Brightening up a dull day

First day of the year – fresh start – and local birding in the Blackwater valley was on my agenda, with Boy in tow. Headed West then East, and all was New Year gloom. The ancient pulse of germ and birth was indeed shrunken hard and dry. The camera stayed at home because light was in short supply. Pied Wagtails around the water treatment works were a string of monochrome cutouts, Redwings were shadowy arrowheads, and even the brightest of the Goldcrests was a leafy wraith hard to pick out among sparse foliage.

But birds cut through the gloom, as they often do. Amongst a distant flock of Canada Geese, a gleaming white dot caught my eye, and with a brief Cattle Egret seen further up the Loddon Valley only a week or so earlier, this deserved to be followed up. The Egret was glimpsed as it flew further down the valley, and triangulating from several viewpoints, a group of three Little Egrets was eventually located close to Fleethill Farm.

We headed back to Moor Green, and were passed by four “meeping” Mandarins flying down the valley. Shortly after, we were watching a surprisingly close drake Smew, spooked out to just in front of the blind. This was another gleaming highlight, in spotless white with bandit’s mask implying a hint of mischief. Goosanders were probably already gathered further east, but this one Mergus would do for me. As we headed home, a pair of Shelduck on the Hampshire side gleamed in fading light, spotless and ready for the approaching Spring. Each of these brilliant birds shone in the winter landscape, clean and fresh and perfect, defying the rain and the mud, and brightening our first day of 2016. More birding like this please.

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Been a while

Reeeee-boot. Stopped for three years, but BirdingOverMyHead is back. It was fun when I was writing it, read or un-read, so I’m going to get back into the groove.

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What on Earth is going on! After my first Berkshire YELLOW-BROWED WARBLER last weekend (thanks to finder Ian Paine!), and an apparent SIBERIAN CHIFFCHAFF at Sandford (will try and check that one out soon), Dave Rimes today knocked it out of the park by finding a PALLAS’S WARBLER along thesame stretch of river as the Moor Green YBW (which he had already been watching). His photos are pretty unequivocal, it has a yellow bum and a crown stripe! Amazing times in Berkshire …

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I was browsing recent Berksbirds photos last night and noticed this striking fellow, in a picture taken by Linda Garner-Langham at the west end of Sandford Lake. Fraser Cottington has confirmed that the bird is still present today, and is looking good for Dinton CP’s first tristis Chiffchaff.

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Best of the rest of the recycled highlights

S2324562_800x600cI’ve updated the Gallery with the least terrible pictures of 2012. Enjoy.

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Silent sibe

Ten years. A little over in fact. That’s how long I’ve waited for another go at Yellow-browed Warbler in Berkshire. Didn’t come in October, when news of a bird at Ascot Heath was delayed. But it did come this morning, following a sighting late yesterday of a probable YBW at  Moor Green Lakes, a handy local nature reserve. So I stopped off this morning for a quick look, and after 45 minutes the little thing showed up. A very busy warbler came up through some sallows and into a small tree where it was perpetually on the far side. It then moved into the top of some oaks where it was clearly smaller and shorter-tailed than a Chiffchaff, with a bold arched supercilium. After putting some wing-bars on it, I was still totally unable to get any colour tones against the light which might help to separate Yellow-browed from Hume’s. Eventually it moved into a birch further off, and I got views through my scope which showed strong bright green upperparts, cleanish yellow-white underparts and a hint of yellow to the wing-bars. Surely this was a YELLOW-BROWED WARBLER**! Not disappointed at all that it wasn’t the rarer species, I got a few more scrappy views where the legs appeared to have a reddish-brown tone, but the views were not crippling. Fortunately, Jerry O’Brien got some pictures* so perhaps they will help with the identification. The call certainly didn’t, because there weren’t any, totally silent. And then there’s always tomorrow … good start to 2013.

* They do … looks like YBW to me.

** No, not surely … see later news.

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End of the world

Year, sorry, not world. Year. Yes, 2012 is history, 2013 is a mystery.

So what happened? First the garden, where a good start to the year and a great autumn were separated by a wet spring that just went on and on without a break in the rain. Best bird from the first part of the year was a LAPWING during a snowy spell … these are ridiculously scarce from the garden, given that there are usually hundreds within a few km radius the whole winter long.

By the time the sun showed up in July I’d got so tired of looking out of the window at the rain that I couldn’t raise the will to write anything about the few good birds that were found. The most significant omissions were a flock of eight or nine CROSSBILLS that flew south on 3rd August. I got the camera on them, but the focus went wild and all we got was this


The only decent migrants around the garden were a couple of young Willow Warblers together, nice but not pausing for a picture. A cracking Yellow Wagtail flew directly south on 18th September, but a few days later, a day-long skywatch was finally rewarded with a MARSH HARRIER high with a Buzzard, the harrier being slender-winged, long-tailed and all-dark compared to its chubby relative.


So the MARSH HARRIER was the first of three new birds for the BOMH Garden List, the others being a calling YELLOWHAMMER on 21st October, and easily the best garden bird of the year, a HAWFINCH passing with Redwings on 6th November. Other scarcities were regular Little Egrets, Brambling, Greylag Geese, Egyptian Geese, Hobby, Common Tern, Great Black-backed Gull, Ring-necked Parakeets, Ravens, Hobbies, Willow Warblers … not bad really.


The biggest garden disappointment of the year was the pair of COMMON CRANES that was located soaring to the south at Moor Green on 5th May. I was out and scanning, hoping to pick up these two massive birds, but instead of a northward course they jinked west before doing a south Reading flyover past almost every birder in Berkshire, but entirely circumventing BOMH airspace. The second biggest garden failure was my repeated doziness with early morning ducks that were probably MANDARINS … three times! Get the coffee before going out …

Outside of the garden/fulcrum of the Universe, other birding was done. I twitched four biggish birds (southern Britain only, I’m lazy), adding SPANISH SPARROW, DARK-EYED JUNCO, LESSER WHITE-FRONTED GOOSE and SHORT-BILLED DOWITCHER to my puny British list. Some other decent birds along the way were my second British records of Cory’s Shearwater, Buff-breasted Sandpiper and Buff-bellied Pipit (in Berkshire!), and self-finds of Dotterel and Sabine’s Gull. Here’s my first view of the latter, phonescoped:


In the mighty county of Berkshire, I didn’t do that well, adding only Marsh Harrier from the garden and the aforementioned Buff-bellied Pipit as county ticks. But looking back, there were plenty of scarcities in the supporting cast, with Great Grey Shrike, Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, Waxwings, Nightjars, Glaucous and Iceland Gulls, Smew and Long-tailed Duck, Red-necked Grebe and Great Northern Diver, Pectoral Sandpiper and Little Stint. Along the way I missed out on Whimbrel (again), Bar-tailed Godwit, Great Bustard (no, really), several Ring-Ouzels, Wryneck (twice) and a Little Bittern just down the road in Herts.


Oh yes, and the biggest piece of stupidity of the year was an attempt to twitch a MANX SHEARWATER at Queen Mother Reservoir in early September with no optics. I was sure I would run into another birder, but since there had been a bird last year, and I didn’t arrive until the afternoon, anyone who still needed it had been and gone and I was the only birder present. I gave it a good go from the east bank, but finding a slouching seabird on several square kilometers of water is not something my eyeballs are up to. As compensation, here’s a Manx Shearwater that was looming over us as we won a pub quiz in Newbury in the spring … perhaps the Winterbourne record of 1883?


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Cornish miniatures




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Cornish Landscapes

Since there were few birds available in the brilliant sunshine, whenever I had run out of optimism that there was something to be found, I turned to taking pictures of the landscape.

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Cornwall 2012

I went once again to Cornwall this autumn, choosing the weekend that straddled the end of September and the start of October. Although it was wet when I went down on Friday morning, and there were showers and a light blow on Sunday/Monday, the rest of the weekend was blistering sunshine, with no passage whatsoever.

My first stop was Davidstowe in pouring rain, where a Buff-breasted Sandpiper had been showing at point-blank range for four or five days. Something had disturbed it from its usual beat on the turf close to the control tower, and it was nowhere to be found. In fact, it was probably hanging out at the west end not far from where I watched four Ringed Plovers, but I didn’t find it. Someone also later reported a Red-throated Pipit on the runway, and there were certainly plenty of pipits and wagtails around in the drizzle, including an adult male Pied that kept giving snatches of song. The curse of Davidstowe strikes again …


There was also a wave of Yellow-browed Warbler sightings on that Friday, but I didn’t go out of my way to connect with any of them, on the basis that I may well run into one over the weekend. I didn’t. And my stint at Marazion also didn’t produce either of the Spotted Crakes that had been present for several days, neither of them was reported subsequently.

Heading to Portgwarra,  I cut across the Sixty Foot cover and came out on the cliffs by the coastguards, where I was pleasantly surprised to run into Russel Wynn and a student doing some follow-up on Seawatch South-West; although we were counting a reasonable run of BALEARIC SHEARWATERS, and at least four SOOTY SHEARWATERS were welcome accompaniments, their real interest was in Gannet feeding events, which they were locating with a theodolite to correlate their position with the marine topology. We saw a couple of flocks of 100+ Gannets while I was there, although no associated Cetaceans. In good light, I had a go at seawatch photography … unsurprisingly, it was very difficult, especially from elevation, and anyone who gets a record shot to support a seabird sighting has done very, very well.

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Little else to report, and no YBW with the tit flock on a watch over sixty foot again.


Up early the next morning, I went to the sea at the nearest point to where I was staying, which was Gurnard’s Head. A tramp across the fields didn’t produce anything much, so I was out on the Head by just after 8am. After only ten minutes, a group of three Kittiwakes only about 500m out was accompanied by a juvenile SABINE’S GULL, smaller and daintier, and showing solid grey back and inner wing, with clear-cut white and black triangles making up the rest of the wing. My first self-found from a sea-watch, only trumped by the cracking adult I found at Portland in August! A distant diver may have been a Red-throated – amazing that I have seen very few on previous autumn sea-watches in Cornwall.

After that, I scoured a few likely-looking valleys along the coast between Pendeen and St Ives without finding much in the way of birds, the odd Wheatear, a few Chiffchaffs and Goldcrests and a flushed Snipe were about the best I could do.


Dropping into the Cot valley, I was a bit bemused by a confused and jumbly song, high-pitched but lacking rhythmn. Turned out to be a male Goldcrest, presumably giving a sub-song that lacked the normal building rhythmn of a Goldie.


I dropped in at Kenidjack, which was peaceful and largely without birds. The only notable sighting was a family that appeared to have lost their dog on the path over to Cape Cornwall; the hillside here is dotted with mineshafts and it didn’t look good. I nearly came a cropper on the same path several years ago when retrieving a favourite hat that had blown off and into the bracken. Best stick to the paths …

Sunday, I was up and over to Pendeen first thing, but there were only a few shearwaters to be seen. More scouring of valleys delivered little, and my midday I was up at Portgwarra again, in anticipation of a front coming in at the end of the afternoon. We did ok for Balearics and Sooties, with a Puffin to add variety, but the highlight of the afternoon was when Dave Flumm found a distant CORY’S SHEARWATER, coming in from the east. It took an age to reach us and I struggled desperately to locate it, despite having been watching at that distance all afternoon, but eventually got reasonable views just before it reached the Runnel Stone buoy, passing behind it. First Cornish big shear, yeay! A second big shear even more distant was probably a GREAT SHEARWATER, and would have been a British lifer for me, but was even harder to locate, and the views I had as it powered off into the distance were unusable. Shortly after that, the rain arrived and we called it off, not displeased at all.

So then there was just Monday, find or fail. The weather was doing its best, with a moderate westerly and sheets of drizzle. I was down at Porthgwarra early, and worked my way up and over to St Levan, without seeing much. Coming up from St Levan to Porthcurno, a dog-walker passed me as I stopped to check on a piping call that reminded me of Bullfinch, but was clearly moving. As I moved on, something moved up from the field just ahead of me, a plover-like wader towering up and circling before heading off to the north. It seemed like a smallish Goldie, but with a dull dark underwing. I latched onto this, and fooled by the piping call, believed that I had just salvaged the weekend by finding my first American Golden Plover – the commonest wader species that I have not yet encountered in Britain. However, as it had headed off, the call was different, being more of a rolling “djirrrr“, and as I plodded on I had second thoughts, with Dotterel seeming far more likely. By the time I reached the radio dead-spot of Porthcurno – ironic, as there is a museum dedicated to telecommunications there – I realised that I had made a mistake. This was surely my first self-found DOTTEREL, the slightness, call, no glimpse of a wing-stripe – all seemed to make sense when I had that possibility in minf. Fortunately, that afternoon I caught up with what was probably the same bird, a couple of miles ago above Nanjizal (where one had been reported over the weekend) and further flight views resolved the issue for me. Live and learn.

The rest of the day passed on a very suny stroll over Portgwarra moors, delivering not much more than some Ravens and a couple of CHOUGHS, welcome nonetheless. Just as I was leaving, I ran into Jon Swann, who often passes on useful bits of information when I’m down there. This time, he had information of weekend-salvaging significance, since a BUFF-BREASTED SANDPIPER had recently been found in the fields above Nanjizal. We trecked on over there in blistering sunshine, picking up another birder on the way, and when we reached the field that I had watched being ploughed on Saturday, we soon located the sandy little transatlantic waif, alternately dashing and freezing mongst the ridged soil. My second BUFF-BREASTED SANDPIPER and the first in Cornwall, hurrah! A parent and small child were on their way towards us but the bird wasn’t disturbed, and just moved slightly further into the field. It retreated a bit across the field, and moving to the next field we soon had the Dotterel (see above) towering away from us, refreshing my memory as to the “djirrr” call that I first heard above the same fields five or six years ago. I parted company with Jon, thanking him for the help, and wandered back down Lower Bosistow Lane, relaxed and happy.

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