Wednesday 28 July 2021

Returning Waders at Farmoor 27th July 2021

And so it is over for another year. And what a year but let's forget about the negatives and concentrate on the birds.The end of July sees the first waders returning from their northern breeding grounds and stopping off at Farmoor Reservoir before continuing their migration south. Already the reservoir has hosted Ringed and Little Ringed Plovers, Whimbrel, Green and Common Sandpipers, Turnstones and Dunlins.

Unlike in Spring there is no sense of urgency and the birds can and often do remain for a few days, even longer sometimes, as the pressing urge to get to the Arctic for the short window of opportunity that will allow them to pair, nest and raise young is now forgotten until next year. The birds can enjoy, if that is the right word, a less frantic spell in their lives as the late summer days provide an opportunity to rest and replenish, restoring energy levels in preparation for the tougher winter months to come.

The first returning waders are usually adults, still in breeding plumage. A plumage that shows distinct signs of wear. It is the failed adult breeders that return first, followed by the females, for with waders it is generally the rule that the females leave the males to tend to the young on the breeding areas and a little later they too will follow the females south. 

Today there were two adult Dunlin and an adult Turnstone pattering along the water's edge picking tiny morsels from the concrete.Like many waders here they showed little alarm at a human presence and one could virtually walk up to them.

Turnstones are regular passage migrants at the reservoir, being seen singly or less often in small groups. By the time they show up on their return migration at the reservoir they have already travelled a great distance, anywhere from Greenland, northeast Canada and Siberia, possibly other points nearer in Fennoscandia too. I have no idea where the Turnstones that visit here in late summer are bound for. It could be only as far as the south or east coasts of Britain, where a number spend the winter or maybe further to southern European shores, even the coasts of West Africa or down as far as South Africa but it is always nice to see them, especially in their rich tortoiseshell breeding colours. Soon enough they will moult into a drab brown the colours of the rocks and seaweed they haunt in winter.

The two Dunlin accompanied the Turnstone. Although still in breeding plumage their feathers had lost the immaculate perfection of pre-breeding and were frayed and worn, the upperpart feathers in particular, giving the two Dunlin a distinctly threadbare appearance. Like the Turnstone they will commence a moult into dull grey upperparts and white underparts that is the sum of their winter plumage.

Dunlins are comprised of up to eleven races but only three are likely to occur at Farmoor. The differences between these three  races are subtle, involving size, bill length and tiny plumage variations and it is often impossible to differentiate any individual concerned, especially when in transit at the reservoir. 

The two most likely races to occur are Calidris alpina alpina and C.a.schinzii

C.a.alpina breeds in Fennoscandia and across western Siberia and individuals from as far east as the White Sea and the Yamal Peninsula in northwest Russia spend the winter in Britain and Ireland. This is the most likely to occur at Farmoor. 

C.a.schinzii breeds mainly in Iceland and southeast Greenland with a small number even breeding in northern Britain, Ireland and southern Norway. They winter in West Africa. I can think of only one instance when I was almost certain I had seen one at Farmoor and this was only because I could see it was so much smaller (a characteristic of schinzii) than the other three Dunlin (presumably alpina) with which it was associating. 

The third race that might occur at the reservoir but is unlikely is C.a. arctica which breeds in northeast Greenland and could arrive on passage as it makes its way to wintering areas in West Africa.

I am as guilty as anyone of falling into the trap of granting the Dunlins only a superficial glance due to their relatively regular presence on passage at Farmoor but stop and linger and look at them as their tiny forms scuttle along by the water, stopping to cock an enquiring head and look you in the eye before carrying on feeding. They  too, like the less usual and more sought after wader species that can arrive at Farmoor, have travelled phenomenal distances, bringing with them to the prosaic surrounds of an unremarkable inland reservoir, the romance of far distant lands and the sheer wonder of bird migration. 

Friday 23 July 2021

My Tern at Farmoor 22nd July 2021

After the thrills and spills chasing off to see the Black browed Albatross in Yorkshire and latterly a lovely Red footed Falcon in Somerset it was back to earth today with a visit to my local Farmoor Reservoir.

The continuing heatwave meant the reservoir's waters were silky smooth under a windless blue sky as I walked the causeway in the early morning, expecting to see very little at this time of the year. A few waders have begun to trickle through and Common Sandpipers, a Little Ringed Plover, a Whimbrel, an Oystercatcher and the inevitable Dunlins have all put in brief appearances in the last few days but this morning there was, as expected, nothing to get excited about.

Common Terns were creating quite a racket as I walked along and I could see that there were up to eight flying around the reservoir, their grating, querulous keeeyaaah calls  coming loud and clear across the still waters. Looking at them it became apparent that a pair had brought their two young with them to the reservoir.

One young tern came very close to me as I stood on the causeway.They look so very different to their parents, lacking the long tail streamers and with wings less pointed which creates an illusion that they are smaller.Their plumage at this early stage of their life is an amalgamation of sandy brown, greys of varying shades and white which they will moult in their winter home in Africa and where they will remain for all of the following year before returning to breed.Their flight however remains typically accomplished and bouyant.

Juvenile Common Tern

In times past there used to be rafts for them to nest on at the reservoir but these are long gone and the terns now  have to find nearby gravel pits and the like on which to raise their young, but once the young  are fledged they and their parents gravitate back to the reservoir where there is more space and good feeding.

Common Terns are supremely elegant in flight and for me encapsulate an impossible dream of an airborne existence crossing oceans and continents, free to go wherever one pleases.Fanciful I know but why not? I always feel their old fashioned name of Sea Swallow is far more appropriate as they are very much like a swallow, possessing as they do  a fragile body and delicate wings, the former slim and lithe, the latter long and pointed and a tail with long outer streamers. Also, just like the swallow they are summer migrants, arriving in late March or early April and departing south in September.

Mark Cocker, the naturalist and writer, wrote the following about these terns

Perhaps the clearest testimony to the inspirational qualities of their aero-dynamism is the number of small private sailing boats named after them.Birds are a constant theme in boat names - probably more than any other life form - and perhaps we should perceive in them the associations of physical and spiritual freedom that we project on to birds and sailing boats alike. Sea Swallow seems to carry the most obvious, fundamental connection between the two

Common Terns from western and southern Europe, including Britain, tend to winter north of the Equator on the West African coast and recoveries of ringed birds suggest British and Irish birds frequent  Ghana, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Liberia and Ivory Coast in winter, while those from further north and east, such as the Baltic, winter further south in Angola and South Africa.

Common Terns are closely similar to Arctic Terns. In fact so similar are the two species that it is only subtle plumage and structural differences that can separate them. The most obvious difference is that the Common Tern has an orange red bill with a dark tip whereas the Arctic Tern has a blood red bill with no dark tip. That is if you can get close enough to see! Both terns possess a plumage that is a reflection of the elements they mainly inhabit, the sea and the sky, being aluminium grey above and white below. Their heads in breeding plumage are solidly capped with black.

Common Terns are in fact not as common as Arctic Terns, the latter outnumbering the former by two to one.However Arctic Terns nest in large coastal colonies in the more northerly parts of Britain whereas Common Terns nest in smaller groups and are seen mainly in the south of Britain, often breeding inland on gravel pits, park lakes and reservoirs where they become a familiar summer sight. A tern raft at my local RSPB Otmoor reserve in Oxfordshire was quickly occupied by Common Terns when it was placed in one of the lagoons there.

Walking back along the causeway I flushed a Grey Heron from the bank and it flew out to pitch on one of the marker buoys in the reservoir. Immediately it was attacked by two irate adult Common Terns, presumably the parents of the two juveniles, that  dived repeatedly at the heron although making absolutely sure they remained out of range of the heron's formidable bill. A juvenile Black headed Gull also fancied joining in and the heron was mercilesssly mobbed until it accepted the inevitable and flew off to find somewhere less exposed, still pursued by the irate terns until they were satisfied it was no longer a threat.

I walked further, to the yacht club cafe and sat on a bench overlooking the small marina where the yacht club moor their boats. It was a tranquil scene at this early hour and would remain so for another hour yet until the first excited children were brought by their parents for their sailing lessons.

The marina, when it is undisturbed, is a favourite place for the terns to come as there are large shoals of small fish swimming here and they are easily caught. Sure enough a tern duly arrived and commenced patrolling the small area of water enclosed in the marina. On each pass it would look down intently and sometimes drop lower as if preparing to dive in but then pull up as whatever it saw fled to safety. However on occasions it would complete the dive, suddenly swerving downwards, side slipping at speed to hit the water with a resounding splash, emerging seconds later with a small fish in its bill.

The hour passed quickly and as the children lined up for their lessons and the boats were prepared, the marina became too busy for the terns comfort and they moved out into the centre of the reservoir. At the other end of the day they will return after the lessons are over and the children have departed.

It was time for a coffee at the cafe and then I too would depart.

An oatmilk decaffe latte Debbie.If you please!

Saturday 17 July 2021

The Dragon Slayer of Wiltshire 16th July 2021

A female Red-footed Falcon has been present since the 8th July at Wiltshire Wildlife Trust's Langford Lakes Nature Reserve which is adjacent to the village of Steeple Langford near Salisbury. It is a first summer female feasting on the abundance of dragonflies at the reserve and seems content to linger like many of these falcons do when they find themselves out of their normal range. Almost all records of this species in Britain are of immature first summer birds which means they are in their second year of life and not ready to breed until the following year. Consequently there is no pressing need to find a mate and raise a family and these stray birds adopt a relaxed attitude and in some cases can tarry for quite some time, as this one has done, now into its eighth day of residence at the reserve.

Red-footed Falcons normally breed from eastern Europe to Mongolia and as far north as the Lena River in eastern Russia. It is a long distance migrant reaching its wintering grounds in south and southwest Africa  in late October. In Spring it arrives in Europe from mid April onwards, numbers peaking in mid May. Vagrants such as the bird at Langdon Lakes are usually seen between late April to early June so the bird at Langdon Lakes is comparatively late.

Its confiding nature has allowed anyone, who has a mind to see it, to get very good views, as evidenced by the large number of images of the diminutive falcon being published on social media. After my success with the Black-browed Albatross in distant Yorkshire, a ninety minute drive from my home to Steeple Langford was a doddle and I swapped memories of rugged coastal cliffs in Yorkshire for the prospect of a more genteel, inland pastoral scene in Wiltshire.

I had planned to leave for the reserve at 7am on Friday. However, what is for me a reasonably late departure had to be rapidly revised as I became aware that the best views of the falcon were from a hide which I surmised would get extremely crowded very quickly, as everyone now has a camera and would want to photograph this charismatic species.

This necessitated a change of plan overnight and I departed my house much earlier, at 4.30am, in an already light and pleasantly warm morning. Needless to say I encountered few other road users as I wound my way southwest through pleasant rural countryside and across three counties, much of the land at this early hour shrouded in low lying mist which would soon burn off once the sun broke the horizon.

I passed the iconic World Heritage site of Stonehenge, the stones looking mysterious and atmospheric in the morning mist and then turned off the notorious traffic congested A303 (but not at this hour) and after a few miles reached Steeple Langford and drove down the appropriately named Duck Street which led to  the reserve.

My plan on leaving early had worked as there were only two other cars in the reserve's car park when I arrived. It was 6am as I wandered down a long track between two lakes, serenaded by bird song and revitalised, after my drive by the freshness of the morning on what was promising to be a day of sunshine and hot temperatures.

I turned left and then right and after a short way came to the Meadow Hide on my left, which overlooks a small lake containing four artificial scrapes, two of which had what looked like substantial dead branches jutting out of them.Whether these were specifically for the falcon to perch on or whether they were a permanent fixture I do not know but they looked ideal for attracting the falcon.

The small lake and four scrapes with the falcon's favourite perching post visible on the scrape back left

I took my place in the hide, on a hard bench, amongst four other birders/photographers, all of us ranged behind the viewing slats and suitably socially distanced. I was, if you like, in the equivalent of the front row of the stalls. The prime position with an uninterrupted view out over the small lake to the scrapes and two perches. No one spoke. It was too early and we all knew it was going to be a long wait before the falcon put in an appearance. It would not become active until the dragonflies roused themselves and they were not going to stir until the morning air warmed sufficiently.

Settled on my bench I looked out to the scrapes and a small wader ran around the edges of one. It was a Green Sandpiper and a little later another sandpiper came into view, this time a Common Sandpiper. A  couple of Lapwing, a Grey Heron and some Canada Geese were the only additional occupiers of the lake.

Common Sandpiper

And that was about it for the subsequent two hours.The hide rapidly filled up with both birders and photographers, the latter often conspicuously without bins and soon it was standing room only with rows of birders ranged behind those of us who had managed to rise early enough to get the best vantage points in the hide. The noise levels rose accordingly as conversations broke out and the inevitable stories of past birding exploits were recounted to a captive audience, whether they wished to hear them or not. Everyone could see out to the lake and its scrapes so there was no rancour as yet more people arrived. I put on a mask, as did others, in case social distancing was forgotten. Just as well, for later in the morning a somewhat obnoxious lady photographer was to get  mildly confrontational when her lack of mask. while in too close proximity to another birder, was queried by the man in question.

A Barn Owl, flying distantly over fields beyond the lake prompted a volley of camera clicks from within the hide but it was way too far for photography and I gathered from the ensuing snippets of conversation that some in the hide lacked much understanding of their equipment's limitations.Not a problem as they were more than happy togging away at anything that moved but I chose to leave the camera  on my lap and to sit in silence and contemplate the world while finding the unforgiving bench becoming increasingly hard and uncomfortable but I dare not leave the hide to stretch my legs as I would lose my place.

Someone behind me came into the hide to advise the falcon was perched very distantly in a tree behind the hide.Some departed to have a look. All of us in the front remained seated. A little later the selfsame person came to advise the falcon was coming closer.

Eventually, at just after nine, a shout of 'incoming!' alerted everyone to the fact the falcon was approaching the hide and would soon be in front of us over the lake. Seconds later a surprisingly small falcon, somewhere between a Merlin and Kestrel in size, greyish brown above and dull buff white below with a  noticeably barred tail and creamy head skimmed low and at high speed across the lake and  onto one of the artificial perches. Cameras were raised in an instant but hopes of any photos were immediately dashed by a crow that flew at the falcon which  unsurprisingly departed from whence it had come.The disappointment and frustration was palpable and dark muttering's about b....y crows were audible from our ranks.

So it was back to waiting and half an hour later there was another cry of 'incoming!' and the falcon re-appeared and this time pitched on the same perch and was allowed to remain there in peace. 

It sat there for a few minutes and then took off, flying low and fast over the water and tried grabbing a dragonfly from the surface of the lake. It failed and returned to the perch, then 
repeated these sorties until it was successful  and had caught at least two dragonflies which appeared to be female Emperor Dragonflies, the insects looking sufficiently large and green in its claws.

The dragonflies were clutched firmly in its bunched orange feet and taken back to the perch to be eaten and I noticed that its tail feathers had become wet and spiky, an effect caused as it dipped its feet down to seize its unsuspecting prey from the water. I speculated that it was preying on ovipositing dragonflies hence its low level flights over the lake.

A few minutes later the falcon departed the way it had come, back around the side of the hide and was gone from view. Local opinion advised it was best to stay put as it would routinely go off elsewhere to hunt but would periodically re-visit the lake.

A reserve warden arrived with a wheelbarrow full of sanitiser and bin bags and asked us all to vacate the hide as he had to disinfect it which was a bit strange.Surely this could have been done out of hours? Uncomplainingly we all trooped out and stood around in the sunshine as he 'cleansed' the hide. What was most galling was the falcon chose to return while we were banished and as none of us had any photos to speak off, some got a little frustrated with the situation but soon we were back in the hide and looking at the lake now annoyingly, devoid of the falcon.

Conversations broke out once more as we waited. A phone with a ridiculously loud rock anthem ring tone prompted some adverse comment from a local birder whose conversation with a colleague up to now had been equally loud. I feared a confrontation but the owner of the phone sheepishly said he had now switched it off. Seconds later - yes you guessed! More apologies and then everyone settled down and most of us concentrated on the matter in hand.

Someone opined that a heron hunting the water's edge on the far side of the lake was out of luck as there were no fish in the lake.The heron promptly stabbed at the water and hauled out a large jack pike which it took in its bill and stalked onto dry land where it swallowed the fish in one gulp.

The next visit by the falcon was more prolonged.It dropped to the edge of the scrape below the perch and proceeded to drink, a prolonged unhurried process, the bird dipping its head to sip the water and then, after each sip, standing as if savouring the water before dipping its bill to the water once more. Back on the perch it flew more sorties over the lake and caught a number of dragonflies before flying to another scrape where it proceeded to walk around on the stony edge chasing a dragonfly but soon gave up and instead had a perfunctory bathe and another drink before flying back to its original perch to preen and then resume its hunting of dragonflies.Every time it moved a fusillade of camera shutter clicks rang out in the hide.

The hide had long since reached its capacity to cater for everyone safely. I became aware of people edging closer behind me and lenses pointing almost over my shoulders.Feeling a little uneasy I decided on waiting for one more visit from the falcon and once it departed I would relinquish my seat to someone behind me. It was quite a long wait but eventually the falcon duly performed as before, repeating its low level attacks over the lake from its favourite perch and occasionally grabbing a dragonfly which it dismembered and ate on the perch. 

The sun outside was warm but it felt chilly in the confines of the hide and I was  glad of my fleece.The falcon sat for a while on its perch, quite a long while in fact, and then dashed out across the lake after a dragonfly which it missed but instead of returning to the perch, as before, kept on going, rising high into the sky, flying up and over the surrounding trees and was gone.

This was my cue to depart. It was noon and I needed to leave as otherwise I would be enduring the snarl of holiday traffic on the A303. Not something to be contemplated with equanimity. 

Monday 12 July 2021

That Albatross at Bempton 10th July 2021

The call came in the late afternoon of Friday as I drove back home from Banbury via quiet country lanes. Rural Oxfordshire was at its idyllic best and I was at ease.

It was Hugh with a question. 'Do you fancy going to see the albatross tomorrow?'

Some hasty arrangements that evening had me arriving in a small village near Peterborough at 1am on Saturday morning.

Hugh was ready and waiting outside his house while the rest of the village slept. 

There was no time to lose as we conversed in hushed tones and I transferred myself and my gear to his car in preparation for a night drive, north to the RSPB's Bempton Cliffs reserve on the coast of East Yorkshire, where the Black browed Albatross had re-appeared yesterday.

Our plan was to get to the reserve at dawn in order to secure a place on the 'New Roll Up' viewing platform as, without a doubt, the albatross was going to be hugely popular, especially on a summer Saturday. We also felt it important to be in position before the albatross left the cliff it was supposedly roosting on.

Checking the weather predictions it looked like the day would be rain free but  with a possibility of mist early on.

Two and a half hours later, and driving down the lane to the reserve car park in the half light of the breaking dawn, we saw the red tail lights of another vehicle ahead, its occupant surely with the same thing in mind as us.

'We are not the first' I remarked 

Indeed we were not, for the car park was already liberally populated with cars and birders preparing to make the short walk to the cliffs with one thing on their mind. An albatross! We hurried to get ready and walked at pace down the path to the cliffs before turning right along the cliff edge track towards the southeast end of the reserve and in particular the 'New Roll Up' viewpoint, a wooden structure on the cliff edge overlooking the sea.

The albatross was thought to be roosting on the side of the cliff face at Staple Newk that was visible from  the viewpoint. 

Land and sea were but an indistinct presence in the mist with the towering cliffs blurred to massive, ill defined outlines.You sensed their presence rather than saw them.For now anyway. 

Approaching the viewpoint we could see it was already occupied by a large number of birders, their outlines silhouetted against the lightening sky. I decided to walk onwards to the next and furthest viewpoint, 'Staple Newk', where the albatross had been photographed yesterday evening, flying close in to the cliffs.

Hugh decided to opt for 'New Roll Up'. He needed the best chance possible to see the albatross as it would be a new British tick for him.I had the luxury to feel more relaxed as I had seen the albatross just a few days ago. We agreed to keep in touch from our respective viewpoints and update each other by phone as and when necessary.

I was the sole occupant of my viewpoint and was beginning to doubt my wisdom when I was joined by another birder who dispensed reassurance by recounting how close the albatross had come to the viewpoint yesterday evening.We chatted, waiting as the mist dissipated from the cliffs to reveal the sight of countless Gannets and Kittiwakes milling around  above and below us. Sight and also sound created an unforgettable impression. A spiralling vortex of huge white birds. Constantly circling. Forever scrutinising. Those birds making a close pass of the viewpoint cliffs would then wheel on six foot wings, out to sea, only to turn and approach the cliffs once more. What was behind the expressionless stare from those eyes of blue and grey as they passed me?

Time also passed and the mist retreated further to form a distant haze out at sea. I chatted to my colleague as we were joined by increasingly more birders.The viewpoint began to become populated, almost crowded. The limited space was now at a premium.

Hugh rang to tell me that with the improving visibility he could see the albatross was not on the cliff with the Gannets.

Where could it be? Although absent I still felt confident it would appear.

What seemed a considerable time later Hugh called again, to advise the albatross had flown in from further north and landed on its favourite bit of cliff, which due to the topography made it invisible to me but visible to Hugh.

Another long wait ensued and then suddenly, unexpectedly and excitingly, from behind the jutting cliff of Staple Newk,  the albatross appeared. It was not as easy as one would expect to pick it out amongst the whirling shapes of hundreds of Gannets and Kittiwakes but there, unequivocally, was the albatross.

It was not at head height but below, black of wing and white of head and body with a pink bill of monstrous proportions and a black frown line over its eye. What a beauty and I clicked away merrily with the camera as it circled amongst the other seabirds. I  was exultant. At last, here were the extended and close views I had so longed for and had made four trips to achieve. 

For fifteen minutes it circled continuously and apparently aimlessly, just like all the gannets, scrutinising the cliff faces as if  curious or seeking something. Turning into the wind it bent its long wings to slightly stall in the flow of air up the cliff, lowering its huge grey paddle feet to act as a stabilising wind brake, then, sweeping around, extended those gargantuan narrow wings to an incredible length and dropped away, glider fashion but with infinitely more control, further out to sea, before circling and flying back over the gannet colony below us. 

I followed its gyrations, vaguely aware of late arriving birders behind me, running down the grass track in a panic and onto the wooden viewing platform, cramming into any available space and hastily commencing to fire off their cameras. No time to check settings. They were lucky, as the albatross flew out of sight around the cliff face a minute later and a phone call from Hugh confirmed it had returned to perch amongst the Gannets as it had done earlier.

An hour may have passed. It seemed so and then there it was again, suddenly and unexpectedly appearing, only to circle once before drifting slowly out to sea and away. It eventually settled a long way off, on the sea, and there it remained, bathing and preening. This bird of the sea and air. Removing any trace of land from its foam white feathers. It rose from the sea, heading inexorably northeast, despite everyone's hopes to the contrary and was gone from sight. It was approaching 7am and the day had hardly begun although it felt like it was already over

Numbers built up until there were capacity crowds at all the viewpoints as well as lined along the clifftop fences. The hope was it would return, as it had done before, later in the morning. Optimism remained strong for a while but all were to be disappointed. The albatross never returned.

Apart from a trip 
to the visitor centre for a coffee in mid morning, I spent from 4.30am to 6pm on the viewpoint. A time planned to be spent  with an albatross morphed into one spent at a Gannet colony and which was far from a disappointment, as watching these magnificent seabirds go about their lives can never be boring.

Here are some more unusual images that I took during my long and immensely enjoyable vigil. It's not often one can say that they have spent a day in a Gannet colony. 

I made the most of it.

And of course I have to include another summer resident on the cliffs. 

My favourite seabird - The Razorbill

And just for Dave - a Puffin😉