31st July

I thought that I'd do an end of month update to round up what's been happening on the patch. Despite the time of year, there have actually been quite a few good things to report.

I'll kick off with birds where I've personally been distinctly neglectful but other more enthusiastic members of the Port Meadow team have been out and about finding stuff. By far and away the best record and indeed even a possible candidate for bird of the year was a Quail that was heard calling by Nick Boyd on Burgess Field at midnight. It called four times but not again so I am wondering if it was actually flying over and calling - something that apparently they do do (see Gavin Haig's "Not Quite Scilly" blog here). It's been a good year for Quail in the county but I never thought we'd get a record on the Meadow! Mind you, I never expected a Ring Ouzel either, so you just never know!

The second birding record was another report of a Little Owl by Nick along the northern boundary of Burgess Field. With two records now in this area, they may well be resident in this area - worth keeping an eye out for them then.

I've been spending most of my time mothing of late. It's always exciting to start the day unpacking the trap to see what's turned up. One day recently on top of the trap I came across a rather unassuming micro. I couldn't find it in the field guide which either means you've stumbled on something truly rare, or more usually, you're just being dense. So I asked my go to moth ID expert, Sean Foote (@MothIDUK on Twitter) and he came back with Zelleria oleastrella which I'd never even heard of so in this instance it was actually the "truly rare" option after all! It turns out to be an immigrant moth with fewer than a dozen national records and a first for the county (well more strictly VC23 which is the legacy county boundary that is still used for mothing). Its larvae mine Olive leaves so it's most likely route into the country is via imported Olive trees. It's not often that you get a county first when mothing!

Zelleria oleastrella - a real national Mega & county first!

Apart from that there's not been anything else that unusual on the mothing front though with my more concerted efforts than usual I'm catching lots of "new for garden" species to extend my rather modest garden moth list.

Also on the insect front, Nick Boyd has been seeing lots of Glow Worms in Burgess Field. Apparently numbers are diminishing now as we reach the end of the month so I guess we're at the end of their season but it's great to know that they're around here. Next year I must make an effort to try and see them.

There are plent  of the usual Odonata about and Migrant Hawkers are now starting to turn up in the county. Below are a couple of photos courtesy of the eagle-eyed Nicola Devine.

Female Emerald Damselfly courtesy of Nicola Devine

Southern Hawker courtesy of Nicola Devine

9th July

I see that it's been over a month since my last post. This is of course a reflection of the quieter time of year that we now find ourselves in. It's also a reflection on the fact that I am presently much busier than in the past so am not so easily able to get out during the week. So this post is a round up of the various snippets of news from the last month.

Firstly on the birding front there has been very little news. The resident and summer visiting breeders have all been busy trying to raise their young which can be seen blundering around the place as they learn to master their environment.

A young Reed Warbler blundering around in the reeds

There was one piece of good bir news: Nicky Boyd has been hearing a Grasshopper Warbler up just past the Trout Inn near the ring road. Whilst the bird I think was located just outside the ring road it could apparently be heard from Godstow Nunnery and in any event we've counted bird for the year list just past the ring road in the past so it's going to be a very welcome tick.

As we're now into summer it's all about the insects and flowers now. The usual butterfly species are now on the wing with all three skipper species to be found on the patch as well as Marbled Whites and Ringlets.

A Marbled White

On the odonata front there have been some exciting finds in the county in the last month with a colony of Southern Migrant (Blue-eyed) Hawkers on Otmoor and a colony of Scarce Blue-tailed Damselflies up near Banbury. Sadly neither of these rarities have yet to be found on Port Meadow or the Trap Grounds but it's not beyond the realms of possibility. Another one to look out for is Willow Emerald (though it's still a bit early for them) which is spreading rapidly across the country and which was seen for the first time last year in the county not too far away in Whytham Wood. So plenty to look out for! In the meantime we've had to make do with the usual species which are of course just as enjoyable as ever.

Male Azure Damselfly in the Trap Grounds

Blue-tailed Damselfly in the Trap Grounds

A female Emperor in the Trap Grounds

Red-eyed Damselfly on the Castle Mill Stream

There have been some snippets of botanical interest in the last month. I managed to find a Pyramidal Orchid in the unmown field between the sailing club and Binsey village. However, the most exciting news was the find of some Common Broomrape growing in some Musk Thistle at the south east corner of the Meadow. Broomrape is a parasitic species which taps into the roots of a host species and takes its nutrients from there. For this reason they don't have any chlorophyl and so are often rather strange colours. To my (admittedly limited) knowledge this is the first record of this species on the Meadow though I will check this with an expert.

Pyramidal Orchid near Binsey

Common Broomrape

So for the rest of July expect more of the same really. Things will start to change in the autumn when we can start to look for returning migrants though without any water it will have to be restricted to passerines in Burgess Field.

5th June

Since my last post and the drying up of the floods I must confess that I've  hardly been out to the Meadow. To be honest the hoards of people that are getting their exercise there make it a less pleasant location to visit and without the incentive of some good birds to find I've not made the effort. Still there have been a couple of snippets of bird news to report. The first was a real stroke of good fortune. One Sunday a couple of weeks ago I was relaxing with the family up in the bedroom on the top floor when our daughter, who was facing the Velux window said "Oh look, there's a big bird!". I popped my head out of the window and to my astonishment there was a Crane circling low over the house. It did a complete circuit at quite a low height before heading off to the south west. I can't say for certain but I didn't notice any rings on its legs as it circled. Either way it's an excellent record! Now we have had one record of a Crane last year in May up at the Wolvercote end so this isn't the first for the site but it's the first that I've personally seen.

The second good bit of bird news was a Little Owl which Ian Curtis saw at 7 a.m. one morning along the north end of Burgess Field in the Willows. This species is recorded less than annually on the Meadow so I'm very pleased to have it on the list.

My lack of visits to Burgess Field mean that I've not been keeping track of the butterflies there. We should be getting Marbled Whites and Ringlets in flight  now as well as the various Skipper species (we're lucky enough to get Essex and Small Skipper in Burgess Field). The trouble is that now that I'm working (albeit from home) during the week, it's harder for me to pop out during the day. Still there's been plenty of Odonata action from the Trap Grounds. Indeed Nicola Devine (the local Dragonfly whisperer!) has been excelling herself once again when she found the site's first ever Downy Emerald in trees around the Heron Pond. This species is rather localised in the county and hard to catch up with so it's great to have one added to the list. That now makes a total of 21 out of the possible 33 Oxon species that have been recorded in the Trap Grounds - a great statistic!

Downy Emerald courtesy of Nicola Devine
All the other regular species, including a couple of Hairy Hawkers, have been seen in good numbers in the Trap Grounds, all taking advantage of what is perfect weather for them. You can enjoy loads more photos of them on the Trap Grounds Wildlife blog. Please note, my understanding is that sightings will soon be moving to a new dedicated website here.

Broad-bodied Chaser
For my part I've been enjoying my garden mothing, even adding a few new species to my modest garden list. There's not been anything spectacular in my catches though I've had three Poplar  Hawkmoths which are always impressive beasts to catch.

Popar Hawkmoth

19th May

On an evening visit to the Meadow today I found that the floods had finally completely dried so that marks the end of the spring passage season. There have been a few more snippets of interest to report: last week I had a good run of Little Ringed Plover each evening with counts of 3, 2, 4 and 1 on consecutive visits. There were also the usual Sheduck and one evening the Ruddy Shelduck pair were there as well which was nice to see. There's been a lone, rather sick looking Wigeon who was actually still there today, who has been loitering for the last few days. Apart from that it's the usual smattering of Black-headed Gulls and Pied Wagtails.

The two Ruddy Shelduck

Away from the floods there have been quite a few more Cuckoo reports. They've also centred around the canal area ranging from St Edwards playing fields down to the Trap Grounds area. It's actually turned out to be quite a good spring for them in the end.

For those who might be interested, I've done a review of the spring season on the Meadow on my other "Gnome's Birding Diary" blog. In  it, I give a countdown of the top 7 birds of the spring passage: if you want you can read it here.

So now that the birding season is drawing to a close it's time to turn our focus on flowers and insects. I'm still busy moth trapping away though so far without anything of particular interest. Nicola Devine has been taking some great photos of the Odonata life in the Trap Grounds which you can see on the Trap Grounds Wildlife blog as well as on the new Oxon Dragonflies blog. It will soon be time to start looking for Bee Orchids in Burgess Field once more as well as the emergence of our summer butterflies. There's still plenty to see out there!

Broad Bodied Chaser, courtesy of Nicola Devine.

8th May

The fact that it's been nearly a week since my last post tells you all you need to know about the  birding so far this month. Far from being the bonanza of rarities that I'd been hoping for, instead it's a been a light run of interest, with even that drying up to no more than a trickle over the last couple of days. The truth is that the weather is just too nice: any late passage migrants are just carrying on through rather than stopping. What's more the hot conditions are starting to take their toll on the floods - we've now lost half the southern leg already and are approaching the point where the floods split into two pools. 

Our Greenshank hung around for a couple more days at the start of the week and we had a good flock of 8 Ringed Plover one evening along with one or two Dunlin and a pair of Little Ringed Plover. Mid week a late Black-tailed Godwit popped in for a couple of days and unusually we had a fly-over Lapwing one morning. But, apart from the near resident Oystercatchers that's been about it on the wader front.

The Black-tailed Godwit on the floods

There's been a late smattering of Yellow Wagtails and another Wheatear was also seen working its way north along the Meadow. On the duck front there's been the usual gathering of Shelduck of varying numbers and interestingly there have been a few Egyptian Geese hanging around as well. On the warbler front a Sedge Warbler and a Lesser Whitethroat both working their way northwards along the allotment hedge next to the floods were both nice to see this week. 

In Burgess Field the usual warblers are well established by now. I reckon that we have six warbler species on territory this year with just Lesser Whitethroat and Sedge Warbler missing from the common list of eight species that we might get.

Northwards on the Godstow to King's Lock stretch there have been a couple of Cuckoo sightings and there were also several Sedge Warblers seen there as well as several Egyptian Geese (probably the same ones which are popping in on the floods from time to time). Talking of Cuckoo's, one resident of Kingston Road heard one calling at close quarters just to the east, so very much in the residential area - a most unusual record! 

The Swifts are back in the area and are to be seen on a daily basis flying over the Meadow and surrounding areas. It's always lovely to have these "devil birds" screaming in the skies overhead.

As far as birds of prey are concerned, I had a Hobby fly low over my house one afternoon, just above roof-top height which was nice to see. My wife had a kettle of 6 Buzzards soarding over our house another afternoon as well though I didn't get to see it. Apart from that it's been the usual species though a resident Sparrowhawk has been giving good views on the Meadow of late.

Sparrowhawk with male Reed Bunting prey courtesy of Nick Boyd

Looking ahead, from what I remember of May records we're about in the last week of good possible sightings though the way things have been going I'm not holding my breath. What we really need is a good sudden downpour to bring down a fall though there's not a drop of rain forecast for the next couple of weeks. Failing that we're just going to have to hope that we get lucky somehow with something dropping in though to be honest I'm starting to get "patch fatigue" from checking out the same area for such a long time!

2nd May

And so we're into May already. The mere fact that it's May and we've got the floods still in tip top condition is indeed something to celebrate - it's been many years since this has happened. The last few days have been relatively quiet by comparison with previous ones but there's still been plenty to see. 

As far as waders are concerned, we've had a Greenshank with us for several days now. In addition there's been a reasonable count of smaller waders with up to 8 Dunlin along with a Ringed Plover and a couple of Little Ringed Plover. The usual Oystercatchers have been with us but that has more or less been it.

On the duck front apart from one or two Mallards there are none left now apart from the lingering Shelduck of various numbers. One of these seems to be rather unwell and spends lots of its time  asleep on the shore or looking miserable. We did have a single Egyptian Goose drop in one evening which  was more unusual. But perhaps the highlight on the duck front was a very brief visit by a pair of Ruddy Shelduck that Dan Miller managed to photograph. Sadly records of this smart looking species are generally considered to be feral escapes rather than genuinely wild birds.

Ruddy Shelduck courtesy of Dan Miller

Raptors haven't had a mention for quite a while now but Ollie Padget spotted a Peregrine and a Hobby (the latter being a year tick) together one evening. Dave Lowe also had a Hobby over Burgess Field the following morning. 

On the Warbler front they're all pretty much in now. I had a walk around Burgess Field early one morning in good weather and the bird song was amazing! There must be at least half a dozen Garden Warblers on territory there - it seems like a good year for them. There also seems to be a Willow Warbler breeding on the patch this year which is nice.

So what can be expect over the coming days? I've been racking my brains trying to remember what May birding is like with good floods. In general it gets quieter as many of the passage waders have already passed through. Dunlin and Ringed Plover are the staple sightings but we can look out for Knot, Sanderling and perhaps even a Turnstone (though Farmoor generally has the monopoly on this species). In general as the quantity diminishes so the quality goes up and there's more likelihood of something rarer being spotted. Possible candidates would include both Grey and Red-necked Phalaropes, Spoonbill, Glossy Ibis or Temminck's Stint. However, it's possible that we might end up with a non wader rarity: last year it was a Grey-headed Wagtail that stole the show and for some reason  I keep obsessing about a Hoopoe on the patch.

Rarities aside I strongly recommend getting out to Burgess Field early one morning as the bird song is at its peak right now. Be warned, it's all over by 9a.m. at the latest presently and it gets very quiet after that. What's  more soon it will stop much earlier as the birds get stuck into raising their young.

29th April

The change in the weather to a more unsettled regime has transformed the floods from looking very anaemic (we'd already lost half the southern leg) through to being back on top form. What's more the change had brought us a couple of really good birds. The first was on Tuesday which was pretty rainy all day. I ventured out for a lighting visit at lunchtime and was rewarded with a Greenshank, a Little Ringed Plover and a late Yellow Wagtail. Later that afternoon when Dave Lowe paid a visit, along with another Wheatear, he managed to turn up a Black Tern, grounded by the weather and sitting on a small rock at the north end. This species is a real patch Mega with only one other record (in early May 2011) since 2000. Whilst it's a more than annual passage visitor to the county, they are almost always seen at Farmoor rather than in such a shallow pool as the Meadow floods. The bird stayed until about 7:15 pm when it flew northwards along the river.

The Black Tern in the gloom

The next day Dave Lowe was out again at first light and at 6:45 a.m posted news about a Grey Plover on the floods. This species used to be a just about annual visitor to the floods but always turned up quite late in the passage season and since over the last few years we've not had any flood waters left by then, we've not had one for a while now. I ventured down before starting work for the day and it was still there though there were no more subsequent reports after that.  An evening visit turned up a party of small waders with 4 Ringed Plover, 1 Little Ringed Plover and 1 Dunlin as well as 9 Shelduck and the usual two Oystercatchers. There was also a bonus Egyptian Goose on the floods which was nice to see.

The Grey Plover

The forecast had been for this unsettled weather to continue for quite some time but sadly it now seems to have reverted back to predicting more sunny conditions ahead. So this will in all likelyhood be the start of the terminal decline in the floods. I'm just hoping that we're going to have one more really good bird for the season. Fingers crossed!

27th April

We had a reprieve from the largely uneventful last few days when on Saturday evening Joe Wynn discovered a lovely Wood Sandpiper on the floods. This scarce county wader is a bit less than annual but is somewhat of a speciality of Port Meadow where we must be vying for the top county spot for sightings, along with Otmoor of course.

Wood Sandpiper courtesy of Joe Wynn
Quite a few birders (myself included) were on site early the next day but sadly it had moved on already. It's always fascinating to get a glimpse into the journeys of these waders: stopping off overnight for a refuel at somewhere like the Meadow floods before carrying on northwards.

Talking of overnight stop-offs, over the last week or so I've noticed a pattern of Little Ringed Plover sightings. I often head out to check the floods just before dinner at around 5pm where there's usually not much to be found at the moment apart from a few Yellow Wagtails and the usual Shelduck and Oystercatchers. However a couple of hours later when Ollie Padget pays a visit he more often than not turns up an "LRP" or two. So it seems very much to be a case of this species dropping in at last light to rest up before carrying on again as soon as it's light.

I've noticed a definite build-up in Black-headed Gull numbers over the last couple of days. There is a spring passage for this species which can often carry other more interesting species with it. This includes Bonaparte's Gull for which April and May are the months for county records (see my blog post here from last year). Accordingly each visit I've been checking out all the BHG's carefully. You never know!

There's not been much to report in Burgess Field of late. On Sunday morning there was a nice Lesser Whitethroat signing briefly by the gate before moving on and I've had a couple of reports of House Sparrows in there now. This species, whilst common in the surrounding residential area is not normally seen in the nature reserve at all.

Finally I should mention insects. We've got to that time of year: the usual butterfly species are now on the wing and our resident "insect whisperer" Nicola Devine has been turning up all sorts of goodies in the Trap Grounds already including a lovely Broad-bodied Chaser recently. Myself and Steve Goddard have been running our moth traps each night though the clear rather cold overnight conditions of late have made for rather low catches.

Broad-bodied Chaser courtesy of Nicola Devine
This Shoulder Stripe is not especially rare though it was a first for my garden

Brindle Beauty
Expect more on insects over the coming months as the birding dries up. Incidentally there is a new county dragonfly blog where you can see lots of hot Odonata action - see here.

24th April

There's been a distinct sense of things going quiet over the last few days. There's not been the same buzz of news about birds on the patch and whenever I've visited myself it's been the same few species.

The floods are rapidly shrinking. This prolonged dry and sunny spell is doing them no favours at all and in fact I'm surprised that they've lasted as well as they have. In the meantime we've had to be content with the usual Shelduck and a few Yellow Wagtails. Even the Oystercatcher visits have tailed off -  I guess that they're now tending their eggs where ever it is that they are nesting. The passage of White Wagtails seems to be over as well - I've not seen any in the last few days. Swallows and House Martins are "in" now and being seen daily on the Meadow though Swifts have yet properly to arrive.

Yellow Wagtail

Perhaps the highlight since my last post is the record of a Cuckoo up along the Thames path beyond Wolvercote from Steve Goddard's daughter who both saw and heard it call. Whilst the location may perhaps be more part of the environs rather than core patch, as you know, I'm fairly flexible in that respect, especially when there's a tick at stake!

On the Warbler front, our usual species now all seem to be "in" as well. Nicola Devine had the first Reed Warblers in the Trap Grounds reedbed - always an exciting event! Garden Warblers have taken up residence in Burgess Field, as have the Whitethroats and Blackcaps. I'm still hearing Willow Warblers working their way northwards through Burgess Field each visit though I don't think any have established a territory yet. We've had a few sightings of Lesser Whitethroats in various areas though again  they don't usually actually breed on the patch. 

Reed Warbler courtesy of Nicola Devine
Reports of our star Ouzel have stopped. I did take a brief look this evening without any luck and given how we're heading towards the end of April I would indeed have expected it to move on. There have also been a few Raven sightings of late. I suspect that they breed on Wytham Hill so will be fairly regular visitors.

So what is there still to look out for? The key Warblers that we've yet to see are Grasshopper and Cetti's. The former used to be guaranteed with up to four pairs in Burgess Field but they just suddenly stopped turning up. Cetti's on the other hand is less than annual anyway but we may well get one still. There are also some of the later migrants such as Spotted Flycatcher to search for and we still need Whinchat and Hobby for example. However, the main area for potential progress is waders. We do have a period of more unsettled weather coming  up. Rainy weather in May with some floods still present is really as good as it gets for spring Meadow birding and theirs nothing more exciting that a real "fall" of waders. So expect me to be out in the rain this week looking hard!

20th April

The year ticks are continuing to fall thick and fast at the moment though it can't last much longer as we'll soon have seen most things that we're likely to see! After that it will get down to the real grind!

Dave Lowe gave the patch a thorough grilling on Sunday morning and managed to turn up a great albeit brief Redstart sighting in Burgess Field. He then found a couple of Wheatear working their way northwards in the Hinterland. It's always a relief to get this surprisingly difficult latter species on the year list. That evening Ollie Padget had a heard-only fly-over Whimbrel that called four or five times as it flew over northwards though sadly he wasn't able to pin-point it before it was out of sight. I'm happy to count heard-only on the year list so that's another to add to the tally. Apart from that a single Little Ringed Plover was the only wader of note.

As well as the usual Yellow Wagtails (5 this evening) there were good numbers of White Wagtails on the floods with a count of 4. This sub-species is normally quite hard to find on the Meadow but for some reason we're having a really bumper year.

White Wagtail
Monday was generally a quieter day with very little on the floods in the morning. Apart from the usual Oystercatchers and Shelduck there were just 4 Yellow Wagtails. However in the evening, along with a single Little Ringed Plover Ollie Padget managed to turn up another wader year tick, this time in the form of our first Common Sandpiper.

Our star Ring Ouzel seems to be so at home in his little spot that he's very reluctant to leave. I managed to find him today skulking about under a tree despite large numbers of joggers and walkers in the reserve. In fact there was even a family picnicking in the general area that he likes to hang out. By deploying a bit of field craft I actually managed to get a half-decent photo of him though it was a shame that it was so dark where he was skulking.

He seems to like it here!

18th April

Port Meadow is continuing to get some excellent coverage at the moment with a whole posse of birders who would otherwise usually be birding elsewhere, now forced to use the Meadow as an outlet for their birding interest. Because of this much more is being seen than usual and it's a great opportunity to see what species turn up when and how bird numbers ebb and flow throughout the day. I've been visiting rather early for several days before starting my home working at 8 a.m. and have been finding the floods virtually empty. Apart from the more or less resident 4 Shelduck and 2 Oystercatchers and a few Little Egrets there's been almost nothing to report. On the other hand people who have been visiting towards the end of the day have been reporting a good variety of birds, including a smattering of Yellow Wagtails along with some White Wagtails as well as the odd Little Ringed Plover or two.

On Friday we finally had some much-needed rain. It's been getting on for a month now since we've had any decent rain and to be honest I've been surprised at how well the floods have been holding up. I chose to head down there during the rain on the off chance that the weather would lead to a "fall" of migrants. Some of my best days birding on the Meadow have been when bad weather has grounded loads of waders. Sadly it never happened and there was remarkably little on the floods. With rain for much of Saturday as well we did get a bit more action with the first batch of Dunlin and Ringed Plover coming through - as I said recently, these two species often seem to travel together. Thanks to excellent coverage that day on the Meadow it was possible to track the build up of birds throughout the day as they arrived and then decided to linger in what was clearly a favourable site. In fact it's worth mentioning the final tallies by the end of the day in detail:

6 Dunlin
3 Ringed Plover
1 Little Ringed Plover
26 (!) Yellow Wagtail
3 White Wagtail
5 Common Tern
100's of Swallows and House Martins with a couple of Sand Martins as well.

In addition Isaac West had the first Swift of the year go over. This is quite early for this species by a couple of weeks though Farmoor often seems to get one or two records way before they arrive at Port Meadow.

A pair of Common Terns resting on a tiny island in the floods

Amazingly our star Ring Ouzel has stuck around until Saturday at least, remaining faithful to a fairly small area. It's been very hard to see - it took me over an hour today to get a definite view after several brief glimpses. Matters aren't helped by the fact that there are a pair of Song Thrushes and Blackbirds in the same small area.

Video grab courtesy of Ollie Padget

Apart from that the first Garden Warblers have been seen. Mary MacDougall got the first from a canalside garden and since then there have been one or two in Burgess Field but they're not properly "in" yet.

So what can we expect in the next week or so? With many of our summer visitors now arrived, as well as continuing to enjoy them we might hope to catch some waders as they pass through. We might expect Common Sandpiper and perhaps also Green Sandpiper (though this is much harder to get here). It's prime time for Whimbrel and we might get lucky with a Sanderling or even a Knot or Barwit. On the passerine front there are Whinchat, Wheatear, Redstart and Tree Pipit still too look out for and we've yet to see Cuckoo or Hobby this year. Everything to play for in this time of peak spring passage!

14th April

After the excitement of the Osprey sighting on Saturday it's been a quiet couple of days on Sunday and Monday. Dave Lowe had four LITTLE RINGED PLOVER (that's now double figures of this species) and a few YELLOW WAGTAILS but apart from that it's just been the usual SHELDUCK and OYSTERCATCHERS that seem to be about the only noteworthy birds that are always there.

This morning I was up earlier than usual and went to check out the floods. Fresh in were a pair of BLACK-TAILED GODWIT and a single GREENSHANK, the latter being another year tick. Satisfied with this I went back to work for the day. I was just winding up at around 5 pm when Ollie Padget messaged to say that he'd found a RING OUZEL in Burgess Field! Now, you know how excited I got from one being reported in the Cripley Meadow allotments last week but here was one that could actually be viewable! Myself and several other local birders all converged on Burgess Field where the target bird turned out to be very skulking.  Fortunately it was periodically relocated and we all got to get good albeit brief views of it. 

Male Ring Ouzel courtesy of the finder Ollie Padget

Social Distancing Twitching

It turned out that someone had taken a very blurry photo the previous day of a "pale looking Blackbird" that on closer inspection could well have been the same bird. It's even possible that this might be the allotment bird relocating a short distance to some habitat with more cover. April Ring Ouzels in their usual county location of Linkey Down can hang about for quite some time so it's certainly possible. Anyway, it was a wonderful chance to see this species on the patch and one I'll long cherish.

I more or less assumed that it would be gone the next day but the next morning Steve Jennings managed to locate it more or less in the same spot, allowing more local birders to get to see it. Let's hope it sticks around a bit longer!

11th April

This Meadow purple patch just keeps on giving! This morning I arrived on the Meadow at around 8:15 a.m., a bit later than I'd been intending to. It turned out to be perfect timing however because just as I was walking towards the floods I noticed a couple with bins looking intently at something over towards the bridge. It turned out to be an OSPREY being mobbed by a few crows. It circled around over the floods for a few minutes before eventually heading northwards. What was undoubtely the same bird was seen about 15 minutes earlier flying north along the Thames between Sandford and Iffley Lock by Colin Williams. This clearly reinforces my theory that they follow the river north at this point which is why we have been lucky enough to get quite a few sightings over the years on the Meadow.

A fairly useless photo of the back end of the Osprey!
Apart from this great sighting it's actually been remarkably quiet over the last couple of days. There have been hardly any waders of note, just the usual two SHELDUCK and two OYSTERCATCHERS though there has been a sudden influx of immature Mute Swans with 15 yesterday. There's also been a notable increase in Herons and LITTLE EGRETS no doubt drawn by the trapped fish in the flood waters. Indeed there seem to be some rather large ones there judging by the monster that this Egret was trying to Swallow yesterday.

quite a mouthful!
There have been a smattering of HOUSE MARTIN and SWALLOW sightings about but they're not really "in" yet. The first Mallard ducklings are now appearing on the Meadow, always a delight to see. In Burgess Field it's been quiet as well with just a single WHITETHROAT on each of the last two days and a few WILLOW WARBLERS of note there. Still we can't really complain about the quietness as it's been a pretty good week all in all!

9th April

I said it was an exciting time of year but the last couple of days it has really stepped up a gear. On Wednesday someone reported a RING OUZEL on the Cripley Meadow Allotments "green" (the large communal space in the middle). It was reported at 8:30 but word didn't filter out until mid morning. Matters weren't helped by the fact that there's no public access but Steve Goddard managed to find a vantage point by climbing up a tree along the Thames path and unsurprisingly reported that there was no sign of it. To my knowledge this is the first record for the Port Meadow area and a great addition to the year list. It's just such a shame that it wasn't twitchable.

Another "not twitchable" record was a fly-over TREE PIPIT that was seen and heard by Isaac West later the same morning. This species is less than annual on the patch but it's a scarce county bird anyway and something of a speciality of ours with several twitchable birds in Burgess Field over recent years. Thanks to a lot of lockdown vis migging going on in various county gardens there's been a real glut of flyover Oxon records this spring already - it just shows what's being missed normally.

The next day I was out checking the floods first thing in the morning. There was a LITTLE EGRET fishing away near the Aristotle Lane entrance in it's regular spot but over in the north end was a monster egret that turned out to be a fantastic GREAT WHITE EGRET. Just on its size alone it couldn't be anything else and it was in full breeding plumage with reddish upper legs and an all dark bill compared to the usual non-breeding yellow colour. All in all a stunning bird! Not the first for the patch as we had one up at Wolvercote Lakes a couple of years ago but certainly the first that I've seen on the floods themselves. Sadly it didn't linger and was gone shortly after I saw it.

Great White Egret - looking stunning in full breeding colours
I was just heading back towards the southern end of the floods when Hugh Petter messaged to say that there was an AVOCET on the floods. It must have just that minute dropped in because I swear it wasn't there when I walked passed 10 minutes earlier! The Avocet obliged by staying around all day so people could see it.

More of a record shot of the Avocet this morning.
To round up other new year ticks: the first HOUSE MARTINS turned up over my garden on Tuesday evening and have been seen in small numbers over the floods now. Isaac West also had a couple of SWALLOWS over the floods as well on Wednesday. In Burgess Field Steve Jennings had the first WHITETHROAT of the year - they'll soon be here in numbers. This morning Dave Lowe had a couple of COMMON TERNS fly through. Farmoor breeding birds often pop over the hill to visit the Meadow so they will become regular visitors over the next month or two. Ollie Padget has had a couple of WHITE WAGTAILS on the floods this week as well. This is not a year tick as they're the continental subspecies of our Pied Wagtails but they are always a very smart addition to the spring bird life on the Meadow

We're being helped by the fact that both Farmoor and Otmoor are presently closed so Port Meadow (which normally has the number three spot by year list totals) has become the top county site at the moment and lots more people are birding it than usually do. This increased coverage should mean more sightings and more year ticks! Looking ahead we're right in the middle of the passage season now and lots of stuff should be turning up. Look out for the rest of the Warblers, more waders, chats, Cuckoo's etc. Also, just a reminder that late morning is peak Osprey time if anyone happens to be around then. It's everything to play for out there!

6th April

I've forgotten what an exciting time of year this is! Present global events not withstanding, from a point of view of nature, it's just getting on with things and it's always exciting to see what new species for the year turns up each day. I've been visiting the Meadow more or less on a daily basis though I tend to go very early at the weekend to avoid the greater crowds that are drawn to an open space like this. 

I've noticed a very dramatic drop in duck numbers on the floods just in the last week. This is of course only to be expected but it's always such a shock when we go from many hundreds of overwinter duck suddenly to sub 50 in total. This does of course make the whole process of sifting through the birds easier and it's getting much quicker to check out what is about on my daily visits.

As duck numbers decrease so wader numbers increase or at least change on a daily basis. We've been getting more BLACK-TAILED GODWITS coming through and have had two or three on the floods most days. There have still been a few REDSHANK about: the peak count the other day was 8 birds though they soon moved on. The OYSTERCATCHERS have been coming and going with up to 3 birds about most days. Our GOLDEN PLOVER flock has been with us all week with numbers steady at around 150 - they are starting to look very smart in the summer plumage now. Today there was another LITTLE RINGED PLOVER (our sixth I believe) at the southern end of the floods, accompanied by the first spring passage DUNLIN of the season. We should soon start to get both Dunlin and Ringed Plover coming through - they often seem to travel together.

The first spring passage Dunlin...

...and another Little Ringed Plover

I haven't really mentioned the flood passerines much but there have been a notable number of Meadow Pipits about, particularly about a week ago though numbers seem to have dropped dramatically of late. There are still Pied Wagtails about and today we had our first two male YELLOW WAGTAILS of the season: looking very smart in their bright yellow plumage against the dull brown of the drying mud.

The first Yellow Wagtail of the year

A Meadow Pipit - soon to head off to find somewhere to breed

In terms of larger birds as the floods shrink dramatically so the Herons and Egrets are moving in and there have been a couple of regular LITTLE EGRETS about of late.

On Sunday my early morning visit found the floods almost completely deserted so I ventured into Burgess Field to see if I could find a singing WILLOW WARBLER. I managed to turn one up just south of the Snipe Field and later on Paul Jennings managed two more as well a SEDGE WARBLER. Despite being a common summer visitor, this latter species is surprisingly hard to find on the patch so I am please to have it firmly on the year list so early. 

Looking ahead, my main concern is my usual worry about how quickly we are going to lose the floods. This prolonged dry spell combined with the increasingly hot and sunny weather is eating them up at a rapid rate and whilst they look good at the moment, it won't be long before they will start to shrivel up to something less appealing for a passing wader. In terms of new arrivals the first Garden Warblers have now been seen in the county and we should soon be getting the two Whitethroat species appearing as well as the returning Reed Warblers to the Trap Grounds. There are Cuckoo's to listen out for and we have yet to have a Wheatear on the year list. Swallows and House Martins should be back again soon as well. As I said at the beginning - it's an exciting time of the year!

1st April

Despite the blog post date there will be no foolery in these dark days. Still I hope that giving people the opportunity to read about the nature on Port Meadow might offer a welcome respite from the torrent of bad news all around us at present. As I'm fortunate enough to live a few minutes walk from the Meadow my daily exercise routine has involved a walk out to the Meadow with my bins so I've been able to carry on checking out what's about.

A little over a week or so ago things all suddenly kicked off on the Meadow. Thomas and I arrived at about the same time to find a flock of half a dozen or so SAND MARTINS hawking low over the water by Burgess Field Gate. Scanning the floods soon turned up a couple of LITTLE RINGED PLOVER and since then we've had three more birds making 5 in total so far this season. There have been one or two more Sand Martin reports but that's been about it.

A Little Ringed Plover
On the wader front things have stepped up a gear. We've had up to 15 BLACK-TAILED GODWITS on the flood initially thought the numbers dropped to around 5 a day for much of last week before tailing off to just a couple today. In addition there have been two or three REDSHANK most days as well as a few SNIPE skulking around along the muddy west shore. There's usually been one or two pairs of OYSTERCATCHERS about as well, We've also been blessed with a nice flock of GOLDEN PLOVER which has been with us for a while now. A peak count was around 350 though it's presently about half this number.

Some rather distant Black-tailed Godwits
On the duck front we've had varying numbers of SHELDUCK with us for some time now, peaking at around 6 birds though last night it was just a couple. There's also been a lingering pair of PINTAIL in amongst the other ducks and we're getting the usual spring gathering of GADWALL with up to a dozen birds on the floods, looking very smart in their spring plumage. There are still decent numbers of Widgeon and Teal around though these will start to drop over the coming weeks.

A pair of Shelduck
The BARN OWL is still being seen occasionally - let's hope it sticks around a bit longer. In terms of warblers it's still rather early. There have been the usual singing Chiffchaffs and I heard my first singing Blackcap a day or two ago but these may well just be overwintering birds starting to move into spring mode. In the next couple of weeks we should expect the first Willow Warblers to arrive soon followed by the other usual visitors, with the Whitethroats usually the last to reach us. It's well worth listening out for a Cuckoo in April and keep your eyes to the skies for a possible passing Osprey - they often seem to pass the Meadow late morning for some reason. It's an exciting time of year despite the doom and gloom all around us.

14th March - End of Winter Update

Here we are at the end of winter finally. Today the first spring migrant (a Little Ringed Plover) was seen in the county and there was some county wader movement as well with a Black-tailed Godwit and three Avocet all seen. So with spring finally starting to happen I thought I'd do an end of season round-up in anticipation of more frequent blog posts to follow.

There's not been anything particularly special to mention since the last postings. The gulling quality has gradually dwindled with just one or two more Caspians being seen in the roost. Today in a roost of thousands of Black-headed Gulls but less than fifty larger gulls there was a 1st winter CASPIAN GULL that looks a lot like Thomas' "bird 5". There was also a 2nd winter YELLOW-LEGGED GULL as well. Both Thomas and I have been keenly scouring the roost trying to get Mediterranean Gull on the year list during the key spring passage month of March but so far to no avail. It looks like we've gone yet another season without a white winger in the county let alone on the patch though technically there is still time. We can't really complain though: we've had double digit numbers of different Caspian Gulls and (thanks largely to Thomas's efforts) have cemented the Meadow as one of the top Caspian sites in the county.

Some pretty terrible video footage of "Bird 5" on the floods this evening.
You might want to turn off the audio!

Away from gulls (at last I hear some of you cry!) there have been the usual good numbers of ducks. The floods have been extremely extended for much of the last month which has made for ideal conditions for them. There have been up to 8 SHELDUCK about with a smattering though steadily decreasing number of GOOSANDER coming in to roost. PINTAIL counts haven't been that large with just a few birds and none today. We are starting to get a few of the usual spring GADWALL records with three of them today in amongst the throng. On the goose front I've not seen the BARNACLE GEESE for a few weeks now though they were about quite a bit when the floods were at their largest. The mongrel WHITE-FRONTED GEESE from Blenheim that include some hybrids with a BAR-HEADED GOOSE have been coming in to roost at last light quite often.

On the wader front we had 6 RUFF visiting us again for a few days when the floods were very extended (what I like to call "Lake Mode") and up to five DUNLIN as well. We've had the first pair of OYSTERCATCHERS back on site again and I expect them to be around for quite some time now as I think they breed nearby. A couple of REDSHANK have been hanging out near the river. Surprisingly we've not had a Black-tailed Godwit so far though I expect that to change fairly soon.

Away from the floods in Burgess Field we've had regular sightings of a BARN OWL though I've personally yet to catch up with it.

The Barn Owl courtesy of Matthew Lloyd

Looking ahead for the rest of this month, it's still actually very early in the season. We can expect some wader movement as overwintering birds start to move back up north. In addition we might well get our first Little Ringed Plover and perhaps also Sand Martins. This is also a prime month for Garganey so it's worth looking through the duck flock carefully. On the gull front it's still everything to play for with the Med Gulls and it's just possible that we might one day find a Ring-billed Gull in amongst the Common Gull passage that is currently happening. One can dream!


First two weeks of February

Birding over the last couple weeks has been largely the same as January. Storms Dennis and Ciara have made birding impossible on some days, but at least the floods have been topped up again. The first oystercatcher of the year arrived on 8th February, and several ruff, dunlin and redshank have been seen with the lapwing flock, along with some large counts of golden plover. Still no black tailed godwits, however, which is something to look out for in the coming weeks. A rather uneventful WeBS count on 12th February revealed little hidden amongst the wildfowl, although I had a peak count of eight shelduck.

On the gulling front I've had a couple more Caspian gulls and a few Yellow legged gulls but not much else. On 10th February I had good views of a first winter bird that I had previously seen distantly in December and a couple times subsequently. Initially I had called it as a Caspian gull, then downgraded it to a hybrid when I saw it distantly in flight, as it had dark underwings. This was the first opportunity I had to study it up close and it proved to be a very informative bird. There are a few features on this bird that are a bit "herring-y" - dark underwings, faint streaking on the head, and a rather average looking bill.  Using the Gibbins et al 2011 trait scoring system, which aims to remove some subjectivity from Caspian gull identification, I scored this bird as 22. This is within range of a pure Caspian gull (12-25) but also in range of a hybrid Herring x Caspian (22-32) - the authors state that the upper limit for safe identification as a pure Caspian is 21. Therefore, based on this study it is impossible to say whether this individual is an ugly looking pure Caspian or a hybrid.

However, I decided to put some images of this bird on Twitter, and received some positive comments from London birders who have the opportunity to study large numbers of Caspian gulls up close on the Thames estuary. They see lots of birds from mixed colonies in Germany, which can often be identified from yellow X colour rings. They said that this bird would make the grade as a Caspian in the South East - interestingly, it seems that the westward expansion of Caspian gulls into Germany since the Gibbins paper was published means that more and more "not so classic" individuals are being seen in Britain. It seems silly to ignore such birds when many are just slightly "impure", with some herring genes somewhere down the line, rather than a first generation or even second generation hybrid. Based on this feedback I'm happy to count it - I've certainly seen worse hybrids on the Meadow this winter. Before long I think we will have to start recording them as "Caspian-type" gulls anyway.

On 12th February I had an exceptional count of four different Caspian gulls in the roost - an absolutely beautiful second winter bird with massive p10 mirrors, "Graham" (nice to see it back in the roost after a week's absence), the other regular first winter and the bird above. In addition there were at least five Yellow-legged gulls - one of the best roosts I have ever seen on the meadow, with huge numbers of gulls floating close in on the water in very calm conditions.

Still no white wingers however which is disappointing - we can't possibility go a second year in a row without one on the Meadow! Another bird to look out for are storm-driven kittiwakes, which are a real possibility after the recent weather.


Caspian gulls so far

Over the past few weeks birding has been excellent on the meadow, with extensive floods leading to large numbers of gulls roosting each night. Searching through these gulls has revealed the presence of Yellow-legged gulls and Caspian gulls, with the latter being particularly sought after.

I generally find that numbers of Caspian gulls on the meadow tend to peak in January and February - indeed, I did not record any Caspian gulls before the new year, despite individuals being reported at other sites in Oxfordshire. Since finding my first bird of the winter season at the start of January, Caspian gulls have roosted on the meadow almost daily - indeed, I now regard it as a bad day when I fail to see one in the roost!

One of the joys of gull watching is not only the identification of Caspian gulls, but also being able to recognise individual birds - is this first winter Casp in the roost a new bird, or a familiar face? This is easy when individuals are of different ages, and careful examination of feather patterning, extent of moult and overall structure/expression (aided by a photographic record of all individuals seen) enables individuals of the same age to be differentiated.

I have been able to determine that at least eight, probably nine different Caspian gulls have visited the Port Meadow roost this season - an exceptional number, already breaking last year's total of seven and with previous years only averaging 3-5 birds. Below, I will give an account of the various birds seen so far. Hopefully, this will allow these birds to be recognised at different locations in the county and further afield.

Bird 1 - "Graham"

Graham, rather like myself, has been a regular at the Port Meadow roost over the last few weeks. Given how reliable it has been, I thought it deserved a name. First seen on 12th January, it has roosted several times a week since then. It is a rather dainty bird,  with its underparts and flanks being at the darker end of the spectrum, but with otherwise classic features.

Bird 2

Bird 2 is a large third winter with a thick bill, so far only seen once, on 15th January with Will Langdon. It retains a neck shawl and some dark centred tertials, enabling it to be distinguished from the other third winters.

Bird 3

Bird 3, an adult, was first seen on 20th January and has since roosted twice more. A classic bird, probably female given its thin bill and overall structure.

Bird 4

This second winter bird on 23rd January was extremely distant but showed all of the classic features one might expect in a Caspian gull of this age. I think I can even make out a p10 mirror in a few of the frames, although this might be a bit optimistic given the distances involved!

Bird 5

A new first winter bird arrived in the roost well after sunset on 24th January. I was left dissatisfied with my views and even less happy with the images of the bird - in fact, I was barely able to differentiate it from Graham (which was also roosting that night), and only realised it was a second bird when I noticed Graham on a different part of the flood. Thankfully, it has since roosted twice more, and with much better views has revealed itself to be a very different bird. It is quite large, and its bill is rather thick with a prominent gonys, indicating that it is probably a male. It can be differentiated from Graham by its more advanced covert moult, with several replaced median coverts and one obvious replaced inner greater covert. It is also whiter overall than Graham.

Bird 6

This third winter bird roosted on 28th January. It looks extremely similar to a bird I saw at Appleford gravel pit on 24th January in terms of its jizz, bill pattern and most plumage traits. However, it lacks a neck shawl, which was definitely present on the Appleford bird - either it has moulted these feathers in the days between sightings, or there are two very similar third winters in the county. It is also differentiated from bird 2 by its adult-type tertials and white tips to primaries.

Bird 7

Another first winter bird roosted on 1st February, with subtly different scapular patterning and slight notching on some of the inner greater coverts.

Bird 8

Bird 8 was found by Adam on 1st February - an absolutely classic third winter. Certainly different to the previous two birds, with its combination of neck shawl, some retained brown median coverts and white-tipped primaries. It is also different to the Appleford bird (if we assume that bird 6 is not the Appleford bird) on basis of primary pattern.

Comparison between the primary pattern of bird 8 (left) and the Appleford bird (right). The Appleford bird's p9 and p10 mirrors are smaller than bird 8, in particular, the p9 mirror in the Appleford bird is just a speck.

Bird 9 - probably!

On 23rd January I saw a possible third winter Caspian gull. I judged the bird to be dark eyed, have a white head, a long, pale coloured bill with black markings and a slightly darker mantle than the surrounding herring gulls. However, due to the distances involved (several hundred metres) and the fact that it was slightly obscured, making it difficult to assess structure, I left it as a possible and panned to the right, immediately picking out a second winter Casp, bird 4, that I began to video through my scope. After this I then failed to relocate the third winter bird.

Upon reviewing the video of bird 4 I was surprised to see the third winter walk in from the left of the frame, give a long call in a classic albatross pose typical of cachinnans. The video also reveals some faint streaking to the back of the neck, and shows how long the bird's legs are - the overall jizz is perfect. Note also the reaction it elicits from the second winter Caspian gull! Despite this I feel that it would be very hard to rule out a hybrid with herring gull, especially as I did not spend very long actually looking at it in the field. Therefore leaving it as a probable for now - I hope that it roosts again!

So there we have it - 3 first winters, a second winter, 3/4 third winters and an adult so far. With most of February still to come, and the floods still attracting a large numbers of gulls, I'm hoping that we'll get a few more Caspian gulls choosing to roost - there are certainly other individuals photographed at other locations in the county that haven't yet made it to Port Meadow. Looking forward, there is also the possibility of Iceland and Glaucous gulls dropping in - we failed to get any white wingers on the meadow last year, so fingers crossed for the next few weeks.