Wednesday 31 January 2024

A Waxwing Winter

I'm sure that all birders are already aware that this year is an irruption year for Waxwings. These charismatic winter vistors normally only grace our shores in modest numbers each winter, usually up in Scotland or along the east coast of the country. However, occasionally we get a "Waxwing Winter", an irruption year when they come over in much greater numbers. During such winters, they gradually work their way down the country and further inland so in such years Oxfordshire has a fighting chance of hosting them as well. This winter, I, along I'm sure with lots of other county birders, watched with impatience as the line of reported Waxwing sightings crept gradually southwards down the country. When it got more or less in line with Oxon it seemed that some invisible force field was keeping them out as counties on either side of us were getting sightings but we were not. There were one or two single-observer untwitchable records in the county, only "possible" or "probable" - it was all very frustrating. In December, in frustration I buckled and made a sortie in Bucks to near High Wycombe where there had been regular sightings. However, the Waxwings weren't seen that morning I got no reward for standing in the cold for three hours. There was one county sighting where they were reported just outside the Oxford ringroad near Hinksey which I thought was close enough to warrant a try for them. However, despite some great looking berry bushes, there was no sign of any Waxwings.

Early in the new year I was pondering going to see the Northern Waterthrush on the Friday after it was first found. However, the lack of firm news first thing rather put me off so instead I elected to pop over to Cheltenham where there were some pretty much guaranteed Waxwings to be had at Naunton Park. EU had already messaged to say that he was going for them and reported that four had been seen this morning though had presently flown off. When I arrived they'd just turned up again with five companions. They were immediately on view in their "lookout tree" which was surrounded by four Sorbus trees as well as quite a few photographers, all waiting for them to descend once more on the berries. 

Naunton Park, Cheltenham: there were four Sorbus trees surrounding a larger central look-out tree

Sitting in their look-out tree


...and on a berry raid!

For the next three quarters of an hour they would make occasional raids onto the berries where they would stuff their faces as quickly as possible before heading back to the safety of their lookout tree. After that, they flew up into a more distant very large tree where they were little more than blobs sitting in the tree top. Then they flew off somewhere else. EU and I decided to go and find a café where we ejoyed a pleasant chat as we put the world to rights.

We came back to find the Waxwings were back in a different distant tree. Suddenly they came back down to their lookout tree and the whole process started again. The crowd has grown in the meantime and there was more furious papping and we too joined in. After a while I felt I'd had my fill and decided to go. At last I'd managed to catch up with these beautful birds.

Oxford Waxwings

At last in January, Oxfordshire started to get some definite sightings. Again, single observer and untwitchable but there was a noticeable uptick in reports. Then one evening someone on my local Port Meadow patch WhatsApp group reported that his father had casually mentioned to him that there had been a couple of Waxwings in some trees by the start of the Aristotle Lane footbridge over into Port Meadow. With the various members having been alerted, people started to look out for them again the next day and mid-morning, low and behold they turned up again. I was on the way out to do the weekly food shop with my VLW so we stopped off for a tick and run view of them sitting up in an Ash Tree lookout tree. Later that day I returned to find them still there and making occasional raids on the Sorbus bush.

A slightly blurry photo taking in the fading light

There were initially just a couple of adult birds but the next day they brought some youngsters along with 5 first winter birds also present. They were usually in the same location, using either an Ash Tree or a Silver Birch as the look-out tree before descending to the Sorbus for a berry raid. It was during the raid that all the photographers tried to get photos though these raids were often fleeting and the birds often obscured. On one occasion the flock relocated a few hundred yards down the round in someone's back garden where they could be seen resting in a more distant look-out tree. However, it was the original Sorbus Tree where most of the action was. On one occasion I managed to take some relatively OK video footage of some of the berry raids.

The Waxwings were with us for about a week or so, though not every day and not always reliable. Still, they were the first proper twitchable birds within the county and many people managed to catch up with them. At the time of writing, things have gone rather quiet on the Waxwing front with no reports in the county for a while now. Let's hope we get a few more before the winter is out.





Friday 12 January 2024

The Heybridge Northern Waterthrush

Most birders with their finger anywhere remotely near the pulse of the birding news network will be aware of the Northern Waterthrush currently in residence in Heybridge in Essex. This is in all probability yet another American bird blown over in the Great Storm of '23 that dumped so many Nearctic passerines on our shores. This one wasn't discovered until the 3rd January when an incredulous local birder spotted it in his garden. Fortunately it was subsequently found to be frequenting a nearby creek and so began a mass twitching frenzy to try to see it. It is only the 8th record for the UK and only the third ever mainland bird so this was definitely a Mega! Despite it's name, it is of course actually a Nearctic Warbler, breeding in Canada and northern America and wintering in northern South America. It frequents thickets near to water and looks a bit thrush-like - hence the name.

At only two hours drive from my house, it was very much on my radar, but as well as distance, I have a "probability of seeing it" filter as well. By all accounts this bird wasn't that easy to see. It would go missing for long periods of time and quite a few people managed to dip it. So I decided to wait to see if it would develop some kind of pattern for being seen. By the end of the first weekend, people had realised that standing right next to the creek was the main issue with the bird being so elusive and by standing back it would show quite readily. It was also most reliable at first light, often feeding away for up to an hour at a time before disappearing for a while. It would usually (but not always) then put in a mid to late morning showing and after that it was very unreliable until it came into roost again at dusk. 

Having established all this, I decided that being there at first light was the best tactic but the prospect of battling my way around the M25 before dawn on what would in all probability be far too little sleep was not that appealing. So instead I decided to travel up on Monday night and to stay at an Air BnB some 15 minutes away at Danbury. En route there were a couple of minor issues: my offside dipped headlight bulb failed and there were repeated ominous "Road Ahead Closed" signs as I approached my destination. Fortunately the latter turned out to be 100 yards just beyond my cottage turn off though it did make me sweat a little. The BnB was warm and comfortable and I was soon settled in for the night.

The next day I was up and back on the road just before 7 am. There was a surprisingly large amount of traffic on the roads but I made the short hop to Heybridge easily enough. A bit of pre trip research had unearthed an industrial estate along Bates Rd as a good parking location with the twitch site being a mere 5 minute walk from the end of this road. The temperature was going to be around freezing first thing so I was well wrapped up as I hurried in the darkness along the path, onto the road so familiar from Streetview planning, before finally turning the corner to see about thirty or so hushed twitchers in the pre dawn darkness, waiting for the light and hopefully the bird as well. I met JT from Oxon in the twitcher line and we chatted quietly as we waited for the show to start.

Waiting in the darkness...

It was only about 7:20 when someone in the line with a thermal imager said that he could see it and a few people around me managed to see some movement in the same general area. By around 7:30 it was just light enough so that peering into the dark one could make out the silhouette of what was clearly the bird. It was feeding away at close quarters around the sluice gate. Gradually as the light improved so did the views and the bird seemed quite happy to continue feeding despite all the birders up on the ridge above looking down on it.

Because of the poor light I resorted to some hand-held video to start with

After that it became a question of trying to get a decent photo of it. The fact that the light was so poor still and the bird was constantly on the move meant that it was nearly impossible to get a decent photo with my relatively low tech camera and shot after shot came out blurred. In the end most of my shots are of "record shot" quality and don't really represent the quality of the views that we were getting. It was often showing down to about 5 yards and one couldn't have asked for better views. It's brown upper parts and streaked underparts and the way that it hunted along the water shoreline very much reminded me of a Rock Pipit though its smart elongated supercilium and more well-defined elongated breast streaking were both very different from the smudgy vagueness of that other species.

A couple of blurry photos of the bird. There was no issue with how close the bird was, just the poor light and the fact that it was constantly on the move

Me in the blue woolly hat peering at the Waterthrush, courtesy of JT

The famous (and much photographed) creek. The bird would feed all along the shoreline
including  right up against the concrete edge.

A proper photo of the Northern Waterthrush taken later in the day, courtesy of Ewan Urquhart

Fellow Oxon Birder PL turned up, fortunately in time for the first showing and immediately connected with the bird. As per the schedule, it was basically on show for about an hour, nearly always at a close distance though it did occasinally move further up the creek. Then suddenlly, it flew off into a nearby tree, worked its way from bush to bush before feeding briefly in the creek on the other side of the ridge on which we were standing. Then it decided that the morning show was over and it flew off. I contemplated hanging around in the cold for what could be a couple of hours in order to get a better photo and decided against it. PL stayed a bit longer than me but I wandered back to the car, stopping to admire the scenery now that it was light enough to see it.

Looking towards Maldon and the River Blackwater

After some hot tea and a snack back in the car I pondered what to do. In the end I decided to try for a Red-breasted Goose at Bradwell-on-Sea, a salt marsh some 40 minutes away. I drove down increasingly windy and narrow country roads until, some 2 miles from the destination I came across a gate across the road where it became private with walking access only. I got out of the car to find that the forecast increase in wind had indeed happened - it was bloody freezing! The prospect of slogging 2 miles there and back and trying to pick out a distant Red-breasted Goose in a flock of Brents in what was an extremely cold and strong wind was just not that appealing. So I got back in the car and retraced my steps and instead pointed the Sat Nav for home. I arrived back at Casa Gnome in time for lunch with my first lifer of the year safely under my belt.

Tuesday 9 January 2024

End of Year Review

As usual, my end of review is a fashionably late January one. I find that Christmas is just too busy a time for me to find time to write it. By all measures it was a very good year. Other bloggers have written about their amazing lifer additions for the year and, whilst I was more restrained in what I went for, I too had a good addition to my national life list. But I'll come to that in due course. As usual my review is split into patch, county, national and other stuff.

Port Meadow Patch

As usual, I've done a separate full review of the Port Meadow Patch year which you can read here. So to summarise, it was a record breaking year with a year list total of 148, smashing the previous record of 141. If you look at the headline birds from the year, it makes for amazing reading:


Drilling down into more detail it was a year of two halves: all the action happened in the first half and autumn was completed dead. November and December did provide the Smew and a second Marsh Harrier as well as some more Siberian Chiffchaff action but that was about it. The bird of the year was the American Wigeon though sadly it was only seen by a single observer on the Meadow before it relocated to Otmoor.

American Wigeon courtesy of Thomas Miller - the Port Meadow "Bird of the Year"

Oxon County Birding

Like Port Meadow, the county too had a very good year with an amazing spring purple patch. But things all started earlier than that in March when a drake Lesser Scaup turned up at Farmoor. This was a long overdue county tick for me as the previous easily available one was before my time when I started birding.

The Farmoor Lesser Scaup

As I said above, spring was when it all kicked off. In quick succession the county was graced with a singing Spotted Crake, a single-observer Night Heron, a Black-winged Stilt, a Temminck's Stint, a Montagu's Harrier and a Golden Oriole. Apart from the Night Heron and the Harrier I caught up with all these bird. In particular the Golden Oriole was a county tick that I never thought I'd get. What's more, it was even on show for an extended period of time - quite unprecedented for this species which is normally extremely skulking. You can read up on all of these birds here.

The showy Golden Oriole
Having missed the Night Heron in the spring (though I did reckon that I heard it), everyone thought that was it. However in July, it (or another one - there'd been a national influx) turned up at Drayton on a small pond which everyone got to see so that county bogey bird was finally put to rest.

The Drayton Night Heron

Just as for Port Meadow, the second half of the year was completely dead apart from a Pallid Harrier that I missed whilst seeing the Brown Booby (see below). Whilst the official county bird of the year was the Harrier, for me it has to be the Golden Oriole. To get views that good was something I never thought would happen in the county. 

To round off this section, below is the traditional Oxon Birding Review montage set to the usual inappropriate music.

The Oxon Birding Review for 2023

National Birding

My national life list is a cherished part of my birding and I'm pleased to say that this year I got 7 shiny new ticks, more than my usual average of 5 which I've had for the last few years since I got my BOU list above 400.  It all started with a King Eider (not a lifer) up at Redcar as part of one of my occasional Durham trips to ferry Daughter #1 to or from her home in the North East. It was hard work picking out the bird at extreme distance in the strong wind but I managed it in the end.
The Redcar King Eider courtesy of Damian Money

The next national trip was to Seaford in May for the White-crowned Sparrow (my first lifer). Fortunately I went on the last day it was there and got good views as well.

The Seaford White-crowned Sparrow
It wasn't until August that I had my next national birding trip, this time to Arne for the long staying Forster's Tern (another lifer) which was nice and straight-forward to connect with. With Honey Buzzard afters, it was a nice trip. 

The Arne Forster's Tern

September was the top month of the year with no less than three trips, all for lifers. The first was a trip over the border into Wales to get a little piece of the amazing American warbler fest that happened in Wales. This was in the form of the second Magnolia Warbler of the Year for the UK, this one in Baglan.

The Magnolia Warbler courtesy of Ewan Urquhart

A few days later there was another warbler twitch, this time down to Sussex for the long staying Aquatic Warbler. This species is usually impossible to twitch so when one set up camp along a river bank and was comparatively easy to see it was a no brainer to go for it.
The Aquatic Warbler courtesy of Joe Tobias

The third tick for September was when I had to take Daughter #2 all the way up to Aberdeen for the start of her Master's degree. On the way back down I stopped off at Teeside for the Brown Booby which showed well throughout the time I was there.
The Teeside Brown Booby

That was it until November when I first had a little trip over the border into Gloucestershire to see the Purple Heron there. Unfortunately, whereas others had had crippling views of it in previous days, all I got was about 30 seconds before it flew off, never to be seen again.

The Whelford Purple Heron courtesy of Ewan Urquhart

There was one more national twitch that I went on. This was a trip over to Norfolk for the long-staying Pallid Swift, followed by the Canvasback for afters. The swift was easy but the duck was hard though in the end I saw it well enough. Pallid Swift is one of those species that I thought I would probably never see so to have an obliging twitchable bird like this was too good an opportunity to pass up.

The Pallid Swift courtesy of Nick Truby

So that was my national birding. In terms of national bird of the year they were all pretty much "good ticks" to get. However, I guess it has to be the Magnolia Warbler. American warblers are just so stunning to look at compared to our drab birds.

Other Stuff

There was some other stuff that I went for during the year, mostly orchids and odonata. In early spring I saw the Oxon Giant Orchids that had newly been discovered. I guess it will become an annual trip to see them now.

One of the Giant Orchids

There was also a trip up to Scotland in June when I finally caught up with some of the Scottish speciality orchids (Lesser Twayblades and Coralroot) as well as Northern Damselfly. There are still a few more of both orchids and odonata that I need so another trip will probably happen this year as well.

Northern Damselfly

So that was my birding year. It only remains for me to wish all my readers a belated Happy New Year and to a fulfilling birding year ahead for all.

Tuesday 21 November 2023

Doing The Pallid Swift / Canvasback Double

I'd been feeling "twitchy" for a while and with my VLW due to go up to the Lake District for a week to visit her family this seemed like the perfect opportunity for me to scratch that itch. In terms of what was on offer, the nearest bird was the controversial Canvasback as Abberton Reservoir in Essex. There was also a long-staying Pallid Swift at Winterton-on-Sea on the east coast of Norfolk but that was about three and a half hours away which was a bit beyond my usual twitching comfort zone. I refer to the Canvasback as "controversial": PL and I were due to head off to Abberton a week or so ago when news broke that two years ago six of this species were dumped by a wildfowl collector in a Suffolk gravel pit some fifty miles from Abberton. Whats more, whilst there haven't been any official reports of them since then, one of the six turned up at the original pit a week or so after the Abberton bird was first found. This fact certainly cast some serious shade on the credentials of the Abberton bird, enough to cancel our original sortie. Still, my need for a good twitch meant that my tolerance for distance and plasticness had increased so I decided on an uncharacteristically early departure from Casa Gnome at 5am to get to Winterton nice and early for the Swift. After that, going back via Abberton would be a nice bonus bird should I have the time and feel so inclined.

In the event, I slept rather poorly and woke up far too early. This at least meant that there was no trouble about getting up and I was breakfasted and out the door at 5 a.m. . Others have blogged about the pleasure of night time twitch driving but this was a new phenomenon for me. Heading off into the darkness, trying to clear the sleepiness from my head I certainly enjoyed the empty roads that were around at that time of morning. Indeed, the lack of traffic knocked a good 20 minutes off the ETA so that the Sat Nav was saying only 3 hours and 10 minutes to Winterton. With Radio 4 murmuring away for company I enjoyed the solitude of the journey. As I entered Norfolk the first fingers of dawn started to encourage me onwards towards my goal. At around 7:30 a.m. news broke of the Swift being "still present" on RBA so I felt that I was in with a good chance. The RBA reports were generally rather occasional each day and I didn't know if this reflected the actual number of sightings or not and with heavy rain forecast for the afternoon, I was somewhat nervously about how easy it might actually be to connect. So I sped on in a state of some nervous excitment. Right towards the end as I turned off into a side road I spotted a nice flock of Pink-footed Geese by the roadside - a very welcome year tick for an inland county birder!

Winterton Church

I arrived just after 8am as the Sat Nav had predicted and parked up by the famous church that was so often featured in RBA reports. A birder was walking back to his car at this point so I eagerly enquired about the situation. "Oh it's showing every few minutes or so just up there by the village green" - I needed no further incentive! I threw on my coat, grabbed my bins and sped up the road to join the throng. The village green turned out just to be a small grassy area, more like a large roundabout than a village green! There were a bit more than a dozen people there standing around in a relaxed manner and searching the skies for the Swift. Seeing as how I'd not yet seen it, in contrast to the mood of everyone else, I was still nervous to connect. After about 15 minutes of no sightings I spotted a birder in front of me watching something intently through his bins. Following his gaze I spotted the Swift hawking low over the rooftops to the south of us. Result! After about 30 seconds it disappeared but now that I'd seen it I could relax. First I went back to the car to get the rest of my stuff that I hadn't bothered with in my initial hurry: so walking boots on, and my scarf/snood for warmth in the chilly breeze and my backpack with flask and snacks. Then it was back to the green where I soon saw the bird again. 

Winterton village green, looking back towards the church

In fact it turned out that the bird was showing every 10 minutes or so throughout the time that I was there. For a while it moved up towards the church area but was generally always to the south of the road and often low over the rooftops. Given the time of year, I wonder if the warmth of the houses was attracted the insects more which in turn attracts the Swift. At least it seemed to be finding plenty to eat. I chatted with a couple up from Cornwall for a few days about Cornwall and birding in general. I wandered about, enjoying periodic views of the Pallid Swift and generally feeling contented. After a while the bird got much closer and gave point blank overhead views as I stood on the village green. It  was a real treat to see and I couldn't get better views of a Pallid Swift.

In general, watching the bird and comparing it mentally to Common Swift I could appreciate the broader wings and the slower wing beats. The eye mask and large white throat were only really visible when it was right overhead though I guess a good photo could pick out these features from more of a distance. With just my superzoom camera I didn't even attempt it but instead enjoyed watching the bird's aerial antics. 

A cracking photo of the bird courtesy of Nick Truby of Old Caley's Diary

After an hour I felt I'd had enough so drove the short distance down to the beach to stare at the sea while I had a cup of tea from my flask. Mentally I'd left things open in my head as to whether I'd try for the Canvasback or not depending on how quickly I saw the Swift. As it had turned out, it had been far easier than I had feared so with it still being so early I had plenty of time for the Canvasback as well if I wanted. I checked RBA: no news on it so far. I decided to have some more tea and then to make my decision. 

Looking back from the beach towards Winterton

I was just finishing my second cup when the "still present" news broke. That made my mind up and I set the Sat Nav for Abberton, some two hours away and headed off. In the event, the journey was rather troublesome. One of the key roads was suddenly closed and necessitated a diversion. Myself and a whole bunch of other cars headed off down some minor side road only to grind to a halt suddenly. It turned out the road ahead was closed due to flooding and so a whole bunch of us were trapped on a single track road. Having been in this situation beore, I know that you can all get stuck if you're not too careful so in the end I walked back along the line to report what was going on and people started to turn around from the back so in the end we were all able to get out. Having made it back onto the main road there seemed to be more issues up ahead as Google kept changing its mind about the route. There must have been at least a dozen corrections which I had to accept or reject. Finally, it ended up taking me through Colchester itself as the bypass was jammed. Eventually, at just after midday I finally arrived at the Layer de la Haye causeway which is where the Canvasback was hanging out today. I tooled up and hurried up the causeway steps to the long line of scopes all trained out onto the water. This was when the fun and games began!

Abberton Reservoir

It turned out to be very windy up on the causeway which meant that there was a lot of scope shakage. The birds were also very distant. There were about five hundred Pochard all milling about in the distance. They would frequently start swimming around frentically and diving every few seconds. Trying to pick out a bird with a subtly longer all black bill under such conditions was not easy. It was being called by birders in the line but in the wind and standing at the end of the line as I was, it was hard to hear them. Fortunately someone close to me seemed to be very good at picking it out and after a while the person next to them left so I was able to stand next to him. He was very helpful and tried to get me on the bird. The trouble was that there were so few landmarks to use. Things like "in front of the Goldeneye" or "next to the Goosander" were only so helpful as you had to find the other bird first before it moved and then try to latch on to the Canvasback before it dived. The best way was to wait until it was in an obvious place, so "right at the front of the flock" or "right at the back". In this way I managed one decent view for a second or so before it dived. At last I'd seen it!

There then followed a good period of not seeing it at all. I've found previously (e.g. the Redcar King Eider) that with the scope shaking around it's almost impossible to pick out subtle details at range. Back then the solution had been to get in the car, where the shelter there had enable me to find my target. However, that wasn't an option today. The birds were rather flighty and would occasionally fly up only to come down again, though each time this happened some of the flock flew off elsewhere. Would the Canvasback still be there or had it left? After one of these fly arounds a good chunk of the flock left but the remainder settle much closer and were much easier to scan. Then at last, everything aligned. The Canvasback became the "right-hand most bird of the flock". That was easy to find and I got onto it quickly. What's more, it swam around for a while without diving so I was at last able fully to appreciate it in all its glory. I'm sure that readers are familiar with the subtle differences between drake Canvasbacks and Pochard but suffice to say that with good views the different profile shape of the bill and the all back bill were distinctive enough. The paleness of the back was noticeable though didn't really stand out from the flock as the lightness of the ducks varied so much according to the angle they were being viewed at.  

A cracking couple of photos of the bird taken by Neil Bramwell

After my prolonged views suddenly the whole flock took flight and most of them sped off back to the other causeway at Layer Breton. That was the show over and most of the birders packed up and left at that point. I headed back to the car for some more tea and a chance to eat my packed lunch. Then it was time for the long slog back home. It was some two and a half hours back but the early start was starting to take its toll. Along the A12 I had a long call on my handfree set-up with my eldest daughter to pass some of the time but once on the M25 I needed my full concentration in the heavier traffic. A stop off at the Beaconsfield services on the M40 for more tea was enough to perk me up again and I made it back home by about 4pm tired but very happy with my double twitch day.


Appendix -The Countability of the Canvasback

It will be interesting to see what the BOURC decide about the provenance of this bird. In its favour we have:

  • Arrived at the perfect time of year;
  • It's been a great autumn for Nearctic vagrants;
  • Fully winged and unringed on both legs (I've seen the photos on X);
  • Associating with a suitable attractor species and behaving in a wild manner (so not swimming right by the edge and coming to bread!).

Against it we have:

  • The 6 birds that were released a couple of years ago
  • The fact that one of these 6 turned up within a week of this bird
  • The general paucity of Canvasback records - with so few the odds of a given bird being an escapee rather than a vagrant, are much greater.

However, regarding the previously released birds, apparently, only 3 remain which are all still at the original site and are all pinioned (not just clipped). This bird had a full and complete wing set. So, assuming all 6 were pinioned then this bird can't be one of them. That only leaves the possibility that these original 6 might have bred free flying offspring though there have not been any other records in the ensuing two years. All it all it looks reasonably hopeful.

In the end of course, it's up to the indivudal to decide what to put on their list. As I've said before, the BOURC has a thankless task in trying to evaluate the credentials of wildfowl in particular but, after their rejection of the Farmoor Falcated Duck, I rather lost my faith in them and tend to make up my own mind these days. As I have hinted before, my personal listing is done in layers. I have a strict BOU list and then on top of that are various layers ranging from subspecies that haven't been split yet (Eastern Black Redstart, American Horned Lark, Azorean Gull etc), things which haven't been accepted to the British list yet (Pied Crow etc), things which were release scheme birds (Lammergeier etc) and things which were deemed to be escapes or not proven to be vagrants (Marbled Duck, Falcated Duck etc). Finally I even have a layer of subspecies as you never know when these might be split (e.g. Taiga and Tundar Bean Goose which got split a while back). Anyway, this multilayered approach means that I can count all sorts of things at least at some level and it keeps me amused. And that, at the end of the day, is the whole point of this hobby!

Monday 13 November 2023

Whelford Purple Heron

An unusually showy juvenile Purple Heron had taken up residence just over the border from Oxfordshire at Whelford Pool Nature Reserve in Gloucestershire. Unlike our Grey Heron, this continental species normally skulks deep in reedbeds and is usually very hard to see. Indeed I've only seen one once before, at Otmoor here in Oxon where after a stake-out for a while I got flight views for a minute or so. From various blog posts (e.g. Black Audi Birding) the Whelford bird was uncharacteristically easy to see, coming out and feeding close to a hide at regular intervals. Having not been out on a decent birding trip for quite a while, I was feeling like having a sortie of some sorts and this seemed an obvious target. So it was that last Sunday morning I fired up the Gnome-mobile and set off on the 40 minute drive to Whelford.

I arrived at just before 9 a.m. to find the small car park completely full so had to resort to parking down the road by a small side road. The short walk to the hide found it completely rammed. No doubt the sunshine had brought all the toggers out for this obliging subject. I managed to squeeze in the last available standing space by the door and tentatively enquired about the bird, to be told that it had gone into the reedbed on the left but that it should be out again in a while. 

In the hide I met with NT (of Old Caley's Diary blog) and his wife and also spotted MC at the far end (of The Early Birder blog). Shortly after my arrival a few people left and I was able to get a seat at the front. This gave me a chance to survey the scene properly. In front of us was an area of cut reeds going down about 30 metres to the lake shoreline. There were some reeds on either side of this cleared space but it was a relatively modest sized area. This meant that there was less area for a Purple Heron to hide, though by all accounts this bird wasn't shy about coming out into the open to feed. Out beyond the reeds was a large lake on which were scattered various diving ducks. The site is part of the Cotswold Water Park complex of gravel pits so there are hundreds of water bodies in the general area. Thankfully the Heron seemed fairly loyal to this one spot. The twitch arena was rather gloomy, being completely in shade.

The view from the hide

After perhaps half an hour or so suddenly photographers started papping away furiously at the far end of the hide. The Purple Heron must have come out of the reeds! The area was partially obscured where I was sitting but through the tops of the reeds I could make out the Heron, it's striking yellow eye and orangey bill showing very well. The camera noise was incessant and the Heron could clearly hear it as it looked directly towards the hide, seemingly not liking this undue attention. This didn't quire make sense given how much it must have experienced it previously. Maybe it had just had enough for it suddenly took off and flew off low over the water before climbing up and over the trees on the far side and out of sight. 


A couple of flight shots taken earlier in the week  courtesy of Ewan Urquhart of Black Audi Birding

That was the cue for a gradual exodus from the hide until there were only four of us left. From previous accounts the bird was prone to do this but usually returned and I didn't have to be home until lunchtime so I decided to wait it out. Gradually more birders arrived, including a chap down from Cheshire for the day who wanted it on his year list. He and I got talking about birding, moths, insects in general and fungi as you do situations like this and we passed the time amicably enough.

After a while on the left hand side of the lake we could see a couple of birders who seemed to be looking at something rather intently and taking photos. Could they see the Heron? We'd not seen it fly back but it could have come back in around the corner. The pair soon left but some of the newcomers who had yet to see the bird decided to walk around to take a look. After a few minutes they appeared in the same spot and started scanning carefully before signalling back to us that there was no sign of it.

More time passed and I was starting to get restless. Eventually at just after 12pm I had to leave and wished the remaining hide occupants luck with their vigil. I headed back home to Oxford somewhat disappointed at not having had crippling views of what was normally a very showy bird. From RBA reports it never returned that day and indeed was only reported once after that so I had clearly witnessed the start of it moving on to pastures new. Still, despite the brief and partially obscured views, this had still been my best ever views of a Purple Heron and I will have to be content with that for now.

An unobscured view, taken a few days earlier by Ewan Urquhart of Black Audi Birding

Tuesday 26 September 2023

Baglan Magnolia Warbler

I'm sure that every birding who is even remotely plugged into birding news knows by now about the unprecedented fall of American passerines over the last few days. The internet is awash with articles and blog posts about how the unique combination of weather systems at peak migration time has lead to a whole heap of them being dumped on the west side of the country. Magnolia Warbler, Canada Warbler, Bay-breasted Warbler, Bobolink, plus numerous Red-eyed Vireos, the list just keeps getting bigger and bigger. Wales in particular got a good helping both on the mainland and on the scattered islands along the south west coast of the country. 

Now, I'd been watching all this with interested. Of course all these birds would be lifers for me (I even need Red-eyed Vireo still - that's how paltry my Yank passerine list is). However, the St Govan Mag would be nearly 4 hours away - beyond my normal comfortable twitching distance. So I watched from afar, thinking that this unprecedented opportunity would pass me by. However, a second Magnolia Warbler was found at Baglan (between PorthTalbot and Swansea) and at only two and a half hours away, it was certainly within my twitching range. However, this bird seemed much more elusive and indeed took several hours from first being seen until it even was able to be identified properly. However, from accounts within a twitching WhatsApp group it seemed possible to get reasonable views so when it was reported as still present the next day (Monday) I decided to go. However I had a few work things to sort out first so it wasn't until after 9 am that I was able to set off. The journey was uneventful and it was a little before midday that I pulled up in the rather unusual location of a dead-end side road in the Baglan Energy business park. I quickly tooled up and headed off the short distance to the patch of wasteland just off the road. 

The unassuming twitch location. The bird generally frequented the tree line at the back

I met a departing birder who said that he'd only seen it briefly twice in the two hours that he'd been there and that it hadn't been seen for half an hour. Hmmm, that wasn't sounding too great. However, I was there now and resolved to see how things played out. There were about 80 or so birders around, all staring intently into the dense wooded border to the wasteland plot at various points in the south west corner. A youngish birder seemed to know what was going on so I asked for details and he told me that the clump of Silver Birch and Sallows nearby was a good area to watch as it had been seen there earlier. He was watching it intently and low and behold, suddenly someone nearby called out the bird from that very clump. After a few moments I got a glimpse of something moving at the back. 

The crowd followed it as it worked its way to the right and I happened to be positioned in the right spot as it crossed a bit of a gap. Suddenly it was right out on a branch, side on and completely unobscured and I got a perfect view of it. It was only for a split second but it was enough to secure my tick.The main impression was of a Robin sized bird with a slate grey back with two white wing bars and a striking white eye ring and yellow underparts with some darker streaking. I looked at the time. I'd been there for less than 10 minutes, so that was a very fast conversion! 

There was no hope of a photo so here is the St Govan bird courtesy of Ewan Urquhart.
The Baglan bird had a more uniform grey back than this one.

Magnolia Warblers are usually to be found in the north east corner of the USA and Canda where it inhabits densely packed coniferous forests. They migrate south to southeastern Mexico, Panama and parts of the Caribbean. They are fairly common in this area and so their conservation status is "least concern". Of course, one can't help but think of the fate of this poor bird. Having been swept across the Atlantic by a weather system there was little hope of it getting back to where it was supposed to be. It always strikes me as a cruel irony that a birder's best birds are the ones which are most likely to perish.

Another of the St Govan Mag, courtesy of Ewan Urquhart

There was a rather comical moment quite soon after I'd first seen the bird when we were all focused on one particular spot and one chap said he could see it. He gave particular instructions and said that it was sitting still on a branch. However no body else could see it and I seemed to be at the wrong angle. Eventually it was worked out that he was looking at a leaf! Apart from that, the bird then showed well on and off for the next half an hour or so, on one occasion coming out at the front of a Sallow I was watching again so I get another really good view plus plenty of glimpses. However, eventually something seemed to chase it off and it was gone and everything went quiet.

Peering into the undergrowth. The Silver Birch clump is just to the left of this

This lack of further sightings set off a gradual exodus. The large numbers melted away and those who were left started chatting or staring aimlessly around. It always amazes me how many passive or "zombie" twitchers there are at things like this. People who just stand around in one spot, not even looking for the bird but waiting for someone else to find it and point it out to them. I would have ideally preferred to have spent more time watching this bird so, along with a few other people, I did my best, wandering around and trying to find it. However, I couldn't even find the tit flock that it was associating with. It had all gone very quiet.

Late arrivals were turning up for the twitch so I knew that numbers of keener twitchers would eventually reach the necessary critial mass needed to relocate the bird but as this could take some time and as I'd already seen it well and had a bit of a journey still ahead of me I decided not to linger. Instead I headed back to the Gnome-mobile and set off for home. Having come down the A40/M5 route on the way there, this time the Sat Nav was saying M40,A420 so it would make a bit of a change from this morning. The journey back was uneventual and back at Casa Gnome I celebrated with my usual cup of tea, basking in the warm glow of a shiny new tick.

Addendum: Twitcher's Details
For those who might be interested in going, below is a map of the twitch area.
Park along the blue line
The bird's circuit is along the red line
The best viewing is the yellow circle of Silver Birch and Sallows

Thursday 14 September 2023

Upper Beeding Aquatic Warbler

Aquatic Warbler is one of those species that I assumed I would never get to see. Back in the day they used to be annual visitors to the UK and a trip down to Marazion in Cornwall in early autumn would usually find one. Sadly this species is in catastrophic decline globally and they are now real rarities in this country. When they do turn up it's usually just "trapped and ringed" and never seen again. So when one was found on Sunday early afternoon in a rather non-descript inland location in Sussex, I assumed that it too would vanish never to be seen again. However, it was seen regularly all afternoon and into dusk. That many sightings in itself was unusual and piqued my interest. However, having done so much driving recently I was too tired to contemplate a trip on Monday even if it was still around. So I watched with interest as it was seen all day the next day. Again this was almost unheard of for an Aquatic Warbler at least in my time of birding. By Monday evening I felt recovered enough to contemplate a trip on Tuesday morning on news. PL (of Ramblings and Scribblings blog fame) messaged me to see if I was going and wanted to join forces. He and I often need the same things and have similar constraints on how far we are prepared to travel so we often find ourselves at the same twitches. So we agreed to go "on news" the next day.

The next morning I was up far too early in anticipation of our trip. A bit of early messaging established that EU (of the Black Audio Birding blog) was also going so we all agreed to go together. EU got an early tip off from a WhatsApp group that the bird was still there before it hit the news services so we all set off for our rendezvous at a layby near the Oxford M40 services. Once we had all assembled, we set of in the Gnome-mobile for Sussex, a couple of hours away according to the Sat Nav. En route EU got more information from the WhatsApp group that the bird was being seen from time to time so it was with some optimism that we struggled our way around the M25 before heading down the M23 to deepest, darkest Sussex and our target of Upper Beeding. In the end the journey was uneventful and we arrived sometime after 10:30 a.m., parked up in one of the neighbouring roads and headed out on the footpath past the church to the river and then northwards along the bank to the twitch area.

We arrived to find a bunch of birders all strung out along a surprisingly long stretch of the river, all looking rather disconsolate. As we walked along the line I would ask them about the bird though it seemed that it had not been seen for about an hour. Towards the end of the line, someone said that "it was last seen in this general area". At last, some more useful information! We set ourselves up in this spot and started to scan the area. We were all watching from a rather narrow footpath, looking down on some scrub area that sloped down to the tidal River Adur. The habitat was long grass with some dead Umbellifers and Dock leaves and a few other bits and bobs. Of course, it was all rather dense vegetation with plenty of places for a small Acro to hide. We'd been there no more than a few minutes when a bird flew into a clump of plants. However it flew in rather high with a bouncy flight and when I lifted my bins it turned out to be a Reed Bunting. Just at that moment something else flew low across the bank into a tall clump of grass near where I had been looking. The flight jizz and the warm honey-brown tones gave it away as the target and I got a good enough view of it before it slipped deeper into the cover to be able to call it out to the rest of the birders there. They all duly converged on the area and a tense 20 minutes followed of watching this area and waiting. Finally it flew out again and down the bank though I happened to miss this. 


The Aquatic Warbler, the above two photos courtesy of Nick Truby

After this initial sighting the bird was much more cooperative and it was possible to track it as it skulked about from one location to another. It would regularly show with at least some flight views and could often be picked out in the vegetation if you happened to be at the right viewing angle. It would occasionally make it's "tack" call so that one could keep track of it. In general, there was no possibility of a photo so instead I just spent my time watching it and accumulating some reasonable views over the period of an hour or so. At one point it flew across the river and even sat still in one spot for long enough for me to attempt a record shot. In general, it would occasionally show itself reasonably well for a few seconds before slipping off again.

My one record shot of the bird across the river

As I mentioned at the beginning, Aquatic Warbler is in serious decline and these days most of the breeding population is confined to eastern Poland and southern Belarus with an estimated population of between 11 and 15 thousand birds. It was only recently that their over-wintering region was discovered in Senegal. They have a preference for short (12inch) wet sedge beds though habitat loss through land drainage has resulted in a serious decline to the point where they are the only internationally threatened passerine in mainland Europe.

The Aquatic Warbler, courtesy of Joe Tobias

After a while it all went quiet and the bird wasn't seen for quite a while. More people left and at about 1pm we too decided that we'd had our fill and headed back along the river to the car. After a quick stop off for some food for EU we headed back, guided along the A24 by the Sat Nav due to some accidents on the M25. We arrived back at the layby in reasonable time and all went out separate ways. It had been a very satisfactory twitch, and this elusive species, which I thought I would never get, was finally on my list.

Looking back on the remaining twitchers as we were leaving