Monday 2 December 2019

A Slavonian Grebe visits Farmoor Reservoir 1st December 2019

Slavonian Grebes along with the similar Black necked Grebe, while not annual at Farmoor Reservoir do occasionally put in an appearance. Slavonian Grebes are usually seen here in the winter months in their grey and white non breeding plumage whilst Black necked Grebes are seen more often in breeding plumage when they briefly stop at Farmoor on their spring migration. Both are a rare visitor to an inland reservoir such as Farmoor, so when one turns up it always attracts attention.

Today it was the turn of a Slavonian Grebe to get us excited. It was discovered yesterday by David Hastings in the northwest corner of the larger of the two reservoirs, known as Farmoor Two. This may have been due to the bitterly cold northwest wind blowing across the reservoir persuading the grebe to seek the sheltered northwest corner, where the central causeway meets the north wall of the reservoir.

Slavonian Grebes are found in both Eurasia and in North America where they are known as Horned Grebes. The population in Eurasia is estimated to be from 12,900-18,500 individuals and they have a breeding range extending from Greenland eastwards to western China. They are a very scarce breeding bird in Britain with an estimated thirty  pairs breeding in northern Scotland while in winter around eleven hundred birds can be found at various coastal locations in Britain, mainly in Scotland although Pagham Harbour in West Sussex is also an important wintering area. They are Red listed by Birdlife International which means they are of conservation concern as the population has declined by 30% globally due to human disturbance, fluctuating water levels and stocking of lakes and reservoirs with trout that  compete for insects and their larvae.

I determined to get to the reservoir as early as possible on Sunday, arriving by 8.45am but with the reservoir gates opening at 8am, trout fishermen had already beaten me to it which is not good as they too made for the more sheltered parts of the reservoir. Naturally this would act as a deterrent to the grebe coming in close enough to photograph and see it well but I resigned myself to the situation knowing, at the least I could watch a very good bird for Farmoor. I also had it in mind to catch up with the two Greater Scaup, another scarce visitor, currently residing on the reservoir.

I set off up the central causeway, the brisk northwest wind whipping over the water of the smaller reservoir, Farmoor One, and across the causeway. It was not a pleasant experience as it was bitingly cold, making my eyes water and the tips of my fingers tingle, even through gloves. I came across the two scaup swimming in the calmer water in the lee of the causeway, associating with a raft of Tufted Ducks and Coot. Here I met a father and his young son, birding, and I pointed out the scaup to them and in return the young boy pointed out the Slavonian Grebe that was diving further out!  It was nice to be able to complement each other with a good bird to see.

The sun had now put in an appearance but was shining directly into my eyes as I looked out over Farmoor Two. I was joined by Peter who had come to catch up with both the scaup and the grebe.I pointed out the two scaup, an adult female and an immature bird, with little problem but then could not refind the grebe. We looked and looked but it eluded us.We walked the whole length of the causeway with no success and now, feeling very cold, I suggested we have a coffee in the yacht club cafe before we resumed our search for the  grebe.

While in the cafe my Oxonbirds WhatsApp Group alerted me to the fact the grebe was back in the northwest corner of Farmoor Two. We quickly finished our coffee and headed back up the causeway that had not got any more welcoming in our absence. Many of  Oxonbirds finest were out and about having got news of the grebe and we met Justin as we made our way up the causeway, who told us the grebe was in amongst the Coot and Tufted Ducks that were milling about in the corner of the reservoir. We eventually relocated the grebe, its tiny grey and white form quite difficult to pick out in the similarly grey waters. It was some way out on the reservoir, loosely associating with some Great crested Grebes and obviously not too keen on coming any closer, probably due to the number of people now standing on the causeway looking at it.

Great crested Grebe and Slavonian Grebe

Peter was satisfied with his views and departed to attend to more mundane domestic matters but I remained. I followed the grebe's progress, still a distant profile, swimming on the cold waters of the reservoir. I pointed the grebe out to various visiting birders and curious passers by but  resigned myself to the fact that the grebe wouldn't be coming any nearer while the causeway was so populated. Fair enough as its presence, even though distant, brought pleasure to all who came to see it.

I thought about the situation and considered that maybe with lunchtime an hour away there would be less people about then, so I spent the next hour looking for Water Rails at Pinkhill Reserve which lies at the back of the reservoir by the Thames. Sadly there was no successful outcome. I heard one squealing its pig like call but that was as far as it went.

I walked back up to the causeway and was pleased to see it was almost devoid of people. I looked for the grebe and found it, as ever, some way off out on the water and diving constantly but it was now slightly nearer the north wall than the causeway, so I made my way there. The grebe gradually worked its way closer but was still not really within the range of my camera and lens but I could see it well in the bins, each of its yellow eyes encompassed by a circle of fiery red, shining like bright pinpricks, in its monochrome black and white head, when the sun caught them. 

I sat down on the wall of the reservoir  figuring this would reduce my obvious human profile and possibly persuade the grebe that it was safe to venture closer to the shore. It was worth a try anyway. I sat hunkered down by a signpost near to the northwest corner as the relentless cold wind buffeted me and insiduously crept into my bones. I was cold, very cold but determined to sit it out but for how much longer? Frustratingly the grebe resolutely refused to come any nearer even though it seemed unworried by my presence if indeed it even sensed it.

Slavonian Grebe
It clearly had found a good area of feeding that was away from the congregation of Great crested Grebes, Coots, Cormorants and Tufted Ducks closer in and currently taking full advantage of the shelter from the wind.

Every time the grebe dived I prayed it would surface closer to me but it remained forever distant. I noticed some sailing dinghys and wind surfers taking to the water. Lunchtime had obviously finished at the yacht club and now the reservoir would be busy again. Usually birders, sailing craft and windsurfers do not mix well but on this occasion I have to extend thanks to one particular windsurfer who came hurtling across the water towards me as I sat half frozen on the wall. His rapid approach persuaded the grebe to swim rapidly for the shelter of the northwest corner. Closer and closer came the diminutive grebe until it was within range of my lens and I took full advantage of this unexpected and fortuitous turn of events. 

It did not last long, maybe five minutes during which the grebe had a brief preen but it was enough. 

The grebe was nervous of all the larger birdlife nearby and soon began to distance itself from the sheltered corner and moved back out onto the main body of water where it doubtless felt more at ease.

I left it there. The cold was now beginning to physically hurt so I made my way to the cafe for a hot drink and some lunch. A good way to end an ultimately rewarding day.

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