Wednesday, 31 December 2014

End of Year Review

So it's that time of year once again. Another year has flown by and it's time to look back and reflect on the birding year. As usual my birding divides rather neatly into three sections: patch birding on Port Meadow, county birding in Oxon and out of county trips to work on my national list.

Port Meadow
I'm going to do a detailed review of the year on my patch blog at Port Meadow Birding so I'll just be very brief here. There are two main yardsticks that I use to measure how successful a year has been on Port Meadow: firstly what the year list total is and secondly how many rarer birds were seen. As far as the first measure was concerned it's been a poor year with only 125 on the year list, well below the usual total of 130+. Notable misses include Greenshank, Grasshopper Warbler, Barn Owl and Little Owl. As far as Rares are concerned though it hasn't been too bad: the first half of the year produced a Glossy Ibis (a Patch first), a brief Spoonbill (almost annual these days) and a fly-over Great White Egret that someone reported on RBA (a rather tenuous patch first). Patch Bird of the Year has to go to the Glossy Ibis.

County Birding
Unequivocally it's been a good year for me as far as county listing is concerned. Regular readers will know that I do find county birding difficult: one can go for long periods without getting a county tick and there's nothing that one can do about it. This year however, there was no such problem. I managed six county ticks this year, some of which were really top drawer birds.

It all started in January when a Glossy Ibis turned up at Bicester on a flooded field by a garden centre. I twitched it successfully on the breaking of the news that day only for it to turn out to be one of the best years for this species in Oxon birding history. It might have been the same bird all along but later on in the year a Glossy Ibis turned up for a couple of days on Port Meadow before decamping to Otmoor where it stayed for two and a half months. Still it was a nice county tick for me.

It's been the Year of the Glossy Ibis in the county

The next county bird of interest came in April when a Wood Warbler was found over in the west of the county. Whilst this species is reported more or less annually in the county, normally it's a single observer sighting of a bird passing rapidly through the county. However this bird stuck around for a couple of days enabling quite a few people to unblock this species.

The Wood Warbler (c) Ewan Urquhart

Just four days later I was just returning from a visit to the Meadow when news broke of a Whiskered Tern at Otmoor. To start with I couldn't go as I had to take my daughter to her martial arts class but then she decided she was too tired so about an hour after the news broke I was finally free to try for it. I ended up running most of the way from the Otmoor car park down to the first screen where in a farcical manner my optics were too steamed up from my exertions for me to see anything. Finally the fog cleared and I managed three minutes of crippling views before it flew off into the sunset. Talk about a close shave!

The Whiskered Tern (c) Tezzer

No more than two weeks later in what was a real spring purple patch for Oxon birding a Spotted Sandpiper was found at Farmoor. This proved to be a very elusive and difficult bird to catch up with: I managed brief in-flight views of it on the morning that it was found before it disappeared. It was then re-found a few days later when thanks to an instant response from me to twitch it I managed to get good views of it on the ground before it again disappeared. Thankfully eventually people worked out that it was roosting at Farmoor before heading off elsewhere during the day and the majority of the county's birders managed to catch up with it on a weekend dawn raid.

The elusive Spotted Sandpiper (c) Roger Wyatt

Regular readers know that my real county bogey bird has been Sandwich Tern. Whilst this species is quite often seen several times over the course of a year it's almost always as a fly-through at Farmoor. I've lost count of the number of failed twitches that I've made to try and see this bird. Well finally this year it fell when a pair lingered for a evening in June at the reservoir and I managed to catch up with them. I can't tell you how relieved I am that I no longer have to drop everything because a Sandwich Tern is flying through Farmoor.

At last a Sandwich Tern!

Whilst the spring passage had proved excellent in the county, it was a much more muted affair this autumn with very few good birds about. There was a twitchable Wryneck at Radley (which I didn't go for having fluked a sighting at Otmoor the previous year), an Otmoor Dartford Warbler that I missed as I was in Cornwall and a one day Red-backed Shrike, also at Otmoor that I dropped everything to go for and was rewarded with some stunning views at close quarters of what is sadly a very rare county bird indeed.

Red-backed Shrike

So six lovely county ticks and one bit of horrible Dartford Warbler grippage. It's been a good year! Other notable county birding trips have included a singing Spotted Crake, the regular Red-necked Grebe at Farmoor, some Sibe Chiffies at Abingdon and the showy pair of Curlew Sandpipers at Farmoor. My county bird of the year has to be the Whiskered Tern which was to all intents and purposes a county first as well as a lifer for me. The County Grip of the Year is of course Dartford Warbler.

National Birding
For birding purposes I mainly leave the county either to twitch something for my national list or to go to Cornwall though this year I can now add ferrying our eldest daughter to and from Durham University to this list. It's been a rather low key year as far as my national listing is concerned. Whereas last year I managed a stonking 21 lifers on my UK list this year it was a much more modest 13 species.

It all started in February when a Red-flanked Bluetail was found in a rather non-descript location in Gloucestershire. This species was once a top-drawer rarity though these days they are becoming much more common with annual occurrences in the country. Still it was a new bird for me and being only an hour away I didn't take much persuading to pay it a visit. A very nice bird it was too!

Red-flanked Bluetail
The next bird of interest was the Great Spotted Cuckoo in Pembrokeshire which I twitched on the way to Cornwall though even by my standards I was stretching this interpretation of en route! There's something wonderfully exotic about foreign Cuckoos to me that means I'll make an extra effort to go and see them. Fortunately the bird showed very nicely and I had a great time watching it.

Great-spotted Cuckoo
There then followed a straight-forward twitch to Cambridgeshire for the Baikal Teal and then the Otmoor Whiskered Tern which I've already mentioned in the county review.

The exotic Baikal Teal

Other notable trips in the first half of the year where down to Devon for the long-staying Ross's Gull, over the Norfolk for the Spectacled Warbler, to Gloucestershire for distant views of the Marsh Sandpiper, to Cheltenham to see the Night Heron and over to the Isle of Wight for distant views of the breeding Bee-eaters there.

You've gotta love a Ross's Gull
Autumn proper kicked off with a trip to Titchfield Haven to see the Siberian Stonechat, a lovely little bird. Then there was the first of what I'm hoping is going to be a long series of productive trips to the north east as I ferry our eldest daughter to and from Uni. On this first trip I managed to see the long-staying Masked Shrike at Spurn with bonus birds in the form of a Little Bunting and a Richard's Pipit - a very productive trip! 

The Spurn Masked Shrike
Titchfield Haven Siberian Stonechat

There were also a couple (see here and here) of rather low key trips to Cornwall that produced a few good birds but nothing outstanding. The pick of the bunch was a self-found Barred Warbler at Pendeen though I only saw it for about thirty seconds. There are also a couple of trips down to Hampshire to catch up with the Franklin's Gull that was coming in to roost there each evening. Fortunately on the second trip it came in nice and early and showed really well.

The Franklin's Gull
The only other trip of note was the return trip to Durham where I caught up with the Wakefield Blyth's Pipit and managed to photograph some Black Grouse at close quarters.

So a moderate year of national birding. As far as the national Bird of the Year award it's a tough choice. Short-listed contenders are: the Great Spotted Cuckoo, the Spectacled Warbler and the Masked Shrike with the Shrike just getting the award. There were several nasty dips this year with the failed trip to Lincolnshire for the Terek Sandpiper, the Yellow-billed Cuckoo miss at PG and my trip to Sussex for the Short-toed Eagle all memorable for all the wrong reasons so I'll award them the Dip of the Year prize jointly.

Insects etc.
Regular readers know that as well as birds I also do butterflies, Odonata and moths and this year I also started to look at flowers as well. On the butterfly front there was just one trip this year, to Gloucestershire for Marsh Fritillary followed by Pearl-bordered Fritillary in a nearby wood.

Marsh Fritillary
On the Odonata front, I made a couple of trips: firstly to the west of Oxon to catch up with Small Red-eyed Damselfly and then to the fabled site of Warren Heath where I managed to score both Emerald Dragonflies as well as lots of Golden-ringed Dragons and Black Darters.

Golden-ringed Dragonfly
I've been quietly mothing away for most of the year and steadily adding to my modest garden moth list. Highlights of the year included a small fern-loving micro (who's latin name I can't even remember) that was only the third record for the county, a Toadflax Brocade that is gradually colonising the county but wasthe first few records for my VC23 area of the county and a Brindled Ochre caught down at Pendeen that turns out to be a pretty scarce species.

Brindled Ochre
As I mentioned above, I've been starting to get to know my local plants as well, both in Oxfordshire and down in Cornwall. It's a great way to pass the time in the long summer doldrums whilst the birding is slack and I'm enjoying getting to know all the different species.

So there you have it, that was 2014 in what was probably far too much detail for most of my readers. Still it's been a great reminiscing opportunity for me whilst doing this write-up and I'm very much looking forward to the new year and wondering what great birds I shall see. Finally it only remains for me to wish all my readers a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year! I leave you with the now traditional Oxon county photo montage for 2014

Sunday, 14 December 2014

More Northern Birding

Readers may recall that back in October I took our eldest daughter up to Durham for her first term at University and how on the way back I'd managed to see the Spurn Masked Shrike and a bonus Little Bunting and Richard's Pipit. Time has since flown by and now that term had come to an end it was time to go and fetch her back down again. Of course we could have told her to come back on the train but I had really enjoyed getting to know the north east and was hoping that I could repeat the successful birding of the first trip. In the weeks leading up to the end of her term I'd been keeping an eye on what was around and could only watch in frustration as first an Isabelline Wheatear and then a Kashmir (Eastern) Black Redstart (both very much en route) came and went. However, on the Monday of the week that I was due to head up a Blyth's Pipit was found in about as en route a spot as one could get: literally two minutes off the M1. It had been found in a highly unlikely spot, that being a boggy field in a business park. Quite how anyone managed to find it is a miracle but fortunately the bird seemed to like the spot and was sticking around. As each day passed and the bird was still there I was getting more optimistic and as it was still there the day before I was heading up and was being seen regularly I felt that I was in with a good chance and started to plan my itinerary accordingly. From reading up on Bird Forum it was apparent that as the field had too much cover, the local birders were staging "organised searches" (i.e. flushes) for the bird twice a day to try and minimise the impact of hundreds of twitchers independently searching for it and tramping about everywhere. From what I read this approach seemed to be working well and the bird didn't seem to mind as it kept faithful to the same field the whole time. With the flushes scheduled for 9:30 and 12:00 I decided to set off some time after 8am to make sure that I would be there with plenty of time before the second flush. Thus it was on the Friday morning I guided the Gnome mobile out into the morning rush hour traffic and headed up north.

It was a three hour journey to get to junction 39 of the M1 at Wakefield though fortunately even at this time of day the traffic wasn't too bad and I made steady progress. Having learnt from my previous trip I decided to minimise my time on the actual M1 itself because of the many extended speed restricted sections so chose to head up the M40/M42/A42 route past Birmingham, joining the motorway at junction 23. This all worked out fine and with nice sunny (though very cold) weather and news already out that the bird was still there (having been seen at the first flush) I enjoyed a very pleasant journey with Radio 4 to keep me company. It wasn't until I was nearly there that news came through on RBA that the second flush was now brought forward to 11am. Curses! My ETA was going to be 11:10 a.m. - what rotten luck! I spurred on the Gnome mobile a little faster and sped northwards to see if I could shave a few minutes off the remaining journey.

I arrived as predicted at about 10 minutes after 11 a.m. Having done some research the night before on Street View I knew that there was a small lay by right next to the field with enough room for two cars. By some miracle this was free and I was able to park right next to the field by the end of the line of twitchers who were standing on the raised bank at the side of the field. I jumped out of the car and asked the nearest birder whether I'd missed the second flush. I was extremely relieved to be told that as the bird had shown voluntarily a short while back there hadn't been a second flush yet. Thankfully I got myself ready in all my warm clothing and joined the other birders looking at the field.

The Blyth's Field - a rather unlikely spot for such a Mega bird
Apparently the bird had flown down in front of some Willow Trees on the far side of the field. The grass there varied greatly in size with clumps up to a metre tall so it was going to be impossible to see the bird when it was on the ground - I could well understand the need for occasional "organised searches" now. A few Meadow Pipits were in the trees but nothing else. Time went by, a few Cormorants would occasionally fly over and the Meadow Pipits moved about distantly but it was hard to make much out. There were a total of about fifty birders present on the site and by watching the other people I soon began to work out which ones were the local birders: they were generally hanging back and chatting rather than looking out over the field. There seemed to be some discussion going on and I guessed that they were discussing when to do the next flush. About an hour after I'd arrived they seemed to decide that the time was ripe for another go and a selected few lined up along the top end of the field. We were told to stand about half way down opposite the trees in case the bird flew up into them but that if the walkers got as far as the trees without any success then we should follow them as they walked down the field. Accordingly I positioned myself opposite the trees and awaited the start of the flush.

The Flush Line preparing for action
There was no luck in the first half so we followed the line as it worked its way down the field. About two thirds of the way along various Pipits flew up distantly and headed off to the bottom of the field. One or two of the flushers were pointing towards the far corner though I must admit I hadn't really seen anything that I could safely say was a larger pipit: they'd all been too far away really. The voyeurs and the flushers assembled at the bottom of the field where a couple of Meadow Pipits could be seen in the boundary ditch and one of the flushers said that the Blyth's was probably at the corner of this ditch. Whilst the watchers waited at the end, the flushers went around to the far corner and worked their way back towards us, duly putting up all the Pipits again. This time I was standing next to one of the locals who called out the bird as the flock flew back towards us and then back into the field and I got a brief view of it in flight. Many of the twitchers started to leave at this point - presumably they'd had several previous views before I'd arrived and were satisfied. I however had only had a view of a few seconds so I joined the now much smaller group back on the side of the field to watch where it had come down. A few of the locals were walking back along the far side of the field and they soon put it up again where again I got some more flight views, clearly a large Pipit this time and it went down right in the near corner of the field, comparatively close to us. The remaining group moved over to this corner to see if we could see it on the deck but the grass was just as thick and impenetrable. A few locals who were still on the field moved closer and once again the bird went up, this time flying several times back and forth right in front of us, giving superb close flight views. I could clearly see the larger size, the relatively unstreaked belly and the rather strong bill as it flew past not more than 20 or 30 yards in front of us. It eventually flew back to the middle of the field and landed once more, again out of sight. 

One of a number of great photos of the bird taken by Graham Catley (c). See his great blog for more shots
By now I'd felt that I'd had about as good a view as I was going to get and started to head back to the car. The other remaining birders must have felt the same as suddenly the whole place was empty of birders with just two people left standing on the bank. The locals were all drifting away, happy that they had satisfied the visiting twitchers and that the bird could now be left in peace to feed for the rest of the day. There has been some debate on Bird Forum about the welfare of the bird, given all this harassement: after all I'd seen it kicked up four times in the space of about 15 minutes. In my experience Pipits don't really seem that bothered by all this: if they're really getting fed up they'd just fly off somewhere else and this bird really seemed to like this field. What's more having just two periods of flushing per day was a good compromise leaving it with plenty of other time to feed away. A good common-sense solution all round.

Anyway, I'd seen my bird and it was now 1pm. There wasn't anything else that I wanted to stop off at so I texted my daughter saying that I should be up there with her in less than a couple of hours so we could go out and grab some tea. I had a quick bite to eat from my lunch box whilst I warmed up again in the car and then steered the Gnome mobile back out onto the M1 and headed up north towards Durham, arriving more or less as predicted at a bit before 3pm. Durham itself consists of a small peninsula on a hill surrounded by the River Wear on three sides with the castle and many of the colleges crammed in on narrow but very pretty cobbled streets. I parked in the underground parking lot just at the bottom of the hill and soon rendezvous'd with my daughter half way up the hill. We then passed a very pleasant couple of hours catching up over some very nice tea and cake at her favourite tea shop (there are loads in Durham, nearly every other shop is a tea shop there). Then we wandered back to her tiny student room and chatted some more and I borrowed her computer to work out how to get to my B&B for the night. As there'd not been anything else of interest in the area I'd decided to have a crack at one of the local specialities up in this area, namely Black Grouse, which could be found up on the Durham moors in the west of the county. I'd therefore booked a small B&B in a village just on the edge of the moors for the night. After saying good bye to my daughter and arranging to meet up again next morning I headed off on the three quarters of an hour journey westwards to my B&B. There I settled down for the evening, munching on some food, watching telly and just chilling out. It had been a successful journey upwards but now I was very tired and by 10 pm I was crashed out in my comfortable bed.

The next morning after a nice cooked breakfast I stepped out into the frosty and icy world that greeted me outside the B&B. As we were down in a valley the sun hadn't reached us yet and it was very cold and rather dark but I was assuming that up on the moors it would be much brighter. I headed up the narrow single-track road that lead out of the village and up onto the moorland, being very thankful for ABS and four wheel drive and taking it very slowly in the icy conditions. I was soon up on the moor top where everything was covered with snow. Whilst it was only a few inches deep it covered everything as far as the eye could see, it really was spectacular and I was thinking that my outing was worth it just for these views alone.

Snowy moorland
Up on the tops of the moorland I started to see the odd Grouse flying about. First a couple of Black Grouse and then a few smaller Red Grouse though none were very close to the car and mostly I only saw them in flight. At the far end the moorland road joined up with a larger road as it headed towards a small hamlet. Here I found a Hawthorn tree full of female Black Grouse all precariously balancing on the flimsy branches and gorging themselves on the berries.

A tree full of Black Grouse
They seemed quite unperturbed by my presence as I sat in the car on the opposite side of the road and watched them. The sun was just coming up over the hill and the topmost birds were starting to be bathed in a lovely golden glow as they clambered around clumsily in the tree. I found another bird on its own in a neighbouring tree which allowed for a better photographic opportunity.

A hen Black Grouse looking very nice with its cryptic plumage
After a while I realised that time was marching on and I started to head back the way that I'd come, though I had to stop almost immediately to look at a smart male in a tree by the road.

A nice fat Black Cock, perhaps a first winter bird
Then it was back over the moors, stopping briefly for a Grouse that was posing by the side of the road, and then onto the main road back towards Durham, arriving some three quarters of an hour later back at the city. The underground car park that I'd used yesterday had cars queuing for it all down the street so instead I followed my nose down a side street on the other side of the river where I soon found some metered parking. I parked up and walked the short distance back into town (everything is nearby in Durham - it's so small) where I met up with my daughter and a friend of hers who also lived in Oxford and who wanted a lift home. We packed their things into the car and then went back to buy some sandwiches for the journey before finally setting off at around midday.

I wish I could say that the journey was uneventful but there were a couple of minor incidents to report: firstly I managed to cock up my navigation a little, missing my turn-off onto the M18 and found myself on the A1 heading south towards Nottingham. Now whilst I could go this way I preferred my tried and tested M/A42 route so I worked my way back towards the M1. We'd no sooner re-joined the motorway when all the traffic ground to a halt because of an accident so we came off at the next junction and headed towards Derby hoping to work our way down to the A42 from there. Another bit of navigational incompetence and I found myself instead eventually on the A38 heading towards Wolverhampton. We eventually joined the M6 Toll Road and were back on course, arriving about an hour late in the end. After dropping off the friend (in exchange for a nice bottle of champagne from the grateful parent who'd been spared the trip up north) we headed back home where I collapsed into the bosom of my family for a reviving cup of tea and a chance finally to relax after a long couple of days. 

It had been another successful birding excursion up north. So far that's two Mega's out of two trips to Durham - can I keep it up? Only time will tell though as I'm due to take her back up there in about a month's time I have my finger's firmly crossed for some more quality birds. I can't wait.

A final Black Grouse in the snow

Monday, 17 November 2014

Frankly Gulltastic - a Tale of Two Twitches

This posting is a tale of two twitches. It all revolves around the long-staying Franklin's Gull that has been coming in to roost at Ibsley Water at the Blashford Lakes complex in Hampshire for the last couple of weeks. Since Franklin's Gull is not an easy bird to catch up with I was keen to see it though I'd been away down in Cornwall still when it was first found in the roost. Sadly, having been away I'd had a lot of work to catch up with so there'd been no chance of a visit for the first week. When it was still being reported over the weekend I decided to pay it a visit at the start of last week. Therefore on a wet and very gloomy Monday afternoon I set off down the A34 on the hour and a half journey to Blashford Lakes which was only a few minutes off the A31 near Ringwood.

The journey was uneventful and I arrived to find just a few cars in the car park. However on entering the hide this turned out to be because of some sort of "introduce youngsters to wildlife" evening. All very laudable but this did mean that the hide was taken up with a couple of families looking happily at the ducks. Indeed there weren't any other Franklin's seekers at all though one person did turn up a short while later who was also after it. He'd been there the previous evening when the bird had come in late though not everyone (including him) had managed to get on it before it flew off again. So there was just the two of us to look for it and my companion didn't even seem that well versed in what one looked like - not much help there then. Before the roost kicked off I had a little scan around, managing to year-tick the Black-necked Grebe there and even spotting a Duck that dare not speak it's name. Normally I wouldn't even hint at this species but the warden said that sadly the Evil Powers That Be already knew about it and were coming for it in a few weeks time. Boo!

Anyway, the gulls started to come in and were fortunately reasonably close. However as hard as I looked neither I nor my companion could find it. By 4:30 pm it was getting too dark to see properly and the warden wanted to close the hide anyway so I had to admit defeat with just a handful of Yellow-legged Gulls of any note in the gull throng. It was a rather long and weary drive back to Chateau Gnome in what was now pouring rain and wintery darkness - I was not a happy bunny.

A year ticked Black-necked Grebe - scant consolation
For the next couple of days the bird wasn't sighted again and I consoled myself that I'd just been unlucky in having tried for it the day after it had departed. However towards the end of the week it started to be reported again so I resolved to have another go at it. Having thought about my failed trip I decided that the more people there were looking for it the better my chances would be. Therefore I negotiated special dispensation with my VLW to make a weekend visit which was likely to be much more popular with visiting birders. I also asked Liam Langley, a keen student birder and fellow Port Meadow enthusiast, if he'd like to come too. Not only would it be good to have some company but an extra pair of keen young eyes would also be an asset. Thus it was that on Sunday we set off on the now familiar journey south towards Ringwood.

The journey was once again uneventful though there was an ominous grinding to a half of the traffic in the opposite direction along the A31: clearly there'd been an incident of some kind. Making a mental note to find an alternative route back we pulled up in the car park to find it full of cars: clearly the weekend did indeed equate to many more visitors. In fact in the hide the whole of the front row was full of birders (including a certain Mr Bagnell of TV fame in the corner). Liam and I each found a spot in the back where we could peer over people's shoulders. At this point one of these shoulders turned round and low and behold there was Peter "The" Law who was nipping in for a cheeky twitchette on the way back from seeing the Isabelline Shrike at Hengistbury Head in Dorset. We chatted a bit and then I noticed that the body language of a couple of the seated observers a few seats along from him had changed. They were suddenly starting intently at one point and quietly saying things like "that looks like it". I pointed my scope in the same direction where there was a relatively modest number of Black-headed Gulls and scanned about. Bingo! There it was, it all it's gully loveliness, a gorgeous adult winter-plumaged Franklin's Gull. It was a very compact and petite bird, smaller than the surrounding BHG's with large white apical primary spots, a very dark mantle and a near complete dark hood, just moulted to white along the forehead and around the stubby Mediterranean-esque bill. When it flapped its wings you could see the heavy white trailing edge to the wing which contrasted strongly with the dark wing colour.

Somehow, without anyone actually calling it out, the message propagated down the line and everyone was soon on it. I tried to take some photos but as I was standing near the door I was continually being interrupted by people coming and going. Soon however, people started to leave and I was able to get a seat and start to take some shots. The bird was nice and close and the light was relatively good (I only needed ISO 400) and I busied myself with taking some snaps.

I even took a bit of video though the constant chatter in the hide and the bouncing up and down of the floor meant that it wasn't the masterpiece that it might have been!

Liam, with his usual knack, managed to pick out an interesting first winter gull. It was either a 1w Caspian or a Yellow-legged Gull though it was right at the back and hard to see properly. In the end we decided on Yellow-legged - it just didn't have that distinctive Caspian look to it. We looked around for the Black-necked Grebe again but couldn't find it though there were three Egyptian Geese and a large flock of Black-tailed Godwits of note at the back of the lake. We spent some more time admiring the Franklin's and then decided to leave early as we had to find another  route home. So it was back to the Gnome mobile and a quick glance at the map revealed an alternative route via Salisbury and the A303 which looked reasonable. The journey itself was uneventful: Liam worked on an essay on his laptop whilst I navigated us back through the busy Sunday evening traffic. We arrived back just after 6pm both basking in the warm glow of a successful outing. Unlike my previous visit, this one couldn't have been easier with the bird on show within ten minutes of our arrival in good light and at close quarters. Who could ask for more? Revenge was sweet indeed!

Thursday, 6 November 2014

Cornwall in October - Part II

Yet another compilation of my posts from Pendeen Birding.

Saturday 25th October: Porthgwarra & Penzance
As I foretold in my last post, I'm back down again for half term week, this time en famille (though actually our two daughters are away up north so it's just my VLW and our eight year old son). This of course does rather cramp my birding style though as I'd already had a fair crack of the whip two weeks ago I decided that I was going to try not to cause too much family tension by running off pour chercher les oiseaux all the time. Therefore I've mentally prepared myself not to push it (unless of course it's something really good!) but instead to go with the family flow.

That was the plan anyway but then of course the Yellow-billed Cuckoo turned up at Porthgwarra. This species is well know for not surviving very long (poisoned by our caterpillars apparently) so it was always going to be a long shot to try and see it. It was found on Thursday and showed really well on Friday thus dangling the carrot of hope in front of me. I persuaded the family that rather than going down on Saturday as orignally planned, perhaps we should brave the Friday night start-of-half-term traffic maelstrom to get there a day early so this is what we did. Of course it turned out to be the nightmare journey that one should expect though at least there was no actually stationary traffic on the M5. Exhausted, we finally arrived at the cottage at around midnight, unpacked and crashed into our beds.

I of course had a dawn start ahead of me so it was all too soon that I was awake again and out of the door leaving my VLW slumbering in her bed. I arrived at PG at around 8am and started walking up towards to phalanx of twitchers that I could see by the dried up pool in the half light. Whom should I meed just past the Coastguards but a selection of Oxon's finest birders down for the Cuckoo. It was good to see them and we wandered over to the twitch line hoping against hope that the Cuckoo had somehow survived another day.
Me with the Oxon Posse
The bird had been first seen yesterday at around 9am so we weren't too bothered initially and passed the time watching the various flocks of Golden Plover zoom around overhead. There were also a few Skylarks going over as well as a couple of Reed Buntings. As time marched on past 9am people started to get restless including myself. I wandered about and bumped into Lewis Thompson, back down again for a long weekend. Whilst we were nattering we watched as some birders started to get more adventurous and moving closer to the general twitch area, walking some of the closer footpaths to see if they could stir things into action. Finally LGRE entered the sallows where apparently it had gone to roost to see if he could find the body but he came up empty handed. After that the crowd soon started to disperse.

I decided to walk back to the car along the nearer footpath and as I did so I met Lee walking the other way who reported that there was a Dartford Warbler up ahead in the gorse. That was at least some consolation so I hurried over to take a look and sure enough there it was, hanging out with a couple of Stonechats. Now this is actually a pretty good bird for PG as they no longer breed there so probably just an overwintering bird. I watched it briefly but then conscious of time marching on I headed back to the car and home to the family.

You know a twitch isn't going well when the only photo is of a bare piece of moorland!
Having spent a good part of the morning out birding I decided that I couldn't really do any more for the day - even when a Red-breasted Flycatcher (which you may recall I still need for the county) was reported at Nanquidno I remained unmoved. So instead we passed the time pottering about the cottage, making an inventory of what needed to be done whilst we were down there (it's never just a holiday when we're here). Then, after a brief nap to catch up on sleep, it was off into Penzance to do a spot of food shopping and to nip into B&Q. Of course whilst we were there I had to have a quick look to see if the Rose-coloured Starling was still around and I soon picked him out from his darker cousins.

The Penzance Rose-colooured Starling on its favourite wires
Whilst out and about I was of course getting RBA text updates - there were far more than usual as all the Cuckoo twitchers started to work their way back home and all the local rarities were reported numerous times during the day. I was pleased to hear that the Oxon contingent caught up with the Flycatcher as well as the Drift Ring-neck and the Hayle Yellowlegs - some consolation at least for their long overnight journey down. For myself meanwhile it was back to the cottage with the family for dinner and a chilled evening doing nothing.

Sunday 26th October: Nanquidno & Kenidjack
You may well remember how yesterday I was saying that this was going to be a low key non-birding holiday. Well that was certainly my intention though so far it hasn't really been like that. I negotiated a small outing this morning just to see if I could catch up with one of the Nanquidno Red-breasted Flycatchers. The idea was that I'd nip out quickly in the morning and then get back to crack on with our DIY chores. I arrived at around 9am to find several locals hanging out by the horse box looking for it - apparently it had been seen about three quarters of an hour ago so it was still there. However, despite putting in a good couple of hours the best I could manage was a brief thirty second view of what was almost certainly it right at the back of one of the trees. The size, jizz and colouring was all right but my view was always partially obscured and so I'm rather loathe to tick that for the county. It was all rather frustrating.

The session was brought to an abrupt half when a Hants birder turned up showing some crippling back of the camera photos of a Radde's Warbler that he'd found over in Kenidjack. I duly hastened off in that direction, stopping only to phone my VLW to tell her that I was going to be a bit longer than anticipated due to what is a pretty rare bird in Cornwall. I was wondering why the news hadn't reached me sooner but it turned out that I'd somehow switched my phone to "in flight mode" - I don't know how that happened. Anyway, I parked up half way down the valley and ran down to the end houses to find quite a few of the locals all hanging around there though the bird apparently hadn't been seen for quite a while. I then put in a good couple of hours with the others staring at the undergrowth and listening out for "tack" noises though we decided in the end that many of the sounds that we were hearing were in fact the noise of the stream knocking stones against the rocks. Anyway, there was no sign of the bird: two Choughs, a Buzzard, a Kestrel and a couple of Chiffies were scant compensation. In the end I had to depart as I'd been away for so long that I was going to be in deep trouble for sure.

This plant reminded me of the Marsh Pennywort that I found at Porthgwarra the other day. Indeed its alternative name is Wall Pennywort though it's more usually known as Navelwort because its central dimple looks like a navel.

Back home I grovelled an apology and cracked on with some tasks though my VLW and son, who'd both been cooped up in the house all morning were keen to get out so we soon set off for an outing, first to St Just where my VLW wanted to check out some of the galleries there and then over to Marazion. Here she did more gallery checking whilst my son and I made some sandcastles by the Red River mouth. We then reconvened in Marazion for tea where we tried out a new tea shop. This proved to be a great success and it probably a candidate for the best tea shop we have tried so far in the area (and we've tried quite a few over the years).

A great tea experience to be had at Delicious
Then it was back home for a chance finally to inspect the contents of the moth trap though there was a measly sum total of just six moths: two Feathered Ranunculus, three Red-line Quakers and a Light Brown Apple Moth. After that we enjoyed a nice evening meal and watched a film together. It had been altogether a rather frustrating day: I'd spent four hours in the field with almost nothing to show for it apart from thirty seconds of obscured glimpses of a Flycatcher. To make matters worse, a twitchable Dartford Warbler was found back home in Oxon - a real county Mega that I was missing out on. Not one of my best day's birding - let's hope that things improve tomorrow.

Moth du Jour: Red-line Quaker

Monday 27th October: Pendeen & Penzance

Another low key day today. I'd resolved to crack on with some of the cottage tasks first thing this morning and then perhaps to do a spot of birding later on, especially if either the Radde's Warbler or the Red-Breasted Flycatcher were still present. That was the plan anyway. Firstly, however, I did a quick tour of Pendeen though as to be expected there was precious little apart from a couple of dozen Mipits, a single fly-over Skylark and a Buzzard. I often find that when its windy, Pendeen can be rather birdless. 

I returned to find that my VLW had arranged for her sister and husband to come and visit for the afternoon - it was something that we were intending to arrange whilst we were down but we'd not yet finalised a particular day. They were currently down in Cornwall visiting their daughter and their new granddaughter who live up-county in Porthtowan. So it looked like I wasn't going to get much birding in today. Fortunately news gradually filtered through on RBA and via Philary that neither the Radde's nor the Flycatchers were about so fortunately I wasn't actually missing anything. I busied myself clearing out our shed so that we could store away our garden furniture for the winter. Then it was off for a run to the St. Erth dump to get rid of the shed contents and to pick up some food for lunch. Lewis Thompson texted that he'd found a Siberian Stonechat down near Porthgwarra - a nice find and a bird that I would have liked to see. However, Dave Parker later texted to say that there was no sign of it when he looked so I was saved another disappointing dip. On the way back from the dump I stopped in briefly to check up on the Rose-coloured Starling which was still hanging out behind the KFC on the wires. This seems to be the only rare bird that I'm seeing at present! 

My one bird friend the Rose-coloured Starling
Then it was back home for our guests.. We passed a very pleasant afternoon chatting and catching up and then doing a little walk along the coastal path to the Geevor tin mine, then back up to Pendeen (no time for Heathers tea shop today sadly) and back to the cottage again. On the circuit I managed to spot a plant that I wasn't familiar with and thanks to iSpot I can now tell you that it is Scurvygrass, so called because sailors used to use it to cure scurvy. I presume from the location and the shape of the leaves that it's Common Scurvygrass though apparently they can be a tricky group to separate.
Common (presumably) Scurvygrass
We waved our guests off early and then settled in for another quiet night. Another enjoyable and productive day though not much birding action.

Tuesday 28th October: Hayle
With no bird news from yesterday that had me wanting to twitch anything it was yet another quiet day. First thing I went out to do the Pendeen rounds though in the continuing strong wind there was predictably little of note with four fly-over Skylarks the highlight (!). I haven't even seen the usual Pendeen Ravens of late, it's been extremely quiet. I keep hoping for a rare Pipit to turn up in amongst the Mipits though so far no luck. 

One of our main tasks whilst down here is to take some good photos of the cottage as we are in the process of changing our letting agents and so needed some new publicity material. As it was actually quite sunny this morning we decided to take advantage of this and to do some interior shots of the rooms that got the morning sunlight. Thus we had a frantic session of trying to stage everything and take loads of shots before the sun went in again. Eventually we felt that we had enough shots in the can and with our 8 year old son beginning to get restless we starting to think about what to do today by way of an outing. My VLW wanted to visit St. Ives at some point and we needed to stop off at St. Erth again to dump the remaining shed items so we hatched a plan. We'd drive to St Erth for the dump and then I would drop the two of them off at Lelant Saltings where they'd catch the train to St. Ives. I'd pootle around the Hayle estuary complex for a while, to take a look at the Lesser Yellowlegs if nothing else, before joining them later. So this is what we did.

Having done the various drop-offs I made my way over to Copperhouse Creek, choosing to park up in the dog walkers car park to the east of the creek and to walk across the grassy meadow to the Black Bridge. From here a brief scan revealed that the Lesser Yellowlegs was half way along the Creek so I made my way over there. Apart from the star bird on view there were a couple of Greenshank, half a dozen Redshank including one with only one leg, two Black-tailed Godwits and the usual Curlews, Oystercatchers, Little Egrets and assorted Large Gulls.. Whilst watching the 'legs I had the pleasure of meeting local birder Laurie Williams for the first time. It turned out that he'd found the bird from the comfort of his house which overlooks the estuary - a very nice house tick! What's more I discovered that he was a fellow gull enthusiast and loves looking for Yellow-legged Gulls on the estuary though of course these are few are far between down here. I told him how back on my patch in Oxford I normally get between one and two Yellow-legged Gulls each evening in the winter gull roost as well as a few Caspian Gulls each winter. We had a very pleasant chat before parting company.

Lesser Yellowlegs are such lovely dainty waders
Laurie was telling me about counts of 150+ Med. Gulls over on the main estuary so I decided to work my way around there. I stopped in at Carnsew Basin where I found just a few Med Gulls, a couple of Godwits of both species, four Dunlin and three Little Grebes. On the main estuary were perhaps 20 Med Gulls, a Greenshank, a few Wigeon and the usual Curlew. 

Finally it was around to the Hayle bridge causeway where there were loads of birds to look through. There were just a couple of Med Gulls here, a tight flock of about 40 Redshank, 2 Shelduck and good counts of Wigeon and Teal as well as the usual assortment of large gulls, Curlew and Geese. It was just nice to have a lot of birds to look through, after the relatively birdless outings that I'd had so far.

Med Gull

Eventually I had my fill and headed off towards St. Ives. There was a certain amount of difficulty in communicating with the rest of my family due to the poor mobile reception down in St. Ives itself but eventually we managed to rendezvous and made our way to Porthminster beach for a nice cup of tea and a muffin. The sea here was amazingly calm and we couldn't help but notice just how mild it was for the time of year as we sat outside on the beach enjoying the view whilst L made a sand castle. Then it was back to the car, stopping off to pick up some pasties for dinner, before heading for home.

Moth du Jour: I found this Herald in the car - it had been hiding in some of the rubbish in our shed and was transferred to the car when we took the stuff to the dump. It was released unharmed in St. Ives

Wednesday 29th October: Pendeen

At last a better day! In fact it actually started the previous night when the wind dropped and the mist came down. I stood outside and could hear lots of bird calls, mostly Redwing, overhead in the darkness. There was clearly some movement going on! I put on the "moth light" outside and had an interesting moth that I couldn't initially identify come to the light. Thinking that it could be a good moth night tonight I assembled the trap and went to bed.

The next morning I found that it had indeed been a good migrant night with half a dozen Rusty-dot Pearls in the trap, along with a few Feathered Ranunculus and seven more of my mystery moth. By way of a little light reading I'd taken the moth field guide with me to bed last night and had homed in on Brindled Ochre as an ID and a posting on Bird Forum confirmed this. What's more, the house experts there had never seen this species and a bit of background reading revealed that this is an autumn speciality of rocky and moorland coastal areas in the south west, which fitted my location description pretty well! So a nice new moth tick for me to start the day. 

Brindled Ochre - a new moth for me
I was keen to get out and to do the Pendeen rounds, after all given that there was no wind I might actually get to see something! I started in the cottage garden itself and worked my way down the road towards the lighthouse, scrutinising the resident Mipit flock carefully for interlopers though without success. Over by the Old Count House next to the lighthouse car park I spotted a rabbit which ran across the road ahead of me. The reason for its haste soon became apparent when a cheeky Stoat popped up chasing after it. It saw me and wasn't quite sure what to do: initially it ran towards me and then thought better of it and ducked back into the garden. A few moments later I spotted it nipping back round behind me in pursuit of the rabbit again though when it saw me it again it reluctantly gave up and went back to the garden. I tried to get a photo of it but as it was constantly on the move I only managed one blurry image in the end.

At this moment I spotted a bird flicking about in the shrubbery of the Count House garden. A look through the bins and it turned out to be a Chiffchaff. Right behind it I spotted a second bird which looked much more interesting: it was clearly a warbler though huge by comparison with the Chiffy, with a uniform grey back and a stout bill and generally hulking jizz it could only be a Barred Warbler! However, no sooner had I made the ID then both birds disappeared into the undergrowth. I hoped that they might be making a circuit so waited around; I also gave John Swann a quick call as he only lives a few minutes up the road to see if he wanted to come and check it out. As he and a birding guest arrived, the Chiffy made a second appearance though there seemed to be no sign of its rarer companion. The three of us waited around for about an hour with nothing but the Chiffy for company before we eventually gave up. So, a nice self-found Cornish tick for me (Barred Warblers aren't that easy down here) though it was a shame no one else got to see it. At last a bit of decent Pendeen birdage!

Continuing my rounds I found that there were a lot more birds on show today: a flock of a dozen or so Goldfinches, 2 Stonechats, 1 Raven, a Kestrel, a Buzzard and a Redwing in my garden which was coming to some crusts that I'd thrown out. A Reed Bunting called from the bottom of the garden though I never saw it and in the calm greyness there was a feel that something good might turn up at any moment. If nothing else it was just so nice to be able to see some birds at Pendeen for a change!

Rusty-dot Pearl - an immigrant moth

Another classic migrant, the Silver-Y
Back home my VLW and I set about our DIY tasks and so I was kept busy until mid afternoon. For an outing we decided to head out first to Pendeen playground so our son could let off some steam, and then to St Just where we bought a small shelf for the kitchen and finally we went on to Nanquidno, mainly because my VLW had never been there. It was rather late by now and we quickly walked all the way down the valley to the coast path and down towards the sea before heading back up to the car. I hardly saw a thing on the bird front but given how late and dark it was it wasn't surprising. Then it was back home to the cottage for something to eat. It was nice to have had a more productive birding day at last.

Thursday 30th October: Pendeen

Another low key day today, where we didn't even leave Pendeen. Sadly the lull in the wind yesterday proved to be short-lived and it was back to the usual relatively windy conditions. On my morning round of Pendeen I couldn't even find any Meadow Pipits in their usual field though the occasional one would zip over calling. The was nothing moving in the Old Count House garden so I decided to spend a bit of time on the lighthouse to see if I could find the Black Redstart that was reported there yesterday. After a while I managed to find it: it seemed to be sheltering in the tiny courtyard in the middle of the complex though it made a brief sortie out to the east wall where it was picking insects off the windows and sitting on the wall. I managed a couple of shots of it with my superzoom before it disappeared again.

The Black Redstart

Down on the cliffs below I spotted a raptor whizzing about which turned out to be a Merlin chasing after a Meadow Pipit though a Peregrine soon stepped in, clearly irritated by the presence of another falcon and the Pipit managed to escape.

The Peregrine

Back at the cottage we busied ourselves with our usual tasks. I did a photo session for the main kitchen & dining area which took a bit of setting up but I was pleased with the results. For our afternoon outing we decided to keep it local and to go for a walk up to Manor Farm and back along the coast path. It was lovely and calm on the eastern side of the peninsula and we spent some time pootling around in Fisherman's (or Boat) Cove or just staring at the sea. Then it was back home to the cottage for a well-earned cup of tea.

This Grey Wagtail was hanging about near Boat Cove

Friday 31st October: Pendeen, Penberth & Drift

Today was out last full day down here so it was a bit piecemeal. First of all the wind was forecast to increase dramatically overnight so that it was showing 28 mph+ on the BBC weather chart. I sent an e-mail to John Swann asking whether he thought that it might be a suitable day for Porthgwarra sea-watching but he replied that in his opinion after August it's only worth sea-watching at Pendeen. As well as an interesting nugget of knowledge to tuck away, this was also a bit of a relief as my VLW had indicated that she wouldn't be too pleased if I were to slope of sea-watching all morning so it wasn't really going to be on the cards anyway.

Despite the near gale-force winds I ran the moth trap last night and was amazed that
I actually caught this Angled Shades and a Feathered Ranunculus

In the end I did the Pendeen rounds in the strong winds with just the Merlin below the lighthouse to show for my efforts - even the Mipits had deserted their usual field. I did try a token fifteen minutes sea watching at the lighthouse though of course it was useless. Then it was back to the cottage to get cracking on finishing off our various tasks. 

After a makeshift lunch of whatever was left over in the fridge we kicked around a few idea about what to do. No one was particularly enthusiastic about anything so in the end, prompted by an RBA text reporting the continued presence of two Yellow-browed Warblers at Penberth, I suggested that I drop the two of them off at Penzance for a spot of shopping whilst I went on to do a bit of birding before rendezvousing at 4pm for afternoon tea. This plan was acceptable to all so that's what we did. After the drop-off I headed over to Penberth, a valley that I'd not been to for several years though we did stay there one year before we got our place. Actually we've stayed in most places in Cornwall over the years including Faraway Cotttage and Three Chimneys at Porthgwarra, Mowhay Barn at Trevillley, Chmoy Mill at Penberth, Cover Point at St. Buryan, somewhere at Zennor and a Landmark Trust place at Lower Porthmeor - but I digress. Back at Penberth I parked up at the turning circle and within a few minutes I'd heard a Yellow-browed Warbler calling. After about ten or so minutes I managed to get lovely views of it - I never tire of these gorgeous birds. Also seen were a Chiffy and a flock of 17 Redwings but I didn't linger for long to look around. Having seen what I came for and with some time on my hands before my rendezvous I decided to stop off at Drift Reservoir on the way back. The Ring-necked Duck had been reported "no sign" this morning though there had been a Long-tailed Duck reported there instead which would be nice to see.

I parked up at the reservoir car park and wandered over to the hide, stopping off to admire and scrutinise the large gull flock on the water though there was nothing out of the ordinary within it. At the hide I could see no sign of either rarer duck though I noticed that the water level was even lower than when I'd been there a couple of weeks ago and I wasn't altogether surprised that the RN Duck had moved on. As I was leaving the hide a wader flew up from the corner of the NW arm. It's size, dark back and pale squared-off rump marked it out as a Green Sandpiper though in the split second view that I got of the rump, did it look a bit "dirty"? I watched it as it flew low and appeared to land in the fields below Sancreed though I didn't get any other rump views. Sadly, it was time to head back now but as I walked I gave Dave Parker (who does Drift regularly) a call just mentioning that he might want to look out for the Sandpiper to see if he could get a better view of the rump.It was probably  just a Green Sand but on the back of Hurricane Gonzalo, it wasn't impossible that a Solitary Sand might have made its way over - worth checking out anyway.

I got back to the car and headed for Penzance where I met up with the rest of the family. We then made our way over to the supermarkets for a quick cup of tea and to buy some food for this evening's dinner. Then it was back home to the cottage to get ready to depart bright and early tomorrow morining. It had been quite a nice afternoon's birding in the end to round off the week.

On yesterday's walk I came across this flower which turns out to be Musk Storksbill,
a relatively scarce flower that is found mainly in coastal areas.

5th November: End of Trip Review

I've been back home in Oxford for a few days now and have a had a chance to go through my various photos and to work out a few ID's for some fungi and inverts. I've also had time to reflect on my trip and it's various highs and low.

Bolbitius titubans - Yellow Fieldcap Mushroom
Black Sexton Beetle - found in my moth trap

Like the "part one" trip this was a rather low key affair though thankfully there was at least more bird action this time around: it seems as though autumn came very late to the far south west. Indeed if a few things had worked out it would have been an excellent trip: had the Yellow-billed Cuckoo lasted just one more day and had the Radde's Warbler been more showy then I'd have been a very happy bunny. As it was I had to content myself with the usual long stayers, namely the Lesser Yellowlegs, the Rose-colour Starling, a poorly seen Red-breasted Flycatcher and a nice Yellow-browed Warbler. Of course the star of the week has to be my self-found Pendeen Barred Warbler, seen on a week when (according to the RBA review of the week) there was a resurgence of this species, mostly in the west of the country. It's a great shame that it didn't linger at all but I'm just pleased to have got what is a relatively difficult Cornish species under my belt and especially to have got it on my local Cornish patch of Pendeen.

Talking of Pendeen, I couldn't help but notice that my Pendeen birding chum Ian Kendall, managed to find Britain's third Eastern Crowned Warbler up north in Cleveland within the last week. Knowing just what a top birder Ian is, I'm not altogether surprised but he certainly deserves what must be the find of a lifetime. Well done Ian!

So a list of the highlights, first the Scarce+ birds:

Rose-coloured Starling
Lesser Yellowlegs
Barred Warbler
Yellow-browed Warbler
Red-breasted Flycatcher

The Lesser Yellowlegs was the only rarer bird that I actually photographed

There was also a supporting cast of:

Dartford Warbler
Black Redstart

The Pendeen Black Redstart

On the moth front the star attraction has to be the Brindled Ochre, I hadn't realised just how hard they are to get but even Penwith mothing stalwart John Swann has never trapped one so I must have been rather lucky.

Brindled Ochre

There were also a few new plants to add to my fledgling plant list with the Musk Storksbill and the Scurvygrass the main ones.

Musk Storksbill

So in conclusion, a low key end of October visit but with a few new sightings on my various lists to keep things ticking over so I can't complain.