Friday, 28 April 2017

Not tonight Josephine

Another early start today, as I wanted to get to Farmoor reservoir early doors to see a Bonapartes gull which has been there for 3 weeks. These are small gulls, superficially similar to black-headed gulls but with key differences, which I will highlight later. So, I set out about 6.15 and got to the reservoir which is on the far side of Oxford to me, about 7.20. The gates however were locked. I've been here plenty of times before, and the car park, with associated barrier has always open to let in the assorted birders, boaters and fisher-folk. This was solidly chained-up though. A nip down the road to the water-board site and the man on the gate told me it opens at 8 officially, but often earlier. So, I headed back just as the man was opening up. I pulled in behind his car. Then after he went through he stopped and locked the gate again. "are you not opening up" I politely queried. "No, we open at 8 and I can't let you in early as it wouldn't be fair on the others". Fair! Others! I had met the proverbial jobsworth! He wasn't to be moved though, so I parked up outside the gate and soon another birder fell into the same trap. At pretty much 8am ON THE DOT he returned to open the gate though.
In the meantime, I had been talking with other birder, who was a local (why did he turn up early?) who told me where the gull was normally seen. Turn left at the top of the steps and walk about a quarter of a mile. It's always in that bay. I'd got about 200 hundred yards when I heard a loud shout. My friend was gesticulating wildly and pointing at an area of water I couldn't see!
A short but unseemly dash later and I could see what he was pointing at - the gull was sitting quite happily on a pontoon outside the sailing centre. Thank god I hadn't gone out of shouting range as its a really large reservoir and I could have been looking for ages in the other place.

Now this is the problem with gulls. They do look pretty similar. On this shot above, if you were casually walking past your local pond you wouldn't give it a second glance - two black-headed gulls.
When they turn sideways on, it becomes more interesting. Can you circle the main points of difference. Main thing is the beak - bird on the left has a short, black, quite pointed bill. The one on the right has a thicker, longer, paler bill. Left has a marked spot behind it's eye compared to the smudge on the right. Left has a dark patch on it's wing, right has a clean shoulder.

You should be able to make out all of these in the cropped photos above. It is smaller as well, but not markedly so and without a direct close comparison that would be hard to tell. The main point is that sharp, dagger-like black bill. It's leg are almost more pink in colour than the slightly more orange ones of a black-headed gull.

It didn't really want to move much, but it did have one fly around which let me see the characteristic wing pattern. This s the smudge you can see when it is sitting, which is a bolder bar in flight. All in all very nice, and by far the best view of a Bonapartes gull I've had. I also picked up my first common whitethroat of the year, so my year list is now up to a very respectable 214. At this rate 270 or more should be achievable but I do need to find a few lifers soon - red-rumped swallow anyone?

Thursday, 27 April 2017

Having a nice trip

We are right in the middle of the Spring migration now, so anything and everything can turn up. This can be from really rare birds - not too many so far this year - to the usual suspects moving up the country to their nesting grounds. Two typical birds of the latter category were on my target list for a quick trip out this morning.
The first was a bird we might have met up on Cairngorm in May, the dotterel. These are waders which unusually don't really wade but hang around in fields. They nest in the high arctic or in the UK on higher plateaus in places like the Cairngorms. As with many birds now, you used to get reasonable numbers moving through the UK in Spring, stopping off in farmers fields, often for some reason, pea crops. Each year though they get harder to see so when a group of 4 stopped off down the road from me at Therfield it seemed rude not to go for them.
A flock of dotterel is called a trip for some reason, so, apologies for the pun, my trip started mid morning after a couple of work calls. A dash up the A1 got me outside the pub in Therfield just as two other birders were unpacking their gear. We agreed on which path to take - there was really only one - which took us out onto a flat series of fields with growing crops in them. A birder returning to his car confirmed they were still showing but were mobile due to people disturbing them!

This is the field they were in. About 5 or 6 people already 'scopes on them and they were showing to about 50 yards or so.

There were two true pairs. Unusually in this case the female is the more brightly marked bird. As you can see they are very well camouflaged as well on the bare earth. A few people were probably getting a bit too close to them, so the never really got enough for a good photo but otherwise seemed quite happy feeding away. I left them after about 20 minutes or so, having had the pleasant company of two other birders from Rickmansworth, one of whom I may have signed up for the work party. Both parties then left for the second target of the day, a wood warbler about 15 minutes away and sort of on the way home at the RSPB headquarters of the Lodge.
I've not been here for a few years, but the satnav got me to the car park and a very friendly person in the entrance hut told me where the bird last was, but that it hadn't been seen, or heard, for over two hours. This was confirmed by a disconsolate birder returning down the path.
Still, I got to the designated patch of trees and with 4 others including my 2 new friends when they arrived we waited.
Wood warblers are related to willow warblers and chiffchaffs but are more clearly marked, with a lovely yellow throat, a very white belly and a more green-hued back. They also have lovely tinkling song. It was this we were listening for and we were in luck. Despite the "no show" predictions, we only had to wait about 10 minutes before a trilling call came from a nearby tree. We relocated the short distance and quickly got onto a small bird in the top of a silver birch.

Not the best shots, but seeing as it was against the light, moving fast and in a tree canopy you should be able to make out the main features. There is the almost lemon yellow throat and side of the face, the lovely clean white belly (better in real life than under the green light of this canopy) and the green back. It did sing occasionally, but only every 5 minutes or so and then very briefly. I gave it about 10 minutes until my neck started to hurt with staring up into the trees. It flew off into an adjacent set of oaks and I took this as a sign to go back home.

Two more good birds to add to the year list, which is now up to 212 and May is still to come. Need to start getting some rarer birds onto the list soon before I start stalling. Biggest year by far though up to now!

Friday, 21 April 2017

Climb every mountain

It would be a shame to go all the way to Scotland and not climb up something. So, on the last full day of our holiday we ventured out to go up Cairngorm. More precisely, we headed up from the main car park towards Ben Macdhui, a known spot for the mountain grouse or ptarmigan.
The landscape on the walk up is stunning. The weather was mixed - sun, cloud, rain, mist and snow at one point in time. The light was gorgeous even though there wasn't much by way of snow left around.

It's not a hard walk. You follow a track out of the main car park at Cairngorm and keep walking for about an hour. There are no scrambles but you do have to jump across a couple of streams. As you get higher and higher you run out of red grouse territory

and into the higher stretches more favoured by ptarmigan
We had got to the first plateau, more of a bowl before climbing up towards Macdhui. The weather hadn't been great and you were feeling with no snow around the ptarmigan might be much higher - and further- up the mountain. I then crested a small rise and there was a pair right at my feet. They are strange in that sense - they live in wild places and are very well camouflaged but find them and they are as tame as you like. We spent 20 minutes with this one pair, getting to within a dozen feet or so at times as they fed on the rocks. This is the male bird, very smart in his transitional plumage from all white in the winter.

Note his furry feet to keep him warm in the snow!
The female is drabber but in some ways even more beautiful with her motel almost gold feathering.

Just after we left them and as we started off down the mountain the weather really closed in so we had timed it perfectly. Just about the end of a superb break in one of our favourite places in the UK. I haven't even got round to mentioning the black grouse, golden eagles, hen harriers, white-billed divers, red deer and other assorted goodies. We will be back!

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

More than one way to catch a fish

Even before we went, one of the highlights we were looking forward to was a day at the Rothiemurchus fish farm. Not to do any fishing but to spend a day in a hide photographing the ospreys which come in to feed there. The farm have worked out it is worth a few fish a day to offset against the fee they can charge for the hide. So, at 5.30am, just as it was getting light, we rocked up at the fish farm to be met by Neil, our osprey spotter, and taken to the hides.

There are 5 hides in all, surrounding a small pool. We were the only people here that day so we had the choice of which one to use. After getting our gear set up we settled down. Neil gave us a walkie-talkie and he headed off a few hundred yards away. If an osprey came near he would alert us to get ready and prime us it was diving as our eye-lines were pretty restricted.
Within no more than 30 minutes our first osprey came in, circling first then having a couple of abortive dives.

Finally, it seemed to give up and sat in a tree opposite for a bit before flying off.
Another period of quiet then ensued before the walkie-talkie crackled not life with an alert for an incoming osprey. This time it was successful.

Three things surprised us: the speed with which it arrived, how far under the water it went, and the size of the fish it caught. It certainly helped to have Neil give us the heads up that it was coming in, but it was still a frantic few seconds trying to rack and focus on it, especially as it was still really quite dark.
For the rest of the morning though we had no further osprey visits. There was action from gulls, goosanders, ducks and herons but no ospreys.

One pair of pheasants did their best to keep us amused though.

About 10 we called a break and went for breakfast and a stroll around Rothiemurchus wood. This proved a good trip on it's own with cracking sightings of crested tit

several treecreepers and lots of crossbills, though too high to photograph,

and a bonus of a male capercaillie flying across our path.

After lunch, about 3, we went back to the fish farm for another go, this time without Neil though, so we would have to concentrate a bit more.
Initially it was a bit quiet. The main interest was from a heron, which after talking the edge of the pond for a few minutes caught and proceeded to eat a most enormous trout.

Quit amazing and grotesque at the same time.
After that things started to hot up. In quite quick succession we had three ospreys come in to fish, all successfully. Two came straight in and grabbed their meal, one circled a few times but all got a fish on their first dive. The photos below are a montage from the two of us of the action.
Osprey 1:

Osprey 2:

Osprey 3:

We left as it was getting dark and other ospreys were still hovering around waiting their turn to grab tea. A brilliant day and a true privilege to get to see them that well.