Caspian Gull: ad.
3 Yellow-legged Gull: 2 x ad, 2w.
With plants still in flower and leaves still on the trees it has been a particularly mild November to say the least. The dominant run of unusually mild westerlies throughout the month was eventually broken up by the odd easterly towards the latter part of the month and the mild weather has meant that winter hasn’t really felt like its got going just yet. Thankfully though even with the milder conditions a smattering of winter wildfowl graced the county throughout the month with the odd rarer passerine thrown in for good measure. A nice influx of Kittiwake into the county came on the 25th, coinciding with a wider displacement of many kittiwakes and the odd little gull inland following on from a brief easterly spell. The highlight of the month, though, was unfortunately a one-day wonder picked up by a single observer on the 15th.
With the last bird coming in 2018 (barring the unidentified phalarope species earlier in the year at Dix pit), a twitchable grey phalarope would have been a most welcome addition to the county this year. Unfortunately for the rest of us, this grey phalarope was only seen once and in flight no less! Picked up flying over the causeway it didn’t seem to want to hang around wasn’t seen to land, despite a long search by the finder and subsequent birders the following day it could not be relocated. Given that’s probably two this year we are unlikely to get another before the year is out but never say never!
|Grey Phalarope courtesy of Jeremy Dexter|
Apart from the aforementioned phalarope it was an expected quieter period on the wader front. A couple of records of flyover of grey plover came from Farmoor on the 15th and again on 18th with neither hanging around. Some late records of ruff came from the north of the county with a pair in Clifton and Aynho on the 15th and 16th and presumably relate to the same pair moving between sites. Two dunlin were recorded from Farmoor on the 15th and another or maybe the same pair on Port Meadow the same day, Farmoor also hosted the only common sandpiper record for the month although presumably this bird has been present throughout the month. Three black-tailed godwit just made it into the review period with the group present on Port meadow on the 30th.
A staple of winter period and a gem amongst local patch birding Farmoor hosted the only jack snipe records this month with a single bird recorded on 11th and then three recorded on the 28th. Wintering green sandpiper were recorded from three sites – Balscote Quarry (2nd), Appleford GP’s (6th) and Bicester Wetlands (7th & 25th). A lone redshank was recorded on the Pit 60 on the 19th whilst groups of golden plover were picked up from three sites – Balscote Quarry, Towersey and Port Meadow. Another staple of the winter period woodcock were recorded from three sites with Lye valley (12th), Water Eaton (19th) and four were recorded from Boarstall on the 26th.
Gulls & Terns
A great month for inland records of kittiwake and especially so in the county with records bookended the month. Eight birds were picked up flying over Farmoor on the 8th of the month with one adult accompanied by seven 1st winters with potentially a few more within the mix, unfortunately none of these birds stuck around long enough for anyone else to connect with them. The next wave came on the 25th with a lone bird at Otmoor and only stuck around for 20 minutes before heading high west with it being only the 2nd record for the site and 1st since 1998. Another site also got only its 2nd record, with an unfortunate deceased bird on Lollingdon Hill also on the 25th with the 1st coming way back in 1958(!) and was somewhat unsurprisingly, given the location, another perished bird. Clifton also hosted a single bird on the same day and as with all the other records only lingered for a little while before departing to somewhere a little more suitable.
|Kittiwake courtesy of Malcolm Bowey|
A little gull was reported from Farmoor on the 24th and unfortunately wasn’t seen the following day but coincided with a wider displacement of little gull throughout the country. Caspian gull were recorded from three sites this month with Ardley (4th), Blenheim (22nd) and Clifton (26th) all hosted single birds in what feels like a period for records than previous years. A lone adult Mediterranean gull recorded on the 24th rounded off the months highlights.
|Kittiwake courtesy of Vijay Patel|
The main highlight for the period concerns a lingering Dark-bellied brent goose present around Days lock between the 17th and 26th. Initially nervy and commuting between both sides of the Thames it eventually settled and hung around with the local Canada goose flock through much of the latter part of the month. White-fronted goose were recorded at three sites but both groups only stayed a single day before departing elsewhere with two birds at Cassington GP’s on the 5th, six birds on Otmoor on the 22nd and six birds on Port Meadow on the 29th.
|Brent Goose courtesy of Alan Dawson|
A cracking urban record a whooper swan over lye valley in Oxford on the 12th, a fantastic reward for the finder with all the hours put into the site. A flock of 10 common scoter roosted at Farmoor on the evening of the 13th but none of the individuals lingering into the next day. The wintering female scaup however remained in place at Farmoor throughout the month except for a brief foray to Dix pit on the 2nd. Goldeneye were recorded from two sites with a single on Pit 60 on the 22nd and seven on Dix Pit on the 26th a sad indictment of this species winter fortunes over the last decade.
|Flyover Whooper courtesy of Tom Bedford|
A lone shelduck was recorded on Bicester wetland on the 25th, whilst goosander were observed on at least 6 sites – Pit 60, Otmoor, Farmoor, Bicester, Chimney meadows and Port meadow.
Three Ring-necked Ducks were seen in the 3T's Standlake lake complex on and off over the course of the month.
|Ring-necked Duck courtesy of Ian Lewington|
Herons, egrets etc
In a repeat of the previous month the major highlights came from cattle egret and great white egret records across the county. The ever-present cattle egret flock remained by and large in the same place, albeit much depleted from the summer/autumn, with birds roving the fields of the wider Wytham area. Occasionally small groups of birds were picked up elsewhere, with the most unusual record coming from RAF Brize Norton over the runway on the 2nd, presumably from a local RAF birder? Groups were also recorded from Farmoor on the 9th and the Standlake area continued to host up to three birds throughout the month.
Nine sites hosted great white egret this month spread across the county with a bias towards the west of Oxford. A maximum count of 4 birds were recorded at two sites with Standlake (13th) and Blenheim (22nd) with 2 birds recorded from at least 3 locations throughout the month. It would certainly be interesting to know how many birds these records relate to….
|Great White Egret courtesy of David Hastings|
Bittern were only recorded from their usual location of, whilst the family group of 3 crane returned to Otmoor from their wintering grounds on the Somerset Levels on the 18th.. .Maple Glory with her partner and the 1st year bird also spending time in the south of the county. As to why they have returned or whether they will remain in the county to tough it out over the winter, remains to be seen.
|The Otmoor Crane family courtesy of Debbie Cowee|
A mostly quieter period for passerines this month although proof the hard graft can produce hidden gems in amongst the usual tit and crest flocks. A yellow-browed warbler at Bodicote on the 16th proved typically elusive and unfortunately was relocated after it initial sighting. The long staying Dartford warbler at Balscote Quarry from the 1st of the month until at least the 7th in what proved to be a popular bird through the duration of its stay. Another bird or even possibly the same bird (?) was located on Otmoor on the 28th, given the available habitat and areas that are completely inaccessible it is possible this bird has been around a while.
|Dartford Warbler courtesy of Edwin Barson|
Again to Otmoor, where a water pipit was reported on the 27th but with no further reports since. A great count of five rock pipit came from the causeway on Farmoor on the 13th with none reported thereafter. The female/immature black redstart was relocated at Farmoor on the 7th on the southern side of the F2 basin where it remained for the rest of the afternoon, whilst another female/immature bird was in a private garden in Grove on the 21st.
|Black Redstart courtesy of Conor Mackenzie|
Hawfinch were recorded from four sites – Nether worton (5th), Cuttslowe Park (6th), Port meadow (7th) and Watlington hill (26th) with all single flyover records. Brambling were also reported from three sites with Milton common, Balscote quarry and Longworth all hosting single birds during the month.
A single ring-tailed hen harrier was a welcome sight quartering over Otmoor on the 22nd with hopes that like in previous years this bird decides to winter on the site. Short-eared owl also returned to the site after a long period of sightings at the end of last month with a single bird present on the 23rd until at least the 25th. Another single bird was seen hunting over rough ground at Crowhole Bottom up in the downs earlier in the month on the 9th.
|Ring-tailed Hen Harrier Peter Milligan|
Merlin were recorded from three sites and all related to single immature/female birds with Balscote quarry hosting the same bird recorded in October. Ardington and Water Eaton also hosted birds on the 6th and 25th-27th respectively. Marsh harrier continued at Otmoor and Pit 60 throughout the month with additional sightings coming from Dix pit and Rushy common both recorded on the 13th and relating to the same male bird from Pit 60.
|Marsh Harrier courtesy of Warren Foster|
Much of the focus over the next couple of months will turn to endlessly scanning water bodies across the county searching for that hidden gem lurking in the duck and goose flocks - something that makes a chilling winter excursion worthwhile. As recently as 2021 we’ve had a New Years Eve velvet scoter on Henley GP’s a cracking way to end the year with a very rare inland duck, the last records coming in 2013 and 2009 both from Farmoor and both in December. Bewick’s swan have also historically come in the last month of the year with the most recent records coming in 2018 and 2017 both from Standlake. An increasingly difficult bird to pick up away from its strongholds its entirely feasible this species will be lost from the wintering wildfowl population over the next decade (see recent birdwatch article). The next one might very well be the last!
Another bird becoming harder to catch up with fewer birds turning up in the UK during the winter is the classy smew. Arguably the best of the winter ducks, the site of male in its dazzling white plumage is sure to put a smile on the finders face. The last record of one in December came in 2019, a red-head bird which a stunning in their own right.
Away from the wildfowl front, a dotterel found on Port meadow early in December 2021 was an outstanding find in amongst the golden plover flock. It hung around for a few days before eventually been picked up on New Year’s Eve on Otmoor. An outstanding find amongst the hundreds and hundreds of golden plover on the closes it unfortunately wasn’t relocated thereafter. On the slightly dodgier end the very popular great bustard that frequented Letcombe regis was found in early December 2020 and in the process becoming somewhat of a local celebrity through the duration of its stay.
After such a mild November, a change of the weather is overdue and with it a cold blast from the east is expected for the early part of December. And so like last month my thoughts will again turn to waxwing. Having just come back from the northeast where flocks seemed to be everywhere the hope is these cold easterly winds will encourage many more currently in Scandinavia and elsewhere to make the journey here. With the last record coming in 2016 and the last major influx into the county way back in 2013 we are long overdue a return of this enigmatic species!
|Courtesy of Ewan Urquhart.|
|Otmoor Otter above & below courtesy of Malcolm Bowey.|
As October became November my wife Christina and I spent two weeks in the Mascarene Islands, east of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean. We’d booked winter sun through a travel agent and flew direct from Gatwick to Mauritius, spending a few days mid-trip on Réunion. We didn’t visit Rodrigues. I always keep a birding trip list on holiday and we’d arranged some bird-specific excursions to add to the fun. Ten of the 35 species we saw were endemic to one or both islands and therefore birds I had never seen before. I added four additional birds to my life list: Madagascar Fody, Madagascar Turtle Dove, Village Weaver and the beautiful White-tailed Tropicbird.
We saw Mascarene Swiftlet regularly in both Mauritius and Réunion. I was unable to persuade myself that any of these high-fliers were in fact the Mascarene Martin, also known as The Mascarene Swallow, so that remained one of the target birds which escaped the trip list.
The four endemics seen in Réunion were the Réunion Grey White-eye, which was common around the hotel, although difficult to spot, and three others seen on our day out to the active volcano, Piton de la Fournaise. The Reunion Olive White-eye was a good spot in a bush at our first viewpoint, the Nez de Boeuf at 2136m. We walked from Pas de Bellecombe to Formica Leo, a small crater in the lava field below the main crater, named for its resemblance to the pitfall created by the antlion. There we enjoyed several good views of the Réunion Stonechat. The Réunion Harrier was a fleeting glimpse spotted by our driver as we descended.
In Mauritius we visited the Ebony Forest, near Chamarel, where they provide nest boxes for the Mauritius Kestrel and Echo Parakeet and manage a captive breeding programme for the Pink Pigeon. These endeavours are successfully but slowly increasing the numbers of these seriously endangered birds. The Echo Parakeets were hiding but we saw the Mauritius Kestrel and a Pink Pigeon flying free. We saw two other Mauritian endemics in the Ebony Forest, a pair of Mascarene Paradise-flycatchers and a pair of Mauritius Black Bulbul, ticked as a “flying away spot” on the word of our expert guide. We also saw Rose-ringed Parakeet and a small flock of Common Waxbill. The endemic Mauritus Grey White Eye was seen elsewhere on more than one occasion.
|Mauritus Grey White Eye|
I used the Helm Field Guide, Birds of Madagascar and the Indian Ocean Islands (Hawkins Safford and Skerrett) which identifies migrants, vagrants and maritime birds of the region, and separately land birds by geographical area. Given the relatively small number of resident birds on Mauritius and Reunion, this enabled me to cut through the comprehensive list provided by Avibase - The World Bird Database (bsc-eoc.org) and have a clear idea what to expect.
We dipped on five other endemic species found in the two islands: the endangered Mauritius Fody – which is hard to distinguish from the common and beautiful Madagascar Fody and lives much deeper in the forest - Mauritius Cuckooshrike (Vulnerable), Mauritius Olive White-eye (Critically endangered), Réunion Bulbul (Near threatened) and Reunion Cuckooshrike (Critically endangered).
Other possibles in both islands were Scaly-breasted Munia, and Yellow-fronted Canary, in Réunion the Cape Canary and the striking Red Avadavat, Pin-tailed Whydah and Red-billed Leiothrix, in Mauritius the “rare/accidental” Laughing Dove – which is nevertheless sufficiently similar to the Madagascar Turtle Dove for me to wonder whether I looked closely enough at all of those! These all remained “might-have-beens.”
As well as the Madagascar Fody, Common Mynah, Red Whiskered Bulbul and our very own House Sparrow were all familiar visitors at breakfast. There was a fine display of Village Weaver nests at the hotel in Chamarel, We saw a Moorhen in the Botanical Gardens at Pamplemousse. Zebra Doves and Spotted Doves were often looking for crumbs while the Madagascar Turtle Dove was more reclusive. Feral pigeons were common but we had to wait a while for a House Crow. At the coast around Grand Baie we got good pictures of Striated Heron.
Towards the end of our holiday we spent an excellent morning in the hide at The Rivulet Terre Rouge Bird Sanctuary near Port Louis, a protected site for winter migrants. Although birding in the Mascarenes was always going to be about quality rather than quantity, it was good to have a chance to bump up the numbers. Just a few weeks after seeing my first ever Curlew Sandpiper at Farmoor, I saw upwards of twenty who spent most of the time asleep with bills tucked away! We also saw Whimbrel, previously seen on the coast and at an inland reservoir, Common Sandpiper, Ruddy Turnstone, Grey Plover, Lesser Sand Plover and Common Tern. In addition, I was able to show the warden my pictures of single Sanderling and Greenshank, which he said were the year’s first arrivals of those species. I know I heard Curlew too, but he remained doubtful. Whimbrel don’t sound anything like Curlew, do they?
Mike Haddrell November 2022
Curlew: on the floods this evening
7 White-fronted Geese: flew in at dusk
Thomas Miller & Gnome
4 Goosander: 2 male/2 fem. On river a little downstream from Godstow Lock.
2 Egyptian Goose: On river bank opposite Medley sailng club.
50 Barnacle Goose: