Tuesday 30 November 2021

Little Auk in Oxfordshire 30th November 2021

I was sitting in the Mill Cafe in Chipping Norton with a coffee when my phone rang.It was my good friend Badger.

Hi Buddy.Where are you?

In Chipping Norton.Why do you ask

There is a report of a Little Auk seen on the River Thames at Farmoor Reservoir today. 

Badger like many others assumes, quite rightly, that I spend more time than is sensible tramping the concrete wastes of Oxfordshire's largest body of standing water. Sadly, this time I was nowhere near so someone else would have to check out this sensational news.

Apparently the initial report was from an 'out of county' birder from Swindon in Wiltshire or thereabouts and the images he took looked pretty convincing. It could be a hoax of course .Such things do and have occurred but no one would be sure until a local birder went to check.

Unable to go I sat frustrated, awaiting further news which would surely come out pretty quickly if there were any other local birders already at Farmoor.

Ten minutes later it was confirmed there was indeed a Little Auk, currently swimming about at Pinkhill Lock which lies on the River Thames, just below the reservoir's northern boundary 

It was instant decision time. There was no time to lose as it was now 2pm and it would be dark in a couple of hours. I left the cafe and made as fast a drive as was safe on the country lanes back to my house.Grabbing camera and bins I shouted some sort of explanation to my wife as I bolted out of the door, leapt into the car and headed for Farmoor.

At this time of day traffic was thankfully light and I made good time, coming to a halt in Farmoor Village which lies at the back of the reservoir and via an alleyway grants the quickest access to Pinkhill Lock. I noted that the normally quiet road was more heavily populated with cars than is normal and some of which I recognised. Obviously quite a few of my fellow Oxonbirders had already arrived.

Following the path I soon saw a 'crowd' of fifteen or so 'locals' lined up on the bank of the Thames and making my way through Oxfordshire's finest, joined my fellow birders on the river's bank.

The river is not hugely wide here and roughly in the middle was a diminutive black and white auk, a Little Auk, sunk low in the water, frantically swimming about, back and fore, in mid river

It was ceaselessly active and to my mind looked distressed and confused, swimming along one particular stretch of river from towpath to the lock. Constantly paddling, it swam back and fore, never once diving or looking like it was going to feed. It was worrying and tiring in equal measure to watch the auk, its behaviour of manically swimming up and down the river in marked contrast to the leisurely feeding of the Little Auk I went to see in Weymouth recently.

To my eyes there was something not quite right about it, possibly it was slighty oiled and at times it became ever so slighty lopsided towards its left side.But it remained active enough and flapped its tiny wings on occasions and even skittered across the water as if it wanted to fly off but these attempts always came to nothing. 

Possibly it was too exhausted to fly but it could till swim rapidly and eventually with a trail of admirers following it, arrived at the closed lock gates where it could go no further. Here it came very close indeed, literally feet from me and then attempted to leave the water, never a good sign, and stand on some flattened reeds. Noticeably unsteady on its feet whenever it flapped its wings and toppling back into the water, nevertheless it persisted in trying to perch but in the end  gave up and recommenced its frantic paddling.

I fear it will not survive and probably it will be found dead tomorrow, such is the usual fate of these waifs.It is a major rarity for Oxfordshire, unsurprising in a county about as far inland as one can get. I suppose one saving grace is that it did not choose to settle on the adjacent reservoir where it would rapidly fall victim to one of the large gulls that are found there. 

Little Auks usually spend their winter in the northern reaches of the Atlantic Ocean.The likelihood of this little bird ever making it back to the coast and the open sea unaided is virtually nil. I am delighted however to state the Little Auk was still alive the next day and by means of a fisherman's landing net was captured and taken to be released at Steart on the Somerset coast the same day. 

Birds of Oxfordshire (1992) edited by J.W.Brucker, A.G.Gosler and A.R. Heryet class this species as a rare straggler which has been recorded on fourteen occasions between 1950 and 1990 at various places in the county and occurring between October and February. Nine of the fourteen records were of dead or dying birds but two others were revived and released at sea. The three remaining reports, which were of fit and active birds, involved two single birds, one at Blenheim on 9th February 1983 and one at Farmoor on 23rd November 1988 and a remarkable record of three together at Hardwick Gravel Pit on 30th October 1983. On the 1st November 1996 two individuals were found in gardens after storms, one in Yarnton and the other in Abingdon. Although both were rescued and taken to the Sussex coast neither had sufficient strength to return to the wild and had to be rescued and taken to Brent Lodge Bird Hospital in Selsey where, sadly they died a few days later. A third healthy individual was found on Drayton Pit at Dorchester on 12th November 1996 and flew off. The only other record is of a bird found
at Shipton under Wychwood on 12th November 2007 which was returned to the coast at Portishead near Bristol.

Earlier records followed a similar pattern of frequency with an exceptional period in January 1895 when no fewer than five were picked up from various locations in the county.

The last Little Auk to be recorded in Oxfordshire was a bird found in a puddle at Chipping Norton on 22nd December 2015.It appeared to have a broken wing and subsequently died.

A Snowflake on Cleeve Hill 29th November 2021

Snow fell on Saturday, turning the countryside around my home to an all enveloping white as if something or someone had thrown a newly laundered sheet across the land, muting the rich tints of autumn that have made these last few weeks so colourful. It was also freezing which meant the snow remained into today.

Monday was the first opportunity I had to travel to see a Snow Bunting or, to give it its older vernacular name, Snowflake, that had chosen to spend some time around a dewpond at the very top of Cleeve Hill, which lies near to the town of Cheltenham in Gloucestershire. It had been there for well over a week and appeared to be having no trouble coping with the recent arrival of snow and freezing temperatures. I suppose that is to be expected of a bird that breeds in Arctic Canada and Greenland, further north than any other passerine bird on this planet and which often returns to its breeding grounds when they are still snowbound.

Snow Buntings are, without exaggeration amazingly hardy birds.They nest in some of the most desolate and cold areas of the world. and make extraordinary migrations. They have been recorded by Russian research stations, based on drifting ice, flying far out over the Arctic Ocean and one has been seen very near the North Pole itself, so a night or two on snowbound Cleeve Hill would hardly be any trouble to a Snowflake.

I set off with some trepidation from my home, on roads that remained icy and treacherous, crossing The Cotswolds, heading southwest. The hawthorns lining the deserted rural roads were relinquishing their berries to hundreds of Fieldfares and Redwings, yet to be weakened by the inclement weather and still retaining vigilence and energy enough to flee at the sound of my approaching car. The birds exploding from the bushes like seeds from a pod.

Cleeve Hill at 330m is the highest point in The Cotswolds and  consequently was still firmly in the icy, snow bound grip of this early onset of hard weather. I was more than a little concerned about getting my car stuck on the narrow lane leading up to the small car park at the summit of the hill. Discretion being the better part of valour I parked on an area of firm ground before the top where I felt I was less likely to become marooned. 

Walking up the final stretch of road, my boots slipping on ice, I reached the gate granting access to the hilltop and entered a world of white, the rolling contours of the snowbound land becoming at distance an unsure horizon, indivisible from the sky. 

The dewpond lay a couple of hundred metres out in the whiteness with the winter clad outlines of a few birders standing by the fence that encircled it. 

As I approached I could see the Snow Bunting shuffling on the ground, tossing snow over its shoulder with some vigour as it dug with a corn yellow bill, seeking the grass seeds below.

The tiny bird looked totally incongruous and out of place in this inhospitable habitat which every other bird shunned but it was obviously finding enough sustenance to feel no need to move on. Out here on the very top of the hill it was cold, any warmth from the hazy sunshine slowly reducing as broken grey cloud slid like a veil across the sky.

I joined the other birders and proceeded to add to the chorus of camera clicks recording the Snow Bunting's every move. I realised from the bird's plumage that this was the same confiding individual that I had travelled to see at nearby Prestbury earlier in the month (9th November). It had flown off that morning and never returned so the minor mystery of where it had gone was now resolved..

The bunting shuffled around for ten or so minutes on the ground but obviously replete it flew onto a wire and then hopped onto a snow capped wooden post where it spent some time eating the snow it perched on. 

Presumably with the dew pond frozen solid the snow it pecked at acted as a substitute for water. Its thirst satisfied it then sat in repose or preened for fifteen or so minutes, delving into feathers so fluffed against the cold it had become rotund, its eyes reduced to pinpricks of boot button black. A laconic series of wing stretches heralded a return to ground level and a resumption of the quest for sustenance.

There is not much more I can find to say about this lovely bird for fear of repeating myself.The time I spent in its company brought the usual sense of fulfilment and uplift of spirit and after an hour I was content to leave it at that.

Tuesday 23 November 2021

Red Kites 23rd November 2021

Following my visit to Weymouth to see a Little Auk yesterday I felt the need to go somewhere that was quieter and less frenetic.Somewhere to be on my own and not in a busy crowded place.

Fortunately there is such a place near my home and this afternoon, in glorious sunshine I went to watch the Red Kites that gather every afternoon, waiting to be fed by a kind person who puts out food for them every day.

It is a little known area of woods and fields, unpublicised and consequently I am always on my own. Just me and the kites on a rural road betwixt and between.

When the world seems unbearable I find solace in this quiet place watching the kites circling, endlessly circling, diving and swooping in an  aerial ballet, forever graceful, their insistent whistling ringing through the cold air