Thursday, 20 January 2022

Sarsgrove, Chipping Norton :: 16 January 2022

I eased into the day chilling in the living room with my wife - she was reading while I scanned through photographs of owls taken at Eldernell and Deeping Lakes the day before. I'd spent the previous day birding with Kevin Heath but this morning he was out at Sarsgrove, Chipping Norton. He'd read a post by Nick Truby and had gone to see flocks of finches there himself. He sent videos and photos on WhatsApp of large flocks containing linnet, chaffinch and brambling - one brambling flock containing dozens of birds.

I'd forgotten that Charlotte had a tennis league match after lunch and so I took the opportunity and visited myself. While it had been a sunny morning, the afternoon had turned overcast by the time I arrived - a shame but any photos would have been quite tricky into the low sun and so not all was lost.

From the road I could see a flock of c.500 birds with much of it containing linnet. There were also still large numbers on the ground and in trees to the left and right of the seed field - quite a sight. I worked around the perimeter of the righthand wood, initially picking out mostly linnet and chaffinch. As I reached the far end, I started to pick out more than single bramblings with groups of a dozen or more at a time; the largest single group I had was 15.

Brambling
Brambling
Brambling
Brambling

I worked around the wood and decided that I'd seen at least four separate groups of brambling totalling 50+ birds. These were only those that I'd found in the wood and I'm sure there were many others in the fields and in the trees opposite. I'd seen a fantastic number of finches flocking and added brambling to the year list. A great way to spend the early afternoon and the rest I spent in a queue to remove the mud caked on the car from the journey to and from Lincolnshire.

Wednesday, 19 January 2022

Eldernell & Deeping Lakes :: 15 January 2022

We had postponed a trip to Deeping Lakes and Eldernell last weekend as the short-eared owls had not been showing consistently for a few days. Instead, we had made a return to see if we could get better views of the Pallas's warbler in Abingdon. We agreed to meet at 6.00am and found that the ground was hard with ice and there was a fog - just what you needed for a 2hr drive to see owls.

We set out on time and decided that we'd make for Eldernell (RSPB Nene Washes) first, on the basis that a possible early visit for long-eared owls at Deeping Lakes would be hampered by this fog. On the way we stopped in Wellingborough to pick up a McDonald's breakfast but were soon back on the road - Kevin Heath had taken the lead on the first leg and we swapped over for the second. I'd programmed the destination into the satnav, and we arrived without incident, but still enveloped in fog and the temperature still around freezing. Getting out of the car we found people already present and fishing a stones-throw from the car park. Looking from here I was absolutely sure I’d got to the right place.

We put on our boots and then referred to a note from Nick Truby indicating where the short-eared owls were most likely to be found. We followed the instructions and within a couple of minutes spotted two birders standing by a fence in the general locality; we made our way down to them and indeed they were on a bird - in fact two. It was possible to take photos but the fog would require extra processing to extract anything I was pleased with and so we waited, hoping that the birds may have a fly around as they had apparently done 15 minutes before. Kevin decided to investigate further down the track and the log pile where the owls often roost; while he was gone a barn owl passed over the back of the hedge - when Kev returned, I let him know about the barn owl and we had a look around the barns from the hedge line to see if it was roosting in view. Soon it showed again, first in the window of a barn (but only briefly) and then on a longer flight out the back of the hedge that the short-eared owls were occupying. On neither of these occasions was there a possibility of a photo. Flying around us there was a small flock of meadow pipits and a passage of tits and finches.

We got back to watching the short-eared owls but then movement to our left caught my attention and I swung round to see the barn owl rising from the ground with a vole. I reached for my camera but by the time I got it raised, the bird was behind a bush and I couldn’t lock focus on it. That would probably be the last time we saw it given the hour and that it had some breakfast to deal with; it proved to be the case.

Kev and one of the other birders went up the slope to the path overlooking the reserve, reporting flocks of whooper swan and common crane - by the time I got there I saw only two of what earlier had been 30 cranes – I never did see any whooper swans.

Short eared owl
Short eared owl
Short eared owl
Short eared owl
Short eared owl

Eventually we decided that the two owls were not showing any signs of moving and headed out to investigate more of the reserve. The reserve is an extensive area of seasonally-flooding wet grassland (washland) that lies along the River Nene east of Peterborough. The entirety of the area covers 15sq.km, with 500 hectares owned by RSPB. It is an internationally important wetland site, a Special Area of Conservation, a Special Protection Area and a Nature Conservation Review site managed by the RSPB. The resident common cranes are a highlight and are one of the few breeding colonies in Britain.

We kept our eyes peeled for either long or further short eared owls but couldn't find either. We pushed on to the floods and located a range of common ducks, buzzard, red kites and marsh harriers. We were surprised at the lack of waders and when we did spot a distant one in flight it dropped out of sight - likely a snipe. Numbers of lapwing gathered in the fields behind and a lone song thrush popped into a tree ahead of us. At one point we saw what appeared to be an owl in a tree - would this be a tawny and give us a three-owl day? - it turned out to be the structure of the bark but from distance had looked promising! Hilarious.

Marsh harrier
Tree

When we returned to the short-eared owls there were a few birders setting up for photos and a mother and daughter said they'd be shortly heading to Deeping Lakes as the long-eared owl was showing, although not well. We decided to up sticks and head there ourselves, only pausing for a quick coffee from our flasks.

Within about 30 minutes we arrived at Deeping Lakes and made for the car park along a track covered in mud; a couple of birders leaving the car park confirmed a long-eared owl was visible. Arriving at 'the spot' we were in no doubt that this was the right place to be. A number of scopes were trained on the opposite bank and their owners peering intently - the couple closest to the water turned and we realised it was Nick and Anne Truby. They greeted us and Nick explained they'd come to prepare the spot for our arrival. He allowed us to look through his scope to get our bearings and soon we set up ourselves. Taking photos of the bird hiding deep in the bushes was next to impossible but views of the bird through the scope were better, although it's face mostly masked by branches.

Long eared owl

This next photo taken through the scope.

Long eared owl

Nick and Anne set off to visit Eldernell while we enjoyed the views and Kev left and returned from his car with a phone adapter to his scope - this allowed an attempt at a couple of videos to see if it was easier to isolate the bird.

We joked that as we'd had a three owl species day that we ought to try for another - we'd heard mention of little owls and were only half joking. Chatting to a local he suggested that little owls were indeed possible. We set off round the lake but really didn't know where we were heading - we added goosander and goldeneye to the year lists but eventually thought we would turn back as time was getting on.

Goldeneye
Goosander
Goosander

As luck would have it, the local we’d talked to appeared and offered to show us where he'd encountered little owl on his last visit. We reached the river and passed numbers of walkers out taking the air - we scanned the trees opposite and within minutes were on a little owl - how lucky were we!

Little owl

We asked our guide where he planned to take us next to see a tawny owl - obviously joking - none were available it appeared, but we were so grateful for his help. It would have been great to get the fifth though 😁.

We'd had a fantastic day and made back to the car and then the road home with a life bird seen. A four owl day is something special.

Monday, 10 January 2022

Abingdon STW & Thrupp Lake :: 08-09 January 2022

It was forecast to rain this Saturday morning but there looked to be a 2-hour window where it may only be a light drizzle. Having been unable to get out to see the Pallas's warbler at the Abingdon STW on Friday due to commitments at work, I wanted to have a go just in case it departed - Kevin Heath was of the same mind. Having checked the travel time on Google Maps, I met Kev at 7.00am - I have a memory of it taking about 45 minutes to get to Abingdon Tennis Club in the days I played league matches there. Kevin had suggested we leave a little later and he was right - at that time of the morning we got there significantly faster than Google Maps had predicted. We put on walking boots, swigged our coffee, and made our way down Peep-o-Day Lane. The Oxon Birds blog had given instructions as to where the most likely viewing points would be, and I'd double checked them with Nick Truby; he'd been the previous day and taken some really cracking photos, posting them on Twitter.

We found the spot where people must have been camped the previous day, the ground broken up and muddy - we surveyed the area without success. What we did notice were the very large numbers of goldcrest and chiffchaff - in fact more chiffchaff than you could shake a stick at, perhaps 30? We toiled through the morning with an increasing number of people joining in but with no one picking up the bird.

At least 2½ hours passed before someone found the bird in the hedge scrub between the lane and the water treatment works. As they indicated where they’d seen it, I found that I couldn't pick up the bird before it was lost. A few minutes later another birder picked it out further down the lane and we relocated - before we could lock on, it took to the wing and all I saw was the bird flying further left again – I couldn’t make a positive ID but we were sure it was our target - it was again lost from view.

A hunt began with people searching the local vicinity. On the basis that we hadn't seen it return, Kev made his way further and further down the lane. I wondered if he'd gone too far and was on the edge of the group when I received a WhatsApp call from Kev to say he'd found it. We all shot to the end of the lane and a couple of birders glimpsed it as it made its way away from us, eventually stopping in an oak amongst some alders - siskin and goldfinches all around. At this point it started climbing but there was frustratingly no way to focus the camera on the bird and so I resorted to my bins and managed to catch a fleeting view as it rose flycatching - I could now say I'd seen it but only just.

The rain started to fall heavily but Kevin and I made a last circuit to see if we could locate the bird - almost everyone else left. Kevin had seen the bird quite well but I'd seen it fleetingly. Soon we were off too having also added green woodpecker, grey wagtail and meadow pipit to the year list.

Goldcrest

The next morning we repeated the exercise, meeting just a little later - it was going to be a nicer day and hopefully the Pallas's warbler would be easier to spot in this light. On the way we stopped off at Thrupp Lake and had a short look for the ringed necked duck. We couldn't see it but had good views of five Egyptian Geese being chased by a black-headed gull and then chasing one another. As this was just a brief visit, we kept moving and walked along Thrupp Lane to see if we could see any woodland birds missing from our year lists – we saw two male and one female bullfinch feeding at the entrance to the lake and I couldn't resist taking a photo as these were my first of the year. We picked out goldcrest, jay, great spotted woodpecker, and redwing. I heard a mistle thrush but couldn't lay eyes on it then also enjoyed numbers of fallow deer from Thrupp Lane, on the opposite side from the lake.

Bullfinch
Fallow deer

We relocated to Abingdon SWT and approaching the spot we had last seen the Pallas's warbler the previous day, we bumped into Dylan Parry-Davies. He passed on the bad news that the bird had shown really well about an hour before in the bushes beside the lane - he'd managed some photos. They were great but we were a bit annoyed that we'd delayed our arrival.

There were the same large numbers of chiffchaff showing, but fewer goldcrests. Siskins adorned the alders but there was no sign of any redpoll or imporatntly the Pallas's warbler. We searched up and down the lane but couldn't locate the bird - news came that the bird had been found in the wood at the western end of the lane. We walked down and joined a group waiting where the bird had been seen, but eventually left and started another circuit.

Chiffchaff
Siskin

We reached the eastern end of the lane and turned back onto Peep-o-Day Lane meeting Mark Pidgeon coming the other way. We'd met recently at Thrupp Lake for the ring-necked duck the previous weekend - he joined us as we made our way back for yet another circuit. Kev picked out a treecreeper above us, my first of the year.

Treecreeper

Dan and Trish Miller called to see if I was planning on visiting Otmoor as they had been watching a jack snipe in the cut reeds beyond first screen and could give viewing details. Instead they decided they would come down and join us in Abingdon and when they arrived they bumped into Ewan Urquhart - they'd heard that someone thought they'd spotted the warbler in the hedge again and passed the details on to us - we headed back and sure enough in 5 minutes or so we were on the bird. These were my best views, but I was still unable to get in a position to take a photo - hedge, branches or fence getting in the way or stopping me getting a focus lock. I abandoned the attempt and decided to enjoy the view through my bins. As the bird foraged it was occasionally lost and often relocated by Kev.

We couldn't stay any longer and it would already be late lunchtime before we got back - that killer photo will have to wait. I'm not sure whether I'll get another chance, but fingers crossed.

Friday, 7 January 2022

Borough Hill :: 06 January 2022

It was so last year when I last saw the Borough Hill black redstart, so I popped by to wish it all the best for the New Year - it has been in residence at least since the third week of December but shows no sign of leaving. It has been showing really well over the last few days, but I decided to wait until the clouds were heavy and it was starting to snow 😩 - a challenge to get clean photos.

When I arrived at the eastern end of the transmitter compound there were two birders already in attendance and holding cameras. It looked like it was my lucky day - last time I was here it took a while to locate the bird but here it was feeding on the ground and hopping onto the low wall in front of the compound railings. It was almost constantly on the move feeding primarily from right to left but at one point flying to the small tree to the right of the mud covered square - I relocated to the front edge and this turned out to be the best position as it then fed marginally closer.

After less than 10 minutes it flew from the ground and out beyond us into the field. Scanning the area, I came across my first stonechat of the year also feeding frenetically. I was unable to immediately find the redstart and as the snow started to fall heavier, I followed the other three back to the car park. It had been only 20 minutes since I'd left the car and made it home with the total outing being under 1½ hours.

Black redstart
Black redstart
Black redstart
Black redstart
Black redstart
Black redstart
Stonechat

Wednesday, 5 January 2022

Pitsford Water :: 03 January 2022

A late night watching TV resulted in another late rise from bed. I jumped on my laptop as I ate breakfast and chatted with my wife. We decided that we should go for a walk and despite the suggestion of Brandon Marsh we opted for Pitsford Water - up to three drake smew have been showing there on and off for the last few weeks and had been reported around Scaldwell Bay the previous day.

The car park at the Fishing Lodge was shut and the public car park on the western end of the causeway rammed and so we abandoned the car in the layby at the top of the hill heading back to Brixworth. It was a squeeze as nine or so cars were doing the same. On the way down to the feeder station I picked out my first yellowhammers of the year and then both tree sparrow (just the one) and a female reed bunting; apparently the feeders had been stolen again. There were lots of coot and geese on and along the water's edge but no white ducks.

We reached the Bird Club Hide and found Alan and Anne Peilow in residence - they'd only recently arrived and reported that no one had yet reported smew that morning. They also relayed a message from people they’d met that a drake pintail and the long-staying wood sandpiper had both flown just before they had arrived. I set up my scope and started scanning around. Little and great white egret were soon added to my year list and a heron sat up out of the water, apparently in a tree when viewed through the bins, but on a more substantial broke branch when viewed through the scope. Numerous fishing parties of pochard could be seen in every direction amongst coot and wigeon.

Great white egret
Grey heron

My viewing was interrupted when Anne spotted the wood sandpiper working a bay far to our left. I took some record photos but fortunately it gradually moved closer and was only distant. Eventually it turned and started work away from us again and my heart sank - just as I was about to return to the scope it took to the wing and flew towards us appearing to try and land almost in front of the hide. At the last moment it veered away and landed to our right. It was closer in the water's edge and we had good views, but the bird was in shadow against the reflected sky. I took my opportunity to snap off a few photos in the hope I could save one. In what seemed a very short time it took off again and flew far back along the water to the Scaldwell Hide area.

Wood sandpiper
Wood sandpiper
Wood sandpiper

Back on the scope I soon picked out a drake pintail and then we added two more on the left-hand bank. Eventually we left having dropped both a pair of bins and the eyepiece cover for the scope leaving Anne and Alan to their lunch. We made our way round to the Scaldwell Hide and from there could see one of the pintail drakes had relocated to the lagoon between the two hides - there were also two female pintails, making five in all. We couldn’t find the wood sandpiper though.

Pintail
Pintail

We started to make our way back to the car when I had a call from Kevin Heath to say he had found the black redstart at Borough Hill Daventry and been talking to a couple who had been to Pitsford earlier - they reported that they had seen a single drake smew in Walgrave Bay. Unfortunately, I wasn't going to be able to make that as even now it would be after 2.30pm before we got home for lunch. If it had been reported earlier then we may have taken some lunch and has a go, but we hadn't planned that far ahead. Let’s hope I get another opportunity.

Tuesday, 4 January 2022

Thrupp Lake & Famoor Reservoir :: 02 January 2022

Having dipped the ring-necked duck at Thrupp Lake a couple of days before, Kevin Heath and I were itching to have another go. We arranged to visit again and to meet one of Kevin's friends there - Adrian Sparrowhawk - an appropriate name for a birder.

We elected to park in the industrial estate again and take a longer walk. As we entered the reserve, we saw two muntjac deer scurrying away into the undergrowth - we caught sight of them a couple of times but really only fleeting glances. We scrutinised every duck as we went, hoping to see the target bird - but no such luck - we did come across a couple of Egyptian geese and a goldcrest to add to our list but didn't have as good views as we'd enjoyed a couple of days earlier. We could hear song thrush but we couldn't set eyes on it.

We soon reached the eastern bank finding three birders in position - it was Nick and Anne Truby and Mark Chivers. We asked if they'd found the duck yet and they confirmed it had showed - when we asked where to look, they could relocate it. In only a few minutes it reappeared and started diving close to the islands in the centre of the lake - it would never get close but a few record shots would do.

Ring-necked duck
Ring-necked duck
Ring-necked duck
Egyptian geese

While watching the ring-necked duck, Adrian appeared. We scanned and noted the other species on show but then decided we'd reconvene at Farmoor Reservoir, on the way home - all except Mark who wanted to drop into Port Meadow for two red-breasted geese.

As Kevin and I had parked further away we were the last to arrive at Farmoor and found the others already on the causeway. We caught up with them but found that they hadn't found either the juvenile great northern diver or female scaup. At the western end of the causeway Kevin and then Adrian announced the female scaup but the rest of us couldn't see it. Walking a little way around F1 I started taking photos of what I thought was the scaup but as it came into better view, we could see it was only a tufted duck. A few paces further on Nick picked out the great northern diver but it stayed distant and soon disappeared altogether, eventually reappearing halfway down the causeway.

We made our way back only stopping at the cages on F2 where Kevin picked out the scaup - he called Nick back to join us but most continued on to see the great northern diver. Perhaps we should have stayed as when Nick re-joined us he reported that a windsurfer had flushed the scaup and he’d captured rather a nice flight shot.

We watched as the gn diver came closer and closer to the causeway giving us great views. A few other stopped and joined as we watched.

Great northern diver

On one dive the bird came up with a signal crayfish and began dismembering it - removing the claws before consuming much of the rest. It was a fascinating watch - I'm sure the fisherman will be delighted that it is hoovering these crayfish up. A series of photos showed the action as it took occured.

Great northern diver
Great northern diver
Great northern diver
Great northern diver

We watched as the great northern diver continued to fish and soon it emerged with another crayfish. It was amazing to see the scenes from a few minutes earlier being repeated; another feast.

Great northern diver

Lunchtime was approaching and some of us needed to get home, so we packed up happy with our morning out.

Souldern Wharf to Somerton Lock :: 01 January 2021

A happy new year to you and yours! It had arrived and hopefully 2022 will turn out to be a return to some sort of normality. I eased into the day having gone to bed late (but earlier than on many New Year Days) and having had a few drinks. By lunchtime the mighty Arsenal were on the TV playing Manchester City and Charlotte was feeling positive as her team had started brightly - it didn't last and having given away a penalty for Man City to equalise, they then had a player sent off. I decided that it might be a good time to go out for a walk and made for Souldern Wharf.

I opted for welly boots as when there has been heavy rain and the canal is in flood – under these conditions the towpath can become submerged in places. I don't often wear wellies as they are not that comfortable - cheap - preferring instead to wear walking boots whenever possible. I soon found a large group of ducks, most of which were wigeon (from photos taken I counted c425). In addition, there were pintail, shoveler and a few teal. Very distant but the bins could resolve the species well enough.

Pintail
Pintail

I pushed on, being passed by walkers as I paused to scan the large numbers of gulls congregating in the shallows - I couldn't pick out anything unusual but I'm sure there would be something given the numbers - I could only see greater black backed, lesser black backed and black-headed gulls. On the fence between us I could see a common buzzard perched on a post and despite the distance I liked the view - I took another photo.

Buzzard

I approached another group of birds and identified 125+ teal, and from photos I counted c425 lapwing. The lapwing rose into the sky and in amongst the lapwing I could see c9 dunlin, likely the same individuals recorded by John Friendship-Taylor a few days before.

I reached Somerton Lock and turned to make my way back. As I reached a denser area of trees, I started to encounter groups of fieldfare and redwings, eventually counting almost 50 of each. I reached the car and was pleased to see that I'd recorded 28 species, a good way to start my 2022 list.