Thursday 21 May 2020

Today it was Sanderlings 19th May 2020

The month of May always brings a heightened expectation of finding migrant Sanderlings at Farmoor that have put down for a brief time to pause, rest and feed during their long migration north.They can be found running along on the concrete shelving at the water's edge. Invariably they choose the causeway and a regular walk up the causeway will sometimes pay dividends when one or two or even more, often in the company of Dunlins can be discovered feeding and resting by the water.

This May, Farmoor has become very popular with the general public, most of whom are not working due to the corona virus pandemic.They choose Farmoor as a safe place to walk and relax especially in this current fine spell of weather, when the waters are blue, a gentle warm breeze blows and the reservoir creates an experience as near, as such an artificial body of water can. to being by the sea. Consequently there is much more disturbance than usual and most waders soon depart when the reservoir is opened to the public as they are unable to settle for long.

Today I was lucky in that two Sanderling and one Dunlin were confiding enough to put up with the constant disturbance. The day before another two Sanderling only remained for an hour after the reservoir gates opened and left when the disturbance along the causeway became to much to bear. Not today however, as despite being regulary pushed into flight the three birds would fly out over the reservoir, circle and then land back at the water's edge.

Two Sanderling and a Dunlin.
Sanderling vary to a possibly greater extent in summer plumage than any other small calidrid waders. No two are exactly the same with some more advanced than others in adopting the rufous hues of  summer plumage. These two were still quite pale, or at least one was while the other was markedly more rufous and when seen together the difference was apparent.

Sanderling - the paler individual

Sanderling - the more strongly marked inividual

The two Sanderling side by side for comparison
Although looking pale, in their case this might be as far as the plumage change from the predominantly white and grey of winter goes or they might yet, on the journey north, become ever more rufous  on head, chest and upperparts as the moult transistion can be rapid. It's impossible to tell.  I have seen other Sanderling here that have been considerably more rufous than these two but then others that will remain paler, like these, throughout the breeding period.That is the fascination and the thrill of daily visits to Farmoor at this time of year as you never know what stage and state of plumage any Sanderling present will show.

Today I determined to make the most of this opportunity although, as always with these hyperactive birds, this was easier said than done. Sanderling can run very fast and took every opportunity to do so, running away from me each time I sat on the retaining wall to photograph them. This was obviously not going to work and another strategy was clearly required if I was to be successful. First  I had to consider the position of the sun which at eleven was almost due south. The causeway runs east to west, so I could sit on the wall and face west which would put the sun almost behind me.This still meant they ran away from me but I suspected that any person or persons coming down the causeway towards me would persuade the Sanderling to reverse and come closer and closer towards me provided I sat absolutely still. When I saw a family or couple strolling towards me and the Sanderling I would slowly walk towards them until about fifty metres away when I would sit on the wall and hope the Sanderling between me and whoever was approaching would come in my direction. It did not always work but on a couple of occasions it worked perfectly and I got the images I desired when the Sanderling stopped and stood facing the water, in a quandary, not sure how to react, caught between me and whoever was approaching from the other direction.

They are pretty little waders, fractionally larger than the Dunlin which today was accompanying them. Waders are sociable birds outside of their breeding areas, living and moving in large flocks to protect themselves against predators and it is entirely natural that the Dunlin, by instinct should team up with the Sanderling to travel together. 

Compared to their smaller companion, the two Sanderling were more robust in build with a shorter black bill and feet that have no hind toes.Their upperparts are pleasingly patterned in scattered irregular hues of grey, black and rufous, the latter mainly on their scapulars, breasts and their faces which were adopting a blush of rufous as the winter feathers were slowly being replaced by those of summer.

On reflection and studying my photographs I think these two Sanderling were still in the process of adopting summer plumage and would moult more of their winter feathers and become more colourful. Whatever, it is always a joy to see the dull grey and white plumage that waders adopt outside of the breeding season, replaced by the shock of colour and a variety of complicated patterns that comprises their breeding plumage. From unexceptional in appearance they transform into something truly beautiful, the pleasure all the greater as you know it will be seen so briefly unless you travel to their summer home in Greenland or Siberia.

The Sanderling remained all at Farmoor all day, running or walking back and fore, feeding along the water's edge,  their tiny forms almost invisible on the pale concrete shelving and often going completely un noticed by the general public as they passed up and down the causeway.

I do hope they will not be the last to be seen here at Farmoor this Spring but their arrival is unpredictable, although waders such as the Sanderling can still be passing northwards until the middle of June. Let's hope a few more may grace the reservoir before it is all over for another year.

There is however still the return autumn migration to look forward to.

I wonder where the world of humans will be by then.

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