Monday 24 May 2021

Mixed Bag Birding, Easter Weekend, 2-5 April 2021

Because of Lockdown #3 we were well overdue in seeking out some of our most sought after year ticks, those scarcer birds that we love to see but which take a bit of effort to do so. One of those birds, the Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, is usually a must-see for us in the last week or so of March but we failed to see any in 2020 owing to the travelling restrictions imposed by Lockdown #1 so the lifting of Lockdown #3 on the 29th of March at least gave us the chance of reacquainting ourselves with the smallest of the UK Woodpecker family. Lesser Peckers (as I like to call them) are a very localised species and can be very hard to find because of their habit of frequenting mature woodlands with tall trees in which they spend most of their time right up high in the canopy. So for good views it's necessary to visit the woods before the trees unfurl their leaves for the summer. Also Lesser Peckers display in March and early April and give their presence away by drumming and calling loudly in order to establish territories and attract mates. We are lucky enough to know of a private site in Northamptonshire where at least one pair of Lesser Spots (another shortening of the name that is after all a bit of a mouthful) breed regularly. 

Our first opportunity to visit the Lesser Pecker wood came on Good Friday, 2nd April, which dawned cold and grey and showered us with fine rain for most of our visit. Hardly conducive weather for seeing Lesser Peckers but we would try anyway. We walked into the quiet recesses of the woodland and listened intently for any drumming but heard none. A raucous Jay filtered through the treetops and we followed it until it dropped lower down and onto a branch just metres away. My camera was quickly snapped into action, the drizzle and low light levels wouldn't assist in getting bright images but how often have I been lucky enough to get such a close view and a great opportunity to photograph a Jay. Not very often I can tell you. The Jay with its pink, white and black feathering combined with that iridescent turquoise wing panel makes it one of our most beautifully coloured birds. They are members of the Crow family though so have all of the Corvid characteristics, intelligence, mischievousness and are usually up to no good but they are still undisputedly beautiful.


We wandered further around the wood which was disappointingly devoid of anything woodpecker like. An unexpected surprise was waiting in the stand of Silver Birch trees where a small flock of Brambling were feasting on the catkins. Normally I'd have expected to have seen the last of Brambling by now which are a winter visitor after all. But here they were, and all female type birds too. We've found a lot of Bramblings this winter period around our area.


The Bramblings were joined in the Silver Birches by a few Chiffchaffs and our first Blackcap, a female, of the year which very acrobatically searched for food in the outer tips of slender branches.


More exploration of the wood revealed no Woodpeckers so we made tracks to go elsewhere and twitch a local rarity near Bedford. On the way out from the wood we stopped to admire a Dunnock, one of the so called "Little Brown Jobs" or LBJ's that too many folk hardly pause to look at. But all of the LBJ's deserve attention and are lovely in their own right. This particular Dunnock had also chosen a log, shaped remarkably like a Pigs head, on which to pose and had a very surprised look on its face that it had done so.


The object of our journey across country to the Broom gravel pits on the outskirts of Biggleswade, was to hopefully see a Siberian Chiffchaff. My friend Justin thought he'd found one at our local BWR a month or so ago but under scrutiny that appeared to be just a cold grey nominate Chiffchaff. The bird at Gypsy Lane East was the real deal and had been heard singing and calling so its identity had been established. We just had to find it which would prove to be a trifle difficult. The bird was purported to be staying faithful to an area of hedge either side of the busy road but fortunately close to the parking area. We ambled along the nature reserve side of the road but found nothing except our second Blackcap of the day. It was bitterly cold at the exposed site too so I was soon alone when Mrs Caley decided wisely to retreat to the warm car and let me look for the bird by myself. I listened hard for any bird song or calls and also checked any birds that I saw move in the hedges but only came up with Wrens and Robins. Then, as often happens, just as I was losing interest, a small Warbler flew right over my shoulder and into the hedge on the other side of the road. I located the bird and took a few quick shots of the Warbler, clearly a small Warbler of some description and a very grey one at that. I looked at the back of the camera and saw the back of the bird! Crucially I had captured a yellow-green wing panel set in the grey-brown plumage which meant that I had found the correct bird and had my Siberian Chiffchaff.

Siberian Chiffchaff

I beckoned Mrs Caley from the car and we watched the Siberian Chiffchaff flit through the Blackthorn and Hawthorn hedge. It was difficult to follow and to get clear views of but I managed a few more images before it disappeared. I had never photographed a Siberian Chiffchaff before so was delighted to have got some photos no matter how obscured by foliage they were.

The bird disappeared and so did Mrs Caley back to the car leaving me and another recently arrived birder to look for it again. Fifteen minutes later the Siberian Chiffchaff began singing from a dense Hawthorn hedge but was really hard to see and it was very mobile as well. I set about trying to gain some side on and front on photos which proved to be really hard work but achieved eventually. I put the news out that the bird was still present and within minutes another five birders turned up, they must have been waiting in their cars around the corner!

Having had my fill of the delightful little sprite and content that I'd managed to get a few shots of it, I rejoined Mrs Caley and was grateful to get out of the cold. 

Saturday morning, the 3rd, was set to be much the same as the day before, cold, breezy and threatening drizzly rain. Poor weather is no excuse to stay in a warm house though especially when you've learned of two young Tawny Owls that had recently "branched out" in a small nature reserve near Oxford. We visited the area a few weeks ago to see one of the adult birds and since then the two Owlets had emerged from the nest. Tawny Owlets out of the nest in April are extremely early and the two that we found tucked away in the Ivy covered trees were probably regretting their decision to leave the warmth of the nest hole. At least the Owlets have a coating of thick fluffy feathers and thus are probably a lot better insulated than six layers of clothing afforded me. I had never seen Tawny Owlets before so was delighted with my scope views even if good photos were impossible to get in the half-light of the early morning.

Tawny Owlets

We headed to Farmoor, bleak and exposed as it would be on a day like this, but knowing that they'd be something to see there. We wondered, probably along with everybody else, who had stolen spring and decided that winter would go on and on. On the causeway however, there shone some bright rays of the spring and summer to come with half a dozen Yellow Wagtails scuttling along the road, walls and embankments. These were our first Yellow Wagtails and our 139th species for the year. Last year we struggled to find any locally during the imposed Lockdown #1 so were happy to see some so early this time. And they are beautiful birds.

Yellow Wagtail

There was little of note on the reservoir itself aside from a couple of Yellow-legged Gulls that were loafing on a buoy so we continued on to Pinkhill where there would at least be some respite from the winds. We heard a Willow Warbler, our first of the year, singing by the river and after some effort finally found it at the top of the trees opposite. There were more Blackcaps, an influx of them must have taken place overnight, in the trees by the nature reserve and a few Chiffchaffs were actively hunting the many flies that hovered above the path.


It was still too early in the spring for many returning Sedge, Reed and Grasshopper Warblers to have arrived and even if they had they'd be keeping low in such horrible conditions but they'd be back in a couple of weeks. Cetti's warblers called loudly but unseen from the scrub and reeds. We walked back to the reservoir and found a Redwing hunting worms in the grass covered embankment. April is quite late in the year to see a Redwing, it would have been held up on its northward migration by the inclement and cold weather. It was very confiding though and gave some excellent views and photo opportunities.


We breezed along the causeway, carried along by the strengthening winds, and back to the car, stopping only briefly to admire one of the Yellow Wagtails again.

Easter Sunday saw us back in the wood in Northamptonshire again for another tilt at the Lesser Spotted Woodpecker. In contrast to the cold dreary day of Friday this was a beautiful sunny morning so we made an early start. The wood was alive with birdsong and we could hear drumming from a Great Spotted Woodpecker as soon as we entered the trees. I thought that I could hear the more metallic and drawn out drumming of a Lesser Pecker too but investigation of all of the drumming posts where we'd seen them before turned up none. We lingered in the part of the wood where we expected to find the birds and after half an hour of no activity a Great Spotted Woodpecker began drumming once more on a tree right next to where we sat on a fallen tree trunk. It still took a bit of effort to find which branch was being used as the drumming post.

Great Spotted Woodpecker

There was no sign or sound of the smaller Woodpecker though and, despite being told that the Lesser Spots were still in the wood, I was becoming anxious that we'd somehow miss out for a second year running. Then, as it often does with birds and birding, the bird that we'd specially hoped to see suddenly appeared. The Great Spotted Woodpecker flew out of its drumming tree and was angrily and noisily pursued by a previously undetected male Lesser Spotted Woodpecker! 

Greater (top) & Lesser Spotted Woodpecker (middle & bottom)

Without getting too close, the Lesser is much smaller than the Great so it wouldn't do to take any risks, the diminutive Lesser Pecker then chased the larger Woodpecker around and around the trees while continually uttering its high pitched call. They were difficult to track as they raced around the trees but provided us with quite a thrilling spectacle. This was behaviour we'd never seen before and it was amazing to witness and appreciate just how much spirit the little chap had in trying to ward off its bigger rival. I snapped away when I could and was impressed that I'd managed to get some photos of the action and even managed to get both birds in one frame.

The birds settled in a tree for a while but the pursuit of the bigger by the smaller and the annoyance exhibited by the Lesser Pecker continued with more high pitched calling. There was always a respectful distance apart kept though, necessary for the Lesser Pecker since it would be easy for the Great Spotted to kill it should it stray too closely. I now had a chance to concentrate on the Lesser Spotted Woodpecker which is what I'd come for after all. On other visits in other springs we've watched the Lesser Pecker drumming low down in the trees on very easily observed branches for prolonged periods (see post from 2019 here), this time the five minutes that the Lesser Pecker was in the tree tops haranguing the Greater Pecker was all that we got. It was enough time though to enjoy a beautiful little bird and to grab some photos.

After the Woodpecker duo had departed into a different part of the wood, we naturally lingered in the hope that they'd return, and also studied some of the other birds on offer. Presumably the same very bold Jay that we'd observed on Friday blessed us with some even closer views although the rich sunshine, a rare commodity in the last few weeks, didn't help my photography but then that's probably a lost cause anyway.


We gave up at the Woodpecker spot and went wandering. The wood isn't very large and it can be walked around in half an hour. On such a beautiful sunny morning there was much activity from the resident birds and much birdsong although actually seeing them was strangely more difficult than it was a couple of days before since most of that activity was taking place higher up the trees. We did find a couple of Siskins in the Silver Birches where the Brambling were on Friday but they resolutely refused to offer up photos. A pair of Stock Doves were more accessible as they cavorted on the path ahead.

Stock Doves

As we made to leave the wood and return to our car parked nearby a quick movement alerted us to a Treecreeper that was foraging on trees next to the path. Treecreepers are fabulous "Little Brown Jobs" beautifully and cryptically marked which render them difficult to see. Unless, of course, they are scrabbling up a tree just ten feet away!


Acting on a report of some Ring Ouzels that had been seen on the slopes of Ivinghoe Beacon gave us a ready made itinerary for what to do next. We were there within forty minutes but had underestimated, having never been there before, just how popular the "beauty spot" would be on a lovely sunny Sunday lunchtime. It was absolutely heaving with people! We found out from another birder on site where the Ring Ouzels had been seen although he did tell us that they had been flushed by a free running dog and had flown into deep scrub. Having travelled we thought that we may as well have a look for the Rouzels anyway but knew that we'd fail, there were just too many folk with noisy children and dogs charging around the sheep pastures where the birds had been. We did find around twenty Wheatears and watched a few of the Red kites but gave up after just half an hour since it was clear the target birds wouldn't reappear until the site quietened down later in the day. We'd visit again early in the morning on another day if the Ring Ouzels remained faithful to the area.

On Easter Monday the weather was back to being inclement again and so it was onto a cold and breezy Otmoor for our morning walk. The birds were generally keeping their heads down and by the time we'd reached the cross tracks, we wished that we'd done the same. However, the walk towards Noke produced no fewer than four year ticks so the venture out was worth it in the end. Early returning Sedge and Reed Warblers sang very quietly from adjacent patches of reeds, allowing for a refresher and comparison of their songs. Both birds showed for the briefest of moments. Out on Big Otmoor we found the reported pair of Garganey, asleep and who could blame them on a day more suited to December than April. A pair of Shelduck pushed the year list on to 145.



Photos were pretty much pointless and I largely kept the camera holstered. At Noke a Green Woodpecker, completing the set of UK Woodpeckers in a little over 24 hours, fed in the sheep paddock and actually permitted a closer than usual approach, I made it to about fifty metres before it hurtled away over the hedge!

Green Woodpecker

We recorded over sixty species on the walk but only saw around half a dozen people, testament to the freezing winds and hail showers. A nicer day would have seen the reserve heaving with visitors, it was a Bank Holiday after all. The rarest bird seen was the Glossy Ibis that has set up residence on The Closes. Unfortunately so far the Ibis has decided to feed about as far from the viewpoints that it could be so any photos are of an odd shaped black speck in the distance!

Glossy Ibis

A Ring Ouzel had been seen near Linkey Down, one of Oxon's hotspots for the species, near Stokenchurch which is only a twenty minute drive from Otmoor so we headed there for another effort at adding the passage migrant to our lists. As unpleasant as the weather was on Otmoor, it was worse up on the Chiltern Ridge with constant snow flurries and a biting northerly wind. But we had to have a look anyway although we knew that our chances of finding the Rouzel would be slim. A couple of other county birders were there and they'd had no luck so after a cursory look in the field and hedges where the bird had been reported we walked along to Linkey Down itself. On the slopes there are scattered juniper bushes and these attract the Ring Ouzels. We spent ten minutes or so shivering against the wind but saw no movement in or around the bushes so ended up watching a Red Kite that was still gliding into the wind despite the snow storm that was raging. The photos taken were interesting enough for me to be finally awarded a Notable Photo on Birdguides again for one of them.

Red Kite

The Red Kite made a couple of swoops to the ground and landed. My photos revealed that it was snaring and then eating earthworms. In extreme weather many birds become highly adaptable in finding food and the Red Kite, a supreme scavenger, wasn't being too fussy in such conditions.

We'd had enough of withstanding the freezing cold so headed home for a coffee. How we long for the days when the coffee shops and pubs will be open properly again, especially those with a nice roaring log fire.