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.

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