Friday 21 May 2021

Storm Force Sanderlings 21st May 2021

I was greeted this morning by a gale force wind and heavy rain. May had become October! I groaned, fell out of bed, still dizzy from sleep and adopting my version of autopilot, dressed for wet weather and left the house, buoyed by that sense of optimism every one of us feels at the start of another day of birding.

It was going to be 'interesting' on the causeway at Farmoor Reservoir, to put it mildly. A 40mph wind would be taking no prisoners and I was guaranteed a severe buffeting and a good soaking. However foul weather would hopefully mean that migrating waders would be only too grateful to touch down to ride out the worst of the weather on the causeway's edges and await a change to better flying conditions. Something which would certainly not happen today, so hopefully any waders that did arrive would stick around.

The Causeway and concrete shelving the
Sanderling frequented

Nearly blown off my feet by the sheer elemental force of the wind on the exposed causeway I battled my way to the recently re-opened 'Causeway Hide' that is situated two thirds along the narrow strip of concrete dividing the two basins. Swifts were doing their usual trick of flying as close as possible to me as I progressed, their speed even more impressive than usual, as they used the wind to propel their sooty brown bodies at incredible speeds along and across the causeway, then to skim low out over the water before performing a wide sweeping arc and returning towards me at a similar speed.Their numbers were steadily increasing as more and more arrived to take maximum advantage of the abundant insect life on the reservoir. It is hard to imagine that tiny flies can endure such a forceful wind but somehow they do and the Swifts know it and are quick to take advantage.

Grateful for a chance to get some relief from the mauling by wind and rain, I staggered into the hide having seen precisely nothing but the Swifts. To my surprise the hide was occupied by Roger trying to photo the Swifts rocketing past the hide. Looking out from the hide and down the remainder of the causeway, it looked pretty bleak and there was nothing to get excited about.

I briefly chatted to Roger and then looked once again along the water's edge and in the distance saw that a flock of small waders had arrived and were scuttling around by the water, busily feeding. It was difficult to see what they were from such a distance but leaving the hide I walked closer.The wind was so ferocious it was hard to hold myself steady, let alone train my bins on the tiny birds. I crouched on the boundary wall and now, less of a target for the wind, saw that the flock comprised of ten birds,  three Sanderling and seven Dunlin  but they had not really settled and were flighty, a low flying crow causing them to disappear over the tossing waters before I could get any closer.

A recently dead Swift lay with crossbow wings spread wide on the concrete edge of the causeway.So sad to see it lying there, having come all the way from Africa to meet its end here. It seemed diminished compared to its living brethren that were flying about me and somehow upsetting that such an aerial bird should now lay here lifeless and rain sodden on the unforgiving concrete, the magic and mystery of the bird gone just as certainly as the life that once pulsed through it.

Eventually the three Sanderling returned to land not far from the hide but the diminutive Dunlins had opted to continue their migration and were gone. Roger briefly returned to tell me that another six Sanderling had arrived and were feeding on the exposed wind and wave blasted southern side of the causeway. By the time I got to see them the other three had joined them making a nice flock of nine Sanderling.

Sanderling are birds of open beaches and exposed strands and are well used to dodging waves and spray and being blown sideways by strong winds. They were totally unphased by the conditions today, either feeding or standing stoically head into the wind and in the case of one or two, snatching a few seconds of sleep as the elements raged around them. The little flock kept close company, compacting into a huddle when uncertain and then dispersing into a straggling line as they searched over the concrete apron for food.You have to admire their spirit and it is hard not to think they almost revel in these rougher conditions.

Presumably these nine birds are bound for Greenland or possibly the Arctic Circle to breed, so harsh conditions are probably par for the course and Farmoor Reservoir, even on such a day as this, has nothing to cause them undue concern.

Sanderlings display a great variation in their breeding plumage and this flock provided a perfect example of this.Some birds were suffused with orange and black, imparting a rich saturated orange brown tone to their head, breast and upperparts, whilst one at the other end of the spectrum was very pale, its white and grey plumage showing only a minimal amount of orange and black colouring on its back. In between these two extremes were birds of varying intensities of colour. Whether this is evidence of some individual birds having moulted into breeding plumage faster than others is uncertain as it is known that some Sanderlings never attain a really strong colour to their breeding plumage. Probably it is a mixture of both.Whatever it is, the sheer delight at seeing those that are in their richly coloured breeding plumage is always something to look forward to.

The above images show the variation in colour tones of the Sanderling seen today

So I left the Sanderlings wandering the wave washed concrete and walked further but there was little to see.In the more sheltered northwest corner of the reservoir Swifts and House Martins had congregated to feed on the insects, clouds of them arising from the grass where the wind could not permeate and disperse them.

A brief diversion to the Pinkhill Reserve resulted in a pleasant surprise when a hepatic (rufous coloured) Cuckoo flew past the hide and settled in a nearby tree for ten minutes. This form of Cuckoo is rare and I have never seen one at Farmoor  so my day was brightened even more.

I walked back along the causeway to find that another Sanderling was keeping company with a Ringed Plover, both having arrived on the causeway in my absence. However these two were enjoying the comparatively tranquil conditions on the north side of the causeway, that was sheltered from the wind.

So now there were ten Sanderling. My favourite wader here in comparative abundance for a landlocked body of water. An excellent outcome to a truly awful morning of weather but now the rain was becoming more persistent and making life uncomfortable. It was time to leave. I had been here six hours. A coffee would be welcome in the reservoir's Waterside Cafe with my friends Amanda, Dave and Phil.

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