Monday, 29 April 2019

Easter Weekend Overload Part 1, 19-20th April

Mrs Caley and I did so much birding over the Easter break that there is just too much to write up here so I'm going to recount the highs, and lows, from the four days in two parts. In fact this review starts back on the Wednesday before, when we made an evening visit to Otmoor in fine sunny weather primarily to see if any Spring migrants had turned up. In particular we were keen to get a look at one of the recently arrived Grasshopper Warblers but also to see if there were any other additions to the year list. 

We had good views of a Bittern that flew up from the ditch that runs alongside the bridleway and then landed next to one of the reedbeds on Greenaways. It stood in full view for maybe 15 seconds and then disappeared into the reeds. Speaking to Otmoor regulars it appears that this Bittern, plus another, has taken to spending a lot of time out on Greenaways where it can show well at length if a little distantly. Apart from the Bittern it was fairly quiet on the moor, we couldn't locate any reeling Groppers, but we'd actually come out this evening to see a specific bird, in fact two specific birds, that had been showing well in the evenings of late. We waited by the bench halfway along the bridleway looking for anything stirring. Nothing much was happening so I went for a wander to see if the Bittern had reappeared at the other end of the reedbed leaving Mrs Caley chatting to our friend Lee who was also hoping to see the same birds that we'd come for. As I neared the far end of the reeds, our quarry emerged from the grasses and began to hunt. The Short-eared Owl flew low along the back of the reedbed and I hollered at Mrs Caley that "the Owl was out!" but she couldn't hear me. I legged it back and suggested that she, and Lee, looked out over the field and they turned in time to see the Owl pass fairly close by. 

Short-eared Owl
The Shortie was then joined by another that flew up and started its own hunting. The two owls were markedly different in colour and tone, one being quite pale and beige coloured, the other much more warmly toned. They both continued hunting although the more richly individual flew further out on the moor. The original bird though continued to grace us by flying up and down just 50 yards or so away and even obliged by landing on a small branch right in front from where it surveyed the grass for prey. In the warm sunshine the Owls looked superb! Not a year tick but it's always nice to watch Short-eared Owls.

The Owls were joined by one of the resident male Marsh Harriers which actually, for a change, came close enough for a recognisable photo or two. Despite always being seen whenever we go out onto Otmoor it's difficult to get anything but scope views of any of the Marsh Harriers since they resolutely refuse to come close enough for a really good photo opportunity. This bird though teases us by flying just out of reach and always seems to fly directly over areas that you've just vacated and never when you're there! They do of course have excellent vision and know exactly where everything is at any time on the moor.

male Marsh Harrier
On Good Friday morning we were on the Moor by 7 o'clock, but had still been beaten by at least 10 other like minded souls. The weather was stunning with bright sunshine and we were once more hopeful that the Spring migrants had returned in numbers. We could hear a Cuckoo as soon as we left the car park and before we'd reached the cattle pens we had added Lesser Whitethroat, Sedge Warbler and Garden Warbler to our year list. The walk along the bridleway heralded very little except for the, thankfully, ubiquitous chorus of unseen Cetti's Warblers but the Bittern wasn't yet showing on Greenaways. For some reason the local herd of cattle took a liking to us and followed us all the way along the path. It's a good job the stream ran between us!

As we walked along the path to the 1st screen a Jay flew out of the single Oak giving me a chance to grab some flight shots of probably our most beautiful corvid species. Numbers of Jays are definitely increasing and sightings are becoming much more frequent of a bird that was never showy until the autumn in years past. 

Cuckoos continued to call but the Grasshopper Warblers were silent this morning. Our first Reed Warbler of the year sang from the reeds next to the path. There was little to see from the 1st screen save for the usual so we continued on to the 2nd screen which was also much quieter than I was expecting. The resident Cetti's next to the screen showed well enough but I failed to gain any decent images. A Buzzard drifted lazily over the lagoon but, as usual, just a Common Buzzard.

Common Buzzard
The birding picked up on our return walk, perhaps the birds were waiting for the day to warm up a bit. We watched a Chiffchaff sing heartily from the top of a small tree and the male Marsh Harrier put in another "just out of reach" appearance.

Standing at the 1st screen again somebody mentioned that a male Garganey had been seen a few minutes before we arrived and was very likely just tucked away in the reeds. It wasn't long before Mrs Caley spotted it swimming out although by the time I had reacted it was swimming back into cover once more. The chap stood next to me was keen to see the Garganey and by getting as far to the right as possible he was just able to see its head!

drake Garganey
The same chap, proving that I'm still not there in the higher echelons of the birding world, then shouted "Med Gulls"! He had recognised the calls of two birds flying over the screen, a sound that I didn't know but one which I've logged for future. It is so important to get familiar with the calls and songs of birds since it aids identification massively and on hearing a call you know what's coming. Luckily I react quickly so was soon locked onto the Mediterranean Gulls (#191 for year) and fired off a series of photos. I had been a bit annoyed last week when I managed to miss a pair at Farmoor, these two were probably the same birds, so adding these to the year list felt sweet indeed. Later on we saw them displaying on Big Otmoor so maybe they'll breed within the Black-headed Gull colony there.

Mediterranean Gulls
The Garganey then broke cover and emerged from its reedbed hideaway but immediately took to flight along with a trio of Teal and disappeared stage right.

drake Garganey with Teal
We stayed for a while longer and watched the drake Shoveler antagonise each other and then take to midair chases and squabbles. All part of the spring mating rituals that most bird species partake in. Watching battling Coots or Tufted Ducks as well as these Shovelers is just (well almost) as fascinating as viewing more celebrated combatants such as Black Grouse at their lek.

As we walked back to the car park the male Marsh Harrier teased me for the last time that day and we had the pleasant surprise of a Kingfisher whizzing past.

Marsh Harrier
Farmoor was our destination for Saturday morning since we know that at this time of year the reservoirs can act as a magnet for migrating birds. However, on another beautifully sunny day and with little wind the water contained barely a ripple and in my experience, when becalmed, Farmoor can be very hard going with little to offer. We saw Dai driving along the causeway and noticed that he stopped to look at a group of Gulls on F2 but he then drove off before we could catch up with him and ask what he'd seen. Hopefully he just hadn't seen us! I scanned the birds that he'd looked at and noticed one that appeared different, slightly smaller than the Black-headed Gulls and with a small white patch on the forehead. I set the scope up and was delighted to see the 1st summer (or 2nd calendar year if you prefer) Little Gull that had been on the reservoir for a couple of days and it wasn't too far out so maybe I could get a decent photograph or two. We got ourselves into position directly in line with the Little Gull and I fired off a few shots. Not great but better than most of my Little Gull images.

1st summer Little Gull
The Little Gull was drifting ever closer as it swam on the surface and fed on flies. All of the Gulls were feeding in this manner, I guess that with no movement to the water they were gorging on newly hatched flies which normally they wouldn't be able to on more unsettled waters. The Little Gull was beginning to sport its black hood for the summer but it was patchy and that small white front was very evident. I popped the converter onto the lens but looking into the sun as we were that didn't make a lot of difference to the results so I quickly took it off again.

And lucky that I did since just a few moments later a couple of fisherman in their boat passed close to the Gulls and they all took flight. The Little Gull was the last to take off but to my immense gratitude then flew almost directly overhead. The camera was put into overdrive and whirred continually as the Little Gull traversed the causeway and over onto F1. At last I had some decent photos of a Little Gull, next time hopefully I'll get an adult version to capture. When editing the photos later at least half weren't focussed but the action had been quick and I'm just pleased that I managed the ones that I got.

The Little Gull had flown right to the opposite side of F1 so we proceeded along the causeway, pausing briefly to watch some Coots fly around. Cormorants were flying between the two basins, the morning light making even them look handsome and a Great Crested Grebe floated idly past before diving under. The water was so clear that we could see the Grebe under the water but my efforts at photographing it failed completely!



Great Crested Grebe
A Yellow Wagtail careered quickly past calling constantly and a Red Kite flew right over the causeway and towards us. I get great views of Red Kites over my garden most days but this bird was only a few feet above us so the photo opportunity was unrivalled.

Red Kite
At the north-western end of F1 a single Arctic Tern, our 192nd species for the year, was patrolling with a few Common Terns. My efforts at capturing a decent shot came to nothing.

We headed down towards the river listening to the songs of several Warbler species but the one that we'd most like to hear, the Grasshopper Warbler, was silent. A Cuckoo was very audible in trees on the opposite side of the river and it took me a while to pin him down, eventually finding him perched proudly at the top of one of the trees. From the lofty perch he issued his song repetitively.

There was no sign of any Groppers in the scrub by Pinkhill Lock but a Common Whitethroat became number 193 on the year list. We now began taking bets on what bird would be the 200th. Returning to the reservoir I noticed that there was an increase in the quantity of Terns on F1. A whole posse of Arctic Terns were flying up and down F1, I counted 16. The Little Gull was still present but now way over towards the village side of the basin.

Arctic Terns
After a few hours at home we headed out again for an evening visit to Otmoor, our intention being to try yet again for a Grasshopper Warbler. In the Car Park we met our friend Pete who told us that he'd seen a Ring Ouzel in Long Meadow, so we decided to look for that instead. Long Meadow is basically a rough grassy field that is interspersed with dense bushes and lined on all sides by scrubby hedges. It is where Common Redstarts are usually encountered and indeed we had seen a fine male on the Sunday before.

male Common Redstart
Pete joined us and it took us just a few seconds to relocate the Ring Ouzel, a fine male, close to the southern edge of the field. The problem would be approaching the bird since there's no cover except for the isolated bushes. Birds are notoriously skittish in Long Meadow and hold all the aces since they can see you coming from a mile away and can dive for cover in the hedges. We sneaked up as best as we could and managed to get within about 50 yards or so, close enough for great scope views but a bit too far for my lens.

male Ring Ouzel
We made it as far as the Bridleway where the Bittern was once again stood out on Greenaways, too far out for any photos this time. The Marsh Harrier wasn't teasing us this evening. but a Cuckoo landed in one of the oak trees that will, hopefully, soon be housing a Turtle Dove or two. In the dying embers of a glorious day the evocative song of the Cuckoo is a sound to be treasured.


Saturday, 27 April 2019

Early Dip, Belated Tick. 30th March 2019

Our quest for a bigger year list total has taken over and we now find ourselves actively looking out for scarcer birds to add to it. Even though we had seen a Hoopoe as recently as last November, one had appeared at Portland in Dorset so, and with Spring migration warming up, a day out seemed like a good idea. Even though I've embraced the "year list" idea for now I quite often find myself thinking just how arbitrary we make life for ourselves by adhering to dates that are basically just "made up". I mean if I'd started my year on the 10th November 2017 then Hoopoe would already be on it! But I guess you have to go from the 1st of January each year since it is a bit more obvious and convenient to start on that date, so Hoopoe was not yet on this years list.

Hoopoe, Hilmarton Wilts, 10/11/2018
We arrived at Reap Lane, Southwell, coincidentally the site of 2016's Great Spotted Cuckoo which at the time was a lifer, into a glorious sunny morning. Several similar like minded birders were already present but it was clear from their demeanour that the Hoopoe was a no show this morning. After receiving a few negative answers to our questions we decided to move on and walked out to the west cliffs to survey the immediate area to see if the odd looking vagrant had relocated slightly. It hadn't and had obviously moved on the previous night, a Hoopoe was found later in the day about 20 miles away which could have been the same bird. Shrugging the "dip" aside we carried on with the walk to see what we could find anyway. Immediately obvious was a steady trickle of Swallows and Sand Martins passing straight through and heading northwards, accompanied by a single House Martin. The year list moved up to 169. A Kestrel patrolled the cliffs and occasionally made a dart at one of the incoming migrant birds without success so far as we could see.

One of the horse paddocks was absolutely rammed full with Wheatears, we counted over 20 in that field. Obviously new in overnight but not new for the year list since we saw one very early doors at Greenham Common over a fortnight ago. Seeing so many in the same place was a definitely a first for us though. During the course of the morning we must have seen over 50!

Chiffchaffs were also numerous and we watched one bird feed alongside a wire fence where it expertly sought out insect food. It's always a bit incongruous seeing birds "out of context".

The most excitement was generated by a Common Buzzard flying in off the sea and being set upon at once by one of the resident Ravens. The poor raptor was given some right stick by the equally impressive corvid. Eventually the Buzzard shrugged off the Raven but was then ushered out of the area by a whole mob of angry Gulls! Some welcome!

Common Buzzard being seen off by a Raven
We got news of a couple of Ring Ouzels but couldn't find them and likewise, after relocating to the Observatory area, couldn't find either the resident Little Owls or a reported Black Redstart. The early promise had dissipated somewhat and I was growing despondent. The whole Portland Bill area was becoming rather busy too with day tourists and their associated noise and bustle so we decided after a coffee to get out of there and head back to Weymouth where we could at least try to right a wrong from the previous year and tick a bird that we'd dipped on our way down to Cornwall last October. 

The bird in question was a Lesser Yellowlegs, a North American wading bird, similar looking to a Redshank except for having, as the name says, yellow legs instead of red. On that similarly beautiful day last October, the Yellowlegs had contrived to go missing while we were at Lodmoor and Radipole RSPB reserves, reappearing the day after when we had already arrived in Cornwall. the fact that we'd also managed to miss out on another in Cornwall that day just added to my chagrin. However the Lodmoor bird had remained in situ throughout the winter and we now had another chance at seeing it. 

Our arrival at Lodmoor was heralded by a fine male Greenfinch, a bird we see too few of at home these days, singing at the top of a tree that overlooked the west scrape. 

The scrape itself, the place where the Lesser Yellowlegs should be, was almost empty and we could only see Black-tailed Godwits and a couple of Snipe of interest. When we'd visited last October this shallow pool had been alive with birds, except for the Yellowlegs of course, but now there was just a handful of birds present. Despondency was settling in again when on my umpteenth scan of the area revealed just the grey head of a wading bird asleep on a muddy bund at the opposite side of the water. Just as I announced to Mrs Caley that I thought I'd found the target bird, and just as her patience was running out, it stretched up to have a look around, probably thinking to itself "there's that idiot birder from Oxfordshire again, dammit I should have been looking then I could have given him the slip once more!", revealing it to indeed be the Lesser Yellowlegs. I had a record shot and bird number number 170 for the year.

Lesser Yellowlegs, at last!
Most birders who had come to see this Lesser Yellowlegs had been rewarded with stonking close up views and hence had obtained some fantastic photos of it. For Mrs Caley and myself it was now, stood up at least, about 50 yards away and we had heat haze to contend with so my reward was to get some pretty awful records shots at best. But at least you could see what it was and the photos were a marginally better effort than the ones I obtained of one in Cornwall in 2015. This was the third Lesser Yellowlegs that we'd seen, the other near Aberdeen in 2011.

Lesser Yellowlegs
We found a seat and waited to see if the Lesser Yellowlegs would begin feeding and approach our bank. Our relief was almost palpable when it did just that and it began moving slowly nearer to our side of the pool. Against the bank of the bund the bright yellow legs showed up brilliantly and it was clear that summer plumage was being grown with neat spangled upper parts evident. In reality it more resembled a small Greenshank than the Redshank that it's more closely related to.

The Yellowlegs progress towards us was slow but step by step it was closing the gap. I waited for it to appear in the open between patches of Bankside vegetation before firing off photos. But it was still just too far away for any really good images. 

Just as it seemed that the Yellowlegs would "jump" over a small creek and land on the mud right in front of us, it decided to fly back to the bund instead! Just my luck! Once back there it promptly settled down and went back to sleep. Game over.

I took a few photos of some of the other birds on offer, and made a half-hearted attempt at finding a reported Garganey, already on the year list, so wasn't bothered when I couldn't, and left.


Time was pressing but we made a call into Radipole in the hope of finding some Bearded Tits. As usual we didn't see any, we have failed to find any here on countless visits now and yet they show really well for other folk. I belatedly remembered that there was a drake Ring-necked Duck near "to the tennis courts" so we went to look for that. I spotted it straight away, our second already this year after the one at Pitsford in February, keeping company with a female Tufted Duck in the reed lined channel that runs alongside the road. Views were tricky owing to the reeds but we found a Fishermans jetty that jutted out into the channel. Once on that rather unstable but just about sound structure we had clearer views of the Duck but it was about 50 yards away. But at least the low angle of the sun was helping us from our viewpoint.

Ring-necked Duck and Tufted Duck
At last we had some good fortune when the pair of Tufted Ducks that the Ring-necked Duck and his "mate" were associating with decided to swim past us and back to the main reserve. Our quarry instantly followed and slowly swam towards us allowing me to fire off some pleasing images. As the Duck came ever nearer the sun became an interference since we were now looking directly into it but we were almost within touching distance so at least the images were fairly sharp.

Our day was completed by watching an episode of drake Mallard wars, one particular bird seemingly hell bent on killing all the others and displaying Marsh Harriers which were flying high into the air and then diving back to the reeds. 

Marsh Harrier

After a slow start it had been another good day and that year list was up to 170.