Sunday 31 October 2021

OCD #2; Early July 2021

rest of June's birding was spent on Anglesey (blogged here and here) and twitching a rainbow coloured Roller (blogged here) so this latest edition of OCD (the shortened version of Old Caley's Diary) picks back up in July.

Saturday 3rd July; BWR & Boddington Reservoir

We don't spend enough time at our local reserve but try to get down there at least once a month. Normally our visits are taken on foul weather days since the hide there affords some protection against the elements, or on the rare occasions when Alan finds something unusual, so it was a joy to actually spend an hour or so in glorious sunny conditions. There is a lot of building work going on in the water treatment works and the Bicester concrete tsunami is creeping ever nearer from the other direction resulting in a definite detrimental effect on the numbers of birds on the reserve this year. The reedbed that the hide overlooks still holds a few Reed Warbler and it was one of those that provided most of the entertainment.

Reed Warbler

We decided to head up to Boddington Reservoir for yet another attempt at finding the resident Willow Tits that are know to breed there. In the event we never got any further than the field next to the carpark because as we were togging up for our walk I heard a Grasshopper Warbler reeling away from the marshy area next to the reservoir. We'd had great views of a Gropper here at the end of April (see here) and this reeling bird was probably the same male bird which having reared one brood was now advertising its worth in preparation for a second breeding attempt. We homed in on the reeling, never an easy task, and found the Grasshopper Warbler in a small isolated oak tree. Groppers are one of my favourite birds and I can sit, watch and listen to one for hours, which we duly did! The Willow Tits would wait for later in the year.

Grasshopper Warbler

Sunday 4th July; Otmoor

This was one of the "Bittern mornings" for which Otmoor is rightly renowned for at this time of year. After spending much of the spring hidden away in the reeds when the young hatch in June and begin to grow the adult Bitterns undertake many "feeding flights" and become much more visible as they move around the moor from the nest site to one of their feeding areas. The bridleway is as good a place as any to see them and they can be frequently encountered as they fly over Greenaways. This morning we were watching a Little Egret when a Bittern flew past behind it.

Little Egret with (photobombing) Bittern

Usually the Bitterns head for one of the isolated reedbeds or to the long ditch that lines the cross path that runs across Greenaways. Then it's a case of waiting for the Bittern to fly back to the main reedbed where they breed. This time though we had the thrill of watching the Bittern fly almost directly towards us and then land next to the ditch that runs alongside the bridleway. It stood on the grassy bank for a few seconds before slipping away into the reeds and disappearing.


We walked on and were treated to the return flypast of the Bittern as we sat on the "Bittern Bench" (sorry Barbara). The Bittern landed in the closest patch of reeds to the bench as well so we really were being spoiled.

The lure of further flypasts was too great so we spent the next few hours in the same place, we never made it to the lagoons at all on this visit, and although we saw two Bitterns flying over Greenaways at the same time neither gave us a close flypast. A Raven and a male Marsh Harrier were slightly more daring and along with Cuckoos and Cetti's Warblers provided rich entertainment.


Marsh Harrier

Saturday 10th July; RSPB Bempton Cliffs 

A trip up to Yorkshire to connect with the magnificent Black-browed Albatross that had returned to the cliffs for the second successive summer, except that we didn't because the sought after bird flew out to sea about an hour before we got there. We made two subsequent trips to see the bird and finally almost two months later got the crippling views and photos that I longed for (see here). Luckily the cliffs at Bempton are home to many other birds during the breeding season so even in the absence of the Albatross there was still plenty to see and enjoy. Razorbills, Guillemots and Puffins adorn the cliffs and Fulmars and Gulls fly past along with occasional Peregrines and Kestrels.

The star attraction though is the huge colony of Gannets which number many thousands and are everywhere along the cliffs. The air above the cliffs is full of them whirling around and at times bewildering when trying to pick out individual birds. We stayed for almost six hours, all the time hoping for a return of the Albatross, during which time I took a lot of photos of the Gannets.

Gannet (adult top, 3rd calendar year centre & below)

A thriving flock of Tree Sparrows breed in the visitor centre buildings and in nest boxes provided for them and we watched some while taking a late lunch. A beautiful Swallow added to the ambience.

Tree Sparrow


Saturday 30 October 2021

Grubby! 26th October 2021

The weird and wonderful Hoopoe (Upupa epops)

The subject bird of this blog is anything but grubby! Rather it is a beautiful and exotic looking specimen, albeit at the same time being more than a bit odd. I'm talking about the strange but delightful Hoopoe, one of the most striking birds and unmistakable species that we get to see in the UK, and one that even non-birdwatchers can't fail to be interested in and will always stop to look at.

Hoopoes are scarce but regular visitors to the country, mainly adult birds seen during the late spring as they return from wintering in the Mediterranean to their breeding grounds further north and east, and then juveniles on their reverse journey southwards during the autumn. One such Hoopoe had been discovered feeding on the lawns outside of the reception building of the IBM HQ in Warwick on Sunday afternoon and had stayed on the Monday. My chance would come on the Tuesday afternoon to add it to my year list. We've seen a few Hoopoes over the years, the last one in Banbury last year (read here), but they are a bird that you just can't pass up, are fun to watch and interesting to photograph. I also had an ambition to fulfil with reference to the photography aspect of a Hoopoe.

Parking right outside the building we could see the Hoopoe even before we'd exited the car. Around half a dozen birders and toggers were lined up with lens aimed towards the bird which was paddling around on the lawn within feet of the walls, doors and windows of the (disused) reception area. We joined the others, saying hello to a couple that we knew, stood around twenty metres away from the Hoopoe. There were two areas of short grass intersected by a central path leading up to the doors. On each side there is another path bordering the lawns and running alongside the buildings that form a courtyard. I chose to sidle down the side that the Hoopoe was feeding rather than stand conspicuously with the others. The Hoopoe was probing deep into the soil with its peculiar curved bill, the tip of which is extremely sensitive. Whenever it sensed something edible it would dig vigorously and tweeze the food out which always turned out to be a grub, hence the title of this blog. The grubs, very unpalatable looking to my eyes, were then held at the end of the bill, presumably inspected for orientation, sometimes released and manoeuvred again on the ground, before being tossed up and then swallowed as we would when showing off with peanuts or grapes. 

The "bug tossing" shot is a capture much desired by photographers of Hoopoes. I have caught previous Hoopoes that I've seen in the act of tossing the grub but today failed miserably (read here a blog I wrote about a very confiding Hoopoe in 2018). The problem with capturing that shot is that you never know exactly when the Hoopoe is going to toss the bug. Several times when the Hoopoe held the grub ready for tossing I set the camera into overdrive but the bird very inconveniently waited until my finger got tired before going for it. So I have lots of photos of grubs held in the bill and a few open bill shots taken just too late as the grub disappears down the throat. After a while I gave up and just accepted defeat to the tosser. The grubs themselves, I discovered after an internet search, were not Leatherjackets (the larvae of the Crane Fly) as many on site thought, but actually Chafer larvae which do great damage to lawns everywhere so this Hoopoe was performing a great service for the IBM's team of gardeners. The Hoopoe was snaring a grub at the rate of one every couple of minutes or so.

I tried my luck from the other side of the quadrangle but from there the bird was framed by the opposite wall instead of the low leafy hedge so the photos became less aesthetic. I returned to Mrs Caley on the other side and a chat with a very well known birdwatcher who we also met at the Two-barred Greenish Warbler the week before. Another aspect to a Hoopoe that all birders like to see and photographers want to capture is the raised crest. The Hoopoe has an extraordinary set of head feathers which when raised in excitement or alarm resemble the best headwear ever donned by any Red Indian Chief. The feathers are fanned out, sprung forward from the anvil-like shape that is carried behind the birds head in relaxed mode. It's the crest that really makes a Hoopoe and supersedes all of the other garish and odd features that the bird possesses. I had never been able to successfully photograph the raised crest of a Hoopoe before but now at last I was in luck as the bird suddenly stretched forward and unfurled those remarkable plumes. Incredibly, for the five-seconds or so that the crest was raised, my camera performed superbly too and I captured probably the best photos that I would that afternoon. Moments like that make an Old Caley a very happy chap indeed!

After that brief period of great excitement the Hoopoe went back to grubbing around in the short grass, trapping many more Chafer larvae, and a couple of other smaller bugs, and I failed again and again in my attempts to capture a good "bug tossing" shot. In the end I gave up and just watched the bird go through its meticulous search for food. I missed another stretch and crest raising ceremony because the camera lay idle at my side but sometimes I have to remember that I am primarily a birder and watching the bird is as important as taking photos for sharing later. Those photos are a requirement for this blog however, otherwise I'd never get the two of you to look at it if it was just full of this waffling with no picture breaks to divert your weary eyes. 


With the camera fully primed again the Hoopoe put on another quick display of "cresting". Years of having no joy of getting those crest views and now this Hoopoe was over obliging. Not that I was complaining of course. I am always happy to get whatever shots I can at the time. I've seen a lot of tweets posted about this Hoopoe over the past week or so and I reckon at least half of them end the tweet with the "shame about the bad light" or "will revisit later in the hope of better light" complaint. I myself never subscribe to those type of excuses, although I admit I used to until a friend steered me in the right direction and explained that there is no such thing as "bad light" just different conditions that present different challenges, preferring instead to accept that the images I get are the images that I got and were the best available. Too many photographers must feel that they are too harshly judged on the quality of their photos. If you don't feel the light is "good" then don't bother taking photos, and if you do take some, then accept the photos for what they are. A photo is a memory of a certain point in time and helps to relive that experience. This is the UK after all, it's hardly ever sunny!

Anyway, maybe I was dwelling on things too much, because when the Hoopoe suddenly flew up and into a tree next to the office buildings, I wasn't ready and the only photos I took in haste were horribly blurred and went straight to the bin. Perhaps I should blame the bird for flying without warning me first. It took a while to locate the bird but then I saw it hop down onto an exposed branch. It dwelled there for a few minutes before being disturbed by a Magpie and went into hiding again. This time it was out of view for maybe fifteen minutes and we collectively wondered if it had flown further away or even gone. It hadn't of course, the lure of those juicy looking grubs was too great, and soon the Hoopoe flew back into the courtyard but was put off landing again because a chap had walked almost right up to the doors of the buildings. It landed on the roof instead above the over eager birder who was encouraged to move back away from the grass a bit by the rest of us. Almost as soon as he had, the bird dropped off the roof and back onto the lawn again to resume feeding. Birds, however confiding, almost always need a certain amount of space before they're comfortable in our presence.

Once back on the lawn the Hoopoe was immediately finding the chafer grubs again. Who knew that so many of the alien looking insects lived in a lawn and I bet that the Hoopoe was only finding the tip of a chafer grub iceberg. I've ordered a Hoopoe for my own lawn at home but I'm still waiting for it to be delivered. I tried to resist taking more photos of the Hoopoe but couldn't and tried in vain again to get that clinching "bug tossing" shot. Other people managed it so at least I know it's achievable the next time I encounter a Hoopoe somewhere. Who knows the one I've ordered for my unruly weed infested pathetic excuse for a lawn might finally turn up!

The Hoopoe sauntered over towards the doors of the building, stopping just short to have a stretch and preen, before investigating the cracks between the paving. More crest raising action which would have been brilliant had the bird been facing us. Not that I'm complaining.

The afternoon then turned a little bit more surreal when Hoopoe met R2D2 and appeared to have a chat with the rotund film starring robot. In the absence of C-3PO the dialogue didn't appear to go to well considering the bemused look on the Hoopoes face and some strong words that were aimed at the inanimate object.

Bored with the lack of conversation the Hoopoe hopped up onto a fine set of Sandstone rocks that overlooked the lawn posing in front of a sign that may have declared, "Warning; Hoopoes come with attitude!"

Time for more preening and to be honest I'd want to clean up if I'd been handling those slimy grubby things that the Hoopoe had. When you weighed up what the Hoopoe had on this little patch of urban Britain then you can understand why it had chosen to rest here. Hoopoes are usually birds of open farmland and grazing pastures, where it feeds mainly on the ground, with scattered trees and hedges for nesting, it nests in a hole in a tree or wall. Here in the concrete jungle of the IBM complex it had found a little slice of grazing ground with copious amounts of grub to eat. It had a couple of trees with broad pinkish leaves to use as a bolt hole when required. It even had an ornate sandstone rockery to remind it of the rocky and dry areas more often found around its more familiar home.

When the Hoopoe had finished making itself look pretty in pink, it pulled some shapes, flexing its muscles and feathers, showing off each wing in turn and generally looking a bit menacing. R2D2 still hadn't responded so maybe the Hoopoe was still a bit miffed about that. A few more "Rock Star" poses and then the Hoopoe was dropping back down to the grass to feed again. I missed the flight shots again. Obviously!

Hoopoes are sought after birds and one that I'll always go and see if local enough. It had been a pleasure to immerse in the weird and wonderful Hoopoe world for a while.