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!


  1. Hi Nick,

    Nice pics. Your gull is a Lesser Black-backed and your Peregrine is a Merlin! Keep up the good work.

    Cheers, Ian

  2. Thanks Ian, I obviously still have much to learn!