Saturday 18 September 2021

A Purple Patch 17th September 2021

Consulting the Oxon Bird Log four days ago I saw an entry that stated the following:

September 14th
Blenheim.Queen Elizabeth Island
Probable Purple Heron: A large brown heron on the island, flew to a nearby tree.Yellow beak,yellow legs.I am not sure of id but back home it seemed the most likely match.

A Purple Heron is a rare visitor to Oxfordshire. The last one in the county was another juvenile that frequented the RSPB's Otmoor reserve from August until October in 2016. I was more than a little intrigued by the report on the 14th but as the identity was unconfirmed other matters soon put it to the back of my mind, but yesterday came a second report on my RBA (Rare Bird Alert) app.

September 16th
Blenheim Park
Purple Heron again in reedbed by bridge at 1100 then flew to the island on Queen Pool

The bird was now very much back in my thoughts and there was only one thing to do and that was to go and try to see the bird for myself. Blenheim Palace dominates the still attractive market town of Woodstock, just over twenty minutes drive from my home, so I planned an early start the next morning before the regular deluge of visitors arrived.

Blenheim with its extensive parkland and two large lakes has and does attract some notable birds by Oxfordshire standards. Great White Egrets are virtually resident and for the first time in Oxfordshire Cattle Egrets have bred there this year. Little Egrets are a given and even rarer birds such as a juvenile Sabine's Gull in September 2009 and an adult Bonaparte's Gull in April 2019 have been recorded from there.

Fortunately, although you have to pay a considerable amount of money to enter the palace and its gardens, there are public rights of way which allow permanent free access to much of the large area of parkland and the two large lakes.

I arrived in Woodstock, just after seven and using a bit of local knowledge parked in a convenient side road which allowed me to walk a short way to an entrance gate allowing me free access to the grounds. Following the right of way around the far side of the lake called Queen Pool I made my way to the Grand Bridge, internationally famous due to its appearances in countless film and television period dramas. 

The Bridge acts as a divison between the two lakes, Queen Pool and Great Lake and its elevation gives a good view over both lakes and their reed and riparian vegetated fringes. There is an island with large trees and bushes on Queen Pool, near to the bridge, and it is here that the Purple Heron was seen to fly to yesterday morning. As mentioned this island has hosted a small breeding colony ( up to 4 pairs) of  Cattle Egrets this year and no less than eleven, a mixture of adults and juveniles, were seen to leave the overnight roost there this morning.

I stood on the bridge, entirely alone and not quite sure what 'reedbed by the bridge' the observer was referring to in his post yesterday.There was a fairly extensive one over on the far side of the lake but it was nowhere near the bridge and I could see no sign of any heron there just one Little Egret.

Fully prepared for a long wait until this secretive heron flew from wherever it was concealed I walked to the other end of the bridge and looked across to the tree covered island hoping the heron might be co-operating  by perching on one of the larger tree's boughs but no such luck. The Queen Pool has been left relatively untouched due to the covid pandemic and is now fringed by low sallow growth and reeds around much of its  circumference. I was examining one of these narrow areas below me in my bins, standing on a grassy bank just beyond the bridge, when my heart gave a leap as a large bird flapped out of the sallow growth but it was only a Grey Heron which flew to the island and perched on a bare branch.

I scanned further along the narrow but dense fringe of short sallow spikes, reasoning that if one heron was in there so could be another, one much rarer! It was a forlorn hope, more carried out as routine than with any expectation. A few Coots and Great Crested Grebes were footling about in the water beyond but my eye was caught by a brown lump close to the bank and mainly concealed by the vegetation. I could so easily have dismissed it as just a clump of dead reeds except that it moved, only fractionally but enough to intrigue me and set my heart racing - again. I moved closer and a reptilian head and neck snaked higher in the vegetation. A tiny striped head with a long brown and orange bill mimicked a pointed spear supported by a long neck that was pale brown and pipe cleaner thin.

It ducked down again. Aha! I could hardly believe it. The Purple Heron no less, crouched and hiding from me, unaware that from my elevated position looking down, it was not as well hidden as it thought. What luck at how easily and quickly I had found it. I had expected a long possibly fruitless wait but no, here it was, minutes after my arrival on the bridge.

I slowly moved closer but it was wary and almost immediately flew across to the island and perched on the  bough of a poplar tree. The overall impression I got was of a bird with a pale reddish brown upperbody and wing coverts while the flight feathers were black and the legs yellow. This Purple Herron was clearly a juvenile.

At this moment a birder from Woodstock, Gareth, arrived and I pointed out the Purple Heron silhouetted and standing on its perch. In conversation with Gareth I learnt that this was a lifer for him so now there were two very happy birders stood on the bank by the bridge.

The heron eventually flew down to the other side of the lake and pitched into the thick riparian vegetation there and was lost to view. We moved in that direction and soon were able to discern its head and neck poking above the vegetation, much like a periscope. We made for the spot but again, when we were still some distance away, it rose from its hiding place and flew across to the far side of the lake, turned and headed back to the island where it perched at the very top of a tree, its angular profile silhouetted against the sky.

It remained on its lofty perch for a few minutes and then flew across the bridge and over the other lake, there  to turn and drop into the reeds at the side of the lake.

That was the last I saw of it as I had to leave but I had alerted others via the Oxon Bird Log and I met a couple of local birders already heading for the bridge as I walked back to the entrance gate. 

The heron was seen occasionally and briefly thoughout the day at various points on both lakes and also back on the island.

A very pleasant and rewarding early morning foray to Blenheim before the crowds arrived.


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