Wednesday, 26 April 2017

April catch-up

April has been a funny month weather wise, very settled, but with a lot of cold northerly winds.

After a good end to March, the year ticks continued in early April.  The first Wheatear just missed March and appeared at Pump Lane on April 1st:

This was followed on April 2nd by a pair of Peregrines circling over the lake.  I couldn't see if they were adult or not, but I do wonder where these came from.

There then followed a period of over 2 weeks when nothing new turned up, which wasn't helped by and was probably the result of the weather patterns.  Another Wheatear appeared on the spit for the day on the 12th, a nice male, but with only two records of Wheatear this month, a really poor showing for this species so far.

Distant crop!
There was an impressive arrival of Willow Warblers in early April, a species which moves through this site quite quickly - there were 9 singing males on the 13th, the following day this had risen to 15 singing birds. It dropped back to 8 singing birds on the 17th and a few days later they were all gone.

The last Redwing of the season was a bird foraging in Pump Lane fields on the 14th.

My next year tick was Reed Warbler on the 17th, with two singing birds arriving. The same morning produced a partial summer plumaged Dunlin that flew in mid morning and landed on the far side of the spit so evading photographs.

The 18th had an obvious movement of Arctic Terns in the area.  There were none on site first thing, but as I watched, one appeared mid morning with the Common Terns.  Common Tern numbers also rose to 17 that day, having been climbing steadily in 1s and 2s over the previous fortnight.  The Arctic Tern spent most of its time, as usual, flying over the eastern side of the lake, but later in the day, it did land on the spit a couple of times.

The 18th also saw the arrival of two singing Sedge Warblers and were new for the year.  Again, this species doesn't breed on site, so they all move through in the Spring.

Other expected migrants appeared over the next week, with the first singing Whitethroat being heard along the railway on the 19th, the first Common Sandpipers, two birds, arriving on the 22nd on the same day as Garden Warbler.  There were three Garden Warblers singing by the 24th.  Swifts were a little late this year, with my first birds, in fact 18, on the 24th.  The 25th produced my first Yellow Wagtail, when a calling bird flew over the lake mid morning.

Waders have been poor so far, with the obvious notable exception of the pair of Black-winged Stilts (see previous post).  Little Ringed Plovers have arrived in numbers though and six birds have been present for a while, while Oystercatchers fluctuate between a pair and three birds.

One surprising occurrence was the possible reappearance (or a new bird) of the female Black Swan that disappeared during the freezing weather in January.  This bird was pinioned, but I'm not sure if the new bird is or not.  If it is the old bird, which seems likely, where did it go for three months? Was it 'rescued' from the ice and then released?

I've also added a shot of the feral Barnacle goose that appears to be paired with a Graylag and has ben flying into the site occasionally.  And look at the brood size of this Mallard, 16 ducklings!

And to end, some shots of a Weasel that appeared below my feet as I was photographing the Arctic Tern.  This joins Stoat that I saw in March onto my patch mammal list.  Also, the pair of cavorting foxes that often come out and try and disturb the birds - they certainly stop any breeding on the spit and are often seen carrying goose eggs.

MEGA - Black-winged Stilts!!

20th April - As I left for work this morning, I fully intended to do a quick check of the pit beforehand, but for some reason, at the last minute, I decided to turn the car the other way and get into work early instead - not one of my best decisions......

Just after 10am, as I sitting in front of my computer some 70 miles away from the patch, a message came through from patch stalwart Alan S that he had found a Black-winged Stilt in front of the island, followed a short while later to say there were two!!  This is an absolute patch mega, a third record for the county following a pair in the 80s and a pair just last year, both in Milton Keynes (I suspect that over the coming years, national records are likely to increase - it was even dropped from the BBRC list of rarities this year).

Anyway, back to that absolutely fantastic find for Alan, but I couldn't help thinking that they would have been there if I had dropped in before work as intended and now I was unable to get to site before 6pm earliest!  I had an agonising day of people texting, phoning, sending pictures, whilst I was just hoping that they wouldn't flush!  I was, however, hopeful that they would stay the day, as most records seem to show onward movement after dark.

As I had got into work early, I left early too, but encountered heavy traffic and didn't pull into the car park until after 6pm.  It was raining lightly now too!  Simon R was just leaving, confirming their continued presence and I quickly made my way to the lake.  I was the only person there, but soon saw the delightful pair of Stilts wading in front of the island - a massive relief.  I now had time to enjoy them, but not for long, as one of the local foxes came charging around the spit and flushed them.  They started to fly north and gained height, their ridiculously long legs trailing behind them.  It looked like they were leaving, but then they dropped down behind the tall trees at the base of the spit, possibly looking at the old works area.  Ash S had arrived just as they disappeared and I said it may be worth a look in this area, but just as I was packing my scope up, they flew in again and landed right in front of us along the near spit.  This allowed us to get some photos, but as the light was so poor, many of them lacked proper focus.  My best efforts are below:

Often wading in deep water - the legs are very long!

Showing the length of the legs

Another showing the legs
The birds were rarely close enough together to get both in shot.  I left at about 7:20pm as I had to pick my son up, but left a few Berks birders who were hoping that they might fly the few hundred yards south over the river and into their county - there are no recent records for Berks.  If they did fly into Berks, it was well after dark and both birds had departed site by morning.

Saturday, 1 April 2017

Week Off

I had most of last week off work as I was using up some holiday before the end of March.  Consequently, I spent a fair amount of time birding the patch and was able to see some nice birds as Spring migration starts to pick up.

27th March - this morning, there was an obvious small window of opportunity for observing migration as the mist of the morning was lifting and before the skies gave way to sunshine.  This was around 10-11am.

I had picked up my first Blackcaps of the year whilst walking round the lake, two males and a female in the south east corner, a further female was seen later on the north side.  There were also quite a few Meadow Pipits passing over, generally flying north west - I counted around 50 birds in several small flocks.  As I reached the east side, a steady flow of Sand Martins became obvious.  Hirundines often do this at this site in Spring, they seem to fly in off the river and head north over the lake.  If the conditions are right, they are low enough to see and quite large numbers can be logged fairly early in the season.  I stayed watching these birds for some time to see if I could see my first Swallow.  Surprisingly, a single House Martin passed through, but no Swallows.  This is my second earliest House Martin record.

There were quite a few Black-headed Gulls hawking low over the lake, but at about 11am, I noticed two other gulls descending from height.  A quick look through bins and I could see they were adult Little Gulls, still in winter plumage.  This is a good record for this site that often seems to miss out on Little Gull passage when other local sites pick them up, but was obviously a consequence of the easterly wind.  I managed to take a few flight shots (I've never been able to do this before!) as they hawked over the lake - beautiful gulls.  They stayed on site for about an hour before rising up and continuing on their journey.

Whilst watching the Little Gulls, a large, noisy flock of about 100 Wigeon flew over me from the east - more migration!  About half the flock descended to the lake, but others carried on.  A pair of cronking Raven also flew low over the lake from the east.  Later, a single bird flew over west and later still, another single bird was circling high over the lake.  There were also still 68 Shoveler on site, groups of males often flying around chasing the females - they often stay late in to the Spring here, but will soon be gone.

28th March - nothing new seen on this day, though the reappearance or new arrival of a second drake Garganey was notable.

29th March - My first Swallows of the year came through this morning, two birds with about 75 Sand Martins.  I heard three singing Blackcaps and had my first Lesser Redpolls of the year when three birds flew over calling.  Meadow Pipits were still passing over, though just 14 birds this morning.  A presumed feral Barnacle Goose flew in with a Greylag and a single Siskin passed over.  Little Ringed Plovers and Shelduck still present.

Massive crop!

Just before school pick up, I decided to try the small lakes on the west side of the patch that I hadn't visited in a while.  As usual, these were fairly quiet, but as I was leaving the Roach pit an Osprey flew directly over me at very low height.  I watched it through bins, then thought I ought to try and get a record shot.  However, the camera was in its bag and by the time I had got it out, taken the lens cap off and extended the zoom, The Osprey had flown over the Marlow bypass and was continuing at low height right over the centre of Marlow.  I tried, but in the low light (it was very overcast) and at distance, I failed to get the bird in the viewfinder before it disappeared.  The bird appeared to be tracking just north of the river Thames and I assume it had come off the Thames when it first flew over me.  I wouldn't be surprised if it actually flew over Marlow high street, which would have been some sight!  This is the first Osprey I have seen in March and only my third on patch and the first for a few years.

30th March - there was nothing obviously new in when I first arrived in the morning, but by the time I had reached the south east corner, I picked up a Common Tern hawking the south west corner, having obviously just arrived.  This is my earliest Common Tern record in Bucks and only my second ever March record.  I retraced my steps to get a record shot as the bird often rested a small lump of wood near the spit.

I continued my walk around the lake and heard seven singing Blackcaps, an obvious increase, and my first Willow Warblers of the year.  In fact two birds, one in the north east corner and one near the works.

There is also lots of Great Crested Grebe display going on a the moment, with several pairs on the lake.

31st March - with lots of local Sandwich Terns around this morning, I was hopeful of picking one up on the lake, as it does fairly well for this species.  However, my arrival at 8:50am may have been too late and none were seen.  There was a good passage of hirundines though and my estimates for the morning were about 150 Sand Martins, about 20 Swallows and a single House Martin.

Three Little Ringed Plovers were chasing each other around the site and later became four.

So not a bad few days.  I've picked up all the migrants I would hope to see in March, plus a few more, and am only missing Wheatear.  My best patch areas for Wheatear are the fields and paddocks in Pump Lane, but these have failed to produce any as yet.

Catch up post

This post is an attempt to catch up with records over the past few weeks, so will be quite long!

The previous Ferruginous Duck post missed out a few year records, so here goes.........

18th Feb - having missed out on Barn Owl completely in 2016, I was pleased to get good views of a quartering bird at the west end of the patch in reasonable light.  On the same evening in the roost, a 2nd winter Med Gull appeared.

20th Feb - I missed the first record of Oystercatcher for the year, but caught up with a bird on this date.

Since then, up to three birds have been fairly regular.

25th Feb - having seen nothing in the gull roost, my wait at the car park was rewarded with two Woodcock flying over towards the meadows north of the STW - it was almost dark!

28th Feb - Emmett's fields have been poor for birds this winter, with no sizeable finch or bunting flocks as have been seen in other years.  I was pleased therefore, to see three Yellowhammers there on this date.

4th March - Large gull numbers in the roost have been down on previous years and may be a reflection of the winding down of the landfill at Hedgerley.  This 1st winter Caspian Gull is my only one this year and came in very late when the light had gone, so excuse the poor record.

6th March - a red letter day, as although not a patch tick, I had only my second record of Brambling and the first one around the lake itself.  This female bird was in the south east corner and accompanied a female Chaffinch, so hardly a finch flock!

14th March - my first migrant wader of the Spring in the form of a Redshank

17th March - quickly followed by my first Little Ringed Plovers and Sand Martins

20th March - another great morning on patch!  Seeing a drake Garganey in the Spring is always one of the season's highlights, so I was delighted to find this one on the east side of the spit, though thankfully it eventually flew to the much closer near spit - shame it was an overcast day.

Remarkably, as Alan S and I were watching the Garganey, I noticed a Brent Goose coming in to land just off the tip of the near spit.  I quickly grabbed some shots as it swam into the middle of the south part of the lake.  Then, after just a few minutes on site, it took off, flew north gaining height and then departed west over the STW.  We surmised that the sharp shower had brought the bird down and as soon as it stopped, it continued on its way.  There has been an amazing run of records of this species on patch.  This is the third I have found here since last September, all dark-bellied and all adults (I think this bird is an adult).  Alan only ticked the species on patch with last November's bird and he has been coming here for a quarter of a century!

Luckily, the Garganey found the lake to his liking and he stayed for over a week.  Strangely, a good hunt around on the 27th and the morning of the 28th failed to find him, but a drake reappeared on the spit on the afternoon of the 28th.  Whether this was the same bird that had just found a place to hide for a day and a half, or another drake that came in just for the afternoon of the 28th (and not seen since), I will never know - either scenario sounds plausible.

Some other pictures from the period: Shelduck have been ever present with 1-3 birds hanging out; Grey Wagtails have been a bit thin on the ground so far, so this bird feeding in a puddle was nice to watch; Linnets have found the area of cleared Poplars to the north of the lake to their liking and a small flock can generally be found there; the small population of Ring-necked Parakeets can generally be heard squawking noisily, but this bird was watched feeding on the newly emerging tree buds.

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Ferruginous patch tick

I haven't updated for a few weeks, but there has been some good birding on patch in that time.  I'll probably do a catch up in the next post, but have decided to devote this one to the best bird of the period - a Ferruginous Duck!

On 27th February, I was doing my usual circuit of the lake, having not seen much of note.  I got to the north side and began to scan the edges of the works bay through my scope - there had been a Jack Snipe here late last year and although I didn't see it, the habitat looks nice and one may still be around. At least that's what I was hoping!  I came across a Water Rail running and disappearing into the vegetation and then a small, dark duck swam through my scope showing very white undertail coverts.  Blimey, I thought, this looks good for a Ferruginous Duck!  It was with a small mixed group of Pochard and Tufted Ducks, only about twenty in total, and I'm not sure why I hadn't noticed it before.  I continued to scope it from 100yds or so distance, trying to piece together all the features and eliminate the all too frequent hybrid that seems to turn up.  However, from what I could see, this was looking good.

As is often the case nowadays, a picture speaks a thousand words, so I decided that I needed to get some record shots, both to convince others of the authenticity of the bird and hopefully to save me from having to write a description.  I edged around the lake to get a closer position, doing my best to keep the lakeside vegetation between me and the ducks, so that they wouldn't spook and then began to take some photos.  I was relatively close to the ducks by then and they were aware of me, but they weren't spooked.  They swam past me and then continued down the lake to give themselves more distance, but I had some reasonable records by then.

I continued to watch the Ferruginous Duck as it loafed on the lake amongst its small flock.  A couple of times, it flapped its wings, though I never caught this in a picture.  It had an obvious gleaming white wing bar over the secondaries, but there was some definite off white at least in the outer part of the primaries.  Knowing of the importance of a white wing bar, I thought at this stage that this was a bad feature, and began to think that despite all the other good features, this might point to hybrid genes.  However, as I discovered later, as this was a female and a 1st winter, it is ok to have some off white colour in the outer part of the wing bar, as long as it is not too extensive.

I continued to watch the bird, but it became more distant as it worked its way down the eastern side of the spit.  It actually climbed out onto the bank at one point and I could not see any rings on the legs.  It then continued to the north east side of the main island where it spent the rest of the afternoon.  It was either amongst the overhanging branches or slightly out from them, or standing out on the lower branches.

The weather had deteriorated somewhat by now and its chosen position was about as far from any bank as possible.  I had put news out earlier of my find and my uncertainties over the wing bar and in the end, I was only aware of three other people who came to see it.  Their views were all distant around the island.

My shots of the much closer bird are shown below:

Initial views with two Tufted Duck.  Definitely small enough, with a good looking bill pattern for a female.  The all dark eye shows it is a female and is also another good feature to rule out a hybrid

A quick shake out of the water shows a white under belly covered in dark smudges.  This feature helps to age it as a 1st winter, as an adult would have a clean white belly.  You can also just see a small white spot at the base of the lower mandible, which is another good Ferruginous feature.

One of the better profile shots, shows a good overall shape including a nice peaked crown.  The dark capped effect and lighter areas around the base of the bill and cheek are other immature features.

Another good size comparison with a Tufted Duck - it was a small duck!

The camera did some strange light adjustment here (the water wasn't pale green!), but it does highlight the colouration of the bird.  It has obviously undergone some moult.  The scaps are a nice dark brown, but the pale brown tertials are still juvenile.  The lightest feathers are mid flank, just below the scaps, with the breast and rest of the flanks looking much darker.

A rear shot showing the clean white undertail coverts - these have presumably been moulted too.

So this is the bird as I saw it and I was relatively happy based on the features described that this was a pure 1st winter female Ferruginous Duck.  However, I had a couple of niggling doubts about a couple of the features that I needed to clear up.  I was lucky enough to be able to ask Sebastien Reeber, the author of the latest guide to wildfowl.  The two features I was unsure of were:

1. The bill always looked quite large to me and I wondered if this was a bad feature.
2. On reading the Vinicombe paper about identifying Ferruginous Ducks, it states (as I read it) that juveniles have undergone a moult of the belly by late winter, such that they should have a clean white belly by this stage of the year.  My bird obviously did not have this, so that worried me too.

Sebastien was able to allay my fears and on seeing the photos stated that he didn't see any reason why this bird wasn't a 'good' bird.  In answering my queries:

1. The bill could look a bit strong because the bird might have lost feathers at the bill base as part of its moult.  Also, juveniles often have less dense feathering than adults.
2. Belly feathers aren't replaced as part of the post juvenile or first pre-breeding moults.  They aren't replaced until the first complete moult in the summer.

So with much thanks to Sebastien for considering my bird, I am happy that this is no hybrid and another patch tick!

Wednesday, 8 February 2017


8th February - a pre-work visit this morning turned up a nice male Red-crested Pochard.  They are just about annual here and last year's one and only sighting was also a male in February.  Today's bird, as last year's, favoured the eastern side and I was able to watch it around the works bay area for a bit before it swam away more distantly with the aythya flock.

The other birds on site are much the same as they have been for the past few weeks.  A pair of Shelduck are still present, though there are sometimes three and have been four on one occasion.  Wildfowl numbers are generally back to the pre-freeze levels - I counted the Wigeon yesterday, as there seemed to be quite a few and reached exactly 100 birds.

I haven't been able to do the gull roost recently, which is a shame, as I still need Caspian and Yellow-legged and there have been quite a few white wingers at other sites.  I did see this gull last weekend, which has a lot of Caspian features, but also a few features that didn't seem quite right, such as an overly streaky head and well marked greater coverts, so I still await a more classic looking bird.

I have also decided to include last week's Barnacle Geese in my list.  Although you can never be sure where they originated and the flock size was similar to the Moor Green birds, the Moor Green birds were seen again last weekend and there were 22 birds present.  I think it would be odd for only 21 of the Moor Green birds to visit here and then to reacquire a 22nd bird back at Moor Green, so think it is more likely they came from elsewhere.  Coupled with this, there have been over 100 birds seen at Port Meadow recently, a Thames flood meadow site further up the river.  So unless someone can categorically prove that this flock came from Moor Green, I am giving them the benefit of the doubt.