Monday 25 September 2017

23rd September 2017; Farmoor phalarope

After seeing two grey (or red) phalaropes in the county over the past fortnight, at Banbury and Bicester, it was now the turn of the smaller red-necked phalarope. A juvenile red-necked had been found at Farmoor during the week but Saturday would be my first chance to see it. Of course we had seen quite a few in the Outer Hebrides during our June holiday but it's always nice to see a scarce bird in a local setting. There had also been news of a greater scaup at the reservoir too, a less than common duck in Oxfordshire so we had two good birds to look for.

We were greeted at the gate to the carpark by a chap in a high vis jacket which was a new one on us! After being asked if we were sailors or anglers and replying neither we're birders, we got the usual puzzled look and asked to park on the edge away from the main car parking area because there was a big sailing event on. Wouldn't be too much disturbance for the birds then? Not! But we needn't have worried since once up at the reservoir level we could see a group of maybe 15 or so birders on the causeway with scopes and cameras aimed at the shore of F2 and presumably the phalarope. For such a diminutive bird it was certainly drawing in plenty of admirers. We marched briskly along, noticing an influx of pied wagtails feeding along the reservoir edge, and joined the mini throng. Despite its minuscule size the red-necked phalarope was easy to see since it fed just a few metres out from the concrete edge. I settled in and allowed the bird to approach closely whilst I rattled off frame after frame. All photos were from above though now that the water level had been dropped by about 2 metres recently. The dunlin sized bird actively fed in shallow water, only occasionally venturing further out to snare a titbit. It never once came onto the shore (unlike the grey phalarope at Banbury) instead satisfying itself with the tiny flies and gnats on the reservoir surface.

We stayed with the phalarope for around half an hour but then moved on in search for the greater scaup. The scaup is primarily a sea duck only normally visiting the UK in winter and mainly on coasts in the north and east. So for one to turn up on an inland waterbody in autumn was an unusual record and very scarce for Oxfordshire. The bird had been frequenting the south west corner of F2 so we began our traverse of the larger basin towards that corner. I made sure to scrutinise every tufted duck that I came across just in case the scaup was lurking with them. No luck though and when we came across a fellow Oxon birder (and the ducks finder) we were informed that it had been present until, the dreaded, five minutes ago when it had been spooked by a fishing boat and flown towards the north west side! We tracked around, again searching the rafts of tufted ducks, but once again to no avail. It seemed as though the scaup had eluded us. Later in the morning we also walked the entire circuit of F1 to see if the duck had resettled there but there was not sign of it there either, Indeed as I write, the scaup has not been seen subsequently. Another one that got away, so close and yet so far! The walk though was not without reward. On F2 we spotted a strange coot which had many white feathers on its body whilst still retaining its jet black head, a very interesting looking individual. 

partially leucistic coot
not a scup, just another tufty!

A very poorly looking grey black-backed gull rested on the concrete edge only swimming out onto the water when people approached too closely. Apparently this bird had been involved in scrap with another and came off worse for wear. Hopefully it' will survive.

poorly great black-backed gull
There was a large tit and warbler flock moving through the trees that border F2 close to the car park. This contained numerous long-tailed tits and chiffchaffs with a few goldcrests and other tit species tagging along too. Nothing scarcer though.


long-tailed tit

The cafe was inundated with parents of the junior sailors taking part in a competition so we decided to scan F1 for the scaup and then after spotting several rafts of tufted ducks walked around to check them out, fruitlessly of course. We came upon a common sandpiper which never allowed close approach as usual here but had much better views of a lone dunlin which fed along the edge well away from the regatta. A couple of grey wagtails joined it for the peace and tranquility. 
furtive common sandpiper

confiding dunlin

The hundreds of tufted ducks were just that so after another brief look at the red-necked phalarope which was still attracting admirers we headed back to the car. 

I spotted the last remaining juvenile shag fishing by the water tower on F1 but rued the fact that it was too far away for any decent photos.

This time we managed to find room to be able to sit outside the cafe and enjoy a hot chocolate, a sure sign that it's getting colder! As we neared the car and passed the water tower on F2 the shag flew into the small bay there and settled just 50 metres or so away. I couldn't believe my luck and finally got my shots of a swimming bird. I say finally since when I saw the 11 juvenile shags after they had just arrived a month ago, I never managed even one picture of any of them in the water!

juvenile shag

So all in all a pretty good day at the reservoir with some good birds seen but a shame that it was scaupless!

Monday 18 September 2017

16th September 2017; Osprey & Farmoor

 A juvenile sabines gull had spent a few days at Daventry country park so on Friday night Mrs Caley and I made plans to head out there early Saturday morning to see it. However the latest photos coming from there on Friday had shown a very sickly bird so I wondered if it might even survive into the weekend and that it would be prudent to wait on news before travelling. 

By way of an alternative and by a small stroke of luck after a very early morning text message from a good friend, we were able to go to a local site near Oxford where an osprey had been present on and off for nearly a month. It was using a small lake in which to catch fish but our problem now was to find the location! I'd never been there before and it took a couple of phone calls to pin down the exact place. Luckily we found it and arrived just after 08:00 to find the osprey resting in a tree overlooking the small reed fringed lake.  

The bird, which could be identified as an immature because of the pale feather edges, was clearly looking intently for its breakfast owing to its constant head movements. We were watching from around 75 metres away and the light wasn't great, the morning being overcast with periods of rain, but ospreys are large birds so our views were excellent. The osprey remained in the tree for just over half an hour when suddenly and with little warning it dropped out of the tree and dived towards the water. 

Surprisingly it didn't enter the water directly below or even close to the lookout but at a point parallel to our position. The actual moment of impact was hidden by a small island but the bird had selected a fish some 75-100 metres away from where it had been watching from offering great testament to amazing eyesight on its part. When the osprey emerged back into view a roach was firmly gripped in its talons and it carried it away through the surrounding trees and away to another unseen perch in which to consume it. From leaving the tree and departing with the fish had taken all of 20 seconds! Blink and you'd miss it but thankfully, as the photos prove, I didn't! 

After the thrill of the osprey we had the added enjoyment of watching a kingfisher hunt its own meal. Although it never came in too close, it was easy to observe as it, in turns, hovered above the water and perched on reed stems. It wasn't anywhere near as successful as the osprey though and in repeated dives it never caught anything. There were other birds too, moorhens and coots, a small band of warblers and tits moving through the bushes and a buzzard mewing from a distant tree. Green woodpeckers were noisily feeding on the short grass away from the lake and a water rail squealed from inside the reedbed.

Since we close to Oxford we decided to have a look around Farmoor and grab a coffee from the cafe there. The weather had settled down a bit now and was seemingly set fair and with little wind the reservoir surface was mostly unruffled. In my experience Farmoor is quieter with regards to birds when the wind is light but there is usually always something to find. On this occasion though there was very little! 

The water level on both reservoirs had been dropped by about 2 metres since our last visit exposing a large swathe of bare concrete meaning that the weed and algae growing by the edge of the water was now left high and dry and thus offering little sustenance to any visiting waders and their like. We did spot a lone dunlin close to the marina on F2 but a compete scan of both basins revealed no more wading birds.

The best bird was a male sparrowhawk which came gliding past as we strolled past the boat club but it was past us by the time I swung the camera into action! 

A yellow wagtail was feeding along the causeway with at least 30 pied wagtails and a grey wagtail fed alone on F2. 

Two wheatears were seen along the grassy bank next to the treatment works with more pied wagtails (a major influx) and a few linnets. There were still some swallows hawking over the grassy areas and lots of sand martins were active over F2. But, like I said, Farmoor was quiet!

And the sabines gull was not seen at Daventry so likely had succumbed during the night.