6 Sept 2018

6 Sep 18 - Local Ortolan

After another early Autumn of Birding around my local patches & not finding anything, a couple of days ago I went to the Northern end of Portland to look for a couple of Ortolans. It was a very pleasant afternoon & evening of looking in one of the quieter ends of Portland. But, there had been no sightings of the Ortolans since the late morning on that day, frustratingly followed by another brief couple of sightings the following morning. Well you can't see all the Birds you look for. It has been many years since I last saw an Ortolan in Dorset, as I have only made one other equally unsuccessful attempt to chase them on Portland in the last twenty years. However, I did see quite a few in Israel at Beit Yatir, Yotvata & Kfar Ruppin Kibbutz in 2014, so I've not been particularly worried about chasing them in the UK.
Whinchat: It is always a good start to see something interesting by the Renscombe car park
This morning I was out Birding again to St Aldhelms. I park at the Renscombe car park & generally walk down the main track to St Aldhelms Head. I always spend some time Birding in the weedy rough ground & checking the trees by Trev Haysom's quarry, now known to many national Birders as the Two-barred Greenish Warbler trees. Then I move onto St Aldhelms Head to check the quarry ledges & bushes at the Head. However, on the earlier trips this Autumn, the Head has been fairly quiet & the best Birding has been the rough ground by Trev's quarry. This morning I decided I was going to focus my time exploring & waiting in that area. This area is the top of a South Westerly facing valley which seems to act as a funnel for Birds to follow to the rough ground. There was a scattering of the usual suspects throughout the morning in low numbers: Whinchat, Wheatear, Spotted Flycatcher, Tree Pipit & Redstart, as well as, some of the commoner Warblers. This morning it was clear watching the top of the valley that migrants were moving up the valley, with some feeding in the area before moving on. I was glad to confirm my feelings for this being a good spot to focus on. Then I picked up what looked like a Bunting grovelling at the base of some Brambles. It was just a bit too far for the binoculars & I had left the scope at home. I couldn't get closer from where I was standing. So, I picked up the camera to get some photos. Looking at the photos on the back of the camera, I was really pleased to see a pale yellow eyering & yellow moustachial stripe: Ortolan.
Ortolan: The pale yellow eyering, long pale yellow moustachial & streaky breast are spot on for an Ortolan
Ortolan: To give an idea why I turned to the camera for help. This is the uncropped photo with the effective 13x magnification that the Canon 7D & 100 - 400 mm lens produced. The Ortolan is clearly visible (not) just to the right of pale stone in the centre of the photo. I am happy to go out Birding without the scope, but I am rarely seen without the camera. It is fairly heavy to carry, but I've got used to its weight & today it proved its worth
I looked again & couldn't see it on the ground. But the ground was uneven & it was likely to have just moved out of view. I decided to walk back to the gate where I could walk into the field (as there is a public footpath through the field). I walked to the Brambles, but all I saw fly up were the group of Linnets & another group of House Sparrows. I don't think it went up with either group & it clearly wasn't by the Brambles. All I can assume was it had moved while I was walking back to the field entrance. After twenty minutes of unsuccessfully looking, I saw another Birder. He was a visiting Essex Birder, James. We spent another couple of hours looking for the Ortolan, but still drew a blank. All very frustrating, but I'm pleased to have found a local Ortolan & at least get some presentable photos to submit the record.
Ortolan: After grabbed the first quick photos (above), I scanned again with the bins & saw the Bunting had popped up from a small rut. I then grabbed a few more photos, now I could definitely see the Bunting through the camera
Ortolan: To encourage me to Bird locally after moving to Dorset in 1996, I started a Ten Mile from the house list which includes all of Poole Harbour, Wareham Forest & the Purbeck coast from Tyneham to Durlston. This brings the Ten Mile list up to 283. There are still a handful of scarce but near annual migrants to Durlston that I could pick up if I spent more time on the coast, rather than in my Poole Harbour patches
Ortolan: There have been several records of Ortolans at St Aldhelms Head in the 1980s & 1990s when the Head was regularly watched by local Birders, Peter Williams & ex-local Steve Morrison. Steve believes this might be the first record for St Aldhelms for about 20 years
Ortolan: This was the final decent photo. In the next photo it was partly obscured as it dropped back into the small rut. I will be back at St Aldhelms tomorrow just in case it hasn't moved far
Ortolans have had an interesting status in Dorset in the last few years. They used to be regular from the end of Aug to early Sep at Portland in the 1980s & 1990s, but were always scarce elsewhere in the county. Since that they appear to have become scarcer. There was only one record for Poole Harbour seen by Nick Hopper at Ballard Down in Sep 07. Then a few years ago, local Poole Birders Nick Hopper & then Paul Morton, started night recordings at Portland & Poole Harbour, respectively. What followed was one of the more surprising Birding discoveries in Dorset for many years. Nick & Paul were regularly recording Ortolans at every site they left their recorders running overnight. Nick generally has sessions of leaving his recorder running overnight at Portland & has regularly recorded Ortolans calling at night as detailed, including sound recordings, on the Portland Bird Obs website every Autumn in recent years. Paul then tried recording at a number of locations including Lytchett Matravers, central Poole & occasionally at other locations in Poole Harbour. In 2016, Paul identified thirteen individuals calling at night over central Poole as detailed including sound recordings on the Birds of Poole Harbour website. He also had a brief morning sighting of one he flushed at Soldiers Road that year. Paul has had smaller numbers recorded in the last couple of Autumns which are detailed on the Birds of Poole Harbour sightings pages. The overall discovery by Nick & Paul, assisted by analysis by well-known sound recordist Marcus Robb has been written up on the Sound Approach website in a couple of articles here & here. To me their results are excellent & I totally believe their records. Given how skulky Ortolans are then it is no surprise that despite Nick & Paul recording these Ortolans at night, that few get seen the next morning. Their best nights have only had two or three individuals often in the middle of the night. So, it is not surprising that they aren't found the following morning, as they have probably travelled a long distance since they were recorded. There are many evenings where I've heard Redwings calling in the evening & gone out the following morning & not found any Redwings. But, those Redwings I heard calling at nine or ten at night have have flown on for another eight hours or more before dawn.