Dwarf Bittern on Fuerteventura and an early morning Houbara – 9 & 10th Dec

Yes really! Though this is a little further than my oft-cited preferred twitching range it was something that just had to be done. I feel in the mood for madcap adventure at present and the scenario that is about to be described ticks all the boxes. Since the start of December a Dwarf Bittern has been frequenting a Barranco (river valley) quite near Rosario airport on the Canary Island of Fuerteventura. After viewing the picture (below) on RBA my reaction was I would rather like to see this bird and so on a whim I checked air fares. At the head of the results list were return flights for just £65 provided I went out and back this weekend.

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Dwarf Bittern (public domain © David Perez)

I next sounded out company but with the usual sort of complexities over matching schedules. Sometimes you just have to get up and go and this seemed like one such instance. When I then found a last minute apartment for £37 everything about this escapade was beckoning hard. So I upped and went.

Dwarf Bittern, one of the world’s smallest herons, normally occurs in much of non-arid Africa south of the Sahara but is uncommon throughout its range. It is a migratory species north and south within the tropical and sub-tropical zones and can wander further including the Canary Islands and southern France. But this particular bird is only the fifth recorded individual to have crossed the dividing line between the Afrotopical and Western Palearctic bird regions.

The outward journey was completed without a hitch and I arrived in Fuerteventura at around 1:30pm. This was my second visit here, the first being a five-day stay in February 2015 (see trip reports). After collecting my hire car I needed to drive around a bit to charge up my dodgy sat nav, but after a not too arduous diversion it got me to the GPS location (pictured below, left) cited on RBA. While looking for this site I encountered 10-12 Egyptian Vulture circling over what looked like a waste recycling plant. The latter is a raptor I have still seen only on this island of Fuerteventura.

The stretch of Barranco de Rio Cabras in question was set back from a minor road but I drove right out to the exact GPS N28.4758′ W13.9030′ across stony ground (above, right). I was soon joined by two Swedish birders who had parked back on the road. We scanned up and down the shallow gorge of the barranco, in which there were two dams with a lagoon in between, but there was no sign of the bird. Bitterns do after all spend much of their time keeping out of sight, so why should this one be any different? After 40 minutes or so we were joined by two groups of English birders, one of which had seen the bird here earlier in the day, while the other came in on a later flight than my own.

All of the Brits had like myself travelled here just to see the Dwarf Bittern, also taking advantage of exceptionally low air fares on this last weekend before the Christmas holiday season. These people sounded like they knew where to look and I followed them down into the barranco, but soon began to feel uncomfortable. Their tactics were none too subtle and they seemed intent on flushing the bird that eventually flew downstream over all our heads and disappeared into cover not to re-emerge. So everybody had now seen the bird, if briefly.

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Barranco de Rio Cabras at GPS N28.4758′ W13.9030′

My overnight accommodation at Apartamentos la Piramide in Costa Antigua was superb, a self-contained apartment in a poolside setting. The cheap and cheerful, as much as you like for €10 restaurant here catered for my sustenance needs. This struck me as a good base should I bird again solo in Fuerteventura, since the apartments are also fully self-catering but in a sociable ambience, and shops are nearby. This situation was far superior to the poorly furnished and dingy “studio apartment” in a rather tacky hotel that was my base for the 2015 trip.

I slept little though and so set off at 6am on Sunday morning, as planned to drive to El Cotillo plain at the north-west corner of the island hoping to find that special Fuerteventura resident Houbara Bustard. Daybreak found me heading out along the dirt road I had travelled twice in 2015, seeing one Houbara each time though rather distantly. This time I drove a little further south than previously, encountering virtually no birds at all other than a few Raven. Turning round after the sun had risen I hoped for better fortunes on the return drive.

At exactly the spot I was briefed on prior to that 2015 visit as the prime location for Houbaras here, I gained my prize. Having checked many likely looking objects in the middle distance up until this point, there suddenly was a backlit and beautiful Houbara Bustard of the offshore race staring straight back at me. I stopped the car, turned off the engine, stayed inside, reached for the camera and this bird remained completely unconcerned. It appeared to be warming up in the early morning sunshine, looking about itself and preening at intervals. What an absolute stunner! Eventually my willing subject began to peck whatever it eats from the surrounding shrubs, wandering away as it did so. And hence, mindful of the advancing time I moved on to a renewed appointment with the Dwarf Bittern 23 miles away.

Back on site, one of the groups of British birders was again down in the Barranco. When they got near I learned they had searched all over but found nothing yet. I elected to remain on the cliff top from where on this warm and pleasant morning a roll call of Fuerteventura bird life presented itself. White Wagtail, Chiffchaff and Berthelot’s Pipit were foraging on the rock faces, while Fuerteventura Chat and rather striking African Blue Tit came and went. Four Black-winged Stilt were present on the lagoon, a flock of Trumpeter Finch buzzed past, a pair of Ruddy Shelduck announced themselves overhead, and the kronking of Raven filled the air. This was all excellent entertainment but of the star visitor there remained no sign.

Then after about an hour, as if out of nowhere there was another fly past and the Dwarf Bittern settled on the rock face on my side a little upstream from where I was perched. The three birders on the opposite side of the gorge could all see it, but I stood no chance from my position. If this bird had been skulking hitherto it was suddenly well and truly out in the open. But everything else about this excursion had seemed meant so far, and so was this.

As I walked upstream along the cliff top the bird relocated again into the greenery just to one side of and in front of the second dam (pictured above, right). I was able to cross the gorge behind the dam where the river bed is dry, then move along the bottom of the opposite rock face back to the dam itself. That was where the collective experiences of this trip went off the top of the scale. The bird commenced to climb the opposite wall of the barranco, sometimes through the covering of green vegetation but often across the surface. Then it moved back downward again eventually to emerge at the water’s edge, behaving at all times in a very Bittern like way before eventually heading downstream once more.

This bird is an adult male, having dark blue-grey upperparts and upper wings with elongated head and tail feathers. The throat and upper breast are streaked pale buff darkening to tawny on the lower abdomen. The bill and legs are predominantly yellow. Dwarf Bittern are 25 to 30cm in length, with an average wingspan of 45 to 50cm. More than one source I researched said they are most often encountered when relocating or flying into cover, so to observe this one foraging openly was simply superb. Numbers of other birders have told of similar experiences at this site though, and this bird has most reliably been seen usually around the middle of the day between 11am and 2pm.

These (above and below) are my results

Everything so far on this escapade had gone just perfectly, but when I got back to the airport a four hour delay was announced on my return flight due to severe weather at home. When the outward flight arrived there was an attempt to turn it around quickly but no-one was allowed on board. People like to malign Ryanair but they boast the fewest delays and their flight to Leeds Bradford got away just an hour late. The issue with my Jet2.com flight was that the pilot had already worked his regulation flying hours. People were wondering why this airline didn’t know that when the flight left Stansted. I suppose low prices mean low overheads, as I tell moaners in the queues at Lidl, so maybe Jet2.com doesn’t have stand by crews.

Anyway I’m British so there’s no point making a fuss. Overnight accommodation was arranged quickly and efficiently, and the passengers were all put up at a large 4-star hotel in Caleta del Fuste with dinner and breakfast on the airline. After all the soup wagon might not make it out to the shanty town in severe weather, and I would not now be getting back to blighty in the middle of a freezing night after such a long day.

The return journey went perfectly smoothly and the captain’s explanation of the previous day’s events was quite plausible, allowing for a certain amount of PR. The Jet2.com staff were all very pleasant and friendly throughout the unwanted part of this scenario. I eventually got home in the early evening of Monday after a weekend that will dwell in my memory for a long time to come. This was quite simply one of the best things I have ever done.

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Parrot Crossbills at Wishmoor Bottom, Berks – 29th Nov

This is very welcome. A persisting cold, northerly airflow has brought about the most significant incursion of Parrot Crossbill into England since the winter of 2013/14. Over the past seven days up to 30 birds have been observed daily at Santon Warren in the Norfolk Brecklands. I had half a mind to visit them this week but on Sunday (26th) a second flock of 16 was found on military training land adjacent to Sandhurst Academy in Berkshire, just an hour from home. So today I went for the latter in company with Ewan and these birds put on quite a show.

It is unusual to find the species so far south. This is one of two Crossbills from north-west European Pine forests that reach Great Britain usually in small numbers during cold spells, the other being Two-barred Crossbill. Four years ago there was a minor irruption of both species into England. Then it took four attempts before I eventually nailed a Two-barred flock in the Forest of Dean, Glos in January 2014. But I connected with another long staying flock of Parrot Crossbill at the first time of asking in Sherwood Forest, Notts over the Christmas period that winter. Since then these hardy and stylish finches have held a special fascination for me and the opportunity to experience one of them again so close to home was not to be missed.

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Who’s a pretty boy then? Parrot Crossbill on the Thames Basin Heaths

Parrot Crossbill resembles the more often seen Common Crossbill in plumage, but is 25 – 40% bulkier with a somewhat bigger head and larger, thicker bill. The former is described as front heavy and bull-necked and I think the individual pictured below, left today might well agree with that. They really do look like little Parrots and sometimes behave like them too, hanging upside down to feed on the seeds from Pine cones for instance. The call is less clipping and more mellow than Common Crossbill and we heard this several times as our birds moved as a flock from tree to tree.

Wishmoor Bottom is part of Swinley Forest, a substantial area of the Thames Basin Heaths SPA lying between Bracknell and Camberley. The site, also known as Barossa reserve, is MoD owned and managed by the Surrey Wildlife Trust. Much of the habitat is Pine and native deciduous woodland interspersed with open lowland heath containing gorse, birch, mires and bogs. Though a training area for the nearby Royal Military Academy there is open public access to much of the site.

CS SWINLEY

The bird interest here, depending on the season includes heathland specialties such as Dartford Warbler, Firecrest, Nightjar, Woodlark, Stonechat and Common Redstart. And the habitat is just made for wintering Shrikes and Crossbills. So there is no reason why the present visitors should not remain for longer given the abundant food supply evidenced today. Pine seeds are these birds almost exclusive diet.

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Birders watching Parrot Crossbill at Wishmoor Bottom

We reached site (above) at around 10:45am parking at the northern end of King’s Ride (SU875620), a MoD Housing Estate then walking due north. The directions from there on RBA had been quite precise and we soon located a group of around 15 birders in the area that the Parrot Crossbill were favouring. As we arrived the birds were gathered in an especially easy to view tree, after which they moved around the vicinity at intervals and the birders all followed. What unfolded offered a fascinating insight into the feeding habits of these alluring Scandinavian visitors.

We remained here for just over two hours. Over that period the birds relocated several times, showing well in the tops of Pine trees. It was noticeable how they snipped off the small cones they were harvesting with their powerful bills, sometimes then holding them aloft before pinning them down to extract the seeds from. When not feeding they would just sit calmly and watch, blending into their surroundings. This adult male (below) did so rather more openly, attracting all the lenses present. What an absolute beauty!

Adult male Parrot Crossbill surveying its surroundings (above and below)

The rust-red and grey males stood out more while the grey-green, smaller-billed females were well camouflaged. Viewed front on these birds have a distinctly broader head than Common Crossbills, while large-billed individuals seem to lack a forehead and display a flat crown. The beady eyes seem a little incongruous in such an imposing head.

Conditions were mostly overcast so not well suited to photography. Digiscoping is always a crude solution in the field and the images in this post were gained with a certain amount of cursing. My results were all what might be termed “soft focus” though they convey how these Crossbills were seen. As ever I make no pretence of being a bird photographer, merely a birder who takes pictures to record what I see. The number of photos included in this post, from 42 saved out of 330+ taken, perhaps serves to illustrate just how easy (relatively) these superb birds were to observe today, not something that can usually be said of Crossbills.

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How will their pictures compare with my own?

This had been by any standards a superb experience and if the Parrot Crossbill linger I may well come back and spend more time with them this winter. This intriguing site also struck me as well worth checking out for insects in summer, not to mention speciality breeding birds. If only we had some of this habitat in Oxfordshire.

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.

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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.

Oxon and Bucks Hawfinches, and local listing matters: 28th Oct – 5th Nov

As anyone with an interest in birds is now aware, England and the south in particular is currently experiencing a remarkable irruption of migratory Hawfinch. The continued westerly weather pattern might have scuppered my national birding plans as October played itself out. But from the middle of the month what the overall picture lacked in terms of scarcities became offset in part by the opportunity to experience these charismatic but elusive finches in places where they are not usually seen.

The downside is the vast majority of the plethora of sightings on RBA have been fly overs, qualified by annotations such as “over to S” or “low SW”. Locating and viewing settled birds has been quite a different proposition. Surely they are out there somewhere since so many birds cannot be merely passing through. In Oxfordshire an initial trickle of records really took off on Saturday 28th. These were all from what I would term meticulous bird finders, dedicated patch workers realising the opportunity to record Hawfinch passing through their home villages, and those with the ability to identify specks in the sky on call.

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“If you’re pointing that at me I don’t do in focus.” … “That’s OK Mr Hawfinch, neither do I.”

A very informative article has appeared on Oxon Birding (see here) explaining the practice of “vis-migging”, devotees of which scan the skies from one point for long periods to record over-flying migration. This is not a style of birding that has any appeal to myself but is clearly how most current observations nationally and in the county are being made. So when records began to snowball eight days ago I saw little point in chasing after other people’s sightings and set out to look for Hawfinch in my own village.

The old part of Garsington (SP581025) atop a geological ridge east of Oxford, seems made for Hawfinches. In particular there are good numbers of Yew trees around the place, especially in St Mary’s church yard (pictured below). I first made my way uphill from the shanty town at first light on Sunday 29th, my collar turned up and cap pulled down to avoid recognition as a “Parky”, and have ventured back twice since. But to date success has eluded me. The church yard is nonetheless quite a birdy place and always a relaxing spot to while away some time.

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After drawing blank a second time on the misty morning of Thursday 1st I received a call from Tom, “The Wickster” who fancied an afternoon off work to search for Hawfinch in the Chilterns. This was the arrangement we enjoyed in the halcyon days of 2012 and 2013, me as driver and he as guide, that was in no small part responsible for my best ever county totals of those years. More recently Tom has preferred to do most of his county birding on foot, but had already added a flyover to his famed “walking list”. Hence it was game on and I knew this would be my best opportunity to find Hawfinch in Oxfordshire this autumn.

I had experienced the species previously at classic sites in the Weald, New Forest and Forest of Dean, as well as in Spain. Hawfinch was also on my Oxon life list, but one sighting at Stonesfield Common had been distant and the second at Blenheim Park fleeting. So this was the last county bird over which all doubt in my mind needed to be removed. There are large tracts of under-watched woodland in south-east Oxfordshire that I had already decided to make the prime focus of my local birding this coming winter, and this was also where Tom felt there must be settled Hawfinch flocks at present.

At the first selected site we found nothing. Tom kept saying we needed to find vantage points to scan over the surrounding woodland and I took the opportunity to enquire what an aerial specialist describes as flying “low”. The answer is apparently tree top height … hmmm! So we moved on and I headed up an unmade road towards a location with the intriguing name of Lower Highmoor (SU704850). When my passenger said this route would probably fizzle out I replied we could turn around if it did. Then he announced: “That would be a good point to scan from just over there.” And without those two inputs we would not have been successful.

First we saw a finch-like flock alighting into a conifer at around 300 metres distance. Tom hoped they might be Crossbill but careful inspection confirmed they were Greenfinch. My expectations having been thus raised then dashed I went for a comfort break, that after all can be one way of making something happen. Just as I was making the personal re-adjustment Tom called excitedly: “Hawfinch!”, and in his words I “almost ran” back to where he was standing. There in my scope, a little nearer than the conifers were three perched birds in a tree above the garden of an isolated house. Mission was thus accomplished in no uncertain terms.

When these birds disappeared from view we walked up to the house but there was no further sign of them. Tom then got back into his element scanning the tree line of Nettlebed Woods on the horizon where he picked out eight more Hawfinch in flight. But I was more than pleased, elated even with what we had already seen. On the way home we stopped at a site Tom knows to observe Grey Partridge that has been a bogey local bird for me this year. Hence, if I were to be Oxon year listing in 2017 I would have moved one ahead of last year’s total, and eight short of those 2012/13 figures. A Water Pipit at Farmoor Reservoir on Saturday 4th, by no means an annual county bird, reduced that deficit further.

We appear to have put Lower Highmoor on the local birding map, because a number of other Oxon birders visited over the next three days. But their sightings were mostly of distant, tree-top Hawfinch or more fly overs. For myself I preferred to go in search of further perched birds and so yesterday (5th) made a covert crossing of the county border into the murky reaches of neighbouring Bucks. Near Great Hampden, a little east of the Chilterns escarpment above Princes Risborough, a roving flock of up to 30 birds had been reported in the interval. These were said at times to be offering good views and so it turned out.

This was not an easy location to find. From a corner of a minor road a bridleway leads through the private estate of Hampden House and past a church, on the far side of which lies a kale field (SP843025) containing clumps of mature Hornbeam that the Hawfinch were frequenting. When I arrived on site other people were leaving, the birds they were watching having just flown off. That left me and one other birder to await their next circuit, then after around 15 minutes my companion pointed to the tree tops above where I was standing. There was the perched male that appears at the beginning of this post (thanks to Ewan for gender ID).

More self-found Hawfinch then flew into the tall Hornbeams in the top left picture (above) and a pleasant 20 minutes or so ensued as, now alone I observed them feeding. This second good experience in four days was an unusual opportunity to view what are generally known as shy and difficult birds going about their infrequently seen business just 20 miles from home. When several more birders arrived things at once became less enjoyable and in any case it was time to leave.


Hawfinch records from southern England, Wales and the Republic of Ireland, 25-31 October 2017. © BirdGuides.com

If Hawfinch are to be a continuing  feature of local birding this winter I will hope for more encounters such as those described here, and not least right here in Garsington. In the short hours of daylight I will be out there looking, though not too high in the sky.

A county find at last: Great Skua at Farmoor Reservoir – 19th Oct

In my last post I bemoaned a lack of local birding action so far this month, but the last two days have added two more species to my year’s Oxon total. Having reverted to three working days a week, Wednesdays and Thursdays are currently free again. In making that decision I had hoped to be spending some time on England’s north-east coast this October, but the current weather pattern has so far ruled out the need to do so. Instead events at Oxford’s Farmoor Reservoir have helped to fill in the time.

Working an eight hour evening shift alone handling an intensive customer flow at the petrol station still involves some recovery time and hence the two day break is welcome, especially if decent birds turn up. Yesterday a small party of Brent Geese stopped off there, a commonplace sight around southern and eastern coasts in winter but still a good bird to record in an inland county such as ours.

This morning I was expecting a BT engineer and then planned to drive down to Dorset to look for a Two-barred Greenish Warbler. By the time the engineer had left there was still no news of that bird but five Common Scoter had been reported from Farmoor, seeing which would break up the day nicely. As I walked clockwise around Farmoor 2 all the dark water birds were Tufted Duck or Eurasian Coot until at 12:50pm I reached the western end of the causeway that separates the two reservoirs. Then I picked up what must have been two drake Scoter about one quarter of the way back to start point.

I quickened pace and my attention was caught by a Herring Gull-sized brown seabird tearing a fish apart in the water of Farmoor 1. “That’s very dark and mean looking for a juvenile gull.” I thought. “Could it be a Skua?” I watched this strange bird briefly but my mind was still on the Scoters. When I reached where the latter should have been they had vanished, then turning around I saw the possible Skua had moved nearer to the western shore of F1, still guzzling its fish. So I moved to get closer but on my approach it began to be harassed by gulls.

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Great Skua or Bonxie (record shot)

The interloper took off, revealing bold white wing flashes (pictured above). “That has to be a Great Skua,” I thought but the trouble was I had seen only one before, a sick bird here in the autumn of 2013. That had been no more than a distant blob in the water out in the middle of F2, viewed at first light from outside the site perimeter fence. As the Black-headed Gulls continued to chase and mob the larger bird today the conviction grew further that I could have stumbled upon what is a notable bird for the county. The 2013 “Bonxie”, as this species is also known, had been an Oxon tick for a number of more seasoned birders than myself. Then another was seen last year at RSPB Otmoor that I missed through having to get to work.

I now phoned patch worker Dai who from my description agreed this was probably a Great Skua. But I was still wary about possibly putting out erroneous news and so headed back to the car to check my field guide. At the sailing club another Oxon birder was walking towards me, to whom Dai had passed on the sighting. We checked my blurry photographs against his phone app and indeed the identity was confirmed. It was thus safe to inform the county grapevine, then as I left site a text went out saying more birders had relocated the Bonxie off the western shore of F2.

The closest to home Great Skua breed is in loose colonies on rocky shores in northern Scotland, Iceland and northern Scandinavia. They winter at sea in the north and south Atlantic. A large and heavy looking seabird, their main diet is fish, taken from the water’s surface, other birds or behind trawlers. Though good to see, I wish today’s Skua had been a Pomarine because that would have been a lifer, not to mention very unusual to find inland. All bar one of my previous Skua sightings, including Arctic (Nov 2013) and Long-tailed (Sep 1995) also came from Farmoor Reservoir.

This was only my second ever “county find”, that at the time of writing I am still being accredited with. The first was back in 2010 when, with the then enthusiasts’ reserve of RSPB Otmoor all to myself one evening, I was surprised and delighted to behold a Spoonbill by the Wetlands Watch Hide. My understanding is that local form dictates county year listing should always be denied. But were I to be indulging in the practice these past two days’ events would put me just one bird behind last year’s total. It would still be good to top my best ever tallies of 181 from 2012 and 2013, because I really cannot face starting all over again next January. But I say that every year!

Footnote: Three Common Scoter (two drakes and a female) remained at Farmoor Reservoir, on and off over the ensuing days. I eventually got proper views of these sea duck on the wet and windy evening of Saturday 21st, in company with Andy Last.

Rufous-tailed Rock Thrush near Abergavenny, Gwent + historic Raglan Castle – 16th Oct

This seemed as good a chance as is likely to see a montane, southern-European bird in Britain that I had recorded twice previously abroad. After last winter’s Blue Rock Thrush in the Cotswolds, an individual of the Rufous-tailed variety was uncovered five days ago in South Wales. And sensing that the latter too would remain for a while I bided my time a little before setting out to add it to my British list.

The autumn migrant bonanza predicted in early September by RBA has not materialised either locally or nationally. Last month’s good run of form in Oxfordshire fizzled out during my week in Corsica and October has so far resembled the proverbial damp squib. The jet streams have once again taken control of Britain’s weather pattern, hence the potential for respectable east-coast falls of Siberian-breeding migrants has been and remains slight. So thank you birding gods at least for this little number.

Several other Oxon Birders had been to see the Rock Thrush already, but on noting a dry and mild weather outlook for the weekend I chose to get on with preparation towards next season in my garden instead. But those forecasts had not mentioned the grey and spirit sapping side of things. So by Sunday afternoon the familiar urge to just get up and go somewhere was with me once more. I can never remain content staying at home for long.

The Rock Thrush had so far been first reported late morning then through each afternoon. Hence I left home around 10am today (Monday) and checked RBA after reaching the far side of Gloucester. Once again the bird had been relocated at 10:45am after earlier negatives were put out. With a downgraded hurricane passing the western shores of the British Isles this visitor was hardy likely to have gone anywhere. And on reaching site at around 12:30pm conditions were indeed very windy.

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Abergavenny and The Blorenge from Gilwern Hill

To the south-west of Abergavenny rises the huge and brooding mass of “The Blorenge”, not a horror movie monster but the dark brown expanse in the picture (above). I had been there once before to search unsuccessfully for Red Grouse. Immediately west lies the rather less imposing Gilwern Hill (SO245129) that the Rock Thrush has been frequenting, and between the two climbs the B4246 road towards Blaenavon. On getting out of the car I was thankful for a thermal under layer donned in anticipation of wind on the high tops. Then I set off along a track towards some quarries on the northern side of this hill where the bird was said to be.

The scenery could only be described as soul quenching, which was very welcome after working shifts of rather too much stubble, ink and endless grunting since my trip to Corsica. I had hit the road in search of revival and was indeed being rewarded. To the north, across patchwork fields of the Usk valley stretched sunlit uplands of the Black Mountains and Brecon Beacons national park. And away to the east the long, bracken clad crown of The Blorenge spread imposingly beneath clear autumnal skies. But all of this was lit by hazy and insipid atmospheric conditions that made the published vista the only one worth saving.

Returning birders bore contented smiles and I felt snug inside my various layers while forging onwards with the wind at my back. On reaching the location point I at once beheld the welcome sight of several birders with optics raised. Then upon my joining them the Rufous-tailed Rock Thrush was soon pointed out. So that was another quick connect. The bird was moving restlessly around a boulder-strewn slope, perching prominently atop particular rocks here and there but never for too long. There was plenty of this habitat here and it was easy to see why the bird was taking a little time to locate each morning, so I was pleased not to have had to find it myself.

Some birders elected to follow our quest across the hillside when it moved, but I stayed faithful to one spot that it kept returning to. The Rock Thrush was being exactly what the name suggests, a Thrush that likes rocky places. The habitat here was strikingly similar to Mount Vrondou in Greek Macedonia where this year’s earlier encounter had taken place. My first record of the species had been in November 2011 at the as rocky Cape Greco, the south-eastern tip of Cyprus along with a Red-throated Pipit, but neither was accepted by the national recorder. Today, by the time I had got the camera setting right the subject had moved on. No matter, I knew a man who had achieved rather better results a couple of days earlier.

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Rufous-tailed Rock Thrush © and courtesy of Andrew Last

In adult breeding plumage males, such as I had observed in northern Greece earlier this year (see here) are unmistakeable. But immature birds, females and winter plumage males all look very similar. Today’s individual has been identified as a first winter male. The species is a March to September visitor to mountainous areas above 1500m in southern Europe, wintering in sub-Saharan Africa. A stocky-looking Thrush with rather long bill, it generally chooses higher altitudes than the Blue Rock Thrush.

With the show over the other birders I had joined all drifted away one by one. Then with the weather looking set to deteriorate I too headed back to the car after a couple of hours on site. That walk face on into the wind was to say the least bracing. On the way I stopped to talk to two local birders who told me when and where on The Blorenge to locate Red Grouse, so I may well visit here again on a less windy day.

As I have mentioned from time to time, I often like to combine a twitch with a bit of history. Today on the way home I stopped at Raglan Castle on the A40 between Abergavenny and Monmouth, one of the last medieval palace-fortresses and finest remaining buildings of the period in England and Wales. Later amongst the grandest homes in Tudor and Stuart England, built to impress and intimidate by a very powerful family of those times, it retains that sense of awe even in a ruined state.

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The great tower and gatehouse both date from the latter half of the 15th century, arising out of no doubt dubious rewards amassed by the then incumbent as a major supporter of King Edward IV in the Wars of the Roses. That phase of construction ceased following the former’s execution in 1469 but the family’s power and influence in the region continued to grow through strategic marriages within the nobility. During the Elizabethan and Jacobean period of the next century the castle was transformed into a lavish country house with one of the finest gardens of the time.

This staunchly royalist local dynasty did not fare so well, however in the English Civil War. In 1640 Raglan Castle fell to and was trashed by parliamentarian forces. Unable to make much of an impression upon the great tower, the despoilers instead dug under its foundations and one side of the structure came tumbling down like other grand status symbols before and since. The head of the family was hauled off to London and premature death, after which his ancestral pile fell into ruin, becoming a source of local building stone until the early 19th century. But even now the most palpable impressions of past power, wealth and above all status emanate from the structure as the modern day visitor walks around.

This diversion provided a stirring end to what had been a generally exhilarating day. I have always had an interest in ancient sites and historic places and so may extend this journal’s coverage to include more of them in the future. So all you purist birders be warned! Rufous-tailed Rock Thrush was incidentally the 340th bird on my British list.

Island butterflies, grasshoppers and lizards in Corsica: 25 – 29th Sep

My motivation in joining Naturetrek’s autumn tour of Corsica was pretty much to explore another Mediterranean island I had aspired to visit. No special wildlife agenda was involved, aside of adding the previous post’s birds to my life list, but there were also some previously unseen insects and reptiles on the itinerary. Most of all an autumn trip to look back upon is of benefit during the difficult days of short daylight that now lie ahead, and on seeing this tour advertised in an e-Newsletter it just looked like an interesting one.

The week’s most frequent sightings in butterfly-friendly places were Southern Grayling and the local race of Wall Brown, while large and graceful though mostly worn Cardinal would waft through proceedings when they chose to. All three of these were new to me to some extent. There was very little odonata interest on the trip, with just a few common dragonflies seen and one localised damselfly, Island Bluetail on the final day after I lost my camera.

The range of Southern Grayling (Hipparchia aristaeus) extends from North Africa through Corsica, Sardinia and Sicily into the southern Balkans, then onward into Greece and Turkey. The trip’s one true lifer displays subtle differences in markings from the more widespread Grayling (Hipparchia semele) that extends northwards into Great Britain and southern Scandinavia. The most marked features to my mind were the larger ocelli (top wing eye dots) and all round brighter orange tone. A noticeable behavioural characteristic was a higher and more erratic flight pattern compared to the northerly equivalent that generally keep closer to the ground.

The Tyrrhenian – Corsica, Sardinia and some small islands – population of Wall Brown is accorded specific status Lasiommata tigellus by some sources, but this is not a generally agreed endemic. Once again the butterflies seen seemed brighter orange than the abundant and widespread Lasiommata megera that occurs in Britain, while the upper wing bars of the males appeared especially bold. In common with Wall Brown across Europe, the Corsican butterflies (pictured below) could be seen one after another in dry, rocky places even in lower light conditions when much else had ceased flying.

The Cardinal Fritillary, usually referred to simply as Cardinal is distributed widely through southern and central Europe and north Africa. Across much of that range they fly between May and July, though north African populations produce a second brood in August and September. There must be some blurring of time scales in Mediterranean islands, and as clear was that most of the specimens observed on this trip were far from fresh. I had seen this butterfly once before, but cannot remember where.

Cardinal is a thicker set and less graceful butterfly than Silver-washed Fritillary, with which it could be confused until red in the underwings is revealed. But I did not capture that feature and will have to make do with the record shot (below) until I can uncover more recently hatched butterflies at some future date. Though fading, this individual was still the week’s best.

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Cardinal

The full butterfly list for the trip was a not unusual Mediterranean selection comprising Swallowtail, Large White, Small White, Clouded Yellow, Brimstone, Small Copper, Lang’s Short-tailed Blue, Holly Blue, Common Blue, Brown Argus, Southern White Admiral, Red Admiral, Silver-washed Fritillary, Queen of Spain Fritillary, Speckled Wood (southern race), Wall Brown, Small Heath, Meadow Brown, Southern Grayling and Grizzled Skipper.

A few of those are pictured above and below.

I can usually find some inclination to pay attention to Grasshoppers when in the southern European field, if not already pre-occupied with butterflies and dragonflies. I regard the first-named as probably the next most interesting insect order. They are noticeable here due to some species’ habit of flying past the approaching walker between waist and head height, and in the process revealing brightly coloured underwing flashes. But I can rarely match what I might manage to photograph with field guides.

That is hardly surprising since there are up to 600 different grasshopper species in southern Europe, compared to 30 in Great Britain, and many display a complex degree of variation. Hence most published guides illustrate a representative sample only. So I will not attempt to name the insects of dry, stony places in the following pictures precisely. From my European field guide (the one by Michael Chinery – see here) I would estimate most of these (pictured below) are from the species groups Psophus, Oedipoda and Odaleus.

The second sequence (below) conveys just what masters of camouflage many grasshoppers can be. It is almost as if they adapt their colouration to match the background. That is until some are disturbed and fly on an erratic course flashing their hindwings of red, green or blue. This is a survival strategy since hunting birds, for instance think they are chasing colourful prey. When the grasshopper settles the predator is still looking for a brightly toned insect that has to all intents disappeared. Human observers can likewise be deceived, it being easy to mistake these fly pasts for butterflies.

One species is unmistakeable however, the weird and wonderful looking though perhaps unflatteringly named Mediterranean Slant-faced Grasshopper (Acrida ungarica). A common insect of the region, it can be either green or brown and inhabits damp, grassy locations including coastal marshes. These images (below) were captured with some difficulty and much cursing in a dune system in the Golfe de Sagone on Corsica’s west coast. Oh you beauty!

Corsica has four different lizards, of which three are endemic to the Tyrrhenian islands. The most frequently encountered was Tyrrhenian Wall Lizard, a smallish and slim member of the lacertid group of which there are many species in southern Europe. TWL is found in a range of dry habitats from sea level up to 1800m but is commonest at middle altitudes. Their colouring varies considerably (pictured below). I believe the streaky brown individuals are females, while males tend to be greener, often striped and the brightest green are juveniles. There is also a reticulated male form with more of a bluish hue.

Tyrrrenian Wall Lizard colour forms (above) and reticulated male (below)

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We found the larger and more robust Bedriaga’s Rock Lizard twice. This is a distinctly flattened, medium-sized species (pictured below) with pointed snout and often bulging cheeks. The upper side is usually boldly reticulated, sometimes spotted and rarely striped. BRL is found in montane habitat up to 2500m and is an avid climber, frequenting cliffs, rocky outcrops, stony surfaces, dry stone walls and other man-made structures including buildings.

The third endemic is the Pygmy Algyroides, that we failed to find. This diminutive lizard is largely nocturnal and mostly conceals itself by day, so seeing one can involve a lot of rock and log turning. Italian Wall Lizard (below, left) another lacertid has been introduced to Corsica and replaces it’s Tyrrenhian equivalent in some coastal areas. Collins describes this as a vigorous, opportunistic lizard found at low altitudes in grassy places, open fields, woodland edges and sandy coastal areas; as well as around human habitation. IWL was also observed in two locations during this trip.

Lastly, at our second hotel in the Restonica valley Moorish Gecko (above, right) emerged in the early evening on each day of our stay, to bask in artificial light on the hotel terrace. These mainly nocturnal, soft-skinned lizards have large heads and eyes with cat-like vertical pupils, and adhesive pads on their toes. They are very agile climbers, often hunting on walls and inside buildings. I had not seen any species of gecko previously.

This completes the more notable, new and different wildlife encountered during my most recent excursion to southern Europe. I may include a fuller and more detailed account, with scenic pictures in this site’s trip report section in due course, when time allows.