Saturday 27 July 2019

The Travellers Return 26th July 2019

Today, almost at the end of July, it was warm and sultry, light cloud shrouding the sun but only just, so the light was still harsh, too bright at times as it reflected off the reservoir's waters to dazzle my eyes. It was not the kind of day to expect much birdlife to be apparent but a vast unheralded movement involving millions of birds was taking place that would continue for the next two months, un-noticed by anyone other than birders such as myself. 

The latter part of July heralds the beginning of the return of long distance migratory waders from the High Arctic. The short window for breeding will soon be closing in those extreme northern latitudes they have travelled to and the first birds to leave have already begun to arrive at Farmoor and other parts of Britain. They are, in the main, either failed breeders or adults. The latter, often females, are still in breeding plumage, having left the males to take care of the young until they too return later, in August and September.

It was only a short time ago, a matter of weeks, that I was watching Turnstones and Dunlins on their way north as they made a brief stop at Farmoor Reservoir but now they are back, running along the water's edge by the shelving concrete apron of the reservoir. This return journey is a more relaxed affair and the birds have time to linger, often for days as there is now no pressing need to find a mate, lay eggs and raise young. This sense of laissez faire permeates the whole reservoir and seems ideally suited to a day of heat such as this.

Today there was a single Turnstone and five Dunlin, all adults, pattering gently along through a frieze of spume and green algae at the edge of the reservoir.

As is often the case they showed little alarm at my presence or that of anyone else and carried on feeding, quite unconcerned. They do not have the capacity to reflect but I do, and watching them I thought how strange it must be to spend five or six weeks breeding in parts of the earth that see hardly a human and be totally undisturbed, then having to migrate southwards, back through ever more crowded and industrialised parts of the globe where there is now so little space to live out their lives without constant interruption. It does not worry them as they can only react to the instant, living entirely in the present here and now. They cannot speculate about the future but I can and it certainly worries me.

However, for today, I endeavoured to banish such thoughts and enjoy their company. They were safe from any major disturbance and as much as a bird can relax they did so, happy to wander the shoreline picking at morsels hidden in the cracks of the concrete or washed up by the wavelets lapping at the shore.

The Turnstone's rich chestnut plumage was very worn, most of the colourful fringes to the feathers frayed to virtually nothing, so it looked dark with just a vestige of chestnut remaining and the white on its head was sullied with brown. I think it was a female judging by the muted patterning of its plumage. Soon it will moult into a duller brown and white plumage for winter although  retaining its bright orange legs and feet. I watched it using its short stout bill, slightly uptilted, to turn over the algae looking for anything edible hidden underneath. Its legs were short and thick. its body stocky, making it appear bulky amongst the smaller demure Dunlins it was associating with.

The Dunlins in contrast to the Turnstone were the more delicate, their long, downcurved,black bills and thin black legs giving them a touch of elegance and fragility denied the Turnstone. They kept very much together and called a trilling note to themselves on occasions.

I left them in peace, conscious I too could be disturbing them if I lingered too long. They still had a long way to go to wherever they would, if they could, call home.

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