Friday, 7 December 2018

Last two weeks of November

Male Peregrine from First screen (c) Bark

Otmoor has been a very misty moist place of late with few bright sunny interludes. The foot drains and scrapes are slowly staring to hold water. If we continue in this run of Atlantic weather systems, the reserve should soon be back to where it ought to be at this point in the annual cycle. More open areas of water will draw in more wildfowl.

Shovellers above (c) Bark below (c) JR
Shoveller numbers have continued to increase, with nearly seventy on the southern lagoon at the weekend. Wigeon are not increasing at the same rate and that may well be to do with the lack of suitable grassland to graze, that is adjacent to open water.
All I could se from the hide (c) Bark
The lack of open pools is most noticeable of Ashgrave. There is a hole in the bund between Ashgrave and the ring ditch that drains directly into the River Ray. This has meant that there has been little to see out in front of the hide. Small leaks over time become large ones as the structure of the bund is steadily eroded by flowing water. The leaky bund is about to be repaired and there will be some heavy plant operating for a short while on Ashgrave. In addition, we are about to start our winter feeding programme for seed eaters, which has been carried out over the past two years.
Reed bunting (c) Tom N-L
If the previous two years are anything to go by there should be substantial flocks of Linnets, Reed buntings, Chaffinches and the like, feeding around the hide and up the path towards July’s Meadow. The repairs to the bund and the feeding programme will make visiting the hide a much more rewarding experience than it has been recently.
Peregrine (c) Bark
Raptors have once again been very much in evidence exploiting the huge biomass of the roosting Starlings. On Sunday there were two Peregrines present, one a very large adult female and the other a smaller, probably juvenile male. The larger bird chased off the smaller whilst making harsh scolding cries, then sat for almost an hour in the large leafless oak between the fields on Noke Sides. There are now good numbers of both Lapwing and Golden Plovers present feeding out on the farmland beyond the reserve boundaries. They are probably on the Peregrines menu.
Grey squirrel also doing its bit to strip the hedgerows (c) JR
In addition, they will target the Winter Thrushes that by now have almost stripped all of the haws from the hedgerows.
Winter Thrushes (c) Bark

At the second screen last week a Jack Snipe was seen feeding for a couple of hours along the muddy bank on the right-hand side as you look out. It is unusual to get to see these elusive birds in the open, normally the only view you get is as they fly away from just under your feet. A Green Sandpiper was also feeding along the same bank.

Jack Snipe and Jack Snipe and Green Sand (c) Paul Wyeth
Both Jack Snipe and Common Snipe are perfectly camouflaged as they feed among the reed stems so it is worth taking the time to scan this area carefully. The second screen is the best place to see Bitterns. Sometimes two birds show at once and on one occasion three birds could be picked out hunting along the northern edge of the lagoon.

Bitterns from the second screen (c) Tom N-L
The Bitterns are not sociable and should two individuals meet it will result in an aggressive display, where plumage is puffed out and head and neck feathers are raised, before finally one of them flies off or melts back into the reeds. Kingfishers are regularly seen on the northern lagoon but not so frequently on the southern. This is due in part to there not being many fish in the southern lagoon which in turn is probably due to the effect of having 100,000 starlings adding their droppings to it each night!
A flash of electric blue in the gloom (c) Bark
A Ring -necked Parakeet has been seen going in to roost with the Starlings and two weeks ago a keen eyed and very experienced birder saw what he thought was a Rosy Starling going in to roost, a few days later an adult Rosy Starling was seen and photographed in an Oxford garden. I have little doubt that it was the same bird. This Starling may well still be coming into the roost but picking out one odd individual from over 100,000 is a matter of luck.
Two Buzzards and attendant Magpies feeding on a dead goose on Noke Sides

It is worth checking through the flocks of feral geese at this time of year, look out for smaller geese that keep themselves a little apart from the main flock. They could be White-fronted Geese. We have not had a visit from truly wild geese now for two years and there was a time when they were reliable annual visitors.
In the absence of Bearded Tits this will have to do (c) Bark

The Otmoor Year List currently stands at 147 species and we will be lucky to make it to over 150 as we have done in all the years past. It has been an odd year and I will speculate further on it when I review the year in four weeks’ time. There have been notable sightings and regular species that we have not seen.
Mallard (c) JR

Sunday, 18 November 2018

Beginning of November

Wigeon back in good numbers (c) Bark
We have finally had some decent rain and at last there are pools starting to form in the middle of the scrapes that have been dry for too long. Last weekend the rain was kind enough to fall mostly at night and on both Saturday and Sunday mornings we enjoyed periods of crisp bright sunshine with clear washed skies, worthy of the finest Turner watercolours. There are still leaves clinging to the oak trees. They are all shades of gold and bronze and they blaze out when lit by the low sun, especially so after a shower when they are set against the inky blue clouds of the departing rain, sometimes embellished with a rainbow.
Otmoor Rainbow (c) Bark
The Starling roost has continued to grow in number and has built up rapidly to numbers in excess of fifty thousand. The numbers are spectacular but there is no guarantee that they will perform their swirling murmuration display. More often than not they go straight down into the reeds to roost covering the reeds like a black oily tide and constantly chattering to each other. We still have not been able to determine the factors that produce a spectacular roost it must be related to wind, temperature and weather but we have yet to understand it.
Distant Harrier (c) Tezzer
Such large numbers are naturally attracting more and more raptors to what must be a predictable food source. The latest addition has been a Ring-Tailed Hen Harrier that has started to frequent the roost on the lookout for its evening meal. We are hoping that the splendid male that left us last April, will have evaded the gamekeepers and will make it back to overwinter again on the moor.
Last Sprigs male (c) Tezzer
During the past week two Peregrines are also haunting the roost, as well as two pairs of Sparrowhawks and the resident Marsh Harriers. We have noticed that first thing in the morning there are always one or two Red Kites patrolling low over and around the reedbed. With such large numbers of starlings it is inevitable that there will be sick, ailing or injured individuals left behind when the flocks depart at dawn, we assume that the Kites are seeking out such casualties.
Peregrine (c) Tezzer
On Sunday morning one of the Peregrines was perched up in a dead Oaktree on the far side of Noke Sides judging by its size we estimated it was a male. This has often been a popular lookout for Peregrines as it offers panoramic views over the areas where Lapwings, Golden Plover and Woodpigeons feed.
Lapwings and Golden Plover on Noke Sides (c) Bark
Last week a Peregrine was seen to stoop at dusk on a bat, probably a noctule, it was unsuccessful, but this was a behaviour never previously seen by the observers.
During the past week two Otters were seen on the bank to the right of the second screen. It was the first otter sighting for some time, the animals concerned might be a male and female or perhaps more likely a female and cub, there was a marked difference in size between the them. On Saturday morning on the southern lagoon we noticed that the ducks were very restless and easily spooked, moving out away from the edges en masse and occasionally flying. After watching for a while I just glimpsed an otter diving and later on swimming swiftly along the reedy margin on the far side of the water.

Roe deer (c) JR
I was also lucky enough last weekend to have a spectacular view of four Roe Deer running past me rather than the normal view of a deer running away from me. We were able to see them with all four legs off the ground like fairground horses and admire their athleticism at close hand.
For the first time this winter there were Lapwing flocks of several hundred birds both over and on big Otmoor. Duck numbers too are starting to rise again with many more Shovellers and more Wigeon present.
Wigeon at the first screen (c) Bark
Bitterns are being seen frequently over and on the reedbed we certainly saw three different individuals on Saturday morning from the first screen. People watching at the second screen saw an individual climb up the reeds on the northern edge of the lagoon and stand in the sunshine for a while. On Sunday we came upon a Bittern stalking through a patch of sedge it saw us and before slinking away drew itself up to its full height making it easier to see rather than hiding it. It’s a technique that really only works in tall reeds!
Peering Bittern (c) Tezzer
Just as I am about to post this blog I have heard of a Glossy Ibis flying over the second screen. It may very well stay in the area just as the previous bird did, the Otmoor basin is a very secluded and extensive area. It is a very welcome addition to this years’ more modest list.
Fieldfare (c) Oz

Wednesday, 31 October 2018

Last two weeks of October

Golden Plover (c) Bark

The weather has changed at last and this recent weekend we experienced early winter weather for the first time. Leaves have started to fall, and the grass was rimed with hoar frost. We still have had very little rain and the moor is dryer than I can ever remember it being at this time in the annual cycle. This lack of water has had a very significant effect on the number of wildfowl and waders on the reserve, it will take several weeks of steady rain to recharge all the scrapes and ditches across our fields.

Distant Fieldfares (c) Pete Roby
Fieldfares and Redwings have arrived in good numbers but are still very mobile, moving through towards the west and south rather than settling and feeding for long. Numbers of Wigeon and Teal are slowly rising but they will require more available open water in order for them to approach their expected numbers.
Goldies (c) Bark
The first small flocks of thirty or forty Golden Plovers are being seen, we were lucky enough to have some right over head last week, so close that we could hear the whoosh of their wings.
The Starling roost is still fairly modest but is building all the time. The birds at this time of year, when there is less pressure on feeding opportunities in the daytime and it is not below freezing at night, seem prepared to spend more time and energy in their pre-roost displays. This was very noticeable a week ago, when they congregated in the blackthorns beside the path and could be seen flying off, some with sloes in their bills as they went down into the reedbed. They looked stunning as they flew up on mass into the low golden light that picked them out and made them shine as they rose up from the hedge.

All Starling pics (c) Bark

Bitterns are being seen regularly, more often from the second screen than the first. Sometimes they can be spotted feeding on the edge of the reeds and at other times flying in and landing on the margins where they simply seem to melt away into the vegetation. Their cryptic plumage makes them almost impossible to pick out once they freeze and point their bills towards the sky.
Bittern (c) Peter West

Marsh Harriers are also regular over the reedbed and there appear to be three different birds being seen regularly now, adult male and female and a probable first winter juvenile. The Harriers drift above the reeds and the hedgerows and occasionally hunt out across the larger fields. They are frequently hassled by corvids that randomly appear to take an exception to their presence and pursue them until they lose interest or perhaps when they feel their honour is satisfied.
Marsh Harrier (c) Bark

Short-eared Owls are being seen regularly in the late afternoons over Greenaways and up towards the reedbed. Just as darkness falls Woodcock have been spotted flying out of the carpark field and onto Greenaways.
A Little Owl was heard calling from the Roman Road area last week, this is the first record from Otmoor this year of what is becoming an increasingly scarce bird..
Marsh Harrier (c) Peter West

It is very easy to become complacent and familiarity can eventually breed contempt. A visitor the other day remarked that there wasn’t much about and I found myself agreeing with him. Later while I was chatting with another Otmoor long time regular we agreed that if we had seen Bitterns and Marsh Harriers on a single visit to the moor ten years ago, it would have been a red-letter day. Another visitor from North Wales said he just couldn’t get over seeing so many Red Kites and I confess that we barely notice them now. I wonder how long it will be before we feel the same way about Great White and Cattle Egrets.

There was an unusual event on Saturday at the second screen. A group of four or five Cormorants appeared to be working in concert to drive fish into the shallower water up against the northern edge of the lagoon. One of them caught a very substantial looking Rudd and spent the next five or six minutes trying to first subdue it and swallow it.

Eventually the catcher was “mugged” by a larger bird that manged to get it down apart from just the tip of its tail, the throat of the cormorant wriggled in a very uncomfortable way, not perhaps for the cormorant but for those of us watching!

All Cormorant pics (c) Bark
Fallow Deer Stag (c) Bark
On Sunday in Long meadow there were few birds to be seen, but we were entertained instead by a fine young Fallow Deer stag that was bellowing out his rutting call and being answered by what sounded like a much larger and louder rival from within the Spinney. A small group of does fed nervously at the woodland edge. It seems to me that there is always something to see and be enchanted by………one only has to look.

One has only to look!

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