Thursday, 15 October 2020

Jinxed but lifted by a Jynx! 5-6th September 2020

Saturday 5th September

We were on the Oxon Downs trying to locate a big pile of horse manure where our mate Jim had found some very nice and photogenic Yellow Wagtails the day before. We found the dung heap but there were no birds on or around it at all, it was literally just a pile of s**t! Our local birding was definitely lagging of late. We walked on, ever hopeful of finding something good but in reality with our track record they'd be no chance. We couldn't even find a Corn Bunting. A message came through from Birdguides, a Wryneck had been seen near Cricklade, which my route planner app told me was only 30 or so miles away. We'd be there in just over an hour. Wrynecks are a favourite bird of most birders, they're not particularly rare but they are quite different from most other birds that we see in this country. The Wryneck is a bird that we like to see every year in the autumn when they pass through the UK on their passage migration to warmer winter climes. I've tried to find a Wryneck in Oxfordshire for years and have so far failed, although I have self-found a couple in Cornwall. The species is still a glaring omission on my home county list.

Blakehill Nature Reserve lies just a couple of miles south of Cricklade but is in Wiltshire so I wouldn't be adding Wryneck to my Oxon list today, should we be lucky enough to see it. Wrynecks can be notoriously difficult to observe and I've failed on more Wryneck twitches than I've succeeded and I've never seen one away from coastal areas. We arrived just after eleven o'clock and only an hour and a quarter after the bird was reported as seen. We had no idea where to go so just began walking along a rough tarmac track into the reserve which has been developed on an old airfield. We stopped at an information board and discovered that access was restricted to roads and a few permissible paths only. The Wryneck had apparently been seen "by the bench" but there was no indication of where that bench may be. We continued on and found a smaller carpark on a slight rise but still hadn't seen any seats or other birders. We dallied a bit here because a quick snatch of red moving through a couple of bushes caught my attention. That red flash belonged to an immature Common Redstart which showed itself quite willingly in a Hawthorn bush a few moments later. We've seen a lot of Common Redstarts over the past few weeks so after gaining a record shot we moved on.

Common Redstart

There was no choice but to follow the track towards a vast open area of grassland with isolated scrubby bushes. The track was lined on both sides by wire fences and to the right was a very promising mosaic of scrub and trees. The old airfield lay to the left and looked far less appealing, both to us and, I imagined, a Wryneck. As we rounded a bend we finally saw some other birders so we had indeed found the right spot unaided. I spoke to a couple and learned that the Wryneck hadn't been seen for about an hour, nothing unusual in that since they quite often disappear for long periods, but rather more worryingly, it had last been seen flying into the airfield area. Finding the Wryneck in a huge area of rough grass would be an impossible task especially in view of the fact that the area was off limits so we could only watch from the boundary. We sat down on the bench and chatted to the chap who had found the Wryneck earlier. He related to us how he'd come to the reserve to photograph Whinchats and had stumbled upon the Wryneck by chance when he flushed it from the track next to the bench. The Wryneck had then perched in nearby bushes for a while before flying into cover, showing briefly in another bush after that before flying onto the airfield. 

As soon as I'd gotten all the details I knew that this was very unlikely to be a successful twitch. Wrynecks are both very difficult and elusive birds but, conversely, can also very easy to see depending on which Wryneck you are looking for. They like to spend a lot of time on the ground seeking out their main foodstuff of Ants and other small Invertebrates so are impossible to see if choosing a heavily vegetated area to feed in but can be very obvious if they pick a short grassy area such a clifftop path. Wrynecks also have the welcome habit of electing to perch openly on a fence post or tree branch and staying there motionless for quite sometime before feeding again, but equally they can also choose deep cover in scrub in which to sit. All we could hope for here was that this was a Wryneck that would perch on one of the many fenceposts available.

There were birds using the fenceposts as lookouts but they were Wheatears and Whinchats. One of the Wheatears, we saw at least a couple, was working its way towards us as we sat on the bench. It posed beautifully on a succession of posts so at least gave me something to photograph while we waited for the Wryneck to appear.


Most of the other twitchers had given up and left and there was only us and a few others and they were all walking off to other areas to search for the Wryneck. I always think it's best to stay nearby where the bird was last seen so we remained on the bench. The Wheatear was very confiding and was feeding right in front of us in the tractor ruts by the gateway next to the bench. 

A gatepost was just a few metres away but that didn't deter the Wheatear since it popped up onto it allowing me to take some full frame photos before it flew over the road and into a small paddock where it continued feeding.

While watching the Wheatear I also noticed another Common redstart in the hedge a little further along the road so, leaving Mrs Caley on the bench to continue her Wryneck vigil, I wandered along to gain some closer views and photos. Even in the absence of our intended target bird this was proving to be a very profitable site and morning for some of our more common migrants.

Mrs Caley was happy to be sat enjoying the sunshine and the Wheatear that was still close by, so I went for another stroll, this time back the way we'd come originally. I checked the bushes where the Wryneck had been seen earlier but apart from a Linnet they were empty. Further up the road though I spotted a Whinchat perched on the fence, then another and another. A few minutes later I had counted six of the smart chats lined up either on the fence or feeding on the road and the grassy verge. I've seen lots of Whinchats this year too, hopefully some of our scarcer breeding bird species have profited from less disturbance generated by the Lockdown this year. I used the hedgerow as cover to get closer to the Whinchats, a couple of which were much less wary than is normal for the species.


I collected Mrs Caley and shared the Whinchat bounty with her and we found another Common Redstart. We made an effort to search some of the promising scrub out, looking for the Wryneck but only finding a Lesser Whitethroat of interest. We'd given it our best shot but it seemed the Wryneck had moved on. It wasn't seen again.

My mood was darkened later that evening when I learned that another Wryneck had been found locally, actually in Oxfordshire as well, but on a private site where access was restricted just to a couple of local birders who knew the landowner and were invited in to see it. It feels like I may never add a Wryneck to my Oxon list.

Sunday 6th September

We chose our local patch of Muswell Hill for a walk on another sunny morning. If we are ever going to find our own Wryneck in Oxfordshire then the grassy slopes of the Hill look to be as good a place as anywhere to look. Our walk was pretty uneventful though, the migrant birds that we'd found the week before had all moved on and the bushes were eerily quiet. We've found that the patch is best when the winds are light and it was probably just a bit too breezy this morning. When we reached the car and while we pondered our next move, whether to go to Farmoor or Otmoor for a couple of hours, a message via Birdguides informed us that a Wryneck that had been found at Hanwell in West London on Saturday was still present and showing well occasionally. No need for further consideration, we were in the car and setting the SatNav in a jiffy. It was only an hour to Hanwell, straight down the M40 and A40, turn right at Greenford and we'd be there. We made good time in light traffic following a route that was familiar to me since I used to travel that way often in the past when working in South-west London.

After a bit of trouble finding a suitable parking spot owing to a highly conscientious resident who had clearly become fed up with birders parking on what he deemed was his own personal driveway, even though strictly speaking it wasn't, we made our way into possibly the most insalubrious setting that we've ever gone to in search of a bird. In fact the old sports grounds and tennis courts where we joined several other birders was such a foreboding place that we would never have dared to visit for any other reason whatsoever. It was a dump, literally since the old tennis courts were covered in piles of burned out trash, which turned out to be piles of molten wheely bins. The sports pavilion itself was derelict, bombed out, covered from top to bottom in graffiti and the wild undergrowth of brambles and weeds had taken over everywhere. All windows and doors had been smashed in and I dreaded to think of the state of the inside. To a Wryneck though, such an overgrown place providing plenty of cover was absolutely ideal habitat in which to stay and feed up for a few days.

When I asked a chap what he knew of the whereabouts of the Wryneck, he told the usual story, the bird hadn't been seen for over an hour and it had last been seen flying into thick scrub by the ex-pavilion. The bird was said to favour a small Cedar tree so we concentrated our efforts on that and the lush bramble patch surrounding it. After fifteen minutes I was beginning to think that our efforts in trying to see a Jynx torquilla this autumn might actually be jinxed (see what I did there?) and that sinking feeling arose (oxymoron?) in my heart once again. A few of the other birders began hurrying over to the debris strewn tennis courts so I tracked their line of sight to see what they were all interested in. It was a Whinchat, stood on the top of one of the wheely bin mountains. At least Whinchats are following us around.

Another fifteen minutes had passed when I noticed excitement amongst a couple of birders stood at the other side of the tennis courts. They must have the Wryneck I thought so we quickly joined them staring at a mangle of torn down fencing that used to surround the tennis courts and the bramble thatch surrounding it. Underneath the bramble I discerned the slightest movement and there scuttling around on the floor was the Wryneck. Jynx, not jinx!

Where the Wryneck was seen!

The Wryneck disappeared back into the undergrowth before Mrs Caley had seen it and I hoped that it wouldn't be another hour or so before it emerged again. At least we knew it was in the bramble though so it would be worth waiting around. Most of the other birders, around fifteen or so, had joined us so there were plenty of eyes peering into the tangle of thorns, wire and metal. Luckily it was only a couple of minutes before the Wryneck, choosing one of the old fence supports, clambered into view when it shinnied up the rusty metal angle and did what Wrynecks do best, perched there and gazed around. Cameras went into overdrive and those watchers who had never seen a Wryneck before, poured forth the usual exclamations of what a fabulous and strange looking bird a Wryneck is.


Wrynecks have this very useful habit of electing a viewpoint from which to survey their surroundings and of staying there motionless except for the slow turning of their heads, and they can do so for quite some time. For the next five minutes the Wryneck barely moved as if it was posing for a magazine shoot. True the setting of twisted metal and wire hardly provided the best props for the bird, but that in itself lent a different aspect to the views and photographs and showed that wildlife really doesn't care for aesthetics just so long as there is food and refuge available.

Fed up with the attention the Wryneck shifted into reverse and returned to foraging beneath the brambles. When in amongst the thorny twigs and leaves, then you appreciate why the Wryneck has a plumage made up of patterns of stripes and chevrons and colours of browns and creams. Instantly the bird, surprisingly, I often think, a member of the Woodpecker family, blends into its surroundings and becomes very difficult to distinguish in its element.

For the next ten minutes the Wryneck had gone to ground again and we were debating whether we should leave since there was another bird that we wanted to see at a site nearby. Then it very obligingly popped up again, this time at the top of the brambles but only briefly before it flew off to our left and into a small elder tree that had grown amongst the detritus.

As the assembled crowd raced after the Wryneck it flew again into the roadside hedge and disappeared. Most people now left excitedly chatting about the bird and comparing back of the camera photos. We had to walk in the direction of the hedgerow in order to regain the car and I managed to spot the Wryneck in the branches of the hedge. Once your eye is in, finding a bird becomes much easier. I was more than happy with the views we'd had already so I restricted myself to just a couple of further shots taken from a distance. For some real close up images of a Wryneck then see my blog about an amazingly showy bird that we saw in Wales last year.

We had only been to Staines Reservoirs once before, at the end of January 2017, to see a long staying American Horned Lark. I remember it being a particularly bleak place on a freezing cold day and, even though the Lark was delightful, I couldn't wait to get away from the place. 

American Horned Lark, Staines Reservoir, 27/01/2018

The weather may have been better but the two vast concrete bowls, viewed from a causeway guarded by a mean looking metal fence designed to keep people and dogs out of the water, still appeared unwelcoming. We had come to see a small flock of four Little Gulls, a species that we'd normally see at Farmoor on their spring passage but which were denied to us this year owing to the Lockdown, during which our local reservoir was off limits. The causeway is high above the reservoirs at Staines so affords a lofty overview of the whole site. I knew that the Little Gulls, all juveniles, were frequenting the North basin so concentrated my efforts there once we had gained the path. The first bird I noticed was one of the many Black-necked Grebes that spend time post-breeding at Staines. A surprise, for this time of year, in the shape of a female Goldeneye was also noted. Initially though there was no sign of the Little Gulls.

There were only three other birders on the causeway, much further along the path, and they were all concentrating on something. Presumably, I hoped, they were focussed on the Little Gulls. Mrs Caley spotted the Gulls, three of them anyway, before I did, way out toward the northern edge of the basin. Little Gulls are instantly recognisable by their rapid bouncing flight close to the water and their habit of "dip-feeding" for insects. They look more Tern like because of that flight action, most similar to Black Terns, but tend to fly much closer to the surface than a Tern would. The Little Gulls became the 213rd species on our 2020 bird list.

Little Gull

I spotted the other Little Gull, flying by itself, so we had found all four of the birds. After ten minutes or so the party of three began to fly in our direction and passed reasonably close to the embankment allowing me to take some slightly better than the record shots already obtained. Little Gulls are dainty, much smaller than the Black-headed Gulls that were also present in numbers at the reservoir. They are very active birds, seemingly always on the move, as they search out water borne insects. In our half hour stay we didn't see any settle on the water or on any of the rafts. These juvenile birds have striking black, grey and white upper wing markings and a broad back terminal band to the tail. The bill is fine and black, the legs a dirty shade of pinkish-grey.

The Little Gulls were taking circuits of the reservoir, sometimes when passing us they'd come reasonably close but at other times they'd stay much further out. I gave them maybe five or six passes and then called it a day. Grabbing a bonus year tick on the way home from a twitch is proving to be a fulfilling exercise!

Walking back to the car took us through a throng of Pied Wagtails that were just about everywhere, on the embankments, on the fence and on the path ahead of us. I reckoned there were more than fifty altogether. Thank goodness for birds like the Wagtails, without them the massive swarm of flies that we had to endure would be even worse!

Pied Wagtail

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