Sunday, 29 April 2012

Be careful what you wish for

A few weeks ago I was very concerned about the low waterlevels at Morton Bagot and posted an entry headlined "bring on the rain". Hmm. Today, the morning was so wet that I abandoned the patch and visited one of my former regular haunts, Marsh Lane Gravel Pit. Unfortunately, not only was there heavy rain, there was also a strong north-easterly wind and this may have been the reason that Dave and I saw nothing better than four Yellow Wagtails, a Common Sandpiper, and great views of tired hirundines perching on a barbed wire fence a few yards from us. There was no sign of yesterday's Garganey. At least I did see or hear a few common birds which are either scarce, or have never occurred, at Morton Bagot. I refer to Great Crested Grebes, Common Terns, Gadwalls, and Reed Warbler.

This afternoon the weather improved a little bit so I went back to Morton Bagot. There was no sign of the Oystercatcher, and now just one Yellow Wagtail, six Wheatears, and 39 Swallows. What struck me most was that the waterlevel at the main pool had gone up by about two feet so that the island which was barely surrounded by water on Friday now rises just six inches above the level of the pool. Sadly, all the pairs of Lapwings sitting on nests in the flash field and marsh have been flooded out.

possible Greenland Wheatear seen on April 18
possible Greenland Wheatear seen on April 27
 Finally, I thought I would post a couple of photographs (distant and blurred of course) of the most brightly coloured Wheatears I have seen recently, quite possibly Greenland Wheatears.

Saturday, 28 April 2012

The Fall

So, to continue from my last post, its Friday April 27, and scanning the grass in front of the marsh I counted nine Wheatears. Out came the camera. The image below is my first attempt at cropping. I hope to improve. I resumed walking to the flash when two Yellow Wagtails flew over. I arrived at the flashes, which were now overflowing with water which was spreading across the field. I counted 46 Swallows, and two Sand Martins. The only waders were three Redshank, but there were more Wheatears and Yellow Wagtails.

Yellow Wagtails
My final count was 11 Wheatears, including a possible Greenland, and seven Yellow Wagtails. Both counts were record totals for the site. In addition to the Yellow Wagtails, the Sand Martins were also year ticks. Not a bad little fall of passerines.

As I am typing this on Saturday April 28, I have had several texts from John Yardley to say that he has found the first Oystercatcher of the year (it could easily be the only record we get), plus nine Wheatears and the seven Yellow Wagtails.

Unfortunately, I will not be able to join him, and the weather forecast tomorrow is pretty awful, so I suspect I will go somewhere with hides.


It can be frustrating being a Morton Bagot birder. Wednesday April 25 was a day of heavy showers and a swirling low pressure system which dropped shedloads of Arctic Terns and Little Gulls onto Midlands reservoirs. I arrived home after work and negotiated an hour's birding. Surely there would be something to see, a wader perhaps. Well there was a new wader on the flash....a Common Snipe.

Common Snipe
This wasn't really what I had in mind. In a funny sort of way Snipe are a bit of a frustration here too. The habitat was created with a view to encouraging waders to breed, and Snipe was certainly one that is considered a possibility (albeit a bit of a long shot). Each year the odd bird lingers to the end of April, but I have never seen any display here, and I doubt this one will prove to be anything other than a late migrant.

Cut to Friday April 27. I had booked the day off due to non-birding commitments, but there was a window of opportunity in the morning. That slammed shut when it became apparent that the torrential rain we woke up to was not going to abate any time soon. By 3.00 pm I was waiting for my brother-in-law to phone prior to coming round to assess what building work we might need doing. The rain had finally stopped but with a cinema visit planned for the evening, it looked like I was not going birding. Then my brother-in-law, Brian,  rang to cancel (thank you Brian, thank you God). I was out like a shot. Morton Bagot had been transformed by the rain. For one thing, the pool was back.

The main pool (sometimes called The Marsh)
As I walked beside the pool, a movement caught my eye. It was a Wheatear, then another, and frustration was over.

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Another quiet morning

I'm starting to get concerned about the lack of new migrants. Other sites seem to be confirming the low numbers of Whitethroats for example. Admittedly the low pressure system is still sitting on us and this morning the wind direction remained a light northerly. I wandered around without finding any new migrants, and the highlight was chatting to Mike Lane. Mike is a seriously good photographer, but our paths don't cross too often as he tends to visit during the week when I am at work (or perhaps early in the morning before I get up). Apart from a smart male Wheatear, the only notable birds were a flock of 17 Stock Doves which flew out of the ploughed field.

Stock Dove
Stock Doves are quite common on the farm and I have seen up to 80 in winter. The presence of today's small flock gives a good indication of their breeding numbers in the surrounding woodland, but only a few pairs are thought to nest within the confines of the patch.

Sunday, 22 April 2012

Sunday April 22

I met Dave as usual for another stroll around the patch. There had been no shift in wind direction and it remained chilly, so I wasn't too surprised to see pretty much the same birds as yesterday. The only additions were two Canada Geese, and the reappearance of last weekend's White Wagtail. Five Meadow Pipits flew over, and we saw three Wheatears. John Yardley had seen two Shelduck, but by the time Dave and I turned up only one remained. We showed John the Little Owl. Finally, as the breeze got up we started to notice there were lots of raptors in the sky, about a dozen Buzzards, at least three Sparrowhawks, several Kestrels, and then two extremely distant Falcons buzzing a Buzzard. They weren't flying like Kestrels and had the shape of something good, perhaps Hobbies. However, they were too distant and although we may have seen one of them again later, we eventually had to accept we weren't going to clinch them. Annoying.

The Shelduck

Saturday, 21 April 2012

A false start

My best ever day's birding at Morton Bagot was last year on April 22 when I was out from before dawn and reached 70 species, including Marsh Harrier and Wood Sandpiper. It had long been my intention to repeat the exercise on the corresponding weekend this year. Throughout this week I had been having misgivings about the plan. Spring seemed rather late this year. I decided to ignore the signs and give it my best shot, so at 04.00 I was scraping the ice from my car windscreen, and by 04.30 I was recording my first birds, the calls of roosting Jackdaws. By the time it was light enough to see my notebook without a torch I had heard 14 species including Tawny Owl and had seen a shooting star. Another 15 species later and the sun was rising, my only migrants were Chiffchaff and Blackcap, while the highlight was discovering that a pair of Teal was still present. I kept going until 08.00, by which time I had reached 49 species with nothing better than Willow Warbler, Coal Tit, and Jay added to the list.
After breakfast I returned and immediately located two Wheatears and John Yardley. We continued to the flash, hearing a Curlew (arguably the best bird of the day) en route, and then counted four Redshank, two Little Ringed Plovers, a Grey Heron and two Tufted Ducks. John went home shortly after 11.00, and I continued for another hour without adding anything. The list stood at a pretty disappointing 57 species, and John had gripped me off with Canada Goose (I think I'll get over it.)
By now I was pretty knackered, and so the afternoon was spent at home resting/sleeping. A loud bang against the window turned out to have been made by an unfortunate House Sparrow. It was still alive so I picked it up and eventually decided to leave it in an upturned Oat'so Simple box on the garden table. I had diagnosed shock and assured Lyn it would be OK once it had recovered...I hoped.
By late afternoon heavy showers were sweeping in from the north-west. Nevertheless I headed back to the patch and eventually added three more species, Shelduck, Little Owl, and House Martin. 60 species was the bare minimum I had hoped for, and I am now contemplating having another go, with perhaps a slightly later start, next weekend.
House Sparrows are in serious decline nationally, and although they are doing fine in my garden, I am a little concerned that they seem to be in reduced numbers around Netherstead Farm this spring. I only saw two there today.
As for the injured House Sparrow, it was no longer in the box when I returned home and so must have made a full recovery.

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

The Wheatear question

I have a confession to make. Despite all my years of birding I still struggle to come to terms with the identification of the Greenland race of Wheatear. Tonight was a case in point. The tempestuous weather conditions today had dropped Arctic Terns, Little Gulls etc at lakes and pools across the Midlands. Despite this I wasn't too surprised to find nothing of the sort at Morton Bagot. The patch still awaits its first Tern of any species. Waders were represented by a single Green Sandpiper, three Redshanks, and two Little Ringed Plovers. Scanning across the flash field I noticed a male Wheatear. A little later I found a female, and then a really bright male. This bird had an intense orange throat and breast, with the orange extending in a more washed out form all the way to its vent. The face mask and and wings were black, and the mantle had a rather tawny wash compared to the pale grey crown. But it was the same size as the female.

So what am I looking at ? Greenland Wheatears are a little larger, longer-winged, longer-billed than Northern Wheatear, but who is to say that the accompanying female Wheatear was not also a Greenland. Greenland Wheatears are described as brighter plumaged than Northern Wheatears.This was certainly that, but how bright can a Northern be? How dull can a Greenland get? You only have to look at photos of the two subspecies to discover an apparently wide range of colour variation. The bird is miles away, in a grassy field, and keeps disappearing from view. I know I'm going to chicken out again, but I can't help suspecting that Greenland Wheatear is actually a lot commoner in the latter half of April than the records might suggest. Certainly there is a double peak in Wheatear numbers every spring, the obvious explanation being that the later birds are going a lot further north than the March arrivals. Ah well, it brightened up a dull evening.

Sunday, 15 April 2012

Cold, but plenty of migrants

The day dawned sunny but cold, with a chilly northerly breeze. Dave and I began birding with relatively low expectations. However, the copse by Netherstead Farm produced several Willow Warblers, a Chiffchaff, and several Blackcaps. These proved to be a precursor to a mini-fall of these species, our final tally being a site-record of 11 Willow Warblers (two of which were noticeably grey toned), plus six Blackcaps and eight Chiffchaffs. Dave then picked out two female Wheatears, and we eventually saw six (three males and three females). All day the occasional Swallow flew over, and we also saw the first House Martin of the year.

Willow Warbler
My previous best count for Willow Warbler was six on 22 August 2010 and I cannot recall seeing any more than three in a day here during spring. They seem to be primarily a passage bird and have always been absent from mid May until late July or early August.

male Wheatear

We continued to the flash, and it turned out that the best was yet to come. There was no sign of the Shelduck, but there were two Redshanks, a Little Ringed Plover, and seven Teal. Then Dave picked out a possible White Wagtail on the furthest flash, I started to scope the area and soon spotted the White Wagtail. Dave wasn't finished. Minutes later we were about to leave when he drew my attention to another distant passerine. This turned out to be a male Redstart. It was flying from the fence behind the flash down to the ground and then back to the fence, clearly feeding up before moving on. We later discovered another male Redstart as we walked back to Morton Bagot church. A couple of other notable sightings were four Tufted Ducks, and the first brood of Mallard ducklings. All in all a pretty successful morning.
The year list has advanced to 86 (White Wagtail not included as its a race of Pied Wagtail). I am still a few species short of last year but there have been some belters so I'm not complaining.

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Wednesday April 11

It's now approaching mid April and I was hoping this evening's visit might gain me a year tick or two. A quick scan of the flash confirmed the presence of a Shelduck, but this was to prove to be the only new bird tonight. Mind you, the sun was shining so it was already a whole lot better than my last visit. Through the bins I could see that waders were present. They turned out to be a Redshank, a Green Sandpiper, and two Little Ringed Plovers. I could only count six Teal, and about 15 feisty Lapwings. A single Swallow was hunting insects in the lee of the hedge bordering the flash.

As I was leaving, a couple arrived hoping to see the Little Owl, but although I was able to direct them to the right tree, I had to admit that I hadn't seen it tonight. The walk back was enlivened by the presence of 11 dots jinking over a field adjacent to the pool. I eventually heard their calls and confirmed they were Meadow Pipits. In previous years there has been evidence to suggest that a few roost in the marsh at passage times, and I 'm sure these were intending to do that. Finally, a Peregrine took off from one of the masts and flew away over the ridge.

It took me until 2010 to add Shelduck to the Morton Bagot list, but the following year a pair not only summered but also bred successfully. This year the water level is a lot lower than it was in April 2011, and although Mike saw one a few weeks ago, I would not have been surprised if that had been the only one this year. It will be interesting to see what happens next.

Monday, 9 April 2012

Bring on the rain

The forecast was for rain all day, and although birding at Morton Bagot is pretty tough in wet weather due to a complete lack of shelter, I wasn't too displeased as the main pool in particular really needs topping up. By mid afternoon I noticed the rain had stopped and it looked a little brighter. I decided I might get an hour of birding in. By the time I got there, the drizzle had resumed and the wind had got up. It was quite unpleasant. I noticed another car where I had parked and on scanning the area spotted a birder trudging back. This turned out to be Alan Matthews (a tick for me) and we exchanged phone numbers (or we would have done if I could have remembered my mobile number). Alan had seen a Little Ringed Plover, but didn't mention anything else. I reached the flash and was pleased to see a Redshank and a Green Sandpiper. Ironically I couldn't find the LRP.
Common Redshank
When I first visited Morton Bagot in 2007 I only saw one Redshank on a single date. Each year since then however, at least one pair has spent the early spring here, and breeding was suspected on at least one occasion. I still hope to see Redshank chicks one year, but I suspect that the presence of livestock in the flash field is a major problem. I hadn't seen a Redshank here since March, hence my relief that one at least is still around.

Sunday, 8 April 2012

Pretty dire

I met up with Dave, who had spent a week in the Lake District and felt starved of migrants. Unfortunately he had come to the wrong place to put that right. We did at least see the Little Owl again and indeed the Tufted Duck. The Teal count on the flashes stood at 20, and we later saw another five heading for it. However, the Little Ringed Plover and a few singing Chiffchaffs were the only migrants we could find. Finally, last chance saloon was to drive down the road and try ascending Spernal Hill in the hope of seeing a Wheatear or maybe a Ring Ouzel (it has no track record for either but looks as though it should have). A pair of Mistle Thrushes were disputing the hill top with a pair of Kestrels, and we managed a handful of fly-over Meadow Pipits.

Mistle Thrush
I had heard a distantly singing Mistle Thrush at Morton Bagot during the morning. Its not a frequently seen species here, and can probably be described as a scarce breeder. Most records relate to birds heard singing from or commuting to the surrounding woodland.

Saturday, 7 April 2012

Little Owl at last

Little Owl
A grey morning with a light northerly breeze and occasional spells of drizzle. I didn't have all morning so headed straight for the flash where I counted 18 Teal, seven Snipe, the Little Ringed Plover, and two Green Sandpipers. This was OK but not much to write home about so I decided to check the tree Mike had seen the Little Owl in last month, and blow me it was there. I took a couple of record shots, (sorry about the quality) and then watched as it jerked its head around in reaction to any movement that caught its eye. I had forgotten what stunning birds they are. I decided to have a quick look at the small pool behind the hedge, and duly found my second year tick of the morning, a drake Tufted Duck. This species is basically a summer visitor to the small pools around the farm, although it usually turns up well before April. I retraced my steps and was pleased to find that the Tawny Owl was also showing, although it was being given a hard time by four mobbing Jackdaws. Two Owl species in a morning. Can't be bad.

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Lyn knows best

I wonder how many married birders are familiar with this scenario. It has rained all day and there is a bitingly cold north-easterly. You stagger through the door after work to be greeted with a sympathetic wife shaking her head and saying things like "it's too nasty out there, why don't you postpone the birding until tomorrow?" "Oh no" you reply "this sort of weather could drop anything in", and you leave for the patch determined to prove your point. An hour later I'm back, the highlight was my first two Swallows of the year struggling north into the teeth of the gale. Waders were represented by a single Little Ringed Plover and passerines were virtually non-existent.
  One species did catch my eye though. Very much taken for granted, the humble Jackdaw roosts in the wood north of the flashes in quite impressive numbers. This evening about 350 exploded out of the wood with a cacophony of chacking calls. The best numbers should be expected after the breeding season and I intend to count the roost properly later this year to see exactly how many there are. Mind you I've said that before and ended up with pretty vague estimates.

Sunday, 1 April 2012

Buzzards galore

We had friends staying over last night so I resolved to get up before dawn, return for breakfast after an hour, and then go back to the patch from late morning. The early morning was cold, very cold, and it didn't really pay off, although the three Fieldfares heading north-east 15 minutes before the sun came up showed that at least outward migration was taking place. The Tawny Owl was visible, and a Little Ringed Plover was on the flash, but the Spotshank had gone. I heard it was still here on Thursday at least. The late morning visit was much more pleasant and productive. There were lots of Buzzards in the air, and a slow 360` scan produced a total of 18 thermalling in groups of three or four. This beat my previous record, although many were a very long way off.
Common Buzzard
The flash now contained three Little Ringed Plovers, 33 Lapwings, 14 Teal, and seven Common Snipe. I walked along the footpath past the flash and noticed a small silent passerine in the hedge. It was a Willow Warbler, but the fact that it was frequently tail-dipping like a Chiffchaff led me to look at it quite closely. After about ten minutes it started to quietly sing and my identification was confirmed. I then turned my attention to the ploughed field and immediately discovered the first of three Wheatears, two males and a female. I spent ages trying to photograph them, but the results were so poor that I will be ditching the shots. I rang John Yardley, who told me that Chris Lane had seen a White Wagtail at the flash on Thursday, and that John himself had seen a good candidate while I had been having my breakfast. I retraced my steps and eventually saw four Pied Wagtails, but no sign of the White Wag. By now it was quite warm and several Small Tortoiseshell and a single Peacock butterfly put in an appearance. The mystery bee colony now contains thousands of gently buzzing insects. The two additions to my year list leaves me on 80 species, still a little behind where I was this time last year.