Hoyt’s Horned Lark (?) at Staines Reservoir, Surrey + more on Oxon Hawfinches – 26th Nov

This seemed worth a look. Not only is it unusual for a wintering Horned Lark to turn up at an inland location, but this particular bird is being cited as a probable north American sub-species. The 50-minute bijou twitchette involved was also an enjoyable way to fill a perfectly bright and clear Sunday morning prior to my 3 – 11 pm shift.

Horned Lark (Eremophila alpestris), of which Shorelark (E a flava) more usually occurs in Great Britain, are found worldwide across the northern hemisphere. My own researches having now seen the bird reveal there are no less than 42 recognised sub-species. The Staines bird is believed to be one of three migratory sub-species that make up the bulk of Canada’s breeding population. Normally these winter in the south of that vast country and the northern United States. Given a midweek change to a northerly air flow, RBA had predicted a Nearctic passerine would be the ensuing days’ likely prize and this bird was it.

If Oxford’s Farmoor Reservoir is a bleak concrete bowl as some deride it, then today’s location (pictured below, left) is rather more deserving of that description. In the late 1980s, when I worked for a marketing company near Heathrow, I would sometimes spend lunch breaks here as an escape from the office environment. My only visit since then was to record a first Wilson’s Phalarope in September 1997. Today I arrived on site just before 11am and joined a line of birders at the western end of the central causeway between two reservoir basins.

The bird in question is believed to be a Hoyt’s Horned Lark (E a hoyti). Today it was feeding along the western edge of the northern reservoir basin (below the pylon) in the habitat pictured above, right. Like previously experienced Shorelarks this bird was creeping in its habits and kept in cover of the dried out vegetation much of the time. Even at the range from which I was watching it stood out as being much darker toned than those past English east coast Shorelark records. This is also readily apparent in the limited number of photographs published so far on RBA (see here).

I will not attempt to go into plumage detail of the different alpestris sub-species, even supposing I possessed it. Suffice to say that in researching this intentionally brief post I have uncovered a vast amount of taxonomic data. In due course the great and good of the rarities committees will no doubt publish a decision as to this intriguing individual’s exact taxa.

In the circumstances getting a picture myself was impossible. But fortunately I know a man who had been here a day earlier at a time when the Horned Lark settled on the bank of the causeway beneath just a few birders. Ewan’s observations on the plumage detail are also highly pertinent, so I will refer my readers to his excellent post (here) rather than make second hand interpretations of my own.

Sunday was the fourth consecutive crisp and clear winter day since the prevailing weather pattern altered on 23rd. Much of November prior to that had been as dull as the birding that the mild westerly conditions produced. My immediate reaction upon the change was to check out thoroughly the Oxon location where I had come across my first Hawfinch of the current irruption at the start of the month (see previous post). I had been back to the Nettlebed Estate in the east of the county twice more in the interim, seeing three more Hawfinch on 10th.

This latest re-visit started well when the first Chaffinch flock I came across contained a splendid male Brambling, but that was the only winter finch encountered through five hours searching. I walked a circular route from SU707840, and then a shorter one within it to cover all the rights of way at the western end of this extensive parkland, but saw no more Hawfinches. This was very enjoyable walking country nonetheless.

barnard gate.1701

Hawfinch site near Eynsham, Oxon

Through last week the centre of attention in the county switched to another location to the west of Oxford. Up to 30 Hawfinch have been watched regularly at Barnard Gate (SP400106), the southern end of another estate Eynsham Hall Park. Like Nettlebed, and Great Hampden in Bucks where I enjoyed my best recent Hawfinch experience (see previous post), this Oxon location is an extensive area of parkland in which the birds feed in Hornbeam trees.

I went to Barnard Gate once late in the day on 20th seeing just one perched treetop bird. My heart sunk upon arrival as I realised the viewing distance involved. But at the weekend some Oxon birding colleagues obtained the best images yet to emerge during the current ongoing event (see here). The glut of Hawfinch sightings across southern England shows no sign of abating and looks set to remain the main feature of regional birding interest this winter. But the stray American Horned Lark has provided a most pleasant and interesting diversion.

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