Penduline Tit at Bedford – 29th Dec

To begin with an Oxon birding update, after adding two scarcer wildfowl to my 2014 total in recent days, both winter swans touched down in the county yesterday. I caught up with three Bewick’s Swan at Otmoor (another addition), then two Whooper Swan on the River Thames near Radley offered much better views than the last such visitor in January. Three White-fronted Goose that graced Otmoor a day earlier were more likely to be wild than a bird in Port Meadow earlier in the year. But despite having searched suitable sites for Siskin and Crossbill a number of times, and once in expert company with The Wickster, these winter finches seemed notable by their absence locally. So this year’s final county tally was 164.

Adding to the sentiment expressed at the close of my previous post, I have a special liking for cold clear days in winter and being out and about on one yesterday was both motivational and cleansing, besides producing some good sightings. A little further afield Penduline Tit was reported on RBA in of all places Bedford, offering a further short haul twitchette for today. This is another species encountered just once before, unforgettably close in front of a reed bed hide at Minsmere RSPB reserve, Suffolk in 1989. But it had eluded me on both of my winter trips to southern Portugal.

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I arrived at Bedford Borough Council’s Priory Country Park (pictured above) mid-morning in beautiful midwinter sunshine with the landscape still coated in frost. Here a line of birders were watching the Penduline Tit and the first person I spoke to pointed the bird out as it flew to within 30 yards of these assembled observers. From thence on I followed it for some time in my binoculars as it moved around to a backdrop of murmured and occasionally anxious conversations between birders all trying to put one another on it.

What a little beauty! After all the effort and frustration of trying to locate wintering birds in several Algarve wetlands, here was one buzzing about a small reed-fringed pool and sitting up to be noticed just 55 miles from home. At times this PT seemed close enough to recall that 1989 bird at Minsmere, but still not within range for even a half-decent record shot with my equipment. Instead I present a puzzle picture (below): it’s in there somewhere!

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Ring-necked Duck at Bray – 23rd Dec

It’s a low-key state of affairs when county year listing becomes the best available motivation. So after more than four weeks without national action, news on RBA of a drake Ring-necked Duck in nearby Berkshire suggested an agreeable twitchette as well as a good way to fill a short winter’s day. I had seen this American species once before in 2010 but quite distantly. Today’s bird was on a gravel pit between the millionaire’s row village of Bray and the M4 motorway. As I followed a public bridleway to the stated location, CCTV notices on every fence and gateway projected the property complexes of the wealthy residents. Eventually a none too welcoming gate to one side (pictured below) gave access to the private angling pit where the duck had been reported. DSC_0019 A permissive path led around the security fenced site but there were few clear vantage points from which to scan the numbers of wildfowl present. I was nonetheless indulging more than my usual patience on a path close by the M4 when four birders from Reading walked up saying they had located the bird. I followed them to where they were heading then thankfully picked out the RND myself before anyone put me on it, which is always more satisfying. This duck’s grey flank and white spur stood out prominently amongst the flock of Tufted Duck with which it was associating, but it was dozing with it’s head turned away from me. I walked back along the path to try for a better view but without success.

News having gone out on RBA, when I returned to the first spot some well-known twitchers and a genial big lens photographer were on the RND, that was now swimming with it’s head up and showing all its diagnostic features well. As always I make no apologies for the quality of the record shot (below), this was how I saw the bird. Eventually something spooked the flock and they all went up.

Drake Ring-necked (right) and Tufted Ducks

Drake Ring-necked (right) and Tufted Ducks

So this was mission accomplished and a far better view of Ring-necked Duck than first time around. With the shortest daylight hours of the year to negotiate at present and one thing or another, I had not felt on top form when heading out this morning. Now I was returning home with a greater sense of well being, and that for me is what being into wildlife is all about.

End-of-year listing in Oxon – 13th &14th Dec

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!

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.

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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

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?