Monday, 20 June 2022

Chasing Scarcities - Shillingford Scarce Chasers

The summer months are a time when there is usually a lull in birding and, like many others, I tend to turn my attention to flowers and insects instead. I've been keeping it fairly low key so far, just visiting the Trap Grounds to look at the Odonata activity there and so far have not paid any visits away from my local patch. This all changed last week when a Scarce Chaser dragonfly was found on the river Thames at Shillingford on Tuesday by a local Odo enthusiast, JB, who regularly patrols this stretch of the river. Now Scarce Chasers are rather a localised species nationally with their main areas being either East Anglia or around the Bournemouth area. Indeed there have only previously been two or three records for the county so this was kind of a big deal in the Oxon Odo world. This would make a nice little trip out though I wasn't free the next day when it was seen again. However on Thursday morning, on what was forecast to be the hottest day of the year so far, it was reported as still present as I was just setting off to take a look for myself. 

By the time I had parked up by the Shillingford hotel and run the hay fever gauntlet of the mass of uncut grass in full flower all along the river bank path, a second male had been reported in the same general area. I arrived to find three other enthusiasts who had been watching the original Chaser for quite some time. Sadly, in typical fashion, it had just flown off before I arrived! I needn't have worried though because a few minutes later it turned up again, perching on the top of a reed stem and I was able to get my first view. 

Unfortunately, the Scarce Chaser spent a lot of time facing away from the bank
so the photo angle was less than ideal

Scarce Chasers are rather an obliging species in that they like to spend a lot of time perched on the top of a reed stem waiting for something to pass by, quite unlike the Emperor that was patrolling the bank in the same general area that spent almost the entire time on the wing up and down the same stretch of the river. The Scarce Chaser would go missing for periods of time, presumably sitting somewhere out of sight, before turning up again in one of the fishing bays that are regular features along the river here.

Apart from the Scarce Chaser there was a mature Club-tailed Dragonfly knocking around that I got some brief views of, the aforementioned Emperor, a Four-spotted Chaser and the usual plethora of Banded Demoiselles. On the Damselfly front there were a few Red-eyed Damselflies on the river and some White-legged Damselflies in the bankside vegetation. This latter species was of particular interest because I'd only previously ever seen it once, in a colony up near Banbury a few years back. Whilst this species is regularly sighted along the river Thames in various places in the county, it usually only occurs in small numbers and a certain amount of effort is generally required to see them. However, by standing around waiting for the Scarce Chaser to re-appear I had the time to observe the local Damsels and eventually managed to pick out a few White-legged as they went about their business.

Red-eyed Damselfly

Female Banded Demoiselle

After a period of time the Scarce Chaser reappeared, this time perched up on a much more convenient perch and at last I was able to get some reasonable photos. 


The Scarce Chaser

I was just watching it and enjoying it in the company of IL when the second male re-appeared and the two clashed violently. They soared vertically upwards in the air as they did battle until they disappeared from view. IL chose to leave at that point but I hung around for another half an hour without seeing either of them again. Eventually I had to concede that they weren't coming back in a hurry so I ambled back to the car, finding some more White-legged Damselflies on the way. 

Female White-legged Damselfly seen on the way back to the car



Monday, 30 May 2022

Kent Chronicles

It has been a long old time since the Gnome-mobile had hit the road - indeed it was all the way back in January when I'd gone to see the American Robin. Since then I've been birding away on my local Port Meadow patch and waiting for something really good to turn up that I "needed" and which was within my driving time tolerance. In the back of my mind was also one of the last southern orchid species that I still needed namely Late Spider Orchids down in Kent - now was the perfect time to go and see them. The trouble was that whilst I quite enjoy seeing Orchids, if I'm honest they're not really my passion and I had to ask myself whether I could be bothered with a two and a half hour drive just to go and see an Orchid that looks very similar to the Early Spider Orchids that I'd already seen. What I really needed was something else in the area to make the trip more worthwhile. My prayers were answered in no uncertain terms when news broke of an Eleonora's Falcon that had been found in Kent. Initially photographed and posted to Twitter as a Hobby on Thursday it was soon re-identified as an Eleonora's. After that it was relocated the next day at Worth Marshes which it seemed to find to its liking as it stayed put, showing obscenely well to those who made the journey. Indeed as the "first twitchable"  for Britain" lots of people had gone to see it and Twitter was awash with pictures and "in the bag" messages.

Now as you know, I'm not really a drop everything on news type of twitcher. For one thing I have family commitments and I like to choose my trips carefully on distance and chances of seeing the bird etc.  However, the Eleonora's would combine very nicely with my orchid trip and at two and a half hours wasn't too much of a stretch on the driving front. What's more on Saturday an, admittedly very elusive, Sardinian Warbler had been found at South Foreland which was right between the Falcon location and the orchid one. So everything was lining up nicely! However, Saturday I had agreed to help my VLW start to clear out the loft so it wasn't until Sunday morning that I was free for a sortie. Unusually for me, I decided to get up early (by my standards) and head off rather than waiting on news. The reason for this was that with two target birds there was a high chance that at least one of them would still be around and in any event I had my orchids to fall back on. As it turned out I needn't have worried as when I got up at 6am the news was already out (posted at 4:55am no less!) that the Falcon was present, sitting in a bush waiting for things to warm up. It did this the previous day and it wasn't until about 11am that it got flying so if things played out like Saturday then I should have already seen it by then. So it was in an optimistic frame of mind that I set off at around 6:40 am on the fairly quiet Sunday morning roads on the long slog down to Kent.

En route things started to go a bit pear shaped with news of "no further sign" of the Falcon. Hmmm, that was worrying! Had the colder weather (it was much cooler today with a stiff northerly breeze) forced it to head off? Fortunately the Sardinian Warbler was about, still being elusive and "heard only" but at least still present. In the absence of the Falcon I reprogrammed Google Maps for the Warbler and continued on my journey. Indeed I was literally only 3 minutes from St. Margaret's at Cliff where I needed to park when the "still present" news came out for the Falcon. I pulled into a layby and did the maths. It was less than twenty minutes back to the Falcon so I reset Google Maps back to the Falcon and a little while later I was pulling into a well organised field car park, manned by RSPB volunteers. I tooled up, opting for my winter coat in the chilly wind, and yomped off along the footpath. After a little while I came to a small group of twitchers on the edge of a field all scoping something intently. This turned out to be the Falcon which could be viewed somewhat distantly across the far side of the field in a Hawthorn bush. It was all that easy though the views were distinctly heat hazy and distant. I set about taking some video though the haze was so bad that I won't insult you by showing it to you. After a while I realised that there were lots more twitchers on the far side of the field than were on our side. By following the footpath further round I eventually joined them where I could see why everyone was on this side. The Falcon was sitting, looking rather cold and miserable in a Hawthorn tree no more than 15 yards from the path. It didn't seem to mind the people at all even at that distance. However, as it was on the far side of its chosen Hawthorn, better views were to be had a bit further away so I settled on a more distant spot and went about my digiscoping.


A video grab when the bird was briefly actually looking up

How the bird more usually looked: head tucked away from us out of the wind



Some video of it having a preen

In addition to the star bird, there was a bonus female Red-footed Falcon to be had as well. This had been around the last couple of days and could be viewed on the other side of the path looking disconsolate in a distant Hawthorn. It was amazing to have two rare Falcons on view from the same spot!

The female Red-footed Falcon, looking cold and miserable in a distant Hawthorn

Time passed and we all waited for the star bird to fly though in the cold weather I didn't think that was going to happen in a hurry. A shout went up as a Golden Oriole flew across the path and over the wood but as I was towards the back of the footpath I never managed to get onto it. With two other targets in mind and the weather not favouring any change in the Falcon's behaviour any time soon I decided to head off again after only about an hour of paying homage to this national Mega. As I wandered back along the track I enjoyed the supporting cast of Sedge and Reed Warblers belting out there songs from the ditches. There were also some Avocets on the scrape in the same field and I'd lucked in on a fly-over Turtle Dove (a local speciality) on my way out to the Falcon viewing spot. It had been a few years since I'd last seen one of these so it was a nice bonus. 

The obligatory twitch crowd shot - the bird is in the top left-hand corner of the left hand of the two bushes 

Back at the car I set the Sat Nav back to St. Margaret's at Cliff and some twenty minutes later I found a parking spot and tooled up, asking a returning birder where to go and how he'd got on. He told me that he'd only heard it once during the entire time and no one had seen it. So it was looking like a fairly hopeless task but I thought I'd at least try to get to hear it. At the end of the main road there was an entrance through a kissing gate and then a slog up a very steep path to the top of the hill where a group of birders were all staking out a surprisingly small clump of very dense scrub. In addition to this were several medics and even an ambulance - what was going on??!! Had the strain of trying to see a Sardinian Warbler proved too much for someone? It turned out that a birder had gone over on his ankle by standing in a rabbit hole and had had to be rescued. 

After this drama I turned my attention back to the birding. There were two groups standing around on either side of the narrow clump of dense scrub and I went to join them on one side. On asking, no one had heard it for a while and no one had seen it. There were various birds flitting around in the scrub with the odd Robin, Blackbird and Goldfinch to be glimpsed as they went about their business. After a while a shout went up from the other side and we all hurried around. I'd made the mistake of bringing my scope along so had to bundle together all my gear and run after the crowd which was following a Sylvia warbler down the slope to a clump more sheltered bushes. 

In case anyone is interested in going for the bird: the yellow circle is the kissing gate; the red circle is the main scrub area; the green circle is the alternate scrub area

We all stood around in breathless expectation for a while until the bird flew out again though it turned out to be a Lesser Whitethroat. False alarm and we all trudged back up to the original area again. After quite a while once again there was a shout and this time three people had definitely seen the bird, again on the far side from where I was standing. We all piled round and peered intently at the spot where it had been seen. The trouble was that the bird was staying deep within the cover and just because someone had got lucky on a particular angle didn't mean that the bird would necessarily pass through that small window again any time soon. I moved slightly and changed my viewing angle to watch another area. After a while I was rewarded with the briefest of views of something the right shape and colour (a very deep grey) flitting past a gap before disappearing again. Could that have been it? Everything that I'd seen seemed to match up OK but it was frustratingly brief.

The Warbler bushes - most people had stopped trying by this stage. At a peak there were more than twenty people there

More time passed. Someone tried some playback and at one point it was heard to call back though frustratingly I didn't hear it myself. After all this time I'd just had the one brief "probable" glimpse to show for my efforts. It was well past the two hours I'd given myself to try to see this skulking so and so and people were just lounging around chatting when the bird was heard again to call very loudly from the seaward side of the upper path in an adjacent bit of scrub. We all hurried over there and the bird called and sang loudly right in front of us a number of times deep in the bushes. Surely it was going to show itself now? A cry went up as the bird apparently broke cover and darted back to the other side of the path, back in the original area. Frustratingly I was looking the wrong way when this happened so never saw it fly. I hung around for a bit longer but by now everyone was chatting away and not bothering to look and I really had run out of time so I had to head back to the car. Still, I'd heard it well enough and had had one brief glimpse of what was almost certainly it. I could count this as a definite heard-only accompanied by a "probable" glimpse. The bottom line was that even if I'd seen it break cover the view would have been so crap that I would still want to see another one when the opportunity presented itself. So for now it's going down on the list as heard-only and I'll take an opportunity to firm this up at some point in the future.

Back in the car and I headed off for the 30 minute drive toward where I'd been given a location for Late Spider Orchids. Shortly into this leg of the journey the heavens opened up and indeed it was still raining by the time I was parking up in a tiny little layby and getting ready. So it was on with the waterproof trousers as I headed off along the path a short distance to where I'd been told the orchids were located. They were in a fenced off area with one "sacrificial" one left outside the fence for photographs. It rather looked like several people had not seen the exterior one as it was looking rather trampled. Still, as the rain finally stopped I set about taking some photos. I was pleasantly surprised to see some Man Orchids within the fenced off area as well - I'd not know about those though Kent is a well know county for them.

I was able to reach carefully through the electrified fence to get close enough to take a photo of this Late Spider Orchid

The super-zoomed shots came out OK as well

A clump of Man Orchids within the fenced off area



The one Man Orchid outside the fenced-off area

An early Pyramidal Orchid

After having taken the best photos that I could manage given the distance that the fence created, I walked a short distance further along the path to see if I could find any other orchids of my own. There were a few Pyramidal Orchids just coming out, a couple of Common Spotted Orchids and I even found one Man Orchid on its own outside the fence. All in all it was a very pleasant way to end what had been quite a busy day. A Yellowhammer serenaded me as I walked contentedly back to the car where I de-tooled, had some tea from my flask and then pointed the car in the direction of home. The traffic on the M25 was a bit stop-start but I arrived back at Casa Gnome in time for my usual celebratory cup of tea before dinner. It had been a grand day out with three shiny new ticks - what more could anyone ask for?







Sunday, 13 February 2022

Eastbourne American Robin

This week Twitter and the blogosphere have been awash with pictures and stories about the star American Robin that was found late on Tuesday afternoon in a rather unlikely suburban location on the outskirts of Eastbourne in East Sussex. There was good reason for such intense interest: there have only been 28 previous records in total and the last mainland twitchable one was down in Devon on the Exminster Marshes all the way back in 2010. So a proper Mega then! Certainly it was something that I'd not seen previously and as it was only about two and a half hours drive away it fullfilled all my criteria for a day out. 

Whilst really hardcore twitchers were going to be there at first light the next day, I generally like to wait a little while for the crowds to die down a bit. Not that I was in position to drop anything anyway: I had a full-time job to do so it was either a matter of waiting until the weekend or I would have to arrange a day off which would require at least some reasonable notice for my manager. In the end I decided that the first weekend after discovery would be far too crowded so opted for taking Friday off instead and to head off on news. The latter dropped just after 7 a.m. and I was off by 8. The journey there took pretty much the predicted two and a half hours though the last bit from Brighton onwards was longer and more tedious than I had expected. Still I passed the time in the company of Radio 4 and at around 10:30 I found myself turning off into some rather narrow sideroads that lead up the hill towards the aptly named Hill Road. I parked up at some distance from the main twitch location and hurried towards the assembled crowd. 

Staking out a berry bush (off screen on the right)

There were about forty birders present in the end area of the cul-de-sac by the garages. Judging by the relaxed atmosphere the bird currently wasn't on show which was soon confirmed on asking a fellow twitcher. There seemed to be two groups of photographers camped out in front of some likely looking berry bushes so I set myself up by the further group and looked around me. The surrounding houses were nestled tightly on the rather steep hillside and surrounded on two sides by woodland. With not a breath of wind and surprisingly strong sunshine it was a truly lovely day, altogether different from what I had been expecting that morning when I was preparing. In fact I was beginning to wish that had put some sun cream on!

The garages with one berry bush on the left-hand end

One of the key themes of the day was about reading the crowd. I soon noticed that the photographers near me had suddenly gone into alert mode and were staring intently at the bush in front of us, fortunately the one that I had chosen to stand near to. After initially just seeing some movement from deep within, suddenly our star bird came out into the open on the bush and started eating the berries. This was a cue for some frenzied papping and I duly joined in with my superzoom, managing some shots that, as a blogger rather than a photographer, I was more than happy with. 





Yet more American Robin photos - just what the internet needs!

After a little while the bird flew off a short distance and dropped down behind the garages out of sight. A few minutes later and it flew low across the road down into a small garden just on the edge of the garage area where the ground sloped down steeply to a heavily laden berry bush. Birders near to this area soon crowded around the fence, peering in and trying to get a view. I had a brief peep but it was too crowded for my taste and the views were so poor that there seemed little point in making an effort. So instead I went back to the main square and waiting to see where it would go next. 

After some twenty minutes or so it flew low over us all and out onto the steep slopes beyond the houses. Here there was a small clump of trees and bushes including a single tall bare tree that I recognised from internet photos. However, rather than sitting there the bird instead dropped onto the ground and out of sight. There then followed a long period of frustrating waiting for it to show. It was periodically on view for some people at some angles. Again, it was a question of reading the crowd and I soon spotted that a couple of people down at the end of a side path could see it so I joined them, gaining some brief views of it on the ground through some branches before it moved too much for the angle to work any more. After that there was a long period of not seeing it at all.

The kind of obscured view that you more often associate with a crippling mega
rather than the previous porn shots

Time passed and gradually numbers swelled as more people arrived and the lack of recent decent views meant that fewer people were leaving. PL, a fellow Oxon birder, turned up. I'd been half expecting him today: we tend to have similar twitching criteria and need the same species so we often meet up on twitches. I brought him up to speed on events and fortunately within a few minutes of his arrival I again noticed that some people seemed to be on it. I picked it out on the ground in the field in a large gap to the right of the main bushes where it was working its was to the right and I managed to get PL onto it. After that, from watching the crowd it was periodically showing at certain angles but I didn't see it again. Not that I minded: I'd had crippling views to start with plus a number of "record shot views" to follow and felt it was time to move on.

Anyone who has been following the multitude of Eastbourne blog posts will no doubt already know about what else was on offer. There was of course the long-staying Hume's Warbler down on the seafront which was next on my itinary. I'd only ever seen one Hume's before, in November 2011 at Wyke Regis in Dorset where I'd managed to rock up on the way back from Cornwall and see it within a few minutes of arriving. So there was no pressure on this next target but it would still be nice to see as I am very partial to a nice phyllosc. I duly programmed up the Sat Nav and after a hiccup where it secretly changed the destination (I have to figure out why Google Maps does this occasionally) I turned up at the right spot and found a parking space right opposite the twitch. The last RBA instructions had said that it was along the lower promenade on the sea front but clearly the line of birders up one side of a small park-like square said otherwise and I hurried to join them in staring up at the canopy of some Holme Oaks. There I met NT (another Oxon birder) and his wife who told me that it was feeding along this side but was only giving occasional glimpses.


The Hume's twitch. Numbers more than doubled during the time I was there

Once again it was a question of reading the other birders to see where it was. The two birders at the top of the side road seemed to be raising their bins most frequently though often I could barely even see the movement that they were homing in on. It was certainly tough going. After some 15 minutes or so the bird popped out briefly at the top of the tree and I got some brief flight views though to be honest I couldn't tell it was a Hume's from what I'd seen. Then a little while later the top two birders seemed to be seeing something again so I moved up to join them. This proved to be well timed as shortly afterwards the bird worked its way onto a small branch "peninsular" that stuck out from the main canopy, though still feeding on the hidden far side. Suddenly, up it popped in full view and side on and I was able to appreciate it in all its glory for a couple of seconds before it was off again. I wasn't going to get any better views so wandered back to the car where I got out my lunch. I then sat on a bench in the glorious sunshine and munched contentedly.

There was one more target bird to see which came in the unlikely form of a long-staying Hooded Crow at Polegate services at the start of the A22. When I had mentioned this to PL back at the American Robin he told me that he'd not seen a Hoodie in the UK at all as he hasn't birded Scotland so I told him I would let him know how I got on. I arrived at the services and parked up right at the far end away from the deafening roar of the traffic: this certainly wasn't the nicest of birding locations that I'd been to. I had been hoping to find it on one of the roof tops but in the company of a couple of other hopeful birders, there was no sign of it. We wandered out to the main roundabout hoping to see it in the trees but without success. The other two turned back but I walked a little further on before spotting it sitting on top of a lamppost along the main road. I yelled out to the other two but such was the noise that I had to run back to tell them. By the time we got back it had flown off so they went back again only for me to find it again in a tree a little way beyond the far side of the road so I had to run back once more to fetch them back. They then spotted a side path that went down to a service road that ran under the main road and right past where the crow was which we duly took. A couple of minutes later we were able to get much better views more or less opposite the bird. I took a few photos but where I was standing was in deep shade and out of the sunshine it was cold so I didn't linger. I've seen plenty of Hoodies before in Scotland as well as a few in Cornwall so it wasn't that big a deal for me.


Hooded Crow

I had already messaged the news to PL when I'd first seen it and just as I was heading back to the car he turned up. So I took him back to the spot and showed him where it was so he could tick it before heading back to the car again. There were a few other birders loitering where I'd parked so I told them all where it was as well and then was finally able to get into the car and head off on my journey home.

I'd like to say that the journey back was uneventful but sadly the Friday afternoon traffic had other ideas. Firstly I chose to go on the A22 rather than the A27 in order to avoid the roadworks there. This would have taken the same time except for a road closure which forced a minor diversion around some admittedly rather pretty villages off the main road. I was soon back on track though my Sat Nav ETA kept rising as the M25 ahead of me started to clog up. Whilst crawling along the M25 itself and as yet another jam blocked things up ahead, I was offered a faster alternative route so found myself weaving my way around Wraysbury GPs to the M4 and then up the A404 before finally reaching the M40 and Oxford, arriving some half an hour after my original predicted time. Still I didn't mind: I'd had a great day out with a shiny new national lifer and two very nice bonus birds in some beautiful weather. Who could ask for more?


Wednesday, 26 January 2022

County Birding: Divers, Ducks and a County First!

I've got three local county outings that I thought I would amalgamate into a single blog post. One of them was a county first that mobilised the entire Oxon birding community en masse but we'll come to that in a while.

Diver

My first outing was a trip to Farmoor a few weekends back to pay homage to the long staying juvenile Great Northern Diver that is spending the winter there. This bird has been around for a while now and clearly is finding it to its liking. There have been countless photos of it dismembering the invasive Signal Crayfish that are so prolific in our waters these days. On the day that I went it was right in the far north west corner of F1 and despite trying to see it from across the other side, it was only when I actually walked all the way around that I was able to find it. The light was very overcast by then so my record shots have come out rather monotonic but still it was very nice to see such a smart and impressive bird comparatively close up and looking so relaxed and at home.

The over-wintering juvenile Great Norther Diver


County First!

The next outing took place a couple of weeks ago. News broke late one afternoon of a Pallas' Warbler that had been found at Abingdon sewage works by GB. The back of camera shots were suitably gripping and whilst the news broke too late for me to contemplate a twitch I understand that a couple of people did actually manage it in the 30 minute window before dusk. 

Pallas' Warbler are usually found on the east coast in autumn and inland birds are very rare. I remember twitching my first one in Berkshire back in 2013 when one over-wintered along a river on the Berkshire/Hampshire border. Since then, I have seen three more: Cornwall (self-found!), Spurn (briefly) and Norfolk (fantastic views at Thornham) so in terms of my national listing this was not particularly important. However, in terms of Oxon listing there was no doubting the significance of this find as it was a county first. This meant that all the serious county twitchers were going to be there the next day and naturally enough I was going to try to see it too. 

Overnight it was ridiculously cold, going down to a freezing -5 degrees. This made me wonder whether being there at first light was actually the best tactic or whether to wait a little bit until things warmed up a little might not be better. So in the end I rocked up at the sewage works at a little after 9 a.m. to find the great and the good of the county birding world all assembled already: they'd all been there since first light of course, being proper hardcore twitchers. Still it hadn't done them any good as there'd been no sign of it so far. In fact it had just got to the stage where intense concentration in looking for the target was starting to wane and was giving way to aimiable chatting instead. It was quite something to see everyone all there together. Since the pandemic there hadn't been a chance for any social gatherings in the Oxon birding world so for many this was a good chance for a long overdue catch up.

Having come a bit later I was still quite keen and diligently searched along the northern boundary of the treatment works for the target bird. There were plenty of Chiffchaffs about and one or two Goldcrest which would get the pulse racing until the head was seen properly but not our much sought after county first. After about 30 minutes of this a shout went up to the west. We all knew what this meant and as one we hurried to investigate. It turned out that PR had seen it briefly in a more wooded area off to the north west of the works. We all spread out looking and a minute or two later PR had it again in a tree next to the path. We all converged on the spot and sure enough there it was, zipping about high up in an Alder tree. It was hard to pin down as it was very active but I managed to see it well enough to be sure of what I was looking at. We then all followed it for several minutes as it worked its way through the tree tops before it went deeper into the wood and was lost to view.

After that, the atmosphere relaxed noticeably. There was a lot of chatting and mutual back slapping and comparing back of camera photos from those that had managed to get off a shot. The crowd also began to disperse, with some of those who'd been there since first light starting to head off home. A few late comers arrived to find that always difficult twitching situation where everyone there has seen it well and is no longer looking and you're left trying to refind it on your own. For myself, having arrived a bit later and having seen the bird comparatively quickly I was in no particular hurry to leave. I wandered back to the main sewage work area for a bit to take a look at the Siberian Chiffchaffs which tended to hang out at this area. They see to be faithful to a small area next to the concrete treatment rings and I saw them well enough. I then helped some of the late arrivals to look for the bird again but without any success. Eventually hunger started to get the better of me and I headed back for home with a shiny new county tick to my name.

Some of the lingering twitchers watching the Siberian Chiffies


 

A couple of stunning photos of the Pallas' Warbler taken a few days later, courtesy of Roger Wyatt


A couple of Siberian Chiffchaff photos courtesy of Roger Wyatt
 

Pallas' Revisited and a Duck

As everyone suspected, the Pallas' stuck around. Having located the insect oasis that is the sewage works, there was really no where else for it to go. It was onto a good thing for an over-wintering insect eating bird and anywhere else would probably not sustain it. It was reported every day since as various people, local and national came to pay homage. A week or so later I went back for seconds one Saturday afternoon. There in the company of less than ten people I had regular glimpses of it as it worked its way along the trees and hedges of the narrow wooded strip north of the sewage works. The views were never crippling but I managed some nice pale lemon rump views which are always very pleasing.

I didn't stay too long as the views were unlikely to get better and there was no point in attempting a photo given the distances, the gloomy light and how comparatively elusive the bird was. Instead I chose to nip over to Thrupp lake nearby at Radley to see the drake Ring-necked Duck. It was immediately on view though somewhat distant. I busied myself with trying to photograph it but given the circumstances it was always just going to be a record shot. Also present on the lake were seven Red-crested Pochard, a species that I don't happen to see that often. There is a bit of a glut of RND's nationally at the moment and it's nice to see that Oxfordshire is getting in on this action. Indeed just in Oxon, apart from this bird there is a lingering female at Appleford GPs which is being seen from time to time.

A photo of the distant Ring-necked Duck


All in all, it has been a great start to the county birding year. A county first like that is almost certainly a shoe in for the county bird of the year unless something even rarer turns up. Still you never know!


Thursday, 20 January 2022

January Durham Run

After having spent Christmas with us, our eldest daughter asked me if I could give her a lift back up to Durham at the start of January. With not much happening I felt that a change of scenery would help to shake off the January blues so I agreed. As usual I spent the week prior to our trip looking to see what might be around in the North East but, as is often the case at this time of year, there was nothing particular tempting to be seen. So in the end I decided to keep it fairly low key and stress free, choosing just to enjoy some of the local specialities.

Rather than our usual 8am start on Saturday we had a more leisurely departure at 10am, arriving at my daughter's house that she shares with her boyfriend, after an uneventful run at around 2pm. After a coffee and our packed lunch I proposed a local walk along the River Wear so I wouldn't have to do any more driving that afternoon. It was cold but sunny and I had a specific target in mind of wanting to see a Dipper which I'd not seen for a quite a while now. Having described the sort of shallow runs that they like, my daughter, who regularly walked along the river, took me to some ideal habitat where sure enough there was the sought after distant bobbing bird. With the addition of a couple of Goosander, a Grey Wagtail and some Little Grebes it was a very pleasant afternoon's walk.


Distant Dipper

Back at home I pootled about for a bit before we ordered some takeaway from my favourite Durham Thai restaurant - my treat for having done the drive. Then, after watching some Netflix Korean dramas in the evening (I have become obsessed!) it was time to turn in for the night.

The next day I was up reasonable early and out the door before my daughter was even up. I'd picked out a couple of local birds to try and see with the first being at the unlikely sounding location of a Morrison's carpark at Doxford Park in Sunderland where a third winter Iceland Gull was supposed to be hanging out. I arrived to a deserted car park (it was late opening on Sunday) and at first glance it seemed completely empty with not a gull to be seen. Indeed I had already started programming my next destination into my sat nav when I thought I'd better just chuck a few pieces of bread out to make sure. Low and behold within a few seconds I was surrounded by a couple of dozen Black-headed Gulls. This was more like it! A short while later the first larger gulls started to arrive and finally the Iceland Gull itself showed up. It had a liking for sitting on a roof top right in the corner and as I didn't have a great deal of bread to hand I had to use it sparingly at the right moment to entice it down to the ground but eventually it obliged.



The carpark Iceland Gull

Having got some reasonable photos I then decided to head on to my second destination, namely South Shields. It was not somewhere that I'd been to before but various reports of Snow Buntings just south of the pier had tempted me to go and take a look. I arrived and eventually managed to put together enough coins to pay for the parking - no contactless payment for some reason! I then wandered down to the dune area just south of the pier. On a sunny Sunday morning the area was full of people walking their dogs and at first glance it seemed fairly hopeless. 

Looking north towards South Shields pier
 

Looking around the only areas which were quieter were in the dune areas between the beach and the fairground so I had a little explore but there was nothing to see. Back towards the pier I encountered a fellow birder who turned out to be a chatty local. He told me that the flock of 20 or so Snow Buntings were normally right next to the pier where we were standing but that they'd not been seen today in two hours of searching. He said that by the steps people put seed out so I went over to take a look and there was a woman quietly watching a single Snow Bunting sitting on a rock. Relieved to have at least one to look at I relayed this information back to my new companion and set about taking a few snaps.

Like most Snow Buntings, it was very approachable and just sat there

Having finally seen my target I decided to have a wander along the pier to see what was about. 

Looking east at the start of the pier with the River Tyne on the left

 On the calm sea south of the pier there were a couple of Red-throated Divers fishing close in.


Along the pier itself there was a mixed flock of waders roosting on the rocks at the base of the pier, a mix of Dunlin, Redshank, Sanderling and a Ringed Plover.

 

On the sea at the end of the pier there were a few Guillemots fishing and on the River Tyne iteself there was a single Eider duck. With Turnstones and Rock Pipits also about it was nice to add some coastal species to my year list.

A Tyne Eider


A winter Guillemot

The small lighthouse at the end of the pier

It was very pleasant in the sunshine to wander about and enjoy the different surroundings and some different birds. Eventually though I realised it was time to start heading back so I retraced my steps and fired up the Gnome mobile. The journey southwards was long but uneventful. I punctuated it with a couple of quick stops for some tea from my flask and with Radio 4 for company I got back safely at tea time. It had been an enjoyable albeit low key trip up to the North East.

Monday, 17 January 2022

The Late (Again!) End of Year Review

Whereas other bloggers are now already blogging about their new year expeditions I'm still collecting my thoughts about the previous year. I seem to have got into a habit of being late with my end of year reviews and this year is no exception. Still, better late than never, here is my review of what was a pretty decent year's birding. As usual I will divide it up into the usual patch, county, national and non-bird sections but all managed to perform well this year.

Patch Birding

Regular readers will know that much of my day to day birding efforts are taking up with my local Port Meadow patch. I have already done a comprehensive review of the year (see here) so this is just an executive summary. It was a record breaking year in terms of year listing with 136 strict BOU species + 2 release scheme birds (Crane and White Stork) and two feral species (Snow Goose and Red-breasted Goose). One of these days I'm going to sit down and write my blog piece about Gnome listing but for now I'll leave the total deconstructed as above. The highlights of the year were: a Black Redstart in March (a personal patch tick), a Pectoral Sandpiper in December and a Dotterel also in December (also a Patch tick). The Port Meadow Bird of the Year was the Dotterel.

The Dotterel, courtesy of the finder Ollie Padget


County Birding

It was a very good year for county birding as well. Some years, outside of my patch it can be very quiet with no additions to my county year list but this year I managed three ticks. My day job meant that my twitching was more constrained so I had the extra challenge of trying to do door to door twitches within the one hour that I have off during daylight hours. This added a certain frisson to the twitching!

First up was the Purple Sandpiper at Farmoor. I had been away down in Cornwall for the only other twitchable county bird since I started birding at the end of 2007 so when this was found one August evening at Farmoor I hurried down there to make amends. 

Farmoor Purple Sandpiper

In September, I had the chance of another county grip back when a pair of Roseate Terns were found early afternoon at Farmoor. Again, I'd been away for the last twitchable bird and I managed to twitch them and return to my desk all within one hour. Hectic stuff but great to get such close views of this lovely Tern species.

The two Roseate Terns

It wasn't until December that my third county tick turned up when a Little Auk was found down on the river at Farmoor. Once again it was a mad dash to see it and get back all within one hour but somehow I did it, adding what was the ultimate county Mega to my list.

The Little Auk

The only other county trip of note was a morning spent up at Wantage to see an elusive Wryneck. The main enjoyment was winkling out views of this shy species but in the end it showed well enough.

The Wantage Wryneck

There is little contest for the county Bird of the Year: it has to be the Little Auk just for sheer rarity value. Only two county listers had ever seen one before (apart from some rescue birds) so it was a tick for just about everyone.


National Birding

My day job has rather been affecting my national birding as well. As I am confined to weekends, I either have to take the day off or do a weekend twitch. This has resulted in at least two missed life ticks this year but I still managed six additions to my coveted personal life list.

April was a productive month with three lifers no less! To start with there was a trip down to Cornwall that got me the Northern Mockingbird and the Newlyn American Herring Gull. Both birds fortunately hung around throughout the lockdown and were obliging enough for me to turn up and tick them fairly easily.

The Northern Mockingbird

The Newlyn American Herring Gull

The following weekend it was off to Sussex for the White-throated Sparrow at Barcombe. This involved waiting reasonable lengths of time before getting comparatively brief views but it was a lovely bird that certainly warranted putting in the time and effort for.

Barcombe White-throated Sparrow

Nationally, it was rather quiet then until June when we had a trip en famille down to Cornwall. Cornwall itself was rather uninteresting with just an adult Rose-coloured Starling worthy of note but on the way back we stopped off for the Ham Wall River Warbler which, after a tense wait, I managed to see just before the family needed to be picked up from Glastonbury.

The River Warbler

It wasn't until September that I had my next tick with the long-staying White-tailed Lapwing up at Blacktoft Sands. This was a lovely little reserve with a great supporting cast and the star turn was obliging enough.

The White-tailed Lapwing

I thought that that was going to be it but then in the last few days of the year I managed to snaffle the elusive Belted Kingfisher up in Lancashire. The views were distant but prolonged and, given all the tales of multiple dips on the internet, I was very happy to have this Mega in the bag.

The Belted Kingfisher

Other trips of note included a Durham run in January on which I saw the Northern Eider at Redcar. This is a subspecies tick for me and will therefore appear somewhere on the convoluted Gnome listing hierarchy.

The Redcar Northern Eider

The national Bird of the Year award is a really tricky one as they were all much appreciated in their own way. The Mockingbird and the Kingfisher are both real Megas in their own right; the American Herring Gull was something that I had long wanted to catch up with and I really enjoyed the Sparrow, Lapwing and River Warbler twitches. So this year I am going to be controversial and share the award equally amongst all of them.

Non-birding

There were only a couple of non-birding trips this year in the form of jaunts down to the New Forest for a couple of Orchid ticks that I still needed, namely Fragrant Heath Orchid and the tiny Bog Orchid. I enjoyed having something to do in the height of summer and with a side helping of some Honey Buzzard views it was a great couple of trips.

Bog Orchid

Summary

So there you have it: despite the restrictions of a day job and the on-going pandemic I managed to see some decent birds and to keep my various county and national lists jogging along. I really appreciate having mutliple different outlets for my birding in the form of patch, county and national birding - each offers me great enjoyment in their own way. Let's hope that 2022 is just as good.