Tuesday, 29 May 2018

Spring Bank Holiday Weekend

Hepatic Cuckoo (c) Bark

Saturday and Sunday were in marked contrast to each other and separated by a night of torrential thunderstorms. Saturday had been damp and rainy with a nagging chilly north easterly wind blowing. Foolishly I had believed the forecasters and unprepared had ended the morning cold and damp. On Sunday morning after the overnight rain it was warm and humid and for once I was dressed correctly for the conditions! Over the last few weeks the combination of warmth and regular rain has led to an almost tropical lushness across the moor, the fields show shades of emerald green sprinkled with spatters of yellow buttercups.

Dog Rose and Iris (c) Bark
In the hedgerows on Sunday the first dog roses were flowering, and in the ditches, the first Flag Irises are waving their yellow banners. A green tide line is advancing upwards on the reed bed as the new growth pushes up through the drab dead stems of last year’s reeds. In the southern reedbed this is not such a smooth process. In the areas favoured for roosting by the Starlings in the winter the dead reeds are flattened and matted, and the progress of fresh growth is not quite so uniform.

Reed Warbler and Chiffy (c) Bark

Once again it was possible to hear nine of our ten warbler species within a short time of arriving. Sedge Warblers were especially vociferous in the carpark field and before I reached the bridleway I had counted five different competing males. The Turtle doves are still present and are still using the cattle pen area to feed but are less confiding than they were in other years. On Sunday morning a Bittern was booming from two different parts of the reedbed….at least that was how it sounded. The sound is very difficult to place exactly and if the bird turns its head it can sound as if it’s coming from a completely different direction. Every three or four minutes for the hour and a half that we were listening, the bird gave up to five booms, at times it was possible to hear the bird draw breath between the louder exhalations. On Saturday evening there were three individuals seen together flying over the reedbed but it is impossible to say if they were males or females.
Bittern on Closes (c) Tezzer

The best sighting on Sunday was a high-speed display by five Cuckoos at the second screen, all the while accompanied by a medley of cuckoos calls and bubbling laughing sounds. There were three males and two females one of which was the red hepatic bird. The chasing and the displaying went on for at least twenty minutes and at times the birds were just above our heads but moving so fast that it was difficult to get any reasonable pictures except by pure chance.
When I reviewed the pictures I did manage to take, I realised that the females had their tail feathers spread, presumably as part of the display, the pattern of white spots and the edging is very clear and perhaps a signal to the males. There was no time at the weekend when one could not hear a Cuckoo calling somewhere on or around the reserve. I met a keen birder from Yorkshire, an older gentleman, and he said that he had never seen more than three cuckoos together in his life. He was delighted to have seen the five birds together and so close.

All cuckoo Pics (c) Bark
I think that I am hearing more Lesser Whitethroats than Common Whitethroats this year, this is just a subjective judgement and I would be interested to hear if anyone else agrees. There are at least three calling males starting at the first screen and going on round to the second. The one nearest to the first screen was quite obliging singing out in the open but sadly only as a silhouette against a bright sky.
Lesser Whitethroat (c) Bark

When I arrived on Sunday morning I was aware of a racket of coarse grunts and croaks coming from the Roman Road. I saw two Carrion Crows flying round and calling over one of the larger Oaks, while other noises were coming from the treetop. Then a family of Ravens emerged and flew off across Greenways pursued half-heartedly by the crows. There were two adults and what must have been their juvenile offspring. There have been two adults seen frequently over the reserve and these must be the birds that we have seen flying off to the north and back again.

Treecreeper (c) Bark

After watching Springwatch last night and seeing the fate of the Treecreeper nest at the beak of the Great Spotted Woodpecker I am a little nervous about the chances of a Treecreeper nest that I have noticed. The adults are superbly camouflaged against the background but if I can spot it surely a sharp-eyed woodpecker could too.
A black Tailed Godwit is still out on Big Otmoor but as the vegetation grows is increasingly difficult to locate. A couple of Turnstones found by the RSPB on Ashgrave on Thursday are a welcome addition to the Yearlist, which has slowed up, we do not seem to have had the variety of waders visiting that some of the other sites have had, still there is always next week!

Some productivity (c) Bark

Tuesday, 22 May 2018

Saturday and Sunday 19th and 20th May

Reed Warbler (c) JR

A peerless clear blue sky, warm sunshine and gin clear air contributed to a beautiful weekend on the moor. There were lots of people down there to take advantage of it, when I arrived in the car park at six thirty a.m. there were already fifteen cars in the car park. On Sunday there was what I assumed to be a camera club outing, with a group of about ten people clicking their way along the bridleway. I am hugely in favour of everyone enjoying the reserve, appreciating it and wanting to preserve it. This is all the more important when there is the shadow of the express way hanging over the whole of the Otmoor Basin……of which more later in this posting.
Turtle Dove (c) Old Caley
Turtle Feeding (c) Old Caley
The only time that I worry about the increasing popularity of the site is when it runs counter to the welfare of the wildlife that it is set up to protect. The case in point is the way in which the Turtle Doves are being harried. The Turtle Doves on Otmoor can be very confiding, easy to see and photograph, both purring in the oaks and when feeding on the ground by the cattle pen. We have been scattering a fine seed mix for them on the open ground by the corral. It is important to encourage breeding in these birds as they are becoming increasingly scarce in the UK., the seed helps them to get into their breeding prime. Increasingly the birds have been being disturbed as they come down to feed by groups of people spending lots of time leaning over the gate waiting for them to appear, consequently they are not spending as much time as they should be taking advantage of this food hand out. The RSPB have put a sign by the gate explaining all of this and asking people not to linger by the gate. Sadly, it is being ignored and the RSPB are now considering roping off the area down to the gate. The birds can be seen easily from the bridleway and it is insensitive and selfish to disturb them just for the sake of a better picture.

Cuckoos (c) Old Caley
This weekend on Otmoor one could be forgiven for thinking that all the fuss from conservation groups about a declining Cuckoo population was a massive exaggeration. At one point there were five Cuckoos in the air at once, four males pursuing a female and even then we could hear yet another bird calling. The hepatic female was also seen well again this weekend. The large Reed Warbler population is what attracts them, and we assume that previous years breeding successes means more birds are returning to the place where they fledged. Radio tracked birds have proved to be very site faithful. Only the Reed Warblers might be less than happy to hear these birds that are so emblematic of summer.
Apprehensive Reed Warbler (c) Bark

Elsewhere we had either seen or heard nine of our ten warbler species by the time that we got to the first screen. The only one we failed to catch up with was Grasshopper Warbler, it seems to have a pattern of reeling when it first arrives and then going quiet for two or three weeks before striking up again. We appear to be in one of those quiescent phases at the moment. Whitethroats and Lesser whitethroats are currently particularly vocal and noticeable.
Whitethroat (c) JR

Black Tailed Godwit (c) Bark
On Big Otmoor there was a Black Tailed Godwit feeding and there were reports of a Garganey that was seen on both days of the weekend, but the vegetation and contours are such that it would have been a matter of luck to spot it out there.
Redshank ashgrave (c) Bark
There were very vociferous and active Redshanks over and on the field, their behaviour suggests that most of them have chicks to protect. There are still over a hundred lesser Black Backed Gulls commuting between the lagoon on Ashgrave and the Big Otmoor scrapes. It is impossible not to believe that their presence has a significant impact on the breeding success of our ground nesting birds. There are approximately thirty pairs of Black Headed gulls nesting on the eastern side of big Otmoor.
BHG (c) Bark
On the reedbed one of the male Bitterns continues to boom sporadically and indeed was spotted sitting out on the edge of the reeds calling and pretending to be a clump of reeds early on Sunday morning. Coots continue to behave like aggressive drunks in a pub near closing time. Two individuals started lashing out at each other and from the other side of the lagoon a different individual made its way over just to join in the fight!
Brawling Coots (c) Bark

Tufties...... above JR.... below Bark
Two more sightings of Otters were made at the weekend, on the southern lagoon ad crossing into the ditch near the pump house. They are of course completely unpredictable but always worth looking out for.
Marsh Harrier (c) Bark
It is impossible not to be aware of the signs that have sprung up in Beckley , in the surrounding countryside and on the approach to the reserve, that are protesting against the proposed Expressway between Oxford and Cambridge. The proposals suggest three possible routes and one of them would cause significant disturbance and disruption both to the reserve and to our closest neighbours. I and everyone that I speak to from the local birding community could not be more opposed to such a destructive, irresponsible and vandalising approach to development. Until there are more concrete proposals to challenge I will say no more, but should the Otmoor route become more favoured there will be very much more that can be said both in terms of ecology and in terms of the vital amenity which Otmoor is.
This field needs a road through it !
A verdant, open, wild space in what has become an increasingly crowded South Midlands. I will be attaching a couple of links to my blog one will explain more about the proposals and the threat they pose and the other is a petition protesting against the development. It is important to make our voices heard and remind the decision makers that we are also voters.
Apologies to my regular readers that this posting has been a bit of a rant but sometimes it’s necessary, next week more bird news I hope.
Small Copper (c) Paul Greenaway

Monday, 14 May 2018

Saturday and Sunday 12th and 13th May

Common Whitethroat (c) Bark

It was a beautiful weekend, the very best soft spring weather with warm sunshine and not the heatwave of a week ago. I was the first person down on the moor on Saturday morning arriving at four-thirty for a Dawn Chorus walk. From the top of the lane in the predawn light it looked as though a thin pearl grey duvet had been loosely thrown over the fields with bushes, trees, fence posts and even cattle sticking up through it.
Misty early dawn fox (c) Bark
The car park was alive with birdsong. Common Whitethroats and blackcaps seemed to predominate but other songs and calls could be picked out.
Blackcap (c) Bark
Before we left the cars, but sadly before most of the group had assembled, we heard the distant booming of a Bittern, the sound carrying all the way from the reed bed through the still air. As we got onto the bridle way Sedge and Reed Warblers took over as the commonest and most vociferous voices. Overhead Snipe drummed and chipped from the sedges, it is always good to be able to explain what this strange sound is to people who have not heard it before, or who have heard it but not known where it was coming from.
Reed Warbler (c) Bark
Cuckoos had been both calling and flying back and forth along the ditches and hedges. We estimated that there must have been at least four individuals present from the direction and regularity of the calls. I had just explained and demonstrated inexpertly to the group the female cuckoos bubbling laughing trill when we were treated to the real thing as a female flew low over our heads and out over the first screen. We were very pleased to see it and to note that it was the much rarer hepatic (rusty brown) morph a colour variation that only occurs in the females. It is likely that it is the same individual that we hosted last year, although in some parts of Europe the red colour morph is much more common.

Cuckoos   Above (c) Bark      below (c) Tezzer

We were lucky enough to watch a food pass from the Marsh Harriers in the reedbed as a male flew in with prey and called a female up to join him, then they deftly swapped hold of the food in mid-air.  Good numbers of Hobbies were present out on fence posts on Greenaways and hunting over the fields, sometimes high as their insect prey was carried up by warm up-draughts and at other times flying low over the grassland.
Hare (c) Tezzer
The warm weather has encouraged the emergence of dragonflies and these will become their favourite and most abundant food source over the next few weeks. On Sunday as well as Hairy Dragonflies we saw our first newly emerged Four Spotted Chasers flying and sitting glistening in the sunshine as their wings hardened.
Four spotted Chaser (c) Bark

The normal war of attrition between the Red Kites and the Lapwings over Big Otmoor is carrying on as it has done for the past few years, with squadrons of adult Lapwings flying up to mob the larger Kites. If the Kites come too close to the Black Headed Gulls nesting in the same field they also scramble to deter them. More sinister is the small flock of non-breeding Lesser Black Backed Gulls that might have a more significant effect on Lapwing breeding success.
Kite and Lapwings (c) Bark

The Turtle Dove is showing and is purring from the oak trees, but not quite as reliably as it has done in previous years. It may be that they need time to settle and adjust to being in a place where people are not trying to shoot them!  Their fame has gone before them and many people are coming to the reserve just to see them and photograph them, as they have become much rarer and are also difficult to see so well at other sites.

Turtle doves    Above (c) Luke O'Byrne     Below (c) Tezzer

There is currently a regular passage of Ravens across the reserve. There are two rather tatty looking adults that must have a nest and young that need providing for, somewhere off to the north of the reserve. Their shaggy necks, their size and their habit of flying with their bills open makes them easy to pick out as they row across the sky.
Tatty Raven (c) Bark

The Hawthorn is in full bloom and the scent of it is very strong, oddly when it first opens the smell is slightly acrid and not pleasant but as time wears on the scent seems to soften and become much sweeter.
Hawthorn Blossom (c) Bark
The Water Violet is flowering in some of the ditches but never seems to bloom in the same area from year to year. May really is a beautiful month and is so prolific in every respect.
Lackey Moth Colony (c) Stoneshank

Wednesday, 9 May 2018

May Bank Holiday Weekend

Reed Warbler (c) Bark

The sunshine and warmth of the last several days was in total contrast with the dour, cold greyness of the previous weekend. Everything seemed to respond rapidly to the conditions as if rushing to make up for lost time. The vegetation is at its lushest, its most verdant and comes in the widest and most vivid shades of green imaginable. In the hedgerows and ditches small birds are hammering out their songs in order to attract a mate or to intimidate a rival.
Turtle Dove (c) Tom N-L

One of the most significant and welcome events of the last few days has been the return of the Turtle Doves. Given the difficulties they encounter on their wintering grounds and the trials and hazards of their migration, it is always a huge relief when they get back safely. The first returner called from all of the regular song posts of last year and then came down to feed on fine seeds scattered by the cattle pens. This familiarity suggests that this was indeed “our” bird arriving back. For me it is very special to have it back as its’ call along with that of the cuckoo epitomises summer days.
Calling Cuckoo (c)Tom N-L

A Great White Egret has also been spending some time on and around the moor and may have been around for some time, but not on those parts of the moor that we can see. It is certainly a non-breeding bird as its bill is yellow and its legs are dark. However, this might well be a species that could start to breed here sometime in the not too distant future.

Common Buzzard (c) Bark and Barn Owl (c) Tom N-L

Bitterns are being seen and heard still but we are yet to record any female feeding flights as we have done in the last couple of years. Cuckoos too have been very active, both calling and making frequent forays along the bridleway and across Greenaways.
Tatty Hobby (c) Tom N-L

I recorded my first Swifts over the reedbed on Thursday last week, but they are yet to put in an appearance in larger numbers. We failed to see any on Saturday and Sunday. In contrast the Hobbies have returned in significant numbers. As has always been the case there is a week or so at the beginning of May when we have a major influx of these beautiful agile falcons. They use the moor as a fuelling station and on Friday there were over twenty of them feeding over Greenaways in the late afternoon. Numbers at the weekend were more modest but there were always four or five to be found. They feed on the dangly legged St Marks flies, so called because they first appear around St Marks day on the 25th April. Later on they will feed mainly on dragonflies that are just starting to emerge.

Common Tern courtship (c) Tom N-L
The Tern Raft was put out on the northern lagoon late last week and the very next day had seven Common Terns sitting on it. It is critical to put the raft out after the Black Headed Gulls have started to nest or it would be taken over by them. Last year we had nine pairs on it and it looks as though it will be equally popular this season. Already the terns are carrying out their noisy courtship display and pairs can be seen sharing small fish.

Fox and pursuing Curlew (c) Bark

We watched a fox making its way across Greenaways on Sunday morning and it was interesting to see that it attracted the attention of a Curlew, which pursued it scolding and alarm-calling right the way over the field. Other birds including corvids and Lapwings also joined in the chorus of disapproval and the avian equivalent of abuse. The hot weather may cause the water on Big Otmoor to evaporate more quickly and we might well have some mud out in the centre of the field soon to attract some late passage waders.
Tree Creeper in the carpark field (c) JR

All of our breeding species are here now and are starting to go about their courtship and nesting. It will be fascinating to see how they all fare and to report on the winners and the losers over the next couple of months.

Common Lizard and Orange Tip (c) Bark