Sunday, 26 January 2014

Saturday 25th and an hour of Sunday 26th January

Hare on the bund.........

.....suddenly saw me. (c) Bark

The swirling sky (c) Bark

Redwing on the path (c) Bark

Carpark Bullfinch #1...

.......and #2 (c) Bark
Saturday started misty and improved during the morning, but Sunday never really got going before reverting to the current default mode of heavy and persistent rain.
Huge numbers of birds were again the highlight, but there was also plenty to see away from the swirling flocks.
The early mist in the car park field helped me to get close to a small party of Bullfinches feeding on blackthorn buds, their quiet “wheep” contact calls led me close to where they were until I could see their pale pink breasts in the grey gloom. Brighter and more numerous were a flock of over forty Yellowhammers near to the feeders.
Once on the bridle way the huge flocks of Lapwings and Golden Plovers could be seen flying up from the back of Greenaways and over the Flood Field beyond. Equally large numbers were out on Big Otmoor from whence they would flush regularly. When they were settled it was possible to scope through them and scattered amongst them were probably in excess of forty Ruff, a small number of Dunlin and also two Black Tailed Godwits. At times it looked as though there were brown earth banks out in the floods but a glance through the scope revealed they were composed of thousands of Golden Plovers.
The RSPB WEBS count from Monday revealed almost record breaking numbers of wildfowl and with the rifle range being used most of them had settled on Big Otmoor. We did not have time to carry out an accurate count but I can’t remember seeing such large numbers for well over ten years. The only real species that was poorly represented was once again Pochard, although they were here in larger numbers than we have seen so far this winter.Once again we scanned carefully through the Wigeon and Teal for their transatlantic cousins. With both species currently present in their thousands surely it won’t be long until we pick up one of these American specials.
The two Peregrines continue to occupy their regular oak tree and the Hen Harrier put in at least three appearances. We saw no Bittern this weekend but two were seen during the week at either end of the reedbed.
A Great Crested Grebe was the only addition to the year list, which currently stands at eighty four species.
Lets hope that we have some more settled weather over the next week and that the water levels beyond the reserve start to subside. In the mild conditions at least a couple of Chaffinches have started to sing as had a Wren, spring could be just around the corner.... but we must learn to be patient.

Monday, 20 January 2014

Saturday 18th and Sunday 19th January

All Pics this week (c) Bark
 Grey and damp on Saturday but bright sunshine on Sunday. Whatever the weather the major excitement on the moor is the huge numbers of birds that are currently around. Lapwings predominate with an estimate of well over four thousand and Golden Plover come a close second with around three thousand. There are also large numbers of wildfowl present with a huge flock of Wigeon out on the MOD floods and a large number of Teal on the reedbed. There are at least fifty Shoveler and a few Gadwall and Pochard.
From time to time on both days great smudges of birds would rise up above the hedgerows as a raptor passed over. The Golden Plover on Sunday sparkling against the sky as the light caught their pale undersides as they wheeled and turned in tight formations. It really is a wonderful spectacle, but will cause the RSPB staff some problems when they come to do the regular WEBS count on Monday morning.
The two Peregrines when not causing panic amongst the ducks and waders were easy to find, sitting in their regular tree to the west of the visitor trail. Hen Harrier passed through occasionally and there are regular reports now of a Short Eared Owl.
The Black Tailed Godwits seen on Friday have moved on and a Grey Plover was seen flying over at the Noke end. Interestingly we had thought that we had heard one on Saturday but could not be sure.
I led a guided walk on Sunday for the Abingdon Natural History Society, right on cue just as we reached the second screen a Bittern flew across giving brief but excellent views. Sometimes we just get lucky.

Saturday, 11 January 2014

Friday 10th and Saturday 11th January

Red Kite in the dawn light. (c) Bark

Goldies flush from Big Otmoor (c) Bark

Goldfinches and crab apples (c) Bark

Hare on the bund (c) Bark
 I can’t remember a time when the moor was quite so flooded. There are hardly any dry areas left on Big Otmoor or Greenaways and the water level on the northern reedbed that had been partially drained before Christmas is almost back to the previous level and that is just from rain that has fallen, nothing has been pumped into it. There are a lot of Hares that have taken refuge on the bunds surrounding the reedbeds, as these offer dry areas and the opportunity to eat.
Large numbers of Golden Plovers, Lapwings and Starlings can be seen wheeling around the sky over the fields. Sometimes they are flushed by raptors and sometimes seem to take to the sky in a kind of mass panic induced by an over nervous bird. On Friday the mass of birds were out on Big Otmoor and by Saturday they had re-located to the Flood Field. On Friday it was easy to scan through them and in doing so I found over thirty Ruff feeding on the margins of the pools . There were also several Dunlin. I estimated that there are over two and a half thousand lapwings and perhaps two thousand Goldies. After Adam’s finds on Port Meadow over the last few years there might very well be an “American” amongst them but it will need patience and closer examination to pick one out, but I live in hope.
Peregrines, Sparrowhawks and a Hen Harrier are seen frequently and Ravens have been present on both days. A Short- Eared Owl was seen on Friday heading out towards the top of Ashgrave. Red Kites patrol continually and I had wonderful views of one this morning lit by the low red sun at dawn.
A Little Egret, the first this year, was on the margins around Noke and the sheep fields. I also found a few House Sparrows in the same vicinity. Earlier in the week a Collared Dove was on the wires in the car park field. At the first screen there are some very contentious Coots and good numbers of ducks to be seen. Teal are the most numerous, followed by Shoveler. About ten Pochard are still there and a lone male Pintail although I understand that there are more out on the flooded MOD fields.
As the floods begin to subside elsewhere, the birds will be increasingly concentrated on the reserve wetlands and when they are they should provide quite a spectacle.

Monday, 6 January 2014

Saturday and Sunday 4th and 5th January

Stunning Starling (c) Bark

Red and Gold Dawn (c) Bark

Whoopers flyby (c) Bark

Ruff among the Lapwings and Goldies (c) Badger

Flooded Fields beside the path to the second screen (c) Bark
 My visit on Saturday was a very soggy affair and the only brief respite from the rain occurred just as I was leaving. There were birds to be seen however the most notable being a Barn Owl found shortly after dawn in the hedge beside the bridle way and a Short Eared Owl that I saw being hassled by crows over Greenaways and then making a long slow descent towards Ashgrave. Most birds were keeping their heads down and although we often say “nice weather for ducks” it wasn’t!
Sunday was very much better and very “birdy” although the weather had deteriorated again by the afternoon. The dawn was so beautiful that I had to stop and take pictures on my way to the reserve. For a few minutes before before the sun rose above the horizon the clouds were lit from below with layers of polished bronze, auburn and gold.
Birds were making up for lost feeding and hunting time and raptors were very much in evidence from the start; with two Sparrowhawks over the double hedge to the north of Greenaways and later the Hen Harrier hunting over the same field. The raptors were continually flushing the flocks of Lapwings, Golden Plovers, Wigeon and Teal. There did not seem to be so many ducks present as earlier last week, but the floods are now so extensive that they may well be foraging further afield and loafing on other waters.
The fields to the west of the reserve are all flooded and are attracting much larger concentrations of Golden Plover and good numbers of Gulls. This area seems to be the hunting base for two Peregrines and both were sitting in the regular tree that they use as a lookout. From time to time one or other of them would head out causing mass panic among the other birds and creating the stunning spectacle of the Lapwings and Goldies wheeling in the sunshine set against an inky darkening sky, as the next weather front marched in. The three Whoopers were out on the fields to the north but visible from the hide and they made a brief circuit of the reedbed before settling back down again on the field.
In amongst the commoner waders were twenty seven Ruff and eleven Dunlin. We took a long walk round past Noke and were able to scan the floods from the other side and get much closer views of the birds from there, although anyone planning to do so will need wellies! A Common Gull was seen in flight although the Black Headed Gulls were by far the most numerous.
Elsewhere the Stonechats are still in residence beyond the hide and large numbers of finches are foraging around the feeders and the cattle pens. A small flock of Yellowhammers are frequently in the hedge beside the path to the first screen.
Raven, Common Gull, Meadow Pipit and Hen Harrier helped swell the Otmoor yearlist to seventy two species. As the floods recede a little and the river Ray empties, the wildfowl will move back onto the reserve in larger numbers. It will be worth looking carefully through the Teal and Wigeon flocks for rare and exciting transatlantic visitors.

Friday, 3 January 2014

January 2nd. Year gets off with a bang.

It was impossible to get out and get started on New Years Day but yesterday offered a window of relative calm and bright sunshine between the downpours and the gales.
The wet weather has transformed the moor so it has become more lake than land, consequently wildfowl and Lapwing numbers have soared.
Lapwings must currently number well over three thousand divided roughly between two groups one centred on Greenaways and the other on the MOD land. There is also a party of at least fifty Golden Plover and they were accompanied yesterday by eight Dunlin. At least eight Ruff were feeding amongst the Lapwings on Greenaways.
Duck numbers are the most spectacular with the birds spread out over both the reserve and the neighbouring flooded fields. We estimated a minimum of four thousand birds the bulk of which were Teal and Wigeon. Good numbers of Shoveler, Gadwall, Mallard and Tufted Ducks were amongst the melee as well as a handful of Pintail and Pochard.
Two Peregrines are still harassing the assembled birds one of which has lost some primaries from its left wing. Kestrel, Sparrowhawk and Buzzard were seen but as yet I have not had any report of the Hen Harrier and I wonder if the area it has been roosting in has been flooded.
On one occasion when the Teal flushed from the reedbed they managed to stir up one of the Bitterns which circled with them for a while before plunging into one of the denser stands of reeds. A few moments earlier we had had point blank views of the Bearded tits which I hadn't seen for over four weeks. They moved along in front of the viewing point adjacent to where the new screen will be before moving deeper into the reeds. The Otmoor year list stands at a creditable 62 and I am sure that it will grow rapidly over the next few weeks.
Sadly not everyone's approach to this wildfowl spectacular was simply to enjoy it. From the middle of the hundred acre just as dusk set in there were volley after volley of shots as so called "sportsmen" sought to exploit the proximity of a nature reserve and the abundance of flying targets. I know that other reserves are adjoined by shooting grounds, but it seems wrong that the pleasure of  many can be overridden and ignored by the selfish few.

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

2013 A Review

Dozing Ferruginous Duck. Otmoors bird of the year (c) Bark
 The unusual weather patterns and odd seasons have led to some great successes and a few failures this year, but on the whole more good things have happened than bad.
We have had a record number of different species on the moor, at one hundred and fifty five it was a full five species more than last year. On the rarity front we have hosted a stunning drake Ferruginous Duck, Great White Egret, a Wryneck and the family of four (now three) Whooper Swans. In the first winter period we had between seven and eleven White Fronted Geese over-wintering and both Spoonbill and Osprey flew through. Peregrines are seen on almost every visit and in the winter we have had both male and female Hen Harriers present as well as regular Merlin sightings. Marsh Harriers are much more regular but are yet to show any signs of breeding.
Bitterns boomed for the first time on Otmoor in over a hundred and fifty years and Bearded Tits were shown to have bred. This was the first recorded breeding of this species in Oxfordshire for over two hundred years. Turtle Doves were successful breeders with certainly two and possibly  three pairs present. One pair was observed to fledge three separate broods. This is a major achievement by the reserve and its staff for a species whose status is in free fall in this country. Cuckoos were present and were seen to be attempting to lay in Reed Warbler nests (their favoured host on the moor) but may not have been successful due to the late arrival of the warblers, that was probably due to the very cold spring. Snipe bred in much better numbers and we had more “drummers” than in previous years.
Sadly this was the first year since 2002 that there was no record at all of Cettis Warbler. Hopefully if this winter remains mild they will find their way back and be shouting at us from the hedgerows in the near future. We did not see as many wader species as we had in previous years in fact Common Sandpiper was not recorded at all. The cold dry spring and the long warm Late Summer and Autumn meant that there was very little mud for them to forage on. Currently there is no mud because almost everything is submerged! It really has been a year of extremes.
The warmth of the summer benefitted our invertebrate life with Butterflies being the most obvious of these. Black and Brown Hairstreaks were very much easier to find and hopefully their higher numbers will carry over into next years population.
The area next to the first screen that was created specially for Common Lizards has proved to be very successful and there is another colony of them in the car park field. Likewise the Grass Snake population would seem to have increased or else we have got a lot better at spotting them.
Hares are present in really good numbers and the Otters are seen regularly. The Fallow Deer fawn that was adopted by the cattle on Ashgrave is still confused as to its identity.
We have an excellent new screen at the northern lagoon and will soon have another at the southern end. The hide has now lost its raw newness and is blending in. There have been some great sightings in and around it. As the vegetation develops it will become even more of a part of the landscape.
On behalf of all the local birding community I would like to thank David Wilding and the permanent Otmoor RSPB staff for the work that they carry out sensitively and tirelessly for our benefit and for the greater benefit of wildlife. I would also like to thank the legion of Otmoor Volunteers who give their time as wardens, on working parties or in the office, without them there would be no reserve.
I am really looking forward to 2014. Let’s hope that the seasons return to normal and that it rains and shines at the right times. Then in turn the amazing wildlife on the moor can continue to thrive and in doing so delight us.