Sunday, 5 March 2023

Farmoor Lesser Scaup (& an American Wigeon Bonus)

On Thursday at just before 4pm news broke on the Oxon birding grapevine of a "possible" male Lesser Scaup at Farmoor. I inwardly cursed when I read this: Lesser Scaup was a bird that I still needed for my county list but the "possible" bit meant that it might end up all being for naught. I'd been badly burnt a few years back in 2017 when a "Lesser Scaup" at Farmoor had turned out to be a hybrid Lesser x Greater Scaup. From this experienced I'd learnt that it can be a bit of a minefield sifting the pure Lesser Scaup from various hybrid combinations and I guess that was why there was the "possible" prefix. Still I wasn't doing anything and these days there is plenty of light until 6pm so I finished my cup of tea, threw my birding gear into the Gnome-mobile and headed off through the rush-hour traffic towards Farmoor. Google was recommending the Swinford Toll Bridge route to the reservoir as the fastest due to the traffic and in a little under half an hour I was pulling up at the car park, tooling up and yomping off down the causeway.

The report had stated the west end of Farmoor 2, the far end from the car park of the larger of the two reservoirs at Farmoor so I hurried along as quickly as I could. I was worried about when the gate might shut - a sign attached to the broken entrance barrier stated 5pm which was only over 30 minutes from when I arrived but I was on a mission and so chose to risk it. Still my mind couldn't help but go over the possibility of getting locked in as I slogged along the concrete path to the far end. There was one other birder ahead of me and by the time I reached the far end I'd caught up with him. It turned out to be JT and we joined forces in our search.

There was no obvious sign of it at the west end so we decided to walk the entire perimeter of F2 - a total distance of 3.8km according to Google maps. As we walked we both remarked on the almost total absense of any Tufted Duck. I am used to seeing hundreds of them overwintering on the reservoir so it was strange to see the place so empty. Eventually in the south east corner we spotted half a dozen of them though there was no nearctic interloper amongst them. Almost back where were started, about 200 yards before the entrance ramp we spotted a few more and bingo - there it was in amongst them!


Some rather back-lit video of the bird in the dying light

As the light was fading we set about taking some video and putting the news out. It was also a chance to give the bird a good grilling. From my bitter hybrid experience I'd learnt that there were four main factors to look out for: the head shape, the nail on the bill, the size of the vermiculations and the wing bar. This had a narrow black nail confined to the tip of its bill (as it should do). The vermiculations were also rather coarse - I remembered that this stood out for the hybrid bird last time which had had very fine vermiculations. The head shape had the peak past the crown as well - tick!. We didn't get to see the wing bar (the bold part of which should be confined to the inner half of the wing) but everything else was spot on. We watched as the bird literally swam off into the sunset with its Tufty friends before I decided to head off home. Fortunately the gate was still open and the parking barrier wasn't working so there wasn't a fee to pay - hurrah!

The Lesser Scaup & Friends

The bird did the decent thing and stayed on, enabling the wing bar to be confirmed by others as well. There is some speculation that this might be the Staine's Reservoir bird relocating as that had disappeared a few days earlier. Either way, it was a most welcome grip-back tick for the county.

This excellent photo (courtesy of Ewan Urquhart above and below).
shows the narrow black nail, the head shape and the coarse vermiculations..

...and the wing flap shows the bold wing bar is confined to the inner wing.

Otmoor American Wigeon

As well as this "rare" nearctic duck there was a slightly commoner (only a "scarce") one gracing the county with its presence, namely the drake American Wigeon at Otmoor. This bird, now thought to be the Somerset Shapwick Heath bird, had been seen on Port Meadow one evening by TM before disappearing again and then turning up on the Flood Field at the north end of Otmoor. There it has stayed ever since giving distant views. As I'd already seen a couple in the county and it wasn't on my patch I was in no hurry but it stuck around so this Sunday morning with the rest of the family busy doing other stuff, I finally decided to pay a visit.

I parked up at Oddington and after a pleasant 15 minute walk along the bridleway I arrived at the Flood Field. There was one other person on site, a visiting London birder trying to scope through the hedge. He'd seen it a while ago but was not presently on it. So I went back to the main viewing area just past the kissing gate where in a few minutes I managed to find it. I'd trained myself to know what to look for in case it turned up on Port Meadow again and the continuous pink/brown flanks of the american bird really stood out compared to the pink and grey two-toned flanks of the eurasian birds. It was literally as far away as was possible from where we were viewing so my video efforts were strictly record shot quality.

Some very distant video footage of the drake American Wigeon

While we were watching the bird an Otter swam right past it in the water. This was my first ever Otter sighting in Oxfordshire, despite its increasing presence in the county. One of the highlights of the trip was seeing all the birds go up as a Marsh Harrier went over, harrying them relentlessly. There were thousands of Lapwing and Golden Plover - I don't think I've ever seen so many Lapwing together in one place. It was a marvellous spectacle!

This shot doesn't really do justice to the spectacle of so many
Golden Plover and Lapwing all flying around at once

After a while I headed back home, pleased to have added a third Oxon American Wigeon sighting to my records as well having enjoyed the spectacle of so many wintering birds on the Otmoor floods. It had been a good morning out!


Saturday, 21 January 2023

The Durham Run - Redcar King Eider

I kicked off this year's out of county birding rather gently with a run back up to Durham to take Daughter #1 back up there where she is currently finishing off her PhD. As usual I had a good look around to see what might be on offer in the North East whilst I was up there but there was nothing to tempt me apart from the long staying 2nd winter King Eider at Redcar. So rather than busting a gut to get up there early doors, instead we had a more leisurely departure from Oxford at sometime after 10 am, arriving after 2pm where after lunch we went for a walk along the River Wear to look for Dippers. Unfortunately the river was too flooded and their favoured area was too fast and deep. There were a few Goosander on the river and the moonrise over the river was rather spectaclular.

Moorise over the River Wear

The next day I was up and out of the house by 8am and a little before 9am I was pulling up along the Redcar seafront. Unfortunately the weather was blowing a gale and lashing down with rain - not exactly ideal! I made an attempt to scope from the roadside and managed to locate the Eider flock at least but the flock was so far away and the scope shaking wind made it difficult to make anything out. PC, whom I knew from the internet to be one of the top listers in the country, turned up and I filled him in on my findings. I decided to go down onto the shoreline to try to get closer, at the expense of the elevation of course. It was still pretty hopeless. 

The view of the sea from Redcar sea front

PC came over to say that he'd managed to see the bird and to check if I'd seen it - that was considerate of him! In the end I retired to the car where I realised that I could set up my scope and have a clear line of sight to the Eider flock. Sheltered from the wind and rain finally I started to get views good enough to make out the birds though this was at 60x magnification and even then they were tiny specks. Eventually I picked out the bird and had clear enough views to be positive about what I was looking at. Result!


By far the best photo of the bird I've seen, taken by Damian Money (c) (@damian_money on Twitter)

This was my third King Eider: my first was the long staying individual at the Ythan estuary up in Scotland and my second was a distant bird in Cornwall that I really had to work for. 


A reminder of the Ythan bird that I managed to see at my second attempt

This had taken me until midday so now it was time to pack up, and head off home. I stopped en route to buy a sandwich and to eat it in the carpark and with a friend's podcast to listen to on the way back I arrived back in Oxford sometime after 4pm for a celebratory cup of tea. It had been a low key but satisfactory start to the new birding year.




Friday, 13 January 2023

2022 End of Year Review

So here we are with the fashionably late end of year review for 2022. On reflection it's been a pretty good year all round. As usual I've broken it down into patch, county and national birding.


Port Meadow Patch

As usual, I've done an in depth review of the patch year which you can see here. To give an executive summary, we ended the year on 137 strict BOU species + 1 extra (Red-breasted Goose). This compares well with the previous record breaking year which ended up on 136 + 4 extra. So depending on how strict you are, this could be considered as a record breaking year. In the end there were no outstanding "national level" rares. Rather it was a number of "good county birds" that made up the excitement. This included the following shortlist for the Port Meadow Bird of the Year award. The record counts in brackets are for the patch.

Siberian Chiffchaff (first record)
Little Tern (second record)
Arctic Tern (first record for several years)
Water Pipit (second record)
Rock Pipit (fourth record)
Yellow-browed Warbler (fourth record)
Hawfinch (second record)

In the end I gave the Bird of the Year Award to the Water Pipit, partly because it was a personal patch tick.

The Water Pipit (BotY) was poorly photographed so here's the more photogenic Siberian Chiffchaff, which came a close second in the awards


County Birding

The county year was an interesting one. There were three county firsts in the end: a Pallas's Warbler in January at Abingdon sewage works, the amazing Common Nighthawk in Wantage in September and a single-observer no access Red-flanked Bluetail at an undisclosed site. If you include half a dozen different Yellow-browed Warblers across the county (including on Port Meadow) then it was a pretty decent year.

No prizes for guessing the county Bird of the Year Award!

Apart from the Pallas's and the Nighthawk (which were both county ticks) there was one other county level trip to discuss, a trip in the autumn to Balscote Quarry NR up near Banbury in order to upgrade my heard-only Dartford Warbler county tick to a full blown tick. So with 2.5 county ticks it was a pretty decent year. 

As usual I will wrap up the county birding section with the traditional Gnome Studios video review.


The Traditional Gnome Studios Review of 2022


National Birding

Nationally it was an unusually good year for me. I've gotten used to getting less than half a dozen national lifers a year now so to end up with 8 (albeit two being "heard only") was pretty good. In chronological order we have:

1. A trip to see the Eastbourne American Robin in February. This was quite a national Mega, with the last twitchable one having been back in 2010. With a side order of a Hume's Warbler and a Hooded Crow it made for a great day out in what is usually a very quiet month.

The American Robin performed well on the day I was there

2 & 3. The first of two two tick days happened in May with a trip to Kent to see the Eleonora's Falcon with a bonus (albeit heard only) Sardinian Warbler. With a Late Spider Orchid plant tick as well it was a good day out.

The Eleonora's Falcon at Worth Marshes

4 & 5. July provided the second two tick day with a trip up to the North East, ostensibly to take my daughter back to Durham but really to finally see the Bempton Black-browed Albatross along with the Turkestan (or Red-tailed) Shrike. After giving me a bit of a run-around in the end I got nice views of "Bempton Bertie" as he flew in towards the cliffs. The Shrike was very obliging as well.

The Black-browed Albatross

The Turkestan Shrike

6.  A national first gull less than two hours from home was too good to miss so along with everyone else I went to pay homage to the Cape Gull at Grafham Water. And very obliging it was too!

The Cape Gull at Grafham Water

7. This was the Common Nighthawk that I mentioned above in the Oxon section. Quite unbelievable!

8. Finally there was the Eastbourne Radde's Warbler. I managed to cock things up by going a day too late when there was a ferocious storm but somehow managed to salvage a hear-only tick from this.

So all in all it was a pretty good year nationally for me. This does leave the tricky matter of the national Bird of the Year award. It might be a bit controversial given the list of strong contenders but despite it being very much last year's bird for everyone else, I'm going to give it to the Albatross. There was just something about seeing it that trumps everything else. I know other people have said this in previous years - I'm just a bit late to the party!

There wasn't much in the way of other stuff this year apart from the LS Orchid and my annual trip to look at Honey Buzzards in the New Forest so that wraps it up. Thanks to all my regular readers for their continued support in bothering to read my rambling birding chronicles. I know it's a bit late now but a happy bird filled new year!

Friday, 18 November 2022

Heard-only Warblings: A Lister's Dilemma

In this post I address the thorny issue of heard-only ticks and what I do about them on my list. For example, regular readers may remember back in May when I went to Kent for the Elenora's Falcon that I spent a frustrating few hours on the coastal downs chasing after an elusive Sardinian Warbler before coming away with only a heard-only tick for all my efforts. Whilst a heard-only tick is clearly better than nothing, it's certainly not as good as actually having seen the bird. So where does all this sit with regards to my listing efforts?

So on my national list I have Lady's Amhurst Pheasant and the Sardinian Warbler as heard-only. The Lady A will almost certainly never be upgraded as I think the last surviving bird has "ceased to be". The Sardinian Warbler I hope to upgrade at some point. On my county list I have a couple of heard-onlys: Corncrake and Dartford Warbler. Fortunately I have actually seen a Quail in the county which is the other big county heard-only candidate. An opportunity to convert one of those came my way this last month which I want to blog about here. In addition, this month I managed to add another "heard-only" to my national tally and I will begin with that.


Heard-Only Radde's Warbler

Radde's Warbler has been a bit of a bogey bird for me. I've actively dipped it twice, once down in Cornwall and once on a trip to Wells Wood in Norfolk to try and see a very elusive bird. The word "elusive" is of course the operative word for this species: they are generally skulky little so and so's and they often don't linger long. In fact quite often they are found by a single observer at some coastal location and then never seen again so they are very hard to twitch, especially from the centre of the country where it's a a fair few hours drive to any coastal area. So when a Radde's Warbler turned up and lingered in Sussex at Beachy Head (not too far away at about 2.5 hours) I was of course interested. The trouble was it was found on a Friday before a busy weekend for me so I could only look on in frustration as it was reported regularly throughout the weekend; frustratingly Monday was the first chance I might have to see it. So on Sunday night I booked an Air BnB in Eastborne with a view to heading down there that evening. However, in my rush to get all this organised I neglected to look at the weather report and as soon as I'd booked it and told my VLW, she asked why I was bothering given the weather forecast. She was right of course: torrential rain and howling gales overnight and into the next day were forecast. Unfortuantely the Air BnB was non-refundable so I decided to head down regardless but to revise down my expectations considerably.

The drive down was difficult in the pouring rain and the strong wind though mercifully there wasn't too much traffic on the roads. I was reminded of how I'd come this way earlier in the year for the American Robin - here I was again a few months later after something that was altogether going to be harder to connect with. The AirBnB turned out to be a hotel along the sea front, only a hundred yards from where the Hume's Warbler had been on my previous Eastbourne trip. After an altercation with the shower room mirror which chose to come off the wall when I touched it, I settled in for the night, listening to the howling gale outside my window and wondering why I was bothering.

The next morning I was up, breakfasted and out of the hotel at more or less first light, which at this time of year is mercifully not that early. A quick five minute drive up onto the downs found me parking up and putting on all my waterproof gear though thankfully the rain had now stopped though it was still very windy. The previous evening I had messaged a local birder on Twitter and had got exact directions of where to go. As I tooled up another birder turned up so at least I wasn't going to be on my own. It was only a minute or so's walk to the clump of scrub where the bird was hopefully located and we got ourselves settled in for the duration. The wind was rather an issue though there was a sheltered side to the bushes by the path where we were standing. 

The sheltered side of the hedge

After about three quarters of an hour of fruitless waiting we both heard a repeated call over the wind from behind the bushes where we were looking which sounded like a Radde's to me. Thankfully Radde's have a rather distinctive call which doen't really sound like anything else so even over the howl of the wind it sounded good. We waited in anticipation though nothing more happened.

Looking to the East from where we were standing

My companion, who was down in Eastbourne en famille had to leave. A couple of locals turned up who had seen it in previous days. They told me that actually it favoured the other side of the hedge from where we were looking (so where we had heard it) so we went around that side to look. However the wind was impossible on that side and we all soon gave up. They went down to Shooter's Bottom, another area of scrub about a mile further along the headland where a second albeit much more elusive Radde's had been seen. I elected to stay where I was to see if I could connect with this bird. Late morning a bunch of elderly birders turned up and stood around aimlessly without contributing much to the collective effort. Finally I decided to give up and headed over to Shooter's Bottom myself. This turned out to be a large area of scrub, much more sheltered though a very large area to try to pin down a Radde's. I spend half an hour wandering around, appreciating at least the change of scenery and being out of the wind but without actually seeing anything. I did hear the brief scolding call of a Dartford Warbler but that was about it.

I drove back to the first location where I saw the two locals again, coming back to their car. I enquired about their luck but they'd had none at either location as well. That was enough for me so I decided to head back on the long slog home. As I drove I reflected that this had been similar to my Kent experience with the Sardinian in many ways: it was the same kind of coastal download habitat with a very skulking bird that I heard but never got to see, though this time the wind had been the main factor rather than anything else. 

Just to rub salt into my own wounds, here is a gripping photo of it taken by local birder @BEACHYBIRDER (taken from Twitter). Thanks also to him for his help with the location etc.

There is one more thing to add about all this: I do actually have another heard-only Radde's experience, back in October 2020 when I'd been to Norfolk for the Rufous Bush Chat. It was the end of the first day, just as I was walking back from the saltmarsh after having seen the star bird. At the small car park at the edge of the marsh I heard the distinctive call of what could only have been a Radde's. In fact I got out my phone to check that I hadn't "pocket played" a Radde's recording by mistake. This did actually happen to me once when I was on Port Meadow and suddenly started hearing a singing Iberian Chiffchaff, only for it to turn out to be a recording from my phone! It wasn't my phone and it never called again but it was distinctive enough. At the time I was more interested in having ticked the Bush Chat that I'd come for and then about getting to my accommodation as I was tired, so I never took it any further and it rather slipped my mind after that. Still, that is now two occasions where I've heard but not seen a Radde's Warbler so I think it's fair to say that it can go on my national list as a heard only. Like the Sardinian Warbler, I hope to be able to upgrade this to a full-blown tick sometime soon.

Dartford Conversion

I mentioned earlier about having converted a heard-only to a full grade tick. The opportunity to upgrade my county Dartford heard-only came when a typically elusive bird was found at Balscote Quarry up near Banbury in the north of the county. Whilst it was proving hard to see, it would occasionally show itself well enough for some rather decent photos to be taken. So suitable encouraged, one Saturday morning I decided to have a crack at it. It's a surprisingly long 45 minutes to get to the reserve, somewhere I'd only been to twice before: once for a county tick Dotterel in a nearby field and once for a dawn raid for a no show Red-necked Phalarope that had been found at last light the previous evening. 

Balscote Quarry, a nice little reserve with some good habitat

This time I arrived to see one other birder peering intently at something in the bushes in the distance. This turned out to be BS who had actually been watching the bird itself when I'd seen him though predictably it had now disappeared. BS had only been there about 45 minutes himself so that was quite a quick time to manage to see it. He had to leave for the long cycle ride back home (kudos for that effort!). After a while of fruitless waiting TM turned up along with a couple of local birders. They did all manage to see it very briefly at the bottom of a Hawthorn bush but I wasn't able to see it from where I was standing. TM also spotted a fly-over Merlin which again I missed. I wasn't doing very well here! TM had to leave but I was in no hurry and hung around. Meanwhile NT and his wife turned up.

Gradually the gloomy conditions started to improve as the sun came out. The Merlin flew over again and this time I managed to see it (hurray!). A Brambling flew over making its distinctive call and there were lots of Fieldfare on the wing in the general area. I was watching a likely looking clearing. After a false start when a Blackbird flew across, I managed a couple of flight views when the Dartford first flew into a large clump of Gorse and Brambles, before NT saw it at the base of the bushes and then it flew back out again towards the area where TM had seen it earlier. In both cases the flight views I had were good enough for me to be postive about the ID. So whilst I didn't get a crippling photo opportunity I at least was able to upgrade my heard-only county tick to a definite sighting. Job done!

A "proper" view of the Dartford, courtesy of Edwin Barson

As I drove home, taking the scenic route on the way back, I reflected that one of the advantages of having heard-only ticks is that you get the satisfaction of having ticked something twice: once when it's heard (albeit not with a full sense of satisfaction), and then again when it's upgraded to a full tick. Whilst it's always better to get the full tick first time, heard-only can often be a reasonable compromise over dipping. I'll have to be content with that for my Radde's Warbler for now.

Friday, 30 September 2022

Common Nighthawk, Wantage

The internet is awash with posts similar to the one I am writing here today. Still, it has to be done! It was one of those special days which one will always remember, one of those "do you remember the time when..." sort of days that will be talked about with reverence throughout the years. This is how it was from my perspective.

It was a Monday morning. With nothing more I was ambling around the Trap Grounds, part of my Port Meadow patch. The previous day a Yellow-browed Warbler had been found there. Whilst this species is no longer the rarity it used to be, inland ones are still pretty rare and this bird is almost certainly a shoe-in for Port Meadow Bird of the Year. It had not been seen or heard at all this morning so far but the weather was nice and I was enjoying wandering around and winkling out the various species that inhabit the area, hoping that I might re-find this rare warbler. Suddenly my phone range - it was Ian Lewington, the esteemed Oxon county recorder. 

"Hi Ian, how are you?"

"I'm find thanks, are you sitting down?"

Confused at this opening sentence I mumbled something about being out and about in the Trap Grounds.

"It's just that I'm standing a few yards from a Common Nighthawk in Wantage"

"Crickey!" (or words to that effect). 

I immediately started to hurry back towards my house whilst talking to Ian. At this point I met PB, these days a stalwart Port Meadow patch worker and finder of yesterday's YBW. 

"Hi Phil, follow me now! You won't regret it!" 

On the way, Ian explained that the bird was roosting on someone's fence in their garden and that he needed people to marshal the twitch and was I available. Fortunately I had nothing on until later in the afternoon when I had a therapy client. Ian said not to put the word out yet as he would handle that. 

PB and I hurried up the road back to my house. There I quickly nipped in to pick up the car keys and to tell my VLW that I was off to Wantage for a rare bird. She is used to this sort of behaviour and just rolled her eyes.

PB and I bundled into the car and set off. The Sat Nav was saying a nerve wracking 30 minutes to get there. Whilst a roosting Nighthawk should stay put for the whole day one never knew if something might flush it. This was a once in a lifetime opportunity so the stakes were extremely high. We fretted through each red traffic light and an unloading lorry that blocked the road. The news dropped on the county WhatsApp and also on RBA - the word was out and panic would be breaking out across the country's birders as they started to make plans. Finally we arrived to see Ian standing outside the house in question. We bundled out of the car and met up with him. He introduced us to the owner who ushered us into his house, took a tenner off each of us for the privilege and then took us through to the back garden. There, half way down the fence on the left hand side was a rather unremarkable bundle of brown feathers. A quick glance through the bins however and the full enormity of what we were looking at became apparent. Holy f*ck! There it was! I quickly took some photos but we didn't really have time to let what we were seeing as we had to get things set up ready for the twitch. 

My first glimpse from the garden

The garden could hold no more than perhaps five people at a time. We arranged a barrier across the back so people didn't get too close but the logistics of having a queue and letting five people in at a time was going to be a nightmare. Fortunately however, after chatting with Ian it seemed that the views from the other side of the fence were just as good and as the house in question was the end of a terrace this was a public cul-de-sac. So rather than marshalling people through the house they could all view from the road instead. This was going to be much easier!

The view from the other side of the fence - you can see the long primary projection and the pale primary tips that make it a juvenile

Having sorted all that out it was time to catch our breath. So far there were just half a dozen local birders there, the appointed marshals for the twitch. Ian explained exactly what had happened that morning: the home owner had spotted the bird on his fence and had called the local animal hospital saying that he had a sick bird in his garden which wasn't moving. The hospital had called Ian who called the owner back. The owner said that he thought it was a Nightjar but it was sick. Ian explained that actually this is what Nightjars do during the day but could he come and have a look as a Nightjar is a rare bird in Oxfordshire. The owner was happy for Ian to pop round. When Ian arrived he took one look at it and his jaw dropped. It was a Common Nighthawk!!! As a bird illustrator, Ian had been working on this very species just two weeks previously so he knew exactly what the diagnostic features were. Ian explained to the owner that it wasn't a Nightjar. The owner's disappointment at this news was soon tempered by the enormity of what it actually was. Ian explained that there would be a lot of people who would come to see this if he were willing and that he could raise money for charity by opening up his house to visitors. The case of the Rufous Turtle Dove in Chipping Norton was cited where hundreds of people had visited. Surprisingly, the owner was happy for this to happen and so the twitch was on!

Some video footage showing it shuffling around, courtesy of Badger

So just how rare is a Common Nighthawk? There have been 26 previous records in the country. Of these about half of them have been on the Isles of Scilly. On the mainland records are usually fleeting glimpses of birds on the coast, often coming "in off" and never twitchable. The last twitchable one had been in Northern Ireland - not a part of the country that personally is included in my listing. Inland birds are almost unheard of and an inland twitchable bird was unprecedented. This was certainly a contender for Best Oxfordshire Bird Ever, along with Baltimore Oriel (before my time), Rufous Turtle Dove (which I saw) and Scops Owl (also before my time). Exactly how one would rank them is the topic for many a good pub night but it was right up there in terms of rarity value.

I had hitherto had no reason to learn the subtleties of the differences between a Nighthawk and a Nightjar - it had never been an issue up until now. However a quick glance at my Collins iPhone app reveals that the length of the primaries which jutted out beyond the tail were diagnostic for Nighthawk. In flight of course there is the forked tail but in its sitting position the primary projection was the main feature. The pale tips to the primary tips indicated that this was a juvenile.

The Nighthawk location. If you squint you can just see it sitting on the fence behind the red Audi
(photo courtesy of Ewan Urquhart)

Gradually the first locals started to arrive. This was a good opportunity to catch up with the locals and have a good natter. Badger diplomatically managed the collection bucket, I made sure people parked sensibly and that no one tried to nip past the bucket and in general it all went smoothly. The home owner, freed up from having to usher people in through his house, busied himself making cups of tea and letting the marshals use his toilet.

Numbers starting to build

Once things had settled down I nipped off to Sainsbury's to get some lunch for myself before returning to resume helping out. Gradually as the afternoon wore on numbers started to build as people from further afield started to arrive. At one stage it was starting to get quite crowded along the cul-de-sac so Ian had to go and ask people who had seen the bird not to linger there chatting in order to make way for people who had yet to see it. Enough people complied with this for the numbers always to be manageable. Eventually it became time for me to head off for my therapy client appointment back home. I was told that the bird stayed until just before 7pm when it suddenly took off, did a couple of circuits around the area before flying off strongly to the south. 

Numbers starting to build in the afternoon

With there being not much to hold the bird there (no obvious congregation of moths for example), as expected there was no sign of it the next day. For those who had been able to make it, it was the stuff that birding dreams are made of - I still can't quite believe it myself. For those who were away in Shetland at the time (some of the county's finest) it can only be heart-breaking to contemplate. Such is the double-edged sword of birding! All I can say is that I will always remember this day.

From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember’d;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that raises his bins with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen of England now in Shetland
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That were in Wantage upon this day.

(with apologies to the Bard for the bastardisation of his great work)

Was it all just a dream?

Friday, 16 September 2022

Canada Family Holiday


As I mentioned a few posts back, at the end of June we went on a family holiday to the west coast of Canada. Normally our holidays are fairly low key but, partly in reaction to two years of lockdowns and partly due to pressure from younger members of the family who want to see the world at their parents' expense, we decided to have a "proper" holiday for once. We invited my VLW's brother and sister along with us so there were seven of us in total. The basic idea was to fly into Vancouver, spend three days there exploring the city, then hire a couple of cars and drive to the Rockies, spending a few days in the Jasper National Park area, then drive along the Icefield Parkway (the most beautiful road in the world!) to Banff National Park area where we would spend a few more days before heading back to Vancouver for one night before flying home. This was very much a family holiday, "not a birding holiday" as my VLW pointedly reminded me so any birding would have to be done en passant. However, everyone was keen to see things like Bears, Moose and Elk etc so there would be some good scope for nature watching in amongst the holiday activities. As this is a nature blog I won't bore you all with a blow by blow account of what we did on our holiday but instead will keep it focused on the wildlife. Of course, much of what I'm photographing is pretty common over there but for me it has great novelty value.

Part 1 - Three Days in Vancouver

Vancouver is a hip and happening city on the west coast right by the sea so it doesn't take too long to get into the countryside. On our first full day we went to Granville Island (via a very cute little ferry boat!) where the main point of attraction was all the Glaucous-winged Gulls loafing about. In the harbour area were also Cormorants (both Double-crested and Pelagic) and Great Blue Herons. I also saw a couple of Peregrines fly over as well as a Bald Eagle. The three children went on a whale watching boat trip where they managed to see a large pod of Orcas. In the city itself there were not many birds to be seen (apart from a few GW Gulls) but I did manage to find some White-crowned Sparrows.

Adult Glaucous-winged Gull

1s Glaucous-winged Gull

Double-crested Cormorant

Pelagic Cormorant

White-crowned Sparrow
1s California Gull (I think!)

Great Blue Heron

We went for a walk in Stanley Park where we found a lovely lake (Beaver Lake). There were quite a few birds to be seen here including Song Sparrows, Tree Swallows, Wood Duck and Spotted Towhee.

Song Sparrow

Spotted Towhee

Wood Duck

We took a bus to the Capilano suspension bridge - a spectacular wire-strung suspension bridge over a steep gorge. Whilst the entrance price was eye-wateringly expensive (they do seem to like to gouge tourists in Canada) the scenery was really nice. It also had a tree-top walkway in amongst the forest. Douglas Squirrels were to be seen here. We also saw a Hummingbird species and I saw a Black Swift fly over the gorge. This was probably the rarest bird that I saw on my trip as it a very localised speciality of gorge habitat.

Douglas Squirrel

Video here

En Route to Jasper

Once we had picked up the cars we decided to head to Jasper via the north route so we could stop off at "Jacks Bar & Grill" - a riverside restaurant that happens to feature in the Netflix series Virgin River that my VLW and daughters liked. The food was good though the experience was somewhat marred by our car getting towed to a nearby compound where we were charged an arm and a leg to have it released. It did rather seem like a scheme to prey on unsuspecting tourists though technically we should not have parked where we did.

Part way through our journey we ground to a halt as it turned out that a rock slide had blocked the road. Apparently some climbers had disturbed the rocks which had come tumbling down. Sadly two of the climbers were killed. Whilst waiting by a rather pretty lake side for someone to come and clear the rocks, there was plenty of wildlife to see including Bald Eagles, Cedar Waxwings and a Warbling Vireo. Finally, after a three hour wait, the road was cleared and we had a tricky drive in the dark and rain to our overnight stop in a motel in Kamloops.

The motel turned out to be right beside a river and in the morning the trees were full of Red-winged Blackbirds along with an American Goldfinch, Tree Swallows and a Northern Flicker.

Female Red-winged Blackbird

Northern Flicker


The next day we finally arrived at Jasper National Park. We'd just gone through the toll area and bought our pass. I said "so where are these bears then?" and literally a minute later we saw a car pulled up by the road side with a Black Bear right next to it eating dandelions. We got point blank views for a few minutes before it ambled off into the forest. What a great start!

Black Bear by the Roadside

Our accommodation turned out to be a couple of wood cabins on the outskirts of Jasper. There were Columbian Ground Squirrels all around the cabin area which were cute. One day a pair of Elk wandered right past the house. The first day we went on a local hike from Jasper itself. There were various heard-only birds that I couldn't identify though I did manage to get Pine Siskin and Black-capped Chikadee. On one of the lakes on the trail were a family of Barrow's Goldeneye.

Female Barrow's Goldeneye

I don't know what exactly this is but in the UK I would call this a White-faced Darter

Towards the end of the walk it started to rain quite heavily though we did manage to see an Elk quite well.


The next day we drove up to Moose Lake in the hope of seeing the eponymous animal. Sadly there were none to be seen though the lake itself was lovely. A family of Grey Jays proved to be very tame and would come and sit on your outstretched hand. 

Swainson's Thrush

Myrtle/Audubons's Warbler Intergrade 

On the main lake (Maligne Lake) there were Cliff Swallows and Tree Swallows hawking over the lake and I found a Greater Scaup by the edge.

Greater Scaup

On the drive back to the cabin we came across a mother Black Bear and cub which gave us great views by the road side for several minutes. So that was three bears notched up already!

Mother Black Bear

The next day we explored a local lake which had a Common Loon on it and we could hear distant Wolf howls (apparently a common occurrence).

Common Loon & young (Great Norther Diver to you and I)

The Icefield Parkway

After our three days in Jasper it was time to hit the highway again. The Icefield Parkway is a scenic road (supposedly the "most beautiful road in the world") that runs through the middle of the Rocky Mountain range from Jasper to Banff. Armed with our tourist guide book, we were told of lots of things to stop off for en route. This could include: looking at gushing waterfalls (the rivers were very full due to the unseasonal amount of rain that had fallen earlier in the year); stopping in a layby to look at stunning mountain scenery; viewing one of numerous glaciers along the route or going to look at a stunning blue lake. The lakes are coloured blue due to the presence of rock flour which is a very fine suspension of rock particles in the water that have the property of turning the water turquoise. All I can say is that the scenery was absolutely stunning. One runs out of superlatives to try to convey but we would stop and gaze with awe at the next view, thinking that it couldn't get much better but no around the corner was yet another jaw-dropping view. Some of the stops were rather busy so there wasn't much wildlife to see and as the road was comparatively busy there were fewer roadside opportunities though in passing we say deer and Elk.

Stellar's Jay at a car park at the summit of a mountain pass

Brown-headed Cowbird by some picnic tables near a lake where we had our lunch

One of many lakes coloured blue by the rock flower

We had booked a visit to the XX Glacier towards the end of the day. This was an amazing experience where an almost military-like operation would ship you out via coach and then a giant "moon buggy" with huge tires onto the glacier. We got to spend 20 minutes walking about on the glacier before being driven back to the main base. On the way back we saw an Arctic Fox by the road side. As part of the experience we also got driven to a "sky walk", a glass viewing platform jutting out from the side of a cliff. Once again the views were spectacular and there was a Mountain Goat conveniently perched on the cliff side right next to us. 

A Mountain Goat Perched Precariously on a High Cliff Face


To break up our journey we decided to have a few days of comparative rest in a log cabin a bit off the beaten track at a small town called Nordegg. The idea was that because of the rigours of a road trip where you are upping sticks every couple of days, it would be good to have something comparatively low key for a few days so we could just rest. The road off the Icefield Parkway up to Nordegg was quiet but very scenic in a more low key sort of way. This area is known for its wild horses and we did indeed manage to see some by the roadside. The cabin turned out to be lovely, a well equipped and modern building with a firepit outside that one could sit around. The only downside was that the water pump system was so loud that we all had a rather fitful first night there before we got the owners to talk us through turning the pump off at night.

Nordegg itself turned out to be a delightfully small town with very few shops and nothing much to do. I was told that a lot of "weekenders" would come to their huge log cabins (ours was comparatively modest) and engage in outdoor activities such as hiking, trail riding and hunting etc. The highlight of the town (for us at least) was a pie shop that did great pies including gluten fee ones so I could eat them too! We paid a couple of visits here!

It was while we were staying here that I remembered reading about the Merlin bird app having a sound id option. After upgrading my phone suddenly I was able to get an id for all the birds calling around me. This was a game changer as far as I was concerned as I went from basically not knowing what any calling bird was (how different to the UK where I would expect to know everything) to suddenly having an id for everything. Not that it was 100% accurate, I would watch it in real-time as it "listened" and id'ed things. Where a bird called repeatedly and the id always came up the same then I would be confident in the id but sometimes the tiniest of tweets would come up with something pretty left field and I knew not to trust it. At the very least I could look up the call on my Peterson "Birds of North America" app to confirm.  This app was a pretty neat smartphone app with maps, calls and reasonable pictures which were bundled together in a nice compact manner. At under a tenner to unlock it all, it was definitely worth it on my trip.

Thanks to the app, all these mystery calls deep in the pine forests suddenly because understood. The commonest was Dark-eyed Junko (the North American equivalent of a Chaffinch) but there were also Fox Sparrows, various Chickadee species, Evening Grosbeaks, Red-breasted Nuthatch and American Robin to be heard. At dusk as we sat around the firepit toasting marshmallows we would hear this weird bubbling noise which turned out to be Wilson's Snip drumming.

American Robin was very common everywhere we went. There was a nest near our cabin

Chipmunks were fairly ubiquitous as well


After our comparative rest in Nordegg it was back on the highway. Armed with the Merlin app now, I would routinely walk about with it on in order to see what was about. This way I was able to add all sorts of heard-only birds to my trip list. As I said above, the accuracy may not have been 100% but the app id was a great starting point. We travelled the second half of the Icefield Parkway (having turned off it for Nordegg) and continued to stop at the various guide book stopping points. Once more it was stunning scenery with various (common) birds en passant

The Banff area itself was much more touristy than Jasper and the experience was rather different. We ended up having to book an Air BnB 20 minutes drive outside of Banff itself as that was all we could find. Our main tourist targets here were: Lake Louise (an extremely beautiful but insanely popular turquoise lake surrounded by stunning mountains and XXX Canyon. The only trouble was that the Lake Louise car park was known to fill up by about 9 a.m. so would require an early start. So we made a supreme effort and were on the road for the 45 minute drive shortly after 7:30 a.m. However, as we got nearer signs started appearing saying that the car park was already full and directing us to the shuttle bus car park instead. With our main plan already in tatters we thought we'd try this though from what we'd read this was usually booked up as well. We ended up in a large ski lodge car park where we were told that the earliest shuttle bus availability was 3:30pm! We went to the ski lodge main building to have a cup of tea and to think about it. Here we discovered that in the summer they operated gondola rides up the mountain where you could go hiking and take in the views. This wasn't originally in our plans but given we had 7 hours to kill and we were already there we decided that we might as well pay the eye-watering ticket price and do that. This turned out to be a great decision as it was probably one of the top activities of the holiday! To start with we were told that one of the two hiking trails was closed because of a Grizzly Bear and cub that was blocking the path. However, the good news was that they could be viewed from the gondola ride up the mountain. So it was with great excitement that boarded the ski lift. The adults chose an enclosed gondola whereas our children opted for an open seat one. Sure enough the mother and cub were easily seen on the way up just where they said they would be. It was great finally to get to see a Grizzly Bear!

At the top we went to the viewing platform where in the bright sunshine we had amazing views of the mountain ridge with Lake Louise in the distance. It was simply stunning. After a while of taking in the views we decided to go on the easiest hike. This was a rather short but very steep slog up the hill before cutting into the woods a bit and then heading back down again. Back at the main viewing area we sat and had our sandwiches. At this point we overheard one of the rangers saying that there was a male Grizzly Bear that had wandered close to the other side of the electric fence that bordered the viewing area. We went to take a look and were treated to good views of him lolling around, cooling himself down on some of the remaining snow that was still around and rooting around for food.

On the way back down we all opted to go in the open top gondola seats. About two thirds of the way down we spotted a Black Bear wandering across the area shortly ahead of us. By the time we got to the bottom he was rather distant for photos but it was great to have a fourth Bear for the day!

Finally our shuttle bus time came and we bordered the bus. Looking back up the mountain from our coach seat we could just make out the male Grizzly who had wandered onto a different part of the mountain now but was still in one of many long clear corridors that went up the mountain.

Lake Louise itself was pretty stunning being a bright turquoise colour surrounded by high mountains. The only trouble was the number of people: there were thousands of them. After taking a few photos we wandered along the lake shore path for a while and gradually numbers thinned out. I had my Merlin app on the whole time and picked up a few more ticks including Lincoln Sparrow that I actually managed to see as well as a silent warbler that was probably a young Blackpoll Warbler though it was hard to tell. Eventually we headed back to the car park to join the scrum waiting for the shuttle bus back to where our car was parked. Then it was back on the highway back to our Air BnB. There was one more bit of excitement en route when we saw a bunch of cars pulled up by the side of the road. It turned out to be a mother and cub Grizzly close to the road side just the other side of the large fence designed to keep the wildlife off the main road. However as the road was a dual carriageway it was too dangerous to stop so we didn't have the opportunity to take any photos. Still, that pushed our bear tally for the day up to 6 with 5 Grizzlies and one Black. Quite amazing!

The next day we walked a beautiful trail by the side of a river that cut through some mountains. There was not much in the way of birdlife to report though I did come across some Twin-flower flowers that are a specialist rarity in Scotland. 



The following day it was time to start the long slog back to Vancouver. Once again we decided to stop off at Kamloops, this time staying at a hotel on the other side of the river. The interesting thing about this one was that it had a large reed fringed pond in the grounds. This seemed to be an oasis for birds and I passed some wonderful time birding the area both in the evening of our arrival and the morning of the next day. In the evening the reeds were full of roosting Red-winged and Yellow-headed Blackbirds. Around the area were Common Yellowthroat, House Finches, Goldfinches, Cedar Waxwings and various Warblers to be seen. There were also ducks on the pond itself, including American Wigeon and Ruddy Ducks as well as American Coot. I even spotted a Beaver swimming in the water. In terms of the variety and entertainment value, this site was probably the birding highlight of the whole trip!

Cedar Waxwing

I didn't know that Collard Dove could be found on the American Continent as well

Ruddy Duck

Red-winged Blackbird

Yellow-headed Blackbird

Vancouver & Home
The next day it was the final leg back to Vancouver. Having driven thousands of miles without incident I managed to disgrace myself by scraping the side of the car against the multi-storey carpark entrance wall right at the end. I was so cross with myself! Thankfully for peace of mind we'd opted for the full collision damage waiver option when hiring the cars so the only cost was my wounded pride.

We spent the night in a rather upmarket hotel and went out for dinner to a restaurant that night to mark our last night in Canada. The next day whilst the others went shopping my brother-in-law and I opted to walk back up to Stanley Park and have a wander around. The main sighting of note was a family of Racoons along the shoreline.

Racoon Family

Finally it was time to head back to the airport and then for home. We arrived back to the tail-end of the heatwave and an unbearably hot few days in the UK. Looking back, it had been a very memorable trip. Like any road trip, it was hard work at times but the memories of the scenery and the wildlife will stay with us for a long time.

The Columbian Ground Squirrel was fairly ubiquitous and often very tame