Wednesday 8 August 2018

Turnstones at Farmoor 8th August 2018

A change in the weather to more cloudy and windy conditions with just the suspicion of a possible rain shower suggested another visit to Farmoor Reservoir might be in order to see if any more migrant waders had arrived on the central Causeway.

Despite the increase in cloud cover and wind strength it was still a pleasantly mild experience wandering up the Causeway which I had entirely to myself, apart from a family with two small children, out for a walk and some hundred metres ahead of me. The Sanderlings that were here on Saturday had departed that night and just a trio of juvenile Dunlins had been here on Monday but today it looked like I might draw a blank.

It certainly did not look as if my hopes for more waders were going to be rewarded anytime soon as I saw nothing until I was two thirds of the way up the Causeway when a small, chunky wader with a striking plumage pattern flew out over the reservoir from the concrete apron on my left, alarmed by one of the small children running along the Causeway. 

It  called a staccato of twittering notes and as it flew showed a huge amount of white amongst its rust orange and black upperparts, in the form of a white back, prominent white bars on its wings and a broad band of white at the base of its tail. It could be nothing else than a Turnstone, and still in its summer plumage which is, with no exaggeration, sensational in both its colouring and pattern. In breeding finery the bird is dressed like a harlequin, a very pleasing combination of rusty orange, black and white with bright orange legs and feet.

Turnstones, like the Sanderling that were here on Saturday, are circumpolar breeders with the same capacity for phenomenal long distance migrations. Depending on where they breed in the high Arctic they can migrate as far as South Africa or Australia to spend the winter. They are strictly coastal in winter, preferring stony beaches where they use their short, powerful and slightly upturned black bills to tip over stones looking for prey hidden underneath. Unlike other waders they are scavengers and will eat virtually anything they find, even turning, somewhat gruesomely, to drowned human corpses if the opportunity arises.

Many Turnstone's spend the winter on our coasts but then are seen in a much drabber plumage of dark brown upperparts and white underparts but still retain the orange legs. It is only on migration to and from their Arctic breeding grounds that they appear in the full glory of summer plumage and I always seem to manage to see one or two in this plumage at Farmoor in late summer,  as they make their way southwards to whatever stretch of coastal beach they intend to spend the winter on.

This bird, judging by the intensity of its colouring and large amount of white on its head was a male. It landed fairly close to me and I followed after it, as it wandered along the concrete by the water's edge, picking invisible items from the cracks and crannies in the concrete. Like others of its kind I have seen here it seemed little troubled by my presence and fortunately no one else ventured up or down the Causeway for the hour and a half that I was here, so I could take its picture without any fear of extraneous disturbance. It seemed tired and only fed intermittently, for the rest of the time it stood quietly by the water's edge, presumably resting.

Probable male Turnstone
I left the Turnstone and walking further, to the end of the Causeway, came across a small flock of Sand Martins feeding in a corner of the reservoir that was sheltered from the south westerly wind. Their cheerful churring calls mixed with the bright, higher pitched calls of some House Martins that joined them. I also heard the distinctive call of a Ringed Plover coming from the sky above me but could not locate it.

At the end of the Causeway I decided to walk back the way I came, in the hope the Ringed Plover I heard might have landed on the Causeway. A slim hope and one that was to prove fruitless.

A few metres back along the Causeway I saw a small wader by the water's edge. It was a juvenile Dunlin that certainly was not there five minutes ago when I passed by. Had it just dropped in from the sky or had it been flushed from elsewhere on the reservoir? Either was possible and I guess I will never know but it was nice to see it all the same.

Juvenile Dunlin
I walked onwards expecting to come upon the Turnstone again but I could see no sign of it on the side of the Causeway it had been frequenting earlier so I checked the other side of the Causeway which had been deserted when I walked up but now I found the Turnstone over on this side, and not alone but in the company of another, duller coloured Turnstone that definitely was not there when I had walked up the Causeway. So presumably this second bird had just dropped in to the reservoir and as birds do, found another of its kind as if by some sixth sense.

It is difficult to sex Turnstones as their summer plumage can be variable but the boldness and strong colouring of the first bird (see image below) that I saw made me reasonably confident it was a male

The second bird (in the three images below) was probably a female as the plumage was a lot more subdued in tone than the male, even though the bird was also in summer plumage and had yet to commence any moult into the duller brown of winter plumage, as far as I could see.The bright chestnut orange on the upperparts was much less than on the supposed male and the white and black patterning on the head, neck and breast less bold and clear cut.

Probable female Turnstone
Both birds seemed to want to remain in each other's company but Turnstones are sociable birds outside the breeding season so this could be no pointer to this pair being male and  female but at one point there was an interesting interaction between the two, when they came close together as they fed along the water line and both stretched their head and necks upward to their full extent, the male uttered an unfamiliar trilling call and they touched bills. It certainly did not look an aggressive interaction and the birds parted amicably a few seconds later.

I sat quietly on the low perimeter wall and admired them alternately feeding and resting. As I did I heard a Dunlin's trilling flight call and two, an adult and a juvenile landed  on the concrete shelving close by. 

Adult Dunlin
Who knows where they had come from but from an inauspicious start an hour and a half ago I had now had quite a successful time of it with a veritable wader fest by Farmoor's standards.

I got to the yacht club end of the Causeway and a horde of excited and very noisy children were being taught the rudiments of sailing. Behind them some equally excitable Common Terns had found a shoal of small fish close in to the Causeway so I spent a pleasant fifteen minutes taking images of them flying back and fore in front of me.

Common Tern
Most looked to be in wing moult and all were adults, with their offspring now fully fledged and perched quietly, further off, on the railings leading out to the Valve Tower. In all there were twenty four terns and with that I called it a day and headed for home.

Please click on any image to view a larger version

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