Sunday 28 October 2018

A Great White Egret re-visited 27th October 2018

It was another autumnal day blessed by a golden morning of sunlight but with a less welcome change in the wind, overnight, to a cold blustery northerly as I returned to the genteel landscaped parkland of Blenheim to renew my acquaintance with the Great White Egrets on the Queen's Pool.

Today, there remained but one, standing far out on the exposed dried silt. A lonely looking, thin white exclamation mark of a bird on a flat and wide expanse of silt, eschewing the shelter from the wind provided by a thick bank of reeds at the far end of the rapidly draining Queen's Pool, unlike the numerous Grey Herons and handful of Little Egrets congregated in a line close to the edge of the reeds.

It was not quite in a splendid isolation of its own choosing as it had two Grey Herons for nearby company.  Stood in the sunlight, its brilliance of whiteness seeming to accentuate its exposed position of which it appeared totally unperturbed, the wind ruffling the feathers of its crown into a comic strip tuft. 

Twenty five years ago Great White Egrets were a sought after rarity, that required some effort of will and journeying to be seen in Britain, and finding one was an occasion to be marked and celebrated but since 2012 they have bred every year on the Somerset Levels and gradually become a scarce resident bird of mainly the southern half of Britain. If not now a major rarity, they are still a bird that will persuade birders to travel, especially in a comparatively species impoverished, inland county, such as Oxfordshire. Perverse though it may seem Oxfordshire has been host to one or two individuals for a number of consecutive years now and one can, with confidence, say they are usually present in the county every year, at least in winter and spring.

They are majestic in their angular appearance and pure whiteness.When they extend their neck to its full extent they appear extraordinary. Great and White are not inappropriate adjectives to apply to such a bird.

They manage to retain a commanding presence amongst any other bird life surrounding them. Looking as tall as a Grey Heron, they are in fact slightly less so but their legs are longer creating the impression of greater size although they possess less bulk and have a small narrow head no wider than their neck.  

Great White Egret
Grey Heron
I stood on a carpet of fallen gold and yellow leaves, my outline concealed under the thinning coppery leafed boughs of a beech tree, the branches sweeping down over my head to touch a channel of water before me as I looked out through the twigs and leaves to where the Great White Egret stood.

For half an hour it maintained its solitary position, occasionally moving its head or body to regard its surroundings before wandering, in gawky elegance, on long black legs, towards a huddle of teal by the edge of what remained of the receding waters of the Queen's Pool. It stopped and then flew over the ranks of teal and landed in the water beyond and commenced to fish.

It stalked through the cold grey water accompanied by attendant Black headed Gulls, ever the opportunists for a chance meal. Its sinuous neck contorted to angle its head and golden bill in the direction of fleeing fish, with occasional and, as far as I could discern, unsuccessful stabs at securing a meal.

Two Little Grebes, unaware of my concealed presence under the tree were fluffed against the cold, bills resting on breasts as they floated on the channel of water before me. Gone was the rich and dark chestnut colouring of their breeding plumage, now replaced by a dowdy tan and brown combination for the winter, the colours of concealment, matching the mirroring of the dead and decaying reeds in the water, making them almost invisible unless they moved.

One briefly sprang to life and caught a fish which it carried in its stub of a bill upstream, to consume under the dead and dying vegetation, spilling over the bank.

The sky turned to gunship grey and any warmth from the sun was extinguished as the cold wind blew the threatening clouds towards me. It was time to go, to walk briskly back down a golden corridor of trees leading out of the park and into Woodstock for a warming coffee.

Friday 26 October 2018

The Great White Egrets at Blenheim 26th October 2018

Woodstock is a small market town in West Oxfordshire, made famous due to the presence of the three hundred year old Blenheim Palace which is the birthplace of Winston Churchill and now a World Heritage Site. The palace is surrounded by two thousand acres of parkland, landscaped by Capability Brown, and contains The Great Lake spanned by Vanbrugh's Grand Bridge, well known from featuring in many period dramas.

Distant view of Vanbrugh's Grand Bridge from the part of
The Great Lake that is not being drained
The parkland is accessible to the public and indeed there is free access at certain points where footpaths run across the parkland.

The Great Lake is currently not in a good state due to a build up of silt and that part of the lake upstream of the Grand Bridge, known as the Queen's Pool, is being drained so that the build up of centuries of silt can be dredged and removed.This is a five year project that will cost half a million pounds. As the Queen's Pool slowly drains and the water levels reach just a few centimetres  this has attracted various heron species, never slow to take advantage of an opportunity to feast on the fish that are made vulnerable by the shallow water.

The partially drained Queen's Pool with plenty of exposed
silt on view!
The main attraction amongst the ever present Little Egrets and Grey Herons are Great White Egrets of which there are five, possibly six, now frequenting the slowly diminishing lake. Great White Egrets are no strangers to Oxfordshire and in the last few years have become a regular presence in the Lower Windrush Valley and indeed last year at least three were to be found during the winter months in the Woodstock Water Meadows which are just the other side of the road from Blenheim.

It considered it would be remiss of me not to go and see the Great White Egrets for myself,  especially as Woodstock is but twenty minutes drive from my home and on a lovely, late autumn morning I found myself entering a side gate into the parkland and  walking under the mighty beech trees of Blenheim, all grey of trunk and burnished copper of leaf, crunching the fallen beech mast underfoot.

Autumn in Blenheim
I could see the Great White Egrets almost immediately. Two were wading in the shallow water whilst another three were idling their time on some dead tree stumps sticking up from the exposed mud on the far side of the Queen's Pool. Great White Egrets are large but manage to retain an attenuated elegance, as they are slender in every aspect of their build. Their plumage is the colour of pure driven snow, the whiteness almost luminescent in the bright sunlight illuminating their bills of buttercup yellow.

Great White Egrets
I watched them for around twenty minutes  but slowly, one by one they flew off, rising up on broad white wings with neck withdrawn and long black legs outstretched behind their tail, to clear the Grand Bridge and presumably fly to that part of the Great Lake that was not being drained.

Great White Egret
They left behind half a dozen Little Egrets and a positive phalanx of twenty or so Grey Heron's, the latter stood hunched and grey and vaguely sinister on the mud, close to reeds that provided some shelter from the increasing easterly wind.

Little Egrets
A Peregrine swept  around the lake at tree top height, making one circuit only before departing and having created a brief panic amongst the five hundred or so Teal sunning and fussing amongst  themselves at the water's edge.

Thursday 25 October 2018

A Contentious Stonechat 23rd October 2018

Until comparatively recently the Siberian Stonechat has comprised of five subspecies but only two need to concern us here, Saxicola maurus maurus which occurs west of Lake Baikal and S.m stejnegeri which occurs east of Lake Baikal.The two subspecies are virtually indistinguishable, with stejnegeri said to be darker and more saturated in plumage tones although this can be highly subjective.The only real way to tell them apart is mitochondrial DNA analysis, using a feather or faecal sample although even this has proved to be contentious. These two subspecies of Siberian Stonechat cover a vast area stretching from Russia in the west to Japan in the east and vagrants regularly occur in Britain each year, chiefly in the late autumn.

Recently the two subspecies have been found, after mtDNA analysis, to not be as closely related as was suspected for many years but that stejnegeri is more closely related to another species of stonechat, African Stonechat Saxicola torquatus, than to Saxicola m maurus the other sub species of Siberian Stonechat with which it overlaps in its distribution where they come into contact.

The BOU (British Ornithologists Union) decided to follow, from 1st January 2018, the IOC (International Ornithological Congress) recommendations concerning recognised bird species and what names should be applied to them.

The IOC decided, based on results of the mtDNA analysis carried out earlier, that the subspecies of Siberian Stonechat called stejnegeri should henceforth be classed as a separate species of stonechat called Stejneger's Stonechat Saxicola stejnegeri leaving Saxicola m maurus and the remaining other subspecies to be called Siberian Stonechat.

If you have not already lost the will to live the relevance of all of this is that Stejneger's Stonechat, being recognised as a species separate to Siberian Stonechat (its former designation) has now become much desired by twitchers and anyone else interested, nay obsessed, with seeing as many British bird species as possible.

The first  Stejneger's Stonechat to be identified in Britain was one at Portland near Weymouth in Dorset in 2012 and originally accepted, after a DNA analysis of one of its feathers as a Siberian Stonechat of the sub species Saxicola m stejnegeri. It has now, as a consequence of the recently accepted IOC taxonomic changes,  been retrospectively promoted to Stejneger's Stonechat as of 1st January 2018.

A stonechat, inhabiting reeds, brambles and ditches near Salthouse on the north Norfolk coast for the last few days has been causing quite a stir as, although it is irrefutably a Siberian Stonechat, it appears to be quite dark for a Siberian Stonechat S.m maurus and is being proposed as probably a Stejneger's Stonechat, although this is purely speculative*

* see the end of this blog for the latest update

Many birders have come to twitch  it, just in case, but it is virtually impossible to distinguish Stejneger's Stonechat from Siberian Stonechat on plumage features observed in the field. Some suggest that Stejneger's Stonechat has darker brown fringes and colouring to the mantle and scapular feathers on the upperparts, or a more saturated rusty tone to the rump and upper-tail coverts but this can vary enormously with light conditions and the angle from which the bird is seen. Others claim a less well marked supercilium is an indication of stejnegeri but this too can vary amongst individual birds. Nothing can be claimed to be really definitive at the moment from observations made in the field and then there is always the area of inter-gradation to be considered where the two species breeding areas overlap*

The alternative is either to capture it and examine it in the hand, which still can prove problematic or to take a sample of a feather or faeces for mtDNA analysis.

*Further reading on identifying Stejneger's Stonechat can be found in the following: 
 Birding Frontiers, CHALLENGE SERIES AUTUMN by Martin Garner published 2014  pp 126-127.

A faecal sample has been obtained from this bird and sent to Dr Martin Collinson at Aberdeen University for analysis and now everyone is waiting to see if they can add Stejneger's Stonechat to their list.

I went to see this contentious stonechat today as Hugh, a good friend who works for the Environment Agency, was giving a lecture at the UAE (University of East Anglia) in Norwich and then planned to come and see the stonechat on his way back home, never having seen a Siberian Stonechat in Britain, let alone a Stejneger's Stonechat. Not having seen Hugh for some time, I could combine a reunion whilst checking out this stonechat that is attracting so much attention

We arranged to meet at noon but not relishing the rush hour traffic on the long tedious drive to Nelson's County I was in Norfolk much earlier and found myself at 9am wandering up a track called Meadow Lane, between a reed filled ditch on one side and a grass bank topped with brambles bordering a field on the other side. It was not far to walk, just a few hundred metres, and the wind created a pleasant, soothing sound as it shook the tasselled reed heads into constant motion.

It was obvious where the stonechat was, as a small huddle of birders were looking intently over a gate barring entry to a field of rough grass with a ditch full  of reeds running along its left side

The stonechat was in the green reeds in the ditch to the
left of the picture
The stonechat was immediately visible, perching in the lee of a clump of taller growing reeds and by a leaning fence post in the ditch, sheltering from the worst of the strong westerly wind that was gusting unhindered across the surrounding open grassland.

It was very obvious how much paler this stonechat was than our native European Stonechat, its chin and throat were pure white, its upper-parts greyish brown rather than dark brown and its pale underparts suffused with a peachy orange blush. Its rump was noticeably paler than found on a European Stonechat and a slightly richer peach orange than its pale underparts and totally un-streaked - a diagnostic feature of Siberian or Stejneger's Stonechat. This individual appeared to be a male as its under-wing coverts and axillaries were pure black, yet another diagnostic feature of Siberian or Stejneger's  Stonechat.

Not the greatest photo but it clearly shows two of the 
diagnostic features of Stejneger's and Siberian Stonechat, 
namely an unstreaked pale peach coloured rump and black 
underwing coverts and axillaries. The white fringes to the
 tail feathers are also another marked feature
All in all it was a very neat looking and engaging little bird, its tail noticeably fringed and tipped with white as it perched on various stalks or reed stems. It was mainly catching flying insects in the hour I watched it, although it managed to find a few caterpillars and invertebrates on the ground too. Usually it stuck to its sheltered area behind the reeds, only flying out to catch a winged insect every so often but on occasions it perched quite happily on an exposed reed stem, clinging on and swaying violently in the wind..

I watched it for another half an hour but then it was chased off by a male European Stonechat and flew over our heads to perch on some brambles on the bank behind us. It fed from here for a while and then dropped down to feed from the reeds filling the ditch by the track before flying back to its original position in the lee of its favourite clump of reeds.

A huge flock of Pink-footed Geese, cackling and squealing excitedly, flew over us in a vast wavering scrawl across the sky, wing tip to wing tip, spreading across the azure heavens in a long irregular line. The evocative sound and sight of winter in Norfolk.

Today it was bright and sunny in this unseasonably mild, autumn weather but the days are shortening and soon enough winter will be upon us and life will get harder for both birds and mammals.The weather is predicted to get much colder and windier in the next few days and I cannot but wonder if the contentious stonechat, in its windswept ditch and still the subject of much conjecture, will remain or head for warmer climes.

*Update 17th November 2018

The mitochondrial DNA analysis of a faecal sample obtained from this Siberian Stonechat has established that it is indeed a Stejneger's Stonechat. This is good news for me and many others who made the effort to see it as it means we can add another bird species to our respective lists of bird species seen in Great Britain

Monday 22 October 2018

The Grey Catbird. An Epic Twitch 17th October 2018

Autumn this year has been exceptional for us twitching folk in that it has been truly dire due to the prevailing winds being entirely from the wrong direction for bringing in eastern migrant rarities. This changed for the better on Sunday 7th October when a Green Warbler was found on Lundy Island off North Devon and I found myself, with Justin, on one of two small charter boats sailing from Ilfracombe to Lundy, early on Monday morning. 

The charter boat following our boat across to Lundy
The crossing was rough, very rough but exhilarating and it was good to be back on Lundy after an absence of nearly thirty years, when I came to successfully twitch an Ancient Murrelet. The only problem this time was the star turn, the Green Warbler, had gone overnight leaving just a numerous supporting cast of Willow Warblers, Common Chiffchaffs and Blackcaps. Justin, myself and twenty other birders returned to Ilfracombe chastened by our first major dip of the autumn.

Hurricane Michael, a couple of weeks ago, was predicted to batter the south eastern USA and held out hope that some North American migrants might be displaced and end up on this side of the Atlantic, and our own Storm Callum was going to produce winds of up to 80mph along the western side of Britain. Many birders held their metaphorical breath in anticipation of 'the big one'.

The week that followed was again unexceptional  but for me busy, both work wise and socially, before my wife departed for Glasgow on Friday to visit our daughter. On Sunday, the 14th October, I went to see an Isabelline Shrike in Devon (see my previous post) which had been present since the 10th October.

While looking at the Isabelline Shrike, startling news came through of a Pacific Swift that had been found feeding with House Martins at Hornsea Mere in East Yorkshire. As it was a swift it was hardly likely to stay for long so there was little point in getting excited but later in the afternoon the Pacific Swift was re-identified from photos as a White-rumped Swift. Unlike the Pacific Swift this was a first for Britain.

The news of the re-identification put a whole new complexion on matters. Justin sent me a text asking if I was going to drive overnight to Hornsea to try and see it, assuming it remained and was still at Hornsea the next morning. At first I thought there was no possibility but then, thinking it through back at home, I realised I was driving to Glasgow tomorrow, anyway, to join my wife and daughter for three days.Why not leave much earlier for Glasgow and go via Hornsea?

Thus, at 2am on a wet Monday, I set a course for Hornsea and arrived in the dark and rain at Hornsea Mere. Many other birder's cars were already lining the road awaiting the dawn, nose to tail alongside the reserve and occupying the side roads too.This was going to be a major twitch as a first for Britain was always going to attract large numbers of birders.The dawn slowly rose and we all left our cars and stoically trudged across two wet fields to stand and view a depressing prospect of a bleak, cold looking expanse of water, surrounded by woods with a large grass field immediately in front of us. It was grey, wet and chilly and there was not a sign of the swift which was hardly surprising. It had been a long shot anyway but this still did not mitigate the crushing disappointment.

For two hours I stood and shivered, chatting to two fellow twitchers I vaguely knew from previous jaunts such as this. A degree of black humour descended on us when we realised that it was a lost cause. No one however was prepared to accept the truth or wanted to be the first to be seen to give up, such is the competitive streak in us, but this was truly hopeless.The wind was blowing the incessant rain down my neck and I was becoming increasingly chilled. Tired, dishevelled and thoroughly depressed I stood and gazed morosely out over the field to the mere beyond. A birder came running along the line. 'Is anyone a doctor?' he enquired to one and all. No one answered. A lady birder had collapsed further down by the hedge and lay prone on the grass sheltered by a large umbrella. Twenty minutes later a paramedic arrived to attend to her. She had been on the ground, unmoving for a long time. It did not look good.

I turned to my two companions and announced I was leaving and made my weary way back to the car. There is nothing worse than this feeling believe me. My second dip in a week. I was down and almost out.

Never mind. Hope springs eternal and I resolved to drive to Glasgow forthwith and as the warmth of the car slowly permeated my wet and chilled flesh I decided on getting some breakfast, having had no food since yesterday evening. After a drive across country, in the most unlikely looking of places in the middle of rural North Yorkshire, I found a superb small cafe and soon was tucking in to a vegetarian breakfast and hot coffee.That was better and thoroughly resuscitated I set off for Glasgow in good spirits, some five hours drive away.

All went well and, meeting my family, we spent the evening chatting and catching up on my wife and daughter's previous couple of days, spent on the Isle of Arran. Back at our hotel  I consulted my RBA (Rare Bird Alert) app. My world promptly turned upside down as I read the following text. 

MEGA Cornwall GREY CATBIRD 1/2ml east of Lands End + north of A30 at Treeve Moor just north of Treeve Moor House briefly 3.55pm

A Grey Catbird is a North American species, native to most of temperate North America east of the Rockies which migrates to the southern USA, eastern Mexico, Central America south to Panama and the islands of The Caribbean in September and October, returning to breed in North America in May.

Hurricane Michael had well and truly delivered '
the big one'.

I tried to remain calm and informed my wife of the discovery of the Grey Catbird, only the second ever to be found on the mainland of Britain. The first had been on South Stack in Anglesey, Wales which stayed for two days on 4/5th October 2001 and had been a nightmare to see, as the species is a notorious skulker, and the Anglesey bird spent most of its brief stay hiding in gorse and was only seen for brief seconds by a lucky few before disappearing, never to be seen again.

Apart from the two records from mainland Britain there are only five acceptable records for western Europe.

An individual was shot on Helgoland, Germany on 28th October 1840

One was found on mainland Germany at Leopoldshagen in May 1908

One was feeding with House Sparrows on Jersey, Channel Islands in mid October 1975 and was caught and kept in captivity until at least December 1975

One was on Cape Clear Island, Co. Cork, Rep.of Ireland on 4th November 1986

One was found at La Mareta on Tenerife, Canary Islands on 1st November 1999

Another individual was discovered on the liner QE2 on 21st October 1998 when the ship docked at Southampton, having sailed from New York, but this record could not be accepted as it was deemed the bird had been 'ship assisted.'

Two immediate questions raced though my mind as I absorbed the implications of this latest arrival of a very rare bird to Britain. Would this Grey Catbird, currently in Cornwall, remain longer than the one in Anglesey and, if it did, would it still be there on Thursday, which was the first opportunity I would have to try and see it. I was hardly enthused as mega rarities are often gone in two or three days.

Despite my inner turmoil I remained philosophical and firmly committed to remain in Glasgow as my daughter and wife trump even the rarest of birds.

We were all due to go and see a Ry Cooder (older readers will know of him) concert on Tuesday evening in the Glasgow Concert Hall and then on Wednesday the plan was for my wife and myself to drive back to Oxfordshire. I sent a text to Justin suggesting we team up if  by some miracle of chance the catbird was still present on Wednesday. I would be home by Wednesday afternoon and we could drive down overnight to be in Land's End for first thing on Thursday, as Justin had no work commitments on Thursday 

We agreed on this plan. Anxiously I checked RBA on Tuesday to find the catbird was still at Land's End and photos of the little stunner started to appear on the internet and raise the tension even more. Justin then sent me a text saying he could not wait and was going to drive down to Cornwall on Wednesday afternoon.

I thought about this and an alternative plan formed in my mind that would require some very delicate negotiation and timing. Finding myself sitting in the pleasant ambience of the Glasgow Concert Hall on Tuesday evening with my wife, awaiting the arrival of our daughter, I broached the subject  of going to see the catbird.

Do you fancy going to Land's End tomorrow dear? I enquired.


Well, the Grey Catbird is still there and I would really like to see it.

'I have never been to Land's End' my wife informed me.

'Well there you are then, now is your opportunity.' I seized the moment

'Yes, but I have all my customers commissions to sort out and I need to get back to Oxfordshire as soon as possible' my wife countered.

A period of silence then ensued as my wife considered the options. I knew better than to say anything but then had a brainwave. 

'If you need to be back home tomorrow and do not want to go via Land's End, then why not go back to Oxford by train? I will pay for the ticket'.

Another period of silence ensued and to my utter relief and eternal gratitude my wife thought this would be acceptable.She booked a ticket online on Virgin from Glasgow to Oxford leaving from Glasgow Central Station at ten the next morning and informed me the ticket would cost me £87.00. Ouch, but the deal was done.

I in turn told her I would leave the hotel at around seven the next morning as I needed a good rest before embarking on the very long drive to Land's End.

The next morning I crept from the room and left Glasgow right on time.The Satnav informed me that, all being well, I would arrive at Land's End, eight and a half  hours later at 3.30pm. It seemed an eternity but it had to be done.

All went according to plan and schedule whilst driving south through Scotland and I crossed the border into England. Around Carlisle I checked my RBA app and it confirmed the Grey Catbird had been seen that morning. One major anxiety was thus removed from the epic gamble and adventure I was embarked on. I passed through the Fells at Shap before dropping down into Lancashire. It was then the problems commenced as I hit the rush hour traffic. Warning signs appeared informing me of major delays between Junctions 27-23 of the M6 around Wigan. One hour's delay was predicted.

My anxiety levels increased exponentially. Any time I had gained driving, up to now, were obliterated in the long tailback of traffic which thankfully just about kept moving but only at a snail's pace.Then I was free, only to encounter more delays around Manchester both from traffic volumes and the now customary 50 mph Average Speed Check which went on for mile after frustrating mile.

And so it carried on but, somehow, the Satnav still informed me, despite the various delays my arrival would be only slightly later at Land's End, now predicted between 3.45 and 4pm. This would give me around two hours to try and see the catbird. Not a lot of time for such a skulking and elusive bird to show itself. I had to hope I would be lucky.

Leaving the M6 at Birmingham I turned onto a much more free flowing M5 and was soon past the last potential bottleneck at Bristol and  heading inexorably westwards. Somerset and then Devon passed without incident and I entered Cornwall, and apart from the occasional slow moving tractor my passage was unhindered as I drove down the length of the county and arrived at Land's End around 3.30pm. Earlier than predicted.

After  some slight confusion I found, courtesy of a local lady, Treeve Common and the designated field in which to park the car. The field was provided by the kindly owner of the adjacent Treeve House, in return for a voluntary contribution in a bucket placed by the field's entrance. 

Treeve House

The field acting as a temporary car park by Treeve House
I could see a line of birders at the bottom of the field looking over a rough area of pasture beyond, with gorse, bramble and ivy growing over decrepit dry stone walls, forming uneven boundaries to two overgrown fields. This habitat was not dissimilar to the catbird's normal habitat in North America. I recognised the three small willows growing in a field dividing ditch, from photos I had seen on the internet, and in which the catbird had been seen to perch. On the other side of the willows was stood another line of birders. 

The three small clumps of willows much favoured by the Grey Catbird and the
bramble clumps in front of them. Home to the Grey Catbird

Birders on the opposite side of the rough field to me

Somewhere in between was the Grey Catbird.

I joined the ranks of birders at the bottom of the car park field and was told by a birder that the catbird had flown into the willows and I would get a better view of it, when and if it showed, by walking around Treeve House to join the line of birders in the other field on the far side of the willows.

I did just that, following a narrow twisting footpath and joined some twenty birders standing and looking at the willows, all of us silently willing the catbird to show itself but to no avail. Everyone conversed in whispers. Two Chough passed over and above us, calling, and a birder announced their presence in excited tones but no one turned to look. We were all totally focused on the willows where the catbird had been seen to fly earlier and disappear. No one wanted to miss it, as if it showed itself it would most likely be for just seconds. A Dunnock and a couple of European Stonechats flitted around the willows but there was no sign of the catbird. Justin called to tell me he had just arrived and I could see him, though my bins, standing in the line of birders on the opposite side of the rough pasture to me.

The wind was increasing and blowing in cold gusts from the northeast and after an hour and a half I was becoming more than a little anxious once again. High stakes indeed. Would I ever see the catbird? Surely it would show itself before the light went? In my anxiety I resolved to stay overnight if necessary but the prospect was not one that cheered me. I began to realise just how tired I was as the adrenalin fuelled previous ten hours began to subside into a vague memory

It was around five thirty when the birder standing next to me said 'There it is!' However, before he could give specific directions concerning the willow it had just hopped up into it promptly dropped down again and was gone. Other birders rushed to our end of the line but it was too late. Two seconds, if that, and it was gone. I missed it as did everyone else.

Optimistically someone said 'Well at least it's still here and  somewhere below the willows' but we all knew he was only vocalising the sense of despair and disappointment that was shared by all of us.It was heartbreaking, the worst feeling in the world, to miss by a second a bird I had been standing waiting to see for almost two hours, let alone after driving almost six hundred miles to see it. I looked longingly at the offending willow, willing the catbird to just hop back up into it but of course it did not happen.

Maybe ten or fifteen minutes passed and then I heard the catbird calling, a thin meowing sound, just like a kitten and giving rise to its name. The call was coming from somewhere at the base of the three willows and then a birder at the other end of the line found it perched in the left hand willow. During the previous two hours many more birders had arrived and consequently an inevitable, unseemly scrum ensued as everyone was desperate to see the elusive catbird. Familiar, anxiety racked words pierced the air, 'Where is it?' 'Can you give directions?'  

I could not see it with all the confusion of people jostling and shoving, standing in front of me, all consideration gone as anxiety took over from courtesy and reason. The man who found it was trying to get his grown up son onto it and kept giving garbled directions which we all tried to follow. Some got onto it others like me failed. His son, to the father's obvious frustration failed to see it too and in the end his father was almost shouting in his anxiety, 'Look at it, its obvious! It's just bloody sat there!' His son still failed to see it and the bird flew down again into obscurity. The son swore loudly, accused his father of giving hopeless directions and burst into tears of anger, frustration and despair. I knew how he felt as I was in the same position although managed better control of my highly charged emotions.

Despair. Frustration. Anger. The realisation that a golden opportunity had gone forever. A whole gamut of emotions passed through me in an instant.Would it now be another long wait? Would I ever see it?

A couple of minutes elapsed and the invisible catbird commenced calling once again and redemption came as it hopped up, now clearly visible in the middle willow of the three. 

Grey Catbird 
with grateful thanks to Lee Fuller
What a beauty and at last I was looking at a bird that had been on my mind for days. It was fairly large, almost Song Thrush in size and was, overall, a dark bluish grey, paler on the head from which stared a large dark eye and with a black skullcap on its crown. Its wings and tail were black and it perched on a thin branch of the tiny willow, switching its partially spread long tail  from side to side and flicking its wings. A small flash of chestnut showed from its undertail coverts and then it flew, fast and low across the field towards the opposite line of birders and dived into a big stand of blackthorn and bramble behind them. 

Gone but never to be forgotten.

Everyone relaxed, the tension dissipating on the wind. The man and his son regained their composure and we all sympathised with them as we too had all similarly endured the emotionally charged moments that had just passed.

I walked back and around Treeve House to join Justin on the other side and we shared our joy at seeing this so elusive and much coveted bird.We stood in the fading light as an orange sun sank in the west and then it was time to go.

It was another long drive back to Oxfordshire but it was buoyed by high spirits and a sense of satisfaction in knowing my run of bad luck had been emphatically and spectacularly ended, here in an unremarkable field at Land's End.

Thanks must be recorded to my wife for yet another supreme exhibition of understanding and tolerance.

However, now read on .........................

On Friday I awoke with a feeling of unfulfilment concerning the Grey Catbird. Yes, I had seen it, but for all of sixty seconds, no more, and no I had not managed to get my own photos of it which I always try to do to illustrate my blog. I felt something was lacking in my catbird experience and I felt the urge to do something about it.

A conversation with Badger, later in the day, informed me that Andy, a fellow Oxonbirder was thinking of driving down to see the catbird on Saturday. I sent Andy a text telling him if he wanted company I would be happy to come with him. This would work well for both of us as we could share the petrol costs and I would be saved from having to drive all the way to Cornwall and back again for a second time in the space of three days.

Andy sent a text that night saying he was up for it and we agreed to make a rendezvous at 5am on Saturday morning, outside his house in Oxford. A long drive ensued, initially on a night and fog shrouded Motorway that brought us into early morning sunshine around Bristol and from then on the day progressed into one of mild temperatures and a quintessential, beautiful, autumnal stillness as we headed for west Cornwall.

Paul, yet another Oxonbirder had also made a second trip to Treeve Moor, earlier in the night, to take his wife Vicky to see the catbird at first light and was already there. He sent us a text at around 7.30am to let us know the catbird was still in the brambles and small willows in its favoured field and our one big anxiety, that it might have departed overnight was instantly banished, and we drove on in some excitement and, let's face it, relief. Andy was going to see a lifer, almost definitely and I would have a chance for better views of the catbird and hopefully some photos.

Paul had mentioned that there were not a lot of people looking at the catbird but when we arrived at Treeve Moor at around 10am, it was to a very different situation. We found a field now crammed with cars, many more than two days ago when I had made my previous visit. I suppose being a Saturday I should not have been surprised but I was slightly taken aback by the sheer numbers of cars and birders.

Crowd scenes
In double quick time we got ourselves and all our birding equipment together and armed with the knowledge from my previous visit I led the way down the path to the lower part of Treeve Moor, as this would put the sun at our back and was the best place to view the catbird if it popped up out of its hiding place in the brambles and willows. When we got to the designated area it was all too obvious that many other birders had the same idea and so we squeezed into any available space in a long line of birders standing behind telescopes and huge lenses mounted on massive tripods, all pointing at the nearby bank of brambles running across the rough pastureland, some metres in front of us.

The Grey Catbird commuted between the brambles in the
foreground and the large blackthorn clump on the horizon
I was prepared for a long wait, just like last time, but it was less than ten minutes before I heard the catbird calling, a grating wheezy call, somewhat different to the quieter 'meowing' calls it uttered two days ago. Seconds later it popped up near the top of the brambles and there it was, its grey head and chest, looking pale, almost silver in the morning's bright sun, with a black skullcap on its crown and prominent dark eyes in its plain grey face. 

It perched, neck craned, in full view and close. Andy had his lifer, and I had my second and much better view of this celebrated bird, viewed to an accompaniment of volleys of clicks from camera shutters. 

Andy scoping the Grey Catbird -a lifer!
The catbird stood on top of some bramble leaves looking around, as if in astonishment at discovering so many people, and after two minutes dropped back into the heart of the brambles and out of sight. 

We waited and the calls came again from a few metres further along and out it popped onto the top of the brambles once more, calling its distinctive alarm note. It was never visible for very long but  enough for all of us to enjoy it and take yet more images.

We stood quietly, conversing in whispers as we awaited the catbird's next appearance. At least I should say most of us managed to remain quiet, but there always seems to be someone who cannot. In this case it was one very trying Welsh gentleman who kept up a constant stream of verbal drivel much to my and others annoyance.It brought a whole new dimension to the phrase 'Welsh Rabbit.' But apart from him everyone behaved impeccably and thankfully he left after he was satisfied he had enough images and equanimity returned.

So time passed for the next two hours with the catbird, every so often, emerging from its hiding places in the dense, low growing brambles running alongside the ditch dividing two fields.  

The most memorable encounter for me was when the catbird found a sheltered spot in the sun and perched low down on a fence wire in the lee of a bramble clump and settled for at least five minutes on the wire, fully in the open, and fluffed its feathers up in contentment as it sat in the warm sun. Brilliant. I could not ask for more.

Watching its behaviour I saw it was feasting on blackberries and various other berries from the different shrubs growing amongst the brambles, and would dive into and contort itself in the vegetation hunting for that one particular berry to gobble down. Its diet is said to be fifty percent berries and fruit but it is an omnivore, also consuming earthworms, beetles. spiders, ants and other invertebrates when the opportunity arises.

It spent most of its time in the brambles near us but towards noon it flew across the fields to a dense and large bank of blackthorn and bramble on the far side where we watched it displaying the same behaviour but this time we watched through our scopes rather than cameras.

The opportunities to see it perched in the open on a number of occasions allowed me to study it in a bit more detail. I noted its black bill was relatively thin and not as substantial as, for instance, a Blackbird's. Its prominent dark eyes were not black as I at first thought but seen in the sunlight were dark brown while its undertail coverts were the chestnut hue of Horse Chestnut 'conkers'. Its tail was black and the feathers quite broad, whilst its wing feathers were browner in tone.When it called it was usually invisible but the calls seemed to pressage its pending appearance, perched at the top of the brambles in the open, and the calls today were different to the thinner and quieter 'meowing' notes of two day's ago. I wondered if the calls today, stronger and more grating were expressing mild anxiety at the presence of so many more birders than two days ago. Although it was virtually exclusively eating berries at those times when I could observe it, on one occasion the catbird did catch a small flying insect which it snatched from the air, flying up from where it was perched. 

We had arrived at Treeve Moor around 10am and for two hours the Grey Catbird put on a bravura performance for such a normally retiring bird that loves deep cover and concealment. Not today, however, as it showed itself regularly to the delight of one and all.

We left the catbird at around twelve noon and went to nearby St Buryan to restore some energy with a pasty and coffee from the local farm shop and then we did some general birding around Porthgwarra, meeting friends from both Oxfordshire and Sussex and finding a couple of Yellow browed Warblers and a Black Redstart.

We decided on one more visit to the Grey Catbird later in the afternoon and the last I saw of it was as it perched, relaxed on top of some blackthorn twigs, sitting in almost contemplative fashion looking across the fields as it became silhouetted against an afternoon sun that was turning the sky from blue to gold.

Today I really felt I had done the Grey Catbird justice.