Sunday, 31 January 2016

Banbury: plans for new country park taking shape

Last Thursday Cherwell District Council hosted their second workshop to develop a master plan for the new country park planned for the Cherwell Valley (immediately north on Banbury, either side of the M40).
Perhaps the best opportunity to create some great wildlife habitat lies immediate north of the new Gateway shopping centre (the centre's flagship Marks and Spencer store is very visible west of the M40).  Here, a large field sits within the floodplain and is classified as floodplain grazing marsh, a priority habitat for conservation in the UK. The wet grassland used to be grazed, but was abandoned over a decade ago and is now very rank grassland, quite swampy in places.  Parts of the field hold shallow floods in wet weather that can be attractive to snipe.
The wet grassland area, spring 2012
Reed buntings also like the area. It is quite good botanically, with cuckoo flower, flag iris and six species of sedges.  Grass snake, otter, roe deer and white-legged damselfly have also been recorded.
We are hoping the council will agree to manage this area as a nature reserve and bring the wet grassland back into good condition through the re-introduction of grazing and creation of some shallow scrapes and reedbeds.  This could create some great opportunities for wildlife, complementing the habitats nearby and providing a safer place for wading birds to feed without risk of disturbance.
small reedbed north of the wet grassland, 2012
The next step is for the consultants leading the work, Ryder Landscape, to work up a further version of the draft master plan for a final round of consultation with stakeholders.  Once complete they will apply again for outline planning permission (the original concept was approved about four years ago) and the council will look for funding for the work. 
snipe favoured this area of the wet grassland in 2012
We are also continuing the propose the creation of a local nature reserve covering some or all of the area.  Currently Banbury has none, but Natural England guidance suggests there should be one hectare of local nature reserve for every 1000 people.  Which for Banbury equates to at least 40 hectares, co-incidentally the same size as the country park!
On Saturday I made a quick visit to the Cherwell Valley near Somerton to see if there were any floods remaining and perhaps a few wildfowl.  It is a hard area to view easily, but from one viewpoint I was able to get distant views of a good sized flock of wigeon (about 300) and a few teal and mallard mixed in. The river was fully of muddy brown water from agricultural run-off.
Cherwell Valley north of Somerton
attractive view across the Cherwell Valley
a rather muddy river at the moment!

Thursday, 28 January 2016

Japan in November (No.6): just Harlequins

Near Rausu, Hokkaido: 19th November 2015
One of the real delights of Hokkaido in November is the abundance of Harlequin Ducks around the rockier sections of coastline.  Whether you are looking down from a cliff top towards a scattering of dots in the surf, or sneaking behind a boulder and watching them close up, they always catch your attention.  What beautiful birds.

The morning after the fish owl spectacle, the sun shone and driving just a little further along the coast of the Shiritoko Peninsula I stopped look at an interesting gathering of gulls (more on those next time) but was soon distracted by two pairs of Harlequins close to the shore....  surely I couldn't sneak up close behind the breakwater?  Well, it turned out I could, and the birds continued enjoying paddling around in the surf for a good ten minutes or so before drifting off.
two drakes

the whole group together

Sunday, 24 January 2016

Rutland Water: Five grebes in 30 mins

23 Jan 2016
Spent Saturday birding at Rutland Water with friends, mostly exploring the area around the Birdwatching Centre.  But on arrival we headed to a viewpoint overlooking the "North Arm" of the reservoir, recently favoured by a variety of grebes. 

We quickly picked up good numbers of great-crested grebes, maybe thirty or so, then we found a group of black-necked grebes right out in the middle of the water - not unexpected as they had been reported from this area in recent days.  Then we found a red-necked grebe, even further out but distinctive nonetheless.  We then realised one of the group of black-necked grebes was not quite "one of the group" and a more focused scrutiny showed it was actually a Slavonian grebe.  Closer to shore a few little grebes were much more straightforward to identify.  None of us could remember seeing all the regularly occurring British grebes at one location before - possibly we might have seen them all in a day of multi-site birding, but this felt unique and impressive. 

Large groups of goldeneye ducks were very actively displaying in the bay, great to watch and listen to.  Then to round everything off nicely, a great northern diver surfaced just behind the ducks.

Moving to the the main nature reserve and a well earned cup of coffee, we were soon watching an immature peregrine feeding on what appeared to be a goose carcass on an island in the largest lagoon.  A group of four "red-headed" smew were busy feeding there too.  All the birds had been fairly distant up until now, but moving on to another hide (there are dozens here!) a green sandpiper gave some great views feeding along the muddy shoreline.  We were about to leave this hide when a little egret dropped down in front of us, at very close range.  Carefully opening the hide flaps again, I was able to get some really nice close-up shots.

Continuing on, we had views of curlews, wigeons, goosanders and a dusk decended a single scaup.
All in all a great day's birding and many thanks to the team who do such a great job managing this really extensive and diverse site.
little egret with tiny fish
little egret, again
green sandpiper
a new swift tower
view across Rutland Water nature reserve with the birdwatching centre in the background
Egyptian goose...and sheep
24 Jan 2016
An hour in the local patch around Wardington and Chacombe this morning was rewarded with a big flock of fieldfares (about 500) with a few redwings and starlings mixed in.  Nearer the edge of the field and around a group of barns, a group of about 50 yellowhammers was nice to see - the biggest flock I've seen so far this winter.

Driving back I was surprised to see a group of four red kites coasting along above the skyline - we normally only see singles around here.  Then they started interacting with a pair of ravens, then a couple of buzzards joined in.  A scene I associate more with mid-Wales, now just a mile from home.  I tried to capture some pics - the grey skies created a monochrome effect with the delicate silhouettes of the ash trees contrasting this the elegant angular shapes of the kites.  See what you think!!
two of the four kites
couldn't resist a black and white version of the little egret

Wednesday, 20 January 2016

Balscote Quarry nature reserve: winter feeding station

Yesterday (19 January)  - a quick lunchtime visit to the feeding station run by the Banbury Ornithological Society at Balscote Quarry near Banbury was very enjoyable, with a good selection of birds.  The pools are now well filled with water but completely frozen over.
lesser redpoll
tree sparrow

Sunday, 17 January 2016

First snow of winter

A few pictures taken in the local area over the weekend.  
Sunny Saturday and lovely lighting on a confiding robin.  Lots of redwings feeding in the pasture fields but they are proving hard to get photos of!
cock pheasant
redwing record shot
Snowy Sunday, dull light, fewer redwings, flocks of lapwings flying westwards and a couple of red kites.  In the back garden, tree sparrows increased to a maximum of three birds at once, and at least two great spotted woodpeckers, though the female looks like she has a growth at the base of the bill.
snowy landscape early morning
male great spotted woodpecker
female great-spotted woodpecker
Most of the local sheep are looking a bit muddy at the moment.  A flock of about fifteen yellowhammers around these sheep.
trio of tree sparrows plus a single house sparrow (top left)

Tuesday, 12 January 2016

Japan in November (No.5): an evening with Blakiston's fish owls

adult make Blakiston's fish owl prepares for supper
18.11.15  (evening)
One, if not the, highlight of a birding trip to Hokkaido is without doubt a close encounter with the world's largest owl (though there is a bit of debate about this, see wikipedia). Anyway, it is a huge, rare and thoroughly other-worldly bird, that would definitely look fully at home in Hogwarts.  To see this owl you really need to stay overnight in accommodation set up for observing and photographing them.  There is a great place to stay on the outskirts of Rausu called Washi yo Nado.  The accommodation is basic but the food is very nice and prepared for you during your owl viewing session - consequently it is hard not to let the freshly cooked fish and other delicacies get cold when the owls are showing well.

Fishing technique (not too tricky):

grab (put up with damp feathers)
step onto the shore
prepare to swallow
The owls are attracted with such regularity because a very natural-looking pond has been created in the river and is stocked up at dusk every evening.  The birds are also used to the floodlighting that is set up to make photography relatively easy.

We were fortunate that a researcher was also visiting the site on the evening of our stay and explained that there were three birds visiting this spot every evening.  There is an adult male, a one year old bird and a juvenile raised this year.  Sadly the female of the resident pair had died while raising the chick, the male had continued to successfully fledge the young bird, but was now in search of a new mate. 
I think this is the juvenile - ring DD
I think this is the one year old bird - gold ring with WW in white
adult male - yellow and blue rings
The adult male is top of the pecking order and arrives first, takes what he wants and heads off.  The one year bird arrives next a makes a few catches, and on this occasion the juvenile bird arrives before it leaves.  They show a bit of aggression and we get to see their ear tufts raised in anger!  But most of the time they seem to get along.  The juvenile stays on quite a bit later, and eventually flies off.  Time to finish off our supper.

A wonderful evening that will live long in the memory.

Sunday, 10 January 2016

Big skies and fieldfares

Just a quick posting this evening.  An early morning walk around the Upper Cherwell was rewarding  - the past week or so has seen some shallow flooding and that in turn has attracted quite a few birds, mostly it seems to feed on earthworms brought to the surface by the wet conditions.  The floods aren't extensive or permanent enough to attract wildfowl apart from the resident Canada geese and mallards.  However, they are very attractive to gulls, especially black-headed and common, and a gathering of grey herons - ten together in one field is quite unusual here.  Other nice birds in the area around the flood defences included stonechat, green sandpiper, meadow pipit and reed bunting.

I made a quick stop on the way back to Wardington to capture the impressive shower cloud formations and watch a big flock of fieldfares (about 200) that were feeding quite close to the road, with smaller numbers of redwings, starlings and yellowhammers.
shower cloud

Sunday, 3 January 2016

SP54: BOS short day count in the rain

A full day out birding today, participating in the "short day count" event organised by the Banbury Ornithological Society.  Eight hours is spent in the field starting at 8am, covering a 10x10km square - in our case SP54.  
It was really tough going, in far from favourable weather, with rain setting in from about 9am and continuing to after 2pm.  We gave it a really good go and although we got thoroughly drenched we were energised by a very large chocolate sponge cake kindly made for us.  It was great to be out in the field and gather some useful bird records from a generally under watched area.
After a fairly slow start, things picked up as we hiked around the Edgecote Estate and, especially, the adjoining Trafford Marsh area.  Highlights included a flock of about fifty redpolls, two flocks of forty plus siskins, a brambling, eleven snipe, kingfisher and a peregrine.
Later in the afternoon we were more car-based, making regular stops, but struggled and ultimately failed to find any tree sparrows or partridges.  Fortunes improved as the rain cleared in the afternoon, with a single chiffchaff working its way along a hedgerow, and a flock of a couple of hundred golden plover at a favoured haunt near Middleton Cheney.
Thanks again to Neil McMahon for leading the way on the birding and all the driving. 
Stop Press: species count for the day was 65.

Saturday, 2 January 2016

November in Japan (No.4): Nemuro to Rausu

Quite a long drive today, but plenty to see en-route.  In fact, just on the outskirts of Nemuro we had to make another sudden eagle stop - this time two adult Steller's sea eagles overhead:
Steller's sea eagle

Driving on past the impressively wild and extensive wetlands of Lake Furen we saw more large flocks of whooper swans and in addition, several hundred black brant geese.

The coastline was much more low lying with sandy beaches and several small fishing harbours.  Huge numbers of Greater Scaup were gathered in densely-packed flocks (many thousands), with smaller groups of black scoter.  Glaucous gulls were more common here, with a few glaucous-winged gulls but with the slaty-backed gull being by far the most numerous (as elsewhere).
glaucous gulls and a glaucous-winged gull (left)
left to right: glaucous-winged, glaucous and slaty-backed gulls
 A drive out the the Notsuke Peninsula was well worthwhile, with excellent close-up views of Steller's sea eagle and a gorgeous pair of Asian rosy-finches.

eye to eye with a Steller's sea eagle!
Asian rosy finch (male)
Asian rosy-finch (male)
 sika deer stag
Another stop at a small harbour gave more good views of black scoter, various gulls and a particularly inquisitive black-eared kite.

slaty-backed and glaucous (left) gulls
black scoter
black-eared kite
We arrived at Rausu just before dusk and settled into the guest house where we anticipated seeing Blakiston's fish owl later in the evening.  More on that next time.