Monday 20 February 2012

Corn Bunting At Summer Leys - 20th February 2012

Back to earth today after yesterdays exploits a it's back of coarse the Northants Year List. I forgot to mention in the previous post I saw a Tawny Owl just outside Salcey Forest as I drove through at 3am bringing the year list up to 94. One of the birds that has been floating around for a while but I haven't had the chance to see yet was a Corn Bunting at nearby Summer Leys Nature Reserve. So I met up with another mate of mine in the shape of Pete Bateup and we proceeded to try and find the bird. It has always been seen with a Yellowhammer flock which is about 200 strong so we knew if we found that we had a chance of seeing the Corn Bunting, but our big problem today was once again the weather. We found the flock just south of the double decker hide and started to search through them but the wind was really starting to blow and as the birds were so flighty it started to become very difficult indeed. A few Reed Bunting could be seen in the flock as it moved back and forth from the field to the trees and back again before eventually I finally saw the Corn Bunting half way up a tree along the side of the path - very much a needle in a haystack job!! After a very short while it flew and the obvious size difference could be seen in comparison to the Yellowhammer. An added bonus to was the presence of 6 Grey Partridge in the field next to the reserve bringing the current list up to 96. Unfortunately at 96 it stayed as there was very little else on the reserve and it was getting dark so keeping within tradition as to whenever I find myself birding with Pete we went down the pub for a pint and a chat, and very nice it was too!

The Epic Twitch, Yellowthroat, Spanish Sparrow and Dark Eyed Junco All In One Day - Sunday 19th February 2012

Yesterday afternoon while I was trying to dry out after the Pitsford soaking I received a phone call from Kieran, a close birding friend of mine. He offered me the chance to join him and a few others to see the recently discovered Common Yellowthroat in Wales as they were passing where I lived and just so happened to have spare seat in the car. As I have already mentioned in this blog I had originally decided this year to stick to Northants but the promise of a new mega and the soaking I received yesterday made my mind up to go with them. So my alarm went off at 3am and I crept out of bed trying not to wake my better half, got in the car and drove to the pick up point in Finedon, a couple of hours later and we had reached the area where the bird had been found and by 7.30ish we were climbing over the stile and walking up to the now famous hedgerow. Twitching can sometimes be a test of patience more than anything else and after a long drive you can end up waiting for hours in order to see the bird you are after in a desperate bid to make the long journey worthwhile. Today though thankfully wasn't one of those days and within minutes we were all on the bird getting fantastic scope views as it crept about in the grass with it's bright yellow chest almost glaring in the bright mornings sunshine. Now to say this was a result is an understatement, not only had we seen the reason for coming here but we had seen it straight away so by 8am we had the whole day to play with. The next bird we went for was Bonaparte's Gull in Cardiff but our luck suffered a temporary setback here. As we climbed the bank from the industrial estate to get down to the shore we suddenly realised the tide was out, in fact it was out a long way and all the gulls were distant. Despite this we searched for about an hour before calling it a day and then went off to the next bird on the hitlist - this being a Lesser Scaup. So we pulled up at Cosmeston Country Park and after a quick scan from just off the car park we easily found the Lesser Scaup. This bird is a textbook example of the species with a dark grey vermiculation along the back, small pinch on the back of the head and an all blue bill with the exception of a tiny black nail at the end. An added bonus was a ringed Whooper Swan standing on the side of the water next to the car park. As it was standing right out in the open you could read number on the ring on it's leg and with a little research I have discovered it was ringed in January Worcestershire and is believed to be Icelandic in origin (number Y59, BTO number SS8778). You can even read the number in this photo.

After this we popped over to another site to try and find Dipper but despite a thorough search we failed to locate one so we returned to the car with another twitch in mind. This being the unthinkable prospect of heading down to the south coast to go for the Spanish Sparrow. By now it had gone midday but we knew if we got down there quickly enough we were in with a chance and perhaps even the Dark Eyed Junco in the bargain at the same time, but again it was a gamble as the Spanish Sparrow was know to go to roost fairly early and by 3pm was elusive. After a quick chat we decided to go for it so jumping in the car we headed down to Calshot in Hampshire. Soon after we had arrived we were told the bird had flown about 1/2 an hour previously and the presence of a large female Sparrowhawk in the back garden of one the houses was keeping all the birds heads down so we split up and waited. After about 40 minutes we were told that the Sparrowhawk  had departed and soon after this the birds started moving again. I should have pointed out earlier that this site is made up of a large hedgerow along the side of a road with a block of terraced houses starting at the road and going down the hill. The bird has been spending a lot of it's time in people back gardens but seems to be doing a circuit of the area along with all the other House Sparrows so when they started to trickle into the hedge I was standing next to it was very encouraging (the even present threat of dipping is always at the back of you mind when twitching) and within minutes the chap next to me gave me a nudge and whispered "there it is". I couldn't believe my luck, it had landed in the hedge right next to me and just sat at the top singing away in bright sunshine allowing me to get a few pics of which this is the best.

What a cracking bird?! We knew we only had a short period of daylight left so we jumped in the car again and headed to the New Forest this time hoping to see the Dark Eyed Junco. We found the car park and located the fallen pine tree where the bird had been frequenting and again waited. We were told it had been spending the day flying around with a few Reed Bunting and a quick look up showed something we didn't want to see - in the tree above us the Reed Buntings looked to be going to roost. This was a really bad sign as the light was now starting to fade and I think everyone there had everything crossed hoping it would show one last time. There seemed little movement at all before a few birds flitted about, a Chaffinch here and a Robin there before Kieran exclaimed he had it in the foliage of one of the fallen trees. We were all on it quickly and got spectacular views (even getting a pic, see below) before it flew closer and fed on the ground infront of us.

After this we did have it mind to go for the nearby Ring Billed Gull but the distance to be driven and with darkness falling (not to mention the long traffic jams through some roadworks) it became clear that it would happen so we started the drive home. I have been birding for 7 years now and I can honestly say today was one of the best days out I have had in this obsessive hobby in all that time. Only one day from the past comes close which was a couple of years ago when in the autumn me and Kieran were battering the north Norfolk coast and just seemed to see everything we went for. It was a cramped day with 5 big lads squeezed into a Honda Civic but that all adds to the fun and today will not be forgotten in a hurry. Also of coarse many thanks to Oliver Reville, Robert Smith, David Norgate and Kieran Nixon for letting me join them on this epic twitch!

Pitsford Reservoir - 18th February 2012

The year list is coming along quite nicely and although I realise I'll find it very hard to compete with the other year listers, particularly the ones who have retired and are free to see birds whenever they wish, I'm still going to give it my best shot if nothing else just to see how many I can reach. With this in mind I headed to Pitsford Reservoir today hoping to see the long staying Slavonian Grebe. This bird I first saw last year at Grafham Water in full summer plumage and since then it has done the roads before finally settling down at this location. I have watched it gradually moult from sum plum into winter so this bird and I aren't exactly strangers. ecently it has relocated to the south side and after a brief email conversation with a local birder called Neil McMahon I headed out to see it for the year. The day started quite nicely although the forecast had predicted heavy rain by midday but despite this I decided to give it my best shot. I started by walking down to the dam and across onto the far side, I trudged along the shoreline and into the vegetation with the hope of flushing a Jack Snipe but to no avail. A pair of Dunlin on the shore proved to be the highlights here as I walked further around the bay to meet a pair of Redshank busily feeding on the headland. I scanned and scanned picking up constant Little Grebe and Great Crested Grebe but no Slavonian. The wind now was really picking up and the birds were being driven into the bays on the south side so I carried on checking every bird I could find eventually picking up a cracking drake Smew in with the Tufted Duck but still not was I was after. By now I had reached the causeway and a Ruff was a nice surprise feeding just off the road and a redhead Smew on the north side was also found. By now the weather had turned really bad, light rain had developed into heavy rain and the temperature had dropped low enough to turn some of it into sleet. I had now had the delightful prospect of a 3 mile walk face first into this barrage of ice and water back to the car. I kept scanning though throughout, trying hard not to loose the reason for being here in the first place, I checked everything but no Slavonian Grebe could be seen. By the time I had reached Pintail Bay I was soaked to the skin and absolutely freezing cold, which in a way was the least of my worries as more importantly my optics were covered in rain drops and making a good viewing of anything near impossible. As I walked around the corner to be able to view the water off the Yacht Club I managed one last scan and picked up a Grebe, slightly larger than a Little Grebe but smaller than a Great Crested with white cheek panels and a black cap. I asked myself  "could this be it finally?", but in answering I had to admit with the state the optics were in and the distance of the bird there is no way I would be happy to say I had seen it. I am listing just for an experiment and not to win a prize so despite being 90% sure it was the Slavonian I will do the honourable thing and leave it off the list - well for now anyway! I will be coming back though for a better look!

The Cold Snap

The last couple of weeks has seen the temperatures plummet in Northants with snowfall one weekend followed by an unbelievable frost on the following weekend. The only plus side to it was they luckily happened when I had time off work so I could grab a few pictures. The biggest downside for me though was it meant the birds were quite rightly keeping their heads down in the cold so the year list was put on hold for a bit. The weekend at the beginning of February saw the snowfall with quite a sizeable load falling on the Saturday night and as |i felt it wise just to leave the car on the drive I took a walk into Salcey Forest. Bird wise it wasn't too bad despite the inclement weather with more Nuthatch than I can ever remember seeing in one place - there must have been at least a dozen along the 5 mile walk. Also Marsh Tit in good numbers and the added if rather enexpected bonus of a Raven flying overhead. I had really bad luck with the light though and had to make do with taking pictures of the patterns the snow had made as landscape seemed a bit drab in the fog. Anyway here's a couple of results.

The weekend after this saw temperatures drop to the lowest point for nearly 30 years. My first stop was Pitsford Reservoir hoping to see the Slavonian Grebe for the year tick but it quickly became apparent that it wasn't going to happen this morning. The cars thermometer was reading -13c and as a very thick fog had formed you couldn't even see the bank let alone look for birds on the small areas of ice free water. So with this in mind I jumped back in the car and headed for higher ground, hoping the fog will have lifted herem and concentrate on using the stunning (if not very very cold) morning for some photography. The area I chose was Twywell Hills and Dales and as the sun shone through large ice crystals started to form on the vegetation in front of me while I walked around. It was one of the best examples of hoar frost I have ever had the privalege to witness.

Saturday 4 February 2012

Iceland and Glaucous Gulls at Ditchford - 4th February 2012

Today was a tad spontaneous as I had originally decided to head over to Fermyn Woods to see if I could find any Hawfinch. Due to lack of time I had then decided to change my plan and go to Stanwick Lakes with the intention of going to Ditchford later in the day to try and finally catch up with an Iceland Gull which so far this year had eluded me. From the direction I was coming from you have to pass just to the south of the Ditchford complex on the A45 and whenever I do I can't help a quick glance down to see if many Gulls are about. Today I did just that and the whole area was completely white with Gulls so with another change of plan I took the next junction and found myself parking up and heading into Ditchford. I have tried numerous times this year to finally see an Iceland Gull and so far I have failed despite everyone else it seems connecting, but today it looked good, in fact it looked very good. due to the recent cold weather most of the lakes were frozen over and this is always good for gulling as the birds stand very nicely out in the open allowing you to see all the features needed for an accurate id (one of the problems with Gulls swimming on the water is you can't see their legs). So after a quick scan of the Fishing Pit I headed over to view the Waterski Pit which was full of birds all nicely spread out. A few minutes later another local Northants birder, John Taylor, arrived to say that he had just seen an Iceland Gull on the Fishing Pit. How on earth did I miss it? I was looking at the same pit not 10 minutes beforehand but I certainly couldn't find it. One of the problems this time of day seemed to be the amount of raptors in the air trying to find the odd thermal and Red Kites and Buzzards were flying overhead causing chaos with the Gulls which kept flying up before landing and then flying up again and this is what was happening on the Fishing Pit while I was scanning- well that's my excuse anyway. Anyway John and me started scanning the birds on the Waterski Pit and it wasn't long before I found a snowball of a bird rolling around in the water that was free of ice - here at last was a second winter Iceland Gull. It did put on a nice show preening and then flying before landing again and preening once more. Also john managed to find a fantastic drake Smew swimming with the Goldeneye. After watching the Iceland for a while we moved on to see what else was about. The small pond on the other side of the viaduct was completely frozen over, as was the ground so there wasn't much point in looking for waders so we headed over to the viaduct pit but a brief scan couldn't find much out of the ordinary. Back to the Waterski Pit it was and a quick scan almost immediately awarded us with a second winter Glaucous Gull, and then I had a look to the right and found another! In fact at one point both Glaucous Gulls were in the field of view of the scope at the same time. John noticed a wader flying overhead which he managed to get his scope on and this turned out to be a Black Tailed Godwit. As we moved further down the Iceland could be seen again this time preening itself on the ice. Unfortunately I never really took pictures which is a shame as the birds were showing very nicely but the truth is it was so cold it was actually painful to have hands out of gloves for long and as the birds were moving around a lot keeping up with them trying to digiscope was a nightmare. Anyway I got the bird I was after and despite not being able to feel my hands and feet due to the cold I left a very happy man indeed!