A Big Day in Oxfordshire

It began over a Christmas meal. Dave Lowe talking about trying to break the record for the number of bird species seen in a 24 hour period in Oxfordshire. Pete Roby, Steve Roby and Jon Uren set the record of 114 species on a May day some years ago. They were sitting near Badger, Dave, Andy Last and myself. I don’t remember volunteering to be in on the record attempt that evening, though now I look back some of the post parandial conversation did follow an interview format. By the end of the meal, a record attempt this year seemed quite likely. By the end of February, two other teams of local birders had registered their interest. A date, chosen by Dave, was agreed. There would be three teams, all competing to see who could record the most bird species in the county on Saturday 29th April 2017.

The Greylags, a superb typically self-deprecating name for the team of the Robys and Jon Uren, were the current record holders and have as much experience of Oxon Big Days as anybody. If not more so.  The Biffin Boys are Ewan Urquhart, Tom Wickens and Mark Merritt. A team heavy with recent local birding knowledge and experience. Indeed, Tom Wickens, had recorded 101 species single-handledly the weekend before on foot, covering some 47 miles. This Herculean effort set an extremely high bar for the Big Day weekend. Our team – The Acronaughts – were Badger, Dave Lowe, Andy Last and myself. Like God, in the beginning our plans were immaculate. We had spreadsheets of target species, potential and probable sites and agreed dates for carrying out pre-Big Day surveys of interesting areas. But the Lord also “knows all human plans; he knows that they are futile” (Psalm 94:11). And so it proved to be the case. Five days before the Big Day, Dave was still in South Africa, Andy was in Norfolk and Badger in Texas. Our only reconnaissance trip consisted of me spending of two hours on the downs with Andy one evening, which was really informative. We decided we would not begin our Big Day there. Indeed, so caught up in external events were we, that Badger realised he was only due to return to the UK the night before the Big Day. Badger, aka Jason, felt that he would would have to pull out, being up for 24 hours is tough enough without adding extra jetlag. So four became three. The the biggest loss was that I was deprived of the opportunity to use the team name Jason and the Acronaughts. There would be no Jason.

Dave arrived at my house, with Andy, at 3:30am yesterday morning. We drove to Otmoor and incredibly there was another car heading down the access road from Beckley – the Baffin Boys! So two teams were starting at the same place, at exactly the same time. We greeted each other and wished them luck, but neither team really wanted to be out birding next to another team, so we kept our respective distances. Our first bird was Tawny Owl, a hooting male, at 03:48. We walked out onto Otmoor in the dark, with singing and calling birds all around us: alarm calling Redshanks, singing Sedge and Grasshopper Warblers, drumming Snipe, calling Curlews. It was atmospheric and exciting. We settled in at the first screen and let the Baffin Boys head past to the second screen. We could just about identify some of the dark shapes out on the water: Coots, Moorhens. Other birds were beginning to wake and sing – Blackbirds, Robins. Then more footsteps and in walked The Greylags! There was much amusement, with all three teams now watching the same area of reedbed on the same reserve. Great minds obviously all thought alike. They left shortly afterwards to go up to the second screen. In the true spirit of bird racing, we checked that they had not stolen any of our optics and then we concentrated on the serious business of breaking their record. One of the original rules of a bird race is that at least three members of a team of four have to see or hear a bird for it to count on the list. This creates a dilemma if one member of the team fails to hear a certain squeak. Or in our case, a certain squeal. A Water Rail squealed from deep within the reedbed, but only Andy and myself heard the call. “Don’t worry, we are bound to hear another” I reassure Dave.

We were picking up new species quickly and gradually at around 5am it began to get light. We knew we needed a glimpse of a Bittern or of the still wintering Hen Harrier, to add some quality birds to our growing list of common species. Finally the sun rose, flooding the reedbed with a gorgeous orange light:

At precisely the time I was taking the above picture, 2 Bitterns flew into the reedbed, seen by The Greylags but unseen by us. Marsh Harriers began hunting, an Oystercatcher flew over our screen. After two hours at reedbed, we decided to check out the rest of the reserve. Although the day was only just beginning, we felt we were behind. We had not seen either Bittern or Hen Harrier. This feeling would remain with us for the rest of the day. We hit 50 species at 06:30, without actually seeing anything of note. Recording the next 50 species would take another 14.5 hours. Welcome to Oxfordshire!

We walked around to the Noke side of the reserve, an area known for holding Wheatears and Whinchats in the spring and our only solid site for these species in our day. We scanned the fences, the fields, the sheep, the roads, pretty much everything. But there were no chats at Noke. This was a bodyblow for a good total. We had a nice lift as we headed along the main track, a Water Rail squealed and we all heard it. “I have never been so relieved to hear the sound of a pig being slaughtered in all my life!” said Dave. Then we met Pete Barker, Mark Chivers and others on the main track. They confirmed that the Greylags had seen Bittern. We WERE officially behind. We walked over to Long Meadow for a chance encounter with Redstart. Long Meadow was a long shot, too long for us. No Redstart, or indeed any chat of any kind. We left Otmoor with 63 species under our belt, with all the likely ducks and all ten species of warbler recorded. This looked good on paper, but we felt it was already not enough. As we drove out of the reserve car park we saw Mark Merritt, one of the Biffin Boys, walking towards us up the road. Now, we are all very fond of Mark, but as he was officially the opposition, we felt we should modify our behaviour towards him. So Dave swerved the car towards him, as if to run him off the road and I waved a clenched fist from the rear back window as we flashed past. Unfortunately I am not sure Mark recognised Dave’s car or any its passengers as we sped past, so apologies to you Mark for the attempted murder – its just a Big Day, you know! We picked up House Sparrow and Collared Dove as we passed through Islip and made our way to Farmoor Reservoir.

Farmoor has been home to a Bonaparte’s Gull, a rare visitor to the county, for the last couple of weeks. We saw Dai Johns leaving the reservoir and he confirmed that the gull was still present first thing. The change in habitat led to a rapid increase in new species as we saw a selection of late April migrants and water birds: all three wagtails, plus White Wagtail; all the hirundines, plus Swift; Common Sandpipers and Dunlin. But where was our American visitor? We scoured the south side of FII, turning up the female Goosander…

.. and a few of the more expected bird species:

At 10am a sailing competition started taking place, disturbing many of the birds on the larger side of reservoir. We gradually had to accept that the Bonaparte’s Gull had left with most of the other Black-headed Gulls. Reflecting back, we spent too long at Farmoor searching for one species. As we left I said to Andy and Dave “I can’t believe we have not seen a Bonaparte’s Gull“. To which Dave replied “And that is the first time that line has ever been used on an Oxfordshire Big Day“. Below, the stinking headless corpse of a dead Cormorant. Somehow that summed up our time at Farmoor:

From Farmoor, to Dix Pit:

There were large numbers of Black-headed Gulls here, all feeding low over the water, picking up insects. It felt completely reasonably that the Bonaparte’s Gull could be here, feeding with the local gulls. And we were almost right, it was located at Rushy Common later in the afternoon. Scanning through the Black-headed Gull flock produced one of the moments of the day. I was checking gulls that were flying past into a small bay, hidden behind vegetation on the shore of the gravel pit. Suddenly, a small gull with a black “M” pattern on its upper wing flies through my binocular view, before instantly being obscured by a bush. “I’ve just had a small gull with a black carpal bar fly into the bay” I call to Dave and Andy. We check each gull as it emerges from the bay. Andy gets there first: “Ah! Little Gull!”.

A cracking first winter Little Gull, our own find and a nice little lift for our morale. The bird also had a nice pink flush to the breast. Whilst the image below is not in focus, it does show the pink colouration nicely:

We leave Dix Pit for nearby Rushy Common:

Green Sandpiper was reported from this site only 24 hours previoulsy. We check every wader we come across, but they are all either Little Ringed Plovers or Common Sandpipers. Dave then picks out another Little Gull perched out on the sandy island. Could this be our bird of earlier from Dix Pit, which did vanish a few minutes after we first located it? The picture below is massively cropped, so detail is lacking. But to me it seems as if the pattern of grey on the crown is rather more solid at the back of the head compared with the Dix Pit bird:

We may never know. Either way, after working Rushy Common and then Pit 60 (where disappointingly there were no Great White Egrets, another first time that line has been used on an Oxfordshire Bird Race) we had 85 species by early afternoon. By now we have been up since 3am, but we still had energy and were feeling focused. We were just aware that we lacked the quality big birds that we needed to get a really good total. Our rather random morning was captured perfectly by the picture below:

Oxfordshire birding at its best, a random bird in a bizarre location: Egyptian Goose up a tree at Rushy Common!  Realising that we are a couple of hours behind our rather ambitious schedule, we drive into the Chilterns for some hill and woodland species.

Above, Andy scanning from Linkey Down. Ever since I wrote this article at the end of the March monthly review on the Oxon Birding Blog, noting Linkey Down’s reputation as a reliable site for Ring Ouzel in spring, the site has failed to produce the goods. There have been a couple of reports of Ring Ouzels being present (by a member of Team Greylag, no doubt in Big Day planning mode) but this year at least, reports have been very thin on the ground. Nevertheless, as we walk to Linkey Down, Andy and I agree that strangely we have a positive feeling about getting Ring Ouzel today. A mood that persists despite passing a woman leaving who says that there are no Ring Ouzels present. Has she been paid by The Greylags? We sit and scan the lower slopes. Suddenly a loud harsh “tack, tack, tack” call, followed by a burst of song, comes from a tree above us. “Hello, that’s a Ring Ouzel!” I instinctively call out.  I locate a dark thrush at the back of the tree. It has a pale wing panel and pale fringes to the flank feathers. Even better, it turns around slightly to reveal the edge of a mighty white collar: it is a singing male Ring Ouzel. With a report of Redwing singing in the county in March, at least 5 species of thrush have now been heard singing in Oxfordshire this year. Is this a record? The picture below is certainly a record shot, though you can make out the key features. Nevertheless, it is another species on our list:

Then into the woods at a site in the south of the county. The list pushes on slowly, with Treecreeper, Coal Tit and Marsh Tit all being added. The highlight was a superb Firecrest:

Above, Andy; below Dave, both birding in bluebells:

Our woodland peace is broken by bird news. Steve Roby posts on the Oxon Birding Blog that Team Greylag have found a Wood Sandpiper at Rushy Common. Our tortured screams cut through the sunshine and bluebells. We fall to the ground writhing in birding pain (metaphorically, but only just). We were there 90 minutes ago and specifically checked every wader in our hunt for Green Sandpiper. Why did we not find that bird?! It must have just flown in. Not only is this a great find, but we can feel Team Greylag extending their lead.

Being behind schedule was finally beginning to catch up with us. We planned to head north to Banbury and/or south to Henley, depending on time. We now had time for neither. It was 5pm, we had 3.5 hours of light left and we realised that we would now struggle to get much past 100 species. Now 100 species in a day in Oxfordshire is a good total, but not a record breaking total. We convene a council of war and make our decisions. Our early failure to see any chats or Wheatear was coming back to haunt us. And we still had not all seen Mistle Thrush. We decide to head back to Otmoor, as there are five potential new species there for us and that still leaves us time to finish in light on the Oxfordshire downs.

Otmoor is bathed in blue skies and beautiful late afternoon light. The common species, simply shimmer in colour:

Unfortunately, we are not interested in those common species. We claw back Mistle Thrush and Wheatear at Noke (really, where were they at dawn?) but still do not connect with Bittern in or above the reedbeds. At 6:30pm Dave calls time, we have to get to the car and drive south.

We end our first Big Day at Churn, above Blewberry in southern Oxfordshire. We rapidly add Grey Partridge and Corn Bunting. A Little Owl on the posts above the railway cutting becomes species 100 at 8pm. We quietly high five, but we reflect at the time that we are probably 5 to 10 species short. Which, as it turns out, was exactly right. The Greylags recorded an impressive 110 species, just pipping The Baffin Boys with an excellent 109 species. We finished with 104 species seen by the group as a whole.

It was great fun and I loved every minute of the day. Dave and Andy were superb company and are great birders. We all participated, all found new species and helped get the others others onto them. As a group we worked well together. It was not as physically exhausting as I anticipated, though we did walk 15.2 miles during the day and were birding for nearly 18 hours. So much seems to depend on how much migration occurs on the day. Saturday 29th April was a very average day. Had we chosen today, 30th April 2017, for our Big Day, then the county record could have fallen, as an influx of waders has been reported across the county. Migration events cannot be predicted, there is a large slice of luck associated with them. However, our virtual lack of planning counted against us. Next time, we need a couple of weeks with regular reconnaissance  trips before The Day. Our schedule was, with the benefit of hindsight, overly ambitious. Congratulations to The Greylags, temporary Big Day winners (till next year!) and to The Biffin Boys. We look forward to sharing your experiences of the 2017 Big Day over a drink sometime soon. And then beating you next year.

The Acronaughts (left to right) Andy Last, Tom Bedford, Dave Lowe. Next year with Jason?

Farmoor Reservoir Bonaparte’s Gull

I popped into Farmoor Reservoir this morning, with no hope of more than the off-chance of a passing Osprey. I wasn’t early enough however, Geoff Wyatt had seen one pass through before I had arrived. I had just passed the first Cormorant, a cracking summer plumaged bird, with more nearly as much white on his head as I have….

… when I spotted Dave Doherty on the causeway. He had the manner of a man who had just found a good bird: ‘scope locked onto one area, whilst speaking animatedly into his phone. I scanned the water in front of him and immediately found the reason why. Even at distance, I could see that the bird on the far left of the jetty was a Bonaparte’s Gull:

This bird was found last week by Tom Wickens, but has not been seen since Thursday, some four days previously. It had the good manners to stand quietly next to an adult and first summer Black-headed Gull for comparison:

Occasionally it turned around to show off its other side…

… or to stretch a wing:

Then, two fisherman approached and walked onto the jetty and started up a boat. The Bonaparte’s Gull took flight, revealing the long thin dark line running along all the tips of the primaries and secondaries. The tail feather just left of centre is a white adult-type feather, contrasting with the neat dark terminal band on the other juvenile tail feathers. This feature may help this bird be identified elsewhere, if it is seen sometime soon.

As there were a couple of 1st summer Black-headed Gulls flying around, I took the opportunity to compare their upper-wing patterns. I cut and pasted the upper-wing pattern from the two photos below, then re-arranged them for comparison. The effect is not perfect, but the key features come through:

Apart from this North American visitor, there was a nice feel of migration in action at the reservoir. Swarms of Sand Martins buzzed about, with a few Swallows and my first Swifts of the year. Pied, White and Yellow Wagtails were passing through, joining small numbers of the commoner waders. A female Goosander looked a bit late.

And then from the sublime, things moved to the ridiculous…

Oxfordshire Downs, 9th April

I spent this afternoon on the Oxfordshire Downs with my family in searing heat. The car’s thermometer read 25 degrees by the time we returned, me pink with sunburn, even after using lotion. The rest of my family just turned an even golden brown. The weather was stunning:

The highlights were Yellow Wagtail and 3 Fieldfare – not every year do you see both those species on the same day. There were singing Willow Warblers and Chiffchaffs, plus the usual Corn Buntings, Reed Buntings and Linnets. I had hoped to luck into a Redstart or even a Ring Ouzel, but found more Bee-flies than birds. These fantastic insects are the Narwhals of the insect world, flying around with a huge probiscus stretched out in front of them:

They favoured the sheltered sides of the ruts on the ridgeway:

We found Dotted Bee-fly on the downs, though we’ve seen Dark-edged Bee-fly in Headington this week. Dotted Bee-fly are identified by the black spots on the transparent rear half of their wings:

The females have a line of white spots on the rear of their abdomen. And could those be eggs below the white line in the picture below?

Some females were certainly hovering near holes on the rut-sides. Apparently the females hover at the entrance to nest holes and then kick their eggs into the holes using their rear feet. And without being paid thousands of pounds a week to do so, who knew?! The eggs then hatch and crawl deeper into the hole. With luck they find bee or wasp pupae to feed upon, before they develop wings and leave the holes themselves.

It was fascinating to learn about these insects. My children are still at an age where they are blown away by natural history. I suspect it won’t be long before they are rolling their eyes and saying “Dad, you are so weird” when I tell them this stuff. When obviously it is nature that is weird. Isn’t that right?

Ring Ouzels in Oxfordshire

I wrote the article below as part of a last minute plea for help with the March monthly highlights page on the Oxon Bird Log. I hope others will join me as shared authors of the highlights page. This month I learnt something about one of my favourite birds, Ring Ouzel, which are always a treat to see in the county:

 Ring Ouzels, Scotland, April 29th 2007, Tom Bedford

Ring Ouzel is a scarse passage migrant in Oxfordshire, usually seen more frequently in the spring, when small numbers of birds can be found in the Chilterns. Traditional sites include Linkey Down in the Aston Rowant Nature Reserve, where Ring Ouzels feed and shelter around the Juniper bushes on the Chiltern escarpment. Having spent three unsuccessful mornings on Linkey Down searching for Ring Ouzels in the last week, I thought I would take a look at the arrival dates this century, to see if I could improve my chances of seeing these attractive, but threatened, migrant thrushes. The chart below shows the first recorded arrival date of Ring Ouzel in Oxfordshire, as per the Oxfordshire Bird Report:

The most striking element of this chart is that there is a very wide spread of arrival dates, from March 18th to April 19th. I suspect that most other spring migrants have a far more compressed arrival window, though I have not looked at the data to confirm this.

There is a clear cluster of records between March 31st and April 2nd. Five of the twelve records are in this period, indicating the peak arrival period. The finding of a male Ring Ouzel on Otmoor on March 31st this year, fits exactly into this pattern. The Migration Atlas (BTO, 2002) confirms that “a peak late in March probably denotes the main wave of immigration by British breeders”. A second wave of migrant Ring Ouzels occurs in late April and early May, especially on the east coast, as Fennoscandian breeders move north. As British breeders are back on their breeding grounds by late March/early April, could some of the later Ring Ouzel arrivals in Oxfordshire, on April 14th and 19th, relate to Fennoscandian birds moving through the county?

The most productive site for finding Ring Ouzels in Oxfordshire is Linkey Down in the Chilterns. The Juniper bushes there reflect the favoured habitat of this species on their upland wintering grounds in the Mediterranean basin. Other upland sites (a relative expression) in the county have turned up Ring Ouzels, including Lollingdon Hill and Juniper Valley (Aston Upthorpe) in the Oxfordshire Downs. But each year Ring Ouzels are also reported in lowland areas, albeit in very small numbers. Finding a Ring Ouzel away from the Chilterns in Oxfordshire is a purely a matter of luck. Ring Ouzels found near Cuddesdon and Bampton in recent years were feeding in recently ploughed fields. The Otmoor bird of last week favoured the open field of Big Otmoor.

In summary, favoured sites in the Oxfordshire Downs and the Chilterns could still hold British breeding Ring Ouzels for another week or so. Ring Ouzels may also be encountered in Oxfordshire later in April, but potentially these migrants may be returning to Fennoscandian breeding areas.