Friday 28 April 2017

Spiceball Rarity 26th April 2017

The news came through in mid morning of a Wood Warbler that had been singing from 6.45am onwards from some trees in Spiceball Country Park which is just within the boundary of Banbury. This was a 'must go to see' as Wood Warblers are scarce migrants in Oxfordshire and are also a very attractive member of a group known as 'leaf warblers'.

Spiceball Country Park was created twenty five years ago, from a relatively small area of land that was formerly a refuse tip, to provide a facility of greenery and recreation for the residents of Banbury. It is bounded by the Oxford Canal to the west and the River Cherwell to the east and linked by a path to Grimsbury Reservoir that also has a woodland nature reserve attached to it. There are various amenities such as a children's play area and sports fields but two fields immediately east of the river and another field are managed more with wildlife in mind and designated as an area for wild flower meadows and community woodland. The only downside of the park is that the very busy road leading out of Banbury to the M40 Motorway also runs immediately alongside with the consequence that there is a continuous noise of passing traffic .

If you wish to read more about the birds and wildlife around Banbury please go to the excellent blog

One or two Wood Warblers are seen in Oxfordshire each year but only on migration as they do not breed in the county. Often they are identified by their song, hence most records come in Spring, when they are often elusive dwellers in the canopies of large trees and their presence is betrayed by their song of rapid high pitched notes shivering down the scale and growing increasingly in volume. These last few days have seen a small number of Wood Warblers arriving in various transitory locations in Britain before they move on to their breeding areas.

Living in Kingham which is in northwest Oxfordshire I was only thirty minutes drive from Banbury, itself right on the northern border of Oxfordshire. So after a visit to the doctor in Chipping Norton to assess how my damaged knee was responding to treatment it was onwards to Spiceball Country Park where I arrived just after 10am. Mercifully the walk from the car park to the warbler, which was in the community woodland, amounted to just a short limp and I duly stationed myself by the bridge over the small river which marked where the warbler had been first seen singing some three and a quarter hours earlier.

There were two other birders present but I learnt that there had been no sight or sound of the warbler for quite some time. It was not looking good. Willow Warblers, Common Chiffchaffs, Blackcaps and Common Whitethroats were belting out their songs loud and clear above the traffic noise but there was not a trace of the distinctive silvery cascade of notes that denotes the song of a Wood Warbler.

I stuck it out for an hour, leaning on a wooden rail by a small backwater of the river watching a female Mallard and her brood of five so adorable ducklings dabbling in the weed growing on the surface of the still dark water. My knee hurt from my exertions and I gave up waiting, resigning myself to the fact the warbler had probably moved on, and very slowly I commenced hobbling back to the car and the luxury of sitting down and taking the weight from my knee.

Heroically I returned to Chipping Norton and went shopping, limping from shop to shop and finally heading homewards, triumphant with the groceries and by now a very sore knee.

With my knee hurting so much I decided that the rest of the day would be better passed sitting at my computer dealing with the backlog of work that had built up over the Easter Holiday. I fell asleep at my desk, something I frequently do lately as the pain in my knee wakes me every three hours during the night and I have to stand up for some time before it settles down again. 

I decided to check Oxonbirds to see what news of birds in the county had been forthcoming during the time I was slumbering and with a start I noted the latest entry.

'Wood Warbler: Still in Spiceball Park showing well and singing regularly near northern footbridge in copse on east side of river @ 1230'

It was now 2pm and the warbler, judging from the report, had  moved from its original morning location  in the trees on the west side of the river to some trees just a hundred metres to the east side. Suddenly my knee did not feel so bad after all and I was back in the car and heading for Banbury. Surely this time I would be successful.

I made the now familiar short  but slow hobble from the car park to the current location of the warbler, meeting Justin as I was about to cross the small wooden bridge over the river. He told me exactly where the warbler was, just on the other side of the bridge in a small copse of large Sycamore and Ash trees, the former now in almost full leaf and favoured by the warbler.

I followed his directions and found myself standing with just one other birder/photographer on a narrow path of wooden chips winding through the copse and looking up into the top of a large Sycamore.The other birder told me the warbler was up there, somewhere, but was proving extremely elusive and was for the most part silent so it was impossible to ascertain exactly where it was. Wood Warblers are birds of open but mature woodlands which was pretty much what this copse replicated, demonstrating yet again a bird's remarkable capacity to seek out familiar habitat in unfamiliar surroundings.

We stood for fifteen or so minutes and then a small dark shape ever so briefly manifested itself only to be instantly swallowed up in the mass of green leaves. It could have been the warbler or it could have been a tit or crest as both Great and Blue Tits and Goldcrests were also up in the tree and like the warbler gleaning insects from the undersides of the leaves.

I heard a faint call that sounded familiar but was almost indecipherable from the constant background roar of passing traffic,  It was the contact note of a Wood Warbler but my fellow birder could not hear it or if he did was unaware it was the warbler, The call gave me some idea where in the trees the warbler was but it was a whole different matter to actually see it, even if it was visible.Their plumage of moss green upperparts, bright yellow face and upper breast and silky white underparts almost exactly mirrored the background of sun dappled bright green leaves of the trees and the bright sky showing through gaps in the foliage. I would only be able to locate it when it moved.

In fact it was my new found birding colleague who first saw it and pointed it out to me half way up in the Syacamore but it was not there for long and seconds later it dived across into another tree also in full leaf. In forlorn hope I trained my bins on the approximate point in the tree where it had landed and much to my surprise found myself looking at the warbler as it hopped around feeding.Maybe a minute passed and then it flew back to where it had come from and I lost sight of it.

I heard the contact call on several more occasions and then in a period of silence looked up above me to find the warbler was now right above my head having moved from where I thought it had been! This time I got some really good views of it but yet again they were tantalisingly brief and then it was gone.

I was left to myself as the other birder who had been present all day trying to get photos decided enough was enough. I stood for half an hour and heard and saw nothing. I now knew the Wood Warbler was here but where exactly? Then my luck changed and I heard the contact call once more but also the trilling song, which pointed exactly to where the warbler was. I followed the sound to another tree by the path and the song came again from above me. The nightmare of then locating the warbler in the dense tangle of leaves recommenced but finally I located it, as a tiny movement that was not a leaf swaying in the wind betrayed its location, and following its movements in the tree it finally remained motionless for a minute or two, in full view, on some bare twigs.

They really are pretty birds, so much brighter than the more familiar and related Willow Warblers and Common Chiffchaffs that are found all over Britain. Their face has a strong pattern with a dark line running through the eye separating a bright lemon yellow supercilium above its eye from the rest of the similarly yellow face, the yellow continuing onto its upper breast.The rest of the underparts are silky white and the upperparts an attractive  moss green.

Wood Warblers are found throughout northern Europe and just into the west of Asia in the southern Ural Mountains and are strongly migratory, wintering in tropical Africa. Sadly numbers in Britain have declined markedly in recent years and is now giving cause for concern.

I watched as it fed acrobatically and actively  along twigs, head down on occasions and rapidly flicking between twigs and leaves as it snatched insects. I managed to keep it in view for some time as it fed more in the open but eventually it worked its way back into the density of the leaves in the canopy and was lost to view.

This was the second Wood Warbler I have seen in Oxfordshire and was just as enjoyable an experience as the first. My success also made me feel a whole lot better about life and the current problem with my knee. There is a lesson there surely?

Monday 24 April 2017

Bonaparte's Gull-a return visit 24th April 2017

What a difference in the weather today. Gone was the sunshine and blue skies of Saturday to be replaced by grey clouds and occasional rain  brought on a northerly wind.

Having had such success with the Bonaparte's Gull on Saturday I ventured out for another encounter, reasoning that this was an almost unique opportunity to observe this rare North American gull at close quarters and one that should not be passed up.

My knee is slowly healing so I managed to make the short walk from Lower Whitley Farm and up the steps to the southern side of Farmoor Two reservoir where the Bonaparte's appears to be currently settled, and sure enough, once I was on the perimeter path, I soon saw it patrolling along the edge of the reservoir.

Unlike Saturday, when it remained mainly on the water, it spent much of its time today airborne which gave me a thorough testing in taking flight shots, some reasonably successful but as usual the majority not, but practice makes perfect! I do find trying to remember to make all the different technical adjustments to the camera as the light and the birds position constantly changes so burdensome and frustrating.

Anyway enough of my grumbles, it was still an overall happy and positive experience watching the gull as it flew over and above the Great crested Grebes, waiting for one to bring a small fish to the surface so it could make a flying grab for it from the unsuspecting grebe. Today it was not so successful as two days ago, although it did manage to find a couple of fish floating on the surface of the reservoir, possibly abandoned by a grebe. It would still occasionally fly to a grebe and sit near it more in hope than expectation but soon would take to the air again and patrol a small area of  about three hundred metres along the southern wall, often rising quite high in the air before flying down to water level. It was noticeable that it always remained in the general area where the grebes were feeding as did the half a dozen immature Black headed Gulls with which it was loosely associating.

Although superficially looking similar to a Black headed Gull they are smaller, with slightly shorter wings, a delicate black bill and in flight are more elegant, some say tern like, and indeed the underside of the outer wing is pure white with a black trailing edge similar to that of  Common  and Arctic Terns. 

Today there was ample opportunity to compare its tern like characteristics as at least fourteen Common Terns were also on the reservoir and, coming as a pleasant surprise, so were two Black Terns.

The Bonaparte's tired of flying around and landed on the retaining wall where it picked up, separately, a couple of small fish for which I can advance no explanation as to how they came to be on the wall. These fish were relatively large for such a dainty gull, possibly they were not the usual sticklebacks but they went down its throat in one motion nonetheless, although not without some effort. This resulted in the gull's crop becoming visibly distended. 

The Bonaparte's Gull has just eaten one fish and is about to tackle another
despite appearing to be stuffed full - hence its bulging neck
Note the distended crop!
After such a surfeit of food this then required some quiet time to digest the fish so the gull flew to sit on the water but not for long. Soon it was back on the wall again, this time walking along the top picking off flies and invertebrates as it went.

It was hard to remember that this gull is such a comparative rarity here and I found myself wondering if this is how they behave in their native North America.The last time I saw a Bonaparte's Gull in North America was as part of a compact feeding flock of hundreds of individuals, behaving very much like terns, far out to sea on a whale watching trip, off Venice Beach in southern California during late summer. In the breeding season they form small inland colonies across the northern USA, Canada and Alaska, nesting mainly in trees near lakes and then migrate southwards to the coast to spend the winter.

Watching this gull I could but marvel that such a small and delicate looking bird, that had been raised as a chick in a nest in a tree in North America or possibly even further north had crossed to the American coast and then been swept up in a storm that took it right across the Atlantic wastes to Britain, only to find its way to mundane Farmoor, but this is the romance of birding and the wonders of endurance and chance that it reveals

Five of this delightful gull have now been recorded in Oxfordshire, all from Farmoor, the last, before this latest individual, being in 2009. Currently there is a mini invasion of Bonaparte's Gulls in Britain with at least three present, our one in Oxfordshire, another in Essex and yet another in Hampshire and all appear to be of a similar age i.e in their second year of life.

Some men in power boats arrived from across the reservoir to do some maintenance on a pontoon nearby with the result that the Great crested Grebes left the area and the Bonaparte's Gull duly followed them, so I accepted it was time to go. 

Just to remind me of Spring a pair of Greylag Geese proudly shepherded their newly hatched golden young along the concrete apron at the waterside.

Saturday 22 April 2017

The Farmoor 'Boneys' 22nd April 2017

Incapacitated by damaged knee ligaments, the last three weeks have been somewhat frustrating as my mobility has been severely curtailed and I am still not out of the woods yet, but today I just had to get out birding somewhere and Farmoor with its benches and handy walls to sit on seemed as good an option as any.

Being a weekend it had to be an early visit before the yachtsmen, windsurfers, fishermen, walkers and yes, birders arrived en masse, so I duly drove through the entrance of the reservoir just after it opened at 8am on a wonderful morning of sunshine, blossom, greenery and blue skies.

The northwest wind was keen enough to require warm clothing but once a fleece jacket was donned I was all set to go or rather to limp painfully slowly to the central causeway. My plan was to sit there and try to catch up with the Bonaparte's Gull that was found here by The Wickster two weeks ago on 8th April and looks like it may be staying for an extended period.The gull is an immature in its second calendar year so will not breed this year and therefore is in no hurry to go anywhere and it is our good fortune that it has found Farmoor to its liking

It has been my misfortune to miss it on the other three occasions I have tried to see it, frustratingly by only minutes the last time, but unless it appeared near to the beginning of the causeway I had little chance of encountering it as I could not walk round the whole reservoir due to my bad knee.

I was making my way slowly from the car park when Dai drew up beside me in his car and informed me the Bonaparte's was present today but was away over on the far southern side of Farmoor Two, the larger basin of the reservoir which is just about as distant as possible from where we were. I groaned as there was no way I could walk there but Dai must have seen my concern as he generously offered to drive me round the reservoir to the area where he had seen the gull just a few minutes earlier. I should point out that Dai is one of the fortunate few who has permission from Thames Water to drive round the perimeter track of the reservoir. 

I was not about to turn down such a kind offer and away we went and five minutes later we stopped opposite a small white gull sat on the water eating a small fish. It had its back to us but I said 

'That's it Dai, I'm sure'. 

It turned its head and there was the dainty black bill and distinctive head pattern to confirm our identification and we both managed some quick photos before it took to the air displaying salmon pink feet and legs.

Dai offered to leave me here but I would be stranded and unable to make it back to the car park if he did, so he drove me all the way around the reservoir and back down the central causeway where a nice group of six or so White Wagtails were chasing the numerous flies along the concrete walls. 

White Wagtail
Dai left me by the Yacht Club where I could rest on a bench and get a cup of tea from the cafe if I wished before making my way back to the car. However, having been here only thirty minutes I was not in the mood for leaving Farmoor just yet.

I decided to check the nearby large grass bank by the Thames Waterworks for White and Yellow Wagtails but there was no sign of either, though there was more than adequate compensation in the form of a lovely female Northern Wheatear sitting quietly  in the short grass and daisies. 

Northern Wheatear
I say it was a Northern Wheatear but its size suggested it may have been a Greenland Wheatear but being a female it was beyond my powers of identification although for a female Northern Wheatear it struck me that it was unusually strongly coloured. So who knows? It was a good find and I watched as it bounced on black legs after insects, slowly depressing its tail as it stood looking around for fresh victims. The Swallow pair that are nesting in the adjacent Thames Waterworks, cruised inches above the grass, their backs shining midnight blue as they glided back and fore in an effortless liquidity of motion and higher above the reservoir excitable Common Terns exclaimed to each other, cleaving the air with wing-beats of supreme elegance as they strengthened their pair bond, often with one of the birds carrying a fish as a trophy gift to its partner.

The verdant presence of  Spring and its boundless vitality was in evidence wherever you looked and it was a joy to be out amongst it all..

I met Warren and Charlie, two birder friends from nearby Buckinghamshire who had come for another attempt to see the gull, having failed last weekend and I told them where the Bonaparte's was. They managed to see it distantly through their scopes from where we stood and then decided to walk to where it was, some quarter of a mile away but I was unable to follow due to the distance involved. They set off, leaving me feeling somewhat forlorn but in the end I had a minor brainwave, working out that if I left the reservoir and drove round to Lower Whitley Farm I could access the reservoir from the gate there and would be close enough to the gull to allow me to limp the comparative short distance to see it.

This I duly did, not without some discomfort but I was driven on by the incentive of getting close to the Bonaparte's and eventually I rejoined Warren and Charlie. The Bonaparte's was still in the same area and alternately flying above and swimming on the waters of the reservoir, close to the wall where we stood. 

It eventually settled on a pontoon next to an immature Black headed Gull which provided a good opportunity to compare the two.The Bonaparte's was the smaller and had a more delicate appearance and seemed very keen to get as close to the Black headed Gull as possible. Settling down it slept and preened but soon took to the water again looking for food.

Meanwhile yet more evidence of Spring manifested itself as a nearby fisherman flushed a party of six Common Sandpipers from the wave wall and they flickered their way out over the water to land some hundred metres further along the edge of the reservoir's blue waters.

As we watched the gull it was all too apparent that, like its namesake it was a feisty little thing and took no nonsense from the larger Black headed Gulls.  Both gulls had a strategy whereby they would follow the Great crested Grebes that were fishing nearby and mug them for any fish they brought to the surface. The Bonaparte's was adept at this and although not always successful in competition with the Black headed Gulls, gained several small fish in this manner, consuming them and then resting on the water, watching until it espied another grebe surfacing with a fish.

The Black headed and Bonaparte's Gulls going in for an attack on a grebe

We watched the Bonaparte's Gull for an hour or so, being joined by several other birders and then parted to go our separate ways. Another two hours of birding bliss had come and gone, the memory of which will certainly sustain me as my knee slowly heals and mobility returns