Wednesday, 11 September 2019

Tough Blue Birding! 8th & 11th September 2019

Mrs Caley and I were quite happily taking a "down" day on Sunday by walking along our new local patch at Muswell Hill on the Oxon and Bucks border. I say "down" day since we'd had a hectic few days twitching with long journeys to Cornwall for the Brown Booby and to Lancashire for the contentious Pied or Eastern Black-eared Wheatear. Since being introduced to Muswell Hill, the highest point in our part of the county, by our good friend Badger, we'd had a couple of really good walks up there and had found several Spotted Flycatchers, Northern Wheatears and a Common Redstart. 

Northern Wheatear, Muswell Hill, 01/09/2019
Spotted Flycatcher, Muswell Hill 01/09/2019
On Sunday though with returning cooler weather there was little to be seen and the only highlight had been a Sparrowhawk that initially perched in the top of a tree before chasing a flock of Goldfinches. At 10 o'clock we were about to return to the car and go home for a rest when Birdguides informed of a Bluethroat that had been found at Hook with Warsash nature reserve in Hampshire. Ten minutes later with the SatNav primed with the details we were on our way weaving along the minor roads of North Oxfordshire and heading towards the Oxford ring road!

Sparrowhawk, Muswell Hill, 08/09/2019
After the SatNav had initially sent us to the wrong end of Warsash, near Southampton by the way, which meant we had to take an extra 15 minute detour, we parked up and took the short walk to the seawall where the Bluethroat had been reported from. A returning birder gave us the dreaded "no sign since it was first seen at 08:55" news, it was now nearly 12:00 but having made the effort we had to have at least a look. There were maybe a dozen or so local birders on site and none had seen the bird! The Bluethroat had been seen in a small hawthorn bush next to a scrape which was next to a ditch. The entire area was a mix of gorse, long grass and reeds so we were under no illusions and realised that finding a skulker like a Bluethroat would be extremely hard work. In fact, to cut a long story short, it proved impossible so after a couple of hours we gave it up as a bad job. Obviously later in the afternoon the bird was seen again and then on Monday showed infrequently but pretty well almost all day! The Bluethroat was also seen early morning on Tuesday and again in the late afternoon.

I had a day to spare on Wednesday so we decided to give it another go but this time rose early and drove down the A34 to make it to Warsash by just after 7. Bluethroats are fabulous little birds, superficially resembling the Robin but having a bright blue throat, bordered with a red band, from which it gets its name. I'm a blue boy at heart so love any birds that have blue in their name or plumage, they're aren't that many either, so a Bluethroat always gets me going! I've seen a few before but just missed out on a fall of them on the east coast in May when several were seen in Northumberland up until the day before we got there for a weeks holiday so one was still required for the Old Caley year list!

Our previous sightings of Bluethroats include a fine singing male at Welney in June 2010 (took us 5 hours of patient waiting before that showed) which, presumably the same returning bird, we also saw the following year and a neat first winter male in Lincolnshire in February 2017. But we hadn't seen one since so were keen to see this one!

male white-spotted Bluethroat, Welney, June 2010

1st winter male Bluethroat, Willow Tree Fen, Lincs, 18/02/2017
The path down to the seawall and scrape takes you through first some nice woodland and then a tunnel of scrub lined reedbeds. Birds were very active within the trees and bushes but were keeping low on what was quite a breezy day. While answering the call a Goldcrest fluttered through the bushes overhead quickly followed by another that stopped briefly and seemed to stare back at me. Except that stare was fierce because of the bold white eyestripe, a Firecrest! I reached for the camera just as the Firecrest disappeared into the scrub. A Cetti's Warbler erupted into song and I had a good view of its tail end as it dived for cover! This would be a story of the day, almost but not quite.

We arrived at the area that the Bluethroat was frequenting by 07:30 and were surprised to see no other birders present although a few would join us throughout the morning. Exposed to the elements out on the edge of the Solent it was rather chilly and there was promise of rain in the air despite a favourable forecast. The wind was buffeting the reeds lining the scrape and I didn't think it likely that any small birds would be choosing to perch on those today. I checked all of the spots where the Bluethroat had been photographed over the past few days, the small hawthorn bush where it had originally been found, the willow tree close to the bench where it had posed beautifully on both Monday and Tuesday and even the stick right out in the open on one of the islands where incredibly the Bluethroat had perched on Monday. There was no sign of it this morning. Over the next two hours I checked all of the likely spots over and over again but only saw Willow Warblers and Common Whitethroats. On Sunday we had seen one of our favourites, a female Dartford Warbler, in the gorse but there would be little chance of seeing one of those in the windy conditions since they would definitely be lying low. There was plenty of activity on the scrape with maybe 50 or more Black-tailed Godwits either feeding or roosting and a dozen Little Egrets fishing voraciously alongside a few Cormorants in the shallow water. A lone Common Sandpiper pottered around the islands and a pair of Dunlin flew out and away screeching as they went. Starlings fed on Blackberries in between whirling around overhead.

Little Egrets & Black-tailed Godwits
At about 08:45 a Common Whitethroat popped up in the Bluethroats favoured willow tree and was followed by a bigger bird which frustratingly and tantalisingly dropped out of view almost as soon as I'd noticed it. It was the right size and shape but I'd gathered no plumage details so couldn't be sure but hope was raised. Half an hour later Mrs Caley and another birder both reported seeing a "Robin sized" bird fly behind the reeds in front of us. I got a quick glimpse of it too but again didn't get any pointers to its identity so couldn't be sure what is was. But at least my full attention was restored. Then at 09:30 I locked onto a brown backed bird flying in from the left and along the ditch in front of me. It was barely a few feet above the water so my view was of its upper side only and the flight was quite strong and direct. As it passed I saw very obvious red flashes at the sides of the tail, indicating it was the Bluethroat for sure! It flew towards the willow but instead of landing there dived straight into deep cover behind it. I alerted everybody else present, they had all missed it fly past and all eyes were directed towards the willow. Surely it would hop up the tree and sit in full view for us now. It didn't of course so a few of us decided to look at the scrub and reeds on the other side of the willow. One chap reckoned he saw the Bluethroat fly into the base of a reed stand and then again into another reed clump but I saw nothing. This bird was playing very hard to get.

The Willow minus a Bluethroat
We returned to the cleared viewing area and resumed staring at the willow once again. The Bluethroat had to be around that area still but was obviously keeping very low. Almost an hour after the flypast a flock of Goldfinches landed in the top of the willow. I mentioned to Mike (well met) who was stood next to me that considering how the Bluethroat had been seen to be territorial over the past two days during which it had chased a Robin and a Reed warbler (and perhaps a Whitethroat earlier!) out of its space that we should watch the willow closely in case it did indeed pop up. Then I heard Mike say "what's that bird just to the right of the tree?" and then, while I'm frantically trying to find the bird in question, "goodness it's the Bluethroat and it's looking straight at us!". Except I couldn't find it and when I did all that I saw was a brief flash of blue and white as the bird did a backward somersault and disappeared over the top of the bramble in which it had been perched! I hadn't looked far enough to the right and while Mike had a stonking view of the bird I hadn't. This was so frustrating! Fortunately Mrs Caley had also just got onto the bird as it did a flit so at least she was able to add it to her list too. The Bluethroat became #263 on the Old Caley year list.

Despite trying very hard for the next hour and a half we had no further sightings of the Bluethroat so left at midday. I was annoyed that I never got a really good view when I had the chance and was disappointed that I'd failed to get even a blurry photo but at least we'd seen it and we'd get another chance at another soon somewhere else, the autumn migration period was just hotting up after all.

A female Sparrowhawk, harried by a pair of Magpies, briefly raised the spirits as it hunted along the ditch, hope it didn't nobble the Bluethroat, and then tore into the Black-tailed Godwit flock scattering them in every direction.

Sparrowhawk & Black-tailed Godwits
Ultimately though and despite our success in overturning Sunday's dip, we trudged away a little disconsolate. Bluethroats can be tough little buggers!

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