Wednesday, 8 April 2020

End of March and Lockdown!

Social distancing being enforced at the feeders (c) Tom N-L

Walking down Windmill road in Headington this morning at eight o’clock, my attention was drawn to a male blackbird sitting on the eaves of a house and singing loudly and clearly. Not an unusual occurrence you might think. The difference today was that I could actually hear it, his fluid song was not drowned out and obliterated by the normal roar of non-stop rush hour traffic. Although we have other preoccupations, nature just keeps following the rhythm of the seasons.
Blackbird (c) Bark

I last went down to Otmoor two weeks ago and duly walked round with a couple of my regular companions, observing the two-metre separation, which has now become the new normal. The sky was clear and blue, I slowly realised that there was a total absence of vapour trails and no noise from passing aircraft.
Chaffinch song (c) Bark

Spring was happening everywhere, with a few early arrivals and many others still awaiting departure. Chiffchaffs seemed to be everywhere in the hedgerows, flitting and feeding, bundles of restless energy. 
Chiffchaff (c) Oz
Out on the fields Lapwings and Redshanks are calling, displaying and nesting. 
Before monitoring stopped and the RSPB staff were asked to work from home the first Lapwing nests had been found. Sadly, we will not be able to collect comprehensive breeding data this year.
Female Stonechat soon to go (c) Bark
Two different Bitterns were booming. One from Greenaways and the other from the depths of the long reedbed that goes towards Noke along the northern edge of Ashgrave beside the bridleway. 

Marsh Harriers (c) Bark
Over the main reedbeds up to four Marsh Harriers were hunting and displaying. The Hen Harriers of the winter finally seem to have moved on.
Marsh Harrier and Red Kite Dispute (c) Tom N-L

A small flock of Golden Plover were out on Big Otmoor looking very smart indeed as they moult into their fresh summer plumages. They, and the Wigeon that are still feeding around the edges of the water on Big Otmoor and The Flood, will soon be gone.

Willow Warbler and Long tailed Tit (c) Bark

With the RSPB staff still visiting the reserve on a rota basis for essential duties and with livestock soon to be coming on to Ashgrave, I will be hearing from them about the new arrivals and other birds on passage. 
Two New Arrivals (c) Bark
I will try to publish some kind of update from time to time. I have for instance just heard that there is a Little Ringed Plover on Big Otmoor and that the Black headed Gull colony seems to have decamped to the Flood. The first Swallows have also been noticed.
Kestrel in the wind (c) Bark
I have been thinking a great deal about the lockdown and our restricted access to the countryside, especially for those of us who live in town. When I walked from my home up to Shotover, as I did the other day with a couple of members of our household, I was dodging other people continually, all of them out legitimately running, cycling, dog walking and running. Had I taken a ten-minute drive, I could have been on a public footpath or bridleway and seen nobody. I fail to see that this is somehow a more “unsafe” option for myself or others…….
Mallard out walking! (c) Bark

A friend sent me a screen shot from Richard Dawkins Twitter feed…..:
“Told to take brief exercise daily, went to Otmoor. Only inhabitants birds and normally a few twitchers. I obeyed a notice forbidding entrance for Covid-19 safety reasons. I am sincerely curious. Maybe good reason? How does walking alone in a fenland bird reserve endanger anyone?”

Despite the obvious crisis in our society the natural world just keeps going unconcerned. I was reminded of a poem by Ted Hughes called “Swifts”, here is an extract:

the swifts materialise at the tip of a long scream
Of needle. “Look! They’re back! Look!” and they’re gone
On a steep
Controlled scream of skid
Round the house-end and away under the cherries. Gone.
Suddenly flickering in sky summit, three or four together,
Gnat-whisp frail, and hover searching.
They’ve made it again,
Which means the globe’s still working, the Creation’s
Still waking refreshed, our summer’s
Still all to come ---"

Peacock and Small Tortoiseshell (c) Bark

I will report what I can from the moor and hope that we will all soon be back out there enjoying the birds and all of natural world. In the meantime, I hope that you all stay well.

Wednesday, 18 March 2020

Saturday Sunday and Monday 14th-16th March

Harbinger of Spring Sand Martin (c) JR

It was a tonic to get down to Otmoor this weekend and realise that, despite the trials and tribulations being experienced by the human population, the natural world is just getting on with life. Spring is in the air, mild weather and lengthening daylight has triggered the urge for countship and breeding. 

Courting Oystercatchers (c) Bark
The warmer weather and southerly winds are bringing in the first of the summer migrants. A Willow Warbler we heard singing at the end of the Roman Road on Monday morning was a very early arrival. Chiffchaffs are also moving up and down the hedgerows busy flitting, feeding, not pausing but giving their distinctive song as they go.
Chaffinch in full song (c) Bark
It is a very birdy time of year when many winter visitors have yet to leave and summer visitors are beginning to arrive.

Coots are building (c) Bark
Some bird numbers are now starting to decline. The thousands of Golden Plover from earlier in the winter are now reduced to hundreds. As they sit out on the fields facing into the wind a scope view reveals that many of them are moulting into their handsome summer plumage, with gold spangles appearing on their backs and black throats and bellies. Lapwings are now dispersed across the fields and are displaying and calling wildly.
Redshank (c) Bark
The sound of calling  Redshanks, Lapwings and Curlews marks a very particular time of year on Otmoor, before the soundscape becomes swamped by the songs and calls of newly arrived warblers. Our resident birds are already singing. Chaffinches and Reed Buntings most noticeable amongst them with an occasional Dunnock cranking out its cheery song from the top of a bramble or fence post.
Calling Reed Bunting (c) Bark
Reed Buntings were amongst the most numerous species we recorded when we did a hedgerow survey on the MOD land on Monday. As well as the birds setting up breeding territories across the moor, there are still a large number of them coming in to take advantage of the feeding programme alongside the hide. 

Dunnock and Goldfinch (c) Bark
There is also a flock of fifty or so Linnets, some Chaffinches, five or six Yellowhammers and a number of Goldfinches feeding on the fine seed mix that we are putting out for them. This food source fills the hungry gap for seedeaters when seeds in the wild have run out and before farmland weeds set this year’s seed.
Courting Gulls on Greenaway's
The Black-headed Gull colony that has developed over the last few years is once again getting started. Their courtship is very loud and what seems to us to be aggressive and harsh, the main focus of the colony seems to be in the eastern end of Big Otmoor with birds going over to the southern lagoon to bathe and preen. Last year we recorded several Mediterranean Gulls around and over the colony and we will be looking for them again this year.

Little Grebe (c) Bark
We spotted our first Sand Martin of the year from the first screen on Saturday morning and on Sunday I realised that a pair of Little Grebes were back on the southern Lagoon. A Bittern is booming regularly now from the middle of Greenaways and on Sunday morning I had a brief view of one flying low over the southern reedbed. 
Two of the Marsh Harriers interacting (c) Bark
There are certainly three Marsh Harriers over the reed-beds, and they appear to be a “ménage a trois” just as they were last year. One of the females is especially distinctive having at least one primary missing from the end of her right wing.
Hen Harrier (c) Bark
There is still at least one Hen Harrier making the rounds of the moor, my photograph suggests some paler feathers appearing on the upper wings and I wondered if this ringtail is in fact a juvenile male. Time will tell as the last similar one moulted over the summer into a splendid male by the autumn and then stayed around the moor all winter before heading off the following spring. (I have been advised that the bird is still in full juvenile plumage and the paler band is a normal juv feature and has just abraded a bit paler. Many thanks I.L.)
Wren at the second screen (c) JR
The Yearlist is currently standing at ninety-five species and will soon surge ahead as the trickle of new arrivals becomes a flood.
Squirrel eating Pussy Willow and Blackthorn soon to be out everywhere. (c) Bark

Wednesday, 11 March 2020

Out of February and into March

Hen Harrier (c) JR

I have only managed managed to get down to the moor twice in the last four weeks, largely due to storm Dennis trapping me overseas and then delivering awful conditions when I finally did get back. Followed by what has felt like a new storm every weekend since.
Reed Bunting (c) Paul Wyeth

Water levels have shot up to the highest that I can remember and once again there is extensive flooding across the whole of the moor. The birdlife is still spectacular with large numbers of wildfowl, Lapwings and Golden Plovers. 

Goldies (c) Bark
The Goldies in particular are very restless and liable to take to the air at the slightest threat. Once airborne the strong gusty winds scatter them across the sky like confetti at a March wedding. They are also very vocal calling constantly and then chattering when they do land, standing close together and facing into the wind. There are still several small groups of Dunlin loosely associating with them.
Muddy billed Curlew (c) Bark   (not a species!)
The single Curlew present since the turn of the year has been joined by some others and four birds were displaying over the northern edge of Greenaway’s this weekend. Four Oystercatchers are now on site, with two birds favouring the Flood Field and another pair on Big Otmoor.
Marsh Harrier (c) Bark
The Marsh Harriers are very active over the reedbed displaying and hunting. There are four different individuals and there is competition between the two pairs. Hen Harrier is now being seen much more reliably from the first screen and hunting across Greenaway’s. We know that there are two birds around, and we are not sure whether one individual is favouring hunting along the bunds and over the reedbed or whether we are seeing both birds in the same area but at different times. 

Hen Harrier (c) JR
They have occasionally been coming very close and demonstrating their extraordinary flying skills in the strong blustery winds. Two Peregrines have been hunting Teal across the reedbed and the Flood Field. They are clearly a pair as can be seen by the difference in size when they are perched up in the same tree and can be compared.

Stonechats   above(c) JR  below (c) Bark
There have been four very confiding Stonechats along the path to the second screen. Unusually the party is composed of three males and a female. We speculated that perhaps they were a pre-migration group, or the three males were courting the female. Normally Stonechats on the moor are seen in established pairs.

Yellowhammer and Great Spotted Woodpecker (c) Paul Wyeth

Spring is very much in the air with singing Chaffinches, Song Thrushes and Skylarks belting out their song whilst holding up in the windy skies. There are one or two early Chiffchaffs calling along the bridleway, but not yet singing all the time.
Kestrel (c) Paul Wyeth
Bitterns are now booming intermittently, and we have yet to establish whether there is just one male calling or two as there were last year. Cetti’s Warblers are establishing territories and producing much more complete and complex songs than their normal explosive burst of sound.

Leuchistic Pochard (c) Bark

There is an abundance of water and the hot dry times of last summer are a distant memory. The corner of the Carpark Field by the feeders is still flooded and Pheasants have taken to wading about under the feeders like ducks! 
Paddling Pheasant (c) JR
The reserve has attracted a new species of mammal. One of our trail cameras has picked up a Chinese Water Deer feeding on the bund. Extensive flooding along the Cherwell Valley and along the River Thame may have helped it to get here, we have been told that there have only been five records of this deer occurring in Oxfordshire since the year 2000. Provided it is not a lone wanderer, they could become a regular sight on Otmoor, as it is a very similar habitat to the ones that they favour in East Anglia.
Chinese Water Deer (c) RSPB trail camera

Hopefully spring will progress rapidly and bring a flood of new birds down to the moor, by the end of March we should be finding our first Wheatears and more Warblers, and the dark stormy days of winter should be behind us.
Spring Heron (c) Bark

Monday, 10 February 2020

First two weeks of February

Barn Owl (c) JR
A relatively mild but wet and stormy period, when water levels have continued to rise, and the huge flocks of Lapwings and Golden Plovers have continued to be the star attractions on, over and around the reserve. The birds are very restless and flighty. 
Lapwings, Goldies and Harrier (c) Tom N-L
It only takes one or two individuals to panic and the whole flock will take to the air. Just occasionally it is possible to pick out the raptor that has caused to commotion. Peregrines cause the most consternation flushing even the larger ducks, but Buzzards and Harriers will push up the waders and cause the grazing Wigeon to take to the water. It is worth checking out the large oaks in the first hedge across Noke Sides as both of the Peregrines on site spend time watching from them.
Panic (c) Bark
The strong winds have strewn the Lapwings and Golden Plovers across the sky in ragged skeins. The birds return to the ground eventually after flushing and hunch down heads into the wind. 
Snipe (c) Tom N-L
Looking through them with a telescope is a frustrating business, I found a slightly different bird on the edge of the mass this weekend and just as I was trying to put my companions onto it, all of them took to the wing and once they re-settled I could not find it again in the throng.
L.T.T. (c) Tom N-L

At the first screen the open water has attracted over thirty-five Pochard and I am pleased to report that “our” regular leuchistic drake “Luke” is amongst them for the fifth year running. 
"Luke" sleeping (c) Bark
In addition, there are Gadwall and Tufted Ducks on the lagoons but just a scatter of other species, the large numbers of Wigeon, Teal, Mallard and Shovellers are out on the Flood Field and on Big Otmoor, where there are also significant numbers of Pintail. 

Gadwall and Shelduck there are five on the reserve (c) Bark
Last weekend there was a hybrid drake Tufted Duck x Scaup out from the first and second screens but it
Tuftie drake (c) Bark

A Barn Owl has been hunting along and around the path to the second screen and is often still out and about well into mid-morning. Wind and rain overnight can not be helpful to bird that relies so much on its hearing for hunting success. 

Barn Owl (c) Bark
A Kestrel has taken up a regular perch on a low bush close to the viewing area for the starlings and is quite approachable. The bund with its elevated position must have become a refuge for small mammals avoiding the flooding on the fields, thus attracting both raptors.
Confiding Kestrel (c) Bark

We thought on Saturday that we heard the first booming from a Bittern, distantly from the far side of the reedbed. It didn’t persist and we were less than totally certain, but records over the past few years show that it is about now that they start calling and it has been an unseasonably mild winter thus far.
Flying in with nest material (c) JR
The Grey Herons are building nests and squabbling in the reedbed, flying in with necks stretched out straight and carrying sticks and twigs. As they reach the nest site they call and raise their crests in display.

Coot wars (c) Bark
Coots are now fully into their “Coot Wars” the slightest dispute will lead to a mass brawl, birds from the far side of the lagoon will patter across the surface to pile into the fight, like drunks outside a pub on Friday night.
Great Crested Grebe the latest addition to the year list (c) JR

Monday, 27 January 2020

Last two weeks of January

Cetti's Warbler (c) JR

During the course of a year the “hotspots” on Otmoor vary with the season and the birds that are around. Currently the second screen is a good place to spend some time, as is the gap in the hedge adjoining Noke Sides where the fields are partially flooded.
Lapwings and Goldies

At the second screen a pair of Stonechats have become very obliging and confiding, sitting out on the fence and on the reeds that edge the water. 

Stonechats on ice (c) Bark
When it has been frosty they have been picking small insects off the ice and when not frozen picking food from the waters surface. 
Male Stonechat (c) JR
The huge bramble on the left-hand side of the screen is home to a very vociferous Cetti’s Warbler that just occasionally shows itself in a very un-Cetti’s way. It is a good time of year to spot these noisy but usually invisible birds. 

Cetti's (c) Bark
Vegetation is at a minimum and the birds can be seen creeping about in the leafless low bushes stopping briefly to make their high decibel familiar calls. They also produce a series of shorter sharper contact calls. On Sunday this week we were able to  watch two birds in the same bush calling and conversing with each other very  near to the path. They are getting territorial already and from the number of birds we are hearing, suggests that we have a very healthy population on and around the reserve.

Golden Plovers (c) Tom N-L
The partial flood on Noke Sides is suiting the Lapwings and Golden Plovers very well. A single huge flock of between two or three thousand Goldies were out there this last weekend. They form a golden-brown carpet on the edge of the water all the while keeping up a continuous quiet chattering. The Lapwings are not in such a tight concentrated flock, instead they are scattered across all four of the Noke Sides fields feeding in the grassy areas that stand above the water. Every so often all the birds lift off in a mass panic the Golden Plovers wheeling in tight formations getting higher until the flocks fragment peppering the sky with black dots before slowly returning to the ground. 

Goldies and Lapwings flushing (c) Bark
There are good reasons for the alarms and mass flushes. What appears to be an established pair of Peregrines are spending a good deal of time perched up in a bare dead oak tree in the first hedgerow across the field. From time to time they make forays across the feeding Lapwings and Plovers causing mass panic. 
Sparrowhawk on Ashgrave and Peregrine on the dead oak (c) Bark
Last weekend we saw the larger female bird returning to the tree with a prey item, but we were unable to see at that distance what it was. The Peregrines are  certainly staying close to their larder!
When the feeding flocks are scoped, we can usually find a few Dunlin scattered among the Golden Plovers or near the feeding Lapwings. They are also more noticeable when the flocks take flight often showing out at the bottom of the flying flocks. 

Pintail Wigeon and Teal (c) Bark
Last weekend a sharp-eyed Old Caley picked out a lone Redshank amongst a lot of Lapwings loafing in the field. It’s the first one for the year  and has arrived much earlier than we would normally expect to see  one on the moor. A small flock of Ruff are also in the vicinity either on Noke Sides or more often out on big Otmoor. 
Blackbird (c) Bark
There are many blackbirds foraging among the tussocks and along the bunds around the reedbed and they are nearly all males, which I understand are more likely to be winter visitors than residents.

Reed bunting feeding on reed seeds (c) Bark
The RSPB staff and volunteers have made the annual reed cut and have cleared a large area to the  left of the first screen. As in previous years they are now raising the water levels  to check the regrowth of phragmites in this area. The area should be good for wildfowl to feed in, for spawning fish in the shallows and in turn offer fishing opportunities to Bitterns. 
Kestrel (c) Tom N-L
Over the reedbed there were three or four different Marsh Harriers. Two of them were certainly indulging in courtship behaviour. A Short-eared Owl was seen over Greenaway’s on Sunday morning and this is the first one that we have seen for over five weeks. The Hen Harrier was seen and photographed on Sunday morning. 

Barn Owl (c) Trefor Knight
Barn Owls are being seen regularly, hunting out from the back of the second screen and in the eastern corner of Greenaway’s.
Pintail;; (c) Bark