Friday 12 September 2014

Farmoor reverie at the Ruff end 12th September 2014

For one who professes to an aversion to reservoirs and Oxford's finest in particular I seem to find myself spending more time than is healthy at Farmoor these days. This is solely due to the fact that Farmoor is currently going through a 'purple patch' at the moment for migrating waders, with two Curlew Sandpipers, a Black tailed Godwit, Ringed Plovers, a host of Dunlin and Common Sandpipers and at least one Little Stint providing amazingly close views during the last three or four weeks.

Despite a report of another Little Stint at Farmoor this morning it was nowhere to be found when I ventured up the Causeway in the early afternoon sunshine. What a week of fine weather we have had and it continues until the middle of next week, or so the weather forecast would have us believe. Let's hope it is correct.

This afternoon was one of those languid and balmy late summer or early autumn days when everything has ceased its frenzy of  reproduction and growth and now metaphorically sits back and takes it easy. The ducks and geese laze on the banks, indolent and drowsy. The feral Greylags usually querulous and aggressively cackling can hardly bear to move out of my way as I progress around the tarmac perimeter track and just wander slowly aside from my advance, quietly muttering to themselves in gentle protest.

Today, windless and warm, the reservoir was virtually deserted with just a few distant fishermen dotted on the banks hoping to catch a trout. The only waders on the Causeway were the long staying juvenile Black tailed Godwit still imitating a remorseless sewing machine as it delved with its long bill up and down, up and down in the shallows on its endless quest for sustenance. Further along a distant small blob by the water's edge turned out, as I got closer, to be a juvenile Dunlin. Like all its predecessors here it was confiding to the point of silliness and just watched me quietly as I walked past it not more than a couple of metres distant.

Idly I turned left at the top of the Causeway and headed round the western top of Farmoor Two hoping I might find the Little Stint but it was nowhere to be seen, just Pied Wagtails frantically living up to their name as they cheerily chased insects along the water's edge. Two tiny, brown balls of feathers submerged on my approach leaving a circle of ripples moving outwards on the still water. I waited and soon up they bobbed again. Two Little Grebes still in summer plumage but now come here to spend the autumn and winter. Further along were two more mimicking the original two. Ever wary they swim out and away from the concrete bank and the shallow water they favour, feathers compressed and become slimline, almost reptilian, nervously craning their little necks in anxiety and then, once they feel secure fluff out their feathers and become rounded and familiar again, waiting for me to move on.

I walked on, planning to go down off the reservoir at Lower Whitley Farm and then walk back along the track that passes the two tiny reserves at the back of the reservoir by the Thames : Shrike Meadow and Pinkhill. Before I got too much further however I saw a medium sized brown wader feeding in a plethora of discarded feathers and foam in the corner of the reservoir. 

It was a Ruff or to be precise a Reeve which is the old name for a female Ruff. Smaller than the male, a study in browns of various hues and turtle backed it was feeding avidly amongst the flotsam of feathers and weed. I slid my legs over the wave wall and sat waiting for it to come nearer as it fed along the shoreline. Yet another confiding, trusting wader, it showed no fear of me and maybe I was one of the first humans it had encountered. It would be nice to think so. It carried on feeding and ignoring my close presence then stopped to scan the sky for something it could see but was beyond my capabilities. It stood for a little while neck stretched and head cocked in query then satisfied that it was not in peril, checked I had not moved and settled for a gentle preen. 

All was quiet as the two of us shared this corner of the reservoir for a few moments, me sat on the wall, the Ruff stood on one leg for a spell of feather maintenance before commencing its onward march along the shoreline. I left it then and headed for the steps down to the path by Lower Whitley Farm

A distinctive high pitched note rang out from the many wagtails running along the waterline as I made my way to the steps. I could see many Pied Wagtails but then the source of the call became apparent as a Yellow Wagtail ran from amongst the Pied Wagtails, then another, and then another three and finally there were three more on the grass. No less than a total of eight and keeping very much together as a flock. One bird had obviously just had a bathe and was sodden, feathers stuck to its body, frantically preening at intervals as it ran before me along the shoreline before taking off with its compatriots, all calling mellifluously and flying off to the fields of Lower Whitley Farm. 

This flock and the female Ruff were a nice unexpected encounter and I felt all the better for it.

I headed down the steps and set off along the lower track running by the dense hedgerow below the  bank of the resrvoir. 

Nothing much was to be seen apart from dragonflies in some numbers and the occasional butterfly making the most of this warm weather extension before the turning of the Earth and the change of season ends their brief existence. I walked on. The hedgerows are burgeoning with fruit and berries. The hawthorns this year are festooned and branch bent with blood crimson berries. On some, great whorls of scrambling, dull and dark green-leaved brambles cover them over like shrouds, the ripe blackberries deeply coloured and lustrous shine in the sunlight beckoning me to sample their bounty.

A small brown bird flies from a hawthorn but is gone in an instant over the hedgeline. Curious I walk round to the other side and a female Common Redstart flies along the hedge, brown all over but with a splash orange tail burning in the sun. Unmistakeable. Common seems so inappropriate for such an entrancing bird. I do not see it again as it flies into a coppice and hides in the leafy depths.

I stand quietly, listening to the constant anxious hweet of Chiffchaffs and tick tick ticking of Robins coming from the hedgerows surrounding me and the trees beyond. Such are the sounds of autumn. They seem to be everywhere. A movement in the brambles betrays a male Common Whitethroat feasting on the blackberries, his pink breast dribble stained darker purple with the juice of the berries. Another quietly tack tacks away, deep in cover and remains forever mysterious and invisible. 

Around a green corner, by an alleyway of brittle, leaf rattling reeds and tall nettles, the river runs slow and torpid, opaque and silent, a remorseless liquid giant. 

My reverie is abruptly stifled by flurries of activity in an elder shrub. Three Blackcaps are stripping the berries from the bush, each berry swallowed whole with one rapid gulp down their throat before they tackle the next. Like the whitethroat they are stoking up their energy reserves for the next or maybe initial stage of their migration southwards. They see me and grabbing one last berry, flee.

Shrike Meadow is almost subsumed by the riparian growth of reeds, grasses and other plantlife all but obscuring the scrapes. On about the only exposed piece of mud a Little Egret, dazzling white, preens and enhances its beauty whilst the grating pig squealing calls of two Water Rails emanate from deep in the reeds. A dark slender raptor passes overhead, no bigger than a Kestrel but this is another migrant, a Hobby. It is gone in an instant, lithe and angular, a supreme flier in its element and nemesis for any high flying dragonfly.

I pass through a gate which leads back onto the reservoir and then make a slow walk down the Causeway. The Dunlin is now asleep next to a pile of discarded gull feathers. The Canada Geese still loafing on the shelving concrete slope of the reservoir  have been joined by a very tired feral pigeon. Predominantly white it rests with them, bill snuggled into  pouting snow white breast feathers and sleeps, too tired to care. Incongruously a juvenile Moorhen copies the geese and also rests amongst them with wings resting akimbo on the concrete apron and far from the vegetative cover that is its usual secretive domain. Normally shy and reclusive it too cannot be bothered to respond to its innate fear and just watches me safely past

All is still, all is quiet. Waiting for the change. It will come soon enough but until then we dream on


The next day was more blustery due to a strengthening easterly wind and there were now two Ruff together on the reservoir, feeding on the same shoreline. A juvenile male had joined the juvenile female. Markedly larger and with dull yellow legs and feet rather than the female's grey it was also less confiding but seemed to gain a semblance of confidence about my presence due to the female's continuing equanimity.

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