September 2017

September ended up being quite an adventure, starting with a lovely morning on patch with Ken Martin on 1st. While waiting for the reserve to open we began chatting about the influx of American waders, particularly pectoral sandpipers, and wondered if or when another would appear on the scrapes. Moments later we entered the meonshore hide, and almost immediately, our question was answered: a wader feeding in front of the hide with two common sandpipers caught our eye. “Pec Sand!”. A ‘patch tick’ for me (and a number of longer standing locals too) – the first here since 2009, which I’m told didn’t stay long, so it was nice to watch the bird linger for a week or so. Throughout the month the scrapes were generally good with a nice variety of waders. Little stints, ruff, bar-tailed godwit, knot and spotted redshank all dropping in from time to time; the latter being rather scarce here but provided us all with good views throughout the day on 9th. Counts of ruff reached 5 – a high total if recent years are to go by. Sad when once ruff regularly overwintered. Nowadays, alas, you’re lucky to get one or two in autumn. Other returning and passage species on patch of late included redstart, stonechat, whinchat, a steady movement of yellow wagtails and meadow pipits, and the first trickle of siskins overhead.

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Pectoral Sandpiper, Titchfield Haven, 1st September 2017

A woodchat shrike in less than ideal conditions kick-started the twitching in September. Dave Wallace and I decided to pay a visit to Chipping Norton on 10th where, after some searching, the shrike perched up from time to time before dropping down and skulking to escape the wind and rain. Shortly after this (and continuing along the theme of American waders…) Ed Bennett and I headed off to Weymouth in an attempt to redeem a day. We’d begun the 13th hoping a seawatch at Milford Shelter would pay off, but as is often the case seawatching in Hampshire turned to disappointment. Seeing reports from further west of leaches’ petrels and Sabine’s gulls while looking out onto an empty sea was rather soul destroying! Thankfully, Weymouth was anything but disappointing: Lodmoor was the place to be with highlights of both least and stilt sandpipers showing well in amongst the mix of commoner species. It was fantastic to watch them and compare to other species as well as each other. Moving on, we headed up to Portland Bill where, despite getting soaked, enjoyed lovely prolonged views of a wryneck feeding by the quarry.

While all this was going on, an American redstart had been found by a church on Barra in the Outer Hebrides on the evening of 7th. I was rather keen to go, but having established other local birders weren’t able to make it, admitted defeat and hope for a trip up north some other time. However, the bird lingered and plans suddenly materialised. Ashley Howe, Geoff Goater and I headed up on the evening of 15th reaching Scotland by midnight. We’d heard that three other locals – Lee Fuller, Dan Houghton and Ian Wells – had been successful that day so hoped the bird would go to roost at least once more. This was the longest twitch I’ve done so far and it was a bit tense waiting for news in Oban having driven all that way, but when the news came out, it was promising. The ferry left Oban at 1pm, and the 5 hour journey to Barra began. Excitement grew with each cry of “Eagle!”.

I’d longed to see an eagle all my life and always planned to visit the Western Isles, so to find myself finally watching them, even if from a distance, brought much happiness! And even from a distance, the huge size was apparent. Both white-tailed and golden were seen, including one golden eagle being mobbed by a raven; that’s when you realise just how big they are! By the time we returned to Oban the following afternoon, 8 golden and 6 white-tailed eagles had been enjoyed. The ferry journeys also yielded good views of hundreds of manx shearwaters, white-sided and common dolphins, harbour porpoise, and basking sharks. Not forgetting the target bird, once we did finally reach the island and drive to the site, there it was – American redstart showing brilliantly to begin with as the sun set over Barra!

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American Redstart, Barra, 16th September 2017

Another weekend arrived, so Dave and I planned another trip. This time a return to Dorset for yet another American species; spotted sandpiper on 23rd. We had hoped for the Baird’s sandpiper to also linger, but sadly it wasn’t to be. This was the first time I’d visited Abbotsbury, but it seemed like a nice place, and thanks must to go Steve and other staff for being extremely helpful. We ended the day at Arne, watching both grey and red-necked phalaropes side by side, although its safe to say they weren’t nearly as showy as some phalaropes! Next day, a greenish warbler had us returning to Dorset – Portland Bird Observatory this time – as it flitted about the Obs garden, showing nicely in the afternoon gloom. A pod of bottlenose dolphins just offshore was an added bonus. We then squeezed in a trip on 28th to Languard nature reserve for a red-throated pipit that also showed rather well. It was great to watch it in amongst the meadow pipits, calling at times too; a rather striking bird.

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Red-throated Pipit, Languard, 28th September 2017

In between this, I have actually fitted in work (honest!), including surveys on Hayling Island and Hill Head, and also some birding locally in Hampshire – a trip to Farlington Marshes with Ed and Zoe Caals, and paid a visit to the Hayling Island grey phalarope with Dave on 19th. Highlight from these local trips include up to 3 little stint, spotted redshank, golden plover, greenshank, knot, sanderling, plus hundreds of grey plover, black-tailed godwits, redshank, ringed plover and dunlin. Sometimes it’s nice to give patch a rest and visit other areas.

Finally, the month ended where it started – on patch. It was a work day, but I arrived early to squeeze in some birding on the reserve with Ivor McPherson. One of those days where it was clear there’d been a fall of birds – blackcaps and chiffchaffs seemingly in every bush or tree, 8 stonechats, plus singles of both common and lesser whitethroat, chaffinch, and an overhead passage included many a skylark, meadow pipits and an assortment of finches; greenfinch, goldfinch and siskin. 3 raven also joined in, cronking as they flew low over the hide. A lovely autumn morning!

Late summer & early autumn 2017

I haven’t really done much ‘proper’ birding other than for work purposes lately. Recent work has involved carrying out a regular watching brief – counting bird species and numbers, recording their locations and activities on a map, and monitoring bird disturbance – while some coastal defence work was taking place at Hill Head. I did, however, manage a nice right time, right place moment on the morning of 5th July. Looking up as I approached the hide for a high tide roost count, I noticed a red-rumped swallow fly overhead, heading towards Brownwich. A good start a day at work.

On other days during July and August, signs of Autumn migration were noted. To begin with it was just a trickle, but gradually picked up and crescendo-ed as July turned to August, and August progressed:  returning waders like ringed plover, redshank, dunlin, sanderling and increasing numbers of turnstone, alongside common and green sandpipers, the occasional knot, little ringed plover, and ruff too dropped by. By late August, it was looking lovely – particularly the 11 Acre Mere which seemed to be favoured by many waders: 4 greenshank, 5 green sandpipers, common sandpiper, and a lovely wood sandpiper greeted us on 22nd August! It was also interesting to see two black-tailed godwits of the subspecies limosa; they appeared to be slightly larger than our usual Icelandic godwits, with a much longer bill and legs during mid-August.

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Wood Sandpiper, Titchfield Haven, 22nd August 2017

Passage tern and gull numbers increased throughout the months, with at least 600 common terns by mid-August, alongside many hundreds of Mediterrean and black-headed gulls, plus the first returning common gulls. Another highlight was a couple of yellow-legged gulls. This is also a good time to see them, and this July was no exception with an adult, 3rd calendar-year and juvenile birds all noted. Sandwich terns seemed mostly in short supply, as did any terns but common, however during that time the occasional arctic, black and roseate terns were picked out. Towards the end of August, more migrating passerines were also recorded on patch, including a nice mix of warblers,  yellow wagtails, tree pipits, wheatear and spotted flycatchers.

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Spotted Flycatcher, Posbrook, 22nd August 2017

Time off on 21st July had been arranged after the reappearance of the Amur falcon in Cornwall. Sadly, like it’s first appearance, it was all too brief. It sure is a lovely falcon though, so I’m hoping for another reappearance (or was, it’s looking increasingly unlikely…). Change of plan: Cliffe Pools, Kent for a marsh sandpiper. I’m rather fond of waders so the chance to see another species was exciting. As I arrived, I heard the bird had disappeared and hadn’t been seen for a while, but no point giving up straight away. Before long all was well and good, as the first bird to be seen through the scope when I began scanning was the marsh sandpiper! Bingo! Great to watch it scurrying along the shoreline, and to compare it to the other species present. There was a lovely supporting cast including a black-winged stilt family, hundreds of avocets, many greenshank, and little ringed plovers.

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Marsh Sandpiper with Greenshank, Cliffe Pools, 21st July 2017

Dave Wallace suggested a trip to Portland Bill on 23rd July in case more shearwaters decided to pass through, having seen the impressive totals for the previous few days. Worth a try, I agreed. I was starting to wonder, after a couple of fairly fruitless hours, whether we’d made the right decision, but soon two other birders joined us and things began to pick up a bit too. At around 1345, Liam Hooper spotted a large shearwater land in amongst a feeding frenzy of gulls – great shearwater! Wow, wasn’t expecting that. Not long after 3 manx shearwaters passed by, providing good flight views. A later trip on 3rd August yielded many more birds: mostly manx and Balearic shearwaters. As a Hampshire birder, it was lovely to get the chance to watch the shearwaters in action and get to grips with their jizz. Meanwhile, back at Hill Head, the highlight of seawatching was a single fulmar on 27th July – sat on the sea fairly close to the sailing club; an uncommon species here.

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Great Shearwater with gulls, Portland Bill, 23rd July 2017

A trip to Black Point beckoned, this time because Andy Johnson had found a white-winged black tern on the evening of 14th August; a rare bird in Hampshire. The light was fading when it dropped in, but thankfully the bird stayed the night, giving birders a wild goose (tern) chase the following morning! By the time Dave W and I arrived that afternoon, it had settle down somewhat, doing a circuit of Emsworth Channel. At times the terns flew rather close, providing us with lovely scope views – fantastic end to the day! 

White-winged Black Tern, Black Point, 15th August 2017

White-winged Black Tern, Black Point, 15th August 2017

Another nice local rarity (and also found by Andy) was a pectoral sandpiper that turned up at Farlington Marshes on the evening of 21st. The following morning the bird remained, and was seemingly more active than the night before, providing us with good scope views and a nice comparison with the local dunlin. Also roosting on the Lake at Farlington were 3 spotted redshank, a ruff, 2 common sandpipers and a couple of greenshank, among others.

Pectoral Sandpiper, Farlington Marsh, 22nd August 2017

Pectoral Sandpiper (right) with Dunlin, Farlington Marshes, 22nd August 2017

Finally, the 21st August turned out to be a rather unexpected day, starting with a yellow warbler found over in Ireland, thanks to the latest hurricane. A mega, but too far to travel, so I set about sorting out various tasks that needed doing closer to home. There wasn’t much else happening until the pager went off just before 4pm: “MEGA: Dorset YELLOW WARBLER Portland at Culverwell at 3.35pm…”. Earlier in the year when the Spectabled Warbler had made a similar appearance on Portland, I’d made the mistake of agreeing to wait til the morning, only for it to disappear during the night. So, the evening’s entertainment sorted, a few texts and phone calls were made, food eaten and the journey began. I’m told the yellow warbler was showing even better before I arrived, but decent views were had as the light was fading and it flitted about in the willows, calling regularly too, and made for a lovely end to the day! More info here.

 

Whoever said June was quiet?

Less than a week into June, unseasonably strong winds started up. The hope was that would bring about seabirds from Hill Head, but as ever it turned into disappointment. However, reports from slightly further afield were more enticing, so Dave Wallace and I spent the afternoon of 6th at Hengistbury Head in Dorset. Our target: European storm petrel. Initially, we tried viewing from Mudeford Quay but by the time we arrived the birds were distant and we were never 100% sure whether we’d seem them. Thankfully another birder informed us that the views were reportedly better from Hengistbury, so it was worth a try. The views from Hengistbury were indeed better – superb! 5 or more storm petrels not that far offshore, provided us with excellent scope views as they lingered.    

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One of at least five Storm Petrels off Hengistbury Head, 6th June 2017

A text on 7th informed us that Andy Johnson had found an elegant tern at Sandy Point, Hayling Island; a colour ringed individual from France. Dave Ryves and I dashed down, but alas the bird departed before we, or indeed many others, were able to arrive. It teased us again with a brief appearance on the evening of 9th, but flew east and wasn’t relocated. While many birders were out the following morning (10th) searching Hayling Island and Sussex for the tern, I’d decided to start on patch, partly to sort through the moth trap we’d run the night before. While there a lovely summer plumage ruff dropped into the harbour and proceeded to display to the turnstones, and a stunning summer plumage cattle egret was present on the reserve. Satisfactory morning had, I was just heading back for lunch when a text came through “Elegant Tern at Church Norton…now” – ahh!

A few quick phone calls later, Dave and Sandie Wallace and I were on route hoping this time the bird would linger, although aware that by now, the bird hadn’t been seen (again) in some time. Thankfully by the time we arrived, the bird had been refound, occasionally showing on Tern Island – yay! It appeared just as we arrived, before flying west out of the harbour. While many successful Hampshire birders decided it was time to head to Hayling, we stayed put hoping for better views should it return. It paid off when an hour later the words “it’s on the spit!” were shouted, and there it was – the elegant tern showing well! My 300th bird in Britain.

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Elegant Tern “bird C”, Church Norton, 10th June 2017

Another day, another twitch, or so it seemed, but in many ways it makes sense to make the most of close by rarities. This time, a red-footed falcon just over the border at Frensham Common, Surrey on 11th. The bird hadn’t been seen in a while when Dave and I arrived, but it soon reappeared and showed well, perching on near by trees. It’s a species I’d always wanted to see so was chuffed when one turned up locally, even if it was a mile or two outside of Hampshire.

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Red-footed Falcon (1s male), Frensham Common, 11th June 2017

Back on patch for a brief visit on 12th, I began by checking the scrapes where a sand martin had joined with the swifts hunting insects over the water. I suppose it could well be a returning bird, the first of many as ‘autumn’ migration is only just round the corner. two tufted ducks on the river were another slightly unusual sighting for mid June here. After a quick wander up the east side, I began to head back along the boardwalk ready for lunch when a song caught my ear. Wow! I couldn’t quite believe my ears – Marsh warbler and what an impressive songster indeed! It was helpful that Andy Johnson, among others, was able to come over and confirm my suspicions. The bird was very elusive with only fleeting glimpses obtained, but so lovely to listen to, and another lifer for me!

A few other noteworthy sightings from short trips to patch include returning teal and redshank, appearances of common and green sandpipers, a couple of eider and varying size flocks of common scoter offshore. Avocets have been successful again this year, and hopefully the common terns will too. Away from birds, I’ve tried to take more note of other organisms, including the longhorn beetles where Richard Carpenter and I noted 3 species along one small stretch of the canal path: golden-bloomed grey, fairy-ringed and tawny; the latter, a red data book species. I haven’t spent nearly as much time on patch this year, for various reasons, but try to make the most of it when I am there.

Finally, I thought it was worth finishing with some moths again. Putting much more effort into moth trapping this year, and it is yielding results, both at home and on patch. Patch is of course allowing me to get to grips with some of the specialist wetland species, while the garden trap is still proving interesting, and I’ve been amazed to catch 214 species in 4 months in the garden alone! Highlights of late from the garden include Small Marbled, Anasia innoxlla, Evergestis limbata and Lozotaeniodes formosana, while on patch, my overall highlight so far has been Stathmopoda pedella. 

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Stathmopoda pedella, Titchfield Haven, 19th June 2017

So maybe June is quiet compared with the likes of spring and autumn, but this June (and indeed previous ones) turned out to be pretty good I’d say. And of course, June in amongst a seabird colony – the scrapes on patch being one – is far from quiet! 😉

 

 

 

May 2017

Seawatching. One question we are often asked by passers by who can’t help but notice the line of scopes – “Are you watching ships, or birds?” and often the reply is simply something like “well, if there were any birds….”, but it’s been a crazy few weeks here at Hill Head, starting with the bank holiday weekend, especially if you timed it well:

Andy Collins had a red-footed falcon come in off the sea at Brownwich on 6th, while Alan Butler and Dan Houghton had a harrier species (either Pallid or Montague’s) do exactly the same the following morning. A Hen Harrier was observed  heading north over the reserve by Russell Toft on 4th and 14th, and 10 pomarine skuas passed through too – 4 on 3rd, and a further 4 on 6th, where both times the birds landed on the sea before continuing their journey, while another 2 passed through on 10th. It is possible on 6th that a large group of Manx shearwaters flew past too that evening, when a flock decided to investigate the Solent.

Unfortunately, I missed all this for various reasons, partly because I decided to try and give patch a rest for a bit… You have to be in it to win it, as they say. However, I did manage to catch up with a red-rumped swallow found by Barry Duffin on 3rd. It was first seen over the Frying Pan, while I was, perhaps foolishly, in Southampton, watching the news unfold via text messages. At one point the hirundines dispersed and it was lost, but thankfully it was refound and despite a slow journey back by bus, I enjoyed watching it feeding over Posbrook Flood. A lovely, long awaited lifer for me, and the bird remained around the Floods for a couple of hours allowing a number of local birders to see it.

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Red-rumped Swallow, Posbrook Floods, 3rd May 2017

A couple of fleeting trips to Portland were enjoyed during the first week of May, starting with an eastern subalpine warbler twitch with Dave Wallace, that was very successful, especially as we had the added bonus of a singing dusky warbler found close by! My second trip included an overnight stay, ironically hoping for Poms and shearwaters…both of which I could’ve seen from patch, but never mind. I did get my targets – a distant pomarine skua early on 7th, followed by 5 Manx shearwaters. Other highlights included an arctic skua, spotted flycatcher, 2 redstarts, 2 puffins, a couple of yellow wagtails, great northern diver, many wheatear and what must’ve been thousands of swallows steaming in. Sadly, the spectacled warbler turned up the next evening (8th), and I made the fatal mistake of agreeing to wait until the morning – it was never seen again.

Another day where plans were to be mostly off patch (compiling a large amount of data) were temporarily paused after catching a tweet from Rob Sawyer stating “skua just going past cut bridge pale with exceptionally long tail“. Having not had much luck with the scarcer skuas this month, I decided to dash down to Hill Head and hope it did the nice thing of passing by, whatever it was. There I bumped into Dave Ryves, Richard Levett, Tony Heath and Ivor McPherson so mentioned the tweet, and then we waited… We’d begun to assume this mysterious skua had gone over the Isle of Wight, and that maybe it was just an arctic skua as you can get birds with long tails, until Dave picked it up. I couldn’t quite believe it – long-tailed skua! Rare bird for Hampshire and another lifer for me, the last one off Hill Head was 10 years ago. It was subsequently tracked along the coast, allowing others to connect with it – happy days.  Some pictures are on the Selsey Peninsular blog.

The 12th felt like another potentially promising day when tweets about 9 pomarine skuas heading east appearing from Seaton, Devon, at around 0630 – cheers Steve Waite! By around 0800 they had reached Portland Bill, and having received a text from Dave R about 3 pomarine skuas passing through the Narrows, it was time to head down. In theory, it takes about 20 minutes for a skua travelling at constant speed to get from Hurst (the Narrows) to Hill Head, so in theory one can reach the seafront before the birds if traffic is good! These 3 skuas never did appear, but as we can only really see half the Solent from Hill Head, it is hit and miss. At 0940 we received a second text from Dave R informing us that the 9 pomarine skuas had reached the Narrows, and were joined by another 4. We waited… 4 gannets east… and then, “Poms!” They appeared – well, 8 of them did, and not quite as close as in 2016, but it was lovely to see 8 fully spooned pomarine skuas passing through! Skuas are cool, and it’s been brilliant to see so many!!

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Poms!! 12th May 2017, Hill Head

A few other noteworthy sightings from patch include a lovely adult little stint that was present on the scrapes on 8th and 9th. It’s not often we get summer plumage birds! The little gull (assuming it’s the same individual) continued to linger in the area after first being seen on 22nd December 2016, and was later joined by 2 others. 2 greenshank had been hanging around with a small flock of black-tailed godwits on Posbrook Flood but disappeared after the much needed rain, and more passage waders occasionally dropped by including sanderling, ringed plover and a common sandpiper.

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One of three 2cy Little Gulls at Titchfield Haven this spring

I enjoyed a couple of trips to Botley Wood, mostly with Richard Carpenter, where the main highlight was my first Hampshire nightingale! It’s a beautiful song, not something I’d heard before, and during the first attempt, we even caught a glimpse of two birds chasing each other. Accompanying the nightingales were many a garden warbler and song thrushes, plus willow warblers, blackcaps and whitethroat, among others. It wasn’t just birds that were enjoyed – Richard pointed out many a plant and insect too, including common spotted orchid, emperor dragonfly and grizzled skipper. It’ll take time to become a more rounded naturalist, but something I’m working on, although birds will always be my favourite taxon.

Finally, I thought it was worth finishing with some moths. I’ve so far made more of a concerted effort to regularly trap at home this year and at the time of writing, have run the trap 21 times and recorded 70 species in total. I also attended an evening at Titchfield Haven with the Fareham Moth Group on 27th, where we ran 6 MV bulbs over sheets for 4 or so hours on the west side of the reserve. Tiring as it was, it was also fascinating and exciting to see the huge variety of species present, including some rarer species adapted to living along riversides or in reed beds or marshy areas. A small selection of the moths pictured below – over 60 species were recorded, including some nationally scarce (Nb) moths.

April 2017

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.  

Black-winged Stilt, 1st April, Posbrook

Black-winged Stilt, Posbrook Floods, 1st April 2017

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!

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Large Tortoiseshell, North Stoke, 5th April 2017

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.

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A pair of Garganey, Titchfield Haven, 13th April 2017

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.

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The lovely bluebells in Ivy Wood

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.

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4 of the 15 Artic Skuas that passed Hill Head, 30th April 2017

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!

Hampshire’s February and March highlights

Returning to Titchfield Haven bright and early to a much calmer, although still somewhat breezy coastline (having survived Storm Doris), I set about the important task to catching up with some patch year ticks. Standing at the western end of the chalets, it was just possible to pick out the distant flock of ducks on the sea: the 2 male scaup  easy to pick out, with the smaller white blob of long-tailed duck, and helpfully a velvet scoter flapped its wings – another year tick! They have since come much closer which is lovely. The reserve was closed when I arrived, but standing up on the balcony above the visitor centre one can peer into South Scrape where the first of the returning avocet were hanging out.

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The 6 Scaup during one of their wanders close to shore

I’d agreed to meet Dave Wallace at Bridge Street later that morning for a wander and hope of overseeing the organised snipe count that takes place each winter. It was a good choice, and also nice to catch up with a number of local birders. As well as the many common snipe that were flushed up as the volunteers walked through each meadow, the first big surprise was a woodcock – the first I’ve had at Titchfield Haven. A couple of water pipits too were seen well and heard, and eventually our target species for the day – jack snipe was also seen and recorded during the count, another patch tick for me. A good morning! February ended with good views of 3 spoonbill on the meadow, while March began with another woodcock – a nice surprise when heading over to the Meadow Hide on 1st – and, at long last, my first green woodpecker of the year.

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Spoonbills on the meadow at Titchfield Haven, 28th February 2017

Patch aside, some time has been allocated for exploring other parts of the county. Blashford Lakes was my first stop on 1st March, where highlights included goldeneye, water pipit, 3 brambling, many siskin and good views of a roosting tawny owl; my 5th owl species this month! Following on from this, I stopped off at Harbridge to admire the 1st winter white-fronted goose that’s associating with greylag and Egyptian geese.

My next port of call was Southsea seafront on 2nd for the overwintering purple sandpipers that are always a joy to watch. It took a while to locate them, but eventually three landed on rocks in front of me and set about feeding while dodging the waves. I’d told myself that the unfavourable winds (strong westerlies) would make patch unpleasant with few birds, so a good day to go elsewhere. Nine texts and a couple of missed calls told me otherwise, so off I went to investigate…

Graham Barrett, Tony Heath and others had picked up a crane fly over the reserve, circle the scrapes and then land by the Frying Pan. Despite being flushed a couple of times by both the marsh harrier and buzzard, the crane hung about on the meadow, much to the bemusement of the local Canada geese, and provided us with good but fairly distant views, including a lovely fly past, calling as it did so (it did then circle back round and land). The bird certainly caused some excitement, and quite right too as there hasn’t been a crane at the Haven since the ’80s, nor are they easy birds to get in Hampshire. Alas, it seems this bird was released as part of the Somerset reintroduction project, so probably isn’t ‘tickable’ but it was impressive to see. While all this was going on, the bittern which has been lurking somewhere in the reedbed on the reserve all winter decided to embrace us with its brief presence, before dropping back down into the reeds. Thanks to Dave Ryves for picking it up – I’d not seem one here since December 2013 so a very nice year tick! And to finish the day off nicely, Dave W and I headed over to Alresford where Pinglestone Watercress Beds yielded a long staying cattle egret and 2 green sandpipers, while 2 ringtail hen harriers came into roost at Alresford Pond – a county tick for me.  

Crane, Titchfield Haven, 2nd March 2017

Crane chillin’ by the Frying Pan, 2nd March 2017

Farlington Marshes is another reserve I like to visit every now and then, with the main downside being the A27 which runs through the middle of it. You can walk a nice circular route around the reserve, starting by the Lake hosting large numbers of roosting wildfowl and waders including a spotted redshank and 2 greenshank. The marsh was teaming with birds, mostly brent geese and wigeon, and offshore were plenty of red-breasted mergansers that seem much scarcer back at Hill Head. The Deeps had more roosting waders, this time mostly dunlin and grey plover with a single knot and bar-tailed godwit hiding amongst them. Good numbers of common gulls also. A short-eared owl surfaced briefly which was lovely, although the wind probably didn’t help. Other highlights for me include a kingfisher sat on the sea wall, peregrine, and a leucistic pintail.  

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Kingfisher sat on the seawall at Farlington Marshes, 4th March 2017

Dave W and I continued to check the canal path, and were rewarded with 2 water pipits on 9th, along with year ticks of skylark and treecreeper for me. A later visit on 12th yielded a group of 20 fieldfare; not quite the migrants we were hoping for, but nice nonetheless. The weather was frustrating, particular 10th-12th, where what had been looking like a promising forecast turned out to be fog for the best part of 2 1/2 days, oh joy. When it did eventually clear, we had good views of the 6 scaup and a 2cy yellow-legged gull at low tide, and the next morning (13th) continued in good fortune with 2 raven – my first of the year, and 2 long-tailed ducks, followed by a flyby peregrine on 15th. Added to that, the little owl along Workman’s Lane in Warsash reappeared and showed well for at least 40 minuets late afternoon on 10th – a county tick, thanks to Dave for alerting me to its renewed presence.

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Treecreeper along the Titchfield canal path

Another week went by, and still no sand martins (or indeed any spring migrants besides chiffchaffs) for us. However, that’s not to say visits to patch were dull. It’s always great to watch the increasing avocet numbers and Med. gulls – the gulls’ numbers peak in spring and even more so autumn before (or after) heading to breeding grounds. Added to that, the occasional yellow-legged gull appeared on the beach, not a year tick for me, but always nice to see – including a 2cy on 12th, and an adult on 24th. On the warmer, sunnier days, Dave W and I were hopeful of a raptor or two. 17th proved to be a good morning with a check of Posbrook Floods yielding a peregrine soaring high above us with a couple of buzzards. Not long after, we picked up another raptor drifting up the valley that looked interesting, and indeed it was. A red kite, possibly in off the sea, soon began circling above Bridge Street Floods before continuing to drift northwards. Although far from rare with several each year, they’re one of these right time, right place species so we were chuffed to catch up with one!

And at last a sign that things were happening… Blackcaps singing upon my return from a few days away, a rock pipit overhead on the seafront, and 2 sandwich terns flying east on 28th. 29th yielded more with first sand martins during a showery wander along the canal path with Dave W and Alan Butler, followed by the reappearance of the barn owl! The month ended with a March willow warbler, a definite sign of spring for me and lovely to hear. As the month draws to a close, my patch year list is up to 109 – quite a bit below last year, probably down to less time spent in the area, and the area being generally less well covered.

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Return of the Barn Owl

From Minsmere to Portland

17th-22nd March

I was invited to attend the British Birds’ strategy weekend, alongside Nina O’Hanlon, Lizzie Bruce, and Drew Lyness, as a panel of young birders to chat to the Directors and Trustees about the journal from our perspective. It was an interesting discussion, a good opportunity to network and meet top birders, and of course do some birding at a lovely reserve on the east coast – Minsmere.

We arrived late afternoon on Friday (17th) where the first stop was the north hide to look out onto the scrapes and scan the gull roost. Like Titchfield Haven, there were plenty of Mediterranean gulls (although not quite on the same scale as the south coast!), good numbers of common and black-headed gulls, and many larger gulls to search through. The larger gulls seemed to mostly consist of great black-backed, lesser black-backed and herring gulls, although it wasn’t long before Adam Rowlands picked out a 2cy Caspian gulls, later followed by a second individual. They’re an interesting species, one I long for on patch so it was great to enjoy it and compare the key features of all the gulls. Feeling satisfied and with light fading, we retired to the local pub for food and a good chat.

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One of two Caspian Gulls at Minsmere, 17th March 2017

The following morning (18th) we awoke to a dawn chorus of a different kind, with the added extra of red-legged partridges outside the lodges we were staying in – the Warren Lodges were lovely and cosy, so I’d definitely recommend it for anyone who fancied staying near Minsmere. This was the day of our discussion, so very little birding was done. Perhaps, given the weather, this was a blessing in disguise as it was certainly rather wet and windy!

Sunday (19th) dawned, and it was still rather windy, but thankfully dry, so the day began with a short trip to look for Dartford warblers close to the reserve – a brief glimpse of a male and female just as we were giving up, yay. Although we had no luck with any hoped for woodlark, it was  good to hear many singing chiffchaffs, plus a couple of siskin and redpoll too. While the Directors and Trustees had their board meeting, Lizzie, Nina, Drew and I met up with Dawn Balmer for a morning’s birding around the reserve. It was great to properly explore Minsmere, and also to see 2 garganey and a sand martin – spring at last! Alas I missed the house martin. Added to that, we managed to relocate the 2 smew and enjoyed a flyover bittern and marsh harriers.

The following morning (20th) I headed down to Dorset – destination Portland Bird Observatory for a short stay. It’s still rather early in the year so I wasn’t expecting much, but it has been far too long since my last visit. There were a sprinkling of new arrivals here too. My first 8 wheatear of the year at last in the strong, rather unpleasant westerlies; always something exciting about seeing migration in action.

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One of several Wheatear at Portland Bill

One target I had in mind was an overwintering Hume’s warbler at Thumb Lane that was proving to be rather elusive based on reports. It was certainly elusive during my five attempts, with about 5 minutes worth of views out of all the hours looking! An area worth exploring though, with plenty of scrub, two chiffchaffs and a singing blackcap; my first of the year. The first attempt wasn’t helped by the weather, but as the sun made an appearance late afternoon, I decided to give it another go. Three wheatear had arrived since the morning, and after a good look it was seeming as if I would draw another blank… Thankfully not, the sudden ‘dsu-weet‘ gave it away, and looking up, there it was, all for about 30 seconds before it disappeared! I returned a couple of times on 21st, hoping for better views, and it did show slightly better early afternoon. The calls helped once again to track down the bird as it flitted around in the trees and bushes – too quick for a photo.

Back at Portland Bill, sea watching yeilded small numbers of gannets, guillemot, razorbills, fulmar, shag and red-throated divers. Not exciting but more than I’ve had so far off Hill Head this year so good practise for when birds actually pass through the Solent. Wanders around the immediate area yielded more newly arrived wheatear and chiffchaffs, but little else asides from rock pipitsRock pipits only visit Hill Head occasionally, so I did find it interesting observing them, particularly as there seemed to be more than one subspecies present, and varying plumages.

A wet start to 22nd began with seawatching from the shelter of the Obs. Many kittiwakes were passing through, along with smaller numbers of common scoter, fulmar and auks. Once the weather cleared up, it was time for a final wander along the Bill before heading off. More wheatear had arrived, and 2 black redstarts around the rocks and light house. They were one of the species I’d been hoping to see, so was pleased they’d (re)appeared after a no show the other days.

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One of two Black Redstarts at Portland Bill, 22nd March 2017

I’d been meaning to revisit the RSPB’s Lytchett’s Fields for some time, and as it was only a slight detour, popped in with the hope of seeing the green-winged teal. When I arrived on site, I bumped into Ian Ballam who assured me the bird was still present at the back pool so I hurried over for a look. The viewing conditions weren’t brilliant as you’re looking into the sun and there’s various dips and mounds obscuring sections of the pool. The nepe tides at the moment weren’t helping either as it meant more of the field was uncovered, so more dips for the birds to hide in. Eventually the green-winged teal did reappear in the open, feeding among a small group of Eurasian teal for good comparison – yay, another lifer!