Monday 13 December 2021

A Great Northern at Farmoor 13th December 2021

A blustery day, unseasonably mild and as a consequence grey, more than enough to dull the spirit. A year coming to an end but bringing little joy or optimism as we lurch into another covid crisis that will, so we are told, only grow worse in the year to come.

I needed to be out, away from the house, away from all the endless bad news, communing with a natural world where my mind would be diverted from its potential to lead me down those familiar dark corridors of anxiety.

The unlikely surrounds of Farmoor Reservoir have been my salvation since the covid pandemic first turned the world on its head and it was to there that I turned this morning, as today held the promise of something special that had arrived on the reservoir only yesterday. A Great Northern Diver.

Farmoor Reservoir used to receive an annual winter visit from this impressively large species but then came a four year gap from April 2016 until November 2020, when none arrived on the reservoir. It therefore seemed that normal service had been resumed this year when not one but two arrived on the reservoir in quick succession.

However the first of the two birds to arrive this winter only remained for a day, which it spent dodging the yachts and windsurfers on Farmoor 2, the larger basin. Unsurprisingly it was nowhere to be seen the following morning. Yesterday, another was found and like most of the others that have come to the reservoir over the years it was a juvenile. I watched the diver from the causeway, in the windy and murky weather of a late Sunday afternoon, and like its predecessor it too was dodging yachts and windsurfers and I thought it would be no great surprise if it departed for somewhere less troubling.

It was with some relief that I found the diver was still present today but had transferred to Farmoor 1, the smaller basin where currently it only has to worry about Cormorants and Coots, the  yachts and windsurfers being confined to Farmoor 2. 

Its impressive presence was gracing the water around the eastern bank. Huge of head and bill with a bulky, torpedo long body, the whole supremely adapted to spending virtually an entire life on water, be it fresh or salt.

Their size imbues them with a gravitas, the movements it makes above the surface almost ponderous. The huge bill, a bayonet of blue grey in the dull light, needs the large head and muscular neck to carry it. 

Dull grey brown above, each upper body feather is neatly edged with a delicate pale fringe, imparting an overall scaled patterning while the underparts, for the most part below the waterline, are shining white. In the dull light of this morning the ruby red colouring of its eyes was hard to discern.

For the majority of the time the diver was feeding, disappearing for disconcertingly long periods underwater (one has been recorded as having remained submerged for three minutes),  only to surface at a considerable distance from where it had submerged. Each dive would be preceded by a sleeking of head and body feathers before it slid underwater in a movement smooth as silk.

There was never a hint of a cormorant like, energetic plunge dive from this aquatic aristocrat, just an arching of neck as its bill pierced the water's surface, head and body following in one lythe movement of consummate grace.

Times came and went where it loafed idly on the surface or preened. In the latter case, rolling on its side to expose gleaming white underparts, its head and bill extended back over its body in a sinuous snake like movement as it rubbed bill on preen gland, to get the oil that would keep its feathers waterproof.

It cruised around its new home in relaxed and splendid isolation but assume a threat posture, by lowering  head and neck parallel with the water,if  coot, grebe or cormorant came too close. The gesture meant there was never any argument from the smaller birds.

There has been a noticeable influx of Great Northern Divers to inland locations in the last couple of days possibly due to the recent violent storms at sea and on the coast, with individuals being found at Draycote Water and Caldecotte Reservoir in neighbouring Warwickshire and Buckinghamshire respectively. Others have been found on inland reservoirs or large areas of water ranging from Yorkshire,Nottinghamshire,Suffolk, Hampshire,Wiltshire and Greater London.

The origins of these birds are from populations in Iceland and to a lesser extent Greenland, some of which  move south to spend the winter around the coasts of Britain, principally off northwest Scotland, Ireland and southwest England. Many of these storm blown inland individuals are less experienced juveniles.

I hope this 'Great Northern' remains for a few weeks. It is after all, on the less busy basin of the reservoir, there is plenty of food and it should be relatively undisturbed. We will see. 

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