Monday 6 May 2024

A Call on the AA 5th May 2024

Bank Holiday Sunday morning was sunny and warm as Mark (P) and myself set off for our local Otmoor RSPB Reserve in search of a Glossy Ibis that had arrived there yesterday. The walk out to the viewing point at Oddington was one to revel in as we took a track that ran by hawthorn bushes, the sweet sickly perfume of their just opening flowers scenting the still air. Warbler song came from virtually every bush with Lesser Whitethroats to the fore, the  rattling finale to their preceding quiet warble particularly prominent while the water filled ditches rendered up the scratchy notes of a host of  Reed and Sedge Warblers.

We saw the ibis, albeit distantly, a prehistoric looking dark profile  disappearing and re-appearing in the reeds and wet grass near to a couple of Great White Egrets that stood statuesque, with white plumes almost luminous in the early morning sun. A little later we drove round to the other side of the reserve  and sat on a bench by the bridleway to watch half a dozen Hobbys, speeding high across the sky above, catching the emerging dragonflies ascending on the warm air. A Cuckoo flew past, long tailed, flat backed in profile and with those rapid shallow wingbeats that are so distinctive.

It was approaching noon and we considered it had been a good morning of birding and such a joy to be out on this classic Spring morning.One's spirit could not feel anything but elevated.

The reserve began to get busy and Mark had domestic commitments to attend to while I fancied a spot of gardening therapy, attending to my ever growing collection of hostas.

Back home I sat in my favourite chair in the kitchen. A cup of tea maybe and a bit of football on the television before venturing out into the garden. The only match currently on was Rangers v Kilmarnock  That will have to do. I will give it twenty minutes. I sat with my tea and dozed off.

Waking with a start, the match had already reached half time. As I always do I consulted my various birding apps for any news and a surge of adrenalin banished any future drowsiness or thoughts of gardening.

An Alpine Accentor (AA) had been mega'd on Birdguides. It was at Pitstone Quarry in Buckinghamshire.Was this a hoax? Buckinghamshire? Surely not? They never get rare birds.

Just as I was coming to terms with the startling news my phone rang and the other Mark (R), my twitching pal now removed to distant Yorkshire  called to tell me the news in case I had not already known it

I know. I've just read it

You should go

But  we saw the one in Suffolk two years ago really well see here

It's only just over an hour's drive from you


Terminating the call I rang Mark (P) who lives but three miles away and before I could say anything he said

 I knew you would call. Are we going for it?

Be at mine in five minutes and I will drive  I told him

Thankfully all my birding gear was still in the car

Mark arrived and left his car outside my house and with no further ceremony we left for the neighbouring county of Buckinghamshire.

The initial discovery of this bird is a remarkable tale in its own right.

A bryologist (someone who studies moss) from Gloucestershire was searching Pitstone Quarry for a rare moss and whilst doing so noticed a small bird close to him on the crumbly, chalky west face of the quarry. Not being a birder he emailed a picture to Mike King who runs The Gloster Birder. Mike is on holiday in Turkey and identified the bird as an Alpine Accentor, only the forty second to be found in Britain. He emailed the news to the bird information services who put out the news and a major twitch ensued. Mike, having already dipped an Alpine Accentor three times was left bereft on holiday in Turkey.

We arrived at Pitstone Hill car park, which serves this National Trust beauty spot and managed to get the last place available whilst other cars were parked nose to tail down the narrow lane outside. I suppose it was always going to be like this on a sunny Bank Holiday Sunday at a well known beauty spot with both the general public and now an invasion of birders to be accommodated..

Immediately in front of us was the very steep, daunting, grassy Pitstone Hill which we were obliged to either go up or around.

Just about to commence the climb I noticed Stuart in his wheelchair and stopped to help him.There would be no way he could get up the hill on his own.Stuart is remarkable and does not let his disability deter him and usually manages to twitch most birds that arrive in Britain and is a well known and respected member of the twitching community. Fiercely independent he is only willing to accept help if absolutely necessary but in this case I had no reticence in offering assistance.Somehow with me dragging and Stuart pushing we got to the top of the hill only to be told that there was no way Stuart would be able to access the quarry in his wheelchair as the terrain and various fences beyond would make it impossible.Much to my regret I had to leave Stuart on the hill.

Meeting birders returning from the quarry Mark and myself got directions where to go which entailed following a very narrow track descending down a hillside in a steep gully, passing through thick hawthorn and bramble that caught at your clothes and in my case left a couple of thorns in my scalp and various scratches. To add to the inconvenience we then had to climb over a barbed wire fence that guarded the environs of the quarry. A quarry incidentally where the Marvel films are made starring Ryan Reynolds who has latterly bought Wrexham Football Club to widespread publicity and acclaim.

Once we were over the fence we followed another track sloping down to the edge of the quarry.

It was obvious where the bird was as around fifty birders were stood precariously on various ridges of chalk substrate looking up to a small cliff face of bare chalk, patches of grass and various plants.


The Alpine Accentor was first pointed out  to me feeding at the lip of the quarry but  then slowly came closer as it descended whilst working its way back and fore along an area of the chalk face in front of us.

It was eating mainly caterpillars, beetles and other invertebrates which it found hidden at the base of the various plants growing in the chalky earth and was totally unphased by the ranks of its admirers lined up below and pointing cameras, lenses and scopes at it. 

could not help but reflect on a vagrant bird's capacity to find a habitat similar to its normal one.Here the chalk rock face and quarry, isolated amongst undulating pastoral hills, was the next best thing to the AA's normal alpine mountain home

Mark (P) now had yet another mega to add to his growing birdlist and me my second Alpine Accentor for Britain and like the bird in Suffolk it did not disappoint.It was a veritable stunner!

As with many twitches it became a bit of a social occasion, greeting acquaintances from far and wide, not seen for some time or the last big twitch and because of the location's close proximity to Oxfordshire a number of Oxon Birding colleagues had made it too; Conor, Gnome, Nick and Ann Truby to name but a few.

All of us had tales of what we were doing when news of the bird broke: mowing the lawn, washing the car, shopping, painting a shed, you name it but for a bird like this, which almost certainly is unlikely to remain for long, you have to make your excuses and go immediately.

We watched it for around an hour as it came progressively closer, feeding constantly. It was lucky for us it was such a short journey to Pitstone Quarry as the news only came out in the early afternoon and vagrant Alpine Accentors do not tend to remain for more than a day so would probably be gone tomorrow. (It was).

It was fortuitous too that it was a Bank Holiday weekend as the quarry is private and we were all trespassing but due to the Bank Holiday the quarry was closed and unattended until Tuesday.

In that familiar state of mild elation after a successful twitch we made our way with great care back over the treacherous fence and slowly up the steep hillside, meeting many anxious birders heading in the other direction.

They would see the bird as it was not going anywhere today from the look of things.

We had a celebratory pint of shandy in a pub nearer home then I dropped Mark at his car and life returned to normal


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