Temminck's Stints at Farmoor (Noah Gins)
Eagerly anticipated, May is often one of the most exciting months in the birding calendar, as spring migration reaches it climax, most of the summer visitors have returned, and the odd vagrant makes a long awaited reappearance in the county. The weather always plays a pivotal role in bird migration, and birders in spring have to be quick off the mark if they want to connect with some of the more interesting of the county's avifauna. The unsettled and at times distinctly cold April eventually gave way to the hottest May on record nationally, although you could be forgiven at times for thinking that wasn't the case, with early morning birders scraping ice from their wind screens at the start of the month. Thunderstorms created flash floods to the north of the county, but thankfully Oxon escaped the worst of this, and we were instead blessed with the creation of some decent, albeit temporary, wader habitat. Many observers commented that several species (such as House Martin, Whitethroat and Reed Warbler) were particularly slow to arrive and in lower numbers than the previous year when they did. Time and surveying will tell if the cold early spring has had an adverse effect or simply delayed their natural rhythms. The OOS held an open day at Farmoor on the 5th with guided walks by our county recorder Ian Lewington and Farmoor stalwart Dai John leading the tours. Also on the 5th, 2 teams competed in a county birdrace the winning team seeing (or hearing) a magnificent 110 species, just shy of the county record of 113 - see Tom Bedford's superb write up at the end of this review.
True to form May did not disappoint with the highlight being a gorgeous female Red Necked Phalarope present on Port Meadow for just a couple of hours in the late evening of the 30th. Spinning and bobbing her way around the receding flood waters, this delicate little wader was the 3rd in 4 years in the county but still a privilege to see.
Courtesy of Adam Hartley.
Although now established as a breeding species in Southern England, the sight of a Great White Egret is still an exciting one. One was seen stalking the ditches on Otmoor from the 4th & 5th, and typically could be elusive for long periods as it fed out of sight.
In an excellent month for waders, the pick of the bunch was probably that classic east coast May bird the Temminck's Stint, and this year we were treated to a gorgeous pair of these creeping little waders. Found mid morning along the Farmoor causeway on the 21st, they showed well to a select band but promptly flew off just before 11am never to be seen again (in Oxon at least!).
Although pretty much annual in the county, the gorgeous photogenic Black Necked Grebe that graced Farmoor on the 11th to the 16th was always going to be popular. It was elusive at times, typically favouring the south eastern section of F2 near the pontoons.
Usually this would be a quieter month for this group of birds, but aside from headline Grebe, there was a Pink Footed Goose of, shall we say "Unknown Origin" hanging on from April at Port Meadow. Unfortunately for those county listers who still need to see this county tick it did its credentials no good whatsoever by not only still being seen in May, but also consorting with the local feral goose populations. Still present up to the 2nd, there is no truth in the rumour that bird race teams attempted to twitch this bird, simply no truth.
Of much less contentious origin a drake Garganey found the northern end of Pit 60 to its liking on the 12th and 13th. Then on the 14th there were 2 drakes reported from Otmoor, with a single drake reported on the 18th, 20th, 24th and 29th. Given the amount of habitat at Otmoor it seems plausible that at least one male could have been present for the majority of the month.
In the category of "unseasonable" May saw a drake Pintail looking resplendent out on Big Otmoor until at least the 8th, a drake Wigeon was at Appleford on the 25th, and a drake Goosander was a brief visitor to Farmoor on the 26th
2 Shelduck were on Pit 60 on the 1st, with a monthly maximum of 10 seen on Port Meadow the day after. A pair were also at Yarnton Mead on the 1st. Port Meadow was a favoured site for this species with birds present on the 13th and then on and off until the 30th.
A flush of flood water on Port Meadow encouraged a small group of Gadwall to linger with 7 seen on the 1st, declining to 2 on the 7th and 13th, and 5 again on the 24th. Up to 10 of these handsome ducks were present in Bicester wetland reserve during the month.
Are you the type of birder who loves a gaudy self sustaining exotica? If so there were several locations in the county where you could scratch your filthy itch. Red Crested Pochard - 2 at Farmoor on the 2nd & 11th, with 3 there on the 24th. Rushy had a single on the 4th there were 3 at Worton on the 13th, a then a pair at Henley Road GP on the 22nd. More Category C aliens were Egyptian Geese, with 4 near Pit 60 on the 4th, and 2 there on the 12th and 25th. 2 were inspecting the new Appleford workings on the 25th. 4 were at Farmoor on the 26th. In the deep south 2 male and 1 female Mandarin were self-sustaining themselves at Sonning Eye on the 21st, indeed a female was seen escorting 3 ducklings on the 25th, and a pair still present on the 28th.
An odd looking leucistic Pochard was seen at Otmoor mid month.
Long legged things
Little Egrets are a fairly commonplace sight in the county now, nonetheless one flying over Stratfield Brake was a notable record on the 1st. A single was on Otmoor on the 5th, with 2 on the 12th and 3 on the 27th. 2 were fishing the rich shallows floods of Port Meadow on the 7th and 14th, with 8 there on the 24th and 4 still present next day and on the 31st. Singles were seen at Pit 60 (18th), Bicester Wetland (22nd) and Appleford (28th).
Bitten(s) boomed loudly on Otmoor early in the month, and were seen in territorial display flights together over the phragmites as well. Fingers are crossed that their breeding can be proven.
May can be an interesting month for local raptor watchers to keep their eyes to the skies. If nothing else, the returning and migrant Hobbies that arrive and start to feed on St Marks flies are a wonderful sight as they soar and swoop over the marshes and farmland that are able to support a decent amount of insect life. They were widely reported from a number of sites from the beginning of the month with up to 10 present over Greenaways as early as the 1st, rising to about 20 on the 4th. An excellent count. There were still at least 12 hawking over the reserve on the 14th.
An Osprey appeared to hang around the Wytham area for a few days early in the month, being seen over Port Meadow on the 3rd and 4th, then at Farmoor on the 5th. Frustratingly for one of the birdrace teams on the 5th this fish loving raptor then displayed very poor form by relocating to the Capability Brown sculpted landscapes of Blenheim Palace where it was quickly lost to view, presumably to digest a trout somewhere in the grounds.
A pair of Marsh Harrier graced the Otmoor reedbed for most of the month with breeding suspected as food passes were witnessed. Of note a Sparrowhawk was seen to be eating an unfortunate sand martin at Farmoor early in the month. A Peregrine was seen with prey near Bicester on the 13th. A Hen Harrier was reported from near Faringdon on the 1st, but unfortunately wasn't relocated.
Sparrowhawk and Sand Martin (Anne Threlfall)
Starved of coastline, Oxon birders scour every available waterbody for migrant waders and occasionally - just occasionally - the birding god's hand down a crumb of comfort to pour over (witness multiple Pec Sands and even a Marsh Sand in the days of Yore). This usually happens with easterly wind and rain, and just such conditions occurred overnight on the 23rd, which resulted in an excellent wader (and tern) day in the county on the 24th.
Earlier in the month however and notwithstanding the Farmoor Stints, an Avocet was an excellent birdrace find for one team on the 5th at Rushy. Thankfully news leaked out and enabled the other team to successfully twitch it - the ramifications of suppressing that bird do not bear thinking about, especially as one member of the opposition team needed it for his rapidly growing county list. The phrase low hanging fruit has been used more than once this year.
A Wood Sandpiper was a nice find at Balscote on the 6th but didn't linger long, such is the urge to head north and breed. Almost making it to "Headline" status was a trio of very smart Grey Plover that occupied a flooded field to the south of Farmoor on the 8th. Impossibly handsome in their grey, black and white fleck these birds unfortunately didn't linger.
Grey Plover near Farmoor (Dai Johns)
The only Knot of the month was a handsome looking summer plumage bird at the new Appleford workings on the 24th. Greenshank were thinly spread with 1 at Applefords new workings on the 24th (with a whole host of other waders for company). 3 were at Farmoor on the 24th and 2 were at Port Meadow on the 30th.
A Whimbrel piped its way over Pit 60 in the evening of the 3rd but thought better of landing, as did another at the same site on the 26th. possibly due to high water levels. Another was present briefly at Balscote on the 6th. At Otmoor 10 Black Tailed Godwit accompanied 2 of the much scarcer Bar Tailed Godwit on the 1st. 2 of the Black-wits remaining until the following day. Another Black-wit was at Otmoor on the 12th, 14th, 20th and 27th.
Scarce in May a Green Sandpiper was at Yarnton Mead on the 1st, and may have been the same bird seen on flooded fields around Pit 60 on the 4th and 5th. A good month for Sanderling saw records returned from 4 sites this month.
|Sanderling at Farmoor May 23rd (Ewan Urqhart|
Grimsbury had a single bird present on the 1st and 3 on the 24th and 1 on the 30th. Typically it was the causeway "beach" at Farmoor that cornered the lion's share of the records with singles on the 5th, 20th, 21st and 22nd and a site high count of 4 on the 23rd, one on the 24th and 26th, 2 on the 27th and one on the 29th. Nowadays with the modern era of high quality photographic equipment, coupled with these species surprising tameness on the causeway it has been possible to identify that different individuals of Sanderling pass through over a 24 hour period, even though only 1 bird was ever on show at any one time. An excellent count of 8 were at the Appleford New Workings on the 24th, with 3 there on the 27th. The Pill is dead, long live Appleford New Workings....? Last but not least a single was at Port Meadow on the 25th and 4 were present on the 30th and 31st.Three Turnstones, resplendent in their black and red marbling were on the causeway at Farmoor on the 21st, for once a wader that didn't look too out of place on the man made structures. A single was present on the 24th, 27th and 29th
|Turnstone Farmoor May 21st (Nick Truby)|
That early returner, the bird most frequently reduced to just a set of initials - the LRP was seen at a number of sites throughout the month. 2 on Otmoor on the 1st, 1 at Farmoor on the 2nd (surprisingly scarce at this premier wader haunt), 3 at Balscote on the 5th, increasing to 4 the next day, and a pair at Rushy on the 5th. Singles at Graven Hill on the 14th, and Otmoor on the 20th. Even Pit 60 managed to get in on the act on the 12th when 4 were present. Appleford looked ideal for this species and had 4 on the 24th, with a very nice count of 10 on the 25th, making the most of the newly landscaped gravel lagoons before this habitat is lost to phragmites. 2 LRP at Grimsbury on the 24th and a single with the RP on Port Meadow on the 31st.
Ringed Plover had a good month in the county with singles or a brace at 7 sites and maximums as follows: Appleford had 10 on the 24th rising to 18 (25th) then 8 (28th). Port Meadow had 10 on the 25th and 7 on the 29th. None of this could match the wonderful sight and sound of 23 on the 30th though as they "poo-eep"d their way around the wet meadow. 13 birds remained until the next day.
|Common sandpiper Pit 60 courtesy of Jim Hutchins|
The last dregs of the Common Sandpiper passage fizzled out during May, with 4 on the Farmoor causeway on the 8th the maximum and 1 or 2 at a variety of other sites. Returning birds will be seen again from July bobbing along our concrete shores. At least 5 Oystercatcher were on Otmoor on the 1st, with 6 at Port Meadow on the 29th. Dunlin were scarce throughout the month after their peak in April. Singles were on Otmoor on the 1st, Appleford (24th, 25th and 27th), Port Meadow (25th), Farmoor (8th, 14th and 26th) and a maximum of just 3 on Port Meadow on the 30th Curlew bubbled and trilled their way around Otmoor early in the month, a beautiful and evocative sound of a sadly declined pasture bird.
Always an eagerly anticipated part of the year is when migrant terns use the counties waterways as temporary staging posts on their journey northwards to their breeding grounds. A puff of south easterly and a bit of rain is a good pre-cursor to such a movement and those conditions occurred on the 2nd. Black and Arctic Terns are both annual in the county, but always scarce and can be brief so this May we were fortunate to have multiple sightings and some longer stayers. Farmoor is the classic site and on the 2nd cloud and rain brought in a Black, 6 Arctic and 18 Common Terns to test your identification skills at long range across the water.
|Farmoor Black Terns courtesy of John Workman|
Later in the month the same warm light easterly airflow that delivered the stints to Farmoor also produced at least 2 Arctic and 7 Black Terns (21st). A single Black tern was present the next day, although could easily have been a new bird, such is the transient nature of spring migration.
|Black Tern Otmoor rspb courtesy of Tezzer.|
The monthly high count for Black Tern though was a flock of 25 during the afternoon of the 24th - this must have made a wonderful sight. Grimsbury got in on the action the day after with 4 of these delightful marsh terns swooping over the reservoir. Not a regular bird at Otmoor, one was seen quite briefly on the 30th. Another single was at Sonning on the 24th, accompanied by 15 Common Terns.
Actually harder to catch up with in the county are Little Terns, so 4 that spent most of the day at Farmoor on the 20th were greatly appreciated by many.
3 of the 4 Farmoor Little Terns (Andy Last)
6 Common Terns were back at Rushy on the 4th, with at least 10 there on the 6th. Once the local BHGulls had established their territories, a tern raft was deployed on Otmoor and quickly attracted up to 7 Common Terns, hopefully they will stay to breed - with 11 seen on the 21st. The Hinksey Park tern raft, despite having seen better days after years of Cormorant abuse had a pair in occupation for most of the month.
A Yellow Legged Gull was an unseasonable record from Otmoor on the 14th, and another or the same was reported from Farmoor on the 23rd. A single first summer Great Black Backed Gull was at Farmoor on the 14th & 26th.
Of all our breeding birds it is surely the Otmoor Turtle Doves that are the most nervously anticipated to return. You can almost hear the Maltese guns ringing out as you stand on the bridleway straining your ears for that insect like purring to emanate from an ancient oak tree. Thankfully at least 2 of these beautiful and widely appreciated doves made it across the Med and back to the county, and judging from the number of photographers (both in and out of county) that come to see our pair, this is a depressingly scarce sight these days.
Turtle Dove Otmoor (Nick Truby)
As if their lives were not difficult enough a local Peregrine made a dash for one on the 14th but thankfully was unsuccessful. Other records of Turtle Dove were at Upper Campsfield on the 10th and 2 on private land near Arncott on the 19th with a promising 3 there on the 23rd
A Cuckoo was seen flying over the Kidneys on the 1st, a nice record within the city. Several noisy birds frequented Otmoor with 4 seen on the 12th and 5 together on the 20th and 27th including a hepatic bird. A returning bird at Garsington on the 2nd.
A handful of Barn Owls were reported across the county as they hopefully get stuck into raising young now. A Little Owl was at Churn on the 2nd and 5th and a Tawny Owl was heard near Bagley on the 2nd, with multiple records on the downs at the start of the month
Brightly coloured things
A Kingfisher was at Pit 60 on the 13th and 28th and a single heard on Otmoor on the 5th.
Walking around-type things
Despite suffering from the intense agricultural regime that dominates much of the Oxon countryside, we can still rely on a light spring passage of Yellow Wagtails. The majority of these birds pass through in April, although small numbers lingered into May with 4 of these gorgeous spring gems were at Shipton-under-Wychwood on the 3rd. 8 Yellow Wags were at Lark Hill on the 4th, with 4 at Lollingdon Hill on the 4th. 4 were at Farmoor on the 5th. One flew over Standlake village on the 7th. Even Stratfield Brake got in on the action with a single there on the 10th. A possible pair on territory was seen near Shipton-under-Wychwood on the 19th.
A migrant Woodlark was a good find and reward for dedicated patch work at Lollingdon on the 21st. As can happen with all migrant "hot-spots" though the bird didn't linger. A single was at Shifford on the 25th
Upright perchy things
4 Wheatear were on Otmoor on the 1st with 2 present the following day and the 3rd and 3 on the 4th.
We maybe inland and feel as though we are surrounded by agri-desert but a nice fall of spring migrants at Lark Hill on the 4th comprised 7 Wheatear, along with 3 Whinchat and a Redstart - enough to lift the spirits of any spring birder. 2 Wheatear in tilled field near Shipton-under-Wychwood on the 3rd, doubling the next day and including a super smart Greenland bird - one of the worlds truly epic long distant passerine migrants.1 Wheatear was at Grimsbury on the 1st withsingletons at Otmoor on the 8th and on the 12th.
The same wind that brought in a few terns also delivered that most handsome of chats, the Whinchat, to Otmoor and Stonesfield on the 3rd. A female Whinchat was at Otmoor on the 4th and the 8th. An unseasonal male Stonechat inhabited the Otmoor reedbed on the 5th. A male Redstart was at Stonesfield on the 3rd. All too rarely reported these days was a Nightingale on private MOD land near Arncott on the 19th.
As the days lengthen and air warms, it is often the sound rather than the sight of our 9 returning warbler species that can lift the spirits and make even the laziest of birders get up at dawn to listen to a dawn chorus. Garden Warbler is one of the thinnest spread and it certainly helps to get your ear in early for this rambling scratchy sylvia. Records came from Burgess Field NP on the 1st and 4 around the perimeter of Farmoor the day after. 2 at Pit 60 on the 2nd. Willow Warblers continue to decline in the south of England, albeit expanding in the north of Britain, 3 were recorded from Stratfield Brake on the 1st, a site that also hosted 2 Cetti's Warblers on the same day.
|Garden Warbler courtesy of Jim Hutchins|
2 Grasshopper Warblers reeled from near Sandford Pool on the 2nd, with at least 3 in residence on Otmoor on the 5th and Graven Hill on the 26th and again at Otmoor on the 29th.
A Spotted Flycatcher was at Fyfield Wick on the 5th with another single at Chimney Meadows on the 12th. One was heard singing at Ardington on the 19th, with a pair there on the 28th. Another was at Grimsbury on the 26th and 1 at Farmoor on the 27th. That dapper little rattler, the Lesser Whitethroat appeared back at a number of sites by the start of hte month, including 3 at Balscote on the 5th and 2 at Stratfield Brake on the 12th. Although the cold weather at the start of May seemed to keep numbers down, Reed Warblers were more widely distributed, especially on Otmoor by the 6th. and at least 3 at Chimney Meadows on the 7th.
Black and scary things
A pair of Raven were at Chinnor Hill on the 1st and 2 were over Otmoor on the 2nd. A single Raven flew over Otmoor on the 5th, the same day that 2 were over Rushy. 2 Raven were at Otmoor on the 12th A pair had raised 2 young at Grove by the 12th, the same day that 2 were at Wychwood. A single over Stratfield Brake on the 28th
The Hawfinch invasion of 2017 will live long in the memory of birders across much of England, and here in Oxon we were treated to several groups that lingered well into the winter. Records declined markedly once spring arrived so it was nice to hear of 2 at Headington Hill on the 8th. It has been speculated that this species may stay and breed in one of the many large deciduous woods across the county, whether we will find evidence of this or not is the question as this species is notoriously difficult to observe once the trees are in leaf.
Who is to say what June will bring. Traditionally a time when migration has all but finished, but perhaps late spring will throw up a rarity to spice up the pre-world cup doldrums. In the past June has produced Common Rosefinch (Oxford City, 2016), Glossy Ibis (Otmoor 2014 & 2004), Hoopoe (Marston 2013), Corncrake (Otmoor 2012), Honey Buzzard (Farmoor 2012), Marsh Warbler (Otmoor 2009), Hoopoe (Otmoor 2008), Scops Owl (2006 & 7), June is the time to complete your BBS surveying
The end of the month may see a returning wader such as a Green Sandpiper on their way back south already(!), and as we approach the equinox the countryside will have fewer calling cuckoo's as they head back to west africa to spend the winter. Quail should have returned to the county but who knows in what numbers. Our breeding birds will be well into feeding young and perhaps raising a second brood if the weather remains fair.
Oxon Birdrace 2018
After our abject failure to break the record for the number of bird species seen in Oxfordshire within a 24 hour period last year, we felt compelled to try again this year, to see how many species we could see. A change in personnel was required as, incredibly, Andy Last accepted an invitation to spend the weekend away with two young women, rather than spend 24 hours birding with two middle-aged men. Into Andy's place, stepped the mighty Badger, aka Jason Coppock, Lord of the Oxon Birding website, joining Dave Lowe and myself. Having called ourselves The Acronaughts last year, this year we could claim to be Jason and the Acronaughts. What could possibly go wrong?
We moved the date from late April to early May and actually spent a little time planning and researching. Our research also confirmed that the record (see here and scroll down) set in 2000 by Jon Uren, Pete Roby, Dave Dunford and Simon O'Sullivan totalled 114 species, but included an American Wigeon at Dorchester that was later deemed an escape. So, 113 was the record, still a very high bar. Also, like last year we had competition. This was our first mistake. Our opposition were "The Probables": Ewan Urquhart, Mark Merritt and Tom Wickens. Few people spend more time in the field than Mark and Tom. Combined with Ewan's grit they presented a formidable challenge. The usual rules applied - a bird species had to be seen or heard by 3 team members in Oxfordshire to count; no tape recording of birds could be used to attract them.
History dictates that an early start is required. Some teams have started at midnight to maximise every minute, others have started in the very early hours. But no matter how we did the maths, we were not sure that this would pay dividends, as only a small number of species are available in the dark. We felt we could probably record these before dawn or in the evening. This was our second mistake. Our Big Day began at 4am on Saturday 5th May when Dave and Badger arrived at my house in Headington to a loudly singing Song Thrush. Species #1, we were off! We travelled to Otmoor in the dark and began counting the night singers: Grasshopper Warbler, a booming Bittern and a background cacophony of a thousand Sedge Warblers. The moon shone down, it was clear and dry, it felt good. We were at the second screen by 04:45 when one of our target species here, a Barn Owl, appeared in front of Badger's face, before gliding away:
As light began to creep in, we were recording new species constantly: a calling Curlew; Black-headed and Lesser Black-backed Gulls passed overhead. We walked down to the first screen, where we got our first indication that the weather was not going to be on our side. This was not simply a light covering of early morning mist, full on thick fog seemed to be building up. In no time at all visibility was reduced to less than 50 meters. We had not planned for this and fog was not in the weather forecast we saw last night. Much of birding is about identifying species on call, but things were getting ridiculous. Even the bushes on the bridleway were invisible in front of us:
We could not scan Big Otmoor for waders, we could not see anything at Noke. We had no choice but to listen hard and wait for the sun to burn off the fog. In a touching and supportive manner, I hoped that this fog was county-wide and was devastating our opposition's birding too. I was wrong. Half an hour of poor visibility became an hour, which dragged out to two hours. The disc of the sun was often visible through the fog, but it did not appear to be making any inroads into the mist. The frustration was intense. Badger pulled out a Wheatear, sitting on top of the barn at Noke, a Kingfisher called, not an easy species to record in May.
We were now up against it and up against it so early in the day. At about 8am, after about two and a half hours of white-out conditions, the fog suddenly, dramatically, lifted. And with it so did every migrant bird in Oxfordshire. The skies were crystal clear, the sun was hot. It was a perfect day to continue your migration north, away from Oxfordshire, away from us, away from our Big Day:
When the sun comes out on Otmoor, so do the snakes. When you've been standing alone in the fog for nearly three hours on your Big Day, who do you really not want to meet? The current holders of the Oxon Big Day record perhaps? "Morning Pete, morning Oz!". Actually, it is always fun to bump into the Robeys and Oz. They asked about all the tricky species, most of which we had not seen, which depressed us. They gave us tips as to where we might see some of them, though we did note that most of these locations were miles away, on the periphery of the reserve. Funny that. Pete's parting words were "good luck for 112!" - one short of their record. But they didn't look too worried:
A Big Day is more of a marathon than a sprint. We knew there would be lows and that we would have to push through them to reach the highs. We work our way back along the bridle-way, also bumping into Pete Barker leading a large group on his regular Saturday morning Otmoor birding walk. There then followed a nice little burst of useful species. A Raven flew over calling, not a guaranteed species on Otmoor. I wandered down the bridleway to confirm a singing Garden Warbler, the last of the 10 common warbler species that we still needed. Glancing out across Greenaways I saw a Little Egret flying in. My phone rang - it was Dave, further down the track alerting me to the Little Egret. Having already seen it, I test his resourcefulness by feigning poor phone reception. Not much disturbs Dave on a Big Day, but the way he began miming "Little Egret" on the public bridleway, surprised even me. So, it's a little bird, about knee height?
...with a long bill?
It was a worthy performance. I gave him 30 seconds and called back to confirm I'd seen the bird. What the passing member of the public on the right thought about Dave's Little Egret impression is obvious from his face (above). We were gradually pulling birds back: a drake Pintail on Big Otmoor was a bonus, a Great Spotted Woodpecker was near the feeders. Now we only really needed Turtle Dove. We bumped into Mark Chivers on the Bridleway who helpfully pointed out the crippling views of Turtle Dove he had just had as he photographed it. Moments before it flew away and before we got there:
We gritted our teeth and did another circuit. We were discussing plans, when a gentle purring call crept into the back of my consciousness "Turtle Dove singing!" I called. It was on the list. Last year we left Otmoor with a poor 67 species. This year we left Otmoor with exactly our target number of species, 80, so in one sense we were ahead. But thanks to the fog we were hours later leaving than we planned.
As we leave Otmoor we get a text from the Pete Roby, the Great White Egret that had been frequenting the peripheral areas of Otmoor has been found on floods to the north. But all species are equal on a Bird Race day and even though Great White Egret would be a county tick for me (I could not quite summon up the energy to travel to see one in the county) I take the hit for the team. We have a more important species in mind: Collared Dove. We drove through the Otmoor villages and into Oxford, scanning roadside wires and rooftops, but without luck.
Our next port of call was Port Meadow, hopefully for some waders. But due to our fog-induced lateness, it was now lunchtime on a hot bank holiday weekend and the car park at The Perch was heaving, we could barely park. The meadow was even worse, filled with people enjoying themselves in normal ways: sailing, rowing, drinking, kissing. Fools! If only they had got up at 3am and stood in the fog for three hours, before failing to see Collared Dove, then they would know real pleasure.
We arrived at the Thames and took in the above view. You can just make out a thin dark line of animals running across the meadow, away from the crowds...
...and straight into the floods. The level of disturbance was staggering! No-one was more surprised than us when we managed to locate a Ringed Plover and a Shelduck, hiding from the herds. A Pink-footed Goose had been present for three days on Port Meadow. The timing of its arrival and the fact that it had chosen to associate with a feral goose flock were not great for its claim to be a wild bird. In fact, I had muttered that I had bought free-range chicken from Tesco that had better credentials. In one sense, the best thing Pinky could do was disappear immediately, hanging around for weeks would only weaken its case. However, it would have been nice if it had held on for another few hours, just so we could see it. We didn't. We left The Perch and immediately got stuck behind a cart pulled by two very slow shire horses. They crawled along at less than walking pace. We had no choice but to crawl after them. Never has Binsey Lane seemed so long. I tried to keep things positive by leaning out of the window and blowing into my cupped hands to impersonate the call of Collared Dove. How those long hot afternoon hours flew by.
Farmoor Reservoir. It was now 1 o'clock and baking hot. We planned to be here by mid-morning to catch up with Swift, hirrundines and perhaps some waders. I can honestly say that I have never seen Farmoor so quiet. There was not a single bird in flight above the water. There were no waders, no hirundines and no gulls. This was catastrophic. Even worse, we learn that our opposition saw a fly-over Osprey at the time we were originally planning to be at the reservoir. Ian Lewington was taking groups around for an open day for the Oxford Ornithological Society. Ian helpfully asked what we needed. Our reply included Common Sandpiper, Swift, hirundines, Great Blacked-backed Gull and Mistle Thrush. But none were present. We held a quick council of war and decided to radically alter our itinerary and would return to Farmoor at dusk.
Dave Doherty called with news of an Osprey at Blenheim, we’re tempted but it is not in view and would burn up a lot of time. We continue towards Dix Pit. A Mistle Thrush on a front lawn in Sutton secured a species that can be tricky in early May.
Dix produced Red-crested Pochard, but more frustration too. Firstly, a distinct lack of the usually omnipresent Egyptian Geese and secondly, by more news from the opposition. They have just found an Avocet at Rushey Common. Last year we were beaten by a team who had a flyover Osprey at Farmoor and who found a good wader at Rushy. The sound of history repeating itself was deafening. Twitching a bird found by the opposition, how low could we go? Real low. We drive to Rushy Common. Dave finds the Avocet (below), I find a couple of Little Ringed Plovers, but it is massively hard work to produce new species.
We head for the Chilterns. An amnesty was placed on saying out loud "I can't believe we haven't seen a Collared Dove!" Even though that was the constant thought running through all our minds. I close my windows at home in Headington to keep out the sound of calling Collared Doves. Now, when we most need to find one, we are unable to, for love nor money.
I am in the back of the car as we pass through Nettlebed. A pale grey shape huddled on top of a wooden utility pole makes me scream out loud, “Collared Dove!”. Badger twists around in the front seat violently enough to require my services as an osteopath for quite some time to come. Dave throws the car onto the opposite side of the road and mounts the pavements of Nettlebed. His door bursts open, pushing passing pedestrians out of the way. Lifting his binoculars up he screams “Got it!” as we look at one of Europe’s commonest breeding birds, one of an estimated 1 million breeding pairs in the UK. What have we become?
It was hard to escape the conclusion that this was not going to be our day. In the Chilterns the woods were silent, it was too hot and we were too late. We do pick up some woodland species, including Goldcrest and Coal Tit, but can’t materialise a Marsh Tit, Treecreeper or a Jay. Having left Otmoor on 80 species, the next 4 long, hot hours in the afternoon only produce another 9 species. Game over. We see Ring-necked Parakeet in Henley and then drive up onto the downs. Here there are Grey Partridge, Corn Bunting and Little Owl.
We hit species number 100 at around 6:30pm. Or so we thought. As we head back to Farmoor for dusk, I add up the totals again and discover that we are only on 99 species. Three more rounds of adding up produce the same answer, 99 species. This was my personal lowest part of the day. In Oxon Big Day terms, seeing 100 species is barely competent. Beating last year’s target of 104 was our minimum target, I hoped we would get somewhere between 105 – 110 species, any more would be weather-related luck. As it was we approached our final site still in double figures. Our only hope was that there were several common species that we still had not connected with.
We arrived at Farmoor at 7:20pm, we had about 90 minutes light left and were still not on 100. We scanned the sky, where were the Swifts? There were none. Yellow Wagtail was our real number 100 species for the day, quickly followed by an uplifting mini-rush of new species: Great Black-backed Gull and an adult Yellow-legged Gull on a buoy.
Dave then notes a Kestrel sitting on a nestbox. It had been a long sweltering day, with much frustration. Our dreams lay scattered around our feet like broken diamonds. Unfortunately, my ‘scope had got soaked the day before whilst I was out scouting sites and due to the heat, condensation was now forming in the eyepiece. I found myself unable to locate the building the nestbox was on, let alone the bird in the nestbox, due to my scope misting up. “Where is this KestreI?” I ask, unable to conceal my frustration.
Dave: Listen to the panic in his voice”! The nestbox is on the very large building, right in front of us.
Me: Don’t you patronise me!
Dave: I think you’ll find it’s pronounced “patronised”
Me: WHERE'S THE F*****G KESTREL?!
I give up and use his scope, Kestrel, species number 103. Despite the central vision in my scope being completely misted up with condensation, I am pleased to pick out a distant Common Sandpiper on the north bank of F1 only using the peripheral edges of my viewfinder. Species number 104 which equals our target of last year. Suddenly we all feel much more buoyant, even though darkness is coming.
We now need a bolt from the blue. Step up Mr Terry Sherlock! He calls and tells Badger that the Great White Egret is now on the Closes at Otmoor and is visible from the Otmoor carpark. Could we? We could. We speed-march down the causeway and drive over to Otmoor as the sun sets and dusk closes it. We pull into the carpark and at 8:35pm rush over to the gate that looks over the Closes.
There in the gloom is a long, white snake-like neck and a long yellow-orange bill: Great White Egret, species number 105, which takes us past our total of last year. I enjoyed watching the bird feed, for perhaps 9 seconds. Then we head out to Big Otmoor to try to grab back a Teal. At 8:55pm, in near darkness, Badger shouts “Teal!” and we all get brief views of a drake, before the light goes completely. Species number 106. Can we go any higher? We try for two more species in the dark. The first is an act of sheer madness. We go to Hinksey Lake and try spotlighting an Egyptian Goose. We will never know what the local teenagers thought we were doing, but it was a miracle that we were not arrested. We saw no goose.
Our final act of desperation found us near Bagley Woods, listening for Tawny Owl. Dave and I had pair calling here just two nights ago. This evening, there was nothing. Nothing except our aural hallucinations. Being on high alert for bird calls and songs all day, combined with fatigue, led us all to independently experience a weird phenomenon. We could hear birds singing. I had Sedge Warbler, Badger could hear Grasshopper Warbler. They weren’t there, but our brains were conjuring up birdsong, that intruded into our tired consciousness. At about 10pm we give up and finish our Oxon Big Day on 106 species, two more than last year, but about five less than we hoped for.
The next day we compare notes with The Probables. They recorded an impressive 111 species, also 2 more than they recorded last year and only 2 species short of equalling the record. They trialled an innovative strategy that did not involve starting at Otmoor and thus they also avoided the fog. With better weather, they could have easily threatened the record. Thank God it was hot and sunny!
With hindsight we started too late and we were unlucky with the early morning fog on Otmoor, which set us back for the rest of the day. Incredibly, neither team saw Treecreeper, Jay, Meadow Pipit or Swift, all species that should be expected in early May. The magic ingredient is one that we have no control over: the weather. A baking hot cloudless day is not conducive to migrants occurring in the county. We still wait for that perfect combination of planning, weather and luck. As with last year The Oxon Big Day was hugely enjoyable. Badger, Dave and I functioned well as a team, we all contributed species and all took turns to pick up morale when needed. Many thanks also to all those mentioned above who helped us out and to anyone else that I may have neglected to mention.
The Big Day Movie...
The Big Day Movie...
*Although all species featured in this video were encountered, some are not the actual birds seen on the day.
Doing a Big Day reminds me that I prefer my birding to be calmer with less travel. A Big Day once a year is about as often as I would want to consider it. The camaraderie is great, as is visiting some of Oxfordshire’s best birding sites. Otmoor first thing is incredibly atmospheric, even more so if Bitterns are booming and a pre-dawn visit is something that I would recommend to anyone. Full marks to The Probables for turning the usual itinerary on its head and successfully seeking out some tricky species. There is already talk of another Big Day next year, with the Greylags (a team involving some of the current record holders) also expressing interest. Everyone acknowledges that, with a little luck, setting a new record is achievable. Will next year be the year that we get that perfect combination of good weather and good planning? One thing is certain – we will be starting much earlier.
The Acronaughts (left to right):
Dave Lowe, Tom Bedford, Badger.
Oxon Big Day 2018 total: 106 species.