Tuesday 19 May 2020

Spring Patch Round-up

Other bloggers have been posting their daily sightings on their various patches or from their gardens. All around the country people have been getting stuck in with new found passions for noc migging or their garden list. I have been no exception to this but most of my efforts have revolved around my local patch of Port Meadow for which I have a separate blog. I am so lucky to have such a good patch within a few minutes walk of where I live. In many ways for me the lockdown has brought little change to my daily birding habits. In fact all it has done is to remove any choice about where to go each day which has in fact made my life much simpler. Now my only question each day is when to visit the patch. Some mornings I'd be up there before 7 am and other days it would be an evening visit. I am aware that some readers of this blog might not follow my patch one and in any event  I was thinking of doing a round-up of spring sightings now that the passage season is drawing to a close. According this is a condensed single post of what my spring patch birding has been like.

By all accounts it's been a good season for Port Meadow. The lockdown meant that many Oxford birders who might otherwise go to more productive locations such as Farmoor or Otmoor instead were able to travel by foot or bike to the Meadow. This meant that instead of it just being myself and one or two others, we had a good half dozen regular watchers. Indeed on some days the whole day was covered from more or less first light through to dusk. This of course meant that much less slipped through the net than to usual and the result has been a great season with all the classic spring birds that we might hope for and some amazing unexpected bonus birds  as well. The only fly in the ointment has been the amazingly dry spell of weather that we've had. Now for Port Meadow the key factor is the flood waters - without them the patch is little more than a large grassy field but the waters attract all sorts of birds and make it the diverse and enjoyable location that it is. Such was the dryness that if it had not been for the wet winter which had meant that we were starting from some very full floods, we might have had a much poorer season. As it was, the floods held out for just long enough to see us into May though the relentless sunshine meant that we never got a decent fall of waders which is the most exciting patch scenario to be encountered. It has also meant that many birds have just kept on flying through rather than dropping in to visit the floods so numbers in many respects have been down on previous years. So all in all there have been a number of conflicting factors contributing to the success or failure of the spring passage but on balance it has been a good one.

I'll start with the regular birds that we would hope to see each year. The spring passage kicked off  in late March with the first Sand Martins and Little Ringed Plover. In fact the latter species went on to be by far the most common wader recorded on the floods with a count in excess of 40 birds as I write this with another 10 just seen in the last few days.

The commonest Meadow wader this spring
Apart from this lovely plover we had a smattering of Dunlin and Ringed Plover later on in the season though without the regular daily sightings that I would expect  had the weather been more mixed.

Dunlin and Ringed Plover on the Meadow

We also had a good spring for Black-tailed Godwits with quite a few flocks of up to 8 birds passing through mostly in April. Unfortunately we never got any records of its rarer cousing the Bar-tailed Godwit.

A lone Black-tailed Godwit arrived late on the in season

Redshank were fairly numerous at the start of the season with a few Greenshank later on (with one staying several days). We also had a couple of  Curlew records as well which was nice to see.

Unfortunately this spring was rather light on many of the rarer waders and we never got Sanderling, Knot or Green Sandpiper. Also, whilst we did manage a Whimbrel record, it was just a heard-only flyover one evening. Even Common Sandpiper (which is normally fairly common on the Meadow) was only seen once one evening. However there were a few really excellent wader species which we did manage to get which I've written up in the Top Birds Section

Wagtails and pipits are somewhat of a speciality of Port Meadow and we had a good spring passage of wagtails at least. There were plenty of Yellow Wagtails though no Blue-headed or Channel's this time. We also had an unusually good spring for White Wagtails. Normally we're lucky if we get one at all in April but we must have had at least a dozen this time - I don't know what brought about this suddenly increase in records apart from the increased coverage from extra eyes on the patch.

One of many Yellow Wagtails seen this spring
One of an unusually high count of White Wagtails
On the pipit front we were lucky enough to have someone spot a fly-over Tree Pipit one morning. This species is a bit of Meadow speciality where we've had a few stick around in Burgess Field for a while though not so this time round. We also had a Common Redstart record where one was seen briefly one morning though it wasn't seen again. We were also blessed with a good number of Wheatear records this spring. This species is normally only recorded once or twice a year but the increased coverage brought at least half a dozen records this spring.

In terms of Warblers the usual species arrived more or less when they might be expected. We were lucky to get several Sedge Warblers passing through though once again sadly there were no Grasshopper Warbler records to be had.

Top Birds of the Spring Passage
As well as the joy of watching the return or at least passage of the usual species each spring, it's the one-off rarer records which help to make for a good season. This time, thanks to the numbers watching the Meadow and with the help of technology to disemminate news quickly, many people were able to catch  up with some of the better sightings. So in a rough order of increasing importance below are the "Top7 Birds of Spring".

7 Avocet
To start with we have an Avocet. This species is a bit less than annual but this bird turned up on the same morning as one of the top birds in this list, making for a great morning double

The Avocet
6  Osprey
The next bird in this list is an Osprey which I was fortunate enough to luck in on as it circled the Meadow for a few minutes one morning. The same bird had been seen south of the city at Iffley Lock about 15 minutes earlier so was clearly following the river north.

It's an Osprey, honest!

5 Wood Sandpiper
This rare county wader is something of a speciallity of the Meadow and over the years we've hosted more than our fair share. One was found one evening though unfortunately it had gone by the next morning so not so many birders got to see it.

Wood Sandpiper courtesy of Joe Wynn the finder

4 Grey Plover
Back when I first started birding the Meadow this species would turn up relatively often, usually later on in the spring passage season. However it's been a good few years since we had one so for this reason  I've ranked it ahead of the Wood Sandpiper though it's about the same rarity level.

The Grey Plover

3 Great White Egret
This species is not the rarity that it once was. I remember going to twitch the first one for the county back when I'd just started birding whereas it's now seen regularly throughout the year. Still it's a rarity for the Meadow with just a few records, often fly-overs though we did have one up at the Wolvercote Lakes one spring. This was actually my personal favourite sighting of the spring, as I happened to find it early one morning just as the sun was starting to burn off the morning mist. It was standing on its own in the middle of the floods and in its summer breeding plumage it looked very exotic with pistachio bill base and pink flush to its thighs. Unfortunately it didn't linger and no one else got to see it. It was found the same morning as the Avocet which made for a great double.

The Great White Egret in full breeding plumage

2. Black Tern
I have a bit of history with this species on the patch. The only other record this century was in 2011 where one turned up one evening but because of family commitments I wasn't able to see it. For my own sanity  I don't keep a personal patch list but instead prefer to work on the multi-contributor year list and historic record list. Still it was a nice grip-back when one was found during one of only a couple of days of poor weather. In poor conditions it stuck around all evening but was gone the next day.

1. Ring Ouzel
Top bird this spring was the long staying Ring Ouzel. In fact we first had a record in Cripley Meadows allotments one morning though no one else ever saw it. A couple of days later what may very well have been the same bird was found skulking around in Burgess Field. It was faithful to a relatively small, rather wooded area in the nature reserve but was remarkably elusive, often offering only the briefest of glimpses. It stuck around for more than a week in the end and as the only patch record of this species this century (there were a couple in the late 90's) it well deserves its billing as top bird of the spring on Port Meadow

I was lucky with a bit of field craft finally to get a reasonable photo of our star bird

So that was the Port Meadow spring. Autumn normally starts very late for the Meadow as the floods don't normally form until November when we've had sufficient rain so unfortunately we tend to miss out on the return wader passage. Let's hope for a nice wet summer then!

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