Friday 28 July 2017

My Farmoor Convalesence Continues! 28th July 2017

I seriously injured my right knee in April and it is only now that I am able to walk freely and without pain. Part of the recommended treatment is to exercise my knee regularly hence my sudden conversion to walking the concrete wastes of Farmoor Reservoir. It is flat, and its circumference is just about manageable and enough to leave me feeling righteous after having given my knee a good workout.

So today I made a return visit and trudged around the reservoir and down the Causeway. If you expect little from Farmoor then generally you are not disappointed but at this time of year there is always the hope of encountering some waders, returning from their breeding grounds and using Farmoor as their equivalent of a Motorway Service Station.

Today also offered the continuing attraction of the Ruddy Shelduck, still in residence on the far side of Farmoor Two, the larger half of the reservoir. I got to Farmoor deliberately early, before the fishermen and yachts people arrived, and duly wandered round to the deserted far side of Farmoor Two. There was cloud and rain predicted for later this morning but  currently it was sunny although with a strong southwest wind blowing.

I found the Ruddy Shelduck easily this time, it was upending in the shallower water by the side of the reservoir in the company of a large number of Coots, many of which were standing along the edge of the reservoir looking a bit like an avian ecumenical convention, dressed as they were in a plumage of black and white.

The Ruddy Shelduck was a bit uneasy about my presence and swam further out into the reservoir but if I remained still and kept a reasonable distance it felt confident enough to swim back nearer to the edge of the reservoir. I watched it for thirty minutes, swimming about and generally doing very little. By now the sun had disappeared,

Further out on the reservoir there were a large number of Sand Martins, ceaselessly criss crossing the reservoir, flying low over the water. I estimated there must have been about six hundred but surely they cannot be migrating already? It is not even August yet. Maybe they came from a wider area where they are breeding or have bred in their colonies,  knowing that the waters of Farmoor will provide good feeding? It is noticeable that larger numbers usually appear when there is cloud and rain threatening, forcing the flies they feed on  to come down low. So is there a large population of Sand Martins feeding up above the reservoir, out of sight in the sky when it is sunnier and the flies are much higher?

I proceeded onwards round the perimeter track, finding a quiet corner of the reservoir in the lee of the wind. A female Mallard was sat on the concrete apron by the water with four newly hatched ducklings. This seemed very late for a newly hatched brood. Five Little Grebes swam, in close formation, out from the reservoir's edge. Two were still in summer plumage and three in winter or juvenile plumage. Was this a family party just arrived or had the three winter plumaged Little Grebes I saw on Monday been joined by another two?

There are always questions.

I walked down the Causeway, meeting Geoff and we stopped for a chat about birding matters and congratulated each other on our good fortune at seeing the elusive Amur Falcon in Cornwall recently. I noticed that the single Common Swift I saw on arriving at Farmoor had now been joined by another fifty or so, their dark sickle winged forms flying at high speed up, down and across the Causeway but noticeably keeping together as a loose flock. Could these be migrants heading southwards for their winter home in the Congo? Most are usually gone by the first week in August. I felt a little deflated as I witnessed yet another reminder of summer coming to an end.

Three Yellow legged Gulls disputed perching rights on top of the Valve Tower, their presence another reminder of approaching autumn.

Two Turnstones were perched on the retaining wall of the Causeway, rather, than is more usual for them, running along by the waves lapping on the concrete shelving below. Maybe the splashing waves were too much to endure in the fierce wind. They stood facing into the wind and seemed tired and not interested in feeding. One stood on one leg, reluctant to move and when it did refused to lower the other leg but just hopped along on one leg - a curious but not uncommon behavioural characteristic of small waders. 

Two juvenile Dunlin were below them, on the concrete shelving by the waves, running non stop, feeding frantically, and eventually the Turnstones descended to join them but still refrained from searching for food.

Turnstones are very attractive birds in their summer plumage although one was already showing signs of its summer finery fading and commencing to acquire the dull brown plumage of winter. I was close enough to them to see how frayed the edges of some of their breeding feathers had become. Still, despite the wear and tear to their plumage they continued to look very smart, almost exotic, as they stood on the concrete. It has been a good few days for Turnstones here at Farmoor with, by my estimation, at least eight individuals having passed through Farmoor recently. They are never here for long though, just a couple of days at the most before they move on.

Hopefully the wader passage will continue and other waders, not just Turnstones will  arrive to cheer my therapeutic orbiting around Farmoor. Five newly fledged juvenile Swallows were perched heads into the wind, on a wire strut of one of the disused filter beds, awaiting their parents arrival with food.

I headed past the Yacht Club for the Car Park, passing the two Egyptian Geese now occupying one of the sailing club's pontoons. A movement on the water underneath the walkway to the pontoons caught my eye and I found a Great crested Grebe using the sheltered waters beneath to relax, away from the rough wind driven waves beyond the pontoons. It looked at me casually but was disinclined to move and I left it in peace in its sheltered corner.

The Lady and The Admirals 27th July 2017

We share a private and unmade drive with our neighbour who lives at the bottom of the drive, while our house is half way down the drive. It is not a long drive, about forty metres but has a large high holly hedge and copious ivy which is good for Holly Blues and there is a border of sorts that runs along part of one side of the drive. Our neighbour planted several Buddleias in the border a couple of years ago  to provide some attractive foliage and flowers during the Spring and Summer. 

The Buddleais, which are cut back each year to keep them manageable, are in flower now and are of several colours, white, the traditional mauve and a deep wine red and all, without fail, are proving irresistible to butterflies which unerringly home in on them to feed.

The Buddleias cover no more than twenty metres but today at lunchtime as I walked down the drive in warm sunshine I was escorted by at least half a dozen Red Admirals and a Painted Lady. These are large butterflies with a powerful flight and they swooped and glided around me, just above head height, as they took alarm at my passing close to where they were feeding on the Buddleias.

Red Admiral

Painted Lady
I confess to getting immense pleasure from seeing them. I feel as if I have my own little private butterfly reserve, literally on my doorstep, for  the few weeks the Buddleias are in flower and if I stand still by the Buddleias the butterflies soon settle to once again creep over the conical flower spikes, probing for nectar into each of the many little flowers that make up the cones. In fact I  get quite possessive and protective about these insects and am relieved that they will not be disturbed by people passing by, only myself and my neighbour.

The Red Admiral is slightly larger than the Painted Lady but the latter has just as powerful  a flight, hurtling around at high speed on a veering, crazed and ever changing course to sometimes come back to resume feeding on the Buddleias or at other times flying off at speed and not returning for some time.

Occasionally both the Red Admirals and the Painted Lady would settle on the dry stone wall at the back of the border where the stones were warmed by the sun and with open wings would bask in the sun absorbing the heat from the wall into their bodies. 

There were other butterflies present, also come to share the bounty. Commas, Gatekeepers, Meadow Browns, Large Whites and even a Holly Blue all visited during the time I spent watching.

Large White

Both the Red Admiral and the Painted Lady are migrants coming to us from southern Europe or even as far as North Africa concerning the Painted Lady and neither can survive our winter. In the case of the Red Admiral the earliest arrivals can get here by late January or early February but most arrive from April to June in  a series of influxes and in numbers that vary from year to year. They mate, lay eggs and the caterpillars become butterflies which then repeat the process so that sometimes two generations can breed in northern Europe. The Red Admirals that were here today on the Buddleias varied in appearance, with some looking absolutely pristine, unmarked and richly coloured, being predominantly black with a red band across each upper fore-wing and another red band at the lower edge of each hind-wing. This is complemented by a white square and smaller spots of white at the tip of each upper fore-wing and at the inner edge of each hind wing are two pale blue spots. It is an attractively coloured insect looking predominantly dark as it flies around but when it settles the bold colours are striking and eye catching. Other individuals were faded and with torn wings and the red bands on one individual were more orange than red which is a recognised variation in this butterfly's colouring

Pristine Red Admirals

These faded and torn examples were probably earlier migrants while the pristine individuals were doubtless the result of a later breeding generation and could even be, if I was being fanciful, the progeny of the worn individuals but I doubt it. 

Faded and torn Red Admirals
In autumn, on those last sunny days, I have got used to seeing numbers of Red Admirals feeding on car crushed fallen apples from the tree at the end of our drive but as the temperature falls they disappear, migrating back to southern Europe and not as was previously thought hibernating through our winter. For their southward migration they await clear, still conditions and then fly south low to the ground but others will ascend to high altitudes, using thermals to gain height and then strong following winds to aid their progress southwards. Red Admirals from Britain and northern Europe fly to central and southern Europe in autumn, making one non stop flight that can take up to two or three weeks.

Painted Ladies undertake an even more phenomenal migration than Red Admirals, coming to us from North, West and sub Saharan Africa and arriving in influxes from April onwards. They are unable to survive anywhere in Europe through the winter and on arriving in Europe including Britain they immediately begin to breed and typically three generations breed in northern Europe before the adults and progeny from the final generation to breed here migrate back to Africa where they breed again for another two or three generations.

When I was in Morocco in November a couple of years ago, where it was hot and sunny, I saw many Painted Ladies feeding on flowers in a vast expanse of saltmarsh and possibly these were migrants that had returned from northern Europe to breed.

It is, with the knowledge of their extraordinary life cycle, that I look upon any visit from a Painted Lady to our garden with a mixture of delight and awe. Undoubtedly the individual I saw today on the Buddleias was from a migrant parent that bred here earlier in the year. It was pristine and perfectly formed and obviously had not been subject to the ravages of a long migration, likely being hatched only a few days ago. It was a joy to observe it.

The numbers of Painted Ladies that reach our shores each year  vary tremendously but in certain exceptional years they can reach almost plague proportions. As recently as the year 2009 there was a major influx, as eleven million arrived here in late May and I can clearly recall walking down a lane for a mile or so near to my home, in late May of that year, and counting in excess of two hundred. It was estimated that in the following autumn when the progeny of successive generations that had bred in Britain migrated back to Africa, no less than twenty six million departed our shores

This butterfly can also be found undertaking similar migrations in all continents of the world apart from South America and numbers can also be huge in certain years, such as in California, where a swarm of these butterflies contained a staggering three thousand million individuals 

The Painted Lady is less boldly marked than the Red Admiral, being a warm tawny orange colour on all four upper surfaces of its wings, with large black tips  and white markings to its upper forewings and a chequering of black markings across all four upper wing surfaces. In flight it appears quite pale.

Both butterflies show an intricate and subtle patterning to the undersides of their wings to render them inconspicuous to predators. I have always subscribed to the opinion that the undersides of butterflies wings are much more attractive, with their many shades of colour and complicated markings, than the upper surfaces of their wings.

Red Admiral underwing-upper two images

Painted Lady underwing - upper three images

Butterflies, from the supreme Purple Emperor to the lowly Ringlet are beautiful insects made all the more appealing by the fact that they have such amazing lives which are concluded in a matter of weeks if not days. Every year I look forward to renewing my acquaintance with them as they bring me such great pleasure.

Tuesday 25 July 2017

Four Hours at Farmoor 24th July 2017

Despite my moans and groans about Farmoor Reservoir and its limitations I have to confess that I do have a certain fondness for the place and have come to regard it, along with Otmoor's RSPB reserve, as almost my regular 'go to' place for birding in Oxfordshire. Both locations do, regularly, come up with some good birds to see.

Today I was feeling energetic and took myself to Farmoor Reservoir by way of dropping off some unwanted household bits and pieces for recycling at Dix Pit Landfill near Stanton Harcourt. Once that was achieved I was over the Eynsham Toll Bridge in a trice and soon parking in Farmoor Reservoir's large and currently very empty car park.

I guessed Monday morning would be a time when the reservoir would be least populated and walking up to the perimeter track circumventing the larger of the two reservoirs, imaginatively named Farmoor Two, found I did indeed have the place to myself with not even a fisherman in sight.

A fairly strong south easterly wind was blowing across the water creating waves that broke as mini surf where they hit the concrete apron but the wind was warm. Occasional rays of sunshine burst through the low white cloud but for the most part it was overcast but not oppressively so.

I did not have a target bird to look for unless you count the Ruddy Shelduck that has been present here for the last three weeks. They are infrequent in Oxfordshire, not occuring every year and it is always nice to see one although they are somewhat sniffed at by British birding officialdom, as these birds, which often turn up in late summer in Britain are thought to be either escapes or from the feral populations that have become established in mainland European countries such as The Netherlands, and not true migrants from their normal range in southeast Europe and Asia.

Personally I do not worry too much about their origin as often its impossible to tell. Let's face it any exotic duck that lands somewhere out of its normal range in Britain is always suspect these days due to the number of escapes from wildfowl collections and the established feral populations that are scattered throughout Europe. I just enjoy seeing these ducks and if they are free, un-ringed and fending for themselves in the wild that is good enough for me.

Having said that and having walked around the entire length of Farmoor Two I failed to find the Ruddy Shelduck in its supposed usual place on the reservoir or anywhere else for that matter. However two Egyptian Geese, incidentally another introduced species originally from Africa but perversely, bearing in mind the Ruddy Shelduck situation, accepted as a British species, were some compensation, being an unusual bird to find here. A lone adult Turnstone feeding at the water's edge was also a surprise, still in its harlequin breeding dress plumage and presumably back from the Arctic or Greenland and stopping to feed up before taking off on yet another long flight to a destination unknown. Turnstones with their circumpolar breeding distribution partake in one of the most phenomenal of wader migrations. The distances they cover are just vast and yet here was one, essentially a bird of the seashore, gracing the mundane concrete banks of Oxfordshire's largest reservoir, much to my delight.

Egyptian Goose
This Turnstone was quite wary compared to others I have seen here, running at speed on short  and sturdy orange legs before my advance, stopping every so often to quizzically look at me, trying, no doubt, to ascertain  if my intentions were benign. The white surf rushed up to it and swirled around its legs in a froth of bubbles, spray flying over its head, before it set off yet again on twinkling legs trying to put distance between us. In the end I relented and made a wide diversion away from the reservoir edge to outflank it so it could relax as it saw me walking further away from it rather than towards it.

Coot numbers are already building up and the majority were over on this side of Farmoor Two where the waves were at their roughest, as this was where particles of food were being churned up to the surface. I counted a total of three hundred and sixty Coot, scattered in groups along the reservoir edge. A few Mallards were mixed in with them, the drake's colours now drab and muted in their eclipse plumage which will last for another couple of months. Even the females looked dowdy as they too moulted.

Half way around Farmoor Two, on my quest to see the Ruddy Shelduck and in amongst a large group of Coots were seven other brown ducks but these were not Mallard, being paler brown and unmarked. They were a female Red crested Pochard and her six, now fully grown young, still keeping together as a family. The young were similar in looks to the female and the only definite difference was the young had an all dark bill whereas there was a pinkish orange tip to the adult female's bill. They have been here ever since the young were hatched some eight weeks ago and it is good to see that so many of the young have survived. This must be the first time this species has bred at Farmoor although individual adults do visit the reservoir on irregular occasions.

Adult female Red crested Pochard

Four of the six juvenile Red crested Pochards

A juvenile wing stretching

Adult female Red crested Pochard
I looked out across the choppy grey waters and up to fifty Sand Martins with a few House Martins and Swallows were flying back and fore, skimming over the water after flies whilst Common Terns side slipped and dipped with their customary fluid grace to pick off larger prey from the water's surface.

I walked onwards disturbing a young Grey Wagtail, its tail distinctly longer than that of the ubiquitous Pied Wagtails and came to a sheltered corner out of the wind where the perimeter track joined the  central Causeway which separates the larger Farmoor Two reservoir from the smaller Farmoor One.

Three tiny grebes surfaced, looking anxiously at me with craning necks while swimming further out into an area where the reservoir's waters were calm. They were Little Grebes, the first of the autumn and probably destined to winter here, as up to a dozen can be found here in most winters, feeding on small fish they find in the shallower water by the reservoir banks.

I turned onto the Causeway to head back down to the Yacht Club and the promise of some refreshment in the cafe. A Common Sandpiper flickered its way across Farmoor One to the far side. Of all the waders that visit Farmoor they are without doubt the wariest, never allowing anything like a close approach but flying off on stiff, fast beating wings to wherever they consider is safety. The presence of these sandpipers and especially the Turnstone are a sure sign that summer is coming to an end and the short breeding season in the Arctic is over. One more month and it will be the beginning of autumn here. As if to re-affirm the fact, two small waders ran along the concrete shore side by side. They were Dunlin, newly arrived. Both were juveniles and so young that they showed no trace of the grey winter feathering into which they will rapidly moult in the next couple of months. Instead they were in their brown striated juvenile plumage which itself is quite smart in a subdued sort of way. Where had they come from and where were they bound for I wondered. Wherever it is it would be far away from here.

A large grey and white gull floated on the wind and landed on the retaining wall of the Causeway. A cursory glance at its legs told me all I needed to know. It was an adult Yellow legged Gull rather than our pink of leg Herring Gull. Having noticed one I then, as is often the case, picked up other lone individuals scattered around the reservoir. There were six in all and each appeared to be adult. This gull is a regular here and they often arrive before our native Herring Gull, many of which are still breeding and raising young

I got to the other end of the Causeway and made my way to the Yacht Club cafĂ© but before going in checked the adjacent pontoons for Common Terns which, when undisturbed, like to rest there. Sure enough two fledged juveniles were sat there, patiently awaiting the arrival of their parents who, despite the size of their fully grown young, were still persuaded it was necessary to bring food to them. It was not long before the two adult terns arrived, one bringing a small fish in its black tipped, blood red bill. Terns never seem to do anything quietly but seemingly must make as much noise as possible or they are not content. The two youngsters, on noticing the arrival of their parents, went into a frenzy, persistently producing a begging churring call as the adults landed with excited squawks and then joined in with their own louder and even harsher vocalisations. All four going at it together created quite a racket but eventually the fish was delivered to one of the  juveniles and the adults flew off while the youngsters lapsed back into silence.

Adult Common Terns

Common Terns-adults and juveniles
After a reviving cup of tea and a slice of lemon cake in the cafe I set off around Farmoor One, but soon wished I had not bothered. Apart from three Green Woodpeckers I saw very little, until getting to a wind sheltered corner of the reservoir, where a flock of sixty one Great crested Grebes were asleep amongst a large flock of moulting Tufted Ducks. Further along another Common Sandpiper fled across the reservoir.

I arrived back at the Causeway having completed my circuit round Farmoor One. It was tempting to take the shorter route to the car by walking down the central Causeway but I decided to give it one more go, in an attempt to see the Ruddy Shelduck, so walked on and set about walking around Farmoor Two. Again!

It was, as it always is, a hard, unrelenting slog with little to show for it and by now my feet were aching having walked the best part of four miles but I persisted. I got to about half way round and came across the same large group of Coots I had encountered on my first circuit and amongst the Coots was a large duck, half way between a goose and a duck in size, with a bright orange chestnut body, a contrasting pale, creamy head and black eye and bill. It was the Ruddy Shelduck. Success at last and I honestly felt I  had earned it.

Ruddy Shelduck
It promptly, on seeing me, slowly and frustratingly swam away from me and the Coots and made for a raft cum pontoon moored about fifty metres out from the bank which is used to purify the water. The shelduck disappeared behind the pontoon never to re-emerge. So this answered the riddle of why I failed to see it on my first circuit. 

An enormous hulking brute of a bird, an adult Greater Black backed Gull landed on the water nearby. Its huge bill a formidable weapon that can be and is used to good effect to murder smaller waterbirds. It eyed me suspiciously but remained on the water.

Greater Black backed Gull-adult
As I moved further along I came across the Turnstone again and we re-enacted our comical encounter of this morning with the Turnstone running for all its worth along the concrete and me following at a slower pace. We must have covered a good couple of hundred metres before the Turnstone wearied of its mini marathon and took to the air, flying out low over the water and back around me, showing prodigious amounts of white in its wings and calling urgently.

I carried on towards a small group of Greylags, sat on the grass and lazily plucking grass blades from the bank on the other side of the perimeter track. A smaller goose walked amongst them. It was one of the Egyptian Geese I had encountered earlier and its mate was swimming on the water close by. I approached and it showed little concern and provided I kept four or five metres from it there was no fear or anxiety on the part of the goose. Maybe the unconcerned Greylags re-assured it. 

Egyptian Goose
And so four hours came to an end on the unforgiving concrete perimeter track of Farmoor Two. A black lump on the tarmac surface of the perimeter track turned out to be a recently dead adult Coot. How it died I have no idea and it certainly was not there on my first circuit of the reservoir. Maybe it was killed by one of the fishermen's cars that drive round the perimeter track, sometimes with unheeding care towards any bird's welfare.  It was interesting for me to see that it was flightless and its flight feathers were still in their pinions (see image below). I never knew that Coots had a flightless period but now I do.You learn something every day.

Common Coot