Monday, 18 September 2017

16th September 2017; Osprey & Farmoor

 A juvenile sabines gull had spent a few days at Daventry country park so on Friday night Mrs Caley and I made plans to head out there early Saturday morning to see it. However the latest photos coming from there on Friday had shown a very sickly bird so I wondered if it might even survive into the weekend and that it would be prudent to wait on news before travelling. 

By way of an alternative and by a small stroke of luck after a very early morning text message from a good friend, we were able to go to a local site near Oxford where an osprey had been present on and off for nearly a month. It was using a small lake in which to catch fish but our problem now was to find the location! I'd never been there before and it took a couple of phone calls to pin down the exact place. Luckily we found it and arrived just after 08:00 to find the osprey resting in a tree overlooking the small reed fringed lake.  

The bird, which could be identified as an immature because of the pale feather edges, was clearly looking intently for its breakfast owing to its constant head movements. We were watching from around 75 metres away and the light wasn't great, the morning being overcast with periods of rain, but ospreys are large birds so our views were excellent. The osprey remained in the tree for just over half an hour when suddenly and with little warning it dropped out of the tree and dived towards the water. 

Surprisingly it didn't enter the water directly below or even close to the lookout but at a point parallel to our position. The actual moment of impact was hidden by a small island but the bird had selected a fish some 75-100 metres away from where it had been watching from offering great testament to amazing eyesight on its part. When the osprey emerged back into view a roach was firmly gripped in its talons and it carried it away through the surrounding trees and away to another unseen perch in which to consume it. From leaving the tree and departing with the fish had taken all of 20 seconds! Blink and you'd miss it but thankfully, as the photos prove, I didn't! 

After the thrill of the osprey we had the added enjoyment of watching a kingfisher hunt its own meal. Although it never came in too close, it was easy to observe as it, in turns, hovered above the water and perched on reed stems. It wasn't anywhere near as successful as the osprey though and in repeated dives it never caught anything. There were other birds too, moorhens and coots, a small band of warblers and tits moving through the bushes and a buzzard mewing from a distant tree. Green woodpeckers were noisily feeding on the short grass away from the lake and a water rail squealed from inside the reedbed.

Since we close to Oxford we decided to have a look around Farmoor and grab a coffee from the cafe there. The weather had settled down a bit now and was seemingly set fair and with little wind the reservoir surface was mostly unruffled. In my experience Farmoor is quieter with regards to birds when the wind is light but there is usually always something to find. On this occasion though there was very little! 

The water level on both reservoirs had been dropped by about 2 metres since our last visit exposing a large swathe of bare concrete meaning that the weed and algae growing by the edge of the water was now left high and dry and thus offering little sustenance to any visiting waders and their like. We did spot a lone dunlin close to the marina on F2 but a compete scan of both basins revealed no more wading birds.

The best bird was a male sparrowhawk which came gliding past as we strolled past the boat club but it was past us by the time I swung the camera into action! 

A yellow wagtail was feeding along the causeway with at least 30 pied wagtails and a grey wagtail fed alone on F2. 

Two wheatears were seen along the grassy bank next to the treatment works with more pied wagtails (a major influx) and a few linnets. There were still some swallows hawking over the grassy areas and lots of sand martins were active over F2. But, like I said, Farmoor was quiet!

And the sabines gull was not seen at Daventry so likely had succumbed during the night.

Thursday, 14 September 2017

12th September 2017 Grimsbury Reservoir

grey phalarope
 Grimsbury reservoir sits on the northern edge of Banbury and at first glance looks a rather soulless place. Essentially a concrete basin with no waterside vegetation save for a few weeds and surrounded by a 2 metre high fence, it's not the most attractive place for birding. Thankfully a few locals do watch the place regularly and one of these loyal patch workers, John Friendship-Taylor, struck gold on Monday evening when he discovered a grey phalarope feeding on the reservoir. It was still present on Tuesday morning (and indeed still is as I write on Thursday evening) so I took a sneaky hour off from work to go and see it.

Grimsbury reservoir with the Kraft factory in the distance 
I left the car and broke into a very quick walk, since I wanted to be back at work within an hour or so, and got stopped in my tracks by Ewan arriving. A quick hello and an explanation that I had to get going quickly and I was on my way again. The water and its edges appeared totally devoid of any birdlife except for a flock of greylag geese and the black chain link fencing made it difficult to see far up the reservoir. I carried on at a pace and still saw no grey phalarope and, as usual, the doubts crept in that I'd maybe missed the bird and that it had gone. There were no other birders around either. However as I approached the northern end of the basin I saw the small wading bird swimming about a foot out from the edge and relaxed. By the time I had drawn up level, the grey phalarope had walked out on to the concrete edge and pecked away at the flies and other insects there. It intermittently fed either in that fashion or by swimming in the shallow edge and picking up food that way. Occasionally it would rest and just sit at the waterside whilst it caught breath.

The phalarope at the waters edge through the fence
Grey phalaropes are true maritime waders and our closest breeders are in Iceland where confusingly they are known as red phalaropes! In breeding plumage they are red coloured and in non-breeding grey hence the variation in terminology. We only tend to get them on passage, post breeding, mainly along the west coast of Britain and Ireland but in periods of stormy Atlantic weather some get blown off course and end up on inland water bodies. I saw my first and then my second grey phalaropes (both juveniles) at Farmoor at the end of November 2015 so this was the third that I've seen in the county and my first adult bird. This bird was just one of two score or more that have been found over the last week on inland lakes and reservoirs throughout the country and one of three in Oxfordshire (the others at Farmoor and Sonning).

Phalaropes of all species (there are also red-necked and wilson's) are quite approachable and usually allow close views and this little beauty certainly did just that. I was able to get right next to the fence and point my camera through the wire mesh and fire off shot after shot. The bird showed no sign of being fazed by either my camera shutter or Ewan's who had now caught me up. I stayed for half an hour and then made my way back to work. It has taken me far longer to go through the 180 photos that I took in that time! By my standards though some of my pictures are among the best I've ever taken! Testament to the birds approachability and the nice sunny weather rather than my prowess I fear.

Sunday, 10 September 2017

Churn 9th September

Mrs Caley and I haven't seen a little owl for a while and we had heard that there is a pair or more residing on the Oxfordshire Downs at Churn. So on this beautiful sunny morning we headed south to the uplands to spend a few hours looking for the owls and also other farmland species such as corn bunting and grey partridge which are becoming harder to find in the north of the county.

We parked up at the end of Bohams Lane and were greeted by the most awful stench! It smelt as if a very large animal (elephant sized at least) had died nearby and was rotting profusely! In fact the stink was emanating from a huge pile of manure, presumably a by product of the many stables in the area since the Downs are an important area for racehorses. Indeed several parties of horses and their jockeys could be seen galloping along on the distant hillsides. But, as is often the case with smelly places, the pile of revolting dung attracts insects and that attracts birds. Attendant at the manure pile were around a dozen or so yellow wagtails, a few pied wagtails, a fine male yellowhammer, several dunnocks and a few chaffinches. They all seemed rather content with their smelly lot! Between feeding they would rest and preen in nearby scattered bushes and made very confiding subjects in the bright morning sunshine.

yellow wagtails
yellowhammer & yellow wagtails

We checked the disused railway for the little owls but could see none. With no sign of the owls, we ventured along the concrete road towards the ridgeway. We spotted several buzzards and red kites and were treated to a hobby flying over. A kestrel hunted along the grassy verge before flying off at our approach. The kites in particular were following the horses, I guess to feast on any worms or large insects disturbed by the animals hooves. As we approached some small bushes a bird appeared silhouetted on one, a fine wheatear, another bird that I thought we'd see today. It was extremely confiding and allowed close study before flitting down on to the muddy field to feed. It was joined by 2 very smart whinchats, a bird I always enjoy seeing. We watched this small party of 3 for a while before they slowly moved further across the field and out of our view. Many swallows and house martins were flying over, all heading due south on their travels to warmer climes for the winter.



We cut across the field towards the second railway bridge where we hoped the little owls may be hanging out. Halfway across the field a small flock of buntings flew up and settled in the hedge ahead. I could make out at least 5 corn buntings and a few yellowhammers but most were quite flighty and wouldn't allow a close approach. One bird however lingered at the top of a straggly bush and I managed to sneak up and take some decent photos. The bird was just as tattered as the tree top it perched in! But it was a corn bunting nevertheless and I was pleased to have got so close to it. The bunting was joined by a party of linnets and a couple of greenfinches, a bird that is becoming much less common these days. 

corn bunting
linnet (female)

We checked the disused railway to no avail again, no little owls at this end either, only a very pale buzzard and wood pigeons making use of the old fence posts. We spotted another pale morph buzzard resting in a hedgerow and in total saw 3 such birds through the course of the morning. Most of our local buzzards are much darker than these. I was alerted by the "hweet" call of a chiffchaff and soon got on another and then another. They were chasing insects around the ivy covered bushes and also seemed to be heading southwards. The ivy flowers were also attracting many butterflies of various species. I noted red admirals, small tortoiseshell and large whites but most numerous were comma's. Along the grassy edges to the paths were a few small heath's (I think) too.

comma (upperside)
comma (underside)

We returned the way we came except for walking a short way along the Ridgeway itself. This is migration time and I am ever hopeful of finding a good migrant bird. Unfortunately my track record for finding anything unusual is poor and yet again there would be no shrike or wryneck this time! We watched the galloping horses get put through their paces and noted that many swallows were now  also following in their hoof prints. The sky was clouding up now though and I couldn't get a quick enough shutter speed to capture them this time. The fields held large numbers of gulls, mainly herring but a few great black-backed too. One particular gull looked very interesting being very elongated in body shape. Its eye was very dark too leading me to suppose that it maybe a caspian gull. I have directed the photos of this bird onto people who know more than me to get their opinion although I am expecting it to be just another herring gull. I'm now told that this gull is actually a lesser black-backed gull! Just goes to show that I still have a lot to learn!

lesser black-backed gull

A bird flew across the road ahead of us and proceeded to flutter up against a telegraph pole. It was a wheatear which then flew right between us and landed just a few feet away scolding us with its "chak" call. What we had done to upset it I have no idea but it allowed me to take the best wheatear photos of my picture taking life! Frame busting and no need to crop apart from getting rid of the blurry foreground. There is always something that lifts an average birding day to a special birding day! After the wheatear had regained its composure and reverted to its normal behaviour and left us alone, I scanned the field to see if there was anything else of interest. There wasn't! 

(super confident) wheatear

A merlin then came sailing past, again probably a migrant bird on its way south. We checked the large dutch barn for barn owls but couldn't see any and stopped to admire goldfinches and linnets eating away at a small stand of thistle heads. The kestrel was now on the lookout from the telegraph wires and balanced skilfully in the now increasing breeze. 



Once back at the railway bridge we looked in vain for the little owls again and watched the yellow wagtails and cohorts with a peg on our noses! A carrion crow called raucously from one of the conifer trees that overlooked the dung heap. Perhaps he was announcing "phwoor" rather than "caw"! The final reward was a small covey of grey partridge across the other side of a field, their wheezy calls carrying far to our ears some hundred metres away.

chaffinch (female)

yellow wagtails (juveniles)
carrion crow
Churn is really nice place to bird, despite the pong, and gives the birder a real sense of isolation that is increasingly difficult to gain in our area nowadays. We'll return soon for another go at seeing the little owls which are becoming a bit of bogey bird for Mrs Caley and myself!

My thanks to Ian Lewington and Badger for their expert guidance in identifying some of the birds contained in this post! Their skills far surpass my own!