Wednesday, 29 November 2017

Saturday and Sunday 25th and 26th November

Merlin(c) Bark
It was a beautiful winter weekend with sharp clear sunlight, frost on the ground and light winds. The puddles along the paths were frozen solid, crazed and slippery. There were lots of birds to be seen but they took a little while to get warmed up and active.
Starlings warming up (c) Bark
Once again raptors were the stars of the show with all of our regulars showing well and a couple of new ones thrown in for good measure.
Marsh Harrier (c) Bark
On Sunday morning we noticed an altercation, over Greenaways, between two of the Marsh Harriers and a Peregrine, the Peregrine broke away from the scrap and started a dispute with yet another Peregrine. One of these birds is very distinctive having a both a large tail feather missing as well as the second secondary on its right wing, making it look a bit scruffy.
Peregrine with missing feathers (c) JR
On Saturday morning there was a major clash witnessed between a Kestrel and a Sparrowhawk out over the MOD land. The Sparrowhawk flew low and fast across the field and then suddenly climbed up to attack the hovering male Kestrel, they appeared to link talons and cartwheeled down to the ground. Later examination could find no trace of them on the field and it was assumed that they had both survived. Four Red Kites were calling, swooping and interacting over Big Otmoor on Sunday morning. It was impossible to say if the behaviour was courtship or a territorial dispute.
Merlin (c) JR
We also had excellent views of the female Merlin perched up on a post not far rom the first screen, Merlin had also been seen attempting to target starlings as they came in to the roost last week. Unlike the three Sparrowhawks that were hunting just at reed top level the Merlin was attacking the flocks high up as they arrived over the reedbed. To add to the raptor report, our resident second winter male Hen Harrier was seen both out on the MOD land and over the flood field on Saturday.

Top; Kestrel with prey (c) Oz          Lower two Kestrel and locked together Kestrels (c) Old Caley
Kestrels have been hunting close to the bridleway and as such have offered many photographic opportunities both seizing prey and then fighting over it with other Kestrels. We saw a pair of Common Buzzards together in the treetops of Sling Copse whilst we made yet another fruitless quest to find a Hawfinch for the Otmoor list.
Sling Copse Buzzard (c) Bark

Raptors seem programmed to try to defend hunting grounds from other raptor species, even when there is more than enough food to go around. Large numbers of Starlings are choosing to forage on and around the reserve rather than going off in all directions with the main flocks at dawn. There were also many more Fieldfares in the hedgerows and over the fields this weekend and this week far fewer Redwings.

Shovellers and Mallard first screen (c) Bark

There were some subtle changes at the first screen and out on the lagoon. A single Drake Pintail was there on Sunday and the number of Gadwall is slowly creeping up. The Wigeon are grazing out on big Otmoor rather than loafing about on the mudbanks. There are still very large numbers of feral Geese out on Ashgrave. Four Ravens flew across big Otmoor on Sunday morning cronking loudly, it looked very much as if one pair were escorting the other pair off their territory. Two of the birds turned and flew back towards Oddington where we know a pair have nested.

Snipe and Water Rail (c) Old Caley

I was lucky enough to be asked to talk to a group of students on Saturday morning and explain a little about the development of the reserve and point out some of the birds. The students are on a Masters course in environmental, wild life and land management studies. The six graduates came from six different countries and had very little experience of British birds. Only one of them was from Europe and she only knew the German names of birds! I was able to show them common birds that we take for granted such as a Wren, the finches and even a Pied Wagtail

Pied Wagtail (c) Oz and Wren (c) JR
The two who came from Africa were seeing and experiencing frost for the first time ever. It was a delight and a privilege to spend some time with such an enthusiastic, animate and good-natured group of people. It is reassuring to know that there are young people with both a positive outlook on nature and the ability to get on with each other across national and cultural differences.

And as usual we saw Bitterns (c) JR

Thursday, 23 November 2017

Saturday and Sunday 18th and 19th November

Dunnock warming up (c) Bark

This weekend followed the pattern of the previous week with dour damp Saturday and a bright sparkling Sunday. On Sunday morning the oaks especially, stood out like burnished gold when lit by the low sun. In just a week or two now the trees will be bare.
Golden Oak (c) Bark
We saw a number of flights by the bitterns this weekend, but it was much more difficult to estimate just how many different individuals we had seen. There seemed to be no apparent increase in the number of wildfowl on the lagoons but the lack of water out on the open fields must be limiting the number of ducks using the reserve. It has been exceptionally dry this autumn and in a normal year we would expect to see much more water in the scrapes and the ditches by this time.
Car Park Redwing (c) Bark
The car park field was full of Fieldfares and Redwings the latter seeming to outnumber the former by about two to one. They were feeding on the fast disappearing crop of haws, in addition to the carpark birds there were at least a hundred of them, feeding out in the grass on Greenaways. From time to time other flocks would pass over or flush from the hedgerows. As we walked down the path from Beckley later on Sunday morning, we pushed a noisy party of mixed thrushes down the hedgerow in front of us. Sometimes we would get quite close but views were always obscured and photographic opportunities very limited.

Shovellers.       Above (c) JR      Below (c) Tom N-L
At the screens on Saturday and Sunday there was nothing new to report apart from a very brief view of a Jack Snipe that flew in and stood briefly next to a Common Snipe before disappearing into the reeds, clearly smaller and with a shorter bill than the bird beside it there was little doubt as to its identity. Water Rails were seen occasionally and we saw one that swam across the ditch at the beginning of the visitor trail to the screens.
Ditch Swimming Water Rail (c) Bark
Yet again there were three different Marsh Harriers present and it was more difficult to decide which the regular pair were. They never come very close to the screens veering to one side or the other if they venture closer than sixty or seventy metres.
Crab Apple glowing like a Christmas tree decoration (c) Bark
Once again on Sunday we set off on another fruitless quest to find Hawfinches in Noke Wood or Sling Copse. Just as last week it was interesting to get a different view of the moor and different habitats. The air on Sunday was so clear and clean that from our viewpoint above the wood we could see a great distance and grasp the topography of Otmoor all the better.
"Barny" as he is known on the moor (c) Bark
The RSPB Webs count this week counted nearly eight hundred Geese when Greylags and Canadas were added together. As we walked up beside Sling copse it was very obvious just how many there were spread over the whole of Ashgrave. We even commented that we would not want to be the observer who would have to count them. Amongst them was still the one Barnacle Goose and the Ross’s Goose, the latter in a loose party with his mixed offspring.
Linnet in the sun (c) Bark
Yet again the male Hen Harrier is putting in irregular appearances and has been seen over at Malt Pit on occasions in the last week. It seems that he is most likely to appear at the time the Starlings are coming in to roost. Numbers are going up steadily and they provide a plentiful source of prey for all of the predators.

Raptor Food (c) Tom N-L

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Saturday and Sunday 11th and 12th November

Shoveller (c) Bark
I received a text from an Otmoor regular last Saturday that simply said, “It’s raining so it must be the weekend” and so it was once again this weekend. I awoke to dolorous skies and a steady drizzle, but mindful of the superb views of Bittern that JR had last weekend in the rain, I headed down to the moor.
Rainy Sloes (c) Bark
Although I failed to get such point-blank views of Bittern there were lots of flight views to be had. We had no doubt that there were three Bitterns present but there may very well have been four. They are very difficult to distinguish one from another and our numbers are based on where they flew from and to and when. There is however one individual that looks darker than the others.
At the first screen there were many more ducks than of late and it seems to be a regular thing that around eight o clock there are significant numbers flying in as if they are being regularly flushed from a night time roost. Wigeon numbers have increased steadily and this week there were four Pintail present, a drake and three ducks. Most noticeable are the Shovellers, I counted well over sixty on Sunday morning often circling in pairs filtering out their food from the vortex that their spinning creates. The drakes are now looking at their very smartest and cleanest having moulted out their eclipse feathers.
Circling Shovellers (c) Tom N-L
Three juvenile Goosanders had called in during the week and the juvenile Whooper Swan had also been seen again from the second screen, sadly none of them were to be found this weekend.
The resident Marsh Harriers seemed to have the reedbed to themselves this weekend. There was no sign of the extra bird that had bothered them last week. Although we failed to see the Hen Harrier ourselves, we were assured that it had been present on at least one evening This week when the Starlings came in to roost. There are extensive flocks of Golden Plover and Lapwings around but they are currently favouring the fields to the west of the reserve. They can only be seen when they flush en masse if a raptor sets them up.
Goldies over (c) Tom N-L
The year list did gain an extra species this week when nine Pink-footed Geese dropped into Big Otmoor for an hour on Wednesday morning, sadly only four or five people were lucky enough to see them. It does show that if there is a large flock of feral geese present, they will encourage wilder geese to come in. This was certainly the case on Wednesday when the Pink-feet landed in amongst the resident flock of Canadas.

Pink Feet (c) Tezzer
On Sunday when we walked up along the edge of Sling Copse to the top of Ashgrave we could appreciate just how extensive the numbers of both Grey-lags and Canada Geese are, as they were scattered over the whole field sometimes obscured amongst the sheep other times hidden in dips.
Linnets, Reed Buntings and Chaffinches made up the bulk of the finch flock feeding beside the hide.

Linnet and Yellowhammer (c) JR
There were one or two Yellowhammers if one looked carefully and sometimes a sprinkling of Goldfinches. In the Carpark Field there were a number of Redwings and a few Fieldfares feeding on what remains of the haw crop. There do not seem to be so many berries in the hedgerows as I remember seeing at this time last year.
Goldfinch (c) Bark

As part of our ongoing quest to find a Hawfinch on the moor we walked up beside Ashgrave on Sunday. We followed the path through Noke wood that leads up to Beckley and further up the hill found an excellent vantage point from which to scan the southern edge of the trees. Needless to say, we drew a blank once again but did find that if we walked just a little further, through the field with the striking, panda like Belted Galloway cattle, that we could connect with the public footpath that runs straight down the hill towards the hide. This made for a very pleasant circular route that offered further viewpoints from which to scan the tops of the trees in Sling Copse. It also offered some woodland and farmland birding which is slightly different from what we are most familiar with. The views across the treetops are promising and we will keep on trying to track down one of these scarce and secretive finches.
Misty moor from the top of the hill (c) Tom N-L

Wednesday, 8 November 2017

Saturday and Sunday 4th and 5th November

Bittern (c) JR
I did not go down to the moor on Saturday morning as it was raining so hard. I ended up regretting a little. I had a phone call at about eight o clock from JR to say that he was on the bridle way watching a Bittern across the ditch, that was just a few metres away. It had flown along the ditch and landed clumsily in the reeds and then realised that JR was close by. It appeared to be in a dilemma as to whether it should fly away or freeze and point its head towards the sky and pretend to be a clump of reeds. It chose the latter option and JR was able to stand and watch the bird for almost an hour, while the rain trickled down his neck! I was not sorry to miss the rain but sad not to have had such a close encounter with such a beautiful and secretive bird.

Bittern pretending to be reeds (c) JR
Also on Saturday morning there was a fine male Brambling feeding with the Chaffinches by the hide, unsurprisingly it was not around by Sunday morning.
Brambling (c) JR
Sunday was fine and bright and there was still a great deal to see. First thing I was lucky enough to spot the male Hen Harrier on the northern edge of Greenaways harrying the Starlings as they left the roost. Their tactic when threatened by a raptor is to make a tight ball, which must make it very difficult for the predator to single out an individual to take down.
Raptor food (c) Bark
On Sunday there were four or five separate flocks of Starlings feeding on and around the moor and their behaviour often alerts us to the presence of a Sparrowhawk or Peregrine. Despite their evasion tactics at least one of them was seen to be taken by a Sparrowhawk. The Marsh Harriers continue to patrol the reedbed. The adult male when seen well does show a very pale rump and tail and we wondered if perhaps if only seen briefly and at a distance it might sometimes have been mistaken for a ring tailed Hen Harrier.

Sparrowhawk, Marsh Harrier and Kestrel (c) Derek Latham

The finch flock beside the hide is growing and the trimming and pruning carried out by the volunteer work party has made it much easier to see them. There were many Chaffinches and Reed Buntings on Sunday and at least fifty Linnets.
Linnets (c) JR
We failed to find the Brambling that had been there on Saturday but several Bullfinches and Greenfinches added to the mix. As the winter draws on and the feeding regime is increased, it will be worthwhile spending some time checking through the finches for scarcities.
Bitterns made several appearances flying here and there within the reedbed, on several occasions lately when a Bittern has flushed close to us it has made a croaking call as it has flown away. Water

Water Rail and late Darters (c) Derek Latham
Rails are being seen quite often along the reedy edge opposite the first screen, given patience and a sharp eye it is possible to get good views of this normally shy species.

We looked in July’s meadow and along the edge of Sling Copse (the finger of woodland on the eastern side of Ashgrave) for Hawfinches but with no success. The only migratory flock we did see was of thirty or so Redwings, but the views were fleeting and I had hardly raised my bins before they were gone. I feel sure that if these enigmatic finches are to be added to the Otmoor list they will be seen either there or in Noke Wood. This coming week we will have another really good look.

Long Tailed Tit and Wren (c) JR