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.

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