Monday 28 January 2019

The start of a Long weekend! January 25th 2019

Friday was my first day off from the toil of the year and it wouldn't be wasted. The decision of where to go and what to see was a difficult one since there is a lot about within easy reach at the moment and there are a lot of birds that are needed for the Old Caley 2019 year list. I've never bothered much with lists of any description and certainly not at all with year lists until I tallied up the birds that were seen in 2018. Now I find myself wanting to outdo that total of 241 and am actively seeking out the birds that I need. Mrs Caley and I discussed going to the Forest of Dean to get Hawfinch and Mandarin Duck amongst others and Symond's Yat for Goshawk but felt that we could leave that a bit later in the Spring. A much longer trip out to Suffolk was also on the agenda, we could add lots of birds there but the weather forecast wasn't good on the East coast. Waxwings are always a sought after bird but none were within range and I felt sure that they'd get closer once the following weeks promised cold weather hit. After weighing up all of these possibilities and others we decided to put right an early "dip" this year and revisit Deeping Lakes in Lincolnshire and hopefully add Long-eared Owl to the year list. Almost every day since we'd failed to see any on the 5th, see Owl dip, up to four of these Owls and been seen roosting on the island in the main lake there. The trip would also give us the chance of another crack at the Rough-legged Buzzard, which we'd seen but only at a mile distant.

It was a cold morning when we arrived at the deserted parking area at Deeping Lakes. We'd already had a treat on the way in when we'd watched Goosanders displaying on the river nearby and had added Sparrowhawk to the year list as one attacked a large flock of Linnets that were feeding in stubble. 

It's only a short walk to the "Lake" and the hide that looks out to the Owl island. We saw a small flock of Bullfinches on the way but as always with that species they were skittish and refused to pose for a photo. We opened the slats in the, except for us, deserted hide and peered through at the tree covered island a hundred or so yards away. There, bang in the middle of the island and even visible to the naked eye, was a Long-eared Owl. Once again, simples! I mused on the time we'd spent here three weeks ago trying really hard to find one, and failing, in the dense undergrowth of the island, and realised, not for the first time, that you can only see what is there and not what isn't, instead of thinking at the time that I was useless. But you can bet that next time I can't find a bird that is supposed to be present those same old doubts in my ability as a birder will resurface once again! Anyway we'd found the target bird within seconds and I had a full hand of all five British breeding Owls on the year list before the end of January.

Long-eared Owl
I set the scope up and searched through the trees, brambles and ivy on the island for other roosting Long-eared Owls but it was Mrs Caley who spotted another first, just up to the left of the obvious one when it stretched a wing out. So now we had two and a third followed when I saw the belly of one visible in a particularly dense patch of scrub. Very close to that bird was a fourth but you could barely see anything of that one with just the very top of the head showing through the foliage, full power of the scope was required to see that! At such range my camera and lens is nowhere near powerful enough to capture anything other than record shots even with the added converter.

Owl #1
Owl #2
Owl #3
The Owls are one of those species that once found then it's not worth expending too much time with them since they're mostly sleeping and apart from a stretch or quick preen don't do much at all so we looked around at the other bird life on the lake. There were many Goosanders and Goldeneye and a few were close enough to the hide at times to offer better photographic opportunities. Both species appeared to be displaying in readiness for the breeding season and many were already paired off.

Male Goldeneye

Female Goldeneye

Goldeneye paired up.

Male Goosander

Female Goosander
Outside of the hide we searched for different viewpoints in which to look at the Owls in an effort for clearer views but the Bankside is further away so the Owls are even more distant. We could hear gunfire from fairly close by and a helicopter owned by the electricity company came flying low overhead which enticed ducks and geese to fly into the lake from all over. A kingfisher whirred past but didn't stop.

Female Goldeneye

Greylag Geese
We decided that with other birds to find that we should be moving on so left the Owls to their slumber and returned to the car. As we approached the car park a Peregrine flew fast towards us and then veered behind some trees, I actually ran (!) to gain a clear view of the powerful falcon and took some shots but it had already passed. I regained my breath hoping that the Peregrine would circle back to hunt on the scrapes by the cars but it didn't. 

Peregrine Falcon
A pair of Egyptian Geese fed on the river bank next to the access road, we seem to be seeing them everywhere just lately, and back out on the road I stopped once more to take some frames of the Goosanders on the river which was now ruffled by a stiff breeze.

Egyptian Goose

Male Goosander
When we had visited three weeks ago we had viewed Holme Fen from the roads at the southern end. I'd recently seen some decent photos of the Rough-legged Buzzard taken at a place called Frog Hall Bridge at the Farcet village and northern end so we found the nearest access point to the track that led out to the said bridge and parked up. The muddy track stretched for a mile or so out to the bridge which spanned the river and I thought would give access right up to the edge of the fen.  I set up the scope and found the Buzzard almost immediately but unfortunately it was just as far away as it had been from the roads. All that walking appeared to be in vain! Still we were ever hopeful that the target Bird of Prey would work its way along the river and we'd get the close view that I wanted. In order to improve our chances we started to walk along the river embankment but this area is huge and it became plainly obvious that we'd never close the gap between us and the bird in the remaining time left in the day so we gave up. Maybe next time we'll give it all day and do the full walk. All I had to show for the effort was another lousy set of record shots taken from a mile away! At least the scope views were good.

Rough-legged Buzzard (honestly!)
I noticed a Fox pounce onto some unseen prey in the long grass next to the riverbank, it must have been unsuccessful since it emerged into full view without any prize. The Fox took a while to notice us and when it did it stared back, sizing us up, before returning back to the longer grassland and disappearing. I love chance encounters with wildlife.

There was still maybe an hour of daylight left so we toured around back to our position of three weeks ago in the hope that the Short-eared Owls that we'd seen on our last visit would be out hunting. It had turned into a pleasant sunlit afternoon so I was hopeful of getting some nice shots. The Owls, if present, had other ideas though and, typically, none showed in the hour that we stayed! What is it with Owls that they only seem to want to come out to play in crap weather? Consolation came in the form of a couple of Corn Buntings, new for the year, and a Red Kite that sailed past very closely.

Corn Bunting

Red Kite
We'd achieved our aim of seeing the Long-eared Owls and added a few more decent birds to the year list which now stands at 91, so drove back home quite happy and made plans for the next day.

Sunday 27 January 2019

No regret, Egret! Sunday 20th January 2019

We had dipped out on seeing a Cattle Egret early in the New Year after seeing a Great Northern Diver on the Berkshire and Oxfordshire border and failed to find any whilst in Gloucestershire yesterday so it made sense to lay that bogey to rest early. Cattle Egret was also one of several glaring omissions on our 2018 year list! The bird near Reading at Englefield Green had been seen just about every day since we'd failed to connect with it so that was the obvious one to have another go at and at under an hours drive from home much to gain and little to lose.

We left home early and parked up next to the Cattle Egrets favoured horse paddock just after daybreak. Nice and quiet at that time on a Sunday morning, the busy A4 runs past the field but was almost devoid of traffic, and it was still quite dark on what was a very dull and overcast start to the day. I scanned the field, particularly around the hay troughs that the horses feed from, while Mrs Caley remained warm and cosy in the car. There was no sign of the Cattle Egret. Groan! I shifted my position slightly and right over by the roadside hedge I caught just a glimpse of a small moving, but crucially, white object. The Cattle Egret was just out of full view owing to the land dipping towards to the road. I wondered if we had somehow missed it three weeks ago because of the lay of the land but then remembered that we'd also looked from a bus-stop lay-by next to the hedge so couldn't have. I drove around to the lay-by and we very gingerly walked up to the hedge so as not to scare the Egret. Despite our stealth the Cattle Egret was already aware of our presence and was walking away from the hedge although it did seem settled and was feeding. I took a few record shots and hoped that the sun would miraculously appear from the heavy clouds but of course it resolutely refused to do so. 

Cattle Egret, Englefield Green 20th January 2019
Over the next half hour we watched the Cattle Egret alternatively feed in the short grass, rest close to one of the hay containers and just twice fly a short distance when a horse came too close. I couldn't coax it to pose on top of one of the beasts and neither could I encourage the big red round shiny thing to appear in the sky either so had to be content with what I got in the picture stakes.

Having had our fill and not wanting to annoy the driver of the 09:18 bus that was due any minute by hogging his parking space we jumped back into the warm car and drove back to Oxfordshire and to Millets Farm near Frilford Heath. This would serve a dual purpose, one to get a warming cup of coffee and two to see if a White Stork seen there yesterday was still around. The Stork itself would be an escaped bird, most found in the UK are, so wouldn't count on our year lists but would be good to see. In the event and despite us searching most of the complex it wasn't to be seen anywhere so we still have just the single White Stork near Buckingham a long time ago on our life lists, in fact we've seen more Black Storks than White Storks in the UK! Much more obliging was a Rook that was feeding out of the food bowls intended for the animals in the children zoo on site. When seen in decent light and at close quarters, too close really since I couldn't get the whole bird in the frame, Rooks are truly beautiful birds. I posted a few photos of this Rook on Twitter and gained nearly twice as many "likes", over 300, as I ever had for a tweet before! Proving it's not only rare birds that captivate interest.

Our next stop was at Buckland Warren near Faringdon where we'd had success with Crossbills at the end of last year, see Crossbills. Although we heard and saw around six of the conifer woodland specialists none settled in the favoured larch trees this time but at least they were added to the year list. We were entertained by a Great Spotted Woodpecker impersonating the Crossbills, it would snip a cone off the trees then jam it up against a branch and vigorously extract the seeds.

I spent a bit of time attempting to photograph a Goldcrest that was deftly searching out food but in reality it was tricky to gain any reasonable images. They are easier to capture in the Cornish valleys.

On our way back to the car we were watched very suspiciously by a Muntjac Deer, the welcome sunshine illuminating it beautifully against the lush new growth grass.

Lunch was taken at the very good Horse and Jockey in nearby Stanford-in-the-Vale and over coffee we hatched a plan to revisit the Short-eared Owl site just over the border in Gloucestershire where we'd been fogged off the evening before. We were there within half an hour but this time as we drove slowly around the perimeter roads we were far from alone, there must have been another twenty birders and toggers with the same idea. We spotted a Shortie almost immediately so pulled the car into the side and geared up for action. This Owl was hunting a fair way out in the field so I didn't go too mad with the camera, until it surprised another one up out of the grass which then appeared to want what ever the other one had which didn't seem to be anything. Perhaps the second just enjoyed chasing the first?

The original Owl having shrugged off the attention of the other which had returned to its roosting, landed on a post which drew the scrutiny of a Kestrel that dive-bombed the Owl a few times before drifting off and finding its own perch to settle on.

The Short-eared Owl resumed its hunting and fortunately for us it preferred the corner of the field not far from where we parked. It put on a really good show for some time but despite frequent dives down to the ground we never saw it catch anything, maybe it was just practicing and having fun.

Unfortunately the earlier sunshine had dissipated this late in the afternoon but at least we could see the Short-eared Owls this time. All species of Owls are a joy to see and Shorties are probably the most interesting to watch since they hunt in daylight whereas the other species are primarily nocturnal unless feeding young. In total there were three seen hunting in the field that we'd chosen to watch, there may well be more in the adjoining fields.

We were lucky enough to see another Barn Owl perched by the roadside near Eynsham on our journey home. We pulled up and watched it glide back over the road and past a farmyard until it was lost to sight, the third Barnie I'd seen in little over a week. Now we just need the Long-eared Owl to complete the set of British breeding Owls for the year list, something to look for next weekend.

Thursday 24 January 2019

Bob's a Good 'Un! Saturday 19th January

In each season of the year there are special birds that we just have to see. Spring offers Warblers, Nightingales and Flycatchers, in Summer there are Dotterel and Nightjar to find, in Autumn it has to be Yellow-browed Warblers and rare migrant birds and Winter brings Waxwings and Short-eared Owls amongst many others. A bird that took me ages to see but one that I now strive to see every Winter is the Jack Snipe, a diminutive cousin of the more widespread and well known Common Snipe. In fact Jack Snipe are not that scarce and large numbers winter in the UK every year but they are extremely well camouflaged in their chosen habitat of wet meadows, marshland and ditches so are difficult to observe. Mrs Caley and I have only ever had distant views of Jack Snipe and all I had were some very poor record photos so it was high time that we got a decent view. Throughout this Winter a Jack Snipe had been delighting birders visiting Slimbridge by showing off right in front of the Martin Smith hide there. Its appearances however were sporadic and a sighting was far from guaranteed.  We had already tried to see this bird at the end of November last year but had failed although we had connected with another at Calvert a few weeks before. 

Jack Snipe, Calvert 7th October 2018
Playing it cool we headed straight to the on site restaurant and enjoyed a relaxing breakfast sandwich and coffee before joining other hopefuls in the aforementioned hide. There were a fair few folk in the hide staring intently through the slats but none seemed animated enough to signal that they were watching anything good. I'm not a great fan of hides and birding from them but even I have to admit that they are sometimes essential if you want to get good close up views of tricky to see birds.
I took my place and scanned a short grassy island that I knew was the favoured spot for the Jack Snipe. Bingo! The first bird I found was the Jack Snipe! As easy as that. The bird was partially hidden in the grass and was preening, and I could only see the back of its head, but the absence of a central crown stripe eliminated Common Snipe so it had to be the Jack. As I beckoned to Mrs Caley that I had the Jack Snipe in view it turned to face us and then the shorter bill than that of a Common Snipe, still long of course, could be appreciated as well as the split supercilium, I liken it to an eyebrow. I rattled off some record shots, actually the best I'd ever taken of a Jack Snipe at that point by some way, and then set about getting Mrs Caley onto the bird. That took some time though owing to the birds camouflage which rendered it hard to see even in green grass if you didn't know exactly where to look.

Jack Snipe, Slimbridge 19th January 2019
Our own excitement at finding the bird had alerted the rest of the hide goers and they were all now training their optics onto the island in search for the bird and asking as to where it was. I was amazed that nobody was on it when we arrived since it was, to all intents and purposes, in the open! The Jack Snipe was standing stock still and not doing anything else so I started to look around at the other birds on offer. Of the ducks, Pintail and Wigeon were prominent right close up by the hide. Mallards and Tufted Ducks were already displaying and, in the case of a couple of drake Mallards, fighting. Also present were Shoveler, Gadwall and Shelduck. A few Bewick's Swans fed further out and we could see huge flocks of Lapwing and Golden Plover.

Scrapping Drake Mallards
Drake Pintail
Drake Wigeon
Wigeon Duck bathing
My attention was diverted by a pair of Jackdaws pulling at the moss right in front of the hide. I love watching Jackdaws, they have a quizzical yet impish air about them. 

As I was admiring the Jackdaws Mrs Caley called to me "did you see the Jack run off?" Nope, missed that and it had disappeared into the reeds so now that was gone from the scene. "Did it bob?", I asked. "Yep, just before it scarpered" was her reply. Jack Snipe are famous for "bobbing" up and down like a yo-yo. They do it apparently to gauge a better view of things since, like most birds that have an eye set at each side of the head, they only see in monocular vision. It is a very comical and extraordinary habit and they bounce as they move. The football chant, "Bounce in a minute, we're going to bounce in a minute" came to mind. I soon refound the Jack in the Box bird tucked in behind a couple of sleeping Teal, further away but well hidden now. The Jack Snipe moved out from behind the Teal and settled down itself for a snooze.

That camouflage!
Before very long though the Jack Snipe was disturbed by a Mallard and disappeared into the reeds once more. Fortunately I have Mrs Caley as an extra pair of eyes and she alerted me to the bird walking back in to view, this time along the front edge of the island. I was hopeful that if it kept on its course then it would end up right out in the open but instead it chose to return to its spot in the grass next to the Teal where it resumed its dozing.

Ours and everybody else luck changed when the Jack Snipe rose up on its stumpy legs, bobbed for a few moments and then strode very purposefully back to the nearest muddy margin of the island. As I and the rest willed it on it then darted, surprisingly quickly, to a much better and more open viewpoint for us all to enjoy it . I rattled off frame after frame trying to coincide the press of the shutter with the bird being right out in full view. 

Like Jack Snipe off a ducks back!
Amazingly the Jack Snipe then flew up and towards us and landed on the bank just feet from the hide.  It stood up as high at it could on those short legs for just a few moments and then promptly disappeared into the vegetation right before our eyes! There was only a small clump of short reedy grasses but try as hard as you like the bird was now invisible. Until it started bobbing again that is, then it could be picked up in the grass once more. It briefly emerged into a small gap in the grass and settled down for a snooze once more.

Anybody entering the hide for the last hour or so since I'd first called the whereabouts of the Jack Snipe didn't need to worry about finding or seeing it because the bird had been adopted by a "Hide Guide" or more accurately "Hide Bore" who very helpfully informed everybody who wanted to see it and those that didn't, that it was "in his scope" or "it's just to the right of the sleeping Pintail" or "if you can't see it, I have it in my scope" and so on. He was doing my head in so we left. They should leave a roll of Duct Tape at the entrance.

Water Rails are guaranteed at the Willow Hide and we paid a short visit there. The Water Rails have learned to take advantage of the food dropped by other birds from the feeders and are extremely confiding although the slightest noise can frighten them back into the undergrowth. We stayed just a couple of minutes in which time I took probably my best ever set of Water Rail photos. 

Next stop was to the Robbie Garnett hide which looks out over a different part of the "Tack Piece", an area of short grassland where there is usually a flock of White-fronted Geese. Not today though so we'll need to wait to add those to the year list. There were more Bewick's Swans and the feral Greylag Goose flock. We were treated to a family of Bewick's flying in and landing on the water enabling us to get close views of the grey but beautiful juveniles.

Juvenile Bewick's Swan
More Pintail were seen and a female Pochard drifted past along with a Shelduck. I spent a bit of time watching and photographing Jackdaws again. Incredibly though in over an hour and a half we hadn't seen a single raptor bar a Buzzard in the distance. 

Female Pochard
Pressed for time now, we had other birds on the itinerary in other places, we wandered back past the Martin Smith Hide where we could hear the resident drone still droning on so swerved on going back in there and went for a brief look from the Rushy Pen where we found a couple of Dunlin and some sleeping Lapwing in addition to the usual Pintails and Bewick Swans. 

Female Pintail
As we left we were wished on our way by one of the very healthy and well fed Wood Pigeons. There's a little bit of me (quite a lot actually) in a Wood Pigeon!

Our next stop was to get a Tawny Owl on to the year list. Despite being the UK's most common Owl species, Tawny Owls can be hard to find and we lack the wooded areas in our part of the world that they need as habitat. A couple of years ago I learned of a Tawny that spends its days roosting in a void high up in a tree close to Slimbridge and we now make an annual pilgrimage to see it. The views are always the same, The Tawny Owl will be asleep in the hole in the tree, simples. Views are not close but through the scope are very good. The visit has to be made in the Winter since later on in the year branches and foliage will obscure the roosting place.

There is a large lake nearby and we wandered over to see if any of the reported  Cattle Egrets that roost on an island were about but this early in the afternoon there was no sign. We did find a Great Egret though. We made a quick drive around the surrounding village roads looking for the Cattle Egrets to no avail so called it a day.

Great Egret
Halfway home we made a spur of the moment decision to visit a site close to the Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire border where Short-eared Owls spend the winter months. These wintering quarters are well known and attract many birders and photographers throughout the period when the Owls are present. We visited last April right at the end of the Owls stay and had success with both the Short-eared Owls and a Great Grey Shrike that had set up its own winter territory in the area. As we approached closer to the fields where the Owls hunt, the fog that had been forming as we drove into the higher parts of the Cotswolds had become much thicker and it was clear (hardly!) that this wouldn't be a good afternoon for Owl watching. But we carried on anyway and arrived in visibility of probably around 50 yards at best. Unsurprisingly as we patrolled the narrow roads around the "Owl fields" there wasn't anybody else stupid enough to try looking for them in such conditions! It was hopeless so we stopped in a gateway to change footwear for the drive home. Just as we started up the car for the drive a Barn Owl flew right past us and pounced on an unseen quarry in the long grass. We were now partially hidden from the Barn Owl by a tree between it and us so when it emerged again it mustn't have noticed us since it flew directly towards us only veering off as it passed the tree. It was too close to get the whole bird in the frame!

Too close!
Seen us so turned tail...

...and into the fog

Then to top the day off as we took one last circuit around the fields, a Short-eared Owl graced us by flying across the road ahead of us. A three Owl day plus the bobber jobber!