Friday, 14 January 2022

December 2021 Yearly round up and into 2022

January 1st Shelduck (c) JR

December has been unseasonably mild, and as I write this the temperature outside is around 16 degrees Centigrade or sixty-one Fahrenheit in old money! The weather may cool a little as we move into the New Year but will still remain warmer than average. Rainfall has increased slowly, and lying water is more noticeable across the moor, both on and off the reserve. The reserve hydrology system relies on storing water in the reedbed reservoirs, that can then be gradually released to keep the main grasslands wetter for longer in a dry spring.
Dew drenched cobwebs. (c) Bark

Over the past month Golden Plover and Lapwing numbers have finally started to rise, although they are still well below the large numbers that we expect in February and early March.

Lapwings over the first screen (c) Bark

Wildfowl numbers too have increased steadily and Wigeon flocks are scattered across the site often grazing a short distance from open water to which they can return rapidly if threatened. There are large numbers of Teal out on the Closes, which is wetting up nicely.
Loafing Shovellers (c) Bark

At the first screen a Jack Snipe is being seen fairly frequently feeding amongst the Common Snipe that spend so much time on the island with its covering of reed stubble. It is only visible when it is on the nearest edge, and no sooner had we found it last weekend than it flew to the other side of the spit and disappeared completely.

Courting Gadwall (c) Bark

The winter finch feeding programme is now fully underway and is already attracting good numbers of birds down to the seeds. So far, we have not managed to draw in any of the Bramblings that seem widespread in the county this winter, however a Brambling was seen in Otmoor Lane on Sunday and so they are not so far away!

Linnet and Reed Bunting (c) Bark

Chaffinches, Reed Buntings and Linnets make up the bulk of the flocks, with a  scattering of Goldfinches, Bullfinches and Yellowhammers.

The Starling roost is still happening in the reedbed at dusk, but in the depths of winter when nights are at their longest and coldest, the birds are less likely to undertake elaborate murmuration displays.

Murmuration from the first screen (c) Tom N-L

There are still over one hundred thousand coming in to roost every night but there is not always a coherent display, nor do they all seem to roost in the same area. As is customary during the mid-winter holidays, the Starling roost and murmuration is proving to be a popular early evening trip, especially for families that have been cooped up indoors.
Red Kite on patrol looking for sick or injured Starlings (c) Bark

The consequence of this popularity is extreme congestion on Otmoor Lane, in Beckley and in the car park. As far as possible one should car-share, arrive early and avoid key holiday dates. I would also urge people to be patient with each other, be tolerant and kind. Sadly, this has not always been the case this winter! I would also like to emphasise that dogs should not be taken beyond the bridleway and out to the reedbed. It may seem strict, but the signs are clear, and it is a very sensitive habitat.
Goldfinch on Burr (c) Bark

The Starlings and the rising numbers of Waterfowl, Lapwings and Golden plovers are once again attracting all of the regular winter raptors with a pair of Peregrines once again using the dead oak on Noke sides as a watchpoint. A ring-tailed Hen Harrier is being seen daily and not always at Starling roost time; it is frequently observed hunting them as they emerge from the roost at dawn.

Marsh Harrier Tom N-L

On the very last day of 2021 a Dotterel was found out among the Golden Plovers on The Closes. It is almost certainly the same bird that was seen in the company of Goldies out on Port Meadow earlier in December. It is the first ever recorded on Otmoor and brought the year-list to an extraordinary one hundred and sixty-nine species, a record breaker. Incidentally, the Dotterel and the Red-breasted Geese have rendered “The Birds of Otmoor” in need of revision!

Red breasted Goose and Barnacle on Noke Sides (c) Bark

It has been a very eventful year on the moor with exciting species being found, scarcer species breeding successfully and birds that would once have been sought after rarities becoming more commonplace.

Great White Egret (c) Bark

It was very special to be able to see all three regular Egret species at the same time in the same place, namely the first screen.
Cattle egrets c) Bark

It has been very exciting and challenging to have a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker an Oxfordshire rarity, appearing from time to time this autumn, although frustrating for those of us yet to connect with it. It was last seen on 19th December on the MOD land.

The reed stubble and islands out on the southern lagoon have attracted a good number of autumn passage waders and still hosts a large number of Common Snipe and at least one much more elusive but visible Jack Snipe.

Common Snipe (c) Bark

Waders were also seen during the spring passage out on the flooded areas of Big Otmoor.

Breeding successes include at least two broods of Garganey on both the north and south lagoons respectively, the strong likelihood that Pintail bred again this year after breeding for the first time in 2020. Out in the reedbed and in the smaller isolated reed stands three separate Bittern nests were seen to raise chicks, while six Marsh Harriers were fledged from two different nests.

Garganey and ducklings

Curlew have been very successful this year nesting beyond the reserve in the wider Otmoor basin. The weather being wet for a longer time than usual was a significant factor, but in addition the RSPB set electric fences up around the nests as soon as they were found, which effectively deterred mammalian predation at the egg stage.

Curlew over MOD (c) Bark

Three of the fledged Curlew were captured and ringed, they were also fitted with flappers that were readable at a distance. This resulted in one of “our” birds being reported from the west coast of Ireland just days after it had left the moor.

Cranes and young shortly before they left (c) Fergus Mosey

The greatest breeding success however has to be the Common Cranes. After six years of close calls and disappointments our “second” pair of Cranes managed to raise a chick to the stage where it could fly. They departed with the chick and were reported back on the Somerset Levels with the youngster in tow several days later.

On the downside there were just two reports of Turtle Dove, both on the same day and from two different observers, suggesting a bird on passage.

Hopefully they might be back this year (c) Bark

For so many years they have been part of the summer soundscape on Otmoor and one of its highlights. Nationally They have been declining in numbers and have shown little evidence in recent years of breeding success. We have surmised that the cold and wet spring at the crucial migration time may just have influenced them to stop heading north before they made it this far, but that may just be wishful thinking. On a more positive note, a Nightingale was heard singing briefly on the far side of the moor and not far from where they last bred. Later we heard that a pair had bred successfully, not too far away on some inaccessible MOD land near Ambrosden, perhaps they might be making a comeback to the area.
Bitterns bred again successfully (c) Nick Truby

Despite the disappointment with the Turtle Doves there is a great deal to look forward to in the coming year and indeed in the years to come. The RSPB has raised the necessary finance to buy the new extra piece of land, close to Maltpit, and watching how that develops and becomes a haven for wildlife, will be an ongoing pleasure.

Glossy Ibis (c) JR

My thanks as always to the full-time staff and volunteers for their unstinting efforts, that make and keep Otmoor the richest and finest Nature reserve in central England.

Redwing guzzling Sloes (c) Bark

Tuesday, 7 December 2021

November and into December


Red-breasted Geese (c) Bark

November was for the most part an unseasonably mild month until close to its end. I have only had to clear the windscreen on my car on two of my morning visits to the moor, which is remarkable for this time in the year! Only the last couple of visits have required gloves, hats and proper winter gear.

The Frost Moon

For a while the seasons seemed to pause with very little changing, but the first proper winter storm at the end of the month has pushed things along.

Wren (c) JR

This time last year Otmoor was largely flooded, due to an excessively wet autumn but water levels across the reserve have only been creeping up slowly, both on the reedbed and across the scrapes in the fields.
Grey Heron (c) JR

Winter thrushes arrived almost a month late and only now are the hedges beginning to look bare of berries, whereas last year they were stripped by the end of October. Redwings seem to be the predominant species now and are quieter than their noisy chuckling cousins the Fieldfares.

Redwings    above (c) JR   and below(c) Bark

There also appears to have been an influx of Blackbirds during the last couple of weeks they are much more noticeable now in and around the paths and bridleways.

Even Blue Tits eat Haws

There are mixed roving tit flocks moving through the hedgerows and taking advantage of the feeders in the car-park field. We are about to start the winter-feeding programme for Finches in earnest from next week.
Linnets (c) Bark

Already there are good numbers of birds coming down to the limited seed we have been spreading to start things off. They are mostly Chaffinches, Reed Buntings, Goldfinches and Linnets at present but as the weeks progress, I am sure that we  will draw in Yellowhammers, Bullfinches and any passing or over-wintering Bramblings.

Reed Bunting, Chaffinch and Dunnock (c) Bark

If we are really lucky, we might attract one of the rarer Bunting species.

In mid-month two Red-breasted Geese were spotted out amid the feral goose flock. They were keeping very close company with a small party of four Barnacle Geese. They arrived two days later than two other Red-breasted Geese had arrived on the Essex coast.

It is possible to see just how small they are beside a Greylag (c) Bark

We have no way of ascertaining where the birds originated unless a feather could be obtained for radio isotope analysis, a very unlikely possibility. All we can say with certainty is that the birds are not ringed and are full feathered, whatever their provenance they are very beautiful birds.
With Canadas (c) Bark

They are very small and frequently disappear when feeding amongst the much larger Canada and Greylag Geese. They get lost to sight down dips in the ground and hidden behind tussocks. Despite their stunning colour and attractive patterning, they can be difficult to pick out amidst the numerous feral geese.

Pair on Stonechats on the path up to July's meadow (c) Bark

Apart from the Red-breasted Geese we have recorded two further species that can  legitimately be counted on the Otmoor Yearlist. We had a party of seven Ring-necked Parakeets fly over the hide and along into the car-park field whilst we were watching the Red-breasted Geese. This is the largest number we have recorded on Otmoor and reflects the rapid rise of their population in the county.

Marsh Harriers    above (c) JR    below  (c) Bark

There was also a Whooper Swan seen, that flew over the reedbed heading north-west at the end of the month. These last two species have brought the yearlist up to one hundred and sixty-seven species.

Displaying Mandarins (c) Pete Roby

Mandarin Ducks have become much commoner on the reserve in recent years, but we usually only see females or eclipse males. In the last couple of weeks, a pair have been seen displaying in front of the first screen, the male resplendent in his superb, over the top breeding finery.
Distant Hen Harrier (c) Bark

The Starling roost continues to attract both avian predators and many human admirers. At this, the darkest time of the year, the birds often arrive as dark is falling and dive straight in and settle in the reeds. This can prove disappointing for visitors hoping for a dynamic murmuration display. The raptors however, often flush the flocks and can provide dramatic scenes as thousands of Starlings take to the air simultaneously.

Wigeon and Shovellers flushed at the screen. (c) Bark

All of the regular winter raptors are being seen including Merlin, Peregrine and Hen Harrier. There have also been Short-eared Owls hunting across the fields at dusk. Woodcock are also being spotted as they leave the security of the scrub in the car-park field, where they roost in the day time, and move out onto The Closes and Greenaway’s to feed.
Even leafless willows can be beautiful (c) Bark

Monday, 8 November 2021

Throughout October and into November.

Goldfinch (c) Bark

October has been unusually mild and occasionally showery with no frost at all. It has however been quite misty and moist in the mornings and coincidentally many of the foggier mornings have been at the weekends when I tend to visit the moor. Autumn and early winter seem to have been delayed.
Wayfaring Tree Berries (c) Bark

Although there have been movements of Fieldfares and Redwings seen going over the reserve, they have yet to start stripping the hawthorns of berries and occupying the hedgerows in noisy parties.
Michaelmas daisies on the way to the second screen.

Numbers of our regular overwintering wildfowl have started to increase slowly with groups of Wigeon out from the first screen and on Big Otmoor

Wigeon over (c) Bark

The first substantial flocks of Lapwings and Golden Plovers have started to be seen but in groups of low hundreds rather than the thousands we can expect later in the winter.
Lapwings (c) Bark

The Egret bonanza of late summer has declined with fewer appearances at the first screen of the confiding and much photographed Great White Egret. There are still reports of both Little and Cattle Egrets, but they are now much more infrequent.

The first Golden Plovers (c) Bark

The starling roost is already starting to build up and as always is attracting opportunistic raptors.

Murmuration (c) Tom N.L.

The most notable being a Ring-tailed Hen Harrier that causes consternation amongst the roosting Starlings causing them to flush in dense clouds from their initial roosting areas.
Hen Harrier over Greenaway's (c) Bark

There appear to be three readily recognisable resident Marsh Harriers, all of which can be seen diving into the starlings as they settle, but strangely don’t seem to catch any. It may be that their strategy is to work through the flocks looking for weak or injured individuals.

One of the Marsh Harriers at the evening roost.(c) Bark

A single Peregrine has been noted regularly over the reedbed and perched high in the dead oak tree out on Noke Sides. A Merlin is present on the moor and has been seen regularly but always unpredictably, frequently just flashing low and fast across the fields, just a metre or so above the ground.
Short-eared Owl (c) Tezzer

There is certainly one and just possibly two Short-eared Owls on the moor, it/they have been seen hunting in the late afternoon across the top of Ashgrave and Greenaways. The scrub that has been allowed to develop on the eastern side of Ashgrave interwoven with grassy areas mown at different heights, looks very like the gallops that they frequent on the Downs in south Oxfordshire. We saw one hunting low over Greenaway’s and Big Otmoor just this week in the late afternoon sunshine, drifting over the ground like a giant moth.
Distant Shorty over Greenaway's (c) Bark

Winter finches have arrived with a smattering of Redpolls being reported along the bridleway, there have also been Siskins seen and heard.

Green Woodpecker on path to the first screen. 

A Lesser-spotted Woodpecker was seen and photographed near the second screen, it was seen more than once and may very well still be in the vicinity, feeding and moving with a roving tit flock.
Goldcrest (c) Bark

A Rock Pipit was heard flying over plus a Black Redstart seen in on a roof in Charlton-on-Otmoor bring the yearlist for the Otmoor Basin up to one hundred and sixty-five species.
Kestrel (c) Oz

We will shortly be starting the winter finch feeding programme adjacent to the hide, this should attract a large number of Linnets, Chaffinches and Buntings and might very well attract some scarcer seed eaters, such as Brambling or even Tree Sparrows. During the last couple of weeks while undertaking tractor work across the fields, RSPB staff have flushed several Jack Snipe. It will be worth looking carefully at the reed stubble in front of the first screen to see if one can be spotted feeding on the edge.

Fox from the first screen (c) Tezzer

Two Otters were seen crossing the bridleway last week and a Fox was spotted out on in the reed bed in front of the screen.

Autumn (c) Bark

This past weekend (start of November) saw the first significant influx of both Fieldfares and Redwings.