Tuesday 6 March 2018

Four Hours at Farmoor 5th March 2018

Its been a while, almost three months since I last visited Farmoor Reservoir but the discovery of a Black necked Grebe yesterday tempted me out. As per usual, the grebe had been located at the far end of the causeway from the car park, so I made the long and tedious walk and found precisely nothing, apart from the perennial Coots, Tufted Ducks and a couple of Little Grebes, now gaining their chestnut faces. Spring, one feels, is just around the corner. A few other birders were distractedly wandering around at the end of the causeway when I got there but it was obvious no one had seen the grebe and it was looking like it had gone. I called Dai, who watches Farmoor every day and he too had not seen the grebe so that was good enough for me.

So my second option was to go to the nearby Hide at Pinkhill and reprise my now traditional and annual winter visit to the Water Rails that wander around under the feeders there, picking up the seed that falls to the water. On social media regular images appear from the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust at Slimbridge of Water Rails walking around in the open in front of the Willow Hide but there you have to pay £12.00 to get in to the Trust and often the Hide, when you get to it, is full with photographers and visitors alike. In direct contrast the Hide at Farmoor is often empty and one can find oneself  alone for long periods, which for me is much more preferable.

Keying in the code, I gained access to the Hide and found just one other birder inside who remained for only a short time before leaving. The Water Rail was already present, wandering around in the shallow water picking up the fallen seed, as the various tits and buntings helped themselves to the food in the feeders above.

Water Rail
This particular Water Rail is exceptional as, although still wary, it does not show the extreme stealth and innate nervousness of others of its kind. Consequently it is usually present and on view most of the time  apart from the occasional short lived excursion into the surrounding sedge. I remained in the Hide for around two hours during which time the Water Rail was continuously present and on two occasions was joined by another which was slightly smaller and possibly was a female and its mate. 

They are strange looking birds when one is given the opportunity, such as now, to study them closely. Most noticeable is how laterally compressed the body is, so it has no problem passing through the thickest and most impenetrable of reed stands. Its head seems slightly too small for its body, especially when it is relaxed and the body feathers are fluffed out rather than compressed in alarm.

Note the small head and laterally compressed body in the above
three images

The main reason for its continual presence was the readily available supply of grain falling down from the feeders above. Birds are messy feeders and the Water Rail has learnt to take full advantage of this. It would wander around picking off seed floating on the surface of the water or just below it and would make a running lunge as it saw something anew fall from above and into the water. 

The feeding was obviously good as at one point it stood for minutes on end and preened, then in typical rail fashion flexed its wings partially open, as its larger cousin the Moorhen is prone to do when it too is relaxed and content.

These Water Rails at Pinkhill have survived the extended freeze and latterly snowy spell of weather but many others succumb in such conditions or, if not, turn to predating other birds up to the size of a thrush to replace their normal but unavailable vegetarian diet. The Water Rail has the advantage that it is not normally regarded as a threat by its hapless and unsuspecting victim. One method of catching its victim is to stab and impale the bird with its long sharp bill. Another is to seize it and take it to water and drown it. 

On the other hand the Water Rail can itself fall victim  to larger birds, particularly Grey Herons which will opportunistically seize the rail and swallow it in one gulp.

Other birds were also taking advantage of the fallen seed. A pair each of Mallard and Moorhen wandered around below the feeders, the former dabbling with their bills at the muddy edge of the water while the Moorhens delicately picked over the waterlogged vegetation.

Dunnocks, Reed Buntings and Blackbirds dropped down from the overhanging bushes to feed on the muddy margins too, and the Dunnocks and Reed Buntings also picked seed from the water by perching on twigs protruding from the shallows. The Water Rail would occasionally chase off the Dunnocks but I could see no reason why it took exception to them alone, apart from the fact the Dunnock was superficially similar to the Water Rail in plumage, being grey on its head and underparts and similarly streaked on its brown upperparts.

Male Reed Bunting
The feeders were being constantly visited by a procession of Great and Blue Tits and on one occasion a Long Tailed Tit and a Great Spotted Woodpecker. The last time I was here two Grey Squirrels were an unwelcome presence but they seem to have disappeared now, only to be replaced by an even more unwelcome and large Brown Rat. Let's hope its presence is only temporary.

Brown Rat

Blue Tit
Great Tit
Steve joined me in the Hide for a brief spell and told me he had seen a Barn Owl further along the Thames Path by the small new reserve, Buckthorn Meadow which is adjacent to Shrike Meadow. Another couple came into the Hide and shortly after Steve departed and fifteen minutes later I too took my leave.

Rather than walk back down the Reservoir's causeway I  took the Thames Path to try and see the Barn Owl. I checked where Steve had told me he had seen it and there it was, just as he described it, sat on one of the fence posts supporting the railings surrounding the new reserve.

Barn Owl
It is a privilege to have them at Farmoor and now with only around five thousand pairs left in Britain any encounter with them takes on added significance and makes a sighting of them popular with birders and the general public alike. Another depressing fact is, that on average, three thousand Barn Owls are killed annually on Britain's roads but here at Farmoor they are safe from that threat at least. 

Owls have always stirred a sense of mystery and otherworldliness in us humans, and in much earlier and superstitious times Barn Owls, with their unearthly shrieks and ghostly appearance could cause consternation amongst the local populace who imagined goblins and spectres were haunting their village. Even today the weird vocalisations, such as hissing, snoring and wild shrieks, all emanating from Barn Owls, unseen in the dark, can be thoroughly disconcerting if you do not know what it is.

The Barn Owl today was surprisingly well camouflaged against the background of dead reeds. Its orange buff upperparts almost concolorous with the reed stands behind. I watched through a gap in a hedge as it sat on its post, looking around. It was obvious its desire was to hunt from a static position, using the posts as perches. It regularly changed position but I did not see it catch anything and I  presumed its presence, out in daylight and hunting in such an unusual manner, meant it must be very hungry and possibly weak after the snow cover of the last few days prevented it from catching any prey.

They are beautiful birds when seen close up and the catchall description of it being white does not do it any favours. The poet John Clare described it more accurately, when he wrote the words 'the owl on wheaten wing,/And white hood scowling o'er his eyes'. It is only truly white on its face and underparts although when seen from a distance can appear all white. The rest of its plumage is a lovely rich shade of orange buff, almost golden, with occasional patches of dove grey, the upperparts further spotted and stippled with tiny white specks, themselves margined with black, some in lines like strings of tiny pearls, others randomly scattered as if someone has flicked ink over the feathers. Its wings, when opened are delicately barred orange, white and black. Its heart shaped head is huge compared to its narrow  body, a rounded veritable radar dish containing both the large and lustrous black eyes and the ears that enable it to be such a formidable hunter. Its hearing is so acute it heard the tiniest scrape from more than fifty metres and was instantly alert as I endeavoured to get closer to it. 

The fact it did allow me to get as close as I did suggested it was very hungry so I decided I should leave it and hope it would eventually find a vole or mouse to assuage its hunger. These last days have been very hard times for birds of all sorts and the consequence of the freeze is still making itself apparent, as with the Barn Owl here at Farmoor.

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