Friday, 30 May 2014

Upper Cherwell Valley: when it's good to get wet feet

Running home from Banbury through the Upper Cherwell Valley this evening, standing water from recent rainfall was very noticeable.  Hemlock water dropwort is now flowering along the canal next to Grimsbury Plantation (thanks for the tip-off Colin).  Further along, an oystercatcher and a curlew stood in a damp pasture field, with another curlew calling in the distance.  Oystercatchers are quite scarce in our area, and this is the first I've seen locally so far this year.

A footpath crosses some rather nice hay meadows just before the slope rises up to Williamscot.  I was pleased to get my feet wet as I jogged along the path.  The fields are still somewhat "wet" meadows, and thus better for moisture-loving plants and wildlife.  Flower-rich meadows are something of  rarity locally, where most pasture is heavily improved and grazed.  Managed under a "Higher Level Stewardship"agreement, the farmer is doing a great job and wildlife benefits from some protection for the short term at least. 

The meadows are yellow-splattered with buttercups.  Yellow rattle is just coming into bloom.  I photographed this field last year about the same time (you can tell they weren't taken this week as there is blue sky and the sun is shining).

yellow rattle

Thursday, 29 May 2014

Birds of Paradise

With the continued bad weather my thoughts wandered away from the UK to the wonderful Birds of Paradise.  There is a veritable mine of great footage and information here

Some really stunning images.  An excellent book is also available. Alas, the documentary is yet to be shown on TV over here.

I will no doubt return to these amazing birds and their very special rainforest home in future blogs.  The antidote to winter blues.

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Roy215 miles

Roy Taylor is making excellent progress with his wheelchair traverse of Northern England (Southport to Hornsea) to raise funds and awareness of the need to improve access to the countryside.

Catch up with his progress via his blog then make sure to make a donation.

Inspiring stuff.

Meanwhile down in London, plans for major new wetlands in Walthamstow have been announced.  £6.5 million pounds of Thames Water and lottery money aim to transform the area into 500 acres of reservoirs and associated wetlands.  Thames Water are putting in £1.5 million; wouldn't it be great to see a similar scale of investment in nature up at the top end of the Thames catchment too.....

More horrible wet drizzly weather at least gave some great views of low flying swifts during a meeting at Middleton Lakes. Let's hope spring/summer returns soon.

Monday, 26 May 2014

Otmoor: kites vs. lapwings

A (very) early morning trip down to Otmoor RSPB nature reserve near Oxford was planned to take advantage of a slot of dry weather forecast before a period of rain. Recent sightings of glossy ibis and great white egret encouraged me to rise at the early hour; plus a chance to get some nice images of the moor in the early morning light.  As it turned out, the ibis and egret eluded me, but were seen by others.  Instead, I was able to focus on turtle doves, "purring" like cats from the tall scrub beside the bridle way, and watching a strong cast of waders displaying, feeding, nurturing their young....and fending off marauding red kites.

turtle dove
Nearly a hundred pairs of lapwings are nesting at the nature reserve this year, and half that number of redshank too.  Quite a concentration of waders in one place.

They are certainly of interest to the local red kites; a couple of whom have taken to preying on the wader chicks and even the odd adult bird.  The reaction of the lapwing colony to the kites is quite a spectacle.  The kites are harried by dozens of adult lapwings.  They are also joined from time to time by the local pair of crows and once or twice by curlew.  Irritating though the kites find the lapwing's attentions, they are often still on the winning side, and one more lapwing chick is taken away to feed a young kite.  How this will affect the lapwing population in the long term remains to be seen and is the subject of research.  Mark Avery writes eloquently about this new avian landscape in his blog.

red kite mobbed by lapwings
Water violets are starting to bloom in the ditches, and yellow flag iris clumps are scattered across the marshland.  Drizzle sets in earlier than expected and birdsong is more subdued.  Soon though another wading bird, the scarce and more elusive snipe, begin their "drumming" display. Looping up and down in flight, they spread their outer tail feathers on the downward loop to create the atmospheric drumming sound.  They love wet places and the dampness seems to encourage their display.  They are not so concerned about the kites, their nests and chicks are very well camouflaged and much harder to spot than the precocious and sometimes bold lapwing youngsters.

I also enjoy sightings of two hobbies, a group of six little egrets and an extended family party of ten mistle thrushes.
little egrets
Greylag geese are wary, heads raised on the lookout for predators, goslings hidden in the long grass.  This pair needn't worry too much: they are within the anti-predator fence, which is a fox free zone.  Still, it pays to be vigilant.

Greylags are somewhat taken for granted, but are as much a part of our evolving avifauna as other recent arrivals like the red kites and little egrets. They are a success in a modern landscape where they are protected from hunting and find new wetland habitats like Otmoor much to their liking.  At the start of the twentieth century a small native population survived on remote Scottish islands.  From the 1930s birds of captive origins began to nest in England and they are now a pretty common sight. That said, they are still a rare breeder in Banburyshire, with the main group inhabiting the lakes at Compton Verney.

grey heron - they have a nest with two chicks visible from The Lookout

Sunday, 25 May 2014

Bicester: Cravenhill housing development

A spin-off from looking up local election results was discovering a news item about Cravenhill - a major new self build initiative led by Cherwell District Council.  The council are purchasing a large MoD site and opening it up for people to build their own homes.  I don't know this area at all but it looks set for major change: wildlife will have to adapt quickly.  Often MoD sites are very good for wildlife as they have escaped agricultural improvement.  Their use for army training has inadvertently protected big areas of habitats otherwise long lost from the rest of our countryside.  A good example is the training area at Otmoor, now one of the most important SSSI's in Oxfordshire.

The plan is for half the site to become a community woodland and open greenspace.  So there appears to be scope for some of this project to benefit wildlife but also a risk of real damage to any existing interest.  I will try to find out more.

Friday, 23 May 2014

Anguilla: Dog free from rats

Great news from the Caribbean: a major rat eradication project appears to have been successful.  Dog Island is the largest of Anguilla's offshore cays.  I spent several nights camping there seven years ago, part of a small team surveying seabirds and rats.  Our work helped to make the case for the eradication of the rats - they were having quite an impact on nesting seabirds.  Our survey work back in 2007 also showed that the colony of sooty terns was probably the largest in the Caribbean, so important to make sure they were not endangered by the rats.  There are also goats on the island, which have grazed the island scrub vegetation to such an extent that thorny scrub predominates. This made our survey work, and no doubt the rat eradication a bit hazardous too.

This is also an opportunity to show you a few of pics mine from back then.  A wonderful, wild place.

bridled tern

Dog island view

masked booby family

red-billed tropicbird with young chick - note very long tail bent around

Thursday, 22 May 2014

Upper Wardington: ivy-leaved toadflax

I took my camera with me to the polling station (European elections).  The sun was shining after a heavy downpour.  Ivy-leaved toadflax growing on the Hornton stone walls of the Wardington Manor caught my eye.  Droplets of water adhered to the waxy leaves. It is not native to the UK, originating from the Mediterranean and widely naturalised. 

To quote wikipedia: This plant has an unusual method of propagation. The flower stalk is initially positively phototropic and moves towards the light – after fertilisation, it becomes negatively phototropic and moves away from the light. This results in seed being pushed into dark crevices of rock walls, where it is more likely to germinate and where it prefers to grow. 

Clever plant.

Driving back into the village a little earlier, a red kite drifted across the road.  They are definitely a more regular sighting this year.  There are plenty to the south of Banbury but kites are not well established to the north - hopefully it's just a question of time before they are as frequent as buzzards are now (themselves something of a scarcity until a decade ago).

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Middleton Lakes: evening birds

An early morning walk along the flood defence scheme in Banbury enabled me to photograph the meadow saxifrage, and I counted ten plants.  A curlew bubbled in the distance and the noisy chatter of sedge warblers was never far away.

meadow saxifrage
An evening stroll around Middleton Lakes RSPB nature reserve with my camera was very relaxing and enjoyable.

Twenty species of wading birds have been recorded so far this year, with the spring passage notable for rarities such as Temminck's stint and pectoral sandpiper.  This evening there was nothing unusual so I had a chance to focus on beautiful ringed plovers feeding on the muddy edges of the east scrape, part of the "Jubilee Wetlands".

ringed plovers stopping off en route to the arctic
 There was much else to enjoy:

common tern

drake garganey

great-crested grebe

little ringed plover



sedge warbler

tufted duck

yellow flag iris
Turks and Caicos conservation on radio 4. 
Took me back four months to my sabbatical project there.  Worth a listen and maybe look back at my TCI Blog!!

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Spiceball Park, Banbury: ragged robin flourishes in new meadow

A morning stroll through Spiceball Park en route to a meeting at The Mill in Banbury enabled me to photograph a splendid new wildflower meadow in the park.  This slightly damp mini-meadow was created three or four years ago during the building of the new Spiceball Sports Centre.  As part of a package of flood "mitigation", the ground level was lowered so that when the river floods the water has a bit more space to spread before it starts inundating any buildings.  I think it must have received a wildflower seed mix, carefully selected for the conditions.  That foresight has created a rather wonderful small oasis of wet meadow flowers, long since lost from most places in the Cherwell valley.

new wet meadow in the park

ragged robin

The river flows past the new sports centre and again some nice habitat has been created, with patches of reeds and scrubby vegetation, perfect for whitethroats (2 pairs here) and sedge warbler.  The "sedgies" were busy gathering material for their nest and were a bit more confiding than the whitethroats.

sedge warbler nesting near the centre of Banbury

Spiceball Sports Centre

Monday, 19 May 2014

Barford disused airfield: corn buntings

An evening walk in search of corn buntings took me along a footpath skirting the south side of the disused airfield south of Milton near Adderbury.  It is an area of rolling open countryside, with large expanses of meadow around the former airfield now protected by it's reincarnation as an MoD wireless station.  Cereal fields abut the airfield and create great habitat for skylarks, with yellowhammers in the short trimmed hedgerows.  The "bubbling" of calling curlew was a surprise, then a fleeting glimpse of a single bird in flight indicated they could be breeding here too.  It took a while for me to find a corn bunting, towards the western end of the path and well within the perimeter fence - hence the rather poor quality photo.  After a while a second bird appeared, and what seemed to be a pair then dived into the long grass.

Corn bunting


Hawthorn is in full blossom and contrasts nicely with the vivid yellow of buttercups and bright green of the fast-growing grassy pasture - seen here in a small valley leading down from the airfield.

Hawthorn in blossom

Sunday, 18 May 2014

More partridges and a cuckoo in SP54

An early morning expedition back out to SP54 was rewarded with my first local encounter with a cuckoo this year.  It's evocative call stood out in the early morning calm, somewhere just to the east of Sulgrave.  Quite possibly this is the only male cuckoo in SP54, such has been their recent decline.   Nearby, a flock of fifty stock doves were feeding in a field of spring sown crop just starting to sprout upwards through the bare soil.  Skylark song filled the air.  Red campion flowers we're equally strident in the verges just outside the village, glowing in the bright rays of sun.  

A red-legged partridge sat almost glued to the top of a pile of plastic covered bales topped by a large tyre, allowing my close approach for a portrait.

I also had a quick look at recent work to clear scrub from Helmdon disused railway Site of Special Scientific Interest (click view citation).  This has been carried out in the past couple of years by the landowner and funded by Natural England.  It has certainly made a huge difference, but I was left wondering where the scarce plants and butterflies, for which the site is designated, might have survived under the blanket of hawthorn and other bushes - and how easily they might return.  There should be green-winged orchids and small blue butterflies here.  This SSSI is also proving something of a test case in the assessment of High Speed 2's environmental impact  see here and here.  This site will be cut in two by the new railway and a chunk of habitat will be lost forever.  Compensatory habitat is proposed to mitigate this impact but will take decades to develp a similar species rich limestone grassland character.   More on this over coming months and years.

In the evening I went out for another mini expedition and located a grey partridge near Moreton Pinkney, at the north end of the 10km square.  So they are still about, just hard to find.

Friday, 16 May 2014

Upper Cherwell Valley: saxifrage finds a new home

I've got into a bit of a routine running home from Banbury on Fridays  via Grimsbury Reservoir and the new flood defence scheme, then on along the canal and up to Wardington via Williamscot.  The sudden arrival of warm weather made it a very pleasant run - actually more of a jog due to frequent natural distractions! At the reservoir, fledged pied wagtail and long-tailed tit youngsters and a couple of very vocal garden warblers caught my attention.  Then on the bank of the flood defence I spotted a large spike of white flowers.  Meadow saxifrage.  This time, not on a long established hay meadow, but in a grass sward barely two years old.  Clearly self colonised, but from where?  A very pleasant surprise and one to let the EA know about so hopefully they will take account of this in their mowing regime.  A pair of curlew were in their favoured field, where a brood of mallard ducklings were also making use of a shallow scrape created by the farmer.

Earlier in the day I also saw my first fledgling starling of the year in Banbury's People's Park.  We are just entering a really busy period for parent birds!

Thursday, 15 May 2014

Upper Wardington: surprised by partridges

After a gap of several years, I have seen a pair of grey partridges close to the village. 

Driving back home on a beautiful calm evening I spotted the outline of the male partridge.  Not atop a pear tree - in fact somewhat less romantically - perched on a pile of (putting it politely) animal faeces.  It proved a good place to stop to take a couple of shots of the partridges, as on the other side of the road, a male yellow wagtail flew in and started feeding on the rows of recently cut grass.  It moved a little bit closer and let out a few "shreep" calls.  It was great to see the yellow wagtail as up to a couple of years ago they bred in the crops here.  So fingers crossed they will do so again.

Pair of grey partridge on the pile of xxxp

male yellow wagtail

evening light on barn - Hornton stone and clay tiles (taken yesterday)

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Victoria Park, Stafford: bold mistle thrushes

In the centre of Stafford, en route from the railway station to the town centre, is an oasis of calm and well kept gardens: Victoria Park.  I was visiting Stafford for a meeting to discuss setting up a Local Nature Partnership for for the county.  It was nice to be distracted for a few minutes by a pair of mistle thrushes busy collecting food for their hungry brood nearby.  They were very confiding and allowed me to get close with my iPad camera.  This is not how they generally behave in the countryside where they can be quite flighty, so I made a mental note to bring better camera gear next time!  You can see the limitations of the iPad camera but it at least captures the moment.  Just as I was about the head on, a scuffle broke out with a magpie that was showing a bit too much interest.  With a volley of aggressive rattling calls and a twing pronged attack by the thrushes, the magpie was soon ushered on its way. It was great so see nature holding its own in the town centre!

Sunday, 11 May 2014

Long Day Count: SP54

I'm just a little shattered after spending 12 hours in the field trying to find as many birds as possible in one of my local 10x10 km squares - SP54 - in rural south Northamptonshire.  I teamed up with Neil McMahon, who has been counting this square for the Long Day Count for about 20 years.  So I also discovered some new places to look for birds locally and of course we ran into plenty of other wildlife along the way too (but not literally).  We started off at 04:45 in the morning, at which time it was already starting to get light, but the weather was cloudy, breezy and a bit drizzly.  Far from ideal.  But we presevered, eventually saw some sunshine, and ended up seeing a creditable 70 bird species.

Highlight for me were a pair of Mandarin ducks, my first in the local area and at a site suitable for breeding (small lake surrounded by alders).  Several birds had young with them - a family of ravens were leaning to fly from the top of tall Corsican pines, broods of downy greylag and Canada geese bobbed across a couple of larger lakes. 

The only photos I have are of a roosting tawny owl which thankfully allowed us time to grab our cameras from the car before deciding it had seen enough of us.  Those legs are quite long!

My thanks to Neil for leading the count and driving us around, and to the BOS for organsing a fun and useful survey.

Saturday, 10 May 2014

Upper Wardington: meadow saxifrage

Upper Wardington meadow saxifrage

This afternoon I made a count of the meadow saxifrage plants that grow in a corner of one of the small meadows close to the village.  I first noticed them about ten years ago and most years they have appreared in small numbers.  Last year the field was grazed through the flowering season and no flowering stalks escaped being chomped by the sheep.  This year it is being left ungrazed and it is proving to be a good season.  I counted sixty flowering stalks. 

meadow saxifrage close-up

It brings a flavour of Alpine meadows to our lowland landscape and is a pretty special thing to find growing near the village. It is one of those declining flowers of unimproved meadows, the flora of Oxfordshire 1998 records it from 51 tetrads (2km by 2km squares).  It is very vulnerable, growing in a patch of grassland on ten metres long by five metres wide. Other meadows nearby have recently been treated with herbicide or covered in soil from building projects or simply ploughed up.  

Monday, 5 May 2014

Balscote Quarry nature reserve: greenshanks

This afternoon I took a trip over to Balscote Quarry nature reserve run by the Banbury Ornithological Society.  Last week I photographed a greenshank there, which had been around for a few days en route to breeding grounds in northern Scotland or Scandinavia.  Turned out this bird had colour rings on both legs, so I sent my poor resolution pics off to see if the individual could be identified.  There is  a study going on at Chichester Harbour.  But it was not one of theirs, so I'm still waiting to find out about it's origins.  Today another greenshank was reported so I was interested to see if it was the same  bird, but this bird had no rings.  It looked extremely elegant wading around the shallows, calling evocatively during short flights around the pool. Three ringed plovers were also present.  Both species could well be heading up to Scandinavia - where their arctic habitats are still likely to be very icy so they can probably take their time.

The greenshank with colour rings (low res image due to long range)
This nature reserve is a small corner of land about five miles north of Banbury.  Once a rock quarry, now restored to a miniature haven for wildlife struggling to find a niche in the modern countryside.
It is easy to visit, just pull off the road and walk ten metres to the viewing screen!

Balscote Quarry NR viewpoint

It is sad to think that this is pretty much the only place in our local area where these waders can pause for feeding.  There are hardly any other shallow water habitats left, even in the floodplain of the River Cherwell.  This is also very bad news for our breeding wading birds, even the once common lapwing has become extremely scarce. Thanks in part to the work of the BOS, they retain a small foothold in our patch.

Breeding bird survey

Have decided to move across from Wordpress to Blogger.  I had great fun blogging from the Turks and Caicos in January but then lost momentum.  I'm feeling a bit more inspired again so hope to keep going now!

If you missed what I got up to in the Turks and Caicos have a look it is quite a place to spend a month.

Spring is in full swing and it is much the most exciting time to be out in the countryside.  This weekend I carried out my Breeding Bird Survey, part of the nationwide scheme organised by the BTO.  You walk a couple of transacts within a 1x1 km square, the same route each year at roughly the same time.   Saturday was very frosty at half six in the morning but was also gloriously sunny.  My wellied feet froze, but I enjoyed seeing a good range of birds in my square, which is just west of Moreton Pinkney.  Highlights were a pair of ravens, ditto tree sparrows, and lots of whitethroats - just arrived from Africa and very vocal.