Wednesday 7 November 2018

Of Phil, Doris, Rough-legs and Banana Bills

29th October - 4th November 2018

We were still in half term mode last week with many local schools still being off and the effervescent couple that were Phil and Doris continued to entertain visitors with their daily adventures around the reserve.

They were so popular that we have already invited them back for Christmas. They might even bring the grandchildren.

For the full story of their visit have a look at the RSPB Rainham Marshes blog here..

Monday’s sunset was superb but Tuesday was terribly grey and gloomy day but what it lacked in sunshine it made up for with quality birds.  I was concentrating on the river first thing and only popped outside for a few minutes to top up the feeders but when I returned I was met by Ruth asking if I had just seen the ringtail Hen Harrier head over the centre and across the river and was immediately followed by Niall coming through the doors to tell me the same thing BUT did I also see the Rough-legged Buzzard that came up to mob it!

Now it is seldom that I get the hump about missing something but two big BOPS in seven minutes including our most wanted was just not on.  I think I did my best to hide it! Niall in particular has a knack of finding good raptors at Rainham with at least three Hen Harriers and Osprey on his sporadic visits from Galway.

He headed out onto the reserve while Ruth was joined by the rest of the Motleys out on the balcony to scan the Kent side of the Thames. Over the next 90 minutes I managed to miss the Hen Harrier three times as it hunted the river wall as I was distracted by actually having to do my job and welcome visitors onto the reserve.  

A snatched shot of the first ringtail by Russ Sherriff

Eventually it came into view and I was happy. But what of the Rough-leg? Niall had only seen it briefly as it came up to bash the Harrier and our scans had only revealed several normal looking Common Buzzards and not something that he had described as like a juvenile Golden Eagle.

But then suddenly there it was up over Dartford Marsh hunting and hovering with aplomb where the striking wing, belly and tail pattern were all easily seen.  Thankfully the lack of sun meant that visibility was actually superb with no haze or distortion.

The news was out and London’s birders started to appear in dribs and drabs on both sides of the river to collect the first ever twitchable London recording area RLB.  It showed well over there on and off all day, right up until dusk while the Hen Harrier spent part of the afternoon out over Aveley Marsh before returning to the Kent side where it amazingly joined up with a second bird.

The Rough-legged Buzzard way out on Dartford Marsh - happy days.. Russ Sherriff.

Add to that a female Merlin, Peregrine, Kestrel, Sparrowhawk and several Marsh Harriers it was a raptor fest to remember.

Marsh Harrier - an advanced juvenile male - Pete Merchant

Marsh Harrier - an advanced juvenile male - Pete Merchant

So, to the tricky question of ‘Do we add the Rough-leg to our Rainham list despite the fact that it was technically in another county?’ Well, what do you think we did?

With the birds present so late we were confident that they would still be around the next morning but Halloween dawned clear and bright and the viewing from the Essex side was tricky. Both ringtailed Hen Harriers spent the first couple of hours out over Wennington and Aveley and appeared to be juveniles with richly coloured underparts while eight different Marsh Harriers were loafing around including the green winged tagged juvenile male ZR from Haddiscoe Marsh in the upper Norfolk Broads. Buzzards were likewise dotted around and a juvenile Peregrine had a go at the duck.

Marsh Harrier - ZR a still very juvenile male and our adult female -Tony O'Brien

The Rough-leg was seen leaving roost just after dawn but like most Rough-legs was rather reticent to move after that but eventually started to perform well for the Kentish viewers.

I was down in the shop when a message came through that Russ and Martin had the Rough-leg over Wennington so I hurtled upstairs and frantically scanned the blue where much to my delight a gleaming Rough-legged Buzzard circled into view. I quickly got Paul Whiteman onto the bird before it continued up and disappeared into the empty sky.

Rough-legged Buzzard- the second paler bird - Tom Bell

I voiced my doubts about it even being the same bird as it felt even more contrasty and had a paler head but that seemed quite ridiculous until the Kent boys messaged to say that the first bird was now showing well. We turned around and there it was hovering low over the river wall and giving great views albeit in the bright sunshine but everyone was happy.

An hour later it did the decent thing and headed across the Thames and properly found itself on the Rainham list before circling north west just like the second bird.

Rough-legged Buzzard- the darker Dartford bird on its way to Rainham - David Darrell-Lambert

... and just to prove it got there! - Andy Tweed

My only mild disappointment for the day was missing the adult male Hen Harrier that followed the same track a short while later but the epic sunset that closed down the day rounded things off in a truly spectacular fashion.

Taken just a few minutes apart

The poor duo of Cattle Egrets had been largely passed over during the week but then tried to make up for it on the fairly raptor free Thursday and Friday by parading around in front of the Purfleet Hide while even the Short-eared Owls came out and performed for all and sundry!

Cattle Egret - Alan Reynolds

Russ Sherriff

Tony O'Brien

...and even by me!

Short-eared Owl - Ian Plume

I had the weekend off but diabolical traffic on the Kent side of the river completely stuffed plans to visit friends back in Essex and mainly shopping ensued which was a fun way to spend a bright Saturday. Thankfully the White-billed Diver that had appeared off Margate did the decent thing and stuck around all weekend and I was able to catch up with it as it bobbed merrily around not too far offshore just west of Foreness Point in Palm Bay.

It was a monster and my first proper look at one in summer plumage having only seen a fly by off Dungeness a good few years back while leading one of my trips. I am rather ashamed to say that I never did submit that one.

White-billed Diver - My effort at low tide

This behemoth of a gavia was silky black and covered in glowing white spangles with full neck bars and a glowing red eye.  The only blemish was a tiny spot of winter white showing near the base of that monstrous ivory white bill that swept out from below the bulbous black forehead.

I heard the phrase bucket list bird from a few of the birders present and I must say that I had to agree. In a year with very little UK birding for me this was surely the highlight and quite possibly one of the most striking birds I have ever had the pleasure to share some time with.

White-billed Diver - that's better - thanks to Andy Lawson
And a bit of Sharpie action...

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