Sunday, 21 December 2008

Some more local sightings

With the year drawing to a close I've not been on any major birding trips since Slimbridge but there have been a couple of local trips to report.

I've still been going to my local patch, Port Meadow, regularly and often late in the day in order to look at the gull roost which can get quite large. Recently I have a very productive day when the flood waters were rather high and there was only a narrow strip of grass between the floods and the river itself. This meant that all the usual waders (black-tailed godwits, ruff and redshank) were concentrated in this narrow area. However when I started scanning I almost immediately picked up on a lovely spotted redshank which was feeding very actively along this strip.

A close up of the spotted redshank, taken at dusk with high ISO

The spotted redshank with a ruff and a pair of black-tailed godwits.

A video of the feeding spotted redshank. To view in high quality mode, click here and select "Watch in High Quality".

Having taken some video and digiscoped shots of the spotshank I then did a brief scan of the rest of the Meadow floods. To my amazement I also found a pair of Bewick's swans out in the middle of the floods.
I took some video footage but they were rather distant and it is best viewed in high quality mode only. Click here and select "Watch in High Quality".

There have usually been one or two yellow-legged gulls in the roost on the Meadow, standing out with their pristine white heads, their rich yellow bills and their immaculate darker mantles. Scanning through the gulls I managed to find one this evening.

A video-grab of a yellow-legged gull in the roost.

So all in all an excellent evening trip to the local patch with some cracking birds.

A few days later a red-head smew was reported on Dix Pit in Stanton Harcourt. This location used to be one of the top gull spots in the county and was a well know Caspian Gull hot spot. However, due to new EU regulations steps are now being taken to discourage gulls from rubbish tips (presumably to avoid the spread of disease) and falcons are now being flown at this site, resulting in much reduced gull activity. I took my two-year old son L with me to the Pit to see if I could connect with the smew. This worked out rather well as he really enjoyed watching all the huge trucks coming and going whilst I watched the distant birds. I managed to locate the smew quite quickly though it was on the far side of the water mid-way between the two view points. I did have a go at videoing it but it came out as little more than a distant blob. I also found 5 red-crested pochards (4 drakes and a duck), another species for which Dix Pit is well known. I then turned my attention to the flock of a hundred or so gulls out in the middle of the water. There was a white-headed gull in amongst them which stood out. In addition, rather than having the dark mantle that one would expect from a yellow-legged, it was much paler. It was a long way away but I did think that it could have been an adult Caspian gull and even took some video footage of it but it was not conclusive even after running it by my gull guru.

A possible Caspian Gull on Dix Pit

To watch this video in high quality mode click here and select "Watch in High Quality".

So no new year ticks but some nice local birds to see within the county and the smew is a new county tick for me.

Friday, 19 December 2008

A Day at Slimbridge

A few months ago I joined the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust as I feel that it is a worthy cause to support and it also means that I get in free to places like Slimbridge. Despite having joined I had not yet actually visited any WWT locations so with the year coming to an end and my still needing white-fronted goose for my year list, coupled with the fact that I had a voucher for a free WWT "book of the month" which expired at the end of December, I decided that it was time to get down to Slimbridge for a visit. In addition to the "sure-thing" white-fronted goose tick, a bittern had been "showing well" the previous day from the Zeiss hide so it was worth while putting in some time staring at reeds in the off-chance of it showing again today.

The weather was rather overcast though mild compared to the recent cold spell. As I pulled into the car park after a little over an hour's drive I saw large flocks of lapwings and golden plover with a few dunlin mixed in, flying around overhead: something had obviously put them up. Never having visited before, I picked up a map and navigated my way towards the hides. There are three main areas with wild birds in: to the north west there are a series of hides (Martin Smith, Robbie Garnett and Stephen Kirk) overlooking the Tack Piece (a large field with scrapes, pools and a few reeds) , the Knott hide overlooking the Knott pool, ending with the Holden Tower which overlooks the Dumbles (a large grassy area with a few pools) and the Severn estuary. To the south west there are a few hides (Lathbury, Zeiss and Kingfisher) overlooking some scrapes and reeds and to the south east there are the South Lakes consisting of shallow lakes and scrapes with two hides. I decided to start off at the Holden tower to get the geese, and then to work my way around the reserve. Once I had the geese I was going to be happy to spend a fair amount of time trying for the bittern as I knew from the Slimbridge web reports that there wasn't likely to be much else of great interest around.

After a short walk I found myself at the Holden tower, wrestling with trying to set up my tripod in amongst the tall fixed stools there - I really must get myself a hide clamp. From the right side of the tower it looked out onto the Tack Piece and this is where all the geese were. Furthest away at the back of the field were the white-fronted geese, who seemed a bit shy. Closer in were a flock of 100+ barnacle geese, which I presume were wild and mixed in amongst them were some canadas and a few grey-lags. Some of the Tack Piece scrapes could also be seen and there were several Bewick's swans there (a Slimbrige speciality), some curlews and lots of lapwings. I was told that a pair of hunting peregrines had put most of the waders up (which must have been what I saw as I arrived) but scanning through them I could see a few redshanks feeding close by and the odd dunlin still around. Scanning across the Dumbles soon revealed the culprit: one of the peregrines sitting in the middle of the field, probably digesting its catch.

Overview of the geese: white-fronted at the back, canada and barnacle in the front. Note that the light was really poor and the birds often distant so this and many of the other photos were taken at high ISO settings.

Some of the white-fronted geese coming in to land.

Grazing barnacle geese.

After leaving the Holden tower I worked my way along the other hides which gave different views over the Tack Piece. I managed to find a spotted redshank on the scrape and further down there were large numbers of ducks: tufted, pochard, wigeon, teal and some pintails. Opposite the Robbie Garnett hide were some bird feeders with mostly blue and great tits, some chaffinches and greenfinches and plenty of moorhens on the grass. A water rail had been reported there on the web-site on a number of occasions recently but I couldn't see any sign of it.

Having secured my goose tick I next walked around towards the south west end to see if the bittern was about. I popped first into the Lathbury hide which overlooked some scrapes. On view were plenty of ducks and lots of standing lapwing and dunlin. Next on to the Zeiss hide which overlooked some reeds close by as well as some more distant pools. There I met a fellow birder camped out in the corner who had seen the bittern some three-quarters of an hour ago. It had been well hidden in the reeds but he'd even managed some digiscoped shots of it. Encouraged by this, I set up camp next to him and ate my packed lunch whilst chatting to him about digiscoping and scanning the reeds. After a while I saw something move in the reeds but initially couldn't make it out. Then I realised that it was the top of the bittern's head. I called it out to fellow watchers and then began the difficult process of explaining to the others where it was in amongst the mass of reeds. After a while I even manged to get my scope on it which is very difficult given the comparatively narrow field of view and even managed a few digiscoped shots myself. I stayed and watched it for a while before moving on to the south lake.

Spot the bittern!

The south lake has two hides: the Hogarth hide and the South lake observatory. Judging from the web-site reports there are usually a few waders around but today from either hide all I could see were a large number of lapwings and a few ducks. Accordingly I decided to make my way back to the north west hides for a last look before heading back home.

A Bewick's swan and a curlew on the Tack Piece.

There was not much different from my earlier visit to these hides. In fact the peregrine was still sitting in the same place in the Dumbles so it obviously had a big meal to digest. Someone said that they'd seen the water rail by the feeders ten minutes previously so I waited a bit but it didn't show. I therefore worked my way back towards the main visitor reception, picked up my free book of the month (The Complete Illustrated Encyclopedia of European and British Birds) and headed back home.

Two of the redshank that were on the Tack Piece

A pleasant trip to visit this fascinating place and a couple more year ticks. In fact the bittern was yet another technical lifer (where I couldn't remember whether I'd seen it as a boy). This brings my year total to 222 and tantalisingly close to my target of 225. In addition the barnacle geese means that a dodgy escapee tick from earlier in the year could be legitimised.

2008 Year List:

221: white-fronted goose

222: bittern (technical lifer)

Sunday, 14 December 2008

A Dorchester Long-tailed Duck & a Farmoor Redpoll

I've not been on any major birding trips recently but just over a week ago it was a lovely sunny but frosty day and I fancied a birding trip out. There'd been a long-tailed duck on a pit in Dorchester for a few days and as I had missed the one at Appleford GP's earlier I decided that it would be nice to go and have a look. I was able to negotiate with my VLW (very lovely wife) that I could go without L our two year old son so I set off and was soon at the appropriate pit which was located down Drayton Lane.

As I arrived I met a fellow birder just getting out of his car who was also looking for the same bird. He thought that it might be on the pit next door but I was pretty sure I had the right pit and so we started looking together for it. There were plenty of diving ducks about: pochards, tufted duck, some goldeneye as well as a few dabblers around the fringes: mostly shoveler and a few wigeon. There were also quite a few canada geese and plenty of the ubiquitous coot about. A flock of 8 or so siskins flew over calling noisly, which was nice to see. We worked our way along the pit until about half way down when my companion, who still thought it was the other pit, decided that he would go and try over there. I went on further on my own and towards the end I encountered a couple coming back the other way, who told me that the long-tailed duck was right down at the end of the pit. Encouraged by this I continued on to the end where I found a clearing where I could see out clearly. After several minutes of fruitless scanning I finally found the bird. It was diving frequently and it was hard work to get any decent digiscoping shots, especially as it was largely in a shaded area with lots of reflections on the water but I did manage a couple of ok shots. The other birder returned from the neighbouring pit, I showed him where the bird was and he and I watched it together for a while.

The Dorchester long-tailed duck.

This bird didn't represent a new year tick for me as I'd already seen quite a few on the sea at Easter up in Fife, but it was nice to get out on a crisp winter's morning and to see such an uncommon bird for Oxfordshire.

A few day's later I went down to Farmoor, once more to try to find a redpoll that so far has been eluding me. I was only intending to be out for a couple of hours but in the end I was out all morning. Still it's always nice to visit Farmoor, especially when there are some good birds there at the moment such as the two first winter scaup and the two great northern divers. I parked in my usual spot in Lower Whitely wood and walked along the road towards the farm, keeping an eye and ear out for anything interesting. Just through the gate there were a number of finches but mostly green with some gold as well. There were far fewer redwings and fieldfares around than usual as I made my way along the path towards the pump station and Pinkhill which was supposed to be the hot spot for redpolls. When I got there I scanned carefully but all I found was a nice pair of siskins feeding in an alder tree.

I next made my way up the bank of Farmoor 1 to the tufted duck flock to have a look for the scaup. I soon managed to find them and had a go at digiscoping though the light was not very good. Below is a passable shot of the male.

The first winter drake scaup with a drake tufted duck

Along the shore of F1 were also 7 dunlin and a couple of redshank. I next decided to walk over to the sludge pits on the north side of F1 as some redpolls had been seen there recently. It was a bit of a trek and it reaped no reward. Retracing my steps I was back at Pinkhill when I met a fellow birder who was carrying an SLR with a good sized lens. He'd just been trying to photo a tree creeper that flew my way before he could get it. We also saw a nice male bullfinch but once again he couldn't get a proper shot. I asked but he'd not seen any redpolls about. We parted company and I headed on towards F2 in the direction of the car.

On F2 I looked out for the great northern divers and soon managed to spot one of them diving in the middle of the water. I did have an half-hearted attempt to photograph it but the waiting time whilst it was underwater was rather long and it was getting late so I gave up. Back down in the south-west corner I saw a common sandpiper, a redshank and a few of the dunlin but they flew off before I could photograph any of them.

Disappointed at not having seen any redpolls I made my way back along the road towards the wood. Where the road bends to the left towards the wood there was a nice flock of goldfinches and as I walked I idly watched them until I noticed a couple of brown birds with slight white wing bars in amongst them. At that point I was on full alert and scanned carefully in order to confirm my suspicions that they were indeed the redpolls that I'd been looking for. They were feeding actively right by the road side so I positioned myself up on the opposite side of the road and crouching down I continued to watch them. They didn't seem too flighty so I set up my scope and rather than getting my digiscoping attachment out, just held up the camera to the eye piece. The result came out surprisingly well.

At last my lesser redpoll for the year!

So another year tick from my lesser redpoll which brings up 220. It's looking increasingly unlikely that I am going to make 225 but I am more than pleased with my efforts which have far exceeded my expectations for my first year list.

2008 Year List
220: lesser redpoll

Saturday, 6 December 2008

A Bedfordshire Slavonian Grebe

I'd noticed that there had been a slavonian grebe reported in Bedfordshire recently at Brogborough Lake. Given that this was reasonably close to where my sister-in-law lives, I suggested to my VLW (very lovely wife) that she might wish to pay her a visit and that I could drive her over there and go on to find the grebe whilst they went out shopping. As this plan suited all concerned we set off on Thursday at around 10:15am, arriving at the sister's house at around 11am. After a brief spot of elevenses, I left them to their shopping trip and departed on what should have been a short 20 minute drive down the A5 and along the A421 into Beds. I'd been that way earlier this year for the red-footed falcon so was reasonably confident that I knew the way. However, I'd not reckoned on a huge traffic jam at the junction where the A421 joins the M1 and I waited there for a tedious 45 minutes in near-stationary traffic before finally getting past the junction and arriving shortly thereafter at Brogborough Lake.

I'd not been to the lake before and from what I'd read there was no obvious access or viewing points so I was going to have to improvise. The first thing that struck me as I drove past it was how large it was. It was more than half a mile in length by perhaps a quarter of a mile in width. The prospect of finding one small grebe there with no proper access was a little daunting. I turned down a road behind the lake that lead to Lidlington and as I went I looked out for viewing points along the east side (where the bird had been reported). I came across a gate and stopped to have a look. The reasonably strong wind was coming into the shore at that point and the sun was also shining that way so viewing conditions were far from ideal and a quick scan revealed not much at all. I headed round the corner where I remembered from the map that there was supposed to be a footpath by a house that lead down to the lake. I got out and had a good look for it but could find no obvious footpath at all.

I was starting to feel somewhat frustrated, after my long time in traffic I was now finding it difficult actually to see the lake at all! I carried on driving round the lake and eventually found a gate where one could overlook the west end of the water. I set up my scope and a thorough search revealed a large (100+) number of pochards, plenty of tufted ducks, some rather smart goldeneye's, a couple of little grebes that gave me pause for thought, some great crested grebes, lots of coots and a few gulls, some common's in amongst them. I could only see a small portion of the lake from my viewing point so I drove round to the west side where there was a layby which would offer better viewing.

At the layby I carefully parked on high-curbed verge so that turning trucks could get by and set up my scope. From here I could see most of the western half of the lake though a thorough scan didn't reveal anything other than what I'd already seen. I found a track leading along the north shore and I started to walk along it, stopping periodically to scan around. After a few minutes I had gone far enough to be able to see the east end of the lake and round into the bay at the south-east corner. Towards this end there were several feeding grebes and at this point I started to look more carefully. I was viewing at a long distance at x60 magnification and at that range it was not easy to identify subtle detail. Several times I found a grebe that looked promising only to decide that it was actually just another great-crested. This did lead me to ask myself how I might know the slavonian once I saw it and I came to the conclusion that at that range I was looking for a bird intermediate in size between a little and great-crested grebe and with not such a proportionately long neck as a great crested and with less white on it. I carried on scanning at my long distance until right in the south-east corner, a few yards from the bank I found a bird that fitted all my long-range identification points. I could even compare it's size to some near-by great crested grebes and it was definitely smaller. One could just make out the clean dividing line between the black on it's head and the paler cheeks so it wasn't going to be a black-necked grebe. Confident of my identification I even took a few digiscope record shots though at that range they came out as little more than blobs.

I decided to go back round to that side of the lake and take a closer look now that I knew where to look. Back at the gate over there I found another parked car and saw a birder walking along the bank close by where I knew the bird to be. Hoping that it hadn't been spooked I started to scan. From this end I was looking into the sun and the water by the bank was partly in shadow so conditions were far from ideal but at least I knew where to look. I was still scanning when the other birder came back, saying that he'd not seen anything. I told him that I'd seen the bird from across the lake and whilst we were talking I found a grebe in my scope. Confusingly this was a great crested and I was just starting to have doubts when the slav grebe surfaced close by and I was able to point it out to my companion. We weren't able to view it for long before it moved into the deeply shaded section where it couldn't really be made out at all.

At that point my VLW phoned to say that she was back and wanting to know where was I, so I decided that it was time to head back to pick her up. The journey back was slightly complicated by my finding out that the junction that I'd used to exit the A5 was a restricted one and I couldn't get onto it so I had to improvise another route. Still I managed to get back ok and we made it back home just in time to pick up our younger daughter from school.

I feel that I earned my tick as it was really hard work finding the bird. That now means that I have all three rare grebes for the year about which I am most pleased.

2008 Year List

219: Slavonian Grebe