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.

Close up Waxwings

Yesterday afternoon I finally had the sort of intimate views of Waxwings that I have been trying to achieve for years. The three birds that I found on Saturday afternoon were feeding on a tiny sorbus shrub in one of the front gardens on Kennett Road, despite a constant stream of pedestrians passing by. The Waxwings spent most of their time in the tall tree behind Bateman Street, but once every half an hour or so would drop down onto this shrub, giving amazing views at eye-level:

One  of the great things about Waxwings, together with being beautiful and charismatic birds, is that they are full of features – the black eye-mask and throat patch, their fabulous crest:

The red undertail coverts and that startlingly yellow tail tip:

The folded wing with two white wing bars and the line of first yellow tips, then white, running down the black wing:

The picture above, whilst not the best portrait, shows some of the other features that make Waxwings such fantastic birds:

Where to chuck berries? 

Clearly Waxwings are berry specialists, at least in winter. In spring and summer they switch to feeding on insects, caught by gliding out on flycatching sorties. But wintertime is berrytime. The most efficient way to collect berries is to have the ability to store a few berries from every trip down to the favourite berry bush, rather than to having to pick a single berry on every trip. These berries are not immediately swallowed but are stored in the crop, an expanded muscular pouch that is part of the oesphagus. You can make out the outline of at least two berries in the crop of this Waxwing:

The crop is a transparent structure and, as this amazing video shows, berries can be clearly seen in the crop underneath the neck feathers in Waxwings.

Waxy wings

In the photo above the red waxy tips to the secondary feathers can also be seen in the open wing. It is these feathers that give Waxwings their name. They are also visible on the closed wing:

These feathers are unique in birds. They appear to play an important role in indicating the sex and maturity of Waxwings – older males have more red tips and longer red tips. This paper on the subject reveals more: Waxwings begin courtship and pair bonding on their wintering grounds in late spring, before they migrate to their breeding areas. Male Waxwings do not appear to defend breeding territories in the summer. Therefore pair selection must depend on the individual characteristics of birds, rather than being based on an ability to defend a suitable breeding and feeding territory. Female Waxwings do appear to select mates on the basis of this plumage feature. Older males breed earlier and have larger clutches than younger males, with fewer red tips. Waxwings have developed “delayed plumage maturation”, a plumage feature that becomes more prominent in older birds. This illustrates success in older birds, but also protects young males from too much aggression from established males in the breeding season. Those red tips also look pretty cool.

Never satisfied

The final feature of Waxwings is their very unpredictability. Most winters there are few, if any. Then, once every few years, they stream out of Russia and Scandinavia and hundreds, and in some years many thousands, cross the North Sea to arrive in the UK. This apparently occurs when the berry crops in those countries is poor, but Waxwing irruptions are not fully understood. This article illustrates that some birds that winter in the UK can spend other winters far to the east.

In true unpredictable style, a quick search revealed that there were no Waxwings in Headington this morning. The sorbus shrub had kept them going for a couple of days, the Waxwings have moved on to their next berry bush somewhere, as always leaving us wanting more.

Headington Waxwings

A whole winter of scanning tree tops and listening for a certain high pitched trilling call finally paid off again. As always it is at the most unexpected moments that Waxwings strike. On this occasion my family and I were making our way back from Bury Knowle Park where we had been admiring the magnificent newly carved Aslan. C.S. Lewis wrote the Narnian series just round the corner on the edge of Shotover Hill, Headington and this magnificent carving by Matt Cave adds to his existing wood carvings in the park. Best of all, it was paid for by the 5p carrier bag levy from the local Tesco store. As we neared our house, I was cut short in conversation by exactly the sort of high pitched trill that I have been listening out for. Even without optics or camera, we could make out 3 Waxwings perched among the upper branches of a tree just off Bateman Street:

I ran home to grab my camera and returned a couple of minutes later, slightly frustrated that the birds were just out of sight and sound of our house, leaving the garden list still Waxwing free. But the birds were still there and the sun had come out, so some distant record shots were possible.

Where I really wanted the Waxwings to perch was on top of a local landmark, about 200 metres up the road:

The Headington Shark, a symbol of the power of radiation descending from the sky following the 1986 Chernobyl Disaster, is a pretty eye-catching structure in a terrace of Victorian houses. Now imagine a line of Waxwings perched on the tail – that would be a picture!

 

Oxfordshire Little Bunting

I don’t know what surprised me most: the fact that a Little Bunting was unearthed wintering in Oxfordshire or that I took the decision to actually go and see it.  Having no other pressing plans on Monday morning and a few hours free before work, I made the short trip to Over Norton. For some reason I assumed that a cold dull January morning at the beginning of the working week would dampen down interest in this bird. I was wrong – virtually everyone I knew was there! It was amazing how many people could free themselves up at short notice if required. As such, it was a much more sociable and pleasant experience than I had expected. The bird itself would periodically drop down to feed on seed on the path and looked fantastic in the ‘scope. It was too distant and too dark for my camera, though you can get an impression of the small size from comparison with a nearby Chaffinch… 

Those who were digiscoping got some fantastic footage – see here. Little Buntings have a cracking head pattern, two dark tramlines on the head separated by a greyish median crown stripe, lovely chestnut ear coverts and face and a neat white eye-ring. But strangely, the feature that most caught my eye was the breast pattern. When the bird was standing and alert, with neck stretched up, the malar patches and the horseshoe like patch on the central breast framed a pure white throat with a distinctive pattern:

Well, something like that.  All in all, a very pleasant morning with some good people and a great local bird.

Oxford: Marston Road Waxwings

I was just leaving the house to take the girls to the park, when news arrived that the pink wave had finally broken in Oxford: there were Waxwings on the Marston Road. It was entirely expected, Waxwings had been reported from as nearby as Crowmarsh Gifford and Banbury in the last few days. But they had taken their time this year, holding back in the north and east, waiting until the days were just about increasing in length before penetrating into central England. I threw the optics and camera into the car and explained to my children that we were going to see Waxwings on the way to the park, without really working out how I would look after and 5 and 7 year old, whilst trying to see Waxwings, a habit that often seems to involve some hanging about. As it turned out, the 6 Waxwings were feeding on the berry tree opposite number 285 Marston Road as we pulled up, enabling the girls to see these lovely birds and me to attempt to murder some photographs in the late afternoon gloom:

Then, after all of 30 seconds of viewing, a jogger ran past the tree, flushing the flock, just as Pete and Mrs Roby and John Reynolds turned up. My girls then suggested that we should hold up berries to attract the Waxwings, a tactic that has worked for them with flowers and butterflies, but one that I gently suggested probably would not work with Waxwings: you have to be on Fair Isle for that level of approachability. 

Despite their efforts, the birds remained in the area, perching in tree tops in Haberton Mead and Jack Straws Lane, but only made a couple of brief visits back to their berry tree. I last saw the flock flying up the hill towards Jack Straws Lane at about 15:30, so still in the vicinity. I would expect more birds to turn up in Oxford over the next few weeks as the pink hordes continue moving south and west. Which means that every single trip to the shops becomes an opportunity to find a good local bird. That is the beauty of a Waxwing winter.

Watlington Hill Waxwing

My turn to get lucky! I’d love to say that following this autumn’s build of of Waxwings in the north and east of the UK, combined with recent northerly winds and last night being clear, that I deliberately positioned myself on a hill on the Chiltern escarpment to observe visible migration (actually, for future reference, that’s not a bad idea…) But today the reality was very different. I’ve spent recent Sunday mornings cycling increasing long distances out into the Chilterns and planned to extend that today. I was near the top of the very appropriately named Hill Road above Watlington, when the distinctive,  long, high-pitched trill of a Waxwing rang out from the sky above me and to my right. “Waxwing!” I instinctively called out, forgetting that in ascending Watlington Hill on a bike, speaking is not really an option: your lungs need every bit of breath they can get. Even better,  two seconds later it called again, this time high, from further behind me: the bird was in active flight moving south-west. This is, I think, the first record of Waxwing in Oxfordshire this year, though there are bound to more this winter and hopefully some of those will be more accessible, like the birds below (photographed in central Oxford in November 2012). Waxwings are fabulous birds and a Waxwing winter is a great winter. Bring it on!

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Isabelline Wheatear and the element of luck

On Saturday morning I had yet another insight into the degree of luck that is involved in finding a rare bird. I was in north Norfolk with my family, but first thing Saturday morning I had arrange to meet up with great mate Richard Campey, who lives and works in the county.  Burnham Overy dunes is the nearest thing that Richard has to a local patch, he found a nice blythii Lesser Whitethroat there on Thursday and with persistent easterly winds Richard was keen to get out there again. Until a Pallas’s Warbler was found there on Friday afternoon. One thing, of many, that Richard and I share, is dislike of crowds. North Norfolk being north Norfolk, even a Pallas’s Warbler will draw a small crowd, especially on a Saturday.  So late on Friday evening Richard rings and we agree to a last minute change of plan. We will abandon our plans to go to Burham Overy dunes but will go to Wareham Greens and work the long hedgerow that runs east towards Stiffkey.

Saturday morning dawns dry after overnight rain, with the brisk easterly wind still blowing. Despite the fact that there could not be better conditions for bird hunting in late October on the east coast, ours is the only car on the concrete pad at the end of the first track to Wareham Greens. Immediately we hear the harsh calls of Brambling in the hedgerows. Goldcrests are everywhere, calling loudly, it feels super-rare! Thrushes are everywhere, Fieldfares clacking overhead, Redwings seeping out of every tree. We work our way east, past the pit, we check the bushes around the whirlygig. Yellowhammers and Redpolls pass overhead, we flush a flock of at least 12 Brambling.

We then bump into another birder, working his way west along the hedgerow. We exchange sightings – lots of common migrants, but so far, nothing rare. After a few moments chatting we realise that we know each other – it is Geoff Wyatt from Oxfordshire! Geoff has spent the last few days on the coast, including the last few mornings at Burham Overy dunes, where he was the first to find the Fin Whale that washed up on the beach on Thursday morning. And then Geoff’s pager goes off – an Isabelline Wheatear has just been found at Burnham Overy dunes. All three of us exchange grim looks and smile at the hand that fate has dealt us.  We all could have easily been in the dunes at first light this morning. That could have been our bird, but for our last minute change of plans. Such is the element of luck in birding.

Still, my time in particular being limited, it is time to eat humble pie and join the crowds. We drive the short distance back to Burnham Overy and walk out along the track to the dunes. The Isabelline Wheatear is skittish and mobile, but this just helps show off the distinctive half black, half white tail. The other plumage features were much more subtle, though the black centered alula stood out. Below, looking typically upright and short-tailed:tombedford-161022-9163-1

Below, looking more plump and less structurally distinctive:tombedford-161022-9215-1

Below, a Northern Wheatear at the same site for comparison. The stronger supercilium behind the eye and the more orange tones on the flanks and ear coverts helped pick out the Northern bird from the paler, less contrasting Isabelline. That evening a Desert Wheatear was also to be found at this site. tombedford-161022-9170-1

On Saturday afternoon, I head out to the beach at Burnham Overy with the family to see the Fin Whale. Seeing a dead whale is a strange mixture of emotions, but is the sort of experience that stays with you, whether adult or child. It generated lots of questions from the children. The blood filled pool around the head attracted the most comment. A day to remember, for lots of different reasons.tombedford-161022-9265-1

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The Siberian Accentor irruption & the joy of accentors

It is 8 years since I drove for hours to see a specific bird. The fact that on that occasion Ian and I were nearly killed by another driver ploughing headlong into the front of my car on the A148 in Norfolk, may have come into my decision, but the thrill of the chase was fading anyway. I realised that I found it much more satisfying to find my own birds, so I covered my Oxfordshire local patch around Cuddesdon and visited Lundy Island in the autumn for my migration kicks. But this autumn has seen a truly spectacular ornithological event. A rare and beautiful species that breeds in Siberia and winters in central China has reached us. In fact, a species only recorded 15 times in the whole Europe in the last 150 years has reached us in unprecedented numbers. To date 146 Siberian Accentors have been recorded across Europe between 4th and 23rd October 2016, including the first 8 British records. Surely the quickest turnaround from first record to many since the first Collared Doves arrived in Norfolk in the late 1950s? With new birds being discovered on a daily basis, online maps of Siberian Accentor sightings quickly became outdated (see full map here):Blank Ariel 12 doc

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This irruption raises a number of questions. It seems unlikely to be due to reverse migration. The random chance of a genetic abnormality causing a bird’s migratory compass to propel it far from the usual migratory routes for that species is not going to occur in over 100 birds simultaneously. There was talk on the east Yorkshire coast that the harvest in Russia this summer was the best in a generation. If true, would good conditions for agriculture also benefit breeding passerines? Even if it did, why should so many migrate so far from their usual route from Siberia to central China and end up so far west? Could the mass displacement of so many Siberian Accentors be indicative of some unknown environmental issue on their breeding grounds?

Siberian Accentors are thought to have expanded their breeding range west toward such the Ural Mountains. Perhaps a good breeding season has produced an exceptional number of birds in the far west of their range? Then these young migratory birds are exposed to a prolonged period of wind propelling them towards Western Europe.  A prolonged spell of high pressure stretching from central Russian into Scandinavia, combined with winds blowing from central Asia into Western Europe during most of early October may have assisted the irruption.  This graphic from 7th October illustrates the prevailing weather conditions (see here for the full animated map). An area of high pressure (blue) stretches across all of central Russia, with winds blowing from east to west (green) picking up from the Urals, blowing straight into the Baltic Sea, southern Sweden and onto the northern east coast of the UK: Blank Ariel 12 doc

From the moment of the discovery of the second British Siberian Accentor last Thursday near Spurn Point, East Yorkshire I realised that I wanted to be part of this remarkable event. I was not alone, it is estimated between 3,000 and 4,000 people traveled to Easington to see this bird during it’s six day stay. For me, what it represented was almost as important. Not merely the epic feat of a long migration from the other side of Eurasia to East Yorkshire, but the fact that hundreds (possibly many hundreds, how many were missed?) of Siberian Accentors were simultaneously entering western Europe in a unique ornithological event. The bird itself was a cracker. An early online description of it being like a “Dunnock doing Bowie” is spot on: it is the head pattern that sets this birds apart, a feast of  tan and black stripes that the bird showed off to great effect whilst tossing leaves around during its search for insects:tombedford-161016-8895-1

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The collective noun for Dunnocks is, apparently, a “Jovial of Dunnocks”. If this is the case, then a “Joy of Accentors” would seem appropriate for the pleasure and interest that this remarkable event has brought to birders all over Europe. And for me, I had a fabulous day out at Spurn Point, seeing a feast of Siberian breeding warblers including Yellow-browed, Pallas’s and Radde’s Warblers that made up the supporting cast. With the winds remaining in the east, this remarkable autumn is set to run and run.