Sunday, 5 March 2023

Farmoor Lesser Scaup (& an American Wigeon Bonus)

On Thursday at just before 4pm news broke on the Oxon birding grapevine of a "possible" male Lesser Scaup at Farmoor. I inwardly cursed when I read this: Lesser Scaup was a bird that I still needed for my county list but the "possible" bit meant that it might end up all being for naught. I'd been badly burnt a few years back in 2017 when a "Lesser Scaup" at Farmoor had turned out to be a hybrid Lesser x Greater Scaup. From this experienced I'd learnt that it can be a bit of a minefield sifting the pure Lesser Scaup from various hybrid combinations and I guess that was why there was the "possible" prefix. Still I wasn't doing anything and these days there is plenty of light until 6pm so I finished my cup of tea, threw my birding gear into the Gnome-mobile and headed off through the rush-hour traffic towards Farmoor. Google was recommending the Swinford Toll Bridge route to the reservoir as the fastest due to the traffic and in a little under half an hour I was pulling up at the car park, tooling up and yomping off down the causeway.

The report had stated the west end of Farmoor 2, the far end from the car park of the larger of the two reservoirs at Farmoor so I hurried along as quickly as I could. I was worried about when the gate might shut - a sign attached to the broken entrance barrier stated 5pm which was only over 30 minutes from when I arrived but I was on a mission and so chose to risk it. Still my mind couldn't help but go over the possibility of getting locked in as I slogged along the concrete path to the far end. There was one other birder ahead of me and by the time I reached the far end I'd caught up with him. It turned out to be JT and we joined forces in our search.

There was no obvious sign of it at the west end so we decided to walk the entire perimeter of F2 - a total distance of 3.8km according to Google maps. As we walked we both remarked on the almost total absense of any Tufted Duck. I am used to seeing hundreds of them overwintering on the reservoir so it was strange to see the place so empty. Eventually in the south east corner we spotted half a dozen of them though there was no nearctic interloper amongst them. Almost back where were started, about 200 yards before the entrance ramp we spotted a few more and bingo - there it was in amongst them!


Some rather back-lit video of the bird in the dying light

As the light was fading we set about taking some video and putting the news out. It was also a chance to give the bird a good grilling. From my bitter hybrid experience I'd learnt that there were four main factors to look out for: the head shape, the nail on the bill, the size of the vermiculations and the wing bar. This had a narrow black nail confined to the tip of its bill (as it should do). The vermiculations were also rather coarse - I remembered that this stood out for the hybrid bird last time which had had very fine vermiculations. The head shape had the peak past the crown as well - tick!. We didn't get to see the wing bar (the bold part of which should be confined to the inner half of the wing) but everything else was spot on. We watched as the bird literally swam off into the sunset with its Tufty friends before I decided to head off home. Fortunately the gate was still open and the parking barrier wasn't working so there wasn't a fee to pay - hurrah!

The Lesser Scaup & Friends

The bird did the decent thing and stayed on, enabling the wing bar to be confirmed by others as well. There is some speculation that this might be the Staine's Reservoir bird relocating as that had disappeared a few days earlier. Either way, it was a most welcome grip-back tick for the county.

This excellent photo (courtesy of Ewan Urquhart above and below).
shows the narrow black nail, the head shape and the coarse vermiculations..

...and the wing flap shows the bold wing bar is confined to the inner wing.

Otmoor American Wigeon

As well as this "rare" nearctic duck there was a slightly commoner (only a "scarce") one gracing the county with its presence, namely the drake American Wigeon at Otmoor. This bird, now thought to be the Somerset Shapwick Heath bird, had been seen on Port Meadow one evening by TM before disappearing again and then turning up on the Flood Field at the north end of Otmoor. There it has stayed ever since giving distant views. As I'd already seen a couple in the county and it wasn't on my patch I was in no hurry but it stuck around so this Sunday morning with the rest of the family busy doing other stuff, I finally decided to pay a visit.

I parked up at Oddington and after a pleasant 15 minute walk along the bridleway I arrived at the Flood Field. There was one other person on site, a visiting London birder trying to scope through the hedge. He'd seen it a while ago but was not presently on it. So I went back to the main viewing area just past the kissing gate where in a few minutes I managed to find it. I'd trained myself to know what to look for in case it turned up on Port Meadow again and the continuous pink/brown flanks of the american bird really stood out compared to the pink and grey two-toned flanks of the eurasian birds. It was literally as far away as was possible from where we were viewing so my video efforts were strictly record shot quality.

Some very distant video footage of the drake American Wigeon

While we were watching the bird an Otter swam right past it in the water. This was my first ever Otter sighting in Oxfordshire, despite its increasing presence in the county. One of the highlights of the trip was seeing all the birds go up as a Marsh Harrier went over, harrying them relentlessly. There were thousands of Lapwing and Golden Plover - I don't think I've ever seen so many Lapwing together in one place. It was a marvellous spectacle!

This shot doesn't really do justice to the spectacle of so many
Golden Plover and Lapwing all flying around at once

After a while I headed back home, pleased to have added a third Oxon American Wigeon sighting to my records as well having enjoyed the spectacle of so many wintering birds on the Otmoor floods. It had been a good morning out!


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