Tuesday 28 July 2020

Rose tinted Optics at East Challow 28th July 2020

News came through late yesterday of an adult Rose-coloured Starling being seen in the Oxfordshire village of East Challow, which lies in the south of the county and close to the Berkshire border. This spring and summer has seen a major influx of adult Rose-coloured Starlings into western Europe. A pair have even bred in France for the first time ever, whilst a good number have managed to reach Britain, birds being found from Shetland in the far north of Scotland to Dorset on the south coast of England.

Rose-coloured Starlings or Rosy Starlings to give them their other name, come, as their exotic plumage would suggest, from sunnier climes in southeast Europe and central Asia and normally spend the winter in India and tropical parts of Asia. An adult Rose-coloured Starling is a very handsome bird indeed, its plumage showing a pleasing contrast of glossy black feathers on head, wings and tail with deep pink feathering on the rest of the body. 

The cause of this latest irruption is probably an abundance of the starling's principal food of grasshoppers and locusts which stimulates the starlings to expand from their normal range. Those individual Rose-coloured Starlings that reach our shores can turn up literally anywhere and being gregarious, often favour back gardens on housing estates, being attracted there by the large numbers of Common Starlings which also visit the gardens to feed on food put out for them and other birds.

Such is the situation at East Challow, with the starling only intermittently showing itself when it flies up with other starlings onto the adjacent roof to whatever garden it has been feeding in. Justin, another Oxonbirder colleague, had reported it early this morning, managing to get a view of the starling on a rooftop at just after 6.30am, so I knew it was still around. 

With little else on my personal agenda today and with East Challow only some thirty minutes from my home, it was too tempting an opportunity to resist and so I made my way across the pleasant Oxfordshire countryside to East Challow, on a windy but obligingly sunny morning.

I parked my car in Hedge Hill Road and joined Peter, Colin and Paul to survey the roofs of the surrounding houses. They had been here for a while but had not yet seen the starling although there were plenty of Common Starlings flying hither and thither, in small flocks, over the village rooftops or perching in the highest tree available.

We wandered around the village looking at every starling we could see flying over, perched in trees  or lined up on roofs and chimney stacks but they were all a mixture of adult and juvenile Common Starlings. In the end it seemed logical to remain at the spot where the starling had been first seen yesterday rather than forever tramp around the roads, endlessly looking at rooftops.

We made our way back from the village hall to nearby Hedge Hill Road and stood on the pavement and waited. A lady came out of her house opposite and told us that it was her that first alerted everyone to the presence of the starling and she had seen it in her back garden on a number of occasions yesterday, feeding on fat balls she put out for the birds. This convinced me that this would be a good place to wait for the starling to appear.

Conor, Colin and Peter in Field Gardens just after the
Rose-coloured Starling had flown off

Looking back down Field Gardens to Hedge
Hill Road at the bottom

The rooftop where we saw the Rose-coloured
We split up and surrounded the general area around the lady's house and neighbouring properties and waited. Plenty of Common Starlings would regularly fly up onto the roof of her house and next door's but still there was no sign of our target bird. Colin and Paul were standing on the corner where another road, Field Gardens ran off Hedge Hill Road, just fifty metres from myself and Peter, so we had both sides of the house roofs covered. A good number of Common Starlings came and went on the rooftops and then, after about twenty minutes of anticipation, Paul and Colin located the Rose coloured Starling as it flew up from the lady's garden, to perch on the apex of the roof.

Alerted by the others I ran the few metres to Field Gardens and there was the Rose-coloured Starling perched on the roof, slightly apart from some Common Starlings. It appeared unconcerned and even stood on one leg, a sure sign of being relaxed. My main worry was that it would quickly fly off but it stayed on the roof  for a full five minutes before flying with the other starlings, across the road to a distant birch tree just beyond the houses and remained there for a brief spell before flying again and was lost to view behind the roofs and trees.

We waited to see if it would come back but there was no sign. Various curious residents came to ask us what we were looking for and it was very friendly and civilized as they all, without fail showed interest. One lady told us it had been present for a number of days. I always feel very self conscious birding in housing estates, surrounded by people's homes and using high powered optics to look at the houses and gardens but, as is usual in these situations, no-one objected to our presence and could not have been more welcoming.

The long wait for the starling's return continued and slowly our number increased to around a dozen, all of us 'local' birders.

We only saw the elusive bird once more and then but very briefly as it flew past us and over the roofs and was lost to view once again. We waited in vain for it to return and Colin eventually departed to look for Quails on nearby Crog Hill, while Paul and Peter gave it another ten minutes before they too departed. I waited a little longer but gave it up at 1145 and made my way back to my car. 

This is the third Rose-coloured Starling I have been fortunate to see in Oxfordshire.The first was a juvenile at Forest Hill in November 2009. This bird being the first of its kind to be seen in Oxfordshire since 1871! Then a second individual, an adult this time, appeared in a back garden in Botley on the outskirts of Oxford, in January 2019 and was virtually unviewable as it mainly fed on fallen apples in the inaccessible garden and now here was a third, a lovely summer plumaged adult, frustratingly elusive but well worth the effort to see, if and when it flew up onto a roof or tree!

With the sighting of this bird I have now seen eleven Rose coloured Starlings in Britain

Here they are.

Pendeen Cornwall 2008 a juvenile

Forest Green Oxfordshire 2009/10 a juvenile

Newhaven Cliffs East Sussex 2010 an adult feeding on blackberries

Wells next Sea Norfolk 2013 an adult male on a bird table

Hordle Devon 2013 an adult

Crawley West Sussex 2017/18 a juvenile moulting into adult plumage

Botley Oxfordshire 2019 an adult feeding on apples

Lerwick Shetland 2018 an adult

Weymouth Dorset 2020 an adult feeding on cherries

Collingham Yorkshire 2020 an adult also feeding on cherries

East Challow Oxfordshire 2020 an adult

Wednesday 22 July 2020

The Return 21st July 2020

It was as recently as mid May this year that I found three Turnstone's on the concrete shore of Farmoor's central causeway. They were on their way north, dressed in an attractive finery of black, white and chestnut brown breeding plumage.

Today, two months later, I found a returning Turnstone, an adult, at Farmoor, feeding quietly along the gently lapping water's edge and, as often is the way with waders here, showing little concern about my or anyone else's presence. I paused to think on its journey. Where had it been? Where was it going? What distant land had it taken off from? The long flight from where it went to breed in north east Canada, Greenland, Arctic Siberia or maybe closer in Fenno Scandia bringing it once more to our shores, to spend the rest of the year on the coast of western Europe including Britain or further south in North Africa.

Its early return indicated it was either a failed breeding bird or probably a female judging by its plumage, as they are known to depart early from their breeding areas and leave their young to be tended by the male, until they too are ready to fly southwards, the males leaving with the fledged young from August to early September. The breeding season is very short in the far northern parts of the world, a window of no more than eight to ten weeks to find a mate, lay eggs and raise young.

The Turnstone was already in moult, some of its summer scapular feathers replaced by the dark brown feathers that form its winter plumage with just a few bright chestnut feathers retained, a reminder of summer.

It fed at the edge of the water, finding globs of soft weed into which it inserted its bill, turning the weed over by upward thrusts of its stubby black bill. I noted the sturdiness of its short orange legs, that remain the same colour year round. The thick legs doubtless impart to the bird the strength to brace its body while it overturns seaweed and stones in its search for prey hidden beneath.

It diverted to run up the concrete shelving to seize an earwig, no opportunity to refuel its depleted energy reserves was ignored.

I left it to its meanderings as a procession of human visitors on the causeway walked past, unaware unheeding, maybe uninterested in this remarkable world traveller, that today brought the wonder of migration to Farmoor Reservoir.

Sunday 19 July 2020

Spot the Fly 18th July 2020

Near to my home is a tiny hamlet, tucked in a dip where the road levels out as it wends its way down and across the undulating contours of rural Oxfordshire. The hamlet, consisting of no more than three or four huge houses, now the homes of very rich people, and a classic tiny church, are all spaced loosely around a small green. It is the quintessential rural location, the kind beloved by period TV dramas, a perfect image to put on the lid of an old fashioned biscuit tin and if Miss Marple appeared riding her bike along the lane you would not be surprised.

Today I went there in search of Spotted Flycatchers. They have returned here every year despite the species having experienced a drastic decline in Britain. Their continued presence is another reason to feel one is retreating back in time, as formerly they were to be found in virtually every rural village, churchyard and area of open parkland, a common but welcome summer visitor, their unobtrusive presence taken for granted.

Sadly that is no more, as they are now hard to find and no one is quite sure why they have declined so drastically. Possibly it is the catastrophic fall in insect numbers as we deny nature and spray our crops, even our own gardens with herbicides and insecticides, unwilling to acknowledge we are contributing to our ultimate downfall. 

I parked my car underneath a huge horse chestnut tree on the edge of the small green  and walked a few metres up a narrow lane that runs between a huge house with massive trees in its walled garden and the picturesque church. From past experience I knew this was the best place to look for the pair of Spotted Flycatchers that annually arrive to occupy these pleasant surroundings. I had already seen them here earlier this year, in late spring, flycatching from telephone wires and the outbuildings of the big house.

Today I wondered at what stage of their breeding cycle they might be. At this time of year I would anticipate them to have a second nest and possibly young but would not know until I found them. I stood alongside the wall running beside the small churchyard and looked up to the high trees in the walled garden opposite, their canopy high above me. I could hear a flycatcher calling its unremarkable seeeiip seeeiip note but where was it? I looked higher in the branches of the nearest tree and there it was, perched on a lichen encrusted branch doing, well, not very much. It remained almost motionless for a long period, not even showing interest in any passing insect and then with a flick of its wings it was gone, vanishing into a mass of leaves and branches. 

It was, refreshingly, as easy and as sudden as that to find one. However I was no wiser as to what stage they were in their breeding cycle but assumed, as the flycatcher was showing little urgency in catching flies, it did not have young.

I waited for quite some time but there was no further sign of any flycatcher. Time took a back seat. No one came down the lane and no one went up it. I was alone with my thoughts. Then above me the flycatcher suddenly sailed out of the tall trees and chased an insect at high speed. Swooping across the lane it settled in an apple tree in the garden of the house adjacent to the church.

Here it actively hunted flies for minutes on end. flying out in a dodging, darting flight to seize an insect and then return to the same perch. Eventually it started to collect insects in its bill rather than swallow them.  

So now I knew it had young and stood watching as it collected more insects, each insect being caught with a swooping flight of supreme grace, speed and agility before making a return to its original perch to resume its surveillance, a paragon of attentiveness and alertness, all bright eyes and nervous flicks of its wings, its head in constant movement, watching for suitable flying prey.

With another beakful of insect prey it flew, low and fast from the apple tree, crossing the church yard and disappeared into the tall trees beyond and beside which ran a small stream. I lost sight of it but soon it returned with beak now empty. So its nest must be over there in the trees, possibly hidden in the ivy that embraced the vast tree trunks. I walked a little way up the lane and could see another or was it the same flycatcher perched on the railings that formed the boundary between the churchyard and the manicured lawns of another large house. 

It hunted flies energetically from the railings. sallying out low to catch a passing insect, sometimes dropping to the ground to seize an insect in the short grass. Once it had collected another beakful it flew to a small tree by the stream. I lost sight of it once again and resolved  to make my way closer and wait.

The flycatcher returned to the railings and commenced to hunt for flies once more. Again it collected a beakful and  flew towards the same small tree as before. I looked to where it landed on a bare branch and now saw two flycatchers, the adult and a fledged youngster waiting to be fed, which the adult duly did, thrusting its bill deep into the juvenile's yellow gape. 

Juvenile Spotted Flycatcher

Adult and juvenile Spotted Flycatchers
The plumage of the young bird explained exactly why they are called Spotted Flycatchers, for in complete contrast to the adult, which is plain brown above and dull white below with just a few brown streaks on forehead and breast the juvenile showed conspicuous buff and white spotting all over its greyish brown upperparts and irregular brown spots on its white underparts.

The juvenile moved position into some taller trees running parallel with the churchyard railings. Both adults were now hunting insects from the railings and for a brief time the juvenile joined them on the railings, begging for food but obviously felt exposed away from the cover of the trees and retreated to them whilst the adults continued to hunt insects to feed it.

The juveniles soon moult from this, their first plumage and adopt an appearance very similar to the adult, preparatory to undertaking their long and hazardous migration to southern Africa. I have seen them in Tanzania in early March where they all undergo a moult before setting off northwards for Europe to breed.They are one of our latest summer migrants to arrive, usually in mid May or even early June

Moulting Spotted Flycatcher in Tanzania
I stood under the tall trees entirely alone, as the flycatchers slowly followed the line of trees and became more distant. I was untroubled by the presence of anyone, just as I had been for the last ninety minutes.

My mind rewound to memories of when I lived in what was then a rural part of Surrey and I would wander the parkland and woods near my home and Spotted Flycatchers seemed to be everywhere. It was not unusual in those days to find four or five pairs nesting in just a few hectares of open woodland and old farm buildings. A melancholy came over me as I contemplated this pair of now scarce Spotted Flycatchers going about their lives unaware of the fact that as a species they are so diminished and in a reverie I revisited those supposedly happy days when the world seemed a much better and safer place.

In those long past times I possessed the innocence of youth and I now can but regret its loss.

Maybe things will get better in the years to come for the Spotted Flycatchers and indeed for all of us but there again ............

Thursday 16 July 2020

A Trip to The Caspian 15th July 2020

Mark and myself, both now recovered, well almost, from our exertions in going to see the Lammergeier  in the wilds of Derbyshire and not wanting to spend any more time than necessary indoors, agreed on another day out birding. Somewhere, anywhere and that did not involve anymore heroics on the physical front.

We agreed to meet up on Wednesday and not overtax ourselves, so set a comparatively late meeting time of 10am for our rendezvous at Little Paxton in Cambridgeshire.

I was tempted by a Large Tortoiseshell butterfly that was currently ensconced in a cherry tree by the visitor centre at the RSPB's Strumpshaw Fen reserve in Norfolk but there was also the equally desirable prospect of seeing a Caspian Tern at the RSPB's estimable reserve at Frampton Marsh in Lincolnshire.

The Caspian Tern has been on the reserve since the 11th of July but of late has absented itself from the reserve for long periods so it was a bit of a lottery if we decided on going for the tern. Between us we decided to make a snap decision on the day,  depending on news of the tern and butterfly respectively,

Today was grey, depressingly dull and light rain came in short bursts to add to the misery as I wound a dreary course  across country to Little Paxton. I arrived before Mark and checked my RBA app while waiting for him to arrive.To my surprise, considering the acute lack of sunshine, the butterfly was still visible in its tree at Strumpshaw this morning but the Caspian Tern was also currently on show at Frampton Marsh.

Mark arrived and I gave him the news. Bird or butterfly? A mild dilemna confronted us but then we mutually agreed that as the tern was present this morning, and nearer, it took precedence and so we set off for the hour's drive to Frampton.

We arrived at just before noon to find the car park almost full of cars but very few people in evidence. I assumed the cars belonged to birders come to see the tern but this was obviously not the case as the reserve was pretty much deserted. During all the time we were there, we could have seen no more than a dozen people on the reserve. All the hides apart from the Reedbed Hide were closed, including the Three Sixty Hide, the best one for viewing wading birds  and the tiny visitor centre was also closed, guarded by a friendly volunteer warden who told us that the tern had only recently flown off. However he said it would likely return in a couple of hours as that is what it had been doing recently. We chatted to the warden for a while and he told us that there were also seven Spoonbills on the reserve as well as a good number of wader species, including a Curlew Sandpiper and a Little Stint, both in summer plumage. We could look for these while waiting for the tern to re-appear.

Caspian Terns are rare vagrants to Britain but are almost annual in their appearances.They have a cosmopolitan range being found on all five continents but in Europe they breed mainly on the Black Sea coasts of Romania and Russia and on the Baltic coasts of Finland and Sweden  which is the likely origin of the bird now at Frampton. Birds from the Baltic spend the winter in West Africa and some around the Mediterranean.

Mark forgot something from the car and while he was away the warden looked out to the scrapes beyond the visitor centre and announced the Caspian Tern was back! I called to Mark and we made our way to a viewing mound that was situated a short way up the main path and there was the Caspian Tern, quite distant, out on the lagoon, resting on a spit of mud in the company of some gulls and shelduck.

They are a brutish looking bird, almost Herring Gull sized, their bulk not quite negating an impression of typical tern elegance.The most notable feature apart from its sheer size was an enormous bright red bill, not only long but deep laterally, a bill that perfectly matched the tern's impressive stature. Its plumage was typical of a tern with pearl grey plumage above and white below and being in breeding plumage it sported a large black cap to match its black legs and feet.

As if to further emphasise its bulk a Common Tern landed beside it and was dwarfed in comparison, looking more akin to a Little Tern when seen alongside its giant relative.

Caspian Tern and Common Tern
Soft rain came on the wind and the visibility decreased markedly. I wandered further along the path and found a Little Egret and a lovely summer plumaged Black tailed Godwit, both feeding close to each other in a reedy cul de sac of water behind the main lagoon. 

Black tailed Godwit

Little Egret
Further out were massed and huddled ranks of dozing waders, mainly Black tailed Godwits but with Bar tailed Godwits and Knot also asleep amongst them while a few Common Redshank and Dunlin threaded their way amongst the long legs of the godwits. Most of the godwits were still in their breeding plumage, bodies showing varying shades of rich orange brown, supremely elegant, their long legs and equally long bill giving them a grace denied the smaller waders, that busily fussed around and amongst them. Some of the godwits were wading belly deep in the water feeding, thrusting their long bills up to the hilt in a rapid stabbing motion, probing the mud below the shallow water of the lagoon. When they found an item of prey they would raise their head and bill clear of the water and with a couple of jerks move the item from bill tip to throat in a rapid motion before resuming their energetic thrusting of bills into the water and mud. A characteristic and distinctive behaviour.

The Caspian Tern did not remain for long on its muddy spit and rose into the air. We could but hope it was not going to depart to the nearby Wash or even further afield and thankfully for us it had its eye on another location on the reserve, flying to settle on the far side of the lagoon amongst a small flock of Black headed Gulls standing in the shallow water. We could see it was now close to the track that encircles the reserve so made a long walk to where we would be near the tern and conveniently there was another viewing mound right opposite. It could not have been better placed.

This was much better as we were now closer to the tern. it looked settled and soon was fast asleep amongst the gulls. The Black headed Gulls were a mixture of adults and recently fledged brown and white juveniles. The adults sensibly gave the Caspian room but the juvenile gulls still had much to learn and as is the way with adolescents showed little sense of awareness or respect towards the tern. Consequently they often, inadvertently, invaded the tern's personal space to be met with that formidable bill held wide open threatening them. I could hear no sound made by the tern but the open bill threat seemed to be sufficient to deter any closer approach by a young gull, which confronted by the tern's silent warning would rapidly move away.

It had to happen, when on one occasion a juvenile gull did not heed the warning and this resulted in the Caspian lunging at it with wings outspread and bill wide open.There could be only one outcome and the delinquent gull departed in haste, lesson learned.

For the most part the tern slept but then waded into slightly deeper water to bathe and preen, It briefly flew around once and then settled with the gulls to resume its slumbers, as yet another rain squall arrived. Watching it for such an extended period allowed me to work out that this individual was not quite adult but in its second summer. Although superficially looking like an adult it had some primary coverts that were dark grey giving that area of the wing a slightly irregular mottled appearance.The outer primaries were dark, contrasting with the pale grey inner ones.The tail also had grey in the outer tail feathers and the bill had a fairly exensive black tip, all of which are signs of immaturity.

Caspian Tern in flight showing the contrasting primary feathers, the mottled grey primary coverts,.grey in the tail and large dark tip to the bill - all pointing to it being a second summer bird
I put the camera down and scoped the lagoon as the tern slept, finding a distant summer plumaged Little Stint on the scrape, running amongst a forest of godwit legs and beyond, by a bank of reeds, a Green Sandpiper and a Greenshank while Avocets sideswiped the waters for food with their recurved bills.

Mark wanted to remain to see what the Caspian Tern would do if it woke up whilst I was keen to try and find the Curlew Sandpiper so we agreed to meet back at the visitor centre. I left the viewpoint to walk back to the centre and on the way I passed the only hide that was open, the Reedbed Hide. There was no one in it so I sat on a bench and looked out across the lagoon. There was nothing much to see apart from a few moulting ducks and a Mute Swan with three large young but then six Spoonbills, a mixture of juveniles and adults, swept in, circling around and granting me a superb flypast before landing on a small islet in front of the hide. They look so outlandish in flight, the enormous spatulate bill thrust out on a long neck and black legs stuck out beyond the tail. The bird in flight profile a series of curves and undulations.

Juvenile Spoonbill told by the black tips to its wing feathers

Adult Spoonbill
They soon settled to feed together in the shallows, sweeping their bills through the water in broad arcs. It has been a while since I have seen Spoonbills so well, so I made the most of it and then walked back to the centre where I was joined by Mark. We debated whether to bird the seaward side of the reserve as there had been reports of a Wood Sandpiper and Black necked Grebes  but it was now three in the afternoon and there was another rain squall in the offing.

We decided that there was little point in staying longer as the Wood Sandpiper had disappeared and so a truly rewarding and spiritually uplifting day came to a close.