Sunday, 1 September 2013

The Whinchat and Wryneck Chronicles 31st August 2013



Saturday dawned fine but with a deceptively chilly northwest wind. A rendezvous with Badger was tentatively arranged for around eight thirty at Otmoor. I got there early. I always do this. I do not know why but I always do. I blame my parents who I recall always made sure we arrived early as a family wherever we went. We were always in a hurry for no apparent reason but I digress.

Having arrived early and in nothing more substantial than shorts and a tee shirt the chill wind took me by surprise and I was not going to hang about but walked briskly up the main track to the bridleway. I met Pete and Steve looking at four juvenile Little Egrets messing around in a muddy scrape and there was a very distant Whinchat sat on a wooden post far out in the field. We walked on to the Wetlands Hide and then looked at the fence posts beyond, that were bordering a field I later learnt is called July's Meadow. There seemed to be a lot of birds sat on the fence wires and posts but what were they? Quite distant and I had only my bins and camera but Pete and Steve scoped them and lo' they were Whinchats. Nine in all, keeping very much as a group, different individuals dropping down into the grass from the fence and then back up again. This was a very good number for Otmoor. We went down the track to get closer to them and one allowed quite close approach so I managed to get some images of it. 



What lovely and appealing birds they are, all new feathers now, consisting of subtle browns and orangy suffusions with their characteristic huge creamy white eyebrow. All chats seem to have this benign demeanour about them. Understated loveliness that appeals to my anthropomorphic tendencies. I am not a scientist so am prone to this sort of thing! We called 'the others' who were roaming the wastes of Otmoor somewhere near the outer reaches of the reserve by the Second Screen and had, they reported, seen very little. They soon joined us on the track and having had my fill of the Whinchats I went to check the Noke end of the reserve, some half a mile away, while my colleagues, finally with some birds to look at, headed closer to the Whinchats. I reasoned that Noke, which is usually a favoured haunt of both Whinchats and Wheatears, should also have some more of these delightful birds as there had obviously been 'a fall' of these migrants overnight. Perversely I met a complete blank at Noke. I struggled to find two Linnets. 

Disappointed I headed back to the others but they had by now moved on to Long Meadow at the other end of the reserve, so I made the long and tedious mile long walk back along the bridleway to join them. A small flock of six Yellow Wagtails flew over looking for the cattle as I progressed. I stopped to admire a female Southern Hawker hanging from some bramble leaves in the sun whilst Common and Ruddy Darters milled around at low level along the bridleway. 


The small Ash tree by the bridleway was still being stripped of bark by the Hornets. This has been going on for quite some time now and I fear for the tree but in a few more weeks the Hornets will succumb to the colder autumnal weather, but for now, with portly brown and yellow banded bodies and shimmering wings, they doodled across the path and into the tree for more bark stripping. 

I crossed the style and took the path into Long Meadow. I could see the others ahead of me but almost immediately stopped to look at the profusion of birdlife in the hedgerow and scattered bushes on the opposite side of the meadow. They were alive with birds in the form of a loose flock of tits and warblers. Such flocks seem to have an energy all to themselves with individual birds zipping in and out of the foliage at incredible speeds, moving through the hedgerows, leapfrogging their fellow birds as they progress. This year seems to have been a good one for Lesser Whitethroats and I counted up to seven, their shining white throats gleaming, almost translucent and really obvious in the sunshine. Three chased each other around a dead hawthorn with insistent quiet tac, tac calls before fleeing off into the depths of the hedgerow. There were other species with them too. A female Common Redstart flew fast and low from one bush to another and Common Whitethroats, Blackcaps and Willow Warblers joined in the loosely allied, frenzied feeding flock. The air was alive with the insistent hoooeeet anxiety calls of the Willow Warblers. A ChiffChaff burst into song briefly. 

I was just about to walk further into the field and join my colleagues when I saw that they were coming back. Unusual? We normally walk to the far end of Long Meadow as that is the best place for redstarts. Something was up. Mobiles were being held to ears and pagers consulted. Oz arrived and told me. 'Wryneck at Wantage. Along the track at Lark Hill'. Badger was in the process of getting further details and putting out an APB to all interested Oxonbirders. 'Are we going for it?' I enquired. 'Absolutely' responded Badger. 'Good. I need it for the County and they are always great to see anyway'. A cry of anguish was then heard. One of our number, who shall remain nameless and who had never seen a Wryneck in Oxfordshire was afflicted with the birders perennial curse. A prior arrangement involving his wife. An inviolable invitation to a lunchtime Line Dancing Party! I kid you not. Of course sympathy was totally out of the question and much fun was had by one and all as we revelled in his discomfiture. Unfair I know but we have all suffered from this at one time or another so at least understand. It's not the end of the world after all but just seems like it at the time. 

So back to the Car Park and into the cars. I joined Terry and Andy in one car as we followed Badger to Abingdon where he collected Bob and The Wickster. Then it was off to Wantage and a short drive beyond up onto the Downs to park at the beginning of the track at Lark Hill which runs uphill and downhill and then finally up to the Ridgeway. By now the sun was warm and the strong breeze was more bearable. Six of us laden with scopes, cameras and bins headed off to look for the Wryneck. We met Mark walking back who said he had failed to find it. Gloom all round. It looked like we would struggle to be successful.

A series of phone calls elicited the approximate area where we should look or at least where the Wryneck was last seen but a concerted pincer movement along a grassy track, the area of the last sighting, running at right angles from the main track produced nothing more sensational than a couple of Common Whitethroats, a Dunnock and a Wren. We reached the far end and milled around frustrated and tired. Wryneck 1 Oxonbirders 0. As we stood about in dumb despair Badger's phone rang. Stuart who had remained on the main track was calling about something. Badger gave out the glad tidings. Stuart had just seen the Wryneck! We set off back the short distance to where he was standing by the track, staggering across a fallow harvested field, this being the most direct route. The Wickster broke into a run, something not seen since the Pied Flycatcher at Farmoor. We now knew this was serious. We arrived in a dis-organised straggle. No sign of the Wryneck. 'It was just in the grassy edge of the track and flew into that hawthorn tree nearest to us' Stuart informed us. 'I haven't seen it come out of the tree'  he added. Wrynecks are notorious skulkers, sitting immobile and usually invisible for an age. We watched the tree and waited. Nothing. Still we waited. A man on a mountain bike came up the hill and passed the tree. A bird flew out. 'There it is!' 'No it isn't. It's a Yellowhammer'. The assembled birders bins were just being lowered when another bird shot out from the tree, flew past us on the right and back up the track behind us. This time, irrefutably, it was the real thing. Yes, a Wryneck. My first for Oxfordshire as it was for many of the others present. 

We followed it's flight in the bins and then went to the approximate location where we thought it had landed. However we just could not locate it and not for lack of trying but more by luck than judgement  it was eventually found feeding by the track's edge in the long grass. It flew again and landed in an ivy covered small tree. We followed and I got a view of it's head and breast.  The rest was obscured by leaves and branches but I could clearly see the head, buff throat and barred breast. It stretched a wing and preened barred flight feathers. Then it flew again but this time, thankfully, it perched right out in the open on a twig of a dead hawthorn beside it's favoured track. It sat here for a few minutes in the sunshine and we all got great views of it against a clear blue sky. The Wryneck then flew down again into the grass beside the track.



Virtually all Oxonbirders finest were present. Not quite Trumpton with Pugh, Pugh, Barney McGrew etc but substitute, Clackers, Badger, Tezzer, The Wickster and Wreny and we were not far off. The track favoured by the Wryneck, being fairly narrow and the birders now into double figures, necessitated we had to sort ourselves into a formation of  lines five or so across the track, one line behind the other. Once the Wryneck was re-located in the grass we stalked it, moving in a series of strategic grandmother's footsteps closer and closer but without flushing the Wryneck. It was by now mainly obscured in the long grass and often invisible or only partially on view for lengthy periods. Much time was spent directing people onto what was often only a shadow of a shape. It remained for a long time motionless behind a leaf  and it was consequently very hard to direct other people onto it. I quote from various useless although well intentioned utterances; 'See the leaf that is darker than the one next to it, well it's behind that but is virtually invisible'  or 'It's behind the dark leaf with the yellow edge that is in front of the darker patch in the grass beside the bend in the track. The person or persons to whom this was being directed responded 'Oh that leaf. I was looking at the other one. I still cannot see it though.' followed by 'Well look through my scope it's there. Right in the middle'. 'No I still cannot see it'. 'Well you have seen it but you just don't know you have!' Terry took inumerable pictures of the dark patch in the grass hoping by some random chance he would record the presence of the Wryneck. 

The Wryneck immune to the convoluted conversations and hopeless directions of the assembled and over optimistic ornithological paparazzi carried on wandering through the grasses but largely invisible to most. In the end we got fed up waiting as people argued about whether the dark patch in the grass really was it's head or just a piece of darker vegetation. It really was getting very silly. Bob had his huge 500m lens with him but still could not see it. Pete unhelpfully but jokingly enquired why he had not brought his biggest lens? Bob stoically ignored him. We decided to advance one more time. 'Right you lot, on the word go, Oxonbirds First Foot and Tripod by the left. Advance' 'Wait for it Burch, wait for it, get in line'. We advanced and the Wryneck confronted with an array of high powered, high cost optics and cameras  flew a few metres up the track but instead of scuttling into the long grass was now much more to the edge of the track in the short grass and everyone got to see all of it rather than just parts of it. Now fully in the open the Wryneck was appreciated by everyone in all it's glory of vermiculatd  grey, brown and buff plumage. Gasps, ooohs! and aaahs! emanated from the massed ranks. 


Camera shutters clattered away like a good day on the firing range at Otmoor. As always seems to happen, a commotion approached in the form of a mountain biker who chose this very moment to come hurtling down the track towards us and the object of our desire. Bob shouted to him. We all shouted to him. Stop! Stop! Stopstoptstop! The confused cyclist dismounted confronted by a massed phalanx of Oxonbirders waving and hollering at him in their anxiety. This should not be happening on a sunny Saturday. He looked very confused, perplexed even, but remained where he was. He was big and looked fierce behind his dark glasses. I feared the worst. The Wryneck now surrounded on both sides took the easy option and flew off into a tree. We had one last view of it perched out in the open on a dead tree branch, head into the wind and then it flew off back into cover and we left it in peace. The mountain biker? He was in fact very amenable telling us he used to live with a twitcher so understood the lunacy that currently confronted him and he said he would get some mileage from telling his colleague he twitched a Wryneck from his mountain bike. Hah hah!. With that it was back to Terry's car and a great day out with good company came to a sunny and glorious conclusion.

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