Monday, 22 December 2014

Saturday and Sunday 20th and 21st December

Sparrowhawk (c) John Reynolds
It was a quiet weekend on the bird front but a very sociable one on the moor. Saturday was beautiful with crisp sunshine and a light breeze. Sunday however was overcast, drizzly and very windy. The gloom of the weather was more than made up for by the “Otmoor Massive’s” regular mince pie, chilli chocolates and sloe gin, get together, which is rapidly becoming a must on the birding calendar.
Otmoor Massive (c) Bark
On Saturday in the sunshine we played spot the Snipe from the first screen. Careful scanning of the edge of the reeds revealed at first nine, then twelve and eventually seventeen of these superb cryptically marked birds. The Snipe spotting was competitive in a very good natured way and we were all shown to have been wrong when a female Sparrowhawk made an abortive attempt to grab one. At least forty seven flushed from the one spot and several other small parties flushed from other parts of the reedbed. The Sparrowhawk showed really well and was one of the highlights of the weekend.
How many Snipe can you see? (c) John Reynolds
Sparrowhawk attack. (c) John Reynolds
There are currently very large numbers of Lapwings and Golden Plovers on and over the moor. On Sunday they could be seen swirling over Big Otmoor where they are tending to spend the daytime. They would flush regularly at both real and imagined threats. Geese are also present in large numbers but neither the Greylags nor the Canadas have managed to draw down any of their scarcer cousins.
The Wigeon flocks are much larger and there are more of them. They can most easily be seen feeding on the grass in front of the Ashgrave hide. From time to time they will retreat en masse from their grazing and splash noisily back into the water where they whistle their characteristic alarm calls until the apparent threat has gone and they can clamber back onto the land and resume their feeding. Numbers of Pintail and Shoveller are also going up and I counted twenty two Pochard out from the second screen on Saturday.

Shoveller (top) and Pintail pair (c) John Reynolds
Despite careful looking and listening we failed to make contact with the Bearded Tit this weekend but I am confident that it is out there somewhere and hopefully will make contact with others of its kind in the new year.
Well there had to be one this week (c) Bark
Sunday was the winter solstice and despite still having the coldest days of the winter ahead of us, one can only feel positive as the days begin to lengthen and the nights draw in. Soon we will be starting a new year list and will be speculating on what we might see in the year to come and reflecting on the highlights of the year that has passed, of which there were many, some very special. In the next few days I will endeavour to write a short review of some of them.
Fieldfare at second screen (c) John Reynolds

Monday, 15 December 2014

Saturday and Sunday 13th and 14th December

Winter Robin (c) John Reynolds
A quiet weekend both in terms of the  birds and the weather. The emphasis was very much on small passerines with the hedgerows and scrub busy with the buzzing of wrens, with a different confiding Robin almost every twenty yards and Blackbirds chacking away in the leaf litter under the bushes. Higher up there are still significant numbers of winter thrushes finishing off the haws and Bullfinches giving their quiet little wheep calls.
Wren (c) Bark
The bright sunlight and windless conditions on Saturday helped the sharp eyed Pete Roby to find a Bearded Tit. It was feeding in the reedy fringe beside the path to the first screen. It appeared to be in the company of a couple of blue Tits and several Reed Buntings. It only showed for two  minutes and was probably the same female that Roger Wyatt photographed a couple of weeks ago. Nonetheless I was very pleased to see it and hope that we can connect with the larger group that were also reported at around the same time.
Frosty Robin (c) Bark
A large female Peregrine was seen to pursue a Common Buzzard across the fields to the west of the visitor trail and the buzzard itself was chasing a Red Kite. It was most unusual to see all three raptors interacting. There may have been a prey item that they were disputing but the Peregrine gave up and  sat high in a tree on the edge of Big otmoor for the next hour. There have been no reports of Marsh Harrier for the last three weeks and we may well have seen the last of them for the winter. More disappointing is the absence of Hen Harriers this year and that itself is indicative of the parlous state of their population in this country. Persecution by the grouse shooting industry looks sure to make these stunning birds extinct in England as a breeding species. Something of which we should all be ashamed; allowing a rich minority to deprive the rest of us of a beautiful raptor, in order that they have more flying targets to shoot down.
The Starling roost is again not predictable as to the quality of the display, but I have heard that there were really good performances on both evenings this weekend. There is an excellent piece of video  below by Andy Last that gives some idea of how good it was yesterday. We are currently estimating in excess of 40,000 birds coming in each night. There have been owl sightings in the carpark field as people make their way back.


Please click the cog and view at 720p or 1080p HD

Stonechat near the kissing gate (c) John Reynolds
Stonechats are well established and the pair by the kissing gate seem the most reliable and there is another pair to the south of the hide. Ducks are increasing slowly and the highlight was a party of twelve Pintail on Big Otmoor on Saturday, comprised of four males and eight females.
Our yearlist is somewhat moribund on one hundred and fifty species, four short of last years record. There is still time to find something new however and optimism is a virtue I share with most of the birders I know.
Moody Heron (c) Andy Last

Monday, 8 December 2014

Saturday and Sunday 6th and 7th December

A frosted looking Red Kite (c) John Reynolds
Real frost (c) Bark
On Saturday morning the first really hard frost of the winter had left its mark on everything. Every leaf delicately outlined in white and spiders webs looking like icy lace. The sky was crystal clear and as the sun crept above the horizon the whole place was bathed in a red gold light. It was very beautiful but led me to initially misidentify a small party of Long Tailed Tits as Bearded Tits. The low gold sun made them look orange.
Golden Dawn (c) Bark
We tried all weekend to find the Beardies that were seen over a week ago. I feel sure that they are out there somewhere and there is plenty of suitable habitat for them all over the reserve. Up towards Noke there is a substantial Reedbed on the northern edge of Ashgrave, which is inaccessible and could harbour them. Sunday morning was in complete contrast to Saturday with squally rain showers rattling through on a strong westerly wind.
Fieldfares (c) Tezzer
Very large numbers of Fieldfares and Redwings are occupying the hedgerows and their numbers are only really appreciable when for some reason or another they are flushed up. When that happens they scatter across the sky like wind blown leaves. Sunday’s weather only really got better just as I was leaving at lunchtime.
There are parties of Geese everywhere both Canada and Greylags. They are noisy and impossible to miss as they move from one feeding area to another. It is worthwhile checking them carefully as in previous years it about now that they can be joined by their wilder cousins. Sadly we have not seen any Whitefronted Geese at all this year but it is still not too late and it has only just begun to get colder.
There are more Shovellers out on the reedbed lagoons now. I counted over fifty when they flushed for a passing Peregrine. On Sunday morning in the rain we watched as several pairs circled nose to tail and spun round and round. We speculated as to whether this was a feeding strategy or a form of courtship. Are they creating a vortex to draw up food from the bottom or simply getting to know each other better and cementing a bond?
There are always Pied Wagtails out from the first screen (c) John Reynolds
Wigeon and Teal numbers are hard to estimate because the Wigeon are spread out over the whole moor and the Teal are well hidden in the reedbeds. Both species however are certainly present in greater numbers. As yet we have only seen one drake Pintail it was out on the distant scrapes of Big Otmoor.
Bittern was seen on both days making its way from one feeding area to another in the southern reedbed. Both Lapwings and Golden Plover were evident in the sky and seem to be favouring the western edge of the reserve and the fields beyond it. Water Rails are making their presence known and they would seem to here in good numbers. They can often be seen from the first screen and if the weather does get colder they will venture out onto the ice.
Chilly Weasel (c) John Reynolds
The Starling roost is still drawing a crowd, especially at the weekend. When I went down to see it last week I spoke to a woman who said she had been to see it three times and had come back again and brought friends. I had a report of at least a hundred people there last Sunday,  if people are planning to visit some kind of car sharing is a good idea as parking space is limited. A Barn Owl is frequently being seen as people leave the roost, often hunting in the carpark field. Woodcock are also being reported, usually moving across from Morleys to the Closes.
As we move into winter proper it will be worth checking through the Golden Plover, Teal and Wigeon flocks for their trans-atlantic equivalents. It would be great to have a rare American on the reserve.
 

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Saturday and Sunday 29th and 30th November

Redwing (c) John Reynolds
Dawn Saturday (c) Pat Galka
Hard to readjust to being back in winter after ten days in the southern hemisphere. Saturday dawn was beautiful and the sun shone most of the day. In contrast on Sunday fog and low cloud shrouded the moor  but mid morning the sun burnt through and just as though a curtain had been drawn the day went from monochrome to colour.
Fieldfare (c) John Reynolds
Most noticeable on both days were the large numbers of Redwings and Fieldfares in the hedgerows and across the bushes in the carpark field and I assume they will stay until the berry crop is exhausted. The second screen is an excellent place to see them, as the haws are consumed elsewhere along the hedge they will get closer to the screen in order to eat those that are adjacent to it.
It was quite a surprise to realise just how much it has rained during the time I was away. Scrapes and ditches have filled and once again there are muddy areas and pools for birds to feed around. Duck numbers have risen dramatically and the birds are well spread out over the whole reserve. One of the most popular areas is at the western end of Big Otmoor where large numbers of Wigeon are accompanied by at least five hundred Lapwings and a similar number of Golden Plover. The numbers can only really be appreciated when they are all flushed by a raptor.
Teal (c) Pat Galka
On the reedbed the same principle applies. This time however the birds were flushed by the first volley of shots from the rifle range. There were at least six hundred ducks that flew, largely Teal with Shoveller and Gadwall amongst them. A smaller number of Pochard are present but seemed reluctant to fly. Amongst the Pochard is a slightly odd, different looking bird, perhaps some kind of hybrid or one with aberrant feather colouration, it is very pale around the face and with a lighter area under its head. We looked at it carefully on Sunday but could not come to any conclusions about it. 

Gadwall and Shoveller (c) John Reynolds
From the second screen there were twenty four Gadwall, already paired up the drakes were looking especially smart in their crisp grey and black plumage. A couple of flocks of at least twenty five Snipe were active over the reedbed and there were odd parties of two or three birds lurking around the margins.
The Bittern or perhaps one of the Bitterns made a brief appearance on Saturday morning flying over the southern reedbed. There seems to be reports of one bird in the northern sector and others from the southern. Until we see two in the air at the same time, as we did back in October we can not be sure. Marsh Harrier and Peregrine were also recorded this weekend. The Cetti’s warbler was heard on Saturday up by the second screen and on Sunday made a brief appearance in a bush by the first screen.
Lapwings (c) John Reynolds
Amongst the Lapwings and Goldies on Saturday morning were at  least three Dunlin, a Redshank that flew away calling and four medium sized waders that were probably Ruff. Further indication that the scrapes are functioning well.
Crayfish (c) Darrell Woods
At Noke the track up to the farm is flooded again and in the flood Darrell saw a fearsome Signal Crayfish ready to take on the world. I assume that they are preyed on by Herons and I know that they are a popular snack for Otters.
Most welcome news was the sighting on Sunday of a female Bearded Tit in the reedbed close to the first screen. There has been a bird seen intermittently over the summer and it may well have been the same individual still lonely and looking for love. It is probably still not too late for another bird to join it from elsewhere.
Long Tailed Tit (c) John Reynolds
The Starling roost is undeniably large but is totally unpredictable in terms of display and activity. If anyone is planning to go down to see it I would strongly recommend a weekday evening as the parking at the weekend is difficult.
Green Woodpecker from the screen (c) John Reynolds

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Not Otmoor 22nd and 23rd November

White fronted Bee eaters (for Badger)
Greater Kudu bulls browsing
On a short family visit to South Africa I have managed a couple of days in Kruger Park. After Otmoor one of my favourite places in the world.
It is late spring here and in the park the first rains are slowly greening the dry burnt bushvelt. There was lots to see and all sorts of birds and bird calls to reacquaint myself with. I saw at least four species of Cuckoo and the Woodland Kingfishers were back in southern Africa calling throughout the park, after spending the southern winter in central Africa.
Diederik Cuckoo

African Cuckoo
I was fortunate enough to find a fruiting fig tree by the river in Skukuza rest camp and it was busy with birds.


Collared Barbet, Black- eyed Bulbul and African Green Pigeon
We also came across a termite emergence, they are stimulated to emerge after rain. It was attended by a couple of Wahlbergs Eagles and a ridiculously confiding African Fish Eagle.
Termite eating Fish Eagle
Of course there were plenty of animals and being with non birders they were the main focus of interest.
We had some great encounters with Buffalo very up-close and personal. Elephants, several Rhino and a few distant Lions were also good sightings. The best for me was a fairly brief but close sighting of  a male Cheetah. It walked to the edge of the bush and after five minutes crossed the road in front of us before moving off. It was completely fortuitous and in the park a rare experience.
Another unusual sighting was a twelve foot long Rock Python lying partly across the road with a distinctive bulge halfway along its body, clearly its breakfast.

Magpie Shrikes and Lilac Breasted Rollers were common and several parties of Bee-eaters both European and White-fronted.
Waterholes have not refilled yet but the rivers are flowing and in one slow stream we found Grey Heron and Goliath Heron close together, the difference in size is remarkable with the Goliath being at least a foot taller than its commoner cousin.
Goliath Heron
Throughout the park the Impala have all given birth at about the same time and the lambs are tottering about on their ridiculously thin legs looking like a cross between Gremlin, E.T. and Bambi. It would take a very hard-hearted  person not to find them utterly enchanting.

Impala lambs
It is a great time to be here with all the northern palearctic species arriving and the resident species breeding. I saw more than I can write down here and I still have a lot of images to process. This is just a taster of what was on show.
Groundscraper Thrush

Southern Yellow billed Hornbills

Blue eared Starling

Lilac Breasted Roller All pics (c) Bark
Next weekend I will be back on the moor and back to more regular fare. Many thanks to Pete Roby and Tezzer for filling the gap in my absence.