Wednesday, 30 December 2009

A Warwickshire Glossy Ibis

With the Christmas festivities comfortably over and no work to worry about until the New Year, I was feeling a bit twitchy. I'd been keeping an eye on reports about the glossy ibis at Holt Fleet in Warwickshire which had been seen every day for a couple of weeks and as I'd missed this species earlier on in the year along with the buff-breasted sandpiper on my fruitless sortie north to Cambrideshire, I thought that it would be positively rude of me not to take advantage of this revenge twitch. Unfortunately the weather was rather playing up with cold conditions and snow in various parts of the country so I'd already passed up on the opportunity once because of forecast snow where I was heading. The next day the weather was very cold, grey and drizzly but there was no snow forecast until later on in the afternoon so at around 10am I ventured forth.

The journey north was uneventful apart from the great bonus of a clear sighting of a great white egret flying low over the M40 heading north east near the Warwick services. I later learned that there'd been one in the Stratford area which had moved on that morning so it was almost certainly the same bird. I'd done my usual homework before hand and therefore arrived at the spot easily enough but the map and the directions were rather unclear as to exactly how one got down to the big field by the river where the bird was located. I found myself in a small housing estate and found where the footpath should have been but there was a house in the way! I think that the path actually went through the garden but as I didn't actually have a map with me I was a bit reluctant just to barge through in case I was wrong. Eventually I found another path down and someone directed me to a gate into the field. Just by this gate there were four rather nice lesser redpolls feeding in a silver birch tree.

Going through the gate I made my way across the field to the far end where the bird was supposed to be located. I was expecting the floods to be by the river but they turned out to be at the back of the field so I approached a little too closely and succeeding in flushing a number of mallards though the settled again further along the floods. The latter had evidently been caused by the river bursting its banks enough to flood an area with a natural depression and now that the flood waters had receded it had left a nice boggy area complete with plenty of tussocks of tall grass. In fact these tussocks were rather an obstacle as it meant it was rather difficult to see what birds were there and there was certainly no sign of any ibises. I therefore decided to retreat back to the riverside footpath and to walk along a bit further from where I could get a different viewing angle. At my second vantage point I managed to pick up the ibis working its way along the floods in and out of the tussocks. The light was abysmal and it was raining so I only obtained the crudest of record shots and video footage but it was still enough to record the great delight of what was in fact my first glossy ibis ever. A green sandpiper was also seen in the marshy area. Not wanting to get caught out by any early snow I didn't stay too long and made my way back. I tried to find the footpath from the other end but it still seemed to go through the garden so in the end I went through a very muddy field and had to clamber over a fence to get back to the car.

A videograb record shot taken in the pouring rain with no light from a couple of hundred metres away. At least it does look like a glossy ibis!

Some record shot video footage of the bird

A nice way to round off the year with a lifer and revenge tick. I seem to have managed to get 235 on my national year list with which I'm most pleased. Amazingly I've had 28 lifers this year which is fantastic though of course this is largely due to the short time that I've been birding. Interestingly enough, a seasoned county birder with a life list of over 400 confessed to me that he was rather envious of my position with so many interesting species still to see. I'm thoroughly enjoying it all at present and wouldn't want to spoil it by seeing too much too quickly.

National Year List 2009
235: glossy ibis 30/12/09 Holt Fleet

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

A Hard Earned Merlin!

With just a couple of weeks to go until the end of the year and with no vagrants having dropped into the county, the only bird left for me to chase was the elusive merlin. Regular readers will know that I've been trying for this bird in the county all year and indeed unsuccessfully for previous year as well (when I was doing a national year list). With one having been seen at Otmoor on each day over the weekend and also on the Monday it seemed that one was definitely in the area so on Tuesday morning I elected to get up before dawn and made my way cautiously along the icy roads to get to Otmoor. Of course I had the entire reserve to myself as no one else was stupid enough to be down there in sub-zero temperatures! There had been a small overnight snowfall and everywhere looked magical with all the trees and branches lightly dusted in white. Otmoor Lane was alive with early morning birds: pheasants along the road side and thrushes in the hedges. The Car Park Field was teeming with fieldfares with some redwing and blackbirds also thrown in. Fortunately the overnight snow had covered the ice which made walking along the paths relatively easy and there was little wind so I soon warmed up as I walked briskly along. Along Greenaways itself there was not much about with only a kestrel seen flying off from the hedgerow. The turn-off for the first screen is a good strategic spot as from there one can view Ashgrave, Big Otmoor and also Greenaways so I decided to spend a bit of time here. I walked over to the new hide to have a look around. I was just watching the winter resident stonechats flitting around near the frozen scrapes when at that point blow me if a merlin didn't appear! It shot low over the Closes and disappeared into the hedgrow. I hadn't expected to get it so quickly and was most pleased finally to have caught up with this bird.

Having already achieved my target, I no longer needed to spend ages scanning the fields waiting for a fly-through so instead I decided to take a quick look at the two screens. At the first screen there was one clear patch of water which was occupied by teal, wigeon and a few shoveler and gadwall. A kite flew over, just visible in the mist. A party of bullfinches was working its way along the hedgerow towards the second screen at which there were more teal and wigeon though they took flight as I approached and headed over to the first screen pool. A small flock of meadow pipits was working its way along the frozen channels on Big Otmoor and several wrens and robins were flitting around in the hedges hungrily looking for food. Quite a few snipe were flying around over Greenaways.

A wonderfully wintery view across Greenaways from near the first screen

One advantage of the snow was that it was possible to see animal tracks that had been left there by nocturnal visitors. I managed to find a couple of prints which I think I've identified correctly

I think that this is a fox print

With the strong claw marks and large size I think that this is a badger

So one more tick for the county and indeed national year lists and it's in fact a county lifer for myself. I'm not expecting any more ticks now unless something unexpected drops in but with a county year list total of 195 I'm certainly not complaining! I'll do a review of the year for the next entry.

Oxon County Year List 2009
195: merlin 22/12/09 Otmoor (county lifer)

National Year List 2009
234: merlin 22/12/09 Otmoor

Sunday, 20 December 2009

Just when you thought it was all over...

My fellow year lister Jason Coppock and I have been tearing our hair out with frustration recently at the lack of birds in the county. With Jason on 199 (including a pre-emptory ticking of the American Black Tern) and therefore needing one more for the magic 200 figure and myself on 192 (again with the ABT) needing one more to break the previous record we were both very keen for one more tick. It had been two weeks since the last tick and time was running out. What's more there was a more than frustrating sighting of three velvet scoter on Farmoor last Sunday which was only reported after dark. Jason was down there at first light the next day but there was no sign of them. In the mean time I'd made a couple of trips up to Otmoor to look for the water pipit that had been seen there recently to replace the one that I'd recently removed from my list. The first time I went mid week but the workmen on the new Ashgrave hide were using some machinery which ensured that there were no birds on the scrape there. I did manage to catch up with the black redstart though as well as a few stonechats so it wasn't a wasted journey. I decided to try again at the weekend when the workmen wouldn't be around though there was precious little to see on the moor and no sign of the water (or indeed hardly any) pipits.

I'd still been working away on my patch on Port Meadow which has been on top form with the flooding of the Meadow. In the evenings there were usual several yellow-legged gulls and there were plenty of the usual over-wintering waders to look at (ruff, redshank, dunlin and black-tailed godwits). Recently the cold snap has meant that the floods have frozen over and from past experience this is usually not very productive for birding with just a few of the hardiest ducks braving the sub-zero temperatures. Still one can get some quite nice photos of the birds on the ice so I'd been persevering. It was as well that I did because yesterday I managed to turn up a most unexpected tick: I'd arrived to find that the only birds were a huddle of teal standing in the one remaining open pool on the ice. There were a few ruff scattered in amongst them but that was about it. Given the lack of things to look at I elected to count the teal and was part way through the flock when I noticed a spotted redshank in amongst them. Now I'd long since given up on getting one of these for the year with the only other one in the county having being the elusive bird on Otmoor so it was a wonderful bonus to find one on my own patch. In fact last year at around the same time there was one which spend several days on the Meadow so it's possible that it might even be the same bird. I was also told that someone saw what was probably a spotted redshank on Otmoor that morning so it may have been knocking about the county a bit. Let's hope that it stays around though given the frozen conditions it's not very likely.

A couple of digiscoped videograbs of the spotted redshank taken at dusk

The next day I was lounging around at home having just said goodbye to some friends who had stayed over when I got a call from Jason to say that he'd just found a pair of Bewick's swans at the second screen on Otmoor. With there being no household chores holding me back I got dressed and hurried down there as quickly as possible (which was rather slowly given the icy conditions). After the rather long walk on the icy path all the way to the second screen I was rewarded with the two Bewick's still present with four mute swans. They were in a small area of unfrozen water quite close to the screen so I was able to get some reasonable quality digiscoped images.

The Bewick's swans by the second screen

So a couple of ticks in quick succession has meant that I am now clear of the previous record and therefore have the second highest county year list number of all time (that I know of at least). I have decided to follow Jason's lead and count the American Black Tern tick in anticipation of a split soon though like him I will hold the Azorean Yellow-legged gull in reserve still until that is actually split. Jason of course has now achieve the fantastic total of 200 birds in a year which is approaching legendary status for county birding. With a couple of weeks left to go to the end of the year there is now the question of what is there left that I might reasonably seen. Merlin is the most likely candidate and indeed it has been seen on both days this weekend at Otmoor though usually only first thing so I'm clearly going to have to get down there early in order to connect. There are also various other possibilities though none is very likely. Anyway, I feel happy (and amazed) at the number that I've achieved: I'm not going to catch Jason and I'm clear of the old record so it's a good total to settle on should nothing else turn up

Oxon County Year List 2009
192: American Black Tern 28/08/09 Farmoor Reservoir (anticipating the split)
193: Spotted Redshank 19/12/09 Port Meadow
194: Bewick's Swan 20/12/09 Otmoor

National Year List 2009
233: American Black Tern 28/08/09 Farmoor Reservoir (anticipating the split)

Sunday, 6 December 2009

'Fessing up to a Stringy Pipit & a Baggers Woodcock

First I have to own up that I've had my suspicions about one of my year ticks, namely the Farmoor water pipit. At the time I was convinced, but since then I've learnt more about what a water pipit should look like and looking back at the photo it's clear that what I saw was just a meadow pipit, albeit one of the plainer grey looking types. This should mean that there's one tick to knock of the year total (both county and national lists). However, whilst I've been contemplating the year's birding I've also decided that I will include my "heard only" long-eared owl. I've been working on a "seen if at all possible" basis this year any everything else has been actually sighted but I've not managed to catch up with an actual LEO sighting this year so barring some fortuitous end of year sighting I'm going to have to settle for a heard only. This means that both county and national totals are unchanged but that now I still need water pipit but no longer LEO.

I've also finally managed to catch up with a woodcock this year. My fellow year lister (and indeed now county year list record holder) took me to where he managed to find one in Bagley Wood in the spring and fortunately we managed to flush one within a couple of minutes of arriving. I was most pleased about this as I've been struggling all year to connect with this species and didn't really want to spend the last few weeks of the year slogging around the boggy Long Meadow at Otmoor again in the vain hope of finding one. If I can just find a county merlin now then I will have unblocked both my county year list bogey birds.

Apart from that, my local patch Port Meadow is now back on top form with a variety of winter waders turning up recently: black-tailed godwit, redshank, ruff and dunlin have all been seen this week. I'm still hoping to get something good before the year ends though time is definitely not on my side any more.

The black-tailed godwits on the Meadow floods

A wading redshank

A pair of dunlin on Port Meadow

One more tick for both county and national year lists. Interestingly, Birding World have decided to split American Black Tern from the European one already and the consensus is that they will definitely split. Indeed my fellow year lister has already added the tick to his list though I will hold off until the end of the year. Apparently Azorean Gull is a bit more uncertain so that might end up being an armchair tick a year or two down the line. Amazingly I am pretty much at the previous county year list record of 192 myself (certainly once I include the ABT) so another tick or two should see me clear of it. I'm amazed as I never would have thought at the start of the year that I would get anywhere near it. I think that it just shows what a good year the county has had rather than saying anything special about my birding prowess!

Oxon Year List 2009
191: Woodcock 06/12/09 Bagley Wood

National Year List 2009
232: Woodcock 06/12/09 Bagley Wood

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Farmoor Shag & Black-throated Diver

Farmoor Reservoir has the ability to come up with a host of good birds out of the blue and yesterday was another such example. What had started out as a quiet Monday morning was perked up with a call from Farmoor regular Dai John that he'd found a shag on the new pontoons by the sailing club. After passing on the message to my fellow year lister I set off for the reservoir. Sure enough there was a lovely shag viewable from very close quarters which apparently had just been seen to catch a couple of fish before I arrived. The light was very good and the bird posed obligingly for some photos though the bright reflective water surface behind the subject meant that I had some problems with the metering though I got a couple that came out well.

A classic resting shag pose!
It's interesting to note how the bird squats down and raises its tail before taking a dump on the new pontoon!

Later that day I nipped out to Port Meadow to check on the gull roost. I was just making my first scan through when I got a call saying that a diver had been found on Farmoor and that it was thought that it was a black-throated. I made a half-hearted attempt to complete my scan before abandoning it and cycling back at top speed back home and jumping straight in the car. Some twenty minutes later I was pulling up at Lower Whitely Farm (as instructed) at the west end of the reservoir and racing up the bank to be met by three other birders who were already there. We moved around to a better vantage point and managed to re-locate the bird which was obligingly not diving that frequently but rather swimming purposefully about. It took flight briefly and we thought that it was going to leave but it circled low and came back. Shortly afterwards Dai John came up to us saying that he'd seen a kittiwake come in to join the gull roost. Abandoning the diver we all switched our attention to the gull roost though the light had now gone and we soon gave up on our attempt to sift through the many thousand of gulls for one slightly different one. Had we had Nic Hallam, the Farmoor gull guru there, we might have had a chance but for us mere mortals it was a tick too far. Still two county year list and indeed for me county life ticks was pretty good going and black-throated diver is not an easy bird to see in the county as they don't tend to hang around at all. Interestingly enough about a week or so ago a pair of divers were seen to fly in towards Farmoor, one came down and was identified as a great northern whereas the other, which had appeared smaller, turned about and went off. It's just possible that this was the second bird which had been lurking in the mean time in some overlooked gravel pit near by. Let's hope that it hangs around or is relocated elsewhere so that others can enjoy this elusive bird.

A couple of videograb record shots. Pretty poor quality but given the distance and the darkness it was the best that I could do. You can make out the white flank patch, the relatively fine bill compared to a Great Northern and the clean line dividing the white from the black on the neck.

The un-edited "record shot" video footage. In the conditions this actually shows things up better than the still video grabs. I think that this is something to do with our eyes being able to smooth out visual changes so they look better than they actually are.

Another couple of ticks for the county year list and indeed county lifers for me. I was reflecting on how great this year has been from the point of view of getting my county life list up to scratch and in fact the shag is my 200th county life bird and the diver my 201st. The top Oxon list in the county is 269 so there's of course loads still to see and I've just seen all the easy ones! Some of them, like surf scoter, aren't ever really likely to be seen in the county again but I don't really have great county life list ambitions so I won't fret over this too much!

Oxon County Year List 2009
189: Shag 01/12/09 Farmoor Reservoir (County Lifer)
190: Black-throated Diver 01/12/09 Farmoor Reservoir (County Lifer)

Monday, 30 November 2009

Lower Brook Farm Spotted Sandpiper

Now that my patch, Port Meadow, is back in action I've been going there regularly but I'd not been on an "out of town" birding trip for some time and was starting to get twitchy for something a little different. I'd noticed that several spotted sandpiper had appeared recently: one at Abberton Reservoir in Essex seemed a little too far away, as did one in Topsham in Devon but one at Lower Brook Farm in Hampshire looked to be a more reasonable distance so I'd been keeping an eye on sightings and it seemed to be pretty constantly seen every day. Accordingly today I decided to take the morning off and to nip down there for a bijou twitchette.

The day that I'd chosen was starting out cold and rainy though the forecast was for it to brighten up later so I wasn't too downhearted as I headed south on the A34 in the driving rain. The journey there was uneventful and took a shade over an hour. The only interesting part was when I arrived at the car park which had a very low height restriction bar, so low in fact that it was a squeeze to get the new car in under it with the roof rack bars still on. I managed it but there was a bit of a scraping as I went in! On the ten minute walk up a rather muddy track along the river there were loads of winter thrushes and tits feeding in the hedgerow and a female sparrow hawk glided silently away ahead of me. I soon found myself standing as per the Bird Guides instructions on the Lower Brook footbridge over the river Test looking at the lawn and drive of what was a large and very nicely situated house. This house was on a small island around which the river parted. There was an immaculate close-cropped lawn and a small summer house and few trees. It didn't seem to be your typical sandpiper terrain and indeed there was no immediate sign of the bird but I'd read that it was only showing intermittently so I waited and scanned. Whilst waiting for the bird to show I noted three little grebes and several swans on the river, a greater spotted woodpecker and a mistle thrush calling in the trees behind me, a grey wagtail and kingfisher flying about and a kestrel caught something in the field at the end of the bridge.

A short time later a fellow birder turned up asking if I'd seen the bird. I was just telling him that it had not yet shown when I spotted it walking next to the tarmac drive near the house. There wasn't time to get the scope onto it before a car came out of the house and the bird moved off. The car stopped by us and the lady inside asked whether the bird was still there. When we informed her of its continuing presence she very kindly said that we could go and stand at the end of her drive to get a better view. We thanked her for this and took up her offer. From here we were able to see the bird which was now working its away along the fringe of the side channel. It seemed to be finding loads of food and would periodically pull up a huge earth worm which it consumed with gusto. Shortly thereafter it flew to a more distant channel before disappearing for a while. At this point we were joined by a third birder who was a little disappointed that we couldn't put him straight on to the bird but after a little wait it appeared again and we all got good views.

The bird had originally been reported as a "possible" and from close inspection one could see that the reason for this was its leg colour which wasn't the typically diagnostic yellow of a spotted sandpiper but was more greeny in colour. However the various other identification points were all there: short tail projection; plain back and tertials with just fringing on the coverts; a rather pinkish bill with a black tip and not much of a white wing bar in flight (there's supposed to be less white on the inner portion of the wing though I didn't get a good enough flight view to ascertain where the white was). As usual I tried to do some digiscoping but the light was so bad that it was not possible to get any sort of shutter speed even at ISO 800 so I once more resorted to videograbbing. The results are acceptable record shots given the conditions.

From these videograbs you can see the pinkish bill with the black tip, the short tail projection and just make out that the back and tertials are relatively plain.

The journey back was a little more eventful: I had to remove the roof bars before I could get out of the car park and I took a wrong turning and found myself heading south instead of north along the A34 though it wasn't long before the next junction where I could turn round and head in the right direction.

A very nice little twitch to see a subtle bird that required some thought and observation to distinguish from its commoner cousin. A lifer for me as well as another national year tick.

National Year List 2009
231: spotted sandpiper 30/11/09 Lower Brook, Hants. (LIFER)

Thursday, 26 November 2009

A Port Meadow Caspian Gull

There's not been much to report recently on the bird front. However my local patch, Port Meadow, has finally sprung back into life with the arrival of some decent flood waters from all the rain we've been having and indeed the river now looks close to bursting its banks and turning it back into a lake. This is vital in order to ensure that there is a decent amount of flood water to last ideally at least until spring. I've been making twice daily trips down there as I am determined to find something good before the year end. Since I've been birding there from the Autumn of 2007 onwards there has always been at least one scarcity for each half of the year. The list is as follows 2007 H2: grey phalarope & pectoral sandpiper; 2008 H1: Temmink's stint; 2008 H2 American Golden Plover; 2009 H1 spoonbill. However with there having been such a dry autumn there have been no floods to speak of until recently and so time has been slipping away for me to find a decent bird to keep this list going. There were also a few "good county birds" this spring in the form of an avocet, a bar-tailed godwit and a little tern but these aren't proper scarcities in their own right just in the county so I can't even borrow a spare from the first half to count for the second half. This is all nonsense I know but I have a real soft spot for the Meadow and would very much like it to have the birding recognition that it deserves. This is one of the reasons why I run my Port Meadow Birding blog and I am always touched and surprised by the number of people who come up to me saying how much they like it.

Now that there is a decent amount of flood water there is much more chance of a decent gull roost so I've been going out to check in the afternoons and a couple of days ago I made the pleasant discovery of a lovely Caspian Gull in amongst the roost. Followers of this blog will know that I have in the past been struggling with the whole herring/yellow-legged/Caspian gull complex and have been working diligently at improving my identification skills. In my recent blog entry on finding a 1st winter Caspian at Didcot I mentioned that I now felt more confident on this age group but had yet to master the adult birds. All my staring at Caspian Gull photos must have paid off somehow because as soon as I saw it I thought Caspian Gull: the jizz and shape just looked right. I went through my adult Caspian check list:

  • Long parallel-sided bill of pale or washed out yellow colour (often almost limey in colour)
  • Clean white head with gently sloping forehead, dark "bullet-hole" eyes
  • The Cachinanns facial expression: to me it's a kind, sad and aloof expression. It definitely doesn't look fierce though can sometimes look "imperial"
  • A mantle colour that's a shade darker that argenteus, about the same as argentatus but lighter that michahellis.
  • Legs that are a paler pink that your typical herring gull
  • Moderate amounts of white in the primary for the closed wing (not small amounts as for michahellis)
The gull in question: note the "kind, sadly aloof" expression.
A wider shot allowing comparison of the bill and mantle colour. Note the long parallel-sided and rather washed out bill colour. You can't see it very well but the legs were definitely pink.

All this checked out perfectly. There was just one final test which is the underwing and really requires a videograb so I set about videoing. Ideally one wants a full underwing flap but unfortunately I wasn't able to get this. What one is looking for is a reasonable white tip to P10 with a white underwing primary covert covering the inner web of P10 so that one is left with a small black area and perhaps a black finger extending down the outer web. This didn't seem to match so well and left me slightly wondering though everything else looked so good and I am starting to realised that with gulls there is often so much variation that one can't always get everything to match up. Nevertheless to be on the safe side I sent my shots to Ian Lewington the county recorder and top gull expert to see what he said. He agreed that it did appear to have all the right characteristics of a Caspian Gull and that the amount of black on the underside of P10 was still within the acceptable range for a Caspian though only just.

The best underwing shot that I was able to manage. There is rather a lot of black on this but apparently it's within the acceptable range for a Cachinnans.

An example of what a standard P10 underwing look like. Note the white underwing primary covert on the inner web with the thin finger of black extending down the outer web.

So using the Bird Guides classificaiton of five degrees of rarity: common, local, scarce, rare and mega, it's not a scarcity, being merely a local bird but it's the best bird that I've had on the Meadow so far this autumn and it's enabled me to further my knowledge of the "Way of the Gull Master". I'll carry on going to the roost down on the Meadow to see what else of interest I can find.

No new ticks to report for either the county or national year list.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

No longer Witless in Oxon!

I've been trying for a willow tit (or "wit" to use a self-crafted shortening which I am trying to get into general usage) for a while now in the county and with the recent confirmed discovery of a pair frequenting Grimsbury Reservoir near Banbury I'd already made a couple of fruitless trips up there. As I mentioned previously on the second occasion they were seen on both days of weekend subsequent to my visit so a revenge outing was surely due. Conveniently I needed to head up that way anyway on an errand so I reasoned that it would be rude not to make another visit to the reservoir and I hoped that it would be third time lucky.

As I walked along the river towards the wood at the north end where the birds were generally seen it was soon clear that it was rather quiet bird-wise. There was not much moving or calling and I pondered what were the influencing factors that made some days and times alive with bird activity and others completely dead. Clearly time of day was an important factor and first thing in the morning is generally good but it was only about 10:30 and there was hardly a bird to be heard. The wits had generally been seen where the river meets the wood or alternatively along the canal bordering the north of the wood so I carefully scoured both these areas but there was hardly a bird to be seen with a brief glimpse of a kingfisher being the highlight. I was determined to spend a little time on trying for this bird so decided to do circuits back and forth between the two locations. After my third iteration I was starting to get tired and a little hungry so I decided to take a brief rest. I sat down along the bank of the canal and "zoned out" for a little, just listening for bird song. A few redwings went over as well as a buzzard being mobbed by a pair of crows. There was precious little to hear when suddenly I was aware of some "lit" (sorry, I'm going to use my new tit abbreviations throughout this blog entry!) calls behind me and I managed to spy a party of six or so in the wood just behind me. They must have been the advanced guard of a mixed tit flock because on the other side of the canal I was suddenly aware of various calling and feeding birds: a few bits and gits were calling and there was something working its way through a tree directly opposite me. I managed to get a decent view and it was either a mit or a wit. I generally feel that for a safe ID one has to hear the call but this bird certainly seemed to be a wit as it was rather a drab brown underneath and with rather dusky flanks compared to a mit which usually looks rather smart. I held my breath waiting for it to call but unfortunately it didn't. I'd held off using any sort of tape luring so far as last time I felt that it had probably been counter-productive but at this junction I played a brief burst of a wit call and immediately got back an answer coming from a little way into the wood on the opposite side of the canal. Could I confirm that the bird that I'd seen in the tree was the same calling bird? No and the call seemed too far off to be the bird that I'd just seen so I still didn't have a confirmed sighting. I waited and the calling wit or wits seemed to be getting nearer and suddenly a black-capped tit appeared on the far side of the canal and flew across into a tree not 10 yards in front of me and gave the wit call - Bingo! I got a good view of it and even managed to note the dull black cap, the pale secondary wing panel and the rather dusky brown flanks and drab appearance. The bird soon flew on into the wood behind me. I decided to head off in that direction as that was the way back to the car anyway and I soon caught up with the feeding flock again within the woods. At one point the wit came within about 5 yards of me as it worked its way through the trees with the other tits and one goldcrest that was part of the flock. They then moved on deeper into the woods where I couldn't follow so I headed back to the car and home.

I was most pleased finally to get my county willow tit though I did have a possible sighting in my garden some time last year: I was in the garden when I heard and saw a black-capped tit which was working its way down the gardens, stopping and calling every few gardens. I couldn't get a very good view of it before it moved on though I did note it had a rather bull-necked appearance. As I'd heard the call I immediately rushed inside to match what I'd heard to my MP3 library of tit calls but foolishly I didn't write down or record what I'd heard before I started playing all the call files and I soon realised that after having played back so many calls I'd completely forgotten what I'd originally heard! However I can remember that it was a loud and strident call but not a "pitchoo" so there was every possibility of it having been a wit, but I'll never know for certain. I now make a point when I have heard something that I want to match against a recording, of either recording my impression of it on my mobile or at least translating it into words to avoid this happening again. I also subsequently made sure that I knew mit and wit calls off by heart from then onwards!

One more tick for both the county and national year lists. I appear to have reached my 230 end of year national target already which is amazing. I'm not going to bother setting a new target but it will be interesting to see what the final total is. For the county list there are a few winter birds which I could still get: merlin (still!), woodcock, Bewick's swan, glaucous gull and given the quality of birding over the last few days who knows what else might turn up.

Oxon 2009 County Year List
189: Willow Tit 12/11/09 Grimsbury Reservoir (county lifer)
Official 188 + 4 sub-species

National 2009 Year List
230: Willow Tit 12/11/09 Grimsbury Reservoir

I didn't get any photos today but there are a few videos left over from the recent fab Farmoor day to post:

Record vid of the red-breasted merganser

The Slavonian Grebe

Snow Bunting

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Farmoor Tick Bonanza!

Occasionally really great birding days come along and today turned out to be one of them. It started yesterday afternoon when two snow buntings were reported on the information services as being on Farmoor causeway mid afternoon. I wasn't able to go as I had to ferry various of my offspring about the place but I called my fellow county year lister and he rushed off to secure the tick. The birds stayed until dusk so I decided that I would go first thing the next day and hoped that they would still be there.

Next morning the weather was pretty terrible with low solid grey cloud and persistent drizzle so there was every possibility that the birds weren't going anywhere. I arrived at Farmoor just before 8am and was the first person on the causeway. There was quite a bit of bird movement with a flock of eight oystercatchers flying through shortly followed by another bird which lingered a while and a flock of three small and two larger waders (probably dunlin and something else) also flew over. I didn't have to go too far along the causeway before I found the buntings, happily hopping around feeding on whatever they could find. I was soon joined by a few other birders and we all attempted to photograph the birds in various ways. I soon discovered that digiscoping has its downside in very poor light as you don't have the advantage of a flash at all so I was restricted to videoing and then taking a videograb later. I am more and more discovering how useful a technique this is especially when conditions are difficult such as they were today. Pleased to have connected with the birds I walked the length of the causeway to check that there wasn't anything else around then went and had a brief look for the black redstarts (which I couldn't see though they were later reported again) before heading for home, most pleased with the morning's birding.

Not much more than a record shot of the male snow bunting given the terrible light conditions.

Mid morning I was back at work when I got a call to say that someone had found a pair of Slavonian Grebes on the reservoir. My wife gave me a pitying look as I explained that I had to head back out to Farmoor but some twenty minutes later I was walking down the causeway, noting the buntings which were still there as I walked the full length of the causeway to meet up with my fellow year lister and a companion along the west shore of Farmoor II. The Slavonian grebes were hunting along this shore and after a while moved reasonably close so I once again deployed my video technique and got a reasonably good grab from it this time.

Given the light conditions I'm very pleased with how this digiscoped videograb came out of one of the Slavonian Grebes

Whilst we were there one of the others found a distant red-breasted merganser right out in the middle of Farmoor II. There was no possibility of getting anything even remotely decent in the way of a photo but once more a videograb produced at least a record shot of the bird which appeared to be a male. I didn't stay too long and stopped off for a spot of shopping by way of appeasement for my VLW.

Again just "record shot" quality for the red-breasted merganser which was out in the middle of Farmoor II

I have a self-imposed rule of not coming out to Farmoor more than twice in one day, this being instigated earlier on in the year when I had to go for black tern in the morning and then for a knot in the afternoon only to be told in the evening that there was a grey plover there which I didn't have the energy to go for. So after having made two trips there I was somewhat dreading getting a call to say that anything else had arrived but fortunately I was spared that agony. Nevertheless it had been an amazing day with three county year and indeed for me county life ticks coming within the space of a few hours. Coming on the back of the birds at the weekend as well it makes for a real purple patch for Oxon birding at present. I was also told that my total of nine oystercatchers was a record count for Farmoor and two of the above photos (not the snow bunting) were also used for the Farmoor blog which I was rather chuffed about.

The ticks are moving on nicely. I should also mention that my fellow year lister, who deserves to be named for his achievement (Jason Coppock) has broken the county year list record already with a stunning 195 birds and with six weeks still to go there might even be the possibility of his reaching 200. I should also mention that apparently one shouldn't be counting ruddy shelduck for the year list so my official figure should be one less than the 188 that I am showing below. I am keeping my lists as they are though as I happen to like ruddy shelduck! There are of course still the four sub-species which could retrospectively be promoted via "armchair ticks".

Oxon County Year List 2009
186: Snow Bunting 10/11/09 Farmoor Reservoir (County Lifer)
187: Slavonian Grebe 10/11/09 Farmoor Reservoir (County Lifer)
188: RB Merganser 10/11/09 Farmoor Reservoir (County Lifer)
Official Count 187 + 4 sub-species

National Year List 2009
229: Slavonian Grebe 10/11/09 Farmoor Reservoir

Monday, 9 November 2009

Forest Hill Rose-coloured Starling & Farmoor Black Redstart

It's been an exciting few days in the county with the discovery of a county first in the form of a juvenile rose-coloured starling at Forest Hill and also finally a twitchable black redstart after several vague or inaccessible sightings over the last few weeks.

To start with on Friday I went back to Grimsbury Reservoir in Banbury to have another try for the willow tits that had recently been seen there. I'd deliberately chosen a very still day with little wind and also went reasonably early in the morning and there were plenty of birds around along the river there with flocks of mixed tits, goldfinches and siskins to be seen. There was also a female stonechat on the reservoir perimeter fence. However despite my best efforts there was neither sight nor sound of any willow tits either along the river or along the canal. I did meet the original finder of the birds whose local patch it was and he confirmed that the locations where I'd been looking were correct. To rather add insult to injury, on the following two days a pair of willow tits were seen along the river by visiting birders so it looks like I was rather unlucky. I'll just have to make yet another trip there in order to get my tick.

The next day (Saturday) the news broke of a juvenile rose-coloured starling which had apparently been present for three weeks at least in Forest Hill. One of the local residents had sent a photo to the county recorder who had come down and confirmed the bird's ID and put the word out. Shortly after the text hit the phones all the keenest Oxon birders were wandering around the small village of Forest Hill scrutinising every single startling in an attempt to locate the bird. Fortunately someone soon found it and we all converged on one particular road though it had disappeared by the time we all got there. Fortunately it appeared again soon after and I got a rather brief view before I had to leave to fulfill my weekend family shopping obligations. A life and a county tick for me so I was most pleased though rather wishing I could have gotten a photo and a more prolonged view of it. I came back later the same afternoon but by then it was getting rather dark and cold and there were no starlings to be seen at all so I didn't stay long.

That evening news came out on the information services that a pair of black redstarts had been at the Farmoor reservoir water treatment works that afternoon. There have been a lot of black redstart sightings throughout the country recently but Oxon up till now had only had a couple this autumn: one only reported after the bird had gone and one where it was on private MOD land so it was great to have a twitchable sighting at last. I couldn't get down there first thing as I had to drop my two daughters off somewhere first so it wasn't until about 10:30 a.m. that L and I turned up. It was dark, windy and drizzly and at first I couldn't find any sign of the birds but eventually I found one and then two of them. They were flitting around the treatment buildings, occasionally hopping up on to the roofs where they could be seen. I even managed some video footage and some digiscoped record shots.

The two juvenile black redstarts on one of the treatment work buildings

one of the black redstarts
A videograb of one of the birds

Some video footage of one of the birds

The next day (Monday) I was dutifully back at work but as lunch-time approached I felt that I needed a little excursion to break up the day. Since I work from home, if I don't get out I can spend the whole day indoors so I thought that I would head back to Forest Hill to see if I could get better views of the starling. The weather was very dull grey and cold so the light was abysmal for photos but I thought that I would give it a go nonetheless. When I arrived I was the only one there but a birder who had travelled up from London soon joined me and after a while the bird returned to the roof tops along the road enabling us to get good views of it sitting on a chimney pot. As predicted, it wasn't great conditions for photographs so the results are little more than record shots but a valuable personal momento nonetheless.

The juvenile rose-coloured starling on a chimney pot

and again

A close up of the second shot which shows it's thick yellow bill and pale brown plumage.

So another couple of year list ticks for both the county and national lists. Both birds are also county lifers for me and the starling is a personal lifer as well so a great couple of days birding.

Oxon Year List 2009
184: rose-coloured starling 07/11/2009 Forest Hill (County Lifer)
185: black redstart 08/11/2009 Farmoor Reservoir (County Lifer)

National Year List 2009
227: rose-coloured starling 07/11/2009 Forest Hill (Lifer)
228: black redstart 08/11/2009 Farmoor Reservoir

Friday, 30 October 2009

A Lakeland Interlude

This half term we decided that rather than going on a full-blown holiday we would spend a few days up in the Lake District visiting my wife's sister and her family. It was meant to be a chance for the family to explore the area instead of being dragged to the osprey viewpoint every time we are in the area so I didn't even bring my scope with me though of course bins are always de rigeur. The only birding of interest was when one day we went for a visit to St. Bees beach and a walk along the cliffs to a cove to the north of there. I was thinking that it would be an opportunity to put my improving gull skills into practice but it turned out that we saw only a few herring gulls. However there were a few rock pipits and a grey wagtail on the beach area. Up on the cliffs there was a raven calling and flying back and forth. Good numbers of skylarks were flying around in the fields next to the cliff path and a ring-tail hen harrier hunting over the moorland was the highlight. Down on the shingle beach there were more herring gulls loafing around, another pair of rock pipits, quite a few oystercatchers and a single curlew. A peregrine falcon flew over as well, always an impressive sight. On the way back close views of a stonechat were seen. All in all some nice birds to be seen en passant.

Saturday, 24 October 2009

Learning the Way of the Gull Master

Having been introduced to the delights or otherwise of birding at Didcot landfill/Appleford GP I've made two further trips there this week, mainly in order to continue in my quest to master the art of identifying Caspian gulls. As I have admitted previously in this blog I have found the whole herring/yellow-legged/caspian gull issue a bit or a challenge and I am determined to get the hang of it. To that end I have been diligently studying away, looking at photos and reading and re-reading whatever I can find on the internet in order to get it into my head and at last I seem to be making some progress. What has helped is the fact that at Appleford GP (which is the pool behind the level-crossing near the Didcot landfill) one can actually see the gulls at close quarters which is far easier than trying to make out distant blobs in your scope at the Farmoor roost. In the end of course there is no substitute for just looking at loads of gulls and I am pleased to say that after the two trips this week I definitely feel that I am getting there.

Mid week I went up one lunch-time for an extended lunch break and had a look around. Whilst there I thought that I found something which looked promising for one of the two first winter Caspian's that are currently around but it flew off before I was able to get a photo or a definite ID. I also realised that there were still some key identification issues which I wasn't sure on so I went back to my studies.

This Friday, fortified with what I hoped were the key points I went back again for an afternoon session. With the atlantis not having been seen for a couple of days now, visiting birders were getting thin on the ground so it was just myself and a couple of other birds present at the pit. Ian Lewington turned up at the far end and I gave him a quick call to say hello and to ask whether he'd come across any Caspians so far today but he'd just arrived. The chap next to me, who was a local birder whom I recognised from the day the white-winged black tern first turned up at Farmoor, having overheard my conversation pointed out what he thought was a Caspian gull on the far bank. I looked where he was indicating and found a classic adult yellow-legged gull, one could even clearly see it's bright yellow legs. This, and my recent experience of other birders mistaking a yellow-legged gull for a Caspian made me realise that there is a lot of confusion out there about this gull complex. I politely pointed out that it was a yellow-legged gull and just at that moment in front of it I spotted a white-headed gull which looked promising. I went through my mental check list for a first winter Caspian:
  • Tertials dark with thick pale tips. A notched pattern on the tertials means herring gull.
  • Greater coverts dark with pale tips to form a sort of wing bar pattern. At least there was no chequered pattern there which would be a herring gull deal breaker
  • Scapulars mid tone grey with small anchors in
  • Head clean white with long parallel-sided bill (though the bill wasn't as huge as on some cachinnans) and with a grey "shawl" around it's neck
  • A "kind" or elegantly aloof facial expression
More importantly it just looked right: somehow all the pouring over photos for hours was paying off and I was starting to acquire some sort of sense of the cachinnans jizz. I called up Ian opposite who had in the mean time found the same bird and he confirmed the ID. I spent the next couple of hours photographing the bird and various other gulls though the usual issues with photographing gulls came to the fore: autofocus on white birds is difficult and in any bright light the white bleaches out the photo if you're not careful (in future I must remember to reduce the exposure in such circumstances). I am finding that the easiest way to get some sort of shot is to video with scope and camera zoomed right in: the autofocus on the video means that some of the frames will be in reasonable enough focus for a videograb to be taken.

The 1st winter Caspian Gull. The pure white head is the most striking aspect but it needs the various other points to clinch the ID. The bright sunshine has rather bleached parts of this still shot.

A close-up still shot though unfortunately once again somewhat bleached out.
A videograb in overcast conditions shows the features better: note how elegant it looks compared to the other rather "brutish" gulls around it.
A first winter common gull on the shore

A first winter greater-black backed gull. Their bills are huge and really stand out from the crowd.

All in all a very enjoyable week getting to grips with gulls. I still have a long way to go: the adult and older immature birds are harder as there are less check points to go on so it comes down more to mantle tone and jizz unless one can get a clear view of the underwing but I fell that I'm definitely making good progress. It's also another tick for the county and national year lists.

Oxon County Year List 2009
183: Caspian Gull 23/10 Appleford GP

Nationsl Year List 2009
226: Caspian Gull 23/10 Appleford GP

Sunday, 18 October 2009

Otmoor Beardy and Staines Moor revisited

On Saturday morning I was just contemplating the day ahead when my mobile went. It was Peter Barker on Otmoor saying that he'd just seen a female bearded tit in the reedbed. I thanked him for the update but said that it was probably going to be tricky to get down there, weekends being more devoted to family activities. However, when a few minutes later he rang back to say that nine further bearded tits had just flown in I decided that L needed to get out for some fresh air. I informed my VLW that I was going to take L out for a walk and that I would stop in on the super market do the shopping on the way back. With this double offer of an L-free morning and the shopping to be done she was most pleased with this arrangement! I got everything ready, including some snacks to keep L occupied (a vital part of ensuring a happy birding experience with L) and we set off for Otmoor.

I chose to come in via Noke as they were mending Otmoor Lane though I later realised that the works didn't actually start until Monday so I could have parked at Beckley as usual, not that there is much in it distance-wise. Once at the first screen by the reed bed I got in touch with Peter who said that they were walking along towards the second screen but that they'd not actually heard the birds for some time. I elected to stay at the first screen and did some tape luring from my mobile. Initially I was pretty sure that I heard some "ping" responses but after a while they stopped so I stopped playing the recording. There was not much else around to be seen: the kingfisher flew in and spent a few minutes on his favourite perch before darting off; two green sandpipers and a dunlin were flying around at the back of the channels and there were the usual ducks dotted around the place. When Peter returned we elected to walk along the bank to the south-east corner of the reed bed where the birds were first seen. Normally one can't go along this route but as work is presently being done on the bridleway this way and the diagonal path across Greenaways were open to the public. We walked most of the way towards the diagonal path, straining our ears for "pings" to no avail. As we returned however we heard the distinct call and a female bearded tit flew out out of the reeds and ducked back in again. It flew around and called for several more minutes before it went quiet again. Very pleased to have connected with this lovely little bird I decided that I needed to head off in order to get the shopping done. On the way back a rather dark stonechat was flitting around in the hedgerow and a buzzard was soaring overhead.

Readers of this blog will know that on Tuesday I'd gone to pick up my mother-in-law (and nipped over to see the Brown Shrike at Staines Moor) and she'd been staying with us all week. This afternoon she was due to go home and I nobly offered to drive her back. Whilst there I thought that it would be rude not to pop in to see the Brown Shrike again whilst I was in the neighbourhood. There were not anything like the numbers of visitors this time as previously though there were noticably more family visitors with reluctant wives, children and girlfriends being dragged along to stand around in the cold whilst their men-folk watched the bird. I did some more photography and this time there were no problems with heat haze due to the rather overcast and gloomy conditions which forced me to go up to ISO 800 in order to get any sort of shutter speed at all. I managed one decent shot and a bit of video footage which would have been great had it not been for a branch which partially obscured the bird. Still it was very nice to see this rarity once more.

The brown shrike once more.

Some good quality video footage somewhat spoiled by the branch in the way of the bird.

Another county year list and indeed county life tick from the bearded tit. I also realised that when compiling my list of sub-species last blog entry, I'd made no mention of the recent American White-fronted geese that were at Blenheim a few weeks ago. They were of course another Phil Barnett find and apparently had first been seen as juveniles on Otmoor a few years ago but no one knows where they've been since or what their provenance is. They didn't stay around for long at Blenheim though they may be back. As I've now got white-front goose for the county list from the Greenland birds I don't need to worry about the provenance of these American birds though apparently it is almost unheard of for them to be kept in captivity so they could be genuine vagrants who were blown over here as juveniles and have been stuck ever since, perhaps even migrating up and down on this side of the Atlantic instead (which has been known to happen in such circumstances).

The extended white forehead is one of the key points that marks these birds out as American white-fronts though there is some debate as to which particular sub-species they are.

Oxon County Year List 2009
182 Bearded Tit 17/10/09 Otmoor (County Lifer)

Friday, 16 October 2009

Wild Gull Chase

With the Azorean Yellow-legged gull continuing to be seen at Didcot most days I have had a couple of further attempts to see it. The nature of the location means that there are a large number of places the gull could be at any one time so finding it is tricky at best. For example, it could be on the tip rummaging through the rubbish, in which case one can't see it; it could be washing or resting on the level crossing pool (a good place to see it at close quarters); it could be loafing on any of the fields to the north of the B4016 (where distant views can be had); or it could be on any one of the private pits to the north nearer to Sutton Courtenay. In addition it is probably roosting at Farmoor each evening though it has only been seen there once so it may usually come in rather late. With so many choices and with all the gulls being rather mobile its pot luck as to whether one can see it on any given visit. I heard recently that a top Oxon birder had to make four visits spending a long time each day in order finally to catch up with this rarity. I'd made my first attempt on Sunday where the lack of the Azorean and the persistent drizzle had been more than made up for by the presence of a Baltic gull for just half an hour. This bird hasn't been seen since so I was very lucky to see it.

Most days the Azorean has been reported, mostly early to mid afternoon so on Wednesday I thought that I would have another go at it. I arrived at around 3pm, coming along the B4016 so that I could look out for gull flocks in the fields. There was a rather small flock of about 50 birds in the field closest to the level crossing so I stopped and had a thorough scan. There was one bird which looked interesting but the bill was wrong (the Azorean has very distinctive head streaking and also a rather striking bill with a yellow tip, then a black smudge and a rather discoloured base). I thought that I would try the level crossing pit next and said hello to another birder who was arriving just as I left. Some thirty minutes later as I was on the pit a text came through from Bird Guides saying that the Azorean was on the field that I'd just left. I can only assume that the newly arrived birder hadn't been as careful in checking out the looky-likey gull that was in the field. Meanwhile at the pit I'd been told that a competent birder had identified a 4th winter caspian gull that had been there for some time. Some of the other birders there put me on to what they thought was the bird and I dutifully took some video footage which included a perfect wing flap so I got footage of the underwing. This would enable me to confirm the caspian identity when I got home. I must admit that whilst the bird did look rather striking compared to the other non lesser-black backed gulls it didn't scream caspian to me though I freely admit that the whole herring/yellow-legged/caspain issue still leaves me somewhat floundering. I am pretty confident picking out adult yellow-leggeds by their clean heads and dark mantles once all the other gulls have streaked heads and when there are lots of others to compare the colour against and I think that I can now pick out a first winter caspian but the other ages still cause a lot of puzzlement. I think that I just need to see a lot more of them so that I can get a handle on the jizz. Anyway, once I got home I sent the shot to Ian Lewington who immediately e-mailed back saying that it was a classic yellow-legged gull pattern! So much for the authority of the other birds but at least it means that they struggle with picking out Caspians as much as I do. I am determined to get to grips with these identification issues and intend to make more visits to Didcot in order further to hone my gull skills. Anyway, despite staying until nearly dark there was no sign of the Azorean gull and it was another miss for me.

A perfect underwing shot revealing a yellow-legged gull rather than a caspian!

For yellow-legged gull identification (taken from "Scottish Birds Records Committee criteria for identification of Yellowlegged Gull Larus michahellis"):

What should be noted involves the extent of black in the primaries with, for Yellow-legged Gull, much black from P10-6 (where P10 is the outer primary feather) and, crucially, a prominent thick sub-terminal black band in P5. The P10-5 primary feathers should show small apical white spots, with P10 having a subterminal white mirror, which is sometimes present in P9, although very much smaller. This wing pattern excludes the argentatus subspecies of Herring Gull and Herring/Lesser Black-backed hybrids, which show either much reduced black in the outer primaries because of larger white apical spots and mirrors, grey/white tongues, and/or no black or a weak band in P5, mostly restricted to the outer web.

All of this can be perfectly seen on the underwing shot above.

The next day I was intending to take a break from gull hunting and dutifully do a full day's work. However at around 4pm a message came on the pager saying that the Azorean was back on the level crossing pit. As I'd reached a reasonable stopping point with my work anyway I told my VLW that I was nipping out and promised to be back by 6pm for dinner. Some thirty minutes later I pulled up at the pit only to be told that the bird and also a first winter caspian had both left about ten minutes ago (it's that ten minute dip for me again!). I was remarkably philosophical about it and decided to head over to the fields to see if I could find it. Fortunately the gulls were loafing in the nearest field to the level crossing so I pulled in at a lay by and had a thorough scan but there was no sign of it. I therefore decided to return to the pit and was just getting out of the car to press the level crossing barrier button when a birder who was there scanning the same flock that I'd just been looking at piped up that the Azorean was there! I parked and set up as quickly as possible and indeed there it was. Puzzled that I'd missed it I was relived to be told that it had just at that minute flown in. I spent some time watching it and doing some digiscoped videoing though the light was poor and the bird was a long way away. However the key identification points could be made out even at that distance: the strongly head streaking was confined and well demarkated to make a sort of hood á lá black-headed gull though very dark grey in colour; there was no streaking on the breast at all and the streaking colour is far darker than on any of the other gulls; the mantle colour is a shade lighter than the graellsii lesser-black backed but darker than a michahellis yellow legged; the bill has a striking yellow tip, then a black smudge and a rather non-descript base; the bird is structurely rather large compared to the other lesser-black backed gulls.

A couple of rubbish videograb record shots. You can see the lighter mantle tone, the striking head streaking which is well demarkated, the large size and the interesting bill pattern.

The bird ended up staying until 5:45pm apparently though I had to leave at half past in order to get back in time for dinner as promised.

I was most pleased finally to have caught up with this rare gull. Like the other two rare sub-species this year (American Black Tern and Baltic Gull) there is the possibility of a split in the future and it's a genuine mega for the country with only one other record (Martin Elliott's bird at Sennen in Cornwall) in Britain though there have been a few in Ireland.

No official BOU ticks for the year lists but there are now three rare sub-species which ought to be acknowledged:

Sub-species List
American Black Tern (Chlidonias niger surinamensis )
Baltic Gull (larus fuscus fuscus)
Azorean Yellow-legged Gull (larus michahellis atlantis)

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Staines Moor Brown Shrike

Last week I may have had some bad luck on the bird front, missing the buff-breasted sandpiper, glossy ibis and caspian gull all by relatively small amounts of time. Well this week I had some good luck in the form of a rather strange series of events. My VLW had been thinking of inviting her mother over to stay for a few days and as she lives in Stanwell (next to Staines) my VLW had asked whether there were any birds in the vicinity that I might want to see en route to picking her up. Accordingly I had been thinking of stopping off at the London WWT centre in Barnes for the long-staying spotted crake but that bird upped and left a few days ago which left me casting around for something to go and see. Two days ago a red-backed shrike was reported at Staines Moor, which is literally five minutes away from my mother-in-law's house so that would be an ideal target. I therefore had my fingers crossed that it would stay around two more days until the pick-up. Late the next day to my surprise the shrike was "upgraded" to a brown shrike so what had been a nice little bird to see had suddenly become a mega rarity. Of course this made it all much more exciting but on the other hand I had been looking forward to a quiet yomp across the moor in search of the shrike. There was no chance of any sort of quiet birding experience with such a rarity and I knew that if it stayed until the next day it would be a massive twitch.

The bird did indeed stay and after having dropped my VLW and L off at her mother's, I set off the short distance to Staines Moor. To get to the actual location of the bird involved a walk of about 20 minutes along the side of the King George VI reservoir to get to a concrete foot bridge where at least a hundred birders were paying homage to the rare shrike. The bird showed very well sitting on top of hawthorn bushes at frequent intervals as shrikes do. It was a cracking bird, with faint vermiculation down its flanks, a lovely uniform warm brown on the top of the head and all down its back and tail, a black mask pattern and pale grey underparts. Whilst the light was perfect and it was a hot sunny day, unfortunately there was lots of heat haze which made photography rather problematic. I managed a number of shots but none of them was brilliant. Still one can't complain too much when looking at something as rare as this. Apparently the brown shrike breeds across central and eastern Asia and is migratory, wintering south to India, southeast Asia and Indonesia so it was a long way from home.

You can get a sense of the heat haze from this photo

Probably the best shot quality-wise but for some reason the bird looks very grey instead of the warm brown colour that it actually was.

A videograb shot in which you can see the faint vermiculation on the flank and breast

Another videograb shot

Given the heat haze, some reasonable quality video footage

A shot of just some of the massed hoards all come to see the brown shrike

It was also amazing to note how many people I knew there. Now I expect that seasoned twitchers are used to seeing the same old faces on twitches but for me this was certainly by far the largest twitch that I'd been on so it was a new experience for me. I was pleased to meet three people from Oxon whom I knew as well as a Beds. birder whom I'd met on my unsuccessful Cambridgeshire foray. I also saw the anonymous wryneck "flusher" and had a brief chat with Lee Evans. Since the bird was showing so well it was a friendly and good natured experience all round, apart from one poor chap who had walked in from a different part of the moor and found himself on the wrong side of the river with a hoard of angry twitchers yelling out that he was going to flush the bird. He beat a hasty retreat.

Apparently a great grey shrike was also around that morning though it had not been seen for at least an hour when I arrived. Other birds of note were a pair of sparrowhawks, a kestrel, a pair of stonechats and a couple of ring-necked parakeets seen on the drive into Stanwell.

Another year and indeed life tick thanks to this genuine mega rarity.

National Year List 2009
225: Brown Shrike 13/10/09 Staines Moor (Lifer)

Monday, 12 October 2009

A Wild Gull Chase and another Wild Goose

A couple of local excursions to report on: on Friday morning I got a call to say that a Brent goose was on Farmoor Reservoir. Fortunately for me I wasn't doing anything special and could leave my work for a while so I was able to get down there almost immediately. The bird was right in the middle of Farmoor II to start with and was rather wary. While we were watching it it flew up and did a number of circuits before eventually settling on Farmoor I. Apparently it stayed until mid afternoon before departing. Brent geese are by no means common county birds so I was most pleased to pick this up for my county year and indeed county life list.

As the bird was so far away I had to be content with a digiscoped videograb record shot which didn't come out too badly.

Whilst I'd been off chasing wrynecks and Brent geese during the week of course there was much hoohaa in the county about the Azorean Gull down at Didcot. Finally on Sunday I was free to go and see if I could find it but by all accounts it was not an easy bird to locate as it (and all the other gulls there) were highly mobile and there were lots of places that it could be, many of which were inaccessible. Still I thought I'd have a go and at least I could see if I could catch up with the two first winter Caspian gulls which were around as well. Also, I'd only birded the area once before and had found it rather difficult so I wanted to get better acquainted with the location and it's various access and viewing points.

I arrived to find a persistent drizzle which didn't abate the whole time I was there. I initially checked out the fields to the north of the minor B road where a number of gulls were loafing but there was no sign of it. Indeed no sightings had come across the pagers at all that day so it wasn't looking that promising. I next made my way over to the Appleford GP, the small pool just beyond the level crossing there. Here were half a dozen or so hardy birders patiently waiting to see if the vagrant gull would turn up. Ian Lewington, gull guru and finder of the bird turned up and pointed out that there was a Baltic Gull in amongst the fifty odd gulls that were at present gracing the pool. Once he had told us what to look for: a very small, very black-and-white lesser black back gull with a clean head and very long primaries, it was fairly straight-forward to pick out and it did indeed really stand out from the others.

A digiscoped videograb record shot of the Baltic Gull

And again, this time with a standard lesser black-backed for comparison. Note the very black wing colour, the small size, the clean and delicate head and the extraordinary long primary projection.

Unfortunately the Azorean Gull never turned up though Ian did locate it later in the afternoon in a private pit further north. I also managed to miss one of the first winter Caspian Gulls by about ten minutes (a consistent theme with birds for me in the last week!) but I was very pleased the the Baltic gull by way of compenstation for a rather damp and frustrating afternoon. Baltic Gulls (larus fuscus fuscus) are currently a sub-species of the lesser black-backed gull though apparently they are ripe for splitting and have already been split in the Netherlands. This means that it's not a tick at present but an armchair one may be due in the future. In terms of identification, although in general there is apparently some overlap with l. f. intermedius it was a very striking bird and Ian was very confident about it.

Just one more tick for the county list in the form of the Brent goose which was a most welcome addition. Having already achieved my year target, I feel that all birds now are bonuses.

Oxon County List 2009
181 Brent Goose 09/10/09 Farmoor Reservoir (County Lifer)