It was a late afternoon at Farmoor when I paid a visit, more in hope than expectation of anything out of the ordinary, consoling myself that there may be some new waders to find and if all else failed at least the long staying Red necked and Black necked Grebes would be on show.
The earlier part of the day had been a strange one weather wise, humid and hot but with the sun kept at bay by a thin low mist that in itself was warm, creating a sensation similar to walking through steam. Not a day to hurry around but one in which to gently stroll. By the time I made it to Farmoor the sun had broken through but still gave the impression of being filtered through the atmosphere, so it was not unbearably hot, and a gentle southeasterly breeze kept the humidity bearable. Such strange weather for this time of year and it made it difficult to comprehend that we are now half way through September and the first Scandinavian thrushes in the form of Fieldfares and Redwings have already arrived on the east coast.
I walked to the Thames Water Works to look for Yellow Wagtails on the grass bank opposite but there were none to be seen, however a Northern Wheatear was more than adequate compensation for their absence. Bold and upright it regarded my approach, before swooping away, flashing white and black from its rump and tail. It did not go far, before settling and immediately commenced chasing the ubiquitous flies across the grass and concrete perimeter track. It was in its winter plumage of brown and buff although still looking very smart and dapper, so it was probably a juvenile.
Dai arrived, telling me that he had seen no sign of the grebes and it was very quiet on the reservoir so I left him looking at the wheatear while I resolved to walk up the Causeway and then round Farmoor Two, the larger of the two reservoirs. The wind had all but subsided and the light from the filtered sun became almost blindingly white, shining off the oily, still waters and turning the numerous Pied Wagtails feeding at the water's edge into ill defined black silhouettes. I walked up the Causeway but there was little to see as I alternately looked on one side and then the other but eventually I found two juvenile Ringed Plovers feeding at the water's edge of Farmoor Two. As usual they were fairly confiding and pattered away from my approach on twinkling legs before stopping to regard me with large brown eyes, as if to assess my intentions.
I left them in peace and further up the Causeway found another at the edge of Farmoor One, just as confiding as the other two. A Little Egret strolled from my presence, methodically pacing along the concrete apron, then satisfied I was at a safe distance hunched its head down into its rounded shoulders to stand and silently contemplate the water. A large trout was right up by the water's edge where it met the shelving concrete. Huge and dusky grey in the green, sun dappled waters it just hung there immobile, its gills working slowly to filter the oxygen from the water. It did not look well and would probably succumb as many seem to do at this time of year.
At the top of the Causeway I turned left and took the perimeter track around Farmoor Two, stopping to chat to a fisherman who told me he had not had a bite all day. Trout were visibly jumping near his line but were completely disinterested in his lure. I walked on with only the vague incentive of maybe finding Dai's missing grebes as a consolation for the apparent lack of birdlife on the reservoir. A Grey Wagtail was the only other relative highlight until I was two thirds round the reservoir and in the southwest corner. Looking out I could see four Little Grebes diving, all now in their drab khaki winter plumage but I could also hear a strange call which I could not pin down, either to location or as to what was making the call. It sounded slightly like a wader call but not quite. I carried on walking with the distant call coming to me at regular intervals and, stopping once again, looked out at another Little Grebe floating by a buoy, which they seem to regard as some form of security on the wide open waters of the reservoir. I then saw another small resting grebe on the other side of the buoy and looking through my bins saw it was the Black necked Grebe. So my uneventful walk around the vast reservoir had not been in vain and I had found one of the 'unusual' grebes but there was no sign of the Red necked Grebe. The troubling call came again, repeated a number of times and then fell silent but now I could place its location more accurately and it seemed to be from near the two small grebes by the buoy. I wonder? I found the Collins Bird Guide app on my phone and scrolled to Black necked Grebe. On the app there is a facility to listen to the calls of each species so I played the call of a Black necked Grebe and there it was, identical to the call I had been trying to identify. So I had learnt today what the call of a Black necked Grebe was, which I had never heard before and certainly never dreamed I would hear on Farmoor Reservoir.
Black necked Grebe calling
I decided to text the news of the grebe's presence to RBA and as I regarded my phone noted there had been an alert from Badger which went as follows, and I quote 'Skua sp probably Great, Otmoor. From First Screen dropped down onto spit and is currently out of view 1648'
The text had been sent with admirable speed at 1653. I checked the time now, 1758, a whole hour had passed with me in blissful ignorance! I cursed Vodaphone and their lack of signal as I had heard no alert on my phone to signify I had a text. Looking at the time it was now 1800 and the declining light conditions made it look highly unlikely I could make it to Otmoor and then walk the mile or so of bridleway to the First Screen. I also had to contemplate the unavoidable fact that there was a formidable obstacle that lay between me and Otmoor in that I had to somehow circumnavigate Oxford via a rush hour, traffic congested A34 and with that knowledge resigned myself to missing out on a species of bird I had yet to see in Oxfordshire. I rang Badger who was just approaching Otmoor and he commiserated with me about the traffic.
I looked at the Black necked Grebe, I looked at my phone, I looked at the skies and decided to take the challenge. I would never forgive myself if I did not make the effort. If I failed all well and good and I would have nothing to be ashamed of.
I raced along the remainder of the reservoir perimeter track and down the path to the car park. I was into the car just as Dai came down the track having walked around Farmoor One. 'Great Skua on Otmoor, Dai' I shouted out of the window of the moving car, 'Oh, and the Black necked Grebe is still there on Farmoor Two' and then I was gone, vaguely hearing Dai shouting something like 'Thank heavens it's not a Pom'. (Pomarine Skua)
My new Audi and its various sophistications now came to the fore. I put the automatic gearbox into Dynamic Mode (I kid you not) and with a surge the rev counter arrow zoomed alarmingly upwards. Blimey! Steady! I hastily formulated a route in my head to go via Kidlington and avoid Oxford and turned left for Eynsham Toll Bridge but I could see the traffic backed up for a long way. A quick U turn and back down the other way had me eventually at the lights controlling access to the dreaded A34 ring road at Botley. This was now make or break and I would soon know if I had any chance of making it to Otmoor. I merged onto the A34, joining a very slow moving two lanes of traffic nose to tail. Frustratingly we crawled forward and then speeded up. Good we were still in with a chance. The traffic slowed again at the Peartree intersection and almost stopped. Come on, please! The traffic started to move again and we were going at a good pace now. Then my heart sank as I could see before me two lanes of static cars and trucks running off into the distance. I joined the back of the queue. It was now 1815 and the light was discernibly fading. No chance, we will never make it now with this jam but then the traffic moved again and kept moving. For those who know the A34 at rush hour this is a near miraculous event and still we moved onwards and then there it was, the turnoff to Islip. The car in front turned off also but clearly had made an error and stopped right in the middle of the road unsure what to do. Why me? Come on make your mind up. He eventually did a U turn on the slip road and I was clear to go and now had a relatively clear run to Otmoor. The only potential hazard remaining was Islip but I managed to get through the village's traffic contra-flow system and was soon heading for Noke at speed. Another dilemna now approached as I debated either to access Otmoor from the Noke end or drive to the more distant but usual access at Beckley. It was fifty fifty as both were equidistant from the First Screen on Otmoor i.e about a mile and half walk.
Noke was the first turning to come up so I took the plunge, turned left and wound my way down the narrow lane to the dead end where you can leave your car. Damn, there was already a car here in the only safe space to park. Looks like Barry's. I parked the Audi on a grass verge a little further on, grabbed my bins and phone and commenced running.
I ran down the track and turned along the bridleway, alternately running, jogging and walking. Come on Ewan, remember all those hours in the gym? You are fit. You are healthy. My ageing body had other opinions and prevailed on me to cease this torment. Oh alright then, just a short walk and then another run and so it progressed, a constant battle of mind and body but slowly the hedge marking the boundary of the track to the first screen came closer and ever closer. I called Andy, noting my phone was about to lose all battery power. After what seemed an age Andy answered 'Andy. Is it still there?' I spluttered. 'I'm not there anymore but Mark says yes it is still there.' 'Cheers' I gasped and my phone died. I turned through the gate and up the long track to the First Screen and now on the firm surface loped along at a comfortable speed. Funny it never seemed this far before? I employed an old running trick and looked at my feet, keeping my eyes down so as not to get depressed at seeing just how far away the First Screen was. I would get to it soon enough. My heart racing, my lungs bursting and my legs screaming to stop I was, at last, at the end of the track running up the bank and into the confines of the First Screen, and there were the friendly faces of Badger, Wreny, Barry, Graham and assorted Oxonbirders. The Great Skua was currently out of sight having drifted behind some reeds so I subsided onto a bench, gasping and sweating but delighted to have made it. Badger advised the skua would undoubtedly appear soon and after a tense fifteen minute wait there it was, floating on the water, huge compared to the Mallards, pale brown magnificence mottled with cream spots
In tandem with regaining some dignity after my exhausted arrival at the screen I watched this beauty and real Oxfordshire rarity incongruously floating around amongst the ducks then disappearing behind the reeds only to re-appear at regular intervals.
Courtesy of Terry Sherlock
Relaxed now, I chatted and watched the other birdlife of Otmoor arriving for the night. Small clouds of around, in total a thousand Starlings arrived for the roost, forming mini holograms in the still evening air, a foretaste of what is to come later in the year maybe, when many thousands will arrive to roost in the reeds.
Common Snipe exploded from the muddy margins of the lagoon, disappearing like errant feathered fireworks into the darkening sky, a couple of Kingfishers perched on the dead tree branches by the edge of the lagoon and Water Rails squealed in the reeds. A Marsh Harrier, no doubt attracted by the starlings floated dark and deadly, low over the reed tops, hoping to flush or catch an unwary Starling. Yellow Wagtails arrived, heralding their arrival with cheery calls, as they descended for the night into the welcoming security of the reeds.
A strange orange light, the last hurrah of the sun, lit the screen and all of us in it. An ethereal unworldly and slightly unsettling occurrence but quite in tune with what had turned out to be an unexpectedly exciting end to an extraordinary day.
Many thanks to Terry for allowing me to use his photo of the Great Skua at Otmoor
Many thanks also to Badger/Megabrock Productions for use of his video of the Great Skua