Wednesday, 17 February 2021

Working the System. Mid-January 2021

The Lockdown meant that we were literally well and truly lock-downed. No twitching allowed outside of the immediate local area at all so the Rustic Bunting in Surrey would have to remain on my most wanted list. Our recourse was to check some local spots out to gain some early New Year ticks and also to undertake some careful planning, basically combining work with pleasure, in order to get a little further afield. I tend to grizzle a bit about the Oxon birding scene, in particular the area around my home town in North Oxfordshire can be desolate, but we are actually fortunate to have Grey Partridge close to home which is a hard to find species in the county these days. On a drizzly morning on the 16th we cruised the minor roads just a few miles from our house looking for the covey that we'd seen right at the end of last year. We had already tried, on New Year's Day, but had been defeated by fog on that occasion. Today at least we could see further into the fields. It took me less than five minutes to spot, presumably the same group of four Grey Partridges that we'd seen three weeks before, not in the same field but just a few hundred metres away in a neighbouring enclosure. We parked at a convenient spot off the road, which was surprisingly busy, and took some exercise by walking back along the verge to a suitable viewing spot. The birds were a fair way off and were hence untroubled by our presence. I secured a few record shots and returned to the dryness of the car.

Grey Partridge

In the field where we'd seen the Grey Partridges last year, we found a larger covey of thirteen Red-legged Partridges feeding in almost the same spot, close to the road. There is a muddy pull-in from where the birds could just about be seen through the hedge without leaving the car and scaring them off. Flocks of birds are always more wary than individual birds and even though we stayed in the car they still eyed us suspiciously. I drove slowly along the road to a gap in the hedge and took a quick couple of photos. Two Partridge species in minutes and we were up to 78 for the year.

Red-legged Partridge

The quandary of how far it is reasonable to travel for exercise during lockdown persists. For birdwatchers the situation is difficult to assess. Some are happy to stay at home and watch the garden birds through their windows. Most of those people will no doubt have an abundant and varied cast of birds visiting. Other folk are lucky enough to live in or close to a nature rich area so they don't need to go far to get their fix. Others are less fortunate and yearn to watch birds further away from their town and city homes which are generally lacking in bird variety. Birding is generally a lonely exercise, unless at a popular reserve or a large twitch, and social interactions are few so wherever birding walks are taken the risk to oneself or to others must be very slight. And yet the government, who deigned that hunting and angling are suitable forms of exercise, have not come out in support of birdwatching despite its proven benefit to mental health. For my own part I am still allowed to go to work, which is a blessing and I feel really sorry for all of those folk that are unable to earn a normal living at the moment. My work takes me to several different sites in different parts of Oxfordshire and other neighbouring counties. At this time of year I leave home in the morning before it's light and usually arrive back as it's getting dark so there's little chance for birding until the weekends. My weekends have always been precious to me, sacrosanct even, and I try to avoid working on them at all costs, until the lockdown that was. Now it makes sense for me to go out and do the little higgle-piggly leftover jobs which only take an hour or so for the times when I can go out and exercise as well.

One of those small finishing jobs involved a trip out to a small village in South Northamptonshire, just a few miles from the Oxfordshire border, which is close to a wood where we enjoyed seeing Crossbills last summer. I felt that mixing business with pleasure, two birds with one stone so to speak, would be allowable, and guilt free, since it would save going out for a walk when I got home. Naturally I took Mrs Caley with me since she needs to get out too. With work done I parked up in the small carpark and we walked into the woods. The sun was shining brightly and owing to recent forestry work was reaching us on the track. There were some impressive log piles lining the path, presumably non-native conifer trees being stripped out which seems to be de rigueur these days. I hope they leave a few for the fir tree specialising birds like the Crossbills. Within a hundred metres of the car we had added three new species to the year list in Coal Tit, Treecreeper and Nuthatch. A Jay made it number four a little further into the wood, this walk was going well.

Treecreeper & Coal Tit

Last July we had found a group of twenty-three Crossbills in trees next to a crossroad of paths deep into the wood. We reached the same spot and almost immediately, alerted by loud chipping calls, we saw around eight Crossbills land in a tree right next to the one that we'd found them in before. A few moments later they were joined by another five. Surprisingly though, and despite the birds settling in a largely leaf-free tree, some of the birds instantly disappeared amongst the branches. By my reckoning there was a fairly equal mix of male and female birds. 

Common Crossbills

The Crossbills relocated to a nearby tree, conveniently putting the bright sunshine to our backs. I selected a rich salmon-red coloured male perched at the top of the tree to photograph and then a greenish hued female bird which was much better camouflaged against the similar tones of the tree branches. 

The Crossbills flew off en masse without any obvious stimulus and disappeared over the woodland. When they flew back over our heads a few minutes there were over twenty of them so maybe the flock that I had seen last July had indeed all survived and stayed intact through the autumn and winter. Hopefully they'll breed in the woods and raise more Crossbills during the spring. We ambled along the main cross path for a while hoping, against hope in reality, that we'd discover a Woodcock hidden in the leaf matter at the base of the trees. In over thirty years of birding I have only ever found a handful of Woodcocks "on the ground". That tally wasn't altered on this walk but I'll keep trying. We failed to see any of the expected Siskins, they were common in these woods last July, either. Five year ticks on the walk was more than satisfactory though and we drove home happy.

I had been tipped off by a friend of the whereabouts of a breeding site for Barn Owls so later in the week on a rain free afternoon, not been many of those recently, Mrs Caley and myself walked along a footpath next to the flooded river and fields towards the old derelict and remote barn that has housed the pair of Barn Owls for the last few years. We were only a few miles from home and I had never thought to walk there before and obviously had no idea that a wonderful bird such as a Barn Owl could be seen there. The barn lies a good mile away from the closest access point so must provide a safe harbour for the pair of "Barnies". We were far from alone on the path though and met several locals out walking their dogs. One of them actually stopped and asked us if we were looking for the Barn Owls, it appeared that the pair of Owls were actually local celebrities! The chap told us that they were usually out hunting just as it got dark and not before, on this day sunset was still an hour away and night another half hour later than that so maybe I had jumped the gun on this occasion. 

We stopped in a small copse about a hundred metres away from the barn and spotted a Treecreeper picking its way through an Oak tree. A Marsh Tit was in the tree as well but there was little light on offer so I didn't waste my time with the camera. I kicked about in a small reedy and flooded patch hoping to surprise a Jack Snipe but I'm about as good with finding them as I am with Woodcock. Entertainment, while we waited for the Owls to appear, should they appear, came in the shape of a pair of Stonechats which flitted around the same rough patch of ground that I hoped the Owls would hunt over later. The cloud obscured sun was dipping down ever lower so any attempt at photography was pretty futile but (I've got to put something on here otherwise it would just be a massive ramble of waffle) I took a few anyway.

Stonechat (female)

We had to be back home by 5pm so made our leave, still a good hour before the Owls predicted appearance. Mrs Caley suddenly said, 'look ahead of us, by the bridge' and there flying away from us was the unmistakable beige and white broad-winged shape of a Barn Owl! Just when you don't expect to see something then it suddenly appears. We watched the Owl alight on a fence post and I, forgetting my reticence with the camera, fired off some shots, all with the wrong settings of course. We couldn't work out how the Owl had managed to fly past without us noticing, it must have flown along behind a low hedge that lined the path on its northern side. We were up to 87 for the year. I surmised that the Barn Owl had emerged earlier because the wet rainy night before had probably curtailed its hunting and left it hungrier than usual.

Barn owl

The Barn owl took a quick look at us stood a hundred metres away, took to the air and flew over another hedge and out across the flooded field. The hedgerow obscured our view so we walked quickly to the bridge to gain a more elevated position. We couldn't relocate the Owl but tarried on the bridge for a few minutes in case it returned. The Barn Owl did just that a few minutes later but now flew right over where we had been standing when we first saw it. If only we'd stayed there! I'm fairly sure that birds know where you are at all times and take great delight in teasing you whenever they can.

The following afternoon was a bright and sunny one so we opted to return in the hope that the Barn Owl or Owls would be out hunting in the better light meaning that I'd be able to get some nice photos. We stayed until dark and there was no appearance from any Owls at all. Obviously they had fed well the night before. It's often said that a day-flying Barn owl signifies problems in the Owl world since it suggests that they're hungry and haven't hunted successfully on previous nights. So I was obliquely happy that we hadn't seen one again since it augured well for them. If they hatch young later in the year then daytime hunting takes on a different meaning since they will have hungry youngsters to feed. Mrs Caley did spot a Yellowhammer, new for the year, so it wasn't a completely fruitless walk that evening.

Yellowhammer (male)

I had more plans to work around the guidelines for the weekend in the Banbury area so spent the Friday evening checking out what had been seen recently at some of the sites to the north of the town. I had a job to look at in the area so had a good enough reason to travel out that way. Mrs Caley could navigate.

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