Saturday, 19 June 2021

Quailty not quantity

June 2021 has produced some spectacular records of rare birds around the UK, mostly on offshore islands, but, as expected, migration of commoner species has slowed to a trickle at the same time. Although the month started with a bang with my mammoth mission to Lyme Regis, a trip from which I'm still not sure I have fully recovered, it's been a bit slow since then. That said, there have been two further additions to the non-motorised year list and from a family which might be surprising given its relatively small size in UK terms - namely, the gamebirds. 

'What can he mean', I hear you ask - 'Pheasant, Red-legged Partridge, Grey Partridge, isn't that it for Dorset'? Believe it or not, Black Grouse is actually on the Dorset list but they haven't been seen lekking on our lowland heaths since the 1920s. Quail, by contrast, seems to be on the up in recent years with several calling birds returning over the last few summers to the area around the National Trust's Kingston Lacy estate. I went to listen to them in a weedy field last June (seeing them being seemingly impossible) which was a riot of colour with poppies and other wildflowers providing cover not just for the Quail but numerous pairs of Skylark and Corn Bunting. 

The new chariot: a reward to myself for all that cycling - 1,500+ miles so far in 2021
Five calling males were reported in the same area in early June this year and while still a bit bushed from the exertions of Lyme Regis, I thought I should make the effort as they were just a dozen or so miles away. Having had my fill of busy roads, I stuck to the tracks through Wareham Forest for the first half of the journey, but inevitably there came a point where I needed to cross, and briefly follow, the A31. I managed to find a route which required only about half-a-mile on this busy main road, but that half-mile was as scary as any of the 20+ miles I travelled on the A35 a few days earlier! I was glad then to return to minor roads and head for the relative quiet of the agricultural areas to the north. 

The only one of June's mega-rarities which was realistically 'twitchable' for me was the River Warbler over the border in Somerset

The large field preferred by the Quail was bisected by a public footpath and after walking its length and concluding that at least two birds were singing, I adopted the same strategy as on my visit last year: sit down quietly with a good view of the path and hope beyond hope that one would walk across! This strategy failed miserably last year, though on this occasion one calling bird seemed to be getting closer and closer as it responded to another male calling further down the field - so close in fact that I couldn't quite believe it wasn't visible. I could even hear what the guide books describe as the creaky 'mau-wau' introductory notes before the classic 'wet-my-lips' song (just about audible towards the end of the clip above, just after the Corn Bunting jangle).

At 60 miles the River Warbler was beyond my cycling range so I indulged myself with only my third out of county car trip of the year
I remained motionless and after several more bouts of close calling the Quail took off with a clatter of wings, treating me to a brief flight view. It turned out that it was in fact still a good distance away, despite sounding so close, attesting to the ventriloquial quality for which the species is known. Although I decided back in January to tick 'heard only' birds for the purposes of the year list I was delighted to have seen one for only the second time in over 20 years of birding.
We saw a River Warbler on our last Shetland holiday, but I couldn't resist a spring male in full song

A fallow period then followed with no new birds for the year between 3rd June and today - the longest gap I have experienced between additions to date. The deadlock was broken by another gamebird, one of Dorset's better kept secrets, in the form of a Golden Pheasant. This introduced species makes it onto category C of the British list by virtue of self-sustaining populations in the wild, mainly in Norfolk - but Poole Harbour also hosts a population which has survived if not thrived in the fox-free Rhododendron thickets of Brownsea and Furzey Islands. The invasive Rhondodendron has been cleared from much of Brownsea, reducing habitat for the pheasants there, but it remains abundant on Furzey, and birds can occasionally be seen near the island slipway by desperate year listers with telescopes viewing from the Redhorn Point area.

A lovely bird and worth the slightly agraphobic feelings on leaving Dorset and meeting other birders!
My friend Steve Smith regularly sees Golden Pheasant from here though typically from the comfort of a car with a flask of coffee - clearly not an option for the non-motorised year list. This made picking the right conditions important - the light can be tricky and heat haze at this time of year can severely hamper viewing. With not much better to do this afternoon, I thought I'd take my new bike, a nifty hybrid number acquired earlier in the month from the excellent Wareham Cycle Works, for a spin to Studland on the off-chance of seeing a Golden Pheasant. The conditions looked ideal - cool enough for there to be no heat haze, bright enough to get a decent scope view, very little wind and warm enough to sit around for what I anticipated would be a long wait. 

Looking out to Brownsea and Furzey from Redhorn
In the end a long wait wasn't necessary, as within a few minutes of setting up the scope, two small dark pheasants ran across the road looking most unlike Common Pheasants and very much like Golden Pheasants. I assumed they were females and as I phoned Steve to break the good news, a gilt-maned male strutted into view to remove any doubt about the identification. The list had crept up to 191, and the seemingly impossible milestone of 200 came another step closer. I'll still need a decent autumn to get there, but suddenly it doesn't seem quite as outrageous a prosepct as it did back in January.

The Furzey Island slipway digiscoped from Redhorn Quay - a distance of just over a mile. Patient viewing can produce occasional sightings of Golden Pheasant crossing the road beyond the slipway.

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