Friday 27 March 2020

Laugh? I Could Have Cried! 14-15th March 2020

This is mostly a tale of woe and bad luck. However our disappointment contained within this blog is obviously irrelevant when compared to the crisis that we are all experiencing right now so please take it with a pinch of salt. Keep safe everybody.

Over the previous few days a couple of rare Gull species had been reported from the West Country. My mate Jim, the Standlake Birder, achieved a double whammy when he saw both birds on the same day on Friday. With the impending difficulties on the horizon regarding the Coronavirus outbreak we made plans for Saturday to at least try to see one of them while we still could. 

Having driven over 20,000 miles last year and feeling ever since more than a little bit "burnt out" by our efforts in seeing as many species as possible in 2019, we've cut our travelling back to just local excursions apart from just a couple of longer trips this year. Therefore we decided that the fine adult Ross's Gull that was frequenting a stretch of the River Plym in Plymouth was too far away so we wouldn't travel for it considering it was over 200 miles from home. The other rare Gull that had been found was a Laughing Gull which was frequenting Chew Valley Lake near Bristol. Clocking in at less than 100 miles that bird and journey seemed far more appealing. On Friday though the Laugher, as it is affectionately known by birders, had been difficult to locate and in fact was only reliably seen when it came into roost with lots of other Gulls in the last hour of daylight whereas the Ross's Gull had performed beautifully for most of the day.

We stuck to our guns though and left home just before 9 o'clock on Saturday morning with the sole intention of targeting the Laughing Gull plus a few other decent birds that were also in the vicinity. I had half a notion to twitch a Kentish Plover at Burnham on Sea but that bird was difficult to see and the species was already on my life list but we had never seen a Laughing Gull before. The roads were fairly quiet and we made good progress. Then our best made plans started unravelling a bit!

As we pulled onto the M5 news came through that the Ross's Gull had been seen and was "showing well" in the same place as usual and at that stage the Laughing Gull hadn't been reported. So on a whim we decided to change tack and go to straight to Plymouth, twitch the Ross's Gull and then get back to Chew Valley Lake to add the Laughing Gull when and if it came into roost. Then just before we reached the M4/M5 interchange another update related that the Laughing Gull was showing "now" at Chew Valley Lake (CVL) from the Herriots Road Bridge! So, working on the "See a train, get on a train" adage we changed our destination back to CVL again thinking that if we could get the Laughing Gull quickly then we'd still have plenty of time to get to Plymouth and see the Ross's Gull since it was still only 10:15 in the morning. Just before 11 we parked up alongside many other birders on the road bridge feeling extremely hopeful. I leapt out of the car and began scanning the Gulls that were resting on the water. I scanned all birds close in several times then looked further out without seeing the distinctive dark shape of the Laughing Gull, which was apparently a first winter bird and had very dark plumage which would make it very easy to pick out. I only found Black-headed and Common Gulls in over half an hour of careful scrutiny. I set the scope up and studied Gulls that were feeding far out in the open water but viewing was difficult and I couldn't see anything different. I finally asked another birder when the Laughing Gull had been seen but he knew nothing so I tried someone else who was more genned up. He told me that he'd been looking for the Laugher ever since the news came out that it had flown from Herriots Bridge in the direction of the Heron's Green Bridge which was where we were stood. So for nearly forty-five minutes I'd been in the wrong place anyway! And the bird had flown! Apparently the Gull had been seen by just a sole observer and for just two minutes before departing, We had left the motorway and a seemingly sure thing with the Ross's Gull to go and look for a bird which had disappeared almost two hours ago. You could say that I was more than a little bit peeved.

It was now midday and being at a bit of loss I began clutching at straws so drove around to Herriots Bridge. We had seen our first ever Long-billed Dowitcher from the road bridge many years ago on way home from a Cornwall holiday. The bridge divides a small lagoon from the main lake and the cut-off provides a bathing area for many Gull species and also a reedy edged refuge for Wildfowl and other birds. There was a group of Common Gulls bathing and I noticed just how dark some first winter Common Gulls can look. I compared first winter Laughing and Common Gull in the Collins Bird App and even though there shouldn't be any confusion if seen well, I could understand how the two species could be mixed up. I'm not saying that is what had happened but I was having serious doubts particularly when bearing in mind that the Laugher had only been seen coming into roost on the last three evenings and not at all during the day. I decided to do a bit of detective work and found a tweet from the chap who had reported the bird. The same chap had posted several other tweets that morning from CVL and had attached back of the camera images of every bird he'd called except for, yep you've guessed it, the Laughing Gull. Now my suspicious mind was racing, why no photo of the Laugher? The Gulls at the bridge were close in so good photos would be available for anybody with a modicum of skill and besides I'd seen decent images on the chaps Twitter feed of the Great Egrets that were also present in the same area. I deduced, probably wrongly but I just can't quell the cynic in me, that the Laughing Gull hadn't be seen at all and that it was likely a dusky plumaged Common Gull!

Worst of all I now felt cheated since if I hadn't detoured to CVL then I would have been adding a splendid Ross's Gull to my life list since that was still showing well down in Plymouth. In the event I was now facing the prospect of seeing neither of the Gulls since the Laughing Gull had done a bunk, if it had ever been present in the first place. We were in the right, or maybe not, place and had to at least try and find the Laugher so for the next two hours we drove between the two road bridges and to Woodford Lodge as well, checking every Gull that moved with no success. I managed to work myself into a right old state while continually checking the time to see how late we could leave for Plymouth and still have a chance of seeing the Ross's Gull. While taking some lunch and a calming coffee at a nearby pub I checked Twitter and all of the previous reports of both Gulls. The Ross's Gull always disappeared around four in the afternoon after pre-roosting at a place called Oreston Quay on the River Plym. It was now gone two o'clock so we were, it appeared, stymied with that one. It would be a waste of time even contemplating going for it now. I was gutted because, despite saying yesterday that I wouldn't go for the Ross's, I had really wanted to see it. I was also fed up with driving from one end of CVL to the other in the search for the Laughing Gull and realised that we'd have to wait until later and then go to Woodford Lodge and hope that it would come into the Gull roost. That meant we'd have to find something else to do for the next few hours.

Having paid for a couple of day permits we drove the short distance to Barrow Gurney Reservoirs where there were potentially a couple of year ticks. The three reservoirs, known as Tanks 1, 2 and 3 are split by a busy road. Firstly we checked the largest Tank, number 1, which lays to the north of the road. There were supposed to be both a Great Northern Diver and a Black-throated Diver on the reservoir but we could only find Great Crested Grebes and Cormorants. The reservoir is a big open bowl of water so there could be no way that we could miss them if present so we could only assume that they'd flown off elsewhere for a while. Our luck appeared to be well and truly out! We crossed the busy thoroughfare and made our way up to Tank number 2 which was pretty much devoid of any birds apart from a pair of Gadwall and headed towards Tank 3. This was where the bird we most wanted to see was supposed to be. In contrast to the other two reservoirs, Tank 3 has vegetated banks on the western side rather than steep concrete and close to that bank was a small flock of Tufted Ducks and a few Mallards but no sign of our target. For ten minutes I scanned the water and found nothing different. I was done in, well and truly fed up, and wondered why I bother birding at all. I was ready to chuck it all in and go home, blow the Laughing Gull, when a final scan revealed the drake Long-tailed Duck that we'd come to see. My sigh of relief was palpable and probably audible and I'm sure the Bankside fishermen all looked in my direction. At last I had managed to find something worth seeing!

drake Long-tailed Duck
We made our way around to the far bank for closer views of the Duck although it was difficult to approach because of the lack of cover. Drake Long-tailed Ducks are one of the few birds that look better in winter, or non-breeding, plumage than they do in summer. When breeding they are mainly  a plain brown looking bird albeit with a black head, neck and breast. We don't see Long-tailed Ducks in breeding plumage because they nest and rear their young in the High Arctic Tundra region. This bird in its non-breeding winter plumage was a startling mix of grey, black and white with a lovely soft pastel pink bill. The most noticeable feature though was the tail which was split into two long pointed black feathers.

The Long-tailed Duck was hanging out with a pair of Tufted Ducks which made for unlikely bedfellows I thought. Mostly the three ducks made out to be asleep and they drifted on the water although at all times they kept a careful eye on us on the bank. At times when the Long-tailed Duck turned to put his back to us I felt like it was using those two long tail feathers to tell me something: "Up Yours Loser!"

Having clawed out something from a frustrating day we returned to Woodford Lodge and were astounded by the number of birders who had turned up to see the Laughing Gull. Many eyes make seeing a rare bird easier so I was pleased that we'd have all the extra help. It was pretty cold as we all stood staring at the Gull roost that was forming on the open water. Unfortunately all birds were a long way out and appeared to be continually unsettled by the many fishing boats that came chugging back to the nearby marina and pontoons. Luckily it was clear that we some highly competent birders alongside us and after a few false alarms somebody spotted the Laughing Gull which had somehow sneaked into the roost unnoticed. Next the few moments of panic when I couldn't find the bird in my own scope and then the relief when I did. The Laugher was indeed a very dark looking bird and showed up prominently in the flock of Gulls. Problem was it must have been half a mile away and my camera and lens just wasn't up to the job in the late afternoon gloom.

1st winter Laughing Gull
Had we been able to get decent views of the Laugher then we'd have seen a dusky plumaged Gull with a distinctly long bill. My friend Cliff captured some rather better images to at least give you an idea of what the bird really looks like.

courtesy of Cliff Smith
We drove home having at least added a bird to the Old Caley life list and my annoyance at the days events had been a little bit reduced although I still had that very unhealthy cynicism nagging away at me that I been deliberately misled by that Tweet of earlier. When I looked at Twitter later that evening I saw a fine photo of the Laughing Gull taken by the chap who had seen it at 10 o'clock! My wholehearted apologies go out to that man, I should never have doubted him and I wish him well, the lucky sod. I'm a disbelieving old git too often it would seem and that awful trait is something I must work much harder to suppress in future although I think it's just too inherent.

For most of the journey home I had been thinking of the Ross's Gull. For the first few miles of the journey I had tried to persuade Mrs Caley that we should book into a hotel so that we could drive to Plymouth in the morning and get the Ross's but she very wisely disagreed with that suggestion quite rightly pointing out that, "I'd had my chance and had blown it". I carried on thinking about that Ross's Gull all night and wondered how I could convince her into going for it on Sunday morning. So at breakfast I was astounded when my wife said suddenly, "Why don't we have a tilt at seeing the Ross's Gull?". I was ready in less than five minutes flat and we were on the road by 8 o'clock. The SatNav said it was 202 miles to The Ride in Plymouth which seemed to be the most likely place to catch up with the Gull and would take around three and half hours. We stopped at a service station on the M5 just as news came through that the Ross's Gull had been seen already. I also noticed that Cliff was there so sent him a message and asked him for regular updates on the Gulls location.

The journey sped by and we neared the outskirts of Plymouth in double quick time. The Gull had relocated a bit further up river to a place called Blaxton Meadows which could still be reached from The Ride carpark. We parked up at 11:15, ahead of schedule, and started on the walk to the meadows. A couple of returning birders told us that the Ross's Gull was still there, stood preening on a post and appeared settled. They told us it was about a twenty minute walk. For us that would be more like half an hour even at full speed. Midway there another returning and happy birder also told us that the bird was still there. A message from Cliff confirmed it. I wore a big grin, after all we were about to add a second life tick Gull in as many days. We turned a corner and could see the Gull flock, the Ross's Gull was accompanying a flock of Black-headed Gulls, all resting on a marshy area about a quarter of a mile further on. Too far to pick out anything from where we were so I urged Mrs Caley to stretch her tired legs a bit more, we'd already walked as quick as we could for half an hour. We had halved the distance when suddenly and with no discernible reason the whole flock of Gulls took to the air. Panic set in and I frantically scanned the whirling flock of Gulls but every bird I picked out turned into a Black-headed Gull. But thankfully the Gulls landed again and I breathed a sigh of relief. We soldiered on and were met by a birder who very tactlessly told us that, "The Ross's Gull has just flown" and "Did you see it as it flew past?" Aaargghhhhhh! I kicked the nearest tree and swore loudly more than once. We had missed the Ross's Gull by a minute. Sixty bloody measly seconds too late! 

Where the Ross's Gull had been.....a minute before!
We met Cliff by the hide and he ruefully repeated the, "Really sorry mate but you've just missed it" story. I was gutted and even a Ring-necked Parakeet flying by couldn't lift my spirits. More hopefully though the Ross's Gull had flown down river so may have returned to its feeding area off the carpark. Cliff left to look for it there, promising to let me know if he saw it, while we sat disconsolately and looked out onto the marsh. There were good year ticks in the shape of some Greenshanks and a Common Sandpiper and a pair of Red-breasted Mergansers swam past but I barely looked at them and stared forlornly at the river instead. I had driven for over three hours and walked bloody hard for another forty minutes for nothing. I vowed there and then to give up twitching, it's too stressful. To add insult it started to rain!

Some Black-headed Gulls flew back in and I momentarily regained some hope but there was no sign of the Ross's. After half an hour we gave up and trudged back to the carpark although I kept looking at every single Gull that flew past. We rejoined Cliff by the carpark but he'd not see the Gull from there. I thought that maybe it had flown even further down the river so drove to Oreston Quay to have a look from there. There was no sign, it was now nearly one o'clock and I was beginning to realise that we weren't going to see the bird. In an attempt to change our luck we took a break and some Sunday lunch at a nearby pub. In the past, most notably when twitching a Rose-coloured Starling in Scotland, a break had worked wonders when, after a fruitless three hour search before a coffee and sandwich break, we had connected with that bird immediately after. It didn't work this time! Another hour and a half of watching from the Quay only offered up Black-headed Gulls (and a Great Northern Diver). The Ross's Gull was nowhere to be seen. 

I couldn't believe how unlucky we'd been. It's one thing to twitch a bird and find out that it's gone and not been seen on the day you go but to be a few hundred yards away and actually see the flock of birds of which it's a part of take to the air and fly away is particularly galling. As I drove home I wondered what terrible things I must have done in a previous life to deserve such rotten luck. I briefly tried to blame Mrs Caley, "If only we'd stayed in a hotel" I said but of course it wasn't her fault. I should have stuck to my guns and gone for the Ross's Gull on the Saturday but didn't. It was my own bad decisions and pure rotten luck that cost us the bird. We'll just have to wait for another one to turn up sometime. Interestingly that Ross's Gull has not been seen again since it flew off from its perch on the marsh just before we got there.

Ross's Gull courtesy of Cliff Smith

Thursday 19 March 2020

The Impressive Worm-Eater! 7th March 2020

For the past few weeks a juvenile Glaucous Gull had been seen both coming into roost in the late afternoons and then leaving again in the early mornings at Upton Warren reserve near Worcester. It wasn't known where the Gull went to during the day but then it was spotted last Sunday in a field some ten miles to the South at Upton Snodsbury. The Gull had then been seen in fields in the same area for the rest of the week. Ironically we had been just a few miles away when watching the Waxwing at Blackminster last Saturday. A week on and we finally had our chance to travel back to Worcestershire and have our go at seeing the bird. Birdguides had received an early report of the Glaucous Gulls presence that morning so we knew it should be there.

The only Glaucous Gull that we had on our list was another juvenile that we saw at Pitlochry on our way up to the Cairngorms a couple of years back. I was extremely impressed by that bird at the time. Glaucous Gulls are big birds, as large as a Common Buzzard, and look more than a little menacing. I've always loved birds with attitude and Glaucous Gulls have that in spades. We had already tried without success to see a juvenile Glaucous Gull earlier this year in Leicestershire and there would be a distinct possibility that this was the same bird that had relocated. It often strikes me as strange that you can try to see a species of bird in one place and fail and then get another totally unexpected chance of redemption a month or two down the line.

The Glaucous Gull had been reported on Saturday morning as being in a field 800 metres north of the A422 in Upton Snodsbury so after doing the weekly shop, already the supermarket was busier than usual owing to the panic buying of loo rolls, we headed out on the hour or so drive. As we entered the surrounds of the village you can imagine my surprise when I immediately spotted the Glaucous Gull stood in a field right next to the road and only about 30 metres away! I hurriedly parked the car in the entrance to a building site on the opposite side of the road, quickly grabbed the camera and ran over to grab a few initial record shots in case the Gull flew off. Mrs Caley was still in the car!

Glaucous Gull, Upton Snodsbury, 07/03/2020
Having made sure that I'd seen and photographed the Gull, I more casually sauntered back and collected my wife! We set up stall in a gateway to the field and enjoyed unsurpassed views, for us anyway, of the large and brutish looking Glaucous Gull. I say brutish but I really see Glaucous Gulls as things of beauty, they are huge, comparable in size to the well known Great Black-backed Gull, and are clearly extremely confident. The juveniles pinkish-white plumage is only really shared with the similar Iceland Gull, which is also really the only confusion species, but that bird is a smaller Herring Gull sized bird and has a much more gentle expression. As I fired away with my camera the Glaucous Gull regarded us with it's piercing beady black eye.

The Gull had been attracted to the field by a never-ending supply of worms that had been raised to the surface by the recent heavy rain. All the bird had to do was wander around picking the worms off of the surface. Glaucous Gulls are largely scavengers and I've seen lots of photos of them feeding on the carcasses of Whales, Dolphins and even Deers so the fact that this one was feasting on Worms seemed a little bit pathetic but of course animals and birds will take whatever comes easily to them just as the Pomarine Skua in Lincolnshire last year fed heartily on Seal placenta and common garden birds readily accept peanuts and sunflower seeds from feeders. I concentrated on catching the Gull in the act of securing a worm and found that it wasn't selective, worms of all sizes, big and small, were devoured.

The Glaucous Gull had no conjoiners except for a few Corvids that occasionally made careful sorties into the same field. Outwardly the Crows and Glaucous Gull didn't appear to have any regard for each other but the Crows definitely seemed to be stalking the larger Gull, perhaps hoping to steal an easy snack for themselves.

After ten minutes or so of worm harvesting the Glaucous Gull wandered slowly over to a deep riveted tractor track and drank from the puddles there. I imagine the Glaucous Gull was also able to wash some worm slime off of its bill too. After a drink and a clean the Gull had a quick preen and brush up. Even though I knew that it would stretch its wings at some point and have a flap, I still managed to miss it since my attention was diverted by some shouting going on further down the street. One day I'll learn to concentrate. No, I won't.

The only time the Glaucous Gull looked mildly interested in anything other than feasting and resting was when some, unseen to our eyes, aerial threat or interest passed over. Then the Gull would cock its head to one side in that comical way that birds do and look skywards. Glaucous Gulls must be pretty much untouchable owing to their size but I guess that in their more usual Arctic homes they must have predatory threats, particularly when young, such as White-tailed Eagles and Snowy Owls as well as land based enemies such as Polar Bears hence this birds alertness.

When the Glaucous Gull plopped down on the grass and didn't look like it would move again for a while we decided to leave. It had been a pleasure to be in such close company with such an impressive beast!

A week before we had spent a few hours watching and photographing a Waxwing a few miles away in Blackminster so it seemed churlish not to go back for another look. As we drove over the railway crossing we saw the Waxwing still in its favoured Rowan tree and it was still attracting a few admirers. Firstly though we took some lunch at the excellent Potted Pantry nearby which was well worth the return visit. When we went back to the Rowan the Waxwing was gone as were all of the attendant birdwatchers. Oh well we thought, we had a great couple of hours with the bird last Saturday. But as always we gave it the standard five minutes and for once it paid off when at the last turn of the clock the Waxwing flew in and landed in the tree. The Waxwings behaviour hadn't changed during the prior week either, it perched for a while making sure everything was good and then set to devouring some of the berries once more. Berries for Waxwings and Worms for Glaucous Gulls, birds take what they can. 

What had changed since last Saturday was the number of berries on the Rowan. A week ago the tree was festooned with them, now there were just a few left. I found it amazing just how many berries a single Waxwing had eaten in a week! I'm definitely not inviting one round to dinner. Well, actually I am since I've planted four Rowan trees in my own garden with the sole aim of attracting Waxwings. If one Waxwing can strip a Rowan of its berries in just over a week then you can appreciate how quickly a flock of them can and why flocks move on so quickly too. 

We watched the Waxwing for ten minutes or so and I took just a few photos. Last week I had fired off nearly 400 frames so there didn't seem much point in taking too many this time.

Considering that we were out and about in the Cotswolds it seemed sensible to revisit the famous Owl fields a few miles to the South. On the way we stopped at Snowshill and made yet another failed attempt to see a Great Grey Shrike, that's four tries this year and four failures! 

Our hope was to see the Barn Owl this time at close quarters so I positioned our car at the western end of the fields. From there you can also see the rough scrub that the Short-eared Owls roost in. We had arrived at just after 3 o'clock, all Owls were out hunting by that time last week, but for now the fields were quiet. I chatted to Bob, a chap we'd met the week before and who regularly keeps tabs on the Owls. He reckoned that the Shorties would be leaving soon although I seem to remember at least three still be present in April a couple of years ago, ironically in tandem with a Great Grey Shrike! In the event the only birds of note that flew over the fields in the next hour and a half while we stood there, were a couple of Ravens!

When I'm at the Owl fields I always have a good look at an area of scrubby bushes that lie scattered in an overgrown patch of land that used to serve as a stone quarry. This small triangle of land has remained unimproved because of the stoneworks and offers a safe roosting spot for the Short-eared Owls. It was here that the Shrike wintered a couple of years ago. On most of our visits, including last weeks, we have seen at least one Short-eared Owl suddenly appear, flying up out of the long grass and then flying over the road to hunt in the fields. With little happening I scrutinised the bushes a bit more thoroughly than usual. I noticed a pale blob in one of the bushes at almost the furthest point from where we had parked. I knew it was an Owl and supposed that it would be a Shortie since this place is, well, famous for Shorties! I set up the scope and focussed on the Owl and was staggered to see a fine set of ear tufts, surely much too long for a Short-eared Owl. It had to be a Long-eared Owl, a bird that I'd always wanted to find myself.

We moved to a better and closer viewpoint and studied the Owl. The Owl was secreted in the bush but plainly visible. Getting a decent photo was tricky owing to the tree branches affecting the focussing but by sliding through the focus manually I was able to get a couple that worked. Unfortunately, as I am prone to do, I then talked myself out of the Long-eared ID and somehow managed to assign the Owl as a Short-eared, probably because that's what I expected to be present and I never thought for one minute that I'd find a Long-eared. Despite checking my Collins Bird App via my phone, I was fooled by the apparent pale un-streaked belly and overall beige colour. I expected that a Long-eared Owl would be much more orange in colour and less bulky than this bird.

Luckily though one of Oxfordshire's and indeed the UK's most eminent bird experts, Ian Lewington saw my photo and corrected my ID back to the original conclusion of Long-eared Owl. I've been birding for almost thirty years now and it would appear that I still have a lot to learn! The pale "belly" was in fact some ruffled feathers, the Owl had been actively preening while we watched it, and I should have noticed the transverse bars to the body streaking. My worst mistake though was, and this was despite knowing that the face pattern belonged to a Long-eared and not a Short-eared, was being duped by the colouring. And of course those ear tufts, I'd read that Shorties can show raised ear feathering but never are they as big as this birds.

Long-eared Owl
Still onwards and upwards as they say and as long as I learn from this for another time then no harm done, except for losing a bit of face and self respect! But I can live with that. The man who has never made a mistake has never made anything and will never learn.

Just as it started to rain, unexpectedly since it wasn't forecast, a flock of ten Yellowhammers alighted in a tree which added another splash of colour to the day.

I was happy, it's not everyday that you get to see the impressive Glaucous Gull up close. Glaucous Gull eluded us last year during our attempt to see as many species as possible so it was good to see one now. It would be good if it could just hop over to Oxfordshire in the coming weeks so that I could add it to my Oxon list.

Tuesday 10 March 2020

Big Dipper! 1st March 2020

On my most favourite of all Pogues songs; the 'Boys from the County Hell', Shane MacGowan sang, "On the first day of March it was raining, it was raining worse than anything that I have ever seen....". Well, today was the 1st of March and it was bright and sunny! If he'd have chosen any other day this year then he'd probably have been right but today he was wrong. Didn't stop me singing the song in my head though, it's a bit of a 1st of March tradition for me, as we drove off to the Northampton area to twitch a Black-bellied Dipper that had been found the day before. In fact initially a perfectly normal, and usually encountered, Chestnut-bellied Dipper (or more accurately a White-throated Dipper) had been discovered in the spill off waterway at Sywell Country Park but observations and photos taken had revealed the bird to be the continental cousin and nominate species of our own resident subspecies. Dippers are common birds of upland areas in Britain but are reasonably rare birds in lowland counties. Therefore a visit would have been worth undertaking for our common Dipper (Cinclus cinclus gularis) but the European mainland Dipper (Cinclus cinclus cinclus) is a mega rare bird locally so it just had to be seen. In fact I'd never seen one in the UK, their occurrence is quite rare with just a couple of records each year and those sightings are mainly from Norfolk and other eastern counties.

Dipper (Cinclus cinclus gularis), Nethybridge, 27/02/2019
Our SatNav conspired to send us up a blind alley and when we arrived at the carpark we dived in and claimed virtually the last free place. Not quite free since it then cost nearly £4 to remain there. The rise in car parking charges in this country is nothing short of scandalous! Our friend and top North Oxon birder Justin was already there and making his way down the hill to the road bridge where the Black-bellied Dipper was supposed to be. We rushed to join him and maybe a dozen others at the bridge but for the moment there was no sign of the bird. I spoke to a few of the assembled to get the gen and stared hopefully at the parts of the stream that were visible under the heavily vegetated banks. A ripple went through the small crowd, somebody had seen the Dipper further upstream inside the Country Park so we all hurried, well everybody else did, Mrs Caley and I ambled as usual, to the cafe garden where the sighting had been. Then just as we got there another call announced that the bird was flying up the concrete banked spillway so we all followed. We stopped for a quick chat with one of Northamptonshire's finest and he related that earlier the Dipper had been feeding right at the top of the spillway "steps" and in his opinion the best thing to do would be to stand on a small bridge that crossed the waterway just below the top cascade and watch from there. I rejoined Justin on the bank but he hadn't seen the Dipper despite getting there quickly. We stood gazing at the rushing water course for maybe five minutes with no sign of anything when suddenly the Dipper was flying downstream again. Where it had appeared from I had no idea since it most definitely hadn't been in the stream as we looked for it. I later learned that there is a small inlet pipe halfway up the cascade and that the Dipper often used it for sanctuary. Anyway the bird was now on our year list, although strictly speaking doesn't count as a life tick because it is merely a subspecies of our own UK Dipper.

Justin had walked back downstream while we had remained on the bridge and I now saw him crouch suddenly and line up his scope onto something, he must have the bird. Leaving Mrs Caley behind, sorry babe, I walked as fast as I could and once again joined Justin once again, thanking him for re-finding the Dipper. Now I had a few record shots.

Black-bellied Dipper (Cinclus cinclus cinclus)
I manoeuvred into a better and closer position and gained some slightly better images for my non-existent portfolio and more importantly for this blog. I was struck by the size of the Black-bellied Dipper which appeared to be larger and sturdier than the Dippers I've seen before but I guess that may have been just conjecture on my part with no direct comparison possible. The belly of the bird was indeed very dark and contrasted greatly with the bright white throat. The Dipper was then disturbed by a Blackbird flying low overhead and flew off downstream once more.

Mrs Caley and I chatted away to other birders and toggers back at the bridge on what had turned into a fine and sunny, if a bit chilly, morning. More birders were assembled back down by the cafe and a surge of activity there indicated that somebody had seen the Dipper. This time however, we both remained where we were and it wasn't long before the Dipper was flying directly up the spillway towards us. I tried and failed to successfully photograph bird in flight as it whirred past us. Dippers fly very quickly so getting any flight shots is always difficult. The Dipper flew straight past the top step of the cascade and under the main bridge at the edge of the reservoir. 

For another ten minutes there was no further sign so I decided to have a walk upstream to see if it was secreted somewhere. Just as well as I did since halfway there the Dipper flew back towards me and landed on the opposite bank just thirty feet or so away. I couldn't believe my luck! I now had sole access to a private Photoshoot session. The bird was nervous though so I did my best to remain motionless as I took some shots.

The Dipper flitted up but only onto a fence behind the bank and really posed well. What a flirt! Unfortunately in my excitement I had completely forgotten that the white throat of the bird would blow out all normal exposure settings on my camera and hadn't compensated by knocking the camera down a stop. I'm not great with camera settings or the jargon surrounding them but I knew as soon as I'd looked at the back of the camera that I'd messed it up. The Dipper was fully exposed to the direct and bright sunlight on the fence and the brilliant photos that I thought I had gained were in fact overexposed and almost useless. Oh well, perhaps I'll learn for next time, and maybe that's why I deem myself a birder rather than a togger. The brighter images also showed that the Dipper did have some chestnut colours in it underparts particularly at the border with the white chest but the belly was still most definitely darker than our native Dippers.

A dog walker striding past and yelling loudly at her charge put paid to my one on one with the Dipper and it sped away downstream again leaving me with some fond memories of that intimate few minutes. Mrs Caley had enjoyed really good views from the foot bridge too so we were both happy. We needed use of the onsite facilities and on our way walked straight into the Dipper once again, this time it was stood on the concrete wall opposite the cafe and had many more admirers than before further up the stream. Birders and toggers alike, numbers had swollen to around fifty, were jostling for the best view through the safety fence and some stood atop picnic tables in the hope of a better viewpoint.

We decided to walk back up to the bridge again since we still hadn't seen the Dipper in the water and that it where they are supposed to be! I felt the best bet to watch it feeding would be at the top of the cascade and the bridge afforded the best views at reasonable range. On our way the Dipper once more flew past us towards the reservoir. As before there was no immediate sign of it when we reached the bridge, my own best guess was that it was flying onto the reservoir edge and to somewhere out of sight. But our luck held and soon the Dipper returned and landed on the bank above the stream again. After a minute or so of surveying the water below the bird at last flittered down onto the top steps of the cascade and began hunting out food.

Now there was an added problem for the Photographer in that the concrete wall, owing to the angle of the sun, cast a deep shadow onto the stream and the Dipper appeared to prefer to feed in the shaded area, it must have been easier for it to see prey in the darker water. This obviously presented problems in getting a fast enough shutter speed. The Dipper was essentially a bit too far for the reach of my lens anyway so having secured a few record shots I contented myself in just watching the way it submerged in the shallow water. The Dipper always ducked under with its head facing into the torrent and would stay submerged in that way for quite some time. When it caught some food then it usually flew back up to the concrete wall to eat.

On the fourth sortie into the water the Dipper did edge out further into the stream and reached the sunlit area which made for some more enlightening images although of course it was still really too far away. A few people had begun to creep closer to the bird but I was reticent to do the same considering that I'd been chatting to fellow birders on the bridge and they were all content to remain put. I wouldn't want to be the one to put the bird to flight in front of the assembled audience although I feared that it would fly very soon after being disturbed by one of the over eager toggers.

In the event the Dipper actually continued feeding undisturbed since everybody remained at a tolerable distance away. Mrs Caley and I walked up to the top bridge, giving the Dipper a wide berth on the way, and viewed the slipway from upstream. Here we were closer to the bird but were looking back into the light so there was no improvement in my images. On one of the Dippers trips back to the wall I did at least capture a few frames of the birds nictating eyelids for which Dippers are well known for, the white eye covering allowing the bird to protect its eyes whilst underwater.

We'd had our fill so walked along the reservoir bank and back to the carpark which was now positively heaving with folk out for their own Sunday morning constitutionals. We headed off to Pitsford Water to see if there were any interesting birds on the feeders there but didn't linger when we realised that it would cost us another extortionate parking fee. Instead we stopped off at the other end of the reservoir where you can still park for free and walked down a lane to view the feeders there and where you are guaranteed to see Tree Sparrows. The rarer country cousin of the much more abundant House Sparrow are very hard to find in Oxon now and this site at Pitsford represents the easiest place locally to see them and to add them to our year list.

Tree Sparrow
Just a few miles away there is the site at Hanging Houghton where we saw a Great Grey Shrike last year, not present this time around, and also where a few Brambling were taking advantage of a winter feeding programme. This time we found a small flock of Chaffinches taking the scattered seed but didn't find any of their orange and black cousins from the North. Rarer finches are hard to come by down south this winter.

And it's lend me ten pounds, I'll buy you a drink and mother wake me early in the morning!