Sunday, 29 September 2019

A Tricky One!, 25th September 2019

This is the way we do it, the way we roll and mainly because I'm a bit mental (Mrs Caley just goes along with it to keep me a little bit sane). I keep tabs on the bird news to see what birds are out there and those that  we may go to see on my days off. Now that we are firmly ensconced in building our largest ever year list, we still have a slight hope of reaching 300 species, any birds not yet seen are given priority, providing they are within reasonable reach of North Oxfordshire, our day trip to Cornwall recently for the Brown Booby will definitely be a one off. Two birds had been seen early last week that were attractive year ticks, a Grey Phalarope in Kent and a Spotted Crake in Somerset. We plumped for the Crake, slightly closer to home but mainly because we thought that it would offer our only chance of seeing one whereas there would hopefully be other, more local, chances to get the Phalarope when the storms hit in early October. Having said that we have usually seen Grey Phalaropes by now so I'm a little bit anxious that we may have missed our inland opportunity for this year. 

Anyway this is how our outward journey went. We left home at around 07:30 travelled about 5 miles and collectively thought, "what's the point in driving so far?", so pulled up in a lay-by and discussed other options. The decision was made to visit some local sites to see if we could find our own birds. First stop would be Boddington reservoir just north of Banbury where with a bit of luck you can still find Willow Tits, a bird that is on our year list after seeing a couple in Northumberland in February but one that I still need a good photo of. We stopped at Reg's cafe in Banbury for breakfast and while there noticed that the Grey Phalarope had been seen in Birchington, Kent again. We like trips to the seaside so changed our minds once more and hit the M40 and headed off to see the Phalarope. On joining the M25 and its usual crawling traffic we began to rue our decision. Then Mrs Caley said "you'll never guess what but the Spotted Crake has been showing this morning right in front of the hide at Greylake in Somerset"! I tapped Greylake back into the SatNav and the difference in estimated travelling times between the two target birds was less than twenty minutes but Kent was still closer. However I looked at the traffic in front of us and the warning of further queues along the motorway, thought "what the heck" and turned onto the M3 and set course for Somerset once again! Almost two hours later after crossing the country east to west on the A303 we arrived in the carpark at Greylake. That is how we do it and how we managed to turn a two hour trip into one of over four hours!

We had seen a Spotted Crake at Greylake before and quite by accident too. In October 2009 we had been on our way to Cornwall for a weeks holiday and had decided to visit the RSPB reserve just to check it out. As we walked into the reserve we passed a small freshly dug pond which had very sparse bank side vegetation (in contrast, these days the pond is lined with lush reed growth). A birder coming back the other way had said to us "it's still there". Problem was we had no idea what "it" was since in those days we weren't quite as well genned up as we are now! Then we had seen what he meant when a Spotted Crake almost ran between our legs as it crossed the path! At that time it was one of the most confiding birds that we'd ever seen but, of course, I didn't own a camera back then. 

So here we were again but this time we were armed with the knowledge that this Spotted Crake was showing in front of the lookout hide. We joined another six birders in the hide and I asked when and where the Crake had shown. Apparently we had just missed the bird by around fifteen minutes when it had walked across the mud between two stands of reeds but would most definitely still be in the left hand clump since it hadn't been seen to come out. But then another birder said that the Spotted Crake had "flown" backwards and forwards between the two reedbeds. I inquired if she had been sure that it was the Crake since other birders had said it had "walked" and she told me "yes, you could tell by the beak what it was". Okay, now I was slightly confused but at least the bird had to be in the reedbed on the left. My research into the bird had turned up a couple of photos, via Twitter, that showed the Crake out on mud on the right hand side of the right hand reedbed and nothing to indicate that it favoured other areas. The assembled were quite sure though that it was in the left hand reeds.

The reedbed, I first saw the Spotted Crake at the far bank to the right.
To cut a long, and very boring, story short, I spent the next three and a half hours scrutinising every part of that reedbed to no avail, the only excitement being provided by a Water Rail that flew first into the right hand reeds and then back again. The first pass was greeted by a "there it is" cry from the said lady and her partner but unfortunately for them I had captured the Water Rail during its flight on my camera so they had to back down and I was now fairly sure that they hadn't seen the Spotted Crake at all. 

Water Rail
It was nearly four o'clock and I did a general scan of the whole area once more. To my astonishment I saw the Spotted Crake right on the far side of the cut that formed the main scrape. "It's on the far bank!" I said aloud for Mrs Caley's and the others benefit and repeated in answer to the expected "where?", "there on the far bank". As I said it the second time the Crake took fight and headed towards the left hand reedbed and disappeared behind it. Luckily one chap had been quick enough to see it fly off but sadly Mrs Caley had missed it. Not surprisingly missing the bird after waiting for almost four hours completely dispirited my wife and despondency set in immediately. I felt awful that I had seen it and she hadn't, it means as much to me that she sees the bird as it does that I do. I hadn't had the time to grab a photo either so it was an unsatisfactory outcome to say the least.

Another half hour passed and despite constant willing from me the Spotted Crake did not reappear from the reedbed. I had a feeling that eventually the Crake would retrace its own outward journey that it made just before we arrived and it would be just a matter of waiting but Mrs Caley had other ideas, she was fed up and wanted to go home and I couldn't blame her. We left and contemplated on a difficult birding day when for the second time in a week a twitch for a Crake species just hadn't worked out. All I had to show for my efforts was the Water Rail and a Cetti's Warbler in addition to the five second view of the target bird.

Cetti's Warbler
I'm not personally blessed with many endearing qualities but what I do have, when I choose to engage them, is patience and determination and I wasn't ready to give up just yet but I had to try to convince Mrs Caley to give it another go. We did drive away from Greylake and I filled the car with diesel ready for the drive home. Then I got to work and explained to Mrs Caley that the Spotted Crake had been showing best in the early morning and late afternoon and that we should really go back and give it another try. After all what was the point in returning home empty handed until it was dark? And so it was that we went back to Greylake and made our way back to the hide.

On our way we met a couple of the birders that had been in the hide with us earlier and they said that just after we left the Spotted Crake had indeed returned to the other reedbed and showed reasonably well but had since disappeared again. Just typical really and the news made Mrs Caley feel even worse! The only other people in the hide now it was almost six o'clock in the evening were the couple who misidentified the Water Rail earlier but they were looking out in the other direction and not seemingly interested in finding the Spotted Crake. To their credit though they said that they had tried to catch up with us when the Crake reappeared after we left but we'd already driven off. 

We sat at the window nearest to the reeds on the right where the photos had been taken of the bird on the previous day and unbelievably within seconds the Spotted Crake appeared right at the edge of the reeds! All we had needed to do was turn up late in the afternoon and not at midday! Note made for the future. Now we had both seen the bird, the Spotted Crake became bird number #267 on the Old Caley year list.

Spotted Crake, Greylake Somerset, 25/09/2019
I related the fact that we were year listing to the other couple and proudly boasted that we'd now seen 267 this year. Their reply stunned me, "oh, we're on 307"! "What?, How? You must have been all over the country then and to Shetland and other offshore islands?" I blurted out. "No, not really just lucky to live in Scotland" was their answer. They then regaled us with tales of their own exploits including finding four Capercaillies in a tree together and finding the Eastern Olivaceous Warbler at Farlington in a blinding rain storm in a different area from where everybody else had. Some folk are just very lucky I guess.

I zoned the other couple out and left Mrs Caley to play the diplomat. Diplomacy is not one of my few qualities but I do possess a very unhealthy level of cynicism. I was far more interested in the Spotted Crake which was now slowly emerging from the cover of the reeds. This was the sixth that I've seen, the most recent of which was a well watched and very showy bird at Slimbridge in 2016. Spotted Crakes are birds of reedbeds and they are normally very skulking by nature but on passage in the autumn can venture out into the open as this one was finally doing.

I used all of my telepathic powers to urge the Spotted Crake out of the cover of the reeds and into open space. Maybe the bird had been reticent earlier on because of the noise and kerfuffle that a number of people make when camped in a small hide together. Now the only sounds were the clicking of my camera as the four of us watched the bird very boldly stride out onto the mud and begin feeding on the many flies attracted by the decaying plant matter.

Usually I'd be delighted to have the chance to take photos of a scarce bird from only five metres away and indeed I was, but of course with it now being after six the light was beginning to fail and, while I don't like to use that old Toggers excuse of "the light was bad", I had to ramp up the ISO on the camera to a high level in order to get a fast enough shutter speed leading to the inevitable trade off in image sharpness and over grainy final images. But I was more than pleased to get some frames after the time and effort we'd invested in seeing the Crake.

Today had been our thirty-second wedding anniversary too and the Spotted Crake joined an illustrious list of "Anniversary birds" such as Pallid Harrier, Red-necked Phalarope and, funnily enough, the Slimbridge Spotted Crake. Tough going at times but we made it the end, not the marriage that's always been sweet, but the days birding!

Thursday, 26 September 2019

Farmoor Waders & Titchy Twitchy, 21st September 2019

We have done a lot of twitching and a lot of travelling around over the last month, so thought we would actually stay closer to home for a change on Saturday. When birding in our local area we tend to default either to Otmoor or Farmoor, both of which are worthy of a visit. However we are very good at choosing one and then later discover that most of the good birds seen are at the other! This weekend the choice was made easier since a few waders had been dropping into Farmoor during the preceding few days and some of them were still around on Friday.

We were a bit late arriving and we could see some other birders already walking along the main birding highway, the causeway as it's known. It was a very pleasant morning but thankfully there was a keen breeze blowing across the reservoirs. You need some wind at Farmoor since it is at its best when the water is ruffled. As we sauntered past the not yet open cafe (I can never understand why the cafe opens an hour or so after the gates do) Mrs Caley happened to mention that we hadn't seen a single Wheatear at the reservoir this year. Cue a fine Northern Wheatear to appear then, stood on the low embankment wall of Farmoor 1. It is often uncanny how when Mrs Caley mentions, quite innocently, a certain bird, how one then appears almost instantly afterwards! Doesn't work for me though despite me uttering random names of umpteen birds, especially those missing from my year list and indeed my life list, none of them ever appear. Hoopoe or Northern Parula anybody?!

I took a record shot of the Wheatear and then used the grass bank of the reservoir to creep up on it from below in order to get some better ones. The Wheatear was actually very confiding as it caught flies on the road that runs around the reservoir and allowed a very close approach. For most of this year we had reflected on the paucity of Wheatears but in the last few weeks we had seen hundreds at Portland and a nice trio at our new favourite spot on the edge of Oxon at Muswell Hill.

Northern Wheatear
No news either way had been put out yet as to whether any of the waders present on Friday were still at the reservoir but I could see that a couple of photographers had stopped halfway along the causeway and were busy clicking away. I didn't think that they'd be lying prone on the wall to snap the resident ducks and grebes so assumed that they must have been taking shots of something more interesting. Before we turned to head down the road between the two reservoirs, I noticed a Meadow Pipit accompanying a pair of Pied Wagtails at the edge of Farmoor 2. We see Meadow Pipits only occasionally here. A chap passing by cheerfully informed us that the Meadow Pipit was in fact a Rock Pipit, because it was next to water (!), and that I had misidentified it but before I could challenge and correct him he had raced away to see what the others were looking at. 

Meadow Pipit
Farmoor attracts large numbers of post breeding Coots and most of them hug the banks of the reservoirs along the causeway where they dive in the shallow edges and tug up some of the weed that grows under the water. From a hundred metres away we could see a Coot that had become a bit of a local celebrity recently. It isn't too difficult to pick out an almost pure white Coot when it's part of a flock of over 200 black ones! It was the first time we'd seen it though and luckily it was feeding very close to the edge of F1 allowing me to get a few decent pictures. Not sure some of the Coots were as keen on their leucistic cousin though!

"leucistic" Coot
Little Grebes are also attracted to Farmoor in good numbers after the breeding season and we've seen over 50 at times. Today we'd already watched a few at the marina and there were some more dotted about the Coot flock. Of course when you try to photograph a diving bird, more often than not it will dive just as you press the shutter. So you have to learn when and where they will resurface.

Little Grebe
By the time we reached the pair of small waders that were feeding along the shore of F2, the other birders had moved on and we had the birds to ourselves for a while. One of the birds was a juvenile Dunlin and the other the juvenile Little Stint that had been here for a couple of days. We sat on the wall and waited for the two birds to walk right up to us. Wading birds are often very confiding at Farmoor provided you just sit on the wall and give them the freedom to approach. Toggers that "chase" the birds up and down will most often just flush them to another part of the reservoir. Before the Little Stint and Dunlin had arrived at Farmoor they'd probably never seen people or boats before so would yet to have developed a fear of either.

juvenile Little Stint & juvenile Dunlin
We watched the two wading birds at length and I took plenty of photos. The Little Stint was particularly bold and at one point walked right underneath the place where we were sat and scuttled off towards the marina. Its Dunlin mate was a little bit more apprehensive but eventually legged it after the smaller bird.

juvenile Dunlin

juvenile Little Stint
Farmoor acts as a loafing ground for hundreds of moulting geese at this time of year and the causeway was lined on both sides with many Greylag and Canada Geese all feigning sleep but very wary of any close approach. Amongst them I spotted a supposed "Canalag" Goose, a Canada x Greylag hybrid cross. It was very attached to a pure Greylag and when that bird launched into the water it quickly followed it.

"Canalag" Goose
A little further on I spotted a Barnacle Goose, not a common sight at the reservoir, then another and then even more. In the end there turned out to be 27 of the beautifully marked small black, grey and white Geese. These birds would be feral and probably part of the larger flock which moves around Oxfordshire and neighbouring counties and are quite often seen at Blenheim Park. The Barnacle Geese were much more alert than the moulting larger Geese and took to the water readily whenever anybody walked too close to them.

Barnacle Goose
Some of the Geese were strung out across the road itself and reacted angrily and noisily when we walked through them. I wonder if they'll ever learn that we mean no harm to them so they have nothing to fear but, a bit like cattle, they always move out of the way at the last moment when it would have been easier for them to just stay put. There are quite a few "harlequin" plumaged Greylags presumably with some domestic variety parentage.

I scanned the reservoirs and noticed another three wading birds at the Thames end of F1. Looking through the scope revealed a couple of Ruff and a Knot, both far from common birds at Farmoor. There was a chap taking photos of them but unfortunately he didn't seem to appreciate the Farmoor rule of sitting tight and allowing the birds to come to you. As I watched he chased the birds one time too many and they took off across the reservoir. When he walked past us I asked him, not too sarcastically I hoped, "where did you flush them to?". "Oh they're very flighty" came his reply. Before I could fire back a taught retort, a warning look from the stabilising half of my marriage stopped me in my tracks. I recognised the man as the same one who had done exactly the same thing to a Knot that had been at the reservoir last autumn. I wish he'd learn the Farmoor way of things. For the next 20 minutes there was no further sign of the waders and I assumed that they had indeed been frightened away by his antics but just as we were contemplating returning up the causeway I saw them all flying back towards the western shore again. We moved slowly towards them and settled by the wall about 50 metres away since they were moving back to where we had stopped.

Ruff & Knot
In similar fashion to the Little Stint and Dunlin before, the two Ruff and the Knot were not bothered by us for as long as we remained still and made their way to within 10 metres but then one of the many joggers passed and they took off again. This time though they only flew a short way along the embankment and were soon working their way back towards us again. 

In time the three birds came right up to us and afforded cracking views giving me the chance to get some very close up shots. In some of them you could even see the type of things that these birds eat! We were joined by another birder, well met Clive (in the unlikely event that you're reading this!), who also understood that it's best to remain in one place and let the birds come to you (check out some of Clive Daelman's photos on Birdguides, somewhat better than mine!).


An update on Birdguides informed us that a Bluethroat which had been found at Titchfield Haven on Thursday had been seen again. Mrs Caley and I both love Bluethroats and although we had added one to the year list at Warsash, just a few miles along the coast from Titchfield, ten days before, our views had been brief and unsatisfactory so it was deemed a no brainer and to drive down and see if we could see it. 

We paused briefly on our walk back to the car to watch the flock of Barnacle Geese take off and away over F1. They turned and then passed right over our heads before disappearing to the south.

The drive was a bit hectic with a three mile tailback on the A34 close to Winchester and a trawl along minor roads to avoid the very busy M3 but we arrived at Hill Head next to Titchfield Haven nature reserve on the Solent just before one o'clock. With it being such a nice sunny day the next problem was to find a parking spot since there were a lot of day trippers and beach lovers around. It took a while but eventually we found a space. 

Our original plan was to grab a coffee and something to eat before heading out on to the reserve but we had managed to park just a hundred metres away from the Meon Shore Hide from which the Bluethroat could be seen so decided to go straight to it. Just as well we did too! The hide was fairly full but thankfully and in complete contrast to Wednesday in Yorkshire the locals were more than accommodating and quite gladly made room for us at the windows. We must have been sat down for less than two minutes when somebody called "it's out, in the usual spot"! Of course we had only just arrived so didn't know where the usual spot was but it didn't take me long to find the Bluethroat and then get Mrs Caley on to it. Unlike the skulker at Warsash this bird, another male, was right out in the open albeit a little far away from the hide but at least allowing fine views.

The Bluethroat snared a fly or two and then retreated back into the reeds. Less than five minutes later it was out again, in the usual spot! This time it was on view for maybe a minute or so and ventured out a bit further from the reeds so the views were even better although my camera lens was struggling for reach.

At half past one the Bluethroat appeared for a third time and gave the best views of all staying out in the open for maybe a whole two minutes. We had been in the hide for less than half an hour and had had brilliant and prolonged views, far better than those of many others that had visited to see it on previous days.

We stayed another half hour but the Bluethroat didn't reappear, probably because it was spooked when a Sparrowhawk staged an attack at a Pied Wagtail. A coffee and some lunch was in order so we called in at the visitor centre cafe which was the site of a brilliant encounter for us with a Barred Warbler in December 2017.

Barred Warbler, Titchfield Haven, Hants, 09/12/2017
Fully sated we returned to the hide stopping to admire some of the resident Turnstones that can be found in the small harbour and on the pebble beach. Turnstones are gutsy little birds and are very quick to take advantage of any new food sources, we've even seen them here picking up crumbs in sparrow fashion around the outside tables at the cafe.

Back at the hide there had been no further sign of the Bluethroat, it had gone to ground and despite a few claims of seeing it moving through the reeds we didn't see it again in the next hour. I spent a bit of time taking a few photos of some of the other birds present including a pair of Black Swans, not tickable for the year list but the first I'd seen for a while. 

Black Swan

Black-tailed Godwit

Pied Wagtail
After spotting a Mediterranean Gull floating amongst the more common Black-headed Gulls and gaining a poor record shot, we called it a day. But it had been a good day!

Mediterranean Gull