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.

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