Thursday, 25 February 2021

Making the Most of it!. End of January 2021

At the end of the middle week of January we had a little bit of snow in our part of North Oxfordshire. Not enough to keep me away from work but an adequate dusting that made everywhere look much more wintry and appealing. It's amusing how a covering of snow makes everybody feel better about the world even though it creates extra hardship and makes performing normal duties more difficult. Our wildlife certainly doesn't welcome snow but it does bring the shyer birds and animals out into the open more as they search for food. 

Red Kite

One of my jobs is situated just to the north of Banbury and I once again opted to leave a small amount of tidying up for the Saturday morning so that I could combine my exercise walk with work in the same area. Having negotiated the rather icy and slippy minor roads we pulled into the skid-pan of the empty carpark at Farnborough Hall. There was more lying snow than at home and a heavy frost overnight had crusted the surface over. Remaining upright while walking wasn't easy, so our Nordic walking poles came in very useful. This was my first ever visit to Farnborough for birding, I'd worked in the village a few times over the years, and the whole area looked superb and potentially very birdy. Not the first time, or the last, I wished that I had somewhere like it near my home. We had gone there with a specific bird in my mind to find since I knew from the vibrant Banbury Birders WhatsApp group that the long narrow boomerang shaped lake known as Sourlands Pool was a regular haunt of a small flock of Goosanders. As soon as the pool came into view I spotted the Goosanders, six in all composed of equal numbers of males and females. The Goosanders, our 89th species of the year, had also seen us approaching of course and were swimming lazily away towards the other end of the pool.

Goosander, female left & male right

We followed the path along the waters edge, very carefully too considering the conditions underfoot and the fact that it was very cold and I for one didn't fancy getting a soaking. A Kingfisher whistled as it alighted in one of the partly submerged fallen trees. I've seen some excellent photos taken of Kingfishers at this site, DaFu who birds here regularly in particular has some really nice ones, but as soon as we got anywhere near the tree the Kingfisher was off again to another perch further away. Coupled with the overcast skies (there was blue sky approaching though), foretelling of more snow to come, and the general gloom beneath the tall trees that shadow the lake, my own effort at capturing the little jewel via the camera was hopeless. Kingfishers don't like me and hardly ever pose well for me. Consequently I have grown to hate most photos of Kingfishers that I see, especially those full frame shots of a bird on a mossy covered branch or reed stem, and worse still ones of them diving. I'm not at all jealous. (I do have some of my own Kingfisher photos taken a while ago, see here).


We followed, keeping a respectful distance, the group of Goosanders right to the far end of the lake. When birds are grouped together in flocks then they become much more jumpy than a single bird would and I understood why most success in seeing these Ducks came in the early morning before the daytime recreationists appeared. As we stood around fifty metres away, two more Goosanders flew in above the trees and landed with a splash, the female almost right in front of us. Once she saw us though she dived under and only resurfaced when in amongst her fellows. So now there were eight Goosanders, four males and four females.

A Grey Heron flew in and landed with little grace in a small patch of reeds. The Herons arrival caused great consternation among the Goosanders who became increasingly agitated and then, as one, took to the air and flew low and hard along the waters surface and away back towards the carpark end of the pool. If I hadn't have been looking elsewhere then I might have gained some nice flight shots. We retraced our steps back but there was no sign of the Goosanders so they must have flown out to another water body nearby.

A Nuthatch called loudly from the opposite side of the pool. I found it high in a tree illuminated beautifully in the early morning sunshine that had superseded the dreary start. Nuthatches are terrific little birds, both richly coloured and energetic as well as cheeky. They can also be very confiding, especially at garden feeders if you're lucky enough to get them visit your garden which of course we aren't at home. This bird kept its distance though.


We found nothing else new for the year in the trees around the lake and the water itself held only Mallards and Moorhens. A Stock Dove cooed mournfully from the very top of a very tall tree. Back at the car we saw our first other person for the day, a policeman in full uniform walking his attack dogs. Nervy moment that!

Stock Dove

I took a slight detour to check in on a breeding pair of Little Owls that we discovered, with help of course, the year before. These Owls nest in a stunted tree that is riddled with cavities and encompassed by a mass of unruly branches that resemble the best "bad hair day". Conveniently the tree is less than fifty metres from a road so the birds can be viewed if present without walking anywhere. We were in luck, one of the Owls was perched up in the branches, we could see it even as we drove up the lane. I took a couple of photos from inside the car and just as well that I did because the Little Owl immediately flew out of the tree and down to another perch in the lower reaches of a Conifer. We watched the bird through the scope for a while, added it to the list, checked the nest tree again which was now empty, and left. I find most Owls, as delightful as they are, a tad boring to watch unless they are in hunting flight mode. An Owl stood in a tree doesn't do a lot!

Little Owl

We were still missing quite a few common and expected species from our year list so during an afternoon off in midweek we took some time out together and headed for Dix Pit and Farmoor both within 25 minutes drive from home so I felt within boundaries. I'm not a massive fan of Dix Pit, it lies next to a busy refuse tip, if the wind is in the wrong direction it can hum a bit, and lorries are continually trundling up and down the access road, but it is nevertheless a terrific site and attracts some really good birds. I probably only visit once or twice a year unless a scarce or rare bird is found there. We have seen a Pied-billed Grebe (in tandem with a disallowable White-headed Duck), Black-necked Grebes, a Garganey, several Greater Scaup and others over the years. The Pits greatest claim to fame was for housing a Baikal Teal which I of course missed. Our main interest on this visit though was directed towards the small copse of Alder trees that edge the lake on the tip side. These trees are a good spot to find Siskins, we discovered them last year when searching for an overwintering Garganey. We soon found the Siskin flock, about twenty in all, feeding on the fruits of the Alders. We didn't have long so I rattled off a few shots, it wasn't worth wasting too much time since it was another grey and drizzly day in a long sequence of grey and drizzly days.

Siskin, female

We scanned the pit itself and came up with a pair Goldeneye and a few Red-crested Pochards, which were both new for the year, as well as bigger numbers of Wigeon, Tufted Duck, Pochard, Gadwall and Shoveler. The Grey Heron and Cormorant nesting colonies on the island were already in full swing, we counted around twenty nests of each, and a couple of Egyptian Goose flew overhead.

Grey Heron

Farmoor is just a ten minute drive from Dix Pit and many birds regularly commute between the two. As well as the dreary grey skies, it had at least ceased raining, there was very little wind and the surface of both reservoirs barely mustered a ripple as we walked along the causeway. We had a target bird here and knew that they would probably be at the western end of Farmoor 1, where they usually feed. Before we got there though we had added a fine adult Yellow-legged Gull, stood on one of the many buoys, to our year list. A trio of Little Grebe's, feeding close in, were also added to the list shortly after.

Little Grebe

I spotted the three Greater Scaup from some distance away and was pleased to see them close in to the causeway as well. We saw these ducks at the end of 2020, along with a juvenile Great Northern Diver which sadly must have moved on, but seeing them again today took the year list total on to 96, not bad considering the current restrictions. We approached the Scaup, they were mingled in with Tufted Ducks and Coots, carefully since they were only twenty to thirty metres out from the bank so in spite of the gloom there were some decent photo opportunities in the offering. By walking up the other side of the causeway we were then able to cross the road and squat on the wall right next to the Ducks. The triumvirate of notable ducks is composed of a first winter male, a first winter female and an adult female. I tried initially to capture all three in one shot and although they lined up nicely for me, they looked away rather than towards the camera.

Greater Scaup

The most obliging of the Scaup was the adult female which often approached the bank quite closely. I took some photos that were reminiscent of the masterpiece paintings produced by our incredibly talented and esteemed county recorder. I hope that's praise to both sides.

female Greater Scaup

The male Scaup was actively diving for food and whenever it resurfaced with weed or whatever it was eating, it would be earnestly chased by one or more of the Coots. The Coots are unable to dive to any great depths owing to their cork like bodies so will regularly try to relieve one of the duck species of their catch but they are certain to fail since the duck will merely dive under again or, if the Coot gets too close will surf quickly across the water out of their reach. Coots scoot (now that's clever if I say so myself) as well but they're not as fast! Not exactly sure what the Scaup was eating but it looked like an aquatic weed of some description.

male Greater Scaup

The female Scaup further entertained us by swimming in close again. She had less trouble with the Coots, maybe that white blaze to the face makes her look more formidable. I always think that the female Scaup look a trifle bigger than the males anyway and at Coot and Duck scale that difference must be more obvious. 

We noticed a Great Crested Grebe close in on Farmoor 2, the other side of the causeway, so left the Scaup for a while. Despite having many hundreds of images of Great Crested Grebes in my portfolio they make excellent subjects and I always strive to get photos of them capturing fish. By design the smaller bite-sized young fish stay close to the edge of the reservoir where the water is shallower and weed lined and thus they can keep away from the larger predatory fish of the deeps. Unfortunately for the small fry this tactic, if fish have enough of a clue for strategy, places them right in the domain of the skilful Grebes. This particular Grebe was catching a fish almost on almost every dive. Once snared the Grebe would return to the surface and manipulate the fish so that it could swallow it head first. 

Great Crested Grebe

After another quick look at the Greater Scaup we wrapped up a pretty good afternoons birding.

I've been working at a job on the outskirts of Wantage since before Christmas and the next stage of the project was almost ready. I needed to have a site meeting there so on the Friday after sorting out the details for the upcoming work, I drove a few miles to catch up with some Egrets that had been found in Letcombe Regis very close to where the Great Bustard had been seen at the end of last year, and was still present there in early January. I strangely felt attached to one of the Egrets because after seeing a photo on a local Facebook page, I identified one of them as a Cattle Egret (not difficult I know but the poster hadn't realised) which would be a year tick for me. As I drove up to the field next to the allotments where the Cattle Egret was usually to be found feeding amongst some Sheep, I saw four Egrets flying away into the distance. Sure enough, on arrival there was no sign of any Egrets at all, we had just missed them. Fortunately though I knew that they had probably relocated just a few hundred yards away to a small pond where the birds had first been spotted. We parked up right by the pond, peered through a gap in the hedge and there right in front of us on the opposite side were the four Egrets, three Little Egrets and the Cattle Egret, numbers 97 & 98 for the year.

Cattle Egret

Little Egret

We stayed just a few minutes, some "twitches" are like that, because the weather was drawing in again and more precipitation was imminent. We had a quick look in for the Great Bustard but it was not in its previously favoured field and a equally quick tour of the surrounding roads didn't turn it up either. As folk keep reminding me, it shouldn't count on a year list anyway, although I would have added it to mine. We drove back home through a mixture of the weather folks favourite; rain, sleet and snow.

The penultimate day of January was miserable weather wise, cold with heavy rain turning to sleet and snow. It was pointless going anywhere very far so we opted to spend an uncomfortable hour at our local wetlands reserve. The birds were as subdued as we were and apart from some Common Snipe and a half-hearted attack by a Sparrowhawk at the birds on the feeders there was little to see. Our only reward for the short vigil was a Grey Wagtail, our 99th species for the year, feeding at the settlement beds of the adjacent Sewage Works. Even on cold and dreary wet days there are always flies on s**t to keep Wagtails happy.

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