Tuesday 3 April 2018

A Spring Morning at Farmoor 3rd April 2018

I say Spring with a note of caution as it was decidedly un-Spring like today as the weather reverted to the all too familiar rain, and with a cold wind to add to the misery. However I had a plan to try and see a juvenile Iceland Gull at Farmoor Reservoir this morning, which annoyingly had evaded me for the past three days. The reason for my lack of success was that the Iceland Gull had developed a routine where it roosted overnight on the reservoir and would remain there until around eleven in the morning before departing for an unknown destination and not returning until roosting time in the evening. Events conspired so that I could not get to the reservoir until the afternoon on any given day until today, which consequently had resulted in inevitable and predictable disappointment. 

Easter Monday found me parking at Lower Whitley Farm on the southwest side of the reservoir at just after nine am and walking up the steps to the top of the reservoir bank I found myself on the perimeter track of the reservoir, looking out on a bleak and grey expanse of water. I was totally alone and scanned the buoys and pontoons for the Iceland Gull but at first could only see scattered Black headed Gulls and the occasional Great Crested Grebe. A Barn Owl, very white and exciting flew along the grass bank behind me but my camera was still in my bag, secured there to avoid the rain. The Barn Owl's halting, wavering flight took it away from me and soon it was disappearing from view, a pale smudge becoming ever more indistinct behind the trees. A Chiffchaff, perched high on a spindly twig of Ash, struck up its monotonous two note song but soon thought the better of it and lapsed into silence. 

There was an all pervading sense of wet as the rain had only just ceased and the fields and tracks were sodden and muddy, overloaded and saturated almost beyond capacity by the heavy rainfall of the last few days. Every footstep on the grass resulted in water oozing from the spongy ground as it was compressed under my feet. The trees held silver pearls of water, strung from every twig and the wind carried the promise of yet more rain as broken grey clouds scudded across my line of vision. 

However signs of Spring's relentless progress were all around. Blackthorn bushes are already dusted with their tiny white flowers, emerging well before the shiny green leaves that will follow. Primroses and daffodils have brought their bright yellow presence to the landscape, the primroses in rosettes of green leaves and pale yellow flowers gathered on secluded banks and below hawthorn and hazel whilst the daffodils, in clusters of yellow trumpets, stand brazen and unbowed by the rain, a random scattering of triumphant bright colour across the otherwise bare open spaces of the reservoir's grass banks. 

Despite the rain some birds were singing, Blackbirds mainly, their contralto notes moving as a tide from one bird's territory to another more distant, and onwards to yet others, a mellifluous, languid, whimsical chorus fading with distance into the surrounding hedgerows and fields. Living as I do on the border of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire and just a few miles from Adlestrop I was minded of the famous poem Adlestrop by Edward Thomas and its last verse:

And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him mistier
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire 

I walked further along the tarred perimeter track to get nearer to an abandoned pontoon, floating a little way offshore, that was being utilised by some Cormorants as a place to rest and digest their latest fishy meal. I checked a yellow buoy near to the pontoon and there at last was the Iceland Gull that had caused me such frustration for the last few days. The gloomy conditions made recording the moment difficult and although the light was awful, the gull's white flight feathers seemed to be enhanced by the dull light.

The Iceland Gull stood on the yellow buoy and as gulls do, did very little apart from stretching its wings at regular intervals as it balanced on its chosen resting place, the buoy slowly swinging in water that was responding to the strengthening wind. 

Dai, as he does every day, drove round the reservoir in his little yellow car and stopped to join me and then Tom arrived on foot and we all stood in the grey unforgiving surrounds and admired the Iceland Gull. Justin arrived with his young son to admire the gull and this completed a small gathering of local birders. Two Sand Martins flew past the gull, flickering shapes in the dull light, swooping low over the wind ruffled waters, heading east and a slightly larger and darker hirundine, more fluid in its flight turned out to be a Swallow, also heading in the same direction. Both the Sand Martins and the Swallow were my first for this year, the former expected the latter not so. Further out on the reservoir the adult Little Gull which has been here for two or three days, betrayed its smaller presence amongst the Black headed Gulls by its elegant, buoyant flight, dipping to the surface to seize an insect with admirable precision and then swooping upwards again, progressing in a series of featherlight bouncing movements, up and down, back and fore across the water as it fed on the emerging insects.

An immature Herring Gull flew towards the buoy obviously intent on dislodging the Iceland Gull but before it could, the Iceland Gull, anticipating what was going to happen, flew off the buoy and onto the water before flying to another buoy. 

Nice as they are there is only so much one can enjoy of an Iceland Gull before it is time to move on and I accepted a lift from Dai to take me round to the central causeway where, if I was lucky I would find the male Northern Wheatear, on the grass bank of Farmoor One, the smaller of the two reservoirs.  The wheatear had been loitering here for the last two days and I guess all the birds are being held up by the atrocious weather and awaiting an opportunity to move on once matters improve.

The Northern Wheatear was indeed still present, quite a pale bird with little yellow on its breast but more a suffusion of pale buff. Just as I located it the rain resumed and made matters very uncomfortable for the next twenty minutes before it finally abated. The wheatear was quite flighty but reluctant to leave its chosen area on the  grass bank as there were numerous molehills on which to perch and survey the ground for prey.

I do like wheatears, especially in Spring, when the males are dapper in their black, grey and white plumage with a pantomime highwayman's mask to give them that air of derring do.Their jaunty personality and almost constant activity, flashing a white rump as they fly away, fast and low over the ground adds to their innate charm.Not so many days ago this bird was probably feeding in warmer climes in North Africa or Iberia but its genes have sent it northwards on a flight through the night sky and fraught with danger, to stop here, unscheduled, for a short while, before it heads ever onwards to a  destination unknown to humankind but indelibly imprinted into its tiny brain.

The wheatear was obviously tiring of my presence and so I left it in peace and walked down the bank and across the grass to the Hide at Pinkhill. Another rain squall had commenced so sanctuary in a dry Hide was very welcome. Needless to say on a day such as this the Hide was empty and I sat quietly in a corner and surveyed the feeders. The now customary Water Rail put in a brief appearance but was soon gone, looking discomfited by the markedly higher water level that has inundated and swamped its reedy hiding places.

Water Rail
I looked further out onto the lagoon beyond the reeds and found a trio of Red crested Pochards, two males and a female accompanied by a very amorous drake Tufted Duck that had obvious designs on the female Red crested Pochard. This curious and unlikely quartet swam around aimlessly for some minutes before being threatened by a Canada Goose gander, one of a pair that have decided to nest on the tiny reserve. The ducks scattered as the much larger goose huffed and flew at them. Fortunately there are two parts to the lagoon, divided by a narrow strip of reeds and the ducks swam to the other half and the goose considered honour satisfied and left them in peace. I confess to having a dislike of Canada Geese.They are not native to Britain but a noisy and brash import from North America that have burgeoned into huge numbers virtually everywhere you look, so much so they can rightfully be considered an unsociable pest in some areas. However other people like them and will not have a word said against them.

The male Red crested Pochard is one of those 'over the top' ducks that possess, like so many male ducks at this time of year, a marvel of plumage.They too are descended from birds introduced from captive collections but are now breeding in the wild and around this part of Oxfordshire they are a long standing and permanent presence on many waters although it is unusual to see them here.The male's  chief glory is its head, a golden buff bouffant extravaganza of feathers and a coral red bill.The body is a smart amalgamation of fawn, black and white and one could call them exotic but then many male ducks fall into that category when in their breeding finery.

Tufted Duck-male and Red crested Pochard-female

Red crested Pochard-male
There was little else on the reserve apart from some immature Mute Swans seeking peace and quiet in this secluded place, as for once it has not been commandeered by an intolerant pair of nesting Mute Swans. The bird feeders were busy, as Reed Buntings, Great and Blue Tits came in numbers to consume the seed and nuts. A Barn Owl flew across the back of the reserve, following the course of the Thames, and this persuaded me to leave the Hide and make my way down the partially flooded track to another small reserve, also created by Thames Water, called Shrike Meadow.

I knew this was a favourite hunting ground of the Barn Owl and if I was lucky and my intuition was correct I might get a chance to get a close up view of it and, even better a passable photograph. For once the plan worked and I found the Barn Owl perched on a fence post on the opposite side of a rough grassland field, looking around. I had to get ahead of it so it would be coming towards me  when it took off, rather than flying away from me. All too often I find I am just too late and any photo I manage of a Barn Owl in flight is of it flying away rather than towards me. I walked along the path and found a gap in the hedge which would be perfect to intercept the owl as it hunted the field and hopefully flew towards me. Would the owl see it the same way? Yes was the answer and for two brief minutes I was granted my wish as the Barn Owl flew back and fore, quartering the grass and scrub before me, its heart shaped white face, like some halloween mask stuck on a slim white body, held between long, soft and silent wings of golden buff.

Barn Owl
It is hard to put into words the fascination that owls can create. Maybe it is because they are considered mainly nocturnal and to see them out during the day is viewed as very unusual but Barn Owls regularly hunt during the day and I have seen them out and about during the daytime in many places in Britain. Maybe it is the sheer obviousness of a Barn Owl, which from a distance seems very white and large and makes no attempt at camouflage. Everyone gets a thrill from seeing them and this time was no different to any other.

My morning of birding was now complete and I made my way back to the car reflecting that Farmoor was not so bad after all.

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