Wednesday 31 October 2012

A Load of Bullocks 30th October 2012

A beautiful autumn day dawned sunny and calm. After a week of work hell I badly needed to reunite body and soul, so planned an all day visit to Otmoor, just wandering around with my bins and camera and allowing the wide open spaces and mid week solitude of the reserve to recharge my energy levels, both spiritually and physically. Or so I hoped. 

However, on arriving at the car park around 8.30am my heart sank as I noted the number of cars present and even one person assembling a howitzer sized camera lens onto a tripod. How naive of me and pretty dumb as with the recent reports of Bearded Tits, Hen Harriers and Bramblings on Otmoor it was obviously bound to attract people's attention. I did not even make it to the cattle pens at the end of the entrance track before I was told to stand back as a herd of bullocks were apparently about to be driven down the bridleway to the cattle pens to be inoculated against TB. 

"There be two bullocks which are a bit frisky and might trample you"  I was advised by the cowman. 

This was a bit frustrating as I could just see the finch flock on the other side of the bridleway, including a fine male Brambling, feeding on the seeded ground. 

"Stand back - please!" I was commanded. 

'But they are miles away yet'. I replied. 

"They can move very fast" I was told. 

Defeated I stood back and the bullocks and their bovine friends came apace down the bridleway, driven onwards by an all terrain vehicle. The finch flock duly took alarm and headed for the bushes. A small brown finch settled at the top of a hawthorn bush. It was a Lesser Redpoll. I took it's picture before it too fled as the herd of cows arrived in a cloud of steam, bellowing in frustration and accompanied by shouts from those herding them, who were also possibly bellowing in frustration. 

Lesser Redpoll
There was obviously no chance of any finch flock coming back while this lot were milling around so that took care of any further sightings of Bramblings that I had in mind. Other birders were standing about watching the proceedings but I figured if I went along the bridleway and then up the track to the first screen I had a good chance of seeing the Bearded Tits which I had heard in that area on Sunday. More importantly for me I would be on my own in hopefully, peace and quiet. The bridleway, however, took on the mantle of a busy road as various four wheel drive vehicles drove up and down it, rather too fast for comfort, presumably having something to do with the bovine inoculation operation back at the cattle pens. My nerves after last week's work excesses were really frayed. I just did not need this and it was such a beautiful day with the sun casting a warm golden light on the fading reeds, autumnal trees and contrasting with the hazed blue of the horizon. 

I desperately wanted to tune body and soul into this but was instead being assailed by loud shouts and vehicles going up and down the bridleway. I was getting the distinct feeling that regaining any equilibrium by visiting Otmoor today was a really bad idea, as so far there had hardly been any respite from human and vehicular activity. I did see the funny side of things by the time I got to the gate and my enthusiasm to carry on was greatly increased when the distinctive pinging calls of Bearded Tits rang out and five of these little charmers arose from a reed bed and ascended higher and higher into the sky until I lost sight of them.This made me feel a whole lot better but they had completely disappeared so re-finding them was going to be problematical. 

C'est la vie! as they say down Cowley way. 

So disoriented was I by all the noise and disturbance that I found myself seeking sanctuary at the first screen. Normally I try to shun hides or screens unless absolutely necessary as this usually means enduring a load of inane chatter, restricted movement and endless banging about. However there was only one other birder there and he appeared fairly uncommunicative in a friendly kind of way so all was well and for an hour we stood in silence looking at nothing much in particular. I felt mind and body healing but it did not last. Howitzer man arrived with friends and for the next thirty minutes without even looking at a bird he regaled his friends about pixels, memory cards, flicker, streaming and other photo techno babble. All I want is peace and QUIET!! In the end it was all too much and silently inviting him to 'kiss my pixel' I left and headed for the second screen hoping to possibly see a Hen Harrier floating over the vast expanse of reeds. 

There was no sign of any Hen Harrier but halfway to the second screen what did I hear? Yes, the distinctive pinging tones of  Bearded Tits somewhere in the adjacent reeds. Up the bank I went and although I could still hear them they were, as usual, invisible. I stood quietly, on my own, but there was now only silence accompanied by the gentle swaying and sighing of the reeds. Half an hour passed and  there were the calls again, slightly to my left now. I moved in their direction and very briefly caught sight of the back end of a Bearded Tit at the top of a reed stem before it dropped down into cover. 

I stood there for over an hour, waiting. A Raven, cronking loudly and with throat hackles distended flew over me towards Big Otmoor. Ten minutes later it came back heading for the Pill. Then back it came again and repeated this four times. What on earth it was doing I really did not know. Finally the Raven ceased it's commuting and again there was nothing. Another twenty minutes passed and  suddenly there came music to my ears as I tuned in to multiple pinging calls from the reeds and five Bearded Tits arose and flew low above the reed heads, quickly dropping down again just to my right. I followed them and there in the sun was a glorious male sidling up a reed stem, partially obscured at first but then ascending higher and into full view. I took as many pictures as possible in the hope one would come out. He really was a beauty with his black 'fu manchu' moustaches, lilac grey head and breast contrasting appealingly with the orange of his body. 

The Bearded Tits were in the reeds here

All too soon it was over as he dropped into the reeds and then the five of them flew again, deeper into the reed bed and that was the last I saw of them. Naturally I now felt a whole lot better about life and was still in splendid isolation as most people seemed to have stopped at the first screen. A short visit to the second screen was, as per usual, unremarkable with just Teal, Shoveler, Wigeon and Gadwall swimming around or loafing by the reeds. Occasionally they were spooked by a low flying Red Kite and would set off en masse for Ashgrave. I retraced my route back past the first screen finding some late Common Darters and a Red Admiral making  the best of the weak sun and then on to the bridleway.

Goldcrests moved through the hedgerows, small dark shadows darting amongst the twigs their high pitched contact calls barely audible. I stopped to look over Ashgrave. There was a huge flock of around eight hundred Lapwing in the distance resting on the grassy slope by a hidden pool of water. A Mute Swan came winging its way towards Greenaways, so beautiful in flight but at the same time appearing impossibly cumbersome.

The plan now was to try and see the Bramblings at the cattle pens as surely the disturbance would now be all over. When I got there the cattle were still in the pens and no one was about. All was quiet and there was a glorious male Brambling feeding with Chaffinches and Goldfinches on the ground. 

Male and female Bramblings
Then another male and a female flew down and joined it. They are such pretty birds, the subtleties and the patterns of their plumage making the Chaffinches look almost plain in comparison. I watched them for a few minutes before an all too distinctive sound came distantly from the bridleway. Oh oh! A four wheel drive, then another and finally an all terrain vehicle! The cows looked shifty as if suspecting they were in for yet more stress and the vehicles drew up by the cattle pens. The finches departed for the bushes once again and 'Operation Bullock' went into reverse with all the cows now being driven back the way they had come on the bridleway, again with as much noise as possible.

Peace eventually returned but the finches did not. I had a look at the feeders nearby hoping a Brambling might have gone there but instead found an attractively chocolate coloured female Pheasant below them and a Great Spotted Woodpecker attacking the peanuts. Two male Greenfinches arrived at the feeders. Is it my impression that they do seem very scarce these days? I finally called it a day, planning to come back for the starling roost later in the afternoon and duly headed for Farmoor to go and see the female Scaup and renew my acquaintance with the Slavonian Grebes

As I traversed the deserted reservoir's causeway, the concrete wastes of Farmoor One were bathed in sunshine on a Tuesday afternoon virtually devoid of human life. A male Goldeneye flew in as I walked along and proceeded to vigorously wash and preen, almost inverting itself in the water, his bright orange legs flashing in the sun, but there was little else to see from the Causeway.

There is, I am coming to believe, some unwritten law at Farmoor that all the good birds are always at the far end of the Causeway and so it was today. In fact they were even further, being in the far northwest corner of the reservoir. The female Scaup, showing to good effect her huge white blaze at the base of her bill was preening contentedly at the back of the Tufted Duck flock and a little further on there was a Slavonian Grebe being harrassed by a Coot as it fished. After admiring the scaup and grebe I walked onwards and found the second Slavonian Grebe also feeding avidly on small fish. A dark shape whizzed behind me; a male Sparrowhawk and following his progress I saw him flush five Lesser Redpolls from some birch trees. The total count of Goldeneye was ten by the time I got back to my starting point.

Now it was time to go back to Otmoor for the Starling roost and to meet up with Badger. Tonight it turned out that the Starlings had decided to move a lot closer than on Sunday, to roost in the reeds halfway towards the second screen. It is a matter of conjecture but which bird or birds in the first flock to arrive or what circumstance decides where they roost each night? The first small flock of Starlings arrived at 1557 and then progressively through the evening the flocks just got larger and larger, many in their thousands and then gradually tailed off to just a few late stragglers

A Starling flock coming in to roost

The Starling roost was in the reeds to the left of the track

Starlings coming in to roost

We were joined by the RSPB staff and friends and various of us would exclaim as one huge flock after another arrived at the roost. They were also roosting fairly close to our watchpoint. So close in fact that you could see the topmost birds perched on the reeds. There were none of the spectacular hologram manouevres that we saw on Sunday but just lots and lots of Starlings. The roosting birds went straight into the reeds but were flushed on several occasions by a Hen Harrier and two Sparrowhawks looking for a last meal before sunset. When this happened the sky was obscured by a black whirling mass as the entire assembly of Starlings took to the air from the reeds and the noise of rushing wings and voices was incredible. 

Aforesaid black whirling mass of Starlings spooked by a raptor.
The browner birds are where the sun is reflecting off their wings
The late evening sunlight bathed the whole reed bed in a gentle orange light. and reflected off the birds wings as they swirled about  In the end the collective opinion of those present arrived at an estimate of 50,000 birds coming in to the roost.

To cap it all a huge, pink, Halloween  moon arose. Almost unreal in it's size and colour it added an ethereal aspect to the magical hour we had experienced. You half expected to see ET or a witch on a broomstick silhouetted against it. Some Fieldfares or 'chuckle thrushes' as Andy appropriately called them, shot into the reed bed in the fast fading light and a tight flock of Snipe, almost in the dark, arrived to feed in the flashes amongst the reeds. Badger and myself were the last to leave, almost reluctant, listening to the Starlings raucous, conversational chatter in the reeds which slowly declined to a quiet murmur, and then silence as the birds went to sleep and all became still in the darkness.

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