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.