Yesterday, Monday, I went to Farmoor Reservoir on an appropriately gloomy, overcast day with no wind, a day when the cloud seemed to be so low as to be oppressive. My reason for inflicting such a torment upon myself was that a 'Channel Wagtail' had been seen these last few days consorting with a small number of Yellow Wagtails on the grass bank opposite the Thames Water Works.
'Channel Wagtail' is the colloquial name given to a hybrid between our Yellow Wagtail that breeds in Britain and the Blue headed Wagtail that breeds on mainland western Europe. The result is, in the case of a male which this one was, a very handsome looking bird indeed.
I had made several attempts to see it but failed. Reflecting on this at home I noted from reports that it appeared mostly in the afternoon and so I timed my visit accordingly but still failed to find it. Depressed at my lack of success I wandered up the Causeway to revisit the long staying Red necked Grebe which was feeding close in to the shore and amused myself by taking images of it catching Three spined Sticklebacks which it manoeuvered in its bill so they slipped down head first thus not allowing the spines to catch in its throat. It caught a fish on every one of its numerous dives and then swam further out into the reservoir picking hatching flies off the surface of the water as a dessert. These and the sticklebacks seemed to be its only two sources of food.
Red necked Grebe consuming Three spined Sticklebacks
Far out on Farmoor Two, the larger of the two reservoirs, seven Little Gulls were hawking insects along with a half dozen Common Terns but they did not remain long before carrying on their migration.
I walked onwards towards Pinkhill Reserve and despite the gloom birds were singing loudly in the hedgerows along the track and in the reeds of Pinkhill. The wistful refrains of Willow Warblers came from the Sallows while newly arrived Sedge Warblers were singing lustily and indulging in their parachute display flight over the reeds, one imitating perfectly the alarm call of a Swallow. Blackcaps burst into brief song and Cetti's Warblers, always invisible, blasted out their high volume short song along the banks of the River Thames.
I walked back to the grass bank by the water works hoping that maybe I would be in luck and the 'Channel Wagtail' might have now put in an appearance but no, all there was were three male Yellow Wagtails and even their bright colours were muted in the continual overcast conditions. Then it commenced raining. I stuck it out for a miserable hour but getting increasingly wet and cold and with no sign of the 'Channel Wagtail' gave up and drove home resolving to make another attempt tomorrow as I had to come into Oxford to conduct some business in the morning.
Tuesday dawned bright, sunny and mild with still no wind to speak of, putting me in a much more optimistic frame of mind than yesterday. Once done in Oxford, I made haste to Farmoor, getting there at lunchtime and headed for the grass bank.
Farmoor 1 and the grass bank to the right with Thames Waterworks beyond
Farmoor 1 perimeter track and the grass bank favoured by the wagtails
A couple of photographers were already there waiting I presume for the opportunity to photograph the 'Channel Wagtail' which true to form was nowhere to be seen. Since Farmoor has hit such a purple patch with the long staying Red necked Grebe and Great Northern Divers and now the Channel Wagtail, it is receiving more and more visits from birders and photographers coming to the reservoir from all parts of the country, trying to see the grebe, divers and wagtail or take photos of them, and it is hard not to feel a little resentful that a location mainly visited by local birders has suddenly become so popular, with the consequence that it is almost impossible to be on one's own. This in turn makes it very difficult to get close to birds such as wagtails which can be skittish and nervy at the best of times. However that is the modern way of things now and the power of the internet and information services, so really I should not complain and just get used to it as I take as much advantage as others of the various online information services.
I sat on the wave wall and chatted with one of the photographers who told me he was a professional. He certainly had all the top equipment but to my surprise did not know that much about birds and seemed just as interested in taking photos of the planes from Brize Norton flying on their endless training circuits above the reservoir. The ultimate photograph seemed to be the main focus for him. The cloud, as forecast, slowly built up and an ominous grey mass rising above the eastern bank of the reservoir heralded rain and eclipsed the sunlight. Isolated thunder storms had been predicted and soon claps of thunder and flickers of lightning were making life 'interesting' from my elevated position on the reservoir bank. A slight patter of rain came but the worst of it thankfully passed the reservoir and headed for central Oxford. The sun re-appeared and all was well again.
Myriads of hatching flies formed miniature clouds as they wheeled and gyrated in co-ordinated unison above the bank. With no wind to disperse them they amassed in great vortexes and settled in hundreds on my clothes and camera.
Following the minor thunderstorm I was now on my own. The threat of rain and thunder had deterred anyone else and I determined to make the most of it. I waited and two Yellow Wagtails flew in but then flew off again clearly unsettled. A little later three Yellow Wagtails returned and proceeded to hunt flies on the grass bank. I waited but still there was no sign of any others joining them. Half an hour passed and then the unmistakeable, cheery, single note contact call of a Yellow Wagtail heralded the arrival of another Yellow Wagtail but this one had a powder blue grey head rather than the standard bright yellow head of its fellows. At last! The Channel Wagtail had arrived. Such a pleasing combination of colours, almost exotic, the blue grey head breaking up the uniformity of yellow and the 'sergeant major' stripes created by the broad pale edges to its tertials giving the bird a most pleasing appearance.
I tried stalking it with my camera but it and its fellow Yellow Wagtails were having none of it and flew further along the bank when I was still well out of camera range. I followed them quietly and gently but it was no dice and eventually they flew over the high metal railings that guard the water works, landing on an area of lawn and out of reach, although I could still see them through the railings.
Roger, a fellow Oxonbirder arrived and together we watched them before they flew to the Causeway to join a White Wagtail and several Pied Wagtails. We followed but again they were flighty and flew away from us when we were still some distance away. A Yellow Wagtail did allow us a close approach but the 'Channel Wagtail' just flew onwards whenever we got anywhere remotely close.
Yellow Wagtail M. f. flavissima
Eventually it flew back to the grass bank and we returned to where we had started. We stalked it again and this time it seemed more settled and by very slowly and cautiously walking along the path above the grass bank we managed to get closer and this time it remained on the ground hunting insects in the grass with its three Yellow Wagtail comrades. This was our opportunity.
So success came at long last and satisfied I walked the Causeway once more and found a summer plumaged Dunlin by the water's edge. Gone were the dull grey feathers of its winter garb and here was a very smart bird indeed with tortoiseshell upperparts and a contrasting black square on its belly.
I heard a Common Sandpiper calling and walking back flushed it from the water's edge, setting it off on its distinctive hesitant, stiff winged flight across the reservoir to the far bank.
So all in all a good day at Farmoor I think you will agree.