Tuesday, 7 July 2020

31st May; Reggie Upstaged by Groppers and the Right Tern for a Change!

On Saturday afternoon the winds had increased form the East and several small parties of Black Terns had been reported from various inland reservoirs across the Midlands. I kept a constant check to see if any had been found close to home but none were. Owing to the Lockdown we had failed to see any of the Black Terns that had passed through Farmoor in April and early May, but a few enterprising local birders had managed to see them, albeit at long range, by viewing through the perimeter fence whilst the reservoir was off limits to the public. The weather forecast promised more Easterly winds on Sunday so I thought that it would be worth checking Farmoor for Black Terns in the morning.

Current restrictions meant that access to the reservoir is only permitted from ten o'clock and I wanted to get out earlier so I hatched a plan to walk along the River Thames footpath first and enter the reservoir itself bang on ten. I drove to Lower Whitley Farm where there are limited parking spaces next to the Thames Path. Well, there used to be parking space there but now we were greeted by new signage declaring that, "No Unauthorised Vehicles Past This Point" on the road in, and at the parking areas, "Resident Parking Only". Obviously the locals had become irritated by folk parking there during the Lockdown closure of the reservoir carpark and had complained enough to get Thames Water to erect the signs. Not wanting to incur the wrath of the residents, we turned around and drove out again. Luckily I remembered that there is a lay-by next to the main road at the Farmoor village end of the reservoir and that access could be gained to the Thames Path from there. This change of parking plan would prove to be my second lucky break in as many days!

We found the Pinkhill section of the path after a false start which took us into a boatyard. Sitting at a picnic table by the boat moorings next to Pinkhill Lock while soaking up the early morning sunshine, we could hear Common Whitethroats and Sedge Warblers singing but our attention was claimed by a Black-headed Gull flying along the river towards us. We were interested because it was attempting to carry a long stick to its nest, probably on one of the reservoir rafts, and looked rather comical. The stick was unwieldy and awkward to manoeuvre in the breezy conditions and just as the Gull reached us it dropped it. Instead of trying to pick it up again, the Gull abandoned its prize and left it to the river to take it back downstream. Maybe the Gull wasn't on nest restoration duties but just playing a version of "Pooh Sticks" instead.

Black-headed Gull
As we walked the path around the Pinkhill reserve, I remembered that it was in this area where a particularly showy Sedge Warbler had been seen throughout the spring. We had deigned not to bother visiting, we had got plenty of Sedgies on Otmoor already, but this particular bird, christened "Reg" or "Reggie" had attracted many photographers because of its propensity to perch very openly and sing for hours. Firstly though as we reached a bend in the river, we spotted a fine male Reed Bunting singing while perched on a tall reed stem. Reed Buntings are handsome birds but largely ignored by many, I guess because they are reasonably common. Their song is thin and weedy compared to the loud and brash refrains of most of our summer Warblers, another reason why they get overlooked perhaps. But at least Reed Buntings are showy and come the depths of winter they can be relied upon to provide entertainment at feeding stations and often enliven garden birding by visiting feeders there too.

Reed Bunting
A Common Whitethroat sang heartily from a Willow tree that overlooks the river and a patch of long grasses that has been left untended on a river bend. The Whitethroat flew down into the grass and then I spotted what must be "Reggie the Sedgie's" perch. In the middle of the wild patch was an old tree bough and the dead branches stood pointing skywards providing the convenient perches that I'd seen in many photos over the last few weeks, sporting a singing Sedge Warbler. At the moment though the branches were empty although we could hear a Sedge Warbler singing nearby.

Common Whitethroat
The singing Sedge Warbler was, of course, "Reg" and it wasn't long before he fluttered out of the bush next to the river and onto his favourite perch and gave us his best rendition. Sadly a Sedge Warbler still singing full on at this stage of the spring has probably failed to land a mate so "Reg" cuts a bit of a forlorn figure as he sings away day after day. Alternatively, I prefer to think that he does have a mate, and that she'll be sitting on eggs close by, but he enjoys philandering and continues his attempts to entice other females to breed with. In between bouts of singing "Reg" would visit various places around the patch of long grass so maybe he already had several nests on the go, but there was no sign of feeding activity at any of them. Whatever his situation, he is certainly a very bold individual and delighted us, as he has many other visitors, with his almost constant singing and posing.

"Reg" the Sedge Warbler
As we left "Reg" to it, I heard a Cetti's Warbler call from a small tangled Willow on the river bank. I swung my bins up to check on the presumed Cetti's that was inching along a branch in the middle of the tree and was astonished to see a Grasshopper Warbler instead! The Grasshopper Warbler, aka Gropper, disappeared into the foliage just as I related to Mrs Caley what I had seen. Not surprisingly my sighting was questioned, mainly because you don't usually see Groppers "out and about" unless a male is reeling its song from a prominent perch earlier in the spring. In fact I can only remember seeing silent Groppers once before when I saw a family group scuttling low in the grass alongside a path on Otmoor. Despite my wife's query to my ID though, I was absolutely definite that I'd seen a Gropper owing to the birds streaked upper parts and its very slender and attenuated body shape, the possible confusion species Reed Warblers are plain backed and shorter looking birds and Sedge Warblers have a very well marked supercilium. In the event, a minute or so later, the Gropper reappeared in the Willow and Mrs Caley was able to see it as well. 

Grasshopper Warbler
People that know me, will also know that Grasshopper Warblers are another of my favourite birds. I love the way that they skulk around in rank grass and scrubby bushes but are occasionally willing to reward the birder by the males creeping up a perch in a low bush or grass stem and sing their weird and monotonous reeling song. So to find this one skulking in a tree and not openly singing had me beaming from ear to ear! The Gropper was clearly on a feeding mission and was very active, never stopping still for even a moment or two. The Willow wasn't too densely foliaged though so we able to follow the Gropper fairly easily and I managed some very gratifying shots.

We were stood by a fence that marked the boundary of the Pinkhill nature reserve and as we watched the Gropper, it flew right past us and into the dark recesses of another tree the other side of the fence. There the bird was trickier to see and I forgot to alter the camera settings, so when the bird stopped momentarily on an exposed branch before dropping into the grass, I rather wasted a fantastic opportunity to grab some equally fantastic images. 

But I needn't have worried because our views and my photographic chances were to improve considerably when the Gropper appeared again, this time on the fence itself. This time its bill was stuffed with insect food so it became clear that nestlings were being fed so once the Gropper had dropped into the grassy patch to deliver the meal we moved right back to the Willow to give the bird more space.

A few moments later and there were two Grasshopper Warblers perched on the fence, one at each end. This was getting silly! I concentrated on the furthest bird which I assumed was a different bird from the one that we'd been watching previously because that one had stayed loyal to our end of the fence and grassy patch. 

Time was pressing on though, and I wanted to get up reservoir side and see if my prophecy that Black Terns would favour Farmoor today had come true. We left the Groppers to their parental duties and continued along the Thames Path towards the sluice works where there is access up to the reservoir. On the way we paused to admire a beautiful Great Crested Grebe that was taking time out in midstream to preen and to stretch its wings.

Great Crested Grebe
Up at the reservoir, I took a quick scan of F2, the larger of the two basins and where I suspected Black Terns to be if present. Nothing on the first sweep but on the second, bingo! Two adult Black Terns were swooping up and down over the water, way out in the middle as they invariably are here, it's only juvenile Black Terns that arrive later in the year during return migration, that tend to come closer to the banks. I wasn't bothered though that the Terns were way out in the middle, instead I felt a swell of pride that I'd recognised the conditions that brought the birds to Farmoor and that my hunch had proven correct for a rare change!

Black Terns
Because we had sneaked in via the Thames path there was not yet any other birders along the causeway which is where we headed to try to get closer to the two Black Terns, our 169th species for the year. I know from experience that the Terns would fly into the wind, from one end of the reservoir to the other, snaring flies as they went, and would then fly back to their start point and repeat over and over again. I stood for a moment watching to see where they were closest to the concrete embankment, in truth nowhere very near, but probably the best spot was midway between our position at the western end and the bird hide halfway along the causeway. For the next half hour we watched the two Terns dip feed over the reservoir but the closest they came to the banks was probably about fifty metres. At least I managed to grab some record shots.

Black Terns, when they stay far out from the banks are actually difficult to photograph owing to their habit of flying well above the water and then dipping quickly down to secure a fly. When they are above the water, between five and ten metres at a guess, the trees that line the reservoir fool the cameras focussing abilities. Add to that the fact that the birds, despite their name, are actually more grey than black and therefore blend in against the dull grey waters of the reservoirs.

The best chance of getting better photos, for me anyway, came when the birds rose above the tree line and were silhouetted against the sky, then the camera coped better. They were still too far away though! I've decided that I'm struggling too much to get the images that I want so a new camera and lens kit is under consideration!

I stuck it out for as long as Mrs Caley's patience lasted and was rewarded towards the end of our stint when the Black Terns began to venture a tad closer to us allowing me to get some slightly better shots. Black Terns are one of my favourite of the Tern species, one that I never saw much of until the last few years but now one that I look forward to reconnecting with each spring and autumn now. That said I'm yet to get a really good photo of an adult Black Tern from anywhere let alone Farmoor. I'm already waiting eagerly for the juveniles when they visit Farmoor on their migration southwards in August. Maybe there will be a few adult birds that don't stay so resolutely out in the middle of F2 with them.

Returning along the causeway towards the river path, we tarried to watch some tender love between a pair of Coots and their young which rested on the pontoon in the north-western corner of F2. This pontoon, installed I believe as housing for barley straw which acts as an algae reduction agent, has been commandeered by a noisy colony of Black-headed Gulls as a nesting platform. No young Gulls yet but it won't be long before the eggs hatch. Great Crested Grebes already have well grown young and one drifted past as we sat on the embankment wall.

Coot & Cootlets
juvenile Great Crested Grebe
The Grasshopper Warblers had gone to ground by the time we had regained the grassy patch by the river but "Reg" the Sedge Warbler was back on his perch and belting it out again so I indulged again and took a few more photos of him, this time putting the river to my back to get a different background blur to the images. Just as we made to leave we spotted a Gropper as it hopped up onto the fence before dropping down again, further embellishing a terrific few hours birding. Who said there's never anything to see in Oxfordshire? Uh...me!

Farmoor had certainly delivered this morning!

Friday, 3 July 2020

Common Birding, Uncommon Birds; End of May 2020

Tuesday 26th May; Night Birding

There are special birds that under normal circumstances require special efforts to see since they don't conform to what is termed "normal" bird behaviour. One of these, the Nightjar is a summer visitor to heathland in the UK and is mainly crepuscular in habits, that is it tends to be active only during twilight hours. So, unless you are fortunate enough to come across a Nightjar that is resting during the day, and they are incredibly well camouflaged birds so very difficult to find, the only sure way to see one is to visit a heath in the last hour or so of daylight. As the sun dips below the horizon, it is only then that Nightjars come out to play!

I've never found a day roosting Nightjar myself although except for one that had habitually taken to roosting in an Oak tree at Arne a few years ago, so I've always had to go out in the evening to see them. It's an exciting mission to go looking for Nightjar and inevitably I manage to arrive at a heathland site a few hours before sundown, far too early for any birds to be active. Last year Mrs Caley and I surprised a Nightjar from the side of the track as soon as we'd entered our favourite Berkshire heath but that bird had disappeared into a conifer wood so we were denied a really good view until darkness fell. I keep the location of the heath to just myself, and Mrs Caley of course. I was told of it by a local resident, who I did some work for, and who expressly requested that I share the site details with nobody since the small heath is privately owned and surrounded by houses. Access is gained through gardens and I have to ask before visiting.

Nightjar roosting, Arne, 16/07/2020
We chose a fine and still evening to visit and as usual arrived far too early but that gave us time to do a couple of circuits of the heath checking any likely looking places that a Nightjar could be resting. Piles of logs, horizontal tree branches, open patches of ground were all checked but no Nightjars were found so we would have to wait. While we stand around, we wonder whether any Nightjar are actually present this year, since there are never any outward signs that they are. There are other birds on the heath, a pair of Green Woodpeckers shifted noisily from tree to tree and a little Wren serenaded us from nearby. A Grey Wagtail hunted for flies above a small stream. In the past we've seen Tree Pipits here but none have been present for a couple of years now. As the sun begins to dip in the sky a procession of Jackdaws and Rooks pass overhead going to their roosts for the night and that is the sign that things will pick up.

At almost a quarter to ten and with the light almost gone we got our first bit of real action. Not from a Nightjar but from a Woodcock which passed overhead. Woodcocks are also crepuscular, like Nightjar are hard to observe in daylight hours during which time they roost motionless on the ground and usually in a concealed place where their incredible camouflage renders them invisible. Occasionally Woodcock will reveal themselves by feeding openly in wet weather, or will be flushed from a path or woodland as you walk along. The best time to see them though is when the males perform their "Roding" territorial flights which involve them flying around in a circuit whilst uttering grunts, whistles and clicks. These Roding flights only take place above woodland and open heathland nearby and only just before dark. The Woodcock feed during the night choosing fields in which to probe for worms and other invertebrates with their long bills. In flight they look a little comical with that long bill almost tipping them forward with the dumpy body behind acting as a counterweight. The legs are left trailing behind the short tail and the wings are reasonably long. At the dying embers of the evening we can only see the silhouette of the Woodcocks but if seen in good light then the mix of striped and mottled browns and greys lend the birds that incredible cryptic plumage. Unless one is caught out in the open, see header photo of one that crossed the road ahead of us in Scotland a few years back!

Woodcock in Roding flight
Three minutes after the first Woodcock flight we heard a Nightjar, quelling those earlier doubts, not the expected "churring" song of a male but a frog like "krick, krick" call. A few moments later the bird flew overhead. It was pretty dark now but there was still enough light in the sky to be able to see the Nightjar as it passed. Nightjars are long winged but have silent flight and against the dark trees you only know they're coming when you hear that call. This Nightjar appeared to be a female and presumably alone, usually we've seen a pair here, since at no point over the next half hour did we hear any churring song and as far as I could tell the Nightjar didn't stop to perch at all. Photos were impossible to get so I include a couple from previous years below.

Even though our views were not the best we've had of these amazing birds we still left feeling exhilarated, Nightjar are definitely special birds and are well worth making the special effort to see them.

Saturday 30th May; Heathing

After seeing the Nightjar on Tuesday evening, I thought we'd have a go at finding one at roost. I'd been checking local bird news sites, not for Oxon since, as far as I'm aware, we don't have Nightjar in the county, but for Berkshire because there you do get Nightjar and only just over the border. Berkshire has lots of heathland, Oxon has very little, and Nightjars invariably require heathland on which to summer and breed in the UK. I chose to check out Buckleberry Common near Thatcham where reports of at least half a dozen Nightjars had been logged over the past few days. We parked by the crossroads and walked onto the Common and I immediately had a sense of "déjà vu", I'd done this before but had forgotten! When I checked my records later I realised that we'd tried this game before in 2012. Then our walk had thrown up almost no birds at all and over the next hour or so we repeated that achievement! A new note then of maybe not bothering trying to find Nightjar asleep but perhaps worth checking out the evenings since Buckleberry Common is a wide open space, still surrounded by trees at the edges, but which would provide a much better chance of watching the Nightjars against the lighter sky and hence give an increased opportunity to get some flight shots. That would have to wait for another day though and perhaps even another year, considering that we did have Nightjar on this years list already so didn't really need to go chasing them again. We left Buckleberry with only a Kestrel hovering high above the heath as reward.

In a moment of inspiration Mrs Caley suggested that we head to nearby Greenham Common and take a walk there. We know Greenham Common well, it had been our go to place for Dartford Warblers for a few years until a couple of years ago when we failed to find any. It is a great place to find most of the heathland specialities. Despite its popularity with other recreationists it is a big enough place to get away from most other folk too, still an important consideration at the moment. After spending an age waiting at the Thatcham railway crossing which allowed no fewer than three trains to pass before we were allowed to continue our journey, we were surprised to find the main carparks open again at the Common. We made our way fro the smaller carpark at the western edge of the Common, only to find that full, so returned back towards the main Control Tower parking area but instead spotted a space in a lay-by opposite the Golf club. Being "forced" to park in the lay-by was to be our big lucky moment of the day!

We entered the Common via a small gate and walked directly south initially heading towards the old missile silos where there is a good area for birds. We quickly added a distant Woodlark to our year list and, straight after a Tree Pipit too, taking our year list spot up to 167. We were already doing much better than earlier at Buckleberry! 

Tree Pipit
I spotted a Stonechat perched on a gorse bush and moved nearer to secure a photo, not that I don't already have any snaps of what must be one of our most photogenic species. The Stonechat, a female, posed dutifully as they always do, not for my benefit of course but using the lookout perch to watch for any insects that it can catch to feed to its nestlings which would be secreted away in the spiny jungle of the gorse patch. 

female Stonechat
When we first became keen birders back in the last century, we saw a very special bird on Dunwich Heath in Suffolk. A bird we quickly came to love and one that we never tire of watching. We learned back then that, "If you find a Stonechat, then wait and keep looking because the Stonechat may have a friend nearby". That adage still holds true because as I watched this Stonechat, I noticed some movement to the left and turning my head saw a fabulous male Dartford Warbler (DW) perched right on top of another gorse bush. Ever since our first sighting of a DW, we've always held a passion for them. Initially they were fairly rare and difficult to find and we used to travel to either Dunwich Heath or the New Forest for them. Over the last twenty years or so Dartford Warbler numbers in the UK has increased considerably, from just a few hundred to several thousands, mainly because of our much milder winters allowing them to survive from year to year. In keeping with other small sedentary birds, like the diminutive Wren, Dartford warblers are unable to survive prolonged cold periods owing to the difficulty during those hard times to find food. Now DW's are far more widespread and Greenham Common holds a few pairs, we'd been finding them there for a few years but had found none in the last two years after the area of gorse that they frequented was scrubbed to the ground for regeneration. It was good to find one again. I quickly secured some photos, not great because we were looking straight into the strong sunshine, before the smart little sprite disappeared.

male Dartford Warbler
The Dartford Warbler was replaced at the top of the gorse by a male Stonechat, probably even more camera friendly than its female partner. It was clear that the Stonechats were collecting food intended for their brood which would be in their nest within the gorse somewhere. After a few photos we moved away and gave the birds some space. Unfortunately the Labrador that raced through the gorse bushes moments later was less understanding. Another example of folk with pets being unaware or completely uninterested in the welfare of the nature around them. At least gorse is as inhospitable to dogs as it to us, those spines take no prisoners!

male Stonechat
As we walked around the Common, keeping to the paths as requested and required by BBOWT who manage the area, many other birds were seen perched on the top of gorse and brambles. Linnets, another favourite of heathland, were everywhere. Many other Stonechats kept watch before darting out to catch flying insects. Another Tree Pipit sang heartily from a small Silver Birch sapling. Other birds that we saw in and around the gorse were Blue Tits, Common Whitethroats, Skylarks and a Green Woodpecker.

juvenile Blue Tit
male Linnet
Another fine male Stonechat perched next to a wide path where the runway used to be in the middle of the Common. We know from experience that this is one of the best parts of the Common for birds, most people stick to the paths that circumnavigate the area and rarely venture onto the central paths, hence it tends to be quieter and less disturbed. 

male Stonechat
The Stonechat flew across the path into bushes opposite and was followed by a small dark shape, another Dartford Warbler! This was turning into a good morning. I quickly found the Dartford Warbler, another male, in a small gorse bush where it briefly sang its scratchy little song. It moved to a small leafy bush and continued singing and calling before flying back the way it came. Once there it re-emerged on a prominent bramble twine where it showed incredibly well and right in full view, far from typical for the species. Without ever leaving my spot on the main path I put the camera into overdrive taking shot after shot of the beautiful little bird.

male Dartford Warbler
The male was then joined by the more demure female, obviously a pair together. We moved away to the furthest side of the path so as not to encroach on their territory, Dartford Warblers are schedule 1 breeding species and should not be disturbed at or near their nest sites. At the edge of the path, we were well away from the birds and watched as they in turns disappeared into the thick gorse and bramble and then enjoyed as they put in appearances on the same bramble twig. The male was probably the showiest Dartford warbler that I've ever watched.

female Dartford Warbler

After securing my photos we left the pair to it and explored further along the path. We found more Pipits, both Tree and Meadow varieties, Skylarks and a very inquisitive pair of Jackdaws. Another fine male Stonechat stood tall showing off a prized Green Caterpillar which would make a fair meal for one its youngsters and fail to grow into a Butterfly or Moth.

Meadow Pipit
With the sun beating down and the day becoming very warm we headed for the air-conditioned car. As we passed the showy male Dartford Warbler was still perched up on the bramble so I took a last few shots. They are just exquisite birds and I love 'em!