Good start to the year…

The new year began at Hill Head, bright and early, with Ken Martin as we started our new lists. Snow bunting, long-tailed duck, decent flock of eider and a few common scoter, the highlights, with the rest of the day spent enjoying the commoner species, including a couple of chiffchaffs. The days that followed, too, were mostly spent on patch trying to clock up a few more species. One key species I was hoping for was water pipit; something I’d seen reported regularly, so decided to target what seemed like their favoured areas, and had also been given suggestions for other species to target. Posbrook seemed to be the main area to focus on. For those who don’t know, it’s around the first bridge you reach after heading south from the Bridge Street car park. Posbrook Floods is the (usually) flooded area to the left of the bridge – that’s where the reserve boundary begins – and over the bridge on the right is a pony field.

The pony field seemed rather productive, with many redwing, song thrush and a mistle thrush, alongside 46 black-tailed godwits, 6 curlew and more, but to begin with, no pipits. For most of the week, this seemed to be a recurring theme, other than the occasional flyover meadow pipit, and Posbrook Flood yielded none too. The Floods are, however, the best place for pintail on patch. Thankfully, one final trip on Saturday 7th was pleasantly successful. It was a warmer day (maybe that helped; I suppose lots of ice on the cold days didn’t), and numerous pipits were feeding in the pony field, including one lovely water pipit! There have been as many as 6 seen along the canal path itself this winter but I could only manage one. Still, only my 2nd (my first was at Farlington Marshes in 2014) and great views. Typically, it disappeared before Mark Rolfe and Ken arrived, and a good search to relocate it, or others, seemed to fail. One final trip? Ah well, that’s because it was time to pause birding at Titchfield Haven (unusually for me) and head north… So, patch year list up to 86, with water pipit being the first full patch tick of the year.

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Water Pipit, Posbrook, 7th January 2017 – finally!

A new venture began on 8th, which was mostly spend in the car travelling to up Lincolnshire. Arriving at Frampton late afternoon, there was just enough time to visit the reserve and watch the starling and pink-footed geese come into roost. I didn’t really have much time to explore, but was impressed by the shear number of birds. Must’ve been thousands of wigeon by the car park alone, and thousands of waders on the scrapes!

Why am I in Lincolnshire, neglecting my beloved patch? Well, the RSPB offer residential volunteering opportunities, and as Frampton Marsh was one place I’d always wanted to visit, it was too good an opportunity to turn down. I also wanted to escape for a bit. This is where I’m based for the time being, and it’s lovely: tree sparrows in the garden, living on a farm, nature reserve on the doorstep (almost), oh and a lovely waxwing from the office on 9th! A real contrast to the suburbs of Fareham. It’s really interesting to see how areas differ, sad on one sense (as some of the differences are due to local extinction, declines etc) but also exciting to explore the new area. During the week I didn’t get much chance to explore the reserve(s) as we were busy carrying out various tasks (mostly fence repairs and path maintenance at this time of year), although birding was squeezed in throughout the day. The work is split between Frampton Marsh and Freiston Shore, a smaller site near by.

I’d chosen to stay local for my first weekend in Lincolnshire, so began 14th bright and early at Marsh Farm Reservoir, the south west corner of the reserve. This was where the waxwing had been on 9th and 10th, with other highlight during early morning sessions including goldeneye and turnstone. I decided to walk the southern edge of the reserve boundary as it was the section I’d not visited yet, and was well worth it for the small number of yellowhammers, a merlin and good views of a marsh harrier over the salt marsh of the Wash. Another highlight was an avocet feeding on the North Scrape. One thing I’d been impressed with since arriving was the sheer number of birds – thousands of wildfowl and waders, far more than I’m using to seeing at Titchfield Haven, and great to see.

While birding, I bumped into Ryan Clark, a fellow AFON member and we decided to take a break from Frampton to head over to Kirkby on Bain where a ring-necked duck had been reported during the week. The bird was still present on one of the gravel pits, though often difficult to see but a helpful local birder pointed it out to us, and after a while it briefly woke up and drifted further out into the pit, providing us with much better views. There was also a lovely male scaup, a species I don’t see often – an added bonus! Returning to Frampton after a late lunch, we made it back in time to see the starling murmuration and the whooper swans coming to roost. It was also nice to see a small flock of pink-footed geese.

The following morning (15th) began with the Wetland Birds Survey. I joined Toby Collett which gave me a chance to explore another section of Frampton – the 3km stretch of the Haven, leading to Tabbs Head and the Wash. The rain wasn’t particularly pleasant (and I discovered my waterproofs need reproofing!) but it was a good session, with 2 Bewick’s  and 70 Whooper Swans, 4 short-eared owls appearing over the saltmarsh, jack snipe, water rail, 2 spotted redshank and red-breasted merganser on the sea. Pre-work sessions have been pleasant too, with 9 yellowhammers and little owl on 17th and 8 white-fronted geese on 18th.

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White-fronted Geese, Freiston Shore, 18th January 2017

21st dawned and it was time for a twitch, this time Derbyshire bound. The dusky thrush had been present at Beeley for well over a month, but Simon Wilson, Simon Knight and I hadn’t made it over there yet. On arrival we were told the bird hadn’t been seen, but we had come to it’s usual spot so decided to start there while other birders went to look elsewhere. This turned out to be a good move when Simon K set up his scope and within seconds found he was looking at the dusky thrush, feeding on the ground; the first lifer of the year! Distant views, but good enough with a scope.

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Dusky Thrush, Beeley, 21st January 2017

With a couple hours of daylight remaining I headed back over to Frampton Marsh to enjoy 6 marsh harriers over the saltmarsh, merlin, peregrine, a good starling murmuration, the whooper swans coming to roost, and my highlight – a hen harrier quartering over the reedbed! It was the first hen harrier I’d seen for two years, having not managed to connect with any in Hampshire. It wasn’t long before I saw another, this time at Freiston Shore on 23rd, while carrying out surveys with Simon K. We surveyed the area of managed realignment, and the arable fields, recording anything we saw while walking through them. Highlights included great views of a hen harrier, short-eared owl, jack snipe and plenty of tree sparrows.

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Spot the Hen Harrier, causing mayhem over Freiston!

A white-billed diver had turned up on the river Witham near Woodhall Spa on 20th, coincidently in exactly the same stretch of river as another individual back in the ’90s, but with my weekend filled with out of county twitching – first that dusky thrush, and then dipping the Yorkshire pine bunting the following afternoon – I didn’t have a chance to go. We ran out of time again on Monday, but thankfully Tuesday (24th) all went according to plan, and so I had a chance to enjoy the diver after a long walk along by the river to relocate it that afternoon. It was fantastic, and I’m not convinced I’ll ever get as good or better views of any diver species any time soon!

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White-billed Diver, Stixwould, 24th January 2017

I’d been in contact with Dave Wallace while up at Frampton, particularly as the temptation for a weekend at home grew. Birds to see (oh, and family and friends!). Dave mentioned the possibility of a twitch, allowing me another chance to try for a pine bunting, and with a few other things to do as well, I headed back. My first port of call once home was Hill Head  for 6 scaup that had been offshore for the best part of a week. Arriving before dawn on 27th, I was treated to rather distant views from the Meonshore chalets – still good enough for a much desired patch tick! Other than a brief appearance in November 2016 (which I missed), it’s been many years since scaup had been reported at the Haven. 

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Scaup, Hill Head, 27th January 2017

It was then time to meet up with Alan Butler and Dave, and head off to Kent for round 2 (for me) of the pine bunting. Finding the location proved challenging, but thanks to Google maps we were soon stood on the seawall with a number of other birders. Not long after arriving, the bird briefly perched up on a hawthorn bush, but didn’t stay long enough for everyone to see it or get ‘tickable’ views. Feeling unsatisfied, and hoping for more views, we agreed to make the most of the afternoon and stay put which paid off. About an hour later, another birder noticed the bunting was frequenting a different tree by a hedgerow, showing on and off regularly for a good half hour or so (we did have better views than my poor photo too!).

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Pine Bunting, Milton Creek, 27th January 2017 – we did get better views too!

It felt a bit like Deja vu the next morning (28th), as Ken and I headed off to attempt to twitch another bunting, this time a little bunting on Portsdown Hill. A very rare bird in Hampshire, where I believe the last ‘twitchable’ bird was in 1992. As expected, it wasn’t easy, but we did get brief views (a couple of seconds!) when it occasionally perched in a bush with reed buntings. It was also nice to enjoy the yellowhammers, a bird I don’t see often in the county. The afternoon was spent in Basingstoke as news of waxwings had broken while in Kent yesterday, and thankfully they’d hung around. On arrival, I was told the bird had flown a few minutes earlier, but was promised they’d return, which they did – and very nice too. 4 lovely waxwing as the light started to fade! My first in Hampshire, and having only previously seen 2, it was great to spend time watching the small group.

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One of four Waxwings in Basingstoke, 28th January 2017

Before returning to Frampton, I headed to Hill Head for dawn and enjoyed 6 scaup, long-tailed duck and 30 eider on the sea, and paid a visit to the long staying snow bunting that was still hanging about the harbour spit – impressive species tally! A quick scan of Rainbow Bar yielded a good mix of waders including bar-tailed godwit, greenshank, grey plover, ringed plover, dunlinsanderling and 4 curlew. It’s hard to stay away from a site that’s brought much happiness over the years. 

 

Early April joys!

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

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

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

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

Glaucous Gull

When I say my pictures might improve…. umm…

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

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

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Stone-curlew, Titchfield Haven, 5th April 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

Great White Egret, 11th April 2016

Great White Egret on the meadow, 11th April 2016

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

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

November highlights

I published my October post a few days early thinking I’d not manage any more birding. As it turned out, I did manage a bit more – an hour sea watching with Dan Houghton at Hill Head on 28th. The sea had seemed rather empty last month, but we enjoyed good views of a pair of eider as they drifted slowly east.

Eider, Hill Head, 28th October 2015

Eider, Hill Head, 28th October 2015

Fog. I think that sums Sunday (1st) up. Dan, Alan Butler and I had decided to try the sea front in the morning hoping the fog wouldn’t be too bad. It’s safe to say we abandoned plans rather promptly with visibility extremely poor. The afternoon was better as the fog had cleared, and resulted in good views of two marsh harriers over the meadow and 13 sanderling roosting on the beach.

Fog at Hillhead, 1st November 2015

Sea? What sea?

Little birding has been done during the week as most of my time is taken up with uni, although a session on 2nd in somewhat foggy conditions yielded 4 swallows, a chaffinch and a number of lesser redpolls and siskin. While attempts to catch up with a Dartford warbler on patch ended in misery (yet again), I did have my first pochard on the winter in the harbour on 4th.

Sunday (8th) brought news of black redstart – 4 in fact, one of which was on patch down at Hill Head. After a failed attempt mid-morning, I returned with Dan and Alan for round 2. Despite my growing pessimism (having missed about 5 locally this year) we did eventually see the bird, proving that sometimes persistence and effort really does pay off.

Black Redstart, Hill Head, 9th November 2015

Black Redstart, Hill Head, 8th November 2015

While others around the country have been reporting all sorts of species during their sea watches, it’s safe to say Hill Head has been rather quiet. In between the days of staring at an empty (quite literally) sea, 19 eider and a Slavonian grebe on 15th, a great northern diver on 21st, a common scoter on 24th, a kittiwake on 28th and merlin on 29th were welcomed highlights.

The small moments of weekend fortune continued on 16th with Dan finding a Siberian chiffchaff at the top end of the canal path in the morning. (It, or another, was also present on 28th and was great to compare with the accompanying common chiffchaff).

That afternoon, Alan and I joined him for another walk along the canal path. This time it was a dusk visit, with the slight hope of seeing owls; one of those “it’s got to be worth a try” sessions. It paid off too. While waiting for it to get dark half way along the canal path, a short-eared owl appeared over the meadow! It was brief – watch for all of 5 minute before it headed south, but a great end to the weekend.

The next highlights came on 25th with a trip to see the ring-necked ducks at Rooksbury Mill LNR in Andover. The two birds were showing very well, especially once they woke up and became more lively. Whilst there, Dan and Alan informed me of their earlier sea watch – auks and a number of eider. That’ll teach me not to lie in!

The birding session finished with a trip to the canal path in an attempt to see the reported little owl, back in what I’m told was its favoured spot. Despite looking, there was no sign. All was not lost though, as a final check of the tree before giving up led to us finding a tawny owl – even better!

The month ended with a short trip to Blashford Lakes on 30th to see a black-throated diver on Northfield Lake and the returning ferruginous duck on Kingfisher Lake. Despite difficult viewing conditions, both showed well.