Sunday, 23 September 2012

A Tale of Two Moors 22 September 2012

On Friday evening I lost the car keys. Not an unusual event and no need to panic. I usually find them eventually. This time was different. We searched high and low in all the usual places. No trace. Rising panic. I have plans to go birding for the whole of tomorrow, starting early on Saturday, but with no car keys that will be impossible. An hour of searching, checking everywhere, twice, thrice and nothing. "They must be here somewhere" I moaned. 'Relax dear you will eventually remember where' came the comforting words from my wife. I eventually gave up and later in bed lying awake I recalled having them in my hand by the garden shed at the bottom of the garden. Yes, they must be there but now it's dark and there was no way of checking. I slept surprisingly well and even managed to avoid any marital strife in the morning by stopping the alarm going off before my wife was awake. Downstairs and into the garden. "Right shed, hand them over". I got to the shed, no sign of any keys. A strange constricted feeling comes into my throat. I look around the outside of the shed but no sign. I looked in the recently tidied shed and there were the keys, safe and sound on top of a box. Floods of relief. Car unlocked and loaded with scope, bins and jar of mustard for Badger (from my cousin who makes the stuff) and then off down the drive. This particular Saturday morning at 6.30am was still and misty with a distinct fresh feel to it but a clear sky and growing light in the East augured well.

As I headed for Otmoor through the country lanes, the sun rose as an orange globe of glory behind the trees. So low on the horizon it flooded the rural Oxfordshire lanes and the car with an intense white light making driving difficult. Forty five minutes later and the Black Audi came to rest in the car park at RSPB Otmoor. I rendezvoused with Oz, Pete, Andy and a post birthday celebration Badger. Happy Birthday Badger. We set off up the main track to the Reserve. The weather was just glorious, still a little fresh but the wind of the last few days had subsided into gentility and the sun was strengthening all the time. Autumn is most definitely here with the hedgerows full of ripening blackberries and slashes of red and orange where the hawthorn berries and rose hips hang heavy in the leaves. We scanned Greenaways and the cows lined up at the gate, with heads lowered, scanned us. Little was to be seen although another sure sign of autumn was the presence of a few Meadow Pipits, flying and making their peeping calls over the grass and Goldcrests calling in the hedgerow behind us.

With a rustle of a bag Badger produced some vegetarian jelly worms which he had received as a birthday gift. I selected a lurid lime green one. Very tasty all the same. Just before we got to the track leading to the Screens we stopped to scan the posts securing the electric cattle fence. These have been much favoured by Whinchats all week and this morning there were two Whinchats perched atop a post each. Numerous birds were also flitting in and out of the reeds behind the posts but these all appeared to be Reed Buntings.Whilst looking at the Whinchats a third chat popped up onto a post, and much to Pete's delight there was a male European Stonechat, resplendent in his black busby, flicking his tail and wings with nervous energy.

Male European Stonechat @ Otmoor
c Badger 
Much excitement amongst us as this has been a much anticipated and desired arrival, especially by Pete, and those of us with cameras or video went into overdrive to record the moment. The hedgerow along the track to the first screen was alive with Reed Buntings plus a few Blue Tit's which flew between the hedge and the reeds on the other side of the track as we walked along.Try as we might we could only find two Whinchats and one European Stonechat in this throng and despite several optimistic moments, every time the mystery bird ended up as a Reed Bunting. The first screen yielded very little apart from two Black tailed Godwits which have been around for some days now and the bizarre sound of wasps chomping the reed screening to carry off to make their nests.

On along the track to the second screen, accompanied by Reed Warblers, Reed Buntings and the occasional ChiffChaff, all zipping along the brambles and hedgerow in front of us. Their sheer pace of life and constant movement a never ending source of entertainment. The second screen as per usual was a bit of a dud. Just the usual wildfowl with Wigeon numbers building up and Gadwall drakes giving their curious duck decoy call from the reeds. However, a beautiful Lesser Whitethroat enlivened proceedings, distinctive with it's gleaming white underparts and dove grey head, quietly tacking away in the hawthorns behind us. A male Blackcap joined it a little later. Zoe, one of the full time RSPB reserve staff looking after Otmoor joined us at the screen. A slow amble back to the first screen but there were no vacancies as this had now been commandeered by photographers, some in that ridiculous army camouflage gear, with huge lenses lined up at every aperture of the screen. The cameras and the military clothing made the screen look like a wartime battery awaiting some invading force rather than the more gentle arrival of a Kingfisher, which was apparently the target.

We harrumphed off back to the Bridleway. Oz and myself saw another Lesser Whitethroat whizz into the hedge never to be seen again and another Goldcrest made its presence heard. There was now a parting of ways with some of us opting to head for Noke and others back to the Roman Road to look for Brown Hairstreaks. Myself, Pete, Badger, Zoe and now joined by Paul headed for Noke to look for more chats. Continuing the autumnal theme our plan bore fruit - sorry - when a Northern Wheatear duly appeared on one of the fence posts surrounding the farm buildings at Noke. There were also some other passerines perched on the wire fence. They looked to be Meadow Pipits but were too distant to be absolutely sure although in my opinion the tails were too long for them to be Whinchats. A Common Buzzard flew over and a whole host of waders and ducks arose seemingly from the middle of the grass on Ashgrave but in fact there was a good expanse of water hidden from our view in a dip in the field. In the brief flurry of activity we saw, in flight, a Green Sandpiper and a Common Snipe but best of all a single Ruff. They have such a languid, elegant flight almost caressing the air as they fly effortlessly in their element. This individual was being chased by a group of Jackdaws but really it was chalk and cheese with the frantic flappings of the clumsy corvids just enhancing the elegance of the Ruff's flight. Pete left us and after noting a couple of Yellow Wagtails we retraced our steps and commenced the long walk back to the Car Park, stopping off on the way to admire some ten or so Hornets stripping bark from a small Ash tree by the Bridleway. 

I left the others and tried my luck on the Roman Road looking for Brown Hairstreaks. I like this part of Otmoor, as it is secluded and away from the main focus of birders so consequently is quiet and contemplative. I waited under the favoured Ash trees but there was no sign of Brown Hairstreaks. A Red Kite drifted over and ChiffChaffs, both young and old hoeeted frantically around me. I wandered up the old road and came to my favourite spot. A recess of brambles, surrounded on three sides and sheltered by taller vegetation. It is a tiny world of it's own which you can freely enter in your mind if it is open to such things and leave the cares of our human world for as long as you wish. In summer and autumn it is always alive with the activity of insects. Today the brambles were a mixture of full, ripe and shiny blackberries contrasting with the hard red buttons of the unripened fruit and attended by a host of bees, wasps, hoverflies and a couple of Commas and Speckled Woods. Further along Migrant Hawker dragonflies were making the most of the weather conditions. Soon it will be over for all of them. Back to the car and reality. Two photographers were trying to outdo each other by showing their respective images to each other in the Car Park. Is this the new trainspotting? Not a telescope or binoculars in sight just cameras and images. Nic Hallam once wisely counselled me with the words  "Ewan, there are birders that take pictures of birds and photographers that photograph birds. You are the former. Stay that way". I try.

Now those of you that follow my blog know I have been getting very excited about Dunlins at Farmoor lately. According to some people worryingly so. Well, five were reported this morning on Badger's pager so how could I resist such an opportunity to confirm my membership of anoraks anonymous? I arrived at Farmoor just after 2pm via two sandwiches and a bottle of orange from a roadside garage. It was 'tequila time' at the yacht club as I passed by, with all the outside tables taken and people sprawled or picknicking in the sun. A male Tufted Duck did its version of sunbathing below them by the water, allowing one to walk right up to it. Unusual, perhaps it was not well? 


A regatta appeared to be taking place on Farmoor 2. I scanned the grassy banks by the Works but unusually they were almost devoid of birdlife apart from two wagtails. I looked at these two and to my surprise found one was a White Wagtail feeding unconcernedly with a Pied Wagtail. Good start! Back up the Causeway and I made my first contact with  two juvenile Dunlin and a little later there was the Northern Wheatear flirting it's black and white tail as it perched on the wave-wall. 



Northern Wheatear
Admiring the wheatear and then, suddenly, I could hear Common Redshanks calling but where were they? I scanned the skies. Nothing. Err? I looked along the edge of Farmoor One and found them ranged along the waterline but they were soon flushed when two passers by got too close. They took to the air, flew past me, calling evocatively and disappeared over to the far side of the reservoir.

Part of the flock of Common Redshanks
I counted eleven. I carried on up the Causeway and found the other three Dunlin. Now forgive me my moment of triumph but I took my pictures and three of the Dunlin were different to those of yesterday. Yes, I know, totally uninteresting but a tiny triumph for yours truly if no one else! 

Different Dunlins!
I met Ian Smith and we chatted for a while. The usual birder drivel, exchanging sightings, comments about work and life in general, other birders, Farmoor and the price of fish, gently but mercilessly slagging off everything and anything. As we chatted Ian got a text from Badger - a Red Veined Darter had been seen at Radley. Now Ian is a bit of a dragonfly afficionado. Me? Well I am not so sure, but it was now quiet at Farmoor so why not? It would be nice to see something I had never seen before. We decided to go for it. Ian's enthusiasm was infectious and he at least knew what he was looking for but we did have to pass the Yacht Club tea room on the way to the car. I changed and re-changed my mind about heading for Radley several times on the way down the Causeway. If the tea room was open I would buy a cup of tea, maybe even a Mars Bar and remain at Farmoor, if it was closed it was Radley. The tea room was closed. I followed Ian to Radley. Needless to say there was no sign of the darter just Badger and Gnome staring at willow bushes. 

So for me it was straight back to Farmoor for the gull roost. It was now 5pm and the gulls were coming in. I duly arrived back on the Causeway and made my way up to opposite the roost and commenced scanning. Matt Prior of Thames Water came driving down the Causeway in his official vehicle and stopped by me.We got talking and he told me he had seen two strange waders but did not know what they were but they had white rumps. We debated what they could have been but came to no firm conclusion and he left to go back to his office. I could hear both the redshanks and dunlin calling but I was now in gull scanning mode. Frankly it was a relief to just sit and rest my feet after such a long day. Bob Burgess joined me. Looking at the gulls in the scope I could also clearly see the far bank of Farmoor One and decided to see how many redshank were actually there. I counted nine scattered along the water's edge and then a wader appeared in the scope that was not a redshank. It was slightly larger in size and bulkier than a redshank and all over dull grey with a short blunt bill and plover feeding action. A juvenile Grey Plover. It was being harassed by a Magpie. What is it with corvids? Why can they not leave anything in peace? It flew. A broad white rump and black armpits were added confirmation as to it's identity. It landed further up the waterline. Then there were two of them on the waters edge! 

Juvenile Grey Plover
c Bob Burgess
Excellent. Bob looked through my scope and saw them also. I called Badger to inform him of their presence. He was at home and had just opened a can of Stella so said he would put the news out but was staying put. Two minutes later my phone rings. It was Badger again. "I'm coming. Let me know if they fly off." Such is the efficiency of mobile notification that Badger's APB saw Dai "The Insomiac Birder" and Andy Last making rapid progress a few minutes later, up the Causeway towards me. I told them where the plovers were. On the opposite side unfortunately. Dai and Bob headed off round the reservoir to get closer to them. Andy remained with me but eventually went to join the others. Heroically I remained scanning the gull roost and eventually the plovers were flushed by some walkers and flew over the reservoir to land very close to me. 

Frankly it was not such a difficult decision to remain where I was as I see literally hundreds of Grey Plover on my monthly WeBS counts in West Sussex, so it's no big deal for me when two arrive on an inland reservoir. I was genuinely unaware of how desirable a species this is in Oxfordshire. Anyway, the outcome was that everyone got to see them and I was joined by Badger and Andy for one last look at the gulls before we had to leave Farmoor due to the the gates being closed at 7.30pm. As we left, the Redshanks and Grey Plovers were in flight over the reservoir, calling, and for one brief moment the saltings, mudflats and boundless horizons of sky and sea came to a reservoir in landlocked Oxfordshire. 








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