Monday, 12 February 2018

Up on the Roof! Black Redstart, Chipping Norton 11th February

After a cold and wet Saturday when we'd ventured out on to Otmoor and suffered for it, Sunday dawned bright and sunny but still very cold. I was hoping for another stab at hawfinches (they've really got me this winter) but Mrs Caley was not in agreement (the thrill of staring at Yew trees and visiting Churchyards has worn thin) so at her request we paid a visit to a local little owl instead, a bird that she had yet to see this year. The little owl (there maybe a pair but I've only seen the one so far) lives in a pollarded willow tree next to a small pond in a paddock at a house where I've been working recently (see Owling about at work! 17-21 January 2018) and true enough as we set up the scope from the top of the track it was sat, as usual, half concealed in the ivy clad branches. The bird was difficult to see however so we edged a bit closer to the tree so that Mrs Caley got her decent views. The little owl gave us it's meanest stare as if to say "don't come any closer or I'll scarper back into my tree hole" so we didn't. Little owls don't do much anyway so once you've got a view it's not worth spending much time staring back at it. The owl would definitely win that contest! 

As we walked back towards the car I thought hard about where to go next since it was still only 10 o'clock. I had half a motion to go to Farmoor and see if the barn owl was out and about. In a moment of inspiration I remembered that a black redstart had been found near to Chipping Norton during the previous week although it hadn't been seen the day before. I thought maybe it had just lain low in the foul Saturday weather and that it would be worth having a look since we were only 15 miles away. So we pulled into the vacant car park of some rural business premises. A quick glance at the various roof's of the buildings revealed nothing so I jumped out of the car for a better look. I studied all of the places where I thought the bird might be without any sign so retraced my steps thinking Farmoor it was then. Halfway back to the car I saw a bird perched at the top of the gable end of the barn closest to the car and realised that it had to be the black redstart. After a quick remonstration with myself for missing it the first time round I beckoned to Mrs Caley to join me and settled in to watch the bird.

First view

Black redstarts are primarily birds of mountainous and rocky areas in continental Europe although some do breed in Southern Britain usually around industrial parks which contain wasteland. I saw my first black redstart many years ago at Sizewell power station in Suffolk where a few pairs breed and have seen lots since. Indeed I have also found a handful myself over the years usually in Cornwall in October. There was also a cracking male bird at Caversfield close to home once. I can also recall taking a boat trip out to one of the islands off Marseille when I worked there and seeing hundreds of them. This black redstart is a female, not so gaudily attired as the rather dashing male, but still a beautiful little bird that I always enjoy seeing. They are not particularly rare birds and a fair number overwinter in the UK but are infrequent visitors to Oxfordshire with just a few being seen in the county each year. I had half hatched a plan to trip down to Portsmouth to see some (along with other stuff of course) so this bird would save me bit of mileage. As we watched the black redstart hawk for insects across the roof my phone rumbled away and informed me that the bird was present and showing well! Yep, it certainly was!!

The sun was shining brightly but in one of those vague circumstances that only the British weather can throw up, it started snowing! Only tiny flecks but still it was snow (although certainly not for one minute what my late friend Dag the Norske would call snow) and in just over a minute it had stopped anyway. 
Spot the snowflake!
We were able to stand about 10 yards away from the bird and I was able to fire off frame after frame of (by my standards) excellent shots. The bird favoured the end of the roof next to an adjoining piece of overgrown land and it would dive off of the roof frequently in pursuit of a tasty morsel. 

Often it would stand on a fence that was even nearer to us and use that as a springboard to hunt on the rough area  but mainly it would use the roof as its vantage point. 

The roof slates were of course of a similar colour to the rocks in its mountain home and being warmed in the sunshine were attracting insects so it was easy to see why the black redstart had chosen the place. 

Often the black redstart would flutter down to the grassy area just in front of where we stood where it would deftly find another insect to devour. It also at times used one of the fir trees to use as a lookout.

After a while I began trying to photograph the bird in flight and failed miserably! Time after time I would end up with just the end of the tail or a nice image of the birds shadow. One shot produced a cracking image of half the bird! If I managed to get the bird in motion then the picture would always be blurred. Those old photography frustrations resurfaced again! 

Eventually though I managed a couple of decent "flight" shots and even captured the moment just before the black redstart snatched up a fly for its lunch!

The black redstart shared its roof space with a few other birds although the local robin didn't take too kindly to it and chased it away a few times but it always returned. 

The trees surrounding the site held an amazing variety of birds and we saw goldcrest, siskin, nuthatch, treecreeper, mistle thrush, great spotted woodpecker, green woodpecker, yellowhammer and long-tailed tits as well as a lot of more common finch and tit species. A kestrel was hunting nearby too. How I wish that Caley Towers could relocate to a country setting. One day we will!

We left just after midday and had only seen one other birder come to view the bird. If it sticks around I may well go back next weekend for another look and to try and get the ultimate "motion" photo.

Friday, 9 February 2018

Hawfully Frustrating!!! Forest of Dean 7th February

The title of this piece is not only misspelt (there is a pun intended) but is also not an entirely accurate description of our days birding in the Forest of Dean. The birdwatching was great as it always is in the Forest, the frustrations came about for the reasons detailed within....

Mrs Caley and I got up early and left before 06:00 so that we'd be on site at Parkend just as it became light enough to see. We'd already had a thrill as we neared the M40 junction close to Bicester when a barn owl flew across the road just a short distance ahead. This was going to be a day to remember. And so it was, although for all the wrong reasons.

Our purpose for heading to Parkend was to have a go at seeing hawfinches up close and personal. Inspired by the fantastic photographs that many of my Oxon birding friends had taken of hawfinches there, I was spurred (do I ever hate that word) on to get some for myself. Mrs Caley was keen to get these great views too. At Parkend there is a small village green that is surrounded on all sides by Yew trees. As we all know hawfinches absolutely adore Yew's and their berries so they congregate at this place. Birders and photographers alike have taken the extra step of providing a ready supply of seed which attracts the hawfinches and other birds in even closer and puts them in the frame for some crippling shots. So far so good. The downside to the location is that it is busy with traffic, joggers, dog walkers and, unfortunately, some idiotic birdwatchers.

We arrived at 07:30 and were delighted to find nobody else in attendance. We had the birds to ourselves. Immediately on turning into the unmade lane we noticed a lot of finches feeding by the track side. We noted chaffinches, greenfinches, dunnocks, robins and a nuthatch all gorging on the provided handouts. I pulled up alongside and waited. The birds were very jumpy and would fly back into the trees at every passing car but soon returned to their feeding. I began to scan around and locked on to a hawfinch a little further down the track so we nudged the car closer to it. We now had fine views of around a dozen hawfinches feeding in amongst the turned up turf where presumably wild boar had been active (wild boar are systematically digging up most of the forest). The birds were unperturbed by our presence and the only sad thing was that it was still too dark to get any reasonable photos so I just enjoyed watching them. They seemed settled so when the sun rose in a half hour or so then I'd get my shots.

hawfinch, in the gloom (sadly the only photo I got!)

green woodpecker

Before that the fun started or rather the fun ceased. Firstly it was a jogger that sent the birds scurrying. Still that was fine since they'd return to feeding after they'd regained their confidence. Which they did but this time resumed their feast underneath the trees where it was darker still. If they remained there then it would take even longer before being light enough for decent images. Our views were still fantastic and ordinarily I would have been more than delighted but I had come here to get those cracking photos that everybody else had so I needed more. A couple of hawfinches were edging closer and were just about to emerge into a lovely sunlit patch between the trees...and a dog walker came blundering past! Off the birds went again. After another 10 minutes or so I ached my neck around in the car (which isn't really built for wildlife viewing) and saw at least 2 hawfinches feeding out by the place where I'd first parked. Goodness this was becoming stressful. I reversed back very slowly and just as I sidled up to the birds a bloody great juggernaut rattled past and off they went yet again! Aarghh.....

We waited about fifteen minutes and although we could see hawfinches under trees further away and on the opposite side of the green none had resumed feeding next to the car. We had great views of nuthatches and treecreepers and a fine brambling put in an appearance but the hawfinches had gone from our viewpoint.



Then things really started to deteriorate. A mini-bus pulled up and parked in the lay-by opposite our position. A group of around ten or so "birdwatchers" emerged and all stood, under the direction of the tour leader, on a grassy bank a discrete distance away and scopes were trained on the hawfinches that were still underneath the Yews. Unfortunately the finches were too far away for me to photograph and I didn't want to move in the hope that the other folk would drive them towards our car. Another couple of cars bearing birders/toggers had arrived and they had gone down to where we had initially seen the hawfinches. That was good since they were out of my way. However, to my absolute astonishment, the occupant of one car got out and walked into the trees spraying sunflower seeds around. I couldn't believe it. The hawfinches bolted like bats out of hell across to the far side of the green. Why didn't he look first? The birds were already there! Because of his actions and because there were now no hawfinches to be seen the tour group decided almost en masse to look a bit closer. So we had half a dozen "numpties" walking in and out of the trees and out into the middle of the green. If I had any left,  I would have tore my hair out! I was in a simmering rage. What is wrong with people, why can't they behave? Don't they research first like I had done and realise that you can't get out of the car?! The final straw came when one so called birder, in total ignorance to us sat in our car, came and peered up the Yew no more than 10 feet away from where the birds had been feeding. We were done. The birds were probably in the next county by now. I had been well and truly thwarted in my mission to photograph hawfinches at close quarters. 

That's the birds gone then! The feeding area is in front of the tree!

Mrs Caley and I retreated to a nearby cafe and consoled in a coffee and a breakfast bap which calmed my nerves a little. I am a bit of a trier though (yeah, yeah I know), so despite the protestations I drove back to the green on the off chance that our luck would change. The tour group had backed away and the occupants of the cars were all ensconced within so all was quiet again. We parked and the brambling briefly showed again, maybe we would be lucky? We weren't, since no sooner had we settled in than a lady with two big Husky dogs ran full pelt into the middle of the green. My head felt like it would spin off! Double aarghh.... She then plonked herself down on a bench next to the trees and proceeded to spend the next half hour, until I finally gave up, grooming her charges. 

grey squirrel (equally as bemused!)

Maybe we were just very unlucky that day. Others had managed to get the shots after all. But I drove away totally frustrated, exasperated in fact, by the whole experience and vowing never ever to return.  I'm going to continue on my merry path of birding first and taking photos of what I find rather than try to become a photographer which I clearly do not have the patience required or the necessary luck! As I said; one very "Hawful" morning!

We redeemed the day by visiting Crabtree Hill and seeking out a great grey shrike that we'd failed to find on our way back after seeing the rock thrush last October. We trod the now familiar path noting some nice crossbills high up in the trees and marvelling at just how much earthworks that the boar had been doing! Halfway there, two of the "numpty" birdwatchers approached us and looked as if they wanted to start a conversation. They soon thought again and hurried along though when my face contorted into my best snarl! I know I should be nicer but they had done my flippin' head in earlier! 

No problem with the shrike this time as it flew across the track ahead of us and settled in a spindly tree as they do. We were still a way from it though but I at least steadied myself to grab some record shots. We watched it at length until it dived into the gorse bushes and disappeared. Thinking it must have gone over a ridge about a hundred yards away we made our way nearer to it but there was no sign of the bird. It then reappeared back behind us and I wondered, not for the first time that "how do birds do that?" I reckon they've mastered teleportation! 

great grey shrike

The shrike disappeared again and we searched out some more crossbills that were calling away in the tall trees of the nearby plantation. Having found them and after some more had flown overhead, we made to return to the car and had the shrike fly towards us carrying something in it's talons. It passed directly overhead and you could make out the shape of a poor unfortunate small bird that had become the shrikes next meal. For once our luck (in deference to the recently deceased bird) was in as the great grey shrike landed in a tree almost directly next to us and pinned the prey between some branches. It then proceeded to pluck the small bird, which we'd now established as a stonechat, of its feathers. At one point the ex-stonechat tumbled out of the branches and the shrike demonstrated remarkable dexterity in snatching it up again in mid-air. It wasn't happy with it's choice of larder though and moved further into the trees and out of sight. We were amazed to have seen the "Butcher Bird" in action and who knew that small birds were part of its diet. Great grey shrike's are incredible hunters it would seem.

great grey shrike (and ex stonechat)

We departed, just in time, since the whole posse of "numpties" came up the track towards us. I gave each and every one of them my rudest stare with "you ruined my morning" tattooed all across it!

stonechat (living exhibit!)

On our way out of the forest we paid a quick visit to Cannop ponds and to the mandarin ducks that regale on the water there. Handsome drakes and beautiful ducks!

mandarin ducks

So, in conclusion, a very good birdwatching day but equally one of the most frustrating birding (photography) experiences of my entire life!