Monday, 29 March 2021

Balscote Quarry and Barford :: 26-28 March 2021

The weekend started on Friday again. The previous day had held reports of sand martin starting to drop around the country and most importantly at Grimsbury Reservoir, so that is where I headed. I arrived by 6.20am and sure enough there were 9 sand martin feeding over the water - I'm sure soon sand martin sightings will be commonplace as the reservoir plays host to large numbers of hirundine during the season - it is also why we had fingers crossed for a visit from a red-rumped swallow (delivered a couple of years ago).

Sand martin

Around the rest of the reserve it was quiet. Well, I say quiet, but that isn't quite accurate - all around chiffchaff were 'giving it some'. I bumped into @987jonty on the way round and later he reported a singing blackcap that I'd missed.

I popped home for breakfast and noted that wheatear had been reported by Sandra and Adrian Bletchly the day before, at Barford RAF station. I know the area now as I've been trying to connect with a corn bunting there for the last few weeks plus Adrian Tysoe had posted that he'd seen both wheatear and corn bunting that morning. So off I went again.

I searched for the corn bunting as I made my way to where the wheatear had been reported but didn't find one. Skylarks took to the wing rising higher and higher.


I reached the gate at the bottom of the slope and started to scan for the wheatear - as I did so a sparrowhawk appeared from my right and crusied through in front of me. This resulted in the wheatear being as close to the opposite side of the field as they could be - there were 2 males and 1 female.


On the way back to the car I saw a small flock of linnet (24) and 3 late redwing. Home for lunch.

After lunch I had a coffee before heading to Balscote Quarry. I was partularly keen to see if there were any sand martin visiting - the weather had turned mixed and rain was falling either side of the reserve. I hoped to escape a soaking. I watched as groups of 2, 5, 8 and 3 sand martins passed though.

Part way through the passage Mike Prentice turned up to catch the largest group of the afternoon (8). We talked for a short while and as he prepared to head home a bird darted across our heads and out over the gorse beyond. It was a female merlin. As it reached the far hedges a cloud of small birds ejected from their perches to evade capture - we didn't see the result and the merlin was lost from view. In my excitement I posted that we'd seen a hobby, only for my error to be pointed out (suitably chastised).

Sand martin

Six brambling showed around the feeders while linnet started to perch on scrub a little closer than usual. The two red-legged partridge are becoming more brazen and seem not to be so wary of us standing in the viewing area.


The visit was very productive and I ended with 35 species just from the viewing area - including 22 linnet and 17 snipe. A buzzard may have had the wrong idea of how the second feeding station is supposed to work ...


Later I heard that Mike Prentice had spotted a second merlin between Whatcote and Brailes - a two merlin day!

I got up early on the Saturday morning to find the car frozen and a measured temperature of 1°C - the wind didn't help. I arrived at Balscote Quarry to find nothing of partular note, just a couple of greylag (leaving soon after) and a pair of teal. I counted the brambling and got up to 9! Soon Iain Brown dropped in on his way to work. All the usual suspects were there but as I sat, a single muntjac tried to sneek past in the undergrowth on my side of the gorse.

Muntjac deer

On the WhatsApp group I heard that Mike Pollard had wheatear in Wardington and thought about going for seconds to Barford. I had a chat with Nick Truby and he suggested a site in Lower Heyford where I might encounter corn bunting. I set out and walked around but only heard and saw skylark. I started back and about halfway back to the car I saw a red kite cruising by and a large gull behind. Only, it wasn't a gull - I raised my bins to see that it was in fact an osprey! OMG - what a treat and in the middle of arable fields.


I posted the sighting and the direction of travel so that guys back home could keep their eyes on the skies - none reported seeing it over the Banbury area. I then had a call from Nick to remark on how much of a lucky beggar I was. He also communicated that he'd gone to see the wheatear and had also spotted a corn bunting there. I jumped back in the car and stopped in Barford as it was almost on the way home. Nick was still there when I arrived but the corn bunting had just popped out of view. A flock of c35 fieldfare scuttled past and into trees behind.

I stepped ahead and within minutes a corn bunting landed on the top of a distant tree - the one Nick had indicated. YES! As I watched Kev Heath turned up to see the wheatear but joined to watch the corn bunting. A linnet joined the corn bunting and it was instructive to see the size difference. We dropped down to see the wheatears and had a chiffchaff on the way back to the car. What a day!

Corn Bunting
Corn bunting
Corn bunting

Sunday started warmer but still with a wind - I had a bit of a lie in as we had lost an hour with the clocks going forward; it was closer to 9.00am when I got to Balscote Quarry and found Mike Curnow already there. I counted 12 snipe but it was difficult to be sure as they were hunkered down. I scanned the far bank and located a little ringed plover - it turned out that Iain Brown had reported one earlier that morning. Moments later Mike spotted another - a pair!

Little ringed plover

Mike Prentice arrived and counted 16 snipe using his scope. Two other chaps (Clive and Jim) also passed through and Clive picked out a wader in the sky overhead - I snapped a couple of photos to find it was in fact a black-tailed godwit.

Black-tailed godwit

I was just about to leave with Clive and Jim, and was recounting the merlin sighting from Friday, when Clive pointed over my shoulder and alerted us to the merlin cutting across the bowl. We had another brief but enjoyable sighting. Off home for lunch.

Later I suggested my wife and I go for our exercise walk back to Barford and do the circular walk I'd used before. No sign of corn bunting but still good views of skylark and three wheatear.


There weren't any surprises in the way of birds but we were treated to views of roe deer.

Roe deer
Roe deer
Roe deer

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