Friday, 19 February 2021

First two weeks of February

Confiding Water Rail (c) Bark

From minus seven last weekend to an expected plus sixteen next weekend, we are really experiencing some extremes and so is the wildlife out there surviving in it. We have also experienced snow, floods and ice, all within a couple of weeks.

The ice and cold of last week have finally driven the huge flocks of Lapwings and Golden Plovers to move elsewhere. There were still some Goldies present on Monday when we did the Webs. Count but this time they were numbered in tens rather than in thousands.

A few of the Goldies after the cold . One showing the start of moult (c) Bark

They may yet return to complete their moult into spring plumage before heading off north once more. The Lapwings that have remained are much more spread out across the reserve and may well be our resident breeders looking for dry ground to nest on!

Some of the throng that were with us before the freeze. (c) Bark

Water levels across the moor are just beginning to subside. The reserve has been more inundated than I can remember in the last twenty years. The path to the first screen was flooded almost to knee high and tall Wellingtons were essential to get through without wet feet.

To quote Billy Connelly " If it wasne for your wellies where would ye be" (c) JR

There has been a very confiding Water Rail feeding along the edge of this path from time to time giving its piglet squeal. They are much easier to see out in the open in frozen conditions.

Above in the mist (c) Paul Tomas Below in the light (c) Bark

Raptors have been very much in evidence as the cold has set in. Last weekend there were four different Marsh Harriers hunting over the reedbeds and adjacent fields.

Marsh Harrier spooking the ducks . (c) Bark

At one time there were ten Red Kites over the reedbed, the flood and the northern edge of Greenaways. The Kites have been looking for easy prey amongst the casualties of the much reduced Starling roost and have also been scavenging from the carcasses of geese that have fallen prey to the cold, starvation or just old age.

Kites at a carcass (c) Tom N-L

We spotted a Sparrowhawk sitting in one of the hawthorns along the bridleway overlooking Greenaways. It flew down fast and low; it flushed several Meadow Pipits that had been feeding unobtrusively in the grass and with an aerobatic change of direction flipped upwards and grabbed one. Its speed and manoeuvrability were superb and spectacular.

The Sprawk perched (c) JR and going in to the attack (c) Bark

The intense cold did not persist long enough to completely freeze over all the water bodies, so there were disconsolate looking parties of ducks and coots around and on the open areas of water. At one time during the cold snap there were over four hundred Coots on the reserve, the icy conditions meant that they suspended their mutual hostilities for the duration of the cold.

Ice Coot (c) Bark

When the ice melted, they resumed their normal belligerence with each other which is more evident in the spring when they are pairing up and acquiring territory.

Bickering Coots (c) Oz

There have been significant numbers of Pintail on the moor this winter and on some occasions well in excess of three hundred have been seen.

On Sunday there  were five birds out on the lagoon in front of the first screen allowing much better view than those out on Big Otmoor or The Flood. There are also a few Pochard there as well and I have had reports that “Luke” our leuchistic drake Pochard is still about.

Snipe (c) Bark

I was very relieved on Monday after carrying out a Webs. Survey around The Closes , Greenaway’s and the reedbed to realise that with the addition of yet another individual in the Carpark Field, that we had heard over ten Cetti’s calling from all around those fields. We have in the past lost all of them when we have had cold weather events and it has taken several years for the population to re-establish itself.

Skating on thin ice (c) Bark

If two weekends ago was a time for wellies, this last weekend was one for walking carefully on ice. We skated rather than walked out to the screens and the ice was almost ,but not quite thick enough!

Not quite thick enough (c) JR

With warm weather predicted for the next week we can look forward to more normal water levels and to the return of our breeding Redshanks and Curlew. There is not too much more winter to endure.
Robin (cousins) on ice. (c) Bark

Tuesday, 2 February 2021

Last two weeks of January


White fronted Geese (c) Bark

I have only managed to get down to the reserve three times over the past two weeks and each time the moor has revealed another aspect of its character and shown itself in a different light. Two Saturdays ago, the weather forecast suggested it would be cold, still and bright, I arrived in Beckley to sunshine and descended into thick dank mist that persisted until late morning, then, just as I was about to leave the mist disappeared as if a curtain had suddenly been drawn. The next day threatened snow by mid-morning but I thought I might get a couple of hours birding in to make up for the greyness of the previous day.

The only other intrepid souls last Sunday (c) Bark

I arrived just after dawn and as I walked along the bridleway the first few snowflakes were falling and by the time I got to the first screen it was snowing heavily. Discretion became the better part of valour and I headed back to the carpark.

Snow scene and Water Rail in the snow at the first screen (c) Sam Hill

I made it up Otmoor Lane, just, having almost stuck close to the stables near the top. However, it then took me an hour to finally make it up the hill by the church and out of the village. I am very grateful to the people from the village who helped to shovel and spread salt and to push me up the hill.

This weekend, torrential rain on Saturday meant that day was a complete wash-out, at last on Sunday we finally had a morning of bright light and light wind. We could finally see what had been happening, the rain, both in the past week and on the previous day dumped a huge volume of water into the catchment and I don’t think that I have ever seen the moor quite so flooded.

Water pouring from Big Otmoor onto Greenaway's

The lower fields: Greenaway’s and Big Otmoor are now mostly lakes with just a few higher ridges rising out of the water. The trail to the first screen is now passable only in high wellies as the water level on Big Otmoor is so high.
The trail to the first screen

It might seem inconvenient for us getting to and from, and about on the moor, but the wildfowl and waders are thriving. There are many thousands of Lapwings and Golden Plovers roosting and feeding on the fields. At times wherever you looked in the sky, there was a speckle of birds and loose skeins of Goldies sketching vees on the sky.

The first clear bright morning (c) Bark

Every so often a major flush would throw up tight flocks that looked from a distance like smudges of smoke above the hedges. There are very large numbers of Wigeon and Teal on Big Otmoor and the Flood Field. Yesterday we counted over one hundred and forty Pintail out on Big Otmoor. There were also a pair of Shelduck that later moved up to the Ashgrave scrape. On Ashgrave the star attraction is still the flock of Russian White-fronted Geese.

Whitefronts (c) Bark

Up one hundred and forty have been counted, yesterday we could only find one hundred and ten. Accurate counting is difficult as they are well scattered amongst the Canadas and Greylags and their much smaller size means that they can disappear more easily into the folds and dips across the field.

Pied Wagtail and Meadow Pipit on the ice (c) Bark

The large numbers of potential prey items are still sustaining and encouraging the full suite of winter and wetland predators although the Hen Harrier is much less regular and predictable than the Marsh Harriers and the Peregrines.

A marsh Harrier loomed up out of the mist and took fright at how close we were. (c) Bark

There have been up to seven Ruff seen over the weekend and there are a small number of Dunlin creeping around the edges of the Lapwing and Plover flocks as they rest out on Big Otmoor.

Reed Bunting (c) Bark

The feeding programme beside the hide is drawing in larger numbers of finches and buntings. There do not seem to be quite so many Linnets in attendance this year as last but there are very good numbers of Reed Buntings, a species that we can take for granted on Otmoor. There are still a couple of Bramblings and a handful Yellowhammers coming down to feed.
Female Brambling (c) Bark

After a quiet patient wait and if you are lucky, one of the Water Rails will creep out of the ditch to feed on the finer seeds. On my previous posting one of my Redpoll pictures was reidentified as being a “Mealy” or Common Redpoll. It would be worth having a good look through any small flocks of them for a paler frostier version, to find out if it’s still around.
Common Redpoll (c) Bark

On Sunday morning as we walked along the bridleway, we spotted an Otter crossing the path ahead of us near the crossroads. It seems to be the case that they’re seen more frequently on the reserve when the rivers are in spate and hunting in turbid and fast flowing water is harder.

Finally; some rather sad and poignant news regarding “our” cranes, which might just seem a little anthropomorphic. We had initially understood from the Crane Project in Somerset that “our” pair of Cranes that have been trying to breed on the moor since 2015, had been reunited during the winter on the Somerset Levels. The male, “Wycliffe” had disappeared shortly after the presumed predation of their chick which we estimated was six or so weeks from it being able to fly. This was in fact a mistake and the male has not been seen since last summer and so we must conclude that he is dead. Cranes have a very powerful pair bond. When they are not carrying out brooding or feeding young, they are seldom any more than ten metres away from each other. It was sad on Sunday from the second screen, to hear and see a lone Crane bugling on the bund. It was indeed “Maple Glory” and we felt that she was calling for her mate, sometimes jumping up in the air as they do in their courtship display. We must hope she will attract a new suitor. We would really appreciate reports of any pairs of Cranes or indeed singletons, if birds are carrying colour rings or indeed not, that would be valuable information. It would help us to understand the breeding dynamics of this beautiful charismatic species.

Lonely Maple Glory landing on the other side of the lagoon. (c) Bark

Tuesday, 19 January 2021

Weekend of 16th and 17th January


Sparrowhawk at second screen (c) Bark

This was a weekend with two very different contrasting mornings. Saturday was grey, misty and with a fine drizzle. The rain got on bins scopes and cameras, and for me it made seeing through my glasses very tricky.

Goldcrest in the mist (c) Bark

Sunday however was the very best kind of winters morning, with bright sunshine, clear blue skies, temperatures just above freezing and birds seemingly everywhere.
Lapwings over Big Otmoor (c) Bark

One of the best things on Sunday morning after coming through the Car park Field was finding that some of the White-fronted Geese were feeding quite close to the cattle pens. 

White fronts (c) Bark

They were with Canada Geese and Greylags but did not seem unduly nervous of us on the bridleway. We counted approximately twenty or so of them on Greenaways and a similar number at the top of Ashgrave. Unfortunately, we could find no sign of the Brent Goose that was seen last week, and we assume it has moved on.
The size difference between the Whitefronts and Greylags is very Noticeable (c) Bark

Both Hen Harrier and Marsh Harrier were seen at the weekend, but I didn't connect with the Hen Harrier.

Marsh Harrier (c) Tom N-L

I did, however, get very lucky with a Sparrow Hawk. Just as I was about to leave the second screen, with my scope on my shoulder, I glanced out at the lagoon for one last time and as if from nowhere a Sparrow Hawk landed on the fence post outside, not more than two metres away.
Sparrowhawk (c) Bark

I managed to fire off six pictures one handed, before it saw me and flew. On Sunday morning we were lucky enough to see a Peregrine bathing in the flood on the further edge of Noke Sides it spent at least five minutes in the water splashing about and flapping its wings, it then flew up into one of the adjacent Oak trees to preen.
Distant bathing Peregrine (c) Bark

When we looked more closely, we could see that there was another Peregrine with it in the tree. Scope views showed that there was pale fringing on the smaller of the two and it appeared slightly more brown than slaty grey, and so we assumed that it was a juvenile.
Redpoll (c) Bark

Walking along the bridleway on Sunday morning we came upon a small party of five redpolls feeding. They were on one of their favourite food plants Rose Bay Willow Herb. It was difficult to pick them out and could so easily have been overlooked, given their size and from behind their extremely effective camouflage.

Their camouflage in the dried grasses is superb (c) Bark

Increasingly Redwings and Fieldfares are feeding on the ground as the berries are all gone. Some Redwings in particular are becoming less nervous and more confiding as they forage in the short grass beside the paths.

Confiding Redwing (c) Bark

Bullfinches are changing their feeding strategy too and are beginning to change from picking seeds from dried up blackberries to eating the swelling buds of Blackthorn bushes. They can most easily be seen doing this in the larger bushes of the car park field.
Bullfinch on blackthorn (c) Bark

It is surprising how we take some birds for granted and don’t always  appreciate their colour or their beauty. A careful, close look at a Starling or a Chaffinch reveals amazing colour and structure, because they are so common, we sometimes overlook them.

Starling (c) Tom N-L and Chaffinch (c) Bark

As I have been writing this morning, news has come in that three Cranes have been seen over Greenaway's and headed towards Noke Sides. Cranes have been heard in the past few days at other sites in the county and these birds may be the same ones.

Stonechat along the bridleway (c) Bark

Until we get a good look at them and can see leg ring colours we will not know if they are “our” birds returning It seems to be very early for our breeding cranes to come back as last year they returned on fourteenth of February, which itself was earlier than the year before. More information will follow when I have it.

Like winter watercolours (c) Tom N-L