Wednesday, 31 December 2014

2014: a year of Cuddesdon wildlife in pictures

In the beginning, there were floods:

And floods means birds:
 Gadwall are very rare local birds: 
A mad march Hare, hiding in the dew:
The first of three new species for the area this year, a 1st winter male Merlin on 1st March:

New species number two, a drake Mandarin - not even on the "completely unexpected" list: 
 Spring brought the first migrants, including this nice male Yellow Wagtail:
The best new species of 2014: new species number three, a reeling Grasshopper Warbler on a fabulous morning of spring migration that had already included a fly-through male Whinchat: 

A male Cuckoo was resident in late Spring:

The Hobby nest, complete with three young. The lone light of conservation for the year:

One of the young Hobbys in August, before departing for Africa for the winter: 

Late summer saw a number of Green Woodpecker fledglings: 

An autumn Whinchat... 
 ... with autumn Wheatears (that was about it for autumn migration):
And autumn became winter:

 Let's hope this is the only year when it takes 363 days to record a Lapwing
And the year finished in style, with a record total of 93 species and some fabulous sunrises:

Bird of The Year 2014? A tie, between the Merlin on 1st March and the Grasshopper Warbler on 21st April. Both represent quality local birds, both were new to the Cuddesdon area: 

2014 was a record year, in terms of the total number of species recorded; it contained the largest number of new species for many years (3 in total) and had one of the best days of spring migration that I have seen here. The best year yet.

Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Day 364: a new record

Another dawn, another -4° frozen morning, another attempt at adding another bird species to the Cuddesdon year list. And like yesterday I have about 40 minutes of usable light before work. Having failed with Green Sandpiper yesterday, its back into the woods for Woodcock. Hopefully.  

To find Woodcock I look for bracken. I have flushed Woodcock from an area of the wood with a reasonable bracken understory in previous years, but I tried there on Sunday without luck. I am determined to try again today. The woods are filled with birds: Redwings seep-ing from every treetop, Lesser Redpolls calling as they fly over, a drumming Great Spotted Woodpecker, Blackbirds, Song Thrushes and Woodpigeons everywhere. Small flocks of Golden Plover move south, high above the canopy, Red Kites whistle and Buzzards leave their perches to defrost. Ten minutes of tramping through the bracken and I have covered the area without a glimpse of a Woodcock. Where are they? 

I look down at the gully next to the wood, white with frozen bracken. I have no other choice, so begin picking my way down the icy slope, bracken cracking under every step. Then it happened. A blur of rounded, brown wings and a glimpse, a momentary impression, of a medium sized bird that vanished into the adjoining trees almost as soon as I saw it. Surely that was a Woodcock? I then found myself pondering the indeterminate identification puzzle: what else could it have been? The truth is, it could not have been anything else, but I have long been aware of the dangers of claiming an identification on the grounds of "what else could it have been?". In my mind there is a world of difference, and a weight of evidence, between "what else could it have been?" and "it was a Woodcock". One hangs on hope and conjecture, an opportunity missed. The other is a definitive identification. I know that if I am still in the realm of "what else could it be?", then I have not seen enough to positively know the identification. 

So I continue down the slope. There is another explosion of wings, a bird rises rapidly towards the canopy, this time I get onto with my binoculars: it has a pot belly, a long downward pointing bill and is beautifully cryptically brown: it is a Woodcock. It is the 93rd species of bird I have seen in Cuddesdon this year and it is a personal record. A small amount of silent air-punching follows. A Woodcock. And so was the first bird. 

I emerge from the woodland just as the sun breaks the horizon and, as if in celebration, I am confronted by one of the most glorious sunrises of the year:

Sometimes, when you get it just right, you can see that the sun is a star, exposed by the slow turning of our globe. Crazily counterintuitive, but equally beautiful. The morning light, despite being frozen, was so soft, it was almost possible to make the chemical agricultural deserts of Cuddesdon appear crafted and textual:

Here are some rather better views of Woodcock that I have had: from Sweden (below) and Poland (bottom):

93 species for the year. It is official: 2014 is the best year yet.

Monday, 29 December 2014

Day 363

Now things are getting serious. Firstly, in the last 24 hours I have been contacted by two people informing me of bird sightings in the Cuddesdon area. Heartfelt thanks go out to Steve Lockey, who recognised my need for Lapwings by letting me know there were some in fields to the south-east of the village. Then last night Andrew Callender shattered my peace with news of a Green Sandpiper by the river north of Cuddesdon Mill on December 22nd. Six days is a long time for a Green Sandpiper to hang around, especially over the Christmas period when the number of people going out for a festive walk along the river increases significantly. You'd have to be mad to go out before dawn on a bitterly cold morning on the off-chance it had hung around...

8:00am this morning. It is -4°, the coldest morning of the year, with an exceptionally hard frost. I calculate I have about 20 minutes of light after sunrise, then I need to leave for work. I'm by the River Thame 20 minutes before sunrise, looking for a bird last reported a week ago. I start walking north, through the frozen fields:

I can easily imagine a Green Sandpiper here, calling as it flushes, flashing a white rump between dark wings and tail, as it zig-zags away. There were waders this morning, 2 Snipe rose from the river edges. There were duck too, 12 Mallard, 2 Wigeon and 3 Teal. But no Green Sandpiper. This Fox padded through the frozen grass, apparently oblivious to my presence, though it always kept at least one ear on me. It may have tried to keep both on me, but there appears to be some damage to it's left ear:

Then the sun rose and spread some colour over the landscape. Time to go to work. 

92 species for the year. 2 days to go. 

Sunday, 28 December 2014

The best year yet?

Sometimes you just need a little luck. Mine occurred at about 4:30pm yesterday evening as we approached the village via Cuddesdon Mill. Gratifyingly, I had just said to my wife that conditions were perfect for a Barn Owl: mid-winter, sub-zero, little wind, the sun down but the light not yet gone, when a ghostly pale form drifted over the hedgerows, crossed the road in front of our car and floated off towards the river. This is only my fifth record of Barn Owl around Cuddesdon, there are about one per year and all the records are between early December and early February. I have also found two dead birds. This species also marked the 91st species for 2014 and the realisation that the all time record of 92 species recorded in 2011 was within reach. 
       Feeling suddenly determined I was up before sunrise to scour the woods for Woodock, the species I was most likely to add to the 2014 year list. Sub-zero sunrise:

The Great Haseley windmill in the early morning mist:

The woods were cold... 

..but frustratingly without Woodcock. I headed out to the east of the village and after 362 days without a seeing a single Lapwing, this flock of 8 were good enough to fly north:

Species number 92 for the year: the record is equaled! Then the Lapwing floodgates opened. 130 flew north over the village...
...followed by a close flock of 15... 
.. followed by several hundred more. From none in 362 days to nearly 300 in 90 minutes.

The cold weather had also brought in more winter thrushes, at least 200 Fieldfares fed to the south of the village... 

..which was worringly close to the inhabitants of this house. Honestly, exactly how many cats are too many? Do any pet owners ever consider the consequences of their actions for the local wildlife? 

Here are the 14 species of bird that I have seen in Cuddesdon, but not recorded this year, followed by the total number of records of that species:

Shoveler 1
Woodcock 1
Green Sandpiper 1 
Yellow-legged Gull 1
Common Gull 4
Turtle Dove 2
Little Owl (annual until this year, when the breeding tree was felled)
Sand Martin 1 
Stonechat 1 
Ring Ouzel 1
Garden Warbler (annual, but none this year!)
Nuthatch (annual since 2010, but about 1 record per year, usually in spring) 
Tree Sparrow 1
Brambling 1 

There are no floods, so no chance of Shoveler or Green Sandpiper; Turtle Dove, Sand Martin, Ring Ouzel and Garden Warbler should all be in Africa in December (though there was this Whitethroat in January). Realistically Woodcock, Nuthatch, Little Owl and Common Gull are the only species that I am likely to come across in very late December. 3 days to go, this could be tougher than I thought. Especially as I am at work during daylight hours for the next two days... 

92 species for the year. 

Sunday, 14 December 2014

Cold and blue, but 90 for the year

Pre-dawn in December. Two degrees below freezing and the light is similarly cold and blue:

I have three species in mind: Lapwing, Peregrine and Little Owl. All have been recorded every year since 2008, but I have not seen a single individual of any of these species this year. There are 18 days remaining. Little Owl is a long shot, since their breeding tree was felled early this year, the resident pair appear to have deserted the area. Peregrine is recorded in Cuddesdon a few times every winter. Lapwing can be abundant, I can't account for the absence of this species, when there are several thousand at Otmoor, a few miles away. Perhaps it is just too dry here at the moment? 
     What are the chances of coming across one of the missing three species in a rapid pre-sunrise visit this morning? Incredibly, I am still in the first field when I spot a falcon powering its way north: a Peregrine! Species number 90 for the year, over 200 long days since the last addition to the patch list: 

There was little else to report. Small numbers of winter thrushes feed in the fields, there were no Snipe in the marsh, a few gulls passed over. All the interest, and all the light, was in the heavens:

Moon, Woodpigeon, eclipse:

90 species for the year. How high can I go. 91, perhaps? My kingdom for a Lapwing.