Tuesday, 3 January 2017

Where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts

I was always a little unenthusiastic about driving to Stow-on-the-Wold to see the adult blue rock thrush which was discovered over Christmas, and after an aborted attempt last week following negative news received when we were part way there, I thought it unlikely that I would feel the need to try again. It's a great bird, an adult male, but there's some doubt about its origins, and it's a long way to go for a likely escape.

However when a female pine bunting was discovered two days ago in a field at Venus Pools Nature Reserve in Shropshire, theoretically on the way back from Gloucestershire, it seemed a good opportunity to see both birds on the same day. Truth to tell, I wasn't even particularly enthused about seeing the pine bunting because the word was that it was distant and very elusive. Still, it only added about 40 miles onto the return journey to Gloucestershire, and so this morning we set off at 6:00am hoping to add the two together and come up with a decent day where the whole was greater than the sum of its parts.

Everything relied on the blue rock thrush showing quickly and well, and it didn't let us down. An hour after arriving at Stow-on-the-Wold we had seen the bird well and were back in the car and heading north. Although it was a lovely and obliging bird, whatever its origins, I hate birding around housing estates and I was glad to be on my way. As for the bird, I've seen blue rock thrush in Europe on several occasions and they have all been far less approachable than this bird. However, that's on the breeding grounds, not on the wintering grounds so who knows? The bird seemed to be in good health, though it often appeared to be trying to regurgitate something. Apart from the tameness and the location, I couldn't see too much wrong with it. Whatever the outcome, I'm glad I went and glad I saw it.

However the pine bunting was not so obliging....

We arrived at Venus Pools NR at 12:30pm to find that the bird had only been seen once and briefly this morning, and straight away it was obvious that it was going to be a challenge. I'd done a lot of research into the id of female pine bunting before we left home, but even so it was clearly going to be very difficult. Basically what we were looking for was pale female yellowhammer, and there were a lot of those in the hedge, with reed bunting and corn bunting also thrown into the mix for good luck. When the birds were feeding on the ground in the kale field they were invisible and we had to wait for them to be disturbed and fly up into the hedge. Even then we could only identify the birds on the outside of the hedge, anything which went into the hedge was lost to view. And all of this was happening about 100m distant, and none of the birds stayed still for any length of time. I gave up hope almost before we had started.

However, at 14:10 somebody next to me got onto a very pale looking bird in the hedge, and fortunately I managed to pick it up straight away.  It was a very frosty, grey looking bird, with white, streaked underparts, a grey nape and a chestnut rump, and the head markings looked good. We watched it for about 30 seconds and then it was gone. Hardly the most inspiring bird, but then I never expected it to be and I was quite happy that we had seen the pine bunting.

So two UK ticks in the same day, not bad. Obviously if the BBRC reject the blue rock thrush as an escape then I'll need to revise my list, but for now that's four new UK birds since I returned from Cyprus on 17th December (16 days ago!). Who says this is a quiet time of year?

UK life: 421 (Blue rock thrush, pine bunting)

Catching up....
Over the Christmas period we managed to see quite a few decent things, here are a few of the highlights.

Blue phase lesser snow goose at Marshside, Southport. I've seen very few blue phase birds, which are almost always lesser snow geese. The overwhelming majority of snow geese I have seen have been white phase greaters, in which the blue phase is very rare. At one time greaters were considered the most likely form to be genuine wild vagrants, but that was a few years ago and the situation may have changed.

It took me 30 years to see an otter at Leighton Moss, but in recent years I've had a smattering of sightings, and on 30/12/2016 we saw this animal fishing for long periods in front of the public causeway. One of the best views of otter I have ever had.

There were up to five cattle egrets at both Marshside and Burton Mere Wetlands in the autumn of 2016, but recently reports have dried up and the birds seem to have dispersed. However three birds have recently been found in this horse paddock in Birkdale.

I came across these fieldfares whilst waiting for waxwings in Warrington on 02/01/2017.

On Christmas Eve we headed down to Blagdon Lake in Somerset to see a Blyth's pipit, my second in the UK, and amazingly my first was also on Christmas Eve, 2014. Also at Blagdon Lake there were 10 great white egrets, three Bewick's swans and lots of ducks. Later we went to Chew Valley Reservoir and found a drake ring-necked duck in amongst hundreds of tufted duck and pochard.

I ended 2016 with 260 for the year, which included seven new UK birds (hooded merganser, great knot, booted warbler, western swamphen, Siberian accentor, dusky thrush and black-throated thrush). My UK life list at the end of 2016 was 419.

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