Wednesday 30 August 2017

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.

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