Friday 2 November 2012

Golden Wonder 2nd November 2012

On Thursday the first of November, late and in dwindling light, Gnome found another American Golden Plover on the floods of Port Meadow. He posted some mouth watering, thigh rubbing video on The Oxon Bird Log that same night. It was however too late for anyone else to get to Port Meadow before night fell. The local birding jungle drums were beating that evening and Badger called to advise the planned trip to College Lake tomorrow was off and he would see me at Port Meadow at first light.

I beat him to it and parking in Aristotle Lane (well this is North Oxford don't you know) was scanning the floods of Port Meadow at 6.30 am. No sign of any Golden Plovers whatsoever. Plenty of ducks such as Teal, Wigeon and Shoveler plus the cacophony of the now wide awake gull roost. 

Oxonbirds finest started to assemble and most of the familiar faces were eagerly anticipating viewing a mega rarity for Oxfordshire. Still nothing. A Kingfisher sped across the flood and I found two redhead Goosander and nine Dunlin on the flood. The roosting gulls rapidly departed for their choice of landfill, ploughed field or suburban lake. Four Golden Plovers were now on the opposite bank. A female Sparrowhawk flew across the flood and the ducks and waders scattered. Earlier we had counted thirty plus Common Snipe in the flooded grass to our right but over seventy now took off in alarm, whizzing around in a tight flock before coming back to land in the rough grass or out on the flood. Later the Sparrowhawk made another sortie but was seen off rapidly by a couple of Carrion Crows. Golden Plover calls filled the airspace overhead. We looked skywards and a large flock of around four hundred Golden Plovers were spread across the heavens and wheeling around seemingly aimlessly.

We waited for them to settle but they never did apart from one brief episode at the far end of the flood. Constantly they wheeled, called and flew around but with no sign of danger why did they stay up there, but that is what they did. The sun rose and still they stooged around at great height. People's patience and or deadlines for work ran out and they departed. I was getting chilled to the bone by the biting and strong northwest wind, blowing directly across the flood into my face. It was too much. In the end Badger, Pete and myself gave it up at 9.30am with the darned plovers still floating around the sky. We planned to go to College Lake in Buckinghamshire and return later when hopefully the Golden Plovers would grow tired of their aerial odyssey and settle on terra firma. We drove to Badger's at nearby Kidlington.

Just after we arrived The Wickster called and in timeless birding fashion announced the American Golden Plover was now on the ground and showing well! We cancelled any ideas of College Lake, got back in the cars and made the short return drive back to Port Meadow as quickly as possible. I arrived to find the plovers were again airborne but The Wickster assured me they would come back down. He had seen the bird in question well but as soon as he found it kept losing it in the tightly packed throng when they were on the ground or when they all, for no apparent reason, took to the air. Eventually the flock descended and settled on the edge of the flood opposite Burgess Field. 

We looked through the flock. Some Golden Plovers looked quite grey but not grey enough. Then a birder cried he had got it and some hasty directions put us all onto a very white and grey bird which everyone at the time thought must be the AGP. It looked the business, so much different from it's fellows but remember we were looking at distance, almost into the strong wind and views were only brief before all the plovers took to the air and then descended again and had to be re-found. It was picked up fairly quickly each time the flock was on the ground as it was so distinctive. It's face looked very white and upper-part plumage very grey with no sign of any gold tones. Someone then said they thought they saw another one! Indeed there was another grey and white bird, not so extreme as the first. Looking at this bird, it looked a much better candidate, being smaller, slimmer and more attenuated, due to the slightly longer tibia and the wing point projecting beyond the tail. This was the real AGP, the other was an imposter, an aberrant European Golden Plover showing overall white and grey plumage. 

Once seen against the EGP's the AGP looked almost elegant due to its slimmer build and slightly smaller size. We watched it at distance but then decided to try and get closer by taking the track alongside Burgess Field and then secreting ourselves in some sycamores on a bank adjacent to the flood. The flock at the time was on one of it's periodic flybys but eventually settled as did we, after fighting off low growing sycamore branches. This was a whole lot better as we were closer and more sheltered from the wind. The flock landed and almost immediately we picked out the AGP. This time it was possible to readily discern the long wing point, the grey plumage, the broad white supercilium, the slimmer profile and overall smaller size. It's behaviour was subtly different also, as it would feed, which the EGP's seemed reluctant to do, dipping its bill to the ground in true plover fashion whereas all the EGP's just stood around relatively inactive. It also betrayed it's presence by taking little runs and aggressively driving off any EGP it considered too close for comfort. It was quite easy to pick it up this way. On one occasion it took to the wing briefly and I could see the dusky grey axillaries and underwing coverts which clinched the identification. 

American Golden Plover extreme right.
Even at this extreme range one can see the slimmer, smaller profile
American Golden Plover - right hand bird c Badger

American Golden Plover on right.
Note the smaller size and slimmer build, grey white plumage and broad white supercilium
with wing point extending beyond the tail
Amerian Golden Plover c Badger
We watched it until around 2pm by which time the bright sunlight made it virtually impossible from our position to pick out any features to identify it. We left it with it's commoner cousins and made our way back to the car and home.

Victory snatched from the jaws of defeat and another new species for my Oxfordshire list.

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