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)