Wednesday, 21 July 2021

North Oxfordshire :: 15-17 July 2021

Over the past couple of weeks, one of the guys on the Banbury Birders WhatsApp group had occasionally been posting photos of a family of little owls that he'd encountered. While I'd seen a few in various locations, none had been particularly helpful in providing a good photo opportunity. So, I got in touch and asked if it might be possible to know where to go for views as good as he had posted. I was in luck, and he was actually watching them when my message got to him, and he replied immediately. With my wife out playing tennis I dropped any plans I'd had and made my way to join him.

On arrival I found he was just about to head home but indicated that he'd seen one relocate from the 'usual' tree into a much larger one on the opposite side of the path we were on. He wished me luck and left me to see what I could do about a decent photo. It took about 20 minutes but then a bird appeared in the hole of a branch and sat there watching me watch it. A few minutes later another flew across from the back of the tree to the other behind me but too low and much of the flight below the hedge, for a flight shot.

Little owl

As the sun dropped it became obvious that getting great photos was going to be a challenge as the sun was relatively behind the tree and casting the owls into a partial silhouette. They were great to watch and were becoming more and more active as sunset approached. Just as the sun was dropping out of view the finder reappeared and joined in taking some photos. Once the harsh light was out of the picture it was a little easier to see features, although the ISO settings continued to increase. We watched them catching the May bugs flying around the treetops and set off home happy. A plan had formulated in my head as I now realised that the sun would rise behind the path and flood the tree with rays - early morning would provide a better opportunity and I now knew where to come.

Little owl
Little owl
Little owl

I arrived in the morning with my now regular birding partner Kevin Heath. It was just a little after sunrise and we could see a little owl on the branches as we approached. Already happy. We watched and had good views although initially the birds were on more distant parts of the tree. The later the hour the more they stopped on the front of the tree and bathed in the morning sun. As we watched and looked up and down the field we saw another little owl on the further end of the field - we went to investigate and found another bird on the downslope and a further 100m away; perhaps there is another group as this individual never came back to the tree and we already had 2 adults. Something to investigate at some time - a previous year's young setting up an adjacent territory?

Little owl
Little owl
Little owl
Little owl

On the Saturday morning I met up with Dan and Trish Miller - they hadn't ever encountered a little owl and had spent many hours in the spring trying to connect with some in Oxford, without success. Again, just after sunrise we found the birds initially static as before but as the morning wore on, they started to perform. We were benefiting from the fact that the farmer had been hay baling and this proved to a reason for the owl to visit the ground and the bales on a frequent basis. We watched them as they fed and counted four individuals. I could still see another far down the field - someday I will investigate further.

Little owl
Little owl
Little owl
Little owl
Little owl
Little owl
Little owl
Little owl
Little owl
Little owl
Little owl
Little owl
Little owl
Little owl

Tuesday, 20 July 2021

RSPB Otmoor :: 11 July 2021

We decided to target a species missing from our year list and head to RSPB Otmoor. There had been plenty of bittern sightings but none while I had been there -there also seemed to be less sightings over Greenaways than last year with the majority I'd heard of from 1st screen.

Another early arrival and we made our way down past the feeders and onto the bridleway. It was noticeably quieter than my last visit, but we still were greeted by an array of warblers, including both common and lesser whitethroat. We slowly made our way along and eventually reached the patch of reeds that had been so productive for bittern sightings previously. Within minutes Kevin Heath send up a shout that a bittern was coming in from the right. I swung round in time to see the last 30ft of flight before it dropped into the reeds - I suppose it must have been on the far right of Greenaways. Luckily, I had managed to get focus and send off a volley of photos before the bird was lost into the reeds.

Bittern
Bittern

We joked that we had our day's target bird and that we could get back home, but of course pushed on. After a short look over Big Otmoor we set off down to 1st screen, seeing a pair of bullfinches join warblers, juvenile sedge and several other species feeding on the track ahead. On and into the hide we noted the species on the water and over but none caught our eye, although juvenile shoveler were good to see. We left for 2nd screen passing yet more warblers enroute.

Common whitethroat

From 2nd screen we eventually added a little grebe but saw nothing remarkable; the species count continued to rise. We arrived back at 1st screen to find Mark Chivers and Peter Barker in residence, and they pointed out a garganey which we'd not seen on the way passed. We stopped to chat and soon we were joined by Nick Truby and his wife Anne. With his typical delivery he inquired as to who had invited "the Banbury boys" 😂. After a short catch-up Nick mentioned he'd seen a great white egret on Big Otmoor and so we set off to try and find it - he mentioned tht he'd been lucky as most of the time it was out of view.

We stalked up and down the bridleway but with no joy. At one point we stopped to identify a small bird hopping in the trees behind us when out burst a sparrowhawk/cuckoo/little owl sized bird - it appeared to have little or no tail as it quickly flew away through the branches, and we tried to discount sparrowhawk - also there have been no mention of little owl on this stretch and so we thought it may be a juvenile cuckoo given the colour. We will never know.

We made our way back along the bridleway to the car, stopping at the gate to the cattle pens. We watched as a male marsh harrier quartered the far edges of Greenaways putting up a curlew. Now scanning the area, we caught sight of an approaching bittern and had a long and enjoyable fly-past - I took photos but by then the heat haze was causing havoc. This was then followed by the emergence of a hobby from the far hedge line. 54 species noted and home.

The following day we joined a Banbury Ornithological Society to a dairy farm in Whatcote - run by one of the members. He gave a very interesting introduction to the works there and then led a walk around the fields around the farm. It was a great catch up with many as meetings have largely been online during the pandemic. The highlight for me was a barn owl in a barn covered with a corrugated roof. It really was an enjoyable evening and finished off with coffee/tea and cake.

Barn owl

Sunday, 20 June 2021

Crookham and Greenham Common :: 19 June 2021

After a 4.00am alarm call I was off to Crookham and Greenham Commons with Kevin Heath - we still travelled in separate cars to protect against transmission (to him from my wife's school and/or in the other direction), although we are all double vaccinated. Hopefully someday soon we will get back to a state where we can all share cars again.

We made for the edge of Crookham Common where I have previously seen nightingales and where Nick Truby had been in late April and confirmed their continued presence. We set out along the stretch I had seen them previously but couldn't heard any calls - we stopped to enjoy chiffchaff, blackcap and a vocal jay.

We then crossed the road to where Nick had indicated was the best spot - perhaps we should have done that from the off. We listened but didn't hear any calls but did have great-spotted woodpecker, nuthatch, families of blackcap and robin, goldcrest and various tit species.

I looked back down the track and spotted a couple of birds on the ground next to a large bush - one was a dunnock but the other was a nightingale. I alerted Kev but he didn't get on it before if departed - it didn't take too long before we heard calling over in a far hedge and then saw one flying across the track. We moved a bit closer but left space so as not to crowd the bush where from time to time it seemed to land. Ocassionally we heard calls from both sides of the track and also a couple of nice views, but failed on each opportunity for a photo. After and hour or so of listening and watching a bird was flitting about the foot of a nearby tree, eventually hopping onto a low branch. I set off a volley of shots and was rewarded with a few in focus as a nightingale paused briefly and turned to move on.

Nightingale
Nightingale

We'd managed to connect with one of our target species and so decided to relocate and park at the Greenham Common Control Tower and try our luck at some more.

Greenham Common Control Tower

As we entered to Common we spotted willow warbler and various corvids, then set off along the gravel path watching the gorse and scrub for any signs of birds. We spotted a stonechat, then another, before Kev located a Dartford warbler - it had dropped out of sight before I got on it. We were at some distance from the spot and so moved a little closer spotting a juvenile Dartford warbler in the base of a bush. Another target bird ticked.

Darford warbler

We pushed on along the track where the runway had been, continuing to see large numbers of stonechat and a common heath moth. A meadow pipit showed atop the scrub and we had a little ringed plover over.

Stonechat
Common heath moth
Meadow pipit

From inside an area of gorse we could hear Dartford warbler and waiting eventually one flew out and passed us - it forgot to land in view - we waited to see if it would reappear, but no dice. We had another similar encounter but this time the bird flew further from us and again out of sight. We were nearing the end of the site when we heard a brief call and another Dartford warbler flew past us but this time stopping briefly in view before returning back. This was our best view and I had managed to shoot off two bursts.

Dartford warbler
Dartford warbler

Three flocks of birds ahead of us rotated in balls across the sky - resembling a small murmuration, occasionally joining up. We couldn't make out what they were, and I had to wait until I got home to see what they were. They appeared to be a species of pigeon, but it was behaviour I have never seen before - I've seen larger flocks but not his communal gathering and staying in roughly the same spot for more than 5 minutes.

Pigeon flock?

We moved on deciding to skirt the edge of the tree-lined perimeter and stopped at the very far end on the gravel path. We scanned the area and after a few minutes Kev announced he had woodlark in his sights. I established where he was looking and raised my bins - this turned out to be an error but a happy natural reaction. I confirmed the ID but some movement on the track to the right sent two birds into the air - I followed them round while Kev said that there was still one on the ground. Before I got on it, it was off too - damn and blast, I'd missed a record photo but was still overjoyed to see it as it was a life tick for both of us. I was particularly happy as they'd discussed woodlark on Springwatch recently and so was better informed than I might have been.

I had promised to be back home for lunch and so we reluctantly had to pull stumps and head back - I had a call from 'her indoors' as we made our way back to the car.

Tuesday, 15 June 2021

Farmoor Reservoir :: 13 June 2021

I arrived at Farmoor Reservoir and met up with Kevin Heath - not sure what we would see today but good to get out early as it was going to be a hot one. We had a look down to the water treatment works and could see a yellow wagtail on the fencing, with greenfinch and goldfinch below. We crossed the causeway but there was absolutely nothing in the way of waders - the water was dead calm and not much on there either. No hirundines showed and not a single tern was fishing - the only highlight was a snow goose in amongst the geese at the visitor centre end.

We decided that there was little going on at the reservoir and made our way down through Shrike Meadow to the hide by the river. We could see a Cetti's warbler calling from trees but not close enough for a photo and then not in the open when we closed the distance. Warbler song filled the air - it was very relaxing. On the riverbank we saw a bird flying through the trees on the opposite bank and both announced "jay" at exactly the same time. Whitethroat, sedge and reed warbler and Cetti's warbler accompanied us as we made our way along the river.

We stopped where Kev had seen a kingfisher on our previous visit and heard cuckoo close but out of view. Dragonfly and damselfly worked their way over the riverside reeds with occasional patches of demoiselles. A rather handsome male reed bunting called from above us, and a couple replied from both sides of the river.

Reed bunting

We reached the turn back to the Pinkhill Reserve and hide when we heard a cuckoo ahead - we stopped and tried to pick it out but had no luck so continued up the slope and passed / round a small wood. Looking down towards the river below a reed warbler stopped long enough for a photo. We saw not one but two cuckoos in the area we had heard the calls originating from earlier - they chased one another, eventually departing to the left and back towards Pinkhill.

Reed warbler

We worked our way back down to the river but as we passed the track down to Pinkhill Lock we stopped to listen to a reeling grasshopper warbler. I've spent quite a bit of time on this bird in the past and only had a fleeting glance. Amazingly it soon popped onto a low stalk and sang strongly - I snapped off a few photos and watched as it moved to another perch and repeated it's song. A couple of women, traveling in opposite directions (one running and the other walking a small dog) stopped and asked what we were looking at - they appeared genuinely interested and waited for us to indicate where the bird was next time it sang. As it flew a bit further away towards the river, we could see that it was joined by a second. What a great result and happy to have eventually seen it here.

Grasshopper warbler
Grasshopper warbler
Grasshopper warbler

We called it a day and made our return back along the river. We heard and saw all the warblers again but nothing extra. Mating banded demoiselle rested on the vegetation on the river bank.

Banded demoiselle

Returning to the cars anticlockwise around F2 we added a single swallow around some barns and two house sparrows on top of a roof. We had noted 51 species but it was the grasshopper warbler sighting that had given me most pleasure - a special spring for me with these warblers (see again).

Monday, 14 June 2021

Hinton Airfield :: 12 June 2021

It had been a busy week and by Friday night I was feeling a bit weary. So, when Kevin Heath got in touch and he felt much the same, we decided to give an early start on Saturday a miss and think about Sunday instead. However, I'd then been thinking about where to go, and my mind fell on a site that I've never visited - Hinton Airfield. In the lockdowns John Friendship-Taylor had walked here from his home in Brackley and turned up some interesting birds - I contacted him to confirm the parking spot I'd found on my maps and what a common route around may be. He confirmed the details but also said that he was thinking of going there in the morning if I would like to join him - an opportunity not to me missed, rather than stumbling around on my own.

I arrived slightly early and as I waited I listened to the calling skylark and watched a grey heron over. A calling yellow wagtail caught my attention, and I raised my bins to see it atop a nearby tree. It had a full beak of what I originally thought was nesting material but turned out to be food for the nest. That is how you provision a nest!

Yellow wagtail

John arrived and we set off on the south side of the airfield, spotting another yellow wagtail and yellowhammer ahead. In the bushes to our right, we came across a family of whitethroats, the mother with food for the youngsters hopping excitedly from branch to branch. Soon we came across another family group, this time long-tailed tits. They fed amongst the branches in the hedge, constantly on the move. Looking across the field we could see another yellow wagtail sitting on top of a small dung heap. More whitethroat showed and we were already into double figures.

Long-taled tit
Long-taled tit

We came upon a field where the farmer had left a very wide margin and it was filled with red poppies - it was really a beautiful sight. John stopped to take some photos and I couldn't resist either.

Field of poppies
Field of poppies

We continued passed a barn and came across (another?) family of long-tailed tits and into a large area where some small planes were parked up on the far edge. To our left we spotted a brown hare and watched it moving slowly at first, but then it sauntered across to our right - wrong decision - as a dog and its owner rounded the corner and the dog took off after the hare. No competition. Despite the owner calling on the dog, it tried to follow but the hare opened the gap between them and disappeared into, and presumably through, the hedge.

Brown hare

We came across another brown hare shortly after, more distant but running towards us - it stopped for a short while but then exited stage left, and into the hedge. John headed for a short patch of grass, leading to an area of higher grass and scrub - he had a purpose and soon announced that he'd found some bee orchids - searching around we counted ten. It is odd but we only found two more and not too far from the main group. Continuing into the scrub we saw a butterfly fly past and land ahead - we got up close and John identified it as a small heath - I would have had to check at home but he knows his stuff. Shortly after we had another and this time John identified it as a brown argus.

Bee orchid
Small heath butterfly
Brown Argus butterfly

We circled back to the cars and I was pleased to have had a first visit with someone who knew the area and had some butterfly knowledge. A great visit to somewhere new - it will be on the list for regular visits, especially for spring migrants.