Friday 10 March 2017

Farmoor Cameos 9th March 2017

A wonderful Spring like day of sunshine and blue skies beckoned me out and about this afternoon.I needed little persuading and rather than travel out of the county I resolved to remain local and chose Farmoor Reservoir and its surrounds for my birding today.

Of late Farmoor has hardly been hitting the headlines with only a Black necked Grebe visiting for a day last week. Today the reservoir's concrete banks played host to many more fishermen than normal and it looked like there was some sort of competition going on. This scuppered my initial plan which was to try and photograph some courting Great crested Grebes, as the grebes alarmed by the presence of so many people had retreated to the middle of the reservoir and courtship was the last thing on their mind.

A pair of Tufted Ducks were, however, close in and looked an absolute picture on the blue waters of the reservoir as I walked up the Causeway

Tufted Duck pair
As an alternative I made my  way to the Hide at Pinkhill but before I got there I met Dai who told me that earlier he had seen a single Sand Martin over the reservoir, and that there was a Barn Owl currently flying around by the Thames Path at the back of the reservoir.

I made my way to where the owl had last been seen and almost immediately found it flying high above me in the blue of the sky. It dropped lower and quartered the grass banks of the reservoir surrounds and the scrubby areas of Shrike Meadow, keeping to the shorter green grass rather than the overgrown dead vegetation in Shrike Meadow. Presumably the shorter grass made hunting a little easier although in the twenty minutes I watched, I only saw it stall and drop into the grass once and that was unsuccessful. Eventually it headed away over the trees and off towards Pinkhill Lock. A silent assassin that for now had failed to find a target.

The pressure must be on to feed its young, hence its appearance just after two in the afternoon in full sunlight. They always give me a thrill when I see them, their startling whiteness and ghostly, erratic quartering flight unlike any other bird, and here they are safe to hunt, not threatened with death by speeding traffic or any human interference apart from irresponsible photographers, sadly a growing phenomenon in Britain these days

Side on the profile looks front heavy as the huge head, with its pure white, heart shaped face dominates, sweeping back to a thin body propelled and buoyed by broad wings, the flight feathers creamy white with a series of symmetrical darker marks on the feathers creating indistinct lines across the open wings, the rest of the upper-parts orange brown with  grey infusions and sparsely scattered black spots. Its formidable feet and claws extend just beyond the tail and are only lowered when, in anticipation of a strike, it hovers above a suspected vole or mouse. Its eyes are dark pools in the white face.

Barn Owl
With the disappearance of the Barn Owl I walked along the path towards the Hide at Pinkhill meaning to sit awhile in there and wait for the emergence of a Water Rail but just as I was passing the Thames Water works building a rapid tchay tchay tchay call had me stopping to look at a small hawthorn tree. It was exactly here many years ago that I saw a pair of Willow Tits, now all but non existent in Oxfordshire but this call was not quite of them. It was quicker, lighter in tone and less pronounced. It could be a Great Tit, often the default species whenever a strange passerine call is heard. I looked closely and a small tit was just visible in the tangle of  hawthorn twigs. Checking through the bins I could see a body with fawn upperparts and creamy buff underparts and a head with an extensive black cap. It was a Marsh Tit.

It flew further along the path and disappeared into a hedgerow but then another, presumably its mate flew into a hawthorn  just in front of me and posed just long enough to allow me to take its photo. On checking my photos later I found it was ringed on both legs with a metal numbered ring on its left leg and a strange looking black contraption on its right leg. I sent off the details to Euring who handle such things and received a detailed reply from Henri Bouwmeester to whom I am most grateful. Henri and Dr Richard Broughton who responded via the Oxon Bird Log told me it was a PIT ring which is a transponder in a glass case protected by black plastic. The transponder is used to record the presence of the bird. In most cases a 'passage-gate' is placed in a certain position, for example at the entrance of a nest box or regular feeding area. The 'gate' is made of a loop of copper wire and when the bird with the transponder passes the gate a bleep will record it and send a signal to the data collector. In this way you can record for example how many times a bird is in the area or when placed at the entrance to a nest box during the breeding season, how many times an hour the bird will be feeding its nestlings. Richard also told me it is undoubtedly from the EGI Oxford University scheme at Wytham Woods which is just a few miles away.

I must confess to having been totally ignorant about these transponders but now I know, thanks to Henri and Richard

Marsh Tit sporting a BTO ring and a transponder 
After all this excitement I slowly wandered back to the Hide at Pinkhill. Much work has been done around the small reserve here lately and a brand new fence has been erected around it that looks very smart. A party of four Bullfinches, three males and a female were discreetly nibbling buds at the tops of the small trees overhanging the path. They always seem to be here and I suppose the in-numerable tender emergent buds on the small trees must be the attraction.

I sat in the Hide and noted that much of the encroaching sedge on the reserve has been dug out to make clear water again so this probably put paid to any chance of sighting a Water Rail although I heard one calling nearby. A few minutes later an adult Grey Heron stalked into view out in the clear water. It was up to its belly in the water and regally proceeded towards the Hide but was wary and knew of my presence. It flew past me, nervous of the Hide's open viewing slats but landed in deeper water at the other end of the reserve and seemed happy enough to remain and fish there. 

This bird was surely from the colony breeding on a large island in the lake at nearby Dix Pit. Grey Herons breed early and it would now have a nest. At this time of the year the heron's impressive bill turns a delicate shade of tequila sunrise pink and orange as part of its courtship plumage but it only remains this colour for a brief few weeks before reverting to its normal olive yellow.

Grey Heron

The hours had passed un-noticed and it was time to leave and walk back down the Causeway to the car park as the sun sunk behind the clouds and the light gently faded in the late afternoon. Black headed Gulls were already assembling to roost out in the middle of both reservoirs and as I walked onwards four ducks, in close formation swam out from the edge of the Causeway. 

They were Common Goldeneyes and will soon be heading north to breed. Maybe even in Scotland.

Common Goldeneye
There were three females and one drake, the latter resplendent in his black and white plumage, all of them with a staring, golden yellow eye from whence their name comes and the females with bill tips also dipped in gold.

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