Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Let the Grip-Fest Begin!

I'm off on a family holiday to the United States for a while now. So far it's been very quiet in the county this year but while I'm away I fully expect a huge influx of mega's to converge in and around Oxon and to flaunt themselves in a crippling manner for the duration of my absence.

Whilst away I will do my best to counteract this inevitable grip-off by doing some Stateside birding and I'll endeavour to bore my readers rigid with my holiday snaps on my return. As I won't be taking my scope these photos will be the usual distant bird blobs taken with my P&S camera but as I have never birded in the States before each blob will be a USA lifer for me.

Let the grip-fest begin!

Monday, 26 July 2010

Farmoor Gulling

We've had house guests staying with us all week: old college friends who now live in Hong Kong so we don't get to see them very often. Whilst it's been great to catch up with them it did make it rather difficult for me to get out birding whilst they were here. I've had to watch birds like the Franklin's gull at Chasewater come and go and I've managed not to see the white-tailed plover at all which is quite a feat given how it's done a tour of the country. I've even not gone to see the little bitterns in Somerset. All in all my reputation which I've recently been acquiring as as a bit of a twitcher has rather gone to pot.

Anyway, the guests finally left on Saturday morning so I arranged to go out to Farmoor on Saturday evening to get a bit of gulling in. I wasn't expecting much but just wanted to be able to rummage through some gulls to see what was about. I was saying in my last blog entry how much I like waders, well I also like gulls but for different reasons: they're rather difficult! I enjoy the ID challenge of them: the fact that there's so much variation and some of the pointers can be so subtle. They're not beautiful in the way that waders are but they are very interesting.

Whilst wandering down the causeway I heard the familiar piping call of a common sandpiper and looked back to see a pair on the shore not too far away accompanied by a single turnstone. Unfortunately a walker heading in that direction managed to flush them off to the far side of the reservoir before I could have a go at digiscoping them. In amongst the gulls I soon found the partially albino black-headed gull that had been frequenting the roost. There were also quite a few yellow-legged gulls around and some of these birds seemed to have a fondness for standing on the buoys so I was able to digiscope one of them reasonably satisfactorily.

A splendid yellow-legged gull standing on a buoy

the rather strange looking partially albino black-headed gull

Apart from that I spent my time sifting through the evening roost looking for juvenile Med. gulls. Unfortunately I wasn't able to pick any out though given their relatively subtle appearance I could well have missed some. I did manage at least 20 yellow-legged gulls in total and it was nice to get in amongst the gulls again. I shall look forward to further gull sessions in the coming months.

Common Sandpiper Photo-shoot

On Friday I went for a birding run, as I am wont to do. As I didn't have much time I decided to run round the birdless remains of my patch though without the floods there's precious little to see there. I have recently discovered though that the river can provide some sort of habitat for returning waders and indeed on Thursday there were a couple of common sandpipers and a little egret along the river shore. Today there was just one common sandpiper remaining but it seemed to have got used to the continual presence of walkers and boats in the area as it was very confiding. With a bit of crawling along the ground on my stomach I was able to get to within about 5 yards of the bird and even though I only had my point & shoot camera (a Panasonic Lumix DCM-TZ7) it's 12x optical zoom meant that I was able to get in there reasonably well. The bird even obliged by sitting very still for a few minutes so I didn't have to contend with its usual constant movement and bobbing tail which usually blurs the best of photographic attempts. These are definitely the best common sandpiper shots I've taken to date even though there wasn't much light. Just think how good they would have been had I had a proper DSLR.

You can click to enlarge this shot...
...and this one.

I really like waders, I don't quite know why but they're one of my favourite type of bird so it was fantastic to get so close to such a beautiful bird.

Saturday, 17 July 2010

Back on the Downs

I'd been working quite hard this week and apart from a couple of runs out on the Meadow I hadn't really been out of the house much (I work from home). Therefore on Friday evening I negotiated with my VLW some time off to go out to stretch my legs. I decided to head back to the downs but to go to a different spot this time. I wasn't expecting a great deal but it would be nice to get out in the fresh air and try and take some photos.

The weather wasn't too bad and the strong winds that had been present during the week had eased off somewhat. However it was rather cloudy so when I arrived some time after 8pm the light wasn't brilliant for photography. I took the obligatory corn bunting and yellow hammer photos though the latter weren't even worth posting here which shows how bad they were given the mediocrity of the bunting shot! I also found a family of yellow wagtails which was nice to see.

The bunting shot
A wagtail in the wheat taken with my P&S camera

I experimented with taking some downland skyscapes with my P&S camera including shooting into the sun. One has no control over the camera settings so it's pot luck how they come out but the effects were rather interesting.

Skyscapes progressing towards sunset

To round off a pleasant evening there was a quail calling in one of the fields. The previous one that I'd heard on my recent downland trip had been rather distant and I couldn't have sworn that it wasn't in Berkshire instead so it was nice to get a definite Oxon quail in what has been a rather poor year for them in the county.

Monday, 12 July 2010

In Which I Acquire a New Patch...

Regular readers of this blog will know that as a family we often venture down to the Penwith peninsula which is the south-western most tip of Cornwall. We love it there for the wonderful rugged coastal scenery and the great beaches not to mention the fabulous birding. When we went there at Easter (see blog entry here) we came across a rather run-down cottage which was for sale and which we rather fell in love with and have since managed to buy. This will mean more frequent trips down there while we renovate it. It also just happens to be in Pendeen, which is of course one of the top sea watching locations in the country. This Friday, having finally completed on the purchase, we went down to see what we'd actually let ourselves in for. We accordingly made the long journey down en famille on Friday morning arriving mid afternoon. The cottage itself was full of mould and stank of damp but has lots of "potential". Much of the time down there was spent cleaning it out (it was left in a rather filthy state) and wrestling with the electrics but we did manage to find time to wander down to the coast near the lighthouse. As far as birding was concerned I did managed to find time to do a bit of exploring near the lighthouse, getting acquainted with my new patch and on Saturday and Sunday morning I got up at around 6a.m. for a couple of hours sea watching down at the lighthouse (well, it would be rude not to). I'd looked up to see what I might expect at this time of year and while it was rather early for the proper sea-watching "season" it appeared that the first balearic and sooty shearwaters were starting to move through now with the odd one being reported mostly at Porthgwarra (or "PG" as we locals call it!). In addition a few storm-petrels were being seen around the country so that was something else to look out for.

Saturday morning started grey and overcast and a bit drizzly (though it brightened up later) as I arrived for my first sea-watching session at the new patch. Round behind the lighthouse in the shelter of the lighthouse wall I found a nice concrete seat at just the right height. From there one had a good view of the rocks that lie just off shore which according to the OS map are called either "The Wra" or "The Three Stone Oar". I trained my scope on the left-hand most one and then moved it up so the rock was just out of view. This gave me a nice marker for finding my viewing spot each time so that if I moved off to follow a bird in flight I could always come back to my spot again. It was obvious from the start that there was quite a lot of activity this morning. To keep track of things I counted the manx shearwaters that went by and over the course of the two hours and twenty minutes that I was there I had a total of 480 birds which comes out at over 200 birds per hour so there was always something to look at. There were perhaps a couple of dozen auks that went through: a mix of razorbills and guillemots. Fulmars nest on the cliffs near the lighthouse so there were plenty of those around and a few kittiwakes flew through looking as beautifully elegant as ever. There were the ubiquitous gannets flying through and the resident shags on the rocks. At around 7:30 I picked up a shearwater that instantly looked different: it was bigger than the manxies and had a pot-bellied look and when it rolled to reveal its underside instead of being the clean white of a manxie it was rather a grubby pale brown with a smudged borderline between the brown upper body and the paler underbelly: a balearic shearwater - very nice! I watched if for a minute or so as it worked its way south-west. Later that day one was seen at PG so it may have been the same bird working it's way around the Land's End peninsula. At a little after 8 a.m. I decided that it was time to get back to the cottage as there was a mouldy fridge that urgently needed my attention and after that there was a builder to meet up with.

"The Wra". I used the left-hand one as my marker for my session.
As you can see it was rather gloomy to start with.

Later that day I did have time to wander around the various coastal footpaths near the lighthouse. Whilst the really famous Penwith vallies are further south (Cot, Nanjizal etc.) it turned out that there was a very small valley near Pendeen with a little stream flowing down to the sea near what's called Boscaswell Cliff. The terrain was a wonderfully overgrown mix of gorse, ferns and heather. It was full of birds as well with a very entertaining family of stonechats present: the youngsters would buzz around all over the place calling loudly whilst the parents tried to keep them in order. There were also linnets, meadow pipits, wrens, dunnocks, blackbirds, sedge warblers and whitethroats to be found in this area. I started to wonder idly whether some exotic vagrant might turn up in this little valley this autumn. Probably wishful thinking but you never know.

The lower half of the valley which leads down to the sea.

A digiscoped sedge warbler posing in a conveniently leafless bush

A digiscoped whitethroat in the same bush

One of the juvenile stone chats taken on my P&S camera

On Sunday morning I was back down at the lighthouse for another session. Whilst it had been very windy and rainy overnight, by morning it was calm and sunny, much more so than the previous day. I settled down in the same spot as yesterday and started watching. It was immediately obvious that things were slower than yesterday with a manxie rate of just over 60 per hour. Once again there were the usual gannets and fulmars as well as the shags that often rest on the rocks themselves. A few kittiwakes flew through and there were a few auks zipping about. A couple of rock pipits were having a squabble around the lighthouse walls and an inquisitive rabbit came quite close until I moved suddenly. About an hour into the session I picked up something much smaller fluttering along near a manxie. In size and with its white rump it looked like a house martin though the rest of its body was black. It had a very fluttery flight and would settle on the water for a moment before flying up again. I soon lost it amongst the waves but there was no doubting what it was: a storm-petrel - tick! A little while later I had an auk zoom through the scope's field of view which was different enough for me to chase it in the scope: it was smaller than then razorbills and guillemots, seemed to fly faster and I managed to catch a flash of red-orange colour on the bill: puffin! To round of the session I also managed to pick up the huge dorsal fin, smaller tail fin and rounded snout of a basking shark. I tried to video it but it was moving around a lot in the waves and it disappeared before I was able to record it. The Penwith peninsula is well known for it's marine mammals with sun fish, whales and dolphins all seen regularly as well as basking sharks. So all in all, despite the slower activity a most productive morning's session.

A meadow pipit on a rock (taken with my P&S camera)

Linnet on a wall (taken with P&S camera)

The rest of the day was spent sorting stuff out and making our way back home. It had been a most enjoyable introduction to my new patch. Unfortunately I'm not going to be able to visit it as often as I would like though we hope next to be back some time in August. On the tick front there were three year list ticks to add, two of which I'm embarrassed to say were in fact lifers. During the three years or so that I've been birding I've only managed a little sea watching so far which has meant that there were some rather glaring omissions to my sea bird life list. Now that I'm going to be down at Pendeen more frequently I hope soon to rectify this.

National Year List 2010
186 balearic shearwater 10/07 Pendeen, Cornwall (LIFER)
187 storm petrel 11/07 Pendeen, Cornwall (LIFER)
188 puffin 11/07 Pendeen, Cornwall

Thursday, 1 July 2010

County Flycatchers

Last year when I was doing the county year list I had to enlist the help of a fellow county birder in order to get my spotted flycatcher (thanks to Barry Hudson for this). This year there seem to be fewer flycatchers around than ever before with only a handful of birds being reported within the county. Fortunately a pair was discovered not too far away from me nesting next door to a birder's house and I managed to get permission to come and see and photograph the birds. Accordingly one pleasant sunny evening last I found myself sitting in the front garden, chatting away about birds whilst waiting for the flycatchers. When one landed on the convenient telephone wire I'd leap up and shoot off a "reel" of digiscoped shots before the bird would fly off again. A very pleasant way to pass some time!

Digiscoped photos will never match the quality of DSLR but I'm
pleased enough with these shots

Here's the nest, hidden behind some leaves just
above the door

I don't want to give away the location of the birds so the birder will have to remain anonymous though I am very grateful to him for his kindness in taking time to allow me to see his flycatchers. He also took me to a nearby red kite nest, a large platform high up in a tree on which one could just make out a couple of fluffy white chicks. It's great that these elegant raptors are doing so well in this area after their re-introduction. To round off the evening I went to a nearby location which was known to hold nightingales where I passed a very pleasant half an hour or so just listening to the evening bird song. There were blackbirds and song thrushes singing away and both green and great spotted woodpeckers flew over. A small rodent of some description was squeaking away in the undergrowth nearby. On the warbler front there was a singing whitethroat, a garden warbler a distant chiffy and a willow warbler. To round it off I heard a repeated "weet weet" call which is similar to the "hueet" of a chiffy but even more monosyllabic and which I reckon was the call of a nightingale: somewhat tenuous I know but I played my nightingale call recording on my phone back to myself immediately after I heard it and it did seem to match exactly. It's a shame that it wasn't doing the song but at this time of year it's not very likely.

On Saturday I had L to look after as my VLW and the girls were all out. He'd been promised a new lego train and after we went to buy this I thought that he might like a bit of fresh air wandering around a bit so I took him to Rushy Common. They are in the process of developing this site so that one no longer has to peer through the gates or squeeze through the hedge. Indeed there is already a nice path which at present leads to the pit shoreline. L amused himself by throwing stones into the water whilst I had a quick scan. There were lots of breeding common terns and black-headed gulls with plenty of chicks around. There were also plenty of lapwings and I presume that some of them were breeding though they are starting to gather in the post-breeding flocks (on Port Meadow at least). There were also several little grebes including one juvenile that I tried to string into a pied grebe but it's bill just wasn't large enough. In addition there was a little egret, at least one oystercatcher and a couple of stock doves. Nothing too exciting but it was nice to see some breeding success on what is a very nice looking piece of habitat. Once the hide is fully built it should be a great place to visit.

Just one other snippet of news: on Sunday I had another rellie-fest in deepest darkest Kent. We were all just sitting al fresco after having enjoyed a nice lunch when I spotted a raptor flying overhead quite low and quite close. At first I thought it was a kite but it's tail was unforked and it's wings weren't long or pointed enough: a harrier! The pale markings on the head and inner leading edge of the wing, combined with dark primaries means that it was probably a second-summer male marsh harrier. A very nice post-lunch sighting!

Just a few ticks to tally up. I freely admit that the nightingale "heard only" is rather tenuous but it's not like I'm going to break any records this year so I'll give myself the benefit of the doubt. Once again thanks to the un-named birder for showing me the flycatchers.

National Year List 2010
185 Nightingale 30/06 undisclosed location, Oxon

Oxon Year List 2010
145 Spotted flycatcher 30/06 undisclosed location, Oxon
146 Nightingale 30/06 undisclosed location, Oxon