Thursday, 14 May 2020

Farmoor Reservoir re-opens Today 13th May 2020

Farmoor Reservoir has been off limits to the public for three weeks now because of the lurking menace of the Corona virus. Regular birders to Farmoor, such as myself, have had to resort to peering over the perimeter fence where possible to get a glimpse of any migrant birds that might be visiting the reservoir but it has been far from satisfactory and not a little frustrating.

On Sunday last, came notification from the Government of a partial lifting of the so called lockdown, to take effect today, Wednesday. This prompted Thames Water  to open up Farmoor Reservoir once again to the public, from 10am to 7pm every day henceforth. So I joined a small queue of cars waiting at the entrance gate this morning and at 10am we were allowed in and were free once more to wander the concrete shores of Oxfordshire's largest reservoir.

Today was cold, made so by a blustery northeasterly wind and  to be only slightly ameliorated when the sun periodically shone through the clouds but nothing could dampen my spirits as I enjoyed my regained freedom of movement. It was good to be back at the reservoir and especially, as contrary to my expectations, there were surprisingly few people taking advantage of the reservoir being re-opened, and most of those were fishermen. I was eagerly looking forward to walking the central causeway as this had been mostly unobservable from the perimeter fence during lockdown, which was totally frustrating as this is the very place where most migrant waders will stop to  rest and feed.

Much of the migration season has passed during the period of the lockdown but there is still ample time for migrant waders to visit the reservoir but today there were just the two waders to welcome my return. They were Dunlin, a common wader, perhaps our commonest and seen in their thousands during the winter on our coastal shores.However there was delight in the fact these two were in their very smart breeding plumage. What is there not to like about this petite wader when dressed in summer plumage? I am used to seeing them in their drab grey and white winter plumage so their rapid transformation to this dapper smart appearance is both welcome and truly remarkable. Their crown becomes chestnut as does the mantle and scapulars, the latter with black centres creating a pleasing symmetrical patterning on their upperparts. The neck and breast are white with pinstripe lines of black running down to a large square black patch on the belly, as if the bird has been  stained by ink or mud. The medium length, slightly downcurved bill, legs and feet are similarly black. This time of the year brings the only opportunity to see them at their best, here in Oxfordshire as they transit middle England on the way to far distant northern latitudes.

As is often the case with visiting waders these two were incredibly confiding and allowed me to approach and admire them at very close range and it quite made my day after the comparatively barren birding of the last few weeks. 

I sat quietly in their company and thanked my stars that so far myself, my family and loved ones were safe and well and I was once again properly birding. I could ask for no more in these troubling times.

There was little else around on the reservoir but that really did not matter today, as almost lightheaded with relief I wandered freely around the reservoir, happy to freewheel in body and mind. Even the raucous cantankerous and ever present Greylags were bearable today!

Greylag Goose
Up to two hundred Common Swifts were flying low over the reservoir, their dark sooty brown bodies, flickering wings and crossbow profile unmistakeable and I enjoyed watching these aerial supremacists flying no more than a few feet above the causeway, supremely confident in their high speed flight and quicksilver reactions. They hurtled past, only feet from me, as they criss crossed the causeway. Many were flying in twos, presumably already having formed a pair and I liked to think that maybe some are nesting in Oxford in the famous tower of the Oxford Museum of Natural History or possibly nearby houses  in surrounding villages. Others may have further to go yet. It was good to see so many and with their arrival one feels that summer is truly on the way. I recalled Ted Hughes famous poem Swifts. The poem is too long to include here but the following lines from it seem particularly appropriate at this time.

They've made it again,
Which means the globe's still working, the Creation's
Still waking refreshed, our summer's
Still all to come ..... 

House Martins too, were finding sheltered corners where the water was less troubled by the wind and flies were congregating, calling cheerily to each other as they swept back and fore, chunky in blue black and white plumage against the grey waters, looking almost laboured in flight compared to the scything swifts, cleaving the air on starch stiff outstretched wings.

I went to check on my favourite Sedge Warbler at his summer home down by the river. It was warmer  away from the reservoir, sheltered to a degree from the northeast wind by the bushes of hawthorn, now at their peak and smothered in blossom.The sun shone warm on my back. 

The Sedge Warbler was, as ever, singing for all his worth from his regular perch, his plumage occasionally ruffled by wayward gusts of wind but undeterred, he sang on. Still without a mate, it was hard to not feel sorry for the bird as it has put so much energy into what is looking increasingly like a lost cause.There is hopefully still time to find a mate. The male Sedge Warblers on each side of him have attracted mates so maybe with the competition lessened he will get lucky. I do hope so. It has become almost a personal crusade for me to see him succeed.

Sedge Warbler
I returned to the reservoir and made an exceptional count of forty two Mute Swans. a combination of unpaired adults and younger birds. I suppose the waters of Farmoor are considered neutral ground  as far as the swans are concerned, somewhere they can relax and not be harassed and driven off by pairs that have nests on the nearby river. They form small, amicable groups that feed in the shallow water close by the wave wall, their long necks arcing their heads under the water to filter weed and mud from the bottom. Breeding Mute Swans are completely intolerant of any other swan encroaching on their domain, the cob driving any perceived rival off and indeed, as I experienced this winter, will even go so far as to kill another swan. 

Mute Swan
By the yacht club a Common Tern was resting on the pontoon which for the last three weeks has been untroubled by any human presence but now the tern will have to accommodate the fact that the reservoir is becoming once more populated by the human race and when the yacht's people return the pontoon will no longer be a place of undisturbed refuge.

Common Tern
On another pontoon on the far side of the reservoir I looked at a large gull standing on its own. Occasionally Herring Gulls hang about the reservoir throughout the summer, so initially I was only mildly interested but on looking through my bins I saw the gull had yellow legs and feet. Its plumage was predominantly white and grey but the wings were still largely clothed in immature feathers and this told me it was a second summer Yellow legged Gull, not to be adult for another two years, so presumably will not bother going to its breeding grounds and may spend its summer here on the reservoir.We will see.

Yellow legged Gull
I walked slowly back to the currently closed yacht club encountering several Mallard families feeding on insects on the choppy water, while pairs of Mallard idled their day away from the incessant waves beating at the concrete, seeking peace on the perimeter track's retaining wall. 

Stopping further down on the causeway, I took time to admire a pair of Great crested Grebes, some of which are always here in summer but sadly never ever show signs of wanting to breed. There is something comforting about a sleeping grebe, as it bobs with the movement of water, all rounded curves and everything tucked in nicely!

Great crested Grebe
At the bottom of the causeway a Red Kite flew low searching for scraps of dead fish but was soon seen off by a Carrion Crow and Herring Gull, both species showing a marked dislike of any large raptor that appears around the reservoir at this time of year. Red Kites are now common around Farmoor, the surrounding open wooded countryside proving ideal for their needs and there is plenty of road kill for them to scavenge on the nearby busy roads.

Red Kite
A pair of Coots managed to catch the mood of the moment and showed great affection to each other. For a bird that thrives on conflict and belligerence it was touching to see they too have a gentler side to them. 


                                               And that was my morning at Farmoor.

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