Saturday, 27 April 2013

Red-rumped Swallow

27 April 2013


My first day out with Gary since we got back from Japan. He picked me up just before 06:30 and we were on our way to Dungeness. The blue skies and frost (near Ashford) suggested it would not be a classic day out, but it is late April and with Dungeness you can always hope for something unusual, or at least a half decent day out.

As we reached the causeway by the ARC a flock of hirundines was hawking beside the road. We pulled over and checked through. A good number of House Martin, a few Swallow and about 20 Sand Martin, my first this year. I remarked it would be worth keeping an eye on the flock later as there might be a chance of a Red-rumped Swallow, and we drove along the causeway. Stopping at the southern end revealed the smart Spotted Redshank that's been around a few days and a Little Egret feeding along the edge. Another birder stupidly got out of his van, seemingly unaware that he flushed everything, including the Spot Red, in the process. 

House Sparrow
We drove down to the point (pair of Wheatear along the roadside and several Whitethroat) and parked beside the Old Lighthouse. A few House Sparrow and a pair of Chaffinch were the only birds in the garden so we walked out checking the various gorse patches between here and the Bird Observatory. A familiar high-pitched whistle attracted us to a couple of smart Firecrest, which at least hinted at some immigration. A few Swallow flew in from the sea and headed inland. This encouraged us to venture out across the Desert, across the Long Pits causeway and back through the trapping area. It was very quiet, with far fewer Whitethroat than last weekend, and just a single Chiffchaff singing. A few more Swallow flew over then four separate sightings of Sparrowhawk, with at least one seemingly a migrant heading inland. Back at the Obs and we caught up with David Walker. While chatting another 2 Sparrowhawk flew in and a white-headed Common Buzzard circled up over the Power Station. A superb Raven circled around giving great views of its huge wedge-shaped tail. As we left a quick chat with Gill Hollamby who had just arrived and back to the car. 

We drove to Lade and checked the two pits. A smart Cuckoo was sitting in a distant Willow, 4 Marsh Harrier and a Common Buzzard were sparring over the airport and another 2 Sparrowhawk flew over. A few Swallow and House Martin fed over the pit and our first Hobby of the year dashed through. As we reached the car a text message arrived from Gill saying that a Red-rumped Swallow had just been seen on the RSPB Reserve. 

Back at the ARC road a few cars had gathered, their occupants scanning the hirundine flocks. Steve Broyd had found the bird from the Visitor Centre, seen heading towards ARC in the swirling flock. Steve pulled up and said he was confident of his ID, but joked nobody would believe him as Bob could not get onto it despite being stood right next to him. They had not managed to relocate it from the ARC road, but others were still looking. There was a flock of hirundines over the New DIggings, but a bigger one over the back of Burrowes, so I suggested we got round to Hide 1 and look from there.

Within minutes we were standing behind the hide and scanning the flock of hirundines that had now moved in front of the Visitor Centre. Almost immediately I picked up the familiar shape of a Red-rumped Swallow and called the warden, Steve and Bob from inside the hide. 

Fortunately it flew towards us and despite the poor light gave a good fly past. The birds moved back over towards ARC, as other birders arrived. After another 15 minutes the flock was over the back of Burrowes and I picked it up again, this time getting the gathered crowd onto it before it flew back over our heads. About 20 minutes later Bob picked it up high above the pit moving east with 2 House Martin and this proved to be our last sighting. The flock now joined by at least 8 Common Swift, began to disperse and feed over ARC, before the sun came out and they all flew north.

While scanning the skies we also picked up a male Peregrine, two Ravens, a Whimbrel, 3 Marsh Harrier, a Kestrel and another 4 Sparrowhawk. Four Common Tern flew forlornly around Burrowes looking for somewhere to nest (the very high water levels have risen above the islands that once provided them with a safe haven), and a first-winter Mediterranean Gull sat on a post. The obligatory Great-white Egret showed briefly.

After grabbing some food in Lydd we drove over to Scotney to eat our lunch. From the car I picked up an odd looking bird sat on the gravel spit. It was out of water, but appeared to be a rather odd sleeping duck. Its peach washed, white breast and grey and white patterned neck looked very odd. I mumbled something about Long-tailed Duck not really able to put a name to it. I setup the scope and zoomed in for a better view. I said to Gary 'I have absolutely no idea what this is', and he laughed thinking I was joking. When he realised I was being serious he jumped out and took a look. Very odd. He too was perplexed - its large round, white body looked so incongruous. Fortunately after about ten minutes I saw it wake briefly - it actually was a Long-tailed Duck! I've not seen one out of water before and it was moulting. We sent a few text messages and the locals seemed quite interested, many soon arriving. As we put them on it they all gave us some odd looks - 'Are you sure its a Long-tailed Duck?' they asked. Gradually each saw it awake and confirm its rather obscure identity. A very interesting experience.

Also here was a Little-ringed Plover and at least 30 Ringed Plover, a few Lapwing and 5 smart Yellow Wagtail. A flock of 8 Swallow flew north and a couple of Marsh Harrier circled distantly over the ranges. As we left we were told that the Wood Sandpiper had been seen again on the Hay Fields so we drove over and walked out to the pools. A super selection of waders was feeding on the muddy field and in the shallow ditches. Seven Dunlin, most in smart summer plumage, 4 Redshank, a Greenshank, 6 Ringed Plover and a very handsome Ruff. However there was no sign of the Wood Sandpiper, which was presumably sleeping somewhere out of sight. A Bittern boomed behind us unseen in the reedbed as we left.

A short meander across the Marsh produced a couple more Marsh Harrier and we decided to call it a day.

Monday, 22 April 2013

When the weather is just too good

21 April 2013


I spent all day Saturday preparing the ground for our new meadow - half way there. It was a beautiful sunny and very warm day. The forecast for Sunday was much the same: blue skies and sunshine, not great for finding rare birds but just lovely to be out in after all the recent cold days. 

With no real prospect of a seawatch and no desire to stare out into the bright sunlight for hours I didn't get up too early and took a steady drive down to Dungeness. A hard frost at home soon cleared as I drove out across the Marsh finding a smart Sparrowhawk sat up in a tree and a nice Common Buzzard over the road. A couple each of Yellowhammer, Reed Bunting and Chaffinch down Tickners Lane plus the first of several flocks of Linnet. A couple of distant Marsh Harrier over Old Cheyne where Lapwings flapped their distinctive display.

I drove around Bretts where Sedge Warbler were most evident, a Willow Warbler sang and several Chiffchaff were heard. The Galloways road was open but revealed nothing other than a couple of resident Stonechat before the red flags were raised and I was asked to leave. Dengemarsh Gulley was largely birdless; a Chiffchaff the only sign of migration and a Redpoll flew over. Five Wheatear were on the desert at the end and a Raven flew by. A check of the ARC produced nothing, though 3 Whimbrel were feeding at the southern end later. I decided to walk out around the Long Pits. First I checked The Spine, though the Redpoll, 3 Water Rail, 2 Blackcap, 2 Whitethroat, 1 Chiffchaff and 1 Willow Warbler hardly compensated for the wet foot I received for my effort. I walked south finding my first Lesser Whitethroat of the year in full song and showing nicely. Loads of Common Whitethroat and the off Willow Warbler, then into the Trapping Area where just more Whitethroat and the odd Blackcap. 

With yesterdays reports from the SW of Woodchat Shrike I decided to give the Desert a good check, but found little other than more Whitethroat.  Back to the Long Pits and 4 Swallow were feeding and a couple more went north, but it was as quiet as expected. As I arrived at the car a very high Marsh Harrier circled NE, possibly a migrant. My last stop was at the ARC where I walked to the Screen then back to Hanson and the Willow Trail before returning to the car and heading home for the afternoon. The highlight was a spiraling flock of raptors over the airport - 5 Common Buzzard and 5 Marsh Harrier, the latter seemingly local birds encouraging the migrant Buzzards to not stick around. A Sparowhawk flew over, but there was little on the Pit itself. Over the fishing pools 6 House Martin and 4 Swallow gave a suggestion of summer and a Yellow Wagtail flew by calling loudly. The best sighting was a Bittern that flew out of a tiny reedbed, circled the lake and landed out of sight. 

Not the best day's birding, but what a glorious day to enjoy being outdoors.

Sunday, 14 April 2013

Back to reality....nearly

14 April 2013


The weather forecast for today had shown a puff of warm Spring air arriving overnight from the south encouraged by a burst of southerly winds - perfect Spring seawatching conditions at Dungeness. But getting the forecast right is one thing, but for seawatching timing is everything.....

I awoke early and drove down to Dunge, not stopping anywhere along the way, just keen to get to the hide as early as possible. I arrived just after 07:00 and there were already four people in the hide - all eager with anticipation for the day. However Tony's welcome of 'We can all get it wrong' suggested everything was not quite as hoped.

In the hide until 08:45 it was at best a struggle. The best two birds were a pair of smart Velvet Scoter that flew past close to shore in a small flock of Common Scoter just after I arrived. Otherwise it was very, very slow:

Whimbrel - 10 up, in one flock
Common Scoter - 110 up, 2 down
Fulmar - 1 down
Red-throated Diver - 19 up, 3 down
Brent Goose - 27 up
Red-breasted Merganser - 2 up
Pintail - 2 up
Auk sp - 1 down

Not much reward for an early start, a 50 mile drive and two hours staring out to sea. I kept watching, believing the weather was just so good it had to produce a movement, but by 08:45 it was just too hard work and I decided to have a wander around the point. 

I set off to the Lighthouse, around the Britannia scrub, across the station gorse, out across the bank, through the Desert out to the Long Pits, over the causeway, back through the trapping area, through the gorse and back via the Observatory to the car. Initially I found a couple of Wheatear that looked newly arrived, a Chiffchaff that definitely was and the first of many Firecrest and Goldcrest. The Desert was devoid of birdlife and it wasn't until I reached the Long Pits that I bumped into any migrants. Along the causeway I found four smart Goldcrest feeding in the gorse, a smart male Blackcap and a rather bemused looking Common Whitethroat. At the edge of the Trapping Area a small group of birds included four Chaffinch, another two Blackcap, six Great Tit and two Blue Tit. Further along two Firecrest and a Chiffchaff hinted at what was to come. 

Stunning little bird!

As I walked into the more open area along the west of the Trapping Area a small bird flicked off the ground. Lifting my binoculars I was surprised to see a very smart male Firecrest. Over the next ten minutes it was joined by three others and they all gave superb views down to only 30cm at times, with one bird actively feeding on the ground among the moss, literally at my feet - stunning at the best of times but this really was rather special.

Almost close enough to touch
The cold weather presumably limited insect food to the ground cover
Hunting in the moss
This one really lived up to its name!
Firecrest in moss
Damned branch

After a while a group of six Firecrests had formed and they moved off into the thicker cover. A couple more Blackcap (all males) on the way out and a lovely Willow Warbler in the gorse before I headed back towards the lighthouse. At least five more Firecrest were heard or seen in various patches of gorse, though the drizzle made viewing difficult. 

Next I went to the reserve and walked around the loop trail. My first Swallow of the year brightened my mood as I arrived and two stunning male Yellow Wagtail beside the path were stunning in the dull conditions. A slow walk took in the Makepeace Hide where a first summer gull showed some features of Caspian but not enough to make it pure. Three more Firecrests were in the Christmas Dell bushes with a Willow Warbler and a Sparrowhawk hunted across the marsh. One of the Raven flew by with a very full crop, rowing into the breeze. I took a much needed rest (still struggling with this damned virus) on the mound at Hookers Pit. While scanning for some distant unidentified speck a stunning Bittern flew into my field of view and past the watchpoint - giving a couple a much appreciated tick. Round the side of the pit I could hear Bearded Tit, Water Rail and a Sedge Warbler as the sun finally came out, though I saw none of them. Another Willow Warbler on the return trail and I was back at the car - very tired and in need of a cup of tea. 

I decided to drive back to the fishing boats, still convinced the weather should have produced some seabird movement. I struggled out along the concrete road and stood in the lea of a fishing boat. The first bird was an Arctic Skua and there were clearly lots of terns starting to move. However a birder just leaving said it was still pretty quiet so I wasn't optimistic. However my arrival was timed perfectly and the next two and a quarter hours was bird filled and very enjoyable.

Fulmar - 3 down
Bar-tailed Godwit - 40 up
Whimbrel - 6 up
Little Tern - 2 up
Common Tern - 500+ up
Sandwich Tern - 500+ up
Arctic Tern - 2up, 1 down
Black Tern - 1 up
Little Gull - 178 up including a flock of 57 overhead
Gannet - 50+ around
Red-throated Diver - 22 up
Black-throated Diver - 2 up
Arctic Skua - 12 up
Great Skua - 2 up
Wigeon - 5 up
Brent Goose - 16 up
Common Scoter - 8 up, 3 down
Red-breasted Merganser - 4 up
Kittiwake - 30 up
Mediterranean Gull - 1 up
Guillemot - 2 up
Swallow - 2 in

We also saw what appeared to be four egret type birds moving down the Channel, but far too far out to be certain (of what they were and that they were not just distant, hazy Gannets though their flappy flight suggested otherwise), and a medium sized bird of prey that came in to the west went unidentified.

At 16:35 I called it a day and walked back to the car, happy with my days efforts and rewards.

Sunday, 7 April 2013

And finally.....

6 April 2013


After what has seemed like an eternity the cold, wintery weather finally broke this morning. The bitter north-easterly was still blowing but not so strongly and the sun was finally shining.

My great friend Mark Hollingworth was coming for dinner so I began the day with a few home chores. Window cleaning proved a wise choice. Chaffinch were moving east taking advantage of the bright weather and sudden rise in temperature. Regular small flocks flew over following the line of the A25. Not quite the spectacle of over 7,000 recorded at Bockhill but nice to see. There were also a lot of gulls on the move. We often get small groups of gulls over the house but today there were some very large numbers. As one mixed flock of 350 birds drifted over I heard the very distinctive call of a Mediterranean Gull, something I have never previously seen over the house. I checked all the gulls as quickly as I could but couldn't see it. Doubts started to creep in, but I've heard Meds many times and it must have been. The flock had moved through when a lone gull appeared chasing behind: a fine summer plumage adult Med Gull right overhead, its beautiful white primary tips glistening in the sunshine! As I followed its path three Common Buzzard circled up joined briefly by two Kestrel.

With the windows clean I returned indoors well happy with the rewards. After lunch I drove down to Greatstone to pick Mark up and checked a few sites on the way. Seven Marsh Harrier, a Sparrowhawk, a Peregrine and winter flocks of Lapwing, Golden Plover and Starling were out on the marsh. On the ARC a Great-white Egret, 3 Black-tailed Godwit, a Ruff and 7 Pied Wagtail. As I scanned along the bank a couple of female Smew became an impressive flock of 17 including 2 smart drakes - the biggest group I've seen all winter.

I picked Mark up and drove back home for a fantastic meal, great wine and wonderful company.

7 April 2013


One of the many Bent Goose flocks
As predicted the day dawned bright and sunny. There was quite a frost but finally the wind had abated. After a sluggish post excess start I drove Mark back home and then headed for the sea. I assumed any sea passage would be over and intended to go to the patch to check the gulls. However as I rounded the point a flock of 200 Brent Geese flew along the coast - hinting at something special. I walked to the seawatch hide where Tony Greenland had been watching since 05:50. The number of birds seen was very impressive and amazingly the passage was still underway. It can be very difficult to capture the excitement of a sea passage on camera, but a few flocks were close enough to at least attempt some images.

A flock of Curlew flies past
Brents and gulls on the move
Another Brent flock 

A closer group
Some came right along the beach
Red-throated Divers were literally streaming past. Lines of them, continuously passing some in huge flocks of 100 or more. At one point a survey vessel steamed to the west putting up over 300 birds which given the encouragement continued their migration. Regular large flocks of Brent Geese flew along the beach. Adding to the spectacle were thousands upon thousands of gulls. Over 7,500 were counted on the sea and along the beach and there was continuous turnover with huge numbers moving east along the beach and overhead. 

Some of the gulls thronging the Patch

Add to this Gannets, Fulmars, ducks and waders and it really was a very special day. I watched until 13:00 then moved around to the fishing boats as the dazzle got too much for two more hours, finally leaving at 15:20. With the sun behind us the close views of divers was very enjoyable and the number of Little Gulls much easier to pick out.

The totals were very impressive. Birds continued to move throughout the day and were still passing when we left. The total of Red-throated Diver smashed the all time previous day record - had someone counted for the last four hours who knows what the total would have been!

Red throated Diver 3,171 up
Black-throated Diver 9 up
Great Northern Diver 1 up
Fulmar 55 up
Gannet 443 up
Brent Goose 5,612 up
Common Scoter 1,166 up
Velvet Scoter 13 up
Eider 24 up
Red-breasted Merganser 18 up, 2 down
Shelduck 18 up
Wigeon 8 up
Pintail 8 up
Shoveler 8 up
Teal 5 up
Gadwall 1 up
Marsh Harrier 2 in
Common Buzzard 1 in over the Power Station spooking the gulls
Peregrine 1 about
Curlew 159 up
Whimbrel 1 up
Oystercatcher 41 up
Sanderling 6 up
Knot 9 up
Auk sp113 up
Arctic Skua 3 up
Little Gull118 up
Kittiwake 202 up
Med Gull c25
Sandwich tern 455 up 
Meadow Pipit 6 in
Carrion Crow 2 in
Herring Gull 1 albino offshore resembled an adult Iceland Gull until seen close up, when its jizz and bright yellow bill looked all wrong.
Gulls (Herring, Lesser Black-backed, Great Black-backed, Black-headed, and Common) over 7,500 present at anytime with perhaps 10-15,000 in total moving east and resting offshore through the day.

A small part of the massive gull flock off Dungeness
At least 10 Harbour Porpoise and a single Grey Seal added interest.

A quick look at ARC found 5 Smew, 3 Goosander and a Little Egret at the sheltered southern end. A Common Buzzard flew low over Dengemarsh where a Great-white Egret flew into the reeds.

Monday, 1 April 2013

April Fools Day

1 April 2013


I was feeling a little better last night, at least that is what I told myself as I planned an early seawatch at Dungeness. The wind was still strongly in the east, but with it expected to shift north-easterly there was a small chance a few birds might move before the change. Only one way to find out. So I was up at 06:00, poured a flask and set off on the long drive. The roads were very quiet and I arrived about 07:00 to find nobody else seawatching. I watched from 07:15 to 10:45, accompanied for the last hour by Dave Walker. An early blast of birds soon slowed to a trickle that kept interested going and many of the birds were close in giving nice views as they fought into the wind around the point.

The real highlight was a flock of 16 duck that came very close past the hide - 9 Pintail and 7 Garganey (5 drakes). Numbers were made up by dabbling ducks of a variety of species and a few waders, auks and divers.

Brent Geese
Red-throated Diver - 34E, 10W
Great-crested Grebe - 26E, though many offshore and hard to tell if moving.
Brent Goose - 125E
Shelduck - 3E
Pintail - 27E
Shoveler - 82E
Teal - 70E, 9W
Mallard - 9E
Wigeon - 2E
Garganey - 7E (plus three duck with a flock of Common Scoter thought most likely this species)
Gadwall - 5E
Tufted Duck - 10E
Red-breasted Merganser - 9E
Common Scoter - 65E

Curlews, Bar-tailed Godwit and a Knot
Oystercatcher - 8E
Sanderling - 14E
Dunlin - 1E
Curlew - 30E
Bar-tailed Godwit - 2E
Knot - 1E
Kittiwake - 63E
Sandwich Tern - 29E, 4W
Guillemot - 192E plus many on the sea. An early movement soon stopped.
Razorbill - 2E
Gannet - 62+ Some movement but mainly feeding offshore and difficult to count.
Fulmar - 3E

After a cup of tea I had a walk around the gorse on the point, but the wind was hostile and sent me quickly back to the car. A smart male Black Redstart was singing by the white cottage, but otherwise it was very quiet. I walked around the back of the ARC, out to the Water Tower and back up to the Willow Trail. The highlight was an accidentally flushed Jack Snipe. Also here was a Great-white Egret a Sparrowhawk and a male Marsh Harrier, and five Chiffchaff were heard but not easily seen in the windy conditions.

I then drove out to Denge Gulley where 2 Chiffchaff were happily feeding in the gorse out of the wind. A Robin caused a minor panic, until it turned around and a Greenfinch looked a bit out of place. As I drove back past the small reedbed a distinctive shape was stood in the sunshine - a Bittern! Of course the camera was safely in the boot and by the time I'd reversed, got out, retrieved it and got back in the car the Bittern had slunk into the reeds. However I waited quietly and after about ten minutes it came out properly. Amazing. 

The Bittern doesn't seem sure about my car and vanishes back into the reeds 
Only to pop back out in the sunshine further along
 As I drove off a Raven 'cronked' as it flew over the car and off toward the Power Station.

Northern Raven 

A new mini adventure

31 March 2013

Folkestone and Dover

Still feeling very under the weather I was not even feeling up for some birding today. However Mandy wanted some nice images of her new designer company van for her website and fancied some shots near the sea, so I played at being the official photographer for the afternoon around the cliffs in Dover and Folkestone. The sun was shining, the sky was blue and we were on the coast. After a couple of photo sessions at St Margaret's we headed back and tried Samphire Hoe - some good views backdrops of the cliffs. Well while we were there it would have been rude not to look - so a couple of quick attempts at the Bluethroat resulted in brief close views, but no images - it was really skulking around again. A walk around the Hoe produced 2 Stonechat and a smart male Wheatear, but little else in the strong easterly. As it was getting late we stopped at the superb Smokehouse for some absolutely stunning fish and chips beside Folkestone Harbour, obviously taking the route around Copt Point to catch a few passing Mediterranean Gulls along the cliffs. Not a bad afternoon.