Friday14th January; The Bramble Finch
Brambling is a favourite finch species for many birders. Despite originating from much further north, the winter visitor brings a bit of the exotic to the UK with it's orange, black and white plumage, a colour combination that isn't seen that regularly here. Bramblings are certainly firmly on my radar every winter and I always strive to see a few before they return to their Scandinavian breeding forests. In some winters there can be very few Brambling in our area but in others, such as last year, they can be pretty much everywhere. At the end of 2020 and into 2021 there was a large flock of Brambling wintering and feeding at a stubble field just south of Chipping Norton where as many as a hundred could be found mixed in with larger numbers of our more usual Chaffinches and Linnets. My friend Mark had already checked the site out and found around twenty in the usual places and I had gone to the field earlier in the week during a lunch break and found a handful, albeit in pretty poor weather.
I had a day off so took Mrs Caley out for a bit of gentle birding in the Cotswolds, hoping to see one of the areas most enigmatic of birds, before returning to Sarsgrove to show her the Brambling flock. The bird we ventured almost into Gloucestershire to see won't be named here and location details must be kept secret. I've been asked not to share photos either but local birders will know of the bird I speak. In the event, despite the books saying that it's too early in the year to reliably see the species, we saw an adult female as it serenely but powerfully passed by our viewpoint. Back into deeper Oxfordshire we parked up overlooking the stubble field and were greeted by a swirling flock of Linnets which then alighted in the trees above our car.
The trees by the main road where I'd found a few Brambling a couple of days before were empty but some bushes a little further up the road were teeming with birds. There is always a problem when viewing flocks of birds as opposed to lone ones in that flocks are easily spooked and are difficult to approach. A large flock will react to almost any stimulus and as we walked up the road towards them, the whole group of finches were set up by a passing truck and took to the air again before diving into any available cover. We watched the edge of a small copse and after a few minutes the birds began to emerge from the safety of the trees. Most of them returned to the stubble to feed once more, some only twenty metres or so from the road but in the reedy growth all were virtually impossible to see well. We stationed ourselves next to a small stand of roadside bushes and were luckily rewarded when some Brambling alighted into one of them. I love Brambling, despite being almost identical in structure and size to the more common Chaffinch, which in itself is a beautiful bird, they appear (to me anyway) more imposing and almost regal in the case of the boldly marked males. And that's even before they attain their full breeding plumage.
Female Brambling, as with most finch species, are less well marked and bear much more subdued plumage but are still beautiful birds. The black and bright orange of the male feathers are replaced by grey and more muted orange tones. From the birds that I could see in the trees and bushes there appeared to be less females than males in this flock.
I tried unsuccessfully to gain some photos of the Brambling feeding in the stubble despite some being quite close. Whereas the Linnets and a few Chaffinches nimbly fed at the top of the stalks, the Brambling tended to feed much lower down and were largely hidden from view, maybe they are a bit heavier and therefore can't balance as well on the wispy grasses. I had to make do with trying to get a clear view of birds that perched in the tangled twigs of the roadside bushes but it's hardly a hardship having to take photos of such beautiful birds.
Year List additions;
109) ?…..?, 110) Skylark
Saturday15th January; Owl's about that!
We set off from home quite late by our standards and were heading to Carsington Water where we would hopefully find some scarce birds to add to our year list. However, the day had dawned foggy and bleak and by 9 o'clock hadn't lifted much, if at all, so by the time we had reached the M40 we had reset the SatNav to head for Deeping Lakes near Peterborough instead! We have many places where we like to go each year in order to see some of our rarer and scarcer birds and deciding which one to go for on any given day takes much forward planning. Unfortunately, occasionally fortunately, I am very indecisive at the best of times and quite often, even if I've done all the advance work in where would be good to go on a particular day, will change my mind as I leave home, and sometimes even when I'm already on my way! Todays change of plan though was actually instigated by Mrs Caley who quite rightly pointed out that if it was as foggy at Carsington then we'd be unable to see anything on the reservoir. Of course the fog would probably extend into the Lincolnshire fenlands as well but the birds we'd be after there would be closer and hopefully more accessible. We checked the weather forecast and were informed that the foggy conditions would lift by mid-morning so hopefully our itinerary would work out.
We arrived at Deeping Lakes, a reserve managed by the Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust, a couple of hours later. The fog hadn't lifted an inch and we could barely see the other side of the carpark as we kitted up. Our target bird at Deeping Lakes was the Long-eared Owl, since the reserve has a claim to fame for being the site of a roost spot for these elusive birds. Usually the Long-eared Owls, up to six can be seen although the most I've found here is four in previous visits, usually roost on an island where a couple of ivy covered trees provide cover and a safe daytime snoozing place. This winter however, the Owls have taken to roosting in similar ivy festooned trees on the opposite side of a finger of the main lake, known as The Gully which would afford closer views from the main track. On our walk towards the hide we year ticked Bullfinch when a fine male flew across our path. It was close too, it had to be because visibility was still poor, but it disappeared into the gloom as quickly as it had appeared.
We came to a muddy patch next to the finger of the lake but because it was attached to a slippery looking slope to access it, I ignored it and chose an easier spot to look from a little further up the track. In all there were three such muddy patches, all evidence of many birders standing there while they searched for the Owls. I set up the scope ready to peer through the murk at the trees on the other bank. To begin with though we could barely see those trees! After a few minutes it became very apparent (oxymoron, ha!) that we had chosen the wrong day to look for the Owls. During the preceding few days the UK had been blessed been with fine sunny weather and the Long-eared Owls, one in particular, had taken to sitting quite openly on the lake side of one of the trees. No such luck on this day, the near freezing foggy conditions naturally had the Owls seeking more protected and warmer spots in which to slumber. After fifteen minutes of finding nothing, we decided on a temporary break in play and went wandering around the lake for a while, hoping that the fog would have lifted a little by the time we returned. On our walk we spotted a pair of Goosanders and a small raft of Goldeneye amongst the more common wildfowl species. We checked the island for Owls as well, but that is further away than the opposite bank of The Gully so that proved to be a complete waste of time considering that we could barely see it.
We returned to the same viewing patch and joined a few other birders who had arrived and were searching the trees opposite. Unfortunately none of them had visited before so didn't know any more than I did. Most of them got dispirited much quicker than even I had so soon it was back to just me and Mrs Caley staring across the water again. Then we got a break when a friendly local walked by and told us not to bother looking from where we were but to look from the first muddy patch, the one that I'd chose to ignore earlier on safety grounds. He said that he'd seen a Long-eared Owl from there at nine o'clock that morning and that there was always one secreted in the same part of the trees on the other bank! He gave me details of where to look but had to be away himself because he'd been on site too long already. "Look carefully and you'll be sure to find it" he said. We gingerly slid our way down to the waters edge and set up the scope to look carefully at the area of trees that the chap had described. Within thirty-seconds I had just about made out the shape of something that wasn't part of the tree, and a few seconds later after a bit of crosseyed head tilting and some Owl-like peering had managed to turn that shape into a Long-eared Owl!
Try as I might though the Long-eared Owl was located in a position that defeated all my efforts at getting a better image and besides as I often say, once you've got one photo of a resting Owl then you've got them all since it won't be moving around much, if at all. The Long-eared Owl was our third Owl species of the year so far and surprisingly it was the two most common and usually the easiest to find, Barn and Little Owls, that we didn't yet have. A couple of friends of ours, Kev and Kyle, walked up and joined us. I knew that they were coming to Deeping Lakes because I had told them that it was the best place to almost guarantee seeing a Long-eared Owl which would be a lifer for them both. Luckily for them I had already found it for them too although I think they'll both be wanting better views of one. They had been to Eldernell earlier in the morning where they had seen both Short-eared and Barn Owls so they were quickly onto a three Owl day and they went on to add a Little Owl to make it four! I was too lazy to be bothered to search out the Little Owl that can be found along the river at Deeping. I know where there are several pairs close to home so they wouldn't be a problem to find later.
Kyle (Birdwatch Britannia) had shown me a photo that he'd taken of a Short-eared Owl that morning and bearing in mind that we had only had distant views of a couple a fortnight before, we decided to revisit Eldernell and get a better and closer look for ourselves. First though I contacted one of my football mates and arranged to meet him at a local coffee shop. It was great see Dave again after almost two years since last seeing him at the last Chelsea game I went to, prior to the pandemic and before me subsequently relinquishing my season ticket.
After the catch-up with the World's third greatest 400 metre runner (a fantastic achievement is that), and some lunch, we headed the short drive over to Eldernell, familiar to us now after our first visit there only two weeks ago. The Short-eared Owls that Kyle and Kev saw in the morning were still in exactly the same spots in the hedge so I collected pretty much the same exact photos that Kyle had. Except his are better.
As I said before and will probably say every time that I talk about Owls, watching stationary Owls in a tree or bush is pretty unexciting stuff because they do next to nothing. Looking at the two Short-eared Owls that we could see and we may as well have been looking at Kyle's photos from earlier. The Owls did at least provide some entertainment by turning their heads occasionally. The Short-eared Owls at Eldernell seem to be very reticent when it comes to flying and I've seen very few flight shots of them from the site. We willed them to leave their awkward looking positions in the twiggy bushes. Not that telepathy ever works with birds, they are obviously not tuned in to my mind-waves. Or maybe they are, because both of them simultaneously decided to give me their best stares! I can't remember ever having seen such angry looks from a Short-eared Owl before, those type of piercing looks are usually owned by Little Owls. I re-christened the two birds, Short-eared Scowls!
Another very frustrating event then presented itself when a couple walking along the bank behind us loudly exclaimed, "Look, there's a Barn Owl!", and pointed to the tumbledown farm buildings to our left. Frustrating because some bushes to our left obscured our view of the Barn Owl and despite me running up the bank as quickly as I could, I didn't get there quickly enough to see the bird. I still haven't seen a Barn Owl this year. Kyle and Kev had definitely outdone us in the Owl stakes. I spent another half hour watching the old sheds and barn, hoping that the Barnie would reappear but the Old Caley to Barn Owl telepathy hotline was also broken.
As the light faded, I gave up, I did have the scant compensation of seeing some Whooper Swans, a trio of Common Cranes and a Great Egret fly across the floodplain. Marsh Harriers were active too but none of the Owls joined in.
Year List additions;
111) Long-eared Owl, 112) Goldeneye, 113) Bullfinch