Tuesday 30 November 2021

Little Auk in Oxfordshire 30th November 2021

I was sitting in the Mill Cafe in Chipping Norton with a coffee when my phone rang.It was my good friend Badger.

Hi Buddy.Where are you?

In Chipping Norton.Why do you ask

There is a report of a Little Auk seen on the River Thames at Farmoor Reservoir today. 

Badger like many others assumes, quite rightly, that I spend more time than is sensible tramping the concrete wastes of Oxfordshire's largest body of standing water. Sadly, this time I was nowhere near so someone else would have to check out this sensational news.

Apparently the initial report was from an 'out of county' birder from Swindon in Wiltshire or thereabouts and the images he took looked pretty convincing. It could be a hoax of course .Such things do and have occurred but no one would be sure until a local birder went to check.

Unable to go I sat frustrated, awaiting further news which would surely come out pretty quickly if there were any other local birders already at Farmoor.

Ten minutes later it was confirmed there was indeed a Little Auk, currently swimming about at Pinkhill Lock which lies on the River Thames, just below the reservoir's northern boundary 

It was instant decision time. There was no time to lose as it was now 2pm and it would be dark in a couple of hours. I left the cafe and made as fast a drive as was safe on the country lanes back to my house.Grabbing camera and bins I shouted some sort of explanation to my wife as I bolted out of the door, leapt into the car and headed for Farmoor.

At this time of day traffic was thankfully light and I made good time, coming to a halt in Farmoor Village which lies at the back of the reservoir and via an alleyway grants the quickest access to Pinkhill Lock. I noted that the normally quiet road was more heavily populated with cars than is normal and some of which I recognised. Obviously quite a few of my fellow Oxonbirders had already arrived.

Following the path I soon saw a 'crowd' of fifteen or so 'locals' lined up on the bank of the Thames and making my way through Oxfordshire's finest, joined my fellow birders on the river's bank.

The river is not hugely wide here and roughly in the middle was a diminutive black and white auk, a Little Auk, sunk low in the water, frantically swimming about, back and fore, in mid river

It was ceaselessly active and to my mind looked distressed and confused, swimming along one particular stretch of river from towpath to the lock. Constantly paddling, it swam back and fore, never once diving or looking like it was going to feed. It was worrying and tiring in equal measure to watch the auk, its behaviour of manically swimming up and down the river in marked contrast to the leisurely feeding of the Little Auk I went to see in Weymouth recently.

To my eyes there was something not quite right about it, possibly it was slighty oiled and at times it became ever so slighty lopsided towards its left side.But it remained active enough and flapped its tiny wings on occasions and even skittered across the water as if it wanted to fly off but these attempts always came to nothing. 

Possibly it was too exhausted to fly but it could till swim rapidly and eventually with a trail of admirers following it, arrived at the closed lock gates where it could go no further. Here it came very close indeed, literally feet from me and then attempted to leave the water, never a good sign, and stand on some flattened reeds. Noticeably unsteady on its feet whenever it flapped its wings and toppling back into the water, nevertheless it persisted in trying to perch but in the end  gave up and recommenced its frantic paddling.

I fear it will not survive and probably it will be found dead tomorrow, such is the usual fate of these waifs.It is a major rarity for Oxfordshire, unsurprising in a county about as far inland as one can get. I suppose one saving grace is that it did not choose to settle on the adjacent reservoir where it would rapidly fall victim to one of the large gulls that are found there. 

Little Auks usually spend their winter in the northern reaches of the Atlantic Ocean.The likelihood of this little bird ever making it back to the coast and the open sea unaided is virtually nil. I am delighted however to state the Little Auk was still alive the next day and by means of a fisherman's landing net was captured and taken to be released at Steart on the Somerset coast the same day. 

Birds of Oxfordshire (1992) edited by J.W.Brucker, A.G.Gosler and A.R. Heryet class this species as a rare straggler which has been recorded on fourteen occasions between 1950 and 1990 at various places in the county and occurring between October and February. Nine of the fourteen records were of dead or dying birds but two others were revived and released at sea. The three remaining reports, which were of fit and active birds, involved two single birds, one at Blenheim on 9th February 1983 and one at Farmoor on 23rd November 1988 and a remarkable record of three together at Hardwick Gravel Pit on 30th October 1983. On the 1st November 1996 two individuals were found in gardens after storms, one in Yarnton and the other in Abingdon. Although both were rescued and taken to the Sussex coast neither had sufficient strength to return to the wild and had to be rescued and taken to Brent Lodge Bird Hospital in Selsey where, sadly they died a few days later. A third healthy individual was found on Drayton Pit at Dorchester on 12th November 1996 and flew off. The only other record is of a bird found
at Shipton under Wychwood on 12th November 2007 which was returned to the coast at Portishead near Bristol.

Earlier records followed a similar pattern of frequency with an exceptional period in January 1895 when no fewer than five were picked up from various locations in the county.

The last Little Auk to be recorded in Oxfordshire was a bird found in a puddle at Chipping Norton on 22nd December 2015.It appeared to have a broken wing and subsequently died.

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