Friday, 29 May 2020

More from Otmoor, Early May 2020

Sunday 3rd May; Perfect!

We met Peter, the Lord of the Moor in the almost empty car park. We made our way up to our now regular walk along the bridleway that runs through the middle of the RSPB reserve. The reserve itself is still out of bounds of course and I wondered just what might be going on out there. There could be anything breeding out in the reedbeds, probably not of course, this is Oxon and not Somerset or Norfolk remember, but rather deludedly anyway, I imagined that maybe a pair of Little Bitterns or Purple Herons had settled there since the Lockdown. This morning was different from many recent ones in that it was drizzling with wispy rain and clouds shrouded the sky. I was actually glad of the respite from the almost constant sunshine of recent weeks. 

A strange looking bird was perched on the wires above the car park field. I couldn't quite work out what it was at first and momentarily had a notion that I'd found something rare. In the next moment I had reminded myself, once again, that this was Oxon and I am me, so it was unlikely to be anything unusual, but it just didn't quite fit. I took a few photos and studied the back of the camera images. The streaky brown back reduced the options down to just a few likely suspects, those little brown jobs that I so adore. The bird looked weird because there were no feathers on the face, giving it an almost Rook like appearance. Because of the lack of facial feathers more of the bill was exposed than normal and subsequently that bill looked long and large for the species that after a minute or two of deliberation I had decided was a Dunnock. Or maybe a Runnock, Roonock, Funnock or Dook? 

We got a sneak peek at a Garden Warbler as we passed the pump house. Garden Warblers arrive a little bit later than the Blackcaps that sing a similar song and are never very showy early on in the spring. All the Warbler species with the exception of the brassy Sedge Warblers are furtive when first arriving at the end of April and the start of May. Soon though the Garbled Warblers, as I like to call them owing to their babbling and jumbled song, will get bolder and choose more open perches in which to sing from.

Garden Warbler
The drizzle was keeping the majority of birds deep in cover and was also a little unpleasant to linger in for too long so the three of us kept plugging along the track, stopping only occasionally to take sub-standard photos, and in my case instantly deleting, of the more showy birds. A smart male Bullfinch, not often seen during the breeding period, flew across our path and an equally lovely male Yellowhammer was begging for some bakery, but not dairy, products by the Wetlands Hide. A few Common Snipe were active overhead and their buzzing song, drumming it's called, filled the heavy air. Of course it isn't a song as such but rather a mechanical sound made by air rushing through their tail feathers when the bird swoops downwards, another amazing attribute that some birds have!

Common Snipe
On reaching Big Otmoor we looked for the Garganey and Wood Sandpiper that we'd found the week before. There was no sign of either this morning. Until we had just about given up searching when the drake Garganey flew in from our left clicking as it did so. I had never heard the call of a Garganey before, it's like a short rattle not that different to a short blast from a Grasshopper Warbler but deeper and more substantial. Apparently Garganey have been known in the old days as the Cricket Teal because of that song, if you can call it as such, resembling the stridulations of some Grasshopper species. The Garganey proceeded to pose for us for the next five minutes before flying back out to where its mate was hopefully sat on a nest somewhere.

At the farm at Noke, Mrs Caley and I watched a beautiful Kestrel sit out the rain while Peter went on and checked the fields around the farm buildings. The Kestrels are using a box, presumably originally intended for Owls, attached to a tree at the back of one of the fields. A few weeks ago we had found a male Whinchat in the bush next to it but today there was no sign of anything other than the Kestrel.

Back at the balancing pond a male Blackcap sang in the open, once again illustrating how birds become easier to see the longer they stay. At the start of the Lockdown period we struggled to get any decent views of Blackcaps owing to their propensity to stay well hidden while singing. Now they could be seen perching openly in many parts of the Moor.

Peter called us back as we investigated the far western end of Big Otmoor. He had found a couple of Wheatears that were loitering on a pile of twigs and branches left ready for burning. We followed him to the farm gate and discovered that, in and around the wood pile, there were in fact five Wheatears, two of which were males. These were the first Wheatears we'd seen since finding the male on our Lockdown walk back at the beginning of April. Then I spotted another fine male Whinchat on top of a small bush just a few metres away from the Wheatears. This was turning into a pretty good morning despite the early drizzly start.

Wheatear magnet
female Wheatear
male Wheatear
male Whinchat
As we walked past the scrape on Big Otmoor, the drake Garganey surprised us again by flying in and landing in the shallow water. Maybe it perceived us a threat and decided that we had to be seen out of the neighbourhood. As before it stayed just a few minutes before flying back to where it had come from.

The dreary weather had brought some Swifts with it and at the bench on the bridleway I tried gamely to get some photos of them. Photographs of Swifts are pure snapshots owing to their fast and erratic flight and it's a challenge that I never tire of accepting. I reckon for every hundred frames I take of flying Swifts, at least ninety-five will end up being binned and of the five left over probably all of them will be unsatisfactory in some way. Just occasionally I'll be happy with a few of them and even more seldom will be delighted with one or two. Today was a day when none really cut the mustard.

Common Swift

Friday 8th May; Skulkers? Not today

Early Bank Holiday Monday had been moved to the Friday so that the country could celebrate VE Day which naturally gave me a chance to take time off. Normally we'd have headed off somewhere semi-exotic like Wales for the day but of course we were denied that chance by the travel ban so it had to be a morning on Otmoor yet again. At least Otmoor is never boring, well it used to be but these days, through necessity, it's positively great and I don't know what we'd have done without it. We were back to wall to wall sunshine again and the Warblers were giving it their all close to the car park. First on the bill this morning was the Common Whitethroat that has a territory right next to the entrance road by the ragged old Ash tree.

Common Whitethroat
We walked along the Roman Road for a change, mainly in response to a sighting of a Ring-necked Parakeet there a few days before. No sign of any exotic parrots but we did encounter a Garden Warbler that uncharacteristically was in clear view. Chiffchaffs and Blackcaps joined in the concert and a Green woodpecker yaffled noisily from the field the other side of the huge Oak trees that line one side of the path. I've often heard Tawny Owls in those trees but have yet to see one, but that has never stopped me from looking for them. If they have a roosting hole then it must face away from the path.

Garden Warbler
Back at the feeders I could hear the rattling calls and scratchy song of a Lesser Whitethroat. Amazingly the normally skulking little Warbler was perched on one of the overhead wires, very untypical for the species. It seemed as though a lot of Otmoor's Warblers had decided that today was a fiesta day and it was time to just get out there and put on a show. I approached the Lesser Whitethroat carefully and fired away with the camera. I was able to fill a hole in this springs Warbler portfolio despite that bright sunshine backlighting the subject. After a while the Lesser Whitethroat flitted across to the hedge on the other side of the path, better lit for photos but of course the bird was now in its element and therefore much harder to see. I followed its rattling call for a bit longer but ultimately gave up trying to get a "killer" image and moved on. I felt that the Dunnock, perched in  a tree a short way up the track, had joined in the festival of song merely to scoff at my efforts!

Lesser Whitethroat
The next species that we encountered, which had so far been surreptitious this spring, was a Reed Warbler that had thrown caution to the winds and was chuntering away from, almost, the top of a reed stem. The Reed warbler lacks the clicks and whistles of the Sedge Warbler but its song is much more rhythmic and seems slightly less frenetic to my ears, more ordered. The bird itself appears more relaxed too, not as frantic as its cousin which has a desire to propel itself into the air on occasion while continuing to sing. The Reed Warbler just edges neatly upwards along a reed before dropping back down to water level again. 

Reed Warbler
The entertainment of passerine song was once again accompanied by the booming of hidden Bitterns and the percussive sounds of Common Snipe buzzing through the air. I always try to photograph the drumming Snipe, they're pretty easy to track and capture but it's impossible for me to get a really good image of any, mainly because they fly too high. I took some more and once again awarded most four out of five when reviewing them later. I give all of my saved photos a rating, usually three, four or five star (the ones and twos get dumped at editing stage) and its normally just the full house images that I use on this blog. Unless I need a record shot to illustrate a point, and unfortunately I have to use those more often than I'd like. I am determined to remain a Birder first and foremost though so will not be carrying a bigger and better lens anytime soon.

Common Snipe
Most people ignore the Reed Buntings, they are possibly one of the most unheralded birds of the Moor despite the males stunning breeding plumage. In contrast to the rich and loud songs of the Warblers, Reed Buntings repertoire is feeble, lacking sophistication and volume. But I like it, even though it's very plaintive and didn't really reflect the bright and vibrant mood of the morning.

male Reed Bunting
A pair of Coots were feeding their recently hatched offspring in the ditch bordering Big Otmoor. The young Coots are odd looking things, having bright pink bald heads and scruffily feathered necks and backs. Purely faces that only a mother could love, and me of course. The parent birds were exhibiting much tenderness towards their chicks, diving to harvest submerged weeds and then gently feeding it to the young. A far cry from that Springwatch episode which astounded and horrified its audience when it showed a male Coot committing infanticide. Nature moves in mysterious ways sometimes. Luckily for this family of Coots, all seemed hunky dory this morning.

Coot family
We found the Garganey pair again but this time there was no close visit from the male. In fact in the warm sunshine the whole of Big Otmoor appeared to be relaxed and sleeping, until one of the Red Kites flew ominously over. Then Lapwings would fly straight up and harass the much bigger bird and attempt to move it out of the territory. I remember watching a pair of Lapwings move a Golden eagle on when in Benbecula a few years ago, they seem to have no fear when protecting their nests and young. The Red Kites are a bit of a problem on Otmoor though and will take many chicks over the course of the next few weeks. The RSPB designed the reserve with breeding Waders in mind and also put a lot of effort into reintroducing the Red Kites. Now there is a definite conflict of interest. I'm not a professional conservationist however so will leave the critiques to those that know far more than I do.

Lapwing & Red Kite
As is the norm, the walk back was less entertaining, most birds had ceased singing and were far less visible. The only Cuckoos and Hobbies that we saw were way away at the northern edge of Greenaways. A Warbler creeping through the bushes near the feeders got me momentarily excited though. At first I thought it was another Garden warbler but after seeing the photo later it was clear that it was an Acrocephalus species. I really wanted it to be something really rare like a Marsh or Blyth's Reed warbler but had to concede that it was just another bulk standard Reed Warbler. Away from their usual reedbed habitat, reed Warblers always manage to confuse me.

Reed Warbler

With temperatures approaching furnace levels and not wishing to melt completely, we retreated to the air conditioned car and home taking a moment to admire a soaring Common Buzzard. It must be great to be a Bird of Prey so high up in the cool air watching everything below. As long as you stay away from North Yorkshire.

Common Buzzard

Sunday 10th May; Action Packed

In contrast to Friday it was much cooler and the wind had strengthened and consequently there was reduced activity amongst the small songbirds. We barely stopped to look at anything until reaching the three small scrapes on Greenaways where a couple of Little Egrets were stalking the shallows. I always check these scrapes thoroughly, they look ideal habitat to attract a wayward Red-necked Phalarope at this time of year. Of course they haven't as of yet but with birds and birding anything can turn up at any time so I live on in hope. So for now it was the Little Egrets that had our attention. I assume that Otmoor's Little Egrets are all non-breeding birds although one was sporting the pinkish lores that they only attain for a few weeks during the spring breeding season and it was being pursued by another.

Little Egret
Cuckoos were very much in evidence this morning but as usual were teasing us by just staying ahead of us as we walked the bridleway. Each and every dead tree are used by the Cuckoos as song posts but they are very wary and invariably take to flight before you can get a good look at them or raise the camera. Every so often though one of the Cuckoos, or two of them if one is involved in chasing another, fly past at speed and if they are hurtling past above Greenaways and therefore in the open, you can get a good photo opportunity, provided you can react in time.

We'd walked on a bit ahead of Peter who had stopped to chat to a friend of his. I heard him call me back and saw him training his scope on a bird above Greenaways. I scanned the air with my bins and found a Falcon flying quickly towards us. My first thought was a Peregrine but as it came closer it dawned on me that it was the smaller Hobby. I took a few photos as it passed just to be sure. At just after nine o'clock in the morning it was early for a Hobby to be airborne, they are usually much later starters and usually wait for the air to warm up and for the Dragonflies and the like to become active.
Peter caught us up and asked me what I'd thought the two birds were that he'd alerted us to. Two birds? "Yes", he replied, "the Hobby and the other one". Explaining that we'd only seen the one bird and that was definitely a Hobby, Peter then related that he thought the other bird may have been a Red-footed Falcon! Unfortunately I was unable to help with that possibility and rued the fact that I'd concentrated on just the one bird.

We checked out Big Otmoor from the first gate. Peter scored again when he spotted a Great Egret stalking one of the ditches, not our first of the year but apparently the first seen on the Moor this year.  We found the Garganey pair again but they were way out on the furthest pool again and yet again asleep. Ducks sure do sleep a lot! Leaving Peter chatting to another passer by, he seems to know everybody that walks around the Moor, we made our way to where we had seen the Great Egret fly to so that I could get some shots. The Egret was working along the edge of a small reedbed right at the Noke end of the enclosure. Despite our best efforts at stealth the Egret flew up and away over our heads towards Ashgrave. I managed a few photos as the bird flew past.

Great Egret
Retracing our steps, we'd checked the pile of cut branches for the Wheatears seen on Friday but they must have moved on, we had a hunch that the Great Egret had alighted on the wet marsh by the Wetlands Hide so we checked the area out from the public footpath that leads up to July's Meadow and the village of Beckley beyond. There was no sign of the Great Egret so we surmised that it's visit to the moor must have just been a passing one. But we were to have a stroke of luck again because while searching for the Egret I suddenly saw a familiar bird flying towards us but one that I hadn't actually seen this year despite hearing them plenty of times on our Otmoor excursions. By the time I had exclaimed "Bittern!" and alerted the others, it had dropped into a small patch of reeds by the dead trees which sometimes host a Heron nest or two (although not this year). We waited in the still constant drizzle for the Bittern to re-emerge as we felt sure it would since it would be on a feeding trip out from one of the other larger reedbeds. Ten minutes later and we were getting bored of standing still and were just preparing to walk on when the Bittern flew up out of the reeds. This time I shouted quickly enough for Mrs Caley and Peter to see it as it flew lazily but directly away towards the Noke reedbed. I find off some shots but they were mostly blurred and unusable. One though was just good enough to use here and from that image it was remarkable at just how scrawny the Bittern was, so probably a female that had been sitting on a nest for a while and in need of a good feed! The Bittern also has a notch in its left wing which would be a significant identification aid later in this spring.

We had had a terrific mornings birding with some nice surprises despite the dismal weather for the most part. We were already looking forward to our next visit. While the Moor is so quiet, very few people are visiting during the Lockdown, it is at its best.

Back at home, a pair of Goldfinches had constructed a nest in our Magnolia bush in the front garden. The female had been sitting for over a week and the male was usually in attendance either perched on next doors car aerial or garage roof. A couple of days ago I had noticed that a Magpie, also nesting in our garden, had also found the Goldfinch nest since it was spending quite a bit of time flying into the bush and out again. We spent Sunday afternoon running out of our living room and scaring the Magpie off at regular intervals. Ultimately though our efforts failed and the Magpie managed to ransack the nest while we were off guard. Oh well, that's nature I guess, and I support all birds, they all exist for a reason. I do have a feeling though that we have too many Magpies in our area and they must be having an effect on the numbers of songbirds locally. Hopefully the Goldfinch pair will choose a less exposed nest site for their next nesting attempt. And maybe the Magpie pair will raise another "Snow Crow" like the one we had in our garden in 2017.

leucistic Magpie, July 2017

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