Thursday, 24 September 2009

Malvern Snow Bunting

I'd been getting rather "twitchy" in recent days, wanting to get out and see something. I could tell this as I was constantly scouring Bird Guides and looking enviously at all the interesting birds that were turning up in places like Cornwall. I therefore decided that I was overdue for one of my birding outings and this week I should head off somewhere for at least part of the day. The next question was where to go so researching on Bird Guides for birds that were staying put there seemed to be two candidates: a spotted crake at the London Wetland Centre in Barnes and a snow bunting on the Worcestershire Beacon in the Malvern Hills. The crake might involve several hours of sitting in a hide waiting for it to show whereas the bunting was supposedly on the very top of the Beacon by the toposcope there. Such pin-point accuracy in a bird location was appealing and the idea of driving for an hour and a half, climbing a hill for half an hour all to see if a bird was on top was a quirky idea that I found rather attractive. Coupled with that was the fact that I could pop into Slimbridge whilst I was in the area to see what was around.

So it was that yesterday I took L into nursery and then headed west along the A40. We've recently bought a new car which is most comfortable and with a more powerful engine so it's no longer a question of trying to coax it to go at higher speeds with it shaking away as it used to. Consequently it was a most enjoyable drive down there. As I was approaching the Malvern Hills which are most striking, standing as they do as an eight mile range of peaks in an otherwise completely flat landscape, I could see the Worcestershire Beacon, which is the highest peak at the northern end of the range. It was a bit odd to wonder whether a small sparrow-sized bird might be perched up there right at the top or whether it had moved on. The navigation became a bit fiddly towards the end but I had done my homework thoroughly before hand and even had a print-out road map to hand so I managed to find the location without any problem. However when I got to the car park it turned out that there was a £2 fee and I had absolutely no change. Not wanting to waste time heading off in search of a shop to get change I opted instead to risk it: in the worst case I would have to pay the £20 fine if I were caught.

I found the path and headed up along the ridge towards the the peak. It was interesting to see the bird life there: meadow pipits everywhere and hirundines hawking for insects in all directions. There were also quite a few corvids around and I looked out carefully for ravens but to my eye (and I admit to struggling a bit with this unless they are calling) they all looked like carrion crows. A falcon called loudly and I soon spotted a juvenile kestrel in a bush. A few skylarks were flying overhead, calling as they passed. This spot must be great for watching migrants as its the highest spot for miles around.

Suddenly I was at the top and could see the trig point and the toposcope so the bird was supposed to be here. I started looking around and then I spotted a couple of people with binoculars looking at something. This looked encouraging so I went over and there it was, the snow bunting, hopping around a couple of metres away. It was a most confiding bird and was happily searching around for seeds in amongst the rocks. It appeared to have no problems finding food and was munching away contentedly. I immediately set about taking some digiscoped images of the bird as well as some video footage. Some more birders arrived yet the bird remained completely unphased. I was told that snow buntings are becoming an annual event on the Beacon. It's just a shame that there are no comparable hills in Oxfordshire as it would be great to enjoy this little bird closer to home. Having got my fill of the bunting I headed back down the hill, mindful of the lack of parking permit. I arrived back down to find the car mercifully ticket-free and just as I was setting off again the ticket warden turned up so I had been very lucky on that front.

The most confiding snow bunting on the top of Worcestershire Beacon

A view of Malvern from the hill top

Next, on to Slimbridge where I was hoping that I might find a curlew sandpiper or at least a little stint both of which I needed for my year list. A quick look at the sightings log reveals no sandpipers but a little stint was present so I headed over to the Zeiss hide and had a good scan around at all the waders whilst eating my packed lunch. There were plenty of teal, 3 spotted redshank, a couple of dozen redshank, a male and two female-type ruff, one greenshank, twenty odd dunlin, a similar number of black-tailed godwit and a single little stint in amongst the dunlin. I next headed over to Holden Tower and the hides where there was very little to be seen apart from one green sandpiper on the Tack Piece. The Summer Walkway was open and as I'd never been on this before I decided to walk down to the estuary to see what was about. The Mid Point "hide" turned out to be an old minibus so I just stood in front of it instead. There were just a few gulls, some curlew and a couple of little egrets out on the mud but it had been interesting to get out there for a look anyway. After that I decided that I'd had enough for the day and headed for home, the return journey being uneventful.

A couple of ticks for the year list and snow bunting was in fact a life tick for me. That takes me up to 222 for the year list which equals last year's headline total though I did retrospectively give myself one other tick which was a puffin at Crail. I'd not been sure about it at the time but having seen more puffin since then I am now positive about the ID. This means that last year's total was 223 so I should be able to beat that comfortably this year and have a mental target of 230 for this year.

National Year List 2009
221: snow bunting 23/09/09 Worcestershire Beacon (Lifer)
222: little stint 23/09/09 Slimbridge

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Blenheim Palace Sabine's Gull

Who'd have thought that I would end up doing two blog entries so close together but Phil Barnett, the most dedicated of Oxon patch workers came up trumps yet again at Blenheim Palace (his new chosen patch) with a juvenile Sabine's Gull. He texted me the afternoon of the morning that I'd gone to Otmoor to see the great white egret. As I mentioned in my previous entry I am currently using a Streetcar Pay-as-you-go service until we get the new car and I'd manage to secure the last available car slot for the day for the Otmoor trip so I was stuck car-less as the news broke. I was thinking that I was going to have to let it go when I got a text from my fellow county year lister (JCo) saying that he was currently watching the bird from the main bridge at Blenheim. At this point I cracked and started looking up bus timetables. Fortunately there is a good service which goes from Oxford to Woodstock and which stops only a couple of minutes run from the front door so I gathered together my gear, told my VLW I was off again (she gave me a pitying look) and ran for the bus stop. Bus travelling has come on since my day and you can now text a number to see when the next one is due and I had one minute to spare. Some twenty minutes later I was in Woodstock and walking towards the main bridge. A minor hiccup in having to pay £10 to get into the grounds but there was no time for dallying here so I paid up and got to the bridge. The bird was with half a dozen black-headed gulls on the lake west of the bridge and once I'd seen it I could relax and take it in. This was in fact a life tick for me and although I was familiar with the plumage from the text books it was a different experience altogether to see it for real. In flight its wonderful wing pattern and delicate forked tail were a delight to behold. I spent about an hour and a half all told watching it and trying to digiscope it in poor light and a strong wind so the final results were strictly record shot quality videograbs only.

Videograb record shots of the juvenile Sabine's Gull at Blenheim Palace.

Another tick for both the county and national year lists. It's a real purple patch for Oxon birding at present with American Wigeon, Great White Egret and Sabine's Gull all present in the county on the same day. I may have been lucky with the egret because at the time of writing it hasn't been reported as having been seen again since about half an hour after I left Otmoor though the other two birds are currently still about.

Oxon Year List 2009
177 Sabine's Gull 15/09/2009 Blenheim Palace (County Lifer)

National Year List 2009
220 Sabine's Gull 15/09/2009 Blenheim Palace (Lifer)

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Sonning Eye American Wigeon & Otmoor Egret

It's been a rather frustrating couple of weeks for me with my county year list taking a bit of a setback from some missed birds. Still in the end I managed to connect with a good couple of birds which made up for it.

There had been a rather elusive spotted redshank on Otmoor for about a week, found by Otmoor expert Phil Barnett initially on the Pill which then seemed to spent most of its time on the Flood Field there. I went for a Sunday morning trip to the Pill to look for it in the company of a fellow birder and also L my three-year old son. We managed to see a whinchat in Saunders Field and to flush about 20 teal and three greenshanks from the Pill but alas no spotted red.

About a week later I decided that I would go for a serious run all around Otmoor to look for the bird, an endeavour which I decided to christen the "Otmoor Challenge": start at the car park, run through the Saunders Field, check out the Pill (no birds at all), on through 100 Acre to the Joseph Stone, head towards Oddington (two whinchat, a lesser whitethroat and juv. whitethroat). Check out the Flood Field (7 little egrets, 2 grey herons, 3 lesser whitethroat, 1 whinchat, 2 hobbies). On towards Oddington, turn south along the river Ray towards Noke (1 buzzard), back east along the bridleway. Visit the two screens ( lots of aerial black-headed gulls, 1 kinfisher and 1 heron at first screen, canada geese and lapwings at second), then back to the bridleway and the car park, checking out the feeders (reed bunting, great tits etc). Total time 2 hours 15 minutes and two very sore knees so I was hobbling and walking it by the end. In hindsight it was rather too far a distance to run without building up to it a bit more and disappointingly the spotted redshank seemed to have left the reserve but at least I got to cover a lot of ground in one go. I don't know whether I'll do the Otmoor Challenge again anytime soon but it's there as a challenge for anyone else who wants to have a go.

Two Sunday's ago I got a call to say that a manx shearwater was out in the middle of Farmoor I. Now these birds do turn up inland periodically and indeed one (perhaps the same one) had been seen at Draycote Reservoir in Warkshire the previous day. Unfortunately I'd arranged to go out for the afternoon with my VLW (very lovely wife) and L and was unable to get down to see the bird. Needless to say it was nowhere to be seen the next morning. That would have been a county life tick for me so I was rather disappointed to have missed that one.

The following weekend and this time it was a little stint that turned up at Farmoor on the Saturday. This time we were having a belated celebration of our younger daughter's birthday and once again I wasn't able to get out at all. I did nip down there the next morning with L but once again it was nowhere to be seen.

Having missed three birds on the trot, I was starting to realised just how dedicated one has to be to do a serious county year list and that with family committments it wasn't really possible to see every passing vagrant. To add to all the problems of going out to see these birds, we are at present "between cars". That is to say, our old car has failed its MOT and our new one isn't ready for delivery yet. To fill the gap we have been using the Streetcar service where you book a car as you need it and pay by the hour. When a twitchable bird turns up this leads to added complications of whether a car is free and whether I can justify the cost to my VLW of hiring a car yet again to go and see "some bird" as she puts it.

When later that day I got a call to say an eclipse drake American Wigeon had been found on Sonning Eye GP, once again I wasn't able to respond immediately but I was a bit more optimistic that this bird might stay a bit longer. The next morning I booked the car for a three hour slot and headed down to Sonning Eye GP which took a surprising length of time (about an hour) to get to from Oxford. Fortunately I found the vagrant duck quite quickly and spent an hour digiscoping away happily. The bird was initially quite close in and the light reasonable so the shots didn't turn out too bad. This was a county life tick for me so I was most pleased to have connected with it. I am told that the previous county sighting was in 1995 so it's been a fair while since one was seen.

The patch of white that you can see here are some of the bird's underwing feathers that are out of place after the bird had stretched its wings. Shortly afterward it managed to sort them out again and the white patch disappeared.

The American Wigeon at Sonning Eye GP

Having got back from my Sonning trip that morning I then received a call that afternoon to say that a Great White Egret was around at Otmoor. I'd managed to miss the bird earlier in the year at Otmoor by about half an hour so this was a chance to catch up with it for the county year list. However the Streetcar wasn't free that afternoon and anyway even I balked at hiring the car out again for the afternoon so I had to follow the various sightings on OxonBird and Bird Guides and hope that it would stay till the following day.

Overnight news was good in that it had appeared to go to roost in the reedbed by the first screen and when a sighting appeared on Bird Guides first thing the next morning I decided to make a foray down there. I chose to take L along with me to earn some brownie points with my VLW and he could probably do with getting some fresh air as well. We arrived at Otmoor to find it was rather breezy and looking a bit desolate. There was no immediate sign of any egrets and I was starting to realise how hard it could be to find the bird if it chose to remain hidden. The bird had been showing on and off over Greenaways the previous day but had been seen on the Closes first thing so it could really be anywhere. I decided to walk towards the first screen keeping a keen lookout for any large white birds flying about. I did see very brief sightings of a white bird in the distance by the reedbed but they were only for fractions of a second and it was hard to tell whether it was a little egrets or its larger and rarer cousin. As I approached the first screen a large white bird seemed to land in the reedbed but once again it was a very brief sighting and still inconclusive. I had just arrived at the first screen and was chatting to a photographer there when the egret broke cover from the reeds, flew along the channel before heading up and around towards Big Otmoor. This time I had a clear view of its yellow beak and also its long trailing legs so it was definitely the right bird. Pleased to have seen it I had a brief look around the first screen which held a few snipe and a hunting kingfisher and made a brief trip to the second screen where there were a few winter teal, wigeon and shoveler starting to congregate. As I returned back to the car the egret put in another appearance and flew back across Greenaways and landed in a ditch to be lost from view once again.

So another couple of ticks for the national and county year lists which are continuing to "tick along" nicely though the two missed easy birds at Farmoor are rather annoying.

National Year List 2009
218 American Wigeon 14/09/2009 Sonning Eye GP
219 Great White Egret 15/09/2009 Otmoor

Oxon County Year List 2009
175 American Wigeon 14/09/2009 Sonning Eye GP (COUNTY LIFE TICK)
176 Great White Egret 15/09/2009 Otmoor

Friday, 4 September 2009

Blenheim Phalarope

On Thursday afternoon I got a call on the grapevine to say that dedicated Oxon birder Phil Barnett (who found both the marsh warbler and the spoonbill at Otmoor this year) had come up trumps again in the form of a grey phalarope at Blenheim Palace lake. Within a couple of hours I had nipped down there and managed immediately to find the bird thanks to some directions from Phil and set about trying to digiscope it. Phalaropes are always hard to digiscope as they never stop moving but I did manage a couple of passable shots. Apparently only four birders managed to see the bird which was gone by the late evening.

The Blenheim grey phalarope

A tick for both my county and national year lists.

Oxon County Year List 2009
174: grey phalarope Blenheim Palace 03/09/09

National Year List 2009
217: grey phalarope Blenheim Palace 03/09/09