Thursday, 25 January 2018

Saturday and Sunday 20th and 21st January

Yellowhammer (c) Bark
It seems churlish to complain about rain and snow, when for so long I was bewailing the lack of water on the reserve. Nonetheless this past weekend was awful, with continuous rain on Saturday and persistent wet snow on Sunday. Saturday was particularly disappointing as fifteen Otmoor Volunteers attended first a presentation and then a reserve visit in order to brush up on winter bird id skills.

Reed bunting and Robin (c) JR
Fortunately, most of the more common birds could be found, although never really seen very well, due to wet or fogged up optics. Sunday was much the same with just two of us walking around the moor in a blizzard of sleet like slowly melting snowmen.

Linnets and Finch flush (c) Bark

There were some birds to be found including a Hawfinch seen by two observers feeding in the car park field on Saturday morning and then reported again on RBA on Sunday. It may well have been feeding on dried up Haws or even sloes. I assume that Hawfinch bills can crack open the stones and extract the kernels.
Bullfinch in the sleet. (c) Bark
On Sunday we saw a Redpoll up on the wires in the car park field and several Goldcrests were showing confidently along both the bridleway and the path to the first screen. They are high energy performers, never staying still as they glean the tiniest insects from in, on and under the scrub and leaf litter. The Bullfinches in the carpark field have now switched their attention to blackthorn buds as they are just beginning to swell. There was a time when they were persecuted for the damage that they did to flower buds in cherry orchards.

Linnet wash and brush up.(c) Bark

Due largely to the weather the best and most comfortable birdwatching was to be had from the hide and from the first screen. The pools in front of the hide have filled and wildfowl are now using them again. Wigeon, Teal and Mallard are feeding and dabbling at the margins. The finches and other birds coming to the seed scattered as part of the winter feeding programme are the main attraction. We estimated that there was a minimum of a hundred Chaffinches, a hundred and fifty Reed Buntings and well over two hundred Linnets.

Moorhen and dunnock (c) Bark
Also sprinkled amongst them were Goldfinches, Bullfinches, Yellowhammers and several Dunnocks. We failed to spot any of the Bramblings that had been reported. Moorhens are also cashing in on the free food as are Magpies, Jackdaws, Pheasants and Stock Doves. The latter are extremely flighty and once flushed take a long time to return.
Hen Harrier over the reedbed (c) JR

Our regular raptors continue to be seen and a Barn Owl was noted at dusk one evening last week as people left the Starling roost. Two Woodcock were also spotted flying out from Morley’s to feed on the Closes and Greenaways. It is worth remembering that the Green Winged Teal seen at Pit 60 last week disappeared the day after it was found. It would certainly be worthwhile looking carefully through the seven or eight hundred European teal that are currently on the moor. The trick of course is to get them to stay still !!!!

Marsh Harrier and Red kite (c) Tom N-L

Wednesday, 17 January 2018

Saturday and Sunday 13th and 14th January

Male Brambling All pics this week (c) Bark
It was never a very bright weekend, but it was not cold and it didn’t rain more than a little bit. The moor has changed radically after the last two week’s rain and is now looking much more like a proper winter wetland. The bird life has responded to this change in the habitat and we are now hosting huge winter flocks of Golden Plover and Lapwings. Wigeon numbers too have risen steadily and there are now well over a thousand spread across the reserve and the surrounding fields.
Goldies and Lapwings
There were in excess of five thousand Golden Plover around on Saturday and we felt that was a conservative estimate. They were divided into two large groups, one centred around the flood field and the area beyond it, the other large group split their time between Noke Sides and Big Otmoor. On several occasions both flocks were in the air at the same time although on different sides of the sky. There were at least two thousand Lapwings present the highest concentration of them out on Big Otmoor.
Big Otmoor
Once again, we are being treated to the wonderful sight of huge numbers of birds, sometimes flying tightly together, undulating and twisting like shoals of fish and at others scattered across the whole sky like windblown leaves in a gale. As the Golden Plover wheel and turn their white undersides flash against the dull greys and browns of the fields. The larger Lapwings making a slower and looser counterpoint to the smaller faster plovers.

Duck numbers are fluctuating, on Saturday both lagoons held significant numbers of wildfowl yet on Sunday there seemed to be fewer. With more open water available on other parts of the reserve and the moor there is a much greater choice of places to feed, loaf about or rest. We counted twenty plus Gadwall and just about double figures of Pochard. The number of Tufted ducks has increased with thirty-two birds present on Saturday, the majority of them males. Bitterns came and went as they do, occasionally and unpredictably. Sightings last week would suggest that there are certainly three different individuals present.
Starling wash and brush up before bed.
With the Wigeon spread across the moor grazing near open water it was unusual to see a single drake Wigeon in the ditch from the bridleway close to the turning to the first screen. It didn’t flush but swam along and then turned into the reed lined ditch beside the trail to the screens. As we turned down onto the trail it swam out again and headed off away from us along the ditch, stopping briefly to flap its wings but not taking off. When it was about thirty or so metres up the ditch it seemed to dive and without splashing or commotion simply disappeared. Wigeon are not diving ducks. We were puzzled and still are. Was it taken by an Otter? If so why was there no disturbance or bubbles. Perhaps the ditch holds a huge Pike that could take it straight down. It is a real mystery and on our way past the spot where all this happened there was still no sign of anything untoward having happened, but more crucially no sign of the bird at all!

Mystery disappearing Wigeon

On Sunday morning we were treated to a long flypast by one of the male Hen Harriers hunting over the northern reedbed and then out along the hedge on the northern edge of Greenaways, difficult to say which of them it was. There were certainly three Marsh Harriers over the reedbed and on Saturday morning we saw a male merlin briefly on Noke Sides perched initially in the tree that we used to refer to as the Peregrine Tree before heading off along the hedge.

The Feeding programme beside the hide is attracting more mixed finches including a male Brambling on Sunday morning, perhaps the same individual that was seen from the first screen on Saturday high in the oak tree. There were also twelve Yellowhammers, but we have yet to attract a Tree Sparrow or a Corn Bunting. Tree Sparrow was not recorded on the moor at all last year and it must be ten years since a Corn Bunting was seen.

Also at Hide

BBC Country File on Sunday evening featured the Crane release programme on the Somerset Levels. We know that that is where “our” Common Cranes originated and we know from observations of the winter flock and from their colour rings that that is where they go to overwinter. It was really encouraging to see how some of the local farmers there have taken the Cranes to their hearts and are helping them with some supplementary feeding. We look forward keenly to their return next spring.

Pied wagtail at the first screen.

Friday, 12 January 2018

Saturday and Sunday 6th and 7th January

Mistle Thrush (c) Bark
Saturday morning turned out better than had been predicted with a little watery sunshine coming through the greyness and no rain. Sunday provided a perfect crisp sunny winters morning albeit with a strong north easterly wind.
Bittern upsetting Teal (c) Derek Latham
Just as last year started with a first record for Otmoor in the form of a Cattle Egret, this year has started with another first record namely a Hawfinch. Since the autumn influx, we have been checking the woodland edge to the south and east of Ashgrave regularly and unsuccessfully. It seems we had been looking in the wrong area! On Sunday morning Andy Last saw one briefly in flight across the Long Meadow and we will look in this area again next week.

Finches by the feeders. Linnet (c) Early Birder and Yellowhammer and Reed Bunt (c) JR

As flooded areas have started to appear, so bird numbers right across the moor have gone up rapidly. This is especially true of Lapwings and Golden Plover. It is also true of Teal and especially of Wigeon. This is likely to be accurately reflected in the next WEBS count, but my rough estimate put Wigeon at approaching a thousand birds with a large flock on Big Otmoor and another substantial group on the large Ashgrave lagoon. On Sunday morning there were also twenty-five Pintail on the same pool.
Barnacle bust-up. (c) Bark
Our large flocks of Greylags and Canada Geese have not yet attracted any White-fronted Geese this winter. It is worthwhile checking through them carefully, looking particularly for small parties that are a little bit separate or on the edge of the larger flocks. The Barnacle Goose was on big Otmoor with its Canadian friend and was getting into a major dispute with other Canada Geese.
Little Grebe (c) Derek Latham
There are a lot of Goldcrests flitting busily about in the hedgerows and the brambles. They are a real challenge to photograph as they seldom seem to stay still. They have a high-octane lifestyle and must require a lot of insect food to keep moving and keep warm.
Busy Goldcrest (c) Bark
There are still Stonechats out on Greenaways, July’s Meadow and at the Pill, four were reported on Sunday. On Saturday morning a Cetti’s Warbler close to the first screen decided to get out in the open on the reeds and shout out its territorial claims. It was responding to another bird that was ensconced in the large bramble patch to the east of the screen. It showed exceptionally well for a couple of minutes, before disappearing back into the thick hedge and returning once again to being heard but rarely seen.

Cetti's Warbler (c) Bark

All our regular raptor species are still with us as we go into the New Year. Two Marsh Harriers are ever present, and the two Hen Harrier second winter males are still being seen irregularly at the Starling roost or even more unpredictably along the northern edge of Greenaways. Merlin too has been seen since the year turned but is equally as unpredictable as the Hen Harriers. A large adult female Peregrine is favouring the cluster of posts out in the middle of Greenaways where it was seen preening both on Saturday and Sunday.

Marsh Harrier and Hen Harrier (c) Tezzer

There were five Mistle Thrushes in the field directly to the south of Julys Meadow on Sunday morning. They were feeding amongst a mixed flock of Fieldfares and Redwings. The winter Thrushes have long ago exhausted the supply of berries in the hedgerows and are now looking for insect food on the ground especially out on the sheep fields at Noke.
Mistle Thrush near July's meadow (c) Bark
Two overwintering Chiffchaffs were seen near the weir on the old River Ray along the bridleway towards Oddington from Noke.

I would strongly recommend that anyone thinking of coming down to the reserve to try to see the starling roost should try to visit during the week. There is currently a great deal of congestion in the carpark on Saturday and Sunday evenings. If its at all possible car sharing is to be encouraged.

Starling roost (c) Tom N-L

Tuesday, 9 January 2018

2017 A Roundup.

Hen Harrier (c) Tezzer
Looking back over the year and the one hundred and fifty-five species that have been recorded on the moor there are some interesting differences between this year and last year. There have been very few standout rarities or real scarcities. The year had started with the first ever record of Cattle Egret on the moor, soon to be eclipsed when six of them were found on a pig farm in the north of the county.
Cattle Egret (c) Paul Greenaway
Despite optimistic speculation as to what the next new heron species would be nothing more than, Grey Heron, Bittern, Little and Great White Egrets were seen in 2017. Although fifteen years ago that would have represented a great year! Bitterns bred again and although we were sure that there were two nests after a short while, one set of feeding flights ceased, and we assumed that the nest had failed. We managed to confirm at least one breeding success in the other location. As at least one freshly plumaged individual appeared in the reedbed after the appropriate interval between feeding flights and fledging.

Bitterns    above (c) JR  below (c) Derek Latham

We recorded both Bewick and Whooper Swans this year on Otmoor after having no records of either species in 2016. We also had a brief visit from a small flock of Pink-footed Geese but sadly they did not linger and were only seen by a few lucky people. A Brent Goose passed through and two or three Barnacle Geese have remained with the feral Canadas and Greylags. Amongst the ducks Goosander have appeared on the moor again after a year of absence. A Bufflehead of dubious provenance was the only other duck of note.
Gooseander (c) Tezzer
Bufflehead (c) Bark
The long staying Hen Harrier was the most interesting of the raptors, it arrived in the autumn of 2016 as a ringtail and we have enjoyed watching it moult into second winter male plumage through the late summer and autumn of 2017. It was joined in November by another ringtail and also more recently by another second winter male. Marsh Harriers bred for the third year in succession. There were two nests being provisioned by one male. The nests fledged four young but one of them was found dead close to the reedbed shortly after fledging.

Marsh Harrier above (c) Tom N-L Merlin  below (c) JR

“Our” Cranes came back early in the spring and once again nested. From their behaviour we were able to deduce that they had hatched a chick and had moved it away from the nest. It seems likely that it was predated not long afterwards. The birds are getting older and more experienced and we hope that, should they return in 2018, they will eventually be more successful.

Common Cranes

Spotted Redshank and a Temminck’s Stint were the most unusual waders to be seen this year and our breeding waders had another successful nesting season.

Top Two Turtles (c) JR juvenile from 2015 (c) Bark

Cuckoos and Turtle Doves, our special summer breeding birds were present again. Cuckoos had an especially good year, judging by the number of adults present and by the number of juveniles we saw later in the season. We hosted an unusual hepatic female amongst the four or five birds using the reserve. We also finally managed to confirm that the Turtle Doves had nested and eventually after one failed nesting attempt fledged one juvenile late in the summer.
Juvenile Cuckoo
A Ring Ousel stayed around the western end of the reserve or over a week in the spring but there were no new or unusual passerines to report. The most noteworthy bird was noticeable more by its absence and not by its presence! There was no record of Bearded Tits this year and only one brief record from the year before. With our extensive wet reedbeds and drier reedbeds on Ashgrave we would certainly expect to have a resident population by now.
The last Bearded Tit in 2014
We were very surprised that after what has been reported as a very successful breeding season for them elsewhere, none of them made to us during the autumn irruption season. We also failed to find a single Hawfinch this autumn despite them being seen apparently everywhere else in Oxfordshire!

The RSPB bought the first part of the reserve in 1997. When they acquired the land, there were eleven pairs of Lapwings, four pairs of Redshank and no drumming Snipe. Bitterns and Marsh Harriers were a pipedream close to fantasy. This year we hosted one hundred and three pairs of Lapwings, ninety-one pairs of Redshank and had thirty-two drumming Snipe. I have already referred to the Bitterns and the Marsh Harriers.

Redshank Snipe and Lapwings our important waders.
An astonishing achievement in just twenty years and I am sure that it will go on from strength to strength. It will continue to offer a respite from busy urban lifestyles for everyone, expert naturalist and beginner alike. Most importantly it will offer young people, who might until now have had little contact with nature and wildlife, the opportunity to connect with and develop an interest and a passion for birds, bugs, botany and beasts. Without this unfettered access where will the scientists and amateur naturalists of tomorrow come from?
Bird of the year Male Hen Harrier (c) Tezzer

Thanks as always to the RSPB staff who keep the reserve building from strength to strength through sensitive and innovative management, thanks also to the army of volunteers on work parties that carry out that programme. Thanks too to the Volunteer Wardens who maintain a presence on the reserve and who help explain to the public what it is all about. Finally, a special thankyou to the disparate group of friends that I meet, walk and talk with on the moor, week in and week out. Their enthusiasm, optimism, good sense and scintillating conversation make it a continual pleasure, even in the rain and on days when there is not very much to see!
Otmoor Massive Christmas 2017 with notable exceptions! (c) Pete Roby