Tuesday, 16 April 2019

Waiting for Bonaparte. Blenheim Park, 13th April 2019

An adult Bonaparte's Gull had been found at Blenheim Park near Woodstock on Friday afternoon by one of Oxon's esteemed Gull watchers but it had disappeared by late afternoon so I didn't brave the rush hour traffic on the chance that it was still around. My own experience with the species is limited since the only Bony's I'd ever seen was a first winter bird at Farmoor two years ago. 

1st winter Bonaparte's Gull, Farmoor 08/04/2017
I figured that the Gull, if still around, might make the same move and head to Farmoor, if it didn't and was seen again at Blenheim or at one of the other sites nearby then we'd be handily placed to go and get it. Hence we made plans to head to Farmoor on Saturday morning but first we dropped into our local Bicester Wetlands Reserve where a few good birds had been seen during the past week or so. As soon as we'd sat at the hide windows we clocked the fine summer plumaged Black-tailed Godwit wading deeply in the water of the main lagoon. 

Black-tailed Godwit
The Godwit was already on our year list though but there was another wading bird that I hoped to see that wasn't but there was no sign of it. We had already tried twice over the past few weeks to see this bird but it hadn't shown for us. Thinking this visit would be the same we were about to pack up and leave when the reserve warden joined us in the hide. Within a few seconds the object of our desire, a Little Ringed Plover, flew in and landed on the spit in front of the hide. I reckon Alan has it on a bit of string! The LRP made it 181 on the Old Caley year list. It didn't stay long and flew out and away so we left too, noting a nice flock of House Martins over the water treatment works, our first in Oxon this year. There is actually a pair of LRP's frequenting the reserve, there are in most years, and they must breed close by somewhere.

Little Ringed Plover
House Martin
At Farmoor we headed straight for the cafe and enjoyed a coffee and breakfast roll. We could see lots of House Martins over the reservoir here too along with Sand Martins and Swallows. My phone sprang into life and a text from Badger informed us that a Little Bunting had been seen on the Pinkhill reserve section of the reservoir. Wow! For once we were in the right place at the right time, well almost as it panned out, but I played it cool thinking that if it was seen just a few minutes ago then it won't be going anywhere anytime quick so we finished up our breakfast in our own good time. I also already had Little Bunting on my county list so it wouldn't be a first although it would be a nice bonus for the year list. We strolled along the causeway meeting Mr Farmoor driving towards us. To my surprise he was playing it even cooler than me and was actually going home, he was soon back though!

To be fair we didn't look at much along the causeway and soon joined a half dozen or so of our Oxon peers who were stood gazing into the bushes and trees close to the Pinkhill hide. The bird, found by Dave Lowe just a half hour before, had shown briefly again just before we arrived so I was hopeful that we might just get that bonus year tick. An hour or so later with just a couple of Reed Buntings and newly arrived Blackcaps to get the pulse rate up that enthusiasm had been dashed and the assembled crowd began to dwindle. In the meantime the Bonaparte's Gull was present agin at Blenheim so we made the executive decision to head there instead. The Little Bunting didn't reappear.

Blackcap, male
This time on the return journey along the causeway we did at least study some of the few birds on offer. An Oystercatcher stood warily on one of the low walls, always flying off if anybody got too close before settling back on the wall a little further away. Hopefully over the next few weeks wader passage will pick up a bit at Farmoor, I'm hoping for my first Sanderling of the year, unless the latest craze of paddle boarding, the participants get too close to the banks for my liking, disturb them too much to settle.

We got a good look at three of the Yellow Wagtails that are currently using the reservoir as a staging post on their travels and are thankfully eating some of the millions of flies that plague everybody this time of year. No sign of the "Channel" Wagtail though. A fine Pied Wagtail added to the mix.

Yellow Wagtail
Pied Wagtail
As we neared the car park one of the recently arrived Common Terns passed closely overhead. It's always good to see Terns back for another year, still haven't seen an Arctic Tern yet this year and must address that in the coming few weeks. Little Gulls were still feeding far out in the middle of F2, they always seem to be too far out here for any decent images but I live in hope that one day one will venture closer to the shore.

Common Tern
The last bird of note was a Great Crested Grebe that made one of the regular commutes between the two basins and passed very closely by. Great Crested Grebes are such odd looking birds in flight and I've been trying to get a pleasing image of one for years. More than happy now! 

Great Crested Grebe
I've learned over the years that it's possible to park for free quite close to a footpath that leads into Blenheim Park and thus avoiding paying the huge fee at the main gate to gain access. We walked past the Queens Pool, where Great Egrets had congregated on mass with their smaller cousins at the end of autumn last year when the water levels had been dropped, and made our way to the bridge that divides it from the larger Main Lake and where the Bonaparte's Gull was reported to be. We looked from the bridge and could see distantly about 100 or so Gulls flying and feeding low over the lake, presumably all of the Black-headed variety except for one. Finding that odd one out was to be the tricky part!

The bridge was too far away from the birds, even the scope couldn't pull them in close enough for me, so we walked around the eastern bank and found a viewpoint much closer to the Gulls. Here I had a chance at least. As mentioned earlier my experience with Bonaparte's Gull is very limited and furthermore the one that we'd seen two years ago had mainly just floated on the water and had only been seen flying away from us. I had no real experience of what, or how, one looked like when it was flying. But I'm game and had researched before arriving so I knew that I was looking for a Gull slightly smaller than a Black-headed Gull that has a clear translucent patch on the primary wing feathers. It also has a "full" black hood as opposed to a "half" chocolate brown one although I thought that would be difficult to ascertain at a hundred yards! I settled in and made a concerted attempt at finding the Bonaparte's Gull. This wasn't going to be easy for me and I kept getting sidetracked by a couple of Common Terns since I was obviously  looking for something different and they were different. My phone rang, it was Justin who was stood on the opposite bank, a far more experienced and better birder than I'll ever be, and he talked me through not only where the Bony's Gull was flying but also "how" it was flying. Pinpointing its position based on where it was in relation to Justin was impossible so I just had to study each and every Gull. After a few minutes I locked onto one that certainly looked different, it was flying with much stiffer wings, almost Barn Owl like I thought, and was also feeding differently, frequently flying up higher and then "dip feeding" like a Black Tern or Little Gull. I managed to take a couple of record shots just as Badger joined us by the lakeside. Now in company with another expert, I showed him a shot and asked if I had the right bird. "Looks good" was Badgers reply. Phew! Not easy but not as hard as I imagined.

Initial record shots of the adult Bonaparte's Gull, Blenheim, 13/04/2019
Now I'd realised which of the Gulls the Bonaparte's was, it was fairly easy to follow because of the distinctive flight "jizz". Mrs Caley was also able to discern it from the Black-headed variety which for a "non" fan of Gulls in general was admirable. One day I'll get her to appreciate the beauty of Gulls as much as some of the other bird species. I'm certainly getting to grips with them more and more despite the whole genus being buggers to identify at times. The only problem now was that the Bony's was flying around right across the other side of the lake and the bank over that side was private so we'd have to stay viewing from this side. I added the converter to the lens in the hope of securing of better shots with only marginal, if any, success.

Our luck changed when a couple of birders arrived carrying some slices of bread! No sooner had they lobbed some into the water a Black-headed Gull spotted it and came closer to investigate. It was followed by the entire flock including the Bonaparte's. Now we had another tricky task, how to pick it out at just a few yards away now it was part of a frantic swirling frenzied flock of birds. Amazingly, for me, I managed to do just that quite easily, studying the birds at length earlier had paid off. In fact at such close quarters it was easy to track the Bonaparte's Gull and I fired off shot after shot, following the bird even as it dropped onto the water to collect some bread fragments. And by my own standards these were some of my best action photos that I've ever taken. I was pretty pleased to say the least.

Once the bread had been devoured the Gull flock would retreat to the middle of the lake and rest on the water until another slice was offered whereby they'd all fly in again. This was repeated several times until the loaf had been finished. For anybody visiting to see the Bonaparte's Gull, take some bread!

Thinking I wouldn't better the photos that I had already we bade Badger farewell and headed home. The Bonaparte's Gull had made it 182 on that year list.

Waiting for Bonaparte is an album by the excellent The Men They Couldn't Hang, a favourite band of mine. One of the tracks on it is entitled "The Bounty Hunter". I guess that in targeting specific birds then Mrs Caley and I are indeed modern day Bounty Hunters!!!

Monday, 15 April 2019

The Furze Wren!, 24th March 2019

We were rolling now, having secured the Lesser Spotted Woodpecker yesterday it was time to add another localised species to the year list. Ever since I was a fledgling birdwatcher I've loved Dartford Warblers. These small but charismatic long-tailed and secretive birds reside almost exclusively on heathland, something that we have precious little of in Oxfordshire, so to see them you have to travel out of the county. Our first encounter with DW's (as we've always called them) was at Dunwich Heath after a visit to Minsmere in the last century. We were new to the birding game and had travelled to Suffolk to see the iconic Avocets at the RSPB's flagship reserve. I must admit to being underwhelmed at the time with the black & white wading birds since they were everywhere you looked. The Dartford Warbler however, captivated my imagination big time. We were told of them being on Dunwich Heath by an RSPB volunteer and were advised to "look for the Stonechats" and the DW's wouldn't be far away. Sure enough we found Stonechats but it took some time and light was fading before we finally found the Dartford Warbler, but what a great little bird! I was so enamoured by them that once home I instantly booked a future holiday to the coastguard cottages on Dunwich Heath so that we could look for them every day for a week, which we duly did. Of course that was back in the days before I owned a camera so all of those good views then are only logged in my memory and that's fading fast these days since I'm not getting any younger. Over the years we had seen Dartford Warblers in lots of other places, including The New Forest, The Devon Heaths, Porthgwarra in Cornwall and even on Guernsey so we'd had lots of views. Sadly we'd missed the one that had graced Otmoor, our local reserve, for a couple of days a few years ago since we were in Cornwall.

Dartford Warbler, Thursley Common, 24/03/2019
More recently we had "discovered" (well, found for ourselves anyway) a small colony of Dartford Warblers on a heath just south of Oxfordshire in Berkshire and for a few years had had good views of them, usually in February and March. Then last year the site yielded none, victims we thought of the Beast from the East, that wicked spell of cold weather in February. This year apparently DW's had been found again on the heath but despite two visits we had drawn a blank once again. 

Dartford Warbler, Berkshire, 14/07/2016
On a blistering hot day in July of last year we twitched a Red-backed Shrike at Thursley Common in Surrey and whilst there were treated to a superb show by a male Dartford Warbler but the heat haze had blown any chance of getting decent photos. My good friend Jim had already been to Thursley this year and had got, as he invariably does, some great shots of the DW's so Mrs Caley and I decided to follow suit and try for ourselves. Being a Sunday meant we could leave the house early and so it was that we were parked up next to the pond before anybody else had arrived. We walked towards the Dragonfly Sculpture, a well known landmark on the common and near where both the DW and Shrike had been seen on our last visit. A wide track leads away from the Dragonfly and is lined by gorse bushes and small trees on either side which provide prime habitat for Dartford Warblers. The first bird we had seen though was a fine male Stonechat perched, as they always do, prominently on the top of a bush. We could hear the melodious song of a Woodlark in the clear air and after a bit of searching found the songster on top of a more distant gorse bush. Then a Skylark burst into song issued from high above the heath.  Wrens, Linnets and Dunnocks joined in the chorus too. It was a beautiful morning!

Stonechat, male
But we had come for Dartford Warblers and had walked a fair way along the track when Mrs Caley nonchalantly said "there's one!". We had passed a large clump of gorse and fortunately she had turned and looked back. On the edge of the gorse bush and stood in full view was a male DW looking resplendent in the morning sunshine. I literally filled my boots and rattled off shot after shot of the thankfully stationary bird. Dartford Warblers can be very hard to pin down so to see this one just perched there was very unusual indeed. It was the photo opportunity that I'd longed to have for years.

Dartford Warbler, male
The Dartford Warbler stayed on the same gorse sprig for a good few minutes before it moved but even then it remained in view within and on the bush. It flew off but only to a nearby bush before departing away over the heath escorted by another. This was going well! We walked on and saw more DW's flitting from gorse bush to gorse bush, they were seemingly all around us and I reckoned we must have been seeing at least 10 different birds. Interestingly most were males, with only 1 or 2 of the more subdued plumaged females, and I surmised that breeding display and territorial disputes were in full swing.

The old adage of "Find a Stonechat then you'll find a Dartford Warbler" then worked to the letter, well almost since we actually saw 3 DW's in the small tree that a Stonechat stood on top of! We were looking right into the bright sunshine now and were so close that I could only get the uppermost DW in the shots.

Stonechat, top & Dartford Warbler, bottom
Having had a generous fill of the Dartford Warblers we took a stroll around a bit more of the heath and took the path up to the top of Shrike Hill. There were lots of Goldfinches singing and displaying in the belt of pine trees. They were joined by a few Siskins but I couldn't find any Crossbills. 

At the top of the hill we rested on a bench that offered superb views in all directions across the heath. The Woodlark was still serenading away and I was keen to get a good view of it. Our luck was in when it took off on its song flight and flew right over our heads. Unfortunately I didn't do very well with the camera pointed as it was almost directly into the sun. I do enjoy listening to the Woodlarks song, it is truly beautiful.

Curlews were calling and flying over a more boggy area of the common and as we passed on one of the raised boardwalks we heard a Water Rail squealing unseen from the rank grasses and recently arrived Chiffchaffs were singing too. But on reaching the Dragonfly sculpture once more, I just had to have another look for DW's and they didn't disappoint. We found a male and female together in a small tree seemingly just passing the time of day. The male then flew to the top of a small pine sapling and began singing its scratchy song, the first one we'd actually heard singing! It seemed that as the morning had worn on that the male birds, having been chasing the females earlier, had now decided it was time to serenade them.

Dartford Warblers; Female, top & Male, bottom

We stayed and watched the DW's for a while longer and I continued taking lots of photos. I tried to capture the birds flight but that proved a task beyond my skills but I managed a few not so blurry efforts.

One particular male bird took to feeding in a spindly tree and I watched him acrobatically move through the branches. What he found to eat I don't know but I recall reading once that they eat small insects and spiders. The DW stopped to sing a few times but this time no female appeared to be interested. The heather around the tree was visited a few times giving a different backdrop to a few frames.

We'd spent nearly 3 hours with the Dartford Warblers and the other birds but now the heath was getting busy with joggers and dog walkers and the like so we called it a day. But what a fantastic time we'd had  and we vowed to make a visit to Thursley Common a mainstay in the Old Caley calendar.

The "Furze Wren" is an old name for the Dartford Warbler, Furze being another name for Gorse. The first Darty's (another shortened name for them) in the UK weren't recorded until 1773 when a pair were shot on Bexley Heath near Dartford (hence the name). In Bexley Heath there is a pub called the Furze Wren bearing testament to that little piece of DW history.