Saturday 22 March 2014

Upset on Otmoor 22nd March 2014

A sunny but cold start at Otmoor at around 7am. A little bleary I met Badger and Pete in the Car Park and we set off down the approach track to the Reserve. My but it was cold compared to last weekend - a huge drop of around nine degrees in temperature and once on the Bridleway the raw wind soon started chilling us. Woolly hats were soon the headgear of choice and necessity! 

Nonetheless many birds were, despite the cold in full territorial mode, singing and displaying. Common Redshanks flew over us indulging their wing trembling display flight, calling querously whilst Lapwings were bowing and scraping on their chosen territories. A ChiffChaff struck up its two note 'song' from the hedgerow. Unseen, Bullfinches piped their melancholy calls from deep in the green budding bushes and Reed Buntings sang their monotonous song from the reeds. We joined Terry and Andy further along the bridleway and the five of us meandered down to the first gate.

A lady ensconced in the corner of Big Otmoor was monitoring the Red Kites which were already checking out the potential of the Lapwing and Redshank 'chick feeding station' that has unfortunately been the legacy of the RSPB 's efforts to provide habitat for breeding Lapwing and Common Redshank on Big Otmoor.  As if to prove the point a Red Kite swooped over accompanied by a blizzard of Lapwings mobbing it from all angles. The Red Kite seemed untroubled by this and carried on quartering the land below. Alarmed by its presence a flock of five hundred or so Golden Plover took to the air, wheeling around, showing gleaming white undersides as they caught the sun, apart that is from the few with black undersides and almost in full breeding plumage. Canada and Greylag Geese maintained a continual duet of loud calling, harsh, nasal notes ringing out across the reserve, grating to the ear. A lone male Northern Wheatear, my first this year bounced jauntily on the short grass of Ashgrave and I felt all the better for seeing it.

We made for the Hide. Once inside we looked down the path towards July Meadow. No stonechats on the fenceposts but instead a Common Buzzard was perched on one of the posts. Badger then saw a Barn Owl perched close by on some wooden fencing. A couple of Magpies like juvenile delinquents testing their bravado, all flicking wings and flirting tails maintained a discreet distance from the owl but circled round it and chattered in alarm at its presence. Badger continued looking at the owl and said he thought there was something wrong. It did not move or look around and it was surely unusual to be perched out in the open for such a long time. Fifteen minutes passed and Badger said he definitely thought there was something not right with the Barn Owl and alarmingly said he thought he could see blood on its plumage. The Buzzard had ominously moved a few fenceposts nearer the owl. We went to investigate. The Buzzard flew off  at our approach but the Barn Owl remained hunched and motionless apparently rooted to its perch. We stopped a short distance away and looked through our bins. It looked forlorn, dejected and definitely unwell. Poisoned by something, sick with some avian virus? We carried on and still it just stood there. I looked again and there was blood on its face and feet. When we were virtually level it panicked and tried to fly. Now the problem was all too evident. Its foot was entangled in the barbed wire running along on top of the fence. It hung there upside down flapping feebly. I vaulted the fence and went up to it. I remember thinking 'Please don't let its leg be broken'.

Now this was the most upsetting part of the whole incident.The reason it was caught up in the wire was that it carried a BTO metal ring on its leg and this had become so entangled with a shaft of the wire on the fence that the owl was trapped. Who knows how long it had been there but it must have been some time and even worse in its struggles the trapped leg had been broken. I extricated the owl's foot and leg from the wire and it was free. So light and soft in my bloodied hands I held it firmly to prevent further struggle and possible injury. It sunk the talons of its remaining good foot into my hand which was not pleasant but I hung on in grim determination. Badger prised its needle sharp claws from my finger one by one. That's better. We put the owl in a bag and Badger and Terry immediately took it to Tiggywinkles in Haddenham.

BTO metal ring clearly visible on the broken and bloodied leg
All of us were very upset. Personally I went through a range of extreme emotions but felt mainly anger and frustration at the person who had ringed this owl and inadvertently brought about this situation as well as the BTO (British Trust for Ornithology) for their ringing scheme and adding yet another hazard to what is already a perilous existence for our wild birds. I accept my views maybe reflect my upset and ringing does have some benefits but I am writing this some fifteen hours after the event and I am still very troubled by it. I was a bird ringer for over forty years but for some years before I relinquished my licence I harboured increasing doubts about ringing and the collateral injury and disturbance it brings to birds and which is one of the downsides of ringing wild birds.

In this particular case I would ask do we really need to still ring Barn Owls? The recovery rate of ringed birds must be infinitesimal and what new information does it provide if any? There are reams of scientific data and information to be found in the literature about Barn Owls. So my question to the bird ringer and BTO is why was this owl and presumably other ringed Barn Owls in Oxfordshire made vulnerable to an avoidable mishap? For the sake of what? Another meaningless statistic gained from a probable fatality?


The verdict from Tiggywinkles was not good. Apparently Barn Owls with injuries such as the one we rescued do not settle well into captivity and the chances of the Barn Owl's survival are slim.

Friday 21 March 2014

Spring of Teal 21st March 2014

After a restless night of tossing and turning trying to get comfortable but failing miserably due to a damaged shoulder, the dawn finally came and the sun broke through illuminating the bedroom and radiating welcoming light into my consciousness.

It was impossible to be downcast on such a morning so I rose and resolved to do something, anything to distract myself from the pain in my shoulder. I consulted RBA and a male Green winged Teal at a place called Morton Bagot in deepest Warwickshire instantly appealed. It was not too far, about an hour's drive from my home, deep in the Warwickshire countryside and was unlikely to draw a big crowd. Ideal.

I set off just after nine and once through a tangle of roadworks at Stratford on Avon I found myself turning off the main road and driving down silent and for the most part deserted high hedged roads in search of Morton Bagot and Church Farm to be precise, which is where a footpath led off across the farmland to some pools created especially for wildlife. The pools in fact were no more than flooded areas at the lower end of some marshy fields.

The footpath actually ran through the farmyard and after some difficulty finding it I was set in the right direction by the helpful farmer and found myself traversing a field full of sheep and new born lambs to an ancient gate which once  I had passed through, led to a hedgeline through which you could view the pool in the adjacent field.

Aaaahh or should that be Baaahh!
It was a beautiful spring day as I did my best BoPeep impression by tiptoeing past sleepy sheep and lambs sunning themselves on the grass. Skylarks poured down aerial waterfalls of notes from the sky. Individual larks finished with singing, their ardour temporarily dissipated, descended on quivering wings to finally swoop to earth and become invisible on the ground whilst others ascending from the ground struck up phrase after phrase of silver notes as they headed heavenwards. A ChiffChaff sang monotonously from a bare Ash and Chaffinches rolled out their song of rattling notes from the Blackthorn hedgerow. A Blackbird, for me the sound of Spring, crooned its lazy contralto  notes, so smooth, effortless and melancholic. Spring was most definitely on its way.

I could feel the Spring manifesting itself around me in a myriad of shapes and forms. An imperceptible shift of spirit, a hint of optimism and longer days was tangible although the trees show little green yet, but the journey here had been accompanied by banks of daffodils, golden fanfares of yellow by many a roadside verge and garden path. On shady, sun dappled banks in sheltered by ways the subtler yellow flowers of Primrose, shone like constellations of pale brimstone stars in the dead winter grass and leaves.

It was indeed good to be alive. I looked through my scope at the pool which had attracted quite a bit of birdlife. Mallard, Common Teal and a lone male Wigeon hunkered down in the sedge by the water's edge, sheltered from the wind. Up to twelve Common Snipe were scattered along the  pool's edge together with a constantly restless group of Lapwing, The latter, unable to control the rising tide of their hormones, flew at each other and constantly bickered. Two Little Ringed Plovers pattered around the muddy margins, often alarmed at the Lapwing's behaviour and never stopping feeding for more than a few seconds. My first true Spring migrants. I counted one Green Sandpiper, then another and another and yet two more wading through the shallow pool bringing a total of five. Cheewitt cheewitt, they suddenly rose in noisy alarm and flew around the pool before settling again in a close group, on some clods of earth by the water, bowing and jinking. Nervous and edgy.

The male Green winged Teal was feeding with two Common Teal unconcerned at the brief sandpiper frenzy going on around it. Peace descended as forty or so Common Teal now fed or lazed around the shallow pool. Where had this Green winged Teal come from I wonder? I watched as he convulsed and displayed to a female Common Teal, standing up on end in the water, tipping his bill downwards to his breast and then dropping back down on the water, raising his rear, all in the matter of a few seconds. The female showed little interest. The vertical white lines, one on each side of the breast were very obvious, contrasting with the other male Common Teals that showed a horizontal white line between upper and lower body.

An hour spent here, alone, provided therapy both physical and mental, distracting me from the current problems with my shoulder.

Monday 17 March 2014

If at first you do not succeed ... 14th March 2014

There is a really excruciating Scottish song that begins "Oh Campbeltown Loch I wish you were whisky, Campbeltown Loch. Och Aye! Oh Campbeltown Loch if you were whisky I would drink you dry". I will say no more but from early childhood I had heard this song many times and now found myself by sheer chance looking for a first year American Herring Gull at the  landward end of said Campbeltown Loch which is in fact a sea loch and sadly not full of whisky. Campbeltown itself is an unremarkable, somewhat dour town, still with a small inshore fishing fleet. Its saving grace for me are the birds and for others the magnificent and isolated scenery surrounding the town. To get to Campbeltown takes forever. You first drive north as far as Loch Lomond and then have to double back south and drive for what seems hours, back and parallel to the way you came. The Mull of Kyntyre made famous by Paul McCartney and another, dare I venture to say dubious song, is just literally a few miles down the road. In fact I believe there is even a public garden designed by the late Linda McCartney in Campbeltown,

I drove overnight for eight hours from Kingham, communing once again on the Motorways with the ghosts of Eddie Stobart lorries past, present and future. Dodging deer along the dark remote road wending for fifty miles down the penisula to Campbeltown I arrived with the dawn at Campbeltown Old Harbour and set about trying to find the American Herring Gull. This was a high risk twitch as the gull had proved singularly elusive and unpredictable and often went missing for a couple of days before showing up at random locations and times, in and around Campbeltown.

It had been seen for the previous two days, briefly, in the harbour at dawn before flying inland to the grass fields and flashes of water on the flooded fields north of the town where it loafed with other gulls. I scanned the Herring Gulls in the harbour as the light increased but failed to find anything remotely resembling the American Herring Gull. In the end I gave up on it and relaxed as dawn morphed into a glorious sunny morning with the sun twinkling off the water and a sky of blue rising up and over the surrounding hills.

The majority of the gulls in the harbour were immature Herring Gulls and a few adult Greater Black backed Gulls were mixed in with them. The latter hulking and brooding, menacing looking with their pickaxe bills. I could not help but notice that they were constantly eyeing the other birds present for any weakness and at the slightest sign of vulnerability I was in no doubt they would show no mercy. Killers to their very core.

The main attraction in the harbour however was a raft of some eighty Common Eiders, the majority adult males with a few females and some bemused first year males along for the ride. The adult males were in full courtship fervour and their evocative aaaaaahoooooh crooning calls came constantly, floating on the sea air and across the sea's rippling surface. In a tight group the males vigorously courted the females in between squabbling amongst themselves, their chests puffed out in amorous ecstacy as they crooned while the females as females all over the world do, affected supreme indifference to all this fuss while ensuring they never strayed too far from the amorous male's attentions.

Courting Eiders

First year male Eider
The males in their breeding finery were a superb sight. A plumage of  basic matt black and gleaming white being supplemented and embellished with the subtlest of pale green on the head and flush of pink on the breast. I am not religious in anyway but almost want to cry out in joy at seeing such innocent and apparently random beauty all seeming to have come about by sheer chance. Never, ever should we take this for granted but sadly we do and often abuse it horribly.

One male showed traces of  a raised scapular feather on each side of its back. This would indicate it was of the northern race borealis and not from our race mollissima. However other features were consistent with mollissima so maybe it was a hybrid.

There were other birds in the harbour too. Oystercatchers on sturdy pink legs bickered and piped their ringing calls along the stony shore. Occasional Common Redshanks cried out in hysterical alarm. Black Guillemots swam close in to the pier, their chocolate brown plumage enlivened by huge white wing patches with crimson legs and feet clearly visible in the grey green water.

Black Guillemot
A couple of winter plumaged Guillemots joined them as did a couple of Razorbills and a female Common Scoter. Both Common and Grey Seals hung around the harbour hopeful of getting something fishy discarded from the trawlers. Ever hopeful I made one last check of the gulls still present.

Common Guillemot
It was apparent that many gulls had now left the harbour to feed elsewhere. Certainly there was no sign of the AHG. Tired and dishevelled, my spirit now subdued by disappointment, the long night drive suddenly caught up with me as the adrenalin drained from my body. I sought sustenance in the local garage and after a couple of cheese rolls felt more in the land of the living.

I met some other birders who had been around for a couple of days and had seen the  gull yesterday. They told me it would be well worth looking for the gull inland on the fields. Certain fields were flooded and the gulls liked to hang about there.To do this meant driving a ten to fifteen mile circuit which covered all  the favoured gull spots. I duly did this but still met with no luck. I must have gone round many times during the day but not a sign was there of the transatlantic star attraction. I did find on separate occasions three Iceland Gulls, an adult, a third winter and a second winter but their normal delightfulness was diminished by the absence of the American Herring Gull. The sun had now long gone and the wind was getting stronger and colder as I found a flock of Greenland White fronted Geese, so much darker in plumage tone than Greater White fronted Geese, mixed in with a flock of properly wild Greylags, whilst a couple of Ravens flew over.

Greenland Whitefronts with Greylag Geese
The day slowly wore on and now in late afternoon the last remaining option was to go back to the harbour for the evening when the gulls apparently came back to the harbour before flying off to roost.

I stood and waited on the harbour wall. Life carried on around me as trawlers put to sea and others arrived bringing in their catches of prawns and shellfish. A Rock Pipit called very close behind me. I turned but could not see it. It called again, peeeeeep, shrill and peevish and there it was just a few feet away from me perched by some fishing nets. 

I and some other birders waited at the end of the pier but there was still no sign of the gull. It was not looking hopeful. It was decision time. As my wife was still in the USA there was no hurry to get back home and  I would not be missed, so I sought out a Bed and Breakfast for the night. Westgate House, just up from the harbour was ideal and I was soon settled in and Fiona directed me to the excellent Ardshiel Hotel for an evening meal and some liquid refreshment. I drowned my sorrows with a couple of seventeen year Old Pulteneys and life suddenly got much, much better. My optimism returned and the day's disappointments dissolved into a pleasing bouquet of whisky fumes and taste bud sensations. I ate my meal, read a paper and then went back to Westgate House for an early night in preparation to try for the gull at dawn tomorrow.

Six the next morning and I was back in now familiar surroundings at the end of the pier. The weather had changed overnight and drizzle was in the air. The gulls started to arrive from their roost out to sea. I scanned and scanned but there was no sign of an immature gull with a contrasting white head and brown underbody. Seven thirty arrived with nothing to show for it and I went back for some much needed breakfast and settled up with Fiona. Then it was one more visit to the harbour before yet more attritional surveying of the fields. Gulls there were aplenty but not the one I wanted. A first winter Iceland Gull showed up and the Greenland White-fronts were still mixing it with the Greylags near the airfield.  Mid morning and still not a sign. Wind, rain and a general mind numbing greyness prevailed. I gave it up and headed back homewards along the A82, stopping some nineteen miles down the road  at Tayinloan where there were reputedly two Snow Geese consorting with yet more Greenland White-fronts. At first I could only find flocks of Greylags and Greenland White-fronts and I was convinced it was going to be the much feared double dip for me. The last field on the left out of the village yielded a large white blob amongst some Greenland White-fronts. Sure enough it was a Snow Goose and next to it another, a blue morph example, something I had never seen in the wild before. Surely if ever this species is to be accepted as wild in the UK, then these two, in Scotland with Greenland White-fronts, a well known carrier species qualify, as well if not better than most.

Snow Geese white morph female and blue morph gander with Greenland Whitefronts

I watched them for half an hour feeding on the short grass, before settling down in the car for the long drive South.  A long distance dip had finally caught up with me. I had been lucky up to now so was reasonably philosophical about matters. It wasn't as if I had not enjoyed myself anyway despite not seeing the gull. It was teeming down with rain outside so I felt much happier, secure in the warmth of the car. I got home many hours later and checked RBA. The American Herring Gull had been found in the last field I had looked at some thirty minutes after I had left for the south! The feeling is indescribable. I was well and truly miffed to put it politely. All sorts of recriminations assailed me. Why did I not wait a little longer was chief amongst them but hindsight is a wondrous thing.

A few hours contemplation on the sofa at home had me thinking. I was going to Aberdeen to attend an Osteopath's seminar the following weekend. Why not go early and have another try for the gull? Whaaaat! Campbeltown is on the west coast of Scotland miles from anywhere and Aberdeen about as far east as you can get in Scotland. At first it seemed too extreme but then it became more acceptable as I thought about it and courtesy of a couple more whiskies I had formulated my plan. Drive up on Wednesday, arriving in Campbeltown at around lunchtime. Look for the gull which apparently was now regular in the evening in the harbour, arrange a  bed and breakfast in Campbeltown, hopefully see the gull that same evening or if not have the whole of Thursday as well to catch up with it, before heading across Scotland birding as I went until I got to Aberdeen for the weekend.

You can guess can't you? I know you can so don't be coy. Yes it worked perfectly apart from the important fact that the gull did not co-operate. The weather according to the locals had been fine and sunny for the three days prior to my Wednesday return. The day I returned was dreich, a Scots word meaning grey, dull, drizzling and just plain, all round depressing. A low mist of wet cloud hung like a malignant shroud over the town and surrounding hills, and headlights were essential to see  and avoid oncoming cars on the narrow roads. En route to Campbeltown I decided to visit Loch Caolisport, some forty or so miles north of Campbeltown where the day before the long staying Bonaparte's Gull had been showing really well at Ormsary Beach. I turned off onto the single track road to Ormsary and as soon as the road climbed higher into the hills found myself in cloud and rain with little visibility and dodging log carrying lorries of fearsome proportions hurtling at far too fast speeds along this single track road. Descending out of the rain clouds and mist to the loch, the grey waters looked devoid of birdlife. Some promising beaches of white shell sand pounded by white crested waves were apparently not to the Bonaparte's liking and only some Greylags, a Red breasted Merganser or two, four or five Wigeon and pairs of Oystercatchers seemed enthused by it. A gathering of what looked at first like gnomes in a garden by the road was somewhat surreal but I know someone who would have felt quite at home with them.

Presumably Snow White and the seven dwarfs
I drove a little further on coming to a small fish farm that was attracting many gulls. Surely it would be here, but no. Just Herring and Greater Black backed Gulls, the occasional Common Gull and a small raft of Eider with one or two Common Goldeneye amongst them. No sign of any small gulls at all. A Great Northern Diver surfaced and then another. This was no good so I headed back to the main road and drove on south to Campbeltown.

The American Herring Gull according to reports from the last few days was meant to show up at around 5.30pm in the harbour so I stationed myself on the north side of the harbour to await developments. The cloud base got lower and lower with not a breath of wind. Visibility was dropping alarmingly and large numbers of gulls just came from inland and passed over me straight out to sea. The American Herring Gull which had from all accounts been resting on a yellow buoy in the harbour for an hour or so each night was absent. The appointed time came and went. Nothing. I watched a Hooded Crow trying to smash an unfortunate whelk to pieces. I knew how it felt.

Immature Herring Gulls perched on the yellow buoys but they were not what I wanted. One of a trio of birders who had also come up in hopes of seeing the gull came over to talk to me and commiserate. We decided we were all going to stay one more night and give it another go tomorrow. It was obvious that nothing was going to show itself in this weather. I left the other birders to it and went  to find my latest B&B, Rosemount House where I was given a huge bedroom and almost as big a bathroom. Cheaper than the Westgate and better value all round looking right out onto the harbour. A return evening visit was duly made to the Ardshiel Hotel with inevitably another whisky or two, another great meal and then back to bed. An early start was required tomorrow - again. This twitch was beginning to take on epic proportions

Campbeltown Old Harbour
The weather had not improved the next day. Cold and now blustery but thankfully the rain had ceased. I set about scoping the gulls in the harbour but it was a loser. There were only a few gulls around and those that were present soon left for inland destinations. I gave up sooner rather than later and went back to Rosemount for breakfast. I would give it another day and on the spur of the moment decided to extend my stay at Rosemount for the coming night as well. Last chance now. Surely it would turn up somewhere? A hint of desperation? The all too familiar routine for me of driving round in circles looking at every damn field with a gull or gulls in it came back to haunt me. I found some large flocks of gulls feeding on newly slurry covered fields but every gull I checked was not the holy grail. Again and again I scoped them willing it to turn up. Gulls were coming and going all the time but never anything close to the American Herring Gull. I even found another two immature Iceland Gulls. Whether these were the one's from last time who knows? I was past caring. The morning passed. Bored and not a little depressed I went back to Loch Caolisport.  No sign whatsoever of the Bonaparte's Gull. It had long gone. History was ominously repeating itself.

I stopped once more to admire the Snow Geese at Tayinloan on the way back to Campbeltown.  At least they were showing well. I got back to Campbeltown at around four in the afternoon. Tired now from too much driving, frustrated and disconsolate at missing out again I shrugged and headed for the pier in one last forlorn hope. The wind had now risen to almost gale force and rain was definitely in the wind. It was hopeless. I was alone on the pier. Most of the fishing fleet had returned to harbour. No gull in its right mind would settle on the wind and wave lashed, exposed yellow buoys. I cowered in the lee of the Lifeboat Station out of the wind and rain

Campbeltown Lifeboat
The tide was on the turn and slowly covering the shallow, currently exposed rocky outcrop just offshore from the stony beach of the Old Harbour. A group of some twenty Herring Gulls hunkered into the wind on the rocks waiting for the time to go to roost. Untroubled by the wind they stood unperturbed as the wind buffeted them and the tide slowly rose.

There was nothing else to look at apart from these twenty gulls. Less in hope and more in desperation I looked at them in my bins. "That one looks like its got quite a white head" I muttered. I was grasping at straws and knew it. I got the scope on it for a closer look. My heart duly sunk. It was just an immature Herring Gull with a slightly whiter head than normal. Just about to turn the scope away I noticed that two gulls up from this one was a Herring Gull that had darker brown upper part plumage than the others. The white tips to the wing coverts formed a much more delicate pattern of lines and edges than the more blotchy markings on the other Herring Gulls around it. The head was pure white with a shawl of brown running up the hindneck and then the clincher, its bill was dull ochre with a prominent black tip. F***! This was it! Serendipity!  By sheer chance I had found the American Herring Gull. Looking at it now it was all so obvious. Relatively close to me I could now scope it at my leisure noting progressively one by one  the unique details of its plumage that confirmed its identity. Methodically I went through all the identification features. I waited for it to lift into the wind to move position and when it did noted the  dark brown almost black tail with only black and white marbling on the base half of the outermost two tail feathers. The unmarked dark brown bases to the greater coverts formed a distinct dark brown bar across the closed wing. The underparts were smooth greyish brown and the undertail coverts densely barred as were the uppertail coverts. I was all on my own. I had done it on my own. A minor triumph. A gull for the connoisseur.

American Herring Gull
I estimated I first found it at around 5pm although it could have been there earlier before I noticed it and then I continually watched it standing, usually on its own, as the sea slowly rose and floated the gulls off their rocky, seaweed strewn perches. They floated on the sea, face on into the wind. One by one the gulls lifted into the wind and headed off to their roost. The American Herring Gull was left on its own. Now on the sea and in failing light its identity was not so obvious. I could see how it could be easily missed. Finally at nineteen minutes past six it too flew up and caught by the wind  turned downwind, tacked right and was finally lost to view behind the moored trawlers.

A very close run thing indeed but persistence paid off and, let's face it, a lot of luck. A seventeen year Old Pulteney never tasted better.

Birds seen

Common Buzzard/ Common Kestrel/ Common Raven/ Hooded Crow/ Carrion Crow/ Rook/ Jackdaw/ Magpie/ Grey Heron/ Great Cormorant/ European Shag/ Black Guillemot/ Common Guillemot/ Razorbill/ Great Black backed Gull/ Lesser Black backed Gull/ Iceland Gull/ Herring Gull/ American Herring Gull/ Yellow legged Gull/ Common Gull/ Black headed Gull/ Great Northern Diver/ Mute Swan/ Greylag Goose/ Canada Goose/ Greenland White fronted Goose/ Pink footed Goose/ Snow Goose (blue and white morph)/ Common Shelduck/ Red breasted Merganser/ Common Eider / Mallard/ Eurasian Wigeon/ Northern Pintail/ Common Teal/ Common Goldeneye/ Eurasian Curlew/ Oystercatcher/ Lapwing/ Common Redshank/ Turnstone/  Dunlin/ Woodpigeon/ Rock Dove/ Common Pheasant/ Red legged Partridge/ Dipper/ Eurasian Skylark/ Common Starling/ Mistle Thrush/  Blackbird/ Robin/ Pied Wagtail/ Grey Wagtail/ Rock Pipit/ Meadow Pipit/ Chaffinch/ Siskin/ Yellowhammer/ Corn Bunting/ Reed Bunting/ Great Tit/ Blue Tit/ Coal Tit


Red Deer
Common Seal
Grey Seal

Tuesday 11 March 2014

Parrot Fashion 8th March 2014

Male and female Parrot Crossbills
With my wife not due back from Boston USA until Sunday I had another Saturday free to go birding. So it was no hardship to accept an invitation from Hugh, who had accompanied me on last weekend's exploits, to come and stay at his house in Yaxley near Peterborough on Friday night and go birding in Norfolk first thing on Saturday.

Hugh, never having seen Parrot Crossbills, had a burning desire to rectify that situation, so it was, not without a few moans and going into old lag mode, I bowed to the enthusiasm of youth and 5.30am found us heading for Edgefield on the corner of Holt Country Park in Norfolk to try and remedy this particular gap in Hugh's birding life list.

We arrived on a grey and bleak morning at an area of pines, devoid of people and cars and with a large area by the road clear felled, leaving just a couple of isolated tree trunks standing bare and forlorn in the centre and providing a scene not too dissimilar to a First World War battlefield consisting as it did of a wasteland of fir cones, twigs, logs, branches and general arboreal detritus that always seems to be left once the conifers have been felled. 

I was gratified to find we were alone having expected others to be attracted by the prospect of seeing Parrot Crossbills and especially as it was a Saturday.Where was everybody?

A Woodlark was singing from some birches as we got out of the car and assembled our gear. Hugh saw it but another Woodlark then arrived on the scene. The singing stopped and hostilities ensued with the birds flying off in pursuit of each other before I could locate them.

At first we were uncertain of what exactly to do or where to stand with regard to finding crossbills. We could hear them from virtually the moment we got out of the car. We viewed the area from the entrance track but it seemed that would be too distant to see any crossbills as they would surely all be in the pines that were still left standing on the far side of the extensive area of clearfell

I had studied various pictures of the Parrot Crossbills taken from here and they all indicated that the photographers had got pretty close to the birds but the tracks around the clearfell were distant from anything that looked likely to attract crossbills. As we contemplated this fact the distinctive metallic calls of a flock of crossbills came from up in the sky and a flock of eleven birds descended from on high into the most obvious bare pine tree trunk standing upright with snapped off bare branches, like a fish's backbone, in the middle of the clearfell. 

The lone pine tree trunk favoured by the crossbills coming to drink from the
puddle just below
I looked at the crossbills in the scope. Surely it would be too much to hope they were Parrot Crossbills? Correct, they were undoubtedly and indisputably Common Crossbills. Still it was good to see them. They sat for what seemed an age on the spikes of the trunk just fiddling about. From previous experience this indicated they had come to drink and sure enough, eventually the first birds, bolder than their companions, dropped down in twos and threes to an unseen puddle formed in one of the many ruts and depressions in the clearfell below the tree 

This made my mind up and I left the track and slowly walked closer, much closer to the lone trunk until I could see the puddle they were drinking from. It was obvious that this was where the photos I had seen had come from and I could even see where the lucky photographers had placed strategic upturned logs to sit on to take their photos. "Come on Hugh, let's stand by that other nearby bare trunk and view from there. Trust me it will work". The crossbills promptly and excitedly flew off to some pines to feed. "Don't worry they will be back." I advised confidently.

Hugh followed in their direction to get a better view of them feeding in the distant pines while I remained to watch the now vacated and consequently bird free tree trunk. A few minutes passed then to my ears came the familiar calls again and another group of twelve crossbills landed on the top of the trunk. I looked in the scope. The top three birds in silhouette sent a shiver down my spine. They showed massive deep bills, huge heads, bulging necks and thickset bodies. They could only be one thing. Parrot Crossbills. 

Parrot Crossbills
I waved urgently to the now distant Hugh who came over fast, flushing a Woodcock in the process. I scanned down the trunk checking each bird. The top eight were Parrot Crossbills, a mixture of mainly males and a few females and, providing a handy and very convenient comparison, the bottom four were Common Crossbills. The difference was in this case very marked and obvious. The Common Crossbills, looked so much more petite in build, their bills, especially the lower mandible looking delicate, almost puny compared to the gargantuan appendages of the Parrot Crossbills. This mixed group sat quietly, as crossbills do, in the tree, before the first two descended to the puddle to drink and bathe. They were followed by others but no more than four were ever in the puddle at one particular time. The views from so close were sensational. The male Parrot Crossbills  showing varying shades of brick red were almost brutish with their enormous heads and monstrous dark grey distorted bills. Younger males were a combination of orange, yellow and green and one Common Crossbill was as far as I could see virtually all yellow apart from its wings and tail. This latter individual was drinking beside an absolute classic male Parrot Crossbill. You really could not ask for more than this. 


They remained at the puddle for around ten minutes with two birds flying up from the puddle to perch above our heads on the top of the bare trunk under which we were standing.Totally unafraid they sat there while we looked vertically upwards at their forked tails and eventually they were joined by the others and then they all flew around in a wide circle before disappearing off to some distant pines by the entrance track. We were jubilant, Hugh especially so as it was another lifer for him. It was still barely eight in the morning and we were all alone having seen in the space of forty five minutes both Parrot and Common Crossbills. Earlier reports from others spoke of having to wait hours for even a glimpse and we had assumed similar would be in store for us. We obviously wanted more and subsequently a steady stream of crossbills flew over and around the clearfell or fed in the bordering pinewoods. Single birds, pairs and small groups tested our observational and identification skills, many were too distant to identify unless seen in silhouette and even then problematical. As for differences in the calls of the two species forget it. I could not discern much if any difference but that was probably down to my lack of experience with both Parrot and Common Crossbills calls. The majority of crossbills we saw at this time after our close encounter with the Parrot Crossbills, not unexpectedly appeared to be Common Crossbills and those that were dubious in our minds were probably Commons too. 

A lull in activity ensued. Four Common Buzzards held a territorial dispute above the pines, mewling loudly as they sorted out their differences in the sky. A Sparrowhawk flashed above the trees and a lone bird dropping onto the clearfell resolved itself into a lovely Woodlark. 

No more crossbill flocks arrived on the favoured tree trunk for an hour or so until a group of eight descended, again announcing their impending arrival with those rapid excited metallic calls, to land in the tree. We scanned them but they too were Common Crossbills apart from one brick red male which was a Parrot Crossbill, albeit with not quite the classic deep bill but hefty enough to leave little doubt as to its identity. One bird in this flock was also yellow like the one we had encountered earlier. This flock flew off having had a brief drink and we resumed our vigil. 

The wind now blew even colder, gaining in strength and the sky was still a sullen grey. I huddled with the tree trunk at my back to stave off the chilling wind. Time dragged by and we were joined by another couple of birders. One of them, a local, told us that up to twenty seven Parrot Crossbills had been seen here. We waited and waited and finally a large flock of crossbills landed in the tree.There were twenty six in this flock and checking through them we counted at least six Parrot Crossbills. The crossbills adopted the same procedure as before, dropping down in two's and three's to drink and bathe before flying back up to their elevated perches. 

Then, as one they were up and off, as ever calling loudly but only flying across the clearfell to the pines by the entrance track. By now more birders had arrived and they were scoping the birds feeding on the pines by the track. We went over to join them but as we did the entire flock flew back to the lone trunk. Back we went and got more good views of a mix of Common and Parrot Crossbills. Then our crossbill encounter came to a halt when the flock flew off once again. We called it quits having had for the most part the place and the crossbills to ourselves.The magic was over as far as we were concerned.

We wasted some time going to Sheringham via the coast road but did find a lone Pale bellied Brent Goose in amongst a small flock of Dark bellied Brent Geese at Cley. 

Pale bellied Brent Goose with Dark bellied Brent Geese
We baulked at paying £4.90 to the National Trust to park the car at Sheringham Park despite the temptation of a Firecrest and instead returned to Holt for a reviving coffee for Hugh and a hot chocolate for me.

We had been told of some Black throated Divers off Stiffkey Saltmarshes so tried our luck there. A long and treacherous slither across wet mud and saltwater channels out to the distant shoreline resulted in an unsatisfactory distant sighting of one Black throated Diver. Nevertheless despite the slight feeling of disappointment it was impossible to be too downcast as the environment here is an enticing mixture of endless wide spaces of deserted sand and sea and an open sky loneliness that becomes very beguiling especially as the sun chose this time to come out. Most of the commoner waders were present such as Curlew, Grey Plover, Oystercatcher, Bar tailed Godwit, Knot and Dunlin, their cries providing an evocative accompaniment to the roar of the sunlit sea and strong wind. Loose flocks of Dark bellied Brent Geese, growling conversationally amongst themselves wandered the saltings and Little Egrets like pieces of stray washing flustered up from the saltwater channels  at our approach and headed fast, downwind to safety.

Stiffkey Saltmarshes
I grew tired and returned to the car to peruse my images of Parrot Crossbills taken earlier in the morning at Edgefield. Hugh followed me some ten minutes later and on arriving at the car prised me from my camera and images of crossbills by pointing out a ringtail Hen Harrier flying across the marshes in front of me and following this up with a ghost grey male some few minutes later. A good finish and final flourish to the morning.Well done to Hugh.

Now what? "Fancy going back for some more crossbill action" I ventured. "Tell you what, let's go to Burnham Overy Staithe. We can scope it from the road and then if it is no good we can go back to the crossbills" countered Hugh. "Done"

Burnham Overy's wide expanses of fields, marshes and dunes was not exactly its usual mecca of birding. There was in fact comparatively little to see. Distant Pink footed Geese, Eurasian Wigeon and Dark bellied Brent Geese were scattered across the pastures. A female Marsh Harrier, a Red Kite, Common Buzzard and frustratingly, due to distance, an impossible to reliably identify Rough legged Buzzard perched on a post, fulfilled the raptor quotient.

"Crossbills it is then?" "Let's go". We returned to Edgefield, parking in the same spot as this morning. We were no sooner out of the car than a group of  crossbills became evident perched prominently in the bare deciduous trees a few metres on the other side of the road. One was singing. In the scope it became a male Parrot Crossbill judging by the bill and another lower down was a female Parrot Crossbill. Of the other half dozen we could see, all were Common Crossbills. They suddenly took off and from half a dozen the flock became twenty or more as previously unseen individuals left the trees. Two birders watching from the other side of the road came over asking us whether the birds were Parrot Crossbills. "The top one was" we advised.  "Thanks we were watching it but did not really know what to look for" they replied.

Walking back to our former spot under the isolated pine trunk it became obvious any chance of a lone vigil was now out of the question. A number of birders were now staking out the puddle and in my opinion were far too close, one photographer in particular was virtually on top of the puddle but claimed the crossbills were not put off.

We enquired whether they had seen any Parrot Crossbills but the answer was, "No, only Common Crossbills." "What about you?" they asked. "We just had at least two by the road". "What just now?" "Yes." A look of shock permeated the assembled birders. It became apparent that some of them had no idea what to look for when identifying a Parrot Crossbill. They were obviously content to rely on others. What can you do?

We were not too fussed about the lack of crossbills having done so well with them in the morning. Two flocks of crossbills flew around on two separate occasions and looked like they wanted to settle on the bare pine trunk but thought better of it. The 'too close' photographer was probably the cause. No matter it was pleasant sitting on our pine stumps in the sun and just relaxing. I dozed on and off. It had been a long day already and the walk out onto the Stiffkey Saltmarsh more tiring than I cared to admit. The photographer gave up and left. Ten minutes later a pair of Common Crossbills settled on the tree and after quite a long time the male descended to drink and then after flying back up onto the tree the female dropped down to drink before they both left. 

Common Crossbill male
Common Crossbill female
Other birders arrived with cameras. Someone started talking too loudly. A photographer asked another if the image he had on his camera was a Parrot Crossbill. To amuse ourselves we estimated how many Parrot and Common Crossbills we had seen during the time spent here today. The totals were impressive. At least seventeen Parrot Crossbills and around a hundred Common Crossbills.

We left soon afterwards as there was one last location I wanted to visit before dusk. Roydon Common. Here we were more than likely to finish the day as we began, alone. Hugh had never been here before but I had and knew it was a favoured place for Hen Harriers to roost. My prediction of having it to ourselves proved true and so after a short walk from the car park we looked out from a slightly elevated heather bounded track across a large area of moor grass, scattered gorse and heather. 

The first ringtail Hen Harrier arrived some thirty minutes later, gliding past in supreme elegance close to us, to pitch into the long rank grasses. A male European Stonechat scattered needle sharp notes as it flew up in one last song flight before going to roost. Two more ringtail Hen Harriers arrived and cruised around, alarming a flock of Meadow Pipits into hesitant and complaining flight. Two Egyptian Geese flew across the open sky before us. A final, fourth Hen Harrier arrived, perching on some gorse as the light slowly faded. Four Fieldfares fled across the common and a Yellowhammer chizzed from some blackthorn. It grew still and silent across the common. The long shadows now darkening the topography as the sun set. A circus Big Top, on the distant hill by the main road, was now a blaze of coloured lights in a separate world to ours. Each to their own.