Sunday 6 April 2014

Two Stars 5th April 2014

The weekend. Saturday. Dull and grey. Back to normal for the weather but at least the polluting haze and Saharan dust has gone. The plan was to meet Badger at Otmoor around about eight. En-route a text from Badger advised we were now re-routing to Farmoor.

I arrived at the entrance to find the gates to Farmoor firmly closed and a huddle of yachts and cars awaiting Thames Water to open the gates. Badger and Andy arrived shortly after myself and some minutes later the gates were opened and we entered the concrete wastes of Farmoor.

Farmoor provided a convincing aura of dourness thus ensuring any Spring friskiness was soon quelled. As so often at this time of year it was grey, a little  damp and soulless with a chilling wind blowing across the haze shrouded reservoirs as we walked up the central causeway. The sun struggled to show itself and apart from a few Pied Wagtails our optics remained unused.

At the far end Badger found a distant Little Gull dip dip adipping to pick invertebrates from the waters of Farmoor Two. Black headed Gulls squalled and squabbled on their inadequate nesting raft on Farmoor One and a female Kestrel stood sentry at the entrance to the owl nesting box that it has commandeered this year, high on the pumping house building. That was it. We turned and walked back down the Causeway meeting The Wickster about to embark on his monthly Farmoor bird walk  with three regulars in tow. We told him about the acute lack of birds but as a Farmoor regular he was unfazed by this. Something always turns up. How right he was much to our later embarrassment.

Otmoor appeared the only alternative. The others would be there and we could indulge in some banter and socialising and reflect on our traitorus diversion which got its just desserts. Arriving at Otmoor we instantly heard a sound of Spring. A Willow Warbler trickled down its wistful cadence of melancholy notes from a hawthorn in the Car Park field but frustratingly remained invisible whilst a ChiffChaff was the precise opposite. At the very top of a tree, totally exposed it belted out its shameless apology of a song for all to see and hear. A Blackcap sang lustily from the hedgerow and a pair of Bullfinches slipped through the foliage quietly calling to each other.

We joined Chris two thirds down the bridleway. He had just seen the resident female Bearded Tit and was waiting for it to show up again from the dead reeds in the ditch. This was more like it. We stood but for a while nothing was seen or heard. An early Reed Warbler scratched out a couple of stanzas from the reeds and then thought better of it. Winnowing noises from high above our heads signalled the roller coaster exertions of a Common Snipe crazily hurtling around the sky in nuptial display. Why is it called drumming? The sound is nothing like it.

Displaying  Common Snipe c Andy Last
Then pinging calls emanated from much further along the ditch. The Bearded Tit! We headed for the spot and a small shape flew across the bridleway and into the reedy ditch the other side. More waiting ensued. Then more pinging but the source resolutely remained invisible. More waiting and finally we saw it clearly as, calling loudly it ascended through the twigs of a hawthorn to show itself at the very top before flying high, up and away towards the Hide. We followed and found it in a much more viewable ditch with considerably less cover, adjacent to the Hide. Here it repeated its performance of working its way up through another hawthorn bush and gave us exceptional and eye watering views as it dithered about, unsure of what to do, at the topmost twigs of the bush.
Female Bearded Tit c Andy Last
Finally it flew back down into the reeds. I followed with Jon but the others went into the Hide only for Badger to re-appear pretty pronto with the alarming news that The Wickster had called to announce he had found a summer plumaged Red necked Grebe on Farmoor Two.

A Red necked Grebe in Oxfordshire is a must see in any Oxonbirders book, especially in summer plumage, as then they are quite beautiful and it is rarely such an opportunity presents itself. We headed for Otmoor car park, Badger heroically texting all and sundry with the glad tidings  and finding out exactly where the grebe was on Farmoor Two to save a lot of wasted time and effort, as this reservoir has a two mile circumference.

As usual the bird was as far as possible from Farmoor's car park so we settled on driving to Lower Whitely Farm which conveniently lies under the far southwest corner of the reservoir, this would be the nearest place we could park to the grebe and  would save us a considerable amount of walking. I followed Jon or at least did my best in a high speed dash to Farmoor

Up the bank of the reservoir at Lower Whitely and onto the concrete perimeter track but not a birder in sight! I looked east and there was an optical huddle of birders in the southeast corner of the reservoir. 

Birding Paparazzi
The grebe had obviously moved from its original position. We set off in the direction, dodging flying trout flies as the fishermen cast their lines from the bank and joined The Wickster and others admiring the grebe. 

I got my scope on the grebe and there before me was a most beautiful apparition. A black crown and bill, the latter with a striking sulphur yellow base. Dove grey cheeks running into a long chestnut neck. Sinuous feathered grace. It was easily the best view I have ever had of one of these grebes in summer plumage. For me it was bitter sweet as due to my shoulder problems I had left the camera at home to save any extra strain on my body and who needs a camera anyway - nothing ever turns up at Farmoor does it?

Red necked Grebe c Andy Last
I metaphorically kicked myself  for abandoning the camera but then settled back to enjoy this lovely bird or as best as I could. Gallingly it came closer and closer to the reservoir edge. Everyone else was now in paparazzi mode clicking away nineteen to the dozen. This close you could not fail to get a decent picture. 

Red Necked Grebe c Andy Last
Groan, grimace but I had only myself to blame. The grebe was obviously unsure of its transitory surroundings and swam around constantly alert and occasionally picking hapless flies from the water. It dived on a couple of occasions, effortlessly sliding below the surface and remaining underwater for a surprisingly long time but mainly remained on the surface where it could keep an eye on matters. When feeling particularly oppressed or nervous it would fly a considerable distance from one end of the reservoir to the other showing its prominent white wing bars and small white shoulder patches. I chided myself yet again, reflecting on missing out on recording with my camera this grandstand performance and after an hour of close encounters of the Red necked Grebe kind resolved to go home and get the damn camera. It was just too much to bear.

On my return the grebe was of course nowhere to be seen and was now from all accounts leading everyone a merry dance as it moved around the reservoir constantly disturbed by the usual  weekend shipping of yachts, fishermen in boats and windsurfers.

I got a huge amount of unwanted exercise walking around the vastness of Farmoor Two chasing after it but did find a charming Mallard family of mother and twelve ducklings during my travels, a Curlew flew over and finally I got my photos once the grebe stayed put, although by now the lowering clouds made for very bad light but one does one's best.

I reflected on the frustrations of modern birding and calmed myself by taking a moment to philosophise on the fact that I had just had the privilege of an encounter with yet another wonderful living creature that shares this incredible planet with us. That for me is the most important thing to take from this brief and thrilling episode.

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