Wednesday, 22 October 2008

Farlington Marshes & Brownsea Island

After my recent trip to Christchurch Harbour, I had begun to realise that there were some great birding venues down on the south coast and had decided to explore the area further. Accordingly I'd been keeping an eye on sightings in that area with a view to putting together a trip in due course. A green-winged teal down at Farlington Marshes in Hants, in the Hayling Island harbour area seemed like a good starting point and when a ring-billed gull turned up in nearby Gosport I thought that with two target birds this was enough for a trip. In addition I'd been meaning to go to Brownsea Island for some time where spoonbills and curlew sandpipers would be a possibility so this made a total of 4 target birds so hopefully something would stick. It would mean quite a long day but I was game to give it a go.

After a few postponements, a day with reasonable weather and no family commitments meant that I could go on the trip. I got up at 6am and was out of the house by 6:45. The journey to Farlington Marshes was uneventful and I arrived at about 8:15 to find the place deserted. Not knowing the layout I started walking along the west sea wall, noticing lots of bird activity in the bushes (green finches, robins, tits, blackbirds etc.). I soon found a good vantage point to scan the mud flats (it was low tide) and found the following: hundreds of black-tailed godwits, lots of redshank, a single turnstone, quite a few grey plover and curlews, a few shelduck, a lone avocet, plenty of roosting black-headed gulls (which I didn't check for Meds.) and quite a few little egrets. I was pleased with the avocet in particular. After a few hundred yards I saw the end of the "stream" as it's apparently known. The green-winged teal was supposed to frequent this long thin pool with reeds along one side, so I turned off at this point. At the end of the stream was a pool with some wader scrapes and a scan revealed lots of sleeping snipe by the edge of the reeds. The hedge line by the edge of the pool had several stonechats in, flitting back and forth and calling loudly. I started to walk the length of the stream, stopping every few yards to scan all the teal. I wanted to make sure that I saw them from all angles in order to maximise my chances of picking out that all-important vertical white stripe that signified the green-winged teal. In passing I noted plenty of shoveler, normal teal and wigeon, a few common gulls amongst the black-headed, a few redshanks and godwits and some coots and moorhens but no sign of the green-winged teal.

At the north end of the stream I met up with the warden. He said that after some rain, he would expect the birds to disperse so that it could be anywhere on the reserve and to keep a general look-out. With all the reed beds there I also asked about beared tits and he said that there were a few present and in fact he half expected them to be flying about this morning. He also mentioned an osprey that was sitting on a post on the east side of the reserve which I thought that I'd go and take a look at. I told him about the avocet and he was quite interested in this as it was the first one to return for the winter there and had not been seen previously. As I moved off I thought that I heard the "pinging" call of a bearded tit over the roar of the traffic (the motorway is rather close to the north edge of the reserve). I looked over the reed beds and saw some long-tailed birds skimming over the reeds before ducking down again - clearly they must be bearded tits but not a great view. The next moment I got a better glimpse of a lovely male before it too ducked back down. I waited to see if they would reappear but they didn't. A very nice bonus bird to see!

I walked the entire sea wall around the reserve, seeing the osprey sitting on a very distant red post and eating a fish. There were also more of the same waders, with the addition of quite a few pintails and some great crested grebes feeding in the channel itself. A few flyover goldfinches and linnets and plenty of meadow pipits and skylarks were seen. When I got back to the southern end of the stream I thought that I would have one last look for the teal but by this time several other people had arrived, none of whom had seen the bird and there was also some more disturbance with some reed cutting going on and there weren't many birds around. Needless to say there was no sign of the bird. So for the first venue I'd missed my target bird but had picked up a bonus bird in the form of the bearded tits. The osprey and avocet were also nice birds to see so I was well pleased with progress so far. I got back to the car and considered my options: I was running a bit behind schedule and was wondering about whether to try for the ring-billed gull at Gosport or not but decided in the end to go for it.

It took about twenty minutes to get to Gosport as there was a bit of traffic around. I arrived at Walpole lake to find a most unlikely venue. It was basically a small boating lake in a public park and seemed completely deserted. I had read that if the bird wasn't present then it went to the tidal estuary behind the lake so I started to go round it when I noticed a second smaller lake the other side of the first. This seemed to have all the birds on it so I went over to that. The lake was only about 20 or 30 metres across and there were quite a few gulls on it. I sat down on a park bench and scanned the birds. To my amazement I soon picked up on the bird, sitting quite happily in amongst the other gulls, ducks and pigeons that were loafing around. I had a go at some digiscoping shots but I am learning that the autofocus has trouble with predominantly white birds so the results weren't brilliant. It was a good enough view to note the pale iris which confirms it as a ring-billed rather than a common gull. Pleased with connecting with this bird I then set off on the one hour journey for Bournemouth in order to get over to Brownsea Island.

The Gosport ring-billed gull

I arrived at just before 2pm, which gave me just enough time to find a parking space and buy my ticket before the ferry arrived. On it I met a fellow birder who was consulting for the BBC who were due to start filming Autumn Watch there next week. We had an interesting chat, and he was telling me that Brownsea Island lagoon was the best place to go (which was actually already my intention) and that there were loads of siskins in the woods.

It turned out that the last ferry left at 4pm so I had less than 2 hours in total on the island. Accordingly I hot-footed it over to the lagoon and entered the first of the three hides that overlook the water. What was immediately obvious was that there were a lot of birds to look through. There were literally hundreds of waders covering the water and it was going to take some time to check through them all. From the first hide there were lots of cormorants and black-backed gulls resting on a scrape together with at least 8 little egrets + plenty of black-tailed godwits and redshank. The first hide only gave a view of the corner of the lagoon so I soon departed and made for the second hide. Here I had a good scan around for the spoonbills and I soon found an island which I recognised from photos as being the one that the spoonbills favoured but alas it was empty so that was another target bird miss. Nevertheless I was keen to search through the birds to see if I could turn up some curlew sandpipers and also to take some photos of the birds, some of which were incredibly close to the hide.

A thorough search of the lagoon revealed hundreds of black-tailed godwits and a similar number of avocets. Lots of redshank as well but a much smaller number of greenshank (perhaps a few dozen). There may well have been some spotted redshanks in amongst the redshank but I didn't look too closely. There were also about one hundred dunlin and I searched these carefully for curlew sandpipers but didn't manage to turn any up. There were also plenty of little egrets dotted about the place. Eventually I reckoned that I had searched through all the birds and could relax and take some photos. As the birds were so close I was able to get some great shots though I still had problems with the focusing on the mostly white avocets. Below are the best of my efforts.

A redshank

One of many avocet that overwinter there

A greenshank feeding close to the hide

A video of a feeding avocet
To watch this in high quality, click here and select "Watch in high quality".

A video of a feeding greenshank
To watch this in high quality, click here and select "Watch in high quality".

All too quickly my time was up and I made my way back to catch the ferry. Brownsea Island certainly is a great place I shall definitely return for longer next time so that I can take in more of the Island.

So only one of my target birds was present but I managed to pick up a bonus tick in the form of the bearded tits so another couple of year ticks to add to the list.

2008 Year List

205: bearded tit

206: ring-billed gull

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

An American Golden Plover on the Meadow

Things have been fairly quiet on my local patch at Port Meadow for several weeks now with the same birds present. We've been lucky to have a flock of at least 30 black-tailed godwits for a while now as well as 5 or 6 ruff and plenty of snipe but there's not been much variety at all. Still it's been a good opportunity to practise my digiscoping and as the birds have been rather confiding I've been rather pleased with my recent efforts.

One of the long-staying black-tailed godwits.

The ruff have been around for a while now.

One of many pied wagtails that are always present on the Meadow.

This morning started out like any other day with my usual session down on the Meadow checking out the birds. The number of golden plover had grown to over 1000 and amongst them I noticed one which stood out because it was unusually pale with a very strong supercilium. I did wonder whether it was a grey plover but it wasn't. Recently in conversation with the county recorded he'd mentioned the possibilities of American Golden Plover and with this in mind and not personally being familiar with the differences I phoned him up and mentioned my sighting. He was intrigued enough to decided come down to the Meadow a bit later so I waited with keen anticipation for him to report back. When I got the call from him, much to my delight, he said that there was indeed an American Golden Plover present but that it was rather a dark bird. I immediately nipped back down there to find the plover flock extremely flighty, going up quite frequently before settling again. Still with some guidance I managed to locate the bird and it did indeed stand out from the flock being smaller and darker than the european goldies. Apparently he'd also seen my bird which was just a pale version of a standard plover so it turned out to be rather fortuitous that he'd happened to find the American Goldie in amongst the flock.

A few other birders started to arrive and I was just getting my digiscoping gear set up when a sparrow hawk flew over and put the entire flock up again. When they settled again some five minutes later we all started to scan for the bird but despite our efforts it could not be seen and to my knowledge it wasn't see again after that. This was rather unlukcy because the vast majority of the birds stayed put on the Meadow and our rarity must have been one of the few that decided to leave. Still fingers crossed that it might turn up again tomorrow.

I have since learnt that one of the key diagnostics for ID'ing an American Golden Plover is the long primary projection: 4 or even 5 primary tips visible beyond the tertials and wing-tips projecting beyond the tail. The county recorder managed to check this out on the bird in question today. A smaller primary projection could instead mean a Pacific Golden Plover. A key feature for both vagrant plovers is that the underwing is a dark grey rather than white, something which was noticable on the Meadow bird today.

A record shot of the American Golden Plover © Nic Hallam

Another tick for the year list.

2008 Year List

204: American Golden Plover

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

A Day's Birding at Christchurch Harbour

I'd been suffering from the lack of interesting birds in Oxfordshire recently. Whilst I am still diligently working away at my patch (see Port Meadow Birding), there's not been much new to see there or elsewhere in Oxon and I was champing at the bit to go somewhere new to see something a bit different. I'd recently discovered the great CHOG web-site with daily updates of sightings at Christchurch harbour. In particular I was taken with the fact that both curlew sandpiper and bar-tailed godwits were being seen at Stanpit marsh fairly regularly which were two waders I was keen to see. The barwits, I needed for my year list, and curlew sandpipers were ones that I couldn't remember whether I'd seen during my previous boyhood birding so were officially "unseen" on my life list. Added to that, firecrests had recently been seen at Hengistbury head as well as plenty of recent vagrants (Richard's pipits, penduline tit) and good sea-watching possibilities (grey phalarope, red-throated diver, long-tailed skuas) it seemed like a great all-round venue for a day's birding. I reckoned that it would take 2 hours to get there which was a lot better than the nearly 3 hours that it takes to get to Portland so I decided that a trip down there was in order.

Whilst I had made up my mind on the location, there was still the small matter of tides and weather. The harbour itself has two birding venues on either side of the harbour itself: Stanpit Marsh is good for waders, whereas Hengistbury Head was mainly scrub land and sea watching at the end though both sides offered views of the harbour itself. The best time for the marsh was 1 to 3 hours before high tide where the mud is visible but the birds aren't too far out. Therefore there was a certain amount of viewing tidetables and weather forecasts before finally deciding to go. With a date finally chosen I awoke at 6am and was out of the door by 6:45 heading off down the A34 towards Dorset. The journey itself took 2 hours plus a bit of extra time for some traffic delays but at around 9am I pulled up at the Hengistbury Head car park and paid the fee using my mobile phone which I'd not done before but which was very convenient as you could top it up without having to return to the car. I then set off to explore the Head.

The Head was an interesting mix of scrub land, with a small wood half way along, an old harbour lagoon and at the end some beach huts behind which the locals shelter when they go sea watching. As I wandered, loads of meadow pipits and linnets were flying overhead. The scrub bushes held plenty of warblers and tits and a local field was full of stonechats. I met up with a couple of local birders for whom this was their local patch. They said that not much was around today but one had seen a ring ouzel earlier on and a spoonbill had flown over earlier and a little gull had been in the harbour. I asked about firecrests and both had said that they'd not seen or heard any that day. Nevertheless I listened and looked carefully as I went through the firecrest-favoured woodland section and turned up quite a few goldcrests but alas no fires. The old dock held about 15 redshanks and a few little egrets but nothing more exotic. I arrived at the sea shore and did only a few minutes watching (enough to see a great crested grebe on the sea) before deciding that I needed to head back. The reason for this was that one of the locals had pointed out that it was an unusually high tide today so that the optimal viewing times at Stanpit Marsh would be earlier than normal. This had rather messed up my plans but rather than rushing like a lunatic over there I decided to head back at a leisurely pace, take in the local birds and I'd just have to view the waders as they roosted on the marsh at high tide. I had my packed lunch on the sea shore and then headed over to the other side of the harbour to investigate the marsh.

The marsh consisted of peninsula jutting out into the harbour itself, with mud banks to the south of it. At high tide the birds roost on the marsh itself, often well hidden in the grass or feed at the very edge of the marsh where some mud is still exposed. As I arrived there was plenty of bird activity and I soon picked out a continental blackbird in the bushes (distinguishable by its black beak). Just past the new nature reserve centre a sparrow hawk flew very low over the grass and pounced on a victim (a starling I think) before making off to devour it in the trees. As I explored, I soon came across an inlet with a variety of birds within it feeding along its shore line. At the end were a dozen or so dunlin and I soon spied something a bit different: it was roughly dunlin-like but a bit larger than the other birds with an fairly even-toned grey back, no underbelly markings and a slight grey smudge of a breast band. In addition it had a longer bill and longer legs than the surrounding dunlin. At this point I got rather excited and started thinking of curlew sandpipers. In fact it was only when I got home and did more research that I came to the conclusion that this was actual an adult dunlin in winter plumage. Typically a curlew sandpiper in this country will have a patterned back and only rarely is it seen in the full winter plumage. Without the diagnostic white rump I wasn't going to claim a rarely-seen plumage type. It just goes to show how variable dunlin can be and how careful one has to be before assuming that it's something else.

It seemed that most of the waders were in or around this creek so I settle down and took stock. There were loads of black-tailed godwits roosting in the grass, a couple of knot, two spotted redshank, plenty of curlew, around 15 or so common redshank and a few oystercatchers all milling around, feeding or roosting. They were not too far away and despite the abysmal light conditions I had a go at digiscoping and I was pleasantly surprised at the results after I finished post-processing them even though I had to go up to ISO 400 to get any kind of decent shutter speed. The best of the bunch are displayed below.

A curlew on the marsh

Two feeding knot

A spotted redshank and two redshank, making a nice comparison

Oystercatchers resting at high tide

In addition to the birds in the creek, out in the harbour there was a sand spit and an island. On the spit there were three distant godwits which on closer inspection turned out to be bar-tailed. I was most pleased about this as these were one of my target birds. I had a quick wander around the rest of the marsh but it seemed that the choice spot was my creek so I spent a bit longer there before making my way back to the car park. There I had a brief panic as I couldn't find my car keys before locating them in a different pocket from usual. The journey home was uneventful.

That evening I read up on the CHOG web-site that a pair of lapland buntings had been seen to fly over as well as a few interesting birds from sea watching. My impression is that there is a small but dedicated team of experienced birders who work the patch and report back so far more was picked up than I saw that day. Nevertheless I enjoyed my trip down to Christchurch and will certainly be back again.

One more tick for the year list though ticks are much harder to come by these days. I've been thinking of what I still need from my list and one section which is woefully under represented is geese so perhaps a trip to Norfolk this autumn or winter is called for. I could also benefit from doing some more sea watching as there are quite a few ticks there that I still need.

2008 Year List

203: bar-tailed godwit