Saturday 23 July 2022

They're Back! 21st July 2022

As some know and others have guessed, my favourite wader is the Sanderling. One of the smallest waders that inhabit Britain, where they are not uncommon during migration periods and in winter. Sanderlings do not breed in Britain but many miles north, thousands of miles in fact, achieving incredible feats of endurance and distance as they make their way to breed in the high arctic tundra of northeast Greenland and Siberia, even Canada.

My local reservoir at Farmoor in Oxfordshire receives a small number of these diminutive waders, both on their spring and autumn migrations and I feel fortunate to be able to look forward to seeing a few each year. Late July through August and into early September attract to the reservoir only a miniscule proportion of those migrating south but that is enough to satisfy my desire, the birds dropping  from the sky to the reservoir to refuel and rest before completing their journeys, be it only as far as the coast of Britain, maybe further to the coasts of western and southern mainland Europe or even as far as South Africa.

They are truly global travellers, a miracle of evolution and I always welcome their presence on the reservoir. In Spring they are in a hurry and rarely tarry longer than a day. According to The British Trust for Ornithology's Migration Atlas, Sanderlings, weighing no more than 95gms, complete their northward migration of up to 5000 kilometres in three long flights with only two refuelling stops. The total journey time being around seven weeks. However on returning in late summer they are more relaxed, the all consuming urgency to breed is over for another year and as the pace slows they feel content to remain at the reservoir for a number of days.

Without fail, with each encounter, I look at them in wonder and admiration, a beautiful entity comprised of nothing more than feather, bone and instinct, their tiny forms so inconsequential  on the vast expanse of concrete and water that is Farmoor Reservoir. It is easy to gloss over what an extraordinary existence is the life of a Sanderling. Migrating birds in Spring can have come from as far away as Southern Africa migrating up the coast of West Africa or going overland across The Sahara Desert, then following the east coast of the Atlantic to northwest Europe before heading onwards to Siberia or Greenland. It is not unreasonable to contend that many of the Sanderlings that arrive at the reservoir in both Spring and Autumn are making their way to or from breeding grounds in Greenland. An indication that this is so came from a colour ringed bird that arrived at the reservoir on 8th May 2021.The combination of rings identified the bird as having been ringed in Greenland in July 2020. 

A Sanderling at Farmoor Reservoir in May 2021 with colour rings identifying it as having been ringed in Greenland in July 2020

The return journey from the arctic breeding areas is through Iceland and the counries bordering the Baltic and North Seas. Sanderlings in winter can be distributed along the Atlantic Coast anywhere from Britain, south through continental Europe and along the coast of Africa as far as its very southern point.

Sanderlings that are seen on the reservoir this early in July are adults, either failed breeders or females that have left their partner to tend the offspring, as many wader species do, until they too make the return journey later in August.

The reservoir was quiet today. A mid week Wednesday with the fishermen temporarily absent and only the occasional person walking the reservoir as a sky of light cloud, backlit by a reluctant sun, brought a hint of humidity to the warm air. Today there was a single adult Sanderling walking along at the water's edge, unusually for a Sanderling not hyperactive although typically confiding, finding rich and easy pickings in the spaghetti like strands of lurid green weed, cast up along the shore after a long period of drought and the recent exceptionally high temperatures.

It regarded me, as I approached, with a bright enquiring eye and if a bird can shrug its shoulders that is what it did and carried on with the business of feeding, uncaring of my presence. 

Its plumage, now aged by weather, travel and time, no longer showed the rich chestnut tones of Spring but was much abraded, fading to a paler shadow of former finery and soon to be discarded for new feathers of white and grey to see it through the winter to come.

As I watched, the now inevitable jogger came, with thumping feet and gasping breath, along the causeway and the Sanderling up to this point relaxed and at ease took fright and flew out over the reservoir. Its pedestrian progress on the shoreline abandoned to a flight of quicksilver rapidity, low over the water, twisting instinctively one way then the other at mesmerising speed, the bird was at times hard to follow. As it flew it was unexpectedly joined by another, presumably just arriving onto the reservoir from the sky above  and the two synchronised, to  fly a circle of speed before making landfall on the sunbaked concrete further along the shoreline. The transition from high speed flight to standing motionless was accomplished in an instant, both bird's stood with feathers compressed, their slight bodies compacted into quivering slimline alertness and ready for an instant return to the air if necessary.

They soon settled, relaxing into a more familiar roundness of form and being sociable birds remained together, keeping close as they fed but like excited childen trying to outpace each other to be first to get the choicest morsel.

Sanderlings were not the only wader present today. An adult Dunlin was feeding on the other side of the causeway which was hardly unexpected as Dunlins are often to be found here at the same time as Sanderlings and are, by default the most frequently encountered wader at Farmoor although Common Sandpipers can run them close

Adult Dunlin

No comments:

Post a Comment