Wednesday, 8 July 2020

First week of July and back to the screens again.

Male Redstart (c) Bark

It is wonderful to be able to get back down to the screens again and look out over the lagoons. Clearing the trail to the screens and making social distancing possible was a massive task undertaken by the staff and volunteer work parties. It has all changed massively since the start of March and who knows what treats we might have missed in the intervening months.

Female Marsh Harrier (C) Bark


Marsh Harriers have bred successfully again out in the reedbeds. There were four free flying juveniles across the moor on Sunday. The newly fledged young are very distinctive, with all over very dark chocolate coloured plumage, except for the top of their heads and faces which look as though they have been lightly dipped in custard! 
Waiting for lunch
They spend a lot of time loafing about sitting on the top of low bushes waiting for the parent birds to come in with prey Items which they drop from a hight encouraging the youngsters to swoop down and seize them. Over the next few weeks, they will move off or be chased away by the adults, they will begin  to disperse and hunt independently, it will be a perilous time for them.

Newly fledged Marsh Harrier (c) Bark

At the first screen was a pleasure to find a small family of Little Grebes. The parent birds were very attentive to the two stripy chicks and as is usual with grebes the young birds spent a lot of time on the parent’s backs.

Little Grebes (c) Bark

At the second screen there were eight chicks visible on the Tern raft but sadly whilst we were watching that number was reduced to six! A Lesser black-backed Gull swooped down towards the raft and whilst it didn’t take anything it panicked two chicks that were on the edge of the raft and they fell into the water. There was no possibility of their climbing back on again. However, the chicks managed to swim across to the muddy bank to the right of the raft, as you look out from the screen, where they were seen once again being fed by the parent birds.
Common Tern (c) Bark

We have been listening out and looking for fledgling Cuckoos, now that the adult birds have left. The last calling bird was heard during the last week of June.

Young Curlew in the grass and calling adult (c) Bark
Curlews would appear to have had a successful breeding season on and around Otmoor. On Saturday I caught a glimpse of a young bird running in The Closes and another in the field to the south of the closes. The parent birds were flying over calling anxiously trying to keep their brood together. It is extraordinary how varied and complex their vocalisations are.
Comma Roman Road (c) Bark
Already people have seen and photographed Black Hairstreak butterflies in the Roman Road area. Once again a Purple Emperor has been seen, I have yet to see one on the moor but when the weather settles down and warms up a little I will be spending some time looking for them in and around the oaks along the Roman Road. 

Marbled White and Small Skipper
Brown Hairstreaks will soon be on the wing and on the other side of the moor there will be White-letter Hairstreaks. Invertebrate life is thriving on the everywhere. When walking through longer grass hundreds of Grasshoppers ping up all around your feet.

Whitethroat with and without grasshoppers (c) Mark Chivers
Many birds are taking advantage of this insect bounty and Whitethroats can be spotted with beaks full of hoppers that they are taking back to the nest. On a walk out to the Pill on Sunday we found two male Redstarts hunting in the lee of the big hedge about two hundred metres from the Roman Road. They were perched about two metres up and flying down to grab Grasshoppers. 

Redstart Roman Road (c) Bark
It seems a bit early to be finding them. They will probably be with us for some time moulting and feeding up before their onward migration.
Black tailed Godwits (c) Dan and Tricia Miller

Now is also the time to be looking out for returning waders. A party of nine superb summer plumaged Black Tailed Godwits was seen early one morning last week, when they stopped for a brief refuelling and preening session on Big Otmoor. It might seem that the excitement of spring is over but there is still lots to see and to look for.
Hoverfly (c) Bark


Wednesday, 24 June 2020

Mid-June The last view, just from from the bridleway?

Bop Bop (c) Bark

The heavy rain of last week and overnight at the weekend, has recharged the scrapes and pools across the moor. It has also encouraged another growth spurt in the vegetation and everywhere is lush and verdant. Cow parsley and other umbellifers are frothing in the hedgerows, while Teazels and Burdocks seem to grow inches over night creating their strong structural shapes beside the paths and on any vacant piece of ground.
The hedgerows and ditches are busy with birds that are provisioning nestlings, and already there are many family groups of freshly fledged tits and warblers to be seen. 
Newly fledged Great Tit
Some are still being fed away from the nest by parents and others are fully independent. Some adult birds are singing once again and starting  second broods.

Wren and Sedgie (c) Bark

Out on Big Otmoor a pair of Pintail have bred successfully, although now there only seems to be three offspring left in the brood. This is a very significant occurrence as this is the first time that this beautiful species has successfully bred in the county. There has sometimes been  the odd pair that has hung about in the spring and late last summer we did see a couple of eclipse males on the southern lagoon. 


Pintail Top picture (c) Heather Green other two (c) Bark
Close to the reserve a female Mandarin has been seen with ducklings further adding to the tally of breeding species on the moor. A very young Stonechat was photographed in the last week to the south of the hide and it seems very likely that they have bred once again either on or adjacent to the reserve.

Above female with missing feathers below Male (c) Bark
Although we have not been able to access the reedbed for the last several months, we have been able to watch three adult Marsh Harriers coming and going across all of the fields as they hunted to provision their chicks. This weekend we were able to see two of the resulting chicks perching on the top of the reedbed bushes as they waited for the adults to bring in food. Newly fledged Marsh Harriers are distinctive, they are a uniform chocolate brown with yellow cream head markings. There are three easily identifiable adults, a strongly tri-coloured male, a female with particularly pale forewing and shoulders and another female that is missing a primary and several secondaries from her left wing.

Marsh Harriers with prey and being mobbed (c) Tom N-L

Bitterns can be seen as they move between different feeding areas and on Saturday morning this week three were seen flying out of a small reedbed close to the bridleway. 
Redshank Flypast
On the previous weekend I was lucky enough to arrive at the same spot just as a periscope like head was rising above the reeds and taking a long look round. Eventually the bird sprung up using its legs to thrust it above the vegetation and so get its wings into action.



Bittern lift off (c) Bark
Whilst many species have bred successfully across the reserve, once again “our” Cranes were not able to raise a chick to fledging. We were hopeful that this year would be the one when we could claim the first successful breeding in Oxfordshire of these stunning birds, for something like three or four hundred years. 
Wycliffe and Maple Glory 
Ted and Excalibird 

Bop Bop being mobbed by a Gull All pics (c) Bark
Our hopes were raised even more when “our” pair were joined by another pair and an unpaired female. I say joined, but pairs are very intolerant of each other when occupying breeding territory. There were disputes and eventually both pairs settled down to breeding. It must be said that both pairs were even more intolerant of the unpaired female, “Bopbop”! ( the cranes from the re-introduction programme were named by primary school children on the Somerset Levels…….need I say more? ) Our regular pair, Wycliff and Maple Glory, settled down to nesting early and we were able to monitor their laying and incubation by watching their behaviour. The new pair, “Ted” and “Excalibird” made their breeding attempt later. We were able to calculate when the chick or chicks had hatched and duly the parent birds were seen with what we assumed was a youngster down in the grass. Later still reserve staff saw a well grown youngster that we calculated was six weeks out of the egg, being carefully attended by its parents. Then unfortunately something untoward happened and we presume the chick was predated. As soon as we see the adult birds flying together, we can assume the worse. The second pair also hatched young, but their offspring would appear to have perished just ten days after hatching. The Crane experts suggest that there is enough habitat in the Otmoor basin to support three or four pairs of Cranes. 

Bop Bop being chased off by Wycliffe (c) Bark
They are long-lived birds and must be learning all the time, so yet again our hopes for a successful outcome are postponed for another year. In the meantime, they can be seen and heard on and over the reserve. The pairs are still quite bellicose and will bugle loudly at each other if they get too close or indeed if one pair invades the others airspace. Interestingly once they are back on their wintering grounds they will coexist in large flocks. We are able to identify them precisely because they carry individual coloured leg rings that can be read from a distance, although as the grass gets longer this can be much harder to do.

This is the time of year when insect life on Otmoor thrives in all its weird and diverse forms. Butterflies are on the wing in increasing numbers and our rarer species like both Black and White Letter Hairstreaks can be found with careful searching. Brown Hairstreaks will be on the wing later on in the summer. 


Comma, Small Tortoiseshell and Bumble Bee (c) Bark
Strange creatures like the rare Hornet Moth are being found. They use Aspens and Poplars as their food plants, and we have good numbers of mature Aspens in our hedgerows. It is an extraordinary piece of mimicry, to use the fearsome hornet with its powerful sting as a way to deter predation.
Hornet Moth (c) Badger
A small colony of a very rare Dragonfly has been found beside the river Ray close to the reserve. They are Southern Migrant Hawkers a species that is expanding its range northwards and westwards. They are very similar to Southern Hawkers but there are subtle differences apparent to the cognoscenti. This is the first occurrence of this species in Oxfordshire.

Courtesy of Badger.
Southern Migrant Hawker (c) Geoff Wyatt

The occurrence of regular, new and rare breeding species of both birds and insects reflects just how rich the Otmoor environment is. Once again it has shown that once you create and maintain habitats wildlife will find them and exploit them.
Long Meadow Hare (c) Bark


Tuesday, 9 June 2020

May and into June. The view from the Bridleway Again

Curlew (c) Bark

Weeks have slipped by and June has arrived and with it early summer. The number of visitors to the bridleway steadily increasing as the degree of lockdown has been modified and diluted. It has been surprising and pleasing just how much can be seen and appreciated without venturing out onto the reserve itself. 
RSPB sign (c) Tom NL
It seems likely that access to the screens and certainly to the hide will remain closed for the foreseeable future. On the positive side it is easier to maintain correct social distancing in the great outdoors and we are told that transmission of the virus is lower outdoors than indoors.

Juvenile tits above Great Tit (c) Bark       Below Blue Tit (c) JR
Although we are only supposed to meet one person from another household in the open air, it is difficult not to bump into many friends and acquaintances along the bridleway. It would be antisocial and rude not to stop and have a few words with them.
Whitethroat (c) Mark C

Warblers are still very obvious beside the track and along the ditches, but they are now spending more time providing invertebrate food for hungry broods, rather than singing to attract a mate or claim territory as they were at the start of the month. 
Whitethroat with a bill full of Grasshoppers (c) Bark
All ten of our breeding warblers can either be seen or heard between the carpark and Noke with Grasshopper Warbler being the most elusive, although one has started to reel again in the southern part of the carpark field and another can sometimes be heard in the vicinity of one of the larger gaps between Ashgrave and the bridleway towards Noke. Cetti’s Warblers seem to be almost as common now as Sedge or Reed Warblers.

Garden Warbler and blackcap (c) JR
The hot dry month has reduced water levels significantly and the scrapes are rapidly drying out. A few passage waders have been seen including Wood Sandpipers, Ringed Plovers and Ruff. 
Lapwing and Marsh Harrier (c) Tom NL
Oystercatchers are still present (c) Bark
The breeding Lapwings can be seen challenging aerial predators that including Marsh Harriers, Red Kites, Immature Herring Gulls and corvids. Redshanks are still calling and courting, but I have yet to see any newly fledged juveniles. 
Redshank with the white wing patch (c) Bark
There is one odd and easily noticeable Redshank with a white panel in its left wing that can often be seen around the first large scrape on Big Otmoor. Snipe are drumming and chipping over The Closes, Ashgrave, Big Otmoor and Greenaway’s. They seem to be well spread out over the whole reserve this year.
Snipe (c) Bark
Bitterns are being seen regularly from the bridleway flying in and out of the reedbeds and on one day we saw two Bitterns and a Heron flying over together and it was not clear whether there was some pursuit or other going on all three descended over the reedbed and we lost sight of them. Almost simultaneously another bird had been seen to fly into one of the Greenaway’s reedbeds and so we can be certain that there is a minimum of three Bitterns on site, but we suspect that there are certainly more than that.



Bittern Pictures (c) Dan and Tricia Miller
 Little Egrets are haunting the shrinking pools and there have been up to eight of them together. The Great White Egret that was seen out on Big Otmoor earlier in the month, has unfortunately not yet made a reappearance.

Little Egret (c) Bark           Great Egret (c) Old Caley
Just as in the past few years we appear to have a very healthy population of Cuckoos and there are at least five different birds on over and around the reserve. We are hearing many more females calling now with their distinctive chuckling call. Unfortunately, there have been no reports of the striking hepatic bird hat was here during the last two summers. Interestingly however we had two separate sightings of bird with an antenna and tiny transmitter on its back during the last week of May.
Cuckoo (c) Old Caley
Marsh Harriers are a permanent fixture over the reserve and can be seen hunting across all of the fields and making food passes to each other, it will not be long before they will be calling newly fledged youngsters up from the ground and dropping supplies for them. 
Hobby (c) Old Caley
By mid-morning Hobbies can be seen every day hunting over much of the reserve but favouring Greenaway’s. Increasing numbers of Dragonflies are on the wing offering rich feeding opportunities for birds that are fast and agile enough to catch them. 


Broad Bodied Chaser, Downy Emerald and Four Spot Chaser (c) Bark
The abundance of invertebrate food, as flies hatch from the reedbeds and ditches, is attracting many swifts and hirundines. The Swifts will feed low and close especially in strong winds. There seem to be fewer Swallows about this year, not a data driven fact just a feeling. There were some reports of Swallows running into difficulties on their return migration in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Swifts over the bridleway (c) Bark
From time to time Common Terns can be seen hunting along the ditches over Greenaways. The Tern raft at the second screen could not be put out before the lockdown and the furloughing of the permanent staff. The returning staff managed to get the raft out and I have been told that it was occupied by at least one pair of terns almost immediately.
Common Tern (c) Bark
Curlews can be heard and seen over Greenaways and from the Roman Road, we are cautiously optimistic that these beautiful and charismatic birds are having a successful breeding season. They can often be seen coming in to bathe at the now shrinking pond to the east of the pump house along the bridleway.

Curlews (c) Bark

Corn Bunting has been added to the Otmoor yearlist. A single bird has been heard singing and seen a little to the north of the reserve. The last ones that I know of on the moor were seen over ten years ago on the MOD land. 
Corn Bunting (c) Bark
There is very little arable farming close to the reserve, but the abundance of different grasses should ensure that there will soon be plenty of seeds to feed on.
Large Skipper (c) Del boy
We are approaching the time when some of our scarcer and more sought-after butterflies will be on the wing. Black Hairstreaks should be flying now and small numbers can be sometimes be found in the Roman Road area and as we reach the ehd of June we will be looking for White Letter Hairstreaks on the northern side of the moor where there are still many suckering elms. Grasshoppers of many different species are pinging off from under your feet as you walk through any grassy area. 

Labyrinth Spiders  Above (c) Bark    below Tom NL
Early on damp dewy mornings it is possible to see carpets of spiders web woven outside and around funnels that lead back into the huge cracks and fissures that have appeared in the bridleway. They are the lairs of what I think are Labyrinth Spiders Agelina labyrinthica  that lay out a carpet of fine threads around a central funnel from which they emerge to seize any unfortunate insect that has tripped their wires.
As Quail have already been reported from the Downs, we might hope to hear their distinctive call soon as the grass grows longer. Despite the restrictions there is always something new or different to find or look for on Otmoor.
A Bee fly ? (c) Bark