Wednesday, 31 October 2012

A Load of Bullocks 30 October 2012



A beautiful autumn day dawned sunny and calm. After a week of work hell I badly needed to get body and soul together so planned an all day visit to Otmoor, just wandering around with my bins and camera and allowing the wide open spaces and mid week solitude of the reserve to recharge my energy levels, both spiritually and physically. Or so I hoped. 

However, on arriving at the car park around 8.30am my heart sank as I noted the number of cars present and even one person assembling a howitzer sized camera lens onto a tripod. How naive of me and pretty dumb as with the recent reports of Bearded Tits, Hen Harriers and Bramblings on Otmoor it was obviously bound to attract people's attention. I did not even make it to the cattle pens at the end of the entrance track before I was told to stand back as a herd of bullocks were apparently about to be driven down the bridleway to the cattle pens to be inoculated against TB. "There be two bullocks which are a bit frisky and might trample you"  I was advised by the cowman. This was a bit annoying as I could just see the finch flock on the other side of the bridleway, including a fine male Brambling feeding on the seeded ground. "Stand back - please!" I was commanded. 'But they are miles away yet'. I replied. "They can move very fast" I was told. 

Defeated I stood back and the bullocks and their bovine friends came apace down the bridleway, driven onwards by an all terrain vehicle. The finch flock duly took alarm and headed for the bushes. A small brown finch settled at the top of a hawthorn bush. It was a Lesser Redpoll. I took it's picture before it too fled as the herd of cows arrived in a cloud of steam, bellowing in frustration and accompanied by shouts from those herding them who were also possibly bellowing in frustration. 

Lesser Redpoll
There was obviously no chance of any finch flock coming back while this lot were milling around so that took care of any further sightings of Bramblings that I had in mind. Other birders were standing about watching proceedings but I figured if I went along the bridleway and then up the track to the first screen I had a good chance of seeing the Bearded Tits which we had heard in that area on Sunday. More importantly for me I would be on my own in hopefully, peace and quiet. The bridleway, however, took on the mantle of a busy road as various four wheel drive vehicles drove up and down it, rather too fast for comfort, presumably having something to do with the bovine inoculation operation back at the cattle pens. My nerves after last week's work excesses were really frayed. I just did not need this and it was such a beautiful day with the sun casting a warm golden light on the fading reeds, autumnal trees and contrasting with the hazy blue of the horizon. 


I desperately wanted to tune body and soul into this but was instead being assailed by loud shouts and vehicles going up and down the bridleway. I was getting the distinct feeling that regaining any equilibrium by visiting Otmoor today was a really bad idea, as so far there had hardly been any respite from human and vehicular activity. I did see the funny side of things by the time I got to the gate and my enthusiasm to carry on was greatly increased when the distinctive pinging calls of Bearded Tits rang out and five of these little charmers arose from a reed bed and ascended higher and higher into the sky until I lost sight of them.This made me feel a whole lot better but they had completely disappeared so re-finding them was going to be problematical. C'est la vie as they say down Cowley way. 

So disoriented was I by all the noise and disturbance that I found myself seeking sanctuary in the first screen. Normally I try to shun hides or screens unless absolutely necessary as this usually means enduring a load of inane chatter, restricted movement and endless banging about. However there was only one other birder there and he appeared fairly uncommunicative in a friendly kind of way so all was well and for an hour we stood in silence looking at nothing much in particular. I felt mind and body healing but it did not last. Howitzer man arrived with friends and for the next thirty minutes without even looking at a bird he regaled his friends about pixels, memory cards, flicker, streaming and other photo techno babble. All I want is peace and QUIET!! In the end it was all too much and silently inviting him to 'kiss my pixel' I left and headed for the second screen hoping to possibly see a Hen Harrier floating over the vast expanse of reeds. 

There was no sign of any Hen Harrier but halfway to the second screen what did I hear? Yes, the distinctive pinging tones of  Bearded Tits somewhere in the adjacent reeds. Up the bank I went and although I could still hear them they were, as usual, invisible. I stood quietly, on my own, but there was now only silence accompanied by the gentle swaying and sighing of the reeds. Half an hour passed and  there were the calls again, slightly to my left now. I moved in their direction and very briefly caught sight of the back end of a Bearded Tit at the top of a reed stem before it dropped down into cover. I stood there for over an hour, waiting. A Raven, cronking loudly and with throat hackles distended flew over me towards Big Otmoor. Ten minutes later it came back heading for the Pill. Then back it came again and repeated this four times. What on earth it was doing I really did not know. Finally the Raven ceased it's commuting and again there was nothing. Another twenty minutes passed and  then, suddenly there came music to my ears as I tuned in to multiple ringing calls from the reeds and five Bearded Tits arose and flew low above the reed heads, quickly dropping down again just to my right. I followed them and there in the sun was a glorious male sidling up a reed stem, partially obscured at first but then ascending higher and into full view. I took as many pictures as possible in the hope one would come out. He really was a beauty with his black 'fu manchu' moustaches, lilac grey head and breast contrasting appealingly with the orange of his body. 







The Bearded Tits were in the reeds here

All too soon it was over as he dropped into the reeds and then the five of them flew again, deeper into the reed bed and that was the last I saw of them. Naturally I now felt a whole lot better about life and was still in splendid isolation as most people seemed to have stopped at the first screen. A short visit to the second screen was, as per usual, unremarkable with just Teal, Shoveler, Wigeon and Gadwall swimming around or loafing by the reeds. Occasionally they were spooked by a low flying Red Kite and would set off en masse for Ashgrave. I retraced my route back past the first screen finding some late Common Darters and a Red Admiral making  the best of the weak sun and then on to the bridleway.


Goldcrests moved through the hedgerows, small dark shadows darting amongst the twigs their high pitched contact calls barely audible. I stopped to look over Ashgrave. There was a huge flock of around eight hundred Lapwing in the distance resting on the grassy slope by a hidden pool of water. A Mute Swan came winging its way towards Greenaways, so beautiful in flight but at the same time appearing impossibly cumbersome.


The plan now was to try and see the Bramblings at the cattle pens as surely the disturbance would now be all over. When I got there the cattle were still in the pens and no one was about. All was quiet and there was a glorious male Brambling feeding with Chaffinches and Goldfinches on the ground. 



Male and female Bramblings
Then another male and a female flew down and joined it. They are such pretty birds, the subtleties and the patterns of their plumage making the Chaffinches look almost plain in comparison. I watched them for a few minutes before an all too distinctive sound came distantly from the bridleway. Oh oh! A four wheel drive, then another and finally an all terrain vehicle! The cows looked shifty as if suspecting they were in for yet more stress and the vehicles drew up by the cattle pens. The finches departed for the bushes once again and 'Operation Bullock' went into reverse with all the cows now being driven back the way they had come on the bridleway, again with as much noise as possible.



Peace eventually returned but the finches did not. I had a look at the feeders nearby hoping a Brambling might have gone there but instead found an attractively chocolate coloured female Pheasant below them and a Great Spotted Woodpecker attacking the peanuts. Two male Greenfinches arrived at the feeders. Is it my impression that they do seem very scarce these days? I finally called it a day, planning to come back for the starling roost later in the afternoon and duly headed for Farmoor to go and see the female Scaup and renew my acquaintance with the Slavonian Grebes

As I traversed the deserted reservoir Causeway, the concrete wastes of Farmoor One were bathed in sunshine on a Tuesday afternoon virtually devoid of human life. A male Goldeneye flew in as I walked along and proceeded to vigorously wash and preen, almost inverting itself in the water, his bright orange legs flashing in the sun, but there was little else to see from the Causeway.


There is, I am coming to believe, some unwritten law at Farmoor that all the good birds are always at the far end of the Causeway and so it was today. In fact they were even further, being in the far northwest corner of the reservoir. The female Scaup, showing to good effect her huge white blaze at the base of the bill was preening contentedly at the back of the Tufted Duck flock and a little further on there was a Slavonian Grebe being harrassed by a Coot as it fished. After admiring the scaup and grebe I walked onwards and found the second Slavonian Grebe also feeding avidly on small fish. A dark shape whizzed behind me; a male Sparrowhawk and following his progress I saw him flush five Lesser Redpolls from some birch trees. The total count of Goldeneye was ten by the time I got back to my starting point.

Now it was time to go back to Otmoor for the Starling roost and to meet up with Badger. Tonight it turned out that the Starlings had decided to move a lot closer than on Sunday, to roost in the reeds halfway towards the second screen. It is a matter of conjecture but which bird or birds in the first flock to arrive or what circumstance decides where they roost each night? The first small flock of Starlings arrived at 1557 and then progressively through the evening the flocks just got larger and larger, many in their thousands and then gradually tailed off to just a few late stragglers


A Starling flock coming in to roost


The Starling roost was in the reeds to the left of the track




Starlings coming in to roost

We were joined by the RSPB staff and friends and various of us would exclaim as one huge flock after another arrived at the roost. They were also roosting fairly close to our watchpoint. So close in fact that you could see the topmost birds perched on the reeds. There were none of the spectacular hologram manouevres that we saw on Sunday but just lots and lots of Starlings. The roosting birds went straight into the reeds but were flushed on several occasions by a Hen Harrier and two Sparrowhawks looking for a last meal before sunset. When this happened the sky was obscured by a black whirling mass as the entire assembly of Starlings took to the air from the reeds and the noise of rushing wings and voices was incredible. 

Aforesaid black whirling mass of Starlings spooked by a raptor.
The browner birds are where the sun is reflecting off their wings
The late evening sunlight bathed the whole reed bed in a gentle orange light. and reflected off the birds wings as they swirled about  In the end the collective opinion of those present arrived at an estimate of 50,000 birds coming in to the roost.


To cap it all a huge, pink, Halloween  moon arose. Almost unreal in it's size and colour it added an ethereal aspect to the magical hour we had experienced. You half expected to see ET or a witch on a broomstick silhouetted against it. Some Fieldfares or 'chuckle thrushes' as Andy appropriately called them, shot into the reed bed in the fast fading light and a tight flock of Snipe, almost in the dark, arrived to feed in the flashes amongst the reeds. Badger and myself were the last to leave, almost reluctant, listening to the Starlings raucous, conversational chatter in the reeds which slowly declined to a quiet murmur, and then silence as the birds went to sleep and all was still in the darkness.



Sunday, 28 October 2012

Farmotmoor Interlude 28 October 2102



A gloomy Sunday so let's go and cheer ourselves up with an afternoon visit to Farmoor and then Otmoor. That should do the trick and indeed it did. There were two Slavonian Grebes on Farmoor 1 close into the Causeway. I think they came in close as there were numerous small fish in the shallower water. The grebes easily caught them and ate a prodigious quantity. I was there for an hour and they hardly stopped diving for fish. I only managed to identify one of the fish they brought to the surface and that was a Three Spined Stickleback which the grebe had great difficulty swallowing. The defence mechanism of the stickleback is to raise its spines. This makes it extremely difficult if not painful to swallow and the grebe spent an awful lot of time dropping it back in the water and then retrieving it until, presumably exhausted, the fish gave up the unequal struggle. The grebes were also heard to call on several occasions which I can only liken to the sound of drawing a wet finger across glass. They used this as a contact call when they became separated by the unwelcome attentions of a Great Crested Grebe which had taken umbrage at their presence. The larger grebe regularly harassed either one of them causing the grebe in question to take a short skittering flight to escape its attention.


Little else was evident along the Causeway apart from a Rock Pipit but a Common Sandpiper feeding along the edge of the marina was a surprise. I had rendezvoused with Badger on the Causeway and after viewing the grebes we decided on a visit to Otmoor to see the Starling roost which was rumoured to be building up nicely and, even better was attracting the attentions of two Hen Harriers. Arriving at the main bridleway we checked the Chaffinch flock feeding on the seed put down for them at the metal gate and cattle pens. The twenty strong flock seemed to consist of mainly male Chaffinches but then a female Brambling flew down. The views were only brief as the birds were very flighty and were forever flying back into the bushes as there was a lot of disturbance from people walking along the adjacent bridleway. I looked through my bins at the bushes and found the female Brambling perched with a  male Chaffinch. I checked out the other silhouettes in the bush and found another Brambling, this one was a male. Finally a smaller finch perched on the top of the bush was a Lesser Redpoll.  Fieldfares and Redwings flew, calling overhead. Not bad for a start. 

I do hope it is going to be a good year for Bramblings as last year was so poor. They are one of my favourite finches. We strode off down the bridleway and turned right through the gate guarding the track to the first screen. A line of Long tailed Tits flew along the hedgerow then halfway down the track, on our right, from the reeds came the distinctive pinging of Bearded Tits. We surveyed the area of reeds and we could hear them but they were impossible to see. It started to rain and the sky became leaden and dark. We waited and waited, they called regularly and then silence. Nothing. In the end we gave it up and went to check the starling roost. Despite the rain we were not disappointed. 



Flocks of starlings came from all directions forming a fantastic, ever changing hologram as they joined up into one mass, manouevering above the reeds. Off to my right a large, long winged, brown raptor appeared over the distant hedgeline. A flash of a white rump identified it as a  ringtail Hen Harrier. The starlings continued their fantastic shape shifting in the darkening sky before descending into the reeds and then rising again as something, possibly the harrier, spooked them. Up and down the flock went with others constantly joining and then off to the left a dark, long tailed raptor flew below and then into the flock of starlings. Another or was it the same ringtail Hen Harrier? The rain carried on and we decided to call it a day.We estimated the starling flock to be in excess of twenty thousand birds and there were still birds coming in as we left. It really is a magnificent sight and one of nature's truly 'must see' spectacles. 


As we left a large flock of Fieldfares lived up to their name and in a straggling line of close to a hundred birds headed across the open spaces of Big Otmoor. Back along the bridleway and a lone Swallow flicked rapidly up and down the hedgerow trees catching the last of the insects in the oncoming gloom.

Webbed Feet in West Sussex 27 October 2012



Dark bellied Brent Geese flying in to feed on the fields at West Wittering


The entrance to Chichester Harbour and western end of East Head

For twenty five years now I have done a WeBS (Wetland Bird Survey) count in Chichester Harbour. These co-ordinated counts take place once a month from September to March at high tide and I am lucky enough to have one of the more desirable sectors, namely West Wittering and East Head. This area consists of  fields and foreshore owned by the West Wittering Estate and is open to the public, at a price, and is much used by dog walkers, the general public and in the summer is a nightmare of wall to wall parked cars and people enjoying the beach. In the winter apart from sunny days it is comparatively quiet. This is where the Dark bellied Brent Geese come to feed on the grass at high tide. 

Dark bellied Brent Geese
West Wittering Estate claims to be a conservation Company but is basically as far as I can see a money making operation, charging high prices for entry and littering the whole place with notices telling you what you cannot do. On the seaward end of this is East Head, owned by the National Trust, consisting of a promontory of  dunes in danger of erosion by both the sea and the number of people walking over it and surrounded by a sandy beach  .This area is especially beloved by dog walkers and is the site of a high tide roost of waders although constantly disturbed by the dogs and their inconsiderate owners. 

East Head dunes, sand and site of the high tide wader roost
The final section is Snowhill Marsh which is a fenced off reserve and is the main roost site for waders and ducks at high tide and provides seclusion from disturbance for all manner of wetland birds. Avocets have attempted to bred here on at least two occasions. I started doing the counts when I lived in Sussex and somehow carried on after moving to Oxfordshire some seventeen years ago. I usually meet up with a friend of mine John Reaney, a self employed bird artist and we do the count together. 

John Reaney and myself heading round East Head
This will probably be my last season as it is time to hand it over although I will be sad to leave what has become an annual pilgrimage to a beautiful area of Sussex. In fact I did resign a few years ago but had such withdrawal symptoms that I asked to be re-instated and my wish was granted. Apparently no-one had been daft enough to take it on. The main purpose of these counts is to count all wetland birds in co-ordination with all other counters in Chichester harbour and nationwide to monitor wetland bird populations and to do it at high tide when the birds roost and do not move around. Including the birds I regularly count I have seen 138 species of bird here over the years. I have also seen very many changes, some bad and some good. Shelduck which used to be frequent are now rarely seen. Slavonian Grebe and Common Goldeneye have similarly disappeared as have the large numbers of  Dunlin (formerly thousands, now 300 if you are lucky), Golden Plover, (formerly over a thousand, now around 100) as well as a marked decline in Lapwing and Sanderling

Lapwing now declining in numbers

Golden Plover now declining in numbers
Conversely Teal and Greenshank have increased with the latter often overwintering and the Dark bellied Brent Goose flock has maintained its numbers at well over a thousand. Mediterranean Gulls although still not regular are increasingly being seen. Inevitably every so often a really rare or uncommon species turns up to brighten the day. An adult Red breasted Goose was found on a day of unbelievably strong gale force winds. In fact the wind was so strong off the sea that I was blown over and there were hardly any geese on the fields but of those that were present the Red Breasted Goose was one of them and fed unconcernedly on the grassy fields with it's goosey pals. This was undoubtedly the rarest and best find in all the years I have been doing the counts and suitable reward for all the dull and bad weather days when little was around. Every year I used to say to John 'Wouldn't it be great if a Red breasted Goose turned up in the Brent flock'. "Dream on" he would reply. Then one day it happened and John was not there! 





At last. A Red breasted Goose at West Wittering
On another even fouler day weather wise I found a Taiga Bean Goose in with the Brent Goose flock and Barnacle Geese occasionally turn up in the flock as well. Ruddy Shelduck, Velvet Scoter, Little Auk, Red necked Grebe, Red throated Diver, Hen Harrier, Short eared Owl, Osprey, Grey Phalarope and Twite have all been seen over the years. A flock of Little Stint used to winter on East Head reaching a maximum of fifteen but there are none now. Snow Buntings, often very tame can be found in the dunes at East Head on occasions but not every year.


Snow Bunting on East Head
My sector has a large wintering flock of Dark bellied Brent Geese which allow progressively close approach as the months wear on and they get used to human presence, although dogs will put them up immediately. Today there were over fifteen hundred geese on the fields but they appear to  have had an appalling breeding season and only fourteen juveniles were present in the entire flock. Its not unusual for Brent Geese to have bad breeding years. I think on average it is only one in five years they manage to raise a lot of young. Apparently it depends on the Lemming population in Siberia. If there are a lot of Lemmings then predators such as Pomarine Skuas, Arctic Foxes and Snowy Owls concentrate on the Lemmings. If the Lemmings have a bad year then the Brent Goose goslings provide a suitable alternative! There was however the bonus of an adult Black Brant in amongst them today. Always nice to see and often now there is one present in the flock but not quite so early in the year as this one. 


Adult Black Brant with Dark bellied Brent Geese
A family party of Dark bellied Brent Geese. Two adults with three young.
Judging by the almost complete failure of any of the flock to raise young
they did exceptionally well to raise three young.
Just to the left of the young Brent is a hybrid Black Brant x Dark bellied Brent Goose.
You can just see the white flanks and dark back
Scoping through the flock we also came across one, possibly two hybrid Black Brant  x Dark bellied Brent. The day was marked by a biting and very strong northerly wind. There was no hiding place and the wind whipped across the sea making our eyes water and scopes shake. Counting birds here should be a joy but the place is also inundated with dog walkers who like to walk their dogs by the seashore and can make life a nuisance. They may love their precious pooches but a muddy dog jumping up at one or sticking its nose in your groin can get tedious. It's no use their owner saying  "He's quite friendly, he won't hurt you". I also never understand why their owners feel unconcerned and un-embarrassed about their obvious lack of control over their dogs and the assumption that having been assaulted by their dog you will be not be at all put out. I am not scared of dogs or their owners but just do not care for those, both owner and dog, that appear to be out of control.
Anyway enough of that and back to the birding. Four Swallows and two House Martins sought shelter from the wind to feed in the lee of the dunes but they looked tired and the swallows eventually landed on the sand to rest. Not a good sign. They better hurry or it will be too late. A steady passage of Starlings, Skylarks and Chaffinches headed north into the wind, low across the sea and small flocks of Woodpigeons did the same. Out on the saltings of East Head, Skylarks and Linnets fed whilst Grey Plover, Dunlin and a couple of Knot came into the high tide roost. We spent some time scoping the flock of Brent Geese as from experience it is only after going through the flock several times that you can be sure there is 'nothing good' in there. Today, all round, was not one of the better days as apart from the geese there were relatively few birds to count. Snowhill Marsh which usually holds big numbers of roosting waders, ducks and often wintering Spotted Redshank and Jack Snipe is currently being badly disrupted by sea defence work and today the numbers of waders and ducks was as a consequence well down. The totals for the marsh were as follows: Common Teal 174; Wigeon 8; Black tailed Godwit 15; Curlew 19; Common Greenshank 1; Common Redshank 35; Lapwing 4; Little Egret 4; Grey Heron 1; Cormorant 1 and a couple of ChiffChaffs in the hedgerow behind the marsh..


I wonder what next month will turn up? Probably nothing exceptional but that is the charm of birding. You just never know and if you are not there it will not happen anyway.

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Back to the garden 23 October 2012

It's not all twitching and chasing rarities. No sir. Our resident Nuthatch, presuming there is only one, continues to charm us as it visits the garden feeders on a daily basis. I took the following pictures when it hung upside down and immobile on a feeder after being alarmed by something passing overhead. The first two images show it obviously watching something. Presumably as it did not fly off it did not feel too threatened but it was static on the feeder for a good ten minutes before recommencing feeding. It definitely prefers the head down approach when feeding and similarly when it leaves the feeders it is always when it is facing the ground. They really are smart looking birds and it is a real pleasure to have them visiting our garden after far too long an absence






Monday, 22 October 2012

And now I'm feeling EPIC!! 20 October 2012


Kilminning Picnic Area, Fife.
All roads lead to a Mega.
For the whole of the preceding week a mega rarity in the form of an Eastern Olivaceous Warbler had been reported daily from a place called Kilminning in the Kingdom of Fife. Where? You may well ask. Kilminning is the name given to a Wildlife Reserve and also to an adjacent Picnic Area owned by Fife Council but does not appear on any map that I could find. The nearest village on the map is Crail, about as far East as one can get in Fife before falling into the sea. Work commitments just kept getting in the way all week until finally a window of opportunity appeared to be available on Saturday. The plan was however hatched much earlier on Thursday, although at first it seemed madness. I would go at midnight on Friday if the bird was still there, drive seven hours through the night and arrive at 7am on Saturday morning, which I calculated coincided with dawn in Scotland. This was right up there with my long haul twitches to Shetland (Siberian Rubythroat ) and Orkney (Sandhill Crane) and hopefully it would be just as successful. The combination of high risk and long distance plus the bonus of returning however briefly to my native country all added to the excitement and trepidation. Tracey my assistant at work declared me mad. Again. My wife just said 'What is it this time' and pretended to be impressed with my excitable declaration "Only an Eastern Olivaceous Warbler. A mega !". On Thursday, to add to the excitement, there had also been two Radde's Warblers and a Red Breasted Flycatcher discovered at the same location but these had not been seen on Friday. Never mind, the Olivaceous was the prime target. 

Being my own boss I was able to leave work at lunchtime on Friday and came home and went to bed to prepare for a midnight departure that same day. It was going to be a very long drive so the more rest I could accumulate the better. I like late night driving, it's almost romantic with comparatively empty roads, the sharp edges of daylight gone to be replaced by the soft contours of night and the comforting glow from the car's instrument panel lights. Me and my beloved Audi on the road again but not so alone this time. I have never seen so many lorries as on this night. Were they all trying to get home for the weekend? There were convoys of them, ten or more strong at times cruising up the inside lane of the Motorway. We sped on past them and made a stop at 3am just south of the border. There is something almost surreal about Motorway service stations at this time of night. They are apparently devoid of human life, but all the lights are on and usually there is some dire, totally inappropriate, keep you happy mood music blaring out in the toilets. Has anyone seen The Shining starring Jack Nicholson? Well you almost expect something similar could happen here. But no one attacked me with an axe and no one announced themselves as Johnny so I regained the security of the Audi intact in body if not in mind and continued North across the border, Failte ghu Alba - Welcome to Scotland - and on through the hills to Glasgow and east across to Edinburgh. Then it all went slightly wrong. 

It is said the body's metabolism reaches it's lowest at this time of night and if something does not go according to plan, from my experience it's sometimes difficult to cope. The M90 spur road specifically to take you to the Forth Road Bridge and which should have been open was closed. I found myself with no choice, stuck on the M90 going West, heading in the wrong direction and with no apparent way of getting off it. I decided to get off the Motorway at the first exit I came to which after what seemed an eternity, eventually materialised. I zoomed up it and there in all its glorious luminosity was a sign saying Diversion for the Forth Road Bridge. Really? I had found it by sheer chance. Why were there were no signs further back down the Motorway? Have my fellow Scots become psychic? The diversion directed me over the Motorway and back down the other side along a minor road now going in the right direction-East. No sign of the Forth Road Bridge or anymore diversion signs so I carried on in hope and eventually found a left turning which indicated I should turn here for the Forth Road Bridge. Back on track. Over the bridge we went. No tolls! Mine was the only vehicle crossing this triumph of engineering, allowing free access to Fife and an Eastern Olivaceous Warbler. Off to my right was the even more impressive Forth Rail Bridge with its celebrated three arches, now illuminated to show their full magnificence. 

We were nearing our destination and Scotland was stirring, with other cars now on the road. An hour later found me arriving in the village of Crail and obeying instructions I followed the road through the village and after a couple of miles turned right into Kilminning Picnic Area, parking at the far end to await the approaching dawn. Shortly after 7.30 there was enough light and I ventured out of the car. Kilminning appeared to be a flat area of rough grassland, almost wasteland, complete with abandoned trainers and other items of clothing, scattered shrubs and trees, bounded respectively on three sides by a golf course, the sea and a disused airfield. 

All was quiet and the whole area just said 'BIRDS'. It was that kind of habitat and must be a dream to have as your local birding spot. I said all was quiet but shortly after nine that morning the peace and quiet was shattered by the roar of high powered, very expensive looking cars racing up and down the disused runaway. Presumably this was a Scots version of the Jeremy Clarkson driving experience as it even had the male macho men watched lovingly on the sidelines by their devoted babes. They were still at it when I left five hours later. 

The Olivaceous Warbler was apparently to be found in a fairly restricted area of dog roses and scrub near to the seaward side of Kilminning Picnic Area. In fact looking at this area it would appear to have been part of the airfield in the past as much of it was derelict. Reports also indicated that the warbler could be best located by it's almost constantly uttered tack tack tack call. I listened in the quiet of post dawn and pre whacky races. Lots of Robins were ticking away, a Fieldfare chackered in an Ash tree and then un-mistakeably I could hear a distant but distinct tack tack tack call. I wandered around trying to locate it and eventually came to what appeared to be a drying shed or some such building surrounded by thick briars or rose bushes. Another birder was already there and indicated that the warbler was in these bushes. I rapidly joined him and for a few frustrating minutes could hear the bird but not see it. It was keeping well under cover and moving steadily along the inside of the bushes. Eventually I got good but fleeting views of it through the bins as it passed through the leafless areas of the bushes. 

Eastern Olivaceous Warbler

Eastern Olivaceous Warbler
The main thing I noted was how grey  it was on the upperparts and dull white below with a long, pale bill noticeably orange on the lower mandible. It's plumage was nothing like the more familiar warm brown tones of a Reed Warbler. It also moved its tail up and down regularly and kept up an insistent tack tack tack call, making it easy to follow as it moved through the bushes. It was on the move constantly and virtually always remaining in cover. Occasionally it would come out in full view but never for more than thirty seconds at a time. About another twenty five birders were present at first light with more joining throughout the morning but the number of birders watching the warbler later in the morning was never more than just a few. 


The Eastern Olivaceous Warbler favoured the thick leafy dog rose adjacent to the
birders.This appeared to be its favoured habitat wherever it was
There was no fuss or scrum as everyone apart from the dreaded photographers had ample space to stand and watch it. I just do not understand why some, but in fairness not all photographers have to insist on getting so close. One individual did not even have bins or scope. His sole mission appeared to be to try and get as close as  possible to get his photo which on occasions meant he would regularly stand bang in front of me or others until our patience finally ran out. I take photos too but the light was initially very dull and the bird too well hidden to get anything half decent so preferred to actually watch it through the bins. In the end I got fed up with the crowd and wandered off. I stood on a bank overlooking some briars and there was the warbler. I watched it on my own for a few minutes until it disappeared. Occasionally it would stop calling which I learnt from experience meant that it had flown to another area nearby and then would recommence it's monotonous tacking call. On one such occasion when it was silent I went to another area and it appeared high up in a tree calling but also using the rain on the leaves to wash and preen. Again I had it to myself and I watched it frenetically jumping about in the wet leaves for around five minutes. 

First winter Eastern Olivaceous Warbler
You can just see the white fringe to the outer tail feather.
Also the medium  primary projection, the fairly thick grey legs and pale orange lower mandible.
Note also the comparatively featureless pale face with dark eye 
Overall it was virtually on constant view or its presence could be heard for all the time I was there, which was five hours. Apparently when the sun came out in the afternoon, after I had left for home, it showed itself much more in the open which was a little annoying. When I was there it was overcast and presumably that was why it remained in cover although with patience there were more than adequate opportunities to see it well. I was happy with my encounter with the warbler and even managed some photos in the end. 

While chatting to a birder from Manchester mid morning we got an alert that there was a Radde's Warbler a few hundred yards away and we could even see the small group of birders watching it. This was a new UK species for me so with due respect to the Olivaceous Warbler I was off post haste and joining the small group saw the Radde's almost immediately, perching low down in the base of bushes and behaving very much like a Cetti's Warbler i.e more invisible than visible but without the voice. Eventually it showed well and what a subtly attractive bird it was with dark brown upperparts, a long, broad and creamy supercilium and rufous undertail coverts. It played hide and seek in the bottom of the bushes and the rough grass but I did get some great views of it so was very happy. Especially as it was so unexpected. Was this one of the birds from Thursday or another? It certainly was not in the same place as the other two had been reported from. Still, I was hardly worried by such trivialities. 

I went back afterwards to renew my Olivaceous Warbler experience but now was running against the clock. I had to be in London at eight the next morning and even my unbounded optimism told me that I should head South at twelve noon which would get me back home by around 7pm. Enough time to get some sleep before driving to London at six the next morning! I had an hour left of the morning and as things seemed to be going my way went to the area where the Red breasted Flycatcher had been seen a couple of days ago. It had not been reported today or yesterday but I could see no good reason why it would not still be around. I stood about with a few other birders but there was no sign of it. Four Whooper Swans flew over bugling. Someone claimed to have heard a Yellow-browed Warbler. Then a small shape flicked into a sycamore.

First winter Red breasted Flycatcher
First winter Red breasted Flycatcher.
Note the pale tips to the greater coverts and tertials showing it to be a first winter bird
So quick and ill defined it was easy to miss it. Bins up and there was a first winter Red Breasted Flycatcher. They are such a delight to see. A veritable woodland sprite with a flycatcher's engaging way of  looking at you almost benignly and knowingly. It was a real trial of tired eyes following it through the trees as it rapidly flitted around especially with the constant falling of leaves. Many a call was stifled as people realised that the flycatcher they thought they saw was a dropping leaf. Eventually the real thing would turn up and engage us all with it's charm and perky demeanour. Tail cocked, wings akimbo, the epitomy of restless energy.

First winter Red breasted Flycatcher.

It even gave it's ticking call and also a rattling call which they are said to use only on migration, very similar to a Wren. What a great bird to see. So my high risk twitch paid off big time. Forgive my self satisfaction, understandable after the triple dip in Ireland. Now it was a long haul back to home, via St Andrews to stock up on Scotch Pies and organic Venison sausages to take back a taste of home for the freezer. Seven hours, four power naps and 895 miles later I was home with a large Old Pulteney malt whisky in hand. 'Did you see it dear'. "Yes". "Thanks". "Goodnight". Out cold.