Sunday 23 September 2012

A Tale of Two Moors 22nd September 2012

On Friday evening I lost the car keys. Not an unusual event and no need to panic. I usually find them eventually. This time was different. We searched high and low in all the usual places. No trace. Rising panic. I have plans to go birding for the whole of tomorrow, starting early on Saturday, but with no car keys that will be impossible. An hour of searching, checking everywhere, twice, thrice and nothing. 

"They must be here somewhere" I moaned. 

Relax dear you will eventually remember where' came the comforting words from my wife. 

I eventually gave up and later in bed, lying awake, I recalled having them in my hand by the garden shed at the bottom of the garden. Yes, they must be there but now it's dark and there was no way of checking. I slept surprisingly well and even managed to avoid any marital strife in the morning by stopping the alarm going off before my wife was awake. Downstairs and into the garden. 

"Right shed, hand them over". 

I got to the shed, no sign of any keys. A strange constricted feeling comes into my throat. I look around the outside of the shed but no sign. I looked in the recently tidied shed and there were the keys, safe and sound on top of a box. Floods of relief. Car unlocked and loaded with scope, bins and jar of mustard for Badger (from my cousin who makes the stuff) and then off down the drive. This particular Saturday morning at 6.30am was still and misty with a distinct fresh feel to it but a clear sky and growing light in the East augured well.

As I headed for Otmoor through the country lanes, the sun rose as an orange globe of glory behind the trees. So low on the horizon it flooded the rural Oxfordshire lanes and the car with an intense white light making driving difficult. Forty five minutes later and the Black Audi came to rest in the car park at RSPB Otmoor. I rendezvoused with Oz, Pete, Andy and a post birthday celebration Badger. Happy Birthday Badger. We set off up the main track to the Reserve. The weather was just glorious, still a little fresh but the wind of the last few days had subsided into gentility and the sun was strengthening all the time. Autumn is most definitely here with the hedgerows full of ripening blackberries and slashes of red and orange where the hawthorn berries and rose hips hang heavy in the leaves. We scanned Greenaways and the cows lined up at the gate, with heads lowered, scanned us. Little was to be seen although another sure sign of autumn was the presence of a few Meadow Pipits, flying and making their peeping calls over the grass and Goldcrests calling in the hedgerow behind us.

With a rustle of a bag Badger produced some vegetarian jelly worms which he had received as a birthday gift. I selected a lurid lime green one. Very tasty all the same. Just before we got to the track leading to the Screens we stopped to scan the posts securing the electric cattle fence. These have been much favoured by Whinchats all week and this morning there were two Whinchats perched atop a post each. Numerous birds were also flitting in and out of the reeds behind the posts but these all appeared to be Reed Buntings.Whilst looking at the Whinchats a third chat popped up onto a post, and much to Pete's delight there was a male European Stonechat, resplendent in his black busby, flicking his tail and wings with nervous energy.

Male European Stonechat @ Otmoor
c Badger 
Much excitement amongst us as this has been a much anticipated and desired arrival, especially by Pete, and those of us with cameras or video went into overdrive to record the moment. The hedgerow along the track to the first screen was alive with Reed Buntings plus a few Blue Tit's which flew between the hedge and the reeds on the other side of the track as we walked along.Try as we might we could only find two Whinchats and one European Stonechat in this throng and despite several optimistic moments, every time the mystery bird ended up as a Reed Bunting. The first screen yielded very little apart from two Black tailed Godwits which have been around for some days now and the bizarre sound of wasps chomping the reed screening to carry off to make their nests.

On along the track to the second screen, accompanied by Reed Warblers, Reed Buntings and the occasional ChiffChaff, all zipping along the brambles and hedgerow in front of us. Their sheer pace of life and constant movement a never ending source of entertainment. The second screen as per usual was a bit of a dud. Just the usual wildfowl with Wigeon numbers building up and Gadwall drakes giving their curious duck decoy call from the reeds. However, a beautiful Lesser Whitethroat enlivened proceedings, distinctive with it's gleaming white underparts and dove grey head, quietly tacking away in the hawthorns behind us. A male Blackcap joined it a little later. Zoe, one of the full time RSPB reserve staff looking after Otmoor joined us at the screen. A slow amble back to the first screen but there were no vacancies as this had now been commandeered by photographers, some in that ridiculous army camouflage gear, with huge lenses lined up at every aperture of the screen. The cameras and the military clothing made the screen look like a wartime battery awaiting some invading force rather than the more gentle arrival of a Kingfisher, which was apparently the target.

We harrumphed off back to the Bridleway. Oz and myself saw another Lesser Whitethroat whizz into the hedge never to be seen again and another Goldcrest made its presence heard. There was now a parting of ways with some of us opting to head for Noke and others back to the Roman Road to look for Brown Hairstreaks. Myself, Pete, Badger, Zoe and now joined by Paul headed for Noke to look for more chats. Continuing the autumnal theme our plan bore fruit - sorry - when a Northern Wheatear duly appeared on one of the fence posts surrounding the farm buildings at Noke. There were also some other passerines perched on the wire fence. They looked to be Meadow Pipits but were too distant to be absolutely sure although in my opinion the tails were too long for them to be Whinchats. A Common Buzzard flew over and a whole host of waders and ducks arose seemingly from the middle of the grass on Ashgrave but in fact there was a good expanse of water hidden from our view in a dip in the field. In the brief flurry of activity we saw, in flight, a Green Sandpiper and a Common Snipe but best of all a single Ruff. They have such a languid, elegant flight almost caressing the air as they fly effortlessly in their element. This individual was being chased by a group of Jackdaws but really it was chalk and cheese with the frantic flappings of the clumsy corvids just enhancing the elegance of the Ruff's flight. Pete left us and after noting a couple of Yellow Wagtails we retraced our steps and commenced the long walk back to the Car Park, stopping off on the way to admire some ten or so Hornets stripping bark from a small Ash tree by the Bridleway. 

I left the others and tried my luck on the Roman Road looking for Brown Hairstreaks. I like this part of Otmoor, as it is secluded and away from the main focus of birders so consequently is quiet and contemplative. I waited under the favoured Ash trees but there was no sign of Brown Hairstreaks. A Red Kite drifted over and ChiffChaffs, both young and old hoeeted frantically around me. I wandered up the old road and came to my favourite spot. A recess of brambles, surrounded on three sides and sheltered by taller vegetation. It is a tiny world of it's own which you can freely enter in your mind if it is open to such things and leave the cares of our human world for as long as you wish. In summer and autumn it is always alive with the activity of insects. Today the brambles were a mixture of full, ripe and shiny blackberries contrasting with the hard red buttons of the unripened fruit and attended by a host of bees, wasps, hoverflies and a couple of Commas and Speckled Woods. Further along Migrant Hawker dragonflies were making the most of the weather conditions. Soon it will be over for all of them. Back to the car and reality. Two photographers were trying to outdo each other by showing their respective images to each other in the Car Park. Is this the new trainspotting? Not a telescope or binoculars in sight just cameras and images. 

Nic Hallam once wisely counselled me with the words  

"Ewan, there are birders that take pictures of birds and photographers that photograph birds. You are the former. Stay that way"

I try!

Now those of you that follow my blog know I have been getting very excited about Dunlins at Farmoor lately. According to some people worryingly so. Well, five were reported this morning on Badger's pager so how could I resist such an opportunity to confirm my membership of anoraks anonymous? I arrived at Farmoor just after 2pm via two sandwiches and a bottle of orange from a roadside garage. It was 'tequila time' at the yacht club as I passed by, with all the outside tables taken and people sprawled or picknicking in the sun. A male Tufted Duck did its version of sunbathing below them by the water, allowing one to walk right up to it. Unusual, perhaps it was not well? 

A regatta appeared to be taking place on Farmoor 2. I scanned the grassy banks by the Works but unusually they were almost devoid of birdlife apart from two wagtails. I looked at these two and to my surprise found one was a White Wagtail feeding unconcernedly with a Pied Wagtail. Good start! Back up the Causeway and I made my first contact with  two juvenile Dunlin and a little later there was the Northern Wheatear flirting it's black and white tail as it perched on the wave-wall. 

Northern Wheatear
Admiring the wheatear and then, suddenly, I could hear Common Redshanks calling but where were they? I scanned the skies. Nothing. Err? I looked along the edge of Farmoor One and found them ranged along the waterline but they were soon flushed when two passers by got too close. They took to the air, flew past me, calling evocatively and disappeared over to the far side of the reservoir.

Part of the flock of Common Redshanks
I counted eleven. I carried on up the Causeway and found the other three Dunlin. Now forgive me my moment of triumph but I took my pictures and three of the Dunlin were different to those of yesterday. Yes, I know, totally uninteresting but a tiny triumph for yours truly if no one else! 

Different Dunlins!
I met Ian Smith and we chatted for a while. The usual birder drivel, exchanging sightings, comments about work and life in general, other birders, Farmoor and the price of fish, gently but mercilessly slagging off everything and anything. As we chatted Ian got a text from Badger - a Red Veined Darter had been seen at Radley. Now Ian is a bit of a dragonfly afficionado. Me? Well I am not so sure, but it was now quiet at Farmoor so why not? It would be nice to see something I had never seen before. We decided to go for it. Ian's enthusiasm was infectious and he at least knew what he was looking for but we did have to pass the Yacht Club tea room on the way to the car. I changed and re-changed my mind about heading for Radley several times on the way down the Causeway. If the tea room was open I would buy a cup of tea, maybe even a Mars Bar and remain at Farmoor, if it was closed it was Radley. The tea room was closed. I followed Ian to Radley. Needless to say there was no sign of the darter just Badger and Gnome staring at willow bushes. 

So for me it was straight back to Farmoor for the gull roost. It was now 5pm and the gulls were coming in. I duly arrived back on the Causeway and made my way up to opposite the roost and commenced scanning. Matt Prior of Thames Water came driving down the Causeway in his official vehicle and stopped by me.We got talking and he told me he had seen two strange waders but did not know what they were but they had white rumps. We debated what they could have been but came to no firm conclusion and he left to go back to his office. I could hear both the redshanks and dunlin calling but I was now in gull scanning mode. Frankly it was a relief to just sit and rest my feet after such a long day. Looking at the gulls in the scope I could also clearly see the far bank of Farmoor One and decided to see how many redshank were actually there. I counted nine scattered along the water's edge and then a wader appeared in the scope that was not a redshank. It was slightly larger in size and bulkier than a redshank and all over dull grey with a short blunt bill and plover feeding action. A juvenile Grey Plover. It was being harassed by a Magpie. What is it with corvids? Why can they not leave anything in peace? It flew. A broad white rump and black armpits were added confirmation as to it's identity. It landed further up the waterline. 

Then there were two of them on the waters edge! 

Juvenile Grey Plover

Excellent. I called Badger to inform him of their presence. He was at home and had just opened a can of Stella so said he would put the news out but was staying put. Two minutes later my phone rings. It was Badger again. 

"I'm coming. Let me know if they fly off."  

I remained scanning the gull roost and eventually the plovers were flushed by some walkers and flew over the reservoir to land very close to me. 

Frankly it was not such a difficult decision to remain where I was as I see literally hundreds of Grey Plover on my monthly WeBS counts at West Wittering in Sussex, so it's no big deal for me when two arrive on an inland reservoir. I was genuinely unaware of how desirable a species this is in Oxfordshire. Anyway, the outcome was I was joined by Badger who got to see the plovers before we had to leave Farmoor due to the the gates being closed at 7.30pm. As we left, the Redshanks and Grey Plovers were in flight over the reservoir, calling, and for one brief moment the saltings, mudflats and boundless horizons of sea and sky came to a reservoir in landlocked Oxfordshire. 

Saturday 22 September 2012

Admirals and Apples 22 September 2012

At this time of year as everything drifts inexorably towards shorter days and colder nights the occasional sunny day attracts a last fling from butterflies, especially Red Admirals. We live up a private, unmade drive and our neighbour at the end of the drive has an apple tree. The apples are allowed to fall and are either crushed by visiting vehicles or are partially eaten by Blackbirds. The crushed apples in particular attract Red Admirals which find nutrients in the over ripe and crushed flesh of the apples. Today there were three or four Red Admirals feeding on the fallen fruit in the sun. Red Admirals are magnificent butterflies, especially in a pristine state.Thankfully they are still relatively common around here and I always welcome them to our garden, mainly at this time of year. There is a poignancy in their presence as it signals the end of summer and  the onset of autumn and those Red Admirals that survive will soon be seeking warmer climes or a dark sheltered place in which to hibernate through the long winter months.

Thursday 20 September 2012

The Dunlin Chronicles Part 2 20 September 2012

Somebody stop me. I cannot keep away! Another visit to Farmoor and another walk up the Causeway and another three juvenile Dunlin. I took their photos, compared their post juvenile moult into winter plumage with those of yesterday and as I suspected they are new birds and not the ones from yesterday. Now where can I purchase an anorak? Seriously though, it is fascinating to compare the images and realise that there is a steady passage of Dunlin through Farmoor and on this evidence the birds do not seem to remain very long and are only using Farmoor as a brief stopover. I can hardly blame them when they are in striking distance of a lovely beach or marsh on the coast instead of all that concrete. 

I don't know about you but I sometimes get a little jaded of the coffee table type pictures of birds so have included some Dunlin action shots here, just for variety. 

Juvenile Dunlins.
All these birds are different to those of yesterday based on the extent and 
location of grey winter feathers

A Northern Wheatear was by the works but was it the same one as yesterday? This bird as you can see from the images has no tuft of displaced feathers on its crown.So this begs the question is it the same bird as yesterday? Personally I cannot see how the displaced feathers could have been re-arranged so neatly.

Northern Wheatear
But is it the same one as yesterday?
Two smart Little Grebes, still in summer plumage were in the mini marina in front of the yacht club and are probably new arrivals. Initially they were sitting on the pontoons surrounded by bird crap but soon came to their senses and took to the water

Little Grebe
With those wings? It will never get off the ground!
Little Grebe
Surveying the goose crap
Little Grebe
In it's element
Not much else to see apart from two immature Yellow legged Gulls and these Cormorants which I tried to identify to race/subspecies based on the angle of the gular pouch. The top one, frankly, I am not sure about but err on the side of  P. c. carbo which breeds around our coasts. Apparently it is very difficult under field conditions to be absolutely specific about every individual but the bottom image based on the angle of the gular pouch appears to be an example of the so called Continental Cormorant P.c sinensis which also breeds here but inland. I believe the Cormorants breeding at Dix Pit are of this race 

                               Finally there will only be 9999 gulls in the roost tonight
                                          Sadly this one died a few minutes later. 


Wednesday 19 September 2012

The Dunlin Chronicles Part 1 19 September 2012

Another visit to Farmoor this afternoon to have a second look at the juvenile Sanderling but to no avail as it had gone. There were however four juvenile Dunlin by the water near to the new birdwatching Hide. It would be reasonable to assume these were the same four as yesterday but examining the images I took of the four yesterday and comparing them to the images of the ones present today there is a marked difference in the amount and positioning of grey winter plumage feathers on the respective birds. Also one of the Dunlin seen yesterday had aberrant dull yellow legs and feet (normally they are black). All the birds today had black legs and feet. It is so easy to assume that Dunlin seen on consecutive days are one and the same but this shows that sometimes they are not. I wonder how many Dunlin actually do pass through Farmoor on their southward migration? You see it's not always black and white.

I know, get a life you say but these things are important in the early hours of the morning when I cannot get to sleep for worrying about the fact I am worrying!

Juvenile Dunlin seen yesterday. Note the aberrant dull yellow legs and feet. 
All the Dunlin today had normal black legs and feet

Dunlin seen today with well advanced grey winter plumage replacing the juvenile 
feathers. None of the Dunlin yesterday were so advanced into their winter plumage

The above two images of Dunlin seen today show they have a different amount and 
differing position of grey winter feathers on the body to the Dunlin seen yesterday
The Northern Wheatear was still present by the works but this also might be a different bird as it had a marked tuft of displaced feathers on its crown or possibly it was the bird from yesterday but it had a contretemps with one of the twenty or so Pied Wagtails with which it was sharing the wave wall. 

A good size flock of three hundred House Martins with a few Sand Martins amongst them were feeding low over the water on Farmoor One as I left.

Tuesday 18 September 2012

An Evening at Farmoor 18 September 2012

A windy but sunny evening found me walking up from the car park to stroll around Farmoor in the hope of finding some waders by the water's edge. At the top it became apparent just how strong the wind was as it whipped off the water. I got to the start of the central causeway but my attention was drawn to the many Pied Wagtails feeding on the mown grass by the works. I looked through them and to my delight found two White Wagtails feeding amongst their British cousins. After watching them for some time and comparing their subtle plumage differences I set about heading up the causeway. 

I was virtually blinded by the sun shining directly into my eyes and the strength of the wind blowing straight at me made my eyes water. The reservoir was devoid of fishermen or indeed anyone else apart from the wind surfers making the most of the conditions on Farmoor Two. I headed for the new Birdwatching Hide (congratulations must go to Thames Water for erecting this) perched halfway along the causeway, reasoning that I could get some respite from the wind inside it. 

Just as I was getting there two things happened. A small bird flitted out from the leeward side of the Hide where it had been obviously sheltering from the strong wind. It disappeared momentarily and then popped up on the wall. A Northern Wheatear. Watching it, three small waders caught my eye, feeding on the concrete apron by the water's edge.

Juvenile Sanderling with two juvenile Dunlin

Juvenile Sanderling
Two were juvenile Dunlins but the other was a juvenile Sanderling, clearly so much whiter and marginally larger than its companions. Juvenile Sanderlings are so marvellously patterned with a chequering of black, grey and white on their upperparts and the white underparts positively gleamed in the evening sun. The majority of waders that arrive at Farmoor are confiding, showing no apparent real fear of humans and can allow very close approach before taking flight. So it was with these three. 

I wondered where they had come from and where they would be going. I always do this with the waders. Sentimental I know but they are such great travellers and  their presence always brings a little mystique to the mundane concrete vastness that is Farmoor Reservoir.I wandered on up the causeway
and headed around Farmoor One.

The Tufted Duck flock still exceeded a hundred - 116 to be exact and were sleeping in a raft on a sheltered part of the water. I carried on round the Reservoir and found two more Dunlin, separately feeding amongst the myriad moulted gull feathers and occasional dead trout at the water's edge. 

Juvenile Dunlin.
Note that some of the juvenile scapular and mantle feathers have already been replaced with grey winter plumage and this bird also has aberrant yellow legs and feet
A flock of around seventy five hirundines flew overhead, revelling in the wind and consisted of a mixture of Sand and House Martins. Coming back to earth I looked along the grassy bank on my left and a flock of thirteen Magpies seemed to be finding something very interesting in the grass. These gangs of Magpies always remind me of groups of teenagers, full of energy, mischief and virility, pushing the boundaries of acceptable behaviour and seeing how far they can go. As I approached they chackered to themselves and flew off cackling into the hawthorns no doubt to create mischief somewhere else. I approached the works and as I did another small passerine flew up onto the wall. Another Northern Wheatear. 

Northern Wheatear

Or was it the same bird I had seen on the Causeway? Probably not as this individual eventually allowed me to approach very close indeed. Wheatears, indeed all chats are some of my favourites. They possess such charm and have such an appealing demeanour. Constantly bouncing around and giving off an air of positive optimism. Forgive me I have unashamedly in this piece not only succumbed to sentimentality but am now guilty of anthropomorphism, but then why not? Watching birds cannot all be science and cold logic. There is romance and joy as well. Just look at the wild sunset that bade me farewell as I left the Wheatear on its wall. Who could fail to be moved by such a sight?

Monday 17 September 2012

Red Footed Falcon at Chichester GP's 09 September 2012

I just love those orange thighs!
Regular reports of a first summer/second calendar year male Red Footed Falcon at Nunnery Lake, just by the A27 at Chichester in West Sussex and showing itself really well was, eventually, just too much to resist. Badger was meant to come with me on the planned Saturday morning and we would leave Abingdon at a very civilised 8am in the morning instead of at some ludicrous early hour which is more the norm for twitching. At the last moment, Badger succumbed to the temptation of a juvenile Baillon's Crake at Rainham Marshes and the prospect of rising at 4.30am on Saturday morning to rendezvous with Justin somewhere in south Oxfordshire. This to spend a few hours in a hide at Rainham Marshes RSPB staring at mainly nothing and being elbow to elbow with hordes of fellow twitchers attempting to defy the laws of space and time by seeing how many of them could get in a hide at once without a fight breaking out. The prize would be views, probably for seconds of the Baillon's Crake, a notorious skulking species. The views were duly achieved, all ten seconds of them, in return for a three hour vigil. Congratulations however to Badger and Justin for their endurance and actually seeing the little blighter. 

I must be getting soft as I declined this opportunity, but instead took comfort and reassurance from the fact that I still seemed to have some common sense left. I confess however it was touch and go whether I joined them. So, with my mind made up, it was the male Red Footed Falcon or nothing. It was, after all, in a nice location with unrestricted views, just a 100 metres from where you park the car, the sun was shining and the bird was very showy and easy to see. All the direct opposite of the skulker at Rainham! I duly arrived at the lake around 9.30am and the falcon was putting on a grand display of catching and eating Migrant Hawker dragonflies in the morning sun. The falcon perched on the dead branches of a large Ash and would make regular dashing sallies out over the reed bed below the tree, manoeuvering with much agility to catch one of the many dragonflies cruising over the reeds and then swooping upwards before returning to the favoured tree to eat it's capture. Whilst I was there it must have consumed in excess of ten dragonflies holding them in its feet as it disposed of the wings and ate the body. To my eyes male, well in fact any Red footed Falcons, are immensely attractive birds. Some species have it and others do not. This one definitely does it for me. The orange feet and legs with rust coloured thighs, belly and undertail coverts contrast strikingly and attractively with the pale grey breast. The combination of plumage colours just seem to click the right boxes. This particular bird was in an interesting state of moult with some inner secondaries and primaries already replaced as well as the two central pairs of tail feathers, all these being pure grey in contrast to the remaining juvenile feathers which were variously buff or brown with striking pale bars and spots. Most of the body feathers had also been replaced with adult grey and some of the upper and underwing coverts were being renewed. Particular attention was paid to the underwing coverts with wild hopes of a possible Amur Falcon but the moulted lesser underwing coverts were dark and not the diagnostic white of a male Amur Falcon. Oh wouldn't that have been sweet!

Note the contrasting old and new feathers in the wing and tail as well as some wing coverts being replaced.This bird will probably arrest it's moult now until it gets to it's wintering quarters

Eventually a thuggish Magpie took exception to the falcon's presence and constantly hassled it by driving it from perch to perch in the Ash and surrounding trees. The falcon evaded its attentions easily but soon tired of the endless chivvying and harrying and flew off strongly to the South. It did not return, although I waited a full hour before leaving for home 

Migrant Hawker-food for falcons!

Thursday 6 September 2012

The Long and Short of It 5th September 2012

Monday the 3rd of September arrives sunny and I am in a good mood. Badger calls me mid morning to alert me to a potential mega. I am in an even better mood! A Long billed Dowitcher (a good bird to see but not a mega) had its photo taken on Sunday at Lodmoor RSPB Reserve near Weymouth in Dorset. The rather fuzzy image was put on the Internet and the identification was queried by other birders, with some suggesting it might be a Short billed Dowitcher. This would be a truly spectacular find as it would be only the second to be recorded in the British Isles. Badger and myself went to Code Amber and stood by for updated news but there was nothing forthcoming. 

Tuesday the 4th of September passed without incident or any word about the dowitcher. Apparently the bird in question although seen briefly in the morning could not be found for the rest of the day thus preventing closer scrutiny as to its identity. Tuesday evening came with still no word. I was curiously sanguine about the situation and not in the least my usual excitable self. Maybe it was something to do with the acupuncture given to me by a Shaman in Colliers Wood on Tuesday. But that story is for another time. 

Just in case, the next morning, Wednesday the 5th of September, I put the scope, bins and camera in the car. Having done this and just in the process of checking Bird Forum for any news on the dowitcher, Badger calls to advise that various experts, who seemed to be mainly Irish, have confirmed the bird as a Short billed Dowitcher and we should now go to Code Green! Unfortunately I had a couple of urgent matters to deal with at work and so did Badger but at 1030 he was ready and called me to get over to his house in Abingdon as soon as possible. I arrived soon after and we were away in brilliant sunshine down the A34. 

Our mood was somewhat downbeat as the dowitcher had hardly been seen at all yesterday and apart from a brief sighting in the early morning it had not been relocated today although it was considered to be skulking somewhere on the reserve. Lodmoor is a nightmare to cover as much of it is unviewable due to the topography and the best hope was that one of the undoubtedly numerous birders present might chance upon it in a viewable location and alert the rest of us. The pager remained ominously silent concerning the dowitcher as we cruised west. It warned us of a mobile speed trap at Puddletown but of the bird, nothing. 

Gnome called. Assuming Gnome was in Oxford I answered apologetically 

"Hi Gnome - sorry we are on our way to Lodmoor to see the dowitcher". 

'I'm already there. Have been for some hours' ventures Gnome cheerily. 

"Huh? You have a self imposed rule or your wife does  that you do not twitch anywhere more than two hours from Oxford

'This is different. I have to pick up a piece of furniture for my wife that I bought on eBay and as it is in Bath Lodmoor is on the way'  

"It is?" 

'Well sort of'". 

"Oh well, whatever you say, we will meet you in the car park in an hour and a half."

We called Gnome on arrival in the reserve Car Park. He said he will be with us in five minutes. Seconds later a birder who has also just arrived and parked next to us gets a phone call from a friend telling him that the Short billed Dowitcher has just flown in to a lagoon and was being viewed at this very minute. 


'On the south bank apparently'. 

We head at speed in the presumed direction. Confusion. There is no one on the supposed south bank. The birder tries to call his friend for more details but there is no phone signal. 

"It must be up this way then". A Keystone cops moment. We go at pace in the opposite direction, uphill on a tarmac road dodging oncoming cars. Badger's pager announces exactly where it is as we walk  up. We are, thankfully, headed the right way. We get to the top of the road and veer right into an area of rough, uneven and grassy ground that used to be a rubbish tip, overlooking a lagoon with juncus in the middle and reeds on the far side.There is a crowd of birders on this elevated slope looking at the lagoon and another crowd down at lagoon level on a very narrow path skirting the lagoon.

We join the birders on the slope.The area from which to view the critical area of juncus is very cramped and much jockeying for position ensues in order to get an unrestricted view of the juncus patch where the bird is meant to be. I meet Matt and Adam, birder friends from Sussex. 

"Where is it then?" I enquire 

"It was in that gap between the juncus but has just walked left out of view"

We watch this gap for half an hour and only see two Common Snipe. Someone claims to be able to see a third bird hidden in the juncus but it's just a lump of vegetation. A short, stout lady who seems to be at every twitch knocks my tripod askew. I resignedly put it back in its correct position. Lee Evans who is standing off to my right, resplendent in a white tee shirt, suddenly and excitedly announces he can see the dowitcher. The angle from where he is looking gives him a better view into the juncus. Everyone hurtles over to him at the same time as he shouts directions, all of us warily skirting around a large patch of brambles and nettles. Pandemonium. 

The area we are now in is even more restricted and by the time everyone has sorted themselves out with enough space to view and stopped complaining to each other about being in the way, the bird has disappeared back into the juncus. The short lady again barges into my scope. 

"Oops! sorry". 

A northern person stands bang in front of my view. 

"I am not in the way am I?" Knowing full well he is. 

I glare at him. 

"You cannot see the bird anyway as it is out of view." 

"That is not the point. It would be nice to be able to view the spot anyway just so I can see it when it comes out. It's called birding etiquetteI mutter to myself.

"Don't worry I'll move if it comes out". 

"I would be grateful if you would move now". 

He ignores me. More minutes pass with various false alarms. A shout comes from the back, 

"I can see it"

"It's a snipe mate." 

"Well its got a long beak". 

Another disembodied voice

"There it is in the juncus or is it a Moorhen?"

Some wag replies "Does the Moorhen have a long beak?" Sniggers. 

So it goes on and then the bird finally shows itself. Probing energetically in the water for food it moves out of the juncus into a gap and we all get to see it. I am consumed, as is everyone else, by a heady elixir of relief, elation and triumph. It's almost like a legal high this instant of first sighting and surely has more than a little to do with the attraction of twitching. Everyone lets off steam in the customary way with the timeless comments 

"There it is". "Look at that". "Awesome". "Fantastic". "Look at its beak."  "Look at those tertials." 

Everyone that is apart from one person. Yes - the short lady. 

"I can't see it. You are all in the way. You are all too tall". 

"Look through this scope luv"

"I can't it's too high". 

No one wants to help as we are all now in selfish mode. It's all for one and well, all for one. 

"I still can't see it". 

"Use your bins". 

"Can someone lower their scope so I can look through it?" 

There is no point because lowering the scope would just line it up with the backsides of the birders in front. 

"Where is it - pleeeease?

"It's just behind the fourth gull on the left" and someone helpfully and undiplomatically adds "It's showing really well".

 "I still cannot see it".

 "We know, you keep telling us! Just relax it will come out again.You will be fine." 

She fails to see it. Badger and I, having had really good views decide that we will walk down to 'the very narrow path' by the lagoon where the other birders are lined up as we reason that we will get closer and far less obstructed views from there. We bid farewell to Gnome who is now eating an apple and still trying to sound convincing about cabinets on eBay and the geographical location of Bath in relation to Oxford and Weymouth. Your secret's safe with us Gnome.You will soon be as bad as the rest of us and need to come out of the twitching closet! 

We get to 'the very narrow path' and it is chocker block with birders but we find a space to ourselves and have uninterrupted views of the juncus. There is no sign of the bird for a minute or two but then Badger espies it. We alert the others. Lee Evans shouts down from the elevated bank 

"Can you really see it?" 


We give him directions and he ensures everyone on the elevated bank gets onto it. Well, err - almost everyone - a few minutes pass and then a plaintive female voice drifts down from the bank 

"I still can't see it". Guess who? 

The dowitcher wanders in and out of the juncus never really leaving cover for long but giving acceptable if rather distant views. This goes on for about forty five minutes with the bird viewable but occasionally hidden. Another short person comes along the path and stands beside me. Lee Evans who has now joined us on the lower level, for no apparent reason randomly asks him how tall he is. Five foot four, our hero replies. He has undoubtedly the worst pair of bins I have ever seen. They are so small they must have come out of a Christmas Cracker or In Focus for Pygmys. Bless him he was quite undeterred by the strange glances he got from us. 

"Is it showing". 

"Yes it's just over there by the second gull in front of the juncus". 

He looks through his bins. 

"I can't see it."  

Why am I  not surprised. Diplomatically I do not comment on his bins. I endeavour for some inordinate time to direct him via various standing gulls, onto the bird, but without success. He finally finds it by some miracle of chance. 

"It's really dark". 

"No it's not"

"Well it is through these" as he holds up the miniscule bins. No comment. 

"Can I look through your scope?

I lower the scope to almost ground level. He looks through it for a long time. 

"I can't see it". 

Deep breath. 

"That's because it's now gone back into the juncus. Hang on it will be out again soon."  

"I found a Wryneck you know." 

"Really? Well done." I sigh

"It was on a fence." 

I try to be kind, I really do but honestly I do not want to have this conversation. I just want to look at the bird I have come all this way to see. Lee Evans goes into Old Mother Hubbard mode.

"I'm worried about all that grey on the head. It's not right and it's not orange enough underneath". 

OK Lee just chill, you'll be fine. Some random passer by, bemused by all the fuss and commotion asks if it is common. 

"Common! It's the sixth for Britain" states an affronted Lee. 

No Lee - actually it's the second but there is no point in saying so. 

The dowitcher suddenly takes flight  over the juncus patch and lands further up the lagoon in the water, closer to the path and now out in full view in front of the juncus. I hastily abandon  the scope and race with the camera down 'the very narrow path' to get opposite it and take some serious photos. I took over one thousand in the end! Lunacy. 

After a while I  retrieved my scope and return to get full and personal views of the dowitcher via the zoom eyepiece on my scope. I note all the features that confirms it's a Short billed Dowitcher. They are notoriously difficult to separate from Long billed Dowitchers but with patience and views such as I was getting it was relatively straightforward. The strongly patterned upperparts; the black tertials fringed with reddish buff and with smaller reddish buff submarginal markings; the scapulars with similar markings; the white bars on the tail being narrower than the black bars; the black spots on the white undertail coverts and posterior plumage behind the flanks; the large amount of white on the rear underparts; the warm buff breast; the dark crown and very prominent white supercilium all go to confirm this is a juvenile Short billed Dowitcher. The dowitcher was constantly feeding being joined variously by a Common Snipe which provided a good comparison in bill length, a few Common Teal and a juvenile Black tailed Godwit. 

The feeding action was a rapid drilling of the mud under the shallow water with the bird sinking its long bill deep into the water and right up to the eyes on occasions. Other birders joined us, the path became congested again, with innocent passers by and joggers becoming entangled in tripod legs and birders. We are surrounded by a group of local photographers. A short lady who looks awfully familiar knocks into my scope. Sadly, a bi-product of this situation, from which there is no escape due to the constricted viewing conditions, is the constant inane chatter. I much prefer to look at a bird in peace and quiet, to contemplate the bird in an almost spiritual state of mind but at a congested twitch like this it's impossible. So I had to listen involuntarily to such verbal gems as 

"I've just got a job as a proof reader for Oxford University Press you know." 

"How many pixels?" 

"What's your histogramme showing?" 

"Look at this image."

This last one is uttered about every thirty seconds with his mates required to make suitable approving noises and so it goes on, mindless and inane but one just has to be zen about it. It's pointless getting upset. This is what twitching in Britain has all too often become and it will not change. We watched the Short billed Dowitcher for almost four hours on and off, mostly on, and saw it really well. Finally, it flew again to the other end of the juncus patch giving for the only time its diagnostic three syllable, staccato call, similar to a Turnstone. It settled and preened in the open allowing a full examination of its various feather tracts. This time I saw the white trailing edge to the secondaries and the white extending all the way up its back. One curious thing I noted was the bare pink skin showing on the bone of the underwing when it raised its wings, as if it was so juvenile that the feathers had not yet grown fully on this part of its wing. Yet this bird had presumably recently flown the Atlantic non stop. One final look at the dowitcher and the now impressive gathering of Mediterranean Gulls assembled on the grassy level in front of it. Our pessimism about the day was in the end unfounded. The sun shone gloriously warm and everything was right with the world. Even the short, stout lady got to see it in the end but I did not hear her sing.

Mainly Mediterranean Gulls