Sunday, 11 August 2019

Rough going at Farmoor, 10th August 2019

It was windy, strong enough to send the windsock at the carpark out horizontally and Farmoor II was reminiscent of Cornish coastal waters in October and yet still there were some intrepid windsurfers out on it battling against the waves, not just us birders who are mad enough to take advantage of foul weather then. When the weather is rough then we get going and we normally head to Farmoor, Oxfordshires only approximation to a windswept coastal headland. Rough weather can bring rarer birds usually associated with the sea and shore to Farmoor and we hoped that today would turn up something good. In the past we've seen a Sabines Gull, several Shags, Little Gulls and Great Skuas at the reservoir during inclement weather and have missed countless more including a Long-tailed Skua.

A Common Tern battled to make any headway against the wind as we were propelled by it and fairly flew down past the Marina towards the causeway. Another Common Tern gripped onto a floating pontoon to avoid getting blown off it. In wind as strong as this even those birds seemingly designed for such conditions struggle, especially the juvenile birds bred locally who would be experiencing it for the first time.

Common Tern
It was tricky holding the binoculars steady to view anything let alone keep the camera still enough for photos. The skies above the reservoirs were busy though with hundreds of Hirundines and Swifts scything erratically through the air in their hunt for insects. Flying in such conditions still seemed effortless for these birds but the Sand Martins were having to keep low to the water, while the Swifts however, had no problems doing exactly as they wished being the masterful flyers that they are. I tried taking photos of the Swifts, I always do, but my efforts were largely doomed to failure, either they were too quick or I was too slow.

We ducked into the causeway hide for some respite and met George who was already ensconced in the wooden shelter. As strong as the wind was it wasn't quite at the same level as that at the end of April when we'd had a real hard time even making it this far. That day, written up here Storm Hannah at Farmoor had produced a fine adult Little Gull from the hide but initial views this time produced nothing more than Cormorants, larger Gulls and Common Terns. I could at least have a go at capturing the Swifts from the calmness of the hide but I'm afraid my attempts didn't reap much reward.

We left George to it and emerged back into the wind and continued on our way down the causeway towards the river. I was still trying to get photos of the Swifts, I do admire them and never tire of watching them, when I noticed a small grey Tern hurtling towards us, a Black Tern! I hollered through the wind to Mrs Caley to get her onto it and then swung the camera into action as the Black Tern, a juvenile, whistled very closely past us. I got lucky and managed to get some pleasing images, although only against the sky since once the greyish bird had been framed against the greyness of the water the camera just couldn't cope. I was reminded of a time a couple of years ago when a similar juvenile Black Tern had been incredibly confiding, in much better weather, along the causeway and then I had to choose the manual focussing mode on my camera because it couldn't cope with the lack of contrast automatically. Unfortunately I didn't have time to operate that function this time because the bird had happened along so quickly.

Juvenile Black Tern
The Black Tern hugged the causeway shoreline for a while but I was always chasing it so had no further photographic opportunities and then swung away right across the other side of Farmoor I and was lost to sight. We met Dai driving along the embankment and related the Black Tern sighting to him, he had seen a small Tern, presumably the same bird, from near the marina and was trying to locate it. He told us that one of the Kingfishers, that had become famous in these parts for using a post in front of the Shrike Meadow Hide to fish from, had been showing really well again earlier. Now we had tried for these Kingfishers before and although we had seen them, they hadn't played ball at all and I'd been getting more and more fed up with seeing countless gripping photographs of them taken by other Oxon birders, chiefly by Ewan (see them at the extremely excellent Black Audi Birding) who had spent a good part of his life in that hide over the past few weeks. We were encouraged enough by Dai's fine pictures too so thought that we'd have another go particularly as the hide and small pool would be sheltered from the worst of the wind.

The hide was surprisingly and thankfully empty, at times quite a crowd had been congregating in the hope of seeing the Kingfishers. The famous post was also vacant and to be honest we didn't expect anything to fill that vacancy either, Kingfishers and Old Caley do not magnetically attract and it's normally the opposite, one look at me and the birds are positively repelled and fly the other way! But amazingly we were in luck, well almost. The post was indeed filled but by a rather nonplussed looking Wood Pigeon! At least I was able to log a cheeky and deliberately cryptic post of the post on the local FaceBook group!

Wood Pigeon on The Post
Mr Shrike Meadow himself, Ewan, accompanied by Peter, Oxon's excellent monthly birding round-up editor, then joined us in the hide. Intriguingly Ewan hadn't brought his camera with him, I guess it was having an essential MOT and service having clocked up several thousand Kingfisher photos already! As we related our previous "waiting for the Kingfisher" tales of woe, he assured us that it would just be a matter of time and one of the birds would return. And, only an hour and ten minutes after we sat down, a Kingfisher did fly in front of the hide and land on the post and wasn't bounced back by my invisible and elastic Kingfisher repellant. In fact it stood atop that post like it owned it! If it could see us inside the hide then it wasn't bothered at all despite the crescendo of clicks and whirrs that a couple of cameras make when fired off incessantly.

I was actually delighted and my pique of jealously of having to look at everybody else's marvellous photos of Kingfishers could finally be discarded to the waste bin as I now had my own chance. In almost ten years of photographing birds I had never had a chance to get images of a Kingfisher like this. I was determined not to blow it.

After settling in the Kingfisher dropped off the perch and plopped into the shallow water below before returning to the post again. The Kingfishers dive was for nothing and I missed both the dive down and the flight back up, cock-up number 1! The next 10 minutes were passed with the Kingfisher, a juvenile and one which had likely hatched locally, preening and drying off after its failed fishing attempt. 

The next fit of activity came when the Kingfisher flew off the post for a few metres and hovered over the water for some seconds. What fabulous images that would have made. Snag was that I'd changed to manual focussing so that I could capture the bird returning to the post top without having to rely on the camera auto focus speed and because of that all of my shots of the levitating bird were wildly out of focus and completely unusable, cock-up number 2! I have so much to learn and I was beginning to realise why Ewan had made so many repeat visits to watch and photograph the Kingfishers. Even the bird showed its contempt by turning its back on me and performing the "Poznan"!

The Kingfisher turned back towards us and whistled shrilly, probably yelling in Kingfisher speak "you're useless!" in my direction. 

"You're crap mate!"
Another quick bout of preening ensued, by the bird that is who was dealing with his ruffled feathers and not me who couldn't cope with mine. This time the bird was facing us and at times appeared to be staring intently straight at us. But of course this was a Kingfisher and had no interest in me or anybody else in the hide but instead was totally immersed in what was happening around it and particularly in the water below it. The Kingfisher would rotate its gaze in a nearly full circle around its vantage point allowing the full gamut of shots to be taken. At times it would stretch right out as if interested in something and at others totally relax and sit snuggly on the post.

Without any warning the Kingfisher hit the water again, dive missed by me once more despite putting the camera back to auto mode, and returned back to the post, also missed by me yet again, with what appeared to be a sprig of weed and nothing else, cock-up number 3! At least the bit of vegetation provided an interesting composition. It must have held a small morsel though since the Kingfisher readily ate it unless it was adding some herbs to its fishy diet.

After a quick preen the Kingfisher suddenly sped away from the post and we all feared that that was that. But luckily it stopped short of a complete exit and grabbed onto a reed stem at the far side of the pond. 

From there is spied another meal and dived to the water again and very helpfully flew back to the post. There's no need to relate the results of my efforts in trying to capture the dive and flight, cock-up number 4! The Kingfisher did at least show off its prize for us all to see although quite what it was I've no idea before dispatching it.

A few moments later the Kingfisher was off once again this time landing in the reeds right in front of the hide where it could just about be seen when a gust of wind parted the reed stems. A further few moments and the Kingfisher did exit stage left through the trees and towards the river. We had watched the bird for maybe twenty minutes altogether during which we easily had our closest and best views ever of a Kingfisher and I had easily surpassed all of my previous images taken of the species. But there was still those cock-ups, maybe I'll need to return for another go.

Back at the reservoir there had been little let up in the strength of the wind and there was now an element of rain in the air too. Hundreds of Sand Martins were hawking reasonably close in so I tried halfheartedly to photograph some. The conditions did not lend themselves to capturing the flight of quick moving birds. But I tried as I always do.

Sand Martin
We strolled back to the causeway and witnessed a low overhead pass by a Hobby but I was too slow to react with the camera, one of those days I think. A Raven also sailed over but flew past at a fair old rate of knots borne by the wind. There was no further sign of the juvenile Black Tern but Mick C who was sat in the causeway hide said that he'd seen it out on F II earlier so it may still have been around. I tried again to pin a few Swifts down for photos and was defeated yet again, they were just too difficult in the blustery conditions. Luckily a juvenile House Martin photobombed one of my Swift efforts so ended up just about in focus!

Juvenile House Martin
A Carrion Crow with a bill and crop stuffed full of what looked like maggots gained from a decaying Trout carcass was easier to photograph as it flew past. The Crows of Farmoor are pretty much unfussy as to what they'll eat and I remembered the one that I'd seen with a headless and extremely gory looking remains of a Rat (I think) a few months ago.

Carrion Crow
We finished our morning the same way that it had started by studying a Common Tern, this one a juvenile, hanging onto a pontoon to avoid getting blown away across the reservoir.

Juvenile Common Tern

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