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.