Wednesday, 17 January 2018

2017 Retrospective

It's time for some end of year navel gazing with a chance for me to look back at the year's highs and lows. As usual I'm going to divide my birding into three sections: patch birding, county birding and life listing.

Patch Birding
By all measures it was a rather poor year on my local Port Meadow patch. I've written up a more detailed review of the year here but the main issue was that the floods dried up very early (by the start of April) and didn't reform until the end of November so there was a large chunk of the year without any water including the vital spring and autumn passage periods. The year list total was a measly 114 compared to 120 to 130 in decent years and the bird of the year there was a Great White Egret that was seen by one lucky observer (not me, grrrr!) for just a few minutes up at the Wolvercote end. All in all its best to draw a hurried veil over the whole year and move quickly on.

County Birding
It was actually an OK year in Oxon with a number of nice birds on the county year list, not that I saw many of them. The start of the year saw a flurry of good local birds with some Cattle Egrets, Waxwings and my personal county bird of the year (and a county tick), a smart Little Bunting near Over Norton.

One of the three Cattle Egrets in amongst the pigs

Waxwings are always nice birds to see

The Little Bunting

After such a great start to the county year things went predictably quiet until April when a wonderful Bonaparte's Gull was discovered at Farmoor. Although I missed it's first appearance, about a week later it was back and indeed it lingered for a fair while.

The Bonaparte's Gull

There was also a lovely Wood Warbler at Spiceball Park in Banbury which I went to visit. Amazingly it was the second year in a row that this rare county warbler had been seen at this location.

The Wood Warbler courtesy of Ewan

After that I went into full-on botanising mode for the summer (which I'll cover later) so it wasn't until September that I was back into county birding. There was a visit to Farmoor for a serious Shagathon

One of the half a dozen or so juvenile Shags at Farmoor

Shortly after there it was back to the concrete basin of despair for the Red-necked Phalarope, not a county tick thanks to the one at Bicester Wetlands Reserve a couple of years previously but still a great bird to see.

Red-necked Phalarope

Later on in the autumn there were more local birds to see with a Water Pipit at Farmoor, a potential Lesser Scaup (that frustratingly turned out to be a hybrid, thereby denying me a county tick) and a some Hawfinches that were finally pinned down as part of the national irruption of this species.

A filthy mongrel!

So all in all, not such a bad county year. As usual I was charged with the county year photo montage which I'll post here in case you've not yet seen it.

These days of course I also have Kernow to include in my county listing. We went down quite a lot this year at the beginning but after our summer holiday that was it. The prevailing westerly winds were making for such poor birding in the South West that I didn't even bother with my usual October visit. Still I managed four county ticks: a Caspian Gull (a hard bird to get in Cornwall) at the start of the year; an Avocet in February and then in the May half term a Temminck's Stint and a Hobby (with a Green-winged Teal and a Woodchat Shrike as nice bonus birds). As you can see from this list there are still quite a few relatively common birds that I'm catching up on for my list which gives me some nice targets to chase down whilst I'm there.

Temminck's Stint showing well at Hayle

This August we had a couple of weeks down there and fortunately there were some reasonable winds for me to do a spot of sea-watching down at PG. I had a good couple of sessions seeing nice close views of Cory's and Great Shearwaters as well as plenty of Storm Petrels. However I ended up having one of the two most gripping birding experiences of the year there (see below for the second one) when I left the PG sea-watch an hour and a half before a Fea's Petrel and four Wilson's Petrel's flew past. I still scream internally at the thought of this. Of course the truth is that you can't be there all the time and I'd negotiated with the rest of the family just to have the morning off so I had to leave then but it still really stings.

National Listing
It was a bit of a low key year on the national listing front. As usual I went further afield mostly to add to my UK life list or because I had to do a uni run for one of my two daughters. This year I only managed 8 new UK lifers plus a potential future armchair tick, which is somewhat below my 13 or 14 that I've managed for the previous three years. Now of course as my list grows (I'm around the 400 mark now) there is an inevitable law of diminishing returns and so 8 isn't that bad but it could easily have been a few more if luck had run my way a bit. Still I can't really complain.

Things started well when I went on the January Uni Run back up to Durham. I had the Black Scoter up at Goswick in north Northumberland as a target and after some looking in the wrong spot on the first day I managed to find it the next morning. What's more on the way back down I lucked into a great Black-breasted Thrush, a fantastic bonus bird for the trip.

The next national trip wasn't until March for the return uni run leg where, with nothing of particular note on the radar during what is normally a quiet time of the year, I went via Skinningrove for the Eastern Black Redstart (surely due to be split some time soon).

Skinningrove Eastern Black Redstart
At the start of May I was finally able to put to rest a long-standing personal bogey bird in the form of a Kentish Plover that turned up at Pitsone Reservoir in Bucks. Knowing from past experience that they rarely linger it was a case of dropping everything to go and see it and fortunately I managed finally to tick off this elusive Plover.

Distant views only of my first Kentish Plover
The next national trip was down to Church Norton in June to pay homage to the bona fide DNA-tested Elegant Tern that had turned up. I was rather lucky to find it there on show as soon as I turned up which was really handy

Church Norton Elegant Tern
On the way up to Durham once again in July I stopped off in the Midlands for the wonderful flock of Bee Eaters.

Two of the seven Bee Eaters in the quarry
It wasn't until September that I was able to get my next national tick when a Least Sandpiper turned up at Lodmoor down in Dorset. I was able to connect almost immediately and had great views of the resident Stilt Sandpiper as a bonus.

The Least Sandpiper

Bonus Stilt Sandpiper
The last day of September brought another national tick when I went to pay a visit to a confiding Red-throated Pipit that had taken up residence at Landguard NR. This is a difficult species to catch up with normally so I made sure to make the effort to see this one.

Landguard Red-throated Pipit
Despite the "wrong winds" all autumn, a couple of eastern Mega's did manage to slip through in October. The first was a splendid Rock Thrush that turned up in Wales at Blorenge near where I'd been to see the Marmora's Warbler a few years back.

The light wasn't great on the day that I visited but it was still nice to see a Rock Thrush
The second was a real national Mega of Megas: a Two-barred Greenish Warbler turned up down in Dorset in a small quarry. I needed no further invitation but headed down there on news the next morning to see this wonderful bird well and at close quarters despite the crowds.

Two-barred Greenish Warbler courtesy of Tezzer
The last national birding trip of the year was to Staines Reservoir to see an American Horned Lark. It was reasonably distant on the day that I visited but still possible to make it out well enough. Not a full tick in it's own right at present, I am hoping for an armchair one in due course.

The American Horned Lark showed much better on the day that Ewan Urquhart (c) visited
So there you have it, a relatively modest year of national birding. I'm giving my personal bird of the year award to the Two-barred Greenish Warbler and the Horrendous Dip of the Year goes jointly to missing the Fea's and Wilson's Petrel at Porthgwarra and also not seeing the Scop's Owl on my summer Durham Uni Run.

Other Stuff
Over the last few years I've turned for solace during the summer doldrums to insects and lately flowers. In fact this year I decided to work mostly on Orchids, partially because they're a nice botanical sub-set of a reasonable size and partially because up until now I've not known much about them. So there were lots of trips about the place this year to see various Orchids. The list includes: Lady Orchid with Pasque Flower and Lodden Lily thrown in; Purple, Green-winged and Early-marsh; Narrow-leaved Helleborine, White Helleborine, Fly and Bird's-nest; what were formerly considered to be Narrow-leaved Marsh at Parsonage Moor (but are no longer); Military and Greater Butterfly at Homefield Wood; Lizard at Sydlings Copse; the rare Red Helleborine at Windsor Hill; various marsh loving Orchids at Kenfig dune slacks (but sadly no Fen Orchid); the beautiful Dark-red Helleborine up near Durham; Frog Orchid and Downy Woundwort locally; different Helleborines in various places and finally Violet Helleborine and Gentians at Aston Rowant.

Narrow-leaved Helleborine
Dark-red Helleborine
Military Orchid
Summing It All Up
As usual I kept a tally of my national year list though I make almost no effort to add to it, so just recording what I happen to come across on my various trips. This year came in at a paltry 188 which is quite a low tally. With 8 national lifers, 1 Oxon tick and 4 Kernow ones, there was enough to keep things "ticking over" (sorry!). Looking forward, it's probably going to be more of the same this year with the rest of the Orchids to try for and more birds for my national list. I'd also like to see Scarce Emerald Damselfly which is the last Odonata (excluding the remote Scottish ones) that I have yet to see. Onwards and upwards!

Monday, 4 December 2017

Larking About at Staines

Last week an American Horned Lark was reported at Staines reservoir, having apparently been present just over the road at the (permit only) King George VI Reservoir for some three weeks prior.  Now the Horned/Shore Lark complex is a tricky one as far as species are concerned. Eremophila alpestris is know as  Shore Lark  in this country though called Horned Lark elsewhere in the world and is presently classified as having forty or more sub-species throughout the world. However, the word on the street is that the whole Horned Lark complex may well be split (perhaps in up to six separate species), of which our own Shore Lark (E.a. flava), that winters along our eastern coastline, would be one - see this Birding Frontiers article from a few years back. Now, whilst it was generally agreed that the bird at Staines was definitely an American Horned Lark there was much debate on Bird Forum about which sub-species it was, though the consensus was one of E.a. alpestris, hoyti or praticola. So whilst at present this bird would just be an interesting sub-species tick, there was a possibility that it might become a full species in its own right at some point down the line so at the very least there was an insurance visit required. What's more I am still in two minds about whether to follow strict BOU listing standards or to adopt my own broader standard so it's possible that in the future the Gnome Rarities Committee might accept American Horned Lark as a tick in its own right. Anyway, the bottom line was that I was bored and it wasn't very far away so I went to see it.

I've been to Staines Reservoir a number of time previously. It's a rather bleak place and the birds are often rather far away. Indeed whilst the Lark in question had been showing nice and closely along the causeway bank on the Saturday, by the time I visited on Monday it was firmly ensconced along the western bank of the northern reservoir though fortunately when I visited it wasn't too far away (about 100 yards) so I was able to get reasonable views. In order to see it you either have to stand further away where the fence is low enough to see over or closer but then have to peer through some rather imposing metal fencing. I tried both spots and in the end the peering through the fence wasn't too bad.

The bird was on show constantly in the same spot for the hour or so that I was there. The most striking thing about this bird was the white extended supercilium instead of the yellow of our birds. It also looked plainer and darker though apparently that can be more objective. There's a lot of  discussion about subtle plumage differences on the Bird Forum thread for those who are interested but the white supercilium was by far the most obvious to me.

 Some digiscoped video footage of the Lark

Apart from that there were some distant Pochard, Wigeon and Teal as well as a couple of Egyptian Geese. There were no Black-necked Grebes about for which this reservoir is well known during the winter months, just a few Tufted Ducks bobbing about in the waves. The southern reservoir seemed to have been drained and was showing large areas of exposed mud, looking strikingly bleak.

The partially drained southern reservoir
A proper photo of the Staines American Horned Lark taken on Saturday when it was on the causeway shore,
courtesy of Ewan Urquhart, showing it's striking white supercilium and generally darker appearance

After an hour or so I felt that I'd seen all that I was going to see so wandered back along the causeway and headed for home. So, all in all a nice bird to see at a reasonably close distance to Oxford and the possibility of an armchair tick down the line. All in all, not a bad way to pass a Monday morning.

Monday, 27 November 2017

Autumn Local Birds for Local People

There have been a few outings which I've been meaning to write about for a while now, all local stuff but still worth recording in my "diary". The first was a rather nice Water Pipit which turned up at Farmoor at the start of the month. The reservoir is the best site in the county for this species and I've seen a few over the years there but with nothing else happening one Saturday late afternoon and with the light already starting to fade, I hurried along the causeway and all the way around to the north west corner of Farmoor 1 (basically about as far away from the car park as it's possible to get) where I spent some time watching this rather nice bird in the company of just one other person. The light was rather poor by this time but I managed to take some record-shot video footage

Farmoor Water Pipit

The next bird of interest came along a couple of weeks later when a Scaup was reported at Farmoor. At the time someone commented (on the Oxon Birding Blog), asking why it wasn't in fact a Lesser Scaup though I'm not sure how many people saw this comment (I certainly didn't). The next day someone e-mailed me with some more photos, taken at the end of the day in poor light of the bird but at least they were done at close range and the bird certainly looked like a Lesser to me. I forwarded them to "Lew" (Ian Lewington our esteemed county recorder) and he agreed. The word was put out and I mentally prepared for an outing to Farmoor the next morning, particularly since Lesser Scaup was a bird that I still needed for the county. The last records had been a couple of birds in 2007, one at Appleford and one at Sonning Eye GP, both reasonably long-stayers but as I'd only just started birding back then I wasn't doing a county list at all and hadn't bothered to go and see either of them.

The next day rather than being there at first light I waited on news, partially as I've never been a huge fan of the early start and partially as my VLW was away at present so I was left looking after our eleven year old son so I didn't want to leave him alone in the house for longer than necessary. I'd more or less given up hope by mid morning when there was still no news but eventually it was found, in the south west corner of Farmoor II. I therefore hurriedly set off, parking at Lower Whitely Farm to minimise the walk and a short while later I was looking at my first Oxon Lesser Scaup. The great and the good of the county (well at least those lower down the county listing table) were all there and we passed the time in some general chit chat and banter whilst photographing the bird.

The "Lesser Scaup"
All was fine until later on that day I got word that Lew was starting to have doubts about the bird. Apparently there were certainly things which didn't quite tally so he was going to take a look for himself then next day. Anyway, to cut a long story short, it turned out that it was actually a hybrid (either Scaup x Lesser Scaup or Scaup x Tufted) rather than the real deal. The main reasons why were:
1. it was too large, being larger than the accompanying Tufted Ducks rather than about the same size
2. the vermiculations on its back were too fine and didn't become progressively coarser along its back as they should do
3. most importantly of all it didn't have the correct wing pattern of much fainter wing bars on the outer half of the wing. This is a well-known diagnostic for Lesser Scaup though I hadn't personally had time to check it out during my relatively brief visit.

So the Lew giveth and the Lew taketh away again and I still "need" Lesser Scaup for Oxon. Oh well!

The damming evidence from Ewan Urquart's blog showing that there's too much white on the outer half of the wing bar
The third local bird to report is of course the Hawfinch. All birders with any interest in what's happening nationally must by now be aware of the irruption of continental Hawfinches into this country this autumn. Indeed I'd been keeping my eyes to the skies for some time around my patch at Port Meadow though so far in vain. I'd even visited nearby Wytham Wood on three occasions as they have a large Hornbeam plantation there though to no avail. Finally, a reliable spot was found in the county where they could be seen though how they were discovered in the first place is quite a mystery as it's a very unremarkable location down a minor road off the A40 near Eynsham Hall at Barnard's Gate. Anyway, I've made a couple of trips there where, in the company of a number of other birders, both local and from further afield, both times I've had distant views of several of this pleasingly massive Finch as it perched in the tree tops a good 150 yards away. I did try to take some digiscoped photos though on both occasions the wind, the poor light and the long distance has meant that they've been little more than record shots.

Strictly record-shot quality snaps of the Hawfinches
I still live in hope of seeing a fly-over on my patch and with any luck a better location might be found where closer views can be had. Still its very nice to have this bird graving our county with its presence for a while.

Wednesday, 18 October 2017

No Holds (Two)-Barred in Dorest

After a rather lean year on the twitching front things are suddenly coming alive for me this autumn with my second twitch in just five days. I was still basking in the fading warm glow of my successful Rock Thrush twitch last week when news broke on Tuesday of a Two-barred Greenish Warbler down in Dorset. This bird had originally been identified as a possible Arctic at last light on Sunday though with Storm Orphelia bearing down on the country it had meant that it wasn't checked out the next day. However, on Tuesday the legendary Brett Spencer went to see if it was still about and managed to re-identify it as a Two-barred Greenish Warbler with news breaking mid afternoon. Now this species is currently a subspecies (Phylloscopus trochiloides plumbeitarsus) of Greenish Warbler (P. trochiloides) here in the UK. However, with the adoption in the new year of the IOC species list by the UK, it will be elevated to full species status (P. plumbeitarsus) so it was offering the dangling carrot of an impending full species tick. What's more, with only half a dozen or so prior sightings in this country, it was a genuine Mega so definitely worth making a bit of an effort for. That evening, DL messaged me to ask if I was interested in going for it on news the next day so we arranged to head down there together if it was still about. The only possible fly in the ointment was the weather which was forecast to be rainy and misty for the morning though at least the poor conditions would mean that it was less likely to do a bunk overnight.

The next morning it was reported as still present surprisingly early (it was barely light outside here in Oxford) so I arranged to pick up DL from south Oxford in the Gnome Mobile and set off. The trouble was that road works in the centre of Oxford meant that I had to head around the ring road for the pick-up and the rush hour traffic was horrendous so it took absolutely ages to get around there. Still, eventually we had rendezvous'd and we were heading down the A34. Now, I'd been to the Studland Peninsula just once before to Durlston CP for Lullworth Skipper and that time I'd thought the Sat Nav route, which had taken me through Poole and Bournemouth, had been a rather poor choice so this time I followed my usual Lodmoor route on the A31 until it intersects the A350 which I took southwards, thereby neatly avoiding all the built-up areas. This worked really well and so it was that some time after 11 a.m. we were heading down the worryingly misty roads leading to Renscombe Farm near St. Aldhelm's Head. Due to the large expected numbers, a dedicated parking field had been laid on in which there must have been well over fifty parked cars as we turned in, paid our £2 fee and got tooled up. Then it was a twenty minute walk southwards down the track in the mist, both of us worrying if the bird would be easy to see in the mist. We asked a returning birder who told us that he'd seen it just three times in the two hours that he was there which was acceptable, though not as good as one might hope for.

Finally we came to the twitch crowd and had to work out where to stand. This wasn't as easy as it sounds as the actual viewing area was rather small and people were standing several deep. The problem was that one was looking down into the trees from our vantage point so standing behind someone made things really difficult. I found myself standing behind someone who wasn't too tall and DL headed further to one side to carve out a space of his own.

A rather small viewing area given the numbers

The atmosphere was rather tense as lots of people (including myself) had yet to see the bird. After about ten minutes, someone to my right called it out and the people over there watched it for a bit though from my angle it was impossible to see and I could only listen in helpless frustration to the instructions. Fortunately a little while later the person in front of me decided that he'd seen enough and I was able to take his spot right at the front. The view before me consisted of a row of Field Maples with a couple of gaps in them ("the left gap" and the "right gap" as they were called out), with an Ash tree behind on the left and a couple of tall Sycamores at the back.

The Twitch Arena - Field Maples to the front, Ash & Sycamores to the back
After a while I heard a familiar voice and turned to see EU and KC behind me and as others turned to leave they came to stand beside me. Shortly after that TS turned up so it was an excellent turn-out for the county. There was the usual large twitch tensions going on with one birder nearby struggling to see much and continuously asking in a loud voice "what's that?" and "where are you looking?" until someone snapped and explained as if to a child, where all the key locations were. After that, he kept quiet. EU kept making comments under his breath about the annoyances of the other birders and I had to keep from laughing at some of the things that he said.

Another twitch photo courtesy of Joe Tobias (Twitter: @ja_tobias) showing me (with my fluorescent hood lining) at the front!
There was plenty of movement with several Chiffies moving about and a really showy Firecrest which gave excellent views at the front. A good half an hour had passed so far with only a couple of glimpses of what had apparently been the bird though I'd not personally seen it well enough to be sure. Then suddenly someone called it in one of the Field Maples at the front and suddenly out it popped, showing cripplingly well right in front of us in some bare branches. Several people let slip a stifled cheer at this point, relieved finally to have seen it and the mood of the crowd changed markedly with the release of all the tension. Indeed one person's audible relief was so marked that EU quipped that "he was having an orgasm!".

Some cracking photos (especially give the prevailing conditions) courtesy of Tezzer

The bird was a gorgeously striking thing, superficially like a cross between a Yellow-browed and an Greenish. It had a rather Greenish-like head and super, with a strikingly pale bill, especially the lower half, a fairly long primary projection with a really broad and wide lower wing bar and a fairly reasonable upper one: not quite Yellow-browed proportions though not far off. However, there were none of the darker colouring on the wings that a Yellow-browed might have and the tertials were plain and unmarked. So in reality it was most like a Greenish Warbler but with much more pronounced wing bars. Once one had got ones eye in, it was possible to pick the rather unique colour combination out instantly in flight from the less contrasty Chiffies that were also present.

After that initial show stopper, the bird showed fairly regularly and seemed to be doing a fairly small circuit right in front of us so that we all got excellent views. I tried half-heartedly to take a photo with my superzoom though the light was very poor and a small phyllosc flitting about is not easy for a rather slow-to-respond bridge camera so in the end I gave up and just enjoyed watching the bird. Eventually I started to feel rather tired so went to sit on a nearby wall and to have my packed lunch. DL came to join me and we discussed whether there was time to nip over to Portland but in the end decided that it wouldn't be worth it given that I had to be back by 6 pm. So instead we went back for seconds and again got some more great views of the bird which was showing every few minutes by now. KC had had to head back to the car early because of back problems but the rest of the Oxon crew eventually decided that they'd had their fill so after posing for a squad selfie we all walked back together, chatting and gossiping as we went, all in the best of moods after our grandstand views.

Successful Oxon Squad Selfie

Back at the car park we parted ways and headed off into the mist of Dorset's back roads. I drove back the same way though the mist now seemed to have crept up from just the peninsula to the whole of the South East and it was very gloomy all the way back. After dropping DL off I then had to endure half an hour of traffic jams just to drive the short distance back to my house. Not that I cared, having had such a good day out. Back at Casa Gnome it was time for the usual celebratory cup of tea and a chance to catch up with the family. It had been a grand day out.

Monday, 16 October 2017

Blorenge Revisited

It's been a somewhat frustrating couple of weeks since my last posting though it ultimately ended with a most rewarding twitch. I mentioned the impending North East Uni run in my last post - well, sadly that turned out to be most disappointing due to the vagaries of the tantalising Scop's Owl. Having apparently disappeared on the Friday (when I went to Landguard), it then re-appeared on Saturday leading me to re-kindle my hope of a great potential tick on the Uni run the next day. However, Sunday morning it was AWOL (or AOWL - absent owl!) once more so in the end my daughter and I headed off for the North East late than planned at around 10 a.m. and with no other obvious targets to aim for (there were prevailing strong westerly winds which is generally pants for east coast birding) I just loafed around at my daughter's place all afternoon with a plan to try for the owl again on the Monday morning. After all if it had disappeared and the re-appeared once before then there was a chance that it could do so again. 

On Monday I was up early and headed off on the thirty minute drive from Durham to Ryhope where, in very strong winds I headed hopefully down the path under the railway line to Ryhope Village Dene (a dene being the local name for a small valley that follows a stream to the sea). Mercifully the small valley itself was nicely sheltered though despite extensive searching in it's usual Elder (which I recognised from internet photos) as well as every other possible tree I could find, there was no sign of it. A showy Spotted Flycatcher and a fly-over Redpoll were little consolation for what would have been a great tick had it been present. In the end I had to endure the long slog back down south having had no proper trip birdage at all - most uncharacteristic for the October Uni run which is usually far and away the best Uni trip of the year.

No compensation for the lack of Owlage

Since that ill-fated trip I'd not really done much birding at all. My local Port Meadow patch is still non-existent thanks to the lack of sufficient rain to re-create the flood waters and I've mostly been occupied with work and other matters. I had been keeping half an eye on Cornwall with a view to making a dash down there should the birdage warrant it. However, with strong prevailing south westerlies the whole time there was precious little to tempt me. Finally on Thursday afternoon something cropped up on the radar to alleviate the bordeom: a first winter male Rock Thrush had been found at Blorenge of all places. This was a name that I recognised, having been there once before back in June 2010 for a wonderful male Marmora's Warbler (see my write-up here). Well, it seemed that this most improbable of locations had once again pulled in a rarity. As this site was only just over two hours away and well within my acceptable twitching distance I pencilled in a trip the next day on news. Sadly with the dawn came no news and by 9 a.m. I'd resigned myself to another boring day of work. Miraculously however, at just after 10 a.m. it was re-found, frequenting a different location from the previous day but I was reasonably confident that now that it had been re-located, it would be around for the rest of the day so I set off just after 11 a.m., opting for the more pleasant and scenic A40 route rather than down along the M4 and up again. Occasional news came through of the bird's continued presence during my journey and so it was that a little after 1 pm I found myself driving up the familiar Blorenge mountain before turning off for Pwll du Garry where I added my car to the large collection there and in a very strong wind, got tooled up before heading off on the fifteen minute walk towards the quarry area. 

As I walked there were birders coming back the other way though rather unusually for such an occasion there was little friendly chat as we passed. I don't know if it was the strong wind or the bleakness of the location but it was a strangely quiet affair each time as we trudged past on our respective paths. I got to the first quarry where I'd sort of expected the bird to be located only to find that this impressive area was completely deserted and I had to head on further. Past the first quarry there was a small path off into the bracken and up the hill where others were coming back - had they not been there I'm sure that I would have missed the turn-off. Here there was actual communication and I was told that the bird was showing every ten or fifteen minutes or so and just to keep going to the end of the line of twitchers which I duly did. There seemed to be some uncertainty as to where exactly the bird was located. Three people were intently looking into one side of the screen slope whereas most others were spread out along the path all staring at different places. In the end I headed to the far end of the line where I soon spotted a familiar face in the form of DL from Oxon. It didn't take him too long to spot the bird briefly in the rocks that were at the top of the slope - not an easy spot to view from where we were all located.

The bird was frequenting the top line of rocks where it was relatively sheltered from the very strong wind
After I'd got my eye in, it was relatively easy to find the bird. As promised, it was showing every fifteen minutes or so, in amongst the rocks. Sometimes it would just perch there not doing much, other times it would hop relatively slowly from rock to rock before dipping down to feed where it would be hidden from site. I set about trying to take some digiscoped photos though in the very gloomy light and scope-shaking wind it was a near impossible task and they all came out pretty poorly.

Rocky in the gloom
The bird was very striking - moulting from juvenile to first winter plumage it still had the very mottled appearance of a female Rock Thrush but with the adult male red breast and tail feathers starting to come through. It was similar in size and shape to the Blue Rock Thrush that I'd enjoyed in the Cotswolds at the end of last year - who would have though that I'd be seeing both Rock Thrush within the space of a year, both relatively close to Oxfordshire!  

People came and went and after the usual initial panic as they arrived, everyone managed to see the bird. Viewing conditions were never ideal, with the poor light, strong wind and difficult uphill viewing angle all making it rather difficult but the bird was pretty cooperative and one couldn't really complain. As time wore on the weather worsened and a mist started to descend on the hill which clogged up my lenses and I eventually gave up trying to take any better photos.

Twitchers admiring the Rock Thrush

Eventually, at some time after 3 p.m. I decided that I'd had my fill and started on the long slog back to the car in the strengthening wind and increasing mist. Back at the car I was just watching another birder striding down the road towards me in the ever deteriorating weather when I realised that I knew him - it was MS from Cornwall! He told me that he'd started out from PZ at 5 a.m. that morning and had got as far as Bristol when the dreaded "not present" news was posted. So he'd turned around and had got all the way back to Truro by the time it had been re-found. So it was back around once more and he'd only just arrived as I was departing. That was a long old time on the road to get there! I wished him luck, fired up the Gnome mobile and pointed her in the direction of home. With the dulcet tones of Radio 4 to keep me company the return journey's miles slipped away and I was back at Casa Gnome before 6 pm, in time for my usual celebratory cup of tea and dinner with my family. It had been a great day out with a most rewarding new tick to my name.

The were all sorts of amazing fungi around the hillside - this striking red one caught my eye, one of the Waxcaps apparently

Saturday, 30 September 2017

Larking (or Pipiting) About at Landguard!

It's been a rather tantalising few days recently for me. I'm due to go on the autumn Uni run up to the North East in a few days and when news broke of a Scops Owl just a short drive from Durham during the week I got all excited and nervous at the same time. Could it stay for four days until I was due to head up there? I did try to persuade my daughter that she might want to go up early but alas this wasn't possible. One day later it was still roosting in the same general area but on Friday morning it was reported as having gone - I was most disappointed! Partially out of "revenge" for having missed a great opportunity and partially because I'd been having a difficult week at work and needed a break I decided to take Friday off anyway and to do a spot of filthy twitching. The most obvious candidate was a Red-throated Pipit at Languard NR in Suffolk, next to Felixstowe, which had been present and "showing well" for a couple of days now. Now, this was a species which I'd not seen before and which is normally very hard to twitch as it usually is seen just as a fly-over, making it's distinctive down-slurred call. I did rather regret not going for the twitchable bird in Derbyshire a few years back so when this one seemed well-settled and relatively easy to connect with it was very much on my radar. The only trouble with this plan was that come Friday morning there was reportedly no sign of the bird! That rather put paid to my plans though at around 10 a.m. news came through on RBA that it was still around and so I hurriedly put together a packed lunch and loaded up the Gnome mobile and headed off eastwards.

The Sat Nav was saying about two and a half hours though I was somewhat sceptical. Still I made good progress along the M40 and around the north side of the dreaded M25 though when I turned off onto the A12 it was very busy. Eventually I was on the home straight towards Felixstowe and turning off down some side streets. There was a little hiccup in my plans in that the Sat Nav mistook a path for something navigable and so took me down the wrong road and I had to double back before finally parking up in the correct location that I recognised from Street View and tooled up. There had been no further news on the bird at all since the initial message which was in stark contrast to previous days where there had been a steady stream of updates and to be honest I'd started to resign myself to this all turning out badly. As I walked through the entrance gate I met a birder who confirmed my worst fears, informing me that sadly it hadn't been seen since the initial report more than three hours ago now and so it was with a heavy heart that I headed up the path to see what I could find. This disappointed birder had clearly come along way and his parting words as he was about to leave were "no doubt you'll walk straight into it now that I'm leaving". Sadly I thought that this was rather unlikely.

About fifty yards down the track I found a promising line of birders all looking intently through their scopes.

Always a good sign when you arrive at a twitch!
I hurried over to see what was occurring to discover that they were grilling a candidate Pipit intently trying to work out if it was the Red-throated. They'd just come to a positive conclusion on this as I reached them so in a panic I assembled my scope and tried to get on the bird. It was remarkably close and relatively easy to pick out from the three or so Meadow Pipits it was with. The birds were frequenting a large close-cropped flat grassy area bordered by bramble bushes and despite the poor light conditions it showed continuously at relatively close range as it fed contentedly

The grassy area the Pipits were favouring
The most striking thing about the bird was the strong contrast between its paler and darker feathers compared to the Meadow Pipits. In particular the two "tram lines" down the back were very bright and really stood out in comparison to the dull "tramline-less" backs of its commoner cousins. Also the pale edges to the tertials were very striking in this respect. As far as the head was concerned, it had a pinkish blush to the lower throat area and a very strong black wedge on the side of the throat below the end of the moustachial stripe. All these subtle diagnostic clues were easy to pick out at the close range of about thirty or forty yards distance at which the bird showed. 

The Red-throated Pipit

Some digiscoped video footage

In the twitch line one person mentioned how someone else had come all the way down from County Durham to see this bird but had had to leave without seeing it. Could this have been the birder I'd met as I arrived? I thought back to his prophetic words and wondered whether he was going to turn around again now that the news was out on RBA about it being around again. There's nothing worse than dipping only for the bird to be reported as still present on the return journey.

I watched it contentedly for about twenty minutes before deciding to have an explore around. I was rather conscious of the time as I didn't want to get too caught up in the rush-hour traffic around the M25 on the return journey. However as the whole reserve looked fantastic I wanted to have a good look around whilst I was there. There was a roped off shingle area for nesting birds and to protect the plants (Yellow Horned Poppy and Sea Pea apparently) and I'm sure that had it been earlier in the year I'd be constantly distracted by all the interesting plant life there

Sea Spurge - looking very striking in its autumn colours
I wandered around in a contented fashion taking it all in. I met up with another visitor who was a regular local visitor but not particularly a twitcher so he wasn't interested in seeing the Red-throated Pipit as apparently, it wasn't striking enough to look at.  Over by some houses we spotted a bird flitting on and off a wooden fence which turned out to be a rather nice male Redstart. There were at least four Wheatear knocking around, a Swallow zipped over heading south and quite a few House Sparrows and a Stonechat were hanging out by the buildings.

Landguard Point

Viper's Bugloss
Someone told me that the rare Stinking Goosefoot was to be found over near the observatory so I went to see if I could find it. However, despite a good search over the entire area I couldn't turn it up - I guess it was too late in the season.

I headed back to the main Pipit area to find that it had flown a while ago and was presently not to be seen. I milled around for a bit longer before decided that it was time to hit the highway so I headed back to the Gnome mobile, quickly finished off my packed lunch and then fired up the car and headed for home. The traffic was predictably full and there was some modest stoppage on the M25 but all in all it wasn't too bad a return journey. I arrived back home at Casa Gnome just before 6 p.m. with a shiny new tick to my name and feeling pleased with the spoils from my excursion.