Sunday 26 May 2024

Q&A, Quarry = Accentor! Pitstone Hill, 5th May 2024

We were resting at home after a partly successful walk around the Pinkhill reserve at Farmoor reservoir. Only partly successful because although we had great views of our first visible Cuckoo of the year, Grasshopper Warblers eluded us apart from only the briefest snatch of one singing in thick grass. I was checking photos that I took of the very showy Cuckoo when news broke via the Buckinghamshire WhatsApp group of a mega rare bird at Pitstone Hill near Dunstable. The bird in question was an Alpine Accentor, a cousin of our humble Dunnock, which would usually, as the name suggests, be in mountainous habitat in mainland Europe. To have one in inland Buckinghamshire was incredible!


Initially, for about ten minutes anyway, I stayed calm in my chair at home and continued to look through my photos taken that morning. We already had Alpine Accentor on our life list (see here) courtesy of one seen on a pebbly beach near Aldeburgh in Suffolk just eighteen months previously. At the time, I never thought I'd see another and now there was one just thirty miles away from home. I told Mrs Caley about it, she replied that, "we'd seen one already hadn't we?". We waited another five minutes, the Accentor had been discovered at half past one, it was now two o'clock. The drive would take an hour. I found possibly the best Cuckoo photo I'd ever taken and even took my time to post it out on social media and entered it into the BirdGuides photo gallery, later in the week it would receive a Notable Photo merit award too, only my second this year.

At quarter past two I cracked. It was a no-brainer really. Five minutes later we were heading east towards Aylesbury and to Pitstone beyond. By the time we arrived at the summit carpark, it was full to bursting with twitchers adding their own motors to the Sunday afternoon strollers so I parked safely on the verge of the narrow approach road. This was where the fun would start. We didn't know it at that point but this would be no straightforward twitch.

The Alpine Accentor was discovered on a bank of the stone quarry that actually lies at the bottom of the northern edge of the hill. James Weaver, a bryologist, an expert in all things to do with moss, also known as bryophytes, was conducting a survey to see if a particular rare variety of the planets most successful plant group survived in the quarry. Incredibly he found a bird feeding amongst the small plants, that he didn't immediately recognise, but knew it was unusual so looked it up and realised that he'd found an Alpine Accentor that shouldn't really be in a Buckinghamshire quarry. He sent a photo to his friend Mike King, who was currently on holiday in Turkey, who confirmed the identification. A quick tweet put the news out and thus, there we were around ninety minutes later. The sad irony was that Mike himself, a big twitcher in his own right, has never seen an Alpine Accentor in the UK, having dipped three here before!

Online instructions of how to access the quarry were precise and yet vague at the same time. BirdGuides as usual provided an accurate pin-drop of the exact location. The problem would be getting to that pin-drop. I asked a couple of birders, already returned back to the carpark after seeing the bird, how to get to the quarry. As they related instructions; go over the hill and take track to right, walk though the scrub following a fence until you reach an open area where you can climb over and then (very carefully) abseil down a steep bank through even thicker scrub to reach the quarry floor. Of course that wasn't quite how they described that last part but they may as well as had. It didn't sound an easy trek and I realised why they were looking at us so strangely. They may as well have told us there and then, straight up, "you ain't gonna' make it!" But they didn't know that despite us not looking the most agile of folk, that we possess stamina, determination and cunning.

We set off, scaling the round hilltop first, from where superb far-reaching panoramic views could be had. We could see the quarry way below. Once over the top we looked for a path on the right and, with a little help from other returning, and very happy because they'd seen the Accentor, birders, found it and followed it gently downhill to a scrubby area. The path narrowed and as detailed, followed a metre high fence topped with two strands of barbed wire which bordered the quarry. Walking along the path was hard going, there were overgrown brambles and many rabbit holes, and in places it was muddy and slippery. We were fairly relaxed though, there was no mad rush since we already had the Suffolk bird in our locker. A hundred metres or so along the path, we could hear the voices of excited twitchers making their way down to see the bird, and also the more sedate voices of those already watching the bird. We were at that point probably only fifty metres away from the Accentor itself. Unfortunately actually getting to it would be extremely challenging.

I spoke to a chap that I'd met before a few times to get even more precise details of where to access the quarry. His honesty scared the life out of Mrs Caley. The route down was indeed perilous and he related how one birder had slipped down the bank and collided with a tree, luckily he didn't break anything. He took us to the place where people were climbing over the fence. There was no way Mrs Caley, or I for that matter, were going to climb over it. I'd have speared some very delicate parts of my body on the barbed wire for sure. Sometimes, like when at gigs, I wish my legs were longer. I stood there for a while with the realisation dawning on me that we weren't going to get to see the bird, and thanking goodness once again, that we'd already seen one before.

I went looking for an alternative way into the quarry. While I investigated a narrow track close to the fence, my left leg suddenly went from underneath me. I had stood in a rabbit hole and was momentarily stuck. My foot had wedged in and I was in up to my knee. For a few seconds I couldn't move. Luckily there was no pain so I assumed I hadn't broken anything but I did appear to be stuck. I had to dig part of the hole sides out with my hands to release my foot. This was turning into an extraordinary twitch.

Our luck broke for the better when a birder much older than I am, walked towards us from the other direction. He was also looking for the designated route down and had also baulked at it when he saw what it entailed. Then he dropped a bombshell that a hundred metres or so further along the path, there was a flattened section of fence. That had to be investigated so Mrs Caley and I followed him there. Now instead of climbing over the fence and damaging one's nuptials, we could all just step over it. Through the fence we quickly lost sight of the other birder as he disappeared into the scrub. There was a definite path traversing the steep slope of the quarry side. It paid to ignore the fact that just thirty feet or so away there was a hundred foot sheer drop to the quarry floor. We came to another flattened part of a second fence. Obviously many folk used the path, apparently summer swimming in a flooded part of the quarry was a popular pastime here. The next obstacle, another fence this time a divide between separate parts of the quarry and running up the slope, stumped us for a while. We couldn't see the elderly gentleman, but he'd been tall so he had probably scaled the fence in desperation, because otherwise he'd have been thwarted. I stood and looked the fence wire, again of the barbed variety and thought we were back to square one. It was just too high for Mrs Caley climb over. I leant on the fence and to my surprise it moved. A post had rotted through. Unfortunately the fence couldn't be flattened because it was held taut by secure posts either side. However, after a bit of pondering, I realised that I could pull the fence up high enough for us to crawl under! A minute later we were on the other side.

Our friend Mark phoned me, asking if we were on site. I said of course, but we having difficulty in getting down to the quarry. He ruefully told me that we wouldn't make it. It was far too difficult. He'd underestimated the determination that my wife holds. Before we'd finished the call, I was waving at him as we descended into the quarry to join the twitchers below. 

Once we'd reached the quarry floor it took seconds to locate the Alpine Accentor which was feeding amongst the small weedy plants of the quarry wall just metres away. It had been tough going to get to the bird but now very easy to watch it and for me to take photos. Absolutely worth the effort!

Alpine Accentor

Because I'd seen an Alpine Accentor before, and despite the awkwardness of the access to the quarry, I was a lot less stressed than I would have been if the bird had been needed for my life list. But they are a rare species in the UK and to have one showing at point blank range was a treat. Alpine Accentors are cousins of Dunnocks, the familiar "Little brown job (or LBJ)" of gardens and pretty much ubiquitous around the country, but are better marked birds with reddish flanks, two fairly prominent wing-bars, a black & white barred throat and a yellowish base to the bill. Its habits resembled those of the Dunnock, purposely scuttling along the ground seeking out seeds and invertebrates from the short plant growth. 

The Alpine Accentor could be surprisingly difficult to pick out on the chalk and stone wall of the quarry, with the plumage lending it some pretty effective camouflage. It was an amazing stroke of luck that somebody just happened to be surveying in the same part of the quarry at the same time that the bird found it. Unless the Accentor had been present and unnoticed for a while.

I chatted with friends, quite a few had made it from Oxfordshire to see what was predominately a life tick for most. Buckinghamshire is having a good run of rare birds, this Accentor following closely on from the Little Crake (see here) at Milton Keynes last year. 

We didn't stay long, we didn't need to. The walk back was done without the trepidation but still involved crawling under and squeezing through obstacles. Well worth the effort though and a great fun twitch!

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