Tuesday 31 January 2023

What's that I hear you YELL? LOW-BROW Birding? Nah! 29-31 December 2022

The end of the year was marked by several encounters with one of my favourite species of Warbler. I fell for Yellow-browed Warblers (YBW) the instant I saw my first in a Cornish cottage garden back at the end of the last millennium. I remember being mesmerised as the tiny little bird flitted around fuchsia bushes and other shrubs alongside a stream in the Cot Valley. Over the next twenty years or so, Yellow-browed's would occupy a large part of my focus on subsequent holidays to the south-west. Every sighting of a YBW was a thrill and even more so if I found one myself. 

Our Big Year quest was over, we'd done enough travelling for one year, but we just couldn't resist ending the year by driving up to Earls Barton Gravel Pits near Wellingborough, to see another Yellow-browed Warbler. In fact there were two frequenting a hedgerow next to Mary's Lake at the northern end of the Summer Leys Nature Reserve and I'd seen some very nice photos online of the birds. We hadn't seen a YBW since the third day of 2022, having missed out on a Cornwall odyssey in October this time. Summer Leys has always been kind to us as well, we had superb views of a Purple Heron there a couple of years ago (see here) and had watched several Jack Snipe there earlier in the year.

I also had a new "toy" having finally taking possession of the Canon EOS R7 camera after waiting patiently for almost four months for it to arrive. The R7 is one of the new fangled mirrorless cameras and by most reports is a fantastic bit of kit. What better bird to give it it's first airing on than an energetic and haywire Yellow-browed warbler! 

It was the 29 of December and it happened to be a fine sunny day, it's always a bonus to have nice weather for viewing small birds that like the cover of trees and bushes, and it would help me master some of the settings of the new camera. Although I've used Canon cameras for some years now, I had never held a mirrorless version before and there was sure to be some differences particularly with the controls. We parked easily at the end of the adjacent lane to the pits and walked back to join the dozen or so other birders who were there.

We spotted a Yellow-browed Warbler even before we reached the obvious viewpoint. One of the little sprites fluttered about very close to the ground right in front of us, and probably no more than twenty feet away. I aimed the camera, fully expecting to capture my best ever shots of a YBW. However, I had of course, momentarily forgotten that this was my first go with the R7, and those expectations were wishful thinking. When I had worked out a few minutes later on how to review the images they were all out of focus! Rather than continue watching the bird which had flown back to the sanctuary of the dense hedge, I checked some settings. I tried again but failed to focus properly once more. This continued for twenty minutes, and I was missing out on some potentially fabulous images. My old D90 was in the car and Mrs Caley, sensing my growing frustration, kindly offered to retrieve it but I decided to soldier on with the new kit. I had to, I just had to familiarise myself with the R7 and the YBW was a willing subject even if it was tricky to follow.

As mentioned earlier, there were two YBW's frequenting the area, and we got a quick view of both in a taller tree. Unfortunately the two birds seemed intolerant of each other and a quick battle commenced resulting in one, the brightest plumaged bird, ousting the other. Luckily for me though, the victor then settled onto a high branch and preened. Lucky because I now had an almost stationary subject to photograph which I finally managed to get in focus too. I felt a little bit better. It had taken me a good half hour to get some usable images.

The side of the hedge that we faced was illuminated nicely by the sunshine so that whenever one of the YBW's descended down into the brambles it would give fabulous close and bright views. I slowly got used to the focusing and ultra fast speed of the camera and began to get some decent images. I still had teething problems though, and wished I'd spent a bit of time photographing birds in my garden before chucking myself in at the deep end. I couldn't work out how to sharpen the viewfinder image for instance, and still couldn't for a few weeks afterwards until I finally realised that Canon had merely moved the sharpening wheel to the other side (doh)! The camera was also too quick, it was rattling off almost ten frames per second, which is great, but if the focus was out then I then had duplicate blurry images to delete. I would later slow the camera down to just three frames per second which suits me better. And of course being mirrorless there was no shutter noise which took some getting used to especially when shooting rapidly. Slowly however, I was growing into it and felt happy that I'd persevered with the R7 rather than reverting back to the older model. There were other minor nuances that I had to master but an hour into my first stint I had already secured better photos of a Yellow-browed Warbler than I'd ever managed before.

I could watch Yellow-browed's all day but if I had done then I'd have had to spend the next fortnight reviewing the images taken. In that first hour I had taken almost five hundred images. A lot of them would be deleted, however, but some were worthy of saving.

Although there were two Yellow-browed Warblers present, one was much brightly coloured than the other but there was never any mention of the duller bird that was originally touted as a rarer Hume's Warbler but which had been clearly identified as another YBW. I'm pretty sure that the more sombre plumaged individual never came into clear view, it always seemed to get chased off by the other bird, so all my photos are of the brighter bird which continued to show brilliantly throughout our two hour stay.

Both the bird and the camera were superb and I couldn't wait to get out again and try the latter out some more. I spent a lot of time in the evening editing the photos taken, which was actually a lot easier and quicker than before since the images were much sharper and better exposed. All I really had to do was to crop the photos to the size I wanted. I also read through the camera manual to see what else I could do with it and to discover how to improve on my skills. The R7 was definitely new territory for me, I am definitely not technically savvy and do muddle along somewhat but I was excited about using the new kit. I had a feeling it would prove to be a game changer for me.

Little did I know that my next outing, the following day, would be to see another YBW!

Sunday 8 January 2023

The Old Caley Year Review 2022

The Big Year review!

A memorable birding year in the life of the Old Caley's with a dream fulfilled, some terrific birds seen and friendships made and cemented. The Big Year quest, to see 300 bird species in the year, took over our birding lives (and quite a lot of the rest of them). We spent countless hours on the road, dashing from one place to another in pursuit of birds to add to the list, spent a fortune on petrol and likely halved the value of our car. But it was a dream and we're glad we did it. We ended the year on exactly 300 species. We could have added a few more but once we'd realised the ambition, our drive for more birds dissipated in an instant. The best year of birding in our lives was also at times extremely stressful and very tiring. Read on for a review of the highlights of our year.

Thursday 5 January 2023

Big Year Delight! 17 December 2022

When we drove down to Somerset on New Year's Day almost twelve long months ago, we didn't harbour definite ambitions of "doing a Big Year". Our immediate intention was to see as many scarce and rare birds as we could, particularly new birds for our list. After successfully twitching a trio of Penduline Tits (see here) on that trip we then zig-zagged back up the country towards home ticking off some other hard to get birds but even then, by the end of the day, we had seen less than 40 species so it was hardly an auspicious start to any major attempt to secure 300 different species by the end of the year. Over the next week or so we picked up more rare birds, including wintering warblers like Yellow-browed and Pallas's, the latter conveniently close to home and a first county tick of the year. We also made trips to the WWT reserves at Slimbridge and Welney, more for days out rather than amassing a lot of birds. 

By the end of the first week of January though, our total had already reached over a hundred. Mrs Caley and myself began to talk about making an attempt for the magic 300 and I began to plan a few targeted trips for the next few weeks and we travelled to Derbyshire and Cambridgeshire to gain sought after birds that wouldn't be found anywhere near home at anytime through the year. Our first lifer of the year came in the form of a Pacific Diver (here) in South Wales, a trip that was long overdue and should have been made in the year before. In 2019 we had made an attempt at a Big Year but ultimately fell short, mainly because of losing a couple of months owing to an illness in our family which curtailed most of our birding activity for a while. However, our total of 289 that year quickly became the yardstick for 2022 and I constantly compared the running total with the number at the corresponding date in 2019. By the end of the first month we had seen twenty-five more species than in 2019. The chase was on!

We were now travelling down the M5 again. Our destination was Exmouth, a place I knew well since I did a lot of work at a well known Farm Shop and Shopping Village nearby. Our aim was to see an Olive-backed Pipit which would be a lifer and a bird that I'd been keen to see for a long time. More importantly, in the grand scheme of things, if we saw the Pipit then the magic 300 ambition would be achieved. The Olive-backed Pipit had been found during the preceding week by a chap performing an Aphid survey (amazing that anybody does that sort of thing) in a public park in the heart of the town and it had been showing well to all comers on every day since. 

So we were extremely confident that today would be the day that would result in the culmination of a dream. Big year listing is not an easy task for Oxfordshire based birders, a lot of travelling has to be done but somehow, probably because we'd already driven so many miles in our pursuit of different birds, the drive to the South-west seemed easy. We played it cool, taking a couple of stops for coffee on the way. There was no rush, if the bird was still present then it would be there all day. We trundled into Exmouth just after nine o'clock on a grey and cold morning. We passed the site of the Northern Mockingbird twitch made on April Fool's Day last year (here) and drove into Phear Park. A small group of birders were stood looking intently at the base of a fine old oak tree which indicated that the Pipit was still present then, as we parked up, the bird news services confirmed what we had already guessed. We strolled back towards the birders only to see the group breaking up and folk going every which way they could. Our expectation dipped a bit, birders walking off in different directions could only mean that the target bird had flown. The easy tick had just become a little bit harder to secure.

Olive-backed Pipits, like most Pipit species, are "ground-huggers", that is birds that mainly feed on the deck. They are also cryptically plumaged birds, "Little brown jobs" some folk call them, so when on the ground they can be hard to spot. Hence, when an Olive-backed Pipit moves then it can take a bit of finding again. We hedged our bets and decided to concentrate on a spot that the bird had favoured on most days during the week, amongst the leaf litter beneath a large oak tree not far from the park entrance. In the event we needn't have worried, some other birders had the same idea and by the time we'd gotten to the tree the Pipit had been sighted again. We found the bird easily enough ourselves and celebrated. Not with high fives, but with a very satisfied smile to each other (and a hug). It was quite an emotional moment shared between us. Our efforts throughout had reaped the final reward in an instant. No cup or trophy to collect of course but a personal triumph nonetheless. Later that night we'd crack open the bubbly but for now we revelled in our 300th bird for the year (and my 403rd bird seen in the UK). The mission that we embarked upon way back at the start of the year was accomplished. 

Olive-backed Pipit (Anthus hodgsoni)

The Olive-backed Pipit itself was a stunning bird. Yes, it is a streaky brown bird but it's a beautiful mix of those browns and streaks, and the back really is an olive colour. It has a striking supercilium but other discerning features are less obvious like a dark edge to the crown and dark patch behind the eye. It fed purposefully in the grass and leaf litter, creeping low to the ground with much stealth as it searched for tiny insect food. We watched it pick its way carefully around the base of the tree.

Photography wasn't easy, it was a grey day and it was positively dingy under the tree meaning that only slow shutter speeds were achievable. Fortunately the slow and deliberate movement of the Pipit helped to reduce any blur. I found the Pipit an engaging and endearing subject. I had wanted to see one for a long time and now that I had, I was already looking forward to seeing another one day.

I also found it remarkable that the last two birds to count towards our Big Year were Pipit species, number 299 was a Water Pipit (and Richard's Pipit was 294 so Pipits were very important at the end of the year). I find the Pipit family one of the more difficult to identify, they all look superficially the same. They are birds that require experience of, and practice of separating from similar species, in order to become proficient at identification. Sometimes though Pipits are difficult to observe and this Olive-backed Pipit could almost hide in plain sight at times.

At times the Olive-backed Pipit ventured to within a few metres of us birders stood respectively on the path that lined the park area. It was as if it wanted to be the show bird that we had deserved. 

We met Kev, Kyle and Dylan, our good friends from Banbury who had also come to see the Pipit, they'd be making their own Big Year attempt in 2023, and we were congratulated by them and others on our accomplishment. Our thanks are due to all of you who have offered us encouragement to keep going throughout the year and for the help offered in locating certain birds. 

We were chatting away and discussing further options for the day when the Pipit suddenly flew heading up to perch in a tree by the pond. I took a couple of distant photos of the bird as it dropped back down into the grass. Rather than follow it again, we decided that we'd seen enough so left the Pipit and its many admirers to it. Later I discovered that the OB Pipit had taken to feeding on the icebound pond and offered sensational views and photo opportunities. I vowed not to leave so easily next time.

We found a quiet coffee shop just a few miles away from the madness of Darts Farm where my good work still stands firm and enjoyed a delightful pre-Christmas lunch in a baguette. The relief that we'd finally reached the finish line was palpable and we realised that we needed a break from the rushing around. We needed to de-stress. Our year listing was over for 2022. We were elated but finished. I doubt that we'd ever attempt another Big Year again.

Year List addition;

300) Olive-backed Pipit

Wednesday 4 January 2023

Almost There! 10-11 December 2022

I've made no secret of our desire to aim for and achieve, a "Big Year" in 2022 and my latest few blogs have really expressed very little else. A "Big Year" in birding terms is a quest to see 300 different species in the UK in a calendar year and we were now getting very near to that total. With the end of the year approaching fast we now had no choice but to persist with our quest, it would be extremely frustrating to fail now. After our trip to Norfolk last week we were left needing just 3 more birds to add. Of course having seen so many species already our choice of target birds was small. As usual the run-up to Christmas was a very busy period at work so the only chance of going ticking would be at the weekends. If we were stuck needing one or two then we'd have the holiday week at the end of the year but I really didn't want to take it to the wire. The best birds that we could have gained were, as is also quite usual, in far off places like Scotland or North Wales and I really didn't want to be travelling that far. So when I studied the latest bird news ahead of Saturday, I settled on making a second attempt for a bird that we had already  "dipped" once before.

No twitcher likes to "dip" when you fail to see a target bird, but it happens. At the end of the day, birds are mobile subjects and can disappear in an instant. Dips tend to come in runs, often you can go ages and are successful at all twitches, then you miss out on a few. When you're in a rut (as the Ruts sang), you gotta get out of it and the only way to do that is to keep plugging away. Two weeks before we had travelled to Essex to see a juvenile Spotted Sandpiper which had apparently been present at Hanningfield Reservoir for at least two weeks previously but had been initially identified as a very similar Common Sandpiper. Once the birds true identity had been established the Spotted Sandpiper had shown really well and continually for two days until we went when it went into hiding. It reappeared about an hour after we'd given up that day. Sightings of it had been sporadic since, the cold snap of weather no doubt had some influence on its movements and it must have forsaken the reservoir for other sites, but over the preceding few days it had been seen well again. So with little else to "go for" we trusted our luck once more and took the relatively short drive back to the Billericay area and to the Essex Wildlife Trust's reserve at the reservoir.

As on our previous visit we warmed up with a very satisfying freshly cooked breakfast at the nearby Water's Edge cafe on the, you guessed it, banks of the reservoir. It was a very cold morning with much frost and ice. We gazed over the water, well the first few hundred metres of it since beyond that was obscured by a fairly thick fog, and hoped that when we reached the Lyster Hide that the Spotted Sandpiper would be there. We really needed this bird. We were in the reserve at the ten o'clock opening bell (why do places open so late) and walked the hundred yards or so to the hide. On opening the doors we were surprised, and delighted, to find the hide empty, in stark contrast to the fortnight before when there was standing room only. We snuggled into one corner and stared out at the bleakness. The shore in front of the hide was where we expected to see the Spotted Sandpiper but the only bird there was a lone Pied Wagtail. It was joined by a Grey Wagtail a few minutes later. I scanned the further reaches of our view and similarly came up with no Sandpiper. Our hearts sank a bit again and we steeled ourselves against another no show from our desired bird. 

Grey Wagtail (Motacilla cinerea)

Mrs Caley's shout of 'What's this?' knocked me out of my self-induced stupor. It was a Sandpiper and it was flying towards us from the direction of the cafe and where I'd been earnestly scanning a few minutes before. It landed almost directly in front of us and I rattled off some shots. There had been no mention of any Common Sandpipers in the area so it had to be the vagrant juvenile Spotted Sandpiper but for now record shots were of the upmost importance so I grabbed the camera rather than my binoculars. I'd study the bird when it settled down to feed.

Unfortunately the Spotted Sandpiper didn't settle, ten-seconds after landing it flew up and moved thirty yards to our left. I did at least grab a few flight shots which would prove crucial in establishing the identity. I left my seat at the right hand end of the hide and moved to the left. When I looked out of the slats the bird had gone. Neither Mrs Caley or myself had seen it leave.

The few photos that I'd taken, even though they were of poor quality, showed that the bird we'd seen was indeed the juvenile Spotted Sandpiper. Juveniles of Spotted Sandpipers (from North America) are very similar to juvenile Common Sandpipers (from Eurasia) and the differences between the two are subtle. One of the main differences is that the tail of a juvenile Spotted is shorter than in Common and doesn't project beyond the wing tips. That could be seen in the photos of the standing bird. In flight the white wing bar of the Spotted doesn't reach the inner wing as it does in Common and that could be seen in the flight shots. So in just over twenty-seconds of decent views and ten frames of photos I'd secured the necessary information to identify the bird. Other differences between the two species involve the bare parts, In the Spotted the bill is pinkish-based and paler and the legs are yellow rather than grey-green but in the gloomy light those were less evident as was the slightly plainer and greyish plumage of the Spotted.

juvenile Spotted Sandpiper (Actitis macularius)

This was the third Spotted Sandpiper that we'd seen after adult birds in Milton Keynes and The Lake District. We dipped an adult at Farmoor so we still don't have the species on our Oxon list but I'm fairly sure that another opportunity will present itself one day. More importantly it was our 298th bird of 2022 and we had taken another big step towards that magic Big Year number, vindicating our decision to revisit Hanningfield. A few other birders joined us in the hide and we related the good news that the Spot Sand was around but the bad news that it had been and gone. We gave it another hour and then gave up and accepted our lot. It was too bloody cold to sit there any longer anyway. We headed back to the cafe for more coffee.

The Spotted Sandpiper was reported again mid-afternoon but had been distant at the end of a distant spit of land to the right of the hide. I don't think it was ever seen again in front of the hide. We had been lucky, even if only for twenty-seconds!

Year List addition;

298) Spotted Sandpiper