2016 starling murmuration, RSPB Otmoor, Oxfordshire

I hadn’t planned to write about our latest visit to RSPB Otmoor. I’ve already written about our previous trips to watch the starling murmuration here and here. Added to this I have loads of half-drafted blog posts which I really need to finish! Yet an estimated 50,000 starlings and an almost supermoon changed my mind.

This way to the starlings, RSPB Otmoor
This way to the starlings, RSPB Otmoor

Starling murmuration

Our previous trips to watch the Otmoor starling murmuration were memorable for the wrong reasons. We turned up way too early the first time, and although we had a great view of the murmuration we were almost frozen to the spot. The second time we decided to visit later so that we didn’t have to hang around. But we were too late. Never mind, at least we saw a good sunset.

Starling murmuration at RSPB Otmoor
Starling murmuration at RSPB Otmoor

Our timing, and the weather, were spot on this year. It wasn’t all perfect though; so many people come to watch the murmuration that the small car park gets very busy. We were fortunate to get a space but do car share if you plan to visit, otherwise you may have a long walk down from the village.

Starling murmuration at RSPB Otmoor
Starling murmuration at RSPB Otmoor

Back to the all important timing. We left the car park at 3.30pm, and took about 20 minutes to walk to the starling viewpoint. We passed several serious looking bird watchers heading the opposite way so I worried we were too late. I needn’t have been. An RSPB warden at the hide informed us the starlings would arrive in 10 minutes.

Moon from RSPB Otmoor
Moon from RSPB Otmoor

The warden must have had a direct line to the starlings as they flew in almost to the predicted minute (which strangely was later than the previous time, when we missed them). Flocks started arriving from all directions. Just when you thought there couldn’t possibly be any starlings left elsewhere in Oxfordshire another flock would swoop and swirl in. And then another. And another. All settling down into the reedbeds for the night. Not that I think they’ll have got much sleep given the noise they were making.

Moon from RSPB Otmoor
Moon from RSPB Otmoor

Supermoon

Almost as spectacular as the starlings was the rising moon. We visited the day before the supposed ‘supermoon’ (which was a non-event in Oxfordshire due to cloud). There were no clouds to spoil our view that night at Otmoor. Simply a huge illuminated ball rising above the flat plain. Absolutely breathtaking. The perfect accompaniment for our walk back to the car park.

More info

  • The RSPB website has travel directions and further information on visiting Otmoor. Please park responsibly!

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Searching for orchids at Warburg nature reserve, Oxfordshire

I’ve become obsessed with orchids lately. In May we visited the orchid slope at Hartslock nature reserve to see rare monkey orchids. Last weekend we headed to Warburg nature reserve, one of BBOWT’s flagship reserves near Henley-on-Thames.

Great butterfly orchid (left) and white helleborine (right), Warburg nature reserve
Greater butterfly orchid (left) and white helleborine (right), Warburg nature reserve

We’re regular visitors to Warburg and often walk the waymarked Wildlife Trail. This time our route was determined by a map in the visitor centre marking the orchid flowering spots.

Orchids at Warburg

My main reason for visiting was to see a bee orchid, and joy of joys, they were marked on the map! And is wasn’t just bee orchids. Greater butterfly, bird’s nest, white helleborine and green hound’s-tongue were also marked. I photographed the map and then headed out into the reserve.

Summer walk in Warburg nature reserve
Summer walk in Warburg nature reserve

We found our first orchid, the greater butterfly, just a few steps away from the car park. This orchid has greenish-white flowers, grows on chalk grassland and in woods. A similarly coloured orchid is the white helleborine, which we found beside the path in the beech woods.

Our next spot was the strange looking bird’s nest orchid, so called because its roots resemble a bird’s nest. Hidden amongst decaying leaves in woodland it’s a strange looking flower. Not one of the prettiest. It lacks chlorophyll, is light brown in colour and blends well with the background. This is my excuse for belatedly discovering my photos of them were rather blurry!

Now it must be said that the rest of the family aren’t as smitten with orchids as I am. Particularly the teen daughter, who decided she’d had enough at this point and headed back to the car to listen to music.

Meadow brown butterfly on bird's foot trefoil, Warburg nature reserve
Meadow brown butterfly on bird’s foot trefoil, Warburg nature reserve

Spotting the bee orchid

Walking out of the woodland and into the open, I finally got to see my bee orchid. Standing alone in the chalk grassland it looked exactly as expected. It mimics the bee in looks, scent and touch in order to attract male bees and help aid pollination. I’ve wanted to see one of these for a couple of years now and was very happy with the find. The irony is that I’ve subsequently found several less than a mile from my house!

Aside from the bee orchids there were loads of common spotted and a few pyramidal orchids just starting to flower. A variety of butterflies were out too, enjoying the temperamental sun.

Common spotted orchid (left), bee orchid (right), Warburg nature reserve
Common spotted orchid (left), bee orchid (right), Warburg nature reserve

My son and I continued on to the last flower marked on the map, green hounds-tongue. I’ve never seen this plant before and had no idea what I was looking for. It also took us further away from the car park in the direction of some ominous looking clouds overhead. I don’t mind getting wet on a walk but thunderstorms were forecast and I had no desire to get struck by lightning.

We went slightly off piste in our rushed quest for the last flower and ended up with very wet legs from walking through long grass. Although it rained a little the storm didn’t materialise and we were able to find the green hounds-tongue. That said I wasn’t exactly sure which plant it was so took photographs of a couple of contenders and identified it properly once I got home.

Super-sized slugs!

On our return to the car park we kept finding super-sized slugs. The paths were dotted with large black and brown varieties; we had to watch our step to ensure we didn’t squash any. I’m not a great fan of slugs in my garden but they were quite interesting to examine close up, away from lettuce plants!

Warburg nature reseve pond hide
Warburg nature reseve pond hide

Before leaving we met up with my other half in the visitor centre bird hide. We’ve often sat here in the past but haven’t always seen that many birds. This time was different; a couple of greater spotted woodpeckers were in control of the feeders, attacking any other bird trying to feed. Whenever they flew away normal service resumed with chaffinches, goldfinches, a nuthatch, blue tits and marsh tits all hastily returning to feed. I could have watched for hours but the kids were restless and it was time to go.

If you’re visiting Warburg why not tag a trip to Homefield Wood too? Lots more orchids to find, including military orchids in late May and June.

More info:

  • The best time to visit BBOWT’s Warburg nature reserve to see orchids is around June, although this does depend on seasonal weather conditions. However Warburg is a great reserve to visit all year round. There’s a small visitor centre (not usually manned), toilets and picnic site.
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Orchid spotting at Hartslock Nature Reserve, Oxfordshire

One of my early summer treats is an evening walk to view the orchids at Hartslock Nature Reserve. Covering 11 acres the reserve is relatively small but a favourite of mine. Partly because it’s one of the best picnic spots in Oxfordshire and partly because of the orchids which cloak its slopes.

Summer evening view over the Thames, Hartslock Nature Reserve
Summer evening view over the Thames from Hartslock Nature Reserve

I walked, with two friends, from Goring to Hartslock, along the Thames Path, surrounded by the bounty of late spring. Swallows diving for insects, fluffy goslings paddling along behind mum and knee-high nettles. We spied on the mansions on the opposite river bank, wondering who might live in them.

Orchids galore, Hartslock Nature Reserve
Orchids galore, Hartslock Nature Reserve

After a mile or so we turned away from the river for a short steep climb up the chalk slope to the reserve. At the top is a bench with fantastic views down to the River Thames. We stopped for a while to catch our breath and admire the Oxfordshire countryside before heading through the gate to the orchid slope.

Monkey orchid, Hartslock Nature Reserve
Monkey orchid, Hartslock Nature Reserve

Hartslock Nature Reserve

The reserve is home to the rare monkey orchid which aside from Hartslock only grows in two other places in the UK. The orchids are taped off to stop visitors trampling on them but it was still easy to kneel and take photographs. Although the small prickly thistles hidden in the grass liked to remind you of their presence too!

Monkey x lady orchids, Hartslock Nature Reserve
Lady x Monkey orchids, Hartslock Nature Reserve

Even rarer than the monkey orchids are the hybrid lady x monkey orchids. This is the only place they grow in this country but there were so many you’d never realise they were rare. Sadly it has been a bad year for lady orchids and we didn’t see any of these.

I could have spent hours exploring the orchid patch but the setting sun reminded us we still had another couple of miles to walk. It wasn’t exactly a forced march home through the woods but we didn’t hang around.

Orchid slope at Hartslock Nature Reserve
Orchid slope at Hartslock Nature Reserve

At various points I could see the bright orange glow from the disappearing sun peeking through the trees and I was hopeful of an amazing sunset. But we were too late. By the time we emerged the sun was tucked up in bed. Not that it mattered of course as the orchids were the true highlight of our walk.

If you’re interested in orchids you might also enjoy my posts about them at Homefield Wood and Warburg Nature Reserves.

More info:

  • The monkey, lady and lady x monkey orchids are at their best during May although this is weather dependant. Different orchids and plenty of other chalk loving plants flower later in the summer.
  • For access details visit the Hartslock Nature Reserve page on the BBOWT website. This also includes a link to the walk route we followed above.
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Starling watch at RSPB Otmoor, Oxfordshire

*To see details of our November 2016 visit to watch the starling murmuration at Otmoor click here*

Have you seen a starling murmuration? A murmuration is the name given to the swooping displays made by starlings just before they come into roost. Last winter we were treated to a fabulous display at RSPB Otmoor, and as this is the perfect time of year to see them we decided it was time for a revisit.

On our previous trip to Otmoor we made a mistake and arrived way too early. It was a freezing cold day and we spent a long time standing around in frozen mud trying to keep warm. The wait was worth it though as we were treated to spectacular murmurations.

This year we set off later. It had rained all day but as we negotiated the traffic delight of Oxford’s ring road the blue skies appeared. Surely a signal.

We duly arrived at the car park, put on our wellies and started the 20 minute walk to the viewing point near the reed beds. A couple of small groups of starlings flew overhead and as we walked we were treated to the most amazing sunset.

Otmoor sunset

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Perhaps this should have been an indicator that we were a little on the late side arriving this year. Nevertheless, we joined several other bird watchers at the shelter and proceeded to wait for the starlings. And we waited.

A few minutes later a couple of the group started to walk back and we overheard that the starlings had already put on their display for the day. This was disappointing news to us, and to the people next to us who had driven for 1.5 hours to see them!

Many bird watchers have visited my blog over the last couple of weeks to find out what time the starlings roost. At the end of November it was around 3.40pm. About 10 minutes before we arrived.

Were we disappointed? A little. We hadn’t seen the starlings but we were treated to the most amazing sunset. And there’s something magical walking back through a nature reserve in the dark!

If you’re interested in other posts about local nature reserves you might also enjoy reading about moth spotting at Neptune Wood or orchid hunting at Warburg Nature Reserve. Alternatively locals and visitors alike might enjoy my post about things to do in Oxford.

More info:

  • Further details about Otmoor reserve can be found here.
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