Friday 1 December 2023

November Round-up


Bewick's Swans (c) Jackie Newcombe

Until the first frosts at the very end of the month November was uncharacteristically warm and wet. The frequent heavy rain has added to the lying water and scrapes and ditches are now full and some fields, especially out on the adjacent MOD land, are already flooding up. 

Goosander courtesy of Paul Wyeth.

Water levels across the reserve are already fifty centimetres higher than they were at the same time last year.

Wigeon and Mallard (c) Bark

The Flood Field on the Oddington side of the moor is already holding a lot of water and this is attracting large numbers of wildfowl. Teal, Wigeon and Shoveller numbers recorded on the latest WEBS survey are higher than those usually seen at this stage of the winter. We have also recorded over forty Pintail which usually appear in the middle and later winter periods.

Meadow Pipit and Pied Wagtail on ice at the Hide (c) Bark

The winter seed feeding for seed eaters has started beside the Wetlands Watch and is already attracting good numbers of Linnets, Chaffinches and Reed Buntings.

Chaffinch Linnet and Reed Bunting by the hide (c) Bark

As the natural supplies of small seeds out in the wider countryside diminishes, we will find even larger numbers of birds coming in to feed. In previous winters Bramblings, Redpolls and Yellow Hammers have been regular visitors along with a scattering of Goldfinches and Bullfinches.
Yellowhammer (c) Bark

We were treated to a visit by two Bewick’s Swans on the last weekend of the month. The birds were on passage and left before dark, heading westward.

Bewick's Swans (c) Pete Roby

They were the first Bewick’s to visit us since February 2011, which sadly reflects their increasing rarity. They left heading west and one of them was recognised at Slimbridge the next morning, as “Bruton”. Bewick’s swans have unique bill patterns that make them identifiable as individuals.

Mute Swans (c) Bark

We tend not to pay too much attention to our resident Mute Swans, which is a pity as they are both beautiful and display a host of fascinating behaviours. A pair brought their seven small cygnets to the reedy bank in front of the second screen in the spring and spent a lot of time in May and June resting up there when not out on the water.
Cygnets in June by second screen (c) Bark

It has good to watch them develop, although the original seven cygnets are now reduced to five, they are now fully fledged.
Marching across Greenaway's in September (c) Bark

They are still sticking together as a group but will soon disperse and eventually be driven off by the adults.
In front of the first screen last week (c) Bark

The Starling roost is underway but often fails to offer the spectacle that it once did. There are significantly large numbers of birds coming into the roost, but they do not always perform the expected display.

Warming up after a cold night (c) Bark

As soon as we have significant frosts and the water under the reedbed freezes solid the Starlings will move, to somewhere that does not make them vulnerable to predation from below. The large number of birds present attracts predators.
Sparrowhawk over the reedbed (c) Bark

This year there is a ring-tailed Hen Harrier being seen, as well as three Marsh Harriers, several Sparrowhawks and at least two regular Peregrines. 

Marsh Harrier courtesy of Paul Wyeth.

People have also reported seeing  Short-eared Owls hunting in the dusk across Greenaway’s, as they make their way back to the car park.

Reed Bunting munching reeds (c) Bark

If travelling down to see the Starlings try to avoid the weekends and if possible, car-share. After the heavy rains the paths out to the viewpoints are very muddy indeed, which is further compounded by the very heavy footfall at this time of year.
The low sun in the mornings can light up the trees.

Lapwing and Golden Plover numbers are steadily increasing, as the wider countryside dries out and the moor remains wet, so it will attract even more of them.

Lapwings over the screen (c) Bark

There have been very large numbers of Fieldfares feeding in the hedges and out on the fields. They seem to outnumber the Redwings by about five to one.
Fieldfare by the hide (c) Bark

There is still plenty of fruit on the Hawthorn bushes and lots of rosehips in the hedgerows. We must hope that there are still some berries available should the Waxwings, that are already being seen in adjacent counties, come south to us!
Frosty goldfinch (c) Bark

Friday 10 November 2023

October and into November

The month has been a very rainy one and the moor is looking very much a wetland. The scrapes and ditches are all much fuller than they were at same time last year. The summer visitors have now almost all departed, bar a few stragglers. There are still a few Chiffchaffs around the edges of the reedbed and they may well be birds that will overwinter here.

Chiffies (c) Bark

Over the course of the month the leaves have turned colour and the winter gales coupled with the first sharp frosts will soon strip them from the branches, which does at least make it easier to pick out the smaller birds. But for now, when the sun shines the trees light up in wonderful shades of bronze, gold and ochre. 

There is never any difficulty seeing the Cranes when they are on site and at the very beginning of the month there were three regulars, one of which was our only remaining colour ringed bird, the male “Ted”. They disappeared shortly after and we had assumed that they would not return until early spring, we were wrong.
Ashgrave Crane (c) Bark

A pair were back on Ashgrave on the 6th of November. They were very vocal and behaving in a territorial manner. As we have lost colour ringed birds it has become much harder to work out who is who, amongst the six or seven cranes that have been in and around Otmoor. Cranes are very vocal birds and I wondered if their bugling calls are unique and whether they can be distinguished one from another by sonograms.
Anonymous Bugling Crane (c) Bark

With mobile phone technology becoming ever more sophisticated it is not too fanciful to imagine that we might soon be able to follow the social interactions and pair successes of our Cranes. 
Stonechat beside the bund (c) Bark

Stonechats are now regular across both the reserve and the MOD, and the last Whinchats departed late in October. There were two late additions to the year-list when a Ring Ouzel was flushed from the hedge between Saunders and Greenaway’s and a Siskin flyover last weekend. We did not record Ring Ousel this spring, the time when we are more likely to encounter them.
Would it were Purple ! (c) Bark

The year-list currently stands at 155 species. There are some regular birds that have yet to appear, we have yet to record an Osprey or Mandarin Duck, there is still the possibility of visiting winter swans or Brent Goose, and of course the holy grail of some irrupting Bearded Tits not seen on the moor since 2019. 
Young roe Buck on Big Otmoor (c) Bark

There are significant numbers of deer across the reserve and the wider moor. At least nine or ten Roe Deer are feeding out on Greenaway’s and there have been several Fallow Deer on Ashgrave. Muntjac are ubiquitous and are becoming much more confiding and almost tame.
Confiding Muntjac (c) Bark

Otters are being seen from time to time, but Hares seem to me to much scarcer than they were. The banks of the reedbed have had to be mown and bushes and other cover has been removed. This is to comply with the Reservoir Act which the reedbed comes under. It is a pity as some useful scrubby habitat has been lost…. but the regulations have to be followed when applied by a punctilious official.

There are still a fluctuating number of Cattle Egrets out with the livestock and both Little and Great Egrets are being seen around the north and south lagoons.

Wildfowl coming out of eclipse and some Wigeon displaying (c) Bark

Wigeon and Shovellers are back in small numbers but they will increase as time moves on. One of the highlights of the last few weeks was the male Hen-Harrier seen for a couple of days and evenings around the reedbed and Noke Sides. 

Male Hen Harrier courtesy of Rob Cadd.

A stunning raptor that perhaps was attracted to the site by the burgeoning Starling roost. Hopefully other raptors will also be tempted in as the Starling numbers increase as autumn slides into winter.
Distant Bittern from the second screen(c) Bark

Thursday 28 September 2023

August, September and Pallid Harrier.


Pallid Harrier (c) JR

August was a disappointment in regard to its weather. It was a not a string of idyllic summer days, but often rainy windy and cooler than average. A result of a wavering jet stream trapping us in cooler northern air rather than the excessive heat of continental Europe. The pattern of bird activity progressed much as we have come to expect at this season of the year.

Common Whitethroat and Chiffchaff in mixed warbler flock (c) Bark

We found mixed feeding parties of warbler and tit species moving together along the hedge rows. There were also family groups seen frequently, made up of freshly fledged youngsters still accompanied by their parent.

An extremely fruitful autumn. (c) Bark

As August drew on we saw the regular passage migrants starting to appear in their predictable haunts, like the Pill area and in Long Meadow.

Whinchats at the Pill (c) Bark

Numbers fluctuated, but on several occasions, there were larger than usual numbers of Whinchats at the Pill and Redstarts in Long Meadow.

Long Meadow Redstarts (c) Bark

Just at the beginning of September I came across a family party of Stonechats on the MOD land. There were two adults and four very downy young birds that might suggest that they had not bred too far away.
Juvenile Stonechats (c) Bark

On another occasion, there was a high count of Spotted Flycatchers seen in Long Meadow.
Spotted Flycatcher Long meadow (c) Bark

The most notable birds throughout this period were all three Egret species: Great, Little and Cattle. Cattle Egrets were frequently out with the grazing animals and roosting overnight in the bushes in middle of the southern lagoon.

Little Egrets (c) Bark

There were several counts of well over twenty and one that may have been as high as forty. They are very mobile and divide their attention amongst the herds in different fields. After a time feeding they often returned to the lagoons to preen and rest.

Cattle Egrets  top two juveniles bottom adult and young (c) Bark

There were both adult and juveniles within the flocks and we assume that the young birds came from breeding successes at Blenheim. Usually seen in ones and twos the Great White Egrets used the main lagoons as both feeding and roosting places.

Great Egrets (c) Bark

On one memorable occasion however seven were seen settling to roost at dusk at the first screen. Little Egrets could be seen on almost any open piece of water feeding steadily around the margins or out in the deeper water, characteristically stirring the bottom mud with their feet to attract small fish within range of their strike.
Still lots of Southern Hawkers around.(c) Bark

After a rather stop-start summer a minimum of three Common Cranes have returned to the moor for the autumn. They have been extremely vocal and behaving in a very territorial way even to the extent of carry out courtship behaviours and mating on Ashgrave.

Bugling flyover (c) Bark

It remains to be seen if they will return to Somerset as they have done in previous years or perhaps remain on the moor throughout the winter.

Pallid Harrier (c) Bark

Without doubt the most exciting, unusual and rarest bird to come through made its appearance on Saturday 9th September. The bird in question was a juvenile male Pallid Harrier, a first for Otmoor and only the second to be recorded in Oxfordshire.

Pallid Harrier (c) JR

A photograph taken on Saturday morning early looked a little ambiguous between a Montague’s and a Pallid, but subsequent pictures confirmed its identity. I had arrived late at the Noke end of the moor, on a morning that I hadn’t really intended to visit and initially believed that I had just missed it. My luck was in however, as it was making a wide circuit of the main fields and we spotted it as it came back over Big Otmoor, initially on the far north western end of the field it then swooped down on some potential prey, missed it and began to fly strongly towards us and then passed very close over our heads and out onto Ashgrave, where it was seen hunting for a while before finally moving off high and to the south east.

More Pallid Harrier pics (c) Bark

It was my first sighting of this Harrier species in the UK and a very spectacular one. Once again, just as we have produced an updated new edition of “The Birds of Otmoor” it has been made inaccurate by the addition of another new species for the list! Forgivable by such a spectacular, beautiful and elegant bird. It is very noteworthy that Otmoor has hosted all four European Harrier species this year.
Juvenile Marsh Harrier

Early morning Fallow Deer (c) Bark