Sunday, 5 April 2015

Ducks de luxe 4th April 2015

I was looking forward to a pleasant lie in on Saturday after my adventures in Wales with Andy and before attending Badger and Lissie's wedding reception at Abingdon in the evening. Nothing too strenuous was in order, just pottering around doing the odd job here and there about the house. As I do every day I checked the Oxon Bird Log to see what was happening in the County and to see if the male Garganey was still at Stratfield Brake, near Kidlington. I thought I might go and see the Garganey if it was still present, possibly on Sunday.

Male Garganey in breeding plumage are beautiful birds, one of my favourites and it is always a thrill to see this long distance migratory duck wherever it may turn up and especially if it is in Oxfordshire. These last few days have seen a mass arrival of them over all of southern England and four, three males and a female even turned up today on a farm pond near Thame, just over the border in Buckinghamshire. 

Thoughts about Garganey were abruptly abandoned however, as another duck's name appeared on the computer screen as I accessed the Oxon Bird Log. Four Ring necked Ducks, not one but four had been found on Pit 60 at Standlake this very morning. Three males and one female. Unbelievable, and these had to be seen as it was an unprecedented record not only for the County but possibly nationally. BBC News Oxford even ran a feature on the occurence it was considered so exceptional.

hastily abandoned the computer, threw everything that was required in the car and headed as fast as possible for Standlake. I called Badger who was getting married that very lunchtime and was thus unable to go and see them. He told me Terry was currently in the North Hide at Pit 60 and a quick call to Terry ascertained the ducks were still there.

Forty minutes later and I  was making the long walk down the track through the hedgerows to the North Hide. A Blackcap, my first of the year, sang from the tangle of elders and brambles beside the narrow muddy track. I entered the hide to discover Mark, Gnome and Terry all looking at the Ring necked Ducks which were well out on the lake to our right but nonetheless easily viewable. Any combination of black, white and grey is appealing and the drakes did not disappoint in this respect. The female, brown and drab in comparison, was the subject of much amorous attention from the males, in between bouts of sleeping, communal diving and feeding. The four of them kept close together, very much a group, as we watched them.

The four Ring necked Ducks on Pit 60

Male and female Ring necked Ducks
c Stephen Burch
A Great Crested Grebe caught a sizeable Perch, so big it looked as if it would give the grebe some problems in swallowing it. The grebe nevertheless held it firmly in its mandibles as it swam past us but seemed unsure just exactly what it was going to do with it. We never ascertained the outcome.

I remained in the hide for around an hour and chatted to Mark about the Garganey at Stratfield Brake. Mark had seen and photographed it a couple of days before and fired me up with enthusiasm when he told me how confiding it was and how close you could get to it. We resolved to go and have a look for it and shortly afterwards left the hide, together with Peter, making another thirty minute cross county drive to Stratfield Brake.

The weather, although promising to brighten up earlier in the morning, had now descended into a sullen, dull and grey day as we walked across the extensive waterlogged and muddy playing fields to the lake at the far end. 

The Lake at the bottom of Stratfield Brake Sports Ground near Kidlington
On getting there it soon became apparent that the Garganey was not in evidence, just a few Teal and Gadwall, a pair of Shoveler and the usual Mallard  were visible on the lake but Mark told us not to worry as when he had seen the Garganey before it had often been hidden in the thick juncus growing around the lake's edge nearest to us. 

We stood on an elevated mound and concentrated on the juncus but still could not see any sign of it. Then Mark thought he could just see the stripey white scapulars of the duck, hidden in the tangled green of the juncus, near to a pair of sleeping Mallard. We walked closer to the fence but  none of us could see anything at all. Doubts inevitably set in but eventually a small duck swam out from the juncus almost in front of us and there in all its glory was an absolutely superb male Garganey.

Even more satisfactory was its confiding nature as it showed only the mildest of concern about our close proximity. It swam around aimlessly for a few minutes just offshore, occasionally giving its very un-duck like dry, clicking call sounding very like a  cricket, before coming back towards us to feed along the base of the juncus, nuzzling its bill vigorously into the submerged stalks of vegetation in search of food and for a brief spell stopping for a preen and wing stretch.

Four Swallows flew over, their liquid, laconic flight action distinctive against the grey skies. They did not linger but flew steadily northwards, their destination unknown. My thoughts turned to Morocco and the edge of The Sahara where I had seen similar Swallows a couple of years ago, also moving northwards. These four Swallows had crossed The Sahara just a few days ago and now they were here, four survivors of all the millions of their kind that had migrated south last autumn, moving instinctively to their birthplace. The living and moving embodiment of the phenomenon of migration.

I returned to watching the Garganey, now feeding actively, working its way through the juncus, and rushes, often almost invisible in the close packed tangle of stems and spikey leaves. Its broad white eyestripe the only sign betraying its presence.

I finally left Mark on his own and made my way back to the car. It had been quite a morning.

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