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. 

 

NGB Winter Wonderland: part 2

The first destination was Breydon Water to search for the Richard’s Pipit. (Well, technically it was McDonald’s where we added pied wagtail to the weekend’s total while some of the team topped up on coffee).

Anyway, we followed Jake’s instructions which led us from the car park, along the Angle Way towards the field it usually hangs around. Looking out at Breydon Water, there were large numbers of waders, particularly golden plover in their thousands. That said, I’m told golden plover numbers are much lower than usual but it was still an impressive sight. The redshank and dunlin were much closer to the path so often flew off calling as we approached although a few stayed put. The tide was coming in so the mud was disappearing as we wandered towards the pipit.

Searching for the pipit, Breydon Water, 8th February 2015

Searching for the pipit, Breydon Water, 8th February 2015

Where was it? Not in the exact location that was described. Someone spotted a pipit in mid-air and most of us managed to get on to it. The pipit was too far away to ID but it did seem large so very likely to be a Richard’s pipit – alas the views are what you’d call “untickable”. We watched it drop down into a field behind a reed bed and then thought about how to try to refined it. All attempts proved unsuccessful so it was time to move on. Walking back along the path, we looked out to Breydon Water again and this time spotted over 100 avocets and a spotted redshank. The latter had eluded us yesterday so it was great to find one today. A brief tip to Asda provided us with a chance to buy more food and check out the gulls in another stretch of Breydon Water. All five common species were present (herring, great-black backed, lesser black-backed, black-headed and common), as well as a turnstone.

Halvergate Marsh was next for a wintering rough-legged buzzard which was found within seconds of setting up scopes. We got fantastic views but it didn’t put on a display like the one I saw in Sussex a few weeks ago. One brief flight was all we got, despite a seemingly grumpy herring gull going for it several times. The buzzard just didn’t seem to care less and was content on the fence post. Close by, on the other side of the road were a group of Bewick’s swan and a flock of fieldfare. Grey heron was another new bird for the trip, lurking in the stream by the buzzard.

Rough-legged buzzard, Halvergate Marsh, 8th February 2015

Rough-legged buzzard, Halvergate Marsh, 8th February 2015

Thorpe Green was very different compared to all the other sites we visited. As the name suggests it was a park in Norwich, next to the river. Because of this (and the fact that they know they can get fed!) there were plenty of gulls. These mostly consisted of black-headed gulls but joining in with the feed (or squabble) were common, herring and a 1st winter Mediterranean gull. I don’t usually get so close to Med gulls so I can see why Jake insisted we visited! The photographers amongst us enjoyed photographing the close up subjects til their hearts were content. And I joined in…

Back to “proper” birding after that with a trip to Santon Down and another search for a great grey shrike. There was some debate as to where the instructions we had were directing us, but the confusion stopped when Sean shouted “Shrike!”. At first, the shrike was difficult to view as there were many branches in the way but it them flew down in front of the reed bed and landed in a much better position. It must’ve known we were watching.

Great grey shrike, Santon Down, 8th February 2015

Great grey shrike, Santon Down, 8th February 2015

Hawfinches were the next target so we arrived at Lynford hoping to see some and weren’t disappointed. They were close to the bird feeders with the other typical woodland birds – nuthatch, marsh tit, bullfinch, brambling, siskin…. and so on. While a few NGBs went off in search of firecrests, the rest of us stayed to admire the birds taking advantage of the feeders. It was also a good opportunity to eat lunch. Before leaving, there was a suggestion of visiting the local goosanders as we’d not seen any yet. 4 keen birders ran off and returned 10 minutes later, successful in their quest. No pochard or tufted duck… still. Also close by was a good place (apparently) for goshawks but our searching was unsuccessful. It was probably too late in the day to see any displaying! We did see a red kite and a grey partridge instead though.

We move on to Suffolk as a waxwing has been reported earlier in the day. When we arrived we recognised some other birders who had been at Lynford also after the waxwing. It hadn’t been seen for a while, but it didn’t take long for us to refind it. The bird was sitting in a tree on a park next to a children’s play area. Good views were had, especially when it landed on some berries even closer to us. Although it was on its own, I was still very pleased to spend a while watching the bird. I missed out the last time they came to Hampshire unfortunately, so seeing one today made my day. Michael added a new dimension to birding by watching it from the children’s zip wire!

Our final destination for the trip was Lakenheath fen, an RSPB reserve on the border between Suffolk and Norfolk. It seemed like a huge reserve and some of the ponds were still frozen – must’ve been cold! We were hoping that, among other species, we’d finally find some pochards and tufted ducks, but despite checking every bit of water we failed. On the plus side, 3 barn owls were flying around the river and the great white egret also flew past multiple times. We heard a water rail that must’ve been hiding in the reed bed. Whooper swans were also on the reserve. From where I was, I couldn’t see any but we heard them whooping. The sun set was particularly impressive in my opinion, don’t you think?

The day ended with thousands of jackdaws congregating to roost in the woodland by the path. It was an impressive sight and sound, though we could only just see as we made our way back to the cars in the dark!

I must say, I intend to do more of these NGB trips as I thoroughly enjoyed this one. It was lovely to meet other young birders, catch up with the ones I’d met before and spend time birding an area of the country I’m not familiar with. By the sounds of it, a northern trip is on the cards as well as at least one more trip to Norfolk so I’d better get saving!

By the end of Sunday, Liam reckoned we’d seen 132 species as a group. Not bad for 20 hours of daylight over 2 days eh? Though I’m amazed we didn’t see any pochard or tufted ducks. Counting up my personal total, I think I saw 117 of these which is still impressive. I’ll admit I didn’t pay as much attention during the sea watching as it’s something I need more practise at… and there were waders on the beach close by! We also split up at one point which added on extra species. I had been looking forward to a trip to the Midlands to see gulls but unfortunately Craig decided to cancel as the target species (white-winged gulls and Caspian gulls) have disappeared or dispersed since we planned the trip.