Wednesday, 13 February 2019

Waxie's Dargle! Part 1 February 1st 2019

I'll have a pint! More of that later...

Thursday night brought snow to Oxfordshire and at home we must have had all of almost 3 inches of the stuff. Not quite enough to make getting out to work impossible but enough to make the going tricky. Most of the country had obviously decided to stay in bed and not bother venturing out so the roads were empty and I managed to get to my job with no problems. On arriving though I had neglected to consider one very important fact. It was around minus 7 degrees centigrade overnight and not much warmer as the day broke and as a result all the onsite water pipes were frozen solid. Other than my own willingness, water is the most vital ingredient for doing my work and without it I just can't operate so after almost 10 seconds of deliberation when I pondered the Clash song, "Should I stay or should I go", I went. Home!

Snow makes things hard for us and it makes things just as difficult for our wildlife. When the ground is covered then finding food becomes much harder and many bird species that normally avoid small suburban gardens such as mine are attracted in by feeders and by necessity. In heavy snow we almost always get a few Redwing and Fieldfare in our garden enticed by apples thrown on the ground and by the berries on a bush that actually grows next door but overhangs our fence. They have to compete with the local Blackbirds for the temptations which is tough work for the Redwing but no problem for the bigger and more intimidating Fieldfare. 

As I drank a warming cup of coffee I noticed a Fieldfare perched on top of the berry bush, grabbed the camera and took a few shots through the closed window. Normally quite shy birds this bird was unmoved by me pointing the camera at it so I adventurously opened the window a little so that I could take some clear shots. Thankfully the bird just stared icily (see what I did there?) back at me, seemingly content with the bounty that it had discovered. The snow covered background made for some nice wintery shots and I thought that next years Christmas cards were sorted.

After a short impasse whereby the Fieldfare continued to just gaze around it began feeding, nimbly picking the berries off the bush and dispatching them greedily. The said bush, a Cornubia, is loaded with ripe red berries and the Fieldfare had his pick of many without having to move anywhere. The bird ate maybe a dozen or so then rested for a few minutes before gulping down some more. It did this  eat, rest, eat, rest procedure for another 15 minutes without moving at all except to stretch for the berries!

The Fieldfare reacted to a Red Kite flying low overhead by adopting a Bittern like "Sky Pointing" posture, something I'd not witnessed before. It wasn't too concerned though and soon settled down again. It's interesting that the Fieldfare perceived no real threat from the Red Kite, if it had been a Sparrowhawk then it would surely have dived for cover.

A few more berries later, including some actually harvested from another sprig and the Fieldfare,  plainly sated now, flew off into a tree on the opposite side of my street.

Almost immediately the Fieldfares place in the Cornubia was taken by a trio of Redwings which all began raiding the berry store, albeit much more nervously. One of them found exactly the same perch that the Fieldfare favoured a few minutes before and pecked away at the bunch of berries just like its bigger cousin had. The Redwing also managed that same icy stare!

I watched the Redwing for a few minutes longer, being more active than the Fieldfare they allowed for many different poses in a much shorter space of time including a few where they would reach for berries and stretch their wings for balance.

More potential Christmas card shots followed as one of the Redwing prolonged its stay on the bush and feasted on the small red berries. Without me realising I had been watching and photographing the Thrushes for over an hour!

Once the Fieldfare and Redwings had left I pondered on the chance that the most sought after berry swallowing visitor, the Waxwing, would find the Cornubia at some point during the winter. Long odds maybe but we have had Waxwings just a few streets away twice before so I live in hope! With that expectation Mrs Caley and I decided to head into town for essentials and a coffee.

(continued in part 2)

Friday, 8 February 2019

Yellow River. 27th January 2019

 After the decent days birding in Northamptonshire despite the inclement weather on Saturday, Sunday morning saw us stood in the Cotswold Water Park near Cirencester. It was freezing cold and the wind was whipping across Pit 44, all of the pits here are equally as imaginatively named and distinguished by numbers although the adjacent pits are not 43 or 45 but rather something in the 100's or something, chilling us right to the bone. We had joined another birder or three who were already present, in the search for a small waif of a bird that we normally only see in Cornwall in October. In fact that one that we've only ever seen in the South West before, namely a Yellow-browed Warbler. This particular bird had chosen an area of trees and bushes close to a stream in this part of Gloucestershire just an hour from home. I can't get enough of Yellow-browed Warblers and would quite happily watch them every day so the trip was a no brainer.

As we had walked along the road that ran alongside Pit 44 we had seen a large group of Red-crested Pochards, both male and females. The drakes are looking resplendent in their freshly acquired breeding plumage and much display was going on.

Red-crested Pochard drake
The Yellow-browed Warbler had been seen just ten minutes or so before we arrived in a small tree that was already adorned with catkins so we studied the immediate area around the tree. A fellow watcher gave us the full run down of the birds exact movements and route around the area and then proceeded to look elsewhere 50 yards up the road! I know from experience that birds like the Yellow-browed usually adopt a small area and then systematically move around it in the search for food so it would definitely return to the same spot before too long. When the little sprite flew right over my shoulder from behind me and into the catkin covered tree, there was only myself and Mrs Caley that could see it. By the time the others had reacted to my calls that I had it, the bird had disappeared into a thick bramble bush. They should have stayed in the same place!

Yellow-browed Warbler, Cotswold Water Park 27/01/2019
Mind you the bird was difficult to pin down, as they often are for a photo, and most of my efforts were either blurred or of bits of twigs. It seems my own bad run with the camera was continuing! In my defence though it so bloody cold that I couldn't actually feel any of the buttons and changing settings was slow work. Too slow when trying to chase a quick moving subject like the Yellow-browed. I soon found the bird again moving through the tangle of bushes that bordered another stream that flowed into the one by which we stood. This time I managed to get the other birders on to it and we all enjoyed prolonged views before it disappeared once more.

The Yellow-browed soon returned, this time flying into the catkin tree from the bramble thicket. It rapidly moved through and then spent some time in the trees in the orchard behind showing really well as it hunted insects on the outer branches. Only trouble was it was now too far away for any great photos but at least it was easier to track.

A few moments later the Yellow-browed Warbler was spooked by a Sparrowhawk that flew in rapidly and low through the orchard, making a half-hearted attempt to snare one of the feeding Moorhens In the next hour we never saw the Yellow-browed Warbler again. I studied the Pit over the road once more and counted over 30 Red-crested Pochards and and five Goosanders before we gave in to the cold and headed off to find a local pub and lunch. 

Goosander drake 2nd left
While enjoying a pretty good Sunday roast in a pub in Ashton Keynes I looked through the bird news and noted that the Yellow-browed Warbler, bird number 104 on the year list, had not been seen again next to the Thames since being spooked by the Sparrowhawk (I hadn't put that news out, one of the others must have). I hadn't realised that the fast flowing stream that the Warbler had chosen as its wintering quarters was in fact the mighty River Thames having completely forgotten that the river that flows wide and deep through Oxfordshire springs as a dribble in this part of the world! Yellow River indeed!!!

Friday, 1 February 2019

A Grey Day! Saturday 26th January 2019

We continued with the theme of searching out new birds for the year list by driving to the rather spooky sounding village of Hanging Houghton just north of Northampton. At least we should be spared the gallows! There is a minor road that leads out of the village into a reasonably remote area of farmland. At the end of the road there is a place called Blueberry Farm which in the past was a terrific place to see Short-eared Owls. Up to 20 of those open ground specialists could be seen in some years but recently the farm was sold and the whole area turned back over to intensive agriculture resulting in the loss of the rough grassland and consequently the Owls were forced out. Today though the quarry was a Great Grey Shrike which had been found frequenting some of the myriad of hedgerows that line the fields.

We joined around a dozen or so cars already parked next to a large barn that was around 400 yards away from the bridleway from where the Shrike was reported to be showing. There had also been a report of a Lapland Bunting that was associating with a flock of Skylarks that were feeding on a stubble field next to the bridleway. I've only seen Lapland Buntings a couple of times before and only ever in Norfolk. I also know that when on the ground they can be very difficult to see, as are all small ground feeding birds but as ever on the outward walk I was optimistic that it would be found either by myself or one of the other birders on site. The Bunting had generated more excitement than the Shrike among the local birdwatchers and a few were staring intently through their scopes at the stubble field. I chatted to a couple and discovered that the Bunting had only been seen in flight since when on the ground all of the birds were practically invisible but someone had picked up the call of the Lapland Bunting as it flew overhead. With that information I felt it was highly unlikely that we'd be seeing a Lapland Bunting so decided to walk on up the bridleway and look for the Great Grey Shrike.

The weather wasn't very palatable, cold winds were sweeping across the farmland and there was rain in the air but for now it was dry. A small charm of Goldfinches were feeding on the seed heads of dead flowers and we saw a flock of Yellowhammers, new for the year, adorn a small tree. Yellowhammers were actually everywhere here and during the time that we spent on site we must have seen hundreds, which is of course very good news since Yellowhammer numbers, in company with many farmland birds, are in severe decline.


Halfway along the bridleway and before we joined a small group of birders I had a quick scan for the Shrike and sure enough some distance was the bird perched at the top of a small tree in one of the hedges. Great Grey Shrikes use lofty perches from which to watch for their prey and this one was no exception. We met up with the other birders and asked if they were watching the Shrike, to my astonishment they said that they hadn't seen it! To be fair from their vantage point you couldn't see it so I suggested that they follow me to the end of the hedge from where you certainly could. Mrs Caley and I were there first and the Shrike was still perched openly as before but, of course, as soon as one of the others caught up, the bird had disappeared!

Great Grey Shrike
The lay of the land meant that you could only see part of the way up the field and it was clear that the Shrike had transferred into a hidden section of the hedgerow network. I could see a couple of birders stood alongside the field but on the other side and on the brow of the rise and I reckoned that they would probably have a complete view of the whole area so Mrs Caley and I walked off around the field edge to join them. The field edges here have all been left fallow and the longer and rougher grasses harboured many birds and we briefly had a view of a Corn Bunting perched on top of a hedge, our second sighting of these scarce birds in two days. On our way around the field I had another scan of the area and spotted the Shrike atop another bush and seemingly right in front of the two birders that we were on our way to join, they must have been getting really good views! We arrived at the top of the hill but the Shrike had disappeared again and began chatting away to the two chaps. One of them was fellow local Oxfordshire and Banbury area birder, Kyle who incidentally writes a good blog which you can read here Britannia Birding, and he recounted that they did indeed have a decent view of the Shrike but it was still a fair way off.

As we chatted the Shrike reappeared across the other side of the field again where it worked slowly along the hedgerow. Also working along the hedge but on the other side to the bird was an over eager chap obviously wanting a close up view. Too close in our collective opinion since the Shrike moved very low down in the hedge even though it allowed the intruder on the other side to within just a few yards. There was no way he could have seen the Shrike through the thick hedge though and his actions would actually be to our benefit since before long the Shrike became unnerved enough to fly back to the northern edge of the field, we were on the west side, and perched right in the top of a tall tree before working slowly towards the hedge where we stood. At the northern corner of our hedge and in the corner of the field was a large area of tall unkempt grasses and weeds and this was attracting a large number of birds. We saw a single Brambling, many Yellowhammers and Reed Buntings and best of all a few Tree Sparrows, a rare bird in Oxfordshire these days. All were feeding in the stubble while alternatively resting in the hedgerow. The Great Grey Shrike was obviously attracted to this potential larder. We also surprised a covey of around ten Grey Partridges out of the stubble which flew quickly down the hill and into another patch of weeds. Grey Partridges are another uncommon species in my neck of the woods too.

Tree Sparrow
Kyle and the other birder had seen enough and departed to bird elsewhere but we thought we'd stick around a little longer and see if the Shrike would reappear. Less than five minutes later it did indeed show itself and incredibly had popped up right in front of us around 50 yards away. For a Great Grey Shrike this was close! After setting Mrs Caley up with the scope for marvellous views I took some photos but alas it was one of those days when try as hard as I could I just couldn't get a decent shot. The combination of the bird being just out of optimal reach of my lens and the very grey day meant that I just didn't have the necessary skills to secure a good shot but we have reasonable record shots anyway. My expertise with the camera is a bit patchy right now and I seem to be going through a hopeless run of form! 

Once the Shrike had gone out of view again we called it a day and headed back towards the car. On the way we met the chap who had been creeping along the opposite hedge earlier. He asked us if we had sen the Shrike since he'd had no luck! I didn't have the heart to tell him that he was just yards away from it earlier but gave him hope instead by telling him that we'd just seen it back along the track. Large flocks of Skylarks were wheeling over the stubble field but if the Lapland Bunting was amongst them then I couldn't see it. It started raining too so we hastily beat a retreat back to the car pausing only to admire some more Yellowhammers.

While packing the stuff into the car I noticed the flock of Chaffinches that I'd seen earlier around the barn was still present so I checked them over again. This time I had a quick glimpse of a male Brambling but before I could share it with Mrs Caley it had flown back behind the barn. The flock of birds was periodically dropping to the ground and feeding on some seed that had been spread out there. At first as I watched there was around fifty Chaffinches and a sole Pied Wagtail taking advantage of the handout but then I saw a Brambling, probably a first winter male, fly in low and join them. 

Whenever the flock was spooked they would fly back up to the barn roof or even into the barn for safety before flying back down again to feed once more. Mrs Caley was watching the birds from the inside of the car, a very wise decision since I was getting quite wet stood outside it, but you need to rough it I think! Another Brambling was now feeding on the ground but when the other birds flew to safety it remained on its own feeding. Sadly this bird, I think another first winter male, didn't look at all well and remained by itself all fluffed up when the other birds were disturbed.

The "ill looking" Brambling
The seed was also visited by a couple of Stock Doves, another addition to the year list but they were very flighty and didn't settle for long. I took some more photos of the Bramblings and then sought the sanctuary of the car myself since it was now chucking it down!

Stock Dove
After a whopping great doorstep sandwich and a few chips in a pub in Brixworth we parked up at nearby Pitsford Reservoir. Pitsford is a huge body of water separated by a causeway carrying busy road. There was a single birder scoping the flocks of ducks in the section of water, known as the Narrows, nearest to the causeway so I asked him if he'd seen the drake Ring-necked Duck which we'd hopefully come to see. On receiving the news that it had been last seen to the north of the causeway we made our way over there but first we enjoyed some distant views of a juvenile Great Northern Diver, added Great Crested Grebe to the year list and I took a couple of photos of a Common Gull that was taking some of the free bread dished out by some other visitors to the reservoir.

Common Gull
On the walk to the area where the Ring-necked Duck was purported to be we spotted a pair of Stonechats that, as they are prone to do, perched up on fence posts ahead of us, always flittering to a new perch to keep a constant distance between them and us.

Male Stonechat
The number of ducks on the reservoir was almost overwhelming but I had to search through them all if I was going to find the Ring-necked Duck. Over half an hour later I had found two Greater Scaup and a couple of Red-crested Pochard, both new for the year and hundreds of Tufted Duck and Wigeon plus a few Goldeneye. We had seen a Great Egret as well but there was no sign of the target bird. Local birder Neil McMahon had arrived and we asked him where the duck was usually seen also pointing out that we'd had no luck. I'd first met Neil in the Kenidjack valley a couple of winters ago when we'd first found the Hawfinches that had set up temporary home there. He has great birding skills so I trusted him completely to find the Ring-necked Duck since I was now having one of those mini crises of confidence because I couldn't find it. Another half hour of fruitless searching by both of us couldn't locate the duck so we had to concede that it was elsewhere. We left since it was now getting late in the day but tarried to watch a flock of Lapwing, a Redshank and another Great Egret that was stood idling at the waters edge.

Great Egret and Lapwing
Our year list now stood at 101 species, not a bad start considering we're still in January. We'd only seen one of our target birds, dipped on another, but had a few welcome surprises too, proving what a mixed bag winter birding can provide. 

Monday, 28 January 2019

The start of a Long weekend! January 25th 2019

Friday was my first day off from the toil of the year and it wouldn't be wasted. The decision of where to go and what to see was a difficult one since there is a lot about within easy reach at the moment and there are a lot of birds that are needed for the Old Caley 2019 year list. I've never bothered much with lists of any description and certainly not at all with year lists until I tallied up the birds that were seen in 2018. Now I find myself wanting to outdo that total of 241 and am actively seeking out the birds that I need. Mrs Caley and I discussed going to the Forest of Dean to get Hawfinch and Mandarin Duck amongst others and Symond's Yat for Goshawk but felt that we could leave that a bit later in the Spring. A much longer trip out to Suffolk was also on the agenda, we could add lots of birds there but the weather forecast wasn't good on the East coast. Waxwings are always a sought after bird but none were within range and I felt sure that they'd get closer once the following weeks promised cold weather hit. After weighing up all of these possibilities and others we decided to put right an early "dip" this year and revisit Deeping Lakes in Lincolnshire and hopefully add Long-eared Owl to the year list. Almost every day since we'd failed to see any on the 5th, see Owl dip, up to four of these Owls and been seen roosting on the island in the main lake there. The trip would also give us the chance of another crack at the Rough-legged Buzzard, which we'd seen but only at a mile distant.

It was a cold morning when we arrived at the deserted parking area at Deeping Lakes. We'd already had a treat on the way in when we'd watched Goosanders displaying on the river nearby and had added Sparrowhawk to the year list as one attacked a large flock of Linnets that were feeding in stubble. 

It's only a short walk to the "Lake" and the hide that looks out to the Owl island. We saw a small flock of Bullfinches on the way but as always with that species they were skittish and refused to pose for a photo. We opened the slats in the, except for us, deserted hide and peered through at the tree covered island a hundred or so yards away. There, bang in the middle of the island and even visible to the naked eye, was a Long-eared Owl. Once again, simples! I mused on the time we'd spent here three weeks ago trying really hard to find one, and failing, in the dense undergrowth of the island, and realised, not for the first time, that you can only see what is there and not what isn't, instead of thinking at the time that I was useless. But you can bet that next time I can't find a bird that is supposed to be present those same old doubts in my ability as a birder will resurface once again! Anyway we'd found the target bird within seconds and I had a full hand of all five British breeding Owls on the year list before the end of January.

Long-eared Owl
I set the scope up and searched through the trees, brambles and ivy on the island for other roosting Long-eared Owls but it was Mrs Caley who spotted another first, just up to the left of the obvious one when it stretched a wing out. So now we had two and a third followed when I saw the belly of one visible in a particularly dense patch of scrub. Very close to that bird was a fourth but you could barely see anything of that one with just the very top of the head showing through the foliage, full power of the scope was required to see that! At such range my camera and lens is nowhere near powerful enough to capture anything other than record shots even with the added converter.

Owl #1
Owl #2
Owl #3
The Owls are one of those species that once found then it's not worth expending too much time with them since they're mostly sleeping and apart from a stretch or quick preen don't do much at all so we looked around at the other bird life on the lake. There were many Goosanders and Goldeneye and a few were close enough to the hide at times to offer better photographic opportunities. Both species appeared to be displaying in readiness for the breeding season and many were already paired off.

Male Goldeneye

Female Goldeneye

Goldeneye paired up.

Male Goosander

Female Goosander
Outside of the hide we searched for different viewpoints in which to look at the Owls in an effort for clearer views but the Bankside is further away so the Owls are even more distant. We could hear gunfire from fairly close by and a helicopter owned by the electricity company came flying low overhead which enticed ducks and geese to fly into the lake from all over. A kingfisher whirred past but didn't stop.

Female Goldeneye

Greylag Geese
We decided that with other birds to find that we should be moving on so left the Owls to their slumber and returned to the car. As we approached the car park a Peregrine flew fast towards us and then veered behind some trees, I actually ran (!) to gain a clear view of the powerful falcon and took some shots but it had already passed. I regained my breath hoping that the Peregrine would circle back to hunt on the scrapes by the cars but it didn't. 

Peregrine Falcon
A pair of Egyptian Geese fed on the river bank next to the access road, we seem to be seeing them everywhere just lately, and back out on the road I stopped once more to take some frames of the Goosanders on the river which was now ruffled by a stiff breeze.

Egyptian Goose

Male Goosander
When we had visited three weeks ago we had viewed Holme Fen from the roads at the southern end. I'd recently seen some decent photos of the Rough-legged Buzzard taken at a place called Frog Hall Bridge at the Farcet village and northern end so we found the nearest access point to the track that led out to the said bridge and parked up. The muddy track stretched for a mile or so out to the bridge which spanned the river and I thought would give access right up to the edge of the fen.  I set up the scope and found the Buzzard almost immediately but unfortunately it was just as far away as it had been from the roads. All that walking appeared to be in vain! Still we were ever hopeful that the target Bird of Prey would work its way along the river and we'd get the close view that I wanted. In order to improve our chances we started to walk along the river embankment but this area is huge and it became plainly obvious that we'd never close the gap between us and the bird in the remaining time left in the day so we gave up. Maybe next time we'll give it all day and do the full walk. All I had to show for the effort was another lousy set of record shots taken from a mile away! At least the scope views were good.

Rough-legged Buzzard (honestly!)
I noticed a Fox pounce onto some unseen prey in the long grass next to the riverbank, it must have been unsuccessful since it emerged into full view without any prize. The Fox took a while to notice us and when it did it stared back, sizing us up, before returning back to the longer grassland and disappearing. I love chance encounters with wildlife.

There was still maybe an hour of daylight left so we toured around back to our position of three weeks ago in the hope that the Short-eared Owls that we'd seen on our last visit would be out hunting. It had turned into a pleasant sunlit afternoon so I was hopeful of getting some nice shots. The Owls, if present, had other ideas though and, typically, none showed in the hour that we stayed! What is it with Owls that they only seem to want to come out to play in crap weather? Consolation came in the form of a couple of Corn Buntings, new for the year, and a Red Kite that sailed past very closely.

Corn Bunting

Red Kite
We'd achieved our aim of seeing the Long-eared Owls and added a few more decent birds to the year list which now stands at 91, so drove back home quite happy and made plans for the next day.