I have been county birding here in Oxfordshire since 2011. Going into that first year I set myself a target of seeing 150 different species locally and actually amassed 171. In the process I met many of the welcoming collective of observers who generate the Oxon Bird Log, and became integrated into that friendly and supportive community. In each of 2012 and 2013 my 181 species was the county’s second highest published year list, after the legend that is Tom Wickens (aka The Wickster) who finished on 193 and 185 respectively.
Towards the end of last year I fully appreciated the measure of seeing that many birds in our inland county. Also, since many of the birders who post their sightings on OBL are patch workers, it takes a lot of effort to get around and see everything. For entertainment’s sake the Oxon birding fraternity liked to view myself and Tom as rivals competing for top spot, whereas in reality we often went out together for scarcer list additions. Anyway, neither of us has been so active locally this year for work and other reasons, and by this December weekend my year list stood at a more modest 157.
With not much going on nationally at present I have become motivated to improve that total in the remaining days of 2014. So the cold, crisp start to yesterday found me at Dorchester-upon-Thames gravel pits where a female Long-tailed Duck had been reported over the previous five days. This bird was on a private sailing lake but there are plenty of gaps in the boundary hedges through which birds may be observed. Two brief stops on my way home from work had failed to locate the duck and now I was back for a proper look.
Dorchester Gravel Pits
Sailors strictly to the right, anglers only to the left and definitely no birders!
First I scanned through the locked sailing club gates and then across the opposite side of the lake from the A4074 Dorchester by-pass. Next it was the adjacent angling pit at the entrance to which one of an array of security notices lists the unwelcome: sailors (not very neighbourly), walkers, non-anglers’ cars and horror of horrors, bird watchers! That’s OK, I didn’t want to go in anyway. Low sun was now making observation from the club entrance difficult. So after an hour on site I walked southwards along the public highway to find the LTD moving around and diving close to some islands in the lake. And that was 158.
Saturday night was the occasion of the Oxonbirders’ Christmas curry, at which 20-something of the county’s finest gathered for a good old chinwag as is their wont. During the evening our correspondent in the northern outpost of Banbury, Gareth Blockley reminded me that Willow Tit is currently being seen on his patch at Grimsbury Reservoir. This was an opportunity not to be missed so I arranged to meet him (GB) at the county’s most reliable location for the species on Sunday morning.
Curry still digesting by the look of things
Other birders have advised me to ignore the plumage diagnostics cited in field guides and identify this bird by it’s nasal “chay-chay” call. I recall doing just that on the only previous occasion I saw one in Savernake Forest, Wiltshire some time in the late-1980s. But after such a long interval I appreciated a companion who unlike myself is very good on calls and also knew just where to look for the bird. There was no tit flock activity at the spot Gareth described as being the most reliable, then a little further into woods to the north of the reservoir we reached a railway bridge (above). I said I was curious as to what was on the far side and we walked through. As Gareth was describing the lie of the land to me he first heard then located a Willow Tit that I too picked out soon afterwards, and that was a county tick as well as 159.
Willow Tit site and Gareth
Being in north Oxfordshire, I set out to mop up two of my year list’s more obvious omissions on the way home. Balscote Quarry, to the west of Banbury off the A422, is one of the most reliable Oxon locations for Tree Sparrow. The Banbury Ornothological Society maintains a feeding station here to which the species is attracted, and after a short time on site two birds duly appeared. From there I drove through rolling countryside and picturesque yellow stone architecture to the Combe Gate entrance to Blenheim Park, near Long Hanborough. There on a good day Mandarin duck may be found on two ponds just inside the grounds of a private house. On a bad day, which is more often, they are nowhere to be seen. Hence I do not visit the site specially but drop in if I am passing, and there had yet to be a good day in 2014.
Today a pair (male and female) obliged briefly in a tangle of overhanging growth on the far side of one pond from the boundary fence at which I stood. These ducks must have known I was on a roll-ette this weekend because they disappeared again very quickly. So my 2014 Oxon year list now has a more respectable feel to it at 161. Passing 170 seems unlikely but with a two week break from work coming up who knows?