Tuesday, 18 January 2022

Forest of Dean Awayday 17th January 2022

Mark (P) called me last night asking if I was up for a trip to the Forest of Dean as he was keen to see some Hawfinches and Crossbills to add to his year list.

Hawfinches in the Forest of Dean are one of my favourite winter outings so there was little hesitation in accepting his kind offer. Mark duly collected me from my home at 7am and in the still dark morning we set off for the forest. Negotiating the heavy rush hour traffic reminded me how graieful I am no longer have to drive to work every day like the unfortunate souls rushing past us at high speed.It is only when you stop doing this that you realise what madness it is.

Our first stop was at the traditional site in the forest to see Hawfinches, namely the Green at Parkend with its perimeter guarded by ancient yews in which the Hawfinches love to secrete themselves before descending into the leaf litter below to feed on the seed scattered by birders and photographers to lure them close,  The secret to see them is never under any circumstances leave your car. Do so and you will not see a Hawfinch or if you do it will be at the top of the tallest tree possible. Remain in your car and you have every chance of viewing Hawfinches only metres from your car, feeding below the Yew that you can park your car opposite.

We were relatively late in arriving and pulled in behind two birder's cars already stationed by the Yew. Mark opened the car windows and the soporific warmth of the car was banished by freezing air rushing in and although  the sun was shining it brought not the slightest benefit to our chilled bodies and  frozen fingers.

For quite some time we sat, waited and scanned the ground below the adjacent Yew. Any number of Chaffinches were feeding below the ancient tree joined by busy Nuthatches and the occasional Great and Blue Tit. No sign of a Hawfinch though. This is how it always is, as the Hawfinches wait until they see other birds feeding on the ground, which gives them the confidence to descend and join the other feeding birds.

I looked into the dark green depths of the Yew, my eye having being caught by a movement of a bird that looked plumper and heavier than the customary Chaffinch.

Hawfinch!  I whispered to Mark.

A male! In the Yew!

Mark could not see it and in a second it had disappeared but this set the juices flowing and we waited expectantly, but it was quite some time before a Hawfinch dropped to the ground and was not the expected male in his rich pastel colours but a duller female. But no matter, this was a Hawfinch, always a thrilling encounter whatever the circumstances, so there were no complaints from us but we did think it would be special to see the male again.

Having made numerous visits to see the Hawfinches at Parkend I have come to expect that females are the more likely to be seen. They are less secretive and bolder for some reason than the shy males.

The female Hawfinch fed greedily on the sunflower seed that had been placed atop a branch deliberately laid on the ground. Perfection for a photographic pose! As before I admired this bulky formidable top heavy looking finch with its baselisk eye, huge bulbous head and bill, seeming almost out of proportion to its body which in turn looked too big for the delicate pink legs and feet that supported it. Their head and bill is so big to enable it to exert a huge pressure on things such as cherry stones, their cheeks bulging with muscle to close the massive vice like mandibles and crack whatever nut they are tackling. They can exert a pressure equivalent to 150 pounds per square inch and one thousand times their own weight. Dealing with the sunflower seed scattered around must be a doddle in comparison.I watched as she manipulated the seed in her bill, splitting the outer casing to get at the kernel and even as she was doing this cocking her head to select the next seed to take her fancy.

The contradiction in their fierce appearance, due to the lack of forehead and a flat crown below which stare eyes that suggest no compromise with the reality that they are quite meek birds with a shy demeanour is always something that strikes me, each time I see them. 

Female Hawfinch

For a few minutes, maybe two, maybe three, she remained on the branch feeding but as always happens in this very public spot she was disturbed. Usually it is a passing car, trailbiker, dog walker or even a loud noise that can spook them and the other birds. Just about anything can cause these ultra shy, wary finches to flee. It is something you have to accept as it will never change. Occasionally you are lucky and when the Hawfinches are on the ground feeding, there can be an extended period of viewing due to no disturbance but even then it is only minutes before they find cause to fly up into the Yew or away  across The Green to the trees on the other side.

The female we were watching was eventually disturbed, this time by a car passing down the narrow track between us and the Yew. She was gone. Never to return although we were not to know that at the time.

Let's hang on Mark. Hopefully she or the male might return. 

Half  an hour later and a male Hawfinch dropped out of the Yew, sadly not onto the branch but onto the ground behind it. What a beautiful amalgam of rich colours, comprising a head of rust orange with a boa of dove grey around his neck, a broad slash of white wing bar and rich chocolate brown mantle. His underparts a delicate woodpigeon pink and the curious ruffled feathers towards the wing tips, iridescent blue in the sunlight. A veritable stunner and his finery positively shone in the sun as he glared impassively. Unfortunately he never came as close as the female and remained at a distance that caused my camera to struggle but I managed a few passable images.What one apologetically calls 'record shots' but they still bring a thrill each time I look at them. Hawfinches can do this to you

Male Hawfinch

Two or three minutes, no more, was granted us before he too was disturbed by a passing trailbiker and departed, flashing white on wing bars and the tip of his tail as he flew fast, in swooping flight, across The Green.

We hung on for another forty five minutes but the disturbance had increased and it was obvious there was unlikely to be any repeat visits from the Hawfinches.

We gave in to a combination of hunger and cold, retreating to Parkend Village and a cafe which had a large log burning stove dispensing a radiating heat which did a fine job of thawing us out after our prolonged and very chilling vigil in Mark's Landrover.

Mark was keen to go to nearby Cannop Ponds but I suggested we first visited Parkend Church as here was a chance of crossbills coming down to drink in the puddles by the church. This is a well known spot to wait for them. The morning, although bitterly cold was a wonderful combination of still air and bright sunshine, the blue sky appearing like a shattered jagged blue plate through the boughs and twigs of the venerable and mighty oaks that towered above us.

There was to be no luck with the crossbills, not even the hint of a call from above as they passed over but a huge female Goshawk flew low across the sky above the gravestones to disappear behind a wooded ridge.

We drove to Cannop Pond with one bird in particular on our minds. Mandarin Ducks, which are almost a guaranteed presence there. At first the pond which is more akin to a small lake, looked to be devoid of them, which can happen. The lake was populated by Mallards,Tufted Ducks,some Wigeon and half a dozen Little Grebes.

Eventually Mark thought he could see a Mandarin drake, secreted as they often are, deep amongst the branches that hang down from the banks to touch the water. Some walkers disturbed them and not one but a pair of Mandarins flew out from their hiding place.

On the other side of the lake we found more Mandarins, secreted this time at the edge of a stand of dead reed stems.We walked around the lake to get closer and they slowly swam out from the reeds to linger just offshore.

Some birders are dismissive of Mandarin Ducks, arguing they are not native at all but they are accepted as such by most and whatever the rights or wrongs, let's forget the arguments and celebrate that the drakes are unbelieveably colourful and beautiful. It is as if  an artist has taken a pallet of as many colours as possible and daubed them haphazardly over the drake's head and body to create a vision of loveliness. The female cannot compete with her mate's impossibly complex colouring and form, being soft grey and dull brown overall, densely mottled on her breast and flanks with bold white  spots and 'spectacles' of white around her eyes.

There were nine Mandarins in all, five drakes and four females and they swam around the periphery of the lake resting in and amongst the branches that hung down into the water, which seems to be their preferred habitat.

We did try looking for crossbills but  a long and latterly muddy walk around Woorgreens failed in this final mission, just a pair of stonechats and a female Siskin was all we could find but it had been a rewarding and immensely enjoyable day with two colourful and in their own way spectacular species of bird seen. We could hardly complain.

Sunday, 16 January 2022

A Pacific Diver in Wales 15th January 2022

During the week I had been chatting to my twitching buddy Mark (R) and we discussed going to see a Pacific Diver which is a very rare diver in Britain. It hails from the other side of the Atlantic where it is known as the Pacific Loon and breeds on tundra lakes mainly in northern Canada and eastern Siberia and spends the winter off the Pacific coast of North America and also on large lakes in China, Japan,North and South Korea, the USA and Mexico.They have also been recorded as vagrants in Greenland, Hong Kong, Great Britain, Ireland, Spain, Finland and Switzerland.

Pacific Divers were once considered conspecific with the Black throated Diver and only split from that species in 1985 based on mitochondrial DNA analysis. They are considered a very rare species in Britain.To date there are only nine accepted records of this species in Britain and four in Ireland.

The individual we wanted to see was a juvenile that had decided to spend its winter days on the Eglwys Nunydd reservoir, where it was first discovered on the 11th December 2021.  The 260 acre, 4.3m deep reservoir lies right by the M4 Motorway at Margam which is near to Port Talbot and supplies water to the adjacent and huge Margam Steel Works owned by Tata Steel.

The one big problem with viewing the diver is that the reservoir is closed to the public, including birders, due to the presence of an invasive 'killer' shrimp that attacks and kills our native freshwater shrimps. I kid you not. To no little controversy the Welsh Environment Agency closed the reservoir to the public on bio security grounds to try and stop the spread of the shrimp but the local angling club and yacht club are still allowed to use it, so all in all the closure seems perverse. There are rather lax security patrols but if they are avoided it is possible to bird the reservoir and many local birders seem to cope by avoiding the patrols. At first I found this prospect daunting but as the weeks passed it became apparent that the security patrols were few and far between and there was not likely to be a problem.

Birders are ever resourceful and despite locked gates there are at least two different 'off piste' ways to access the reservoir, details of which I will not divulge here but one of which we took advantage of courtesy of advice from a local birder.

Mark and myself made plans to go to Port Talbot and decided Saturday would be a good time to go and try our luck. Mark would come from Bedfordshire with two friends, Les and Andrew and I would drive separately from my home in Oxfordshire and meet them near to the reservoir. We decided to meet up at first light and make our way onto the reservoir and hopefully get our fill of the diver. The reason for an early start was that there was unlikely to be any security around early on a Saturday morning and as we pla to park in a cemetry we did not wish to impinge on anyone coming to pay their respects to their departed loved ones.

Friday's weather was predicted to change overnight  but still remain below freezing and as I left  home at 5am and made my way over The Cotswolds to reach the M5 and then M4 motorways that would take me to Port Talbot I was confronted with not only frost and icy roads but freezing fog. It was attritional driving  but I had plenty of time as I was about an hour or more ahead of Mark, Les and Andrew. 

Once on the motorway I set the cruise control to fifty and dawdled along on the inside lane, experiencing the novelty of being overtaken by huge trucks when the reverse is usually the case. I  reached Bristol and diverted onto the M4 and was soon heading over the huge Severn Bridge and into Wales. A couple of stops for coffee at some services along the way whiled away more spare time. I called Mark to find they were now scheduled to arrive about thirty minutes after me at our rendezvous point. I arrived at the cemetry just after dawn and parked my car in a discrete corner. I was the only person present. The reservoir and the cemetry were adjacent to the motorway so there was little problem in finding both.

I called Mark again to find they too had visited a motorway services but had managed to get back on the motorway heading in the wrong direction! You may laugh but I can speak from experience when I say it is easily done, as the signage in many motorway services is truly appalling, the exit arrows worn to nothing by countless cars passing over them and rarely renconstituted, the exit route often convoluted and confusing which all adds to the burden of thinking straight after a long wearisome drive in the middle of the night.  

Today, in marked contrast to yesterday, the sun was going to be a stranger and there would be constant cloud but not thick enough to be gloomy, A cold southeast wind was also begining to make its presence felt as I stood outside my car surveying row upon row of remarkably similar but well tended grave stones in the dull early morning light.An involuntary shudder passed through me which might not have been from the cold wind.

I soon cheered up as Mark arrived.Getting everything together we set off on the secret route to the reservoir.I led the way as I had been here on Monday with Clackers but such were the obstacles confronting us to get onto the reservoir and Clackers comparative lack of mobility we aborted our attempt to gain access to the reservoir as it required an amount of physical effort that would be too much for Clackers.

This time we successfully negotiated all the obstacles we came up against. No one fell in the thick wet mud we had to negotiate and we crossed a deep culvert without mishap. Before us lay the grassy reservoir bank and the northwest corner of the reservoir which coveniently was the preferred location of the diver.

View from the northwest corner of Eglwys Nunydd reservoir

Sure enough, on getting to the top of the bank, there was the Pacific Diver, the third that I have seen in Britain, swimming and diving a little way from the bank. The images that have been published over the prior weeks indicated it could come very close but at the moment it seemed disinclined to do so.Mark sensibly said it was probably a little alarmed about our sudden arrival on the perimeter track on the top of the reservoir. It could see us silhouetted against the sky and we should drop down under the reataining wall where we would be less obvious. 

We followed this eminently sensible suggestion and by means of some handy brick steps we all duly got down below the wall. As if by magic the diver came ever closer and eventually it was at point blank range, diving and surfacing right in front of us. We stayed put and were treated to a bravura performance by the diver. It was hard to contain our excitement as we clicked away with our cameras and let out gasps of sheer pleasure as yet another frame filler was achieved. 
None of us could have wanted better, it was just incredible how close the diver came to us as we watched it. 

From what I could see it was feeding on tiny fish, possibly sticklebacks,which was in marked contrast to its larger cousin, the Great Northern at Farmoor which had been eating much larger fish.It also had the curious habit of vigorously waggling its tail in the water just after it had surfaced causing a minor turbulence. It did this repeatedly so maybe this is a particular habit of the species or just this individual.I have never seen it with other divers.Who knows? There are always questions.

Overall it looked smaller and sleeker than the other two small divers, Red throated and Black throated  but then I had been looking at a Great Northern yesterday but generally they are small, usually smaller than the Black throated Diver which is found in Britain. Pacific Divers I am told can vary in size individually. Over all it appeared a neat, compact bird with a short, slender bill, bulbous rear neck, and round head givng a subtly different profile to the small divers (Red and Black throated) found here in Britain. When facing us there was the faintest hint of an indistinct brown line across the front of its neck where it met its breast, a diagnostic character of a Pacific Diver and also a complete lack of a bulging white thigh patch which is another diagnostic feature to separate it from a Black throated Diver. 

It was a juvenile, told by the symmetrical pattering of scaly fringed feathers on its upperparts.

As with the diver at Farmoor when it had ceased feeding it swam further offshore and loafed. preened or even briefly slept, before, after ten or fifteeen minutes, it would return to its favoured corner of the reservoir

For an hour and a half we watched, enthralled as it swam and dived. Surfacing with a start as if surprised and immediately alert, in case anything might have changed while it was underwater.Then it would settle and float around for a minute or two before diving once more

A tap on my head came from above. 


I looked up and there were Paul and Vicky, two fellow Oxonbirders. A real surprise and delight to see them. They came and sat with us below the wall

The diver was at this moment somewhat distant but soon enough they too had the diver up close and personal and everyone was happy.

A bit of birding banter, a wander along the perimeter track to view a distant Ring necked Duck and then it was mutually agreed that we had all reached that point of satisfaction where it was time to leave. We retraced the route we had come by and returned to the cemetry car park.

       There is no better feeling than a successful twitch with like minded people and above all friends

The Farmoor Great Northern Diver Revisited 14th January 2022

Thursday was one of those sunny, windless and cold winter's days which temporarily transforms the world into seeming  an infinitely better place than it currently is and I made the most of it by spending a pleasant, sometimes frenetic afternoon watching the Pallas's Leaf Warbler at Abingdon with my good pal Clackers (see my previous post)

Friday brought weather much the same as Thursday, identical in fact and I decided to renew my acquaintance with Farmoor Reservoir, having been in Scotland since before Christmas.I planned to meet Phil, another good friend and with whom, a couple of times a week, I share a leisurely wander around the reservoir's concrete perimeter chatting about anything and everything and indulging in a bit of light birding. After the intensity of yesterday chasing around after the Pallas's it would provide the ideal antidote.

After a coffee in the Waterside Cafe we made our way to the causeway. Walking up the causeway I could see the blue waters of the reservoir were absolutely flat calm, with not a breath of wind to stir them, the only ripples coming from the various wildfowl swimming on its mirror surface. Half way along we stopped to admire the long staying juvenile Great Northern Diver, which has made a winter home on the smaller basin that is Farmoor One. It has become quite the celebrity, being noticed and remarked upon by not only birders and photographers, both local and more distant but also the general public who now increasingly use the reservoir for recreation. The diver in turn has become used to and unafraid of the constant human traffic strolling along the causeway and sometimes stopping to admire it with the consequence it will often feel confident enough to venture quite near to the shore.

Lately, judging by the numerous photos that have appeared on social media it has changed its feeding habits and now, instead of catching fish it seems to have transferred its preference to crayfish of which there are many in the reservoir, and a good thing to as these crayfish are Signal Crayfish, foreign interlopers from America that were introduced to Britain in 1970. They are carriers of crayfish plague as well as being dominant over and breeding faster than our native White clawed Crayfish, all of which has resulted in our native crayfish becoming scarce and endangered. Quite how many crayfish lurk below the reservoir is unknown but a guess would say they are there in large numbers.

The diver looked superb in the winter sun and we watched as it floated on the still water, slowly turning on its own axis and making a regular and gentle growling call. almost as if something was stuck in its throat. I have never heard a Great Northern Diver make such a sound before and certainly not from any that have visited the reservoir over the years. Someone was concerned that it was not well but it ceased the calling after a few minutes and all appeared to be well

Then it began to dive and for a time appeared to be catching nothing but on its fourth or fifth dive it surfaced with a large crayfish which it held firmly in its formidable mandibles. The crayfish was not going to go quietly and put up some resistance but the diver gave it a thorough shaking and mauling with its bill to subdue it, sometimes so fiercely it lost its grip on the crayfish and dropping it in the water but there was no escape as the diver submerged its head to retrieve it and give it yet another going over. Eventually the diver was satisfied the crustacean had given in to the inevitable and with a toss of its open bill swallowed the crustacean whole.

Such a substantial meal needed digesting and the diver floated idly on the water before indulging in some light preening, just a feather here and there needed placement before it was satisfied all was in order which it signalled by rising to stand on end in the water and flapping its wings vigorously to shake everything into place and then settled back to float on the water, content.

Such a pleasant little cameo to welcome me back to Farmoor. It will never compete with Largo Bay in Fife with miles long beaches, wading birds and seaducks which is where we spent this Christmas and New Year but the diver brought some compensation.

I do hope the diver remains for a few more weeks yet.There is certainly no shortage of food if it wishes to maintain its shellfish diet. and being a juvenile it will not breed in this its second year so there is no hurry to depart