Tuesday, 20 March 2018

Saturday and Sunday 17th and 18th March

Whooper from the second screen (c) Tezzer

Just when I thought that spring had arrived we flipped backwards into a nasty reminder of winter. All weekend there was a strong, spiteful penetrating wind, that numbed exposed skin and quieted the birdsong of just a few days ago. It snowed a little on Saturday but a lot more than a little on Saturday night into Sunday. The overnight snow turned the moor back into a bleak monochrome place, where the emphasis for wildlife switched away from reproduction to survival.

A monochrome moor (c) Bark

We had optimistically hoped that the year list would surge forward this weekend with fresh arrivals but were disappointed, but not surprised, not to find Wheatears, Sand Martins or Garganey. Despite the disappointment we were still able to find enough to look at. The three Marsh Harriers were very active on both days and the male is now looking very smart in his fully developed mature plumage. A male Peregrine flushed Teal and Shovellers from the reedbed on Sunday, but there was no repetition of the aggressive interaction we saw last weekend with the Harriers.
Flushed shovellers (c) JR
A pair of Buzzards are behaving in a very proprietorial way around an oak tree on the northern edge of Big Otmoor. As we arrived in the snow on Sunday morning there was a Barn Owl hunting in the carpark field and there is another that is hunting regularly over the reedbed at dusk, it seems likely that this bird is using the second screen as a sheltered spot to eat and preen. There are a good number of pellets scattered there that suggest it. On Friday evening a Bittern was heard “booming” from the reedbed, the inclement weather probably discouraged more vocalisations over the weekend but it will certainly be worth listening out for again over the next few weeks.

Redshank on ice (c) above Bark......below JR
On Sunday a passage flock of twenty-three Curlew were seen and other waders were much in evidence. Noke sides is flooded and there were three or four hundred Golden plovers feeding there with Lapwings, a smattering of Redshanks, seven Dunlin and two Ruff. There were Oystercatchers out on Big Otmoor and on the westernmost field beside the path to the second screen.
Whooper (c) Tezzer

The juvenile Whooper Swan is still out between Oddington and Noke with about thirty Mute Swans. On Saturday morning they were hunkered down in the rape field as the snow whipped past them horizontally, the Whooper was alone and separate from the rest of the swans. We speculated hopefully that the two birds currently at Eynsham might somehow pick it up when it’s time to migrate back north.

Feeding by the hide (c) Bark

There is no doubt about the value of the finch feeding programme by the hide. It was thronged with birds on both days this weekend. Most obvious this week were the Reed Buntings and looking down from the hide as they fed it looked as though there were more black headed males present than females. The Linnet flock twittered backwards and forwards between the path and the bushes, always more skittish and nervous than the other birds. Once again there were Stock Doves down feeding and there were more than twelve Yellowhammers standing out brightly from the rest.
Male Reed Bunting (c) JR

We had a close encounter with a Hare on Sunday. It flushed up from beside the path from the first screen but then could not go forwards or back because of approaching people, eventually it made up its mind and hurtled past us, offering some great photo opportunities as you can see. They are very beautiful creatures and even more so when seen against the snow.

Co-operative Hare Above two (c) Bark      below (c) JR

We have reached the vernal equinox and from now onwards the days will be longer than the nights. For birders we are entering the most exciting two months of the year as the winter birds move on and the summer visitors arrive. These two months are always spiced with the possibility of something more unusual coming through and you can be sure that we will be out there looking for it whatever it might be!

The first Blackthorn and "us out there looking" (c) Bark

Monday, 12 March 2018

Saturday and Sunday 10th and 11th March

Singing Dunnock (c) Bark

There was a massive difference between this weekend and the previous one. Daytime temperatures were ten degrees higher and on Saturday there was some watery sunshine. There was a flush of colour in the hedgerows and the fields have greened up, the soft, damp light gave Otmoor the look and feel of a watercolour painting.
Goldies, some showing a little black. (c) Bark

The birds that had abandoned the site during the harsh weather are back in large numbers especially the Golden Plovers and the Lapwings. Some of the Golden Plovers are beginning to show signs of developing the black bellies of their summer plumage. There are still large numbers of overwintering Lapwings in the fields, but our resident birds are now starting their territorial displays in earnest, swooping and tumbling whilst giving their distinctive “peewhit” call.

Lapwings and Redshank (c) Bark
Redshanks are back in good numbers with thirty recorded on the latest WEBS count, a number that will continue to rise over the coming weeks. They are adding their distinctive calls to the early spring soundscape. Curlew too are regularly flying between the MOD land and big Otmoor calling as they go.
curlew (c) Bark

Other waders are present now, taking advantage of the abundant water and pools. There were two Oystercatchers on Big Otmoor, a male Ruff on the Flood Field and on Saturday we counted thirteen Dunlin flying with the Lapwings. Snipe can be seen flitting between the tussocks around the scrapes on Greenaways they will not start their drumming displays until much later in the spring.
Male Linnet starting to show more colour (c) Tezzer

I saw a Little Egret feeding in front of the hide on Ashgrave catch and eventually eat a large frog. It did not find it an easy to task to swallow it, due perhaps to its size and slipperiness. Elsewhere across the moor there was a scatter of Grey Herons, hunting along ditches and pools, probably in search of the same prey.
Peregrine on Greenaways (c) Bark

The Marsh Harriers have been ranging across the whole reserve and on Sunday morning we saw a dramatic dispute between one of the harriers and a Peregrine that stooped on it as it was flying over Big Otmoor. There was physical contact made as feathers flew but I was unable to see whose feathers they might have been. There was a large adult female Peregrine present on both days this weekend, often perched on a post on Greenaways.
Whooper (c) Tezzer

On Sunday morning we spotted a Whooper Swan amidst a group of Mute Swans drinking and bathing on the western edge of Big Otmoor. It is developing the proper lemon-yellow bill but is still regarded as being a juvenile. It is probably the same bird that we saw in front of the first screen in the autumn, at that time it had a pink bill. We re-found it later in the morning, sitting and feeding with the Mute Swans in the middle of a field of oil seed rape to the north west of the reserve.
crane arriving (c) Tezzer

Last week we had a visit from a Common Crane. It was an unringed bird, which might possibly be one of the offspring of the Somerset Levels reintroduction project. We often see Common Cranes at about this time of year, but it was not one of our regular identifiable individuals. It along with the Whooper Swan has taken the year-list up to ninety-nine species. It is tempting to speculate what the one hundredth species will be. Sand Martins and Wheatears are already in the country and might easily make it through to us before next weekend. On the other hand, passage waders are moving across the country and it could be a Godwit or a Ringed Plover.
Pussy willow is showing in the hedgerows and along the bridleway the Coltsfoot is just starting to come out. I saw a Chiffchaff in the Roman road on Sunday but it was probably an overwintering bird as it hadn’t yet started to sing…………..maybe next week.

Coltsfoot and Pussy Willow (c) Bark

Wednesday, 7 March 2018

Last weekend in February and first weekend in March

Wren at the first screen. (c) JR

What a contrast; at the end of February it looked for all the world as if spring was well and truly on its way and yet during the last week and weekend, winter returned with a vengeance.

The moor in the snow (c) Bark

I am always concerned when there are several consecutive days when the temperature remains below freezing and even more so when a blanket of snow covers up potential feeding areas. On Otmoor we worry particularly about the Cetti’s Warblers, Stonechats and the Bitterns. During the last especially cold spell, about six years ago, we lost all the Cetti’s on the moor for more than a year and saw just one Stonechat in the following season. It was reassuring for us to hear at least four different Cetti’s calling on Sunday as the thaw began to set in, and to find a male Stonechat up at Noke.
Stonechat hanging on (c) Bark

The frozen water bodies and fields mean that the huge flocks of birds seen over the preceding weeks have reduced markedly. Wildfowl numbers too are much lower although there were still some ducks to be found in and around the unfrozen leads on the two largest lagoons. Amongst them were about ten Pintail and some courting Pochard.
Courting Pochard (c) Bark
New in this weekend was a flock of nine feral Barnacle Geese feeding together out on Ashgrave beyond the larger Grey Lags and Canada’s. Interestingly they had not been joined by our long staying individual that behaves as though it is a very small Grey Lag! Last week it was shepherding a Grey Lag away from the others whilst calling and this week was accompanying what we assume is the same bird out on big Otmoor.

"Our" Barnacle Goose   Above (c) JR below (c) Bark
Last weekend we noticed just how many of the resident bird were starting to sing, especially noticeable were Chaffinches, Great Tits and Wrens. The latter pushing out a huge volume of sound so much in contrast with their diminutive size. They too will have been vulnerable during the bitter weather last week and yet again it was reassuring to see them active and still calling, as the snow was starting to melt on Sunday.
Teal on ice (c) Bark

On both weekends there were large numbers of birds taking advantage of the seed that is spread beside the hide. There are always large numbers of Reed Buntings around but the Linnet flock can vary from just a handful of birds to well over two hundred. If they are not down on the ground feeding they are most likely to be sitting up at the top of the largest oak trees beside the bridleway. I assume that they need some time to digest their food and when they are perched in the topmost branches are less likely to be ambushed by the Sparrowhawk. On Sunday there were nine Stock Doves feeding just down from the hide, they are certainly amongst the most underrated birds, beautifully coloured and delicately marked.

Stock Doves (c) Bark

In the snow on Sunday morning it was possible to see just how many mammals are using the reserve at night. There were four or five different sets of Badger prints, muntjac and Roe Deer slots and other less easily recognised tracks. By day we have spotted several foxes both at Noke and around the reedbed, they are yet another hazard for our breeding birds to contend with.

Sleeping Fox (c) JR Fox with Lunch (c) Bark
Moles had been busy along the bridleway, their hills stood out above the snow and were the focus for foraging Song thrushes, Blackbirds, Robins and Dunnocks. There must be tiny invertebrates available in the freshly turned soil.
Songthrush (c) Bark
Our regular raptors are still being seen frequently and both the Hen Harrier and the Merlin have been seen since the bad weather. Barn Owls are being reported both from the reedbed at dusk and from the Car-park field.

Sparrowhawk attack (c) Bark

Let’s hope that the worst of the winter has now passed and over the next few weeks can look forward to the first trickle of returning migrants until by April the trickle has become a flood.
Hare (c) JR

A NOTE OF CAUTION. There is a particularly vicious crop of pot-holes along Otmoor Lane. The worst of them are just at the blind right-hand bend at the bottom of the steepest part of the hill. (assuming you are coming from Beckley) You can be in them almost before you can see them. The largest of them has already damaged wheels and tyres! Please report any damage to the County Council Highways Department as it is their responsibility to maintain that section of the lane.

Monday, 19 February 2018

Saturday and Sunday 17th and 18th February

Teal (c) JR

It was a very “birdy” weekend with change starting to happen, lots to see and plenty going on. The weather too was better, crisp and bight on Saturday morning with plenty of winter sunshine and on Sunday a foggy start gave way to a pleasant bright morning before rain arrived in the afternoon.

Great Spot and Goldcrest (c) JR

Goldies (c) Bark
Yet again it was impossible not to be impressed by the sheer numbers of birds present. As before the huge flocks of Golden Plover and Lapwings were impossible to ignore. Sometimes after they had been flushed, headed up high and were starting to descend it appeared as if the whole sky was speckled with birds.

Golden plover and Lapwings (c) Bark
At other times we were treated to very low flypasts. When three or four hundred birds pass no more than fifteen or twenty feet above you the sound of their wingbeats and the whoosh of the downdraft allows you to really appreciate just how fast they can go. The Lapwings too were spectacular, as they made a slower black and white counterpoint to the faster more densely packed plovers. We even noticed a few Lapwings above the Flood Field starting to perform their tumbling display flights.

Wigeon and Teal (c) Bark
Wigeon and Teal are spread over the whole reserve but are in the largest concentrations on Big Otmoor, The Flood Field and the big lagoon on Ashgrave. There were also three Shelduck on Big Otmoor on Saturday and ten or twelve Pintail. The twenty or so Pochard are still around on the Southern Lagoon and “Luke” the leuchistic drake is still keeping company with a female but is now remaining more separate from the rest of the flock.
"Luke" (c) Bark

On Sunday morning the fog meant that the distant sounds of traffic on the A34 and the motorway were all but eradicated and the natural sounds were clearer and easier to appreciate. At the first screen the metallic clicks and harsh monosyllabic tacks of the Coots was particularly noticeable as it echoed around the lagoon. Every so often the sounds would accelerate and rise to a crescendo and one of them would suddenly launch itself across the water and attack another. They do seem to be a particularly aggressive and ill-tempered species. The behaviour did not always appear to be about defending a territory or a potential mate, but much more about an individual throwing its weight about. The avian equivalent of a drunk in a pub attacking someone else because….” he looked at me a bit funny!” Perhaps they are just establishing a pecking order in the local Coot population, a hierarchy maybe. It can be very splashy, energetic and dramatic, and even more so if two evenly matched individuals square up and then start lashing out at each other with their feet.

Angry coots (c) Bark

The quiet also meant that it was easy to hear two competing skylarks singing and from the brambles Wrens were also starting to call. We estimated that there must be at least six different Cetti’s Warblers in and around the reedbed area alone.
Wren (c) JR
I suggested last week in this blog that the first Curlew were just about due, and so it was very gratifying to hear of one being seen on the moor on Saturday. It was even better from a personal point of view, to have two of them fly over us on Sunday morning, appearing out of the mist making their unmistakeable and evocative calls.
Sunday morning Curlew (c) Bark
It was another good weekend for seeing Raptors. All the expected species were seen over the two days. On Saturday the male Hen Harrier put in a sustained appearance. It worked its way along the hedge and then spent three or four minutes quartering the northern half of the reedbed, giving superb views to all in the screen.
hen Harrier (c) JR
There are still three different Marsh Harriers on the reserve and a visitor told me that two of them had been seen displaying some courtship activity. A Peregrine was seen several times on Saturday causing consternation in the flocks on Big Otmoor and on Sunday we were fortunate enough to have a very close and extremely fast, fly past from a male Merlin.

Marsh Harriers above (c) JR     below (c) Nick Truby
A Bittern was seen from the bridleway on Saturday morning flying along the ditch and then out and into one of the smaller clumps of reeds, where it promptly disappeared.
Bittern (c) Nick Truby
There were pairs of Stonechats out in the reedbed and on Greenaways.
female stonechat (c) Norman Smith
On Saturday morning five Grey Herons could be seen occupying spaces in the reeds along the northern edge of the southern lagoon. It is not certain that they are building nests yet but may just have been doing the equivalent of putting their towels on the sun lounger by the pool! At least six pairs nested in the reedbeds last year.

Grey Herons     above (c) JR   below (c) Bark
If anyone is planning to come down to the reserve for the Starling roost and murmuration or if you know anyone who is planning to, please be advised that the roost has collapsed and there is no longer any kind of display. It carried on for a long time this year and will not get going again until next autumn.
Barn Owl at dusk (c) Tom N-L

Ps Redshank next week!
Swimming Vole......Water or bank? (c) Tezzer