Saturday 15 April 2023

A Prettywake at Farmoor Reservoir 14th April 2023

Many years ago when our now grown up daughter was but three or four and we lived near the sea in Sussex I would push her in her pram along Seaford seafront to Seaford Head where we would watch the Kittiwakes flying to and from their nest ledges on the chalk face. When I told her the 'seagulls' we were watchng were in fact called Kittiwakes she did not quite master the word and rather charmingly christened them Prettywakes.

That was over twenty five years ago and having lived in Oxfordshire for twenty of those years I know full well that Kittiwakes are a very much scarcer bird in Oxfordshire which is about as far from the sea as it is possible to be.

However this Spring has seen an unprecedented influx of Kittiwakes into Oxfordshire.Not in large numbers but just single individuals with an exception of two together at Port Meadow in Oxford. Grimsbury Reservoir in Banbury seemed to be the hub with up to four different birds occuring there over a period of a week or so. 

Grimsbury is a relatively small waterbody compared to Farmoor Reservoir but this did not deter the Kittiwakes from showing a marked preference to settling there and the two that spent an afternoon on the floods at Port Meadow, only added to the sense of injustice that Farmoor was ignored.

Kittiwakes have occured at Farmoor and the last one I saw was an ailing juvenile last year which sadly expired the day after it arrived but all the Kittiwakes seen in Oxfordshire so far this year appear to have been in good health.

Finally, today an adult Kittiwake arrived mid morning at Farmoor and settled itself at the far western side of the larger basin, busily picking flies from the water's surface, not the usual fare for a bird which normally feeds on shrimps and fish. Incidentally this bird was still in its winter plumage as evidenced by the dark smudge on each side of its head and the grey caste on the nape and hindneck. I would have expected it to be in breeding plumage by now so possibly it may not be going to breed this year.

Fortunately it remained for the rest of the day and for the main part decided to keep close to the reservoir's wall where the water was less troubled by the wind.

Kittiwakes are mainly pelagic outside of the breeding season and return to nest in colonies on cliffs and increasingly also on tall buildings where they are often not appreciated and met with netting and other devices, installed to deter them. Yet another sad example of our apparent unwillingness to connect with nature. There is a famous and very well known colony that has adopted the Tyne Bridge as well as The Baltic Centre in Newcastle upon Tyne, despite futile efforts to deter the birds with netting.I should add this has  resulted in not inconsiderable protest from the general public. and appears to have resulted in the netting being removed. .

These single birds in Oxfordshire this year are making their way north to their breeding colonies and may either be storm blown, as lately the winds have been very strong during March and April. They could  equally plausibly be making a short cut across England, saving a longer journey if they followed a course over the sea. I can recall a day or two before my wedding day in April 1987, rather than having a stag do, I went fishing for a day with a friend at Weir Wood Reservoir in Sussex and a sizeable flock of Kittiwakes passed over us heading inland and undoubtedly going north. 

So, finally this year a Kittiwake has graced Farmoor Reservoir, whose waters with white horses and pounding waves, stirred by the almost gale force winds for the last few days, have resembled the North Alantic.

Probably the Kittiwake felt quite at home.


Sadly my optimism about the health of the Kittiwake proved unfounded as it was found dead on the reservoir causeway on Saturday afternoon although it had shown little sign of being unwell on Friday. Birds health can deteriorate quite rapidly, as a similar state of affairs occured with the juvenile that arrived at Farmoor last year and like this bird, similarly survived only two days, after seemingly arriving fit and healthy.

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