Sunday, 25 January 2015

Big Garden Birdwatch and an afternoon with raptors

Breakfast time was ideal for participating in the RSPB's Big Garden Birdwatch.  A relaxed hour tracking birds in and around the garden.  Most of the regulars were in attendance - goldfinches, chaffinches, coal tit etc. but no real surprises - though a very close fly-by buzzard was a little unusual.  A pair of bullfinches visited the shrubs opposite our front garden too.

A morning visit to Tadmarton Heath nature reserve was pleasant in the morning sunshine - a very vocal mistle thrush establishing his territory; nuthatches also calling from the hedgerows.  Mammals included a couple of close fox encounters and a muntjack deer.

An afternoon cross country run was more interesting though.  With a small back-pack carrying my map, binocs and mobile phone, I was able to visit some fairly off the beaten track parts of north Oxfordshire.  I stopped at four small woodlands to try and locate willow tits, like last weekend I was successful at my final stop - a small woodland near Cropredy.  A male willow tit made an almost immediate response to my playback of calls (on my mobile phone), and started to sing too.  He was quickly joined by another, I assume the female, and they then flew around in the trees together for a short while.  The pair's behaviour gives every indication that this is an established territory for them.  I'm also starting to get a better idea of their preferred habitat locally - not a great surprise to find this is wet, unmanaged woodland with plenty of dead wood.

Not far from the willow tits, I was pretty surprised to spot a peregrine falcon sitting on a small tree in a pasture field.  In was able to approach reasonably close, and noticed another bird sat slightly lower down and looking paler.  I moved a little closer and could now make out a female sparrowhawk.  Not often you see these two birds of prey in the same tree.

Birds of prey were much in evidence today - several kestrel sightings, and a whole succession of close encounters with buzzards, including one group of four.  No red kites though - they are still pretty scarce to the north east of Banbury.  I'm still waiting for my first local merlin too; my hopes are raised my recent sightings in south Northants!!

It was interesting and a little sad to relate that there were very few birds in any of the farmed fields - no winter thrushes, for example.  Only when I got back to Upper Wardington did I find a few fieldfares - once again in a field next to the cricket pitch.  Some of the fields close to the village, grazed by sheep, do seem to be very traditional sites for fieldfares, and I'm wondering how many come back each year to feast of the earthworms in these pastures.

No pics from the weekend, but a couple of frozen/frosty Grimsbury Reservoir last Thursday - the coldest night of the year.
frosty bramble
early morning reflections on the icy reservoir

Sunday, 18 January 2015

Upper Cherwell Valley: receding flood proved attractive. Also: a further search for willow tits proves successful (in the end)

Heavy rainfall at the back end of the week created the first sheets of water across the Upper Cherwell Valley this winter and I decided I must take a look on Saturday morning.  After a grey start, sunshine eventually swept across the valley and enabled me to take some nice landscape shots of the icy scene.
the main flood, with the River Cherwell in foreground
meander created as part of the new flood defence scheme
Birds were not too obliging though!  I enjoyed photographing the icy patterns in the grass: layers of glassy ice, frozen into place overnight, then left high and dry as the flood receded.

The floods don't stay around for long, so you need to respond to the event.  The flooding does seem to attract flocks of gulls quite rapidly, especially common gulls (about a hundred), also a couple of herring gulls.  The usual flock of mallard were joined by three teal; a single snipe took flight. Closer to the flood bank, a large flock of redwings wheeled around deciding were to feed next.  They like the fields near the M40 roundabout for some reason!  May be to do with the overgrown hedgerows that have a few berries left.  Two largish (twenty plus) flocks of meadow pipits rose from the edge of the grassy flood banks, grey herons prowled the tussocks grass looking for voles, cormorants watched on from the tree top roost (seventeen of them).
alder catkins and "cones" from last year
By Sunday afternoon the water was gone and the bright green of the grazing pastures once more dominated the scene.

Sunday afternoon was also calm and sunny. I decided to see if I could find any willow tits in the small scubby woodlands in the Northamptonshire part of the BOS recording area.  Using my phone to play snatches of call and song, I was fairly optimistic I would get a response.  I tried three likely spots, one where I have been successful in the past, but no joy.  In the end, I decided to call in to Boddington Reservoir, known to be a good current site.  A short walk from the car park, just next to the yachting club, I had my first and only response - and a good view too.  I walked further on into the very wet woodland but the light was starting to fade; a kingfisher shot past and six teal dabbled with mallard in the marshy reservoir margins.
reedbed reflections at Boddington Reservoir

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Banbury: mistle thrushes take centre stage

This is great time to listen to the song of mistle thrushes - they are very much leading the morning chorus in Banbury at the moment. At least two males singing in and around People's Park near the centre of town today.  Quite a bit of "aggro" between the birds as well, as they jostle for the best patches of park habitat, uttering their distinctive rattling calls.

Sunday, 11 January 2015

Grimsbury Reservoir: yet more on willow tits!

I was pleased to be able to spend some time over the past few days catching up with local birds I've missed so far in 2015, especially at Grimsbury Reservoir, this being Big Bird Year (of course).  Gareth Blockley has set up a dedicated Grimsbury Birds blog, which is now THE place to go for the most up to date sightings and also contains a great archive of past highlights.

A highlight for me was the drake goosander that comes and goes from the reservoir at the moment, but showed well this morning, drifting towards me for a while.

Much attention has focused on the woodland recently, with the presence of a Siberian race of chiffchaff  Phylloscopus collybita tristis along with one or two of our regular Phylloscopus collybita collybita of western Europe.  The tristis proved hard to photograph well, but the photo below shows how grey-bown "milky tea" looking this race is, with just a hint of yellow-green on the wings. 
chiffchaff - "tristis"
chiffchaff - "collybita"
"collybita" again

This morning, the woodland path beside the river was sheltered from the wind and the warm sunshine again attracted a large flock of foraging birds, including the chiffchaffs, willow tit and several each of treecreeper and goldcrest.  They were all very confiding and enabled some enjoyable but (also, at times, frustrating) photography. 
"hanging" goldcrest

long-tailed tit
 It was also great to hear a mistle thrush singing loudly from the treetops.  One of our first songbirds to nest in early spring, it won't be too long now before they are on the lookout for nesting material.  A pair seem to be establishing a territory around the woodland.

mistle thrush
It's encouraging that the willow tit is still being seen, it is also starting to call more regularly.  Part of the woodland is being managed with their future needs in mind.  They like to excavate their own nesting cavities, often no more than a metre or two above the ground.  With this in mind, the BOS is seeking to create more dead stumps suitable for them in coming decades.  The scrubby habitat maintained in this way is also ideal foraging habitat for them; hopefully a win-win.

face to face with a willow-tit
future nesting habitat
Returning to Upper Wardington at lunchtime it was nice to see a flock of 100 fieldfare in their "regular" field next to the cricket pitch.  This field is evidently rich in earthworms; common and black-headed gulls also like to feed there on a regular basis.   

Saturday, 3 January 2015

Yorkshire and Leicester: tree sparrows and urban peregrines

I couldn't resist some more images of Yorkshire tree sparrows.  They look great in black and white.  That is all for now, I promise.

Safely back in Banburyshire, but en route home yesterday a detour to Leicester's John Lewis megastore was notable for the pretty horrendous car parking experience that winds you up and up to the rooftop.  Then, as I started to de-stress (having parked the car), I quickly realised that sailing just above the car park roof was a pair of Leicester's very own urban peregrine falcons.  It would have been worth the £5 car park charge if I'd had any battery power left in my camera.  Quite a view from up there too. 

Thursday, 1 January 2015

Happy New Year

Welcome to 2015.

My New Year's blogging resolutions:

  • Make sure I blog about those important local nature sites I've yet to set foot on.
  • Use my blog to help make 2015 a "Big Bird Year" at Grimsbury Reservoir and the Upper Cherwell Valley.  Go to the Banbury Ornithogical a Society website for more.
  • Blog about important local nature conservation challenges and successes.
  • More creative images.
  • Better "birds in flight" shots!
  • More contributions from other local naturalists.

We'll see how it goes.

Don't forget to post a comment if there is something you want to know a bit more about, or to correct something I've got wrong.  Or just to give a bit of feedback.

My last images of 2014 were taken in North Yorkshire in the past couple of days, all in the back garden.  Up to six male bullfinches munching their way through cherry tree buds.