Wednesday 26 August 2020

That's More Like It! The Big Bird With Two Names, Part 2. Peak District, 24th July 2020

We left the Peak District last Sunday happy that we'd seen the Lammergeier but more than a little bit disappointed that our best view of the bird had been from over a mile away and that I didn't have a single meaningful photo of it. The following few days had seen the Vulture change its habits somewhat and it was being seen reliably in the Cutthroat Bridge area, where it had largely been on the Sunday while we had been up in the hills, although it was prone to ranging far and wide still. Conveniently there is lay-by parking and a small viewing area on the main Manchester to Sheffield Road so the Lammergeier can be viewed without the need for walking miles into the moors as we had done on Sunday. Many photos, some to rival those taken at the previous roost site, emerged online and further whetted my appetite for another tilt at seeing the Lammergeier although sightings had been sporadic and the bird did appear to go missing for long periods. It seemed as if the Lammergeier was looking for another roosting spot and was thus quite transient appearing in many different places. 

There was also the problem of many apparent misidentifications from less than experienced birdwatchers and the general public, many of whom had become very excited that such an incredible bird had taken up local residence. I studied news of sightings of the Lammergeier, on Birdguides and on Twitter, for most of the week to try to establish a complete picture of the birds movements. On a couple of occasions the Lammergeier was seen in two places at once, which of course is actually quite possible owing to it being able to be seen from over a mile away! However, I noticed an interesting theme running through the sightings. Despite the "Bird Authorities" best efforts at rechristening the Lammergeier as a Bearded Vulture, birders in general, myself included, still tended to regard it as a Lammergeier because that has always been its name whereas sightseeing tourists hoping to catch a glimpse of the bird tended to call it a Bearded Vulture because that's the name that was also being pushed by the media, presumably because Vulture sounds more sensational than Lammergeier and, whereas folk will have heard of a Vulture, many wouldn't have a clue what a Lammergeier was. I decided that birders with established track records with identifying and watching birds were to be trusted far more than hikers and people driving through the area so gave much more credence to sightings of the Lammergeier than those of the Bearded Vulture. In the middle of the week, the Lammergeier became difficult to pin down apart from early mornings and late afternoons when most of the reliable sightings came from the Cutthroat Bridge area, indicating that the bird must be roosting in that general area and most likely somewhere on the Stanage Edge. Many phone taken videos and photos being posted online by walkers and casual voyeurs from other areas, showing high flying birds of prey and claiming to be of the Lammergeier, were clearly not the bird but were of smaller Common Buzzards, Red Kites and the like. I realise that all of the above is a generalisation and there are exceptions to any rule and I admit that cynicism is a bad trait that I have in spades but generally it is best to listen to your peers and not give too much trust to unsubstantiated reports. Whenever I look for information on rarer bird sightings, Twitter is a useful tool to use, if good birders post photos and locations then you know the gen is good and it'll be worth travelling to see the bird.

Anyway, at short notice, I had no work on the Friday so Mrs Caley and I decided that what could be worse than trying again for the Lammergeier? We knew it was still being seen fairly reliably in the Cutthroat Bridge area so just had to get there as early as we could, park up, walk the short distance to the viewing area and wait. We managed to leave home a little after five o'clock and arrived at the lay-by just under three hours later. There had been no reports of the Lammergeier being seen while we drove up the M6 so we knew that we hadn't missed it leaving its overnight roost, and we knew that it had been in the area during the early evening before so it had most likely spent the night close by. For the second time in six days, a lot of other folk had clearly had the same idea since the lay-by was rammed and I struggled to find anywhere to park, eventually managing to squeeze into a tight spot between a camper van and another car leaving just enough room to be able to extricate the optics from the boot. I had wasted ten minutes parking and when we joined the other hopefuls on the small hill above the lay-by it was already half past eight. I didn't feel worried though since the Lammergeier tended to appear after nine and sometimes as late as midday. We found a socially distanced space and set the scope up, we were determined to get a better view this time, and scanned around. With our backs to the car, to our left was a ridge where another birder was stood waiting, he would be worth watching as much as the skies since he'd have the advantage if the bird was flying higher up the hillside which would be hidden to us, Ladybower Reservoir was ahead of us, slightly hidden by a stand of conifers, and the vastness of the Howden Moors lay to our right. I recognised a man stood nearby, a fellow enthusiast for a collectible that I have a long standing interest in, but whom I'd never formally met before, from his Facebook profile photo, and after introducing myself asked him if the Lammergeier had shown at all. Richard had been on site from six o'clock and as yet the bird hadn't shown so we had indeed missed nothing. 

Less than five minutes after we arrived, the chap higher up on the hillside was pointing at something in the air, everybody turned to see what he could be looking at, surely the Lammergeier. I followed the direction he was looking and there it was, the Lammergeier was travelling quickly, and not so distant this time as it had been on Sunday. However, disappointingly, the bird was flying away from us, but at least at the range I could identify it easily unlike on our visit the previous weekend. The Lammergeier was in view for maybe ten-seconds before disappearing over the ridge, how I wished I was stood where the birder higher up the slope was since he could clearly still see it. As I pondered how I could get up there and whether it was possible for Mrs Caley to get up there, I looked over the conifers and saw that the Lammergeier was flying towards us! I alerted all those stood close, all of whom were having an excited natter about the first sighting, or lack of for those that missed it. "It's flying back toward us", I said probably a bit too loudly in my own excitement. I checked that Mrs Caley was watching the bird, she was, and thought, "Wow!". What a bird!

The Lammergeier was still far from flying directly overhead but its immense size made it easy to watch against the solid clear and blue sky. For such a huge bird the Lammergeier actually appears very compact, mainly because the wings are so broad. The head is black and is de-marked from the pale underparts so appears to stretch out prominently, the impressive hooked bill and shaggy neck feathers, the "beard", are also distinctive. The tail with the missing central feathers, a feature that has made the bird so easy to identify with good views, is actually short in relation to the wings and I wondered how it managed to manoeuvre so well with only a few of the normal amount of feathers.

I was urging the Lammergeier to fly closer, almost mimicking the Reeves and Mortimer "Dove from above", muttering under my breath, "Come on, come on, that's it, come closer, closer, come on". Surely it would continue flying directly towards us and give us all that amazing flyover that we all eagerly anticipated. And then, with no warning and to my immense disappointment, the Lammergeier turned and began sailing away from us. Damn! This time the Lammergeier didn't bank back and just kept going away, over the conifers and up the opposite hillside towards the spots where we'd watched for it on the Sunday before. A couple walking down a path on the hillside got a massive surprise when the Vulture practically buzzed them, from our viewpoint it looked as if it passed just metres above their heads, how I wished we'd had that luck.

The Lammergeier put in another very brief and distant appearance about fifteen minutes later but that was the last we saw of it. Further reports through the day put it flying all along the Howden Edge, imagine the views and photos I'd have got had I been sat at Dovestone Tor like I was last Sunday! Sometimes the birding gods are not with you. At least we'd seen the Lammergeier well and would be eternally grateful that we'd arrived at half past eight and not at nine o'clock!

We stayed above the car park for nearly five hours waiting in vain for the Lammergeier to return. I introduced myself properly to Richard and we chatted about our shared collecting interest and also about birds and birding in general. Richard is fortunate enough to live in Yorkshire so has much more access to rare and scarce birds than we ever have in Oxfordshire. He very kindly allowed me to use his excellent photos of the recent Black-browed Albatross at Bempton Cliffs, which we tried to see a few weeks before but were a day too late, for my blog. The wait wasn't completely uneventful though, there were other birds around of course, a pair of Curlew were frequently seen flying over the opposite hillside. A Kestrel made several close passes as it travelled over the valley.

An unexpected year tick presented itself in the shape of an Osprey that sailed high overhead. We hadn't been to Scotland this year and had missed the few Ospreys that had flown through Oxfordshire airspace earlier in April and we'd been planning a trip to Rutland to add Osprey to our year list so this was a bonus. Shortly after the Osprey had passed over a report via Birdguides said that the Lammergeier was seen over Cutthroat Bridge! The twenty or so of us still there all looked at each other and asked, "Who saw it then?" Nobody had of course and we all wondered who had and where they were viewing from. I checked Twitter, a local Sheffield resident had Tweeted it out, interestingly as the Bearded Vulture. Maybe the Lammergeier was flying around at the top of Stanage Edge again but how it got there without anybody seeing it was beyond me, unless of course it flew over at cruising aircraft height. Just a few minutes after the report another Tweet appeared from another birder saying that the Lammergeier was actually at Margery Hill, some seven miles to the North. Now while I know that Vultures can fly quickly, there was no way that one could cover seven miles in a matter of minutes, so one of the reports was obviously bogus. Another couple of minutes and a photo emerged from the second reporter, at Margery Hill, of the Lammergeier. Clearly the report of the bird being over Cutthroat Bridge was the dodgy one and was a case of mistaken identity, probably the Osprey flying over at height had caused the confusion. The original Tweet was taken down quickly after the second emerged. All giving some proof to my theory explained earlier in this piece.

A small falcon flew rapidly along the opposite slopes. I had spotted it first, watched it for a while before calling, "Hobby across the road". I never expected to see a Hobby in this environment, I usually see them over reedbeds and marshes. We get a number of Hobby's on Otmoor through the summer and I'm very familiar with them so I was little bit irked when somebody else tried to shout down my identification and even suggested defiantly that it had been a Merlin. Another case of some people seeing what they believe they should see, Merlin is much more common and expected in a moorland habitat than Hobby, rather than what they actually do see. I poured water over his fire though when I showed him a back of the camera image shortly afterwards.

We gave up at just after one o'clock, with the Lammergeier seemingly so far to the North it was unlikely to reappear for some time, if at all, and we had another quarry on our hit list for the day. Another friend, Simon, who had been lucky enough to photograph the Quail featured in a previous blog of mine, had also recently Tweeted about some Willow Tits that are regularly seen at a feeding station at Carsington Water, about thirty miles to the South. Willow Tits have become all but extinct in Oxfordshire and there are few in neighbouring counties. It is also a species that I'd never managed to get a good photograph of. Firstly though we stopped at the Bird Cafe at Bamford and enjoyed our first coffee and cake outside of our own house since the Lockdown. It was a slightly surreal experience with the staff kitted out in face visors and latex gloves and having to leave our contact details with them. I'm not entirely at ease with the new guidelines on visiting cafes and pubs yet. The Bird Cafe is so named, similarly to the now sadly demised Pottery Cafe near Insh in the Highlands, because of the bird feeders that are placed close to picture windows so that customers can enjoy the comings and goings of the birds. Whilst we ate and drank we saw amongst others, a Nuthatch, Siskins, Coal Tits and Chaffinches. My type of cafe and if I'm ever in the area again, which may be quite soon since I still didn't get the prolonged views and the photos of the Lammergeier that I wanted, then I'll be sure to visit it again.

Simon had said that the feeding station was just a short walk from the Sheepwash Lane carpark at Carsington but, I'm sorry mate, your legs must be a lot longer than ours since after walking for over ten minutes and still not coming across the feeders, we were ready to give up, it had already been a long day as it was. Fortunately I urged Mrs Caley on and a little bit further on we found the wooden screen that overlooked the feeders that were set in a stand of trees and fairly dense undergrowth. Within seconds of taking a seat at the hide slats, a Willow Tit appeared on a bush just to the right. I fired off some shots before the Willow Tit disappeared but I hadn't judged the exposure correctly and I had neglected to compensate for how dark it was under the trees so the photos don't really accurately portray the bird.

Willow Tit
The feeding station here consisted mainly of an enormous bird table which was absolutely covered with bird seed. The seed was attracting many birds, mostly Great and Blue Tits, as well as Chaffinches, Robins and Dunnocks. There were Squirrels taking advantage of spilt seed under the table. 

female Chaffinch

Great Tit
But we had come for the Willow Tits and we didn't have to wait long for the same or another to appear, this one flying directly onto the table where it selected a seed and then flew back into the trees. 

The Willow Tit, bird species number 199 for the year, is very similar to the Marsh Tit, which is  more common down our way but surprisingly still missing from this years list, differing in having a pale panel to the wings, a more substantial black bib, cleaner white cheeks and pale fringing to the tail feathers. All features that could be seen quite clearly on the bird just metres away on the table. We spent half an hour or so watching the birds use the feeders and had five visits from Willow Tits in that time. 

As we drove home after an enjoyable day, we contemplated on what we'd seen. Birdwatching is so interesting and thrilling because of the subjects. Birds are just so varied that you can't possibly become bored with them. In the morning we had enjoyed the awesome spectacle of the majestic Lammergeier with its ten foot wingspan and impressive bone crunching skills and then in the afternoon we had watched at close quarters the diminutive Willow tit which weighs in at roughly 1/500th of the weight of a Lammergeier! What isn't to like?

Friday 21 August 2020

The Big Bird With Two Names! Part 1, Peak District, 19th July 2020

Lammergeier, courtesy of Phil James
Over the past couple of weeks the birding world had been full of excitement that had accompanied the sighting and subsequent pinning down of a wandering Lammergeier from the continent. The Lammergeier, aka known as the Bearded Vulture (it's a vulture and the shaggy neck feathers resemble a beard, so accurate at least), by those that can't spell or say its correct name, by folk who are not really birders, and by people who think that the name Lammergeier, which translates as Lamb Vulture (or killer) in German, suggests that it might feast on the odd lamb or three and is therefore not a very kind expression for such a magnificent bird which deserves to be loved as much as any other bird does. Most of a Lammergeiers diet is mainly and uniquely composed of bones anyway and not fresh meat, okay they might be lamb bones but it doesn't actually kill the poor little things, it is a vulture remember and they scavenge on dead animals. When the Lammergeiers (my preference is for the original name) roosting spot was discovered up on the moors above Ladybower Reservoir a major twitch was sparked by many who, despite the bird unlikely to gain official recognition as a category A wild bird owing to it being an offspring of a reintroduced pair returned to the Alps, simply wanted to see the huge bird and, obviously, to get an insurance tick just in case it was ever accepted by the records committee. Over the first few days following its discovery the Lammergeier stayed loyal to roosting on an old Ravens nest on a rocky crag about three and half miles from the nearest road and hence to twitch the bird, according to most reports, required a long and arduous hike. Last weekend, armed with that knowledge, we ducked out thinking that it was an undertaking too far for us. During the week though, reports started filtering in of good sightings of the Lammergeier from other places along what is known as the Howden Edge, a high ridge of land running north to south. A couple of friends of mine had travelled to see the bird and both had got reasonable views of it as it soared along the ridge line, although both had also told of having to walk a long, long way in order to see it. It seemed that as good a place to look for it as anywhere was a landmark known as Back Tor, a high point on the ridge, where many good sightings had been had.

I started to plan our assault, I pored over maps, checked other birders stories of how to get there and what the walk was like, and slowly convinced myself that Mrs Caley and I not only could make it but would make it. I deliberated over the shortest route into Back Tor from the road, only a mile and a half but all uphill. I studied Geography to a decent level so know how to read maps and as I looked at the route in from Strines, I didn't think the contour lines looked that close together meaning that the gradient would only be gentle at worst. We've walked up Cairngorm and Carn Ban Mor in the Cairngorm Mountains many times over the years, and whilst they are hard walks, we've always managed to get up the hills in our own time. I compared the contour lines of the proposed walk to Back Tor to those of the Windy Ridge path up to Cairngorm and saw that they were only about a quarter as steep so the walk would be well with our remit. I checked local walking guides which all related that the walk was all on good way marked paths. So it had to be done, we just had to have an attempt at seeing one of Europes largest birds for ourselves.

We left home early on Sunday morning and made good progress on deserted motorways and side roads. We turned into the moorland road, where several birders were stood by their cars gazing at the distant ridges, lazy sods I thought, and headed north towards the access point, congratulating ourselves on the fact that we'd be more endeavouring and would stride up into the hills where we'd get much better and closer views of the Lammergeier. We passed the Strines Inn, where twitchers had parked to begin with, but which was now off limits because the Landlady had taken offence to those taking that liberty. It was just after seven o'clock and we were expecting to be able to park right next to the entry point, a metalled road that led up to a gamekeepers cottage at the edge of the moor, but were amazed to find every available spot already taken. Obviously we weren't the only ones keen to get a sighting of the Vulture! After a bit of toing and froing, I spotted an opportunity to park on the verge about a hundred metres away from the driveway, wedging the car in between the road and a hedge. As I walked away, I crossed my fingers and hoped that the car would be ok, since it looked as if it had been abandoned. 

The first section of the walk was fairly steep but was on the metalled track so wasn't too hard, especially compared to that walk up to Cairngorm which begins with very steep steps. It promised to be a warm day, perfect for a Vulture I thought, and there was barely a cloud in the sky. We passed a young plantation, Ewan (Black Audi Birding) who had gone for the Lammergeier on the first morning, had seen both Nightjar and Woodcock while he walked up in the dark, but apart from some common woodland birds, such as Siskin and Coal Tits, we saw little. We reached the cottage and took a breather while scanning the path ahead. To my eyes it seemed a very gradual slope up to the ridge, although I know from experience that hills and mountains get steeper towards the summit and that wasn't visible from where we stood. We left the road and continued on a wide rough track. Sadly this is Grouse shooting country and Grouse Butts lined the valley below us. The moor itself now was typical of such, barren tracts of heather with burned out patches, stretching as far as the eye could see. Our uplands have been systematically destroyed by those with a vested interest in shooting Gamebirds for fun and Birds of Prey in general have a tough time surviving in places like this. The Lammergeier had not been too wise in its choice of temporary lodgings. Luckily though, the interest among birders and the general public in the bird should ensure its safety.

We heard the "get back, get back" call of a male Red Grouse, fairly close to the path too, but in the direction of the sound we were having to look directly into the low sun. The Red Grouse helped us out though by flying a short distance across a stream, there were five altogether, a family group. Having missed out on our holiday to the Highlands of Scotland this year, these were naturally the first Red Grouse we'd seen this year and took our year list up to 195. The same old tinge of sadness arose in my heart whenever I see Red Grouse, it's only a few weeks now until people with too much money and a bloodlust come to the moor to shoot these beautiful birds for fun, and I sincerely wished that the Grouse would survive the onslaught. I struggle to understand why anybody is allowed to shoot any living creature in the name of sport these days. It's not as if there's nothing else to do in the modern age. 

Red Grouse
Better was to come just another few yards up the track, when I heard the "chacking" call of a Ring Ouzel. Again we were aided by a bird flying and followed it to one of the Grouse butts where it landed with another. The male Ring Ouzel had joined up with a juvenile and was now stood feeding its charge. We noticed another juvenile, which flew across towards us and landed in a low growing shrub where it began tentatively nibbling at berries. It was accompanied by a Mistle Thrush which just appeared to be shadowing it rather than exhibiting any animosity, I guess that the two species are similar in size and strength so have a healthy respect for each other. We also spotted the female Ring Ouzel when she settled on the path further ahead, a perfect chance to grab a decent photo but I was too slow so had to make do with more distant photos of the juveniles. I also managed to blow out all of the flight shots when the four birds sailed right past and flew off southwards.

Ring Ouzel & Mistle Thrush
Also in the same general area as the Ring Ouzels and Red Grouse were a family group of Stonechats and a couple of male Wheatear but none were close enough to pose. The path led straight ahead and I was now spending most of the time gazing skywards, fully expecting the Lammergeier to fly past at any moment. Rarely though do my expectations actually come to fruition and today was no different. As we climbed steadily higher the only birds noted now were Meadow Pipits which as always in this type of terrain seemed to be everywhere. We heard the peeping call of a Golden Plover and moments later it flew quickly past. We were up to ten birds for the morning now which for the desert that is a Grouse moor didn't seem so bad.

Meadow Pipit
We reached the paved path at the top of the rise. To our right just a few hundred metres away was Back Tor, a high point at 538 metres above sea level, and to our left the rest of the ridge that leads away towards the main Sheffield to Manchester Road. Back Tor was swarming with birders, there must have been nearly a hundred fellow like-minded souls stood and sat on and around it, and now I understood why it had been so hard to find a parking spot earlier. We camped down on some rocks just short of the Tor but, crucially, within earshot of the others so that I could hear any shouts go up should somebody spot the Vulture. We could also see some more people gathered in the distance to the North, presumably at the roost site but around another mile and a half away so we wouldn't be going there on this trip. We had only been sat down for five minutes, it was just before nine o'clock, when a murmur rippled through the crowd. Everybody began training their eyes and, for those that had them, their scopes to the South and I heard someone say that the Lammergeier was reported as flying over Stanage Edge which was about a mile and half away from where we sat. I checked my own phone and Birdguides which confirmed the sighting. Someone called, "I think I've got it, miles away over the hut on the ridge". I hadn't carried my scope with me so had to rely on just binoculars which would prove to be tricky at the distance we were away. But I managed to find the bird, it was clearly huge which had to discount every other bird except an Eagle, so I had my first ever Lammergeier but would need better views so that I could really claim it. It was definitely it though because I could hear a constant commentary of where it was from some of the scope owners who were obviously getting better views, "flying left", "over the hut now", "at the bottom of the only white cloud", and so on, which I followed with ease. Mrs Caley had more difficulty in locking on to the bird though, her bins have less magnification than mine but eventually she got on the Vulture. I regretted not carrying the scope. I did however obtain one of my most flimsy of record shots ever with the camera! Take my word for it, it is the Lammergeier, I'm counting it whether the purists do or not, and it's species number 197 on the Old Caley year list.

The Lammergeier remained soaring over the distant ridge for a good fifteen minutes or so but never appeared to come any closer. The bird wasn't easy to pick out when high in the sky with no landmarks, or even sky marks, to aim for and many people were struggling to pick it up. Taking your eyes off it wasn't a good idea because then it needed finding again which wasn't simple at all. Finding distant flying birds is never easy because unless you've focussed the binoculars to the correct distance then you're never going to be able to see the bird since it will be invisible. And despite the Lammergeier having a ten foot wingspan, at over a mile away it was just a speck.

Now we knew where the Lammergeier was, no doubt flying directly over the lazy birders who had chosen to remain with their cars on the surrounding, it made sense to walk south along the paved ridge top path to narrow the distance between it and us. Then if it broke the skyline again we'd be closer to it. Compared to the Cairngorms, the upland area here is much smaller, but it quickly appears vast when you begin walking from one point to another. We walked for half an hour and the ridge line where the Lammergeier appeared didn't seem to be getting much closer. We reached a place known as Dovestone Tor, found a nice rock to sit on and settled down. I watched the ridge constantly but there was no further sign of the Vulture. There was another couple sat on another, socially distanced rock to our left, and I noticed them looking at something through their scope and becoming quite animated as they did so. I followed their line and picked up a large bird of prey, well Mrs Caley did actually, which was flying low over a distant hillside. Heat shimmer made it very difficult to pick out any detail but the apparent size of the bird suggested that it could be the Lammergeier again. I took a couple of record shots before it dipped below the brow of the ridge that we were on. I couldn't entirely convince myself though that it was the Lammergeier so asked the other couple what they thought it was and they were adamant that it was it. I'm still not so sure, I have niggling doubts that there was just too much Common Buzzard about it but my views weren't great. My record shot is shown below.

A friend of mine, Phil, walked up and we chatted for a while. We'd met Phil at a Little Bittern twitch in Shropshire a couple of years ago and had bumped into him a few times since then, most notably at South Gare when he walked up to us and asked if we'd seen the Pomarine Skua, which we'd travelled to see and which at that time was sat on the beach just twenty feet away! Phil was on his second trip to see the Lammergeier, I had seen some really nice photos that he'd taken from almost the exact same spot that we were in now just four days ago. Like us he'd had little luck on this visit though.

Lammergeier, courtesy of Phil James
We stayed loyal to our spot hoping that the Lammergeier would fly along the ridge and treat us to the views that Phil had had earlier in the week. A loud "chickerring" noise had us pondering for a while and then a Peregrine Falcon sailed over but by the time I had armed myself with the camera it had gone past. I was surprised to see a Peregrine after having heard of the history of persecution of raptors that have occurred in this part of the world.

A pair of Ravens flew high and wide to our right calling raucously as they always seem to do but despite much longing from us for the Lammergeier to appear it didn't. Lots of reports of the Lammergeier flowed forth via the bird news services all the time we were on the hill but all of them were from places further south of us, and quite a few of them were from the folk who were parked up at the roadsides. Just our luck that our efforts at getting up into the Lammergeiers domain had been unrewarded and it was the less enterprising folk who had come up trumps. We had one more very distant view, rivalling our initial sighting some five hours before, when the Lammergeier appeared over the same ridge thermaling with a couple of the many hang-gliders that were adorning the skies now the day had warmed up. We spent another hour or so back at Back Tor but again to no avail before heading down back to the car, which thankfully hadn't been towed away or damaged, and drove home.

Just before we made it home, whilst stopped for a coffee at a motorway service station, news came through that the Lammergeier had flown low past Dovestone Tor where we had sat for nearly three hours. Unbelievable!

A Cake of Bread!

Monday 17 August 2020

Common Or Not, Otmoor, 18th July 2020

Our garden fence needed more work so it was to be another late start on Saturday for us. By my own standards, I had had a hard week at work as well so we decided that we'd stay local and make plans to go somewhere on the Sunday instead. We have two go to places locally, Farmoor and Otmoor. Usually I can never make my mind up which one to go to until I'm heading southwards on the A34 but today I actually knew that it was Otmoor that called because the weekend before, Mr Otmoor (read Peters Otmoor Birding blog) had found some Common Redstarts in a less frequently visited part of the Moor, and considering that I had only a fleeting view of one while working in Gloucestershire back in April and Mrs Caley had yet to see any this year, it made sense to try to get them well and truly on to the year list.

At half past seven my fencing chap called to say that he couldn't make it, one of those things, so in the event we were parked up at Otmoor by eight o'clock. Instead of heading out along the bridleway as we had many times during the last few months of restrictive access, we walked up through the avenue of trees that line the footpath known as Roman Road. In a few weeks time enthusiasts will be searching among the Oaks and Nettles for the scarce Brown Hairstreak Butterfly but we saw nobody as we strolled along. We didn't see many birds either, only taking a scolding from a Wren as meagre reward for our efforts. At the northern end of the track the Roman Road meets the eastern end of the bridleway and then leads out, after passing through a gate, onto a wide open field known as Saunders Field. Beyond that field is the area known as The Pill, a small wet marshy patch that attracts Whinchats in the autumn and Jack Snipe in the winter. To the right is the high wall of the MOD firing range and the flagpole here warns people that when the red flag is raised, shooting practice is taking place and it is unsafe to be in the field or in the Pill field further on, mind you I think that if you're in danger that far away from the firing range then the shooters certainly do need as much practice as they can get! We walked here on a Sunday morning last year, heading out early looking for Short-eared Owls, and hadn't realised that it was a shooting day. A chap on a Quad Bike came racing along the path and advised us that we had just half an hour to get out of the area otherwise they'd be a gang of angry and impatient soldiers waiting by their guns! What he didn't tell us was that he'd also be chaining and padlocking all of the gates up, to prevent further access, so we had to climb them all to escape. We were safe today though since shooting ranges have been closed along with just about everything else this year.

Mr Otmoor, had found the Common Redstarts in the hedge that creates the boundary with Greenaways which lay to our left as we walked through the field. There are two paths, one runs right past the hedge while the other leads through the high grasses about fifty metres away from the boundary line. We chose the latter path so that we could see the hedge from a distance and also so that we wouldn't disturb any birds within it. For the first fifteen minutes we needn't have bothered with any stealth since first a jogger, then a dog walker and then two cyclists trundled along the closest path to the hedge! Another example of how other folks recreation choices impact on our own but it is a free country apparently. Once the local rush hour had passed we were alone together (hah, oxymoron) in the field. I scanned along the unkempt hedge all the way along to the small bridge that links Saunders Field to The Pill Field but saw nothing. Birds were calling though both within the hedge and further afield on the reserve. I could hear Curlews bubbling away and Red Kites whistling but for now it was the hedge that had my attention. The soft and up-slurred "hu-weet" call of a Willow Warbler emanated from the closest part of the hedge and was followed by the similar but subtly different "hu-it" contact call of a Common Redstart so at least we knew there was still at least one present, and  that now we just had to wait for it to show itself which in true Redstart form it did shortly afterwards. Another scan of the face of the hedge revealed a small speck of bright red about a hundred metres away. The Redstart then dropped to the ground to snare an insect and returned to its perch. We walked carefully towards it to get into range for a record shot before it disappeared into the trees again.

male Common Redstart
I often think it's a shame that so many of our regular species were given the prefix "Common" and not just because a lot of them are not so common anymore. In fact some of our commonly named birds are actually a bit thin on the ground these days, especially so in Oxfordshire. Obviously a lot of the pioneering ornithologists were British and I guess that to differentiate between the frequently occurring species with scarcer ones then Common was a useful divider but it's still a pity that more imagination wasn't used when naming those birds at the outset. There are many species familiar in the UK that have managed to lose the Common denominator, as it were, and get by with being called by their main name, such as the Starling and the Kestrel, and the Redstart can fall into that category unless a distinction between a Common Redstart and a Black Redstart is being made. But there are others that are saddled with being called Common and will always be so, for instance the Common Sandpiper which will never be known merely as the Sandpiper, or the Common Tern, which nobody is ever going to call the Tern. Then there are others, Common Rosefinch for example, so common that I've only ever seen one! Or Common Redpoll, a species which only a few learned people know what type of Redpoll that actually is, Lesser or Mealy or something else! We also have a Common Gull, well not in Oxfordshire they're not! So I think a campaign should be started to change the names of these "Common" birds to something more descriptive and befitting of them. For example the Common Sandpiper could be renamed the Bouncy Sandpiper owing to its habit of bouncing up and down or maybe, more accurately, The See You Later I'm Off Sandpiper since invariably that's what they do as soon as they spot you and before you can get close enough for a decent photo opportunity.

Common Redstart could be christened the Difficult Redstart because trying to get close to them is not usually an easy task either since they are very wary. No sooner than we got anywhere near this particular bird then it fled into the hedge. I'd need to adopt some proper fieldcraft if I was going to get a half decent image. We walked along the track to a spot roughly opposite the point where the Redstart had perched on the hedge moments before. Mrs Caley made up her Walk-stool and sat while I waded into the long grass, disturbing thousands of grasshoppers at every step, and then knelt down so that I was mostly secreted from view. Now I just had to wait for the Difficult Redstart to reappear. The ploy worked because a few minutes later the Common Redstart, a fine male of course, proved to be less difficult and popped out onto the front of the hedge again, in a slightly different position but well within reach of my lens.

Another Redstart, sorry another Common Redstart, called from along the hedge back towards the gate by which we entered the field. Now we knew there were at least two present since I could still the other flitting through the hedge in front of me. When the first bird didn't reappear I moved back towards the other bird and this time as well as secreting myself in the long grass, I also found a place closer to the hedge. I had the plethora of Grasshoppers for company and I now understood why the Redstarts were staying loyal to this hedgerow, since it was easy for them just to drop onto the ground and secure a snack. The multitudes of Grasshoppers reminded me of a trip to see a Squacco Heron near Pagham Harbour in Sussex that we made last year, the Squacco was gorging itself on the insects. The second Redstart appeared, I had heard it calling so knew it was close, just ten metres or so away. I realised that this was very close for a Redstart, it would be nervous, and it obviously knew I was there since it looked quizzically in my direction. The Redstart remained though and actually began to preen although it didn't appear interested in feeding, presumably because of my presence, so I only dared to move my arm very slowly to take a few photos.

The Redstart retreated back into the hedge and I at last could glance behind me to see that Mrs Caley had moved with me and was sat on her stool. A thumbs-up indicated that she had seen the Redstart as well, albeit from a bit further away. We both turned to watch first a Curlew noisily trying to escort a Red Kite out of its territory, a sure sign that it would have young in the field somewhere, and then a Little Egret that came flying across the field towards Greenaways. I looked back at the hedge and noticed a bird perched right at the top of a slender twig that thrust skywards. Initially I thought it was a female Reed Bunting but quickly realised that the shape didn't quite fit. Rather than reach for my binoculars, I fired off a few frames before turning around to indicate to my wife to look at the bird at the top of the hedge, frustratingly though she was still looking the other way and I couldn't call out since it would have scared the bird off. I had now done the right thing and was looking at the bird through my optics and it transpired to be a Whinchat, and a juvenile at that, something I didn't expect to see on Otmoor in the middle of July.

juvenile Whinchat
Another bird was calling and moving through the hedge, sounding superficially like another Redstart but slightly different somehow. I waited until the bird broke cover, although it refused to fully show itself, and it was clear that it wasn't a Redstart. After a while the bird showed in a gap between the branches, it was a Willow Warbler, which of course I already knew because I had recognised the call. Yeah, right!

Willow Warbler
I had called Peter earlier, telling him about the Whinchat and Redstarts, and he had confirmed my suspicions that they may be breeding around the Moor. He said he would join us. My phone rang, it was Peter asking, "Where are you?", "In the long grass by the hedge", I replied. "No you're not", came the answer. Cue pantomime, "Oh yes I am!". A few seconds later we realised that Peter was barking up the wrong field (some folk will get that one) and was looking for me in Long Meadow, the traditional holding spot for Redstarts on Otmoor, about half a mile away from where I was actually was. Fifteen minutes he did join us but none of the birds were now willing to show themselves but at least I had the photos to share. The Curlew family were still around though and were periodically chasing of Red Kites and a fine Marsh harrier which never came close enough, as they never seem to do here, for a decent photo. A Hobby flashed through, the other side of the hedge is a good spot for them, and a Kestrel hunted over the field. The Curlews themselves did approach more closely and as well as flying overhead a few times, one of them flew directly towards us and landed in the grass just fifty metres or so away, presumably to shepherd one of its youngsters and to keep a check on us.

male Curlew
We'd enjoyed the couple of hours that we'd spent in Saunders Field, Common Redstarts are a rare treat (hah!) in our area and seeing the Whinchat was a nice surprise. For a lot of the time though, as I had been doing all week, I had been checking the status of the big bird that was gracing the uplands of the Peak District. The Lammergeier had been showing pretty well all week at or near its roosting spot and I felt it was time to make the effort to go and see it. It was just too amazing a bird not to go and see and I wasn't bothered whether or not the purists would ever accept it as a truly wild bird. I spent the afternoon planning that trip, which we had decided to make the following day.

Wednesday 12 August 2020

My Prince Caspian, Frampton Marsh, 11th July 2020

Over the past few weeks a Lammergeier (or a Bearded Vulture if you're not really a birder) had settled in the Peak District close to the Derbyshire and South Yorkshire border. Originally spotted flying over Alderney, this wandering first summer bird, from a reintroduction scheme in the Alps, had been noticed flying over Balsall Common just forty miles from my house and then seen a few times around the Ladybower Reservoir area in the Peaks. A few gripping photos of it had emerged online taken by a chap who clearly knew where it was roosting but was reluctant to share that information with others. Then on Thursday the 9th, one of the UK's premier listers, after searching for several days, discovered the roost for himself and posted the details. The following morning most of the UK's hardcore twitchers, of which I am certainly not one of, made their way over arduous terrain in darkness to the roost site, and enjoyed close up views of one of Europes biggest birds both stood on its roosting ledge and in flight. When the photos and videos were posted later that day I was, in company with most other less adventurous birders I would imagine, absolutely gobsmacked. However, and here's the rub, getting to the Lammergeier was by all accounts very hard work, uphill walking, off track slogging through bog and mire, and its location was over three miles from the nearest access point. My good friend and very intrepid birder and twitcher, Ewan, went on that Friday morning and his tale of the trip had me in awe but also added to my trepidation that Mrs Caley and I wouldn't be able to make it up to see the bird. You can read that report here. So after much discussion on Friday evening, we decided that it just wouldn't be for us and ducked out.

After that Friday evening debate, we wisely settled on another target for the weekend, a bird that I'd been wanting to add to my portfolio for a while, which after spending time in North-west Norfolk had seemingly pitched up at the nations favourite RSPB reserve, Frampton Marsh on the Lincolnshire coast. We had intended to go for the Caspian Tern when it had been at Potter Heigham Marshes in Norfolk a few weeks before but had changed tack and headed up to Holy Island for the Asian Desert Warbler instead. We had missed a Caspian Tern close to Northampton by a few hours when heading home from the Birdfair at Rutland a couple of years ago so this would represent a decent chance of seeing one and adding it to our life lists. As Terns go, a Caspian is as huge as a Lammergeier is to its fellow Birds of Prey, so it was definitely a bird I wanted to appreciate for myself.

We had to wait for a chap to repair our garden fence first on Saturday morning so, unusually for us, we didn't leave home until mid-morning and hence didn't arrive at Frampton Marsh until nearly one o'clock in the afternoon. Mrs Caley had kept a constant check on the Caspian Terns status while I drove, it was still present and showing well. It did fly off at one point, presumably on a fishing mission, but returned an hour later, so we shouldn't have any problem in seeing it. Fifteen minutes before we arrived the Tern was reported as being back on the reedbed scrape and could be seen from the visitor centre. Because we knew the target bird was there we took our time getting geared up, I could see a gaggle of birders watching the scrape from one of the viewing mounds alongside the reedbed scrape perimeter fence, and assumed they were watching the Tern. A few minutes later we joined the others, scanned the reedbed pool, and....nothing! Well, not exactly nothing since there were birds everywhere as there always are at Frampton Marsh, but there was no sign of the Caspian Tern. We walked to the next viewpoint, changing our angle to see if the Tern had been obscured behind one of the reedy islands but again there was no sign of it. At that stage I wasn't much interested in the other birds on offer although I did quickly log three Spoonbills which were new for our year list. We walked along the path to the hides (all closed owing to the virus), and to the mound opposite the track to the 360 hide, but again there was no sign of the Caspian Tern. At least while we there though, a fellow birder finally imparted the news that the Caspian Tern had flown off about forty minutes ago, which would have been just about the time that we parked up in the carpark! Who said this twitching lark was easy? Recently, apart from the Rosy Starling seen on the way to Holy Island, we've had to work quite hard for our birds.

Now we knew that the Caspian Tern had merely departed, hopefully, on another fishing mission and would, also hopefully, return within an hour or so if it kept to its pattern of behaviour, we settled in to look at some of the other birds on offer. There is always something good, or at least different, at Frampton Marsh. We have twitched many birds here over the past few years and have seen Stilt Sandpiper, Long-billed Dowitcher, White-rumped Sandpiper, Buff-breasted Sandpiper, Pectoral Sandpiper, Wood Sandpiper, Little Stints, Curlew Sandpipers, Hen Harriers, Merlins and loads more. On one visit a few years ago we saw no fewer than 24 different species of wader and I believe the reserve record on a single day is 29! It is a cracking reserve and rightly popular both with birders and the birds themselves. Normally we'd be able to ensconce ourselves into the hides and pick out the birds at close quarters and gain some really good views and photos but, as we all keep saying, this year is very abnormal and, with the hides are closed, all viewing has to be done from perimeter pathways which render more distant views of the birds. Most of the seaward scrapes were dry so most of the bird activity was centred around the reedbed pool. There was a large flock of wading birds congregated all along a sandy spit, where the Caspian Tern should be when present. I picked out Black-tailed Godwits, Bar-tailed Godwits and Knots, the latter two new for the year as well as Redshanks and Dunlin.

Part of the wader flock containing Bar-tailed & Black-tailed Godwits, and Knot
A scan of the furthest reaches of the pool revealed a lovely summer plumaged Curlew Sandpiper and a brief Wood Sandpiper, but too far away for photos owing to the heat shimmer. I also found a couple of Green Sandpipers, a Common Sandpiper and some Little Ringed Plovers. Add in Avocets, Common Snipe, Ruff, Ringed Plover, Lapwings and Oystercatchers and you can see why Frampton Marsh is so celebrated. That's sixteen species right there and all seen while standing in the same spot! There was also the summering Whooper Swan, a bird that owing to injury hasn't been able to migrate with the rest of its mate and has stayed at Frampton for several summers now. An Egyptian Goose was also resting on the same island as the Whooper. 

Whooper Swan
But of course, we had come for the Caspian Tern and after over an hour that hadn't returned. I had also managed to leave my phone in the car so I thought that we may as well return to the car to retrieve it and take advantage of the limited facilities on offer at the visitor centre. On our way there we gazed upwards to make sure that we didn't miss the Caspian Tern should it return but had to settle for a Common Tern and some of the Black-tailed Godwits that were coming and going between the reserve and the Wash.

Common Tern
Black-tailed Godwit
Now, as my regular reader will know, over the last few years we have learned a little ruse to lull the birds that we want to see into a false sense of security. Our trick is to make the rare bird think that we've given up and disappear for a while, usually to a coffee shop or similar. Then once refreshed, we return and catch the bird unawares since it will have sneaked back, or come out of hiding, thinking it was safe since it thinks we've gone home. We used this tactic to great effect last year when we duped both a Rosy Starling and a Spotted Crake. So when we reached the car we stayed for a while and ate some biscuits and drank some water, Lockdown austerity, before returning stealthily to the mound by the 360 hide path. As we walked past the magic mirrors, one of them makes me look really thin (love that mirror), a Spoonbill flew directly overhead and I fired away with the camera for some under fuselage shots. On a visit here last year, during a very wet afternoon in which we dipped a Buff-breasted Sandpiper mainly because you couldn't see more than a few metres in front of your face, a Spoonbill also flew overhead in exactly the same place. On that occasion I thought that I'd nailed some really good shots only to find that my lens had fogged up. So the photos I obtained on this visit were just reward for that earlier failure.

I spoke to a couple of well known twitchers that had come to Frampton for the afternoon after successfully twitching the Lammergeier that morning. They had already seen the Caspian Tern too and assured us that it would be back despite our scepticism. When we reached the viewing mound, there was just one other chap watching, and I politely doffed my cap and inquired whether anything was around. "Not that much now" he replied somewhat disconsolately. I looked out at the wader flock and said, "It's there!", "The Caspian Tern, it's there!", and sure enough it was. Gotcha! 

Caspian Tern, initial record shot
Our ploy had worked again, oh boy do I love that trick! Our sixth life tick of the year, nudging me closer to that magic 400 number, and our 194th bird of this Lockdown year. The Caspian Tern was, as expected, huge, dwarfing a nearby Common Tern and towering over the accompanying Godwit flock. I never realised that Terns came in such a large size, before now I thought that Sandwich Terns were big. The most noticeable feature was the huge orangey-red bill which looks like a bit like a brightly coloured version of an airliners nose cone. The Caspian Tern is often referred to colloquially as "Carrot Beak". Otherwise, the large size apart, the Caspian Tern looked pretty much like any other Tern, with a black cap, grey-white plumage and wings with dusky grey wing tips, and a forked tail. Just as I began setting the scope up so that Mrs Caley could have a better look, the whole flock of birds took to the air. I let the scope fall, thankfully saved by the wire fence, and found the Caspian Tern in the viewfinder and rattled off flight shots. I was enjoying myself immensely now.

After a couple of short circuits of the lagoon the Caspian Tern settled down again on the same sandy island. I dutifully set up the scope and we both enjoyed prolonged views of the super impressive Tern preening and, well, just looking awesome. A Prince indeed!

While the Caspian Tern had been flying, by association I had managed to grab frames of some of the Bar-tailed Godwits too. Barwits are far from regular back home in Oxon and we usually have to wait until we're in Scotland or Cornwall or another hotspot by the coast to record them so having so many here was a big bonus. Also seeing them in tandem with the more familiar (to me) Black-tailed Godwits afforded me to take a useful exercise in distinguishing between them.

Bar-tailed Godwits
After about half an hour of preening and resting the Caspian Tern suddenly took to the air and flew directly away from us. We watched until it was lost in the heat haze and realised that that would be our lot with it. There was another species of bird that we wanted to see while at Frampton Marsh, one that had just recently, last year in fact, began to breed at the reserve and that was Black-necked Grebes. When we first started out birding we travelled to Woolston Eyes near Warrington to see our first ever Black-necked Grebes. At that time I imagined them to be very rare and hard to see, hence I had paid for a key to the restricted access reserve where there was a good sized breeding population. Since then, I have learned that they are a frequent passage migrant to many local sites near us, we have recorded them close to home at all times of the year. Even in this Lockdown year we had seen one already, at Draycote Water back in February, but that had been in winter plumage while the ones here would be in full breeding dress. They had been reported as frequenting the wet grassland near to the East hide so we took the ten minute walk to get to them. Apparently two pairs have bred this summer, raising several chicks and it didn't take long to find them. They were distant but the striking black and tan (isn't that a drink of some sort) plumage was very evident especially through the scope. In all plumages Black-necked Grebes possess a pair of really striking red eyes, as does the similar looking Slavonian Grebe, and those eyes glare back at the watcher. The adult Black-necked Grebes, we saw two, were very active but we didn't see any of their offspring. I have some far superior photos of a summer breeding plumaged Black-necked Grebe taken at Farmoor a few years ago, here.

Black-necked Grebe
We retraced our steps back to the car. A huge flock of Knot sailed along the salt marsh in the distance and a noisy Common Tern flew overhead advertising the fact that it had a tasty fish, but it didn't seem to have any takers for it since it was still flying around carrying its wares when we reached the viewing mound again where there was no sign of the Caspian Tern, in fact the Tern didn't return that day and became much more difficult to see over the next few days, just ask my mate Jim who was led a right merry dance by it before finally connecting on his third try!

Flock of Knot

Common Tern
The last bird we stopped to admire was a handsome Little Egret that was stalking patiently through the shallows next to a clump of reeds. It had been another grand trip to Frampton Marsh which just never disappoints and warrants another visit soon.

Little Tern
Prince Caspian is of course a character invented by C. S. Lewis in his series of children's books, "The Chronicles of Narnia".

Mum: "What are you doing in the wardrobe Johnny?"
Johnny: "Narnia business!"

I'll get my coat.....