Friday 31 December 2021

The Old Caley 2021 Review

A tough year! Lockdown until the end of March, the death of my father in May, and then a complete loss of enthusiasm in the last couple of months meant that birding this year was tricky at times to say the least. That Mrs Caley and myself finished on 261 different species was remarkable considering that we've only seen more than that once before (289 in 2019). The following is a brief run through of our highlights of the year.

Life Ticks

Thirteen new birds added to the Old Caley UK life list in 2021 and it could have been a few more if I hadn't run out of juice in November and December during which I passed up some long staying birds. Maybe I'll regain my mojo for the New Year and tick them all then! Those new birds in order of seeing them were;

1) Northern Mockingbird, a long-staying bird in Exmouth that was off limits until the lockdown had been lifted at the end of March. Seen on April 1st. See here.

2) White-throated Sparrow, Sunday morning trip to deepest Sussex for a North American species that is really a Bunting. Bit of a picnic twitch on the 11th April. See here.

3) Whiskered Tern, a twitch to Dorset whilst in a daze after losing my Dad three days before. Birds make for great therapy. May 14th. See here.

4) River Warbler, a long awaited addition to the life list after a couple of near misses in the past. June 4th at Ham Wall RSPB. See here.

5) European Roller, another long wished for lifer, seen in Suffolk on the 25th June when everything fell neatly into place. See here.

6) Black-browed Albatross, at the third time of asking, finally landed the big bird that wowed so many at Bempton Cliffs RSPB throughout July and August. Added on 16th July. See here.

7) Elegant Tern, a dash across country to Anglesey via an overnight stay near Chester to add another Tern species to the list. See here.

8) Pacific Golden Plover, the first tick on a double lifer day, seen at RSPB Frampton Marsh on 24th July. See here.

9) Western Sandpiper, a most frenetic twitch at RSPB Snettisham on the evening of 24th July. See here.

10) Black Scoter, a distant sighting off of the dunes at Montrose on September 15th, which kickstarted our first holiday to Scotland for over two years. No photos but happy with the ID which was corroborated by others on site.

11) Sooty Shearwater, one seen on 20th September from the Ullapool to Stornaway ferry in less than optimal conditions but happy with the record of the bird first seen by others, with far better skills than mine, on the boat. Again no photos of this one.

12) Long-toed Stint, almost as chaotic as the Western Sandpiper twitch at RSPB St Aidens with the first mainland  record of the wader for 39 years. Anticlimactic twitch though on the 9th October. 

13) Two-barred Greenish Warbler, my first ever visit to Spurn on the 20th October for a superb little bird. I love all things Warbler! My UK life total is now at 395 so the magic 400 number should be achievable in 2022. See here.

(Dips of the year included, Franklin's Gull, Black-browed Albatross and Rustic Bunting)

Old Caley's Ten Best birds of 2021

1) Undoubtedly the star bird of the year was the Black-browed Albatross. After dipping it at the first attempt when it departed an hour before we arrived, we ticked it a week later but it disappeared again within minutes. Luckily on the day we twitched a White-tailed Lapwing (our second record) at RSPB Blacktoft Sands, the Albatross returned to the cliffs at RSPB Bempton and we were able to travel up and get rewarded with sensational close views. Read and see the photos here.

2) The Purple Heron at Summer Leys that culminated a fantastic days birding in which we saw a Honey Buzzard at close quarters as well as Ospreys and Goshawks. The usually elusive heron flew past us at very close range and allowed me take some fantastic flight images. Full account here.

3) As wet as I've been in a long time but worth the soaking to catch up with a Leach's Storm Petrel that had been waylaid at Pitsford Reservoir. Sodden blog here.

4) The colourful Roller in Suffolk, a rainbow of colours!

5) The Northern Mockingbird in Devon, a long wait and a difficult twitch in the face of animosity.

6) A bird I've longed to get a decent photo of was the Little Auk, which I'd only seen at great distance before. A trip to Weymouth gave me a photo at last but then amazingly another a few days later at Farmoor close to home gave me a chance at getting better images. See those snaps here.

7) The Two-barred Greenish Warbler, at the start of the year one of my most wanted birds for the year was a Greenish Warbler. I still haven't seen one of those but the Two-barred is much rarer!

8) Yellow-browed Warblers have long been a favourite bird of mine so to see one at the start of the year was a great way to kick off. See here.

9) We were lucky enough to see a pair of Long-eared Owls. Typically obscured views but who cares, Leo's are fantastic!

10) The Honey Buzzard that breezed close overhead twice at the Welbeck Watchpoint was a real thrill. Only problem was that I managed to make a complete mess of the photos! Next year maybe I'll do better. See here.

Three Best Local Birds of 2021

1) Has to be the Little Auk at Pinkhill Lock, Farmoor on the 30th November.

2) A Wood Sandpiper actually discovered in my home town deserves an accolade. Initially skulking but gave itself up for good views eventually during early May.

3) A rare and potentially breeding pair of Marsh Warblers in Milton Keynes were exceptional during June.

Local Dips of the Year; Malodorous Warbler (not that I had a chance), Snow Bunting (ditto), Short-eared Owl (not a sniff locally)

Self-found Bird of the Year

No contest since the only bird I found worth any real merit was a male Ring-necked Duck on Otmoor on the 21st February (and it wasn't even a year tick)! Next best would be Glaucous Gull (in Scotland), Little Gull and Black Tern (both Farmoor).

Crappiest Shot of the Year!

One Banksy would be proud of!

2022 Wish List

Anything new to add to the life list, a chance to upgrade on some of my older records that are undocumented by photos, to self-find a real rare bird in Oxfordshire that everybody gets a chance to see, for somebody else to find a real rare bird in Oxfordshire that everybody gets a chance to see, an Oxon Wryneck (I keep missing them), another Capercaillie obviously, and most of all more great days out with Mrs Caley. Look forward to seeing you all out there!

Many, many thanks to all who have looked at my blogs, thanks for your constructive comments, and I hope that you've enjoyed bits of them. I'll still be blogging in the New Year so please do keep looking. 

Happy New Year to all!

Stop Press!

A female type Velvet Scoter found at Henley Road Gravel Pits seen on New Year's Eve was my second Oxfordshire county tick of 2021 after the Little Auk.


Monday 27 December 2021

Birding away those pre-Christmas Blues, December 2021

I always seem to get a bit fed up towards the end of the year and especially just before the Christmas break. So much so that I call the last week or so before I down tools and stuff my stupid face with unhealthy foodstuffs, the pre-Christmas Blues time. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy the holiday which these days now lasts well into the start of January, and I get time to go out more and get more birding in. Problem is I can never be bothered to do much, there is just too much stress involved as we near the end of December.

Luckily the birds don't care about my woes and help me to get mobile and outdoors despite my inner protestations. A Great Northern Diver was the first such bird to banish the local winter blues when it pitched up at Farmoor on the 12th December, although because of a heavy workload and because I've seen a fair few in the county before, Mrs Caley and I weren't able to see it until the morning of Saturday the 18th. In fact the first bird to get me locally mobile in December was a massively out of season Dotterel that had been discovered on Port Meadow the week before the Diver had arrived. We had looked for it on the 10th with no success and it was thought that it had departed but a non-birder photographer had photographed it unknowingly on the 16th so it could conceivably still be in the area, possibly hiding away amongst the Golden Plover flocks on Otmoor. Anyway, after all the shenanigans that have taken place at Farmoor throughout the last year where the so called "Friends of Farmoor" haven't exactly been friendly and for reasons that I can't fathom, have consistently suppressed or tried to suppress birds found there, the Great Northern Diver was big enough to get noticed by other birders visiting the site and who were convivial enough to put the news out.

The Diver is a juvenile which, as all young Diver species do, bears an almost nondescript grey and white plumage as opposed to the richly marked adult summer breeding suits. However, it isn't a dull bird since on close inspection the feathers of the back and wings are intricately marked with pale fringes. The Great Northern Diver (GND) is a substantial bit of kit as well, almost Gannet sized with a huge and formidable looking bill that I certainly wouldn't want to see up close and personal that many unfortunate fish will. Not for the first time this year, I debated "Who'd be a fish" as we watched the Diver float serenely along on the flat, calm waters of F1, the smaller of the two basins at Farmoor. The grey tones of the bird had been mentioned by just about every photographer who had apologetically posted photos of the bird on social media using the, "A grey bird on a grey day" excuse to mask the fact the photos weren't up to scratch when of course many were excellent as they always are. The quality of a photograph shouldn't matter, the important part is capturing the moment and preserving the memory of the experience and if that was, "A grey bird on a grey day" which resulted in less than optimal images then so be it.

An over eager chap had sat himself on the embankment steps and actually had his feet immersed in the water. I know that people venturing onto the slimy concrete surrounds at Farmoor are frowned upon by the site rangers and as I passed him I suggested that he should be wary if one came passing by because he would surely be advised to return to the causeway itself or even ejected from the site. It's a health and safety issue since a fully clad bloke with attached optical equipment wouldn't fare too well in the water, unlike the Diver which was in its element and happened to be swimming only around thirty feet off the bank so I couldn't quite understand why the chap wanted to be the extra five feet closer anyway. The GND having given me a couple of snapshot poses which all looked the same when reviewed dived suddenly beneath the murky waters. It reappeared almost forty-five seconds later and around fifty metres further away. We walked towards the spot where it had surfaced but halfway there it dived again and repeated the procedure. It swam underwater faster than we walked and always stayed out of reach for further photos. I gave up following it, knowing that I'd get other chances to photograph it later, and concentrated on enjoying the walk and looking for some of the other species around the reservoir. The Greater Scaup that had been seen regularly eluded us and despite much searching we couldn't find it. I took some slow motion blurry photos of flying Great Crested Grebes and Tufted Ducks instead.

We walked back along the causeway but now there was no sign of the Diver at all. As we approached the marina we saw that the chap was still sat by the waters edge reviewing his own photos and video that he'd taken earlier. We elected to walk around the eastern end of F1 in the hope that the Scaup was sheltering in the bay beyond the Tower. We passed the Tower and noticed that the Diver was floating along a bit further around the reservoir so we trotted off towards it. The GND must have seen us coming though because it downed periscope and dived, emerging back into our world when some hundred metres further away. I tried futilely to catch the bird up but gave up when it was clear that the Diver again held all the aces. I adopted a different strategy and sat on the wall and waited, hoping for the bird to return from its hunting voyage along the northern edge of the reservoir. While we sat there we noticed that a Thames Water van had parked up on the causeway and the waterside Togger was being requested to come back roadside. His struggles to climb the steps proved just how ill advised it is to venture down them in the first place. We then had to stay patient for almost another half an hour until we saw the Diver surfacing and diving closer to us again. After every dive it reappeared fifty metres or so nearer to our position so I readied myself for it to pop up right in front of our viewpoint which it duly did. Now I could take some more photos of the grey bird floating on grey water but unlike so many I was happy with my shots and I like the grey monotones of them. I know several Toggers had rushed up to the reservoir the afternoon before because the sun, for the first time in what seemed like ages, had appeared for about an hour so that they could get some photos of the bird showing that it actually exhibited a bit of colour, the grey and white appearing more greenish and buff when illuminated. By sitting in one place we had however, been rewarded by a very close pass by the Diver which in any light and weather is a very beautiful and impressive creature.

We followed the GND back towards the Tower getting a few more close views as it resurfaced between dives. Interestingly when it reached the Tower it swam out and around it rather than venture beneath the access bridge. The GND we saw at Pangbourne back at the end of 2018 had no such qualms in swimming under a footbridge there even as we stood on. it. When the Diver made it back to the marina corner it was disturbed by another of the recent recreation sports to plague the reservoir when the paddle boarders took to the water and carelessly charged their way through anything that floated in their way. The GND easily outmanoeuvred them of course but took refuge in the centre of the reservoir and was no longer as confiding for the latecomers as it had been for us. We left the paddle boarders, sailors, windsurfers, joggers and walkers to it. Farmoor was so much better before the pandemic and associated lockdowns during which time so many other recreationists had discovered the place which before had mainly been the bastion of just us birders and anglers.

Another grey and white bird was discovered on the Tuesday before Christmas Day in Milton Keynes. The drab coloured bird found on Furzton Lake was a Slavonian Grebe, a bird that breeds in the UK but only in Scotland, and one that is even more gaily coloured when wearing its summer dress than the Diver that we saw a few days before. In the winter though, adults and juveniles, like the Great Northern Diver and other members of the Grebe family, are decked out in a subdued grey and white plumage but they remain beautiful birds owing to the bright red eyes and a thin red loral stripe that shine through in any grey weather conditions, the likes of which the UK was firmly entrenched in. We hadn't seen a Slavonian Grebe yet this year so I was keen to go and see this one. My chance came the following afternoon after finishing work and Mrs Caley and I were able to get to the site just after two o'clock. It was but a short walk from the carpark to the wooden bridge from which the Grebe had been showing extremely well throughout it stay so far. We joined a couple of other birders on the bridge and immediately saw the Slavonian (Slav) Grebe, our 261st bird of 2021, swimming and diving for food in the middle of the small arm of water that leads away from the main lake. I didn't take any photos but just watched the bird for a while until it disappeared into a stand of reeds.

Without any warning the Slav was suddenly right below the bridge and I finally primed the camera and took some shots. Slavonian Grebes can be incredibly confiding, especially so when not breeding, and this bird wasn't about to buck that trend. If we hadn't been on a bridge some ten feet above the water then we'd have been eyeball to eyeball with the bird. The Slav frequently dived and we could see it easily move through the shallow water when submerged. 

As with all diving birds the Grebe would resurface some way away from where it submerged and on one occasion it had caught itself a small Perch, but still sizeable for a small Grebe, which it readily consumed and quickly too since it attracted attention from one of the Great Crested Grebes that didn't appear to take too kindly to its presence on "their" lake. A Grey Heron watched on from above as well.

I left Mrs Caley enjoying the grandstand view and went to sit on the bank by the water using a tree as cover and waited for the Grebe to swim back into the open water by the bridge again. It didn't take long before I was enjoying point blank views of the smart little bird which appeared to be as interested in me and another couple of birders as we were in it. The reed fringed reflections on the water and the frequent ripples created by the diving Grebes, Coots and Ducks gave my images a really interesting backdrop and for once bright sunny conditions were not required to get sharp and beguiling images.

With the arrival of a dozen other birders we decided to leave for home, it wouldn't and couldn't get any better than we'd experienced already. We had been on site for less than half an hour but had enjoyed unrivalled views of a beautiful bird species regardless of its plumage state or the dreary weather conditions. 

Wednesday 22 December 2021

The Old Caley Calendar. 22nd December 2021

For once my mad pre-Christmas rush to get the calendars made and ready for printing was slightly less hectic than usual. Not that I was organised for a change but just that I got my act together earlier for once. Instead of planning for the calendar throughout the year, once again I left everything until almost the last minute. I rank all of my photos from 4-5 stars after processing, the real rubbish (less than 4 star) gets binned, so I only have to trawl through the 5 star photos for the best ones but that still amounted to nearly 5000 images this year! Choosing my own favourite images from those is never an easy task either and for calendars, consideration has to be made of the aspect of the photos, portrait frames just don't work. I actually produce four different calendars to dot around the house, a best pics, a rare birds, a garden birds and a desk calendar.

Anyway here are the images that made it onto the main Old Caley 2022 calendar and a few others that should have but couldn't because they just didn't "fit" or there just aren't enough months in the year. There was only one bird that I wanted for the cover, the Black-browed Albatross was an easy pick for my bird of the year, and the half hour I spent taking frame after frame as it zoomed around, at times only feet from the end of the lens, was not just the highlight off the year but of a lifetime and will never be forgotten.


Black-browed Albatross, Bempton Cliffs, 04/09/2021


Snow Bunting, Cleeve Common, 28/11/2021


Common Snipe, Otmoor, 03/10/2021


Lapwing, Frampton Marsh, 20/08/2021


Cirl Bunting, Labrador Bay, 01/04/2021


juvenile Swallows, Marsh Gibbon, 14/07/2021


European Roller, Icklingham, 25/06/2021


Purple Heron, Summer Leys NR, 29/05/2021


Razorbill, Burghead, 14/09/2021


Dunlin, Farmoor Reservoir, 23/04/2021


Great Egret, Otmoor, 10/10/2021


Two-barred Greenish Warbler, Spurn, 20/10/2021


Red Kite, Linkey Down, 27/03/2021

Best of the rest

Northern Mockingbird, Exmouth, 01/04/2021

Bittern, Otmoor, 15/08/2021

Black-browed Albatross, Bempton Cliffs, 04/09/2021

juvenile Chough, South Stack, 18/06/2021

Guillemot, Burghead, 14/09/2021

Dartford Warbler, Greenham Common, 22/03/2021

Elegant Tern, Cemlyn Lagoon, 17/07/2021

Gannet (3cy), Bempton Cliffs, 16/07/2021

Grasshopper Warbler, Boddington Reservoir, 30/04/2021

Great Egret, Otmoor, 10/10/2021

Hoopoe, Warwick, 26/10/2021

Little Auk, Pinkhill Lock, 30/11/2021

Little Owl, Mixbury, 26/08/2021

Redwing. Oxford University Parks, 13/02/2021

European Roller, Icklingham, 25/06/2021

Sanderling, Farmoor Reservoir, 08/05/2021

Snow Bunting, Carsington Water, 09/10/2021

Stonechat, South Stack, 18/06/2021

juvenile Swallow, Marsh Gibbon, 14/07/2021

Common Swift, Farmoor Reservoir, 09/05/2021

Tree Pipit, Forest of Dean, 14/04/2021

Turnstone, Farmoor Reservoir, 08/05/2021

Turtle Dove, Snettisham, 24/07/2021

Two-barred Greenish Warbler, Spurn, 20/10/2021

Wheatear, Spey Bay, 17/09/2021

Whinchat, Worlds End, 17/06/2021

Whiskered Tern, Longham Lakes, 14/05/2021

Wood Warbler, Wyre Forest, 23/05/2021

Yellow-browed Warbler, Aylesbury, 03/01/2021

Cattle & Little Egrets, Otmoor, 15/08/2021