Monday, 4 December 2017

Larking About at Staines

Last week an American Horned Lark was reported at Staines reservoir, having apparently been present just over the road at the (permit only) King George VI Reservoir for some three weeks prior.  Now the Horned/Shore Lark complex is a tricky one as far as species are concerned. Eremophila alpestris is know as  Shore Lark  in this country though called Horned Lark elsewhere in the world and is presently classified as having forty or more sub-species throughout the world. However, the word on the street is that the whole Horned Lark complex may well be split (perhaps in up to six separate species), of which our own Shore Lark (E.a. flava), that winters along our eastern coastline, would be one - see this Birding Frontiers article from a few years back. Now, whilst it was generally agreed that the bird at Staines was definitely an American Horned Lark there was much debate on Bird Forum about which sub-species it was, though the consensus was one of E.a. alpestris, hoyti or praticola. So whilst at present this bird would just be an interesting sub-species tick, there was a possibility that it might become a full species in its own right at some point down the line so at the very least there was an insurance visit required. What's more I am still in two minds about whether to follow strict BOU listing standards or to adopt my own broader standard so it's possible that in the future the Gnome Rarities Committee might accept American Horned Lark as a tick in its own right. Anyway, the bottom line was that I was bored and it wasn't very far away so I went to see it.

I've been to Staines Reservoir a number of time previously. It's a rather bleak place and the birds are often rather far away. Indeed whilst the Lark in question had been showing nice and closely along the causeway bank on the Saturday, by the time I visited on Monday it was firmly ensconced along the western bank of the northern reservoir though fortunately when I visited it wasn't too far away (about 100 yards) so I was able to get reasonable views. In order to see it you either have to stand further away where the fence is low enough to see over or closer but then have to peer through some rather imposing metal fencing. I tried both spots and in the end the peering through the fence wasn't too bad.

The bird was on show constantly in the same spot for the hour or so that I was there. The most striking thing about this bird was the white extended supercilium instead of the yellow of our birds. It also looked plainer and darker though apparently that can be more objective. There's a lot of  discussion about subtle plumage differences on the Bird Forum thread for those who are interested but the white supercilium was by far the most obvious to me.

 Some digiscoped video footage of the Lark

Apart from that there were some distant Pochard, Wigeon and Teal as well as a couple of Egyptian Geese. There were no Black-necked Grebes about for which this reservoir is well known during the winter months, just a few Tufted Ducks bobbing about in the waves. The southern reservoir seemed to have been drained and was showing large areas of exposed mud, looking strikingly bleak.

The partially drained southern reservoir
A proper photo of the Staines American Horned Lark taken on Saturday when it was on the causeway shore,
courtesy of Ewan Urquhart, showing it's striking white supercilium and generally darker appearance

After an hour or so I felt that I'd seen all that I was going to see so wandered back along the causeway and headed for home. So, all in all a nice bird to see at a reasonably close distance to Oxford and the possibility of an armchair tick down the line. All in all, not a bad way to pass a Monday morning.

Monday, 27 November 2017

Autumn Local Birds for Local People

There have been a few outings which I've been meaning to write about for a while now, all local stuff but still worth recording in my "diary". The first was a rather nice Water Pipit which turned up at Farmoor at the start of the month. The reservoir is the best site in the county for this species and I've seen a few over the years there but with nothing else happening one Saturday late afternoon and with the light already starting to fade, I hurried along the causeway and all the way around to the north west corner of Farmoor 1 (basically about as far away from the car park as it's possible to get) where I spent some time watching this rather nice bird in the company of just one other person. The light was rather poor by this time but I managed to take some record-shot video footage

Farmoor Water Pipit

The next bird of interest came along a couple of weeks later when a Scaup was reported at Farmoor. At the time someone commented (on the Oxon Birding Blog), asking why it wasn't in fact a Lesser Scaup though I'm not sure how many people saw this comment (I certainly didn't). The next day someone e-mailed me with some more photos, taken at the end of the day in poor light of the bird but at least they were done at close range and the bird certainly looked like a Lesser to me. I forwarded them to "Lew" (Ian Lewington our esteemed county recorder) and he agreed. The word was put out and I mentally prepared for an outing to Farmoor the next morning, particularly since Lesser Scaup was a bird that I still needed for the county. The last records had been a couple of birds in 2007, one at Appleford and one at Sonning Eye GP, both reasonably long-stayers but as I'd only just started birding back then I wasn't doing a county list at all and hadn't bothered to go and see either of them.

The next day rather than being there at first light I waited on news, partially as I've never been a huge fan of the early start and partially as my VLW was away at present so I was left looking after our eleven year old son so I didn't want to leave him alone in the house for longer than necessary. I'd more or less given up hope by mid morning when there was still no news but eventually it was found, in the south west corner of Farmoor II. I therefore hurriedly set off, parking at Lower Whitely Farm to minimise the walk and a short while later I was looking at my first Oxon Lesser Scaup. The great and the good of the county (well at least those lower down the county listing table) were all there and we passed the time in some general chit chat and banter whilst photographing the bird.

The "Lesser Scaup"
All was fine until later on that day I got word that Lew was starting to have doubts about the bird. Apparently there were certainly things which didn't quite tally so he was going to take a look for himself then next day. Anyway, to cut a long story short, it turned out that it was actually a hybrid (either Scaup x Lesser Scaup or Scaup x Tufted) rather than the real deal. The main reasons why were:
1. it was too large, being larger than the accompanying Tufted Ducks rather than about the same size
2. the vermiculations on its back were too fine and didn't become progressively coarser along its back as they should do
3. most importantly of all it didn't have the correct wing pattern of much fainter wing bars on the outer half of the wing. This is a well-known diagnostic for Lesser Scaup though I hadn't personally had time to check it out during my relatively brief visit.

So the Lew giveth and the Lew taketh away again and I still "need" Lesser Scaup for Oxon. Oh well!

The damming evidence from Ewan Urquart's blog showing that there's too much white on the outer half of the wing bar
The third local bird to report is of course the Hawfinch. All birders with any interest in what's happening nationally must by now be aware of the irruption of continental Hawfinches into this country this autumn. Indeed I'd been keeping my eyes to the skies for some time around my patch at Port Meadow though so far in vain. I'd even visited nearby Wytham Wood on three occasions as they have a large Hornbeam plantation there though to no avail. Finally, a reliable spot was found in the county where they could be seen though how they were discovered in the first place is quite a mystery as it's a very unremarkable location down a minor road off the A40 near Eynsham Hall at Barnard's Gate. Anyway, I've made a couple of trips there where, in the company of a number of other birders, both local and from further afield, both times I've had distant views of several of this pleasingly massive Finch as it perched in the tree tops a good 150 yards away. I did try to take some digiscoped photos though on both occasions the wind, the poor light and the long distance has meant that they've been little more than record shots.

Strictly record-shot quality snaps of the Hawfinches
I still live in hope of seeing a fly-over on my patch and with any luck a better location might be found where closer views can be had. Still its very nice to have this bird graving our county with its presence for a while.

Wednesday, 18 October 2017

No Holds (Two)-Barred in Dorest

After a rather lean year on the twitching front things are suddenly coming alive for me this autumn with my second twitch in just five days. I was still basking in the fading warm glow of my successful Rock Thrush twitch last week when news broke on Tuesday of a Two-barred Greenish Warbler down in Dorset. This bird had originally been identified as a possible Arctic at last light on Sunday though with Storm Orphelia bearing down on the country it had meant that it wasn't checked out the next day. However, on Tuesday the legendary Brett Spencer went to see if it was still about and managed to re-identify it as a Two-barred Greenish Warbler with news breaking mid afternoon. Now this species is currently a subspecies (Phylloscopus trochiloides plumbeitarsus) of Greenish Warbler (P. trochiloides) here in the UK. However, with the adoption in the new year of the IOC species list by the UK, it will be elevated to full species status (P. plumbeitarsus) so it was offering the dangling carrot of an impending full species tick. What's more, with only half a dozen or so prior sightings in this country, it was a genuine Mega so definitely worth making a bit of an effort for. That evening, DL messaged me to ask if I was interested in going for it on news the next day so we arranged to head down there together if it was still about. The only possible fly in the ointment was the weather which was forecast to be rainy and misty for the morning though at least the poor conditions would mean that it was less likely to do a bunk overnight.

The next morning it was reported as still present surprisingly early (it was barely light outside here in Oxford) so I arranged to pick up DL from south Oxford in the Gnome Mobile and set off. The trouble was that road works in the centre of Oxford meant that I had to head around the ring road for the pick-up and the rush hour traffic was horrendous so it took absolutely ages to get around there. Still, eventually we had rendezvous'd and we were heading down the A34. Now, I'd been to the Studland Peninsula just once before to Durlston CP for Lullworth Skipper and that time I'd thought the Sat Nav route, which had taken me through Poole and Bournemouth, had been a rather poor choice so this time I followed my usual Lodmoor route on the A31 until it intersects the A350 which I took southwards, thereby neatly avoiding all the built-up areas. This worked really well and so it was that some time after 11 a.m. we were heading down the worryingly misty roads leading to Renscombe Farm near St. Aldhelm's Head. Due to the large expected numbers, a dedicated parking field had been laid on in which there must have been well over fifty parked cars as we turned in, paid our £2 fee and got tooled up. Then it was a twenty minute walk southwards down the track in the mist, both of us worrying if the bird would be easy to see in the mist. We asked a returning birder who told us that he'd seen it just three times in the two hours that he was there which was acceptable, though not as good as one might hope for.

Finally we came to the twitch crowd and had to work out where to stand. This wasn't as easy as it sounds as the actual viewing area was rather small and people were standing several deep. The problem was that one was looking down into the trees from our vantage point so standing behind someone made things really difficult. I found myself standing behind someone who wasn't too tall and DL headed further to one side to carve out a space of his own.

A rather small viewing area given the numbers

The atmosphere was rather tense as lots of people (including myself) had yet to see the bird. After about ten minutes, someone to my right called it out and the people over there watched it for a bit though from my angle it was impossible to see and I could only listen in helpless frustration to the instructions. Fortunately a little while later the person in front of me decided that he'd seen enough and I was able to take his spot right at the front. The view before me consisted of a row of Field Maples with a couple of gaps in them ("the left gap" and the "right gap" as they were called out), with an Ash tree behind on the left and a couple of tall Sycamores at the back.

The Twitch Arena - Field Maples to the front, Ash & Sycamores to the back
After a while I heard a familiar voice and turned to see EU and KC behind me and as others turned to leave they came to stand beside me. Shortly after that TS turned up so it was an excellent turn-out for the county. There was the usual large twitch tensions going on with one birder nearby struggling to see much and continuously asking in a loud voice "what's that?" and "where are you looking?" until someone snapped and explained as if to a child, where all the key locations were. After that, he kept quiet. EU kept making comments under his breath about the annoyances of the other birders and I had to keep from laughing at some of the things that he said.

Another twitch photo courtesy of Joe Tobias (Twitter: @ja_tobias) showing me (with my fluorescent hood lining) at the front!
There was plenty of movement with several Chiffies moving about and a really showy Firecrest which gave excellent views at the front. A good half an hour had passed so far with only a couple of glimpses of what had apparently been the bird though I'd not personally seen it well enough to be sure. Then suddenly someone called it in one of the Field Maples at the front and suddenly out it popped, showing cripplingly well right in front of us in some bare branches. Several people let slip a stifled cheer at this point, relieved finally to have seen it and the mood of the crowd changed markedly with the release of all the tension. Indeed one person's audible relief was so marked that EU quipped that "he was having an orgasm!".

Some cracking photos (especially give the prevailing conditions) courtesy of Tezzer

The bird was a gorgeously striking thing, superficially like a cross between a Yellow-browed and an Greenish. It had a rather Greenish-like head and super, with a strikingly pale bill, especially the lower half, a fairly long primary projection with a really broad and wide lower wing bar and a fairly reasonable upper one: not quite Yellow-browed proportions though not far off. However, there were none of the darker colouring on the wings that a Yellow-browed might have and the tertials were plain and unmarked. So in reality it was most like a Greenish Warbler but with much more pronounced wing bars. Once one had got ones eye in, it was possible to pick the rather unique colour combination out instantly in flight from the less contrasty Chiffies that were also present.

After that initial show stopper, the bird showed fairly regularly and seemed to be doing a fairly small circuit right in front of us so that we all got excellent views. I tried half-heartedly to take a photo with my superzoom though the light was very poor and a small phyllosc flitting about is not easy for a rather slow-to-respond bridge camera so in the end I gave up and just enjoyed watching the bird. Eventually I started to feel rather tired so went to sit on a nearby wall and to have my packed lunch. DL came to join me and we discussed whether there was time to nip over to Portland but in the end decided that it wouldn't be worth it given that I had to be back by 6 pm. So instead we went back for seconds and again got some more great views of the bird which was showing every few minutes by now. KC had had to head back to the car early because of back problems but the rest of the Oxon crew eventually decided that they'd had their fill so after posing for a squad selfie we all walked back together, chatting and gossiping as we went, all in the best of moods after our grandstand views.

Successful Oxon Squad Selfie

Back at the car park we parted ways and headed off into the mist of Dorset's back roads. I drove back the same way though the mist now seemed to have crept up from just the peninsula to the whole of the South East and it was very gloomy all the way back. After dropping DL off I then had to endure half an hour of traffic jams just to drive the short distance back to my house. Not that I cared, having had such a good day out. Back at Casa Gnome it was time for the usual celebratory cup of tea and a chance to catch up with the family. It had been a grand day out.

Monday, 16 October 2017

Blorenge Revisited

It's been a somewhat frustrating couple of weeks since my last posting though it ultimately ended with a most rewarding twitch. I mentioned the impending North East Uni run in my last post - well, sadly that turned out to be most disappointing due to the vagaries of the tantalising Scop's Owl. Having apparently disappeared on the Friday (when I went to Landguard), it then re-appeared on Saturday leading me to re-kindle my hope of a great potential tick on the Uni run the next day. However, Sunday morning it was AWOL (or AOWL - absent owl!) once more so in the end my daughter and I headed off for the North East late than planned at around 10 a.m. and with no other obvious targets to aim for (there were prevailing strong westerly winds which is generally pants for east coast birding) I just loafed around at my daughter's place all afternoon with a plan to try for the owl again on the Monday morning. After all if it had disappeared and the re-appeared once before then there was a chance that it could do so again. 

On Monday I was up early and headed off on the thirty minute drive from Durham to Ryhope where, in very strong winds I headed hopefully down the path under the railway line to Ryhope Village Dene (a dene being the local name for a small valley that follows a stream to the sea). Mercifully the small valley itself was nicely sheltered though despite extensive searching in it's usual Elder (which I recognised from internet photos) as well as every other possible tree I could find, there was no sign of it. A showy Spotted Flycatcher and a fly-over Redpoll were little consolation for what would have been a great tick had it been present. In the end I had to endure the long slog back down south having had no proper trip birdage at all - most uncharacteristic for the October Uni run which is usually far and away the best Uni trip of the year.

No compensation for the lack of Owlage

Since that ill-fated trip I'd not really done much birding at all. My local Port Meadow patch is still non-existent thanks to the lack of sufficient rain to re-create the flood waters and I've mostly been occupied with work and other matters. I had been keeping half an eye on Cornwall with a view to making a dash down there should the birdage warrant it. However, with strong prevailing south westerlies the whole time there was precious little to tempt me. Finally on Thursday afternoon something cropped up on the radar to alleviate the bordeom: a first winter male Rock Thrush had been found at Blorenge of all places. This was a name that I recognised, having been there once before back in June 2010 for a wonderful male Marmora's Warbler (see my write-up here). Well, it seemed that this most improbable of locations had once again pulled in a rarity. As this site was only just over two hours away and well within my acceptable twitching distance I pencilled in a trip the next day on news. Sadly with the dawn came no news and by 9 a.m. I'd resigned myself to another boring day of work. Miraculously however, at just after 10 a.m. it was re-found, frequenting a different location from the previous day but I was reasonably confident that now that it had been re-located, it would be around for the rest of the day so I set off just after 11 a.m., opting for the more pleasant and scenic A40 route rather than down along the M4 and up again. Occasional news came through of the bird's continued presence during my journey and so it was that a little after 1 pm I found myself driving up the familiar Blorenge mountain before turning off for Pwll du Garry where I added my car to the large collection there and in a very strong wind, got tooled up before heading off on the fifteen minute walk towards the quarry area. 

As I walked there were birders coming back the other way though rather unusually for such an occasion there was little friendly chat as we passed. I don't know if it was the strong wind or the bleakness of the location but it was a strangely quiet affair each time as we trudged past on our respective paths. I got to the first quarry where I'd sort of expected the bird to be located only to find that this impressive area was completely deserted and I had to head on further. Past the first quarry there was a small path off into the bracken and up the hill where others were coming back - had they not been there I'm sure that I would have missed the turn-off. Here there was actual communication and I was told that the bird was showing every ten or fifteen minutes or so and just to keep going to the end of the line of twitchers which I duly did. There seemed to be some uncertainty as to where exactly the bird was located. Three people were intently looking into one side of the screen slope whereas most others were spread out along the path all staring at different places. In the end I headed to the far end of the line where I soon spotted a familiar face in the form of DL from Oxon. It didn't take him too long to spot the bird briefly in the rocks that were at the top of the slope - not an easy spot to view from where we were all located.

The bird was frequenting the top line of rocks where it was relatively sheltered from the very strong wind
After I'd got my eye in, it was relatively easy to find the bird. As promised, it was showing every fifteen minutes or so, in amongst the rocks. Sometimes it would just perch there not doing much, other times it would hop relatively slowly from rock to rock before dipping down to feed where it would be hidden from site. I set about trying to take some digiscoped photos though in the very gloomy light and scope-shaking wind it was a near impossible task and they all came out pretty poorly.

Rocky in the gloom
The bird was very striking - moulting from juvenile to first winter plumage it still had the very mottled appearance of a female Rock Thrush but with the adult male red breast and tail feathers starting to come through. It was similar in size and shape to the Blue Rock Thrush that I'd enjoyed in the Cotswolds at the end of last year - who would have though that I'd be seeing both Rock Thrush within the space of a year, both relatively close to Oxfordshire!  

People came and went and after the usual initial panic as they arrived, everyone managed to see the bird. Viewing conditions were never ideal, with the poor light, strong wind and difficult uphill viewing angle all making it rather difficult but the bird was pretty cooperative and one couldn't really complain. As time wore on the weather worsened and a mist started to descend on the hill which clogged up my lenses and I eventually gave up trying to take any better photos.

Twitchers admiring the Rock Thrush

Eventually, at some time after 3 p.m. I decided that I'd had my fill and started on the long slog back to the car in the strengthening wind and increasing mist. Back at the car I was just watching another birder striding down the road towards me in the ever deteriorating weather when I realised that I knew him - it was MS from Cornwall! He told me that he'd started out from PZ at 5 a.m. that morning and had got as far as Bristol when the dreaded "not present" news was posted. So he'd turned around and had got all the way back to Truro by the time it had been re-found. So it was back around once more and he'd only just arrived as I was departing. That was a long old time on the road to get there! I wished him luck, fired up the Gnome mobile and pointed her in the direction of home. With the dulcet tones of Radio 4 to keep me company the return journey's miles slipped away and I was back at Casa Gnome before 6 pm, in time for my usual celebratory cup of tea and dinner with my family. It had been a great day out with a most rewarding new tick to my name.

The were all sorts of amazing fungi around the hillside - this striking red one caught my eye, one of the Waxcaps apparently

Saturday, 30 September 2017

Larking (or Pipiting) About at Landguard!

It's been a rather tantalising few days recently for me. I'm due to go on the autumn Uni run up to the North East in a few days and when news broke of a Scops Owl just a short drive from Durham during the week I got all excited and nervous at the same time. Could it stay for four days until I was due to head up there? I did try to persuade my daughter that she might want to go up early but alas this wasn't possible. One day later it was still roosting in the same general area but on Friday morning it was reported as having gone - I was most disappointed! Partially out of "revenge" for having missed a great opportunity and partially because I'd been having a difficult week at work and needed a break I decided to take Friday off anyway and to do a spot of filthy twitching. The most obvious candidate was a Red-throated Pipit at Languard NR in Suffolk, next to Felixstowe, which had been present and "showing well" for a couple of days now. Now, this was a species which I'd not seen before and which is normally very hard to twitch as it usually is seen just as a fly-over, making it's distinctive down-slurred call. I did rather regret not going for the twitchable bird in Derbyshire a few years back so when this one seemed well-settled and relatively easy to connect with it was very much on my radar. The only trouble with this plan was that come Friday morning there was reportedly no sign of the bird! That rather put paid to my plans though at around 10 a.m. news came through on RBA that it was still around and so I hurriedly put together a packed lunch and loaded up the Gnome mobile and headed off eastwards.

The Sat Nav was saying about two and a half hours though I was somewhat sceptical. Still I made good progress along the M40 and around the north side of the dreaded M25 though when I turned off onto the A12 it was very busy. Eventually I was on the home straight towards Felixstowe and turning off down some side streets. There was a little hiccup in my plans in that the Sat Nav mistook a path for something navigable and so took me down the wrong road and I had to double back before finally parking up in the correct location that I recognised from Street View and tooled up. There had been no further news on the bird at all since the initial message which was in stark contrast to previous days where there had been a steady stream of updates and to be honest I'd started to resign myself to this all turning out badly. As I walked through the entrance gate I met a birder who confirmed my worst fears, informing me that sadly it hadn't been seen since the initial report more than three hours ago now and so it was with a heavy heart that I headed up the path to see what I could find. This disappointed birder had clearly come along way and his parting words as he was about to leave were "no doubt you'll walk straight into it now that I'm leaving". Sadly I thought that this was rather unlikely.

About fifty yards down the track I found a promising line of birders all looking intently through their scopes.

Always a good sign when you arrive at a twitch!
I hurried over to see what was occurring to discover that they were grilling a candidate Pipit intently trying to work out if it was the Red-throated. They'd just come to a positive conclusion on this as I reached them so in a panic I assembled my scope and tried to get on the bird. It was remarkably close and relatively easy to pick out from the three or so Meadow Pipits it was with. The birds were frequenting a large close-cropped flat grassy area bordered by bramble bushes and despite the poor light conditions it showed continuously at relatively close range as it fed contentedly

The grassy area the Pipits were favouring
The most striking thing about the bird was the strong contrast between its paler and darker feathers compared to the Meadow Pipits. In particular the two "tram lines" down the back were very bright and really stood out in comparison to the dull "tramline-less" backs of its commoner cousins. Also the pale edges to the tertials were very striking in this respect. As far as the head was concerned, it had a pinkish blush to the lower throat area and a very strong black wedge on the side of the throat below the end of the moustachial stripe. All these subtle diagnostic clues were easy to pick out at the close range of about thirty or forty yards distance at which the bird showed. 

The Red-throated Pipit

Some digiscoped video footage

In the twitch line one person mentioned how someone else had come all the way down from County Durham to see this bird but had had to leave without seeing it. Could this have been the birder I'd met as I arrived? I thought back to his prophetic words and wondered whether he was going to turn around again now that the news was out on RBA about it being around again. There's nothing worse than dipping only for the bird to be reported as still present on the return journey.

I watched it contentedly for about twenty minutes before deciding to have an explore around. I was rather conscious of the time as I didn't want to get too caught up in the rush-hour traffic around the M25 on the return journey. However as the whole reserve looked fantastic I wanted to have a good look around whilst I was there. There was a roped off shingle area for nesting birds and to protect the plants (Yellow Horned Poppy and Sea Pea apparently) and I'm sure that had it been earlier in the year I'd be constantly distracted by all the interesting plant life there

Sea Spurge - looking very striking in its autumn colours
I wandered around in a contented fashion taking it all in. I met up with another visitor who was a regular local visitor but not particularly a twitcher so he wasn't interested in seeing the Red-throated Pipit as apparently, it wasn't striking enough to look at.  Over by some houses we spotted a bird flitting on and off a wooden fence which turned out to be a rather nice male Redstart. There were at least four Wheatear knocking around, a Swallow zipped over heading south and quite a few House Sparrows and a Stonechat were hanging out by the buildings.

Landguard Point

Viper's Bugloss
Someone told me that the rare Stinking Goosefoot was to be found over near the observatory so I went to see if I could find it. However, despite a good search over the entire area I couldn't turn it up - I guess it was too late in the season.

I headed back to the main Pipit area to find that it had flown a while ago and was presently not to be seen. I milled around for a bit longer before decided that it was time to hit the highway so I headed back to the Gnome mobile, quickly finished off my packed lunch and then fired up the car and headed for home. The traffic was predictably full and there was some modest stoppage on the M25 but all in all it wasn't too bad a return journey. I arrived back home at Casa Gnome just before 6 p.m. with a shiny new tick to my name and feeling pleased with the spoils from my excursion.

Wednesday, 27 September 2017

Farmoor Phalarope

Last week was rather frustrating. With an easy Arctic Warblers at Wells Wood in Norfolk alongside a really hard PG Tips at Burnham Overy dunes (see write-ups by EU & PL here and here) I was champing at the bit to head off on the long slog to Norfolk for some autumn twitching. However, on Tuesday morning when I was all set to go I found myself feeling so incredibly tired (my on-going sleeping problems not helping in that respect) that despite these tempting offers, I couldn't bring myself to go. Usually such extreme tiredness is a prelude to a cold and sure enough I was laid low for several days by one which my daughter had brought into the house a few days earlier. Towards the end of the week I was starting to feel a bit better so when news broke of a juvenile Red-necked Phalarope at Farmoor reservoir I decided to pay a visit. This was an extremely rare visitor to the county though fortunately a bird that was at Bicester Wetlands NR for one day in May 2015 had meant that many (like myself) had it on their county lists. Still, prior to this one there'd only been a couple of previous records: one in a tiny village pond at Marsh Baldon (back in the '80's I think) and one on Dix Pit again a good few decades ago so this was a real county mega. At Farmoor, walking down the causeway it was like a parade for the great and the good of Oxon birding. The usual suspects were either hurrying around to the far side of the reservoir (the bird being about as far away as possible from the car park) or strolling back in a leisurely fashion chatting, having paid their respects already. I'd heard that there was also an eclipsed drake Scaup present and en route to the Phalarope tried to convince JT that I had it at the start of the causeway only subsequently to find it at the other end on the other reservoir. Doh!

The Scaup

Round in the north west corner of F1 I came across the star bird and took some photos and a bit of video though reviewing both back home, neither came out particularly well. Not to matter, the bird was wonderful to watch, constantly picking flies off the surface of the water, unphased by the waves that were continually tossing it hither and thither. It was such a small thing that it's incredible to appreciate that it spends much of its life out at sea.

The video footage though the bird was so close that it's hard to
follow as it is tossed up and down by the waves

The Red-necked Phalarope
I watched it for a while in the company of IL & BB. This was by far the best views of a Red-necked Phal I'd had, though it's commoner Grey cousin is a regular visitor to the county and generally provides crippling views when it is around. After a while I headed back to the car in the company of IL, talking gulls as we went (what else!). On the way back we stopped to admire the "Snow Martin" - an albino House Martin that was most striking as it hawked insects over the causeway. I idly wondered whether it might be possible to string it into an albino of something rarer (Crag perhaps?) though the size was clearly just that of a House. Never mind, it was most striking to see it floating ghost-like over the causeway! It had been a very pleasant interlude and went some way to make up for my Norfolk grippage.

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Not in the Least Bit Stilted at Lodmoor

My apologies firstly for another dodgy post title - I feel that there has to be a decent pun in there somewhere but that's the best I can come up with at present!

Regular readers may have noticed the paucity of birding trips that I've made this year. My Gnome sorties in general are to add birds to my UK life list though, as I've previously mentioned, I tend to constrain my trips by distance and likelihood of seeing the target so it's a rather slow process. Even so, I'm now closing in on the iconic 400 level for this list though this does mean that more and more birds have already been seen and consequently won't warrant a sortie. In the past few years I've managed a dozen or more "lifers" each year but this year I've been languishing on a paltry four so far (Black Scoter, Black-throated Thrush, Kentish Plover and Elegant Tern, since you ask) and I've been champing at the bit to try and get this number up to a more respectable level before the year end. Now that we're into autumn it is of course prime time for this sort of thing and sure enough on Monday evening a Least Sandpiper (which I still "needed") was found early evening at Lodmoor RSPB, a location that certainly falls within my twitching distance, being about two and a half hours away or so. What more, it was found just an hour or so after a juvenile Stilt Sandpiper which was a species that I'd technically seen before (see here) though my views then were so poor in the heat haze that I couldn't really tell you much about it. So, would I head off on news the next morning? Well, there was a distinct fly in that ointment as the car had been booked in for some minor repair work that day. I'd originally been intending to take it in late morning after some work and then to pick it up in the evening but with the finding of this bird I was in a bit of a quandary as to what to do. I tried to concentrate on work but in the end I decided instead to take the car in early and then, if it was ready by say lunch time, I would be able to do a cheeky trip down to Devon for the afternoon.

Fortunately things more or less went to plan: the car was with them by 9 a.m. and I was soon back home and indulging in a preparatory "power nap" to make up for a rather restless night. At some time after midday I got the call from the garage that all had been finished so I hurriedly got together my things, ordered a taxi (there was no time for the half an hour walk this time) and headed off to pick up the car. At around 1 pm I was re-united with the Gnome mobile and was speeding off southwards along the A34. Things rather abruptly ground to a half near Didcot however when a broken down lorry forced the two rather busy lanes down into one so twenty minutes was spent crawling along at a snail's pace for a while. After that things flowed freely and the rest of the journey passed pleasantly enough. About half way along my drive, with no further news having come through on RBA, I did start to feel that gnawing doubt about whether this wasn't in fact a really stupid idea. I was going on a five hour round trip where I'd only have three hours at best of decent light left to see the bird. What's more it was rather hard to judge how regularly it was being seen from the RBA notices: it appeared to being reported every couple of hours or so but sometimes that didn't give an idea of how often it was actually on show. Oh well, I'd committed now and I'd just have to accept what the Birding Gods were going to grant me. Still, after all this effort I would be gutted to dip.

Shortly before Dorchester the "still present" news came through and I relaxed more as I negotiated the back roads of Weymouth before turning along the coastal road and pulling in at the beach car park on the western side of Lodmoor Reserve. This is a reserve that I've visited a number of times before and on every occasion in the past I'd been successful with firsts of Long-billed and Short-billed Dowitchers and also my first ever Red-backed Shrike all seen at this lovely wetland site. Would this be the first time that I struck out? I was about to find out! I paid for four hours of parking just so that I wouldn't need to worry about it at all, hurriedly tooled up and headed off to the viewing shelter on the south shore that had been mentioned in the latest RBA message as the location of where the Least Sandpiper was. As I turned the corner I could see a few birders peering intently through their scopes - always a good sign and my nervous enquiry as to whether "it was still there" was met with an offer to look at it through a scope ....and relax! All the planning and stressing had been worth it, all my doubts about how stupid the trip was melted away and another lifer was in the bag! I hurriedly set up my own scope and started digiscoping away taking both video and some shots though in the strong winds of the prelude to Storm Aileen it wasn't easy.

The pick of my digiscoped stills of the Least Sandpiper

...and some video footage in the wind

I studied my first Least Sandpiper closely: it was easy to see how this bird had actually been mis-identified as a Little Stint originally at the weekend though it was easy enough to see the diagnostic greenish legs and the dark loral stripe when you knew what to look for. After about five minutes the bird, which had been feeding away actively in front of the viewing shelter, moved down to the hidden side of one of the many islands that broke up the shallow waters there and was out of sight. Having successfully connected with my target bird so easily I enquired as to where the bonus Stilt Sandpiper was, to be told that it was presently frequenting the western shore and was showing well. I headed off on the five minute walk to that end of the reserve to find a gaggle of photographers frantically papping away. Apparently it had just moved from its usual location to a really close spot and they were all trying to take advantage. I whipped out my super-zoom and joined in though after a couple of minutes the bird had had enough of the whirring shutters and flew back to its usual more distant location

The Stilt Sandpiper showing at a nice close distance

When I'd first clapped eyes on the bird, my immediate reaction was "Curlew Sandpiper" and the scaling back feathering certainly was reminiscent of this wader though on close inspection that's where the similarity ended: there was no peach blush to the breast and instead of the decurved bill, it was long and straight with the hint of a droop at the tip. The legs, instead of being black were green and very long (hence the name). It had a strong supercilium which gave it a bit of a look of a Knot about the face. All in all a very striking bird. The other photographers couldn't be bothered with any more photographs at this greater distance so I had it to myself for a while as it picked its way through the roosting Black-headed and Mediterranean Gulls.

More Stilt Sand Porn

After a while I too had had my fill and I decided to head back for seconds of the Least Sandpiper if it was now showing. I wandered back towards the southern shore munching on a packet of crisps as I went. Back at the viewing shelter I discovered that it had been on show again but had been flushed and had flown off towards the eastern end so I headed off that way to see if I could find it. One of the viewing areas had a Great White Egret on show (not the rarity that it once was), I spotted a Common Sandpiper in amongst the rushes and down near "the Hump" another birder had found a Wheatear but that was about it.

Nice close views of a Great White Egret

As I was heading back towards the viewing shelter again another birder turned up who, by going somewhat "off piste" had found the Sandpiper feeding away on a hidden area. I joined him to watch it feeding away with a couple of Ringed Plover and a Dunlin for company. It was good to see it next to some standard waders for comparison where it's diminutive size was all the more obvious. The other birder had to leave and I took a few more photos.

Size comparison with a Dunlin
I looked up from checking the back of my camera to find that all the waders had suddenly disappeared. I guessed that they might be back at the viewing shelter and headed off that way to find that this was indeed the case. At this point I got a call from home asking what time I was intending to be back so that they could plan dinner. Thinking about it, I more or less decided that I'd seen everything as well as I was going to be able to and with time marching on, that I would head back home. So I wandered back to the car park and fired up the Gnome mobile. Despite it being the rush hour, fortunately all the traffic was heading in the opposite direction to me and the journey back was uneventful. I arrived back at around 7:45 in time to sit down with my family for an enjoyable meal and a chance to catch up. It had been a very successful outing indeed.

Monday, 4 September 2017

Shagging At Farmoor!

My apologies for the title of this post, but quite frankly it had to be done. After my resolve to return to birding now that autumn is upon us, the most obvious target in the county was the unprecedented number of juvenile Shags that had turned up at Farmoor reservoir last week. The highest total there was 13 at the start of the week and though numbers had been decreasing ever since, still there were quite a few on offer by Thursday when I decided to pay a visit (since my work was so slow).

I arrived mid morning and decided to take things at quite a leisurely pace. At first I could only see Cormorants on the floating pontoons on Farmoor 1 so I set off along the causeway with a single Dunlin and the obligatory Yellow-legged Gull on a buoy for my troubles. However, at the far end of the causeway by a small outlet there was a single juvenile Shag, completely unperturbed by the close proximity of myself and one other photographer.

Dunlin on the causeway

Adult Yellow-legged Gull on a buoy

Juvenile Shag looking fed up
I decided to wander over towards the "bus stop" area, as I'd read that some of the Shags liked to hang out at the pontoon there. On the way I came across a pair of Egyptian Geese and an obliging Wheatear on a fence. There were Chiffies absolutely everywhere in the hedgerows and trees, calling constantly. 

There's something very appealing about Egyptian Geese

Wheatear on a fence
I was about half way to the pontoon (about in the "Red-necked Grebe" area) when I spotted a gull on the shoreline. Now I'd been paying close attention to the gulls, picking out the Yellow-legged from the Herrings etc. but this one caught my eye though unfortunately it flew out about forty yard as I approached so I took some video. To my eye it looked very much like a juvenile Caspian Gull with the classic long parallel-sided beak, not at all like the relatively brutish Yellow-leggeds.

Juvenile Caspian Gull

Fortunately, when I got back home and posted it for Ian Lewington to take a look at, he agreed with me. I was most chuffed as it was my first juvenile Caspian that I'd seen. It quite made my day!

Over at the pontoon there were three more Shaglets, looking very petite compared to the hulking Cormorants though they were all rather distant.

The Shags were dwarfed by their huge Cormorant cousins
A thuggish Yellow-legged Gull (2nd winter I think)
I then retraced my steps and headed back along the causeway where there was nothing new and back towards the car par where I found one more Shag sitting on a pontoon outside the café and looking very cute.

A cute Shag
So, my first birding outing in a while and one which I thoroughly enjoyed. It's rather telling of course that whilst the various coastal areas are enjoying Pectoral Sandpipers and all sorts of hot drift migrant action, here in Oxon we're left with juvenile Shags to get the juices going. Still, beggars can't be choosers.

I'm going to slip in a plant photo at the end here. This is Skullcap, growing in the cracks in the causeway.