Friday 25 February 2022

Friday 11th February; An Eastbourne Trinity!

The "Bird of the week", the bird that gets a lot of birders excited, was an American Robin that had been found in a quiet cul-de-sac on the edge of a housing estate in Eastbourne. The bird had been discovered on Tuesday although the consensus was that it had been around for almost a month feeding on berry bearing bushes and trees in residents gardens. I already had American Robin on my UK list but Mrs Caley did not, I had coerced my mate Trevor to make a detour to Grimsby from our route to Scarborough where we would watch Chelsea struggle to deal with a non-league side in the FA Cup fourth round at the end of January 2004. The American Robin was feeding on a grass verge next to a greasy spoon burger van on an industrial site. I ticked it from the car, and didn't spend any more time there than was necessary because we had a rendezvous arranged with the rest of our friends at a pub, aptly called the Dotterel, high up in the North Yorkshire Moors. By the end of that weekend, after an instantly forgettable match and a lot of drinking I had pretty much forgotten everything about the American Robin as well! 

chance at seeing another American Robin therefore couldn't be passed up, particularly since it was reasonably close to home. Since seeing the Grimsby bird I had had a couple of near misses, a bird at Glenmore at the foot of the Cairngorm Mountains discovered the day after we had left for home after we spent two weeks there, and an elaborate hoax of one in Buckinghamshire where I spent three hours looking for it before being told by a neighbour, of the chap who reported it, that it was never there and had been invented to annoy another neighbour! This American Robin though, as photos and accounts from locals testified, was very real and showing very well. I was keen to visit before the weekend because I knew that would be very busy and twitching rare birds in urban settings can be fraught if too many birders attend. So I decided that I'd take another day off on Friday, despite knowing that we'd have to brave the M25 slog at the worst possible time to get home in order to have our chance of seeing the Robin. There were also two other birds that were just a few miles away from the American Robin, not lifers but both worthy of a look, especially in the case of a long staying Hume's Leaf Warbler, a species which we'd only seen once before although we did see two at the same time. An even longer staying Hooded Crow would also be on our agenda.

The drive southwards was largely uneventful and we made good time until we hit some roadworks on the A27 east of Brighton. As I toiled in the jam I looked up at the Amex, a new stadium that I never got to go to but I imagine it's an improvement on the old Goldstone Ground, what wouldn't be? The stadium may be much more salubrious but its name certainly isn't as homely. Musing on the fact that B&HAFC is the only football league side to have their own RSPB badge, even though it isn't of an actual species of bird, it's a Seagull thing, the traffic finally relented and we were on our way again. In need of a stop before joining the bigger twitch, we made a short detour to Polegate services just north of Eastbourne where we'd hopefully encounter the Hooded Crow. Having "used" a certain American burger chain for the only purpose it's fit for, we spoke to a group of birders who were just returning to their car. They had already ticked the Robin and had just located the Hoodie as well. Their directions to the Crow made our task of finding it a lot easier because it wouldn't have been without them. The services lie off the very busy A22, every road in the South coast area seems to be very busy and unfortunately the Hooded Crow had decided that a refuge provided by an inaccessible group of trees on the opposite side of the dual carriageway would suit it best at the early hour. With the directions provided we found it easily enough, perched in a tangle of low branches quite close to the road and roundabout but viewing was awkward owing to the low sun that was shining directly at us and the traffic that was thundering past. Having seen lots of Hooded Crows before I was happy to grab just a few record shots before moving on, there were scarcer birds to find after all. I can't remember ever having seen a Hooded Crow so far south before, usually you have to go to North Scotland to see them.

Hooded Crow

The American Robin location was just three miles away so we were there within minutes of leaving the services. We had travelled down on the Friday to avoid the mass twitch that would surely take place the following day and because of the promised fine and sunny weather. It was a a bit of a surprise then to see so many birders and twitchers in attendance and we had to drive around for a while to gain a decent parking spot that wasn't too far away, it was a bit like arriving late for kick off at the Goldstone and trying to park. We joined the fifty or so fellow hopefuls and got the latest gen from someone we'd spoken to before at previous twitches. The American Robin which had been showing really well first thing in the morning had only shown briefly and at distance since and most people present hadn't seen it at all. As the usual anxiety threatened to rear its ugly head, I assured Mrs Caley that we wouldn't have to wait long. American Robins are showy birds and this one, as photographs from earlier in the week testified, was very obliging. Just five minutes later the bird flew in rapidly from our left and settled in a small tree in the front garden of one of the houses.

American Robin

American Robins are not really a Robin at all but are actually a species of Thrush as this one exhibited by not only superficially resembling our native Blackbird, albeit one with a bright orange-red breast, but also by loudly "chacking" and flicking its tail and wings just as a Blackbird would. It was European settlers to North America who termed the bird as a Robin because that red breast reminded them of the familiar bird back home. The American Robin stayed a few minutes in the tree surveying the area to ensure all was safe, we had noticed a couple of cats in the vicinity, before it flew a short distance to land in a cotoneaster bush, where it had been in many of the photos that I'd seen on social media.

The cotoneaster was clearly the American Robins own personal larder but it didn't tuck into the bright red berries straight away, again the bird made a complete check of its surroundings before beginning its feast. Some of the birders and toggers present had obviously been before because they had staked out the cotoneaster bush so the best I could do was tag onto the back of the line and shoot frames between shoulders and heads. The bush was partly obscured by garages so there was only a limited field of view if stood closer, although from the far side of the road it was easier to see the bird so Mrs Caley had fine unobstructed views. I watched the bird, its behaviour of nervously flicking the tail and wings plus its fairly large size put me more in mind of a Fieldfare than a Blackbird although it seemed quite happy in an urban setting whereas Fieldfares are not unless the weather takes a turn for the worse.

The American Robin decided it was time to feed and boy did it feed! I've watched birds like Waxwings devour berries with some gusto but this bird must have been a champion speed eater, berry after berry disappeared down its throat and I wondered how it managed to breathe. At peak I reckoned it was downing a berry every other second. The gorging was accompanied by the racket of dozens of camera shutters, mine included, as we all tried to capture the moment a berry was held in the bill ready for swallowing but that was incredibly difficult to get owing to the speed of dispatch giving the camera shutter a run for its money. There was no time to review the images at the time so I was pleased to find a couple of "berry tossing" shots when editing the photos later.

The American Robins choice of the cotoneaster actually helped it to blend in and became quite tricky to see at times despite the bright sunshine. When facing its admirers the redbreast blended into the sea of similarly coloured berries. 

After just six minutes of frantic feeding the American Robin flew up and away from its banquet and alighted in the original tree again. From there it flew into a much smaller bush and promptly disappeared presumably to digest its meal. I searched every inch that I could of that bush and could not locate the bird. It is amazing how a bird so large can just melt away into its surroundings.

We'd been on site for no more than twenty minutes but decided to leave, I had photos and if the bird stuck to its previous pattern of behaviour then it wouldn't reappear for a couple of hours. The next bird on the day's itinerary would likely need a lot more effort to see and we needed some sustenance of our own.

We easily found the place that the Hume's Leaf Warbler was frequenting, that was evident by a large group of birders stood halfway in the main promenade road staring up into a group of trees, but it took a bit longer to find a cafe for breakfast where we could park without paying. Taking a time-out for food wouldn't be a problem, the Hume's Warbler had been present since the end of November and had stayed loyal to a small area around the promenade so it wouldn't be disappearing on us. The birders already looking at it would provide us with an instant location fix so we wouldn't have to go searching for it either. Or so we thought anyway!

After a very satisfying Full English breakfast and very un-English two Flat White coffees, I was fuelled up and ready to go again. We parked a short distance from the throng of birders, which had thinned out a bit since we'd driven past but had attracted the attention of the local constabulary presumably because of the encroachment into the road. We joined the twenty or so twitters left and asked where and when the Hume's had last been seen. A chap answered, "It's been up in that furthest tree but hasn't been seen for half an hour now". We joined in peering at the spot where the Hume's had been seen and soon realised just how difficult the task would be. The trees in question were Holm Oaks, a type of densely leaved tree that is found around the coast. Unlike all of the Oak trees I'm used to, this particular species doesn't appear to drop its leaves in winter so we were looking for a very small in a tree with an almost impenetrable canopy. Seeing such a small bird flitting around in that lot was not going to be easy at all.

Our mission to see the Hume's Leaf Warbler was made more difficult when a birder, who had been at the American Robin twitch earlier, ran across the road and stated, "I don't know why you lot are looking for the Warbler there" and "We've been hearing it calling non-stop over here for the last half hour!" We had to make a choice and with no sign of the Hume's in the Oaks, we decided it must have slipped out and down across the road, and followed the chap across the road and into a pedestrianised promenade which was bordered by ornamental shrubs and trees. The first sighting, and most of the subsequent reports, of the Hume's Warbler had been made along this narrow promenade and the bird had only been seen from where we had joined the other birders on the opposite side of the main road in the past couple of days. We spoke to another birder who said that she'd been hearing the Hume's calling constantly from a group of fir trees although she had only gained glimpses of what she thought was the bird. We spent the next forty-five minutes patrolling a hundred yard stretch of the walkway and didn't hear the bird distinctive disyllabic call once! 

Thinking that we may have been unwittingly duped, I suggested to Mrs Caley and a couple of other people who had also followed us across the road, several others who had come across at the same time had already given up, that I go and check back across the road and see if the bird had been sighted again there. I was surprised to see that the group of birders had grown slightly in numbers and once more asked if they had the Warbler. "Yes, it's in that tree" and was pointed in the direction of the same Oak that the Warbler was supposedly in before. Less than fifteen-seconds later I saw the Leaf Warbler flit quickly out of the leaves and back in again. It seemed as if the Hume's had been in the tree all along and that we had truly been led down the (wrong) garden path!

I called Mrs Caley to join me and we resumed our search for the Hume's Warbler in the right place again. Now we were assured that the bird was in the group of Holm Oaks, I had just had that fleeting view for confirmation, it was a case of waiting long enough to see it well and hopefully to grab some photos. We didn't have to wait too long before the bird appeared in the canopy. All I had to do was to follow it, aim the camera and click at the place it should be since seeing it through the viewfinder was almost impossible. My first attempt was almost perfect apart from one crucial aspect, while the burst of images obtained had captured the bird almost completely unobscured and "in the open" unfortunately the focus wasn't on the bird itself but instead on some of the many leaves which the Hume's uncannily resembled. At least I had a full grasp of why the bird is called a Leaf Warbler!

Hume's Leaf Warbler

A familiar face from Oxfordshire, Adam (read his account here), joined us in the hope of getting some views of the Warbler. Of the trio of birds that we'd seen this was easily the hardest (ha!) to see. Perversely though the more difficult a bird is to track down then the more I enjoy the chase and, in trying to get a good look at this Hume's warbler and get a decent photo of it, I was in my element. I don't lack for patience when it comes to scarce Warbler species. The Hume's Leaf Warbler had completed another hat-trick after having seen its closely related cousins, a Yellow-browed Warbler and a Pallas's Leaf Warbler, already this year. Of the three, I still prefer the Yellow-browed but that's probably because I've spent so much time in Cornwall searching, finding and then watching them during October holidays. The Hume's had reappeared at the top of its favoured tree again and I fired off more shots. A review of the back of the camera images was disappointing yet again as I couldn't make out the bird in any of them. Then to make matters worse, the Hume's suddenly and very briefly, for no longer than a second, appeared right out in the open on a very top branch and I missed the shot. Groan!

I spotted the bird right in the shadows at the back of the tree next time and for a while just watched it through the binoculars as it hunted its insect prey in the tangle of hanging branches and leaves. Hume's Leaf Warblers are very closely related to Yellow-browed Warblers but the overall appearance is of a duller plumaged bird, the yellows and greens of the brighter Yellow-browed being replaced by muted buff and grey-green tones. The easiest way to separate the species is by call and thankfully this Hume's Warbler was making its "dsu-eet" call frequently. I peered up into the tree from below and fired off more shots and this time had captured the bird reasonably well but only of the underneath of the bird.

When the bird appeared in a bare branched sycamore a few minutes later, a fact I was made aware of by noticing several cameras suddenly held skywards, I was in the wrong place at the wrong time and never got a chance at another potential "money shot". I wasn't having the best of luck but it's a hard game photographing Siberian sprites and I'm happy just to get record shots. I got a few more images and show a couple here to illustrate just how well these Warblers blend into their surroundings. Also don't forget that these birds are continually on the move moving quickly through the foliage so getting these shots wasn't easy!

My best efforts, in regard to photos came when I spent an hour or so peering closely the next day at the images I'd taken of the Hume's Warbler (and leaves mostly). On some of the very first sets that I'd taken, I discovered that the bird was wonderfully in full view and in good focus too. Annoyingly a leaf obscured the wing bars but I was just grateful that I'd managed to capture a decent record shot of the bird.

It was a terrific days twitching in a lovely town that I'd never spent much time in before. Three very good additions to the year list, a lifer for Mrs Caley, and I managed to get photos of the American Robin to further embellish my own previous sighting of one too. A fantastic hat-trick!

Year List additions;

132) Hooded Crow, 133) American Robin, 134) Hume's Leaf Warbler

Friday 18 February 2022

Saturday5th February 2022; An Early Favourite!

There are some birds that quickly become favourites and remain favourites forever, birds that I never tire of seeing and birds that I just have to see every so often to put a smile on my face. Dartford Warblers are one of those birds and seeing one of them never fails to thrill me. The first DW that I ever saw was on Dunwich Heath just after Mrs Caley and I had "got into" birdwatching. Every bird encountered back then was thrilling but the enigmatic and peculiar looking little bird of the heath absolutely enthralled and will forever be placed in my "top birds" list.

Picking a "top birds" list is tricky, a bit like picking your favourite songs or bands because "tastes" change according to circumstances and over time. However there are always favourites that remain favourites no matter what. Most people if choosing their favourite birds tend to select the flashy types, Kingfisher, Puffin, the humble Robin, and Eagles all rate highly. My own choices tend to be what I consider to be more enigmatic and cryptic species, birds that are hard to find or see or are just plain strange, birds such as Capercaillie, Grasshopper Warbler, Wryneck, Dotterel and of course the Dartford Warbler.

Luckily we no longer have to travel as far as the Suffolk or Hampshire heaths to see Dartford Warblers because the species is thriving, if any bird species thrives any more, in nearby Berkshire where there is still remnants of heathland. Oxfordshire despite having many place names that incorporate Heath has little or no such habitat left and Dartford Warblers are only encountered irregularly as very scarce migrants. I've yet to see a DW in my home county. We'd usually take the trip to the heath later in the year, by April and May the breeding season is in full swing and the male Dartford Warblers will be singing to attract mates but we thought we'd have a crack at seeing them early in the year for a change so ventured out into a chilly but fine morning well ahead of our normal yearly schedule.

There is another bird that inhabits heathland that is almost, but not quite, as alluring and that is the Woodlark, again very rare in Oxfordshire, and yet breeding in reasonable numbers just a few miles from the county border. Woodlarks are the scarcer cousin of the familiar farmland loving Skylark, similarly decked out in subtle browns and creams and hence hard to find unless singing when on their lofty song flights. The song of the Woodlark is a beautiful flute-like yodel, "tluee, tlueee" which carries far over the open heaths. I had seen a few tweets during the past few days announcing that Woodlarks were singing in the New Forest and other areas. I must admit that until recently I had thought that Woodlarks migrated away south during the winter returning to the heaths to breed but apparently in many parts of southern England they are actually resident and thus begin their pair bonding and breeding cycle earlier than migrant birds would. As we wandered, quite aimlessly, through the heath I picked up the melancholic song of a Woodlark. For the next ten minutes the bird sang almost non-stop, often joined in song by another, and yet we just couldn't find any of the singers. Normally you would expect the Woodlark to sing while displaying in flight but these birds definitely were not airborne. Neither were there any obvious birds perched on bushes or in the few scattered trees so we realised that we were looking for birds that were on the ground and owing to the aforementioned nondescript brown plumage meant that finding them would be a difficult task indeed. We gave up trying to find the Woodlarks and walked off aimlessly towards another part of the heath and continued listening out for the "maar" call of the Dartford Warbler.

As we neared a more open part of the site, where the gorse bushes thin out we heard another pair of Woodlarks singing. This time as I homed in on the song, we were in luck when I spotted the two birds engaged in some display flight. We walked quickly towards them and enjoyed the spectacle where one bird would shadow the other as they both "tootled" away at each other. I took my first shots of the morning as the birds flew closely past only just above head height.

The birds descended to the ground, not too far away but it still took a few minutes to locate the birds on a bank of flint and sparse vegetation, that camouflage certainly helping to conceal the birds. The Woodlarks were still singing softly and it was now clear why we couldn't find the earlier pair!

The Woodlarks briefly flew up again and then landed apart, one choosing to perch in a scrubby bush, the other on the ground but closer to where we stood. The grounded bird continued to sing in between bouts of pecking at the ground, presumably to eat the seeds of the low growing plants. I crawled my way towards the birds in order to get some better photos. When seen well, Woodlarks are really beautiful birds.

After feeding away quite contentedly for some time, seemingly unalarmed by my presence just thirty feet away, the Woodlark that I'd been photographing suddenly stood upright and flared its head feathers, not as pronounced as a Skylarks crest but still impressive. The bird was alarmed by a Kestrel that was flying overhead and soon both birds, after calling softly to each other flew off away across the heath.

We had enjoyed our time with the Woodlarks but we had come to the heath hoping to find a Dartford Warbler so we returned to the main area of gorse bushes again. The heath was bathed in sunshine which we also hoped would entice a DW out into the open and away from their spiny refuge within the gorse. We have a favoured area on the heath where we've found Dartford's before but a great swathe of the gorse there had been eradicated, presumably during the autumn. The gorse is cut and burned periodically to remove unwanted scrub and to reinvigorate the growth of desired plants such as the gorse. The heath is large though and there are many other areas of surviving gorse stands so we walked off to another likely looking spot. As we walked into an open ride between patches of the gorse I heard that familiar "maar, maar" call that usually gives a Dartford Warbler's location away, at least the call gives the location of the gorse bush that the Dartford Warbler is in away, whereas actually seeing the bird requires much patience. Over the years we've discovered that DW's react quite readily to "pishing" that American practise of making "pish" and "hiss" noises through the lips and teeth which, for some reason, many small birds like to investigate. They also often react to my own "maaring" calls and after I'd tried that for only a few seconds a fine male Dartford Warbler popped up onto the top of the gorse. It was a good view, not perfect because we were looking towards the sun and a gorse branch was in the way, and only for just a few seconds but it gave me a chance to grab a couple of shots. 

The Warbler fluttered off across the gap that we'd just traversed into another small clump of gorse. I could still hear it calling but it no longer appeared interested in my responses to it. We did see it again when it briefly appeared in a straggly hawthorn bush and then it was gone. A fleeting view of a fabulous little bird that will always be a favourite. We'll be back later in the spring when the male Dartford's should be singing and showing more openly.

As we walked back to the car, another Woodlark sang softly from a small bush and I got close enough for another record shot. 

The small herd of cows that perform essential daily maintenance on the heath were stood blocking our path and would not be moved so we had to walk around, unlike the Magpie that had decided to take a break while perching on one of the beasts back. I stopped to admire a particularly well marked and handsome face of one of the animals.

Almost at the car we watched a Kestrel fly past and alight in a tree. It was instantly harassed by a Magpie and after a bit of bickering in the tree the Kestrel was ousted and escorted out of the Magpies territory. A bout of aerial jousting ensued with the Magpie at times almost riding on the back of the Kestrel although of course the Kestrel is a much more adept flier and easily outstripped the Magpie when it needed to.

Having thrown off the shackles the Kestrel went into hunting mode, hovering above us and treating us to a masterful flying display for a while. I have lots of hovering Kestrel photos, most bird photographers do, but a few more wouldn't hurt.

I'm already planning for the a reasonable still and sunny day to return to the heath and find some more Dartford Warblers, and Woodlarks.

Tuesday 15 February 2022

End of January 2022; Hawfinches, a Grey Dip, Beans and a Queen!

Friday28th January; Chocolate Box Birding!

Just before Christmas a small flock of Hawfinches had been discovered and reported via the Bird News Services in North Oxfordshire frequenting trees in a couple of neighbouring villages close to Banbury. The birds proved to be very elusive and despite being searched for on subsequent days by several local birders, including ourselves, nobody was able to pin them down. Fast forward to the end of January when intrepid local birder, Mike Pollard, found presumably the same flock feeding in Yew trees in Great Tew, around five miles away from the original sightings. Great Tew is a quintessentially English village with charming cottages, a huge Manor House with vast gardens and country estate and locally famous (and very expensive) pub and cafe. It is usually a very popular place for American tourists to visit and the village can become very busy, particularly in the summer, but tourism is very muted owing to the pandemic so for the time being the village is reasonably quiet and undisturbed.

Our quest to see the Hawfinches began on Friday morning. We knew where Mike had seen the birds although he had said that they were very mobile and I know Great Tew quite well having worked there a few times over the years. Our home is only fourteen miles away, about twenty-five minutes by road. We planned on stopping at a pub in another village on the way that from experience produces excellent breakfasts but incredibly as we walked into the pub at 09:15 we were told that they were full! So with no other viable local options available, we thought we'd try the Great Tew village cafe. As with many "posh" cafes these days, the Quince & Clover offered what I think of as "weird" food for breakfast and wasn't really to my taste, I'm far from posh and don't see the problem with a "proper" breakfast and to my mind, Avocado and Broccoli shouldn't be on any breakfast plate but maybe that's the dinosaur in me. The coffee was excellent but maybe something stronger should be offered to relieve the shock at the size of the bill which was as heavy as the ones possessed by the Hawfinches!

A couple of other birders were also on site and we said a few hello's as we wandered around the village. Every tree was scrutinised for any bird that looked like a Hawfinch but the only ones that we saw were flyover birds, first two then a single and finally three birds. None of them settled although I did see the lone bird fly up from a tree as soon as I spotted it. 

Later in the afternoon we made a quick visit to our local wetlands reserve and managed to conjure up our first Green Sandpiper of the year.

Year List additions;

122) Greenfinch, 123) Hawfinch, 124) Green Sandpiper

Saturday29th January; Another Dippy Dippy Shrike!

We had spent Saturday dipping a Great Grey Shrike close to Cambridge but went on to "save the day" by getting some fine views of a small group of nine Tundra Bean Geese at Welney WWT in the afternoon, all in some very blustery weather. A fine Merlin also helped to ease the disappointment at missing out on yet another Great Grey Shrike which must be the species that we dip the most and far more often than we don't. They are difficult birds to pin down. The Shrike had been present since November and had shown virtually every day until Saturday when it was nowhere to be seen and of course it turned up again in the same place the next day. That is so typical!

Welney doesn't quite have the allure of Slimbridge, it lacks the variety of habitat and consequently the spread of birds that the flagship reserve has, but is still a great place to visit. We've seen a singing Bluethroat and a Pallid Harrier at Welney in the past so it holds many good birding memories. The nine Tundra Bean Geese were resting sleepily on the main island when we arrived in very windy weather mid-afternoon. Fortunately a couple of them awoke and went for a quick paddle and drink allowing some good reference points to be taken.

sleepy Tundra Bean Geese

To rouse the rest of the flock though needed a close flyby by a Marsh Harrier although the Geese were big enough to stand (or sit) their ground. It took a helicopter flying over to get the Geese to leave their slumber and fly off.

Welney is of course a hugely vital staging post for thousands of waterbirds and we enjoyed good views of them all, not as close as you can at Slimbridge perhaps but nice all the same. The only slight disappointment was missing out on a Barn Owl, too windy maybe for them to fly early, but that's par for the course for us recently, after seeing all of our resident Owl species in the first fortnight last year, this time around we are struggling. We did see a Short-eared Owl but that was hunting very distantly on the far side of the floods.

By contrast our friends Kyle and Kev had spent some time chasing the Hawfinches on Saturday and despite having the same trouble in pinning them down as we had the day before, they had at least had the good fortune to see one feeding in a Yew tree that enabled Kyle to get some really nice photos (see them at Birdwatch Britannia). My pique was reignited for the next day!

Year List additions;

126) Grey Partridge, 127) Tundra Bean Goose, 128) Merlin

Sunday30th January; More Finches!

So, fired up by their success, Mrs Caley and I returned to Great Tew early on Sunday morning. We parked up in the same place, this time the road was devoid of cars and we had the run of the place to ourselves. We had left the car for less than a minute and walked less than ten metres from it when a Hawfinch flew out from the hedge on our left and alighted in a Bramble on the other side of the road. It then briefly flew into a tree above the Yews by the car. Although it was still very gloomy, it was only just eight o'clock, I managed to grab a couple of half-decent record shots.

The Hawfinch departed but other birds were around to keep us occupied, especially a Goldcrest that was working its way through a beech hedge by the path. The tiny little sprite was animated too and was regularly "flaring" its orange-red crest feathers, which briefly had me thinking that I'd found a Firecrest. It was a Goldcrest however, and we followed it as it fervently hunted its microscopic insect breakfast. 

I thought I saw a Hawfinch fly into one of the Yews so we decided to return to the car and watch from within it. A vehicle acts as a good hide especially if birds are as close to a road such as these promised to be. We were helped by the sun bursting forth from behind the up to now heavy clouds and even if the Yews remained in shade the grassy bank on which they stood were suddenly illuminated. There was no obvious sign of any Hawfinches but other birds were on hand to entertain. The two smallest Yews were being guarded by a pair of Mistle Thrushes although they were as furtive as the Hawfinches. Woe betide any other Thrush species that ventured into those trees. Redwings were particularly dealt with aggressively by the Mistle Thrushes but that animosity was also extended towards Blackbirds and Song Thrushes, and to a lesser extent to Greenfinches too. Song Thrushes knew their place, and that was on the ground beneath the trees.

A female Bullfinch appeared on a small Bramble bush behind the trees and commenced nibbling away at shrivelled up Blackberries to extract the seeds. Bullfinches are messy eaters but that bill wasn't developed for decoration but for dealing with hard seeds and stones and the fleshy pulp of the berries isn't the part that the bird wants. Hawfinches, that have even bigger and more powerful bills than Bullfinches, are similarly untidy diners.

The female Bullfinch was joined at the banquet by the more brightly male although he seemed to be less interested in eating. Bullfinches are many peoples favourite birds, they bring a taste of the exotic into many gardens and when lit up by the low winter sun they look stunning!

Mrs Caley noticed some movement in the darkest part of the shadiest Yew tree. The bird responsible for the movement took some finding but there secreted within the tree and very difficult to see behind the fronds was a male Hawfinch. Taking a photo of the bird was even more tricky, not only because it was so dark in the confines of the tree but locating the bird in the viewfinder was almost a task too far. When I did eventually get on it I thought that I was just seeing its face between the needles and yet the edited image shows almost the whole bird proving just how well the bird blends into its habitat. Hawfinches are much easier to observe when they perch high up in the surrounding trees.

Fifteen minutes later I noticed some more movement on a branch that extended out towards the lighter side of the Yew but it was still shaded by overhanging and taller trees behind. It was another Hawfinch, this time a slightly more muted plumaged female, that was moving very gingerly through the branches. It settled almost in full view giving me a good chance at a few better shots. Unfortunately I had the same problems as before with locating the bird through the viewfinder and then actually focussing on it (which I failed to do). How I wished that I'd get a similar opportunity with a bird in full sunshine and not hidden away in the shade.

Monday31st January; Just Can't Get Enough & A King (Queen)

I had yet another day off so we headed back to Great Tew once more to have another go at claiming a good view of one or more of the Hawfinches. We resolutely stayed in the car this time, partly because of the blustery wind and associated rainy squalls but also to maximise our chances of seeing without disturbing any Hawfinches. That weather put paid to any chance of getting those decent views although I did find a Hawfinch feeding very quietly tucked away within the often violently shaking branches of one of the Yews.

More violence was exhibited by the resident Mistle Thrushes which were even more protective than before and just about every other bird than the Hawfinch were ousted in some style by them. Being larger the Mistle Thrushes were able to cling on to the outer branches more easily and posed more readily for photos. But what I really wanted was for a Hawfinch to pose that openly and I guess that Hawfinches just don't do that, certainly not for me anyway.

There was no further sign of the Hawfinches although a few Greenfinches and other smaller birds ran the gauntlet of the Mistle Thrushes. The greenfinches were quite difficult to pick out amongst the similarly coloured Yew leaves.

We stopped for a coffee at Yarnton on our way through to Oxford where I wanted to have another go at photographing the Kingfisher there. The week before I'd not been able to see the female Kingfisher, distinguished by having a red lower mandible to the bill as opposed to the all black bill of the male, at all since she had flown off before I knew what was happening. This time, given the opportunity I would exercise a bit more fieldcraft and hopefully do better. On arriving at the carpark, I instantly spied the female Kingfisher perched in a similar place as before. This time though I was keen not to frighten her off so exited the car carefully. Unfortunately she wasn't perched in a very accessible spot and the shots were obscured by many small branches. Then to compound the problem a large dog went bounding straight down the bank and into the water right next to the favoured, now vacated branch since the Kingfisher had unsurprisingly fled downstream. Birding in urban environments has many interruptions, not least having to answer the inevitable question of, "What are you looking at?". "Nothing as it happens, thanks to your dog!"

I sat in the car with Mrs Caley enjoying the warm rays of sunshine that had replaced the earlier inclement weather and wondered whether it would be worth returning to Great Tew again but I felt that it was probably only a temporary lull in a cycle of more rain to come. I also felt sure that the Queen-fisher would come back to her favourite fishing spot as soon as she felt the coast was clear and it was safe again. A few minutes later I looked back towards the river and noticed that she was indeed perched there again. Kingfishers usually fly close to the water surface so it had managed to steal back in without me noticing. It had also obligingly chosen a less cluttered branch. I had also had the foresight to keep the camera on my person so didn't have to leave the car to photograph the bird which was only fifteen feet away. 

The female Kingfisher then obliged me even more by diving in after a fish. I didn't see the actual entry into the water because I was constrained by the car and my view was restricted but she did pop onto a partly submerged log in which to devour her catch. Images were difficult to get owing to me having to lean partly out of the car window to take the shots and hence they weren't my best.

When the (Queen) Kingfisher flew up to a higher branch to scour for its next fish it was obscured by more branches again. I didn't want to disturb it so moved the car away before getting out and finding myself a better angle for a few more photos. My fun didn't last too long though when the bird was once again put to flight, this time by an over enthusiastic couple who wanted some smoochy selfies next to the river. Like I said, there are many disruptions when urban birding.

Thursday3rd February; Score Finches!

I have been working just a few miles from the Hawfinches and had popped in a few times on my way to and from the site. I don't take my birding kit to work however, the temptations to skive off would be far too great, so had to make do with my old (and first) pair of Kowa binoculars which were never that good and certainly no comparison to the expensive ones that I use these days. I met a few of my birding friends there through the week and all had enjoyed some views of the Hawfinches. On Thursday Mike, the original finder of the birds had reported more than twenty of the birds centred in and around the church area, a spot that I had neglected to look at myself so far. I finished work at lunchtime and walked through the churchyard scanning the skies, the tall trees and the many Yews that grew there. A flock of around fifteen Hawfinches flew over my head and alighted in one of the tall trees. I had cracking views though they were poor through the rudimentary "work" bins. I should really invest in a better pair to keep in the van. And of course I had no camera. Thankfully there would be time for me to return home and collect my gear and Mrs Caley and return by three o'clock.

Mrs Caley thought better of it so it was just me. I was alone at the church too because the other birders that had been present earlier had left. Unfortunately there was no sign of any Hawfinches either, in the hour or so I'd been gone the birds had seemingly shipped out as well. I wandered around for a while and then remembered that Mike had said that he'd had really good views of several Hawfinches in a pair of Yews within the estate grounds but which could only be seen from the Ledwell Road. I walked around to the spot and peered over the six-foot high wall that protects the garden from oiks like me. The two trees, set amongst many other ornamental trees, were around fifty-feet from the road. Luckily there is a strip of grassy verge on which to stand otherwise I'd have been taking a huge risk with the traffic trundling in and out of the very upmarket Soho Farmhouse country club just a few hundred yards away. The Yews were illuminated by the late afternoon sun but appeared empty of birds. I watched a Nuthatch peck away at a dead tree next to the Yews and then, after ten minutes or so, noticed a very pale coloured bird fluttering along the right hand Yew. It was a Hawfinch!

A few seconds later I noticed another Hawfinch. With the sunlight making the birds appear so bright there was no problem in getting some nice images this time despite the increased viewing distance. The two birds were behaving quite strangely. Instead of sitting in the Yews patiently selecting berries or seeds to eat they both energetically flew up, down and around the outer branches, only settling temporarily, as if they were flycatching, which I'm pretty sure they wouldn't have been because they are hardly built for that type of feeding.

My best guess is that the Hawfinches must have been striving to get to the ends of the wispiest branches which were then unable to sustain their weight so it was a case of snatch and grab. The birds were on view sporadically, sometimes they'd disappear into the unseen parts of the trees but over fifteen-minutes I had some nice moments to watch them and take photos. It must have been some sight to see the whole flock feeding in those Yews as Mike had done earlier that day. Then the Hawfinches flew up to the top of one of the Yews and departed back towards the church. I was happy and thrilled that I'd finally been able to get some clear views of them.

Thank you for reading the blog!