Wednesday, 15 May 2019

200 Up! 26th-30th April 2019.

I had set a target at the start of the year to see as many species of birds as I could in 2019 without going too mad. And without going mad! I saw 242 species in 2018 and thought that I'd at least try to beat that number. Little did I know how year listing takes over and adding birds to the list becomes a priority when planning days out birding. However I'm not a "big" twitcher although I will travel in order to see something that's new for my own life list or for a bird that has appeal. Hence already this year Mrs Caley and I had made trips to the Isle of Wight, Lincolnshire, Dorset, Essex and a variety of other destinations to bolster that year list and to see some great birds of course. A Nightingale seen yesterday in Essex had taken the count up to 199 and now I was eager to get to 200 before the end of April!

was wondering what spectacular species I could add to make it 200 but in reality it was a fairly common summering species that got me there on Friday afternoon at Farmoor Reservoir when a Common Sandpiper flew past us as we walked down the causeway. I didn't even manage a photo of the bicentennial bird! Cue quelled trumpets and burst balloons......

Bird 200! Common Sandpiper, Grantown-on-Spey, 14/06/2018
Farmoor was quiet on that Friday afternoon, as it had been for most of the year. We did find a couple of Dunlin scuttling along the embankment of the causeway but as usual missed out on the Whimbrel reported earlier.

Common Terns have now arrived back in number but there were no Black Terns yet at the reservoir, surely some will appear soon.

Common Tern
In the absence of much else to grab the attention I studied a Carrion Crow making a meal of eating a dead Perch, conjuring up memories of that old joke "Birds stood on a perch, can you smell fish..." but with the new punchline, "Mmm...okay let's eat it....starting with the eyes....nice!"

"Can you smell fish......", Carrion Crow 
As we left the reservoir a female Yellow Wagtail posed dutifully for a photo.

Yellow Wagtail
On a very windy Saturday morning we returned to Farmoor to see what Storm Hannah, which was battering the west coast, had deposited in Oxfordshire, probably nothing as per usual but if you don't look then you don't see. The Roby's were also there but they very wisely elected to seek the shelter of the woodland walk with the added incentive of finding a wayward Flycatcher or Wood Warbler. We decided to head out onto the reservoir itself. The car park windsock was hanging on by a thread but at the carpark level we were still fairly sheltered from the ravages of the storm. Once at the reservoir level we were fully open to the elements and the strong wind from the west absolutely pummelled us! It was hard walking past the marina and waves crashed so hard against the embankment that the spray was flying over and hitting the buildings. It was a little bit akin to walking along the sea front in a gale force 9! Nobody else was daft enough to be out except us but then silly is my middle name sometimes! When we turned to walk down the causeway we could barely make headway against the wind and the walk to the hide where we sought refuge was one of the toughest we've ever done. Naturally we didn't linger long to look at anything much on our way to the hide but it was clear that many Gulls and Terns had dropped into the reservoir to feed and most were on the slightly calmer F1 so we'd be able to watch them well from the hide windows.

Black-headed Gull
We made it to the hide and took our place at the windows. Fortunately the wind was howling in from the west so were able to look out onto F1 unhindered. We did wonder about the durability of the wooden structure though since every gust of wind threatened to lift it off its foundations and I had visions of one of those films in which you see houses swirling away in a tornado. But of course the hide stayed put and we studied the birds battling against the wind and waves out on the reservoir. The Gulls and Terns were quite at home in the conditions, they are made for it and must be used to far worse at sea. I watched the Black-headed Gulls nimbly picking off stranded flies from the water surface and noticed their smaller cousin, a Little Gull, in amongst them. Usually Little Gulls are feeding right out in the middle of F2 at Farmoor but this one, a fine adult, was much closer in and often chased food within 50 yards or so of the hide. The Little Gull also stayed in pretty much the same spot for the whole time that we were there.

Little Gull
Adult Little Gulls are very smart birds, with a full black hood and a subtle pink wash to the underparts. They feed very actively, flying above the water and then dipping down to pick an insect from the surface. We noticed a few Terns also feeding and managed to identify a couple of Arctic Terns among the Common Terns. Once we'd isolated the sleeker and paler Arctics it was easy to follow them owing to their bouncier flight pattern.

Arctic Tern
It was even too rough for the Cormorants to go fishing and they were all stood on the rafts and appeared to be hanging on for grim death. A few tried flying out but soon returned.

Cormorants & Little Gull
After an hour or so the wind abated a little and we tentatively made our way along the rest of the causeway towards the river. In the sheltered corner of F1 were hundreds of hirundines feeding low to the water but try as I may I just couldn't hold the camera steady enough to capture any. We surprised 4 Yellow Wagtails from the embankment but they were flying off before I had chance to get those as well. Next to give me the slip were a couple of Common Sandpipers which went tootling on their way across F1. I did mange a few shots of a pair of amorous Black-headed Gulls but only by using the guard fence over a sluice as a support for the camera.

Black-headed Gull
We were literally blown away by the time we reached the sanctuary of the car but it had been a fun excursion and it's always good to get an adult Little Gull and Arctic Terns.

We called into the Bicester Wetlands on the way home to see if the wind had blown anything in there but there was little on offer except for Swallows, House Martins and a fine Little Ringed Plover.

House Martin
Little Ringed Plover
A change of tack for Sunday morning as we ventured out early onto Otmoor. It was decidedly chilly and still quite breezy, Storm Hannah was still hammering the west, and although there was plenty of song most birds kept deep inside the bushes and showed reluctantly. I didn't take a single photo until we had reached the first screen and there were only common species there. It was nice to see new life on the Moor when a Greylag Goose family swam past, the young Goslings dutifully keeping close to their mum.

Greylag Goose family
With little to keep us occupied we didn't linger too long but at least as the day warmed up there were more birds braving the elements and opting to venture out of cover. The resident male Marsh Harrier was out on one of its customary flights along the reedbed that lines the path and a Bullfinch pair reeked out Dandelion seeds.

Marsh Harrier
female Bullfinch
A Common Snipe drummed overhead, the first we've seen do that this year, they usually drum in the evening. We saw our first Warbler of the day when a windswept Common Whitethroat chortled away from the Oak that stands beside the path. He didn't stay on the exposed perch for long.

Common Snipe
Common Whitethroat
The Wetlands Watch hide was welcoming on such a chilly morning but apart from the Finch and Bunting flock feeding on the winter seed there wasn't too much to see there either. One of the Yellowhammers found a much more rewarding titbit in the long grass.

A pair of drake Mallards flew noisily past in pursuit of a couple of females. At this time of year Mallards are very handsome birds but because they are common most folk don't give them a second look. On a slow day though they are worth studying more closely.

A few Rooks and Carrion Crows were also interested in the scattered seed and both spent time perched precariously on the bushes. Getting a decent image was tricky because of the movement created by the wind.


Carrion Crow
While driving to work on the Monday morning I had the pleasant surprise of a Tawny Owl flying across just in front of the van. I don't see many Tawny's and it was good to see one actually out hunting rather than just year ticking the Gloucestershire bird. Obviously no photo since my hands were on the wheel and I couldn't relocate the Owl after turning around and going back for another look.

Mrs Caley and I returned to Otmoor on the Tuesday evening which was warm and sunny and far removed from the conditions of Sunday morning. Birds were much more active and several Warbler species were belting out their diverse songs, many from exposed perches for a change.

Lesser Whitethroat

Sedge Warbler
Great Crested Grebes were active close in to the first screen, one in particular looking positively radiant framed by the reflection of the reeds.

Great Crested Grebe

Friday, 10 May 2019

The Only Way is Essex for a Lifer! 25th April 2019

Ortolan Bunting, Courtesy of Jim Hutchins
An opportunity presented itself to twitch a bird that I've longed to see for a fair few years now, namely an Ortolan Bunting that had been found close to Abberton Reservoir near Colchester in Essex. For people like us living in Oxfordshire any excursion eastwards on a week day involves navigating London bound traffic so a day out in that direction can be an ordeal. So we waited on news that the Ortolan was still present before undertaking the journey which would give the rush hour(s) traffic a chance to die down a bit. 

While waiting for updates we popped into the BBOWT reserve at nearby Calvert to see if the pair of Black-necked Grebes were still present so that Mrs Caley could add them to her year list, I had seen them the day before since I was working nearby. The Grebes were indeed still there and I took a few quick record shots. 

Black-necked Grebe
Still without an update on the Ortolan we decided it would be prudent to continue travelling east, we took a big detour around the north Buckinghamshire countryside in order to avoid Aylesbury, and reach Wilstone reservoir near Tring where a Black Tern, not yet on our year list, had been seen. It was raining as we climbed the steps to the reservoir and try as hard as I might I couldn't find the Black Tern so maybe it had moved on. We returned to the car, now at a bit of a loss, and made tentative plans to visit BBOWT's flagship reserve at College Lakes while we waited for news on the Ortolan. As I fired up the car the message came through that the target bird was still present in the same place so we were on our way to deepest Essex!

With it now being mid morning the morning rush was well over and we sailed trouble free along the M25 and A12. The last leg of the journey was slower since every farmer, tandem bicyclist. horseman and horsewoman decided that it'd be a good time to go out on the minor roads and thus get in our way! But we still managed to pull into the Billett's Farm car park just before midday and within just a couple of minutes were looking at our first ever Ortolan Bunting, nudging me one closer to 400 species seen in the UK and on to 196 for the year.

Ortolan Bunting, Abberton Reservoir, 25/04/2019
The bird was feeding alone in short grass next to an accumulation of broken down farm machinery. I was expecting a rich and brightly coloured bird so was a little bit underwhelmed by a much more subdued plumaged bird although the yellowish throat and eye ring were evident enough. Perhaps this was a first summer male and had not quite attained full breeding plumage yet. In any event the Ortolan would do well to remain in the UK and stay away from France where, despite it being illegal practise, many are still eaten by (disgusting) wealthy folk (including allegedly a past president) as a delicacy. How anyone could take delight from partaking in such an awful custom is beyond me entirely and any pleasure obtained must be very guilty indeed.

We watched the Ortolan for a few minutes until it disappeared into the farmyard junk. We needed a comfort break and a coffee so headed the short way to the Essex Wildlife Trust on the other side of the reservoir. From the windows there we could see large numbers of Terns feeding over the water and a regular assured us that there were a few Black Terns amongst them, giving us an opportunity to add those to our year list once we'd finished with our lunch. In the car park I set up the scope and after a bit of searching locked onto a Black Tern way out in the middle of the reservoir. Not the best views we've ever had of them but the year list notched up to 197.

We intended to go back and have another look at the Ortolan Bunting but first stopped on the Layer de la Haye Causeway to see what might be around. Long-tailed Ducks and a Ring-necked Duck had been reported there in recent days but there was no sign of either for us. I scanned the larger part of the reservoir and found at least 5 Black Terns amongst the plethora of Common Terns and Gulls. The Terns were too far out to attempt any photography so I turned my attention to the spit of land that juts out into the reservoir. There were sleeping Teal and Mallards and then I got a very welcome surprise when I spotted 3 Whimbrel also resting on the grassy bank. Whimbrel are a bird that captivate me every time I see them, perhaps because they are so few and far between in landlocked Oxfordshire and when they do turn up nearer to home I always seem to miss them. The Whimbrel were a long way out but I managed a record shot and the year list counter went up to a 198.

Much closer to the embankment was a pair of Little Ringed Plover that fed in the weedy edge. These gave us great close views, better by some distance than we get at our local reserve. They shared the concrete edge with a pair of resting Common Terns and a few Pied wagtails.

Little Ringed Plover
Common Tern
There was a lot of excitement amidst a few birders stood on the other side of the road and I heard "Little Gull" called several times. I turned my attention towards them and followed the direction where the birders were looking and also followed the shouted instructions, "going right...dipping to the high" and so on but couldn't see anything other than Black-headed Gulls. I crossed the road and looked from a much closer vantage point but still I could only see the Black-headed Gulls and a few Common Terns despite the same chap calling the "Little Gull" continuously. When I asked him to point out the smaller Gull he replied that "it had disappeared and that he couldn't see it now". I left him to it, the cynic in me wondering that maybe he had got over excited and been mistaken.

Back at the farm there was no immediate sign of the Ortolan Bunting but other folk assembled there were trained on a Yellow Wagtail in the field on the northern side of the track. This turned out to be a "Channel" Wagtail, the hybrid produced by the interbreeding of the nominate flavissima (Blue-headed) with our own flava subspecies. We've seen a few of these "Channel" Wagtails now, they are delightful little birds. The Wagtail rewarded its admirers by flying into a small garden where it afforded some really nice views.

"Channel" Wagtail
The Ortolan had reappeared, this time on the roof of one of the barns. The bird was now easy to see and we had great scope views but it was really just a little of reach for my lens and the day was a bit dull to get the full benefit of attaching the converter, although that didn't stop me trying of course. The Ortolan was catching flies and other insects that must have been attracted to the warmer roof tiles. It frequently disappeared from view by ducking into a weed filled gutter often emerging to stand lookout from the gutter rim.

The Ortolan flew off out of sight so we diverted our intent back to the "Channel" Wagtail again and I took a few shots of it flying low to the ground. There were "normal" Yellow Wagtails here too.

"Channel" Wagtail
Yellow Wagtail
While in the visitor centre at lunch I had a moment of inspiration when I looked at a map on the wall. I already knew that there was a famous site for Nightingales in Essex at Fingringhoe Wick but until I looked at that map I didn't realise that it was only 7 miles from Abberton. No brainer then to take the 15 minute drive over to the EWT's sister reserve situated on the marshy edge of the river Colne. We played it cool by taking in another coffee first and inquired of the helpful volunteer staff where the best place to look for the Nightingales would be. They replied that basically the Nightingales were everywhere, 16 had been counted that morning, but the best place was probably at the picnic area just a hundred yards away. We made our way towards there and could indeed hear a Nightingale singing just yards out from the visitor centre but that was well hidden so we carried on. Well before the picnic tables I could hear another Nightingale singing heartily and this time I spied it perched up openly in a twiggy tree that was yet to sport many leaves. Approaching boldly to the tree the bird was totally unperturbed and continued belting out its glorious refrain as I began taking frame after frame of photos.

After the bird had flown to another perch in its territory I realised that the extender was still attached to the lens, normally not a good thing but this time it had probably worked in my favour since the light had been good enough now the sun had come out. We followed the song around to the wood yard just 50 yards or so away and spotted the same Nightingale (or another) singing away from another small tree. It was in direct competition with at least 2 others in a very small area. A friend of mine had told me that Fingringhoe Wick was a top spot for Nightingales and he certainly hadn't lied!

Of course, Nightingales are not always so showy and some take a bit of finding when they sing hidden in the undergrowth and scrubby bushes.

We had only an hour on site but had seen or heard at least 8 different Nightingales, some out in plain view others completely hidden, as well as many other birds such as Lesser Whitethroat and Cuckoo. Bearing in mind that a regular place that we traditionally visit, Paxton Pits, has experienced a major decline in our most famous of songbirds, we made a note to have a day out to Fingringhoe Wick again next year. It is well worth visiting to hear those Nightingales which had made it 199 on that year list. I wonder what bird would become the 200th!