Saturday 16 March 2024

Spring has almost Sprung 14th March 2024


Today I took myself to Greenham Common in the neighbouring county of Berkshire on a cold, blustery morning that had promised sunshine but instead delivered grey clouds and a hint of rain in the wind.

It was notably unpleasant on the exposed, gorse covered former runway of what used to be an enormous nuclear airbase but has been transformed into an equally enormous (BBOWT) Berks, Bucks and Oxon Wildlife Trust reserve and amen to that. The weather had put paid to any chance of encountering the Dartford Warblers that reside here, the tiny birds well and truly hidden away from the wind and cold in the dense gorse and unlikely to emerge. 

However all was not lost as the melancholy notes of Woodlarks came from the leaden skies above me, the birds often invisible in a vastness of sky, their song seeming to ebb and flow on the wind. A song said to be one of the most beautiful and haunting of any of our native birds, a series of wistful liquid notes with a downward lilt. 

There were at least three males singing, all relatively close to where I stood and it was my good fortune to find one of these ethereal songsters in my binoculars, as it cruised  overhead. Following its progress I watched as it sank lower and lower whilst still producing its beautiful song. It came to rest on the ground and after a brief stationery moment to check all was well commenced to feed on the short grass.




From past experience I know Woodlarks can be relatively trusting so it was with some confidence I approached it closely, aided by judicious use of the cover provided by the prolific gorse.


The Woodlark fed quietly, occasionally singing but after a few minutes rose from the grass to once more commence singing in the sky.

My phone pinged, signalling an alert from Jason, who runs the Oxon Birding WhatsApp Group, about a Black necked Grebe being found early this morning at Thrupp Lake which is a nature reserve and was formerly part of the Radley Gravel Pit complex near Abingdon.

Now I was presented with a dilemna. Do I stop here on the common with the admittedly faint hope of finding an elusive Dartford Warbler or should I go back up the A34 to Radley some thirty minutes drive north? It was a no brainer really and a blast of cold wind at this critical moment proved decisive in convincing me to depart poste haste for Radley.

Thirty minutes later I got to Radley. My phone rang. It was Peter telling me he was already here and looking at the grebe.

I told him I would be with him in a couple of minutes once I had left the car in the parking area. I walked a hundred metres along the track beside the lake to find Peter watching the grebe in his scope.

Black necked Grebes in breeding plumage are immensely attractive and this particular individual was almost in full breeding dress, just a scattering of winter's grey and white plumage remained on its black neck and breast and on its chestnut flanks


I expected the grebe to be far out in the middle of the lake so was agreeably surprised to find it was relatively close in to the side of the lake we were standing by. The trees growing on the bank helped to disguise our profiles and through gaps in the branches we got some photos as the grebe swam back and fore- looking a little lost and uncertain about its transient home.



We watched it for twenty minutes then lost sight of it only to find it had made its way, unseen by us to the further side of the lake where it was trying to join a small group of Tufted Ducks. 

A female Goosander was both a pleasant and surprising addition to the birds on the lake and a pair of Oystercatchers, now almost commonplace in this part of the county flew around calling loudly.They will probably breed somewhere on the adjacent gravel pits.

Common Chiffchaffs were singing in the willows whose furry buds are now turning from silver to golden yellow and pairing Black headed Gulls enlivened the scene with their posturing and endless bickering. Spring is not just manifested by signs of growth but sound as well.

After the earlier disappointment at Greenham Common I felt much enthused with the successful sighting of the Black necked Grebe. 

In fact it called for a mild celebration and I knew just the place to indulge in nearby Kennington.

The place I had in mind is called Proof. It is a social enterprise bakery which as its name implies employs prisoners and prison leavers who produce the most wonderful selection of artisan cakes, sour dough bread and pastries.It is a great idea and apparently is highly successful in re-integrating offenders back into society and preventing them re-offending- so it is a win all round.

Proof is open to the public from Thursday to Sunday so I was fortunate that today was Thursday. 

What better way to end my morning than to sit watching the staff baking whilst drinking a coffee and  scoffing one of their, as they like to say, criminally good doughnuts. 

Apricot Jam Doughnut



Thursday 7 March 2024

A Date with Myrtle 5th March 2024

Until today I have been able to reflect on the pleasure of having seen three Myrtle Warblers in Britain or as they are now alternatively called, Yellow rumped Warblers. They are a small bird from North America and not native to here so obviously are very rare ( this bird at Kilwinning is only the 28th to be found in Britain) and the arrival of one on these shores is inevitably of much interest to birders such as myself.

My first one was a wintering bird at High Shincliffe in Co Durham during February 2014see here, followed eighteen years later by my seeing two within a mile of each other on Shetland during early October 2022see here

The latest report of another, frequenting a very small and unremarkable garden at Kilwinning in Ayrshire for the last two weeks was, in the light of my having already seen three, hardly going to find me rushing to see it.

In fact precisely the opposite as Kilwinning, situated to the southwest of Glasgow, is about six hours drive from Oxfordshire  and frankly I was not willing to endure the effort of a long tedious overnight drive north to Kilwinning, especially having seen the two on Shetland so well.

I did discuss its remarkable discovery with Mark my longstanding twitching pal who has recently moved to North Yorkshire but he was similarly unenthusiastic so we left it there and contented ourselves with keeping an eye on the daily reports of the warbler's continued presence in its unlikely garden home.

Just as with this January's discovery in Essex of another American warbler, a Northern Waterthrush see here  many rushed to see this Myrtle Warbler during its first days in the garden, which resulted in a predictably unsatisfactory outcome as a large number of people  tried to fit into a very small garden with limited viewing  but as the days passed and more and more people saw it the numbers visiting dwindled until there was sometimes only one or two birders in the garden.

Justin, another birding pal and not averse to a twitch when possible and with whom I have shared a number of memorable such escapades called me last week on another matter and in passing mentioned he was minded to go for the warbler as the last one he had seen was almost thirty years ago. He told me he could not go until Tuesday of next week due to work and family commitments.

This prompted me to suggest that if he wanted company I would be happy to come along for the ride.Well why not?  A chance to see a rare American bird and to visit Scotland, my ancestral home, was too good an opportunity to pass on. We agreed to leave any firm decision until the following week and if the warbler was still being reported on Monday the 4th, drive overnight to arrive at Kilwinning around 7am on Tuesday. Due to Justin's domestic and work commitments we would have to leave Kilwinning at around 11am and drive back to Oxfordshire that same morning with a planned arrival back at Justin's house at 5pm

Monday came  and a text from Justin appeared on my phone.

'Trip on'

The warbler was still there and I would drive to Justin's house at 1am on Tuesday morning.

So it was that at midnight I left home and drove down various of Oxfordshire's rural lanes, populated by just me, a couple of Barn Owls, a Tawny Owl and sundry Muntjac's to arrive at Bicester at the appointed time.

I left my car at Justin's and we set off into the night.

I rather like driving to destinations at night as the roads are quieter, even the  motorways. There is a perverse romance in heading off under cover of darkness to an unknown destination with an unkown outcome. The only problem is that often there are diversions for nightime road works on the motorways with the result that timings and pre arranged plans can go awry but we were lucky this time and nothing untoward came to trouble us. 

Five hours of driving meant we had plenty of time to talk. Even as a passenger I do not like to sleep but prefer to  chat away and we reprised various rare birds we had twitched in the past, swapping stories of eccentic behaviour and extreme situations we had found ourselves in as a result of our obsession with birds.We examined why we twitch and agreed it was the release from the mundane realities of life that was the main attraction, a chance to metaphorically jump the fence of normality and embark on something out of the ordinary.Everyone needs some excitement, some extra stimulation and this is what twitching rare birds does for us.

The hours passed and we made a stop at an eerily deserted Tebay Services  a favourite of both of us but at 4.30am not how I recalled it on other trips north during less unsociable hours.We were the only two people in the entire building apart from a man behind a counter who served Justin with a coffee.

We  stood, slightly dazed in the normally bustling cafe area surrounded by empty tables, chairs and silence. It was good to be able to stand and stretch our legs for twenty minutes but our tight schedule meant we needed to head north without further delay.

Back in the car we drove on over Shap Fell as the first intimations of daylight began to part the night sky. Approaching  Glasgow the roads became much busier with great lorries thundering along in convoys and commuting cars rushing past. A cold grey dawn revealed an awakening Glasgow as we followed the instructions of the satnav that was taking us around the city to the southwest.

We were soon back in rural surroundings and passed through various unremarkable villages before the first sign for Kilwinning appeared. Eleven miles later at Kilwinning it looked like the morning was set fair to live up to a forecast of light cloud followed by sun.

We parked, as instructed, in one of the free car parks and made a refreshingly short walk to a row of terraced houses where the warbler was to be found. The finder of the warbler, Jimmy, had kindly arranged free access to the communal back garden, which lay next to his garden, via a lobby that bisected the row of houses of which his was one.The garden was tiny, in the middle of six similar gardens filled with feeders, nest boxes, garden ornaments, wheelie bins and washing lines.A wooden fence at the end of the gardens marked the boundary from a footpath that ran along behind the gardens with a row of trees on the other side.


The Comunal Garden

We opened a glass door set between two of the houses that gave access into a short lobby and then opened another door at the other side of the lobby that gave us immediate access to the tiny communal garden. We stood and looked the few yards to the bottom of the garden.

There it is said Justin

Where?

On the top of the fence.

And indeed it was. The Yellow rumped Warbler. It was as simple and instantaneous as that.


We were the only two persons in the garden.  

The warbler was on show for most of the two hours we would spend here, energetically flying from garden to garden and helping itself to the food put out for the other regular garden birds, flycatching from the trees, feeding on dried mealworms that had been placed on the boundary fence and picking off invertebrates from the bare branches of the surrounding trees.As a point of interest this is the only American warbler to winter regularly in the northern USA where it is said to take advantage of bird feeders.








When not in plain view it could be located by it commencing to call, a hard, persistent tchek tchek tchek before it would invariably reveal itself. It roved from high in the trees to right down to the ground - the latter behaviour a noted trait of this species. 




The warbler seemed to have established a territory based around the gardens of Jimmy and his immediate neighbour and would drive off other visiting garden birds such as  Blue Tits and even a Robin, with some vigour and much calling.


This particular individual could well have been part of the unprecedented influx of American warblers that arrived in Britain during September and October of last year. Its plumage is said to identify it as a first year male. with yellow patches on its fore flanks and a bright, lemon yellow rump, particularly noticeable when it flew. Its plumage was a drab pale brown with darker streaks on the upperparts and off white with black streaks on breast and flanks with a noticeable pale throat. The flight feathers and tail were grey and there was just the slightest intimation of its grey and black summer plumage emerging.

The wings also had prominent white, double wing bars and the tail when spread in flight showed large white windows on the outer feathers.


Following a brief greeting from Jimmy before he took his dogs for a walk, about an hour later we were joined by two other birders, both from England, one having travelled by train from London overnight. 

No one else came. 


After two hours of communing with the warbler we decided to go to nearby Saltcoats on the coast. Justin having never seen The Isle of Arran wanted to see it which you can from Saltcoats that lies by the Firth of Clyde.We took Marco, the birder from London, with us and after a short drive parked by the harbour wall at Saltcoats.

Justin got to see Arran, an indistinct blue mass looming in the distance across the firth as I stared wistfully at the island which might well be my home eventually. A bitter sweet moment of longing for something close to my heart. So near and yet so far. One day maybe.

I shook myself out of maudlin sentimentality and we birded the harbour for half an hour as a forceful and very cold wind blew onshore  We found three summer plumaged Black Guillemots by the concrete walls of the harbour and a twenty strong mixed flock of Purple Sandpipers and Dunlin feeding in a shallow rocky lagoon.

On the seaward side of the seawall were a pair of Common Eider bouncing in the waves, some Shags fishing and a Rock Pipit which flew from us. Justin's year list was advancing by leaps and bounds with the addition of these coastal birds.

I could have remained for a while longer but time had run out and we needed to go if we were to get back to Oxfordshire on time.

One final stop at Greggs for my vegan sausage rolls and a baguette for Justin then it was full speed south.

I closed my eyes. Had I really been in my beloved Scotland? It was like a pleasant dream that I did not want to awaken from but I knew in five or six hours we would be back in Oxfordshire.and the adventure would be over.

A toast attributed to Robert Burns came to mind. 

It could just as well apply to us and our twitching obsessiveness

Here's tae us

Wha's like us?

Gey few 

And they're all deid

Robert Burns