Monday 3 March 2014

Give it a Rest! 1st-2nd March 2014

A colleague of mine, Hugh Wright had the weekend free to go birding. My wife had departed for Boston USA on Friday  to visit our daughter so I arranged for him to come and stay at my home in Kingham and a birding we would go - non stop for two days. For Hugh this was an opportunity to catch up with as many good bird species as possible as most of the time he is busy with his environmental work and does not have time to get out birding.

It would be dawn to dusk birding! Tradition did dictate however that a curry and a glass or two of Cobra should be enjoyed on Friday night. We could deal with the consequences the next morning.

Saturday, early morning and our first destination was the Shire Valley near Bath, bisecting Wiltshire and Gloucestershire to see a wintering Red flanked Bluetail. This would be a lifer for Hugh and a welcome second visit for me. We duly set off at a reasonably civilised 6.30am and arrived at the valley on what had become a beautiful, sunny and frosty morning. Up the valley we went and stationed ourselves between a stream and a steep bank by some hawthorns to await the appearance of 'the bluetail'. 

Already there were two photographers present and far too close to the bird's favoured hawthorns in my opinion. Ten minutes passed and then the bluetail briefly appeared in the bushes by the stream. It perched quietly on some railings by the stream. Three horseriders came galloping by and it fled the thundering hooves. Forty five wearisome minutes later it re-appeared. In the interim more and more photographers had arrived and stationed themselves in a line ridiculously close to the mealworms they had strewn on a patch of ground below the hawthorn bushes. The bluetail flew into the bushes, took one look at the assembled throng and promptly fled further up the hillside to another more distant hawthorn. Here it relaxed and performed beautifully. Through our scopes we could even see its throat swelling as it quietly sang to itself and Hugh and myself just watched it feeding and preening and admired its beauty

The photographers just sat in a line like a row of dummies-not interested in looking at the bird but just waiting an opportunity for it to come close and to take its picture. So sad that they could not get any enjoyment out of just looking and admiring the bird but that seems to be more and more the way of things these days.

We watched for an hour and the bluetail steadfastly remained where it was. It would not come nearer because of the photographers and now more and more birders were arriving. It could only get worse. Hugh was more than satisfied with what he had seen as was I, so we left. A short drive up the road and we came to a farm where we stopped to view around a hundred Corn Buntings and a similar number of Chaffinches feeding in and around the farmyard. A small flock of Yellowhammers joined them, the male's heads almost luminescent yellow in the bright sun. A birder stopped to ask us if this was where the Red flanked Bluetail was. No - we replied but re-directed him.

Our next stop was to be the estimable Forest of Dean, about an hour's drive away. In direct contrast to the Red flanked Bluetail our next target or more correctly targets was likely to prove much more elusive and unpredictable. Two barred Crossbills. The journey to the forest was unremarkable apart from the shock of having to pay an extortionate £6.40 to cross the Severn into Wales.

We found Serridge Ridge, in the forest and which was where I had seen a flock of seven Two barred Crossbills a couple of weeks ago. Earlier reports in the week had demonstrated how random the sightings could be and I only had slim hopes of finding them. However if you do not try then you will not succeed. We wandered up and down the ridge that runs through the crossbill's favoured larches meeting another Oxonbirder Dave Horton who told us they had been seen earlier that morning a short way down from 'the ridge' at a place called Drybrook Road Station Crossing, a former railway track which is now a heavily used forest cycleway, but they had flown off in the direction of the ridge. Others also wandered the ridge or stood about ever hopeful of the birds eventually showing up. There is an awful lot of forest though and after a while it does get a little tedious just standing looking at frankly not very much apart from trees. Hugh found a Brambling and I heard another fly over plus some Siskins. A large number of Coal Tits and Great Tits were finding something attractive in a particular area of fallen beech leaves, a Nuthatch ran down the trunk of a tree and an initially exciting group of four crossbills, disappointingly turned out to be Common Crossbills, coming to a large tree to drink from a tiny pool of rainwater that had formed between the fork of two large branches.

We gave up 'the ridge' as a bad job and wandered the short distance downhill to 'the crossing'. Just as we arrived there was a burst of crossbill calls and a flock of fifteen to sixteen crossbills landed in the top of the larches right by us. I considered the flock too large to be the two bars but on raising my bins I was met with a full frontal vision of cherry red and huge white wing bars. A male Two barred Crossbill! We checked them in the scope- all were two bars and predominantly males but with some females amongst them. It was all there to see, the males resplendent in red with flashing white wing bars and white military style chevrons on their tertials. The females dowdy, dull grey green but again with huge white wing bars and chevrons and a bright lemon yellow rump. A male perched higher than the rest burst into song, bathed in sunlight against a blue sky. Truly a vision of loveliness. Hugh went into raptures. I was not far behind. The crossbills only remained for a few minutes but then were gone in another explosion of excited calling, but only for a short way into some nearby trees. We followed them and got a series of brief views as the flock dispersed, fragmenting into smaller groups in the process. We had actually defied the odds and done it. I could hardly believe our luck. Hugh now had a second much wanted lifer. Everything from now on was a bonus to add a gloss to our good fortune. A Goshawk, unseen, called from some dark conifers. We waited for more crossbill action but all we saw was a group of four Two barred Crossbills heading over us for Serridge Ridge. Fair enough. 

Next stop was to be Parkend for Hawfinches but in the process going via Cannop Ponds for Mandarin Duck which we duly found. Six in all. The drakes looking  impossibly exotic in the company of the more mundane Mallards and Coots. At Parkend there was initially no sign of any Hawfinches but we finally located one perched high in a large tree above the Yews. It dropped down to the favoured Yews and looking below the Yews we found at least another two feeding in the dark and gloom below the trees with assorted Greenfinches and Chaffinches for company, but at the slightest hint of danger they all flew straight back up into the ancient Yews 

Andrew Marshall yet another Oxonbirder arrived. He told us he had been looking for Wild Boar but with only limited success. Everywhere you looked though there were traces of boar activity with the roadside verges churned up by their snouts. It is a real mess and sooner or later something will have to be done about it I fear

Saying farewell to Andrew and the coy Hawfinches we headed for New Fancy to try our luck at seeing a Goshawk. It was not the best time of day for this but nothing ventured nothing gained. Indeed it was quiet when we got to the viewpoint but Hugh still managed to find a soaring female Goshawk which we watched for some minutes as it ascended in gliding circles, ever higher into the sky.

We had "done" the forest and most of its specialities by mid afternoon so now headed for the Cotswold Water Park which only required a slight diversion to our route home. I know this area quite well and knew where to find some Smew and Goosander both good birds for Hugh to see. The unattractively named Pit 65 duly delivered with two male Smew and a red head female plus five Goosanders, only one of which was a male.The pit next door harboured a pair of Red crested Pochard and yet another pair of Goosander.

That brought a successful day to a close and we returned home to a welcome beer and a nice meal by an open log fire. Tomorrow was to be Sussex and an early start was required so the alarm was set for five am. I went to bed leaving Hugh writing up his notes by the fire. Goodnight.

Sunday dawned a very different day to yesterday. The weather had changed from a balmy and still spring day to one of wind and grey cloud. Back to normal then! Rain, heavy rain was forecast for later that afternoon, so we were now up against the clock.

First stop was Littlehampton. Yes I know this was my fourth visit in almost as many weeks but Hugh wanted to see as many bird species as possible so why not visit here for two good ones?  Well one actually, Glaucous Gull and a rare hybrid, the Kumlien's Gull

So it was we arrived at, for me the all too familiar, Littlehampton East Beach. The wind even this early was now strong so we sought sanctuary in the brick shelter on the seafront much to the surprise of a marshal who was supervising a Triathlon with lycra clad lovelies running down the seafront having already swum miles in the local swimming pool. Ye gods! And this on an early Sunday morning!

The Kumlien's was located with little trouble. In its usual place at the river mouth surrounded by numerous and constantly active Turnstones and later messing around on the seashore with the other gulls

There was no sign of the Glaucous Gull but eight resplendent summer plumaged Mediterranean Gulls stood on the beach with some Grey Plover. Hugh caught a distant glimpse of the Glaucous over the dunes on the other side of the river mouth. Five minutes later it had landed unseen, by the breakwater on the East Beach and stood, huge and white on the shingle. 

Good, a quick result, so we could now be on our way. We were well ahead of the clock. The second destination today was Brooklands Boating Lake in nearby Worthing to see the three Little Gulls that had been there for some days. It was still only around 9am when we arrived so we had the place virtually to ourselves apart from the inevitable dog walkers. 

Brooklands Lake
The sun started to shine. The Little Gulls were resting on the water near to the bank at the seaward end of the lake and gave some good opportunities for watching them at close quarters. Two were adults in winter plumage although one was also subtly suffused on its underparts with a delicate pale pink which became more apparent when it took flight, showing not only the pink but the diagnostic dark grey underwings They are such delicate, compact and attractive birds, making the surrounding Black headed Gulls look positively cumbersome. Pairs of Teal skulked in the reeds, a Little Egret stalked amongst the waste paper and drinks cans cast up on the muddy shore and a Water Rail fed unconcernedly on the muddy margin of a smaller island, although never quite leaving the safety of the dead reeds,.

With the wind now steadily increasing our concern was to get to Newhaven Tidemills before it got too strong and everything sought cover. Our objective was to try and find one, if not all four of the Black Redstarts reported from here just a couple of days ago. A walk across an apparently bird free, windswept area of wasteland brought us to the industrial complex and after a short while of peering through the railings Hugh found a Black Redstart. Not just any Black Redstart but a superb adult male sporting huge white wing flashes and a coal black face and chest. All this set off by a rusty orange tail and grey upperparts. A very attractive combination. We watched it feeding, tail constantly acquiver, dropping down onto the ground from a pile of cleared scrub, perching in the lee of the wind. A female joined it. 

A walk out to the nearby East Pier soon brought us into contact with the Purple Sandpipers, as ever beguiling with their quizzical glances at us and cheerful demeanour. 

The wind was getting stronger by the minute so we retreated back to the car, walking along by the creek which was now harbouring a roosting flock of over thirty Common Redshank and set off for Seaford for a cursory hour's seawatch.

Ensconced in a shelter along the promenade we looked out on a heaving, wave tossed sea. Distant auks rocketed like fat black cigars over and between the waves. These were the survivors of the huge and tragic wreck of auks from the earlier storms of last month. A small flock of Common Scoters headed east as did a line of Dark bellied Brent Geese. Then Hugh picked up two other scoters. They looked large and the white wing bars indicated they were Velvet Scoters, always a good bird to see on a seawatch. Then it went quiet and after a few Gannets and some more auks we called it a day leaving the hordes of people parading up and down a now sunny but decidedly windy promenade and made our way to Steyning Sewage Farm to try and locate the wintering Siberian ChiffChaff. By the time we got there the sun was long gone and the forecast rain clouds were fast gathering in the West. 

At first we were uncertain where to look for the chiffchaffs, so we parked by the sewage farm gates. The hedgerow on the other side looked promising and soon two Common ChiffChaffs flew into the hedgerow. We walked back down the lane and found several more Common Chiffchaffs in the hedge and finally a pale brown and white chiffchaff revealed itself to be the Siberian ChiffChaff. Against the dark ivy and conifirs it was feeding in, it looked very pale indeed and allowed us to watch it from just a few metres away. There was no colouring on the cold brown and white plumage apart from a faint green tinge to the fringes of its secondaries. Two other Chiffchaffs also looked pale but not nearly as pale as this one so presumably they were from one of the other northern populations. The taxonomy of Chiffchaffs especially those from the northern populations and the resultant plumage gradations and variations is still very unclear and further changes to ChiffChaff taxonomy are more than likely. 

Let's try and see the female Greater Scaup at Greatham.I volunteered.

I am all for that replied Hugh. 

Greatham was flooded as far as you could see and a howling, chilling wind now blew with some ferocity across the bridge. The female Scaup was soon located, facing us head on into the wind, its bullseye white roundel around the bill making it very obvious. Gadwall, Eurasian Wigeon, Northern Shoveler, Common Teal and even Common Shelduck were added to our list and most bizarrely of all a Black Swan fed with a couple of wigeon on the flood.

Jeez, but the wind was cold so we needed no second bidding to get back in the car. It started to rain. We set course for Hayling Island our final destination before heading homeward. Hugh checked RBA (Rare Bird Alert) on my phone. "

Two Glossy Ibis on a flooded field at Lidsey near Bognor

We were but a few miles north. 

Let's give it a go

Why not?  

The RBA directions were hardly comprehensive  but somehow we found our way to Lower Lidsey Farm and parked there. In front of us stood two waterlogged fields stretching as far as we could see with the railway in the background. We scanned the fields but there was no sign of any ibis. A footpath sign pointed optimistically down a flooded footpath between the two fields. Hugh waded off down it. I retreated to get my wellingtons from the car. Hugh had long gone by the time I had changed footwear and ventured down the path. The water got higher and higher up my wellingtons. Slowly, gently I waded along a submerged ridge. One slip and I would be over my knees in water. The water rose to within one centimetre of the tops  of my boots and then thankfully I was in shallower water and eventually on firmer but waterlogged ground. I found Hugh at the end of the path by a railway crossing scanning yet another flooded field on the other side of the railway. 

Any luck? 

He pointed to two Glossy Ibis that were feeding at the far edge of the field in the company of four hundred or so Teal and a few Gadwall. Excellent! John King and Richard Fairbank, two Sussex birder acquaintances joined us later by sensibly walking out along the side of one of the fields thus avoiding the treacherous submerged footpath. 

Hugh still wanted to go to Hayling so we bade John and Richard farewell and headed for Hayling Island and the depressing surrounds of a holiday camp in winter, Mill-Rythe Holiday Camp to be precise. Deserted, dispiriting and unwelcoming in the rain. Is there anything so dire as such a place in winter? We parked the car and walked out to view the sea channel but there was no sign of any of the birds said to be here, namely Black Brant, Long tailed Duck and White-fronted Goose. 

We managed to find a Slavonian Grebe and various waders eking out their existence in the channels of seawater or on the low tide mud banks respectively. It was desolate, cold and the light was fading fast. We tramped back across the sodden deserted lawns of the holiday camp to the car just as the rain really set in. Thank heavens we were not caught out in this. It came down in torrents. The Motorway homebound became a fog of blurry red tail lights and spray. The warmth of the car's interior making us feel snug and secure as the elements became increasingly extreme outside and darkness fell. 

We were home safely some three hours later. What a fabulous two days. 

Birds seen

Common Buzzard/ Northern Goshawk/ Peregrine Falcon/ Eurasian Sparrowhawk/ Common Kestrel/ Common Raven/ Carrion Crow/ Rook/ Jackdaw/ Magpie/ Jay/ Greater Black backed Gull/ Lesser Black backed Gull / Glaucous Gull/ Kumlien's Gull/ Herring Gull/ Common Gull/ Black headed Gull/ Mediterranean Gull/ Little Gull/ Kittiwake/ Fulmar Petrel/ Auk sp./ Diver sp./ Great Cormorant/ Common Coot/ Common Moorhen/ Water Rail/ Great crested Grebe/ Slavonian Grebe/ Little Grebe/ Grey Heron/ Little Egret/ Glossy Ibis/ Mute Swan/ Black Swan/ Greylag Goose/ Canada Goose/ Dark bellied Brent Goose/ Common Shelduck/ Goosander/ Red breasted Merganser/ Smew/ Mallard/ Gadwall/ Eurasian Wigeon/ Northern Shoveler/ Mandarin Duck/ Red crested Pochard/ Common Pochard/ Tufted Duck/ Greater Scaup/ Common Goldeneye/ Eurasian Curlew/ Bar tailed Godwit/ Oystercatcher/ Common Snipe/ Common Redshank/ Grey Plover/ Lapwing/ Purple Sandpiper/ Turnstone/ Dunlin/ Sanderling/ Common Pheasant/ Red legged Partridge/ Great Spotted Woodpecker/ Green Woodpecker (h)/ Woodpigeon/ Stock Dove/ Collared Dove/ Common Starling/ European Nuthatch/ Treecreeper/ Dunnock/ House Sparrow/ Eurasian Skylark/ Mistle Thrush/ Fieldfare/ Redwing/ Song Thrush/ Blackbird/ Robin/ Black Redstart/ Red flanked Bluetail/ European Stonechat (h)/ Common Bullfinch/ Greenfinch/ Hawfinch/ Goldfinch/ Linnet/ Siskin/ Common Chaffinch/ Two barred Crossbill/ Common Crossbill/ Grey Wagtail/ Pied Wagtail/ Rock Pipit/ Corn Bunting/ Yellowhammer/  Great Tit/ Blue Tit/ Coal Tit/ Long tailed Tit/ Wren/ Goldcrest

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