Saturday 13 August 2016

We seek it here. We seek it there. 13th August 2016

Seven am on an Otmoor Saturday, a mild and overcast morning and I am walking up the track to the bridleway which is becoming a familiar routine since the arrival of the Purple Heron last Sunday. In the last few days it has become increasingly elusive and hard to see, remaining out of sight for most of the time somewhere on the reserve. Yesterday it was only seen twice despite many people looking for it and really the only chance of connecting with it is to spend hours staring across the acres of yellowing grass and damp, greener, reedy patches that is Greenaways at this time of year and hoping by some random chance you will see it in flight as it moves position to another feeding area.

This morning was no different as I joined Mark and John who were standing on the bridleway looking out onto Greenaways but with absolutely no sign of the Purple Heron. Grey Herons created a mild stir every so often as they flew distantly across the wide expanse of Greenaways but once identified as Grey and not Purple we soon went back to chatting about this and that. Pete joined us, as did Terry, and some other non local birders also came in the hope of seeing the heron. A juvenile Turtle Dove flew from the Oak behind us and disappeared at great speed towards the northern reed-beds. There has been much speculation about whether the Turtle Doves on Otmoor have managed to breed successfully this year so perhaps this is evidence that they have, although we will never know for certain.

An amputee in a wheelchair came along the bridleway and enquired after the heron but we could give him no good news so he carried on, with certainly my admiration and total respect for his independence and refusal to allow his disabilities to hold him back.

After about an hour Pete, John and myself decided to wander around the reserve and set off along the bridleway. There was certainly little bird action out over Greenaways but the hedgerows and ditches by the bridleway were alive with warblers, mainly Reed and Willow Warblers, the latter's bright, sulphur yellow underparts signifying they were young birds. Nearing the gate that opened onto the track to the First Screen we encountered the wheelchair man making his way back and he told us he had been looking at the Purple Heron standing by the reeds, not forty metres from where he had been sitting in his wheel chair at the Second Screen. What! I could hardly believe it. We spoke to him and asked for more details and it was soon apparent he knew what he was talking about and it was certain the heron had found a new and distant location to frequent on Otmoor.

Our previous slow amble along the bridleway certainly became a lot more energetic as we put on speed to get to the Second Screen as fast as possible. As we passed the First Screen John went up the little incline to it and checked, just in case the heron might be there but there was no sign of it.The Second Screen it was then, and we put on another spurt as the skies became ominously grey. Half way along the track to the Second Screen John saw one, maybe two or more herons flying around and one was heading in our direction making a direct approach towards an Oak tree by the path. Checking through the bins we could see that of the two herons currently in view, one was a Grey Heron but the other heading for the Oak was the Purple Heron. Something must have alarmed them to make them fly up from the reed bed. 

Now familiar with the Purple Herons's distinctive, thin, angular profile after a week of following it around the reserve I watched as it flew into the top of the tree and clumsily tried to find a suitable place to perch amongst the branches and foliage, flapping its enormous wings to maintain balance on its precarious perch. John and myself seized the opportunity and fired off our cameras in awful light in an attempt to record the moment but as we did the heron, obviously feeling insecure, left the tree and flew out over the extensive northern reed bed before banking around and dropping down into the reeds on the far side and frustratingly out of sight.

Although we waited at the Second Screen for half an hour nothing more was seen of it so we decided to try back at the First Screen, as often Grey Herons and Little Egrets will come there to fish and loaf on the exposed mud. Sadly the Purple Heron did not subscribe to this and all we found were the regular group of Mandarin Ducks, the single Common Shelduck, a host of Mallard, a few Common Teal and some juvenile Shoveler.

Common Shelduck

Mandarin Ducks
We sat and waited here for quite a while, hours in fact, and slowly the numbers of watchers depleted as more and more became tired of waiting. It was however, from my point of view, far from unpleasant sitting here looking out onto the water and reeds beyond. 

Slowly, almost imperceptibly the atmospheric location insinuated its gentle, soothing charm into my soul as I contemplated a scene of outwardly peaceful tranquility. The ducks loafed on the muddy shore, rotund and quiescent in the sun, sheltered by the bank of reeds behind them, an occasional Moorhen picked its way through them and Cormorants sat on a further shallow strip of mud quietly digesting their fishy catch. The reeds murmured conversationally in the wind and all was calm. Little came to startle this reverie but occasionally a Bittern, plump and streaky brown, flew determinedly low, skimming across the reed tops, before descending with little finesse into the thick of the reeds.

Marsh Harriers came and went, but usually distantly, over the reeds and hedgerow beyond. We saw all three individuals, male, female and juvenile but only once did one, the female of the pair that bred here this year come close to us, displaying in the now welcome return of sunlight, large irregular patches of creamy feathers on her forewings and a cap of cream on her forehead. She descended with unexpected suddenness into the reeds and was seen no more.

Female Marsh Harrier

A wild cry, hysterical and loud came from the fence rail off to our right and a juvenile Green Woodpecker clung to the wood looking about in some confusion, its colouring and markings subdued in its immaturity and nowhere near the gaudy colours of adulthood. Their white eyes almost give them a pantomime evil appearance. I remember always thinking the same about sheepdogs I encountered with unexplained regularity in my youth in Scotland, which had one normal eye and one white eye and looked as if they had something of the devil about them and would bite you as soon as look at you. 

Juvenile Green Woodpecker
Time wore on but although we kept an eye on the reed bed there was no more sign of the Purple Heron. So frustrating to know it was there but inaccessible and after a five hour wait it seemed only reasonable to give it up and make our weary way back to the Car Park. Many visitors were destined to be frustrated in their desire to see the Purple Heron today.

For a finale I awarded myself another trip to Godwin's Ice Cream Factory at nearby Weston-on-the Green. A double cone of Caramel and Honeycomb Ice Cream rounded the day off nicely.

Simple pleasures.

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