Tuesday 10 May 2016

Wet and Waders 10th May 2016

It rained last night and I awoke to a dull, wet and dispiriting morning but I could not help but think that the rain might have brought some migrant waders down to shelter and seek temporary respite on the concrete shores surrounding the watery expanses of Farmoor.

A phone call from Dai confirmed how right I was, as he told me about two Little Terns currently gracing the reservoir.  All thoughts of work were abandoned as I loaded the car in ten minutes flat with the three essentials, scope, bins and camera and headed off on the forty minute drive to Farmoor. A steady drizzle of  rain hit the windscreen as I drove along which gave me the mild re-assurance that the Little Terns would not fly off or would they?

Anxiously I negotiated the traffic which at such times seems to move extra slowly but I was soon turning into the gates at Farmoor Reservoir and parking in an expanse of concrete virtually devoid of cars. I could see Dai's car over in a corner but no other familiar car

In no time I was up the grass bank and walking at a fast pace along the concrete perimeter track towards the Causeway where I could see a couple of birders sheltering by the wooden shed used to monitor the yachts on the reservoir at weekends. Today there were no yachts, windsurfers or any other waterborne craft and neither were there any fishermen. It was just us.

I reached the two birders who turned out to be the friendly faces of Barry and Clackers and they imparted the unwelcome news that there was no sign of the Little Terns. Clackers is doing an annual County List this year and was extra keen to see the Little Tern as his main rival, The Wickster was ahead of him, having seen a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker on the weekend that Clackers missed. This would give Clackers the chance to get one back on The Wickster. 

We stood in the rain on the wet concrete under lowering grey clouds and felt thoroughly downcast. I adopted a cheery optimism and suggested it was unlikely the Little Terns had gone in this rain. Clackers was less willing to be of good cheer and became almost morose, recounting a run of bad luck which commenced with the elusive Golden Oriole at Wittenham Woods last Sunday. It was maybe fifteen minutes later, as we walked towards the hide half way along the Causeway, when Barry said 'What's this coming along? Close in over the yellow buoy. That's it isn't it?' Instead of the usual Common Tern here was a tiny, dapper bird with an enormous yellow bill and black bandit mask cruising along at no great height checking the edge of the larger reservoir. The Little Tern! It was gone in seconds into the gloom and rain but it had lit up our day and how. We had seen it. We waited around but it was never seen again and presumably left shortly after we saw it, when there was a lull in the rain.

Never mind, the main target had been achieved and the mood veered rapidly to euphoria and relief from its previous despair and frustration. Clackers had another bird to add to his growing annual list for the County and the satisfaction of knowing The Wickster was at work and had little chance of getting back this one. 

Further out, also on the bigger reservoir, a group of eight Black Terns were dipping and swooping after flies and mixing in with around fifteen Common Terns and possibly one Arctic Tern. The Black Terns headed for the Causeway and passing over it flew out onto the smaller reservoir and landed on one of the temporary islands of straw bales moored across the reservoir as an aid to preventing water pollution.

Common Terns
Further along the concrete apron of the smaller reservoir, below the Causeway, was another sight that caused me great excitement. A mixed flock of waders, comprising ten Sanderling, four Dunlin, three Turnstones and three Common Sandpipers, were feeding along the water's edge. They were quite nervous and were spooked by any attempt at a close approach. Even an overflying Carrion Crow would set them off on a brief excursion, flying low, out over the water, before they circled back and landed once more on the concrete. Strung out along the concrete edge they fed frantically, taking the opportunity to refuel their body's fat reserves before tackling the next leg of their marathon journeys.

The wind was northeast today and fairly strong. When I lived in Sussex and went on seawatches at this time of year, we always knew that a northeast wind would bring the waders and so it proved today in Oxfordshire. The wind whipped up the waters, creating a white spume on the edge of the concrete which must have made the Sanderlings especially, feel quite at home

I have said it before but the brief visits by small waders at Farmoor brings a certain glamour to the reservoir as these world travellers touch down briefly before carrying on far beyond the cities and towns of humankind to traverse and finally land in the vast, unpopulated wastes of Siberia and the Arctic which will be home for the next two months.

These Spring flocks also give one the opportunity to see the birds in the glory of their breeding plumage when they effect such a  beauty and variety of colours, far removed from the more familiar mundane greys and browns that is their garb for most of the year.

The Sanderlings in particular were in a variety of plumages, the majority still or so I thought, in various stages of moult into their summer plumage and presenting a bewildering variety of grey, chestnut, and white plumage patterns but one was in complete summer plumage and was just sensational in its intricately patterned chestnut and black upperpart feathering and snow white undersides. Further reading informed me that Sanderlings can and do exhibit a wide range of breeding plumage and can vary from two extremes which at one extreme  can be grey and white with just a few chestnut coloured feathers to another where they are richly coloured almost orange chestnut all over their upperparts with countless variations between the two extremes, as this group proved.

It is exceptional to be able to see them this close in summer plumage so I  seized the opportunity with alacrity to try and record as many different plumages being exhibited by the Sanderlings as I could. 

The above images show some of the plumage variations in the Sanderling flock
The problem was that they would not allow close approach so some ingenuity on my part was required if I was to get the desired result. But how to achieve such a thing? In the end I stalked them along the Causeway aided by the fact there were precious few persons around due to the weather. 

The wader flock were below the Causeway on the concrete apron by the water's edge so I crept along on the further side of the Causeway which kept me out of their sight. When I estimated that I was reasonably close to them I crawled across the few feet of Causeway and lay against the small retaining wall and pointed my camera over it. My profile thus partially disguised failed to create any instant panic amongst the waders and some even walked towards me giving me my photo opportunity.

Mind you it only worked to a certain extent and they soon sussed out that the green lump was in fact a human and to be avoided but by then I had got what I wanted. The strongly plumaged bird, judging by its behaviour, was a male as it showed a fair amount of aggression to its fellows, running at them and mildly chivvying them. The Dunlins too seemed to be in very rich colours, the chestnut browns of the upperparts can vary considerably according to the race of Dunlin and these were certainly towards the brighter end of the scale which probably meant they were not British Dunlins but from further afield.

The rain became intermittent but then returned more persistently and we used the hide to shelter when it was falling at its strongest. Mark arrived, wet, tired and hungry having walked around the entire reservoir. A few words and then he headed for sanctuary and I followed soon after having had an unexpectedly fulfilling morning.

Sanderlings? Yes they are my new favourite!

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