Monday, 11 February 2019

Days of Golden Wonder

It was thirty years ago today that a little brightly coloured American warbler that, having appeared on the national BBC news a couple of days earlier, drew myself and the biggest congregation of birders ever seen to a new Tesco's car park and housing estate at Larkfield in the Medway valley in Kent. It is strange how memory plays tricks on you with what actually happened on that misty cold day and so I this evening I dug out my journal from that time to re-live the day all over again. Even then I was quite verbose and energetic in my writing...

11th February1989

How many people would turn out at Tescos for the Golden winged Warbler? We arrived just after eight and there must have 600 or so by then in the supermarket car park. Everyone was there. We (myself, my dad and brother and Paul Hawkins) spent between then and 9.30 eating M&Ms and watching an immaculate male Waxwing when the people in front of us started running, so off we went but after a 100 yards we were stopped by the shout of ‘false alarm’. We were just starting to walk back when they set off again. Can you imagine the crowd of now at least 2500 mad, tripod wheeling twitchers, birders, birdwatchers and dudes stampeding down the main road of a usually quiet secluded new housing estate of neat front gardens and cul-de-sacs? No I don’t suppose you can!

Every now and then the crowd would slow down as the bird shot into one cul-de-sac only to appear behind them in another. This allowed us at the back to make a dash for the front and we sped off after the little dot.

Note the inordinate amount of Barbour and the distinct gender bias in the crowd...

The local drivers were somewhat unsympathetic to our needs and careened towards us with fingers flying and horns blowing expecting us to part like some Biblical sea of Barbour which is basically what happened with the odd clink and clunk as tripods and cars came into close proximity.

But birder behaviour was actually very good and only the odd person strayed into a front garden where there were immediately chastised by the crowd while one resident physically removed a chap from his garden to shouts of ‘Brian Clough’ (Eds... may have to look this one up).

After several very poor views in flight where it resembled a warbler shaped Blue Tit with a whacking great wing bar, we managed to get several good views including one via the top of a garage (Eds...  I don’t remember climbing one so it must have been on the roof) and another in a front garden. 

I think that we all had this picture (this is when you actually printed out an image taken on a camera that had film in it by the way)- the late George Reszeter

We and the bird had been on the move for over an hour now and our adrenaline was pumping like mad. Eventually he came to rest in the gardens behind the car park – in other words back at the start. Dad hadn’t moved and was standing there when the bird landed in the garden in front. Fortunately being in the front of the hoard at this point meant that I too got great views as he worked his way along a trellis. There was spontaneous applause!

Within five minutes every birder had congregated outside the back of this house filling the road and both pavements, the grass verge and any other means of seeing the bird including stepladders, tripods for standing on, bicycles, garages and up lampposts.

The thought of hi-jacking the double-decker bus outside the house and using the top deck did spring to mind but the driver was too quick and closed the doors straight after leaving the bus stop (Eds... isn’t it strange that in my head I have always pictured that birders did indeed storm the ‘Don’t Miss It’ Bus for a better view...)

The general consensus of the birders present was that it has to be not only one of the birds of the decade but certainly the biggest and most chaotic twitch ever.

This first for the Western Palearctic became my 302 British species and my second new WP tick in the space of a week after the Billingham Double crested Cormorant on the 5th February which was my 300th species.  My 301st was Black Grouse on the way home from that epic twitch.

A post lunch Great Grey Shrike around the gravel pits and my best ever views of the Stodmarsh Glossy Ibis rounded up the most nerve wracking, exhausting twitch I had ever been on.

Postscipt: I returned on the 2nd April on a gorgeous spring day with Paul Hawkins and his dad Roger and we got stunning point blank views as it fed in the bushes around the car park with just a few birders in standing round in awe.

A bit of Googling even found me this little video from Alan Tate... magic...



And so here I am in 2019 with a British list some 200 or so higher than that magical day in 1989 and although I may not twitch to the four corners of the country like I did back in the day I still cherish those heady days of new birds and new experiences week after week. 

My passion for birding has evolved and perhaps been tempered over the ensuing thirty years and after nearly twenty years in the conservation sector, I feel lucky to be able to call my hobby my job and work at a place where I cannot fail to find something to avian to catch my eye even on the gloomiest of February mornings...

Tuesday, 22 January 2019

Old Winter Haunts

North Kent: 21st January 2019

I have not been out birding at all since I got back from The Gambia. It’s not that British birding is suddenly boring or inherently dull; it is just that with the almost continuous lack of light and short gloomy days, everything just seems grey and lack lustre.

I have spent almost all of the ensuing days at work and am ashamed to say that I have not even done a circuit since then. I am simply struggling to find any enthusiasm to be outside in the monochromatic world that I can see just as well from the big window of the centre.
As such I was pleased to actually make it out yesterday for a north Kent jaunt with the troops for a back to basics sort of day along the coast, harking back to the first guided trips I led almost 15 years ago.

We met at the very respectable hour of 8.30 at the tiny Motney Hill car park overlooking the Medway. It was below freezing with a thick frost (which is also beneficial when turdwatching at this locale...) and the tide was inevitably a long way out but unusually I had actually checked things out and it was already on the way back in.

Over the next hour the originally distant waders came closer and closer and the group were treated to superbly educational views of the large flocks of Knot and Dunlin interspersed with big-eyed Grey Plovers, Ringed Plovers, Turnstones, Redshanks and Curlews and all in glorious light against blue skies. 

Wigeon, Teal, Grey Plover & Black-headed Gull

Knot & Dunlin

Knot & Dunlin

Knot & Dunlin

Dunlin - Steve Cullum

Lapwing - Steve Cullum

A lone Spotted Redshank was found and Avocets and Black-tailed Godwits fed further out and a flotilla of 12 ghostly Great Crested Grebes dozed and drifted with the incoming tide. 

Spotted Redshank & Lapwing

Pintail, Teal, Shoveler and Wigeon lifted up when the creeks flooded and the soft calls of these carried through the calm air and along with the waders, gave the group a good chance to learn the calls of these commoner species. A few Dark-bellied Brent Geese grumbled away and moved between Rainham Creek where we were watching and Otterham Creek on the other side of the peninsular.

Dark-bellied Brent Geese - Steve Cullum

Dark-bellied Brent Geese
Winter thrushes and a Blackcap were in the bushes and a couple of Rock Pipits were predictably on the foreshore as we headed back to the cars.

Frosty walk - Sam Shippey

A quick(ish) visit to the Bobbing Golden Arches and then onto Sheppey and Harty Marshes passing the requisite Corn Bunting flock on the usual brambles on the way. A game shoot was being prepared for but we still managed to squeeze our cars  amongst the 4x4s on the hardstanding by the farm at Harty Church and set off down towards the Swale.

Red-legged Partridges scurried and then flew out of our way and the stubble fields, edged in millet, held flocks of Meadow Pipits, Skylarks, Linnets, Chaffinches and Reed Buntings along with several nicely grey continental Song Thrushes. A Chiffchaff called in the sallows.

Poplar Avenue - Sam Shippey

Game strip looking towards Shellness - Sam Shippey
We stopped alongside the line of poplars and viewed out across the Swale NNR where the 300 or so strong flock of Russian White-fronted Geese could be seen grazing. They were a long way off but the light was superb and there was not a breath of wind and the scopes ate up the distance to beyond the old saltwork mounds that are now a huge rabbit warren.
Raptors were on view constantly with at least a dozen Marsh Harriers in all plumages, a couple of Buzzards and two ringtail Hen Harriers that came incredibly close as they hunted the field margins. I am pretty sure that both were females with one being and adult and one an immature.  

ringtail Hen Harrier - Steve Cullum
A chance scan with the scope resulted in a Bittern flopping up into view from the main channel. I tried to tell others where I had seen it only for it to perform another mini circuit for me alone!
The shoot beaters began their flush and so we started to head back with Partridges and Pheasants breaking for cover in all directions and the blasts of shotgun fire echoing all around although we never did see a single bird tumble from the sky.
The White-fronts and Greylags were not amused though and the whole mass erupted into the air on a lengthy energy wasting circuit of the reserve.

Lunch was taken back at the Capel Fleet Raptor Viewpoint like in the good old days.  We merrily munched away while watching more Marsh Harriers and Buzzards than I care to count and splendid views of two more ringtail Hen Harriers that both appeared slimmer and more lightly built that the Harty duo and could well have been young males. 

Marsh Harrier - Steve Cullum

A female Merlin perched up for us on a couple of occasions but was never seen in flight and the Corn Buntings were seen again on their favourite bushes. Kestrel, Sparrowhawk, Snipe, Golden Plover and huge Stock Dove flocks were also noted.

Now, normally I would have stayed here until dark in the hope of more raptor and some owl action but the lure of the roosting Rough-legged Buzzards at Funton Creek saw us heading back off the island.

Since my early trips out with Peter Gurr in his self-painted golden VW Beetle with seat modifications, I have always known this large bay as Funton Creek although it would appear that I should have been calling it Bedlams Bottom as the creek is just a tiny trickle in the middle at low tide.

We all pulled up in the spacious laybys amongst the detritus of modern life and a rather large selection of ancient white goods. The spot is no more salubrious than when I first visited over 30 years ago.

There have been two Rough-legged Buzzards using the area, one to the west out on Barksore and one to the east on Chetney.  The latter had been incredibly reliable at coming into roost at about 4.30pm and so we settled in for a scan round and wait.
It was still calm and quiet although the temperature was dropping fast. Fortunately, I picked up the Barksore bird on the top of a bush where it sat preening for a quite a while before dropping out of view.  Common Buzzards were dotted around and Marsh Harriers were always on view.

After a while it reappeared and headed east across to Chetney showing off the tail, extent of its black belly patch and contrasting head and breast.  As time went on Short-eared Owls started to appear out over Chetney and at least four were seen but at great range along with a ringtail Hen Harrier and an increasing number of Buzzards and Marsh Harriers. 

A large lump on the distant river wall was confusing me – my brain said Peahen but this appeared illogical until it turned around and went for a walk – yep – one plump mega-pheasant. The bay was teaming with a similar array of waders to Motney and as usual Pintail numbers were impressive.

With the light going we were concentrating on not missing the Rough-leg coming into roost in the paddock behind us and I picked up both birds together heading purposefully south away from our location but would they return?

Common Buzzards were now heading into the trees behind us and I wrongly called one as a Rough-leg while another had a juvenile female Peregrine on its tail and thus became the eighth raptor of the day.

Everyone had now left for home bar our car and Gary, one of the locals, and at just before five the sneaky Rough-leg glided in low from the Chetney direction to take up his roost spot in his favourite oak tree in a fitting end to a recuperative day out at some of my old winter birding haunts.

As my good friend has pointed out to me today...
"Doing something which you enjoy is much better than not doing anything..."

Think I better pull my finger out...