Tuesday 26 July 2022

Turnstones at Farmoor 25th July 2022

After the departure of the Sanderlings (see my previous post) Farmoor Reservoir reverted to type and the concrete shores could offer little in the way of birding excitement, in fact nothing at all. However with strengthening winds, armed with the knowledge that the autumn migration of waders is now well under way and an entirely unjustified sense of optimism I decided to visit the reservoir yesterday evening. It is quieter then as most people have departed for home and waders, if there are any often tend to arrive on the reservoir at this time. Don't ask me why but it is a well known fact amongst us regulars that watch Farmoor.

The southwest wind was ferocious which made walking the causeway 'interesting' but it was disarmingly warm if that is not a contradiction. Gulls and terns were making full use of the swirling capricious air currents rising up from the causeway and turbulent water to dip and sway above, feeding with minimum effort on wings constantly adjusting to the contrary wind currents 

I had almost reached the far end of the causeway with nothing to show for my effort when I saw two small dark shapes silhouetted by the sun, standing on the wave lashed concrete shelving, facing the oncoming wind. Their size and sturdy shape precluded any thoughts of Sanderling or Dunlin and it was obvious they were Turnstones. They had, for certain, not been here in the morning when I had dutifully checked the reservoir, so must have arrived in the afternoon or even just lately.

Like most waders that arrive here they were relatively confiding but being troubled into flight by the large gulls and crows swooping around feeding on the numerous dead trout, a product of the recent heat wave, lying at the water's edge. 

I watched them for a  few minutes and then walked on. I had foregone carrying my camera and lens, deciding for once to leave them at home, bringing a welcome feeling of release to not have their weight dragging on my shoulder. Sometimes I wish I could go back to pure birding with nothing more than a pair of bins around my neck and a notebook just like it was in those golden times that never really existed except in my imagination!

Today I returned, armed with camera and lens hoping to renew acquaintance with the tortoiseshell coloured duo but there was not a sign of them. A smirrr of soft, gentle rain enveloped the reservoir  and I sat out its brief inconvenience in a shelter hoping the conditions would pressage a fall of waders that I was convinced were passing at this very moment, high overhead. Well one can dream but enough of such fantasy, the rain cleared as suddenly as it had arrived and the reservoir settled into a warm humid day as reality returned.

Tired and with that familiar feeling of resignation that comes with the territory at Farmoor, I went home disappointed but philosophical and took to the local cafe in Chipping Norton for some welcome breakfast. At about midday, a local birding WhatsApp group I belong to informed me that Conor had found three Turnstones on the reservoir causeway! They must surely be different to the two I saw yesterday and this news prompted me to immediately set off for the reservoir as Turnstones in summer plumage are a joy to behold and are always highly photogenic in such plumage.

On getting to the reservoir I made haste up the ramp to the perimeter track in front of the Yacht Club. With the school summer holidays now begun, scores of small children are having private yachting lessons here. It's quite a business  and the result of all this is hordes of very small, highly  excited children milling around and looking much like outsized beetles with their brightly coloured red or yellow crash helmets and black wet suits. Such innocent disturbance is not good for birding so I was surprised to hear almost instantly the hard twittering call of a Turnstone. Looking in the direction of the call I found all three Turnstones running along the edge of the concrete standing nearby, that is used to launch the kid's dinghys. They were pattering along and over the flotsam and foam being driven to shore by the still strong wind but were flighty due to all the ongoing disturbance from kids, crows and gulls. Running back and fore in some agitation they endeavoured to feed but were subject to continuous alarms and interruptions.

In the end it was too much and they flew low and fast past another army of kids, away across the water to the nearby causeway where it was much quieter. I followed but they had now separated and each was finding its own way along the concrete edge of the causeway seemingly quite content to be on its own.

I sat on the wall and allowed them to walk towards me and so long as there was no sudden movement on my part they were quite content to approach me, feeding all the while and eventually to pass me by untroubled as I sat on the low retaining wall of the causeway

Turnstones undertake equally mind blowing migrations to that of Sanderlings, possibly even more so. The majority of Turnstones seen here probably come from breeding grounds in northeast Canada and northern Greenland. Just think about it for a moment and absorb the fact that these featherlight beings successfully traverse such phenomenal distances back and fore every year. Many birds will use Iceland as a stopover both in Spring and Autumn and who can blame them in taking such a break from their marathon journey.

After a while I was content to sit and watch as the Turnstones went about their lives. Their presence brought a brief period of fulfilment and satisfaction after all the days and hours of looking and finding nothing on the reservoir, so it is best to enjoy such a time as best one can.

Many of the returning Turnstones in autumn, such as these three at Farmoor are not necessarily going to spend the winter in Britain. Where these three birds are bound for is unknown but they will not remain for long, only long enough to refuel and press onward to maybe France or Iberia even Africa

The first returning birds in late July are failed breeders of both sexes, followed a little later by successful breeders of which the females arrive first, having left the male to tend to the juveniles, both of which follow later in August.

Turnstones are difficult to sex both in summer and winter plumage. The subtleties are so acute it is often impossible to tell and a prolonged spell of scrutinising these three left me little the wiser. Maybe the extent and purity of the white patches on the sides of the breast and the less intense black streaking on the head was enough on one individual to indicate it was a male but I was far from certain.

As to be expected the Turnstones had one thing on their mind - food. How far had they flown and how much energy had they expended before touching down at Farmoor and how far had they still to go? The reservoir at this time of year provides a bounty of invertebrate food in the form of flies and bugs, hiding in the weed and cracks in the concrete shelving and the Turnstones fed avidly, rarely stopping for more than a few seconds, the urge to replenish their reserves paramount. There are no stones to overturn here so for the most part they picked off flies on the surface or winkled out small invertebrates from cracks in the concrete.One even spent minutes picking the remaining flesh from a long dead trout.

Turnstones are annual visitors in mainly single figure numbers at Farmoor. Some years being better than others. Three together is a good count so I felt well satisfied having seen two yesterday and three today. 

Hopefully there will be more to follow. 

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