Tuesday 28 August 2018

Knotmoor, 27th August

Bank holiday Monday so no point in travelling far. The same old question is raised in the Old Caley household, "Farmoor or Otmoor?". This decision presents itself at various times through the birding year and at certain times one location is preferable to the other. Except that quite often we get it wrong and end up going to the place that gives up nothing much and then miss out on something good at the other! Recently Otmoor, apart from the resident birds, has become more like "Not more" whereas Farmoor has the propensity at this time of year to offer "Far more"! No brainer then.

This would be our 6th visit to Farmoor since claiming one of the yearly swipe cards for the exit barrier so another 4 and we'll be laughing all the way to the bank and, who knows, it could all kick off this week and we'll be quids in by next weekend! The weather looked promising (for birding), it had rained most of the day before and the reservoirs were being buffeted by a strong breeze as we made our way to the causeway, so I for one was hopeful of some good birds. F1, the smaller of the two basins, is usually a bit calmer than it's bigger twin F2 in windy weather and wading birds, if present, will use the north facing shelter of the causeway embankment to feed and rest up. 

I noticed 20 or so Swifts flying quite high up above the sailing club, surely about to depart for warmer climes, but too high up for any photography. A mass of Sand Martins and House Martins were hawking just over the surface of the reservoirs and in particular F1. The wind was blowing stiffly from the west so the birds were held up when flying straight into it allowing for a little bit of advantage not normally gained when trying to capture these birds. I settled in for a short session with them. Hirundines by design are small birds and they move quickly so they need to be reasonably close in for any decent images but of course it is much more difficult to track birds moving at speed if they are close to you. But I tried, was delighted with some of the "back of the camera" shots, and then a tad disappointed as usual, when viewing the captures on the screen at home! Some of the better ones are shown here.

House Martins (top 3) and Sand Martins
The only wading bird seen along the causeway was a juvenile Dunlin which fed, rather nervously for this species, at the waters edge. Maybe the breeze was unsettling it a bit. It was soon startled by a jogger running past and flew off across F2.

juvenile Dunlin
A Meadow Pipit danced along the F2 embankment before flying off, although we did encounter it again further along. "Mipits" are far from frequent here but there are usually a few around during passage periods. Only a few Pied wagtails were present, there have been many more recently and throughout the summer. We met a fellow birder at the western end of the causeway and he related that a juvenile Knot, present since Saturday, was still on site at the North west corner of F2 so we decided on walking around the larger reservoir to see it. On our way we passed the moulting goose flock which contained a rather fetching "Canalag" Goose, a hybrid between Canada and Greylag Geese.

"Canalag" Goose
Also present but keeping themselves to themselves and very wary were a pair of Egyptian Geese. These birds usually turn up at Farmoor post breeding in the late summer and autumn. If they remain they will become more approachable with time but today they were away in the water before we'd got within 50 yards.

Egyptian Geese
We could see a "Togger" camped in at the previously advised location for the Knot so assumed it must still be there. Knot, or Red Knot to give them their correct name, are common waders at certain coastal locations where they form the large flocks that give such visual extravaganzas when flying around together in much the same way that Starlings do. In Oxfordshire though they are much less common with just a few records each year. One had dropped into Bicester Wetlands on the 25th March earlier this year but views were distant so I was eager to see if I could better my efforts from that day. I need not have worried since this juvenile bird was incredibly confiding and was totally unperturbed by pretty much anything. We had excellent and prolonged views of the delightful wader, about the size of a Redshank but with much shorter legs, as it fed along the waters edge. The feathering on its back and wings was quite exquisite!

juvenile Knot
The Knot suddenly erupted into flight on 3 separate occasions, allowing for some nice flight shots, each time only moving a few yards along the embankment before settling down to feed again. In flight the tail was often spread and the "barrel" chest was very evident.

The only time that the Knot seemed bothered by anything was when a Herring Gull flew low overhead and then it adopted a much more upright and alert posture. It soon settled down again and continued its foraging once the danger had passed.

After taking a couple of hundred shots (!) Mrs Caley decided enough was enough (!!) and we left the Knot to it. There were a couple of fine adult Little Grebes in this part of the reservoir and I fired off a few shots of a bird that I don't normally spend time on. The red neck and face of the grebes being particularly striking in the sunshine.

Little Grebe (and Coot, top)
We stopped for a disappointingly lukewarm coffee at the marina cafe before deciding to have a quick look for a Turnstone that had been reported by the birder that we'd met earlier. As we walked around F1 a Common Sandpiper, always the most nervous of wader species flew off before we'd got anywhere near it. It was soon disturbed again by other walkers and I grabbed a shot as it flew past. 

Common Sandpiper
I spotted a further 4 Common Sandpipers plus the Turnstone by the outfall pipe on the north side of the reservoir but even before we could start towards them a jogger had unsettled them all and they flew off. Fortunately the Turnstone flew straight towards us. I had noticed through the scope that it was hopping around on just one leg and as it approached you could see that either it had just the single limb or that the other was damaged in some way that it was useless. It's flight was unaffected though.

The Common Sandpipers had flown to the rafts where they quite often loiter in company with Cormorants, of which I counted over 100 today, but there was no sign of the Turnstone so we chose to call it a day and head for home. On the way I tried and failed to get some usable shots of some of the Swallows that were hunting low over the water. For some reason I struggle big time with photographing Swallows, they are more difficult to track than the Martins and are much more erratic in their movements. I settled for taking a few photos of them overhead instead which is much easier but then discovered that I'd forgotten to set the exposure right! Oh well, there's always another time, but that may have to be next year now since a lot of the Swallows will be migrating south soon.

juvenile and adult Swallow
Another Dunlin was scurrying along the edge of the water close to the causeway and I supposed it was another from that seen earlier since it was much more confiding and not nervy like the other. In fact it didn't want to take flight even as we walked right up to it preferring to run past after a few false starts.

juvenile Dunlin
It had been a cracking morning with the Knot the undoubted highlight.

Sunday 26 August 2018

Stilt Sandpiper, 25th August

Frampton Marsh again! Just 8 days after visiting this gem of a reserve we were back, this time on a twitch. Twitching is not my ideal cup of tea but sometimes it has to be done in order to add a bird on to the life list. After dipping on a few birds last year when we had left home very early doors, our new policy is to wait for news and then head out. This "wait and see" method has paid off a couple of times already this year so after the news had been received that a moulting adult Stilt Sandpiper had been seen by 08:00 on Saturday morning we set off and parked up at Frampton Marsh just over a couple of hours later. Parking had to be in a field mind, since the main carpark was rammed! Good birds attract a lot of birders.

A long line of birdwatchers were looking over the reedbed scrape from the main path, their interest centring on the large group of Black-tailed Godwits that stood resting and asleep. I asked one of my fellow twitchers where the Stilt Sandpiper might be and was told it was asleep in amongst the Godwits but was tricky to pick out at the distance. I set up the scope ready to trawl through the birds when I heard a chap, who was walking back to the visitor centre, telling all and sundry that the star bird was in fact on pools on the north scrape and showing well. We went straight there at as quick a pace as we could manage and 20 minutes later joined a bigger throng of birders alongside the pools. The Stilt Sandpiper was out of view behind some grasses but soon emerged into full view and another tick went onto the life list.

The Stilt Sandpiper had been found on Wednesday, I almost drove to see it then but thought better of it, I am not a full on twitcher. It had been very site faithful since then, either feeding where it was now or on the reedbed scrape. Despite only being a little larger than a Dunlin, albeit with much longer legs, it chose to feed with the much larger Black-tailed Godwits. For most of the time that we observed the bird it was wading belly deep with its head under the water in its search for food. It was tricky getting images of the bird with its head out of the water! 

typical view with head submerged! 

The Stilt Sandpiper was also about 30-40 yards away which is ok for great views through the scope but just a little bit too far for decent photos, hence the "record" shot quality of all of my shots. The sunshine didn't help matters either, killing off any contrast and the best pictures were obtained when a cloud obscured the sun. I know it was difficult because everybody with a camera, even those with the big long lenses, were voicing the same complaints. You just can't please bird photographers sometimes! 

We had tried in vain to see a Stilt Sandpiper at Weymouth two years ago and didn't bother going for the one that visited Poole Harbour last summer, so it was nice to finally catch up with one. After ticking the long awaited Buff-breasted Sandpiper (see Buff-breasted ) at Blacktoft Sands a few weeks ago, getting this bird was a well received bonus. Stilt Sandpipers breed in North America and are vagrants to the UK and it's mainly adults that arrive in the late summer so this bird was conforming to established habit. It's slightly bigger than Dunlin but,  as mentioned, has much longer legs. The bill is fairly long and droops towards the tip, making it superficially like a Curlew Sandpiper but those legs are much longer than its cousin. The underparts are barred and the upper parts are rather plain grey-brown lending it a resemblance to a Dowitcher (a Long-billed Dowitcher was amazingly found about a mile away from the Stilt Sandpiper on Friday! Sadly not seen again today) but that species has a much longer "snipe" like bill. From our viewing distance the supercilium was a very striking feature. 

We spent a couple of hours watching the bird which was always on view unless it fed behind one of the isolated patches of grass. It kept the company of several Black-tailed Godwits, generally staying out in the deeper water so the full extent of its legs were rarely seen.  Other wading birds were feeding around the edges of the pools, we saw Dunlin, Common Snipe, Ringed and Little Ringed Plovers. There were Pied Wagtails too.

feeding with a Black-tailed Godwit

Black-tailed Godwit
My "best" photos were taken when the Stilt Sandpiper moved to a corner of the pool where there were some short grasses that gave a bit of contrast to the shots. Against the darker grass the barring could be seen much more than when against the grey water.

Because we'd been here so recently, we had already decided that this would be a twitch only day so apart from a cursory inspection of the other scrapes where we noted Avocets, various common waterfowl and a plethora of Swallows and Martins, we were soon in the car and heading home. We made a stop at the Ship Inn at Surfleet on Seas (the sea is miles away!) for some lunch where I chose a Steak and Stilton toasted sandwich. Of course!