Thursday, 21 September 2017

Hirundine swarm!

Arriving at Canons Farm at 07.15hrs, practically the first birds that I saw were a small group of Swallows heading south - my hope that yesterday's movement would continue looked good! I settled down at a vantage point that gave me far-reaching all-round views and waited. It was soon obvious that it was all systems go...

After half-an-hour 1200 Swallows and 70 House Martins had moved through, at a modest elevation and seemingly taking two well defined routes. It was then that House Martins came to the fore, as in the next 30 minutes they numbered a further 730 birds with Swallows mustering 600. The passage then abruptly stopped. I was more than happy with what I had seen, and took myself on a wander around the farm, with one eye on the sky in case the hirundines started up again, which they did at 11.00hrs. There then followed an incredible couple of hours. House Martins started to barrel in, in wide open flocks, up to 700 in 15 minutes then a massive pulse of 1800 in just 10 minutes that included a group of 400 birds.

Geoff Barter showed up, and I was delighted that he did, not only to share in this experience but also to confirm the crazy numbers on show. He timed it well. An enormous swarm had arrived. We stood transfixed as we were surrounded by 2000 birds, in all directions, like gnats on a summer's day. All seemed to be House Martins. They started to feed in a frenzy over nearby fields, then quickly moved off south, being replaced by others that had continued to arrive from the north. There were a few Swallows with them, and as the passage lessened they became more numerous once again. By 12.45 it had quietened down and had virtually stopped by 13.15hrs.

The final totals were a staggering 6710 House Martins (possibly a county record) and 4000 Swallows. This passage seems not to have been replicated elsewhere in the county, another reason why it was good to have Geoff as a witness. What a day.

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Arrows of desire

They were arriving high above me, too high to be seen with the naked eye, and had I not been scanning with binoculars I would have missed them. They were spaced out and came in pulses, the largest group being 50 strong. A few of the birds dropped lower and resolved themselves to be mostly House Martins with a few Swallows as company. Being at elevation, standing on the mound that overlooks The Watercolours pits at Holmethorpe, I had a good 360 degree view. The hirundines continued to arrive and head off east, but they still mostly kept high. Had I not known they were up there they would have carried on with their remarkable journeys unobserved by human eye. A journey that many of them would be making for the first time, born of instinct and need. After only 45 minutes the procession dried up, leaving me wanting more, but my notebook told me that 700 House Martins and 300 Swallow had moved through.

I stepped out into the garden at 18.05hrs to have three Swallows zip inches over my head, slaloming between walls and trees, manoevering with an ease that defied any need of effort on their part. Above them were more, much lower than this morning, many within touching distance. Silently they sped through, arrows of desire, the pull of African savannahs too strong to ignore. They appeared out of nowhere, to the left of me, the right of me and above me. Surrounded by blue and peach, streamers and points, grace and power. I stood still and within ten minutes 250 (all of them Swallows) had moved on westward. Awesome is a word that is overused by birders, normally given to something because it is rare - but it is the correct word to describe such primal and raw migration.

Throughout the south-east hirundines have been recorded in good numbers, no more so than Sandwich Bay where 120,000 House Martins were logged. Given the choice between seeing the American Redstart or that spectacular movement, the hirundines would win every time. I was lucky enough to witness a movement of 90,000 at Dungeness some 28 Septembers ago. It lives long in my memory. In fact, I would go as far to claim that such movements are the purest expression of avian migration that we can count ourselves lucky enough to witness.

I just hope that it will continue tomorrow.

Tuesday, 19 September 2017

About to crack

There's only so much worthiness you can feel and servitude you can bestow towards a dry inland birding patch. Bloody-mindedness, obstinacy and a big dollop of wishful thinking are prerequisites to be able to maintain a regular presence, but, believe me, they can all come to a shuddering halt, and the way things are that might just happen soon.

A dawn start at Priest Hill in a murky calm smelt of birds, and on entering the reserve there were plenty of calling Robins and the odd 'cheeping' Chiffchaff, but three hours later that was about it - 35+ Robins and 10 Chiffchaffs. The autumn here so far has been a hard slog for little reward. An early lunch and a check on what was going on elsewhere (the best being Yellow-browed Warbler at Elephant and Castle and a Blyth's Reed Warbler at Sandwich Bay) set me up for an afternoon at Canons Farm. Better than this morning, but it was still hard work. As is often the way with this site, just as I was about to give up there was a pulse of birds overhead - a flock of 60 House Martin wheeling about with a Peregrine and eight Common Buzzards. A further hour's skywatching added little else of note. A couple of female Stonechats tried to seduce me as I left the farm, but there's no doubt that I need a booster injection of avian surprise. It isn't happening locally, so I may need to wander further afield...

Sunday, 17 September 2017

Fallen Jay


The autumn is really starting to feel like autumn now - chillier temperatures, the leaves starting to fall (particularly the Horse Chestnuts) and rapidly darkening evenings. Priest Hill this morning added to the season's hold, with the first large arrival/movement of Woodpigeons - at least 800 were present, including a single flock of 750. Although Meadow Pipits were not actively passing overhead, a flock of 60 had gathered on the meadows. Single Goldcrest, Lesser Whitethroat and Willow Warbler were other highlights. One sad event was the demise of this Jay (above), found on the roadside adjacent to the reserve entrance. This species holds a special place in my birding world, which you can read about here if you so wish.

Friday, 15 September 2017

News on the Polish Med Gull


Last week I mentioned an adult Mediterranean Gull that I saw on Charmouth beach, sporting a red plastic ring (PER3). Through the excellent Colour Ring Birding website, I reported the details and received the following information from the Polish scheme behind the ringing of this particular bird:

Ringed on 13/05/2007 as a 3rd calendar year female, nesting at Polder Bukow, Krzyzanowice, Slaskie, POLAND, by Jakub Szymczak

So the bird was two years old when ringed, which makes it 12 years old. This colour ring reading can become addictive!

Thursday, 14 September 2017

A question

Another morning spent at Priest Hill, leaning up against a gate and counting migrating Meadow Pipits. I didn't arrive until 09.45hrs and they were already dribbling over, but by 12.00hrs the trickle had dried up, resulting in a total of 186 S/SW. Just like two days ago, little else was moving with them. A question I find asking myself is why overhead passerine diurnal migration seems to stop (or run out of steam) by lunchtime. I've seen hirundines carry on well into the afternoon, but as for pipits, wagtails, buntings and finches (which normally make up the bulk of such movements) they seem to find afternoon movement not to their liking. Do they actually land and stop? Do they fly higher so that they are out of sight and sound?

Meadow Pipit one: "I'm getting a bit of wing-strain here, how long we been flying?
Meadow Pipit two: "Must be six hours by now"
Meadow Pipit one: "Well sod this for a lark, let's pitch down in that nice looking meadow"
Meadow Pipit two: "Er, we're pipits, not larks..."
Meadow Pipit three: "We could always fly a bit higher and glide to Spain!"

Questions, questions...

Tuesday, 12 September 2017

Simple pleasures

My first visit to Priest Hill in almost a fortnight. Grounded migrants were largely absent, but from just after 10.00hrs a steady trickle of Meadow Pipits started up, all heading S to SW. I stood rooted to the spot for almost two hours and ended up with a total of 122 - mostly small groups of one to three but including flocks of 19, 11 and 10. I can honestly say it was some of the purest, most enjoyable birding that I've had this year. To watch actively migrating birds is always a privilege and a pleasure. The fact that these modest looking birds are possibly on their way to the Iberian peninsula adds so much to the experience. Not much else was moving with them, with no wagtails and very few hirundines, but that didn't matter.