Wednesday, 23 March 2011

A Duck & A Buzzard

A Duck
There's been a drake American wigeon at Rushy Common for some time now. As I already had it for the county I have not been in that much of a hurry to see it but made a note to try and pay it a visit when it was convenient. A while ago we were heading out on a Sunday en famille to Burford and I suggested the scenic route which went past Rushy Common. I managed to persuade the family to let me stop off for a short time to take a quick look and I legged it down the bridleway looking for the duck which was usually frequenting one of the two pools to the right of the path. Viewing was severely restricted (peering through a hedge) for the most part. I did find a small flock of wigeon but there were not Americans hidden amongst them and given that I had limited time I had to head back to the car defeated.

This dip naturally piqued my interest some more so on next day I came out again on my own and spent some time carefully scanning the bridleway pools but still without any luck. After some time I headed back to the car and decided on a quick scan of the main Rushy Common pit itself. There seemed to be something going on at the hide and a committee of three people were walking along the entire perimeter of the pit with clip boards in hand. As they got to the southern end they of course flushed all the grazing wigeon from the grass onto the water and low and behold, there was the drake American. Before you could say "digiscope that duck!" the committee of flushers had continued around the corner and had managed to put the entire flock up in to the air where they circled for some time with some of them peeling off to head off to other pools. At this point I decided that I couldn't wait any longer and headed back home with a nice year tick in my pocket but sadly no photos to show for it.

A Buzzard
The county birding scene has been agog with excitement when Roger Wyatt managed to turn up a juvenile rough-legged buzzard on his patch on the downs. Not only that but he'd obtained some fantastic photos of the bird which he has been kind enough to allow me to use on this blog (which is just as well as I wasn't able to take a single shot). The next day anyone who was serious about their county list was out on the downs and even I, very much a fair weather lister, decided to go for a run in that area so that I could get my exercise and could cover a lot of ground at the same time. Of course it turned out to be thick fog and it was an entirely frustrating exercise wandering around in the gloom with no raptors to speak of at all. I met up with Badger, Paul Wren and John Prowse who were camped out on what would on brighter days have been a good viewpoint. I decided to keep on running (it was too cold to keep still) and managed to run all the way along the Fair Mile to the Cholsey end where I did finally see some buzzards, albeit common ones. On the way back I did get excited when I spotted a distant pale buzzard-shaped blob on a post but as I only had my bins it was hard to tell what it might be, but a phone call to Ian Lewington revealed that a very pale buzzard often sat on the exact post in question and I could tell enough to see that this bird had a pale belly and was not therefore the bird I was looking for. Meanwhile Badger & co. had managed to see a good candidate for the bird but in the fog weren't able to get that clinching view. I headed back for home, leaving the others to their vigil. By the afternoon apparently the fog finally lifted and the people there all got to see the bird a couple of times including Badger's team who had stayed there the whole time - their dedication to the cause puts me to shame!

The pale common buzzard imposter (c) Roger Wyatt.
Note the lack of dark belly

Needless to say, this dip of what is a county mega hurt somewhat so the next day I headed back to the downs shortly after lunch where there were several other birders dotted around the downs. I elected to stand near the head of a valley with a couple of county veterans, Pete Allen & Brian Shaw. The weather was lovely and warm in contrast to yesterday and what seemed like the entire common buzzard population on the downs was using the opportunity to practise some thermaling. It was very pleasant in the warmth to hear the yellowhammers singing and to watch the distance soaring raptors, including a lone sparrowhawk. After about an hour my two companions decided to call it a day leaving me to continue the watch on my own. Their parting remark was that no doubt it would turn up as soon as they left but I was rather thinking that they weren't going to miss much. However, some twenty minutes later I suddenly spotted a couple of birds flying low up the valley so that they were actually below me as I watched them. The second bird was one of the ubiquitous red kites but the first was clearly a buzzard and what's more it had a striking set of pale feathers around the head. Added to that it clearly had a dark belly so couldn't be the resident pale buzzard. By now I was very excited as I watched it fly away from me being harried by the kite constantly. It tried to land on a fence post across the valley and as it did so I was able to see the white tail with the thick well-defined black terminal band - bingo! Unfortunately at that point I made a bit of a school boy error and took my eye off the bird in order to reach for my phone and make a call to report where the bird was. When I looked up I expected to see it still flying over the fields in the direction that it had been heading but there was no sign of it. I can only think that it must have doubled back to escape the attentions of the kite and this was born out by a report of it hovering over Unhill Wood a short time later. From the various reports, it seemed to hang out between Unhill wood, along the Fair Mile and at the valley where I was. The bird was subsequently seen several times over the weekend but then took advantage of the hot weather to soar off to the north on Sunday morning leaving some county birders rather frustrated in not having seen it.

The juvenile rough-legged buzzard in flight (c) Roger Wyatt
As well as the dark carpal patches you can see the very pale
feathering around the head contrasting with the dark belly .

The diagnostic black terminal band on a white tail (c) Roger Wyatt

I waited around to see if it would show again but to no avail. It had been a rather brief encounter with a most interesting raptor and I would have loved to have got some longer views and indeed some photos of my own though of course they would have been no comparison to Roger's fantastic shots - thanks once again for their use, Roger!

Friday, 18 March 2011

A Quiet Cornish Interlude

Another trip down to the cottage in Cornwall to do some more decorating. This time I was accompanied by my VLW and sans enfants for the first time that we can remember. While of course it was a delight to spend some time with my better half, albeit just decorating, this did mean that birding time was rather limited so this will be a rather short posting with not much to report.

We came down on the Friday and regular readers will know that normally I like to stop off somewhere "up county" to work on my Cornish list. With my VLW with me there was no prospect of anything extensive but I did suggest that we stopped somewhere picturesque to eat our packed lunch and that the Fowey valley had looked really pretty last time I'd visited. Accordingly we did indeed turn off at this point and I even managed to point out a couple of dipper on the river as we drove down. After finishing our lunch I went on a very short walk to "stretch my legs" and when I returned some ten minutes later I'd just happened to have seen a willow tit along the road a short distance from where we'd parked - what a coincidence!

Normally once I arrive in Penzance I make the most of the remaining daylight and bomb around all the birding hot-spots but for some reason my VLW wasn't interested so instead we did some shopping and headed over to the cottage. We did later go for a short walk around the cottage area to blow away the cobwebs from the journey though the only birds I spotted were the fulmars on the cliffs.

With the days taken up with furious decorating my main birding opportunities were first thing in the morning as I tend to get up before my VLW. On Saturday morning I duly did this an decided to nip over to Prussia Cove, or Kenneggy Cove to be more exact for the first winter drake velvet scoter that had been there for the last few days. I'd been told by a seasoned Cornish birder that he'd seen more surf scoters than velvet down in Cornwall so I thought that I'd better go for this bird. Fortunately the cove was nicely sheltered and it didn't take long to find the bird and despite the distance I attempted some video footage. The only other birds of note were a couple of great northern divers.

The velvet scoter.

Sunday morning I once again got up early but with nothing on the peninsula that I particularly wanted to see I decided to do a spot of seawatching at the lighthouse. At this time of year there's not a lot going on on the sea but within a short time of starting I was had a manxie go by and then a few minutes later a nice balearic shearwater. After that it got rather quiet and a great northern diver bobbing past on the sea was the best I could come up with.

With no bird photos to offer, here's a rather nice Pendeen
sunset on what was a beautiful sunny Sunday

Monday morning was a repeat of Sunday with another early morning seawatch. This time I soon had a very dark balearic go by which had me thinking of sooty though the light was good enough for me to be able to spot the paler area on its belly. Another great northern diver flew past as did a flock of three greylag geese but apart for that it was very quiet. During a break from decorating I did spot a couple of sand martins flying over near the lighthouse though I don't know if they'd come in off the sea or had been following the coast northwards from further south. Three ravens also flew by near the cliff being pursued by a jackdaw. Later that day we went for a walk into Pendeen and I spotted a chiffchaff along the road calling quietly.

I never tire of taking lighthouse photos, here's one
from the coastal path to the south

Tuesday morning it was time to pack up and leave. We did stop in briefly at Lelant Saltings for a quick scan of the estuary though it was very quiet and apart from a few godwits (black and bar-tailed) there was nothing there apart from some distant loafing gulls. It had been a very quiet birding interlude down in Cornwall though I'd managed a couple of Cornish ticks and it was nice to see the migrants starting to come in.

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

February Gulls

Apart from my recent Cornish trip there's not been much to write about this month. I've been dutifully checking out the gull roost on my patch at Port Meadow but have not really gone anywhere else (apart from for the small matter of the Oriental Turtle Dove and the mealy redpolls at Milcombe). I thought though that I'd do another monthly round-up for my readers who don't follow my regular Port Meadow Birding blog.

At this time of year the main gulls that one can hope for are Iceland, glaucous, Mediterranean, yellow-legged and Caspian gulls. I've been fortunate enough to see all of these this month which has been really great. The only one of those for which I had to leave the comfort of my patch was the Iceland gull which has confined itself strictly to Appleford during the day and roosting at Radley GP's. Recently I had to go and pick up a parcel from the UPS depot at Didcot which was so close to Appleford that it would have been most rude of me not to pop in. This I duly did and although the Spit Pit was pretty empty the Iceland was to be found loafing in the distance on the field opposite the level crossing. The grass is getting quite long there and it was only when it stretched its wings that I got the full benefit of the white primaries. Having spent so much watching "Glauczilla" recently (see later) I'd become quite attuned to the relatively short primary projection of the glaucous gull so it was very noticeable how much further the iceland's primaries projected beyond the tail.

Here is a really rubbish record shot, even by my standards:
it's the very white one lying asleep in the middle

As I've hinted above, I've had the benefit of a glaucous gull coming in to my patch quite a few times this month. This bird, which was first seen by Nic Hallam in the Farmoor roost, is a real monster, and is considerably larger than the other large gulls around and is well endowed with a monster bill to boot, hence the name (courtesy of Badger) of "Glauczilla". This is the third glaucous gull that we've had in the county this winter: they're just like buses - none for several years and then three come along at once. Glauczilla did cause a bit of problems with ageing him: the three key pointers for a second winter as opposed to a first winter glaucous gull being:
  • A pale as opposed to a dark iris
  • A pale tip to the bill
  • More blotchy plumage to a second winter than a first
From my video footage and photos it's possible to determine that he does in fact have a pale iris and is quite blotchy though there's no sign of anything more than the faintest hint of a pale bill tip. Still two out of three is good enough to age him as a second winter apparently, though feel free to judge for yourself from the photos below

I've enhanced the contrast in this photo so that you can see the pale iris

What a handsome beast he is!

He completely dwarfs the normal "large gulls"

I took quite a few videos of him, this is probably the best one

At the other end of the gull scale, I was pleased to pick out a Mediterranean gull from the vast throng of black-headeds in the roost this month. It's hard work (for me at least) finding them and I haven't yet got to the stage of a true gull Jedi of instantly picking them out from a large flock without even having to scan through the flock. I've seen Nic Hallam do this at Farmoor and it is quite amazing.

For those for whom a still videograb is not enough, here's the full video which conveys the nice evening atmosphere of the gull roost

Med. gull in the Meadow roost

For me, my greatest gulling triumph this month (how sad am I) was to pick out a very subtle first winter Caspian gull from the evening roost. I'd been watching Glauczilla in the roost and was having a quick scan to see what else was about when my subconscious stopped me on one particular gull with a comparatively pale head (see I am acquiring rudimentary Gull Jedi skills). Now at this time of year all the herring gulls are looking very pale and bleached and a lot of them have pale heads and look altogether rather weird but nevertheless this gull did stand out. It had nice thinly-fringed tertials and a lovely long parallel-sided black bill and a good neck shawl around a pale head.

The bird in question

All sounds good for Caspian I hear you say? Yes, but it still had a rather streaky head and the coverts were quite heavily chequered and the anchor pattern on it's scaps. wasn't at all obvious. I took some video of it and from the comfort of my study back home it did seem to have that elegant cachninnans jizz. I sent it of to Lewington Labs for testing and the verdict came back positive: a Caspian gull but the streakiness apparently indicates distant (e.g. grandparent) argentatus influence. A most interesting bird!

Anyway, spring is now around the corner and the gulling season will soon be coming to an end ("shame" I hear you cry) and it will soon be time to start thinking about waders and warblers.