Saturday, 12 September 2020

There is Farmoor to it! Early August 2020

Tuesday 4th August; No News Is Not Always Good News

friend of ours, Mark had reported seeing a Little Stint, a bird still missing from our year list, on Farmoor 1 during the afternoon. I was working but would make it home by three-thirty and would be on site just a couple of hours after Mark had sen it. Despite the constant disturbance that wading birds are now getting at Farmoor from the continuous merry-go-round of walkers and joggers, I was hopeful that the bird would stay a bit longer. Mark told me that he'd seen the bird, in tandem with a Dunlin, in the north-east corner of the smaller reservoir which would place it right by the waterworks and just a few minutes from the carpark. We arrived at just past four o'clock into breezy conditions, the favoured weather for Farmoor, marched to F1, and to no sign of any wading birds whatsoever! Sometimes, despite best efforts, you miss the birds. Thinking positively though I surmised that the Little Stint could still be around, just pushed off by one of the recreationists, and may be elsewhere on the complex so we started off on a circuit of the reservoir in the hope that we'd find the wading birds in another part. While I walked I checked the excellent Oxonbirding website for any updates and saw that a photo of the Little Stint had been uploaded, which was great to see but equally I was a tad disappointed to see that the photo was taken on Sunday! Later I discovered that the finder of the Little Stint had decided to post the news and photo of the bird solely to the Oxfordshire Ornithological Society's website which doesn't seem to have as big a readership as Oxonbirding, and therefore the record went unnoticed by most. Maybe it was intended as a test to see how many folk look at the OOS page. Guilty of not looking regularly there myself, and not being able to visit Farmoor on a daily basis, any quick dissemination of news helps me enormously, and many others too I would think, to get to see birds. When a sighting is kept quiet or only put out discretely, for no matter how long, then personally I feel it's a great shame since I think all birders should be given a chance to connect with all good birds seen in the county. It wouldn't have taken much effort to post the sighting to Oxonbirding as well. Some will say that it was only a Little Stint but what if it had been something much rarer? Oh well, never mind, as the saying goes.

We walked the whole of the northern side of F1 and our only reward was a Common Sandpiper which in true form flew rapidly away before we could get within fifty metres of it. I still think the Common Sandpiper should be renamed the "Seen You, I'm Off Sandpiper". It is very rare that you get close to a Common Sandpiper at Farmoor.

Common Sandpiper
At the western end of the causeway a Pied Wagtail was involved in taking a bath at the waters edge and appeared to be thoroughly enjoying it. Of course bathing is an essential part of a birds life, cleaning and maintaining flight feathers in tiptop condition is an absolute must for the Wagtail since Sparrowhawks patrol the reservoir banks and the it may need to make a sharp getaway.

Pied Wagtail
Halfway up the causeway we finally encountered some more waders. Two breeding plumaged Dunlin were sauntering along the waters edge and heading towards us. We've learned over the years that when waders are encountered along the causeway the best policy is to sit on the wall and allow the birds to approach you which generally they will happily do if they perceive no threat. Of course sometimes they scuttle off the other way and occasionally take flight and fly around you, and the practice of sitting and waiting doesn't work if there are other folk walking close to the wall. We were alone with the two Dunlin though and they continued to work their way towards us. We had first noticed them close to the apex of the bend in the causeway, the dividing strip between the two reservoirs is convex in shape on the Farmoor 2 bank, so on that side you can only see so far along the embankment. I was still hopeful that the Little Stint would be with the Dunlin since earlier it had been associating with one but sadly it wasn't and it would appear to have left the area. Still the two Dunlin provided some welcome distraction and I added another load of Farmoor Dunlin photos to what is already one of my largest portfolios.

The breezy conditions totally thwarted my efforts to gain any usable images of the Hirundines that were buzzing around at the marina end of the causeway. It would soon be another year gone in which I fail to get a really pleasing photo of a Swallow in flight! Swallows are definitely my bogey subject for photography. Maybe I should take a few hours just trying to get that desired image but that's just not my bag, I prefer to birdwatch primarily and then take my chances with whatever I see. An adult Yellow-legged Gull was helping at clearing away one of the many dead Trout that have been washed up lately, getting its head into the fish in Vulture style.

Yellow-legged Gull

Friday 7th August; Flying Ant Day

Many people hate Ants and on the few humid days at the end of July and beginning of August, when the flying version of the insects emerge in the garden and zoom off skywards to establish new colonies, then one of the most important creatures to the wellbeing of our shared planet, sadly become even more despised. Ants like most other inhabitants of Earth are vital to the ecosystem that keeps the status quo in place, it is us Humans that are detrimental to that. I actually look forward to flying ant day, except for the heat and humidity since I prefer it much cooler and fresher, not only for the spectacle the swarming insects present but also because I know that some of our resident birds eagerly await the mass dispersal too. The birds of course don't watch the insects for pleasure but instead take advantage of one of natures bounties and take to the air to grab a tasty snack or two. 

Above our house the sky was filled with maybe a hundred Starlings that were launching off of the surrounding trees and roofs whenever an ant passed close enough to snatch. Higher up there were also a few Swifts, a flying Ant would be no match for them. Some Gulls, mainly Black-headed but also a few Herring, were also joining in the feast. For an hour or so I tried, and largely failed , to capture some images of the Starlings in flight and "in the act" of capturing an ant. It isn't easy to photograph birds flying above my back garden because the surrounding houses and trees limit the amount of sky on view but I had fun anyway. I didn't manage to obtain any award winning photos, nor do I ever really, but I'll share a few anyway.

Common Starling

Saturday 8th August; Back Farmoor!

The Little Stint hadn't been seen again at Farmoor during the week but with wader passage in full swing now we headed back to the reservoirs on Saturday morning. For a change the gates were open early and we were able to get in without the masses that would turn up around ten and eleven o'clock. Farmoor is so much better when the boats, fisherman and other folk haven't arrived. I prefer Farmoor on dull, even wet days when I know fewer people will bother with the place since it's not very welcoming in dreary conditions. However today was promising to be another warm one but at least it was breezy which would help to cool us down a bit.

A Grey Heron, standing guard on the marina railings, welcomed us in and a Yellow-legged Gull, which had chosen what looked a bit like a dead Turtle to stand on, but which was actually, I think, a piece of washed up felt, eyed us suspiciously as we passed. I like adult Gulls, it's the juveniles that bug me since they are so hard to identify. 

Grey Heron
Yellow-legged Gull
We met a couple of our friends and passed the time of day for a while. Top of the agenda for discussion was the goings on both at Farmoor and in the county in general and "Little Stint Gate" was debated in detail. Ewan had already walked the causeway and reported that all he'd seen was a couple of Common Sandpipers and a single Dunlin. Wading birds can come and go at Farmoor at any time though so there was a chance that we'd find something different on our walk. We set off down the causeway into the breeze, which was welcomed because the beautiful blue sky foretold of the warm day to come. A Common Tern passed overhead but I was a bit slow in aiming the camera. We've seen very few Terns this year, having Farmoor denied to us in the spring meant we missed the northwards passage. We are still waiting for our first Arctic Tern of the year and in all likelihood will not see one now in 2020. At least we had managed to add a Caspian Tern to our life lists last month.

Common Tern
Little Egrets have been seen a lot recently around the reservoir, usually in the vicinity of the pontoon at the western end of the causeway. As we walked, we failed yet again to sneak up on one of the Common Sandpipers, they are such wily birds, I spotted a Little Egret flying directly towards us. We stayed sitting on the embankment wall and with the bird hide at our backs it seemed as if the Egret didn't register that we there since it continued to make a beeline straight for us. It only clocked us when it was right on top of us, veering away at the last moment but still passing just metres away, allowing me to take probably my best photos of a Little Egret in flight so far.

Little Egret
The walk to the other end of the causeway yielded no waders at all so it seemed as if this walk would be one of those fruitless ones that you often get in good weather at Farmoor. The sunny conditions also meant that there were no Hirundines or Swifts to see either. We took a quick detour to the river and sat for a while on a bench, watching Reed Warblers flitter around in the reeds on the opposite bank. Most of the bird interest on or near the river has subsided now, the Cuckoos and Grasshopper Warblers have either left or quietened, so it was just left to a lonely and sad sounding Reed Bunting to provide a background chorus. A Raven passed high overhead calling raucously and by the moored narrow boats at Pinkhill Lock, and a Wood Pigeon gave me a photographic opportunity as it fed on elderberries.

Wood Pigeon
Returning to the reservoir and the causeway we were relieved to see that it was still quiet with far fewer people milling around than in recent times. We had only gone a short distance past the pontoon, again the Common Sandpipers were too quick for me there, when Mrs Caley spotted a small wading bird at the waters edge. It was the Dunlin, somehow it had given us the slip first time around, but now it was feeding along the embankment of F2. We sat down on the wall and waited for the Dunlin to come closer which it duly did and we got excellent close up views once again of the most confiding of our wader species. Perhaps it could have a word with the Common Sandpipers.

We watched the Dunlin, a juvenile bird so not one of the ones from Tuesday, for a while, at one point it scuttled along the concrete right beneath us, paying us no real heed at all. I  have lots and lots of photos of waders taken at Farmoor and a large proportion of those feature the rather ugly concrete strip that lines the reservoir. Therefore I always try to get shots of the birds stood in the water or at least on some of the algae and vegetation at the waters edge. Of course the success of that depends on the birds themselves and whether or not they fancied paddling. This Dunlin was semi-obliging on that score.

The Dunlin had approached so closely that we could actually see the foodstuff it was garnering from the algae covered concrete, none of which looked too palatable to our eyes but all of which was dispatched with no lack of zeal by the Dunlin. Like most wading bird species Dunlins make long migration journeys, so stopover sites like Farmoor are vital places for them to refuel on those travels.

A couple of Common Sandpipers whistled past and I at least managed a record shot of a part of them other than their backsides as they passed. Ewan had told me that there was a particularly confiding Common Sandpiper at the reservoir right now but up to now I hadn't come across it and the ones that I encounter continue to be of the "Seen you, I'm off" variety!

Common Sandpipers
A little further on another small wading bird flew across the causeway a short way ahead and dipped over the wall of F1. I scanned the concrete apron and spotted a Sanderling stood on one leg about thirty metres away. Wanting to put the sun to my back we skirted around the bird by walking up the opposite side of the road and looped over to the wall so that we were a similar distance away from the bird on the other side. It soon became evident that the Sanderling wasn't actually resting on one leg but could only use the one since the other was lame. 

The Sanderling didn't appear overly hampered by its disability though and was able to hop on its one good leg and pick flies and such from the waters edge. It also fluttered short distances along the waters edge which brought it nicely towards us. Sanderlings are one of my favourite wading bird species and this year has seen a good passage of the birds at Farmoor. Our audience with this one was to be brief though since a couple walking up the causeway soon had it flying off again. Disturbance of birds owing to the increased popularity of the reservoirs for recreation purposes is becoming a huge problem, both for the birds themselves and also for us birders.

The amount of people around by mid-morning was too much for us and we made our way back to the car. I stopped to admire three Yellow-legged Gulls at one end of a raft and a Cormorant at the other. There appeared to be a bit of animosity between them and each party was watching the other intently.

Yellow-legged Gulls & Cormorant
A Common Sandpiper which must have seen somebody else before us, actually flew past reasonably close for a change but naturally kept going. When it landed at the marina end of the causeway it was soon flying off again when more people got too close to it. It's not just us that they don't like then. It really is hard work for the wading birds at Farmoor these days.

Sunday 9th August; Ruddy Listing Hell!

Ducks can be a nightmare, not in a scary sense but in terms of whether they are genuine or plastic, and by plastic I don't mean plastic as in actual plastic but more as in unreal or unauthentic. Confused? Yep, I am too, but welcome to the world of Ducks and whether they can be accepted as genuine wild wildfowl or non-genuine non-wild wildfowl. Examples of plastic ducks, other than those found at the end of your bath, are escapees from wildfowl collections that wander around either by themselves or in feral flocks, or birds that have evolved from reintroduction schemes that take place frequently around the globe. There are so many grey areas revolving around the world of ducks that I personally find it bewildering and why my lists that I keep don't adhere strictly to the rules of listing. To my own aims, a bird that I see living wild and free, unless it is an obvious escape from captivity, is fair game particularly if I've had to make an effort to see it. Certain species of ducks attract conjecture and raised eyebrows, Ferruginous Duck and Baikal Teal being two prime examples. So many records of ducks, that have seemingly strong cases for recognition, are thrown out by the listing and record authorities whereas others are accepted even if the evidence is less appealing. It's very confusing and often I think that the basis for acceptance of a certain duck sighting and record comes down to whether members of the adjudication panel have seen it for themselves or not!

Another species of duck that is generally considered as being plastic and therefore uncountable on proper lists is the Ruddy Shelduck. I've seen quite a few Ruddy Shelduck before and I've always counted them on my year lists. Indeed some have been accepted as being true Ruddy Shelducks in the past, but others have been deemed as artificial and consigned to the bin. The reintroduction schemes have also helped to muddy the waters further. Last year I actually twitched one in Lincolnshire so that I could get it onto my year list, not specifically since we had gone up there for a Pomarine Skua, a claim and addition to the list that attracted quite a bit of scorn from some of my peers, not that I cared since I had seen it anyway. 

A few days before a flock of nine Ruddy Shelducks had been found resting on the Queens Pool in Blenheim Park, where you'll find Blenheim Palace, near Woodstock. The flock of nine had also been seen previously in Somerset and originate from a reintroduction scheme on the Germany/Switzerland border where a large non-self sustaining feral flock has become well established. Apparently this places the birds in category E of the British list, truly wild birds are in category A, B or C. For more information on the listing principles see the BOU website. Alternatively stick your head in the sand, like me, and happily get on with your life.

We decided that we'd go and see the Ruddy Shelducks early on Sunday morning and avoid the late rising tourists and other recreationists, that plague any available bit of parkland or beauty spot these days. As we approached the Lake I scanned from a distance and instantly saw the Ruddy Shelducks, no problem then and, as far as I'm concerned, our 204th species of this year. I could see another birder walking close to the edge of the water but didn't recognise him from where we were. By the time we reached the Pool edge the Ruddy Shelducks had disappeared and I cursed under my breath at the other birder for scaring them off. The birder turned out to be Mark again, and of course he hadn't flushed or scared the birds at all, they had just swum into a small inlet of the pool but couldn't be seen from where we stood. Mark had arrived a while before us and had initially found the birds on the main lake but they had then flown to the smaller pool to which they had been faithful since arriving during the week. By walking a little further on we were able to see that the whole flock was stood preening in the shallow stream.

Ruddy Shelducks (7 of 9)
We chatted to Mark, about birds, music and just about everything else. When we looked back at the pool the Ruddy Shelducks had disappeared again and I wondered how they managed to move without being seen? An invisibility cloak maybe? A lot of birds possess those. A look slightly to the right though revealed that all of the Shelducks were now swimming in clear water and not so far away. Ruddy Shelducks are well named, they are a reddish colour overall, the head is a shade or two lighter, and they are a type of Tadorna, the posh latin name for Shelducks. Shelducks are actually more similar and closely related to Geese than Ducks but for some reason the old ornithologists decided on Shelduck rather than "Shelgoose". Wildfowl are not the most exciting types of birds to observe, they tend to float around on the water not doing very much, so it doesn't take long to want to move on. The Ruddy Shelducks weren't likely to come any closer so we all headed off to our cars. Just as we left, I noticed Justin stood at the other side of the lake. Being one of Oxfordshires premier listers, it was interesting that he'd bothered to come and see the birds and added a little bit more validity to the sighting. He did say later that they are category E birds at best and wouldn't be getting elevated to a higher status just yet.

With Farmoor just a few miles away, it made perfect sense to drop in there again and have a quick look at what was around on the causeway. We took our time, the reservoir tends to be less busy on Sundays than Saturdays, and drank a coffee from the marina cafe which through necessity can only serve outside and resembles a school tuck shop. It was a nice coffee though and while we sipped I scanned F2 for any Black Terns or Little Gulls, wishful thinking on my part, or anything else that might be around. Ewan was there and he joined us for a chat. He said there was little about but that the approachable Common Sandpiper was showing particularly well at the marina end of the causeway on the F1 side so maybe I would finally get my chance to get some decent photos of it.

The Common Sandpiper was indeed feeding along the edge of F1 just fifty or so metres from the marina. We employed our usual tactic of walking past the bird by using the opposite side of the road so that it wouldn't see us pass and ducked in carefully behind the wall. We also had the advantage of having the sailing club hut behind us which served to break up our outlines. Then we waited for the Common Sandpiper to approach us which, for once, it dutifully did, and I got the photos that I'd been trying to get for a while. The Sandpiper came close enough for us to even see the minuscule titbits that it was eating! I'm now going to have to revise my name for the species at Farmoor.

Common Sandpiper
The love in with the Common Sandpiper was ended when it was spooked by a less stealthy birder, who should be congratulated at being able to move less nimbly than I do, and flew off across the reservoir, I doubt the other chap even saw the bird until it took flight. In his defence the Common Sandpiper was well camouflaged and not immediately noticeable, well not if he wasn't looking and paying attention anyway. Perhaps he thought he'd save me some memory space on my camera. We strolled a bit further along the causeway but as Ewan had already told us, we knew there was nothing else around to get over enthused about, so it was a half-hearted amble really. I stopped to admire and photograph a Carrion Crow that had been disturbed off its Rainbow Trout breakfast by a rampaging Windsurfer who crash landed at the edge of F1. Carrion Crows are one of those species of birds, like Wood Pigeons and Cormorants that most folk, birders included, don't bother looking twice at. Seen in good light and close up though they are rather beautiful in their own right possessing a myriad of petroleum blues, purples and other colours in their plumage. This bird was a juvenile so was more brown toned but still a handsome looking specimen in my eyes. 

Carrion Crow
A Cormorant flew closely past and I took the obligatory few frames of a Cormorant flying past. We then noticed some unusual behaviour amongst a flock of Cormorants further out on F1. About twenty of them were all swimming in the same direction, seemingly led by a lone bird at the vanguard. All of the pursuing birds were pointing their heads and bills up in the air as if they were all watching their rivals while the lead bird eyed up the others by glancing backwards. I wondered what was going on? Were they about to start a race in the style of the sailors on the opposite reservoir? Or was it a game of follow the leader? Did the lead bird know where the best fish were? I hoped it wasn't twenty male birds following a lone female. I searched online for details of the behaviour but could find no reference to it so maybe I'll never know what was actually going on. Where's Dr Dolittle when you need him?

We didn't go any further than the bird hide and returned to the marina for a second cup of coffee. Whilst there I took more obligatory photos of a Great Crested Grebe that floated in close to the bank, well you can never take enough photos of such beautiful birds can you?

We had had a really enjoyable week, and the weekend especially, birding locally despite dipping out on the Little Stint. Our wanderlust was growing though and as we finished of our beverages we discussed where we'd go next. And we could hear that Vulture was calling us again.

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