Thursday, 31 March 2011

A Trip to Lower Kent

Today the Kingsdown Ornithological Club (KOC) went on it’s spring trip to one of the more distant parts of Greater Kent  -we went to Lower Kent (or Kent “Est” if you prefer); most of you know it as France.
This intrepid team consisted of Steve Coates (“Kingsdowner”), Pete Pearson-wood who seemed to spend most of the morning claiming he could see blue sky when us more vertically challenged could only see cloud and mist, and myself.
In today’s trip we took in Le Clipon – the outer breakwater and pier at Dunkerque, Oye and Calais. These sites are actually only 35, 28 and 24 miles respectively from Kingsdown (as the crow flies) so we are not talking long distant birding here. Indeed on a fine day you can see all three destinations from Kingsdown.
We always use the ferry to get to France that way we enjoy a pelagic. So after a quick cup of coffee it was all on deck to watch hoards of wonderful birds as they make their way north…….not.
It was dead out there. For 80% of the journey we only saw a few herring/BB gulls and a couple of gannets though as we approached the French coast a couple of dozen kittiwakes started following the boat and we steamed past a lone razor bill but that was about it. No med gulls, no little gulls, no terns, no ducks. Not a good start.

Undeterred we set off the Dunkerque.
The outer breakwater at Dunkerque is nothing like the one at Dover – this one is ~ 7 miles long and is flanked by a huge expanse of sand dunes and scrub – mainly sea buckthorn – that looks brilliant for migrants.
The easiest way to get to it is via the bridge at Mardyke. Once on the breakwater we drove west a couple of miles then turned right to get to Le Clipon – the very lengthy pier.
As we drove (slowly) along the breakwater the dunes and scrub looked really good but we saw very little – a small flock of linnet, a stonechat plus mippit and skylark in decent numbers. At minimum we had expected a few wheatears and possible a crested lark but we saw none of either.
Toward the end of the breakwater we turned right towards Le Clipon and we spotted something on the sea - a group of 5 red-breasted mergansers. A few clicks of the camera later then we continued.
Red-breasted Merganser
Eventually we parked up and had a look at the beach of the “Basin de l’Atalantique”. Here we found decent numbers of ringed plover, a few dunlin plus oyster catcher and in the basin itself several gt crested grebes and an eider.
Overhead there was a constant movement of sandwich terns and sometime later we found a flock of ~ 400 on the beach - these were constantly flying back and forth. I assume they breed out there.
We then walked out on the Le Clipon itself.
Pete and Steve on Le Clipon
A little way along we heard a faint calling squeak and searched for the source – a goldcrest!!!!!! Then a wren turned up, then a black redstart. In total we had 3 goldcrests, 2 wrens and the black redstart actually on the pier. Most of the time they were in amongst the big blocks you can see in the picture above but they did come out to feed at times.
Concrete loving Goldcrest
Also as we walked out we had 2 more eider.
From a sea watching perspective though there was nothing going on at all so we didn’t linger.
On returning to the car we had another look at the shore line of the basin de l’Atalantique  and searched the beach and the dunes of the breakwater close to the pier and added sandling (~50) to the day list but there was nothing else. The lack of wheatears was a real surprise; in fact we didn’t see one anywhere during the whole trip – obviously Sandwich is not the only place suffering from a wheatear famine.

Next stop was Oye which we approached via Grande-Fort-Phillipe. The Reserve Naturelle du Platier d’Oye stretches quite a long way along the beach at Oye with some of the east-most pools being best viewed from the road as you appraoch. At the first stopping point we had all the ducks and geese you would have expected plus a bar headed goose. There is a duck/goose pond in the reserve so the suggestion was it was a domesticated one (kill joys).
Bar-headed Goose

Also we found grey heron, avocet, curlew, kestrel, a pair of marsh harriers and a buzzard that dwarfed the male marsh harrier as they had a little set to.
Marsh Harrier
Eventually we also spotted a spoonbill but it was always distant so no pictures I’m afraid.

We moved on to the main car park from which we had several chiffchaffs  and 2 more goldcrests and from the main hide it was more of the same with respect to ducks and geese though the main pool did hold a number of pintail and a couple of  redshank. Sandwich terns were constantly moving back and forth overhead and we had 5 swallows high over the main pool.
We started to walk the dunes/scrub inland of the beach and towards the pools where we had seen the spoonbill but it started raining and we scurried back to the car – we’re not very hard core!
Given the rain the decision was to go to Calais and watch the main ferry basin for gull from the safety of the car but on the way we found another lake/pit where there was a thriving colony of black headed and Mediterranean gulls – it was raining quite hard by now and I couldn’t be bothered to get some photos.
On the way to Calais we did stop at the hover port but no sign of any crested larks.
At the main ferry basin it was pretty slow and for a long time a lone, partially moulted, drake eider was by far and away the main attraction but then Steve spotted a tern. There then followed a long debate as to just what it was. It was incredibly dark underneath from some angles but had a very white tail. Personally I’ve opted for a common tern that looked very dark underneath due to the poor light though it might have been an arctic. I tried to get some images but they were near useless at helping with the id (other than ruling out some of the more exotic suggestions).

We still had a little time before check in at the ferry so we decided to drive along the prom – a few years back we had seen what might have been a crested lark along there but it had flown before we got onto it. Anyway within a few yards we got all excited but it was a sky lark but a little way further along there was one!!!!

Crested Lark
We actually found 3 and although they gave me the slip on the crazy golf course I managed to get close to one on the kiddies playground – no kids around so I wasn’t arrested for possessing a big camera in the presence of children.

A beer and something to eat on the ferry and that was that. Another enjoyable day came to an end.

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Still Scratching around for some Migrants

Monday 27th

I started at Sandwich stopping at Restharrow on the way. At Restharrow I immediately found one of yesterdays Little ringed plovers - it's nice to start the day with a year tick then it was off to the Obs.
After meeting up with Ian  we started the rounds by going back to Restharrow because Ian had missed them at the weekend then we walked the beach to the Chequers.............. still no wheatears!
Actually there was not much at all on the entire walk other than skylark, mippit and linnet with the highlight being ~ 20 goldcrests around the estate – Elms, Little Elms and Middle Field, a lone tree sparrow at the Chequers, and a few white wagtails, one of which showed well at the sailing club.

After lunch I went to Stodmarsh and went straight to the Marsh Hide. Chiff chaffs could be heard from Alder wood and in the hedge rows of the path. This was a welcome sound as we have none to speak of on the coast. A couple of Cetti’s were also heard on the walk out.
At the Marsh hide, as well as Steve Ashton,  there were snipe (~6) lapwing and redshank (2) and an Oyster catcher – somewhat of a rarity at Stodmarsh. On the duck front there teal and  mallard, plus grey lag and coot but no sign of the weekends white fronted geese and no garganey. A lone swallow flew past mid afternoon.
A water pipit showed up pretty soon after I had arrived and eventually moved to just in front of the hide and provided some decent photo-opportunities. The bird was showing a distinctly grey head but the pink flush was still in its infancy. Some of the best shots were when it stopped to preen then had a good stretch of its wings.

Water Pipit
Marsh harriers were regularly seen but most of the time they were very distant.
At one point two birds locked talons which was pretty spectacular but a little too distant for the camera

Marsh Harrier

On the way out we heard then found a brambling but it was too distant /obscured to get an image.

Thursday, 24 March 2011

Goldcrests provide the highlight

Normal routine again today – the rifle range at Kingsdown then Sandwich to walk the circuit with Ian.
Still no sign of any migrants on the rifle range but the kestrel still provides a few photo-opportunities.

The tour of the estate at Sandwich got off to a good start as we spotted a  swallow  flying north over St Georges golf course (a year tick for me) but soon things settled into the normal routine – a few mippits, skylarks and reed buntings  but no viz mig to talk of.
The sea front did not provide the hoped for wheatear though there were 4 eider and about a dozen gt crested grebes on the sea and on the sand (the tide was way out this morning) there were a few waders in the form of dunlin, ringed plover, turnstone and a lot of oyster catchers.
By the sailing club we found the black redstart that was first spotted yesterday but it soon disappeared and we couldn’t re-locate it.
We walked south along the beach then inland to the Chequers where a lone tree sparrow was spotted in the gardens and 24 lapwing were in the adjacent field but there was little else of note other than a sparrow hawk out on Worth Marsh.
On the walk back to the scrape there were a couple of “singing” corn buntings and the scrape held teal, mallard, tufties, shoveller, little grebe, coot, moorhen and Canada geese – no sign of the barnacle goose however.
The shoveller gave a fly-past and a lapwing walked within a few feet of the hide.

We checked out the Elms but it was very quiet - just a few tits and 2 great spotted woodpeckers.
The photographic highlight of the day was on the corner of Kings Avenue where we found 6 goldcrests in conifer. They then moved into the hedgerow allowing some decent images to be obtained.

Last spring goldcrest were like hen's teath on the estate with firecrests being far more abundant; this year it's totally the opposite. Ours is not to reason why........

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Still no migrants

22nd - A scrappy day due to chore/errands.
As normal for the last couple of weeks I started on the rifle range but all I got for my troubles were fleeting vies of peregrine and kestrel; the black redstart seems to have disappeared and nothing else (and I mean nothing) has turned up.
Back home by 8.00 but the carpet man arrived earlier enough for me to pop down to Kearsney.
No sign of the yellow wags alongside the ornamental lake but there were a decent variety of ducks at Bushy ruff so I sat on the bench and enjoyed the sun.
The coots were their normal belligerent selves but they were fighting too close for me to get a picture. I did try to get some flight shots but this "landing" was the most interesting shot  I managed.
2 pairs of gadwall were present but they refused to come close and 2 little grebes did likewise.
There was one strange looking duck out there – I assume a hybrid but of what is anyone’s guess – it was a big lump.
Ruddy Big Duck
Whilst sitting there 2 buzzards circled high overhead then 2 grey wags turned up.
I got closer to get some images hiding behind the sluice gate. One of the birds walked along the water edge towards me getting very close but nearly always head on – though a few decent images were obtained.

Grey Wagtail
After that it as back home awaiting an afternoon delivery but I did have another visit to the rifle range – no change though one of the kestrels came close.
The 23rd was another day confined to barracks “supervising” home improvements. Well I make the tea and type this whilst others do the working.
I did manage to get down to the rifle range first thing (6.30 am) and although there were no birds to be seen this example of trick parking by this Jag was amusing.
Hardly dented at all!

Saturday, 19 March 2011

No Migrants but who cares!

All week I have been searching the sea front at Sandwich and Kingsdown for a wheatear or a black redstart and today was no different.
I arrived at the rifle range, Kingsdown, at 6.45am in bright sunshine. Immediately I spotted a male  kestrel and as I walked south 2 peregrines came into view from the south. I fired off a few shots and although the quality is pretty rubbish you can see from the pictures one of the birds had very worn secondaries.

Tatty Peregrine

That was about it other than a few chaffinch, mippits and pied wagtails seen/heard going north but the numbers were very low.
I then moved on to Sandwich and again searched all the normal places for wheatears etc with the same success as I’d had at Kingsdown. There was one unusual sighting at Sandwich – a fulmar flying around the beach front houses.
After a brief visit to Restharrow scrape (no change on the rest of the week) I returned to Kingsdown as did Steve Raynaert, who was birding the same sites as myself.
Fog was rolling in by this time and in places was pretty thick however at Kingsdown it was thinning.
At the Rifle Range the kestrel was on a sign post but didn’t allow us to get close and both mippits and rock pipit were seen but otherwise it was much as before.
At the southern most end of the rifle range I had just stopped to have a pee when Steve shouted “peregrine”- it’s timing could not have been better!  I did manage to fire off a few pictures but it’s difficult to concentrate on photography with your trousers slipping down your legs!!!!!!! This was the best I could manage. The bird has a colour ring on it but I can’t read it from any of my pictures.
Peregrine (ringed)
The bird eventually landed on the cliff face ~200yrds south of the Rifle range and sat there for ages.
Steve gave up waiting but I was determined to try and get some better shots of it now that my trousers had been fastened.
Eventually it came off the cliff face and flew overhead but it was immediately joined by a second bird that came off the cliff face a little north of me. The 2 were flying out to sea when a lot of screaming took place and a 3rd bird appeared.  I lost track of who was whom but 2 of the birds locked talons and spiralled a couple of times before disengaging.
Whilst all this was going on I was clicking away with the camera however the patchy low cloud/fog meant the birds were continually disappearing and undoubtedly prevented some superb shots being obtained.

After a few moments 2 of the birds returned to the cliff landing about 20 yrds from each other.

Eventually they flew off – one north and the other out to sea but both were lost from view.
I decided it was time to go home but as I was walking back to the car I heard a kestrel call and spotted it flying along the cliff face. Needless to say I fired off some shots of him!

Kestrel (male)
So a good day for the local raptors even if the migrants are staying away.

Monday, 14 March 2011

A Gloomy Day at Sandwich

Whilst the summary of today’s weather on BBC SE this evening suggested today was spring like here on the east coast it was overcast and quite cold in the NE wind.
The day was spent at Sandwich where I did the rounds with Ian - today we walked from the Obs to the sea then down to Chequers and back along the
Ancient Highway
Only a few mippits, reed buntings and skylark on the way to the beach and on the sea a few great crested grebes (6) and red throated divers (3). As we walked south we got the impression of stuff flying south overhead but it was difficult to see anything due to the very low cloud. We stopped at the Cellars and looked a bit harder and every now and then flocks of chaffinch could be seen/heard overhead. Some came through quite low but most were high disappearing into then reappearing from the cloud. A few flocks were 20-30 strong then one group of ~ 200 went by with a total of over 460 being seen.
From there we continued along the beach to the Chequers but no sign of a wheatear (one was seen over the w/e) the only sightings being of more skylarks on the beach and golf course and a peregrine.
At the Chequers there were 22 corn buntings on the wires by the barn and 11 tree sparrows were on the garden bushes. Several more corn buntings were singing along the ancient highway but there was little to see on Worth Marsh other than starlings – one flock being ~1000 strong.
Restharrow held the normal ducks (wigeon, teal, shoveller, tufted) and geese (including the barnacle goose) but the little egret population was up to 5.
Final birds of note were 2 great spotted woodpeckers were in the Elms and a firecrest in Middle field.
Sorry about the lack of pictures but the weather/light was too poor to even try.

Friday, 11 March 2011

The Rifle Range at Kingsdown

A short visit to the old rifle range at Kingsdown did not reveal the hoped for early migrant but the fulmars and a pair of kestrel showed well and allowed me to have a play with the camera.
I first found the female:
Kestrel - female
And a little later she flew along the cliff face not too high up. I took a series of pictures which were a little disappointing given how low she was:
Kestrel - female
Further along was the male:
Kestrel - male
But he flew off as I tried to get a little nearer – the picture shows his departure with the feet and tail being the only part of him in focus.
Kestrel - male
One thing I like about this set of shots is they show the difference in the tail/under-tail markings of the two sexes – something I hadn’t noticed before.
The fulmars are now occupying most of the nest holes with other birds flying up to the holes seemingly just to annoy the occupants.
The only other birds seem were jackdaws and “rock doves”- well they are doves and they are on the rock face!

Thursday, 10 March 2011

Destruction or Conservation?

It was long walk day today. From the obs we crossed St George’s golf course to the beach then up to the 100 acre field then back via Newdowns.
Not much on the walk north – just a few mippits and skylarks and still no sign of a wheatear. Along the beach we did find several pairs of displaying ringed plover and, most unexpectedly 2 snipe in the sand dunes – migrants? Up by the 100 acre field we saw a merlin which promptly landed on the beach. Why do they always seem to land near rubbish or is it just the Pegwell bird that has a rubbish fettish?
What was disappointing during the walk north was to see just how much of the sea buckthorn has been removed – KWT have cut back just about everything south of Princes new club house and a few clumps north of it for good measure. I could understand it if the buckthorn was taken out or thinned to prevent loss of the sand dunes/dune grass habitat but none of the plants have actually been removed – only cut back low to the ground– it looks more like heavy handed gardening than habitat restoration. Wityh money short you'd think they have better things to spend it on than this - preventing dog walkers from entering the restrictred areas would be a good start.
The walk inland towards Newdowns revealed more snipe, a pair of grey partridge, a few more mippit and  skylark with curlew and woodpigeon being the main species seen. On the raptor front what I assume to be the same merlin put in another appearance chasing a small bird of some description, 2 buzzards were seen heading inland and a peregrine was floating about going nowhere in particular.
Near Princes reservoir we spotted a siskin (the first record this year at the bay for Ian and myself) and outside of migration not a common bird in the area and the goldeneye was still in residence on the reservoir itself along with tufties and 3 little grebes.
Goldeneye - honest
Newdowns reservoir had 2 pochard, more tufties and the gt crested grebe.
The undoubted highlight of the walk however was as we were almost back at the obs. Phil Milton phoned to say the 2 cranes were over Pegwell. These had been reported ~ 2 hrs earlier at Shuart and were obviously making an aerial tour of East Kent.  A quick scan north soon located the cranes which at first seemed to be heading our way but they soon turned away and drifted off NW – another year tick. Some photos of the bird appear on the Reculver site of KOS.

In the afternoon I went to Langdon Cliffs to try and photograph a peregrine or a raven. I saw neither, though the kittiwakes are showing well at South Foreland with ~ 35 potential nest sites being occupied on the bits of cliff face I could see and another 40-50 kittiwakes wheeling about and/or going in to bits of the cliff face that are invisible.
Kittiwakes at South Foreland

Whilst waiting for the peregrine etc I amused myself taking photographs of fulmars but to be honest there are a lot more of these at Kingsdown.

Monday, 7 March 2011

Why do we expect so much when the sun shines?

After a miserable weekend (where I did not bother going out) it was great to see the sun and enthusiasm was high as we did the rounds at Sandwich. As always our optimism was unfounded and the birds around today were very similar to those around yesterday (strange that) with no sign of the hoped for migrants (black redstarts, wheatears).
Greenfinch numbers are recovering but mippit numbers are still low – we only saw 3 today. Restharrow had the normal ducks – wigeon, teal, tufted, shoveller, mallard but the little grebe numbers now stand at 4 after being zero for most of the winter.
A few curlew were in the surronding fields and one came onto Restharrow but was a little too far away for a decent shot. Also from Restharrow a male sparrow hawk was seen cruising into the Elms.
Finally on the way back for a welcome cuppa a female kestrel was along the
Ancient Highway
After coffee I decided that the sun was too good to waste so I went hunting photo-opportunities.
First up was Hampton Pier. It took a little time but I eventually found the 2 purple sandpipers that have been in residence for a while now.
Purple Sandpiper
Also there were a few redshank and 20-30 turnstones.
The eider was west of the pier but about 30-4 yrds out but still a lot closer than I normally see them at Sandwich.
Next stop was the woods. As I arrived I saw Steve Ashton’s car parted up so I joined him in a couple fo hours of woodland bird photography.
The most common visitor to the nuts on the fallen tree were coal tit but these depart in an instant so getting a sharp picture was a bit of a challenge. In addition the light was very harsh so a lot of the shots were both over exposed (white bits) and under exposed (shadows) at the same time – a little frustrating really.
Coal tit
The nuthatch were a little easier to photograph because they hung around a little longer on the nuts ( as long as 2 or 3 seconds sometimes) but the light/shadows were still a bit of a challenge.
At one point we had 3 nuthatch in the adjacent trees but on this occasion 2 guys with dogs ensured they didn’t visit our food offering.
Great and blue tits were also around but were more very reluctant to visit the nuts and a couple of gt spotted woodpeckers were close by but unseen.
As the afternoon worn on and the shadows started lengthened  I went deeper into the wood hoping for a lesser spot but it was not to be though I did turn up a couple of tree creepers.

So a good day with the camera but these may get less frequent if petrol prices increase in line with expectations.

Thursday, 3 March 2011

It's been a tough week to be birding

This has not been a good week. It has been bitterly cold, we’ve suffered sleet and there’s been bog all to see. The first 3 days were spent at Sandwich – sea watching (rather than bird watching) on the first 2 days and the estate and Worth Marsh on Wednesday.
The highlight of these efforts wer 2 red breasted mergansers, and even these were seen on Wednesday and we walked along the sea front towards Mary Bax. Our sea watches produced nothing other than cold fingers.
Today was going to be my day out of the wind – I was going to the woods.
I arrived at Park Wood just before 8.00 but as I was getting the gear out of my car, a car and Land Rover drove into Park Wood. By the time I got to the main clearing the guys had a couple of fires going and the chain saws were out of the cars. I went and had a chat and it seems they are clearing a lot of the scrubby stuff around the main clearing and will be there till the end of March.
Since the edge of the main clearing was the best place to photograph birds and where I was getting the marsh tit pictures this was not good news. They are also working within a few yards of where the great spotted woodpecker nested last year so I don’t think that will happen again this year.
I assume they will not be working weekends so anyone interested in visiting the place should go then.
Since I was there I did have a walk round and saw all the normal tits (a mixed flock of long-tailed, blue, great, coal and marsh tit plus a tree creeper and a few chaffinch) but these were up at the top of the wood and area where I don’t normally see that much.
What with the noise of chain saws and the smoke I won’t return till April.

After leaving Park Wood I decided to go the Stodmarsh – siskin and redpoll had been reported in Alder Wood and Steve Ashton had got some superb water pipit pictures from the Marsh Hide earlier in the week.
When I arrived I found that Steve was already there – taking pictures of great tits near the bridge in Alder Wood – and we were soon joined by Mike Gould.
There was a largish flock on siskin nearby and we tried to get some pictures but they remained high up and my attempts were poor.
Cutting our losses we started walking to the Marsh Hide (beware the footpaths are very muddy and slippery) and hadn’t gone too far when we found another 6-8 siskin in the trees alongside the path and relatively low down.
As always with siskin you get hundreds of shots of them partially obscured or out of focus but I managed some good ones.  Whilst we were there snapping away Steve Rayneart turned up and joined in the fun.
One full card later and we moved on to the Marsh hide.
From the marsh hide there was a decent number of lapwing and snipe (there seem to be no snipe around the Sandwich area at all), a few grey lags, coots and 2 or 3 water pipits.
The marsh harriers were moving around quite a lot and a male flew past quite near though it was going away before I managed to lock onto it.
Marsh Harrier
A female also came close too but the camera decided to play up at that point and I didn’t manage a single shot.
Eventually one of the water pipits came close and some great shots were obtained. At one point the bird was on edge of the water right beside the hide and the problem was getting the camera onto it – in fact Steve’s lens was too big to get on it.
Water Pipit
Eventually it flew off so we all departed. No new birds but some great views and shots of siskin and water pipit – there are more shots on my Flickr site.