Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Notmoor and Otmoor Saturday and Sunday 25th and 26th March

Houbara Bustard

Many thanks to Steve and Pete who did a sterling job on the blog last weekend during my absence. It’s great to know that the blog is being written by a couple of people who are equally as passionate and just as enthusiastic about the place as I am.

I took a mid-March trip once again to Fuerteventura for a week of warm weather, peace, good food and relaxation. I had all of these and I had some great birding too. I have a regular pattern when on holiday, I get up and go out as soon as it is light, spend a couple of hours birding, return and have breakfast and then spend the rest of the day with my non-birding partner.

Last Christmas I wrote a piece for the regular “Clackanory” spot (see below) which described my first ever encounter with a rather inept Houbara Bustard doing his display. This year I could not believe my luck when on my third morning out on the gravel plains I saw the whole thing again. This time not half a mile away as it had been the previous year but very much closer. My photographs this year are not of a rather blurry ball of cotton wool half way up a distant hill, but show the extraordinary plumage and behaviour in much more detail. They are the most spectacular birds and although not brightly coloured they really give Birds of Paradise a run for money in the dramatic plumage stakes.
His Ladies
I was not only lucky with the Bustards, having found two females and another distant male, but also finally managed to get some half way decent pictures of Cream Coloured Coursers, which had eluded me on all my previous visits.

Black Bellied Sandgrouse
I found Black-bellied Sandgrouse creeping along beside the track and using the car as a hide managed to get close to them and photograph them too. Previously I had only ever had brief flight views. The Canary island sub-species of Great Grey Shrike was much more wary and unapproachable and I only managed distant shots of it.
Koenigi subspecies of Great Grey Shrike

I also caught up with one of the few birds that occur on Fuerteventura that I had not seen before. I flushed a Barbary Partridge that ran off up a hillside. A very distinctive bird with a dark line on the top of its head and with very different and distinctive colouration. Desert birding can be challenging but patience and persistence allowed some great encounters with shy and elusive species.

Cream coloured Coursers

The beach also offered some excellent opportunities to get close to species that we always find very nervous and flighty here. A Whimbrel feeding on the rocks allowed me to get within fifteen feet or so before moving a short way away and a Ringed Plover also allowed a very close approach. The only special bird that I failed to find this year was the Fuerteventura Stonechat, there are certainly easier sites for it than the ones that I was visiting. Despite this slight disappointment it was a great weeks’ birding and a great holiday.

Trumpeter Finch and Spanish Sparrow All Fuerteventura pics (c) Bark

Clackanory- A previous encounter with the Houbara's of Fuerteventura. 

Otmoor Saturday and Sunday 25th and 26th March
Back on the moor on Saturday morning I was struck by how much it has changed in the two weeks since my last visit. It was bright after a frosty night and there was a keen easterly wind blowing. As I always seem to do when I have been away, I was under dressed for the weather and had forgotten my hat and gloves. Some changes were particularly marked, the greenness of the fields, the swell of soft colour in the budding hedgerows and of course the earliest frothy white flowers of the Blackthorn.

G.C.Gs above (c) JR below Tom NL

The Otmoor Yearlist has been moving along smartly and we set off on Saturday morning with great intentions of adding to the tally. I know that sometimes we get can get carried away with hope and excitement in early spring and forget that the season and its migrants progress in fits and starts, the whole system governed by wind direction and weather.
Despite our disappointment at not finding a new incoming migrant there was a lot to be interested in and to enjoy seeing. There are a pair of Great Crested Grebes building their nest directly in front of the first screen. It is something of an apology for a nest as yet, they are still cementing their relationship with each other rather than adding vegetation to the pile. They have been head shaking, “dancing” and presenting each other with weeds. It is fascinating to watch, as it will be to follow the progress of the nest and the stripy grebelings when they hatch.
Pintail (c) Tom NL
As in recent weeks the birdiest part of the reserve is still Big Otmoor. There are still significant numbers of Teal, Wigeon, Shoveller and Pintail out there, as well as large numbers of breeding Lapwings and Redshanks. Amongst all these birds it is possible to find Black-tailed Godwits, Dunlin and occasional Ruff. There are five Oystercatchers on and around the reserve but they roam far and wide one pair favouring Noke Sides and the other Ashgrave.
Four of the five Oystercatchers (c) JR
All weekend there were displaying and calling Curlew over the western edge of Greenaways and over the MOD land. I was pleased on Sunday morning to hear and see my first drumming Snipe of the spring, the drummer was being called to by a mate “chipping” from the grass. We saw a small flock of Golden Plover on Saturday but the massive numbers of only a week ago seem to have departed.
Already successful Moorhens (c) Derek Latham
It looks very much as if Black Headed Gulls will be joining the breeding birds on big Otmoor. I was initially concerned that this could impact on our breeding waders and we would lose more Lapwing and Redshank chicks to gull predation. However the situation may not be as difficult as it first appears, the gulls are very aggressive when defending their eggs and young and so it might well be that they act as a deterrent to the predatory Crows and Kites. We will see.
Full volume Cetti's (c) JR
On the raptor front we seem to have two pairs of Marsh Harriers in residence at the reedbed. There were definitely four individual birds in the air simultaneously on Sunday morning. There are clearly two different males one looking much less mature than the other. The Hen Harrier is still with us and made a slow flypast over the reedbed on Sunday morning. There are two different Peregrines over and around the reserve but hard to know if they represent a pair or not.
Chiffy (c) JR
I sometimes wonder just how huge our population of grass snakes is and how normal it is. Last week steve and Pete counted thirty seven basking in the sun on the dead reeds beside the bridle way, this weekend on Sunday we spotted thirty four. There must be a very much larger population than that sspread across the whole moor.
Ball of Grass Snakes (c) Carl Gray
The next wave of migrants should be coming in this week now that the wind has swung around to a more gentle southerly direction. Willow Warbler and perhaps a Sedge warbler next weekend?
March Hare (c) Tom NL

Monday, 20 March 2017

Saturday and Sunday 18th and 19th March.

Bark is otherwise indisposed this week and has asked us to look after the blog, however we fully expect him back in his own well-known roosting spot by next weekend.

Spring is such an exciting time for birders and hopes are naturally raised as winter passes in favour of longer days and warmer weather, promising summer visitors and passage migrants. 
However weather conditions often determine expectation levels and these can be rather changeable in mid-March, so while we experienced beautiful sunny days earlier in the week,
these gave way to cooler, greyer and much windier conditions by the weekend. 
The over-wintering Short-eared Owl was on show on Monday but had disappeared by the weekend and it remains to be seen whether it has moved on or is just taking another break from its well-known roosting spot. 

Stirring from their slumbers...Grass Snake have starting to be spotted on the warmer days
along the edges of the dykes and ditches on the reserve, thirty seven were counted recently.
Photo courtesy of John Workman.  

There is such a different atmosphere when the sun shines, not only was the wonderful sound of Skylark song cascading down from all over the reserve on Monday, but the first Brimstones, Commas and Small Tortoiseshells were on the wing and Grass Snakes could be found basking in favoured spots. These had returned to winter quarters by the weekend and were nowhere to be seen in the chillier conditions. 

One of the highlights of the week was the number of Peregrine hunts we were lucky enough to witness. We still have substantial numbers of birds on the reserve and Pere­­grines very often cause large mixed flocks to rise, wheeling into the air, creating a spectacular sight and a clue to what may be going on.

Peregrine Falcon courtesy of Eddie Mclaughlin

One of these attacks involved both male and female Peregrine zeroing-in on a seemingly doomed Snipe. While one raptor chased it down the other tried to cut-off avenues of escape, but the resilient little wader was able to perform a number of evasive manoeuvres, constantly losing height before finally dropping out of the sky into cover in the nick of time. Buzzards, Red Kites and the male Marsh Harrier were also harassed by Peregrine over the favoured hunting area of Big Otmoor where the majority of wildfowl and waders can be found.

Although thousands of Golden Plover have already moved on a substantial number are still on the reserve, many of which are moving into their lovely summer plumage. This can be appreciated either when they pass by in flight or better still as they gather together on the ground. It will not be long before these too are gone.  

Curlew courtesy of Andy Last.
A small flock of Black-tailed Godwits has been present since late February and both Dunlin and Ruff may be seen with luck and a good set of optics. Redshanks seem to be everywhere while Oystercatcher and Curlew occasionally draw attention to themselves with their distinctive calls and flight silhouettes. Two pairs of Shelduck may be found usually on Ashgrave or Big Otmoor.

Amorous Shoveler courtesy of Derek Latham. 

Down at the southern lagoon male Pochard could be seen swimming with their heads pressed directly forward, partially submerged in their slightly comical looking display and we felt sorry for one female Shoveller as she was accompanied everywhere by a group of fifteen amorous males. When she took off all would rise immediately behind her, fly around in a tight flock only to land a short while later completely surrounding her on the water.

Bittern can be quite difficult to see at this time of year so it was a bonus when one was spotted gliding over the reeds on Wednesday afternoon. Alternatively it would be difficult to imagine visiting Otmoor without seeing Marsh Harrier and the male bird especially was in evidence on many occasions hunting over the fields. The wintering ringtail Hen Harrier was seen during the week and photographed well on both days over the weekend.

The wintering ringtail Hen Harrier courtesy of Badger.

Clearly we are at that point where both winter and summer birds are present, as well as the birds already mentioned it is still possible to find the odd Redwing and Fieldfare but spring is marching on, further heralded by the first three Sand Martins on Tuesday, at least half a dozen Chiffchaffs and very smart male Wheatears at Lower Farm on Saturday and Noke Sides on Sunday. Long-tailed tit and Dunnock could both be seen collecting nesting material and we remain in high spirits looking forward to the clocks going forward next weekend and even more time in the field.

Steve and Pete Roby

Wheatear Lower Farm courtesy of Badger.

Monday, 13 March 2017

Saturday and Sunday 11th and 12th March

Yellowhammer (c) Bark
Saturday was grey at first but developed into almost the perfect spring day and Sunday was wet at first but had improved by the afternoon. As we expect at this time of year, there were new arrivals on the moor both in the preceding week and at the weekend. We are also now beginning to notice some significant departures.
The most obvious departure is probably the Starlings from the roost. The latest reports suggest that it has finally dwindled to less than a thousand birds after having enthralled huge numbers of people during the course of the winter. The large flocks of Lapwings also appear to have left. We still have good numbers of them present but they are our resident breeding birds and they are really going to town now on their tumbling noisy courtship flights.
Chiffy at the first screen (c) Bark
Redshank numbers have shot up over the last week and their distinctive yodelling call as they pair up and mate has become part of the Otmoor soundscape again. If you scan across Big Otmoor now they are scattered across the whole area feeding, displaying and walking about purposefully.
Avocet (c) Stoneshank
Wildfowl numbers are still large both on Ashgrave, Big Otmoor and on the reedbed lagoons. There were well over thirty Coots on the northern lagoon on Saturday morning they are extremely bellicose at this stage of the year. Disputes seemed to break out at random just like they do outside city centre pubs at closing time on Saturday nights. A bird would take exception to another from quite the other side of the lagoon and hurtle across the water to confront it with head down and wings raised. It is hard to see why any particular individual is being picked out for attack amongst so many, perhaps one bird just looked at the other “a bit funny” as the drunk would say in Cornmarket on Saturday night.
There were fifteen Pochard on the southern lagoon on Sunday morning and they were spending their time swimming around in a group, they were either displaying to the three or four females that were there or just showing off to each other. There were also a pair of little Grebes courting in front of the screen, whinnying their distinctive call and diving rapidly to pop up like corks in another part of the pool. There was a single Great Crested Grebe out in the same part of the lagoon and it was making its strange mournful call.

Nice weather for ducks, Little Grebe, Pochard and Tufty in the rain. (c) Bark
I counted over sixty Pintail out on Big Otmoor on Sunday and nearly a hundred Shovellers. The Wigeon were difficult to estimate but there does not appear to be any reduction yet in their numbers.
The estimate of Grey Herons building in the reedbed has gone up again and I now think that there may be as many as five pairs. There are also two pairs nesting in the dead oak tree on Ashgrave one of which is already sitting. It is interesting to notice that some of them are showing the bright orange bill that they acquire for a period when breeding.
Heron with twigs (c) JR
Bird of the weekend has to be the Little Gull seen and photographed from the first screen on Saturday morning. I think the last record of one on Otmoor is about fifteen years ago when the reedbed was mostly water, that was certainly the only one that I have seen down there. There were also records from other sites in the county on Saturday so there was clearly a passage of them. Another good bird was the Avocet found and photographed by Paul Greenaway during the week. Along with a smattering of Ruff and Dunlin it was out of Big Otmoor.
Little Gull (c) Derek Latham
I yomped along the bridleway to Noke on both Saturday and Sunday with the hope of finding our first Wheatear of the year. The track is very muddy and reminiscent of how it was along the whole track before the RSPB laid the path from the car park to the kissing gate. The first Wheatear was found as we expected amongst the black sheep on the fields adjacent to the reserve. I didn’t find it but Andy Last did, about an hour after I was there, such is birding! It could have been his younger, sharper eyes but I put missing it down to rain in my optics! We can expect a steady passage of Wheatears now over the next six weeks or so.
Phonescoped Wheatear (c) Andy Last
All the regular raptors were on show, including a close fly past on Sunday by the Hen Harrier. I can see on my photographs the beginning of paler feathers coming through on its back and upper wings and wonder whether it is moulting into male adult plumage. Any suggestions or observations would be welcome.
Hen Harrier (c) Bark
We continued our walk on Saturday past Noke and on around the southern edge of Ashgrave. I have not done this walk since the early autumn and it is a good vantage point to look over the Ashgrave lagoon which is at its most full. The footpath is very soggy in places. The area at the top of the field is being allowed to scrub up and will make an excellent extension to Julys Meadow. This will provide more potential breeding sites for birds such as Grasshopper Warblers and hunting areas for Short Eared Owls in winter. We heard three and saw two Nuthatches on the edge of Sling Copse and a party of four Coal Tits in Noke Wood.
Jabba the Hutt (c) Tezzer
The Little Gull and the Nuthatches have taken the year tally up to one hundred and six species and over the next few weeks the list will rise even further as the fresh waves of migrants come in. This must be the very best time of year to be out and about birding.
Primroses Noke Wood (c) Bark