Wednesday 7 April 2021

Frozen at Farmoor 6-7th April 2021

After a morning of voluntary work for Oxfordshire MIND, the mental health charity, I made my way to Farmoor Reservoir which is nearby. It would be the ideal antidote to a mildly stressful morning.

This week has and will continue to be hit by bitterly cold weather with strong winds blasting from the north and today brought a mixture of sun, cloud and snow flurries. The reservoir was predictably hostile, the cold wind sweeping unhindered as it always does, across the open expanses of water as I walked the causeway.

I had hoped to find a Common Tern or maybe a Little Gull but the northerly winds have put a temporary block on any chance of that happening, although Kittiwakes have been reported from other inland waters but not so far at Farmoor.

I looked out over Farmoor 2, the larger basin and the grey waters were carpeted with the quicksilver movements of thousands of hirundines, flying fast and low across the troubled water. An ominous darkening of the sky to the northwest heralded something mildly apocryphal approaching and shortly afterwards I was enveloped in a snow storm.

I sought refuge in a viewing shelter and took the opportunity to scope the hirundines in the hope of something rare being amongst them. I dream of finding a Red rumped Swallow one day and they have visited Farmoor on three occasions, the last being in 2012 but it was a supreme leap of optimism looking for one on a day such as this. I scoped the hirundines and whilst looking for the  non existent Red rumped Swallow, counted the Sand Martins as they streamed across the reservoir, flying into the wind and then, when they reached the causeway, turning and allowing themselves to be swept back by the wind to the opposite side of the reservoir, there to repeat the process, over and over again.  

By counting in tens I came to the astonishing total of over two thousand Sand Martins, their milk chocolate coloured upperbodies and white undersides flickering in the shifting light as they twisted and turned, hunting flies. Amongst them were Swallows but in far less a number, their flight less hurried, almost languid compared to the martins, their iridescent, midnight blue upperparts looking black at distance, making them appear marginally more substantial.

Accepting that a rare swallow was a non starter I tried looking for a  House Martin, not having seen one this year but it proved difficult. For a very long time there was nothing to remotely suggest a white rump and dark upperbody. Time and again the flashing white of a Sand Martin's undersides had me on my mettle but it always ended in disappointment.

Finally a bird towered up from the waters thronged with hirundines and against a distant dark background of trees I saw it. A House Martin, utterly distinctive with its white rump contrasting against its dark blue upperparts. As is often the case I subsequently found two more and considered three House Martins a fair return for my efforts. 

The snow having passed wth no great inconvenience, I headed for the causeway to look for whatever might be there. I had few hopes but if you do not look you will never know and three or four Yellow Wagtails were, as ever, nice to see. A couple of  Pied Wagtails were also feeding by the water on the sheltered side of the causeway. Another similar looking wagtail  allowed me to approach relatively closely and I was thrilled to note its clear, pale grey back and smart black bib and cap. It was a migrant male White  Wagtail. 

Male White Wagtail

They are a bit of a birder's bird and there is always a small passage of them at Farmoor, for just a few days each year and in Spring the males look very smart. Having refreshed and honed my wagtail stalking skills with the Yellow Wagtails two days ago, I employed similar tactics this time and was rewarded with close views. 

Even more remarkable, the White Wagtail stood on the concrete shelving and commenced to sing a pleasant little song, a collection of sweet melodic notes, something I  have never seen or heard from them before at Farmoor or anywhere else for that matter. It repeated its song several times and then decided to get on with the business of refuelling for its onward journey. They mainly breed beyond Britain although some breed in northern Scotland and this bird will probably leave and head north when the wind changes to a more favourable direction

Our Pied Wagtail is currently classed as a subspecies of the more widespread White Wagtail which breeds everywhere else in Europe apart from Britain where the Pied Wagtail is dominant.

The White and Yellow Wagtails are always nice to see but the memory that lingers was watching thousands of hirundines flying and trying to feed in a snowstorm. 

Who knows what tomorrow will bring.

Well, the next day brought even colder weather and Farmoor excelled itself, as it often does, by dropping the temperature by a few degrees more than anywhere else in the vicinity. Ye gods it was cold standing on the northern bank of Farmoor 2 at just after eight in the morning, although bizarrely the wind had dropped, so one would assume less wind chill, but whatever it was causing it to be so cold it was mighty uncomfortable standing still.So cold was it, that my body shivered despite warm clothing and my exposed face ached with the cold.

Fifty or so Swallows were taking advantage of hatching flies near to the north bank and I stood for as long as I could, trying to capture an image or two of a Swallow as they cruised along an inch or so above the water,  sometimes picking emerging flies from off the water with extreme delicacy and grace.

Their flight, when regarded without optics, appeared slower than normal but on trying to catch them in the camera lens it became all too apparent just how fast and agilely they were moving, slipping sideways, tilting, doubling back and dodging this way and that after their insect prey. 

It was a trial of will following their progress with the camera and having taken over two thousand images I managed to achieve about three that could be considered acceptable. This says more about my competence than anything else but practice makes perfect they say. The speedy hurtling Swifts are yet to come, which will  raise the bar a whole lot higher. I think perhaps a step too far for me.

Amongst the Swallows were one or two Sand Martins but many more, well over two hundred were spread far and wide over the reservoir and I also found the distinctive white rump and midnight blue upperparts of a House Martin amongst them.

The time came when I could stand the cold no longer and had to move to restore some circulation.I made for the causeway to see if I could locate any more Yellow and White Wagtails.Being later than usual on the causeway I was not alone and had to bear the frustration of others who were blissfully unaware of the birds. It's not their fault and they are just as entitled to walk along and around the reservoir as am I  but it can be immensely frustrating when you are about to take a photo and the bird in question is inadvertently flushed by a passerby.

Somehow in between the disturbance I  managed to find three Yellow Wagtails and two White Wagtails but they were very flighty, unlike yesterday and Sunday. Interestingly they were with three or four Pied Wagtails, all the birds keeping very much together in a small group and I speculated whether the Pied Wagtails were also migrants.One tends to become blase about their presence on the reservoir and dismiss all of them as resident but this may not always be the case. 

The Yellow Wagtails were, as they always are at this time of year, looking an absolute picture  as they fed on the concrete shelving. Even in the dull cold light of this morning they shone brightly against the dark concrete and moss as they energetically chased after flies.

I met Phil, as I always do on a Wednesday and we walked the bounds of the reservoir, taking the Thames Path to get some welcome relief from the cold wind and rejoining the reservoir on the western side of Farmoor 2. A pair of Red crested Pochard provided an exotic splash of colour, well at least the drake did, the pair bouncing around in the waves, snaffling the hatching flies from the water's surface. All the birds were at it today, taking advantage of the short lived bounty of emerging flies. Not just the hirundines but Black headed Gulls and various ducks as well.

Near the car park and now joined by Dave and Amanda, we walked to Lower Whitley Wood to check on the signboard that Phil is going to renovate. It was depressing to see so much rubbish thrown in the ditches and hedgerows, an unwanted eyesore amongst the primroses and cowslips. Even worse, the abandoned plastic bags of dog poo seem to be proliferating. It is as if no one cares anymore and feel they can do whatever they wish with no consequence. It is so annoying that what is still a pleasant environment around the reservoir is being trashed and degraded by some people's thoughtless, selfish behaviour.

We walked back to the car park by way of the Countryside Walk and found the Swallows once more but now they too had found a sheltered spot where they could rest and preen on a wire and over a hundred were lined shoulder to shoulder along the wire.

The males were singing, although I could not think why they would want to in such conditions and one had to admire their irrepressible desire and drive to get on with the process of breeding. They were a joy to see and let's hope the weather improves soon so they can be on their way to their ultimate destinations. Their existence is tough enough without these extremes of climate that now beset us all.

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