Early April joys!

[As with last month, the first sighting of a returning species locally is in green]

April began with a rather quiet seawatch. Not quite what I’d hoped for given the change in the wind direction. A single curlew flew west on 1st, though I did also see a skylark; my first of the year on patch. So after a quiet hour, I decided to head up to Bridge Street and brave the “easy access trail”. An improvement, with more signs of spring. A couple of blackcaps, the males a-singing followed by an all too brief glimpse of my first willow warbler. At last, they had arrived!

The weekend was also perhaps a little quiet, or rather didn’t quite live up to expectations. Nevertheless, a seawatch with Alan Butler on 2nd did produce our first sandwich tern of the year. The following morning (3rd), we were also joined by Dan Houghton, Graham Barrett and Tony Tindale for another hopeful seawatch. Not much, though more sandwich terns, an eider and 7 common scoter weren’t too bad by Hill Head standards. It seems Andy Collins had a bit more luck from the chalets, with an early artic skua on 2nd, and a common tern and little gull on 3rd.

A short while later, Dan texted to say he and Alan had found a sedge warbler singing at the bottom of the canal path, with a Dartford warbler. Dartford warbler is another one of those right time, right place birds at Titchfield Haven, and at last I finally caught up with one. The one second view made up for the many hours of staring at empty gorse bushes, cheers Dan! Sadly, the sedge warbler had disappeared or fallen silent during the short time it took me to walk over; an early record for Hampshire. I then proceeded to join Dave Wallace for a wander along the canal path where we had 3 singing willow warblers and around 80 Mediterranean gulls.

Glaucous Gull

When I say my pictures might improve…. umm…

Well, if you dare to believe the evidence, 4th began with a seawatch at Hill Head. To my delight I had many a sandwich tern passing by, and a little later on the glaucous gull flew in from the west and perched on the fishing boat for a few minutes. How lovely it would’ve been had I also been mid-channel, or had the beast landed on the beach in front of me. Despite what the picture suggests, they’re rather large! The only other time I’ve seen a glaucous gull, it too was fairly distant, though fantastic views in comparison to this…

After spending an hour on 5th staring at an empty sea with Dan, Tony and Ken Martin, I assumed it would be another one of those quiet days. Not so. It wasn’t long before my phone went off while having a late-ish breakfast: ” Stone curlew just been spotted on reserve”. What?! No time to ask questions, just drop everything and dash off to investigate. Food could wait. The work party volunteers had found it while opening the reserve, though when I arrived, no one was quite sure where it was. Thankfully, Ken soon re-found it and the views were fairly decent especially when it eventually went for a wander. Certainly not a species I ever expected to see here, let alone in Hampshire anytime soon! A good few hours well spent indeed. Turns out this is (unsurprisingly) a first for the reserve! The last one locally was seen in the ’90s at Brownwich.

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Stone-curlew, Titchfield Haven, 5th April 2016

Other birds of note from 5th include 2 sedge warblers and the first whitethroat of the year seen by Graham Barrett. 3 marsh harriers were also showing rather well over the meadow which was lovely to see. That evening, while wandering along the seafront, I noticed a group of 50 black-tailed godwits on the river; a sign the water levels had dropped and hopefully this means mud will be exposed there at low tide again before long – perfect for waders. The 6th was somewhat quieter, though a tiny trickle of swallows zoomed past northward while I checked the scrapes and meadow.

To my surprise on 7th, the blustery seawatch yielded 2 swifts – an early arrival, based on previous years! Most seem to start arriving mid to late April. My first of the year last year were on 2nd May. The nice surprises continued on 8th when a text from Dave Wallace informed me of a short-eared owl along the canal path. I’d had great views of one last year with Dan and Alan, so was keen to see it (or another) again.

SHORT EARED OWL Dave Wallace

Short-eared Owl, 8th April 2016 (Dave Wallace)

When I arrived, there was no sign, and Dave explained how he’d stumbled across it while heading back to the car. It had been perched on a fence post not too far from the path. A few minutes later it reappeared and gave a fantastic flyby – almost close enough to touch!An early start on 9th was rewarded with good but very brief views of a grasshopper warbler after bumping into Mark Edgeller at Hill Head; presumably a migrant that had dropped down due to the rain overnight. It was then time to head up to London for the Mountbatten Festival of Music (the Massed Bands of the HM Royal Marines’ big annual concert at the Royal Albert Hall).  Whilst up there, we took a walk through some of the parks so I was able to catch up with ring-necked parakeet – a species I’d not seen for a very long time (and a lifer, as I wasn’t birding back in those days!).  

Then, to my joy on 10th, I finally caught up with one of my target seabirds on patch – an arctic skua. 2 in fact, one of which gave excellent views as it followed the beach very close in. Other highlights from the seawatch include a red-throated diver and sandwich tern. The 11th continued in good style, starting with a trickle of swallows heading northwards at lunch time while I enjoyed the delicious food served up by the Titchfield Haven café.

I then returned home to do more coursework, before dashing back a few hours later after a message popped up on my phone: “Great white egret has been reported on the reserve” – excellent, another patch lifer for me! It was up in the meadow, along a stretch of the river Meon and gave good views, albeit a little distant. I decided to return in the evening for a spot of seawatching, where I bumped into Dan and Alan. It wasn’t long before Alan picked out a Slavonian grebe – in full summer plumage; something I’d never seen before! To top it off, the glaucous gull reappeared and proceeded to follow a fishing boat up and down the Solent. As always, it remained fairly distant, but well enough for us all to conclude it really was a glaucous gull. Trevor Codlin was down Browndown at the time, and had much better views. Good to know other birders have finally seen it and agree with me. Three “patch golds” in one day isn’t bad at all! There were also reports of the first local cuckoo along the canal path on 11th.

Great White Egret, 11th April 2016

Great White Egret on the meadow, 11th April 2016

A trip to Hill Head at dawn on 12th ended up being rather unproductive due to thick fog (not what the BBC forecasted when I woke up!); somewhat of a surprise to myself, Ken and Alan who’d not had much fog at home. 2 sandwich terns, 3 avocets heading south and a rabbit hopping around the chalets was as good as it got. It seems Dave Ryves faired much better at midday, with a Montague’s harrier coming in off the sea! – a would be lifer for me. There’s always a worry when one’s off patch as to what might be missed. Reading “Montague’s harrier – Came in off the sea at Hill Head…circled over reed bed near west hide before continuing towards Chilling”, certainly filled me with envy!

Up to 129 species for patch now, with the rest of April still to go. It’s been a rather good 3 1/2 months. I can’t wait to see what the rest of the year brings. That said, there is a small matter of a few final pieces of coursework, the last few weeks of lectures and 3 exams before entering the “real world”… Busy times ahead!

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