Tuesday, 24 January 2017

A little of what you fancy does you good

Quite often the first few weeks of the year can be a bit dull. A lot of year-list ticking but that can often mean seeing literally the same bird you saw last year. Most life-ticks have been acquired last year and not many new birds arrive mid-Winter. However, what was the highest year ever for UK species in 2016 seems to be carrying on into 2017. A lot of the stars are still there and a few new cast members are also popping up. The biggest newbie is a pine bunting up in Yorkshire, but more of that later. Add to that pacific diver in Northumberland and a very showy white-billed diver in Lincolnshire then opportunities exist. For me though, a little bunting in Oxfordshire was a tempting target. A lifer and one which is near the top of my "got by others but not me" list. So, at 6.15 I headed off into a VERY foggy pre-dawn.
The bird was near Chipping Norton in Oxfordshire and had been there for two days. Instructions were a bit vague but I parked up in the village of Over Norton as the fog was starting to clear into a lovely if sharp morning. I was immediately accosted by a local coming back from the shops with his milk. Expecting a "you can't park here" I was pleasantly surprised as he asked me "so how can you tell a little bunting from a sparrow?". Obviously the story had got out in the village. After showing him a photo and receiving instructions on how to get to the relevant hedgerow I walked the half-mile to the site.
The local farmer is apparently very bird friendly and puts out grain on the field margins to attract birds. This was apparent when I got to where the bird was supposedly showing - a small copse by the fields with feeders hanging off the trees.

For the first 15 minutes I was the only birder, slightly surprising, but eventually two others turned up to help me go through the flock of feeding birds.
They were quite flighty, not helped by having lots of dog walkers coming past regularly and spooking them. Most of the time they were perched up in the hedge.
 Then eventually they would start to come down to the grain on the hedge edge. The flock was quite mixed - reed buntings, yellowhammers, chaffinches, blackbirds and a few brambling.

The question was, where was the little bunting. They are not easy birds to id. Superficially they are very similar to reed buntings, a nondescript little brown job. Size can be useful, but unless next to a reed bunting that's hard. What we are were looking for was a bird with a plain buff cheek patch and a bold chin-stripe but no white eye- or crown-stripes. Eventually we found it, though it seemed quite nervous.
 These photos show the bird quite well. There is a very striking white throat with a brown stripe separating it from the white chinstrap.
 There is a slight supercilium over the eye but is quite indistinct.
 The eye also has a very white surround to it.

Compare it to these two reed buntings. The male on the left has has that very dark-head and the female on the right has a a bolder eye-stripe less contest underneath and a darker chin. Hard but you could tell it easily with a bit of practice. Cracking bird and first lifer of the year!

Anyway, I stayed for about an hour then left for a few more year-ticks - hopefully.
First stop was nearby at Stow in the Wold for the blue rock thrush. I saw it before Xmas when it was a media star. It had hung on in the same garden since then but now I was the only birder watching it. Apparently its got very territorial and its beating up the local blackbirds. Is that good or bad for it getting accepted as wild?? Still, he's a very handsome looking chap!

I only stayed for 20 minutes or so, and he spent all the time in this bush just preening and occasionally almost going to sleep.
After this, my next stop was half an hour away at a piggery! Two, or sometimes three, cattle egrets have been overwintering at Caulcott at a local farm.

I quickly got onto two cattle egrets following the pigs around as they rooted in the mud.

Mostly they were some distance away, but one did fly closer to me, perching on the back of a large pig. They are quite similar to the now common little egrets we see on rivers, but have a broad, yellow beak and an overall stockier appearance. Their numbers are climbing and in a few years may be regular breeders!

For my last stop I was going to go for an Icelandic gull, but RBA flashed up about 34 waxwings in Potters Bar so I diverted to there. This year is a waxwing year, the berry crop presumably having failed in Russia/ Scandinavia and very large numbers are over here. They have moved gradually south through Scotland and Northern England and are now in the London area. They are very confiding and always attract crowds with their stunning appearance and vocal calling.
This flock was in a housing estate and a small crowd of about 8 people were watching them.

They spent a lot of time in this tall tree, chirruping to each other.

They are incredibly smart, with that punk crest and piratical eye-stripe.
Eventually they would decide to come down to a nearby garden and feed on fallen berries.

You can just about make about the birds here, and they are in this short video clip as well.

Waxwing flock feeding on the fallen berries

I stayed with them, along with 3 or 4 other birders and some passing residents of the estate watching them in the falling light.

Why are they called waxwings I hear you ask? If you look closely on the photo below you can see the red markings on the wings. These are the feather tips extending out from the wing which have a very red candle-wax appearance, that's why!

About 3.45 the flock all lifted off and left, presumably to roost local so I headed back as well. One lifer and three other year-ticks in the bag, and all really good birds.
So what about the pine bunting I mentioned earlier? After I got home my brother-in-law Martin called. I thought I had been doing well and had almost caught him up on the year-list. He, however, has been up in Leeds on business and "stopped off" to grip me off on the pine bunting. Very jealous of that one, especially as I'd gripped back on the little bunting which he saw last year. Ah well, put it on the list for future trips I suppose, or hope one comes closer as there are a lot in the Netherlands. Weymouth at the weekend so more opportunities to catch him up then.
It starting off as a really good year, possibly a "big year"??

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

More wanderings in the marsh

We're only two weeks into January, but the game, as Sherlock would say, is afoot. I thought I was doing quite well with 97 species up to now, but Martin, my brother-in-law, has been on fire and is up to 118. I know it's silly and boyish but something had to be done. So, with a 4.45 alarm this morning I was in Norfolk at dawn with a clear itinerary to get past him on the year-list.
First stop was Wolverton to (not) see the golden pheasant. These are relic populations of released birds. There are no more than 3 or 4 sites left in the UK now, and at Wolferton there is one lone male lurking in the rhododendrons.  It is there, and shows most days, but you need either luck or to wait, and probably wait till gone 9.30 when the passing traffic dies down and it comes out to feed on the verges. I had neither the luck nor the time so after  quick coffee I hit the coast.
First stop was Thornham harbour.

The weather was chilly but but overcast - a typical Norfolk day really. The marsh was dotted with redshank and curlew but my target was a flock of twite. These are small sparrow-sized birds like linnets in their appearance, but with a smaller, stubbier bill and overall plainer appearance.

At the top of this tree is a flock of about 40 of them. They were pretty mobile and never settled near me, but they did fly over once! A meadow pipit was also a year-tick.

Next, I went a couple of miles down the coast to Titchwell. This is now one of, it not the premier RSPB reserve. It is always busy, and the carpark was already half full. The reserve seemed quite quiet, but I still managed to find pretty much all of the birds I was after.
On the sea there was large flock of common scoter, the ubiquitous seaduck, together with a dozen at least of their slightly larger cousins, velvet scoters. A backup cast of long-tailed ducks, red-throated and great northern divers were also present.
On the beach, sanderlings were doing their dance with the incoming waves and turnstones were busying themsleves in the seaweed searching for sandhoppers.
Back on the reserve I picked up more ticks with golden and grey plovers, knot, greenshank, spotted redshank, oystercatcher and black-tailed godwit. A pair of water pipits on Thornham pool were very distant but along with the brambling on the bird-feeders made for a solid hour of bird-watching.
I then nipped back to go to Holme. On the track in is a reliable colony of tree-sparrows, another rare bird around me. On the Broadwater near the observatory I found the lone ferruginous duck asleep with a party of wigeon.
Moving along the coast to Cley got me grey partridge in the fields in quite good numbers. When I got to Cley though, it was obvious that the coastal flooding from last week was worse than I thought. The carpark at Blakeney was covered in debris and there was a team of workmen with diggers clearing it up. The road past Cley to Salthouses was still closed and beach road at Cley was flooded. They are used to it though, and in a week or so it will all be back to normal I hope. So, I gave up on the coast and headed inland to Linford Arboretum. I've been here before, most memorably for the 2-barred crossbill three years ago. It is, in Winter though, one of the premier sites for hawfinch, with up to 40 roosting every evening.
As I headed to the roost site I crossed a small bridge where there was a bird-feeder and a pile of grain on the concrete bridge support. This was attracting in many birds - blue, coal and long-tailed tits and chaffinches.

 What attracted me though was another year-tick, the increasingly rare marsh tit, with it's gorgeous black cap.

A few hundred yards further down was the hawfinch roost. These are our largest finches, often described as parrots, with a large seed-crunching beak. Unfortunately though these were always distant, mainly at the top of tall trees so the photos are record shots at best!

There was also a large flock of bramblings mixed in with them, as well as a few crossbills, mainly told from their calls as they flew over.
As dusk started to fall and the temperature dropped I headed back to the car. A very good day, most of my targets were acquired and I'v moved up to 125 for the year, well ahead of Martin. Still, it's a marathon not a sprint and I'm going to focus mainly on lifers, which get harder each year, but with a trip to Weymouth still to come in January I'm hoping to be well placed for a "big year"!