2016 Oxon autumn wader passage: 1 – Little Stint

One of my favourite phases of the local birding year around Oxford is the return passage when waders migrate south from their Arctic breeding grounds. Something that appeals especially is each season’s juveniles passing through Farmoor Reservoir. Being unused to humans these new creatures have no fear and so allow a very close approach. And possibly most attractive of all is that in these circumstances I can achieve comparable photography to that great majority of birders who own far more sophisticated and expensive cameras than my own.

When I started this blog in September 2014 the first post was a collage of passage waders at Farmoor (see here). 2015 was a disappointing autumn when some of the less often seen species I was alerted to had gone through by the time I got on site. The current year’s spring was especially good, with every regularly occurring British wader being recorded at our county’s major birding locations. But I was in France when some of the scarcer ones passed through. Hence I entertain a certain expectancy of the coming autumn and will present here in a mini-series any publishable images obtained.

On Tuesday evening this week Farmoor patch watcher Dai called me at work to say the year’s first Little Stint for the reservoir had arrived. Two juveniles were then observed throughout Wednesday when I went to Cornwall. Yesterday I checked with Dai in the morning and these birds were still present so an Oxon year tick was in my sights. In the car park I spotted the fabled Black Audi, and then I met Ewan himself on the causeway contemplating the two Little Stint (pictured below) feeding busily within yards of their observers.

In a very informative post on his own blog (see here) Ewan points out that these two individuals exhibit a slight plumage variation that is described in some reference books. The left hand bird has richer and warmer colour tones on its upperparts making it appear rufous, whilst the right hand one looks paler and greyer. To quote the Helm guide to confusion species, juveniles are immaculately patterned with golden, chestnut and buffish feather fringes. Most distinctive is the characteristic white V down the sides of the mantle, while the underparts appear very white. This species’ split supercilium is also apparent in the pictures.

I by no means consider myself to be a bird photographer but these pictures (above) are better than their 2014 equivalents (see here). Once again the conditions on a fair weather day at Farmoor had made for somewhat above average results. To my mind the gunge that collects along the water’s edge in the concrete bowl makes for a photogenic (in its way) background, so long as gull feather and other detritus can be cropped out of each image. But the disappointing days of grey, grainy photography remain far more, no pun intended frequent

Ewan also describes in his own post how these two migrants seemed to be ill at ease in each other’s company and at times antagonistic towards one another. But in these final pictures (above) I managed to capture them in a moment of harmony. We watched the Little Stints for around 30 to 40 minutes, and then as they themselves will do before too long went on our way.

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A Cornish pelagic with Pelican extras – 17th Aug

At some time after 9am a blue Hyundai saloon disgorged three early rising Oxon birders into a grey and unwelcoming Cornish morning. Away to Mike, myself and Tom’s left a large creamy shape sat atop a cairn on a mud bank between low and high tides. This blob had the profile of a sleeping, long-necked bird of considerable size. It was without doubt the errant Dalmatian Pelican that has graced various locations in Cornwall since mid-May.

The latest site to be favoured is Restronguet Creek, an arm of the flooded ria of the estuary system to the north of Falmouth. And we were observing the visitor from Point Quay (SW805383). Few birders in God’s own county (Oxon) have bothered with this maybe “plastic” bird as there are questions over it’s origin that remain to be answered. But we were here on other wildlife business and so it would have seemed rude not to at least take a look.

I have in any case never seen any Pelican outside of a zoo. My understanding is that this individual is assumed to be one that was observed in Poland before taking up residence in Cornwall. In that other country it was accepted as a wild bird, ie not an escape from captivity. This is one of two European Pelican species whose home range is in the eastern Mediterranean and Black Sea areas. Eventually the great and good of the British sightings committees will pronounce their verdict as to the visitor’s provenance, and so in the meantime it is well worth seeing and adding to my British list as a “marginal”.

After a while the Pelican put it’s head up and had a little preen (pictured above, left). That was more like it and what a magnificent creature! With a physique to outmuscle a Mute Swan and a three metre plus wingspan this bird looked confident in the knowledge that nothing could trouble it. Then the head was tucked back in again and the Pelican resumed its slumber, still on top of the cairn. Tom said they spend much of their time sleeping. There were some hours to go until high tide when the bird would most likely become active again, and so we three continued on to our local appointment.

So what had brought me more than 100 miles beyond the usual range for only my second ever visit to Cornwall. Well pelagic birds sic Shearwaters and Petrels are one group that I have not caught up with, bar just two previous records. Mike had decided independently that he too needed to make the effort for these birds. So when he booked three places on a wildlife cruise operating out of Falmouth I accepted the invitation gladly. In the event though this pelagic was very disappointing for all three of us.

It began with a sail out to sea during which two Manx Shearwater were seen briefly and a fly-by European Storm Petrel, unusually close to shore provided the morning’s second lifer. But then the captain decided conditions were too rough to continue safely and opted for an estuary tour instead. We wondered if this was more to do with the unlikelihood of Dolphin and Porpoise being found in such a swell, since the rest of the group were probably rather more interested in marine mammals than birds. The easterly winds were also from the wrong direction for good seabird passage, but we still expected to stay out at sea for the £50 per head we had paid. There were plenty of birds and other wildlife interest in the estuary but little that we cannot experience in Oxfordshire.

On our way home we stopped at Point Quay again. It was now high tide and the Dalmatian Pelican was preening by the shore on the far side of Restronguet Creek. We admired it for around 20 minutes and put an enquring family of three onto what was undoubtedly the highlight of our day. To view this bird’s RBA gallery click here. Many thanks to top bloke Mike for doing all the driving. This was a trip to put down to experience but the visiting Pelican was a superb encounter in itself. We decided that if we do this sort of thing again we will check the weather conditions on the day before proceeding and make sure we are getting involved in a serious birding pelagic.

Scarce Emerald: the last English damsel – 11th August

As of 2015 I had observed every regularly occurring English damselfly but one, the exception being Scarce Emerald. So my top Odonata priority this season has been to complete the full set, and mid-August is the time to do it. One well-known site for the final species is RSPB Bowers Marsh on the Thames estuary in Essex, and with no birding lifers to take precedence this week that was where I headed yesterday.

My task was simplified because Adam visited here a week earlier having gained directions from an online contact as to the exact location to find these insects. Arriving late on a lightly overcast morning I met another naturalist, Mike Barnett from Basingstoke, in the car park (TQ755867) and he was on the same mission as myself. Setting off together and after a quick phone call to Adam to verify the correct place to look, we arrived at a small and shallow, reed-filled pool that is prime habitat for our target.

It didn’t take long to find three male Emerald sp damselflies mooching about and perching on stems, usually with wings half open. Two local patch watchers then joined in and assured us these were indeed Scarce Emerald. In the pictures below I have arranged three individuals in what I believe is ascending order of maturity, if that makes sense. The brown-toned left-hand insect is the least mature, while the right-hand one is I hope a fully mature male though I’m not entirely sure of which type.

Having read up on the species again in Brooks and Lewington, I feel confident enough to publish them. That odo bible quotes four diagnostics, since Scarce Emerald is very similar to Common Emerald, and for the key one we are talking anal appendages. The inferior AA’s, or the inner bits of his bits to you and I, are broader and more curved in Scarce than Common, and this is quite apparent in the left-hand picture.

Turned off completely? Well it gets less goolie-ish from now on. Brooks and Lewington lists more “subtle differences” that I believe are apparent in my none too sharp pictures:

  • squarer shape of the pterostigma (black wing tags)
  • less extensive blue colouration on abdominal segment 2, that is absent in the left-hand immature male but shows well in the right-hand image
  • brighter blue colour of the eyes, and aren’t they just!?

A return visit to this site next year could well be in order to remove all doubt. I am used to encountering a lot of colour variation in Emerald damselflies at different stages of their life cycle, and today was no exception. We found no female Scarce Emerald at Bowers Marsh, unfortunately.

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Another part of Bowers Marsh

So now I have observed the complete sets of regularly occurring English dragonflies and damselflies, but still require both sightings and images of some females and immatures. Things will be largely about photography again next season, and believe me I have spent a certain amount of time attempting to improve on past results this summer, mostly without success. Three afternoons watching Brilliant Emerald dragonflies at Warren Heath, Hants was one un-blogged example.

But insect observation cannot be rushed, like zapping in and out on an adrenalin rush to twitch a rare bird. This is where I feel bored birders dabbling with insects in June and July sometimes get it wrong, with respect. A chair, my camera and solitude in wild places is the appeal of odonata for me, and continuous improvement in recording visually the experiences they offer remains the quest.

Least Sandpiper at Seaton Marshes, Devon – 4th Aug

“Accidental small sandpipers” to quote one field guide I use* is a genus that I attach some priority to at this stage of my birding life. Since various of these species occur almost annually in Great Britain, most seasoned birders may have seen each of them perhaps a few times. But given my modest British bird list of now 321 mostly within 150 miles of home, each passage period I aspire to gain one or two more of this group as lifers. Today was such an occasion.

Last week a Baird’s Sandpiper turned up at the populist playground of Minsmere in Suffolk but didn’t stay long enough for me to get there. Western Sandpiper has also been reported a bit further afield recently. Then two days ago a Least Sandpiper was found at Seaton Marshes in east Devon, that at a little over 150 miles was just within my preferred twitching range. I assume the last-named is the rarest of the three species since RBA accords it mega status. When this bird was reported again early Thursday morning on a work-free day, off I set.

For the outward journey I took the scenic route via Ringwood, Dorchester and Bridport to indulge my liking for the Dorset countryside. But as so often the beauty of that county’s scenery was spoiled by the volume of traffic on roads that are not designed to carry it. As a result almost an hour was added to my satnav’s estimated journey time, till at just before 1pm I drew up in a large and welcoming car park at Colyton cemetery (SY251916). From there a path leads down to Black Hole Marsh, one of four areas managed as local nature reserves in the lower Axe valley. Collectively these are known as Seaton Marshes.

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Black Hole Marsh and Island Hide

The bird was being observed from the Island Hide (pictured above). Not having recovered from the journey I asked other people to point it out as soon as I went inside, but at that range it could have been anything. At first a big lens photographer in a prime spot and the head next to him kept blocking my every attempt at picking off the diagnostics. But eventually those obstructions parted in opposite directions and I gained a full frontal view of the Least Sandpiper looking just like the pictures in it’s RBA gallery (see here).

I stayed in the Island Hide for the next hour during which this bird remained faithful to the water’s edge near the start of the boardwalk that leads out to the hide. For much of the time the rare visitor, a summer plumaged adult was associating with a Dunlin by which it was quite dwarfed, while Common and Wood Sandpiper were also in the vicinity. I believe this site has a reputation for attracting good passage waders. But the comparison species I would really liked to have seen here would have been Little Stint.

As its name suggests Least Sandpiper is the smallest of the stint species. It has a squat body, rather short greenish legs and long toes. The dark bill is down-curved, tapering to a fine point. To quote the Helm guide to confusion species the key diagnostics that separate this bird from Little Stint are the leg colour and a very short primary projection. This was mostly fairly plain to decipher during my time in the hide, as other birders came and went and I got into the best viewing position. But to my mind the stand-out feature was the subtly attractive breast pattern that had stood out in the RBA photographs, as it did now in my scope.

All the while I hoped the Least Sand would relocate closer so that I might capture some half decent images. Eventually it was flushed by other birds and landed on a grassy area beside the board walk. Most people inside then moved out to attempt to photograph the rarity through slats in the wooden screen structure. At this point I was joined by Oxonbirder Dave Lowe who was “on the way” (as we say locally) home from a business meeting in Tiverton. He pointed out the Least Sand again quite close to the screen and I happened to be in a good spot to get two lucky shots (above) as the bird crossed the grass back to the water’s edge. It being some time since I have returned from a British birding twitch with publishable pictures, I’m quite pleased with those two. What a little beauty!

Mission accomplished, Dave and myself both left after 3pm to make our way homeward. Not wanting to brave the Dorset lanes again then Poole’s outskirts in the rush hour, I chose the fast M5 / M4 motorway route which in the event was largely congestion free. With the warm glow of having acquired such a rare and attractive lifer, and the bonus of reasonable pictures, all was well in my world at least for one more day.

* Six (that is 50%) of the group I refer to here are now on my British list. The others are Semipalmated Sandpiper, White-rumped Sandpiper, Long-billed Dowitcher, Short-billed Dowitcher and Pectoral Sandpiper. Still to be added are Long-toed Stint, Western Sandpiper, Red-necked Stint, Baird’s Sandpiper, Stilt Sandpiper and Sharp-tailed Sandpiper. If the taxonomy here is inaccurate, the pocket field guide referred to at the beginning of this post is Bruun, Delin and Svensson’s excellent Hamlyn Guide that I keep in the car as a small, light alternative to Collins. This publication is also very dear to me having been carried in the field throughout my early birding years. The borrowed term “accidental small sandpipers” is merely a convenient way of denoting the above group of scarce or rare passage waders.