Saturday, 3 November 2018

Bicester Wetland Reserve: Jack Snipe, plus Blenheim Park bird fest.

Whooper Swans, Blenheim Park
Nice to actually be writing a blog post about local wildlife after recent travels further afield.  Great to have a day off when the weather is perfect for enjoyable autumn birding - early frost, blue skies, warming sunshine and light winds.  I decided to make a mini-tour of the southern part of the BOS area, aiming to get the Bicester Wetland Reserve by mid morning, then straying just beyond the BOS area to Blenheim Park in the afternoon.

Buzzards were already out in the fields looking for food as I set off just after sunrise. A covey of eight Grey Partridges flew up from the minor road towards Thenford, so I stopped and found a few dozen Redwings and Fieldfares feeding along the hedgerow, with Chaffinches and Yellowhammers.  A stop at Thenford Church in the slight hope of a Hawfinch produced a Siskin and a Raven, plus lots of Greenfinches and calling Green Woodpecker.

A quick visit to Croughton Quarry was rewarded with a fine view of a frosty pool but few birds, just a single Tufted Duck. 
Croughton Quarry - small pool
Moving on towards Cottisford, a flock of Lapwings was a nice find, a total of about 185 in two groups.  Close by, some extensive stubble fields were alive with Skylarks, certainly at least 50, probably many more.  A stop at Cottesford Pond to look for the Great Egret present there a couple of days earlier produced 15 Moorhens and a Wigeon but no egret.

By ten I'd arrived at my main morning destination, Bicester Wetland Reserve.  The pools were still slightly frozen in places, but small groups of Teal were dotted around the edge, with a few Shoveler mixed in.  A Cetti's Warbler sang briefly from the reedbed.  Strimming was in progress near the main hide so I quickly moved on towards the Cattle Bridge Pool hide.  A couple of Meadow Pipits and Skylarks flew over.  Looking from the hide, a couple of Teal were tucked into the edge, then I spotted a snipe half hidden in the rushes opposite the hide.  It looked very small and a stripy head pattern indicated Jack Snipe.  Annoyingly I'd left my telescope in the car, but as the bird looked very settled I took a few record shots and jogged back to get the scope.  It was worth the effort as after a while the Jack Snipe woke up and started it's unique bobbing behaviour.
Jack Snipe - looking alert
Jack Snipe - bill tucked in
My next stop was Northbrook, a small area of wildlife rich farmland near Upper Heyford.  Normally reliable for Corn Buntings, none were immediately in evidence, but a small group of Golden Plover were keeping a low profile in the middle of a huge cereal field. I decided not to linger as I wanted a good amount of time at Blenheim.

Blenhein Palace is of course world renowned and one of the UK's major tourist destinations.
Blenheim Palace
It sits within glorious parkland with lakes, meadows and fine old trees including many veteran Oaks.  In recent weeks it has become incredibly attractive to wildfowl and birds that wade - especially Great Egrets.  This is largely due to the temporary drainage of Queen Pool, one of the two large lakes in front of the palace.
Information about the £40 million restoration project
This has created a unique feeding opportunity and the birds have taken full advantage, not only the egrets, but many hundreds of Teal and other waterfowl including a few Whooper Swans.  
The park was looking fabulous is the bright afternoon sunshine.  Entering the park via the right of way from Woodstock, you reach the lake in about five minutes.  The Great Egret was immediately obvious - wading about in the middle of the large pool that remained after the drainage of the lake.  Little Egrets and Grey Herons preferred to sit around on the mud!  A Yellow-legged Gull and a couple of Green Sandpipers were also present.  Overhead, a couple of Peregrine Falcons were chasing each other and calling quite loudly, while both Red Kites and Common Buzzards drifted over.  There have been some fabulous photos taken of the Great Egrets, when up to six were present recently, now it seems just a single bird remains.

I then remembered to look for the Whooper Swans.  They were further on, feeding right next to the Grand Bridge, almost continually up-ending and searching for food items in the muddy lake-bed.  They are occasional winter visitors to our area, breeding in Iceland and a few places in Scotland.

Whooper Swans beneath Vanbrugh's Grand Bridge
People were everywhere but the birds seemed relaxed and it was a privilege to be able to enjoy such a great wildlife experience, albeit a short-lived one, on our doorstep and in such fine surroundings.

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