During April, May and part of June, finding time to write about my birding days out became firstly limited and then almost non-existent. The only real escape and relief from the stress of those couple of months was being able to get out and seek solace in the birds both those seen locally and on trips further afield. There is too much that I've got behind with so it's now impossible for me to write it all up so I thought that I'd exercise some self indulgence, and restraint, and do a brief summary of where I've been and what I've seen.
Forest of Dean, 14th April
Mrs Caley and I, well me really, had a ridiculous notion that we'd be able to find the Great Grey Shrike that winters at Crabtree Hill in the forest. My mate Mark had seen it just a week or so before but I knew that we were on borrowed time if we were going to see it. Short story is that we didn't. The Shrike had left for its Northern summer pastures just a few days before. However, all is never lost in a fabulous place like the Forest of Dean. We had started the day with a quick walk around Nagshead where we saw Pied Flycatcher and Common Redstart but failed to find any Hawfinches. We also found two pairs of Mandarin Ducks on the small pond by the hide there.
At Crabtree Hill we did find our first Tree Pipit of the year, a beautiful and showy bird, amongst the more common species. Tree Pipits are extremely hard to find in Oxon despite being reasonably common just over the border in Berkshire.
After lunch we parked up at Wenchford. The stream below the carpark widens out into broad shallows where children splash noisily on a fine day such as this one was. Far too loudly for our liking because the bird we were hoping to see wouldn't be found there amidst such a din. We walked back to the road where a small stone bridge supports the entrance track, sat quietly and watched. Allowing for a few minutes of acclimatising we began to see birds, Grey Wagtails, Song Thrushes and Wrens all came to the stream side. The Wagtails must have had a nest nearby since they often perched in an overhead tree and scolded us below. So we moved slightly downstream and watched from an old tree stump instead.
Then we noticed the bird that we'd come for, a Dipper had appeared as if by magic on a small, and partly submerged, log. The only Dipper we had seen last year was the rare continental variant, the Black-bellied Dipper, so this was the first we'd encountered since our last trip to Scotland almost two years ago. We sat on the tree stump and watched the Dipper at length for over an hour, lost in the sounds of the forest, the road was closed to traffic so it was even more pleasant than usual. Dippers are unusual in their habits but are fun to watch and really lovely even when wearing so much ankle bling.
Otmoor, 17/18th April
The end of April is time of year when, normally, I'd be getting very excited. It's when most of our summer birds return to breed in the UK once more. This spring was a difficult time, for me and the birds. The prolonged cold and wet late March and early April had delayed the incoming migration of a lot of those birds. We walked onto Otmoor on the Saturday morning and into a rather muted soundscape than we'd usually expect. Warblers had returned but in far smaller numbers than normal and many winter visitors were still staying on the moor for much longer. The best birds seen went un-captured on camera, a Spotted Redshank and a Whimbrel, both new for the year, that were way out in the heat haze on Big Otmoor. They were kept company by some late Golden Plovers. The highlight of our walk was seeing and photographing the Cetti's Warbler which had taken a small territory either side of the bridge on the path to the hide. It had clearly ripped up the guidebook that said that its kind are elusive!
Later that day we heard that a Grasshopper Warbler had been seen at ridiculously close quarters and right out in the open on the northern side of the moor. We walked out from Oddington and found the exact spot in a hedge but couldn't find the bird. Groppers were eluding me so far this spring. There were plenty of other nice birds to see including a surprise flypast from a group of (feral) Barnacle Geese and a pair of Chiffchaffs busy making more Chiffchaffs.
On Sunday morning we tried in vain for the Gropper once more before heading around to the RSPB reserve once more. The Cetti's Warbler was still performing beautifully but the days best bird sighting, other than a very distant view of the now settled Glossy Ibis, was close-ups of the leucistic ("Luke") Pochard which has summered on the lagoon for four years now.
|"Luke" the leucistic Pochard
Farmoor, 23rd April
Friday morning turned into a memorable one. There had been a few Little Gulls seen at Farmoor in the couple of days before but nobody could have predicted the eighty plus birds that were hawking over F2 for most of the day. One or two Arctic Terns joined in the fun, pushing our year list up to the 160 mark. Generally the Little Gulls, mainly breeding plumaged adults, stayed way out but occasionally came close enough for photographs.
|Little Gull, breeding plumage
|Little Gull, non-breeding plumage
In the bright sunny conditions photographing the more common birds was easy for a change, Common Terns, Black-headed Gulls, Great Crested Grebes and Mallards all allowing close studies.
|Great Crested Grebe
|(foam faced) Mallard
Pinkhill was alive with Warbler song and we had already managed seven species of them even before we heard a Grasshopper Warbler reeling from the small patch of long grass by the mooring points. We stood and listened and after a while of watching and searching finally located the bird in a dense bush right by the entrance road to the lock cottages. The Gropper wasn't alone in claiming the bush as territory, a Common Whitethroat was also in residence and it didn't take kindly to the Gropper being there and frequently chased it out. The Gropper persevered however, as did we, and we watched it intermittently for over two hours. To be fair, I could watch Groppers all day and never tire of them. They are, with the Nightingale, the bird I most look forward to hearing and seeing every spring.
Making our way back to the reservoir we stopped to admire a pair of Song Thrushes, a not too common sight these days, feeding in the shade of a hedge on the embankment. We also heard our first Cuckoos of the year.
Back at reservoir side a couple of Dunlin scuttled along the concrete apron. Dunlins are always good value at Farmoor. By sitting quietly on the wall they will walk and run right past you and give brilliant views.
We enjoyed a coffee at the (take-away) cafe, which reminded me of the tuck-shop at school, with our friend Mick. Mick is a terrific birder and he soon spotted a wading bird flying towards us. Not sure if it was a Whimbrel or a Curlew, I felt it prudent to take a series of images. Thankfully they were just good enough to prove that it was a Whimbrel.
Greenham Common, 24th April
Our annual trip to look for Nightingales takes us into Berkshire and to the BBOWT's flagship reserve on the old and infamous USAF airbase. Nightingales are doing relatively well in Berkshire, in stark contrast to our home county of Oxon where they are all but gone as a breeding species. We heard the rich song of our quarry as soon as we exited our car. It took me less than fifteen-seconds to find it too, in a sparsely leafed tree right next to the carpark. My attempt at getting a photo though was scuppered by an uninvited intrusion by one of the long lens brigade who had run across from where he'd been barking up the wrong tree and shouting, "Have you got one?". "Well, I did before you poked your foghorn in" was my muffled reply. In hindsight I may have been a bit rude there but I was going through it a bit at the time. We left the oaf to it and wandered off to a couple of favourite spots close by where there are always Nightingale territories. The birds themselves were not particularly showy but with patience, always needed with this skulking species, decent views and record shots were obtained. But it's the song of the Nightingale that sets them apart from other birds so we enjoyed listening to them as they sang heartily.
The rest of the weekend was rain affected and things were coming to a head at home so we barely got out of the house and our only birding was watching the Starlings and Sparrows in the garden.
Boddington Reservoir, Bicester & Otmoor, 30th April
My good mate Kyle had told me of a singing Grasshopper Warbler next to Boddington reservoir so on Friday morning, with a whole long weekend to look forward to, we headed over to see it. The bird had been reeling from a damp marshy area next to a field that housed some very inquisitive Sheep, of the pickpocketing variety. It was necessary to walk through the sheep field in order to get close to the Gropper. The Sheep took that as an opportunity to literally mug us whenever they thought we weren't looking. The Gropper itself showed beautifully and sang almost non-stop for the two hours that we stayed. It was the most approachable and easiest to see of its kind that we've encountered for some years and I took many photos of it.
Another friend of ours, Patricia, had discovered a pair of Garganey at a small scrape on the edge of one of the vast building sites in Bicester. This was very exciting to have such a scarce bird so close to home so after the Gropper we drove back and onto the development where the Garganey had been seen. At first there was no sign of the ducks but a pair of Little Ringed Plovers entertained us in their absence and allowed possibly the closest views we've had of that species. A pair of Lapwing were also present, attempting to breed on a small dry sandy island only a few metres from the road.
|Little Ringed Plover
We found the Garganey after they had swum out of a densely vegetated area. Bicester Wetlands Reserve (BWR) is just the other side of the railway and we hoped that they'd move over there and breed should they settle in and stay. For now though the Garganey appeared happy keeping company with some Gadwall although they were less keen on the Yellow-legged and Lesser Black-backed Gulls that harassed them.
|Gadwall & Garganey
I can't remember why but later that day we walked out onto Otmoor again. Maybe I needed to clear my head. Anyway I'm pleased we did go for that walk since we finally got good views of the Glossy Ibis, although they weren't easy to obtain because I had to clamber up the fence, and balance on it, in order to overlook The Closes where the Ibis was feeding.
We also year ticked Swift, Hobby and a beautiful Lesser Whitethroat whilst out on the deserted moor. Despite the impending upset about to hit our lives, birding in April had been terrific and had helped to lift our spirits. We can all rely on birds to bring some happiness into our lives.