Saturday, 31 December 2011

A subjective and personal review of 2011

Extremes of weather and major habitat projects have radically affected the numbers and species of birds that we have seen this year.
The first major impact was from the extreme cold last winter. Cettis Warblers went from at least nine singing males in 2010 to one very occasional bird this year. It is very unlikely that any breeding took place in 2011, but there is now one regular bird, wintering in the ditches along the bridleway and with a mild winter it should survive to get things going again in 2012. Likewise the Water Rail population took a major dive but the presence of juveniles this autumn suggests that at least one pair managed to breed. The ice last winter caused the Starling roost to collapse and the drought this year, of which more later, meant that it failed ever to get established. Stonechats were also badly hit by the winter and have been very few and far between on the moor this year.
In order to prepare the land for re-profiling the Flood Field was drained and kept dry. This was an important habitat for both wintering and breeding wildfowl especially Garganey. Garganey did however find areas on Ashgrave and on the MOD land that suited them. The work was carried out quickly and efficiently and in several years time when the field is allowed to flood up again it will be a major asset to the moor.
The dry spring, summer and autumn meant that as we went into the winter water levels on the reserve were lower than ever before. This has had significant impact on the birdlife. We attracted very few passage waders, wildfowl numbers are massively reduced when compared with other years and as mentioned earlier the Starling roost failed to materialise.
The upside of the drought has been an increase in the vole population which has attracted the highest numbers of Short-eared Owls, Kestrels and Hen Harriers for years. As we go into 2012 they are attracting enthusiastic admirers to watch them quartering the fields in the late afternoons.
Lapwings and Redshank had the best breeding successes in terms of successful fledgings per pair and we look forward to spring 2012 with real excitement. The anti-predator fence on Big Otmoor has proved to be highly effective in deterring land based predators.
A major breeding bird survey was undertaken this year of all the hedgerows across the reserve. It took four separate teams of observers, with each team making ten visits, to cover all the reserve. The data has not been formally processed yet but the surveys showed just how many passerines use the reserve to breed. Whitethroats and Lesser Whitethroats seemed to have had a really good year as did Grasshopper Warblers. Willow Warblers seemed to be less common.
Turtle Doves continued to thrive on the reserve, highly significant given their collapse in population in this country. Cuckoos too were present in expected numbers.
There was a really good passage of Whinchats this autumn and they were around for at least six weeks. It seems that Redstart bred on land adjacent to the rifle range with the first juveniles being seen begging from their parents at the end of June, Redstarts were seen until up until the end of September and sometimes in double figures. The breeding record is the first recorded in the county since the beginning of the nineties.
Significant rarities this year included: Common Crane, White Stork, Spoonbill and Great Grey Shrike.
Let’s hope for more predictable and less extreme weather in the coming year and the reserve continuing to mature. Thanks as always to the permanent RSPB staff particularly David Wilding, the volunteers and my birding friends.

Saturday 31st December

Not much new to report. The Short Eared owls showed briefly above the hedge at the northern edge of Greenaways and there was a drake Gadwall on the lagoon, the first I have seen for some time. A flock of at least two hundred Golden Plover were present and several parties of Lapwings. Kingfisher pleased many visitors to the hide and at least forty Goldfinches were behind the second screen along with many winter thrushes.
Tomorrow we start a new year list but I doubt if we can keep up with Farmoor for long but we will try.

Saturday 24th December Christmas Eve

Otmoor was bright and breezy yesterday morning. Water levels are starting to creep up and the scrapes that have never held water are beginning to show their shapes. The softer wet earth has encouraged many more Lapwing and Golden Plover onto the moor and there were at least seven hundred of each in several wheeling flocks. A flying Goosander was over the reed bed and the lone White fronted Goose was out on Greenaways with the Greylags. The hedgerows were as usual full of foraging parties of small passerines and a Robin posed delicately for a photograph with which to illustrate the Christmas blog.
Later this week I will be writing a digest of the ups and downs of the year, but today I would like to wish all my readers, contributors and especially the sturdy bunch of stalwarts who walk round with me every week a very happy Christmas

Monday, 19 December 2011

Saturday and Sunday 17th and 18th December

Searching for a pot of gold. (c) Pete Styles
Wren in the sun. (c) Peter Barker
Fieldfare in the carpark field (c) Peter Barker
Record shot of white fronted goose (c) Peter Barker
Redwing in carpark field (c) Peter Barker

A quiet weekend on the moor but not without a few highlights.
I met up with a few friends on Sunday afternoon, originally to see the starling roost, but as the starlings are not happening we still went, hoping to see the short-eared Owls hunting over Ashgrave. We were not disappointed they gave excellent views coming quite close floating low over the ground and occasionally catching prey or interacting with each other. We also had a short and heavy hail shower that produced a spectacular rainbow and was captured perfectly in a picture by Pete Styles of a Shorty in search of a pot of gold.
Elsewhere this weekend we found a White Fronted Goose in with the regular Grey Lag flock and it was present both days. Unusually a Goosander flew over on Saturday morning but at present conditions don’t favour it stopping. The Hen Harrier was seen as was the Merlin. With the onset of really cold weather the winter thrushes have abandoned the fields and are now feeding on berries. They are particularly noticeable in the car park field. Rain last week has started to fill up some of our empty scrapes and pools so by the new year we may be looking like a wetland again .

Monday, 12 December 2011

Saturday and Sunday 10th and 11th December

Reed Bunting feeding on reed seeds (c) Peter Barker
Short-eared owl on the cattle pens (c) Andrew Last
Fox about to enter the reed bed (c) Pat Galka
Dawn in the car park field (c) Peter Barker

A very quiet weekend birdwise but slightly compensated for by a beautiful dawn on Saturday and some rain, at last, on Sunday. It might seem that I am getting weather obsessed but a wetland is only a wetland if it has water! Breeding success next spring is dependent on ditches full of water and a healthy population on invertebrates for Lapwing chicks to feed on. We have hosted wintering Bittern for the last few years, but at present the water does not extend into the reeds and any feeding Bittern would be exposed while hunting. Unless water levels change significantly we are unlikely to have anything more than a short passage visitor.
Raptors are the main compensation for the dry conditions and Hen Harriers, Merlin and at least six Short-eared Owls are some consolation. The Merlin was particularly welcome for one well known local birder for whom it was his one hundred and ninetieth bird in Oxon this year, an amazing achievement.
Ravens were again seen over and around the moor and by finding a feeding party of small birds a number of different species could be seen. Kingfishers were present along ditches and from the screens so there must be some fish still around, but on Sunday we saw a Heron feeding on what looked to be dead fish on the far side of the Northern Lagoon. The Starling roost has not really amounted to much this year, but the reed bed cannot be a very secure roost site while foxes can come and go without getting their feet wet.

Monday, 5 December 2011

Saturday and Sunday 3rd and 4th December

HenHarrier over Ashgrave (c) Jonathan Mercer

Only a small flock of Lapwings are present on Ashgrave

One of three Treecreepers seen on Sunday

Kingfisher appeared frequently at both screens.

This weekend on the moor for the first time since last February it felt like winter. Colours were muted and we had vast washed skies with dramatic water-colour clouds. On the bird front however it was much less dramatic, apart of course from the regular appearances of Hen Harriers and Short-eared Owls. The drought is having a massive effect on wildfowl numbers as well as on Lapwings and Golden plovers. By this time in a normal wet winter we would expect at least two thousand Wigeon and similar numbers of Teal, this year they are only present in the low hundreds and this weekend there were fewer Wigeon present than over the last few weeks. There was only one Pintail, a bird with a damaged tail and twenty odd Shoveller. It is a very worrying situation as there will need to be a huge amount of rainfall over the next few months if there is to be enough water on the reserve for the breeding waders. It seems ironic that the conditions that have encouraged the influx of raptors has had the opposite effect on our wildfowl. We saw the Merlin this weekend but as usual the views were fleeting and irregular. Ravens were heard and seen passing over. Concentrating on small birds in the hedgerows meant that we found three Treecreepers, a few Goldcrests and one flock of over twenty-five Long-tailed Tits. A Woodcock flushed from under a bush in Long meadow and unusually we had a Crossbill fly over calling. Best news was the reappearance on Saturday morning of the two Tree Sparrows that had been seen mid-week on the feeders by the Hide. If we can encourage them to stay for the winter they might , with suitable help once again breed on the moor.

Monday, 28 November 2011

Saturday and Sunday 26th and 27th November

Kestrel by the hide
Wren in the hedge
Female bullfinch
Two male bullfinches
The windy conditions meant that many birds were hunkered down in the bushes or hurtling past at great speed. Grey, misty starts gave way to bright blue skies and the last autumn leaves glowed brightly in the hedges.
On Sunday morning the first bird we saw was the female Hen Harrier, it flew from car park field across into the Closes where it stayed for at least half an hour before flying up the hill towards Beckley. Buzzards, Kites and Kestrels were common. There were large flocks of winter thrushes out on the fields or flying over with Fieldfares outnumbering Redwings by about ten to one. There are still large quantities of berries in the hedgerows and I assume the mild weather has meant that there is more to forage out on the open fields than to tuck into the hips, haws and sloes. The regular small flock of Bullfinches have taken up residence in the hedgerow that runs alongside the path to the second screen and flew ahead of us piping quietly as we walked. They were feeding on dried up blackberries and rose hips. There seems to be a lot Wrens buzzing around the bushes and chasing each other around, is this early courtship activity?
On Saturday we saw at least four Ravens and heard Raven again on Sunday. We heard and saw several parties of Golden plover on both days. The injured Lapwing that has been in front of the first screen since at least Wednesday continues to survive although it certainly looks as though its wing is either broken or dislocated, I don’t hold out much hope for it still being there next weekend.
Rainbow over the reedbed all pictures(c) Peter Barker

Thursday, 24 November 2011

Wednesday evening 23rd November

Sunset over the moor
The only raptor I did photograph

I thought that I would go and try to get a better photograph of the Short Eared Owls. Sadly they did not appear until it was too dark to get anything but the most blurry blobs. There were several birds over Greenaways and the MOD and two other birds quartering the Closes. The Ringtailed Harrier put in a brief appearance and the Starlings put on a cursory display. There were a large number of people there to see the Starlings and the car park was very crowded, a friend of mine refers to it as the "Autumnwatch" effect. it is a pity that they were a bit disappointed but there was a stunning sunset as compensation.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Tuesday 22nd November Odd Fungi

If anyone has any idea what these are I would like to know. I couldn't find them in either of my two fungi guides. I assume that one is a more mature version than the other, thus they are the same species. They were along the Roman road on the way out to the Pill.

Monday, 21 November 2011

Saturday and Sunday 19th and 20th November

Reed Bunting (c) Peter Barker

Short-eared Owl(c) Darrell Wood

Misty Reeds (c) Darrell Wood

A quieter weekend on the moor with foggy mornings giving way to sunny afternoons.
Short-eared Owls have been hunting over Greenaways and the Closes every evening and the Hen harrier/s and Merlin have been seen quite frequently. Peregrine was seen both days. The Cettis Warbler was both seen and heard on both days this weekend and is very mobile along the ditch beside the bridle way. A few Redpolls were seen occasionally in company with Goldfinches, but never in range of my camera!
Golden Plover were seen but usually flying over, on one occasion a large number flying high in long skeins. Two Pintail seen on Saturday morning were the first record of this winter period.There were five Stock doves on Big Otmoor on Saturday. On Saturday morning we found a Grey Wagtail by the first screen and as far as I know that is the first record of one on the moor this year. The scattering of grain by the cattle pen is paying dividends with a flock of over sixty Chaffinches and some Yellowhammers feeding on the ground. We will shortly be adding a Niger feeder to the feeding station in the carpark field and this will add to the interest around the feeders.
I spent a lot of time this weekend looking and listening for Bearded Tits but without success. I did however realise just how many Reed Buntings there are taking advantage of the reedbed. We now desperately need rain as the ecology of the reedbed is under considerable stress.

Some rather grainy video footage of the owls taken by Adam Hartley

Friday, 18 November 2011

Thursday evening 17 November Starling update

At least 3500 Starlings came into the reed bed to roost. They came without any great display and again moved about only a few metres above the reeds. However from whwere we stood between the two halves of the reed bed we could see a huge Starling display going on with clouds of birds like smoke in the distance. The roost seems to be to the east of Charlton and we estimated that it was two or three miles away from where we were. Anyone in that area who has seen it might like to get in touch.
As compensation we saw a female Muntjac suckling two fawns, something none of us had seen before.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Tuesday 15th November No sign of Beardies

Spent a couple of hours looking and listening for the previous days Bearded Tits. There was no sign this morning but we were looking for four small birds in a fifty acre reed bed. It got quite breezy which didn't help either. They could easily still be around. In compensation we saw the Otter cross the bund between the two reedbeds and several passes by a Peregrine.
Short Eared Owls and Ringtail Harriers continued to entertain this evening and the Cettis has not been chased away by ditch clearing.

Monday, 14 November 2011

Saturday and Sunday 12th and 13th November

A fall of Robins overnight

Golden Plover back again

Fly over Raven

Autumn Colour All pics (c) Peter Barker

A great weekend on the moor with today being particularly beautiful,calm and sunny, with some good birds.
Raptors have been very much in evidence with Peregrine seen both days as was Merlin. The Peregrine spent a good deal of time sat out on Greenaways on Sunday morning. Kites, Buzzards and Kestrels were ubiquitous. The Hen Harrier was seen this morning hunting along the northern edge of Greenaways as was a Short Eared Owl. At mid day on Sunday a Raven flew low across Greenaways and right over our heads as we walked back from the Pill.
Large numbers of Lapwing and Golden Plover have appeared this weekend flushing regularly from the farmland adjacent to the MOD fields. We estimated at least seven hundred and fifty of each with a feeling that we probably undercounted the Goldies.
Ducks numbers continue to increase with Shoveller, Wigeon and Tufties increasing slightly but Teal topping the charts with three hundred and forty from the second screen alone. There was also a Water Rail feeding along the edge of the reeds and I assume from its black and not red bill that it was a juvenile.
The game cover strip alongside Saunders Ground continues to attract good numbers of Greenfinches, Linnets and Reed Buntings. Amongst them yesterday were at least one Redpoll and a Brambling. Bullfinches are feeding along every hedge in small parties of threes and fours.There seemed to have been an influx of Robins overnight as I saw at least eight on my way out to the second screen.
Bird of the weekend is without doubt Cettis Warbler. We heard one calling fairly quietly from the ditch to the right of the pump house and on Sunday morning it was heard again further along the bridle way. It is the first that has been heard or seen on the reserve since a brief visit from and individual in May. Last winters cold evidently killed off the population on Otmoor which in the summer of 2010 had numbered at least nine singing males. It’s great to have one back, let’s hope that this is the beginning of a recolonisation and that their distinctive voice, much missed this summer, will once again become part of the Otmoor soundscape.

Friday, 11 November 2011

Starling Roost November 10th afternoon

Moonrise over the reedbed

French Starlings

The Otmoor roost.

There is a starling roost happening on Otmoor but last night it was not spectacular and the birds failed to display any of their aerial pyrotechnics. I estimated that at least three thousand birds came in to the northern reed bed, as they arrived they dived straight in and the only flying that went on was a few metres above the reeds as they changed position within the reedbed. Perhaps it was the weather, very calm and clear, or maybe there is a "critical mass" that has to be reached for the event to be triggered.
I was in France earlier this week and there are very large numbers of starlings feeding on the cliffs around Calais and I saw one group of at least five hundred head out to sea in the direction of Dover. It suggests that there are still large numbers yet to arrive.
Three Goldcrests moving along the hedge were a bonus as I walked out to the screen and a Short eared Owl hunted over Greenaways. As the sun sank in the west the full moon rose in the east and lit the path back to the carpark. A Tawny Owl called from the oaks in the Roman Road.

Monday, 7 November 2011

Saturday and Sunday 5th and 6th November

A much quieter weekend on the moor after the excitement and endeavour of last weeks bird race. Notable additions to the regular winter visitors were Redpolls and Brambling.The Redpolls were seen in the Carpark field on Saturday and Sunday. They were accompanying a good sized flock of Gold Finches. There were also several others associating with a very large flock of Greenfinches that were feeding in the south eastern corner of Saunders Ground (first mod field that you come to) flying between a set aside game strip and the hedge. It was very encouraging to find a flock of almost a hundred Greenfinches as they seem to have been very heavily hit by the parasitic disease and had become uncommon on the reserve. Brambling was seen under the new feeding station adjacent to the hide and flying over and calling by the roman Road on Sunday. Short–eared Owls were seen both days as well as Merlin, Sparrowhawk and Peregrine. The latter made several spectacular stoops into a party of Wood Pigeons that it flushed and came within inches of snatching a bird that it had separated from the flock. Kites, Buzzards and Kestrels were ever present but I had no reports of the Hen Harrier and would like to know if anyone else saw it. Duck numbers are creeping up slowly but I feel that they are unlikely to grow much more until we have further heavy rain and some of the small pools, ditches and scrapes fill up. Green Sand was still on the northern lagoon along with a Dunlin on Sunday and one or possibly two Greenshanks were heard over Big Otmoor. There was a substantial flock of Lapwing and Golden Plover that could occasionally be seen flushing from the farmland to the east of the rifle range.

Golfinch (c) Peter Barker

Monday 7th November

My first posting on the new home of Otmoor Birding. I will be importing much of the old material in terms of bird lists and maps and hopefully adding new material in terms of mammal, butterfly and dragonfly lists ( with help from Adam).
It will be good to get my blog alongside Port Meadow and all the other splendid county blogs. Later this morning I will post this weekends sightings and pictures.


Thursday, 27 October 2011

Saturday and Sunday 29th & 30th October Otmoor Bird Race

Short-eared Owl © Ewan Urquart

Despite the lack of water on the reserve we have had a really good run of birds and the moor is hosting a good variety of species despite it being a “quiet” time of year. Short Eared Owls and Hen Harrier are being seen daily and the Great Grey Shrike was re-found on Friday evening.
The Bird race held on Sunday gave us a very clear indication of what could be found in a very intensive four hour scouring of the reserve. When the sheets were handed in we found that seventy species had been seen altogether, highlights being the Hen Harrier hunting across Greenaways, Ravens, Peregrine, Water Rail at both screens and a broad spread of small passerines. There were also many notable absences, that would almost certainly have been present had the ground been wetter and the scrapes and pools full. Thanks to Badger, the Wickster and Ewan for making sure that the first time this event was held at Otmoor it was won by Otmoor regulars. College Lake next year will be quite a challenge.

Victors © Jason Coppock

Another stunning image from Ewan © Ewan Urquart