Friday, 28 December 2018

End of December 2018

Shoveller (c) Bark

Frequent and regular rains over the last few weeks have worked their magic and the moor is once again looking like a proper wetland. Even so, water levels on the main fields still have some way to go to reach their target levels. On Ashgrave in front of the main hide, there are now proper pools and scrapes as water drains down from the field and the wood and accumulates at the bottom.

Lapwings and Goldies (c) Bark

The wetter fields suit our wintering Lapwings and Golden Plovers and both species are once again providing a winter spectacle as flocks of well over a thousand pattern the sky. Sometimes as the birds flush en masse they appear as tight dense flocks at other times, as they descend, they can be spread glittering across the sky. The Lapwings’ slower wing beats blinking black and white, while the Golden Plover flash white and then seem to disappear as they wheel and bank. The Lapwings fly in loose unstructured flocks whilst the Goldies fly in much tighter formations and make geometric chevrons against the void.

Starling Roost (c) Tom N-L

The other mass spectacle continues every evening as the Starlings go to roost. Their numbers are always astonishing but whether one will see a shape-shifting murmuration is almost impossible to predict. Sometimes it can be spectacular and at other times the huge number of birds come in from all directions and appear to be sucked down into the reeds as they arrive, like a tornado in reverse.

The Starlings, the Lapwings and the Golden Plover are a huge attraction to raptors and we continue to see Peregrines, Sparrowhawks and a male Marsh Harrier haunting the reedbed and surrounding fields.
Male Marsh Harrier (c) Bark
A mature male Hen Harrier has also been seen recently and we hope that it will remain in the area and show more frequently. After regular autumn sightings we have not seen any Short-eared Owls recently, and so must assume they have moved on.
Kite with Starling breakfast (c) Bark
As mentioned previously the Red kites patrol the reedbeds at dawn looking for overnight casualties. A party of Magpies have also taken up residence around some of the goat willows at the first lagoon and are also on the lookout for anything the Kites miss.

Linet, Goldfinch and Yellowhammers from the hide (c) Bark
After only two weeks the feeding programme beside the hide is starting to attract good numbers of seed eaters. At least forty Linnets and a similar number of Reed Buntings form the bulk of the flock but amongst them are Goldfinches, Chaffinches and six Yellowhammers.
Several Stock Doves can be spotted at the furthest point from the hide although as the winter progresses, we can expect their numbers to swell and for them to come closer as hunger makes them less wary.
Water Rail (c) Bark
There are at least two Water Rails holding territory in the reed mace bed that runs away from the hide towards the wood. They have taken to emerging from the dead vegetation to feed on the seed, they never come very far from cover but can still be seen very well.
Moorhen on the bridleway. (c) Bark

It has been unusual to see the number of Moorhens feeding along the bridleway first thing in the morning. The record count last week was seventeen birds spread between the pumphouse and well beyond the hide. They are particularly interested in the overnight molehills and the newly turned ground where badgers have been foraging in the shorter grass. There must be a lot of small invertebrates exposed that the larger animals miss in the darkness.

Bittern in Flight and landing! Above (c) Tom N-L below (c)  Bark

Bitterns continue to be seen regularly on both Greenaway’s and over the reedbed. About ten days ago no less than five were flushed on the same morning on a more remote part of the reserve. They are clearly doing very well and it will be interesting in two or three months to see if we have more than the two booming males that we had last spring. They are often seen flying from one side to the other at the first screen at dusk, as they relocate to roost. They then demonstrate their complete inability to land with accuracy, poise or grace. Bittern landings are always barely disguised crashes.

Wigeon Shovellers and teal (c) Bark

Wigeon, Teal and Shoveller numbers too have gone up markedly in response to the increased water levels. The wigeon are now feeding from the pools on Ashgrave, grazing on the grass until frightened back into the water by real or imagined threats.
Drake Pintail from first screen (c) Noah Gin
Otmoor Hardcore with a few notable exceptions. (c) Pete Roby (even though he's in it!)
We have also started to see Pintail on the main Lagoons and out on Big Otmoor, their numbers always peak in the late winter period as the cold weather digs in further north. Next week a review of 2018 but before that we still have a couple more days to try to get the year-list up to one hundred and fifty!
Swimming Grey Heron (c) Luke O'Byrne

Wednesday, 12 December 2018

Saturday and Sunday 8th and 9th December

Fieldfare (c) Bark

I usually write this blog a couple of days after the weekend concerned, and I was a little taken aback when opening my paper on Monday morning to read the Country Diary/Nature notes column and finding it was all about our patch, Otmoor. The column is always superbly written and this one was no exception. It was lovely to have a view from someone else who is not an Otmoor regular, at least within our familiar group of friends, and was writing as lyrically about the place and expressing the same passion and delight in it that we all feel.
Rainbow tangled in an oak (c) Bark

This past weekend we experienced similar weather to that described in the article, it was alternately rainy and grey and then stunningly bright and sunny. It was very much a weekend of sunshine, rainbows and showers. The rainbow ends sometimes appeared to be tangled in the bare branches of the oaks on Noke sides and stood out brightly against the gunmetal grey and indigo of the clouds, as the showers scudded through.

Goldies over Noke sides (c) Bark

The numbers of Golden Plover and Lapwings have gone up steeply and more than a thousand Goldies were feeding on Noke sides on both days. When they all took to the air en masse at some real or imagined threat they sparkled in the sun before settling back down to feed amongst the sheep.
Lapwings over the reedbed (c) JR
There are plenty of raptors present to cause these frequent flushes. This weekend both Marsh Harriers and Peregrines were noted and Sparrowhawks are regularly haunting the Starling roost. As has become the norm we saw several Bitterns this weekend. There is now a lot activity from them out across Greenaways, as they move from one favoured feeding spot to another, the larger ditches and the ring ditch are known to have very healthy fish populations. Because the field is so open it is much easier to spot their movements from one place to another, within the reedbed their flights are very much more clandestine. It was interesting to note that they are not especially powerful fliers in strong winds, we watched one individual battling to fly straight while heading into the face of it.
Ashgrave Linnet (c) Bark
As reported last week the water is finally starting to pool on Ashgrave and consequently there is more out there to be seen. A small flock if Linnets are beginning to haunt the bushes beside the hide and as the feeding programme starts this week more of them will be attracted by the abundant supply of small seeds. Stock Doves too are attracted to the handout and this weekend there were six of them feeding out on the rotovated soil beside the large pool.
Fighting Pheasants

We came across two cock Pheasants having a serious altercation along the bridleway on Sunday. They were so caught up in their dispute that we were able to walk right up to them and could almost touch them. Despite their status as an introduced and artificially raised species their colours and plumage has to be admired. Our ubiquitous Canada Geese are another species that we take for granted and the sight of thirty or forty of them flying low over head is still a stirring sight in spite of their feral status.
Canadas over the reedbed (c) JR

To read the Guardian article please click on the link below:

Friday, 7 December 2018

Last two weeks of November

Male Peregrine from First screen (c) Bark

Otmoor has been a very misty moist place of late with few bright sunny interludes. The foot drains and scrapes are slowly staring to hold water. If we continue in this run of Atlantic weather systems, the reserve should soon be back to where it ought to be at this point in the annual cycle. More open areas of water will draw in more wildfowl.

Shovellers above (c) Bark below (c) JR
Shoveller numbers have continued to increase, with nearly seventy on the southern lagoon at the weekend. Wigeon are not increasing at the same rate and that may well be to do with the lack of suitable grassland to graze, that is adjacent to open water.
All I could se from the hide (c) Bark
The lack of open pools is most noticeable of Ashgrave. There is a hole in the bund between Ashgrave and the ring ditch that drains directly into the River Ray. This has meant that there has been little to see out in front of the hide. Small leaks over time become large ones as the structure of the bund is steadily eroded by flowing water. The leaky bund is about to be repaired and there will be some heavy plant operating for a short while on Ashgrave. In addition, we are about to start our winter feeding programme for seed eaters, which has been carried out over the past two years.
Reed bunting (c) Tom N-L
If the previous two years are anything to go by there should be substantial flocks of Linnets, Reed buntings, Chaffinches and the like, feeding around the hide and up the path towards July’s Meadow. The repairs to the bund and the feeding programme will make visiting the hide a much more rewarding experience than it has been recently.
Peregrine (c) Bark
Raptors have once again been very much in evidence exploiting the huge biomass of the roosting Starlings. On Sunday there were two Peregrines present, one a very large adult female and the other a smaller, probably juvenile male. The larger bird chased off the smaller whilst making harsh scolding cries, then sat for almost an hour in the large leafless oak between the fields on Noke Sides. There are now good numbers of both Lapwing and Golden Plovers present feeding out on the farmland beyond the reserve boundaries. They are probably on the Peregrines menu.
Grey squirrel also doing its bit to strip the hedgerows (c) JR
In addition, they will target the Winter Thrushes that by now have almost stripped all of the haws from the hedgerows.
Winter Thrushes (c) Bark

At the second screen last week a Jack Snipe was seen feeding for a couple of hours along the muddy bank on the right-hand side as you look out. It is unusual to get to see these elusive birds in the open, normally the only view you get is as they fly away from just under your feet. A Green Sandpiper was also feeding along the same bank.

Jack Snipe and Jack Snipe and Green Sand (c) Paul Wyeth
Both Jack Snipe and Common Snipe are perfectly camouflaged as they feed among the reed stems so it is worth taking the time to scan this area carefully. The second screen is the best place to see Bitterns. Sometimes two birds show at once and on one occasion three birds could be picked out hunting along the northern edge of the lagoon.

Bitterns from the second screen (c) Tom N-L
The Bitterns are not sociable and should two individuals meet it will result in an aggressive display, where plumage is puffed out and head and neck feathers are raised, before finally one of them flies off or melts back into the reeds. Kingfishers are regularly seen on the northern lagoon but not so frequently on the southern. This is due in part to there not being many fish in the southern lagoon which in turn is probably due to the effect of having 100,000 starlings adding their droppings to it each night!
A flash of electric blue in the gloom (c) Bark
A Ring -necked Parakeet has been seen going in to roost with the Starlings and two weeks ago a keen eyed and very experienced birder saw what he thought was a Rosy Starling going in to roost, a few days later an adult Rosy Starling was seen and photographed in an Oxford garden. I have little doubt that it was the same bird. This Starling may well still be coming into the roost but picking out one odd individual from over 100,000 is a matter of luck.
Two Buzzards and attendant Magpies feeding on a dead goose on Noke Sides

It is worth checking through the flocks of feral geese at this time of year, look out for smaller geese that keep themselves a little apart from the main flock. They could be White-fronted Geese. We have not had a visit from truly wild geese now for two years and there was a time when they were reliable annual visitors.
In the absence of Bearded Tits this will have to do (c) Bark

The Otmoor Year List currently stands at 147 species and we will be lucky to make it to over 150 as we have done in all the years past. It has been an odd year and I will speculate further on it when I review the year in four weeks’ time. There have been notable sightings and regular species that we have not seen.
Mallard (c) JR

Sunday, 18 November 2018

Beginning of November

Wigeon back in good numbers (c) Bark
We have finally had some decent rain and at last there are pools starting to form in the middle of the scrapes that have been dry for too long. Last weekend the rain was kind enough to fall mostly at night and on both Saturday and Sunday mornings we enjoyed periods of crisp bright sunshine with clear washed skies, worthy of the finest Turner watercolours. There are still leaves clinging to the oak trees. They are all shades of gold and bronze and they blaze out when lit by the low sun, especially so after a shower when they are set against the inky blue clouds of the departing rain, sometimes embellished with a rainbow.
Otmoor Rainbow (c) Bark
The Starling roost has continued to grow in number and has built up rapidly to numbers in excess of fifty thousand. The numbers are spectacular but there is no guarantee that they will perform their swirling murmuration display. More often than not they go straight down into the reeds to roost covering the reeds like a black oily tide and constantly chattering to each other. We still have not been able to determine the factors that produce a spectacular roost it must be related to wind, temperature and weather but we have yet to understand it.
Distant Harrier (c) Tezzer
Such large numbers are naturally attracting more and more raptors to what must be a predictable food source. The latest addition has been a Ring-Tailed Hen Harrier that has started to frequent the roost on the lookout for its evening meal. We are hoping that the splendid male that left us last April, will have evaded the gamekeepers and will make it back to overwinter again on the moor.
Last Sprigs male (c) Tezzer
During the past week two Peregrines are also haunting the roost, as well as two pairs of Sparrowhawks and the resident Marsh Harriers. We have noticed that first thing in the morning there are always one or two Red Kites patrolling low over and around the reedbed. With such large numbers of starlings it is inevitable that there will be sick, ailing or injured individuals left behind when the flocks depart at dawn, we assume that the Kites are seeking out such casualties.
Peregrine (c) Tezzer
On Sunday morning one of the Peregrines was perched up in a dead Oaktree on the far side of Noke Sides judging by its size we estimated it was a male. This has often been a popular lookout for Peregrines as it offers panoramic views over the areas where Lapwings, Golden Plover and Woodpigeons feed.
Lapwings and Golden Plover on Noke Sides (c) Bark
Last week a Peregrine was seen to stoop at dusk on a bat, probably a noctule, it was unsuccessful, but this was a behaviour never previously seen by the observers.
During the past week two Otters were seen on the bank to the right of the second screen. It was the first otter sighting for some time, the animals concerned might be a male and female or perhaps more likely a female and cub, there was a marked difference in size between the them. On Saturday morning on the southern lagoon we noticed that the ducks were very restless and easily spooked, moving out away from the edges en masse and occasionally flying. After watching for a while I just glimpsed an otter diving and later on swimming swiftly along the reedy margin on the far side of the water.

Roe deer (c) JR
I was also lucky enough last weekend to have a spectacular view of four Roe Deer running past me rather than the normal view of a deer running away from me. We were able to see them with all four legs off the ground like fairground horses and admire their athleticism at close hand.
For the first time this winter there were Lapwing flocks of several hundred birds both over and on big Otmoor. Duck numbers too are starting to rise again with many more Shovellers and more Wigeon present.
Wigeon at the first screen (c) Bark
Bitterns are being seen frequently over and on the reedbed we certainly saw three different individuals on Saturday morning from the first screen. People watching at the second screen saw an individual climb up the reeds on the northern edge of the lagoon and stand in the sunshine for a while. On Sunday we came upon a Bittern stalking through a patch of sedge it saw us and before slinking away drew itself up to its full height making it easier to see rather than hiding it. It’s a technique that really only works in tall reeds!
Peering Bittern (c) Tezzer
Just as I am about to post this blog I have heard of a Glossy Ibis flying over the second screen. It may very well stay in the area just as the previous bird did, the Otmoor basin is a very secluded and extensive area. It is a very welcome addition to this years’ more modest list.
Fieldfare (c) Oz