Monday 9 November 2020

Great Northern at Farmoor 8th November 2020

These days of lockdown mean that Farmoor Reservoir has become the place of choice for many people to come to exercise and relax.There are no muddy paths, there is a cafe and walking by water, however artificial it may be, is a therapeutic experience. Weekends find the normally sparsely occupied reservoir car park almost full with cars and the perimeter track and central causeway are host to unaccustomed numbers of visitors.

It was only one visitor in particular that was of interest to me however. A juvenile Great Northern Diver that had arrived on the 3rd November, first settling on the smaller basin in the morning but rapidly transferring to the larger basin on the other side of the central causeway. Great Northern Divers used to be regular and often long staying winter visitors to the reservoir up to four years ago (the last was in 2016) but none have been seen until now, so this one was well worth going to see. It would definitely prove popular with both birders and photographers.

Yesterday, in the late afternoon, I made the short trip from my home to go to Farmoor and see it, on a classic late autumn day of complete stillness and bright sun. The diver was conveniently stationed off the east bank which is but a hundred metres from the car park, so for once it did not entail the usual slog to the far end of the causeway which is the norm here when a 'good bird' arrives. Not unexpectedly the diver maintained a respectable distance offshore due to the almost constant passing of people up and down the perimeter track, enjoying these few welcome days of sun and calm conditions.There was little point in trying to get any photos as the disturbance both on and off the water and the sun shining directly towards both the diver and myself precluded any chance of something even remotely satisfactory.

I decided to return this morning first thing for another go although the weather was not going to be anywhere as pleasant as yesterday. At just after 8am I entered the reservoir from its southern side and walked along the perimeter track towards the eastern side which is where the diver favoured. As I feared it was not a morning for photography.True the predicted rain failed to materialise but the whole reservoir and surrounding countryside was enveloped in a wraithe like mist, casting an unwelcome and depressing gloom on the reservoir and across its still waters.

I came to a gathering of Coot and Tufted Ducks, busily feeding close in to the bank.The Coot were diving for weed and the ducks for small freshwater mussels which they swallowed whole.Mindful of the female Scaup that was present a couple of days ago I checked the ducks but there was no sign of the scaup. However, in amongst the Tufted Ducks was an intriguing looking male duck that was similar in size to the tufteds but possessed a grey back and no tuft on its head. Superficially it looked like a Lesser Scaup which would be a great find but it was not. It was a hybrid, the progeny of a Greater Scaup and Lesser Scaup pairing and most likely the individual that has spent the last three winters (since 2017) on the reservoir.

When first found it was identified as a Lesser Scaup and news was put out to that effect on social media and the bird information services.This resulted in an unfortunate lady twitcher travelling all the way from Glasgow in Scotland, as she had never seen one, but when she arrived the duck had been re-identified as a hybrid!

Male Greater Scaup x Lesser Scaup hybrid

I took some images of the duck to check on when I got home, so as to be absolutely sure of the identification and watched for a brief spell as the ducks and coots continued to constantly dive then bob to the surface in a frenzied melee.There was no one else on the reservoir at this precise moment but I knew in a few minutes the fishermen, coming through the just opened main entrance gate in their cars, would be driving around the reservoir perimeter track to their favourite fishing points and I would no longer be alone.

I walked onwards, reaching the eastern side and soon found the diver, quite a long way offshore. It seemed dis-interested in doing anything other than floating, perfectly at ease, on the calm waters of the reservoir There was now nothing to do but wait and hope it might come closer, so I sat myself down on the low retaining wall to wait and see. It was a strange surreal atmosphere on the reservoir, with the mist obscuring to a greater degree the far bank and dampening any extraneous sound. The absence of any wind meant the water had become as if a giant glass mirror with every bird on it silhouetted in stark outline. I became almost contemplative as  I sat hunched on the wall and the diver floated on the water, half asleep with eyes almost closed, and not a sound to disturb either of us.You could hardly fail but join the diver in its reverie and a feeling of intense calm and peace descended on me.

Of course it could not last and slowly the reservoir became populated by more and more fishermen and the first intrepid joggers and walkers but compared to yesterday it was relatively quiet.  The diver continued to dreamily float on the water but eventually decided to commence diving and fishing. It confined itself to an approximate hundred metre stretch of water, casually submerging and then surfacing, often further out but on a couple of occasions it came nearer to me.

It obviously regarded this area as its own and any Cormorant or Great Crested Grebe that was deemed to have encroached too near was threatened by a lowering of its head to the water's surface while partially sinking its body in the water. It simultaneously would point its formidable bill and threatening profile at the intruder which was usually a sufficient deterrent but if not it would slide effortlessly below the water in a shallow dive and surface close to the intruder.

For the most part it was too distant and the light too dull for any worthwhile effort at photographing it so instead I sat and watched it diving and feeding and, whilst doing this, something I have not noticed before when watching these divers came to my notice. I could see that when the diver was preparing to dive not only would it sleek and compress its feathers so it became more streamlined but it would partially open its mandibles as if drawing a deep inward breath before its dive. I thought  that maybe it was just a freak one off but no, it was performed each time it prepared to dive.
Time and again I have learnt that if you just sit and watch there is always something new to observe and learn. 

Eventually the diver ceased its leisurely feeding and resumed its loafing on the water but soon after commenced an extended period of preening, rolling on its side to expose its white belly, a long leg and huge flipper stuck incongruously out from its body at an angle. 

As it did this the sun permeated the gloom for a brief few minutes and the diver was illuminated like some star in a stage spotlight, the white on its belly shining in the weak sunlight.I seized the opportunity and got some images to go with the other more murky ones I had attempted earlier.

Juvenile Great Northerns show a distinct scalloping effect on their upperparts created by the
pale fringes to the feathers and also a dark half collar.This plumage will be moulted in the late
winter months of January or February
The diver continued to preen, rolling like some half capsized boat on the water, revolving on its own axis in the water as it attended to whatever feather was causing it irritation. I was joined by Tom and my good pal Badger who came to take some video which you can enjoy at the end of this blog. Mark too joined us. Like many  previous occasions  where a good bird arrives in Oxfordshire it became a pleasant social occasion as we all enjoyed watching the diver, chatting and catching up on each others news. 

It was now ten in the morning and more and more people were arriving to take advantage of the reservoir and it was getting uncomfortably busy. I went to the cafe to get a coffee for Badger and Earl Grey tea for myself which I suppose signified our time viewing the diver was coming to its natural conclusion.

I really hope the diver will grace the reservoir with its presence for an extended period as has been the case with many of its predecessors The four week period of lockdown  is a cause for optimism as it will at the least ensure that the increasingly busy reservoir, will for once be quietened and the diver will have its chosen stretch of water all to itself. It will be a pleasure to check on its progress each day it remains.


Tuesday 10th November

Regrettably and in my opinion totally avoidably a fisherman contrived to hook the Great Northern Diver in the wing or body in the late afternoon. The unfortunate diver had to be hauled in exhausted and caught in a landing net. The hook was removed and the diver released back onto the reservoir in some distress.

Let us hope it survives and shows no ill effects. Tomorrow will reveal all.

Wednesday 11th November 

I am pleased to report the diver is still with us and shows no signs of harm.

Courtesy of Badger.

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