Friday, 26 August 2016

Lunchtime Sandwiches 24th August 2016

Another hot day was promised and this led me to return to Farmoor Reservoir for a gentle stroll along the adjacent Thames Path this time, rather than walk around the less scenic tarmac surrounds of the reservoir.

I parked the car in Farmoor Village, took the alleyway between the houses and then the narrow footpath that led to the Thames Path down by the river. My plan was just to idle along, gently birding as I went. I deliberately left the camera in the car, only took my binoculars and felt truly liberated without the accustomed heavy encumbrance of the camera and lens slung around my neck although wondering if I was tempting fate by leaving them behind.

I walked down through the fields of seeding grasses and umbellifers to Pinkhill Lock, luxuriating in the warmth of another day of full sunshine. A Willow Warbler doubtless stimulated by the sun and heat broke into brief song as I stood by the river looking at the lock gates and the green waters of the Thames, flowing gently past. Unusual numbers of Brown Hawker dragonflies, one of our largest native dragonflies, patrolled the river sides, their brown wings and bodies glinting like shined bronze in the strong sunlight and a Yellow Wagtail proclaimed its passing as it called cheerily from the sky above me.

Such a peaceful scene of absolute tranquillity and no little beauty but the heat was becoming excessive so I sought the shade where the Thames Path wound under overhanging poplars and willows. Curious, I consulted the Oxon Birds latest sightings on my phone only to receive the startling news that fifteen Sandwich Terns had been seen on Farmoor One at 0840 today and here I was literally metres away from the reservoir! 

Although a little annoyed to have missed these I was not too  bothered by this news as it was now noon and any Sandwich Terns, a county scarcity, that pass through Farmoor do not linger for long. Almost three hours had passed and they would be long gone by now. Nevertheless. as a precaution I walked up to the fence guarding the reservoir and looked through to check Farmoor One for any sign of the terns but could see no sign of them.

Relaxing in the conclusion that the terns had indeed gone I returned to the path and wandered along past the Pinkhill Hide, finding yet another singing Willow Warbler in the willows as I approached the pumping station that feeds water from the river into the reservoir. Then I heard, distantly on the reservoir but quite distinct,  kirrrick, kirrrick. The calls of Sandwich Terns!

Fortunately I was very close to the set of steps that lead up the side of the reservoir to the end of the Causeway between the two reservoirs. I had, however to first clear the locked gate guarding unauthorised entry but achieved this with little trouble and raced up the steps and scanned the two reservoirs. Nothing. No more calls came either. Had I been mistaken? Surely not? I scanned again and far across Farmoor Two, the larger reservoir, on the south western side I saw a small flock of white birds flying around before settling on a pontoon and some yellow buoys. They were so distant it was impossible to tell in my bins what they were. They were probably and more likely to be Black headed Gulls rather than the hoped for Sandwich Terns. There were no birders looking at them, which would have suggested they were the terns so there was only one thing to do and that was to make the long and tedious walk around the reservoir to get closer in order to see if my hunch was correct. I set off and soon was sweating in the heat as I walked as fast as I could for what seemed to take an age. Two thirds of the way around and much closer, I stopped for another check and saw that there were a number of large white terns perched on the buoys and on the pontoon. I had indeed found the Sandwich Terns which had sometime earlier, apparently, relocated from Farmoor One to Farmoor Two. Five more minutes of quick walking and I was level with the pontoon and finally getting close views of all fifteen Sandwich Terns, an unprecedented occurrence for Farmoor, resting on the pontoon and buoys

The pontoon where the Sandwich Terns rested. Some can just be seen on the
right hand end of the rail. The green vegetation is part of a process for cleaning 

the water in the reservoir
I called Gnome and asked him to update the Oxon Birds log and inform anyone interested that the terns were still present but had moved reservoirs. It was now a little after twelve noon

Excitable and vocal the terns would perch in a line on the pontoon rail with others singly on the buoys and then one or two would fly around aimlessly as if checking their surrounds before resuming their position on buoy or pontoon. 

Sandwich Terns
After a short interval all the terns rose and circled above the water. Was this the moment when they would be resuming their migration? Two medium sized waders, previously invisible rose from the pontoon with them and flew in close formation towards the southern end of the reservoir in the distinctive languid flight of Ruff, two juvenile males judging by their brown plumage and size.

I counted all fifteen of the terns several times, noticing they were joined by four Common Terns as they circled, calling excitedly, but they eventually drifted back and down to the pontoon and buoys.

Ten Sandwich Terns and two Black headed Gulls
Justin sent a text asking if the terns were still present. I told him they were and he said he would come over in his lunch hour and sure enough he arrived twenty minutes later, spent fifteen minutes watching them and chatting to us and then went back to work.

Like the terns I settled down, my limited ambition was to just watch and enjoy them as much as possible, for surely they would not remain much longer and would soon fly onwards. I think all the terns were adults and the majority had moulted their black caps leaving just a shaggy black tuft on their nape.Their bills looked formidable, long, black, almost oversized and with a bright yellow tip.

Of course having left the camera in the car I had to resign myself to just watching but in reality I was not that troubled employing a zen like approach to my situation. Others would doubtless get or had got photos of them and at that moment Roger turned up and proceeded to fire away with his camera.

For the next hour and a half we chatted, Roger took his photos and individual terns restlessly took short flights around the pontoon but always resumed their perches amongst the Black headed Gulls, calling every so often as if enquiring  'Shall we go?'  It was very hot now, the wind had died and you could almost imagine you were beside the sea, looking out on a Farmoor Reservoir that was a blue expanse with occasional yachts sailing across it.

A Yellow Wagtail landed on the retaining wall to join several Pied Wagtails, Common Sandpipers called and a couple landed on the concrete apron nearby but immediately flew off again on seeing us. The occasional Sand Martin and Swallow flicked across the water and the drowsy, timeless feel of a hot early afternoon had me thinking of the Mediterranean.

My resolve about the camera was weakening and I was working up the energy of both spirit and physical effort to make the one and a half mile walk back to the car. It looked an awfully long way from my current position. Once I got to the car I could then drive it the short distance to Lower Whiteley Farm which lay just behind us and walk the few hundred yards from there to where I was currently standing. My dilemna was that the terns would probably fly off in my absence. There was every chance they would but then Roger decided to leave and that in turn convinced me to head for the car.

An anxious and very long walk got me back to the car, heat and anxiety are not a good combination but I soon had the car parked at Lower Whiteley Farm and was up the steps and back to the pontoon as fast as humanly possible. The Sandwich Terns were still there as was Roger who had decided to come back for more!

We sat again on the retaining wall and resumed our vigil. The terns too, perched on the rail of the pontoon, and the minutes slowly passed as they continued to fidget and fly around but always returned to the pontoon.

Roger left once more, this time for good and I was on my own with the terns. I too took some images but soon tired of raising the camera and resolved to wait and see what happened with the terns. Just after three o'clock a number of the terns, calling loudly, flew up to be followed shortly after by the remainder and they headed up as one into the sky. Was this the moment? They drifted out to the centre of the reservoir but did not fly off, instead they commenced fishing or at least some of them did, dropping from a considerable height, hitting the water with some force and creating quite a splash. The flock flew around like this for some minutes, individual terns hurtling from the sky to plunge into the water after a fish but the feeding was only sporadic with most of the terns just flying around calling in excitement, the whole flock in a loose formation. They drifted across the reservoir, north, south, west and east, covering the whole expanse and gradually rising ever higher. I lost them in the sun whitened sky, now just hearing their calls. They had gone, surely? - but the calls continued from the sky and they returned into view, swooping down low over the reservoir and resumed their circling, before again rising upwards into the sky. What makes them decide to leave? Is there a leader amongst them, a senior Sandwich Tern who gives the command or is it a communal decision come to by mutual instinctive consent? They were obviously keen to go but the concensus was not yet upon them.  The flock rose ever higher, splitting into smaller groups but they were all moving in the one direction now, south west. The cries became distant and I lost sight of most of the flock apart from a final group of three. The harsh insistent calls came to me one last time and then the sky fell silent.They had gone. They were on their way towards Africa. The time was 1536.

The reservoir felt strangely bereft following the departure of these exotic, romantic visitors, taking with them their promise of distant lands and oceans far from the prosaic surrounds of Farmoor and Oxfordshire.

Rather than go home I made the decision to go looking for the two Ruff I had seen earlier and found them on the central causeway amongst the Greylag and Canada Geese.

Ruff-juvenile male
They were, as I had thought, two juvenile males and in true Farmoor fashion allowed me to approach them closely as, in the late afternoon I watched them, elegantly feeding along the water's edge but my thoughts were far away with the Sandwich Terns.

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