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!

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