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

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