Thursday 9 May 2024

Pitstone Alpine Accentor

It was just after lunch on Sunday afternoon when the news broke. My VLW had gone off to play tennis and I was wondering what to do that afternoon. Suddenly my phone pinged.

"Alpine Accentor in Pitstone Quarry, Bucks" 

What??!! Now Alpine Accentor is not unheard of in this country. With 10 records since the turn of the century it does turn up from time to time. But, in Bucks??!! Usually they were on the coast (Aldeburgh in Suffolk and Blakeney Point in Norfolk being the two previous locations) so inland records were amost unheard of. And to be only an hour from home - that was enough for me to drop everything and go. 

Well I say that, but it then turned out that it had been found quite a few hours earlier, by a botanist hunting for rare mosses in Pitstone Quarry. Whilst not a birder, he knew enough to know it was something rare so he messaged his friend on Twitter who, although out of country on holiday, identified it and put the news out. When birders started to arrive, initial reports were not promising so I held off departing for about half an hour. However, after a while it was relocated and the twich was back on. I sped off in the Gnome mobile with the Sat Nav coordinates set for Pitstone Hill car park, about one hour away. I've only ever done one national rarity twitch in Bucks before. That was for my one and only Kentish Plover sighting that spent the morning on the mud flats of a quarry in Bucks. As I neared my destination I realised that it had in fact been Pitstone Quarry gravel pit, located right next to the quarry that I was headed for. What a coincidence!

By the time I approached the car park I could see the line of cars all down the road so I added mine to the end and tooled up. I wasn't sure whether it was a scope or a camera job so I ended taking everything. I hurried into the car park and through the gate, looking for someone to follow to the twitch site. I soon found a fairly local birder though he was unencumbered by all the stuff I was carrying and it was a struggle to keep up with him. We ended going up the hill and down the other side, before cutting down into the scrub as we descended further. From reports I'd already read on Whatsapp, there was a certain amount of negotiating difficult obstacles in order actually to gain access to the quarry and that indeed turned out to be the case. In fact it was quite a scramble one way or another. By the time I arrived at the twitch line I was huffing and puffing and drenched in sweat from wearing my heavy coat (the forecast has originally said rain in the afternoon). 

Anyway, I was there at last and someone immediately pointed out the bird which was creeping about at the top off a steep escarpment of the quarry side, about some 20 or 30 yards from where we were all standing. Throughout the time I was there the bird was constantly on show, working its way systematically along the cliff face, constantly picking various invertebrates off the surface. It seemed to be finding plenty of food as every thirty seconds or so it would peck at something new.

The Alpine Accentor in all its subtle glory

To start with I feverishly took shot after shot with my superzoom as well as some video but after a while I decided that I wasn't going to get anything better and so tried to get it in my scope instead for a better look. This was actually quite difficult because the bird was so close and because there were no outstanding features that could be used to located it on the rather nondescript rock face. Eventually I managed it and was then able to follow it with scope-filling views as it worked its way along the quarry side. 

It was a very smart bird, with a lot of subtle features that made it much more interesting than our rather subtle Dunnocks that we get here. One subtle feature was the circle of white dots centred around the eye. There was also the yellow patch at the bill base and the pale, mottle throat patch and the rusty flanks. It was altogether a very smart bird.

Some video, with the camera propped up on my scope to stabilise it

The obligatory twitch shot, showing how steep the quarry sides were

All told I spent about an hour admiring the bird and chatting with fellow Oxon twitchers NT and EU. Then it was time to struggle my way out of the quarry and back up the hill to the car before heading back to Casa Gnome. I arrived back just in time for dinner so everything worked out perfectly.

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