Owlin’ & Hammerin’ at Otmoor

We may be approaching the end of April, but I’ve just got around to blogging our two visits to Otmoor back in February and March. It’s been a year of patchy birding opportunities; the culmination of Mrs Sausage’s studies and an ongoing battle with our housing provider have meant little time to write, let alone bird. For your (belated) reading pleasure, here are the highlights of our Oxford ornithological sojourns.

On the 14 February, we took a trip to a sunny Otmoor. We were making our way by The Closes where we bumped into Otmoor regulars Peter Barker and Paul Greenaway who gave us an update of sightings and warned us that the breeze on the reserve was a biting one. This proved to be something of an understatement as we spent the rest of the day battling numb ears and watery noses. Despite the very chilly wind, Otmoor was, as usual, full of life. Ashgrave was dotted with Lapwings nestling into the long grasses among the wintering ducks, and the feeders were busy as ever with Goldfinches and Greenfinches dominating the scene.


Out on Ashgrave we watched an almost balletic display from one of the now resident Marsh Harriers, scouring the ground for prey whilst riding the ever-present breeze that was buffeting the whole reserve. Highlight of the day was undoubtedly the huge number of Golden Plover or sky confetti as per Mrs Sausage. With little warning, the sounds of thousands of wings beating would fill the air, akin to a large wave hitting a shoreline, and the sky would fill with a shimmering gold and white cascade. Images taken on this day really don’t portray the scene with anywhere near the effect seeing it in person did.


Coming in a close second were some great views of Yellowhammers from the wetlands hide. The seed spreading programme by this hide has brought in great numbers of Reed Bunting, Linnet and Yellowhammer. My best shot on this visit was this one, through the somewhat murky glass of the hide.


Highlights of our second visit on the 23rd March begin at the Wetlands Hide as we were able to enjoy better views of the seed-eaters. A steady steam of birds would descend, feed and then leave as aggressive corvids or the occasional walker came too close.




Also present on Big Otmoor were a few Little Egrets, stalking the water for a meal.


With blue skies and a lovely warm temperature conditions were also good for spotting some non-feathered fauna. This tiny newt was spotted on the path to the first reedbed screen.


The reedbed lagoon was full of Anatidae though, with Tufted Ducks among the most numerous of the species.



One of my favourite and distinctive of the duck family were the Shovelers.



And there were a few smart looking Gadwall too.



Among the Teal and the Mallards were a handful of Pochard.


And we saw a good four or five elegant and very fast moving Great Crested Grebes.



We were also lucky enough to watch two Marsh Harriers mating on some bare branched trees at the very back of the Barn Field whilst in the hide. Hope springs eternal that these engaging birds breed and remain at Otmoor.

Our return journey took us back to the Wetlands Hide and along the public footpath betwixt Ashgrave and Big Otmoor. We were just behind a group of other walkers on the path, and stopped for all of 5 minutes at the gate to marvel at the breath-taking golden hue over this part of the reserve. This was apparently a heinous move and prompted some long-lens owners in the hide to talk down at us from their high chairs, pretty much getting in a strop and demanding that we should go elsewhere and not disturb their vitally important work.

I’ve been birding regularly for nearly five years now and it does seem that owning a long lens on a tripod and dressing in camouflage transforms some “birders” into thinking both wildlife and other people are beholden to your needs and requirements. Common sense, some politeness and respect for both the wildlife and other observers seems to be way down on the list and does the reputation of the majority of friendly and considerate birders no good at all. Fortunately this was a rare occurrence at Otmoor but it was unnecessary and disappointing to say the least. Rant over, our sojourn down the footpath was justified with a lovely view of a hunting Red Kite and this almost showy Yellowhammer.



The Yellowhammer was just above us and was very un-interested in our presence.


Without doubt though, the best part of our day was saved until almost the end. As the sunlight started to transform into hazy rays of late afternoon we joined a small crowd scene at The Closes in anticipation of seeing a Barn Owl. Regular Otmoor visitors had reported this as an almost daily occurrence in recent weeks. We were not to be let down either, as a silent, ghost-white Barn Owl appeared and began hunting.

As if this was not a perfect enough way to end the day, the Barn Owl was joined quite quickly by a Short Eared Owl that promptly took up a perch slap bang in the middle of The Closes. Although the Barn Owl was constantly moving, the Shortie remained still long enough for a few mid-range pictures, Mrs Sausage having the best viewpoint took the best of our bunch here:


Whilst I managed this:


As we made our way down the path to the car park, buzzing with two owls in the same place at the same time, we were serenaded to our car by a typically melodious Song Thrush.


A quite wonderful 3-4 hours at Otmoor with plenty going on and a perfect prelude for the exciting spring months to come.

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