Wednesday, 10 August 2016

Purple Revenge

There's clearly a colour theme emerging from my last two posts! The day after my trip to Minsmere I was away en famille down in the picturesque town of Bath when I got a phone call from Otmoor blogger Peter Barker saying that someone had reported seeing a probable/possible juvenile Purple Heron on at Otmoor that afternoon. Badger (the central hub of all county birding information) was out of county and un-contactable so Peter was wondering if I could put the news out. It all sounded rather tentative to me but as Peter said, if the news wasn't put out and it turned out to be one then people would be cross so I sent out a county group text. I then had to field a few resultant phone calls from people wanting to know more but I assumed that it would all amount to nothing as these things so often do. How wrong I was! 

About an hour later I got another call from Peter saying that a couple of county birders had gone down to check it out and it was indeed a Purple Heron that was flying around between the fields at regular intervals (see Ewan's account of the day here). This was starting to be rather gripping as this was a bird that I not only needed for my county list but, rather embarrassingly, I also needed it for my UK life list as well, having dipped one at Slimbridge last year by leaving the hide five minutes too early after a three hour reedbed staring vigil. So there was history with this species! Of course this species is notoriously difficult to twitch as it's so often only seen in flight and can go very long periods skulking in reeds. I'd started to realised that my best chance of seeing one was always going to be if one should turn up in Oxon so I could go and put in the hours waiting for it to fly. Well, that chance had finally arrived and yet I wasn't able to go for it. Still, there was nothing that I could do about it as we weren't going to be back home to Oxford until around 9 pm and I surprised myself as to how philosophical I was about it all. The bird was duly reported regularly on Otmoor for the rest of the day so clearly a Monday visit was going to be in order.

I had some work things to do first thing and Badger was driving back from Lincolnshire so we arranged to meet up at the Otmoor car park at 11 a.m. for a Heron hunt. The car park was completely full though I managed to take the place of someone who was leaving just as I arrived. We wandered along the track to the bridleway and I admired the riot of summer flowers as we went. Along the bridleway itself there were quite a few people, most of whom I didn't recognise, all looking out for the Purple Heron though there had apparently been no news of it so far. The two Otmoor Cranes were on view and apparently a Whinchat had also been seen.

We decided to explore over towards the Big Otmoor field where the Heron had last been seen yesterday evening and wandered off, grilling all the pools and channels as best we could though to be honest the best chance was going to be if it took flight. After about three quarters of an hour of staring at empty fields Badger got a call from Paul Greenway saying that it had just been seen on Greenaways flying towards the eastern side. Back we hurried where half way along the bridleway we met Paul and a few other birders who had apparently had great views of it - it had even landed briefly on the island on the scrape right in front of them. They all reckoned that it had gone down right on the eastern side of Greenaways so Badger and I went to that corner for a thorough look though, as everywhere else, the cover was so dense that there was no hope of seeing it. We put in a good long session of watching the area before moving our vantage point slightly so that we were closer to the middle of the bridleway. Various other birders arrived including Lee Evans and Klackers. I amused myself with taking photos of the dragonflies and plants and we spotted a Hobby, a few Little Egrets and a Marsh Harrier while we waited.

Greater Bladderwort

Ruddy Darter
I was starting to wonder how much more of this I could take when we got a phone call from Klackers - the bird had apparently just flown up for thirty seconds from the ditch alongside the main diagonal track across the middle of Greenaways before dropping back down again. How on earth had it got there from the eastern side of the field we wondered. Anyway, we went to get the details from Klackers, meeting Peter Law and various other happy birders who'd all just seen the Heron. How frustrating to have now missed it twice! We relocated to the cattle pen gates so that we could look along the length of the ditch and waited. At least now we had proper gen on where it was hiding so I started to feel more optimistic that we might actually end up seeing the bird. Paul Chandler and his wife turned up to join the vigil. 

The diagonal track with the extensive reeds on either side

Suddenly Badger exclaimed "There it is in flight" and indeed it had gone up, heading initially westwards before turning back round and landing again in the ditch on the other side of the track, once again in the air for all of thirty seconds. I watched it in silent reverence, relieved finally to have seen it. I was struck by its very different ("rakish" is how the Collins guide describes it) jizz, it's dark colouring (it was a burnt cinnamon colour with blackish flight feathers) and smaller size than I was expecting. As it flew I got my bridge camera out to try and take a photo but it was too far away and not really in the air long enough to attempt a shot.
A great flight shot from Jim Hutchins (c)
Badger (who also needed this bird for the county) and I shook hands and congratulated each other on our success - it had been a long old slog but we'd got there. Whilst he decided to stay on for more views I had to get back so we parted company and I headed back to the Gnome mobile and headed for home, a most contented bunny, having finally got a county and UK life tick and having revenged my Slimbridge dippage.

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