Tuesday 27 April 2021

Mad March haring around

I was not expecting my 'green' year list (birds seen on foot or by bike) to see too many additions in March and the first week of the month largely lived up to expectations. It was not, however, without incident on the bird front, it was just that some of the best birds were not 'tickable' for the purposes of the year list. Specifically, I had my first encounters with one of the satellite-tagged White-tailed Eagles from the Isle of Wight re-introduction scheme, and a small flock of feral Reeves's Pheasant which are tucked away in various parts of Purbeck.

White-tailed Eagle, Stonehill Down, 1st March
White-tailed Eagle, Stonehill Down, 1 March
Both birds were seen en route to Stonehill Down, an impressive hulk of chalk to the south of Wareham in the care of the Dorset Wildlife Trust, reached by a gruelling climb on the bike which had become one of my preferred lockdown exercise routes some time before the 2021 year list caper began. With reports of the Eagle tantalisingly close to home I headed up after work on 1 March into rapidly fading light, not really expecting to see a giant raptor anywhere in the absence of its beloved thermals. 
Reeves's Pheasant, Blue Pool, 3rd March

Reeves's Pheasant, Blue Pool, 3rd March
I almost didn't bother to stop at the top but bumped in to a local birder, James, who had the harassed look of a man who had been chasing an eagle all afternoon. And sure enough, as we got talking, it emerged that he had been. We were joined after a few minutes by James's cousin Rob, also Eagle-hunting, and, with the sun well below the horizon, we spent a few minutes speculating about where the Eagle might have gone to roost. Just then I spotted a huge shape lumbering up out the valley in the half-light. It was heading straight for us and within seconds was cresting the ridge of the Down just to the west. There was just enough time to grab the camera from the pannier bag and rattle off a couple of silhouetted shots before it headed north - in the general direction of my garden! It was dark by the time I headed home so a Barn Owl flying parallel to the bike on Soldier's Road took the title of the first new bird of the month.
Reeves's Pheasant (female), Blue Pool, 5th March
Reeves's Pheasant, Blue Pool, 5th March
Heading back to the Down a few nights later I stumbled across a couple of male Reeves's Pheasant foraging on the verge which posed obligingly for photos. They were still there a few nights later with a female bird and, triangulating with reports of other locals, we concluded a minimum of five birds (3 males and 2 females) were in the area. A beautiful bird, but not a species considered self-sustaining in the wild, hence not capable of addition to the year list unfortunately.
Mandarin Duck (female), Wareham, 16th March

Barnacle Goose, Rempstone Forest, 21st March
Tick-able wildfowl in March appeared in the form of a flyover pair of Mandarin Duck on the outskirts of Wareham and a lone Barnacle Goose (I suspect the same bird which spent much of the winter at Swineham) hanging out with Canada Geese deep in Rempstone Forest which I bumped into during a long bike ride.
The first Little Ringed Plover of the year was at Swineham on 26th March

Bittern leaving Swineham in the dark (!), 9th March
One of the best new birds for the month required a dusk vigil at Swineham in the hope of seeing a migrant Bittern leaving. These birds don't winter at the site but are thought to use it as a staging post during spring migration, leaving on the cusp of darkness when their characteristic hoarse calls can be heard. I first heard one on 8th but it was too dark to see. Returning on the evening of the 9th produced a sighting as a bird flew overhead before circling high into the night. A single Great White Egret on 26th and a flyover flock of 5 breeding plumage Cattle Egret on 31st made it a good month for rare herons on the patch.
Great White Egret at Swineham on 26th March
3 of 5 Cattle Egret over Swineham on the last day of the month
A few more early migrants - Blackcap on 21st, Little Ringed Plover on 26th, Wheatear on 27th and, most surprisingly, a Sedge Warbler on 31st, my earliest record of this species by some distance - brought the year list up to 139 by the month's end. 
At least 4 singing Firecrests were within cycling distance of home in March
After all the cycling I indulged myself with a short trip to Weymouth to see this Desert Wheatear on 29th March - my first car trip to see a bird in 2021. I couldn't get there before dark on the bike and it was gone the next morning!

Thursday 22 April 2021

Early migrants

At first glance February appeared to offer limited prospects for adding to my 2021 non-motorised (walking and cycling only) year list. But with a week off at half-term there was always the chance of sweeping up some species which I had missed in January. Unbelievably, these included Skylark which had somehow evaded me at Swineham in January. The patch also produced the year's first Green Sandpiper and Jack Snipe in February, as well as the two star birds of the month: a dainty adult Little Gull which spent over a week on the Piddle Valley floods, and a lovely winter plumaged Red-throated Diver which treated us to an extended stay on the River Frome.

Red-throated Diver, River Frome nr Wareham, 14th Feb

Red-throated Diver, River Frome nr Wareham, 14th Feb
The Diver, found by Garry Hayman and family, was unusually far upriver towards Wareham town centre, and interrupted the traditional Valentine's Day argument about why one of us no longer gets a card (point of order: the 'one of us' is me) and gave me the perfect excuse to storm out in an apparent huff. But only after donning wellies, waterproofs (it was raining cats and dogs) bins and camera, which, by the time I was ready to leave, had rather dampened the dramatic impact of my strop. Attempting to photograph the Diver well became something of an obsession for the rest of February half-term week. When preening or resting on the surface it could show incredibly well, but when feeding (which was most of the time) it could appear 100 metres or more away and lead the would-be viewer on a merry dance - a merry dance in wellies up and down the Somme-like bank of the Frome which caused my calf muscles to scream on more than one occasion.
Little Gull, Piddle Valley, 22nd Feb

Little Gull, Piddle Valley, 22nd Feb
The Little Gull required much less effort, having been located on 22nd by my friend and fellow Swineham regular Trevor Warwick, who was having a good month as he also discovered a Ring-necked Duck on one of the gravel pits, presumed to be one of the Binnegar birds which I saw in January. I went to look for it and stumbled across a second Ring-necked Duck - obviously the other Binnegar bird relocating. Thanks to Trevor's prompt passing on of news I was able to see both the Little Gull and the Ring-necked Duck on the day of their appearance in the sliver of daylight between finishing work and dusk.
Two female Ring-necked Ducks (with Tufted Duck), Swineham, 13th Feb

Jack Snipe, Swineham, 13th Feb
The Little Gull was still present and performing well on the evening of the 26th and as I watched it I was surprised and delighted to see the joyous shapes of the first Sand Martin and Swallow of the year bouncing over the flood meadows of the Piddle Valley - my earliest records of both species at Swineham. Wareham Forest became a favoured haunt of mine during the lockdown of last spring, and February saw me back there to add Yellowhammer and a bonus Red Kite on 28th as my last new birds of the month, bringing the year list to 129 species.
First Sand Martin of the year - 26th Feb

First Swallow of 2021 - 26th Feb
I haven't kept any kind of year list for, well, years, so it was amusing to be reminded how doing so requires one to do silly things like twitching a local Red-legged Partridge, again thanks to prompt news from Trevor - not an easy bird in these parts. Heading out to Holme Lane to see it brought the added bonus of a Merlin scudding over the gravel pit - a species which had eluded me in January. More worthy of a twitch was the 22-strong flock of another local scarcity, Golden Plover, discovered by Marcus Lawson on 12th a short bike ride away at Holton Lee. I snaffled them up with a late evening two-wheeled sprint, like an unfit, old, slow version of Mark Cavendish. In wellies. On a crap bike.
Golden Plover, Holton Lee, 12th Feb

Monday 19 April 2021

Getting serious

What started as a New Year's Day 'green' bird race challenge - to see/hear as many avian species as possible travelling only on foot or by bike - has become something of a preoccupation as curiosity about just how many species I could chalk up in a year got the better of me. So much so that I though I should create some kind of record of the effort in this neglected corner of the internet. 

Scaup (female), Brands Bay, 17th January
Scaup (male), Brands Bay, 17th January

Clearly there is some catching up to do so, as my last post ended the first day of 2021 on 94 species, and bitter recriminations about how it could have been 100 but for mechanical hitches with the bike, let's start with a look back at the rest of January.

Firecrest at Arne, 3rd January
Crossbill, Morden Bog, 9th January

The weekend of 2nd-3rd January before the return to work saw me get to the 100 mark with the addition of Snipe, Marsh Harrier, Linnet, Spotted Redshank, Spoonbill and Firecrest - all species which should have been possible with a bit more time on 1st January - with visits to my local patch at Swineham, Arne and Middlebere. 

Grey Wagtail, Wareham, 10th January

Slavonian Grebe, Jerry's Point, 17th January

The following weekend I made my first visit of the year to Morden Bog, where Crossbill was easily added, and my second to Studland, failing for the second time in 2021 to locate the distant Long-tailed Ducks. It was a grim day with only Kestrel added to the year list, and a reminder after the tick-fest of New Year's Day that a year long effort would likely include some frustrations and fallow periods.

Black-necked Grebes, Studland, 23rd January

Sanderling, Studland, 23rd January

Still, I persevered, and a third long slog through Rempstone Forest to Studland on 23rd finally paid off, with views not only of the distant Long-tailed Ducks, but the addition of Greenshank, Sandwich Tern, Rock Pipit, Med Gull and Knot to the tally. The following day presented the first opportunity of the year for a bike-twitch of a minor rarity when Dave Foot discovered a couple of Ring-necked Ducks tucked away off the Puddletown Road, just 3 miles from home. I was there early on 24th to see them, adding Woodlark and Kingfisher to the list in the process. 

Ring-necked Duck, Binnegar, 24th January

Ring-necked Ducks, Binnegar, 24th January

The addition of a local Brambling with a finch flock at Holme Lane brought the list to 116 by the end of January. I wasn't expecting much in February, having done pretty well in January, and it being too early for migration - or so I thought. Stand by for details in the next post.

Cetti's Warbler on Wareham Common on the last day of the month