Friday, 22 May 2020

Surprise, Surprise! Mid-May 2020

Hoopoe, Hilmarton, Wilts, 10/11/2018
I often bemoan the fact that Oxfordshire is a comparative desert to other parts of the UK in terms of attracting "good" birds and that North Oxon, where I live, is even less appealing to scarce bird species. During the entire lockdown period I have been looking at reports of many rarer birds being seen in other parts of the country leading to growing unrest at not being able to see any of them. In fact it's not only unusual birds that I was missing out on, so far this year Mrs Caley and I had still not seen normally taken for granted species such as Common Tern, Yellow Wagtail, Sanderling and quite a few more. We had also been unable to act on reports of passage Black Terns, Little Gulls and Arctic Terns at Farmoor owing to the site being closed although it was reopening on the 13th May. At least we'd been able to access Otmoor and see some good birds out there to keep us sane.

On Thursday 14th May, Ewan had found a very smart summer plumaged Curlew Sandpiper, also not on the year list, at Farmoor but that had been flushed shortly afterwards and didn't return. I was tempted to go up to Farmoor anyway that evening after work just to re-familiarise myself with the place which is, after all, one of the mainstays of the Oxfordshire birding scene. Then as I was packing up work for the day, cream crackered since I've been laying tiles which weigh in at 90kg each around a swimming pool, I noticed an intriguing Tweet from a chap who was working on a construction site for the EastWest rail project near Piddington just half a dozen miles from my home. He had photographed a bird that had been feeding on worms and other creatures unearthed as he dug soil away from the rail embankment. He was asking Rare Bird Alert, who I follow, whether or not it was a female Red-footed Falcon, and it most certainly was!

Red-footed Falcon was already on my Oxon list, I had seen the female at Merton, incredibly just a few miles from Piddington, way back in 1997. That was an important bird in my birding history since it cemented my rekindled passion for birdwatching which had lapsed through my late teenage and early adult life. It's a long story but basically Mrs Caley and I had taken up birding after reading an RSPB magazine in a dentists waiting room the year before. We became ever more enthusiastic about watching birds and had begun to bore everybody with tales of our trips out to see them. So much so that my father had called me to tell me to buy a Bicester Rag and see the article about a rare bird that a farmer had found following his tractor around near to the recently dug out Merton Borrow Pit. We bought the paper and read the piece about an amazing female Red-footed Falcon, a bird I'd never heard of before and, up to that point, I hadn't realised that rare birds from other countries could turn up the UK. The next morning, a Saturday, we drove out to Merton and I remember being astounded by the amount of birders, or Twitchers as I later found out they were affectionately called, that had travelled to see the Falcon. Within a few minutes we had been shown the bird and admired what a beauty it was through our, at the time, rudimentary and entry level optics. We were hooked and the very next day drove to the Cotswold Water Park near Cirencester to twitch another, even rarer, bird in the shape of a Squacco Heron, which incidentally we never saw another of until just last year (account here).

female Red-footed Falcon, Merton June 1997 (courtesy of Justin Taylor)
I played it cool when I got home from work that day and didn't rush straight out to Piddington. Justin had already done the research, we'd been in constant touch throughout the afternoon, and had driven over to the location to see if he could see the Falcon. By all accounts it was difficult to see the bird, it would need access to the site since there was no view from the surrounding roads. Justin was offered the opportunity to go with the digger driver who had found the bird to see it on the stipulation that he would be the only one allowed entry to the site. To his enormous credit Justin declined the offer, considering it unfair on the rest of the local birders to use the situation to his own advantage, and instead tried to arrange a controlled viewing point later in the day so that all those interested could see the bird. Unfortunately the site manager then heard about the fuss that was increasing by the minute and decided that there would be no access to the construction site at all and ordered the original Tweets to be deleted. The Bird News Services that had already put news of the bird out had to explain that there would be no public access to see the bird.

But local birders know their local areas and a few had studied the area OS maps and a some had realised that it may be possible to see the Red-footed Falcon from either of two road bridges over the railway at each end of the construction site. At around 16:30, just after I'd arrived home from work, the bird was seen distantly in flight by a few of the birders assembled on the Ludgershall Bridge just north of Piddington. The Falcon was a long awaited County tick for those who had missed out on the Merton bird twenty-three years ago. I spoke to Justin again and we agreed to stay calm and wait until later in the evening before going out to Piddington. Crucially we knew that the construction site closed at 18:00. Interestingly the Falcons location was very close to the Oxon/Bucks border, interesting because so many good birds found in Oxon seem to favour spots close to the county border, perhaps they know that they're entering a relative arid zone for scarce birds so are nervous to do so! More study of the maps did confirm though that the bird was in Oxfordshire although a few Buckinghamshire birders were trying to claim it for their own county.

Just after six o'clock we passed a few construction vans on our way along the single track road that leads to Piddington, drove over the first bridge and past the site gates which were now locked. A little further on I noticed Justins car parked across a gateway and joined him. I knew that he knew that this was the best place to watch from and gave the best chance of seeing the bird. The railway was about 400 metres away at the other side of a beautiful grassy meadow. After a few minutes we agreed to split up and watch from different vantage points and Justin drove a short way along the road to another gate. For the next fifteen minutes or so we watched the railway environs carefully but it only offered up Red Kites, Buzzards and a, momentarily heart stopping, Kestrel in the way of raptors as wells Swifts and Swallows. Jon, another birder from Bicester joined us at the gate. We'd met Jon when he'd found a fine Common Redstart outside his house last year. Jon is a really good birder and knows his stuff. He also appears to be lucky because within minutes he had spotted the Falcon stood on a fence post at the side of the field and not far from the railway embankment. Bingo! I had checked that fence out several times over the previous fifteen minutes or so but hadn't seen the bird and it must have snuck in when my attention was diverted by train-spotting! I called Justin back and the four of us watched the bird from the gateway at leisure. I liked the fact that it was the four of us, all from Bicester, that had re-found the bird and were enjoying it. A local bird for local birders! But of course we were also happy to alert the rest of the Oxon birders who were still stood looking from the railway bridge and they in turn joined us at the gate for their fill of the bird. The Red-footed Falcon was too far away for my puny lens but the scope views were as good as ever. Luckily a good friend of mine was able to get some video later when the Falcon had jumped a few posts closer to the gate and lent me a couple of really decent grabs to show below.

Red-footed Falcon, Piddington, Oxon, 14/05/2020

Above two images video grabs (courtesy of JCB) 
Fast forward to Monday 18th May. I was again working close to Banbury, still laying those monster tiles around the same swimming pool. I had finished early and had reached home just after two in the afternoon. My phone sprang into life and related via a local birding WhatsApp group that a Hoopoe had been found in Twyford on the edge of Banbury and only a mile and a half away from where I'd been working just half an hour before! The Hoopoe would be a county tick for us, having dipped out on a couple in past years, so within ten minutes Mrs Caley and I were on our way back towards Banbury. We were some of the first birders to arrive in the small cul-de-sac where a resident had found the "strange" looking bird on her front lawn earlier that day. People always describe Hoopoes as strange looking, mainly because they are! They're also a birders delight bringing a taste of the exotic wherever they pitch up. Historically they bred in the UK but now are encountered only as overshoot migrants from the Mediterranean, the same warm southerly airflow that had deposited the Red-footed Falcon at Piddington had also brought the Hoopoe to Oxon. Who said North Oxfordshire was a birding desert? Uh, I did!

We spoke to Wayne, the only other birder there at that time, and he told us that he'd seen the Hoopoe fly overhead and into a large tree by the roadside. After fifteen minutes of peering into the dark recesses of the tree there was no sign of the Hoopoe so I deemed it likely that it had slipped out unseen and into back gardens. Other Oxon birders arrived, I met folk I hadn't seen previously in months owing to the Lockdown for the second time in just a few days, the local birding train was certainly rolling again. We all watched the lawn intently and waited, and waited, and waited. Two hours into the vigil and with no sign of the Hoopoe, Justin declared that he had to get home. When somebody leaves a twitch then the likelihood of the bird appearing increases by ten-fold! Ten minutes later though the Hoopoe hadn't shown so I decided it was time to go for a look at other potential lawns where the bird might prefer to feed. We drove off one way and Badger went the other, so that we'd cover all bases. Two minutes later we both got a phone call from one of the others to say that the Hoopoe had reappeared on the original lawn! What did I say about the likelihood of the target bird showing, increasing by ten-fold if someone leaves the twitch? By the time we got back the Hoopoe had disappeared again. Doh!

Mrs Caley had had enough of standing around looking at nicely manicured lawns, I bet I'm urged to get the mower out soon, and posh cars so retreated to our somewhat less ostentatious motor for some shade. This was actually a sneaky trick to play because less than ten minutes later the Hoopoe flew right over my head! Ha ha Hoopoe, fooled you! It had disappeared towards some trees at the end of the drive on which I was standing on, at the opposite end of the Close from the staked out lawn. The rest of the assembled had missed it but I had my county tick and even allowed myself a small fist pump (what's all that about?). I looked at the trees not expecting much since I thought the Hoopoe had flown right over them but it must have turned back because it was there, perched in an Ash tree (I think). Now I could get the others onto it and also quickly called Mrs Caley to get out the car and see it for herself. As soon as she made it to the driveway the bird flew back over our heads again, but at least she had seen it.

Hoopoe, Twyford, Oxon, 18/05/2020

The Hoopoe had flown into the back gardens behind the favoured lawn and it was only a couple of minutes before it suddenly appeared in front of us. It stood briefly on a stone that had been laid on the edge of the lawn, time for me to grab a couple of frames and then it was off again. We had both seen it well for those few seconds but still wanted more so we lingered on for a bit longer. Our extended patience was rewarded when about ten minutes later it flew in from the left, landed in the middle of the lawn and looked warily around. A Blackbird had followed it and it momentarily raised its crest as a warning. I have never been able to capture a good photo of a Hoopoe with its crest erect so I seized my moment and pressed the shutter. Unfortunately just as I did so, a fellow spectator and a friend of mine, you'll know who you are one day because I'll be letting you know, moved slightly which blocked my line of sight so that I had a couple of images of the back of his head! By the time I had a clear view again the bird had gone. That was enough for us, we'd been on site for over three hours for just a few quick glimpses of the Hoopoe and there will be easier ones to see like the one in Wiltshire in November 2018 (see here).

Needless to say the Hoopoe showed really well after we left and I watched Badgers video that evening with more than just a hint of green eyed monster thoughts. With just him and Adam present the bird had been much more relaxed, behaved impeccably and offered prolonged views, obviously when busier earlier the Hoopoe had been more than a little jumpy. I was still working close by on Tuesday so drove around the area on my way to my job but there was no sign of the bird and I repeated the detour on my way home with the same negative result, missing the bird by minutes that time. When I got home, after initially showing no interest in revisiting the Hoopoe, I then cajoled Mrs Caley into accompanying me once more to have another go in seeing it. I mean, what else is there to do? I figured that arriving late in the afternoon would pay off since there'd be less people there hoping to see the bird. In the event I was wrong since there were more than on the previous day, so we joined around ten other birders stood waiting in the road, at least keeping their distance from the lawn and each other. The Hoopoe hadn't been seen for a while but within minutes it had appeared, this time on the driveway of the house opposite. We weren't the only ones who had been waiting for it though since a neighbour opened his front door and yelled back to whoever was indoors, "It's here" and the Hoopoe flew away on whirring wings before you could say Upupa epops (yeah I know I've used that before but hey, it's a line and I'm sticking with it!).

It wasn't long before the Hoopoe returned and this time it settled and gave us all tremendous and sustained views for over ten minutes. I rattled off lots of photos, trying to capture some different poses, but was happy that I was getting some decent shots. Imagine my horror then when editing the images later that night, I discovered that pretty much all of them were sub-standard. I decided that my camera and lens must be broken and started looking online for new gear instantly!

After the Hoopoe had flown off I had secreted myself up against a bush, a little bit closer to the bird and at a different angle so that I could obtain some better shots. I also sat down so as to make myself far less obvious to the beedy eyes of a Hoopoe. Unfortunately a couple of arriving birders took that as a green light to walk down the road and stand right next to me! Oh well that was my good idea dashed, so I retreated back to where Mrs Caley stood ten metres away and encouraged the other couple to do the same. As it was the lawn was largely cast in shadow when the Hoopoe put in its next appearance so there would be no improvement in the quality of my photos. 

The last time I saw the Hoopoe was when, once again partially hidden behind the same bush, it walked across the road right in front of me, probably no further than twenty metres away. Sounds good but in actual fact I was stymied by the bush since if I had stretched out for a clear view then I would have undoubtedly frightened the bird and that would have annoyed the assembled further away up the road, so my photo was cast in a green haze caused by overhanging and obtrusive foliage! Immediately afterwards the Hoopoe was spooked by a chap running down the road and shouting "Where is it?". It did momentarily land on top of a roof but then flew off and out of view.

I looked for the Hoopoe on the way to work again on Wednesday but there was no sign and I was disappointed to see two people sat in their cars that were parked directly opposite the lawn with their cameras pointed out of open windows in anticipation. Birders had been expressly asked not to park in the road and to respect residents privacy so it was yet again a shame that some seemed unable to comply. Maybe karma was served when there was no further sign of the Hoopoe which must have moved on overnight.

I spoke to my good friend and brilliant wildlife photographer, The Early Birder, that day asking him about possible new cameras to purchase and my problems with the Hoopoe photos taken the night before. He very wisely suggested that it was probably heat shimmer causing the issues since every photo he'd seen of the bird had a slight blur to them. On the following evening I ventured up to Farmoor to year tick some Sanderling and took some of the sharpest and best photos that I've taken in a while, spurring him to text me and say, "Not much wrong with that gear then!". I still want a new camera and lens though.

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