Saturday 25 January 2020

A Weekend Saved by Otmoor, 18-19th January 2020

In keeping with a lot of birders I struggle with identifying Gulls. True I can distinguish most in adult plumage but the myriad of progressive states, juvenile, first-winter, second-winter, sub-adult, near adult etc etc is a minefield for the inexperienced and I find it all a bit overwhelming. You need to spend a long time with Gulls and study each and every bird with a fine tooth comb to differentiate between some of them and my attention span doesn't stretch that far. A good friend and very experienced birder said to me the other day that Gulls should be classified into just three types, namely small Gulls, medium Gulls and large Gulls. Whereas I wouldn't personally compress them that to that extent, I get exactly what he meant! Then there are the experts, the Larophiles, as they like to be known, who have learnt, or are attempting to learn, just about every discernible plumage and structural feature of all Gulls and talk about things such as P5-10 and gonys angles and other intricate details. Despite being almost hopeless at differentiating between certain members of the Gull family, I like the family group, finding them both graceful and boisterous at the same time and they have loads of character which always makes watching them interesting. 

The Glaucous Gull is a bird that I've still only seen once, a juvenile bird that was easy to connect with at Pitlochry a couple of years ago. Rare Gulls, such as the Glaucous, are very hard to come by in Oxfordshire and its surrounds and the only way to see them is usually to visit a reservoir or large lake just before dark when Gulls go to roost. Gull roosts attract the Larophiles but not me. During the daylight hours Gulls disperse to feed at salubrious outlets like rubbish dumps, where access is usually denied to the public, and are more difficult to find. So when a Glaucous Gull, and also an Iceland Gull had been found at a major waste and recycling plant just north of Rugby, where roadside viewing of an adjacent quarry where Gulls congregate is possible, I just had to give it a go at seeing them. We tried and failed at the start of the year but armed with more information I cajoled Mrs Caley, she doesn't do Gulls, into making a return visit to Shawell on Saturday morning. 

Glaucous Gull, juvenile, Pitlochry, February 2018
Viewing the sand pit at Shawell where the Gulls assemble en masse to rest and bathe before and after feeding at the rubbish disposal site next door is possible from a roadside pull in but  parking is tricky since the road is busy with bin lorries and dumpsters that thunder past frequently. On the 2nd January we were the only folk interested in the gathering of Gulls, although we contrived to look from the wrong place, and now two weeks later the small gateway, and correct viewpoint, was occupied so we had to find a parking spot in a disused entrance road of an industrial unit a short way down the road. There were five other birders present which I thought would be a good thing since, as I've said, I'm not that good at identifying Gulls so would welcome some help. I stated this fact to the, very obviously, local expert who was informing the other birders of what species were out there. The sand pit contains a shallow pool and a few islands and Gulls were everywhere either stood on the dry ground or swimming on the water. There were also more birds on the edge of the pit nearer to the rubbish dump. In all we could probably see at least two thousand different Gulls so finding anything different to the multitudes of commoner species wouldn't be easy. I inquired whether the Glaucous was present and unfortunately was informed that it had been but had flown off to the dump about half an hour before we arrived. The expert Guller then added, probably because he noticed my disappointment, that we shouldn't worry since it would most likely return within an hour or so once it had finished feeding. I tried to engage the other chaps but sadly they were far from approachable and did their best to ignore us which was a shame. Much like when seawatching we were a little out of our depth here but I did my best to look through the Gulls on offer. I noted all of the common species, Herring, Lesser and Great Black-backed, Common and Black-headed but couldn't find anything else and certainly not the Glaucous or Iceland. The whole throng of Gulls were motivated to take to the air when a Red Kite passed overhead and then settled again in a different order so that they all had to be sifted through again. I realised, not for the first time, that in order to watch a gathering of Gulls properly you need to spend a lot longer than the couple of hours that we intended to stay. The whole spectacle was a moveable feast in much the same manner as watching Waders is but much more difficult to apprise because of the similarities between most of the Gull species and the fact that they all intermingle rather than stay in separate species groups.

Listening to the chap who was talking away to a couple of the others, it was very clear that he knew his Gulls extremely well indeed and I continued hoping that he'd be able to point out a few to us. Disappointingly though he wasn't that forthcoming and for the most part we had to plough along unaided which was never going to be fruitful. We spent quite a few hours towards the end of last year trying to find a Caspian Gull for our 2019 year list without success so when I overheard a Caspian being described I just had to ask "where?". For the one and only time I was allowed to look through the expert's scope to view the plainly white-headed Gull with a black eye and long bill which was afloat on the water. No doubt that it was a Caspian and a terrific addition to this years list. Strange then that I felt both a tinge of unhappiness that I was looking at one now and not last year and also a distinct lack of excitement. If I'd seen it last year then I'd have been dancing through hoops! I searched for the bird with my own scope, managed to find it and shared the view with Mrs Caley. I reached for my camera to gain a record shot just as the whole gang of birds took to the air again and swirled around. The Caspian is probably in the photo below but I wouldn't bet on it, good luck and well done if you can pick it out.

A small portion of the Gull flock.
Another Caspian Gull, a first-winter, was called but I couldn't find it independently and one of the other birders said there was another but nobody else, including the resident expert, could get on it and it predictably couldn't be found again once the original finder was grilled at length as to where it was. A Yellow-legged Gull put in an appearance but we get lots of those at Farmoor so I couldn't be bothered to try to find that one. It was all just too hard for Mrs Caley and I, we couldn't get to grips with the ever changing flocks and the Larophile was just too introverted. Not that I blame him, after all he was following his own passion on a Saturday morning and understandably couldn't be arsed to fuss over a dimwit and ignoramus like me. We had stayed for over an hour and half and the Glaucous Gull hadn't returned so we chucked it in. Of course, we later learned that both the Glaucous and Iceland Gulls were back at the sand pit a few hours after we left.

A Great Grey Shrike had taken up territory just a few miles away at DIRFT industrial area and had showed very well over the previous few weeks. In fact we had meant to look for it on the 2nd but had completely forgot at the time and had only remembered too late after we driven past. Frustratingly the Shrike hadn't been reported on Friday and I figured that it most probably had departed since there was usually someone looking for it. I knew where it would be, if still present, after gaining information from my friend Kyle (Birdwatch Britannia) and I reckoned that the area would be visible at distance from the lay-by along the main road that passes the development. I set up the scope and panned around the rough ground but only found Magpies perched prominently. I spotted a birder walking back alone the track towards me so waited for him at the lay-by. He had scoured the whole area for a couple of hours and hadn't found the Shrike so we agreed that it had indeed left the area. At least it saved us a walk.

We had made plans to drive elsewhere, maybe for the Gloucestershire Short-eared Owls but after a few moments of reflection thought we'd leave it for another day and decided instead to go home and relax. It had been a bit of a frustrating day, continuing on a worrying trend this year, which so far hasn't been very profitable at all, Desert Wheatear excepted.

Sunday morning promised to be a beautiful wall to wall sunny one so we got out early and headed to Otmoor which is always a fabulous place to be when the sun shines. We aimed to be parked up before it got light so we could get to the action areas just as the sun rose over the reserve. Unfortunately I had forgotten that our usual route was subject to a road closure so we had to take a big detour via the Oxford ring road and arrived twenty minutes after we had hoped to. The sun was already peeping over the horizon to the East. There was only one other vehicle in the carpark though and that belonged to our good friend and eminent photographer Mark, aka The Early Birder, so at least we knew it wasn't too late. I was hopeful of seeing one of the resident Barn Owls that generally only appear early and late over the reedbed so we kept pleasantries brief and headed out along the frozen bridleway. The reserve was sparking into life and there was lots of noise from the flocks of Geese and Ducks but we didn't linger anywhere and kept to our mission. Another birder, walking much quicker than us, overtook us so we wouldn't have the place to ourselves. When we reached the first screen that overlooks the lagoon and reedbeds , he was already ensconced on one of the benches. "You've just missed a Barn Owl" he said and then proceeded to share a couple of photos that he'd taken. You can imagine my response then, although in keeping with my New Years resolution, it was muttered under my breath. We were happier a few moments later when the Barn owl reappeared along the hedgerow at the far end of the reedbed and was then on view for fifteen minutes or so. It's always pleasing when a plan comes off. Everybody loves a Barnie, even grumpy old me. The Owl was never very close so my photos were hardly showstoppers but enjoying its slow and languid but direct flight, in what was now the promised bright sunny morning, was just perfect.

Barn owl
By 9 o'clock the Barn Owl had gone to roost and Otmoor was getting busier so Mrs Caley and I walked to the second screen for some solitude. We passed a Kestrel, perched in one of the Poplar trees, which appeared to be enjoying the sunshine as much as we were despite the freezing temperature. There was no sign of any Peregrines along the way but a Marsh Harrier flew lazily overhead. At the screen a male Stonechat was stood on the fence right in front of the hide. This bird had been wowing visitors for a few days now and was catching water insects in the frigid water below its perch. The sun hadn't quite penetrated to the screen so for now my camera remained in its holster. Over the years I have taken probably more photos of Stonechats than any other species so I do try to reign it in a bit when I see them. The Early Birder and a couple of other members of the Otmoor massif including Bark, the authority on all things Otmoor joined us the screen. A fair bit of banter followed as we discussed recent sightings and hopes for the next few weeks. Unfortunately a guy I don't know but have encountered a few times, then proceeded to really wind me up when he kept invading Mrs Caley's space to take shots of the Stonechat. I had to consult my New Year resolution book once more and remind myself to remain calm. It's hard work sometimes being nice when you're annoyed.

Anyway, because I had moved up to the other end of the screen, I missed a fabulous Cetti's warbler that showed brilliantly in the reeds next to the screen, the rest of them managed to get cracking photos of course. By the time I'd reacted it had flown past me as did a Water Rail minutes later. So I half satisfied myself by grabbing some images of the really difficult Stonechat that was playing incredibly hard to get just a few feet away. Tough old game this photography lark.

Stonechat, male
We left our friends to the Stonechat and walked back along the track. I looked at the dead tree at the back of Noke Sides that Peregrines like to perch in and was pleased to see two of the Falcons there. The smaller male bird was looking on as the female was dispatching an unfortunate prey item. Half a dozen Magpies were also interested in the females brunch and managed to annoy her just enough for her to fly into an adjacent tree just as I pressed the shutter on my camera leaving me with a nice image of the dead tree! At least the tiercel stayed put.

Peregrine, male
I scanned a flock of Lapwings and Golden Plovers that stood on the flooded field, which were no doubt casting nervous looks towards the Peregrine tree, and was surprised to find a Common Redshank there with them. Bark had rejoined us and he reckoned that it's very early in the year for a Redshank to be on the moor. By spring Redshanks will be returning in greater numbers to breed.

Common Redshank (centre) with Lapwings and Golden Plovers
Lapwings and Golden Plovers
At the first screen two Marsh Harriers, the young male and a young female, were quartering the reedbed and even came together for, what appeared to be, some pre-nuptials, grappling briefly and then following each other in turn. Far too early in the year for breeding of course but it looks likely that there will be more Marsh Harriers come the late summer.

Marsh Harriers
We hadn't actually been in the Wetlands Watch hide for ages so thought that it should be visited for a change. The Otmoor volunteers spread food on the track outside of the hide in the winter and it attracts many Finches and Buntings as well as other birds. These birds in turn attract Sparrowhawks. On this visit we only saw common species but in previous years we've found Brambling and Redpoll taking advantage of the free handouts. Hopefully some will turn up later in the winter period.

Chaffinch, female
Reed Bunting, female
Thank goodness that we're not year listing because our paltry total of #88 so far would leave me feeling very frustrated indeed. Having said that by the same date last year we had only recorded #82 and we'd already visited Slimbridge WWT where you can always add a few so if we did go for it again, which we won't, then we've made a comparable start.

Thursday 16 January 2020

The First (Norfolk) Twitch of the Year, 3rd January 2020

We started the new decade off with some relaxed birding on New Year's Day at our two best known local sites, the morning being spent at Otmoor and then the afternoon at Farmoor. After deciding that we would give year listing a miss in 2020 our opening day list still amounted to 66 birds seen, which interestingly beat our first day total of 2019 by over 20! The best birds were the apparently wintering Slavonian grebe and Greater Scaups at Farmoor while conversely on Otmoor neither of the ringtail Hen Harriers, the Peregrine or Bitterns put in an appearance. It was a grey old day to start the year so I hardly took a photo!

The next day in an effort to secure a couple of Gull species that had eluded us the previous year we drove the hour or so to the Rugby area and to Shawell refuse tip to be precise. A juvenile Glaucous Gull plus a few Caspian Gulls had been reported there over the past few weeks but first I had to find a spot to view the tip. When I did find a suitable viewing position, around half a mile from the active part of the dump, the number of Gulls on offer was overwhelming since there were thousand's! I tried hard for half an hour to pick out the Glaucous Gull with no success, admittedly I was well out of my depth because I am far from being a Gull expert, so I agreed with Mrs Caley that we'd be better off elsewhere. Draycote Water is just a few miles away so we headed there, knowing that a juvenile Great Northern Diver had been seen frequently at the end of last year and had been reported already that morning. We added Great Northern Diver to our year list quickly last year with a fabulous bird on the River Thames near Pangbourne and almost the first bird we spotted at Draycote, surprisingly our first ever visit to the reservoir, was the Diver. After quickly getting Mrs Caley on to the bird, the Diver then astonishingly, as if by magic, just disappeared. We couldn't find it despite seeing it at fairly close quarters as we arrived. Divers of all species can stay submerged for a long time and are incredibly powerful swimmers while under water so I guess that that it had managed to swim so far from its original position that we just failed to look in the right place when it resurfaced. We took a walk along the Farborough bank and noted some nice Goldeneyes amongst other more common Ducks. 

Goldeneye male (left) & Tufted Duck males
Right at the far end of the reservoir we found the group of three Greater Scaups, which were all dozing with heads tucked into their back feathers. It took what seemed like ages before a Black-headed Gull managed to rouse the first winter female Scaup and even longer before the two first-winter males abandoned their own slumbers. 

Greater Scaup, 1st-winter female (centre) & 2 1st-winter males
We made for the visitor centre expectant of a nice warming cup of coffee but the cafe was so busy with hordes of noisy and unruly children running amok that I soon gave it up and returned to the chilly reservoir to look for the Great Northern Diver again which we found easily this time but now it was much further out than before. As if to appease us, the Diver at that moment decided to have a stretch of its wings and perform some "aqua ballet" which at least enabled me to get a few nice record shots.

Great Northern Diver
A trip to "twitch" a Great Grey Shrike was suggested but there are others of those around to consider and they'll stay well into the year so instead we drove to the outskirts of Nuneaton to see a drake Ferruginous Duck which was supposedly showing well right by the roadside dam. Seeswood Pool was where we saw a Night Heron a few years ago, a bird that took me nearly two hours to locate, secreted as it was in a tree right at the far end of the pool. I found the Fudge Duck much more quickly but it was also right at the far end and not right in front of our noses as I'd hoped. In the first two days, without trying too hard, we had seen 70 species. Last year it took us until the 22nd of January to get to that number. But I am definitely not year listing, just making a note of what we see.

With just a few days left before I had to return to work, we planned a trip out for the Friday. A long desired addition to our life list, a Desert Wheatear, had been discovered next to the sea in North-east Norfolk on New Year's Day. It had stayed put the next day too so we decided that the long drive to see it just had to be done. When we arrived at the car park the weather was far from pleasant with a fine drizzle being blown in from the sea by a fairly brisk breeze. The bird was supposedly to be seen feeding on the concrete sea defences that had been constructed to save the dune system and the settlement of Eccles-on-sea from the ravages of the North Sea which was rapidly eroding parts of the unprotected coastline a few miles to the North at Happisburgh. A returning birder told us that the Wheatear had been showing well so at least we knew that we'd soon be seeing it which made the walk to where it should be a little less uncomfortable since the rain had gotten heavier since we started out and the wind had increased in ferocity too. When we reached the end of the sea wall there was no sign of any other birders, we were alone on this one, and no sign of the bird either. Not that we could see very far in the unrelenting horrible conditions. The weather had been forecast to be fair by ten o'clock so the meteorologists had clearly been drinking too much sherry over the Christmas break. The weather had deteriorated and not improved. We half-heartedly looked for the Desert Wheatear, certain that it would still be around but also equally sure that it was probably sheltering from the distinctly un-desert like weather. We took shelter behind a set of steps that led up and over the sea wall and were joined firstly by a sole Turnstone, which was totally disinterested in us and sauntered past at a distance of just a few feet, and then by another desperate chap who had, obviously, come for the Wheatear. When the rain eased slightly I peered up at the sea wall and there, thankfully, about fifty metres away was the Desert Wheatear feeding very inconspicuously amongst the weedy grasses that have managed to grow up in the cracks between the sea walls concrete panels. I hadn't bothered to get my camera out to photograph the Turnstone but I had to gain at least a record shot of the Wheatear. 

Desert Wheatear
As previously stated, I've long awaited to see a Desert Wheatear, but now as we stood in the murk getting ever more drenched, this particular twitch seemed like a bit of an anticlimax and far from fun. The bird was as bedraggled as we were and that fabulous sandy and black plumage didn't appear as striking as I expected. The bird looked very disconsolate as it pecked away at the base of the tussocks and stood still for a few minutes at a time before darting off to the next grassy clump. It was tricky to observe at first, obscured as it was by the grass, but it was slowly approaching us and our views improved with every dart forward that the bird made.

We were joined by Britains best known twitcher and a few others and thankfully the rain abated a little allowing me to worry less about my camera getting damp. The Desert Wheatear was now just twenty or so metres away and still approaching our position at the top of the steps. After the inclement weather so far, the improved light meant that I was now able to add some reasonable images of the latest addition to my life list. For some reason I have never totalled up my UK life list but have an idea that it isn't particularly impressive when compared with more hardened birders and with those who visit Shetland or Scilly on a regular basis. I certainly won't yet have achieved the landmark of 400 species but must be getting closer to that significant number. The top UK lister has 605 on his life list which I find incredible. One of Oxon's finest is nearly at 550! There isn't enough time left, or funds, in my own life to get anywhere near those numbers.

The Desert Wheatear suddenly took flight and disappeared over the sea wall and inland presumably to spend some time sheltering in the adjacent and private caravan park. It was gone for around twenty minutes before being found again a little further down the sea wall. The sea wall is punctuated by a series of steps which give access to the houses behind and we now strode off to the next set to get more views of the Wheatear. 

The Sea Wall and Steps. The Desert Wheatear fed along the top of the wall.
In the windy conditions the bird seemed even more reluctant to venture out of cover now and didn't come within reach so I left Mrs Caley with the scope while I walked along the wall to get a closer view. The snag now was that the bird was on top of the sea wall and that was around six feet high. So I couldn't purchase enough height to be able to get direct photos. The beach was even lower but by backing off you could at least see the bird but the trade off, of course, was that the Wheatear was further away. I took just a few frames before the Desert Wheatear flew off again.

I rejoined Mrs Caley at the steps and suggested that maybe we should head off for a coffee, I'd spotted a cafe right by the carpark, but she nudged me to look along the sea wall once more and there working its way towards us was the Desert Wheatear. We were the only folk still present and I thought that this would be our big chance to get unrivalled views. If we kept quiet and still, the Wheatear would walk right up to us. Just as the bird was coming into prime range for photos another birder appeared at the top of the steps and loudly inquired "where is it then?". Unsurprisingly the Wheatear took flight at that and was away over the dunes again. Why do some folk struggle so much with basic fieldcraft?

Unwilling to spend any time with the loudmouth, who had severely tested my New Year's resolution to stay calm, upbeat and nice to people, I decided that time was up and we needed that coffee. The soaking that we'd endured had left us less keen to go looking for any other birds, we are not going mad building a year list remember, so apart from stopping to see a group of Common Cranes at long range in a field next to the route home, three of which obligingly flew around bugling loudly, we left Norfolk early and arrived back home before dark.

Common Crane
The following morning, after doing the weekly shop, we pondered what we could do for the rest of the day. Determined that we wouldn't year list and to only seek new or interesting birds we resisted the temptation to return to Whipsnade Zoo to re-twitch the Black-throated Thrush seen just before Christmas and decided to look for other birds instead. With the back to work day fast approaching, I wanted one last trip out, so settled on seeing some Hawfinches, a bird that we hadn't had a decent view of for a couple of years, that had reportedly been showing well at a site in Nottinghamshire. Thoresby Park forms part of the Sherwood Forest national nature reserve and we had visited the area in June to look for Honey Buzzards at a well known watchpoint nearby. We had coincidentally looked for some Hawfinches on that day as well without success but apparently the ones on offer now were very obliging since they were to be seen feeding on Mistletoe berries right next to a road on the edge of the Thoresby estate. We also had an excuse to stop at the Fables Cafe in nearby Edwinstowe which serves one of the best bacon sandwiches that I've ever eaten outside of my own kitchen. 

We parked up in a gateway, joining a handful of other hopeful birders, and saw the Mistletoe bearing trees just fifty metres or so away. Asking around confirmed that Hawfinches had been seen that morning but in trees right at the far side of the field opposite. For the next hour and a half I studied every tree within half a mile but only came up with more common species. Then Mrs Caley beat me to it and spotted a couple of our largest Finches in those furthest trees but they flew off within seconds. It was then another forty minutes or so before I spied another trio in the same trees. The Hawfinches were perching in the spindly branches above some Yew trees. After a few minutes they dropped down into the Yews and disappeared. Another five, or maybe the same plus a couple of others, Hawfinches appeared in the same trees and after a few minutes descended into the Yews. It was clear that the distant views was as good as it was going to get so we settled for what we'd got and made plans to look for Hawfinches somewhere else during the winter.

Rutland Water was only a slight detour off of our route home and we made it there about an hour before sunset. We quickly found the Red-necked Grebe in the South Arm of the Old Hall path, a bird that had taken us three attempts to see last year, and then drove the short distance to Eyebrook Reservoir, where after a frantic half hour of searching in the near dark, I managed to find a couple of the handsome drake Smew's as well as four of the less eye-catching females. Both the Grebe and the Smew were late additions to our year list in 2019 so it was good to get them in the bag early this year.  Our year list had progressed to #81.

Monday 13 January 2020

The Last (Norfolk) Twitch of the Year, 29th December 2019

The Christmas holiday season carries a double-edged sword for me. By the end of it after an "enforced" two week lay off, honestly nobody wants me in their houses over Christmas (or any other time really), I'll be skint but on the up side there's lots of time for Mrs Caley and myself to go birding!  The Old Caley year list had stagnated somewhat in the run up to Christmas, we'd run out of steam a bit and I had been very busy at work, with the most recent addition two weeks ago with the Black-throated Thrush at Whipsnade Zoo. But now we had time to twitch again and the great thing about the holiday period is that the roads are pretty much devoid of traffic, in the mornings anyway, so driving long distances is easy. I'd been looking with interest at reports of an Eastern Yellow Wagtail that had been seen near Newcastle upon Tyne and was making plans to take the 500 mile round journey to see it when another Eastern Yellow Wagtail had been found much closer to home in North-west Norfolk. The Norfolk bird was discovered just before Christmas and had appeared very settled over the next few days. 

The Eastern Yellow Wagtail at Sedgeford, near Sandringham, had the added attraction of being a fine adult male rather than the more frequently found juvenile and first winter birds, so was a bit of a looker! We arrived at the twitch site just after nine o'clock and joined the twenty or so cars parked by a farm track. Birders were already returning along the track and the news was positive, the bird was there and showing nicely. We geared up and followed the track for 400 metres to a small hardstanding where the local farmer had deposited manure and other soil into piles. The Wagtail apparently favoured these dung heaps proving yet agin that birds are quite happy to be seen in very insalubrious surroundings. Luckily the soil heaps were just that really, mostly soil rather than manure so didn't stink, which was just a swell since the stinging and cold wind was right into our faces. The weak winter sunshine also shone straight at us but offered little warmth and certainly wouldn't help much when photographing the Wagtail.

Despite several fellow observers that we met on the way relating that the Wagtail was showing well, when we arrived at the site most viewers were chatting away in groups and seemed disinterested in any goings on at the soil heaps. This usually means that the target bird is not showing so I assumed that the Wagtail had maybe flown off for a while. I was surprised then when I scanned around the area and almost immediately found the Wagtail preening in long grass at the back of the soil heaps. Before I could get Mrs Caley onto the bird though it had scarpered behind the middle heap, a recurring theme it would seem at twitches these days, my wife would have to wait a little longer for her first view of the bird. It took about fifteen minutes but the Wagtail did reappear sauntering between two of the soil piles and Mrs Caley had her view. Now we'd both seen it, the Eastern Yellow Wagtail (aka Alaskan Yellow Wagtail) made it #289 on the Old Caley year list and would most likely be the last addition for 2019. Not quite 300 as we'd begun hoping for a few months back but easily our best year total ever, beating our previous best by over 40. If we hadn't have had a few difficult personal circumstances to deal with at times during the year then we may have just about made the magic number but, hey, that's life. We've already vowed not to chase another big year list in 2020 and will concentrate on quality, in the form of new life ticks, rather than quantity.

The Alaskan Yellow Wagtail moniker comes courtesy of Dutch birders who named one, that was found in The Netherlands recently, that way. Most birders here seem to prefer Eastern Yellow Wagtail but apparently that is a blanket name for the whole species and since this male has been assigned to distinct subspecies level, namely "Motacilla tschutschensis tschutschensis" which breeds in Alaska as well as north-western regions of Siberia, the Alaskan prefix has been added. The bird itself has a striking blue-grey head with a prominent white supercilium and white half crescent beneath the eye. The upper parts are predominately an olive-brown colour with white-edged wing feathers while the under parts are mainly pale yellow with a few spots of brighter yellow. The bill is black based with a pinkish tip and the legs are blackish grey. The bird was walking towards us so I started to gain a few record shots for this blog.

However we were in luck when the Wagtail, after being harassed by a Pied Wagtail, suddenly flew up and over our heads, circled around and landed on the concrete hardstanding just ten or so metres away. Mine and a few others cameras went into overdrive as the Wagtail stood motionless and gazed around, making sure that its tormentor was out of the way.

Next the Wagtail trotted over to a weedy area and commenced feeding, pecking away at the rough grasses. Several times we saw it secure a small worm or grub but mostly the bird was hard to observe in the vegetation.

The Eastern Yellow Wagtail then delighted its admirers once more by flitting up close and feeding along the edge of a muddy puddle. In the days leading up to our visit I had seen many photos of the Wagtail but none had been really show-stopping since the bird had always appeared to have remained on the soil heaps at the far side of the yard and had clearly not come as close as it was now. We had great views this morning and the only factor counting against us was the greyness of the day, although the sun was threatening to put in an appearance which it needed to because it was more than a little bit chilly!

An arrival of a small flock of Chaffinches put paid to our fun since the Wagtail was spooked and flew into the long grass behind the soil heaps again. The forty or so twitchers present all at one broke into excited chatter in contrast to the quiet, camera shutters excepted, of previously. Now there was a lull Mrs Caley and myself discussed plans for the remainder of the day and whether to stay much longer for more of the Eastern Yellow Wagtail which was clearly still present and just out of view. We decided on another half hour and then we would go and spend the afternoon watching Short-eared Owls at a site in Cambridgeshire where the Owls are supposed to show well. 

Staying a bit longer turned out to be a good decision when a few minutes later the Wagtail returned to the concrete apron right in front of us again. The light had improved too so now there was opportunity to get even better shots. After perusing its surroundings once more Mr Wagtail this time moved on to one of the muddy puddles to feed and then obligingly posed on a small branch and then a rock. I even grabbed a few, blurry admittedly, flight images. It really was performing like a model at a photo shoot giving myself and the rest the full gamut of poses. I do like birds that help you out by being so accommodating.

Finished with the puddle the Wagtail then delighted us even more by walking almost right up to us and the views and photos improved to "crippling" quality. This must have been unprecedented behaviour by this bird and even low shutter speeds couldn't stop even me getting some nice shots. I was still surprised though, and chuffed of course, when Birdguides rewarded one of my efforts with a "Notable Photo" award, shown at the top of this account.

When the Wagtail fled back behind the heaps of soil, we did decide to leave for some birding elsewhere. We had been on site for maybe an hour and a half and it wouldn't get any better, it couldn't. Walking back to the car we were beckoned by a chap who introduced himself as a fellow Oxon birder, well met Karl, who had seen us at Otmoor a few weeks back. He was staying in Norfolk for the holiday season and told us, amongst other bird news, that the Rough-legged Buzzard at Wells had been showing really well and close the day before. Our views a few weeks ago, when we'd taken it in along with the Isabelline Wheatear and Hume's Warblers, had been distant across a field and the Buzzard hadn't budged from its perch in a bush. To see it flying close to would be a nice bonus. We had only seen our first ever Rough-legged Buzzard in January this year and although we did get flight views they were from around a mile away! I checked Wells into the SatNav and discovered it was only 16 miles away so it became a no-brainer to go and have another look. The Shorties would have to wait until next year.

We parked up and joined a few other birders in the lay-by that overlooks the field but there was no sign of the Rough-legged Buzzard. Toby, a young and excellent birder who we've met several times at Frampton Marsh where he spent last summer, told us that the Rough-legged hadn't shown at all that morning and that there were just Common Buzzards and a Marsh Harrier active. Fairly typical, I thought, since we had hoped that after talking to Karl that it would be a cinch! But Toby was thanking us for turning up less than two minutes later when the Rough-legged Buzzard suddenly appeared and landed in the middle of the field. Voila! Unfortunately, and despite Mrs Caley continually and very helpfully pointing out the Rough-legged's position in the field, by the time I had managed to get the camera cocked and ready to fire the bird had flown off and back to its favourite bush on the embankment which meant that we were left with same old distant views that we'd had a few weeks before. 

Last time the Rough-legged Buzzard had resolutely refused to leave the said bush despite much billing and cooing from me and for the next half hour this time it stayed put once again. Then it flew into the branches of a tree where it was very difficult to see and pick out. I managed one distant, slightly better than useless shot, as it flew off.

Another half hour passed without the Rough-legged Buzzard moving from the tree so we gave up. I was just pulling away in the car when a tap at the window stopped, another birder telling me that the Rough-legged was flying again. Phew, nearly missed it! 

Now the raptor was actively hunting giving us nice flight views through the optics but not close views since the bird was hunting along its favoured embankment at the far side of the field. If I'd been ready earlier then I'd have caught some half decent shots of the Buzzard flying in front of us at half the distance it was now. But at least I did mange to add a few flight images to my pitiful Rough-legged Buzzard collection and they were a vast improvement on the ones that I managed back in January. More to the point it was enjoyable to witness a spectacular and unfamiliar bird of prey perform the whole spectrum of hunting techniques with much hovering interspersing the more normal gliding and soaring. Rough-legged Buzzards are well known for spending much of their air time hovering in Kestrel like fashion. 

This would prove to be our last trip outside of our local area in 2019 and the Eastern Yellow Wagtail was our final life and year tick as well. We ended up on the #289 species for the year, #285 if you disallow a few of the ducks and stuff. Not a bad effort and, I repeat, not one that we'll be trying to beat in 2020........