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May 16th Black-necked Grebe Farmoor Res...9th RED-RUMPED SWALLOW Grimsbury Res... 1st GREY-HEADED WAGTAIL Port Meadow...April 14th BONAPARTE'S GULL Blenheim Park still, 13th LITTLE BUNTING, Farmoor...8th Arctic Skua Farmoor Res...7th WHITE STORK Otmoor...

Saturday, 4 November 2017

October Highlights

Hen Harrier and Red KIte Otmoor RSPB courtesy of Jon Mercer

Headline Birds

Nationally, we were spoilt in October 2016 by a truly spectacular crop of rare migrants driven by predominately easterly winds. In contrast the autumn of 2017 has been dominated by westerly winds yielding comparatively scarce pickings. Perhaps the most notable October birding event not only locally but also nationally, was an irruption of Hawfinches.  For a bird with normally limited annual sightings in Oxfordshire 152 reports on our blog in October can be rated as truly exceptional! In terms of individual headline birds the short staying Great Skua on Farmoor on the 19th was arguably the star of the month. Other highlights included 5 Common Scoters on Farmoor with at least one staying until the end of the month. There were a small number of reports of Yellow-browed Warblers, sadly none of which were twitchable. After an absence of some 6 months, Great White Egret were again reported from Rushey on the 28th, Dix Pit on the 28th and Pinkhill on the 29th.

October report

On the raptor front an Osprey was at Standlake pits 6 and 7 on the 1st and 3rd. Returning Merlin were in evidence with reports from Otmoor on the 5th and 24th and the Devils Punchbowl on the 25th.

Merlin (male) Otmoor RSPB courtesy of Andy Last

Up to 3 Marsh Harriers continued to give good views at Otmoor right thought the month. Peregrine sightings were also strong with records at Chinnor Hill on the 3rd, Kingston Bagpuize on the 15th and 28th, Aston on the 16th, Chipping Norton on the 19th, Over Norton on the 22nd, pit 60 on the 22nd, Rushy on the 22nd and Otmoor on the 25th. The second year male Hen Harrier stayed faithful to Otmoor throughout the month being joined by a ringtailed bird periodically.

Peregrine Falcon Otmoor RSPB courtesy of Derek Latham.

Returning migrants featured strongly with the first Redwing being reported from Grimsbury Reservoir and Otmoor on the 7th and 60 reported from Lollingdon Hill on the 9th increasing to 120 on the 16th. Redpoll were reported from a number of sites during the month including 7 at Radley on the 8th, 4 at Otmoor on the 14th and at least 12 on Farmoor on the 25th. Brambling were reported from Otmoor on the 12th, Moulsford on the 21st and Larkhill on the 22nd and 26th.

Great Skua Farmoor Reservoir courtesy of Eddie McLaughlin.

A Great Skua was found at Farmoor Reservoir on the 5th but as is typical with Skua species, it didn't linger.

Gull action centred on Caspian Gulls with reports from Baulking on the 6th and 25th, 2 at Didcot landfill on the 9th and one at Rushey on the 29th. Three Common Gulls were also reported from Farmoor on the 18th. Yellow legged gulls were still around with reports of 4 from pit 60 on the 24th, 1 at Baulking on the 9th and 10 on the 25th and +8 at Rushey on the 29th.

Common Scoter Farmoor Reservoir courtesy of Richard Tyler

In terms of ducks, the undoubted highlight was the 5 Common Scoters first reported at Farmoor on the 18th with at least one still present at the end of the month. For a sea duck that tends to give comparatively distant views in between waves, the Farmoor birds certainly “showed well”. Returning Goldeneye were on Farmoor on the 30th (x2), and both Rushey and pit 60 the on the 31st.

Brent Goose Otmoor RSPB courtesy of Paul Greenaway.

Reports of Brent and the cat c Barnacle geese showed that winter is only just around the corner. Farmoor hosted 10 Barnacle geese on the 16th, 101 on the 21st and 6 Brent geese on the 18th. Otmoor hosted a single Brent on the 18th. On a similar wintery theme, 3 Goosander were on Otmoor on the 3rd with a further 1 on the 27th.

Whooper Swan (adult) one of two that arrived on Otmoor this month photo courtesy of Nick Truby.

Whooper Swans Farmoor Reservoir courtesy of Tezzer.

Five Whooper swan were briefly on Farmoor on the 5th with singles reported from Otmoor on the 7th and 28th and Bicester Wetlands on the 11th a juvenile bird which was keeping company with a Mute Swan was also seen on Otmoor on the morning of 29th.

Ruff  Farmoor Reservoir courtesy of Jeremy Dexter. 

As far as waders were concerned, 3 Ruff were reported from Farmoor on the 2nd, Green Sandpipers were at Rushey on the 3rd, Otmoor on the 7th and the 20th, pit 60 on the 24th and 31st and Bicester Wetlands on the 17th and 24th. Juvenile Little Ringed Plovers were on pit 60 on the 24th and on Farmoor on the 22nd. A Ringed Plover was on Farmoor on the 12th with Grey Plovers seen on the Otmoor reserve on the 10th and over Farmoor on the 13th.

Ring Ouzels were seen on the Downs with single birds seen near Lands End on the 7th, at Juniper Valley on the 25th

Late Whinchat Otmoor RSPB courtesy of Ewan. Whinchat have been known to overwinter in Oxfordshire.

A Firecrest was a welcome record from Wantage on the 29th.

Rare Warbler interest was limited to fleeting appearances of Yellow-browed Warblers at Lark Hill on the 15th, Cholsey on the 20th and a probably near Linacre college on the 25th

Rock Pipit courtesy of  Andy Last

Rock Pipits put in their regular autumn appearance at Farmoor with +4 present on the 4th and other sightings throughout the month.

Jim Hutchins.

Finding Migrating Hawfinches - Check the Redwing Flocks!

I moved from Yorkshire to Standlake on 31st March this year. So it feels a bit presumptuous to be offering 'advice' on Oxonbirding. But, following email exchanges about my October Hawfinch sightings in Standlake, Badger asked me to write this article. He said it would be interesting to Oxon birders. So, if it isn't, blame Badger!  What follows is based on my experience of 'vismigging' in the Pennine Hills and at Spurn on the Yorkshire coast. You'll be aware 'vismigging' means standing in one spot for hours and scanning the skies/listening for diurnal migrants, especially in autumn. This has proved the best way for me to see hawfinches away from known breeding and wintering sites. This article is about  why and how this works for me. 

Hawfinches migrate into/through the UK during September to early November, peaking mid-October. This year has seen an exceptional irruption of the species into/through the UK.  Many birders have seen them in places where they were never or rarely recorded before, including in Oxon. Vismig sites have had day counts ranging from one to 100+, including single species flocks of 40-50.  This is not normal. In most years, unless birders visit known wintering and breeding sites, they don't see hawfinches.  All the more reason to try maximise our chances of seeing the few that might move through Oxon then. And, in my experience, that means carefully checking redwing flocks, especially during 'redwing movements'.  The reason?  Redwings and hawfinches are fellow travellers.  Lone migrant hawfinches are seen sometimes, as are migrating hawfinch flocks, but not often.  Usually, it's a question of spotting one or two hawfinches moving with a redwing flock. Even these sightings are not annual. One reason is fluctuations in the number of migrant hawfinches. But another is that, even if a flock of redwings contains them, hawfinches are hard to hear and hard to see, for reasons some might find surprising as explained next.

Hawfinch (bottom left) migrating with Thrushes in Yorkshire courtesy of Nick Mallinson. 

October Hawfinch occurrence in Oxfordshire.

Table courtesy of Jim Hutchins.

Flying, thrushes call "sreeee" but so do hawfinches hawfinches do go "tick". But they also call "sreeee" or variants of this, and often so when migrating. Sometimes the call has a 'small pipit'/'yellow wag' quality to me. Whatever, these calls are hard to pick out from similar thrush flight calls, especially from rapidly disappearing over-fliers.  I first realised this years ago on an autumn trip to Hungary when I initially mistook 100s of vocal, migrating hawfinches as redwings.  Back in the UK, I witnessed a mass arrival of winter thrushes at Spurn. I suddenly realised that the few autumn hawfinches I'd seen there were on big 'redwing days'. Spurn has had White's and Rock Thrushes but never a rare Turdus. The reason is that Turdus flocks disappear inland soon after arrival.  We've known for years from radar studies that even more thrushes bypass Spurn overnight, being picked up by inland vismiggers from dawn (peaks of 3-5k in a morning is not unusual at good sites: 10k exceptional). I started to suspect that hawfinches get caught up in the thrush flocks, but were missed because they were  sreeeing' not' ticking'. As an aside, migrant hawfinch "ticks" can sound like migrant song thrushes to me. Eventually, I spoke to a French birder who I knew organised autumn migration watches through the Pyrenees. "Do you get many hawfinches?" I asked. "Oh yes" he replied.  "They come through with the redwings". He also confirmed my experience of the 'sreeee' flight call. Bingo! I'll draw a veil over what followed. Suffice it to say that, having alerted my vismig mates to all this, several of them had their first Pennine vismig hawfinches that very year. I didn't. It took me years to catch them up!

Hawfinch Forrest of Dean courtesy of Ewan

Migrating hawfinches look similar to, and fly like, redwings an overstatement of course but, to me, the two are similar enough that, when the finch is within the redwing flock, it is hard to pick out without plumage clues. Firstly, counting becomes a distraction. Also, flocks often consist of silhouettes until they draw near. Then they're suddenly on you and gone before you take in plumage. The two species are similar enough in body length and wing length to confuse. Lastly, their flight is surprisingly similar too (to my old eyes anyway): a series of flurried wing flaps, fairly alike in cadence, then wings closed into the body.  Plus, given hawfinches keep up with the redwings, their velocity must be the same. Indeed a friend suggests individual/groups of hawfinches join redwing flocks for safety rather than merge with other finches they might outpace.  An intriguing thought.  To emphasise, I often misidentify an individual redwing in a flock as a hawfinch initially. But when looking for head-on hawfinches among redwings, I look for a 'broad fat ball' body and definite but not necessarily deep undulations. Obviously, side-on, the hawfinch's big-headed, front-heavy, short-tailed silhouette is a give- away. Some friends say the flight shape reminds them of migrating starlings or a blunt-billed nuthatch (not me)

Hawfinch and redwing autumn migrations coincide hawfinch movements are rather a mystery. But their peak arrival dates at Spurn is mid-October, just about coinciding with peak dates for redwing immigration

Use photography I'm a Luddite but photographing flying redwing flocks is a novel, if potentially frustrating, way of finding migrant hawfinches. After photographing, check the images. At two Pennine sites, birders have found hawfinches 'hidden' in photographed redwing flocks, the frustration being they hadn't seen that bird in life. However, this did show the species was 'going over', motivating them to try harder to see these in life, which they did.

Hawfinch Kingston Bagpuize courtesy of Jed Cleeter

Make sound recordings similarly, friends have kept a recorder going through vismig sessions (good recorders are relatively cheap now). In life, calls can be missed owing to other noises. But, as with photos, on checking recordings, friends have found hawfinch calls they missed in life. They've used free software to create sonograms that proved the ID.

Exceptions to the rule and keep trying this year, vismig friends have had lone hawfinches on vismi, calling 'sree'/'seeeoo'. So exceptions happen.  If you've missed the peak irruption all is not lost. In the winter of 1987 a friend found six waxwings feeding on hawthorn berries. They were in company with many redwings. I went to see the waxwings. On arrival I was chuffed to see nine distant waxwings. Until Igot my bins on them. The extra three fawn-coloured birds were hawfinches. So I'll be checking redwing flocks autumn and winter this year.

Mick Cunningham

Hawfinch Forrest of Dean courtesy of Ewan.

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