Wednesday 20 September 2023

Of Gulls and Waders at Farmoor 16th September 2023

It has been good time for birding at my local Farmoor Reservoir these last few weeks with small numbers of commoner waders passing through as they return south from their arctc breeding areas, the vast majority being juveniles as the adults have already preceded them.How they find their own way south is something at which to wonder and marvel.Ringed Plovers. Turnstones and most frequent of all Dunlins are all periodic and regular visitors and I.chide myself for saying 'It's only a Dunlin', before reflecting on the tiny bird's long journey and the minor miracle of how it came to be here.

Juvenile Ringed Plover

Juvenile Dunlin

Adult Turnstones

This year more unusual and less than annual occuring wader species passing southwards have been Red Knot, Ruff, Curlew Sandpiper and Little Stint 

Adult Knot

Juvenile Ruff

The customary post juvenile flock of Starlings, all now well on their way to acquiring a winter plumage of  iridescent black starred with white,  swirl around in a tight cohesive flock before settling to feed in their customary frantic fashion, on the short grass of the banks by the works buildings. For a second year running they harbour an almost totally white individual or maybe it is the same bird as last year. I do not think it is an albino as it does not appear to have pink eyes and its head is a shade of palest buff. I could be wrong though, as it is incredibly difficult to get close enough to it to make a detailed examination and it disappears during the day, only being seen at dawn and dusk. 

Forever wary the starling flock when alarmed will seek the highest points on the various structures in the works complex. At pre-roost time they congregate on the works buildings and  sometimes there is an opportunity to see them, for once not in constant motion..One evening when the weather conditions were nigh on perfect with a setting sun casting a benign light and no wind to speak of they settled for an extended period on one of the metal structures, prior to flying to their roost. 

Murmuring amongst themselves with chuckles and gurgles as if reflecting on the day, they perched amicably with their strange coloured companion.I stood with some colleagues and tried out my new camera.This would be a real test as the starlings were quite distant.No one else with me really bothered but I  got what I considered a  good image of this striking bird and felt rather pleased with myself.I will forgo mentioning the other multiple images of this bird that failed the test.

It only requires one good image!

The welcome late summer spell of heat and sunshine that has settled over Oxfordshire has brought an almost Mediterranean ambience to Farmoor's concrete shores but it will not last so I am making the most of it. A sure sign of the changing season is that the reservoir, where I spend more time than I should, is slowly garnering its complement of roosting gulls which will gradually increase to reach a peak of thousands by mid winter.

Sadly avian flu has cast its long shadow and the large numbers of Black headed Gulls that breed at nearby Cassington Gravel Pits have been badly hit, but post breeding, the survivors plus birds from futher afield are a growing presence on the reservoir although much diminished.from normal numbers and sickly looking individual gulls as well as the bodies of already deceased Black headed Gulls and Lesser Black backed Gulls are currently much in evidence.

I took a stroll along the causeway on a sultry, humid  late afternoon and on reaching the far western end of the causeway met Ben who told me he had just found a juvenile Little Gull which  even as he spoke was conveniently flying directly towards us from the smaller of the two basins. It passed near to us and proceeded to fly away parallel with the causeway, all the way to the far end where it turned before we lost sight of it.

It came into view once more and we hurried down the causeway to try and get nearer and fortuitously it chose to fly back towards us, fairly close to the causeway and then settled briefly on the water almost opposite us.

With my new camera and lens I am learning a new techniqie for me of back button focus so with some uncertainty I pointed the lens at the  gull  and with thumb on the back button and index finger on the shutter button pressed and hoped. It worked reasonably, although not to my total satisfaction but I managed to obtain a few passable images.

It was on the water for only a short time before rising once more and flying off to the far western end before transferring to the larger basin that is Farmoor 2.We followed its progress against the trees but eventually lost sight of it once again.

Juvenile Little Gull

Compared to the few Black headed Gulls also flying around seizing small fish from the reservoir it appeared notably slimmer and much more buoyant in flight, floating through the air with much elegance as its wings caressed the air in a graceful motion that was more tern like than gull.

Black headed Gull

Normally we see Little Gulls here in Spring, the majority  adults in summer plumage with the odd first year bird in transitional plumage. Records of Little Gulls outside of this period are scarce and usually involve winter plumaged adults.This individual was still very much in juvenile plumage which involves much brown on its upperparts.They do not retain this plumage for long, moulting the brown feathers to be replaced with grey and white and this bird was already commencing its post juvenile moult into the predominantly grey and white plumage it will wear for the rest of this year and the next.They are only fully adult in their third year of life.

Walking down the causeway we were pleasantly surprised to discover a juvenile Mediterranean Gull sat on the water with a Black headed Gull for company and presumably joining the gull roost.Like the Little Gull it was in transition  from juvenile plumage to first winter plumage.We endeavoured to get closer but lost it amongst the growing number of gulls arriving to roost on the reservoir.

I returned the next day at roost time to see if I could find either of the gulls again but there was no sign of the Little Gull. However the Mediterranean Gull was perched on the valve house railings with the usual gang of Black headed Gulls. I endeavoured to get some images of this welcome visitor to the reservoir but it was far from straight forward as it was stood with its back to me and facing into a setting sun.Quite a test for me and my camera but I was really pleased with the results.I watched and photographed it as it stood on the railings preening then went back to the causeway where I found it had decamped onto the water but now was more distant.

The gull soon returned to the railings to preen once more and I remained on the causeway checking the larger gulls until 7.30 when the reservoir gates close for the night.  

As I departed the sun was a fiery orange orb slowly declining behind the trees at the far end of the reservoir by the river. There was barely a whisper of wind and the waters were mirror smooth

At times like this Farmoor can take on an almost fantastical appearance and one can almost imagine oneself in a far less prosaic place than an inland reservoir in middle England.

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