Monday 14 May 2018

A Grebe Weekend at Farmoor Reservoir 12th-13th May 2018


Following a couple of hours wandering around the RSPB's Otmoor Reserve and seeing a number of Cuckoos, hearing a cacophony of warbler song, catching up on gossip with friends and just enjoying being out on a Spring day in Oxfordshire, we were making our way back to the car park when I checked my RBA app and saw that a summer plumaged Black necked Grebe had been found on the larger of Farmoor's two reservoir basins.

Cuckoo on Otmoor RSPB
Oxfordshire is extremely fortunate to be visited by this small grebe in most years, as they undertake their spring migration to northern England and beyond. The number each year varies and is usually in single figures but some of those that do arrive in Oxfordshire are in full summer plumage, when they are really worth making the effort to go and see as their breeding plumage is spectacular. Not unnaturally, for such a supremely aquatic bird, they often arrive on Farmoor Reservoir or less frequently on other similar but smaller bodies of water in the county. This year has been a particularly good one for Oxfordshire, in that a pair, slowly moulting into summer plumage, spent a long time on Dix Pit near Stanton Harcourt, while no less than five, also gradually moulting into breeding dress, were found at Sonning Eye Gravel Pits and another in full summer plumage spent three days on Grimsbury Reservoir in Banbury. see here

Excited by the prospect of seeing another summer plumaged Black necked Grebe, after our superb experience at Banbury last month, we made our way to Farmoor and parked at Lower Whitley Farm which would save us a long walk round the reservoir, as the grebe was to be found on the southern edge  of the reservoir near to the farm.

We saw the grebe immediately we got to the top of the steps and stood on the perimeter track.There was just one other person looking at it so we set about recording the moment and just generally watching the grebe, alternately diving or sitting on the water. It was not far out from the bank and looked fairly happy about the close proximity of both us and the numerous trout fishermen stood by the water. Both fishermen and birders are almost permanent fixtures at the reservoir these days.

It was a day of light cloud with the earlier sun having long since been obscured by the clouds.The waters of the reservoir were calm and still as there was not a breath of wind to trouble them and the surface was unsullied apart from where the Black necked Grebe and some nearby Great crested Grebes disturbed the water into circular ripples.

After taking far too many images I relaxed and contemplated the Black necked Grebe, just enjoying watching its various activities and revelling at this opportunity to observe at close quarters another of nature's wonderful creations.

With the departure of the other birder we were left on our own but the grebe decided to swim further out onto the reservoir, snatching flies from the surface of the water as it went. We waited but it seemed happy enough sat out at some distance from the shore. Then, after a spell of inactivity, it slowly came back towards the shore, coming ever closer until it commenced diving in the shallower water near to the bank. Presumably it could not feed at the depths found further out and required the shallower water to reach the bottom where it could feed on the weed, crustaceans and smaller fish that it would find there.

It also appeared content to remain within a stretch of a couple of hundred metres along the southern shoreline rarely straying further and, if it did, soon making its way back to its favoured area of water Seen so very close it really was a breathtakingly beautiful bird, at the very apex of its breeding plumage finery, with fan like, golden yellow, whiskery plumes on each side of its face and those demonic red eyes, all encompassed in a velvety black head. Its profile is also very distinctive, with a small fine bill, the lower mandible noticeably uptilted and the head looking large and elongated due to an almost vertical forehead and broad tufted crown balanced on a thin short black neck.

It dived frequently, compressing the feathers of head and body before going under the water, remaining submerged for short periods before bouncing up onto the surface, momentarily slim and sleek before resuming its more familiar rounded, fluffed up shape once more. 

Its body when at ease could appear almost circular and slightly flattened as it floated on the still water. The impression I got, probably due to my Scots ancestry, was that of a curling stone with a curious appendage of neck and head stuck towards one end.

On two occasions its surfacing was less controlled as it shot up from the depths in complete panic and pitter pattered across the water with its ungainly feet and tiny wings flapping for all their worth. What caused this alarm I have no idea but whatever it was it was encountered underwater. There are many pike in the waters, some huge and doubtless only too willing to consume the grebe, or maybe it came across a large trout underwater. On the occasion of these panics it would skitter far out onto the reservoir but soon calm itself and slowly swim back to the shallows once more and recommence diving.

Occasional 'time outs' came and went when the grebe would once more swim further out onto the reservoir and roll preen, rotating its body sideways in the water to reveal its white belly.The water was so still and relatively clear I was able to discern, when it was closer in to the shoreline, its adapted legs and feet, the legs placed far back, almost at the rear of its body and its large feet, the toes lobate rather then webbed, the better to efficiently propel it through the water.

Note the large feet and rearward placing of the legs in the above 
four images
We were joined by others of Oxonbirds finest until there was a 'crowd' of at least nine of us watching and photographing it. The grebe carried on regardless of the increased number of admirers looking at it from close range.

It decided to swim further out on the reservoir again, lunging at hatching flies on the water's surface, careful to avoid the Great crested Grebes which made it noticeably wary but they showed little interest in their smaller cousin and left it in peace although I have seen them show marked aggression to a similar looking Slavonian Grebe here, a couple of years ago.

The Great Crested Grebes were also putting on a show. Two in particular creating lovely images of togetherness and mutual harmony by displaying on the calm waters. Eventually this bonding led to the female prostrating herself on the water, calling gently, ready to mate but the male promptly decided he would rather go fishing and dived, leaving her looking forlorn and at a loss.Typical!

Meanwhile the Black necked Grebe currently at some distance out on the reservoir, decided it was not happy where it was and rather than swim back took flight, flying back on rapidly beating wings, prominently barred with white, to land on the water in front of us and recommence diving.

What an obliging and beautiful bird.

Sunday 13th May.

On learning the Black necked Grebe was still at the reservoir I could not resist going back today to see more of it.The weather was sunny and brighter but  I resisted the temptation to go during the day, knowing that the reservoir would be busy with yachts, fishermen, birders and general visitors. I decided an early evening visit would be appropriate, when it would be less busy and duly arrived at Lower Whitley Farm at just after five.

The Black necked Grebe, as before, was diving and feeding just off the southern bank and was, if anything, closer in to the bank than yesterday. As I hoped there were only a couple of birders and photographers present and the grebe was unbothered by their presence. The evening sun shone and illuminated the golden fan like feathers on the grebe's head and the red eyes blazed even brighter when the sun caught them. There was no wind and the reservoir's water took on a glass like appearance as the grebe continually surfaced and dived before us. It was never submerged for more than thirty seconds and this evening spent considerably more time than yesterday chasing flies on the surface, churning the water as it sped after them.

Here are some more images taken in a very different light to yesterday and that only served to enhance and accentuate the beauty of this scarce grebe's summer plumage.

Video of Black necked Grebe below courtesy of Jason 'Badger' Coppock

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