Friday, 25 July 2014

Obituary for Backsand

Backsand is a thing of the past.....and it shall be missed
For those of you who don't know Backsand it was a scrape rented by SBBO adjacent to the River Stour, on the opposite side of the river to the Pfizer site, about 3 miles from the Obs itself..
For most of the year the scrape was of little interest to most birders because it was almost solely populated by ducks, and pretty common ones at that and it was also shot over. However Backsand came into it's own during late summer/early autumn when the water levels had dropped revealing mud/sandbanks - migrating waders used it as a stopping off point and the more local waders used it as a high tide roost.
The number and variety of waders there was not great but the siting of one of the hides - the "Photographic Hide". the "Falling Down Hide", the "Spider Hide"  (it had many names - most of them derogatory) - was very close to the water/mud allowing some of the best views and photographic opportunities for waders in the county, if not the country.
It did have a few problems in that the siting of the hide meant the best time for photography was between about 11.00 am and 2.00 pm so for optimum conditions you needed high tide to fall between these hours and hope there wasn't too much glare from the sun being so high.

There are several reasons why the SBBO has decided to relinquish the lease:
The lease was coming up for renegotiation this year and in these times of financial hardship the cost was difficult to justify.
Due to the length of the walk down to Backsand the number of people using it was very small with yours truly being the most regular user (in recent years) - so much so that most of the time it seemed like I had my own private scrape.
Another contributing factor was the construction of the Sandwich flood defense scheme. (The area between Backsand, Newdowns Farm poly tunnels  and the river has now been excavated making an area of scrapes and deeper pools that will take excess water during higher tides and especially when Sandwich is threatened by floods. This defense scheme would not only restrict access to the scrape but it would also provide competing habitat (mud) for the waders and even during autumn 2013, whilst the excavation work was on-going, waders were roosting on the new scrapes/pools reducing the number using Backsand itself.

The final nail in the coffin came with the December 2013 tidal surge which over topped the river bank and sent a huge volume of water flooding into the scrape destroying all 3 hides completely. So not only would the Obs have to find the (assumed increased) rent they would also need to find thousands of pounds to replace the just wasn't going to happen.

Anyway to mark it's passing I thought I'd post some shots of the species I've seen there over the last few years. I don't pretend this is an exhaustive list of what was seen there, just what I've seen or have heard about in recent years.

An irregular visitor:
Avocet (juv)
Little ringed plover
Seen every year with up to 4 or 5 present.

Little Ringed plover
Common - 50+ was not unusual.

Quite common but rarely came near the hide.

Curlew sandpiper
Irregular visitor with good and bad years; last year was a good year with up to 4 present.

Temmincks Stint
Only ever saw the one down there but having said that I've not seen many anywhere! Unfortunately despite me staying there all day it never came quite close enough.

Little stint
Quite a regular visitor but in low numbers - 2013 was one of the better years.

Wood sandpiper
Regular visitor but with only 1 or 2 present at any time. They were happy to come close.

Green sandpiper
Common with 15-20 not unusual and they came very close.

Common sandpiper
Common with 15-20 not unusual. Also came very close.

Daily visitor at high tide; could be 50 present but quite often didn't feed on the scrape and flew out as the tide dropped.

Spotted redshank
At one time these were annual visitors with 3 or 4 being present in a good year but they were absent the last couple of years for some unknown reason. Came very close when around.

Mainly at high tide when 15-30 could be present. Occasionally came very close to the hide.

Black tailed godwit
Probably just about an annual visitor and normally distant.

Rare visitor to the scrape and never came close. Strange because loads would be on the adjacent fields.

Small numbers there most years.

Uncommon, not seen every year and never came that close.

Pectoral sandpiper.
Only seen the once. These were around for about a week in September 2012 and Backsand enjoyed more visitors that week than it normally got in a year! I was there just about every day but they never came quite close enough - oh for a 500 or 800 mm lens.


Red footed falcon - seen and photographed by one lucky..........................individual.

Spoonbill - I only know of the 1 and I may have been the only one to see it. Unfortunately my main camera was broken at the time!

This was taken with my "happy snaps" camera!

Grey Heron
Regular visitor but never came close.

Little egret
Often around in significant numbers (I think 17 was the largest count I had) and would come right in front of the hide- so close in fact that at times you could only get a part of the bird in shot.

Little grebe
Nearly always around and occasionally breeding there so often family group present. Would swim right past the hide just a few feet away.

Present for a couple of years but only for a week or two but would land on a post in front of the hide.

So there you have it.
It was a great place to spend the day and, if your luck was in get some great shots - I'm going to have to find something else to do each autumn now.

On the bright side once excavation work has been completed (and I don;t know when that will be ) and the new coastal path constructed the new scrapes and pools will be observable from the Coastal Path. There was once talk of some hides being put in place but I don;t know if that will ever come to fruition.

Thursday, 17 July 2014

Besotted with spotted flycatchers

Tuesday started as most of the last month started .....very slowly!
I'd had a wander around the SBBO recording area but it wasn't very productive or encouraging. Restharrow scrape being a particular disappoint. It's home to somewhere around 20 coots who seem to have had a bumper breeding season and the little grebes have also done pretty well - there are 3 pretty much full size juveniles associated with 3 (possibly 4 adults) and another family of 6 where the 4 juvvies are very small.
All of which sounds very encouraging but the scrape is in poor shape for the autumn waders passage with grass, sedge and reed growth not only covering all of the banks and islands but it's speading deep into the water - there going to be very little mud to attract the waders though it looks excellent for stilts!
In the hedgerows and fields 3 corn buntings were noteworthy and along the Ancient highway a juvenile whitethroat posed brilliantly in the sun whilst the rest of the family foraged in the weeds.

The gullies look brilliant for birds - still very damp from the floods but as with most of the summer it's near devoid of birds.
Along the sea front a kestrel posed for a couple of minutes but wouldn't let me get close enough.

I'd given up and was at home faced with the prospect of filling the afternoon with chores when I got a text from Steve Coates about a family of spotted flycatchers at his place of work and was I interested. Is the Pope Catholic?
An hour later I was there reporting for duty.
Steve left his stuffy office to show me where they were then he went back to work.
The birds were in a very shady gully but it was great to see spot fly in Kent and to see that had successfully fledged some young. There were certainly 2 youngsters but judging by the noise they were making it's possible there were more. Whatever, I watched and tried to photograph them for an hour or so when Steve returned and asked if I wanted a coffee.

Juvenile spotted flycatcher

Adult and juvenile

 I took a lot of shots of one of the juvvie begging for food from the adult but the shutter speed was so low (down to 1/25th sec at times) that most were a complete blur and have gone in the bin.
Time was moving on, the sun getting lower in the sky and the gloom in the gully deepening so I called it a day and had a coffee with Steve.

A very unexpected treat - the flycatchers that is; not Steve buying me a coffee!

Thursday, 10 July 2014


My last few weeks birding has mainly been spent along the cliff top between Kingsdown and Dover and due to the paucity of birds in East Kent at the moment the main objective of most of these walks was exercise. On the avian front what you see up there is pretty predictable, gulls (herring, black backed and lesser black backed), fulmars, loads of jackdaws, crows and a few mippits, linnets, yellow hammers and corn buntings, very few of whom are kind enough to pose for the camera.


Corn bunting

In some of the few bits of scrub up there you might find the odd whitethroat (e.g Fan Bay) but that's about it. Stonechats are conspicuous by their absence all the way from Kingsdown to Dover.

The major attraction (and photo-opportunity)  has been the peregrines who have enjoyed an excellent breeding year fledging 3 youngsters some of which seem to positively love being papped.

................................pesky flies

As with all photography on the cliffs the light is never ideal with you either shooting into the sun or if you wait till the afternoon for the sun to be behind you the birds are in the shade with the bright sea behind them.
Locating the youngsters is not that difficult - they come to you - you just stand near one the perches and wait; they fly in whilst you are there and proceed as if you don't exist. The other means of locating them is their call - if they are around and awake they seem to call constantly, either quietly or insistently if they are hungry.
They don't do a lot of flying which probably helps the perch photography but it makes getting aerial shots difficult - they just sit, calling (or sleeping) and if an adult turns up with a kill they fly off for a feed. From the normal vantage point I could see several well used feeding stations but all were distant.

The adults were far less easy to pap; the few perches they used were normally distant though I did find one on the main photographic perch one morning and it stuck around for several minutes.

The rest of the time I assume the adults were away hunting and you only saw them as they returned low down flapping frantically as they carried another ex pigeon to one of the feeding stations.

A couple of shots showing just how relaxed the youngsters were:

....and on one occasion, first one flew in then 10 minutes later an second joined it (though I couldn't get both in focus).