Tuesday, 10 May 2022

The Rest of March 2022, Fire & Water

Saturday 26th March

Into the Quiet Wood

At this time of the year there are always a few "must see" species of birds. It is essential to see some of them by the end of April because after that they will be breeding and more difficult to observe owing to them becoming more secretive and also because of the risk of disturbance at the most important time of the year for the birds themselves. The end of March is also the start of the spring migration period when many birds return to the UK or move through it on their way further north, so early spring is the best time to see some of our summer birds.

One of the birds that we always aim to see at the end of March is the tiny but feisty Firecrest, one of our smallest species. Although many overwinter in the UK they are generally concentrated in coastal regions and only return to the conifer woodland where they will breed in the spring. We are fortunate in Oxfordshire to have a few sites where Firecrests can be found and we have our favoured spot where decent views can be had. The wood we visit, undisclosed location I'm afraid, has everything a Firecrest could want, Conifer trees for nesting, Holly bushes for feeding and many varied Deciduous trees too. It is generally a quiet spot, away from the hordes so the Firecrests and other birds are able to lead a hassle free life. I generally want to visit the wood before the end of March or at least by the first week of April because after that the birds will be breeding and deserve to be left alone. So here we were at the crack of dawn (almost) treading carefully along a narrow woodland track to the place where we knew the Firecrests would be. Over the years we've discovered that in the early morning there is a bigger chance of finding the birds feeding lower down in the hollies and brambles. Later on in the day they tend to return to higher tree tops.

A big part of birding in woodland is to use your ears, many birds are located by hearing their calls and songs. I suffer from tinnitus, a result of too many noisy gigs in my past, but luckily can still tune into bird song and the ringing in my ears tends to go unnoticed when I'm strolling outside where the sounds of the natural world take over. It wasn't long before we heard a Firecrest singing a short way ahead. The song is very similar to the closely related Goldcrest, of which many are in these woods as well, but lacks the rhythmic quality of that and instead is a repeat of the same high-pitched note over and over. The song was coming from high above the trail in a conifer so it would seem unlikely that we'd find the songster. We did however, spot some movement in a patch of bramble but there was just a Goldcrest there. Over the next few minutes we saw several more Goldcrest, a Robin, a Dunnock and a few Chaffinches but no Firecrests.

male Chaffinch

No need to panic though and soon after I picked out not one but two Firecrests that were tearing around in a conifer tree. We watched them for a while, the sunshine helping to pick out the colourful crest of one of the birds. They were too high up though so after they had disappeared we decided to sit on a fallen tree trunk opposite some small trees and bushes below the conifers. Movement again, in the lower branches of one of the adjacent birch trees this time, and this time it wasn't a Goldcrest but a Firecrest. For a moment it stopped and sang. The high frequency tseep-tseep-tseep hit my ears and finally I had an opportunity to take a photograph but managed to blow the chance!

The Firecrest skilfully walked along the branch until it was almost at eye level, no more than a couple of metres off the floor. We weren't so surprised though because we've seen them do this before at the spot, it's why we come to this part of the wood. For less than a minute we were treated to some of the best views we've ever had of the superb little bird. In the early morning sunlight it was absolutely radiant and a real treat.


The Firecrest, and another, flitted directly over our shoulders and into another small tree behind us, again showing extremely well for a few minutes but this time against the light. And then they were gone, back into the higher branches of the conifer trees. We could still hear their song but had no more close views.

Year List addition;

171) Firecrest

Reward at the Reservoir

A month before we had travelled to Bedford (see here) in the hope of seeing a Green-winged Teal (GWT), the North American version of our own very similar looking Eurasian Teal. That trip ended in failure with no show from the target bird although we did see some other good birds. On Thursday another, or the same, Green-winged Teal had been found on Wilstone Reservoir near Tring. From the Firecrest wood it was an easy drive over to the reservoir, taking around forty minutes to arrive and park next to the Garden Centre and cafe that would make do for a lunch later. To be fair we would have preferred to have parked in the main carpark but that was full already so we had to choose the other option. This meant that we'd have to walk all the way to the other side of the reservoir to get to the hide from which the GWT was reported to be showing from. On a beautiful sunny morning such as we had though, that was barely a hardship.

The walk took us ten minutes or so and on the way we spotted three Cattle Egrets that were resting in one of the bushes that grow on one of the islands in the centre of the reservoir. We didn't even have to reach the hide in order to tick the Green-winged Teal because we could see it from the main embankment, however viewing was directly into the sun and the duck was distant so we elected to continue to the hide anyway. After spending nearly three hours searching for the GWT in Bedford with no luck it felt good to add the species to our year list here. It was the first GWT we'd seen for almost four years too. Once in the hide we had the help of a very zealous but amiable chap who told us where to look for the bird even before we'd taken a seat at the window. The GWT was now around fifty metres out, in the company of a Shoveler and a normal (Eurasian Teal) so offered up an instant comparison between the two similar Teals drakes.

Green-winged Teal (left), Eurasian Teal & Shoveler

The main and obvious difference between the two drake Teals is that the Green-winged version has a vertical white line on the side of the breast that runs from the base of the neck to the belly. The green patch to the head lacks the sharp beige borders as well and the GWT lacks the horizontal white line beneath the closed wing of the Eurasian version. We were soon treated to a flight view of the birds which allowed for comparison of the intricate differences when flying. On the up flap, the white line still shows quite clearly but on the down flap it disappears and then those head markings are really the only way of discerning between the two species.

Green-winged Teal (lefthand bird) & Eurasian Teals

Luckily for us in the hide, the posse of ducks landed closer and then another difference could be noted, that the GWT appears larger than our local birds. That green flash on the head is in fact green on the GWT teal rather than the teal blue-green on the Eurasian birds as well. There were a couple of murmurs from the experts in the hide that the buffy wing bars of the GWT weren't buffy enough and thus raised the spectre of a hybrid, but to my eyes they looked fine. I think some people just like to be too clever for their own good and enjoy playing devil's advocate to boost their own egos, and always do this type of thing, perhaps they imagine that it helps to enhance their own expertness. I was happy with it being a straightforward Green-winged Teal and delighted to see it and to add it to the year list after the dip in Bedford four weeks before.

Year List additions;

172) Green-winged Teal 

Sunday 27th March

Panic over!

I mentioned in my previous blog that while we were away in North Wales an influx of Garganey had taken place across most of the UK and although we saw one on Anglesey I was keen to get a less distant view of some. A pair of Garganey had been found at Pinkhill which is the nature reserve that lies to the west of Farmoor reservoir and is wedged in by the River Thames on its own western flank. Pinkhill offers much more than just migrant ducks and soon the bushes and scrub will be full of singing Warblers. We began the day though by walking along the causeway of the reservoir hoping for a few early migrating waders and saw precisely none. The days of Farmoor reservoir being a top spot for staging migrating wading birds appears to be over, increased activity both on the water and around it from sailors, paddle-boarders, fishermen, walkers and joggers have all taken their toll and any passing birds now either fly straight over or are flushed soon after putting down. The best birds we saw on the walk were a small flock of Goldeneye (four males and five females) far out in the middle of F1, which would soon be making their own way northwards to breed.

As we reached the river path we walked to the hide on Pinkhill Meadow which overlooks the reed fringed pond where the Garganey had shown so well during the week before. A code is required to get into the hide but after trying for five minutes to get the lock to unlock so that I could open the door, I finally realised that it must have been broken and that the door was unlocked anyway! From the hide windows we could see absolutely no birds whatsoever and it remained that way for the next fifteen minutes until a message via the local WhatsApp group informed me that the Garganey were actually showing well from the Shrike Meadow hide! That hide is around a ten minute walk from the Pinkhill hide so we upped sticks and made to leave meeting our friend The Early Birder as we left. He joined us and we had a good chat, and grumble, about all things Oxon birding and beyond as we walked. Shrike Meadow, named and famous for being the site of a fabled Shrike of some sort that graced the area before my time, is hidden behind a thick hedge but a couple of viewing points have thoughtfully been cut into the screening foliage. At one of these we could see the Garganey pair, not on the small pool directly in front of the hide but in a reed obscured pond in the middle of the meadow. Almost as soon as we spotted the Garganey they took to flight after being spooked by a Grey Heron that flew over and disappeared into the reedy edge and behind an island. I was quick enough to grab a few shots as they flew. 


We moved on to take our places in the hide but lingered at gateway first to see if we could see the ducks from there. Amazingly the two birds then flew out of cover and landed right in front of the hide, Mark was off like a shot, leaving us trailing in his wake as he almost ran for the hide. By the time we got there he was already filling his boots with the two birds seemingly quite happy just metres out from the windows. The views we had and the ones we were about to get would far outstrip all previous encounters with Garganey except maybe for one seen near Kidlington some years ago.

The two Garganey stayed very close together as they fed quite confidently on the small pond oblivious to us sat in the hide. Over the next half hour I'd take over three hundred photos of the birds until I was togged out and put the camera down and just enjoyed the ducks at such close quarters. After the distant view of a drake Garganey in Anglesey the week before, these views were enthralling.

The Garganey offered up the whole gamut of poses, wing flapping, upending, synchronised swimming, it was all there and Mark and I took frame after frame of identical shots, except his would no doubt surpass my own efforts. But it was impossible to miss when the Garganey were showing so well.

The only times that the two ducks were disturbed from their feeding was when a Heron flew close overhead or when another bird landed in the pond. Despite their increased confidence in feeding, they bore no regard to the noise of our cameras and chatter, they were still very skittish to any perceived threat from above. Occasionally they retreated to the partly submerged branches of a dead tree that had fallen into the water but mostly they were on view the whole time. 

Forty minutes after we had first seen the Garganey they suddenly departed heading north although they stayed loyal to the area for a couple of weeks afterwards. Whether they stayed to breed is unknown. 

We made tracks too, using the river path to rejoin the reservoir, stopping only to take a photo of a young Cormorant that was stood on a tree stump at the side of the Thames. A flyby Little Egret was the only other bird of note as we traversed the causeway.


Little Egret

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