Sunday, 20 May 2012

Honeys and Hobbies

19 May 2012

Grove Ferry and Stodmarsh

I joined Gary for a day out in Kent. After much debate last night and again this morning we decided on Grove Ferry over Dungeness and headed east shortly after 06:30. We were greeted in the empty car park by a singing Lesser Whitethroat and headed along the track toward the viewing mound. Turtle Doves were purring in the shrubby paddock and another Lesser Whitethroat was singing. Cettis, Reed and Sedge Warbler were all singing from in or around the reeds and the occasional Bearded Tit pinged as it flitted through the reeds. Out on the pool a Common Sandpiper and the resident drake Wigeon accompanied a small flock of Gadwall. With the sun shining and largely blue skies we hoped that something might fly through. While soaking up the scene Brendan Ryan joined us and we had a great chat about various things, including our respective Moroccan birding experiences. At about 08:45 Martin Wilson joined us, looked up and said rather casually 'Buzzard - no Honey Buzzard' as a large dark plumaged adult female bird drifted slowly NW, then W and finally south monitored by a resident Marsh Harrier. 

Adult female Honey Buzzard
Showing the distinctive cuckoo head and long rectangular tail

Hobbies were starting to rise from their roosts and hawk insects over the reedbeds, Marsh Harriers were displaying high overhead, a Sparrowhawk circled up in the distance and a Kestrel was hovering over the paddock. I looked at the Kestrel and noticed two large raptors circling to the NW along the ridge. I called them to the others and we gradually managed to get them in the scopes. Gary and Martin picked up one - a Marsh Harrier, but I was convinced even at some distance that the other was more interesting. I found it in the scope and seeing down turned wings and a twisting (albeit apparently square tipped tail) suggest it might be a Black Kite. It then turned and showed a white underside - another Honey Buzzard, this time a much slighter pale male. We watched it circling west along the ridge towards Collards Lake. Within a few minutes a rather scruffy Common Buzzard drifted over at height. Not a bad start to the day! While we sat chatting Martin noticed a Bittern rise from the close reeds and fly out towards the back of the pool. 

We decided to walk to Stodmarsh across the Marsh and back along the Lampen Wall and river. As we set out three stunning Hobbies were feeding around the mound giving great views. Walking west we soon encountered more Hobby with an amazing flock of 30 birds that fed together over the Marsh Hide. As we crossed the fields a Meadow Pipit flashed across the path ahead of us pursued by a Hobby. Three others joined the hunt and suddenly, massively outgunned, the pipit dived for cover; it didn't stand a chance. Three Hobbies squabbled over the hearty breakfast before the victor carried his prey away. 

Along the ditch we found large numbers of Variable Damselfly and single Broad-bodied Chaser and Hairy Dragonfly. Many were mating, using various perches and floating vegetation. 

Variable Damselfly were numerous along the narrow ditch
Variable Damselfly

There was little on view from the Marsh Hide, despite the habitat looking amazing and we were quickly back outside enjoying close views of feeding Hobby. The flock wheeled around and occasionally fed close by allowing some great photo opportunities in challenging light conditions. They are stunning looking birds so many images were taken - here are some of the best.


Hobby largely (though not exclusively) feeds on flying insects, preferring a juicy dragonfly, but also enjoying the much smaller, but more numerous, St Mark's Fly. This is a very common, fairly long, shiny black fly with long dangling legs. They can be found in huge numbers during the Spring around fields, woodland edges and wetlands. Hobbies seem to find the flies easy to catch as they hang in the air, drifting along with their legs dangling. Once caught in its talons the Hobby will bring its legs forward while in flight to pass the food to its hooked beak - amazing to watch and great to capture in pictures.

One lucky fly as another is plucked from the air
And is eaten in mid air


The dramatic last moments of this St Mark's fly's short life
Lunch - well a small appetiser

The moment another fly is plucked from the air
Pin point accuracy at 40 mph!

What a bird!

A Grey Heron flew over the path as we walked away - big pre-historic looking beasts.

Grey Heron

Grey Heron

As we stood beside the hide a Bittern was occasionally 'booming' from deep inside the reedbed and another flew low over the reeds to one of the purpose built pools to feed. A mother Mallard nervously walked her brood across the path to the ditches on the other side.

As we reached the Alder wood a male Cuckoo sang atop a dead Willow. This once common migrant is now quite a scarce sight and always difficult to get close to.


A check of the Stodmarsh lake produced a single drake Garganey and the usual Tufted Duck and Pochards. The Water Meadows held six Ringed Plover, a solitary Dunlin, and another drake Garganey but not a single Yellow Wagtail was seen or heard around the loop. We walked along the river seeing more Hobby (I would estimate 50 birds in total around the reserve).

As it was such a nice day we decided to stop at a local pub for lunch. As we sat near Chislet Marsh a Marsh Harrier, a Common Buzzard and a few migrant Swallows passed overhead.

We took the scenic route home stopping near Faversham at a lovely area of open scrub where two Grasshopper Warblers were singing and two Cuckoo flew directly over our heads while both our cameras were in the car - doh! A group of hirundines here was mainly House Martin with smaller numbers of Swallow and a single Sand Martin. A Yellowhammer was singing and a Yellow Wagtail called. A distant and brief view of a bird of prey suggested another Honey Buzzard but with no scope to hand (also in the boot) was just too far away to be certain.

We finally stopped at Oare briefly to check on the water levels and any birds. Geoff Burton and Chris Bond provided entertaining conversation and updated us on sightings, while a breeding plumaged Little Egret fed close to the road and the resident Avocet protected their eggs and young. Not much else here and we were soon on our way home. 

Little Egret
Really smart birds in breeding plumage, with long plumes front and rear
An Avocet missile defends its brood

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

The Emperor

25 November 2011

Cockburn Island, Weddell Sea, Antarctica

Emperor Penguin

Monday, 14 May 2012

A variety of Kentish scenery

11 May 2012

Elmley RSPB

Having spent most of the week sitting at my desk, at the wheel of my car, in a plane, a taxi or at the airport I was desperate by Friday evening for some fresh air and a long walk. Rather bizarrely having been in Newcastle all day I arrived home a little earlier than normal and as it was sunny (for the first time in weeks) I asked Mandy if she fancied a walk over at Elmley RSPB. I pretty much grew up at Elmley, spending much of my teenage years on the reserve and learning my birding craft. It is therefore a very special place in my heart and while I seldom go there these days (ease of driving to Dungeness or elsewhere) I always enjoy the space, tranquility and special birds it supports.

We arrived quite late as the last visitors were leaving and had the place entirely to ourselves. Little Egrets were in all the ditches along the track - amazing to think this was still a National rarity less than 15 years ago. As a result of the recent rain the water levels are very high so we headed straight for South Fleet Hide from where I hoped to see the best selection of waders, as it was high tide. Avocets were typically numerous (I still remember the excitement when the first pair arrived to breed in about 1984/5 and the frustration as we realised how aggressive they were to every rare wader that came close to the flood). Several pairs already had young chicks that were boldly feeding around the wet margins safe from some ground based predators due to the electrified fence that now surrounds the flood. Redshank and Lapwing were numerous and several pairs of male Shoveler were chasing each other over the pools. A smart drake Garganey appeared in one of the channels and a party of 20 Dunlin flew in. A dozen Turnstone, a Ringed Plover and a Greenshank were the only other waders on show. At the back of the flood I was surprised to see 3 Common Buzzard outnumbering Marsh Harriers. 

Just as we were about to leave I spotted a flash of black and white moving along a largely obscured channel. The appearance of long pink legs soon confirmed my suspicions - the two Black-winged Stilt were still here. They remained largely hidden for the rest of the evening, but I managed to grab some distant photos in the gorgeous evening sunlight. 

A pair of Black-winged Stilt half obscured in a narrow wet channel. The bird on the left showed the typical green sheened black back of a male, but retained some dark feathering on the head and neck so perhaps a young male. The bird on the right showed a brown cast back typical of a female, but had a gleaming white head and neck?

The white headed bird
The pair showing contrasting back tones and head patterns

We walked back into the wind accompanied by several Common Tern feeding in the trackside ditches, a Whimbrel that whistled overhead and two smart Wheatears around the gates. As we arrived back at the car park a superb male Barn Swallow was sitting on the gate watching insects. It allowed very close approach and seemed completely unconcerned by our presence - a fitting end to a lovely evening.

12 May 2012

Walland Marsh and Dungeness

I drove down to Appledore where a couple of White Stork had been seen yesterday afternoon. Presumably the same pair that I saw last Friday at Scotney, though they have been traveling the south coast all week as far as Hampshire. It was difficult to find somewhere safe to park south of the Station so I turned along the first available lane. Finding a raised area where the Dungeness railway line runs I stopped and scanned. A very pale Common Buzzard was quarreling with a Marsh Harrier over the fields to the north. Scanning the largely obscured sheep fields i suddenly caught sight of a Stork flying towards me at some range. Hoping it would continue I ran back to the car, grabbed the camera and ran back to my position - nothing. It had vanished. I scanned all around but to no avail - if only I'd stayed put for another minute. I checked the map and could not see any easy way out to the area it had presumably landed in so I drove back to the main road, parked and walked along the edge scanning the area. It was impossible to see into the fields, though I could just see a flooded field where the bird might be feeding. Checking the map I found a footpath that seemed to provide some access into the fields and headed back to the lane I used previously. I parked beside the poorly marked path and scanned to the north. A strangely flying Herring Gull caused me to follow its course and instantly I picked up two distant White Storks circling towards Appledore. I watched them through the scope until they lost height and landed just east of the village somewhere near the Royal Military Canal. Another birder arrived and I explained what had happened before we both drove around to the general area. Again parking was difficult but spotting an opportunity and access to the fields through the hedge I stopped and walked back. I went through the hedge to a gate and scanned the fields - nothing along the back edge, maybe they went further over. Just as I turned to walk back to the road something moving in the nearest field caught my eye - two White Storks! I ran back to get the other guy (he'd never seen one in Britain so was quite relieved) and my camera. They walked around for a while gradually moving away along the edge of the sheep field. I left to continue birding across the Marsh as a Nightingale and a Yellowhammer sang from the hedge. 

A couple of Marsh Harrier and a Hobby were the best birds. Surprisingly nothing obvious over Old Cheyne from the road, just the usual Tree Sparrow in the hedgerows. A Raven flew over as I drove down Dengemarsh road.

Dungeness was quiet, but I set out on a long walk around the desert and gorse. Nothing apparent but a smart male Wheatear was singing beside the car as I returned.

13 May 2012

Grove Ferry and Stodmarsh

I ran my moth trap overnight - the first time in over a month due to the endless rain. Surprisingly I caught just three moths - a Brimstone, a rather tatty Brindled Beauty and a Lunar Marbled Brown. Just one of these had made it into the trap. Apparently others had a similar experience - presumably the rain ha taken its toll.

Mandy said on Friday she would like to go for a walk at the weekend and that we could go birding so long as I fed her (sometimes I have been known to get distracted missing lunch altogether). With the sun predicted to shine again I decided that the Grove Ferry / Stodmarsh loop would be ideal particularly as the Red Lion in Stodmarsh village is strategically placed for a lovely lunch break half way round. We parked at Grove and walked out past the Marsh Hide onto Stodmarsh NNR through the wood and out to the pub. Swifts were very numerous with several hundred whizzing around over the reedbeds and lake. Hobby's were also putting on quite a display - over 30 of these avian beauties were hunting flying insects around the Marsh Hide giving stunning views as the raced around the skies. Several Marsh Harrier, a Kestrel and a Sparrowhawk provided further interest while the various common warblers and a couple of Cuckoo sang. 


Marsh Frogs were seemingly in every ditch and puddle and the first dragonflies (Hairy Hawker and Variable Damselfly) were warming their wings in the sunshine. 

Hairy Hawker
Variable Damselfly 
Marsh Frog
After lunch we followed a similar route, with a brief foray up the Lampen Wall. The Swifts had been forced down to lower levels and were giving amazing views as well as a frustrating photographic challenge.  

Common Swift
Common Swift
Common Swift
A few Sand Martin, House Martin and Swallow were mixed in, but surprisingly there were no waders on any of the pools. A drake Wigeon from the ramp was late, though they do occasionally stay the summer. 

Sand Martin
The Meadow looks fantastic
One last Swift