Thursday 4 March 2021

A Pleasant Surprise at Farmoor 3rd March 2021

Every Wednesday and Friday I take a stroll around Farmoor Reservoir with my friend Phil in an attempt to keep body and soul together during these difficult times. Both of us had a covid vaccine jab some weeks ago now and are beginning to feel that sense of irritation that comes in the knowledge that soon we will have a second vaccination and hopefully then be free to expand our horizons, well at least beyond this part of Oxfordshire.From my point of view that day cannot come too soon.

We decided that instead of walking around the perimeter track of the reservoir, as we usually do, we would take what Thames Water call their Countryside Walk, which circumvents the outside of the  reservoir and where one hardly meets anyone else. 

The welcome two days of weekend sunshine and mild temperatures were but a memory as today had reverted to winter, dull and raw with not a breath of wind to stir the layer of mist that, although not affecting visibility, nevertheless had reduced the surrounding landscape to a sullen monotony.The water on the adjacent reservoir was flat calm, receding into a blurred and hazy distance.

Of birdlife there was little to see or hear, as if they too had given in to the prevailing conditions and like us felt a dampening of the inner spirit, and that quelled their desire to sing. It looked very much like it was going to be one of those forgettable days at Farmoor when chatting about the world and its woes would be more entertaining than birding. 

We came to a small copse and found a few birds hopping about in the bare tree tops, the twigs and branches forming a lattice work against the grey sky. Two Bullfinches piped to each other in that melancholy fashion of theirs but remained invisible, the calls growing ever more distant, denoting they had eluded us and moved on. A small movement revealed a Chiffchaff. The tiny bird, a harbinger of the coming Spring, was threading its way through the twigs, its plumage an overall dull olive, the colour of the emerging buds it assiduously searched for insects but its actions today were uncharacteristically sluggish, entirely in tune with the general ambience. There was little chance of its cheery onomatopoeic song ringing out on a morning such as this but its mere presence lightened the mood. 

Moving on towards Lower Whitely Farm, a flock of over a hundred Redwings were searching for worms in the lush grass fields to our left. This was the essence of this transitory month of March, where just a moment ago we had seen signs of Spring with the Chiffchaff, an arriving summer visitor and now we were encountering Redwings, winter visitors, grouping into flocks and soon to depart for distant lands. Nervous and flighty the Redwings flew from us, and eventually perched in the topmost branches of some mature trees by the lane, joining a clutch of Starlings, there to wait for us to pass by.

We followed a boardwalk into another small patch of open woodland, pausing to scrutinise the bird feeders which were doing brisk business with visiting Great and Blue Tits. A Coal Tit, even smaller than a Blue Tit arrived, to nervously seize a seed and retreat into cover, but despite its timid nature returned regularly, undaunted by its larger cousins. A Marsh Tit joined the throng, shortly to be joined by another, their coffee coloured bodies and shiny black caps, a contrast to the green, blue and yellow plumage of their more populous tit brethren. 

Marsh Tit

Finally a Nuthatch flew in. Stabbing at the feeder with its chisel bill, wastefully tossing seed that was not to its taste to the ground, before it grabbed a seed to its liking and took it back to hide amongst the twisted corrugated boughs of the overhanging oaks. 


We walked onwards, complaining about the depressing and unsympathetic decimation of the surrounding hedgerows by both the local farmer and Thames Water. Both resort to those dreadful tractor driven flails that with no acknowledgment to finesse, bludgeon and desecrate the hedgerows, leaving bare, torn, scarred spikes, that like broken bones jut out at angles, the bark stripped to white wood. Why it is considered necessary do this is beyond comprehension but it is prevalent now throughout the land, manifesting humanity's increasing detachment from nature. The irony is that our abuse of nature has, in another form, brought about the current pandemic that has so disrupted the world and currently, as a result, has caused more and more people to realise that the natural world can provide great solace in this time of distress, but still the destruction continues and the lesson goes unheeded by many farmers, local authorities and landowners. It was not lost on both Phil and myself that we were walking something called a Countryside Walk yet Thames Water totally miss the point and feel the hedgerows have to be ground into submission, crudely manicured, as if in some nightmarish landscaped garden. Sheer and utter folly.

Having seen very little so far and wanting to get away from Thames Water's inopportune 'landscaping'  I suggested we walk down by the river, where it is wilder, to see if the lone white fronted goose that has been here for a couple of weeks was still enjoying the company of the ever garrulous Greylags. We found some of the Greylags on the other side of the river, stood in the grass close to the bank but there was no sign of the white-front amongst them, so we walked to where the path goes upriver towards Bablock Hythe. We could hear the usual conversational chatter of the feral Snow and Barnacle Geese which were obviously nearby, feeding on the grass on 'our' side of the river.

We crossed a small wooden bridge, no more than a plank really and traversed a narrow few yards of muddy path that took us through a hedge out to the edge of a large grass field and encountered the Snow Geese, feeding within yards of the path. A shock of white bodies and I am not sure which of us was the more surprised but the geese hardly moved. We skirted the flock and followed the river bank for a short way and checked the few Greylags that were scattered amongst the other geese but again could find no sign of the desired white-front.

Then from the river, initially hidden from us by the bank's sloping edge, seven geese walked up the bank and out onto the grass. I looked once and looked again, hardly believing what I was seeing.  Before us were seven Russian White-fronted Geese! So calm were they it was difficult to accept that these were really wild birds but they most certainly were, no doubt re-assured  by the lack of alarm shown by the other geese.

What a find. Not the hoped for single white-front but now seven! The group consisted of two adults and five juveniles and were in my opinion a family. If this were true, they had travelled together all the way from Arctic Russia, survived the many perils that would have confronted them so far and presumably will be heading back to Russia in a month or so. I found their trusting nature touching and could but feel a hope they would make a successful return to Russia.

The two adults were very dashing with broad, irregular slashes of black spanning their pale brown bellies. The gander was typically assertive, strutting about with head raised on extended neck, keeping a close eye on us and his family.

When setting off for our walk I had expected very little of interest and consequently left my camera in the car and now I had to go back for it if I wanted to record the geese. Phil carried on his walk and we agreed to meet back at the reservoir cafe for a coffee and cake, once I had photographed the white-fronts.

I returned with my camera, fearful that in my absence one of the many dog walkers that use the Thames Path might have disturbed the geese but on returning I was relieved to see they were still present but had moved further out into the field where they were contentedly grazing the grass.

They kept to themselves, as did the Snow and Barnacle Geese flocks, whilst the few Greylags were more randomly distributed, some having already formed pairs and obviously preferring to be on their own. 

Snow Geese

Barnacle Geese

I watched the geese for a while and took some photos to record this unusual event. This has been an exceptional winter for white-fronted geese at Farmoor. Prior to this winter, the last record was of a single bird on 25th January 2016. This winter there have been no less than three records; nineteen flying west over the reservoir on 30th November last year, a single juvenile from 17th to the 27th of February this year at least and now this family group of seven today.

Sadly my time with the geese was destined to be limited. A dog walker arrived and the sight of the dog instantly put all the geese on high alert.They show much more alarm at the presence of a dog than they do towards a human. Could it be the ancestral memory of arctic foxes, that are an ever present predator on their breeding grounds that cause them such concern when they see a dog, which is similar in profile to a fox?

The dog, even though relatively distant was sufficient to persuade all the geese to take off  and they flew across the river. The white-fronts circled the large field on the other side and I prayed they would settle there with the Greylags and indeed it looked like they would but at the last moment they seemed to have a change of mind and flew higher and away to the northwest. 

There are a number of fields in that direction that would be ideal for them and maybe they landed there out of sight but I did not have the time to drive round and check. Hopefully they will remain nearby or possibly they will rejoin the local geese once more. 

Now that would be nice!


  1. Thanks for the comment on the further despoilation of our 'countryside'. This is a particular bug bear of mine living as I do surrounded my arable moonscapes which are annually given their farmers idea of 'winter tidying'.

    I have a small article, hopefully to go in the local village Newletter, showing a decimated hedge and six inch deep ruts - caused by heavy machinery - full with water, where a footpath would be.
    These people are supposed to be the custodians of our countryside and what they are doing should be exposed whenever possible.

  2. Could not agree more with your last statement