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.