Monday 23 May 2022

One Evening at the Reservoir 21st May 2022

Of late I have taken to visiting my local Farmoor Reservoir in the evening, especially on weekends. The pandemic lockdowns and subsequent desire to have somewhere that is safe and open to walk about in has resulted in a huge increase in visitors to the reservoir as more and more people have 'discovered' the reservoir.

There is nothing wrong in that but the large number of people, the majority unaware of the birding potential at the reservoir means that for most of the day there is almost constant, unwitting disturbance and few birds, especially migrating waders, hang around.

However, in the early morning and evening the reservoir can be almost deserted and these have now become the most opportune times to find birds, especially the waders that touch down to rest and feed before continuing their long journies north.

It fascinates me that those that do descend to the reservoir must be but a tiny fraction of the birds that pass invisibly, high overhead, heading northwards across England towards their far flung destinations.

This evening I got to the reservoir at 6pm and as anticipated it was comparatively quiet. These visits can go either way, the majority resulting in little to see but occasionally I get lucky. It's all a matter of persistence.The more visits one makes the greater the chance of eventually finding something of interest. This is the reality of birding an inland reservoir.

Walking up to where the central causeway commences, dividing the two basins that comprise the reservoir, I scanned the eastern shore of the smaller basin, the sun still bright and warm and a moderate southwest wind corrugating the blue waters of the reservoir.

When most folk have departed, the yacht's people and surfboarders have ceased their activities and the cafe closed its doors, the reservoir takes on an entirely different character. Less functional and busy, the resulting sense of quiet brings a more relaxed atmosphere as the soothing sound of waves lapping  concrete shores re-asserts itself after the noise and bustle of the day.

This sense of calm is compounded by the fact that I too feel the vibe, knowing that if I find a good bird at this time I am less likely to have to endure the frustration of it being flushed by innocent passers by.Tension is now a stranger as expectation and hope transcend any anxiousness.

Looking along a shoreline stained olive green with algae due to the extended warm spell I could see two birds wandering the shore, the sun in the west turning them to no more than black silhouettes. Shape and behaviour however, can be just as good a means of identification as colour.

One was a Pied Wagtail, speed darting and pirouetting, as only they can, chasing after flies to feed its young in a nest in the adjacent waterworks buildings. The other was more bulky and compared to the wagtail methodical  in its feeding, picking gently at the algae as it slowly walked along the shore. Wader? Surely not, as most waders settle on the central causeway rather than here

I walked closer and in my bins could see it was indeed a small wader, a Turnstone no less, my first this year. Such is the nature of birding at Farmoor, this formed a triumph, a good record and total justification for my visit. 

I moved closer still and settled myself on the retaining wall, waiting for the bird to walk towards me, which it slowly did, and checking over my shoulder that there was no one approaching that would disturb me or the bird, prepared to indulge myself with the camera.

Turnstones in summer plumage are transformed from a winter garb of drab brown and white into a colourful, hotch potch, harlequin mix of black, white and rufous. and judging by the brightness and bold markings of this bird's plumage, it was a male. The panda like black  and white patterning on its head was striking in its definition, the breast an apron of black on otherwise snow white underparts. The upperparts a broth of rich chestnut, paler rufous and black feathers, mimicking the colours of the seaweed festooned rocks they so love to frequent. They are sturdy birds, possessing a low slung body supported by short and thick orange legs that provide the power and thrust to enable a stubby pick like bill to upturn the stones and weed where hides their prey. It has the heft of a wrestler, squat and muscular. A no nonsense wader, so very different in demeanour to the more frequently occurring Dunlin and Sanderlings, that are also spring migrant visitors to the reservoir.

In the absence of rocks and weed at the reservoir it contented itself by picking up lesser morsels from the concrete shoreline. It is a long way from its coastal winter home which can be as far away as South Africa and has much further yet to fly but for now this inauspicious concrete corner of the reservoir will serve a purpose until it moves on to breed anywhere from  Canada or Greenland to Scandinavia and northern Russia. 

I moved on, deciding to walk around the smaller basin rather than up the causeway. Sometimes waders disturbed from the causeway will fly to the opposite side of the basin. It's always worth a look but rarely lives up to expectations. Maybe a Common Sandpiper or two will be there. Today was the exception as I disturbed a curiously dowdy Ringed Plover, its dull, grey brown plumage rendering it almost invisible against the shelving concrete  on which it stood.

It looked scruffy, like an unfinished drawing, as if the artist had yet to colour in the rings of black on its head and neck, currently sullied with pale brown and the upperpart feathers, the colour of wet sand, were much worn and abraded. Was it a non breeder or was its moult somehow retarded? There always seems to be an unanswerable question about such birds.

It stood, uncertain, not sure whether to stick or twist, bobbing its head in anxiety, a common wader characteristic, as it regarded me with a large, dark, plover eye. I left it, still stood immobile and looking at me, making its own mind up about my intentions.

I completed the remaining two thirds circuit of the reservoir basin and turned to make my way down the central causeway. Waders, usually Dunlin and Sanderling sometimes drop in here of an evening during May, and today my luck persisted as now there were four of my favourite wader, Sanderlings, standing by the water on the shelving concrete.

Relaxed, if such a word can be used to describe a bird's existence, looking content and with rest very much a priority, they only fed in a desultory fashion preferring to preen, stretch tired wings or even to briefly sleep. Their's is a life lived at breakneck speed and one unimaginable to our sedate, controlled existence. No rules or regulations. No constraints. Everything counted in seconds, reactions immediate, always having to be alert to a multitude of threats to their lives.

As is normal with Sanderlings, the plumage of each bird was variable, with at one extreme, an individual showing much orange and chestnut on its head and uppperparts, to others retaining variable amounts of grey and white winter feathers, less advanced in their moult to the full glowing richness of summer plumage. 

The bright plumage tones of the one Sanderling were a delight to behold. It was quite literally transformed from a prosaic grey to various shades of orange on its head and upperparts  Not a plumage one sees very often anywhere, and Farmoor, in spring, is virtually the only place where it is possible to enjoy such a sight in Oxfordshire.

This was a very productive visit by Farmoor standards.It does not happpen that often but when it does it fills one with renewed enthusiasm and compensates for the knowledge that  inevitably most days will not be like this, as the reservoir reverts to normal and not deliver such delights.

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