Wednesday, 13 January 2016

Duckin' and diving

I had my annual trip to see my accountant today to get the year end tax return sorted! After only being told off slightly I decided to make a day of it and do a bit of birding.
First off was Farmoor, a pair of gravel pits the far side of Oxford. I'd been there last for a rather nice red-necked grebe and it was a distant cousin this time which was attracting me - a pair of great northern divers. Normally associated with either Scottish lochs or the coast there are normally a few of these large divers over-wintering inland making use of the well-stocked fishing lakes and pits.
The weather was chilly, unusual for this year, but at least it was not too windy when I got there. Sometimes you have to work hard for birds, sometimes not. Fortunately this was a "not" time. One was immediately obvious about 50 yards off the sailing club.

This one proved to be a bit shy though and after a few minutes of preening and fishing it swam off and around the corner!

Great northerns are one of the 3 common divers we get in the UK, along with red- and black-throated. These two are very uncommon on inland waters in southern England. They are also smaller and altogether more delicate compared to the larger, bulkier gnd's. These are in their dull winter plumage as opposed to the much smarter breeding plumage which they will get in a couple of months as Spring comes on.
On the other pit, only separated by a narrow walkway, it's friend was much more obliging though. This bird was fishing only about 20 yards off the bank!


Well, when I say fishing I watched it for, I guess, 30 minutes and despite it diving very frequently I didn't see it catch anything!! It was VERY loyal though to the same patch enabling me get quite close to it.



Sometimes it got a bit bored of not catching fish and had a bit of a preen which involved rolling over and scratching itself with its long webbed foot.


I was tempted to hang around and see if it ever caught lunch but I had other stops planned which involved a bit of motoring so I left it and struck off across country.
Next stop was Henley Road gravel pits in Reading, a new stop for me. It is on the edge of the town and not easy to find, especially after the sat nav dumped me in a housing estate!! Finally I got to the site, which is another set of pits, this time with a Steve Redgrave and Matthew Pinsent rowing club attached. I was looking for a more natural setting though and there were three pits which looked good. My target was a smew but no clues as to which pit it was on, and no there birders around.
Sometimes, as I said though, lady luck smiles on you and the very first pit I looked at turned up trumps.
Smew are another of our winter ducks, previously more common and almost annual in Rickmansworth. Now they are harder to find but are well worth seeking out, especially the very smart males. The downside though is that they do tend to be a skulker and this one was no different. It was tucked up on the edge of the lake fishing but underneath the overhanging branches.


These two give you a slightly better idea of what it is like - a very smart white bird with black highlights. There was a female around somewhere though I couldn't find it. They look very different, plainer with a redhead.

After here I had one final stop before going home. Staines reservoir is another large body of water and is recognisable to anyone flying out of Heathrow at it's right at the end of the runway! It is massive though, with two separate basins each holding hundreds of water birds, but nearly always miles away. Today was no different. With two other birders who arrived just after me we did manage to find not only my two targets - scaup and black-necked grebe - but also another 2 great northern divers! The scaup is a diving duck superficially similar to a tufted duck but a bit larger and males have a grey rather than black back. This one took some finding as there were at a guess 500 tufties, probably more, needing sifting through. It didn't help that it was asleep as well. The grebe was slightly easier to find as there was only a couple of little grebes hanging about to confuse. Otherwise there were a a few goldeneye about as well as the usual common ducks.
So, a good day, both useful and productive, 4 more for the year list which is now up to 103. Will try to get to 120 by end of the month but that may be tricky!