Monday, 3 May 2021

Fabulous Farmoor April 2021

The title of this blog consists of two words you do not often see together when referring to Farmoor Reservoir but this year the month of April has been truly exceptional.

There has been a constant presence of Yellow Wagtails from the first day of the month right through to the last and there has not been a day when I have not seen them.The majority have been bright yellow males, their colourful plumage brightening even the dullest of days. This year they are mostly to be found on the causeway, braving the cold northerly winds that seem to have been blowing for the entire month, rather than their usual haunt which is the grass bank by the Thames Water Works buildings, 

Although this is a good year for them their numbers are way down on what they used to be and one is lucky to see them in double figures these days. The maximum I have seen on one day has been nineteen but this is exceptional and on only three other days have I seen double figures although larger numbers do appear to congregate at the reservoir in the evenings.

A very strange looking female was seen towards the end of the month. It appeared grey and white with just the faintest of yellow washes to its undersides. Despite wishing it to be something rarer I had to be content with accepting it was only an aberrant Yellow Wagtail. It was interesting and informative to see it nonetheless.

Here below are some images from various encounters with Yellow Wagtails on the Causeway.

White Wagtails are the European cousin of our Pied Wagtail and have also been notable by their continued presence up to almost the end of the month.They stop off at Farmoor on their northwards migration and have no shortage of food as the millions of flies hatching on the reservoir provide a convenient and endless source of nourishment.They are never at Farmoor in large numbers and anything from one to five is about par for these times. To my eyes they look ultra smart in spring plumage, especially the males, as a combination of black, white and pale grey is always a pleasing combination of colours on any bird.They behave very much as the resident Pied Wagtails and possess the same cheery disposition and boundless energy. They keep mostly to themselves or loosely associate on the causeway with their fellow wagtail migrants, the Yellow Wagtails 

The early part of April in particular was very cold, even bringing a brief snowfall and the Swallows and Sand Martins struggled to find food and cope with the conditions but the reservoir provided salvation for thousands of Sand Martins and hundreds of Swallows which took full advantage of the hatching flies that occur at this time on the reservoir.

The virtually non stop northeasterly airflow meant that this year Farmoor has attracted some unusual waders in the form of Whimbrels and Bar tailed Godwits, although you have to be at the reservoir early if you wish to see them, before they are disturbed by the runners, joggers and walkers that now visit the reservoir in ever increasing numbers.

My first encounter with Whimbrels was when I found five resting on the causeway.They are always wary and rarely allow you to approach anywhere that can be called near. These five were no exception and flew almost immediately on seeing me.

I then had a second encounter a week or so later when another single bird was found resting on the causeway. Again it flew while I was some way off and may have returned, as I found another in the same spot an hour later.There again it might have been a different bird taking a similar break to the first on its long haul migration.

That same morning a migrant Little Ringed Plover was also taking a break, standing in the early morning sun on the concrete shelving leading down to the water. This encounter was a little unexpected as this species is an early migrant to Britain and many have already arrived and set up territories.They used to breed at Farmoor but sadly no longer do so due to an unavailability of the right habitat.

Two wader species on the same morning is a good result for Farmoor these days but I could hardly believe what happened half an hour later. Wandering back down the causeway, mulling over my wader sightings I heard a strange call above me, that for a moment had me at a loss.Then I  realised it was coming from two Little Gulls, heading high and northeast over the reservoir. This I took as an omen, a good omen and for sure I was not disappointed. Half an hour later around twenty beautiful Little Gulls arrived over the reservoir and descended to pick flies from the surface of the water. Their number then increased until there was a maximum of eighty one, a new county record. I stayed all day at the reservoir and the numbers gradually decreased until there were only two left at six in the evening, when I went home

I went back early the next morning and another forty to fifty Little Gulls passed through the reservoir but were all gone by ten in the morning and no more appeared.

Two days after seeing the five Whimbrel eight large waders circled low over the reservoir and were looking likely to land.They were Bar tailed Godwits but decided to fly on, much to my disappointment. The males are superb in their brick red breeding plumage, especially when caught in the early morning sunlight.

These are by no means annual visitors to Farmoor and I wished they would have stayed for a while.My disappointment was soon forgotten however when five days later a superb male spent the entire day on the western bank of the larger basin and allowed you to virtually walk up to it. It does not get better than this!

One Sunday morning I heard the distinctive yodelling call of a Mediterranean Gull and soon located a pair of adult birds hanging around the Black headed Gull colony at the western end of the causeway.They remained for most of the morning and then were gone. Three days later I found them again, this time feeding in a sheep field by the River Thames  in the company of some Black headed Gulls, before flying back to the reservoir.They have not been seen since.

Arctic Terns are an annual visitor to Farmoor in variable numbers but the 28th of April saw a very large number arrive at the reservoir, reflecting a trend across the southern half of England, as many other reservoirs and inland bodies of water provided a stopping off point for flocks of this lovely and very charismatic tern. The numbers inland however paled into insignificance compared to the vast numbers passing the south coast and  where over 20,000 flew past Dungeness on the same day. A day of cloud and occasional light rain across the country..

The next day on a sunnier morning only seven remained at the reservoir, one of which is pictured below. 

On the very last day of April a true rarity for Farmoor Reservoir arrived, in the shape of a Black Redstart.They are rare passage migrants here and are only present for a few days before moving on. As with virtually all of the others it was found in the Thames Water Works compound, frequenting the disused filter beds. It was a really nice find to round off this special month at Farmoor.

Here below are some of the other bird sightings seen on or about the reservoir during the month of April

Common Sandpiper

Female Grey Wagtail

Male Grey Wagtail

Mallard Ducklings



Common Whitethroat

Garden Warbler

Displaying Great Crested Grebes


  1. That's an excellent summary of an exceptional month at Oxford's reservoir. Much appreciation is due from Oxon birders for your expert patch watching and putting out the news almost daily to keep us all informed.

    1. Many thanks Peter. It is always good to hear something positive for a change.