Friday 15 May 2020

A Curlew Sandpiper at Farmoor Reservoir 14th May 2020

It was back to Farmoor today for another tour of the reservoir and to see what it might bring in the way of birds. Like yesterday the strong northeasterly airflow was cold and brisk enough to ensure I was wrapped up in a fleece against the chill, despite it being a sunny day.

When I used to live in Sussex and went seawatching at this time of year we always knew that a northeasterly wind would bring waders. I do not know why this should be but without fail they would appear in large numbers if the wind was northeast.This was especially so in the case of Bar tailed Godwits and Whimbrel.

So it was with some hope of seeing a wader or two that I ventured up the causeway which, by chance I had to myself this morning, but that would not last for long. The wind was even stronger and colder on the exposed causeway and despite the sunny conditions Common Swifts were flying low across both reservoir basins in some numbers. Normally in sunshine they ascend into the heavens and are rarely seen. As I progressed up the causeway I noticed an aspect of their behaviour  that up to now had eluded me. As I walked along, more and more swifts arrived to fly at speed around and across me, coming so close on a number of occasions I could hear the sound of their stiff wings cleaving the air. This behaviour would only happen when I continued to walk, if I stopped they moved away. Start walking again and they were back, whizzing past at great speed inches from me, so close at times that I flinched expecting an imminent collision.

What could have persuaded them to do this? Thinking back I realised this had happened on a number of occasions in Spring over a number of years. Was my movement disturbing flies or was my presence some other form of stimulus for them to approach closely? I guess I will never know but this morning's experience was, just like the others before, a highly enjoyable and exhilerating one.To be surrounded by these birds coming so close was almost a communion and I felt it a privilege to be part of it.

I moved onwards, checking the water's edge on the sheltered side of the causeway. By the time I had reached half way I hadn't seen one wader. I walked on and a Common Sandpiper flew out and across the wide expanse of the larger basin that is Farmoor 2. Moving on I came to the last third of the causeway and looking through my bins I could see a small gathering of non breeding Coots and Mallards sunning themselves by the water's edge. I took a few more steps and then three Dunlin and a Common Sandpiper flew away from the causeway following the direction of their predecessor. I moved forward a little more and checked once more through my bins and found to my amazement there was still a single small wader on the shelving concrete, standing slightly in the water. Although a little distant I could see it was mainly brick red and my immediate thought was I had found a summer plumaged Knot, which in anyone's book is a very good bird to find at Farmoor, as they are not that frequent a visitor to the reservoir, especially in Spring and in summer plumage. 

Expectantly I reduced the distance, checked again with my bins and found I was mistaken about the bird's identity and to my utter joy and amazement I realised I was looking at a Curlew Sandpiper in full summer plumage. This was just about the last wader species I expected to find here. To see a summer plumaged Curlew Sandpiper in Spring anywhere in Britain is something to be remarked upon and in Oxfordshire it is a very rare event indeed. 

In over thirty years of local birding in Oxfordshire I have only ever seen three spring Curlew Sandpipers.

The first was twenty or so years ago, in early June on the RSPB's then very new reserve at Otmoor. It had been a night of heavy rain which continued until mid morning and unsurprisingly I found myself alone on the reserve when I found a Curlew Sandpiper, which remained for just half an hour and then flew strongly away, up into the grey sky, heading northeast. I recall it was only in partial summer plumage, mainly grey but with orange red splashes of colour on its underparts. 

The second was on 30th April 2016 in an old quarry working, surrounded by dense trees and bushes near Bloxham in north Oxfordshire. It was a male and in almost full breeding plumage but the views were very restricted due to the difficulties of seeing through the trees. I managed to get a very bad photo of it but at least it proved it was one. This bird had first been seen on the 28th April 
at Balscote Nature Reserve, very near to where I found it two days later. 

The bird I discovered at Farmoor today was my third for Oxfordshire and easily granted me the best view out of the three. It was virtually in full breeding plumage with just a few winter feathers remaining to be moulted from its underparts. Whatever species of small wader arrives at Farmoor in Spring brings delight, as it is so unusual to  get a glimpse of them in their colourful breeding plumage. Curlew Sandpipers also possess, due to their  long downcurved bill, medium length black legs and longer neck an elegance denied to the more compact and shorter in leg and bill, Dunlins and Sanderlings. 

This bird today epitomised that elegance as it stood quietly at the edge of the water, presenting a superb image as its brick orange face and underparts, and an upperbody pattern of grey fringed, dark brown and chestnut feathers, shone in the mid morning sun, framed against a backdrop of blue, sky reflecting, water.

Curlew Sandpipers breed in the tundra of  arctic Siberia, occupying their breeding grounds from early June and leaving in late August. They spend their winter anywhere from West Africa right down to South Africa and most do not come north again until their third year. To see a Curlew Sandpiper in Spring in Britain is unusual as they generally migrate from their winter homes in Africa well to the east of Britain, passing across the Mediterranean then crossing eastern Europe to reach their Siberian breeding areas. Strong northeasterly winds during their migration period, such as we have had for the last two or three days, must have drifted this individual westwards across the North Sea to Britain as it made its way north. It would fly on, re-orienting itself as it did onto a correct course for Siberia.

In autumn larger numbers can visit Britain on their way south. Adults are always very much in the minority and eagerly looked for, arriving in advance of the juveniles but it is mainly juveniles that pass through Britain, often in large numbers after a successful breeding season. In some years, presumably following bad breeding success, they are absent. They are just as elegant and beautiful as the adults but in a more understated manner, with a peach yellow suffusion to their pale breasts and delicately scaled upperparts.

I moved a little closer and then stood still as the sandpiper moved towards me. I took some images of it just in case and for the record. It was as well I did as a Carrion Crow landed on the retaining wall close to it and the sandpiper took fright and flew out across the blue waters of the reservoir. In flight it showed distinct white wing bars and a diagnostic large white rump patch. I was not too worried at  it flying off as usually waders, when alarmed here, fly out over the water and then circle back to land once more on the concrete shelving by the water. Regrettably this time was to prove an exception and I could see no sign of it landing further back down the causeway. Maybe it had flown off further round Farmoor Two? This would require a long walk to check. I was joined by Mark and after some indecision I decided the best course of action was to walk round Farmoor Two which is a long way, while Mark remained on the causeway. We could call each other if either of us re-found the Curlew Sandpiper. 

I set off, noting that the reservoir was becoming increasingly populated by fishermen so the potential for disturbance to any migrating wader that landed here was high. Remarkably every fisherman I passed, and there were many, seemed to be catching a trout. I have never seen such a success rate here before. Had the trout been lulled into a false sense of security during the lockdown? 

A familiar bird call but completely out of context, came to me. It was an Oystercatcher, its loud  kleep kleep call so redolent of the sea and coast, ringing out around this section of the reservoir. Where was it? I found it, not flying but standing, on one of the grass banks behind the perimeter track, amongst the daisies and looking very smart in its pied plumage with long orange and yellow bill, ruby red eyes and pink legs. 

Maybe the blue waters of the reservoir and the waves beating on the concrete were reason enough for it to be convinced it was at the seaside? Nervous and alert in its far from usual situation the Oystercatcher soon took off, calling loudly and circled  out over the water before coming back to settle on the bank once more. 

I had more imperative matters on my mind so left it and looking further along the reservoir edge saw a group of distant small waders running back and fore by the water's edge on the concrete shelving. 

I called Mark to inform him I had found some waders which possibly could include the Curlew Sandpiper but they were currently too distant yet to identify and the light made it impossible to discern any distinctive colouring. I went closer and saw by their shape and bobbing bodies that the waders were in fact six Common Sandpipers. There was no sign of any Dunlin or Curlew Sandpiper.

Mark joined me and I gave him the disappointing news. There was little point in us walking further as there were people walking around the reservoir, so any wader would inevitably be flushed, an unavoidable but nevertheless frustrating reality of birding Farmoor. We went back to the central causeway resolving to wait there  for any developments. Another Oxonbirder, Jim, joined us and we separated to cover the whole causeway but there was no joy. Later, Jim told us he thought that he had seen the Curlew Sandpiper and the three Dunlin very briefly on the causeway before they were flushed by a passer by but despite waiting for another long spell there was no sign of any wader returning to the causeway.We gave up.

Sadly, despite another search that afternoon, by myself, there was only the six Common Sandpipers to be seen and an awful lot of fishermen!

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