I'm not personally in the "go on any chance" kind of twitching camp and tend to be in the second wave of visitors once things are more confirmed, so I stayed at home - it all sounded too speculative for me. However, a team of county listers looking to unblock a long-standing county blocker (the last Red-foot was at Merton Borrow Pit in 1997) are a resourceful bunch and they eventually managed to work out a way to see the bird. However, due to COVID restrictions and the difficult nature of the viewing area where social distancing of any kind would be impossible with any numbers it was decided not to publicise the news to the wider community but instead to use the old fashioned grape vine quietly to pass news on to locals who were interested in seeing it. News duly trickled down to me so the next evening after work myself and a couple of other locals arranged a visit. Even though there's been no news for about a couple of weeks now, I'm not going to reveal any viewing details in case the bird should turn up again but suffice it to say that we all got reasonable views of this lovely bird and I even managed a few ropey digiscoped images.

The following Monday news broke of a Hoopoe found again close to the Bucks county boundry, this time by the Bucks county recorder who it turned out actually lived in Oxon in Twyford just south of Banbury. The bird had apparently been seen a couple of times on the front lawns of a residential close though seemed rather flighty. I was working until 5pm so could only watch developments from afar anyway but there didn't seem to be any concrete news with just occasional reports of brief glimpses. It turned out that Badger was on site though as 5pm approached he told me that it has not been seen for an hour and a half so I was half expecting there to be no further news. However, shortly after 5 pm just as I was just switching off my company laptop for the day, he reported that it had been seen again briefly so off I went on the half hour journey north to Twyford.

Just as I was arriving CO was leaving and wound down his car window to report that it was showing incredibly well at the moment. I rushed to get my stuff together and sprinted down to the small crowd of half a dozen only to discover (of course) that it had just flown off. I was told that it was showing about once per hour so resigned myself to a long wait but in the end it was a little over five minutes before it flew back down onto its favourite lawn though it seemed to be spooked by something (the people standing staring at it I think) for it immediately flew off again. At least I could relax now and with the relief that comes of having seen the target, I started chatting quietly with the others. The bird made one more brief appearance but didn't seem to want to settle. Gradually people started to drift away until it was just Badger and myself. Having seen how flighty it was I decided to sit down and Badger was positioned behind a bush so we now offered a much lower profile and this seemed to do the trick as the bird came back, had a wary look around and then began to feed. In the end this lasted for more than ten wonderful minutes as it methodically worked its way all over the small patch of lawn, regularly digging up leatherjackets and tossing them down with gusto.

Eventually both Jason and I had taken all the photos and footage that we could with the equipment we were using (I was deploying my Superzoom camera and he was on his camcorder). He decided to go and get his digiscoping gear but before he could return a neighbour popped his head out his door right next to the bird and that was enough to spook it. It flew off to the end of the road, landed on a roof and then flitted off to another lawn.

That was good enough for the two of us and we duly headed off, very happy with our views. The bird ended up staying one more day enabling plenty more county birders to connect with it. It was well and truly unblocked!

Tuesday, 19 May 2020

Spring Patch Round-up

Other bloggers have been posting their daily sightings on their various patches or from their gardens. All around the country people have been getting stuck in with new found passions for noc migging or their garden list. I have been no exception to this but most of my efforts have revolved around my local patch of Port Meadow for which I have a separate blog. I am so lucky to have such a good patch within a few minutes walk of where I live. In many ways for me the lockdown has brought little change to my daily birding habits. In fact all it has done is to remove any choice about where to go each day which has in fact made my life much simpler. Now my only question each day is when to visit the patch. Some mornings I'd be up there before 7 am and other days it would be an evening visit. I am aware that some readers of this blog might not follow my patch one and in any event  I was thinking of doing a round-up of spring sightings now that the passage season is drawing to a close. According this is a condensed single post of what my spring patch birding has been like.

By all accounts it's been a good season for Port Meadow. The lockdown meant that many Oxford birders who might otherwise go to more productive locations such as Farmoor or Otmoor instead were able to travel by foot or bike to the Meadow. This meant that instead of it just being myself and one or two others, we had a good half dozen regular watchers. Indeed on some days the whole day was covered from more or less first light through to dusk. This of course meant that much less slipped through the net than to usual and the result has been a great season with all the classic spring birds that we might hope for and some amazing unexpected bonus birds  as well. The only fly in the ointment has been the amazingly dry spell of weather that we've had. Now for Port Meadow the key factor is the flood waters - without them the patch is little more than a large grassy field but the waters attract all sorts of birds and make it the diverse and enjoyable location that it is. Such was the dryness that if it had not been for the wet winter which had meant that we were starting from some very full floods, we might have had a much poorer season. As it was, the floods held out for just long enough to see us into May though the relentless sunshine meant that we never got a decent fall of waders which is the most exciting patch scenario to be encountered. It has also meant that many birds have just kept on flying through rather than dropping in to visit the floods so numbers in many respects have been down on previous years. So all in all there have been a number of conflicting factors contributing to the success or failure of the spring passage but on balance it has been a good one.

I'll start with the regular birds that we would hope to see each year. The spring passage kicked off  in late March with the first Sand Martins and Little Ringed Plover. In fact the latter species went on to be by far the most common wader recorded on the floods with a count in excess of 40 birds as I write this with another 10 just seen in the last few days.

The commonest Meadow wader this spring
Apart from this lovely plover we had a smattering of Dunlin and Ringed Plover later on in the season though without the regular daily sightings that I would expect  had the weather been more mixed.

Dunlin and Ringed Plover on the Meadow

We also had a good spring for Black-tailed Godwits with quite a few flocks of up to 8 birds passing through mostly in April. Unfortunately we never got any records of its rarer cousing the Bar-tailed Godwit.

A lone Black-tailed Godwit arrived late on the in season

Redshank were fairly numerous at the start of the season with a few Greenshank later on (with one staying several days). We also had a couple of  Curlew records as well which was nice to see.

Unfortunately this spring was rather light on many of the rarer waders and we never got Sanderling, Knot or Green Sandpiper. Also, whilst we did manage a Whimbrel record, it was just a heard-only flyover one evening. Even Common Sandpiper (which is normally fairly common on the Meadow) was only seen once one evening. However there were a few really excellent wader species which we did manage to get which I've written up in the Top Birds Section

Wagtails and pipits are somewhat of a speciality of Port Meadow and we had a good spring passage of wagtails at least. There were plenty of Yellow Wagtails though no Blue-headed or Channel's this time. We also had an unusually good spring for White Wagtails. Normally we're lucky if we get one at all in April but we must have had at least a dozen this time - I don't know what brought about this suddenly increase in records apart from the increased coverage from extra eyes on the patch.

One of many Yellow Wagtails seen this spring
One of an unusually high count of White Wagtails
On the pipit front we were lucky enough to have someone spot a fly-over Tree Pipit one morning. This species is a bit of Meadow speciality where we've had a few stick around in Burgess Field for a while though not so this time round. We also had a Common Redstart record where one was seen briefly one morning though it wasn't seen again. We were also blessed with a good number of Wheatear records this spring. This species is normally only recorded once or twice a year but the increased coverage brought at least half a dozen records this spring.

In terms of Warblers the usual species arrived more or less when they might be expected. We were lucky to get several Sedge Warblers passing through though once again sadly there were no Grasshopper Warbler records to be had.

Top Birds of the Spring Passage
As well as the joy of watching the return or at least passage of the usual species each spring, it's the one-off rarer records which help to make for a good season. This time, thanks to the numbers watching the Meadow and with the help of technology to disemminate news quickly, many people were able to catch  up with some of the better sightings. So in a rough order of increasing importance below are the "Top7 Birds of Spring".

7 Avocet
To start with we have an Avocet. This species is a bit less than annual but this bird turned up on the same morning as one of the top birds in this list, making for a great morning double

The Avocet
6  Osprey
The next bird in this list is an Osprey which I was fortunate enough to luck in on as it circled the Meadow for a few minutes one morning. The same bird had been seen south of the city at Iffley Lock about 15 minutes earlier so was clearly following the river north.

It's an Osprey, honest!

5 Wood Sandpiper
This rare county wader is something of a speciallity of the Meadow and over the years we've hosted more than our fair share. One was found one evening though unfortunately it had gone by the next morning so not so many birders got to see it.

Wood Sandpiper courtesy of Joe Wynn the finder

4 Grey Plover
Back when I first started birding the Meadow this species would turn up relatively often, usually later on in the spring passage season. However it's been a good few years since we had one so for this reason  I've ranked it ahead of the Wood Sandpiper though it's about the same rarity level.

The Grey Plover

3 Great White Egret
This species is not the rarity that it once was. I remember going to twitch the first one for the county back when I'd just started birding whereas it's now seen regularly throughout the year. Still it's a rarity for the Meadow with just a few records, often fly-overs though we did have one up at the Wolvercote Lakes one spring. This was actually my personal favourite sighting of the spring, as I happened to find it early one morning just as the sun was starting to burn off the morning mist. It was standing on its own in the middle of the floods and in its summer breeding plumage it looked very exotic with pistachio bill base and pink flush to its thighs. Unfortunately it didn't linger and no one else got to see it. It was found the same morning as the Avocet which made for a great double.

The Great White Egret in full breeding plumage

2. Black Tern
I have a bit of history with this species on the patch. The only other record this century was in 2011 where one turned up one evening but because of family commitments I wasn't able to see it. For my own sanity  I don't keep a personal patch list but instead prefer to work on the multi-contributor year list and historic record list. Still it was a nice grip-back when one was found during one of only a couple of days of poor weather. In poor conditions it stuck around all evening but was gone the next day.

1. Ring Ouzel
Top bird this spring was the long staying Ring Ouzel. In fact we first had a record in Cripley Meadows allotments one morning though no one else ever saw it. A couple of days later what may very well have been the same bird was found skulking around in Burgess Field. It was faithful to a relatively small, rather wooded area in the nature reserve but was remarkably elusive, often offering only the briefest of glimpses. It stuck around for more than a week in the end and as the only patch record of this species this century (there were a couple in the late 90's) it well deserves its billing as top bird of the spring on Port Meadow

I was lucky with a bit of field craft finally to get a reasonable photo of our star bird

So that was the Port Meadow spring. Autumn normally starts very late for the Meadow as the floods don't normally form until November when we've had sufficient rain so unfortunately we tend to miss out on the return wader passage. Let's hope for a nice wet summer then!

Sunday, 5 April 2020

Winter Round-up & Back Home!

Given that I'm stuck at home now I thought that I'd catch up on some of my blogging. Not that there's been a great deal to write about. As regular readers will know, up until recently I've been working in London during the week and so have had no time for any bird excursions. Still there have been a couple of occasions where I've been able to fit in a bit of birding around some other activities so I thought I'd do a round-up of what I've been up to so far this year.

The first trip was a rather sad affair: my former business partner, with whom I worked for over 10 years as part of a very successful partnership, sadly became very ill last year with a strange neurological condition which they couldn't diagnose. At the end of last year I heard the sad news that he had passed away so in the first few days of January I headed north to Macclesfield for the funeral. The ceremony itself was a very raw and emotional affair but they organised a wake afterwards which was by complete contrast a lovely, warm and friendly opportunity to reminisce about our mutual friend. I did happen to check whether there might be anything of birdy interest in the vicinity and found to my delight that the over-wintering Maurus Western Siberian Stonechat was no more than 20 minutes away from the wake location. So I left the party with just enough winter daylight left for me get over there and have a look for it. Fortunately there were a few locals about who put me on the right location and after about twenty minutes or so I had some rather distant but satisfactory views. I had been hoping that it was going to turn out to be a Stejneger's Siberian Stonechat (which was the one I needed) but sadly the DNA dice did not fall in my favour this time. Since my visit people have managed to get some quite decent photos of the bird so rather than embarrass myself with my puny efforts I've borrowed one below from RBA.

The Western Siberian Stonechat, taken by Mark Woodhead (c). See his blog here

The next visit was also sadly related to the passing away of someone close: this time involving the house clearing of my late mother-in-law's house. She had died last autumn but January was the first time that my VLW's family had got together to try to sort through all her possessions. There wasn't a great deal for me to do there so whilst the siblings worked their way around the house I decided to nip over to nearby Staines reservoir where I managed to see the flock of 10 over-wintering Black-necked Grebes. There's something appealingly bleak about this location and in the stiff wind it didn't disappoint in that respect. I enjoyed seeing the Grebes, which all kept close together in a tight flock. In fact my first ever Black-necked Grebe back when I started birding some twelve years ago now was from this site. Where as all the time gone?

Apart from those two trips I've been keeping my head down and working in London. It's no sort of life really: getting up at 6 am and returning towards 7pm, too tired to do anything. To ease the commuting burden I've been staying at my parents' house in Epsom during the week which does knock half an hour off the commuting time but then means that I'm away from my family. However, one thing which has made it more bearable has been Regent's Park. I've already mentioned that I'd started birding there and this year I soon got into a routine of heading out there most lunchtimes to see what I could see. I got to know the local Conservation Officer TD (see his Twitter account here) who knows all there is to know about the local bird life. He told me where the local Little Owls roosted over the winter and so each day I would check out their favourite tree on the off-chance that one might be showing. It took several weeks before I finally had the luck to see one sunning itself and over the next few days I managed to see it quite regularly, even telling TD about it so he could get some video.

A still taken from Regent's Park Birds Twitter feed. See the original video here
Thanks to his help I also added Stock Dove to my Park list and as the first migrants started to reach the country it was with a frisson of excitement that each lunchtime I'd go out to do the rounds to see what I could find. It usually wasn't much but it's amazing how quickly one recalibrates one's expectations and how relatively common birds became much more highly prized.

I would have liked to have birded the Park properly throughout the spring but as we all know the dreaded virus has turned all our lives upside down. For my part it meant that I got to work from home again which is pretty much my ideal outcome and what I would do given the choice anyway. The lockdown has also meant that there has been no conflict in deciding whether to skip work to go and twitch something so it's been a pretty relaxed state of affairs. Living so close to Port Meadow has naturally meant that my daily exercise is taken there and so I've been able to bird my patch pretty much as I would anyway. 

So here I am back to working from home and birding Port Meadow as always - it was all just a dream! Actually I consider myself profoundly lucky that:
a) I have a job and am able to work in the present circumstances. I know that millions aren't so lucky and I thank my stars that I've been fortunate enough to land on my feet in this respect
b) I live within walking distance of my patch anyway so am able to bird as usual. Again many birders are reduced to garden listing and noc migging to try and get their daily nature fix.

I say "bird as usual" but I have changed my habits slightly. I now just take my bins and superzoom camera as it's easier to justify my excursion as exercise if I'm not lugging my scope about with me. I also now bird after I finish work at 5pm where I walk on the western side of the floods (between the floods and the river) where the sun is in my favour and there aren't any people. It's quite hard to keep 2m apart at certain pinch points on Port Meadow, especially where I would normally scope from next to Burgess Field gate so walking along the river side of the floods with my bins works pretty well for me. So far there's not been anything especially exciting but I've enjoyed the heart-warming pleasure of the first Little Ringed Plovers and Sand Martins of spring. It's good to be back at my birding spiritual home.

Sunday, 2 February 2020

End of Year Review

For reasons that I have already outlined previously, I have very limited time at present so it's only now that I am able to write my end of year review. I expect that most people have already tired of such indulgent look-backs but personally this is the first opportunity that I've had and it's a good chance for me to reminisce on the past year. As usual I will divide it up into various categories and award "Bird of the Year" awards to each.

Patch Birding
As in previoius years I've done a more comprehensive annual review on my Port Meadow birding blog (see here) so I'll just give an executive summary here. It was a rather quiet year in many respects with a below average year list tally of 125, reflecting the poor county year that we've had generally. When doing the review I was reminded of what a good winter's gulling we had at the start of the year with no less than 7 Caspian Gulls and 3 Med Gulls. This was in no small part due to the efforts of Thomas Miller, a young and very keen birder who works the patch with me. His enthusiasm reminds me of how I used to be when I first started out on the Meadow. Gradually the years of toil grind you down though!

The highlight for me and Patch bird of the year was the Grey-headed Wagtail that was found (by Thomas) in May there. Other notables were Merlin and Wood Warbler, neither of which I personally saw.

Grey-headed Wagtail courtesy of Thomas Miller
I suppose that I should now include my London Patch of Regents Park in this review. The only bird of note at all was the errant Red-throated Diver that turned up there so that would have to be the London Bird of the Year. For your information, my Regents Park life list stands at a princely 54 now with a Water Rail being one of the nicer recent additions.

London Bird of the Year
National Birding
This year I managed five UK national lifers, which was pretty much in line with last year. Due to the law of diminishing returns, ticks are only going to get harder and harder to come by though thankfully the current trend for splitting loads of species is helping to ease the situation a little, with more on offer each year and the possibility of some armchair ticks to boot.

In the spring the only sortie of note was the dash over to Slimbridge to see the elusive Little Bustard. After a frustrating three hour wait in sweltering heat that was hot enough to get the legendary LGRE to remove his shirt (not really what you want to see when out birding!) I finally managed to get reasonable views of its head sticking out of the long grass. A lot of hard work for less than crippling views but hey, a tick's a tick!

There were no other national trips after that until the Autumn when I had to take Daughter Number 2 up to Edinburgh for the start of her term there. A lunchtime stop en route for a mystery Wheatear made for a pleasant diversion which was made all the more special when some days later it was finally identified as a Eastern Black-eared Wheatear, a fine UK lifer no less!

Eastern Black-eared Wheatear at Pilling
After dropping off my daughter I then made a trip up into the Highlands in absolutely perfect weather to pay homage to the Strontium Black Duck. After a shaky start I managed to nail it down properly and enjoyed my second lifer of the trip. I'll remember the second part of the trip as much for the glorious weather and wonderful scenery as anything else.

The Strontium Black Duck
It was only a week later that an Eastern Olivaceous Warbler turned up down on the south coast at Farlington Marshes. This was close enough to be a "must go" trip and fortunately the bird was pretty cooperative for me though it never stayed still long enough for a decent photo.

There then followed a trip to drop Daughter Number 1 off at Durham for the start of her PhD. With no great rarities on offer I settled for some nice second tier birding with a White-rumped Sandpiper at Tophill NR the star of the trip, with a Yellow-browed Warbler plus a few bits and bobs at Spurn making for a pleasant enough outing. 

Given my full-time work that began in October I had been thinking that that was going to be it for the year but right in the last couple of weeks an Eastern Yellow Wagtail (of the Blue-headed race) was found over in Norfolk. With some enforced time off work it seemed rude not pay it a visit. In terrible light and a nasty wind my views were worse than subsequent visitors seemed to have but I was happy enough with what I saw.

Blue-headed Eastern Yellow Wagtail
Whilst there news broke of a possible Grey-bellied Brant which I managed to see quite well.

Possible Grey-bellied Brant
On the way home I decided to stop in to see the long-staying Black-throated Thrush which, after a bit of searching, eventually showed nicely for me.

Black-throated Thrush
So all in all a grand finale to the year.

In terms of National Bird of the Year, this has been a tricky one but (perhaps controversially) I've decided to give it to the Strontium Black Duck. This is partly to do with the elation when I finally managed to nail it down after what had been a very long trip to see it and partially because the weather and scenery were just so perfect.

County Birding

As mentioned above, it was rather a low key year here in Oxon with a below average year list of around 200. There were a few good birds that turned up though which I managed to see. It started off in January when a trip to see the Ring-necked Parakeets in the University Parks turned up a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker. Sadly the bird was just passing through and had gone after 20 minutes but I managed to see a nice Black Redstart as part of the trip as well.

The Black Redstart, gracing the southern wall of Christ Church College
In April a lovely  Bonaparte's Gull turned up at Blenheim, which was well worth a visit. I've already mentioned the Grey-headed Wagtail that was found on Port Meadow in May. It's a shame that it was only a sub-species as otherwise it would have been an excellent county tick.

Also in May was the wonderful Red-rumped Swallow that was found up at Grimsbury Reservoir. This showy bird ended up staying for quite some time but I managed to see it on the morning it was found.

Red-rumped Swallow
The only Oxon tick of the year came in September when a Manx Shearwater turned up at Farmoor. This was a great grip-back after missing the only other twitchable bird during my time as an Oxon birder which as also at Farmoor back in 2009.Whilst this should make it an automatic shoe-in for my Oxon bird of the year to be honest I got more pleasure from the Red-rumped Swallow so controversially I'm going to award it to that little beauty instead.

I only made two trips to Cornwall this year, both of which were very low key in terms of good birds. In fact the best bird of the two trips was a Glossy Ibis - that's how bad it was. For that reason I shan't award a BotY award for Cornwall this year. For those who are interested the trip reports are here:
spring, summer.

Other Stuff
As regular readers will know in the summer months I tend to diversify into flowers and insects. Whilst this year was fairly low key in that respect there are still a few trips to report.

The first was a trip to see the Early Spider Orchids at Durlston Country Park down in Dorest. After bumbling about in the wrong direction a bit I eventually found them with a nice supporting cast of Early Purple and Green-winged Orchids

Durlston Early Spider Orchid
 My next trip was in June to catch up with the Man Orchids at Totternhoe Knolls.

Totternhoe Knolls Man Orchid

 That was sadly it for Orchids this year and the only insect trip of note was that as part of my summer visit to Cornwall I managed finally to see a Red-veined Darter at Drift Reservoir.

Red-veined Darter at Drift Reservoir
So that's it for my belated annual review. Being still very much in London work mode presently, I'm not sure how much I'll be able to do this year but I hope to have some time to enjoy the wonderful wildlife that this country has to offer.