Monday 8 August 2016

Purple Again! 7th August 2016

First it was Purple Emperors last month at Bernwood Forest in Buckinghamshire, then a Purple Swamp-hen just days ago at Minsmere in Suffolk and now a Purple Heron on Otmoor in Oxfordshire!

Let us go back to the beginning of the events of what was for me, initially, a quiet Sunday on the sofa watching the cricket. It all started at around lunchtime when my mobile phone rang and answering it I found Pete Barker on the end of the line asking, 

'Ewan, where are you?'  

'I'm on the sofa at home Pete. Why do you ask?'  

'Something's come up and I cannot get away from domestic commitments. Can you go to Otmoor and check out what appears to be a reasonably reliable report that there is a Purple Heron in the middle of Greenaways?' he said. 

'Sure, I'm on my way. It will take me about forty minutes.' I replied.  

Greenaways is one of the huge damp fields that forms part of the reserve and runs alongside the bridleway crossing Otmoor reserve.

Being Sunday lunchtime the rural lanes and back roads from my home to Otmoor were mainly traffic free and I made good time on what was another glorious day of warm sunshine and light southerly winds. I felt good and was happy to check out the report of the heron but did not hold much hope it would prove true, but from what Pete had said the reports sounded credible. 

The story goes thus.

Apparently two 'out of county' birders from Windsor in Surrey had seen the heron on Greenaways around noon, just after Pete, much to his frustration had left the reserve and they reported it as a Purple Heron to Paul, a volunteer warden. Up to nine birders had subsequently and independently seen the heron and thought it was a Purple Heron.

The news travelled down the line and ended up with Fergus, Otmoor reserve's assistant warden who was in Lancashire. He in turn rang Pete telling him about the reports and with Pete's enforced absence at home, here I was checking the veracity of this chain of second, third, and ad infinitum information.

The small car park at Otmoor is normally full on sunny Sundays but was for once only half occupied so I parked easily and with camera, bins and scope hung round my neck made my way as rapidly as possible up the approach track to where it joined the bridleway. I had noticed that a car very similar to Pete's car was in the car park. Strange? I thought he said could not get away? I called his phone more to check where exactly on Greenaways the heron had last been seen, only to discover he was on Otmoor looking for the heron with Paul the volunteer warden! The subsequent explanation as to his unexpected presence will be all too familiar to birders. Apparently his wife in sheer frustration at his morose demeanour and recognising the signs told him to just 'B****y well go as he would be unbearable otherwise'. It's happened to us all and I was entirely sympathetic and just hoped that my summons from the sofa would not prove to be fruitless.

As I got to the bridleway I found two birders scoping the bare track, to which there is no access and that runs out from the cattle pens and bisects Greenaways. 'Have you got the Purple Heron? I enquired, still having no real idea where the heron had last been seen or even if they knew about it.

'There is a heron standing on the track right at the far end but it is so hazy we cannot tell what it is' they replied. 

I looked through my scope and we agreed that the indistinct heat hazed, fuzzy grey blob was just a Grey Heron. I called Pete again to get more specific instructions as to his whereabouts and he told me he was at the other end of Greenaways about a quarter of a mile away along the bridleway but said he would come to meet me.

The Bridleway
I walked in his direction and we met at a memorial bench by the bridleway overlooking Greenaways. Some other birders, including Paul the volunteer warden were a couple of hundred yards further down the bridleway at the junction where the track to the first screen begins. Pete pointed out to me where the mystery heron had reportedly last been seen flying about an hour ago at the far side of Greenaways, with two Grey Herons and a Little Egret and they had, from all reports, gone down into a small reed bed there. I felt a bit sceptical about this as from my limited experience of Purple Herons they are solitary birds away from their breeding sites.

So we stood and constantly scanned the area in question. By now the elusive heron had not been seen for well over two hours

Our view over Greenaways
After about another thirty minutes a brown, heron shaped bird flew out of the reeds. I looked and my excitement was curtailed when it was obvious it was a Bittern. My scepticism rose a notch. Could the nine observers of the heron have mistaken this for a Purple Heron? Surely not, as nine people could not all be mistaken or could they? The doubts crept in.

Another brown bird floated across the reeds but this was very dark brown and entirely the wrong profile.It was the immature male Marsh Harrier that bred here this year. Still, I consoled myself that it was a nice bird to see nonetheless

The sun shone, the warm breeze blew through the reeds and we were joined by Andy. We recounted our experience with the Bittern and our doubts about what actually had been seen. Pete then had to leave to save further domestic strife and Andy and myself maintained a vigil on the distant reed bed. We endlessly ran through all the permutations of who had seen what, just how reliable the unknown observers were  and still we were no more certain about what had happened. There really was nothing to do but just sit and await developments, if any.

The group of birders further down the bridleway, including Paul who had set the ball in motion,  had increased in number and they too were scanning the same reed bed as us but we remained where we were. Nothing flew in or  out of the distant reeds and time passed increasingly slowly. Dave called Andy asking about the report of a probable Purple Heron that had been put out by Gnome on the Oxon Birdlog and expressed his scepticism about the report, Fair enough, at this point I was inclined to agree. It was very unlikely. I sat on the bench and just waited, as after all was said and done, it was not an unpleasant way to spend a Sunday afternoon, sitting here in the sun, watching the reeds sway in the breeze and with the vague hope of seeing a Purple Heron. 

My reverie was brought to a sudden and abrupt end as Andy noticed all the birders further down the bridleway were now pointing out onto Greenaways but not at the reed bed as expected but away to our right. Due to a couple of willow bushes our view of where they were pointing was obscured and we could not see where or what they were looking at. Obviously something was up and my senses surged through me like a bolt of electricity as I realised it could only be that they had seen the Purple Heron.

If it was, it was nowhere near where we had been told it had last been seen. The other birders were now racing up the bridleway. Barry was in the lead and on reaching us confirmed it was definitely the Purple Heron that they had seen and it had dropped down out of sight into the long grass and reeds beyond the bushes that were obscuring our sight line. At that moment Terry joined us from the other direction on the bridleway and not aware of what was happening was swept up in the excitement and told that the heron really was a Purple Heron. I called Pete to confirm that the mystery heron was definitely a Purple Heron but just as we were speaking, Andy, who had run past the obscuring bushes saw the Purple Heron again. 'Its flying!' he shouted. Chaos, panic, a whole gamut of emotions enveloped me at once and I went into emotional freefall. 'Pete, I've got to go' I blurted and dropped the phone. I grabbed it from the grass and shoved it in my pocket not sure if it was off or still connected to Pete. One thing and one thing only was now in my mind. I must see that heron!

I too ran with the others to get past the bushes so I could see across the rest of Greenaways. I cleared the bushes and there the Purple Heron truly was and not that far out. Absolutely no doubt. Oh yes! My first impression of the bird was of an obvious heron with an overall dark brown colouring and showing a distinctive heron profile, maybe slimmer and narrower winged than a Grey Heron but with the classic profile of extended legs, bulging breast, head drawn into its shoulders and broad rounded, bowed wings. The upper wing and upper body feathers were gingerish brown in the strong sunlight and the flight feathers dull black.The rest of its body was ginger brown, similar to the upper parts and a staring yellow eye was prominent in a proportionately tiny head. We followed it  as it flew a fair way further along Greenaways heading for the hedge which marked the boundary of the reserve and beyond which lay the MOD rifle range and farm fields. 

Paul the volunteer warden, with commendable coolness, in between thanking his lucky stars that he had made the right call and expressing his relief that he had not made an enormous error, kept an eye on the heron and made a note of where it landed. We ran along the bridleway carrying unwieldy scopes on tripods, cameras and backpacks 

We cleared the junction of approach track and bridleway, passing the cattle pens and advanced two abreast down the narrow grassy path towards the gate that lead into the fields behind the rifle range.

A perplexed butterfly enthusiast, innocently passing a quiet Sunday afternoon minding his own business taking photographs of insects rapidly stood to one side as a phalanx of tripods and men in shorts and shabby clothing strode firmly onwards along the track with a determined look in their eye. We came to a halt overlooking some brambles at roughly where Paul thought the heron went down in Greenaways but really it was anyone's guess. Terry looking over the brambles announced  'I can see its head. It's in some reeds' and gave some specific directions and there it was, well, part of it, as all that was visible was an impossibly thin neck raised like a periscope and on top of which was a whitish stripey head with a staring yellow eye and a long, substantial, mainly yellowish bill. Its body was completely hidden in the reeds.

It looked wary and obviously ill at ease. Studying it through the scope I thought a Great White Egret's neck was thin but the Purple Heron's neck looked almost wire thin topped by the tiny narrow head, yellow eye and enormous bill. It ducked down and then raised its head up again on that sinuous neck. It looked reptilian. Tense and edgy it looked out from the cover of the reeds. Although light, distance and heat haze were hardly in our favour we took images of it as best we could with our cameras, and then a word that was to become all too familiar came from some of those watching it, 'Flying!' and it flew up out of cover and back down Greenaways.

It landed in another wet area of reeds and so we duly followed back along the bridleway but it rose up once more before we got anywhere near. 'Flying!' came the chorus and we watched it crossing Greenaways and passing low over the cattle put out to graze the grass. 

It was clearly unsettled, not so much by us but by the fact that it could not really find somewhere to its liking. Even when we were walking to where it last went down it would fly up long before we got opposite and so we followed it until we got to the junction of tracks again, where the track to the first screen went off to our right and the bridleway carried on towards Noke. Greenaways is divided from a similar large damp field called Big Otmoor, by a large high hedge that runs beside the track out to the first screen. 

We had lost sight of it as we followed along the bridleway due to bushes being in the way but on getting to the junction a lady there told us she thought it had gone down into an extensive reedy ditch running parallel to the track out to the first screen at the edge of Greenaways. 

The reedy ditch with Greenaways on the right
We stopped here and waited based on her assurances that the heron had gone down in the reeds. By now the word had truly spread via the various available media and bird information services both locally and nationally. Phones were ringing and many of Oxonbirds finest were arriving or on their way, the hardcore locals alerted by Gnome, who had put out an APB on the heron via a text about this county mega and national rarity. Dave arrived having been told by Andy to put his doubts to one side and get down here fast.

I was a bit worried about the lady's insistence that the heron had gone down in the reeds as it seemed to me before I lost sight of it, to have flown over the high hedge onto Big Otmoor next door but I gave her the benefit of the doubt although why none of us went to check Big Otmoor which would have required a maximum of just a few yards walk further along the bridleway is beyond me. 

There was now, for Otmoor, a reasonable gathering of birders, say half a dozen or so local birders and a couple of strangers. 

A long wait ensued and  then Andy decided to check Big Otmoor and no sooner had he commenced than he excitedly shouted 'Its over here! Flying!' Pandemonium again as there was a concerted rush from those who had not seen it, grabbing tripods and scopes and hurtling across to Andy. I side slipped Dave as he almost ran into me and gave him priority as he had not seen the heron yet. Even Terry broke into a trot. Sadly the heron landed out of sight before anyone apart from Andy could get to see it but it was soon up again still dissatisfied with its choice of habitat. This time I got a reasonably extended view of it as it slowly flapped its way out and across Big Otmoor. There had been some speculation as to its age based on earlier observations and I for one got it wrong, plumping for a second calendar year bird when in fact it was now obviously a juvenile.

We went further up the bridleway and scoped Big Otmoor and after a short wait the heron rose once again from the rank vegetation and gave great views as it wavered in the strengthening wind, slowly progressing further across Big Otmoor before settling out of sight once more. We walked to  where we thought it was and waited. Nothing. Then Dave got a phone call that it had flown back towards the hedge dividing Big Otmoor from Greenaways and he set off at great speed back to where we had started. Having seen it well earlier I was less inclined to be so energetic and I walked back with Pete Roby to join the mass of Oxonbirders standing at the gate by the start to Big Otmoor and the sight of Dave punching the air in delight and shouting 'Oh yes!' as it was a county tick for him. He then left in order to to calm the domestic upheaval at home that the heron's presence and his subsequent rapid departure for Otmoor had precipitated.

The heron rose once again and gave yet another grandstand view as it flew back over Big Otmoor. The by now well used cry of 'Flying!' came regularly as the heron would rise from its latest hiding place and progressed from marshy area to marshy area across Big Otmoor.

Discussing its incessant mobility we came to the conclusion that it was likely that it had just arrived on Otmoor today and was trying to find a habitat location that was to its liking. So the periodic sightings continued on and off and then it seemed to have found a location where it felt more settled and was not seen for some while. 

Four hours had passed for me in a whirl of excitement and pleasure and towards the end the gathering of birders turned into an almost social occasion, Oxonbirders being a sociable lot and inclined to party at the slightest opportunity. The  early evening sun was now casting a more gentle light on the land and the shadows were creeping across the bridleway as Terry and myself walked back along the sun scorched track to the car park.

What had been been a speculative journey to Otmoor with little true conviction or hope had turned into a brilliant afternoon of triumph with the finding of a rare bird, the ultimate in birding in Oxfordshire

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