Monday, 19 February 2018

Saturday and Sunday 17th and 18th February

Teal (c) JR

It was a very “birdy” weekend with change starting to happen, lots to see and plenty going on. The weather too was better, crisp and bight on Saturday morning with plenty of winter sunshine and on Sunday a foggy start gave way to a pleasant bright morning before rain arrived in the afternoon.

Great Spot and Goldcrest (c) JR

Goldies (c) Bark
Yet again it was impossible not to be impressed by the sheer numbers of birds present. As before the huge flocks of Golden Plover and Lapwings were impossible to ignore. Sometimes after they had been flushed, headed up high and were starting to descend it appeared as if the whole sky was speckled with birds.

Golden plover and Lapwings (c) Bark
At other times we were treated to very low flypasts. When three or four hundred birds pass no more than fifteen or twenty feet above you the sound of their wingbeats and the whoosh of the downdraft allows you to really appreciate just how fast they can go. The Lapwings too were spectacular, as they made a slower black and white counterpoint to the faster more densely packed plovers. We even noticed a few Lapwings above the Flood Field starting to perform their tumbling display flights.

Wigeon and Teal (c) Bark
Wigeon and Teal are spread over the whole reserve but are in the largest concentrations on Big Otmoor, The Flood Field and the big lagoon on Ashgrave. There were also three Shelduck on Big Otmoor on Saturday and ten or twelve Pintail. The twenty or so Pochard are still around on the Southern Lagoon and “Luke” the leuchistic drake is still keeping company with a female but is now remaining more separate from the rest of the flock.
"Luke" (c) Bark

On Sunday morning the fog meant that the distant sounds of traffic on the A34 and the motorway were all but eradicated and the natural sounds were clearer and easier to appreciate. At the first screen the metallic clicks and harsh monosyllabic tacks of the Coots was particularly noticeable as it echoed around the lagoon. Every so often the sounds would accelerate and rise to a crescendo and one of them would suddenly launch itself across the water and attack another. They do seem to be a particularly aggressive and ill-tempered species. The behaviour did not always appear to be about defending a territory or a potential mate, but much more about an individual throwing its weight about. The avian equivalent of a drunk in a pub attacking someone else because….” he looked at me a bit funny!” Perhaps they are just establishing a pecking order in the local Coot population, a hierarchy maybe. It can be very splashy, energetic and dramatic, and even more so if two evenly matched individuals square up and then start lashing out at each other with their feet.

Angry coots (c) Bark

The quiet also meant that it was easy to hear two competing skylarks singing and from the brambles Wrens were also starting to call. We estimated that there must be at least six different Cetti’s Warblers in and around the reedbed area alone.
Wren (c) JR
I suggested last week in this blog that the first Curlew were just about due, and so it was very gratifying to hear of one being seen on the moor on Saturday. It was even better from a personal point of view, to have two of them fly over us on Sunday morning, appearing out of the mist making their unmistakeable and evocative calls.
Sunday morning Curlew (c) Bark
It was another good weekend for seeing Raptors. All the expected species were seen over the two days. On Saturday the male Hen Harrier put in a sustained appearance. It worked its way along the hedge and then spent three or four minutes quartering the northern half of the reedbed, giving superb views to all in the screen.
hen Harrier (c) JR
There are still three different Marsh Harriers on the reserve and a visitor told me that two of them had been seen displaying some courtship activity. A Peregrine was seen several times on Saturday causing consternation in the flocks on Big Otmoor and on Sunday we were fortunate enough to have a very close and extremely fast, fly past from a male Merlin.

Marsh Harriers above (c) JR     below (c) Nick Truby
A Bittern was seen from the bridleway on Saturday morning flying along the ditch and then out and into one of the smaller clumps of reeds, where it promptly disappeared.
Bittern (c) Nick Truby
There were pairs of Stonechats out in the reedbed and on Greenaways.
female stonechat (c) Norman Smith
On Saturday morning five Grey Herons could be seen occupying spaces in the reeds along the northern edge of the southern lagoon. It is not certain that they are building nests yet but may just have been doing the equivalent of putting their towels on the sun lounger by the pool! At least six pairs nested in the reedbeds last year.

Grey Herons     above (c) JR   below (c) Bark
If anyone is planning to come down to the reserve for the Starling roost and murmuration or if you know anyone who is planning to, please be advised that the roost has collapsed and there is no longer any kind of display. It carried on for a long time this year and will not get going again until next autumn.
Barn Owl at dusk (c) Tom N-L

Ps Redshank next week!
Swimming Vole......Water or bank? (c) Tezzer

Wednesday, 14 February 2018

Saturday and Sunday 10th and 11th February

Car park bud munching Bullfinch (c) Bark

Yet again we were treated to a carbon copy of the previous weekend with a sour, soggy Saturday followed by a contrasting sunny, sparkling Sunday.
Redwing (c) Bark

Water levels across the moor have risen still further and after reed cutting during the week the water level on the southern lagoon has risen to match that on the northern one. This will mean a stable depth can be established, so that reedbed breeders will not have nests flooded or suddenly be left high dry and vulnerable to predation.
Flushed by the Marsh Harrier (c) Bark

There were substantial numbers of wildfowl on both lagoons this weekend. At least thirty Pochard were courting and displaying in front of the southern screen, amongst them was the leuchistic drake who seems to be spending time with one of the females, his lack of colour does not appear to be a disadvantage in the mating game.
"Luke" with a friend ! (c) Bark

Yet again the Hawfinch was seen, this time twice on Sunday morning. We wondered what it might be finding in the carpark field to feed on. When we looked closely at the blackthorn it was possible to find shrivelled up sloes still clinging to the branches and when the dry outer skin is removed inside there is a small very hard stone. We speculated that they were forming part of the Hawfinch diet, assuming they were not too small and hard for its bill. There will of course be more sloe and damson stones on the ground under the bushes.

Bullfinches are much more approachable now in the carpark (c) Bark

A Nuthatch is now using the feeders in the carpark field. They have usually not been reported closer to the reserve than Sling Copse and the Spinney, it may be that they are now colonising the oaks in the Roman Road and coming in to feed from there. Whatever the case it is good to see them more frequently.
Redwing on the bridleway (c) Bark

Sunday was particularly noisy across the whole reserve but especially Ashgrave and Big Otmoor. There are now hundreds of Canada Geese on the moor and they were being especially vociferous as they start to court and mate. The aggressive encounters of their pairings and territorial disputes result in much trumpeting and honking. Out on Big Otmoor amongst the thousand or so Wigeon and another thousand or so other mixed ducks were a pair of Egyptian Geese. Although they are increasingly common elsewhere in the county they are unusual down on Otmoor and especially so at this time of year.
Noisy Canada Goose (c) Bark

The starling roost has declined steadily and is currently less than a third of what it was at its peak. The flocks are still coming, but their displays are much more fragmented and spread across the whole area. The reeds that they roost on are much weaker, often flattened and damaged. People returning from the roost have noted woodcock flying out from the Closes and the Car Park Field to feed on Greenaways at dusk.
Sunbathing Blackbird (c) Bark

Long Tailed Tits (c) Bark
On Sunday morning there were three skylarks up singing high over Greenways and I heard my first tentative chaffinch songs of the year. A Great Spotted Woodpecker was drumming in the Roman Road and frog or toad was croaking from the ditch beside the hide. Small signs of change I know, but at this time in the winter it is these small events that anticipate spring and lift the spirits.

Tuesday, 6 February 2018

Saturday and Sunday 3rd and 4th February

Hawfinch (c) Andy Last
Saturday ran true to the current form for Saturdays; yet again it was wet, grey, dismal and dispiriting. It is said that to know and appreciate a place one should see and experience it in all its moods, but I think that I have really had enough of this particular mid-winter mood.
Yellowhammer in the rain (c) Bark
To compensate Sunday in total contrast was beautiful. The air was gin clear, it was cold but sunny and the sky was reflected bright blue in the water of the lagoons and scrapes. The bright light allowed the colours of the hedgerows to show, blackthorn now acquiring a purplish tinge as the sap starts to rise in reaction to the lengthening daylight. The change of colour is even more noticeable in the thinnest twigs of the willows as they now show pale yellows and sometimes a faint flush of red. It is a welcome reminder that natures’ calendar is on the move and the darkest days of winter are behind us even if there are still some cold days to come.

All about the numbers (c) Tom N-L

Just as last week, on the avian front the huge numbers of birds around was the most significant and noticeable factor. The only slight difference was that there seemed to be more Lapwings than Golden Plovers, but that was during the time I was there, and the flocks are extremely mobile across the whole of the moor. Wigeon were favouring Big Otmoor and another large flock was seen to fly over towards the Flood Field. There are still very few wildfowl using the scrapes in front of the Hide. It may be that they were dry for so long during the late summer and autumn that they have not yet developed the potential for feeding ducks.
Lots of Linnets too by the hide. (c) Bark
Heron prospecting (c) Bark
Herons too are reacting to the turning of the seasons. Two pairs are showing an interest in the established nests in the old bare oak to the west of the hide, while others are prospecting for nest sites in the southern reedbed where they nested last year. The males are developing the bright orange bill that indicates both their suitability and their readiness to breed.

Water Rails (c) Tom N-L

At the first screen, as well as hearing their diabolic shrieks and screams, Water Rails are being seen more frequently. They can often be spotted as they fly or sometimes swim across between the islands. Occasionally they will scuttle through the cut reeds in front of the screen. On Friday two foxes were seen out on the islands in the reedbed. They are unlikely to be able to stay there for long however.

Reedbed Foxes (c) Tom N-L
This week there will be some reed cutting done in the southern reedbed as part of the reedbed management programme. Once this is completed the water level will be raised rapidly to equalise the levels between it and the northern sector. The additional water will make it much more secure for all our species that breed in the reedbeds. The reedbed cutting rotation is essential in order to maintain it as a proper reedbed and to prevent it from slowly silting up and changing into a drier willow carr.
Hawfinch (c) Andy Last

The bird of the weekend was yet again the lone Hawfinch that is frequenting the Car Park Field and the Roman Road. Typically I missed it by a few minutes on Saturday morning. Two visiting birders told me how they had sat in their car and had excellent views as it fed in the blackthorn by the gate, only flushing when another car came down the lane. But better still it was also seen and photographed on Sunday morning by Andy Last who had first found it in Long Meadow over four weeks ago. It was particularly gratifying that Stoneshank, who puts in so many hours on the moor was there and also got to see it.

Great Spotted and Green Woodpeckers (c) Bark

In the next couple of weeks we should see the first significant numbers of waders coming through, Curlew often arrive in the early part of February.

Saturday, 3 February 2018

Friday 23rd-Sunday 25th January

Bullfinch (c) JR
On Friday before the proper weekend went the way of most recent weekends……… other words became grey, damp and dismal……. I had an early morning walk on the moor. I went down specifically to look once again for the Hawfinch that has been reported several times in and around the car park field and Long Meadow. I checked carefully round the field and along the Roman Road before ending up in Long Meadow.
Spring in the carpark field.(cBark
Unsuccessful I went back to the carpark and took off my boots and put my kit into the boot of the car. An Otmoor regular who I had not seen for a long time stopped to chat and I told him about the Hawfinch invasion and how frustrating it was that I had yet to catch up with the Otmoor one. Looking past me and up to the top of the tallest willow beside the gate he said, “what’s that, It’s too big for a chaffinch.” It was the Hawfinch! By the time I had retrieved my camera from the boot it had inevitably flown off towards the rifle range. I had only enough time to confirm its identity but a more recent report and clearly a better view has conformed it as a 2nd winter male.
Cetti's Firt screen (c) Bark
Saturday and Sunday despite the indifferent weather were both enlivened by the sheer numbers of birds that were present on and over the moor. Golden Plovers, Lapwings, Teal and Wigeon are all close to their winter maxima. Additionally there are always large flocks of Starlings that choose not stray too far from the evening roosts, feeding on the flooded fields. It is an excellent time to spot raptors and some regulars reported that they had seen all eight species of raptor that are likely, on just one evening visit.

Marsh Harriers Above (c) A Harris below (c) Bark

The Marsh Harriers are very much in evidence over the reedbed and Greenaways. We were certain that we had seen four different individuals on Saturday, two of them mature adults, a subadult female and a 1st winter juvenile. The regular male Hen Harrier is being seen more frequently but still hunts more over the northern edge of Greenways, the northern end of the reedbed, over the flood and the MOD land. It has this area very much to itself as Saunders Ground and the Hundred Acre Field are flooded.
Shelduck on Closes (c) Bark
On Sunday morning there were a pair of Shelduck on The Closes and I understand that they have hung around. On the southern Lagoon there were over twenty Pochard. They were mostly males and very interestingly the Leuchistic individual from last year was still with them acting just the same as a testosterone fuelled drake but with a very blonde head! This is the third year that we have seen this individual and he is now fully mature, but this has made no difference to his colouration. We have not seen him closely enough to see whether he has the deep red eye that the drakes show in full courting plumage.

"Blondie" the leuchistic Pochard top left (c) JR

The Bullfinches in the car park field are now concentrating fully on eating Blackthorn buds and are much less flighty than they seem to be the rest of the time. Their absorption with their browsing allows a quiet, patient observer to get very close.

Chaffinch (c) F.Josephs and Yellowhammer (c) JR

Bitterns are still very active in and around the reedbed. We are confident that there are a minimum of three there but there could well be more. In some parts of the Somerset Levels booming has already been heard and now is the time to listen out for this special haunting sound coming from the reedbed at night and early in the morning.
We take pheasants for granted! (c) Bark