Thursday 31 December 2020

The 2020 Old Caley Year in review.

Everybody else is doing it so why shouldn't I?

As we all know now, 2020 has been a difficult year. I have three main hobbies and interests. Football, and one team in particular where I've held a season ticket for 38 years, was decimated by the Virus outbreak. The last match I attended was at the start of March and not being able to get my regular release and prevented from meeting up with longstanding friends at the games has been tough. I also love music and although nothing has stopped me from listening to it, live music has been curtailed as well so I've not seen a single band live since March either. The one constant in my life, other than my admirable wife, has been my birdwatching which nothing can stop. I've never been so glad to be a birder and, despite Lockdowns and Tiers, birds will always be there to lift the spirits whether its a humble garden bird or a rarity.

Those of you who know me or those of you that read this blog, whether regularly or just now and again, will know that I struggle to keep any account short so this may ramble on a bit. Top 3's extend to Top 5's and then 10's. There will always be exclusions and glaring omissions when compiling lists and I bet when I read this back I'll remember a few that I should have included.

My thanks to all of my birding friends for putting up with me whenever we've met this year and for their help on ID's, site details and other birdy stuff. Big thanks to anybody who reads Old Caley's Diary and those that just look at the photos. Biggest thanks have to go to Mrs Caley, my almost constant birding companion, who puts up with a heck of a lot!

The Old Caley Year List

Mrs Caley and I acquired the year listing bug a while ago now but have really stepped up our efforts in the last couple of years. Creating a year list makes every bird species seen important and adding a Lesser Redpoll on Otmoor in November is as exciting as twitching a Desert Wheatear in Norfolk at the start of January. They both count the same on a year list. In 2019 we tried hard to reach the "big year" total but ultimately fell just short and ended on 289. I think without the Coronavirus outbreak then we may have reached the magic 300 this year but with holidays and many twitching days denied to us we've finished with a respectable 242 (see the full list here). Of those 10 were life ticks (Asian Desert Warbler, Black-bellied Dipper, Caspian Tern, Citrine Wagtail, Collared Pratincole, Desert Wheatear, Lammergeier, Laughing Gull, Radde's Warbler and Rufous-tailed Scrub Robin) nudging that list closer to the 400 number that is considered a decent total. Surprisingly there was only 1 county tick (Hoopoe). I'm planning a New Year's Day sweep already.

The Old Caley Awards (click on the bird names to be directed to the relevant blog post).

Old Caley's Bird of the Year

The bird of the year, whether the purists accept it as being genuinely wild or not just has to be the Lammergeier that spent a couple of months in the Peak District. We travelled three times to see that bird and in the end got the views we desired.

Old Caley's County Bird of the Year

Again the purists won't accept my favourite bird seen in Oxfordshire because the Great Bustard seen near Wantage had originated from the Salisbury Plain reintroduction scheme. It is a stunning bird though. The female Red-footed Falcon discovered on the East-West Railway workings near Piddington ran it a close second and would have won if it had been more accessible.

Best Personal Finds of the Year

I found a Citrine Wagtail at Slimbridge. However I didn't realise what I'd found until after somebody else had posted news of it out. But I was the first to see it so I found it! It's mine. I also found a Long-eared Owl but managed to cock that one up! Locally my best find was a Jack Snipe during lockdown.


The best twitch, and the longest, has to be the 600 mile round trip to Holy Island in Northumberland on my birthday to see the Asian Desert Warbler which included a stunning Rose-coloured Starling as support. Knackering but what a proper twitch is all about.

The jammiest twitch would be lucking in on the Rufous-tailed Scrub Robin. We were in Norfolk on the way to see a Red-flanked Bluetail (which we did see later in the day) when the news broke!

The worst twitch was going to see the Wilson's Phalarope in Hampshire. Superb bird that showed brilliantly but the antics of the Twitcherazzi totally spoiled the moment. In any case the Wilson's was upstaged by a couple of Grey Phalaropes.

The most grateful twitch was just a few days ago when we grabbed the chance to add our final bird for the year, and one of our favourites, in the shape of a Yellow-browed Warbler. I haven't blogged that one yet. I'm still hopeful though that a Capercaillie will walk across my lawn on New Year's Eve. Mind you I have been drinking Whisky.

The biggest dip was one of the most painful days out in my birding life. Missing a Ross's Gull by mere minutes after driving for four hours. If only I'd walked more quickly. Still there'll be another one day. Obviously I don't have a photo of that one!

Birding Moments

The most thrilling was when the Lammergeier soared closely past us. A truly spectacular and wow moment which was absolutely awesome!

The dodgiest moment was getting to see the Red-footed Falcon. You ain't seen me, right.

The worst was being told that the Ross's Gull had flown off just a minute ago. Ah, bugger!

Personal Photo Selection

It's impossible to pick just a few favourite photos, indeed it's difficult to remember all of the photos I've taken but here's my attempt at picking a top ten and I've left out photos that are included above. As you'll see it's actually an Old Caley dozen. Told you I can't stop once I get going!

1) Common Swift; first time out with my new camera and lens at Farmoor. My best ever capture of one of the hardest birds to photograph. Must have been first time lucky!

2) Sanderling; visiting Farmoor and Otmoor kept us sane during the lockdown. This small group of Sanderling was some of several that passed through in May. They were disturbed by a jogger but luckily flew right past me.

3) Waxwing; one of only two Birdguides NP's that I received this year, for this Waxwing bathed in white berries. Even though I considered my photos to be an improvement on my previous years efforts my success rate plummeted!

4) Alaskan Yellow Wagtail; this was actually taken on the 29th December 2019 in Norfolk but was processed too late to make last years review, which wasn't published anyway. This photo also gained a BG NP.

5) Grey Phalarope; taken at the Wilson's Phalarope twitch where the poor behaviour of many photographers had us seeking solitude with its less rare cousins. I have lots of photos of Grey Phalaropes but really liked the colours of the water on this one.

6) Bearded Tit; we were actually hopeful of twitching a Spotted Crake at Westhay Moor in Somerset and ran into a small flock of Beardies by chance. I secured my best set ever of the little beauties.

7) Grasshopper Warbler; one of the birds that I just have to see every year to stay happy. I feared I would miss out because of the spring lockdown but then found one at Otmoor closely followed by a pair feeding young along the Thames at Farmoor.

8) Wood Sandpiper; at Slimbridge, it was the presence of this Wood Sandpiper that clouded my judgement over the Citrine Wagtail. I was so immersed in watching and photographing the Wood Sandpiper that I forgot all about the "funny" wagtail!

9) Rose-coloured Starling; a welcome diversion on the way to twitch the Asian Desert Warbler. An adult Rosy is a thing of gaudy beauty.

10) Purple Sandpiper; taken after a camera disaster while twitching a Radde's warbler at Southwold in Suffolk. It was pouring with rain but this lone Purple Sandpiper still took a rock bath and then preened and cleaned as we watched on. One of my favourite wading birds.

11) Slavonian Grebe; seen on New Year's Day at Farmoor, this winter plumaged bird was part of a concerted effort at a big year which was dashed by the Virus outbreak. Sadly we didn't get to see the species in summer dress this year.

12) Gannet; the only seabird to make the cut. We missed out on holidays so didn't get to Scotland or Cornwall in 2020 so the only place we went where there are seabirds was Bempton Cliffs. A day too late for the Black-browed Albatross but the Gannets proved worthy substitute entertainment.

13) Blyth's Reed Warbler; my only BG Photo of the Week was for an image of a Blyth's Reed warbler taken in Aberdeenshire in June 2019. Usually a skulking species this remarkable bird pitched up at Far Ings NR on the banks of the River Humber and proceeded to regale thousands during its stay.

14) Dunlin; we see lots of Dunlin at Farmoor but it's so much nicer to see them scuttling along a sandy beach. We watched a flock of them, in tandem with some Sanderling, at Dawlish Warren in Devon after twitching a Melodious Warbler.

I could have included so many more, for example the Red Kites that I take for granted but which kept me entertained while locked down in the garden, or the diminutive Goldcrest that brightened up a local walk. Maybe they'll make next years selection.

HAPPY NEW YEAR to all of you who have taken the time to read my blog. I'll still be blogging in 2021 and my resolution is to get them out more quickly so that they are more topical.

Tuesday 29 December 2020

When a Great Bustard met an Old Bustard! 10th & 12th December 2020

Old Bustard was once tabled as a possible moniker for my alter ego but after consultation with my wife, who definitely didn't want be to be married to an Old Bustard (may be too late there Dear), the first choice of Old Caley, because of its links to the wonderful Capercaillie, was rightfully and thankfully chosen. Mind you I've never heard people mutter behind my back, 'there's that miserable Old Caley'!

A Great Bustard had been located close to the village of Letcombe Regis near Wantage by one of South Oxon's finest birders a few days before. Luckily I was working just five miles away so during the week I'd have a chance to go and see it. Monday I was too busy and Tuesday had thick fog all day at my work site. So I assumed, wrongly as it turned out, that five miles away it would be foggy too. I was a right grumpy Old Bustard when I saw the photos, taken that afternoon, by some of my fellow Oxon birders in glorious sunshine. I was less busy on Wednesday so nipped out to see the bird on my lunchtime, except that it had somehow managed to disappear, and despite scouring the immediate area I couldn't find it (it had relocated to another field a mile away). The bird reappeared in the original field on the Thursday so, after an early end to my working day, I returned in the drizzling rain and finally secured my first Great Bustard seen in Oxfordshire, not that it can go onto any official lists since it has come from the reintroduction scheme on Salisbury Plain but, for my Old Caley year list it definitely counts as the 240th species seen in 2020. The Bustard was distant across the field and did very little while I stood chatting to a couple of newly acquainted local birders (well met Alan and Mark). I took a few photos to show Mrs Caley, who on seeing them forgot my name and called me by the alternative.

Luckily the Great Bustard was extremely settled in the Beet field so on a cheerfully sunny Saturday morning I took Mrs Caley with me for another look. As we walked the short way along the path, I couldn't see the Bustard at all and began to get a bit twitchy. I didn't see it because instead of it being at the far end of the field as I expected, it was strutting around just forty metres away! Despite being nearly three feet tall the Great Bustard, a juvenile male, could be surprisingly difficult to pick up against the similar colours of the field. Our friend, The Early Birder, was already there and we joined him, keeping the necessary distance, for a chat. Mark is an excellent photographer but initially showed incredible restraint with his camera, reasoning that the Bustard wasn't close enough to warrant taking any photos yet, as I instantly began fired off frame after frame. He did, however, soon joined in on capturing the action when the Bustard amazingly walked calmly up to just ten metres or so away. 

I took almost four hundred photos of the Great Bustard in a little over an hour and a half. Usually at least three-quarters of my efforts would be consigned to the bin but on this occasion almost every frame was worth keeping, testament to just how well the bird had performed to its small audience. It's a shame that some people poured scorn on the Great Bustard owing to its credentials. At the end of the day, it's a beautiful and unusual creature, and was well worth seeing. I'd put it up there with the Hoopoe and Red-footed Falcon as one of the birds of the year that I've seen in Oxfordshire. The Great Bustard was also as close as I'd get to seeing (the superficially similar looking) Capercaillie in 2020.

There isn't too much to say about this "twitch" so, thankfully for once (I hear you say), I'll just let some of my photos do the talking.

I had taken, probably, my best set of images for a long time and despite my recent frustrations with Birdguides, submitted some to their galleries thinking that I might gain a Notable Photo (NP) award for a change. I received many favourable comments for the photos but once again got passed over by the Photo Of The Week (POTW) judge. That snub was compounded further when a photo of the Great Bustard by somebody else was chosen as a NP that week and then the pain was intensified when a superb photo by my friend Clive (who couldn't believe that my own photos got no accolade) was deservedly chosen as the POTW the following week. In true miserable Old Bustard fashion that's me and Birdguides finished. It's often said that you have to be 'in it to win it', but I'm wondering just exactly "what you have to be in" because I'm clearly not. Of course I may just be a big-headed Old Bustard and in reality my photos are just not Bustard good enough!