Saturday 6 September 2014

A Stint at Farmoor 6th September 2014

Saturday morning dawned still and misty, almost autumnal. I lay in bed going through the old 'shall I shan't I' routine of whether to rouse myself and go birding. This last week has not been the greatest in my life with some bad news about a member of my family causing me much heartache but life goes on and after an initial emotional wobble I am managing to find my equilibrium again and my head has stopped spinning.

I left the house at around eight this morning which is late for me and drove with not much purpose towards Otmoor but on arriving in the car park I just sat there and realised I really did not have any enthusiasm for Otmoor. I only recognised one vehicle in the car park anyway and today I really wanted the company of familiar faces to take my mind off my troubles, so without turning the Audi's engine off I reversed and drove off to Farmoor where I knew there would be some friendly faces and some waders to cheer me and provide some interest. A report of a Little Stint from here last night was particularly enticing.

Farmoor Reservoir at 9.30am was glassy still with a grey misty haze pervading the air. The yachtsmen launching their craft were complaining at the lack of wind as I ventured up the all too familiar Causeway between the two reservoir basins. I noticed that Farmoor One, the smaller reservoir, was now filling up again with water but conversely the larger Farmoor Two had a markedly lower water level with an enticing muddy periphery at the water's edge which surely would prove irresistible to passing waders and so it proved. The lowered water levels (Thames Water are sampling for some perceived pollution) have attracted a good number of wader species over the last month or so and today there were three juvenile Dunlin and two juvenile Ringed Plovers gracing the shoreline along the causeway.

Not exactly world shattering news but this is a pretty good wader turnout for Farmoor and I noticed the waders had transferred their allegiance from Farmoor One to presumably the now more attractive, from a wader point of view, Farmoor Two but there was no sign of the Little Stint.

I met Dai halfway up the causeway who told me the Little Stint was over on the southwest bank at the end of Farmoor Two. We were joined by Winston Churchill. No, not that one but another birder with the same name as his famous but long deceased namesake.

Through my bins I could see Andy standing morosely looking over where the stint was meant to be and called him on my phone but he gave me the unwelcome news that the Little Stint had been flushed by an over eager photographer and no one knew where it had gone. This was a bit depressing but joining up with Andy and Badger I discussed the situation and in the end  volunteered to walk around Farmoor Two, unsuccessfully as it transpired, looking for the missing stint while Andy and Badger took the less energetic option of patrolling the Causeway.

It takes around thirty minutes to walk the circumference of Farmoor Two and as usual there was little to enliven matters, just a group of five Common Sandpipers calling in shrill and quavering alarm at my approach and flickering on stiff wings, low out over the glass smooth waters to settle back on the reservoir edge far behind me.  Of all the waders that arrive at Farmoor they are by far the wariest, rarely allowing anything resembling a close approach and flying at the slightest hint of perceived danger. 

Further along I came across the juvenile Black tailed Godwit which has been here for days now and was still gobbling molluscs and blood worms as fast as it could, leggily wading through the shallows at the exposed concrete apron's edge.

I rejoined Andy and Badger on the causeway. In my absence they had been joined by Dave who having arrived at the reservoir around seven am had been lucky enough to see the Little Stint. We decided to walk round Farmoor One in case the stint had flown there but had no luck.  Dave spotted a Yellow Wagtail on the Valve Tower roof and irrepressible Pied Wagtails, in all states of moulting plumage cheerily flew along the concrete edge at our approach or disappeared, calling loudly, into the works buildings. Coot numbers are now building up and as ever they bicker and fight amongst themselves and with the other waterfowl, venting their frustration and aggression with explosive nasal calls. Three Little Grebes were a sure sign that autumn will soon be upon us. A Grey Wagtail in bounding flight flew up from the settling beds and away over our heads.

Further round a flash of black and white alerted us to the presence of a Northern Wheatear bouncing along the retaining wall and which then played a game of grandmother's footsteps  with Badger who was trying to take some video of it. No sooner did he get close enough than the wheatear would fly off to land out of range further along the wall. This went on half way round the reservoir and in the end the wheatear vanished. Canada Geese were festooned all around the concrete sides, honking in complaint and warning at our approach and some even commenced plunge diving in some sort of goosey frenzy. Their numbers at the moment are truly incredible. I counted no less than seven hundred and one a few days ago and it looked like similar numbers were again here today.

As we wandered on Andy received a call from Terry to tell him the stint was back! It was in the same place it had been earlier and was already besieged by photographers again trying to get as close as possible. It really is not necessary to try and literally walk up to it and this kind of behaviour had already caused it to fly off once already but what can you do? It's a waste of time remonstrating with the offenders as they take no notice and it just upsets and ruins your day. Modern birding means everyone seems to have a camera now so you just have to accept that this kind of thing is going to happen with ever increasing frequency.

We walked up to where the Little Stint was feeding, a tiny blob by the water's edge but unlike the photographers who had descended onto the concrete apron to get as close as possible we remained on the path by the wave wall and viewed it from there.

It was perfectly adequate to take our pictures from there and also had the benefit that we could follow the bird as it moved along the water's edge whereas the 'trespassing' photographers had to remain where they were, constrained from moving and possibly scaring the bird by our not always benign presence above them.

Little Stints are avian gems. Tiny and incredibly cute waders, being no more than 13cm in size which is slightly smaller than a House Sparrow. They are prodigious travellers, breeding in the high Arctic and Siberia and mainly wintering in Africa south of the Sahara although occasionally a few try to survive the winter here in the UK and  northern Europe. Like many of the juvenile waders that pass through Farmoor this individual was very confiding provided it was approached with care and there were no sudden movements from its admirers or passers by. It fed like all the waders here on mainly blood worms and other invertebrates which it extracted from the muddy ooze by the water's edge, pattering on clockwork black legs and feet over the feather scattered mud. 

It fed methodically, thoroughly examining every bit of mud as it probed with its stubby bill and frequently stretched its wings as it progressed. I noticed that its right eye seemed to be slightly closed as if it had suffered some minor mishap but it did not appear to impair the stint in anyway.

By now I was, along with Andy, almost prostrate along the path in an attempt to conceal my human outline from the stint, resting my camera on the low wave wall and getting point blank images of the stint to my heart's content as it fed unconcernedly just a few metres away from us. This carried on for some time but then the stint stopped feeding and walked purposefully up the concrete towards us, coming ever closer before stopping and commencing to preen, then fluffing up its breast feathers it stood on one leg and even at one stage almost went to sleep. The very essence of stint contentment. What length of journey had brought it to here? How long had it been flying searching for a suitable place to re-energise and rest?

It stood there for some ten minutes just having a break before once more it literally shook its feathers, stretched its wings and descended to the water's edge to continue its now familiar routine of feeding. 

Once it took alarm and flew, calling a sharp pik pik but after a couple of circuits out over the water it landed back again a few metres further along the edge of the reservoir.

The sun came out and shone on its chestnut fringed upperpart feathers with the distinctive white braces of its juvenile plumage, running down each side of the mantle, clearly visible. 

It has been a long time since I have been this close to a Little Stint and for now all my troubles were forgotten and the world seemed a much better place as I departed its company.

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