Friday, 8 February 2019

Shoveler Salvation at Otmoor 7th February 2019

A morning of immense frustration dealing with estate agents and solicitors concerning a pending house move put me completely out of sorts and required some rapid therapy in the form of quiet and solitude.

Despite a forecast of heavy cloud the weather by the afternoon was bright, with welcome sunny spells, enough to persuade me that Otmoor might be just the place to sit and get my scrambled sensibilities back into some sort of order. I reasoned that Otmoor on a mid week Wednesday afternoon was hardly going to be popular with my fellow birders. And so it turned out to be.

Drawing up in the car park I found myself parked next to David, the Reserve Manager who cheerfully told me 'It's pretty quiet'. Normally this would be the kiss of death but today was different. It did not really matter as birds came second to my desire for some peace and quiet. However if birds could be involved that would surely be therapeutic too.

No matter what, there is always something to take one's interest when birding, even in the most unpromising of situations.

The air was absolutely still as this part of England was currently languishing  between weather fronts. Tomorrow promised high winds but on this afternoon, a sepulchral calm hung over the wide expanses of Otmoor as I walked along the bridleway.

My vague plan, if I had any, was to make the long walk out to the second screen to sit there in solitary contemplation and look out over the reeds and lagoon, letting my mind go into freefall. There was also the alluring chance of encountering the stonechats that have been a feature at this spot over the last couple of weeks.

Walking out I encountered no other birder but at least three volunteer wardens! Strolling up the track from the first screen to the second screen I came across a flock of around a thousand Golden Plover and in the company of about half that number of Lapwing, all feeding in one of the grass fields adjacent to the track. The Golden Plovers, their dull gold plumage harmonising with the winter grasses, were keeping up a constant wheedling of reedy calls, bunched in a close congregation, whilst the Lapwings, their contrasting black and white colouring making them much more evident, were more spaced apart.

A female Reed Bunting perched in a hawthorn waited, as I approached, until the very last minute before her nerve failed her and she departed in a fluster of streaked brown and white outer tail feathers.

Female Reed Bunting
On getting to the second screen I was, as I hoped alone, and with no sign of any stonechats I sat and looked out to the far hills across the muddy lagoon. Some Gadwall drifted out of the reeds and then drifted back. A male Common Pochard  appeared and submerged for a brief spell of feeding but then thought better of it and rejoined his duller female, lurking with the Gadwall around the reeds. A Cetti's Warbler, its song more an exclamation than anything harmonious and prolonged, announced its presence from the reeds across the lagoon.

A Peregrine hurtled over the screen, low, with violence on its mind and disappeared over the lagoon's bund, its onward progress announced by a squall of Lapwing rising rapidly into the sky over towards the distant village of Oddington.

I sat for an hour and as equanimity was gradually regained I headed back along the track to the first screen. Looking out on the lagoon that lay before me from the first screen, all was calm and still, the surrounding reed beds lit golden by occasional shafts of sunlight. A Marsh Harrier, drifted slowly across the furthest reed bed and then side slipped with graceful ease, dropping down into the reeds and out of sight not to re-appear.

The view from the First Screen
The still waters of the lagoon before me were punctuated by many Shoveler, over fifty, the majority being males. Individual males were snug in the edge of the  reeds, betrayed by their startling white breasts, the brown streaked female with them, much less noticeable, almost part of the reeds.

Male and female Shoveler
The majority of  the Shovelers were, however, out on the water, a preponderance of dazzling coloured drakes. Their plumage of dark green head, chestnut flanks and white breast so very pleasing to the eye and at this time of year, perfection in both feather and form, the males made even more striking by the contrast of their bright plumage with the muted colours of their winter surroundings. 

I remember years ago, having just gone to Grammar School, how with a couple of like minded boys we formed a bird club and our first outing was on a Saturday to St James's Park to look at ducks other than our local park's ubiquitous Mallards that we were so used to. In our innocence it did not matter if the ducks in St James's Park were captive or not. They were different!  I can still recall my excitement, as on entering the park my eyes alighted for the first time ever on a pair of real live Shovelers. The drake, to an eleven year old schoolboy, possessing the most extraordinary bill you could imagine, twice as wide at the tip as at its base (the celebrated nature writer 
Mark Cocker described its bill as 'de Beregerac like.'),   and displaying a plumage of an almost unbelievable exotic combination of colours. It was such a tremendous thrill to see such a duck that, up to that moment, had only been possible to admire in dodgy bird books and dreamed about. 

Since then I have seen many Shovelers but to this day they still send a thrill through me and here were fifty plus disporting themselves right in front of me. Watching them it became obvious some sort of collective display and courtship was taking place amongst the assembled throng, as a number of unpaired drakes congregated around already paired females, obviously looking to usurp the female duck's current partner. As a male teal whistles and makes a noise like a cricket so I heard a strange and repeated guttural 'took'  sound come from the male Shovelers, a bit like the calling of a distant cock pheasant. Never having encountered this sound before or seen Shovelers collectively displaying in the way they were, I was, as mentioned earlier, fortuitously observing and learning something new, evidence if needed that if you are prepared to sit quietly for any period of time you will often be rewarded with the unexpected.

The male Shovelers paired to a female took great exception to the unwelcome intrusion of the unpaired males that were brazenly trying it on with any female that came close. It was a Shoveler variation of speed dating and there were many encounters where the paired male rushed through the water at any amorous suitor who took liberties and came rather too close. The inevitable result was that the suitor took to the air to avoid any conflict with the paired male dashing at him in a churn of water and thrashing wings. In the air yet more beauty was revealed as each of the fleeing male's spread wings showed a lavender blue forewing and emerald green speculum. 

On taking off the wings also made a curious and quite noticeable drumming sound. Something I have not heard or noticed before.

The Pursued!

The Pursuer!

Don't panic!

Despite this the amorous males did not seem to get the message and continued their attempts to muscle in on the pairs. Flying in a circuit over the reeds a displaced male would return to land on the water, and after a quick flap of its wings set about trying his luck again with yet another female. Obviously this was a way of sorting out the optimum pairing, the best drake for the best duck but as far as I could see there was no change in any of the existing pairings.

This behaviour carried on for quite some time with a constant activity of drakes rushing after one another across the water and flying around to escape the outraged partner of a female but at some unnoticed signal all the drakes seemed to decide it was time to call a truce and accept the situation and forming a close packed flock of both males and females, commenced feeding in harmony.

By watching the amorous Shovelers I had been absorbed into their world for an hour and on returning to my world found the anxieties that had beset me were far less than I had imagined and I left Otmoor musing over what I had seen and learned this afternoon  rather than suffering any further angst about the events of earlier in the day.

I was at one with the natural world once more. 



I was curious about what I had observed of the Shoveler's behaviour at Otmoor and did some research in the literature. I learned that this gathering of so many Shovelers was a communal ceremonial display where they were in the process of commencing forming pairs before breeding later in the year and this his communal display can often be so fragmented as to be easily overlooked. From what I could see this afternoon most pairs had formed but maybe this was not the case.

I also learned that the 'took' call I heard the drakes giving and the wing drumming as they took off were also part of this communal display.



  1. Didn't know you are so fond of shovellers - I'm particularly partial, too!

  2. On returning to the 1st screen after you had left Ewan between 30 and 40 birds were in a circle slowly rotatjng together, male and female, just about every bird with their heads thrust underwater.