Sunday 24 December 2017

Penduline Tit. Gloucester 20th December

 Last year two penduline tits took up winter residence at a small lake right next to the A40 close to Gloucester. For some inexplicable reason, considering it's only about an hour from Old Caley Towers, I chose to ignore them, forget about them and ultimately not to see them! So when news broke last weekend that one, a fine male, had been found at an even smaller nature reserve just a few miles down the road from last year and again right next to the A40 then I decided there and then not to make the same mistake again! So, on Wednesday morning and with me already winding down for the Christmas break, I skived off and drove down to Gloucester. 

Mrs Caley and I had only seen penduline tits once before when we saw two close to Dunwich in Suffolk about 15 years ago. That twitch had involved a long walk through the Westwood marshes before reaching the birds that were frequenting a vast area of reeds in an even vaster area of reeds! We had seen them well, in the end, but had no camera in those days so just had the distant memories for posterity. This Gloucester bird had most considerably set up stall on a pair of very small ponds less than 50 yards from a very convenient car park just a few hundred yards from the busy A40. We parked and walked across the grass to the edge of the pond and saw the penduline tit. As easy as that! Ticked!
Part of the small stand of rushes 

initial view

Cracking view!

The penduline tit was attempting to feed on the reed mace and bullrushes that grew in the small ponds. I say attempting to because unfortunately there was a photographer present who insisted on walking round and round the ponds hounding the poor bird wherever it went. At one point he stood right at the edge of the pond and was almost in the water! Now I realise that we all want to get "the shot" but there has to be limits surely. I suggested to him that he should maybe move a bit further back and give the bird some space but my appeals were largely ignored. Ah well, I did try. For my own part I stayed 10-20 yards away and managed some pretty decent images since the bird was comfortable and dropped in to some reeds right close to where I stood. Needless to say it didn't stay long once the inconsiderate "togger" had followed it. The problem of people getting too close to birds at twitches is getting worse and I fail to see why the picture has taken precedence over a birds welfare. I mean there's no real financial gain in it since everyone gets the same shots. Maybe it's all down to oneupmanship in the "toggers" world? I couldn't help but feel slightly guilty despite staying far enough away myself. I also felt pity for the poor bird.

Because of the constant harassment the penduline tit spent a lot of time in some nearby bushes where at least it was out of reach. Here it was easier to see and to photograph for the "toggers". The bird flew high and to the west and I thought that that was that, especially when there was no further sign for the next 45 minutes. 
Off he goes!

I tweeted out that the bird may have gone but then, just as we were going to give up, I looked back to the bare bush where it had last been seen and there it was! It always amazes me how birds will return to the exact same spot and it's remarkable how they do it without anybody seeing them! This time it was only me that had seen it so I quietly shared the info with Mrs Caley and Hughie (well met on the day) and we casually strolled over towards the tree and the penduline tit. We stayed our distance and enjoyed prolonged views of it preening before the inevitable onrush of the others once they'd realised what we were looking at. The penduline tit immediately became more anxious with the extra attention and flew once again, this time to the row of trees that border the A40. Here it showed extremely well for the masses and the trigger fingers were kept happy. 

The bird made a few short sorties to the bullrushes allowing for a few more "natural" shots and views. I think that the bird looked far more at home and in harmony when in the reeds than in the trees but maybe I'm just being soppy! 

At one point it briefly associated with a male stonechat that was also frequenting the ponds and I chuckled when the (annoying) "togger" ran after the stonechat shouting I've got it, I've got it! Maybe he should invest in a pair of bins and a good guide book. Or maybe he'd come for the stonechat?!


We'd stayed on site for a couple of hours and had had good views of a long sought after bird. The bird was wearing some bling on its right leg (something I don't always agree with) and info gained from a photo confirmed that it had been ringed in Alderney at the end of October. It is more than conceivable too that it is one of the same birds from the previous year but of course that can't be proved. Also, and thankfully, all the harassment that it's been getting doesn't seem to have harmed it since it is still present at the same site and doing well as I write this on Christmas Eve!

Thursday 21 December 2017

Beardies!!! Somerset Levels 15th December 2017

Mrs Caley and myself have visited many places over the last couple of years where reed bed birds are specialities. We've seen many of these special birds really well such as bitterns, cranes, water rails and many more but one species that has proven frustratingly difficult to pin down has been the bearded tit (or reedling). Yes we've seen them but usually only fleeting or distant views as they move through the reeds. Bearded tits really are reed bed specialists and are normally only found in large stands of reeds. Well known reserves like Titchwell, Minsmere and Lakenheath are strongholds for them but even at those places we've struggled recently for good views. After failing yet again at Titchfield Haven the previous week (while twitching the barred warbler) and after seeing some fantastic video and photos of beardies taken by friends of ours on the same day at a nearby site, we just had to get out somewhere to see some for ourselves. We chose to travel to the Somerset Levels (or the Avalon marshes) and more specifically to Westhay Moor where I'd heard that they are present in good numbers and relatively easy to see!

By good fortune we had chosen a beautiful sunny day to visit and we were more than optimistic that this would be our day. We arrived at the remote car park just after 9 o'clock after a reasonably quiet drive via the A40 and M5. We were the only people there. Apart from checking out the location when visiting Ham Wall earlier in the year, we'd never been to Westhay Moor so had no idea where to look or go but the reserve is well provided with information boards so we'd find our way around without any problems.

The main track passes a small lake and from a fair distance away the unmistakable bright white outline of a great egret could be seen. We walked towards this recent colonist to the UK and were watched warily by the bird as we approached. It stood its ground though and allowed some photos to be taken before flying off further into the reserve when buzzed by another great egret that flew low overhead. It really was a beautiful morning and the sunlight dazzled over the water and wonderful reflections of the reeds and trees were cast. A cormorant perched precariously upon a lone branch that protruded from the lake, its own fabulous colours looking positively radiant.

great egret


We checked out the first of a number of hides and scanned the reeds that stretched out in almost every direction. Little moved save for another (or the same) great egret flying past and we considered that catching up with our main quarry may not be so easy. I understood that grit trays were put out for the bearded tits benefit but we couldn't see any of those either. We walked on and saw a sign directing to the "Tower Hide". Thinking we'd get an elevated view of the area we followed the track which ran past reeds on the right and alder woodland to the left. Here we were surrounded by and treated to a cacophony of squeals and grunts emitted by what must have been dozens of water rails! They were all around us and we surprised several which either ran across the track or flew up from the reeds right next to the path. One ran no less than 3 feet past the back of Mrs Caley and with a bit more effort could easily have nutmegged her!

water rails "scarpering"

I spotted movement at the base of a small tree and thought "Cetti's". But on lifting the bins and peering through the tangle of branches at the base of the tree a female bearded tit appeared. We were in! A male was there too and we were only 20 feet or so away. 

the female bearded tit

The two birds made their way into a very narrow strip of dried reeds that stood in a channel between the path and the alder trees. We could track them easily by watching the movement of the reed stems but the birds were difficult to see well, staying as they did, low down in the tangle of vegetation. It was also dark since the trees had blocked out the sun. After a couple of minutes of following the birds movements but still no great views they seemed to have disappeared maybe into the trees. We walked on but strangely not frustrated this time but heartened by the encounter and eager to find more. More water rails ran across the paths and yelled their disquiet at our intrusion into their world but there was no further sign of the beardies. Another fine great egret flew lazily past.

great egret

The Tower Hide was more of a "hop-up" hide but did allow a more extensive view of the reed beds. The reeds and the surrounding water were very quiet though and a young mute swan was on view. We left the hide and followed the track through more mature woodland back to the main track again. Here a jay was prancing along the grassy edge looking to cache some food or maybe raid its own stores for a snack. We had a decision to make, should we carry on to the further hides or return to the place where we saw the bearded tits? Thankfully we chose the latter. On nearing the same tree I noticed movement in the reeds again and sure enough located the pair of beardies once more. Now the sunlight had penetrated further along the track so the light was better. We were now getting some better views and very close too. It is easy to see though why bearded tits are plumaged the way that they are since their camouflage even at such close range is incredible!


We stood still and watched the antics of the two birds. They became more active in the increasing warmth and become more visible and were now showing well at times higher up the reed stems. You think of bearded tits being quite dainty birds maybe owing to the long tails but in reality they are dumpy little things and actually move through the reeds pretty clumsily. They are easy to follow since they made a lot of noise as they (almost) crashed from one reed to another. 

female is so beautifully marked

It took a good few minutes though before I managed to start getting some decent unhindered views and hence some decent photo opportunities. The light was now really good and we were so close that surely even I couldn't mess this up! Not so easy though since the camera didn't like the mass of vegetation and the birds are very cryptically coloured so it had to be manual focus only. 

the male with his fabulous moustache!
At one point I actually had to back away in order to focus since the birds approached us so closely! These were easily the best views we had had of bearded tits for probably 10 years except for a very confiding juvenile once at Lakenheath and a female on Otmoor. But it was the male with that fine black moustache (the bearded tag is a bit of a misnomer) that I wanted to capture images of. Eventually he perched in an accessible position and I rattled off some shots. A quick look at the back of camera and I erupted in a big beaming smile! I'd got some good images. I felt a lot better!

The bearded tits suddenly flew across the path into the reed bed the other side and disappeared. We never saw another one for the rest of the day! We explored further though and reached another major track which had lakes either side. Many ducks were busy on the water with gadwall, teal, wigeon and mallards noted along with coots and moorhens. Best though were 6 fine goosanders that graced the largest lake. Never close but it's always good to see these big sawbills. 

drake goosander

We had a distant fly past by a bittern, a male marsh harrier quartered across the reed tops but (as always seems to be the case with them) stayed well out or range and watched a small party of long-tailed tits flit through the trees.

male marsh harrier

long-tailed tit

After a nice lunch in a nearby cafe we spent an hour or so at Ham Wall without seeing much new of any note except for a wisp of snipe that flew past but by then we'd seen what we had come for so were already well satisfied!
"wisp" of snipe

Tuesday 12 December 2017

My type of bar! Titchfield Haven 9th December 2017.


Image result for titchfield havenMrs Caley and I make an annual pilgrimage to Cornwall in October in the hope of seeing some rare warblers amongst other good birds. One of the sought after species is the barred warbler, a typically skulking warbler which tends to stay well hidden in bushes and shrubs and can be difficult to observe. That's if you can find one in the first place! In over 15 years of visiting Cornwall we've yet to encounter one there and indeed have only ever once had the chance to twitch one there which we failed to see. In fact I had only ever seen the one and that was in Aberdeen way back in September 2008 and Mrs Caley failed to connect with that bird since it was very tricky to pin down. So, when a first winter barred warbler was discovered in the small visitor centre garden at Titchfield Haven, we just had to get down there and see it! Apparently the bird had been showing really well feeding in a cotoneaster bush and amazing views were being had.

We had only been to Titchfield Haven once before, at the end of January 1999. On that day, according to my notes, we saw a dartford warbler and slavonian grebe as well as seeing our first ever hawfinches later in the day. Today though was to be all about the barred warbler.

Neither of us could remember much about the reserve except that it was on the shores of the Solent and looked out towards the Isle of Wight. I could vaguely recollect parking up on a gravel area by the water and could remember an amusing (well I think so anyway) observation by a passing dog walker at the time. Short story; we've parked up and this lady comes by and says "that's an interesting number plate on your car". Our license plate ended with WNK so I asked "do you think so?" knowing what might be coming since I'd had the same thoughts myself. "Yes" she replied, "if you add a letter to it you get", wait for it, "WINK". Phew! Comforting to know that the good folk of the Solent are not as crude as me! Although I still think she was thinking of the other version, knowing what most folks preconceived ideas of birders really are! 

Anyway, the gravelled area has been replaced by posh tarmac and a sturdy sea wall, and after managing to escape with no friendly comments or otherwise from the locals, we made our way into the garden. We had already encountered Oxon birders Badger, Andy, Terry and Jim who had also made the trip for the bird. We asked a couple of birders if they had seen the barred warbler yet but they pointed us straight to a fabulous firecrest which was flitting around a small sueda bush right next to the path. It was moving quickly though and I was still a bit dozy so failed to get any images until it had flown into denser shrubbery and then the it was a bit too dark to get a sharp photo. But a fine start to the day and we'd only been on site a minute! 

Then Terry motioned to us that the barred warbler was showing. And wasn't it just! Perched up in an ivy covered tree, spotlit by string sunshine, it just couldn't be missed. Two minutes in and we'd seen two fabulous birds. Twitching can be easy sometimes.

This was a bird that wasn't doing what it says on the tin, well what it says in the guide books anyway. Those books tell you that barred warblers are large and heavy (tick), tend to move slowly or stay still for long periods (tick), usually in thick scrub (NOT!). As the photos below will testify this bird was as bold as brass. 

All the sunbathing was getting too much for it and at one point the bird yawned lazily and had a scratch so at least we knew it was alive!

After sunning itself for 15 minutes or so the barred warbler suddenly exploded into action and flew all of 6 feet across a pathway to the cotoneaster bush whereupon it gobbled down a couple of berries before resuming its position in the tree opposite. Where it sat still for another 10 minutes. I, along with the fellow assembled, was not expecting that. The barred warbler did eventually fly off into neighbouring bushes and disappeared but returned an hour or so later and repeated the same routine. 

This barred warbler is a first winter so is a pale coloured bird with only feint barring mainly to the under tail area and very feint wing bars. It had a heavy bill and a robust structure and superficially resembled a wryneck in many aspects particularly when twisting its head around. The beady dark centred eye was very prominent. When the bird was feeding in the cotoneaster bush and out of the strong sunlight the colouration appeared much greyer, possibly indicating a first winter male bird.

We spent a good hour and a half admiring it and wondered if we'd ever be so fortunate to see one so well again and also whether we'd ever find our own, now we knew what to look for. To celebrate a life tick for Mrs Caley we indulged in a fine hot chocolate drink and a breakfast sandwich at the tea rooms and decided what to do next. Our Oxon mates had departed to try elsewhere but we chose to stay and explore the rest of the reserve. Beginning on the beach we found a lovely turnstone checking out cockle shells for any leftover tit-bits and then watched a small posse of sanderling running along the waters edge. I really like wading birds and it's always nice to see them by the coast as opposed to the concrete edge of Farmoor. The sanderling in particular captivated me for ages whilst I fired off shot after shot. We should make the drive down here more often.

We were hoping for bearded tits in the readbeds but once again were unlucky. Beardies are becoming a bit of a bogey bird and we haven't had a decent view of any for a while now. But they'll come. The freshwater lagoons were all frozen over and birds were limited but we saw oystercatchers, snipe and a marsh harrier. 

Returning back to the main centre and crossing the tidal inlet we saw a little egret, a black-tailed godwit, some fly past ringed plovers and many duck species. 

A few quick shots of the barred warbler again and we explored the eastern side of the reserve. A fine jay was caching acorns and a great spotted woodpecker drummed away unseen. 

From the hide overlooking the tidal river a great black-backed gull gave its best vulture impression and a redshank pecked away at the muddy edge before being spooked by the male marsh harrier which almost gave me a good photo (only almost though!).

Time was pressing so after another hot drink in the cafe and after a few moments watching the bold little turnstones, one of which had jumped up onto the path and was investigating the nooks and crannies, we headed for home. 

A very enjoyable day in a fabulous place but of course it was really all about the barred warbler.