Wednesday, 13 May 2020

More Lockdown Birding, mid-April 2020

Wednesday 15th April: Flogging an Increasingly Emaciated Patch

The one day, Tuesday 14th April, that we didn't check out Trow Pool and its surrounds, Alan found a couple of Little Ringed Plovers on the Incinerator Pool. That is fairly typical. We had checked that pool at least six times over the preceding week and seen nothing! We hadn't yet seen any LRP's this year and had already missed some at Graven Hill in the week before. I was fully back at work so wouldn't be able to check the pool out until Wednesday evening. 

It was, yet another, warm and sunny day, at least the fine weather had made the current situation more bearable for folk, as we walked down the path towards the Incinerator. Because we needed the Plovers, we didn't spend much time looking at much else on the way, but we could hear Chiffchaffs and Blackcaps singing energetically from the trees around Trow Pool. We hurried to the metal fence and peered through the slats at the uninspiring hardcore lined reservoir. It took me just a few seconds to spot the pair of Little Ringed Plovers, predictably, just about as far away as they could be without leaving the vicinity. Bird number 142 for the year secured.

Little Ringed Plovers
Viewing the Incinerator pool isn't easy because the gaps between the metal uprights is only about 100 mm, it's just wide enough to get the camera lens into but not for binoculars so getting any decent view is tricky. We walked along the perimeter and surprised a Green Sandpiper from the nearside bank which then flew rapidly over to the furthest side. I did my feeble best at grabbing some shots as it flew away. 

Green Sandpiper
The only other bird around the reservoir was a Goldfinch that fed on a teasel head close to the fence and splashed a bit of colour into the washed out and bleached surroundings. The pool is still fairly new, the Incinerator plant only opened a few years ago, and there is little vegetation surrounding it. The banks are constructed out of tons of sandy rubble. I've decided that the whole place is very uninspiring and that I'm going to have to go somewhere else soon, for my own sanity.

The local male Peregrine put in an appearance and gave us hope as it passed high overhead. We'd seen this bird on several occasions now but it has yet to fly into decent photo range and always disappears up to rest on the chimneys when it sees us, which it did once again. Maybe when the hirundines return later in the month the Tiercel will actively hunt some and give me a better photo opportunity. More likely it won't.

We plied the Gagle Brook path in the hope of finding an early returning Grasshopper Warbler or, more fancifully, a Pied Flycatcher but it was just the usual common stuff again. On the walk back to the car, we stopped and watched, through our fingers, the pair of Little Grebes getting it on together. Thankfully they had constructed a new nest on top of a stranded tree log right in the middle of the Trow pool which should be safe enough from the many swimming dogs that retrieve sticks thrown in by their selfish owners. A splash to our left reminded us that the Grebes would need a lot of luck as a Labrador swam towards them. I gave the dogs owner my best scowl but I doubt it registered. I will never understand why some people visit nature rich and sensitive areas and then totally disregard that richness and sensitivity by attempting to trash it.

Little Grebes

Saturday 18th April: More desperate flogging of the Patch

The morning was remarkable in that it was raining! The fine weather that had predominated during the Lockdown period so far had given way to a horrible fine rain and dingy, drenched start to the day. The Scottish call such conditions, dreich, and I feel that word sums it up very succinctly. Not a day for walking and getting wet then, so we visited our local nature reserve at Bicester Wetlands (BWR) to have a look from the hide there. We were alone, just as well because of the social distancing rules set out by the Banbury Ornithological Society, whose guidelines for using the hides on their reserves stated that only one person, or a cohabiting couple, can be in a hide at any one time. We'd last visited BWR a week ago and nothing much had changed since then except for the obvious build up in House Martin numbers. Around fifty or so were hawking insects over the settling beds of the nearby Water Treatment Plant, in tandem with a smaller number of Swallows. I didn't bother trying to photograph any, mainly because they were at the back of the hide and to see them I'd have had to stand outside and get wet! Instead we peered through the gloom at the scrape, noting that the Black-tailed Godwits were still present, and saw a couple of Common Snipe huddled up close to the far bank. A Sparrowhawk buzzed through without stopping, a Jay followed it. We spotted the Sedge Warbler again but as before it wasn't showing off. The only other birds that took my fancy enough to be photographed were a pair of synchronised feeding Gadwall.

Justin turned up so we vacated the hide so that he could have his stint (not literally of course although there was a Little Stint at the reserve a few years back). He later texted me to tell me that he'd found a Yellow Wagtail, still missing from our year list. I was beginning to doubt my birding ability again, why am I not more thorough. We had left BWR and driven to Trow Pool again for another check of the area. A few Grasshopper Warblers had been found in the county so I was hopeful that one had found our new patch overnight. Of course, none had, but at least we were enjoying slightly improved conditions since the drizzle had ceased, although it was still decidedly chilly. There were similar numbers of House Martins and Swallows as earlier at BWR and this time I tried to capture them on "film". I failed. The Little Ringed Plovers had moved on from the Incinerator pool but the Green Sandpiper was still around although it scarpered as soon as we looked through the fence. Another wader was stood motionless on the southern bank so I fired off a couple of frames before it also had the chance to flee. It was a Common Sandpiper, not our first of the year, but our first local one. I told Justin, he needed it for his year list. Touché.

Common Sandpiper
The Peregrine was still soaring high above the Incinerator plant but it would have been pointless trying to photograph that this time. Instead I tried once more to get a decent image of a Swallow, and failed yet again. I really don't know why I bother to try!

A female Blackcap observed us with a puzzled look as we walked along the Gagle Brook. Probably because it knew there was nothing much to be seen and certainly no chance of a Gropper being there. But we looked anyway. We did at least find a Common Whitethroat in the area where the Groppers could be. In the tall trees, already I'd expectantly christened it Flycatcher Alley, the briefest sighting of a singing Garden Warbler added that bird to the year list so we were nudging that up bit by bit. I colloquially call the Garden Warbler, the Garbled Warbler because its song, very similar to the Blackcaps, goes on and on for ages and is seemingly just made up on a whim by the songster.

On the Trow Pool one of the Little Grebes was sat tight on the new nest so for now they had withstood the marauding dogs and their owners. A Mallard with a tidy brood of eight ducklings dabbled in the weedy edges. I wondered how long she'd keep her family intact. There are a lot of potential threats to their well being at the pool, not least from a Grey Heron that stood ominously at the edge of the island, intently watching the ducklings, and no doubt just waiting for an opportunity.

Mallard and ducklings
For us, the Lockdown and especially the, admittedly necessary, restrictions on travelling was beginning to take its toll. We were missing out on so many good birds and that was frustrating. True, it had been interesting and initially fun searching out and then exploring a new patch, but that appeal was wearing thin. When we first began walking from our house to Trow Pool and back we hardly saw another soul but now, nearly four weeks on, it seemed as though half of Bicester had discovered the route for themselves and we were getting bored having to dodge the almost constant stream of walkers, runners and cyclists as well as the folk who can't behave themselves or keep their dogs in check when visiting nature rich places. We could of course stay at home and become even more frustrated but, selfishly maybe, we decided that we had to get out to somewhere better, where there would be more exciting birding and fewer people, and to a place where we could still socially distance while remaining safe.

I've never been a patch birder. It's just too dull on a regular basis. I admit that it can have its exciting moments, I myself experienced a thrill when I found the Wheatear and the Corn Buntings over the last week or so, but generally you find nothing unusual or different from the norm. I can see the appeal in checking out a site once a week or so but every day just isn't for me. Mind you I'm stuck in deepest Middle England, if my patch was in coastal Cornwall or Norfolk then obviously I'd see it very differently! Having said all that, I have the upmost admiration for those folk that do keep a regular and consistent patch watch, such as Dai at Farmoor, Alan at BWR and Bark at Otmoor. Without birders like them, the rest of us wouldn't get to know about, or get the chance to see, the birds that frequent those patches.

Sunday 19th April: A Gropping Change of Scene

We live close to a wonderful place, Otmoor, only a fifteen minute drive from our house. Guidelines suggested that it was ok to go to an open space for exercise so long as you can socially distance from others, which shouldn't be a problem since the general Otmoor area is huge. Myself and Mrs Caley are the king and queen of self isolating anyway. I can't remember when we last had a visitor to our house and we shun social gatherings at the best of times. We actively seek remote places to visit, and holiday in, and positively avoid other people, well I tend to anyway, Mrs Caley is thankfully much more friendly, sociable and a far nicer person than I've ever been so she'll always talk to you! I work in isolation and the last football match I attended was back at the start of March, so I reckoned we were pretty safe to be let out into the countryside. A good friend of ours who birds the Moor a lot had been visiting regularly and I'd been in touch with him to get the lay of the land. There were three other cars parked up when we arrived early that morning so we weren't quite alone in wanting to escape our own immediate area.

Otmoor is the place in Oxfordshire to go to see newly arrived spring migrants and Warblers in particular. Of all of the Warbler species, my most sought after every April, is the Grasshopper Warbler (aka the Gropper) and Otmoor usually holds a few. One of the favoured areas is the field next to the carpark and quite often you can hear them reeling away as you gear up for the walk ahead. The first bird we heard and located though was a rattling Lesser Whitethroat actually in the carpark bushes. Lesser Whitethroats can be tricky to see owing to their normal preference for thick Blackthorn and Hawthorn bushes but reveal their presence by their "jit, jit, jit, jit" call. It took a while but we saw the bird when it flew right across the carpark and continued singing from the other side. Our year list moved up to 145 for the year.

As we walked up the track towards the feeder station I heard it. The Grasshopper Warbler! Instantly I felt a little bit better, Groppers are among my most favourite of birds and I will never ever lose the excitement of hearing the first one of spring. The song isn't really a song at all but has been likened to a whirring fishing reel and is indeed known as reeling. Once you've heard the reeling song it then becomes a stern test to find the singer since they most frequently sing from deep cover. They are also renowned ventriloquists and turn their heads while reeling making pinning their actual position down very tricky. However, and luckily for us birders, a Gropper will sometimes creep slowly up to a more prominent and open perch from which to sing, and this morning we were in luck. Grasshopper Warblers are most easily seen on fine and sunny days and this morning was just that, not many days lately had been anything but, except yesterday of course. I found the reeling Gropper quickly. Compared to usual when you may have to spend ages trying to find one even if it's located right next to you, today it took just a few minutes to find the bird singing very low down in a bramble. While I set the scope up for Mrs Caley to admire it, the Gropper climbed higher and higher until it reached a halfway point in a spindly growth of an adjacent bush. Once there it was in full view and I grabbed a few record shots.

Grasshopper Warbler
Our views were impaired by the strong sunshine which, if present in the mornings, is always in your face if looking at the car park field. The Gropper dropped to the floor and disappeared amongst the rank grasses again, typical behaviour for it but I knew from experience that pretty soon it would be reeling again. What I didn't expect though was that it would pop up in another small bush about twenty metres away. Talk about luck! The Gropper, completely oblivious to us stood watching nearby, belted out it's reeling with abandon, turning one way then the next and I aimed and fired away with the camera. Not the best shots I've taken of a Gropper but some of the most satisfying since my empty feeling had been topped up (maybe half full now). Peter walked up the track and I pointed him towards the reeling Gropper. The bird itself isn't a looker by any means but it's unusual song is what captivates the birdwatcher although not everybody can hear it. In fact, having had some trouble with my own ears recently, I am finding that I can only hear the reeling song through my right ear, so if you see me walking along backwards or with my head tilted to one side then you'll understand why.

We could hear a Cuckoo calling from trees on the opposite side of the carpark field but the source of that distinctive song remained unseen. Strolling along the bridleway we heard our first Reed Warbler of the year and from further away a Bittern "boomed" from the reedbed, another bird that is normally hard to see and also has a strange "song". If I drew up a list of favourite birds, a high proportion of them would be species that are hard to see. Birds like the Nightingale, Corncrake, Capercaillie, Water Rail, most other Warblers as well as the Gropper and Bittern would all figure. I enjoy the challenge of finding them. I also love the "little brown jobs" that a lot of other people tend to ignore. One Warbler species that isn't hard to see on Otmoor is the Sedge Warbler. Almost every bush that stands along the bridleway ditch has a resident and territorial Sedgie at this time of year and they sing their mad little song full of clicks and whistles almost continuously. One Sedge Warbler was particularly showy.

Sedge Warbler
Only the public bridleways and footpaths are open for visitors to Otmoor at the moment, the RSPB reserve and hides are closed so we could only view the Moor from the main bridleway that runs east-west and vice versa. But Greenaways, Big Otmoor and Ashgrove are all visible from the bridleway and we clocked up an impressive day list as we walked. There was no sign of the Garganey pair on Big Otmoor, a tad disappointing since apparently they had been very visible the day before. We checked out the sheep fields at the Noke end of the bridleway for passage Wheatears with no luck but then as we started our return walk, a bird flew up out of the balancing pond where it must have been drinking and landed in a bush. My binoculars revealed a fine male Whinchat, the 149th species for the Old Caley year list, and a nice surprise to boot. Last year when trying hard to build our biggest ever year list we didn't add Whinchat to it until the end of August, so it felt good to get one in early this year. Now we just had to find a way of getting many other birds on to the list that usually require visits to Wales, East Anglia and Scotland and were at present well and truly unobtainable!

The walk back to the carpark was less eventful, as it quite often is, and there was nothing much different seen. A Cuckoo flew across the path just ahead of us which underlined the earlier heard only addition to the year list, and a Curlew sailed overhead as we checked out Long Meadow for Redstarts and Ring Ouzels, both present at this time last year but not luck today. It had been good to get out on the Moor again.