Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Four Hours at Farmoor 24th July 2017

Despite my moans and groans about Farmoor Reservoir and its limitations I have to confess that I do have a certain fondness for the place and have come to regard it along with Otmoor's RSPB reserve as almost my regular 'go to' place for birding in Oxfordshire. Both do, regularly, come up with some good birds to see.

Today I was feeling energetic and took myself to Farmoor Reservoir by way of dropping off some unwanted household bits and pieces for recycling at Dix Pit Landfill near Stanton Harcourt. Once that was achieved I was over the Eynsham Toll Bridge in a trice and soon parking in Farmoor Reservoir's large and currently very empty car park.

I guessed Monday morning would be a time when the reservoir would be least populated and walking up to the perimeter track circumventing the larger of the two reservoirs, imaginatively named Farmoor Two, found I did indeed have the place to myself with not even a fisherman in sight.

A fairly strong south easterly wind was blowing across the water creating waves that broke as mini surf where they hit the concrete apron but the wind was warm. Occasional rays of sunshine burst through the low white cloud but for the most part it was overcast but not oppressively so.

I did not have a target bird to look for unless you count the Ruddy Shelduck that has been present for the last three weeks here. They are infrequent in Oxfordshire, not occuring every year and it is always nice to see one although they are somewhat sniffed at by British birding officialdom, as these birds, which often turn up in late summer in Britain are thought to be either escapes or from the feral populations that have become established in mainland European countries such as The Netherlands, and not true migrants from their normal range in southeast Europe and Asia.

Personally I do not worry too much about their origin as often its impossible to tell. Let's face it any exotic duck that lands somewhere out of its normal range in Britain is always suspect these days due to the number of escapes from wildfowl collections and the established feral populations that are scattered throughout Europe. I just enjoy seeing these ducks and if they are free, un-ringed and fending for themselves in the wild that is good enough for me.

Having said that and having walked around the entire length of Farmoor Two I failed to find the Ruddy Shelduck in its supposed usual place on the reservoir or anywhere else for that matter. However two Egyptian Geese, incidentally another introduced species originally from Africa but perversely, bearing in mind the Ruddy Shelduck situation, accepted as a British species, were some compensation, being an unusual bird to find here. A lone adult Turnstone feeding at the water's edge was also a surprise, still in its harlequin dress plumage and presumably back from the Arctic or Greenland and stopping to feed up before taking off on yet another long flight to a destination unknown. Turnstones with their circumpolar breeding distribution partake in one of the most phenomenal of wader migrations. The distances they cover are just vast and yet here was one, essentially a bird of the seashore, gracing the mundane concrete banks of Oxfordshire's largest reservoir, much to my delight.

Egyptian Goose
This Turnstone was quite wary compared to others I have seen here, running at speed on short  and sturdy orange legs before my advance, stopping every so often to quizzically look at me, trying, no doubt, to ascertain  if my intentions were benign. The white surf rushed up to it and swirled around its legs in a froth of bubbles, spray flying over its head, before it set off yet again on twinkling legs trying to put distance between us. In the end I relented and made a wide diversion away from the reservoir edge to outflank it so it could relax as it saw me walking further away from it rather than towards it.

Coot numbers are already building up and the majority were over on this side of Farmoor Two where the waves were at their roughest, as this was where particles of food were being churned up to the surface. I counted a total of three hundred and sixty Coot, scattered in groups along the reservoir edge. A few Mallards were mixed in with them, the drake's colours now drab and muted in their eclipse plumage which will last for another couple of months. Even the females looked dowdy as they too moulted.

Half way around Farmoor Two, on my quest to see the Ruddy Shelduck and in amongst a large group of Coots were seven other brown ducks but these were not Mallard, being paler brown and unmarked. They were a female Red crested Pochard and her six, now fully grown young, still keeping together as a family. The young were similar in looks to the female and the only definite difference was the young had an all dark bill whereas there was a pinkish orange tip to the adult female's bill. They have been here ever since the young were hatched some eight weeks ago and it is good to see that so many of the young have survived. This must be the first time this species has bred at Farmoor although individual adults do visit the reservoir on irregular occasions.

Adult female Red crested Pochard

Four of the six juvenile Red crested Pochards

A juvenile wing stretching

Adult female Red crested Pochard
I looked out across the choppy grey waters and up to fifty Sand Martins with a few House Martins and Swallows were flying back and fore, skimming over the water after flies whilst Common Terns side slipped and dipped with their customary fluid grace to pick off larger prey from the water's surface.

I walked onwards disturbing a young Grey Wagtail, its tail distinctly longer than that of the ubiquitous Pied Wagtails and came to a sheltered corner out of the wind where the perimeter track joined the  central Causeway which separates the larger Farmoor Two reservoir from the smaller Farmoor One.

Three tiny grebes surfaced, looking anxiously at me with craning necks while swimming further out into an area where the reservoir's waters were calm. They were Little Grebes, the first of the autumn and probably destined to winter here, as up to a dozen can be found here in most winters, feeding on small fish they find in the shallower water by the reservoir banks.

I turned onto the Causeway to head back down to the Yacht Club and the promise of some refreshment in the cafe. A Common Sandpiper flickered its way across Farmoor One to the far side. Of all the waders that visit Farmoor they are without doubt the wariest, never allowing anything like a close approach but flying off on stiff, fast beating wings to wherever they consider is safety. The presence of these sandpipers and especially the Turnstone are a sure sign that summer is coming to an end and the short breeding season in the Arctic is over. One more month and it will be the beginning of autumn here. As if to re-affirm the fact, two small waders ran along the concrete shore side by side. They were Dunlin, newly arrived. Both were juveniles and so young that they showed no trace of the grey winter feathering into which they will rapidly moult in the next couple of months. Instead they were in their brown striated juvenile plumage which itself is quite smart in a subdued sort of way. Where had they come from and where were they bound for I wondered. Wherever it is it would be far away from here.

A large grey and white gull floated on the wind and landed on the retaining wall of the Causeway. A cursory glance at its legs told me all I needed to know. It was an adult Yellow legged Gull rather than our pink of leg Herring Gull. Having noticed one I then, as is often the case, picked up other lone individuals scattered around the reservoir. There were six in all and each appeared to be adult. This gull is a regular here and they often arrive before our native Herring Gull, many of which are still breeding and raising young

I got to the other end of the Causeway and made my way to the Yacht Club cafĂ© but before going in checked the adjacent pontoons for Common Terns which, when undisturbed, like to rest there. Sure enough two fledged juveniles were sat there, patiently awaiting the arrival of their parents who, despite the size of their fully grown young, were still persuaded it was necessary to bring food to them. It was not long before the two adult terns arrived, one bringing a small fish in its black tipped, blood red bill. Terns never seem to do anything quietly but seemingly must make as much noise as possible or they are not content. The two youngsters, on noticing the arrival of their parents, went into a frenzy, persistently producing a begging churring call as the adults landed with excited squawks and then joined in with their own louder and even harsher vocalisations. All four going at it together created quite a racket but eventually the fish was delivered to one of the  juveniles and the adults flew off while the youngsters lapsed back into silence.

Adult Common Terns

Common Terns-adults and juveniles
After a reviving cup of tea and a slice of lemon cake in the cafe I set off around Farmoor One, but soon wished I had not bothered. Apart from three Green Woodpeckers I saw very little, until getting to a wind sheltered corner of the reservoir, where a flock of sixty one Great crested Grebes were asleep amongst a large flock of moulting Tufted Ducks. Further along another Common Sandpiper fled across the reservoir.

I arrived back at the Causeway having completed my circuit round Farmoor One. It was tempting to take the shorter route to the car by walking down the central Causeway but I decided to give it one more go, in an attempt to see the Ruddy Shelduck, so walked on and set about walking around Farmoor Two. Again!

It was, as it always is, a hard, unrelenting slog with little to show for it and by now my feet were aching having walked the best part of four miles but I persisted. I got to about half way round and came across the same large group of Coots I had encountered on my first circuit and amongst the Coots was a large duck, half way between a goose and a duck in size, with a bright orange chestnut body, a contrasting pale, creamy head and black eye and bill. It was the Ruddy Shelduck. Success at last and I honestly felt I  had earned it.

Ruddy Shelduck
It promptly, on seeing me, slowly and frustratingly swam away from me and the Coots and made for a raft cum pontoon moored about fifty metres out from the bank which is used to purify the water. The shelduck disappeared behind the pontoon never to re-emerge. So this answered the riddle of why I failed to see it on my first circuit. 

An enormous hulking brute of a bird, an adult Greater Black backed Gull landed on the water nearby. Its huge bill a formidable weapon that can be and is used to good effect to murder smaller waterbirds. It eyed me suspiciously but remained on the water.

Greater Black backed Gull-adult
As I moved further along I came across the Turnstone again and we re-enacted our comical encounter of this morning with the Turnstone running for all its worth along the concrete and me following at a slower pace. We must have covered a good couple of hundred metres before the Turnstone wearied of its mini marathon and took to the air, flying out low over the water and back around me, showing prodigious amounts of white in its wings and calling urgently.

I carried on towards a small group of Greylags, sat on the grass and lazily plucking grass blades from the bank on the other side of the perimeter track. A smaller goose walked amongst them. It was one of the Egyptian Geese I had encountered earlier and its mate was swimming on the water close by. I approached and it showed little concern and provided I kept four or five metres from it there was no fear or anxiety on the part of the goose. Maybe the unconcerned Greylags re-assured it. 

Egyptian Goose
And so four hours came to an end on the unforgiving concrete perimeter track of Farmoor Two. A black lump on the tarmac surface of the perimeter track turned out to be a recently dead adult Coot. How it died I have no idea and it certainly was not there on my first circuit of the reservoir. Maybe it was killed by one of the fishermen's cars that drive round the perimeter track, sometimes with unheeding care towards any bird's welfare.  It was interesting for me to see that it was flightless and its flight feathers were still in their pinions (see image below). I never knew that Coots had a flightless period but now I do.You learn something every day.

Common Coot

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