Thursday 30 April 2020

Easter Weekend, 9th-13th April

April is a month where we usually spend most of our time birding in Oxon so being confined to our local area during the current countrywide lockdown wasn't really so different. However the devil is in the details, because this year the local birding really is different. Last April we made seven visits to Otmoor, six to Farmoor, excursions to Linkey Down, Blenheim Park and Calvert as well as a couple of twitching days out to the Isle of Wight and Essex. This April, so far, we have been restricted to just our local walk and the occasional foray to Bicester Wetlands. In keeping with just about every other inland based birder in the UK, we were missing out on a lot, not just rare birds but local passage and breeding migrants that would be arriving at Otmoor and Farmoor. 

The breeding birds will be here for the summer so there may be opportunities later in the season to see most of them, provided the lockdown is lifted of course. Passage birds will be missed, unless we're able to get them on return migration in the autumn. There are some spring birds that arrive in April that are much sought after by Mrs Caley and I. Unfortunately none of them are available in the Bicester area, unless we get very lucky on our new walking route to Ardley and back. Those birds are Grasshopper Warbler, usually need to go to Otmoor for those, Nightingale, hard to find in the county so usually travel to Bedfordshire for them, Little Gulls, Arctic Terns and Black Terns, all usually pass through Farmoor during mid-April and migrating Wading Birds, best seen at Farmoor or Otmoor. Rarer birds can of course occur anywhere. All of those locations and birds are now off limits owing to the current travel restrictions.

So we have to make the most of any available birding locations that can accessed either by foot directly from home or by driving the short distance to the Wetlands Reserve on the other side of town. In my last two blogs I detailed a walk that we've found, that goes from our house to Ardley where there are a couple of small pools and a stand of mature trees. This walk was now the mainstay of our birding, in tandem with quite a bit of skywatching from the garden. I had returned to work so the Easter weekend was my first opportunity to resume birding again.

Good Friday 10th April: More surprises!

We were out early on a pleasant warm and sunny morning and heading towards Trow Pool as we'd done on a few occasions now. The Swallow at the farm had now been joined by another and the Long-tailed Tits nest appeared complete and was becoming hard to spot owing to the leaves now being almost fully unfurled. A large flock of Wood Pigeons took to the air as we walked the familiar path past the horse paddocks. At the first ploughed field I spied a Red Kite perched in a tree, still warming itself up this early in the day. I think Red Kites look more menacing when they are inactive at rest, their piercing eyes seem to follow you as you walk past, and they lack the gracefulness that they exhibit when on the wing.

Red Kite
The usual Yellowhammers and Skylarks graced the hedges and fields either side of the ditch and even at this early hour Skylarks were already flying high and filling the morning with their twinkling song. A small flock of Linnets had joined the Dunnocks and a couple of Reed Buntings on the path ahead.

I looked southwards in the direction of where the Linnets had flown at our approach and noticed a bird perched on top of one of a small line of isolated bushes. I expected it to be a Yellowhammer but on examination, even at the distance the bird was away, this was clearly a much plumper and plainer bird but was still clearly a Bunting of some type. I exclaimed to Mrs Caley that I had a Corn Bunting! Not a bird that I was expecting to find so close to home. There is a small population of Corn Buntings in an area about six miles to the East but I knew of none on the outskirts of Bicester. I stalked the Corn Bunting as stealthily as I could and spotted another perched on a post further away at the field edge. At my approach the first Corn Bunting flew up from its perch and joined the other, they were very wary birds and the lack of cover meant that the images I had already gained as I walked up, were the best I was going to get. The pair were then joined by another two! A really good record to get and great birds to find. I watched as all four Corn Buntings flew out into the muddy field and disappeared amongst the stubble.

Corn Bunting
Rejoining Mrs Caley back on the path I noticed a trio of Stock Doves heading our way. I like Stock Doves, they are a very overlooked species with most folk just lumping them as Pigeons, but I  always enjoy seeing them. They have the same fat round body as their bigger Wood Pigeon cousins but are somehow more elegant and have a less heavy flight. The three were flying almost right at us and I singled one out to photograph. I was in luck when my chosen subject decided to turn suddenly and bank in front of me resulting in me taking a pleasing image with the bird catching the sun with its outstretched wings and fully fanned tail.

Stock Dove
Halfway across the second and smaller ploughed field, I caught sound of a familiar song, that I'd been looking forward to and expectant of hearing, the scratchy little ditty of a Common Whitethroat. The bird was singing in the hedgerow ahead of us at the opposite side of the field and initially we couldn't find it. Then I spotted a small brownish and long-tailed Warbler flitting low over the hedge. I followed it and there was the Whitethroat, our 139th species for the year, perched on the hedge to our right. I neared closer in the hope of gaining a record shot only for the bird to fly back the other way to where Mrs Caley stood. By the time I got back there my wife regaled me with the views she'd just had and suggested that I'd have been much wiser to stay put! The Common Whitethroat continued to sing and a few moments later showed again and I got my shots. It's always a good feeling to see and welcome a returning species back for the summer.

Common Whitethroat
Trow Pool held the same species as before, Blackcaps remained elusive and the Goldcrest of the weekend before, while still present and singing, was much less showy. The pool area was busy with several people walking their dogs so we decided instead to study the area around the Quarry. I was hoping for hirundines over the water but it was maybe still a week or so early for those and, perhaps a little too optimistically, for a Yellow Wagtail or a Ring Ouzel, but unsurprisingly neither were present. There was no sign of the Jack Snipe that I'd discovered the week before. I was alerted to the call of a Curlew and turned to see one flying quickly towards me. As the Curlew passed I rattled off a whole series of shots. At the range the Curlew flew past even I couldn't miss!

My new favourite Moorhen was once again stood on its own personal submerged log, safe again now the dog walkers had left, but there was little else on offer on the pool. Disappointingly I noticed that the rope contained within the life belt store that the Robin had built a nest in, had been pulled out and left strewn on the floor. A quick inspection though revealed that the Robin was still sat on its nest so hopefully no harm had been done. The Trow Pool and surrounding area attracts many visitors and not all of them have an interest in the flora and fauna and some sadly use it as an "all things go" recreation area.

As with the Wheatear on our previous walk there was no sign of either the Whitethroat or Corn Buntings on the return journey. Admittedly we don't put as much effort into the birding on the way back owing to feeling a bit weary after walking so far and also because more people are about, walkers, cyclists and joggers all appear by mid-morning. While Mrs Caley took a breather near the farm, I took some photos of a Rook that flew by and then better still a fine Jay that also passed overhead.

As we neared the houses we both stopped in our tracks as a Cuckoo called from across the railway. We couldn't see it but just hearing it, probably the most significant song of spring, was a sheer delight. Hopefully it wouldn't be too long before we got our first look at one this year. Interestingly as we walked out onto the roadside path we also heard a Willow Warbler singing from trees close to the railway bridge.

In the afternoon I sat out in the garden once again hopeful of a flyover Osprey which, yet again, didn't appear, not that I was ever really thinking that one would, but if you don't look then you won't get so you may as well look! So I took some time to photograph some our garden birds, this time concentrating on the humble Starlings. In bright sunny light there can't be many better looking birds than a Starling, their glossy feathers in hues of greens, purples and blacks are as stunning as any exotic species from far flung countries. In my garden Starlings are frequent users of the water fall on the pond which they visit for a wash and brush up.

It isn't just the Starlings that admire the waterfall, many others use it as a wash and go too. One of our resident Robins was drying off after taking a dip and was fully airing its feathers.


Saturday 11th April: Relaxation at Home and Nearby

After the stress of queueing for our right to shop at the local supermarket at the far too late new eight a.m. opening time, we usually shop at six o'clock in the morning, we headed to Bicester Wetlands after breakfast to see what was around. Justin had reported a Sedge Warbler the day before and for us that would be new for the year. As soon as we'd taken our seats in the hide we could hear the Sedge Warbler's erratic and vibrant song coming from the reedbed but the bird itself stayed resolutely hidden. We weren't really feeling it today, good birds were beginning to be reported from around the country and indeed even in Oxfordshire, but we were unable to go anywhere to see them. This left me feeling pretty hopeless so I just sat gazing halfheartedly out of the hide window and not showing enough interest in the few birds that were on the reserve. I felt pathetic for feeling so pathetic when in the grand scheme of things my own emotional state wasn't important when compared to what other people were going through. Harbouring thoughts about missing out on some spring migrants and passage birds left me feeling guilty and selfish when I knew that they'd all be there to see next year, but for me seeing the birds each year constitutes a big part of my own wellbeing and I felt low.

A bird was moving through the small reedbed and I attempted to track it. It was skulking and never left the base of the reed stems until it reached the edge of the cut and then when it whirred across to the road on its tiny little wings, a Wren of course, I slumped down a bit more onto the hide bench. The only thing that kept me there that morning was knowing that the Sedge Warbler would bolster the year list. Normally I wouldn't worry about Sedge Warblers because, during any walk onto Otmoor in spring and summer, Sedgies would literally be crawling up your arm! But at the moment we couldn't access Otmoor or anywhere else locally that would hold Sedge Warblers, or Reed Warblers for that matter, so it only left our local wetlands reserve as a place to see them. Another bird was bending the reeds as it hopped through them. This one did jump up to the top of a reed but proved to be a Common Whitethroat, which we already had on the list from yesterday. The Sedge Warbler was still calling periodically but was proving to be a tease.

Common Whitethroat
The Black-tailed Godwits were still present but they had relocated to the far side of the main scrape. The recent dry spell of weather had resulted in a drop in the water levels and mud was now exposed around the entire edge of the scrape instead of just the roadside bank. A solitary Green Sandpiper was also feeding away on the far side, too far for it to be worth taking any photos except for record shots. A marauding Sparrowhawk put paid to that idea anyway when it flew quickly over the scrape, aiming for the feeders and the birds there, and everything other than the Godwits, Geese and Swans panicked and flew in every direction going. An inquisitive Jackdaw, no doubt attracted by the fuss, landed on the fence and at least gave me something to aim the camera at.

Finally, and just as we were getting ready to leave, the Sedge Warbler showed briefly when it flew up to snare a flying insect. Far too quick for me to get a record shot but it was added to the year list, now at 141, slow going when compared to the same time last year when we had seen 180! As we drove slowly out of the reserve I spied a Redshank in the stream that runs through the site. I'd expect to see a Redshank occasionally on the scrapes but never expected to see one in the stream that is enclosed on both sides by dense hedges! Even the birds are acting strangely in these unusual times.

With the weather being so fine I, like a lot of folk I guess, spent the afternoon pretending to be a gardener but in reality I was just idling, enjoying the sunshine and, in my case, watching the birds that visited the garden instead. As on the day before it was very therapeutic staring heavenwards hoping for a flyover vulture or stork (joke) but as before I ended up watching the Starlings taking baths in the waterfall and the other birds that made sorties to the feeders. 


The Rooks had arrived on the roof opposite, ready for their daily take away. It's interesting that the local Red Kites don't visit that garden for their own snacks, maybe it doesn't have a very high rating, instead they tend to swoop over a garden a couple of streets down. I watched one of the Rooks drop down from the roof and then reappear carrying something. It landed on my neighbours roof where it posed and showed off its prize, a bone!

My boredom even allowed me to study the Wood Pigeons at length, proving that even our most common of birds deserve to be closely looked at. Most people, birders included, would place the Wood Pigeon right at the bottom of the pile alongside Magpies and Crows, but they are beautiful and interesting creatures in their own right. They are fearless too so you can get some intimate close-up views and photos.

Wood Pigeon

Easter Sunday 12th April: Wishful Thinking

We were up early and drove the couple of miles to Trow Pool, getting there by six in the morning. A few Grasshopper Warblers had been reported from around the country, and indeed in Oxon, and I was hopeful that I'd find one on the new patch. The track through the corridor of trees and bushes was alive with birds but I was focussed on getting down to the Gagle Brook where I fancied there was habitat that might attract a Gropper or even a Nightingale at some point this spring. It was still early in the year for returning migrants but I had conjured up a bit of excitement from somewhere and I couldn't wait to go and have a look for some. It was sunny again for the umpteenth day in a row and as we walked down the track, I strained my ears listening hard for any familiar and unfamiliar birdsong, whether lodged or not in my memory. Unsurprisingly, however, it was only the usual suspects that made up the dawn chorus.

We reached the Quarry pool and studied the Tufted Ducks and Coots for a while and I scanned the edges for the Jack Snipe but again there was no sign so it must have moved on. There were none of the anticipated Hirundines, they'd surely be arriving en masse soon, but it was still early in the morning and there may be some about later in the day since they are day flying migrants so may not have left their overnight coastal roosts yet.

Tufted Duck
We walked towards the Incinerator pool and had our first look at the uninspiring hardcore lined bowl. Apart from a couple of Mallards there was nothing to be seen so we took a footpath that runs to the East towards the railway line and the village of Ardley. This was virgin territory for us so every step was taken with heightened anticipation since we had no idea what to expect. The footpath follows the Gagle Brook, the northern side is bordered by the old refuse tip and the southern side has the M40 traffic trundling past on the other side of a field. Usually I guess it would be a noisy spot but for now it was reasonably quiet. There are hedges, pockets of mature trees, scrubland with small ponds, grassland and even a wet boggy area. I imagined, fantasy I know, that we'd find Nightingales and Pied Flycatchers along this path in the next few weeks. We reached the railway and looked each way up the line. The last time we'd stood next to a railway crossing had been in company with the Waxwing in Worcestershire, now a distant memory of the winter and of better and more certain times although the current crisis was already on the radar even back then in February.

After ten minutes or so of scanning the leaf litter beneath a small copse and not finding the desired gang of Woodcocks, we retraced our steps. The usual birdsong accompanied us, Blackcaps were again prevalent but Chiffchaffs, a Willow Warbler and many common species were audible too. We met another yampy Goldcrest, not quite as territorial as the one of a week before, but again proving just how feisty these tiny birds are.

The area of scattered brambles and small willows dotted around some small ponds looked good for a possible Grasshopper Warbler hang out. A Willow Warbler was busy flitting about one of the willows, "hu-eeting" as it did so. There was no sign of any Groppers though. Looking further afield a Common Buzzard stood sentry on a distant fence post, probably eyeing up the many rabbits that were busy feeding on the open grassland.

Common Buzzard
Then a real treat! A Peregrine Falcon emerged into view above the bank created by the spoil from building the Incinerator plant. It soared past us, first one way and then back the other, with hardly a wingbeat taken. Peregrines are always a thrill to see and to watch. They just ooze power and presence, the sturdy wings and strong build sending out a message to most other birds that danger is above them. When a Peregrine is in the sky above, Pigeons in particular disappear, since to remain on view is to become a potential target.

Peregrine Falcon
The Peregrine, I think a male or Tiercel as it's sometimes called, on this occasion didn't appear interested in hunting and instead just continued to glide around the area before flying determinedly towards the Incinerator chimneys. There it took a lofty perch and settled in. The chimneys must be a couple of hundred feet high and would be a suitable substitute for the Falcons normal choice of clifftop or tall building on which to rest and nest. There is no sign of a mate for this bird so I guess it must be a young male that hasn't yet reached breeding maturity.

Peregrine on the Chimneys
I finally managed to nail down one of the abundant singing Blackcaps for a decent photo opportunity. In the Trow Pool area there were over twenty male Blackcaps singing this morning and there were probably others that we hadn't heard, it was like Blackcap City! They were easily outnumbering the other Warbler species. 

Trow Pool itself held the usual species that we'd now come to expect. The Moorhen was stood on its favoured log and the Little Grebes were doing their level best to avoid detection by diving and then surfacing in the thick carpet of weed. The drake Mallards were as skittish as ever and flew off before we'd even walked past them.

Little Grebe
The resident Song Thrush was still performing as we walked back up the track towards the Tower and the car. It was a little bit more exposed in its song tree but still difficult to see through the hedge. We had to walk up the rise a little way and look back in order to get a clear view. For once the Throstle didn't fly off at sight of us but instead continued singing.

Song Thrush

Easter Monday 13th April: Cold Weather for a Change

The morning was chilly and overcast so we remained in the warm kitchen watching the garden birds. It wasn't until almost ten o'clock that we ventured out and drove once more to Trow Pool for another crack at finding something different. There would be no glorious sunshine at all today and the wind was strong enough to blow the tree branches around quite considerably. As a result birds were keeping a low profile and thus the walk down to the pool was quiet on all sides. A Red Kite dispatching a meal while on the wing was the only bird of note that we saw. 

Red Kite
There was however, a year tick waiting for us at the Quarry Pool in the shape of House Martins. Around twenty of the smart black (actually more bottle blue) and white hirundines were hawking insects over the water in tandem with similar numbers of Swallows. We watched them in turn, skim low over the water and also soar high into the air in their pursuit of a meal. The dull conditions often drive hirundines, and Swifts as well, down low in their search for food. Normally I'd be at Farmoor trying hard, and mostly failing, to get a winning photo of them but of course, for now, that option has been taken away from us owing to the closure of the reservoir. There is always a trade off in trying to photograph these birds. On fine and sunny days they fly high since the insects they feed on are more airborne in the warmer and lighter air, whereas when it's dull and overcast they feed lower because the insects lack the warmth to fly high. The trade off comes with camera settings, in good conditions and with faster shutter speeds the birds are flying high and therefore mostly out of range, in gloomy conditions the birds are closer but shutter speeds have to be slower and the ISO rating is higher so it's harder to get fine quality images. But I took some record shots of the House Martins anyway, they were new for the year after all.

House Martin
The Peregrine was patrolling the grey skies too, and would no doubt be more than happy to grab a House Martin or Swallow snack so the hirundines would need to be on their collective guard. We saw the Falcon stoop quickly down towards the Incinerator so maybe it had locked on to a quarry of its own. I remember once, while stood on the cliffs at Portland Bill, watching a pair of Kestrels picking off migrant birds that were flying in off the sea and they caught a House Martin amongst others. Returning migrant birds must constitute a fair bit of fine spring dining for our Birds of Prey.

It felt so cold after all of the recent warm days that we decided we'd go home, take it easy and enjoy some rest before I returned to work the following day. Unbelievably as we reached the top of the track the grey clouds parted and we were swathed in glorious sunshine! Still cold though. A Common Buzzard bade us farewell by flying closely overhead and even appeared  to nod us a wink as it passed!

Common Buzzard

Monday 27 April 2020

The New Patch Delivers! 3rd-5th April 2020.

Friday 3rd April: The Boxing Bout

Now that we'd found a decent walk close to our home and with spring just about to spring, we were out early on Friday morning to see what we could find. The track to the farm is most productive in the corner by the railway bridge, where many birds sang although most remained hidden in the dense bushes, and by the farm itself where the buildings and garden offer plenty of places for birds to feed. We intended heading all the way out to Trow Pool again so didn't linger long but did check in on the Long-tailed Tits nest which was almost complete except for the very top of the dome. Chaffinches and Goldfinches appeared to be singing from just about every bush.

male Chaffinch
The trek across the farm fields was unremarkable until I spotted a couple of Hares in an adjacent field. One Hare was chasing the other around in ever tightening circles culminating in the intimidated animal suddenly stopping and challenging its harasser. The face off then quickly escalated into a full on boxing match, the like of which I had never actually witnessed first hand before! Apparently the mad March Hare (even in April it would seem) boxing bouts are instigated by a female which becomes tired of being hounded by a male that has designs upon her. When she is irked enough by the unwanted attention she stands and fights. The boxing in truth is all a bit "handbags" but is fascinating to watch. The two Hares faced off for a good couple of minutes during which time I tried to reduce the distance between me and them and get some useable images.

Mad April Hares
The match up ended when a third Hare darted in and broke it up. All three Hares legged it off towards the railway. Apart from a good number of Skylarks and a few Yellowhammers there was little of note seen on the remainder of the walk until we reached the Water Tower and noticed a Peregrine fly quickly past at some distance away. The Pool itself held the usual Moorhens and Little Grebes and a couple of Chiffchaffs piped away from the trees. We explored around the pool a little more than on our previous visit making note of what we could expect to see in the coming weeks. I spent a bit of time trying to conjure a Woodcock up out of the leaf litter and nettles, unsuccessfully of course, and we listened to a surprisingly furtive Song Thrush belt out its repetitive but beautiful song. The area looks good for a future Nightingale if one should find it.

I heard a gentle refrain coming from trees next to the main track, a song which for me is one of the definitive early sounds of spring, a Willow Warbler singing! Willow warblers are really breeding birds of more northern climes and I know them and their song very well from our holidays in Scotland. Any Willow Warblers encountered locally are most likely just passing through on passage. They are very similar to Chiffchaffs but have subtle structural differences such as longer wings which help propel them on much longer migration journeys, they spend our winter in tropical Africa. Plumage variation compared to Chiffchaff are very slight too, Willow Warblers tend to have lighter coloured legs and sport a brighter yellowish and more obvious supercilium. The best and easiest way to separate the two species is by voice and Willow Warblers, such as the one we could hear singing, have a lovely melodic whistling short song that starts high and then descends, quite different to the Chiffchaffs repetitive monosyllabic chant. We listened intently to the Willow Warbler but finding it was much harder despite the lack of leaves on the trees. And when we did pin it down it was very active making grabbing good views difficult. Eventually though it stayed still and in the open for long enough for me to grab a shot or two. This was quite a dull individual and a far cry from the very yellow fresh juveniles that we'd see in the autumn.

Willow Warbler
We made a quick sortie into the Quarry grounds to see what possibilities lay there. There is another small pool which is grass and reed edged so offers some potential. An Oystercatcher flying over and landing unseen within the Quarry itself was a surprise.

By the time we arrived back at home we'd walked the best part of five miles and were pretty much done in! We are not used to walking so far and it was already clear that the restriction on driving was going to increase our normal exercise levels, and hopefully our fitness, somewhat.

Saturday 4th April: Year List Creeping Up

Still feeling a bit jaded from the long walk of the day before we decided to take the easy way and drive as far as Trow pool on Saturday morning, thus saving us around four miles of walking but who knew what we missed by not walking across the farmland. At least we were on site really early and there was almost no noise from the adjacent motorway because there was almost no traffic whatsoever on it! We emerged from the car into pretty dense fog and consequently quite a chill too. The Willow Warbler, or another, that we'd found down by the pool yesterday was now singing away by the Water Tower but it was no showier than it had been previously. By the time we'd reached the pool the fog had lifted and the sun had burst through. I wondered if the almost constant sunshine of the Lockdown period was a good thing or not. True, the nice weather makes us all feel a bit better about life but it also makes not being able to visit our favourite places much harder to bear. The Willow Warbler had followed us down the track and was now singing from the tree above our heads. It was easier to see too but our views were of the "up the bum" type, perfectly normal for tree top birds such as small Warblers!

Willow Warbler
A Song Thrush had been singing loudly and we listened to it outdoing the Willow Warbler both in content and volume. Usually Thrushes of all types sit on prominent perches and are easy to spot but this particular bird proved to be an awkward cuss to pin down. When I did finally find it, the position it had taken was tricky to see through the hedge. All good practise, I thought, for when the Nightingales return in a few weeks time, except of course, that the chances of our most glorious of songbirds finding this little patch of rank woodland was about the same as my football team overturning a three goal deficit in the second leg of their Champions League match, should football ever make a comeback. Zero probability in reality, but still a slight possibility!

Song Thrush
We made a circuit of the small pool. A Moorhen was once again stood on top of a submerged log and others fed amongst the weeds. I reminisced back to my formative years once more and related to Mrs Caley how Moggies were everywhere back then. Every pool or pond would hold several nests and they would be placed in just about every conceivable place, on the water, in a bush, up a tree, I even found one once next to a stream in a shed!

We surprised a wading bird from the edge of the pool, it was a Green Sandpiper, a bird we've become very familiar with at Bicester Wetlands where they are frequently seen. I've been lucky enough to find a breeding pair of Green Sandpipers in the Caledonian Forest up in the Cairngorms on a few occasions, they are extremely rare breeders in the UK with just a handful of records each year. This bird flew off high, tootling loudly as they do, towards the Incinerator plant where I knew there was a larger body of water. I grabbed a shot through the trees as it sped away.

Green Sandpiper
The Incinerator Pool would be left for another visit since we intended to keep this trip short. There is a very small island at one end of Trow Pool which has some very fine looking trees growing on it. On our previous visit I thought that the trees with their trunks bearing rough bark would be suitable for Treecreepers, both to feed on and to nest in. That prophecy was now proven to be right as I caught sight of one of the small mouse-like birds scurrying up one of the trees. The Treecreeper was a year tick, the 135th species seen this year, and helped to renew a bit of optimism for our next walk. Unfortunately I failed miserably to get a decent image of the bird and nor did I when it was joined by another. We watched a Chiffchaff bathing in the small stream, the almost locally famous Gagle Brook, you'll recall that Bicester has no rivers so even trickling brooks gain notoriety in these parts, not quite the torrent worthy of a Dipper or a Goosander though. The Chiffy flew up into the canopy before I could arm the camera properly so I missed the chance of an interesting water going everywhere shot but my luck was in when a fly took too much of a risk and ended up as Chiffchaff elevenses. The Warbler very deftly secured the meal, skilfully turned it around and devoured it before you could say Phylloscopus collybita!

I spent the afternoon by spending a little bit of time watching some of the garden birds in between performing necessary gardening tasks. In truth I spent most of my time watching the birds and did very little pruning and digging. After all, the birds may not visit me tomorrow, so it was best I looked at them, wasn't it?

Blue Tit
Collared Dove
House Sparrows
Wood Pigeons
That evening we spotted a Grey Heron stood on the roof of the house opposite. Unless the occupants were having fish for tea, I doubted that the Heron was waiting as the Rooks do for the throw outs, and feared instead that it was eyeing up my last remaining Blue Orfe and Tench in my garden pond. Well, Heron my friend, you're out of luck because after another of your ilk virtually emptied the pond a couple of years back, the fish are now protected by a doubled over net. Bah!

Grey Heron

Sunday 5th April: Surprise, Surprise!

We were back on the long walk again early on Sunday. After multitudes of selfish folk had foolishly descended on mass to Snowdon (another oxymoron I think, morons anyway) and Brighton beach the day before, the police had issued many warnings that driving to beauty spots wouldn't be tolerated. I'm pretty sure that the recently built Incinerator plant at Ardley wouldn't qualify as anywhere near beautiful, although it definitely counts as a blemish on the landscape and therefore ticks the spot box, but even still and just to be safe, rather than risk driving and landing up with a stern talking to, or worse still be given a fine to pay, we yomped it along our new favourite farm track. 

Our first wow moment came as we reached the farm when I heard a familiar chattering sound coming from ahead. Hearing and then seeing birds again, that you last saw back in the autumn, is a sheer delight and it's akin to welcoming back old friends. The excited babbling belonged to a Swallow and I found it resting on an overhead wire along with a couple of Goldfinches. As we all know, one Swallow doesn't make a summer, but it sure goes a long way to lighten the load, and the mood! After taking some very unimpressive images I gave up and just watched the radiant little migrant. I am persistently amazed to know that the Swallow, weighing about the same as a multipack bag of crisps, can fly all the way to South Africa and back, even taking on the vast expanse of the Sahara Desert twice. It's truly an incredible feat.

Swallow & Goldfinches
A few moments later a Green Woodpecker exploded out of the grass a short way ahead. The yaffle, as the country folk like to call them, is an incredibly hard bird to get close to unless you have some cover to hand and we didn't have any, we in a large open field after all. The Woodpecker sought refuge in a large tree about a hundred yards ahead but the best I could do was halve that distance and a record shot before it flew across to the other side of the field. My attempts to photograph its undulating flight failed yet again.

Green Woodpecker
This was promising though, a year tick and a few other nice birds already and we hadn't gained the open farmland yet. A Song Thrush, this one showy for a change, sang loudly from one of the large Ash trees and we spied a Sparrowhawk flying rapidly along the railway embankment. The first open muddy field had, Chaffinches and the first Reed Bunting that we've seen on this walk, feeding on the stubble. No sign of the mad Hares this time though. Yellowhammers and Skylarks were very visible and in the balmy sunny start to the day it was easy to forget the worries and immerse ourselves in the springing spring.

Song Thrush
While watching a couple of Yellowhammers darting in and out of a small clump of brambles that lines a ditch, I noticed another bird running quickly along the stony ground. Thinking it would probably be another Yellowhammer or Skylark, I was gobsmacked when, bingo, my binoculars revealed a smart male Northern Wheatear! The second year tick of the day, the year list now stood at 137, and the most exciting find for our new patch so far. I stealthily stalked the bird the bird as best as I could, shamefully walking across the field in order to do so, and secured a record shot of the Wheatear doing what it does best, standing alert on an old fence post.

The day was going so well that I had almost forgotten how fed up I had been! At last we were seeing some good birds and I even became uncharacteristically optimistic that this walk might turn up something really good, Hoopoe and Dotterel sprang to mind, but then I reminded myself to stop being daft, remembering that I never find anything really good in Oxfordshire. We found a Great Spotted Woodpecker in one of the small copses just before the motorway, probably speculating for a nesting hole. There was no sound or sight of the previous days Willow Warbler at the Tower but a couple of Blackcaps warbled away unseen in the car park trees.

Great Spotted Woodpecker
Halfway along the track we heard the plaintive weedy song of a Crest. I have never quite mastered the difference between the songs of the Goldcrest and Firecrest so always have to find the singing bird to decide which one it is. It didn't take long for this bird to show and prove its identity and it was, as it almost always is, a Goldcrest. The Goldcrest had for some reason taken offence to us walking along the track and had decided to sing and display directly above us and no more than a few metres away. It offered some of the best close up views of the tiny sprite that we've ever had, giving me a fabulous chance to capture some really good images, an opportunity tempered only by the lack of light under the canopy of the hedge.

The Goldcrest battered us with its tirade for over ten minutes, it was obviously protecting territory, we had seen this bird in the same spot last week and would see it again on future visits. Hopefully it will find a mate and raise young this future.

We took the tour around the pool again and found the pair of Treecreepers on the island trees. This time I was able to get some better photos. Treecreepers are a difficult bird to find in and around Bicester, the lack of woodland doesn't help, and these are probably the closest I've seen to our house. I could hear a Nuthatch calling too but it wouldn't give itself up. I noticed a Robin flying out of one of the Life Belt Housings and investigation revealed that it was building a nest in it. Robins do build nests in some strange places! I hoped that nobody falls in the pond during the next few weeks and would require the use of the life belt, not only for their sake but also for the prospective Robin family.

After the cracking views of the Goldcrest and Treecreeper, a singing Blackcap was much more difficult to spot high up in the trees. Finally it emerged far enough out for me to at least gain a record shot. Blackcaps have been the most numerous of the returning spring warblers so far on this walk, even outnumbering Chiffchaffs, but all of them have been typically elusive choosing to sing from deep cover. Usually I'd expect them to become showier as the month progresses when there is more competition between males.

We walked to the Quarry Pool and I scanned the water and the pool edge. Viewing of the pool has to be from afar, access is restricted by a fence that lies around thirty metres away so without a scope, and I'm not carrying that beast for over five miles, I have to strain away with just binoculars. In addition to the regular Tufted Ducks and Coots, I found a pair of Teal tucked up in the short grass on the western bank. A Grey Heron stood ominously at one corner proving that, even this pool dug out in clay and containing weird turquoise coloured water, must hold fish or amphibians. The Green Sandpiper erupted in a burst of disgruntled calls and sped off towards the Incinerator plant and the larger pool there. Then I spotted a Snipe huddled up and asleep under a small sapling. It was around fifty metres away but the golden yellow scapular feathers were striking in the sunshine. My attention to detail ratcheted up a few notches, I knew that Jack Snipe had much brighter and pronounced scapulars than the Common Snipe. I took a few record shots and looked at the images on the back of the camera which weren't very good but I felt that I could just make out the split supercilium that a Jack Snipe has and a Common Snipe doesn't. How I wished that I had the scope to hand! One of the Teal walked past the resting bird and it absolutely dwarfed it, and Teal are not big ducks. I was now pretty sure that I had a Jack Snipe and tried hard to get some better photos but I had to be satisfied with what I already had, I just couldn't get better. That afternoon I sent a couple of frames to Ian Lewington, Oxon's bird recorder and all round expert on all bird identification, and he confirmed it, it was a Jack Snipe! I never expected to be adding Jack Snipe onto my year list in April.

Jack Snipe
A fine looking drake Mallard, surely on of our most under appreciated birds, was on the Trow Pool and looked positively resplendent in the strong sunlight. One of the resident Little Grebes was also out, although as furtive as ever by spending most of the time diving under the surface in an attempt to evade being seen.


Little Grebe
We walked quickly home, the Wheatear had left already, but as I neared one of the ditches a Common Snipe flushed and flew strongly away. I'd have to keep an eye on that ditch and approach it more carefully next time. The lone Swallow was still chattering away as it flew around the farm buildings, it landed in the tree right above us at one point, but remained a Barn Swallow all the same. The final good bird of the day was a Stock Dove that was feeding in the horse paddock with a few Wood Pigeons. This had been a really good mornings bird walk with some really good birds seen and two very pleasant surprises and year ticks with the Wheatear and Jack Snipe. It helped to lift a lot of the stress that I'd been feeling and I looked forward to the walk again in the coming weeks. Tomorrow though I would be returning to work, having managed to find a couple of jobs where I'd be alone and therefore able to self-isolate.