Red-necked Phalarope and other notable local birds at Farmoor Reservoir, Oxon: 21st – 23rd Sep

Things are gearing up for what is predicted to be an outstanding autumn for migrant birds both nationally and locally. One feature so far has been a widespread wreck of Phalaropes at inland sites countrywide. There have now been four Grey Phalarope in Oxfordshire so far through September, then three days ago news broke of a scarcer still Red-necked Phalarope at Farmoor Reservoir, for me the county’s best birding site.

Having missed recently three important county birds through having committed to work – White-winged Black Tern, Wood Sandpiper and Kittiwake – I felt no inclination to go without for a fourth time and so set off at once without camera. The concrete wastes, as Oxon birders who opt to favour other county sites sometimes term Farmoor, resembled a roll-call of local birding as I walked around to where the Phalarope was said to be. On my approach the star visitor was swimming between two groups of birders close to the north-west shore of F1 and relief surged through me at an immediate connect.

I was impressed immediately by the bird’s different personality or “jizz” to the Grey Phalarope (above, right) that have graced Oxon with their presence in each of the last three autumns. I will not go into detailed plumage topography, but for me this juvenile Red-necked Phalarope (above, left) appeared slimmer, daintier and longer-billed than it’s larger, more uniformly black and white autumnal Grey cousin, with attractive patterning on the upperparts.

This was my third record of the species after previous sightings at Farlington Marshes, Hants in October 1987 and Bicester Wetland Reserve, Oxon in May 2015. That the latter bird was a county tick for several high (255+) listers is an indication of its scarcity. Both Phalaropes are Arctic breeders, but whilst Grey winters at sea in the south Atlantic, Red-necked migrates south-east across Europe to the Caspian, Black and Arabian Seas where they also lead a pelagic life. They are seldom seen in Britain once autumn gales have passed.

I had no time to linger, but a greater Scaup had also been found at Farmoor the same day and was another bird that should I be county year listing I would need to see. I therefore set off back across the causeway to search for this duck, with another Oxon birding colleague who needed to get back to work, but we could not locate it. So on Friday morning (22nd) I returned with the Scaup as my priority, though also hoping to photograph the Phalarope. I was prepared for this dual objective to take two more days.

The RNP was by now attracting some attention from out-of county birders, since this was an opportunity to get closer than usual to a scarce species. Friday’s largely bright and clear weather was also likely to attract photographers and other people with cameras, and so it transpired. The Phalarope was keeping its distance on this day, first on F1 then F2, and nobody I mixed with seemed especially interested in finding the Scaup. Then Ewan arrived, having seen and photographed the former well a day earlier, and so we headed out together to the southern end of F2 to track down the latter.

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Eclipse drake Scaup (far right) with Tufted Ducks

In this company the eclipse drake Scaup proved easy to find associating with a flock of noticeably smaller Tufted Duck (pictured above). Scaup are usually found in Oxfordshire in autumn or early winter. Most of these migratory duck seen in Britain originate in Iceland with many wintering birds occurring in Scottish coastal waters and estuaries. Bigger populations breed in northern Scandinavia eastward across the whole of Siberia

On Saturday morning (23rd) Oxon Birding reported the RNP as still present and so I paid a third visit in three days with the specific intent of photographing the main attraction. I cannot recall seeing so many visiting birders at Farmoor Reservoir before, and with a big sailing club event also in progress the place was very crowded. I sighted a large knot of optics carriers about two-thirds of the way along the causeway and upon getting near two people walking away pointed out the Phalarope that had just relocated literally to beneath my feet. That was very nice of the bird, that this time was sticking to the water’s edge again and so my objective was at once accomplished.

It now remained to try to photograph the location’s third notable of the moment, a juvenile Shag. This is the last of 11 such seabirds that arrived at the end of August as part of a national movement for the species. Since then seven have moved on and three unfortunately died. Today another Oxon birder picked out the straggler on one of F1’s nesting rafts, from where it flew to the eastern shore. There we watched it swimming ever closer, before commencing to dive over and again at reasonable viewing distance.

I am told Shag puns have boosted the viewing figures of some other Oxon blogs recently, but that is not for me. Call me stuffy if you wish. I will not be entering these pictures (below) in any competitions but they record another important local bird this autumn, the initial 11 being the first record in Oxfordshire since 2012.

From tomorrow I am squeezing in an extra week’s trip abroad for this year, to Corsica. To help fund it I have been working an added weekly shift at the rizla kiosk cum petrol station for the last couple of months, but I intend to go back to three days a week when I return. The eight hour barrage by people concerned only with what they want is too tiring mentally to endure for more than that. In saying this I appreciate others who may be financially dependent upon such work do not have my choice, but I will be very glad of the break.

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Arctic Warbler at Wells Woods, Norfolk and an Oxford Osprey – 18th Sep

Siberian breeding warblers are now beginning to filter through Britain on autumn passage, and two such scarcities turning up close together on the north Norfolk coast this weekend, ahead of a non-working day proved too much of a temptation to resist. Arctic Warbler is a passerine most seasoned birders will have on their lists, but Pallas’ Grasshopper Warbler is much trickier.

The latter is rarely seen away from those offshore Scottish islands where to date I have feared to tread and is very skulking in its habits. Both these “drift migrants”, so called because they have strayed west of the mainstream migration path, are amongst a difficult group of lifers that I must pay attention to in the upcoming and future autumn passage seasons.

But first, this morning I had another local birding matter to attend to. September has been quite lively so far in God’s own county (Oxon) and one of the attractions has been a juvenile Osprey visiting a gravel pit location to the south of Oxford. Today was my third attempt to witness at close quarters what is a spectacular seasonal raptor fishing at the site. And having missed out by six minutes 24 hours earlier I now did things properly and got there at dawn. Soon after my arrival at around 6:20am the bird flew in from the direction in which it has often been seen departing and took up a tree top perch (pictured below, left) overlooking one pit.

For the next two hours this youngster went through quite a range of amusing facial expressions while surveying all before it, often indulging in what looked like neck stretching exercises. Throughout, noisy Canada Geese would come and go overhead; Water Rail squealed from the reedy margins and Eurasian Coot went about their own business on the water’s surface. But no resident corvids or raptors seemed to be over bothered by the showy visitor that just sat and watched, and preened, then watched some more. After more than an hour of this the Osprey made its only flight around the site (above, right), then perched once more against a better lit background (below).

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Juvenile Osprey watching and waiting

At some time after 8:30am this local celebrity departed in the opposite direction from whence it had come, not having attempted to fish. I assumed it must be going on to somewhere else on a feeding circuit that might be more productive, then myself headed home to check out what was transpiring in Norfolk. By 10am both migrant Warblers had been reported on RBA. Connecting with them might be risky, but I had an adrenalin buzz now and needed to hit the road to burn it off. Spending the day at home in the garden would not satisfy, and after all nothing ventured, nothing gained.

Before setting off I contacted Ewan who had got to the PGW site at Burnham Overy Staithe (TF853448) at dawn. He called back to say the early starters had given up at around 8:30am, then having travelled part of the way back home he was returning for another try now this bird had been sighted. Undaunted, I myself went to join him, appreciating I would not arrive until mid-afternoon but there must be some opportunity to see one or both warblers before dusk.

As I passed Titchwell Marsh on the A149 north Norfolk coast road, Ewan phoned to say he had seen the PGW briefly in flight at around 2:20pm and was moving on to Wells Woods, the Arctic Warbler location. We agreed to rendezvous which would make connecting with the latter bird somewhat simpler for me since he knew exactly where to find it. His day’s experience neither surprised me nor sounded especially enjoyable, more like a bit of a scrum, but he had secured his own lifer and so relaxed could help me gain an easier and important one of my own.

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Arctic Warbler

At Wells-next-the-Sea we walked westward from the car park (TF914455) and after a while came upon 15 to 20 birders all pointing their binoculars and cameras upwards into a silver birch at one side of the main track. The Arctic Warbler really was that easy to locate and my 160 mile journey had been well worthwhile. The bird was quite hyperactive, seldom keeping still for long and moving fairly high up. But eventually I gained some record shots (above and below) that showed the diagnostics to some extent.

Those are a sturdy bill, long supercilium, blotchy ear coverts, neat wing bar, and a long primary projection that is roughly equal to the tail projection beyond the primary tips. That is more than the usual degree of plumage topography I quote, but the first two and last of those features were the most noticeable to me as everyone craned their necks and tried to direct one another onto this bird as it flicked around constantly above us.

Meanwhile, here’s how the professionals do it (below): both pictures © and courtesy of Ewan.

Arctic is between Willow and Wood Warbler in size with an overall long-winged, short-tailed appearance. A forest breeder in northernmost Fenno-Scandia, the usual wintering ground is south-east Asia, one of the longest migration routes for a small passerine. This is one of the more regularly occurring autumn drift migrants in Britain and hence one that I particularly wished to see, so I was very pleased with this day’s outcome. The other bird would have been a bonus but was not seen again while we were at Wells Woods.

When I dropped Ewan off again at Burnham Overy Staithe the roadside cars suggested many people were still looking. Today had been much windier than Sunday (17th) when the PGW was first discovered, causing the bird to keep low in cover much more than when this picture (here) was taken. That elusive little number will have to wait for another occasion, if ever for me.

Stilt and Least Sandpipers at RSPB Lodmoor, Dorset + Oxon Grey Phalarope – 12 & 13th Sep

The autumn bird passage season has now clicked into gear both nationally and locally with westerly gales bringing a variety of pelagic (ocean going) and Nearctic (north American) species to our shores. After the frustration of dipping four out of six selected national birds through the summer I will therefore be seeking renewed avian motivation in the coming weeks. The two groups offering the most potential for me personally are waders from the west and Siberian breeding passerines from the east.

Recent days have seen a fair smattering of Nearctic waders within my preferred range around the country. But these were all species I had logged previously: Pectoral, Baird’s and White-rumped Sandpipers; and Long-billed Dowitcher. Then on Tuesday morning (12th) one new record on RBA stood out: Stilt Sandpiper at one of my favourite south coast reserves, Lodmoor (SY687815) just outside of Weymouth. This was an important lifer and hence a must-see, and there was also a Least Sandpiper at the same site: a further Nearctic wader I have observed once previously (see here). But I was working the evening shift that day.

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Stilt Sandpiper (juv) at Lodmoor

Strong winds on Monday had also brought in numbers of Grey Phalarope nationally, including one in north-Oxfordshire that I went to see. Walking away from there was Ewan, fresh from an epic outer Hebrides twitch to connect with the North American passerine of the autumn so far (see here). I told him of my plans for the morrow and he at once expressed an interest. With another storm set to batter Blighty through the intervening night it seemed hopeful the Dorset scarcities would not move on too soon, and so it transpired.

On the journey down my passenger checked the bird news at intervals. The overnight squalls had deposited many more Grey Phalarope at inland sites across England and Wales, including two more in Oxfordshire. Sabine’s Gull, Leach’s Petrel and other pelagics were being reported from all round the west and south coasts by those dedicated or dour enough to sit out in the conditions and log them. But there was nothing new of significant interest to myself.

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The Stilt Sandpiper location at RSPB Lodmoor

We arrived on site late morning and the first birders met to the north of the reserve confirmed the Stilt Sandpiper was showing well at the location being cited on RBA. On our reaching that spot, at Lodmoor’s western edge the connect was immediate. The Stilt Sandpiper had a quite distinctive, generally pale appearance. Around one-third of the way between Dunlin and Redshank in size, today’s pristine juvenile displayed attractively scalloped upperparts and light breast streaking with a prominent supercilium (eye stripe) and down-curved bill. And then there were the long yellow legs, hence the species’ name. This was a very pleasing package all round. Juveniles are an extreme rarity in Britain, with most of the species records over the last 15 years thought to relate to the same couple of passage adults.

The bird was feeding in the middle distance amongst Redshank and Black-tailed Godwit. On our last successful twitch for a Marsh Sandpiper in Kent (see here) I had made the mistake of leaving my new Swarovski digiscoping collar in the car. This time I made sure to take it with me and though the results (below) are hardly sharp they illustrate this expensive piece of kit’s potential. I could have secured half-decent images on that other occasion had I not been so careless. On my right Ewan machine-gunned away using his 400mm Canon telephoto with 1.4 converter. To assess the outcome see here, not in any competitive way I stress but merely to compare technologies.

With the more important (for me) of the two visitors in the bag we moved on to observe the day’s second bird. The Least Sandpiper had relocated to the eastern end of Lodmoor and we came across it associating with two Ringed Plover. The juxtaposition emphasised just how tiny this true dwarf of the accidental small Sandpipers is, just 13cm in length. It would have been impossible to record this bird (below), also a juvenile feeding on rather distant mud without the disgiscoping collar. For a good picture of this bird see here.

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Tiny Least Sandpiper (front left) with Ringed Plover

With both waders now seen well we could relax and enjoy our surroundings at this superb reserve. These were my third and fourth Nearctic waders at the site, where I had previously recorded Long- and Short-billed Dowitchers in November 2010 and September 2012 respectively. We next returned to the first spot to get more of the Stilt Sandpiper that had moved closer to the path. In the improved light the bird was moving around an area of subtle contrasts and I am quite pleased with these images. This is the first proper workout I have given the digiscoping collar and I must remember to take it with me in future.

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Stilt Sandpiper (juv)

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Stilt Sandpiper (right) with Ringed Plover (juv)

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Stilt Sandpiper (left) with juvenile Knot

Below are more digiscoped pictures of some other interesting birds observed today. It had been a hugely enjoyable excursion that was only slightly spoiled when Ewan found on Twitter that another sneaky Oxon birder had got down to Lodmoor on Tuesday afternoon and blogged his account first. Really, some people have no shame! Adam’s experiences of the twin attraction (see here) seemed broadly parallel with our own.

So perhaps my recent birding fortunes have taken a turn for the better now. Things began at Oxford’s Farmoor Reservoir on Monday evening (11th) while I was in a hide with two other Oxon birders being grilled about some kind of year list it’s rumoured I keep in the county. Asked what are the two most obvious birds I have yet to see locally in 2017 I replied Ruff and Whimbrel. At that point three medium-sized waders flew past and I called: “What are those?” “They’re Ruff!” replied my companions in unison. This was a very minor occurrence but on such nuances perhaps can sequences of luck change.

When I got home the first of the three Grey Phalarope had been reported on Oxon Birding, and an exhausted Manx Shearwater had landed in someone’s garden north of Oxford. Things were picking up in the county and the following morning so it seemed nationally too. But first I went to Banbury’s Grimsbury Reservoir (SP460420) for the Phalarope, since if I was actually year listing I would need to see it. This is the third consecutive autumn in which we’ve had these ocean going waifs in Oxfordshire, and as usual the bird was very fearless probably having no prior experience of humans.

I am not used to seeing Phalaropes standing out of the water and so am particularly pleased with the first three pictures. They were taken through a wire mesh boundary fence, but at one point an angler laden with all his gear strode along the water’s edge right past the bird and it barely moved. That was incidentally most considerate of him as he could see what I was doing, but no doubt he pays to be there and birders do not.

Being out and about relaxing with the camera photographing insects has been very enjoyable through the summer, but the buzz that goes with having birds to see is something extra. Here’s hoping for more life list additions nationally in the autumn weeks ahead.