Friday 1 April 2016

Oxfordshire: Otmoor And Farmoor

Oxfordshire is a county I normally visit in late Spring, as the RSPB reserve of Otmoor tends to attract good numbers of hobbies returning to the UK to breed. But in need of a walk, I decided to zip down the M40 to make the most of a bright day. I hoped that I might perhaps see the marsh harriers reported from the reserve, or catch a glimpse of a brown hare. If nothing else, the walk around the place is worth it most days.

A pair of red kites circled the car park as I gathered my kit for the stroll. They drifted elegantly off towards the marshes, and I followed, albeit somewhat more clumsily, getting a leg of my tripod caught in the swinging entrance gate! Along the path the air was filled with birdsong, with linnets, blue and great tits and wrens battling for airtime. The feeders were a hive of activity, including goldfinches and a variety of tits. Amusingly there was a grey squirrel desperately doing battle with the squirrel-proof feeder, and not getting a great deal of joy from what I could see. Alas I failed to see any of the bramblings that had been seen recently.

It felt a bit strange to be wandering along without any hope of seeing or hearing the purring turtle doves that are often present during the summer months. I didn't take a shot until I peered through the first screen, when a grey heron approached the back of the pool, seemingly performing a relay race with its partner as it took off immediately as the other one landed on their nest.

It wasn't long before one of the marsh harriers, a male, lifted out of the reeds, but he was a smidge far off for taking photos. After circling high up, he then went into a stooping dive, much like the goshawks I'd watched earlier this year, though this was far more impressive, as he went much higher and repeated the display several times. Wonderful to watch.

Around the pools were good numbers of wildfowl, including tufted ducks, mallards, coots, teal, moorhens and closest were some shovelers. The males of these ducks seemed pretty restless, and were paddling out from the cover of the reeds, then taking flight, only to circle the pools briefly before landing back where they started. This gave me the chance of some flight shots, and I was pleased to see the gorgeous patches of colours on their wings on the photos.

Whenever a female shoveler appeared, the males would gather around, bobbing their heads up and down excitedly, only to watch her paddle off, seemingly unimpressed! The females also brought in more males from across the marshes - perhaps that was the reason for the brief flights, to check for available females!

In the 90 minutes or so I was at the first screen, not once did a marsh harrier stray close enough for an image, so I decided to continue the walk to the end screen. As half-expected, no sooner had I gone around the corner to the next screen, one of the marsh harriers rose up and flew straight over where I had just been standing. I seem to recall uttering a few expletives.

The hedgerows were occupied by numerous small birds, singing or searching for grubs to eat. I saw reed buntings, robins, finches and heard a few chiffchaffs belting out their signature calls. The surprise of the day was waiting for me as I reached the far screen. I was just lifting my camera off my shoulders when I spotted a pale bird with dark wing-tips heading across the back of the pool. Something about it made me look harder... a male hen harrier!!

I could just about balance the camera on the tripod to grab a few record shots before it vanished from sight behind the trees. I hoped it might circle around for another view, but alas it failed to do so. Great to see though. Judging by the direction from which it appeared, it probably flew into the reserve across the rifle range. There's some irony, in that it had less chance of being shot on there than when it eventually finds itself over a grouse moor in a few weeks time.

The pool in front was quieter than the other one, with a pair of swans drifting gracefully across it. I was glad of my UniqBall head to ensure the water would be on the level for any images taken, which is especially helpful when the subject fills the frame and limits any cropping that might need to be done to correct such a problem in post-processing.

I also spotted the first swallow of the year, chasing insects around over the water. Insects are a problem at Otmoor, and whenever the breeze subsided, the clouds would amass over the paths. Horrid things! Let's hope the swallow is followed by many others to reduce the insect population.

After seeing the hen harrier, I wasn't keen on leaving quickly, and was glad I hung around, when finally one of the marsh harriers flew a bit closer. While never as close as those seen in Norfolk a few years back, it was a welcome sight.

It soon drifted off again, and I watched it do battle with a red kite shortly after, to chase it from I assume, where the nest will be this year. It will also need to keep a watchful eye on the buzzard population, as I counted at least four around at times.

Back to the first screen, just in time to watch and giggle at a great-crested grebe trying to swallow a fish far too big for it. It tried several times to get it down, but it wasn't going to fit, so it had to let it go.

I had left it a bit late in the day to head over to Farmoor for the red-necked grebe, so returned the next day in similar weather conditions. The last one I saw there favoured one corner of the pool, so I assumed it would be there. Nope. Was the other side, so as before, I ended up walking miles further than I needed, but with only one other photographer present when I eventually got there, we enjoyed some close views as it chased fish into the shore.

The water was a bit choppier than I'd have liked, but the 1DX did a sterling job of focusing on it each time.

It seemed to be catching sticklebacks mainly, and between dives, picking insects from the surface of the water.

Amusingly, sometimes the sticklebacks would be wrapped in a fine, stringy weed and the grebe didn't want to eat that, so would try to flick this from the fish... and not always successfully, flinging the fish away too!

Eventually my legs started to fail me, from having to squat down to get a low angle for the shot, then standing with the weight of the camera, tripod and my ludicrously heavy rucksack on my back, to move position each time the grebe dived. I hoped my legs might have been stronger after climbing through the deep snow in the Highlands recently, but obviously not.

On the way back to the car, I encountered a rather worried lady who had no change to get out of the car park. I donated a pound coin, which was reluctantly accepted... and as I drove out moments after her, I spotted that the barrier wasn't down anyway. Hey ho! A lovely couple of days out in Oxfordshire, and I'm sure I'll be back down there again soon, probably to coincide with the arrival of those dashing birds of prey...


Linda said...

Glorious captures!

S S Cheema said...

Great Blog you have here. Thanks for the sharing the interesting day birding...