Monday, 20 March 2017

Saturday and Sunday 18th and 19th March.

Bark is otherwise indisposed this week and has asked us to look after the blog, however we fully expect him back in his own well-known roosting spot by next weekend.

Spring is such an exciting time for birders and hopes are naturally raised as winter passes in favour of longer days and warmer weather, promising summer visitors and passage migrants. 
However weather conditions often determine expectation levels and these can be rather changeable in mid-March, so while we experienced beautiful sunny days earlier in the week,
these gave way to cooler, greyer and much windier conditions by the weekend. 
The over-wintering Short-eared Owl was on show on Monday but had disappeared by the weekend and it remains to be seen whether it has moved on or is just taking another break from its well-known roosting spot. 

Stirring from their slumbers...Grass Snake have starting to be spotted on the warmer days
along the edges of the dykes and ditches on the reserve, thirty seven were counted recently.
Photo courtesy of John Workman.  

There is such a different atmosphere when the sun shines, not only was the wonderful sound of Skylark song cascading down from all over the reserve on Monday, but the first Brimstones, Commas and Small Tortoiseshells were on the wing and Grass Snakes could be found basking in favoured spots. These had returned to winter quarters by the weekend and were nowhere to be seen in the chillier conditions. 

One of the highlights of the week was the number of Peregrine hunts we were lucky enough to witness. We still have substantial numbers of birds on the reserve and Pere­­grines very often cause large mixed flocks to rise, wheeling into the air, creating a spectacular sight and a clue to what may be going on.

Peregrine Falcon courtesy of Eddie Mclaughlin

One of these attacks involved both male and female Peregrine zeroing-in on a seemingly doomed Snipe. While one raptor chased it down the other tried to cut-off avenues of escape, but the resilient little wader was able to perform a number of evasive manoeuvres, constantly losing height before finally dropping out of the sky into cover in the nick of time. Buzzards, Red Kites and the male Marsh Harrier were also harassed by Peregrine over the favoured hunting area of Big Otmoor where the majority of wildfowl and waders can be found.

Although thousands of Golden Plover have already moved on a substantial number are still on the reserve, many of which are moving into their lovely summer plumage. This can be appreciated either when they pass by in flight or better still as they gather together on the ground. It will not be long before these too are gone.  

Curlew courtesy of Andy Last.
A small flock of Black-tailed Godwits has been present since late February and both Dunlin and Ruff may be seen with luck and a good set of optics. Redshanks seem to be everywhere while Oystercatcher and Curlew occasionally draw attention to themselves with their distinctive calls and flight silhouettes. Two pairs of Shelduck may be found usually on Ashgrave or Big Otmoor.

Amorous Shoveler courtesy of Derek Latham. 

Down at the southern lagoon male Pochard could be seen swimming with their heads pressed directly forward, partially submerged in their slightly comical looking display and we felt sorry for one female Shoveller as she was accompanied everywhere by a group of fifteen amorous males. When she took off all would rise immediately behind her, fly around in a tight flock only to land a short while later completely surrounding her on the water.

Bittern can be quite difficult to see at this time of year so it was a bonus when one was spotted gliding over the reeds on Wednesday afternoon. Alternatively it would be difficult to imagine visiting Otmoor without seeing Marsh Harrier and the male bird especially was in evidence on many occasions hunting over the fields. The wintering ringtail Hen Harrier was seen during the week and photographed well on both days over the weekend.

The wintering ringtail Hen Harrier courtesy of Badger.

Clearly we are at that point where both winter and summer birds are present, as well as the birds already mentioned it is still possible to find the odd Redwing and Fieldfare but spring is marching on, further heralded by the first three Sand Martins on Tuesday, at least half a dozen Chiffchaffs and very smart male Wheatears at Lower Farm on Saturday and Noke Sides on Sunday. Long-tailed tit and Dunnock could both be seen collecting nesting material and we remain in high spirits looking forward to the clocks going forward next weekend and even more time in the field.

Steve and Pete Roby

Wheatear Lower Farm courtesy of Badger.

Monday, 13 March 2017

Saturday and Sunday 11th and 12th March

Yellowhammer (c) Bark
Saturday was grey at first but developed into almost the perfect spring day and Sunday was wet at first but had improved by the afternoon. As we expect at this time of year, there were new arrivals on the moor both in the preceding week and at the weekend. We are also now beginning to notice some significant departures.
The most obvious departure is probably the Starlings from the roost. The latest reports suggest that it has finally dwindled to less than a thousand birds after having enthralled huge numbers of people during the course of the winter. The large flocks of Lapwings also appear to have left. We still have good numbers of them present but they are our resident breeding birds and they are really going to town now on their tumbling noisy courtship flights.
Chiffy at the first screen (c) Bark
Redshank numbers have shot up over the last week and their distinctive yodelling call as they pair up and mate has become part of the Otmoor soundscape again. If you scan across Big Otmoor now they are scattered across the whole area feeding, displaying and walking about purposefully.
Avocet (c) Stoneshank
Wildfowl numbers are still large both on Ashgrave, Big Otmoor and on the reedbed lagoons. There were well over thirty Coots on the northern lagoon on Saturday morning they are extremely bellicose at this stage of the year. Disputes seemed to break out at random just like they do outside city centre pubs at closing time on Saturday nights. A bird would take exception to another from quite the other side of the lagoon and hurtle across the water to confront it with head down and wings raised. It is hard to see why any particular individual is being picked out for attack amongst so many, perhaps one bird just looked at the other “a bit funny” as the drunk would say in Cornmarket on Saturday night.
There were fifteen Pochard on the southern lagoon on Sunday morning and they were spending their time swimming around in a group, they were either displaying to the three or four females that were there or just showing off to each other. There were also a pair of little Grebes courting in front of the screen, whinnying their distinctive call and diving rapidly to pop up like corks in another part of the pool. There was a single Great Crested Grebe out in the same part of the lagoon and it was making its strange mournful call.

Nice weather for ducks, Little Grebe, Pochard and Tufty in the rain. (c) Bark
I counted over sixty Pintail out on Big Otmoor on Sunday and nearly a hundred Shovellers. The Wigeon were difficult to estimate but there does not appear to be any reduction yet in their numbers.
The estimate of Grey Herons building in the reedbed has gone up again and I now think that there may be as many as five pairs. There are also two pairs nesting in the dead oak tree on Ashgrave one of which is already sitting. It is interesting to notice that some of them are showing the bright orange bill that they acquire for a period when breeding.
Heron with twigs (c) JR
Bird of the weekend has to be the Little Gull seen and photographed from the first screen on Saturday morning. I think the last record of one on Otmoor is about fifteen years ago when the reedbed was mostly water, that was certainly the only one that I have seen down there. There were also records from other sites in the county on Saturday so there was clearly a passage of them. Another good bird was the Avocet found and photographed by Paul Greenaway during the week. Along with a smattering of Ruff and Dunlin it was out of Big Otmoor.
Little Gull (c) Derek Latham
I yomped along the bridleway to Noke on both Saturday and Sunday with the hope of finding our first Wheatear of the year. The track is very muddy and reminiscent of how it was along the whole track before the RSPB laid the path from the car park to the kissing gate. The first Wheatear was found as we expected amongst the black sheep on the fields adjacent to the reserve. I didn’t find it but Andy Last did, about an hour after I was there, such is birding! It could have been his younger, sharper eyes but I put missing it down to rain in my optics! We can expect a steady passage of Wheatears now over the next six weeks or so.
Phonescoped Wheatear (c) Andy Last
All the regular raptors were on show, including a close fly past on Sunday by the Hen Harrier. I can see on my photographs the beginning of paler feathers coming through on its back and upper wings and wonder whether it is moulting into male adult plumage. Any suggestions or observations would be welcome.
Hen Harrier (c) Bark
We continued our walk on Saturday past Noke and on around the southern edge of Ashgrave. I have not done this walk since the early autumn and it is a good vantage point to look over the Ashgrave lagoon which is at its most full. The footpath is very soggy in places. The area at the top of the field is being allowed to scrub up and will make an excellent extension to Julys Meadow. This will provide more potential breeding sites for birds such as Grasshopper Warblers and hunting areas for Short Eared Owls in winter. We heard three and saw two Nuthatches on the edge of Sling Copse and a party of four Coal Tits in Noke Wood.
Jabba the Hutt (c) Tezzer
The Little Gull and the Nuthatches have taken the year tally up to one hundred and six species and over the next few weeks the list will rise even further as the fresh waves of migrants come in. This must be the very best time of year to be out and about birding.
Primroses Noke Wood (c) Bark

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Saturday and Sunday 4th and 5th March

Red legged Partridge by the Hide (c) Derek Latham
It was a very squally and unsettled weekend. So much so that I didn’t even venture out on Sunday until the afternoon. Once again heavy showers alternated with bursts of sunshine and out of the wind the sun felt warm. Just as last week it was the sheer numbers of birds that caught the eye especially the Golden Plover.
Goldies and Lapwings (c) Bark
They are the flightiest of birds panicking easily although usually with good cause. The full range of raptors were on show again. We were lucky enough to get excellent views of the Hen Harrier as it worked its way across the reedbed and along the northern edge of Greenaways. It has been instructive to have both Hen and Marsh Harriers present at the same time. It is possible to distinguish between the two species simply by how they fly. The Marsh Harrier appearing heavier and slightly more ponderous whilst the Hen harrier is lighter and more buoyant, looking like it requires less effort to remain airborne.
Hen Harrier (c) JR
The Peregrines are also ever-present attracted no doubt by the abundant prey species. On Saturday morning, as Steve and Pete Roby were walking back from the first screen a great mixed flock of Lapwings and Golden Plovers came low over their heads. As they looked up one of the Peregrines swept in and targeted a Lapwing, which it managed to seize and carry off towards the reedbed. Either the raptor wasn’t holding on to it too tightly or the Lapwing got loose, but the end result was the two birds flying off in different directions.
Peregrine (c) Bark
There are definitely two pairs of Grey Herons nesting in the dead Oak tree in the wet woodland that sticks out into Ashgrave, all four birds were sitting on the nests on Saturday morning and a Little Egret was sat a just below them on Sunday afternoon. Out in the reed bed there are another two and possibly three pairs of Herons nesting. The Starlings and the weather have flattened the reeds down so they are easy to spot. They can be seen bringing nest material in from different parts of the reserve as well as from within the reed bed itself. Marsh Harriers too can be seen transporting material and it appears that perhaps there might be two different potential nest sites.

Nest Building Grey Herons (c) JR

There was some good news on Sunday morning the Short-eared Owl has returned to its favourite perch in the car park field after a nearly two-week absence, it was flushed by an over eager, insensitive and selfish photographer. I would ask anybody who does see anyone flouting the clear signs that say this is a conservation area to remind them of this clearly and politely. If they take no notice a photograph would be much appreciated and we will publish it on the Oxon Bird Log to ensure the widest possible audience and maximum disapproval.
Wader numbers continue to grow.
Shortie back where he / she belongs (c) JR
There were four Dunlin on Big Otmoor on Sunday afternoon and the same three Black Tailed Godwits that we had noted last week. Four Oystercatchers flew up from Big Otmoor and headed out towards the Ashgrave lagoon. At least ten and probably more Redshanks were out stalking around the pools on Big Otmoor and several more were on The Closes. Their numbers will certainly continue to go up over the next few weeks as the breeding season starts.
Amourous Brown Hares (c) Norman Smith
At Noke there were four Stonechats together on the wire fence. They will be moving off to breed soon and the winter appears to have been kind to them. The other beneficiary of the gentler winter has been the Cetti’s Warbler. They seem to be back stronger than ever calling from thick hedges and clumps of reed. It is difficult to estimate their numbers accurately but there are certainly a minimum of eight calling from different parts of the reserve.
Ringed Plovers (C) Badger
A Coal Tit found on the feeders yesterday along with two Ringed Plovers out on big Otmoor have taken the yearlist up to ninety nine species I wonder what will be number one hundred.

Gathering Storm with Lapwings and the first Otmoor Lamb (c) Bark