Tuesday, 23 August 2016

Hotting up 23rd August 2016

Common Redshank
Today temperatures soared and the promised heatwave was upon us. The sun lifted my spirits and ignoring the admonishment of Noel Coward's famous line  'Mad Dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun' I was off to Farmoor at just before noon. Not that I expected to see much, as knowing the Little Stints had flown I was hardly holding my breath but you never know what may turn up. I just had to be out and making the best of this weather, knowing how fickle our climate can be and how soon it can all change for the worse.

Farmoor's concrete and tarmac expanses were fair baking in the midday sun. There must be some sort of summer school for yacht tuition going on these last two weeks as the same hordes of brightly attired, wet suited kids as from  a few days ago were again shouting and screaming and having a generally great time as they sat on the wall outside the yacht club, scoffing sandwiches and cold drinks in what was presumably their lunch break. 

I made my way past the excited, colourful throng of possibly future Olympians to the causeway and wandered along. A pleasantly warm and moderately strong breeze was coming off the water cooling my legs and face which already were feeling the tingle of burning from the intense sunshine. The strong breeze was causing wavelets to splash onto the concrete apron and the waters of the reservoir were an eye pleasing blue and turquoise today, reflecting the cloudless sky above. The sun was shining with such intensity it was white and shards of bright sunlight were glittering off the choppy waters with an almost painful intensity if regarded for too long. 

I looked the other way and across the smaller expanse of Farmoor One which was more sheltered from the breeze and now with the sun behind me it was not so troublesome to look over the water but there was little bird life to see, just a few Black headed Gulls, shining even whiter than usual in the brilliant intense light as they bobbed up and down on the blue water. Flocks of them were also idling on the concrete banks, like so many discarded white handkerchiefs and then flying like thrown confetti out onto the reservoir when I got too close for their comfort.

A Common Tern floated across, its strident bickering calls at odds with the drowsy heat laden atmosphere that pervaded the reservoir. Cormorants, black and sepulchral, stood in statuesque groups on the floating pontoons, their fishing done for the time being and now free to idle away another few hours until hunger took them back to the water again.

The vigorous wavelets beating on the concrete apron of Farmoor Two were bringing upwellings of minute food items that the Mallards, drab and brown in their dull eclipse plumage were sifting through their bills, closely accompanied by flotillas of Coots ever ready to pinch a morsel from under the ducks very bill but there was little conflict as there was plenty for all.

A wader came into view standing in the bubbled wave froth at the edge of water and concrete. A lovely tortoiseshell patterning of chestnut and black upper body plumage complemented by white underparts and a black and white head with bright orange legs. It was a male Turnstone returning from, well who knows where, possibly northern Greenland or northern Russia but wherever, it has certainly come from a very long way beyond Farmoor, that's for sure. Its long return journey may almost be over as many of its kind will winter on our coasts or those of Europe but others will travel onwards to the coasts of Africa.

Adult Turnstone
I watch as it showed nervousness at my presence, running rapidly on sturdy, short orange legs along the concrete edge, then standing warily as the wavelets wash over its feet, trying to ascertain my intentions. Further along a juvenile Dunlin is more amenable to my approach, standing content on one delicate leg, relaxed in the sun, at home in its element of water and sky as I pass by.  Dunlins are hardly given a glance now as they are virtually ever present at this time of year, familiar and therefore becoming forgettable and unremarkable. Most of them are juveniles but all are undergoing a scarcely credible odyssey from their birth place to their winter home. A true miracle that is still not fully understood or explained. 

Juvenile Dunlin
I come across another Turnstone, similarly richly coloured to the previous one and obviously another returning adult that has dropped down here to rest and feed before continuing its onward journey.

On reaching the end of the causeway I find the male Common Pochard sitting with drowsy Mallard on the concrete. He has moulted all his flight feathers, rendering him temporarily flightless but despite this remains stoically sat on the concrete allowing me to walk right up to look down on him from the pathway above. He in turn regards me with an expressionless shining red eye from his chestnut head.

Drake Common Pochard
Turning away I walk down the slope from the reservoir to the towpath beside the Thames. The heat is now much greater away from the breeze blowing off the water, as the towpath is sheltered by its lower elevation and the rich vegetation of late summer 

The Towpath
The heat is intense, hanging heavy and soporific over the trees, bushes and plant life. I find some shade and look at a secluded area of scattered bushes and rank herbage adjacent to the towpath. The pink flowered willowherb and browning heads of Moon Carrot and Angelica stand as high as me, providing me with cover of sorts to observe any birds that may appear. There are precious few, as presumably like me they have sought the shade and feel similarly lethargic.

The hawthorn favoured by the flycatcher
I stand by a hedgerow, that is silent, almost mysterious and at its green foliaged zenith now. The predominant leaf colour of the trees are also a  variety of dark rich greens, brooding and somnolent and a far cry from the bright greens of energetic growth in Spring. It is as if everything is waiting, all energy and vitality spent and preparing to turn with the earth towards the inexorable approach of autumn. The heat stultifies the birds into silence, perhaps the insistent ticking of a Robin or the quiet hooeet of a Willow Warbler or Chiffchaff will permeate the drowsy, cloying, oppressive heat of the early afternoon but nothing more

A small grey brown bird flies out and then back into a small hawthorn tree, its leaves yellowed prematurely due to the lack of rain over the past months but the branches still festooned with crimson berries that seem to have appeared un-heralded and un-noticed. The bird flies out again, its energy made remarkable by the pervading stillness and then returns to perch on a prominent bare twig. It is a Spotted Flycatcher,  my second of the year and like the first, totally taking me by pleasant surprise.

Spotted Flycatcher
I watch it sitting in the sun and my mind wanders to a similar situation observing a Spotted Flycatcher, sitting in a spiky Acacia bush not that much different to this hawthorn, also in intense heat but thousands of miles away in Tanzania. I drift off into a quiet reminiscence of that time years ago and this quiet corner of Farmoor becomes Tanzania and then becomes Farmoor again, my mind slipping and sliding in fanciful remembrance between the two. The flycatcher regularly leaves the hawthorn to fly high into the blue sky, twisting and turning to catch some invisible insect and returns downwards in swooping, looping curves to its former perch. 

When it is perched it constantly moves its head, avidly following the movements of likely looking victims as they fly past. It moves its perch regularly, swooping out from various sides of the hawthorn, sometimes in low level flight and then in other towering flights, always seeming to be successful in its quest for insect prey. 

There are other birds in the hawthorn too. As I watch a Robin sits and fidgets inside the tangle of spiky twigs and thorns and a juvenile Willow Warbler, yellow and bright of plumage also flits through the curling yellowing leaves. Finally that most attractive of 'our' warblers, a Lesser Whitethroat shows its grey head and silken white throat before ducking back into cover.

I stand, shaded and hidden in a recess of green gloom and watch the flycatcher. To the flycatcher it is all the same. It cares not for philosophical thoughts or romantic fantasies. It goes about its existence responding to instinct and genetics. A hot sunny patch in which to hunt numerous flying insects is what its species is genetically programmed to take advantage of and when the time is right, overnight it will instinctively move under the stars and moon to find another similar area to hunt insects, but it must be going soon, following the promise of heat, the promise of sun and the turning world, crossing the Equator to where our winter is summer and it will live its days until something within stirs it to respond, and it is time to return with the ever turning of the earth and maybe it will remember this small patch at Farmoor and come once again. Its a fanciful dream I know, that only a human with the gifts of independent thought and imagination can indulge in but it does no harm to occasionally depart from the harsh realities and brutal nastiness of this world.

The flycatcher flew to a nearby large willow and became lost in the hanging profusion of bunched elongated, finger thin leaves and huge bent boughs of the tree. I wandered on through dry dead grass stems, breaking under my tread. the heat of the day slowing me to a meander. I sought the cooler areas underneath overhanging trees that formed a living shaded corridor alongside the sliding, oil smooth opaque expanse of green river water coiling its slow current around bright green reeds and the occasional livid purple spikes of loosestrife. I am reluctant to leave the shady bowers of the towpath and calm waters of the river to go back up to the reservoir but I know the breeze will be cool off the water, even though in mid afternoon it will still be very hot. Another slow walk around the northern side of Farmoor One brings the reward of a  juvenile Common Redshank, its attenuated grace and posturing accentuated by its wariness. Common Sandpipers, small brown and white smudges, rendered indistinct in the heat haze, teeter and then fly with stiff, flicking wings out over the blue, breeze corrugated water, leaving the shimmering heat of the concrete apron on which they were feeding.

A Common Tern starts screaming and complaining and I look up to find a juvenile Peregrine, a barrel chested, cross bow of a bird flying  across the reservoir and circling in the blue sky. It is a juvenile, brown of plumage as opposed to the grey of an adult and revelling in its powers of flight, play stooping at indignant Black headed Gulls and then soaring up into the sky again, effortless, with Wytham Woods like a cloud formation of green behind it. I watch as it disappears over the hill and is gone from my sight.

Thursday, 18 August 2016

Stint Seconds 18th August

The weather forecast for tomorrow is dire. Steady rain. So it was back to Farmoor today while the opportunity was there, for some more communing with the Little Stints, still running energetically along the water's edge off the central causeway.

Just as yesterday Farmoor was warm and sunny, and today many excited school kids were getting some sailing instruction on the larger reservoir, Farmoor Two, but it was the smaller undisturbed Farmoor One reservoir for me where I could sit on the low retaining wall and watch the stints to my heart's content at the water's edge.

Like yesterday there were only three other birders present which to me seems strange as here is a golden opportunity to study, at exceptionally close quarters, a species that does not often offer such an opportunity. 

It's not all about chasing after rare birds as for me there is also much satisfaction and fulfillment in watching and learning about a bird that is not a rarity but catches my imagination and enthusiasm, and here was such an opportunity.

There is always something to learn or re-learn from any such observations, so I sat quietly on the wall and watched. Sure I took some more pictures but I had done most of this part yesterday and now wanted to just take time to relax, absorb and enjoy what I saw of these two tiny birds.

In the back of my mind was once again the acknowledgment of the almost miraculous circumstances that surround these bird's existence and their presence here. Tiny as they are as full grown individuals, how small were they when they emerged from an egg on the vast empty tundras of Arctic Europe or Siberia? In some years when the lemmings are scarce they would do well to survive, as predators such as skuas and Snowy Owls substitute them and other wader chicks for their usual diet of lemmings and then there is also the weather. Freak storms, rain and even snow could spell disaster as they get chilled and are unable to search for food. Having survived these and other hazards on their breeding grounds they finally set off on an independent journey into the unknown.

Never having migrated before, they head up into the sky, driven by instinct and genetic imprinting to make a perilous marathon journey to southern Africa where they will spend the winter. They do stop on the way and here were two that had made it as far as Oxfordshire but still had thousands of miles to go. No wonder they take any opportunity available to  relax in the sun, sleep and preen their all important flight feathers, in-between bouts of frantic feeding.

Little Stint feather maintenance
Their juvenile plumage, with the exception, for me, of a juvenile Sanderling, is arguably the most attractive in their genus, Calidris. Calidris comes from the ancient Greek word kalidris or skalidris which Aristotle used to describe any grey coloured water bird (in their winter quarters, if they make it, these juveniles will moult into a  grey winter plumage). I remember seeing one in just such plumage on a rubbish pile near Lake Kariba in landlocked Zimbabwe and being temporarily thrown as to its identity as I never expected a wader that inhabits the coast to be in such a place. Their full scientific name is Calidris minuta minuta being Latin for small.

When near to one or more of the Dunlins that were sharing the feeding opportunities with them it could clearly be seen how small the stints were. I noted as I did yesterday the slight difference in plumage tones of the two stints. One having richer and warmer colour tones on its upperparts making it appear rufous whilst the other was paler and greyer. This two colour variation is noted in some reference books and the grey one is said to be unusual but I was unaware of it until I saw these two birds and then went to the reference books for confirmation. So you see, there is nothing to beat 'in the field' observation!

Note the smaller size of the Little Stint (back) compared to the Dunlin (front)
Only 2/3rd the size of the Dunlin

The two Little Stint in close proximity showing the differing colour tones
on their upperparts
I checked the diagnostic identity features of their plumage. I noted the prominent creamy stripe running down each side of the mantle and forming an inverted V and the less obvious stripe through the scapulars, as well as the split supercilium which for me has rather too much identification emphasis put on it, as it is often very hard to discern, especially on such an active bird as a Little Stint. I was fortunate as these were very close so I could get a really good look but it is not always so.

Note the somewhat inconspicuous split supercilium of the Little Stint
Today both stints were very active but just as yesterday they mostly kept well apart and when they did, on occasion come close, would often show mild aggression towards each other. One chivvying the other away and both seemed happier in the company of Dunlins which they often associate with in winter. Only when they came up the concrete apron to rest were they reasonably close together but even then they maintained their own space. 

Two Little Stints and four Dunlin - all juveniles
I noted that it was usually the greyer Little Stint that instigated a move to walk away from the water and rest higher up on the concrete and the Dunlin and the other Little Stint would follow. As yesterday the greyer stint squatted on its folded legs and interestingly so did one of the  Dunlin but the other stint did not, nor did any of the other six Dunlin present today. I have also seen Greenshanks and Black tailed Godwits adopt this posture in warm sunshine in Britain and maybe this behaviour is more frequent in their usually sunnier, warmer wintering areas

Little Stint squatting on the concrete

The Little Stints and a couple of  Dunlin taking a break from feeding
Whilst feeding, the stints would occasionally partially open one wing. Not a full stretch but just a partial one whilst they carried on moving and feeding. When a full wing stretch was performed they would stop and relax into the stretch, slowly extending the wing and the leg before slowly bringing them back into position.

Little Stint - partial wing stretch

Little Stint - full wing and leg stretch
Peter arrived and any more thoughts of stint study were banished as I chatted to him and he took his stint pictures for posterity. I imagine most Oxonbirders have come to see the stints now as well as many out of county birders, and why not?

I also rejoiced in the fact that this delightful species is listed as of Least Concern by Birdlife International, meaning its population remains at a good level in this troubled world, so hopefully there will be more Little Stint  Farmoor experiences to come. I do hope so.