Thursday 30 August 2018

Knot again at Farmoor 29th August 2018

My local reservoir at Farmoor is going through a good patch this late summer, proving popular as a stopping off point for various wader species passing overland and bound for winter homes in both this country or further south, which in some cases means as far as southern Africa.

So far this year Dunlin, Sanderling, Ringed Plover, Common Sandpiper, Common Redshank, Common Greenshank, Turnstone and Black tailed Godwit have graced the sloping sides of the central causeway to the delight of both birders and the general public, as they are usually very confiding and will allow close approach. This very trusting nature makes them all the more endearing and my sense of wonderment never reduces as I regard these tiny travellers looking up at me from the concrete shore of the reservoir, already having covered phenomenal distances to get here and probably about to embark on yet another feat of barely credible endurance and distance, to get to where they finally will call a halt and attempt to eke out an existence on some coastal shore through the winter months, before repeating the effort all over again as they head north to breed. Many will succumb, for the threats and dangers to birds are multiple and come on a daily basis.

A few days ago a juvenile Knot arrived at Farmoor, yet another feathered, independent world traveller, hatched at the very top of the world, by the Laptev Sea, in the barren wastes of the Arctic Circle and left by its parents, once it was able to fly, to find its own way in the world and more to the point,  to fly southwards to escape the soon to become uninhabitable climate and terrain where it was born and raised in the briefest of seasons. The Knot is but one of six Arctic wader species that spend nine months of their life wandering the world. The individual currently stood before me was the epitome of this life of ceaseless wandering in order to survive, covering half the globe on its travels. guided by nothing more than instinct and genetics. An American author, Peter Matthiessen, said of these waders breeding in the Arctic and then setting off on a nine month odyssey  'One only has to consider the life force packed right into that puff of feathers to lay the mind wide open to the mysteries - the order of things, the why and the beginning'

A juvenile Knot is a bird of beauty, but it needs a practiced eye and a long and studied look to appreciate the nuances of its plumage. This is not a bird that proclaims its beauty by feathered ostentation but one whose attractiveness derives from a slow, gradual contemplation by the beholder.

Their body feathering is immaculate. Each fresh feather, precisely overlapping its neighbour on its upper parts, is pale grey with a darker central shaft and narrowly pale buff fringe at its tip with a thread thin sub terminal black line running inside the semi circle of buff. Look closely and you will see a bird with what appears to be exquisitely and delicately scalloped upper parts while its breast is the subtlest of pale, peach flesh yellow. The white areas on its rump are barred grey and streaks and chevrons of grey adorn its flanks. A broad white supercilium gives it a slightly quizzical demeanour as it glances up at me standing on the causeway. It walks on olive green legs and feet, and its bill is of medium length, black and pointed.

Knot are one of the scarcer waders to visit Farmoor. They can be seen occasionally, although not annually, on both their Spring and Autumn migration here. In Spring they are transformed, as are many waders by a pre-nuptial moult into a much more colourful breeding plumage. In the case of the Knot it becomes a terracotta red bird on its under parts and face and a confusion of spangled black, grey and buff on its upper parts

A Knot at Farmoor last year in summer plumage

The juvenile Knot at Farmoor this summer - compare this plumage to the
Spring male in the image above
In winter all Knot adopt a non descript plain grey plumage on both their upper and under parts and this juvenile, currently gracing Farmoor's bleak shore, will soon commence moulting into a similar grey winter plumage. The fact that this juvenile has not yet commenced any moult would surely indicate that it is a late hatched bird only now making its way to its winter home wherever that may be.

The Knot that arrive at Farmoor are usually on their own but very occasionally two may arrive together  which contrasts with their reputation for being a supremely sociable bird, that in winter gather in huge numbers at favoured high tide roosts such as Snettisham on The Wash in Norfolk or Morecambe Bay in Lancashire, where they perform spectacular flights in flocks that resemble wind blown smoke or ever changing holograms. Indeed such gatherings, which can reach to over a hundred thousand individuals, packed shoulder to shoulder at high tide and moving like an animated carpet of unfolding grey before a rising tide, form one of Britain's more noted wildlife spectacles.

Knot were once considered good eating and were popular because the dense flocks, both airborne and on the ground meant that many birds could be killed with one shot. Thankfully that is a matter of the past and we can now enjoy the spectacle of these birds at rest and they in turn can find some sort of peace whilst they await the receding of the tide and resume feeding in the shortened hours of winter daylight.

I sat on the wall and watched the Knot wandering along on a frieze of green algae where the water met the concrete, picking up tiny morsels with its black bill.The feeding must be good as it would regularly cease feeding and start preening or on one occasion lift one leg into its belly feathers and standing on the other, tuck its bill into its mantle feathers and go to sleep.

I was no more than a few feet from the bird but it was completely unafraid.  It was I that was more worried of disturbing it, but it showed no alarm whatsoever provided I made no sudden movement. The sun shone every so often from between scudding grey clouds, illuminating the water slapping against the concrete, propelled by a strong northwest wind that was warm on my face. I like to think the periods of tranquil calm that descended on us both as we ceased any activity brought a certain bond between us but with a stretch of its wing the Knot would signal the end of such fanciful musings on my part and recommence its quest for food.

Sated by an hour spent in solitary communion with the Knot, I wandered further back along the causeway and found three more waders, two Ringed Plovers and a Dunlin, sharing a space by the water's edge, their cryptic plumage camouflaging them wonderfully well on the mosaic of moss, discarded feathers, gravel and detritus strewn on the shelving concrete.

Adult Ringed Plover
The Ringed Plovers were an adult, that was still in full summer dress and made to look very smart by the other, which was a juvenile, its face patterning mirroring the adult's but its feathers, although fresh were duller brown and its legs and bill without any strong colouring. The plovers too, were very confiding and showed little anxiety, just moving a foot or two away, if they considered I took too much advantage of their trust, in that slow, furtive plover way of theirs, . The Dunlin was also a juvenile but was now acquiring the grey feathers of winter that will eventually completely replace the brown juvenile feathers that were partly visible in its plumage.

Juvenile Ringed Plover
Juvenile Dunlin
I left them to rest and feed. Soon enough they will decide to fly onwards and leave Farmoor and me the poorer for their absence.

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