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 now safe to inform the Oxon 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!

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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. For more pictures of this bird on RBA see here.

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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, built through 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. Through 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.

Alpine Chough at Lac de Melo, Corsica + Corsican Finch, Nuthatch and Crossbill: 25 – 29th Sep

I have just returned from a Naturetrek group tour to the Mediterranean island of Corsica. One of many highlights was a rough terrain hike on 28th at the high end of Restonica Gorge, a popular hiking route stretching 15km south-west from the old capital Corte. This culminated in sharing our picnic lunch with the local population of Alpine Chough, one of four bird lifers secured on this trip, by the shores of a glacial corrie lake: a novel experience indeed.

Other new birds observed through the week were the endemic Corsican Nuthatch and Corsican Finch; and fleetingly Marmora’s Warbler, a scarce resident. Some sources regard the Corsican race of Crossbill as a further endemic, and these birds were also seen well at one montane location. Details of all follow. Lammergeier or Bearded Vulture was a fifth trip target, but unsurprisingly perhaps since there are only six pairs on the entire island, Europe’s largest raptor eluded us this time.

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Alpine Chough thinking: ‘That’ll be the best stuff over there’

The high Restonica Gorge hiking trail starts from a road head with car park and café at 1370m, while Lac de Melo lies at 1711m. The route upward through a starkly dramatic glaciated valley is described as the most challenging walk of this tour. Our guide David Tattersfield, who has been leading natural history tours to Corsica for 20 years, prides himself on getting as many participants as possible up to the lake. Around half have nonetheless been known to turn back at some stage, while just two of our group of five attempted it. I can only say the experience was unforgettable, off the top of the scale!

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Do I look breathless?  This was fairly near the start, before the steep bit

Flocks of  acrobatic Alpine Chough soon became visible along the tops of soaring granite cliffs. In places the trail was discernible only by way marks painted on rocks, but there were always sufficient walkers ahead and behind for the general direction to remain clear. And so we strode on, higher and higher in pleasant sunlight until the steepest section was reached. The first two pictures in the sequence below were taken to the rear with light behind me. Ahead, into the sun lay a rock face that could only be negotiated with fixed chains and ladders before a final stretch of more boulder hopping up to the lake. The thought of going back down again was uncomfortable but I was not going to turn around.

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In the tranquil environs of Lac de Melo yellow-billed Chough, their whistling calls emanating from all around, were mingling with the intrepid hikers now scattered lazily over the rocky slopes. They are birds exclusively of high montane places (above 1500m) and remote before they are attracted fearlessly by human activity. People who have been to an Alpine ski resort must have had similar experiences of these intelligent, gregarious crows. When we began to prepare our picnic lunch they at once realised the potential and we became surrounded.

They were pretty much omnivorous, but their favourite was ham or the rind thereof. It was plain our new found companions knew the best food was being kept concealed away from the rocks on which we offered various scraps. One bold individual snatched most of the last, hidden slice and flew away from the others with this prize. I was also impressed by how they would clutch food in the claws of one foot to turn upwards then tear apart.

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“Can you see any big lenses?” … “Reckon they can’t get ’em up here”

Alpine Chough (pictured above) resemble their red-billed equivalent in being all black with red legs and fingered primaries; but are shorter winged, longer tailed and the bright yellow bill is much smaller. The juveniles (below) seemed to appear slimmer and scruffier than adults, with dark legs and a dark tip to their own ochre-coloured bills.

But there were two sides to all this and I felt conflicting emotions in these birds’ midst. It was good to be so up close and personal with a species being experienced for the first time, though also a more contrived situation than I would normally choose to exploit. I had previously observed Red-billed Chough only at a certain distance and so their yet more inaccessible cousins had a kind of mythical status for me as a lifer. Now I was feeding them like Pigeons in a park, but I could not have done that without first having accessed the inaccessible. I expect photographers would love the situation at Lac de Melo, supposing they could get their lenses up there in one piece. But I am a wildlife enthusiast who takes photographs and therein lies the difference. Ramble (and scribble) on!

A second glacial lake, Lac de Capitello lies 240 metres higher than the first. But that involved a further steep ascent and my tour colleague and I both decided to quit while we were ahead. The descent was less arduous than I had imagined, with the possible exception of the chain-assisted stretch. Exhilarated by the day’s activity it was not until the homeward leg of a shorter rough terrain walk the following morning that I began to feel weary. Then disorientation also began to set in and enough was enough.

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Corte, the former capital town of Corsica

This was a two centre tour. For the first three days  we were based at a beautiful mountain village, Evisa above Corsica’s north-western coastline. On walking out of the hotel to explore on 25th, the first three birds encountered were Cirl Bunting, Corsican Nuthatch and Corsican Finch. That was not a bad scene setter!

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Corsican Finch © rights of owner reserved

A Corsican Finch flock appeared to be resident in the village and was seen on each day of our stay. This smallish finch was formerly regarded as a sub-species of Citril Finch, a bird I had observed once before in the south of France (April 2013). Also found in Sardinia and some smaller Mediterranean islands, the endemic species (pictured below, left) is a clearer yellow beneath than its near relative, with dark-streaked brown upperparts and a less green-tinged face. There are also some differences in call intonation.

My first record shot of the endemic Corsican Nuthatch (above right), taken later in the week was equally indistinct. The island’s poster picture bird was observed several times throughout the tour, always in montane pine forests from 1000 – 1500m. It is up to 2cm less in length than Eurasian Nuthatch with smaller head, shorter bill, greyish buff underparts and a prominent white supercilium (eye stripe) that contrasts with a black (in male) or blue-grey (female) crown. The size differential was emphasised when we watched one individual coming to ground over and again to extract seed from pine cones, in company with a not much smaller Coal Tit. This encounter also yielded a slightly better picture (below).

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Corsican Nuthatch

At another high altitude site above the Forêt d’Aitone near Evisa we were treated to a grandstand display by a flock of the Corsican race of Crossbill. I believe the primary diagnostic lies in bill shape, but this is not a universally accepted endemic and certainly not listed as such in Collins. The occasion did produce some reasonable Crossbill pictures, however.

On 29th we went in search of the fourth lifer, Marmora’s Warbler along another hiking trail out of Corte, enjoying one near definite sighting. This similar but much plainer grey species to Dartford Warbler has the largest part of it’s limited range in Corsica, where it is a scarce resident. The site also holds Moltoni’s Subalpine Warbler, that one of my tour colleagues also glimpsed in the limited time available. If any Oxonbirders would be interested in a short spring visit to observe these two birds, and also see the Nuthatches and Choughs, please get in touch. I know where to find them all now.

On the tour’s final day my beloved, entry level Nikon D3100 SLR, with which I have captured all the insect images in this site’s galleries, suffered a fatal accident. The tour minibus was forced into an emergency stop and the camera smashed into the stanchions of the row of seats in front. I have already ordered a used replacement camera body and will hope to recover the cost through travel insurance. But I have no intention of upgrading since I will never regard myself as a bird photographer. That would be just too much to get my head around.

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.

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.