Sunday, 27 April 2014

A brilliant seawatch

26 April 2014


Arctic and Black terns fly through
The weather forecast remained surprisingly constant as the weekend neared, and unbelievably the prediction was for strong southerly winds from early on Saturday morning. This was all I needed to see and made plans for a very early start. Up at 04:30 I arrived by the Old Lighthouse at 05:30 just as Tony Greenland pulled up. Andy Lawson appeared from the Obs, having also seen the forecast and decided to stay down Friday night to enable an early start. We were soon in the hide looking out to a fairly rough sea. It remained dry until about 07:00 though a stunning rainbow formed at sea for the first hour providing a useful reference point for passing birds. Once the rain started it stayed pretty drizzly and with the strengthening southerly we soon moved to the back of the hide, though this did not prevent us getting very wet. Clearly having all packed our waterproof over trousers we had all decided to keep them nice and dry in the boots of our respective cars - doh!

Arctic Skua - pale phase passes right along the tideline


A stunning dark phase Arctic Skua shears past
Two dark phase Arctic Skua fresh from a successful tern chase

Things started well with an early movement of particularly Great Skuas and Fulmar. The wind was driving some birds much closer to shore than normal and we were soon delighted with stunning views of Great Skua, Arctic Skua and a Pomarine Skua that flew well inside the Buoy. 

This Pomarine Skua came close early on 
It showed a thick set of 'spoons'

Later a summer plumaged Black-throated Diver gave spectacular views as it passed close along the beach. For the first hour and a half things were steady, with only close views making it anything out of the ordinary. The local Rye Sandwich Terns and small numbers of Common Tern passed by. Many of the locals getting views of the usual species and getting wet decided to go for breakfast, while those of us who had travelled persisted. The drizzle lifted and we finally saw the horizon. 

Great Skua was the most numerous of three species seen
This bird showed an odd white patch in the centre of its wings

On cue the sea went mental - it started with a small tight flock of 30 Arctic Tern mid distance that Andy picked out. A Black Tern arrived on the Patch and soon departed with a second group of much closer Arctic Tern and Little Terns. Within minutes there were Arctic Tern everywhere, flocks of over 300 at a time literally pouring past. They were close along the beach, mid distance and further out. Flocks were merging and separating; it was almost impossible to count them. Other species also passed by in the melee with Brent Geese, Common Scoter, more Fulmar, Great and Arctic Skuas, Red-throated and Black-throated Diver (both largely in summer plumage). A Manx Shearwater came shearing out of the murk and gave a great fly past and Razorbills and Guillemots hurried past. Waders joined the passage with several large flocks of Bar-tailed Godwits, some close, others like distant puffs of smoke, accompanied by groups of Whimbrel. The surge lasted about an hour and a half and then quickly wained, leaving just more skuas and divers, though two of the last few birds were Great Northern Diver - quite a scarcity off Dungeness for some reason. As I was packing up a Peregrine flew out across the Patch trying to catch a tern causing panic and a cloud of birds. On this occasion it missed, but the Peregrines at Estaca de Bares prey almost exclusively on passage seabirds in the autumn so I guess it will keep trying!

Great Northern Diver

Massive feet and slow wing beats, it flies with bill high and feet low

Totals for the seawatch from 05:30 to 12:30:
  • Great Skua - 54
  • Arctic Skua - 14
  • Pomarine Skua 1
  • Fulmar - 155
  • Arctic Tern - 2,791
  • Common (Commic) Tern - 910
  • Sandwich Tern - 259
  • Little Tern - 11
  • Black Tern - 43
  • Kittiwake - 7
  • Little Gull - 2
  • Brent Goose - 46
  • Gadwall - 2 (out)
  • Common Scoter - 564
  • Red-breasted Merganser - 2
  • Eider - 4 (W) 3 adult drakes
  • Guillemot - 8
  • Razorbill - 5
  • Auk sp - 14
  • Whimbrel - 40
  • Bar-tailed Godwit - 443
  • Oystercatcher - 8
  • Dunlin - 2
  • Red-throated Diver - 23
  • Black-throated Diver - 21
  • Great Northern Diver - 2

I eventually left the hide at 12:30. After seven hours cramped at the back of the hide and peering through the narrow window I was quite stiff and it took the walk back to the car to get blood circulating again. As I got in the car I noticed a voice mail from Andy to report a pair of Black-winged Stilt on the RSPB reserve. I was heading that way and stopped along the ARC road to view the flock of terns (40 Arctic, 15 Common and at least 15 Black Tern) feeding over the pit. Quite a sight and I don't recall seeing so many Arctics on the pits here before, presumably driven inland by the wind and rain.

I drove to the Visitor Centre, checked in and walked out towards Christmas Dell. I met Gary and Andy wandering back to their cars, having been diverted en route to an already late breakfast. The Stilts were showing really well on the first hayfield and I enjoyed views of them for the next twenty minutes or so. 

First view of the pair of Black-winged Stilt

A very smart male with a full black head and nape

The female showing a browner cap and mantle
I bumped into Martin Casemore who said a Wood Sandpiper had been seen on the last hayfield pools so I wandered down past Christmas Dell hide. I bumped into Sean Clancy and together we quickly located the Wood Sandpiper hiding in the wet grass. It gave reasonable, but distant views. I could have walked closer but I was distracted by the distinctive 'pinging' of Bearded Tits and looking just off the path into a bramble I found a family with the parents feeding four small juveniles. With patience I got some stunning views and managed to get some nice images of the family. Brilliant birds!

The female made the most frequent feeding visits

The juveniles have left the nest but not yet able to fly
Super cute!

While enjoying the Bearded Tits a Sedge Warbler started singing from a close bush and allowed an approach. Twice he hopped through the brambles where the juvenile Tits were waiting and he seemed very inquisitive about his neighbours, moving between them  on their perch.

Sedge Warbler
As I walked back to the car I met Alan and Brenda Fossey. While chatting a Greenshank started calling over the Hayfield. It appeared overhead with the Wood Sandpiper in tow. Amazingly the Sandpiper was actively displaying in flight to the Greenshank, trilling as it fluttered in undulating flight around the pits, before they both landed out of sight behind the Visitor Centre. Two Swallow flew over as I wandered back and my first Reed Warbler of the year was singing from the narrow strip of reeds beside the path. I stopped to chat to Steve Broyd and a male Peregrine flew so low over our heads you could hear the whoosh of its wings. It flew across the pit and not a single bird reacted - how do they know when a predator is not hunting?

Monday, 21 April 2014

Visible migration

20 April 2014


First light at Breskens - a view the local birders don't get.....

I set the alarm for 05:20 and was on my way to Breskens within ten minutes. I arrived at 06:00 and was somewhat surprised when I was the first person on site! In the UK any real visible migration takes place at first light and is often over before it has begun. I walked up to the platform and had a free choice of where to stand. I selected a point where I had some protection from the wind and views to the sea and land. I didn't have to wait long before the next arrival - a Dutch birder who lives in Germany. It was another twenty minutes before the real locals began to arrive and quite frankly they knew what they were doing. I had expected to hear birds passing in the darkness, but actually nothing really happened until it was light, about 06:45. 

The first flock of Greenshank
A flock of Greenshank and Ruff

The first birds were not passerines, but waders. A line of Greenshank flew along above the tideline. They were followed by small flocks of mixed waders - Redshank, more Greenshank, the odd Spotted Redshank, then Whimbrel (200), Bar-tailed Godwit (35), Knot (5), Grey Plover (20), Little-ringed Plover (2), Ruff (5), Dunlin (5). Later a few, apparently Icelandic Black-tailed Godwit (14) and the odd Curlew (2) and Oystercatcher (20). A call went up for Kentish Plover but nobody seemed to get on them. About half an hour later and I picked up two small waders approaching. I initially struggled to identify them, until they kindly landed on the beach with a Turnstone - two more Kentish Plover. Another two flew right over our heads later on. Gradually birds started moving landward and soon it was hard to know where to look. Meadow Pipits, Yellow Wagtails, White Wagtails, the odd Tree Pipit, Swallows, House and Sand Martins, the occasional Swift all flying past or over our position. A Marsh Harrier approached and seemed stunned as it noticed the people, turning sharply - the first of five I saw including two birds that flapped by out at sea!

A female Marsh Harrier sees us at the last minute
A Spoonbill (with a dodgy leg) flies by

I then found two Spoonbill low down over the water and beating across the strait to Vlissingen. Scanning the fields I picked up a Marsh Harrier, then a ringtail harrier which I quickly called as a Hen. A Merlin whistled past, a Peregrine cruised through and three Sparrowhawk passed by including one right below the platform, and several Kestrel suggested migrants. 

A constant stream of Lesser Black-backed and Herring Gulls

A steady stream of Lesser Black-backed Gulls (700) moved throughout the morning, with many Herring Gull (c400), Common Gull (c75), Black-headed Gull (c100) and several pairs of Mediterranean Gulls (c10) flew east. At sea Whimbrels were moving in small numbers, a few groups of Red-breasted Merganser and 2 tardy Brent Geese. Common (c200) and Sandwich Tern (c75) were passing in good numbers. 

A Marsh Harrier gets chased by the local corvids - note the 4 Meadow Pipit also moving through

A distant Hobby flies north

Suddenly there was a lot of excitement as the locals called everyone to get on a distant tern over the fields - a Gull-billed. It was truly distant but eventually it drifted in and landed on a sand pit out in the fields where it caught and ate something, perhaps a small bird? It sat out of view for about half an hour then flew towards the sea passing us seaward and away - definitely the rarest bird of the morning.

Gull-billed Tern

As the weather deteriorated with some light drizzle a number of waders started to move landward. Small flocks of Green Sandpiper (c30) and mixed Shanks (Spotted Redshank c20, Common Redshank c100 and Greenshank c300) then I picked up a distant group of 3 Sandpipers that materialised into Wood Sands. Meadow Pipits were no streaming overhead (c2,000 in total), their calls constantly surrounding us, often mixed with Yellow Wagtails (c550, mainly Blue-headed). Some scans revealed 150 birds flying toward, over and past us. Hirundines (c1,500) were also moving through hugging the sea wall or flying low down across the water. Another two single Spoonbill flew past, a couple of Swift whistled right over us and the first of two Hobby appeared over the campsite. A fantastic few hours in good company, the locals made me feel very welcome, watching some impressive visible migration. The numbers today were actually pretty average - there have been some incredible movements recorded here over the years....but it was still more birds than I'll likely see all Spring in Kent.

Part of a flock of Green Sandpiper
Common and Spotted Redshank

The Telpost was watched from 06:00 through to 19:45 and the days totals can be seen on the Trektellen website. Also note the stunning selection and numbers seen on 21st in similar conditions. Breskens is an amazing place and I'll certainly be watching the forecasts over the next three weeks for another opportunity to visit before the Spring ends.

As Mandy was back in the Hotel and we needed to check out by midday I drove back stopping briefly at the sand pit where the tern had rested. I'd noticed that several flocks of waders had flown up from the pit having fed for a while. There was a flock of Greenshank, Spotted Redshank, Common Redshank, Green Sandpiper, Avocet and Ringed Plover on show.

After picking Mandy up we drove back towards Calais spending an hour at Platier D'Oye watching the gulls, terns, waders and ducks that frequent this coastal reserve. A nice selection of ducks included two pairs of Pintail, a drake Garganey, Pochard, Tufted Duck, Shoveler, Wigeon and Teal. A few Ruff and Greenshank fed around the pool edges and a flock of Grey Plover and Dunlin flew through pushed off the beach by the tide. 

Some of the pools at Platier D'Oye
A Spoonbill at each end of the reserve may have been the same bird and six Little Egret fed in the shallows. Overhead hirundines and Meadow Pipits were moving north hinting at the continued movement at Breskens. The colony of Black-headed and Mediterranean Gulls, Sandwich and Little Tern was a nice spectacle no longer familiar in Kent. Several large gull roosts included a probable ringed Caspian Gull which vanished in the flock and could not be relocated. A Marsh Harrier over the road on the way back to the tunnel was the last of a great weekends birding.
Spoonbill and Little Egret