Sunday, 18 November 2012

Double desert dip

18 November 2012
Shellness and Dover

Sometimes your luck runs. Other days its just lacking and then you have some where it so nearly comes together. Today was one of those.

I worked all day Saturday and after a tough six day week I needed some r&r. After a lay in I decided to head out into the sunshine. I had low hopes of anything rare once I looked into the garden to see ground frost and clear skies. After three days of fog I expected a clear night would mean the few late migrants seen in the last few days would have departed.

As so often this autumn I had no real plan but decided at the last minute to take a long walk out to Shellness, Harty and Muswell. I drove out from Leysdown but the small car park at the bottom of the Shellness track was choc full with a RSPB group. I had planned walking out to Shellness then along the seawall to Harty. However I had to park back at Muswell and with about 20 bird watchers ahead of me I decided to walk the loop in reverse.

As I headed out from Muswell Manor three Marsh Harrier circled over the maize. I was struck by the change from rough grassland to endless maize fields and the consequent reduction in bird numbers. The farmers were harvesting with huge machinery parked on and across the track. I made my way past then out across the RSPB fields. A large flock of Starling and a few Skylark, Reed Bunting, Linnet and Chaffinch. As I reached the fence on the back of the Swale Reserve my phone bleeped. A report from Samphire Hoe of an Asian Desert Warbler had me heading back to the car. This national mega is not a county tick but I have only seen two and the autumn has been pretty slow. I headed toward Dover though news was negative since initial sighting by a non birder.

Just over half way there my phone bleeped again. A male Desert Wheatear had been found - along the seawall at Shellness - exactly where I had planned to walk! Now I guess there are several lessons to learn but that hurt.

I decided to continue and was soon parking at Samphire Hoe. As I was paying the car park fee Barry Wright arrived. We talked to Paul Holt and found out where the bird had been seen then set off to check the track beside the railway. Phil Chantler, Nigel Jarman and Brendan Ryan had been thrashing the area for over an hour and I joined them in several sweeps of the vast habitat. Five Stonechat, a Redwing, 3 Song Thrush and 10 Blackbird were seen. A dozen Meadow Pipit flushed as a Sparrowhawk passed over and a Kestrel hunted ominously over the railway. Over the next four hours we tried in vain to relocate the star bird. Two Goldcrest along the railway but little else was seen. It was a gorgeous sunny afternoon and the views of France were stunningly clear but that hardly made up for a frustrating day.

Monday, 12 November 2012

Late autumn sunshine

11 November 2012

Stodmarsh to Grove Ferry

After yesterday's grey, dull and wet weather today was a beautiful, sunny revelation. As I drove to Stodmarsh the golden late autumn sunshine glowed on the gorgeous yellow and orange leaves lining the lanes. I had low expectations for the day - westerly breeze all week and no significant immigration, and really just fancied a long walk in the fresh air, sunshine and some peace and quiet. As I often do I set off to Stodmarsh aiming to do the loop via Grove Ferry. I was unusually armed with my wellies thanks to recent twitter messages from Chiddy and friends about the state of the paths. In practice they were not as bad as expected and were largely passable with walking boots, though in places I was glad of my choice of footwear.

I started in the Reedbed Hide hoping for a close up Kingfisher. Two other photographers were already staking the place out, and had been there for over two hours without a sniff. I gave it half an hour, but they were becoming bored and restless and it wasn't quite the peace I had hoped for - I left them alone (hope they got lucky). I headed up the Lampen Wall, scanned the Teal and Shoveler flocks and then walked down the boardwalk through the Alder Wood where a super flock of Long-tailed Tit coughed and spluttered overhead, then along the bank out to the Marsh Hide. It was VERY quiet here despite the habitat looking great. A Water Pipit flew over unseen, a Little Egret flew over and two Mute Swans had a noisy wash in front of the hide. It was pleasing to encounter several small groups of Bearded Tit on the loop, and three Stonechat. 

Male European Stonechat

I walked across the waterlogged field flushing a number of Meadow Pipit and another Water Pipit. A third flew over Harrison's Drove as I walked toward the hide. I carefully entered the hide not wanting to flush anything, opened the flap and looked out - nothing. Not a single bird? Very odd. 

I headed toward the Feast Hide bumping into John Cantelo, Bob Knight and Jeremy Hall. They provided an update on the recent Penduline Tit sightings and I left them chatting about Spain and pelagics. I decided to sit in the hide and joined only three other people waiting patiently. A few common ducks and a calling Water Rail, plus another flock of Beardies. I scanned for a while carefully checking all the reed mace. Just as a couple and their children left the hide a Penduline Tit gave a very loud call from just in front of the hide. It called several more times then a photographer picked it up feeding on a close reed mace. Over the next hour it gave excellent views feeding initially in front of the hide then to the left along the channel. A few half decent photos were obtained. It appeared to be the juvenile bird found by Marc Heath on Monday. 

It was interesting to watch how it opened up a new Reed Mace using its very pointed beak. It would press its bill into the outer case then open its mandibles to prise an opening. It would then peck into the hole and pull out the fluffy white seeds. In the first image below the results of a number of previous efforts can be seen below the bird. It was surprisingly vocal over the hour calling occasionally but repeatedly. Perhaps the other three were still around unseen in the vast reedbed?

After enjoying extensive views I made my way back to Stodmarsh along the river. A large flock of Fieldfare and a few Redwing flew in and joined the birds already in the hedgerows. More Cetti's Warbler, a flock of Long-tailed Tit and Goldcrest, another fly over Water Pipit and a couple of very high Marsh Harrier were the best of my sightings. Another check of the Reedbed Hide proved fruitless, before I departed much refreshed for a lovely walk.

Sunday, 4 November 2012

How crossed bills work - at Dunge!

3 November 2012


It was raining heavily overnight, but due to clear after dawn to a bright and hopefully sunny day. The wind was not inspiring from a birding perspective, being south westerly and strengthening. Mandy was working, the garden was sodden and I really wanted to get out. Unsure what to do until the last I decided on Dungeness - at least if the sun came out I could try some photography of the long staying Great-white Egrets, Glaucous Gull and Whooper Swans.

The rain was due to clear slowly eastwards, but seemed to be making rapid progress as I trailed behind it all the way to Ashford and then down to the marsh. As I drove the lanes Blackbirds and Redwings were everywhere. A small flock of Yellowhammer flushed from the road and a Swallow (perhaps my last of the year) flew near Midley Cottages. I located the large Mute Swan flock between there and Old Cheyne Court and after careful scanning found the two Whoopers quite close to the road. Just as I positioned the car for a photo the rain started again. Just two shots.

Whooper Swan, between Midley and Old Cheyne
An increasingly regular sight in Kent, hopefully here for the winter

It was just before 09:00 and I was keen to get on the reserve before the weekend hordes so I drove south through the rain. It was still raining when I arrived so I donned waterproofs and headed off to the hides. I decided to start in Scott Hide, which can sometimes provide close views and in the morning provides good light (if the sun comes out). As I rounded the corner from Makepeace hide a Great-white Egret was stood on the gravel wall. It flew noisily out to the islands. From the hide a second bird could be seen feeding along the edge of the reedbed.

Over the next hour I enjoyed close views of Little Egret, Marsh Harrier, Great-crested Grebe and reasonable views of the two Great-white Egrets, plus the usual commoner ducks - Tufted, Pochard, Shoveler, Wigeon, Teal, Pintail, Gadwall and Mallard. 

A couple of Little Egrets flew in as if wanting to land in front of the hide, but were not brave enough with the window open. With the sun now shining they provided some interesting photographic opportunities. Although quite a common sight I still enjoy watching these smart little herons. 


Their Great-white cousins continued to get in on the act, making occasional noisy flights too and fro.

Great-white Egret

A Marsh Harrier quarters the reeds

The young Great-crested Grebe were feeding close to the hide, giving excellent views as the dived and hunted near the reads.

Grey Heron
I walked back toward the car park checking Makepeace and Firth Hide. At the latter a Great-white Egret was hunting quite close around some submerged bushes. 

Next stop was the beach. I was hoping to find the Glaucous Gull somewhere approachable, but in the event found several other birders searching the shingle. After checking the two roosts I still couldn't find it and started to walk towards the sea. Looking back from a new angle the Glaucous was found hunkered down out of the wind in the eastern roost. With other people keen for views I decided not to approach and just managed a couple of half decent shots. As I was photographing it part of the flock decided to relocate to a hollow, giving the opportunity of some more interesting images.

Back for its second winter - 3rd winter Glaucous Gull
Note the fishing line caught in the Herring Gull's bill

A quick look out to sea revealed nothing much - a Gannet and a couple of Kittiwake. With the wind picking up I headed back inland to ARC. At the Hanson Hide I found Martin Casemore (aka Ploddingbirder) watching a recently arrived flock of wild swans. Initially calling them Bewick's he suggested they might be Whooper due to the extensive yellow bases to both adult's bills. However the shape of the yellow, not pinching forward towards the tip (see Whooper shots above) suggested he was right the first time and a passing Mute Swan soon confirmed their small size. It later transpired they had flown over Abbotscliffe and Samphire Hoe earlier in the morning (just before Steve Ashton fell and broke his arm there - ouch. Get well soon!!).

Very cropped image of the family of Bewick's Swan 
Good to see three young birds
I next drove down to Lade with Martin to look for the juvenile Long-tailed Duck that had appeared yesterday. We soon found it at some range but it wasn't feeding so reasonable looks. I left Martin and returned to the reserve, this time for a stroll around the loop trail. It was very windy and other than a Stonechat, a flock of Greenfinch heading south and a flock of Stock Dove going north there was little to see. The hides were quieter than earlier though at least one Great-white Egret was still showing. From Dennis' Hide three Little Egret were seen roosting together. As I was leaving I met Chris Bond and happened upon a report that a Crossbill had been seen at the Pines earlier. We decided to walk over and see if it had stayed around. One the RSPB volunteers was parked up by the gate. He said he'd see a large reddish finch and assuming it to be a Chaffinch had been surprised to see crossed mandibles - he was sure it was his first ever Crossbill. 

Now there are barely ten rather stunted pine trees by the Water Tower, yet somehow this Crossbill had vanished into them. We scanned, looked and listened. Nothing. I thought I heard a 'crack' - perhaps a pine cone being opened, but still nothing. I was about to give up when Chris said he could see a bird. Suddenly it appeared - a young male Common Crossbill. 

Immature male Common Crossbill - Dungeness
It flicked back into the Pine and vanished. I decided to move around the tree to try to see what it was doing. Over the next 15 minutes in the very last of the sunshine we got some great looks and saw some very interesting behaviour.

The Crossbill was initially feeding on the cones in the typical manner of a Crossbill - prising open the cone leaves and licking out the seed. However it then started to do something quite different - now Crossbills are not a common sight for me, so this might be normal, but I have never seen this before.

The Crossbill would fly up into the pine tree and take hold of a cone in its mandibles. Gripping tightly it would pull the cone off the tree, then fly down to a clean branch where it held the cone (and the branch) in its feet while it extracted the seeds. It then dropped the cone and repeated the process. Occasionally it would use a very exposed deciduous branch and it seemed entirely unconcerned by our presence. Fortunately all this happened at close range and I managed to document it with images.

According to 'Finches & Sparrows - An identification Guide' by Clement, Harris and Davis this behaviour is typical (almost indicative) of Parrot Crossbill, but very rarely recorded in Common Crossbill. I suspect it is more related to the normal food choices of the two species - Parrot Crossbill eating Scots Pine seeds and Common Crossbill typically preferring larch or Spruce - and to the rather limited choice of food source on the Dungeness peninsula. 

The Crossbill pulls the cone from the tree
Holding it tightly in its bill, it looks for a more comfortable perch
A bare deciduous branch fits the bill
It carefully manoeuvres the cone into its feet, which are also gripping the branch!
Holding the cone and the branch it checks for predators
Before tucking in
From another angle passing the cone to its foot 
Inserting its bill to expose the seed 
Using its tongue to suck out the seed 
You can see its tongue in play and the seed coming free
The seed case is ejected
And back for more
Nearly got it
And now the reward
Face on they look quite Parrot like with a broad head and wide mouth
Powerful beak

Fascinating and a great series of images to document this wonderful bird in action. A large cloud appeared to the west and shrouded the last of the days sunlight. I had called Martin, who had gone out to Dengemarsh, to tell him about the Crossbill and despite arriving quickly the light turned very suddenly. Leaving him to enjoy views of the Crossbill I thought I would have one last try for the Glaucous Gull. It was not in the roost, and a dog walker flushed the western flock. I headed to the beach in the last rays of light and found it sitting in a group of gulls on the shingle. With a steady hand I managed a few half-decent images.

Glaucous Gull

I took a few shots of other gulls before it just got too dark and I had to drag myself away....

Herring Gulls
Yellow-legged Gull

This gull with its small domed head and protruding breast suggests Caspian, but it didn't look quite the real deal?