Tuesday, 14 January 2014

Ego Non Tristis Sum

I've noticed that over the last few days the weather has been nice and sunny in the morning only to cloud over in the afternoon. Thus, when late morning I came to a natural stopping point in my work, I decided to get my birding for the day done whilst there was still some sunshine about. My Port Meadow patch has been rather hard to bird of late given the size of the floods there (if there's not too little water then there's too much!) so rather than squinting at some distant duck blobs through my scope I thought that I'd nip down to Abingdon Sewage Works (I know, living the dream or what!) to check out the two Tristis Chiffies there that Ian Lewington found over the weekend. After all what could be nicer on a chilly but sunny winter's morning than watching some warblers? 

I must admit that I have a penchant for Warblers - I love their subtleties and the fact that they're constantly on the move, restlessly searching for that next bite to eat. I even enjoy watching the lowly Common Chiffchaff but with a Tristis I find that they just look exciting and rare! In general when you see a flash of silver-white colouring on a Warbler, you starting thinking Bonelli's or Greenish or something and even if it just turns out to be a Sibe Chiffy they just look so strikingly exotic compared to the drabness of a Collybita.

I wasn't disappointed on my visit and within half an hour had tracked down the two birds, which were about half way along the northern fencing, spending a fair bit of time in the line of trees on the other side of the path from the works where they could enjoy the full benefit of the sun. I made a half-hearted attempt to photograph them but my super zoom camera is just too slow to be able to shoot such restless birds and in the end I gave up and just watched them. 

As I was heading back to the car I met up with camera wizard Roger Wyatt, who'd taken some absolutely stunning photos of these birds the previous day (see below). We chatted for a while and went over to the lake to see what we could find before I had to head back to Oxford and to my work. All in all a very pleasant interlude in my working day.

Roger took these absolutely stunning photos of the birds which I've copied from the Oxon Bird Log here. They really show off to full affect just how gorgeous these birds are as well as what a great photographer Roger is! (c) Roger Wyatt

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

County Glossy Ibis

I was just starting to get ready for my daily trek out to Port Meadow to see what was about when I got a Badger text: "Glossy Ibis at Bicester Garden Centre". To be honest I'd been expecting such a text for some months now: there's been so many Glossy Ibises knocking around the country that it was surely only a matter of time before one stumbled into Oxon. The reason that I was particularly interested in this occurrence was that I still needed it for my county list. Now most respectable county birders have seen this species when a long-staying bird turned up at Otmoor in June 2004 but this was well before I took up birding again so this species was distinctly un-ticked for me. Anyway, so having got the Badger text, I gave him a quick call to work out where exactly to go, threw my stuff in the boot and off I set in the Gnome mobile.

En route I got a called from Badger saying that it had been flushed by a Kite and had flown off rather low and had appeared to come down in Bicester Wetlands Reserve which was just behind the Garden Centre. After a quick spin by the Garden Centre floods to check for myself (still no sign) I therefore rendezvoused with him there and we decided to have a tramp about to see if we could re-located it. I foolishly neglected to swap into my walking boots and it turned out to be very wet and muddy (who'd have thought it!). We splashed around for some time but found nothing apart from a few Little Egrets. By now it was getting dark so we decided to head back to the garden centre for a last look there before heading off. Fortunately the bird had indeed come back and was feeding away on the far side of the floods less that thirty yards away. Using the car as a hide I was able to watch the bird at close quarters and take a few record shots in the fading light. Apart from Badger, also present were Barry Batchelor and Nick Truby who managed to take some nice shots with his camera (see here).

Some record shots of the Ibis - a first winter judging by the rather dull plumage

I also took a bit of video

After some ten or fifteen minutes of watching it, it suddenly took off for no reason, presumably heading off to roost somewhere. It later turned out that the bird had been found yesterday over in the Bicester Wetlands Reserve though for some reason the news didn't get out until this afternoon. Despite being somewhat skittish it seemed to return quickly to the garden centre floods on each occasion today so in hindsight just staying put there would have been better.

Once it had departed I headed back happy (if rather muddy) to Chateau Gnome for a nice celebratory cup of tea and a chat with my VLW. It was great finally to get this species on my county list and I hope that this run of good county birds continues on into the new year. Next target is of course to see one on the Patch.

Friday, 3 January 2014

That Was The Year That Was

Yes, it's that time of year ago when all bloggers start looking back over the year and assessing how it's been for them. By all accounts it's been a pretty amazing year for mega rarities in the country though as the majority of them have occurred in the furthest reaches of the country they haven't troubled me much. Still I have had a very good year by my standards with twenty one new birds to my name though of course this is relatively easy for a low-lister such as myself though if I carry on at this rate I'll find myself with an almost respectable tally. I'm not in a great hurry to see everything though: it's a law of diminishing returns and I'd like my enjoyment of this great hobby to last as long as possible.

My birding divides naturally into three parts: my regular local patch birding on Port Meadow, county bird in Oxon and my regular out of county sorties. Taking each in turn...

Port Meadow
It's been a funny year for the Patch. We had a fantastic start to the year, picking up almost everything that we could hope for in the first five months before the floods unfortunately dried up for the summer. After this it all ground to a halt with very little to do until the floods re-appeared in late autumn. During the flooded period we managed all the rare gulls that we were likely to get including several Caspians, Iceland, and even an adult Glaucous Gull, a very rare age for this gull in the county.

Some of the top Gulls from Port Meadow for this year

Wader action was rather muted this year with some spring Avocets probably being the highlight. Sadly, we didn't even manage a Wood Sandpiper this year - normally we get several each year. There was a near-miss in June on Port Meadow with a couple of what were almost certainly Spoonbills on the last of the floods though sadly I never got enough on them to be certain. However, the highlight of the year on the patch was undoubtedly the Yellow-browed Warbler that I managed to find at the start of October, this being only something like the fifth or sixth for the county. It managed to stay around for a few days so that plenty of people got to see it, which was nice. Of course like buses, two more appeared in quick succession in the county after the Meadow bird in what was a great autumn across the country for this species. Nevertheless it was a really special moment for me when I heard it's call as I was trudging back from a fruitless tramp around the dried-up Meadow. Once the floods returned in November it was back to class birding with three more Caspians and an Iceland gull to round off the year.

The Port Meadow Patch bird of the year for me (c) Roger Wyatt

County Birding
I normally devote quite a few column inches in the blog to moaning about county birding though this year I can't really complain. By many counts it's been a rather quiet year in the county bird wise with a below-par county year list total and no real national Mega's to get one's juices going and to draw in out-of-county twitchers. One possible exception would be the Dix Pit Falcated Duck though of course we all saw it (I presume it's the same bird returning) last year and at the time of writing it seems to have buggered off after less than 24 hours. However, it's been a good county birder's year, if you know what I mean. Lots of hard to see county birds have turned up especially at Farmoor which had a spectacular autumn: Great Skua (a singleton and a party of four), Arctic Skua, Gannet, Ring-billed Gull, Red-necked Grebe and Velvet Scoter all turned up this autumn though sadly some of these were untwitchable. Added to that in the county there were several Yellow-browed Warblers and even two Wrynecks at least one of which was easily twitchable - the other was technically so as I did it but only by a matter of ten minutes. All in all, it's been a good autumn, at least for those in the lower half of the county list table - the county elders of course have seen all these birds before.

Some of the highlights of this autumn in the county

I think that my personal county bird of the year would have to be between the Yellow-browed Warbler again and the Otmoor Wryneck that somehow I managed to get by the skin of my teeth after missing the easy one a few days earlier. Since the Warbler has already got one award I'll give it to the Wryneck who sadly can't be with us to collect it today as (hopefully) he's somewhere much further south for the winter.

There is also of course the annual county bird review video which I do each year for the Oxon Bird Log. I thought that I'd include it here as well as it provides a good round-up of the year's birding in the county.

The Oxon County Birding Review of the Year 2013

National Birding
Most of this blog is devoted to my occasional sorties out beyond the county boundaries in order to work on my meagre life list. As I mentioned at the beginning, it's been a good year for me on that front. Some of the birds that I've seen this year include: Pallas's Warbler, Golden Pheasant, Black-bellied Dipper, Pied-billed Grebe, Roller, Savi's Warbler, King Eider, Little Bittern, Pacific Golden Plover, Caspian Tern, Lesser Grey Shrike, Red-breasted Flycatcher, Isabelline (Daurian) Shrike, Bonelli's Warbler, Short-toed Lark, Dusky Warbler, Two-barred & Parrot Crossbills, Ivory Gull & Brunnich's Guillemot I've been up to Scotland, across to Norfolk, down to Cornwall, in the Midlands and up to Humberside. I've been particularly pleased that I've managed to catch up with all three species which are having a bit of a mini-invasion this autumn, namely Two-barred Crossbills, Parrot Crossbills and of course Ivory Gulls.

 Some of the highlights from the year

There has also been my increasing interest in insects which got me through the lean summer months. Highlights include Black and White-letter Hairstreaks, Large Blue, Wood White, Chequered Skipper as well as countless moths from my Garden Moth Challenge effort.

I was very lucky to connect with the Chequered Skippers in Scotland, 
especially as I only had a two hour window to find them

The Cot Valley Death's Head Hawk Moth was very memorable

So now we come to the highlight of this posting, the coveted National Bird of the Year award. With so many birds to choose from it's been a rather difficult decision. Special mentions should go to: the Cornwall Bonelli's Warbler for being so difficult to see - I reckon that it took me nine hours of trying before I managed to nail that one; the Roller was a great bird to see but unfortunately it was rather distant and hazy; Golden Pheasant just for having taken so many tries before finally seeing one; Caspian Tern is always a hard bird to twitch so to have one stay put and give such good views was great; the Pallas's Warbler livened up an otherwise very long and cold winter; Savi's Warbler is always a hard bird to see but I got great views at Lakenheath as I did too of the Staffordshire Dusky Warbler, normally another very skulking species; Brunnich's Guillemot for offering such close views of a Mega Rare. All these birds have contributed to a good year and are worthy of a mention. The judges have narrowed it down to two finalists, firstly the Ivory Gull which certainly comes in the "I never thought that I'd ever get to see one" category and was definitely a great bird though sadly I never got to see it at point blank range and secondly the Pendeen Daurian Shrike, not because it's particularly rare but because, as an adult male it was so subtly beautiful, it showed well often at close range and it was of course in my beloved Pendeen. In the end I couldn't decide between these two so they're going to share the award this year.  Sadly neither of them could be here this evening but I'm sure they're very grateful wherever they are.

Blog of the Year
I don't normally include this category but I feel that I have to give a special mention to what has been one of the most exciting and gripping (in the traditional sense) blog that I have read in a long long time. Neil Hayward embarked on a "Big Year" (an American year list) this year. His blog is entitled "Accidental Big Year" as he only started part way through the year when he realised just how much he'd happened to have seen already at the beginning. I managed to stumble across this blog in the summer and have followed with fascination as he closed in on Sandy Komito's seemingly unassailable total of 748 (the subject of the "Big Year" film). The dust hasn't yet settled on the final total as there are three outstanding birds that need commitee approval. Two of those should be straight-forward leaving him with a total of 748 or in fact 749 if he decides to include Aplomado Falcon which Sandy counted in his total but apparently which is rather dodgy for some reason which escapes me. I ended up reading every single entry in the blog and would wait with keen anticipation for each new update. Truly how blogging should be!

Some Stats
As I mentioned I managed to see 21 new birds this year which is above my target minimum of 18 per year (derived from 1.5 a month). I clearly won't be able to keep this rate up for ever but I hope to have a few more years before I've seen too much to be able easily to find new birds to see. This year I went on two major trips (Scotland and Cornwall), a couple of minor Cornwall visits and 12 day sorties (plus several butterfly and dragonfly trips). My year list total, over which I made absolutely no effort at all, came out at 222

So there you have it, another great year's birding is over and it's time to scrub off the year list and start a new one. I've not got anything in particular planned for next year so we'll just take it as it comes. Thanks to everyone who actually bothers to read this blog. As I've said before, I actually write it for myself so I can remember my birding exploits but it's always nice when people stop me and say how they like (or at least read) my scribblings. 

A Happy and Bird-filled New Year to my readers! See you at the next Big One.

Thursday, 2 January 2014

Mega (Store) Twitching

With Christmas safely out of the way and having decided that I wasn't going to restart work until next week, I found myself with a quiet and mercifully empty week in my diary. The whole maelstrom of over-indulgence, visiting relatives and having people come to our place had rather taken its toll and I was looking forward to some quiet time: there was a wholesome New Year's Day walk booked up but apart from that this week was all free. Naturally I thought that one final outing to round off the year would be a good way to unwind and there seemed to be some interesting things happening down on the south coast so I decided on a New Year's Eve sortie. I spoke to my VLW who said that she needed some items from Ikea so I hatched a plan that would involve the Southampton branch of this store. I then phoned up the Wickster who confessed that he still needed Ikea on his life list (the Southampton store would just be a year tick for me) and he was therefore keen to come along. In order to pad out the day we looked around for something else to visit en route and it turned out that Portland was on the way (certainly by my way of reckoning) so we might as well have a look in there where apparently there was some rare auk about. I suggested that we might also pop into Gosport to see the Ring-billed Gull there as that was quite close to Southampton as well. With the weather forecast for howling gales at Portland first thing but easing off later in the day we decided to eschew an early start and thus it was that I picked Tom up at the relatively civilised time of 8:15 a.m. and we headed off to get him his Ikea life tick.

The roads were wonderfully empty as we sped southwards in the Gnome mobile. I'd set up my RBA account to receive bird news of the Portland Brunnich's Guillemot but my phone was ominously silent as we travelled along. We hypothesised that the bad weather probably meant that it was sheltering in amongst the boats out of sight though with the Ikea twitch the main event of the day we were fairly relaxed about the lack of news of course. After a while we hit a wall of torrential rain and strong wind - clearly the bad weather that had now moved on from the coast. With it also came a "still present" text message, backing up my theory on the bird, and we both relaxed and enjoyed the rest of the journey.

After a quick pit stop at Ferrybridge to use the facilities it was straight on to the huge (and free!) car park by Portland Castle at the south end of Portland Harbour. The car park was literally just a few yards from the water's edge where we soon found a relatively modest count of a few dozen birders tracking the movements of the target auk. When we arrived it was over to our left by the marina and as we hurried over we could see the bird in the distance porning it a few yards from the bank. We got there just as the bird started to move off along the bank and we tracked it as it swam quite large distances underwater before bobbing up, always close in to the bank. It turned out that it had a regular circuit that it would take, starting on the far west side of the marina (where it was basically out of sight) and working its way eastwards through the marina, out of the inner sea wall of the marina towards the castle and towards the Aqua Hotel. It was often really close to the bank, too close for scoping, and I set about photographing it with my superzoom camera. It was a cute little thing, looking very much like a Guillemot though of course without the extensive white on the cheeks and throat. In fact this bird hardly had any white about the head, lacking most of the white throat area of a winter plumaged bird apart from a small area beneath the bill. The white gape line was noticeable and it had darker (more Razorbill-like) colouring than the brown of a Guillemot. The bill was also shorter and stubbier than its commoner cousin. At close quarters auks always look somewhat comical as they float around on their tummies. To me they look like a fat man laying face down on a lilo who hasn't got the strength to lift his head up but just paddles around with his feet which are dangling down in the water. Of course once they dive down its a different matter and they are transformed in to sleek fast hunters of small fish.

One couldn't ask for better views of the Brunnich's Guillemot

Some video, thankfully stabilised by youTube as I didn't use a tripod

After a while the bird moved out a bit to negotiate a pipe that was extending out into the water so we took the opportunity to scan the open harbour from here. Now the Wickster, is a hardcore county birder and does a county year list each year. This year he came top in the county with a creditable 185 from what has been a rather poor year county-wise. This does tend to mean that he doesn't get out of the county much otherwise and that therefore his national year list was rather low. He reckoned that he was still a few short of the 200 mark and was keen to mop up a few year ticks so he was giving the harbour a thorough grilling. We managed to turn up all three Diver species, the resident Black Guillemot (which was quite close in), quite a few Razorbills, lots of Red-breasted Mergansers and a single female Eider duck. Tom also managed to winkle out a Common Guillemot in the distance which he also needed. Including the Brunnich's he managed eight year ticks in total.

After a while with a rain shower threatening I went back to the car for some shelter and a snack whilst Tom continued to scour the harbour. On my return I wandered over to the marina where the Brunnich's had last been seen. There I met up with Wayne Bull, Phil Brown and another county birder (who's name I don't know) who'd all come down to pay homage to the auk. The star bird was on the far side of the marina but after a while worked its way back to our side where once again it gave crippling close-in views. Tom and I followed it for a while until it moved further out to shelter from the weather behind a boat. We both agreed that we'd had our fill and after another brief scan of the harbour by the castle we headed back to the car.

The next stop was a brief tick and run for a first winter Glossy Ibis which had taken up residence nearby on the east side of the Radipole marshes. Neither of us wanted to spend much time with this bird and we couldn't be bothered to put on our boots so we stood at the end of the asphalt and scoped it distantly. We could seen Wayne Bull in the distance who had got much closer where he was rewarded with some decent photos (see here) though I was content with a distant record shot and Tom was happy to add another bird to his year list total.

A distant record shot of the Glossy Ibis

Then it was back to the car for the long slog back to Southampton and the superstore highlight of the day. As mentioned above, I was keen to do a modest detour for the wintering Ring-billed Gull at Walpole boating lake in Gosport. I'd seen the same bird a few years ago but now as a more experienced laridophile I was keen to re-visit it. Just as we pulled up all the gulls seem to fly up into the air and to circle around overhead. We couldn't work out what had put them up but we couldn't see the target Gull anywhere so realised that we'd have to look for it and headed over to the tidal creek at the back of the park. Tom confessed that he was actually glad to have to look for a bird and that he'd been finding it a bit dull to have the Brunnich's and the Ibis so easy to find. I don't know - you give someone a Mega on a plate and all they do is complain! Over by the creek we found a Redshank, a Little Grebe, lots of Black-headed Gulls, a Med Gull and quite a few Brent Geese. There were a couple of Gulls of about the right size for Ring-billed though without scopes it was hard to tell so we decided to head back to car via the ponds and to get the scopes if necessary. Fortunately, on the way back Tom picked out the Ring-billed Gull back in the middle of the boating lake, no doubt refreshed from having had a little fly-around.

I was keen to study it closely in order to aid with one of my ambitions of finding one on Port Meadow in amongst the gull roost. The first thing that I noticed was that the mantle shade was a bit darker than I expected. It was certainly darker than the Black-headed Gulls next to it though not as dark as the Common Gulls that were also present. However, whilst these latter species were dainty and cute, there was nothing cute about the Ring-billed, with its thick chunky bill and strikingly pale eye (a diagnostic feature) it had a rather menacing look about it. It had a large white mirror on the underside of the primaries and what was a fairly pronounced white tertial crescent for this species - usually this feature is rather muted. All in all it was great to have an opportunity to get a feel for the jizz of this species at such close quarters.

Finally, it was on to the main event. A half hour drive saw us on the main through-road in down town Southampton where we soon spied the blue and gold colouring that instantly identifies an Ikea store. Tom had texted his girl friend asking if she wanted anything from Ikea and she'd sent back a large list of unpronounceable Swedish words. Tom certainly got an opportunity to earn his tick for this visit with lots of searching involved trying to track down the items on his list, none of which were keen to give themselves up too easily. By contrast my list was relatively simple and I soon managed to get all my ticks. Having finally found everything, we had a reviving cup of tea before loading up the boot with our booty and climbing back into the Gnome mobile. On the way back we basked in the warm glow of a successful outing: we had a boot full of Swedish storage solutions, and more importantly we'd both loaded up on that most valuable of commodities namely Brownie Points. Oh, and we had seen some nice birds today as well. Tom had managed to add 10 year ticks to take him easily over the 200 mark and I'd enjoyed some mega auk porn and some good Gull jizz. What more could you ask for to round off the year?