Tuesday, 29 May 2018

It ended with a Churr. The weekend of 26/27th May

With our holiday to Scotland coming ever closer this would be our last chance to add locally a few birds on to the year list (that I don't keep). The urge was to travel up to the east coast and mop up some rarer waders but in reality the driving didn't appeal so close to the 600 mile trip coming up so on Saturday morning we headed to Farmoor to see what might have pitched up there. It had started drizzling and we know that Farmoor can be really good in poor weather having been there just a few weeks ago when a couple of Great Skuas flew in during a rain shower. As we left town the rain increased in intensity so we decided to divert into our local nature reserve (Bicester Wetlands) and sit the worst of the weather out in the hide there.

Arriving on site we were greeted by a mass (by BWR standards) of Swifts and House Martins swarming around the water treatment works. I reckoned about 50 Swift and 200+House Martins were busy hawking for insects along with smaller numbers of Swallows. I set about trying to capture some images of Swifts in particular but managed to have one of those hopeless half hours during which just about every shot was useless! Hopefully I'll learn from my mistakes and do better next time.

Just about the only decent shot.
Male Gadwall
We were also greeted by Swifts flying above the car park at Farmoor although there were probably nearer100 in all. The previous evening it had been almost flat clam on the reservoirs but today it was breezy which was much more promising. The rain had just about abated and the sun was threatening to make an appearance as we headed along the causeway stopping to admire both a male pied wagtail and one of his fledglings.

We could hear an Oystercatcher tootling away and then saw it flying towards one of the tern rafts (that have been almost completely taken over by gulls) but it was met with hostility by the occupying Black-headed Gulls and was moved quickly along. It was happily asleep on the rafts later though.

The Black-headed Gulls were also not amused when a Cormorant attempted to alight close to their chosen nest spot and one repeatedly dive bombed the intruding bird. I watched the altercation for a while before being distracted by a Great crested Grebe flying towards me. I've been trying to get a decent photo of one in flight for a while so took my opportunity.

The causeway was devoid of any waders other than the Oystercatcher and the only birds of note were a Red-crested Pochard and a couple of Greylag Goose goslings.

The "Grey" twins!
We returned back along the causeway and Mrs Caley noticed a couple of small waders scuttling up the edge of F1. The travelling companions were a Dunlin and Sanderling and were feeding happily on small insects at the waters edge.


After the magnificent and slightly disturbing storms of Saturday night we returned to Farmoor early on Sunday hoping that the bad weather had grounded some interesting waders or terns (and Black Tern in particular). Wishful thinking I'm afraid since the only birds that had arrived overnight were a Turnstone and a (different to yesterdays) Sanderling.

 The female Red-crested Pochard was still present and a pair of Black-headed Gulls were busy making new ones whilst a pair of Coots did a spot of DIY to their nest.

female Red-crested Pochard
Black-headed Gulls
 We did a circuit of F1 looking for anything unusual but all we found was a pair of Bullfinches and a very high flying Hobby.

male Bullfinch

Hobby high up in an increasingly "stormy" sky
Whilst we grabbed a coffee and some sustenance at the cafe, a message arrived via twitter informing that 2 Black Terns were currently being seen at Boddington Reservoir just north of Banbury. We still hadn't connected with these fabulous little terns yet this year having missed them at both Farmoor (twice) and Grimsbury in the last week so it seemed prudent to take the 45 minute drive north to get them.

Parking is easy at Boddington, right next to the reservoir, and within seconds of leaving the car we were both watching the Black Terns. They were doing whole circuits of the reservoir and I set about trying to choose the best place to get the best views. We opted for the Western bank which would at least afford a viewpoint less affected by the sun (which was now blazing). Every 5 minutes or so the Black Terns would fly back into range (but still well out). The problem with trying to capture them on camera was that they'd fly about 10-20 feet above the water which put them in the tree line before dropping to the water surface to pick flying insects. The camera doesn't track birds at distance very well when the background is solid behind them, so in the end I had to shoot on manual and hope that the focussing was correct. The results although far from great did at least provide acceptable record shots.

Black Tern
Another bird that we like to see at this time of year is the charismatic Nightjar. Oxfordshire, to my knowledge doesn't have any breeding Nightjars so most summers we travel down to Berkshire and to the heathland and commons that surround Newbury to see them. Our usual site at Snelsmore hadn't held any last year but I had learned of a different spot to try (the power of twitter again!) so we headed there around 20:00 to do a recce well before the birds would be on the wing. Nightjar only appear as it gets dark which would be around 21:00 so we had a bit of waiting to do. A fine Tree Pipit singing from the top of a tall silver birch tree helped pass the time.

Tree Pipit
As the sun dipped below the horizon the midges came out. There is a trade off with heathland birdwatching in the evening and that is having to deal with biting insects! They really are little beggars and can be most unpleasant if you stand around too long. At 21:10 we were grateful to the first roding Woodcock that flew past uttering it's strange squeaky calls which at least took our minds away from the wee beasties that were so irritating. I'll be looking for more Woodcock when in Scotland next week and will hopefully locate one roosting on the ground too. Several more (or it could have been the same one doing a circuit) appeared overhead as the time passed.

Woodcock in "roding" flight
There was a full moon which was helpful and promising since it helped to keep the night brighter but also just to the north there was a mounting thunderstorm and some lightning began illuminating the darkening sky! We wouldn't have long before it arrived over the heath. Just as our spirits were flagging a bit, at 21:25 a Nightjar began churring unseen from one of the nearby trees. A few minutes later it flew past us followed by a second bird, presumably its mate. For the next 20 minutes in the little light that remained we'd forgotten all about the midges as were treated to a fantastic show by the pair of Nightjar which at times were flying and displaying just feet above our heads. They are amazing birds to watch especially when the male "wing claps" and calls to his mate which then dutifully flies in closer. The male bird also has white wing patches which are used in the display to entice the female but it is the strange churring song of the male that is the most captivating. Emitted from an exposed perch high up a tree it sounds almost as if aliens have landed. There is also a "quick, quick" call broadcast when the Nightjar is flying which is just as eerie. Obviously photography is almost impossible in such low light but the spectacle is one not to be missed. 

male Nightjar in display flight

male Nightjar "churring"
I have a video of the males churring song, with some dodgy commentary, whilst the lightning raged just a short distance away here; Nightjar and lightning

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