Sunday, 23 August 2015

Bicester Wetlands: a tale of three sandpipers

An early morning trip down to the BOS Bicester Wetland nature reserve was good value, having the place to myself for an hour or so.  There have been good numbers of green sandpipers here for a few weeks now, and as soon as I arrived there they were, feeding along the receding muddy edge of the main pool.  Almost immediately I realised one of the sandpipers was markedly different, and quickly identified a wood sandpiper.  Then it took off, calling, and headed towards the back of the pool. It did not reappear for a while so I climbed up into the hide and focused instead on the green sandpipers, scanning through the scattered small groups and eventually counted eleven on one sweep of the telescope.
wood sandpiper
The wood sandpiper did not reappear so I walked down the grassy path between the pools and the railway line, to an outlying pool, where the cattle were gathered.  The same or just possibly another wood sandpiper flew up from the pool, then a couple more green sandpipers.  A little frustrated by the flighty "wood" I returned to the hide, by which time a common sandpiper and three snipe were out on the mud.  Eventually the wood sandpiper reappeared too.  
juvenile green sandpiper
green sandpipers - adult to the left, juvenile to the right
I then spend a bit of time watching the green sandpipers, and it was quite clear that the adults, with their worn and generally un-spotted feathers, could be distinguished from the neatly spotted plumage of the juveniles.  From the sample I saw well enough to age, I identified five juveniles and two adults.  It certainly seems that both wood and green sandpipers have had a very good breeding season in Scandinavia.

Returning home I was able to spend some time observing a very large flock of gulls gathered on an extensive stubble field that was in the process of being ploughed.  The same event last year attracted a similar crowd.  The main species were lesser black-backed and black headed gulls - about five hundred of each.  Tucked in amongst them I was able to pick out a couple of adult common gulls, two adult yellow-legged gulls and, in the afternoon, a splendid adult Mediterranean gull (pretty rare away from the reservoirs).  
adult Mediterranean gull
spot the Mediterranean gull
To cap a rewarding local patch day, a flock of six golden plover flew over the house at about 7pm.  This is really quite early for "goldies", early September would be more normal for our first returning birds.

Sunday, 16 August 2015

Warwickshire's Cotswold Edge: harebells and spotted flycatchers

North of Banbury, the Cotswold Hills drop down to the Midland Plain along the Edgehill scarp slope.  A just to the west, above the village of Tysoe, the scarp slope is a little gentler with a couple of small valleys and distinctive outlier hills.  Mark and I spent much of today exploring this generally "off the beaten track" area, making the most of calm and fairly sunny weather.

Starting from Shenington, we headed towards Epwell through  pasture land, mixed with arable and free range chickens.  A bank of unimproved grassland was nice to find, and though rather heavily grazed a scattering of harebells had survived to flowering. This is a fairly scarce plant in our area.  It was interesting to see an adjoining field, fenced off from grazing, and packed with field scabious and black knapweed.
grazed vs. ungrazed
In the village of Epwell a tiny field had been sown with annual flowers typical of arable cultivation before the arrival of herbicides.
wild flower mix
cornflower and corn marigold
There were many very nice hedgerows, packed with field maple, elm, blackthorn and wild plum.  In places honeysuckle was also prominent.  It was noticeable that ash predominated as the main hedgerow tree on the top of the slope (i.e. on the hill) while oak dominated down the slope and onto the plain. 
wild plum
typical landscape of pasture and gorse-topped hills
The tiny village of Winderton was the best for birds - one farmhouse had a strong colony of house martins with about a dozen adults flying around.  Near the church at least four spotted flycatchers were perching from branches and aerials - they seemed to be a family group. 

A little further on, a stretch of footpath approaching Compton Wynyates ran alongside some lovely habitat for farmland birds and butterflies - strips of wild bird cover and a corner packed with teasels. Lots of scrubby habitat here too.  One to return to in autumn and winter.

Our main target of the walk was to scale Windmill Hill and enjoy the view across Warwickshire.  The early 18th Century windmill has been restored and looks rather splendid. 
Windmill Hill
We continued though the Tysoes, up Edgehill, then descended though a quiet grassy valley (where a well hidden little owl called from some stunted trees) and thence back to Shennington.  Intestingly, no red kites seen all day, just a few buzzards and kestrels - they are clearly not yet well established here. 

Our 12K ramble had taken about six hours. 

Sunday, 9 August 2015

Butterflies at the edge of the Cotswolds

Last Monday (3 August) afternoon I was able to catch up with a couple of butterflies I've not seen for a few years - dark green fritillary and chalkhill blue.  They were both on the wing in small numbers at Butterfly Conservation's Prestbury Hill nature reserve, located on the scarp slope of the Cotswold hills and overlooking Cheltenham. 
view of Cheltenhan Racecourse from Prestbury Hill
First up was the dark green fritillary, generally fast flying and hard to keep track of, but eventually settled nicely in the flowery grassland.
dark green fritillary

Unlike the chalkhill blue, the dark green fritillary clings on in Banburyshire, but only at one site as far as I know - the Neal Trust reserve.  It's food plant is the common dog-violet.

The chalkhill blues were most in evidence on the steepest slopes of the limestone scarp, with very short turf and bare patches.  The experience of watching them took me back to childhood ramblings on the South Downs of Sussex where they are very numerous.  Surely they would have been widespread on the limestone grasslands west of Banbury in the past?  Maybe they will return one day, but at the moment there is insufficient habitat, and only small patches of their food plant - the horseshoe vetch.
chalkhill blue
chalkhill blue
Another treat was stumbling across a small colony of the tiny musk orchid, it the same habitat favoured by the chalk hills.  Again, a species I'd last seen in my teens.
musk orchid
clustered bellflower

carline thistle
This is a lovely nature reserve is well worth a visit, especially from May to August.  Another butterfly you can see here is the springtime-flying Duke of Burgundy Fritillary, one I have yet to see - hopefully I'll be able to make a return visit in May next year.