The opportunity to observe two wintering Divers (or Loons) within easy reach of home, both juveniles and both in public parks, has been a pleasing diversion either side of this turn of the year. I am at present finding myself going further afield to view mid-winter birds I might more usually hope to experience in Oxfordshire, but the birding scene has been unusually quiet in my home county in recent weeks. So quelling the dark season restlessness that set in after I stopped counting down to the shortest day this winter has involved more time on the road.
My previous records of both species have mostly come from Oxford’s own Farmoor Reservoir, where more recently three GND were present together in Dec 2015 but not since; and an injured BTD in full breeding plumage remained for several days in May of the same year before, sadly dying. The only exceptions were a GND in Portland Harbour (Jan 1992), and my first ever wintering BTD at a gravel pit site near Bedford (Nov 93).
The new sightings presented in this post both arrived at their respective sites on 22nd December. When I saw the GND was still just across the border with Berks last Sunday (30th), having done everything I needed to at home it filled the afternoon nicely to go and have a look. This bird was at Beale Park (SU618783), a kind of mini-zoo and visitor attraction in the Thames valley to the north-west of Reading.
I had been there previously a few times to search for Clubtail dragonflies in the adjacent riverside meadows. Unusually on-site parking appears to be free, or I have certainly yet to encounter either an attendant, ticket machine or CCTV installation; and on this occasion there was the added advantage of having the place mostly to myself. The juvenile Great Northern Diver was on view as soon as I arrived and it was certainly different to watch and enjoy one on such a small water body, a private fishing lake to one side of the car park.
I learned of the second Diver in the field whilst hoping for as iffy images of drake Smew north of Worcester on Monday (31st), by when those ducks had moved on. Then during a rather demotivated new year’s day off from birding I decided I would fill Wednesday (2nd) by making an easy trip to the end of the M40 motorway. There this bird had taken up residence at Arrow Valley Country Park (SP061673) in the town of Redditch, to the south of Birmingham.
When I arrived on-site just before midday, the juvenile Black-throated Diver was easy to pick out on the park’s main lake. It was drifting around while going through a preening routine that often involved sitting up in the water and flapping its wings. I recalled the 2015 Farmoor bird behaving in the same way. Then today’s bird began to dive again, and as with the GND two days earlier I was impressed by for how long a time it could stay under water before coming up again almost anywhere. Lastly it dozed for a while with head tucked over shoulder.
Several other birders were staking out various points around the lake’s perimeter, all hoping the bird would surface near them, just as I was. But for the most part it remained about two-thirds of the way across in water that appeared dark brown from the shadow of trees beyond the opposite bank. When it did at last pop up in the brighter-toned water near where I stood, my camera setting was then all wrong; cue a loud curse. It is at moments like that when I wish I could get my head around bird photography.
I kept 18 pictures from my two hours in the BND’s company and whilst fully appreciating how grainy and low-resolution they are, in my own way I like them well enough. Even were I a photographer I rather suspect it might become boring to always have to produce competition entries, and anyway I’m much better at insects.
So what was it like birding on the general public’s turf? I have to say things were rather more agreeable than the reverse situation of the previous post. As an often lone male of a certain age I seldom go to public parks for obvious reasons. But despite the constant procession of parents and children around Arrow Valley Lake, my motivation in standing around looking through optics was not queried at all. And I was only accosted once by someone who just had to talk at me about a Goldeneye when I was trying to get pictures of the Diver. Eventually he got the message and “left me to it”.
Enjoying prolonged encounters with the 2015 summer plumaged adult (pictured above, left) locally, and now this wintering juvenile leaves me feeling pretty well versed in things Black-necked Diver. This had been a pleasant enough and far from arduous day out.