Tuesday, 5 September 2017

Uncommon on the Common, 2nd September 2017

I'm a very indecisive person, particularly when it comes to a Saturday morning and a local birding day out. Should it be Farmoor today or Otmoor or somewhere else. Quite often my mind is only made up when actually on the road. Usually wherever I pick it proves to be the wrong choice! Mrs Caley and I had discussed going to Bempton in Yorkshire to try for a greenish warbler (a touch of irony that will be revealed later) that had been seen there in the past week but in the end the thought of a 400 mile round trip just seemed too much. So we set out for Farmoor and ended up parking up at Noke! On a whim I decided to have a look around Lower Farm and see if there were any migrants around. The weather was nice and sunny so it should be a good morning. We parked up and noted a few common birds in the treetops including a very vocal nuthatch and a mixed flock containing various tit species and goldcrests. A magpie stood on a branch, illuminated beautifully by the morning sunshine.


The short walk down to the farm was enlivened by a sparrowhawk passing overhead pursued by several dozen house martins.

sparrowhawk & house martins

Indeed house martins were present in large numbers this morning and appeared to be steadily heading southwards. A few swallows were around too. A green woodpecker was busily attacking a fallen apple beneath a tree but frustratingly remained mostly buried in long grass to render photographing it pointless. Reed buntings rested in bushes by the reedbed and a couple of meadow pipits preened away on a gate. But it was generally quiet. We idled by the pond and were thrilled by house martins and swallows coming in to drink and bathe. Some just took a sip from the water while others went all in and doused themselves. Capturing the action was fun since they were very quick. 

bathing house martin
A cetti's warbler burst into its staccato song but as usual remained well hidden. A flash of blue indicated a kingfisher rushing past but it didn't stop. The sparrowhawk was once again overhead, very high up now and this time harassed by a rook. A kestrel joined it and the sparrowhawk was ousted from the airspace. Two jays noisily flew over.

rook & sparrowhawk

I was getting bored so after consulting the latest bird news, decided to head on and twitch something. The overhead wires were now holding several birds including 4 yellow wagtails. The birds were using the lofty perch to preen in between feeding in the farmhouse garden. In the sunshine they were positively radiant. They were joined on the wires in turn by swallows, pied wagtails and starlings.

yellow wagtail

We chose to go to Chipping Sodbury near Bristol which the Sat Nav informed me was only 75 miles and an hour and a half away. A juvenile woodchat shrike had been seen there throughout the previous week and was still present. I've seen 2 woodchat shrikes before, both juveniles, both were fairly distant views and both in pre-camera days. So the chance of observing one at closer quarters and snapping a few shots was appealing. Shrikes of all types are fairly easy birds to see since they all have a habit of perching prominently, usually at the top of a bush or overhanging branch. The downside to shrike watching is that apart from occasional forays out from the perch to catch some prey they don't do a lot! Anyway after just an hour and twenty minutes (Sat Nav's know nothing!) we were walking through the rough grasses of Chipping Sodbury Common to join the small group of birders who must be watching the shrike. Indeed I could make out the bird from a long way away, doing exactly as it should do, perching at the top of a bush. The crowd of birders and photographers were stationed about 50 metres from the small line of straggly hawthorns that the woodchat shrike was frequenting. Close enough for decent views but not really close enough for good pictures with my lens. After 10 minutes or so of watching the bird at the top of the bush I decided to find a quieter and alternative viewpoint.
woodchat shrike (initial view)
 I managed to get the sun (quite hot now) behind me and tried many different exposures to get a decent shot. However the heat haze wasn't helping as usual and I just wasn't close enough to the bird. But I didn't go any nearer and satisfied myself with the views through the scope and told myself to be happy with the photos that I got. The best shots came when the shrike flew out to catch a passing bee or fly. In flight it was actually much easier to capture especially when against the sky rather than the trees. It was certainly feeding very well and a few times, after trapping an insect, disappeared into the thorns to presumably spear its prey to save for later. It also dived for cover when a kestrel flew over but other than that it looked perfectly happy and at home (even though it wasn't). A couple of chiffchaffs scolded it and a trio of goldfinches gave it a wary look but kept their distance. It perched, it flew out and caught prey. Like shrikes do. There were other birds on the common too. We saw resplendent male redstarts, a cracking male whinchat and skylarks. A buzzard casually landed in the tussocks and set about something in the grass. We left after an hour or so thinking that the Common resembled Long Meadow at Otmoor where we also get redstarts (and turtle doves). Maybe one day a woodchat shrike will choose Oxfordshire.

Our journey home was uneventful until we had stopped for sustenance and I checked the bird news once more. To my astonishment a greenish warbler had been called in Middle Barton just 10 miles from Bicester! I couldn't believe it considering how a trip to Yorkshire for just such a bird had been considered earlier. Not only that but a greenish warbler in Oxon would be truly exceptional and would also be a life tick for us. However the news was tainted somewhat by the origin of the report and somehow I knew that it was highly unlikely to be accurate. But we had to go home that way anyway (with a small detour) so we thought best to look for it just in case. We arrived just over an hour later and met a couple of fellow Oxonbirders who were already on site and looking. It wasn't promising and after half an hour of no sign of the bird it was agreed that even if the bird had been seen, which we all thought unlikely, it was no longer around. It hasn't been seen subsequently.

1 comment:

  1. Well you didn't make the wrong choice on Saturday, Bempton was as bereft of Greenish Warblers as Oxfordshire seemingly was!