Monday, 13 March 2017

Dungeness - a proper touch of springtime

13th March 2017
It dawned clear and bright with a huge moon sinking down to the west behind the roof tops while my Mistle Thrush was solemnly serenading in the new day from an aerial. It all boded well for a good day to escape to the coast.

With no traffic to speak of we were soon converging on the lighthouse at Dungeness and a pair of Black Redstarts were seen on the rotunda wall from the cars and I was even able to point them out to the other two behind us without even getting out. We parked up and retraced our steps and very soon had both birds back in view but it was not until we had nearly circumnavigated the building that the male gave himself up and showed magnificently.  A second male sang from the coastguard tower.

Mr Black Redstart was rather smart

During the entirety of this encounter we were dogged by a cyclist who completed no less than six circuits of the complex and was annoyed on each occasion that we were still stood on the tarmac ‘on a public highway you know’. We even changed position each time just to give him a challenge as he came around the bend... it was all very strange.

Three Chiffchaffs were the only other migrants and Dunnocks, Blackbirds and Blue and Great Tits milled around but there were no Wheatears to be seen. Two Reed Buntings called overhead and Meadow Pipits were in song as we ambled back towards the Power Station where both Pied and Grey Wagtails fed on the sewage treatment tanks.

Chiffchaff - Mark Vale
Meadow Pipit

Down at the Patch is was great to bump into Lee Gregory in his new position at the Bird Obs – ever so slightly different to Fair Isle! News was exchanged and the darker of the two young Iceland Gulls was soon found around the bubbling mass of frothing water. I managed to get the crew onto this pale teal coloured bird as it drifted back and forth through the throng. The second, paler, bird was found dozing on the beach but was largely obscured. 

Tony & Pat gulling...
Iceland Gull number 1 - Tony Coombs

I could not find any Meds or Kittiwakes but a hulking first-winter Caspian Gull arrived and spent some time terrorising the other gulls – a proper pirate. The wings, rump and tail were startlingly contrasting and the white underwings shone while the legs on this one seemed especially long, even in flight! Lee quite probably picked this bird up on call as it came in but despite the number of this species I have now seen I cannot say that I ever knowingly heard one so that particular skill will have to wait a little longer.

1st w Caspian Gull - look at those legs! - Lee Gregory

The sea was otherwise very quiet with just a handful of Gannets, 2 Scoter, 13 Wigeon and two Great Crested Grebes for our troubles.  A magnificent ship headed west with all its sails unfurled but the light was too harsh for us to see what name it went by.

Sea Cabbage in alien purple new growth stage...

The Black Redstarts had left the garden area and a small party of Chaffinches were now moving through it and out into the coconut scented Gorse where randy Dunnocks were wing flicking, armpit flashing and tail quivering with abandon. One was lacking something in the display routine as he had no tail at all but it did not stop him joining in the fun!



He blinked at the wrong time!
Silken tents in the Gorse were carefully inspected and found to be infested with countless thousands of tiny red Gorse Mites. I had heard of these before but never seen them. Seven Spot Ladybirds were dotted around and a green Gorse Shieldbug was rather unobliging.

Gorse Mites

A couple of Redwings where lurking loosely with some shaggy throated Starlings and two grey female Black Redstarts took us to five for the morning. Pat and Lee then simultaneously found a Wheatear which I think was a young male. It looked quite brown backed but seemed to have a mask and like a lot of new in migrants it did not longer log and rocketed off with a flash of that white arse but was still worthy of an ‘essence of’ image.

Honestly, there is a Wheatear on top!

The Moat was only inhabited by tits and Dunnocks so we headed back to the cars and off to the reserve. The Ring-necked Duck was not on Cooks or Tanners Pools by Boulderwall but a female Sparrowhawk did put up our first Great White Egret of the day which promptly walked back into the ditch. There were five Little Egrets around the edges and the Tree Sparrows were good on the feeders along with Greenfinches, Reed Buntings and Chaffinches. A Raven headed silently over and the first Marsh Harrier was spiralling up above.

Tree Sparrow - Mark Vale

My typical Great White Egret shot...

A huge female Common Toad stopped us in our tracks and was snapped before being assisted to the ditch below where others were already croaking away. I cannot remember the last time I saw one of these?

Getting papped...

Comfort break and coffee and then off round the trail where the Long-eared Owls once again failed to show for me and a group. A consolatory look from the Firth Hide revealed a creamy white Iceland Gull with the other big gulls which I suspect was our bird from the beach a little earlier. A single Dunlin flew around and two Oystercatchers vociferously communicated in tandem flight.

First winter Iceland Gull

A fine male Smew was seen from Christmas Dell and there were a few Small Tortoiseshells zipping about as well as several large terrestris and lapidarius Queen bumblebees. One of the Ravens made a b-line along the pylons with a bulging crop and returned back about ten minutes later and I suspect that there are mini kronkers clambering around a nest. Pat Hart stayed behind to show a family the Smew and got an very early Swallow as his reward.

Male Smew

Small Tortoiseshell
A large Backswimmer that was initially flying around...

Two Great White Egrets were getting stroppy with each other on Denge Marsh and although they both had yellow bills, the legs were turning pale and into breeding condition and the backs were covered in a filigree of wispy aigrettes. There was no sign of the mini Garganey flock of the weekend or the escaped drake Hooded Merganser but the Bearded Tits were invisibly pinging and Cetti’s Warblers were giving it large. Marsh Harriers were somewhat scarce with just a couple more sightings of females and the winter Stock Dove flock was still around in the sunflower fields.

Great White Egrets
GWE's - Tony Coombs

Lunch was taken at our traditional bench in the lovely warm sunshine before a last look for the Ring-necked Duck on the way out and sure enough we picked him up right at the back of Tanners Pool where he looked a very different shape when diving to when just floating around. Two of the Great White Egrets were playing chase me and two Egyptian Geese were with the Greylags.

A stop to check out the New Diggings left me trapped in the car but no so that I could not find two Black-necked Grebes for the others. This pair were in both winter and summer plumage but the light was tricky and we did not persevere to try and find the other four and the Slavonian also present on this pit.

Black-necked Grebe & Coot

This only left the ARC to amble round and we spent a quiet last hour around the Hanson Hide where Black-headed and Common Gulls were coming down to bathe but alas without the hoped for Med Gull. 

Bath time...

Several Goldeneye were definitely paired up and Tufted Ducks were becoming very vocal and looked magnificent reflected in the oily calm water. 

Tufties are such underrated ducks

male Goldeneye
The huge Wigeon flock came in from Denge marsh and I rather sadly counted 668 as they bobbed around mid water. Suddenly there was a big commotion and all the gulls got up. I searched for a large raptor only to discover a Great White Egret on the shingle gull island where it was getting a good trashing from the local Herring Gulls. It did not look impressed in the slightest.

Seriously miffed...

With time getting on we ambled back in the warm sunshine and called it a day. Spring certainly felt like it was upon us today and the floodgates will soon open and the sounds of summer will be all around us once again.

Friday, 24 February 2017

Doris Day

Doris Day...  RSPB Rainham Marshes 23rd February 2017

Well, we all survived the rather angry attention of Doris yesterday. She was with us from breakfast, whipping up a frenzy of rather irate white horses across the turbulent Thames before occasionally vaporising the spume into a wall of hurtling mist that would hit the windows of the centre like a stampede. That old and wondrous Guinness advert kept springing to mind...

The building shook, the floor vibrated, the light cones thrummed and the windows bowed – it was all quite exciting really!

The sky was constantly changing with skudding dark blankets, white streamers and longitudinal pillows laden with rain that we never saw. Splashes of sunshine zoomed across the marsh resulting in the multitude of Black-headed Gulls sheltering there to flare shining white momentarily before returning to greyer shades.

The gulls saw quite a bit of my attention yesterday and they were constantly circulating with flocks in the hundreds resting up before heading back to the river only to be replaced by the next wave. They would land in the water of the Winter Pool and all hunker down and face into the teeth of the gale but were seldom still for long and would all slowly shuffle onwards so that they ended up on the grass in one amorphous mass of white. Only a few Common Gulls were amongst them and the big gulls were mostly riding the weather out on the river and elsewhere as very few were in the flock. Using jizz as an identification was almost pointless as every bird was crouched low and had its head pulled in but not tucked in and had no neck!  I did eventually pick out a first winter Yellow-legged Gull and a smart winter adult Mediterranean Gull for my troubles.

Black-headed Gull mass
The wind was making the Lapwing typically skittish with careening flocks being blown around with 200 silvery Dunlin and 55 Black-tailed Godwits while the Marsh Harriers and pair of Ravens were thoroughly enjoying the conditions with little flapping and lots of playing around. At one stage the big male Raven came so close to the window you could see his shaggy beard and glint in his intelligent eyes.  

The male Peregrine was not helping with the general mobility of the birds and huge young female decided that the best place to have a bath was in the middle of the flash where the Black-headed Gulls were resting up!

As the day wore on even more gulls came in and with a little low sun it became the skyscapes and struggling ships that took our attention before we finally closed up to go home but with the QEII bridge closed and traffic gridlocked in the area that was going to be another story all by itself...

Struggling up river - Tony O'Brien

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

More Fun With Finches

The Brecks - 13th February 2017

I have not taken people out for a trip for some months now but I was unprepared for the response to my casual ‘Anyone fancy doing the Brecks on Monday?’ email. 

And so at 7:30 yesterday morning I had 25 people massed in the car park of RSPB Lakenheath ready to head out onto the reserve with a promise of long-legged marshy birds of various types. 

A fine watery sunrise - Antony Wren

Some of the posse... Gill Price

As I suspected the walk down was quiet, with the cold wind at our backs and just a few Redwing, tits and clattering Woodpigeons for our troubles but the group had seen a Barn Owl just before I arrived so they had already had a pre-walk fix to tide them over. We had all driven past seven Roe Deer in the new plantation on the way in and two more were seen in the older cover. 

There are so many dead fall and hung trees in these woods that they may not last that much longer in their current state. They still ring with the ghostly memories of warm spring days when the susurration of a million heart shaped leaves rattling in the wind competed with your a ears for the ethereal notes of the ever shy Golden Orioles.The Orioles are currently a bird of the past and recolonisation of East Anglia’s poplar plantations seems unlikely and as such the old matchstick woods of Lakenheath are being allowed to dwindle and collapse with a view to allowing a succession of moisture loving Willow and Alder Carr to join up the patchwork of now twenty year old reedbeds. New trees have already been planted amongst their dying trunks to aid this process along.

Marsh Harriers fresh out of roost were already out hunting and using the gusting easterly to good effect and they followed us all the way down to the Joist Fen view point. The threat of a dull gloomy day seemed to be abating and blue skies and a hazy sun were trying to push through. We stood for an hour scanning the massive reedbeds with the aforementioned Harriers frequently spooking large flocks of Shoveler and Tufted Ducks from hidden pools while Greylags and a few Canada Geese performed circuits but we could find nothing different amongst them bar a single CanLag with a squeaky voice.
A blue view over Joist Fen

A Great White Egret flew down the southern side and three more were seen from the river bank in the adjacent fields but it was the Cranes we were after and they did not disappoint and once we had seen the first two we soon added several more until nine had been seen in languid flights across the marsh on enormous wings with fingers bowed up on every downstroke. The light reflected off their silver forewings and white necks gleamed in the sunshine but if they were calling we could not hear as the wind would have taken anything away from these already distant birds.


A Kingfisher spent some time fishing from the reeds in the channel in front and Cetti’s Warblers sang but of Bitterns there was no sign at all. I seem to be having a real problem with seeing one this year!

The walk back added a couple of obliging Buzzards and Little Egrets along the river bank and a large flock of Fieldfares were scattered over an almost black loamy field. 

The newly managed area looks superb and I can imagine it being a great spot on a spring evening
There was time for a quick coffee and then we were off to Santon Downham in an eleven car convoy that we somehow managed to keep together. The next couple of hours were spent in the company of the Bramblings, Chaffinches, Coal Tits and Treecreepers of the line of old Beech trees. Quite where the hundreds of Bramblings from last Saturday had gone I do not know but I suspect that there were still about 40 or so around and they showed very well for my crowd of admirers. To be honest it was a Nuthatch that I loved best as he kept coming back down to the bole in a Beech for an energetic bath.

Bramblings - Antony Wren
The peace was frequently disturbed by the sound of Tornados tearing apart the air overhead and unfortunately on one such occasion I had just picked up the melancholy song of a Woodlark up above us but it had drifted elsewhere by the time the thunder had ceased. Buzzards mewed and a single Little Grebe was down on the river but there were no Grey Wagtails.

And the first hoverfly of the year - an Eristalis tenax

A leisurely lunch and then to Lynford Arboretum for the remains of the day where the wind had dropped and the sun still glowed. As such we were treated a superb display from the pre-roosting Hawfinches with probably just over 30 seen in the tops of those pines once again with their bull necks, steely bills and flashing white wing bars. Crossbills also obliged although they were tricky to get in good light but through the scope you could seen the rich reds and greens. One male perched up on the Hawfinch pines and another dropped into the riverside trees so I think that the majority of my crew went away happy.Tony O and Marna also joined us for the finch fest and there was a great atmosphere within the party.

Hawfinch - Tony Orwell

Hawfinch - Tony Orwell

Crossbill - Tony Orwell
Marsh Tits were once again singing with two different songs heard – a mournful solo repeated tewing and a Crossbill like gypping from two males at each other across the paddock. Siskins wheezed overhead and showed well in the Alders and two Treecreepers eventually gave themselves up to Gill. 

Brambling called overhead and several more were in the avenue hedge where they were picking the buds from the Blackthorn in the company of two pair of Bullfinches. The males of the latter kept well hidden and it was nice to be able to give the females the attention they are due.

With the day – and crew – starting to fade there was just time to pop down to the gravel pits to look for any interesting wildfowl and a male Goldeneye with the Tufted Ducks and two Goosanders were duly bagged. That cold easterly had returned and with the sun slipping behind the trees the temperature was rapidly dropping and it was time to call it a day and head for home after a very successful venture.

A tranquil end to the day - Gill Price