Sunday, 30 November 2014

Bicester wetland reserve: brim full of ducks

A busy weekend visiting local sites, starting Saturday morning with a two hour survey for the Banbury  Ornithological Society's Winter Random Square survey.  The square selected for me happened to be right on the edge of Banbury itself, a housing estate called Bretch Hill, and adjoining farmland.  It is an area earmarked for more housing in our Local Plan, and some bird survey info might be useful in helping protect habitats from too much damage.  In this particular area the best wildlife habitats seem to be small woodlands, hedgerows and some long established grassland.

It was very interesting to compare the birds of the urban habitat with the more rural.  In the housing area there were lots of sparrows and starlings, good to see, but not too much else.

Venturing away from the houses along a muddy path through a strip of woodland next to a grassy meadow, I was surrounded by the calls of bullfinches and then a sighting - a flock of five arranged like Christmas decorations on a small ash tree. 

Walking on a bit further, a big flock of redwings - about two hundred - were feeding on hawthorn berries in tall hedgerows surrounding horse paddocks.  Further on still, a flat expanse of oilseed rape fields were enlivened by chirpy calls from a flock of forty skylarks and a single meadow pipit.

It is a bit sad to see the disconnect between the urban area and the countryside - footpaths that should encourage people to explore their local patch are hidden from view or fenced off.  Hopefully this situation can be changed when the new housing areas are built here in coming years.

In the afternoon a chance to explore the Upper Cherwell Valley north of Banbury was too good to turn down.  Highlights were big numbers of cormorants roosting in alder trees and a flock of Canada geese numbering about 180.
 Little grebes were ferreting around in the weedy river margins, searching for small fish and invertebrates.  Barn owls and a single short-eared owl have been seen here in the past week, but no sign of them this afternoon up until sunset.  A pair of ravens "croaked" loudly as they flew overhead in tandem, no doubt surveying part of their territory.

Interestingly, the gull roost at Grimsbury was a complete no show, literally just a handful of black-headed gulls.

The highlight of my weekend was a visit to Bicester Wetland Reserve, managed by the BOS.  I was met by voluntary warden Alan Peters, who very kindly agreed to induct me as a key holder for the site (this being a secure Thames Water treatment works).
Bicester Wetland Reserve
The wetland was full of duck, especially teal, but also wigeon, shoveler and gadwall.  Also a few snipe, two little egrets and a green sandpiper.
little egret
 Ringing was in progress and four chiffchaffs had been caught in the mist nets - a surprisingly large number.  Alan explained to me how each year he is able to improve the wetland, creating new areas of shallow pools, funded by small grants from Thames Water.
a few cattle graze the wetlands at this time of year
Though small, this must be the best wetland for wintering ducks in Banburyshire at the moment?
flight of shoveler
My final stop was at Ardley Quarry and specifically the vast new incinerator plant with it's striking rainbow glazing.  It is easily spotted from the M40 just south of junction 10.
rainbow reflections
There is new lake beside the building, recently constructed with hard stone shorelines that has been attracting gulls, though not on this particular occasion.  I did see a couple of green sandpipers and a spectacular flocking of  several thousand starlings before their departure at about 3.30pm, heading in the direction of Otmoor, where the reedbed roost numbers several tens of thousands.

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Upper Wardington: Polecat

Yesterday I discovered a "road-kill" polecat slumped up against the kerb near the middle of the village.  Polecats are more often seen dead than alive - I've only ever seen one alive, but several like this, killed by a car.
polecat, deceased
Polecats have done well in recent decades, spreading back across their former English range from western outposts - a resurgence they share with the buzzard and raven.

Other members of the Mustelid mammal family found in our area - stoat, weasel, otter, mink and badger - are also vulnerable to being hit by vehicles during their nocturnal ramblings.

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Boddingtoin Reservoir: search for Caspian Gull in the gull roost

The weekend's lengthy dose rain finally cleared away on Sunday afternoon, encouraging me to get out to Boddington again to see what the gull roost had to offer.  Arriving about quarter to four, the sun cast a strong yellow orange glow across the autumnal landscape, illuminating the gathering of gulls already assembled in the middle of the reservoir.  A quick scan through the flock revealed the vast majority to be black-headed gulls, but also good numbers of common gulls plus a few lesser black-backed and a couple of adult herring gulls.  These birds will have been out and about foraging across our landscape during the day, returning to the safety of the reservoir overnight before leaving very early in the morning.  It feels like quite a social gathering too - probably an interesting mix of gull "dialects" from across Europe!

I continue watching and counting for about forty minutes as waves of gulls arrive to roost, some departing as well, possibly heading for Draycote Water where there is likely to be a larger roost.  The black-headed gulls are hard to count, I estimate something like 4000.  Common gulls number over 250.

I'm hoping to find a Caspian gull, and eastern relative of the Herring, more elegant, with a slimmer but longer bill and distinctively pale head in winter.  One has been seen here recently but they are still pretty scarce locally, and very likely under-recorded.  A white-headed "herring-gull" type bird does stand out from the crowd.  It is a third winter - so not quite an adult (a smudge of darkness in the tertials and a dark marking on the bill).  I am now trying to convince myself this is the elusive Caspian: the head shape looks right (pear-shaped), the eye small and dark.  The light is failing so I take a few pics to check when I get home.

On the monitor screen, the images of the bird are a bit distant and too grainy to interpret any more detail. The field guides all point me in the direction of Caspian but I'm just not 100% sure - though feeling better informed for next time - hopefully a closer view in better light!

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Boddington Reservoir: wild mushrooms in the woods

Misty murky weather has prevailed all weekend with the merest glimpse of the sun.  Today I reacquainted myself with Boddington Reservoir.  It is only ten minutes from home, but in the "wrong" direction i.e. not a convenient stop en route to Banbury like Grimsbury Reservoir is.  It is though, undeniably, one of the best areas for nature in Banburyshire: our largest expanse of water is surrounded by really nice habitats like wet woodland, flowery meadows and scrubby grassland.

Today it was not at it's best - grey misty conditions seemed to dampen bird activity.  But it was still rewarding to watch great-crested grebes at close quarters, check through the mixed gull flock for a few common gulls and kneel down to inspect a cluster of woodland mushrooms.  Wildfowl were surprisingly few in number-  just mallard.  The area is known to be good for tree sparrows and willow tits so I will return in better conditions soon.

Later in the day I managed a quick visit to see the gull roost at Grimsbury Reservoir - at 4.30pm the roost contained about 800 black-headed gulls, 80 lesser black-backed gulls and a single herring gull.  The latter IS notable - my first of the year at this site (since I stepped up my coverage in early summer).  Herring gulls have undergone a huge change in status in our area over the past twenty years - from being quite numerous and frequenting the rubbish tip at Alkerton in hundreds, to being something of a scarcity and a notable sighting. Much of this is linked the closure of the open refuse tip at Alkerton a few years back. 

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Grimsbury Reservoir: Black redstart at the waterworks

I managed to catch up with the black redstart that has made a temporary home at the waterworks next to the reservoir.  This is part of a small influx to the country, and a really nice bird to have on our patch. They are a rare breeding bird in the UK but not uncommon during early spring and late autumn on migration.  They are a much more common bird in much of mainland Europe. The last one I saw locally was a Draycote Water on a very cold March morning a couple of years ago.

A female pochard was on the reservoir, actually quite a scarce bird locally, so nice to see.

Back-tracking to last sunday, the glorious sunny weather was great for birding.  Most noticeable for me was the arrival of fieldfares, with a flock of fifty over Upper Wardington first thing.  A late morning cross country run to Eydon via Culworth also produced more fieldfares, a few redwings and a flock of about 50 common gulls (I take my binoculars with me a in a small rucksack).  I lingered en-route in  a small patch of poplar woodland beside a stream and enjoyed watching nuthatches, treecreepers and goldcrests.  Sadly there were very few birds of prey, just one or two buzzards - no kites or kestrels - a bit surprising.

Thursday, 6 November 2014

Grimsbury Reservoir: goldeneye on a crisp sunny morning

Wonderful early morning sunshine and the first significant frost of the autumn created some lovely early morning views.  
A fairly quick early morning visit to Grimsbury Reservoir on my way into work was well worth the trouble, enabling me to add a new bird to my site list - a single female goldeneye.
female goldeneye

Great crested grebes now number six - the highest number this autumn so far. 
great-crested grebe taking a drink
A pair of mute swans were also in residence, swimming their way sedately to the far end, then taking flight to return to the near end.
mute swan take-off
one of the herd

starling in smartly spotty winter plumage
I nipped back to Upper Wardington at lunchtime and found a small flock of common gulls (15) in a small sheep grazed field next to the cricket pitch.  Nice to see and likely to be newly arrived from up north.

Sunday, 2 November 2014

late October: exceptionally mild weather

The past week has seen the warmest Haloween ever, with summer briefly returning to Banbury on Friday with temperature peaking over 20 degrees centigrade.

The gull roost at Grimsbury has quietened down a bit at the moment, but still huge numbers of corvids - jackdaws, rooks and crows swirling around in large flocks around dusk.

Lawyer's wig toadstools, also know as the shaggy inkcap, have sprouted from the well-trimmed lawns of the Thames Water treatment plan next to the reservoir.
shaggy inkcap toadstool

The golden plover flock at Top Dawkins, Upper Wardington, increased to 215 birds today. 
Yesterday, in the same field, over fifty lesser black-backed gulls were feeding in the late afternoon plus a single yellow-legged gull.
part of the golden plover flock (just before the heaven's opened!)

A tree sparrow has found the feeders in the garden at Upper Wardington, joining the gang of house sparrows.  Hopefully the word will get around that the food is good ("high energy, no mess", of course) and a few more will join in over the coming weeks.