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"??