Tuesday, 30 May 2017

End of May Roundup

Juvenile Common Crane (c) Derek Lane

It has been beautiful just driving down Otmoor lane over the past two weekends. The fine sunny weather coupled with some rain has meant that the vegetation is at its lushest and most verdant. The lane is foamed with cow parsley and every bush is wearing its freshest brightest green foliage. The hedgerows now are spangled with dog roses in every shade from pink to white.
The car-park field is still full of birdsong but now one is more likely to see birds gathering food for chicks than staking claims to territory or attempting to attract a mate. This Sunday we watched at least four Common Whitethroats gathering small green caterpillars from the bushes and low willows in one spot beside the bridle way. They were disappearing into the brambles and then re-emerging to continue their foraging. Chiffchaffs are still pumping out their disyllabic call but I did not hear a Willow Warbler this weekend. Male Sedge Warblers however are still performing their manic, muddled songs and making their parachute displays. Out on the grassland the air is rich with the sound of Skylarks and the occasional drumming Snipe. Individual Snipe can be seen on sentinel duty standing on top of gates and fences.

All three Cranes and "our" pair in flight (c) Derek Latham
Out on the grassland our regular pair of Common Cranes are now showing often, pacing and feeding. Often only their heads can be seen on Greenaways, rising every so often like periscopes above the long grass. Occasionally as they move out onto shorter grass areas the whole of their bodies can be seen stalking steadily and stately through the buttercups. This pair of Cranes made a third breeding attempt this year and unfortunately as in the last two years their attempt failed. We have no idea as to exactly what happened, but we think that the birds managed to hatch a chick or chicks and move it or them away from the nest site. After that we think that some predation event happened or perhaps the chick just died. As we have said before Cranes are long lived birds and as they become more experienced parents they should be able to raise and fledge their young. The population of Cranes at Lakenheath has shown that it takes a number of seasons for the birds to raise young successfully. Just over a week ago a third crane appeared on the scene. This bird is clearly a juvenile and is unringed. It has no red on its head and only a very small bustle. “Our” birds are not very well disposed towards it and if it gets too close to them they drive it away. Interestingly it’s presence provokes them to display and show a little of their dancing behaviour. The fact that this bird has chosen Otmoor is a tribute to the quality of the habitat and the undisturbed space on the reserve and the MOD land.
I make no apology for not having written about the Cranes until now. It is of course impossible to hide or deny the presence of such large and vocal birds. They are extremely nervous and wary, so it was felt better not to draw attention to their presence, while they might be engaged in raising young.
Hepatic Cuckoo (c) Norman Smith
It has been a brilliant spring on Otmoor this year for Cuckoos. None of the regular birders can remember seeing and hearing so many as we have this year. Amongst them now is a hepatic, morph. It is a very stunning rufous bird, the term “hepatic” referring to its raw liver colour. They are all calling and chasing continually the males contending with each other or pursuing the females to mate. It is great news for the cuckoos but perhaps less so for the Reed Warblers that the Otmoor Cuckoos parasitise. It was good to meet an elderly couple arriving on the moor as I was leaving and have them remark to me….”we could go home right now, happy because we’ve heard a cuckoo and we haven’t done that for years and years.” Within a month the cuckoos will be gone and we will then be looking for their offspring and their surrogate parents once they have outgrown the nest.

Cuckoo Pics top three (c) Derek Latham, bottom one (c) Derek Lane
The last two weeks have seen our Hobby numbers peak at over fourteen birds. This is regular at this time of the year and they spend time on the moor feeding up before dispersing to breed. This Sunday there were perhaps two or three birds hunting over Greenaways whereas on the Sunday before they had been present in double figures.

Turtles above Derek Latham, below (c) JR
Our other iconic summer visitor, the Turtle Dove, continues to attract visitors from far and wide. We certainly saw three birds on Friday and unless they are all male, we assume that they are nesting either on or just off the reserve. As usual they can be heard purring from their favourite song posts on the telegraph pole, and from a bare branch in the second oak tree along the bridle path.
Marsh Harrier (c) JR
Out at the reedbed there have been four Marsh Harriers. We can safely assume that they are breeding but cannot be sure about which pair is which and where they are nesting. We have observed a number of food passes between them over the weekend. We have as yet no evidence of the Bitterns breeding and we are not likely to do so, until after the females begin regular feeding flights. The number of Grey Herons and Little Egrets on the moor suggest that there is no absence of food out there for them.
Juvenile Moorhen stretching (c) JR
The Tern Raft on the northern lagoon looks to be a more popular residence than in previous years. On Saturday morning, there were fourteen Common Terns on it. Some are clearly sitting and others are bringing in fish as offerings for their mates. They are ranging across the whole reserve to find food. With more birds present, there is more hope of successful breeding as there must be a degree of safety in numbers, a colony being better able to defend chicks and eggs than just a lone pair.
The large flock of mixed juvenile Lesser Black-backed and Herring Gulls finally seems to have departed, leaving just a few pairs of Black-headed gulls on Big Otmoor. Their impact on our breeding Lapwings is yet to be assessed but will be significant and negative. There have also been large numbers of Geese and goslings out there. Just over a week ago we saw a Magpie attack, kill and eventually manage to fly off, with a Grey Lag gosling. The flight just cleared the anti-predator fence before the Magpie crashed into the hedge. None of us had seen such predatory behaviour from these birds before.

Predation on Big Otmoor (c) Justin Hoffman
Things will quieten down over the next few weeks and we can start to enjoy the dragonflies and butterflies as well as monitoring the breeding success or otherwise of our birds.
Four Spot Chaser (c) Derek Latham

Monday, 22 May 2017

Saturday and Sunday 13th and 14th May

Busy chiffy (c) Bark

On Saturday morning at 5am nearly thirty people gathered in the car park for what seems to have become our annual Dawn Chorus Walk. The dawn itself was not as spectacular as in some previous years, the sky more the colour of a mechanics rag than a blazing golden sunrise. However, the birds did not disappoint us. The air was full of the sound of birds staking their claims to territory, declaring their suitability as mates or simply just announcing their presence. It is possible to hear all ten of our regular warbler species within the confines of the Car-park Field and the Roman Road alone. We only heard a brief spell of reeling from the Grasshopper Warblers and failed to hear Willow warbler at all, but the rest were all in good voice.
Cuckoo (c) JR
Snipe were drumming all weekend especially when the weather had improved as it did on Sunday. Cuckoos called and chased in groups of three or four males chasing the single females and vying with each other for the chance to mate with them.
Several Hobbies sat on posts across Greenaways waiting for the morning warmth to encourage their insect prey to take to the wing. They are always numerous on the reserve at around this time in late spring and are frequently recorded in double figures. Eleven were reported hunting on Sunday afternoon.

Turtle Dove feeding (c) Oz and purring (c) JR
One of at least two Turtle Doves called from the Roman road area before relocating to the telegraph poles near the pump house and giving excellent views.
As we made our leisurely way to the first screen we were closely scrutinised scrutiny by a pair of Redshanks flying overhead and shouting raucously, they clearly had youngsters on the ground nearby. On Sunday morning, I managed to spot three of these extraordinary looking chicks. Their legs appear to be far too long for their small fluffy bodies and it made me wonder what a contortionist trick it must be, to confine them within an egg! They appeared and disappeared amongst the sedges sometimes venturing along the edges of the ditches to pick up their insect food.
Redshank and chick (c) Tom N-L
A summer plumaged male Ruff was found on Friday and was thought to have flown off but was rediscovered on Saturday morning. It had been seen displaying to Redshanks flaring up its spectacular feathers like some kind of miniature peacock.
Summer Plumage Ruff (c) Stoneshank
Three Black-tailed Godwits have been out on the Big Otmoor scrapes for most of the week and seem very settled. They look as if they are first summer birds and as such are not going to breed this year. Every so often it was possible to spot a Little Ringed Plover scuttling about amongst the sedges and mud flats. There are several out there and they have been observed mating but it seems to me unlikely that they might succeed in breeding given the huge numbers of potential nest robbers out at the scrapes.
Two of the three Godwits (c) Bark
Elsewhere more and more birds are being seen either carrying nest material or food supplies for early broods. A pair of Mute Swans were on the path to the second screen drying their cygnets out in the morning sunshine, the cygnets looking especially cute and scruffy. I wonder how many of them will make it through to maturity.
Swan Family (c) JR
Terry Sherlock was lucky enough to see a Weasel relocating all her offspring from one den to another close to the cattle pens as can be seen no mean feat!
Weasel (c) Tezzer

Monday, 8 May 2017

Saturday and Sunday 6th and 7th May

Back where it belongs!
The cool northerly and north easterly winds have checked a number of birds on their northward migration. The result for us has been something of an influx of waders with thirteen species, including our resident and breeding birds on show this weekend. It has also meant that the weather has been chilly with a bitter wind, especially noticeable when standing at either of the screens, they act like wind tunnels and focus the cold.
The Temminck’s Stint from last weekend had remained out on Big Otmoor all week although it was an extremely elusive bird. I spent a long time looking for it on Sunday and it may well have moved on as no other reports came in of it during the rest of the day. Having said that there were long periods last week when it wasn’t seen at all so it might just still be there.

Twenty-seven blackwits (c) Bark

Scanning the exposed mud and pools did reveal some interesting visitors. There were two Ruff on Saturday and on Friday a Bar-tailed Godwit along with a summer plumaged Grey Plover. The Plover remained into Saturday. At least two little Ringed Plovers were running about among the sedges and on the mud like super-charged clockwork toys, occasionally stopping to mate. Several Dunlin were present picking around the margins. On Sunday morning a party of twenty eight Black-tailed Godwits arrived, they circled several times over the reserve sometimes looking as if they were going to land but seemed to panic at the last moment, as if there was something on the ground that spooked them.
The Godwits may have been alarmed by the unprecedented numbers of larger gulls out on the Big Otmoor scrapes. Over eighty Herring and Lesser Black-backed gulls are there now as well as a smaller number of breeding Black-headed Gulls. A Yellow-legged Gull was picked out amongst them. Last year we hosted just two pairs of Black-headed Gulls. As can be expected this is going to have a significant effect on the breeding Lapwings. The Gulls have already been seen predating the Lapwing chicks and I assume that they will stay around until this easy food source is exhausted or the water levels on Big Otmoor drop and they have nowhere to bathe and loaf.  There have never been so many gulls on the moor and we have speculated that it might be to do with the exceptionally dry spring we are experiencing and the consequent difficulty in finding food. It may also be a consequence of more food waste being recycled rather than dumped in landfill sites.
Courting Dunnock (c) Bark
Searching for waders out on the big Otmoor scrapes is difficult, the most successful strategy involves looking from several different viewpoints along the bridleway. Different edges and mudflats are revealed by the changes of angle and so birds can suddenly appear or indeed disappear.
Still on the subject of waders, we had four fully summer plumaged Golden Plovers out on Noke Sides on Saturday morning, one of them appeared to have a problem with one of its feet which caused it to limp heavily as it fed in the grass. There was also a Greenshank on the same field feeding along the central ditch.

Badly damaged Cuckoo and others(c) Bark

Elsewhere on the reserve we enjoyed something of a “cuckoo-fest” this weekend. On Sunday morning, we saw and heard six birds simultaneously, as three males pursued a female and at the same time two other birds were calling from opposite sides of the reserve. One bird that I photographed looked to have been in a battle either with a raptor or another of its kind. It had several secondaries missing and feathers coming loose from its tail.
On Sunday morning I noticed many more Reed warblers singing from the ditch beside the bridleway and they will be providing the Cuckoos with foster homes and surrogate parents. The Cuckoos on Otmoor parasitise Reed Warblers and as yet there may not be any nests ready for occupation.
Reed warbler (c) JR
As I reported last week the last to return of our iconic summer visitors, the Turtle Dove, has made it back against the odds. There were two birds being reported on Sunday morning and they have been seen feeding on the ground close to the cattle pens by the Greenaways Pump house. I don’t think that summer on Otmoor would be the same with their gentle purring from the oaks along the bridleway.
Hobbies too are back in good numbers as they usually are at this time of year. There were four hunting over Greenaways as I left yesterday morning. As well as the Hairy Dragonflies, the Four Spotted chasers are now being seen on the wing and so there is now an abundance of large insects for them to hunt.
Otmoor dawn (c) Tom N-L
Grey Plover courtesy of Badger.

If you wish to experience Otmoor at dawn and hear the stunning dawn chorus we are taking a guided walk out from the carpark on Saturday the 13th May between 5 and 7 am. Please contact the office on 01865 352033. It will be useful to have an idea of numbers.