Bittern and more at Pinkhill Meadow, Oxon – 29th Feb

This frosty morning I paid an early visit to Oxford’s Farmoor Reservoir. Over the last few days images have been posted on Oxon Birding of a transient Bittern in Pinkhill Meadow, one of two nature reserves situated between the “concrete bowl” and the great River Isis (or Thames to non-Oxonians).

My reaction upon seeing the weekend’s photography had been that this bird was offering better value in observation terms than the now almost resident Bitterns at our local RSPB reserve, Otmoor. Providing a stopover location for this iconic threatened species, as birds move between south-west England and East Anglia, had been a prime reason for creating the Otmoor reed bed on former arable land back in the late 1990s. The top aim of breeding success has yet to be proven, though we await a year’s first booming male again in 2016 and are ever hopeful.

But the usual Otmoor experience of Bittern is a middle distance flight or reed-edge view from either of the reserve’s two viewing screens. The habitat at Pinkhill Meadow has enjoyed a major sprucing up in the recent past, I believe under the auspices of BBOWT, and the current visiting Bittern is one early result. A splendid new hide has also been built there, replacing the dingier one that burned down a few years ago.

There I joined two other Oxonbirders at just before 9am today. We must have been chatting too much because when a fourth Farmoor regular joined us he picked out the Bittern at once “right in front of us”. The bird was indeed practising its poses in the same spot where it had shown well on Sunday. It then moved gradually to the right before taking flight and relocating to an out of sight spot. The above collage, though nothing special includes my own first non-flight shots of this species.

Two other reed bed specialities, Cetti’s Warbler and Water Rail are now very regular at this site. Today we enjoyed a close experience of the former, while the latter as so often was only heard. Pinkhill Meadow also has a resident pair of Barn Owl that were observed hunting over the reed beds (pictured below).

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Pinkhill Meadow with Barn Owl

Just before leaving I enjoyed a closest ever view of Cetti’s Warbler through a condensation saturated window of the hide. As I crossed Farmoor’s central causeway on my way back to the car park, one of the two first winter Great Northern Diver that have been present here since November was active away to my left.

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Great Northern Diver (juv)

So all in all this wasn’t a bad morning’s birding just outside my home city of Oxford. Winter is now almost done and the spring passage season awaits.

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Green-winged Teal at Ashleworth Ham, Glos – 28th Feb

Another north American wildfowl provided the past week’s second mini-trip today. There are several Green-winged Teal around the country at present and though I would not travel too far to observe what after all isn’t a rarity, the presence of a drake in the Severn valley just north of Gloucester was a suitable temptation.

This was my second record of what is a regular vagrant, the first having been three years ago to this day at Brandon Marsh in Warwickshire. A distinct early-spring peak is thought to be caused by southern European birds heading north (per Helm guide to bird ID).

Ashleworth Ham (SO830265) is a flood plain area managed for wintering wildfowl by Gloucester Wildlife Trust. To prevent disturbance there is no access to the reserve itself but a hide sited on a bank above the adjacent road offers fine viewing over what to me is an attractive site (pictured below). GWT was recorded here last winter as well.

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When I entered the hide three birders inside immediately put me onto the drake that was sleeping amongst other Teal, Wigeon and Pintail in the middle distance. We all chatted for a while as I checked my scope regularly, then I spotted our bird starting to move around. The vertical white stripe down its breast side, replacing Eurasian Teal’s horizontal white scapular stripe was now plain to see, as an image (below) taken from The Gloster Birder shows.

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Green-winged Teal at Ashleworth Ham (c) rights of owner reserved

I stayed on site for around 90 minutes and at all times knew exactly which bird the GWT was, whether the diagnostic stripe and deeper pink breast were showing or not. That could have been because, rather obligingly he only seemed to relocate when in my scope. For most of the time this bird was content just to doze the time away.

One of the birders who had been at Corsham Park on my arrival last Wednesday came into the hide. Indeed everyone I met today had checked out that female Hooded Merganser, and all were keeping an open mind as to her provenance. This bird had enhanced her credentials further by moving on overnight, and I learned she had also passed a “bread test” in the interim. Apparently truly wild ducks are said not to take bread thrown at them, though gulls do. I didn’t know that till now.

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Horsbere Flood Alleviation Pool, Gloucester

I moved on soon after 1pm to re-visit the two male Penduline Tit that are still present wintering immediately outside Gloucester (see here) at the site pictured above. Once again these charming birds provided excellent views at times. I just love ’em!

Hooded Merganser at Corsham Park, Wilts – 24th Feb

This north American duck offered a nice short-range outing on a perfect sunny winter’s day after being found yesterday. Having encountered the Radipole, Dorset “escaped” drake a number of times in the past (click here) I thought it would be fun to see a female as well, whatever her provenance might turn out to be.

The ancient market town of Corsham is 60 miles from Oxford along the old Great West Road (A4) between Chippenham and Bath. From the High Street car park I entered Corsham Park (pictured below), the estate of the country house Corsham Court that till Tudor times was a royal residence but now houses an art school and collection. This location bore a distinct resemblance to Oxfordshire’s Blenheim Park but without the latter’s grander edifices. On referral I found that Corsham too was designed by Capability Brown.

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Corsham Park and lake

Crossing rather muddy ground (wellies recommended) to the park’s lake (ST878706) I met two other birders who said the Hooded Merganser had just been close inshore in front of them before diving and disappearing. “Must have seen me coming,” I thought. But before long she approached again from a reed edge to our left. A check of my north American field guide before departure had indicated a dapper brownish number with a high rufous crest, yellow bill and bright red eyes. Now here was one in all her finery (below) – what a cracker!

My companions said this bird had been watched and photographed out of water earlier in the day, she was un-ringed (see here) and on flapping her wings revealed they had not been clipped. As if to further increase her credentials, when the number of observers grew she swam off to conceal herself in the most inaccessible corner of the lake. After 45 minutes or so she re-emerged and crossed my line of sight again, but further away than previously (pictured below).

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I now await the decision of the appropriate rarities committees. But whatever that might be this duck provided great value on a sunny afternoon out in the park. The great yellow orb has been much more in evidence just recently and I drove home having seen something a little different with spring seeming suddenly just around the corner.

Long-billed Dowitcher, Ring-billed Gull and more in New Forest district, Hants – 21st Feb

Today’s headline birds were both second ever sightings. Going after two Hampshire long stayers arose from Mike inviting me on a day out in that county where he birds regularly. Weather conditions ruled out meaningful photography on my part, so in this post I have outsourced or provided links to pictures on RBA instead.

Three Nearctic vagrant Long-billed Dowitcher are currently wintering in England, respectively in Northumberland, just outside Leicester and at Hampshire County Council’s Keyhaven Marshes reserve. I went for the Leicester bird earlier this month but it wasn’t seen on that day. The site offered a distant sighting that might have to be waited a long time for, so today seemed an easier option. I know Keyhaven well having recorded other scarce North American waders there: my first Pectoral Sandpiper (Aug 1997) and Semipalmated Sandpiper (Sep 2013). My previous LBD sighting was in Nov 2010 at RSPB Lodmoor in Dorset, where I also saw the rarer Short-billed Dowitcher in Sep 2012.

Back to the present, we parked mid morning at the end of a lane south-west of Lymington (SZ318927) then walked a track between Keyhaven and neighbouring Pennington marshes to the sea wall. Two water bodies lie between that point and Keyhaven village, Fishtail Lagoon and Keyhaven Lagoon, and the wader action is usually on the latter. There we met a small assembly of birders who were scrutinising a group of Redshank on the lagoon’s far side. Amongst them was a similar-sized sleeping wader with green legs that all agreed must be the Dowitcher. Three Spoonbill were also present here.

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Red-breasted Merganser (above) and Dartford Warbler © Mike Kosniowski

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Another birder reported a nearby Long-tailed Duck, also a long stayer for the site. So we walked along the sea wall to Keyhaven harbour but there was no sign of it, though we did locate two rather splendid pairs of Red-breasted Merganser. Mike knew of a Dartford Warbler territory en route and called up the birds using the Bird Guides app. Then on our way back two other birders pointed out the Long-tailed Duck offshore (see here). I was having a lazy day but it was too windy for much self finding anyway.

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Wintering Long-billed Dowitcher (centre) at Keyhaven marshes © rights of owner reserved

Back at Keyhaven lagoon the Long-billed Dowitcher was by this time moving about and feeding. The bird’s longish, grey-green, slightly decurved bill was now clearly visible and for me that clinched the ID. This picture (above) on RBA shows how we too saw the LBD, if rather more distantly. Mission accomplished and with a good supporting cast also observed we then moved on to Ibsley Water, north of Ringwood to await the incoming gull roost there.

In that site’s Tern Hide (SZ154086) what by the conversation was clearly a RSPB local group outing was in occupancy. There was a certain amount of misleading chatter on the part of those trying to guide the beginners, then at the crucial stage of the afternoon the bless ’ems all repaired to the comfort of their coach. I hoped the more seasoned types at the other end of the hide would call the Ring-billed Gull, but when it came in the only guidance forthcoming was: “It’s in the middle of the flock”. “What’s around it?” and “Any landmarks?” we enquired politely. “A Lesser Black-back,” came the reply then muttered put downs.

Well thank’s matey, we bow to your all too apparent superiority. There’s enough of these people in the field after all but thankfully many times more helpful and mannerly birders. Soon our end of the hide refilled with some obliging gull experts who quickly picked out the RBG. But this was the most difficult scarce gull to identify I have ever encountered. Now I am absolutely no larophile and take little interest in large gull roosts as a rule. But there’s been no difficulty in self locating Glaucous, Iceland, Sabine’s, Franklin’s, Bonaparte’s, Audouin’s and Slender-billed Gulls in recent years.

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The famous Gosport Gull © rights of owner reserved

So why was today’s bird so difficult? For the uninitiated RBG looks very similar to Common Gull, of which many were present here, but is slightly larger and paler on the upperparts, with a thicker bill. When in Dec 2012 I saw the Ring-billed Gull that wintered in Walpole Park, Gosport for several years the bill shape was obvious. And to my marginally analytical mind that bird just seemed to have its own facial expression and “personality”. This time in a roost at medium range things were an entirely different proposition, as an image (here) from RBA illustrates.

One very patient birder put it in my scope several times before this gull turned its head to such an angle that I could clearly make out the bill shape that for me is the clincher. I left the hide feeling like a total idiot and suffering a little from overload, but had seen the species for a second time in a different circumstance. Our last call for the day was at Rhinefield Arboretum (SZ272028) where I had enjoyed a good experience of the Hawfinch roost in Feb 2012, but today we didn’t see any.

Snettisham spectacles – 13th Feb

I decided on this outing earlier in the winter when visiting the site to see Norfolk’s wintering Pallid Harrier (see here). The RSPB markets two “spectaculars” at its Snettisham, Norfolk reserve. One is at daybreak when thousands of wintering Pink-footed Geese fly inland from the mud flats of The Wash where they spend the night. The second is the high tide wader roost, that can be unpredictable but is reputedly one of England’s finest.

Today’s high tide just before 9:30am meant the two events could be witnessed one after the other. The dawn start required a 4am departure from Oxford that surprisingly for me I made on time. But this still necessitated comfort breaks en route and approaching Snettisham I realised timing was getting a bit tight where the geese were concerned. On arrival at 7:15 multiple skeins were already flying over the car park.

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Pink-footed Geese

I always enjoy Pink-footed Geese whose gentler calls than the feral honking species in my view give them an evocative feel similar to winter Brent Geese. But this fly past was really no more spectacular than when I had observed PFG moving out at dusk on my previous visits here. It was a frosty morning but thankfully with no strong wind as I walked out to the reserve’s wader watch point. On the way I got talking to a lady photographer from Southend-on-Sea, then we stood chatting to watch the waders coming in with the tide.

Out near the horizon there was a long shadowy band on the water that inspection revealed was indeed countless thousands of birds. Closer in the most Shelduck I have ever seen in one place were feeding, interspersed with Mallard and common waders such as Redshank and Dunlin. Some of the latter were already flying over the sea wall behind us and onto the reserve lagoons. A scan in that direction also revealed a nice group of Avocet.

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Oystercatcher in the front rank

Naively I hoped the main concentration of waders would be driven inshore towards us. But by 9am it became plain the tide was pushing these birds across our line of sight towards the inaccessible salt marsh that lies off the reserve’s southern end. Oystercatcher very noticeably always made up the front rank. The roost’s most impressive feature was the sheer quantity of pale plump Knot that made up the second rank. The larger waders Godwit and Curlew grouped together further out again.

If the tide is high enough to cover all of the mud inshore, some of these birds will relocate onto the Snettisham lagoons where they are watchable from two hides. But today was not such an occasion and most of the congregation remained concentrated on exposed mud at the edge of the salt marsh. Murmurations went up continually on the horizon and there were clearly zillions of waders out there, but it was all rather distant.

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Snettisham wader roost

So whereas it was good to observe such huge numbers of common waders interacting with the tides, ultimately I felt disappointed with the spectacle here. In my earliest days of birding with a RSPB local group in Broxbourne, Herts I witnessed large wader roosts in Essex and Kent that in retrospect offered equal or better value. Indeed my on-site companion today concluded that she could have got as good views of these birds if she had stayed at home.

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Yours truly wrapped against the elements

 

Purple Sandpiper at Southsea Castle, Hants – 7th Feb

These are birds I have wanted to catch up with for a little while now. The season’s settled mild Atlantic weather pattern is producing few rarities to go after, so I have instead been beefing up my records of some of the “uncommon” birds that winter around our shores. Twite and Horned Lark (see here) were two examples, while Purple Sandpiper is another species I wanted to get to know better.

I haven’t experienced too many of the last named small wader over the years. Indeed three of my five previous sightings were at Oxford’s Farmoor Reservoir, and I have only ever seen single birds. But small flocks of PS are reported in mid-winter from regular locations around England’s south and east coasts, typically roosting at high tide on sea or harbour walls and breakwaters where they are often very approachable. Southsea Castle in Portsmouth is one classic site and that was where I headed today.

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12 Purple Sandpiper at high tide on the sea wall

On my arrival just after 10am waves were already lashing the sea wall a little ahead of the time stated in the tide tables, and a very cold gale was blowing. A brief reconnoitre in both directions from the castle soon located a flock of 12 Purple Sandpiper (pictured above). Then for the next 30 – 45 minutes these rather dumpy looking birds set about being as difficult to photograph as they could. With the low sun directly behind them they seemed to delight in keeping to the glariest, most reflective patches of the structure while keeping their backs to the camera.

Eventually the flock stopped feeding and put on an amusing display of cat napping. Each time the sea splashed them they would all jump and move around a bit before quickly tucking their heads in again, but not for long. Eventually a large wave struck and they all flew off west towards Portsmouth harbour. But there had only been 11 of them.

I relocated the 12th Purple Sand going it alone a short distance to the east, then observed and photographed this bird for the next hour. A few local birders stopped to talk but if any of them had thought: “Look at this photographer getting too close,” they didn’t say so. Out of 400 frames taken of the flock and this individual I managed the following reasonable results.

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Subtly-toned, plump Purple Sands in the winter sun

These Scandinavian breeders display generally dark and subtle tones that blend very well with the stony, man-made places they like to frequent. Some of the pictures show the purplish hues that give the species its name, and I also find the orange bill and legs very attractive.

Just before midday a dog came running along the sea wall and saw off this last Purple Sand. Were the owners concerned at having spoiled what I was clearly doing? Not a bit, they just threw a ball into the sea for their pet to retrieve and walked on. My car parking time was in any case running out and so, pleased with the morning’s work I headed away and then home.