Wednesday, 7 April 2010

DARTFORD WARBLER shows well for over an hour, first wave of RING OUZELS arrive, as well as two very early ARCTIC TERNS


Phew - what a day ! I struggled to keep up. It really was one of those exceptional days and migrating birds kept grounding all through the day. After the wind swung round from SE to northerly early morning, I just knew it was going to be good. Add to that the fact that it was murky, with poor visibility, and then later with intermittent rain, it was typical fall conditions. Whilst organising my gear, I heard both a singing male EURASIAN SKYLARK and GOLDCREST - both new for the garden this year.

Deciding to set out early, mainly with two target birds in mind - Sedge Warbler and Common Whitethroat - I had barely set foot on Croxley Common Moor than Steve Rodwell rang to say that he was watching a DARTFORD WARBLER on Steps Hill. I could barely believe it and having only ever seen one in the Tring Recording Area before (also at Ivinghoe) and not seeing one in the county since the small breeding population became extinct two years ago, I immediately ran back for the car. Steve not surprisingly was very excited and as I ran back, I asked him to stick with it until I arrived..............


It took me 27 minutes to get from Croxley to Steps and a further three minutes to find Steve. He was still gazing at the hedgerow that borders the main footpath at the top of Inkombe Hole and had literally only just heard the bird again, after losing it for over 15 minutes. I walked slowly towards him and as I did, the DARTFORD WARBLER made its diagnostic and scolding churr. It had moved to the end of the hedgerow and then flown out. I crossed the stile and then walked parallel with the hedgerow, lightly 'churring' back to the bird. It immediately responded and sat up in full view in some very low bramble 25 yards out from the hedge. I carried on lightly 'pishing' and this kept the bird preoccupied and it carried on showing at just a few feet range. It was a crippling bird and a beautiful adult male to boot. It was in fresh spring plumage and although the upperwings had a brownish hue to them, the underparts were very deeply marked vinous-red and this extended from the rear flanks to the chin and throat, the latter lightly specked with white. The orbital eye ring was bright red and not orange as in first-year males, whilst the forehead, crown, nape, mantle, rump and uppertail were uniform bluish-grey. The fine bill was distinctly pale on the lower mandible and the legs and feet orange-straw. Responding back to me, it intermittently burst into a quiet, scratchy, sub-song, and when out of view, would utter its harsh 'churr' enabling us to keep on it.

It then flew back into the hedgerow and after I had completed writing my field-notes, Stuart Wilson arrived on site. I lightly 'pished' again and the bird flew to the top of the hedge and just perched there for several minutes in full unobscured view. This was such a stunning bird.

It then got bored of me and sank deep down into the thick vegetation and started to skulk away. It flew to the far end of the hedge and then entered the top plantation at the top of Steps Hill. It quickly moved along the edge of this wood and then found the impenetrable patch of dense gorse, partly in flower. It was still calling occasionally and just prior to Mike Campbell racing up, the three of us enjoyed our last prolonged good view of the bird as it jerkily bobbed and cocked its long tail in the gorse and then fluttered away in weak flight.

It then disappeared into the thick gorse and made its way further down the slope. All in all I had enjoyed views over a period of just under an hour and as Mike was joined by Ian Williams, the two of them and Steve had a couple more glimpses before the bird flew much further down the side of Steps Hill slope and disappeared (to the north of Inkombe Hole).

This was a truly exceptional find and an outstanding one. The only previous record in the area was 12 years ago and Buckinghamshire's second - a first-winter which remained on Steps Hill from 25 November until 6 December 1998 and was seen again on 9 January 1999.

Whilst watching the Dartford, a noisy COMMON RAVEN flew low across Inkombe Hole, whilst Top Scrub held a pair of Bullfinch, 3 singing male BLACKCAPS, 3 singing male COMMON CHIFFCHAFFS and a Song Thrush. Several Linnets also flew over, whilst a singing male WILLOW WARBLER was on the lower slope.

As I reached the car park, I heard the familiar 'jipping' sound of COMMON CROSSBILL - and three birds (two males and a female) flew over heading directly north.


At least 6 Yellowhammers were gathered in the field north of the farm, with 7 or more Eurasian Skylarks present in the cereal field on the opposite side of the road - 4 males in song display. A small group of 4 CORN BUNTINGS was in an adjoining stubble field, with both Meadow Pipit and Linnet also present, 3 Stock Doves and a Red Kite over Pitstone Hill.


A return visit at 1800 hours soon yielded the three male RING OUZELS discovered earlier by Don Otter. They were showing well on the grassy slope at the north end of Steps, close to the footpath leading down from the S-bend at cSP 958 162.


Mid-evening, Roy Hargreaves and I located the two adult ARCTIC TERNS that SR and others had seen earlier, feeding amongst 6 COMMON TERNS mainly in the area of water out from the jetty. They represented my first of the year and were earlier than average.

The gloomy conditions (overcast skies with intermittent rain and fresh northerly winds) also grounded large numbers of hirundines, including 186+ SAND MARTINS and 33 European Barn Swallows. There were also 12 Shoveler close to the Drayton Hide, whilst 5 late FIELDFARES were in the tall Poplars.


The paddock wagtail flock numbered 38, including 35 Pieds, a well-marked adult male WHITE and two gaudy male YELLOWS. A high count of 15 Great Crested Grebes was on Marsworth, with a pair of Carrion Crows nesting in the main car park.

All in all, a very enjoyable and highly productive day, but did I get Sedge Warbler and Common Whitethroat? - No! Tomorrow maybe.

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