I was at a medical conference in Coventry on Friday when I received a text from Steve telling me about two Knot that were currently on the Causeway at Farmoor Reservoir. This April and May has seen a phenomenal passage of waders through Farmoor, the birds usually only present for a day, resting and feeding before moving on. Incidentally it also opened my eyes to how much wader passage must be conducted unseen overland, which I suppose makes sense as it will save the birds considerable time and distance rather than following the coast.
I was really anxious to see the Knot as I had missed one a few days earlier which only remained at Farmoor for a matter of minutes. Knot is the second largest calidrid wader, considerably larger than a Sanderling or Dunlin, being a chunky wader of pleasing proportions. I was doubly anxious to see them as Steve had further informed me that one of the Knot was in full summer plumage and this, if you can, is something you do not want to miss out on seeing.
The Conference finished at 4.30pm and I calculated that if I got a move on I could just about get home, change quickly, grab the camera and make it to Farmoor before the light became too dull. Despite it being a Friday evening the traffic from Coventry was not too heavy and I made it to my home at 5.45 pm and five minutes later was on my way to Farmoor, which would take me another forty minutes.
It was a gamble as I had no idea if the Knot would still be there and if so would they allow close enough approach to get some good images but, nothing ventured nothing gained and the fresh air of Farmoor would blow away the stale feeling I felt after sitting for hours in an overheated building.
The sun had gone in and there was a strongish northeast wind blowing as I made my way at some pace to Farmoor's central Causeway and set off up it with House Martins and Swifts whirling around me, chasing insects brought low by the wind and cloud but with no sign of any wader whatsoever for as far as I could see. Oh no, had I miscalculated? I recalled that Steve had told me the Knot had been near the birdwatching Hide, situated half way up the Causeway when he saw them so despair was put on hold until I reached the Hide. Beyond the Hide I could see a lone figure crouched down by the retaining wall and obviously looking at something below on the water's edge. I could discern two dark dots feeding along the water's edge on the concrete apron. The Knot, surely?
I put a spurt on and joined the lone, hunched figure who turned out to be a lady photographer by the name of Anne and yes, she was looking at and taking photos of the two Knot that were a little way ahead of us. We slowly moved towards them but they showed little concern and we were emboldened to walk almost up to them and they still showed no apparent alarm. Admittedly they did stop feeding, looked at us and walked a couple of hesitant steps but having assessed we meant them no harm, carried on feeding. I speculated that their confiding nature was, maybe, because they had not encountered many humans, if any. It is often this way when there are one or two waders stopping over at Farmoor on either their spring or autumn migration. Larger flocks though tend to be more wary and flighty.
One of the Knot was, as Steve had described, resplendent in its full chestnut red summer plumage and the other was still in grey and white non breeding plumage with just a hint of a couple of chestnut feathers on its flanks.
In their first year Knot often do not breed and this would appear to be the case with this winter plumaged individual, although presumably it was still going to make an epic migration with its colleague to their breeding grounds in the Canadian High Arctic, Greenland or northern Siberia. These two birds so content and confiding, gracing the reservoir for one day, are capable of phenomenal feats of flying and endurance, crossing the Greenland icecap and often flying directly to Greenland and Iceland from their coastal staging posts or wintering areas in western Europe and southwest Africa. After taking their images far too many times, I just stood and admired them as they looked back at me benignly and perhaps a little apprehensively, but I wished them no harm, in fact precisely the opposite. Tonight, probably, they would leave this man made concrete edifice on the outskirts of a city conurbation and head up into the night sky to make their next landfall far, far to the north, possibly even in Greenland, without touching the ground once. That is the miracle of these tiny beings and their perilous existence.
For the hour we shared each other's company they fed and often rested, standing always close and relaxed, facing into the wind that blew off the reservoir. Naturally my attention was drawn to the summer plumaged bird. Their full name is Red Knot and you could easily see why looking at this bird. A deep brick red colouring on its face and underparts gave the game away and on the upperparts the complicated scaled patterning of black, white and buff feathers with some chestnut red admixed created a beauty of form and vision that really filled me with absolute delight.
Again, it is so unusual to see these birds here in their summer plumage, which is really meant to be displayed on the vast northern wastes that are their breeding grounds, far beyond human interference or notice. But here they were for just today and I rejoiced that I had seen them and my impetuous gamble had paid off.