Monday 26 April 2021

A Lot of Little Gulls 23rd April 2021

Friday the 23rd April was like any other day, in that I  made my way to Farmoor Reservoir very early to avoid the crowds and be first on the causeway.

It was chilly but sunny as I  ventured along the familiar ribbon of concrete that serves to divide the two basins.The absence of wind meant the waters were flat calm and my hopes of seeing the Little Gulls that were here yesterday had suffered a mortal blow as a consequence. They had gone and just two Common Terns swooped elegantly over the waters of the larger basin.

Further up the causeway I saw a brown bird, a large wader perched on the retaining wall. It was a Whimbrel, taking a rest on its migration from West Africa to northern parts, maybe to Shetland and Orkney where they now breed, although most go further to Iceland and Scandinavia, maybe as far as Siberia.

I approached it slowly but it was not prepared to allow me to get near and soon took to the air, calling, and headed off southeast into the sun. 

This was a nice start to the day, cheering me immensely and the good vibes carried on as I located a Little Ringed Plover, similarly taking a rest by the water on the other side of the causeway.

At the top of the causeway I turned to walk back down and on getting to the Causeway Hide heard two Little Gulls calling but instead of being out over the water they were high in the sky heading northeast and not stopping. I tarried a while by the hide in the hope that more might appear but little happened for at least half an hour until about twenty Little Gulls arrived from nowhere and began to hawk flies from the water's surface.

I watched them throughout the early morning as their number slowly grew. Various counts at regular intervals revealed that, progressively others were arriving on the reservoir, so that by 9.45am there was an incredible 81 flying back and fore. The biggest count in Oxfordshire prior to this was of 53 in 1995 again at Farmoor Reservoir, so the county record had well and truly been trounced. 

And what a marvellous spectacle it was. Little Gulls were literally everywhere you looked on the larger basin and many local birders having heard the news came to see the spectacle.

Their buoyant, tern like flight is totally distinctive as they alternately dip and ascend as if suspended on elastic, sometimes sweeping around or shooting upwards in pursuit of insects, the entire group flying in one direction before turning and flying the other way, restricting themselves to an area of the reservoir approximately opposite me.The full adults look like large moths, the white tips and fringes to their wings creating an optical illusion, so that the wings appear soft and rounded. Some of them came close enough to the causeway that you could see the faintest of pink blushes on their breasts and bellies, and when they banked in the wind their underwings appeared black but were in fact charcoal grey fringed with white. Some adults still retained white flecks of winter plumage, yet to be moulted, in their black hoods whilst others were younger birds, in their third calendar year and although possessed of a partially black hood could be distinguished by dashes of black on the outer primary feathers.Yet others, I counted half a dozen, were even younger, only in their second calendar year and looking markedly different to the rest, with a head predominantly white and upperwings crossed with an inverted W of faded brown. the wing tips appearing pointed and giving them a markedly different jizz to the older birds.

Second calendar year Little Gull

Tiny and dainty they made the  larger Black headed Gulls that were flying with them look cumbersome in comparison. Every so often some of the flock would settle on the reservoir, forming a tight little group on the blue water but soon they would fly up and return to hawking for flies.

It was not only Farmoor Reservoir that enjoyed this bonanaza of Little Gulls. On the same day inland reservoirs across the Midlands and southern counties of England also received unprecedented numbers, such as Draycote Water in Warwickshire with over 40, Rutland Water in Leicestershire had 107 at one point and there were 75 at Pitsford Gravel Pit in Northamptonshire.

What caused this influx is not known but probably was due to weather systems both locally and further afield and the persistent northeasterly winds of the last few days were surely a factor. 

Little Gulls spend the winter at sea, mainly in the North Atlantic and the Mediterranean, migrating to breed in Fennoscandia, northern Europe and western Russia, nesting in colonies on sandbanks, in reedbeds and on islands in shallow lowland lakes, often associating with Black headed Gull colonies. They are a very rare and irregular breeder in Britain but I can recall a pair breeding on the RSPB's Loch of Strathbeg Reserve in Aberdeenshire in June 2016.


Sunday 25 April 2021

Good Godwit 22nd April 2021

It is fair to say that, so far, this Spring at Farmoor has been a good one for migrating birds. An early Sandwich Tern, a comparative rarity at Farmoor, arrived on the very premature date of 28th February and was shortly followed by another a few days later.

Yellow Wagtails. predominantly colourful males, have been present virtually every day this month, in numbers varying from singles to up to eleven and latterly they have been joined by a handful of equally smart White Wagtails too.

Yellow Wagtail

White Wagtail

Much more unusual was a party of five Whimbrel that were present for a few exciting minutes on the causeway before flying high up into a cold, clear blue sky and off to the northeast. Their distinctive tittering contact calls still audible as they became but specks in the sky.


Two days later a group of eight Bar tailed Godwits circled the reservoir before they too headed north.

Five of the eight Bar tailed Godwits

Today was sunny with a brisk north easterly wind to keep one on one's toes but it was not unpleasant to be out. Today was also the day for my second covid jab so I did not get to the reservoir at my customary early hour but only arrived at ten and then to only stop briefly at the reservoir, whilst on my way for my innoculation at the Kassam Stadium on the other side of Oxford. Finding myself with an hour to spare I decided to walk up and back down the causeway.

Two thirds of the way along I could see the white forms of gulls dipping up and down above the sparkling blue waters of the larger basin. Usually these turn out to be the ever present Black headed Gulls but there was something different and distinctive about the flight of these birds, although it was confusing as Black headed Gulls were flying amongst them. I halted in the lee of the Causeway Hide and scanned with my bins and my suspicions were confirmed when I saw the gulls were Little Gulls, daintily dipping up and down as they picked hatching flies from the water's surface. They kept very much to a small area in the middle of the reservoir, patrolling back and fore, flying into the wind and then turning to be blown back and to start all over again. After further examination of the flock I could hardly fail to notice that there were a few terns amongst the gulls too and identified both Arctic and Common Terns, two of each but perhaps the most thrilling of all, was the discovery of a smaller slimmer bodied tern, very dark even in the dazzle of sunlight. It wheeled and confirmed its identity when I saw its sooty black body and steel grey wings. It was a Black Tern, always a prize find at Farmoor Reservoir.

I watched until I had to leave. It would never do for me to miss my covid injection.Not even for such goodies as these. I noted on the Oxon Bird Log that a Bar tailed Godwit had been found on the western bank of the larger basin this morning and had been described as 'mobile'.That would be a good bird to see but it would have to wait, assuming it remained on what is now a very populous reservoir.

I duly received my injection and then spent two hours with Jane and Moth talking about a proposed painting Jane intended to do featuring bird migration. By the time I left it was approaching four so I made my way to the reservoir intending to look for the godwit and anything else that might be around. A report had confirmed the godwit had been seen an hour earlier, still on the western bank and even more enticing it was allowing close approach. It is a long way around the larger basin and the western bank is the furthest part of the reservoir from the car park. There was little choice but to slog my way around the concrete perimeter and approaching the western bank I scanned its length and my heart sank as there was no sign of any wader whatsoever. 

Sometimes it happens this way and there is nothing one can do but shrug and get on with it.I carried on walking, resolving to head for the central causeway which was my quickest route back to the car park. Shortly afterwards I caught a flash of silvery white underwings as a wader alighted further along the western bank. Could it really be?

I looked through my bins and in the distance there was the unmistakeable profile of a long legged and long billed, medium sized wader. It was the Bar tailed Godwit and even better it was a male, resplendent in rich orange underparts and variegated dark brown and buff upperparts.

I made haste, anxious that no one would come along to flush it. The reservoir these covid days is highly popular with the public for exercise and as a consequence the disturbance is now much greater than in pre-covid times.You have to be quick otherwise anything you are watching or photographing is inevitably flushed by an innocent passer by. 

I need not have worried as, remarkably, the entire western bank was devoid of human life and the 'barwit' (as we birders like to call this species of bird) was ultra confiding and obviously untroubled by my presence. I stopped well away from the bird and it continued to walk towards, me picking morsels from the water's edge.

I sat on the retaining wall and the godwit came closer and closer and closer. It was almost too good to be true and I fired away with my camera, trying to get the best shot I could of its colourful plumage, radiant in a sun that was now casting a much gentler light than would have  been the case in the middle of the day.

Two Bar tailed Godwit records in one month at this inland reservoir can be considered exceptional and has pleased me no end. It is a bird that holds many happy memories for me deriving from hours of seawatching from Newhaven West Pier, during the time I lived in Sussex. When seawatching we always knew that a northeast wind in April would bring waders and it never let us down.The two waders we saw most frequently were Bar tailed Godwits and Whimbrels, both originating from similar wintering areas along the western coast of Africa and often they travelled together in mixed flocks. At other times the flocks were separate and, always it was the Bar tailed Godwits that formed the larger flocks, sometimes running into well over a hundred birds in one flock. Some flocks came in close to the shore, flying low over the sea in long lines, one bird following another, the males rich orange underparts and dark striped buff upperparts contrasting with the females, dressed in grey and buff tones. At other times you stare far out to sea and high in the sky, what appears like a whisp of smoke, is in fact a distant flock of 'barwits', the shape of the flock forever changing, contracting and expanding as the birds hurry east, way out over the sea, high in the sky.It is truly exhilerating and not a little emotional to watch these birds responding to a seasonal stimulus to make a heroic journey and travel  vast distances to breed on  Arctic coasts from Scandinavia to northeast Siberia.

The migration we observed in Sussex, although mightily impressive, pales into insignifcance when one reads of those Bar tailed Godwits that breed in Alaska and then cross the Pacific Ocean to reach their winter home in New Zealand and in so doing perform the longest non stop flight of any bird, flying without rest for seven nights and days.

I spent a happy two hours with this one Bar tailed Godwit, relishing the opportunity to watch such a beautiful confiding creature at such close quarters.

The 'barwit' spent its entire time on the western bank apart from a few brief flights when somebody got too close and it took mild fright. It never went far though, just a few metres out over the water and then flew back to settle on the concrete shoreline and  recommence its constant feeding. It has a long way to go and the plentiful supply of invertebrates available at the water's edge provided a handy source of refuelling for its  onward flight.

I looked one last time at the 'barwit' wandering along before me and wondered where it will be tomorrow. It is bound to leave tonight or maybe first thing in the morning. Birds on Spring migration never hang about as the migratory urge and rush to pair and breed is too pressing to allow any undue delay.

Monday 19 April 2021

Spot the Red 17th April 2021

If you have read my previous blogpost you will have learned that Mark and myself finished off a remarkable day of birding, on Wednesday, at Sidlesham Ferry in West Sussex. The target bird there was a Spotted Redshank that was moulting into summer plumage. We saw the bird after some effort but the views were, from my point of view, unsatisfactory in that it was distant and all in all I was a little disappointed that we could not see it better than we did.

On Friday came news of a Grasshopper Warbler, the first for the year at Farmoor, reeling its ventriloquial song at Pinkhill Lock which is on the River Thames and lies adjacent to the reservoir. I was in a quandary as I had resolved to return to Sidlesham on Saturday to try and get better views of the Spotted Redshank but here was an elusive Grasshopper Warbler right on my doorstep. Which should I go and see?

Later that evening I had solved the dilemna. 

I decided to rise at dawn on Saturday to try and see the Grasshopper Warbler at Farmoor and then drive down to Sussex to see the Spotted Redshank. I knew, if it went to plan, it would be possible to spend an hour or so with the warbler and then make the two hour drive to Sidlesham Ferry which would mean arriving at just after low tide. The state of the tide meant that the redshank would, with luck, be closer to me than before as the channel it was inhabiting would be reduced to a thin line of water surrounded by mud and the redshank would be feeding at the water's edge and, as a consequence be closer. You will note a lot of speculation but birding involves just that. 

Six am found me at Pinkhill Lock but my hopes were dashed as there was no reeling song from the Grasshopper Warbler. I stood overlooking the area of scrub it had been heard from but there was nothing. The sun was rising and taking the chill off the air but the river remained wreathed in low lying mist that would only burn off once the sun rose further.

Frankly getting bored, I decided to walk the reservoir causeway to see if any waders had put down there which regularly happens at migration times. I would then return to see if the Grasshopper Warbler was singing. Not much hope in this I knew but it was better than standing doing and hearing nothing.

I got to the causeway and commenced walking down it. A Common Sandpiper flew from me, out over the reservoir in that stiff winged, low over the water flight they employ. Half way down the causeway a small flock of larger waders circled over the reservoir and then passed over the smaller basin. Raising my bins I could hardly conceal my pleasure as, on focusing on them, I  identified eight Bar tailed Godwits, the majority being  males in their superb summer plumage of brick red underparts and dark upperparts, patterned with brown and black.

The sun was comparatively weak at this early hour and cast a gentle light on them, illuminating their colours and imparting a golden glow that encompassed their bodies. They circled and I willed them to land but to no avail, for they rose higher and headed away to the northeast .With some anxiety I checked my camera to see if I had managed to capture them in flight and for once found I had been moderately successful. How easily one's mood can change. From mild disappointment at missing out on the Grasshopper Warbler, an unforeseen opportunity had brought me unbounded pleasure. 

Bar tailed Godwits

Thoughts of the un-cooperative warbler quickly vanished with this minor triumph and although I went back to wait at the scrubby area  my heart was no longer in it and anyway there was still no evidence of the warbler. Another song, not heard since last Spring came from a hawthorn. A cheery warble encapsulating the boundless optimism of the season. It was a Common Whitethroat, the first at the reservoir this year and a nice bonus to add to the godwits. 

The godwits had detained me longer than I planned and now I was faced with a two hour drive. It was touch and go and briefly I wavered but then thoughts of the delights of a Spotted Redshank strengthend my resolve and I took the road southwards.

It was, as often it is, a huge gamble.There was no guarantee I would get to see the Spotted Redshank any closer than last time. It could be anywhere in the channel, maybe totally out of sight. But nothing ventured nothing gained and I took the chance as I often do, although there was some calculation involved. I had checked the tide times at Sidlesham and knew the tide would be around its lowest when I planned to arrive and thus the bird would probably be feeding rather than roosting, as they do at high tide. It had been reported from its favoured channel yesterday and some good  photos of it, also from yesterday, had been published on social media. My main concern was the sun which was predicted to shine all day.Would it be in such a position and of such strength, in mid morning, to affect photography?

I had to take the risk and, there we have it - hope. The birders constant companion.

The benefits of cruise control on the car made the long drive relatively untaxing and I drew up in the unmade layby on the busy road that leads to Selsey. Sidlesham Ferry Pool was on the other side of the road but apart from two Avocets, around thirty roosting Black tailed Godwits and scattered Shelducks, slumped in the grass sunning themselves, it was quiet.

The creek or channel of water I was interested in lay on my side of the road, on the other side of a hedge. The channel wound its way through saltmarsh out onto the expanse of Pagham Harbour, now an RSPB reserve. A track led down the south side of the channel where I could get close, before the track turned away, following the saltmarsh which formed the boundary of the reserve.

I looked along the channel and found two birds feeding almost side by side, slowly walking away from me along the edge of the mud. Waders.  Both long legged but one taller and larger in the body than the other. A Black tailed Godwit was the larger and its companion was - the Spotted Redshank! 

My gamble had paid off and how. The bird was as close as I could have ever wished but there was now another problem confronting me if I wished to fulfil my desire to get my photos - the position and strength of the sun. I needed to get to the other side of the birds as the sun was currently shining directly at me. I walked swiftly down the track and took a convenient little spur to my right that brought me out to the very edge of the channel and in front of the two advancing birds.

The two of them, noticing my presence halted their progress. Unsure, but not alarmed enough to fly. I held my breath and stood absolutely still.This could go either way and the prospect of being so close and being denied this opportunity did not bear contemplating. The godwit, after pausing for a few seconds, turned and commenced walking in a leisurely fashion back the other way but the redshank, after much neck jerking and head bobbing, a characterisic of Tringa waders when they are mildly anxious, recommenced its elegant meandering towards me, its long bill darting down to seize at morsels on either side of it.

My opportunity had come, right here, right now and I made maximum use of it. Nearer and nearer the redshank approached but finally decided it was too close to me for comfort,  waded into the water and swam the short distance across the channel. 

It walked up onto the exposed mud on the other side and immediately recommenced its search for food.

Its position was now no good for photography, the strength of the sun and the bright reflections on the wet mud were too much. I laid the camera down and settled to watch the redshank feeding opposite me. Slowly it wandered further away down the channel. I lay on a bank of coarse grass, pleasantly sheltered from any cold wind, the sun warm on my face. Relaxed and content, enjoying this time of inactivity after my drive south. I watched a couple of godwits feeding.

Black tailed Godwit

Half an hour passed dreamily in this quiet corner. No one came to disturb my reverie. I was at peace and reclined in the grass to see if the redshank might return. It never did but you know, it really did not matter.