Wednesday, 18 September 2019

Hip Hip Olais! And A Bunting! 14th September 2019


Excuse the massive (and inaccurate) pun for the title but all will be revealed later in this blog and you may want to make a cup of tea or better still grab a snifter because this will be a long one!

The Saturday before had been spent watching a contentious Wheatear on the Fylde coast near Fleetwood. At the time the identity of the Wheatear was undetermined but since then folk with much better powers of deduction and far more knowledge than me have decided that it is in fact an Eastern Black-eared Wheatear rather than a Pied Wheatear which is cool since the former is much rarer in this country than the latter. You can read my account of that trip here Wheatear. On our way home from seeing the Wheatear we stopped for a coffee on the motorway and discovered that a couple of Lapland Buntings had been found on the North Wales coast at Llandudno but we were already near Stafford so it would have been too much effort to go back northwards. I was slightly annoyed that I hadn't known about the Lapland Buntings earlier since that species is required for the Old Caley year list. I've also only seen a few Lap Bunts before and my views, while good, had never been close and those birds in Wales, going by the photos of them, were showing extremely well. Then on Wednesday as we were twitching a very hard to see Bluethroat near Southampton, written up here Bluethroat, another very confiding Lapland Bunting had been found at Portland Bill. It was too far to go that day but I'd watched the bird news services avidly for the rest of the week in the hope that it was settled and would remain. And so on Saturday, since the bird was still present on Friday evening, we took the decision to drive the 145 miles to Portland to year tick it. Even if the Bunting had departed on the clear and full moonlit Friday night, there is always lots of other good birds to see on the "Isle" of Portland. Jutting out into the English Channel as it does Portland, particularly the area at the Southernmost point, the Bill, attracts both incoming migrant birds as well as being the last port of call for outgoing birds too.

Halfway on our journey the Lapland Bunting was reported as being still present. It was frequenting a part of the cliff path adjacent to a cafe near to the Portland Bill lighthouse and conveniently there is a large car park at the Bill that would be close to the bird. As we drove in along the approach road we could see a small gaggle of birdwatchers all looking at the same spot and presumably the Lapland Bunting about 50 metres from the cafe. It was just a short walk from the car park and sure enough and requiring no effort whatsoever to find, the Lapland Bunting was feeding on the short grassy edge to the coast path.


Lapland Bunting, Portland Bill, 14/09/2019
The Lapland Bunting, bird #264 on the Old Caley year list, appeared totally unfazed by its admirers and was feeding quite unperturbed. Mrs Caley and I settled down on a bench less than 10 metres from the Bunting and using the seats back as a rest for the camera I began taking shot after shot. The strong sunlight was at our backs and I actually set the camera right down to just ISO 100 at times, usually I have it set at around 400. At first I thought that maybe somebody had scattered seed down for the Lapland Bunting but after a while it became apparent that it was picking grass seeds out of the short seed heads. I also saw it snare a small grasshopper but missed the shot because I was fiddling with the camera settings!






Lapland Buntings are one of those "little brown jobs" but that description that doesn't really lend them anywhere near enough distinction or credit. They are similar to Reed Buntings but have a reddish-brown panel on the wings that are bordered by two white wing bars. They have a reddish-brown face that is enclosed by a black inverted comma shaped line that runs from the eye down the cheek and back to the base of the bill. This bird was a male, probably a first winter, so was sporting a speckled black georgette that enclosed a pale throat. The short stubby bill was a pale pink colour and legs were black. The feet of Lapland Buntings have an elongated hind toe which lends itself  to the birds alternative name of Lapland Longspur.






A quite distinctive feature and seen when the Bunting was facing head on to us were the pair of rather fetching eyebrows!




The Bunting continued to feed and was only bothered when a couple of young Carrion Crows landed nearby. When one of the Crows approached too closely the Lapland Bunting flew off a short way along the path but soon settled down again. 


juvenile Carrion Crow
We moved along the path and sat on another bench, a little bit further away from the Bunting than before, and continued to watch it feed. While feeding it was ever wary though and often tipped its head so that it could watch passing birds overhead. Occasionally the Bunting took a stretch extending its wings and tail out to their full extent.






As we sat on the bench dividing our time between watching the Lapland Bunting and looking out to sea, hoping in vain for a Shearwater, the Bunting actually began working its way towards us. We were just about the only birders still interested in the bird, most had departed for the cafe or elsewhere, so pretty much had it to ourselves apart from the odd, and inquisitive, passer by. The Lapland Bunting was now pecking away on the sparse and bare, to my eyes anyway, coast path itself but still seemed to be eating readily. We had been watching it for 45 minutes and it had only stopped eating once when it flew away from the Crows! If it keeps that up it'll be too fat to fly!







Some variety to the morning was added when a Northern Wheatear dropped in and perched on a clump of what looked like dandelions (probably not and something else entirely different but Botany is a non-starter in my head) and then a small flock of Starlings which also showed interest in the drying grasses. The Bunting was not at all bothered by any of these imposters unlike when the two Carrion Crows came close earlier.


Northern Wheatear
juvenile Starling
adult Starling
The Lapland Bunting had continued to come closer to us, we were still sat on the bench, and I was getting even better and closer photos than before. The scope that I'd carried was now completely redundant, it would have been difficult to focus it since the bird was only around 5 metres away, except as use as a camera support. Shooting at low ISO's requires a slow shutter speed so stabilising the camera becomes a necessity.








Eventually the Lapland Bunting had got so close to us that I couldn't focus the 400mm lens on it at all. So I resorted to taking a video of the bird on my phone. It was a short video because after only 10 seconds the Bunting suddenly took to flight and flew right past my nose, trilling as it went, and headed southwards back towards the cafe. Overhead the cause of the birds consternation turned out to be a prowling Kestrel. 

Another scarce bird, a Wryneck, had been seen on Portland in recent days and was still present in the Bird Observatory Quarry. Usually we would have been more than keen to see a fabulous Wryneck but today were being more than a little bit blasé about rushing to see it since we'd had a fantastic encounter with one in South Wales just a few weeks ago, see Wryneck. But now we'd had our fill, and I had over 300 photos (!), of the Lapland Bunting we headed over to the quarry to look for it. On arriving we were told by another birder that the Wryneck had been showing just before we arrived but only fleetingly. I got the chap to point out the spot it had been seen and concentrated on that area. The Wryneck was right at the top of the rocks that make up the quarry wall and I knew from experience that it would probably pop up perched in one of the weedy stems on the ridge above. Wrynecks are also affectionately known as "Snake Birds" owing to their long snake like tongue which they use to extract their favourite foodstuff of ants from the earth and also because they have a very snake like way of twisting their heads right the way around. Maybe I'm a Wryneck charmer because less than a couple of minutes later the Wryneck was indeed perched in on of the weedy plants just a s I had predicted!


Wryneck
After surveying its temporary home for a few minutes, as Wrynecks are prone to do, it then began feeding again and became elusive once more, as they also do. It briefly appeared in another scrubby part of the quarry wall and then perched even more briefly on top of an ivy covered tree stump. A few birders were struggling to get on the bird, Wrynecks are hard to see owing to fine cryptic plumage rendering them very well camouflaged and tend to skulk when feeding.




They needn't have worried though since the Wryneck then flew on to a grassy covered rock and commenced feeding right in the open. Now the strange looking member of the Woodpecker family was easy to see and everybody present was delighted. Of course we had seen one at just a few metres away in Wales and this one was about 20 metres away so I didn't bother taking too many photos but instead enjoyed just watching it. It was also good to share my scope views with other curious folk, some of whom had never seen a Wryneck before.





The Wryneck disappeared when a Kestrel boldly flew right into the grass just a few metres away from the birders and snatched a vole. The attack was too quick and it was too close for me to get the camera on it but I did manage to grab a few frames of the falcon carrying the prey away and also when it landed, on the exact same rock that the Wryneck had been on a few moments earlier, to devour its meal.



Kestrel
The observatory quarry used to be a good spot for seeing Little Owls since a pair had nested amongst the rocks there for a number of years but as far as I know they are not there anymore having been disturbed, so I was told, by over inquisitive birders and the attentions of one of the resident Kestrels. Luckily though, one of the Ladies, who had taken a look through my scope at the Wryneck, was a resident Portlander and was now deep in conversation with Mrs Caley. I heard my better half asking her about the Little Owls. Good work! She very kindly provided us with another place close by where Little Owls could be seen, one good turn deserves another, so we headed along the coast path to have a look. As we strolled along the cliff top we encountered Northern Wheatears just about everywhere! They were perched on top of the holiday sheds, on posts, on rocks and anywhere else that they could. I estimated over 100 altogether and that was just the ones we saw, there would have been many more on other parts of the Portland area.






The Wheatears were no doubt fuelling up for their migration southwards and would probably depart that night. We had found Wheatears hard to come by this summer and had seen very few even when in Scotland. When we visited Portland on a failed Hoopoe twitch in April there had been a mass arrival of Wheatears but I assume most had flown much further north to breed hence their paucity in the UK. Now they were chasing insects in the short cliff top grasses and were joined by a fair few Yellow Wagtails and Meadow Pipits. The path ahead of us was almost a moving carpet of birds but all were very wary and flew as soon as we got anywhere near.


Yellow Wagtail
We reached the spot where we'd been told Little Owls would be, another disused quarry but well away from the beaten track. A quick scan of likely looking spots didn't reveal any though so I studied a couple of the Wheatears that were close by. I found at least a couple of the Greenland form of Northern Wheatear, bigger and more richly coloured than the nominate with a striking pale supercilium.

"Greenland" Northern Wheatear
We moved around to another vantage point and I quickly noticed the undercarriage of a Little Owl seemingly wedged in a crack in the quarry wall. The Owl had noticed us just as quickly and peered back at us from its hidey hole. Unfortunately it scurried back into the rocks before Mrs Caley had a chance to spot it!


Little Owl
But never fear, Old Caley is here, and I soon found another Little Owl, this one stood prominently on one of the rocks just a little further away and it remained firmly rooted to its spot. Mrs Caley loves Little Owls so was delighted to have seen one. We had tried at the other quarry every time that we'd visited Portland without success so it was good to learn of this new site for them. Getting good photos of Little Owls is difficult though because for some reason the camera doesn't like focussing on their streaked and subdued plumage. I tried a variety of settings and found that only by focussing manually could I get a sharp(ish) image.





The Little Owl was unmoved by a pale Common Buzzard soaring overhead. I'd been regularly scanning the skies in the hope of spotting a Honey Buzzard flying out to sea but not unexpectedly that aspiration was forlorn.


Common Buzzard
We returned to our first viewpoint of the quarry and I was amazed to find yet another Little Owl, this time again partially hidden under a rock overhang. It was obvious that the Owls had chosen this site because the rocks gave them good safe places to bolt to should danger arise and also suitable places to breed, cracks in rocks must mimic the more usual tree holes. I guess that when feeding they take advantage of small voles and other small creatures housed in and around the quarry in much the same way that the Kestrel did earlier.





Wheatears still abounded as we walked back towards the cafe where we hoped to take in a nice coffee and cake before heading off to Lodmoor at nearby Weymouth to look for a Long-billed Dowitcher, wouldn't be a year tick since we'd seen the Frampton Marsh bird twice already but it was showing extremely well so would offer good photographic opportunities. The cafe was packed to the rafters though so we didn't bother stopping except for Mrs Caley to have a quick look through the "rock" (stony type) shop for some samples to take home to our daughter. While she was shopping a message hit my phone of a mega rare bird, an Eastern Olivaceous Warbler (EOW from now on), that I'd never seen before. Excitingly it was at Farlington Marshes not far from Portsmouth and only a short detour off our route home. Five minutes later, SatNav primed we were on our way!

The 85 mile journey took us around two hours including a coffee stop (how cool was that!) and we trundled into the Hampshire Wildlife Trusts carpark shortly after half past three. The car parks were almost full but I managed to find a space when someone drove out. The marshes are a popular spot not just with birders but with local non-birding folk too. The bird was supposedly in an isolated clump of Blackthorn in an area known, quite suitably, as The Bushes. We could see the assembled twitchers as we walked down the lane towards the reserve. Reassuringly the EOW had been called as still being present several times as we'd been travelling so we were confident of a successful outcome. When we arrived at the designated spot both of us were more than a little bit dismayed when we saw several, actually some 20-30, birders and photographers stood right next to the Blackthorns and even moving branches to get in them. Why so close?, was our shared question. Surely the bird would be rattled by such behaviour? And yet it had been showing frequently and openly so it couldn't be. We stood further back and watched for any sign of the EOW moving and listened for the "tacking" call that the EOW would make but also looked for any excitement among the twitchers which would indicate that the bird was showing.

It didn't take long before those assembled closest to the bush started the animated "there it is" and "just under that bramble twig" followed by the inevitable "where?" and "I can't see it!". Cameras whirred into action so the EOW must be visible somewhere but I couldn't place it. I edged around slightly to my right tugging Mrs Caley along with me and there it was, #265 for the year and another life tick! The Eastern Olivaceous Warbler was preening in a small sunlit spot amongst the brambles and I rapidly fired off some shots, which incidentally proved to be some of my best efforts over the next hour or so.





Eastern Olivaceous Warbler, Farlington Marshes, 14/09/2019
Frustratingly Mrs Caley, being shorter than I am couldn't see the bird owing to taller birders stood in front blocking the view so we edged back a bit more so that she could get a clear line to the bushes. A couple of friends of ours, the Polleys, came over to say hello. They had also been at Portland for the Lapland Bunting and had ticked the Long-billed Dowitcher at Lodmoor before hearing about the EOW.  We were all having a good day! The rare Warbler showed again but this time in another part of the thicket and this time at low height so Mrs Caley was defeated again! I'm not satisfied and relaxed until she has seen a bird but I don't lack patience so I was sure that she'd get it!




The EOW reappeared again at the top of the bushes but this time was too quick for me to grab any shots. Even though the bird showed frequently it was very active now and flitted quickly in and out of the tangle of branches and leaves. Then it appeared perched on a thick bramble twig moving only slowly along it. Thankfully Mrs Caley was on it this time so I now had carte blanche to take as many photos as I could!





The problem was that the EOW despite showing regularly spent much of the time tantalisingly partially hidden in the foliage making getting decent shots tricky indeed. On the few occasions that it perched openly on an exposed branch such poses were temporary and I was never fast enough to capture the moment. I took a bit of time to actually try and follow the bird and take in some of the ID pointers. One of the EOW's habit is to consistently "dip" its tail which this bird dutifully did often. Olivaceous translates as "of a dusky yellowish green colour" or simply as "olive green" but in the strong afternoon sunlight I gained the notion of a grey-brown coloured bird, not as rufous or as beige as similar looking Reed Warblers but, to my eyes at least, not really "olivaceous" either! Other distinctions could be seen, like the short pale supercilium in front of the eye and the very long bill. Whoever picked this bird out as EOW has considerably more skill at identifying birds than I'll ever have!





But I was happy to see it and count it as my latest lifer, my third in just 11 days! Another Oxon birder Ton was also there but surprisingly I didn't see any of my other fellow county birders. Maybe they've already seen one before. With the antics of the twitchers degenerating further as more and more arrived we called it a day and left for home. The Latin name for Eastern Olivaceous Warbler is "Iduna pallida" but it's generally classed as a member of the Hippolais family of Warblers which include the bright yellow-green Melodious and Icterine Warblers (both of which are on the Old Caley life list). Hip Hip Olais! I'll get my coat.....