Thursday, 29 August 2019

Wryneck, 27th August 2019

I shouldn't be doing it but with all of the personal s*#t going on in my own life right now I needed to clear my head a bit and relax. And what better way to get a bit of space than go twitching! Not for anything mega but for one of the most unusual birds that we get in the UK, the Wryneck. Wrynecks are fabulous members of the Woodpecker family, although they are very unlike most of that family by behaving in a, mostly, completely different way. I've seen a few Wrynecks before and even found one (without a tail!) myself in Cornwall a few years back but they're the type of bird that you can't get enough of. In the UK the chances of seeing Wrynecks are largely confined to the Spring and especially Autumn migration periods since they are virtually lost as a UK breeding species. Sightings are mostly around southern or eastern coastlines although a few do get found further inland.

My "self found" Wryneck, Cornwall, 20/10/2016
Viewing of Wrynecks often offers a conundrum. Usually they are really difficult birds to see well since they have a liking for dense scrub and also blend in perfectly with their surroundings. With a bit of luck they can be easy to see, if only momentarily, like the one shown above since they have a habit of popping up onto a vantage point and spending a few minutes surveying the area around them before disappearing again. If you're really lucky they can be encountered feeding openly on a clifftop path or other open area (but I'd never had that luck yet!). All of my previous sightings of them have been of the former variety, lots of waiting around followed by a brief view except for the self found bird which was obviously noticed on that fence post. I have also dipped on as many Wrynecks twitches as I've been successful!

Wryneck, Hampshire, 26/08/2013
The recent Bank Holiday weekend had seen a glut of Wryneck sightings and I watched with great interest at the reports and the localities from where they'd been observed. I enjoy seeing Wrynecks, they are really smart birds with that unusual cryptic plumage. I also needed one for my year list but most of the reports were coming in from around the southern coasts as you'd expect, mainly in Dorset and Devon. One was intriguingly spotted in a garden in Buckinghamshire on Friday but the news got out late and it wasn't seen subsequently. I was very slightly hopeful that I'd find one when out at Churn on Monday, as no doubt were other Oxon birders searching at their own patches, but of course I didn't. Wrynecks are hard to come by in Oxon however, I still haven't seen one in the county. Two sightings of Wrynecks found on Sunday as well as the Dorset ones aroused some interest, one had been found at Middleton Lakes RSPB reserve at Tamworth and another at Ogmore-by-Sea in Glamorgan. Both birds had remained into Monday so appeared settled. Middleton Lakes is just over an hours drive from home whereas South Wales is nearer two and a half. I weighed up both options, the Middleton bird would attract a lot of would be admirers because of its proximity to major population centres while the Welsh bird would be less popular particularly as Wrynecks are annual in those parts. The photos I'd seen so far on the internet indicated that the Ogmore bird could show really well and close, the Middleton bird could also show well enough but appeared from the images to be further away, in deeper cover and also could only be seen from a viewing screen which would no doubt be crowded while the Ogmore bird was frequenting a scrubby hillside next to an open estuary area so they'd be plenty of room. Decision made then, despite it being a much longer drive, we'd head to South Wales and try our luck with the Wryneck there but would also keep a watchful eye on the bird news while travelling to see which bird, or maybe another one along the way, got called in first.

We set off around 7 o'clock aiming to be at Ogmore around 10. This would be my last chance for a day out for a while owing to forthcoming work and family commitments so a jaunt to Wales was actually quite exciting. As always while on a journey to see a bird I had Mrs Caley constantly checking the bird news for updates. No surprise then that half way down the M5 news came through that the Middleton Lakes Wryneck had been seen again whereas there was no news of the Ogmore bird. Dilemma! I pulled into Michaelwood services and consulted the SatNav, we had 60 miles left to get to Ogmore and 90 if we turned around (at the next junction, I'm not that reckless) and headed back north to Tamworth. We sat and mulled it over for a few minutes but, mainly thanks to Mrs Caley's insistence, resisted the temptation to abandon our plans and reroute to Middleton Lakes so continued on our way towards the M4. No amount of checking the internet for updates was going to find any news of the Wryneck in Ogmore, it just wouldn't would it? So as it was we arrived into Ogmore-by-Sea and found the prescribed carpark which was purportedly just 150 metres from where the bird had been showing, baulked at the £6 parking charge and found a spot on the main road for free instead which would mean a slightly longer 250 metre walk. But I love walking, that's what legs are made for!

We took the path which ran through a nice gorse and scrub area overlooking the Ogmore estuary. A very nice place made slightly less nice by the hordes of dog walkers and their charges, fine if on leads, not so good if allowed to run amok as several were doing, some of the dogs were too. Birds were still very much in evidence though and I took a couple of photos of the female of a pair of Stonechats that were busy flying from one exposed perch to another. But I was on a mission so to my shame gave little time to the other common birds that were around.

female Stonechat
I had studied the photos of the Wryneck that had been posted on the internet so knew where to look for the bird, at the bottom of the hillside which at the moment was around 20 metres below us. We needed to be on the flat river plain from where we'd be able to look up at the scrub. The bird had also favoured feeding amongst some rocks at the bottom of the slope. We continued on walking and met another birder, the only other one present as far as I could see. "Any joy" I asked not expecting a positive reply since there'd been no news and I had that nagging feeling that I should have gone to Middleton Lakes instead. "Yes it's here, I just flushed it off that grass bank there" was his response. Relief! At least we now knew the Wryneck was present still and now we could set about finding it. The other chap then indicated that it had flown into nearby gorse bushes. We found our way to the bottom and staked out the clump of gorse that the Wryneck had flown into. We were joined by another couple of birdwatchers who had never seen a Wryneck before so I suggested that they keep checking my movements since if I found it I'd probably be firing away with my camera! I decided to walk along the short grassy floodplain watching intently at the scrub and rocks getting excited every time a new bird flew into view although I knew that they were just another Robin or Dunnock. A couple of Rock Pipits fed amongst, yep you've guessed it, the rocks but I couldn't even be moved to snap them. I was just too concentrated  on the scrubby slope. I really wanted that Wryneck! Half an hour passed and my phone cheerfully informed that the Wryneck was still showing well at Middleton Lakes.......

I'd travelled maybe 50 metres along the shore away from Mrs Caley when suddenly a medium sized and pale beige coloured bird flew strongly from one gorse patch to another and instantly I knew I had it! Fortunately it had landed on a dead gorse twig and was now perched there. I whistled to Mrs Caley but she was already on her way having also seen the bird fly out and then had seen me lift the camera since, naturally, I was already taking record shots. The other birders present, there were about 10 now (where do they all suddenly appear from?) were slower on the uptake and by the time they caught up the Wryneck had disappeared into the scrub once more. One chap then dared to suggest that it had been a Meadow Pipit, the cheek of it! I've been birding long enough to identify a Wryneck thank you very much! He only backed down when I showed him an image off the back of my camera! Oh yes, so it is!

It was down to me again to relocate the Wryneck which I did with pleasure when less than 5 minutes later it popped out of the bush and landed right at the base of the slope and started feeding on the grassy bank. While the bird probed in the soft earth for food its long tongue could often be seen. We were all assembled probably 20 metres or so away and at that distance the Wryneck didn't appear to be concerned at all. But of course some folk want to be closer and sadly don't exhibit my patience either so moved in towards the bird, the result of which was that it flushed back further along the scrubby bank. 

Thankfully though this time the Wryneck stayed in view perched on top of a bramble bush but by the time we'd all attained its position dropped onto the grass bank again. This time the assembled took my lead and stayed a respectable distance away from the bird but in truth that was more down to the fact that to get any closer would have meant scrambling over the rocks between us and the bird. That said my lens didn't really have the reach for good photos but I'd have been more than pleased with them considering my efforts with previous Wrynecks.

Even then, as before, an over zealous birder ruined the party by deciding that a view from the top of the bank would be better and by over encroaching, allied with a booming commentators voice, managed to send the Wryneck into cover again. We wondered if our last view of the bird peering out from the top of the grassy slope would be our last.

But this was to be our lucky day! Almost an hour and a half after arriving on site the Wryneck then suddenly appeared on one of the rocks. Alerted to it by one of the other birders I settled in and waited for the bird to approach me. Mr very loud voice had left and would now miss out on the best views of a Wryneck that you could ever hope for. For the next half hour or more we watched the Wryneck, sometimes at just a few metres distance and I and the other birders, only half a dozen now, filled our boots! My apologies for posting so many photos of the same bird but, what a bird!

Finally sated with such crippling views and with rumbling belly telling me it was time for lunch we left the Wryneck which was still showing extremely well, not something I'd do very often! One chap I'd spoken to and who had reluctantly grumbled back told me he had spent all day photographing the Wryneck the day before and had come back for more. I took over 400 photos, how many must he have taken? The mind boggles!

The Wryneck became bird #258 on the Old Caley year list and a few friends have now posed the question, am I going for a 300 year? The answer is I'm not since I can't get to either Scilly or Shetlands and I believe that I'd need to in order to get anywhere near that figure. But if I'm able then I reckon I can get to 275 or even 280 with still some localised species such as Chough and Cirl Bunting to get, we have a trip to Cornwall in October planned as usual to get those, and a few seasonal birds such as Shore Lark and Smew to go for in the winter months plus any goodies that turn up in the meantime. I still don't have a Hoopoe, Red-footed Falcon and Pectoral Sandpiper amongst others this year so who knows!

Tuesday, 27 August 2019

Moor Local Birding and an Oxonmoronical Walk, 20-25th August 2019

Oxon birders, The Roby's, had reported seeing some Redstarts, Whinchats and Wheatears at Otmoor on Monday afternoon. We still needed a Whinchat for our year list so on Tuesday evening, after gaining the exact location details, we headed out to an area of Otmoor known as the Pill which lies just at the eastern edge of the main RSPB reserve. The walk out to the Pill entails going past the MOD shooting range and can only be done on non-shooting days and when the red warning flags are not flying from the flagpoles. We had the whole area to ourselves save for some cattle, a sign warned that a Bull was in the Pill field, but they were way over the far side of the field so, while Mrs Caley stayed with the scope on a small bridge (she doesn't like cattle much), I entered unperturbed. We had already scoped a couple of Whinchats from the bridge, #256th species for the year, but I wanted to get some photos.

The Pill is a small area of wet ground, good for Jack Snipe in the winter, and even in midsummer still contains a few small pools. The Whinchats were frequenting the sedge and rushes of the wet area but because of the open nature of the area would be difficult to approach without spooking them. After circumnavigating the wet ground on the eastward side I tried to conceal myself from the birds which had indeed flushed back to the scrubby area by getting in close to the boundary hedge. This also helped by getting the sun at my back. I then slowly stalked the birds and managed to get close enough for a few record shots before leaving them to it. I counted 6 Whinchats altogether, all juvenile or female types and also a single Wheatear.

Returning to Mrs Caley, I learned that I had missed a Redstart in the hedge close by but since it had been the Whinchats that had been my main aim I wasn't too bothered particularly as a week or so ago we had seen a fine first summer male not far from our house (thanks to @BirdingCalvert for that one).

Common Redstart, Bicester 06/08/2019
We would have liked to have found some new birds for the year list over the bank holiday weekend but personal circumstances conspired against us meaning extensive travelling wasn't feasible so on Friday after a busy morning we were walking around Farmoor instead. There hadn't been anything new reported that was close enough to twitch anyway. It was breezy as we sauntered along the causeway but incredibly we didn't see a single bird of note and none of the expected waders at all. Slightly disappointed we made for the hide where the Kingfisher makes its stellar appearance from time to time. The Kingfisher didn't show in the hour we stayed until the increasing heat drove us from the hide and back out into the fresher air. We did get to see the closest approximation to a Corncrake in these parts!

"Oxon Corncrake" aka Common Pheasant
Back out at the reservoir there was still little of real interest so I tried to study the various Gulls on offer taking a few photos that I could try and decipher later at home. Gull ID is still a difficult game to me although I am constantly trying to improve my rudimentary skills. A Little Egret was still at its customary post on the floating pontoon before flying off and a curious looking Goose, probably a "Canalag" (Canada x Greylag hybrid) caught my attention.

Little Egret

"Canalag" Goose
On a beautiful Saturday morning we headed out on to Otmoor early. In my experience Otmoor can be hard work in late summer, the summering birds have finished breeding and have either migrated south already or are moulting and keeping low in the undergrowth. The open fields are very overgrown and seeing anything out in them is nigh on impossible unless it flies. The only bonus is that the water levels are very low restricting soft muddy areas to the lagoon at the reedbed which should at least prove attractive to wading birds. 

The day before Whinchats had been seen by the cattle pens but there was no sign of any today. An interesting looking Buzzard was stood out on Greenaways but after much perusal of scope views I couldn't rule out Common Buzzard in favour of any rarer species. It certainly was a little odd looking very long necked and slimmer than the normal stocky Buzzards and Honey Buzzard did appear to be a distinct possibility. I was much more confident about identifying a pair of long-legged birds that were similarly right at the far extent of Greenaways, no confusion with Grey Herons with those.

Moving along the bridleway there were still plenty of warblers and finches in evidence although most views were of birds flitting from one bush to another. A nice Lesser Whitethroat paused momentarily but was still too quick for my camera and both Chiffchaffs and Willow Warblers "hweeted" and "hu-itted" (that's Collins descriptions) from within the scrub. I had more luck with a Sedge Warbler that I heard calling from a small willow by the river. After a bit of coaxing by gentle "pishing" the bird appeared openly on a slender branch and I managed a few quick shots before it realised it had been duped and disappeared back into the weeds.

Sedge Warbler
family party of 6 Great Spotted Woodpeckers were flying animatedly around the top of an oak tree before flying off together in the direction of the carpark. I took some photos of a couple of the birds in the tree but only captured female birds so perhaps it was just a post breeding group. The cause of their combined consternation couldn't be seen but I suspect it was probably a Squirrel of which there are many in the bridleway trees.

female Great Spotted Woodpecker
The path to the first screen was lively with lots of small birds seemingly flocked up for the winter already. Particularly evident were family parties of Bullfinches which were feeding on seed heads of the weedy plants that line the path. Young Reed Buntings and Dunnocks were everywhere as were Blue and Long-tailed Tits. It was heartening to see so many young birds on the wing.

male Bullfinch
Otmoor stalwarts Bark and JR were at the first screen, nothing much on the Moor gets past them so I quizzed them about what they'd seen. Over the past few days an unusual pair of birds had graced the lagoon in the shape of Hawaiian (or Nene) Geese, a bird very popularly kept in wildfowl collections and most famously at Slimbridge WWT since they were subject of a concerted conservation effort after numbers in their native Hawaii had plummeted. These birds, as they proved by taking off shortly after our arrival, were very much free flying and definitely not pinioned so wouldn't have come from there but even more definitely wouldn't be wild birds either. Hawaii is a very long way from Oxfordshire!

NeNe or Hawaiian Geese
The exposed mud has been attracting a few wading birds but, of course, there was little in the way of variety this morning. We were there after all! I did find 6 Common Snipe amongst the 50 or so Lapwing. The whole lagoon area was a veritable cauldron of feather soup owing to the large number of moulting Geese and Ducks present.

Common Snipe
Two small wading birds flew in calling, circled a few times and then landed on the mud just after I had confidently called an ID of Little Ringed Plover. Thankfully my instincts proved correct and I saved face in my exalted company! The LRP's, as they're known in birding circles, were both juveniles and were no doubt headed southwards on their migration journey. I will never cease to find it amazing how young birds can find their own way to their wintering grounds without the assistance of parent birds.

juvenile Little Ringed Plovers
Whilst gazing out of the screen at the reedbed, hoping for a fly past Bittern, news came through of an influx of Black Terns at Farmoor. I love Black Terns and can happily watch and photograph them for hours so we decided to head there in the hope that they'd stayed and not flown straight through. We reflected on the fact that we chose to go to Farmoor the day before when it had been almost devoid of any interesting birds. One day we'll choose the right destination on the right day. More Bullfinches were encountered as we returned along the paths back to the carpark and we met Bark and JR once more. They were puzzling over the same Buzzard that I had mulled over earlier which was still in the same place out on Greenaways. The heat haze was now an added hindrance as well as the distance so, despite us all having a suspicion that  it could have been something different, the birds true identity will remain a mystery, maybe a possible Honey Buzzard but our views just too inconclusive. I don't yet have Honey Buzzard on my county list so I really regret not getting a record shot of it when I had the chance! Mr Otmoor then spotted a couple of Yellow Wagtails darting around the legs of the cattle in Ashgrove, something I would no doubt have missed since I now had my Black Tern blinkers on!

Yellow Wagtails & Cow
The news of the Black Terns had brought quite a few of the Oxon birding luminaries out to see them and they were assembled outside the Farmoor cafe. After a quick look at the Terns which were buzzing around F2, there were now around 25, an hour before there had been 50+, we decided on lunch electing to sit indoors to escape the zillions of flying beetles that were plaguing the area outside. Emerging back outside there seemed to be another zillion more flying beasties so we headed straight for the causeway where the air would be moving more, passing good friends with little more than a quick hello. How they could stand there amongst the swarm was beyond me. Thankfully there was a slight breeze blowing across the reservoirs and we were spared the flying hordes once we'd ventured a few metres away from the marina. Now we could concentrate on the Black Terns which I'd noticed had crossed from F2 on to F1 and were at times flying close to the causeway embankment. It was tricky to count how many there were since they were fractured into several groups and also whizzed erratically around the reservoirs. We waited for some to pass close by and then I fired the camera into action. This was a real treat with the sun shining brightly at our backs and the Terns playing ball for a change.

Black Tern
After getting my eye in with the first group and noting that there were several adult birds mixed in with the predominately juvenile birds, I settled us in on the causeway wall, gave Mrs Caley the scope and filled my boots with shot after shot of the Terns every time they passed by close enough.

Soon I began challenging myself more by attempting to capture the Black Terns as they swooped down to the water to pick off an insect. No easy task since they tend to fly a good few metres above the surface and swoop down without warning. A lot of my shots were useless and even my best weren't great but I did get a few action shots. You can see a better one taken by Tezza at Oxon Birding.

While waiting for the Black Terns to fly past I took opportunistic shots of other birds. It's not often that Coots fly very far so when one tore past at speed I took aim. Great Crested Grebes quite often fly from reservoir to the other and offer more possibilities.

Great Crested Grebe
Carrion Crows are frequently encountered along the causeway where they take advantage of any washed up dead trout which they eat, usually concentrating on the eyes and head. The Crows are quite fearless but usually take to flight once somebody gets too close which gives a chance to get a flight shot.

juvenile Carrion Crow
But I was really here for the Black Terns so concentrated my efforts back on them. The number present appeared to have dwindled and we were now down to maybe just a dozen or so and they were flying much higher and becoming more transient between the two basins. It's actually easier to photograph the Terns when they're framed against the sky but the trade off is that you get images of the underparts. But that isn't so bad when it's an adult bird which still have dark feathering to the belly area.

By mid-afternoon the heat had become sweltering, to think I've spent most of the summer bemoaning the amount of rain we've seem to have had so after a quick chat with my friend Kyle (Birdwatch Britannica) and his wife who had waited in vain for the Kingfisher to show, we headed for the car pausing briefly to admire a juvenile Great Crested Grebe.

juvenile Great Crested Grebe
We returned to Farmoor on Sunday morning knowing that we only had a couple of hours to spare because of other commitments. Typically the south of the UK was awash with reports of Wrynecks and other goodies and we were unable to respond this time! There were fewer Black Terns with just 7 seen and for the most part they were staying much further out on F2 so photo opportunities were thin on the ground.

I studied some of the many juvenile Gull species on offer instead, fairly confidently identifying Herring, Yellow-legged and Great Black-backed Gulls. As already intimated at in this piece, improving my Gull ID skills is definitely high on my agenda, particularly as I still require a Caspian for my year list!

2nd cy Yellow-legged Gull

juvenile Great Black-backed Gull

juvenile Herring Gull
We were done within an hour, it was even hotter than yesterday, and the only other bird that grabbed my attention was a Grey Heron that had found a nice perch at the end of one of the reservoir towers.

Grey Heron
By way of change on the Bank Holiday Monday we made for the South Oxon Downs at Churn hopeful and expectant of finding some autumn migrants. As we exited the car a very loud 3 syllable whistle hit my eardrums, the like of which I'd never heard before. A variety of guesses sputtered forth from my inexperienced bird brain, young Kite, Parrot, Howler Monkey (!), in truth I didn't have the foggiest! I looked at the adjacent conifer trees where I thought the noise was coming from and saw a Red Kite in the top of them. Ah! Solved it. Except that when the Kite flew out and away the loud 3 part whistle continued! Fully kitted up now and with camera at the ready we stalked our way towards the sound which was repeated every 5 seconds or so. The song was coming from the direction of the disused railway bridge no more than 20 metres away. By now I was leaning towards some escaped cage bird of some variety, maybe a Mynah or something similar, but I have no grounding in foreign bird species at all so I really didn't know. I scanned ahead and spotted the songster in a small twiggy bush next to the wall of the bridge. The whistling song was being uttered by a small game bird and my first thought was a young Red-legged Partridge except that I knew that they have a ch-ch-ch type song not unlike a Reed warbler with a sore throat. I pulled my phone out and consulted my Collins App, it definitely wasn't like any of the rarer Partridges either and besides it was too small. I was narrowing it down since I now realised it was a Quail of some type. I very quickly got very excited and even more quickly unexcited again when I saw that the head pattern of a jet black head and black eyestripe set into a white face didn't fit our native Common Quail at all and of course that species has the very characteristic "wet-my-lips" song and would be extremely unlikely to be singing whilst perched in a bush! But it had to be a Quail of some description so after taking a few photos with the camera, I had the good notion of taking one with my phone camera. This meant that I could put the image into the Merlin ID App (which can be useful on occasions like this) and, voila, it reliably informed me that the bird in question was a Northern Bobwhite! Wow!

male Northern Bobwhite
Northern Bobwhites are North American birds and to my knowledge have never been recorded in the UK unless as escapes. They would be highly unlikely to make a transatlantic journey by themselves anyway. This male bird was clearly used to people since we were able to walk up to within a few metres of it and it continued singing constantly all the time we there. It didn't even flinch when a tractor trundled past. So I finally find something different and it wasn't legit. But he was a very fine bird all the same.

Reminding myself that we'd come to Churn to track down some autumn migrants I began proper birdwatching. I noted Yellowhammers in nearby scrub and was interested in a smallish bird that kept flying on and off some of the railway fence posts. It took me a while, looking at it directly into the sun didn't help, to realise that it was a juvenile Common Whitethroat. Just on the other side of the bridge I noticed a pair of chunky little birds perched at the top of a bush which turned out to be Corn Buntings. I have a penchant for "little brown jobs" and I think Corn Buntings have a much understated beauty. Becoming much less common in North Oxfordshire where I live the arable fields in the south of the county still offer good numbers of them and Churn is as good a place as any to look for them. One of the birds, I think, was a juvenile being a duller and slightly darker brown streaky thing than the other which was much more richer brown but still streaked. Corn Buntings most noticeable features though are the large conical shaped bill and a piercing black eye.

Corn Bunting, adult (bottom) & juvenile (top)
We stretched our legs along the concrete road in the direction of the ridgeway where we've had great success with Whinchats and Wheatears in the past. The stubble field to the south is very attractive to migrant birds and many other common species too. As we walked we noted Lesser Black-backed Gulls, Red-legged Partridges, hundreds of Linnets, Starlings and Mistle Thrushes as well as many corvids of various types. We'd got halfway along the track and could still hear the Bobwhite singing. He was very loud!


Red Kites, we counted 11 sat in trees and on fence posts as well as more flying overhead, and Buzzards were everywhere. Two Kestrels squabbled with each other and I've seen a Merlin and a Peregrine here before so I was very attentive to the skies but all I could find was a swiftly departing Sparrowhawk. 

Red Kite
There was no sign of any migrant Chats though and by 10 o'clock it was already getting too warm so we stopped short of the Ridgeway itself and turned back. A phone call had me having to get home anyway. But we'd had a really good few hours and will return to my favourite oxymoronically (*) named birding walk, "Up the Downs" in a couple of weeks when hopefully they'll be more migrant birds to find. The Bobwhite had shut up, must have got too hot for him as well, and I wondered if he'd still be here when we come back.

(*) Oxon Moron more like!