Friday, 21 October 2016

Farmoor Phalarope 21st October 2016

Today was one of those calm autumnal days that beckoned you outdoors.The sunshine cast a benign, golden light across the fields, hedgerows and woods around Kingham, illuminating the yellows, reds orange and fading greens of the turning leaves so that they almost shone in the gentle light of early afternoon.

The Witney bypass as I traversed it towards Farmoor was afire on both sides, the landscaped trees  on the embankments planted so long ago now providing a technicolor extravaganza of gold, yellow and deep red as each tree's leaves charted their own course towards winter. Today there was only a light wind and the sky seemed to have ascended into a blue cathedral of light compared to the oppressive greyness of a few days ago.

I had no particular reason to go to Farmoor but just fancied some fresh air and a quiet walk around the familiar perimeter of Farmoor One, the smaller reservoir. I knew it would be quiet and this is what I desired, to just wander with no particular purpose. Freewheeling in mind and body. 

No noteworthy birds had been reported from here lately so it would just be a stroll with the binoculars, retaining the ephemeral hope of maybe finding a late warbler of some description in the trees or bushes or maybe a Rock Pipit on the Causeway. After the thrills and spills of all the rarities I have witnessed recently in the north of England it was going to be a relatively uninspiring and uneventful wander around Farmoor but maybe after all the excitements of the last few weeks that would be no bad thing.

There was a chilly northwest breeze blowing across the reservoir, enough to persuade the ducks, coots and grebes to seek the calmer waters in the lee of the wind and where they were sheltered by the reservoir walls. I wandered up the central Causeway with little obvious with regard to birds. I harboured a vague hope that maybe a Dunlin would be pottering along the concrete beside the water's edge but no, there was not a wader to be seen, hardly a wagtail even. A few Little Grebes were diving close to the Causeway, all in their drab khaki brown winter plumage and a couple of immature Yellow legged Gulls were loafing on the rafts, now mainly commandeered by  numerous Cormorants. Two Red Kites were showing a keen interest in the remains of a dead trout lying on the concrete shelving, swooping down and contesting the feeding rights with a couple of Carrion Crows.

On getting to the far end of the Causeway I turned right to walk along the western side of Farmoor One. I did not hold out much hope of seeing anything here as a couple of fishermen were casting their lines in the hope of tempting a trout. Maybe there would be a Scaup amongst the sleeping flock of Tufteds just off shore? Dream on.

I had walked past the first fisherman when I noticed a small grey and white bird swimming along at the water 's edge. I could hardly believe my eyes. It was a Grey Phalarope. I carried on walking and caught up with it and it showed not the slightest concern at my presence but carried on bobbing along, forever dipping its beak into the water and sometimes under the water to pick at tiny morsels invisible to my eyes. Constantly dabbing its bill front and sideways, pirouhetting its body on the still water, it was apparently finding plenty to eat.

The phalarope seems to have caught a bloodworm in this picture

It was a juvenile in the process of moulting into its winter plumage of grey and white, just like the colours of the Atlantic where it should be spending its winter well out of sight of land. Two Grey Phalaropes were here last year but it is still a very unusual bird to find so far inland and on Farmoor. Had it been blown off course by the strong winds of earlier in the week and was reorienting overland and found Farmoor to be an adequate temporary substitute and good place to refuel and regather its strength before heading for its normal ocean home? 

Grey Phalaropes are circumpolar Arctic or high Arctic breeders that spend the non breeding season at sea. They and their close cousin the Red necked Phalarope are the only pelagic shorebirds. Both species winter in the south Pacific with the Red necked being found also in the Arabian Sea and the Grey in the Atlantic off  western and southern Africa

Whatever, it was a joy to find and be able to sit quietly on the wall in the sunshine and watch it going about its life. Most of the time it swam in the shallows but occasionally it would wade out of the water and on one occasion flew a short distance to land and come up the concrete to preen but did not remain there for long before going back on the water.

The phalarope's white wing bars are clearly displayed
Note how comparatively short the phalarope's legs are

The lobed and palmate toes can be clearly seen on the phalarope's left leg.
This adaptation is what allows it to swim so efficiently.
The juvenile wing coverts and flight feathers are still dark brown. Only the
mantle and scapulars show the almost complete grey of first winter plumage.
 On the head the crown and ear coverts still show a considerable amount of
juvenile brown feathering
It had a definite routine and would swim back and fore along a two to three hundred metre stretch of water never venturing far from the concrete edge which was similar in behaviour to the two Grey Phalaropes that were here last year.

I called Gnome and asked him to put the news out on Oxonbirds and a few locals managed to get to the reservoir to see it before dusk. Tomorrow being Saturday I think its audience will be much larger and surely just as appreciative, assuming it remains here overnight.

Video below courtesy of Badger/Megabrock Productions

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