Monday, 30 April 2018

Birding can be FARMOOR fun in the rain! 28-29th April 2018

See what I did there?!

Weekends these days always seem to be accompanied by inclement weather! But at least its only us that get irritated by it. The birds just carry on with their lives and do what birds must do. It's not  pleasant birding in wind and rain and the photography is more difficult but quite often surprises occur when the elements are at their worst. Saturday morning was frankly, quite horrible with persistent light rain and drizzle and with a very cold wind blowing. So the only place to be then was that most windswept, bleak and unforgiving place, Farmoor reservoir!

Having parked up and (not) enjoyed watching the dreich (love that Scottish word) waft over the windscreen, we togged up and made our way up to the reservoir. The sight that greeted us was astounding. There were literally thousands upon thousands of swifts, swallows, house and sand martins all feeding low over the water. They carpeted both basins and resembled the swarm of flies that so annoyed us a few weeks back. The mass of birds were obviously newly arrived and answered the question as to where all the swallows and swifts were this year since most of them were here! Or so it seemed. My best estimate would be over 3000 swallows, 2500 house martins and 2500 sand martins with maybe as many as a 1000 swifts. But to be honest it was impossible to count them and that may be a crazy overestimation! The birds were literally everywhere you looked. I have never seen so many in one place! I just wish I could have got a wide angle photo to document the scene but the 400mm prime just doesn't do it justice.

As we walked along the causeway many birds and particularly the swifts were tearing up and down in pursuit of nourishment. I've no idea what they were catching in such cold conditions since I couldn't see any flies of any description. Often there would be a whoosh of air as a swift passed just inches away from your head! One swift managed to navigate right between myself and Mrs Caley and we were only a couple of feet apart! In teenager speak; it was a totally awesome experience. I set about trying to capture some of the swifts but it was very tricky to say the least not being helped by the rain and poor light.

swifts (by name and by nature!)

Swallows and martins were somewhat easier to track and observe since they fly much more slowly compared to the swifts but despite much searching I couldn't find any of the much coveted red-rumped swallows or anything out of the ordinary.

house martin
Also along the causeway were a pair of dunlin and a couple of common sandpiper. I picked up a white wagtail but it flew before I could get an image. Yellow wagtails were also still present including the "Channel" wagtail although they were put to flight by a jogger before I could get close enough.

We made our way to Shrike Meadow and to see if we could locate the grasshopper warbler that has been present for a week or so. I must admit that I had never before been in the hide there! It overlooks the meadow and a small pool which housed a returning reed warbler as well as sedge warbler. A cuckoo passed over and across to a large oak tree at the northern side where it alighted and called continuously. Then the distinctive reeling of the gropper (shortened version of the name grasshopper warbler) could be heard away to the right of the hide but I couldn't locate the bird. Groppers along with nightingales are one of the birds that I most eagerly await for each spring and have that wow factor even though they are a plain and nondescript looking species. But what they lack in looks they make up for in that charismatic and characteristic reeling song which they broadcast with mouth wide open whilst perching in a bush or on a reed or grass stem. They can be very difficult to pin down because they are also ventriloquists par excellence and can fool you into thinking they are somewhere where they are not. I decided that the gropper must be singing from the adjacent hedgerow so we made our way along it. The reeling continued but it was apparent that the bird was out in the grassy meadow and not in the hedge. Luckily Thames Water have left a gap in the bushes through which you can view the northern section of the meadow. On reaching this gap we both clocked the gropper immediately perched in a clump of rough grasses about 50 yards away. The song though sounded as if it was still coming from our right! The bird was very active and changed its song perch frequently but kept up the performance almost continually. After about 10 minutes it finally settled a bit closer and allowed some record shots to be taken despite the now quite heavy rain. Scope views were somewhat better!

grasshopper warbler
Then the fun really started with a text message at 11:55 from Badger informing that 2 great skuas (or bonxies) had been seen over Farmoor 1! For once we were in the right place at the right time so we left the gropper to it and hurried back up to the reservoir. The reservoir was now shrouded in mist and visibility had deteriorated somewhat but there was no mistaking the skuas. Great skuas are big, as large as buzzards, and are much more vicious, preying on seabirds and their fish dinners. The fact that these two were so far inland was a major surprise but I guess it goes to show that birds are flying around high up above the country all the time and presumably these had been "grounded" by the rain. They flew across over Farmoor 2 and disappeared into the mist. That I thought was that and we thanked our lucky stars that we'd been able to connect. Although we've seen lots of bonxies in Scotland and elsewhere around the coast in England these were a county tick (must actually write that list up one day) having missed the previous ones at Farmoor and Otmoor.

great skuas (in the mist)
We returned to the gropper but that had fell silent so we made our way back to the on site cafe for some nourishment of our own. I then noticed the skuas sat out on F2 so that hadn't left after all but as per the Farmoor conundrum they seemed to be right out in the middle so close views wouldn't be possible. 

skuas (at rest on F2)
At 14:00 the skuas took to the air, circled the reservoirs a few times while gaining height and then departed to the west at 14:12. Just over a two hour stopover and not quite long enough for many birders who turned up just too late!

bonxies away!
In tandem with Jim we noticed many swallows had taken to settling on the embankment walls. They must have been exhausted as well as confused and were probably wondering why they had bothered coming back to Blighty and such awful conditions so soon!

tired swallows (thanks to Jim for use of photo)
Sunday morning, weather wise, was much the same with drizzle and an even colder wind that had turned to the north. There were still many hirundines and swifts over the water but in fewer numbers than the day before. The stronger wind actually made gaining photos easier since it slowed the birds right up if they tried to fly into it so I managed slightly better images this time.

house martin
sand martin and swallows
swift (with eye on the fly!)

The 3 dunlin were still present and were more confiding too posing for some nice shots. Of the 3 one was noticeably larger than the others and had grey edges to the back feathers so I think was of the race "alpina" which breeds in Scandinavia and Siberia rather than our normally encountered "schinzii". The size difference is certainly apparent in some of the images below.

dunlin "schinzii" 

dunlin "schinzii" front, "alpina" behind
dunlin "alpina"
An oystercatcher flew over and a common sandpiper was suitably flighty further along the causeway. Yellow wagtails were still foraging along the edge of F2 but there was no sign of the "Channel" or white cousins (although undoubtedly still around). Arctic terns were still present but sadly didn't come as close in as the common terns.

common sandpiper 
common tern
yellow wagtails
Finally the mallard duck and her 8 ducklings along the causeway were still all present and correct and appeared to be thriving. 

mallard & ducklings

Thursday, 26 April 2018

In search of Nightingales, 26th April

I always look forward to spring and the summer breeding birds that arrive with it. It warms the soul and dispels the winter gloom to see the many different species of warblers, chats, hirundines and swifts, terns and others that make the UK their home for the breeding season. Of these there are a few that I eagerly seek out each April and May such as grasshopper and wood warblers, pied flycatcher, cuckoo, swift and especially the nightingale. The nightingale is simply the best songster that we have visit these shores, it's rich and loud song resonates through the thick undergrowth in it's scrubland home even though actually seeing one requires great patience at times and an understanding of the birds habits and movements.

Our usual port of call to see and hear nightingales requires a visit to Paxton Pits in Cambridgeshire nowadays since the nightingale as a breeding bird has all but vanished in Oxfordshire. Years ago they bred in a woodland just a few miles from Bicester but sadly they've not been encountered there for over a decade. Paxton Pits has been one of the more reliable places to catch up with them until last year when they suddenly became more elusive. In two separate visits last year we only had fleeting views of one bird although a couple sang heartily enough. When we first went to Paxton around 8 years ago there were over 40 singing male nightingales recorded, last year there were just 4! A sad indication of the times and the general decline in many of our songbirds.

Nightingale from Paxton Pits in previous years

We usually get our views of nightingales between the 12-25th April and continually check the information services to see what birds have arrived. When birds used to breed in the local woods they always arrived on or within a day or so of St. Georges Day. This winter was prolonged so spring was slow to get going so we left our trip up to Paxton until the 18th. A couple of birds had been heard singing in the usual places. However on a lovely warm afternoon we didn't hear any singing in our 4 hour visit. Not a nightingale dickie bird! Other birders tried to convince me twice that nightingales were singing but they were mistaken being fooled by first a blackcap (a bit similar but not really) and a great tit (nothing like it!). We did get some late season brambling as compensation but left thinking that we'd have to try somewhere else for our main quarry this year.


Nightingales breed closest to home on the gravel pits south of Reading and on the commons south of Newbury. Indeed we'd found 3 singing birds on Greenham Common a few years ago but they were difficult to approach and photograph. We'd been there already this spring looking for dartford warblers but had failed even to fond them (the harsh winter had probably killed them off or they have displaced south and haven't returned). The former US airbase still has lots to offer though such as woodlark and tree pipits and later in the year nightjar.

With another hastily arranged day off Mrs Caley and I revisited the Greenham area but to a new part that we'd never been to before. Internet research had suggested a good place for nightingale with up to 4 singing males heard in the previous week. We parked the car, togged up, walked 50 yards down the first available path and immediately heard a nightingale in full song. Hallelujah! To my ears there is no better sound in the natural world and we walked carefully towards it. Nightingales are loud so even when you think that you're close to the bird it can still be quite a way ahead of you and so this bird proved. We eventually drew alongside it after another 100 yards or so of approach. Now the fun started. Nightingales don't like showing themselves to you. They give away their location by the song but it's usually broadcast from deep inside a bush or thick bramble patch and rarely do they perch openly higher up a tree. However if you're patient and resourceful you can normally get the reward of seeing the singing bird well. We edged closer to the patch of scrub that the bird was favouring and listened. It sang in bursts of 2-5 minutes but as per the books ("hard to see!") stayed hidden amongst the deep cover. We gauged its movements from one side of its territory to the other but for over an hour it remained totally concealed. I decided it would be a good idea to go around to the other side of the area where the bird sang from. Luckily there was a path going there too so we wouldn't be infringing on anywhere too sensitive. The bird began singing again but a little further away but this time I managed to spot it! Amazingly it was in the open but quite low down and that explained why we couldn't see it from the other side. Views were ok but the distance and intervening foliage made getting any images difficult although I did grab a few.

Singing from deep cover

From our new position we were able to get a better understanding of the birds movements and pinpointed its favourite singing spots but we still had difficulty in seeing it! Until after nearly 2 hours it perched up very briefly in one of the outermost trees, uttered a quick phrase and dropped back to the ground. Nightingales spend a lot of their time on the ground or low down under bramble thickets where they find their insectivorous food. While they are creeping around they utter a strange grating "krrrrr" sound which sounds a bit like a frog! Then they rise into song with a loud and clear "sseee, sseee......." before launching into a crescendo of notes that I've always likened to the space invaders arcade game! This particular bird was moving quickly from one thick patch of cover to another while singing continually. I spotted the bird again low down in a bramble and managed another couple of quick shots. 

The rich russet brown colour of the back

This was very hard work though so when a rain shower came through we decided to try our luck with the other two nightingales that we could hear singing close by. Despite one of this birds singing close to and from both sides of the access road we had no luck with those either! Trying to see nightingales can be incredibly frustrating! It was now over 3 hours since we'd arrived and despite hearing nightingales singing throughout that time we had only had 3 quick views and just a couple of photos to show for our efforts. We returned to the first bird and sat on a pile of rubble and listened to the bird singing away once again. It sounded as though it was just feet away but still invisible to us. Nightingales obviously enjoy this and I felt that it was having fun at our expense. No amount of scanning the dense undergrowth helped, I just couldn't find the bird. When the bird had gone quiet once again I rose from my seat at exactly the same time as the nightingale jumped up onto an exposed perch in the same outermost tree as before but higher up (although still only 4 feet off the ground) and burst into song. This time it stayed put and we had it, full views from 30 feet away and at last the chance to get some decent photos. Phew! 

At last!

You've got to love nightingales. Plain to look at but that song and the charisma surrounding it make it one of the best birds to see and certainly to hear. We'll come back again in the next fortnight to see them again before they disappear once more.