Saturday 16 December 2023

A Good Week at Farmoor 12th December 2023

These interminable grey days of December bringing dark mornings and early nightfall are about as welcome as a christmas card from your broadband supplier and enough to test the resolve of even the most optimistic of us. Visits to Farmoor Reservoir are not high on the list of antidotes to the general malaise that besets me at this time of year.

I would be the last person to suggest Farmoor could bring some rare seasonal cheer apart from the fact that there is the opportunity to drink far too much coffee and eat too much cake in the reservoir's Waterside Cafe which under new ownership has blossomed into quite an attraction.

It was after having sat far too long with Phil in the cafe talking football and trying to put the world to rights that I learnt of the arrival of a Great Northern Diver on the reservoir. Great Northerns are occasional winter visitors to Farmoor, by no means annual but when one is present, adding a little bit of birding glamour amongst the usual Tufted Ducks, Great Crested Grebes, Cormorants, belligerent Coots and noisy Greylags. They can often remain for an extended period and provide some excitement as one tries to relocate it on each visit to the reservoir.

The diver currently gracing Farmoor is a juvenile as are most that arrive here. Initially it preferred to remain relatively well offshore but like the others that have preceded it in years past has become more confiding as it grows used to the  human traffic on the causeway and dodging the weekend yachtsmen, windsurfers and paddle boarders on the reservoir.

On days when winter's gloom has descended and the reservoir is foresaken by the human race the diver can come reasonably close to the reservoir's causeway or perimeter which allows some photo opportunities and the chance to observe this special bird at close quarters.

Little Grebes winter in small numbers, up to a dozen, on the reservoir but do not breed here. It always strikes me as strange that such a self effacing bird opts to spend the winter exposed on the open and expansive waters of  F2, the larger of the two basins. They are almost never seen on the smaller basin F1. In the breeding season they are absent from Farmoor, leaving to lead a highly secretive existence in the stands of reeds on small ponds and lakes, so why they seek  the most exposed habitat available on which to spend the winter at Farmoor is a mystery.

On the reservoir they prefer to remain close to the shoreline where it is shallower.This is where the small fish such as sticklebacks and minnows on which they feed are to be found and where the grebes can dive to the bottom to catch their prey. Further out seems too deep for them. Often they can be found sheltering in the lee of the various buoys on the reservoir or hiding by the yacht club pontoons in the small marina.

Looking for all the world like circular Yorkshire Puddings and with plumage colours to match they dither around on the water, never straying far from a buoy or structure to cower beside and convince themselves they are secure. 

An adult female Greater Scaup has been at the reservoir for well over two months now, consorting with the wintering flock of  mainly male Tufted Ducks, following the flock as it moves from one basin to the other. It is always in a loose company with 'the tufties' and rarely found on its own.When asleep, which is its default behaviour, and at some distance offshore it can be difficult to separate from other sleeping female Tufted Ducks around it. The diagnostic white circle around its bill is hidden as the bill is tucked into its mantle feathers but careful examination of its plumage reveals an ashy grey wash to the brown upperparts and paler flanks than on a female Tufted. It is also marginally larger and broader in the beam than the Tufteds which is also a giveaway to its identity.

This bird may well be the one which spent last winter here and there is always hope it might attract others. Although unlikely it did happen one year when a male, female and juvenile spent the winter together on the reservoir.

For the last three years a Common Sandpiper has spent the winter at the reservoir.Normally they head for Africa but possibly the warming climate has allowed a bird that needs winter warmth and a plentiful supply of invertebrates, to tough it out through the worst of our winter. Farmoor is probably as good a bet as any to chance its luck as there are always insects along the water's edge.

I doubt it is the same individual that has been here three years running but who knows. Common Sandpipers at Farmoor on spring and autumn migration are notoriously wary and fly before you can get anywhere near them but this bird allows relatively close approach which may be a sign it is struggling to find food and has not the will to flee but rather concentrate on finding as much sustenance as possible in these short days of winter.

A couple of Common Redshanks have developed a liking for the northern bank of the reservoir causeway. Their prolonged presence for over a week is unusual as this is a bird that does not normally frequent the reservoir in winter and is only occasionally seen on spring and autumn migration.Much more suitable habitat is relatively nearby on the floods at Port Meadow but this pair have stubbornly proved the exception and in constant close company remain faithful to the reservoir and in the process have become quite confiding even when the causeway is well populated by passers by. Their melancholy calls bring a suggestion of wild lonely places to the prosaic soulless concrete of the reservoir as they mildly protest about being disturbed and fly out over the water, only to return and settle further down the causeway. 

Another species that undoubtedly is taking advantage of our warming climate are Cattle Egrets which were formerly a great rarity in the county but in recent years, along with other parts of southern and middle England, have rapidly colonised and now breed as near to Farmoor as Blenheim Palace in Woodstock, only a few miles away.

Near the reservoir, by a busy road running along the north side of Farmoor Village, a flock of no less than twenty one Cattle Egrets have been feeding in the grass fields of a dairy farm for the last two or three days. Like a line of errant washing the egrets spread out across the fields hunting for food in the grass. The whiteness of their plumage gains a luminosity in the sun, possessing a purity and intensity far beyond that of any gull.

To view them is a precarious business as there is no footpath or parking place beside the road but I  took a chance and walked along the grass verge at the roadside to view them over a hedge. They can in fact be viewed from the reservoir's perimeter track, albeit very distantly and unsatisfactorily.

Ten years ago I would have been dreaming if I thought I would be looking at a flock of Cattle Egrets feeding in a field. in the middle of England. in the depths of winter. 

How times have changed.

So this week, by Farmoor's undemanding standards, has proved exceptional and hopefully other 'good' birds may follow in the coming months. Somehow I doubt it but eternal hope and an unflinching optimism goes with the territory at Farmoor Reservoir these days.

Happy Christmas everyone.

Wednesday 13 December 2023

A Great Northern Diver visits Farmoor 12th December 2023

On a Monday, in the late afternoon with the sun just slipping below the trees I left Farmoor Reservoir for my home. Not ten minutes later D rang to tell me about a Great Northern Diver that was out in the middle of the larger basin that is known as Farmoor 2. I had just crossed the toll bridge at nearby Eynsham but fortuitously there is a roundabout a few hundred metres beyond the toll where I was able to about turn the car and head back to the reservoir, while at the same time putting the news out so other birders would be aware of the diver's presence. Sadly this sometimes does not happen at Farmoor for reasons best left unsaid.

Dusk was rapidly approaching and it was by no means certain the light would hold to enable me to find the diver. To attempt to walk around the reservoir at this late hour would guarantee failure so with the kind permission of Mark, one of the Thames Water Rangers, I was able to drive around but even then, stopping at various points, I could not find the diver. It was only, having almost completed  the full circuit and returning down the causeway, that I saw two birders obviously looking at something. It had to be the diver. Stopping the car I jumped out and there was the elusive bird swimming not too far out from the causeway.

There was no chance of a photo as the light had virtually gone but I had at least seen it Remarkably B, another local birder actually made it to the reservoir on his bike just as I was leaving and managed to see it virtually in the dark. Top effort!

I resolved to return to the reservoir the next morning but the weather, unlike yesterday was foul. A pall of grey, wet mist was settled  upon the reservoir creating an overall dankness but there was cause for optimism as it became obvious there was better weather to come as the light improved and some insipid sunlight began to shine through the dispersing mist and cloud.

The diver however was nowhere to be seen as I walked a third of the way up the central causeway. It certainly was not where I had last seen it yesterday. Looking for a large dark bird on the silvery waters of the reservoir was made complicated by the fact that a number of Cormorants were energetically and communally fishing, their dark profiles superficially similar to that of the diver. 

The Cormorants, up to twenty, kept close company feeding in what can only be described as a mass frenzy, frantically diving after trout with which the reservoir is stocked by Thames Water at huge expense. When an individual Cormorant caught a fish and surfaced with it all the other ones would converge and a free for all commenced, the bird with the fish frantically endeavouring to swallow its prize as quickly as possible to avoid being mugged by its 'friends'. If the captured fish was large and proved hard  to swallow it resulted in the particular Cormorant swimming in a very unnatural manner with head and distended neck held vertically out of the water while its body remained completely submerged as it endeavoured to force the fish down its gullet.This often took some minutes but was usually successful.

Then another Cormorant would catch a fish nearby  and the entire flock would hurtle over there in a confusion of thrashing wings and paddle feet noisily slapping the water. It was as if the birds became swept up in a communal hysteria. Subtle it certainly was not. Every Cormorant for itself with no quarter given. I have only seen this phenomenon here on the reservoir and can only wonder if it occurs elsewhere. 

In the past a Cormorant has even been found choked or starved to death here, unable either to regurgitate or swallow a large trout which had become stuck in its throat.

Eventually I espied the diver over towards the far side of the larger basin and walked round to be closer, although on arriving opposite I found it was a fair way offshore, loosely in the company of two Great Crested Grebes. The diver submerged and anticipating where it might re-surface I walked another thirty metres along the perimeter track and sure enough the diver surfaced roughly where I had anticipated and crucially much closer to me. Now for some photos.

It fed intermittently but for the most part lethargy held sway as it drifted dreamily on the water with eyes closed and in no apparent hurry to feed or do anything but idle the time away.

It indulged in some light preening, rolling over onto its side in the water to reveal pristine white underparts, then came a bit of snorkelling, where it dipped only its bill, forehead and eyes under the water but did not dive. Presumably it was looking for passing fish.

This latest individual to visit the reservoir is a juvenile, as are the majority that arrive here, told by the pale fringes to its upperpart feathers which produce a  neat  and distinctive scalloping effect. A plumage of predominantly greyish brown and white was evident for most of the time in the dull light but when the sun made a belated entrance the bird was transformed as head and neck were rendered a paler brown, highlighting the wine red eyes. The red in their eyes is a pigment in the retina that filters light below the water and aids the diver as it hunts its prey below the surface.

Its large bill and  head contributed to an overall impression of a big, bulky bird, almost ponderous in its movements as it cruised the reservoir. It is a bird that has evolved to live an almost exclusively waterborne existence. When it did submerge there was no hasty Cormorant like jump and dive but rather a bend of head and neck and an elegant glide below the surface.

Great Northern Divers do not breed until they are three years old so this bird will not gain its adult breeding plumage until 2025.They do not breed in Britain, only coming here from October to May to mainly winter on the coast but sometimes can be found inland on sizeable lakes or reservoirs.This bird possibly was blown inland by the gales of last weekend and found sanctuary at Farmoor as have others that have been discovered inland lately, such as at Frampton and Draycote in the neighbouring counties of  Gloucestershire and Warwickshire respectively.

Worldwide the majority of the population breeds from the Aleutian Islands, Canada and northern USA to southern Greenland and winter along both the western and eastern seaboards of the USA as far south as Mexico. In North America they are known as Common Loons and their eerie haunting call is a favourite mood creator for countless films, sometimes in a wildly inappropriate context.

The only European breeding population is in Iceland which is probably the origin of the bird now at Farmoor. Around four thousand individuals annually winter around Britain,  mainly off the coast of northwestern Scotland with others wintering on the coasts of northern, eastern and southwest England, Wales and Ireland

Let's hope this bird will make its winter home at Farmoor.

They have often done so in the past.

Sunday 3 December 2023

Aerial Waxwings 29th November 2023

A recent visit to Norfolk was enlivened by the presence of a small flock of twenty plus Waxwings in a cul de sac at the back of the genteel market town of Holt.

This winter has become what is known as ' a waxwing year' where these colourful and charismatic birds pour out of their forest homes in Scandinavia and Russia in search of food, due to their usual food sources having failed in their native lands.It does not happen every year but when an irruption looks likely to arrive in Britain it brings an added frisson of excitement and expectation.

The invaders invariably seek out berry bearing trees to sustain themselves through the winter with a marked preference for cotoneaster and rowan berries and are often quite fearless wherever they settle to feed. 

The first arrivals are not unexpectedly in the north of Scotland, sometimes in large flocks which gradually split up into smaller flocks as they move southwards, roving the land. When they find some source agreeable to their needs they perch high in a tree and survey the chosen berries  below, which can be in a hedge or small tree. Any  location can be chosen, there seems no rhyme or reason apart from the fact there are suitable berries available. A cotoneaster hedge by a busy road or ornamental rowan in a supermarket car park or garden are typical favourites and the birds will seek out elevated perches in surrounding larger trees where they will wait on high and then at random intervals descend to frantically gorge on the berries as fast as they can swallow them.

Rarely remaining long, a matter of a few minutes, they then fly back up to their tall tree and sit until hunger prompts another descent.

The Waxwings at Holt were no exception and spent much of the time either in very tall trees surrounding a public school playing field or sitting on a tv aerial on a house roof before circling around and eventually flying down to scoff the berries on a rowan tree in a nearby back garden. 

The tree's position did not allow close approach but sometime the birds would happily sit on the tv aerial for some time and which was adjacent to the cul de sac, so I made the most of this opportuity to photograph them on a cold November day of grey cloud and intermittent rain.

Not the best conditions to show off these lovely birds at their best but one has to take whatever opportunity presents itself.

Hopefully, as the winter progresses more Waxwings will move southwards and there will be other opportunities to go and see them closer to home.