Easter birds and insects around Oxford (review)

In my previous post I said local birding had become tedious. That was perhaps a little harsh as there have actually been some good birds in Oxfordshire recently. What had been most tedious was the overcast, soul-dampening weather that persisted through much of March. But all that changed over the Easter holiday weekend.

In recent days it has been possible to see three scarcer ducks locally  – Long-tailed, Ring-necked and Garganey – and then there is the Red-necked Grebe at Farmoor Reservoir. The last-named is currently gracing the site for it’s fourth consecutive passage season, and each time has drawn a lot of attention nationally. When this individual first appeared in the autumn of 2013 it was a county tick for more than a few seasoned Oxonbirders. Since then the Grebe has become a celebrity in our annual birding calendar, its presence always signalled by the attendant photographers. It is of course unusual to see this species in full breeding plumage in England, and the site is easily accessed from the A34 north-south trunk route.

Red-necked Grebe in pre-Easter murk

Red-necked Grebe in pre-Easter murk

Of the ducks, a female Long-tailed Duck has moved between various sites in Oxfordshire since last November (see here). Most recently this bird has taken up residence at Cassington gravel pits besides the A40 road west of Oxford, maintaining her preference for difficult to view sites with no public access. I couldn’t locate the bird here on two visits in the past six days, though others have been more fortunate.

On 1st April a drake Garganey arrived just north of Oxford on a lake at Stratfield Brake and has remained there each day since. This Woodlands Trust reserve is wedged in between the Oxford canal and a sports ground of the same name (SB). I first visited the following morning, accessing the site from a footbridge over the canal and meeting Oxon naturalist Wayne Bull. We could not locate the bird but I returned later in the morning and a visitor had been successful. I am more used to seeing this summer visitor in the middle distance, and at these closer quarters the subtle beauty of its breeding plumage stands out. The picture (below) is reasonable by my standards but still has a grey feel dictated by the weather conditions.

Drake Garganey

Drake Garganey

It subsequently transpired that this duck hugs the lake shore on the sports ground side and is often concealed in the marginal vegetation there. Many more pictures appeared on the Oxon Birding Blog (OBB) over the holiday period. Good Friday was a wet, dismal day but Saturday turned into something of a passage season classic.

En route a little later than intended to my weekly rendezvous with the Otmoor Massive, I met two cars heading the other way up Otmoor Lane belonging to Oxonbirders Tezzer and Mark. “Hello, something’s turned up,” I thought and indeed it had: four Ring-necked Duck at Standlake gravel pits to the south-west. Turning around, I called “The Wickster” (Tom Wickens) who leads a monthly first-Saturday walk at Farmoor Reservoir, and we arranged to meet there. In the event Tom had just one other walker besides myself on this day and we all agreed to go and see the RNDs. But before we left Farmoor an Osprey dropped in.

Tom is something of a grapevine maestro. Hence an observant birder tipped off patch worker Dai, who passed it on to Tom and I was in the right place at the right time for a chance encounter, my first local Osprey in three seasons. When this bird hit the water it seemed to stick there initially. Then the Osprey rose carrying an enormous Trout, one less for Farmoor’s fee paying anglers, to be mobbed immediately by gulls and crows. The visiting raptor circled ever higher until Tom guessed it was over Abingdon still clutching the fish and having evaded its pursuers. What a sighting! By now I was fully appreciative that none of this would have happened had I not been late heading to Otmoor in the first place. It was that sort of day!

Ring-necked Ducks (centre) (c) Adam Hartley

Drake Ring-necked (centre two) and Tufted Ducks
© Adam Hartley

Pit 60 at at Standlake gravel pits is managed as a nature reserve by the Lower Windrush Valley Project. When we arrived at the key holders’ hide on the north shore Tezzer and Mark had been joined by more of Oxon ‘s finest including Ewan and Gnome. The Ring-necked Ducks were in a  group away to the right and the three drakes were displaying amorous intent towards the lone female. Mating was filmed here a day later. The likelihood of four truly wild birds turning up in the same place in England had been greeted with scepticism initially. But through Saturday and Sunday this came to be accepted as a nationally significant sighting of the north American species, and was even a news item on Radio Oxford (see here).

From Pit 60 I followed Ewan and Mark back to Stratfield Brake for another look at the drake Garganey. Four more of these migrant wildfowl had meanwhile arrived at a site just outside of Thame, east of Oxford. I caught up with these (again three drakes and a female) later in the afternoon on a farm pond but they were too distant to photograph.

On Easter Sunday and Monday I made the effort to stay at home for part of the day and get on with some gardening. In the spring sunshine (at last!) hibernator butterflies, Small Tortoiseshell and Peacock Butterfly began flying at King’s Copse Park where I live. I also had my first garden Brimstone butterfly of the year and various bees and wasps were active. What a transformation the sunny conditions created, even tempting some fellow residents outside.

Large numbers of Scarlet Tiger moth larvae have survived the winter. These have munched their way through much of the invasive Green Alkanet in my wildlife garden and have also concentrated on the other original food plant Caucasian Comfrey. I am finding them on other plants too but the widespread devastation that I feared last autumn has not happened yet. In their hunger these larvae seem to turn to anything to eat, even Dandelions. When I find well grown ones on the walls of my park home again I assume they are crawling away to pupate. Adult moths are due in June.

Northern Wheatear

Northern Wheatear

Later in the afternoons of Sunday and Monday I paid my first visits of the year to the South Oxon Downs. The area above the villages of Blewbury and Aston Upthorpe is always an uplifting one to walk and contains SSSIs of butterfly importance that will be featured here later in the year. On Sunday I experienced a fairly large Corn Bunting and Yellowhammer roost above Woodway (SU532848) south of Blewbury. Then on Monday the highlight was the male Northern Wheatear (above) in Juniper Valley (SU545835), a reliable location for this species throughout the summer as well as in the passage season.

Drake Garganey again

Drake Garganey again

Today was sunny again after a cool, foggy start so I went out to photograph some of the birds in better light. First up was the Stratfield Brake Garganey that obliged as soon as I arrived on site. Then in the afternoon I enjoyed an extended session with the Red-necked Grebe, in company with visiting photographers as always. Some of the best pictures on OBB have made me wonder why I bother to attempt bird photography with my entry level SLR, but I am quite pleased with this shot.

Red-necked Grebe at Farmoor What a difference some sun makes!

Red-necked Grebe at Farmoor Reservoir
What a difference some sun makes!

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