Wednesday 10 August 2016

For Heron's sake! 10th August 2016

I suppose it was inevitable that with a rare Purple Heron on my figurative doorstep, I succumbed to temptation, (it doesn't take much) and I made a plan to visit Otmoor for more of that heady mix of angst and enjoyment that comes with chasing after a rare bird, in this case a juvenile Purple Heron that has taken up temporary residence on Otmoor and is currently attracting birders from far and wide.

Terry managed to take some superb photos of the heron perched on the ground yesterday and I noted that he had achieved this relatively early in the morning, which made sense as there would not have been too many birders around at that time and with consequently, a lessened chance of disturbance.

So at 4.45am I rose with the dawn and at 5.30am, fortified with the proverbial cuppa set off into a grey half light to make the forty minute drive to Otmoor. I assumed that I might be the first  to arrive but driving down the lane to the reserve car park found myself following not one but two cars, the second one being that of Terry.

We parked side by side in the car park and after greeting Terry, both of us  quickly made friends with the owner of the third car whose name was Oliver and he told us he had driven all the way from Suffolk to come and see the heron as he was doing a year list. Terry then told us how he managed to get the brilliant pictures yesterday, informing us that the heron was likely, just as yesterday to be standing in the boggy sedge and reeds of Greenaways, near to the bridleway, but we needed to be very quiet and approach cautiously in order to not spook it. Unfortunately, yesterday, two birders managed to do just that by ignoring Terry's instruction.

With much expectation we reached the bridleway but found there were already two birders there, one of whom was a lady from Ludlow I believe, who had come all the way from there on the bus and then walked a considerable distance to get to the reserve, only to fail to see the heron yesterday, so here she was back again for more! We thoroughly checked the location where the heron had been seen so well yesterday morning but there was no sign of it and the other birder further down the bridleway also had seen nothing.

Damn! There went any chance of a decent picture. I checked other likely areas on Greenaways for the heron but drew a complete blank. I rejoined the others and stared vacantly out and over the vast green and straw yellow expanses of Greenaways with not a bird to be seen.There was quite a cold northwest wind blowing into my face and I felt the cold and now, with my initial expectations dashed, not a little despondent. Terry was on Bittern watch so left us and walked out along the private track across Greenaways to the high viewing seat overlooking the distant reed beds. Rather him than me in this chilly wind, and summer seemed a very distant prospect today as depressing grey clouds filled the sky

I told Oliver and the lady from Ludlow that I would walk the length of the bridleway to check the distant Big Otmoor as the heron had been seen there yesterday evening. I took Oliver's phone number and told him that if I did by some miracle of chance find the heron I would call him and if it showed up in my absence he could likewise call me. The equally vast expanse of Big Otmoor looked even worse a prospect than Greenaways when I got there, but I checked every bit of water and patch of reeds assiduously but the subsequent failure to find the heron had a feel of the inevitable.

A few Common Snipe propelled by the wind flew up like missiles, their harsh, protesting scaaping calls coming down from on high. Warblers ticked and chacked in the densely vegetated ditches, invisible in their progress but betrayed by the occasional shaking of a reed stem in the ditch. A single Turtle Dove flew past heading for Noke as I turned and retraced my steps. A birder in just a tee shirt and shorts, coming along the bridleway, made me feel even colder than I was. Even through my fleece the wind was beginning to penetrate so heaven knows what he felt.

I was almost back to the others when I met John and we chewed the fat until he had to go and save lives at The John Radcliffe Hospital. Mark, another birder I knew who came from my end of the county, near Banbury, had joined us and we carried on chatting after John had left and Mark told me the Purple Heron would be a lifer for him if it was still here. Our vigil was briefly enlivened by the regular morning appearance of the two Common Cranes flying distantly on the far side of Greenaways and two Marsh Harriers having a minor dispute about feeding rights.

Half an hour, forty minutes, who knows, the time dragged by and I became increasingly cold and restless, then just like that the Purple Heron flew into sight from far out on Greenaways. It was now almost 8.30am, two and a half hours of waiting, but here it was in all its brown and black loveliness. It must have been feeding and hidden from view in one of the watery depressions that abound on Greenaways. Mind you it was not in the air for long before coming down in some reeds well out on Greenaways and looking to be just by the private track that Terry had walked out on earlier.

I called Terry's mobile, and he told me he had not seen any sign of a Bittern and was getting very cold on his exposed perch. I informed him of developments and that the half dozen of us shivering on the bridleway had decided it would be acceptable for him to walk back along the track with the chance of flushing the heron. Terry deciding to concede to the chill wind kindly agreed to do this and we waited as he made his way across but there was not a sign of the heron. As he neared us the heron flew up from behind him and of course we all saw it but Terry did not which seemed both unfair and unjust.

Once Terry had returned we stood and waited. It was not so bad now as we had seen the heron, so knew it was still here and also knew it was likely to show itself again sooner or later. Sure enough, in another thirty minutes it did, rising from the reed bed, flying up and then almost straight towards us, getting impossibly large in the camera's viewfinder.

Seen almost head on it displayed an extraordinary profile. Its thin angular body and bulging keeled breast that sagged forwards and down were suspended below huge, slowly flapping wings that made it look like something from a primaeval past. The relaxed flight however was incredibly buoyant and almost elegant.

It came very close to us and then banked to our right before descending into the long reed filled ditch that runs alongside the private track across Greenaways. It could be no more than fifty metres out but was totally invisible in the dense reeds

We would just have to wait but when it took off again, if it did, we knew it would be pretty close and give us some great views. Ed arrived, a birder who I had got to know via Twitter correspondence and who had recently moved to Oxfordshire. I had invited him to Otmoor to meet the local Oxonbirders on a Saturday morning so he could get into the swing of all things Oxonbirding but as he could not make it last Saturday we used this opportunity to get acquainted.  We had a chat and slowly a small crowd of around twenty birders built up as we waited for the heron to make its next move. It did, eventually, after an hour, but just flew a short distance along the ditch before pitching into the reeds again.

Then some bad birding etiquette reared its ugly head in the form of a non local but known to me from previous unfortunate encounters. A serial offender he just cannot keep his voice at an acceptable volume and will latch onto anyone who will listen to his nonsense. One of those annoying types who has always done one better than you no matter what. His loud voice soon had the heron flying again and this time it obviously, like the rest of us, had had enough and flew the length of Greenaways and disappeared onto Big Otmoor.

Some of the birders would, I'm sure, have liked to have had more prolonged views and without this persons unwarranted intrusion might have achieved that. There is nothing you can do but just shrug and hope he will go away. He decided he would chase after the heron so we unanimously decided to go in the opposite direction.

'Fancy seeing some Redstarts?' I asked of Ed and Oliver. They were all for this so we walked back down the approach track and a little way up the road from the now full car park before turning off into Long Meadow. I had no idea what we would encounter and it looked pretty dead when we made our first stop by the boundary hedge to scan the scattered bushes in the enormous field. The secret here is to stop and just stand, often for quite some time and see what pops out of the bushes. Often it is just a Robin or a Common Whitethroat but occasionally it's a Common Redstart, its quivering rust orange tail the embodiment and personification of its nervy demeanour. They are incredibly shy and it is very hard to get close to them. Make the slightest movement and they immediately fly into distant cover. 

Today, our first stop just inside the meadow drew a resounding blank but we walked on further along the side of the meadow until we came opposite to the barbed wire fence that surrounds the MOD land and found at least three separate redstarts perched on the wires or fence posts. A superb male was the pick of these.

We walked on further and to cut a long story short we just kept finding more and more redstarts. It was phenomenal. At our last stop we could see nothing at first apart from a Yellowhammer but then I found another lovely male and the others also found redstarts  and they just kept coming, literally popping out of different bushes as we watched. We all felt pretty good about things and from an inauspicious start it had turned out to be one of those days when everything comes together for the better. Sadly it does not happen that often but when it does it just has to be enjoyed.

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