Wednesday 22 May 2019

A Nightingale sang in Berkshire. Monday 6th May 2019

Actually 4 Nightingales sang heartily away on our visit to a heathland near Newbury on the May Bank Holiday Monday. We'd learned of the site, on a disused Air Field a couple of years ago and have visited each spring for our Nightingale fix since then. Nightingales just have to be heard every spring! Of course my regular reader will know that we have already seen the most special of all songsters this year (see Essex) but we just had to get another session in with them.

It wasn't a particularly nice morning weather wise with a fairly strong breeze and clouds threatening but at least there were a few brief sunny spells to warm us, and the birds, up a bit. Not that the Nightingales were bothered, we could hear one singing immediately on exiting the car. The said singer was reciting its rich and varied song from within a Hawthorn bush just 20 yards away and as soon as we were ready we stationed ourselves close to the bush. This wouldn't be easy though since the Hawthorn was heavy with blossom and all of its leaves were unfurled. After over half an hour of intense scrutiny of the bush, during which time the bird sang almost continuously, I finally found the it! Well I could see a bit of it anyway......

But, as is often the case, patience paid off when the Nightingale broke cover and went on a tour of its territory boundaries. We had good views of it flying low into a bramble thicket and then an equally good but brief look at it hopping on the ground where it was joined by, presumably, a female. The Nightingales last stop was high up in a Silver Birch tree where it sang full on again. Despite this being a much less densely leaved tree it still took me several minutes to locate it. It never ceases to amaze me how Nightingales can conceal themselves so well.

The Nightingale returned to its favourite Hawthorn tree and sang once again from deep cover so we decided to walk out onto the common initially in the hope of finding a Dartford Warbler or Woodlark. We could hear another couple of Nightingales singing from other areas of the common and earmarked looking for one of them on our return. The weather, as is often typical for a Bank Holiday, had closed in somewhat and now threatened rain. This was to my favour though since a flock of Swifts appeared, however much to Mrs Caley's disdain since me trying to photograph Swifts is a constant source of annoyance to her!

The Swifts left so we studied the small patch of bushes and brambles where we had heard another Nightingale singing before. It was still in full voice and initially was even less obliging than the first one. However, patience was our reward once more, when the Nightingale popped up for us and sang briefly in full view.

Completely forgetting about the other previously mentioned targets, we stayed with the Nightingale and tracked it around its territory. This enabled us to pick a spot to sit and wait and after a short wait we were treated to some more views at it sang from within the tangle of a Gorse bush.

It then jumped to a slightly more open bush where it sang much more enthusiastically allowing us even better views. This particular Nightingale after starting out very elusive had now turned out to be a very seeable bird indeed.

We checked in one of the other Nightingales on our walk back to the car but that one was very tricky to see, our views limited to typically obscured ones only. Taking a bit of time to locate a singing Nightingale, along with finding similarly reeling Grasshopper Warblers, is great sport though and a challenge that I never tire of. 

Without wishing my life away I look forward to the Nightingales returning again next Spring already so that I can play the game once more!

Tuesday 21 May 2019

Red-rumped Swallow, Grimsbury Reservoir, 4-11th May 2019

Red-rumped Swallow, Grimsbury Reservoir, 4th May 2019
Having got back to county tick (up to #230 now) the Red-rumped Swallow the evening before, we had decided that if it was refound on the Saturday morning we'd go back to Grimsbury and have a go at getting some better views and photos in the forecast better weather. The positive news that we, and other local birders had wanted, came through as we were doing the weekly provision run so that chore quickly became more like the supermarket sweep! We made it to Banbury by 09:00 and joined familiar faces lined up at the side of the reservoir. The Red-rumped Swallow was showing really well this time feeding low over the water at times just 20-30 yards away. Plus it was a sunny morning so the light was good and I had my chance to get some decent images for posterity. On the minus side it was very breezy and the Swallow, in keeping with its more common relatives moved very swiftly (pun intended) over the water. Staying on it to get photos would be tricky but I relished the challenge!

At first I concentrated on studying the bird, after securing a couple of quick record shots of course, and got myself acquainted with its flight path. It was interesting that, despite having the whole of the reservoir to feed over, the Red-rumped Swallow chose to concentrate almost entirely on the southern-most end by the sailing club and pontoons. Lucky for us that it did because we had such good views in complete contrast to the night before. The Red-rumped Swallow was relatively easy to pick up and follow amongst the multitude of Barn Swallows and House Martins owing to the bright rusty rump and face, brownish wings and a more level and less erratic flight.

Now that I had my eye in I concentrated harder in obtaining some better flight shots, not that there was any other options! As previously mentioned getting decent images wasn't very easy at all owing to the breeze and the bird being very fast but I took plenty anyway. 

We chatted to our fellow Oxon birders present all, most of whom were suffering the same trials and tribulations in trying to capture the Red-rumped Swallow "on film". Occasionally the bird would fly up higher above the reservoir but always returned to feeding close to the waters surface.

A couple of Swifts flew past above the reservoir too and I took a few snaps of them, the most recent addition to the Old Caley year list (#206). I love Swifts and will be trying hard to get some good photos of them in the coming few weeks but for now I was preoccupied by the Red-rumped Swallow.

We all lost the Swallow for a while and thought maybe it had gone but then someone spotted it flying almost along the apron of the reservoir on the opposite side. We scurried around into position but now faced different problems. The sun was now shining directly into our faces and, because the Red-rumped was so close in, the perimeter fence was now in the way! In order to see the bird we had to look through the chain link, no problem in seeing it through the bins, hardly necessary now since it was right in front of us, but that damned fence created serious difficulty in both focussing and tracking it with the camera. I had one of those 15 minutes where I managed to forget a lot of what I know about photography, which isn't much I admit, and took blurry shot after blurry shot! What I should have done was switch to manual focus of course.

The Red-rumped Swallow rose up above the water once more and drifted out over the adjacent cattle field, the day was warming up and flies must have been getting more airborne. Against the sky staying on the bird also presented a different conundrum but I soon coped with the different underside views. From underneath it appeared different from the accompanying Barn Swallows by having an entirely dark under tail. The tail was also a subtly different shape, reminding me of a scarab beetles pincers, and the wings were also rounder and blunter at the tips. The Red-rumped made a swoop towards us and I fired off a whole volley of frames.

More and more birders were arriving as the morning progressed but shortly after at about 10:30 the Swallow along with most of the hirundines just vanished! We waited for another 30 minutes or so and then departed ourselves. The Swallow reappeared later that evening. It then settled into a pattern whereby it would be seen early morning, would disappear during the heat of the day and then return to the reservoir in the late afternoon or early evening. 

I wanted more so we made a 3rd visit to Grimsbury on Wednesday 8th May after work. Another sunny day and since I knew that the Red-rumped Swallow wouldn't be back until the air had cooled a bit we left going until after 19:00. I was hoping that the Swallow would spend some time perched upon the perimeter fence so that I could get a shot of it resting but in the hour or so that we were on site the bird was only seen feeding actively over the adjacent cattle field as it had done so later on Saturday. This meant viewing into strong sunshine which presented its own difficulties and only as the light levels dipped did the Swallow fly over the reservoir allowing a few better shots.

After not being seen on Thursday morning the Red-rumped Swallow reappeared in the evening so I made plans to go in early on Friday and try once again for that "sat on the fence" shot, I was working locally so could nip in for an hour or so. Early Friday morning was foggy which might just produce the promising conditions for the hirundine flock to remain less active. I arrived at work and saw a message, and a fantastic photo, from my friend Kyle that the Swallow was indeed perched on the fence. This was it, I was in and likely to get the photos that I craved. Then, and only then, did I realise that I'd forgotten my camera and it was still sat on the table at home! Bugger!!!

Courtesy of Kyle Smith
After another weekly shopping chore Mrs Caley and I returned again to Grimsbury on Saturday morning but it was once more a lovely and sunny start to the day so I wasn't hopeful of finding the Swallow perched on the wires. I found the bird easily enough flying around in the same general area as when we first saw it over a week ago but despite a few of its more common cousins going to the fence for a rest it didn't join them. The whole hirundine flock departed around 08:30 and the Red-rumped Swallow wasn't seen again. So I never got my perched shot but what a great bird to have in our county! Well done to JFT for finding it on that wet and miserable Friday morning the week before.

Annual visit to a Welsh Oakwood. 3rd May 2019

Every spring Mrs Caley and I head to the Sessile Oak Woods in mid Wales near Llandovery to catch up with some of the special birds that spend the summer there. Last year we had a fantastic day out at the RSPB's reserve at Gwenfrwdd-Dinas enjoying great views of all of the Oak woodland specialists as well as twitching a rare Green Heron in Pembrokeshire as a diversion on the way (written up here Rainbow birds). That trip would take some beating or even some living up to but it's always a journey we look forward to undertaking despite it being over 3 hours driving from our home.

The day was made more complicated too by news coming through as we drove past Abergavenny that a Red-rumped Swallow had been seen at Grimsbury Reservoir at Banbury, a bird I'd only seen once before! We were too far away to turn around and anyway the bird may have gone before we got back so we continued on our way. But the fact that Banbury was hosting a fine bird and we couldn't get to see it unless it stayed just conspired to put me on edge all day! I remember when in Scotland once that as we'd been driving towards Handa for a day out on the island that a Bee-eater had been seen in Tarbert where the small ferry leaves from. While waiting for the boat we'd looked for the Bee-eater with no success so had boarded and travelled to Handa as planned. As soon as we'd set foot on the island news came through that the Bee-eater was still there which then made, what should have been a pleasant day viewing the seabirds of Handa, one fraught with anxiety instead since I wanted to see the Bee-eater. But all ended well when just moments after stepping off the boat after returning to the mainland I spotted the Bee-eater hawking for insects over a gorse covered slope. Hopefully the Red-rumped Swallow would stay long enough for us to catch up with it the following day.

Bee-eater, Nottinghamshire July 2017
We weren't blessed with last years fine and sunny weather and as we parked the car it looked more like rain showers with the sky that sombre grey colour that makes you wonder what will come next. We had driven through quite a bit of drizzle on the way but figured that at least we'd be under the cover of the trees if it did rain and if it did then, well we were in Wales after all. The major problem from my point of view with gloomy weather is that conditions for photography are difficult particularly when under the trees where it can be quite dark. Nevertheless we were both eagerly anticipating seeing those special birds once again and set off along the boardwalk.

A Garden Warbler sang heartily from almost the same tree that we'd seen one last year but was tricky to locate in the foliage. It was very noticeable just how much more leafy the trees were this year compared to last year when there was a late spring owing to the effects of the "Beast from the East" which set everything back several weeks. The extra leaf cover led us to think that maybe we should have visited the week before but then we remembered that Storm Hannah had battered this part of the world then. Anyhow I did mange to pinpoint the singing Garden Warbler and took my first shots of the day.

Garden warbler
One of the best things about Gwenfrwdd-Dinas is that you only have to walk a short distance and you are into Pied Flycatcher territory and sure enough I soon saw a male flying between the trees. The Flycatchers make full use of boxes provided to nest in, these woods contain over 250 nest boxes and almost as many pairs of Pied Flycatchers!

Pied Flycatcher (male)
The Pied Flycatchers next box was adjacent to a tree that also had other nesting birds. Surprisingly pairs of Great Spotted Woodpeckers and Nuthatches were both using tree holes no more than 3 feet apart in the same tree, so close that they were likely sharing the same cavity in the tree trunk! I thought, knowing how omnivorous that Great Spots can be, that the neighbouring families may be in for a torrid time a few weeks later but for now they all seemed to be getting on amicably enough.

Great Spotted Woodpecker (male)
We watched the male Flycatcher (#202 on the year list) for a while and noticed the more demure female drop down from the upper branches to settle on a twig next to the entrance hole of her chosen next box. She was holding a few strands of nesting material in her bill ready to add to her chosen home. After waiting a few moments to make sure all was well, she entered the nest box, exiting just a minute or so later when she once again perched on the same twig and made sure the coast was clear before continuing on her search for further additions to her home decor.

Pied Flycatcher (female)
A beautiful SongThrush hopped up onto a log during one of the few brief interludes of sunshine and casually surveyed its surroundings. Song Thrushes share these woods with their bigger cousins the Mistle Thrush.

Song Thrush
I noticed a brightly coloured smaller bird whirr past. Fortunately it stopped on a small bough revealing itself to be a gaudily attired male Common Redstart, one of many that we'd see in the woods. Birders often suggest that the UK's native avifauna is dull when compared to that of other countries, but in my opinion the male Common Redstart takes some beating by any other richly plumaged birds. They are very dapper little chaps!

Common Redstart (male)
After spending some time watching the Flycatchers, Nuthatches and Woodpeckers going about their various nest building businesses and seeing other birds such as Blackcaps, Willow Warblers and Chiffchaffs we moved on deeper into the woods intending to reach the river at the southern end of the reserve where because of the steep bank you can get eye to eye with Wood Warblers. But as we reached the end of the boardwalk we could already hear at least 2 Wood Warblers (#203), their trilling song audible at some distance. These beautiful little birds, decked out in beautiful yellows and olive greens can be tricky to locate in the similarly coloured leaves but after a bit of effort I managed to find the nearest of the birds. A bit of neck craning was required to get good views.

Wood Warbler
News came through that the Red-rumped Swallow had departed Banbury so I no longer had to worry about that although I still rued my luck in choosing to be in Wales on the same day it turned up. Oh well, there'd be another one to see somewhere one day. The woodland floor was covered in a carpet of Bluebells, something we hadn't seen last year since they too would have been affected by the late spring. I tried to capture the essence of the flowers in the woodland setting but with only a 400mm lens to use I could only take close ups of course. It took a while but I remembered that my phone has a camera too so I took a few wider angle views with that. Not professional standard by any means but, as they say, you get the picture.

 A few of the natives immersed themselves in the glory but also helped themselves to a healthy snack!

A sudden movement on the path just ahead alerted us to a tiny Wood Mouse which on detecting us scuttled away into the longer grass at the path edge. We stood still and the Mouse reappeared and settled almost at our feet where it fed on small seeds. It remained there totally unnerved by our continued presence until we left it be and carried on our way towards the river.

Wood Mouse
In the event we out of luck at the river ravine since there were no Wood Warblers there this time. We did gain consolation in another showy male Common Redstart that was claiming territory close to the bench where we rested to take our lunch. A male Pied Flycatcher was also in this area and frequently flew into a nest box just down the slope.

We walked back and saw our first Tree Pipit of the year (#204) but it was high in the canopy and soon disappeared into the foliage. Many Wood Warblers could be heard singing high up on the slopes and we encountered more Pied Flycatchers and Common Redstarts. On reaching the boardwalk again the same Wood Warbler as before was still singing away and this time offered up better views.

Mrs Caley spotted a Dipper fly past down at the river, I missed it since I was too occupied with trying to photograph the Wood Warbler. Buzzards and Ravens both soared above the crag on the opposite hillside and Cuckoos called away high up on the moor. Leaving the Wood Warbler behind we came upon a male Pied Flycatcher which had luckily landed on a branch right beside the boardwalk.

We were back at the carpark, our fill of the Welsh woods over for another year but before leaving we finished off our picnic next to the bird table and had close up views of the areas more common species. Great Tits, Chaffinches and best of all Nuthatches all came for a picnic of their own feasting on seeds left by earlier visiting birders and photographers.

Chaffinch (male)
Great Tit
We broke off on the long journey home for a coffee stop at Raglan. The phone related that the Red-rumped Swallow had reappeared at Banbury! The cars SatNav informed that it would take 2 hours to get there, we'd make it around 19:00. We were on our way!

As we traversed across the Cotswold the clouds ahead of us got denser and darker and much to my annoyance the rain started falling around Stow-on-the-Wold and was really heavy by the time we had reached Chipping Norton. Thankfully it had abated by the time we'd parked up at Grimsbury Reservoir. We walked as quickly as Mrs Caley could and joined the half dozen or so of our fellow Oxfordshire birders who were assembled at the north western corner but none were staring at the reservoir. My friend Kyle told us that the bird was "out there somewhere" but did manage to give us its approximate whereabouts. I found the Red-rumped Swallow flying quickly along the surface of the water easily enough but tracking it in the failing light wasn't easy. Fortunately the fast flying hirundine kept within a fairly restricted area so I was able to keep tabs on it but the big challenge now was to get Mrs Caley onto it. I set up the scope pointing at a lifebelt on the opposite shore and told her to watch that point. I then gave a running commentary of the Swallows movements and luckily the Red-rumped flew past that point so Mrs Caley had the bird too. Conditions were poor but I managed, by aiming randomly towards the lifebelt, to capture a couple of record shots. The Red-rumped Swallow was only the second that I've seen after a bird at Daventry Reservoir over 15 years ago. Hopefully it would remain overnight and still be present in the morning when the weather forecast was much improved. 

Red-rumped Swallow, record shot