We ended January by going out to see a very rare bird locally. However I am sworn to secrecy about the birds and was told about them in complete confidence so I am unable to share any details and not even the species name except to say that they brought up the century in terms of birds for our 2021 year list.
Our February birding didn't begin until the first Friday when we parked up at a local woodland where Tawny Owls breed. We didn't expect to see any but presumed that we'd hear one since February is a good time to listen out for Owls. It took nearly two hours of waiting around in the cold and then darkness before we heard a hoot or two and they came from quite a long way off. Just the week before a friend had seen one of the Tawny's land in a tree above his head. We just don't seem to have that level of luck.
The next day it was an early morning jaunt down to Otmoor. The recent heavy rains had left Otmoor looking more like the Camargue, except that with minus five temperatures, with added bonus wind chill, it didn't feel anything like it! Much of the reserve was off limits to us because of the level of water on some tracks which was more than a foot deep! Mrs Caley would need much longer wellies or a boat to navigate such floods. So for the most part our birding had to be done from the main bridleway just like it had to be during the first lockdown last year when the RSPB reserve was closed. Unlike last March and April, which was a pleasant experience when it was warm and spring migrants had arrived in force, birding from the bridleway was more like an act of attrition in the icy northerly wind. It didn't pay to linger in one place for long. The only bird we paused to admire on the outward walk was a fine female Great Spotted Woodpecker which clung on to the very top branch of one of the trees.
We greeted a friend at the cross tracks. The path to the screens was resembling of a stream and would clearly be impassable for us considering that taller people than me were getting a boot full of water by venturing into it. We stood chatting, well shouting actually, over the sound of the wind, when a pair of Common Cranes flew almost overhead. The Cranes, also common in the Camargue at times and probably wishing they'd gone there for their winter holidays instead of Oxfordshire, battled hard to make any headway into the wind. At times they were buffeted right over the bridleway and in the end appeared to give in and let the wind take them southwards. They were our 102nd a 1/2 species for the year after adding Skylark and the heard only Tawny Owl to our lists the day before. The Cranes derive from the Great Project reintroduction scheme in the South-west and are all ringed and all of them have names. Some people like birds to have individual identities and naming them obviously makes tracking each birds movements easier. I, however, am not one for anthropomorphism so prefer to see them as Cranes rather than "Oakey" or "Maple Glory" so I've no idea which two these were.
The constant wind made for restless skies which were ever changing between sombre grey and bright blue, at least the rain was kept at bay although in the low temperatures any precipitation, had it fell, would have manifested itself as a blizzard. A Sparrowhawk soared over in a patch of blue and underlined the fact that a photograph doesn't always tell the full story. This was not a pleasant stroll in the sunshine!
We had the briefest view of the wintering ringtail Hen Harrier as it rose above the hedgerow between the bridleway and The Closes. I ran as quickly as I could into a position where I could view the open field but the Hen Harrier had already disappeared. My chances at Olympic glory are gone for sure these days. We huddled up against the willow screen at the Wetlands Hide, a refuge that is sadly closed at the moment, how we would have enjoyed being holed up in there for a while out of the bitter cold, and watched the Finch and Bunting flock that feeds on scattered seed left for them on the track. The female Brambling that has been around for a while finally put in an appearance for us and was joined by a couple of Yellowhammers as well as the more common species.
We had been out for just a couple of hours but that was long enough, the day wasn't going to improve weather-wise and we had other stuff to do. As we battled into the full force of the blow back to the carpark many of the Golden Plover were flying over and out onto the flooded Closes. Somewhere amongst them would be a Grey Plover but I couldn't pick it out and I barely raised the camera despite some birds only being feet above our heads instead of the usual 500.
As we neared the Cattle Pens the two Common Cranes returned, flying much more easily and faster downwind and they were followed by a third. Hopefully these Cranes will breed successfully for the first time this year in our local area.
On the following Saturday, the thirteenth, we were walking in the Oxford University Parks, hoping to see the Ring-necked Parakeets that have recently colonised the area. If it was cold the weekend before then it was decidedly frigid on this walk. Many surfaces were ice-bound and the boating pond was completely frozen solid. We had taken advantage of two-hour free parking so had to brisk about our walk, one wouldn't want to stand still for long anyway for fear of freezing to death. I know when it's really cold because I put gloves on, and they were on from the word go! We really are lily-livered souls down this way. I stopped to admire the Swift Tower/Sculpture that stands proud in the centre of the park, it"s a very striking piece of art.
The cold, and I guess because they're so used to people walking past, had brought many birds out into the open to feed and by the hump-backed bridge that crosses the River Cherwell a small group of Redwing were foraging on berries. A couple of them very obligingly posed beautifully for me and despite some fumbling of the camera controls with my wool clad fingers I managed to get some very pleasing images. Not pleasing enough for the Birdguides photo judges of course.
A Ring-necked Parakeet squawked loudly from trees on the other side of the river and was answered by at least two more from different directions. It took me a frustrating fifteen minutes to locate any of them though and when I finally found one, sitting prominently in a bare tree and yet somehow difficult to see unless the angle was just right, it flew out almost immediately and was followed by two more that I hadn't noticed! Luckily I had managed to grab a couple of record shots before they flew off.
As we stood atop the bridge I could see the familiar white blaze of a Goosander heading upstream towards us. We returned to the southern bank and I secreted myself behind a small bush ready for when the Goosander, a female, would swim by which she dutifully did. The Cherwell here is a good place to see Goosanders in the winter, they favour the area known as Mesopotamia, and they can give great close up views. They too are used to people on the banks of the river and the Cherwell is not that wide so they are always within reach.
The Goosander continued to travel upstream towards the boating pond. It dived frequently and I attempted to sneak up closer whilst it was under water to where I suspected it would resurface. A couple of times I had managed to get really close and captured a look of surprise in the birds eyes, if a Goosander really has that expression in its locker. It was a treat though to watch the sawbill duck up close after the very wary flock at Farnborough Hall a couple of weeks before.
A dog running quickly towards the river bank startled the Goosander enough though and it took the air running along the surface of the water to get airborne. Now I was too close and failed to get the whole bird in the frame and another chance of Birdguides glory had passed.
With no Parakeets or Goosander to look at we turned our attention to a Nuthatch that was scrambling along the branches of a fine old tree. The Nuthatch was gathering seed that somebody had very kindly left on the arm of a bench and then caching it in the bark of the tree. Clever birds are those that store food for later. It was dark in the bowels of the tree so I manoeuvred myself into a position where the sun shine through and illuminated the Nuthatch.
The University Parks are a great place to spend a few hours watching birds but we were out of time and had to return to the car to avoid the undoubted parking fine that we'd get if we were even a second overdue.
Later that day our friend Mick reported seeing a Smew at Standlake. Ten minutes after the first notification the number of Smew had increased to six of which five were drakes! Smew, another sawbill duck species, are a tricky bird to get in Oxon so we felt we just "had to go" and see them as it would likely be our only chance at seeing some this winter. The last Smew we had seen in our home county had also been at Standlake over three years ago. Standlake at just under twenty miles from home is only around a thirty minute drive so I didn't feel too guilty about going there and besides the roads on the Saturday afternoon were virtually deserted. We parked up in the small carpark, walked thirty yards and peered through the hedge as directed by Mick, found the Smew as far away as they could be on the far side of the pit, had a quick look through the scope, took a few record photos and left. We saw absolutely nobody else while there.
On the way home we sidled up alongside Vicarage Pit and year ticked a group of Common Gulls which took us to 107 for the year, as well as noting a raft of Red-crested Pochard. We'd had a good day!
The following day, Sunday morning, I had a bit of business to attend to in Milton Keynes. Afterwards I pulled up in the deserted business park at Caldecote Lake, which hosted our first ever and fabulous Spotted Sandpiper several years ago. Our target bird there was a Great Northern Diver which had been present for a few weeks. Two minutes later we had our 108th species for the year. Unfortunately the Diver was right out in the middle of the lake so once again it was record shots only.
Rather more obliging were three Common Gulls which were stood resting at the frozen edge of the lake with a few Black-headed Gulls. Common Gulls are nice looking members of the family with a cute expression. Whenever I see some I always remember trips to Scotland where they breed in good numbers.
After a refreshing coffee break back at Castle Caley we decided to head out to Farmoor for an hour of further R 'n' R. That may have been a rash decision since if it was cold outside generally, at Farmoor it was positively arctic (oxymoron?). The walk along the causeway was bracing to say the least and only for the foolhardy it seemed because we were the only folk daft enough to be there. We weren't looking for anything in particular and struggled to find it enjoyable but we live by the adage that fresh air is good for you which is especially true these days. A nice male Goldeneye caught my eye out on Farmoor 1.
Halfway down the causeway we had had enough but luckily that was where most of the ducks had congregated anyway. The three Greater Scaup were there but further out than the week before so I ignored them and chose to photograph a superb male Pochard instead which was diving and feeding just a few metres from shore. The cold sombre grey day was reflected in the water which accentuated the deep rusty red colour of the Pochards head.
A Great Crested Grebe was also fishing close to the bank. This bird was nearing full breeding plumage as well but for now was still doing it's own thing. Soon he or she will be involved in the elaborate courtship ritual of its species when the days will be longer and much warmer and the general malaise will be lifted by the advent of spring.