Sunday 16 November 2014

No alternative 15th November 2014

Saturday dawned grey with a cloying mist over my Cotswold home, the kind of day you feel like forgetting to bother about birding and stay in bed with a good novel and a cup of tea. The national bird news on the pager was uninteresting and I was faced with the fact that if I did go birding I may as well remain in Oxfordshire which then presented me with the dilemna of choosing between the RSPB's reserve at Otmoor or Farmoor Reservoir. Neither, frankly, held much attraction but I was determined to get out of the house and a required visit to the landfill at Dix Pit persuaded me to go on afterwards to nearby Farmoor, as it at least held the attraction of a wintering Red necked Grebe which if I got there early enough might, just might, be close enough to the bank to allow me to get some photographs before the fishermen arrived.

So it was that just after nine in the morning I parked the car at Lower Whitley Farm and made my way up to the western side of Farmoor Two, the larger of the two reservoirs. The visibility was now dire and the misty conditions were even worse than when I left home. A desultory almost melancholic feeling settled over me doubtless brought on by the gloomy weather that was now permeating the reservoir and its surrounds

The waters of the reservoir were flat calm as there was not a sigh of wind and assorted Tufted Ducks and Coots, separated in discrete feeding flocks, formed dark rotund dots on the mirror surface of the water. Great Crested Grebes sat further out, all asleep in that unique grebe shape where they contort their bill to the side of their retracted neck. It always looks so uncomfortable but obviously is not as far as a grebe is concerned. 

A slightly smaller and more active grebe was amongst them, preening enthusiastically and waving a huge lobed foot in the air as it rolled on its back, twisting and turning on its own axis whilst preening pure white belly feathers, This revealed itself to be the Red necked Grebe but it was a long way out from the reservoir's edge. Too far for my camera to be effective. Now in its winter plumage of grey and white there was no trace of the breeding finery of Spring and the only strong colour was the extensive bright sulphur yellow at the base of its bill. I decided to wait and see if the grebe would come closer once it had finished preening and sat on some metal steps leading down to the edge of the water with the wall at my back, hoping this would conceal my human silhouette.  After about thirty frustrating minutes the grebe commenced feeding and soon it came relatively close to the reservoir wave wall. This was my chance as I crouched low and uncomfortably by the wall and got some pictures. If only the light was better but if anything it was getting even gloomier and the grey cloud seemed to descend and merge like a shroud with the very surface of the water. The grebe untroubled by my presence continued feeding, catching several several small fish which it brought to the surface to swallow.

Red necked Grebe
The reservoir was deserted, not a soul seemed to be up and about and who could blame them on such a day but just as the grebe was coming ever closer another birder arrived and the grebe taking alarm swam steadily out to the middle of the reservoir. Why does it always happen this way? It was not the birder's fault. It was no one's fault but my chance had now gone. To add insult to injury the birder showed no interest in the grebe whatsoever and departed without saying a word. Frustrating in the least.

Never mind, the grebe was obviously making the reservoir its winter home and there would be other days to catch up with it. Philosophical in defeat I wandered along the reservoir's perimeter path heading towards the sailing club and shortly came across two Common Goldeneyes, my first of the autumn, feeding together reasonably close to the wall but they were very wary and no amount of surrepticious stalking could get me close to them before they saw me and swam rapidly away, further out into the reservoir. 

Common Goldeneye
At least with no one around I did not have to endure any feeling of self consciousness or embarrassment  due to my strange behaviour in trying to get close to the goldeneyes. A Common Chiffchaff sounded its plaintive note from the copse behind me as a party of Long tailed Tits straggled through the bushes.

I gave up the unequal struggle with the goldeneyes and strolled onwards past the sailing club noting four Little Grebes floating, rotund as brown powder puffs, in the lee of the pontoons. Further round the perimeter of the reservoir and by now venturing up the central Causeway I came across more Little Grebes either singly or as two together, until I had counted eleven. This is quite a good number for Farmoor. The Little Grebes for some reason are always on Farmoor Two which is strange as  in the breeding season they like exactly the opposite to the wide open expanses of Farmoor Two, preferring small, secluded and sheltered areas of water.

Little Grebe
They like to feed close to the shore presumably because they require shallower water to hunt their prey. Some are very wary and crash dive with an audible splash as you approach them, making their escape underwater and surfacing much further out on the reservoir but others are less troubled by a human presence, and unconcerned just carry on fishing.

I walked back to the car via the towpath by the Thames. Blackbirds were mobbing, with loud insistent chinking calls, something invisible in a dense tangle of willows in Shrike Meadow, probably it was the Little Owl which frequents here. The chacker chack cries of Fieldfares rang out and their bulky shapes, rendered monochrome by the mist could be seen high in the skeletal branches of the tallest trees by the river before, as one and with much calling to each other they all took off, a straggling flock widely spaced across the sky as they roved onwards. The quieter sibilant calls of Redwings came from hedgerow Hawthorns, leafless now but still heavy laden with this autumn's bumper crop of berries.The Redwings and Fieldfares will not go hungry for quite some time this winter. 

All was still about me. Birdsong is now absent apart from the wistful, trickling cadences of autumnal Robins proclaiming their winter territories. I became contemplative, musing on matters personal as I walked through the damp fields by the river. Many trees have finally lost their leaves with the recent windy weather but some bushes and the odd tree still glow orange, beacons in the dull light, a splash of bright colour in the grey world of this Saturday morning. Soon they too will be like all the other trees and bushes, nothing more than a shaped framework of twigs and branches standing sentinel and patient until they burst forth with fresh leaves into the frenzy and vibrancy of  next year's Spring. 

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