Tuesday 15 January 2013

A day of two halves 13th January 2013

The lure of not one but two Buff-bellied Pipits near Heathrow Airport had me liasing with Keith Clack 'Clackers' about going to see them on Sunday. Updated bird news on Saturday evening announced that there was also a recently discovered Pallas's Warbler not a million miles away from the pipits. This was an opportunity that  proved too much to resist and after a lot of arranging and re-arranging of meeting times, Sunday morning found me collecting Clackers from Witney at seven am and then going on to collect Badger and Andy Last from Abingdon. A veritable car load of birders and assorted scopes, bins and sustenance traversed icy roads across Oxfordshire and on into Berkshire via Henley on Thames. 

Our first destination was Moor Green Lakes Nature reserve near Wokingham where the Pallas's Warbler, originally identified as a Yellow-browed Warbler was apparently roving the trees and bushes by the River Blackwater with a flock of Long-tailed Tits and Goldcrests. We joined the crowd lined up along the track by the river dividing Berkshire from Hampshire. The warbler had been seen that morning but was elusive. Did I say elusive? It was downright invisible and wherever I was it was somewhere else. Other birders got really good views of it and wasted no time in telling me so, but not me. I was always in the wrong place. Sometimes it happens like this and one just has to be philosophical and accept it ain't going to happen. I did see it briefly, once, but it was only a shape in the trees and I did not really see any plumage detail. A fair few hours were spent staring at various trees and bushes with small shapes flitting around only for them to finally materialise as either Goldcrests, Wrens or Long tailed Tits. Four hours of standing about with an increasingly cold wind was not helping my equanimity. 

Nor was Lee Evans who, in his intense way kept asking my opinion about splitting Siberian Stonechats when all I wanted was to be left alone and not have to apply any intellect to taxonomic questions. Fortunately someone phoned him about two Bearded Tits being found in Hyde Park and he was off as quickly as he had arrived. 

The four of us grudgingly called it quits and went back to the car. Lunchtime and we were cold, tired and hungry. Deflated at our lack of real success. Yes we had all seen the warbler but not really satisfactorily. We made the best of it but everyone was a bit down in the car or maybe just  chilled into mute frustration by the freezing temperatures. One down and one to go.The dreaded double dip was on the cards but that is the high stakes one plays with twitching.

We headed for Kingsmead Quarry, part of Horton Gravel Pits, near Heathrow Airport, to hopefully view our main target, the Buff-bellied Pipits. Yep, that is right. Plural. How  unique is that? Not just one mega vagrant pipit had crossed the Atlantic to find dubious sanctuary on the banks of  the Queen Mother Reservoir but then another arrives to join it. The chances of this happening must be something akin to purchasing a winning lottery ticket. The original bird had arrived on the reservoir in December 2012. Then it disappeared over Christmas only to re-appear with a friend at the beginning of 2013. Entry to Queen Mother Reservoir requires all visitors to have a permit or special permission. Special arrangements had been made before Christmas to allow birders in to see the original pipit but after the disappearance of the pipit over Christmas entry was again banned unless one had a permit. The rediscovery of two Buff-bellied Pipits at the same reservoir in January resulted in a concession from Thames Water whereby general access for birders was allowed for only one day. That day was Saturday 12th January. We were visiting on Sunday the 13th! However the pipits had moved from the reservoir on Saturday and had been frequenting Kingsmead Quarry, an area of wet, waste ground with unrestricted access to birders, adjacent to the reservoir. We were banking on them staying there and not going back to the reservoir. High stakes indeed. 

Badger's pager inevitably announced as we got near our destination that the pipits had flown back to the reservoir. A gloom descended on the car. Double dip anyone? Tired and fed up we drove aimlessly around the reservoir debating whether to try and see if by some miracle we could get access to the reservoir but in the end we headed for Kingsmead Quarry. We had two chances, slim or none, that the pipits had returned. We drew up and I saw some birders going through an open gate onto the waste ground. Could the pipits have returned? We got ourselves sorted and went through the gate to be confronted by the welcome sight of a small group of birders a few hundred yards away looking intently at what at first appeared to be just a group of wagtails.

Hang on - two of them were brown. The Buff-bellied Pipits! It must be.We joined the other birders and filled our scopes with visions of pipit loveliness. It was Buff-bellied Pipit heaven. 

Almost a cross between a Meadow and Rock Pipit they paraded around, feeding virtually constantly and always keeping close to each other.How nice it must be when you arrive in a strange country to find another of the same species awaiting you to make friends. They fed  by walking up and down on the area of short grass, puddles and gravel picking up minute invertebrates 

Occasionally taking alarm they would fly off together but in a few minutes always returned to the same general area and on one of these forays returned and settled relatively close to us, allowing some good photo opportunities. I noted the diagnostic buff suffusion to the belly, pale lores and the white tip to the second outermost tail feather as well as other intricate subtleties of their plumage, with one bird being slightly brighter in plumage than the other. All this was accompanied by the almost constant roar of planes arriving into Heathrow. 

Transatlantic jets and transatlantic migrant birds sharing the same location. You couldn't make it up! We watched the pipits for around an hour and then headed for home. The atmosphere was now completely different. Andy wanted to see Rose ringed Parakeets in Henley for his Oxfordshire list having just seen them flying over us here and added to his lifelist. Did we see them? Of course we did. This twitching is really a doddle! 

Triumphant Oxonbirders
Badger, Andy and Clackers

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