Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Saturday and Sunday 17th and 18th December

Fieldfare (c) JR

A grey misty wintery weekend that nonetheless still had a lot to recommend it, especially as it included the Traditional Otmoor Massive mince pies, sloe gin and chilli chocolate (and other seasonal delicacies) pre-Christmas gathering.
Once again at least two Bitterns were in evidence on both mornings. On Saturday, the birds were sitting out in the open on top of the reeds that are now being flattened by the sheer weight of Starlings coming in to the nightly roost. When they are perched up on a pile of reeds their cryptic plumage is so effective that they almost disappear, especially when they choose to “sky point”.
Bittern perched on the reeds (c) JR

The two Marsh Harriers put in regular appearances. It is strange how quickly we are now taking for granted what was once quite a special bird in the county, in 2006 being described as a spring and autumn passage migrant. Peregrine too was present on both days and on Sunday had a brief hostile interaction with the Marsh Harriers over Greenaways. 
Marsh Harrier upsetting Teal (c) Derek Lane
The large scattered flock of Lapwings are still around but the Golden Plover numbers have dropped off again.
During the week six Egyptian Geese were found on the Closes. It has puzzled me as to why a bird that is so ubiquitous and successful elsewhere in the county has not been seen down on the moor for about three years. These geese have the distinction of being the one hundred and fiftieth species to be reported on the moor this year.

Bullfinch and Goldfinch (c) Derek Lane

Teal and Wigeon numbers are building up towards their winter peak, perhaps a little more slowly this year than in other years. The Wigeon are out on Big Otmoor and Ashgrave in large flocks grazing in close proximity to the water. There are Teal visible from the screens but their true numbers only become apparent when they are flushed from deeper in the reed bed often by a Harrier or a Kite. On Sunday, a lone Pintail was seen. There is a lot of water on the most distant lagoon and it is attracting many of the wildfowl.
Cormorant and lunch (c) JR

As we expected more finches and buntings are being attracted to the winter seed feeding close to the Hide. Yesterday there were twelve Yellowhammers alongside the regular Reed Buntings and Linnets.
Fieldfare and Redwing flocks have dispersed and we now just have odd singletons that appear to have taken up squatter’s rights on particular bushes that still have a crop of berries remaining. There is one such Fieldfare guarding the small hawthorn bush to the right of the first screen, even so it is still very shy and easily flushed. From the first screen a single Songthrush is picking up worms from the well trampled area beside the screen that is set aside for viewing the Starling roost.
Song thrush and lunch (c) JR

I attended the roost on Tuesday and numbers there have risen and we estimated a hundred thousand Starlings came in at dusk. Although I have not been there at dawn I understand that it can be equally spectacular as the birds leave the reedbed for a day’s foraging in the countryside.

It was good to meet so many friends on the moor on Sunday morning. We speculated, as we often do, about what might turn up next on the moor and discussed what was the Otmoor bird of the year. There was a pretty strong consensus on the star birds but not so much so on what might appear next, I will consider these weighty matters in my next posting which will be the last one of 2016.
Otmoor Massive 2016

Tuesday, 13 December 2016

10th and11th December

Bittern (c) Tezzer
This weekend, which includes my visit to see the Starling roost on Friday evening, I was lucky enough to see all eight species of raptor that Otmoor currently holds. On Friday we identified three different Marsh Harriers it seems our regular pair have been joined by another female. The Hen Harrier was also seen cruising just above the hedge on the northern edge of Greenaways. On Sunday morning a female Merlin landed briefly in that same hedge. A pair of Peregrines were also recorded on all three days. There are a couple of very white fronted Buzzards on the moor at present and they can be rather confusing, we have tried several times to turn them into Rough-legs but it just doesn’t work, they are unfortunately just Common Buzzards! A Sparrow Hawk has started to target the finches feeding along the track by the hide, just as one did last year. Red Kites and Kestrels are ubiquitous the Kites seeming much more numerous of late.
Juv male Peregrine (c) Derek Latham
Bitterns were present on all days but showed particularly well on Sunday morning. There are certainly two, we saw them virtually simultaneously, but judging by the areas from which they flew, three seems much more likely. One bird seems to favour the channel on the right close to the first screen flying in and out of that area twice.
(c) Tezzer
The most dramatic change on the moor this week was the massive increase in numbers of Lapwings and Golden Plovers. There have been some flocks Lapwings but many fewer Goldies. Both species appear to have arrived in large numbers during the past week. The presence of the aforementioned Peregrines has made it much easier to gauge just how many there are now. A Peregrine passing over the field is guaranteed to flush everything. When they flew we estimated at least a thousand Lapwings and perhaps eight hundred Golden Plover on Sunday morning. In the sunshine they sparkled as they flew, giving the characteristic alternate flashes of black and white that gives them their name.
The finch flock beside the Hide is growing steadily.

Finches from the hide(c) JR
It is still predominantly made up of Chaffinches, Reed Buntings, Goldfinches and Linnets. Linnets have increased noticeably although they have yet to reach the numbers that we experienced last winter. A couple of Yellowhammers were seen during the last week and as food becomes less readily available in the countryside at large we hope that we will attract more of them, perhaps with some Bramblings and some Redpolls. The regular seed feeding in this area will now continue through the next four months.

Fieldfare (c) Bark

There are substantial numbers of Canada and Grey-lag Geese out on Big Otmoor and on Ashgrave. Amongst them it is possible to pick out the four White-fronted Geese, a Barnacle Goose and the Ross’s Goose plus his progeny. The Barnacle Goose has become very attached to a Canada Goose and the pair of them flew right over our heads on Sunday. All the while the Barnacle was giving its delicate little quacking flight call. The geese are spending a lot of time out on the furthest edges of Ashgrave and it is difficult to see quite what is out there without a scope.

Starling roost (c) Tom N-L

The Starling roost is once again providing some spectacular viewing even if it is not quite on the scale of the one seen in Rome in the final episode of the Living Planet! The birds do not always perform a shapeshifting routine but nonetheless are an astonishing natural phenomenon, just for sheer numbers alone. They are starting to beat down some of the reeds in the southern lagoon and it was interesting for me to see that as they come in, they go down to the water’s edge and drink and even bathe before settling. As before my advice is to car share whenever possible and avoid weekends, also get there well before dark. I have occasionally met people going down to the roost as I have been on my way back to the carpark after it has finished.

Anyone around the first screen should keep their eyes open for a very small warbler. It was seen by several people on Friday evening in a bush to the right of the screen. It was only on view for the briefest time. The only thing that we who saw it can be certain of, is the fact that it was not a Cetti’s nor a Chiffchaff. A real mystery!
Seasonal (c) Bark

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

December 3rd and 4th

Bittern (c) JR

It was something of a shock to find myself scraping the ice off my car on Saturday morning, when I left Johannesburg earlier in the week the temperature had been 34 degrees! The moor had changed hugely in the three weeks since my last visit. Water levels had risen and then it had frozen, the hedgerows were rimed with frost and only reduced areas of the lagoons were ice free.
The most obvious birds this weekend were the winter thrushes. Still very flighty and garrulous they exploded from the hedgerows in very large numbers. One flock on Sunday morning flying along the northern edge of Greenaways must have numbered well over five hundred birds. Despite the attention of the Fieldfares and Redwings there are still plenty of berries on the trees. The birds appear to have favoured the darker haws rather than the lighter red ones, we speculated that perhaps the dark fruits are more mature, riper and are possibly more nutritious or digestible. At the rate they are being consumed it will not be very long before even the lighter fruits are gone.

Berry Munchers     Redwing and Blackbird (c) Derek Lane    Field fare (c) JR
The apple tree on the path to the second screen that has carried such a massive crop this autumn still has some fruit on the tree and the ditch below is absolutely full of windfalls. The Starlings are taking advantage of the way the frost has softened the remaining fruit and are feeding on them greedily with considerable competition for the best perches. We hoped that there might be a few left should the expected Waxwings make it down this way.
Raptors were also much in abundance this weekend. There are two Peregrines being seen regularly, a large mature female and a smaller probably juvenile male. One of them was seen to snatch a Starling from the pre roost display on Thursday afternoon. The two distinctly different Marsh Harriers were seen from time to time over and around the reedbed. For over an hour on Sunday morning one of them, probably a juvenile perched just a couple of feet up in the reeds directly out from the first screen where it could be seen preening and simply loafing about. Two Hen Harriers were also noted, on Sunday one of them was pursued all along the northern edge of Greenaways by a Kestrel. It was difficult at times to work out who was mobbing whom, as they seemed to alternate in the role of aggressor. Red Kites and Buzzards were common, one Buzzard with a great deal of white on it attracted particular attention. I have not heard of any sightings of Merlin but this doesn’t mean that they are not here anymore. They certainly range far beyond the edges of the reserve out onto the MOD land and beyond.
Kestrel and vole (c) Derek Lane
Bitterns are now regular and it would be unusual not to see at least one on a visit. We were particularly lucky on Sunday when we saw at least three individuals from the second screen. For a short while two could be seen standing on the reed margin only twenty metres or so apart. When the birds meet as two did on Thursday, there is a great deal of threat and bluster with feathers fluffed up and a lot angry posturing. It is of course impossible to say whether these birds are “our” breeders or indeed their offspring. Many Bitterns come over from the continent to winter in the UK.
Bittern over ice (c) Derek Lane
As well as the Bitterns being pushed out of the reeds and onto the edges by the cold, so are the normally secretive Water Rails. There are good numbers on the moor, but usually only their strangled pig squeal calls reveal their presence. Several different birds could be seen picking their way along the edges of the ice or flying with rapid wingbeats from one side of the lagoon to another.
On Sunday as the frost melted in the sunshine there were at least thirty Snipe probing around the tussocks on the Closes. It must have been the only place that they could feed, frozen ground must be a particular challenge to long billed birds that rely on probing for their food.
Two new species were added to the Otmoor year list while I was away, the Ring-necked Parakeet that was in the Starling roost over a week ago and last week a Water Pipit that was found on Big Otmoor. This brings the annual total up to one hundred and forty nine species a shade under what we recorded last year, however there are still three weeks to go in 2016 and according to those in the know the Waxwings are on their way!

Very many thanks to Steve and Pete Roby who with Badgers help kept the blog going while I was away.

Blue Tit and Quizzical Reed Bunting (c) JR