Sunday 1 May 2016

Double Gold 30th April 2016

Personally I have had a brilliant Spring of birding so far and today was the latest in a succession of red letter days.

I planned to go to the RSPB's Otmoor Reserve this Saturday morning but last night I received a text from Gnome advising that a Curlew Sandpiper that had been seen by one observer on Friday morning near Banbury before it flew off, had subsequently been seen by someone else in the evening, back at the same location. From the  brief details I received it would appear to have been seen at Balscote Quarry, a small reserve managed by Banbury Ornithological Society.

Balscote is not that far from my home in Kingham so I determined to be there at just after dawn on Saturday  to see if the Curlew Sandpiper was still there, which accounted for my shivering presence at a freezing Balscote Quarry at 0545am scanning, sadly but all too predictably, a location minus a Curlew Sandpiper.  Just two Little Ringed Plovers were all there was as far as waders were concerned. I gave up after half an hour and drove up the lane to join the main road to Banbury intending to head for Otmoor, and turning onto the road, after a very short distance I saw a sign on the right that said 'Quarry' and on impulse turned  down the narrow lane. As I turned into the lane, almost opposite on the other side of the road I saw  another lane called Ironstone Lane, the name ringing a bell in my mind. Last night the text from Gnome had mentioned both Balscote Quarry and Ironstone Lane but they are separate locations, admittedly not far apart, so it was all a bit confusing.

I drove a short way down the lane to the Quarry. Parking the car the remote locking system decided to play up. It would let me lock the car but would not let me back in. A bit of cussing and swearing in true Basil Fawlty tradition ensued and eventually I managed to manually unlock the obdurate car without the alarm going off but this kind of hassle is the last thing you need at such an early hour and on the trail of an elusive bird.

Leaving the car I scanned the flooded workings of the Quarry for the sandpiper but saw absolutely nothing although the habitat looked good, so I returned to the car and drove back up the lane, crossing the main road and driving down the narrow Ironstone Lane, and through the thick hedges and trees bordering the lane on the left hand side, I discerned an area of flood and muddy margins that also looked interesting. I wondered if it would be worth a try here and stopped the car and sought a way through the hedge. The area was not exactly conducive to birding as to view the flood I had to first park the car on a narrow grass verge and once through the hedge find my way through the numerous trees and low branches to what appeared to be a precipitous bank overlooking the flood.

Looking  through the mass of leaves, twigs and branches between me and the flood I did not hold out much hope but gave it a go and scanned the flood with my bins and what did I see almost immediately? A small wader slightly bigger than a Dunlin. 

It was a bit distant but looked very much like the Curlew Sandpiper. I hastened back to the car and got the scope and the views subsequently obtained confirmed that it indeed was the Curlew Sandpiper and joy of joys, virtually in full summer plumage. The opportunities to see one in summer plumage are very slim in Britain, as they usually pass through to their breeding grounds to the east of Britain or if they do stray here their stay is very brief indeed, usually just a day and sometimes just hours.They are one of the supreme long distance avian travellers and can cover almost 4000kms in one flight so the likelihood of one putting down in Britain, let alone Oxfordshire is even less likely. The only other opportunity to see them here is on their return in late summer when in some years they get pushed by easterly winds across to Britain as they pass south, but even then it is still hit and miss, with most of the birds that do arrive being juveniles and it is rare to see an adult still in its breeding plumage. So I took this golden opportunity of viewing an adult in Oxfordshire with great relish and marvelled yet again at the wonders of bird migration and at this little beauty which had found itself bringing a brief glamour and a 'je ne sais quoi' to an unremarkable area of flood and mud in the middle of Britain as it transited on its lonely, hazardous journey from West Africa to Arctic Siberia.

What a beautiful bird it was, with a face, breast and belly of deep plumbeous red and upperparts chequered black, white and chestnut. Its long delicate, curlew like, decurved black bill and black legs gave it an elegant and aesthetically pleasing appearance. It walked about rapidly, hither and thither on its long legs, probing and fussing as it searched for food to refuel its body's reserves of fat and was obviously very nervous, on one occasion taking off, flying at great speed low around the flood and then landing at my end of the flood with upraised wings, an attenuated vision of nervous alertness. It settled after it was satisfied that there was nothing to threaten it and recommenced feeding. Although the trees were a pain to see through they had a positive benefit in that they also hid me from the sandpiper. I slipped back through the trees to the car and got my camera although it was pretty hopeless as the bird was  quite distant and the camera would struggle with the distance and to focus through all the leaves  and branches. Despite this I was able to just about focus on the bird and managed to get a couple of record shots to commemorate this momentous occasion. 

Curlew Sandpiper
There were other waders here also, in the form of six Common Sandpipers and two Little Ringed Plovers as well as a pair of Lapwing that were shepherding newly hatched chicks along the water's edge.

After twenty minutes something caused all the birds  to take alarm and they flew and that was the last I saw of the Curlew Sandpiper. I  returned to the car which had now decided to behave itself and headed for Otmoor. The day had got off to a great beginning  as far as I was concerned and the cold and early start were forgotten in a euphoria of self congratulation at my persistence.

Forty minutes later I arrived in the car park at Otmoor. The morning was turning into a lovely day of bright sunshine and blue skies but with a bitter northwest wind. Leaving the car I immediately heard a Grasshopper Warbler reeling away, its ventriloquial, rhythmic song rising and fading in the field behind the hedge that bounds the car park. I joined Pete and Steve and we wandered down the track to the bridleway and the wide expanse of Greenaways. 

Saturday and Sunday mornings at Otmoor are just as much a social event as a birding venture as many Oxonbird regulars, known as the 'Otmoor Massive' and presided over by Pete, get together for a good old gossip and exchange of birding information. It is what defines Oxfordshire birding and Oxon Birders are a friendly bunch of people, highly social and anyone and everyone is approachable, with newcomers always welcomed. Something I may say that is sadly lacking in certain other county organisations.

Up on the bridleway we wandered along chatting and birding. A Cuckoo called and then flew but bizarrely it had no tail and looked very odd as it headed for some nearby trees. Reed and Sedge Warblers have now arrived en masse and the reed beds in the dyke were alive with their chattering. The new reeds have yet to grow so the birds remain low down in the dead reed stems and are hard to see but with patience they eventually sidle up a reed stem to show themselves.

Sedge Warbler

Reed Warbler
A Marsh Harrier flew with insouciant purpose over the reeds out on Greenaways, the bright sunlight highlighting the variations in its brown plumage as it flew with bright yellow legs dangling in anticipation of seizing  an unsuspecting victim. A Peregrine, grey and white, bulky of body and too large to be a male flew across behind it and settled on a post further out, whilst Snipe were 'drumming' overhead. How the noise can be called drumming is beyond me as the noise is more a winnowing sound as the air passes through the extended outer tail feather on each side of the tail. Perhaps thrumming would be more appropriate?  

At the gate to the First Screen I left Pete and Steve as they carried on along the bridleway to Noke whilst I turned to go down the track to the First Screen to see if the Grasshopper Warbler that has a territory half way along the track was showing itself. This particular Grasshopper Warbler behaves aberrantly in that it sings relatively out in the open and appears to be untroubled by the very close presence of birders and photographers who come to admire it. Consequently it was too good an opportunity for me to pass by.

The Grasshopper Warbler in its favourite briar
Last Tuesday I came with the same purpose but such was my luck the Grasshopper Warbler did not follow the script and was quite elusive but not today. Immediately I arrived there it was perched on a briar stem a couple of feet above the rank grass, singing lustily. It would sing for a few minutes and then descend and disappear into the grass but after about another ten minutes would re-emerge to sing again and so the process repeated itself time after time for hours on end. It had two favourite perches to sing from, both small spindly briars, separated by about twenty feet and growing up through the grass.

Despite getting some really good images it was also a great opportunity to study at length a bird that is usually hard to see. I  noted how it would turn its head as it sang with a wide open bill, creating the aforementioned ventriloquial effect. Before it commenced singing it would often open its bill wide and just hold it there for some seconds as if summoning the will to start singing or, if you will forgive me being fanciful, clearing its throat, the bright yellow gape striking and accentuated by the sunlight. Occasionally it would just sit quietly and on one occasion even briefly closed its eyes as if taking a nap but this was then followed by a swelling of its throat and then regurgitating a pellet, something I did not know they did. There is always something to learn if given the opportunity to look long and hard and you have the patience and the will.

I noted the details of its streaked brown plumage and how its tail was broad and rounded, almost paddle shaped. Most striking of all were the bright pink legs and how long its toes and claws were, presumably an adaptation to assist in creeping along the ground through and under the grass. 

Note the bright pink legs and long toes and claws
I could have stayed here for hours observing and learning but after an hour a somewhat diminished 'Otmoor Massive' in the form of Pete, John and Moth came down the track from the First Screen and I joined them as we headed out to Noke to rejoin Pete and Steve. A Garden Warbler was singing loudly in the bushes competing with a Lesser Whitethroat and Sedge Warbler in a blackthorn as we passed through the gate onto the bridleway. 

Big Otmoor was alive with birds, the Canada and Greylag geese, like noisy, inconsiderate and common neighbours making a constant racket as they argued and bickered amongst themselves. The more demure and refined residents of Big Otmoor, namely Common Redshanks and Lapwings were busy with the process of incubating eggs or guarding chicks, the redshanks remaining for the most part secluded amongst the flashes of water and growing vegetation as the Lapwings swooped in display flights above, their wings making an audible sound as they cleaved  the air at incredible speed whilst others flew aggressively at the opportunist Red Kites circling overhead waiting to seize a Lapwing or redshank chick. Scanning further across the wide expanses of Big Otmoor we found a distant Greenshank and a Common Sandpiper but could not see the Ruff that Pete and Steve had seen earlier. 

We returned back along the bridleway passing a pair of geese that superficially bore a resemblance to Emperor Geese but were in fact hybrids but of what parentage I do not know. 

Hybrid goose
Hybrid gander 
At the gate to the First Screen I left John and Moth to go and enjoy more of the Grasshopper Warbler's bravura performance in the briars. Another hour or so and then I bade farewell to the warbler and headed back along the bridleway to the car. Far out on Greenaways a Hobby, the first of the year, sat on a fence post and further still the Peregrine was perched on its post. I amused myself by counting the basking Grass Snakes in the reeds and dead grass on the sheltered dyke bank. I found seven and showed some to a couple of families to give me and them, hopefully, a good feeling to end the morning. 

Grass Snake

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