Saturday 23 September 2017

Farmoor's Rare Phalarope 21st September 2017

Today I had planned to catch up on all the work that had been put to one side whilst I tried to keep pace with the fantastic variety of rare and unusual birds that have graced Britain since the beginning of the month. It has not been easy, as bird after good bird arrived to tempt me away from my desk and the wear and tear on my ageing body has become ever more evident as I coped with endless dawn forays to distant parts of the country, as well as a twenty seven hour sleepless marathon to the Outer Hebrides a week ago and then another sleepless odyssey to Norfolk only two days ago.

When will it ever stop? Not that I should complain.

I rose early today to set about catching up on my emails, administrative matters and even, whisper it quietly, do some filing. Sat at my computer I  was making good progress in dealing with my self inflicted backlog when, at just before eleven there was a discrete ping from my phone which I ignored but half an hour later I checked the phone, just in case it was something urgent to do with work. It was something urgent alright but had nothing to do with work.

It was an APB (All Points Bulletin) from Badger informing one and all that there was a Red necked Phalarope on Farmoor Reservoir that had been found by Dave Daniels mid morning. All my good intentions went for nought as I immediately abandoned my work and headed for the car, already loaded with all my birding gear as it has been so frenetic these last few weeks there seems no point in loading and unloading scope, bins and camera day after day from the car.

I set off for Farmoor and forty minutes later drew up in the car park, noting quite a few familiar birder's cars were already here. Whenever a good bird arrives on Farmoor it always contrives to select the furthest point from the car park and so it was today, as the phalarope was in the northwest corner of the smaller reservoir, Farmoor 1 and that was about as far as one can get from where I was currently  standing.

It was a fast walk up the familiar causeway, noting the huge numbers of mainly House Martins feeding over the steely grey waters of the reservoir and encountering quite a few of Oxonbirds finest coming the other way, all with satisfied smiles on their faces, having already seen the phalarope. There was no time, other than for a brief greeting as I power walked the concrete causeway, turning right at the top and walking another few hundred metres to where yet more familiar figures were crouched  down by the retaining wall, photographing a juvenile Red necked Phalarope, feeding in the white troubled waters of the wind driven waves that were beating against the concrete apron.

Oxfordshire has had a truly exceptional run of Grey Phalaropes this autumn with at least four occuring in the county and now here was a fifth phalarope, but this was the much rarer Red necked Phalarope. Having got used to watching the various Grey Phalaropes that have graced the county this autumn I have become familiar with their sturdy bodies and chunky appearance so it was with some pleasure that I looked upon the demure, delicate and altogether more refined contours of this Red necked Phalarope, stabbing constantly with its needle thin bill at the water, to pick off food either dead or alive.  It fed constantly, almost frantically, swimming from choice in the frothing water and occasionally flying a few metres alongside the concrete apron to change its position.

Smaller than a Grey Phalarope, you could almost call it tiny, its bill was much thinner than the more substantial bill of a Grey Phalarope and its body looked lighter, almost cork like on the churning waters of Farmoor. This particular individual was in almost complete juvenile plumage and still showing the buff colouring at the sides of its neck and breast and the stripey, dark brown upperparts with two prominent longitudinal buff lines either side of the mantle. Definitely a bird hatched this year.

Red necked Phalaropes are very, very rare in Oxfordshire, the last one seen was at Bicester Wetland Reserve on 24th May 2015, though conversely Grey Phalaropes are now virtually annual in Oxfordshire and seem to be increasing in their appearances at Farmoor. 

This juvenile was part of a small influx into Britain today, with reports of Red necked Phalaropes coming from four other widely scattered locations. Of the three phalarope species, Red necked Phalarope is the only one  to breed in Britain but is rare, with no more than forty pairs, found scattered throughout The Shetland Islands and Outer Hebrides. Worldwide up to two million individuals breed in the Arctic regions of North America and Eurasia and the entire population winters at sea in tropical oceans. A tagged bird from Fetlar, one of the Shetland Islands, demonstrated an amazing feat of endurance and just how far these birds can fly when it was found to have wintered with a North American population of this species in the tropical Pacific Ocean. To achieve this it made a 16000 mile round trip, flying across the Atlantic via Iceland and Greenland, then south down the eastern seaboard of the USA, across The Caribbean and Mexico to spend its winter off the coasts of Ecuador and Peru. The indisputable fact it did this has led to conjecture that the population on The Shetlands is derived from North America rather than from Scandinavia, as the latter winter in the Arabian Sea.

It is a journey that is hardly believable but it is true and here was I looking down at one of these remarkable world travellers, today gracing the prosaic confines of an unremarkable inland reservoir in the heart of England. Tomorrow or the next day where will it be? Who knows where it is bound for, it could be the Pacific Ocean or Arabian Sea.

I watched it for half an hour, fussily picking at the water to seize food thrown up by the waves as they hit the concrete shelving. Farmoor today was at its inhospitable and unloveable worst with low grey clouds, strong wind and rain beginning to threaten on the wind but the phalarope rode the waves with consummate ease, untroubled by this mild version of its true winter home far out to sea.

I looked up and away to the distant rise of the Cumnor Hills which were already consumed by advancing rain. Half an hour had passed with the phalarope and it was time to pack away the camera and seek shelter.

I had been a little disappointed by the weather on Thursday as the rain and low cloud did not lift until I was home, so I looked at the forecast for Friday and it promised sunshine. There and then I resolved to re-visit Farmoor tomorrow in the hope of spending more time, in pleasant conditions, with the phalarope. Even if the phalarope had departed there was still a drake Scaup to catch up with.

I awoke on Friday to brilliant sunshine illuminating my home village in The Cotswolds and turning the stone of the house to a warm golden hue. What a contrast to yesterday as finally, one of those balmy, calm autumn days arrived, to relieve us from the purgatory of ongoing strong winds and rain. I rang Dai, who patrols Farmoor on a daily basis, to see if the phalarope was still at Farmoor and was astounded when he told me Farmoor was enveloped in thick mist and visibility was almost non existent! I decided to wait on news and about an hour later Paul put a post on Oxonbirds to say he had found the phalarope right out in the middle of Farmoor 1.

I resolved to head for the reservoir anyway, in the hope that with the dispersal of the mist the phalarope would come closer to the shore, and on arriving found a phalanx of birders and photographers lined up on the perimeter track by the yacht club now looking out over Farmoor 2, obviously with similar hopes to mine. The phalarope had flown from the middle of Farmoor 1 but was still well out from the shore, unlike yesterday, and did not look like it was going to come closer anytime soon. I met Peter and told him I was going to walk round to the far side of Farmoor 2 to look for the scaup, if it was still there. Peter was all for this as he wanted to see one to put on his mythical yearly county list, so off we went, leaving everyone else wishing and hoping the phalarope would come nearer so they could get their photos or just see it very close.

As a consequence of everyone's attention being diverted by the phalarope we had the far side of the reservoir to ourselves and soon found the drake Scaup in amongst a small flock of moulting Tufted Ducks, just a little way offshore. 

In its eclipse plumage it was not immediately obvious but by going through each duck idling on the blue, still and sunlit water I eventually located it. The rounded head with no sign of a tuft was a give away as was the bill pattern and shape. Its slightly larger size than its nearby companions was also obvious. 

To be frank it was not spectacular in appearance, as in eclipse plumage it was just dull brown and grey and the lovely green head of winter was but a memory at this moment. The golden yellow eye was striking though and it was good to know another Scaup is gracing Farmoor while it moults into breeding plumage.I do hope it stays until then.

Both of us took photos of the Scaup and not another birder came anywhere near us as they still had eyes only for the phalarope which is unfortunate really, as, like us, they could easily have visited the Scaup and then walked back to the phalarope if it came any closer. Each to their own I guess.

Half an hour passed and Peter's attention span as far as the Scaup was concerned had expired and he decided he wanted to go home to do some chores, so we walked back around an almost tropical blue Farmoor, warm now in the sunshine but with a southwest wind gently beginning to ruffle the waters.

We passed a morose man slowly walking the other way spraying insecticide on the small plants that had the temerity to seek out an existence in the cracks between the perimeter track and the small retaining wall. It was totally unnecessary in my opinion and both a complete waste of money and ecologically not very sound. He was sub contracted by Thames Water and with some derision I pointed out to Peter the wording on the side of his vehicle that proclaimed 'Caring for our Environment'. Really? So no cheers to Thames Water or Ground Control.

I hardly think the weedkiller Roundup is caring for our
We walked on to find the phalarope had progressed past the small yacht marina and valve tower and was now almost opposite us but still pursuing its lonely course well out on the water. So distant, it was just a small white speck on the water, forever nodding its head and craning its neck as it searched for food, creating a distinct profile of a head held high and slightly forward on an outstretched neck, a bulging white breast  and a flat back sloping down to the water .

Two Black headed Gulls showed a mild interest in it but it was unphased by their casual attentions and they soon got bored of examining it. It might be different if one of the almost permanently present Yellow legged Gulls finds it. A vagrant phalarope would make a nice opportunistic meal. I will just have to hope that the presence of so many birders will deter the larger gulls. 

The phalarope was becoming quite flighty, obviously feeling insecure out on the open water. A low flying aircraft from Brize Norton sent it off on a circular flight. It returned, only to be spooked by a raucous gang of Greylags arriving from the fields beyond the reservoir. It flew yet again and the assembled birders lost and re-found and lost it as it flew low over the water. 

I settled on a bench to watch the fun of anxiety racked birders watching the phalarope, a  non stop, bobbing, stabbing, mini-automaton out on the water, swerving from side to side, doubling back every so often to seize anything considered food. As I watched a tern swooped low over it, dipping down to the water and back up, all in one fluid, graceful movement. It was an adult Black Tern already in winter plumage. Now that was a nice surprise.

The phalarope flew once again, its white wing bars bright and distinctive in the sunlight. The inevitable shout went up from someone, 'Its flying'. Why do birders always say this? 

Mark arrived and we sat and watched the distant phalarope, forever pursuing its erratic course out on the reservoir. Then it flew one more time and at last, it settled close to the concrete edge of the reservoir. A concerted mass exodus of birders and photographers headed for it, everyone trying to pretend they were not in a hurry but almost running the fifty metres or so up the perimeter track, anxious to get a prime position by the retaining wall. 

The phalarope took not one iota of notice as a guard of honour, pointing lenses and telescopes down in its direction, lined up along the small retaining wall giving everyone ample opportunity to get close and personal with this delicate wanderer as it passed, unheeding, on the water below.

For the next hour at least it put on a show that no reasonable person could complain about, remaining constantly close to the shore, picking at almost invisible objects on the water's surface, its fine black bill constantly dipping up and down into the water. It called briefly, a light twittering, alarmed by something and, sitting high in the water, stilled itself as it assessed the perceived danger. 

Then it was back to feeding, moving slowly back towards the valve tower where there was a corner of water, sheltered and accumulating much food and detritus, blown in by the now steady wind. The reflections on the water gave an almost surrealist impression as the phalarope swam through fantastical swirls of gold, green, blue and grey depending on the light

This secluded corner was obviously to its taste and here it remained for the rest of the time I watched it, spending quite some time preening, which was carried out with the same speed of action as when it was feeding. It stretched its wings and rolled on its side to preen its belly and spent a lot of time bending its head and bill downwards to preen its neck, obviously a feather or two was causing an irritation. I was extremely reluctant to leave as who knew when such an opportunity would come again.

In the end I did leave but only as far as the cafe to treat myself to a slice of cake and a refreshing cup of tea. I sat and looked out on the blue waters and a sky now slowly filling with mashed potato clouds of great white, towering, cumulous shapes. I left the cafe and walked back to yet another contingent of birders getting their fill of this feathered gem. 

The Amateurs

The Professionals!
Mark was still crouched on the concrete apron with others of the howitzer sized lens fraternity. Good luck to them all. It was a good day for everyone. 

Forgive me the indulgence of posting such a large number of images but the Red necked Phalarope is such a rare bird in Oxfordshire and is possessed of such grace and beauty I just felt I must do it justice

No comments:

Post a Comment