Monday 29 April 2024

Welcome to Farmoor ! 28th April 2024

It seems forever that the wind has blown from the northwest bringing rain and a raw cold to chill my bones. This Sunday morning was no different and I found myself wondering when it will ever end, feeling resigned to the fact  that yet again there was no intimation of the climate becoming milder and more like Spring.

I awoke to the lashing of rain against the windows and pondered whether it was even worth getting up.I stuck to my plan however which was to go to Farmoor Reservoir in the hope the foul weather might bring in some more good birds to the reservoir. Yesterday similar conditions, after a long and fruitless vigil in the causeway hide staring at very little apart from a multitude of swifts and hirundines, brought the excitement of four adult Little Gulls and half a dozen Arctic Terns for an hour in the early afternoon. Such is birding in an inland county.

Common Swift

Arriving at the reservoir mid morning I donned my waterproofs and made for the central causeway. Farmoor was at its malevolent worst with a strong and very cold wind blowing forcefully and unhindered across the wide expanse of water that comprises Farmoor's larger basin. Wind driven, the rain added that extra touch of misery.

Nic had published a very nice photo of a Swift on our Oxon Bird Log last night and this, together with the presence of Little Gulls yesterday seemed to have acted as a stimulus for a number of photographers to descend on Farmoor to see if they could emulate Nic's success. I prefer to keep my own company in situations such as this, finding stopping to talk a distraction, so diverted into the cafe with Mark P for a coffee and to wait for the causeway to become less 'busy'.

Although the miserable weather conditions were making life thoroughly unpleasant it did have one benefit for us birders cum photographers in that it meant hundreds of Swifts,Swallows and martins were milling around the causeway, seeking to feed low over the smaller basin, close into the causeway wall in the lee of the wind, where the water was more sheltered. They were feeding on insects that  despite the hostile conditions persisted in hatching into a decidedly uncertain future.

Fortified with an expensive coffee (isn't everything nowadays) from the cafe we made our way to the causeway. It soon became obvious that the large numbers of Swallows and some House and Sand Martins were still feeding very low over the water and would be coming very close to where we stood.

It is not often that one gets the opportunity to see Swallows, which were in the majority, so well and for such a prolonged period but here they were literally feet below us as we stood on the causeway looking down on them. When seen so close one can see how attractive is their plumage with a brick red face, royal blue head and upperparts and a tail, when spread, revealing a ribbon of elongated white panels.Flying into the wind they were moving particularly slowly, some purposely stalling, held by the wind, in order to dip their head and pick a tiny insect from the disturbed waters.

The birds were obviously struggling to find hatching insects and had to resort to flying just above the choppy water to seize what they could. It was tough going for them as time and again they flew into the wind alongside the causeway then turned to be swept back downwind and start the process all over again. A repeated spectacle of constant elegant movement.

I can recall only one other time see here  where Swallows have struggled so much with the weather at Farmoor and this was even more extreme as the birds actually landed on the mossy waterside concrete in the lee of the wind and fed on the ground, shuffling along, their short legs and tiny feet totally unsuitable for ground feeding.Thankfully today it had not come to that but some birds did resort to briefly perching on the wave wall looking very discomfited.

They were exceptionally close at times, seeming to come along in pulses of birds as I tested my camera skills, often unsucessfully, to capture them in flight.Observing them with the naked eye they appeared to be moving relatively slowly but looking through a camera lens they were revealed to be surprisingly quick and erratic in flight but never lacking that intrinsic grace with which Swallows in particular are endowed.

Fun and frustration came in equal measure for the next hour but in the end I felt satisified that I had got some 'keepers' as my friemd Mark R, a proper photographer, would say.

A flock of around thirteen Yellow Wagtails, a good count for Farmoor these days, stuck together on the causeway while two Dunlin and three Common Sandpipers fed at the water's edge and a Little Ringed Plover called from the sky but annoyingly remained invisible. Despite hoping there might be a repeat arrival of Little Gulls or Arctic Terns it was not to be but the 'swallow fest' more than made up for that.

By noon the rain had ceased and the wind lessened as it moved to a westerly quarter. Almost immediately the reservoir became devoid of any hirundines as the afternoon promised something more pleasant and Spring like.

Here lies the paradox, pleasant weather conditions bring few birds but unpleasant will almost always deliver.

You take your choice. 

Thursday 25 April 2024

A Marsh Sandpiper on the South Coast 22nd April 2024

On Sunday I called Mark P, who lives in the next village to mine in Oxfordshire asking him what he was doing on Monday.

Nothing much he ventured

I am of a mind to go and see the Marsh Sandpiper that is on Normandy Lagoon at Lymington Nature Reserve in Hampshire. Do you fancy coming? I responded

Mark being relatively new to birding had never seen a Marsh Sandpiper nor even been to Lymington NR so was naturally keen to go

I'll pick you up at 8am at yours once I know it's still there on Monday.

Monday arrived, slightly wet and dreary with the northerly airflow still holding sway.The Marsh Sandpiper was reported on Birdguides at just after 7am, as still being on its favoured lagoon at Normandy Marsh.

I called Mark to advise the twitch was on, collected him from his home and away we went on the two and a half hour drive to Lymington. The journey passed easily enough as we took it steadily down the all too familiar A34 to the distant M27 motorway  that would take us westwards and bring us near to Lymington.

We eventually turned off the motorway and passed through various congested New Forest villages before following a back street route through Lymington, emerging close to the coast on a narrow lane that ran through pleasant trees to arrive at the open expanse of Lymington and Keyhaven Nature Reserve. We came to rest on a wide grass verge where we left the car and after passing through an entrance gate into the nature reserve it was but a short walk on a gravel track leading up onto the seawall that protected the lagoons from The Solent that lay between us and the Isle of Wight with the iconic Needles away to our right at its westernmost point.

I realised that I had been here a long while ago when I came to see a Long billed Dowitcher.

Any doubt about where to look for the sandpiper was quickly dispelled as we saw a number of birders on the sea wall looking through scopes and cameras at the nearest lagoon.  A  birder pointed out the Marsh Sandpiper when we got to the top of the sea wall and with some ease, it has to be said, Mark had another lifer and me my fourth Marsh Sandpiper to be seen in Britain.

Marsh Sandpipers  are scarce vagrants to Britain, breeding in open steppe and taiga wetland from Finland and the Baltic States where they are scarce, east across Russia to central Siberia and the Far East. The birds that breed in eastern Europe and Scandinavia winter in Africa mainly south of the Sahara.Those further east winter in India, southeast Asia and Australasia.

The Marsh Sandpiper kept pretty much on its own, wading erratically, on its long legs, in the shallow water although a closely related Greenshank was, at times just metres away.The Marsh Sandpiper is smaller and more delicate than its larger cousin with a long fine bill and very long greenish legs and this was pretty much what we saw on first setting our eyes on it

Marsh Sandpiper

The two species, here in close proximity, provided an interesting comparison in size, the Greenshank being much the larger of the two, and although elegant, appearing more substantial and with an upturned bill.

Common Greenshank

The Marsh Sandpiper wandered through the water, delicately picking off invertebrates from the surface with a rapid jabbing motion of its needle like bill. At first a little distant it eventually came a bit closer but was always just too far away for my camera and lens to do it justice. The morning was still and a strange filtered light hung over the coast, the sun just about obscured by a light cloud cover making everything look slightly washed out.

The star turn was an adult in summer plumage which I have not seen before.In winter plumage they are the standard grey and white that many wading birds adopt but now its head, neck and breast were covered in fine dark streaks and spots, its upperparts grey but barred darker and a number of feathers had distinctly brown or black centres, creating a chequered impression. The bird had what I can only describe as a subtle understated beauty of both form and feather

There was plenty of company for  the sandpiper with Black headed Gulls breeding on the small islands and scrapes in the lagoon and filling the air with a nonstop background of harsh calls. There were at least two of the aforementioned. Greenshank and up to twenty Avocets, some on nests at the far side of the lagoon by the seawall. A trio of much smaller waders, on being checked through my scope were revealed to be two Dunlin and, much more exciting, a Curlew Sandpiper that was commencing its moult into summer plumage, a distinct stain of reddish brown breeding feathers appearing on its fore flanks

Mark is quite into numbers and especially lists, so was a happy soul as his day list as well as  his life list began to increase.

A diminutive tern caught my eye, smaller than the Common Terns that were in a group on one of the islands.Its movements were quick, snazzy, its flight darting and erratic.It flew up above the still water and hovered, maintaining position with rapid beats of its wings as in the style of a kestrel, before descending in jerky stages to drop into the water in an attempt to seize a fish.Time and  again it tried but always looked to be unsuccssful.

Little Tern

That time came when you feel sated and consider it would be a good idea to leave the main attraction and explore your surroundings further.We walked along the sea wall, part of The Solent Way, which ran a few hundred metres parallel to the sea and then curved round at the far end of the lagoon. High overhead a pair of Mediterranean Gulls gave themselves away with their distinctive cries as Sandwich Terns flew past us, forever excitable, their kirrick kirrick calls coming from over the sea, their white bodies in the strange light almost as one with sea and sky.

A cheery whitethroat sang from some brambles right by the seawall and further on a male stonechat posed in classic fashion on some yellow gorse.

Spring, don't you just love it! The charge of energy, the lifting of one's spirit as nature suddenly burgeons into an unstoppable life force and the promise of renewal.

Beyond the main lagoon was another smaller lagoon populated by more waders, not many, maybe a dozen. Half the number were Common Redshanks but the remainder, split into two groups were Bar tailed Godwits, a mixture of males and females. A male 'Bartail' in its terracotta summer plumage is a joy to behold and we tarried for some time enjoying looking at them as they fed virtually non stop, jabbing their long bills up to the hilt below the water to probe the soft mud below.

Male Bar tailed Godwits

Female Bar tailed Godwit

They may have spent the winter locally or already travelled a long way, possibly from as distant as West Africa, and they still have a long way to go yet, as they breed in the Arctic but there is plenty of time for them and they will be content to wait until the northerly winds finally cease and they can continue their  migration.

We never did find the Spotted Redshank that was alleged to be present but after such a pleasurable time at Normandy Lagoon it did not seem to matter too much 


Tuesday 23 April 2024

The Gannets of Bempton Cliffs 16th April 2024

After breakfast we left Ako's B and B and drove a couple of miles to the RSPB's Bempton Cliffs Reserve which lies along the top of some very impressive chalk cliffs reaching, at their highest point, almost 100 metres above the North Sea.

The weather was not so kind today with rain and wind promising to be our constant companions, so much so we abandoned any birding by late morning, preferring to drink coffee in the visitor centre cafe and watch the prolific Tree Sparrows that are such a feature of the reserve, especially in the bushes around the visitor centre where many nest boxes have been erected for them.

In fact the whole area around Bempton is a Tree Sparrow hotspot and they are even to be found in the hedgerow by our B and B, which they share with some House Sparrows. The surrounding farms are home to them too. We used to have good numbers of them in my home county of Oxfordshire but for unknown reasons they have almost completely died out despite supplemental feeding.It's really strange how they seem to thrive in and around Bempton but not in Oxfordshire and other surrounding counties.

The next day was free of rain but the wind had become eye wateringly fierce. Nevertheless we decided on a return to Bempton Cliffs and got there early, well before the RSPB had opened up their visitor centre.The wind was cold and from the northwest and once we had walked down to the clifftop it was buffeting us, tugging and pulling at our clothing and blowing into our backs with such force you could lean backwards into it and still remain upright.

It was both elemental and exhilerating at the cliff edge and we were, unsurprisingly the only two on the clifftop. Due to the wind and its direction the Gannets were flying at head height and very close to us, coming right into the edge of the cliff, making use of the wind currents.Their absolute control was  a  perfect demonstration of their mastery of the ever changing air flow and updraughts. They could stall and hang in the air motionless with partially open wings, held by the wind's violence then spread their wings wide to drop and plane away on a tailwind, into a wide sweep over the sea, thence to return once more, facing into the wind.

We went to the northernmost lookout on the cliffs, where you can stand on a wooden platform and feel you are almost a part of the precipitous cliff face, there to look down on and along the  cliff's white ledges. Here, turning your back to the land you can lose yourself with the birds and enter their domain of sea and sky, the only thing lacking being the power of flight to join them. Looking out over the sea a constant, never ending, forever changing, scatter of circling white Gannets crosses your vision, hundreds upon hundreds of white forms, each taking its individual course over the sea and along the sea cliffs. An endless spectacle that you do not want to leave, a constant ever changing panorama that becomes almost mesmeric. 

A  shock of wonder at so many seabirds, in one place,at one time grips you..

The Gannets themselves are beautiful. Britain's largest seabird, impressively huge when just a few metres distant, a six foot spread of wings and massive bill enhancing the sense of size and strength.

Some Gannets were landing on the cliff edge to forcefully tear great clumps of grass from the cliff to carry off to build nests on the cliff ledges. landed, soon others would join it to do the same and then once satisfied they had as much as they could carry, each Gannet would step to the edge on great paddle feet, and falling into the abyss, spread their wings of purest white and let the wind take them, their sleek profile and grace temporarily sullied by a ragged moustache of grass.

For an hour I stood, the irritating attentions of the wind forgotten, enjoying this close contact with the natural world and yet another seabird spectacle. A rain shower, coming from the north and out to sea formed a rainbow that moved toward us across the surface of the sea but dissipated, as if a mirage, long before it reached the cliffs.

Smaller numbers of Puffins, Guillemots and Razorbills came and went from the cliffs.Many Guillemots chose to form close packed flotillas of torpedo shaped brown and white bodies  on the sea, far below. They seemed to be waiting, perhaps for the time when the urge to breed would prove irresistible and propel them to a very different habitat to that which is natural to them. Weeks of standing on dusty cramped cliff ledges were in prospect where they would hardly move as they protected a single egg  and then chick, amongst many others of their kind. Some had already forsaken the sea and were forming dense lines of slender upright bodies, shoulder pressed to neighbour's shoulder, on impossibly narrow ledges..It was all beginning again, another year, another renewal, for the birds another generation and for me a renewal of my inner spirit.

The joy of Spring, bringing an irrevocable resurrection of hope and optimism

Intrinsically bound with the visual spectacle is an accompaniment of sound and smell. The triumvirate of a seabird colony. The wind carried the querulous, sharp high cries of the Kittiwakes upwards from their nest ledges while the rhythmic growling of the Gannets, a sound that was never absent from the entire  length of the cliffs was almost soothing.

Thankfully the Gannets here have not suffered greatly from avian flu but the Kittiwakes fared rather  worse but still were here in reasonable numbers.One can but  hope the worst is over as to lose all this would be unbearable

We walked the entire length of the cliffs that were encompassed by the reserve.The sun by mid afternoon so very bright and the wind become almost gale force. In the end it was  too much effort and with but a couple of wind blown Wheatears and a hyperactive Weasel to show for our labours, we gave in and returned to our accommodation.

In the early evening Mark banged on my door and excitedly informed me a Barn Owl was flying in the field right in front of our windows. So it was. Panic! Where was my camera? Locked in Mark's car! I grabbed his keys from him and shot downstairs, retrieved the camera from the car and from the porch which provided perfect shelter from the wind, photographed the owl to my heart's content.

The wind, previously troublesome was now my friend as the Barn Owl spent the next twenty minutes hunting the fields right in front of our B and B and came wonderfully close, allowing me to get as many action images as I could possibly have wished for.

I think the wind made it difficult for the owl to catch its vole prey, as time and again it would stall and hover, then drop into the grass but fail to capture its intended victim.

Looking about in the grass as if surprised it had missed its target, the owl would then rise to resume its patrolling, back and fore, round and round but in the end conceding and disappearing over a distant hedge, although not before it had put on a memorable and unforgettable show for us, stood  on Ako's front porch.

Tomorrow we would be leaving for home.Time seemed to have passed so fast.