Saturday 14 April 2018

The BNG at Banbury 13th April 2018

Banbury lies on the northern edge of Oxfordshire and is about thirty minutes drive from my home. It is a small and unremarkable former market town that like so many in our crowded island has been enslaved by housing and traffic, the latter running both through its heart and around its perimeters to the nearby M40.

Banbury is not the most likely of places to go birding but on its northern extremity lies a small part that has not been built on. This consists of Spiceball Park which is an area of protected woodland and fields leading onwards to a small reservoir called Grimsbury Reservoir and then another small wood between the reservoir and the railway, both of which are designated as a local Nature Reserve. All in all, pretty unremarkable you might say, but because this green and watery refuge is surrounded by an urban landscape it attracts an extraordinary variety of birds and even Otters have been seen on the adjacent River Cherwell. All seem untroubled by the constant traffic noise, the disturbance from human recreational activities and the prolific dog walkers, so consequently the reservoir and its surrounds can receive visits from some unusual and exciting birds, chiefly at times of migration.

Grimsbury Reservoir
Such an occurrence came this last Wednesday when one of the regular watchers of the reservoir  found a summer plumaged Black necked Grebe gracing its north east corner. 

This week there has been a plethora of sightings of this small and attractive grebe from various inland waterbodies across southern England as they make their way to their breeding areas, some of which are further north in England and central Scotland. In winter they mainly reside on the sea, in estuaries around the southern coastline of England or more distantly on the coastlines of Europe. The breeding population in Britain is very small, and the last estimate was of less than 50 pairs in 1997. Individuals found on migration here can comprise of both British breeding birds and those from continental Europe. 

I decided to make the short trip to Grimsbury Reservoir on Thursday to see the grebe  as they are supremely attractive when in their breeding plumage. Gone is the uninspiring black, grey and white non breeding plumage of autumn and winter to be replaced by a colourful creature that looks so very different it could be another species

Black necked Grebe in non breeding plumage - Farmoor Reservoir 2016

Black necked Grebe in breeding plumage - Grimsbury Reservoir 2018
My visit on Thursday afternoon turned into a bit of a disappointment as the vile weather contrived to thwart my ambitions. I did see the grebe but an all pervading gloom of mist and greyness descended over this part of Oxfordshire and in the end it was just too depressing and I left for home. Even a Common Sandpiper, my first for this year, and some Swallows at the reservoir could not lift my feeling of frustration with the current successive days of foul weather.

Black necked Grebes are small and compact, about the size of a Moorhen, with a dumpy body, the roundness of which is accentuated by a tailless rear which rises up like a powder puff so the bird looks almost as if it is front heavy but nonetheless possessing a pleasing visual symmetry. From a distance its distinctive profile looks all black but on getting closer it can be seen the colours of the body and wings are rich chestnut on the flanks and matt black on the wings, upperparts, head and breast. If it flaps its wings you will see prominent white wing bars but it is the head which forms the focal point. It is impossible to ignore, for here is a creation of nature which causes one to wonder at the marvel of evolution and how such a bird can appear so totally beautiful. Its head looks large due to its complicated assemblage of feathers.The black feathers of its forehead and crown form, when viewed head on, a busby like appearance, its forehead rising almost vertically upwards from its bill to where the crown feathers stand proud of and slightly extended outwards, above the rear of its head. The feathers across its cheeks are adapted to form an ostentatious fan of unallayed gold colour, splaying outwards, in an extravagance of brightness, from immediately behind its eyes to the sides of its neck, and then finally we come to perhaps the most unsettling and striking feature of all. 

The eyes are vivid red, tiny and demonic, the stuff of horror movies and those fanciful creatures drawn in comics, but no demonic monster was ever so beautiful or benign. The bright red eyes stare fixedly, expressionless and fathomless in a coal black face. Their alien appearance is accentuated by the fact they have hardly any pupil, just a pinprick of black surrounded by a thin circle of orange in a fire of red. They draw you inexorably to speculating on an existence that is other worldly and beyond our experience.

Determined to see the grebe in a better light I was pleased and relieved to see it was still at Grimsbury on Friday and, together with Moth, I made another trip in the late morning to see it. When we got there it was still in its favoured north east corner.

I sat on a grass bank with Moth and regarded this tiny, fragile being, currently the sole focus of our attention and admiration, a demure and buoyant bundle of feathers floating on the water and I pondered its journeying and how it got here. I looked around at all the hazards that it had negotiated to achieve an unscathed arrival on this unremarkable rectangle of water. It must have passed, in the night, over the urban conurbation of Banbury and its many tall buildings, negotiated a flightpath  through the  pylons and their cables strung alongside the reservoir and the confusion of lights on the surrounding roads. I tried to imagine this tiny bird flying high over an illuminated Banbury as it approached in the night and on seeing the glistening waters of Grimsbury Reservoir,  recognised a temporary sanctuary and miraculously put down there to rest and feed. It is all the more remarkable as Black necked Grebes are noted for their poor flying ability and yet they cover hundreds even thousands of miles on their migrations.

The Black necked Grebe showed little concern about our arrival, as initially it swam some distance away from us, picking hatching flies from the surface of the water, but we waited and it slowly swam back to its favourite corner where it commenced diving for food. Being small grebes they do not dive in deeper water so it was naturally inclined to come close to the bank where it was shallower and our close presence seemed to be of no consequence to it..

We watched it diving and surfacing, bobbing up like a buoyant cork, then turning on the water, looking around to check all was well, until it dived once more. On one occasion, while it was surfaced, it scratched its head with its highly adapted legs and feet.The toes were black and lobed like paddles, on legs positioned almost at the end of its body. Prior to diving it would sleek its feathers and take on a much more compressed and slimmer appearance, raising its head and neck high and slightly backwards before, jumping upwards and forwards, it plunged head first below the water. 

I took many pictures but then who wouldn't with such a lovely creature just a few metres away. Opportunities such as this do not happen very often. I found the images of it when swimming in the green and white reflections on the water particularly pleasing. 

A quite exquisite creature gracing mundane surroundings, not that it cared and for the time we were in its company I felt the exultation of living in what is still a world of wonder and great variety.

The Black necked Grebe left in the night and was nowhere to be seen on Saturday

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