Tuesday, 11 May 2021

Foulweather at Farmoor 8th May 2021

What a difference a day can make.Yesterday was benign with sunshine and a light but chilly wind. Overnight a transformation took place bringing strong winds and heavy rain and for a while I debated whether it really was worth the effort to go to the reservoir.

I would get very wet I knew but as every birder knows bad weather can often mean good birds and so I took the chance. Needless to say I was the sole visitor to the reservoir at 8am and found myself on the eastern bank, temporarily sheltered from the strong southeast wind but there was no hiding place from the incessant rain.

Swallows had also sought out this sheltered area to swoop in graceful curves along the grass bank and under the trees, gliding and twisting at speed, almost at ground level as they hunted  hatching insects. The rain was causing them problems and many sought to perch on railings in the small marina, to twitter amongst themselves, preen rain sodden dishevelled feathers, perching shoulder to shoulder as if to warm each other and looking thoroughly unimpressed with the weather conditions.

I stood under a tree which kept most of the rain from me and watched as a number of swallows swept across the ground literally by my feet, heedless of my presence, flying as low as possible over the grass, for that was where the insects were. One bird stalled in its flight and hovered as if uncertain how to deal with the unusual conditions and then dropped, to stand unsteadily on the short grass, looking about itself as if not quite sure what it should be doing. Others immediately followed its example and soon a small gathering had resulted, many glad to rest their wings from the relentless battling of wind and rain, whilst others hunted for insects, hopping in ungainly movement on short legs, picking insects off as they clumsily manouevered their slim bodies across the sodden grass, their long wings sometimes acting as props. Such a contrast were these laboured movements to the effortless elegant flying that is their normal feeding technique.

Through binoculars, at a distance, their upperparts appear almost black as they skim the ground or the adjacent waters of the reservoir but the images captured by my camera reveal their true colours and they are transformed into a creature of sublime beauty with royal blue upperparts and terracotta brown throat and forehead.

A group of five Yellow Wagtails also took advantage of the sheltered conditions here and ran about on the short grass, in leggy pursuit of insects and flies. All were, as far as I could see, females and one looked very much like a female Blue headed Wagtail, possibly a hybrid or just an aberrant Yellow Wagtail. The taxonomy relating to Yellow Wagtails is bewildering, and not helped by the fact that many different races of the Yellow Wagtail interbreed, sowing confusion amongst those of us who seek to identify them. It is all a bit of a birder's nightmare and the plumage variation amongst Yellow Wagtails is legendary.

I ventured out from under the tree and resolved to walk the causeway. An act of supreme folly in hindsight as there was no hiding place from either the wind or the rain.However I was determined to walk to the end of the causeway and then back again. Battling the elements, unsurprisingly I saw very little, with the causeway being battered on one side by wind propelled waves and surf whilst remaining relatively calm on the other. Four Common Sandpipers were feeding on the sheltered side but nothing else. Half way up the causeway I came across a mixed flock of waders running around on the very top of the causeway itself, where I stood. I tried to count them but the wind was so ferocious it was hard to hold my binoculars steady but eventually I noted thirteen Dunlin, two Ringed Plovers and a Turnstone, running hither and thither on the concrete. What they found to feed on was beyond me but they seemed happy enough but soon decamped to the water's edge.  

A pleasing reward for my stubborn persistence.


With that I gave in to the elements and retreated as fast as I could to my car and headed for the sanctuary of home.

The rain was predicted to ease by noon and I learned, whilst drying out at home, that many more Dunlin, over thirty, had arrived on the reservoir, presumably forced to call a halt to their northward migration by the rain and wind. Much more of interest was the fact there were three Sanderling reported to be with them. Sanderling are my favourite wader and one I seek out every year at this time, when they briefly touch down at the reservoir on the way to distant northern breeding grounds.

Fortunately I  managed to dry out my clothing and boots during my time back at home, so donning them once more I made for the reservoir and the causeway. Now it was an increase in the windforce that made my life uncomfortable as I traversed the causeway.

There had also been quite a change in the numbers of Swallows since I left and as far as the eye could see the reservoir's churning waters were covered by the flickering, flying shapes of swallows, almost two thousand of them.This morning there were around five hundred but many more had arrived since, no doubt desperate to feed on the insects which are here in profusion despite the foulest of weather. The swallows flew almost at wavetop level, sometimes stalling into the wind, held in a delicate balance as they bent their heads to pick insects from the surface of the water. Back and fore they swept with around a hundred Swifts and two hundred Sand Martins as company.

But where were the Sanderling? Had they gone? The flock of Dunlin certainly had. Naturally I had assumed any waders would  be feeding on the sheltered side of the causeway but not a bit of it. I found the Sanderling feeding on the exposed, wave lashed side of the causeway. Maybe the froth and waves made these essentially coastal birds feel more at home. Of the three reported, one was remarkabe in that it was festooned with colour rings of various colours.


I am not sure what I think about all that bling on just one tiny bird. On its left leg were a metal ring and two colour rings,  one green and one white. On its right leg two blue, flag shaped rings. Is this really necessary. It does seem excessive.

The rings did serve the function of identifying this individual as having been caught and ringed in Greenland in July of last year, so presumably if it has survived this long the bling has not inconvenienced it too much. I have to confess that I have great reservations about attaching so many rings to one bird but if they serve a legitimate purpose for beneficial research then so be it.

I have always wondered about the Sanderlings that spend a day or two at Farmoor in May of each year. My main questions being, where have they come from and where are they going? This ringed bird has answered the latter part of the question. Greenland. Absolutely phenomenal.What an amazing journey it is embarking on and presumably its companions are also on the same odyssey.


I also speculated on where it had come from.Was it the coast of Africa or nearer in mainland Europe? This bird was heading northwest but was currently crossing the heart of England and so presumabay had come from the east which would make an African origin less likely but not impossible. Had it spent its winter on the east coast of Britain as some do or had it come from a European coastline further east still? Unless it is seen in a subsequent winter we will never know. So many questions still to be answered.

The Sanderling kept very much together and were a bit flighty due to constant alarms from windsurfers coming close to the causeway but they eventually allowed me to sit on the wall without taking fright and running off like clockwork toys at an incredible speed for such a small being.


The ringed Sanderling was noticeable as being by far the boldest and showed less fear of a human presence than its two companions. Then suddenly there were four. Presumably another bird had been passing over the reservoir and decided to join the other three. Sanderling's plumage varies tremendously at this time of year and many birds still look pale, almost white as they slowly replace their white and grey winter plumage with variable amounts of rich chestnut feathering.

I left them standing on the concrete shelving, dodging the breaking waves and flying spray, facing into the buffeting wind.They seemed perfectly at home.


I went back the next day with the wind no less but the rain thankfully banished.Would the Sanderling still be here? The answer was yes and they had now been joined by seven Dunlin. The birds huddled
together, resolutely facing wind and wave, uncertain about my presence. 

The Dunlin soon left but the Sanderling chose to remain and were joined by yet another Dunlin. Another unsuspected lone traveller, transiting Oxfordshire skies and deciding to tarry for a while.


The last I saw of them was as they ran back and fore on the concrete, dodging the wave splash and feeding as fast as they could. Greenland is a long way, across a hostile environment of unforgiving seas. Maybe they will make other stops on the west coast of Britain or Ireland, maybe even Iceland or The Faeroes before reaching Greenland.

Dunlin and Sanderling

The presence of these tiny waders brings with it the sense of glamour and wonder that sometimes accompanies international travel. The irony that these birds can go anywhere in the world without fear or restriction whilst we are constrained by humanity's self inflicted folly and unable to go freely in the world was not lost on me.

Free as a bird was never more apt.

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