Thursday, 26 September 2019

Farmoor Waders & Titchy Twitchy, 21st September 2019

We have done a lot of twitching and a lot of travelling around over the last month, so thought we would actually stay closer to home for a change on Saturday. When birding in our local area we tend to default either to Otmoor or Farmoor, both of which are worthy of a visit. However we are very good at choosing one and then later discover that most of the good birds seen are at the other! This weekend the choice was made easier since a few waders had been dropping into Farmoor during the preceding few days and some of them were still around on Friday.

We were a bit late arriving and we could see some other birders already walking along the main birding highway, the causeway as it's known. It was a very pleasant morning but thankfully there was a keen breeze blowing across the reservoirs. You need some wind at Farmoor since it is at its best when the water is ruffled. As we sauntered past the not yet open cafe (I can never understand why the cafe opens an hour or so after the gates do) Mrs Caley happened to mention that we hadn't seen a single Wheatear at the reservoir this year. Cue a fine Northern Wheatear to appear then, stood on the low embankment wall of Farmoor 1. It is often uncanny how when Mrs Caley mentions, quite innocently, a certain bird, how one then appears almost instantly afterwards! Doesn't work for me though despite me uttering random names of umpteen birds, especially those missing from my year list and indeed my life list, none of them ever appear. Hoopoe or Northern Parula anybody?!

I took a record shot of the Wheatear and then used the grass bank of the reservoir to creep up on it from below in order to get some better ones. The Wheatear was actually very confiding as it caught flies on the road that runs around the reservoir and allowed a very close approach. For most of this year we had reflected on the paucity of Wheatears but in the last few weeks we had seen hundreds at Portland and a nice trio at our new favourite spot on the edge of Oxon at Muswell Hill.

Northern Wheatear
No news either way had been put out yet as to whether any of the waders present on Friday were still at the reservoir but I could see that a couple of photographers had stopped halfway along the causeway and were busy clicking away. I didn't think that they'd be lying prone on the wall to snap the resident ducks and grebes so assumed that they must have been taking shots of something more interesting. Before we turned to head down the road between the two reservoirs, I noticed a Meadow Pipit accompanying a pair of Pied Wagtails at the edge of Farmoor 2. We see Meadow Pipits only occasionally here. A chap passing by cheerfully informed us that the Meadow Pipit was in fact a Rock Pipit, because it was next to water (!), and that I had misidentified it but before I could challenge and correct him he had raced away to see what the others were looking at. 

Meadow Pipit
Farmoor attracts large numbers of post breeding Coots and most of them hug the banks of the reservoirs along the causeway where they dive in the shallow edges and tug up some of the weed that grows under the water. From a hundred metres away we could see a Coot that had become a bit of a local celebrity recently. It isn't too difficult to pick out an almost pure white Coot when it's part of a flock of over 200 black ones! It was the first time we'd seen it though and luckily it was feeding very close to the edge of F1 allowing me to get a few decent pictures. Not sure some of the Coots were as keen on their leucistic cousin though!

"leucistic" Coot
Little Grebes are also attracted to Farmoor in good numbers after the breeding season and we've seen over 50 at times. Today we'd already watched a few at the marina and there were some more dotted about the Coot flock. Of course when you try to photograph a diving bird, more often than not it will dive just as you press the shutter. So you have to learn when and where they will resurface.

Little Grebe
By the time we reached the pair of small waders that were feeding along the shore of F2, the other birders had moved on and we had the birds to ourselves for a while. One of the birds was a juvenile Dunlin and the other the juvenile Little Stint that had been here for a couple of days. We sat on the wall and waited for the two birds to walk right up to us. Wading birds are often very confiding at Farmoor provided you just sit on the wall and give them the freedom to approach. Toggers that "chase" the birds up and down will most often just flush them to another part of the reservoir. Before the Little Stint and Dunlin had arrived at Farmoor they'd probably never seen people or boats before so would yet to have developed a fear of either.

juvenile Little Stint & juvenile Dunlin
We watched the two wading birds at length and I took plenty of photos. The Little Stint was particularly bold and at one point walked right underneath the place where we were sat and scuttled off towards the marina. Its Dunlin mate was a little bit more apprehensive but eventually legged it after the smaller bird.

juvenile Dunlin

juvenile Little Stint
Farmoor acts as a loafing ground for hundreds of moulting geese at this time of year and the causeway was lined on both sides with many Greylag and Canada Geese all feigning sleep but very wary of any close approach. Amongst them I spotted a supposed "Canalag" Goose, a Canada x Greylag hybrid cross. It was very attached to a pure Greylag and when that bird launched into the water it quickly followed it.

"Canalag" Goose
A little further on I spotted a Barnacle Goose, not a common sight at the reservoir, then another and then even more. In the end there turned out to be 27 of the beautifully marked small black, grey and white Geese. These birds would be feral and probably part of the larger flock which moves around Oxfordshire and neighbouring counties and are quite often seen at Blenheim Park. The Barnacle Geese were much more alert than the moulting larger Geese and took to the water readily whenever anybody walked too close to them.

Barnacle Goose
Some of the Geese were strung out across the road itself and reacted angrily and noisily when we walked through them. I wonder if they'll ever learn that we mean no harm to them so they have nothing to fear but, a bit like cattle, they always move out of the way at the last moment when it would have been easier for them to just stay put. There are quite a few "harlequin" plumaged Greylags presumably with some domestic variety parentage.

I scanned the reservoirs and noticed another three wading birds at the Thames end of F1. Looking through the scope revealed a couple of Ruff and a Knot, both far from common birds at Farmoor. There was a chap taking photos of them but unfortunately he didn't seem to appreciate the Farmoor rule of sitting tight and allowing the birds to come to you. As I watched he chased the birds one time too many and they took off across the reservoir. When he walked past us I asked him, not too sarcastically I hoped, "where did you flush them to?". "Oh they're very flighty" came his reply. Before I could fire back a taught retort, a warning look from the stabilising half of my marriage stopped me in my tracks. I recognised the man as the same one who had done exactly the same thing to a Knot that had been at the reservoir last autumn. I wish he'd learn the Farmoor way of things. For the next 20 minutes there was no further sign of the waders and I assumed that they had indeed been frightened away by his antics but just as we were contemplating returning up the causeway I saw them all flying back towards the western shore again. We moved slowly towards them and settled by the wall about 50 metres away since they were moving back to where we had stopped.

Ruff & Knot
In similar fashion to the Little Stint and Dunlin before, the two Ruff and the Knot were not bothered by us for as long as we remained still and made their way to within 10 metres but then one of the many joggers passed and they took off again. This time though they only flew a short way along the embankment and were soon working their way back towards us again. 

In time the three birds came right up to us and afforded cracking views giving me the chance to get some very close up shots. In some of them you could even see the type of things that these birds eat! We were joined by another birder, well met Clive (in the unlikely event that you're reading this!), who also understood that it's best to remain in one place and let the birds come to you (check out some of Clive Daelman's photos on Birdguides, somewhat better than mine!).


An update on Birdguides informed us that a Bluethroat which had been found at Titchfield Haven on Thursday had been seen again. Mrs Caley and I both love Bluethroats and although we had added one to the year list at Warsash, just a few miles along the coast from Titchfield, ten days before, our views had been brief and unsatisfactory so it was deemed a no brainer and to drive down and see if we could see it. 

We paused briefly on our walk back to the car to watch the flock of Barnacle Geese take off and away over F1. They turned and then passed right over our heads before disappearing to the south.

The drive was a bit hectic with a three mile tailback on the A34 close to Winchester and a trawl along minor roads to avoid the very busy M3 but we arrived at Hill Head next to Titchfield Haven nature reserve on the Solent just before one o'clock. With it being such a nice sunny day the next problem was to find a parking spot since there were a lot of day trippers and beach lovers around. It took a while but eventually we found a space. 

Our original plan was to grab a coffee and something to eat before heading out on to the reserve but we had managed to park just a hundred metres away from the Meon Shore Hide from which the Bluethroat could be seen so decided to go straight to it. Just as well we did too! The hide was fairly full but thankfully and in complete contrast to Wednesday in Yorkshire the locals were more than accommodating and quite gladly made room for us at the windows. We must have been sat down for less than two minutes when somebody called "it's out, in the usual spot"! Of course we had only just arrived so didn't know where the usual spot was but it didn't take me long to find the Bluethroat and then get Mrs Caley on to it. Unlike the skulker at Warsash this bird, another male, was right out in the open albeit a little far away from the hide but at least allowing fine views.

The Bluethroat snared a fly or two and then retreated back into the reeds. Less than five minutes later it was out again, in the usual spot! This time it was on view for maybe a minute or so and ventured out a bit further from the reeds so the views were even better although my camera lens was struggling for reach.

At half past one the Bluethroat appeared for a third time and gave the best views of all staying out in the open for maybe a whole two minutes. We had been in the hide for less than half an hour and had had brilliant and prolonged views, far better than those of many others that had visited to see it on previous days.

We stayed another half hour but the Bluethroat didn't reappear, probably because it was spooked when a Sparrowhawk staged an attack at a Pied Wagtail. A coffee and some lunch was in order so we called in at the visitor centre cafe which was the site of a brilliant encounter for us with a Barred Warbler in December 2017.

Barred Warbler, Titchfield Haven, Hants, 09/12/2017
Fully sated we returned to the hide stopping to admire some of the resident Turnstones that can be found in the small harbour and on the pebble beach. Turnstones are gutsy little birds and are very quick to take advantage of any new food sources, we've even seen them here picking up crumbs in sparrow fashion around the outside tables at the cafe.

Back at the hide there had been no further sign of the Bluethroat, it had gone to ground and despite a few claims of seeing it moving through the reeds we didn't see it again in the next hour. I spent a bit of time taking a few photos of some of the other birds present including a pair of Black Swans, not tickable for the year list but the first I'd seen for a while. 

Black Swan

Black-tailed Godwit

Pied Wagtail
After spotting a Mediterranean Gull floating amongst the more common Black-headed Gulls and gaining a poor record shot, we called it a day. But it had been a good day!

Mediterranean Gull

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