Monday 31 December 2018

The Old Caley 2018 Year Review! Part 1

County recorders do it, bird websites and magazines do it, so I thought, why shouldn't Old Caley do it too! A year review!! Concise (unlikely), to the point (even more unlikely), packed with interesting anecdotes (no chance), loaded with photos (of course!). In time honoured fashion, here goes, a month by month blow of the Old Caley birding year.

January 2018

The New Year was kicked off with a trip down to Wishmoor Bottom on the Surrey and Berkshire border for another (the third in fact) attempt at catching up with the Parrot Crossbills that had been present there for much of December 2017. After a couple of hours standing around in the cold looking at an empty tree Mrs Caley and I decided to go for a wander and luckily came across a group of Crossbills drinking at a puddle. Both Common and Parrot Crossbills were seen and identified. The small flock of 5 joined more feeding in a nearby pine tree, culminating in brilliant and prolonged views of at least 10 Parrots and 3 Commons. Later when the birds left the tree we managed to see the entire flock of 16 Parrot Crossbills in flight. Full write up and photos here Crossbills

Parrot Crossbills drinking at puddle
The following Saturday the 6th saw us standing around again in the cold, this time looking up trees in a churchyard in West Oxfordshire. This time the target birds were Hawfinches and these were soon found feeding on the berries of the Yew trees. It was a fine sunny day so views of these normally elusive birds were absolutely stonking! In total we counted 9 Hawfinch that morning, part of a huge influx of these chunky finches that had made their way into Southern England during late autumn of the previous year. I couldn't get enough of them and had now seen over 100 throughout the autumn and winter and would go to see them every day if I could! See Hawfinch. On the way home we dropped into Farmoor to add a female Greater Scaup to the year list. The following morning, sporting a heavy head cold, Blenheim Park was the venue for another Hawfinch spotting jaunt and 6 were duly found in the ornamental gardens.

Some local birding at Bicester Wetlands added Water Rail, Kingfisher and Sparrowhawk to the year list on the 11th and an afternoon visit to Northbrook the same day resulted in an impressive flock of 28 Corn Buntings.

Corn Buntings
I was fortunate enough to be working in some nice rural settings and in the space of 2 days, the 17th and 19th, had seen both Little Owl and a pair of the Barn Owl in the gardens of the houses that I was engaged at. On the 21st, Mrs Caley accompanied me to the Barn Owl site and despite it snowing relatively heavily (for Oxon) both of the pair were seen hunting out in the early morning half-light. Later a superb immature female Sparrowhawk graced our garden, no doubt hungry in the wintry and hard conditions. See Owls

Little Owl
A twitch was arranged for the Friday 26th when the aim was to tick off a long overdue, and bogey, bird. A Richard's Pipit had spent some time on the banks of the River Severn in deepest Gloucestershire. A gruelling slog through deep mud was required to reach the area where the bird had been seen. We had to go it alone too since there were no other birders around but after half an hour of fruitless searching in the rough field where the bird was supposed to be, I noticed a couple of Skylarks and another slimmer bird in a grassy field slightly further down the river. A look through the scope revealed the other bird to be the Richard's Pipit and the bogey was laid to rest. Not the rarest but a life tick nonetheless. See Richard's Pipit. A trip to nearby Frampton added Tawny Owl to the year list and a quick trip into Slimbridge WWT added waders, including Little Stints, ducks, geese and swans. See Slimbridge.

Richard's Pipit, a life tick!
We were afflicted with twitchiness now and the following day, Saturday 27th, saw us huddled against the freezing cold at the bleak concrete basin of Staines Reservoir, watching an American Horned Lark, the cross Atlantic cousin of our Shore Lark. I'm not particularly blessed with taxonomic skills but this was one lovely little bird and afforded us great views as it fed amongst the sparse vegetation on the embankment of the south basin. Not a separate species in its own right but it could be one day, so is a putative addition to the Old Caley life list. See American Horned Lark for more details.

American Horned Lark
The following day, the 28th and we sat in an equally cold hide at Stony Stratford, looking for and failing to see a reported Jack Snipe. I ended the month by finding more Hawfinches at two spots near work sites and the Sparrowhawk visited the garden again on the last day of the month.

February 2018

A sneaky day off on the 1st and another Hawfinch hunt in the beautiful South Oxon village of Ardington, 3 seen there but none on show at Northmoor later. Better views of the Barn Owls at work on the 2nd before heading back to Ardington and more views of the Hawfinches. Then back to Stony Stratford on the 3rd in driving rain in another, successful this time, search for the Jack Snipe. On the 4th we braved real biting cold winds and some rain to boot as we looked for both a Great Grey Shrike and a Hen Harrier close to Great Barrington in the Cotswolds. Both were seen but were very distant and the bitter cold had us scuttling back to the car very quickly!

Jack Snipe
A midweek jaunt on the 7th to the Forest of Dean resulted in a very frustrating stake out at a well known Hawfinch spot, read Hawfully Frustrating and feel my pain! The same day also gave us Brambling, Crossbill and a fine Great Grey Shrike, seen to take and "larder" an unfortunate Stonechat as well as lots of common woodland birds. The day was finished by taking in the Mandarin Ducks at Cannop Ponds.

Great Grey Shrike
Drake Mandarin Duck
After a fairly routine and unexciting walk around Otmoor in dreary weather on the 10th, better weather on the 11th was spent firstly with the Little Owl again at Shenington and then a fabulous female Black Redstart that had been found near Chipping Norton a few days before. Once located the Black Redstart showed brilliantly for us and I took many, many photos. Full write up at Black Redstart.

Female Black Redstart
On the 16th another slack day at work saw me spending far too much time watching the Barn Owls again before going to Kiddington and finding yet more Hawfinches. A punctured tyre was maybe instant karma for not working hard enough!

More Hawfinch magic!
The 17th was spent on Otmoor and we were lucky enough to be treated to a close fly past by one of the resident Bitterns. Compared to the week before Otmoor yielded a bonanza of birds in the much improved weather and in addition to the Bittern we had terrific views of Marsh harrier, Peregrine and, at last, the male Hen Harrier that had been present all winter but had evaded me until now.

Female Marsh Harrier
Scotland was our destination for a late winter holiday primarily in a quest to see Ptarmigan in their pure white winter plumage. Firstly though on the 23rd we made our way to RSPB Saltholme in an attempt to secure some views and photos of some well known roosting Long-eared Owls. Despite an RSPB volunteers best efforts at dissuading us from even trying, we managed to find two of the Owls secreted in deep cover. Saltholme is also a great place for Tree Sparrows, uncommon to say the least in Oxon, and many other birds. Full write up here Leo's.

Two roosting Long Eared Owls
We stayed the night in a fabulous Inn (The White Swan) not far from Bamburgh and the morning of the 24th was spent at the Stag Rocks within view of the famous castle. The main quarry was Purple Sandpiper and after a bit of a search, over a hundred of these rock loving wading birds were found. Purple Sandpipers are one of my favourite species of wader, I love the tenacity of birds that live "on the edge". The site was terrific all round for wading birds, see Purple Patch for more.

Purple Sandpiper
We had moved onto the RSPB reserve at Loch Leven near Kinross by lunchtime on the 24th adding some more Tree Sparrows before reaching Pitlochry before dark to finally tick a life bird in the shape of a Glaucous Gull. After several near misses in the past, particularly in the Outer Hebrides last year, it was good to get the hulking great Gull on our lists. Only a juvenile but they all count, maybe we'll see an adult next time.

Tree Sparrow
Glaucous Gull, another lifer!
We've been visiting our holiday cottage located near Nethy Bridge for nearly twenty years and know the area well. The 25th dawned bright but very cold and the garden feeders were attracting lots of birds including a fine male Yellowhammer. Gardens in this part of the world get many unusual visitors both avian and mammalian. As we were leaving for a day out, I spotted a Crested Tit on the peanut feeder, in the summer we normally have to look hard to find those.

Crestie! Great start to the Highland holiday!
There had been a drake Ring-necked Duck at Lairg for a few weeks and with a worsening weather forecast, we decided it would be wise to head up there and twitch it. The Ring-necked Duck was duly added to the year list, showing extremely well in company with a few Tufted Ducks. The Pier cafe by the side of the loch served us up a most delicious Sunday lunch too! Our luck was out though later when a pair of Shore Larks couldn't be located at Coul. We ended the day by doing a recce at the Cairngorm Ski Centre, to see what the conditions were like ahead of our excursion into the mountains for the Ptarmigan, and logging part of the resident Snow Bunting flock.

Ring-necked Duck
Monday the 26th was the day. It had to be since much snow was forecast to fall over the next few days and access to the mountains would prove impossible. The Ptarmigan were reported to be in Coire an t'sneachda, about a mile or so from the carpark. It was freezing cold day, temperatures of minus 10 degrees centigrade with an added wind chill of another minus 12! Possibly the coldest conditions I've ever walked out in and full credit to Mrs Caley for doing it. Our reward was seeing at least five fabulous Ptarmigan in their winter plumage at close range. Full report here Ice Bird Challenge. Red Grouse were also seen on the way up and down the mountain.

Ice Birds!
Red Grouse, somehow getting comfy in those conditions!
After a warming hot chocolate in the resort cafeteria, we shared some sunflower seeds with the attendant Snow Buntings at the picnic tables. In the lovely afternoon sunshine we had some of our best ever views of these fabulous little birds. Lots of photos here Jewels in the snow.

Snow Bunting, a Bunting in the snow!
Overnight the Speyside region was hit by large amounts of snow fall and the Ski Road was shut and would remain so for the rest of the week, so we were vindicated in our decision to go! A friend of mine also there that week wasn't so lucky and missed out on his chance to photograph the Ptarmigan. On the 27th we made it into the forest and walked one of our favourite tracks in search of the elusive Capercaillie. No luck with them but we were rewarded by stunning views of Golden Eagle and Crossbills, probably Scottish but without sound recordings will just have to go down as Crossbill species. 

Goldie flying past very close!
On the last day of February, the 28th, it snowed heavily all day but we still ventured out! Difficult birding though so we joined the "Toggers" and their artificial perches in Loch Garten Car Park and watched Crested Tits and other birds take advantage of the free hand-outs. I don't sign up to fabricated settings for bird photography preferring to take photos "on the hoof" but at least the birds were getting fed in the harsh conditions.

Crested Tit on a Real perch.

Wednesday 28 November 2018

Grey then Black & Red turning back to Grey later. 15th October 2018

Another grim and grey dawn accompanied by a strong breeze yet again had us scratching our heads over breakfast. The main purpose of our visit to West Cornwall every year is to bird the valleys and in particular the Kenidjack and if it's very windy then that becomes a difficult task to say the least, especially if the wind is from the west as it was today. Of course it's westerly winds that bring American migrant and vagrant birds into this part of the world so it's a double edged sword really, you want it but you could do without it! Westerly winds are good for seawatching at nearby Pendeen Light though so we headed there in the murk to see what might be flying past.

Apparently North-westerlies are best and these were South-westerlies so apart from the usual Gannets there wasn't actually much going past at all when we first arrived. We found a comfy spot to sit and gazed out at sea Poldark style, but definitely not stripped to the waist, I didn't want to scare the birds away did I? Or die of hypothermia either. Visibility was poor but in the next hour we did manage to wheedle out an Arctic Skua and a Bonxie (Great Skua) out of the gloom as well as a few Guillemots and Razorbills that were streaming past. Shags were present as always on the sea but the only real excitement was provided by a gang of Great Black-backed Gulls that were hounding an unfortunate Kittiwake for its fish catch which it very sensibly relinquished to the bigger birds that then set about each other squabbling over the snack.

Great Skua

Great Black-backed Gulls in pursuit of Kittiwake

I had a quick walk around the rocks to the south of the lighthouse looking for a couple of Black Redstarts that had been found the day before but couldn't see any. This wasn't going too well at all. I did surprise a Wheatear from the lighthouse wall but that was away to the south before I had chance to lift the camera.

The wind had appeared to drop a little and the day had brightened slightly so, despite my misgivings,  we decided to head into Kenidjack. In any case the weather wasn't anywhere near as bad as it was last year when we'd had ex-hurricane Ophelia to deal with. Parking outside of The Old Milking Parlour, which had been our favoured place to stay but sadly no longer available, we walked into the valley passing "Neddy" in his paddock and arriving at the engine shed. Yesterday there had been lots of birders here and quite a few birds, today it was just us and practically nothing! There was very little along the sewage works hedge either save for a couple of Chiffchaffs and a few Dunnocks and the resident Goldfinch flock. The Kestrel that had allowed close approach the day before was still perched in the same stunted tree and obligingly posed for a couple more portraits before taking wing and disappearing across the field.

There was little of note anywhere as we walked the valley and even the donkey paddock sallows were quiet with no sign of yesterdays Yellow-browed Warbler. The resident Choughs at least put in an appearance but were very high up as was a Buzzard that drifted over. Thankfully there was a bit more activity at the stream and the rocky beach at the cove. A Grey Wagtail was startled out of the rushing water by us passing and Robins and Wrens scurried around the bracken covered hillsides. There was even a Chiffchaff, surely recently arrived, taking flies from the waterside vegetation. The best birds were on the rocks at the beach in the form of three Black Redstarts including an absolutely stunning male. Male Black Redstarts are gorgeous birds with a bright red tail contrasting with sooty grey body plumage, Add in two vivid white wing patches and you have quite a looker! 

male Black Redstart
The two accompanying juvenile type birds, also beautiful in my book, have more subdued lighter grey-brown plumage but still sport the conspicuous red tail, the characteristic behind the name, redstart meaning red tail.

juvenile type Black Redstart
All of the Black Redstarts were actively hunting and catching flies and other insects. They would often launch into the air to snare anything that came within reach. I spent quite a lot of effort trying to capture these flights but was ultimately unsuccessful. The birds are quick, flying up and returning back to their rocky perch within a second or so. But it was fun!

Out at sea there were Shags and Seals in the water and, of course, Gannets were passing back and forth further out. A pair of noisy Oystercatchers alighted on rocks at the shore resting only momentarily before departing noisily.

We were happy, well Mrs Caley was, just sitting watching the waves crash in, it was still reasonably breezy and the sea was still quite rough.  I was busy trying to photograph the Black Redstarts again! One of the juvenile type birds had settled quite close to where we sat and I concentrated on trying to photograph that bird as it purposely chased after its insect prey.

Incredibly we'd been in the company of the Black Redstarts for nearly two hours! Time does fly when you're having fun and it was after 3 o'clock when we headed back up the valley. It would be dark in just a few hours and as we walked we debated on what we could do until then. All of our plans were very firmly put to bed though when the mobile phone flashed up a message informing us that a Grey Catbird had been discovered near Lands End! If I had been asked to list a hundred birds that I had hoped to see on this trip I would never have listed a Grey Catbird, in fact if you'd have asked me to name five hundred I wouldn't have thought of that one. To be honest I had to wrack my brains to even think what a Grey Catbird was, other than being a bird of course. I vaguely knew that it was a North American species and I could very vaguely remember that one had been found in Anglesey some years ago but past that I knew nothing about that species. At the car I consulted my Collins bird guide and was surprised to see the Catbird only getting a small insert in the "accidentals" section at the back. Must be really rare then! 

Image result for Grey Catbird
Grey Catbird
Twenty minutes later I was squeezing our car into a tight gap next to the A30 just short of the Lands End complex and hurrying as fast as we could to join the thirty or so birders already present at the site on Treave Moor. It's incredible how quickly the local birders galvanise themselves here. Our first mistake was to follow a couple of fellow twitchers into a field that overlooked a ditch on the wrong side (naturally I didn't realise that at the time). The original finder of the bird (we learned) plus a few more birders were located on the other side and about 50 yards away. A call went up from that group, "It's showing!" but we couldn't see it! So, as quickly as we could, we made our way around to the other group which took quite a detour and joined them. Of course the Catbird had now disappeared again. The attention was centred on three small willow bushes that stood next to a bracken and bramble obscured ditch and where the Catbird had last been seen. There were now forty or so twitchers present and all were stood less than ten yards away from the willows. I must admit to feeling a bit guilty and uncomfortable at that point, after all here was a bird that had made it's way all the way from America to Cornwall and must be pretty stressed out and exhausted and yet a number of people, including myself, were focussed on the single aim, with no concern for the bird itself, to for see and tick the rarity. Perhaps that's a reason why I've never been a hardened twitcher of rare birds. Anyway while I was wrestling with my own conscience the time had moved on and it was now well past 5 o'clock, and less than an hour and a half of daylight remained. I was now, so charged up and my nerve ends frayed, I fully understood the use and origin of the term "Twitcher"! It was like the feeling I get in the last few minutes of a very tight match involving my football team when events could turn either way. To be fair though that is a bit different since agony and joy can happen closely together and happiness or disappointment follows but only at the end of the game, at a twitch it's agonising until a bird shows then there's joy and immediate relief.

More birders were arriving as the light waned and then at 17:30 the Catbird popped up in the right hand willow! I had a two second view of the dark grey back of a thrush sized bird low down in the branches and then it was gone. You could sense the relief rippling through the crowd from those that had clocked it but also increased anxiety from those that didn't, including Mrs Caley who, being shorter, hadn't been able to see the bird owing to the bracken in the way. We stayed hoping for a better look and maybe half an hour later the Catbird flew out of the willows and up and over the bramble covered fence on the far side of the ditch. I saw it fly quickly but lost it when it disappeared over the other side. Mrs Caley sadly had missed it again so my glee at adding a "lifer" to my own list was dampened somewhat. Apparently the Grey Catbird had perched openly in a small sallow about ten yards or so further away but I hadn't seen it do that, so I was more than a bit "gripped off" myself when I saw some photos later that evening! As some folk celebrated with handshakes and fist pumps others became more frantic and some more than a little bit disconsolate. A good friend of mine who lives in Cornwall had sadly missed the bird so Mrs Caley was in good company. I hoped that the Catbird would stay the night and be seen the following day so that all those who hadn't seen it would have another chance and that I could get a much better view than the fleeting glimpses I'd had so far. There would also be plenty of other birders making the long trip down into Cornwall in the hope of seeing it.

Monday 19 November 2018

Elvis, the King! Ythan Estuary, 13th June

Only 3 days of the holiday left, totally knackered after Monday's walk up the mountain and Tuesday's expedition out west.  Time to take it easy? No chance! Not when there is another star bird within easy reach of our base in Speyside. Even though we've seen "Elvis" the drake King Eider almost every year since he first appeared at the mouth of the River Ythan near Aberdeen and a couple of times at his winter quarters at Burghead in Moray, we just had to go and pay homage to him once more.

"Elvis", June 7th 2011
The Ythan Estuary is an internationally important area for many breeding seabirds, in particular terns of four different species and also acts as a staging ground for post breeding Eider ducks. Also present at the mouth of the tidal river is a large colony of seals which attract a lot of attention from visitors although a lot less of mine. My focus is always on the birds and as well as getting views of Elvis it's great to watch the antics of the terns as they fish and to attempt to photograph them as they do so. The greater area also serves as a magnet to migrating birds at various times of the year and we've ticked Greater Sand Plover, Lesser Yellowlegs and Barred Warbler here in the past as well as the King Eider. A terrific place for birds and I'm very envious of the local birdwatchers.

We arrived mid-morning, having checked previously that high tide was around midday, the terns and the ducks go fishing on a turning tide and should come in closer for better views at that time. As we walked along the soon to be covered compacted sand a returning birder went out of his way, despite my best interests to avoid him, to tell us that the King Eider was "asleep on the far bank just by the lump of polystyrene". My pet hate is other birders telling me where stuff is before I've had a chance to look for myself! If I ask nicely then I'm happy to be told where a bird might be but, come on, give me a break, finding a bird for oneself is half the fun. Killjoy! Yes, I'm a grumpy Old Caley at times, I know. Anyway on arriving opposite the loafing Eider flock, out of spite I naturally tried to look everywhere but next to the lump of polystyrene, and then, when I did look, just couldn't resist it of course, I couldn't find the King! It took me 15 minutes to pin him down, he was asleep in a small huddle of his cousins nowhere near to the spot that I was pointed towards. So maybe I got the buzz of "self finding" him anyway.

"Elvis" the King Eider asleep in the loafing flock of Eiders
Some more birders arrived and when one approached and asked the whereabouts of the King I was happy to tell him! Because he asked. For the next hour the King Eider hardly moved except to shift his position slightly. 

Then without warning he suddenly took to the air and flew straight towards us before turning upstream. Luckily I was prepared when he took off, thanks to Mrs Caley who forewarned me that he was about to do so, and managed a series of nice flight shots. Good enough even for Birdwatch magazine to ask for the proofs and publish one in their July issue! Not so amateur now!!

Elvis returned almost immediately and on landing appeared disappointed that the other ducks hadn't joined him in his quick tour around the estuary. He settled down again amongst the Common Eiders, tucked his head in and went back to sleep. Too much exertion for one day!

"Come on you lazy lot, let's party!"
Later that day I saw a tweet from a friend of mine who lives in the North of Scotland that he had been to see the King Eider that very same day and at the very same time! It appears that Dave was one of the birders who stood watching just along the beach and saw Elvis go on his flight. Shame I was in grumpy mode, since we've only ever spoken on the phone and missed the opportunity for a chinwag! That's two near misses now so hopefully next time I'll get my act together! Sorry Dave.

The high tide arrived but the King Eider didn't shift, that short sortie must have worn him out, but at least a few terns got up and began plunge fishing. The most obvious were Sandwich Terns, the biggest of our breeding terns which breed on the Ythan in good numbers. They are quite happy at showing their prowess at fishing at close quarters and make for dutiful photographic subjects.

Sandwich Terns
The very similar looking Common and Arctic Terns were also active. These two terns, while sharing many plumage characteristics differ enough when seen flying well to identify easily, once practiced. The Arctic Tern is very front heavy and flies almost "moth like" or even, at a stretch like an owl, but with pointed wings of course. The species that I most wanted to see, the Little Tern, was more elusive and mostly stayed well out over the other side of the river when feeding. For now though I was happy to take photos of the more common species.

Arctic Terns
Black-headed Gulls were also "dip-feeding", their method of catching small fry, and a few came in close to our position. Not able to dive in for fish like the Terns, these Black-headed Gulls had adapted well to picking fish off at the surface and were quite successful at it.

Black-headed Gulls
The Seals, Grey Seals I think, were very active and would drift by on the rising tide and peer inquisitively at us stood on the bank. I like to think that they're thinking things like "wonder what it's like up there?", "they're a scary looking bunch" and "bet it's shit!".

Grey Seal
The Common Eiders were also becoming more active but most were flying out to sea rather than staying to fish for clams on the river bed. Perhaps the tide was too strong and fast for fishing today. Cormorants were also flying downriver and out to sea.

A few Little Terns at last decided to fish on our side of the estuary. I've had a lot of fun trying to photograph these very small seabirds in the past and enjoyed grappling with them again now. I totally failed this time to get any images of them in dive mode but did manage some of the birds flying past and overhead.

Little Terns
The larger tern species are easier to track and there were now all 4 of the residents fishing fairly close to the beach. Interestingly I thought I saw a Roseate Tern fly out to sea but it was way over on the opposite side of the river. I was alerted to it by it looking gleaming white and sleek next to the other terns but at the time I was unsure. I also neglected to take any photos since it was so far away. That proved to be a mistake because later in the day a Roseate Tern was indeed called from the exact same spot so in all likelihood it was what I saw.

Common Terns
The non-breeding Oystercatcher flock that resides here on the estuary numbered over 100 birds and these were startled into mass panic by an unseen predator, filling the sky with shimmering black and white. The Eiders didn't move a muscle though, I guess they are too large to become prey for any hunting Peregrine or similar.

Other birds gracing the estuary and seen flying to and fro were Curlews and Red-breasted Mergansers. Usually there are a lot of House and Sand Martins here too but they were few and far between on this visit.

Red-breasted Mergansers
After watching the terns for a while longer we decided it was time to go but not before attempting to get some nice frames of a Swallow that was flying high over the carpark. My record of obtaining decent images of Swallows is pitiful and these were only slightly better than the norm.

There is a green keepers hut by the carpark since there is a golf club next door, and on the roof a beautiful Yellowhammer perched and sang its song. I photographed a Yellowhammer in the same spot and in the same pose several years ago and have seen them in recent years too. Seeing as it's unlikely to be the same bird (small passerines are fairly short lived) then it must be habitual for these birds to choose this singing perch year on year and is no doubt a hotly disputed song post.

We drove to the RSPB's Loch of Strathbeg reserve but in truth the exertion of the previous days had caught up with us plus it had started to rain heavily so we barely gave the place a second glance except for a quick look at the resident Tree Sparrows. I didn't even bother to take any photos. We were done in!