Saturday 27 June 2020

Otmoor and a Bank Holiday Bonus. 24th and 25th May

24th May morning; Cuckoo Wars

Not that we need, or rely on, a Bank Holiday for respite at the moment, considering that most days are like a holiday, apart from the fact that we can't actually go anywhere for a proper holiday this spring and summer, because of the travel restrictions. Normally we would have been gearing up for another trip to the highlands of Scotland via Northumberland or another part of Northern England or Southern Scotland on this weekend but that was denied to us this May and June so it was back to Otmoor on the Sunday morning. Much improved weather greeted us for our walk after the inclement conditions encountered during our Collared Pratincole twitch of the day before.

The fun started immediately once we'd opened the car doors when I caught the unmistakable reeling song of a Grasshopper Warbler. It sounded as if it was right in the hedge next to the car but of course it wasn't but was throwing its voice from somewhere within the carpark field. I spent a good half hour trying to pinpoint the songster, at times it felt like it was just yards away, but failed to find it. It must have been singing from deep within a bush, so having seen one already this spring in a more open part of the field Mrs Caley and I moved on. We were greeted at the bridleway by a Cuckoo calling from one of the nearby Oak trees. As stealthily as I could, you need to exercise great care when approaching Cuckoos since they will fly off as soon as they see you which is usually before you've seen them, I walked towards the trees. Through a gap in the crown of the first Oak, I could see the Cuckoo perched on a sturdy branch at the top of the second tree. I managed a quick snap before the bird spotted me and was away. I'v never secured a really good photo of a Cuckoo, but, no, I'm not giving in and going to Surrey to photograph that bloody "plastic" and artificially fed Colin either!

There were a few Common Swifts hawking over Greenaways. As my regular reader will know, I adore Swifts and can sit and watch them for as long as Mrs Caley allows me too. Trying to capture them in flight via the camera is a pastime even though I've yet to get a great photo of one of them either. I reckon for every hundred frames I take of Swifts ninety will be binned before editing and nine out of the ten left will go the same way once cropped. Very occasionally I'll save one or two, if only to use on this blog. Today's effort were better than most, although still not top notch. But as the great BB King once said, when asked why he practiced playing his guitar so much, "One day I'll get it right!", so I'll keep trying! Besides it's great fun!

On the way out there was no sign of any Bittern activity from the "Bittern Bench" so we continued along the bridleway towards Noke. The Lapwings on Big Otmoor were giving the resident Marsh Harrier some proper stick as it passed overhead. They have good reason of course to try and encourage the raptor on its way since the Marsh Harrier will quite happily snap up a Lapwing chick to take back to its mate who will then feed the prey to its own offspring. A few minutes later I saw the male Marsh Harrier return and this time it was indeed carrying a prey item. As it passed high overhead I rattled off some shots and editing revealed that the prey was probably a young Coot, or maybe a Grebe. The newly hatched birds of the Moor face a tough baptism to life with so many predatory Birds of Prey, plus the Grey Herons, large Gulls, and land based predators such as Foxes, all ready and willing to feast on a few, all part of life's grand of scheme of things.

male Marsh Harrier with prey
We heard a commotion just behind us, it was two Cuckoos both calling loudly, one was chasing the other along the ditch that borders the bridleway. As they flew past at full speed I had just enough time to aim and fire the camera first at the lead bird and then the other. The chaser then turned about tail and flew back giving me a bit more time to take a few more measured shots, although it was well aware of our presence by then so steered further out onto Big Otmoor and away from us.

The Swifts were still gathering insect food high above Greenaways but as yet there was still no sign of any Bitterns. We needed a rest so grabbed the bench that overlooks the isolated reedbeds that the Bitterns seem to favour at this time of year. The bridleway was getting busier with more folk out enjoying a constitutional and a couple that I alerted to the Bitterns last time out joined us in the vigil. We didn't have to wait for long, when I spotted a Bittern fly up out of the grass just the other side of the ditch and into the closest patch of reeds. It was up and down too quickly for me to get a photo but now I knew that there was one out there it would just be a matter of time before it broke cover again. In the event it was a mere ten minutes when the Bittern suddenly flew up from the reeds and headed directly for the nearest patch of reeds to the bench. For the entire twenty second flight I put the camera into machine gun mode before the bird disappeared into the reeds again. I suspect that the Bittern has a nest, and hopefully some young, in that patch of reeds. It would seem that the Bittern was the same one, considering the notch in the primaries on its left wing, that I saw a couple of weeks ago by the Wetlands Watch Hide (see here). Then it looked very underweight and scrawny, now it looks very fit and healthy.

We waited for a while longer but the Bittern didn't reappear so we left the others, quite a crowd had gathered, to it. Social distancing was becoming more difficult to adhere to and we still wanted our own space. As we neared the cattle pens we finally saw our first Hobby of the morning, flying low over Greenaways in search of its insect prey. It was all too much for the falcon though since it soon got bored with chasing Odonata and decided instead to perch on one of the posts.


24th May, afternoon; Bonus!

Part way through the afternoon I discovered that a Red-necked Phalarope had been found at Wilstone Reservoir near Tring. Wilstone is only around twenty-five miles from home but involves travelling through Aylesbury to get there. Normally driving in or around Aylesbury is a pain in the proverbial but of course, under present circumstances with most people staying at home because there is nowhere to go to spend money, the roads are much less busy so it's not so bad. I know from experience that Phalaropes can be very short staying passage migrants because, being so small, they are easy targets for bigger birds such as Gulls and Coots and are quite often hounded out of their stopover spots. So I coerced Mrs Caley out of her Sunday afternoon slumber and coaxed her into the car for the forty-five minute drive to the reservoir.

The main carpark was rammed full, people were obviously finding stuff to do without any financial outlay, and a mini-gridlock had formed at the entrance. Luckily I remembered that on our last visit, during which we enjoyed a really good coffee in the freezing cold garden centre cafe next door, there was additional off-road parking there. The people responsible for jamming up the carpark actually did us a favour since we were now able to park much closer to the jetty, and to where the Phalarope was. We passed our good friend Ewan on our way to the reservoir bank and, after the steep climb up the embankment, emerged bank side into a fairly brisk breeze. We spied the gaggle of Birders and Toggers about a hundred yards to our left but couldn't see the Red-necked Phalarope, mind you, as I said, it's a pretty small bird and would be hard to see from that distance. We walked closer and about halfway there, I saw the Phalarope, our 163rd bird of this awkward Lockdown year, bobbing about on the shallow waves of the reservoir just off the end of the jetty. It was pointless taking any photos at this point but, obviously, I took a few anyway, just in case the bird decided there and then to fly off. When I got home, I binned all of the record shots.

male Red-necked Phalarope
I was able to chuck the early shots out because we were able to walk right up to and on to the jetty to get much closer views of the Phalarope. This was a really good bonus bird to get and totally unexpected. I had hoped to see them in the Outer Hebrides during June but that planned holiday had been cancelled so I was pleased to get the chance now. It was a more subdued plumaged male bird, Phalaropes are unusual within the bird world in that it's the females that have the brighter colours and the males take care of all parental duties. Unlike the Grey Phalarope which is almost guaranteed to show up locally in the autumn, Red-necked Phalaropes are far less reliable on reverse passage during September and October. The Phalarope had drifted further out though and the sun was shining directly at us so conditions for photography wasn't ideal but you have to try to make the most of what you have.

As I alluded to earlier, Red-necked Phalaropes are easy targets for the bigger waterbirds and this bird had to in turns avoid the malicious intentions of a Coot, several Black-headed Gulls and even some of the Canada geese which were grumpy because of folk occupying their jetty resting place. When seen close to the more familiar birds it was evident just how tiny a Red-necked Phalarope is.

Coot harassing the Phalarope

evasive action from a Gull attack

big Canada geese and tiny Red-necked Phalarope
We whiled away a pleasant hour or so in the company of the Red-necked Phalarope, me taking photos whenever it ventured closer to shore and Mrs Caley enjoying some of the other species on offer. A Great Crested Grebe was fishing close to shore but, stupidly, I chose to ignore it thinking it was just gathering weed to eat. It was only after it had moved further out that I realised it was actually catching Crayfish and that I'd missed some really good photographic opportunities. 

Great Crested Grebe with Crayfish
After only adding Common Terns to our year list last week, it was good to see more here, several were fishing out on the reservoir. But we'd had a long day so after a quick couple of shots of one of the Terns, we made for home, knowing that we'd be out early the next day.

Common Tern

25th May morning; Once Bittern, Twice and it's more shy

We hit Otmoor early, by our standards anyway. So early that there was only one other car already parked up. I hoped to see the Grasshopper warbler but again, despite it singing continually, it remained hidden. With any luck another would show again once the first broods had fledged and the male, wanting to start another family, would choose a more open perch to reel from. While I searched for the Gropper I spotted the strangely plumaged Dunnock again, it's odd looking because it has bare skin around its face making it look like a miniature Rook. Nearby was a far more conforming example of its species.

odd looking Dunnock
normal looking Dunnock
We decided to take a wander up the Roman Road for a change. There were still singing Chiffchaffs and a Willow Warbler joined in the morning chorus. I was hoping for a Spotted Flycatcher but none were evident on this walk. At the bridleway we watched the Moor come alive in the early morning sunshine. We could hear Cuckoos calling away at the misty edges of Greenaways and watched Redshanks pursue and clear a Magpie off their territory. A Blue Tit perched in the sunshine preening after an early morning dip in the stream. On mornings such as this Otmoor is hard to beat.

Blue Tit
At the bridleway next to the pump house and cattle pens there is a particularly confiding Garden warbler, well so I had been told since up until now I hadn't actually seen it! But this morning the "Garbled" Warbler was really giving it some and it didn't take long for me to find it perched up in the canopy of a small tree. Garden Warblers are not always this easy to observe and don't pose willingly for photographs that often so I was happy to grab a few.

Garden Warbler
I moved back to the carpark path and to the bridge where I thought I might get a better and closer view of the Garden warbler but instead was captivated by a Common Whitethroat that was ready and waiting to feed some caterpillars to its youngsters in the nest. 

Common Whitethroat
Our aim this morning was to wait at the "Bittern Bench" and watch for any activity there. In the event over the next hour or more there was no appearance from any Bitterns at all. Instead I kept myself busy by watching a pair of Reed Warblers that were active in the ditch by the bench. Reed Warblers, initially wary and hard to see when first arriving in April, slowly become more visible as spring moves on. The pair in the ditch were certainly showing well for us making up for the lack of any sightings of Bitterns.

Reed Warbler
By mid-morning the bridleway was resembling a busy Oxford thoroughfare with lots of folk out for a walk and a lot of birders coming along for a Bittern fix. We don't do busy, unless we're twitching a rarity, so left the crowds to it, pausing only to watch the Lapwings fly to and fro in their endless task of warding off the Red Kites that fly over their territories. I bet birds like Lapwings look forward to their offspring leaving home just as much as we do, and will no doubt enjoy the peace and quiet outside of the breeding season.


Like I said, and even if the Bitterns were shy, Otmoor is hard to beat at times!

Thursday 18 June 2020

A Life(r)line at last! Pilning Wetlands, 23rd May

The last bird that we'd added to our UK life list was pre-Lockdown way back in March, when we managed to see a Laughing Gull during a very frustrating weekend of birding in the south-west. On Thursday a bird that I've been longing to see but have never had the chance before was found on a reserve next to the River Severn, within sight of the Severn Road bridges but I wouldn't get the opportunity to go until the Saturday. The bird in question was a Collared Pratincole. Pratincoles are a bit of an oddity in the birding world, being Wading Birds but which actually resemble a Tern or Swallow species. Collared Pratincoles are the commonest of the family that are encountered in the UK but are only recorded on average once or twice a year. Up until now there had been no reports of any Pratincoles locally (there is a record of one from Otmoor but that was before my time) and all of the recent ones that could have been seen with a bit of travelling had only been present during the midweek when I'd been working. On the 21st when the bird had been found early morning, it had proceeded to show extremely well and some excellent photos surfaced on the Inter-web whetting my appetite for Saturday. On the Friday the bird was still there, my mate Jim went to see it, but the Pratincole had become far less obliging and spent most of the day just standing on the ground at some distance away from possible viewpoints. Pratincoles, contrary to all other Wading Birds, don't wade much at all but instead hawk flying insects above wetlands so are usually extremely aerially dynamic birds. 

Come Saturday and despite a pretty shaky looking weather forecast we headed down to Pilning and the banks of the Severn. Our confidence was as mixed as the weather, would the bird have stayed in the cold and wet spell that had arrived on Friday morning and which would stay with us for a few more days. After all Pratincoles are more accustomed to the Mediterranean region and the warmer climes associated with that area. On the M4 section we drove through several heavy showers and the sky ahead looked fairly foreboding even though the forecast had actually been improved and suggested a more reasonable day although cold and windy. We arrived just before 9 o'clock and squeezed into a parking space on the narrow access road. We knew that the Pratincole had been seen already and a returning birder confirmed it but added, "You'll need your scope" and "It's really hard to hold it steady in the wind mind". We had never been to Pilning before so weren't sure of where to go but as soon as we reached 'The Pill", a small tidal inlet of the Severn, we could see the small group of Birders huddled up (socially distanced of course) on the sea wall and looking eastwards onto the wetlands. We should have come to Pilning last autumn when two Citrine Wagtails had been found but after dithering for too long, because of the fact that the weather that day was really awful and had created major traffic problems, we missed our chance. As soon as we were exposed to the openness of the estuary then we were subjected to the full force of the wind which was billowing in from the south-west. At least it was clear and the sun was shining but I know from experience that wind from that direction will likely bring some precipitation at some point, it was just a case if we'd get away with it while we out in the open.

We joined the five other birders present, a surprisingly low key twitch I thought, but then we were still in partial Lockdown and I guess that locals had already been to see the bird over the previous two days. Because the Collared Pratincole would be a "lifer" I didn't mess around trying to find the bird myself but instead asked for its whereabouts. Pointed to the right spot my initial view of what I'd always imagined would be a startling, dynamic and beautiful species was underwhelming to say the least. The Collared Pratincole was hunkered down against the wind, which I might add was strengthening by the minute, fortunately close to a Shelduck and a couple of Avocets which aided finding it, but was difficult to discern against the mud of its surroundings owing to it being almost identical in colour. The Pratincole was about a hundred yards away so any detail was impossible to pick out with the camera, in fact it was hard to even find the bird through the viewfinder and, like I said, without the Shelduck and Avocets in close proximity it would probably have gone unnoticed. The scope of course allowed more magnification but the strong wind made high zoom usage futile.

A couple of friends of ours, the Polley's, from Oxfordshire arrived and I helped them find the Pratincole which was still taking things easy. Another friend, Colin, followed them in and the "crowd" was now 5/6 Oxon Birders! I happened to glance over my shoulder towards the Severn crossing and saw the mother of all black skies approaching and there was nowhere to hide on the sea wall so we'd all have to weather out the imminent squall. When the mini storm hit we were subjected to a heavy downpour and then a hailstorm as the temperature dropped to near freezing. Thankfully it didn't last for long but we were all drenched. Reclaiming the scope again, none of us could initially find the Pratincole but Colin found it again hunkered even further down amongst the weeds and still as far as away.

After another, thankfully, less severe shower had passed through our patience, stupidity more like, was rewarded with a spell of semi-warming sunshine which allowed us to dry out. It also spurred the Collared Pratincole into some activity as it had actually stood up and was gazing around. Perhaps some flight action was imminent!

I heard, "It's up, flying right", just as I had got bored and was looking around the estuary behind us for Storm Petrels and Shearwaters, of which of course there were none. By the time I had reverted my attention to the job in hand the Pratincole had landed again and I had missed my long awaited flight view! But at least the darned thing was active now and surely it was merely a case of a bit more waiting before it performed its expected aerial dynamics. Colin, again, "Flying left, over the Shelduck", this time I had been enticed by Swifts and House Martins zooming past my head! Mrs Caley asking, "Did you get that?". "Uh, no!". 


Okay, time to really concentrate. I was ready the third time when the Pratincole flew all of about ten feet before landing again, this time behind a straggly weed. Over the next half hour or so the legendary flying wading bird flew very short distances and never got more than a few feet off the ground. Underwhelming indeed! Every time it took to flight I just haphazardly fired away with the camera, in the desperate hope of catching a decent image, but I knew that was highly improbable. I did manage to catch the Pratincole in flight but at the distance and against the darker background, none of the images were sharp.

We watched the Pratincole for another half hour but it resolutely refused to perform any better so we gave up. Not the most exciting twitch for a new bird ever and certainly a tad disappointing after our pre-twitch expectations but we'll hopefully get another chance at another Collared Pratincole soon.