Monday 18 May 2020

Today it was Turnstones 16th May 2020

An early visit to Farmoor Reservoir is essential these days in order to beat the mass invasion of fishermen and general public when the entrance gates are opened at 10am. In order to see any newly arrived waders before they are disturbed it is best to be one of the first up the causeway.

Yesterday there were only three Common Sandpipers and these were the first birds I encountered as I walked the causeway this morning but a little further on two small waders, busying themselves by the edge of the water turned out to be Dunlin. I stopped briefly to admire them and then moved on and shortly afterwards found a delightful quartet of three Turnstones and a Dunlin.

Turnstones at this time of year are completing their moult from a drab grey brown winter plumage into a lovely tortoiseshell amalgam of chestnut, black and white. It is very difficult to sex Turnstones but such was the difference between two of the birds and the third, I am going to stick my neck out and say one was probably a male and the other two, more than likely were females. The brightest of all was not unsurprisingly the one I considered to be a male. 

Male Turnstone

Male and female Turnstone.They can only be sexed in total confidence when in pairs on their breeding areas but these two
show some typical differences which point to them being male and female.The probable male in front has only little black streaking on the crown, a white nape and much cleaner white on the head.Also most of the wing coverts have been moulted to chestnut breeding coverts.The bird behind suggests it is a female by the large amount of dark streaking on its crown and nape, the chestnut colouring on the mantle and scapulars is a lot less than the supposed male. Also the wing coverts for the most part consist of old unmoulted non breeding feathers which is typical of a female Turnstone

Its fiendishly complicated to  decipher the huge range of plumages that most small waders appear in at this time  of year that's for sure and Turnstones are no exception!

This third individual is difficult to sex as it shows white  side patches to the breast which is a male feature but the wing coverts are non breeding coverts, the chestnut colouring is very reduced and the streaking on the crown is considerable - all typical features of a female.

Note the pale orange legs of this probable female

The more strongly coloured female Turntone
Turnstones are stocky waders with a short black stub of a bill, slightly upturned at the tip and sturdy short legs that are normally bright orange even in winter.The three I was watching were not particularly concerned about my presence provided I walked towards them slowly and then sat down on the wall  at a reasonable distance from them, when they visibly relaxed and fed intermittently but for the main part just idled at rest. And well they might as these three were bound for very distant parts of the globe to breed, probably some north eastern Canadian island or northern Greenland. 

It is a migration of truly heroic proportions and to watch them whiling away a few hours in the prosaic surrounds of Farmoor was to bring the romance of far distant places to the heart of England and somehow transport one there with them.Where they had come from was anybody's guess but it would likely be not that far and they were only completing a short first stage of their long journey. Many Turnstones winter on the south coast of England and others on the coasts of France and Spain.

Wherever there departure point was, it was a delight to see them here at Farmoor and feel the magic of their journey if but for the briefest of time. I sat in a reflective mood on the retaining wall of the causeway and watched the Turnstones and Dunlin wandering hesitantly and slowly along the waters edge. 
left to right -  Probable male Turnstone, Dunlin and two female Turnstones

Compare the lack of dark streaks on the crown of the male (l) with the extensive streaking on the crown of the female (r)

Note the extensive streaking on the crown of the two supposed females on the left and the much whiter head of the male on the extreme right

The brightly coloured male stood quietly and alone as the others moved slowly along. Here, he stood out, a colourful presence against the pale concrete of the reservoir's edge but in his natural home it is a different story. I studied his intricate plumage and found myself comparing the turnstone's pattern and colouring to that of the rocks and seaweed that are its normal habitat. Similarly reddish brown, strands of exposed seaweed hang over rocks at low tide, the serrated leathery fronds brown on black  resembling closely the Turnstone's plumage of irregular orange chestnut coverts and scapulars with alternating bands of black feathers. Such a similarity makes the bird effectively camouflaged as it hunts on the shore between the rocks, flipping over wet slippery seaweed and small stones looking for prey beneath. The bold black and white patterns on its head and chest also serve a similar purpose by breaking up the birds outline.

Probable male showing most of the old wing coverts replaced by new breeding plumage coverts with older unmoulted lesser, and median coverts  retained or still to be moulted

Every so often one or more of the trio would cock their head sideways to regard the sky, obviously mildly concerned. At first I could not understand why they were doing this but soon realised they were checking low flying Red Kites circling overhead and that are now a regular feature of the reservoir. The kites are, after all raptors, and although unlikely to attack a Turnstone caution is no bad thing on the part of the small waders.

The Dunlin remained constantly close to the three Turnstones rather than join its two fellow Dunlin further along the causeway and the Turnstone's were on their part dis-inclined to rebuff its company. Like all the Dunlin seen here so far this Spring, this individual was in full breeding plumage and at one point it even began singing, a not unpleasant high speed, continuous musical trilling, so presumably it was a male although the sexes are, as far as I can see, identical in plumage. In contrast to the rather lethargic Turnstones it was constantly busy, searching for food to refuel its tiny body for the onward journey north, moving amongst and around the Turnstones on twinkling black legs.

As the morning progressed the disturbance to the reservoir inevitably increased as more and more people arrived to stroll along the causeway and the little group of waders were increasingly disturbed until finally it was too much and they departed, unseen, to continue their journey north or maybe to find some place nearby that was quieter.

Another self medicated daily dose of the natural world had done the trick once more and I departed Farmoor with my heart lightened by the experience. Nature is not only all around us, it is part of us and we part of it, although we are becoming ever more detached. Maybe this current world crisis will tilt the balance marginally back towards the natural world and its full benefits to our mental and physical health be recognised and acted upon. One can but hope.

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