Wednesday, 10 January 2018

Local Haw's, 6th & 7th January 2018

Hawfinches are normally tricky birds to see and especially so in Oxfordshire. They used to be seen in small numbers in the grounds of Blenheim Palace but in recent years, apart from occasional sightings, seem to have disappeared from the area. As far as I know there are no longer any reliable sites in the county although they do get sporadically reported from various areas.
   Over the last few months though the UK has been hit by a major invasion of these finches, known as an "irruption" and many have been noted in the country including some in Oxfordshire. We saw our first of these invaders in Cornwall back in October but views at the time were distant and difficult. Over the last few weeks more local reports had been coming in of birds seen at various places and we had caught up with some in a couple of local sites. They appear to have a penchant for churchyards since those places always contain a yew tree or two and hawfinches love yew berries! On Friday 5th January a fine local birder (Mick C) found a small flock of hawfinches feeding in Northmoor Churchyard in South-West Oxon so on Saturday morning Mrs Caley and I went down to have a look.

   We arrived, parked right outside the church gates and immediately clocked a hawfinch perched in a tree behind the church. Too easy! I hadn't even taken the camera out of the boot but fortunately the bird remained and I rattled off a few record shots just in case that proved to be the only sighting. I needn't have worried!

   Walking into the churchyard and towards the tree that the hawfinch was in we met another birder already there and shared the news of the hawfinch that was in the tree behind him but that he hadn't seen. He told us that there were more hawfinches present and that they were feeding in one of the yew trees but were difficult to see once they were in them. Yew trees are very dense trees and birds can easily disappear in them. I looked hard into the tree but couldn't see any birds but did notice several hawfinches flying overhead and back towards the original tree. Sure enough that tree now held at least 4 hawfinches but they didn't rest there long, they never do!

   We gained a better vantage point behind the church and soon the hawfinches returned with some of them flying into a yew tree right next to our spot. We had to back off slightly in order to see the top of the tree but our luck was in as we spotted a hawfinch feeding in the uppermost branches and even more fortunately, out in the open! This bird seemed unperturbed by our presence and fed heartily on the berries. We were getting brilliant views of a normally hard to see bird and my camera went into overdrive! It was joined by another two but they were more elusive choosing to feed in towards the heart of the tree. After a good five minutes or so the hawfinches all flew back to the original bare tree, preened for a moment and then exited to the south and into a neighbouring garden.

   While we waited, Steve joined us and we related our gripping tale of just how well they had showed in the yew! A hawfinch once again returned to the bare tree and Steve was able to join in the bonanza. No sustained views this time though and the bird flew out after just a few seconds. Amazingly there was now a whole flock of hawfinches flying over. They landed in spindly trees (elders?) next to a footpath that ran eastwards away from the church and between some gardens. I counted  7 hawfinches in one tree and another 2 in another making 9 altogether (gee my maths is good!). I had a feeling that with the birds flying around that there may have been more so 9 was a minimum number present. I tried to approach them but a (cursed) dog walker put them to flight before I could get there. They appeared to fly further away this time so I returned to the churchyard.

   The hawfinches were soon back though, again flying overhead but this time the destination was a very tall tree at the front of the churchyard. Here they posed beautifully and the sun had burst through the layer of cloud so they were well illuminated allowing all their colours to be admired. The breeze was at our backs too so they faced us too. We were definitely charmed today! 

   We realised that the hawfinches were now going to a yew tree next to the tall tree and once again we manoeuvred into position for a better view. Over the next half an hour several birds fed in that yew tree and a couple of them showed themselves extremely well. I think we got our best ever views of hawfinches and the only slight disappointment was my images weren't quite as sharp as I had hoped for. But to be fair, in order to see the birds at the top of the trees, you had to be a good 30 yards away. I'm not really complaining though since the experience will stay with me forever.

   Several other eminent county birders arrived but unfortunately the hawfinches became less cooperative and their appearances became less frequent with mainly fly overs the norm. We left the others to it and nipped into Farmoor where a water pipit had been seen earlier. We couldn't locate it but did have the consolation of finding the female greater scaup (a county tick for me, but I don't keep lists!) and burying a hoodoo after the lesser/greater scaup hybrid duck (which was also still present). Shame that it was fast asleep!

   Farmoor was a bit bleak and very cold now the sun had disappeared so we didn't linger long. Not much was around other than the feral snow goose flock which was loitering way over the far side of FII but interestingly the first time I had ever seen them at Farmoor! Some little grebes and squabbling coots provided entertainment on the walk back but despite searching for the water pipit again we could only find grey and pied wagtails.

   On Sunday Mrs Caley had come down with a heavy cold but fancied some fresh air so we chose to have a quick look around Blenheim Park. We parked in Bladon and entered the park next to the pub. This entrance gives a quick route to the walled gardens (which you can only access by paying) where hawfinches used to be found. A few hawfinches (3) had been seen in the park a few days before, close to Bladon bridge, so I was soon scanning the tree tops. About halfway to the wall I noticed a bird perched right at the top of the tallest tree at the southern end of the gardens. Sure enough it was a hawfinch! And another sat lower down in an adjacent tree. We were doing well! Soon there were 3 perched together in the same tree. I took a quick record shot and posted the sighting on to the magnificent 

   The parkland was alive with corvids (jackdaws, rooks and crows) and gulls (black-headed and herring) and a fair number of red kites cruised around in the biting northerly wind. We got ourselves up to the wall with a clear view of the trees and the palace in the distance and set up the scope ready. A few stock doves were feeding on the grass and a great spotted woodpecker went hurtling past but we couldn't see any more hawfinches. Under the trees are a few yews so I suspected that, in keeping with other sites, that the hawfinches were feeding in those but careful scrutinising of the parts that I could see yielded no birds except for a couple of blackbirds and a goldcrest. After 10 minutes or so some birds arrived back in the tree tops and this time we had 6 hawfinches perched in them. I managed a record shot of all 6 before a passing sparrowhawk spooked them all and they disappeared.

   On the walk back a large flock of redwing were feeding under some birch trees. A few fieldfares joined them.

   A terrific weekend of hawfinch spotting! My best views ever of this charismatic and elusive finch in Oxfordshire.

Sunday, 7 January 2018

Parrot Crossbills, Wishmoor Bottom, Camberley January 1st 2018

The last few weeks of 2017 had seen a small influx of parrot crossbills into the UK with flocks being seen in Derbyshire, Norfolk and Suffolk. Closer to home 16 had been found at Wishmoor Bottom on the Berkshire/Surrey border and had been showing reasonably well.
   We headed down there on the 28th December to see them, or so we thought. We arrived at the designated parking spot around 08:30 and working on directions gained from the internet made our way to the birds supposed feeding area. We spotted some other birders, made our way over to them and were greeted with the dreaded "they were here but have flown off away over the heath"! No worries though since they regularly return to their favoured Scots Pine trees to feed. Except they didn't! Not on that day while we there anyway. Mrs Caley and I stood by the trees for over 5 hours and apart from 3 parrot crossbills flying past we saw none. Still flypasts do count as sightings and a tick. We left at 14:30 and drove the hour or so home only to be rewarded with the news that the parrot crossbill flock "had returned at 15:50". Grrrr....!!!!
   We did have good views of some dartford warblers, which have always been one of my favourite birds, although they were camera shy and it was hard work to get any images.

"hide & seek" dartford warbler

There you are!

   I checked the sightings history and there didn't seem to be any regularity to the parrot crossbills appearances since they had been reported at all times of the day and on some days not at all. But we resolved to return the next day in the afternoon in the hope that they would fly in and roost in the trees at the very least. The 29th though dawned with stormy skies so we held off travelling anywhere until the wet weather had passed. On the way through to Camberley, I detoured to Swyncombe Church near Nettlebed, where some hawfinches had been spotted. Sure enough we found a single hawfinch perched in a bare tree in the churchyard almost immediately, took a quick snap and leapt back into the car since it had started chucking it down again.


   It continued raining heavily all the way to Camberley and with no let up we dived into a marvellous fish & chip restaurant next to the A30 thinking we'd stuff our faces and see what the weather did whilst we there. To our gratitude the rain abated and the sun came out so with very full bellies we made our way back to the heath. Owing to the rain the ground was now very wet indeed and many of the tracks had puddles far too deep for us to navigate, lacking as we were in suitable footwear (must get some of those posh insulated wellies). So we circuitously walked our way to the pine trees. No other birders were around so we were going to have to find the birds ourselves. It was about 14:00 so we'd have a couple of hours for the crossbills to show. They didn't! Not a peep, not even a flypast this time. Double grrrr......! We had, however, seen some more dartford warblers but even that compensation was wearing thin!

   I was at football on the Saturday and New Years Eve was extremely wet so no birding on those two days. I stayed sober that night so that we could get out early on New Years Day and although we hadn't agreed where we would go, I had already decided. Just wasn't sure if Mrs Caley would go for it. But she knows full well by now that I don't like giving up so when I suggested that it was worth another try she (reluctantly?) shrugged her shoulders and said "why not".

   We left home at 06:30 and I drove the now familiar route to Camberley. It was only just getting light when we parked up but we knew the way by now and 15 minutes later arrived at the "usual" spot. A surprising number of birders were already there (year listers!) and nothing had been seen but it was only just getting light. At 08:20 a chorus of "kup, kup, kup" calls erupted from the dingy sky above. I couldn't see anything but I knew that they were the parrot crossbills (I had done my research into crossbill calls) and that they'd landed in the tree right next to where I stood and beneath which Mrs Caley sat! I quickly located a female parrot crossbill right at the top of the tree and blasted off a couple of shots in the gloom. Calling Mrs Caley over to make sure that she saw it we shared a sigh of relief. Phew! The bird stayed at the top of the tree, looking around,  for just a couple of minutes before taking to the air and departing. It was joined by 5 other birds that I hadn't noticed but the various "kup" calls signified that they were all parrot crossbills. They flew away over the heath and were lost to sight.
Parrot Crossbill (female)

   We chatted to a local birder (well met Jerry) and he told us that the crossbills had become far less reliable in recent days (tell me about it) and were ranging over a far greater area and often disappearing for long periods. We decided to wait another couple of hours before accepting that we had at least seen some and me accepting that my ropey shot in the dark would have to suffice! After an hour just 2 parrot crossbills flew northwards and out of sight, yet another tantalising glimpse, and then just after 10:00 the whole flock of 16 appeared flying towards us but turned tail en masse and vanished again! This was becoming very frustrating! At 11:00 we gave up.

   We did have all day though so we decided to walk the long way back to the car, heading first north then east and finally south (and into Surrey), generally in the direction of where we'd seen the crossbills fly to. For half a mile or so we saw very little despite checking every suitable looking pine tree on the way (and there are a lot!). Then suddenly and taking me totally by surprise (well almost) some finches flew right past my head and landed in a small tree close to the path. Crossbills! Yay!!! I lifted the bins had a quick look and then fired off a few shots. Then looked through the bins again and the two most prominent birds in the tree revealed themselves as common crossbills (a male and a female) and not parrots. Just our bloody luck! 

Common Crossbill (male & female)

Common Crossbill (male)

Common Crossbill (female)

Common Crossbill (male)

Common Crossbill (female)

Common Crossbill ( male)

   I noticed that 3 (of the 5 birds) had dropped to the ground beneath the tree and were feeding on a bare patch of ground there. I took aim with the camera again and this time I had parrot crossbills in the viewfinder. Thank goodness. There were 2 males and a female scurrying around below the tree and they were soon joined by the 2 common crossbills. We had found some of the birds ourselves! To say we were delighted would be an under statement. The males are a red colour with browner wings and a brownish stripe through the eye while the females are greenish with a yellowish rump and more olive coloured wings. The two species are very similar looking except for the bills and head shape. Whereas the common crossbill has a fairly slender bill, the parrot crossbills is bigger with a distinctly up curved lower mandible. However the angle of the view can distort the appearance of the bill so care has to be taken before assigning species. Parrot crossbills also have a far bigger head and are "bull" necked so look much more robust. There is also the difference in vocalisation with the parrots having that deeper "kup, kup, kup" call as opposed to the commons higher pitched "jip, jip, jip" call. You need to hear both side by side, as we did, and you'd realise the difference.

Parrot Crossbills (males)

   All of the crossbills flew back into the tree and this time I was able to get some pics of one of the male parrot crossbills. 

Parrot Crossbill (male)

   The 3 parrot crossbills then flew to a nearby puddle and drank until flushed into a nearby pine tree by a dog walker and his dog (dogs and their handlers are becoming a birders nightmare) and the common crossbills joined them. 
Parrot Crossbill (female & male)

Parrot Crossbill (male)

   We studied the tree and were amazed to find more than just the 5 birds in it. There were at least 10 crossbills fluttering around the branches. After a short time 5 birds flew out of the pine and departed strongly south. By the calls we identified all of the departing birds as common crossbills meaning that the pine tree now held at least 5 crossbills of which 3 were definitely parrots. In fact a few minutes later 6 birds flew out and, thankfully relocated to another tree 50 yards away, where they showed very well as they fed on the pine cones. These birds, 3 males and 3 females were all parrot crossbills! We now had sustained views of these birds and I set about trying to get some decent images. I say try because it was now raining and the light was dreadful but I attempted to make the most of it by ramping up the ISO setting in order to get a faster shutter speed. The results were far from brilliant but at least we have some acceptable frames of these fine birds. For some reason the camera finds it easier to focus on the green female birds rather than the red males. I've no idea why! We stayed with the birds for 45 minutes during which time they fed voraciously on the pine cones. They would snip a cone off by the stem and then manoeuvre it into a position whereby they could extract the seeds. They are called parrot crossbills because of the bills but as I watched them hang upside down on the branches and stretch right out to the branch tips to get to the furthest cones it would be easy to consider that they had been named because of their acrobatics.

Parrot Crossbill (female)

Parrot Crossbill (male)
Parrot Crossbill (male & female)

  A few other birders had cottoned on to the fact that we were looking at something so we no longer had the birds to ourselves and Jerry rejoined us and was very grateful that we'd found them. At one point they moved tree again in order to survey another puddle which they duly visited for a drink. Obviously devouring pine seeds is thirsty work! But, whereas they are happy in the trees despite close passers by, they are easily disturbed when on the ground and once again they were flushed by a dog walker and his charge. This time they flew high away and over some distant trees and that was that.

Parrot Crossbill (female)

Parrot Crossbill (male)

   So it had taken tree trips to get proper views of these fabulous continental invaders but alls well that ends well! So pleased to have finally got good views and I hope that some make it into Oxfordshire at some point in the near future.