Tuesday, 16 August 2016

Redstarts on Otmoor 16th August 2016


A day of full on sunshine and a morning spare to go birding led me to Otmoor. Not this time in search of the very elusive Purple Heron, and judging by how full the car park was at 8am many were still trying to catch up with it, but for another reason.

Turning left instead of right out of the car park I headed back up the road for a hundred metres or so and took the footpath through the Blackthorn hedge, climbed the stile and headed out onto Long Meadow. As I hoped I had the meadow to myself with everyone else apparently diverted by the heron.


Long Meadow
My aim was to seek and find Common Redstarts which have a predilection for inhabiting the scattered Hawthorn bushes on the meadow. They use the bushes to perch on, finding a bare twig or branch on the edge of the bush from which to drop down on prey they see on the ground, flying out from their perch to capture it and returning to the bush to consume their prey.



They are always extremely wary and will rarely allow a close approach, preferring to hide in the bush or more usually rapidly fly, either to a more distant bush and hide in the centre of it or just as often fly to the dense blackthorn hedges on either side of the meadow and secrete themselves well inside.

Common Redstart hiding
It is pointless following them as they will just melt into and through the vegetation and never be seen again. The secret is to find a place on the edge of the field and just stand quietly for five, ten, fifteen minutes or even longer. So that is what I did, scanning the bushes repeatedly and although I saw nothing, from past experience I knew with a fair degree of certainty that eventually I would strike redstart gold.

Robins can provide a pitfall and false alarms as they use the same bushes and behave very much like redstarts, and at this time of year many juvenile Robins are getting their red breast and becoming belligerent. It can be frustrating when a robin chases off a redstart after you have spent some time waiting to see it, and the redstart always gives way to the more aggressive Robin.

A Robin about to chase off a Common Redstart
For the umpteenth time I scanned the same bushes and not a redstart was to be seen. One final scan and then came the moment I had been anticipating, the shiver of excitement, the sheer enervating thrill as a bush formerly devoid of any birds suddenly had a superb male Common Redstart sat on the edge of it. 

I stand stock still and watch as the redstart flies out and down into the dead grass to seize an insect. It returns to the bush, its tail quivering rapidly, flirting rust orange tail feathers. It turns to face outwards and displays its equally orange breast, black throat, face and a white forehead. A real dandy.



Soon, with this one redstart showing confidence, others appear, first winter males, their plumage a shadow of the glories of the adult male's plumage but still very nice, females, much greyer overall with a white throat,  but all ages and sexes show an orange tail which often is the only thing you see as they dive headlong into cover, hence the name redstart.



First winter male Common Redstart
The meadow is still cool at this time of day as the sun has yet to rise high enough to impart the promised heat. Birds are everywhere, dashing at great speed, from Hawthorn bush to Hawthorn bush, over the open spaces of the meadow  They fear the open as it spells danger and they are keen to seek the sanctuary of the Hawthorns, many with their foliage thickened by cloaking tangles of trailing bramble and bindweed.

I continue to stand where I am, silent and still, waiting to see what undiscovered birds will come out of the bushes. No more redstarts, although I have seen no less than five now. A tiny white patch at the top of a Hawthorn is not a bindweed flower but in the bins is revealed to be the silken white underparts of a Lesser Whitethroat, gleaming in the bright morning sunlight. What neat, elegant and appealing little birds they are at this time of year, so smart in their pristine plumage of grey and white with a dusky grey face mask, forever active, zipping in and out of the tangled spiky Hawthorn twigs, already red berried as autumn fast approaches.

More and more Lesser Whitethroats appear, two together, then three, a group of four, they are everywhere, their white underparts and quiet tacking alarm calls betraying their presence in the dark green foliage and twigs. They are all moving down the meadow, none of them come back, and by the time I leave I have counted at least fifteen. Their larger cousin the Common Whitethroat is also here in numbers, rarely to be found singly but in small, possibly family parties, lively birds of brown plumage and long tails, often dropping down into the grass below the bushes before flying up with a flash of chestnut wings and white outer tail feathers. Just as hyperactive as the Lesser Whitethroats they also gradually move down the meadow from bush to bush.

Juvenile Common Whitethroat
I move with them, keeping to the edge of the meadow, my outline masked by the superior height of the Blackthorn. A little circle of activity centered around a small cluster of  bushes consists of a small flock of Goldfinches feeding on some seeding thistles. The birds are mainly young ones that although possessing the distinctive gold in their wings have yet to get the tri-coloured red, white and black face mask of their parents. Another bird swooping low to land on the edge of a Hawthorn leads me to suspect another redstart but on checking I find, much to my pleasure, it is a Spotted Flycatcher, feeding low down and flying out to pluck insects from the dead grass stems, never rising more than a few feet from the ground. Such under rated little birds, their unassuming grey brown, featureless plumage compensated by their increasing scarcity, making them very much desirable as a bird to see.This is the first one I have seen this year and quite possibly it will be the last for this year. 

Another redstart lands with shivering orange tail in another of the scattered hawthorns and on seeing me flees for the hedgerow, a streak of grey and rust that flies at great speed far off into the beckoning sanctuary of the Blackthorn. I am now up to a count of ten redstarts and this is turning into an unexpectedly good day. I am usually pretty confident that I will find redstarts in Long Meadow at this time of year but you never know how many and often it can be just two or three.


I have been here two hours which I have hardly noticed passing. The sun is getting warmer now and I stand in the lee of another Hawthorn bush to shade myself and conceal my profile. I turn intuitively to look behind me and there a few metres away on another bush is a dull brown bird perched prominently on a twig. Superficially it looks like a juvenile Robin but betrays its identity as a redstart by shivering its tail, displaying the distinctive orange tail feathers. Its head is scaly and grey with still traces of pinion sheaths showing. It is a very young redstart and surely cannot have come far from where it was born.


There is a mild controversy over whether redstarts breed here. I have been told that a recent survey found no evidence but I remain to be convinced and surely this juvenile is partial evidence that the whole story has yet to be told.

I walk on and now reach the furthest part of the meadow where I stand still again, in a recess in the hedge. I can hear numerous redstarts but cannot see any, as their two note anxiety calls come ringing from various bushes across the meadow. The call is very similar to that of the Willow Warbler and Chiffchaff but is louder, slightly deeper and more rounded

Judging by the calls there must be at least another five or six redstarts here and after about fifteen minutes one shows itself, to be quickly followed by others. I watch them feeding and flying between bushes, rarely in view for very long and always at a distance where they feel safe. In the end I have reached a total of nineteen redstarts in the whole of Long Meadow. 


I turn to walk back along the meadow track by the hedge and a juvenile Green Woodpecker startles me as it flies up with a loud cry from an anthill in the long yellowing grass. I stop near the start of the meadow and where a Kestrel is now perched on top of a bush favoured by the redstarts earlier, but it flies off when it sees me. I stand quietly in the shade and ten minutes later three redstarts emerge from the same bush, where they have been hiding from the Kestrel. Two chase each other around the bush before perching on the outside, a first winter male and a female. The third an adult male perches on an adjacent bush and for the next forty five minutes I watch them feeding and flying between the two bushes, totally unaware of my presence. A Yellowhammer also comes to sun itself on an outside branch.

Juvenile Yellowhammer
All this time I have been alone but then another birder comes into the meadow and the redstarts and Yellowhammer fly off. It is time to go. Four hours of happy birding and a sumptuous Godwin's ice cream to come. Who could ask for more?

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