Monday, 24 February 2020

Slim Pickings and all Yat. 4th & 8th February, 2020

We had a new motor and I had a day off on Tuesday because of a delay at work, a reasonable excuse then to go out for the day. Slimbridge WWT always offers good and easy birding and we hadn't been there for a while so thought that would make a decent destination. There was also the added attraction of a rare Goose to go for that had been found near Gloucester a couple of days before.

We left late so got caught out a bit by the traffic and didn't arrive at Slimbridge until 10 o'clock. Before we'd even found an isolated parking spot where we felt the car would be safe and remain unblemished, you know how it is when you have something new and shiny and our last car picked up a door dent first time out at Minsmere, we'd seen a Crane in one of the fields by the entrance road. We geared up, flashed our membership card, ignored all the good advice offered by the staff as usual and headed straight out to the South Lake. I was hoping to add a Cattle Egret to the year list since one had recently been seen on several occasions resting on the spit in front of the Discovery Hide. A quick scan revealed, of course, that the Cattle Egret was elsewhere this morning, probably hiding around the corner somewhere and waiting for us to leave. I half expected to see a sign announcing that, "I've gone fishing, will be back when the Caley's have left". There were some year list additions on offer though with Shelduck, Avocet and Oystercatchers all showing well enough.

The birds on the South Lake are very confiding, I guess they've become used to the hide and its occupants staring out at them so photography opportunities are limitless although before midday is not the best time since any sunshine and light is against the photographer. For a few minutes though I took a few photos of some of the more common resident birds. I do have to put something in this blog otherwise it would be even more boring than it undoubtedly already is.

Tufted Duck
We didn't linger too long and when a flock of a hundred or so Black-tailed Godwits flew in and settled at the southern end of the lake we decided to move along to the Hogarth Hide hoping that maybe the Cattle Egret was hiding in the marshy area there. 

Black-tailed Godwit flock
On the way to the Hogarth Hide many of the captive birds were encountered. I try hard not to waste any time taking more photos of those birds that don't count but I just had to make an allowance for a delightful Lesser White-fronted Goose that stood in the path ahead of us which wouldn't move until it had finished drinking from one of the many puddles.

Lesser White-fronted Goose, from the captive collection
We took our place in the hide alongside just a couple of other folk. The Hogarth Hide is always the least busy of the Slimbridge hides probably because it's a little tricky to find tucked away as it is behind the Otter and one of the Flamingo attractions. The Godwits were mostly sleeping en masse but there was one bird that was feeding close to the hide and affording lovely views. A gentleman sat to our right must have been a machine gunner in a previous life since for the next half hour his camera just rattled off shots continuously and he never moved his aim off of the Black-tailed Godwit. I wondered just how many images of the same bird that you need to take and then reminded myself that I took over 600 shots of a Wryneck last year and I dread to think how many I would take if I ever found another Capercaillie. My camera would likely melt! Each to their own and the old chap looked happy so who am I to pass judgement? I joined in and took a few frames of my own, Black-tailed Godwits are beautiful birds after all.

Black-tailed Godwit
A Common Crane sporting some colourful but ultimately plastic jewellery on its legs landed at the far edge of the lake. According to the Great Crane Project it was Sedge, a female which hatched on May Day in 2010. We watched the Crane walk nimbly and elegantly through the, ahem, sedges before it disappeared into longer reeds and out of view. A few minutes later I reacted quickly as Sedge the Crane came flying strongly past the hide window. I almost felt the whoosh of its wings as it passed by and most of my photos only fitted part of the bird in. Cranes are big! Of course the camera settings were all wrong  but it was pretty cool to stare such a majestic bird right in the eye as it flew past.

"Sedge" the Common Crane
After taking a few more shots of the Black-tailed Godwit, I was bored at being outgunned about 20 to 1 by the trigger happy Togger, so decided to have a look from some of the other hides. The Zeiss Hide had recently been a good spot from which to see a Bittern but the strong winds kept it deep in the reeds today. There was also no sign of a drake Green-winged Teal which had been seen over the last few days, a recurring theme for us so far this year. We did add Barnacle Geese and Dunlin to the years proceeding which tipped us over the 100 mark. I never took a single photo since all of the birds were miles away from the hide. The most action came at the picnic area outside of the hide where several Rooks have become habituated at clearing up people lunches. Rooks are really smart looking birds when the sun shines, their myriad of colours exposed and enhanced by the light.

Passing some of the captive wildfowl ponds we paused to watch some of our own native species, Smew, Scaup of both varieties, Goldeneye and Eider are all kept here. One drake Eider appeared to be showing off and performing tricks, judging by it holding a stick across its back in tightrope walking fashion.

Eider, from the captive collection
We moved onto the new Estuary Tower Hide which overlooks the Severn Estuary and the famous Dumbles where we twitched the Little Bustard last year. The hide is an impressive structure with commanding views in most directions. The top level is open but has a glass screen around it which is just high enough to prevent Mrs Caley from seeing over it! Views through the glass get refracted and blurred so it didn't work for her or other folk, at the same height or less, at all. It was also very windy on the top deck so we retreated back to the lower level. Viewing is again mainly through glass although some windows do open but that naturally allows the wind in so most of the windows remained closed on this blustery day. The glass is clearer though and you can see through better but it still impairs visual quality somewhat. There were more Cranes here and they were tentatively performing their courtship dance but were really just warming up for their full on breeding displays in the spring. The flock of Barnacle Geese on the river wall contained a Bar-headed Goose, no chance of that being accepted as a wild bird of course, but there was no sign of any White-fronted Geese. We've had difficulty locating the White-fronts here before at this time of year since they spend the day feeding in fields that can't be seen easily. A Peregrine watched everything from its perch atop a washed up tree on the river bank. Again I resisted the urge to take more crappy photos.

Birds are more confiding at the Willow Hide where Water Rails usually show extremely well, taking advantage of spilt seed from the feeders. None were out today of course so we watched a couple of Brown Rats scavenge instead but they were so quick that every time I snapped away at them all I caught was a photo of their refuge holes in the grassy bank. There was however, a beautiful drake Teal to admire and I took a few shots of some House Sparrows, a species that we are all guilty of overlooking at times.

House Sparrow
We were getting a little bit discouraged once again by our lack of success and needed some lunch so began back to the onsite restaurant. We stopped at the hides that look out onto the tack piece and added Bewick's Swans, Curlew and Ruff to our paltry year list. A quick look onto the Rushy Pen gave us a smart drake Mandarin Duck (I always enjoy writing that oxymoronically), not ringed but still probably plastic. Next month will bring many more birds back to the Rushy.

drake Mandarin Duck
The restaurant was now chocker with families and just about everybody else that had come to Slimbridge that day and I didn't fancy wasting valuable time queueing for ages to get served and to find a vacant table. We stopped at a pub instead and then looked unsuccessfully yet again for a famous Tawny Owl at Frampton which obviously didn't like the windy weather much and must have been tucked cosily away in its favoured roosting hole. Just the following day I saw another cracking photo of that Owl. 

Last stop of the day was made at Ashleworth Ham where a Tundra Bean Goose had been hanging out with the resident flock of Greylags. But we were there so the Bean Goose wasn't. When will our luck ever change for the better?

Once a year, at least, we make our way to the Forest of Dean area for a Goshawk fix. There are Goshawks in Oxfordshire but they can be very tricky to observe and are far from guaranteed. So in order to be almost assured of seeing some, Symond's Yat on the Gloucestershire and Herefordshire border is one of the best places to go. Symond's Yat Rock is also famous as being a breeding spot for Peregrine Falcons as well as being an immensely popular tourist attraction because of the views over the Wye Valley. The rock towers above the river far below and offers an elevated viewpoint over wooded areas in every direction. Many birds of prey species display over the woodlands. At ten o'clock in the morning it's still quiet so you get the viewpoint pretty much to yourself even still on this morning we were surprised to find that we had it entirely to ourselves and there were no other birders present. Of course that meant that we'd have to spot and identify the Goshawks ourselves! The weather was fine and sunny which is perfect for soaring and displaying birds of prey so we were confident that we could change our recent run of poor luck in finding our target birds. 

A quick scan of the wooded hillside to the south revealed that the male Peregrine was present, perched on almost exactly the same tree branch as the year before. Photographing the bird was a waste of time though owing to the sun that shone directly at us.

Soon some Buzzards took to the air but none morphed into Goshawks despite much study from me. At one time there were at least ten Buzzards flying in front of us, some distant and high up but others were more obliging and flew below the viewpoint and thus offered up different angles than the normal.

Common Buzzard
After an hour or so, as I was tracking yet another large bird that turned out to be just another Buzzard, Mrs Caley called, "What's this one?". She was looking towards the North and I easily locked onto the bird in question. Getting the scope fixed onto the bird showed a stocky build, full broad wings and longish looking tail. The "wrap around" white thigh feathering and general grey colouration underlined that it was indeed a Goshawk and a very nice adult to boot. Well done Mrs Caley!

I followed the Goshawk until it disappeared from view over the trees and studied the photos that I'd taken. Owing to the distance they weren't too clever but there was no doubting the birds identity. The Goshawk reappeared and flew across the river to the hillside opposite but frustratingly stayed well away. I willed it to fly closer to us so that I could get some decent images but it refused to do so I contented myself with fine scope views instead.

After the Goshawk had soared around for a few minutes it decided to travel quickly westwards with some serious intent. I legged it over to the other side of the viewpoint and watched it fly powerfully and low over the woods and past houses on the hillside. Unfortunately still distant from the viewpoint and I wondered how fantastic it would be to be looking out of one of those houses as the Goshawk flew past. But hey, we were just delighted to have seen our target bird for the day. That made a nice change!

The viewpoint was becoming busy with sightseers and they were proving to be an irritation to us. We were interrupted more than a few times, "What are you looking for?" was ok and I'm always happy to share but when we got asked more than once if we could "Take a photo of us please" then I began to get annoyed. I mean, couldn't they see we were busy? You can't afford to take your eyes off the skies when looking for Goshawks. Despite my increasing infuriation we decided to stick it out until midday in the hope of better views but there was no further sign of Goshawks although we did see a Peregrine flying like an airborne torpedo and added Ravens to the day list.

Peregrine Falcon
The best performers were undoubtedly the Buzzards which often flew in close enough for very good views. However the touristy types were really beginning to do our heads in and we couldn't take any more of the inaneness of the Instagram brigade so took our leave vowing to return on a weekday next year.

After lunch we made a quick recce to Cannop Ponds to see the local Mandarin Ducks which could definitely be counted despite their original introduced status. The drakes were very much involved into sorting the pecking order out and were busy fighting amongst themselves and chasing the females for a bit more than pecking. There isn't much in the UK birding world that is as handsome as a drake Mandarin even if he looks more than a bit gaudy.

Mandarin Ducks
We then managed to revert back to form by making a trip to Crabtree Hill to look for a Great Grey Shrike which ended in failure, the third lack of success with that species already this year. I'm not going to bother looking for another. We did at least have the satisfaction of hearing and seeing some Common Crossbills fly overhead.

Tuesday, 11 February 2020

Struggling! 25-26th January & 1st-2nd February 2020

This New Year has not been the best, birding wise, for us Old Caley's. We're on such a lousy run of form that if we were a football outfit then we'd be attracting gleeful smiles from the pundits as they would all be tipping us to be relegated and so soon after narrowly missing out on listing glory last year! After successfully adding the Desert Wheatear to our life list at the start of the year, our recent run reads, dip, dip, tick, dip, dip, dip, tick, dip, dip , dip, dip. Relegation form indeed!

We had determined in 2020 to not chase a year list and in an attempt to save a small part of the planet would not leave such a huge carbon footprint by birding more locally. We've also changed our motor, diesel to petrol, and don't want to crucify it like we did the last one which we managed to pretty much run into the ground during 2019.

Our last weekend spent in our tired old car began on the 25th January with an effort to find some good local birds. Needless to say we completely failed in our quest to find both Crossbills and Tree Sparrows at previously semi-reliable sites in Oxfordshire. We walked a long way that day for practically no reward whatsoever. Fast forward to Sunday 26th January when we headed to nearby Bedfordshire for a couple of local twitches. Nothing very rare but potentially useful year list additions (figuratively speaking of course since we are definitely not year listing). An hour spent stood in the freezing cold by the edge of a bleak field in driving rain, Mrs Caley very wisely opted for the inside of the car, yielded no sighting of a hoped for Great Grey Shrike, the second dip of that species already this year. We moved on to Priory Country Park in Bedford where we did at least score with a very handsome drake Ring-necked Duck so things were on the up. Not for long though since we double dipped the Shrike again on the way home!

Ring-necked Duck
Things went very awry in the cafe at Priory CP when I managed to unsettle Mrs Caley's hot chocolate drink and deposit the entire contents of the glass all over her! It was a right mess and pretty much summed up the run of luck that we were having. I blamed the ridiculous design of the drinking vessel and also wondered why a hot drink is put into such a glass and not a far more suitable mug. To the cafe holders credit though the drink was replaced free of charge, on the condition that I didn't touch it.

Whilst double dipping the Shrike we heard of a Jack Snipe that had been seen from the hide at Willen Lake in Milton Keynes. We were only a few miles away so made it there within half an hour. Birds settle on the cropped reeds quite close to the rudimentary hide so decent views are afforded even if it is difficult looking through the slats since they are at a very awkward height to access, particularly for the more vertically challenged. After a few moments of adjustment it was clear that there were a lot of Common Snipe, probably about thirty in total, but after an hour of careful searching through it was apparent that the Jack Snipe wasn't amongst them. I researched a little bit via the internet and Bucks Birds informed that the Jack had bobbed slowly across the reeds and then disappeared into the taller and denser vegetation to the left of the hide. Probably never to be seen again.

Common Snipe
The following Saturday, the 1st of February, we acted on a tip off and travelled to the Daventry area to find a resident pair of Little Owls. It promised to be a windy and wet day later but the early morning was sunny. We found the "Owl Tree", a typical old and gnarled example with lots of tangled branches, with ease in a field, to be fair that tree would always be in that position, just thirty metres or so from the road. Nothing was obvious in the tree on first appraisal but I soon noticed some movement to the rear and then spotted one of the Little Owls in one of those most sought after and photogenic poses. The Little Owl was staring at me through a hole in an old decayed part of the tree, a real shame then that I managed to mess the photos up.

Little Owl
Little Owls are one of Mrs Caley's favourites and even grumpy old me takes delight in seeing them, especially since they are definitely becoming more difficult to find and local to our home are non-existent these days. I set the scope up so that we could enjoy better views. A bit of scanning revealed a second Little Owl in another part of the tree. Both birds were seemingly enjoying the sunshine and appeared, outwardly at least, to be unconcerned with us stood watching them. Unless Owls are hunting on the wing they are, despite their "cuteness", pretty boring to watch since they do very little except turn their heads through that impossible 360 degree business. These two were no exception and for the next half hour remained perched in exactly the same places. I studied other parts of the park and found a Raven soaring overhead, lots of Buzzards and a couple of Red Kites. A Green Woodpecker laughed away at us but there was nothing new for the year other than the Little Owls.

We made our second visit of the year to Draycote water, before this year we had never been there. This time we were looking for a Black-necked Grebe and assumed that it would be seen from the Farborough Bank because that was where we'd seen everything a few weeks before. We got buffeted by the increasingly strengthening winds for our troubles and didn't find the Grebe, later learning that it was in fact hanging out on the opposite side of the reservoir at a place called Rainbow Corner. Maybe the rainbow that hung over the water as we walked back to the car was actually pointing the way. 

Black-headed Gull
Little Grebe
At the car park the sun put in appearance for the last time that day and illuminated a Magpie in stunning fashion. But still I drove off more than a little bit disconsolately, despite my new motor. I really must up my game for the future few weeks otherwise I'd have let the first winter period pass me by without seeing much at all. More research is needed before going out as well as a lot more luck when out there.

Sunday would, weather wise, be the same as Saturday, starting nice and then deteriorating into a wet day. We were at Dix Pit, near Stanton Harcourt, early but yet again I had failed to do enough fact finding before getting there and had parked at the wrong end of the lake. I did eventually realise my mistake but we had wasted an hour looking in the wrong places, an all too regular error on my part it seems. Dix Pit has been very productive over the years and attracts many scarce and rare birds, particularly wildfowl. We once saw a Pied-billed Grebe and a White-headed Duck (unfortunately not countable) on the same day here and have also seen Black-necked Grebes, Whooper Swans and Smew on the pit. The Pit very famously hosted a Baikal Teal once although we never saw that one. Today we were looking for another Oxfordshire "first", not a first sighting but a first wintering record of a Garganey that had initially been found at Standlake but had relocated to Dix. 

We walked towards the part of the pit where the Garganey was supposed to be along a muddy track and noticed a small flock of Goldfinches feeding at the base of some Alders (I think). The ten or so Goldfinches flew into the trees and joined a larger flock of feeding birds. When I aimed the camera at the nearest group I was pleasantly surprised to see that the other birds were Siskins and not more Goldfinches. Siskins are always good birds to find locally.

Having found the correct island, known as Heronry Island owing to the Grey Herons that nest in the trees and bushes upon it, I scanned amongst the tree roots and sleeping Ducks for the Garganey but came up with just Wigeon, Gadwall and Shoveler. Forty-five minutes later my confidence was descending to depths that I'd forgotten I could reach. Am I really that hopeless? It was beginning to seem as if I was. 

Grey Heron colony
My friend Jim came by, surprisingly without his binoculars and camera, but with his wife and two dogs. I told him of my struggles in finding the Garganey and he confirmed that we were at least looking in the right place and that the bird should be close to the island. Maybe it was out of view around the other side. We tried to gain other better vantage points to open up the vista without much success and soon returned to our original viewpoint. A single Egyptian Goose resting on the island was new for the year as was a Kingfisher that whirred by, calling shrilly as it passed. I spent another fruitless fifteen minutes of looking for the Garganey and was ready to give up. This year birding just seems to be too hard for me. As a last resort I scanned the rest of the pit, past the island and over to the far side. I spotted a smaller duck that was swimming towards us through the rafts of Wigeon and Shoveler. and almost unbelievably it was the Garganey! I had spent over an hour looking for the Garganey around the island and all the time it had been out on the open water. No wonder I hadn't found it! The Garganey, a first winter male, was swimming strongly towards the island but try as I might, I just couldn't find it in the viewfinder of the camera to take a photo of it coming. It took me until it had reached the island to finally nail it on the camera and then a tree root got in the way! The only thing that is worse than my birding ability at the moment is my inability to take a decent photo of anything. The Garganey swam back in to view and stood on a submerged platform and began to preen. Now I was able to gain a few record shots, the island was at least 50 metres away after all and right at the limit of my 400mm lens. I tried the extender but the murky February day didn't help much to improve results.

Now I had received a much needed boost by actually finding the Garganey, I looked around at the other wildfowl to see if I could find anything different. In recent days a redhead (female) Smew had been present but there was no sign of that, it did reappear the next day of course. While trying to re-find the Garganey which had disappeared whilst I'd been looking elsewhere I happened upon the trio of Greater Scaup that had also been present for a week or so but which I'd forgotten were there. It's been a good winter for Scaup in Oxfordshire, these being the third group that we'd seen so far.

Greater Scaup (foreground)
So I'd finally managed to find a few good birds over the weekend but I reckon that dips and failings still outnumbered ticks and success by about 13 to 4 so the Old Caley birding travails continue still. Hopefully next weekend will be better!