Monday, 12 April 2021

Hints of Spring! 19th-23rd March 2021



March is often a slow and quiet month for birding, not quite in the same way as the June and July doldrums, but slower nonetheless. Winter visitors begin to move back towards their northern breeding grounds during March while our own summer breeders have yet to return. Usually we'd spend a fair bit of time twitching scarce and rare birds during the month and also travelling to places like the Forest of Dean, Somerset or Norfolk to catch up on some of our less common resident birds such as Hawfinch and Bearded Tit, all of which is denied to us this year of course. We could only cross our fingers and hope that long-staying rarities such as the Northern Mockingbird in Devon and the Rustic Bunting in Surrey would linger a while longer so that we could add them to our life lists when less local travelling was back on the agenda again. So our plan, until the summer migrants come flooding back, was to continue picking a few birds off to add to our year list and also to enjoy the local birding scene as much as we could.

During the week the first returning Green Sandpiper had been logged at our local Bicester Wetlands Reserve so we stole a quick hour there on Friday afternoon. BWR is one of the best places to see the species in Oxfordshire and at peak times later in the summer there can be as many as fifteen of the elegant wading birds on the scrapes there. BWR is under siege at the moment, and for years to come, with massive building work taking place at the adjacent Water Treatment Works and in the surrounding area and much disturbance is a continual issue for the birds and for the birdwatcher. The reserve itself is safe, for now, but the site is being hemmed in by more and more building and the Bicester Concrete Tsunami is threatening to overwhelm it and there is no doubt that the birdlife of the area is being adversely affected. It took a while but Mrs Caley, as she so often does these days, spotted the Green Sandpiper, the 120th species of the year for us, as it sauntered out from behind a clump of sedge. It was right over the other side of the scrape so it was pointless taking photos at that stage, I have dumped hundreds of similar shots of Green Sandpipers taken at BWR. I spent most of my time scrutinising the Common Snipe that rest and feed on a flattened area of reeds hoping to find one of the Jack Snipe that spend the winter on the reserve, but couldn't find any on this occasion. The Green Sandpiper then did the right thing by flying in and landing in the nearest part of the scrape to the hide and thus allowing me to take a useable photo or two to add to  this blog.


Green Sandpiper


On Saturday morning we headed to Blenheim Park to look for a Great Egret, still needed for the year list. Usually we'd have seen a few of these by now but somehow they'd managed to avoid us despite our many visits to suitable sites. We had tried at Blenheim a few weeks before but the whole park had been swamped by thick fog and we had trouble seeing the lakes let alone any birds on them. Despite the Palace being closed to visitors, the Park still attracts a huge number of walkers, joggers and cyclists and it's difficult to find any quiet areas unless you walk away off the main paths. We had to stay close to the lakes since that's where our target bird would be and I became increasingly frustrated by having to make way or take evasive action as cyclists and joggers would come tearing past. I've also been in quieter football grounds (especially The Library) and pubs, the level of chatter, shouting, barking was immense. What counts as recreation and a good time for some definitely doesn't fit in with my idea of fun. There was no sign of any Great Egrets on the Queens Pool Island, although we did see an Egyptian Goose hanging out in the Grey Heron colony. We moved onto the woodland path around the main lake and into a more tranquil zone and could hear the birdsong again, still muted by April and May standards but nice all the same. When we arrived at the narrow lead of water that runs east-west off the main lake we finally had our tick when a Great Egret flew lazily past us. A lot of effort for a bird that is becoming increasingly common throughout the UK and one which we will no doubt encounter a lot more through the coming months, but at least we'd found one. Having seen the Great Egret and with not much else on offer we retraced our steps back through a scene reminiscent of one of those Victorian movies where everyone walks around the country estate "taking the air" although I doubt folk back in those days were so noisy. I really am much happier away from all the fuss these days.

Great Egret


Sunday morning promised to be a lovely day, there was little wind and the sun was forcing its way through flimsy and scattered clouds. We had already decided on a walk around Otmoor so were delighted that for once we wouldn't be shivering. Our walk from the carpark as far as the Wetlands Hide was largely uneventful with little of note seen at all until a Peregrine, a juvenile male I think, flew over. The rapidly taken photos revealed a full crop so the few Lapwings in the Falcons proximity were safe for a while. 

Peregrine


Peter, our go to man for all things Otmoor, had told me that a Cetti's Warbler had been showing well at the bridge so we lingered for a while hoping to get good views of our own of a normally difficult to see bird. Peter himself joined us a few moments later and we stood on opposite sides of the bridge discussing many things birds, birding and birders in our area. The Cetti's noisily announced its presence in the bushes that line the small stream and briefly popped up so that we could see it but not well enough to get the full unobstructed view that we craved, before flying over our heads and disappearing into cover the other side of the bridge. My mate sent me a message the other day and spillchucker (OK, it's spellchecker but you can see what I did there) had transformed Cetti's into Chattiest, which seems rather fitting of the bird.



Cetti's Warbler


As we were setting the world to rights I noticed a Common Crane taking advantage of the warming air and riding a thermal high above the moor in the direction of the Beckley TV transmitter. The Crane continued climbing until it was difficult to see and then sailed away in a south-westerly direction. Less then ten minutes later it was reported flying over Marston Meadows on the outskirts of Oxford!

Common Crane


We could hear the Cetti's Warbler again in the clump of bushes next to the gate that opens on to the path to the screens. It had competition though from a delightful Dunnock which also sang its own more subtle refrain. Dunnocks are the opposite of Cetti's in that they are happy to pose in full view while they sing and are oblivious to anybody who sees them  doing it.


Dunnock


The Cetti's Warbler was travelling around its territory taking in bushes and vegetation on both sides of the bridleway. It wouldn't be long before it returned to the bushes by the bridge so we waited a while longer for another go at seeing it. You can follow a Cetti's reasonably easily because every ten or twenty metres it will utter its loud staccato song. You can't always see them because that punchy song is usually emitted from deep cover. The burst of song came from the bush right in front of us and I readied the camera. The bird bounced its way through the branches and appeared just a few metres away. I sent the camera into overdrive, this was at last an opportunity too good to pass up. Ten-seconds later the Cetti's had flown over our heads once again. In that short time I had rattled off over thirty frames. Just a shame then that over half of them were out of focus! One day maybe, I might just get it right but I doubt it. I did have a couple of decent images, not quite exactly as I'd like, but an improvement on most of my Cetti's Warbler shots.




A Red Kite flew over the bridleway carrying a prey item, hard to make out exactly what is was but it looked suspiciously like the head and bill of a Jack Snipe! Probably wasn't though and more likely to have been an earthworm and grass. After spending so much time stood watching the Cetti's, scanning Big otmoor for wading birds and ducks and chatting to friends we decided against walking out to the screens. As we walked back to the car Justin sent me a text saying that he'd found a couple of Little Ringed Plovers on the lagoon next to the Ardley waste incinerator plant.

Red Kite


During the first lockdown period last year, the lagoons at Ardley, nearby Trow Pool and the walk to them from our house formed an adopted "local patch" and helped to keep us sane when we were unable to drive anywhere else. We "discovered" some good birds on that walk including a Wheatear, some Corn Buntings, and a Jack Snipe and it was thrilling to encounter our first spring migrants of the year such as Swallow, Common and Lesser Whitethroats, Willow Warblers and Blackcaps. We saw our first Little Ringed Plovers of the year on the same lagoon too but not until the 15th of April so the ones that Justin found were considerably earlier. The lagoon is only a short walk from the road, just as well since we were flagging a bit in the sunshine. We met Justin on his way back and he reported that the LRP's were still there. Halfway along the track I heard a commotion high above but unfortunately reacted too slowly, and when I did I saw a couple of Common Buzzards interacting with a Peregrine. By the time I had pointed the camera skywards the three birds had gone their separate ways but the Falcon remained above us so I fired off a few shots. It was another juvenile male bird and may well have been the same individual that we had seen on Otmoor just an hour or so before. As a Peregrine flies it's about twelve miles between Otmoor and Ardley, which would only be a leisurely flight for such a powerful flyer.



Viewing the lagoon is difficult because of the eight foot high metal fence protecting it. The slats of the fence are only a few inches apart so to look through the fence you have to walk halfway down before getting an angle that allows reasonable views through it. The Little Ringed Plovers, species 122 for the year, were right at the far side of the pool so I was glad that I'd carried the scope so that we could get a decent look at them. There is much exposed mud around the edges of the lagoon so it looks good for attracting other wading birds throughout the spring and summer migration period. Thankfully a few local birders keep a regular watch on the area.

Little Ringed Plovers


Later that afternoon I got the needle, literally. I felt strangely liberated and was happy to get it too. Hopefully it was the first step on an increasingly long road back to normality.

Monday was Mrs Caley's birthday so I had arranged to take the day off, not that I haven't been having any days off recently since the Covid scare had resulted in severe disruption to my normal working schedules. Even though the current lockdown was yet to ease, I figured that we could travel a little further afield and considering that I had some work to look at close to Newbury, chose to combine a trip to Greenham Common with that job recce. Greenham Common, once one of the scariest places in the UK, has been transformed into a magnificent Nature Reserve by BBOWT and is home to some specialist and scarce heathland residents. Oxfordshire has very little heathland, and what there is tends to be turned over to golf courses and the like so in order to see those specialist heathland birds requires a visit to Berkshire or even further afield.

After checking out the work we drove the few short miles to the outskirts of town and parked up. Entering the Common through a small gate we walked straight down towards what used to be the main runway although we had to do a small detour and use the main paths owing to many no entry signs that had been installed since our last visit. The signs are there to deter people from entering sensitive wildlife areas and we were happy to comply. However it soon became obvious that plenty of other people were taking absolutely no notice of them and just walked willy-nilly through the "no mans land". Worse still were the many dogs that were being allowed to run free by their owners. But it is "common land" so I guess by rights there are no enforceable restrictions. Still a shame though that people can't adjust their own behaviour to help out our endangered wildlife. By taking the permitted route we now had the opportunity to walk the full length of the runway path. I knew from past visits here that this was the best place to look for the bird that we most wanted to see.

We had chosen a perfect day for it, sunny and calm which should ensure that the birds would be active and hopefully singing. Against us was the fact that it was already mid-morning and usually early starts are better. We spotted a pair of Stonechats perched prominently on a head of Gorse. Stonechats are common birds of Heathland and are one of the easier to see species because of their habit of using the tops of bushes and tall grassy stalks to look for their prey, a mainstay of which is flying insects. From the selected perch they will fly out and snare their food. They also use the Gorse bushes to nest in. I selected a female which was closest to us as my first subject of the day.

Stonechat


There is an old (but not that old since it's a relatively new thing) that if you see a Stonechat then keep looking and you may see the bird we were really hoping to see. That bird is the Dartford Warbler (DW), another Heathland specialist. Of course, there are many times when you see Stonechats where there is next to no chance of seeing a Dartford Warbler, like on Otmoor for example (although DW has been recorded there in the past) but in Heathland habitat there is every chance, especially when you know that Dartford Warblers exist there. Dartford Warblers are one of our few avian success stories and are actually increasing in numbers in the UK, well in England anyway. They require a warm climate and our much milder winters have helped them spread throughout the south of England wherever there is suitable habitat. Harsh winters result in large losses to the DW population, as it does with many similar resident species that are unable to displace far enough to avoid the worst of the weather. Since seeing my first DW on Dunwich Heath back in the last century, which was following a pair of Stonechats, I've seen many more and have spent a lot of time looking for them because they are one of my favourites. Therefore I am confident that they are one of the (few) species that I can recognise instantly on sight even if that view is a fleeting one. When a small blurry dark long-tailed shape broke cover from one bush and careered into another then I knew that I had a Dartford Warbler. Now we just had to wait it out until it showed again. It didn't take long before the tangle of unruly purple and red feathers popped up on a long stalk and confirmed my sighting.


Dartford Warbler


Now that we had the Dartford Warbler in our sights we stood patiently on the runway path, thankfully devoid of any dogs or other people and followed the bird, a male, as it zipped around the Gorse bushes. We weren't particularly close to it and we didn't want to, or need to, infringe on the birds domain so stayed on the path walking up and down in order to keep the bird, and the Stonechats that it was loosely associating with, in view. The bird wasn't singing, we'd probably arrived too late in the day for that.




After the DW had disappeared for a while we walked along the path to see if we could find more. I could hear the flutey and melancholic song of another Heathland specialist species, the Woodlark. I found it perched in a small tree but it was too far away and I was looking into the sun for any photos. We strolled closer to it but as is often the case it flew before we got there. A few minutes later the Woodlark, or another one, flew directly overhead while on a song flight. Many of the heathland birds sing during short "song-flights", Pipits, both Tree and Meadow as well as the Larks tend to advertise themselves in that way. So do the male Stonechats and some of the Warbler species such as Common Whitethroat. Dartford Warblers occasionally do it too. Woodlark is another species that is rarely seen in Oxfordshire, I have only one record from my own county, and yet here they are just a few miles over the border in Berkshire doing reasonably well. It's all about suitable habitat. The Woodlark very helpfully landed on a bare patch of ground close by but unless you knew it was there then you'd overlook it because its subdued brown and white plumage gave it great camouflage against the stony coloured ground and grassy stubble. The heat shimmer, a problem now on what was a warm day, didn't lend any help in photographing it.


Woodlark


We walked on and located a singing Dartford Warbler. The song of a DW is a scratchy, energetic affair as disheveled in sound as the bird can appear by sight. It also hard to discern the song unless fairly close. Unlike the Wren, which is a small bird with a big voice, the Dartford Warbler has a song that matches its stature. The DW was perched up in a small shrub, again against the sun (that happens a lot) and had a Dunnock for company instead of Stonechats. The thinking as to why DW's are seen in close proximity to other birds is that its for food association. The DW picks up prey items that are dislodged by the other birds more mobile habits, when a Stonechat or other bird takes off then it bends the branches that it was perched on and thus upsets  small invertebrates that the Dartford Warbler then catches for itself. I read once that DW's eat very small prey such as tiny Spiders and Flies, there were definitely plenty of the latter around the Gorse bushes.




My phone rang and while I was in conversation I missed the opportunity to snap three Woodlarks that flew past almost at head height. Another golden moment gone begging. Must remember not to answer the phone while birding, but unfortunately work is vital these days. A fellow birder joined us and we exchanged sightings. He told us that there were nine Golden Plovers fairly close to the path that leads to the fire-plane which is tucked away on the southern edge of the Common and he added that, "With your camera you should get some really good photos". An opportunity too good to pass up then so we made our way towards the fire-plane. We found the Golden Plovers immediately, in fact I spotted them from fifty yards away, despite their excellent camouflage. The group was loosely scattered on one of the old gravel beds that are maintained on the Common. I stopped short and counted the birds, there were actually ten so one had been too well camouflaged for the chap that imparted the info! 


Golden Plovers


The Golden Plovers were indeed fairly close to the path, probably around thirty feet away, but still not quite close enough to defeat the spectre of heat shimmer that seemed worse over the stony ground than it was in the Gorse bush areas. But I plugged away anyway, trying to gain better shots by changing the angle and settings but it made no difference. The Golden Plovers, apart from the occasional preening session and stretch, stood, or sat, stock still for the fifteen minutes or so that we watched them. A couple even feigned sleep.







We returned the way we came back to the place where we'd first seen the Dartford Warblers earlier. We watched a Meadow Pipit sing from a sprig of Gorse and then fly up while still singing away. Soon there will be Tree Pipits back as well, I've always found differentiating between the two species more than a trifle tricky, in fact I find the whole family of Pipits a nightmare to identify, but hearing the songs helps. Also most of the Meadow Pipits will move out to more upland areas soon.

Meadow Pipit


There were more Stonechats as we walked back towards the exit point for where we'd parked the car but no sign of any more Dartford Warblers. Woodlarks were still active and more Meadow Pipits sang from their own song-flights as did a few Skylarks. We met the same chap again, he hadn't seen any Dartford Warblers and was giving up, I told him we'd had seen the Golden Plovers and thanked him for the heads up.



The last place to look before we turned and headed for the car was a patch of Gorse that surrounds a single small Silver Birch tree. That particular spot has turned up DW's consistently for us over the past few years. After standing there for a while, the faint contact call, "Merr, merr", of a Dartford Warbler emanated forth from deep within the Gorse. A few seconds later first one broke cover from one bush to another and then a second bird followed, a female and the first we'd seen this morning. They briefly stopped on the edge of the Gorse and then promptly disappeared again. 



We were tempted then to call it a day, we'd seen a few DW's and had added Woodlarks to our year list as well which moved that onto 124. But we lingered for a few more minutes and just as well we did too because for a few seconds the male Dartford Warbler perched on top of the Gorse. It didn't sing just looked all around its territory giving me enough time to capture some of my best ever images of a DW. A fantastic way to end a fantastic day!






I was back at work on the Tuesday so it was inevitable that a good bird, or in this case three good birds, would be found in the county. My mate Justin had elected to go up to Farmoor in the early afternoon primarily to look for any early returning migrant birds and also to follow up on sightings of a Little Gull. He walked straight into a trio of summer plumaged Black-necked Grebes! I didn't get home until nearly 3pm but had already primed Mrs Caley to be ready to go as soon as I got there. We were walking down the Farmoor causeway less than half an hour later into a stiff breeze that had whipped the bigger reservoir into choppy wild mess. The Grebes had been frequenting the corner of the F2 closest to the sailing clubhouse but despite much scanning I couldn't see any. There were no other birders around either. We had no choice but to look for the Grebes in other parts of the reservoir, assuming they were still around of course. I did find the Little Gull daintily flitting over the water despite the wild weather, but it was way out in the middle of F2 (as they quite often are here). The Little Gull was bird number 125 for the year and a welcome year tick since last year we missed out at Farmoor for them because of the initial Lockdown and its associated closures. There was very little riding out the waves on F2 and most of the birdlife was centred on F1, although to be fair there wasn't much there either apart from ten Goldeneye. We battled our way down the causeway stopping periodically to scope the further reaches of both reservoirs. We settled down for a bit in the lee of the bird hide, currently closed otherwise we'd have made full use of it as respite against the wind, and searched F2 again. Then eureka! I spotted three small birds about a hundred metres out bobbing up and down like corks on the water. I quickly aimed the scope and there were the Black-necked Grebes, species 126 for the year. It wasn't the view I'd been hoping for but nice to see them anyway. 


Black-necked Grebes


The Grebes had obviously been unsettled, probably by the sailing boats that had been launched, and were just swimming around the northern side of F2. They were determined to get back to the marina end and swam earnestly in that direction. We followed them but they never came closer than approximately fifty metres from the reservoir edge. To appreciate the beauty of a summer plumaged Black-necked Grebe you need far better views than what we'd been given. Luckily we had seen the very smart bird at Farmoor in May 2018.













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