Thursday, 25 May 2017

Wrong notebook

My late-May Dungeness break really took off on the birding front yesterday. Shortly after dawn a singing Icterine Warbler was located, and nearby up to seven Marsh Warblers competed for attention. The Serin that flew over calling barely got a look. A small area of reed/scrub was then checked, where three superb Bluethroats entertained us for half an hour, one of which stayed in view, singing away, for at least 10 minutes. After finding a small flock of Hawfinches, an area of wetland was scoped, yielding a Garganey, Ruff, a pair of Black-necked Grebes and 14 loafing Spoonbill, whilst the nearby beach, apart from breeding Little Terns, hosted up to 10 Kentish Plovers, including three chicks. And there were plenty of Turtle Doves on show.  It is rare indeed to have had such a fine day at Dungeness...

...oh, hold on... wrong notebook. All the above was in Northern France, all within a 20 minute drive of Calais. The French birder is spoilt for choice as our day trip yesterday showed. With a bit more luck we could easily have added Honey-buzzard, Crested Tit and Golden Oriole. Only a brief drive down the coast would have added Savi's Warbler, Night Heron, Melodious Warbler, and all the species mentioned are not on passage, they are breeding! Want to know where all our birds have gone? They're in France!

Monday, 22 May 2017

Porpoise show

It is a rare thing at Dungeness to be able to stand at the very point, in t-shirt and shorts, and feel too hot. Even mid-summer can see you putting on a jumper, and then adding a fleece. However, this afternoon was that rare beast, when the sun shone, the temperature rose, and the wind went elsewhere for a change. It was glorious. Mark H and I stood on the shingle bank above a millpond sea, with not a wave to be seen. A distant mist obscured all but the top of container ships and any sound carried great distances across the water.

Small black shapes kept surfacing before us, compact cetaceans - Harbour Porpoises. Conditions allowed us to estimate at least 30 being present, maybe 15 of them close inshore. We could hear the muted splashes as they dived, at times four or more surfacing together in a gentle huddle. It was altogether magical.

I returned an hour later with Dave W, but they had mostly gone - a nearby Grey Seal was to blame, maybe the same one that has preyed on porpoise calfs this spring. There was some compensation in the form of 7 Little Terns and an Arctic Skua. The weather looks set fair for the foreseeable future. And that's fine by me.

Sunday, 21 May 2017

Spring Sooty

A warm, dry and sunny day at Dungeness. With the spring passage all but over, we are now entering the time of the 'overshoot', whether that might be a Bee-eater, Swallowtail or Death's-head Hawk-moth. Time spent in the field becomes less of a concerted effort on birding, more an all-round immersion into the additional bounteous supply of plants and insects.

After a day spent mostly chasing butterflies and watching a family party of Stonechats, I arrived at the sea for an evenings watch. No expectations at all, but we are not too late for a tardy Pom or two. After half an hour little had happened, but then a close, tight flock of 40 Sanderling passed by, all smart summer-plumaged adults. After watching them leave eastwards through the scope, I was more than a little surprised to find a close Sooty Shearwater in my field of view when I returned to scanning the sea straight ahead. It was very leisurely, mooching about rather than moving through, but eventually left eastwards and then out to sea. My first spring record. 30 minutes later it returned, this time moving more meaningfully westwards. You can never write a sea watch off here...

Saturday, 20 May 2017

Subbuteo show

I'm walking across the open shingle and a Hobby comes into view - low, quick wing-beats, intent on prey. It brushes the top of the Broom and then pirouettes higher before snatching at prey. Dragonfly? Moth? Butterfly? It's hard to tell, but it's been successful as it eats on the wing, feeding itself with brief offerings from talons to beak. A quick break is taken, perched on the skeletal remains of a bush. No real rest though, it fidgets, looking around, weighing up the options, then it's off! Another winged morsel has broken cover, more energy to consume. It takes it with ease, consumption in the air, digestion at rest. I try to hide and hope it comes closer, but of course it knows I'm there. After five minutes the show is over. I lose it heading westwards. My treading of the shingle resumes. Minus a Hobby. The loss keenly felt.

Friday, 19 May 2017

Squeaking skull

I seem to have arrived at Dungeness at the same time as Hannibal Lecter's favourite moth - The Death-head's Hawk-moth (Acherontia atropos). It was found resting on the wall of one of the beach dwellings and brought along to the observatory for safe keeping. They are impressive beasts that carry with them a folklore and fear, mainly due to the obvious 'skull' like marking on the thorax (image to follow). I was lucky enough to have seen one here in the early 1990s that emitted a squeak when handled - this one has kept quiet, at rest on leaves, in a Tupperware box, awaiting release.

It was good to reacquaint myself with a number of plants, especially the shingle specialists and Dungeness notables, such as Yellow-vetch and Sea Pea. Up to 16 Hobbys hawked around the RSPB reserve between Dengemarsh and the Oppen Pits, with a host of accompanying 'mini-me' Swifts.

Thursday, 18 May 2017

A train, a bus and some mud

Part 10 -  March 1976 Pagham Harbour became a frequent place of ornithological pilgrimage. Conveniently, a train ran from Sutton to Chichester, where a bus would then take you to Sidlesham Ferry, a virtual gateway to the harbour and coast. The only downside to this method of transport was that the first train from Sutton did not leave until 09.00hrs, which meant a lunchtime arrival at Sidlesham – this restricted birding time, especially in the winter months. The southbound train journey was enjoyable, as the route passed through picturesque countryside  - including the levels at Arundel – where the odd good bird, such as Short-eared Owl and Bewick’s Swan were seen from the moving train. Once on the bus, expectation levels steadily grew, and by the time that Sidlesham Ferry came into view I was practically beside myself with excitement.

I would normally take the same route. An initial scan of the ferry pool would be a lengthy affair. This smallish water body and its accompanying muddy fringes was consistently full of birds – ducks and waders to the fore – and had the added attraction of allowing close and clear views of the birds. Once I had prised myself away, the ‘southern’ flank of the harbour was walked, ensuring that any spur of dry ground out into the harbour was taken, to check for further waders and wildfowl. The state of the tide would dictate where I could (and could not) explore. The footpaths here, especially the main route that snaked along a raised bank, would be a virtual assault course of muddy slopes, particularly during spells of wet weather. More than once a boot was prised from my foot by the sucking mud, with frantic and balletic efforts being made to rescue it before my vulnerable sock-shod foot met the same fate. I’ve seen birders fall, optics dropped, with the aftermath being not just a bruised ego but also a sheepish cleaning down and checking of binoculars, to ensure nothing had been damaged. The open vistas were exhilarating, with unimpeded views of the West Sussex countryside for 360 degrees. Bushes were liberally scattered along the way, where migrant passerines could be reasonably expected at the right times of year.

From here I would arrive at Church Norton, home to a small car park, a few aspirational houses and a charming church. It was quite wooded, so trees would be checked to increase the day list. No visit to Church Norton would be complete without taking lunch and the accompanying feeding of birds – Robins, Chaffinches and Great Tits in particular – that would practically line up waiting for the odd dropped crumb or offered crust. It became a ritual. A respectful search of the churchyard (could there be a more desirable final resting place for a birder?) would be followed by a vigil on the adjacent shingle spits where commanding views across the harbour could be taken.

It was but a short walk from here, up a shingle ridge, and onto the beach. High tide would have waves lapping at your feet, but a low tide would present a mess of shingle islands and the sea distant enough to hamper any scanning for birds. Turning northwards, a trudge along the shingle bank took you to the narrow harbour mouth, which unfailingly produced a rarer grebe or notable sea duck. From here you could look across the deep channel and onto Pagham beach. Turning southwards from Church Norton, it was only a matter of a few hundred metres before a small reed fringed water body, called ‘The Severals’, could be found, serviced by footpaths that allowed good birding access. In turn, these paths took you back to the car park at Church Norton via open fields and a farmyard.

On an average visit I would then retrace my steps to Sidlesham and wait for the bus back to Chichester – however, wanderlust sometimes took a grip. I could, and sometimes did, carry on past the Severals and walk the mile or so to Selsey Bill, that iconic birding site where birders in the 50s and 60s set up a short-lived observatory. Or, if I were being really adventurous, go back to Sidlesham and walk the lengthy northern footpath around the harbour and end up at Pagham Lagoon – this latter option was only taken up if there was a good bird to be had, or the daylight hours allowed it. Fortunately there was a bus that would take me back to Chichester from here.

Although a well-known birding location, it was never too busy with birders at Pagham. You could lose yourself and be in your own space if so desired. There was a small and friendly band of local observers, including Chris Janman and the James family, who would be only too pleased to pass on the latest news. My early visits to this charming area would invariably be made with no prior knowledge as to what was about, and with little concern as to the weather. On more than one occasion I spent the whole day in heavy rain, soaked to the skin, but wandering around with a beatific smile upon my face.

On this, my second ever visit, highlights were a Black-necked Grebe and Short-eared Owl from my initial scan of the ferry; a Spotted Redshank in the harbour; a few Slavonian Grebe on the sea, and, best of all, my first ever Avocet, thanks to a last look at the ferry, in fading light, before catching the bus. The future would confirm that no visit to Pagham was ever the same, was never dull and was always full of birds.

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Kernow interlude

Katrina and I have just returned from a long weekend at Bude, in Cornwall, courtesy of her sister Fiona and brother-in-law Bill. As much as most of our time was centred around good company, food and drink, plenty of room was made for walks along the cliff tops and the observation of the natural world. It is an area that we all love and know quite well.

My botanical highlight was the Spring Squill (above), being found on the cliff tops either side of Bude's sandy beaches. Efford Down was home to tens of thousands of plants, all in flower. They shared the turf with Thrift, Kidney Vetch and Scurvey-grass (I didn't specify the latter), and the photograph below illustrates just how they coloured the ground.

Rock Samphire roots exposed but clinging on
There are even breeding Wheatears!