Saturday, 2 December 2017

It's Getting a Bit Late 30th November 2017

I was working on my recent blog about Parrot Crossbills early yesterday afternoon when the phone rang. My wife answered and told me the call was for me. It was Graham who lives in the same village and now makes a living from gardening at many of the big houses in the area. Graham used to be a paramedic but tired of the unsociable night shifts and lousy pay so took the plunge, some years ago, to be master of his own destiny and garden for the great and good. Gardening is his passion anyway and his garden is a wonder of plants and shrubs of all sorts and varieties.

I picked up the phone and Graham told me he had been gardening at a regular customer of his who keeps horses and had seen a bird that she did not recognise feeding on the manure heap outside the stables this morning. Now Graham is not a birder but he takes an interest and when he sees something strange and feathered he knows where to come.

I asked him to describe the bird and he told me it looked a bit like a Redwing but smaller and did not have red on its sides but was a pinkish colour on its breast and brown above. This was not too helpful and try as I  might I could get no further specific details from him so we agreed he would come and pick me up immediately and take me to the house and I could see the bird for myself and identify it, assuming it was still there. Graham did come up with one further snippet of information, telling me the owners of the house had told him they had seen it on the manure heap for at least two days prior to today.

Graham duly arrived and armed with camera and bins I boarded his pick up and away we went to Fifield, a village about six miles away. We arrived at a house, well maybe mansion would be a better way to describe it as it was immense and with grounds to match and must be worth millions. We walked to the stables and surveyed the manure heap but apart from two Blackbirds and a Robin there was no other bird to be seen and definitely not the mystery bird.

We walked around the surrounding paddock and along the bordering hedgerow looking for any sign of the bird but found nothing. It was absolutely freezing and not a time to stand about as a chilling northwest wind blew steadily across the open countryside to increase our discomfort. We got back to the manure heap and were just discussing whether to come back tomorrow when Graham said, 'There it is! It's just flown down below the top of the heap'. From where I stood I could see no sign of the mystery bird so tiptoed around the heap to try and see where it was.

Graham then said 'There it is, it's on the top of the heap!' and sure enough there was a small pale brown bird slightly bigger than a Robin with a buff orange breast. 

I looked in the bins and to my amazement found myself looking at a female Northern Wheatear, feeding on the flies and invertebrates on and around the manure heap. I rapidly took some photos just to ensure it was a Northern Wheatear and not a Desert Wheatear (dream on!) and tried to check the tail pattern. As is usual when you want to see a particular feature urgently, circumstances seem to work against you but after ten minutes of following the bird it finally showed its black and white tail pattern in a brief flight and there was no mistake. It was a female Northern Wheatear.

What it is doing here at such a late date is remarkable and my mind went back to the late staying Whinchat at Otmoor that I saw on 30th October this year. The  wheatear certainly did not look unwell and it was feeding well and perky enough in its actions although a little bedraggled due to the wet conditions around the heap. 

I think I am right in stating this is the latest recorded Northern Wheatear in Oxfordshire. There is one other late record known to me of a bird of this species recorded at Wootton near Woodstock on 28th November 1970. Forty seven years ago!

I hope it does survive the current wintry conditions with temperatures here in The Cotswolds dropping two to three degrees below zero at night. It really had better move on soon to its normal winter home in sub Saharan Africa before its food supply runs out. Maybe we could feed it mealworms to tide it over the winter like some birders did with a female Desert Wheatear  that opted to spend the winter frequenting the dunes at Rattray Head north of Aberdeen in 2012/2013

PS  The Northern Wheatear was last seen on Monday 4th December

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