Towards the end of last year a lot of people were expressing the desire to be rid of 2020 and roll on 2021. Well, the old adage of "be careful what you wish for" was never truer when through necessity, the New Year began with the whole country plunged into Lockdown again. From a birding perspective and particularly with regard to listing, 2020 wasn't ruined until March, this years plans are already in tatters!
No long distance trips are necessary, not even for major rare birds, so it would be back to local birding for the foreseeable future. In some ways, despite me often complaining about the relative paucity of birds in my local area, this would mean that we'd be putting more effort into finding birds close to home. My initial plans for New Year's Day were to travel up to Draycote Water where there was an absolute glut of less common bird species but at 35 miles away from home that was clearly too far to travel. Most wintering species remain until well into March anyway and, fingers crossed, the authorities will have eased the lockdown restrictions by then. So we opted for a short drive to the Heyford's and back in the hope of finding the covey of Grey Partridge that we'd seen at the end of last year. We didn't find any but did have the satisfaction of seeing a Corn Bunting which is always a good bird to get on the year list which with the addition of birds seen in the garden at home numbered 25.
Time for confession number 1. We had nearly all day still and didn't want to be stuck indoors so elected, admittedly a little bit guiltily, to drive to Radley just south of Oxford. At 16 miles it's not awfully far from home and I felt reasonable enough to enjoy a brisk walk in the fog around a lake there. I like walking in the fog! It was extremely cold as well so our walk, by our standards, was indeed brisk and we only stayed for 40 minutes. In that short time though, we very luckily connected with a pair of Ring-necked Ducks, that were also enjoying some New Year's Day exercise, and a Kingfisher, which whistled past whilst searching for some shallow water that wasn't frozen.
During the exercise, we had time for a brief socially distanced interlude with a Mute Swan, who definitely had a cob on (ha!), and a gorgeous little Robin. Both were obviously after a snack that I couldn't provide so I made a note to take a bag of bird seed out with me in future. Our total number of birds species seen on the day was 41. Last year at Otmoor and Farmoor we saw 67!
The next day's weather forecast was for settled and sunny conditions so it was a no brainer to head to Otmoor, local to us so no problems with going there, which is always brilliant when visibility is good. There are some really good wintering birds on Otmoor, especially a collection of sought after raptor species. Our walk would prove to be an interesting exercise. Basically we saw some really excellent birds but I hardly took a photo, and didn't get any images of any of the star birds. After pausing to add Marsh Tit to our year list, we were then surprised when a Lesser Redpoll nipped out from the pathway hedge, took a quick drink at a puddle and then disappeared back into the hedge. Incredibly we didn't see either species until the end of October in 2020 and in the same spot too. Now we had both on the New Year list already.
Another of the main attractions in winter on Otmoor are the large flocks of Lapwing and Golden Plovers. Quite often these birds are well out on the moor and views are of distant whirling flocks but on this morning there were thousands settled on The Closes, the field opposite the feeders. They were still fairly distantly gathered out on the flooded field but at least when they all took to the air the spectacle of so many birds flying in formation could be marvelled at more closely. On a bright sunny day the Golden Plovers resemble sparkling jewels glinting in the clear air.
We were already having a terrific walk but it got even better as we trudged through the thick mud that passes for the bridleway these days. The nice clean sandy path along Greenaways has been turned into a quagmire under the sheer weight of the amount of people visiting Otmoor over the winter. The moor which used to be pretty much the domain of birders and local villagers, has recently become a magnet for folk from all over seeking a safe place to get lockdown exercise and by those visiting to see the Starling murmurations that take place over the reedbeds on most evenings. You need a good pair of wellington boots if walking on Otmoor in 2021. As we walked along the bridleway, I made regular stops to scan Greenaways, the large field to the North, for any raptors that might be active. On one of those overviews I noticed a small flock of Starlings suddenly rise in alarm and head straight for the nearest hedge. When birds take instant evasive action and dive for cover then it's a sure sign that there is danger around and that peril came in the shape of a dashing Merlin which flew at great speed along the hedge. I followed the Merlin, a female, as it hurtled along the northern edge of the field until it took a sharp turn to its right and disappeared over the hedge and onto the Flood Field the other side. It had probably taken ten-seconds to fly almost the whole length of Greenaways so there had been no chance to lift the camera, besides it was too far away, to grab any photos. It was great to watch it though and will be a memory to savour since we don't see many Merlins in our local area.
|Merlin, Churn Oxon 09/09/2017
A Cetti's Warbler scolded from the reeds along the bridleway and then presented itself briefly in full view before flitting off, just as I aimed the camera for one of those prize winning shots. We were adding some real quality birds to the list at a fair old rate of knots and a few yards on, we had another totally unexpected surprise. As we neared a bush right by the path I could hear some rustling noises coming from the grass under the tree. Expecting a Fieldfare or Blackbird, of which there were many around the bridleway that morning, to fly out, I was gobsmacked when a Jack Snipe flushed from almost under our feet! I had a terrific view of the diminutive wading bird as it flew in a straight line, no more than 3 feet off the ground towards the ditch to our left. In the sunshine the golden braces of its back showing caught the eye as did the short bill. Just a couple of weeks ago I joined Alan, the warden of our local reserve at Bicester which holds a few Jack Snipes every winter, on a survey of the birds. Surveying Jack Snipe involves flushing them from dense waterside vetch and reeds. I'm not a big fan of purposely flushing birds, no more than I am of mist-netting for ringing, but apparently it's important to know how many there are at the Wetlands so that the main donors to the conservation efforts at the reserve know what their money is being used for. On that walk with Alan, I had noticed that whereas Common Snipe always fly up quite high when flushed and utter a "tch, tch" call as they do so, Jack Snipe always kept low and kept silent as this bird did.
I called Pete, Mr Otmoor, to let him know what we'd seen and if there were any other interesting reports that morning. He told me that he'd seen an Egyptian Goose on Big Otmoor. Almost instantaneously, 3 Egyptian Geese flew high overhead, presumably the same 3 that we'd seen at the end of last year on the moor. It felt like we couldn't miss!
Ewan was stood hunched over his scope looking over Big Otmoor. He will be as frustrated as we are with the New Year lockdown since he is a twitcher of the nth degree. This was however another result for us because The Black Audi Birder is also one of Oxon's finest exponents in the art of fine birding. In the next few minutes he had directed us onto distant Dunlin, Black-tailed Godwit and Ruff, which were, obviously, all new for the year. We also found Pintail and Wigeon. Despite much searching though none of us could find the Grey Plover that had been seen on New Year's Day.
We had a quick look at the Geese flocks on Ashgrave, and picked out a few White-fronted Geese amongst the Greylags and Barnacle Geese. The Brambling didn't show for us at the scattered seed feeding spot by the Wetland Hide but after the morning we'd had we could hardly complain at that. A Water Rail that scurried across the track was another early year addition.
Our last year tick of the day was a Raven that kronked noisily over the woods at the top of the hill. During our walk we had added another 27 birds to the year list which now stood at 68.
The News was full of gloom and doom that evening and we decided that maybe we should reign in our journeys out. Much discussion was taking place online about what was actually deemed "local" and what exactly was considered "essential exercise". Not one member of our Government would put their necks on the line and definitively state what local or essential really meant and it seemed that it was up to the individual to decide. The police however had made their minds up and stories came from many places of fines being handed out to peaceful folk who were just out for a walk. Birdwatchers, it seemed, were coming in for few knocks on social media, particularly twitchers that assembled in one place or travelled a long distance to see a bird. One of the criticisms levelled at birding is that it is considered by many to be a stationary pastime where participants either sit in hides or stand still all the time and therefore isn't really exercise. Neither is of course true, birding involves lots of healthy walking in the countryside as well as in urban areas and contributes massively to peoples mental well being too. But birders were taking stick and not just from outsiders either. Farmoor was closed temporarily, not just to birders but to everybody because of the huge number of folk going there to take exercise which attracted the police to investigate illegal gatherings at the site. The RSPB asked people not to visit Otmoor for the Starling spectacular because of fears over social distancing. Despite all that it was clear that some elaborate and deliberate flouting of the guidelines was being undertaken by lots of the population. The waters were clouded further when the Government, who had decided that only elite sport could take place during lockdown, then said that angling and shooting was fine to continue. Angling must be one of the most stationary sports going! Farmoor then reopened for Fisherfolk to fish so by extension was again open to birdwatchers and everybody else. Confusion reigned. The most annoying aspect from our point of view is that we don't go out to meet other people but actually try to avoid most other folk. We go out to see birds!
So, time for confession number 2. I'm luckier than a lot of people because I've been able to continue working throughout most of the Pandemic, although some of my jobs have been disrupted by the rules and a few have been cancelled. I'm self-employed and work in construction albeit on a domestic scale, and have several jobs in progress at a time in different areas. I had a pressing site visit to make on the outskirts of Aylesbury so decided that once I was there then the Watermead estate close by was then local enough for me to go there and combine my daily exercise with work at the same time. It would save going out again later in the day.
The purpose of the exercise was to take in the lakeside walk that was on offer and maybe, if we were lucky, the Yellow-browed Warbler that we saw there at the end of 2020 would still be there as well. On the same date last year we travelled to a Norfolk beach on a freezing cold and damp day to twitch our first ever Desert Wheatear which had to be one of the most incongruous birds in a setting we'd ever encountered. Until recently an overwintering Yellow-browed Warbler (YBW) would have been considered just as unusual. These days however, YBW's have become rather commonplace and a few winter in the UK every year. We had seen the YBW just the week before on a cold and grey day that was flecked with snow and I had struggled to get any decent images of what is one of my favourite birds. This time, on a similarly horrible day weatherise, I was determined to get improved photos of the bird.
We were in luck too when almost as soon as we arrived in the YBW's favoured spot, it flew over our heads and into the top of the same pine trees that we'd seen it in the week before. By my own admission, I am not the best birder in the world, far from it, but after seeing hundreds of YBW's over the years now, I just instinctively know the bird as soon as I see it, even when it whizzes overhead as a silhouette. I envy those birders who know almost every bird from just a quick view. I guess it's mostly down to experience. I glanced up at the pine where the bird had landed and there was the YBW. Easy!
Getting a photo of the little sprite was more difficult. Just as on our last visit, it kept to the densest part of the trees and moved erratically as they are prone to do. I had at least managed my camera settings better this time though so that when the YBW did stop still for once I was able to grab a few frames that would stand up to editing later on. The YBW was our 70th species for 2021, the Desert Wheatear had been our 73rd in 2020 so were almost on a par with last year and we well ahead on 2019 when we had a concerted effort at a "Big Year", although to be fair those plans weren't engineered until the spring that year.
We watched the YBW for half an hour or so, exercise provided by having to track constantly between the birds favoured pine trees opposite the Nursery and the single pine tree by the road crossing some fifty yards away. My arms ached enough from the continual holding of my camera aloft in readiness for the birds brief appearances in the open, as if I'd been pulling weights. I think birding provides a decent physical workout!
Mrs Caley and I kept a good distance away from the couple of other birders that stood conversing like old friends that hadn't seen each other in some time, which I suppose they hadn't. Our attention was solely focussed on the gorgeous little bird that was so active. The YBW's movements were quicker and less ponderous than the Goldcrest that it shared its space with. Hovering to snare tiny insects from the outermost leaves was frequent but I was unable to capture the behaviour in any great detail owing to the low shutter speeds necessary in the gloomy light. When you over expose settings on a camera then shutter speed decreases unless ISO levels are raised. High ISO ratings result in grainy images, low shutter speeds cause blurring of movement. There is good reason why nice sunny weather is best for amateur photographers like me. Having said all that though, I was pleased with some of the images that I'd taken.
We left the YBW and walked around the lake where a Goldeneye had been seen recently but there was no sign of it. It was also bitingly cold in the fierce north wind next to the water so shivering we briskly returned to the car. A Sparrowhawk flew low over our heads as we opened the car doors, notching the fledgling year list up to 72. I adore Yellow-browed Warblers but I was very glad to warm up in the car.