Friday, 24 April 2015

More interesting encounters with willow tits!

I have to say I have found surveying willow tits to be a bigger challenge than I had envisaged.  Using my mobile phone to play snippets of call and song is great at getting responses, the challenge then is to work out if you have got a willow or a marsh tit.  The literature on identification is very extensive but there is no substitute for time spent in the field. Sometimes it is easy - last Saturday the willow tit a Grimsbury Reservoir was singing, I thought, more like a marsh tit but then gave the classic buzzing "chay" call, flashed his pale wing panel and job done.  Last week a walk along the Oxford canal yielded a perfect willow tit song in response to my phone, the bird approached me, still singing the classic song, not unlike a wood warbler.  The problem was this bird looked like a marsh tit - neat bib, no wing panel.  I tried to take some pics to confirm later but it stayed above me.  Now all I could hear was a different song, classic marsh tit.  I am sure it was the same bird.  Checking the literature later - yes the marsh tit can, in a small percentage of cases, sing very like a willow tit!  Finally this week I made my first Breeding Bird Survey at my regular site near Moreton Pinkney in south Northants.  Almost immediately I heard a "chay" in the distance so used my mobile phone again, this time the desired effect - a pair of willow tits....but then a third bird joined in - neat bib, no pale wing panel, looked like a marsh tit and clearly different to the pair.   My lesson from all this: if using playback be very cautious, marsh tits respond as much as willow tits and song can be unreliable, especially if you (like me) are still learning their full repertoire!

Meanwhile, what a great April we are having: fabulous weather, a blaze of spring flowers, green sprouting foliage and waves of migrants.
sand martins, house martins and swallows at Grimsbury Reservoir
blackcap in plum blossom
Ring ouzels have been the highlight for many, with more stopping off in our area than usual. I had a couple of glimpses of a bird at Tadmarton Heath Golf Course, a new one for me in the local area.
male ring ouzel, this bird was quite shy
I have enjoyed a couple of early mornings exploring the Tadmarton Heath BOS reserve, nothing too unusual, but watching a couple of chiffchaffs busily gathering strands of grass then taking them to nest sites deep in bramble thickets was a highlight.  The nest boxes were checked there recently - there are already tawny owl and stock dove chicks - a reminder that many species are well into their breeding cycle just as others are returning to start theirs.

chiffchaff nest building

Elsewhere across the "Heart of England", two different pairs of cranes have been visiting Otmoor in the past few days, a sign that they may be spreading out from the Somerset re-introduction area.  It is not inconceivable they might colonise Banburyshire - the Cherwell Valley has good habitat for curlews (around 8-10 pairs), perhaps the cranes will decide they like it too?
Upper Cherwell Valley
A pair of black-winged stilts stayed for a day (18th) at Middleton Lakes, part of a small influx into the country, but sadly decided to move on.  They are stunning birds!
black-winged stilts, Cyprus

Sunday, 19 April 2015

Cyprus - reflections and some more pics

I can really recommend Cyprus in early spring: there is plenty to see, much to discover and some very nice places to stay.  It was even just about warm enough to swim in the sea.  I would certainly go back.  I would very much recommend a stay at the Aphrodite Beach Hotel - great location for exploring the Akamas Peninsula, extremely friendly owner and staff, great food and comfortable modern rooms.  The hotel is used by many tour goups such as Naturetrek.  I would also recommend Hill View Apartments in Pissouri, great birding on the doorstep, great views (especially from the breakfast veranda) and very well located for exploring east of Paphos, including the Akrotiri Peninsula.  Akrotiri is very good for plants and birding but is not in anyway what you could describe as unspoilt.  Make sure you spend some time in the Akamas area if you like more unspoilt areas and good hiking.

Accommodation and especially car hire is relatively cheap, flights less so for us but you might get a better deal.  There are plenty of good online resources, with blogs covering orchids, butterflies and birding - the latter is organised by Birdlife Cyprus and is good but is only updated every day or two. 

A selection of images: 
eastern Bonelli's warbler

masked shrike
comon rock thrushes, part of flock of seven
Cyprus warbler

Cyprus wheatear, very common in most places
greater flamingoes, Akrotiri
yellow wagtail "feldegg"

scrub with small vinyards below Pissouri - very good for Cyprus warbler
naked man orchid
Akamas Peninsula
Gladiolus triphyllus - endemic
Orchis fragrans
Cretzschmar's bunting
view looking uphill to Pissouri village

Orchis troodi - endemic

long-eared hedgehog tucking into avocado
woodchat shrike

Sunday, 12 April 2015

Grimsbury Reservoir and Tadmarton Heath: spring full on

Suddenly Grimsbury Reservoir is full of birds - migrating waders,  passing swallows and sand martins; grey wagtails courting.  It won't last so we need to enjoy these next few weeks of spring migration - the profusion of flowers and courtship/nesting of birds.  A great time to be out and about.

The male grey wagtail in breeding plumage with lemon yellow throat and under tail is a particular favourite of mine. 

male grey wagtail (female nearby, out of shot)

one of a pair of little ringed plovers
Crops are growing fast and our landscape will soon be a patchwork of bright yellow (oilseed rape), deep green (winter wheat) and paler green (winter and spring barley), with the odd bare field - a late sown crop (likely maize) or something a nature reserve.  I mention this, as the Banbury Ornithological Society nature reserve at Tadmarton Heath now displays a strip of brown earth ready to receive the seeds of a wild bird crop - hopefully providing a good food supply for next winter's hungry finches and buntings.  A flock of thirty linnets are already hanging around the freshly cultivated ground.
Tadmarton Heath wild bird strip
primroses by the stream
As you enter Tadmarton Heath there is a small unspoilt stream that flows through the adjoining woodland.   A patch of primroses are a perfect adornment to the stream: nature does this so much better than landscape gardeners (myself included)!

Monday, 6 April 2015

Upper Wardington: an osprey flies through

An early morning trip around my local area enabled me to catch up with the local lapwings.  Looks like there are two pairs settling to nest in a spring tilled field - they were busy trying to see off some crows but with limited success!  Further on, a pair of little owls look well established at a traditional site and I spent some time watching quietly until the owl's gaze switched to a large pack of dogs out for their morning exercise.
little owl

I bought some peat free compost in our local garden centre Barn Farm Plants, they stock a really good range at a good price: a definite must do purchasing choice.  We can't afford to loose any more precious peatlands....

In the afternoon I checked out local sites for willow tits but could only find marsh tits, great-crested grebes and a very large mute swan nest on Clattercote Reservoir.
mute swan
great-crested grebe
A late afternoon stroll along the Fox Hill ridge above Upper Wardington yielded the day's highlight and a local patch "first" in the shape of an Osprey.  Heading purposefully northeast, it was quite likely making for a Northamptonshire or Leicestershire and Rutland reservoir - maybe staying there to breed - otherwise their most likely destination is Scotland. A red kite, kestrel and several buzzards were also on the wing in the sunny conditions, with just a slight breeze. Yellowhammers were singing from the hedgerows with skylarks up above.  A small flock of meadow pipits, about twelve, tucked into the oilseed rape, pausing on their northward journey to upland hills. 

The first part of the Easter weekend was spent up in North Yorkshire, where it was great to see curlews and barn owls on several occasions, was well as the usual gang of back garden tree sparrows, and a very smartly plumaged yellowhammer.
male yellowhammer

Thursday, 2 April 2015

Cyprus: nightingales in full voice

A beautiful sunny morning yesterday and a great way to finish our trip - with a hike up the hillside behind the Aphrodite Beach hotel on the Akamas Peninsula.

The past week has seen the arrival of nightingales en mass - from my first sighting at Pissouri Bay last Thursday of a lone bird barely venturing out from cover to feed in a cultivated garden, then the first burst of song around the hotel a couple of days back.  Now the whole hillside is full of song.  The thickets of Mediterranean scrub on the slope are perfect - almost impenetrable and full of a variety of plants and insects.  I counted at least eight different singing males.  Woodchat shrikes and Sardinian warblers were also everywhere, so too corn buntings and migrant blackcaps.  A couple of eastern Bonelli's warblers were flitting around the bushes restlessly.  A brief glimpse of a shy wryneck too, my fourth of the week.

We then descended back to the hotel for breakfast on the restaurant balcony and guess what? Another nightingale blasting song from the patchy thicket before the beach. He even jumped into view for a few moments, flashing rufous tail.

Very sad to leave after an excellent week, especially with the weather now set fair! Late March is definitely a great time to visit, especially if you are into flowers as well as birds.  The wonderful botanical diversity frequently stealing the show from the birds.  Development of the island continues and you can see the impacts of agricultural intensification and urban expansion.  But protected areas like the Akamas National Park in the extreme west, as well as continued low intensity agriculture in many areas, mean that for now it is still a great place to explore and enjoy some great nature experiences.