Monday, 27 July 2015

Weekend Round up and the return of Marsh Harrier as a breeding species.

Juvenile Harrier (c) Mark Chivers
An unseasonably cool weekend and  after a dry start a very wet one. However it did little to dampen our enthusiasm, as over the course of the last week it has become increasingly clear that Marsh Harriers have bred this year on Otmoor. This is the first  recorded breeding in Oxfordshire since the early nineteenth century. The Birds of Oxfordshire ( Brucker ,Gosler and Heryet) says in the species account, quoting Aplin (1889)..... “In Dr. Lambs time (1814) it was the most common hawk in the marshes around Newbury and it may have bred in those days around Otmoor

Courtship. The male is the smaller bird (c) JR
I have frequently referred over the last few months to the pair of female Marsh Harriers that were going through a deal of nest building and half hearted courtship displays. It was widely assumed that these were a pair of females producing a practice nest. This is a behaviour often seen in raptors. Last Sunday instead of the familiar two birds there were three and then by Tuesday there were four. The two new birds were not chased away by the resident pair but were seen to interact with them. The “new “ birds were uniformly coloured with pale yellow caps and chins, in fact classic juvenile freshly fledged plumage.
It still seemed puzzling as to how this had all come about. I collected together a series of images that had been taken on the moor over the past several months and sent them off to our esteemed County bird recorder. Ian Lewington’s huge experience and forensic eye identified the smaller of the two birds as a second calendar year male that was in a retarded juvenile plumage. He was able to trace the bird back to early in the year identifying it through slight nicks and damage to certain of its primaries.
Male showing signs of moult (c) JR
The most recent pictures of this individual show it is now going into a rapid moult into more conventional adult male plumage. This will happen very quickly now that the chicks are fledged. Both yesterday and today we were able to observe the youngsters loafing about in the low bushes together and then taking to the air as soon as one or other parent appeared.

Food pass (c) JR
We were lucky enough to see several food passes and photographs of these as well as the adults and young can be seen on my Otmoor Birding Blog. Yet again it is an example of how if the right habitat is provided wild life will find it and fill it. It is a credit to the reserve staff and volunteers that this has happened.
Bittern seen regularly this weekend
Bittern or Bitterns were seen at least seven times from the northern screen on Saturday and seen again on Sunday before the rain drove us off. The bird or birds are following a fairly predictable track out into a bushy area in the middle of the reeds and returning to the ditches around the edge presumably to feed. The Common Cranes are still being seen flying out on the northern side of Greenaways but the grass is so long and the terrain so uneven that they disappear as soon as they land.
Reed Bunting as an antidote to raptors (c) JR
Common Sandpiper on the Tern Raft (c) John Edwards
Elsewhere we had a Common Sandpiper on Thursday  which was a welcome addition to the yearlist. On Sundayy morning there was a Green Sandpiper and a Greenshank feeding in one of the Greenaways scrapes probably the same bird recorded on Saturday on Big Otmoor.oA Wheatear seen on Thursdayowas an early autumn record and the Starling roost although modest by mid winter standards ( currently 2000 ish) is attracting its share of raptors including a large female Sparrowhawk and a Peregrine on Thursday.

It is a great time to be involved with Otmoor and to realise just how far it has come in the last fifteen or sixteen years.
(c) JR

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Saturday, Sunday and Monday 18th,19th and 20th July

Feeding Goldfinch (c) Mark chivers
Both visits this weekend were notable for the large roving flocks of mixed tits and warblers. They are especially obvious beside the bridle way and through the car park field. They really do contain a complete mixture of our breeding small passerines. Yesterday I picked out three species of tits Whitethroat, Lesser Whitethroat, Willow  Warbler, Chiffchaff, Blackcap and on Saturday one juvenile Grasshopper Warbler as well. There is clearly safety in numbers and it is interesting how different species recognise each others alarm calls, almost like speaking foreign languages!

Willowchiff and Whitethroat (c) Bark

Long-tailed Tit(c) JR
As well as these juvenile flocks there are large numbers of young Reed Buntings, often hopping about feeding on the paths. Goldfinches too seem to have done well but in their case the juveniles stay around the adults in a species discrete flock.
Marsh Harriers were very much in evidence both over the reedbed and roving further afield. On Sunday morning there were three different individuals out from the first screen. One of them looked less familiar, appearing darker and with a smaller and less distinctive creamy cap. The three of them were interacting before two of them went down into the reedbed in their familiar area. Whilst watching them I had a flypast from a Bittern and I understand it was seen no less than three times on Friday.
MarshHarrier (c) JR
The Great Crested Grebe family continue to provide good value at the first screen and are having no difficulty finding enough fish for three chicks and two adults. They are feeding on fingerling pike and the occasional Rudd. I watched a chick swallow a small pike that was just a bit too long to go right down and it swam around for five minutes or so with the fish tail sticking out of its mouth like a strange pantomime moustache.

Grebe selection (c) JR
There is a pair of Little Grebes present with chicks but they are much more shy and retiring. Little Egrets are ever present now and there are significant numbers of juveniles amongst them noticeable by their paler bills and greyish legs. They must be breeding nearby but there is no evidence that they breed on the moor yet.
Little Egrets including juveniles (c) JR

On Friday a fine Whinchat was seen and photographed on the fence surrounding Big Otmoor. It seems an early date for this species to return as we tend to expect them  to come through and stay awhile in mid to late August.
Early Whinchat (c) Pat Galka
Wader passage is now really getting underway. On Monday there were four Black tailed Godwits of the islandica sub species.  The first Wood Sandpiper of the year was found on Monday evening taking our year list on to one hundred and forty one. On Friday there were at least two Ruff present and there has been a steady number of reports of Green sands.

Islandica Blackwit, Wood Sand and Ruff (c) Badger

In the next few weeks Brown Hairstreaks, one of our most important butterflies, will be on the wing. Already there  have been reports of Purple Hairstreaks being seen one was found nectaring on brambles on Sunday morning in Long Meadow. Let's hope that they have as good a season as the much scarcer Black Hairstreak had earlier this year.
Painted Lady (c) Pete Law

Monday, 13 July 2015

Saturday and Sunday 11th and 12th July

Adult Great Crested Grebe (c) Bark
One of the advantages of visiting a patch regularly is the way that it allows you to enjoy the detail of the lives of the animals and plants one is watching. Seeing the same birds over a series of visits lets you  observe behaviour and development that a one off visit would miss. So it is with the Otmoor Great Crested Grebes. There are two pairs, one on the northern lagoon and the other on the southern. On the southern lagoon we have watched the chicks turn from tiny, striped, fluffy balls riding on a parents back into vociferous youngsters, still with stripy heads but free swimmers now. There are three young two of whom stay close to one of the parents the other staying midway between both parents, perhaps to give it the best chance of being fed. While watching two of the young birds on Saturday we noticed that they were doing the synchronised head turning, shaking and preening that is part of adult courtship, I assume they have to learn and practice the behaviour somewhere, so why not with a sibling. It was interesting on Saturday morning to see that every time the parent bird dived there would be a series of splashes on the surface as the small fish scattered, often a long way from where the bird submerged.

Grebe feeding pictures (c) JR
The northern reedbed pair have recently constructed a nest on the edge of the northern bank, unusually clearly visible from the screen.Here we were able to watch the birds changing incubation duty, adding more vegetation to the nest and carefully turning the eggs. It will great to watch their progress over the coming few weeks if they manage to avoid predation.

Acrobatic Long Tailed Tits (c) Bark
Elsewhere on the moor there are now larger and larger mixed flocks of juvenile birds. Often a challenge to identify with certainty, we managed to pick out Chiffchaffs, Whitethroats and lesser Whitethroats, Reed and Sedge Warblers. The Lesser Whitethroats seem to have had a very successful breeding year given the numbers we are noticing. All three common Tit species have also done well, juveniles could be seen acrobatically hanging upside down and gleaning small insects from the underside of the panicles of cow parsley and hogweed along the bridle way. There have been good numbers of streaky juvenile Reed Buntings in the hedgerows and on the paths.
The regular Marsh Harriers were again very much in evidence this weekend hunting over the whole of the reserve rather than just the reedbed. A Bittern was seen on both days and on Saturday morning we had sustained views of it on the far side of the northern lagoon, as it made its way clumsily along the edge of the reeds stopping occasionally to point skywards making it increasingly difficult to see.
Male Redstart (c) Pete Roby
A male Redstart was found on Saturday and this is an early record, usually we do not expect to have many returning migrants until mid August. It is worth listening out now for the begging calls of juvenile cuckoos, as they are often fed out of the nest for several days before being finally abandoned by their surrogate parents. There has already been one photographed along the bridleway and given the high numbers of adult cuckoos this spring I feel sure that there will be others.
A Green Sandpiper stopped on the southern lagoon for a while on Saturday morning and I am sure there will be lots more waders coming through as we move towards the autumn.

Roe Deer on Noke Sides and hurtling Hare (c) JR

Large Skipper, Comma and Emerald Damsei fly or female Banded Demoiselle ?

Monday, 6 July 2015

Saturday and Sunday 4th and 5th July

Spot Fly (c) Early Birder
A consistently calm and warm weekend with lots of avian and invertebrate interest.
I was again struck by the numbers of newly fledged tits and warblers in the hedgerows. This week I was noticing lots of busy young Chiff-chaffs foraging , picking around, over and under leaves and sometimes sallying forth to snatch a passing fly. There was also a juvenile Yellow Wagtail out on the Big Otmoor scrapes and a recently fledged Little Ringed Plover on Greenaways.

Juvenile Cuckoo (c) Paul Thomas
Sadly we could not re-find the young cuckoo that had been seen and photographed earlier in the week I feel it will not be long before we find another, as the adults were present in good numbers this spring.
Blackwits on Southern Reedbed (c) Tezzer
True to the calendar several Green Sandpipers have turned up the latest being on the Greenaways scrape on Sunday morning. Also on the wader front eight Black-tailed Godwits flew in to the southern lagoon on the reedbed on Sunday evening. As the water is drawn down onto Greenaways in order to allow later breeding by Snipe, so shallow muddy areas are being exposed, and these will encourage passage birds to drop in for bed and breakfast. Sadly the Terns on the tern raft lost their chicks, to some predator or other but are showing signs of mating and courtship so perhaps its not too late for  a second try.
Tern with a gift (very small pike) (c) JR
Spotted Flycatchers are being seen in the Roman road area and on Sunday morning we heard a male Quail calling out for a drink on the Hundred Acres field adjacent to the Pill. Two Grasshopper Warblers were reeling from July’s Meadow where there are lots of scrub and grassland Butterflies to be found including a good showing of Marbled Whites.
Gropper (c) JR
Both Beautiful and Banded Demoiselles were seen and photographed this weekend, and Black Tailed Skimmer was another fresh dragonfly on the wing.
Beautiful Demoiselle (c) JR

Banded Demoiselle (c) Badger

Black Tailed Skimmer (c) Badger
The Common Cranes are still being seen whilst flying between feeding areas and hopefully the long grasses will help protect them from predators and from disturbance. They are very wary and sensitive to people getting too close. It would be disappointing were they to be hassled into moving away. So should you be lucky enough to see them please admire them from a distance they look wonderful as they fly.
Cranes at dusk (c) JR

Over the next few weeks I am going to be giving the reedbeds a good “grilling”. With a number of rare and exciting herons and egrets in the country it can only be a matter of time before one or other of them turns up on the moor. Great white Egret has become almost annual and we have yet to see one this year, they are breeding very successfully in Somerset and there could be some young birds coming through. Perhaps even a Little Bittern or a Squacco Heron might appear and that would really make our summer.
Hurried Little Grebe (c) JR

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Cranes on Otmoor

Flying Cranes(c) JR

Anyone who regularly looks at the Oxon Birding site or at Otmoor Birding might well have wondered at the abrupt halt in reports of cranes on Otmoor. You may even have reported them to Going Birding and wondered why the report wasn’t mentioned. The reason for the information embargo ended sadly with a tragedy, but that individual failure conceals much broader and significant successes.

On Saturday 18th April two Common Cranes were seen circling Big Otmoor, they were still present on Sunday morning and were clearly un-ringed. On Wednesday 22ndApril a different two were found. Unlike the others they were seen to be carrying colour rings from the Cranere-introduction project on the Somerset Levels and Moors. 

They were spending time feeding out on quiet adjacent fields both on and off the reserve. Just to add a little more confusion three different Cranes from the Somerset Levels and Moors project were seen flying in to the Bicester Wetland Reserve, beforemoving on later the same day. So in the space of just a week we had had seven different Cranes in the county.

Ringed Cranes courtesy of  Geoff Wyatt
RSPB staff had been liaising with the Crane Project and we now knew that “our” birds were indeed a pair, the male known as “Wycliffe” the female as “Maple Glory". Their names were chosen by local primary school children as part of an engagement project; these children are now connected to 'their cranes' and will be incredibly excited that 'their' birds made a breeding attempt this year. Cranes form dedicated pairs and stay together all the time, except when incubating. At such a time the birds take it in turns to feed and to incubate. As soon as we started to see single birds feeding out on the fields or flying in and out of an area of the moor, our hopes were raised that they might actually be attempting to nest, despite being very young and inexperienced. We noted that one bird would fly in and then the other individual would fly out. At this time it was decided to minimise the information going out about them.

All was well for the next three weeks until the morning of Friday 12th June. The volunteers, who were watching the birds saw one fly in as usual and expected the other to fly out. Instead there was some commotion, some bugling and both birds flew up and off towards the east. RSPB staff talked to the Crane experts who said that if they didn’t return within two hours they would not return. This proved to be the case and so the RSPB staff went out to the location that the birds had been frequenting and found the nest. Sadly they also found a single egg that had been predated the culprit remains unknown although it is suspected to be a day time predator. The egg seems to have been close to hatching; there was sticky down on the inside of the shell.

Nest and egg pictures(c) Fergus Mosey
Thus the first attempt by Common Crane to breed in Oxfordshire for perhaps six hundred years* ended in failure. However I believe there are many positives to be drawn from this and they should not be underestimated. We now know that the site, despite its regular visitors, is quiet enough and large enough for these secretive birds to feel confident enough to make a breeding attempt. We know that they were finding enough food in the countryside and on the reserve and the habitat suited them. Although the birds had been hand reared they behaved just as naturally and warily as truly wild birds. Local farmers and landowners were thrilled to have such special birds on the land and took pride in them. The value of the habitat restoration and recreation undertaken by the hard work of RSPB staff and volunteers is highlighted when such rare and beautiful birds adopt it. Of course this is not in any way to minimise the value of the habitat for all of the other wildlife that is found here.

The Cranes may now remain locally and moult, during this time they will be vulnerable to predators but will be able to take advantage of the huge numbers of invertebrates that can be found in the grassland, especially grasshoppers. We can only wait now to see if they return and make another attempt to breed next year. They will of course be older, wiser and more mature by then.

*The Birds of Oxfordshire states:

Cranes were resident in Britain in ancient times, and Wilson (1987) reports bones of this species found in Oxfordshire dating back to Mesolithic, Romano British, Saxon, Medieval and post-Medieval times. Since then it has occurred very rarely.”
Cranes on Ashgrave (c) JR