Apart from of a brief sojourn to Frampton Marsh to see our fourth Black Stork (see here), we spent the whole of August birding at our local reserves in Oxfordshire. It was a strange time for me because the new football season was up and running and for the first time for over forty years, I wasn't part of it, having relinquished my thirty-eight year old season ticket at the European Champions during the summer. I had first decided to give up football a few years ago because I wanted to concentrate on other aspects of life that I enjoy, with birding being a massive draw for me these days and a very viable alternative way to spend my time at weekends. The pandemic and enforced lockdowns when no spectators were allowed at public events gave me the impetus to give football up this year. I had lots of great times watching Chelsea and many more with my group of like-minded friends who I will no doubt miss at some point. But now, it's full on birding and twitching and I can no longer blame being at a match, or a hangover, for missing out on a good bird somewhere.
Sunday 22nd August; Farmoor Reservoir
We walked out onto the concrete perimeter road of Farmoor on a beautiful sunny morning. The reason we were here was to try and catch up with a very showy Caspian Gull but of course that was nowhere to be seen. There was lots of interest at the reservoir that day though, starting with a Little Egret that literally lit up the pontoons at the marina as itself was beautifully backlit my the rising sun.
Freshly fledged juvenile Common Terns noisily scoured the shallows close to the causeway for breakfast while other younger birds waited impatiently on the concrete apron for their parents to deliver theirs.
|Common Tern (juvenile)|
|Common Tern (adult)|
The local feral Barnacle Goose flock, twenty-nine of them, slumbered on the embankment at the western end but were easily outnumbered by the local feral Snow Goose flock, sixty-nine of those, including four blue morph birds that were resting slightly further down the causeway.
|Snow Goose (blue morph)|
|Snow Goose (white morph)|
A further "Goose Fix" was available at the pump-house end of F1 with six Egyptian Geese reposing there. It was a good morning for Geese around the reservoir.
There had been no sign of the Caspian Gull so we opted for the complete circuit of F1 in case it was over the northern side. We met Peter (non-stop birding) who was also looking for the Caspian, in fact he'd already seen it but it had flown back towards F2. As we stood chatting and, for us, learning from his far superior knowledge of Gulls, a likely candidate for the Caspian Gull flew in and landed close to shore. Close inspection however, revealed a juvenile Yellow-legged Gull. We would have to wait a while longer for our Prince Caspian.
|Yellow-legged Gull (juvenile)|
A couple of Great Black-backed Gulls added to the Gull mix. These are the real brutes of the Gull world and other birds definitely and wisely avoid them.
|Great Black-backed Gull (2nd winter)|
Back at the Tower we had close up views of more resting and sleepy birds where Black-headed Gulls and Common Terns were lined up on the railings. A very lazy Sunday morning for Farmoor's birdlife!
|Common Tern (juvenile)|
Monday 23rd August; Farmoor Reservoir
A report of a juvenile Black Tern at the reservoir saw us return there after I finished work the next day. Incredibly there were no other birders around at all so we didn't have any leads on where exactly to look for the bird. We needn't have worried though since we found it easily enough as it patrolled F1 at a reasonable distance out from the bank. Black Tern is probably my favourite species in its family and I always enjoy seeing them so it felt very good to add it to my year list at this comparatively late stage of the year. On to #226 for the year now, a marked increase than at the same time last year.
|Black Tern (juvenile)|
Wednesday 25th August; Farmoor Reservoir
A third trip of the week to the reservoir. Arriving at midday we were again the only birders to be seen anywhere around the basins, the others were hiding in the cafe out of the brisk wind. I wanted to get a look of the previously elusive Caspian Gull which I knew was still present thanks to the regular updates received from Ewan who birds the site regularly and does get news of the birds out to help the rest of us, unlike a few others that for some reason or another don't. It was a chilly for August, an overcast and breezy day but a surprise awaited at the western end of the causeway when a juvenile Little Gull suddenly dropped in. It spent a few minutes flying around F1 before climbing high and disappearing south-westwards. The Little Gull reappeared ten minutes later but flew off high again within minutes again.
|Little Gull (1st winter)|
The Little Gull was possibly nervous because of the Peregrine Falcon that was flying high above the reservoirs.
The Caspian Gull had been reported as to having a particular liking for the dead fish that are scattered around the reservoir and had been photographed at close quarters on the causeway. No such luck for us of course but I did find the bird eating a floating trout corpse out on F1. It had competition for the bounty from both Herring and Yellow-legged Gulls but easily defended its catch. Caspian Gulls are renowned for being aggressive members of their families and this bird was taking no prisoners.
|Caspian Gull (juvenile)|
Even when the Caspian Gull landed on one of the floating rafts it remained far from passive whenever any other Gulls, or Cormorants, ventured too close.
Having seen the Gull, and hopefully learned a few ID pointers for future, although I doubt that because I have a mental block when it comes to Gull species, we returned to the marina end of the causeway. There along the grass embankment by the waterworks we found a small flock of birds feeding including a pair of each of Wheatears, Yellow Wagtails and Grey Wagtails.
At home later we were surprised to see the leucistic House Sparrow in our garden again. We first saw this bird last September but hadn't seen it since May this year. It had noticeably become less leucistic over the past few months with some of the male markings such as the black bib showing through the bleached plumage.
|Leucistic House Sparrow & Starling|
Thursday 26th August; Northants/Oxfordshire border
I had been working for some time on a farm just over the Oxon border in Northants. Just a short way from the site driveway is an old dutch barn set close to a minor road. The road is lined on both sides by mature trees some of which are extremely gnarled and decaying. Last winter when I drove past the barn I noticed a Little Owl perched precariously on a single strand of wire that was stretched across the front of the barn. Despite looking every day onwards whenever I was working there I never saw the Owl again. Then earlier in August I began another stage of the work at the same site and saw a Little Owl again. The sighting was repeated several times over the next week so I started taking my lunch breaks at the barn and spent time watching the Owl. Today I decided to try for some photos so I drove the van to the barn and parked up in the gateway from where I could view. I remained in the van and used it as cover, ready to point the camera through the open window. Typically for fifteen minutes there was no sign of the Little Owl at all. Then, as I was thinking of going back to work, an Owl flew up from the base of the closest tree into the upper branches. Amazingly another three Little Owls followed it. I'd only seen the one there before so had no idea that there'd be more!
|Little Owl (adult)|
Just as there were near Banbury a couple of weeks before this was a family party of two adults and two fledged youngsters. There was no direct interaction between any of the birds although it was clear that they'd all emerged from the same part of the presumed nest hole in one of the trees.
|Little Owl (juvenile)|
I stopped alongside the barn again on my way home and enjoyed point blank views almost of one of the adult birds stood on a stanchion of the barn roof. Late in the afternoon the sunshine lit the Owl up beautifully. Others of the family were also resting up in the roof space of the structure.
The following day, I took Mrs Caley along to see the Little Owls which were slightly more elusive but we still managed to see three. It's been a good year for us and Little Owls and we've found and seen more than we ever have before. In fact it's been a good Owl year generally for us and we've had great views of all five of our breeding species, all of them locally too.
Saturday 28th August; Otmoor
A grey and overcast day where everything was elusive or too far away and when my camera remained largely holstered. Most of the same birds were still present, all three Egret species, the family party of Garganey and more but none were showy and I lacked enthusiasm. I have days like that sometimes.
|Garganey (back left)|
The partially leucistic House Sparrow brightened up the gloom once more by greeting us back at home.
Sunday 29th August; Churn
Weather-wise, another of the same dreary and chilly for the time of year days. I tried to reinvigorate our birding by attempting to track down a male Hen Harrier that had taken up temporary residence on the Oxon/Berks Downs. Why do so many of the best birds in our area pitch up right on the borders of the county? One of my favourite oxymoronic walks is to go "Up the Downs" and there is usually something to see. It turned into a long walk, we didn't see the Harrier but did find a couple of the areas star birds that can't be named on here. The main show was provided by the Corn Buntings, including one with an odd cream coloured tail that was still fetching food for its chicks, and Skylarks which are bountiful on the arable farmland.
Monday 30th August; Muswell Hill
That time of year again to check our local migration hotspot for migrant birds. In fact it isn't so hot but we can expect to find a sprinkling of our less common breeding birds up the Hill as they move southwards to avoid our winter. I'm ever hopeful of finding a Wryneck up here or a Yellow-browed Warbler later in October but so far I've only ever found Wheatears, Common Redstarts and Spotted Flycatchers. I even missed out on seeing a Pied Flycatcher that Badger found on a sunny afternoon a few years back. This walk brought us a large flock of mixed species, with Blackcaps, a Lesser Whitethroat, a few Willow Warblers and a Treecreeper keeping tabs with the more usual species.
On the southern side of the hill we found a Wheatear and four Spotted Flycatchers in the usual spot, in the bushes surrounding a small paddock.
Friday 3rd September; Muswell Hill
An afternoon walk on the Hill in better weather for a change. Birds were moving but mostly high up and we logged a Hobby, a pair of Raven and numerous Buzzards heading south. The hoped for Honey Buzzard must have been even higher up and it slipped by unnoticed! Twenty-five years ago a White-tailed Eagle graced this area and I'm always expecting the massive shadow of one to glide overhead now we have the reintroduced birds from the Isle of Wight wandering around, maybe next year.
The Wheatear was still present but surprisingly uncooperative. The paddock held just a single Spotted Flycatcher but at least it posed dutifully for us.
After a good month of local birding it was now time for us to spread our wings again, rarities were awaiting!