Spring: And so it begins…

[This time, I have highlighted arrival dates of migratory species in green]

A text from Dave Wallace on the 3rd March resulted in a welcome break from essay writing, with an appearance of a spoonbill on the Frying Pan. I apologise for the poor quality – handheld digiscoping! Fear not, I’m finally getting round to buying an adaptor, so the quality should improve a little next month… Speaking to Ivor McPherson later on in the month, it sounds like there were at least 8 on 23rd!

I returned at dawn on 4th, and upon getting out of the car realised a coal tit was calling nearby, in tit flock. I’ve struggled to catch up with coal tits at Titchfield Haven. They occasionally visit the bird feeders, one of those right time, right place birds. When telling fellow birders I’m after coal tits, the standard remark is “Oh, I get them in my garden all the time” – so do I, but that’s not my patch! I suppose this is one joy of patch birding. Each patch is different; some species are easily found on one patch but others not so.

Anyhow, this year I’d decided to challenge myself by not counting “heard-onlys”, so hearing this coal tit wasn’t enough, I had to see it. Question was, where was it? The most likely location was the evergreen trees by the visitor centre, but as I approached it seemed like the flock had moved on. Drat. Time to sea watch instead. Heading round towards the chalets, I heard it again by the viewing platform now, and this time – success! Another patch year tick, and only my 3rd coat tit on patch. It showed well for a while, but of course my camera was at home…

I was soon joined by Ken Martin for what was a fairly successful sea watch by Hill Head standards: 5 very distant eider and a not quite so distant great northern diver. To add to that a bar-tailed godwit, 5 sanderling, 15 ringed plover and 9 dunlin and 9 turnstones were running about on the beach in front of us. Lovely. Sadly, it was soon 8am, and campus was calling.

Bewick’s swan was the target for 8th, not on patch alas but by a church in Harbridge. The trip was successful, though did mean missing out on an opportunity to see a Spitfire on patch! This was a county tick for me, and a species that seems is becoming rather difficult to see in Hampshire. Also in the field were a large number of mute swans, Egyptian and greylag geese. Those geese would do nicely on patch!

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Bewick’s Swan, Harbridge, 8th March 2016

Next came 17th when I decided to squeeze in an early session at Hill Head before finalising and handing in coursework. It’s now (or was…) light not long after 6am, one thing I love about this time of year, and the early start was well worth it. Beginning at the sailing club, I was greeted to scope filling views of a great northern diver – not a bad start. There was something about this morning, it felt like something would happen. I was hoping for a sandwich tern or two, or perhaps a wheatear or sand martin, but had no such luck. However, on approaching the chalets I could see a grebe-like bird not too far offshore. Lifting up the binoculars, I soon realised it was indeed a grebe. And not just ‘any old’ grebe, but a black-necked grebe in full summer plumage – stunning and rather uncommon round here! Now that really did make my day, all before 7am!

Black-necked Grebe, Hill Head, 17th March 2016

Black-necked Grebe, 17th March 2016

The first swallow and sand martins were both seen by various locals on 18th – another text from Dave Wallace alerted me to the arrivals, but alas a day on campus was in store. 19th started well for me with a great northern diver offshore from Hill Head, alongside 12 rather distant eider. The morning continued with Dave Stevenson and Ian Calderwood finding a velvet scoter off Stokes Bay – lovely! The successful weekend continued on 20th, with a common scoter offshore,  spoonbill on the Frying Pan and 2 ruff on the meadow at Titchfield Haven, a sign of spring underway and a patch year tick. A trip up to Posbrook Flood with Dave Wallace yielded another year tick – a single stock dove in amongst the woodpigeons, finally!

After a day of rest, I returned on 22nd to be greeted with the regular wintering eider out by Fawley power station – a little closer this time, and not in the haze for once. Scanning round to the east I was pleasantly surprised to find the velvet scoter had, at last, drifted west! A patch first for me (having missed the 2 that overwintered a few years ago) and best views I’d ever had of the species. It proceeded to give locals the run around, first by having drifted this far west in the first place, then by flying over to Chilling cliffs, before flying back towards Lee-on-the-Solent, and finally settling. Great bird to start the day, and saves me returning to Gosport! I then joined Dave Wallace, Dave Ryves and Ken Martin for a quick check of the scrapes, where we had our first little ringed plover of spring, alongside 2 ruff.

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Velvet Scoter, 22nd March 2016

I finally caught up with my first sand martins on 24th after a quick trip to Bridge Street, where a group of 9 were feeding low over the floods. The first house martin was seen on 25th along the canal path earlier in the morning by Dan Houghton, while I had a lovely but all too brief glimpse of a spring osprey heading north, high over the sailing club a few hours later. Not something I was expecting! It’s also nice to see the avocet numbers peaking to around 50 individuals, and Mediterranean gulls even higher with over 70 individuals at the moment.

The Easter weekend was rather blustery and wet at times, just like winter. 7 sandwich terns, first of the year locally, were seen flying east by Dave Stevenson on 26th, while one was also present at Hill Head at low tide, which I sadly missed. I bumped into Tony Heath on 27th while looking for the firecrest that had been hanging around the east side of the reserve. We’d been searching for many days to catch a glimpse of the usually elusive individual and finally heard it singing, and then, even better noticed it hopping around above our heads – lovely! At that moment, the heaven’s opened so it was time to make a dash for cover. I headed back to the car, and as I did so, a swallow  (my 1st) followed by 2 sand martins zipped north, yay!

A rare venture away from patch was in store for 29th, as Dave Stevenson and I went off in search of a Pallas’ Warbler. Our destination was Portesham in Dorset, where we met Sean Foote. After a short wait, we proceeded to get many fleeting glimpses and a few brief but good views of the bird as it hopped around the bushes and chased off a few chiffchaffs.

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The Portesham Pallas’ Warbler (Sean Foote)

Whist in the area, it made sense to pay a visit to Portland Bill, say hi to Martin Cade and co, and also do a spot of seawatching. We didn’t stay long, but in that time saw a single common scoter fly west and a number of gannets, while the sea below had many shags, guillemots and razorbills – something a Hampshire birder doesn’t see as often. Also of note were 2 swallows coming in off the sea, 11 wheatear and many skylarks, meadow and rock pipits.

Dave and I then decided to head over to Pulborough Brooks (yep, all the way over in Sussex…) to catch up with the American wigeon which had turned up a few days earlier. This was my second lifer of the day and having dipped the one at Bowling Green Marshes (Devon) back in January, was extremely pleased to finally see one. A great day’s birding!

American Wigeon, Pulborough Brooks, 29th March

American Wigeon (right) with 2 ordinary Wigeon.

The velvet scoter was back offshore from Hill Head on 30th, alongside 3 eider. On the reserve, it was clear there had been an arrival of birds, with a number of blackcaps and John Shillitoe had 3 wheatear here along the canal path – both first of the year here.

The month ended with the velvet scoter still lingering off the chalets on the morning of 31st, 56 brent geese, and even better my 1st Hampshire glaucous gull! There had been a glaucous gull around Ryde, seen following the fishing boats, and earlier in the month Dave Ryves spotted it off Lee-on-the-Solent, so to finally catch up with it was great. What made it even better was watching it from patch as it followed a trawler up and down the Solent with many other gulls for comparison!

I did then briefly check the meadow with Alan Butler and Dave Wallace, but alas no wheatears to be seen. We did, however, see the 2 barnacle geese and a single greylag goose on the Frying Pan. So, up the 116 for the year on patch with plenty more still to see.

Finally, I caught my first moth of the year, after putting the trap on 12th. I was worried it might’ve been too cold, but instead found a single common quaker in the morning. A new species for me, having only started mothing in late-July last year.

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Common Quaker, 13th March 2016

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