Monday 10 June 2024

Spring in the valley of plenty

The lower reaches of the Piddle Valley as it approaches Poole Harbour fall within my local 'patch' at Swineham, and occasionally turn up the odd good bird. But this winter's extreme rainfall saw the valley flood more extensively and for longer than at any time since I've been in the area, leading to a bumper spring for rare and scarce birds as the flood waters receded, leaving as they did a myriad of pools and wet channels which, for a brief period, were topped up by the incoming tide.

Little Gull, Lower Piddle Valley, 29th April

Little Gull, Lower Piddle Valley, 29th April
According to the landowner, the flooding was due to a sluice gate getting stuck open at the height of the floods, and he couldn't wait for it to dry out so it could be fixed. So the tidal phenomenon stopped as soon as that happened and the floods quickly dried out in the warmth of late May. A canny move might have been to do a deal with Natural England years ago to get the land into stewardship and manage the water levels more with birds in mind - but with climate impacts making winters like 2023/24 more likely, over-whelming of the sluice might become a more frequent occurrence naturally, so they're unlikely to pay him to enable it to happen now. And if it does happen, we might well get more spring birding like the period we just enjoyed.
Little Gull, Lower Piddle Valley, 29th April
A pair of summer plumaged Black-necked Grebe spent one night only on Swineham Gravel pit on 25th April 
The first scarcity appeared over the floods when they were at their peak right at the end of March in the form of a Little Gull, which I didn't see as I was away on a family holiday in Scotland. On my return I found the valley impassable even with wellies, though by the 7th April it was just about navigable and small flocks of Shoveler and Tufted Duck could be seen enjoying the high water levels. 
Bar-tailed Godwit, Swineham, 26th April
Avocet, Lower Piddle Valley, 29th April

The waters had risen again by the 11th making the valley once again impassable. By late April some good waders were starting to appear with 4 Spotted Redshank (3 of which were approaching summer plumage) and 7 Greenshank accompanying the more typical Black-tailed Godwits, Redshanks and Lapwings on the evening of the 23rd. Just out of the valley a pair of summer plumaged Black-necked Grebe on the gravel pit added a bit more quality to the patch year list on 25th. 
Spotted Redshank approaching breeding plumage - up to 5 were in the valley this spring
Bar-headed Goose, an escaped/feral bird, but my first at Swineham
I couldn't get down in time to catch two Ruff which were seen on 25th, but they confirmed the impression that the Lower Piddle Valley was shaping up to be the Poole Harbour wader hotspot of spring 2024 - even the most die-hard Lytchett Bay loyalists were deserting their base to have a look! On 26th, the Bonaparte's Gull found by Adam Day earlier in the month on Wareham Common was relocated on the pools left by the receding floods along with the long-staying Little Gull. Spotshanks peaked at 5 on the 28th and a Common Sandpiper was added to the burgeoining valley wader list for the year, joining the more regular Little Ringed Plover as the water levels dropped.
Bonaparte's Gull in the Lower Piddle Valley on 30th April
The Bonaparte's Gull was a bit closer when it first appeared higher up the Piddle Valley - this was taken on 18th April on Wareham Common
The quality wader theme continued with a Wood Sandpiper on 29th, and although I dipped it that evening, I did see a Piddle Valley mega in the form of a lone Avocet. The following night the Wood Sandpiper dip was forgotten when timely news from Garry Hayman reported that an unprecedented 3 Wood Sands were at the east end of the valley - I arrived just in time before the rising tide pushed them off.
2 of the 3 Wood Sandpipers which required a quick dash to the valley on the evening of the 30th April
Little Ringed Plovers frequented the floods throughout April and May
Local birders resolved to check the valley as often as possible and May began promisingly when I found a drake Garganey on the floods on the 2nd. Later than evening as I returned via the bank of the River Frome I saw my first Swineham Otters - a family party of 4 including 2 youngsters throwing themselves into a ditch from the bank repeatedly for what looked like the pure joy of it - as least if it was hunting practice it was pretty ineffective!
My first Swineham Otter was seen on the evening of 2nd May with a family party of 4
Drake Garganey in the Lower Piddle Valley on the evening of 2nd May
Monday 6 May was quieter but 159 Black-tailed Godwit was a respectable count and Shelduck numbers were also impressive around that time with a high count of 108. On 9th a flock of 6 Ruff, including a breeding plumage male, was an excellent count, though their appearance was brief and I missed them again. 
Whimbrel appeared on several dates in the Piddle Valley this spring - this one was photographed at nearby Sunnyside
Flyovers by Ospreys from the local re-introduction scheme (note blue ring) frequently flushed the Piddle Valley wader flocks, adding to the need to follow up reports of scarcities promptly! 
I went for another look on 10th and though the Ruff were not present, I was delighted to find 5 Grey Plover (3 in summer plumage), 3 Knot (1 in summer plumage), 17 Ringed Plover (my previous high count was 4), 3 Greenshank, 5 Dunlin (3 in summer plumage) and 2 Bar-tailed Godwit (1 in summer plumage) - all good birds for this location.
Summer plumaged Knot (here with a winter plumaged bird) was one of the star waders of the spring - and a patch tick for me
Summer plumaged Grey Plover was another highlight of spring in the Lower Piddle Valley
The number of Little Gull doubled to 2 on 11th May, and Knot peaked at 4 on 16th - but the best was yet to come. On Friday 10th I posted a message on the local WhatsApp group asking if anyone had checked the valley today or did it fall to me to go and find the Temminck's Stint or other rare wader? As I was mid-way through my last meeting of the day on 20th, a message arrived from Garry Hayman with a very hazy picture of a distant wader he couldn't identify. I replied that the speckles on the back 'look a bit Temminck's' - but as I was still in my meeting I had to advise him to seek further advice from others. They came to similar conclusions and soon reinforcements arrived to confirm the identification. With my meeting now finished I dashed down on the bike to join the bijou twitch which had by then formed.
Large gatherings of hirundines were another feature of spring at Swineham this year - here Sand Martin and Swallow in a pre-roost gathering on 10th May
Bar-tailed Godwit, Grey Plover, Knot, Little Gull and Ringed Plover all in the same shot - stellar patch birding by the standards of recent years 
This would have been a fitting Coda the spring symphony of birding in the Piddle Valley - but the following morning we were treated to an encore. As well as its fair share of work-shy and retired types, Purbeck is well served by a small band of dedicated working birders who diligently check promising sites on the way to, from and sometimes during work. One of these, Rob Johnson, dropped in to the Piddle Valley early on the morning of the 21st, on the way to work at the Port of Poole, to look for the Temminck's. He couldn't find it but went one better, locating an American Golden Plover - a first for Swineham - on the rapidly evaporating pools. Only three locals managed to get there before it was chased off by a Lapwing, never to be seen again - and I was delighted to be among them.
Temminck's Stint found by Garry Hayman on the 20th May - our first since 2020 when I stumbled across one on the Frome Valley pools. Not since that year, when I also found a Marsh Warbler and a Pectoral Sandpiper, have we had such a purple patch at Swineham
The stunning American Golden Plover found by Rob Johnson early on the morning of 21st May
Between myself and Garry Hayman, we calculated we had seen 22 species of wader over the course of the spring in the Piddle Valley - full list, with high counts where noted (and the 21 species of wader I have seen at Swineham so far this year marked '*'), below:

  1. American Golden Plover (1)*
  2. Avocet (1)*
  3. Bar-tailed Godwit (2)*
  4. Black-tailed Godwit (159)*
  5. Common Sandpiper*
  6. Curlew*
  7. Dunlin (11)*
  8. Green Sandpiper*
  9. Greenshank (7)*
  10. Grey Plover (5)*
  11. Knot (4)*
  12. Lapwing*
  13. Little Ringed Plover (3)*
  14. Oystercatcher*
  15. Redshank*
  16. Ringed Plover (17)*
  17. Ruff (6)
  18. Snipe*
  19. Spotted Redshank (5)*
  20. Temminck's Stint (1)*
  21. Whimbrel*
  22. Wood Sandpiper (3)*
My photos taken at some distance in a heat haze don't do justice to the AGP
Within a few minutes of my arrival the AGP was spooked by a Lapwing and not seen again - only four local birders managed to see it in the end
The rest of May passed uneventfully with the exception of a Ruddy Shelduck of unknown origin which was located on Swineham Point from a birdboat and twitched successfully by myself and Nick Hopper. It too made it onto the Piddle Valley list, just, dropping in to the mouth of the river, where a Bar-headed Goose had been seen earlier in the month - adding a bit of fantastic plastic to spring in the valley of plenty. 
A Ruddy Shelduck of unknown origin appeared with a party of Egyptian Geese on Swineham Point for one day only on 29th May
It flew to the river (right hand bird) making it the last good bird of Spring 2024 to grace the Piddle Valley

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