Monday 31 August 2015

A morning on Otmoor 17th August 2015

A trip north to Berwick, on the border of England and Scotland was required to collect not only my daughter but her racing bike. I needed a bike rack to fit to the car and knew just the man to contact. A few days later I made a rendezvous with Terry on an early Monday morning in the car park at Otmoor, where we soon had the bike rack attached to the back of the Audi. 

With this accomplished we decided to take advantage of what was promising to be a pleasantly mild and sunny day and indulge ourselves with a gentle foray into Long Meadow to look for migrant Common Redstarts. Long Meadow does not on first sight cast a favourable impression that it harbours any good birds, indeed any birds at all. It is also hard going as the ground, although now grassed over is rutted and pitted from when cattle rove over it in winter and consequently the churned ground makes progress on foot a bit of a chore. 

Between the tall hedges and occasional trees that mark Long Meadow's perimeter small hawthorn trees and bushes are randomly dotted across the grassland like miniature islands. They always appear devoid of birdlife but at this time of year patience and a little local knowledge sometimes brings its rewards.

The secret of finding the redstarts in Long Meadow is two fold. The first is to get there first. If you do and there are redstarts present then they will not have been disturbed by other birders and will not have sought more distant and undisturbed areas with the consequence they are easier to find. The second is to have infinite patience and not go from tree to tree, bush to bush trying to flush them. Stand quietly and unobtrusively at the side of the meadow with your silhouette masked by the background vegetation and just watch across the meadow to the various small trees and bushes.

This was our strategy. We stood quietly and listened. It's a not unpleasant experience and often it's good for the soul to be still for a while. A redstart's anxiety call was clearly ringing out from the other side of the meadow but rather than heading for it we remained motionless. Minutes passed by and we quietly chatted about how nice it was on a Monday morning to be standing here free of the cares of work and enjoying our retirement. 

After a while it seemed we became accepted, almost absorbed into the natural framework of our surroundings, the alarm call from the redstart ceased and slowly small shapes and movements materialised in the trees and bushes. There were birds present after all. A small dark form dropped down from the base of a tree into the long grass and then returned to the tree with a flash of orange. It disappeared briefly then re-appeared. We looked through our bins but sadly the orange signified not the hoped for redstart but the breast of a Robin. Another dark shape moved jerkily, low down through the tree but it was only a Wren. We were not downhearted though, as it is infinitely pleasurable picking out the odd bird shape and identifying it, always with the hope that the next shape or movement will signify a redstart.

Then in an instant, there was a redstart, a female, in the same tree, perched half way up at the very edge. The epitomy of neurotic energy as its constantly shivering rust orange tail imparted an edginess and the impression that you better be quick or it will be gone. In fact it remained for a few minutes moving to various positions on the outside of the bush  and then finally it flew fast and low to another tree and was gone.

We gently walked along and looked across to where it had flown and caught another brief glimpse of it but then on the opposite side of the tree there came another movement, higher up this time and there was a male redstart, beautiful in the morning sun, with rich orange red underparts, pale grey upperparts and a black and white face. A real treat.

Male Common Redstart c Terry Sherlock
We stood and admired it and although undoubtedly aware of our presence it considered us distant enough to be of no threat. Nonetheless the redstarts here never remain long in one spot and true to form it soon flew off.

Seeing them this way is so rewarding, even thrilling. They are shy and nervous birds that require the application of careful thought as to how best to get to see them and then when the application bears the fruit of a glorious male sitting boldly in the sun it is an intensely gratifying experience.

We walked slowly onwards moving deeper into the Long Meadow, keeping to the edge and stopping regularly to wait and listen. Redstarts were now calling in anxiety all around, their melancholy two note hoooweeet call coming from various trees in the meadow but they were always invisible. Their anxiety call is very similar to that of both Willow Warbler and Chiffchaff and requires some practice to differentiate. Even now  I sometimes get it wrong but to my ears the call is slightly bolder, longer and louder, less high pitched, presumably because a redstart is more substantial than the much smaller Willow Warbler and Chiffchaff.

A Common Whitethroat flew high and fast between two trees, diving into the thorny depths before repeating the process as it flew onwards to yet another tree. A Lesser Whitethroat, dapper grey of head and silky white of throat gleamed in the sun against the dark green bramble leaves it was frequenting and a sulphur headed male Yellowhammer tizzed its way across the meadow.

We stood once more, waited and sure enough other redstarts appeared as they gained confidence about our presence and so we gently, almost serenely progressed to the end of Long Meadow counting in total between eight to ten redstarts. It was impossible to be sure of exactly how many because of their elusive nature. 

A lone Raven high, very high in the sky, betrayed itself with guttural croaks as it flew above us and a Common Buzzard soared up from the wood, rising in the warm air of mid morning. Turning we walked back along the other side of the meadow and another pair of redstarts flirted along some fence posts before seeking sanctuary deep in the hedgerow.

We wandered back though the dry summer grass stalks as grasshoppers sprang from our feet, leaping in a profusion of startled motion. We chatted inconsequentially and felt pretty good about our successful morning. So good in fact that when we got back to the car park neither of us wanted the day to end quite now, so we opted for another meander, this time out to The Pill in search of Whinchats. The adjacent firing range was thankfully silent, as on Mondays no shooting takes place, so consequently no red flag was flying, banning access to The Pill. We slipped through the unlocked metal gate and followed the bridleway along the hedgeline that forms the border of Otmoor Reserve.

Terry saw the small fawn brown bird first, sat on top of the hedge, halfway out to The Pill, displaying that relaxed vigilance that Whinchats seem to adopt. The very opposite of the behaviour displayed by this morning's redstarts. I find all the chats attractive and appealing birds. For me it's a combination of things; their demeanour, their plumage patterns, the fact that they are predominantly migrants and I suppose their comparative seasonal scarcity here on Otmoor. All meld into an irresistible delight.

I stood back as Terry slowly edged closer to it. The Whinchat showed little alarm but finally it was one step too close and it flitted off and away but Terry had captured a nice image.

Whinchat c Terry Sherlock
We carried on towards the area of The Pill, the wide fields to our right giving the usual sense of spacious abandonment and emptiness that is such a feature of this location. Further on we came across two more Whinchats sharing the hedgeline with a couple of Common Whitethroats, the former showing a preference for the topmost sprays of the hedge and an all round panoramic view whilst the whitethroats skulked in the hedge bottom, peeking out from behind a leafy density.

Three Marsh Harriers, the colour of dark chocolate with a splash of cream on their heads floated across the reserve and were lost to view behind the hedgerow as they flew low into Greenaways. It was now approaching noon and unknowingly we had covered a lot of rough ground since we first set off early this morning. Two young Kestrels hunted insects in the field as, pleasantly tired, we set off back to the car park, taking the Roman Road on the slim chance of seeing a last Brown Hairstreak.

There was little sign of either hairstreaks or the usual attendant butterfly enthusiasts at the beginning of the Roman Road but we eventually came across one person who had just arrived from Cambridge and he asked if he was in the best place to see the hairstreaks. 'Yes, this is the spot, just hang around here and one should show up sooner or later. Check the thistle heads as they prefer to feed on them but it may be some time before you see one. Good luck anyway'. 'Thanks I will do that' he replied and wandered off. Terry and myself walked on twenty or so metres. I looked at another spray of pale mauve thistle heads and there on one of the heads was that familiar but always thrilling sight of a small brown triangle. Thin and fragile as tissue paper. A Brown Hairstreak, nectaring no more than four feet from the ground.

I called out to the butterfly enthusiast. 'Do you still want to see a hairstreak? Over here!' I pointed and he came running. 'Where is it?'  'Right there'. 'Where, I cannot see it?' I moved my finger to within an inch of the untroubled butterfly. A pristine male, just hatched, it was a glory of orangey browns and white spider scrawl lines on its underwings. 'Oh thank you so much. It's beautiful. My first ever'. 

'You're welcome'.

It had been that kind of a day. Nothing could go wrong and indeed it hadn't.

Many thanks to Terry Sherlock for the images of the Whinchat and Common Redstart

Sunday 23 August 2015

Snakes Alive - Botswana

On a private safari holiday in Botswana some years ago, Grant our South African guide had shown us many things. We had found, most unusually, a Mole Rat above ground, a mammal I have always wanted to see, encountered an embarrassed Lion with an upset stomach, watched a family of Pygmy Mongooses attacking a scorpion and just enjoyed living for a week in tents in the heart of Botswana surrounded by miles of nothing but African bush and wild animals. Hyenas had walked within inches of us as we lay at night in our tents, their shadowy, sinister, sloping profiles silhouetted in the moonlight and passing within inches of the gauze windows of our tents. Did you know you can hear them make a purring sound just like a cat when you are very close to them? An enraged female Hippo with a calf, had surged out of a river like some demented barrage balloon  and chased our vehicle down a dirt road. It had been quite a time but now our week with Grant was almost at an end as we were moving on and transferring to the relative and more sedate comforts of a safari lodge in the Okavango Delta. Personally I would have much preferred to remain with Grant.

A very feisty Mole Rat. Check out those front teeth!

African Lion
As we drove across the plain to the dusty grass landing strip to rendezvous with the light aircraft that would fly us to our next destination we came across a shallow vlei (a small area of water). We stopped here as a lot of birds were creating quite a racket and were obviously anxious about something in a bush overhanging the far bank of the vlei. 'Those birds are mobbing something in that bush Grant'. 'Yes I know, it's a snake. Wait here a minute' he casually replied. Then without further ado Grant got out of our vehicle and waded across the  vlei to the bush. He plunged his arms into the branches and started pulling at something.

At first nothing much seemed to happen but then the tail end of a substantial snake appeared and gradually all seven feet of a Python was remorselessly hauled from the bush. Grant and his brother Brent are renowned throughout Southern Africa for their knowledge and expertise with snakes and Grant had regaled us each evening around the fire with tales of his snake exploits and encounters.

Grant had kept a collection of snakes at home and his fiancee had given him an ultimatum - either the snakes go or she does. Grant asked for six months to think about it but in the end the snakes went!

The Python was not at all happy about the undignified treatment being meted out and writhed and coiled itself alarmingly around Grant's arms and legs but he was totally un-phased and holding the Python tightly at the back of its neck with one hand and with the other hand grabbing its tail end waded back across the vlei, telling us 'it was only a small one' and once back on dry land proceeded to give us our very own personal twenty minute tutorial about Pythons and their distinctive characteristics. The tutorial was enlivened by an increasingly angry, wildly thrashing and hissing Python. No biology lesson at school was ever on a par with this!

Grant with the Python
Finally Grant ceased reeling off statistics, facts and anecdotes about Pythons and looking me in the eye said 'Want to hold it Ewan?' I recognised the challenge and although highly dubious felt I had to accept. Gingerly I grabbed the Python round the neck to avoid its fangs and held its thick muscular body in my other hand. The snake was incredibly powerful, but thankfully was running out of steam having spent the previous thirty minutes struggling. My wife and daughter had by now retreated to a discrete and safe distance while I mused what would happen if my grip on the snake loosened. 

No comment!
I need not have worried as Grant came to the rescue, took it from me and taking it to the water's edge released it whereupon it swam as fast as it could across the vlei and disappeared into the long grass and snake safety.

Saturday 8 August 2015

Stork Talk 5th August 2015

Black Stork has always proved a difficult bird for me to catch up with. 
 Considered rare, I believe only 233 have been seen before in Britain. Until today I had never seen one in Britain as they usually turn up a long way from where I live and are often just seen soaring overhead, high up in the sky, and if one does settle on the ground it never seems to stay in one place long enough for me to drive to see it.

This week there has been a minor influx of three or four Black Storks into England and another has even arrived in far off Aberdeenshire in Scotland. Of these, one particular individual caught my eye and that was a juvenile, bearing a white ring from a ringing scheme in France, that was at Kilnsea near Spurn which juts out into the Humber Estuary in East Yorkshire. The reason it caught my eye was that it had remained all day in a small area of grass fields called The Triangle, at Kilnsea, and appeared to be relatively settled if Black Storks ever are indeed settled when they stray to Britain.

Just before going to bed on Tuesday night I checked RBA and the stork was still being reported from Kilnsea up until 4pm at least, so there was a chance it would still be there on Wednesday, or would it? Storks seem to like nothing better than to soar around, high in the sky and can cover huge areas of geography in a very short time.Would this one decide on this course of action for Wednesday or would it stay put? That was my dilemma.

My chances were, let's face it slim at best, as for one to remain more than one day at the same spot would be unusual, but the fact the bird at Kilnsea had stayed put all day suggested it might be worth taking a chance.  I went to bed in two minds on Tuesday as whether to bother or not but a nightmare in the early hours of next morning found me waking with a start at 3.30am. Finding it impossible to get back to sleep I decided the best thing was to do something to take my mind off the imaginary horrors that had come to me in my sleep, so I resolved to drive for four hours to Hull and then out to the peninsula that was Spurn in search of the Black Stork. Well it beats reading a book! I quietly slipped out of the house with bins and scope and soon I was heading north for the MI, just as the dawn was breaking.

My serene progress was only checked once I reached the MI and encountered the all too familiar Average Speed Check at Nottingham from where, northwards, mile upon mile of central barriers were being repaired or replaced. On my previous travels north on earlier twitches this hazard had caused me anguish and frustration and now here we were again but this time with a vengeance as the speed check went on for many more miles than before. In cramped and crowded, narrow, temporary traffic lanes, I found myself with huge lorries driving far too close to the back of the Audi, as on cruise control I stuck to the 50mph speed limit. There is no escape as everyone is doing about the same speed, or if you do increase speed and venture into the outside lane to get away from the threatening cab looming large in your rear view mirror, you stand the chance of being prosecuted for speeding. So to the Eddie Stobart driver in cab number H4205 .... you should be ashamed of yourself for driving so close and your exhibition of inconsiderate driving. Finally, and thankfully the speed restriction and lorries no longer became an issue as I turned, with some relief onto the M18 and thence onto the M62, heading east towards Hull and into a now bright sunny morning 

Every time I go to Hull, which only occurs if a rare bird turns up, usually at or near Spurn, the sense of space on the M62 always takes me by surprise. The road itself never seems to be over populated with vehicles and compared to other busier motorways it appears almost empty. I suppose the lack of embankments and the wide flat expanse of featureless countryside on either side enhances the impression of spaciousness. By 8am I was approaching Hull and crawled around the  outskirts of the city in a slow moving file of cars heralding the rush hour. Hull is pretty small and I was soon passing by the huge industrial chemical works on the far side of the city - a  science fiction complexity of pipes, tanks and other weird structures all brought to vivid reality under the now brightly shining sun.

As the maze of industrial buildings receded into the distance I took the long, slow, country road that goes winding forever out towards the Spurn peninsula. This area is a country of huge skies and flat endless fields running horizontally into the distance. Small red brick villages, with strange names such as Thorngumbald, Welwick and Skeffling, each a distinct and tightly defined community, came and went as I progressed. No one was to be seen. No one here was going to work or if they were had already departed. The road was mine alone bar the occasional car and the school bus. 

I rounded a bend and saw a stunned House Sparrow sitting in the opposite side of the road. It had obviously just been in collision with a vehicle and was alive but would not be for long as the next vehicle coming its way would kill it for certain. I turned the car and drove back with hazard lights on and stopped in the road just by the sparrow. I could now rescue it and just as well, as a car at that very moment came round the bend, slowed and passed round me. I picked up the young sparrow, surprisingly warm and soft and placed it in the long grass under the hedge at the side of the road. It appeared uninjured, just dazed, and I hoped that maybe it would live. There was no more I could do for it.

I checked RBA for any news on the stork but my phone signal had now gone so I was unable to check on specific directions to the stork and in my unplanned sleepy departure from home, hours earlier, I had failed to take details of the exact whereabouts of the stork. I reassured myself that it could not be that difficult to find it. The Crown and Anchor pub at Kilnsea, (the most easterly pub in Yorkshire) seemed to come to mind as having been mentioned in the site directions I read last night and I knew where the pub was from previous visits, so headed there as a start. The stork could not be far away.

I entered the pub car park to find three or four empty cars but absolutely no one to ask the whereabouts of the stork. I dithered, cursing my over optimistic assumptions that there would be other birders around to guide me. Here I was in an isolated pub car park at 9am in the morning, having driven four and a half hours and hopefully with a much desired Black Stork somewhere close by but with no idea precisely where or how to get to see it. No one to blame but myself!

I drove back the way I had come looking for someone, anyone who I could ask for directions but there was no one. Half an hour later I was back in the pub car park and this time there were two friendly local birders just getting out of their car. A quick enquiry of them and I was put right. 'Do you know The Triangle?' one said. 'Er' no sorry' I replied. He pointed over the road to a footpath that led off alongside the brown, choppy, sunlit waters of the immense Humber Estuary. 'Just walk along there and The Triangle is the area of fields to your left'. 

I did as instructed and then  knew exactly where I was. I realised that I had come to this precise  area when myself and Andy came here last year to twitch a Masked Shrike. I never knew it was called The Triangle but now it was obvious. The fields were bounded on two sides by small unclassified roads, one leading to Kilnsea and the other to Spurn and the third part of The Triangle was the footpath I was currently on.

Thanking the two local birders I walked along the footpath and could see a huddle of birders a few hundred metres further on looking across The Triangle. I joined them and was soon informed that the stork was in a wide deep ditch, running across the far side of the field to a caravan site. The stork was currently invisible but I was told that occasionally it would pop its head up out of the ditch. An hour earlier it had apparently flown around the fields before returning to the ditch. I settled in for a wait. It was not unpleasant standing in the morning sun, on the lush green grass, with the Humber Estuary right behind me and the gentle slap of the high tide waves lapping at the bank. I kept checking the distant ditch but there was no sign of the stork. Time drifted on and steadily more birders arrived. A Sedge Warbler flew back and fore to its nest in the long grass to our left. A winter plumaged Guillemot, close in to the shore, paddled past on the sea and the harsh cries of Sandwich Terns filled the air.

c Steve Gombocz
As usually happens when there is a long wait to see a bird conversations start up amongst the assembled birders. I was discussing the origins of the Black Stork with a local birder next to me and we got to talking about France, which is where the stork had originated and somehow my new found colleague brought up the subject of the problems at Calais with all the asylum seekers. It became obvious that he was not as sympathetic to the asylum seekers as I was. At this point there are various options; end up in a discussion which can become polarised if you are not careful, gently change the subject or just fall silent. I chose the last but as I stood in these beautiful, peaceful surroundings in a stable country, indulging in my pleasurable hobby, knowing my family are safe and secure and I have a home and future to go to  I could not help but reflect on what awfulness had driven those desperate people in Calais and other parts of Europe from their country and homes, what dangers and privations they had survived and what tragedies and horrors they had endured or seen. Imagine watching your wife and children drowning after  falling into the sea from a capsized boat. I looked around, then up at the sky and clouds and just felt so grateful for my life, my family and my peaceful existence and feeling so desperately sad at the lack of compassion, and all the cruelty and barbarity in the world.

Occasionally a Little Egret hidden in the depths of the ditch would fly up, startlingly white,  before dropping back down again, changing its position. Other birders tried from different viewpoints to attempt to see into the deep ditch but there was no sightline that was any better than where we were standing. I got talking to Steve and Judy who had just arrived from Wakefield  and we chatted about birding to while away the waiting. Steve was a lifelong amateur fisherman who in retirement had decided to take up birding with his wife and was now doing a year list. It's nice when you meet people such as Steve and Judy as it makes the day more pleasurable and in the back of your mind you know that they are kindred spirits and you will probably meet again, maybe not for months or even years but you always have that bond of a mutual interest and of being on a certain twitch at a certain time to unite you.

Time passed by and the tide started to ebb. Small flocks of Dunlin, tiny black dots against the vast background of the estuary whizzed across the sunlit waves heading for a feeding site soon to be exposed by the falling tide. Some people from the caravan site on the other side of The Triangle seemed to be looking down the length of the ditch from a gate at something in the ditch but we could see nothing from where we were. It was going to be a long wait and I recalled that reports from yesterday had said the stork could be elusive, but at least I knew it was still here, so there was no anxiety on my part and I remained optimistic. Two hours had passed however and still nothing had been seen of the Black Stork. 

Then came a bit of excitement. A preview if you like to the main feature. An unexpected but welcome Short eared Owl took to hunting The Triangle, flying back and fore like a huge brown moth, opposite us. It flew with stiff, flicking wing beats, banking and twisting, quartering the ground, turning to stall in the wind, hovering and dropping with tawny feathered legs dangling, down into the long grass but consistently failing to catch anything. It settled on a fence post close by and its vivid yellow eyes with that characteristic look of blazing surprise and shock stared around. It soon took off again and I followed it in the scope, closer now, admiring its plumage of tawny browns and dull yellows mottled with black.

Short eared Owl  c Steve Gombocz
As I watched the owl fly parallel with the 'stork ditch' the smallest part of a black head showed through the grasses, just above the edge of the ditch. It was the Black Stork or should I say a very small part of it!  So small I reckon I had seen about 1% of the bird. It disappeared almost as soon as I saw it. This was no good, I definitely wanted to see it properly but it was a start. Another long wait and then came another vague impression of a blackish brown head but about 2% this time. Things were looking up! Half an hour later and this time a dark head and upper neck were clearly visible through the waving grass at the ditch side before disappearing down into the ditch again. It was frustrating to say the least. Would I ever see it properly?

With three hours gone and little to show for it we were beginning to get restless. The number of birders had risen from ten to forty. Someone said you can see it easily if you enter the caravan site and look down the length of the ditch from the white gate. A friend of his had just done that very thing. The locals advised against this as a specific edict had been made not to enter the caravan park. I was in a dilemna, as were  Steve and Judy. We were just discussing if we would fly in the face of what appeared to be an un-necessary restriction when a disembodied voice shouted, 'Its flying!' 

And it certainly was. A huge black and white bird rose on broad wings from the ditch, flying  into the wind coming off the estuary. Slowly ascending above the ditch it turned downwind towards us and circled low over The Triangle. Enormous, angular and attenuated with a long outstretched neck and pointed bill, legs trailing straight out behind, it cruised around at no great elevation on its expansive wings, the outer primaries splayed like black fingers against the pale sky. A dull black all over apart from  its white underbody, as it passed you could clearly see the white ring on one of its grey legs. It flapped and glided, a trifle ungainly, just circling at no great height around The Triangle for a few precious minutes as if checking everything was to its liking before it came back low into the wind and with wings held outstretched landed back by the ditch, sinking almost into invisibility in the long grass. Wow! The wait had certainly been worth it. I felt that I had now well and truly seen a Black Stork. I would not get a better view than this.

Black Stork c Steve Gombocz
The stork now seemed to be settled once more and again was almost invisible so most birders, including myself decided that this was the time to leave. I bade farewell to Steve and Judy and headed back along the footpath to the Crown and Anchor. It was just on noon so a crab sandwich and a lager shandy in the pub, looking out of the window at the Humber Estuary just yards away across the road, was by way of celebration.

Crown and Anchor Pub
After my lunch I was set to go but not before scoping the mudflats of the estuary, now being exposed by the rapidly receding tide. Hundreds if not thousands of Knot and Dunlin, most still in their breeding plumage crowded the glistening wet mud. The occasional Curlew Sandpiper amongst them added some extra interest.

Then it was time to take the highways and byways to home. Another much desired species had been seen and another dice with lady luck had come to a successful conclusion.

My grateful thanks to Steve Gombocz for the photos of the Black Stork and Short eared Owl

Tuesday 4 August 2015

Gone but not forgotten 4th August 2015

Some twenty years ago we moved, almost by chance, into a beautiful three hundred year old house that we could barely afford in the Cotswold village of Kingham, which was a very different village to that which it has become now. Our house was located up a short and secluded drive with just one other house at the end of the drive. This house, called Fowler House was much grander than ours, being the former Victorian home of William Warde Fowler, an Oxford Don and Ornithologist, who amongst many other scholarly achievements, wrote two books about Kingham, one of which concerned the local birds to be found in and around Kingham. It was called  'A Year with the Birds', published in 1886 and recounts how there were then Marsh Warblers breeding in Kingham and Corncrakes could be heard in the fields around the village! Those fields are now transformed into a herbicide/insecticide drenched agri-desert that prevails throughout this corner of the Cotswolds. 

Fowler House had a large garden that ran parallel with our smaller one, the two gardens being divided by a hedge. The end of our neighbour's garden where it joined ours had as its boundary an ivy covered wall and where our two garden boundaries met there was a large lilac tree in the corner of the Fowler House garden shading the ivied wall.

All very nice but what has this got to do with the main theme of this blog you may well ask. Well, please read on.

When we first arrived in Kingham there were between four to six pairs of Spotted Flycatchers nesting at various places in the village and one pair regularly nested in and around our garden and that of Fowler House. One year we even had them attempt to nest in the rambling rose that grew on the end of our house but a cat from Fowler House dragged out the nest and that was that. The two academics,who lived in Fowler House had at least three cats but the cats were never allowed in the house and to all extents and purposes were almost feral, just being fed daily and allowed to use an outhouse. The toll on birds through the cats predatory activities was horrific.

Inexorably, as the years passed, the pairs of flycatchers diminished in Kingham, mirroring a wider drastic national decline in this species, until 'our pair' was the only pair left in Kingham. They usually managed to nest successfully somewhere close by each year and I would become aware of the fact when they would bring their young to the huge Ash tree that grew in the back garden of Gulliver House, owned by our other neighbours, feeding their fledged offspring high in the green foliage. You could hear the insistent calls of the young all day long in the tree and the parents would hunt insects from our TV aerial or the apple tree next door.

Gulliver House was then subject to successive improvements by various new owners as the years went by. The small orchard where, memorably, a migrant Reed Warbler sang for one day soon went, the apple tree next door became history and finally the house was sold to a lady doctor and her husband.We met them just after they arrived and she told us how she felt sure we would be delighted to know they were going to fell that 'awful' Ash tree that shaded our house and afterwards landscape and pave over the whole area to make a patio and formal garden. I remained resolute, smiled and diplomatically said how nice it would be for them.

Nine years ago the Spotted Flycatchers chose to nest in the ivied wall at the end of the Fowler House garden where it adjoined ours. I could watch the adult birds all day from my bedroom window bringing food to their young. I even photographed them and the results are here on this blog. They would land in the lilac tree, sit quietly for a moment to check all was well and then slip through the foliage to the well hidden nest secreted in the ivy on the wall. The young duly fledged but as there was now no Ash tree for them to go to, they moved across the road to the trees in the garden of Old Rectory Cottage opposite us, somewhat misnamed in my opinion, if a detached property sold for £1.5 million and with seven bedrooms and an acre of grounds can be called a cottage. Still this is Kingham where pretension quite often supercedes reality.

Early in the following year our neighbours in Fowler House put it up for sale and decided that they would enhance its appeal and the price by building a huge garage in the corner of their garden where it met ours. To achieve this the lilac tree had to go as did the ivy from the wall. The following Spring we never saw a sign of any Spotted Flycatchers and given the huge decline in this species fortunes never expected to see another in Kingham, ever.

I never saw sight nor sound of a Spotted Flycatcher in Kingham for another seven years but two years ago, on looking out of my bedroom window, early one morning in late May, I was amazed and delighted to see a Spotted Flycatcher collecting cobwebs from a nearby dry stone wall. I watched  and followed it as it flew across the road to Old Rectory Cottage and disappeared into the huge and ancient clematis growing along the front wall of the house. It was obviously nesting there. All was well in my world. We had Spotted Flycatchers back in the village again. Such a privilege.

Unknown to me however the owners of Old Rectory Cottage had decided to take the money and run and the property had been sold the week before. A few days later the builders and architects arrived and one of their first actions was to strip the ancient clematis from the front of Old Rectory Cottage. The Spotted Flycatchers were never seen again. The building work went on for a year as the house was gutted, new windows put in, extensions added, you name it, all very tastefully and expensively done. The house is now owned by a very very rich man who uses it as a second home, visiting occasionally a few times a year. It has been beautifully renovated and the grounds landscaped so no wild corner has been left and the trees have been drastically thinned out in the acre of garden. A gardener comes once every month. It looks immaculate. Sterile. 

And so it goes on as every 'nice' house that is sold in Kingham is gutted, extended and 'improved' although why is beyond me. Well I do know actually, its money and status. Its inevitable I suppose. Kingham was voted 'England's Favourite Village' by Country Life in 2004, you can get to London in ninety minutes from its railway station, it's just four miles from Chipping Norton where David Cameron shops and Jeremy Clarkson lives, some of the time. Kingham is the place to live now, a status symbol, a place to have a holiday home or country retreat but not for flycatchers.

From that day, two years ago to this, despite searching the village and the enticing looking churchyard there has been no sign of a Spotted Flycatcher but is it any wonder? There is nowhere for them to go.

Monday 3 August 2015

An Otmoor Sunday 2nd August 2015

Today promised a continuous spell of sunshine so I  seized the opportunity with alacrity to make a communion with the butterflies on Otmoor. I left it quite late, not arriving until around eleven and headed along the bridleway towards the grassy bank running between the first and second screens.

The marl track that now forms the bridleway was sunbaked to a solid whiteness, (I nearly wrote sun dried but that is, as we all know, strictly for tomatoes!), hard as concrete and now formed a continuous landing strip for Ruddy Darter dragonflies in their hundreds as they settled flat to the surface, wings thrust forward as if to embrace the heat coming from the shimmering white marl.

The Bridleway
They rose before me as I walked down the bridleway and doing a brief loop around came into land once again, the males showing as blood dark crucifixes against the white track.

A moderate warm breeze caressed the open expanses of Greenaways and a Marsh Harrier lazily patrolled the ditches, seemingly disinterested in serious hunting and just enjoying the buoyancy of the air currents. A casual voyeur of the fields maybe, but ever on the alert to seize any opportunity, no matter how slight, to pounce on an  unsuspecting or unwary victim.

I reached the desired grass bank and amongst the thigh high grasses and flower heads walked slowly along. The first thing I saw was not a butterfly but the larva of a day flying moth. In lurid yellow and black bands it was stretched along a flower stalk, comatose in the sun. It was the larva of a Cinnabar Moth.

Cinnabar Moth larva
I moved on and instantaneously Common Blues rose in abundance before me, literally in their hundreds, the males outnumbering the females by at least one hundred to every female. Common they may be but the beauty of the males is breathtaking.

Common Blue central
The blue wings of the males shone like small square buttons of violet blue against the ground hugging dark green leaves and cerise pink flowers of Red Bartsia, as they fed with wings open to the scattered cotton wool clouds and pale blue firmament above. The Red Bartsia appeared to be their nectaring plant of choice although others, very much in a minority, selected the yellow heads of Ragwort and purple flower tufts of Creeping Thistles. The density and strength of blue of the male 's wings varied tremendously, from a pale sky blue to an almost velvet, lilac blue. Perhaps this reflected their age, the paler ones, older and fading and the newly hatched ones still in a heavenly blue pristine glory, their creation untouched yet by the vicissitudes of the world they would inhabit for such a brief time. Others with wings closed, appeared as tiny, intricately stippled pale triangles glinting in the sun, clinging resolutely to the grass stems and flower heads that swayed them in the wind.

Male Common Blues
Female Common Blue - showing brown tinged underwing
Male Common Blue - showing blue tinged underwing
I never cease to wonder and philosophise that things of such beauty can come about in this troubled world year after year, unknowing of the fact they are part of the sad, slow decline of the earth's natural richness and the probable terminal self destruction of our world that will come about through human conflict, greed, self interest and intransigence.

Whilst driving to Otmoor today, I heard on the radio a recording of an interview with a lady of 92 who had, since the interview, sadly died. When the interviewer asked for her thoughts on why she had lived such a long life she announced that she woke every day determined to enjoy it regardless and to remain resolutely positive. Her words were inspirational, at least to me and who could argue with such a philosophy, and so I determined to follow her example and banished any negative thoughts from my head and looked to enjoy this day as best I could and all those to come.

Amongst  all the blues were other smaller butterflies, they could be described as tiny, hard to follow as they flew in erratic flights on miniscule wings through the myriad grass stalks. At last, one ceased its roaming, settled and then I could see it was a Brown Argus, the colour of freshly turned earth with a lacing of minute orange spots bordering the edges of its wings. Another small butterfly revealed itself to be an Essex Skipper, possessing an appealing diffidence and a delicate grace, only opening its burnished orange wings when it felt secure on its secluded grass stem. So different in demeanour from its thrusting and aggressive cousin the Large Skipper.

Brown Argus
Essex Skipper
I turned to walk back along the track but one last blue butterfly caught my attention, sunning itself on a blade of grass near the hedge, no doubt seeking sanctuary, well away from the opposite bank which most of the males were frequenting. It was a female Common Blue but unusual in that the normal predominant brown colour on the upper wing surfaces was absent, this individual being suffused with a large amount of blue, so much so that only the borders of its wings were the normal brown. It was exquisitely patterned. Yet another fragile jewel in the grass, an aberration no doubt but none the less beautiful for all that. Three people passed me by, in fact walked around me and they could see me photographing the butterfly but did not even give it a glance. I said nothing. It is such a shame they appeared so disinterested as there is so much more to see and enjoy than birds on the reserve.

The track from the second screen and beside which I found the butterfly below
The beautiful aberrant female Common Blue
In the heat of midday I took the long walk back to the public path called the Roman Road, that forms the boundary on the eastern side of the Reserve. The darters were still splaying themselves like sun soaking holiday makers on the bridleway whilst Brown Hawkers cruised in the airspace above, zooming into the edges of bushes as if to land but then backing off, dipping down and continuing on their way, endlessly investigating.

I came to the Roman Road, my desire was now to find a Brown Hairstreak. 

The Roman Road
The last of the hairstreaks to appear they are much coveted by butterfly enthusiasts, indeed anyone  it seems these days with a camera, and people now come from far and wide  to see and photograph them at Otmoor, Today there was a couple from Cambridge, another couple from Northampton and other lone individuals from who knows where.

Since Otmoor has become more widely known for its hairstreaks it has attracted an increasingly larger number of people who seem to have little care or understanding for the environment frequented by the hairstreaks. The photo is all that matters. Large areas of vegetation have been trampled, literally flattened where people have tried to stick their macro lens or bridge camera right under the hairstreak's proboscis. It started with the Black Hairstreaks and has continued with the Brown Hairstreaks. You can tell where the hairstreaks have come down to nectar by the inroads of trashed vegetation. The RSPB use a number of volunteer wardens and it might be an idea to have them patrol this area occasionally rather than just wander the wider reserve or at least put up temporary signs asking visitors to curb their irresponsible behaviour. There again I doubt it will make much difference.

Trampled vegetation
The Roman Road is the area on Otmoor to see Brown Hairstreaks, with the butterfly enthusiasts waiting patiently for an individual to descend from its favourite Ash tree to imbibe nectar from the various flower heads below. When one does descend it can remain nectaring for a considerable period of time, over an hour sometimes, and is seemingly impervious to anything and anyone, so much so you can tickle it gently with a grass stem if you have a mind to do so and it will usually just mince its way on white legs so thin they are almost invisible, to an adjacent flower head. Only when it has had its fill of nectar will it ascend back to the top of its favoured tree.

A male was feeding on a thistle head in just such a fashion when I arrived, with four photographers carelessly trampling the vegetation to get at it. A couple of years ago the hairstreaks favoured angelica and bramble flowers but today, at least, it seemed the Creeping Thistle was the flower of choice. Always thrilling to see, as any creature so elusive is, it turned and wandered over each thistle head probing its tiny proboscis into the minute purple florets of the thistle.When it was facing right you could see that a fair sized chunk of both upper and lower right wings had been lost, presumably to some unknown predator but on facing left the butterfly appeared pristine in all its pale orange and white lined underwing complexity.

Male Brown Hairstreak
The same male Brown Hairstreak showing a portion of the right wings missing
I looked down the Roman Road, luxurious in full blown, blousy, late summer munificence. The rhubarb pink of the Greater Willowherb flowers and the frothy cream heads of  Meadow Sweet forming combined lines of colour like the filling in a giant green cake. 

A Comma butterfly careered out of nowhere into the sleepy airspace around a bramble patch, swirling and swerving in manic gyrations as if it was a boy racer impressing the girls with some souped up car, then without slowing in speed hurtled off down the Roman Road into the green distance and was gone in a flash of orange. Gatekeepers, the majority of them being smaller males, fluttered endlessly, jaunty and bright amongst the tangles of bramble and bindweed. Meadow Browns and Ringlets, even a Speckled Wood brought their cheery presence to the shelter of the track. A Marbled White, its wings ravaged into origami shapes  by a predator still managed to fly to the thistles and a Silver Washed Fritillary in a similar battered state landed on some Meadow Sweet but soon cruised onwards. 

Another Brown Hairstreak, this time a female, showing flashes of orange on the upperside of her forewings paid a brief visit down to eye level but was gone in a few seconds up and away into the blackthorns, possibly to lay eggs. I never saw her again.

All the while a pair of Spotted Flycatchers fed their two offspring high in the Ash trees overlooking the Roman Road, flying up above the tree tops to seize an insect, then stalling in the air to fall back to the trees, bringing the captured insect to their young, whose wheezing calls insistently demanded ever more sustenance despite the fact that when the adults were not around they could and did catch their own insect prey.

By now it was early afternoon and hot and thirsty I set off back to the Car Park, my day fulfilled and at its logical end but not before admiring a male Brimstone feeding on a Greater Burdock flower head, its pale green, leaf like profile another example of the wonders of evolution and something to ponder on the drive home.