Wednesday 31 May 2017

Otmoor - One Day in May 30th May 2017

It has been a while since I visited Oxfordshire's premier bird reserve, the RSPB's Otmoor Reserve that lies below the village of Beckley but I decided that today, Tuesday, would be an opportune time to rectify this.

I had held off going on the prior Bank Holiday weekend, knowing the reserve would be immensely popular, inundated with visitors and the small car park full to overflowing with cars. There is of course nothing wrong in the reserve being so popular but I prefer the reserve when it is quieter as there is a more relaxed atmosphere with the birds less disturbed and easier to see at close quarters.

When I first moved to Oxfordshire, over twenty five years ago, Otmoor was a very different proposition to what it is today, being two hundred and sixty acres of mainly agricultural land that had been converted from drained marshland and not a place one readily considered as a destination to go birding. Now, thanks to the RSPB, who took over in 1997 and transformed it back into a huge area of wet grassland and reed beds, it is a top birding site not only in Oxfordshire but in Britain. If someone had said to me all those years ago that one day I would be able to regularly see breeding Marsh Harriers, Common Cranes, Bitterns, Turtle Doves and ten species of warbler only a half hour drive from my home I would have laughed, but no longer. All now breed on Otmoor and not only that but a host of rare and unusual birds such as Purple Heron, Whiskered Tern, Great Skua, Temminck's Stint, Pectoral Sandpiper and Red backed Shrike have visited the reserve since it came into being.

I arrived at the reserve at seven am with a soft southerly wind caressing my face as I left the car and even at this early hour the air was warm and with a humidity imparted by last night's rain. The land is now at its most verdant and lush, at the very apex of growth.The trees and bushes are all soft curves, blousy and heavy with leaves of infinite varieties of green. The pungent white May blossom has already gone from the hawthorns to be replaced by the white disc like umbels of Elder flowers, the umbels drooping with the weight of the myriad creamy and highly scented individual flowers that comprise each umbel. The Cow Parsley, skirting the base of the hedgerows like a frieze is also virtually over, the tiny, delicate white flowers now slowly turning to seed on yellowing and fading stalks. It is hard to remember it is only just the end of May, as everything seems to have moved at such a pace this Spring.

I drove down a corridor of bushes and trees crowding outwards onto the narrow approach lane to the reserve car park, the verges burgeoning with long summer grasses, bindweed, golden buttercups and with the occasional dog rose spilling a shroud of golden centered, pink and white flowers over a hawthorn.The sky was an ever changing panorama of layered cloud. Grey clouds like giant balls of fluff, each its own unique size and shape moved on the wind whilst above them was a pale blue permanence variegated with dashes of cotton white.

Dog Roses
The car park was almost devoid of cars and the reserve was mine to explore at leisure with not another human in sight. I walked up the approach track to the bridleway just as the angular long tailed and distinctive profile of a European Cuckoo flew across on flickering wings to land in a large Oak and commence calling. The reserve at this hour was a swelling symphony of bird song, filling the air from near and afar, each and every song competing to be heard. Willow Warbler, Common Chiffchaff, Blackcap. Cetti's Warbler, Common and Lesser Whitethroat all contributed their individual melodies to the soundscape of this early morning. The deep rich notes of a Garden Warbler, delivered slightly faster and more slurred than a Blackcap, came loud and clear from its source, hidden deep in the densest hawthorns. I never saw the warbler although it was but a few feet from me, obscured from view on the other side of the hedge.

On reaching the bridleway I looked out across Greenaways, now rich and lush, the grasses grown tall and green but with extensive gashes of yellow where buttercups and yellow flag irises grew in the damper areas. Above me, Skylarks were exalting in the sky, producing a soundtrack of endless silvery notes with birds descending as others rose from the ground to commence their own contribution from on high. Distant cattle stood in the grass, the grass tops reaching up to their sides as they whisked their tails in a never ending reflex motion against the bothersome flies. A hunched, upright brown form with a preposterously long bill stood on a remnant of a wooden fence near to the cattle. A Common Snipe. A few minutes later the unique sound produced by a displaying snipe came from the sky as it rocketed earthwards, the outer tail feather on each side of the spread tail extended at right angles causing the air to pass over the feathers and vibrating them to create a distinctive sound like the distant bleating of a sheep. Why it is called drumming is beyond me as it sounds nothing like.

The Bridleway
Just past the cattle pens in a bush right by the bridleway a Sedge Warbler was singing lustily. It was as if it could not sing the notes fast enough, spilling them out in an endless tirade and such was the intensity of its delivery, it felt compelled to fling itself upwards in a display of passion and then descend, parachuting with wings and tail outspread as it continued to sing. It was bold and cared not a jot about my close presence, perching on a hawthorn twig full in the open, its golden yellow gape wide as it poured out its jumble of notes, some mimicking other birds such as Swallow, Yellow Wagtail and even Common Tern. This and other strongly singing Sedge Warblers around the reserve seemed to be a second wave of migrants that had newly arrived.

Sedge Warbler
I walked on just as a single Mute Swan, on singing wings, flew low over Greenaways and came to bathe on one of the flashes. In the sunlight, now intermittently creeping through the cloud it looked almost ethereal. Its convoluted shapes as it ducked its long neck and with half spread wings threw water over its back, looked strange but never inelegant.

Mute Swan
Cuckoos were calling from all over the reserve, the unique sound sometimes distant and at other times much closer but the birds themselves remained, as far as I was concerned, invisible. It would appear to be a good year for them and I must have counted at least five calling males and one female. I came to the famous Oak by the bridleway that always seems to have a Turtle Dove in its branches but not today. Is it the same male dove each year that returns to frequent the tree or is it a different bird each year I wonder.

Walking onwards, Reed Warblers scratched out their hesitant, repetitive song, almost hypnotic in its rhythm, from low in the reed bottoms to my right, as Reed Buntings delivered their monotonous, plaintive song from higher perches in the same reeds. An adult and slightly dishevelled Long tailed Tit was taking a break from family duties and preening vigorously. They commence breeding very early in the year, often in mid February, building a masterpiece of a nest consisting of lichens and moss and lined with hundreds of feathers, the bottle shaped nest interwoven with cobwebs so it can expand as the young grow within the nest. Often the early nests fall victim to corvids as they can be quite obvious in the leafless brambles and it breaks my heart to see such an exquisite construction torn to shreds. But the tits just recommence building another nest, driven on by instinct to procreate.

Reed Warbler

Reed Bunting-male

Long tailed Tit-adult
I turned through the gate and onto the narrow track to the First Screen and walked slowly along coming to an open area that overlooked Big Otmoor. A pair of Common Redshanks were flying up and down troubled by something that was invisible to me but causing great concern to them. It was obvious they had young hidden in the juncus and the cause of their anxiety became apparent as a Magpie flew up from under the nearby hedge.

Common Redshank
Further out on Big Otmoor the Canada Geese were, as usual creating a cacophony of noise. Like ill mannered, unwelcome visitors their alien, unmusical calls jar and trouble my senses. They are  not truly native birds to Britain and their calls are not part of the natural soundscape but they are here to stay and so one just puts up with it. We have our own native and equally noisy geese in the form of Greylags and there are plenty of those on the reserve as well.

A Red Kite flew low over me pursued by a squadron of Lapwings, angrily bleating their peevish calls at the large raptor which, with a swing of its tail, casually side slipped their combined aerial aggression.

I moved on to the First Screen and looked out on the lagoon and the now vast reedbeds beyond, grey green with new leaf growth. There was little to see apart from off duty male ducks presumably awaiting their mates to hatch out eggs. A scattering of Tufted Ducks slept on the water and a couple of male Shovelers, their colourful breeding plumage now slowly fading and being replaced by the odd duller eclipse feather, idled by the edge of the reeds. A Little Egret, stood on a log in the water and casually preened an extended wing. delicately nibbling the white feathers with its long bill and as ever Coots sought a conflict with anything that came near to them.

There was no sign of any Bitterns but a pair of Marsh Harriers were circling low over the reed tops and then dropping into the reeds at one particular spot, presumably where their nest was situated.

A Common Buzzard, encroached on their territory and was immediately intercepted by one of the harriers and seen off, with both birds rolling onto their backs in flight and grappling with talons, in adversity, as one dived upon the other. The unfortunate Buzzard, having been seen off by the harrier was then buzzed and given no quarter by a pair of irate Carrion Crows.

Marsh Harrier-immature male
I wandered ever onwards towards the Second Screen, my trouser bottoms soaked from walking through the wet grass, Yellow Rattle and Red Clover holding on to last night's rain, and still I  had not encountered anyone. A dead Mole was displayed on a bench, even in death interesting, as they are so rarely seen above ground, dead or alive.

View from the Second Screen

A Red Admiral, possibly a migrant newly arrived or one awoken from hibernation, flew from a bramble, displaying a startling flash of bright colours, red, black and white, but immediately on landing closed its wings and became dull and far less obvious on the leaf it had chosen to settle upon.

Red Admiral
A Cuckoo, somewhat distant, landed in a large Oak tree and called repeatedly, the iconic call broadcast loud and clear across the fields and reed beds.  I could see the bird perched high up on the edge of the tree and as it called its chest swelled but its bill hardly opened. How does it create such a far carrying sound with its bill almost closed? Indeed how do all birds manage to issue such loud songs and calls from so small a frame. It truly is a marvel.

The Cuckoo then flew high from the tree and across the reeds showing its distinctive falcon like profile.

Common Cuckoo-male
I turned and commenced a long, slow walk back to the bridleway. A Common Whitethroat, in between feeding on green caterpillars, sang  cheerily from the thick hedge by the track. playing peek a boo with me amongst the leaves

Common Whitethroat
Back at the First Screen two lethargic Common Lizards were absorbing what little warmth they could at this early hour from a couple of logs in the so called 'Lizard Lounge', a small sheltered area on the side of the bank by the First Screen, with discarded logs and tiles especially placed there for them to utilise. It would be a while yet before their cold blooded energy levels were strong enough to stimulate them to go hunting prey. Both these lizards had stumpy tails which indicated they had experienced a close call with a predator as both had discarded the end part of their tails which are shed to confuse a predator. The discarded part of the tail continues writhing to distract the predator whilst the lizard makes its escape

Common Lizard
I retraced my steps and turned onto the bridleway hoping I would now hear the distinctive sound of a Turtle Dove but was again disappointed although I did see one flying fast and low along the top of the hedgerow. I eventually got back to the cattle pens where I found Paul distributing seed on the bare ground, which serves as an area to attract the Turtle Doves down to feed. Maybe they would come later in the day? In the meantime a cock Pheasant made the most of the opportunity, clucking to itself like a domesticated chicken as it pecked up the seed.

We leaned on the gate in time honoured fashion, chatting about birds and looking out across Greenaways. A Hobby was now perched on an old piece of wooden fencing, its long grey wings sickle shaped and swept back behind its body, ready to propel it after dragon and damselflies. Another was already swooping in flight over the grasses, rising up and stalling as it captured a dragonfly, then cruising along with bunched talons to beak as it ate the unlucky insect.

I decided to accompany Paul and walk back down the bridleway to the gate to the First Screen. A Cuckoo called and then briefly swooped down onto the bridleway to seize something and just as rapidly returned to the nearby trees. We walked along and beyond where the Cuckoo had descended to the path to find a fully grown Drinker Moth caterpillar, so maybe another caterpillar was what the Cuckoo had found. We passed through a pocket of strong foetid odour, Hemlock, unpleasant and musty, the plant itself, green and unremarkable was growing in the ditch to our left as we came to the cross roads where the path goes right to the First Screen or left to the Wetlands Hide, whilst the bridleway carried straight on.

Standing there we heard a female Cuckoo's bubbling call. Such a different sound to the male but just as striking and thrilling. Cuckoos are here for such a comparatively short time and soon will be gone on their incredible return journeys to Africa leaving their young to be raised by Reed Warblers and then make their own hazardous and phenomenal unguided journey to the southern hemisphere. We looked to where the call came from, another large Oak tree, dark and green but could see nothing. Paul decided to walk further along the bridleway to Noke but I was going no further and planned to return to the car park. I waited until Paul got to where the Cuckoo had called from and it duly flew out of the tree and past me to land not very far beyond in the top of a small isolated hawthorn by the bridleway. Obviously feeling insecure it soon flew onwards and disappeared behind the hedgerow.

Common Cuckoo-female
There was still no sign of a Turtle Dove though and I was truly disappointed as this now increasingly uncommon and rapidly declining species has become one of the jewels of the reserve and I can think of nowhere else where one can still see this species with such comparative ease and at such close quarters. Many people come from long distances to seek them here and it is really remarkable how confiding they are on Otmoor.

Just as I got to the turning from the bridleway onto the track to the car park there came at last the distinctive purring song of  a Turtle Dove, issuing from the selfsame Oak that they always seem to favour. Even more remarkable was that it looked like  the bird was on the very same favoured branch that it or a predecessor had used last year.

I watched the dove for a few minutes and then it flew low over my head and headed directly for the nearby cattlepens. Paul's seed spreading had not been in vain after all and I for one was truly grateful to find the Turtle Dove avidly feeding on the grain  when I got there.

Turtle Dove-male
And so my morning visit to Otmoor came to its final and fulfilled conclusion at just before noon.

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