Sunday 27 April 2014

By a Whisker 25th April 2014

Late on Friday afternoon and after running 4km at the Gym I was relaxing at home and soothing my stiffening limbs with a large Sloe Gin. Nestled in the comfort of our sofa I planned not to move for the rest of the day. I fell asleep briefly to be awoken by a text alert on my phone.

Dismissing it as probably some work related message of no major importance and which could wait until Monday I nevertheless took a look as one always does. Is it just me or does everyone suffer the same compulsion to answer a phone immediately? It's like a baby crying, there seems to be some irresistible auto response within one that demands instant attention and action.

Anyway, the text was from none other than our illustrious County Bird Recorder Ian Lewington, in my opinion the finest bird illustrator currently practising his art anywhere in the known universe. Oh! Sorry where was I?  The text.  It read. "Possible Whiskered Tern at Otmoor from the First Screen." Bloody hell. A major rarity and a truly mega bird for Oxfordshire. I was now well and truly awake. 

It was however only 'a possible' and mindful of my aching limbs, the time, which was now gone 5pm and the drive to Otmoor RSPB which would take forty five minutes and then the almost mile walk to the First Screen, I was desperately clutching for reasons why not to go but in my heart I knew it had to be done. I rang a few other Oxonbirder friends and finally discussed it with Peter Barker who determined my inevitable departure for Otmoor   by giving me an update and telling me he had spoken to Ian, who in turn had spoken to someone actually watching it. After getting a verbal description from the person watching the tern Ian was now convinced it was a Whiskered Tern and was on his way to collect Pete. That was good enough for me.

Informing my wife that the Spaghetti Bolognese she had  promised for dinner that night would have to go on hold or at the very least count me out until after 8pm, I got set to leave the house. Boots, boots where are they? Sod it where did I put them? Finally I found the damn things and then it seemed to take an age to get them on. Finally I was set to go. What seemed a lifetime had only in reality taken just over five minutes. I swept from the house with bins and scope and set the Audi in the direction of Otmoor.

I was dreading the drive. It had rained solidly for most of the day although thankfully it had now stopped but as a consequence of the downpour  the narrow rural roads were very wet and strewn with deep puddles and all this would have to be coped with in the rush hour. I needed to check my speed. The Audi would not be going into hyper drive for this jaunt!  Unbelievably I met no traffic, not one car, as I took the back lanes from my home, heading to Otmoor.  One advantage I suppose of living in a  rural part of Oxfordshire.

Forty minutes later I arrived in the car park at Otmoor and noted some familiar vehicles already parked there. Pete Roby and Oz arrived just after me closely followed by Nick. Nick and myself, now in full blown twitcher mode, then set off apace down the track to the First Screen. Pete and Oz followed soon after. Nick did not know the reserve so I guided him in the right  direction. Ian called Nick as we walked and told him he was watching the tern. We could see the First Screen distantly across the reserve. Our pace quickened markedly until in the end desire overtook decorum and Nick started running. I tried to follow but having already done 4km earlier was in no shape to do anymore. I let him go and shortly after arrived at the screen, sweating profusely under my waterproof clothing and with steam literally rising from my brow. But who cares, all I wanted was to see the Whiskered Tern. The others soon put me onto it. You could hardly miss it. Slap bang in front of the screen, the only tern present, pale grey almost ghostly in the dull evening light, it swept back and fore with that lovely liquid, easy flight motion that terns have, picking insects from the tops of the reeds or flying up higher to seize them in flight above the reeds. It was in the company of around sixty Swallows also feasting on the insects and on one occasion was mobbed by a lone Swallow. What a stunner. A robust almost dumpy looking tern, this impression possibly caused by the short tail with no elongated streamers. The wings were grey with white 'venetian blind' flight feathers whilst  the underparts comprised a charcoal grey breast with a much darker grey belly making it look like it had stained itself.  The upper half of the head sported the usual tern black cap whilst the lower half was a gleaming pure white. All this topped off with the standard tern bill of crimson red.

I watched this vision of loveliness cruising back and fore. Swooping up and down over the winter brown tassled reed heads. 

Fourteen lucky Oxonbirders watched it from the screen.  Many of Oxonbirds finest were there although sadly some good friends were either unable to make it or for various reasons heard about it too late. Last to arrive was Gnome, who arrived in some disarray and was for a while totally unable to view it through his optics due to the heat that was emanating from his body steaming up his optics. A nervous few minutes passed as we all shouted instructions to him which as we all know is not the most helpful thing to do in times of stress. "Its over the reeds going right." "No its going up higher now." "See that grey cloud?" "Can you see the church tower? It's right above it but closer." "Its going left now." "No it's going round again".  "It's coming straight towards us." "You must be able to see it?" "You can even see it with the naked eye." Poor Gnome. What with steamed up optics and a cacophony of distracting but well meaning directions he did well to keep his cool and eventually get onto it and I think we were all just as relieved as he was when he finally saw it.

Now everyone relaxed a bit and we set about enjoying this all too rare moment. Just as well we did as after about fifteen minutes the tern rose higher and higher over the reeds, up into the sky and headed with some purpose northeast into the gloomy heavens. We followed it until it was just a speck and then it was gone. I had seen it by just a short margin. Gnome by even less. Two others arrived just too late. The worst feeling in the world. They accepted their bad luck with good grace although we were to hear later that they hung on at the screen and it returned at around eight pm and gave every indication it was going to spend the night there.

We walked back to the car park triumphant. It really is the best feeling in the world and I just savoured the all too brief time it took to get back to the cars as we relived the moment by sharing our enjoyment and experience of seeing the tern.

The next day. Saturday, the car park at Otmoor was crammed full at first light with some birders even arriving at 4am, an hour before dawn to secure a place at the screen. Sadly all were disappointed  as the tern was nowhere to be seen. A few mutterings began about whether it truly returned on Friday night but that's birding for you. A post sighting analysis seems to be de riguer nowadays for sightings such as this involving examination of every minute detail of the circumstances and every possible discrepancy.

I am sorry that it left so soon, especially for friends such as Clackers,The Wickster, Justin, Paul and Vicky. It is so much more rewarding when you can share the experience with colleagues. I hope another turns up but apparently this is the first to be seen in Oxfordshire for forty four years according to Ian, so I hope it is not as long before the next one. If it is I will not be around to see it!

I do however now have this one on my county list. Oh yes!!!

All images by Terry Sherlock to whom I offer grateful thanks as I left the
house in such haste I forgot to take my camera

Saturday 26 April 2014

And a Nightingale sang ....... 23rd April 2014

I am not one for show case reserves such as the RSPB's Pulborough Brooks and the like. I do not care much for hides, nor the restrictions of pathways and boardwalks and find the hordes of people that reserves such as Pulborough attract disconcerting. I prefer birding in less populous, less structured places. This I admit is a self inflicted personal preference so it is up to me whether I visit such places or not.

Pulborough Brooks in West Sussex  is if you like, an RSPB honeypot and show case reserve. I fully accept and understand that such places serve a vital and laudable service in promoting birding in all its manifest forms to the wider public of all ages. Not everyone is as obsessed with birding as I am and many prefer the simple and innocent pleasures of pottering around reserves like Pulborough, enjoying the countryside, looking at the occasional bird,  browsing the shop and taking refreshment in the cafe.

I visited Pulborough today with one objective - to see a Nightingale. Arriving at the Car Park mid morning I was amazed to see just how popular this reserve has become. Coaches full of noisy, excited children on educational forays with their teachers and other more mature guided groups were prominent. The car park was full and even the overflow car park was reaching maximum capacity. This on a weekday mid morning.

I wandered down the main track and came upon a Garden Warbler singing high up in an Oak. My first for the year. Blackcaps, Common and Lesser Whitethroats, Willow Warblers and Chiffchaffs were all singing as I made my way further downhill. Two Jays in looping flight flew from tree to tree before me.

I came to the bottom of the hill and there at a junction in the tracks by a small bridge, in full voice, was a Nightingale. There is usually one in this spot every year. No other UK bird can touch a singing Nightingale. Its song speaks of mysterious, fecund, steamy swamps and rich rain forests in faraway tropical Africa and to me does not belong in this country but mirrors the richness and the variety of the myriad sounds of southern hemisphere jungles, sounds impossibly exotic in our more prosaic land. It seems to bring all the aural and visual richness, density and excess of the dark continent in its voice and spread it for a brief six weeks through the tangle of nettles and shrubbery that it chooses for its summer home.

Nightingales in the UK are often quite hard to see as they habitually sing from deep cover and display a shyness that is not characteristic of the species in the rest of Europe. However at Pulborough, for unknown reasons, they seem unafraid to sing in the open and frequently show themselves really well.

Today was no exception as I found the Nightingale perched low down and fully in the open of a just leafing tree singing lustily and loudly within just a few metres of the footpath. Larger than you expect with an open greyish face, large dark eye and upperparts of a rich chestnut brown, it sat on a small branch. This particular one sang on and on with bursts of constantly varied deep rich notes emanating from its wide open bill. Occasionally it would stop singing and utter an alarm note, a harsh guttural croak, such a contrast to the sweet and melodic notes of its song.

I watched it for some twenty minutes lost in memories of Africa brought back by its exotic warbling and as I did other people coming down the path stopped and slowly they built up into quite a  crowd, curious as to what was the attraction, although some to my bewilderment seemed to show no interest and just walked past. I am glad so many people saw it and heard its marvellous song. For me, eventually, the growing crowd became too much and the same also appeared to occur to the Nightingale for it flicked its wings and with a croak descended into the cover of some low hawthorns. As I walked up the path it began to sing again, now hidden and once more mysterious.

Tuesday 22 April 2014

Thrills and trills in the Cotswolds 22nd April 2014

Easter Monday and I am about to make a visit to see the emergent bluebells at nearby Foxholes BBOWT with my wife when a text arrives from Steve. It is the metaphorical birding bombshell. He has found a male Pied Flycatcher just up the road near Chipping Norton. My wife recognising the signs puts the bluebells on hold. Five minutes in the car and we meet Steve in a remote country lane between our respective homes in Kingham and Chipping Norton and head for the hidden wood where he had seen it an hour or so ago. We are at quite an elevation and the Cotswolds, bathed in soft morning sunshine lie below us in a wide screen panoramic view as we walk down through cowslip festooned fields to the wood.  Almost inevitably there is not a sign of the flycatcher despite extensive searching. The woods are beautiful and full of warbler song and, yes, a few bluebells. We walk back up to the road and meet our local MP  David Cameron who is also our illustrious Prime Minister, plus family, out for a bike ride with security in tow in the form of a large black van. "What about the massacre of migrant birds in Malta Dave?" We enquire. He ignores this and cycles off looking vaguely ridiculous in tory blue shorts and top with the radiant Samantha and kids following.

Later we go for lunch in The Wild Rabbit in our home village of Kingham. Located on the opposite side of the road to our home "The Bunny"  is convenient but now being "uber" trendy is the place of choice for the great and good and any minor celebs who reside in the Cotswolds. Jeremy Clarkson is sitting in the front garden "avving a fag". What have I done to deserve this? Dipped a Pied Flycatcher and twitched two of my pet hate figures all in one morning. My wife gently leads me to a quiet corner out of sight of the petrolhead pantomime buffoon. A pint of Old Hooky and life takes on some meaning again.

By mid afternoon I am contemplating the rear of a Subaru whilst stationary and well and truly stuck in a tailback of Easter Monday traffic mayhem on the M25 around Heathrow. I have a business appointment in South Croydon and there is no escape. My phone cheerily alerts me to a text. What now? It's Paul Wren advising me there is a Wood Warbler, a county mega if ever there was one, literally a few minutes drive from my home in a nearby village called Shipton under Wychwood. At least it would be a few minutes if I was not currently parked on the M25.

There is nothing I can do. I console myself with the fact that Badger has gone to Lesvos and Andy is in Suffolk so I am not the only one to miss out. The clouds loom ominously dark grey and fulsome over the Motorway and suddenly the rain descends in biblical intensity and proportions. Bloody hell. Birds are now totally forgotten as, with the car moving once again I take extreme measures to survive the blinding spray and traffic chaos brought on by the Motorway rain.

Driving home later that night it is still raining. Mesmerised by the wipers I feel sleepy and pull over into a layby for a power nap.  I mull over the, for me, disastrous days events but stop at the Wood Warbler. If it has been raining almost continuously and still is now after dark then surely there is a chance the Wood Warbler will not be going anywhere and maybe, just maybe there is a slim chance of seeing it tomorrow? Yes I know, drowning men and straws but be fair there is a slim chance. I get home and switch on the TV  The first programme I encounter is Have I Got News for You. Who is the guest presenter?  F*****G Clarkson. I give up and go to bed setting the alarm for 5am

Dawn the next morning is not propitious. The birds are singing alright but it has rained all night with consequently low cloud, mist and the odd rain spat waiting to welcome me to a new dawn as I get in the car for the short drive to Shipton. I get to the designated spot and park. Out into a depressingly dull, overcast, green and sodden landscape. Unsurprisingly I am alone  in my quest. Birds however are now singing everywhere. I walk along the length of the trees by the road which were favoured by the warbler yesterday. No sign or sound of any warbler let alone a Wood Warbler. Drained of energy I lean on a metal gate and stare vacantly over the water meadows by the River Evenlode. I listen to the various bird songs. A Lesser Whitethroat rattles away in some distant hawthorn hedge. Various trills emanate from random bushes and trees but not the desired one. Blue Tits, Great Tits even Long Tailed Tits scold and flit through the trees and bushes. A Blackbird croons its laid back melody from atop a hawthorn whilst a Muntjac ventures from the vibrant green hedgerow to my left. Just a few feet from me. Daintily it minces its way through the long wet grass. I freeze. It tiptoes on legs of spindle further out but then senses me, turns to look in my direction and with a leap and shrieking bark rapidly returns into  the cover of some brambles. It cocks its white tail as it flees. A glance at the time reveals it is now 6am. I reason the warbler could be anywhere now as there are many trees for it to choose from over a very wide area of countryside, so decide to give it just fifteen more minutes. Five minutes of dejection pass leaning on the gate whilst the early morning traffic begins to make itself evident.  I hear a trill but was that quite right? I wait and there it is again. Still not quite sure as there is so much bird racket going on to add to the noise from passing vehicles. Then finally, unequivocally comes the shivering descending trill that can only be the finale to a Wood Warbler's song. It is in the trees that were formerly silent, close to me, just on the other side of the road and virtually opposite me but well inside the grounds of a very upmarket retirement home complex call The Old Prebendal House. All Cotswold Stone and landscaped gardens. You have to be wealthy to afford to reside there

The Wood Warbler's favoured area in the grounds of The Old Prebendal House
with the trees around the pond harbouring the warbler for long periods
I abandon all decorum and race up the road to the Old Prebendal House entrance and into the landscaped grounds on my left well away from the buildings. Forgive me. I am sure nobody will mind but even if they did it would not matter for the grounds are deserted at this unearthly hour as none of the elderly residents or staff are up and about. I follow a short winding path and come to the area where I first heard the warbler from the road. Silence. Nothing. Why does it not sing?  Come on I know you are here. A tiny movement high in a willow catches my eye. No need for singing now. Through binoculars a lemon yellow face and breast, silky white underparts and moss green upperparts greet me and bang on cue it opens its bill and pours forth notes of silver from on high. The bird's whole body quivering with the effort. The light in the early morning gloom is truly appalling but through the binoculars I can see everything clearly. 

The Wood Warblers favourite tree
It is not particularly shy but is constantly active and remains towards the tops of the trees with one willow in particular much favoured. It feeds by delving into the leaves for invertebrates and occasionally hovering to pick them off. I watch it for over an hour as it feeds and sings almost constantly, moving with slim elegance through the maze of twigs and leaves

The trilling song always helps to locate it as it moves around its self imposed restricted area surrounding the pond. A truly rare bird for Oxfordshire and but for last night's rain one that would have undoubtedly moved on. Luckily it did not and for me just reward for an early start. Thanks also to Paul Wren for first finding it yesterday and letting everyone know.

Thursday 10 April 2014

A Spring Farmoor morning 10th April 2014

The mist slowly drifted away above the westerly wind  ruffled, grey waters of Farmoor. A patchwork of grey and blue formed in the heavens as the sun slowly filtered through the dispersing mist. The all pervading concrete contours of the reservoir, so obtrusive and unforgiving on the eye are no longer surrounded by the stark, bare bushes and trees of winter but are now muffled and softened by the burgeoning green of emerging leaves and the surrounding resurrected vegetation somehow makes the reservoir less stark.

The landscape of winter has ceased to be brown and has become one of green growth as far as one can see. A much more appealing  prospect, bringing with it the eternal and annual optimism of renewal and expectation.

Willow Warblers and Chiffchaffs have arrived unheralded during the previous nights after perilous journies across land and sea, and now sing to announce their presence from high perches in willows and hawthorns. Each bird so nondescript in appearance but their appeal to us enhanced by the knowledge of what has been achieved by each and every one of them to get here

The walk up the central causeway, as so often, was unexceptional. The only gulls were hundreds of Black headed Gulls feeding on the myriad of flies across the reservoir. Small groups of Coots, possibly non breeding birds, picked lazily at the weed in the water and a few Pied Wagtails flew before me along the concrete pathway. The female Mallard still has her twelve young and four 'orphaned' golden ducklings were feeding in their own little group, dangerously unsupervised by a parent.

Great Crested Grebes flew unsteadily across the Causeway from one reservoir to the other whilst single individuals whiled away the morning asleep or casually feeding. Two amorous Great Crested Grebes, breast to breast, bill to bill, glanced sharply left and right in unison, almost mechanical in their actions as they displayed to each other.

Great crested Grebe
I turned off the Causeway to walk along the top end of Farmoor Two and look for the Red necked Grebe. Now something of a celebrity, having been here for five days with a constant stream of birders and or photographers tramping the concrete to admire it and take its picture. I found it easily, all alone in a  sheltered area of the reservoir, it was fishing not far from the bank, catching small unidentified fish, often trailing strands of weed in its bill from the murky green depths where the fish had been snatched. The grebe played with some of the fish before swallowing them head first and then picked off a few flies from the water's surface to complement its fishy repast. This is the highlight of the morning. This is Farmoor

Red necked Grebe

Now the morning's bright sun and blue sky had taken over and lulled one into a sense of warmth and benign well being but the sharp west wind reminded otherwise. This is early April and  ever capricious at this time of year, the weather can turn in a moment. Indeed Farmoor seems to have a climate of its very own. Out of the wind it was warm and soothing with clouds of flies hanging in the still air behind the windbreaks of the hedges. Exposed to the wind it was uncomfortable in the least.

Blackcaps warbling, rich and throaty, are here in force now and seemed to be singing from every suitable point and Chiffchaffs rivalled them for abundance. I walked back to the Causeway with Dai and left him to go down the Causeway while I carried on round Farmoor One.  Four wagtails prinking and preening on the path were unusual here. They are usually found further down the Causeway. They kept together, obviously a group and were a little nervous and flighty. They were White Wagtails, migrants, stopping here on their way to, well, who knows where. They did not remain  long and soon, with irrepressible loud cheery calls, took to the air in a group and disappeared northwestwards. Migration in action. This is the other highlight of the morning for me.

White Wagtail
I wandered down to the path running by the Thames and snaking, sinuous as the river along the back of the small reserves at Pinkhill and Shrike Meadow.

No redstarts were in the hedge, maybe next week, just a lone Robin darting out onto the path and back into the hedge, doing a passable impression of a redstart.

A Little Egret sunned itself  on the edge of the reeds at Shrike Meadow but as soon as it saw me took off in a flurry of dazzling white. Many migrants are yet to come. The bleached, dead, reed stalks, taller than a man and each with a tufted pennant of a purplish, dead, flower head, form an avenue through which I wander. The reeds  do not yet harbour Reed or Sedge Warblers but they will come shortly. For now just a few singing Reed Buntings make do. A pair of Bullfinches pull at the heavy white blossoms on a flowering cherry, nibbling the petals fussily in their stubby black bills. Ever secretive they slip away piping their diffident call note to each other. Heedless of my presence two Wrens fall from a bush to scuffle in a frenzy of aggression at my feet before noticing me and flying off, still continuing their dispute but now on blurred and whirring wings

Butterflies woken by the sun warm themselves on the dry mud of the path. Peacocks mainly, seeking out the sun warmed earth where the wind is diverted by thick hedgerows frothily white with Blackthorn blossom.

Brimstones, all males, come to prominence later in the morning. They are never still, constantly flying, lemon yellow over the  low, emerging nettles and umbellifers or along the hedgeline in a constant unknown quest. Cowslips in random splashes of rich, yellow, trumpet heads, nod in the wind amongst the short grass of the reservoir banks

I love this time of year. So short, so transient, just eight weeks of vitality and perfection as everything in ever increasing profusion adopts its finest to reproduce and perpetuate.

Sunday 6 April 2014

Two Stars 5th April 2014

The weekend. Saturday. Dull and grey. Back to normal for the weather but at least the polluting haze and Saharan dust has gone. The plan was to meet Badger at Otmoor around about eight. En-route a text from Badger advised we were now re-routing to Farmoor.

I arrived at the entrance to find the gates to Farmoor firmly closed and a huddle of yachts and cars awaiting Thames Water to open the gates. Badger and Andy arrived shortly after myself and some minutes later the gates were opened and we entered the concrete wastes of Farmoor.

Farmoor provided a convincing aura of dourness thus ensuring any Spring friskiness was soon quelled. As so often at this time of year it was grey, a little  damp and soulless with a chilling wind blowing across the haze shrouded reservoirs as we walked up the central causeway. The sun struggled to show itself and apart from a few Pied Wagtails our optics remained unused.

At the far end Badger found a distant Little Gull dip dip adipping to pick invertebrates from the waters of Farmoor Two. Black headed Gulls squalled and squabbled on their inadequate nesting raft on Farmoor One and a female Kestrel stood sentry at the entrance to the owl nesting box that it has commandeered this year, high on the pumping house building. That was it. We turned and walked back down the Causeway meeting The Wickster about to embark on his monthly Farmoor bird walk  with three regulars in tow. We told him about the acute lack of birds but as a Farmoor regular he was unfazed by this. Something always turns up. How right he was much to our later embarrassment.

Otmoor appeared the only alternative. The others would be there and we could indulge in some banter and socialising and reflect on our traitorus diversion which got its just desserts. Arriving at Otmoor we instantly heard a sound of Spring. A Willow Warbler trickled down its wistful cadence of melancholy notes from a hawthorn in the Car Park field but frustratingly remained invisible whilst a ChiffChaff was the precise opposite. At the very top of a tree, totally exposed it belted out its shameless apology of a song for all to see and hear. A Blackcap sang lustily from the hedgerow and a pair of Bullfinches slipped through the foliage quietly calling to each other.

We joined Chris two thirds down the bridleway. He had just seen the resident female Bearded Tit and was waiting for it to show up again from the dead reeds in the ditch. This was more like it. We stood but for a while nothing was seen or heard. An early Reed Warbler scratched out a couple of stanzas from the reeds and then thought better of it. Winnowing noises from high above our heads signalled the roller coaster exertions of a Common Snipe crazily hurtling around the sky in nuptial display. Why is it called drumming? The sound is nothing like it.

Displaying  Common Snipe c Andy Last
Then pinging calls emanated from much further along the ditch. The Bearded Tit! We headed for the spot and a small shape flew across the bridleway and into the reedy ditch the other side. More waiting ensued. Then more pinging but the source resolutely remained invisible. More waiting and finally we saw it clearly as, calling loudly it ascended through the twigs of a hawthorn to show itself at the very top before flying high, up and away towards the Hide. We followed and found it in a much more viewable ditch with considerably less cover, adjacent to the Hide. Here it repeated its performance of working its way up through another hawthorn bush and gave us exceptional and eye watering views as it dithered about, unsure of what to do, at the topmost twigs of the bush.
Female Bearded Tit c Andy Last
Finally it flew back down into the reeds. I followed with Jon but the others went into the Hide only for Badger to re-appear pretty pronto with the alarming news that The Wickster had called to announce he had found a summer plumaged Red necked Grebe on Farmoor Two.

A Red necked Grebe in Oxfordshire is a must see in any Oxonbirders book, especially in summer plumage, as then they are quite beautiful and it is rarely such an opportunity presents itself. We headed for Otmoor car park, Badger heroically texting all and sundry with the glad tidings  and finding out exactly where the grebe was on Farmoor Two to save a lot of wasted time and effort, as this reservoir has a two mile circumference.

As usual the bird was as far as possible from Farmoor's car park so we settled on driving to Lower Whitely Farm which conveniently lies under the far southwest corner of the reservoir, this would be the nearest place we could park to the grebe and  would save us a considerable amount of walking. I followed Jon or at least did my best in a high speed dash to Farmoor

Up the bank of the reservoir at Lower Whitely and onto the concrete perimeter track but not a birder in sight! I looked east and there was an optical huddle of birders in the southeast corner of the reservoir. 

Birding Paparazzi
The grebe had obviously moved from its original position. We set off in the direction, dodging flying trout flies as the fishermen cast their lines from the bank and joined The Wickster and others admiring the grebe. 

I got my scope on the grebe and there before me was a most beautiful apparition. A black crown and bill, the latter with a striking sulphur yellow base. Dove grey cheeks running into a long chestnut neck. Sinuous feathered grace. It was easily the best view I have ever had of one of these grebes in summer plumage. For me it was bitter sweet as due to my shoulder problems I had left the camera at home to save any extra strain on my body and who needs a camera anyway - nothing ever turns up at Farmoor does it?

Red necked Grebe c Andy Last
I metaphorically kicked myself  for abandoning the camera but then settled back to enjoy this lovely bird or as best as I could. Gallingly it came closer and closer to the reservoir edge. Everyone else was now in paparazzi mode clicking away nineteen to the dozen. This close you could not fail to get a decent picture. 

Red Necked Grebe c Andy Last
Groan, grimace but I had only myself to blame. The grebe was obviously unsure of its transitory surroundings and swam around constantly alert and occasionally picking hapless flies from the water. It dived on a couple of occasions, effortlessly sliding below the surface and remaining underwater for a surprisingly long time but mainly remained on the surface where it could keep an eye on matters. When feeling particularly oppressed or nervous it would fly a considerable distance from one end of the reservoir to the other showing its prominent white wing bars and small white shoulder patches. I chided myself yet again, reflecting on missing out on recording with my camera this grandstand performance and after an hour of close encounters of the Red necked Grebe kind resolved to go home and get the damn camera. It was just too much to bear.

On my return the grebe was of course nowhere to be seen and was now from all accounts leading everyone a merry dance as it moved around the reservoir constantly disturbed by the usual  weekend shipping of yachts, fishermen in boats and windsurfers.

I got a huge amount of unwanted exercise walking around the vastness of Farmoor Two chasing after it but did find a charming Mallard family of mother and twelve ducklings during my travels, a Curlew flew over and finally I got my photos once the grebe stayed put, although by now the lowering clouds made for very bad light but one does one's best.

I reflected on the frustrations of modern birding and calmed myself by taking a moment to philosophise on the fact that I had just had the privilege of an encounter with yet another wonderful living creature that shares this incredible planet with us. That for me is the most important thing to take from this brief and thrilling episode.

Wednesday 2 April 2014

On yer Baikal 1st April 2014

Glorious spring weather brought a report of a drake Baikal Teal at Fen Drayton Lakes RSPB reserve in Cambridgeshire. Baikal Teal is a species normally found in central and eastern Asia so to see one here in the UK was an opportunity not to be missed especially as I had missed by a day one that frequented marshland at Southport for a few days last year and later turned up in Holland.

The duck at Fen Drayton had been found some two weeks ago but the news only became generally known three or four days prior to our visit. It has attracted considerable attention and a steady stream of admirers have  made their way to Fen Drayton to see it in the last few days

A call to Terry on Monday resulted in a plan for the two of us to leave Oxford for Cambridge at the relatively civilised hour of 7am on Tuesday, April Fools day.

I say civilised advisedly as our  subsequent encounters with rush hour traffic, thick morning fog and the resultant jams and hold ups were definitely not civilised but I guess people going to work have little choice but to endure this daily version of insanity. I am just glad I no longer have to commute anymore.

Terry kindly offered to drive due to my still very painful shoulder making driving difficult for me. The night before had been hell with the pain from my shoulder waking me at 3.30 in the morning and try as I might I just could not find a comfortable position after that to get to sleep. Tired and dishevelled I inevitably fell fast asleep in the passenger seat of Terry's car as we drove across country waking up at strategic intervals to ensure Terry was keeping us on the straight and narrow which he did with great skill. It took longer than we anticipated to make the journey due to the Satnav diverting us away from various traffic hold ups en route but eventually we emerged from the fog into a bright and sunny Cambridgeshire morning that revealed a flat landscape stretching as far as one could see and now, on the cusp of spring, rapidly turning green. A drive down some pleasant country lanes and soon we were following the brown RSPB signs to Fen Drayton.

Neither of us was sure what to expect as we had not been to this reserve before. All I can say is it is huge, consisting of a complex of ten large lakes spread over a very wide area interspersed with hedgerows, tracks and footpaths running round and between them. Slap bang through the middle runs The Cambridge Guided Busway. A sort of cross between a tramway and railway line but for buses. A space age concrete construction that allows the buses to be propelled at high speed along an exclusive and specially constructed concrete highway, their passage being controlled by sensors.  It is also according to the locals very controversial as it cost a fortune to build and does not seem to be particularly widely used even though buses career up and down it every five or ten minutes regardless.

We parked the car on the entrance track beyond where it  crosses the busway and then walked a mile or so east along a tarmac path by the busway that acts both as a cycleway and pedestrian access. On a number of occasions I had close encounters with bikes as they came along the pathway silently behind us. Apart from the speeding buses and bikes it was a tranquil mile long walk to Moore Lake where the Baikal Teal was entertaining all comers. We wandered along the pathway accompanied on occasions by a staccato burst of song from various Cetti's Warblers and finally we even managed to catch a glimpse of one of these elusive and skulking brown birds. In a frenzy of Spring exuberance I predicted to Terry that they would recolonize Otmoor in our very own Oxfordshire this year having been wiped out by the hard winter of 2012/2013. Terry was not so sure.

Eventually we came to a small track on our left which led to the Hide from which we would be able to see the teal. A pleasant short walk down a meandering track overhung with branches of bright green emergent hawthorn leaves and the bulging golden yellow buds of pussy willow brought us to the Hide. I walked up the ramp to the Hide and opened the door with no little trepidation. It was as feared but to no surprise, full of birders. My worst nightmare. Nonetheless we ventured in to its depths,  managed to squeeze into the far corner and were soon looking at an adult male Baikal Teal in all its intricate patterned glory. What a truly beautiful bird.

The head is what really catches your eye. A combination of iridescent green and cream with a black teardrop around the eye and a black line like running mascara dropping vertically down the cheeks to join the black chin. A white line divides the pink breast from the grey flanks and white elongated scapulars droop theatrically down over the rear flanks.

Always relatively distant it was too much for my lens but Terry managed to achieve some images which illustrate this piece. Through the scope however it could be seen in all its beauty and we watched it for an hour or so endlessly swimming back and fore along with Eurasian Wigeon, picking insects and invertebrates from the surface of the lake. Small islands in the lake harboured a pair of Avocet and Oystercatcher and Black headed Gulls looked like they were preparing to breed. Further out on the lake Eurasian Teal and a pair of Common Goldeneye rested on the still waters.

A constant stream of birders came and went from the hide with consequent disruption and disturbance. My feelings about hides and their inhabitants are well known and after an hour I had reached critical. It's not just the dropping of scopes and general banging around but the conversation and remarks often volunteered at full volume that really get to me. One particular gent seemed to only have one way of communicating which was at full volume and it never ceased to amaze me how he seemed to have no embarrassment about demonstrating his ignorance with ill considered remarks. It's an unwelcome intrusion and disturbs my, and probably everyone else's concentration and enjoyment  Nor do I want to listen to yet another birders endless travelogue of the latest trip he has made to somewhere in the world and then to listen to his mates try to outdo this by relating their latest birding exploits. And so it goes on.

We made our escape and returned to peace and quiet making our way back along the path and onto the walkway cum cycletrack and eventually returned to the car. What now? I had done some research on the internet the night before and found there was a male American Wigeon and a female Ring necked Duck not too far away at a place called Pymoor near the Wildfowl and Wetlands Reserve at Welney. We could go there. I also consulted a map I had downloaded of Fen Drayton Reserve and we decided that we should first take a look at the largest lake here which was Ferry Lagoon and conveniently was right next to where we had parked the car.

It was so pleasant to stand in the warm sun by the track, having a snack and relaxing after seeing the Baikal Teal. We watched an ash grey male Blackcap warbling its way through a nearby Hawthorn whilst high above in an Ash tree a ChiffChaff  let forth with its metronomic song.

We drove the car further down the track and left it in a car park at the end. Nearby some birders were looking from a gate over the northwestern part of Ferry Lagoon. Amongst the Black headed Gulls three more delicate gulls swooped, tern like, to pick invertebrates from the water's surface. Small with black underwings. Little Gulls. So delicate!  So petite! So nice!

Not much else was to be seen from here but we were told of a Sedge Warbler singing from brambles further around the lake to our left although sadly three Garganey also in this area had been scared off by a Grey Heron. The Sedge Warbler gave a brief burst of song from the aforementioned brambles as we arrived but then silence. Well it was silence until another three birders arrived bellowing to each other  and making such a noise discussing a forthcoming trip to Scotland that no bird in its right senses was going to show itself let alone sing.

"Have you seen the Sedge?" one of them loudly enquired of us. "No not yet" I replied resignedly. They stood around for a few minutes talking loudly but patience was not a virtue that seemed to be part of their repertoire and thankfully for us they walked off to a nearby hide. By now one of them was on a phone and I could hear the entire conversation from many yards away. The Sedge Warbler sang again briefly from further up the hedgerow un-noticed by the noisy birders. Terry and myself walked the short distance to the approximate spot. The warbler sang again and I found it deep in the brambles before it disappeared again. Just a flash of striated brown and a long creamy eyebrow but that was enough. We waited and Terry finally saw it as it came up from the brambly depths to sing briefly before descending back into the dark impenetrable interior of the bramble patch.

We had also learned that there was a drake Greater Scaup and a drake Smew on Ferry Lagoon but typically they were at the far end of the lake which was a good mile distant and would require a considerable walk. Terry had never seen a drake Smew so we decided to make the walk. We set off just as news came through of a Blue winged Teal on a gravel pit near Northampton.  Dilemna. We hesitated and then decided to walk to the next inlet of the lake and if we had no luck from there we would return to the car and head for the Blue winged Teal. We walked round a bend in the track and down to the lake's shoreline. Another birder was already there scoping across the water. He saved us a lot of time by first announcing he had located the Greater Scaup which was consorting with a group of Tufted Ducks by an island in the lake and then saved us a lot of further effort by finding the drake Smew, close into the far edge of the lake. So Terry got his look at a drake Smew and satisfied we headed back to the car.

The latest news from RBA informed us that the Blue winged Teal had flown off. Never mind we would go and try to find the American Wigeon at Pymoor. An hour's drive found us on an unclassified road leading to Pymoor, driving through yet more flat endless fields with absolutely no likely looking wetlands. I stoically followed the directions I had downloaded and we were about to give up  when we turned a corner and just before a railway bridge Terry saw some birders looking north from the high embankment to our left. We pulled over and went  up the bank to join them and there before us was a wide area of flooded grassland inhabited by a large number of Eurasian Wigeon and Teal, Northern Shoveler and with a few Tufted Duck and Common Pochard amongst them. This must be the spot and the birders confirmed we were in the right place.

The American Wigeon was not easy to find as it was quite a long way off and the heat haze added to our problems but eventually, not without difficulty, we found it by way of locating its prominent white head patch, subtly paler than the yellower head patch of the commoner Eurasian Wigeon feeding with it.

Having got our fill of the American Wigeon we decided to head for home but at the last moment I suggested that we may as well look for the Ring necked Duck which according to my downloaded information was close by and viewable from the same embankment but near the intriguingly named  Four Balls Farm.  We drove a couple of miles and came to the farm. One other birder was already looking from atop the bank on our left. Joining him we  enquired about the duck but he had not seen it. I looked out on a vast area of wetland full of hundreds of ducks but it was going to be impossible to find the duck due to the light and heat haze. Large numbers of Eurasian Teal and Wigeon were supplemented by smaller numbers of Northern Shoveler, Gadwall and a couple of pairs of Northern Pintail. A small group of Tufted Duck gave some vague hope that one of them might be the Ring necked Duck but after intense examination it was not to be

We looked and admired the sheer spectacle of so many ducks but realised we were not going to find the Ring necked Duck. Terry scanned right and as a finale found two Common Cranes standing in the middle of a vast grass field.

That was our cue to call it a day. A very good day indeed.