Tuesday, 26 May 2020

Naughty but Nightingales! End of April 2020

Four weeks into the lockdown and I was finding that it was becoming much more difficult to stay excited and motivated by the birding available locally. A couple more walks to Trow Pool on the 21st and 25th of April, although pleasant, had yielded nothing different, even if some species, such as the Whitethroats that had excited us so much when first finding them a week or so before, had become much more numerous. We had both become increasingly disillusioned with the "new" patch and were really missing out on seeing some of our more usual sought after birds that would be available at this time of year. Even more local folk had discovered the walk too and on a fine morning the bridleway was resembling a busy High Street. Far too popular for us and we had to go somewhere else, and not just for social distancing sakes. The only new bird that we added to our year list in the week was Common Swift when I spotted a couple soaring incredibly high above our house which brought up the 150.

Common Whitethroat
Luckily we had rediscovered Otmoor, albeit only from the main bridleway that traversed it since the RSPB reserve itself was closed, so we made plans to go again on Sunday the 26th. As soon as we opened the car doors we were treated to a cacophony of bird song and especially those of the summering Warbler species on what was yet another fine and sunny day. The weather since Lockdown has been remarkable with pretty much wall to wall sunshine. Compare that with the dreary and wet start to the year which made for an underlying theme to my blogs around that time. We tagged along with Peter again, discussing all things Otmoor and the new big C-word of course. The Grasshopper Warbler of the week before must have already secured a mate or moved on, since there was no reeling coming from the feeder area. The chief protagonists of this spring mornings show were the Sedge Warblers which had arrived en masse over the previous fortnight. There was a Sedgie singing from almost every bush that we passed and their clicking and whistling greeted us everywhere. By contrast Reed Warblers were still largely yet to arrive and the only ones we heard were keeping a very low profile. 

Sedge Warbler
As in previous years the stream that runs alongside the main bridleway has attracted a pair of Pochard. We suspect that they choose to nest in the rushes alongside the stream either by the bridleway or more likely alongside the path down to the off limits screens that overlook the lagoons. They are often seen, as they were today, at the ninety degree bend by the crossroads close to the Wetlands Watch Hide. In opposition to most birders, probably because of my love of any bird that isn't richly coloured, those little brown jobs, it's the female Ducks that I most appreciate but even I have to agree that the drake Pochard in all his breeding finery is a handsome chap indeed. He was also rather more visible than his mate as he kept watch while she explored possible nesting sites. Pochards, though a common wintering species in the UK, are scarce breeders in our country so any pair lingering in Oxfordshire through the summer are to be treasured.

Cuckoos were racing along, mainly behind the hedgerow and out of view but occasionally one would break cover and fly past at break-neck speed over Greenaways. Initially slow to arrive this year there were now at least four on the Moor including a hepatic female bird, which I had still to see. It was the males that were noisy, stopping on any suitable lofty perch to advertise their presence but never allowing a close approach. After several failed attempts I eventually managed to grab some flight shots. Cuckoos would become much more visible and confiding during May and June and then just before the end of July they'll all disappear and the Moor will mourn the loss of their repetitive song. Of course the young Cuckoos are left behind to be reared by their Reed Warbler, amongst others, foster parents. How they then manage to migrate unaided south to Africa for our winter is incredible. 

We continued on the bridleway towards Noke, noting most of the usual suspects. Birding the Moor with Peter is educational since he knows where almost every bird is! In addition to the birds Brown Hares were tucked up in the grass both inside and outside of the anti-predator fence on Big Otmoor. There were Geese everywhere, many with newly hatched Goslings. Red Kites and a Marsh Harrier patrolled the skies on the lookout for a fresh meal. 

Brown Hare
Marsh Harrier
feral Canada & Barnacle Geese
Big Otmoor, the name given to one of the enclosures, is the likeliest spot to find anything unusual while access to the main reserve is denied. A drake Garganey had been found during the last week and after much searching we finally found it fast asleep at the edge of one of the open water leads and a long way out from our viewpoint. While straining to get a decent view of it through the heat haze, I spotted a small wading bird on the furthest pool. For the next half hour or so Peter and I deliberated over the waders identity. It was much smaller than an accompanying Redshank, less than half the size, had a very nervous and upright gait. Legs were reasonably long and yellowish. We considered three species, firstly Lesser Yellowlegs but we thought it wasn't long-necked or big enough, next we deliberated over Pectoral Sandpiper but that species is dumpy and tends to feed with its body more parallel to the ground, so we sided finally with a more likely Wood Sandpiper. Viewing was hampered by the heat shimmer but my scope allowed the spangled grey-brown back to be discerned as well as a fairly prominent supercilium. Unfortunately my camera and lens weren't quite up to the job. Maybe I should invest in a digiscoping kit.

Wood Sandpiper
We had far better views of one of the Oystercatchers, which was feeding close to the perimeter fence. There are currently three pairs of Oycs out on Big Otmoor and they should be successful in hatching young. Rearing them to adulthood will be the big challenge considering the amount of Red Kites and other predators that patrol the reserve.

As we walked back towards the carpark a Raven flew over and we stopped to admire more Sedge Warblers. I finally managed a decent view of a male Blackcap this spring which shared a bush with yet another Sedgie. Cetti's warbler exploded into song at various points along the bridleway but as always kept well hidden and camera shy.

A Hobby sailed high overhead as we passed the feeders, our 152nd species for the year. The Hobby appeared to catch a thermal and lazily gained height above us as I tried to get some photos. It's always a good feeling to see these energetic Falcons back on Otmoor but I doubt that the local Dragonfly population will agree with that sentiment.

We had managed to see a very satisfactory 67 species in our four hour walk up and down the bridleway. Our next aim will be to see a Bittern instead of merely hearing the booming song of one.

I had been holding a small job over, just outside Oxfordshire and very close to a place where I knew that I could see and listen to some of the most special birds of spring. The Lockdown period had actually helped me out since I wasn't able to visit the work site until now owing to it being impossible to socially distance in the part of the building where I was wanted. Now it was safe for me to do so, and I admit that I took advantage of the situation, I walked just the half mile or so from the site once I'd finished work, to a place which I knew would hold Nightingales. For me spring is all about hearing and seeing our most eloquent of all songsters and at least I'd now have my chance. 

I could hear Nightingale song even before I'd reached the small common. I walked up and down the road to pinpoint where the song was coming from. Now, as every birder knows, hearing Nightingales is one thing, actually seeing them is another. They can be incredibly hard to locate as they move around in dense foliage and rarely emerge into full view to sing. By walking around the trees and heathland area, I had heard at least six different Nightingales singing or calling and I selected a couple in places where I thought I'd stand the best chance of getting a glimpse of one. To make it even more difficult I had chosen the only wet and windy day that we'd seen in the last month. 

One of the Nightingales was singing almost continually from a small stand of Silver Birch trees which had an understory of brambles and gorse, perfect habitat for Nightingales, and I tried to place it amongst the tangle of branches and leaves. Nearly an hour later, it takes a while to get a line on a Nightingales movements, I finally caught a brief view of a rusty red tail disappearing back into a gorse bush. I told you it wasn't easy! Another half hour and I finally nailed my views, still partially obscured in one of the Silver Birches, of my 153rd species of the year.

Satisfied I made my way back to the worksite, pausing to photograph a splendid little Willow warbler and an equally beautiful Song Thrush on the way. I could still hear the Nightingales singing when I reached my parked van.

Willow Warbler
Song Thrush
I fortunately had a small finishing job to do on the Saturday so I was able to take Mrs Caley with me and share the Nightingales with her. I had gained permission to leave my van on site while we walked up to the common again. Again the birds were audible even before we got near and of course I knew exactly where they'd be having done the recce the day before. The bird that I'd persevered with before was playing even harder to get, possibly owing to the increased disturbance by more people walking past its spot, so I decided to concentrate our efforts on a couple of the others. As we walked along a track through a wooded area I could see a Nightingale perched openly on a small Silver Birch tree. As soon as we came within range however, it flew back into cover. We backed off a bit and waited and a short while afterwards the bird re-emerged only to be scared off by a passing cyclist. I found a place where we were secreted better, a bit too far away but where we'd have a clear view of the Nightingale. Ten minutes later and the Nightingale crept up the tree and began singing.

We waited for the Nightingale to finish its concert and then slipped away leaving it and the others to it. I would have loved to have taken a lot longer in their company but until the Lockdown was lifted completely we wouldn't be able to. Usually by the beginning of June, Nightingales have ceased their singing, so it'll be next year before we get to hear them again. Something to look forward to!

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