Sunday, 26 April 2015

I didn't see that coming

25 April 2015

Dungeness and Meare Heath

The recent spate of NE winds had seemingly kept any seabird passage pegged back and with signs of the wind moving into the south (albeit the SW) overnight I convinced myself it would be worth an early start. And so I was in the seawatch hide at Dungeness just before 06:00 this morning. My first look through the scope served to confirm a good decision and raise hopes for the next few hours, as two early Arctic Skuas raced through just outside the cardinal buoy. A Great-northern Diver heading west (all migration at this time of year should be to the east or up channel) probably gave a better indication of what was to happen. The next two hours were pretty slow. Oystercatchers were moving in small flocks along the beach, but there was little else. Just a few Common Terns among the local Sandwich Terns, a few Fulmar, small groups of Common Scoter and just a single Red-throated Diver. It was all looking pretty disappointing when a visitor said he'd just seen a group of distant cetaceans (Dolphins) below a small frenzy of Gannets. A muffled suggestion they would be Common Porpoise was quickly dispelled when I saw three long, curved fins break the surface circled by Gannets hopeful for an easy meal. These were no Porpoise - these were clearly Dolphins, a rare sight off Dungeness.

I scanned the sea nearer to the hide and saw another two much closer. A third joined them as they moved towards the point. As we watched it became apparent there were at least 8 and we quickly identified them as White-beaked Dolphins, a species I've only seen from a boat in the Bay of Biscay previously. The pod hunted quite close inshore and gave superb views in a relatively calm sea. Phone calls were made to summon other interested residents and the pod spent much of the morning feeding offshore - apparently.

I say apparently because at 08:02 I received a short text message from Gary Howard. It simply read 'Hudsonian Godwit in Somerset - now! You interested?'. Now I'm not a big time twitcher, I don't really keep a track on my British List, but waders have always been very close to my heart, since I cut my birding teeth on the marshes of North Kent and this species in particular has been a life-long ambition. There has only been one previous British record of a bird originally found wintering in Devon in 1981 and seen again on Spring passage in Yorkshire in 1983. They breed in the far north of Canada and Alaska, winter in the far south of Argentina and are a bit of an enigma on passage as they generally make the 2,800 mile migration in one go. They are one of the least well known of the North American shorebirds. Each year as the Icelandic Black-tailed Godwits gather at Oare Marshes I spend many hours and days dreaming of finding one that has got lost and then tagged on with these similar European congeners (I can dream).

I texted back 'Yes, but I'm at Dunge', not sure if Gary would want to head off sooner than i could get to him, about an hour and a quarter away in Orpington. Unfortunately, as is often the case at Dungeness the mobile signal then started to play up and despite effort I couldn't get enough signal to talk to him or receive any further updates. The only thing to do was get back to the car and drive inland. Thankfully when I finally got hold of him he was still phoning around to put a crew together and was happy to await my arrival. A quick call to Mac who thankfully over the years has got used to my occasional sudden plan changes gave the green light and I arrived at Gary's to find Barry Wright and Andy Lawson patiently waiting. We soon loaded up my car and set off about 09:30 on the journey to Meare Heath on the Somerset Levels. We enjoyed an event free drive and arrived just after midday. A short walk out to the viewing area overlooking an area of reclaimed peat workings - a shallow pool surrounded by about 10% of the UK's reedbeds. 

The godwit flock roosting on the wader scrape
The Hudsonian Godwit was asleep, among a flock of about 150 Icelandic Black-tailed Godwit on a small island in the pool. After the initial relief we waited patiently for it to wake up, and feed. After about an hour, it lifted its stunning orange and black bill from its back had a shake, a preen and then, facing toward the 1,000 strong crowd, it raised its wings to reveal those stunning black underwing coverts. As it did so the whole crowd synchronously drew breath, creating such volume that the whole flock of Godwits spooked. Thankfully they soon settled and went back to sleep. Over the next hour the birds gradually started to feed until eventually the Hudsonian joined them. We enjoyed great views as it fed, preened, stretched, flew and slept - a really stunning wader and everything I hoped it would be.

Initial views - asleep right in the centre
Feeding begins
What a cracker!
It takes flight showing off its black underwings - stunning

Much narrower wing bar and black underwings
A broad black tail, white rump, narrow wing bar and black underwings - very distinctive

The flock was becoming increasingly agitated, perhaps preparing for an early departure for the next leg of their northward migration. They took flight and did a couple of circuits before settling back down at the back of the pool. The Hudsonian always seemed to be on the outskirts of the flock, and was easily picked out from the Black-tails with their white underwings and bold white wing bars.

The Hudsonian leads the flock
Good comparison of the upper wing patterns  

Panoramic view of the wader scrape
While the godwit was sleeping there were plenty of other birds to watch at this brilliant site. At least 4 Hobby were hunting over the woods, 2 Common Cranes circled very high overhead, 5 Great White (including a pair carrying sticks) and 7 Little Egret, a Wood Sandpiper, a Greenshank, 5 Dunlin, a Bittern boomed and 2 more gave flight views. In addition there were lots of Buzzards and a Sparrowhawk, a couple of Common Swifts among a high flying flock of House Martin, Sand Martin and Swallow and a cast of singing Warblers (Chiffchaff, Willow Warbler, Garden Warbler, Blackcap and Cetti's Warbler). 

Phone-scoped Hudsonian Godwit
We decided to head away just after 16:00, just fifteen minutes before the godwits took off and flew away to the West, just too soon for a few unfortunate latecomers. It had been a most unexpected turn of events resulting in me seeing one of my top 3 most wanted birds. Hopefully it will stick around with its Icelandic mates and head back to Britain this autumn - certainly further encouragement to check those Black-tails as they come back to Oare in July.....

Great White Egret carrying nesting material
Bittern flies over the reedbed

Sunday, 19 April 2015

The wrong side of the bush...

18 April 2015

Dungeness and Hythe

Light north-easterlies have in the past produced reasonable movements of waders, terns, divers and skuas. However seawatching during the latter part of the week had produced small returns, so when we arrived just after 06:00 this morning we were not entirely surprised to find the car park empty of birders' cars. Sat in the seawatch hide it was quickly apparent their choice of a lay-in had been the right one. We persisted for about an hour and a half seeing small numbers of Common, Sandwich and Arctic Terns, about 50 Common Scoter, 60 Brent Geese, 10 Fulmar, a few Guillemot and about 60 Gannet. A couple of Swallow came in and three small flocks of Linnet and a Goldfinch went out. We wandered down to the patch where a sizeable gull roost contained a single 1w Little Gull, about 30 Common Tern and a single 1s Mediterranean Gull. An unseen Black Redstart was singing inside the power station compound.

We walked through the gorse towards the desert. There were no migrants in the first gorse patch but as I walked to the left of the next patch Gary shouted 'Ring Ouzel!'. By the time I reached him the bird had vanished into the thick gorse. We approached carefully and it hopped out the back of the bush, saw us and flew across the shingle. A couple more brief views were obtained until it flew back around the point landing in the Station gorse. 

Ring Ouzel trying to hide behind a bramble
My intention was to walk the desert checking the brambles and gorse that run along the slightly raised bank. As we approached a Common Whitethroat was singing deep within a thick bramble. I managed to see it moving and was about to continue, when Gary asked where it was. It had dived deeper into the bush so I walked nearer. It flicked out showing briefly, but as I turned to walk away another larger and apparently plump passerine flew up from my feet and back down the gorse 'hedge'. It landed out of sight. We nearly continued on our walk, but something wasn't right. I couldn't immediately put a name to it and Gary was no wiser. Perhaps we should just check it out....

I walked down the leeward side and Gary went the other side. Just as I reached the end of the bushes, Gary shouted (again from the other side of the large bush), 'I think I just saw a Wryneck'. 

The Wryneck hides in a gorse bush
At this point I could see nothing and wasn't even sure where he was looking, so I moved forward, accidentally flushing the bird which fortunately flew out my side and across the low bramble scrub. With the sun behind me I got good flight views and was immediately able to confirm it was a Wryneck. More importantly I also managed to see where it landed. I called David Walker and we moved towards it. As David and Gill Hollamby arrived we tried to get a view, but it again took flight moving back to the original patch of bushes. Over the next hour we eventually managed some good views, and a few images.

Even when in the open it could hide itself
Eventually it hopped into view

It was now midday and we had not even had breakfast - so it was an easy decision to stop at Romney Farm for a nice fry up. While there news came through of a Hoopoe at Hythe, so we were soon on our way along the coast. Just before we arrived some excellent photos were posted on twitter and news was that it had been showing well. We arrived to find no birders and no Hoopoe, just ten minutes later. The fenced compound was relatively small and we scanned carefully. We then moved along the path to check the ranges. I was along the seawall when a passing lady stopped to ask what the birdwatchers were looking at. Just at this moment Gary, back down the path, picked up the Hoopoe in flight coming directly across the ranges. Needless to say, I missed it. When I returned to the original viewing area a small crowd was gathered, but still no sign. Gary was sure it had flown back into the area, and I soon located it feeding largely obscured on the other side of the fence. It spent an hour feeding largely out of view. We tried a different position to view from, helped by a local with a range access permit, but as we arrived the bird was already high up in flight. It appeared to fly out towards the sea, but I ran back around to the compound only to discover it had landed right in front of where we were standing previously before being flushed accidentally - and it had flown straight back over the fence. 

Spot the Hoopoe - and its not in a cage, honest
Bored with looking through a fence we checked Stade Street and the Hythe Imperial rocks finding a single Purple Sandpiper and 3 Turnstone - and lots of people on the beach. A quick check of Nickoll's Quarry found a single Common Swift among a flock of distant hirundines before we called it a day.

Sunday, 12 April 2015

Gulls and early migrants

11 April 2015


Dawn is already before 06:00 and therefore the weather needs to be perfect to give the motivation to be at Dungeness for day break. It wasn't so Gary and I drove down a little late. We decided to start at the sea, though with less than ideal winds we were not surprised to find we'd missed the best of it. We did arrive just as  distant Great Skua flew through, and saw 3 Red-breasted Merganser, several small groups of Common Scoter, a dozen each of Common and Sandwich Tern and a few Brent Geese before everyone else departed. In the next 15 minutes we saw a couple of Fulmar, several Gannets and a smart summer-plumaged Red-throated Diver, before we decided to try somewhere else. I'd looked at the Patch from the hide and didn't see much activity and with the wind howling up the beach we walked back to the car. 

From there we checked the gorse seeing a Chiffchaff in the first patch. As we reached the second two phylloscopus warblers flew high towards the Observatory and dropped into the Moat bushes - I confidently suggested Willow Warbler. We walked over Gary going to the left and me the right. Gary found 2 Chiffchaff and as I approached the Heligoland trap there was a Willow Warbler near the trapping box and another in the mouth. We found David Walker at the Obs and returned to the trap with some bird bags, David quickly securing 3 Willow Warblers in the box, though one managed to escape as he collected them. We watched them being ringed, enjoying up close views of these tiny little migrants and then walked around the Moat. The southern bushes held 2 Chiffchaff and 3 Blackcap, showing there had been a small arrival this morning.

As we walked back to the Observatory the rain stared to fall, just as we received a call to say an Iceland Gull was showing in front of the Patch hide. Despite the rain we walked back into the gale and reached the hide without getting too wet. We spent the next hour watching the large gull roost. The Iceland Gull was a juvenile, its dark iris belying its very pale plumage. We found some very worn immature gulls, and an apparent leucistic Great Black-backed Gull, before David located a 3rd winter Glaucous x Herring hybrid.

The juvenile Iceland Gull among the roosting gulls
The apparent Glaucous x Herring hybrid
The Iceland Gull and hybrid together in the roost
We eventually left the roost having seen a couple of Common Tern and Sandwich Tern on the beach and a flock of 70 Brent Geese passing offshore. A brief stop along the ARC road and then we drove up the RSPB entrance track slowly, trying to relocate a Ring Ouzel that had been seen earlier. We found 2 Whimbrel beside the track, and several Sedge Warbler were singing but couldn't find the Ouzel. Next we drove the Bretts Marina track and down to Galloways, eventually finding a single Stonechat, but no migrants. After a brief stop overlooking Dengemarsh where a Great White Egret was briefly seen in the reeds we continued down to the Gully. While Gary drove further down the track I walked through the gorse finding 4 Willow Warbler, 3 Chiffchaff and a lovely showy Firecrest sheltering along the western edge.

We scanned the goose flock from Brickwall Farm, finding 4 Egyptian Geese but not the Tundra Bean Geese that have been frequenting the area for a few weeks. A Yellow Wagtail showed in the field by the farm. At Scotney we found the drake Scaup but little else of note. We drove slowly across the marsh and home after a reasonable early Spring days birding.

Sunday, 5 April 2015

Fiery flashes on a mizzly day

4 April 2015


Light south-easterlies brought the Spring's first decent arrival yesterday to Dungeness. The wind unfortunately turned into the North East overnight and the dropping temperatures and blustery wind quickly put a stop to the short migration window. However I optimistically hoped birds on the move may have been dropped onto the coast to take shelter in the rather sparse vegetation around the headland.

I started the day down the Galloways track. I arrived just after someone walked their dogs along the road and consequently only found a single Stonechat as I drove down to the sea. The Spring tide produced a remarkably low sea level and I scanned for about ten minutes. Three distant Common Scoter and about 20 Great-crested Grebe's including a group of four displaying to each other. A group of five Brent Geese, 2 Gadwall, 3 Sandwich Tern and a distant Red-throated Diver flew east, though didn't suggest much of a movement. A Chiffchaff flushed out of the rocks and a Black Redstart was calling unseen around the watch tower. Two Meadow Pipit and a Sky Lark flew in off the sea and several more pipits flew over the road as I drove back.

One of the two Cattle Egrets is starting to colour up, gaining some orange/pink feathering on its head and back, but both were feeding distantly among the sheep opposite the chicken sheds. I drove down the Gully and searched the gorse for cold, tired migrants. I could hear Chiffchaffs calling but none showed, choosing to keep deep within cover and as I walked back four Firecrests could be heard, though only two flicked into view briefly. Overhead more Meadow Pipits were flying in from the sea.

Scanning the pools and roadbeds produced two views of Great White Egret, 2 Little Egret and a Marsh Harrier. I drove down to the Old Lighthouse checking the gull roosts before the crowds disturbed them, but found nothing of note, other than a huge argentatus Herring Gull and a brief Wheatear by the boats. The gorse and garden produced at least 8 Firecrests, including one in a tiny bramble by the fisherman's car park, but the drizzle meant I didn't get the camera out. I headed over to the Desert and back through the trapping area. It was very quiet, though I flushed a migrant Song Thrush and heard a couple more Chiffchaff, and three Swallow flew over looking like they'd decided to fly back across the Channel to find somewhere a little more hospitable.  

After lunch the sky cleared a little and the rain stopped so I returned to the Point and tried to photograph the Firecrests. It was still blustery and the light far from good but initially at least I had it to myself. Within ten minutes there seemed to be birders everywhere, and I went searching other patches of gorse until they wandered away. When I returned I found a little group of five Firecrests feeding noisily together and tracking them carefully through the lighter gorse gave a few good opportunities, though occasionally they came too close for my lens!

Eventually I dragged myself away leaving another small crowd to search for the birds. A Chiffchaff appeared and showed reasonably well, but I never managed to see the Ring Ousel that had been reported here a couple of times during the morning before and between my visits.

I drove slowly down the ARC road looking for the Grebes reported earlier. There was no sign so I turned around and repeated the process. As I did my third pass two walkers had disturbed the birds from the back edge of the pit and I was delighted to see a summer plumaged Black-necked Grebe swimming side by side with a moulting Slavonian Grebe - a great comparison. Unfortunately the fence along the side of the road is not quite far enough to allow a car to pull off the road and the police have taken to moving birders on if they so much as attempt to stop here - frustrating as we've been birding along here for more than 30 years. Quite why they feel birders along here are more dangerous than the line of kite surfers who block the coast road (also on solid white lines) I don't know. It strikes me that having some cars along here might actually serve to slow down the motorists who seem to use this stretch of road as some sort of drag strip racing between the pits at well over the speed limit. Perhaps the Police should use their resources to run a speed trap and let us enjoy the birding instead?

Anyway I parked at Boulderwall Farm and decided to walk back along the road - the only alternative. Quite frankly this is extremely dangerous. Not only is there no pathway around the partially blind bends, you have to cross the road on the corner to reach any semblance of safety, the brambles create unseen trip hazards, particularly when you are looking at the cars racing towards you, and when you finally reach the viewing area you have to stand with a tripod completely unprotected just inches from the racing vehicles - very exposed and very dangerous. Someone will get killed if this is the only way the Police will let you watch these very productive pits. I'm not sure who owns the fence here, but I would suggest that the birding community petitions the local authority/RSPB/ARC/ National Power or whoever to move the fence back another metre, which would easily allow cars to park and birders to watch in relative safety.

By the time I'd walked back the grebes had swum further away and split up, but I managed a distant and heavily cropped show of the Slavonian Grebe.

Slavonian Grebe