The first birding trip of the month was down along the North Kent coast with Pete Gurr and John Tilbrook in search of late winter and early spring migrants. As Pete was driving we took the scenic route through the Medway towns (no Medway Tunnel then either) and found a full summer plumaged Med Gull on a lamppost in what I called Rochester but was actually up near the MoD Brompton Barracks in Chatham. Little did I know that I would end up living not too far away and that all those trips with Pete would give me a good grounding of how to navigate my way through the area. I often drive past the roundabout where we saw it and regardless of the passing of all those years, the memory still pops into my head unbidden.
We headed for Sheppey and Shellness where we failed to find the Twite flock but did locate a single Snow Bunting and a ringtail Hen Harrier was quartering the saltmarsh.
Back around at Harty we stood at the corner where the Raptor Watchpoint mound now is and saw eight more ringtails Hen Harriers hunting the fields which is almost unthinkable nowadays. A single female Marsh Harrier was however the only one seen and there were no Buzzards back then either. The Marsh Harrier caught and flew off with an Eel!
A female Merlin dashed through and over a thousand Russian White-fronted Geese were present along with two Bean Geese although there is no indication of whether they were Taiga or Tundra although I suspect that at the time Taiga was actually more likely. A family of Bewick’s Swans was with the Mute herd and flocks of Corn buntings were up on the wires by the bramble clumps so at least some things do not change.
We came back along the Medway and I am surprised that my notes do not mention stopping at Funton Creek but we did see a Chiffchaff in the sewage works at Lower Halstow and six female and a drake Scaup from Motney Hill which would get the pulses of the local birders rushing nowadays.
One of the Long-eared Owls performed very well at Dagenham Chase but there were no migrants in and just a few Snipe and Lapwing and The Slack.
It was down to Dungeness with Pete Gurr with Scotney Pit on the East Sussex-Kent border being the first stop. Back then there was inevitably a good wintering flock of Scaup on this old gravel pit and we were not to be disappointed with 237 counted loafing around the near edge. I do not think I have heard of even a double figure flock anywhere in the last twenty years? With no Grebes of Divers to search for and just 16 noisy Barnacle Geese, we moved onto Dungeness and spent a two hours in the Seawatching hide with the late and great Ray Turley. It was a bit slow but we did see a few Kittiwakes, an adult Little Gull and two ericking Sandwich Terns along with a few waders and wildfowl that included 15 Avocets, Goldeneye, Mergansers and a Red-necked Grebe all undoubtedly interspersed with Ray’s enviable birding tales.
On to the RSPB reserve where a full summer plumaged Med Gull was undoubtedly the highlight as he displayed on an island while Marsh Frogs (but no Harriers) were seen from the Hookers Pit look out. There were Knot, Golden and Grey Plover in the fields and Chiffchaffs sang in the willows.
We met John Tilbrook who had seen some migrants around the Observatory and with his help we were soon watching two male and a female Wheatear with a flock of 35 Redwings feeding on the mossy shingle. These were my earliest records by over a week. A female Black Redstart and another Wheatear gave themselves up nearby rounding up an early spring sortie nicely.
21st – 23rd March:
A couple of visits to Dagenham Chase revealed that the Long-eared Owls had moved on but there were now singing Chiffchaffs and a single cascading Willow Warbler as well as a flock of 22 Corn Buntings around the old Gypsy encampment. It is interesting to note that I specifically mentioned the arrival of British Lesser Black-backed Gulls on site. The trend for this species being an all year round bird was only just beginning and I can even remember phoning them into the YOC Migrant Hotline in the mid-80s! That’s not to say that our birds are no longer migratory and even last week it was good to note them drifting west over my house as they come back to their summer breeding colonies.
Another Pete Gurr special day out with no real plan and just a general direction of northish saw us at Butley in Suffolk. My notes say... 'we came up here for no apparent reason and by the time we got back to the car we still hadn’t found one...'
Pete was busy brewing his lemon tea on his little stove by the car when I picked up two tussling Rough-legged Buzzards over the woods which eventually came closer and then cruised just overhead. Which improved the fortunes of the morning somewhat!
White Wagtails were noted with Pieds and some finches in the paddocks before we moved on to Benacre Broad where a Spoonbill had unfortunately just departed but we did see a female Long-tailed Duck and two Avocet for our troubles while a Common Buzzard over the woods at the back was still a noteworthy occurrence back then.
Onwards and into Norfolk for a walk out from Horsey Windmill to see what we could find. We did not know about the far simpler and less treacherous Stubbs Mill road on the other side of the Mere but there were still birds to be seen with four Marsh Harriers and two brief flying Cranes that Pete missed as he was taking a short cut apparently while a single Egyptian Goose was my first in the Broads!
We now went west and failed to find the spot in Norwich for the Arctic Redpolls and ended up coming back through the Brecks at dusk with hundreds of dapper Bramblings seen by the roadside near Elvedon and three female and a male Golden Pheasant on the edges of a pine belt somewhere further down the road. The last rays of the day were spent at Foxhole Heath where no Stone Curlews materialised but although Partridges, Pheasants and Brown Hares abounded.
A trip up the Lee Valley with Ian Woodward in search of migrants and the hoped for pair of Little Ringed Plovers were still on the Fishers Green Goosefield along with a pair of Ringed Plovers too. Both species were displaying. There were no other migrants at all – not even a Chiffchaff so we headed for the bleakness of the KGV Reservoir and walked the whole way round. Three Goosander and three Goldeneye were the only wildfowl of note but the Tree Pipit in sparkling fresh plumage was a very pleasing find amongst 38 Pied and two White Wagtails.
A short visit to Gernon Bushes at the top end of Epping Forest revealed at least three pair of Hawfinches. I seem to recall having ten pair there at some stage over the next couple of years. It was the last good strong hold in the Forest but if any are still present they are very thinly spread and even shyer than they used to be. It must have been a pleasant day as I also saw Brimstone, Comma, Peacock and Small Tortoiseshell butterlies.
A Welsh Easter with Peter Gurr
A typically long and tortuous journey that included a ‘detour’ around Birmingham and I suspect no roads with an M in them saw us arrive on Anglesey at Holyhead Harbour at about 3pm in the hope that the long staying White-billed Diver would still be around but the news from tow local birders was that it had not been seen for a few days! I had seen my first as a flyby at Holme in October the previous year that had thankfully also been seen and submitted by another observer but I was keen to see another.
With no Divers and only few Guillemots and Mergansers on show we made our way to RSPB South Stack where two Choughs were seen almost immediately as they collected grass from one of the paddocks around the buildings but we never got far as a couple of chaps told us that they had been watching the WBD just an hour before so we packed up again and made our way to the bay opposite the Aluminium works. Twenty minutes later we were watching this monstrous banana billed Diver feeding just offshore in the company of a near full breeding plumaged Great Northern. I can remember watching both species snorkling before diving down after crabs.
With our main quarry acquired and the day waning we made our way back to South Stack where we had booked into the huge white house there but there was still time to watch the Wheatears and Choughs on the cliff top and have a fry up on Pete’s stove for dinner in the RSPB car park...
The evening was apparently spent losing at Scrabble with a family from York although i can honestly say that I have no recollection of that whatsoever!
We were up early in the hope of some pre-breakfast migrant hunting and were not to be disappointed with a male Ring Ouzel singing mournfully from the rood of the B&B outbuilding and being nicely set off by the white chimney pots behind it. There were still two Wheatears and many alba Wagtails, Skylarks and Meadow Pipits on the short cliff top sward. I flashed forward to the 7th June 2003 when the rotund Black Lark flew in not long after dawn and grovelled on the same patch but with a huge crowd of admiring birders in attendance. I seem to remember having a Gurrish style pre-sunup fry up in the car park that morning too. Happy days...
Back in time once again to that Ouzel morning and the Choughs and Raven put on a good show and four Puffins were seen amongst the throng of Guillemots and Razorbills on the near vertical cliffs. There was also a great encounter with a male Peregrine that caught a Feral Pigeon and had started to pluck it but then took off and promptly lost its grip and dropped it breakfast before returning to the ledge and having a proper paddy at its carelessness.
After a full Welsh repast we headed across the island to Fedw Fawr down the tiniest of lanes in the hope that firstly nothing would be coming the other way and secondly that the Black Guillemots would be present. Thankfully we were successful on both counts and had 13 dapper chocolate black and white auks on the sea below us. They were incredibly vocal and that red gape could be seen from some distance while the red feet and flashing wing panels could be seen while they were ‘flying’ under water.
Fulmars cruised bar at head height and both Rock and Meadow Pipits displayed and a Chiffchaff started to sing from the scrubby bushes.
The Black Guillies did not have the bay all to themselves with a huge bull Grey Seal bobbing around and Kittiwakes milled around a fishing boat a little further out. Cemlyn Bay was out post lunch stop and although it was too early for Terns it still contained a few duck and waders and a ludicrously vibrant, almost red Caribbean Greater Flamingo which had apparently been in the area for several years. More Black Guillemots, Ravens and Choughs were seen at Penmon before another evening with the Peregrines and corvids at South Stack and a second thrashing at Scrabble!
A slight lay in and breakfast before a final look around South Stack before starting the journey off Anglesey and south through the heart of Wales. It was a wiggley route but it had its rewards with a pair of Dippers on the river at Bedgellert, Chough near Snowdon and a few Buzzards and Ravens. There were no Red Kites north of Devil’s Bridge at that time and so we had to get well south before we had a chance and by the time we reached Tregaron we had seen four of this most graceful of raptors from the car. One circled above us while we had lunch at a picnic spot that was full of finch song with Siskins, Lesser Redpolls, Chaffinches and noisy group of 30 Common Crossbills.
From here we headed east over the high tops to Bluith Wells and then hay-on-Wye which was entertaining to say the least as Pete’s Fiesta could not make it up the hills so on at least two occasions I was deposited at the bottom of a serious incline and forced to walk up and meet him at the top in the hope that he had actually made it there without conking out! On the second of these Pete had actually stopped the car just shy of the top to allow me to catch up but the car refused to start for fifteen long minutes in the middle of nowhere! Thankfully noting came along the single track road as we were completely blocking it.
Once started we had to negotiate the 1:4 down the other side complete with hairpin bends and dips and hidden dips and humps which I think we did out of gear to save fuel. Once down in the valley bottom there were Goosanders on the river and Buzzards above. I suspect that those valleys are full of Kites now.
We stayed the night in picturesque Hay-on Wye before heading home the next day via a fruitless search for an American Wigeon at Slimbridge.
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