Friday 18 February 2022

Farmoor's Long Staying Great Northern 17th February 2022

Having indulged myself with some very special birds this last month, culminating in the excitement of going twice to see the American Robin at Eastbourne( see here )today it was back to a more sedate kind of birding at Farmoor Reservoir, renewing acquaintance with the long staying Great Northern Diver, now only granted the most casual of glances as the novelty of its presence has long since worn off. It first arrived on the reservoir on 12th December 2021 and has been here for 67 days, one of the longest stays of this species that I can remember since I began visiting the reservoir years ago.

Today provided a window of opportunity between two violent storms. The first, Storm Dudley  did its worst yesterday, the ferocious wind churning up the waters of the reservoir into white horses and making walking out along the causeway hazardous. That storm passed overnight, leaving today still windy but pleasantly sunny. However this is only a temporary respite as now we are bracing ourselves for the arrival of Storm Eunice which is predicted to be much more violent and has prompted Thames Water to close the reservoir tomorrow, Friday, due to an amber weather warning.

I walked around the larger basin to the far western side where I was sheltered from the worst of the chilling westerly wind. A welcome respite indeed. I sat on the retaining wall and scanned the waters of the reservoir in front of me which were calm here, in the lee of the wind, and as a consequence numbers of Coot,Tufted Ducks and Great crested Grebes had congregated to avoid the exposed rougher water further out.

I was looking for the Great Northern Diver and it did not take long to find as it surfaced almost in front of me for a minute before diving again, but above or below water it remained always relatively close to the reservoir bank. With nothing else to divert my attention, I was in no hurry and decided to spend a peaceful hour or more here, out of the strong wind, entirely alone, observing the diver going about its life. For the main part it was fishing but would intersperse this with bouts of preening and even a brief sleep.

Looking closely at its plumage there was evidence it was commencing to moult some of the feathers which it has worn since it first became independent. Its plumage now no longer quite so pristine but with small gaps where feathers have been moulted and new ones have yet to fully replace them.  It will gradually moult into a more adult type plumage with the passing of the coming days but not into as smart a plumage as a full adult, for it will probably not breed this year but only next year, assuming it survives to full adulthood. 

This is a Great Northern Diver in full breeding plumage taken 
on The Isle of Arran in May

Some birds are thought to breed in their second year of life but are very much in the minority. I am hoping it will remain for as long as possible so I can watch the progress of its moult as such an opportunity does not come often.The diver seems untroubled by the increased footfall, post covid, around the reservoir nor the disturbance from the various waterborne activities that prevail on the larger basin that it prefers. Eventually it will doubtless leave the reservoir in its own time, maybe to migrate to its birthplace which could be either Iceland or southern Greenland.

It was obviously feeling the itch of renewing feathers coming through or maybe old feathers that needed discarding and spent some time nibbling at and removing downy under feathers. It raised a huge paddle of a webbed foot as it tilted to one side, its head held low to the water and then as it slowly rotated in the water, with infinite delicacy it scratched an irritation on its cheek many times, an action one would have thought impossible with such a blunt instrument as the giant foot.

After each session of preening it would invariably stand on its feet in the water and  extending head and neck raise its body up and flap its wings before sinking back into the water.

It is impossible not to think of a submarine as you watch its long body moving low and slow through the water, the whole bird perfectly adapted for a life spent virtually entirely on or under water.The only time it will come to land will be when it breeds and constructs a rudimentary nest as close to the water's edge as possible, for its legs and feet are set so far back on its body, it has great difficulty in standing on land.

When it turned its head and the sun shone on the side of its head its eye was highlighted and could be seen to be red, not that I could see this without examining the images on the back of my camera. I have been told that the red pigment in the eyes is an aid to catching fish underwater but have no idea if this is true or not.

The diver brought up a tiny fish which it held briefly in the tip of its bill. Often its bill would be entwined with the thin strands of silk weed, which superficially can look like fishing line, but each time it surfaced, with a shake of its huge bill it would dispense with the clinging weed. 

It dived again and this time came up with a large rainbow trout in its bill.The size of the fish made it an impossibility to swallow but the diver would not relinquish its prey without giving it a good try although it was clearly a hopeless task and the constant prodding by the diver's mandibles inevitably brought about the demise of the trout. It was only after ten or so minutes that the diver finally conceded defeat, left the dead fish floating and re-commenced diving for something smaller and more manageable

So a much more eventful hour than I could have imagined came to a minor climax. I have never seen a Great Northern tackle such a large fish before and learnt something new this morning as yet again I  reflected on how, taking time to sit quietly, watching birds or any wildlife can bring the benefit of inner peace to one's being.

Nature is wonderful,it is all around and free for everyone to enjoy and treasure.

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