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!