In April of last year Farmoor was graced for a few days by a flock of no less than nine Black necked Grebes, all in summer plumage and allowing very close approach. It was one of the birding highlights of that year for me. A report by Dai this morning of two more summer plumaged Black necked Grebes on Farmoor had me heading for Oxford as soon as time and commitments would allow. A Black necked Grebe in summer plumage is not to be missed wherever they are. I arrived about lunchtime and there was not a birder in sight, indeed there was not another human being in sight. The wind was from the northwest, strong enough to be annoying but it was still mild although the low clouds were not letting the sun through. I wandered up to the Causeway. Huge numbers of Swifts were again indulging in their hyperactive aeronautical manouevres low over the reservoir with the cloud base depressingly low. Dai had said the grebes were on Farmoor One but with the wind from the northwest that reservoir was choppy and it transpired they had moved to calmer waters on the other reservoir, Farmoor Two. I found them some way out and fast asleep.
The water out there is way too deep for them to fish so I reasoned that if I sat and waited for them to wake up they would, like the others last year, come close in to the shallower water to feed and that would be my opportunity for some pictures and to get a good look at them. The big question was how long was it going to take for them to start feeding again. I settled myself out of the wind by the wooden yacht observation hut on the Causeway and waited.
I looked along the water's edge of Farmoor One and two distant waders became a Dunlin and a Common Sandpiper when seen through the scope. That was it apart from some newly hatched Mallard ducklings paddling and dabbling with their mother in the waves that were slapping onto the concrete apron.
The grebes slept on with their black needle bills tucked, in typical grebe fashion, between their neck and breast. Regularly a low flying plane or helicopter from Brize Norton would alarm them and they would wake and cock their heads looking at the noisily offending machine and would wait until it was well away before resuming their slumbers. It was educating to observe them and their behaviour over the ensuing hour or so. They were never still, presumably paddling while asleep but with one eye open. Ever restless, ever alert and I noticed that after they had been scared by the low flying aircraft or something else, before going back to sleep they would, almost without fail, open their bill almost as if in a casual yawn before closing it and tucking it into their feathers. They kept very close together and from their demeanour and subtle plumage differences I deduced that they were probably a paired male and female. I also noted they were distinctly wary of the Great Crested Grebes especially when one dived near them, almost as if they feared the Great Crested Grebe would come up underneath them. I have seen similar behaviour and interaction between a Great Crested Grebe and a Slavonian Grebe here in the winter. Indeed the Great Crested Grebe on that day seemed positively hostile but today there was no aggression.
While I continued to wait for the Black necked Grebes to wake up and do something I watched the behaviour of the aforementioned seven or so Great Crested Grebes sheltering from the wind in the lee of the wave wall. Most of the time they too were asleep but every so often two would indulge in calling and a mutual courtship display, although it looked pretty desultory, and that was about as far as it would go before they gave up and returned to sleeping.
Presumably these birds are non breeders or young birds that are not going to breed in their first year. Finally the Black necked Grebes stirred into action and as anticipated they headed for shore, every so often seizing a hatching fly from the water's surface as they progressed.
Close up one can fully appreciate just how absolutely exotic they are in their summer plumage with that fan of gold extending across the side of their head and those alien, flaming red eyes, flaring and staring, making them almost other worldly. To look into their eyes is unnerving. There is nothing familiar or comforting in that stare. The adjectives soft or gentle do not apply.
These are the eyes of an earthly being that inhabits a totally unknown and unknowable world to ours.
Despite my close presence they swam and dived unconcernedly in the shallower water and I just watched them and tried to come to terms with their unsettling beauty. This summer plumage is transient and in three months will fade and be gone and then it will be back to the grey and white non breeding plumage for the rest of the year but for now they were the stars in the Farmoor firmanent, insignificant in size on the vastness of the reservoir but just for now their feathered flamboyance totally dominating my senses. Stars indeed. Prima donnas? You bet.