Saturday 2 January 2021

Otmoor on the Last Day of the Year 31st December 2020

New Year's Eve but hardly a time for celebration as the news is relentlessly downbeat with regard to the virus that continues to threaten us and the disgrace that is Brexit. As if in accord with these desperately depressing times the weather today was similar. A thick mist enveloped and hung over a flooded and seemingly lifeless landscape, the flashes and floods of water frozen into ice brittleness by the subzero temperature.Trees and grass alike, coated with a white frost fur.

The end of a forgettable year had brought me to Otmoor. The reserve this morning made atmospheric by a strange light, the creation of mist that was hugging low over the reserve's vast acreage, turning distance into an opaque mystery and a landscape backlit by a sun that was never going to permeate the shroud laid across the moor.

The track to the reserve, from where the village lane ends, is a quagmire of muddy, treacherous, hard frozen unevenness, the puddles of frozen water in the ruts crackling as they shatter underfoot. As the day progresses and the temperature rises a few degrees, the mud will become soft, glutinous and slippery, a potential pratfall for the unwary.

I descended a waterlogged grass slope and waded through thick mud surrounding the gate at the bottom, then crossed a brook that had liquified the surrounding mud to a thick gravy, the product of floodwater  rising above its banks in days previous to this. I passed through the wood, its trees skeletal and frozen. Not a sound. The ditches by the track are now the last resting place for rotting brown leaves, the dulled damp banks of the ditch coloured with rounded cushions of bright green moss.

The track running between the wood and Ashgrave

At the wood's uncertain edge the track turns both left and right, separating the wood from the large grass field that is Ashgrave, the first part of the reserve you come to and situated on its western boundary. It is quiet here, troubled by only the few and forsaken by the majority who prefer to go to the reserve car park, a mile or more away and walk the bridleway that bisects the reserve from there.

I found the Greylag Geese I was looking for close to the track, hearing them first as they set up a chorus of strident disapproval to herald my arrival. This year Otmoor is playing host to a good sized gathering of migrant Russian White-fronted Geese, which not unnaturally have joined the Greylags as companions, sensing the ever vigilant Greylags will act as their guardian angels. Find the Greylags and you find the White-fronts was my credo.

As expected the resident flock of Greylag Geese, an often raucous, belligerent throng that rove this enormous field plucking at the grass, immediately increased their warning on my emergence from the wood.Their cackling objection rising to a crescendo as I neared the fence but the geese declined to move away and warily stood their ground. I remained motionless in the lee of the wood and the discordant cackling all but ceased apart from the occasional goose still willing to voice its displeasure. Soon the geese bent their necks to the grass to resume their feeding, relaxing as they sensed I posed little threat to them..

I counted through the mixed flock of geese to find the total number of white-fronts and discovered forty seven. Slightly smaller and darker in hue on their backs, it takes time to distinguish them from the Greylags unless you can see the diagnostic white blaze that surrounds their bill. A bill which is pink rather than the orange of the Greylags. The adult white-fronts also show distinctive but irregular black barring on their underparts that varies in intensity from individual to individual.

Russian White-fronted Geese

None of the white-fronts seemed to be fully preoccupied with feeding, some squatting in the frosted grass and going to sleep, others preening, secure in the knowledge that their close companions, the ever vigilant Greylags would sound the alarm if danger threatened.

Further away in the misty distance I found discrete flocks of Barnacle and Canada Geese too, but these birds of dubious origin bore no comparison with the whitefronts, genuine scarce migrants from Arctic Russia, bringing a romance of far off lands to prosaic Oxfordshire and this morning feeding close to the woodland in unprecedented numbers.

An hour watching and photographing the geese was sufficient to send the first involuntary shiver through my body. I was getting uncomfortably cold standing by the wood, my toes, encased in wellingtons, already numb and aching. It was time to move on and I made my cautious way down the rutted track, turning through a gate into  the reserve and onto a firmer surface that would take me past the Wetland Hide and onto the bridleway.

A gathering of finches were feeding on seed laid down for them, adjacent to the hide. Reed Buntings, Linnets and Chaffinches mainly but closer scrutiny delivered two Yellowhammers, both males, their buttercup yellow heads, shining beacons amongst the other duller plumaged buntings and finches.Then I was delivered a real bonus in the form of a finch with orange and black on its upperbody and flashing white rump as it flew. It was a female Brambling which, despite the persistent cold managed to detain me for twenty minutes, as the flock took periodic alarm and fled to the surrounding bushes before descending again. Naturally, when this happened the whole process of finding the Brambling amongst the flock had to begin over again.                                                            

A male stonechat, feathers fluffed to tennis ball roundness to repel the cold, perched on the thinnest twig of a hawthorn overhanging the track, the better to view the ground below for prey. Although invisible to my eyes, it would regularly see something appetising and drop onto it and then resume its elevated viewpoint. If this hard weather persists it will struggle to find enough food to sustain it but for now all was well 

European Stonechat - male

I gained the bridleway and turned left to walk, with difficulty, part way along it, struggling to maintain a foothold on what has become an ordeal by mud, the waterlogged bridleway churned by the passing feet of inumerable birders and walkers. Evidence, if it were needed of the increased number of visitors to the reserve, all seeking solace in nature.

The Bridleway
I came to rest alongside the area of flood and wet grassland that is called Big Otmoor.This is the winter home for large numbers of ducks and plovers, which create a natural spectacular as they regularly take to the air, a confusion of wings and bodies, having perceived a threat imagined or otherwise. Often the threat is all too real as Marsh Harriers and Peregrines come to try their luck and snatch a victim from amongst the panicked birds.

Big Otmoor

The ducks rest by the edge of a distant flash, that today is half ice and half open water, the birds forming a dense irregular line of  dark shapes at its margin. Without a telescope they could just as easily be taken for the lumpen contours of mounds of earth and vegetation but the periodic sight of the white breasts of male Shovelers and Pintail amongst the close packed throng, announce that this is a large assembly of living creatures.

Each time the ducks are panicked into rising they do so en masse, forming a black amorphous stain against a sky the shade of pewter as they fly and whirl around. The roar of wings beating the air on takeoff is accompanied by a chorus of whistles from the Wigeon, as they spring skywards in the company of the  lesser numbers of Teal, Pintail and Shoveler  that are amongst them.

It is however the huge numbers of Golden Plover that are the most eye catching. Up to six thousand are here, hunched motionless in close packed ranks on those areas of grass that remain for the most part free from water, their upperparts dulled in winter to the colour of tarnished gold, making them nigh on invisible at distance amongst the dead grass on which they choose for the most part to rest, although some are more active and bathe, preen or wander through the flock. They are forever uneasy, constantly on guard, the flock emitting a ceaseless gentle susurrus of plaintive whistling whether on the ground or in the air. The sound often alerts one to the presence of unsuspected flocks overhead, circling high in the sky. As with the ducks, when alarmed the plovers initially rise in a tight mass, then on reaching some considerable elevation in the sky the individual birds separate slightly so that the sky becomes as if populated by a moving constellation of flying birds. Sometimes the circling flock reveals a few unsuspected Dunlin, even a Black tailed Godwit, that were previously invisible on the ground, hidden amongst the thousands of plovers. Golden Plovers are the most aerial of the waders here, delighting in remaining high in the sky, endlessly circling in drifts that coalesce and then fall away into separate flocks before once more reuniting and plunging to earth. The rise and fall of the plovers is an endless repetition, the birds seeming to be stimulated into flight at the slightest provocation.

The sound of splashing and the cracking of thin ice diverted my attention away from the ducks and plovers. A Brown Hare was running across the ice, breaking it and then splashing through the exposed shallow water. I have never seen a hare run through water before and probably under normal circumstances they do not but there is so much water lying around at the moment that dry ground is at a premium and they have little choice but to run the gauntlet of ice and water to get to other drier areas to rest. Further along the bridleway I halted once more and discovered two more hares, squatting at ease on a small island of grass. To all extents they were motionless, for being nocturnal feeders they were at rest and only occasionally moving their ears, natural receptors to attune to the sounds about them, each hare forming a mound of rich brown furry softness, sunk into a supposedly content reverie but forever watchful. Their preposterously long ears have the motion of semaphores, each moving independently of the other, listening, as they regard their world through huge brown eyes. Such strange animals when looked at with more than a casual glance, their elongated ears and hind legs appearing so extreme but perfectly in accord with their lifestyle.

Brown Hares

I left the hares and took the track leading to the two viewing screens. For the most part the track passes between a guard of spiky hawthorn hedgerow where the last remaining berries are being plundered by Redwings and Fieldfares, the latter flying from me at the last possible moment, expressing their alarm by way of guttural chuckles and loud chackering, their fleeing forms no more than dark, bulky silhouettes against the prevailing dullness of mist and sky. 

By-passing the  first screen I was intent on making for the second screen where I knew I would be on my own. The melancholy pipings of a pair of Bullfinches summed up the mood, coming from deep in the hedge where they would be nibbling leaf buds but the birds remained, as they often do, elusive.

The fields to my left were deep frozen underwater. An ice sheet unsullied by any mark but with two stranded Oaks locked in its midst, limbs entwined like mother and child, marooned, a natural sculpture in a sea of icy white and grey .

At the second screen I sat and looked out on another frozen lagoon surrounded on all sides by dense reeds withered by winter to a pale shade of brown. 

There seemed to be little life here apart from a Muntjac deer browsing the grass on the further side from the screen. No birds, as there was nowhere to feed, both water and the shoreline being hard frozen. A Kingfisher flew across the icebound lagoon but had no reason to stop as it could not fish here. A Marsh Harrier, dark and made distinctive by its erratic reedtop cruising, passed beyond the reeds, heading into the mystery of the rising mist.

A wader flew directly towards me and settled amongst the stumps of cut reeds in front of the screen. It was a Common Snipe and on landing it stood motionless for minutes on end, alert, tense, prepared to fly at the slightest excuse but no cause for anxiety came and it settled to probe the softer earth amongst the cut reeds and stumps. 

For much of the time it was only partially visible, its body hidden by the bulk of the stumps and cut stems as it slowly and methodically worked its way between them, drilling the earth with its outlandishly elongated bill, probing deep into the soft earth. As it fed it occasionally indulged in a slow rythmic bouncing of its body, more usually a characteristic of its diminutive cousin, the Jack Snipe.

Its cryptic plumage, a complication of buff and brown stripes and bars was the perfect camouflage for its chosen habitat.The snipe continued to push its long bill into the margin of the lagoon, the ultra sensitive nerves at the tip of its bill the means of locating its prey,  invisible below the ground. It was finding plenty to eat. So successful was its feeding that it could afford to rest and sank into a self satisfied plumpness with its rifle like bill pointing groundwards. 

The mist began to intensify, coming in a succession of waves as the day moved into late afternoon and made this part of the reserve cold and unwelcoming. There came that point where I had no choice but to move to regain some inner body heat and so I departed the screen and the resting snipe to make my way back to my car, several miles away in the village. The long walk would energise me and get my circulation going once more.

Courtesy of Badger.

And so the last day of this sorrowful year drew to its close and as I passed the two hares they were as sculptures, having not moved an inch. By the car I found a primrose growing amongst the ivy below the churchyard wall. A gentle, fragile reassurance that nature will continue its annual cycle no matter what may befall humanity. A reason for hope at the commencment of another year.



  1. You write beautifully and with real feeling. Thank you.

  2. Thank you Colin.It is nice of you to say so and my best wishes for the coming year