Monday 30 October 2017

Late Departure at Otmoor 30th October 2017

I headed for Otmoor this morning after a night of freezing temperatures, clear starlit skies and a heavy frost that crusted the grass white. The morning air was still, not a breath of wind disturbed the fallen leaves that formed a carpet of multi colours, shining in the sunlight, along our driveway.

The drive to Otmoor was, as ever, along familiar rural roads, now aflame as the trees by the roadsides turn to rich gold or deep crimson red, their leaves giving a last burst of flaring colour, like the final flame on a log fire, before they fall to earth and are extinguished.

I had not far to go at Otmoor as I was destined for the cattle pens at the end of the approach track where it joins the bridleway and just a short walk from the car park,  My reason? A late migrant Whinchat has been tarrying here for the last few days. As I walked the track Redwings sat high in hawthorns plucking at the red berries, tearing them from their stems unceremoniously and swallowing them whole, gulping the berries down swollen throats of white delicately streaked brown. The blue blush from the sloes has now gone and they are rendered dull by the frost and disdained by the birds. They hang like black marbles on the branches of the blackthorn that guard one side of the muddy approach track, 

At the cattle pens I stood quietly in the lee of the bushes waiting. Chaffinches fed in the grass and on the bare earth around the pens, flighty and edgy and regularly fleeing to the nearby bushes in alarm at something unperceived by me. Maybe the Sparrowhawk visits here.The slurred trilling of a troop of Long tailed Tits  announced their arrival along the hedgerow that was shading a water filled ditch, then, taking to the air en masse they flew across the bridleway to the far hedge, each bird silhouetted in a backdrop of clear blue air, looking like a miniscule lollipop with barrel body and preposterously long tail, propelled by weak fluttering wings.

A small, inconsequentially brown bird flew up from the ground within the pens and perched on a cold metal bar. It had its back to me, showing predominantly streaky brown plumage but with feathers outlined by pale buff or tipped with tiny white droplets, as if of rain, creating a confusion of pin stripes and spots. 

It was the Whinchat, still here and using the cattle pen fencing as a vantage point to drop down on prey in the now thawing, cattle churned mud below. It turned its head to reveal a dark brown mask and prominent cream eyebrows on its face and then turning fully to face me, the sun shone on its underparts to reveal a tawny tinged breast and paler buff underparts.

Demure, petite, with feathers fluffed against the cold it fed on the ground at length, hopping around before resuming its perching on top of the railings, waiting for another feeding opportunity. It had better hurry and stock up its fat reserves for it has a long way to go to its normal winter home, far south of the Sahara in central and southern Africa. Maybe it is too late already and it is now going to face the hazard of a winter in the northern hemisphere and an uncertain future. If it does it will be one of a very few of its kind that have ever been recorded to have done so in Britain.

Maybe it is not too late though, for records of migrant Whinchats in October, although unusual are not that uncommon, as from 1982-1996, 533 have been recorded in October, although most had left Britain by mid October. There is at least one other record for Oxfordshire of a Whinchat in late October; one on 26th October 2001 at Balscote Quarry.

November records are very rare indeed, there having been only seventeen from 1962-1999, so another two days will see this individual, if not making the record books at least joining the select few Whinchats to have been recorded in Britain in November.

In Oxfordshire there are at least two past records of individual birds that were presumably wintering; one at Otmoor on 27th November  2002 and another one on 31st December 2008 at North and South Moreton. Possibly with milder winters this behaviour might become more prevalent but at the current time it is still extremely rare.

I watched this Whinchat coming and going as the sun warmed the ground and it seemed content enough, although feeding opportunities will become less and less. It had survived last night's freezing temperatures but how much longer can it remain before hunger forces it to move or finally succumb.

Monday 23 October 2017

Rufous Rock in the Land of the Dragon 22nd October 2017

Last Saturday, the 14th of October, I went with my twitching pal Clackers and Shirley (Mrs Clackers) to see a male Rufous tailed Rock Thrush at a place called Gilwern Hill that is 1300ft up in the Brecon Beacons National Park near Blaenavon in Gwent, Wales.

Clackers had never seen a rock thrush and I had only seen one before in Britain, a female at Spurn Point, Yorkshire on 25th April 2013, so it was a worthwhile bird for both of us to go and see, especially Clackers.

After a mile walk along a wet and muddy track heading northwest from the minor road where we parked, we got to where the rock thrush had last been seen half an hour earlier, which was in a disused quarry, one of three, running in sequence alongside the track and all now long defunct.

After quite a wait the rock thrush was finally located but the views we got were somewhat distant with the bird choosing to remain on rocks high up on the face of the disused quarry that loomed over where we were standing on some grassy mounds above the track. Behind us was a precipitous drop, down into a wide valley with the towns of Blaenavon and Abergavenny spread out far below in the distance. It was very picturesque, remote and ruggedly beautiful.

The Rock Thrush never came anywhere near us while we were there but Clackers was happy to have just seen the bird and delighted that he had stood up to the rigours of walking over a mile of rough terrain on his bad leg.

The distant view of the rock thrush on my original visit with Clackers

During the following week I noticed on social media some very good images of the rock thrush were being posted, which obviously meant that since our visit the rock thrush was being seen a whole lot closer than we had seen it. It transpired that it had settled down near the third and most distant quarry from the road and photographers had used meal worms to attract it to one particular area where it could be seen well. This is something about which I am equivocal as the practice becomes ever more prevalent with the burgeoning of expensive digital cameras and high powered lenses amongst people professing an interest in photographing birds and other forms of wildlife.

I resolved to make another trip this Sunday to go and see the rock thrush, hopefully a lot closer than on my last visit, as it is an extremely attractively plumaged bird.

I left home at 8am to make a journey of an hour and a half to Blaenavon. I was in no hurry and drove contemplatively along roads that at this time of day were virtually free of traffic.It was a pleasant journey on a typical late autumn morning, much of it in rural surroundings. As I passed northwest through the Cotswolds I noticed the leaves on the trees were turning from green to copper and yellow, the varied colours contrasting with the leaden grey sky, and with many leaves being stripped by the wind and blown like confetti across the road to form pockets of colour in hollows by the verge. This is pheasant shooting country and cock Pheasants, now in their full plumage, 
strutted in stately and  lordly fashion across the lonely road, whilst the females, always in little groups, dithered, uncertain about my onrushing vehicle and then dashed at the very last moment, tails pointed skywards and necks craning, for the safety of the verge on the far side of the road. Many of the fields I passed were now ploughed, with the rich brown soil awaiting the shoots of winter sown crops to arise. 

And so this pleasant idyll continued as I drove, virtually alone, on the road leading past Ross on Wye and into Wales. Monmouth followed by Abergavenny, came and went, and shortly after the Satnav instructed me to turn off the dual carriageway beyond Abergavenny and take a much narrower road, rising ever higher, twisting and turning through wooded slopes before crossing a cattle grid and bursting out onto an open, windswept moorland hillside high above the town, and looking across I could see Gilwern Hill, my ultimate destination, on the other side of the valley. Up and up I went and then at the crest of the hill turned right and took an even narrower single track road to park, after a mile, in a layby a few hundred metres from the track leading to the quarries. As the rock thrush had been present for over eleven days I assumed there would be few birders or photographers bothering to come and see it but I was quite wrong.There must have been over thirty cars parked perilously on the narrow green verge by the road.

The wind at this elevation had taken on close to gale force gusts but it was sunny and once I got walking, not too cold. Gilwern Hill is now, as I mentioned, part of The Brecon Beacons National Park and the track that I followed inland from the road was formerly a Tramway that served the three quarries  where, between 1800-1920 limestone rock was quarried for Blaenavon Ironworks. Now long abandoned, the quarries still remain impressive  and testify to a time when this part of the world was industrial and a place of toil rather than, as it is now, an area for recreation and leisure.

The track alongside the quarries on what was the former
Industrial Tramway to the quarries.
The isolation of this elevated and remote location was, for today, invaded by quite a number of birders mixing with the occasional hiker and dog walker but despite this there was still a sense, an echo if you like in its solitary rugged abandonment and industrial past.

I headed along the wet and at times muddy track, walking, head down, into a wind that was continuously gusting ferociously and making my eyes water. I passed the first two quarries, their deep cavernous excavations hidden by the spoil that had been tipped from them and now long since reclaimed by nature and naturally grassed over to form soft contured mounds by the track.To look down into the quarries one has to climb from the track, up and over these uneven mounds to look into the deep heart of the quarry,

One of the Quarries
I carried on, passing the location where I had seen the  rock thrush with Clackers the week before but there was no sign of any birders, so I pressed on and passing a birder coming the other way elicited the fact that another ten minutes walking would bring me to the spot currently frequented by the rock thrush. 'I couldn't miss it or the birders' he told me

I turned another wind blasted corner and there in a little amphitheatre just to the left of the track,  sat or stood on some more grassed over mounds adjacent to a small quarry, thirty or so birders and/or photographers, looking at a little ridge of small rocks and stones not fifteen metres distant. 

Birders looking at the Rock Thrush perched on the rock face

Birders and photographers admiring the Rock Thrush on the stony ridge

All were pointing lenses or telescopes at the ridge. I sat next to a photographer with an enormous lens and following his lead saw the rock thrush sitting on the small rocks doing its best to shelter from the wind. 

Rufous tailed Rock Thrush squeezed into the rocks for shelter

My first view of the rock thrush this time was a world away from my last. It was beautifully camouflaged amongst the rocks, its white fringed and spotted upperpart feathers blending perfectly with the grey and white mottled rocks and stones, and even on the ground it was surprisingly hard to see, such was the effectiveness of its mottled and speckled plumage merging into its background. 

Its underparts were rich orange chestnut but again with much mottling from the pale feather fringes with flecks of black at their tips.When it turned away from me I could see the white back between the wings and the bright rufous rump and short tail. Its head was a pale buff colour, the grey being concealed by broad buff fringes stippled with flecks of darker colour and it showed a prominent buff eye ring.

Starling shaped but larger, overall it looked bulky and compact, this impression being accentuated by its short tail barely projecting beyond the wing tips. The wind was obviously bothering it and eventually it insinuated itself between two rocks that sheltered it from the wind but it did not remain there long before flying up to the nearby rock face above us and sheltering there in a little nook out of the wind.

We all waited and I moved position to get away from a particularly loud and foul mouthed gent who kept swearing about the wind and photographers. He needed to be careful as he was considerably out numbered but all of us just rolled our eyes and ignored his invective. Two other birders had even brought their  small dog but the dog was, for once, well behaved so there was no strife there.

What I was unaware of at the time but realised later, watching the rock thrush feed, was that the short grass in front of the little stone ridge had been liberally strewn with mealworms, in fact there were so many they almost formed a narrow carpet of food on the grass. A Northern Wheatear had also found this food source and was making the most of it and entertaining us while the rock thrush sat it out on its ledge on the rock face.

Northern Wheatear
Fifteen minutes must have passed before the rock thrush flew down onto a large rock on the ground and then onto the grass and commenced to preen. 

It then flew back to the favoured stony ridge. It was obvious it knew that here was an ongoing, readily available food source of mealworms. It had difficulty maintaining its balance flying in the wind and veered wildly in flight due to the gusting wind and indeed the wind force was so strong in the gusts, that one particularly fierce and prolonged blast nearly knocked me off my feet and I retreated to a less exposed position in the lee of the rock face 

The rock thrush hopped down from the stones and proceeded to select a mealworm. It ate it and then sat for a while amongst the mealworms before choosing another. Obviously well fed and in no hurry, the rock thrush proceeded to give me grandstand views down to  ten metres, as it alternately fed and then relaxed, contentedly perched on the ground. The Northern Wheatear also tried its luck and every so often the rock thrush would make a desultory lunge at the wheatear in defence of its mealworm bonanza but there was more than enough to  go around and the rock thrush never pressed home any of its attacks.

Now I know I took full advantage of the photographers  baiting the area but I did feel a lingering unease about the ethics and wisdom of all this artificial feeding. This bird is currently well away from its native wintering habitat, although the quarry is virtually the same as its normal habitat.  It should by rights now be in its wintering area in sub Saharan Africa but will the mealworms persuade it to remain here longer than it should and then when the photographers get tired of it will the food source be no more and it will be forced to migrate, hopefully not too late? It's just a thought.

Rufous tailed Rock Thrushes are essentially an alpine species and I have seen them myself at the top of the Pecos de Europa in northern Spain. They breed on steep, dry, rocky mountainous slopes and alpine meadows above 1500m and are widespread southwards from northern Spain and Portugal  across Europe, breeding as close to us as southern France and Switzerland, then around the Mediterranean, extending east to central Asia, the Lake Baikal region in Russia, Mongolia and across China to northern Tibet. It is a nocturnal, long distance migrant,  retreating to spend the winter south of the Sahara in southern Africa. One ringed bird returned for three successive winters from northeast China to the same wintering area in northern Tanzania, a journey of over 8000km.

This particular bird in Wales is only the twenty ninth to be recorded in Britain with another two having being found in Ireland and normally it is a very shy species hence the great attraction of this confiding and rare bird in Britain, to birders and photographers alike.

I watched it and took its photo for over an hour and a half. It had a routine where it would spend most of its time sat on the ground or the ridge of stones near the mealworms, occasionally venturing to pick at a mealworm, eating it and then sitting with feathers fluffed up, obviously at ease. After it had fed enough it would fly up onto the nearby rock face and sit there until it felt hungry again when it would fly down once more. I also noticed a couple of curious behavioural traits. The first was it examined its feet at regular intervals. As to why I have no idea but it did it on a fairly regular basis.The other was it appeared to be quietly singing to itself, although, because of the wind, it was impossible to hear any sub song but its bill was frequently partially open and I think this is what it was doing. I have seen similar behaviour in autumn and winter from a male European Stonechat at Stanton Harcourt in Oxfordshire and a male Eastern Black Redstart at Skinningrove in North Yorkshire.

The wind continued to come in gusts, some incredibly fierce and there was little shelter but there were brief periods of relative calm when it was possible to hold the camera and lens steady. I began to feel the cold and, having met two birding friends from Sussex, decided to leave when they did and walk with them the mile or so back to the car, even as other birders were making their way past us to see the rock thrush. 

Friday 20 October 2017

Two barred Greenish in Dorset 18th October 2017

Two-barred Greenish Warbler c Terry Sherlock

On Tuesday 17th October a mega alert went out from RBA (Rare Bird Alert) in mid afternoon about a 'probable' Two-barred Greenish Warbler frequenting a quarry at St Aldhelm's Head in deepest Dorset. On first being found on Sunday the bird had been identified as an Arctic Warbler but on Tuesday a local birder, Brett Spencer, went to have a look and re-identified it as the much rarer and consequently much more desirable Two-barred Greenish Warbler.

Only four previous records of this species have been accepted for Britain, and all bar one, as with this record, were in mid to late October. The last recorded was on 16th-18th October 2006 at Filey, North Yorkshire and all four records showed that the birds only stayed for a very short time, so it was imperative to get to see this latest one as soon as possible. Truly, this was a total mega and birders the length of the land would, at this very moment, be making plans or already on their way to see it. 

Two-barred Greenish Warblers come from very far away. They breed in the Yenisey Valley east to northern Mongolia and Ussuriland and south to northeast China.They normally spend their winter from southern China to northern Indochina and central Thailand.

Currently they are classed as a sub species of Greenish Warbler but all this will change on January 1st 2018 when the IOC (International Ornithological Congress) will class them as a species and the BOU (British Ornithologists Union) will follow their lead. Many birders already accept it as a valid species anyway as do some taxonomic authorities.

I  have never seen one, so this called for prompt action but it was not feasible for me to get there on the same day, so instead I called the Clackmeister, my twitching buddy, who had already accompanied me to the Rock Thrush at Blaenavon in Wales on Saturday. 'Fancy going to see a Two barred Greenish, Clackers?'  'Sure'  he replied. 'OK, let's wait on news tomorrow and if it is there I will call you as soon as I know.'

Surprisingly early the next morning, at just after 7.30am RBA were reporting the warbler as still present but 'elusive'.  Basically 'elusive' means you will have to probably stand for quite some time before it puts in an appearance but that is often par for the course with rare birds such as this and especially tiny warblers. We are all used to waiting. Sometimes all day.

I called Clackers at 8am, who, judging from the drowsy tone of voice was still abed and asked him to be ready at 9am for a pick up from his home in Witney.

With Clackers duly on board the Audi at 9am sharp, we set a course for the West on a wet, post rush hour morning. Travelling at just after nine we had missed the worst of the traffic apart from the usual hold ups on the A34 between Abingdon and Didcot but once past Newbury it was a doddle. We had a good old moan about lorries on the A34 and how they should be banned and then we were on the M27 and Marge, the Satnav sulked into silence. She required re-booting and a good talking to and then was fine, as in dulcet and, I like to think, contrite tones, she instructed us to take various highways and byways towards Wareham and onwards to Worth Matravers in Dorset. Ominously as we headed uphill to Worth Matravers the mist and murky conditions became ever more opaque and worries now set in as to whether we would actually be able to see the bird at all, assuming we found the location in the first place.

Eventually we came to the narrow Renscombe Road, just beyond Worth Matravers, along which a temporary car park had been set up in a farmers field and cost of entry was £2.00 per car. It could have been a lot more expensive, as a car crippling dip in the ground at the field entrance lay in wait for the unwary. We survived this by driving at an angle over it and parked up in the field with a considerable number of other cars. Ten minutes later and with Clackers donning his lucky hat we were all set and  as we left the field met a lady with a dog who appeared delighted to inform us that the warbler was very hard to see and used that word again, 'elusive'. I looked at her binoculars and could understand why.

We headed off down the mile or so walk to get to the quarry, passing other birders coming the other way, relaxed and benign, having assuaged their twitchers anxiety with a sighting of the warbler. It was wet, dank and drear but mild, as we traversed a stony, muddy track that was surprisingly uncomfortable to walk on, especially for Clackers who was slowing visibly with his ongoing leg problems but heroically stuck to the task.We have a tacit agreement on escapades such as this that if Clackers needs to rest it is in order for me to carry on and in the end we parted company although I always feel guilty about this. I went down a dip and then up and on a bend found a phalanx of birders, clustered precariously around the lip of the tree lined quarry, looking down and across to various trees and shrubs surprisingly close to us.This apparently was where the warbler would show itself if previous sightings were anything to go by.

To say it was standing room only would be an understatement. Rush hour trains had nothing on this as the restricted conditions meant that we were standing two, even three deep, peering between various heads and shoulders. No one was giving an inch and there was a palpable tension in the air as the warbler had not been seen for some time. I dumped the scope on a grass bank as this was definitely a binoculars only situation and insinuated myself just behind two birders in 'the front stalls' so to speak, on the lip of the quarry. I could see the trees between them so I was fine if the warbler appeared although a bit restricted in what I could see to my right, The person in front of me was shorter than me wearing a natty blue number but displaying the most lurid luminous green lining to his hood.I spoke to someone to my right and on hearing my voice the figure in front turned and lo t'was Gnome, another Oxonbirder. 'Adam, fancy meeting you here. Not another order on Ebay? (in joke). Any sign of the Two barred?' 'Not yet' he told me as a Common Chiffchaff created a vague stir in the crowd. He told me he had come down with Dave Lowe who was somewhere in the scrum further along.The birder to our right enquired if we were Oxonbirders. He looked vaguely familiar but probably wasn't. 'Can't you tell my man. Is it not our aura of culture and refinement and the way we speak?' He laughed.

To my left were two guys with cameras, intent on photographing everything that moved. Various movements within the trees and shrubs created a mild panic as people got over excited, especially these two. 'There it is!' they would cry  'No it's a Chiffchaff''. 'Is that it?' 'No it's another Chiffchaff. These two to my left were getting in a bit of a lather as rather than looking in bins they were trying to focus a camera on something that was moving very quickly and erratically through the leaves. It was a lost cause but they persisted. There was also much discussion about the identity of the trees we were scanning, so that when the warbler finally appeared we could give precise directions i.e 'it's in the Maple or it's in the Ash', although a lady twitcher (shock) gently corrected me and told me it was a Field Maple. Other directions for future reference were discussed, such as right hand and left hand gaps in the trees but this only served to confuse rather than assist.

The trees frequented by the Two-barred Greenish Warbler
All the time, at regular intervals, Common Chiffchaffs would appear and once or twice, so would Firecrests, surely one of the most attractive of our native birds? Their face pattern and overall beauty is more than just sensational. They seem to be in Dorset in some numbers this year and Portland Bird Observatory, not far down the road, caught over fifty yesterday, which is phenomenal.

All this was before any of us had seen the Two-barred Greenish Warbler. But then it happened. A noticeably pale warbler flicked up and then down into the foliage. It was gone in a second. 'That was it' we chorused. 'Was that it?' our friend on my left asked.'Where did it go'. I remained silent. Then the warbler just materialised from a Field Maple and remained perched and immobile for around twenty seconds in some bare twigs, giving one and all, eye watering unobstructed views. A real stunner. You could not ask for more. Neat and clean looking. Tiny and with lichen green upperparts and a huge pale wing bar on the greater coverts and a smaller, fainter one in front, on the median coverts. A strongly patterned face added to the attraction with a bright supercilium, bold black line through the eye and a noticeably longer and finer bill than an Arctic Warbler. Its underparts were greyish white but at certain angles looked much paler and indeed this became a relatively easy way to identify it by way of this paler appearance when it flew up and down with incredible speed to seize an insect. Common Chiffchaffs were doing the same at intervals but they always appeared browner and duller.

Two-barred Greenish Warbler
c Terry Sherlock
There were handshakes all round and an obvious release of anxiety and tension. Everyone was now in a good place, sharing this moment and strangers became instant friends.

Other sightings were again a bit of a trial for the two to my left  as every time someone, even us, saw the warbler  and called out where it was they kept asking, 'Where is it? 'Can you still see it?' and their favourite phrase when they could not find it  'Has it dropped down?' I heard it so often it became indelibly imprinted on my consciousness.  Please do not misunderstand me, I felt sympathetic and tried to help them and give directions but in the end I had to give up after one contorted instruction from me came out as gibberish 'It's in the left of the maple to the right of the left hand gap' but still our friend could not get on it. The lady birder started laughing.

Eventually they, as had everyone else, saw it well and were happy. 

After its first appearance many birders left and we were not so tightly packed  and now waited for an encore. It did not come for some little while but when it did it was well worth waiting for, as the warbler hung around this spot for some time and gave various brief cameo performances in and out of the leaves and twigs. Another time when it appeared, there was a seismic groan from down the line, as someone went into close  to orgasm over the sighting. Steady old boy.

By this time Adam had left and I was in the front row. Clackers unbeknown to me was just behind me  and to my relief had also seen the warbler. So all was well.

Then Terry appeared at my shoulder. Another Oxonbirder. Quite a gathering of us which was kind of nice as its always good to share these moments with familiar faces.

There were also other friends and acquaintances from past twitches and more distant parts to say hello to and acknowledge. And so it progressed with the hypnotic sound of the quarry conveyor belt humming constantly in the backgound. Clackers departed as it would take him a long time to walk back to the car with his bad leg.We would join him later. The mist seemed to disperse slightly and even the sun almost broke through prompting a Common Chiffchaff to give a brief burst of song. It did not last though.

The warbler put in quite a number of brief but adequate appearances to keep us more than happy and on our toes and then it went quiet. Adam and Dave had returned and after a team photo we made our way up the track and back to the car. Other late arriving birders were passing us with that look of concentration and concern on their faces that had been all too familiar to us a couple of hours ago.

The mist had, by now, come back with a vengeance and the day was very dull and gloomy, almost depressing but illuminated by the star bird we had seen. We found a small cafe in Corfe Mullen, as neither of us had eaten, but there was no all day breakfast so we had to make do with something else to fill the gap. 

Clackers went for Quiche and salad while I opted for the full Afternoon Tea.


My grateful thanks to Terry Sherlock for the images of the Two-barred Greenish Warbler