THURSDAY 10 JANUARY
A sharp decline in temperature today, the afternoon high never increasing to above 3 degrees C - Winter has returned. It was another dry day though, with no wind.
I had planned to do more duck counting today but an early call from close friend Chris Holt, had me returning to Beaconsfield where he wanted to see FIRECREST...
HOGBACK WOOD, BEACONSFIELD (BUCKS) (SU 928 912)
Chris was keen to see FIRECREST so I took him (and another Somerset birder who tagged along) to the most productive area - the extensive cluster of Holly bushes that eventually terminate in a 'tunnel' at the west end. We did cheat though and play the tape and in no time at all, all 4 beautiful, charming tiny sprites surrounded us, piping mournfully back to the MP3 player as it ran. As a consequence, the views were very good and at very close range - and for ten minutes or more, the tiny flock was engaged in aggressive behaviour, one of the males frequently raising its red crown. Years ago, Firecrest was believed to be a summer visitor to our part of the UK but such recent sightings have proved that most likely the majority of our breeders are resident rather than migrant birds. The population goes from strength to strength too - and analysing results from Warren, Steve Rodwell and I combined, it looks as though Buckinghamshire has as many as 74 singing males - and that's before I have surveyed a lot more suitable tetrads.
Other than the Firecrests, much the same species as on my other visits this week - Common Treecreeper, 8 Goldcrests, Coal Tit, Jay, 'singing' Stock Doves and displaying Red Kites.
BEACONSFIELD SERVICES (SOUTH BUCKS)
Only 7 BOHEMIAN WAXWINGS remained - all lazing around in the trees. Hardly surprising, as the remaining berries all looked shrivelled up and unattractive.
At HICKNAHAM FARM, LITTLEWORTH COMMON (SOUTH BUCKS) (SU 942 876), the largest flock of Mallard you will ever see outside of Russia - a bare minimum 1,106 birds, and although free-flying, presumably unnaturally farmed and released.
LAKE END ROAD (JUBILEE RIVER) was equally devoid of Waxwings - just WATER RAIL and Mistle Thrush of interest.
Then, just as I was about to show Chris the Siberian Chiffchaff, I got word that the BUFF-BELLIED PIPITS had been relocated and I had to rush off and jog some 400 yards back to the car.
QUEEN MOTHER RESERVOIR (BERKSHIRE)
Despite getting there within ten minutes, I was staggered to see so many Berkshire birders already on site - Graham Jepson, Roger Stansfield and Peter Hutchins amongst them. It took about 11 minutes to run the three-quarter mile distance to the SW bank from the Yacht club car park but thankfully the quarry was still on view. Not just one but 2 BUFF-BELLIED PIPITS showing on the reservoir bank at virtually point-blank range. It was easy to pick out the original bird (initially found and identified by Mike McKee on 12 December 2012) but it was the second that really took my eye. Everything about it was different - it was far more buff on the underparts and had Scandinavian Rock Pipit-like dark-straw/orange-brown leg colour. It also had a much more obvious and flaring eye-stripe (back and behind the eye) and a very brightly (orange-pink) extensively coloured bill. The two birds were like chalk-and-cheese. Knowing that MM had found and photographed both birds, I 'phoned him immediately to talk features, and after consulting the literature, particularly Pipits & Wagtails, it just had to be 'individual variation'. I had been somewhat overly concerned that we were overlooking a japonicus, Siberian Buff-bellied Pipit and a further species in its own right (and a species I see most years in Israel). Separating the two is very difficult, particularly as features overlap, but the fact that these birds were equally as pale olive-grey on the upperparts and the underparts were basally white rather than buff, I had to agree that they must be rubescens (AMERICAN BUFF-BELLIED PIPIT).
Reviewing the photographs later in the comfort of my study, rubescens was the most likely identification of the second bird, despite the fact that it clearly had pale, rather than jet-black, legs. Mike had also managed to get both birds on call (and I hoped to do more with these later). In a nutshell, rubescens can be identified by its rather diffuse, buffish-white greater and median covert bars, paler, olive-grey upperparts, reasonably extensive white on the innermost outer tail feather (see Tim Daccus' photograph in Birding World 25: 491), basally buffish-white underparts and less striking and shorter streaking on underparts.
Scandinavian Rock (littoralis) and Water Pipit could be safely ruled out on a number of characters - contrastingly dark tertials, a complete pale eye-ring, unmarked pale lores, a fairly prominent moustachial stripe, a slenderer, more extensively-coloured and more Meadow Pipit in structure bill shape, extensive gleaming white outer-tail feathers, distinct rear-supercilium, concolorous rump colour, uniformly-coloured upperparts and generally more Meadow Pipit-like appearance.
American Buff-bellied Pipit is increasingly being identified in the UK and Ireland, these two now forwarding the audit to no less than 56 birds. However, just one has previously been identified at an inland reservoir - that at Farmoor Reservoirs (Oxfordshire) from 8-10 October 2007 (photograph in British Birds 100: 555, plate 281).. The species breeds in West Greenland, North and NW Canada and in Alaska and winters in western and southern USA, Mexico and in Central South America.
Both birds were still showing very well on the reservoir bank when I departed mid-afternoon, whilst other species noted included the long-staying juvenile LONG-TAILED DUCK (consorting with Tufted Ducks on the North Shore), a SLAVONIAN GREBE (along the west shore), a female Common Goldeneye, Grey Wagtail and 4 Meadow Pipits.
At STAINES RESERVOIRS (SURREY), I was really pleased to see a single drake RED PLANET, along with a drake GREATER SCAUP and a single BLACK-NECKED GREBE. The South Basin held 2 Mute Swans, 2 Egyptian Geese, 12 Gadwall, 26 Common Goldeneye and a GREEN SANDPIPER whilst the North supported 3 Little Grebes, a Common Shelduck, 36 Wigeon, 12 Shoveler and a further 18 Common Goldeneye; in total, 327 Tufted Ducks were counted.
THORNEY COUNTRY PARK (SOUTH BUCKS) at SU 050 790 held 6 Great Crested Grebes, 6 Cormorants, 5 Mute Swans (including a first-year), 7 Mallard, 10 Gadwall, 53 Tufted Duck, 3 Northern Pochard and 51 Coot, with Ring-necked Parakeet, SISKIN and 22 Chaffinches noted in the woodland scrub north of the river.
Neighbouring OLD SLADE GP (SOUTH BUCKS) (at SU 040 770) added 17 Gadwall, 48 Tufted Duck, 10 Northern Pochard, a single drake Wigeon and 8 Coot and a pair of Common Buzzard overhead.
The lake at BLACK PARK COUNTRY PARK (SOUTH BUCKS) (TQ 006 831) harboured 2 Atlantic Canada Geese, 52 Mallard, 25 MANDARIN DUCKS (16 drakes), 5 Tufted Duck, 6 Pochard, 1 Great Crested Grebe, 30 Coot and 6 Moorhen, with both Common Treecreeper and Green Woodpecker in the wood.
The LEA QUARRY PIT along Denham Court Drive (in Denham at TQ 048 862) housed 2 Mallard, a drake Gadwall, 28 Tufted Duck and 16 Coot, whilst the DENHAM GOLF COURSE LAKE just to the North (at TQ 048 865) still held 2 Gadwall, 7 Tufted Duck and 4 Coot. At DENHAM PLACE POND (TQ 039 871), just 9 Mallard, 1 Coot and 6 Moorhen remaining.
A very productive day