Monday, 17 November 2014

Back in the game.

After a long, university-enforced hiatus from twitching, which led to me missing Yellow-billed Cuckoo and Eastern Crowned Warbler among other things. last Sunday saw me finally get back on the twitching horse starting with a 5am rendezvous with Brucey on Oxford High Street. We quickly headed cross-country arriving at Lowestoft beach in Suffolk just after 9am following a quick stop for a classic twitching breakfast at Maccy's. We took a brisk walk down the seawall and were soon watching the rather disheveled looking male Desert Wheatear down to a few metres as it sat on the wall obviously regretting its decision to ever leave its desert habitat in the first place. After enjoying my first lifer of the day we took the ten minute drive into Norfolk to Gorleston where the female Desert Wheatear was showing equally well on the beach, sheltering in a pipe in the sea wall from which it made occasional feeding forays. As a more active bird than the knackered male at Gorleston it gave a more accurate impression of the characterful nature of this stunning species. Both birds gave nice phonescoping opportunities allowing me to get some decent shots despite not yet having an adapter for my iPhone 5. It was also nice to finally see another species of Wheatear and I look forward to one day catching up with more members of this charismatic family both in Britain and their native ranges.

Male Desert Wheatear, Lowestoft.

Male Desert Wheatear, Lowestoft.

Female Desert Wheatear, Gorleston. 
After enjoying the female Desert Wheatear we headed to Holkham NNR where we spent the rest of the day. Highlights here were the stunning male Surf Scoter showing down to 500m offshore and a juvenile Rough-legged Buzzard sat up in a field on the fresh marshes, both of which were long overdue lifers. There was also a nice supporting cast here with Great White Egret, Short-eared Owl, Firecrest and 9 Velvet Scoter offshore rounding off my first visit to this incredible site. Overall a great days birding and a nice 3 tick day after the twitching drought of October.

Looking out over the fresh marsh from the west end of Holkham Pines. 

Yesterday afternoon, my twitching run continued when Adam Hartley offered me a lift from Oxford to see the long-staying Franklin's Gull which has been coming in to roost at Blashford Lakes in Hampshire. After a pleasant drive down we arrived at about 15.15 and joined the assembled masses waiting in the Tern Hide. After scanning for ten minutes and picking out a couple of Yellow-legged Gulls among the assembled large gulls, a small disturbance at the opposite end of the hide alerted me to the Franklin's Gull had dropped in early. After a scramble to get a clear view I managed to get my scope onto the bird. BOOM! Franklin's Gull finally on my list! The bird was showing incredibly well about 200m away from the hide allowing me to get excellent views and even a crappy phone-scoped shot. The bird was a real stunner with the gun-metal grey mantle, large white mirrors on the primaries, diffuse dark mask and chunky, dark bill reminiscent of that of a Med Gull giving it a really distinctive look. The bird was also really compact looking noticeably smaller than the Black Headed Gulls it was associating with. A really nice bird and one of the easiest twitches I've been on in a while. Hopefully autumn has one or two more surprises before we sink into the depths of winter for another year.

Adult winter Franklin's Gull, Blashford Lakes, Hampshire

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Back to Birding

After an incredible 3 months on Skomer Island this Summer, conducting my undergraduate research project on Manx Shearwater chicks, I've decided to try and start blogging again as a way of writing down my birding experiences in prose form. At some point, I'll try to find the time (not easy for a finalist!) to write some retrospective posts about my Summer on Skomer as it was a truly life-changing experience and some of the natural spectacles I was fortunate enough to witness beggared belief! The birding was also pretty decent with myself, Ollie Padget and the wardening team including Ed Stubbings and Jason Moss finding some great birds between us, the pinnacle of which was a self-found Lesser Yellowlegs on North Pond, my first BBRC rarity! Since returning from Skomer I've done a spot of twitching, seeing Masked Shrike among other things, but I've not really had the time to invest in it and since returning to Oxford at the end of September the well of new lifers has run bone dry. I have had some great local birding however with Otmoor RSPB producing the goods in the form of a juvenile Red-backed Shrike and an adult male Dartford Warbler, both county megas! Both of these birds were twitched in the fading light with Ollie, hopefully I'll be able to convince him to spread his wings and twitch some birds further a field over the course of this year.

One bird that has eluded me however is the Red-necked Grebe that has spent the last month residing at Farmoor Reservoir. Having both previously dipped the bird twice, yesterday evening a course-mate of mine James Evry and I decided it would be third time lucky and headed over to Farmoor for the last hour of light. We did a full circuit of F1 but unsurprisingly couldn't find the Grebe which I'm now convinced phases in and out of existence as it pleases! We did however have a nice Rock Pipit along the causeway as well as a smart adult Yellow-legged Gull which perched up on a buoy close to the southeast corner of the basin. Initially I was unsure of the birds identity as the pale base tone to the yellow legs and hints of streaking on the crown and around the eye briefly raised the spectre of a Lesser Black-backed Gull x Herring Gull hybrid. Luckily the bird soon flew revealing its diagnostic wing pattern with a large white mirror on p10, a small mirror on p9 and a solid dark band across p5 which confirmed its identity as an adult Yellow-legged Gull, the first of the winter for me. A pleasant way to finish the evening, the Gull was a nice consolation for dipping the Grebe which was of course present again today. Hopefully I can get out int the field again over the next week, the Steart Pallid Harrier is awfully tempting, and if I do i'll attempt to write about it on here. Below are a series of shots of the YLG captured by James Evry, having a friend with a DSLR is really useful!

Adult Yellow-legged Gull, all photos (c) James Evry

Monday, 9 June 2014

Highs and lows

The few weeks since my previous post have raced by in a blur of birds, people and places. After a horrendous week involving several frustrating dips in the last week of May, I was almost, admittedly rather  melodramatically, ready to pack in this twitching lark for a quiet life of patching. Unfortunately I have been well and truly bitten by the bug and the adrenaline of seeing new rarities appears to be one of the most addictive drugs known to man. Therefore early on the 20th of May, with my logic well and truly beaten by my compulsive need for a rarity fix, I found myself boarding a train to Leamington Spa. Here I met Matt Bruce and after a quick detour to pick up James and Sam in Notts, we were steaming north towards Covenham Reservoir and a date with a Terek Sandpiper. Upon arrival I was feeling particularly twitchy and my fears were compounded as I was told the bid had just flown to the far end of the causeway. A brisk and incredibly nervous walk followed but thankfully upon our arrival we were put on to the bird by a couple of birders present. As I got my scope on the bird waves of relief washed over me as the Terek Sandpiper filled my vision and I was able to take in the stunning little wader in all its glory! A bird I've long since wanted to see I was amazed by just how compact and dumpy it was structurally. I continued to watch the bird for around 20 minutes as it fed along the waters edge on the emerging flies with a small mixed wader flock. In this time we were even treated to a few snippets of song and Sam Viles managed to capture the fantastic images below. A real treat and a reminder of the extreme highs that make twitching so worthwhile.

Terek Sandpiper (c) Sam Viles

Terek in flight (c) Sam Viles

During this time Scott arrived and almost simultaneously news broke of an Eastern Subalpine Warbler in the Canal Hedge at Spurn. As all of us needed this likely armchair tick, we headed off tearing up the coast and arriving at Spurn just before 2pm. After what felt like an eternity searching the scrub to the south of Canal Scrape, the bird was eventually picked up but instantly dropped down out of view on the far side of a dense hedge. We cautiously walked over and as we rounded the hedge I saw a small bird flit across into a bare shrub. I got my bins on it and instantly knew it was a Subalpine Warbler, but which one? In the 5 minutes we watched it at close range, opinions were split on the ID as the bird possessed a thick white moustachial strip but appeared far too buffy underneath for an albistrata. As time was pushing on we had to head south but thankfully the ID conundrum was solved by shots of the diagnostic tail pattern which proved the bird to be a 1st-summer male Western Subalpine Warbler race cantillans. A cracking tick for me made all the sweeter by gripping it back from Scott who had seen the Lleyn Penninsula bird a year or two previously.

A few days later and I found myself heading back towards Spurn with Scott for a weekend's stay at the Warren. The conditions were perfect with easterlies and rain forecast and a nice arrival of Red-backed Shrikes on the Friday afternoon raising hopes for some nice drift migrants. Saturday certainly didn't disappoint with highlights including a self-found female-type Common Rosefinch at the point, a smart female Red-backed Shrike in the bushes behind the Riverside and an elusive female Red-breasted Flycatcher in the garden off Beacon Lane. which eventually gave good views. A report of the Flamborough Bee-eater flock heading south over Tunstall the had us dashing to the Warren but after several hours with no sign we decided to head north and search for them. Despite checking most of the likely spots between Kilnsea and Tunstall we could not locate the birds. Consolation was provided however by this incredibly showy Wryneck in Withernsea Tesco's car park which gave stunning views as it fed on ants. An absolutely stonking bird, this cryptic species is one I never tire of seeing, especially when they show as well as this.

After a heavy night in the Crown and Anchor watching the Champion's League final, Scott and I decided to have a lie in on the Sunday morning as the weather was awful when the alarm went off at 5am. This proved near fatal when I was stirred from my sleep just after 7.30 by what could possibly have been a distant shout of "Bee-eater". Despite the chances of it being a wind-up to wake us up, I was taking any chances and grabbed my bins running up to Numpty's in just my shorts and a vest in a state of wild panic, half-expecting to see one of the locals holding a camera. I immediately realised this wasn't a joke however and was soon scrambling to try and see the birds as they headed rapidly  south. In my adrenaline fueled panic my brain managed to stay focused enough to pick up the 5 Bee-eaters as they powered over the narrows and off down the point. Although the views were crap the birds characteristic, strong undulating flight was obvious even at distance through bins and when they banked I got more of an impression of structure. Not ideal views but still a nice lifer and a great addition to the trip list! After we had calmed down slightly, Scott and I had breakfast and decided to vismig from Numpty's. However news of a Broad-billed Sandpiper in North Yorks and a Little Bittern 20 minutes from home eventually proved too tempting and we set off on a daring round trip twitch, the thoughts of what we might miss back at Spurn constantly in our minds. Thankfully the Broad-billed Sandpiper showed well, if distantly on arrival and we soon moved on towards Elton Reservoir and the Little Bittern. This was to prove slightly trickier as the bird was flushed prior to arrival but had apparently returned and vanished into one of the smallest bits of habitat I'd ever seen. As the minutes dragged on I was getting more and more nervous but the day was saved when young birder Harry Murphy picked up the Little Bittern creeping unobtrusively through marsh. A stonking adult male, we were treated to fantastic prolonged views as it successfully hunted Great Crested Newts along the edge of a small pool. A cracking bird to catch up with and much more satisfying than the distant flight views achieved by many at Ham Wall. A 3 tick day already in the bag, we headed back to spurn where miraculously the best birds we had missed were a couple of Curlew Sandpipers on the Humber. Result! Monday was unfortunately a dud, with most of our time spent waiting for a Black Stork which never materialised. Still a fantastic trip which reaffirmed the Spurn area as one of my favourite birding spots in Britain!

Tuesday the 27th saw me make a flying evening visit to Port Meadow before dinner to twitch a summer-plumage Grey Plover found by patch stalwart, Adam Hartley, in abysmal weather. The patch had been pretty dead for a couple of weeks prior to this but his persistence paid off in the form of a scarce patch bird and a nice patch tick for me! The rest of the week passed relatively bird free and I looked forward to my sister making a visit to Oxford to see me before I head away for the summer (more to follow). Making commitments in June is always a risk and my gamble was punished when a second summer Short-toed Eagle was found roosting in a tree in Dorset on Saturday evening. Despite kind lift offers from Scott Reid, I decided abandoning my sister in a strange city was a bit far and was forced to watch as hundreds of people saw the bird of 2014 so far without me. Although I don't regret my decision, it was heartbreaking to miss the best chance I'm ever likely to get at seeing this species in Britain, especially when so many of my contemporaries saw it. I can't keep on about the Needletail forever after all (NB: yes I definitely can!). I was still feeling slightly down the next day when the mega alert announced the presence of a singing Spectacled Warbler at Burnham Overy Staithe in Norfolk. I desperately rang round to try and sort a lift to no avail and a feeling of overwhelming despair had begun to consume me when Brucey kindly stepped in and offered me a lift. I met him at Leamington Spa around 4.30pm and we ploughed up there, reaching Burnham Overy just before 8pm. At this point the light was fading and doubts were starting to creep in as to whether we would see the bird. After a taxing 20 minute walk/jog to the bird's actual location, passing many smug NGB's on the way, I arrived to learn that the bird had not been seen in twenty minutes. A bout of swearing ensued and I began to lose hope I'd ever see the bird. Luckily persistence won out and after ten or so minutes of constant scanning I managed to relocate the Spectacled Warbler as it popped up in a small bush and proceeded to give great views as it fed amongst the suaeda. An absolutely cracking little bird to see, much more distinctive than I was expecting with a beautiful steel blue/grey head and a really buffy wash to the breast and underparts. A really nice bird and one that I didn't expect to catch up with in the UK for a long time, the Speccy partially made up for the pain of missing the Eagle.

The rest of the week was quiet bird-wise until the Saturday when Brucey offered to take me to Otmoor for some local birding with him and Emma-Louis Cole. This proved an enjoyable afternoon with absolutely mega views of a couple of Turtle Doves, a nice county tick and a great opportunity to practice my phone-scoping. Other good birds included year ticks in the form of Hobby and Garden Warbler as well as my first cucurra Lesser Whitethroat of the year. The next morning I was rudely awakened from my sleep by Dave Campbell who informed me that the STE was back, perched in a tree near Beaulieu Road station in the New Forest. BOLLOCKS! I eventually managed to arrange a lift with Mark Payne and Fred Fearne to get there early afternoon. Predictably the bird flew off as the weather warmed up and despite the best efforts of us and the assembled birders, there remains doubt as to whether it was ever seen again and it certainly wasn't seen while we were there. The New Forest was actually remarkably quiet with a couple of Hobbys and a singing male Redstart the only birds of note. Still it was a pleasant day out and it seems possible that the bird, being a non-breeding immature in suitable feeding habitat, might linger in the area for awhile. Unfortunately I head to Skomer for 3 months of research (twitching quarantine) on Sunday so the chances of it being found roosting in that time window appear to be rather low. The beauty of birding however its that you never know what might happen......

Phonescoped Turtle Dove, Otmoor RSPB

Monday, 19 May 2014

Passage Waders.

After a very disappointing week in terms of twitching the last few days have seen a slight uptick in quality. Last Thursday saw me make a quick visit to the meadow to twitch the Avocet that Adam had found the previous day. Upon arrival I quickly located the bird fast asleep in the north arm of the floods. Eventually it perked up and had a preen allowing me to capture some record video footage for posterity. A nice bird constituting only my second patch record and a decent patch yeartick which I thought I had missed out on. Saturday saw me head to the Warwickshire Wildlife Trust Reserve, Brandon Marsh NR, to help Matthew Bruce man the NGB stand at their wildlife day. A couple of brief sojourns to the hides over the course of the day produced two very smart, summer plumaged Wood Sandpipers. Always a pleasure to see, these stunning, delicate waders with their striking spangled plumage were a nice treat after the trials of the previous few days. Overall I was highly impressed with Brandon Marsh and its ripe potential. The rest of the afternoon was spent drinking beer in the sun and skywatching in the vain hope that a Honey Buzzard or Black Kite might deign to drift over. Well there are worse ways to spend a Saturday...

Brucey working hard

Thursday, 15 May 2014

A mixed bag.

On the last day of a great trip to Tenerife during which I mopped up all but one of the endemics (damn you Bolle's Pigeon!), a quick check of RBA informed me of an Oxfordshire double whammy; a summer plumaged Spotted Sandpiper at Farmoor and a Glossy Ibis, the bird I had been anticipating for weeks, on my patch Port Meadow! Seeing this was a somewhat gut wrenching feeling but I consoled myself with the fact that it could've been a much rarer bird and with the still fresh memories of singing Blue Chaffinch at Las Lajas from a few hours before. After a somewhat grueling journey home and only 4 hours of sleep, Sunday morning saw me stood on the banks of Farmoor Resevoir just 45 minutes after the Spotted Sand had last been seen. I hung around for an hour in a despondent state but predictably the bird didn't return and I had to head off back to college. An evening visit to Port Meadow produced very little although the summer plumage Black-tailed Godwit was still hanging around and had been joined by a second, winter plumage bird.

That evening I endeavoured to give the Spotted Sandpiper another go  as it seemed to have a routine of roosting on the reservoir before flying off to the river mid-morning to feed. I figured that if it was seen early the news would get out on Twitter or at least RBA at 07.30 so after receiving no confirmation I stupidly decided to roll over and go back to sleep. Predictably at around  08.30 I was woken by an RBA notification informing me of the bird's continued presence at 06.45. This amounted to a mystifying 2 hour delay in getting the news out which lead to me missing a lifer that I could easily have twitched!! Suitably annoyed, I decided to head up to Port Meadow to look for a singing Sedge Warbler which Adam had kindly informed me about. Upon arrival I heard the bird chuntering away in the hedge at the southern end of the Trap Grounds Allotments and with some perseverance i managed a few brief views of the elusive little bird; a nice patch tick! Whilst attempting to watch the Sedgie I suddenly realised that I could hear a Cuckoo singing from somewhere  in the Burgess Field. I was just setting off to search for it when I picked it up flying off across the meadow to the far side of the river. My second patch tick of the day and nice to actually see a bird that usually a heard only species on the patch! The conditions were nice and drifty so I decided to stake out the valley for migrating raptors. My efforts were unfortunately unsuccessful although I did pick up at least 4 each of Red Kite and Buzzard as well as a flyover Little Egret. The 2 Black-tailed Godwits also showed well allowing me to capture the phone-scoped pictures below.

Wednesday morning saw me at Farmoor early for another attempt at the Spotted Sandpiper. Despite carefully searching all of F1 and a good stretch of the river behind Shrike Meadow, I could not relocate the bird which hasn't been seen since. A really frustrating dip of a great bird for Oxon and the commonest yank wader is till need. I hung around at Farmoor for several hours but found nothing other than a flyover Little Egret. However my spirits were lifted by the sight of good numbers of Swifts screaming past my head as they hawked low over the causeway for insects. As ever a close encounter with these breath-taking birds, to my mind the pinnacle flight and filled with almost an inherent joy, lifted my spirits inexorably. As I watched them gracefully twist and turn over the water, my mind ran wild with fantasies of a Needletail bombing in to join them but this was, unfortunately, rather wishful thinking. Whilst at Farmoor the news of a singing Great Reed Warbler at Slimbridge filtered through and Dave Campbell and I made plans to head down there the next day to twitch it. Unfortunately circumstances conspired to thwart us as limited time meant that we were forced to leave 20 minutes before it showed for the final time. A couple of Spotted Flycatchers and nice views of one of the introduced Cranes provided some consolation but the whole day ended up being the climax to a pretty dreadful week. Seeing all the fantastic endemics in Tenerife with such ease has made me realise what a slog British birding can be once you get over 300. Still we all go through these periods and hopefully the hard work will eventually pay off with some rewards, a Yellow-throated Vireo on Skomer this Autumn would be nice...

Friday, 2 May 2014

Summer starts here!

After several weeks of rather limiting birding (save for a few mad dashes to East Yorkshire), May the 1st represented my first day of relative freedom after the first installment of my final exams. Due to some rather poor judgement the previous night, yes in retrospect no human should consume 6 cans of RedBull in a night, I was wide awake at 8am when I received a text from Adam about a drake Garganey on my patch, Port Meadow. Usually I would have rolled over and worried about it later but with half of the world's supply of caffeine coursing through my veins I decided to wander up there and have a look. After a brisk walk I fund myself on the patch for the first time in over the month. Almost straight away, picked up my first Swallows of the year hawking over the floods accompanied by good numbers of House Martins. I also quickly spotted a couple of Common Terns hanging around at the south end of the floods, according to Adam they appear to have made the floods their home and I later noticed them courtship feeding. This seems like a promising sign however I can't see anywhere in the meadow that they could successfully breed as disturbance leels are just too high. After a couple of scans I soon picked up the drake Garganey showing well along the far bank, as ever an absolute treat to see. The subtle grey vermaculations contrasting with the bold conjoining white supercillia and the ridiculous tertials all combine to make a sublime bird which is one of my most eagerly anticipated spring migrants. It was also only my second record for the patch and was far more active than last years bird which remained resolutely asleep for the duration of my visit. After enjoying the Garganey I had a wander around Burgess Field but it was relatively quiet, producing only the common warblers as patch yearticks.

Record shot of the drake Garganey

This morning I was back on patch again following earlier reports of some Common Sandpipers and a Cuckoo in the Burgess Field. As soon as I arrived I noticed my first Swifts of the year hawking low over the south end of the floods, a welcome site after what seems an eternity since my last, at Spurn in early September last year. I also relocated the Common Sandpipers along with an extra bird, bringing the day's tally to three. I also located a rather late Sand Martin among the numerous hirundines, a nice patch yeartick. The Garganey was also still hanging around remaining slightly distant although I did get the reasonable video of the bird though my phone. Also nice were an extremely late pair of Pintail a rather suprising bird to see on the patch in May! Despite hanging around at the north end of the Burgess Field, I failed to hear the Cuckoo although I can't imagine the could northeasterly breeze helped my efforts. A nice visit to the patch and I aim to make daily visits starting on the 11th. Until then I'll be in Tenerife and hope to mop up on a few of the endemics for my paltry Western Palearctic list.

A late pair of Pintail.

Saturday, 19 April 2014

Persistence pays off!

Crag Martin, North Landing, Flamborough Head, (c) Scott Reid

After a hectic February which saw me successfully twitch Yellow-rumped Warbler, Ross's Gull, Red-flanked Bluetail and the somewhat Chinese Pond Heron in Kent, university life stepped up another gear and suddenly I had no time to twitch and only occasionally managed to get down to Port Meadow to get my birding fix. Eventually the Easter holidays rolled around and although I still had a strenuous workload with exam revision, I had a bit more flexibility and thanks to the always-appreciated lifts from Scott, I would be able to get around the country with relative ease. All I needed were some decent birds and on the 11th of April the twitching gods provided me with a stunner, a Crag Martin feeding over the cliffs south of the lighthouse at Flamborough Head. Galvanised by the fact that I didn't bother to twitch the Suffolk Pacific Swift thinking that it wouldn't hang around I knew that the only option here was to head straight to Flamborough and hope that the bird hung around long enough for us to get there. After a short delay, Scott and I were Yorkshire bound and despite making good time we pulled in to the car park at South Landing 5 minutes before the bird was seen to gain height and circle off to the southwest. As the day was warm and clear it seemed likely that the bird has well and truly moved off. Despondent, we decided to hang around anyway  to see if the bird reappeared but it wasn't to be and our depression was further compounded by failing to catch up with an extremely mobile Tawny Pipit, a difficult bird in Britain nowadays.

The drive back to Stockport was not a pleasant one and I was soon drowning my sorrows in my favourite pub. One casual remark that stuck in the mind from the journey home was something along the lines of "I doubt we've seen the last of this bird." As it turned out this was to be prophetic as while I was lying worse for wear on the sofa the following afternoon, an unconfirmed report came through that the Crag Martin had been relocated feeding along the cliffs on the north side of the great white cape at Thornwick Bay. Soon the report was confirmed and after some persuasion Scott picked me up at 4 and for the second time in two days we were steaming towards Flamborough. I was a nervous wreck on the drive across as the prospect of dipping twice in as many days on such a mythical bird loomed large in my mind. Fortunately I needn't have worried as positive news came through just as we pulled into the car Park at North Landing. I wasn't leaving anything to chance and leapt out of the car, covering the short distance along the clifftop to the assembled crowd at breakneck speed. Some desperate fumbling for my bins ensued and then suddenly there infront of me was Britain's 8th CRAG MARTIN! BOOM indeed! 

The bird was favouring a spot on the other side of a deep gorge and after soaking in the stunning white tail markings and gorgeous velvet brown underside we decided to walk round to try and get better views. This proved to be one of the best decisions I've ever made as I was soon enjoying point blank views of the bird scything past me at eye level. If I'm completely honest, I wasn't expecting great things from what I had assumed to be a rather dull brown bird but in the field it had that touch of magic typical of a rare swift or hirundine. As it flicked past us an arms length away I could really drink in the striking dark underwing coverts and subtle gradations of chocolate brown which for me where strongly reminiscent of a dark Balearic Shearwater. If this wasn't good enough the bird would periodically spread its tail as it banked revealing the blinding flash of white markings, a feature which I was previously unaware of and one which for me gives the species a bit of extra magic Watching this almost mythical bird in such a stunning setting was a euphoric experience and provided a perfect example of what makes this hobby so rewarding at its best. After enjoying the bird for around half an hour we decided to have a quick search for the Tawny Pipit around the lighthouse. Once again we were unsuccessful however a cracking Short-eared Owl quartering over the fields by the lighthouse was more than sufficient consolation. A fitting end to an incredible day that I certainly won't forget in a hurry!

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Patch Update

Kingfisher, Port Meadow

As we're now well in to February I thought it would be worth posting an update about how my patching efforts at Port Meadow have fared so far this year. Despite the floods being in near perpetual lake mode during the first few weeks of the year, I made regular evening visits to the patch in order to filter through the gull roost in the hope of pulling out a Caspian or a white-winger. Despite my efforts, and the presence of several white-wingers and even a Baltic Gull just a few miles to the south, I drew an almost complete blank other than a couple of smart adult Yellow-legged Gulls. It seems with so many flooded fields to choose from at the moment, the gulls feeding on the tip a Didcot that would usually roost on the meadow, are saving themselves the commute and roosting in the flooded fields nearby. The one saving grace of this otherwise depressing period was finally picking out a smart adult MEDITERRANEAN GULL in flight as it cruised over the gull roost before dropping out of site. This represents the last of the expected gull species to find its way onto my patch list although I am still hopeful of a Little Gull or possibly even a Kittewake in the spring! Another patch tick came in the form of the extremely confiding KINGFISHER in the picture above which I watched desperately attempting to fish the shallow margins of the flooded river Thames on the evening of the 7th of February.

Given how unproductive the gull roost has been, on the 9th of February I decided to explore another area of the patch, the Trap Grounds, which up until this year I have sadly neglected. Upon my arrival at the site I instantly regretted my lack of visits as the mixture of scrubby damp woodland, ponds and reedbeds was screaming with potential. I also managed to hear my target bird, WATER RAIL, at least 2 of which responded eagerly to my tape after only a minute or so. This constitutes my 4th patch tick of the year and a nice bird to get on the list! After visiting the trap grounds I quickly popped into the Burgess Field to check the flooded pools for Snipe. My search was initially unsuccessful however as I was leaving, I heard a strange call and looked up to see a Common Snipe, which had presumably been flushed from another the part of the field, heading rapidly over! This surprise record took me up to 64 species for the year at Port Meadow which I consider to be a reasonable total. However with more rain forecast in the coming weeks as a result of the mental Atlantic weather systems currently in place, the state of the floods is only going to worsen and I feel that for the time being my effort might best be applied to my studies. I can only hope the floods drop by early March in time for the first waders to drop in on their way north!

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Water Water Everywhere!

After a fairly slow birding start to the year I was keen to get back to my university patch of Port Meadow to get my patch yearlist off to a good start and hopefully find a few good gulls. I was particularly keen this year as I had decided to take part in the patchwork challenge competition for the first time and also had a more personal competition going with Dave "Devil Birder" Campbell and his university patch of Newhaven in Sussex. I had set my self a substantial target of 115 for the year which I thought was just about possible in term time with a lot of effort and some crafty twitching of Adam Hartley's finds. However my spirits were dampened (both literally and metaphorically) early in the New Year when I learned of the extensive flooding around Oxfordshire. Port Meadow acts as the main flood defence for Oxford city essentially becoming a lake when the river breaches its banks. In this state gulling becomes almost an impossibility and even checking the ducks becomes more difficult as everything becomes so spread out.

Still in an effort to get away from exam revision I decided to head up to the patch on the 12th of January to give it a good going over. I started by walking along the Castle Mill Stream, an area of the patch which I usually neglect, in the vain hope of finding a Marsh tit or Firecrest or some other such goodie. Predictably, none of these hoped for birds came forth however I was almost immediately rewarded with good views of a TREECREEPER, only my second patch record and a valuable addition to the yearlist at such an early stage. Better was to follow however as further along the stream I flushed a LITTLE GREBE from the near bank which proceeded to give good views in the middle of the channel. BOOM! My first patch tick of 2014 and on my very first visit! After the initial excitement things predictably slowed down and the floods produced only Wigeon and Teal with no sign of even the regular Shoveler or Pintail. I had a good kick around the Burgess Field but found none of the hoped for Snipe although an unseasonal Reed Bunting was a nice patch year tick.

I visited again on the 14th to check the gulls which produced nice scarcities but did reveal a total of 17 Common Gulls, by far the largest count I have ever had on the patch. Common Gull is usually a scarce bird on the meadow and is frequently outnumbered by Yellow-legged Gull early in the season. For some reason they all seem to roost over at Farmoor, maybe the elevated water level has attracted them in. A group of 10 roosting Goosander, including 6 males, was another good record for the patch. So not the ideal start to the year but a few good birds on the patch list early which stands at a reasonable 43 species after only 2 species. If the floods drop in the next couple of weeks and I get lucky with a couple of scarcities such as Peregrine and Short-eared Owl then I think 115 is still in reach. I'm about to head out to the meadow to try and check the Gulls now, maybe this is the day my luck changes...

Saturday, 18 January 2014

Jack in the bag!

As every birder knows the New Year is an exciting time to be out in the field. As of midnight on December 31st the slate is wiped clean and everything is new and fresh, at least from the perspective of your yearlist. The transition into 2014 was,unusually marked with a slight tinge of sadness this year as I was fully aware that 2013, with its unanticipated list of mind-boggling rarities (including that mythical Needletail!), might be a phenomenon that's never be repeated in my lifetime. Still as January the 1st proper dawned I was excited, if extremely hungover, as me and Dave headed off to Nottinghamshire to attempt to twitch the long-staying flock of Parrot Crossbills at Budby Common. What seemed like a relatively straightforward trip quickly turned into a nightmare as frankly abysmal directions from RBA led to us missing the birds by no more than 5 minutes. The happy stream of birders heading in the other direction led my heart to briefly soar but inexplicably we managed to missed them and our search was hampered by rain, strong wind and eventually the onset of darkness. Damp and dishevelled, even the customary McDonald's did little to lift my spirits and I couldn't help but wonder, even at this early stage, whether 2014 was not to be my year!

Over the few days my previously neglected workload and an impending Ski trip saw a yearlisting trip to North Wales on the 2nd however on the 4th I offered to show Dave my old local patch, Chorlton Water Park, before he headed back home to Surrey. I wasn't expecting much having seen little in 2 years spent heavily birding the site, but as we pulled up in the car. I also suggested that Dave put on his wellies in case a spot of Snipe flushing was in order. Little did I know how prophetic those words would be. The visit got off to a good start with an adult Herring Gull on the lake, a surprisingly rare bird in these parts, before I scored a patch tick in the form of a heard only group of RING-NECKED PARAKEETS near the Golf Course.

On a (slightly embarrassing) high from this we decided to go off piste slightly on the tip and walk some wet grassland in the hope of flushing some Snipe. At this point we saw a large flock of Redpoll fly into a group of nearby Alders and decided to get closer and check them out. After carefully maneuvering ourselves into position, we started scanning the flock and Dave quickly called a Mealy Redpoll. I soon got on the bird as it flew to reveal a clean white rump. On closer inspection there in front of me was a big, frosty MEALY REDPOLL, one of the more obvious examples I've seen and my second patch tick of the day! We spent the next hour or so chasing the Redpoll flocks around the tip relocated the same or possibly another bird several times including once when it showed very well for an extended period down to 10m allowing Dave to capture a digi-binned record shot.

After observing the Redpoll flock for a while we decided to head back to the car via the flooded weedy field where I expected we might flush a Woodcock or Common Snipe. Dave waded in with his wellies on and quickly flushed a Snipe from the edge of a weedy flooded area. I initially thought it was a Common Snipe but Dave's excited shout of "JACK!" coupled with the birds compact structure caused me to do a double take. As the bird banked round it revealed a relatively short, stubby bill confirming it as a JACK SNIPE! My ultimate nemesis finally nailed on my local patch of all places. I felt elation but the brief view caused that horrible sinking feeling to start creeping in. Could I really have seen finally seen a Jack Snipe, a bird I scarcely believed existed, on my old local patch of all places? Luckily as Dave started to walk again a second bird erupted from underneath his feet. Another Jack Snipe and a more gratuitous bird which did a lap of the tip in flight giving fantastic, prolonged views of its structure before dropping down in the same field, showing the bold tramlines running up its back in the process. At this point the elation hit me and I started to laugh uncontrollably. Finally I had caught up with my bogey bird and on Barlow Tip to boot! No more being laughed at by other smug NGB members! On reflection I came to the conclusion that I had now seen every Snipe species on the British list, including the Dowitchers, a feat unmatched by all but the most keen young twitchers. As I thought back to earlier in the day I realised that my words in the car park had become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Maybe 2014 would be a decent birding year after all...a Pin-tailed or Swinhoe's Snipe would do nicely!