Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Dunge bank holiday weekend

30 April to 2 May 2016


I arrived at Dungeness late on Friday evening, unpacked and joined Marcus and Andy Lawson, Wesley Attridge and Dave Walker in The Pilot for a superb fish and chip supper. The forecast for Saturday was not ideal for springtime migration, being cold with a NW wind. I was still up before dawn, just after 05:00, and after a quick wander around a very deserted Moat I drove down for a sea watch. It was predictably slow and the few birds that were moving were distant due to the NW breeze.

After breakfast we drove across Walland Marsh then back to the lighthouse. I walked out across the desert checking the gorse bushes, then around the Long Pits and back up the western side to the Observatory. The highlight was a fairly showy female Ring Ouzel, though the rarest sighting was a flyover Ring-necked Parakeet that first flew out of the Trapping Area and across the Desert followed by a Wood Pigeon, before disappearing to the north east, then returning down the eastern side of the Point towards the Old Lighthouse. There were few other birds other than the breeding Common and Lesser Whitethroats, Blackcaps and Reed Warblers. 

During the morning events were unfolding in Otford as it became clear the Rufous Turtle Dove was still around the housing estate and information from the home owner confirmed it usually showed early and late in the day. We discussed plans to arrive late afternoon, and then went our separate ways to check other local sites around Dungeness. Denge Marsh was quiet so I drove over to Scotney where I found a flock of 40 Ringed Plover and 32 Dunlin, and 3 Whimbrel. The RSPB track produced 3 more Whimbrel.

I headed back towards the Observatory and called Marcus to see whether we were going to Otford. He was not keen so I reluctantly stopped at the power station for an evening sea watch. I'd no sooner sat in the hide when my mobile rang - it was Marcus with news that the Dove had been seen - by Andrew? Turns out he'd gone it alone, no mention, no discussion. 

Within minutes I was at the white gate climbing in to Marcus' car with Dave Walker. We drove straight to Otford arriving within minutes of the bird showing to the small crowd of largely deserving observers - most of whom had put in many hours of searching around the estate since the news first broke, back in February. Unfortunately the owners of the garden had kindly invited a couple of birders into their garden, but the flighty Dove spooked and flew into the nearby trees. We waited for over an hour without a glimpse. Then without notice I spotted a fast moving dove flick from the trees, out of view then dash across the road. Marcus and I were quickly on it but the view was very brief - dark underwings, and jizz confirmed the ID but I wasn't counting it on that view. It seemed to drop over the houses, but despite much effort we just could not relocate it. Darkness arrived and it was all over.

We'd planned our traditional Saturday night curry, but at New Romney, not Sevenoaks. However as many of our crew were together we relocated and enjoyed a super curry at the Raj Bari in Sevenoaks. Andrew gave Dave a lift back down to Dunge while Marcus and I returned to my house nearby to try again in the morning.

We were up before 05:00 and on site by 05:15. We were surprised to find only Jerry Warne and Brendan Ryan on site. We took our places and waited as the light improved. After about ten minutes a Blackbird whizzed through the gap between the fence behind my head and the small Cherry tree above. Minutes later another more rapid whoosh and the Dove was hurtling towards its favoured garden tree. I called it instantly, almost before I saw it. Thankfully it landed on an exposed perch and showed brilliantly for 15 minutes before dropping down into the garden to feed and out of view. Result. My hastily taken iPhone-scoped images were quickly tweeted out and news was spreading.

Rufous (Oriental) Turtle Dove - Otford, Kent

Before leaving the area we drove over to Sevenoaks Wildfowl Reserve where a Wood Warbler had been for a couple of days. We found the area but the Warbler was nowhere to be seen. While waiting I called 'Wheatear' as a white-rumped bird flicked up from the field into a Hawthorn. Nothing appeared and I decided I had imagined it. However as we left the site there on a post was the Wheatear. 

Northern Wheatear - Sevenoaks KWT
We drove back down to Dungeness arriving perfectly as the cafe opened and met Andy for breakfast. We left the cafe and drove around Walland Marsh. We saw a couple of Marsh Harrier and Common Buzzard, a Cuckoo on wires at Old Cheyne, and eventually heard the sound we were searching for - a singing Turtle Dove. We tracked it down and got some rather similar views to the Rufous earlier as it sang from a Poplar belt. Six species of Columbidae (Pigeons and Doves) in a morning.

European Turtle Dove - Walland Marsh

The afternoon was pretty quiet and an evening seawatch produced very little:
  • Great Skua - 4E
  • Red-breasted Merganser - 1E
  • Fulmar - 1E
  • Gannet - 50E
  • Kittiwake - 1W
  • Whimbrel - 5E
  • Commic Tern - 350+ E
  • Swallow - 8 in
  • Sunday 1 May 2016

    Another early start produced a pretty slow seawatch.  Highlights were the 2 summer plumaged Black Terns, though numbers were made up with Commic Terns that battled into the cold northerly breeze.

    • Brent Goose - 2E
    • Common Scoter - 5E, 19W
    • Red-breasted Merganser - 4E
    • Gannet - 176E
    • Bar-tailed Godwit - 230E
    • Grey Plover - 4E
    • Whimbrel - 10E
    • Great Skua - 6E
    • Arctic Skua - 1E
    • Kittiwake - 3E
    • Commic Tern - 2,000+E
    • Little Tern - 3E
    • Black Tern - 2E
    • Auk sp - 1W
    The road to Galloways produced a Whinchat, four Wheatears and 2 Stonechat. Along the RSPB reserve entrance track a group of three Whimbrel gave good views.

    An afternoon sea watch between 13:35 and 15:45 from the fishing boats with AJG and SO produced:
    • Gannet: 37E      9W
    • Bar-tailed Godwit: 170E
    • Great Skua: 2E
    • Arctic Skua: 1E
    • Pomarine Skua: 1E   at 14.52
    • Little Tern: 2E
    • Commic Tern:  83E
    • Sandwich Tern: 6E    33W
    • Swallow: 1 in

    Monday 2 May 2016

    Birds began to move on the sea today in light south westerly winds and frequent drizzle. A Great Northern Diver, 5 Pomarine Skua, 25 Black Tern and two Great White Egrets heading south were the highlights. A couple of Black-throated Diver, 20 Arctic Skua and 7 Great Skua, 50 Little Tern, 75 Arctic Tern and more than 5,000 Commic Terns, a Velvet Scoter, 3 Manx Shearwater, 40 Bar-tailed Godwit, 6 Whimbrel and 2 Little Gulls.

    Tuesday, 21 June 2016

    If Carlsberg did weekends...

    19 June 2016

    Titchwell, Norfolk

    The alarm sounded at 04:30, and after a quick shower I was heading back over to Titchwell, carefully along the lanes that seemed covered in Wood Pigeons, Rabbits, Hares and Collared Doves. The Great Knot had not been seen after 07:20 yesterday so I had little to go on, but figured an early start at Titchwell was the best bet. I walked down the footpath at 05:15 and with the tide rising arrived just as a wave of Red Knot flew off the beach, some arriving on the freshmarsh. A careful scan failed to locate the Great Knot, so I waited a few minutes hoping others might follow. Four Little Gulls were roosting on an island. With no sign I decided to check the beach in case any remained on the tideline. With another birder I walked onto the beach, scanned to the right and saw a flock of roosting waders being watched by another lone birder past the yellow buoy. We walked slowly towards him chatting. About 100m short we thought the birder raised an arm, but he hadn't turned around and waved, perhaps he was just stretching? Just to be careful we approached him slowly - you never know how long it took to get that close and the last thing you want is to flush the flock, even if it doesn't contain the star.

    We stopped alongside and as I put my tripod down the birder turned and said 'It's there - at the left hand end'. I looked through my scope and the first bird I saw - the Great Knot! Apparently he'd first seen it 25 minutes earlier but it had quickly blended into the flock and had not reappeared until the moment we arrived. It gave great views and I immediately tweeted the news of its presence - thankful that this morning the mobile signal was actually working. Other birders started to arrive and gradually a small crowd gathered. The Red Knot flock was being gradually pushed closer towards us as the tide crept up the beach. They started to look a little nervous of our presence so I suggested we moved backwards to give them space and to hopefully ensure they stayed for others to enjoy. Everyone was considerate and our quick actions definitely resulted in some prolonged views for many throughout the morning.

    A typical view of it among the Red Knot flock

    As the flock moved it would expose the Great Knot
    And quite often it would appear on the edge of the flock - stunner

    Every now and then the flock would ripple as the birds moved away from the tideline. The Great Knot would often be seen walking against the wave of Red Knot, or would move to the outside edge of the flock. With care it was easily found even when asleep, being slightly larger and blacker around the nape. In full view it was spectacular - a blend of black, white, orange and grey, spots and blotches. Its grey head and beady eye, coupled with a longer, slightly down curved bill created a distinctive jizz. I watched for over an hour until the sun rose over the low cloud making viewing a bit difficult. 

    I decided to walk back to check the tidal pool for the Pacific Golden Plover. I checked the brackish and tidal islands, working through the Black-tailed Godwits and Lapwings. From the Parrinder Hide I checked the freshmarsh. There were no Red Knot, the flock having moved out to join the beach roost. However five Ruff, including two stunning summer-plumaged males that began lekking to impress two, less than impressed, Reeves. A couple of Med Gulls, 2 Red-crested Pochard and a small flock of Black-tailed Godwit. In the background a swirl of Swifts and House Martins, 2 Marsh Harrier and a booming Bittern. I stayed a while and then drifted back out to the beach for a second helping of Great Knot. Apparently it had remained hidden in the flock for about 45 minutes, but as I arrived immediately appeared on the edge of the flock. 

    I enjoyed more views for another hour, then walked slowly back to the car, stopping again in the hide where an Icelandic Black-tailed Godwit wearing a satellite transmitter and a set of colour rings (red over yellow left and double orange right) had appeared, alongside another colour-ringed bird wearing pink over green on its left leg, but refusing to expose its right leg. The former bird is known as 'Kalda' and her movements can be viewed here

    Black-tailed Godwit wearing pink (or faded red) over green rings
    Kalda, the Icelandic satellite tagged Black-tailed Godwit

    I drove over to Thornham Harbour checking to see if the Pacific Golden Plover had moved here to feed. There were a dozen Grey Plover in various states of plumage and 20 Curlew roosting in the salt marsh. However there was no sign of the PGP and I departed very happy with my weekend's birding, before enjoying a brilliant evening at Wembley at a Coldplay concert. If Carlsberg did weekends.....

    Monday, 20 June 2016

    Pacific surprise

    18 June 2016

    Titchwell, Norfolk

    We arrived back in the UK after a fabulous week walking in Croatia (more on that later) around lunchtime. With news breaking in the week of an, at times, showy summer plumaged Great Knot at Titchwell I had decided to head up for the evening and early morning on Sunday. I arrived at Titchwell about 17:00, but with no news on the Knot since early morning, and its late evening appearance at Scolt Head the previous night I was slightly unsure what to do. As the tide was nearly high I plumped for Titchwell and started walking out past the Visitor Centre. Some passing birders suggested it might have been seen further east and I momentarily returned to the car thinking about going straight over to Brancaster. However upon reaching the coast road I changed my mind and returned to the car park and set off purposefully to the reserve.

    It was rather cold, with a stiff north west breeze coming off the North Sea and overcast conditions as I reached the freshmarsh. There were about twenty birders spread along the bank after the Island Hide, all looking fairly gloomy. I stood at the end of a line and scanned. There was no sign and after a few minutes I decided to walk down to the beach to see if any Knot were roosting there. I reached the slightly raised bank at the start of the Parrinder Hide path and stopped to scan the tidal pool, hoping for a Spotted Redshank, which sometimes grace the corner or the islands. On one of the nearest islands I was surprised to see a 'Golden Plover' in summer plumage. Even through the bins the bird looked very interesting - something not quite right. Its mantle was very dark, contrasting with beautiful gold spangling down its back, rather plain coverts and scapulars and a noticeably short primary projection. 

    I quickly realised it was worth grabbing some images and walked along the path until adjacent to the bird, which seemed settled. Using my iPhone I took some quick shots and luckily decided to swap to video mode. A birder walked past me but didn't show any interest and at this stage I hadn't seen the critical greyish axillaries that would confirm it as one of the 'Lesser Golden Plovers', so didn't say anything.  With further views the white supercilium was very bright and extended boldly down the side of its neck onto its breast. The black neck and belly was quite restricted to the centre, and it had obvious barred white flanks. Surely it was a Pacific Golden Plover? I looked for black under tail coverts but the white flanks seemed to extend all the way - was I being optimistic, was it just a Golden Plover? I calmly recalled the many thousands of Goldies I've checked over the years at Oare - every variation, anomaly, and plumage. None had ever looked like this... It looked petite, long-legged, slim.

    I needed to see its underwings. Just then Tony Hull and his wife walked behind me. Realising I was videoing something Tony stopped and looked. At that precise moment the bird for no obvious reason became agitated. My phone was still recording as it raised its wings. The image on the screen revealed clear dark grey axillaries - it was a Pacific Golden Plover. As the elation rose the bird stretched its wings then leapt into the air, flew in front of us, called three times 'Klu-eeet', as it circled once and flew west over the raised bank and was lost to view. This all happened in just a couple of minutes. 

    Tony looked at me and said - 'That wasn't just a Goldie, was it?' To which I replied 'No - Pacific Golden Plover!'. Both slightly bemused we looked at the video - I'd fortuitously captured everything - it was a Pacific Golden Plover!

    Unfortunately it had happened so quickly I had not had time to call anyone, even the nearest birders less than 10m away. In the excitement we had lost sight of the bird and could not relocate it. I couldn't get a signal to send a text or a tweet, so Tony phoned it in to RBA. It is unclear how long it had been present, though Penny Clarke had seen it about half an hour earlier, passing it off as a European Golden Plover. Quite how many birders had walked past it is anyone's guess, several may well have also dismissed it not considering the other options. Whatever I was delighted that I'd turned around, that I was alert and that I'd pressed record at the right moment - otherwise this may have been one that got away....

    One of my first record shots, bright white supercilium and blackish mantle -
    Pacific Golden Plover, Titchwell, 18 June 2016
    A slightly cropped image as it became alert: Pacific Golden Plover - Titchwell, Norfolk, 18 June 2016
    Looking now at the images it really was rather distinctive

    Video grab as it raises its wings - grey axilaries confirm ID, and the black
    extending right along the undertail coverts is also evident in this shot
    Video grab - grey auxiliaries and barred white flanks
    You beauty!

    The next frame - its gone!
    Here is the video from which the screen shots above were taken:


    Slightly buzzing I never made it to the sea. I spent some time searching the tidal pools and salt marsh without success, and checked the various pools on the way back down the path.

    I decided to drive over to Brancaster to see if the Great Knot was present, as it had been last evening. I parked and walked along the beach, and was surprised to find just one other birder present. Sat in the dunes I scanned the distant shore of Scolt Head Island where a large roost of several thousand Red Knot were gathered. The distance was huge and although I could just make out some summer plumage red birds among the mainly non-breeding plumaged mass, and a couple of black bellied Dunlin, over the next two hours I could not pick out the much rarer (5th British record) Great Knot among the throng. As the tide receded the birds began to feed, but I just could not find it in the rapidly darkening skies and blustery conditions. I wasn't complaining though!