A gloomy Sunday so let's go and cheer ourselves up with an afternoon visit to Farmoor and then Otmoor. That should do the trick and indeed it did. There were two Slavonian Grebes on Farmoor 1 close into the Causeway. I think they came in close as there were numerous small fish in the shallower water. The grebes easily caught them and ate a prodigious quantity. I was there for an hour and they hardly stopped diving for fish. I only managed to identify one of the fish they brought to the surface and that was a Three Spined Stickleback which the grebe had great difficulty swallowing. The defence mechanism of the stickleback is to raise its spines. This makes it extremely difficult if not painful to swallow and the grebe spent an awful lot of time dropping it back in the water and then retrieving it until, presumably exhausted, the fish gave up the unequal struggle. The grebes were also heard to call on several occasions which I can only liken to the sound of drawing a wet finger across glass. They used this as a contact call when they became separated by the unwelcome attentions of a Great Crested Grebe which had taken umbrage at their presence. The larger grebe regularly harassed either one of them causing the grebe in question to take a short skittering flight to escape its attention.
Little else was evident along the Causeway apart from a Rock Pipit but a Common Sandpiper feeding along the edge of the marina was a surprise. I had rendezvoused with Badger on the Causeway and after viewing the grebes we decided on a visit to Otmoor to see the Starling roost which was rumoured to be building up nicely and, even better was attracting the attentions of two Hen Harriers. Arriving at the main bridleway we checked the Chaffinch flock feeding on the seed put down for them at the metal gate and cattle pens. The twenty strong flock seemed to consist of mainly male Chaffinches but then a female Brambling flew down. The views were only brief as the birds were very flighty and were forever flying back into the bushes as there was a lot of disturbance from people walking along the adjacent bridleway. I looked through my bins at the bushes and found the female Brambling perched with a male Chaffinch. I checked out the other silhouettes in the bush and found another Brambling, this one was a male. Finally a smaller finch perched on the top of the bush was a Lesser Redpoll. Fieldfares and Redwings flew, calling overhead. Not bad for a start.
I do hope it is going to be a good year for Bramblings as last year was so poor. They are one of my favourite finches. We strode off down the bridleway and turned right through the gate guarding the track to the first screen. A line of Long tailed Tits flew along the hedgerow then halfway down the track, on our right, from the reeds came the distinctive pinging of Bearded Tits. We surveyed the area of reeds and we could hear them but they were impossible to see. It started to rain and the sky became leaden and dark. We waited and waited, they called regularly and then silence. Nothing. In the end we gave it up and went to check the starling roost. Despite the rain we were not disappointed.
Flocks of starlings came from all directions forming a fantastic, ever changing hologram as they joined up into one mass, manouevering above the reeds. Off to my right a large, long winged, brown raptor appeared over the distant hedgeline. A flash of a white rump identified it as a ringtail Hen Harrier. The starlings continued their fantastic shape shifting in the darkening sky before descending into the reeds and then rising again as something, possibly the harrier, spooked them. Up and down the flock went with others constantly joining and then off to the left a dark, long tailed raptor flew below and then into the flock of starlings. Another or was it the same ringtail Hen Harrier? The rain carried on and we decided to call it a day.We estimated the starling flock to be in excess of twenty thousand birds and there were still birds coming in as we left. It really is a magnificent sight and one of nature's truly 'must see' spectacles.
As we left a large flock of Fieldfares lived up to their name and in a straggling line of close to a hundred birds headed across the open spaces of Big Otmoor. Back along the bridleway and a lone Swallow flicked rapidly up and down the hedgerow trees catching the last of the insects in the oncoming gloom.