The wind-down to a tricky birding year was reasonably stress free, mainly because the introduction of the Tier system prevented any mad dashing around twitching rare birds. Thus further bolstering to the year list was pretty much impossible since all birding had to be done locally again. I often bemoan the Oxfordshire birding scene, it is a landlocked county after all with little chance of enticing any mega rare, or even relatively rare, birds. Of course we do have our moments locally but even the prime county site of Farmoor has underperformed this year, probably owing to the increased numbers of recreational visitors to the site. Luckily we do still have Otmoor which offers the best chance of a mixed bag of birds owing to the different habitats found there. Otmoor has also suffered under the sheer weight of folk visiting the vast open spaces, but the birds there tend to be further away or have refuge in the reeds and hedges so are less likely to be disturbed by the constant stream of people walking the paths. The reserve offered us a lifeline back in the spring when the country was in full Lockdown, at times we had the entire area to ourselves because other people hadn't cottoned onto the fact that they could go there. Now, however, the secret is out.
As is quite often the case, I had a busy end to the year work-wise so had few opportunities for birding in the run-up to Christmas. I even had to work on the Saturday morning before Christmas. I view my weekends as precious so for me to spend a day of one them working is sacrilege in my mind! The only birding day I had was on the Sunday which dawned clear and bright and we intended to take full advantage of the sunny forecast by taking a good long walk around Otmoor once more. When we arrived just before nine o'clock, we were staggered to find the carpark almost full so it was unlikely to be a quiet stroll. We have become a bit late in going out recently so must resolve to get out earlier in the New Year.
As we walked along the entrance track passing the Closes to our left, a huge flock of Golden Plover erupted off the wet grassland. They made for an awesome sight since lit by the sunshine they resembled a mass of twinkling stars as they banked one way and another. It's impossible to gain an accurate impression of the dazzling spectacle with my camera and lens, a wide angled set-up is required, but even then it is a display that really needs appreciating first hand since the shimmering flocks are constantly moving and changing shape. A lot of people visit Otmoor for the Starling murmuration which is fabulous but I think the vast flocks of Goldies and Lapwings provide an even better show.
There were people gathered at the feeding station so I only gave the birds there a cursory look and didn't see the Marsh Tit that a few weeks earlier gave us a long awaited year tick. I was more interested in looking for the White-fronted Geese that had been reported on Greenaways but there was no sign of them either. They would no doubt be around the moor somewhere. In truth there was little action while we walked along the bridleway apart from the usual Cetti's Warbler teasing us by yelling loudly that, 'you can't see me'. We looked at the finch and bunting flocks that are taking advantage of seed that has been spread over the path next to the Wetlands Hide. A Brambling had been reported here but again there was no sign of it although we did see some rather smart Yellowhammers amongst the Reed Buntings, Linnets and Chaffinches. A Water Rail ran quickly across the path. Facing into the sun there was little point in taking photos and besides the feeding birds were being constantly disturbed by walkers going to and coming from Beckley via July's Meadow. Some birders, who didn't know the score, were also flushing the birds. So we moved on, knowing that we'll get other chances to study the birds on the track.
|female Reed Bunting|
We stood at the first screen watching more flocks of Plovers dancing in the air and earnestly searched for any Raptors that may be chasing them but there were none so the Plovers must have just been enjoying the sunny conditions. The lagoon itself held the usual Mallards, Gadwall and Tufted Ducks plus Coots and Moorhens. Today, however, there was an unusual, but regular, avian visitor to the lagoon since he has been on Otmoor for the last four winter seasons now. "Luke" the leucistic Pochard, named after one of Otmoor's excellent volunteer wardens, was loafing around with a few Teal out beyond the sunken bushes. In his pale shades of cream and grey with just a hint of pink to his head, "Luke" has become a bit of a celebrity here at Otmoor.
|"Luke" the leucistic Pochard|
A trio of Geese flew directly towards us coming from the North. Nothing unusual in that, there are Geese everywhere on Otmoor, but I instantly knew that these were different so instead of ignoring them, as I tend to do with Greylags and Canada Geese, I swung the bins up to look at them. I was surprised to see three Egyptian Geese bearing down on us. I expected them to drop down onto the water but instead they carried straight on overhead.
Shortly afterwards a couple of male Pintails flew rapidly and high over the lagoon heading out towards the Flood Field. Every time I'm out on Otmoor I wish that the RSPB could somehow open up a pathway that would enable viewing of the Flood Field since there always seems to be lots of activity over there. By walking in from some of the other surrounding villages distant views are possible but the topography of the field with its hidden channels and reed filled dips obscure most of it and makes for difficult birding.
Peter joined us at the screen and told us that it was hardly worth going to the second screen since there was nothing about at all bird-wise. A visitor had reported seeing the Otter that was making more frequent appearances in the last few weeks. My only view of an Otter on Otmoor was also from the second screen but I know that, just like encountering Bitterns, it's a very hit and miss affair, and a lot, lot more miss than hit at that. We took Peters advice and wandered back to the bridleway and the Wetlands Watch Hide with the intention to look for the Brambling again. It's a good job that we did too! We had just ensconced ourselves into a position from where we could see the feeding birds with the aid of the sun at our backs when Peter received a phone call from one of our friends who reported that a Hen Harrier was currently quartering across Greenaways. The Hen Harrier, a ringtail that had been frequenting the moor for a month or so but had been difficult to pin down, would be a surprise and welcome year tick so I walked as quickly as I could back to the bridleway. Of course there was no sign of the bird at all. The others caught me up and we collectively scanned the field for the bird. Then, suddenly it was there, it must have gone to ground and was now active again, our 241st species for the year. We followed the Hen Harrier as it flew low over the grass and reeds in its quest for a small bird or mammal to prey upon. Although distant the rich sunlight aided me in grabbing a couple of recognisable record shots.
|"ringtail" Hen Harrier|
The Hen Harrier flew behind one of the stands of reeds and promptly disappeared. Steve, who had alerted Peter to it a few minutes before, reported that he could no longer see it either so the bird must have settled on the ground again. We scoured all over Greenaways but couldn't find the Harrier. Ten minutes later it was airborne again, this time it was purposely hunting along one of the many ditches that traverse the field. I fired off photos continuously as it flew east to west across the field before it flew up and over the hedge and continued onto Big Otmoor. Hen Harriers are much more dynamic than their larger cousins the Marsh Harrier. A Hen Harrier flies closer to the ground and moves more quickly and directly than the Marsh Harrier. Because of that they are clearly more suited to flushing and capturing prey that they surprise whilst racing across the terrain.
After the Hen Harrier had left, the young male Marsh Harrier appeared on Greenaways offering instant comparison to the Hen Harrier. The Marsh Harriers flight is slower and much more bouncy with frequent bouts of levitation and pounces down to the ground. It was interesting to see both species and the differences in techniques of the two birds.
A small flock of Starlings had panicked as the Hen Harrier passed, who could blame them, and had fled into the hedgerow behind us. I turned and fired off a few frames of one of them before they fled further.
We'd had a good morning on the moor, good company as usual and had had the added bonus of seeing the Hen Harrier at last which was the undoubted highlight. Now that Oxfordshire had been placed into Tier 4, the highest level of restrictions, it was likely to be our last year tick of 2020.
Christmas came and went quietly, as it must have for most folk this year, and we didn't "get out" again until Boxing Day when we had a largely uneventful walk at nearby Trow Pool, a small site next to Ardley Quarry which had also provided a lifeline during the first Lockdown period. The next day we traipsed half-heartedly through the mud on Otmoor feeling somewhat despondent. We saw birds of course but we were going through the motions and found that the huge amount of non-birders taking their exercise on the moor was irritating owing to a lot of them not seeming to give a jot for the beautiful area and wildlife refuge that they were walking through. Three times I had to ask people to get down off of the banks around the lagoons, there are signs asking visitors not to walk there, and one chap had walked two dogs, admittedly they were well behaved and looked after, down to the first screen in spite of the sign on the gates that forbids dogs at the screens. I hardly took a photo and put it down to the end of year Blues.
We needed a lift and it came on a drab and gloomy day on Tuesday the 29th. By not taking any holidays this year owing to the travel restrictions we had missed out on some of the birds that we would normally expect to see. Usually we would take a summer holiday to Scotland so this year all of the Scottish specialities, Eagles, Grouse, Skuas etc are absent from our 2020 year list. We also had to cancel our annual trip to Cornwall in October so didn't get the chance to twitch any rare birds in the south-west or to see localised species like the Chough. Every October a tiny little Warbler invades the coastal valleys of Cornwall, a bird that we never tire of watching and seeing and one that always lifts the spirits.
So, with the excuse of having to travel to Aylesbury on essential business, we drove into the delightful Watermead estate on the outskirts of the town. A Yellow-browed Warbler (YBW) had been found there a few weeks before Christmas but had seemingly disappeared quickly after its discovery. Then a couple of days before, Dan Forder, who lives locally, had rediscovered the little sprite in some pine trees that line the entrance road and sightings continued through the following day. We parked next to the pub and walked along the largely deserted path towards the pines. The weather was pretty grim, the dark overcast sky and drizzle was keeping most locals in their warm houses. We walked as far as the entrance to the Crematorium where the last report of the YBW had come from with no sign of anything. With just us out looking for it, we were going to have to find the bird ourselves. After years of seeing the species though, I am pretty locked on to finding YBW's and have become well accustomed to their movements and habits so I was confident that I'd track it down, provided of course that it was staying loyal to the trees along the road. We lingered outside the gates to the nursery, closed of course at this time of year, and watched the few pine trees either side of the road. This had been the most reliable spot to find the YBW on the preceding two days. Once our eyes became tuned in we quickly found some Goldcrests and Long-tailed Tits feeding in the trees. We had been looking for nearly forty-five minutes but instead of growing impatient, I had a feeling that the YBW would show itself soon. As soon as that thought was shared with Mrs Caley, a small bird flew over my head to the other side of the road. I knew instantly that it was the YBW!
The Yellow-browed Warbler had flown into the top of an isolated pine tree next to a crossing slightly further down the road and nearer to where we had left the car. We walked quickly to get a closer view of the tree and within seconds were watching the YBW in the top of the pine. YBW's are very active birds and flit from branch to branch continuously and can be tricky to track. This bird elected to stay right at the top of the small pine. For the most part it managed to remain hidden in the wispy fronds of the tree but occasionally broke cover enough to allow for clearer views. Unfortunately the sky was dark and threatening rain, or maybe even snow, so mostly we were watching a small dark shape in the tree. At least the camera and, later editing, was able to brighten up the images although they were marred by the high ISO settings.
Despite the cold and awkward viewing conditions, there was no way I was going to leave a YBW until I'd watched it at length, they are definitely one of my favourite birds after all. The YBW moved back to the pines opposite the nursery and then into denser pine trees on the other side of the road where it was much harder to see. At times it would disappear for a few minutes before returning to its favoured trees by the road. In all we watched it for around an hour and for most of that time, apart from fielding the usual question of, 'what are you looking at' from interested passers-by, had the bird to ourselves.
Throughout that hour the sun had threatened to burn through the gloom and mist, well we could just about make it out as a feint disc to the South but never actually managed it. The only time that a small patch of blue sky appeared and the conditions brightened, the YBW disappeared and then returned again to the pines once the murk had set in again. Still I had some photos and we had added the 242nd species to our year list and one of the most well received ticks of the year since the spring. There isn't much that beats a Yellow-browed Warbler.
Wednesday the 30th promised to be a much better day weather-wise and we did indeed wake to brighter skies although there was a touch of frost on the ground. I had already determined that we'd travel the short distance to Chipping Norton and look at a large flock of finches that were feeding on a set-aside field alongside a minor road. A local birder from Chippy, Steve (famous for playing host to the Oriental Turtle Dove), had been keeping tabs on the flock for a few weeks and had reported healthy numbers of Brambling mixed in amongst the more prevalent Chaffinches and Linnets. The only Bramblings we had seen this year had been the couple at Balscote Quarry NR at the end of October and I had got absolutely drenched for my troubles when obtaining photos. The forecast sunshine this morning would make viewing and photographing much easier.
|Brambling, Balscote Quarry 31/10/2020|
Before we had left our own local environs though, after turning around, I pulled up in a small lay-by near to Middleton Stoney because I had noticed a covey of four Grey Partridges feeding in a sparsely vegetated field close to the road. We don't see many Grey Partridges in our area and these were illuminated by the early morning sunlight so just couldn't be ignored. By using the car as a mobile hide I was able to get some decent record shots of three of the birds. They were only the second group of Grey Partridges that I'd seen in 2020.
As we got closer to Chipping Norton which sits on much higher ground than Bicester, the roads became more and more treacherous with thick ice coating many of the minor roads. I was reminded of the roads the day when we twitched the Blue Rock Thrush at Stow-on-the-Wold in similar conditions and at the same time of year in 2016, which were very difficult to stay upright on. We managed to arrive at the set-aside field unscathed though and were greeted by our friend Mark who had also decided to look for the Bramblings. He had already seen a couple of the winter visitors and set us onto the likely spots straight away. The finch flock were using the trees of a small copse to rest on in between feeding bouts in the field. Views were distant but, unusually for once I had taken my scope with me, so we had good views through that.
Our luck changed for the better just as we were debating whether to walk alongside the copse to get closer views when a chap turned up and said that, 'you're looking from the wrong place' and, 'the best spot is on the other side of the trees where there is access into the field'. We followed him around the copse and entered the field through a small gap in the roadside hedge The Brambling along with the other species were using a tall hedgerow as a staging post between feeding sorties. The hedge was lit up beautifully by the sunshine so the only issue photography wise was finding an angle on a bird that wasn't obscured by branches.
There were Greenfinches, Goldfinches and a male Bullfinch also feeding in the hedge and the field, and a couple of Marsh Tits also flitted through the trees, but it was the Bramblings that grabbed our collective attention. I estimated that there must have been around twenty in total although it was difficult to be sure since there was constant comings and goings to and from the field.
After having our fill of the Bramblings we followed Mark to his own wildlife refuge near to the village where he lives where he showed us the impressive feeding station that he's set up. Very much his own personal project Mark has already been rewarded by shelling (ha!) out his own money on bird food by attracting Siskin and a Redpoll to the waterside site. We didn't see those but did enjoy close views of commoner species especially a flock of adorable Long-tailed Tits.
The paddocks along the lane contained a good number of Redwing which were seeking worms in the sodden ground. There were more back at the carpark and we watched a female Blackbird take the last sloe berry from a bush above the stream, and she looked pretty pleased with herself too.
We were pretty pleased with ourselves too considering that we had ended such an awkward and frustrating year with some much welcomed Christmas Crackers!