Sunday 19 November 2023

A Slavonian at Farmoor 18th November 2023

Saturday and plans to visit my local reservoir at nearby Farmoor were put on hold as, glancing out from the bedroom window, I could see nothing but an oppressive greyness and rain drops ricocheting off the road below.

Still there were plenty of those tedious tasks one puts off until the proverbial rainy day and now I had no excuse as here was that very day.

Towards late morning the sky lightened as did my mood, the rain ceased and so my thoughts returned to Farmoor once again. My mind was made up when news came through via the local Oxon Bird Log of a Slavonian Grebe being found at the reservoir.

Slavonian Grebes are a rare winter visitor to Oxfordshire, and, when they occur at Farmoor do so almost exclusively in the winter months, involving single individuals. They rarely remain for long, a few days at most and are probably making their way overland to the south coast of England where they spend the winter in sheltered areas offshore. Both Pagham in Sussex and Hayling in Hampshire are well known wintering areas. 

Farmoor Reservoir gets very busy on weekends with various watersports and fishermen, so often unusual birds such as the grebe get moved on by the constant disturbance on the water. The grebe was reported to be at the far end of the reservoir near to the central causeway,so was unlikely to be disturbed and depart prematurely as it was well away from the windsurfers congregating by the yacht club at the opposite end of the causeway, preparing to take advantage of the strenghthening wind. 

With camera and bins I set off to walk to the far end of the causeway and having traversed two thirds found the grebe swimming amongst a gathering of Coots and Tufted Ducks fairly close to the causeway. Sometimes they choose to settle far out in the centre of the reservoir but this individual was content to remain reasonably close to the causeway but was slowly moving further out and away from me. I followed it by walking along the causeway.

In winter plumage they are a shadow of their spectacular appearance when in breeding plumage. Overall they appear brownish grey and white, darker above and paler below, with a noticeable white breast and a head capped blackish brown and cheeks a contrasting white.The only semblance of colour are the eyes which are a demonic red. In size they are slightly larger than a Little Grebe.

Slavonian Grebes are a scarce breeding bird in Britain, nesting exclusively in the Highlands of Scotland  and since 1994 the population, which is prone to fluctuation, has fallen from 73 to 53 pairs and by 2016 there were only around 25 pairs on 15 lochs. Worryingly this long term downward trend of pairs breeding in Scotland has continued to date.There is however evidence of movements of birds between Scotland and Iceland, where over a 1000 pairs currently breed. Where our wintering birds, including the current individual at Farmoor, come from is anyone's guess, probably Scotland but maybe not.

I watched the grebe for twenty or so minutes, in the process discovering two Common Goldeneye amongst the Tufted Ducks and Coots. Goldeneyes used to be regular winter visitors to Farmoor but in recent years have become very scarce, so to see these two and so early in the winter was a pleasant surprise.They were both males, one in adult plumage and the other in transition from immature or eclipse plumage.

On reaching the end of the causeway I turned left and followed the perimeter track around the larger basin. The grebe was now swimming parallel to me.but a little far out for a reasonable photo. It slowed its progress and preened for a while and then sunk its head back into its shoulders as grebes do and went to sleep.

Not for long though as when a Little Grebe approached it became alert and began calling almost as if it had mistaken the Little Grebe for one of its own.

It ceased calling when the Little Grebe had passed by but then took to the air, flying low across the water.I followed its flight in my bins praying it was not going to rise higher and depart the reservoir. It continued flying low over the water and to my relief settled just off the distant southern bank of the reservoir.

I now had a decision to make, carry on around the reservoir, a  distance of around half a mile or call it a day.I chose the former. Arriving at the area where I thought the grebe had landed I could not see any sign of it. I walked further and there it was some way off from the bank, beyond one of the yacht club's pontoons. Slowly it commenced swimming towards me. It dived and surfaced literally just metres off the bank where I stood looking down on the water. 

I could hardly believe my luck. It must have been able to see me as there is no hiding place on the concrete perimeter track.Maybe it thought I was just another post!

Whatever the reason I made the most of this unexpected opportunity.

It dived again and surfaced with a Three spined Stickleback in its bill. However the fish, in defence had erected its spines which caused the  grebe some problem in swallowing it.The grebe swam around alternately dropping and picking up the fish from the water, uncertain what to do, persistently trying to swallow the fish but the spines stuck in its throat. Eventually the ordeal proved too much for the fish which succumbed and it was swallowed.

The grebe swam further out into the reservoir and recognising that I was not going to get any better opportunities I left to return the way I came, finding the wintering female Greater Scaup with the Tufted Ducks and Coots in a quiet corner at the top of the causeway. I cannot be certain but this may well be the same female that spent last winter on the reservoir.

A windsurfer came careering across the grey water and the whole gathering took to the air and fled in alarm. Sadly an all too frequent occurrence on the reservoir especially on weekends.In past times part of the reservoir was set apart for wintering ducks but now it is not so and on busy weekends the ducks have nowhere to rest and are forced to depart the reservoir.

It was lunchtime and by now the waters were host to a mass of windsurfers, their brightly coloured triangular sails scudding over the entire area of the reservoir. There would be no rest for the wildfowl or the grebe from now on so for me to remain any longer would be pointless.

There was no sign of the Slavonian Grebe the next morning. I was hardly surprised.

No comments:

Post a Comment