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Visitors heard but rarely seen
In the late spring and early summer our shores welcome two birds that invariably cause birdwatchers great problems — it’s almost impossible to watch them!
Luckily, both perform unique and recognizable calls letting us know, at least, that they are here and with them the onset of summer.
The Oxfordshire Downs are by far the best place to hear quail with their unmistakable ‘whet my lips’ three-part call frequently repeated from deep within grass or crop fields.
Our only migrating game bird, and just the size of its neighbour the skylark, the quail has never been a common bird and suffers huge losses by hunters along its migration routes from Africa.
Britain receives around 300 visiting quail each year, although five or six times this number can arrive in irruptive years.
Looking very much like a miniature partridge, the quail rarely takes to the air once it’s on a territory and this, coupled with its size, are the main reasons why virtually the only fleeting views are when it’s flushed by walkers or farm machinery.
Apart from the Downs, Otmoor is another site worth close listening and there have been one or two birds calling there recently with, rather excitingly, a single male of our other problem visitors.
Not for the first time, Otmoor recently hosted a male corncrake, another small partridge-like bird and much rarer in England than the quail.
Once common throughout grassland Britain (in the 1880s you might have heard one in Christ Church Meadow) its territories retreated in the face of farmland mechanization and is now restricted to Western Scotland and the Isles.
The monotonous ‘crex crex’ of a singing male can be repeated thousands of times a night, but our Otmoor bird put on a half-hearted performance, calling infrequently, and soon moved on.
Nonetheless, these enigmatic birds are a joy to encounter, if you’re lucky, and give all the more reason to keep ears and eyes open when out and about in the countryside.