Wednesday 30 August 2017

Somebody stop me! 30th August 2017

Obsessive? Me? Surely not?

It was just another lunchtime visit to Farmoor. Just another wander around. I hoped the morning's rain would have brought some passing waders down but, no, and in the end it resulted in another bout of Shag communing. I really did not intend to take any more photos. Honestly, I deliberately left the camera in the car and walked up the ramp from the car park with only my scope and bins, just like any 'normal' birder.

There, literally feet from the perimeter track on the nearest pontoon, almost in front of the yacht club was a Shag. It proved irresistible and I was back to the car in a trice to return with the camera and take yet more close up images of yet another Shag.

I can make no apologies. I can make no excuses because I am really enjoying myself indulging in Shag mania. It will be over soon enough. Dare I say I will be shagged out?

Today, there were only seven Shags as far as I could ascertain, five were scattered randomly across both reservoirs with another two very close to the yacht club. One of these latter two was the 'point blank' one loafing on the pontoon and looking a little soggy from a prior fishing expedition and then subsequently standing in the light rain. It too, like the one yesterday, bent one foot over backwards in a resting position which looks really curious.

I walked Farmoor Two, finding up to four Common Sandpipers and ten Little Grebes, the latter  now scattered all along the reservoir as single birds and feeding almost at the very water's edge. A Little Egret was perched on the Shag's favourite pontoon and two Egyptian Geese, as usual, wandered the grass surrounds of the reservoir.

I came to a small flock of around fifteen Swallows, most of which were juveniles, with ten or more sat on the concrete of the perimeter track, presumably resting and trying to dry out their feathers. They took off, whirling about me with sharp alarm calls before settling back onto the track behind. There is always one individual which initiates this behaviour of settling on the ground and on seeing this all the others like to follow. 

And that was it apart from four more Shags sat out on the rafts spread across Farmoor 1 and a sudden influx over the Causeway of another twenty or more Swallows with a few House Martins and one Sand Martin keeping them company. Doubtless the rain had caused them to come low in their search for insects and later, after the rain had passed, there was no sign of them. A Whimbrel called from high in the sky but it passed straight over unseen and I heard no more of it.

Back at the yacht club marina the female Ruddy Shelduck was dabbling at the edge with inevitably its bird of choice, a couple of Coots for company. It is now much more confiding than when it first arrived, hardly bothering to move away and it is showing more and more signs of a dubious origin.

I watched as a Shag caught a tiny fish in the small enclosed marina, as usual bringing up a tangle of weed with its capture. A little later it was joined by another and they both lurched up onto the flat pontoons to preen and eventually go to sleep in each others company.

Another cluster of mainly juvenile Swallows were settling on the yacht club roof behind me while others flew in random pursuit of insects, in and around the glade of trees by the footpath down to the main car park. Their blue black forms swarming like irritated insects back and fore through the trees.

I do hope the Shags move on soon. It is beginning to get embarrassing!

Another Day Another Shag 29th August 2017

The nine juvenile Shags were still in residence at Farmoor today, their third day, although they seem to be more mobile, regularly moving between the two reservoirs either side of the Causeway. This morning the majority were reported to still be frequenting their favourite pontoon on Farmoor 2 but when I returned for another look at them this evening I found only one on the pontoon but no sign of the others.

I was pretty certain they were still around so presumed they must be on the other side of the central Causeway and now on Farmoor 1, the smaller reservoir, which is much less disturbed by the yachts and windsurfers. So I duly made my way round to the Causeway.

What a difference a day can make in our fickle climate. I arrived at just about five pm but now under grey clouds with a slight hint of rain in a moderate southwest wind. The sun, heat and stillness of yesterday were but a memory. There was a distinct sense of denouement after the Bank Holiday but the reservoir was still busy with youngsters learning to sail or windsurf on Farmoor 2 and the cafe, still open at this comparatively late hour, was doing good business.

I headed up the Causeway hoping that, maybe, a Shag might be loitering on the concrete shelving at the water's edge but could see little sign of one on either side of the Causeway. One or two of the Shags had been seen, prior to today, loafing on the concrete, hence my vague hope one might be doing just this today. The Causeway was deserted, the weather and late hour presumably acting as a deterrent to any casual visitor but I was surprised at the absence of any other birder. Half way along I found the female Ruddy Shelduck, still showing a preference for the company of Coots and the distinctive purring trill of a Dunlin came from the sky but I could not locate it. A single Yellow Wagtail was consorting with the regular flock of  Pied Wagtails, all of them chasing the numerous insects by the retaining walls. 

I passed the Birdwatching Hide, half way along the Causeway, and then saw a figure beyond, hunched under the wave wall of Farmoor 1. This could mean only one thing, the unknown person was not a fisherman but a birder photographing a bird and sure enough the distinctive silhouette of presumably a Shag was sat at the water's  edge nearby. As I got nearer the figure returned to the Causeway and I could see it was Dai, a fellow Oxonbirder and who regularly, and some say heroically, checks Farmoor once, twice, sometimes more each day.

The bird he was looking at was indeed a Shag and he told me it was very confiding and unlikely to be worried by my taking its photograph. I quietly sat down on the retaining wall just a few metres from it and all was well. Initially it craned its sinuous neck to look at me but soon settled back with its head sunk into its body and resumed its contemplation of the grey lapping waters of the reservoir. Dai departed, telling me he was looking for a Little Stint and so I was left alone on the Causeway, just me and the Shag. It was not unpleasant sitting there, the two of us sharing our time in one common world but a world that was so very different between us in its separate realities. 

I embarked on a period of reflection, which often happens when I find myself in the company of a wild bird that shows such an innocent trust in me. Until comparatively recently Shags, as with Cormorants, were persecuted because their food is fish and thus were viewed as competition for our selfish needs and worse, they were also shot for sport. This mindless slaughter is now thankfully illegal but I am sure still persists in remoter areas away from public gaze. We are more familiar with Cormorants, as so many frequent inland waters all year round, so it is perceived that they are the more common of the two species but it is the other way round. The Shag population in Britain is over three times more numerous at around 46,000 pairs, which constitutes half the world total of this species. Happily their population seems to still be on the increase. For instance on the Isle of May, off the east coast of Scotland their numbers this year have increased to 474 pairs, a 22% increase over last year. They are most numerous around northwestern Scotland and the islands off that coast. I have also encountered them breeding on visits to the Farne Islands off the northeast coast of England and Skomer Island off the coast of Wales. Normally most British Shags are sedentary, not moving far from their birthplace but some sub adults from the Irish Sea and the Bristol Channel will wander as far south as Brittany in autumn and winter. Juveniles are more prone to wander or get blown inland after strong gales but for nine to arrive so far inland as at Farmoor and in perfect weather takes some explaining, but that is birding. Always there are more questions than answers.

Now Shags, as I have rapidly learnt over the last day or so are hardly the most active of birds and given a reasonable sense of security, a nice concrete place to perch on as a substitute for rocks and to while away the hours, lapping waves of a reservoir as a substitute for sea and a ready supply of fish, then Farmoor was providing a pretty good approximation to what I would imagine was a Shag's idea of heaven. Although immobile for long periods the Shag was always moving its head, looking around and various minor alarms would cause it to extend and crane its neck, adopting various contorted attitudes for brief moments before lapsing back into a hunched relaxation.

They can look so reptilian as they contort and writhe that long sinuous neck, striking a variety of gothic poses and it was fascinating to watch as the bird's profile changed from rounded calm to elongated attentiveness when disturbed by something. 

Initially, when I first arrived it stood with its two enormous webbed  feet firmly splayed across the concrete but soon became so relaxed  that it furled its left foot and rested what for us would be our knuckles on the concrete but for the Shag were its bent toes. It looked uncomfortable but was obviously nothing of the sort for the Shag. A lady photographer who joined us yesterday saw the Shag we were watching doing just this and was convinced it had a bad foot.

Shag at rest with curled foot
Being so close to the juvenile Shag gave me ample time to study its plumage which from a distance can be dismissed as just dull brown but closer to, the feathers of the upperparts showed a faint greeny gloss on the scapulars and mantle and each feather  had a darker V shaped fringe creating a subtle scaled impression. The rump also had a definite  green tinge to it.  On the wing coverts the scaled impression is reversed with a dark brown centre to each feather and a paler buff fringe. Especially when the bird was relaxed the forehead showed the signs of a distinct crest, which will become more striking and prominent in adulthood and the chin and throat were pure white. Another noticeable feature were the sturdy legs and enormous webbed feet. Shags are fully adult in their third year of life and then the plumage will be quite beautiful, becoming an overall dark, glossed, bottle green although from a distance, like the Cormorant, it will appear black. The eye colour will also change from greyish white to emerald green. 

Look at the size of those feet!
Time went by and we sat, each in our own world but conjoined for this short time together. No one or anything came to disturb us, neither of us was troubled by something out of the ordinary and I felt a sense of calm and communion. It could not last of course and after an hour the spell was broken and the Shag became more active, preening briefly before examining its feet and then stretching its neck and wings in a semblance of preparedness but for what? It was getting darker now as grey rain clouds threatened but for another five minutes we sat, in my case, and stood in the Shag's. Then the Shag suddenly took off and flew directly across the reservoir only to land on the concrete shelving on the far side, its dark silhouette sharply defined against the pale concrete.

Perhaps it was fed up being stared at and fancied a change. I too felt similar and walked back down the Causeway to the cafe and a welcome cup of tea.

Monday 28 August 2017

Shagged Out at Farmoor 28th August 2017

Yes OK. I know. Now let's get all the smutty innuendos out of the way first and then we can all calm down and move on.

I could say it's the first Shag I have had at Farmoor since 2011

I could say it's only the second Shag I have had in Oxfordshire

I could say I had nine Shags before ten o' clock

That's better!

Now I will get on with recounting the tale of a remarkable event at Farmoor Reservoir on this August Bank Holiday.

News came through on Sunday lunchtime that six Shags had been found by Stuart at Farmoor Reservoir, Oxfordshire.

Many of Oxonbirds finest made their way to the reservoir that afternoon or evening, to witness a surely unique event. The last Shag to visit Farmoor was a single individual in September 2011. It is a rare species in Oxfordshire as they are far more maritime than the Cormorants which are present at Farmoor all year round. For no less than six to arrive together was hard to believe. It was even harder to comprehend that, as various Oxonbirders watched them, the number rose to nine and then eventually to eleven. It was totally unprecedented.

I could not make it to Farmoor that day as prior commitments prevented me leaving the house, so it was not until Bank Holiday Monday that I made my way to Farmoor to be there for when the gates first opened at eight o clock. Here I met Andy and Dai and after some deliberation we picked out one of the Shags sat on a valve tower roof in the centre of Farmoor 2, the larger reservoir, and a number of others perched on a pontoon away over towards the far side of Farmoor 2.

Dai headed off to check the Causeway whilst Andy and myself embarked on the long trudge around Farmoor 2 to position ourselves opposite the distant pontoon where most of the Shags were perched.

The weather was, as forecast, sunny and calm and it was already, at this early hour, getting warm.The water of the reservoir was a mirror of blue, flat calm with not a trace of wind to ripple its surface. Coots and Mallards were, as per usual, feeding close to the shoreline that now sported an unattractive bilious green frieze of slime at the concrete edge, liberally sprinkled with countless moulted feathers and the occasional long dead trout. A typical late summer day at Farmoor. Further out a flock of no less than fifteen Little Grebes floated like plump and rounded sponges that had been cast on the flat calm waters. Some of these tiny grebes must be newly arrived as a number were still to lose their summer breeding plumage.

Little Grebes-in summer and winter plumage
We walked onwards to come level and opposite the pontoon and soon picked out eight Shags loafing on the pontoon, scattered amongst their close relatives, Cormorants. Observing the two species side by side it was easy to discern the size difference and also the different profile of the Shags compared to their larger cousin. Both species looked uncomfortably reptilian but the Shags possess a delicate appearance and gentler demeanour due to their slighter build and thinner bill compared to the larger, more ungainly Cormorants. We sat and watched the Shags, noting they were all juvenile birds, drab brown and unexceptional and for three hours they did precisely nothing. And why not, sat safe and secure, offshore on their pontoon in the sun. The three hour vigil was not, however without some other bird action to keep us mildly interested.

The pontoon favoured by the Shags

Four immature Shags and a Cormorant on the pontoon. Note the more delicate
profile of the Shags
Best of all was a Black Tern that Andy discovered and which arrived and departed in the space of a few minutes. A couple of Yellow Wagtails flew over, calling and heading for the fields of Lower Whitley Farm behind us, a small flock of Swallows headed south, twittering with excitement and up to five Common Sandpipers flew back and fore across the reservoir while a pair of Egyptian Geese cleaved a line through the glass like water. 

Egyptian Geese
Yellow legged Gulls, both adults and juveniles flew around the reservoir and one adult perched on a yellow buoy, its rear end looking strangely foreshortened due to its having moulted its old primaries and not having fully grown its new ones.The new primaries would soon complete their growth.

Yellow legged Gull-adult
A larger immature gull, with a white head, massive black bill and chequered plumage turned out to be a juvenile Greater Black backed Gull and two adults were perched on distant buoys. 

Greater Black backed Gull-juvenile
On the pontoon amongst the Shags and Cormorants, a Little Egret stood in a line of Black headed Gulls whilst a Grey Heron sunk its head into its shoulders and tried to ignore a juvenile Shag which was getting a bit too close.

Grey Heron and Shag
Peter joined us, as did Mark, both never having had, sorry, seen a Shag in Oxfordshire.

Peter soon left to go to Somerset to see a  Moorland Dragonfly, whatever that may be while we remained, but eventually we too tired of watching the equivalent of paint drying and made our way back to the cafe for a reviving cuppa. Sat outside on the table chatting about this and that with Andy was very pleasant but I was keen to get back to the pontoon in the hope the Shags might be doing something that would involve them taking to the water and coming closer to the reservoir edge for a photograph opportunity. To save my legs I drove around from the  reservoir car park to Lower Whitley Farm, left the car there, slipped through the footpath gate and up the reservoir bank, which brought me out just a hundred metres from the pontoon.

Sadly and frustratingly I found little had changed. True, one Shag was now in the water but it was just messing around the pontoon and no nearer to me than before whilst the others were asleep or idly scratching their heads with their outlandish sized webbed feet. A process incidentally which was carried out delicately and with much deliberation, took a very long time and which they seemed to very much enjoy! I sat and waited but it was not going to happen soon, if at all. I found another Black Tern far out in the middle of the reservoir but it did not hang around and just like the one earlier moved on through. I guess in this fine weather it made sense to take as much advantage as possible of the benign conditions as it still had a long way to go to its winter home in tropical Africa.

It was now midday and very hot, uncomfortably so, and then my phone rang. It was Andy. 'How are you getting on with the Shags over there?' He enquired. 'Not very well. They are still doing nothing.' 'You might like to know there is a Shag on the pontoon opposite the cafe and its giving great views'. 'Cheers, I am on my way'.

I went back to the car and drove the short distance back to reservoir car park and ran up the ramp to join Andy. Sure enough, there was a juvenile Shag perched on a pontoon just a few metres across the waters of the small marina. We took many images and the Shag idled its time away on the pontoon, curling up one of its webbed feet on the pontoon, in what was for a Shag presumably a comfortable resting position. Various yachtsmen and fishermen came very close to it as they launched boats from the pontoon but it was hardly alarmed by their presence, just craning its neck in curiosity and eventually it took to the water and commenced to fish, swimming further out into the reservoir.

Shag-one of the nine immature birds present
Lunch beckoned, so a baked potato and chips from the cafe served to keep body and soul together and, suitably re-energised and rested, I left Andy and decided to walk the circumference of Farmoor 2 once again. It was insane in the heat of the day but I was convinced that sooner or later if I persisted I was going to manage to get a close up image of a Shag swimming and fishing in the water. I had no reason to be this optimistic but hope springs eternal!. On the way I found the two late hatched Mallard ducklings now looking much more adult as they revelled in the green slimy waters.

Young Mallards
I walked slowly onwards and on getting back to the pontoon there seemed little change in the status quo.  A couple of Cormorants, reasonably close to the shoreline set my pulse almost racing but that was it. I stood by the reservoir edge and then  a slim shape surfaced and at first, wet and with feathers sleeked looked like one of the many Great crested Grebes currently present in this part of the reservoir. 

Great crested Grebe still in summer plumage
Low in the water, serpentine in movement, its back almost awash and its long tail extended flat on the water it was hard to discern any detail. I could see its bill was long and pointed but there was no white on its head or flanks and it was, as I had hoped, a Shag, doing precisely what I wanted it to do. It was clearly aware of my presence but showed no concern and as I watched it swimming around and photographed it, the Shag came ever closer until it was but a few metres away from me.

A fantastic result and justification for my aching limbs and sore feet. Apart from its rarity here, there was nothing else remarkable, its plumage being overall various shades of dull brown with a white chin and throat  by way of variety. 

I watched it fishing before it swam further out into the blue waters of the reservoir, now thankfully being ruffled by a slight breeze. I had got what I wanted and it really was time for home.The hours had passed un-noticed and to my amazement I found it was already three in the afternoon. I carried on around the reservoir finding another pair of Egyptian Geese. So, they have now multiplied from two birds to four.

Egyptian Geese
A quick stop to admire a Mute Swan feeding with its head and orange bill clearly visible under the clear water of the shallows as it fed and then it was time to head for the Causeway and home.Two Yellow Wagtails ran before me on the concrete perimeter track.Their cheery calls echoing my mood.

It had been another good day at Farmoor Reservoir