Thursday 26 November 2020

Another Farmoor Surprise 25th November 2020

Taking my customary Wednesday wander around the reservoir with Amanda, Dave and Phil we stopped to scan the large wintering flock of Tufted Ducks (500+), feeding on freshwater mussels off the western side of Farmoor Two, the larger of the two basins. It is always worth checking these flocks as sometimes a new arrival can go un-noticed amongst them.

I found the hybrid drake Greater Scaup x Lesser Scaup feeding with them but soon after, Dave alerted us to a male Tufted Duck sporting a pale blue nasal saddle on its upper mandible with the black code FF9 embazoned on it. The purpose of fitting such a nasal saddle is to be able to readily identify a diving duck that spends most of its time on the water. Normally colour rings would be fitted to a bird's leg for easy identification but as a diving duck's legs are submerged most of the time this would prove a waste of time and so the nasal saddle works as an alternative.

I am not sure I agree with such a thing being fitted but I am told it does not inconvenience the bird in any way and watching the duck this did appear to be the case. It does however look unwieldy and I wonder if this unsubtle bit of bling affects the chances of the wearer finding a mate as it certainly is not aesthetic and does nothing to enhance the bird's appearance.

I took some images of the bird and when I got home did some research on the internet and found a web site called European colour ring-Birding ( which lists all the ringing schemes in Europe. You find the project your sighting refers to and then contact the project leader with your sighting. By doing this I found this nasal saddle originated from a French ringing scheme and I emailed the person who had fitted the nasal saddle with the details of our find.

I received a commendably prompt reply by the next morning telling me the nasal saddle had been fitted to the duck on 15th January this year at a place called Saint-Philbert-de Grand-Lieu, which is located in the Loire Atlantique area of western France.

Apart from the resident population of Tufted Ducks wintering in Britain, many others come from Iceland, northern Europe and Russia and one of these locations may well be the origin of this bird. Although it was caught in France last winter I doubt it breeds in France and would speculate that it migrated to France to spend the last winter and is now in England where it intends to spend this current winter. It may not be coincidence that this duck has been discovered while three Greater Scaup are also present on the reservoir, the majority of which come from Iceland to spend the winter in Britain.

This is the fascination of bird migration and the conundrums it throws up.

Tuesday 24 November 2020

A Scarce Visitor to Farmoor 23rd November 2020

Another day of mindfulness and getting out in the natural world took me to Farmoor. I was not expecting anything out of the ordinary but, as ever hope springs eternal, and a lot of the fun with birding is that you feel the unexpected can always be around the corner. Of course it rarely happens and it is just the usual regular birds that you see, but at the very least I am looking and my mind is consequently distracted from the other less appealing matters going on in the world at the moment.

Parking the car at the reservoir, I notice a small flock of Redwings feeding and bickering in the leaf litter under the adjacent trees but they are newly arrived migrants and are very wary, fleeing into the treetops as soon as I get out of the car. 

I wandered the few metres up the slope to the perimeter track running along the top of the east bank of the larger reservoir basin and surveyed the waters as I do, every day I visit, looking for the Great Northern Diver. Sometimes it can be surprisingly difficult to locate, especially when the wind causes waves to form on the reservoir. Not today however, as it was absolutely still, no wind would disturb the mist shrouding the reservoir and it would be the sun that would eventually burn the mist off but not yet awhile.

A small boat containing two men fishing for pike was far too close in to the bank, definitely where they should not be and exactly where the diver swims and feeds. I spoke to one of the Thames Water rangers over a week ago and told him about the recent incident when a fisherman in one of these boats managed to hook the diver and it was eventually safely released. I suggested he and his colleagues should speak to the fishermen and ask them to keep clear of that area and he said he would but nothing has happened. Nothing ever does. 

The spinners on the end of these pike fishermen's lines flash silver underwater to lure the pike.The diver does not know it is not a fish and could well swallow one of these lures and its hooks and that would be the end of it.The reservoir is vast so why can the fishermen not go elsewhere and why can the rangers not make sure they do? I give up with Thames Water I really do. Is it just all about money?

Enough said. Let's move on and hope the diver remains safe for however long it stays here.

I found the diver fishing  perilously close to one of the boats and I watched it feeding and swimming on the still waters. Eventually the boat moved off and I breathed a sigh of relief.

I was in no hurry so gave the diver an hour of my time, watching it both diving and floating on the water, sporadically raising the upper half of its body out of the water to flap its wings, as if to shake everything back into place. This autumn has been a productive one for finding Great Northern Divers inland, with quite a number of landlocked reservoirs playing host to one. Nearby Draycote Water in Warwickshire currently shelters two and Rutand Water in Leicestershire an amazing eight.

The diver was not the only bird fishing here. A Great crested Grebe came much closer than the diver. Its orange red eye and coral pink bill the only colour in its otherwise white and grey winter plumage. It surfaced from one dive with a fish sufficiently large to make it a struggle to swallow but eventually, with some convulsive gulps it managed to consume the unfortunate fish.

Great crested Grebe

I got myself a tea from the cafe and then walked up the central causeway, looking for the regular trio of scaup but failed to find them. Meeting Dave half way along, I gave the customary birder's greeting 'Anything about?' and Dave told me he had found a strange goose at the further, western end of the causeway and thought it was either a hybrid or a Brent Goose.

I was immediately interested as a  Brent Goose is a scarce visitor to Farmoor although this year there has already been one on 11th of this month, an adult which remained far out in the middle of the reservoir for just thirty minutes before departing northwest. A second one would be very welcome and also exceptional.

Dave came with me, back up the causeway and there in the extreme corner of the larger reservoir basin we found a real treat, a juvenile Dark bellied Brent Goose but unlike my last encounter it was very close to the causeway, standing on the concrete shelving by the water. It showed no undue alarm as we approached but just enough to leave the shelving and take to the water in the company of a pair of Mallard.

Dark bellied Brent Goose

Detaching itself from them it swam further out and commenced quietly calling to itself, head held high on extended neck, alert and looking likely to depart. I left it still calling gently and walked on to Pinkhill. A passing birder later told me the goose had departed shortly after I left. Like the previous one it had been here for just over thirty minutes before departing. Brent Geese are normally found in flocks around our coasts, being essentially maritime in winter and feeding on saltmarshes or nearby fields. For one to find its way to Farmoor is indeed remarkable although they are known to migrate overland.

I reflected on the irony that I had recently seen over a thousand of these geese at West Wittering on the Sussex coast, where they come for the winter every year and are unremarkable but here, with just one individual, it was an event worthy of note.

A stroll around Pinkhill failed to locate the usual wintering stonechats but numerous Redwings were feeding on hawthorn berries. Dashing from bush to bush in alarm, their quiet tchook alarm call indicating where they had chosen to hide in the tangled twigs and berries of the hawthorns. I stood quietly by some nearby bushes and one finally revealed itself, gobbling the red berries for all it was worth. It soon noticed me and was gone in a flash. There are still plenty of berries to go around but come the winter months of January and February, they will be at a premium, especially if the weather is hard.These Redwings are small delicate members of the thrush family that arrive from Scandinavia and Russia, having crossed the North Sea to escape the cold winters there and will return in April.To my mind they are one of the most attractive of thrushes, usually to be found in small flocks, the rich orange suffusion on their streaked flanks a striking and colourful feature that is lacking in our larger and plainer looking native Song Thrush.


I walked to the nearby Pumping Station and found a Grey Wagtail prospecting the cobbles and moss that surround the art deco building. Often dismissed or overlooked they are the most elegant of the wagtail family due to their very long tail and are worthy of a prolonged look. The flare of citrus yellow on their hindparts is what catches the uninitiated eye and sometimes has them mistaken for a Yellow Wagtail.

Grey Wagtail

They are resident here and a couple of pairs breed every year. This secluded, neglected area by the Thames is a favourite location for them and you can usually find at least one feeding here if it is quiet and undisturbed.

The final encounter of the morning came with the discovery of a party of Long tailed Tits along the towpath, calling to each other as they swung around, like acrobats, on the thin stems and twigs of the riverside bushes and trees, seeking the tiny hidden invertebrates that sustain them at this time of year. Such sociable little birds, you rarely see one on its own, impossible not to like with their antics and gentle demeanour. 

Long tailed Tit

Soon they were off, following each other, each individual in the flock determined not to be left behind as with long tails streaming from rotund little bodies they flew in a straggling line to the next tree. Keeping up a constant contact seee seee seee call, their unmistakeable profile and calling is a characteristic winter sight and sound in the woods and hedgerows around Farmoor.

Friday 20 November 2020

Farmoor Friday Walk 20th November 2020

It was my bi-weekly wander around the reservoir today with Amanda and Dave on another gloomy morning that granted us a two hour window of opportunity before it commenced raining - again!

The three Greater Scaup were in their usual place just off the causeway and really there is not much more to say about them. I did however stop to watch the first winter female as it preened on the water, admiring it throwing shapes as it did so, spinning right round in a tight circle on its own axis, as it stretched a wing across the water, extending a huge paddle foot like a flag.

Yes the images are not your standard side on perfection but I just love taking images of behaviour that otherwise goes unrecorded or are discarded as unsuitable. Invariably images such as these fascinate me, where the bird is actually doing something and I manage to capture a grace of movement that otherwise would go unnoticed and unappreciated. It is impossible for it to be otherwise when the subject has no self consciousness and is behaving entirely naturally.

I find a satisfying fulfilment in the facility to record via my camera that moment when the subject does something other than pose in that 'coffee table' moment.

Watching the young scaup waving its huge foot around minded me of a poem by the English poet Stevie Smith  entitled 'Not Waving but Drowning.'where she describes a man drowning and whose frantic gestures for help were mistaken for waving by onlookers. I know. Cheer up you say but being Scots I am prone to melancholy and a degree of black humour.

A walk to Pinkhill found the male Common Kestrel and the stonechats in their usual places and the colder weather has certainly brought in many more Redwings and the occasional Fieldfare to feed on the hawthorn berries.

Male Common Kestrel

Female European Stonechat

Not much to write about today but it was so nice to be in the open air and out of the house with pleasant company, and for a few hours forget about the world's troubles and woes. Well almost!

Thursday 19 November 2020

A Farmoor Surprise 18th November 2020

On a cold and blustery morning where any sun was soon obliterated by the onset of threatening rain clouds I made my way to Farmoor to meet up with Amanda, Dave and Phil for our customary bi-weekly wander around the reservoir. A smirrr of pinprick raindrops stippled the car windscreen as I left home but I decided to trust in the forecast which predicted the rain proper would not arrive before noon 

I got to Farmoor an hour before the others were due to arrive and expected there to be little change from my last visit and the best I could look forward to would be more views of the current 'star' birds which have been here for a while now. The juvenile Great Northern Diver was still being faithful to its corner of water by the valve tower on the eastern bank of the larger basin, Farmoor 2 and the female Greater Scaup was still consorting with the  flock of Tufted Ducks that habitually feed on Farmoor 1, close into the causeway that affords them some shelter from the continuous strong wind that has been blowing across the reservoir from the southwest for some days now.

I was therefore surprised to learn from a birding colleague that there were now three Greater Scaup in amongst the regular Tufted Ducks. Not only the long staying 'probable' second winter female but now also a first winter female that is surely the same bird that has been frequenting nearby Dix Pit for a week or two, and, best of all and new in today was an immature male.

First winter female Greater Scaup

Probable second winter female Greater Scaup 

Probable first winter male Greater Scaup 

As per usual the rule of Farmoor was all too evident whereby, nine times out of ten, any good bird is to be found at the far western end of the causeway, necessitating a long tedious walk. Dodging the ever increasing number of people seeking lockdown solace by walking along the causeway, I joined Peter and was soon looking at the three scaup, keeping in loose congregation amongst the numerous Tufted Ducks. The black and white male Tufted Ducks looking like animated polka dots randomly scattered across the grey water and far outnumbering the brown females.

The male Greater Scaup with a male Tufted Duck. Structurally it is fractionally larger and slightly broader in the beam with a rounder head than the Tufted Duck.

I paid homage to this trio of unusual visitors and duly recorded each one of them with my camera.The male was at an intriguing stage of its moult into adult plumage. Male Greater Scaup do not get their full adult plumage until their second winter and this bird looked to me as if it was probably only in its first winter. I do not have huge experience of Greater Scaup in anything other than full adult plumage but to my eye it looked as if it still retained some brown juvenile feathers on its flanks and mantle which would indicate it is a first winter bird. The first winter female gave its age away by showing a fresh adult female type vermiculated grey feather to the rear of its right flank. The third bird which I always supposed to be an adult female, on closer inspection of its plumage might, after all, only be in its second winter.

The first winter male Greater Scaup.The adult grey vermiculated scapular and mantle feathers are replacing the brown juvenile feathers and the brown flank plumage is being replaced by adult
white feathers. The brown breast is also showing signs of adult plumage as adult black feathers
are beginning to appear.

First winter female Greater Scaup

Probable second winter female Greater Scaup

It was instructive to be able to stand and study them, aided by the not inconsiderable advantage of viewing all three swimming very close to the causeway. No doubt they are re-assured by the many Tufted Ducks around them which have grown used to the constant passage of humanity up and down the causeway and consequently have become extremely confiding. Although I do think I have made a reasonably educated attempt at ageing them, I am open to alternative suggestions. 

Greater Scaup are becoming almost annual winter visitors to Farmoor. Reservoir. Usually it is just a single bird that can stay for a few days or conversely for months but four were present on 4th January 2013 and two spent from November 2019 to January 2020 on the reservoir. The earliest arrival recorded was one on 31st July 2012 and the latest departure was on 1st April 1996. 

Greater Scaup are mainly a maritime duck in winter and large flocks, in their thousands, can congregate at mussel beds, sewage and waste outfalls that provide food. I can remember when there was a distillery at my grandparents home in Invergordon on the Cromarty Firth in Scotland, which discharged the waste grain into the firth and hundreds of Greater Scaup and other diving ducks would congregate to feed on the grain. They do not breed in Britain, although the occasional pair may do so on an irregular basis in Scotland.The main breeding areas in western Europe are Iceland, Scandinavia and Russia and birds that visit Britain are considered to come from Iceland.

I walked back the length of the causeway to the cafe and met the others, then repeated the whole process again, walking up the causeway chatting to my friends, all of us stopping to look at the three scaup. 

First winter female and probable second winter female Greater Scaup

Probable first winter male and probable second winter
female Greater Scaup

We walked on and seeking shelter from the ever present wind and a light shower of rain, dropped down from the reservoir onto the Thames Path, which runs below the western side of the reservoir, and walked along to Pinkhill Lock. The river is currently very high due to all the recent rain and is running with deceptive force due to the huge volume of water and the ground underfoot is wet and muddy by the river. On the near bank Dave spotted a European Stonechat perched on some dead rushes, battered into crazed angles by the high level of the river. The stonechat was a female and flew across the river to perch on the pale skeletal stalk of an umbellifer, nervously flicking tail and wings. Stonechats usually form into pairs for the winter, although these pairs may not remain the same in spring and summer, so I was not surprised to see the female joined shortly afterwards by a male.

Last week there were two pairs of stonechats around Pinkhill and again, today we found the other pair frequenting some waste ground nearer to the lock keeper's house.The two pairs seem rather close to each other and usually there is only one pair here each winter but they seem to be getting along for now and avoiding conflict. A short walk, further along the path by the river, brought us to a point by the river just beyond the lock keeper's house, where Phil and Dave found a male Blackcap feasting on the clustered black berries of a buckthorn bush.

We returned to the reservoir and walked back up onto the causeway to find the cloud had thickened and the wind had increased considerably. Rain was on its way without a doubt. A brief check on the scaup and then we made our way back to the cafe for our customary tea or coffee. A fine mist of rain came on the wind and although it would only be temporary, we sought shelter in a secluded corner of the yacht club building and sorted the world out as far as we could.

Amanda, Dave and Phil departed for their respective homes but I wanted to try and see if I could get some more images of the Great Northern Diver. I found it in its normal place on the reservoir but the diver was a bit too far out to get any half decent images so I watched through my bins as it indulged in a thorough preen and makeover, bobbing up and down on the turbulent waters. It rolled on its back to preen, its belly flashing white in the grey waters, then rose up on its tail to flap its wings into the wind before subsiding back onto the water. It was entirely at home there, being not the slightest bit discomfited by the tossing around it received from the fast running waves. Alternately it would sink almost out of sight in a wave trough then rise up on a swell, its back awash with water. 

Fortunately the fishermen in their boats, hunting pike and perch, and who still in my opinion come too close to the diver after the unfortunate events of last week,  were absent due to the rough water and this meant the diver was undisturbed and for once came relatively close to the bank where I stood buffeted by the wind. Of course you cannot have it all ways and the elements were doing their utmost to prevent any semblance of decent photography. Oh for a bit of sunlight but this is England in November!

The diver retreated further out onto the reservoir and I turned for home.Glad to be out of the wind.