Farmoor Reservoir is currently the place to be, well at least in Oxfordshire, as not only is the wintering Red necked Grebe ever present but the two Grey Phalaropes show no sign of wanting to depart and now a first winter Great Northern Diver has also, hopefully, taken up residence for the winter or at least will remain for an extended stay. At the current rate that Oxfordshire rarities are arriving I will have to review my opinion of Farmoor.
First discovered on Farmoor 1, the smaller reservoir that is favoured by the phalaropes, the diver has now transferred to the larger and adjacent Farmoor 2, on the other side of the central causeway, where today it was favouring the southwest corner which was in the lee of the strong south west wind. The wind strength was fortuitous as it persuaded the diver to remain relatively close to the shoreline.
Quite a number of Great Northern Divers have been reported inland today throughout England and doubtless their arrival is due to the awful weather currently battering the British Isles. It was hardly a surprise that another Great Northern arrived in Oxfordshire this afternoon, on a private lake at nearby Stanton Harcourt which is only a few miles from Farmoor.
After a thorough examination of my insulated winter clothing, conducted by the cold wind blowing off the water whilst I walked the exposed northern side of the larger reservoir, I eventually turned the corner and proceeded into calmer conditions on the western side. Rafts of Tufted Duck, Coots, a few Great Crested Grebe and a couple of Little Grebe also found this area similarly benign compared to the wind lashed, exposed northern edge and centre of the reservoir.
I wandered along the western perimeter track and met no other birders, presumably because the phalaropes on the other reservoir provided a more attractive proposition and less of a walk. I passed the occasional fly fisherman and half way along came across the distinctive dark and hulking shape of the Great Northern Diver, cruising gently on the smooth waters just offshore. I sat on the retaining wall and settled myself down for a session of just watching an unusual and attractive bird going about its daily life. Sometimes it is good for the soul, well at least for mine, to just sit, ponder and observe. There is always something to learn and this practical way is far better than any amount of reading in reference books, and let's face facts it is not that often that opportunities such as this present themselves, be it in Oxfordshire or anywhere else for that matter. So take advantage when and while you can is my advice as it is thoroughly enjoyable.
The diver was in its distinctive first winter plumage, showing pleasing neat, grey brown scaly upperparts and flanks, a vestigial collar on its neck and an impressive steel grey bill. Its eye, the colour of a good claret was surrounded by grizzled brown and white feathering not too dis-similar in appearance to the designer stubble that graces the chins of many sportsmen these days.
At first the diver did very little, just sitting on the water, ponderously moving its large head with that characteristic prominent bump at the top of the forehead, its body slowly swinging around in response to the wave and wind currents. When seen from behind the broad beam of its body reminded me of those rear views of submarines you see on television when you are surprised by how broad they are compared to when seen side on. It also indulged in a bit of 'snorkelling' where it swam slowly with its head and bill submerged as if looking for prey under the surface of the water.
After a little while it drifted towards a group of Coot, those belligerent bullies of the reservoir. The diver immediately sunk low in the water, head and neck outstretched, allowing the water to submerge its neck so that the head appeared detached from its body.
It them swam deliberately and menacingly towards the Coots who like all bullies when confronted, and having their bluff called immediately became contrite and lost all their bravado. The diver continued its inexorable low level approach, its enormous bill pointed like a missile at the now thoroughly alarmed Coots. The latter adopting the bird equivalent of 'discretion is the better part of valour' took off in pattering disarray, their enormous lobed feet slapping across the water in their panic to put distance between themselves and a potential unequal conflict.
The diver seemed to have decided it required most of this corner of the reservoir exclusively for itself and launched similar attacks or threats at those other garrulous commoners of the reservoir the Greylag Geese.
In fact no water bird, large or small, was immune to its displeasure and Mallards, Tufted Ducks and Great Crested Grebes all came in for similar treatment to the Greylags and Coots. All gave way without demur to the diver's aggression.
Once it was satisfied that there was sufficient space to form a no go zone around it the diver commenced feeding, sliding as if on a greased rail below the water with a body so streamlined and perfectly adapted to its virtually exclusive aquatic existence that it did not require an initial jump to provide the sufficient impetus to submerge. It could hardly be called a dive more a seamless merging of body and water into one as it glided gracefully below the surface.
The dives were long, almost a minute at times and the diver would surface at a considerable distance from where it had submerged but always reasonably close to the reservoir wall. Finally the inevitable happened and after one of its longer dives it miscalculated and surfaced right under a flotilla of Coots. Pandemonium ensued as the Coots took alarm and with a trio of Mallards fled in undignified haste from the totally unexpected underwater emergence of the diver, to the comparative safety of the reservoir's concrete apron, there to gather like anxious residents whose everyday normal existence on the reservoir has been well and truly disrupted.
The diver was just as surprised as the Coots when it surfaced amongst them and reared up in an instinctive aggressive display, standing in the water with wings outstretched and neck bent in heraldic posture just like the statues or images you see of a horse depicted in an heroic pose. It remained like this for some seconds before sinking back onto the water and continued feeding as if nothing had happened.
I had been sat, quite alone, on various parts of the wall for around forty five minutes, enthralled at watching the diver's behaviour and interactions with the other birdlife around it. Now given a respectful wide berth by all the other web footed occupants of the reservoir it slowly worked its way further out into the reservoir and I decided it was time to move on.
It seemed remiss not to go and make a renewed acquaintance with the Grey Phalaropes on the other smaller reservoir so I walked round the rest of the larger reservoir and then down the central causeway, noting an immature Cormorant drying its wings on a swinging buoy in what one could fancifully imagine was the bird equivalent to a spin dry sequence. Then at the end of the causeway I turned left and headed over to the northern side of Farmoor 1.
Today being a Sunday the two phalaropes were receiving quite a lot of attention from visiting birders and photographers and as per usual the phalaropes were relentlessly feeding up and down the water's edge as confiding as ever.
Regular followers of this blog will be pleased to know the green balls were still at large, showing well and have even increased in number. Depressingly there was now another plastic bottle lying on the concrete apron, undoubtedly recently discarded by a birder or photographer as it was too high up the concrete to have been washed there by the waves. It was not possible to retrieve it as I could potentially have disturbed the phalaropes and thus incurred the displeasure of the birders and photographers, present today in double figures. Needless to say no one else had considered picking up the bottle and putting it in the rubbish bin just a few metres away. This 'Nothing to do with me mate' attitude is really annoying. We are all responsible for our environment no matter on how small a scale.
I reflected on this as I walked back to the yacht clubhouse, apologising to a disgruntled fly fisherman who had to stop mid cast as two other visiting birders unaware of the reservoir etiquette passed behind him, oblivious to their unthinking action and potential injury. However enough of the negatives, food was now uppermost in my mind as I did not have any breakfast this morning and it was now approaching one o' clock.
The yacht club was open, as it is most weekends and much more to the point so was the little kitchen inside, run by the usual very friendly lady who served up a tasty bacon roll and cup of tea in no time at all for the bargain price of £2.50. I joined the throng of damp, rubber suited windsurfers and old sea dogs or should I say reservoir dogs hah hah, sat at the tables having lunch or endless cups of tea and resolved that tomorrow, if there is time I am going to set about the discarded plastic bottle and any other rubbish, near 'phalarope corner', that I can get my hands on. No doubt I will run the risk of upsetting the visiting photographers for getting too close to the phalaropes but I will try to wait until the birds are some distance from the rubbish.