Thursday, 18 October 2018

Friday 12th - Sunday 14th October

Kestrel (c) Oz

When I said a couple of weeks ago that we needed rain I did say that we didn’t want it at the weekends! The weather gods were not listening. The welcome rain came in with an Atlantic weather system that also brought fiercely strong winds. I went down to the moor on Friday evening to look for owls and was battered and buffeted by gales. Over the Closes a mixed flock of Jackdaws and Rooks were being tossed across the sky like wind-blown leaves. With the wind coming in from the south the bridle way was in the lee of the hedge and the force of the wind slowed up any birds flying towards us. Needless to say, we saw no owls.


Starlings including Marsh Harrier (c) Bark

What was interesting were the early signs of the Starling roost developing. There were approximately four or five thousand birds coming in, so nothing like the spectacular numbers that we might expect later in the winter. However, the power of the wind shredded and coalesced the flocks in turn, sometimes drawing them out like smoke and at other times pushing them together in tight clouds. The stormy conditions meant that the roosting process was drawn out and at times the birds were low and right over head, and then the thrumming of their wings was louder than the gusting wind. Three different Marsh Harriers were drifting through the Starlings but seemingly not looking to seize any of them. It would appear that they look to spot injured or ailing victims. There were two Sparrowhawks present a large female and a smaller male. They were hunting much more proactively, and we were fairly sure that we saw the female snatch one from the flock. As we were leaving it was very gratifying to see a long trail of children straggling out along the bridleway and heading towards the screen accompanied by parents and carers. They were members of a cub pack and from the “oohs and aahs” that we heard from them as they approached the screen they had not seen anything like the display before. It is vital to enthuse the upcoming generations if we wish them to value wildness and wild places in the future, and they will only do that if they are exposed to and enthused by the real thing.

Starlings leaving at dawn.(c) Matthew O'Byrne

Saturday morning was also wet but had given way to sunshine by late morning. We saw very little other than a Common Sand on the reedy island out from the first screen and a party of roughly thirty Golden Plovers. As it dried up on Saturday there were a couple of Kestrels hunting over Greenaways. Although we stood and watched as we slowly dried out in the sunshine we were not lucky enough to spot either the Merlin that had been reported on Thursday or the Hobby seen on Friday.
Common Sand from the first screen (c) Luke O'Byrne

Sunday morning was another washout with the heaviest rain of the weekend. On Sunday afternoon when the rain finally stopped a late Swallow passed overhead and two Green Sands were seen at the second screen on the muddy margin that has appeared out on the right-hand side. There are Stonechats out on Greenaways, but no Owls were noted.
Bittern (c) Dave Stroud
The conditions were not conducive to birds that should stay dry and hunt by stealth. Occasional sightings were had of the Bitterns as they relocated both within the reedbed and across the wider reserve. Surveys of fish populations undertaken by the reserve staff indicates that there is a much larger fish population in the ring ditches than out in the main lagoons. More Redwings were seen both on Saturday morning and late on Sunday, but we have yet to record our first Fieldfare of this winter season.
Kestrel at the Cattle Pens (c) JR

Wednesday, 10 October 2018

Saturday Sunday and Monday 6th-8th October

Kestrel (c) Bark

There was some much-needed rain on Saturday and the morning was grey and increasingly wet. Sunday however was a perfect sunny autumn morning, starting frosty but calm, still and clear.
Things are slowly starting to change and on Sunday morning we saw our first Redwings of the season, with a small party of perhaps twenty making their way west across the reserve. Elsewhere there was not much to see that was different from the previous few weeks.

Bitterns         Flight shot(c) JR      Standing shot (c) Luke O' Byrne 
Bitterns are being reported regularly and I have not had a visit recently when I’ve failed to see one. Usually they are noticed in flight while relocating within the reedbed, but occasionally they can be seen either feeding, sunbathing and preening on the edge of the reeds.

Mallards (c) Bark
Many of the drake Mallard have emerged from their eclipse plumage. They are flaunting their bright green emerald heads and fresh plumage as they circle females in groups bobbing their heads in display. There are more Wigeon arriving but not yet in the numbers that we will see later in the autumn. A small number of Teal are loafing around but are still dressed in their drabber eclipse plumage.
Kingfisher in the mist (c) Bark
Kingfishers are being seen regularly now on both lagoons and at the Noke balancing pond.
It would seem that there is a very healthy and extensive population of small mammals out in the fields. This is based on actual evidence on the ground, where small holes and runs are clearly visible in the grass. The reserve has been very dry all summer so that burrows will not have been flooded and the grasses set seed rapidly, which must have helped to encourage rapid breeding.

Kestrel with prey (c) Bark        Kestrel pouncing (c) JR
The other indicator is the number of Kestrels on the reserve and their evident success in catching small mammal prey. We also have an early presence of Short Eared Owls on the moor this autumn.
S.E.O. at first screen (c) Peter West
S.E.O. (c) Matthew O'Byrne
There was another young Marsh Harrier over the reedbed on Sunday that spent over an hour perched in a rather ungainly manner in one of the willows out amongst the phragmites.
Young Marsh Harrier (c) Bark
Sparrowhawks and Buzzards were regular but we saw no sign of last weekends Peregrine.
Stonechat (c) JR
There are still at least five Stonechats on the MOD fields but I couldn’t find any at Noke when I walked down there on Sunday.
Barnacle Geese (c) JR
A small flock of about ten Barnacle Geese were seen on Sunday feeding slightly separate from the much larger flock of Greylags. Currently there appear to be fewer Canada Geese on the moor but they may just be off foraging further afield.
Chiffy second screen (c) Bark

Over the next couple of weeks Fieldfares will arrive lagging not too far behind the Redwings. A small group of about fifteen Golden Plover were reported last Friday and they too will become more frequent. The pace of the season is accelerating and we should finally be moving out of the doldrums.
NB Until the 12th of October there will be road closures between Islip and Beckley so it would be wise to check in advance if coming from that direction.

Tuesday, 2 October 2018

Saturday and Sunday 29th and 30th September

Cormorant in the sunshine

On Saturday morning I had to scrape ice off the windscreen for the first time since the spring. It was a bright, sharp, sunny and still morning. Looking down from the top of Otmoor Lane I could see the tops of the trees sticking up out of the mist that was pooled on the moor. I was totally unprepared, lacking scarf, hat and gloves and the cold was a real shock, having spent the last week in Spain. Autumn has truly arrived bringing its soft mellow colours and misty atmosphere.
Frost on a Guelder Rose

On Ashgrave there were four fallow deer looking very beautiful in the fading mist and golden light. This little herd has evolved from the fawn that thought it was a cow (as I have reported over the past five years). We have watched that particular doe with several different fawns of her own and now we have a young antlered stag with them, that may or may not be one of her progeny.

From first screen there were a scattering of ducks that appeared and disappeared in the steadily vanishing mist. A Bittern flew rapidly across the lagoon before slipping down into the reeds. A young male Peregrine came low across the reeds and over our heads before jinking into the oak trees behind us.
Juvenile Peregrine
It was followed very quickly by a Sparrowhawk that was also using the mist to cloak its approach in order to surprise unwary prey. Down by the waters edge a Reed Warbler was picking its way along the edge of the reeds. We also saw several Chiffchaffs in the hedge and four or five Blackcaps near to the feeders.
Reed Warbler
On Sunday morning we picked up two Siskins in the bushes beside the bridleway, close to the volunteers hut. They were with a group of five or six Greenfinches, which have been much less common of late, than they used to be. Let us hope that they will start to breed back up again now, having been hit very hard by the parasitic disease trichomonosis.
Greenfinches
Goldfinches and Linnets are already starting to flock together into larger parties. On Saturday morning we saw fifteen or so Goldfinches on just one large dried Teasel beside the path to the first screen many of them still in sub-adult plumage.
The water levels at the northern lagoon are still falling, albeit slowly, and a muddy margin has emerged along the right-hand side when looking out from the screen. There were several Snipe feeding there on Sunday along with a Green Sandpiper.
We had another two Bittern sightings here on Sunday morning but failed to connect with any of the Barn Owls that are now being regularly reported. A second calendar year male Marsh Harrier drifted through on Sunday morning. It was in transition between juvenile and adult plumage and was not one of the Harriers that we have been familiar with this summer.....leading to a temporary mis-identification!
Marsh Harrier
Ravens are being seen and heard regularly over the reserve with four being seen together on Sunday. They are more often heard before they are spotted as it is surprising just how far the sound of their harsh cronking calls carries.
Raven and Stonechat
There were four or five Stonechats out at the Pill on Saturday and Sunday, as usual busy flycatching from the harshly cropped hedge that runs from north to south. Although we didn’t see any this weekend there are regular reports of up to four kingfishers on the lagoons. What is need now is some rain to wet the moor up again.….but preferably not at the weekends.


Monday, 17 September 2018

Saturday and Sunday 15th and 16th September

Whinchat ant the cattle pens.

This week continued much as the others of late with little that was particularly new or different to report. Autumn continues to creep on and the changing colours are increasingly evident in the trees and bushes.

However, this week there is a major development to report. If we are to believe the transport planning authorities (my beliefs are always strongly tempered with cynicism when they involve government) the whole of the Otmoor Basin is no longer being considered as part of the route for the Oxford to Cambridge expressway. I am delighted that the threat has been lifted from area that I care passionately about and that people who live in the surrounding villages can breathe a sigh of relief. Nonetheless it would be churlish just to glory in our good fortune when there are bound to be other special places and habitats that will now come under threat. We must be prepared to argue for the protection of any valuable wildlife sites that may now be in the firing line.

Whinchat at cattle pens and wind blown at Noke

I finally managed to catch up with passage Whinchats on Sunday having once again managed to be in the wrong places at the wrong times on Saturday. I found three hunting from the wires at Noke in a very blustery wind and caught up with another that has based itself in a large bramble at the eastern end of the cattle stockade on the edge of Greenaways. The particular bramble patch also held a fine fresh Common Whitethroat and a Lesser Whitethroat as well. In amongst the stakes and bars of the corral many of the weedy feed plants that we put out in the winter have grown and set seed and these are attracting a small flock of juvenile Goldfinches.


At Noke I counted four young Green Woodpeckers feeding on the short grass fields and Jays are to be seen and heard gathering acorns and flying noisily along the hedges.
We saw Hobbies on both days this weekend and the Kestrels seem to be everywhere. A female peregrine was seen during the week and this weekend a smaller male.
juvenile Peregrine first screen

We had four Wigeon drop into the first screen on Saturday morning and their evocative whistling calls were yet another reminder that winter is now not so very far away.

Squirrel hiding nuts and Michaelmas Daisy signs of the season


Thursday, 13 September 2018

First two weeks of September

Wren with breakfast (c) Bark

I can’t remember a two or three week period on Otmoor, when there was so little that was new to report. We have slid into early Autumn with golden sunny days at the beginning of the month and a much greyer weekend that has just passed. There has been no significant rain and it is still very dry, with huge cracks in the soil along the bridle way, that are wide enough to twist and ankle if one is not careful. Leaves are beginning to change colour and on mornings that there has been any mist a myriad of spiders’ webs are strung with tiny water droplets like pearls.
(c) Bark

It appears to me that blackberries are more prolific this year than normal the brambles are heavy with fruit although the slightly smaller berries themselves reflect the summer drought. Few birds are taking advantage of this bounty although to judge by the quantity and colour of droppings beside the trails, badgers are feasting on blackberries by night.


On the lagoons there are morose ducks moulting and the water levels have stopped going down and we have insufficient mud to tempt down many passing waders. There were a few Snipe hunched on the small island that had started to appear on the southern reedbed, but the island remains frustratingly small.
Moulting Mallard at first screen (c) Bark

The Common Cranes have been gone for well over a fortnight, we assume making their brief migration back to the Somerset Levels for the winter. Marsh Harriers are now being seen very infrequently, in fact I don’t believe that they were seen at all last weekend. I expect them to return as the Starling roost becomes more established and larger as the autumn progresses.

New recruits to the Starling roost (c) Bark
Hobbies have been recorded most days with five individuals hunting dragonflies over Greenaways at the beginning of the month. On Sunday I saw a lone individual chasing hirundines above the reedbed. As is usual at this time of year there are several Kestrels hovering over the main fields or hunting from fixed lookout points.
Dawn Kestrel (c) Bark
Other passage visitors are eluding me. On Saturday I walked to Noke to look for Whinchats and found the fields and fences empty. On Sunday I see on Bird Log that Old Caley found six at the farm! Once again, I’m managing to be in the wrong place at the wrong time! I scanned around the cattle on all three fields on Sunday and couldn’t find any Wagtails at all, just a couple of Magpies using the bull as a lookout point
Bull and Magpie (good name for a pub?)
…..on Monday evening the Robys had seventy-eight Yellow Wagtails going to roost in the reedbed and a Barn Owl hunting in The Closes.
Kingfisher at Noke (c) Bark
Kingfishers are back on the moor. They disappear during the summer as there is no suitable bank for them to tunnel into and return post breeding. I have seen them in the last couple of weeks on the first lagoon, the balancing pond at Noke and along the ring ditch around Big Otmoor and Greenaways. The ring ditches hold a lot of fish, so much so that there was a Cormorant feeding in the reedy ditch beside the visitor trail on Sunday.


Sometimes difficult to spot warblers in the depths of the bushes.

We are approaching the time when Bearded Tit irruptions happen and now is the time when we are most likely to hear and see them. It would be great to be able to welcome this wetland and reedbed special back to the moor again after a three-year absence. We will be listening out for “pinging” over the next few weeks.
Greenaways Fox (c) Bark