Early autumn

Last year, September began with an evening trip to see a local wryneck and good company, which got me thinking about many things. Sadly, not to be repeated. This year, the bird at Farlington Marshes disappeared before I was able to connect with it on 2nd, and birds at Calshot and Gilkicker Point both disappeared soon after being found. It wasn’t a bad hour at Farlington though, with plenty of waders including a greenshank, 2 curlew sandpipers, numerous knot, 2 ruff and some stunning summer plumage grey plover. Meanwhile, the little stint have lingered on patch, along with the long staying green and common sandpipers, 2 ruff and a greenshank.

You never really know what will turn up each day, which I guess is one good reason for attempting to maintain the motivation and continually check patch. Ivor McPherson and I were by the harbour on 4th, when he noticed the waders up in the air though they landed soon after. What did it? We soon noticed the culprit, heading vaguely towards us (east) and wow!

A honey-buzzard, gradually gaining height, headed over our heads towards the sailing club before flying out into the Solent and heading south-west.  Given the blustery conditions and its unusual behaviour, it was bizarre to see, but as Andy Collins, Dan Houghton and Alan Butler also saw it (them & Ivor are all far better birders than myself), plus the excellent views, there was no doubt as to it’s identification. Only the 3rd one I’ve ever seen, with 2 now over patch. As is often the case, despite the fact we all had cameras, not one of us managed photo. We chose to watch the bird instead!

Away from patch, news of a grey phalarope at Blashford Lakes caught my attention. It turned up one evening, just as the hides were being closed, but stayed for a few days. The car was free on 7th so a trip down to see it was in order. Unlike my 1st grey phalarope (at Pagham Harbour last year) this bird was extremely distant, and probably what you’d call unsatisfactory views. Nevertheless, I’ve finally seen one in Hampshire, honest!

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Grey Phalarope, Ibsley Water, 7th September 2016

Back on patch, much time has been spent scanning the scrapes in the morning, in the hope something new had arrived. Curlew sandpipers have been a key target of mine but I was starting to wonder whether they’d ever turn up. I remember last year, the only curlew sandpiper was present for a short while in spring (though a lovely summer plumage adult, mind!), and we missed out in the autumn. All was not lost, as upon entering Pumfrett hide on 8th, there was not 1 but 7 feeding close to the hide – yay! Another highlight that day was 2 yellow-legged gulls hunkered down on the beach during a rather blustery survey.

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5 of the 7 Curlew Sandpipers at Titchfield Haven, 8th September 2016

The next highlight almost slipped under the radar. The little stint had disappeared for a few days, but one and then a second reappeared on 9th and 10th respectively. Or so we thought… The weather, and light, was terrible on 9th and 10th which didn’t help, but both birds were thankfully photographed as one turned out on closer inspection to be a semipalmated sandpiper. A first for the reserve, and great views were had in the improved weather conditions on 11th! Thanks to Alan Lewis for double checking the photos and re-ID’ing the bird.

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Semipalmated Sandpiper, Titchfield Haven, 11th September 2016

I’ve said many times that it pays to be in the right place at the right time, and I think part of the skill of birding is developing that fine art (and just being lucky?!). 15th was one of those days where I wasn’t in the right place – only by 300m, but that made all the difference. Ironically, the “right place” was the car park space I’d chosen to centre on every other day for the past few weeks. Thankfully (for him) Dan was in the right place, and picked up a buff-breasted sandpiper circling the scrapes before flying west that evening. Another first for the reserve. Being oblivious at the time, I was rather gripped when I found out! The beach, in comparison, was rather unproductive with very little of note, and hardly any yellow wagtails came to roost.

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Red-throated Diver, Hill Head, 16th September 2016

A call from Brian Goddard on 16th alerted me to the fact that the first diver of the autumn/winter was visible close to Rainbow Bar; a red-throated diver that at times showed ridiculously well. The red-throated diver hung around for a while, ranging between Hill Head and Warsash, and is a little early compared to previous years. Other signs that winter is fast approaching include the 8 dark-bellied brent geese back on 18th, and daily sightings there after, plus wigeon and a flock of pintail providing us with a brief flyby.

Meanwhile, autumn is in full swing. 2 curlew sandpipers returned on 17th and hung around, while a spotted redshank made another brief appearance on the morning of 19th. Passerine movement has been evident, with regular wheatear, redstart, whinchat, stonechat and many a warblers like grasshopper warbler (15th & 21st), garden warbler (17th) and lesser whitethroat (17th). A singing willow warbler in the drizzle on 20th was also pleasant, a reminder of spring, while a firecrest of yet another reminder of impending winter. 

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“Whoa, that’s not a Chiff”: Grasshopper Warbler, Meonshore Chalets area, 21st September 2016 – hopping around with the Chiffchaffs!

Last October a white-rumped sandpiper spent a day at Farlington Marshes, unfortunately at a time I was unable to make, so was rather chuffed when news broke of an individual at Pennington on 19th. Chuffed, followed by miffed as work meant I was unable to go. Fortunately, the bird hung around so Ken Martin and I headed over on 22nd and enjoyed good but brief views as it ran around on the lagoon with a number of dunlin. It made up for dipping an arctic warbler the previous day too!

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White-rumped Sandpiper, Pennington, 2nd September 2016 – honest!

Returning to patch for the last few days, it has mostly been “quiet” with little change each day; something you notice when visiting daily! However, one can’t really complain with 2 curlew sandpipers and a ruff making up the best of the waders, 2 marsh harriers, water rail, and on a number of days a decent mix of warblers too. A water rail was showing very well on 28th, spending a good 5 or more minutes out in the open. This was followed moments later by bearded tits which are always great to see, and superb views of a grasshopper warbler! The bird had been in the reedbed next to the path, I think, as I approached so flew forward and hung around for a few minutes. Great to see so close up! Another highlight, particularly of 28th, was the visible migration overhead. This has mostly consisted of swallows, house martins, meadow pipits, yellow wagtails and the occasional pied/white and grey wagtails and tree pipits.

On a side note, I’ve alluded to work a few times so I suppose I should enlighten you. As many of you probably know, I did some work for the Eastern Solent Coastal Partnership last summer and helped to prepare and launch the ‘Solent Bird Study’. After finishing university I returned as a casual, so have been undertaking a number of surveys (amongst other things). The latest work has involved bi-monthly surveys at Southsea seafront, focusing on the seabirds and shorebirds, and monitoring the disturbance at Hill Head as well as carrying out a watch brief while work to replenish the shingle goes ahead.

Away from birds, September also began with a moth. Not a rare moth, but it is rather lovely I think: Chinese character. I realise I forgot to mention insects in August’s summary. The highlights such as a maple prominent at Pagham Harbour, 2 Jersey tigers (one at Pagham and one on patch) and my first black arches. The moth highlights continued thanks to some good weather and regular trapping by Dave Wallace. He was rewarded with a vestal on the morning of 6th, an immigrant from south east Europe and a few L-album wainscots, also immigrants (though possible resident locally?).  Other highlights were an autumnal rustic, small square-spot and sallow from an event at Blashford Lakes, and a frosted orange at Pulborough Brooks.

And finally… in once sense it was nice to bump into a mole on 19th, having only ever seen one before that Dan and I stumped across last July. Alas, like the first it was (presumed) deceased, but this time not decapitated. Perhaps one day I’ll manage to see a live one, although I suppose that’ll be rather challenging! Still, it was an opportunity to see one up close, and reminded me of good memories (not just memoirs relating to admiring dead moles, I hasten to add!).

So, patch year list is up to 172 (I genuinely didn’t think this was possible!) and three more months left. Will anything else turn up? Hopefully not while I’m away…..

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

August birding (& insect) highlights

A black-necked grebe off Hill Head on 7th was a good start to the weekend but it didn’t continue. A walk along the canal path on Saturday (8th) with Dan Houghton and Alan Butler yielded very little, and asides from the regular species and 5 dunlin, the reserve didn’t have much to offer either!

Black-necked Grebe, Hill Head, 7th August 2015.

Black-necked Grebe, Hill Head, 7th August 2015.

Dan and I returned to Titchfield Haven on Wednesday (12th) to be greeted by no less than 6 green sandpipers, somehow our first for the year here. What’s more, the day continued with 3 little terns in amongst the common terns and 2 black terns picked out by Dan in the Solent later that day. Tern action at last. It started to feel as if the migration was really getting going!

Black Tern, Hill Head, 25th August 2015

Black Tern, Hill Head, 25th August 2015

Saturday (15th) was another relatively quiet day bird wise, although during the ringing session down at Titchfield Haven we did have 107 birds. Almost all of these were reed and sedge warblers, not unexpected for the time of year, with a few willow warblers and whitethroats mixed in. We’ve also been ringing waders down at Farlington Marshes, with 11 dunlin and a common sandpiper ringed on 12th.

Willow Warbler, Titchfield Haven, 31st July 2015

Willow Warbler, Titchfield Haven, 31st July 2015

A garden warbler, our first of the year along the canal path, was rather pleasing on Sunday (16th), and quickly followed by a male redstart in a field close by. Added to this, Dan picked up the call of a flyover tree pipit but we never did locate it. My next patch tick of the day occurred when finally catching up with the regular barnacle geese. Sadly, they’re far from truly wild, migrating between here and Portsmouth…

Waders were about too, with turnstones, ringed plover, a dunlin and two sanderling on the beach. The 3rd year yellow-legged gull is still enjoying its time at Hill Head, briefly joined by an adult on 15th, while the common scoter numbers fluctuated – rising to 32 on 13th and back down to 7 on 16th.

Yellow-legged Gull, Hill Head, 19th August 2015

Yellow-legged Gull, Hill Head, 19th August 2015

There were a few more migrants about on Wednesday (19th), a sign that things are moving through, though it seems most are still on the East coast. A walk along the canal path with Al and Dan yielded a single wheatear and whinchat, as well as a second wheatear down on the beach. Warblers were aplenty with numerous whitethroat, blackcaps and reed warblers. Another personal highlight for me (and patch tick) was a rook, in nearby farmland.

Osprey!” – the highlight of Friday (21st), when I finally caught up with one of the lingering birds. They seem to travel between here and the Isle of Wight, before continuing the journey south. During the short time I was there, a greenshank was the only wader of note, but it was nice to watch 2 kingfishers fishing and bearded tits hopping around in the reed bed.

A little stint started the day off nicely at Hill Head on Saturday (22nd) morning. The mini wader fest continued when Dan and I headed over to Hook-with-Warsash to see the wood sandpiper that had been found moments earlier. That was a lifer for me, so I enjoyed comparing it to the green sandpiper it was associating with. We also had a flock of 30 yellow wagtails.

It sounded like Sunday (23rd) would be rather quiet on patch, but I decided to give it a go anyway. I must admit I was pleasantly surprised with a ruff and knot alongside the regular waders and other passage species. I wasn’t expecting it to get any better, but it did. 5 wood sandpipers dropped into the scrape just as I was about to leave. I wonder what’ll turn up next?

4 of the 5 Wood Sandpipers, Titchfield Haven, 23rd August 2015

4 of the 5 Wood Sandpipers, Titchfield Haven, 23rd August 2015

It seems the answer to that question was a puna teal – an escaped bird no doubt. Not quite what I had in mind, nor was it what I’d hoped when first setting eyes on it! Hill Head, however, yielded at least 9 black terns on 24th (that were then flushed by an osprey) and 7 or more on the morning of 25th, as well as a decent number of gannets, 3 knot and a kittiwake. Consolidation for getting soaked and rather cold.

And now for the insects… The afternoon of 8th was spent with Dan at Whiteley Pastures – part of Botley Wood, on the edge of the business park. It was a pleasant walk and nice to spend some time admiring the insect species as well as spotted flycatchers and a vocal kingfisher. Many were seen and photographed including Tratiomys potamida (a soldier fly),  Eristalis nemorum (a hoverfly) and Phasis hemiptera (a rather large & colourful fly).  A ni moth (Trichoplusia ni) caught in Dan’s garden was another insect highlight for the week.

More were pointed out to me and admired during the numerous trips to patch, some of which are photographed below – Chrysotoxum festivum, long-winged conehead (Conocephalus discolour), a Coelioxys species and Eristalis intricaria.

My personal highlight has to be the ruby-tailed wasp (Chrysis species), a species I’d always wanted to see, that landed in front of us at Titchfield Haven on Sunday (17th).

Ruby-tailed Wasp, Titchfield Haven, 16th August 2015 (Dan Houghton)

Ruby-tailed Wasp, Titchfield Haven, 16th August 2015 (Dan Houghton)

Continuing along the insect theme, I ran the moth trap on Monday night (17th) which resulted in around 40 moths of 23 species. Many were new to me again with some colourful highlights being rosy footman (Miltochrista miniata) and poplar hawkmoth (Laothoe populi). A migrant migrant moth species – rush veneer (Nomophila noctuella), and many more Blastobasis rebeli – what seems to be a rather rare moth that’s now naturalised in Hampshire!

Thanks to Dan Houghton for providing most of the photos!