Sunday, 27 March 2016

Birding with Badger 27th March 2016

I called my good friend Badger on Saturday night and suggested some Easter Sunday birding, locally in Oxfordshire. The weather did not look as bad as forecast although there would be strong winds but we could cope with that.

An arrangement to meet at The Perch at 9am, hard by Port Meadow, was duly fixed and on a blustery but sunny morning we met up and walked out to the River Thames to find the Dark bellied Brent Goose which had been around for a week or so, associating with the resident Greylag Geese. Thankfully at this time in  the morning the dog walker disturbance was minimal so we soon found the brent goose relaxed and feeding on the grass on the other side of the river. It is only when you see it close to the Greylags or Canada Geese that you realise just how small brent geese really are although it showed little fear of the Greylags and indeed kept close company with them.

Geese are sociable birds most of the time so I assume the brent goose deprived of its own kind, co opted itself to the next best thing. We watched it for an hour or so feeding and once, when alarmed, settling on the river but soon flying back to land and resuming its endless cropping of the grass. Five Sand Martins were hunting insects over the water and a single Oystercatcher wandered the edge of the flood on the meadow whilst many Teal were hunkered down, asleep, on the far side of the flood. Joggers began to pass us by, gasping and snorting with their exertion, feet pounding on the muddy track, the dog walkers started to appear too and the first longboat set sail. Oxford was waking up. It was time to leave.

The River Thames and part of Port Meadow beyond

Dark bellied Brent Goose
Where to next we enquired of each other?  'Let's do Farmoor.' 'OK. Good idea.'  Badger had yet to catch up with the Red necked Grebe that is currently residing there and also wanted to see if any White Wagtails had arrived so it seemed a sensible proposition and Farmoor is not that far away. 

Farmoor was lashing itself into a frenzy of flapping yacht sails and rattling halyards when we arrived at the exposed reservoir. Sailors were huddled in wet suits drinking tea inside the yacht club and contemplating taking to the grey, wind and wave swept expanse of Farmoor Two as the sun disappeared behind ominous grey clouds promising an imminent shower or worse.

I wandered up to the Causeway while Badger investigated the plumbing in the yacht club. A Dunlin teetered on the concrete boat launching area picking at invisible morsels before flinging itself into the wind and with a flash of twinkling white underbody hurtled downwind and away. I looked over the Causeway wall that created a windbreak to Farmoor 1 and as expected the two Great Northern Divers, always keeping close company, were fishing in the calmer waters just off the Causeway. They have been here all winter and I wonder how much longer they will remain. Their appearance has changed subtly as they moult out of their juvenile plumage into a still grey and drab second year plumage although one has a pronounced neck collar now but that is about the only concession to adulthood that I can see. They will not gain their full adult plumage until their third year of life when they will breed for the first time. I looked carefully at one and noticed that its upper mandible has grown rather too long and the tip looks like it needs filing off. It did not seem inconvenienced by this so hopefully it will be alright and not hampered by it when feeding.

The Red necked Grebe was, as per usual, about as far away as possible from the yacht club so instead of yomping around the reservoir we opted to drive round to Lower Whitley Farm, park there and walk through the usually locked gate to the reservoir, but now left open for some reason. This gave us access to the reservoir virtually where the grebe  was fishing just off the reservoir wall. Mark was already there taking photos and we joined him. 

The last time I saw the grebe it was picking flies from the flat calm water but today, although in the lee of the wind and in reasonably calm water it had turned its attention to small fish as the flies had probably been blown away on the wind. I think the fish were Three spined Sticklebacks which it brought to the surface and softened up by whacking them on the water before swallowing them. Mind you it did on occasion struggle as the stickleback lived up to its name and the spines  seemed to catch in the grebe's throat causing it to regurgitate the fish, slap it around into further submission and then swallow it with prodigious contractions of its throat. Its consumption of the small fish was considerable as we watched and the sun re-emerged to create quite pleasant conditions as the wind on this side of the reservoir was not so strong.

Red necked Grebe 

Great crested Grebe which also was fishing for sticklebacks
A pleasant forty five minutes passed as we admired this beautiful grebe and watched it fishing. Badger had heard from Andy who told us the summer plumaged Black necked Grebe was still at Dix Pit as was a small flock of around a dozen redpolls. It did not take much persuading for us to head over there to join Andy, and Mark decided to come with us.

At Dix Pit Andy pointed out where the Black necked Grebe was and Badger and Mark headed off to try and record the moment whilst I remained with Andy to check the redpoll flock, as Andy was convinced there was one, maybe two Mealy Redpolls or Common Redpolls as they are now called, and quite a rarity in Oxfordshire, in the flock. The redpolls were initially very difficult to view as they were feeding on the ground in a thick tangle of stems and rushes by the water's edge and virtually invisible. Andy told me they commuted between there and a near by area of rough grass and scrub where they were much easier to see. 

It took some time waiting for them to fly to the scrubby area, during which I managed a distant view of the Black necked Grebe and a Swallow demonstrated its mastery of the windy conditions but eventually the redpolls flew to the scrub and we could clearly see them feeding in the grass and occasionally perching in the small bushes and trees. We had fun trying to locate the supposed Mealy/Common Redpoll, which appeared paler than the browner Lesser Redpolls. One individual was definitely paler and looked very different to the Lesser Redpolls and I think it may be a Mealy/Common Redpoll or a race not from the UK. Not a classic grey plumaged individual but surely far too pale to be one of our native Lesser Redpolls. Redpoll species and races are a bit of a nightmare to identify as they can appear anything from almost white to dark brown (our native ones) with many variations in between. I managed to take some record shots of this particular one but the strong sunlight  and the skittishness of the flock made it very difficult.

Possible Common/Mealy Redpoll or maybe a different race from UK redpoll
I love this kind of birding where you are tested by having to scrutinise and diagnose subtle plumage differences in the field whilst being constantly frustrated by the bird's erratic behaviour and by partial or inconclusive views. The whole process is a matter of building up an overall picture over time which can and often does, as in his case remain unresolved. The matter may be academic anyway as there is news that all redpolls may be 'lumped' as one species rather than the number of separate species that they are considered to be at the moment, not that such a prospect devalues, as in this case the testing of one's identification skills. Thanks should go to Andy for first putting out the news and alerting us to the presence of this bird.  

Some of the Lesser Redpolls, presumably the males were in their lovely breeding plumage of rose pink flushed breast and bright crimson poll.  

Male Lesser Redpoll
Quite beautiful and so often unnoticed and unsuspected unless you get a good view of one perched and relatively still. Too often they are just seen flying and then appear to be just another small and inconsequential brown bird.

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