Unusually, I thought, the month began with a singing reed warbler – the first of the year found by Dan Houghton and Alan Butler on 1st along the top half of the canal path. Unusual because it was early, and even earlier than the first sedge warbler that was singing on 5th during a dawn stroll along the lower section of the canal path. The 1st turned out to be a rather good day for birding, as my first swallow of the year flew overhead that morning, a willow warbler was drunkenly singing by the car, the barn owl was sat out in the tree, and the evening was spent enjoying a black-winged stilt on Posbrook Floods, found by Alan Clark (and later refound by Alan Lewis after it went AWOL) a few hours earlier! The 3rd record for the reserve, and a lovely wader indeed. Added to that, a few days later I finally managed to catch up with the little gull that’s been hanging about (mostly just off patch at Brownwich) all winter.
The rest of 5th was spent in Sussex, at North Stoke, the site of a large tortoiseshell butterfly. It was an impressive beast, and Dave Wallace and I managed to time our visit well as it was resting on a leaf on arrival so good views were had before it flew off. The hoped for cloudy weather never came, so the butterfly didn’t return. Twitching seems to be a slippery slope, first birds… then moths… and now butterflies… but it’s interesting to see and enjoy new species, especially if they’re close by. Another highlight of the trip for me was Houghton Hill where we stopped for lunch – the views were lovely, and there were firecrests everywhere!
The slow and steady trickle of migrants continued with the weather conditions not being ideal. 3 wheatear dropped into the chalets at dawn on 10th, while my first house martin of the year was over Posbrook Floods on the evening of 11th alongside many swallows and sand martins, and a whitethroat was singing on 13th at Posbrook. It was lovely to see more willow, sedge and reed warblers moving through too, with at least 8 willow warblers on patch during the morning of 14th plus one in my garden which was a nice surprise. Added to that, the occasional whimbrel has flown past during the first half of April, and Dave W and I had excellent views of 3 garganey that dropped into South Scrape on the afternoon of 13th.
Seawatching has been slow throughout April, largely due to unfavourable winds, although it has picked up on occasions. An attempt on the afternoon of 19th yielded a single arctic tern that briefly landed on Rainbow Bar. It’s always nice when the terns do decide to land so I can double check all the features, especially when it comes to picking out the arctic from the commons! Many more terns were seen the following evening with a steady passage of 25 common terns, along with 12 whimbrel and 2 bar-tailed godwits. It’s still slow though, with seawatching yet to properly get going. O how I long for prolonged southeasterlies… I continued to check the reserve and the floods along the canal path too, often with Ken Martin and Richard Carpenter, but sadly the hoped for red-rumped swallow never did appear. We did, however, pick up the returning lesser whitethroats which was nice.
There was bit of excitement on 23rd while comparing notes with Richard Levett, Mark Palmer and Ivor McPherson about how quiet it seemed both in terms of passage and grounded migrants – even the fog hadn’t made much impact. Whilst chatting, a bird that didn’t seem quite right for a gull or tern came into view close past the sea wall. Flap, flap, glide… “Fulmar!” – a long overdue county tick for me and a rather unexpected sighting, as the bird was heading west, it was still rather murky, and the passage had been almost non-existent through the Solent. Fulmar are also less than annual through the Solent these days. That’s the thing with seawatching at Hill Head: it can deliver, but you either have to wait for hours on end, or be rather jammy!
Patch aside, some time during the second half of April was spent elsewhere in the county with Ed Bennett. The New Forest is one area I’ve always intended to explore more, but never got round to it and didn’t really know where to go. Luckily Ed does know these things (and indeed much more) which was helpful, and enjoyable. Ivy Wood was particularly lovely with all the bluebells, and other plant species such as dogs mercury, butchers broom and wood spurge, plus the crab apple blossom. Nice to find a part of the Forest that was fenced off from livestock – what a difference it made! Blackwater Arboretum was pleasant too with many a willow warbler singing away, along with my first redstart, garden warbler and cuckoo of the year. A second visit a couple of days later involved a return to Blackwater, followed by a wander around Acres Down. It was much colder which didn’t help, although we did have superb views of a singing wood warbler – one of my favourite birds I think – along with great views of a singing firecrest which was similarly lovely.
Finally, seawatching did pick up as the month drew to a close, well… sort of. 3 distant black terns were picked up by Graham Barrett and Dave Ryves working their way towards Southampton Water on 28th. Frustratingly on 29th, the winds were not quite SE and the birds appeared to fly either over the Isle of Wight or rather close to it, and so not visible from Hill Head. While other sites along the south coast (including Stokes Bay) yielded many a skua, we didn’t. It wasn’t until 1635 when finally, I picked up an arctic skua flying east mid-channel, to the delight of Mark, Andy and John Shillitoe.
And then it did happen! The morning of 30th was superb even though the winds still weren’t quite right. Andy Collins and I recorded 15 arctic skuas, 4 little gulls, 8 black terns and plenty of whimbrel and bar-tailed godwits all heading east over the course of 3 hours. The hoped for pomarine skua never did come, but it was still a fantastic seawatch – more skuas in 3 hours than I’d ever seen in my life! My first hobby of the year was another highlight, also heading east close in.
The hobby was the 130th species for patch this year, and the sea watch was probably the 2nd best I’d had off Hill Head since trying to get my head round it. The best has to be last year when the 3 pomarine skuas flew very close in – still time for that this year…. Wonder what May will bring!