Tuesday, 2 October 2018

Farmoor, 30th September 2018

I was at football on Saturday when a Black-necked Grebe had been found at Farmoor. by Dai the site stalwart, not much gets past his sharp pair of eyes. There's a recurring theme when it comes to better birds being seen locally and me attending matches and it's not one that favours me. Nothing much gets found in Oxfordshire until I'm somewhere else for the day! Not that I need to see a Black-necked Grebe, I have seen plenty around Oxon and have one from Farmoor on the 12th May this year (see Black-necked Grebe), but it's always nice to see something different.

summer plumaged Black-necked Grebe, Farmoor 12th May 2018
Mrs Caley, myself and my attendant slight hangover nurtured from the previous day, decided to head to the reservoir on Sunday morning anyway in the hope that the Grebe had remained, to cut any type of story short it hadn't, but we knew that they'd be other birds to see and I'm always happy clicking away with the camera. Farmoor offers a nice easy walk for my tired old legs too. It was a fairly calm morning with the windsock only being tickled lightly by a slight breeze and the water on both basins was hardly being ruffled. Not the best conditions for birding at Farmoor, events here are most often more lively on windy days.

We struck off down the causeway as is our norm and noted the large numbers of Pied wagtails still present. The numbers of these delightful little birds increased suddenly about a fortnight ago and will swell further through the autumn. They'll be joined by some of the nominate and continental White Wagtails too but for now they were all of local Pied stock. I've tried and failed to capture the wagtails in flight before and this morning I gave up trying after the first one had flown past. They have a shifty habit of flying erratically away like the Swallows that I also have trouble with.

Pied Wagtail
About half way down the causeway I noticed a small group of waders fly out from the bank of F1, when disturbed by a couple of walkers, and settle again slightly nearer to us but still a few hundred yards away. I strained through the bins to try and clinch their ID but couldn't be totally sure but felt that some of them looked very much like Ringed Plovers. It was only when we got to about a hundred yards from the birds that I remembered the scope that I was carrying on my back! Hangovers certainly channel your senses. By then we were close enough to ascertain the birds identities without resorting to the extra magnification, there were 5 Ringed Plovers and 2 Dunlin. Wading birds of most species, Common Sandpiper being the exception, are usually very approachable at Farmoor and this group were no different allowing us to walk up to within 30 feet or so. I took some photos, mainly of the Ringed Plovers since we hadn't seen one here for some time and were pleased to see them. I have lots of snaps of Dunlin so I wasn't so bothered with capturing images of them but they're still smart birds too. 

Ringed Plover

Some of the birds were comfortable enough to actually "sit" down by the waters edge and snooze. Interestingly both species were impartial to who they "slept" with, one of the Dunlins seemingly very friendly with a Ringed Plover.

We left the sleepy birds to it and moved further along the embankment where we got an eyeful of Mallards copulating! Duck sex isn't for the faint hearted and the drake certainly appears to get the best of the deal since he just about half drowns the poor duck whilst giving her a good nip while going about his business! Fortunately for her it doesn't last very long (mmm....familiar?) and she's soon breathing air again. After the act he puffs his chest out and seems to proclaim "I'm the Daddy!".

Another birder who had encountered the flock of waders didn't possess the required stealth and startled the birds into flying which was a win for us since they flew past us calling as they went and thus enabling me to get some flight shots. 

We left the reservoir and headed towards the river. The bushes were alive with warblers and a couple of elder bushes were teeming with a party of Long-tailed Tits. I never tire of watching these active and acrobatic little balls of feathers although tying them down for a photo is never easy. We found a group of mixed warbler species and noted Blackcaps, Chiffchaffs and a Common Whitethroat but only a male Blackcap stayed still for long enough. In a couple of weeks we'll be in Cornwall spending a lot time searching through bushes and trees in the hope of finding some scarcer warbler species so this was an opportunity to practice and re-hone our skills in pinning them down. The practice is definitely needed!

male Blackcap

Long-tailed Tit
I wanted to check the lock at Pinkhill out since I'd seen some nice photos of Kingfishers that have been taken there recently on the brilliant Oxon Bird Blog. Sadly there were none of the fabulous water birds around but we did see a Stonechat in the rough grasses close by. A Grey Heron was stood ankle deep in the river but soon took to flight as we approached.

Grey Heron
The walk downstream as far a Shrike meadow yielded no Kingfishers and we were back at the reservoir without seeing anything more interesting than a Robin. We spent a bit of time admiring one of the many Little Grebes the are present now the breeding season is over but despite searching the whole of F2 there was no sign of the Black-necked version of the family.

Little Grebe
Farmoor also hosts a few hundred of Great Crested Grebes outside the breeding season and a few of these were fishing close in to the bank. We'd seen a couple catch some small fish already when one bird surfaced with a sizeable Perch. Another Grebe had noticed the catch too and made a play to wrest the fish from the catcher. The Grebe with the fish was far too wary though and easily out ran (literally) the other across the water. We had noticed before on a previous visit recently that Great Crested Grebes would rather surf across the water than take to flight to avoid unwanted attention. After ensuring that there was no further threat from its neighbour the Perch was expertly despatched.

Great Crested Grebe
Back on the causeway we noted that the small flock of waders were still present but had become much more unsettled and wary, probably owing to the increased disturbance by walkers and fishermen. At one point they flew far out from the bank and disappeared but they were back again further up the causeway again a bit later.

A beautiful Black-headed Gull drifted effortlessly past. These Gulls are very adept at catching very small fish right at the surface of the reservoir and we've witnessed their prowess on several occasions in the past.

Black-headed Gull
Our walk (over 12000 steps according to the app!) had earned us a coffee in the cafe although we spurned any calorie laden accompaniments this time. Just as we turned to leave the reservoir behind I noticed a female Red-crested Pochard close in by the marina, the first we'd seen at Farmoor since the day we'd seen the summer plumaged Black-necked Grebe back in May. I caught the duck eyeing up a small fly which I believe it duly ate, seems rather a small meal for a bird of its size.

female Red Crested Pochard
So no scarce Grebe and no Kingfisher but a decent few hours regardless and good therapy to get rid of that fuzzy head!

Friday, 28 September 2018

Harrier harried Harrier. WWT Welney, 25th September 2018

It was wedding anniversary day in the Old Caley household, 31 years of married bliss! So what better to do than sneak a day off from the toil and plan a birding day out. There are lots of good birds around at this time of year so choosing a target wasn't easy but I settled for a tilt at a rare species of raptor that had been found at the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust reserve at Welney in Norfolk which isn't too far away from home. 

Getting to Welney was arduous though to say the least, the drive taking us almost 3 hours! It used to take just over half of that! We have some serious traffic issues in this country, and I realise that by being on the road that we are contributing to the problem, but it really does need a solution before the country's roads achieve gridlock. Surely all of the house building in rural areas is the main problem since the people moving out of the cities to live in the countryside are still having to travel back into the cities for work. The only "quiet" days on the roads now are at weekends when people are at home. Enough of my poor grasp of politics and on with the birding though.

We arrived, eventually, at Welney and were greeted by a fine Tree Sparrow singing from the visitor centre roof. We have very few Tree Sparrows left locally, I must try to find some in Oxfordshire again, so it's always good to see them on our travels.

Tree Sparrow
A breakfast and coffee had been well earned after the tortuous drive and we relaxed while watching a multitude of Swallows buzzing around outside. A bird that I've never really managed to get a decent shot off and there was no chance of that here since the full sun was straight at us. A major reason I'd selected Welney instead of another site near Royston that held another of the target bird was because I knew that the sun would be at our backs for the whole day since all of the hides at the reserve face to the west and it was a fine sunny day!

The Lyle Hide was favoured because it "juts" out a bit into the surrounding reeds and wet marsh, although this year the only water visible was contained in a few pools. Normally, by this time of year, the entire area would be under water now but the very dry summer has had a marked effect upon the Fens just as it has back home. We passed the Alder tree, where a few years ago we had stood for almost 5 hours waiting for a fine male Bluethroat to emerge and, when it did, was only seen by us since everyone else that day had given up and gone home. 

male "white-spotted" Bluethroat, WWT Welney, 19th April 2011
The hide was already fairly full with fellow birders who had obviously come to see the same star bird as us. All benches were taken so we took up a standing position at the northern corner and stared out excitedly through the windows. The pool just outside held Common Teal, Mallard and a few Black-headed Gulls but there was little else of interest. I was told that somebody else had reported a Jack Snipe earlier but there was no further sign of it. After 20 minutes of being (not) entertained by the "hide bore", who managed to talk above everybody else and relate every bit of info imaginable about cameras, lenses and their use in every possible situation without ever actually teaching me anything new or even remotely interesting, the shout came up "Harrier flying in from the right". I quickly got my binoculars onto the bird and sure enough it was the Pallid Harrier that we'd travelled to see! I do like easy twitches! I moved so that I could get a clear view and managed just 3 shots with the camera before the bird dropped down and appeared to land hidden in the reeds. The best of the images is shown below, in the other 2 the bird was obscured by a gate! A blurry record shot on a par with my only other photo of a Pallid Harrier that we saw in Sussex several years ago! 

record shot of the Pallid Harrier
At least the chap with the info and loudhailer voice now imparted some helpful news when he proclaimed, "that's exactly what the Harrier did yesterday" (you mean he's there everyday?), that is that it flew in from the right and landed in the reeds. The day before the Pallid Harrier, which is a juvenile female, had emerged from its resting spot just an hour or so later and was then seen frequently throughout the rest of the day so I was hopeful that the pattern would be repeated. Mrs Caley had also missed the bird so I was eager for it to come out again so that she would see it. The bird had been seen at 11:10 and in the next half hour not much happened save for a pair of Kestrels hunting in the area where the Pallid had landed. A warden came into the hide and explained that the cattle, that were in the enclosure in front of the hide, had to be moved to new pastures and he apologetically said that he hoped it wouldn't interfere with the birding since they have to use motorbikes to achieve the task. Most of us present rather wished that it would disturb a particular bird so that we'd get to see it again! The whole process of moving the cattle took less than 5 minutes and hardly a feather was fluttered. Back to the waiting!

The warden on his "Cowazaki"! (....I'll get my coat)
Around midday there was a flurry of activity when first a pair of Cranes flew in with their single offspring and landed out on the Fen. They were followed by a group of 6 Whooper Swans which had possibly just arrived from their breeding grounds to their winter staging area. They were followed by another group of 13 and then by another 5. By the time we left we had counted 78 in total although some had flown off again.

Crane family, juvenile on the left 

returning Whooper Swans
A female Marsh Harrier was next to appear. By now Mrs Caley had found a seat and I had relocated away to the other end of the hide and furthest away from the pool, mainly to put distance between me and the camera nerd, grumpy git that I am (my apologies to the chap, it's more about me than him, hides are not my bag etc). Naturally the Marsh Harrier, another bird that I'd never ever really got a good photo of, decided to hunt low over the margin of the pool, next to which I had been stood but now couldn't see much of at all! It did, however, reappear reasonably close to my side of the hide a little while later enabling me to get some better frames but still "not quite there". Other Marsh Harriers were patrolling the area but none of them ventured anywhere near the resting Pallid Harrier, if indeed the rarer bird was still there since it could have stole away by flying low along one of the many channels that intersect the reedbeds.

female Marsh Harrier
Whooper Swans continued flying in, honking incessantly to each other, maybe suggesting "we're back, we're back" and "when's dinner time and where's the potatoes?". They are extremely well looked after by the WWT. I checked in on my wife (some anniversary, eh babe?) and took some photos of the Swans as they flew into the pool and landed.

"We're back!"
A good size flock of Lapwing were being, or so it seemed, marshalled by a Common Buzzard. In reality I guess they were all just sharing the same airspace for a moment since neither appeared unduly concerned with the other.

Common Buzzard & Lapwing
The female Marsh Harrier made another close pass of the hide presenting me with another chance to add to my portfolio. The results suggest that these particular birds are hard to capture with the camera or maybe I'm just useless. Perhaps I should have listened harder to the chap at the other end of the hide instead of "switching off".

Another raptor passed reasonably close by the hide, this time a Kestrel and a multitude of Black-headed Gulls had appeared and were presumably catching flying insects that had taken to the air now the day had warmed up. Some of the Whooper Swans noisily departed to the west leaving just a few relaxing on the pool.


Whooper Swans heading off to the fields
Then at almost two o'clock it happened! A Marsh Harrier appeared in the general area where the Pallid had presumably settled earlier. It flew right over the exact spot where it had landed and thankfully the Pallid flew up, unsettled and harassed by its bigger cousin. Thank goodness for that Marsh Harrier! This time it was in full view for everybody and the sense of relief within the hide was palpable. The Pallid Harrier continued to be chased and bothered by the Marsh Harrier and strove to escape by gaining height. We were now getting great views, distant yes, but terrific nonetheless and sustained since the Pallid harrier was now soaring around trying to put distance between it and the Marsh Harrier. A couple of times the larger bird succeeded in getting close to the Pallid but it was quite easily outstripped  by the more agile flyer. The Pallid Harrier was on view for probably about 3 minutes before it drifted high and out of view. It did fly back a few minutes later though and proceeded to land in exactly the same spot where it had been before. I wondered whether there was a corpse in that spot that the Pallid Harrier was feasting on since it had not seemed interested in hunting at all.
Pallid & Marsh Harrier. I love that Marsh Harrier!

We had been rewarded by waiting patiently for almost 3 hours with a sighting of a beautiful bird of prey and much better views than we'd had on the Sussex downs previously. The juvenile Pallid is a stunning orangey colour underneath and sports a prominent white rump (in keeping with most female Harrier species). Equally striking are the whitish eye patches which look like a pair of headlights as can be seen in the photo below. This particular bird appeared to be moulting a couple of tail feathers which may account for its prolonged stay.

Those "headlight" eye patches.
Since the Pallid Harrier had "gone to ground" again there seemed little point in hanging around any longer particularly when thinking about the trip back so we headed back to the cafe for another coffee. I took some shots of one of the Swallows on the way back and actually got a couple of "keepers" for a change too!

I finished the day off by taking a few images of the Tree Sparrows that were visiting the feeders provided, along with their larger and more common House Sparrow cousins, which provided a nice bit of symmetry to the days proceedings.

Tree Sparrow