Isabelline Shrike and Franklin’s Gull – 16th Nov

Yesterday should have been an uplifting experience but when I got home a communication from Kent Police was lying on my doormat. Having tried really hard to be careful since my last SP30 it depressed me to have been caught out for a minor lapse in concentration again. So it was some consolation to read on RBA that an Isabelline Shrike had been in east Dorset all day, a mere two-hour drive from Oxford. That was a must see after missing this lifer in Norfolk just recently. And if I didn’t set off too early I would be ideally placed to catch up with the Franklin’s Gull that had been coming in to roost at Blashford Lakes near Ringwood, Hants.

Still feeling down this morning whilst waiting for news of the Shrike’s continued presence, the alternative of paying attention to my Oxon year list held no appeal. I needed to be out on the road for a second day, whatever the risks. The “Izzy” was favouring an area just north of the approach to Hengistbury Head on the seaward side of Christchurch Harbour. When I arrived there at just before midday several observers were already on the bird, so I saw it immediately. Once more there are no prizes for the record shot, attempted in dull and drizzly conditions that persisted throughout my stay.

Isabelline Shrike

Isabelline Shrike

Isabelline Shrike belongs to an Asian group that are closely related to Red-backed Shrike. Whenever one is reported on RBA there is a discussion as to which of three very similar species it is most likely to be. The cinnamon coloured tail of today’s first winter bird is diagnostic, and there are other plumage details that I will not pretend to be familiar with. After a coffee break at a nearby café I retrieved my digiscope collar, but the bird did not care to show itself again before I moved on to Blashford Lakes nature reserve.

It was raining heavily when I got to Ibsley Water in the Blashford Lakes complex at 2:50pm. Other birders told me the hide here has been very crowded of late at gull roost time, but it was dry inside and I gained the advantage of a seat. There was a good natured ambience as all present waited for the star north American gull to make it’s daily, late afternoon appearance. After 30 minutes or so I turned round to find Oxonbirder Adam Hartley (aka Gnome) standing behind me, and I was also keeping in contact with Andy Last who had seen the gull previously. Not much chance of missing it then! Just before 3:30pm a murmur went up at one end of the hide and I immediately picked up the Franklin’s Gull in my own scope. This adult winter bird was very distinctive as the digiscoped image below shows, and it was apparently much closer to the hide than usual.

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Franklin’s (nearest bird) and Black-headed Gulls

So this was a two-lifer day and a good antidote to having fallen foul of the Exchequer whilst trying to enjoy another nice day out a week earlier. Picking out the gull for myself in a hide full of birders was the more satisfying of the two experiences, but I have a good record on Shrikes and so appreciated the latest addition to their kind as well. The warm glow of a successful twitch has a medicinal value, so I felt in much better spirits on my drive home than on the way out this morning.

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Rough-legged Buzzard at Braughing – 15th Nov

After my recent birding travels today’s excursion was more of a “bijou twitchette”, to borrow a popular Gnome-ism. I had seen RLB twice before but not since 1991, and on both occasions would have accepted others’ identification at distance. Last Thursday at least 17 of these Scandinavia and tundra breeding raptors were reported on RBA, the most convenient being an 86-mile drive to east Hertfordshire. So this was an opportunity to gain a better understanding of a tricky species.

If more experienced readers will excuse me for a paragraph, Rough-legged Buzzard is most often encountered on the English east coast in October and November and most birds present at this time are juveniles. Great care is said to be required in identifying them as some paler Common Buzzards can look very similar. For confusion species I usually consult the Macmillan Field Guide to Bird Identification, a little gem of a book published in 1989 and now out of print. When the Herts RLB was still present on Friday I read up on the plumage diagnostics that this photograph on RBA shows very well.

I arrived at the village of Braughing along the A10 shortly before 9am to find just four birders surveying a falling landscape that was cloaked in dull grey murk (below). This was clearly going to be a bit of a wait. After 75 minutes visibility had not improved so I decided to return later.

Uninspiring ... it's out there somewhere

Uninspiring … it’s out there somewhere

I had lived near here at Broxbourne in the two years immediately prior to settling in God’s own county (Oxon) in 1986, and so went off to indulge a little nostalgia. In the event I recalled very little about the area except for the row of glass fronted shoe boxes divided into four that had been my first step on the property ladder. Cue Garsington’s shanty town 16 years later and ever since! But Herts was where I first began birding, inspired by the Lea Valley Park with its Great Crested Grebes and all those different winter wildfowl.

Back at the RLB site a couple of hours after I left there had been no improvement in the weather conditions. Around 20 birders were now present, making this seem like a proper twitch, but the bird had still not been seen. By 12:30pm the sun began to take charge. A few birders who had separated from the main group were watching something intently further down the lane. Another birder said: “I think they’ve got it,” and set off at pace. I followed and indeed the rough-leg had been located sitting in a tree and looking very unlike a Common Buzzard. The digi-scoped image below is distant, grainy and a record of how I observed the bird. Everyone present enjoyed this view.

Rough-legged Buzzard (juvenile)

Rough-legged Buzzard (juvenile)

Eventually the bird flew out from its perch to one side, revealing briefly its wing pattern for all to see. So I had gained a tutorial on and satisfactory views of Rough-legged Buzzard, a species that though on my life list had been just a name previously.

Desert Wheatear at Reculver – 9th Nov

To begin with a preamble, the reason for an apparent pause in the adventures related here has been dipping once more on Lesser Scaup. I first missed this troublesome (at least for me) north American duck near Hereford in April 2013. The species eluded me again last weekend (1 Nov) at Wraysbury gravel pits in Berkshire, having been flushed by an inconsiderate fishery worker an hour before my arrival. After being logged there on Thursday morning (6 Nov), this bird wasn’t seen either by myself or others in the afternoon and hasn’t been reported since.

Another 2013 dip was Desert Wheatear, a usually confiding little number that really ought to be in north Africa at this time of year. Last autumn on the Severn estuary a ridiculously tame individual actually walked around the feet of some travelling Oxonbirders one Saturday afternoon. When I visited the following day, on a break from searching for Two-barred Crossbill in the Forest of Dean, the lost waif had disappeared. There is always something wrong if a bird is that fearless, and my guess was that a cat got it during the night.

And so to the present. Over the last few days three separate Desert Wheatear had been posted on RBA in Kent, Suffolk and Norfolk. Checking the distance, the Kent bird at Reculver (134 miles) was just eight miles further than my last twitch to Beachy Head. It’s a slippery slope, isn’t it! The location held two further attractions for me. Firstly other east coast autumn specialities, Horned (or Shore) Lark and Snow Bunting were also present. Secondly I like to combine a twitch with a bit of history and revisiting early-life memories. Reculver, the site of a Roman fort of the Saxon shore, holds recollections of a school trip when I was about 14 years old, my only previous visit. Game on!

Reculver marsh and towers

Reculver marsh and towers

I arrived at Reculver Country Park at 7:50am, hoping the Wheatear would have been located in the interval since first light. On the far side of the Towers from the car park several birders were looking over a sea wall and there was my bird. I at once recognised the setting captured in some superb pictures on RBA by a Kent photographer. My image isn’t too sharp but still better than I could have expected: the bird didn’t come that close again while I was on site.

Desert Wheatear

Desert Wheatear

Mission having been accomplished so easily and early I walked east along the sea wall in search of two recorded Snow Bunting and my first Horned Lark since 1993. A recent Norfolk weekend had made me want to see more of these two species, and Kent was after all a lot nearer. With many birders around for assistance, all three birds were seen well before 10am by which time the general public was intervening. Lots more birders were still arriving too, but with dogs running around on the beach I headed back the way I had come.

The Desert Wheatear, a first winter male was now entertaining a largish audience from within a shell fishery just east of Reculver Towers, making for some interesting location pictures (above). Clearly in good health, it was flying up and catching insects from one perch or another inside the untidy compound (below). A Black Redstart was also attracting attention here.

All this was much to the chagrin of one after another kamikaze cyclist who would zip through without warning, berating any pedestrian who might have the temerity to be in their way. It doesn’t happen in Belgium or Holland where there is a proper cycling infrastructure, only in blighty. And still more birders came, but I had gained a lifer and seen what else I wanted and so went on my way.

The bird is on the fence (centre) in the foreground

The bird is on the fence (centre) in the foreground