Another day, another great bird at Farmoor Reservoir. This time the first Red-necked Phalarope at the reservoir in decades. Like yesterday’s Little Stint, it was a juvenile, very confiding and a pleasure to spend time with:
These birds have an incredible migration strategy. They breed on pools in arctic tundra, but winter at sea in warm tropical oceans. I have seen flocks of Red-necked Phalarope in the Arabian gulf in November – see here – and assuming this bird was from one of the northern European populations, it could be heading to join them. The small UK population that breeds on Shetland and the Outer Hebrides makes an even more incredible journey to the Pacific Ocean. They spend their winter around the Galapagos Island, off the west coast of South America – see here– one of the most remarkable migrations of any British breeding bird.
An unexpectedly free morning allowed me to spend a couple of hours at Farmoor Reservoir today. The highlight was a bright juvenile Little Stint on the F2 side of the causeway, found by Dai Johns this morning, I think. It is always a treat to see these tiny arctic breeding waders in Oxfordshire. This bird, hatched this summer somewhere in the tundra of northern Norway or Russia, may never have encountered humans before. It fed quite happily on the shoreline, ignoring myself and passing walkers only a few meters away:
Below: This is my favourite picture from this morning. All the fabulous colours of the upperparts are visible here, plus the split supercilium. The bird also appears to have three wingtips, as the rufous-fringed tertials on the right wing, feathers which normally cloak the folded primaries, have been blown to one side:
Below: The short-tailed appearance is apparent here – it appears almost tail-less! The tertials are nearly as long as the primaries and cover the tail. After a short while, the Little Stint became less active…
… and then settled down for a nap, which was how I left it.
Farmoor can, at times, appear to be something of a depository for the near-dead and dying. Today’s ghouls included:
The living dead 1: adult Great Black-backed Gull. This bird is close to paying the ferryman. In fact, perhaps Farmoor Reservoir is where the ferryman lives? That would account for the number of dead and dying birds. There were at least 5 adult, 1 second summer and 2 first winter Yellow-legged Gulls on the reservoir, plus at least one first winter Great Black-backed Gull.
The living dead 2: the single juvenile Shag is still hanging on. This coastal species never seems to survive inland. This is the only remaining bird from the influx of 11 on 27th August. It has survived 24 days at Farmoor to date. How long to go?
Below, adult Cormorant. For bill and forehead shape comparison with the Shag, above. Cormorants have amazing eyes, both in colour and function. They work perfectly well underwater and in air.
Not dying, but a variant, the leucistic Coot is still present:
There were a couple of Common Sandpiper on F2 this morning, some of the last birds of year. Several hundred Swallow, with smaller numbers of House and Sand Martin were also present.
Having explored the east side of the Lauterbrunnen valley, it was time to discover the west side. Mürren sits on the edge of the precipice and is the access point to the Schilthorn summit:
We got the train down to Lauterbrunnen from Wengen, then the funicular railway up to Grütschalp. From there we walked through the pine woods south to Winteregg, and then onto Mürren. The walk is pleasant and easy, with the main peaks clearly visible across the Lauterbrunnen valley:
Just before Winteregg we were stopped in our tracks by the rapid, deep drumming of a woodpecker from what sounded like only a few tens of metres away. Imagine a Great Spotted Woodpecker on steroids (like this):
(Sonnenburg, XC355459. Accessible at www.xeno-canto.org/355459)
“Black Woodpecker!” I exclaimed. Almost immediately it began calling, a distinctive almost cat-like call (like this):
(Annette Hamann, XC382687. Accessible at www.xeno-canto.org/382687)
But, despite our efforts to get a glimpse of Europe’s largest woodpecker, the bird remained hidden. There were good numbers of butterflies along the railway line from Grütschalp to Winteregg. As always, I am happy to be corrected over my butterfly ID, so from the top, Heath Fritillary, Titania’s Fritillary, Large Wall Browns and the abundant Chalk-hill Blue:
The highest peak behind Mürren is Schilthorn, at just under 3000m high. The Swiss have built a revolving restaurant on top of this peak and the associated cable car gives easy (albeit expensive) access to the high alpine peaks and their wildlife. My wife and I visited Schilthorn in 2008 and had fantastic views of Lammergeier. Two juveniles birds soared below us and indulged in a couple of memorable low passes just over our heads. At that time fledglings (an inappropriate expression for a bird with a wingspan of between 2 and 3 meters) from the introduced population in the Swiss Alps had a single primary and single secondary feather bleached white. We watched one juvenile Lammergeier with bleached feathers and one without chasing each other around in front of the magnificent vista of the high peaks (top two pictures below). We also got good views of Ibex (bottom picture):
Reflecting on that fabulous 2008 visit peaked my expectation levels. We chose a clear morning by simply checking the Schilthorn webcam – if there is no visibility on top, don’t go. At 7am it was crystal clear. We took the train down to Lauterbrunnen then the bus to Stechelberg Schilthornbahn, where we climbed onto the first of the three cable cars that take you to the summit. As we ascended from the valley floor we rose past the vast cliffs of the Lauterbrunnen valley:
At the top of the cliffs we changed cable cars. At Gimmelwald cable car station we noted a sign outlining a “Moral Code for Basejumpers”. Lauterbrunnen has a global reputation amongst the basejumper community. The attraction of hundreds of meters of vertical cliff, easily accessed by cable car and funicular railway makes getting to a jumping spot easy. The tricky part appears to be surviving the jump. Whether basejumpers use parachutes or wingsuits, fatalities are common. Unfortunately (for all concerned) it is often the local farmers who find body parts in their fields at the bottom of the cliffs, hence the polite request in the sign at Gimmelwald. There was a fatality the day after we arrived, reported here. Up until 2016 a base jumping fatality list was kept here, Lauterbrunnen features quite often. Like most extreme sport enthusiasts, my personal view is that they confuse the overwhelming surge of adrenaline that such an experience generates with happiness. But enough reflection on life and death. We continued our journey up to Birg, where the views were opening up magnificently and climbed into the final cable car up to the summit:
Above, looking down from Birg. Mürren is visible on the edge of the Lauterbrunnen valley, the big three (Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau) are visible on the centre skyline, with their respective glaciers.
Below, looking up towards Schilthorn. Piz Gloria, the bizarre revolving restaurant on the Schilthorn summit came into view… just as the clouds rolled in! Disaster, we were too late!
Clear skies are a must up here, but as we stepped out at the Schilthorn summit visibility quickly reduced to zero. The picture below illustrates the gathering cloud. On the left, the side with views of the peaks, a complete white-out. On the right of the ridge, clear skies looking down into the valleys.
Within a few minutes only the odd patch of the outside world could be seen. We stayed up there nearly an hour but there was no indication that the cloud would lift. In fact it remained just below the Schilthorn summit all day. There would be no Lammergeier extravaganza today, just the odd Alpine Chough calling from somewhere in the clouds.
The Schilthorn’s own website gives a better impression of how spectacular this place can be. And given the remarkable feat of building, of all things, a revolving restaurant in such a stunning natural setting, I am saddened at the degree to which the James Bond film that was filmed there (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, 1963) is used to advertise the place. Do we really need guns to attract people to a place that should inspire peace and quiet? The incessant playing of the James Bond theme tune, even outside on the viewing galleries at Piz Gloria, is completely at odds with the reasons that most people go to mountain peaks: silence. This is a missed opportunity to educate people about the spectacular scenery, the wildlife and the silence of the high peaks. Next time: less Bond and more Lammergeiers please.