Wednesday, 31 October 2018

Last two weeks of October

Golden Plover (c) Bark

The weather has changed at last and this recent weekend we experienced early winter weather for the first time. Leaves have started to fall, and the grass was rimed with hoar frost. We still have had very little rain and the moor is dryer than I can ever remember it being at this time in the annual cycle. This lack of water has had a very significant effect on the number of wildfowl and waders on the reserve, it will take several weeks of steady rain to recharge all the scrapes and ditches across our fields.

Distant Fieldfares (c) Pete Roby
Fieldfares and Redwings have arrived in good numbers but are still very mobile, moving through towards the west and south rather than settling and feeding for long. Numbers of Wigeon and Teal are slowly rising but they will require more available open water in order for them to approach their expected numbers.
Goldies (c) Bark
The first small flocks of thirty or forty Golden Plovers are being seen, we were lucky enough to have some right over head last week, so close that we could hear the whoosh of their wings.
The Starling roost is still fairly modest but is building all the time. The birds at this time of year, when there is less pressure on feeding opportunities in the daytime and it is not below freezing at night, seem prepared to spend more time and energy in their pre-roost displays. This was very noticeable a week ago, when they congregated in the blackthorns beside the path and could be seen flying off, some with sloes in their bills as they went down into the reedbed. They looked stunning as they flew up on mass into the low golden light that picked them out and made them shine as they rose up from the hedge.

All Starling pics (c) Bark

Bitterns are being seen regularly, more often from the second screen than the first. Sometimes they can be spotted feeding on the edge of the reeds and at other times flying in and landing on the margins where they simply seem to melt away into the vegetation. Their cryptic plumage makes them almost impossible to pick out once they freeze and point their bills towards the sky.
Bittern (c) Peter West

Marsh Harriers are also regular over the reedbed and there appear to be three different birds being seen regularly now, adult male and female and a probable first winter juvenile. The Harriers drift above the reeds and the hedgerows and occasionally hunt out across the larger fields. They are frequently hassled by corvids that randomly appear to take an exception to their presence and pursue them until they lose interest or perhaps when they feel their honour is satisfied.
Marsh Harrier (c) Bark

Short-eared Owls are being seen regularly in the late afternoons over Greenaways and up towards the reedbed. Just as darkness falls Woodcock have been spotted flying out of the carpark field and onto Greenaways.
A Little Owl was heard calling from the Roman Road area last week, this is the first record from Otmoor this year of what is becoming an increasingly scarce bird..
Marsh Harrier (c) Peter West

It is very easy to become complacent and familiarity can eventually breed contempt. A visitor the other day remarked that there wasn’t much about and I found myself agreeing with him. Later while I was chatting with another Otmoor long time regular we agreed that if we had seen Bitterns and Marsh Harriers on a single visit to the moor ten years ago, it would have been a red-letter day. Another visitor from North Wales said he just couldn’t get over seeing so many Red Kites and I confess that we barely notice them now. I wonder how long it will be before we feel the same way about Great White and Cattle Egrets.

There was an unusual event on Saturday at the second screen. A group of four or five Cormorants appeared to be working in concert to drive fish into the shallower water up against the northern edge of the lagoon. One of them caught a very substantial looking Rudd and spent the next five or six minutes trying to first subdue it and swallow it.

Eventually the catcher was “mugged” by a larger bird that manged to get it down apart from just the tip of its tail, the throat of the cormorant wriggled in a very uncomfortable way, not perhaps for the cormorant but for those of us watching!

All Cormorant pics (c) Bark
Fallow Deer Stag (c) Bark
On Sunday in Long meadow there were few birds to be seen, but we were entertained instead by a fine young Fallow Deer stag that was bellowing out his rutting call and being answered by what sounded like a much larger and louder rival from within the Spinney. A small group of does fed nervously at the woodland edge. It seems to me that there is always something to see and be enchanted by………one only has to look.

One has only to look!

Thursday, 18 October 2018

Friday 12th - Sunday 14th October

Kestrel (c) Oz

When I said a couple of weeks ago that we needed rain I did say that we didn’t want it at the weekends! The weather gods were not listening. The welcome rain came in with an Atlantic weather system that also brought fiercely strong winds. I went down to the moor on Friday evening to look for owls and was battered and buffeted by gales. Over the Closes a mixed flock of Jackdaws and Rooks were being tossed across the sky like wind-blown leaves. With the wind coming in from the south the bridle way was in the lee of the hedge and the force of the wind slowed up any birds flying towards us. Needless to say, we saw no owls.

Starlings including Marsh Harrier (c) Bark

What was interesting were the early signs of the Starling roost developing. There were approximately four or five thousand birds coming in, so nothing like the spectacular numbers that we might expect later in the winter. However, the power of the wind shredded and coalesced the flocks in turn, sometimes drawing them out like smoke and at other times pushing them together in tight clouds. The stormy conditions meant that the roosting process was drawn out and at times the birds were low and right over head, and then the thrumming of their wings was louder than the gusting wind. Three different Marsh Harriers were drifting through the Starlings but seemingly not looking to seize any of them. It would appear that they look to spot injured or ailing victims. There were two Sparrowhawks present a large female and a smaller male. They were hunting much more proactively, and we were fairly sure that we saw the female snatch one from the flock. As we were leaving it was very gratifying to see a long trail of children straggling out along the bridleway and heading towards the screen accompanied by parents and carers. They were members of a cub pack and from the “oohs and aahs” that we heard from them as they approached the screen they had not seen anything like the display before. It is vital to enthuse the upcoming generations if we wish them to value wildness and wild places in the future, and they will only do that if they are exposed to and enthused by the real thing.

Starlings leaving at dawn.(c) Matthew O'Byrne

Saturday morning was also wet but had given way to sunshine by late morning. We saw very little other than a Common Sand on the reedy island out from the first screen and a party of roughly thirty Golden Plovers. As it dried up on Saturday there were a couple of Kestrels hunting over Greenaways. Although we stood and watched as we slowly dried out in the sunshine we were not lucky enough to spot either the Merlin that had been reported on Thursday or the Hobby seen on Friday.
Common Sand from the first screen (c) Luke O'Byrne

Sunday morning was another washout with the heaviest rain of the weekend. On Sunday afternoon when the rain finally stopped a late Swallow passed overhead and two Green Sands were seen at the second screen on the muddy margin that has appeared out on the right-hand side. There are Stonechats out on Greenaways, but no Owls were noted.
Bittern (c) Dave Stroud
The conditions were not conducive to birds that should stay dry and hunt by stealth. Occasional sightings were had of the Bitterns as they relocated both within the reedbed and across the wider reserve. Surveys of fish populations undertaken by the reserve staff indicates that there is a much larger fish population in the ring ditches than out in the main lagoons. More Redwings were seen both on Saturday morning and late on Sunday, but we have yet to record our first Fieldfare of this winter season.
Kestrel at the Cattle Pens (c) JR

Wednesday, 10 October 2018

Saturday Sunday and Monday 6th-8th October

Kestrel (c) Bark

There was some much-needed rain on Saturday and the morning was grey and increasingly wet. Sunday however was a perfect sunny autumn morning, starting frosty but calm, still and clear.
Things are slowly starting to change and on Sunday morning we saw our first Redwings of the season, with a small party of perhaps twenty making their way west across the reserve. Elsewhere there was not much to see that was different from the previous few weeks.

Bitterns         Flight shot(c) JR      Standing shot (c) Luke O' Byrne 
Bitterns are being reported regularly and I have not had a visit recently when I’ve failed to see one. Usually they are noticed in flight while relocating within the reedbed, but occasionally they can be seen either feeding, sunbathing and preening on the edge of the reeds.

Mallards (c) Bark
Many of the drake Mallard have emerged from their eclipse plumage. They are flaunting their bright green emerald heads and fresh plumage as they circle females in groups bobbing their heads in display. There are more Wigeon arriving but not yet in the numbers that we will see later in the autumn. A small number of Teal are loafing around but are still dressed in their drabber eclipse plumage.
Kingfisher in the mist (c) Bark
Kingfishers are being seen regularly now on both lagoons and at the Noke balancing pond.
It would seem that there is a very healthy and extensive population of small mammals out in the fields. This is based on actual evidence on the ground, where small holes and runs are clearly visible in the grass. The reserve has been very dry all summer so that burrows will not have been flooded and the grasses set seed rapidly, which must have helped to encourage rapid breeding.

Kestrel with prey (c) Bark        Kestrel pouncing (c) JR
The other indicator is the number of Kestrels on the reserve and their evident success in catching small mammal prey. We also have an early presence of Short Eared Owls on the moor this autumn.
S.E.O. at first screen (c) Peter West
S.E.O. (c) Matthew O'Byrne
There was another young Marsh Harrier over the reedbed on Sunday that spent over an hour perched in a rather ungainly manner in one of the willows out amongst the phragmites.
Young Marsh Harrier (c) Bark
Sparrowhawks and Buzzards were regular but we saw no sign of last weekends Peregrine.
Stonechat (c) JR
There are still at least five Stonechats on the MOD fields but I couldn’t find any at Noke when I walked down there on Sunday.
Barnacle Geese (c) JR
A small flock of about ten Barnacle Geese were seen on Sunday feeding slightly separate from the much larger flock of Greylags. Currently there appear to be fewer Canada Geese on the moor but they may just be off foraging further afield.
Chiffy second screen (c) Bark

Over the next couple of weeks Fieldfares will arrive lagging not too far behind the Redwings. A small group of about fifteen Golden Plover were reported last Friday and they too will become more frequent. The pace of the season is accelerating and we should finally be moving out of the doldrums.
NB Until the 12th of October there will be road closures between Islip and Beckley so it would be wise to check in advance if coming from that direction.

Tuesday, 2 October 2018

Saturday and Sunday 29th and 30th September

Cormorant in the sunshine

On Saturday morning I had to scrape ice off the windscreen for the first time since the spring. It was a bright, sharp, sunny and still morning. Looking down from the top of Otmoor Lane I could see the tops of the trees sticking up out of the mist that was pooled on the moor. I was totally unprepared, lacking scarf, hat and gloves and the cold was a real shock, having spent the last week in Spain. Autumn has truly arrived bringing its soft mellow colours and misty atmosphere.
Frost on a Guelder Rose

On Ashgrave there were four fallow deer looking very beautiful in the fading mist and golden light. This little herd has evolved from the fawn that thought it was a cow (as I have reported over the past five years). We have watched that particular doe with several different fawns of her own and now we have a young antlered stag with them, that may or may not be one of her progeny.

From first screen there were a scattering of ducks that appeared and disappeared in the steadily vanishing mist. A Bittern flew rapidly across the lagoon before slipping down into the reeds. A young male Peregrine came low across the reeds and over our heads before jinking into the oak trees behind us.
Juvenile Peregrine
It was followed very quickly by a Sparrowhawk that was also using the mist to cloak its approach in order to surprise unwary prey. Down by the waters edge a Reed Warbler was picking its way along the edge of the reeds. We also saw several Chiffchaffs in the hedge and four or five Blackcaps near to the feeders.
Reed Warbler
On Sunday morning we picked up two Siskins in the bushes beside the bridleway, close to the volunteers hut. They were with a group of five or six Greenfinches, which have been much less common of late, than they used to be. Let us hope that they will start to breed back up again now, having been hit very hard by the parasitic disease trichomonosis.
Goldfinches and Linnets are already starting to flock together into larger parties. On Saturday morning we saw fifteen or so Goldfinches on just one large dried Teasel beside the path to the first screen many of them still in sub-adult plumage.
The water levels at the northern lagoon are still falling, albeit slowly, and a muddy margin has emerged along the right-hand side when looking out from the screen. There were several Snipe feeding there on Sunday along with a Green Sandpiper.
We had another two Bittern sightings here on Sunday morning but failed to connect with any of the Barn Owls that are now being regularly reported. A second calendar year male Marsh Harrier drifted through on Sunday morning. It was in transition between juvenile and adult plumage and was not one of the Harriers that we have been familiar with this summer.....leading to a temporary mis-identification!
Marsh Harrier
Ravens are being seen and heard regularly over the reserve with four being seen together on Sunday. They are more often heard before they are spotted as it is surprising just how far the sound of their harsh cronking calls carries.
Raven and Stonechat
There were four or five Stonechats out at the Pill on Saturday and Sunday, as usual busy flycatching from the harshly cropped hedge that runs from north to south. Although we didn’t see any this weekend there are regular reports of up to four kingfishers on the lagoons. What is need now is some rain to wet the moor up again.….but preferably not at the weekends.