Tuesday 31 July 2018

A trio of visits to BWR, 27/28/29th July

There is an old adage amongst Patch Workers, those dedicated birders that stay ever faithful to one site, that "no two days are ever the same". Well that statement is quite often refuted at Bicester Wetlands Reserve where at this time of year nothing much seems to happen but as mentioned in my previous blog Black or Black? 26th July this past week has thrown up some interesting birds.

On Friday we had caught up with the Black-tailed Godwits that had been found on Thursday morning but which we had chosen to ignore preferring to go for the Black Terns at Farmoor instead. We had intended to go for a look at them after Farmoor but the usual Bicester traffic chaos had thwarted that idea. They were easy enough to find since they were stood ankle (that's a birds ankle which is actually halfway up the leg) deep in the water but a long way out on the main scrape. Apparently the previous day they had been much closer in but you can't win them all.

The brighter coloured of the Blackwits
A large (by BWR standards) group of 32 Lapwings were loafing on the spit closest to the hide and a few of them were taking time out to bathe. Lapwings are beautiful birds and perhaps under appreciated since they are still reasonably common but we should remember that they are in decline along with so many of our farmland birds. The feathers have a wonderful oily sheen to them.

Lapwing bathing
The majority of birds on view were Black-headed Gulls that were also copying the Lapwings in basically doing very little but also taking a dip both on the main scrape and in the Works Pool. All of the Black-headed Gulls are in moult now and most have at least partly lost their chocolate brown head feathers that they sport during the breeding season. I tried, as I always do, to turn one into a Mediterranean Gull and, as I always do, failed completely. It can't be too much longer before they discover the reserve on a regular basis (there is a record of one from last year, a juvenile, that didn't linger).

Black-headed Gull bathing
Green Sandpipers are a regular visitor to BWR and July sees a peak in their numbers. Today there were 7 on or around the main scrape (I have seen as many as 20 before) and I'm hopeful, along with the other regulars that they'll entice a scarcer wader in like a Wood Sandpiper, or an even rarer one such as a Pectoral Sandpiper, as the Summer progresses.

Green Sandpiper
It was a hot day with little wind and the reedbed was a hive of activity with many Reed Warblers evident. Some of these were showing really well right in front of the hide but you needed be quick to get on them and quicker still to get photos that were unhindered by vegetation.

Reed Warblers
A juvenile Common Whitethroat was creeping along one of the fences in search of insects. It was very careful to keep partially hidden by the weeds and reeds but showed itself now and again.

Juvenile Common Whitethroat
The Reed Warblers caught my attention again and I rattled off some more shots whenever a bird perched openly on the reeds and a female type Blackcap, much more furtive in the trees, appeared too.

Reed Warbler
Female Blackcap
On Saturday after our morning spent at Farmoor, see Farmoor, 28th July, we returned to BWR mainly to see if the Black-tailed Godwits had ventured closer to the hide. They hadn't, choosing to stay well out on the far side of the scrape as they had the day before. However, no sooner had we settled down in the hide, the 2 Blackwits chose to take to flight and I thought that they were off to continue their migration but they obviously just fancied a short bout of exercise and after a couple of circuits landed back in their favoured area. You can see from the photos that the less brightly coloured bird is larger and also has a longer bill so that bird is most likely a female whereas the smaller more brightly plumaged bird would be a male. Unlikely that they're a breeding (or failed breeding) pair but it is possible since they've chosen to migrate together.

Black-tailed Godwits
While looking at some sinister looking Grey Herons, one of which was definitely up to no good, I noticed a small greyish bird at the base of the reeds. The scope view revealed an adult Water Rail. Not unusual for the reserve but I don't think I'd ever seen one here in the summer before. In winter we get fantastic views of them as they eat spilt seeds under the feeders but even though this view was completely crap it will probably be more memorable. Breeding of these secretive reedbed dwellers was proven here last year when a juvenile was spotted in the same area. I kept scoping the spot but no young birds broke cover this time and, owing to the close proximity of the Herons, best they stayed well hidden if they were there.

Water Rail
I mused on the old adage stated earlier in the piece. On Friday we had terrific views of Reed Warblers and a juvenile Common Whitethroat right outside the hide whereas today, because of the strong breeze, there were none to be seen. There was also just a solitary Lapwing on view against the 30 odd on Friday while the Black-headed Gull number had dwindled considerably too. 

A single Common Snipe was present on both days as were up to 7 Green Sandpipers. Although at times both fed in the first cut of open water, the hide is still not quite close enough in order to get great shots with my lens. How I'd love the hide to be moved across the road! Better photos are gained when birds fly since a flying bird is a much bigger target to focus on!

Common Snipe
Green Sandpiper
The Grey Herons remained, stood menacingly out by the reeds, and we saw one catch and devour some unfortunate prey. I couldn't be totally sure what it was, at first I thought it might be a chick of a Moorhen but after looking hard at the blurry photos, it possibly looks more like a mole? then and again is that a beak and feet? I just hope it wasn't a Water Rail chick!

Grey Heron and prey.
Sunday dawned with persistent drizzle and light rain, always good birding weather but not very nice to go out in. It's in such wet weather that I'm really thankful that we have this great little reserve on our doorstep and even more grateful that it's just yards from the car to the sanctuary of the dry hide. We've also seen some really good birds on the worst weather days here, the best being 3 Common Cranes a few years back. No big surprises during our hour or so today and the Blackwits had seemingly moved on but had been replaced by 2 Common Sandpipers which spent most of the time chasing each other around the scrape.

Common Sandpiper
The number of Green Sandpipers was still stuck at 7, must have been the same 7 on all days, and the Common Snipe remained still.
Green Sandpiper, moulting a primary wing feather
Just over a week had passed since I had finally managed, after years of trying, to secure some decent photos of a Green Woodpecker, a juvenile male which spent a few minutes perched on the fence in front of the hide, the best of which had secured me a "Notable Photo" in Birdguides weekly competition!

"Notable" Green Woodpecker!
You can hear the "Yaffle" on most visits to the reserve and on hearing one I searched and this time found an adult male (shown by the red cheek patch, females have black cheek patches) perched almost on the same section of fence. It remained long enough for photos but in the less than ideal murky light the results weren't quite up to the same standard. 

Adult male Green Woodpecker
It flew off in the direction of the Works Pool and I refound it on the short grass just over the Water Plant Compound fence. It was hunting out food on the ground, the persistent rain probably bringing Ants and other insects to the surface. 

When it burst into flight I was ready and secured some nice flight images, probably too far away for a winning image, but I'll submit it in hope anyway. Woodpecker flight is very fast so the camera is more than useful in freezing the action to enable the intricate barring of the wings to be admired.

After a quick check on the Works Pool where the juvenile Little Grebes were still harassing their parents for food, Mrs Caley exclaimed "look, a deer"! Just beyond the gate and fence a Roebuck was sauntering past as bold as brass. It looked directly in our direction but wasn't bothered, even if it detected our presence, since it even stopped to munch on some vegetation. It melted into the long grasses at ease and disappeared from view although we were able to see it cross the scrape where its fed by the outlet stream from the reedbed.

There was time to check on the scrape and the Common Snipe had at last come close enough for decent views. The Grey Heron gathering had increased up to 5 birds, 2 of which faced each other as if in a staring contest!

Common Snipe
Grey Heron stand-off!
We are spending a fair bit of time at the reserve which led Alan the warden (I keep him well bombarded with photos) to remark that we are spending more time there than he does! Alan and his team of volunteers do a terrific job in maintaining this natural haven so close to the ever busy town and they deserve great credit. I have work to attend to again so it'll be a few days before I'm able to get back down there, unless something good turns up of course. 

Monday 30 July 2018

Farmoor, 28th July

With much anticipation of the forecast precipitation, it seemed the best place to head on Saturday morning was Farmoor where anything could fly in at any time. Farmoor, although good at any time, is definitely a bad weather site, its size attracting many overflying birds and it acts as a refuge when the going gets tough for them. The trade off is that the reservoir is extremely exposed and there is very little cover for birders when the weather does turn a bit nasty. There had been a small amount of rain on Friday evening, which had scuppered any chance of seeing the blood moon (not that I was that interested) so there would already be a chance that something good had "dropped" in.

The Black Terns of Thursday hadn't been seen on Friday but they do tend to be good weather migrants so were probably on their way somewhere even warmer than the UK was at present, which we all know has been "scorchio". One of the most noticeable things about Farmoor right now is the amount of dead and dying trout that litter the embankments. Indeed fishing has been temporarily halted on the reservoir. The fish stocks are being decimated by a lack of oxygen in the water, brought on by the extremely high temperatures of the summer. The dead fish are proving to be very attractive to a variety of gulls and corvids which can be found gorging on many of the stranded fish.

Fish that are still alive are being forced right into the shallow margins too, especially the smaller fry and young, making finding a meal for the Common Terns very easy. Once a fish has been captured though it isn't always easy to deliver it to the waiting offspring since there are many Gulls that are ready and willing to relieve the Tern of its prize. We watched a Yellow-legged Gull chase a Black-headed Gull that pursued a Common Tern for a fish breakfast. The bigger Gull was easily given the slip but the smaller and more agile Black-headed Gull doggedly followed the Common Tern for some time and often came close, almost touching, but the Tern always seemed to have one more deft turn in order to keep its pursuer at bay. I should add that it was also very windy so the agility of both birds was to be marvelled. The Common Tern kept the fish and was able to pass it to its greedy chick which by now had joined in the chase anyway!

Just past the hide we came across a Dunlin that was foraging along the "tide line". Dunlin are very confiding here and if you sit quietly by the causeway wall, will normally approach very closely, as this one did. It appeared as if the small wading bird had some damage to its left eye since it was always half closed but it looked healthy enough otherwise. Seeing the Dunlin raised our expectations a notch because it might have heralded something a bit more unusual being around too (it didn't of course).

The main interest now centred on a large number of hirundines that were feeding very close to the surface in the south-west corner of F1. Almost all were Sand Martins but there were a few House Martins too. A small number of Swifts were flying higher overhead, in the strengthening wind they were almost impossible to track.

On reaching the area where the Sand Martins were most active I decided to have a go at photographing them since I've never really nailed a good shot of one. I took lots of frames and the majority were pretty useless, a few proved to be worth keeping but I still never got that "clincher". The birds were hunting small flying insects (I assumed) very close to the water, the wind keeping the insects down. The wind also helped since the birds were flying into it which slowed them down giving me a better than normal chance of tracking and focussing. It was a bright morning too which also helped.

Mrs Caley's patience ran out so we were on the move again, just as well since I'd have wasted the whole day photographing the Sand Martins and, as I keep reminding myself, I am a birder first and a "togger" second. The photos are only records of what I see (believe me?). A Common Sandpiper tootled past and landed on the embankment. Before I could get there though it had been put to flight again by a jogger and this time landed on the new barrier in the adjacent corner of F2. Common Sandpipers, approachable on their breeding grounds in Scotland, are one of the most wary of birds and never like close approach here, so this one was actually quite close for a change.

We chose a walk around F1 and soon spotted another Dunlin. I say another because the bill looked longer but it also had a half closed left eye so may have been the same one. Or perhaps Dunlin just squint when they see me?!

Clouds were building up so I suggested that it might be trite to forego the circuit of F1 and to retrace our steps back along the causeway. This also, cunningly I thought, gave me another chance to photograph the Sand Martins!

Nothing more of note was seen on the walk back but glancing behind us it was evident that we'd made a wise choice to walk in since the sky to the west was black promising a heavy shower of rain. We quickened our pace and made it to the sanctuary of the cafe for a coffee and some breakfast. Just as well when a few minutes later the squall came through turning the reservoir surface into something resembling a stormy sea and extremely heavy rain battered against the windows. The ranger on site later told us that a 60 knot gust had heralded the onset of the rain! People that had been caught outside looked as if they'd been swimming! See a mildly exciting video here Farmoor storm

By the time we'd finished breakfast the bad weather had passed. I took a couple of shots of a Carrion Crow, admiring its sleek black plumage while also wondering how it had managed to stay so dry.

Sunday 29 July 2018

Black or Black? 26th July

My extremely (not) busy working week had all but petered out and all I had to do was some office jobs and choose some paint for the outside of the house. After not finding the colour we were looking for, two messages came through on the phone, the first via Facebook detailing that a couple of Black-tailed Godwits had been found earlier in the morning at BWR (Bicester Wetlands Reserve) closely followed by a text from Badger that Dai had found a dozen or so Black Terns at Farmoor. Decision then? VAT could wait, we'd seen Blackwits just on Monday at Frampton Marsh and had seen them before at BWR anyway so it had to be the Black Terns! To be fair we'd seen a few Black Terns before at Farmoor and they were already on the (non-existent) year list (at Boddington reservoir in May) but, for my money, they are one of the best of the Tern species to observe so it was a no brainer.

We arrived at Farmoor at 10:30 into another blistering hot sunny day (nudging 30 degrees already). Uncommonly for Farmoor there was hardly any breeze to stir things up either and the reservoir resembled the proverbial millpond. There was one other birder present but he went (almost) running off towards F1 (the Terns had been seen on F2) as we reached the embankment so I was none the wiser as to whether he'd seen them or not. I scanned around and couldn't see the birds anywhere so we followed as far as the cafe from where I could scope F1. There was no sign of any Black Terns on F1, just a few Common Terns, maybe they had confused the other chap or maybe he wasn't aware of their rarer cousins being present. Rather than waste energy in the searing heat we returned to the tower and re-scanned the south-west corner of F2, where most birds seem to hang out, and finally spotted 6 Black Terns way over the other side flying close to the water surface. Again because of the temperature and since we were now proud owners of a season ticket for the car park, we decided it would be more than frugal to drive around to the south-western corner of F2 and have a much shorter walk in order to get closer to the Terns.

At the top of the steps we could see some of the Black Terns immediately and, by Farmoor standards, they weren't too far out either. I counted 6 still, and only 6 so some must have departed already. They seemed to be centring their feeding activities on the water just off the pontoon so they were roughly 50 metres away when they came the closest to us. We settled in at the conveniently placed picnic table and watched as all 6 birds headed further out into the reservoir. How typical is that?! For the next 10 minutes they stayed well out in the middle of F2 (or so it seemed) and indeed at times simply disappeared (I can't work out how birds manage to do that, they must have cloaks of invisibility!) before reappearing in a different area. Eventually though our patience was rewarded (it was a hot day, patience wears thin quickly) and the Black Terns returned to closer waters. They were still frustratingly just out of reach for my 400mm lens so I added the 1.4 extender and used a "No Fishing" sign for stability (for the camera, not me, it was still morning remember?). Now I'm not particularly very good at using the camera when the extender is attached and it never gives the most satisfying results either, since it slows down the focussing (not great when trying to photograph fast moving birds like Black Terns) and allows less light in which softens the images but at the distance the birds were at it would be the only way of obtaining any acceptable photos. Luck was quickly on my side however when one of the Terns flew in to our side of the marker buoys and allowed me to grab a couple of reasonable shots!

The buoys were proving irresistible to the Black Terns that would frequently rest momentarily on them. Often they were moved on by the more robust Common Terns but would also engage in their own Black Tern version of TV's Gladiators (I'm guessing here since, and categorically no, I don't and never will watch such rubbish) where more than one would try to evict the sitting tenant. At one point 4 of the 6 were trying to win a favoured resting spot on one of the buoys even though there were others to choose from.

The Tern "King of the Castle"!
"Come on, let's get him off"!
All 6 playing Tern "Musical Buoys"!

"Ge'r off, I was here first"! 
"Other buoys are available"
"I'm bigger than you, It's my buoy now"!
Unlike the Black Terns we'd seen at Boddington in May, which were in breeding plumage whereas these were all now moulting into winter garb and which had fed by flying high above the water and then dipping down to collect flying insects from the surface, these were patrolling the air space just a few feet above the water and only occasionally went higher above it. That made it somewhat easier to track them with the camera enabling focussing to be easier too but still with the incumbent problems mentioned previously.

I turned my attention to some of the other birds on offer. The pontoon itself was a magnet to loafing cormorants and, oddly I thought, a Grey Heron. Many black-headed gulls favoured the closer raft and the walkway leading to it. The buoys continued to attract all sorts as a hang out, in addition to the Terns a Herring Gull raucously announced his occupation of one. A buzzard coasted over enjoying the heat much more than we were.

"Spot the odd one out"!
"I'm a singer in a Buoy Band"!
"Come on up, it's cooler"!
The Black Terns suddenly and without warning lifted higher into the air and began circling and gaining height. That would be that I thought but a minute later they all returned back to their feeding. Obviously the leader hadn't said it was time to go! With the arrival of Tezzer the Black Terns repeated the procedure but this time disappeared out of sight so we decided to get out of the hot sun too and head for home. The Terns must have returned though since Tezzer got some of his customary excellent images after we'd left. As far as I know they weren't seen later that day or the day after.

"Going, going....."