Friday, 22 November 2013

An Evening to Remeber

As the Oxford term reaches its climax and the workload spirals to almost unbearable levels, the stress starts to take its toll on many students. Despite the relatively easy ride I get as a Biologist, I too get a slightly snowed under with work sometimes and this evening, having finished all my work for the week, I decided to head up to Port Meadow and unwind by checking through the now sizable gull roost. Upon my arrival it was clear that the sunset was going to be beautiful and as I walked up to the North end of the floods I stopped to have a quick scan of the large flock of wintering Golden Plover. After a few minutes in which I failed to find any Nearctic interlopers, I gave up and headed further on to join Adam Hartley who was diligently checking the rapidly increasing ranks of large white headed gulls. On my first scan it quickly became apparent that there was a decent number of Yellow-legged Gulls in the roost with at least 4 adults immediately obvious. Further scans revealed a couple of smart third-winter birds and I would estimate that the final total was a minimum of 7 birds, 5 adults and 2 third-winters, although 10 or more would appear to be a reasonable estimate. The light conditions also enabled me to capture a couple of reasonable shots of one of the adult birds shown below.

Adult Yellow-legged Gull

Despite the impressive number of Yellow-legged gulls, we failed to find the hoped for casp or white-winger and as the sun set Adam decided to leave. I elected to stick it out for another ten minutes or so but soon the light was too poor to see any detail and, satiated, I decided to head for home. The meadow had more to offer though and as I walked back towards my bike I was privileged to experience a natural spectacle the likes of which I have rarely witnessed. I had almost reached the southern end of the floods when the flock of Golden Plover, some 750 or so birds in total, took to the air in unison. They proceeded to wheel around creating endless murmurations silhouetted against the brilliant evening sky. The rush of their wings and the occasional plaintive wail as they rushed overhead only added to the sensory overload of the spectacle. Beyond them the gulls continued to arrive, languid ranks of flapping silhouettes heading unerringly onwards to roost, unaffected by the majesty of the spectacle unfolding around them. Their haunting cries evoked memories of summer seaside holidays and was strangely juxtaposed to the calls of the Plovers, the epitome of the British uplands. As the sky began to rapidly darken the plovers decided to settle and the swirling masses of gulls provided the only visual sign of life on the meadow. Having been frozen to the spot, I suddenly came to my senses and realised that I had things to do in the real world. I left the meadow feeling both elated and profoundly moved by what I had witnessed.

This evening has reminded me about the intrinsic value of birds by illustrating how they can bring joy in a plethora of ways to a number of people. From the laridophile endlessly scrutinising the primary patterns of large gulls to the naturalist who simply enjoys the majesty of seeing large numbers of wild birds in their natural environment, they provide interest in a range of ways to a diverse group of people. As a birder I revel in the knowledge that I can gain joy from both ends of this broad spectrum of interests. The evening also affirmed my belief that Port Meadow is one of the best patches I could possibly have. Admittedly it doesn't attract hordes of incredible rarities but, on an otherwise dull November evening when twitchers are all but hanging up their bins for the autumn, it provides both birding interest and the potential to leave me rooted to the spot in awe of the majesty of nature. What more could you ask from a flooded field just outside Oxford?

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Autumn slips quietly away

After a stellar summer mostly spent chasing rarities around the country, my return to Oxford has inevitably seen my twitching fall off a cliff. Instead of chasing Yank megas I've been holed up in the library with my books (or more accurately at the pub getting drunk) and as a result autumn for me has ended with a drawn out whimper rather than the hoped for Hermit Thrush style bang. Over the course of the first 3 weeks of term my uni patch, Port Meadow, was in particularly dire straits as the long, dry summer had caused the flood waters to dry up removing the main draw for birds. A couple of optimistic early visits to the resultant puddle did produce a patch tick in the form of a Grey Wagtail as well as a seemingly confused Dunlin among the omnipresent winter flocks of Golden Plover and Lapwing. These visits were pleasant as they reminded me why I loved the open skies and solitude of the place but as far as birds were concerned my interest was barely piqued and I soon gave up in favor of working or drinking.

A pleasant evening sky

My first real opportunity to see some good birds, albeit good in a local context, cam on November 2nd when Next Generation Birders did their 2 year anniversary weekend bird race. The aim was to get as high of a combined total for the weekend as possible and as Farmoor held both Red-necked and Slavonian Grebes as well as a very late Common Sandpiper, I thought I'd do my bit for the team. Therefor at around 11.00 that Saturday I found myself watching an incredibly showy 1st-winter RED-NECKED GREBE (only my second ever!) down to 20m as it fed happily just off the reservoir side. After soaking the bird in I then headed round to the bottom of F2 where I was treated to even closer views of the stunning SLAVONIAN GREBE as it happily dived away. With these sightings I managed to complete my target of seeing every Grebe species on the British list in 2013! Not an incredibly difficult challenge but a nice achievement all the same. Whilst at Farmoor I also picked up the Common Sandpiper, a nice adult Peregrine and a smart Red Kite which rounded out the day nicely. A very enjoyable days birding although in my mind it firmly moved me from the anything can happen excitement of autumn into the more predictable rhythm of winter birding.

Farmoor Resevoir (F1)

A late Common Sandpiper

Slavonian Grebe
With a couple of days of consistent downpours following my visit to Farmoor and a with the return of the floods to Port Meadow coupled with some of tantalising reports of Yellow-legged Gulls, I decided to make a return visit on the 4th of November. Unfortunately the calm, sunny weather and high disturbance levels ruined and gulling opportunities and I went away empty handed. However the numbers of Wigeon were impressive and the Golden Plover flock had built up to over 250 birds. My next visit on the 8th was far more impressive with a decent sized roost of large gulls producing a smart adult Yellow-legged Gull as well as an intriguing 1st winter Herring Gull with brilliant white primaries. The highlight however was a flyover TUFTED DUCK, my second patch tick of the term and a very difficult species to catch up with on patch due to the shallow nature of the floods. This visit assuaged my post-autumn blues and has me excited once again at the prospect of winter birding on the meadow. Now roll on those Casps....