Monday, 16 January 2017

Saturday 14th January

Reed Bunting (c) Bark
Yet another very disappointing weekend weather wise. Cold and sleety on Saturday and on Sunday it didn’t stop raining all day! Consequently, I only managed one visit to the moor. The rain, annoying as it is to be out in, is welcome. Most of our fields are still below the optimal water levels for this time of the year.
So wet even the Robin tried to get under cover (c) Bark

As the water levels rise I expect to see an increase in the number of Shovellers out on the scrapes and flooded areas. About three years ago when water levels were exceptionally high I remember counting over six hundred of them out on Greenaways filtering their food from the floodwater. There are at least fifty on the southern lagoon at the moment. They are frequently seen in pairs circling nose to tail, I had thought that this was some part of their courtship behaviour. Recently we have come around to thinking that the circling action sets up a vortex that draws water and food up from lower down in the water.
Shovelers (c) JR

Yet again all the expected raptor species were seen this weekend and there have been several reports of Merlin over the previous week, although none this weekend. Two Peregrines have clearly taken up winter quarters on the moor, the sheer abundance of Starlings must make life easy for all our raptor species. Lapwing numbers too are swelling noticeably although both they and the Golden Plover are much more mobile and erratic than in previous years. Large numbers of Golden Plover have been seen out on the arable fields on the western edge of the moor beyond the black sheep fields. For the first time in over ten visits I failed to see a Bittern today, which used to be normal and has now become worthy of note itself!
Framed Sheep on the way to the second screen (c) Bark

A Shelduck was swimming about on the huge, distant and difficult to see lagoon, that we have taken to referring to as Shangri-La. A distant unreachable promised land! This hard to watch scrape attracts a lot of birds largely because it is so remote and consequently undisturbed.
On Saturday morning, we walked up the path beside the hide to July’s Meadow and on up the path that goes round the southern edge of Ashgrave. The top of the field is starting to scrub up nicely now with isolated low bushes and briars. It might attract Grasshopper Warblers this spring but probably needs another year’s growth. From the path we were able to check out the huge mixed goose flock that was grazing at the top of the field. We were able to pick out the four White-fronted Geese and the lone Barnacle Goose that appears to consider itself a Canada Goose! We were also able to see the huge flock of Wigeon that were feeding on the far side of Ashgrave next to the water. Every once in a while, when a real or imagined threat was perceived they would flee back to the water from the grass with much splashing and whistled alarm calls.
Marsh Tit (c) JR

In the car park itself a Marsh Tit, the first recorded this year, was hopping about very boldly feeding on some spilt bird food. As the rain started to fall on Saturday morning the hide was the only comfortable place to be. The finch flock is still growing as wild food supplies in the wider countryside get exhausted or frozen in.

Reed Bunting above (c) Bark     Yellowhammer (c) JR
There is always plenty to see there and lots to search for among the more regular species. Tree Sparrow, Brambling or perhaps a Corn Bunting are three real possibilities, before dreaming about any of the rarer buntings. With so many birds present something special could just slip in under the radar.
Just 200 metres from my home but not on the moor yet (c) Bark

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Saturday and Sunday 8th and 9th January

Pauls bird arriving back at the pig field! (c) JR

The year on Otmoor has certainly started off with a bang. Last Wednesday Paul Greenaway found a Cattle Egret on Big Otmoor, it almost immediately flew over to Ashgrave and promptly disappeared. He had taken a couple of pictures that confirmed that this was a Cattle Egret and as such was the first one to be recorded on Otmoor and at the time probably only the second county record. Paul spends more time on the moor than anyone I know and contributes massively to reporting, recording and carrying out the seed feeding by the hide, and so it was great that he found a “first for the reserve”. Subsequently three more have been found in a pig field about ten miles away, perhaps Paul’s bird was one of these.
Cattle Egret on Big Otmoor (c) Stoneshank
To fully appreciate a place it is said that one should see it in all its moods and guises, but by Sunday I was getting a bit fed up with the particular mood this weekend. It was unremittingly damp, cold, grey and murky. Visibility was poor and there was enough light rain to fog glasses, binoculars and cameras. The hard freeze of earlier in the week had started to thaw and there was still firm ice under the thin film of overnight rain. This was perfectly illustrated in the ring ditch. A Water Rail crossed the ditch and pattered along the edge, looking for all the world as though it was walking on water.
All of the regular raptors made appearances this weekend with the exception of Merlin. There has not yet been a report of this small falcon since the start of the year. There were definitely three Marsh Harriers present as at one time all three were in the air simultaneously. Two Peregrines were seen one a large female and the other a smaller sub adult male. The Hen Harrier also put in occasional appearances but was rarely as easy to see as the Marsh Harriers. 

Raptor Parade (c) Derek Latham

The Bitterns made occasional flights within the reedbed and were most frequently seen along the northern edge from the second screen.
The Lapwing flocks are now beginning to swell but as yet there have not been the numbers of Golden Plover that we normally get at this stage of the winter. It may be that the colder weather of late will push them south, it has been an especially mild early winter.
part of the thirty plus flock of Mute swans (c) JR
Teal and Wigeon numbers are growing. There were six or seven hundred in a huge flock feeding on Big Otmoor last week when I was looking for the Egret last Wednesday afternoon. The Teal are lurking out in the reedbed but they only reveal themselves when a raptor causes them to flush. After having not being able to see them since the beginning of the month, the White Fronted Geese were finally spotted out on the fringes of the Grey Lag flock. This group has been spending a lot of time out on the furthest reaches of Ashgrave and given the foggy conditions have been difficult to monitor.

Fieldfare and Starling (c) JR
The winter finch flock is very substantial now. The greatest part of it being Linnets. There are also substantial numbers of Chaffinches and Reed Buntings. It has been very noticeable of late that there are also very large numbers of them feeding out on the phragmites seed heads in the reedbed. Sometimes, just for a moment, they can look like Bearded Tits!
Barn Owl was added to the new yearlist when one was found actually inside the hide! It had got in through an open window and was having trouble finding its way out. If you’re the last person out shutting the windows is a good habit to get into.
Finally my prediction of a Cattle egret on Otmoor (made in my review of 2016) came true within three days, I wonder what to wish for next…………………..!
Kite chewing on a starling (c) JR

Friday, 6 January 2017

Review of 2016 and Bank Holiday birding

Prince (c) JR
It has been a fascinating year on the moor with a few interesting and unusual birds appearing to add variety and savour to the mix.
The star of the show must be “the heron formerly known as prince”. The juvenile Purple Heron that turned up on the seventh of August and stayed for over seven weeks until a cold snap sent it on to way to warmer climes. It was never an easy bird to see and the longer it stayed the harder it was to find, so much so that it took a week to be sure that it had finally departed. More often than not it was seen in flight over Greenaways, where it systematically worked along the ditches frequently out of sight until reappearing a long way away from where it had first been spotted. It is unusual for a such a bird to stay around for such a comparatively long time and perhaps we can look forward to its return in late spring.
Purple Heron (c) Tezzer

The other very unusual appearance was a Great Skua that arrived at the first screen in September. As far as I know this was the first record of any Skua species on Otmoor and it surprised many of the regulars who turned up to see it. Sadly, I was not amongst them as it arrived at a time when I was out of the country!
Great Skua (c)  Pete Roby

The best news this year on Otmoor was the confirmed breeding of Bitterns. Dedicated observation and recording enabled us to confirm not just one but two nest sites, with two different individual females servicing them. It was all the more exciting and surprising because there had not been an observed or recorded period of “booming” in the early spring. Spotting Bittern has now become almost commonplace at the reedbed and we seldom visit without seeing one or two of them relocating within the reedbed or flying out to feed in the ditches on and around big Otmoor and Greenaways.
Bittern (c) Tezzer

The Marsh Harriers bred again, this year they managed to fledge one youngster. It clearly showed that last year’s success was not just a one-off event, Marsh Harrier is now established back on the list of county breeders. They, like the Bitterns, are becoming part of the Otmoor wallpaper, seen so regularly that it almost passes without comment. There are at least three birds present as I write, occasionally being seen together, one of them may very well be this year’s fledgling.
Common Cranes 

The Common Cranes returned this year and made another attempt to breed. We feel that this year they were more successful than in 2015, although they again failed to fledge a chick or chicks. Circumstantial behavioural patterns suggest that they managed to hatch one or two chicks and move them away from the nest site. After ten days or so their behaviour changed and it seems likely that this was when the young bird or birds succumbed, most probably to predation. Young birds take time to learn how to become successful parents and we are optimistic that next year they will return and make another attempt.
Our core breeding species; Lapwings, Redshank and Snipe had a very successful breeding season. The Lapwings managed to fledge at least one chick per pair which ensures that we have a growing rather than a declining breeding population.
Snipe (c) JR
We recorded at least thirty drumming Snipe over the whole reserve, including several from parts of the moor that we have not recorded them on before. We estimated that this year there were seventy odd pairs of Redshank.
Turtle Dove (c) Derek Lane
Turtle Doves, our other key endangered breeding species were present most of the summer but left earlier than usual. We had just one record of a juvenile but no evidence of any breeding on the reserve itself. We will as usual wait with bated breath and fingers crossed to see if they make it back this year, an anxiety that is always compounded by the fact that they are usually the last of our summer migrant to arrive.
Cuckoo (c) JR

We did very well with Cuckoos this last summer. Not just calling and displaying adults, but through the mid and late summer periods a good number of juveniles could be both heard and seen being fed by exhausted looking Reed Warblers. The Cuckoos are present in good numbers because we have such a large healthy population of Reed Warblers. Other species of Warbler did well too, Lesser Whitethroat and Sedge Warblers seemed to have had a particularly successful year.
We had a smattering of waders through in both spring and autumn but conditions were not at their best for either of the passages. Nonetheless we recorded three Wood Sandpipers a pair of Avocets and the expected Ruff, Dunlin and both Ringed and Little Ringed Plovers.
In the last new year winter period, there were very large numbers of Lapwing and Golden Plovers out on Ashgrave and Big Otmoor. By winters end the flocks of both were in their thousands.
With the reserve looking so good we can anticipate another exciting year, more of the same with hopefully the addition of a smattering of rare and unusual visitors. Perhaps a Little Bittern or Cattle Egret, perhaps the Purple Heron will come back with a friend or something quite unexpected or unpredictable like this year’s Great Skua. Whatever it is I will report it here and hopefully be able to illustrate it with pictures by the superb photographers who generously send me their images. Thank you all very much for that. Also thanks to all of you who read it and follow it, it is a pleasure to have such a vibrant local patch to report on. Finally, thanks on behalf of all Oxfordshire birders to David Wilding, the permanent staff and all the volunteers whose work helps to make and keep Otmoor such a special place.

Christmas and New Year Period
Frosty Linnet (c) Mark Chivers
I have been down to the moor over the festive season several times. I have experienced all manner of winter weather but it has been predominantly foggy cold and grey. The only exception for me was New Year bank holiday Monday. There had been a frost and the sky was cloudless and the light sparkled. There had not been sufficient cold to freeze all the lagoons but some of the pools were ice rimmed. All the key birds that we hoped to find to get the 2017 yearlist off with a bang were there. Raptors were very much in evidence including Peregrines, a Hen Harrier and three Marsh Harriers.
New Years Day Peregrine (c) JR

Bitterns too showed up giving excellent views. At the second screen one climbed up the reeds on the northern edge of the lagoons spent a few minutes looking around before launching itself off and making a splendid flypast.
New Years Day Bittern (c) JR
The flock of mixed finches along the path beside the hide is growing rapidly and undoubtedly will grow more as the winter proceeds and food becomes harder to come by in the wider countryside. If we get any Bramblings this year it will probably be there that we find them.
Fieldfare (c) JR
With Waxwings in Banbury it cannot be long now until they make it further south into the county and hopefully they might stop off for a while on Otmoor, you can be sure that we’ll be looking for them.