Tuesday, 12 May 2015

RSPB Otmoor For A Day

My visit to Otmoor started with me heading to Marsh Lane, after seeing some reports from there of a pair of hobbies being seen hunting over the causeway. However, as I was trundling along the M42 motorway I saw the signs for the M40 and decided that Otmoor might also have some hobbies, and that there would probably be a fair bit more of interest there too. Decision made, I continued my drive south, and thought the omens might be good when a brown hare crossed the road in front of my car, just before reaching the car park.

The skies were a mix of blue and dark, menacing clouds, so I chose to don my Paramo jacket, just in case. The air was filled with the song of linnets, whitethroats, sedge warblers and wrens as I strolled down the entrance path, checking the ditch for any grass snakes along the way. And, just as I reached the bridge, my decision for the jacket was proved wise, when the heavens opened and it poured down! Thankfully it soon passed away in the breeze, and I set off along the path.

Greeting me initially was a common whitethroat who caught me out as I had my lens set for distance shots, but after a quick fumble under the lens cover, I was happily getting shots of him, as he hopped along the posts of the fence singing, and picking off spiders.

As he flew away I heard the unmistakeable purring sound of a turtle dove, from a usual spot for them it has to be said. I soon located it in a tree, and grabbed some shots. Not great light, but not to be sniffed at.

Flying over my head, it fluttered down to the area near the main gates, perhaps to feed on the seed thrown out by the RSPB volunteers. Making sure I didn't spook the bird, I approached cautiously taking shots through the gaps in the gate, only getting close after the dove had pottered off down the path somewhat, and out of sight.

Great to see and somewhat of a relief after the gauntlet they may have to take if their flight path goes via Malta...

Another distinctive call is that of the cuckoo, and I could make out a pair calling from two different areas. As I walked along, one flew right past me, chasing another, before heading out across the marshes into the distance. They weren't the first I had seen of the year, as they were in Norfolk, but I did spot my first swift; several of them in fact and whilst watching them, I clocked a hobby in the distance. Fab.

Deep in the shadows beside the path was a pair of garden warblers, busy collecting nesting material, and on the other side by the main marsh area, a pair of shovelers hurried out of the water; the male staring at me before flying off with his partner in tow.

The hedges were alive with small birds, such as long-tailed tits, goldfinches, blackcaps and sedge warblers, the latter singing loudly from the edge. Lovely to see and hear, and something that always reminds me of Spring.

I was about to go for a look out of the hide when a hobby buzzed past me low, and I found myself attempting to follow it, along the path away from the hide. It was low, but the top of the hedge was in the way and I soon lost it from view. Encouraging though, and a chat with a birder walking towards me, provided the info I wanted to hear. Lots of hobbies at the far end of the path.

He was right. Difficult to count as they move around so much, but maybe 10+ in the air. A fantastic sight, and one I was soon hooked on trying to photograph. Not that easy with these birds as they change direction so quickly and without much warning, but the expanded focus points on the 7Dmk2 helped immensely with tracking them in flight.

There also seemed to be plenty of flying insects for them to feed upon, and they were catching them every few seconds.

As I followed one individual with my camera I saw two large birds skimming the reeds in the viewfinder, and a refocus later realised I was watching a pair of common cranes! I burst off a few but with the distance and slight heat haze only managed record shots. Scanning the reeds revealed nothing more, so I just hoped they might appear again soon for another go.

Back on the hobbies again, though it didn't take long to be distracted again, first by all the common terns dancing around the skies, and then by a female marsh harrier!

After watching some in Norfolk recently, I was chuffed to see some much closer to home. She also seemed to be taking nesting material across the reeds, and promptly dropped down out of sight.

I had decided by now that I would stay here as long as I could, to enjoy the sight of the hobbies and perhaps see the cranes again. A birder who had been by the screen earlier strolled back and stopped for a chat. He had to leave but was gutted he'd not connected with the cranes, and joked that they'd probably appear as soon as he'd left. I told him not to worry and that I'd give him a shout if they did before he was out of my sight.

Literally seconds after he walked away, both the cranes burst up from the reeds. I shouted to the birder, who later admitted he thought I was doing a prank on him, and we both enjoyed views as the pair circled briefly, before heading off across the marsh.

Definitely my best views of common cranes, after seeing some at Slimbridge, Lakenheath and about a mile up over my house some years ago.

Thanking me for alerting him, the birder strolled off much happier, leaving me to focus once again on the hobbies. They would come close in waves, but trying to predict which ones might fly closest was a case of luck.

And trying not to be too distracted by the antics of the marsh harriers (yes, a second female had appeared by now) was also challenging. One seemed to have caught something and strayed into the range of the other female, who chased her off angrily.

Despite being stood for hours, I hadn't got anything really special from the session, and was about to head off to try another spot when a hobby headed towards me, the camera locked on, and without changing direction for once, the hobby lined up, caught, dismembered and then ate a damselfly on the wing. And I managed to get shots of the whole sequence with one high speed burst.

As clouds behind me started to build, I chose to wander back, as it's not a short walk from there. A red kite drifted past quite low, being mobbed by all manner of birds including corvids and lapwings.

Upon reaching the bridge area, I was again treated to fabulous views of the turtle dove as it fed from the ground, but was left cursing when a coot took offence to it, and chased it off. Miserable old coot.

The reserve had one last treat for me too, and it reminded me of Shetland. Drumming snipe. Several performing the strange flights. Never very close, but brought back some fond memories.

What a day I had enjoyed. And remarkably it had one last treat left. As I drove out of the site and through the lanes, I spotted a pair of 'togs photographing something over a gate. Pulling over I asked and was informed that there was a barn owl out hunting, and coming very close. I didn't need any persuasion to park up, grab the gear and have a go.

They weren't wrong! The barn owl was flying literally a few yards away at times.

Not the best background for some of the shots, but they are such a magical sight to enjoy.

And also the perfect end to what had been an unplanned, unexpected but quite unbelievably good day!

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