Monday, 14 January 2019

Review of 2018

It's time for the obligatory review of the year. As usual I'm a bit late with it but I guess that's just me. In following with my usual format I'll be dividing the review up into various sections: patch birding, county birding, national birding and non-birding (plants and insects etc.). So without further ado let's start with the Patch

Patch Birding
I've already written a fairly comprehensive review of the year for my patch at Port Meadow here so this will just be an executive summary. Both nationally and on a county level, 2018 was a rather poor year, certainly in terms of the number of different species recorded and indeed the county only managed 205 last year compared to a more usual tally of 215 or more. On the Meadow we mustered 124 which is a bit below the usual 130 level that I consider to be a good total though our year lists are very much at the mercy of the vagaries of the flood levels each year so there is a lot of variation in this number and all things considered 124 wasn't too bad. We missed a number of common species which one might expect to get but then got a few rarer ones which one might not generally expect so on the whole it all balanced out.

In terms of the good birds for last year they included several Caspian Gulls, a couple of Iceland Gulls, a couple of Med. Gulls, a brace of Woodcock, an Avocet, a Sandwich Tern (only the third ever record on the Meadow, coming after one last year), a Red-necked Phalarope that was part of a great wader fall one evening in May, a Great White Egret and a Ring-necked Parakeet. By far the best bird of the year was the Phalarope which easily gets the Patch Bird of the Year Award. For more photos and videos of the Meadow highlights of the last year please visit the the Port Meadow Birding blog.

The Red-necked Phalarope - Patch Bird of the Year

Oxon County Birding
As I said above, the county year list last year was a very low total, in keeping with the poor numbers nationally. Still I personally managed a few county life ticks as well as one horrendous miss that will no doubt haunt me for years to come.

Things started well, way back in January of last year when a Green-winged Teal was found at Standlake at Pit 60. Whilst we'd had a couple of American Wigeon in the county since I've been birding it, this Yank ducky cousin had yet to appear so I was pleased to catch up with it during its brief stay.

Green-winged Teal, courtesy of Badger

Some bonus county Hawfinches (part of the mass invasion of last winter) nearby at Northmoor were also much appreciated

Northmoor Hawfinch

There then followed the whole debacle regarding "that Chiffchaff" - a would-be Iberian that turned out to be just an aberrant Chiffy. Whilst it was indeed an "educational" bird and I now know the three parts that go to make up a proper Iberian Chiffchaff song, the disappointment of having that rare county tick snatched away still smarts. To top it all the same day I also slogged over to Suffolk to dip the American Bittern after spending five hours staring in vain at a reedbed.

A trip to Farmoor to see a pair of Bonxies and to appreciated the subtle differences between Arctic and Common Terns was an enjoyable interlude.

There then followed a long lean period in the county and we had almost no decent birds in the autumn at all. Apart from one. Easily the star of the year, the wonderful Richard's Pipit at Woodway, was a real county Mega and made up for the otherwise barren second half of the year.

The Woodway Richard's Pipit, courtesy of Roger Wyatt

The most horrible grip-off of the year was being away down in Cornwall when a twitchable Roseate Tern was found at Farmoor. This species is single-observer seen at Farmoor every few years but to have a twitchable one is a rare event indeed and I think that it will be a long time before I get that one back.

So that was my Oxon county birding year. It only remains for me to post the traditional county review of the year video in case you'd not already seen it.

Cornwall County Birding
These day I am also running a Cornish county list as well as doing regular trips down there. This is all comprehensively covered in my Pendeen Birding blog but it's still worth looking back at what happened down in Cornwall last year.

The first trip was in February half term where it was typical winter fare with Iceland and Glaucous Gulls as well as an over-wintering Black Redstart. From a listing perspective I managed finally to get Marsh Tit on my list with a brief stop-off near Bodmin to Cardinham Woods.

Iceland Gull at Newlyn
In April we went down for.the Easter holiday in what was a very low key trip. The highlights were seeing the first spring migrants arriving, catching a few moths and a brief view of a Hoopoe right as we were about to leave.

Hoopoe record shot
We had our usual two weeks in August down in Cornwall which didn't yield a great deal in terms of birds. There was a Pectoral and a Wood Sandpiper at Drift Reservoir along with a Lesser Scaup (that was a Penwith tick). Talking of ticks I did finally get my first county Marsh Harrier at the same location. Of course, it being August I had to do some sea-watching and saw a nice variety of birds including some large Shearwaters though nothing particularly rare.

The drake Lesser Scaup at Drift
Come October, I was on stand-by to nip down in case something good turned up but in the end the only bird of particular note was of course the Grey Catbird which turned up a few days before the half term so in the end we decided to wait until then and go down en famille. It was a nervous few days but fortunately the birds stayed and I was able to add a third county tick (as well of course as a national lifer). Apart from that there was a Great White Egret, a Spoonbill and a Cattle Egret all at Hayle as well as a few Black Redstarts and a few Poms past Pendeen one stormy morning. All very quiet and if it hadn't been for the Catbird I'd have been frankly disappointed.

The Land's End Grey Catbird
So three county ticks for Cornwall which wasn't too bad, all things considered.

National Birding
Nationally it's been a poor year. Various pundits have been bemoaning the low number of species recorded in 2018 and this was certainly reflected in my unusually paltry tally for UK lifers which came in at a mere five, well below the 12+ that I've been getting the last few years. Of course there is the law of diminishing returns which is ever whittling away at what I still need but even so there seemed to be a real dearth of good twichables this last year. 

So what were these five birds then? The first came in April when I had to do a Durham run. Our eldest daughter would have normally taken the train back up but as it was nearly the end of the academic year and indeed the end of her time altogether at Durham it was decided that it would be useful for me to come up and to bring some of her stuff back home with me as next time it was going to be her graduation and my VLW would be in the car with me and there'd be less room. I took the opportunity to push on over the border to Musselburgh where I managed to snaffle the American White-winged Scoter that was over-wintering there. With a bonus Ring-necked Duck in a park in Edinburgh it was a nice little trip north of the border.

The American White-winged Scoter courtesy of Ian Andrews (c)
The second lifer has a distinct whiff of plastic about it, being the Marbled Duck at Grimley GP's in Worcs. As it's not an official BOU tick it's probably best to draw a swift veil over it. It wasn't until September that I managed to bag my next one in the form of an obliging Ortolan Bunting that hung around near Cosham in Hants one weekend. A quick dash down south soon had it in the bag.

Cosham Ortolan Bunting

October brought another rare Bunting in the form of a Rustic Bunting in the unusual location of Wanstead Flats in north London. A dash around the M25 proved successful and that was the second rare Bunting of the year for me.

Wanstead Rustic Bunting

The last of the five was the Cornish Grey Catbird that I've already mentioned above. In terms of national Bird of the Year it has to be the Grey Catbird in terms of rarity value and also because of the excitement in hoping it would stay long enough for me to see it and the relief at finally doing so.

It's been a rather low key year on the non-birding front as well. I've been on a few orchid trips and a few odonata trips but not very many. In June I made a another attempt at seeing the Fen Orchids at Kenfig NR in Wales and this time, with some local help, I was successful.

Fen Orchids at Kenfig

I also managed to catch up with Musk Orchids and Burnt-tip Orchids this summer, the latter after not finding them the previous year.

Musk Orchid at Noar Hill

Burnt-tip Orchid at Ladle Hill

On the Odonata front, I only made a couple of trips this year but I managed to see the last two rare Emerald Damselflies that I still needed to see in England, namely Southern and Scarce Emeralds. The former turned up at an unlikely location near Beaconsfield whereas for the latter I went to a well established spot on Canvey Island where there were also loads of Southern Migrant Hawker

Southern Emerald

Scarce Emerald
So in conclusion it was a rather low key year but I still managed to see some interesting stuff. I'm rather hoping that the dramatic drop in the number of national UK life ticks will turn out to be just temporary but I fear that it's going to be the new normal as I knock on the door of a BOU tally of around 400 (my Gnome Rarities Committee total is a bit higher than that). I wonder what 2019 will bring.