Saturday, 25 January 2020

A Weekend Saved by Otmoor, 18-19th January 2020

In keeping with a lot of birders I struggle with identifying Gulls. True I can distinguish most in adult plumage but the myriad of progressive states, juvenile, first-winter, second-winter, sub-adult, near adult etc etc is a minefield for the inexperienced and I find it all a bit overwhelming. You need to spend a long time with Gulls and study each and every bird with a fine tooth comb to differentiate between some of them and my attention span doesn't stretch that far. A good friend and very experienced birder said to me the other day that Gulls should be classified into just three types, namely small Gulls, medium Gulls and large Gulls. Whereas I wouldn't personally compress them that to that extent, I get exactly what he meant! Then there are the experts, the Larophiles, as they like to be known, who have learnt, or are attempting to learn, just about every discernible plumage and structural feature of all Gulls and talk about things such as P5-10 and gonys angles and other intricate details. Despite being almost hopeless at differentiating between certain members of the Gull family, I like the family group, finding them both graceful and boisterous at the same time and they have loads of character which always makes watching them interesting. 

The Glaucous Gull is a bird that I've still only seen once, a juvenile bird that was easy to connect with at Pitlochry a couple of years ago. Rare Gulls, such as the Glaucous, are very hard to come by in Oxfordshire and its surrounds and the only way to see them is usually to visit a reservoir or large lake just before dark when Gulls go to roost. Gull roosts attract the Larophiles but not me. During the daylight hours Gulls disperse to feed at salubrious outlets like rubbish dumps, where access is usually denied to the public, and are more difficult to find. So when a Glaucous Gull, and also an Iceland Gull had been found at a major waste and recycling plant just north of Rugby, where roadside viewing of an adjacent quarry where Gulls congregate is possible, I just had to give it a go at seeing them. We tried and failed at the start of the year but armed with more information I cajoled Mrs Caley, she doesn't do Gulls, into making a return visit to Shawell on Saturday morning. 

Glaucous Gull, juvenile, Pitlochry, February 2018
Viewing the sand pit at Shawell where the Gulls assemble en masse to rest and bathe before and after feeding at the rubbish disposal site next door is possible from a roadside pull in but  parking is tricky since the road is busy with bin lorries and dumpsters that thunder past frequently. On the 2nd January we were the only folk interested in the gathering of Gulls, although we contrived to look from the wrong place, and now two weeks later the small gateway, and correct viewpoint, was occupied so we had to find a parking spot in a disused entrance road of an industrial unit a short way down the road. There were five other birders present which I thought would be a good thing since, as I've said, I'm not that good at identifying Gulls so would welcome some help. I stated this fact to the, very obviously, local expert who was informing the other birders of what species were out there. The sand pit contains a shallow pool and a few islands and Gulls were everywhere either stood on the dry ground or swimming on the water. There were also more birds on the edge of the pit nearer to the rubbish dump. In all we could probably see at least two thousand different Gulls so finding anything different to the multitudes of commoner species wouldn't be easy. I inquired whether the Glaucous was present and unfortunately was informed that it had been but had flown off to the dump about half an hour before we arrived. The expert Guller then added, probably because he noticed my disappointment, that we shouldn't worry since it would most likely return within an hour or so once it had finished feeding. I tried to engage the other chaps but sadly they were far from approachable and did their best to ignore us which was a shame. Much like when seawatching we were a little out of our depth here but I did my best to look through the Gulls on offer. I noted all of the common species, Herring, Lesser and Great Black-backed, Common and Black-headed but couldn't find anything else and certainly not the Glaucous or Iceland. The whole throng of Gulls were motivated to take to the air when a Red Kite passed overhead and then settled again in a different order so that they all had to be sifted through again. I realised, not for the first time, that in order to watch a gathering of Gulls properly you need to spend a lot longer than the couple of hours that we intended to stay. The whole spectacle was a moveable feast in much the same manner as watching Waders is but much more difficult to apprise because of the similarities between most of the Gull species and the fact that they all intermingle rather than stay in separate species groups.

Listening to the chap who was talking away to a couple of the others, it was very clear that he knew his Gulls extremely well indeed and I continued hoping that he'd be able to point out a few to us. Disappointingly though he wasn't that forthcoming and for the most part we had to plough along unaided which was never going to be fruitful. We spent quite a few hours towards the end of last year trying to find a Caspian Gull for our 2019 year list without success so when I overheard a Caspian being described I just had to ask "where?". For the one and only time I was allowed to look through the expert's scope to view the plainly white-headed Gull with a black eye and long bill which was afloat on the water. No doubt that it was a Caspian and a terrific addition to this years list. Strange then that I felt both a tinge of unhappiness that I was looking at one now and not last year and also a distinct lack of excitement. If I'd seen it last year then I'd have been dancing through hoops! I searched for the bird with my own scope, managed to find it and shared the view with Mrs Caley. I reached for my camera to gain a record shot just as the whole gang of birds took to the air again and swirled around. The Caspian is probably in the photo below but I wouldn't bet on it, good luck and well done if you can pick it out.

A small portion of the Gull flock.
Another Caspian Gull, a first-winter, was called but I couldn't find it independently and one of the other birders said there was another but nobody else, including the resident expert, could get on it and it predictably couldn't be found again once the original finder was grilled at length as to where it was. A Yellow-legged Gull put in an appearance but we get lots of those at Farmoor so I couldn't be bothered to try to find that one. It was all just too hard for Mrs Caley and I, we couldn't get to grips with the ever changing flocks and the Larophile was just too introverted. Not that I blame him, after all he was following his own passion on a Saturday morning and understandably couldn't be arsed to fuss over a dimwit and ignoramus like me. We had stayed for over an hour and half and the Glaucous Gull hadn't returned so we chucked it in. Of course, we later learned that both the Glaucous and Iceland Gulls were back at the sand pit a few hours after we left.

A Great Grey Shrike had taken up territory just a few miles away at DIRFT industrial area and had showed very well over the previous few weeks. In fact we had meant to look for it on the 2nd but had completely forgot at the time and had only remembered too late after we driven past. Frustratingly the Shrike hadn't been reported on Friday and I figured that it most probably had departed since there was usually someone looking for it. I knew where it would be, if still present, after gaining information from my friend Kyle (Birdwatch Britannia) and I reckoned that the area would be visible at distance from the lay-by along the main road that passes the development. I set up the scope and panned around the rough ground but only found Magpies perched prominently. I spotted a birder walking back alone the track towards me so waited for him at the lay-by. He had scoured the whole area for a couple of hours and hadn't found the Shrike so we agreed that it had indeed left the area. At least it saved us a walk.

We had made plans to drive elsewhere, maybe for the Gloucestershire Short-eared Owls but after a few moments of reflection thought we'd leave it for another day and decided instead to go home and relax. It had been a bit of a frustrating day, continuing on a worrying trend this year, which so far hasn't been very profitable at all, Desert Wheatear excepted.

Sunday morning promised to be a beautiful wall to wall sunny one so we got out early and headed to Otmoor which is always a fabulous place to be when the sun shines. We aimed to be parked up before it got light so we could get to the action areas just as the sun rose over the reserve. Unfortunately I had forgotten that our usual route was subject to a road closure so we had to take a big detour via the Oxford ring road and arrived twenty minutes after we had hoped to. The sun was already peeping over the horizon to the East. There was only one other vehicle in the carpark though and that belonged to our good friend and eminent photographer Mark, aka The Early Birder, so at least we knew it wasn't too late. I was hopeful of seeing one of the resident Barn Owls that generally only appear early and late over the reedbed so we kept pleasantries brief and headed out along the frozen bridleway. The reserve was sparking into life and there was lots of noise from the flocks of Geese and Ducks but we didn't linger anywhere and kept to our mission. Another birder, walking much quicker than us, overtook us so we wouldn't have the place to ourselves. When we reached the first screen that overlooks the lagoon and reedbeds , he was already ensconced on one of the benches. "You've just missed a Barn Owl" he said and then proceeded to share a couple of photos that he'd taken. You can imagine my response then, although in keeping with my New Years resolution, it was muttered under my breath. We were happier a few moments later when the Barn owl reappeared along the hedgerow at the far end of the reedbed and was then on view for fifteen minutes or so. It's always pleasing when a plan comes off. Everybody loves a Barnie, even grumpy old me. The Owl was never very close so my photos were hardly showstoppers but enjoying its slow and languid but direct flight, in what was now the promised bright sunny morning, was just perfect.

Barn owl
By 9 o'clock the Barn Owl had gone to roost and Otmoor was getting busier so Mrs Caley and I walked to the second screen for some solitude. We passed a Kestrel, perched in one of the Poplar trees, which appeared to be enjoying the sunshine as much as we were despite the freezing temperature. There was no sign of any Peregrines along the way but a Marsh Harrier flew lazily overhead. At the screen a male Stonechat was stood on the fence right in front of the hide. This bird had been wowing visitors for a few days now and was catching water insects in the frigid water below its perch. The sun hadn't quite penetrated to the screen so for now my camera remained in its holster. Over the years I have taken probably more photos of Stonechats than any other species so I do try to reign it in a bit when I see them. The Early Birder and a couple of other members of the Otmoor massif including Bark, the authority on all things Otmoor joined us the screen. A fair bit of banter followed as we discussed recent sightings and hopes for the next few weeks. Unfortunately a guy I don't know but have encountered a few times, then proceeded to really wind me up when he kept invading Mrs Caley's space to take shots of the Stonechat. I had to consult my New Year resolution book once more and remind myself to remain calm. It's hard work sometimes being nice when you're annoyed.

Anyway, because I had moved up to the other end of the screen, I missed a fabulous Cetti's warbler that showed brilliantly in the reeds next to the screen, the rest of them managed to get cracking photos of course. By the time I'd reacted it had flown past me as did a Water Rail minutes later. So I half satisfied myself by grabbing some images of the really difficult Stonechat that was playing incredibly hard to get just a few feet away. Tough old game this photography lark.

Stonechat, male
We left our friends to the Stonechat and walked back along the track. I looked at the dead tree at the back of Noke Sides that Peregrines like to perch in and was pleased to see two of the Falcons there. The smaller male bird was looking on as the female was dispatching an unfortunate prey item. Half a dozen Magpies were also interested in the females brunch and managed to annoy her just enough for her to fly into an adjacent tree just as I pressed the shutter on my camera leaving me with a nice image of the dead tree! At least the tiercel stayed put.

Peregrine, male
I scanned a flock of Lapwings and Golden Plovers that stood on the flooded field, which were no doubt casting nervous looks towards the Peregrine tree, and was surprised to find a Common Redshank there with them. Bark had rejoined us and he reckoned that it's very early in the year for a Redshank to be on the moor. By spring Redshanks will be returning in greater numbers to breed.

Common Redshank (centre) with Lapwings and Golden Plovers
Lapwings and Golden Plovers
At the first screen two Marsh Harriers, the young male and a young female, were quartering the reedbed and even came together for, what appeared to be, some pre-nuptials, grappling briefly and then following each other in turn. Far too early in the year for breeding of course but it looks likely that there will be more Marsh Harriers come the late summer.

Marsh Harriers
We hadn't actually been in the Wetlands Watch hide for ages so thought that it should be visited for a change. The Otmoor volunteers spread food on the track outside of the hide in the winter and it attracts many Finches and Buntings as well as other birds. These birds in turn attract Sparrowhawks. On this visit we only saw common species but in previous years we've found Brambling and Redpoll taking advantage of the free handouts. Hopefully some will turn up later in the winter period.

Chaffinch, female
Reed Bunting, female
Thank goodness that we're not year listing because our paltry total of #88 so far would leave me feeling very frustrated indeed. Having said that by the same date last year we had only recorded #82 and we'd already visited Slimbridge WWT where you can always add a few so if we did go for it again, which we won't, then we've made a comparable start.

1 comment:

  1. I know exactly what you mean about the gulls and it is disappointing to hear of the attitude of those people you encountered - it is a shame as so many times the assembled birders are friendly and want to be helpful. I went looking for a Caspian yesterday and failed. Might see if I can join the roost at Draycote - @Draycotebirding is a really nice guy, and helpful!!