Tuesday, 6 April 2021

A lot of Effort for a Little Gain. 13-14th March 2021

After sitting out some rather inclement weather on the morning of Saturday the 13th of March, we ventured out into some very blustery conditions and onto an almost deserted Otmoor in the afternoon. More for some fresh air than anything else and we lacked expectation, well I did, of seeing anything worthwhile. Mrs Caley was a lot more upbeat than me, she usually is (who isn't), and felt sure that we'd see the Glossy Ibis that Terry had seen and photographed the day before even though it hadn't been seen since. Considering that the Ibis had been seen flying over the second screen and heading towards the flood field we basically bypassed all of the reserve and went straight to the northern lagoon and ensconced ourselves within the rudimentary shelter that the second screen provides and thus insulated as best as we could against the elements. The lagoon was fairly quiet, as it quite often is, presumably most of the open water species were tucked up in the reeds and avoiding the choppy more exposed spots. I found a male Pintail doing just that, concealed up against the trunk of the small bush that is currently submerged at the southern edge of the lagoon. Pintails are not rare on Otmoor, indeed just over the reed covered bank there would be hundreds on the Flood Field and there are always good numbers on Big Otmoor during the winter but it's unusual to find them in the areas close to the viewing points.

Pintail drake

The only interest on the open water was provided by a small flotilla of Tufted Ducks. Breeding season for all wildfowl is imminent and the males, as well as looking very dapper, are very single minded and seemingly spend most of their time chasing the females! Once they've singled out a potential mate they deter the other males as best they can and keep their partners at very close quarters. It was amusing to watch one particular drake chase his female so closely, mirroring every move she made, that it appeared that he had her attached to a piece of string.

Tufted Ducks

The only action away from the water was provided by a distant Marsh Harrier that did its best to panic the Plover flocks and to disturb some of the slumbering Ducks and Coots. I took my customary useless shots of the Marsh Harrier as it breezed by effortlessly, too far away for my lens as usual.

Marsh Harrier, male

Mrs Caley was still convinced that the Glossy Ibis was around and every time a possible looking dark bird took to the skies we both tracked it eagerly. I counted five Cormorants flying away from the flood field while we sat there, in flight at distance a couple of them deserved a second look, as did a silhouetted Grey Heron at about half a mile away. Then, and I almost didn't bother looking, Mrs Caley asked , 'what's that over there, flying towards the barn?'. I looked over to where she pointed and there was the Glossy Ibis, bird #118 for the year, flying low over the embankment between the flood field and the barn field. I quickly raised the camera and fired off a volley of shots, knowing full well that the settings would all be wrong, before the Ibis landed into the field and out of view. I checked the back of the camera and was pleasantly surprised to find that I'd managed to capture the Ibis at all, it was really a case of shooting from the hip.

Glossy Ibis

I set the scope up and searched for the Glossy Ibis. It was difficult to see but I found it stalking along the wet flash that led across the barn field. That field used to be part of a "local patch" for us years ago before the main RSPB reserve was opened up but we only venture down there a couple of times of year these days since most of the avian attraction is now centred around the reedbeds and lagoons. As Mrs Caley looked through the scope, difficult because it was only just possible to see over the adjacent hedge, I sent a photo of the Ibis to Badger letting him know that we'd relocated the bird and so that he could put the news out. When I returned to the scope, I was gobsmacked to see the same Badger staring back at me! He'd been shrewd (and ahead of me in thinking) and had realised that the Glossy Ibis was most likely frequenting the flood field. He'd been watching it at great distance when it had flown up and away. Having lost sight of it, he was thrilled to receive my message letting him know where it had landed, and was quickly into position to capture some excellent video footage of the bird. We decided that we'd go over to the barn field and watch the bird, at much closer range. Trouble is we had to go back and fetch the car first and drive around to Oddington and then walk in from there since there is no access from the second screen to the barn field. So to get to the Glossy Ibis which was probably about 400 metres away involved walking the mile back to the car, driving another five miles (in wellies since it'd take too long to change footwear twice) and then walking the half mile or so to the barn field. All together that took us just over forty-five minutes and, of course, by the time we had got there the Ibis had flown off! Ah, bugger.

The next morning, in a mainly futile attempt as it turned out, we aimed to bolster our year list by a few by going on a mini tour of North Oxfordshire. My good mate Kyle (Birdwatch Britannia) had shared info about a small pond within the Upton House estate where he'd seen Mandarins Ducks recently so we were heading there first. However as we were passing the turn for Balscote Quarry we noticed that the only car there was just pulling away from the parking area so decided we'd go in and take a quick peek at the feeders there. The feeding station has held some really good birds throughout most of the winter months, on Halloween last year we saw a Brambling which at the time was our first of 2020. This year we had already seen a lot of Bramblings, there has been a glut of them in Oxon this year, so they wouldn't be new this time. I settled in at the new screen, Steve, Mark and other volunteers do a great job maintaining the reserve on behalf of the Banbury Ornithological Society, and members such as us are able to enjoy the birds because of their efforts. It was just a matter of minutes before the first birds appeared and a couple of fine male Brambling were amongst them.


It was very cold stood exposed to the elements so after a quick look at the birds on offer, Mrs Caley did the sensible thing and retreated to the car leaving me to acquire frozen fingers as I took frame after frame of the Brambling. The feeders are only a few metres away from the viewing screen so my lens only allows for close ups (usually I'm complaining about lack of reach not too much) but at the end of my half hour stint, I reckon I'd counted at least ten of the winter visitors from further north. At one point I could see six females and 2 males all feeding on the ground at the same time, and I knew there were another 2 males present because a couple had darker more developed head feathering and they were elsewhere in the surrounding bushes at that time.

I concentrated on taking photos of some of the other more common birds coming to feed. There were Greenfinches, Chaffinches and Goldfinches using a variety of the hanging feeders. Blackbirds, Dunnocks and Robins fed from the ground. A couple of fine male Yellowhammers in tandem with the Bramblings also collected food that had been scattered on the grass. And of course there were Great, Blue and Long-tailed Tits too. Up until just a few years ago this was a reliable spot to see Tree Sparrows but sadly they seem to have left the area, another indication of their decline as a local species, but hopefully they will return again in the future.






Generally Brambling feed off the ground but occasionally take seed directly from the feeders although they only felt brave enough to use the feeder hanging in the hedgerow rather than those at the more exposed feeding station. The Brambling also favoured picking up spilt seed under that feeder where it was still a bit dark so early in the morning.

The birds were all scattered when a male Sparrowhawk breezed through. Knowing that it would be a good fifteen minutes or so before they would emerge from safety again I decided to head off and look for the Mandarins. 

The small pool is only a few minutes from Balscote but requires a ten minute walk from the road to get there. The track leads downhill between two stands of tall trees, coniferous one side and mixed deciduous the other. Jackdaws and a couple of Ravens whirled above the trees but the light had dimmed owing to heavy cloud settling in so I didn't bother wasting any time taking more rubbish photos. The pool is protected by a cloak of trees so viewing is tricky but as we approached I could see Black-headed Gulls and Mallards. Kyle had advised to check carefully around the heavily vegetated small island for the exotic Mandarins but despite much scrutiny they were nowhere to be seen. We'd have to wait a bit longer to add them to our year list.

Returning to the car the way we'd come we watched both Buzzards and Red Kites soaring above the trees and vowed to return on a nicer sunnier and warmer day. We had other target birds in mind for this day. We drove the short distance to a Natural Burial Grounds and were a little dismayed to find the carpark there almost full. We had visited there a few weeks before on a freezing cold day and were totally alone. On this day though they were folk everywhere, we had of course overlooked the fact that this was Mothering Sunday and people were out paying their respects to lost loved ones. Luckily the birds we were seeking, if present, would be in the lower corner of the site which has been set up as a nature reserve and is well away from the remembrance areas. We were looking for Tree Sparrows, hard to find locally, and the Burial Grounds had a small establishing colony that use nest boxes provided for them. When we visited earlier in the year we could only find House Sparrows but that was a very cold day and their scarcer cousins were probably feeding at garden feeders nearby. Initially we had no luck again. There were other birds, we saw Redwings, Meadow Pipits, Pied Wagtails and a Bullfinch. A Moorhen pottered around the small pond and even climbed up a bush, presumably looking for possible nesting sites. I remember when I was a child that I used to find loads of "Moggie" nests in bushes and trees. After half an hour and with no sign of any Sparrows I noticed a couple of small birds fly over our heads and land in the hedge about fifty metres away. I raised the binoculars and saw nothing but just as I was about to look away again a Tree Sparrow emerged into view! Some good luck at last.

Tree Sparrow

Our last stop was to Boddington Reservoir where a few Willow Tits are hanging on still. They had been reported recently by a highly competent birder that we know. This would also be our second attempt at seeing them this year. Unfortunately we couldn't find any despite knowing exactly where to look. We don't really get on with Boddington Reservoir and its surroundings. It's a busy site with lots of Anglers around the reservoir and far too many people with unruly dogs that are left to charge around off leads and tend to leave a mess everywhere. I look forward, maybe forlornly and it's probably wishful thinking, to the day when a proper law is passed enforcing that all dogs are kept on leads in public open spaces or even better, banned from nature reserves. I fear however, that the dog owning lobby is far bigger and more powerful than the birding one. Don't get me wrong I like dogs, I used to have one myself, but I'm far less keen on irresponsible dog owners who allow their charges to rampage unchecked through the countryside. After brushing myself down after a pooch had jumped up at me uninvited, I then had to clean my boot after misplacing a footstep. It's so annoying. Having said all that we did see our first Spotted Crake at Boddington and have seen Black Terns and Little Gulls there too. Once, a long time ago now, we were shown a roosting Long-eared Owl in a hawthorn thicket close to the reservoir. However, we have still not found any of the resident Willow Tits.

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