Sunday, 2 February 2020

End of Year Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

County Birding

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Totternhoe Knolls Man Orchid

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

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

Monday, 30 December 2019

Birds from the East - End of Year Finale!

As regular readers will know, I'm presently working in London which has rather put the kaibosh on any birding trips on my part. Sure, I have my regular lunch time trips to Regents Park but the highlight of the last week of work was adding Kestrel to my park life list which now stands on a paltry 53 so it's hardly high octane stuff. However, over the Christmas period all contractors such as myself where I am working have an enforced furlough, a compulsory holiday of two weeks. Exhausted as I was from the exertions of working in London this couldn't come soon enough as far as I was concerned. Now, whilst the main purpose was going to be to rest and celebrate Christmas with the family, a part of me was wondering whether there might be something of birdy interest to tempt me out on one final sortie for the year. I have fond memories of some winter twitches: Dusky Thrush, Blue Rock Thrush, and Brunnich's Guillemot for example. With the recent split of the Yellow Wagtail complex into Eastern and Western, the first winter Eastern Yellow up in Northumberland would have been a possibility but it was just too far away. So when Norfolk turned up the very smart Blue-headed Eastern Yellow Wagtail I was certainly interested. It was found on the 23rd and since then was reported regularly every day. This was the kind of nailed-down twitch that I like so once the Christmas festivities were over I hatched a plan. It seemed to me that the birds was most regularly reported first thing so I decided to head over to Norfolk one evening and stay the night there so as to be on site for first light. This would give me a good chance to see it and then to head back home at my leisure. I even planned to stop in at the Black-throated Thrush on the way back. Just about every birder in the country must have been to visit this bird ahead of me but as I'd seen one a few years back on a winter Durham run I'd personally been in no hurry to pay homage. Still it would be such a minor detour from the Norfolk return journey that it would be positively rude not to stop in.

So it was that on Saturday night I put this plan into action. I found and booked an AirBnB in Ringstead, literally no more than 5 minutes from the twitch site. It was more expensive than I usually pay for overnight stays but there was nothing cheaper around (Christmas I guess) and the convenience of the location was sans pareil. At around 5:30 pm I headed off into the darkness in the Gnome mobile with Radio 4 for company and some food for sustenance on the long slog over to Norfolk. Given that it was Saturday night there wasn't much traffic and the journey was uneventful, taking the expected three hours. I was soon settled into my spotless and comfortable room for the evening, enjoying a "room picnic" with a celebratory bottle of beer.

Given that it didn't get light till around 8 a.m. there was no need to hurry the next day so I enjoyed a leisurely cooked breakfast before packing up and heading the few minutes down the road to the twitch site. There were already a dozen or so cars parked up along the side of the road and as I tooled up I met up with DB whom I knew from the Cornwall birding scene. It turned out she lived in Norfolk but that this was the first opportunity that she and her family had had to see this bird. By the roadside I could see a bunch of birders all set up to look at the western of the two dung heaps that were the focal point of the twitch location (such a glamorous life we twitchers lead!). To my mind this was a bit strange as my thinking was that the action was usually at the eastern dung heap, a few hundred yards down the muddy track and DB agreed with this. As the other birders were clearly not on the bird at all we decided to head down the track to the other heap. We'd got half way down when we looked back to see someone waving at us - the bird was clearly at the western heap. So we hurried back and had almost reached the road when everyone started coming our way. Apparently the bird had been seen at the heap but had then flown eastwards towards the other heap. Oh well, at least the birds was still around! We all headed off to the other heap and it wasn't long before the bird turned up, picking it's way over the giant pile in search of flies. The light was an appalling gloomy grey and there was a really stiff breeze blowing so photographic conditions were really poor. For this reason I opted just for video and despite the scope-shaking wind, managed to put together enough footage to make some grabs from.

A couple of video grabs from my rather shaking video
The presence of this bird had forced myself, and no doubt many other birders, to get to grips with current thinking on the whole Yellow Wagtail complex. It has recently been split into Western and Eastern with some half a dozen subspecies within the Eastern complex. This bird was considered to be of the nominate M. t. tschutschensis form which is variously called Blue-headed Easter Yellow or Alaskan Eastern Yellow though the latter doesn't seem very Eastern in name, at least from our perspective here on the western side of Europe. My understanding was that it was identified as Eastern YW on the call and then determined to be M. t. tschutschensis on the basis of the plumage. For those who are interested in learning more about the complex, there's a rather nice article summarising it in Birding Netherlands here. Anyway, it certainly was a most striking bird, looking like a male Blue-headed Wagtail in appearance. I did my best to appreciate its subtleties though in the cold wind and the gloomy conditions I wasn't intending to spend too long over it. This was actually my 400th bird using strict BOU listing conditions so ought to be a cause for great celebration though using my more liberal Gnome Rarities Committee rules I was already well past that milestone.

I soon overheard someone else asking a fellow birder where Shernborne was and so got to wondering what might be there that had sparked that enquiry. A quick glance on my RBA app revealed that a possible Grey-bellied Brant was the answer to that question. What's more it was less than 10 minutes away. I needed no further inducement to leave the windswept dung heap and hurried back to the car. Thanks to my trusty Google Maps app about 10 minutes later I pulled up on the side of a hill with a few other cars, overlooking some huge swathes of farmland across which vast numbers of Pink-footed Geese were grazing. Someone there kindly let me peek through his scope to tick the bird but it turned out to be quite close and relatively easy to pick out. This was a much nicer location than the first twitch site: it was conveniently sheltered from the wind and from our vantage point we could easily view the entire field without any danger of disturbing the birds. It was nice to get a flavour of winter Norfolk goose watching which I'd not previously done much of. Someone found a couple of (Tundra) Bean Geese in amongst the flock and I managed to get on them in order to get another year tick.

Some rather wobbly video of the Grey-bellied Brant

I must confess to knowing precious little about the enigmatic Grey-bellied Brant other than it's a possble fourth subspecies of Brent Goose, alongside Pale-bellied, Dark-bellied and the Black Brant and is said to look like a cross between Black Brant and Pale-bellied. Apparently it is a proposed separate subspecies for the population of birds breeding in central Arctic Canada (mainly Melville Island), and wintering on Puget Sound on the American west coast around the U.S./Canada border though some authorities suggest that it is no more than an intergrade between the Pale-bellied and Black Brant. To my eyes it looked like a rather washed out version of a Black Brant and was certainly a nice bird to see.

With time marching on, I felt that I ought to be heading off but at that point another whole flock of Pink-foots came in, almost doubling the number of birds there. I'd never seen so many geese! The one thing that made me hesitate from leaving was that a Lesser White-fronted Goose had been seen recently in Norfolk and it was just possible that it might be in there somewhere. However, in the end I decided that I couldn't afford to hang around on the off-chance so reluctantly tore myself away from the scene and got back into the car. I set the coordinates for Whipsnade Zoo for the final port of call on my trip and at round 10 a.m. I was on the road once more.

I stopped periodically to check for news of the Thrush on the RBA app and finally towards 11 a.m. it came up as still present. With that reassurance it was onwards on my journey which really seemed to go on for ever. Finally at around 12:30 I turned into the overflowing car park and parked up. It seemed that just about every member of the public had decided to come and visit the zoo on this sunny Sunday afternoon at the same time. I met one or two birders coming the other way as I headed towards the entrance only to be told that the bird was last seen about an hour and a half ago. That didn't sound too promising and I started to have doubts about the outcome of this last stage. Still. I was there now and had at least to give it a go. I queued up and paid my £26 (including a voluntary charity donation), was given a little map and headed the few minutes over towards to twitch area. Anyone who'd been reading any birding blogs of late would know all about the various locations: the Pig Pen, the Hullabaloo Farm and the Common Frog Pond and how there was a single favoured Cotoneaster Tree in the middle. These all turned out to be right next to each other and the whole twitch site was far smaller than I'd imagined. I soon found half a dozen or so birders all dutifully staking out the favoured tree. To my mind this looked like a bit of a non-starter: they were standing very close to the tree and there were so many member of the general public milling around that I felt it unlikely that the bird was going to turn up any time soon. Indeed there was no sign of any bird life at all in the vicinity - it all seemed most unlikely. 

Rather than just standing around I decided to have a wander around to see if I could turn it up. I searched through various locations though there was nothing to be seen, not even any Redwings. I circled backed to the twitch location to see if I'd missed anything but they'd not seen anything. So I decided to explore in the other direction, partly just to keep on walking around after my prolonged driving stint. I came across a much quieter area with some berry bearing trees along the side of the road and here were a couple of birders peering intently up into the foliage. On enquiry it turned out that the star bird was here and that they'd last seen in just a few minutes ago! Much more like it! We were standing near what was labelled as the Railway Yard and which I guess must be the Railway Sidings that I'd read about in some of the reports. It certainly looked like a good spot with several Cottoneasters running along the edge of the fenced off area (the Conservation Breeding Area apparently). Plenty of cover for the bird away from the hoards of people and plenty of food on offer. After about fifteen minutes or so a bird flew up into the back of the tree that looked promising: flashing greys and black in flight it certainly looked good but could I get a proper view? Then it flew down low into the railway area behind some abandoned rolling stock but didn't come out the other side. The three of us hurried over to take a look and there it was, not more than 20 yards away on the ground and feeding actively. I whipped out my super zoom and papped away as much as possible before after a few minutes the bird flew off into a nearby tree.

This is by now a very well-photographed bird but in the shady corner where it was located my shots were nothing special.

A bit of video footage

What a result! What a bird! Far more stunning than the grubby female that I'd seen a few years previously it was very smart looking individual. I wasn't going to get better views than that so with time marching on I headed back towards the car, stopping first to tell the other birders who were still staking out the original tree, where their target actually was. They gratefully hurried off to see it for themselves whilst I headed back to the car and set the coordinates for home. In the bright winter sunshine, the last leg of the journey passed reasonably enough and so it was that around 3:30 pm I arrived back at Casa Gnome for my celebratory cup of tea and a chance to catch up with the rest of the family. It had been a great finale to my birding year.

Sunday, 1 December 2019

Slim Pickings in Regents Park

It's been a lean old year in terms of birding opportunities for me. This is partly due to self-imposed restrictions in terms of how far I'm prepared to travel and partly due to work constraints. Indeed as far as the latter are concerned, all has not been well in that respect for several years now, to the point where this year I decided that, rather than eeking out a living at home, I had to bite the bullet and get a proper job. Now for my line of work the best jobs are in London so for a good part of this year I've been applying for various positions before finally getting something that was due to start in early October. Thus it was that my life has changed to commuting during the week from my parental home in Epsom up to London and only coming home to Oxford at the weekends. Whilst the work is interesting I can't say that I recommend it in terms of work-life balance and I don't think that I'll be able to keep it up long term. What's more of course my birding opportunities have gone right out the window. Based off the Euston Road near Warren Street tube I've been exploring the local area on my lunch breaks in desperate search of a bit of habbo to explore. The best that I've come up with has been Regents Park: an oasis of green in the sprawl of concrete, traffic and car fumes. Not that the relatively manicured lawns of a London park offer much in the way of habitat for birds but compared to the surrounding area where a pigeon or a crow are about as good as it gets (and there are no House Sparrows or Starlings even) this is the best that's on offer. So it is that several times a week I hurry off to the park during my one hour break and try to cover as much of the area as possible.

The main feature of the park is of course the main central lake, complete with a couple of islands and several narrow arms extending off in different directions. The north east arm houses a waterfowl collection where you can see various exotic ducks all lounging about but the main lake is where most of the action is. There are Tufted Ducks, Shoveler, Pochard, a few Red-crested Pochard, Moorhen, Coot and Grebes and a reasonable number of Mandarins along with the usual gull species as well as Canada, Greylag and Egyptian Geese. In the surrounding trees Jays are plentiful and there are some feeders where you can see the usual Tits (including a surprising number of Coal Tits) and a few Finches.

There are a few Common Gulls to be seen

This Egyptian Goose pair had a very late pair of goslings

Displaying Mandarins

The noisiest inhabitants are of course the Ring-necked Parakeets which are everywhere. There are a number of trees and whilst nothing approaching a woodland you could call some of it a copse in terms of size. There are a few helpful boards posted around the area which tell you what birds you might be able to see there and which includes a reasonable number of passage migrants and apparently Reed Warblers even breed in the reeds that line some of the lake areas. What's more there are some good insects on offer with Willow Emerald an White-letter Hairstreak both to be had, so something to look forward to for the summer months.

One of the many Ring-necked Parakeets

Naturally, in order to try to generate some interest I've started a park list but it's rather depressing how few birds I've got on it so far. After nearly two month's of effort my grand total is standing at 49. I've never been so pleased to see a Starling but it wasn't added to the list until number 48 one rainy lunchtime when a few were sitting in a tree with some Mistle Thrushes. By far the rarest on the list is a Red-throated Diver which turned up a few weeks ago. I couldn't quite believe it when I looked on my RBA app to see "Red-throated Diver in Regents Park" appear one morning. I hoped it would hold out till lunchtime and fortunately it did. I nearly didn't see it during my one hour break but fortunately right towards the end it turned up and swam by me, bold as you please, within a few metres. Certainly the best views I've ever had of this species. Unsurprisingly, it turned out that the bird wasn't well and the next day it was taken into care. Fortunately the story has a happy ending and you can follow the bird's rehabilitation and successful release here.

Crippling views of the Red-throated Diver

Depressing though it is, I am grateful that I have something to look at in the park. Fortunately there is a blog covering the various London parks written by someone who works there which is a great source of reference. The list of birds that he sees is quite impressive but a lot of them are added as vis mig flyovers at dawn which is not an option for me. So I guess I'll keep slogging around at lunchtime: whilst the bird variety is lamentable at least it's an escape from the concrete and fumes of what must be one of London'd busiest roads. At one stage I did contemplate doing regular updates of my sightings on a new dedicated blog but the truth of the matter is that there just isn't enough variety to make that at all interesting. So I'll do the occasional post here and will carry on park listing. My target is to get my list total up to 100 though this may be a tall ask. Time will tell!

Useful Park Links

Tuesday, 24 September 2019

Year-ticking in Yorkshire

A couple of weeks ago I did an epic University Run up to Edinburgh to drop off my youngest daughter. Well, today it was the turn of the eldest who was due to start her PhD in Astrophysics at Durham. Sadly (for me at least) her PhD is much more like a proper job so I won't be having to ferry her back and forth at the start and end of each term time which means that this is probably going to be the only Durham run that I'm going to make for quite a while. So it was important to make the most of it. As usual I was keeping a keen eye on proceedings in the North East in the days leading up to my departure but sadly there was nothing really stand-out that caught my attention. So in the end I mentally put together a few possibilities and decided to play it by ear on the day. The problem was always going to be overnight accommodation but I tracked down a B&B that was reasonably close to various places like Spurn and put in a provisional booking for Saturday night, asking if I could confirm on the day which they said would be OK.

Saturday morning we set off bright an early just after 8 a.m., stopping only to buy some provisions for the journey before hitting the motorway. We followed our usual route of M40 northwards, then M42/A42 up to the M1. There was quite a lot of traffic for what would normally be a quiet period on Saturday morning and we came to the conclusion that it was a lot of students heading off to University. Indeed we played "spot the student car" on our way northwards, looking out for cars like ours, packed to the gunwales with student belongings. The journey was uneventful though there was some issue to do with the key handover rendezvous to try to sort out en route. Originally the agents had told us that they would meet us at the flat at 12:30 but we then got a second hand (via a flat mate) e-mail saying that it had been pushed back to 1:30 instead. That was rather going to mess with my plans for a speedy getaway to start my birding but it couldn't be helped. So we arrived bang on time at 12:30, parked up by the flat and then walked into town to buy some lunch which we ate al fresco before going for a walk along the river. In the end the agent didn't arrive until gone 2pm and there was all sorts of bother as she'd not brought the right keys (apparently not her fault but a mix-up at the office). Finally however, we managed to get another resident to let us into the building and got the apartment door open (though with the wrong key as it turned out!) and we could commence the unpacking process. This didn't take too long and it was time to say our good byes. This was much less of an emotional affair than a couple of weeks ago (Daughter 1 was much more chilled about it all basically) and I was soon back in the car, ready to plan my birding for what was left of the rest of the day.

With no last minutes Mega's to change my plans but the continued presence of the White-rumped Sandpiper at Tophill Low NR, I thought that I'd go and take a look at that, it being quite a while since I'd seen my only other UK record of this species. After that I planned on heading over to the B&B near Spurn for the night and then spend Sunday morning birding at Spurn before coming back home. I tried to call the B&B to confirm my stay but there was no reply so I headed off and during a fuel stop I managed to get through to sort my stay out. Tophill Low was a reserve I'd never heard of before and it turned out to be right in the middle of nowhere along loads of narrow back roads so quite an effort to get there. I turned up to find quite well resourced and equipped reserve, built next to a water treatment works. There was an extensive car park, a toilet block and visitor centre, a large viewing gallery over the extensive reservoir there and an elaborate network of visitor trails that lead you all around the reserve. I picked up a map (which you really needed to find your way around the place) and headed off for the South Marsh East hide. This turned out to be a good fifteen minutes brisk walk away but after so long sitting in the car it was good to stretch my legs. Along the way I passed loads of different lagoons, all with extensive hides, it really was quite an extensive place. In the warm later afternoon sunshine there were lots of dragonflies zooming about the place, mostly Hawkers (probably Migrant) but including at least one Golden Ringed.

Finally I arrived at the hide to find only half a dozen or so people in there and news that the Sandpiper was still there and on show. I soon got onto it and went about reacquainting myself with this Nearctic vagrant.

The east South Marsh lagoon was a lovely extensive shallow area with a nice patchwork of bars criss-crossing the area, ideal for waders of which there were plenty. There were mostly Lapwing and Snipe with a few Dunlin and a couple of noisy Greenshank. On the duck front there were mostly Teal. I spent some time taking it all in and systematically looking through all the birds to see if I'd missed anything.

The view from the East South Marsh hide
With time marching on I decided to start heading back but as I was in no hurry to be once more behind the wheel I elected to stop off at each hide on the way back just for a quick glance. It turned out that the east South Marsh one was best for waders but there was another that overlooked an extensive lake which was full of Geese and Cormorants as well as some diving ducks. Others looked over smaller ponds with a few Dabchicks. There was so much variety there, it really was a great little reserve. Eventually I got back to the car and programmed in the B&B location to my phone. With a journey time of over an hour I headed off into the twilight along the narrow roads before skimming the outskirts of Hull and then heading east in the darkness on the familiar route towards Spurn. As my B&B was at Holmpton I was directed to turn off at Patringham across a long single-track road through open farmland. In the darkness it looked like the back of beyond. The Sat Nav finally told me I'd arrived but I looked around and could just see empty fields! The post code, which I'd assumed would be accurate enough, turned out to be less than helpful so I had to call my hostess who fortunately talked me in and was waiting for me at the door. As I was getting out of the car a Tawny Owl called close by, a nice first of the year for me. I was soon unpacked and installed in my comfortable room for the night with a hot cup of tea. There I had a little room picnic with some of the provisions I'd brought before checking in back home and then turning in for the night.

The next morning I was up, showered and ready for my cooked breakfast at 6:45 am. I couldn't finish all of it so I saved some bacon and sausage for my lunch and poured the rest of the teapot contents into my flask. Then it was on the road and heading towards Spurn. There had been nothing of note there yesterday apart from a Red-breasted Flycatcher that spent the day in the Crown & Anchor carpark so I decided to head there first to see if it was still about. There I met a few other birders including a chap from Sheffield who was as keen as me to see this bird. The two of us therefore stuck it out for some time as others came and went. My new found companion had one of the shortwave radios to hand and when a Yellow-browed turned up at Easington by the Old School (where the Siberian Accentor was first found) we decided to head off there. So we hopped into our respective cars and a few minutes later were parking up near Vicars Lane. There was no immediate sign of the bird but we met up with the person who'd found it who said that it had moved down the lane a bit. We started to work the trees along the lane and my companion then spotted what turned out to be a smart Firecrest in the trees. As more people gathered in the Lane (there was precious little elsewhere to entertain people) I heard the Yellow-browed call once though no one else seemed to. A few minutes later it suddenly started calling regularly from within a White Poplar and I managed to get some nice views of this lovely warbler. They're always a delight to see despite losing much of their original rarity value.

Warbler watching in Vicars Lane
Having seen it as well as I was going to and with increasing numbers of people arriving I decided to return to Spurn itself to see what else I could find. I headed first back to the pub car park to put in some more time there. Whereas before the sun hadn't really reached the trees properly, by now things were nicely lit up so I wanted to check if the Flycatcher had now put in an appearance. There was sadly no sign of it though a nice Spotted Flycatcher was some compensation.

Spotted Flycatcher on the wires
Eventually I got fed up with staring at the same bushes and decided to head down to the Warren to see what was about though there'd been nothing of note reported on the radio apart from a Redstart and Whinchat as well as an Ocean Sun-fish and some Dolphins on the sea. When I got there the sea watching hut was virtually empty. A couple of birders standing next to it informed me that a few Red-throated Divers had flown part and a few Common Scoter but that was about it. This got me thinking: it was clearly a poor day for decent birds here but there were a number of relatively common species that I hadn't seen this year, perhaps I should work on my year list. Now I don't in anyway "do" a year list but I do keep track of what I've seen over the year. This year has been a particularly poor one: I've been out on far fewer trips than usual, mainly due to work concerns and, apart from meaning that I've posted far fewer blog entries this year, it has also meant that my year tally is embarrassing low. This could be an opportunity to make amends. I had a good idea of some of the common species that I still needed and in terms of sea watching Common Scoter and any of the Divers would be year ticks. So I spent a bit of time watching the sea though to give you an idea of how bad it was: it took me over 15 minutes to see my first bird at all, a Gannet. Eventually I managed to get Common Scoter on the list before giving up. Still this had given me a much needed boost of motivation and so it was with renewed vigour that I resumed my explorings. For starters, there were always Tree Sparrows around the Warren and it didn't take me long to find one - tick!

My first Tree Sparrow of the year
I'd been told that a Redstart (which I needed for the year) had been frequenting the bushes just north of the Warren huts and so in the company of the two chaps who'd been sea watching we went to take a look. There were quite a few birds zipping about in the stunted trees there, mostly Blue and Great Tits. A Whinchat showied occasionally, a Yellow Wagtail flew over, here were a few Linnets buzzing about and a juvenile Willow Warbler went through but that was about it.

Next I turned my attention to the estuary as the tide was at its peak now and lots of waders were close in on the Humber side. A quick scan revealed mostly Redshank, a few Curlew, a few Bar-tailed Godwits (tick), a Knot (tick), a couple of Grey Plover (tick), a few Ringed Plover and a single Greenshank. It had been a useful opportunity to bag some of the commoner waders.

Time was marching on and whilst I didn't have a specific time that I had to be back home I wanted to get ahead of the Sunday evening traffic so I started to think about home. "Just one more look at the Crown and Anchor before I go" I told myself. I was glad that I did because I managed to add Pied Flycatcher to my year list. Whilst not particularly exciting in this context, it is quite a rare species in Oxon so I'm always happy to see one.

A blurry Pied Flycatcher
Finally I had to admit that it was time to leave. So I parked up with a view of the Humber, polished off my packed lunch and had some tea from the flask before firing up the Gnome Mobile and setting the coordinates for home. The rain which had been forecast for this afternoon finally caught up with me and driving conditions were fairly horrendous as I headed back. I didn't arrive back until just before 6 pm in the end, tired but happy with what had been a far more enjoyable trip than I'd originally expected.

My view as I ate my lunch, before setting off for home
Post Script

For this who like a bit of stats, I managed no less than 12 year ticks on the trip in the end. The rarest were the White-rumped Sandpiper and the Yellow-browed Warbler and the commonest was Snipe (how I'd managed not to see one so far this year is quite beyond me!!). My year list tally is now on a magnificent 166 - quite a remarkably low total for this time of year and with much more stringent work commitments coming up for the rest of the year I'm not likely to add many more to it. Still I'd managed to add a few on this trip so it was slightly less embarrassing  than before.

Tuesday, 17 September 2019

Olivaceous Frolics at Farlington

Early afternoon on Saturday news broke of an Eastern Olivaceous Warbler at Farlington Marshes down in Hampshire. Now, at only one and a half hours away this was well within my twitching distance but normally weekends are off limits due to family commitments. However on Sunday morning my VLW would be off playing tennis and with nothing else going on I decided that I would nip down on news first thing the next day. The bird was reported regularly throughout the whole of Saturday afternoon and so it was with some optimism that I went to bed, hoping for a "still present" message the next morning.

The birding gods saw fit to smile down on me and Sunday morning the bird was indeed still present so just after 8 am and with the rest of the family still asleep I was on the road and heading down the pleasantly empty A34 towards the coast. There was more traffic on the M27 heading eastwards and road work speed restrictions all along there made for frustrating progress but eventually I hit the A27 and then immediately turned off for Farlington. I'd visited here just once before way back when I'd just started birding. Indeed I think I'm right in saying that I saw my first even Bearded Tit here so it was nice to be back again. The target bird had been reported once during my journey down so it was with some optimism that I navigated my way through the overcrowded car park and hurriedly got tooled up.

I only had the vaguest of ideas where to go but I could see a distant line of twitchers half way down the west sea wall by the Lake (see the map above) so off I yomped. I'd got no more than 40 yards or so when a birder coming the other direction but over on the other side of the ditch from me yelled out that the Warbler was actually in the opposite direction and he pointed towards the north east corner of the reserve. So I did an about turn and headed off eastwards from the car park towards roughly where it says "The Stream" on the map. Here I can across a gathering of no more than about 30 twitchers loosely spread out and looking towards a clump of bushes. My initial enquiry found that it had been seen in the last few minutes in a sort of hollow area in the centre of the bushes. After adjusting my position better to see in this area someone next to me said "it's showing now" and sure enough I immediately got my scope on it to get what turned out to be my best views of the morning of the star bird. It was feeding low down on some bramble but this particularly patch was rather empty, thereby giving better views of a large Hippolais Warbler (actually an Iduna), a pale grey brown above and off white below with a distinctive long bill, a reasonable supercilum before the eye and a slightly peaked crown. What's more it was pumping its tail regularly, which in itself is the most diagnostic feature that separates it from its confusion species of Skye's, Isabelline (formerly Western Olivaceoous) and Booted Warblers. It seemed to move more rapidly than the ponderous jizz of its Melodius and Icterine cousins and after a minute or so it was gone.

After that it was a question of hanging around waiting to see where it would show again next. Sometimes it flew over our heads into another clump of bushes behind us. Then all the twitchers would gather around waiting for it to show. It could occasionally be heard "tack"ing away hidden from view. Showings were usually rather brief affairs, often at the top of the bushes. It was constantly on the move and so it was very hard to take any decent photos with my superzoom camera which is all too slow compared to a proper one for situations like this. Still I managed three shots which actually had the bird in.


TM (a student birder who works my Port Meadow patch with me) turned up at the twitch as well. Indeed I was somewhat surprised I hadn't seen any other county birders - I would have thought that to have such a rarity relatively close to the county would have tempted quite a few others. After a while of inactivity I wandered over to another clump of bushes where a much smaller group were staking out a hidden Wryneck though on enquiry it turned out that it had not been seen in quite a while so I headed back to the main event. 

Time marched on and after a while the bird flew over to a different area where it was much further away and much harder to view. With one eye on the clock this seemed like a good opportunity to head off home so I wandered back to the car in a contented frame of mind. I'd managed to put a genuine national Mega on my list, indeed after such a long dry spell this was my third lifer in 8 days. The journey back was uneventful and I arrived back at Casa Gnome at about 1pm in time for lunch.

I came across this extraordinaryly good photo of the bird by Stuart Gay (c) on the Despite how tricky and elusive it's been, there are a few good photos of it now starting to appear
As a post script, the next day the bird was much more elusive and indeed PL struggled for much of the day before getting a decent view (see write-up here). I was therefore very lucky that I went when I did.

Tuesday, 10 September 2019

Edinburgh Interlude

Long standing readers will remember past university run trips to Durham and Swansea to ferry my two daughters to and from those academic institutions. Both girls have now completed their undergraduate degrees and both have had a year off to think about things. However, so daunting was the prospect of the world of work that both have now decided to return to the sanctuary of university life and are both now about to embark on post graduate studies. Whilst my eldest is going to stay on at Durham to do a Ph.D., my youngest is now going to do a Masters at Edinburgh and as Scottish terms start earlier than in England, last Friday I took her up there. 

As usual I thought that I'd take the opportunity to see what was around on the bird front and there was one present rarity that caught my eye, namely the unidentified Wheatear near Pilling in Lancashire. I say unidentified but it's an adult female of either a Pied or an Eastern Black-eared Wheatear. It appears that for adult females it's almost impossible to tell these two species apart in the field and I've been following the debate on-line with some interest Whilst I've seen a couple of Pied Wheatears over the years I've yet to see a Black-eared so I was very much hoping that it would turn out to be this latter species. Whilst it was found at the start of last week I was optimistic that it might stay for some time as autumn Wheatears are wont to do and so it proved. Indeed by the time our daughter and I had set off from Oxford at around 9 a.m. on Friday it had already been reported as still present that day. What's more it was only a relatively short distance off the M6 and conveniently located about half way from Oxford to Edinburgh so it would be a perfect spot to stop for lunch. The one possible fly in the ointment was that the weather forecast was for very strong winds and I had wondered just how well the bird would show under such conditions.

The journey northwards was uneventful and at around 1pm we were turning off the M6 for Pilling. As we neared our destination it was interesting to note how the countryside started to have that coastal feel to it, with everything looking a bit more bleak and windswept. We arrived at the car park to find quite a few cars present and I could see a small gathering of birders on the sea wall a few hundred yards away, presumably where the bird was. It was indeed very windy and I had to put on numerous layers before we battled through the wind to where the other birders were. I needn't have worried about the bird as it was constantly on show though in the conditions it was almost impossible to hold the camera steady. In the end I set up my scope and used that to rest my camera on it. This gave enough stability to get some reasonable shots off.

After about ten minutes we both retreated to the sanctuary of the car to eat our packed lunches. Then whilst my daughter decided to stay put I girded my loins and sallied forth once more to take more pictures. The other birders had now gone and instead there were a couple of new birders looking for the bird. As they were in the wrong place I shepherded them further along to where it had last been seen and sure enough it was soon on show again. The sun came out and gave the opportunity for better photos though it was still very blowy.

The Pied/Eastern Black-eared Wheatear

Lots has been written about this bird's identity already and it must be the most photographed Wheatear presently in the country so there are no shortage of photos of it. I don't pretend to have any expertise in separating the two species. All I can say is that having seen the bird and numerous photos and comparing it with the plates in my Collins, the colouring most closely matches the Eastern Black-eared Wheatear though I'm quite prepared to accept that there's more to it than that. Anyway, a poo sample has been taken for DNA purposes and I await the outcome with bated breath - after all there's an armchair tick at stake. I have read though that it's possible that even the DNA analysis won't be conclusive and that these two species are known to hybridise so we may never know.

After having got all the photos I wanted it was time to head back to the car and back towards the M6 for the long slog up to Edinburgh. Fortunately we had some friends who lived in the city and who'd kindly agreed to put us up for the night as my daughter wouldn't have access to her room until 9 am on Saturday morning. We arrived there just before 6pm and were soon settling down to a nice meal and a chance to catch up. After dinner we decided to go for a walk down to the centre of town to see where my daughter's accommodation was. It all looked good and we met up with one of the student wardens there who seemed most helpful. Then it was back to our friends' place where after such a long day we were soon hitting our beds for the night.

We were up early the next day. After breakfast we said goodbye to our hosts (though I had provisionally asked if it might be possible to stay that night as well) and headed off with the aim of getting to the student accommodation location at the opening time of 9am. We actually weren't the first people there though we were efficiently dealt with and soon unloading the car's contents into her simple but functional room. Eventually it was all done and it was time to say our goodbyes. Despite having gone through all this before with both daughters I still felt surprisingly emotional about it all. Still I'm sure she's going to have a wonderful time there.

Now, having fulfilled my paternal duties what had I got lined up on the birding front for today? Well, there had been nothing of particular note in Scotland: a Surf Scoter and a Pectoral Sandpiper at Musselburgh were a possibility but I had my eye on a grander prize. I'd been thinking that this was probably as good an opportunity as I was likely to get to have a crack at the resident Black Duck at Strontian over to the west in the Highlands. The only trouble was, after a flurry of daily reports of its presence in the spring, there'd been precious little news for the summer. Indeed when planning my trip up here I'd more or less written this bird off as a possibility with no news for over a month but then last weekend it was reported as still present in its usual place upstream of the second bridge so I thought that I'd give it a go. Of course given its location whilst it was only a relatively modest 140 miles way, it was going to take over three and a half hours to get there and the round trip was going to be equivalent in time to driving from Oxford to Edinburgh again. Still, needs must and with a weather forecast of sunshine and no wind it was with some optimism that I set off for the slog westwards from Edinburgh.

It was indeed a long old drive but once I started to get out into the Highlands the scenery started to change and crossing Rannoch Moor and the Pass of Glencoe in the sunshine was absolutely glorious. It had been a few years since I'd been in the Highlands and in the sunshine my soul rejoiced at the beauty of it all. Eventually I arrived at Corran to take the ferry across Loch Linnhe. Whilst the ferry only takes a few minutes it cuts off many miles of extra driving and is certainly £8.50 well spent. Indeed the opportunity the take in the scenery for ten minutes or so whilst waiting for the ferry was worth it alone.

On the Corran ferry
Once safely disembarked, it was left past the Corran lighthouse and on the last leg of the journey along the shores of Loch Linnhe. I spotted what looked like a Black Guillemot in amongst a flock of close in loafing gulls on the water though I didn't see it well enough to be sure. Then it was time to turn inland to meet up with Loch Sunart where Strontian is situated. As a matter of interest the village's main claim to fame is that the element Strontium was first discovered there as part of historic lead mining operations and once the element had been isolated it was decided to name the element after the village itself. But enough science nerdiness, finally I was there and I turned off up the narrow single track road that ran alongside the River Strontian to park up by the church. There I tooled up, put on my walking boots and headed the few years to the "second bridge" that was so often mentioned in the reports of this bird. Were all my efforts going to be in vain? I was about to find out.

The picturesque second bridge across the River Strontian
I crossed the bridge, having a quick scan upstream first though there was just an eclipsed drake Mallard standing on a stone in the river to be seen. This was one concern of mine: in eclipse plumage how easy was it going to be to recognise the bird? I'd swatted up on the salient features: yellow bill, plain dark grey brown body, no white edging to the tail and no thick white on the speculum as a Mallard had - it should be straight-forward enough. I turned left just past the bridge and headed the few yards past a wooded area to a more open though rather overgrown area just as the river started to bend round a little. There were a number of paths here where past birders had no doubt forced their way through the undergrowth and I took one of these and headed down to the river. I immediately came across a couple of ducks. One was a female Mallard and the other looked like my target bird. The only trouble was that the pair were very shy and immediately swam off at great speed before I could get much of a photo and started skulking deep in the shade under a tree out of sight. 

Hmmm, I was reasonably confident though not 100% after what I'd seen. I started walking upstream to see if there were any other ducks around and I put up a couple of birds that were resting close to the near bank. They immediately flew off upstream a long way. I really hoped that my target bird hadn't been one of those two as otherwise I wasn't going to see it again. I went back to the first pair though they were still tucked way out of sight and I could only get glimpses of them hidden under the trees. I decide that the best thing to do was to give them a while to come out again so I could get a better look. So I elected to walk down the river to stretch my legs and to get a cup of tea at the café at the bottom of the river by the roadside and this I duly did. On the way there was a nice Hooded Crow in the school playing field to take a look at, a pleasant reminder of my current Highland location.

Local Hoodie
After my tea I wandered back up the river and hoped that the ducks would now be more cooperative. However they were still hiding so in the end I decided I'd have to go to them. So I worked my way through the small wooded area down to the riverside where I found the pair skulking under their tree. The drake was having a nap but eventually he woke up and started to move about and I was at last able to get a really good look at him. He had all the salient features and was clearly my bird. I checked the tail which was all dark and he eventually gave me a nice wing stretch so I could check out the speculum. Job done!

Skulking Black Duck at the back with his Mallard mate

...and a bit more out in the open though the sunshine made for very contrasty photographic conditions
It was after 4 pm now and I had to decide what to do. One option was to start heading south and to stay the night at some relatives who lived in the Lake District. However, with that being a good five hours away that was just too much. So in the end I sent a text to my Edinburgh hosts asking if I could stay the night again. Then I drove the short distance down to the village post office and store by the loch side where I bought a few provisions for an evening picnic. Then I drove a little way along the road until I found a nice lochside location where I could stop and have my meal, a rather late lunch/early dinner. Then it was back on the road and the long slog retracing my steps. I didn't mind though, with a successful Black Duck tick under my belt and the beautiful sunny scenery it was all very pleasant. On the return ferry journey I spotted a few distant Eider on the loch but that was about it. Once the sun set I started to feel very tired and it wasn't until after 8:30 pm that I finally arrived back at my hosts. There after catching up on news of their day I soon retired to my bed and was sound asleep.

The next day I bade my friends goodbye and was on the road some time after 9 am. I stopped off briefly to have a look around Blackford Pond where I'd seen a Ring-necked Duck in April last year after having seen the Musselburgh White-winged Scoter but today there was just the usual suspects. Then it was on the road for the long slog down south. I took it easy and stopped several times for tea and once had a brief nap. So it wasn't until late afternoon that I arrived back home at Casa Gnome, tired but pleased with my excursion north of the border.

I thought that I had to update this post with the news of a quite extraordinary break-through in the ID of the mystery Pilling Wheatear. New broke on Wednesday morning that the ID had been firmed up to definitely Eastern Black-eared Wheatear - which was the one that I wanted it to be! The reason for the confirmation turns out to be some white at the base of the mantle feathers which apparently is only shown by this species. Note though that normally these feather bases are hidden from view and it was only this photo (by Paul Ellis (c) - see below)  which happened to show a ruffled mantle where you can see under the feathers above to the base of one feather which clearly shows this white base. Talk about difficult ID! Still I'm not complaining as this has turned my trip into a two ticker - result!

courtesy of Paul Ellis (c)

Wednesday, 4 September 2019

Credence (Manx) Shearwater Revival

My title puns are getting more and more contrived! Anway, it's all been rather quiet on the birding front in Gnome world of late. This is partially because of the lack of anything decent that I really "needed" and also partially because work is increasingly taking up most of my time now. I can only drool with envy when I read various other blogs where people have the time to go off seeing this and that. Unfortunately, that's not presently where I'm at with my life and I'll just have to put up with it. 

There was a brief flurry of excitement on the Oxon county birding scene yesterday when at just before 6pm news broke of a Manx Shearwater at Farmoor found by DJ. Now this species has a history of turning up in Oxon in September. In fact since 2001 all three records have been in September:

Sep '04  Farmoor, with it or another returning a week later
Sep '09  Farmoor, spent all day there
Sep '17  Bicester, taken into care

The first one was before my time, the last one wasn't twitchable and I was otherwise engaged with family activities all day for the '09 one so was the perfect opportunity for the "grip back". I checked with my VLW who was just about to start the dinner but fortunately it was something that would keep so off I sped to Farmoor. After a bit of huffing a puffing up the causeway I was soon watching my first county Manx Shearwater. I'd been told by DJ and TS (who was also there) that it had been in very close just before I arrived but the large number of sailing boats that were out on the water kept pushing it about and it would fly a short distance before settling again. By the time I got there it was a fair distance out. I tried to do some digiscoping of it but my camera battery chose that moment to die so I wasn't able to do that. So instead below are some gripping photos taken by TS

All photo courtesy of Terry Sherlock

The others soon left and I decided not to linger very long so soon started to head back just as various other county birders started to turn up. It was nice finally to get a county tick on the board for this year - let's hope something else good turns up soon.