Tuesday 22 March 2022

The Farmoor Garganeys 21st March 2022

These last few days have seen a considerable influx of Garganeys into southern England, more so than normal and our inland county of Oxfordshire duly received its complement of this, our only summer migrant duck, when on Sunday three were discovered near Abingdon, closely followed by a pair later that afternoon at Thames Water's Pinkhill Reserve, which lies at the western end of  Farmoor Reservoir.

I determined to go and see them first thing on Monday and when I say first thing, I left home at 4.30am to get there at dawn. Why I did this I find hard to explain.Not thinking straight and overtired from going to see the Belted Kingfisher near Preston in Lancashire on Saturday, I had developed an irrational fear that the hide would be full of toggers and birders all seeking the Garganeys at first light. A product of my anxious personality. Ridiculous I know and so it proved. 

There had been a hard frost overnight and it was cold but with no discernible wind it was bearable. As the reservoir is closed until 8am I planned to access the hide that overlooks the tiny Pinkhill Reserve by parking at, and then walking, from nearby Farmoor Village. In the pre dawn, my route illuminated by a bright moon, I made my way from the sleeping folk of Farmoor Village, down a short alley way and onto the track that would take me to the hide, about a half mile's walk away, discreetly sandwiched between the River Thames and the reservoir.

To my left the huge bank of the reservoir loomed above me, the sky beyond it in the east, hinting at dawn, and from the reservoir, already there came the raucous cries of awakening Black headed Gulls, thousands of them, creating a pulsing continuous sound, their individual calls merging into one and if you did not know they were gulls you would struggle to identify the source.

At such an early hour there was little sight or sound of humanity. The stillness and cold amplified the pure notes of a singing Song Thrush and Blackbird, the former's notes strident and repetitive, cutting through the air, the latter's ruminative and laconic, almost as if sleep had not quite departed the singer. Above and between their singing, filtered the mercurial, melancholy song of a Robin. The notes thin and melodic. A song like water trickling over pebbles,

On getting to the riverside I found wraithes of mist forming a semi opaque, low lying blanket across the river and its surrounds, while the cold orb of the moon shone high above the mist in a clear night sky. It was all very atmospheric, almost unworldly but the presence of the mist troubled me, for until it dispersed it would make viewing difficult from the hide.

I followed the track, so familiar after years of treading it  and turned onto the short boardwalk that took me to the hide's door. I punched in the code and gained access to an empty hide. Why so anxious? Why so surprised it was empty? It would be more startling if the hide was occupied. No one else would be so foolish as to venture out at this time. 

The inside of the hide was, if anything colder than the air outside. I recognised that it was going to be a cold and lonely vigil until it was properly daybreak. It was 5.30am and I could just about see the reeds and water beyond the hide, hopefully still harbouring a pair of Garganey. I would have no way of knowing until it got light. Sunrise was at 6.00am but until then I was reduced to spending my time in reflection and contemplation whilst trying to keep the chilling cold out of my bones.

My initial view over the mist shrouded Pinkhill Reserve

The light steadily improved but the mist's continued presence was still irksome, making my view of the reserve in front of me as if looking through uncleaned glass. Dark, amorphous shapes moved upon the water. A Coot and then a Moorhen.The disembodied cricket like calls of drake teals came from further across the water, the birds invisible behind some distant reedmace. Slowly the light improved further as the mist dissipated and I was now able to see the reed fringed waters relatively clearly.

The teals continued their calling from the far side. I wondered if the similar sized Garganeys might be with them. Two bachelor Mallard drakes began harassing a female, who protested with much loud quacking and  responded with a short flight in the company of her mate to escape the attention of the over amourous drakes. A trial of will to see if she fancied either of them over her current partner. As usual it came to nought, the pair flying off, then to quickly return to be left in peace as the two bachelors had turned their attention to guzzling fallen seed from under the bird feeders by the hide.

I sat on a cold hard bench and began regretting my foolishness in getting here so early. I was fully primed for a long wait as Garganey often like to hide in reeds and sleep. However they are to a certain extent crepuscular and often choose to feed at the beginning and ending of the day, so if they were still here my early arrival put me in with a reasonable chance of encountering them.

A Grey Heron swooped in to land briefly in the water but changed its mind and on giant bowed wings flapped slowly away towards the adjacent river. Reed Buntings clung to last year's dead reed stems, before dropping down to the base in search of seeds while the feeders did a brisk trade with visiting Blue and Great Tits.

Minutes passed as my mind freewheeled, like a car in neutral gear, ticking over but ready for action if required. My mind certainly slipped into gear as I heard the distinctive notes of a male Garganey, a dry clicking sound. So brief I wondered if I had imagined it but no, for confirmation of the Garganey's presence came when a small female duck hesitantly swam out of the reeds and across the water in front of the hide. Checking in my bins, instead of the female teal I was expecting, here was a female Garganey, totally distinctive with a buff spot and two dark bars on each side of her pale face. She was followed, at a little distance, by the drake.

Naturally I was delighted at seeing them and to realise that, for once, there was to be no long attritional vigil. All feelings of cold and deprivation were instantly forgotten. 

There is something about a male Garganey that sets the pulse racing just that little bit faster. 

The male's combination of stripes and vermiculations, the patterning of its variable brown and grey plumaged body and that huge over arching sickle of white on each side of its head are, for me, like finding hidden treasure. The white supercilia positively gleamed in the dull  light of early morning and the pale grey flanks were another beacon in the fast dissolving mist.

The two diminutive ducks slowly moved through the shallow water and aquatic vegetation, energetically nuzzling their bills amongst and into the submerged roots of the reeds, gradually making their way towards the hide until they were as close as I could ever have wanted, half hidden, feeding amongst the proliferation of reed and sedge. 

Obtaining a photo was another matter however, as the inumerable stalks and spikes of dead reeds were forever confounding any attempt I made to photograph them but with patience and more than a little good fortune I contrived to get a few images free of any vegetative interference.

And so I watched and photographed them as they continued to feed, while the sun slowly rose to cast a golden light  through the riverside trees on the furthest edge of the reserve. The pair swam away, crossing the inconsequential stretch of water to the far side and re-commenced feeding along a line of dead reeds bordering the water. Another Grey Heron paraglided to earth, landing very close to the ducks but despite its grey eminence towering over them they were untroubled and continued to dabble in the water. 

The pair eventually came back to my side of the water and fed greedily amongst the sedge and reeds, their small bodies hidden at times by the cover, although they were only metres from the hide.They must be hungry, having arrived yesterday, with possibly Farmoor the first stop after a long flight from somewhere south of Britain. 

I would like to think so.

Eventually they swam to the far side once more and ensconced themselves in the reeds and slept.

It was time to go as they would be unlikely to move for some time.


  1. Wonderful photos. So glad you saw the garganeys..though your post did make me chuckle. Strangely enough, grandson and I went to the Pinkhill Hide for the first time last Sunday (20th March) at about 11.30 and were extremely surprised that no-one else was there, and we had it all to ourselves for about 30 minutes. Then a couple joined us for a while..at which point we were all focused on waiting for the garganey (of which grandson and I had had a fleeting glimpse soon after we arrived, just long enough for him to I.D it) to emerge from their hiding place in the reeds ..and then 2 did!
    From Denise Harper (aka Jackie.)

  2. Thank you.I am glad you enjoyed my blog and saw the Garganeys