Tuesday, 6 December 2016

December 3rd and 4th


Bittern (c) JR

It was something of a shock to find myself scraping the ice off my car on Saturday morning, when I left Johannesburg earlier in the week the temperature had been 34 degrees! The moor had changed hugely in the three weeks since my last visit. Water levels had risen and then it had frozen, the hedgerows were rimed with frost and only reduced areas of the lagoons were ice free.
The most obvious birds this weekend were the winter thrushes. Still very flighty and garrulous they exploded from the hedgerows in very large numbers. One flock on Sunday morning flying along the northern edge of Greenaways must have numbered well over five hundred birds. Despite the attention of the Fieldfares and Redwings there are still plenty of berries on the trees. The birds appear to have favoured the darker haws rather than the lighter red ones, we speculated that perhaps the dark fruits are more mature, riper and are possibly more nutritious or digestible. At the rate they are being consumed it will not be very long before even the lighter fruits are gone.


Berry Munchers     Redwing and Blackbird (c) Derek Lane    Field fare (c) JR
The apple tree on the path to the second screen that has carried such a massive crop this autumn still has some fruit on the tree and the ditch below is absolutely full of windfalls. The Starlings are taking advantage of the way the frost has softened the remaining fruit and are feeding on them greedily with considerable competition for the best perches. We hoped that there might be a few left should the expected Waxwings make it down this way.
Raptors were also much in abundance this weekend. There are two Peregrines being seen regularly, a large mature female and a smaller probably juvenile male. One of them was seen to snatch a Starling from the pre roost display on Thursday afternoon. The two distinctly different Marsh Harriers were seen from time to time over and around the reedbed. For over an hour on Sunday morning one of them, probably a juvenile perched just a couple of feet up in the reeds directly out from the first screen where it could be seen preening and simply loafing about. Two Hen Harriers were also noted, on Sunday one of them was pursued all along the northern edge of Greenaways by a Kestrel. It was difficult at times to work out who was mobbing whom, as they seemed to alternate in the role of aggressor. Red Kites and Buzzards were common, one Buzzard with a great deal of white on it attracted particular attention. I have not heard of any sightings of Merlin but this doesn’t mean that they are not here anymore. They certainly range far beyond the edges of the reserve out onto the MOD land and beyond.
Kestrel and vole (c) Derek Lane
Bitterns are now regular and it would be unusual not to see at least one on a visit. We were particularly lucky on Sunday when we saw at least three individuals from the second screen. For a short while two could be seen standing on the reed margin only twenty metres or so apart. When the birds meet as two did on Thursday, there is a great deal of threat and bluster with feathers fluffed up and a lot angry posturing. It is of course impossible to say whether these birds are “our” breeders or indeed their offspring. Many Bitterns come over from the continent to winter in the UK.
Bittern over ice (c) Derek Lane
As well as the Bitterns being pushed out of the reeds and onto the edges by the cold, so are the normally secretive Water Rails. There are good numbers on the moor, but usually only their strangled pig squeal calls reveal their presence. Several different birds could be seen picking their way along the edges of the ice or flying with rapid wingbeats from one side of the lagoon to another.
On Sunday as the frost melted in the sunshine there were at least thirty Snipe probing around the tussocks on the Closes. It must have been the only place that they could feed, frozen ground must be a particular challenge to long billed birds that rely on probing for their food.
Two new species were added to the Otmoor year list while I was away, the Ring-necked Parakeet that was in the Starling roost over a week ago and last week a Water Pipit that was found on Big Otmoor. This brings the annual total up to one hundred and forty nine species a shade under what we recorded last year, however there are still three weeks to go in 2016 and according to those in the know the Waxwings are on their way!

Very many thanks to Steve and Pete Roby who with Badgers help kept the blog going while I was away.


Blue Tit and Quizzical Reed Bunting (c) JR

Monday, 28 November 2016

November 26th and 27th

Probable Whoopers (c) Pete Roby

Last week I mentioned that we needed some rain to bring the moor back to life, and we certainly had some this week! As such the lifeblood of the moor is once again filling the ditches and scrapes, and the moor is starting to look like a wetland again. It’s surprising how the water changes the look of the place so much. We still need a lot more to really bring the birds in, however I’m sure we’ll get our share over the next few weeks and the number of wildfowl and waders will start to increase. This is already apparent outside the Wetlands Watch hide as now over 150 Teal, Wigeon and Mallard are feeding and preening close by. The mixed flock of finches, buntings and tits on the opposite side of the hide is increasing in numbers and a lovely male Yellowhammer has joined the flock. It was easy to pick it out each time the birds flew up to the bushes and wires along the track when an alarm call sounded. A lone Snipe was hunkered down in the marshy corner of the Closes but even though we had a good scan of the area we drew a blank for any Jack Snipe.

Winter wildfowl continue to arrive including Teal left and Wigeon (c) P.R

Winter Swans were once again on the list this weekend but unfortunately we couldn’t say for certain if they were Bewick’s or Whoopers, even though they flew over our heads! We didn’t see them until they were right on top of us, and they continued to fly directly away from us in an easterly direction without stopping. If we’d only looked the other way moments before, we could have clinched the identification. How many times have we all thought that over the years, as other birds have eluded us! If only I’d been here five minutes earlier, or if only I’d been looking behind me. 

There are lots of ifs and buts when you’re out birding but you can’t always see everything. That’s why it’s good to have another pair of eyes with you. Some days I pick out a lot of birds and other days Steve is on form and picks up everything. With all the regulars and volunteers on Otmoor there is always someone to help point things out. After saying that, none of us could say what the Swans were, but the general consensus was that they were most probably Whoopers, even though Bewick’s would have been a year tick on the moor. With a confirmed sighting of a Whooper and two other sighting of winter Swans in the last few weeks I hope some will soon stick around and maybe join the herd of 20 Mute Swans seen around the western edge of the moor on the weekend.  They aren’t annual birds on the moor but always brighten up a winter day’s birding. Good to see the birds fly past but very frustrating at the same time!

Male Pintail and Wigeon in front of the second screen (c) Pete Roby

It was nice to see a splendid male Pintail in amongst the wildfowl from the second screen. I always think they look classy with their heads held high and the white line down their necks standing out. Always great to see and they should increase in numbers over the next few weeks. There were over 20 Gadwall swimming around in pairs and they look fairly drab at first glance but upon close inspection they are a really nicely marked bird. 

The Bittern had been seen flying into the reeds on the far side before we entered the second screen, and after about 15 minutes all the ducks swam quickly away from the reeds and slowly a Bittern poked its head out and crept along the edge feeding as it moved along. What a great bird, always a delight to see. At times it melted into the reeds as it moved slowly along and couldn’t be seen at all, but soon after it would appear again and continue its hunt for food. After watching it hunting for a while we decided to leave it in peace and head back to the first screen. This was partly due to the fact that we were starting to freeze as the cold easterly wind was being squeezed through the windows of the screen, and somehow concentrated into an arctic blast that could cut you in half. 

On Friday we found a flock of about 500 Golden Plover to the west of Otmoor and they could be seen flying high in the distance from the first screen. Small flocks could also be seen over the reserve on the weekend. Small parties of Snipe are often flying about, darting from one area to another in tight groups, often flushed by one of the raptors hunting over the moor. The male and female Marsh Harriers showed well over the reed bed and at times had a little interaction with a passing Buzzard to see it off. We were lucky enough to see the Hen Harrier both days flying along the hedge at the back of Greenaways. Brief views but good to know that one or more is still around. The Short-eared Owl was seen early on Friday morning and is probably still around even though it has stopped roosting out in the open in the bush near the car park. 

Feral Barnacle Goose, a welcome addition to the gaggle (c) Paul Greenaway

The Peregrine was seen well over the weekend and landed in the tall Peregrine tree to the east of the reserve. Yes, another tree we have named. From the bridleway near the cattle pens look north east and in the distance you’ll see a tall tree leaning to the left, on the left side of a row of trees. It’s a long way off but we’ve seen the Peregrine in that tree loads of times over the years and on Sunday I watched it fly over Greenaways and all the way into the tree where it sat for around an hour.
The hedges seem to have a red tinge to them as there are so many berries left on them and a lot of the leaves have now fallen. The Fieldfare and Redwing are mopping them up and we found a mixed flock of around three hundred birds on Friday helping themselves to the bumper crop. Also in the bushes are mixed tit flocks dancing along and Bullfinches apparent from their piping calls and white rumps disappearing in the distance. The ditches and reed beds held calling Water Rails and Cetti’s Warblers but unfortunately no view of the Otter for me this week. Three Stonechat on Greenaways were seen perching up at the top of the stems and a Dunlin was seen in with one of the Lapwing flocks flying overhead. The White-fronted Geese are back from their day out to Port Meadow and all the Geese looked great as around four hundred Canada's and Greylag's flew low over the Wetlands Watch hide from the Closes to Ashgrave.

The most unusual record this week was a Ring Necked Parakeet in the Starling roost on Friday evening. I’m not sure why that was in the roost but would have liked to see it on the moor as I’ve never seen one there before. Well, there’s always next weekend!

Cheers 
Pete and Steve Roby

A different Ring-necked Parakeet. 


Wednesday, 23 November 2016

Notmoor part one


I have spent the last four days in the Kruger National park, one of my favourite places in the world. I went there very shortly after a long desperate drought had broken. It had been a very long time with no rain and the consequences were everywhere to be seen. At the same time it was wonderful to see how the, as yet light, rains turned the park green in just a matter of days. The animals that have survived looked well as they fed on the fresh new flush of grass and yet evidence of the scale of the devastation was everywhere to be seen. Piles of bleached bones stood out against the faint tinge of pale green as the new grass started to cover the bare soil. The way in which every shrub and bush had been stripped of leaves and bark evidenced the search for sustenance. It was the water dependent animals that had suffered the most, Hippos and Buffalo.
Grass coming through too late for this Buffalo
Many of the large water bodies that on my previous visits have always been highlights for bird and animal sightings were dry. These places had always held small populations of Hippos and they had gone leaving just their bones. Buffalo need to be able to drink every day and we saw just a few of them it may mean that they moved areas where they could find water and hopefully didn’t suffer in the same way as the less mobile Hippos.
It is sobering to see the consequences of a natural disaster although the visit was very far from being all doom and gloom and as always there were superb highlights.

Birds being mobile are able to come and go more freely and their numbers were beginning to increase as we left the park. Until the grass and herbs grow there will not be the volume of insects to support the many species of birds that depend on them. I saw flocks of several hundred mixed hirundines feeding and drinking over the Olifants River which is now flowing as rain has fallen on the Drakensberg Mountains and the Highveld to the west. There are always good birds to be seen in the Kruger Park rest camps and this trip was no exception, with Sunbirds, Bush Shrikes and Glossy Starlings queuing up to have their pictures taken.


Marico Sunbirds and Glossy Starling
I even managed to add a species to my Southern Africa list, something I have failed to do on my last two trips. We found a female Montagues Harrier quartering the plains and the next day found another one, a real bonus but it seemed incongruous to see it floating over the dry savanna instead of the lush English countryside.


Seeing birds out of their normal context was a constant theme. Wood Sands were common wherever there was a muddy puddle or on the edges of rivers as were Common Sands. Greenshanks patrolled the shallows while occasional Ruff could be seen. On one occasion as I was watching a group of mixed waders, both familiar and unfamiliar, at the edge of a muddy dam a crocodile surfaced just behind them with a huge fish in its jaws and spent some time trying to point it in the right direction to swallow. Not something we’re used to seeing when going through the waders at Titchwell or Minsmere. The waders just ignored it.
Croc and fish with indifferent Geese and waders

Another highlight when birding here is just how unafraid and approachable wading birds are. Birds such as Wood Sands that you could not get within fifty metres of in the UK are too close to focus on. It is easier to get close to other birds too both in the rest camps and from the car.

I hope that I don’t give the impression that this was in any way a disappointing trip. It is wonderful to be able to visit such a huge wild place. It is after all approximately the same area as Wales. It is being cared for sensitively and raises valuable revenue both for the country and for conservation throughout South Africa. Anyone I know would love to visit it and would love to have seen the things I saw this time……a dung beetle rolling a ball of dung along the road, every so often climbing onto the top of it to see which way it was going…….a small family of elephants with a mother suckling her calf just beside my car so close I could smell her……..a pair of lions mating beside the road the lioness seeming so indifferent to the males attention she didn’t even get up from her side…..tortoises coming to the tar road to drink from the puddles after a shower of rain. These are the kind of experiences that make it such a special place.



As for the drought, there have always been droughts and floods, whether this is local weather or global climate change I leave to the experts. It does show however that even if we set aside huge tracts of lands for wildlife we cannot guarantee its safety from the elements, all we can try to do is to protect it from man’s worst excesses.


African Fish Eagle, African spoonbill and sunset

Monday, 21 November 2016

November 19th and 20th

Fieldfare (c) Tom Nicholson-lailey
Bark is away this week and has asked me and Steve to step in once again to do a write up on the weekends birding on Otmoor. I informed my lovely wife that I’d been asked to do the write up so would have to go to the moor on both days. After having me at home with man flu for the last couple of weeks I think she was relieved to hear that I would be off the sofa and not under her feet any longer.
We didn’t make it down for first light like some of the early birders that visit the moor, but arrived at a much more sensible time of around 8am. This made perfect sense to me as I’d had some friend over the night before and enjoyed a few cold ones. It was a cold frosty start to the day and the sun was shining so the light was good, and the leaves and berries seemed to glow on the trees and bushes. Straight away we picked up Bullfinches, Goldfinches and Goldcrests around the car park area, along with good views of Fieldfare and Redwing flitting about in the nearby bushes up the lane. There are lots more Fieldfare and Redwing on the reserve this weekend jumping out of the bushes as we walked along, chuckling and sipping as they moved along the hedgerow helping themselves to the bumper crop of berries. 

Bittern (c) John Reynolds

From the bridleway we scanned over Greenaways for raptors but nothing much was stirring. As we panned around Steve spotted a Bittern and we saw a darkish looking individual fly along and land in the reed-bed in the middle of Greenaways. I’ve always thought it’s a good days birding if you see a Bittern on Otmoor. Years ago we would dream about the day we would see Bittern on Otmoor, and now I see one almost every time I visit. Further scanning from the bridleway produced the four White Fronted Geese that were not too far out, however they took a bit of finding as they can soon drop behind a rise and be out of sight. A Cetti’s warbler let us know it was still around half way along the bridleway which is always nice to hear, as in the past after a cold winter I didn’t hear one on the reserve for a whole year.  

Reed Bunting (c) John Reynolds

The mixed flock feeding on the seeds along the footpath by the Wetlands Watch hide are slowly building up, and hopefully there will be Bramblings joining them again this winter. Wigeon and Teal could be seen on the water on Ashgrave and hopefully the numbers will build up once we have some decent rainfall to top up the reserve. Loose flocks of a few hundred Lapwing drifted around the reserve in different areas and one lone Golden Plover joined them and called loudly as it flew overhead. A Green Woodpecker hopped up the track towards the first screen with its bright red head standing out against its green back. As most of the action tends to be around the reed-bed at the moment we headed up there and and not long after we got to the first screen Steve spotted another Bittern flying over the reeds. 

Everyone enjoyed great view as it circled around and flew directly towards us before heading over towards the second screen. Two Bitterns were seen at the same time from the second screen on Saturday and Sunday and this is becoming a popular place for the visiting photographers to sit in wait for a picture. From the first screen a Water Rail dashed out of the reeds on the left of the centre channel and stopped at the water’s edge, turned around and ran back into the reed-bed. Then it plucked up the courage to have another go and ran back to the water’s edge before flying over to the reeds opposite. Soon after it was seen creeping through the edge of the reeds past the sleeping Common Snipe. There were only a handful of Common Snipe on Saturday but over twenty opposite the screen on Sunday, unfortunately none of them were Jack Snipe. A pair of Shoveler were facing each other in the water outside the first screen with their heads side by side in the water as they swam around in circles with their heads in the middle, feeding on whatever they could find, which was something I’ve never seen them do before. 

Lapwings (c) Tom Nicholson Lailey

The weather worsened throughout the morning and the grey clouds rolled in and sat over the moor and didn’t move, even though we could see blue sky in the distance in all directions. That also turned grey as the day progressed and with the low temperature and cool breeze it felt very wintry. 

A distant Short Eared Owl was seen flying in high from the north east and landed on Greenaways where it was mobbed by Crows. Possibly a new arrival, but it might just be one that’s been seen on the reserve over the last couple of weeks spreading its wings. A short eared Owl was seen later that afternoon hunting the car park field along with a Barn Owl. Otmoor is always great for raptors and male and female Marsh harriers were seen over Greenaways and Buzzards, Red Kites and Kestrels can be seen all over the reserve. One Kestrel put on a good show hovering close to the bridleway and we could easily see it's head locked in position as it hovered above the grass looking for its next meal.

Kestrel courtesy of Tom Nicholson Lailey

At the Starling roost the elusive Hen Harrier put in an appearance to help spook some of the 50 thousand Starlings that were pouring in for the night. Sparrowhawk and Peregrine also helped to stir things up.  

Three Winter Swans were seen flying over the reserve early on Saturday morning but although the yellow bills were seen it wasn’t clear if they were Whoopers or Bewick’s. There wasn’t any further sign of them on Saturday.

A look around the north of the moor on Sunday only produced a herd of 12 Mute Swans. Sunday was a dull and grey day and as such visitor numbers were down. This didn’t stop the birds from showing themselves and as I scoped the reed-bed from the bridleway I immediately picked up a Bittern flying over the reeds and dropping in left of the diagonal track. Another good day on the moor I thought to myself. One visitor I met on Sunday was very pleased to have seen his first ever view of a Bittern. In fact he saw two of them fly out of the reeds from the second screen. 

Peregrine Falcon (c) Badger

The Peregrine was seen on Sunday sitting on a post in Greenaways and later on flying over Noke sides towards the African trees. These are the ones that Bark thinks should be in a French painting, but me and Steve think they look like they should be on the African plain and have always called them the African trees. 
As Bark has been to Africa many times he knows better than we do what the trees look like there, but we’ll continue to call them the African trees when we are shouting out directions for a passing birds which will probably confuse everyone else. Even though most of the time the weather was dull on the weekend the brightly coloured Stonechats around Noke farm and on Greenaways, and the Kingfisher seen from the second screen added a splash of colour, and the quality of the birds seen always make a trip to the moor worthwhile.

Someone was lucky enough to see two Otters from the second screen on the weekend which is always a highlight of any visit. Hopefully we’ll get to see them again soon, who knows, maybe we’ll be the lucky ones next weekend!

Cheers
Pete and Steve

Monday, 14 November 2016

November 12th and 13th



Ravens (c) Bark

Saturday and Sunday could not possibly have been more different. Saturday grey, wet and gloomy after heavy overnight rain and Sunday bright, calm and sunny with an intense light in the clean rain-washed sky. The remaining leaves blazed gold from the hedgerows and trees. The oaks in particular were at their most brilliant.

Fieldfares Above (c) Bark   below (c) Derek Lane

Fieldfares and Redwings are everywhere feeding. As well as their familiar chuckling flight calls they keep up a much quieter continuous chattering as they feed. The carpark field seemed full of them when I arrived. They are still cautious, exploding out of the hawthorns ahead of us as we walked along the bridle way. If one waits patiently they will come closer but they always appear to be on the far side of the bush to where we are standing. As food becomes scarcer they will lose some of their inhibitions and then the second screen can become a great place to get close views of these handsome thrushes.
Marsh Harrier (c) JR
Raptors once again were the starring birds this weekend. The Marsh Harriers have become a regular feature of any visit out to the reedbed. On Saturday morning one was seen to swoop into the reeds and come out clutching an unfortunate Starling. It settled down to pluck and consume its meal but flew off all too soon as it was mobbed by several corvids and a hungry Kestrel. Kestrels will often harry other birds of prey in an effort to steal their catch. We have often seen them harassing Barn Owls into dropping prey items. One Kestrel on Sunday morning swooped down onto Greenaways and came up with a large frog in its claws. I had not heard of them eating frogs and had mistakenly thought that the frogs would have been hidden away for the winter by the second week in November.


;A stunning adult male Peregrine made a pass over the reedbed before settling in the spindly tree in one of the Noke sides hedgerow. The tree appears a bit out place, I always think it looks as if it twenty minutes allowing Badger to get some super video footage of it. As far as we know there are still two Ring-tailed Hen Harriers present, they are only seen sometimes together, usually at the starling roost.
Ringtail over the reedbed (c) JR
They roam a much larger territory than the Marsh Harriers and are not so tied to the reedbeds and wet fields. Merlin are certainly present but as always views are fleeting and unpredictable. The Short-eared Owl that roosts sometimes in the carpark field was seen on Saturday but by Sunday had perhaps moved elsewhere.

Goldfinch (c) JR                 Stonechat (c) Derek Lane

A Green Sandpiper made a brief appearance on Sunday flying in and landing on one of the Greenaways scrapes before flying off high and north. A Ruff was on the muddy edge in front of the first screen on Saturday morning feeding among the loafing Ducks.
Loafing Ducks (c) JR
Last week’s Pink-footed Goose has moved on, we spent a long time “grilling” the goose flock on Sunday morning but were unable to spot it. The family party of White-fronts is still there as is the lone Barnacle Goose. Wigeon are starting to graze out on Big Otmoor and their numbers have continued to creep up as have the numbers of Gadwall at the northern lagoon.
The drake Gadwall are looking particularly neat and tidy, as if dressed for a day in the office in their spruce clerical grey suits.
Five Ravens (c) Bark
Five Ravens flew over together on Sunday calling loudly and tumbling in the sunlight. Their feathers were so shiny in the bright sunshine that they flashed both silver and black as they flew. It is unusual to see more than a pair together on the moor and they may have been a family party in transit.
Bitterns were yet again seen at the weekend and during the week two were seen at the same time. There is no way of knowing for certain how many we have here at the moment but at least four individuals not an unreasonable guess.
Steve and Pete Roby will keep you up to date with happenings on the moor over the next couple of weeks while I pursue Bustards, Bee-eaters, Babblers and Barbets in the Southern hemisphere. Keep an eye open for the odd ”Notmoor” posting.
Muntjac in the reedbed (c) Derek Lane