Wednesday, 19 January 2022

Superb Birds Everywhere! Mid-January 2022.

Saturday 8th January; When the Going gets Tough, we seek Shelter!

Birding for mere mortals like me is unpleasant in wet weather, it's not as much fun and it's difficult to see things properly because of wet optics. In persistent rainy conditions the ideal requirement is to have a reserve available that has nice dry hides to sit and to watch birds from. In Oxfordshire we have no such places, Otmoor does have hides and screens but to get to them requires a mile slog through thick mud and by the time you'd get out there you'd be soaked through. So on wet days, as was forecast for Saturday all day, we look at the charts and see if there is somewhere where the weather is better that we can we go. If it's wet elsewhere as well then we look for a place that can be enjoyed even in the rain. For this wet and dreary day, and bearing in mind that it was a New Year still with a New Year's list to add to, we chose probably the best place that is closest to us and headed out to Slimbridge Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust. We had considered a quick visit to Slimbridge on the Saturday before, New Year's Day itself, after spending the morning twitching Penduline Tits in Somerset (read here) but the place was absolutely rammed so we swerved it and went to see a Tawny Owl instead.  With luck though I reckoned that even a week later there'd be up to twenty year ticks on offer with a couple of tricky ones too so it should be a decent days birding regardless of the conditions. The Glossy Ibis that so many birders had enjoyed really close views of was not in its favoured field just outside of the wetlands centre either on that first day so by revisiting we'd also have another chance of adding that to the year list. 

We took our time in leaving home and drove steadily westwards in a mixture of drizzle and heavier rain. We saw the Glossy Ibis instantly after crossing the canal via the swing bridge, feeding in the grassy field to the north and at reasonably close range. Conditions had deteriorated further though and viewing was far from ideal but I took a couple of record shots anyway. I've seen lots of Glossy Ibis's but I always seem to see them either distantly or on very wet days so I've never really ever got a decent photo of one. Perhaps next time might be better.

Glossy Ibis

The Slimbridge carpark was deserted with less than a score of cars parked up. This would be how I prefer my Slimbridge, quiet and devoid of the army of non-birders who visit for the "zoo" attractions. We made our way directly to the Rushy Hide which overlooks the Rushy Pen where I knew there would be several year ticks to gain and within minutes we'd added Bewick's Swan, Shelduck, Pintail and Avocet (the long staying injured bird) to our list. The only disappointment was that the juvenile Spoonbill which had been there at nine o'clock had already disappeared out onto the Severn estuary. We were happily watching the gentle antics of the Bewick's when a fellow birder came into the hide and announced that she'd just seen a Bittern from the Martin Smith hide next door.

Bewick's Swan



juvenile Bewick's Swan

We eagerly looked out from the awkward viewing slits of the aforementioned hide but sadly the Bittern which had been showing just five minutes before had slunk off into a patch of reeds to the right and was no longer visible. We will have no problems seeing Bitterns this year, Otmoor is a reliable place to see them, but it would have been a big bonus to see one so early and at such close quarters as we would have from the hide. We kept watch for the next hour but there was no reappearance from the Bittern, apparently it doesn't like the rain any more than we do and in such weather tends to lie low, secreted in the small reed patch. The Tack Piece beyond the reeds and ponds immediately in front of the hide, held a multitude of birds with several more year ticks amongst them. Several hundred Black-tailed Godwits and around fifty Curlews being the pick of them.

Black-tailed Godwits

There was no sign of the Water Rail under the feeders at the Willow hide, a Moorhen had taken it over, so we continued on to the newly built Estuary Tower which gives panoramic views over the Dumbles and the Severn shore. This is where "real" birders go, most birds are distant but there is always stuff to find. I had left my own scope in the car but one of the "hide guides"graciously allowed me the use of his and I scanned the partly flooded Dumbles for more new birds for the year. The flock of Barnacle Geese that spend much of the year at Slimbridge but are thought to derive from the Netherlands were feeding right out on the salt marsh strip that divides the Severn from the Dumbles. The "Barnies" held a much scarcer bird in amongst them in the shape of a Brent Goose, quite unusual in these parts, and an even rarer species in the form of a Ross's Goose, the stark white plumage giving it away even in the murkiness of the day. The Ross's Goose despite obviously being wild and untamed will still be considered an escape from somewhere but in the context of my year list, it'll do. Dock me one at the end of the year if you don't agree (in fact dock me two if you don't like the Barnacle Geese either). A couple of Common Crane flew in bugling loudly and joined the Swans, Geese and Ducks on the Dumbles. Of course "Oakie" and whatever name the other Crane has been given shouldn't really count on the year list either but, sod it, it is my list.

Oakie Dokie

A Peregrine hurtled at full speed across the landscape but high enough up that none of the birds feeding on the Dumbles took hardly any heed at all. It was a vastly different story on the Tack Piece and the sight of the advancing Falcon sent the wading birds and Ducks there into a frenzy. The Peregrine though just carried on straight through and over the distant hedgerow and didn't attempt to catch anything. Shortly after another bird flew rapidly through the mists and directly at the hide. It realised into nothing more sinister than a Fieldfare. The fieldfare landed on a muddy patch by a cattle trough and then stared straight at the Tower for the next ten minutes. It was still stood staring when we left and I wondered whether it had just had a dice with death at the talons of the Peregrine. It certainly looked petrified.



We revisited the Willow Hide but it was still the Moorhen holding fort along with a pack of Brown Rats. All were eagerly making use of the spilt seeds from the feeders that various small bird species were eating from. A beautiful male Teal loafed peacefully in the shallows nearby. I've had so many excellent views of a Water Rail from this hide before that it didn't seem worth waiting, any photos gathered wouldn't be great anyway. They hardly ever are.


Brown Rats


We wandered back towards the Rushy and the visitor centre, a coffee was needed after being out in the cold and damp for the morning. I checked the bird news, and Twitter, and noticed that just seven minutes before that the juvenile Spoonbill was "still" on the Rushy Pen! Maybe it had been there all along and we had somehow missed it earlier. Sure enough just seconds later we were adding it to the year list. The young Spoonbill cut a disconsolate figure as it stood hunched up in a corner of the enclosure. Spoonbills have to be one of our oddest birds. I was glad to see it though since they are never that easy to catch up with in our area and we usually only see them on travels to the east coast.


The overpriced coffee and sandwich was fair enough fare and helped to warm us up a bit again. We were outnumbered three to one by staff, not that that fact mattered to two-thirds of them who carried on doing anything but anything, the joy of quiet days I guess. I was keen to track down the flock of White-fronted Geese that winter at Slimbridge but in visits to all of the hides overlooking the other parts of the reserve and a walk right to the far extremes of the reserve failed to produce the goods. We did see a flock of some five hundred plus Dunlin skimming low over the floods.

Black-headed Gull

There were still other birds that we hoped to catch up with but like the Glossy Ibis they were outside of the WWT centre. Luckily we knew there to look for them owing to a very helpful tweet. On our way out of the centre we stopped again near the canal and got slightly closer better views and photos of the Glossy Ibis. 

We stopped at the "track by the bend" as prescribed, or so I thought, by the tweet but only found three Little Egrets, still new for the year so we were very happy to see them, but we were looking for Cattle Egrets. We found those in a field by the correct bend a little further along the road. The field was swarming with hundreds of Black-headed Gulls and initially I couldn't see anything else. I was helped by a couple of horses being ridden along the track which put all the birds in the air and at the back of the flock I saw the Cattle Egrets which were also startled. The Cattle Egrets were our twentieth year tick of the day so that aim had been realised. We added another when a small group of larger Gulls that landed in the field after the horses had gone, contained a fine Yellow-legged Gull amongst them.

Cattle Egrets (& Sheep)

Year List additions;

78) Glossy Ibis, 79) Bewick's Swan, 80) Pintail, 81) Black-tailed Godwit, 82) Ruff, 83) Curlew, 84) Avocet, 85) Shelduck, 86) Barnacle Goose, 87) Brent Goose, 88) Ross's Goose, 89) Peregrine, 90) Fieldfare, 91) Common Crane, 92) Great Black-backed Gull, 93) Spoonbill, 94) Dunlin, 95) Feral Pigeon, 96) Little Egret, 97) Cattle Egret, 98) Yellow-legged Gull

Sunday 9th January; Almost Jacked in too Soon!

In complete opposition to the dreary Saturday, Sunday was set fair and promised to be a full on sunny extravaganza of a morning at least. We headed to Otmoor and arrived early so that we could enjoy the spectacle of fifty-thousand Starlings leaving their overnight roost in the reedbeds. Not early enough though because as we raced at snail pace along the main track, a good proportion of the Starlings raced at starling pace over our heads and away for the day. By the time we reached the reedbed all except for a few that spend the day feeding on the fields of the reserve had left. We must try harder and get up even earlier.

We were hoping for a view of the Hen Harrier that has been joining the Red Kites and Marsh Harriers in hunting the weak, injured or indeed, dead Starlings that don't make it away from the reeds along with the others but as is the norm when we are on Otmoor it didn't show. Hen Harriers have become fairly regular winter residents  on Otmoor but our strike rate at seeing them is very low. I think that over the past three years in countless visits to the moor we have only connected about three times! So in the beautiful early morning sunshine on this visit we had to make do with the more common raptors. We should never take Marsh Harriers for granted though since it's not that long ago that they were one of the rarest of the Bird of Prey species in the UK. There were two Marsh Harriers patrolling over the reedbed, both females, and one of them seemed to take a particular interest in a section of reeds at the back of the lagoon as viewed from the first screen. The Marsh Harrier perched none too securely to some reed stems and its usual streamlined and majestic form when flying was replaced by an off-balanced and awkward pose.

Marsh Harrier

Once back quartering the reedbed again the Marsh Harrier readopted the sureness of a bird in its element. It also remembered that at Otmoor, Marsh Harriers do not come close enough to the screen to allow good photos so yet again I had to make do with "nearly" images. That is, not nearly good enough.

I spotted another brownish bird of prey flying rapidly in from the right but instead of the hoped for Merlin it turned out to be a first of the year Sparrowhawk. which flew straight past without paying any attention to the congregation of Snipe that briefly stood upright at the sudden alarm. They soon settled back into the reed stubble again once the danger had passed. 


For the next hour or so I scrutinised every Snipe several times over trying to locate a Jack Snipe, the smaller cousin of the Common Snipe but despite knowing the subtle differences between the two species, I couldn't make any of the Common's into a Jack. This is a "sport" that I play quite a lot and generally I am defeated but I don't give up easily and I'll continue playing the game until one day I strike lucky. Mrs Caley ended the fun by announcing that she'd had enough and was feeling the cold, it was sunny but still chilly, and wanted to go. The Sparrowhawk had been our ninety-ninth species of the year and I was really hoping that a Jack Snipe would bring up the century. In reserve we knew that at the Wetlands Hide there were a couple of certain year ticks that would bring us to that milestone anyway. 

As I left the screen I jokingly said to Rob, a master of making video films of birds (see them at @robcadd on Twitter), that I would still be on the moor so if he spotted the Jack Snipe, holler or send me a message via the mobile. We had barely made it to the bottom of the slope away from the screen when Rob called us back. He told us that, based on the description I'd given about the main differences between Common and Jack Snipes, he thought he'd found a Jack. I looked through his digiscope kit and sure enough there was a Jack Snipe! He'd found it in the reeds right at the left edge of the lagoon, a place that I'd overlooked when scouring for it myself. Obviously I'm not as thorough as I'd thought I'd been and I reminded myself, not for the first time that morning, that I must try harder! Seeing the Jack Snipe wasn't easy but getting a photo was even harder. It was very well secreted in the reed stubble and just out of reach of my lens but we had our first century of birds for the year.

Jack Snipe

In 2021 we didn't see our one-hundredth bird until the last day of January. In 2020, the hundred up wasn't achieved until the 4th of February and in 2019, it was on the 26th of January so, by our standards we were off to a flyer this year. Another attempt at a "Big Year' crossed my mind but I quickly dismissed the notion because at this point I don't feel ready to go charging off all over the country chasing less than rare birds or even the rarest birds for that matter. But who knows, I may pick the bug up again somewhere along the line.

At the Wetlands Hide we added the birds that we expected to the list, Linnets and Yellowhammers joining the Chaffinches and Reed Buntings feeding on the scattered seed along the path. No Bramblings yet this year but hopefully a few will come later. As we slogged through the ankle deep mud along the bridleway, the sludge being the work of scores of Starling watchers that visit every evening for the murmuration, a quartet of Stock Doves flew over and landed briefly by the cattle pens. Stock Doves are always a welcome sight and while watching them from afar my mind raced ahead to the spring when I hoped that Turtle Doves would return after an absence last year.

Year List additions;

99) Sparrowhawk, 100) Jack Snipe, 101), Yellowhammer, 102) Linnet, 103) Stock Dove

Monday 10th January; Not F(l)inching my Duties, Honestly!

I was back at work in earnest at last after a far too prolonged Christmas and New Year holiday and I was working near to a well known local Brambling hotspot close to Chipping Norton so I took my lunch hour out by going along to see how many of them were resident this winter. Unfortunately my time there coincided with a pretty horrible patch of rainy weather and the conditions were far from convivial. The Bramblings winter along with large numbers of Chaffinches and Linnets in a stubble field close to a minor road and luckily I could watch them without leaving the dry and warmth of my van. In the driving rain I could only find around ten of the orange and black finches and my photos weren't up to much. I'd return later in better weather and try again.


Year List additions;

104) Mistle Thrush, 105) Jay, 106) Raven, 107) Brambling

Wednesday 12th January; The Whitehouse Ghost Buried at Last!

Last winter we paid three unsuccessful visits to Whitehouse, one of Milton Keynes "new" villages, hoping to see a Black Redstart. Despite searching all of the likely spots, a building site, the roofs of houses, carparks and more we could not pin the bird down at all. We were not alone, many birders visited many times and achieved the same blank result as us. The bird continued to be reported and it was only after several months that it became apparent that the bird was actually being seen in a lucky birders back garden on the development. Seeing birds on new housing estates is never easy, the high walls and fences and the intrusion of infringing upon other folks privacy make birding in such places awkward. Ironically we gave up trying to find the Black Redstart there and turned our attention to another two birds in Chinnor, in another new housing estate.

A few weeks before Christmas, presumably the same adult male Black Redstart was rediscovered in the same part of the Whitehouse area. I kept a check on reports but as before it seemed as if the bird was still frequenting the back gardens in a few select streets and by all accounts was still very difficult to see unless you owned one of the houses from which it could be seen. Then early in the New Year the Black Redstart was spotted in a much more accessible location, at the Whitehouse Health Centre, where it frequented the roof and the mini builders yard next door. It's appearances there were still sporadic but it appeared to favour sunny afternoons. A week or so after it was first seen in the new location, about four hundred yards from the favoured housing estate, some cracking photos emerged of the bird online. Wednesday was a lovely bright and sunny day but cold, in the past it would have been a typical January day but such days are few and far between in recent times. I finished work early so collected Mrs Caley from home and headed out to Milton Keynes to try for the bird ourselves. We arrived at two o'clock, there had been no reports of the Black Redstart since mid-morning and that had been from the houses, but I was confident that the bird would show at the Health Centre.

We pulled into the carpark and parked as far away from the main doors as possible. The carpark was covered in a cloak of shadow cast by the huge building. Milton Keynes may not to be everybody's taste but they sure do build a lot of facilities for the people that are choosing to live there. The action would be at the other end of the building, the sunny side of the street so to speak. I checked my phone for any updates and was delighted to read that just seven minutes previously, the Black Redstart had been seen on the roof of the Health Centre and had been reported by the chap who's garden that the bird liked. We made our way to the "back" of the building and met Steve and another birder by a temporary railed fence. On this side of the centre was a cafe, sadly closed for refurbishment which I thought was surprising considering the building was so new anyway, and a pharmacy which seemed rather isolated but did have direct indoor links to the health centre. 

Steve indicated that the Black Redstart was secreted in amongst a pile of road barriers, cones and other cast aside road-menders paraphernalia. We waited for maybe a couple of minutes before the Black Redstart flew up from the ground and alighted onto the rim of a skip. It perched there, lit up by the winter sunshine as if posing in a spotlight, and casually looked around at the surroundings. Opportunities to see a stunning adult male Black Redstart, in perfect conditions and as close as this bird was, are few and far between so I quickly found a gap in the fence and fired up the camera. As a Blue Boy at heart it was nice to see so much blue on offer too, a blue sky always lifts the spirits, and the blue metal container made for a different and interesting background to the photos. There would be a lot of blue backgrounds on offer during our one hour stay.

Black Redstart

The Black Redstart flew up onto a veranda roof and started hunting the flies that make up a large part of its diet. For a bird that is generally a resident of mountainous areas in its mainstay on the continent, the plush new building seemed an incongruous setting. Even in the UK Black Redstarts tend to choose derelict or industrial building sites that superficially resemble a mountain terrain. They were famed for colonising post World War Two bomb sites in London and Birmingham to nest and breed. Large industrial type buildings though, with the large roofs and the multitude of nooks and crannies that they possess have long been a favourite of the birds so I suppose the health centre fitted the bill perfectly for the Black Redstart to take as a winter home. The bird flew up onto the roof of the building where it perched at the edge.

From the roof the bird launched sorties to snare flying insects, in flycatcher style, and like that species returned to pretty much the same spot after each short flight. It also chased prey items across the roof, more like a Pied Wagtail would, of which there were several sharing the hunting ground of the roof. Up on the roof the Black Redstart was much further away but it gave me a chance to photograph it in flight when the red tail was often spread. The low sun also cast interesting shadows upon the brick wall which looked as if the Black Redstart was being chased by a bigger and malevolent version of itself.

The Black Redstart would disappear for some time, maybe ten minutes or more, while it presumably chased insects on the top of the roof itself and away from the edges and thus unseen from the ground. During those periods of inactivity for us, we took time to spot some of the other birds around. There were Stonechats and Dunnocks on the surrounding waste ground, and Redwing and Goldfinches in the trees nearby. We also chatted to fellow birders that had joined us to enjoy the Black Redstart. Without warning the object of desire suddenly appeared on the railing again and no more than twenty feet away from Mrs Caley and I. How it had sneaked in without anyone noticing it was remarkable. 

For the next fifteen minutes or so the bird alternately posed on the various railings and fences and fed hidden amongst the builders stuff. It was an enjoyable time watching it when we could and predicting where it would alight next. At the end of it I had some of my best shots ever of a Black Redstart. When the bird flew back to the roof and disappeared again, we called it a day, even at just after three o'clock the sun was already dipping behind the school building to the west. It was just a shame that the cafe was closed.

Year List additions;

108) Black Redstart

1 comment:

  1. Another super write up, you make it sound so easy but we know that's not the case! great pictures again Nick.