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

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