Saturday, 9 March 2019

In like a Lion?

Curlew courtesy of Terry Sherlock.

Mid February to early March.

February can often be a drab and dreary month in the birding calendar but certainly not this year, even so it seemed very strange to be walking around the reserve in a short sleeved shirt during the afternoon. Still, an early arrival often found very cold conditions and an overnight frost but it soon warmed up and afternoon temperatures were reaching the high 'teens in glorious sunlight. It felt like early summer but a closer look around the reserve reminded us of the true time of year with bare branches on the trees and snowdrops poking out here and there.

Some days a persistent fine mist slightly hampered viewing but on the days this burnt off the conditions were as perfect as they get. The air was extremely clear with none of the pollution or haze sometimes associated with warmth later in the year. This allowed us to look deep into the fields and more easily find birds at great distances, quite handy on Otmoor really. It also offered great photo opportunities.

Barn Owl courtesy of Terry Sherlock.

Resident birds were clearly enjoying the conditions and could be heard in full song with Skylarks seeming to be everywhere all of a sudden. The shortening nights improved our chances of finding both Barn Owl and Short-eared Owl at either end of the day and wildfowl looked absolutely wonderful in the sunshine.

As much as we enjoy the dry sunny weather the reserve does rely on water and there hasn't been nearly enough of it this winter, so it was a relief to receive some overnight rain as we moved into March. Wading birds are to the fore at this time and we could watch Lapwing displaying over Big Otmoor and notice the first Golden Plovers starting to obtain their beautiful summer plumage. Redshank numbers are increasing well and two birds could often be seen very close to the bridleway picking their way around the pools. Careful observation may also reveal a few Snipe around the edges here too but their wonderfully cryptic plumage means they remain very difficult to detect, no matter how close by they are. 

Oystercatcher courtesy of John Uren.

The loud piping calls of Oystercatcher may be heard on the reserve once again usually alerting us to an impending fly past. Also vocal are some of the twenty or more Curlew currently on site. On Saturday two Dunlin could be seen among the Plover flocks all of which drew the attention of a very smart male Peregrine.

Marsh Harrier courtesy of Terry Sherlock.

Over at the reed bed it has been fun trying to figure out how many Marsh Harriers we have at the moment. Currently the answer is five with the resident male joined by two adult females and two younger birds, thought to be another male and female. Three pairs of Grey Herons continue with their nest building and Little Grebes have been showing well around the edges while Cetti's warblers and Water Rails call among the reeds.

Oystercatchers courtesy of John Uren.

Stonechat can still be found albeit often quite distantly on Greenaway's while other winter visitors such as Redwing and Fieldfare have mainly moved on. The first Chiffchaffs have just been reported and it is to be hoped that there is no repetition of last year's disastrously cold weather and that spring be allowed to flourish bringing in more waders, wheatears, warblers and maybe a nice early surprise. 

Steve Roby - standing in for Bark this time

Grey Heron courtesy of Terry Sherlock.

Friday, 22 February 2019

Saturday and Sunday 17th and 18th February

Tufties (c) Bark

The weekend was unseasonably warm, but still cool compared with the temperatures I had been experiencing the previous week in Fuerteventura. In the fortnight since my last visit to the moor Water levels have continued to rise yet still remain below target heights on all the main fields.
Although twigs and branches are still bare, the sunlight emphasised the first flush of colour in the bushes and trees, that suggests rising sap and the promise of spring not too far away. The resident birds were responding to the spring-like warmth. Reed Buntings, Chaffinches Dunnocks and Great Tits were all actively in song.

Bitterns were seen regularly at the weekend. On Sunday morning we had a bird fly over us at the “crossroads” area. It appeared to go down beyond the hide into the ditch that goes up towards Julys’ Meadow. From inside the hide we could see it stalking through the shadows amidst the dead and dried up Reed Mace.

Bittern (c) Bark
It was actively hunting and we saw it catch and eat prey. The food items looked small not “leggy” enough to be frogs or active enough to be Stickle-backs. We concluded that it was eating newts. There have been a number of reports of Bitterns stalking along the shallow ditches out on Greenaways and it seems likely that this is the favoured seasonal prey.
Out in the reedbed from both the first and the second screens there is a great deal of nesting courtship behaviour from the Grey Herons. Over and around the nest sites they fly in a very un-Grey heron like way, with necks outstretched and using a slow stalling flight. When they land they make a strange series of grunts and barks, quite unlike their normal harsh flight call.

Grey Herons (c) Bark

There were further signs of spring this weekend. A Curlew flew over the second screen on Saturday and on Sunday I heard and saw my first Redshank of the spring, by Monday morning there were three birds recorded in the webs count.
Redshank (c) Bark
A pair of Shelduck were seen last week out on Ashgrave and have come and gone since. It was nice to notice that our regular leuchistic drake Pochard has turned up again for the fourth consecutive year. He is more a blonde than a redhead and is very distinctive.
Coot wars have broken out again on the southern lagoon. There were thirty or so birds out in front of the first screen. They really are very aggressive with each other and if two birds started to fight, just as in a pub brawl, other birds would come pattering over the surface to join in.

Shovellers and Tufties (c) Bark
Groups of male Shovellers were pursuing unattached females both in the water and in the air. There has been an increase in the number of Tufted Ducks on and around the lagoons. In the sunlight, if the angle is right, their supposedly black heads show beautiful iridescent shades of purple and violet.
"Blondie" the leuchistic Pochard
We are reaching that time in the year when we anticipate all sorts of exciting arrivals and changes. Like all of these things we tend to get ahead of ourselves and our expectations are unrealistic. Last year the winter came back in March and savaged us and wildlife with the beast from the east. Our optimism for spring should always be tempered with pragmatism.

Tuesday, 5 February 2019

Saturday and Sunday 2nd and 3rd February

Drake Pintail (c) Bark

Several days of low temperatures and some snow brought a real taste of winter to the moor. Both Saturday and Sunday were the finest kind of winter days clear, sunny and brilliantly lit, the only downside a bitter nagging wind.
Path to the second screen
Surprisingly, despite the low temperatures overnight, the main lagoons had not frozen completely, and the wildfowl were either paddling around in the open water or sitting rather disconsolately on the ice.
Waiting for the thaw (c) Bark
It was reassuring to see that those birds more vulnerable to severe cold had made it through the cold snap unscathed. On Sunday morning after a hard frost we heard at least three different Cetti’s Warblers calling from the reedbed and the bridleway.
Both Stonechats (c) JR
The very confiding Stonechats at the second screen continued to entertain and enchant. On Saturday they had been joined by a Pied Wagtail that was flicking along the edge and just over the surface of the water and picking up diving beetles, as far as we can determine from the pictures.

with food

Pied Wagtail        Top two (c) Bark      lower (c) JR
Some observers had noticed that several times one or other of the Stonechats had stolen the insect prey from the Wagtail. On Sunday morning they were hassled by a Robin that chased them from perch to perch, clearly regarding them as competitors for limited food.
Male Stonechat (c) Bark
We saw no Golden Plovers at the weekend but there were several smaller flocks of Lapwings both on and off the reserve. As we arrived on Saturday morning a larger flock was flushed by what looked to be a male Peregrine but not the one we have been seeing fairly regularly, as it had a full complement of feathers on its left wing.
With a return to warmer weather this week we fully expect Golden Plover and Lapwing numbers to rise again as they feed on the wet fields. We should see the first Curlew of the new year in the next week or so.
A drake Goosander was reported last Wednesday from the first screen, sadly it did not linger, probably because of the dearth of fish in the southern lagoon. Eleven Pintail were on the same lagoon on Saturday and flew over our heads at the screen they looked stunning against the clean blue of the sky in the crisp sunshine.
Pintail (c) JR

The finch flock is still growing, although more slowly, but does feature a few more Yellowhammers now. It is interesting to notice just how familiar the birds have become with the feeding process. Where they would normally flush right off, they now come in and land just as we have gone past with the seed spreader.

Buntings and Finch by the hide (c) Bark
The only thing that does clear them out is the presence of the Sparrowhawk, and after it’s been through it usually takes them about fifteen minutes to re-settle and resume feeding. Once again the Water Rail is out in the open on the path and can be seen picking up fine seeds in its long bill, which must be a bit like trying to eat peas with chopsticks.
Water Rail in the snow (c) JR
On Ashgrave our small herd of Fallow Deer has now swollen to nine including a particularly well antlered stag.
Fallow Deer Stag Ashgrave (c) Noah Gins

Tuesday, 29 January 2019

Saturday and Sunday 26th and 27th January

Female Stonechat (c) Bark

Saturday was unseasonably mild, grey with a hint of drizzle in the air. By Sunday things had changed and it was much colder, brighter and extremely windy. Heavy overnight rain had given way to sunshine and a bitter face-numbing wind.
Noke Sides Goldies and Lapwings (c) JR

Red Kite (c) Bark
On Saturday morning at the second screen a male Peregrine flew over low heading out over the flood field. It was recognisable as the same bird we had seen last week as it is missing a couple of secondary feathers from its left wing. It flushed a small flock of fifty or sixty Lapwings. They flew up and went higher and higher with the Peregrine circling beneath them until they and the raptor disappeared into the low cloud. We thought we had seen the last of them until a few moments later we spotted the Peregrine and a single Lapwing breaking out of the cloud. The raptor was now above its hapless quarry and stooped on it five times unsuccessfully until on the sixth try it struck and the two birds tumbled groundward together disappearing onto the Pill Field. It was a dramatic demonstration of the dynamic, daily battle between predator and prey, but one that we are rarely privileged to witness.

Male Blackbird, Female leucistic female and Songthrush (c) Bark

On Sunday morning there were at least ten Blackbirds feeding along the bridleway seven of them were males and one of the females was an unusual partially leuchistic individual, with white markings either side of its face. There were also a number of Fieldfares and two Song Thrushes picking over the molehills along the track.

Flying Linnet (c) Bark        Mr And Mrs Reed bunting and Water Rail (c) JR

At the hide there were even more finches present than there had been last week. Linnets still outnumber the Reed Buntings and the supporting cast of Chaffinches and Goldfinches. The Water Rail is becoming much bolder as it creeps out of the grasses lining the ditch to pick up the seed, provided that there are already other birds out there feeding. Moorhens too are cashing in on the bounty.
Moorhens cashing in (c) Bark

There was plenty to enjoy at the second screen. The Bullfinch flock came very close, still gleaning the desiccated blackberries from the brambles. They sometimes hover as they try to pick the dried fruits from the thinnest and most difficult to reach stems.

Bullfinches (c) JR
A pair of Stonechats has taken up residence just to the left of the screen and are picking food off of the surface of the water. They are offering superb photo-opportunities, although while we were there on Saturday, we only saw the female.

Female Stonechat (c) JR      male Stonechat (c) Tom N-L
A Wren in the bramble beside the screen gave us very close views, but despite hearing the Cetti’s Warbler typically we failed to see it.
Wren (c) Bark
Create the habitat and wildlife will find it made it from Scotland I don't know.
Walking back towards the first screen there were now perhaps fifteen hundred Golden Plover and several hundred Lapwings out on Noke Sides facing determinedly into the wind. I tried to go through them to try to find the Ruff that had been seen on Friday or perhaps to see if I could find a smaller paler individual Golden Plover that a visitor had reported seeing on Friday. The birds were restless and flushed easily making any kind of rigorous search difficult and by now the cold was biting and so we headed off, it might be worthwhile checking them out properly in the next few days, providing they are in a suitable spot and the weather is a little more clement.

Massively under-rated Blue Tits at the second screen (c) Tom N-L