Monday, 27 December 2010

Nordic Jackdaw

The combination of the Christmas festivities and the weather has meant that I've not been out much recently. I've trudged across the snow to the frozen river Thames to check the largely birdless desert that is currently my Port Meadow patch but apart from that I've not really ventured out much. Because of the harsh weather I've been feeding the birds religiously and as a consequence have been getting many more visitors to the garden. The most interesting displaced bird was probably a meadow pipit actually down on the ground (as opposed to flying over which I've had before). A couple of male blackcaps and a fieldfare have also put in an appearance so there's always been something to look at. About a week ago I spotted a jackdaw that came down to my makeshift table which is a large flower pot tray nailed to the top of the trellis so as to be out of the way of the cats. What was noticeable about it was that it seemed to have a well marked pale neck collar. Having studied my Collins bird guide I knew that this could mean a Nordic jackdaw but the bird flew off before I could get any sort of shot. I tried to re-locate it and spent some time poking my head out of the velux windows at the top of the house in order to survey the local jackdaw population. After a while I spotted the bird on the chimney pots a couple of houses down. With a bit of acrobatics, I leant out of the velux with a hand-held scope and digiscope camera combination and managed to come up with a shot.

A nice close-up taken using hand-held digiscoping equipment whilst
dangling out of the Velux window looking at the neighbour's roof!

I sent the shot to Ian Lewington (our esteemed county recorder) who was intrigued but said that one had to be careful because at that angle the base of the neck area can be somewhat exaggerated and would it be possible for me to get some eye-level shots instead. I wondered just whether I was actually going to see the bird again at all let alone get some more shots but as luck would have it it's visited the garden at least once on each subsequent day and today it actually stayed put on the bird table for quite some time so that I was able to get off a good load of shots and to see the bird from various different angles. I also took some photos of a normal jackdaw which pitched up a few minutes later by way of comparison under the same lighting conditions.

This is a normal jackdaw...

normal jackdaw: note how at certain angles there can be a hint of a collar surrounding the base of the neck, caused by the light catching the end of the neck feathers.

The rest of the shots are all of the candidate bird. Note that there's no doubt about the fact that the pale area is more than just catching the light at a certain angle.

Although you can't see it from these photos I can confirm that the neck pattern is the same on the other side so that it's not just some aberrant feathers on one side but rather a consistent pattern on both sides of the neck.

If I've interpreted my Collins correctly, the jackdaw (corvus monedula) that we get normally get in the UK is c. m. spermologus. In Finland, Russia and E. Europe it's c. m. soemmerringii which has a distinct pale half collar going all the way around the back of the neck. Scandinavian birds (known as Nordic jackdaws) c. m. monedula are described as somewhat intermediate which would fit this bird as it has a distinct collar but it doesn't go all the way around the back of the neck, being confined to the sides of the neck. Ian Lewington helpfully sent me a link to some Nordic jackdaw shots which shows the wide variation within this sub-species and my bird certainly would fall within the range shown and some of the plates there show the identical side collar markings. After chatting with Ian Lewington it seems that it can certainly at least be claimed as a bird "showing the characteristics of Nordic jackdaw". A very nice garden find!

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Still not doing a year list...

With the weather having not been very conducive to birding recently I was feeling a little bit cabin feverish and needed to get out. As regular readers may know, I'm not doing a county year list this year but I still keep an eye on what birds I still haven't seen in the county this year (marked in red on my spreadsheet) and when there's nothing better to do I go off and see some of them. Therefore for my trip today I thought that I'd head west into the murky depths of the county near Standlake. There were three "red birds" on offer in this area: some Bewick's swans at Shifford, a red-breasted merganser at Pit 60 and the tree sparrows at Tadpole Bridge which it would be rude of me not to drop in on whilst I was in the area.

I was just heading along the A40 when I got a text from Badger saying that there were now 8 swans at Shifford. I told him I was on the way so he waited for me. Sure enough there were 7 adults and a juvenile all grazing away with some mute swans at a reasonably close distance to the road. I took some obligatory record shots and chatted with Badger for a while before we went our separate ways and I headed off to Pit 60.

The light was abysmal this morning so these digiscoped shots were taking at ISO 800. They've not come out too badly, thanks in part to the great noise reduction capabilities of Paint Shop Pro which is the editing software that I use. I understand that Photoshop's noise filter isn't that great and people often resort to using third party software for noise.

Pit 60 is a former gravel pit (part of the Lower Windrush complex) that has been made into a nature reserve with a couple of hides. The walk down the lane was longer that I was expecting (a few bullfinches being the main birds of note) but whilst en route I met up with Mr. Pit 60 himself, Antony Collieu, who lives in the village and checks out the pit frequently. He said that it had been a very quiet year for the patch with nothing of particular note having been found there this year apart from a recent weather-displaced bittern and the merganser though unfortunately the latter had flown off a couple of days ago with a bunch of goosander. Despite my target bird having gone I thought that it would be interesting to take a quick look so we visited both the hides. All the birds were at the southern end standing on the edge of the ice around a large ice-free area and the only bird of note was a single distant red-head goosander. I thanked Antony for his kindness in showing me around and headed back to the car.

A record shot of the site

My last stop was Tadpole Bridge for the tree sparrows. In the back of the car park there are a couple of feeders installed and I positioned myself so that I could watch them from within the car. Four tree sparrows soon came down but left before I could take any photos and I spent a fruitless further quarter of an hour waiting for them to return. I decided that I had to get back but as I turned the car around low and behold there were several of the little beasties sitting in the hedge behind me quite happily. I recalled that Badger had said that exactly the same thing had happened to him when he visited so for future reference it's worth checking the hedge out first! I took a few point & shoot camera record shots for the blog though there was no light to speak of. I'd suggest partaking of a little something at the pub by way of gratitude for using their car park and for supporting the tree sparrow project. Whilst on the subject, it's worth acknowledging the amazing work that the volunteers do for the tree sparrow project in the county: this little bird has gone from strength to strength since they started and is gradually spreading further and further along the Thames. Thanks guys!

Two lovely tree sparrows, taken with my point & shoot camera
A nice comparison shot with a house sparrow

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Cornwall: Winter Birding

It was time for me to head west once more down to Pendeen to check on what the builders had been up to since my last visit. The rest of my family had had more sense than to leave the warmth of the house so it was just going to be me. I put on my sad face when I discussed this with the family but secretly a part of me was thinking: "hoorah! more birding time!". This time I wasn't going to be doing any DIY but just to inspect the work and to meet up on site with the builder so it was going to be a flying visit: down on Sunday and back on Tuesday. As usual I took a look to see if there was anything of interest birding-wise to stop off at on the way down but the best I could come up with was the long-billed dowitcher at Lodmoor in Weymouth. Calling it "on the way" was stretching it I know, but technically going down via Weymouth would only actually add another 20 miles to the journey though probably add at least an hour in travelling on the minor roads.

Sunday 5th December
I had been thinking of heading off pretty early on Sunday morning but the forecast was for thick fog for much of the southern half of the country which would only slowly clear and I didn't want to arrive at Lodmoor too early only to be stuck in the car park waiting for the fog to lift. Eventually I hit on the brain wave of googling for Weymouth webcams and found one which showed that it was nice and clear on the coast already so I set off at around 9:30, arriving a couple of hours later to be greeted by bright sunshine and temperatures verging on balmy after the last few days. The dowitcher had been reported at the viewing shelter a couple of hundred yards from the car park over the last few days so I headed off in that direction. There I made enquiries only to be told that it was currently on show at the "hump" (the south-east corner of the reserve) and that the red-breasted goose was along the track that runs along the east side of the marsh, in the last pool on the right. I'd not bothered to switch on bird alerts for Dorset so the goose was news to me. I headed off in that direction and soon found the hump. There were plenty of birds to look at: dunlin, black-tailed godwits, lapwings, snipe, shelduck and teal being the main ones. The habitat looked really good and the birds seemed to be relishing it. I couldn't immediately see the dowitcher so I decided to go and check out the goose first.

The goose was on a half-frozen pool where it was swimming around and bathing, doing a rather strange somersault as it did so which I've not seen any bird do before. I took some video footage though one was viewing through reeds so the it's rather frustratingly obscured. No one there had any particularly strong thoughts on its provenance though it was apparently not the plastic bird that has been down in Devon and it was not reported again after that day.

Some video footage of the red-breasted goose doing somersaults as it washes

Having "lucked in" (using the UK definition where "lucked out" means to have bad luck, whereas in the US it perversely means to have good luck!) or perhaps I should say "jammed in on" the goose, it was time to go back for the dowitcher. I strolled back to the hump and worked out that there was a blind spot behind the hump itself. I therefore repositioned myself and soon found it busy feeding away. Shortly after it flew to an easier point to view and gradually worked its way closer and closer so that in the end I had excellent views. Naturally I tried digiscoping it but discovered that a dowitchers have their bills under water almost all the time so that one has to keep one's finger held down constantly on the camera shutter hoping to capture the brief moment when it pops its head up. In this respect they're even worse than godwits which also have this characteristic. Anyway I managed a few acceptable shots as well as some video footage.

The few shots that actually had it's bill out of the water!

Some video footage of the dowitcher feeding. My apologies for the loud conversation going on in the background - it wasn't anything to do with me.

Not wanting to arrive too late in Cornwall and concerned at how long the cross country section from Weymouth back to the motorway might take, I didn't hang around too long before setting off again. As it turned out the rest of the journey was fine and I arrived in Cornwall just as it was getting dark. Having consulted the tide timetable before coming down I knew that high tide was at dusk today and would be even later tomorrow. As I was keen to see the purple sandpipers on the rocks by Jubilee Pool I knew that today was going to be my best chance so I headed straight over there. They weren't there when I peered over so I had a little wander around the harbour peering down at the harbour walls for possible roosting spots. All I could find however was a few turnstones and rock pipits so I headed back to the usual spot where amazingly the birds had turned up and were all tucked up asleep. There were about 15 sandpipers and a similar number of turnstones all standing on the edges of the harbour wall. I took some photos though in the half light they are of poor quality.

A turnstone in the harbour at dusk

The roosting purple sandpipers and turnstones by Jubilee Pool

After that I headed off to the supermarket to buy provisions for the duration of the stay then it was off to the cottage to store the food in the fridge & to have a meal. The cottage was absolutely freezing as they were still installing the central heating so I did little more than nuke up a microwave curry, gulp it down and head off to the B&B in Pendeen (The Old Chapel) where I was staying. This had the most amazingly hot hot water for a reviving bath and a pub conveniently located on the opposite side of the road. After such a long day I slept well that night.

Monday 6th December
I had a meeting on site at 9:30 with the builder so I thought that I would nip down to the Lighthouse for a spot of sea watching before hand. It was a very bright sunny day and with the sun directly behind me the birds were all nicely lit and showed up well even at 1/2 and 3/4 distance. I had wondered whether there would be much about but there was always something going by even though it was just common stuff. Eight or so manxies went through and there were plenty of auks zipping past. I was looking out for little auks and did spot one which looked smaller. It even caught up with a line of slower auks so that I reasonable size comparison was possible but it was not small enough for a little and was probably therefore a puffin.

Back at the cottage there was much to discuss: some radiators had been installed in the wrong place and they were that afternoon about to install the oil storage tank on a piece of land that we didn't even own - thank heavens I'd actually come down when I had! Anyway all this took up the rest of the morning so it wasn't until early afternoon that I found myself free again for some birding.

There was not much of particular note about in the area at present so it was a case of doing the rounds of the local spots to see what I could find. As part of my local birding education I was keen to visit some spots that I'd not really visited before so first port of call was Kenidjack Valley, in particular the sewage works, where I reasoned any remaining small warblers were more likely to be hanging out. On the way down the valley I came across a tit feeding flock and I scanned around for some more exotic hangers on though all I could turn up was a goldcrest. I walked down to the hamlet near the ruined chimney before heading back up again.

Classic Cornish landscape shot in the Kenidjack Valley

On the way back there seemed to be more bird activity by the settling tank and I found a grey wagtail, two pied wagtails and a single phyllosc. which immediately had me thinking tristis. It had a very pale white underside (รก la greenish warbler), black legs, green tinted wings but paler brown upper body and head. It had a very faint single buff (not white) wingbar which I suspect only showed up because of the very bright light. Unfortunately it never called but it looked just like the comparison image of the tristis next to the greenish warbler in my Collins!

Next on to Sandy Cove at Newlyn where a slavonian grebe had been reported regularly each day. I managed to find a great northern diver but could not find the grebe though a local later told me that he'd not seen it in three visits down there which made me feel better about not finding it! A quick stop off at Jubilee Pool though it was, as I suspected, too early for any roosting sandpipers. Next on to Long Rock beach car park to scan the bay. There was another great northern diver quite close in but nothing else of note so I moved further along to Marazion beach where fortunately there were plenty of parking spaces at this time of year. There I passed a very pleasant three quarters of an hour watching the waders who were very close now that it was approaching high tide. The sun was shining a wonderful golden yellow (it was what photographers call "the golden hour") and the birds were very approachable. There was a good number (a couple of dozen) each of dunlin and sanderling, a single redshank and a single knot. with the odd ringed plover dotted along the beach. I met a local birder and we scanned the bay together for a while and he managed to pick up a distant red-throated diver over towards St. Michael's Mount. He also spotted a black redstart further along the beach hopping on and off the wooden posts.

Golden waders (taken with my point & shoot camera). You can just make out the knot in the top left hand corner.

Digiscoped sanderling - they are such lovely looking birds

Pensive dunlin

Some video footage of the sanderling

Once it started getting dark I headed back to Long Rock Industrial Estate to pick up some bathroom brochures and to chat to the people there about what we were looking for for the cottage. It was not quite fully dark when I finished so I nipped back to Long Rock pool where there were a couple of birders waiting to see whether any bitterns would come in to roost there (apparently there'd been four there the previous evening). It turned out I'd missed one by twenty minutes and no more came in. Whilst I was there I got chatting to a local birder who soon asked if I was Adam Hartley! Amazed, I said that I knew that Cornwall was a small community but that was still quite impressive. It turned out that he read the Pendeen Birding blog (my Cornwall-only version of this blog) and had worked it out from my saying that I was renovating a cottage at Pendeen. We had a good chat and he told me about a red-necked grebe that was currently at Carbis Bay and how to get there. He also asked whether I was thinking of compiling a Cornwall county list and I confessed that it had crossed my mind. I'd found myself thinking of county ticks when spotting even common stuff such as mistle thrushes etc. He told me that some common birds such as treecreeper and nuthatch are hard to find at this end of the county so I would have to go further up to get those. Eventually it got too dark for any more bitterns to come in so I headed back to the B&B for a cup of tea, followed by a pub meal and another hot bath.

Tuesday 7th December
I had another meeting with the builder this morning but it was earlier than the previous day so there wasn't time for a sea watch before hand. The meeting took longer than anticipated so it wasn't until late morning that I was free from my duties. I wanted to do a bit more birding before heading back home and was thinking of heading over to the Hayle area to see what was about. On the way I popped into Drift reservoir to see if the two geese (a Greenland white-front and a genuine wild neck-ringed greylag were about) but they appeared to have gone and there was little of note there.

Down at Hayle I first visited the Leylant Saltings platform. There was plenty of excellent light though as it was low tide the birds were widely scattered and somewhat distant. There was nothing of particular note to be seen. There was supposed to be a curlew sandpiper about but the dunlin flock (where it was probably hiding) was right on the other side of the mud flats. I did a some brief digscoping of a nearby grey plover.

A grey plover at Hayle

Next on to Carbis Bay which I'd not previously been to but which turned out to be a great spot. From a vantage point in front of the hotel one could overlook the bay and easily see a wide area. There seemed to be some sort of feeding frenzy going on with a large concentration of gulls in two spots as well as quite a few seals and I guessed there must have been a couple of fish shoals there. Over on the left-hand side close to the rocks I soon spotted the red-necked grebe and in the same general area was a female-type eider which (according to the chap I was chatting with yesterday) is not so common in Cornwall. On the diver front there were three great northerns and a single distant red-throated. There was also a flock of gadwall, a single red-head goosander near the rocks and another flock of three red-headed sawbills which I didn't have time to check before they moved on. There were loads of cormorants and shags and a single razorbill. A couple of birders turned up, armed not with a scope but what looked like a giant pair of war-time binoculars mounted on a tripod. We soon got talking so I pointed out what I'd found. After a while it was time to move on.

Carbis Bay - the white dots are all gulls indulging in a feeding frenzy

There was one final spot that I wanted to check in on, mainly because I'd not actually been there before and I wanted to suss out parking etc. so that I knew where to go should a rarity turn up there and that was Carnsew Basin. I found somewhere local to park and had a little wander along the southern end. There was not much to see apart from a reasonable dunlin flock, a few bar-tailed godwits, a single oystercatcher and a few grey plover. On the water itself there were a few distant little grebes. I did some more brief digiscoping as the light was so good and then decided that it was getting late and I should be heading back

The Hayle estuary, looking back from the south end of the Carnsew Basin

A feeding bar-tailed godwit in Carnsew

The journey back was uneventful, though after a while I hit freezing fog and rather pretty hoarfrost on the trees which lasted up until the M4. Whilst travelling back I was listening to the traffic reports and being profoundly grateful that I wasn't up in Scotland! It had been a most enjoyable return to my favourite part of the country and a great opportunity to experience winter birding there.

Saturday, 4 December 2010

The Birding Gods Smiled Down...

Saturday morning is when I do the weekly supermarket shop. This particular chore has fallen to me for several years now and I actually don't find it too onerous. At the same time it also accrues vital Brownie Points and well all know what Brownie Points make - that's right, birding! Anyway, I was just heading off to the supermarket when I got a text from Badger saying that he'd just found a glaucous gull at Appleford Pit. To be honest, my heart sank on the news.: not only was I tied up with shopping chores for the next hour and a half but Appleford can be a very hard place to track down individual gulls as there are so many places that they can go. There is a very nice pit (the Spit Pit) from which birds can easily be viewed but if the target bird isn't there then it's either a distant blob in some field somewhere around or it's on the tip itself or one of the satellite pits. These last two locations are inaccessible to your average birder though our esteemed county recorder Ian Lewington (whose patch Appleford is) has special access rights. When the Azorean yellow-legged gull turned up at Appleford last year it took a number of visits before I finally managed to see it. Knowing all this I wasn't feeling overly optimistic about my chances. Indeed I didn't even hurry over my shopping and positively dawdled on my way home. It was only as I pulled in the drive and I got a text from Badger saying that the bird was still there that I started to contemplate actually going for it. Having even unpacked the shopping (which is usually my VLW's job) I decided to cash in the Brownie Points and told my VLW that I was heading off to a rubbish pit to look for a single gull amongst thousands. She just shook her head pityingly and said nothing.

It was some half an hour later that I pulled up besides three other cars next to the Spit Pit. When birding the Pit its generally a good idea to remain in the car as you can put up the birds if you're not careful. Also given the freezing temperatures staying in the car was a sound move! I therefore manoeuvred the car next to Badger's and through wound-down windows I discovered that the bird was still there standing on one of the banks. I soon found it, a whacking great white thing which really stood out from the throng. I hurriedly set about trying to get my tripod positioned for some digiscoping which is not so easy within the confines of the car. However whilst I was still struggling with this task the bird took off, did one circuit of the pit and then flew away. I realised that I'd managed to arrive with just minutes to spare and I'd been very lucky to catch up with it. The Birding Gods were indeed smiling down on me today!

As I'd not been able to photograph the gull itself I thought that I would take a background shot of the Spit Pit, with the tip behind it and Didcot power station at the back. Most scenic!

Fortunately Ian Lewington took these excellent images of the bird, a second winter, earlier in the day which he's kindly allowed me to reproduce here (c) Ian Lewington

Now you all may be wondering about the big fuss over what is not such a rare bird but during the three years that I've been birding in the county there have not been any twitchable glaucous gulls so this was in fact a county tick for me. Pathetic I know but I was most pleased to have laid this bogey bird to rest.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010


It has seemed as though every part of the country apart from Oxfordshire has been swamped by waxwings this season. Within the county there had been a few tantalising fly-over glimpses and recently a pair had spent the morning in the farthest reaches of the county before being flushed by a sparrowhawk. So when I got a text from Nic Hallam saying that there was a waxwing in Botley it was too good to resist and despite the cold weather I set off and soon managed to connect. The bird was feeding on berries next to the church hall in Botley, Oxford though whilst I was there it spent most of its time at the top of a tall tree on the opposite side of the road, only making brief sorties across to the berries, gulping down a few before returning to its lofty vantage point. I took a few digiscoped shots whilst it was in the tall tree and eventually worked out that to get any shots whilst it was on a berry sortie I would have to be very quick so in the end I opted for shooting some video during the berry raid. Let's hope that it stays and even that it's joined by some friends, they're such lovely birds!

Having a bad hair day!

In it's tall tree, waiting to make a dash over the road to the berries

At last showing without a bunch of twigs in the way

Some rather shaky video footage whilst it was on a berry raid.

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Twelve Step Programme for Gull Addiction

My name is Adam Hartley (damm, I've given away the secret identity of Gnome at last) and I am a gull addict. There, I've said it and they're right, it does feel better. I don't really know how it all started, I used to be blissfully ignorant of gulls, they were just too hard to bother with. In fact I remember when I was just starting out: I'd read something about Dix Pit here in Oxon being a good spot for Caspian gull so I went along and picked out a gull with a vaguely white head. That'll do - tick! Now with my greater knowledge I feel deep shame in telling that story but it's all part of the healing process.

As a bit of background, despite being about as far from the sea as it is possible to get, Oxfordshire is blessed with more than its fair share of gulls. It has several tips which attract lots of gulls as well as a reservoir and several pits and indeed the county boasts what were described by someone as two of the top four gull experts in the country in the form of Ian Lewington and Nic Hallam. It is a real hotspot for Caspian gulls and indeed Ian knows each bird individually (by name no doubt) and apparently there were getting on for twenty different Caspians in the county last winter. All this somehow had infiltrated my sub-conscience and at some level I was taking notice.

To start with I knew nothing but I gradually got my head around the commoner ones. However, there were these difficult gulls: yellow-legged and Caspian that seemed a closed book to me so I started reading up on them. I'd study lots of photos of them and try to pick them out. I took to standing around near gull roosts at dusk videoing them and then sending the grabs to Ian asking whether it was what I thought it was - usually it wasn't but occasionally I would get it right: just enough to keep me interested and to draw me further in. This was how it all started and it's only got worse over time. Also it seems I'm not alone in my addiction. A fellow addict, Jason "Badger" Coppock recently sent me this chilling e-mail of how he got hooked:

"Yesterday, I suddenly found myself sat at the far side of Farmoor II in near darkness scanning through the roost... it then occurred to me where and how it all started... unbeknownst to me at the time... Mediterranean is a "gateway gull". I mean everyone likes the winter white-wings don't they? And well,while you're there you start looking through the black-headed gulls for a Med... I tell myself ''I'm honing my ID skills... I'm training my eye''... then, after a while... It's not enough... You start noticing that the bigger boys have moved on to harder Gulls... They let you have a look through their scopes a few times... and before you know it... I'm lying to friends and family, sat shivering in the dark wondering if I can look for Caspians just little a bit longer and still get back to the car park before they lock the gates... I mean It's no sort of life is it!!?"

Badger even told me how a few weeks ago he was stopped by the constabulary at the Appleford Tip as they were wondering what he was up to - they'd even noticed that he'd been there the previous day as well. Badger told me about the look of such pity that came across the officer's face as he'd confessed that he was watching the gulls. He told me that he wished that he'd said that he was dogging instead, he would have felt less shame!

Gull Porn
or as Badger puts it: Bad Gulls Doing Dirty Stuff

So why do I do it? Well, let me show you some photos, then you'll understand. In fact sometimes my wife comes into my office and though I try to hide the screen she can tell from my guilty look that I'm up to no good. Imagine her shame when she catches me looking not at nice healthy porn but instead at pictures of gulls. For those of you who dare, there are some pretty good sites that I've found though be warned, this is seriously hardcore content:

Birder's Playground: Gulls
Rudy's Gull Index
Gulls in the West Midlands
Yellow-legged gull: more than just a mantle

The other sign that I'm a hopeless case is that I've not only shelled out a fair chunk of money for "Gulls of Europe, Asia and North America" ( Klaus Malling Olsen and Hans Larsson, published by Helm) but I find myself constantly looking stuff up in it.

Apart from my "research" at home on the internet I've been trying to score some hot gull action out in the field as well. Luckily at this time of year even my own patch, Port Meadow gets a reasonable gull roost so most days I've been out there at dusk peering through my scope into the gloom at the assembled throng of gulls trying to pick out something interesting. Encouragingly, this year I'm finally starting to make headway with the tricky gulls and have been confidently picking out yellow-legged gulls from the roost. There's something really striking about an adult yellow-legged gull: it's wings are such a deep shade of grey but it has an extra smartness to it that really makes you sit up and take notice. I know it's sad but when I see one it's seems to "sing"- it's the only way I can describe it. Here are some grainy videograbs that I've taken recently.

Yellow-legged gulls

Aren't they great? As I wrote on one of my daily Port Meadow updates: "How can you not like a smart yellow-legged gull? They really stand out in the roost at this time of year and look really striking compared to the scruffy winter-streaked herring gulls"

I know that yellow-legged gulls are comparatively easy (though you should read the "yellow-legged gull: more than just a mantle" before you get too complacent). What I was really after was to find my own Caspian gull. I had done this before but it's the real mark of a hardcore guller to be able to do this successfully and I was keen to prove my gulling manhood. Therefore each evening there I was shivering away but determined to stay as long as the light lasted. Ian had been reporting several birds at the Appleford Tip so I knew that they were around and that they didn't roost there but came north probably to Farmoor but perhaps they might stop at the Meadow instead, you never know.

Well a few days ago I came across a white-headed gull that had the trademark long parallel-sided washed-out pale yellow bill rather than a chunky bright yellow one that the yellow-legged gull sports. Hoping that I was on to something I took loads of video footage so that I could get all the diagnostic features. I didn't bore my Port Meadow readers with the full nerdfest of all the photos but if you're still reading this far then you must at least have a passing interest in gulls so here's the Full Monty:

Note the kind expression with small bullet-hole eyes...

...the long parallel-sided washed-out pale yellow bill...

...the long fingers of grey eating into the black of the outer primaries...

...and the diagnostic small black "lozenge" created by the long grey area on the inner web of the underside of the P10 primary. This is not mentioned so much in the literature but was taught to me by Gull Guru Ian Lewington himself as a clincher for the ID.

Some video of it preening. The Port Meadow readers got a short version at just under a minute of video I felt that this just wasn't long enough so this one runs at almost three minutes footage of a preening Caspian gull. What more could you want?

Nice Gulls vs. Evil Gulls
I made a bit of a breakthrough on the gull-understanding front when I managed to find the same bird again the next night. I'd just spotted a yellow-legged gull with it's striking mantle and I started to video it when I noticed a second white headed gull which turned out to be the returning adult Caspian. The video footage is rather brief but it does nicely illustrate the differences between the two birds including their differing facial expressions.

Comparison footage of a yellow-legged and a Caspian gull

This idea of differing facial expressions is actually key to identifying gulls. So now I have to try and get into the mind of these gulls and work out how they feel! Notice how gentle and kind the Caspian gull looks compared to the yellow-legged gull. I feel that there's a "kind, sad aloofness" to a Caspian gull whereas with a yellow-legged gull they can look quite fierce whilst still looking very smart. For herring gulls argentatus look very fierce whereas argenteus can look rather wimpy. This test is also useful for other gulls: common gulls of course look nice unlike the otherwise similar ring-billed gull.

This yellow-legged gull looks rather sullen but to me it's very much a case of "I'm just biding my time until I can I'll get you".

Here's a wider shot of the same gull with it's argentatus companion. Note how evil the latter looks. Note also the darker and bluer tones of the yellow-legged wings compared to the argentatus and how the wings just look really smart and neat by comparison.

So there you have it, the confessions of a gull addict. The truth is that I've only just started on this subject and there's a whole lot more to learn about still such as when exactly each species moults and which feathers. Then there are aberrant gulls and hybrid gulls, that's when gulls studying really gets nasty. There's still some time before the herring gulls start to lose their streaky heads and it gets much harder to pick out the interesting ones from the throng so until then I'll be out there staring into the darkness trying to decide whether some distant blob looks nice or evil. Be warned, it can become a compulsion!

Friday, 19 November 2010

A Visit to Farmoor

I was just staring blankly at my computer screen feeling rather less than inspired when I got a text through on the Oxon birding grapevine saying that there was a black-necked grebe at Farmoor, found as ever by Dai John on his morning rounds. The perfect antidote to my boredom I decided and got my gear together and headed out the door. A quick call to Dai ascertained that the grebe was on the west side of Farmoor I so I parked at Lower Whiteley farm and made my way up to the reservoir side where I met up with Jason "Badger" Coppock who was looking at the goldeneye ducks. The weather was absolutely gorgeous with bright sunshine and not a breath of wind and I soon started to feel rather warm with all my layers on. We wandered over to Farmoor I and scanned the reservoir from the end of the causeway where Jason soon picked out the grebe on the far side and swimming quite vigourously east. We made our way over to the other side but the grebe was intent on leading us a merry dance and was by now half way down the bank of the reservoir. We eventually caught up with it though we were now facing right into the sun so viewing and photos were difficult to say the least. The bird was still swimming away and we followed it round until we were at the east end of the reservoir where it seemed to slow down and we managed to take some record shots.

The black-necked grebe, still largely into the sun and by this time rather distant

Given how far we'd come we thought that we might as well walk back along the causeway and this would give us a chance to look for the sanderling the Dai has also seen that morning. This was another "red" bird in my list in that it was a county year tick for the list that I'm not doing. In fact the black-necked grebe had also been a "red" bird as I'd missed one earlier in the year. About three quarters of the way along the causeway we found the sanderling as it flew past and behind us though it soon came back again and sped off to the far shore of the reservoir. Having already been led a merry dance by one bird we weren't going to walk around the reservoir again and so we left that bird unphotographed.

We decided to walk back along the track from Pinkhill towards Lower Whiteley via the Pinkhill hide. As usual there was nothing on the scrape there but a nice barn owl was hunting in the long grass behind it and it even posed in a tree long enough for some digiscoping to take place though unfortunately it was in deep shade so it was poorly lit.

Barn owl, always a nice bird to see

As we left the hide Jason got a call from Dai asking if we'd managed to see the "birds". As we'd only known about the grebe he queried Dai's use of the plural only to be told that there'd also been a great northern diver on the reservoir at well. Somehow this second bird had got lost in the chinese whispers of text messages between Dai and Jason and myself. Jason made a crack about how we were the birding ninja's of the county, being so sharp as to walk right past a great northern diver without spotting it and we made our way back to the reservoir where we soon picked it out really close in to the shore though it moved out more as we came closer. This time the light was perfect being right behind us and we were able to take some reasonable shots.

The great northern diver. The "scalloping" on its back indicates that it's a juvenile

After drinking our fill of this great bird we headed back to the track to the farm, looking out for the brambling that was supposed to be around but the best we came up with was a goldcrest in the hedge. All in all a nice visit to the reservoir which has had a rather poor year for good birds so far and with the diver I'd managed three ticks for the county year list that I'm not doing.

Thursday, 18 November 2010

Grey Phalarope

I realise that I've not posted a blog entry for a while now. Unfortunately this has been because there's not been much to write about. I'm still visiting the Meadow each day and now that it's gull season I've been grilling the roost each day hoping for something interesting though so far yellow-legged gulls have been the best that I've been able to come up with. I was contemplating finally getting round to doing the last part of my Birding USA summer holiday report but fortunately you and I have both been spared this tedium by the events of yesterday evening.

I was out at the Meadow again for the last hour of daylight so I could check out the gathering gulls as well as the wader selection du jour. Whilst scanning through the birds I spotted something small grey and white fluttering about near some lesser black-backed gulls in the middle of the flood water. Given it's tiny size and colouring I was first wondering about a little gull but it was far too small for that. It was also an extremely long distance away and as it was nearing dusk there was not much light but I could make out from the way that it was moving that it was a phalarope species of some sort. Having recently seen the Wilson's at Dowdeswell I knew that it wasn't one of those but I was wondering (or perhaps just hoping) if it might be a red-necked rather than the usual grey. The latter seems to be an annual occurrence in Oxfordshire, well at least in the last few years. Unfortunately it was so far away that I couldn't really see much detail. I tried taking some video footage but that wasn't really helping so in the end I cranked the scope up to x60 and zoomed right in on the camera so the total magnification must have been well over x200. I managed to track it for a short while but it was rather flighty and kept flying off a short distance before resuming its manic feeding. After a while I lost track of it and couldn't find it again so I went back to grilling the gulls (one or two yellow-legged again but little else of note).

Back in the comfort of my study I went through the video footage and thought that it was probably a grey phalarope but uploaded it to youTube and send Ian Lewington (the Oxon county recorder) a link in case he wished to contradict me and tell me that actually it was a red-necked. Unfortunately this was not the case though a grey phalarope on the patch is still a nice find, especially at this time of year when there's not much else around apart from the usual winter birds. I noticed that there were a few other grey phalaropes seen yesterday about the country so there was clearly a small overland passage going on.

The videograb record shot of the grey phalarope. Given the magnification and the gloom it's come out remarkably well.

Thursday, 4 November 2010

I'm Not Doing a County Year List But...

I'm definitely not doing a county year list this year. After last year's efforts, exciting though they were, I've been enjoying not having to go for birds. Having said all that I have been keeping a tally on what's been seen in the county and have been keeping tabs in a spreadsheet (I run my life with spreadsheets!) of which birds I've yet to see in the county (marked in red). What this means is that if I fancy going somewhere a little further than the local patch I can look up to see what's marked in red and then have a go for it.

One bird which I didn't hesitate over however was water pipit. Readers may remember that last year I infamously strung my water pipit and had to retract the sighting later on in the year. I'd even posted a photo at the time which clearly was a meadow pipit though it appears my readership is either too polite or too dozy to notice (surely the former)! I was keen therefore when one turned up at Farmoor to make amends for this and decided to go for a run around Farmoor to see if I could find it. It was a glorious autumn day with very bright sunshine as I arrived. I parked along the road to Lower Whitely Farm as I'd been told that it was at the southern end of F2. Within a few yards of starting off I came across the bird, hanging out with a pied wagtail. It soon flew off making its buzzing pipit call. I ran all the way around Farmoor II and when I got back to the car there it was again so I too a rubbish record shot with my point & shoot camera (I don't of course take my digiscoping gear with me when I go running). Such was the brightness of the light that by contrast the bird was left in the very deep shade of the reservoir wall so the photo is absolute crap but at least you can tell what it is.

You can just make out that this is in fact a water pipit

On another occasion, a lot of mandarin ducks had been seen in their usual small pond in Blenheim Palace near Combe Gate. As this was a bird I'd not yet seen this year I thought that a run around the grounds would make a nice change. It was also nice to see some woodland birds such as treecreeper, nuthatch, marsh tit etc. and there were 27 mandarins on the pond lurking at the very back.

Another rubbish point & shoot shot

In between going for the odd "red bird" I've been dutifully checking out Port Meadow each day. Amazingly the lesser yellowlegs is still there for it's 21st day now and seems quite at home. I know that they can be long stayers but all the same it's really great to be able to see a genuine rare each day on your own patch.

Least you think all my photos are complete pants here are some better digiscoped efforts of the lesser yellowlegs though they have a slightly surreal air to them which I rather like actually though they're not a patch on the fantastic DSLR shots that proper photographers have been taking (see Port Meadow Birding for examples)