Tuesday, 11 May 2021

Foulweather at Farmoor 8th May 2021

What a difference a day can make.Yesterday was benign with sunshine and a light but chilly wind. Overnight a transformation took place bringing strong winds and heavy rain and for a while I debated whether it really was worth the effort to go to the reservoir.

I would get very wet I knew but as every birder knows bad weather can often mean good birds and so I took the chance. Needless to say I was the sole visitor to the reservoir at 8am and found myself on the eastern bank, temporarily sheltered from the strong southeast wind but there was no hiding place from the incessant rain.

Swallows had also sought out this shelteterd area to swoop in graceful curves along the grass bank and under the trees, gliding and twisting at speed, almost at ground level as they hunted  hatching insects. The rain was causing them problems and many sought to perch on railings in the small marina, to twitter amongst themselves, preen their rain sodden, dishevelled feathers, perching shoulder to shoulder as if to warm each other and looking thoroughly unimpressed with the weather conditions.

I stood under a tree which kept most of the rain from me and watched as a number of swallows swept across the ground literally by my feet, heedless of my presence, flying as low as possible over the grass, for that was where the insects were. One bird stalled in its flight and hovered as if uncertain how to deal with the unusual conditions and then dropped, to stand unsteadily on the short grass, looking about itself as if not quite sure what it should be doing. Others immediately followed its example and soon a small gathering had resulted, many just glad to rest their wings from the relentless battling of wind and rain, whilst others hunted for insects, hopping in ungainly movement on short legs, seeking insects, picking them off as they clumsily manouevered their slim bodies across the sodden grass, their long wings sometimes acting as props. Such a contrast were these laboured movements to the effortless elegant flying that is their normal feeding technique.

Through binoculars, at distance, their upperparts look almost black as they skimmed the ground or the adjacent waters of the reservoir but the images captured by my camera reveal their true colours and they are transformed into a creature of sublime beauty with royal blue upperparts and terracotta brown throat and forehead.

A group of five Yellow Wagtails also took advantage of the more sheltered conditions here and ran about on the short grass in leggy pursuit of insects and flies. All were, as far as I could see, females and one looked very much like a female Blue headed Wagtail, possibly a hybrid or even only an aberrant Yellow Wagtail. The taxonomy relating to Yellow Wagtails is bewildering, and not helped by the fact that many different races of the Yellow Wagtail interbreed, sowing confusion amongst those of us who seek to identify them. It is all a bit of a birder's nightmare and the plumage variation amongst Yellow Wagtails is legendary.

I ventured out from under the tree and resolved to walk the causeway. An act of supreme folly in hindsight as there was no hiding place from either the wind or the rain.However I was determined to walk to the end of the causeway and then back again. Battling the elements, unsurprisingly I saw very little, with the causeway being battered on one side by wind propelled waves and surf whilst being relatively calm on the other. Four Common Sandpipers were feeding on the sheltered side but nothing else. Half way up the causeway I came across a mixed flock of waders running around on the very top of the causeway itself where I stood. I tried to count them but the wind was so ferocious it was hard to hold my binoculars steady but eventually I noted thirteen Dunlin, two Ringed Plovers and a Turnstone, all running hither and thither on the concrete. What they found to feed on was beyond me but they seemed happy enough but soon decamped to the water's edge.  

A pleasant reward for stubborn persistence.

Turnstone

With that I gave in to the elements and retreated as fast as I could to my car and headed for the sanctuary of home.

The rain was predicted to ease by noon and I learned whilst drying out at home that many more Dunlin, over thirty, had arrived on the reservoir, presumably forced to call a halt to their northward migration by the rain and wind. Much more of interest was the fact there were three Sanderling reported to be with them. Sanderling are my favourite wader and one I seek out every year at this time, when they briefly touch down at the reservoir on the way to distant northern breeding grounds.

Fortunately I  managed to dry out my clothing and boots during my time back at home, so donning them once more I made for the reservoir and the causeway. Now it was an increase in the windforce that made my life uncomfortable as I traversed the causeway.

There had also been quite a change in the numbers of Swallows since I left and as far as the eye could see the reservoir's churning waters were covered by the flickering, flying shapes of swallows, almost two thousand of them.This morning there were around five hundred but many more had arrived since, no doubt desperate to feed on the insects which seem to be here in profusion despite the foulest of weather. The swallows flew almost at wavetop level, sometimes stalling into the wind, held in a delicate balance as they bent to pick an insect from the surface of the water. Back and fore they swept with around a hundred Swifts and two hundred Sand Martins as company.

But where were the Sanderling? Had they gone? The flock of Dunlin certainly had. Naturally I had assumed any waders would  be feeding on the sheltered side of the causeway but not a bit of it. I found the Sanderling feeding on the exposed, wave lashed side of the causeway. Maybe the froth and waves made these essentially coastal birds feel more at home. Of the three reported, one was remarkabe in that it was festooned with colour rings of various colours.



Sanderling

I am not sure what I think about all that bling on just one tiny bird. On its left leg were a metal ring and two colour rings,  one green and one white. On its right leg two blue, flag shaped rings. Is this really necessary. It does seem excessive.

The rings did serve the function of identifying this individual as having been caught and ringed in Greenland in July of last year, so presumably if it has survived this long the bling has not inconvenienced it too much. I have to confess that I have great reservations about attaching so many rings to one bird but if they serve a legitimate purpose for research then so be it.

I have always wondered about the Sanderlings that spend a day or two at Farmoor in May of each year. My main questions being, where have they come from and where are they going? This ringed bird has answered the latter part of the question. Greenland. Absolutely phenomenal.What an amazing journey it is embarking on and presumably its companions are also on the same odyssey.


Sanderling

I also speculated on where it had come from.Was it the coast of Africa or nearer in Europe? This bird was heading northwest but was currently in the heart of England and so presumabay had come from the east which would make an African origin less likely but not impossible. Had it spent its winter on the east coast of Britain as some do or had it come from a European coastline further south? Unless it is seen in winter we will never know. So many questions still to be answered.

The Sanderling kept very much together and were a bit flighty due to constant alarms from windsurfers coming close to the causeway but they eventually allowed me to sit on the wall and admire them without taking fright and running off like clockwork toys at an incredible speed for such a small being.



Sanderling

The ringed Sanderling was noticeable as being by far the boldest and showed less fear of a human presence than the others. Then suddenly there were four. Presumably another bird had been passing over the reservoir and decided to join the other three. Sanderling's plumage varies tremendously at this time of year and many birds still look pale, almost white as they slowly replace their white and grey winter plumage with variable amounts of rich chestnut feathering.

I left them standing on the concrete shelving, dodging the breaking waves and flying froth, facing into the buffeting wind.They seemed perfectly at home.

Sanderlings

I went back the next day with the wind no less but the rain thankfully was banished.Would the Sanderling still be here? The answer was yes and they had now been joined by seven Dunlin. The 
birds huddled together, resolutely facing wind and wave, uncertain about my presence. 



The Dunlin soon left but the Sanderling chose to remain and were joined by yet another Dunlin. Another unsuspected lone traveller, transiting Oxfordshire skies and deciding to tarry for a while.

Dunlin

The last I saw of them was as they ran back and fore on the concrete, dodging the wave splash and feeding as fast as they could.Greenland is a long way, across a hostile environment of unforgiving seas. Maybe they will make other stops on the west coast of Britain, maybe even Iceland or The Faeroes before reaching Greenland.

Dunlin and Sanderling

The presence of these tiny waders brings with it the sense of glamour and wonder that sometimes accompanies international travel. The irony that these birds can go anywhere in the world without fear or restriction whilst we are constrained by humanity's self inflicted folly and unable to go freely in the world was not lost on me.



Saturday, 8 May 2021

Sand Lizards Out on the Tiles


I have never seen a Sand Lizard and never really considered making a special effort to see one unless an opportunity presented itself which I could hardly ignore. Some while ago a colleague, Peter, spent a day watching and taking photographs of them on a small reserve in Dorset. He showed me the pictures that he had taken and I determined there and then to go and see them for myself when a suitably sunny day came along.

Such a day was Friday the 7th of May and Peter decided to come with me too. I collected him from his home in Garsington and two hours later we came to a stop in the reserve's car park and set off on a short walk to where Peter had seen the Sand Lizards.

This was an area of mature scrub on the edge of the reserve and where four small mounds of old roof tiles had been deposited in the scrub for the lizards to hide in and come out on sunny days to bask and warm up before going off to hunt spiders, insects and grasshoppers and whatever else lizards do throughout their day.

A mound of tiles

Both of us stood by a separate mound of roof tiles and awaited developments. We were a little early, arriving at nine, when on Peter's previous visit he had not seen any lizards until gone nine thirty. He also told me the window of opportunity to see them in the morning was short, only about an hour, as once the lizards had warmed themselves sufficiently to become active they became much more lively and harder to both see and  photograph.

Although the sun was shining when we arrived it was still chilly due to a cold wind and I felt it would be a little while until we saw any action and that is what transpired. Over thirty minutes later as we stood patiently Peter indicated he could see a male Sand Lizard on his mound of tiles and I quickly walked the few metres to where he stood and he pointed out the lizard moving in and out of the grass and then into the dark recesses in the tiles.One second you saw it the next it was gone, only to re-appear a moment later.

So here was my first sight of a Sand Lizard and I was not disappointed. About 20cms long, the males develop bright green flanks preparatory to breeding, after they emerge from hibernation in March. The rest of their body and tail is mottled by lateral and dorsal strips of eye shaped markings of variable shades of brown and black whilst there is an obvious dark brown band running the length of the back.


Sand Lizards occur patchily throughout Europe. extending eastwards to northern Turkey, western Russia, Mongolia and northwest China but in Britain they are now one of the rarest of our reptiles due to the large scale loss and degradation of their favoured lowland sandy, heathland habitat and are only found in Surrey, Dorset, Hampshire and on Merseyside where they inhabit the local dune systems. Strangely a small population also persists on the Island of Coll in the Inner Hebrides. Efforts are being made to re-introduce them to areas where they formerly occured in North Wales, Devon, Cornwall and West Sussex.

After our initial sighting of the Sand Lizard we had to wait for quite a while until another showed itself but it posed perfectly on a tile in front of me, extending its entire body and tail across the tile, basking in the sun and remaining immobile for at least five minutes, then obviously warm enough, it moved off in search of its prey or a female. 

We were lucky in that the lizards we saw genrally allowed us an opportunity to view them almost completely in the open or at least not obscured by various twigs, stems, or blades  of grass but apparently they are not always as co-operative.


Naturally after each sighting and the lizard had departed, you always want to see more but there was only one more showing by another male as it threaded its way through the rough grass, before it became quiet again and the lizards had become much more elusive. In all I think I saw two, maybe three different Sand Lizards.

Sadly I never saw a female.They look very much like the male with similar markings but without the green colouring to their flanks. Peter has kindly allowed me to use one of his images of a female (see below). Sand Lizards are  Britain's only native egg laying lizard and the females require sandy ground in sunny spots to dig their burrows and into which they lay their eggs in April and May which will hatch between August and early October.


What a pleasant morning at an attractive little reserve in lovely countryside. .


Tuesday, 4 May 2021

A Wood Sandpiper Saves the Day 2nd May 2021


Today the plan was to go to Boddington Reservoir in Northamptonshire first thing, where a  Grasshopper Warbler was showing itself to all and sundry from literally feet away. Sometimes they are extremely elusive and shy but this individual was the precise opposite. 

Mark and myself got to the site at just before seven  on a sunny, still, but very cold morning and eagerly awaited the warbler's appearance. We waited and waited for one, then two hours, but of the desired warbler there was neither sight nor sound. A Common Whitethroat sang persistently and loudly from an adjacent hedge of blackthorn and hawthorn, only being outdone in volume by a Wren. Blackcaps, Reed Buntings, even a pair of Bullfinches came and went in the hedge while a Sedge Warbler sang its manic, crazed song from a nearby willow.

Common Whitethroat

Wren

Bored and disappointed we decided to give it thirty more minutes and then leave. Just before time was up the 'gropper', its name abbreviated to this by many birders, commenced singing but from deep in a hawthorn bush and remained invisible. This reclusive behaviour was, if the previous days were a guide, not  normal for this individual but at least we now knew it was still here. It stopped singing and we eagerly awaited its appearance on its favourite bramble bush but came there nothing.Not a sign of it. Silence reigned as far as the 'gropper' was concerned.

We were joined by another birder with a camera and he told us what a fabulous performance the warbler had put on yesterday morning. He showed us some pictures he had taken yesterday and we ruefully congratulated him.We waited another hour, hoping, and saw the 'gropper' briefly, being chased by the male Common Whitehroat.Was this maybe the cause of its silence? I confess to wishing the whitethroat ill but there was nothing we could do. The whitethroat cheerily sang its song from the top of the hawthorn hedge as if mocking us.

We would never know if the 'gropper' was cowed into silence and reclusiveness by the whitethroat but it was obvious it was not going to delight us with any satisfactory views, so  we decided to quit the scene and drive twenty five miles to Piddington, also in Northamptonshire, to see two Dotterel, resting in the middle of a vast, prairie like farm field. Dotterel would be a lifer for Mark so he was keen to go. 

A forty minute  drive across Northamptonshire brought us to Piddington and the temporary home for the Dotterels which was a large farm with vast acres of barren fields, a hostile environment for nature with hardly a hedge in sight and seemingly devoid of birdlife or any wildlife whatsoever. All this sterile subjugated land situated right next to a private airfield.

A brisk walk through the wasteland of fields, one vast acreage of tilled earth running into another, brought us to the Dotterel field. and in which the two birds were hunkered down on the soil enjoying a bit of sun. They were fairly distant but with the scope you could make out the broad white superciliums on their heads but little else. Hardly the best of views but Mark was content. The heat haze did not help, rising from the warmed earth and creating a shimmer, making the birds seem like a mirage.

We waited to see what would happen and sure enough the pair rose to their feet and now we could see the rich chestnut and black on their bellies and white breast band.The strong colouring of their plumage suggested these were females, which are, almost uniquely amongst british birds, brighter than the males.

They pottered about, picking at the bare earth and did not look remotely like they would come any closer. So it was scope views only and for me highly unsatisfactory. We gave them ten more minutes of our time and then headed for our final destination, Graven Hill which is near Bicester, in our home county of Oxfordshire.

If we were lucky we would get to see a Wood Sandpiper and a pair of Garganey, frequenting a marshy flash of shallow water, reeds and sedge that used to form part of land owned by the MOD and that has now been relinquished for housing. The fate of the marsh is unknown at the moment but anywhere that can attract a Wood Sandpiper and a pair of Garganey is surely worth preserving or at least attempting to do so.

It was an hour's drive south for us from Piddington and we stopped en route at a large services where a Lesser Whitethroat rattled out his song, surrounded by busy arterial roads and traffic noise.It was singing lustily from a few trees bordering the services car park and that had been spared from the concrete. Nature once more demonstrating, that given the chance, even in the most unpropitious of situations, it will and can re-assert itself .

We stopped here for a sandwich, sitting on a grass bank in the sun to eat them before carrying on to Bicester. Mark knew the area well and directed me up a short unprepossessing small road off a big roundabout. This led into an area of abandoned land reverting to scrub and there by the road was the marsh  that was currently home to two very desirable species of bird.



I drove the car onto the grass verge and we got out to scan the marsh. Naturally there was no sign of the Wood Sandpiper although we knew it had been reported from here earlier today. The Garganey were immediately obvious, filtering the shallow water for food and in the company of a pair of Gadwall.I found a Little Ringed Plover, footling around on the muddy margin of the water and a Lapwing was incubating four eggs, only a few metres from us, on a sandy spit in the marsh.

A car stopped by me and it was Steve, another Oxonbirder, and his wife, just back from a few days in Lincolnshire.They too had come looking for the Wood Sandpiper.

The sandpiper was still nowhere to be found but there was so much habitat for it to lose itself in we were not that downhearted. It was here somewhere and sooner or later it would show itself. An hour later we were not so sure and it was not looking good. I was tiring, ready to write the day off. 

By now I was continuously scanning the opposite shore of the marsh for the sandpiper. Up and down I scanned and finally detected some movement in the grass by the water's edge.It was a bird alright but the patterning on its partially obscured body was not that of the sandpiper. It was a snipe, browns of varying hues and buff lines on its upperparts confirmed the fact. But something was not quite right as it looked smaller and more richly coloured than a Common Snipe. Moreover, it was bobbbing up and down constantly as if on a pogo stick.

It had to be a Jack Snipe. A bit late in the year but despite it only being partially visible there was no doubt as to its identity. I asked Steve to look at it just to confirm my ID which he did and agreed it was a Jack Snipe.He told me he had seen one at Frampton RSPB in Lincolnshire just a couple of days ago. So that was that then.Very nice! I felt a whole lot better, indeed I was energised by this discovery.

As I was scoping the Jack Snipe a small wader flew through my view. It had to be the Wood Sandpiper, which appeared from nowhere but had now disappeared behind some reeds and despite waiting it did not re-emerge. So frustrating as we knew it was there but the reeds hid it and despite scoping the whole bank endlessly I could not re-find it.

The Jack Snipe too had disappeared, scared back into the cover of the sedge by a Carrion Crow that was making a constant nuisance of itself and really annoying the male Lapwing, that time and again rose from incubating its eggs to  dive bomb the crow in 'stuka' fashion and chase it well  away from the nest site but the crow always returned and the whole episode was renacted time and again. The male Lapwing was identifiable by his very long and spiky crest whilst the female had demonstratively shorter plumes on her head. The male seen close to was breathtakingly beautiful.What appears from a distance a black and white bird that swirls in flocks over fallow winter fields was now in full breeding regalia, a kaleidoscope of colours, purple, emerald and blue tones coalesced through its dark green upperbody plumage.Its head and chest a striking contrast of black and white.




The Garganey, meanwhile fed constantly, heads below the water sifting the mud for food but in the end they had enough and flew from one end of the marsh to the other to preen and then briefly sleep before once more hunger drove them back to feeding.


Both Mark and myself scanned the marsh frequently but to no avail as far as finding the sandpiper was concerned. Finally one sweep of the far shore located the Wood Sandpiper under the bank, bathing and preening. Where it had been we knew not but here it was now and that was all that mattered. We watched it for a few minutes and then the consistently annoying crow, flew too close  and scared it into flight and we lost sight of it.We knew it flew to the right but where? Frantic scanning failed to relocate it. Bloody crow! First it was a whitethroat this morning thwarting us and now a crow this afternoon.  Over half an hour later we had only added two Common Snipe to our tally and with no sign of the sandpiper Mark was keen to head for home. Reluctantly I conceded that it was for the best.We walked back towards the car and then Mark said 'There it is!' 'Where?' 'Right there in front of us.'  And indeed it was - very close to the edge of the marsh that lay below where we stood. While we had been scanning the far side of the marsh it may well have been close to the near edge all the time. The sandpiper saw us and decided we were too near for comfort and flew, displaying a mottled pale brown body and wings closely barred tail and distinctive white rump. My heart sank. Not for the first time today I may add. Was it going to disappear again? The answer was, thankfully no, as it flew only a short distance and settled, still close to us. Bobbing and jerking its head in a classic demonstration of wader anxiety. Led to believe it was flighty and wary we stood absolutely still, hoping. For once it worked and the sandpiper became calm, standing motionless, facing away from us, a silhouettte, its tiny form bowered amongst the emergent vegetation and easily overlooked. 



A few seconds later it commenced wandering through the sedge and reeds picking morsels from the green spikes and leaves of aquatic plants, the identities of which were well beyond my capabilities. It gently bobbed its hind parts as it moved, a distinctive sandpiper behaviour. A comforting calming motion for both bird and, certainly in my case, observer. 

As it strolled through the water we came to the realisation it was not shy at all and was showing hardly any concern at our presence and even commenced to wander towards us at one point. It was very thorough, assiduously examining every spike and leaf for prey, darting out its long delicate bill to seize anything it found.









This was our golden opportunity to get some good pictures of it. My impression was of a supremely elegant mid size wader, devoid of the more portly stature of the similar looking Green Sandpiper and  with longer legs and neck, it had a grace all of its own. Its slim form could get lost in the sedge and reeds and it was obvious to see how easy it could be to overlook it. 


Its plumage is frankly unremarkable in that there are no obvious bright colours or  markings that catch the eye.It appears pleasantly streaked and spotted, some say mottled, on a base colour of brown on its upperparts and white below. A subtle understated garb that is still attractive in its own fashion.Long straw coloured legs carried it through the shallow water as it hunted its prey. It was, as I mentioned, apparently untroubled by our presence and continued to feed in typical wader fashion by stopping every so often, to look and listen, as if startled by something and then, after due consideration, recommenced its patrolling through the vegetation. Any alarm from other birds on the marsh brought it to an immediate stop with neck extended, tense and alert to any potential danger. The crow was often the cause for anxiety, especially when being pursued by the endlessly attentive Lapwing. 


By good fortune the sandpiper had chosen to feed close to the Lapwing's nest so the crow was kept well away for the most part.














Wood Sandpipers are long distance migrants, breeding from Denmark, Fennoscandia then east throughout northern Russia to Kamchatka and even a few pairs are breeding in the Highlands of Scotland. They spend their winters throughout Africa south of the Sahara and I have seen them in numbers in South Africa, Zimbabwe and Tanzania.They are classed as a scarce passage migrant to Oxfordshire but this Spring in particular, there have been an exceptional number of records from the county. They are often compared to the Green Sandpiper, being superficially similar in appearance and size but their closest relative is the Common Redshank.

Arguably these were the best views I have ever had of a Wood Sandpiper so I was reluctant to leave but I turned away from the sandpiper, that was still feeding very close to us, as Mark was anxious to get home, his back was troubling him and it had been a long day after all. I could have remained longer but it was the right decision to leave when we did.

The Grasshopper Warbler disappointment was all but forgotten after this stellar performance by the Wood Sandpiper.