Tuesday 30 April 2013

Up and Downs 30th April 2013

Dotterel is a hard bird to see in Oxfordshire although one did turn up at Balscote Quarry last year and stuck around long enough for everyone and anyone interested to see it. Even Badger who had been away in Lesvos got back in time to see it and add it to his county list. Another Dotterel turned up on Saturday but just the wrong side of the county border, on Bury Down in Berkshire. Roger Wyatt managed to get some great photos and also one of the bird in flight when it was actually in Oxfordshire airspace but that is about as far as it went and it soon returned to it's favourite field in Berkshire.

However this was the least of my worries when I found myself in the car park at the top of Bury Down near to West Ilsley on a blustery Sunday morning. I was surprised to find myself alone. Not another birder was in sight and I naturally assumed that the Dotterel had gone. After some confusion as to the precise field it was or had been in, which initially sent me the wrong way but resulted in my flushing five Grey Partridge, I found the right area and there it was in the field and relatively close. What a beauty, a female, so it's plumage was much brighter than a male but looking closely it was apparent it still had a little way to go before it was in it's full glory. It was, as I said, reasonably near to the fence line by the Ridgeway and the views in the scope were about as good as it could get.

A few other birders cum photographers joined me but there was never a crowd and a couple of walkers on the Ridgeway came over to casually enquire what all the interest was about. On showing them the object of our desire they remarked on the beauty of the bird and were suitably impressed at how far it had come and where it was going. 

The wind, thankfully, although strong was from the southwest so warmer, if that is the right word than yesterday's cold northwesterlies. The sense of space from up on the Ridgeway, looking down and across into Oxfordshire was palpable and the Ridgeway itself being relatively devoid of people only enhanced the sense of space and isolation.

Dotterel field with Oxfordshire beyond
I spent an hour or so looking at the Dotterel which had the field to itself apart from a few Northern Wheatears. One of these was an exceptionally well coloured and large male, putting it's companions in the metaphorical shade - surely a Greenland Wheatear? 

I got quite excited as this particular sub species has the most phenomenal migration. It undertakes one of the longest  migrations of any passerine, covering some 30,000 km  (18,640 miles) from it's sub Saharan wintering grounds in Africa to it's northern breeding grounds. First leaving Africa and arriving on our shores it then  makes an incredible non stop flight over the Atlantic to Greenland. Here it was on the Downs only about half way to it's destination, feeding up frantically for it's mammoth flight. Extraordinary and somewhat humbling.

Monday 29 April 2013

Rocky Road to Hull 26th April

Female Rufous tailed Rock Thrush
c Mark Hows
A text arrived on Thursday evening from Hugh. 'Are you going for the Rufous tailed Rock Thrush?' 'Er' no', as this was news to me. I do not carry a pager so am sometimes late in getting the news. A quick reaction from yours truly by consulting Birdforum online elicited the fact that a female Rufous tailed Rock Thrush was just south of the Bluebell Caravan Site at Kilnsea, not quite as far as Spurn Point in East Yorkshire and had been showing itself really well all day. I sent a text to Paul, my long haul twitching buddy asking if he was interested in coming. The answer was no. Never mind this would have to be one of my solo sorties on the highways and byways of this fair land. 

I had earlier promised my wife that I would drop her off at the railway station at Kingham next morning at 9.30am so she could go up to London. This was non negotiable. I was, perversely glad as this meant that I was mentally and physically constrained and as a result could relax and check the thrush was still there the next morning rather than take the proverbial mad dash flier and leave in the middle of the night, with the chance of arriving to find the bird had flown. Next morning at 7am there was only one entry on the online Birdforum Rare Bird Alert, a mega alert with three exclamation marks,  'Rufous tailed Rock Thrush, Kilnsea, still present !!! ' I was raring to go. It seemed to take an age for the time to come round to drop my wife at the station so I contented myself by loading the car with all my birding paraphernalia and setting the Satnav. Finally with that achieved I drove my wife to the station and I was on my way. It's strange how anxiety distorts one's reason and causes all sorts of irrational behaviour. Why was I so anxious? Reason and just plain common sense said if the bird was still there, which it was, it was likely to remain as it is a night migrant but then little doubts creep in and become enlarged into great anxieties. 'What if a Sparrowhawk gets it?' 'What if it does decide to fly off during the day for some totally unfathomable and exceptional reason?' Ludicrous I know but these little seeds of doubt inflate over time to become tree sized worries. Senseless and irrational I know but that's how it works. 

On the map it does not look that far to Kilnsea compared to some of the trips I have done but in reality the journey still took over 3.5 hours and seemed a very long way indeed. Paul very kindly updated me on the various reports of the bird's presence as I drove North. At twelve a heart stopping text informed me that it had last been reported at 9.40am. Did that mean it had gone missing or just that no-one had reported it to the information services? Anxiety levels went up a few notches. Then an hour or so later another text from Paul advised it is still in it's usual place on fence posts but mobile. Anxiety levels decrease and the car speed slows down. Thankfully the roads and motorways were accident and traffic jam free and I arrived in a sunny Hull at 1230. Traversing the city was surprisingly easy and then it was a frustrating drive on a slow single carriageway road that seemed to go on forever as I headed out through the flatlands towards Kilnsea, almost but not quite on the farthest point of the Spurn Peninsula. Finally I arrived at literally the end of the road, on the coast at the Bluebell Caravan Site and the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust's Bluebell Cafe just beyond Kilnsea. 

Yet another high stakes twitching gamble had paid off. There was no mistaking where the bird was as the car park was full of cars and birders in small groups were watching the bird either from an elevated bank situated between the bird on the fence posts and the sea, or just from the car park itself. The bird  was clearly visible from where I parked the car feeding from the line of fence posts running off east from the car park. I extracted my optics from the car only to discover I had left my camera and lens at home. Not a huge drama but somewhat worrying as to my state of mind. Still it was one thing less to worry about and I could now concentrate on actually watching the bird rather than fussing about camera settings and angles 

Fence posts frequented by the Rock Thrush
Bluebell Cafe and Car Park in the background
c Paul Wren
Declining to take the lazy option of scoping the bird from the car park I made the short walk from the car park up to and along the bank to view the bird from there. For one thing it would be closer. I have never seen a female Rock Thrush before. I have seen a male in the Pecos de Europa in Northern Spain but now had the set so to speak and the fact that it was only the thirtieth Rock Thrush ever to grace these shores and the last one seen in the UK was some nine years ago, made the experience all the more sweet. The bird itself was, for me curiously attractive in an understated way. Somewhat dumpy with a shortish tail in relation to it's size and quite a long bill. I have a thing about vermiculations and this bird had plenty of those. Although fundamentally non-descript, being greyish brown on top and a pale orange buff below, the plumage on both upper and underparts was enhanced by numerous wavy squiggles created by the thin dark fringes to the individual feathers. The crowning glory and suitably subtle for such a drab bird was the rusty orange tail only shown in all it's splendour when it flew down from and then back up to it's perch on the fence posts. When the tail was closed there was only the slightest hint of orange as the central tail feathers were brown and covered the other orange tail feathers. In fact it looked superficially like a giant female Redstart. Even down to the quivering tail. 

I watched it feeding, constantly dropping down from the various fence posts into the grass to seize it's prey and then back up onto another fence post. It worked it's way along the fence posts and then took a long flight around us and over the beach behind ending up back in front of us on the chimney pot of a house facing us across a field. Everyone left the bank and walked round to the house by which time it had dropped down into another field and played hide and seek, first appearing on one side of a bank and then after everyone had walked to view it from there promptly went over to the other side of the bank and became invisible. I can safely say we all got a fair amount of exercise as we  moved around the minor roads trying to keep it in sight  but with persistence we were rewarded with excellent views. 

A glorious male Common Redstart, feeding from the bushes nearby kept us happy when it was not in view. The warden told us that the fence posts running east from the car park were the Rock Thrush's favoured location and sure enough after an hour of hide and seek it duly returned  and treated those of us remaining and who could be bothered to walk back there, to excellent views. It went up and down along various fence posts feeding constantly before just sitting for an extended time on one post as if contemplating how it was going to make a hazardous and long journey back to it's proper environment which is at elevations of over one thousand feet in the mountains of southern Europe. Currently it was just a few feet above sea level. 

I called Paul who could not come with me due to an upset stomach and he told me he was going to drive overnight in the hope of seeing it first thing in the morning. That night was cold and clear with a following north wind. I feared the worst and indeed the bird had gone the next morning.

c Paul Wren

Saturday 27 April 2013

Spring on Otmoor 27th April 2013

Despite the weather and the cold north wind Spring is here and there is that definite sensation of activity and purpose as the Spring migrants flood unstoppably into the hedgerows, fields and woods and the air rings once again with birdsong from dawn to dusk. The male Common Whitethroat with his cheery irrepressible song flings himself into the sky and as if on elastic exultantly dances in wild flings of ecstacy. Even on the greyest day this feathered optimist sings from the bright green emergent leaves of hawthorn and announces that Spring is really here and the days will lengthen.

The Sedge Warbler, heedless of all, volleys his warbles and mimickery from the densest of blackthorn bushes. A jumble of urgent notes pouring out unstoppably as if there is no time to lose. 

Reed Warblers, invisibly deep at the base of dead reeds sing a scratchy ditty whilst waiting for the new reed blades to arise, which they will do rapidly, swords of green pointing skywards. Common ChiffChaffs call plaintively along the ride where they already have built a nest. Banks of Primroses, scrambled egg yellow, growing in the bright green grass of shady banks or in the dappled morning sunlight in wooded rides lift the soul. Their subtle and simple beauty outshining the gaudy cultivated daffodils of many a garden. 

The bright green of emergent vegetation slowly erases the brown, dead and brittle as Hares race around, all ears and legs.With thyroid eyes they look madly at you and one another and behave accordingly.

Wednesday 24 April 2013

A Spring day in West Sussex 23rd April 2013

Well a beautiful day dawned and reports of a Long eared Owl, highly visible and close to the path behind Pagham Harbour Visiting Centre in West Sussex had me heading south just after 8.30am on a glorious spring morning. A reported Bonelli's Warbler species, it could be either Western or Eastern, was also apparently still hanging around very close by at Church Norton so it looked, potentially, like a good day was in prospect. 

I decided on going for the warbler first and duly arrived at Church Norton car park which, unsurprisingly was crammed full of cars and made my way to the Hide behind the Churchyard where the warbler was best looked for. There were some familiar faces amongst the gathering of around thirty birders there but an air of resignation and stoicism greeted me as the warbler had not been seen since 8.30, over two hours ago. It had been a long wait for some. To add to my personal angst there was reportedly no sign of the owl either so now it was not looking so good. However the weather was  magnificent and undeterred I settled in for a wait. 

Standing in the Spring sunshine was such a novelty and pleasure after all the privations of the months before, so I made the most of it. Blackcaps and Chaffinches flitted around in the hedgeline opposite us and an invisible Lesser Whitethroat rattled away deep in the just flowering blackthorn to my left. Another hour passed and slowly the other birders, dispirited, melted away leaving just a few of us maintaining a vigil. A couple of Willow Warblers set the pulses racing for a moment whilst a pair of Blackcaps provided some entertainment by repeatedly dropping down from the fence line into the grass and then up again. It was whilst looking at these that I noticed beyond them, a scrum of birders walking fast and purposefully back down the track from the car park to the harbour. Something was up. The warbler had been located. I left my position, standing on the grass behind the hide and followed the wet path between the bushes and the saltmarsh to where the car park track joined the edge of the harbour. Everyone was looking up into the tall trees skirting the car park track. The Bonelli's had just been seen here, literally seconds ago but had been chased off by a ChiffChaff and disappeared. It had been heard to give a 'hoowee'  call which was diagnostic of Western Bonelli's Warbler but frustratingly it was now out of sight. We milled around, looking upwards, hopeful but uncertain and then went back and fore between the hide and the track entrance searching the trees and bushes. It must be here somewhere but the vegetation was so dense it could easily hide away and not be seen. The warbler called again off to our right, deep in the vegetation but we could not locate, let alone see it.  

Back to the Hide but no sign there. Back to the track entrance. Nothing there either. Back to the Hide again to find the remaining birders are now watching it! We all crammed into the restricted space between the edge of the Hide and the Blackthorn hedge and it could be seen flitting about in the adjacent Sallows about forty metres away to our left. This from earlier reports was it's favoured location. The views were brief but confirmed it's identity. It was amongst some Willow Warblers and frequenting the leaves and twigs of the Sallows.  Then it has gone. It looks like it has moved back through the trees and bushes towards the track. We all trudge round there. No sign. More indecision and we wait. It calls again between the track and the Hide. Back to the Hide. It's showing again! The same place as before! 

Now on it's own with no Willow Warblers to confuse the issue it feeds in and around a small willow, golden with fat, furry catkins. The Bonelli's appears paler, smaller and slimmer than a Willow Warbler or ChiffChaff and very white underneath with an open facial expression and pale brown upperparts. I can just about see the greenish tinge on the wings. Constantly moving and forever restless it zips up, down and around amongst the leaves and branches, disappearing and re-appearing. Flying out to catch flies it's silvery white underside shines in the sun. Other birders join us, one even temporarily abandoning his small child to get a glimpse of this waif.

We cram in again and get really good and extended views of the warbler. An enormous camera lens creeps over my right shoulder. I don't mind. Everyone is very solicitous about everyone else getting good views. Conscientious due to the limited space I watch the warbler for twenty minutes and then relinquish my space to the photographer. The  temporarily abandoned toddler is retrieved by her father. No harm done and all is right with the world. Some of the assembled crowd disperses happy with a successful twitch whilst other latecomers wait for their view of the warbler.

All smiles now from birders who have seen the Bonelli's
Relaxed, I now sit on a bench and look out at blue sea on a full tide in the harbour. The sun warming my face. I am actually hot. With the owl having disappeared I decided to visit the baker to end all bakers, Enticotts at East Beach, Selsey. Cheap, cheerful, very popular and friendly. It is still as good as ever. 

Hunger satisfied I  took the option of going to Pulborough Brooks RSPB reserve to try and photo the Nightingales. Only a comparatively short drive east from Selsey, I had forgotten how popular such reserves are with the public. The feeling one gets is that this is very much a focal point for people with a casual interest in birds rather than the determined sometimes frenetic quest of the likes of me to see as many good birds as possible. Nothing wrong in that but I confess to not feeling at ease in such places. The car park was full to overflowing. So many people with expensive equipment but wearing totally inappropriate clothing such as white hats and shirts, visible for miles and talking in very loud voices. But this is their domain not mine. Where is the beige and green clothing and subdued whispers of us skulkers? I eventually find an area free of disturbance on the reserve, a quiet corner off the main path with a gate at the bottom of a short track.

As I watch a brown bird drops down onto the path from the Bramble hedge, just in front of the gate. Robin? No, a rusty chestnut tail and rump, greyish underparts and a slightly larger build tell a different story. It looks at me quizzically, almost knowingly, then hops further out before deciding to retreat back into cover.

A Nightingale. It disappears back into the Brambles and tangle of vegetation by the gate and a burst of glorious, exotic song explodes from the same spot seconds later. Ripe and full throated. The sound of the steamy swamps and hot, humid jungle of tropical Africa. Impossibly rich, the full fat cream of birdsong comes to me. Incongruous in our cloud shrouded land but in the exceptional shining sunlight of this Spring day it appears totally appropriate.  It is not a dream. It is here and so are at least another four singing males scattered around the reserve. I stand quietly by the hedge and the Nightingale re-appears. It sings a short burst again and hops around on the grass. 

Half an hour passes and remarkably no-one comes along the main path to join me. Beyond the bushes and the gate a young mother, invisible behind the hedgerow has arrived with two troublesome toddlers and is shouting at  one of her misbehaving small kids but I am in my own zone of tranquility and peace. She is not far away just the other side of the hedge but could be at the other end of the world. The Nightingale sings again. It too seemingly immune to the commotion. Serenading the woods with long, drawn out, poignant notes then an exquisite contralto warble. I am back in Africa. and the boundless tropical landscapes of that continent flood my memory.The magic is broken as a couple come along the path. They do not speak or stop to listen  but carry on. I do not want to tell them about the Nightingale.This is my moment.

Thursday 18 April 2013

Weekend Whirlwind 13th-14th April 2013

Pallas's Leaf Warbler
courtesy of Roger Wyatt
A colleague of mine, Hugh Wright had a weekend free and wished to go birding. He does not get much opportunity these days so it was going to be dawn to dusk for two days. I was already horribly tired but he arrived in Kingham to stay overnight on Friday and we were away at 5am on Saturday to try and see the over wintering Pallas's Leaf Warbler at Moor Green Lakes in Berkshire. This would be a lifer for Hugh and it would be good for me to see it well, having not had very satisfactory views of it at the end of last year. Despite it's popularity we were all alone when we arrived at the location.
A Barn Owl, like some giant white moth weaved it's erratic course over the rough field to our right and a pair of Common Chiffchaffs flitted through the still bare branches of the bushes to our left as we made our way down the track to the riverside trees which was the warbler's favoured haunt. We were reasonably confident of seeing it as it had been reported virtually daily but the reality made us less optimistic. There was an awful lot of habitat for it to hide in and only us looking for it. Would it be low down in the riverside brambles or high up in the trees? Apparently it had been singing regularly but this morning there was not a sound. We got on with birding and I saw my first Blackcap and Willow Warbler of the year. We had, however, not come all this way for just this. We wandered the length of the path beside the river and back again but not a sniff. We split up, the better to cover the path beside the river. An hour passed, slowly, very slowly. Then my mobile phone rang. Hugh further up the path thought he could hear it singing in some trees on the other side of the river. I joined him and Hugh's identification was correct. It was singing alright, a combination of Willow Warbler x Wren song but it was distant in some conifers, with no access. Frustratingly we followed it by song as it moved invisibly amongst the trees. We had no chance. Heard and not seen but then how often can one say they have heard a Pallas's singing in Britain? Then it promptly fell silent.

Time passed slowly once more and we split up again. Some thirty minutes later despite the potential confusion of a Willow Warbler singing close by, the distinctive song came again, now much closer to the river bank, still in the trees. We again followed it's progress by song and soon it was singing at point blank range, in a tree on the opposite bank, just a few metres away from us. Could we see it? Not a chance. This tiny mite was now belting out it's  song at a very impressive volume. We looked and we looked. Then the words, this time from Hugh, that always send a thrill but also anxiety coursing through one's body. 'I've got it' 'Where?'  'See that fork in the small tree just in front of the third silver birch from the right, the really white one? Well come down from there and go left into the conifer branches behind and it is just right of the trunk of the conifer, quite low down. Oh! look at it's yellow rump. It's showing really well'. I was readying to do Hugh a mischief.  'Great but I still cannot see it'. By now there was a small  group behind us alerted by Hugh's exclamations, and yet frustratingly for all of us it was only obvious to Hugh. A lady behind me then found it as well. 'It's fabulous. Oh it's so small'. Steady now Ewan, maintain your equilibrium. Quelling the rising frustration I just focused my bins on the seemingly impenetrable conifer branches. Hugh and the lady birder were still eulogising about the warbler when I too found it. 

Pallas's Leaf Warbler
courtesy of Roger Wyatt
A tiny movement amongst all the pine needles betrayed it and I locked the bins onto it as it zipped about, never still and singing constantly as it moved around but always staying faithful to it's favoured area of the conifer. I was struck by how much duller it appeared than in the numerous photos, possibly due to the dull light and dark conifer, and how small it was. No chance for any photos. Shame. I saw all the plumage features, such as the long yellow supercilium, the wing bars and the yellow rump as it hovered, picking off prey from the undersides of the leaves. As I watched it my nostrils were assailed by the strong peppery smell of the yellow gorse flowers over which I was peering. We watched the tiny warbler for about twenty minutes before it moved further away back into the trees and although singing loudly was now no longer visible. Both of us were now a lot more happy about life and indeed Hugh was ecstatic as it was a long desired lifer. So a morning came to a successful conclusion but we were on borrowed time. The weather forecast was dire for the rest of the day with rain and wind forecast so we decided to go sea-watching at Worthing in West Sussex as we could sit in a shelter out of the rain. 

Worthing is not the best place to be on a wet Saturday but we got ourselves ensconced in the shelter only to find, unfortunately, the birds were not doing what we required. It was wet, windy, miserable and cold and somewhat crucially no birds were moving out at sea. Bored, I went looking for some food and a tea for both of us. This took the best part of forty minutes due to traffic, no cafe in sight for miles and in the end I found myself wandering the aisles of a giant Asda somewhere considerably west of Worthing and to add to the misery, on a wet Saturday. It does not get worse than this believe me. Eventually I returned with food and tea to find Hugh had seen a distant Great Skua but not much else. We drank the tea and gave up. Frankly it was a relief to get in the car, out of the wind and rain. So now what?  'Let's go to Titchfield Haven we can sit in a nice cosy hide there and look at whatever is in front of it. At least we will not be wet' suggested Hugh, still full of enthusiasm. 'Good idea'.  I replied. Liar. Secretly I wanted to go to a pub and watch football on Sky. Nice and warm. 

We duly arrived at Titchfield Haven and now the wind had become positively ferocious and the rain was almost horizontal. It was a struggle to even get the car doors open. Somehow we got to the hide, only partially drowned and looked out on a ghetto of Black headed Gulls, pairing up and raring to get breeding, totally heedless of the foul elements.

Hugh admiring the rain
The noise and activity was incredible.The contortions of the gulls as they displayed and mated was endlessly fascinating and we forgot our disappointment about the weather. Frankly it was a relief just to sit down and watch some birds

Gull city

We watched the gulls, cavorting in the rain heedless of anything apart from the testosterone fuelled desire to get on with breeding. Constantly displaying, either in mutual pair bonding or in aggression to fellow gulls. It was non stop action and noise. Noisy neighbours - you bet. A pair of Shelduck swam past, incredibly bright even in the gloom of the rain, the bill of the male pillar box red and looking as if it had been stuck on rather badly to the bird's forehead. We were just getting nicely settled when the volunteer warden arrived to advise the hide was closing at 5pm! I know they are volunteers but closing a well known nature reserve in the Spring at 5pm? Come on. We meekly complied and gave up on this miserable Saturday that had started so well. Instead of returning to my home in Kingham we resolved to go to Portland the next day, so as Hugh's flat was in Southampton, a lot closer to Portland than Oxfordshire, we made the short drive to overnight there. I was so tired I was in bed by eight and hopefully would be ready for the planned 4.30am start tomorrow

Dead to the world for eight hours I somehow got it together to get in the car, drive, wake up and concentrate all at the same time and as dawn broke we were not far from Weymouth. Shortly afterwards we parked the car at Portland Bill and as the winds were southerly decided on a  bit of sea-watching. It was slow going but we saw three Great Skuas, a very close, dark morph Arctic Skua and assorted Guillemots, Razorbills, Gannets and Kittiwakes. Two Ravens had a spat with a Greater Black backed Gull on the cliff edge in front of us and a few Northern Wheatears made landfall on the short grass between us and the sea. It was hardly epic but we stuck at it for an hour or so and then tiring, decided to go and look for passerine migrants. Unfortunately they were also thin on the ground, in the bushes or in the air. The best we could do in a couple of hours was a Little Owl hiding in the quarry, eight Northern Wheatears, a lovely male Common Redstart, two Blackcaps and fifteen or so Willow/Chiffs which were feeding on the ground in the Observatory garden. A few Swallows cruised in off the sea and then we returned to the lighthouse and the sea-watchers still cowering from the strong wind in the lee of the obelisk. Just as we approached them a flock of Common Scoter, close in, appeared to our left, over the sea, going the wrong way i.e west. As all the sea-watchers were looking west they did not notice them coming up from behind. The first bird in the flock had huge white wing patches. Velvet Scoter. We shouted the news to the sea-watchers. They all rushed to look east by which time the scoters were obscured by the obelisk. 'No! Look west' we shouted and they all rushed to the other side of the obelisk and thankfully saw both the Common Scoters and more importantly, the Velvet Scoter heading away from them. In return they pointed out a Puffin on the sea. It was quiet though and we left soon afterwards.

Final destination and final hope for some good birding was the  RSPB reserve at Ham Wall but on the way we decided to stop at nearby Radipole in Weymouth as Hugh wanted to at least see the male Hooded Merganser of dubious origin. There was no sign of it in the scrum of  Tufted Ducks and Herring Gulls being lobbed copious quantities of bread by members of the public who were standing on the bridge near the Visitor Centre. There were however at least six Garganey on the reserve so we went in search of them. Needless to say they were viewable from the hide furthest away from the Visitor Centre but as we wandered down the tracks we were entertained by Willow Warblers and Common ChiffChaffs feeding in the reeds with numerous Swallows feeding low over the lake and Cetti's Warblers announcing their presence with high volume outbursts. After a long walk we made it to the hide and managed to find a pair of Garganey fast asleep in a distant, wet clump of grass, eventually waking up and swimming across some open water to disappear from view in some juncus. More exciting was the arrival of an immature male Marsh Harrier which quartered the area before flying off high to the southeast. An elderly gent struggling to extricate himself from the bench in the hide exclaimed 'It gets harder to swing your leg over the older you get' unaware of the unintentional innuendo in his words. We quietly chuckled to ourselves and left the hide having successfully swung our legs over - the bench that is. Back at the bridge the feeding frenzy continued with overstuffed gulls waddling around in the car park and the ducks fighting other gulls for the continuous rain of all things bread like, chucked at them by adults and their kids. This time, in amongst the ducks was the Hooded Merganser, mixing it with the best of them and getting its fair share of food. Whatever the truth about it's controversial provenance it is undoubtedly a beautiful and thrilling creature to see and still attracts a lot of attention from birders and general public alike

We stood on the bridge admiring it and then much to our delight, in amongst the swallows, an early Common Swift did a couple of low passes before zooming off into the grey heavens.
Now we embarked on the longish drive to Ham Wall in Somerset where Hugh would hopefully achieve a second lifer in the form of the Pied billed Grebe which had taken up residence on one of the flooded ex peat workings. We held little hope of seeing it straight away as it could be elusive and mentally prepared ourselves for an extended vigil. Another long walk along another track and we came to the first viewing point. This was not where the grebe was but there was a volunteer warden present and we enquired about the grebe and anything else worth seeing. We were told the grebe was very hard to see and had not been reported today but there was a Bittern occasionally booming from the reeds on the other side of the track but was invisible. Just as we got this information another Bittern flew across the lake in front of us and landed in the reeds! We congratulated ourselves on our good fortune and carried on down to the second screen where hopefully we would get to see the grebe. As we arrived, a couple further up the track, looking through a scope, motioned to us urgently. Hugh started running. They had the grebe in their scopes. It could only be that. Hugh's need was far greater than mine, it would be his first, my fourth. The grebe was barely visible being obscured by a selection of branches of trees growing on the bank and dead reed stalks in the lake. It was incredibly well hidden but I could just see it's head with the dull white bill and the thick black ring across it as well as the white eye ring. Suddenly it craned it's head forward whilst inflating it's throat and cocking it's tail and the strangest call echoed across the water. Completely alien, somehow exotic and with a hint of primal wildness about it. Remarkable. An adult Pied billed Grebe, at least three thousand miles from home, in summer plumage, displaying and calling in a wet corner of Somerset. Hugh now had another lifer and we declared the weekend a success. We  relaxed and  spent another couple of hours with the grebe serenaded by Cetti's Warblers and the occasional booming Bittern. At first it had been very hard to see the grebe properly but we soon ascertained that it had a defined feeding circuit in this overgrown corner of the lake which it followed religiously, calling at regular intervals, to betray it's whereabouts. 

Pied Billed Grebe habitat
Presumably this was it's territory. The interesting thing was that it would call from a particular spot and then silence followed. We would wait to see any betraying signs of ripples or movement but would see nothing and then it would call again and be in a completely different area. How it achieved moving without detection we never did ascertain but it certainly led us a merry dance. In the end we just remained in one spot and waited as it came round again on it's feeding/territorial circuit. Our extended stay did result in some stunning views as it preened and called in front of the dead reeds. 

Although basically mouse brown all over, the patterning of the large head was subtly attractive with it's black chin and throat, white eye ring and the defining thick, black ring across it's chunky white bill. To see it displaying and calling was a definite bonus and a first for me.

Time passed and most visitors had gone home. To cap a great afternoon a Great White Egret flew across the open water in front of us, brilliant white against the grey sky and a couple of Marsh Harriers created a commotion amongst the ducks. Swallows and martins were everywhere and two Reed Warblers were singing in the dead reeds. It was still hours before dusk would arrive.

Some birders had told us about an elusive Hoopoe nearby. 'What do you think Hugh?' 'Lets do it', he replied 'Our luck is definitely in'. We found the location, which was a track cum footpath leading up to a farm. The area was deserted. Not a birder in sight which was unusual. 'This must be the spot?'. 'Definitely.' We scanned the track with not a bird to be seen. We went through the gate and commenced walking the track towards the farm. 'What's that?' A pink bird, flashing white and with swooping flight flew up into a tree. Bins up. A Jay! Downcast. A few more steps and out of the grass ahead of us an ornithological butterfly, pink, black and white rose and flew to perch in a distant tree. Scopes out and there was a Hoopoe. It's distinctive profile of anvil like head with long crest and long down curved bill obvious. It remained in the tree for a couple of minutes and then dropped down behind a grassy bank. Our day was now well and truly complete and we felt our persistence had truly been rewarded.

Friday 12 April 2013

Blenheim bonanza Oxfordshire 12th April 2013

Female Hawfinch
[picture taken  by me at Draycote Water a few years ago]
Having spent three hours at Blenheim, waiting to catch a glimpse of a Hawfinch last Sunday and getting very cold and bored in the process I decided that rather than inflict more of the same by standing outside the gardens again, I would save myself another, possibly long wait, by venturing inside the gardens at the considerable cost of £9.00. I reasoned that as the female bird we saw on Sunday appeared to have been feeding in there, it and presumably others would be lurking in there somewhere. So on a dreary, rainy morning I arrived at the Woodstock entrance to Blenheim, paid my money, parked the car and walked around the awe inspiring Palace and into the gardens behind. Probably due to my being there at opening time which is 10am, and the weather being bad, the gardens, fortuitously, were deserted. I had the run of them with no one, not even a gardener in sight.  

Three bulky shapes were the first things I saw in the very top of a huge tree, and they were?  --------------   Hawfinches. OK, £9.00 lighter in the pocket but an instant result for which I was happy and it was not over yet. After looking at these three for a while I carried on down the path and another one was in the top of yet another tall tree. I stopped and yet others flew up from the ground until there were five more in the tree tops. They appeared to have been either feeding on the ground or low down in various dense bushes, unseen by me. It always seems such a paradox that a hunky, robust finch such as this is so shy and retiring. I then located a splendid male, all grey nape and golden brown plumage, who sat for ages in, you guessed it, the top of another tall tree, eventually being joined by a female. The quiet ticking calls of Hawfinches were everywhere around me. The pair I was watching flew off deeper into the gardens. I turned to retrace my steps and a flock of seven flew over me towards the Palace never to be seen again. After about 1045 I could not find sight or sound of any of them. Where they went to I have no idea but the gardens are obviously to the Hawfinches liking, possibly because they are relatively quiet and secluded, especially first thing and are only open to the public from mid morning. I calculated that I had seen around eighteen Hawfinches. Twenty Redwings flew over and a Raven cronked in the distance. A House Martin was prospecting the Palace buildings as I made my way back to the car and ChiffChaffs were singing by the lake.
With the disappearance of the enigmatic Hawfinches I decided to round off my morning by visiting Farmoor. A grey and gloomy reservoir greeted me with very little apparent in the way of birdlife apart from thousands of Black headed Gulls feeding on the hatching flies on both reservoirs, accompanied by two Little Gulls. The grassy bank by the treatment works was temporary home to two splendid male Yellow Wagtails. The vividness of their yellow plumage always takes me by surprise. They look just like over-sized dandelions nestling in the green grass and are a true harbinger of Spring

The Causeway was devoid of passerine birdlife. A lone drake Gadwall flew over it from one reservoir to the other and a second winter Greater Black backed Gull sped down the strengthening southwest wind. Sadly there was no sign of the summer plumaged Water Pipit anywhere. I wandered onwards and found two male White Wagtails along the wave wall of Farmoor Two, at the far end of the Causeway. 

I planned to walk around Farmoor Two but shortly afterwards met up with Dai  (see his blog "The Insomniac Birder") and he told me there was little to see so I persuaded him to give me a lift back to the Car Park. Just as we were about to leave Nick Hallam, watching from the far side of Farmoor Two, phoned to alert us to the presence of a couple of Arctic Terns plus one or more Common Terns, in amongst the throng of Black headed Gulls. We soon found them and I had the pleasure of making a re-acquaintance with Arctic Terns. My first for this year. Such beautiful and delicate birds that make such an incredible migratory journey every year.
So it was then back home to find the feeders stripped of seed, again. I was just remarking to my wife about how the 'bloody' Starlings hog the feeders and are costing me a fortune when a Starling's distress call came through the open kitchen door,  clearly emanating from the driveway outside. I rushed out fearing a cat had got another victim but no, it was a male Sparrowhawk, clutching a very much alive Starling. It could hardly lift it and on seeing me flew heavily, for a few metres down the drive, still clutching the squealing Starling, which it then dunked in a deep puddle to drown it. I rushed back into the kitchen for the camera but they had gone in the matter of moments I was absent. Now I feel sorry for Starlings!

Thursday 11 April 2013

Rare Australasian bird sighted at Farmoor 9th April 2013

On a grey, cold and windy Wednesday antipodean actress and all round beauty Nicole Kidman was seen in full summer plumage and occasionally showing well  at the far end of the Farmoor Causeway, apparently filming 'on location'. Yes. Nicole Kidman. Can you believe it?  My Auntie was called Nicole.

Local Oxonbirder and roving reporter Tel Dreadlock was, by chance, on hand to catch the moment  and was granted a rare two minute interview with the Ozzy temptress between takes and eucalyptus sarnies. His first question to the Australian beauty, 'What's it like down under?' could have been misconstrued but the Aussie lovely merely smiled and asked him if he got gripped off often, told Tel  he was such a tease and she was much more interested in the rumoured Water Pipit as she needed it for her Farmoor list and would Tel please pass the HP Sauce. 

Tel's second question, trying to catch an antipodean flavour and make this vision of loveliness feel more at home amongst Farmoor's flies, goose shit and dead fish concerned that Ozzy favourite, Vegemite and did Nicole like it spread all over or just a bit on the side. By now the 'assorted  luvvies' were getting concerned about the direction this was going but as with all true professionals and obsessives our visiting radiant beauty persisted in asking for details of any notable sightings that day and where could she catch a sighting of a Badger as she heard they were similar to a Possum. 

Tel was at a loss, as before he could answer she noticed his lens and complimented him on the size of it and said she had not seen such a big one since the time Tom Schmooze fell off the stool while adjusting his focal length and sharpening her pixels. Well that put the proverbial galah amongst the marsupials. Tel went weak at the knees and started dribbling and stuttering. Anxiously, 'assorted luvvies' and best boys rushed to usher him away before he did himself further mischief.

Later starstruck and distraught by the water's edge, fondling a gull and covered in algae he was heard muttering 'Just a few more minutes was all I needed. I've got Blue Tits on my Farmoor list anyway. Wasn't she married to Rolf Harris?'