Thursday 11 April 2024

Definitely Not Junk! Dorset 6th April 2024

We were in Dorset, at Arne, a fabulous heathland reserve made even more famous than it always was by the BBC taking it over for its increasingly pathetic Springwatch series, a show which to my mind does more damage to the wildlife and environment than it really should do. So I knew it wouldn't be a quiet morning out because the hordes would descend at some point through the day to trample everywhere they shouldn't and allow havoc to ensue which only goes to disturb wildlife. At least there would be no dogs and the RSPB would rake in a load of money in entrance fees. The sole purpose of our visit was to reacquaint with the Forster's Tern that had returned to the Poole Harbour area for another summer and which had already been seen several times at Shipstal Point during the preceding week. We saw the Forster's Tern last year, at the end of July, but only after it had kept us waiting for over five hours, blogged up here.

This time we had arrived much earlier, confident in the fact that the Tern had shown up on six of the previous seven days at mid-morning, and had mainly made prolonged stays at the point, either resting on the small beach or fishing in the channel off of it. I was hoping for some decent photo opportunities. When we sat down on one of the wooden benches overlooking the Wych Channel, there was no sign of the Forster's Tern. When we left three hours later there had still been no sign. We'd been done and the Tern had beat us. We'd learn later that our target bird had been reported from another part of the harbour and had completely avoided the Arne area probably because it knew we were there. It was back at Shipstal Point the day after.

We did manage to eke out a few birds for the year list that we're not keeping in our vain effort to expend less energy chasing birds after almost running ourselves into the ground over the last two years. There were Sandwich Terns, newly arrived back on their breeding grounds after being all at sea thousands of miles away all winter. A pair of Mediterranean Gulls appeared to be pair-bonding on the marsh. Waders were represented by noisy Oystercatchers, Curlews, a Common Sandpiper and, best of all, a couple of Bar-tailed Godwits, but generally the birding was unrewarding. It was very windy too so our unlikely chance of finding any Sand Lizards this early in the spring was diminished even further.

Sandwich Tern (Thalasseus sandvicensis)

Bar-tailed Godwit (Limosa lapponica)

We left just after midday, not sure of what we'd do next. The strong southerly airflow had encouraged quite a few overshoot migrants into the south coastal region, and as we ate a very satisfying lunch at a nearby cafe, I considered the options. There had been a number of Hoopoes reported but I recalled the fact that over the years we had dipped on almost every south coast Hoopoe that we had tried to see. In any case I'd expect to get a chance to see one far closer to home at some point through the year. Most intriguingly a Woodchat Shrike had been found near Bridport, about an hour and a half away from where we were. Last year to go and twitch that bird would have been a no-brainer but I am far more reserved this year and I didn't really fancy an increased journey to get back home again afterwards. I was tempted though since the Shrike would be an adult, and most of my sightings of Woodchats had been of juveniles in the autumn. I also remembered our aborted attempt at seeing one last September just a few miles away from where this latest one was, on another blustery day where it was difficult to stand up against the wind on the cliffs. We wisely decided to veto the attempt, our friends the 2K's tried and failed. A fair number of Ring Ouzels had been seen, some on high hills that we'd pass on our way home so that was another option. There is no need to chase Ring Ouzels, they turn up locally every year, but we'd already dipped out on them twice on the Oxon Downs at the weekend before so that option wasn't working well in our favour. We'd definitely see a few in Scotland in June, but those dips from Easter Sunday and Monday really rankled so it was very tempting to try again.

However, the day changed tack completely, when I noticed a report on BirdGuides announcing that a Dark-eyed Junco had been seen in North Dorset. Despite the sketchy report with absolutely no details provided, I considered the situation, which was, a) we were in mid-Dorset so it couldn't be far away, and b) a Dark-eyed Junco was high on my want list of birds to see. The major problem at this stage was that that there was no specific location for the report, just the vague, "North Dorset". I ordered another coffee and we waited in hope that they'd be an update before we moved off somewhere else. A Dark-eyed Junco would comfortably trump all of the aforementioned birds. I scoured Twitter for any news of the Junco but there was none. WhatsApp was more forthcoming though with a message on one of the many groups that I'm part of, saying that the Junco had been found in a garden , discovered because the house owner had posted a photo on a local FaceBook group asking for an identification of the strange bird that he'd seen. The bird detective agency went into full swing and it wasn't long before the town had been identified, Gillingham, which was twenty miles away from where we were. There was still no exact location but it now made sense to take a punt and travel to Gillingham and see if we could narrow it down. Often when twitching and when unsure of where a bird is, it pays to look for other birders first, they're a lot bigger than Sparrow-sized birds so much easier to find. The chances are they'd be looking for the same bird as well.

I'd never spent any time in Gillingham in Dorset, although I had passed through on a train before so I knew it was a fairly small place. So I surmised that there wouldn't be too many streets to drive around while looking for any signs of twitching activity. Whilst we drove northwards on delightfully empty roads, unlike our local roads at home in Oxon, Mrs Caley kept an eye on BirdGuides and WhatsApp for any updates. We definitely wouldn't be the only interested parties in this bird. Then, as luck would have it, just as we neared the outskirts of Gillingham, the update appeared that we needed. The address had been given out, somebody had narrowed it down to a back garden on a small estate in the north of the town. I pulled up, adjusted the SatNav and five minutes later we were cruising through the area where tantalisingly, my next UK life tick was feeding underneath somebody's bird feeders. Not wanting to cause any upset to the residents we made several passes of the house in question looking for likely places to view from and for other interested birders. We didn't see anybody other than folk going about normal Saturday afternoon stuff like tinkering with car engines and cutting lawns. There was no activity outside the house in question at all.

Still, we couldn't let this chance go, so we pulled up in a nearby street and geared up with camera and binoculars. There is always a feeling of unease when walking around residential areas with birding equipment, not everybody appreciates folk looking like they want to pry into their private lives. Of course, we're only interested in a bird and nothing else, but a lot of people don't realise that. However, it was fairly quiet and I felt like we had to give it a go. Another chap, acting on the same info as us, had arrived and followed us tentatively along the street and to number five. Luckily this was a normal street, with semi-detached houses and bungalows which wouldn't have huge gardens, so we must have a chance, however small, of connecting with the bird. There were a few trees too, so even if we couldn't see into the garden then there was a possibility that the Junco would perch in one of them. 

Our luck changed when just before we reached the house, the owner walked out of his front door to greet a man armed with a camera who had crossed from the other side of the road. The camera carrying guy was a neighbour and happened to run a falconry centre nearby. Nathan, who owned the house and garden, had called him over to see the unusual bird. Of course thanks to the power of the internet, the bird's identity was already known. I introduced myself and joined in the discussion, garnering as much information as I could. It appeared that the Junco hadn't been seen for almost three hours so that was a bit of a blow but, when it had been present, it had fed underneath some feeders that hung in a walnut tree. That tree, the upper part of it anyway, could be seen from the pathway outside the house, the lower part and most importantly the ground below it was obscured from view by a six foot high gate and adjoining fence. There was no way to see over the neighbouring fence from next door either. It was clear that if we were going to see the Junco then we would need Nathan's help and his permission to view the garden through the gate.

I explained to Nathan how twitches tend to work and how popular the bird would likely to be. I also related similar "garden twitches" and how there was an opportunity for him to raise money for a good cause by accepting donations in return for allowing viewing access through the gate. After more discussion he suggested that his daughter's majorette group could do with some much needed funds. I offered some money immediately if the bird was in the garden and urged him to go and check for us. We watched as he opened the garden gate and walked through it but were left disappointed when he closed the gate behind him! We'd seen nothing.

The falconry chap had to leave so the three of us left nervously chatted about other similar twitches and what would happen if the Junco was still present. Another birder arrived and I became anxious that the street would soon be swamped with others who had been able to galvanise themselves into action quickly. Nathan hadn't returned from inside the house so we were beginning to fear that the bird had already left. Despite that we strained to see what we could of the garden and we looked at every bird that flew in and out as well as those that perched in a tree or on the rooftops. None of them materialised into a Dark-eyed Junco. Almost fifteen minutes had passed since Nathan went to check the garden and I for one, was getting extremely twitchy. I suggested to Mrs Caley that maybe we should go and check out some other spots, including a small playground that I'd spotted while driving around earlier, to see if the Junco was by chance showing elsewhere. Wisely, she pointed out that we should stay where we were.

A full twenty minutes after he went to check the garden, Nathan emerged from his front door and walked across his drive to us. I asked him whether he'd seen the Junco and was staggered when he said very calmly, "Yes, it's there". "What, now?" I replied. "Yes" said Nathan. I was as excited as Nathan wasn't. I asked, "Can we see it?'. "Sure, no problem" was the answer. So when he walked casually back towards the gate, I was only a few feet behind him. Nathan opened the gate and said, "There it is, under the tree". I clocked it straight away but rather than look at it through the binoculars, aimed my camera at it and fired. As I did so the Junco flew up into the tree. I had taken five frames but had proof of my latest lifer, number 427 on that list. The Dark-eyed Junco was my third lifer of the year, and all of them have been North American passerines, the Junco following on from the Northern Waterthrush and Myrtle Warbler (blogs of those are here and here). All three were initially found in peoples gardens!

Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis)

So our views of the Junco had been extremely brief but at least our taking a chance on finding the bird and being the first on the scene had paid off. It pays to be lucky sometimes. We thought that the Junco had flown up into the fir tree behind the walnut tree so spent the next ten minutes peering into the densely foliaged branches in the hope of picking the bird out but none of us could find it. We knew the bird was in the area so none of us was going to leave. A Twitter "friend" of mine turned up to make it five, going mad in Dorset. Around fifteen minutes after we'd first seen the Junco, it flew back into the walnut tree and remained there long enough for all of us to get better and more prolonged views. How it had left the conifer unseen was a mystery, my best guess is that it must have exited by dropping down behind a shed, and I assumed that it must have been visiting feeders in other gardens in the meantime. Anyway, it was back and we could appreciate the slate-grey colour of its upper parts, throat and chest, the clean white belly and under tail, a pink bill and the beady black eye that gives the bird its commonly used name. Sometimes the bird is referred to as Slate-coloured Junco which is just as descriptive of the bird as a whole. Indeed the bird is often called Slate-coloured Dark-eyed Junco to differentiate it from other Dark-eyed Junco subspecies which occur in the Americas. There are four other species of Junco, including Yellow-eyed so maybe Dark-eyed is most descriptive of that bird perched in the tree. I took more shots of the bird as it moved around the tree. It was obviously aware that we were stood just twenty metres away but after a minute or so dropped back onto the ground to feed.

Back feeding amongst the plants on the ground the Junco became easier to follow and photograph. Being a New World Sparrow species, it most resembled a Bunting in structure and habits although I guess it looked more Chaffinch-like. As a species that I'd wanted to see for quite a while after somehow not being bothered to travel to see one in the New Forest some years ago in my pre-twitching days when I travelled to watch football rather than birds, I was delighted to be watching this bird. Even more so considering that we'd only known it was there less than two hours previously. I felt increasingly smug that I'd acted on a hunch and quickly too.

The Junco then obliged us even more by generously hopping up onto a metal plant stay and posing superbly well, giving me the opportunity of adding some very nice images to my portfolio. Disappointingly but unsurprisingly, yet again they were passed over by the BirdGuides Photo of the Week Clique. I really have had enough of wasting my time with that corrupt competition now and am vowing to actually give up posting photos there from now on. For definite this time. I've finally accepted the fact that my photos are just not worthy enough.

When the Dark-eyed Junco flew off to our left and disappeared behind the house, we decided that we'd infringed on Nathan's hospitality for long enough. We sought him out though and happily contributed to his daughters marching band group. We also exchanged emails and later I would send him some photos of the star bird. He also very generously opened up his garden again the following day for other twitchers to see the bird, including several friends of ours from Oxfordshire. He told me that by the end of Sunday he'd been given over six hundred pounds in donations. Sharing a rare bird that's in your garden can pay off. Donations made towards cancer care from folk visiting and watching the Myrtle Warbler in Scotland have exceeded two and half thousand quid!

On a whim we drove to the slightly macabre setting of Gibbet Hill near Hungerford, famous because of a double hanging that took place almost four hundred years ago from an eight metre high pole that could be seen from miles away, to check out a report of some Ring Ouzels. It was so windy on the hill that it was difficult to stand up. Ultimately it resulted in another failure to see the charismatic upland Blackbirds, making it three dips to see the species in the last couple of weeks. I did see a nice Skylark.

Skylark (Alauda arvensis)

The (other) End of a Dark-eyed Junco.

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