Tuesday 30 October 2018

Stormy weather! Cornwall, 12th October 2018

Midway through the night I awoke and heard it, so loud that I just had to get up and investigate. Actually not that exciting, just that storm Callum was trying to get in through the bedroom window! The promised weather that had been building throughout the last two days, merely fooling us with the tranquil end to the day before, arrived during the night and was, as expected, pretty vicious. The wind was howling through the (not so sub-tropical now) valley and the rain was beating like a drum possessed against the window pane. I hid my head under a pillow and wished it would go away so that we'd be able to at least see something "birdy" in the morning. At daybreak though it was no different, if anything it was even worse, and the local news on the telly bought us tale after tale of trees down, power lines down, flooding etc, etc. We must be on holiday! Last year we had contended with ex-hurricane Ophelia and storm Brian which brought very windy weather but was largely dry. This was storm Brian on the back of ex-hurricane Michael and it was not only very windy but very very wet too. 

As mentioned in my previous post I had chosen the Meudon Hotel near Falmouth because it was set in a beautiful sub-tropical garden and had access to a secluded cove and beach. Just the place to find some Firecrests and maybe a scarce warbler or two. Well it could be, but as we ate breakfast looking out over the gardens it was plainly evident that we wouldn't be finding anything out there this morning. In fact judging by the amount of branches and tree debris that was raining down, some of which periodically rattled onto the conservatory roof and windows, it would be very stupid indeed to venture outside unless wearing a crash helmet! The rain was actually getting heavier and I resigned myself to the fact that birding would be taking a back seat for most of the day.

We had intended to visit the Lizard and we decided to at least stick to that plan even though the weatherman on the telly was telling us that there were 70 mph winds down there! Our plans had involved going to Kynance Cove but I didn't think that would be a viable option now but I was still confident that we'd be able to go down into the sheltered spot of Church Cove which can hold migrant birds and was a place that we'd seen decent birds before. Firstly though I had to load the car! It was parked less than 20 feet from the hotel doors but if I got soaked yesterday morning then this time I got absolutely drenched, I may as well as jumped into the sea! Talk about rain. Still I'd dry off, eventually. 

We picked our way through the mounting debris on the roads, removing one sizeable tree branch from out of our way, but managed to arrive unscathed at Church Cove. Remarkably the rain had eased and there was some degree of shelter here although it would still be tricky viewing in the gusty wind. The churchyard was our first port of call but we could only find Chiffchaffs and Robins. Other birds were audible but not visible. The rain had started again but at least it was only light so we could continue with our walk. The road at Church Cove runs steeply down to a very secluded little cove where there is a fabulous house nestled in at the bottom of the cliffs. We've had success with crests and warblers along this road in the past but for now it was largely quiet except for the resident House Sparrows and a few Goldfinches and Chaffinches.

At the Cove the wind was stronger and a few birds were passing close in, mainly Gannets and Herring Gulls but we did bag a single Manx Shearwater that flew rapidly northwards. At one stage we actually saw water from a small stream get blown uphill giving testament (if you needed any more) of the wind strength. The rain was coming down heavier again so we retreated back to the car. A lovely Grey Wagtail was feeding in the car park splashing a little bit of colour into the grey day.

After a quick trawl around the "rock" shops picking up a few crystals for our daughter we thought we'd at least have a look at Lizard Point. Horizontal rain changed our minds about leaving the car and we turned heel and fled! Fair weather birders indeed! Kynance Cove was totally exposed to the elements so no point in venturing out there either. This was all so frustrating. As a last resort we drove around the cul-de-sacs of Lizard Village looking for a reported Rose-coloured Starling but could only find Common Starlings hunkering down on the leeward side of the roofs of houses.

We drove into Mullion Cove which was again open to the prevailing gales but at least offered some sustenance at the excellent cafe. The drive over to Pendeen where we'd be based for the next week was fine and we managed to get the essential shop done on the way. The cottage appeared warm and cosy if not set in the most salubrious of surrounding but it'd do us well.

The difficulties of the day were exhibited by the total lack of photos taken! I didn't take a single shot! Not what I was hoping for but there was at least tomorrow and the rest of the week to look forward to although the weather forecast for the next day or so was for more strong winds.

Thursday 25 October 2018

Where Issy? Thurlestone 11th October 2018

We awoke to a very windy and wet morning and got soaked just loading the car ready for the onward journey. At breakfast I studied the weather forecast and the bird news from the day before (thank goodness for WiFi!). The rain would peter out around mid-morning but the strong wind would remain and in fact was going to get much worse after a temporary lull later in the day. One item in the list of birds seen stood out from the page, an Isabelline Shrike had been found close to Thurlestone on the South Devon coast, almost directly on our line, give or take 50 miles or so, to our next scheduled overnight stay near Falmouth. I pulled up Streetmap and Route Planner on the web and was amazed to see that the location of the Shrike was less than two miles away from where Mrs Caley and I had seen our only previous Issy three years ago at South Huish Marsh. It would only take a couple of hours from Branscombe.

Isabelline Shrike, South Huish Marsh, 17th October 2015
My original plan was to look for Dartford Warblers at Aylesbeare Common but in the rough weather they'd be keeping lower than a Dachshunds belly so we drove straight past and kept our date with a coffee at Darts Farm near Exeter, if you're ever there check out the fantastic tiling in the atrium area (top quality workmanship!), had a quick chat with the RSPB staff and drove on to the busy A38. We couldn't resist nipping into Labrador Bay to look for the resident Cirl Buntings but again the weather, being as lousy as it was, pretty quickly defeated that effort, you could barely stand straight in the gusty wind and there wasn't a bird to be seen. Before leaving I checked the bird news for an update on the Isabelline Shrike, thankfully it was still present so we'd be ok to see that. Another message had me screaming in angst so loud you could probably hear me back in Weymouth! The blasted Lesser Yellowlegs, that we'd failed to locate the previous day, was now stood on the mud right outside the Radipole visitor centre! Aarghhh!!! What do these birds have against me? I'm on holiday, they could at least be kind.

By the time we'd arrived at Thurlestone the rain had stopped but it was just as windy as before. The message had stated that the bird was "in scrub next to the 2nd tee of the golf course". We were parked at the top of the beach and looked down over the golf course. I checked the bird news again before setting out on the cliff path, the info had changed slightly and it now read "by the 2nd green hut on the golf course". This was now becoming confusing. We trotted down to the head of the cove, noting a Ringed Plover alone on the sandy beach, and stood next to the 2nd tee of the golf course. In a small cleft in front of the tee there was a scrubby area with a hut. Too easy, I thought, they obviously meant the tee not the green just don't know much about golf. The ideal place for a Shrike to be, out of the wind, nice and sheltered. We watched the brambles and thickets for the next half hour, surely a Shrike would have shown by now? A Stonechat, a Greenfinch and a Linnet were the only birds that showed. The info must be wrong so, after a bit of debate, we decided to head further along the cliff path and investigate. It was increasingly blustery along the higher cliffs and I couldn't believe any bird let alone a Shrike would want to be up here in such an exposed spot. On rounding the headland I scanned the clifftop ahead of us and noticed first one green hut and then further away, another green hut! The info hadn't referred to a golf "green" but to the bloody colour "green"! Doh!! 

Now we were on to it. It was quite a walk to the "2nd green hut" but after 15 minutes or so we arrived and catching our breath started looking. There were just three other birders present and they all seemed to be interested in one small sallow that stood at the edge of the golf course. It only took a few seconds to locate the Isabelline Shrike since it was doing exactly as a Shrike does, perching prominently on a spindly bough. 

The Isabelline Shrike in typical pose.
We watched for a while and then moved closer towards the bird which had now relocated to another sallow. From the higher vantage point we could now watch the bird more easily although holding the camera steady was difficult in the wind. We were facing the sun too so images would be backlit. I had an inkling that one of the other birders, at that stage I had only seen them from the back, looked familiar and as I strode towards him I realised that it was one of our fellow Oxon birders and thoroughly good chap Jim! A long way from home but he had made the trip because as he said "I want to expand my list and there's not much to see in Oxfordshire!" True that. Jim had been on site since first light, he is very keen and an excellent photographer, and had suffered some miserable weather for the first few hours. At least he, as was I, was now able to get some decent shots of the Shrike in the good light. Mind you his photos, as always, are somewhat better than my own meagre efforts! See them at Jim Hutchins Photography

At first the Shrike was quite hard to pin down at close range, it frequently flew to the furthest of the only three sallow bushes on that part of the cliff, regardless of which one you stood next to! Eventually though it became more approachable and posed beautifully both on the sallows and on weedy stems. It frequently dived down into the brush presumably to trap a bee or other insect for food but I never actually saw it consume anything. 

The Isabelline Shrike was a first winter and similar to the bird seen just a few miles away in 2016. They are beautiful birds with a lovely red tail that was frequently fanned out to assist in balancing when perched on an exposed stem or twig. It has been proposed that this bird is of the sub-species Daurian Isabelline Shrike but my grasp of taxonomy isn't very good so enough of that. I just enjoyed spending time with a really nice bird!

We had to move on though, it was still a couple of hours drive to our next hotel, so reluctantly we pulled away and returned along the cliff path to the car. A fabulous Raven drifted past totally unfazed by the strong wind, in fact it appeared to be enjoying flying into it judging by the rolls and turns it was making. I envy birds like the Raven in rough weather, we find it tough going while they absolutely embrace it and seem to love it.

With no chance of finding a coffee stop on the main dual carriageway we settled on a stop at a Garden Centre for refreshment. I had a plan to stop at a place just a few miles from Falmouth where there was potentially another Lesser Yellowlegs to get (or not!). After the anguish of discovering that the Weymouth bird had appeared today where we'd been just yesterday this would offer a chance at some retribution. We arrived at Devoran Quay on the Fal Estuary known as the Carrick Roads, just after 17:15 meaning it would be dark in less than an hour and a half and we had to find the spot where the bird might be. It was a five minute walk out to the end of the quay where the wading birds were congregated. I could see Curlews, Oystercatchers, a few Dunlin and Black-tailed Godwits and lots of Redshanks but all were distant and I couldn't really distinguish between the smaller birds at the distance they were at and had left the scope in the car. So another ten minutes were wasted while I returned to the car and fetched the scope (what's the point in having the damn thing and then leaving it in the boot? We are desperate for a new one but that's another story!). The tide was coming in which was pushing the birds closer to us but once the water had covered their roosting spots they all flew over to the opposite bank and were even further away. I scanned the Redshank flocks as best as I could in the failing light but couldn't find a Lesser Yellowlegs amongst them even though it was probably there somewhere. I did find a group of three Greenshanks and I wondered if they could even be the same birds that we'd seen at Lodmoor yesterday. Almost definitely not but I often like to muse on such possibilities. This time I wasn't too bothered about missing out on the Yellowlegs since we could come back this way tomorrow or even later in the week.

We headed into the rush hour traffic, equivalent to the mid-morning hush at home, and drove to the Meudon Hotel near Mawnan Smith. It was a beautiful evening, the wind had died down a bit but it was almost dark by the time we arrived so no time to appreciate the surroundings. I had selected this hotel since it boasted a lovely sub-tropical garden set into a valley with a path that led down to a sheltered cove and beach. Something that we could explore after breakfast in the morning before moving off to our holiday cottage for the week. Or so I had thought....!

Tuesday 23 October 2018

Way to go! Weymouth, 10th October 2018

Another October and another eagerly looked forward to trip to the far west of Cornwall! But first a couple of days travelling along the south coast and a couple of nights spent, hopefully, staying in nice hotels and partaking in some good food and a little drink (or two). This year we decided to head to the Weymouth area and, if the opportunity arose, anywhere close by if a twitchable bird was present.

Weymouth boasts a pair of fine RSPB reserves in Radipole Lake and Lodmoor which usually hold some interesting birds. Unless we visit of course when all the good birds disappear and hide until we've left! A Lesser Yellowlegs, a species of wader that I'd only seen three times before, had been gracing Lodmoor for over a fortnight so we could be sure of catching up with that and I was also pretty certain that we'd see Bearded Tits and Mediterranean Gulls, both scarce birds in Oxfordshire. As hinted already, our track record at both of these reserves isn't very good and we've managed to dip a few rare birds in the general Weymouth area in the past including Stilt Sandpiper and Richard's Pipit. After a pretty torrid drive southwards, requiring a big diversion around the South Oxon and Berkshire downs in order to avoid a nasty accident and massive holdup on the A34, a decent breakfast sandwich and coffee at a nearby cafe settled us down a bit and we arrived at Radipole around mid-morning. It had turned quite breezy so any chance of decent views and photographic opportunities at the Beardies were vastly diminished since they'd be keeping low in the reeds in such conditions. 

My first target however was easy to find with 5 adult Mediterranean Gulls loafing amongst the more numerous Black-headed Gulls on the muddy scrape right in front of the visitor centre. I had never taken a decent image of a Med Gull before so I set about capturing some shots. No complaints, I do try not to (!),  from me about the conditions either since the strong sunshine was slightly behind me. The Gulls were all asleep but occasionally one would stir and look mildly interested in the goings on before returning to its slumber.

adult Mediterranean Gull
The Med Gulls shared the scrape, actually part of the vast network of waterways that make up this part of Weymouth, with a few Great Black-backed and Herring Gulls. A lone Dunlin and a Black-tailed Godwit were also patrolling the shallows.

Black-tailed Godwit 
Great Black-backed Gulls
We walked out into the reserve and it was immediately evident that this wouldn't be a Bearded Tit day since the reeds were blowing wildly in the strengthening breeze. I caught a brief snippet of their "pinging" calls but couldn't see any of the long tailed birds clinging to any reed stems. They would have had to hold on tightly in any case. Radipole is a terrific place to see Cetti's Warblers too but they would also be keeping low on a day such as this. But at least it was a beautiful sunny day! We chose to study the open waterways instead and noted several species of the more common duck species, Teal, Gadwall, Shoveler, Tufted Duck and Mallard all being present. The famous drake Hooded Merganser, a resident of Radipole for nearly 7 years, has now sadly disappeared.

Herring Gull
female Teal
A cleared area in the reed bed held a gathering of herons with 8 Grey Herons and 2 Little Egrets either stood idle or intently watching the shallow edges to the pools. Partially hidden by the reeds, a Great (White) Egret was also furtively watching for a meal. It was on the way back from Cornwall some years ago that we made a "twitch" stop at Chard to see our first ever Great Egret. Nowadays they are relatively common in the south west and we even get a few up in Oxfordshire and shamefully hardly get given a second look! 

We stood on a bridge which gives views in all directions over the reserve and a place where we've seen Kingfishers and Bearded Tits (not giving up!) in the past but none showed. A young Mute Swan came swimming towards us and when I showed no intention of giving out some free handouts of bread gave me a rather puzzled and indignant look before passing under the bridge to rejoin the rest of its family on the other side.

Mute Swan
It was quiet elsewhere on the reserve so we drove over to Lodmoor and looked out for the shallow scrapes where the wading birds congregate in the hope of seeing the Lesser Yellowlegs. Immediately obvious was a good size group of Black-tailed Godwits all of which were feeding in the ankle deep (to a Godwit) water. A few Lapwing patrolled the rather striking "red coloured" weed that lays of the marshes (must find out what type of plant it is). There were Redshanks present, the species that the Lesser Yellowlegs would be most likely to associate with but despite much scrutinising I couldn't find the rarer bird.

Black-tailed Godwit
A fine male Ruff was stood on a patch of dry ground quite close to the path. It was still sporting mostly white head feathers giving an indication of how splendid its ceremonial headdress would have been back in the breeding season. We were lucky to have seen it since after just a few seconds it flew away and into a hidden part of the reed beds. Maybe the Yellowlegs was in the same place?

male Ruff
A trio of fine Greenshanks came flying in, tootling as they did so, and landed in the same place where the Ruff had been moments before. I'm a big fan of Greenshank, elegant but at the same time sturdy waders and always quite vocal. In short they have attitude! The three birds kept very close company as they walked, ran and fed in the shallows.

A Grey Heron approached looking quite striking, framed by the expanse of "red weed". Its presence though disturbed the Greenshanks and they fled to another part of the lagoon, pausing only momentarily before flying off and disappearing into the same hidden place that the Ruff had gone to.

Grey Heron

There were more Mediterranean Gulls and, in keeping with the ones seen earlier, they too were mostly asleep or just idling the afternoon away. It was warm in the sunshine so maybe it was siesta time?! Very helpfully the 3 different ages of the species were all lined up together, making comparison between them convenient.

L_R, adult, 2nd calendar year and 1st calendar year Mediterranean Gulls
The Grey Heron was now stalking through the water only a few feet from the footpath, maybe it too was used to the free lunches given out. Our own local Herons back at home would never venture this close to people so these birds had obviously become very accustomed to folk. At one point the bird was so close that I had to back away in order to get the whole of it in the frame.

Grey Heron
A large flock of noisy Canada geese rested on the mudbanks that interweave through the water and a few Teal swam around. A fabulous Little Egret flew low overhead looking positively radiant in the bright sunlight.

Little Egret
male Teal
With no sign of the Lesser Yellowlegs we decided to head off and spend a couple of hours at Portland Bill. As we left a Black-tailed Godwit was feeding in slightly deeper water close inshore and just had to be photographed.

Black-tailed Godwit
Small passerines were difficult to see in the swaying branches but we noted Chiffchaffs and Blackcaps. We'd be spending a lot of time and effort staring into trees and bushes over the coming week or so trying to find something scarce or rare, but no doubt, and bearing our track record, we'd fail though!

Portland was even windier and the waves were crashing into the rocks at the southern end with some viciousness. The area has been slightly kinder to us than Weymouth in the past since we'd successfully twitched a Great Spotted Cuckoo and a Pallas's Warbler nearby two years ago. I was hoping to see some Purple Sandpipers but it's probably still a bit early in the year for them. A fine Rock Pipit posed neatly on the roof of one of the many beach huts that adorn the cliff edge here. No beach as such but a fine view out over the sea. Must be nice to own one of those!

Rock Pipit
We checked out the observatory quarry where a pair of Little Owls are reputed to have a territory but there was no sign. Around 50 Swallows were hawking busily about the lighthouse fuelling up before leaving for their winter home in sub-saharan Africa but I felt that the keen southerly winds and the approaching storm Callum would hold them at bay for at least a few days. The only birds we could find in the scrubby tangle of brambles and weedy shrubs were common birds such as Robins and Song Thrushes. A single Blackbird (wearing some bling) was feasting on some late season Blackberries.

So we had failed in our mission to see the Lesser Yellowlegs and Bearded Tits but had still had a good day. Our overnight stay was at the highly recommended Masons Arms in the delightful village of Branscombe on the Dorset/Devon border. We'd stayed here before and will stay again, the accommodation is comfortable and the food and drink in the pub is excellent!

Tuesday 2 October 2018

Farmoor, 30th September 2018

I was at football on Saturday when a Black-necked Grebe had been found at Farmoor. by Dai the site stalwart, not much gets past his sharp pair of eyes. There's a recurring theme when it comes to better birds being seen locally and me attending matches and it's not one that favours me. Nothing much gets found in Oxfordshire until I'm somewhere else for the day! Not that I need to see a Black-necked Grebe, I have seen plenty around Oxon and have one from Farmoor on the 12th May this year (see Black-necked Grebe), but it's always nice to see something different.

summer plumaged Black-necked Grebe, Farmoor 12th May 2018
Mrs Caley, myself and my attendant slight hangover nurtured from the previous day, decided to head to the reservoir on Sunday morning anyway in the hope that the Grebe had remained, to cut any type of story short it hadn't, but we knew that they'd be other birds to see and I'm always happy clicking away with the camera. Farmoor offers a nice easy walk for my tired old legs too. It was a fairly calm morning with the windsock only being tickled lightly by a slight breeze and the water on both basins was hardly being ruffled. Not the best conditions for birding at Farmoor, events here are most often more lively on windy days.

We struck off down the causeway as is our norm and noted the large numbers of Pied wagtails still present. The numbers of these delightful little birds increased suddenly about a fortnight ago and will swell further through the autumn. They'll be joined by some of the nominate and continental White Wagtails too but for now they were all of local Pied stock. I've tried and failed to capture the wagtails in flight before and this morning I gave up trying after the first one had flown past. They have a shifty habit of flying erratically away like the Swallows that I also have trouble with.

Pied Wagtail
About half way down the causeway I noticed a small group of waders fly out from the bank of F1, when disturbed by a couple of walkers, and settle again slightly nearer to us but still a few hundred yards away. I strained through the bins to try and clinch their ID but couldn't be totally sure but felt that some of them looked very much like Ringed Plovers. It was only when we got to about a hundred yards from the birds that I remembered the scope that I was carrying on my back! Hangovers certainly channel your senses. By then we were close enough to ascertain the birds identities without resorting to the extra magnification, there were 5 Ringed Plovers and 2 Dunlin. Wading birds of most species, Common Sandpiper being the exception, are usually very approachable at Farmoor and this group were no different allowing us to walk up to within 30 feet or so. I took some photos, mainly of the Ringed Plovers since we hadn't seen one here for some time and were pleased to see them. I have lots of snaps of Dunlin so I wasn't so bothered with capturing images of them but they're still smart birds too. 

Ringed Plover

Some of the birds were comfortable enough to actually "sit" down by the waters edge and snooze. Interestingly both species were impartial to who they "slept" with, one of the Dunlins seemingly very friendly with a Ringed Plover.

We left the sleepy birds to it and moved further along the embankment where we got an eyeful of Mallards copulating! Duck sex isn't for the faint hearted and the drake certainly appears to get the best of the deal since he just about half drowns the poor duck whilst giving her a good nip while going about his business! Fortunately for her it doesn't last very long (mmm....familiar?) and she's soon breathing air again. After the act he puffs his chest out and seems to proclaim "I'm the Daddy!".

Another birder who had encountered the flock of waders didn't possess the required stealth and startled the birds into flying which was a win for us since they flew past us calling as they went and thus enabling me to get some flight shots. 

We left the reservoir and headed towards the river. The bushes were alive with warblers and a couple of elder bushes were teeming with a party of Long-tailed Tits. I never tire of watching these active and acrobatic little balls of feathers although tying them down for a photo is never easy. We found a group of mixed warbler species and noted Blackcaps, Chiffchaffs and a Common Whitethroat but only a male Blackcap stayed still for long enough. In a couple of weeks we'll be in Cornwall spending a lot time searching through bushes and trees in the hope of finding some scarcer warbler species so this was an opportunity to practice and re-hone our skills in pinning them down. The practice is definitely needed!

male Blackcap

Long-tailed Tit
I wanted to check the lock at Pinkhill out since I'd seen some nice photos of Kingfishers that have been taken there recently on the brilliant Oxon Bird Blog. Sadly there were none of the fabulous water birds around but we did see a Stonechat in the rough grasses close by. A Grey Heron was stood ankle deep in the river but soon took to flight as we approached.

Grey Heron
The walk downstream as far a Shrike meadow yielded no Kingfishers and we were back at the reservoir without seeing anything more interesting than a Robin. We spent a bit of time admiring one of the many Little Grebes the are present now the breeding season is over but despite searching the whole of F2 there was no sign of the Black-necked version of the family.

Little Grebe
Farmoor also hosts a few hundred of Great Crested Grebes outside the breeding season and a few of these were fishing close in to the bank. We'd seen a couple catch some small fish already when one bird surfaced with a sizeable Perch. Another Grebe had noticed the catch too and made a play to wrest the fish from the catcher. The Grebe with the fish was far too wary though and easily out ran (literally) the other across the water. We had noticed before on a previous visit recently that Great Crested Grebes would rather surf across the water than take to flight to avoid unwanted attention. After ensuring that there was no further threat from its neighbour the Perch was expertly despatched.

Great Crested Grebe
Back on the causeway we noted that the small flock of waders were still present but had become much more unsettled and wary, probably owing to the increased disturbance by walkers and fishermen. At one point they flew far out from the bank and disappeared but they were back again further up the causeway again a bit later.

A beautiful Black-headed Gull drifted effortlessly past. These Gulls are very adept at catching very small fish right at the surface of the reservoir and we've witnessed their prowess on several occasions in the past.

Black-headed Gull
Our walk (over 12000 steps according to the app!) had earned us a coffee in the cafe although we spurned any calorie laden accompaniments this time. Just as we turned to leave the reservoir behind I noticed a female Red-crested Pochard close in by the marina, the first we'd seen at Farmoor since the day we'd seen the summer plumaged Black-necked Grebe back in May. I caught the duck eyeing up a small fly which I believe it duly ate, seems rather a small meal for a bird of its size.

female Red Crested Pochard
So no scarce Grebe and no Kingfisher but a decent few hours regardless and good therapy to get rid of that fuzzy head!