It was a gorgeous afternoon. This late burst of sunshine and warm temperatures was just too inviting to resist so I left my desk, abandoning all cares, and headed out into the sun and warmth of an Oxfordshire afternoon.
My destination was Farmoor Reservoir for a couple of hours, to get both some fresh air and exercise. As I readily admit, Farmoor is only attractive to me if there is actually something to see there. Usually there is very little but today a Red necked Grebe was spending its second day there.
Quite remarkable as up until a couple of years ago a Red necked Grebe was rare in Oxfordshire but Farmoor seems to have become, for no reason I can fathom, singularly attractive to this particular species of grebe. Maybe it is the same bird appearing on both its spring and autumn migration, birds are creatures of habit after all, but there was another, a juvenile which stayed here for just one day earlier this autumn so who knows how many are involved? Coincidentally there have been up to three together at The Cotswold Water Park this autumn which as the grebe flies is just 'down the road' in the adjacent county of Gloucestershire.
The car park at Farmoor was relatively free of cars on my arrival signifying that the yachting and windsurfing fraternity were not out in force yet which was good news if one is looking for a water borne grebe. I walked up the familiar grassy bank to the concrete path surrounding the two reservoirs. A modest south west wind was blowing off the water, enough to persuade most of the waterbirds to seek the sheltered areas where the water was untroubled by the wind. The rest of the reservoir was an expanse of choppy, blue water being crossed by the occasional sailing dinghy and windsurfer.
I walked along the southern side of the bigger reservoir, known as Farmoor Two which is where Gnome had reported the grebe at around lunchtime. There were two distinct groups of birds feeding in the sheltered waters close in to the concrete wall and I felt confident the grebe would be in amongst one of these.
Out of the wind it was warm, hot even and I removed my fleece. The first group of birds I came to were mainly Coot with the odd pair of Mallard amongst them. Most remarkable of all were the number of Little Grebes close by and forming their own distinct group. Tiny, non descript brown, rotund balls of feathers with small heads and fluffy rear ends they sunned themselves on the sparkling blue water. I counted fourteen in all and one was even still in breeding plumage, its rich chestnut head and neck glistening wet from a recent dive into the murky depths. But there was no Red necked Grebe. Further along another group of loafing Great Crested Grebes held out further hope. I walked along the pathway to get opposite them as an unseen Chiffchaff called plaintively and anxiously from the bushes as I passed by.
I got to the larger grebes. They were mostly asleep, doing that peculiar thing grebes do when they are whiling away the time doing nothing, which is not to put their bill under their back feathers but to contort their sinuous necks into a bend so that their bill is snuggled down into their breast feathers. To me, in this position they always remind me of a sulky child pouting after a telling off. I checked each one but they were all Great Crested Grebes, one though, still retained the stripey cheeks of juvenile plumage. Not a trace here of the Red necked Grebe.
Disappointment then caused me to pause for a moment of consideration and rumination. I sat on a bench, warm in the sun and it was far from unpleasant. I knew it was unlikely that the Red necked Grebe could have left even though the reservoir was becoming increasingly populated by waterborne traffic in the form of wind surfers, sailing dinghies and fishermen. I was now confronted, if I wanted to locate the grebe, with the unenviable choice of walking around the full two mile circumference of the huge Farmoor Two reservoir, remaining on the sunny bench or beating a retreat for home. However this had become personal so I was not about to give in. Rationalising, I told myself the weather was glorious, not a cloud in the sky and the exercise would do me good if I walked round the reservoir. I set off back the way I had come and soon turned onto the central causeway which divides the larger reservoir from the smaller Farmoor One.
Irrepressibly cheery Pied Wagtails flew from my presence and up the causeway before diving over the wall, down onto the concrete apron and the water's edge. Their plumages are so variable, apart from the males, and it is sometimes impossible to sex them or determine their age. Not that they care. I regularly checked the concrete aprons below the causeway wall on both sides. It's always wise to do this as often a wader will be feeding here by the water's edge and sure enough there was a juvenile Dunlin, almost fully moulted into its drab grey winter plumage pottering along amongst the goose turds and feather detritus that is such a feature of the reservoir at this time of year. As is often the case it was ridiculously confiding and allowed a very close approach, looking up at me questioningly before continuing to feed by picking at invisible morsels along the slimy shoreline. I looked up and the sun glitter from the water created a temporary white out of my sight until I turned to look away.
The Dunlin flew a little way further to land amongst a huge flock of mainly Greylag Geese sunning themselves on the windless concrete apron. The very picture of indolence they squatted, wings akimbo on the hot concrete but as always greeting me with a cacophony of harsh, grating calls of complaint at my disturbing their reverie, as I passed along the causeway. With nothing else to look at I sought some form of amusement by counting how many geese there were. They stretched for virtually the whole length of the causeway and when I finally came to the end of this garrulous assembly I had reached a figure of five hundred and twenty one.
Nothing else of much note was to trouble me apart from a female Shoveler that swam out from the shore. She has been here for some while so it was not a surprise to see her again.
Reaching the end of the causeway I turned despondently to survey the circumference of concrete I needed to cover to complete a circuit of the reservoir. The walk as always was mind numbingly tedious with hardly a bird to look at apart from the odd Tufted Duck and Great Crested Grebe. I doggedly carried on and eventually came to where I had been looking at the group of Great Crested Grebes earlier. Another check confirmed there was indeed no sign of a Red necked Grebe amongst them. I moved on to the flock of Coots still idly upending for weed in the shallows with the Little Grebes now actively diving amongst them. But what was this? A grebe, in between the size of a Little Grebe and a Great crested Grebe. It was indeed the errant Red necked Grebe, now visible as large as life. Where had it been? So pleased was I to see it I forgot that I had walked two unnecessary miles only to finish up where I had started! There was no point in bemoaning my fate. It was over and done with but I at least had the satisfaction of at last finding the elusive grebe.
Its winter plumage only hints at the glories of its breeding plumage and there is only a subdued impression of the red neck. The only strong feature was the straw yellow base to the bill. I watched it diving and feeding amongst the strangely benign Coot and nervy Little Grebes. One of the latter surfaced nearby with a stickleback in its bill and the Red necked Grebe lowered its head and torpedoed towards it.
The Little Grebe seeing what was coming crash dived to be instantly followed by the Red necked Grebe. They surfaced well apart, with now no sign of the stickleback and the grebes distanced themselves further. The Red necked Grebe set off for the centre of the reservoir and the last I saw of it was dodging a windsurfer far out on the blue waters of the reservoir on what had become not such a bad afternoon after all.
A Grey Wagtail, its citrone yellow rear glowing in the sun and with movements of supreme elegance danced its way along the reservoir edge as I walked back.