Wednesday 3 April 2024

March Round-up


Displaying Great Crested Grebes (c) Bark

March came in like a lion and has departed in a similar robust fashion. There have been only a few dry, calm days but the temperatures have remained higher than average, with just a few frosty nights. The moor is still very wet but at least the sluices on the River Ray have been lowered and the water levels in the ring ditches have gone down. Fields like Greenaways and the Closes are at their optimum levels and birds are starting to nest on the higher drier sections. The ground-nesting waders are very much in evidence calling and displaying.

Curlew over The Closes (c) Bark

Curlew are making their iconic wild rippling trills, while undertaking their stalling display flights, both over our fields and the MOD land around the rifle range. Snipe are drumming and “chipping”  above the Closes and Greenaway’s, even in inclement weather. Some Lapwings are still pairing up and others are already sitting on eggs, the first nest was found by the RSPB on the 20th March, which is the expected first nest date. The concern now is that if we have further heavy rain nests could be flooded out and abandoned.
There has been much more activity from resident birds setting up territories and singing urgently.
Blackbird (c) Bark

Robins, Blackbirds and Song Thrushes have been pairing up and singing. Two of the smallest species on the moor have been responsible for some of the loudest songs. Wrens and Cetti’s Warblers have been very voluble over the last few weeks, with Cetti’s seeming to follow us everywhere along the paths.
With Cetti's there is always a stick in the way! (c) Bark

Towards the end of the month the first Willow Warblers were heard in the carpark field and along the trail leading to the first screen and just at the end of the month the first Sedge Warbler, out at the reedbed and near the Greenaway’s cattle pens. There had been some singing Blackcaps from mid-month, but the most noticeable and common singing warblers were Chiffchaffs.

Chiffy singing (c) Bark

As the month had progressed they had been pumping out their bi-syllabic song at every opportunity. It seemed to me that that there have been more present this year than ever…a subjective and not a statistically based observation. One or two of the Chiffchaffs seen appeared to be much greyer and paler than the more regular yellower individuals, they may have been overwintering birds but of course it’s difficult to tell.

Two different Chiffs in the same bush at the same time very different colours (c) Bark 

Another species than seems to be present in greater numbers this year is Water Rail. They can often be seen scuttling from side to side over the puddles in the path between the bridle way and the first screen. They are much more likely to be seen than heard and they make a number of other strange sounds too, as well as the familiar “piglet squealing” call.

Looking out from first screen there is now much more activity on and around the Grey Heron nests in the reedbeds. This last weekend it was possible to discern at least two scruffy looking downy heads appearing beside the adults on the nest closest to the first screen.

Lots of Heron activity (c) Bark

Bitterns are booming from a number of different places that suggest that there are several different calling males. As in previous years there has been a regular boomer in the closest reedbed to the bridleway adjacent to the bench. We saw a male there, booming and sky-pointing on the edge of those reeds last weekend whilst another, presumably a female, flew out and over to the main reedbed.

Seventy Godwits from the second screen over Flood (c) Bark

The Flood Field is living up to its name and is still very flooded, as it has been since November. It is viewable from the Oddington track and has had vast numbers of wildfowl on it over the late winter and early spring. It has attracted our first Garganey of the year and for most of the month has hosted up to seventy Black-tailed Godwits, a flock that has commuted between Otmoor and Port Meadow. There have been a number of Dunlin out there often into double figures and several Ringed and Little-ringed Plovers. They have also been seen out on Big Otmoor.
Record shot of Avocet on Flood. (c) Bark

Right at the end of the month a pair of Avocets arrived and have remained there until into the start of April.

There are a number of different individual Marsh Harriers on site and both display behaviour and stick carrying has been seen.

Marsh Harrier (c) Bark

We think that there are at least four and possibly five different birds, two of which are clearly adult males. The over-wintering Hen Harrier is still being seen intermittently and irregularly and Merlin is still on sand around the moor we had a good sighting of it out on Ashgrave just two weeks ago. An Osprey was seen on passage towards the end of the month, a welcome addition to the year-list, as we failed to record one at all last year.

Blackthorn blossom (c) Bark
The Blackthorn blossom has been prolific this year and now as the flowers fade they shower the pathways with a light dusting of white petals like a first snowfall.

Blossom on the moor (c) Tom N.L.
There are splashes of yellow along the bridleway from the Coltsfoot flowers and they are attracting bumble bees. The first butterflies are on the wing and we have seen Brimstone, Peacock and Red Admiral recently out of hibernation.
Coltsfoot (c) Bark
There are Muntjac, Fallow and Roe Deer on and around the reserve and there have been recent reports of a Chinese Water Deer on the eastern side of Greenaway’s. A large male Otter has also been seen, and the RSPB trail camera recorded an Otter chasing a Badger out in the middle of the reserve.

A red-crested Pochard has dropped in (c) Bark

With April now here, there will be lots of new migrants arriving and fresh additions to the year-list, which stands as I write, at one hundred and thirteen species. Perhaps with conditions being so unusual we might manage to attract a rarer and more unusual bird….we will certainly be out there looking.

Five of the seven Shelduck That were present during March.

Monday 26 February 2024

January and February


Newly returned Curlew (c) Darrell Wood

There has been very little change in the water levels across the moor since I wrote at the beginning of January…unless perhaps they have got deeper! There have been just one or two dry periods of high pressure over the last six weeks and consequently temperatures have remained well above average. There have been some spectacular storms with exceptionally heavy rainfall.There have been just a few frosty nights and no sustained ice on the lagoons. I have never known the moor to be so flooded and for so long, waters usually retreat after a few days , but not this year.

Lapwings over Greenaway's (c) JR

The above average temperatures have meant that birds are starting to sing and court perhaps two weeks earlier than we might have expected them to. There is a regular chorus of birdsong now with Chaffinches, Song Thrushes and Dunnocks among the most obvious. Cetti’s are also setting up territories and any walk around the reserve is punctuated by their strident and explosive shouts. Another bird that has been announcing its presence frequently is the seldom seen Water Rail, although at least two have been appearing intermittently along the flooded path to the first screen.

Long Tailed Tit (c) Bark

It took me almost an hour to walk from the carpark to the “crossroads” a couple of Sundays ago as there were so many small birds working their way along the bridleway hedges, loosely associating with a party of Long-tailed Tits. Goldcrests have been unusually easy to find, and the mild winter may have helped these diminutive birds to survive in good numbers.

Goldcrest (c) Bark

Despite careful looking we are yet to find a Firecrest amongst them, although they have been reported on the reserve in previous years. Chiffchaffs are also starting to sing, they are probably birds that have overwintered and not fresh incoming spring migrants.
Chiffy by the bridge (c) Bark

Curlew numbers are starting to build up and the first Redshanks are being seen across Big Otmoor. It is well worth looking carefully at any Curlew that can be ‘scoped on the ground. We are hoping that the first young birds that were fitted with flags on their upper thighs will be returning as mature adults to breed, any such markers spotted should be reported to the RSPB.

Curlew on Noke Sides (c) Darrell Wood

There have also been four Oystercatchers flying together and calling between Big Otmoor and Ashgrave. The huge flocks of both Golden Plovers and Lapwings are still present and offering spectacular sightings to visitors. They are often accompanied by parties of much smaller Dunlin. Scanning across Noke sides will often reveal them scuttling about and feeding around the feet of the Lapwings and Plovers. There have also been a limited number of Ruff but they can be a bit more difficult to pick out.

Luke snoozing (c) Bark

Wildfowl numbers are still extremely high with Wigeon, Teal, Pintail and Shoveller at their annual expected maxima. Our leuchistic drake Pochard (Luke) is back again and with the Pochard this year is a rather interesting looking hybrid that may well have some Ferruginous duck in its parentage. A pair of Red-crested Pochard were at the second screen a couple of weeks ago but flushed with all the other ducks when a Peregrine went over and sadly did not return.

Brent Goose on Noke Sides (c) Julian Parfitt

There has been a Brent Goose coming and going with the feral Canadas and Greylags, in flight it is very noticeable being much smaller than the birds it flies with, and on the ground (sometimes on Noke Sides) it is unmistakeable. This is only the fourth record since 2015.
White Front (c) John Uren

There are currently four Marsh Harriers present on and around the moor. One of them is a mature male and one looks as though it may be a sub-adult male. It will be interesting to see what happens with their breeding this year.

Marsh Harrier (c) JR

There is still a Ring-tailed Hen Harrier present and although it seems to be seen most frequently during the late afternoon around the Starling roost, we were lucky enough to see it over Greenaways around midday last week. Peregrines too are making daily appearances and can often be seen perched up in the bare oak tree on the side of the Noke sides field closest to the second screen.

Peregrines (c) Sue Carruthers.

There are still Starlings coming in to roost, but they are not using the reedbed as a roost site. They are currently spending the night in the hedgerows either adjacent to the reedbed or further down the bridleway towards Noke.

Golden Plovers (c) JR

The seed feeding beside the hide is still continuing and whilst it is attracting significant numbers of Finches and Buntings they are not present in the large numbers that we have seen in previous years. This is especially true of Linnets where we would once host flocks of hundreds we now attract flocks of twenty or thirty at the most. It may be that the mild wet winter has not driven them in to our feeding station and they can still find food in the wider countryside. Unfortunately it may also reflect a fall in their population.

Damp Kestrel on the trail to the second screen (c) Bark

The Cranes are back and in varying combinations and numbers. The last ringed bird  (Ted) is being seen, sometimes in company of another and sometimes alone. There have been at least four other birds seen, although we currently cannot differentiate between them as individuals. They are very vocal and will call and their calls often elicit a response from other Cranes across the reserve often out of sight of us and even several fields away.

Homebuilding (c) Bark

The latest nesting dramas are taking place in the reedbed where there are currently at least eight active Grey Heron nests. Birds can be seen coming and going with sticks to supplement the platforms that they have made from the reeds. They are not averse to stealing sticks from each other’s nests while the owners are out looking for more building materials. This activity can lead to some angry interactions. The adult breeding plumage is very smart, fresh and characterised by a bright orange bill.
The "wickering" call of Little Grebes is also being heard (c) John Uren

The soundscape on the reserve is quite exceptional at the moment; Curlew are calling and displaying, parties of Golden Plovers and the ground maintain a chittering that rises and falls in volume it seems according to their nervousness, some Lapwings are making their “peewit” courtship calls, Redshank are back and adding their distinctive call to the mix and on Saturday we heard our first Bittern “booms” of the year from the northern reedbed. Spring is just about arriving!

Water, water everywhere..... (c) JR

Monday 15 January 2024

December and a look back to 2023

Bird of the year 2023 Pallid Harrier (c) JR

Since I last wrote at the end of November one of the Otmoor Volunteers, who lives in Oddington, measured 100mm of rain in December and 40mm in the first five days of January. As one might expect the Otmoor basin currently is more like an inland sea than a regular wetland.
Noke sides (c) Bark

To see the moor now amply explains why no one ever built houses down there. The path to the first screen is almost high enough to overtop wellies!

Nearly over wellies (c) Bark

The abundant water has led to a sharp increase in the numbers of Lapwings, Golden Plovers and wildfowl.

Lapwing (c) Darrell Woods

The Starling roost has diminished somewhat but still numbers many thousands. The huge biomass obviously continues to attract many raptors, with a ring-tailed Hen Harrier being seen frequently over Greenaways in the late afternoon and single, but different, Peregrines are being seen on most visits. Sparrowhawks are being spotted flying low over the reedbed, perhaps looking for injured or moribund Starlings. They are also making more regular visits to the seed feeding site beside the hide, where they panic the Linnets, Reed Buntings and Chaffinches into flight.
Sparrowhawk waiting for a finch supper (c) Bark

It usually takes about half an hour for the birds to regain their confidence enough to return, and resume feeding. There are currently two female Marsh Harriers being seen regularly on site and there have been reports of an adult male being seen in the late afternoons. In amongst the numerous Lapwings and Golden pLovers the first waders are being seen.
A flush of lapwings on one of the few sunny days (c) Tom N-L

A photograph that was carefully scrutinised last week revealed at least one hundred Dunlin flushing up from the flood field and five Ruff were seen on the most recent WEBS count. There are huge flotillas of ducks out on the Flood Field with significant but slightly smaller numbers on Big Otmoor and Closes. With the birds so distant it is difficult to go through them carefully to look for the more unusual species, it might well be that the American Wigeon has returned or that there may be a Green-winged Teal lurking amongst the two or three thousand Eurasian Teal that are currently overwintering with us.

Reed Bunting (c) Bark

Last year we recorded 157 species on the moor, not a record year, but still a substantial number of species for an inland site.

Great Egret and Cattle Egret (c) Bark

What was most interesting was the absence of some species that we once would have expected to see, and the arrival of three that had never been recorded before. It was a poor year for waders with no Stints or Sanderlings and no Grey Plovers. There was no passage Osprey, no Mandarin Ducks nor did we see any Parakeets. Another species that has become much more regular recently on Otmoor and in the UK is Glossy Ibis, yet we did not see one last year.

We did attract a pair of Bewick's Swans in December (c) Bark

There was a welcome increase in the number of Cattle Egrets and Great Egrets using the site. Up to three Spotted Crakes were heard calling for a number of weeks and it may very well be that this secretive species bred on Otmoor this year. Black-winged Stilt and Night Heron were new birds for Otmoor.
Stonechats are present across the moor (c) Bark

The heron was photographed in flight late in the evening but was not seen again, although another was found in the county, around the same time near Abingdon. 

Night Heron (c) Jeremy Dexter 

The Stilt, the Night Heron and the Spotted Crakes are wetland species that are thought to have been pushed further north by global warming that is drying and degrading their traditional breeding grounds in the Iberian peninsula.

Black-winged Stilt (c) Rob Cadd.

Pallid Harrier (c) Bark

Our bird of the year was without doubt the juvenile Pallid Harrier that appeared on the 9th September. Initially identified from a photograph. It remained on Otmoor until late morning before moving on. We were very fortunate to have it fly directly over our heads as we stood on the bridleway near Noke. It was without doubt my stand-out birding experience of the year. With the brief visit of a juvenile male Montague’s Harrier in August we were proud to have hosted all four common European Harrier species this year, a feat probably not matched by any other RSPB site in the country.

Ashgrave (c) JR

As we move on through January the Otmoor basin remains like an inland sea. The waters will of course draw down in time and as the surrounding countryside begins to dry out birds will be drawn into the wetland to feed and roost.
Pintail pair (c) JR

Ducks are pairing up and displaying. The Coot wars have started, with fights that look certain to cause drownings taking place across the lagoon.

Coot wars (c) Bark

The battles are conducted with a screeching chorus and a clicking clacking calls. Water Rails are also very vocal at the moment as are the Cetti’s Warblers looking for partners or establishing territories. It always surprises me how quickly spring comes around once we get through January!

The mammals are taking to the higher ground (c) JR