Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Giraffes and Lions

29 December 2013

Royal Military Canal, Hythe

A still and sunny day between more Atlantic depressions.  It dawned cold and very frosty but that meant clear blue skies and sunshine. Mandy fancied a bit of fresh air and a long walk, but somewhere different. After pondering many options I chanced upon the Kent Ramblers website and soon found a suitable circular walk from Hythe along the Royal Military Canal out to Dymchurch and back. It even went past two pubs!  Perfect. 

We parked at the Hythe miniature railway station and set off on the toe path. We encountered a couple of flocks of Long-tailed Tit, a group of feeding Blackbirds and a few Goldfinch and tried out the model listening ear across the Canal. 

We were soon at West Hythe where we continued on the north bank providing lovely views of the sunlit Downs and the Roman fort at Port Lympne. A calling Common Buzzard went unseen and 2 super Firecrest showed in the canalside vegetation - I think they regularly winter along here. Halfway along the zoo fence we encountered a family of Giraffe giving very close views as they de-barked some dead trees beside the path. A couple of Ostrich feeding among Wildebeast and Eland looked most incongruous in the Kent countryside. Zebra, Rhino and Elephant were added to the exotics list before a pride of Lions sitting in the sunshine watching a passing helicopter were found in the woods! In case you're wondering the footpath runs right along the bottom of the Port Lympne Wild Animal Park. 

We then walked out across the fields towards Dymchurch stopping for a well earned pint in the Shepherd and Crook pub at Burmarsh, which looked like it had remained unchanged for centuries. The agricultural desert that is Romney Marsh was virtually bird less as we stomped across damp and ploughed fields. 

A single Kestrel and just two Skylark were seen before I nearly stepped on a Brown Hare hiding in the grass. It raced away at incredible speed and must have been quite spooked as it did not stop until well out of sight. 

We returned through West Hythe then back along the Canal past the weir of Green Heron fame. Just a single Goldcrest seen among a Long-tailed Tit flock. An enjoyable walk in beautiful countryside and some most welcome winter sunshine. 

Friday, 27 December 2013

Christmas Cracker!

26 December 2013

Portland Harour, Dorset

I had just finished a rather late breakfast and was discussing where we might go for a walk before Mandy's mum and step dad arrived, when I decided to have a quick check of Birdguides for no particular reason. As I scrolled down through the last few messages I stopped, open mouthed - 'Brunnich's Guillemot in PORTLAND HARBOUR'!!!!! I scrolled down and back again - yep it definitely said 'Brunnich's Guillemot in Portland Harbour'. 

This high Arctic seabird has been seen only a few times in Britain and almost exclusively, bar a 3-minute single observer bird in North Yorkshire earlier in December, in the Shetlands and quite often either dead or very unwell. So to read that one was floating around on the south coast of England was to be frank, extraordinary. I quickly checked Twitter knowing the local birders were regular users and the last message was indeed a photo - not only was it unquestionably a Brunnich's it was fit and well and giving amazing views. 

I called Gary but got no answer then noticed that Andy Appleton had sent a message six minutes earlier saying he was leaving Tonbridge, if anyone wanted a lift down. I was on the phone before Andy reached his car and we arranged to meet up the other side of Sevenoaks. We were soon on the M25 heading West, but almost immediately were stationary in a traffic jam - where were all these people going on Boxing Day?

The traffic moved excruciatingly slowly right through the roadworks and then started to pick up. However the traffic report kicked in on Andy's radio and announced another slow queue from the A3 to the M3 and long delays. We decided to divert down the A3 and had a clear run through some nasty freezing fog over the Hog's Back and down to Winchester. As we reached the M3 another jam, so a quick detour around the back of Eastleigh had us on the M27. The roads stayed clear through to Poole but we then got a message saying there had been an accident on the A35 near Dorchester, so turned south to Wool and around the coast road into Weymouth. We eventually made it to Portland in about 3.5 hours, which given the traffic was pretty good going - others took nearly 5 hours to do the same journey.

We located Osprey Quay, found somewhere to park and raced through to the harbour where we found about 40 other birders. The Brunnich's was showing, though distantly, and swimming away towards the Royal Naval base. After only a few minutes it dived below the pier bordering the base and vanished out of sight. Well at least we had seen it, others arriving behind us were less fortunate. We picked up our second Alcid of the day - amazingly a winter plumaged Black Guillemot that seems to be wintering in the harbour. 

The Brunnich's Guillemot before it swam under the pier and into the Naval base
I decided to walk around the road to see if any vantage points could be found. We got close to the Pier, but others had been turned away from the port area. As we stood chatting to the other birders one said - 'It's back' and the Brunnich's fortunately swam back under the Pier and into the harbour. I shouted to Andy who had gone down the road and got a brief view before it dived. It didn't resurface and I realised it was heading back to the Coastguard station. I ran back to the next vantage point just in time to see it dive again, then on to the area below Portland Castle. Other birders seeing me running joined me but looked rather perplexed until it popped up right in front of us. Too slow on the camera before it dived again. I ran around the Castle and back to the footpath just in time for it to reappear and begin a stunning show right along the edge of the path. We enjoyed great views. It was feeding very actively, making huge dives and covering a great distance underwater. It would surface quite randomly sometimes 300 metres further along or out from where it started. With a little luck you could be waiting just where it popped up.

The Brunnich's Guillemot swims back in showing the distinctive inverted white 'V' up the centre of
the neck, dark breast band and face with small white throat, and the white lines along the bill. 
It would travel some distance underwater and appear unexpectedly, but sometimes close

It is believed that Brunnich's Guillemots winter some 4-500 miles west of Ireland out in the Atlantic and that this bird presumably got blown in with the recent Christmas Eve storms. We knew that Barry Wright and John Tilbrook were on there way but they had got caught in the traffic, so we kept on the bird as it moved back towards the Naval Base. A quick call gave them the hurry-up and they were soon with us on the quayside getting their first, somewhat distant views. Fortunately it returned later and gave further close views as the light faded.

Unbelievable views as it fed along the harbour wall
It was feeding very actively though was never seen to bring food to the surface - presumably they can swallow underwater?

We spent our last five minutes scanning around the harbour where we found a Great-northern Diver, an Eider, about 50 Red-breasted Merganser, the Black Guillemot, a Razorbill and eventually a Common Guillemot. It really is a super place.

As we drove back through Weymouth we heard that a Glossy Ibis had been showing well in a flooded playing field at Radipole. We drove slowly along the road, and found the playing field, but all the black lumps were Carrion Crows. As we reached the far end, through the hedge Andy spotted another dark shape. We stopped and sure enough the shape morphed into a super adult Glossy Ibis. Many thanks to Andy for driving and a big thank you to Debbie Saunders who found the bird and got the news out to everyone.

Taken in very dull late evening light

Wednesday, 25 December 2013

A lull between two storms

22 December 2013

Bedgebury Forest

Once the overnight rain finally stopped I spent a couple of hours tidying up the hedge trimmings from last weekend before heading out for a long walk around Bedgebury Forest in some gorgeous afternoon sunshine. 

The forest was very wet following the heavy rain of the last few days with streams running along and across many trails and some boggy going in places. A flock of noisily feeding Long-tailed Tits belied their presence with their constant coughing and sneezing high up in an Oak. Another group of Tits caused me to stop as a single call from deep in cover sounded remarkably Willow like but could not be tempted out and was left as an unlikely and unconfirmed encounter. 

Overhead the odd Redpoll crossed our path unseen, one calling particularly hoarsely. In the Pinetum a couple of Siskin and then a high and fast flying flock of 10 Crossbill sp. Nothing in the larches but another single Common Crossbill flew over and landed out of view. We stopped for a while on the hill where 9 Lesser Redpoll showed briefly and two more Common Crossbill flew overhead. 

Walking back we found a nice flock of about 20 Redpolls but as typically happens just as we started to study them a passing dog walker disturbed everything and they vanished into the woods. We were soon back at the car and on our way home. 

Sunday, 15 December 2013

Before the rain came

15 December 2013


After a fantastic evening in the company of some great friends (Mark Hollingworth, Janet Turley, Chris and Carol Philpott) and a wonderful curry at the super little restaurant, Tamarind, between Greatstone and New Romney we had a couple of hours at Dungeness this morning before the rain came.  

I started at the beach checking the roosting gull flocks between the Lifeboat Station and the Lighthouse. All the usual suspects in reasonable numbers and the first-winter Caspian Gull on my second attempt by the Fishing Boats. Managed a few distant images before a couple of rather ignorant fishermen walked out past the gulls and flushed everything, despite seeing me watching them.

We then headed toward the RSPB checking the Gadwall flock (c200) at the southern end of the ARC where 2 Little Egret were feeding as usual. The Aythya flock had no Ruddy, so presumably Defra exterminated it during the week? 

We walked the circuit on the reserve. A smart adult Yellow-legged Gull bathing in front of Firth Hide was the highlight, and numbers of Shoveler and Wigeon remained high. Marsh Harriers were much in evidence with five birds together behind Makepeace Hide and several others encountered on our walk. A short stop in Dengemarsh Hide found a male Peregrine sitting on a post out in the fields and a brief Great-white Egret that flew into the reeds. It later flew over to the pools beside the return trail where we had further brief views. We were soon back at the Visitor Centre and with the rain approaching from the north west we called it a day and headed home.

Sunday, 8 December 2013

Back with a bang!

7 December 2013


It has been a while since I have been birding with Gary, so when he called last night and we were both in the mood to get in the field arrangements were quickly made for a day on the marsh. After a very busy week I didn't want too early a start so Gary arrived at 07:30 and we drove down to Walland. A slow drive across the Marsh from the Woolpack to Lydd via Old Cheyne Court produced just a couple of distant Common Buzzard sitting on fence posts, a small group of 10 Fieldfare and a few Chaffinch.  Next we parked up on Calandra Lane on the Kent side of Scotney Pit where we soon located the Long-tailed Duck close in and showing well. A couple of Dunlin fed with the 30 or so Lapwing on the spit and the flock of 130 Barnacle Geese fed on the grass with about 7 Emperor Geese.

Some of the feral Barnacle Goose flock that spends each winter on Scotney
We checked the Sussex end then drove down to look for Scoter off the beach, but none were visible. The Ranges behind Bretts were quiet and with the Red Flags flying we moved quickly on to Dengemarsh. Here a couple of Marsh Harrier were quartering the reedbed. As we watched a Sparrowhawk flew in low and surprised a flock of Starling. As they rose the hawk easily grabbed one from the edge of the flock and landed out of sight in the marsh. Immediately several Carrion Crows flew in landing on the unsightly predator fence above it. A Marsh Harrier was quickly on the scene and the Sparrowhawk soon decided it was outgunned - robbed! After two attempts the Harrier found the Starling, dropped down on to it and few away with its prize. 

Next we drove to the RSPB reserve via a quick check at Cockles Bridge. A couple of smart Stonechat showed well but there was no sign of the Glossy Ibis. We checked from Dennis's, Firth and Makepeace hide and spent some time just enjoying the views. There were plenty of large gulls, but nothing unusual. Three redhead Smew were feeding down the far end of the reserve from Dennis's Hide and a Great-white Egret was hunting along the edge of the pit with a Little Egret. A few Goldeneye were also evident. A fairly bright Chiffchaff was feeding around the hide and giving a rather odd call - somewhere between Colybita and Tristis but not quite right for either?

From Firth Hide, more Gulls. The highlight though was the noise of 150 filtering Shoveler in a feeding frenzy outside the hide. They created some lovely shapes as the flock moved around feeding on something tasty. Two more Chiffchaff performed along the Willow edge. 


From Makepeace Hide a second Great-white Egret was seen initially in the corner reedbed, but later it flew around and landed by Firth Hide. These previously rare herons have become an increasingly regular sight at Dungeness. A group of 3 Avocet circled over calling noisily, before disappearing toward Dengemarsh.

Great-white Egret

After catching up with Dave Walker and Gill Hollamby, hearing about their brilliant Gujarat trip, we drove down past the ARC pit stopping briefly to check the duck. A lone female Ruddy Duck was the first one this year for either of us. Doubtless it will be gunned down shortly and may prove to be the last one we ever see in Britain... A female Goosander was sleeping in the corner where a vast flock of some 250 Gadwall was feeding in the shallows.

We pulled up at the Fishing Boats to check the roosting gulls. I had just bemoaned the fact that Caspian Gulls had become so scarce, and how for a few years you could almost check any sizeable flock of gulls and find at least one, when I saw a smart, clean looking gull at the end of the roost - with a dark eye..... I jumped out of the car and quickly scoped it - a truly stunning adult near summer plumaged Caspian Gull!!!!! Sweet.

Adult, summer plumaged Caspian Gull - what a beauty!

We managed to get a little closer, and I grabbed some digiscope shots and video before edging nearer. Just as we got in reasonable range a car came through the gate and drove rapidly along the road. Everything took flight and although most returned there was no sign of the Caspian (it was later re-found on the reserve).

After checking all the roosts we decided to begin the journey home. We stopped at the southern end of the ARC where a Great-white Egret (possibly a third for the day) was feeding with two Little Egret. Couldn't resist a few snaps....


Buoyed by our success I suggested a quick check of the ditch at Cockles Bridge on the way out. We pulled up and there was the Glossy Ibis! It walked nervously up the bank and stood at the top. A couple of images at some distance, then it took off and flew over the road dropping into another ditch in the middle of a ploughed field.

The Glossy Ibis walks to the top of the bank
Then flies towards us, over the road and lands out of sight in a narrow ditch
We left Dungeness crossing Walland Marsh. A flock of 37 Bewick's Swan were feeding near Caldecott Lane, a huge flock of Lapwing and Golden Plover spiraled over Old Cheyne and a Common Buzzard bid us farewell as we joined the main road. We drove home reflecting on how a quiet morning turned into a pretty good day out. As we arrived home we met Mandy on the drive and Gary stopped for a chat. As he pulled away to turn the car around on our drive he caught his tyre on the end of our designer garden wall. There was a small bang but it didn't feel too bad. As he turned the car I got out to find the end of the wall destroyed and spread across part of the garden, and air gushing from Gary's brand new off road Land Rover tyre. The next half hour was spent changing the wheel in the dark - a very expensive end to the a good day out......

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Hard work

30 November 2013

Lyminge Forest

With little new news and a bright calm day I decided to spend a few hours today checking out likely Crossbill sites in the East of Kent. I drove down to Lyminge Forest and after parking up at West Wood walked the various tracks and trails listening out for crossbill calls. 

I hadn't gone far down the main track when I decided to check a narrow path that led into a semi clearing. Almost immediately I heard a crossbill calling. Fortunately it flew straight towards me and landed in a very tall pine directly above. I had to move slightly to get any view but from below all I really saw well were the under tail coverts of a first winter male crossbill. It's bill showed a fairly distinct cross and I concluded it was a Common. It quickly flew away and despite some effort could not be relocated. 

I continued down the main trail then around several plantations assuming it was a matter of time before I found some more. A couple of flyover Siskin and a Redpoll were all I found over the next hour and a half. As I returned to the road a couple more unseen Crossbill were calling but I could not get a view. 

I drove up to Elhampark Wood and spent another hour and a half trudging around more excellent habitat including a couple of impressive Larch stands. Over another 3 miles I saw just 2 Treecreeper and a flyover Redpoll. 

I returned to West Wood hoping to locate the birds heard earlier, but found nothing. Running short on enthusiasm I concluded in Park Wood and again despite so much apparently excellent habitat I could not find a single Crossbill. After about four hours in the woods I had looked at just 2 birds! Hopefully better luck next time.