An overnight frost confronted me this Monday morning but with the colder weather came an initially bright and sunny start to the day. I had just returned from Holland last night, so first needed to deal with all my work emails before setting off to Farmoor to look at the Grey Phalarope that had been reported yesterday as we drove home across Northern Europe.
At about ten I had dealt with all the urgent matters so headed off on the thirty minute car trip to the reservoir. The car park was surprisingly empty, containing around ten cars and after parking I headed up the familiar grass bank to the reservoir's perimeter track, there to encounter Terry, Roger and Dai conversing and relaxing after photographing the phalarope. Terry informed me the phalarope was now over on the smaller reservoir, Farmoor One. As we chatted I noticed a Little Grebe surfacing near us by the pontoons and aimed my camera, pressed the shutter but nothing happened. I checked the camera display to find to my horror the battery was dead and of course I had neglected to bring a spare.
Feeling just a little foolish and a lot more frustrated, I returned to the car and went back home to recharge the battery and set about dealing with some of my less urgent emails whilst the recharging was in progress. Now getting on for one o'clock I returned to the reservoir to find the car park still virtually deserted. Gnome had informed one and all via the Oxonbirds site that the phalarope was frequenting the north side of Farmoor One so I headed there. At first it appeared deserted but then I espied a familiar figure lying prostrate on the concrete bank by the water's edge taking photographs of a tiny grey and white, constantly active bird, swimming along the shoreline. The prostrate figure was none other than Lee Evans. I wandered around to find him stalking the phalarope as it fed unconcernedly along the water's edge but I preferred to stay on the concrete track as I did not fancy lying in the algae and goose turds that had turned the concrete apron a shade of unattractive slime green.
There was just the two of us communing with this delightful bird that really should be far out in the Atlantic that is its true winter home. It has a circumpolar breeding distribution along the coasts of the Arctic Ocean and its migration routes under normal circumstances are entirely oceanic, the birds leaving their breeding grounds and then dispersing south across both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans to winter off West Africa and Chile respectively. Occasional birds have wintered as far north as the North Sea and vagrants have also been found in India, Saudi Arabia, Australia, New Zealand, Argentina and the Falkland Islands.
Many that are found in Britain are blown off course by westerly gales and strong winds and this individual had obviously succumbed to the high winds of the last few days. A reservoir must seem the next best thing to the proper sea to a lost, storm blown phalarope and indeed any pelagic bird finding itself adrift inland. Farmoor for this individual must have seemed the very best place to put down to rest in lieu of the cold grey Atlantic and come to think of it the bleak reservoir at this time of year does a very good imitation of such an environment!
Today Farmoor's waters were the colour of dull pewter and a weak sun was losing the struggle to permeate its pale rays through the light cloud cover, just about managing a weak thread of light that shone across the water for a brief spell. The phalarope's predominantly grey and white plumage reflected the harsh environment that is its normal winter home and today complimented the grey waters of the reservoir and the white wavelets on the shoreline. Its eyes were concealed by black feathering and head on it looked as if it was wearing a black mask. Occasionally it would pursue an insect onto the concrete apron and then its greyish pink legs and partially webbed feet could clearly be seen.
The Grey Phalarope, as is the way of this specialised species was constantly active, swimming along and rapidly feeding non stop, its delicate bill dipping down and outwards like some automaton to pick up tiny morsels on the water's surface around it. In their normal habitat far out on the oceans they sometimes have been known to congregate around cetaceans and pick the parasites from their backs.
The cold wind was creating small waves but the phalarope rode them with ease and carefully circumvented the white froth generated by the waves beating on the shore. Typically it showed little fear of anyone even when approached at very close quarters, remaining quite happy to carry on feeding.
As time wore on some of the great and good from Oxfordshire birding arrived. John (Doc) Reynolds, Clackers, Justin and even Pete Allen, almost as rare as the phalarope these days, came to pay homage to this wanderer from afar.
Pete Allen and Clackers reunited
After about an hour the phalarope swam further out into the reservoir and commenced a wash and brush up routine, rolling onto its side on the water to show its white undersides, contorting into strange shapes, preening and running its feathers through its bill.
I left it, still gently floating on the water doing much of nothing and obviously satisfied with its ablutions. I hope it stays a little longer before leaving its temporary home in the heart of England to head out into the vast, trackless Atlantic Ocean. It will be quite a journey.