Saturday, 8 December 2018

Dreaming of a White-rumped Christmas

An unusually leisurely start at Pulborough this morning after a rather late night saw me heading first to West Mead hide where the highlight was a Peregrine and a Marsh Harrier dogfighting distantly and at some height over the Arun, causing much alarm among the hordes of Lapwings and wildfowl which were swirling around over the Mid Brooks. After a good scan here the brisk south-westerly was beginning to turn my hands numb and make me wish I'd remembered a scarf, so I headed off to Winpenny which I thought would offer a bit more shelter (it didn't). As I approached I could see the Lapwings were all still airborne with a Redshank calling among them - not a bird I've seen here much since the breeding birds left in late summer.
Marsh Harrier, photo by Ed Stubbs
The main pool in front of the hide was the fullest I'd seen it since the spring, with just a few grassy spits and islands still visible in the water, the main one of which was decorated with a good covering of Lapwings. It didn't take me long to pick out two smaller waders among them, one of which was clearly a winter plumage Dunlin. The other bird held my attention for longer. Another birder came in and delivered the usual 'much about?' to which I directed his attention to the two Calidrids. He wasn't convinced either was anything other than a Dunlin and left soon after. I began to doubt myself. I briefly redirected my attention to a preening Peregrine and a Kingfisher which gave a nice flypast in front of the hide. But still I kept going back to this wader. It was only a fraction smaller than the obvious Dunlin but something about the proportions was all wrong. The bird appeared slighter and rather more 'squashed' in its build, with a shorter bill and a clear supercilium, but most striking of all was its long, pointed rear end caused by the primaries extending beyond the tail, giving an overall more Stint-like shape to the bird.
White-rumped Sandpiper
I was by now in no doubt that this was no Dunlin but couldn't immediately place what I was dealing with. The general shape put me in mind of the Baird's Sandpiper I'd seen at Cuckmere Haven last year but I didn't remember that bird having such a strong supercilium. This bird also had dark streaks extending down its breast as far as the flanks, also unlike Baird's. Then I remembered the White-rumped Sandpiper I'd seen at Lodmoor five years ago and it dawned on me this could be what I was looking at!

I sent out some pics to a few people and put them on Twitter and soon the replies started coming back thick and fast... "A bit W R Sandy shaped", "could be a White-rumped Sand?", "have you seen the rump?". Others such as Martin Gray and Josh and Ed from BirdGuides were more confident based largely on an ID feature I had overlooked but which was clearly visible in even my relatively poor phonescoped shots: the pale base to the lower mandible. Suddenly everything went a bit mad. The news was out. My phone went into hyperdrive. People were on their way down. It's the kind of moment that every patch watcher dreams of! I tried to maintain my cool and was determined to get a clinching look at that rump whilst also juggling various text, Twitter and WhatsApp conversations as well as phoning in the news to the visitor centre.
At some point while all this was going on I briefly lost sight of the bird and was faced with the distressing prospect of being the only observer and having to explain to everyone that arrived that they 'should have been here five minutes ago'. Luckily, a few minutes later it returned (although it seemed like far longer) and as it cruised back down onto one of the grassy spits the sunlight caught the white uppertail coverts beautifully. Yes! It really was a White-rumped Sand!
A coach party from Eastbourne RSPB group arrived at this point, who looked rather incredulous when I excitedly pointed them in the bird's direction. It was a lifer for many of them and I was more than happy to let those without scopes have a look through my own. After a while the group headed off, all very grateful for the unexpected highlight of their day. Then the hide seemed very empty for what seemed like an eternity until Dave Buckingham called and said "Matt, I'm at West Mead. Where are you?". My blood ran cold - I'd been so buzzing at the realisation of what I'd found that I'd got the hide names muddled up! "Winpenny! It's at Winpenny!" I exclaimed, and soon enough there came the sound of approaching footsteps and the hide again filled up very quickly. The bird went AWOL for a time when it flew up with all the Lapwings but thankfully came back a little later, albeit rather more distantly, and all who came in the next few hours connected. With the horizontal drizzle hampering visibility and blowing in through the hide windows I said my goodbyes to the bird and birders around 13:45 but it was apparently still showing well up until nearly 15:00 at least.
Evidently only the thirteenth Sussex record - only two of which were in this century - and my 149th species at Pulborough this year, it's fair to say that if there is to be a 150th bird on my 2018 patch list it will have to go some to top the excitement of today! Either way, hopefully the WR Sand sticks around for many other birders to see and hopefully get some better photos of.
White-rumped Sandpiper and Dunlin together, photo by Ed Stubbs

Sunday, 25 November 2018

Pulborough, mid-late November.

There’s a lot to love about this time of year. The arrival en masse of wintering wildfowl, thrushes, finches, owls, crisp frosty mornings, the excitement of cold weather movements bringing with it an increased chance of something scarce or rare. What’s not so great is the heavy reduction of available time in the field due to the dwindling amount of daylight, which inevitably increases the chance of missing stuff, especially when one's patch is such a well-watched reserve as Pulborough.

As such I’ve no new year ticks to report since my last update on here although I’m still smarting from missing the Red-breasted Merganser on the 16th. Unlike Cattle Egret and a few other dips this year which I’m reasonably confident I’ll grip back at some stage, there’s only been one previous documented record of RBM at Pulborough, back in 2009. Hopefully I won't have to wait another decade for the next one!
The Brooks are filling up nicely now thanks to a fairly wet second half of November and the flocks of Wigeon, Teal, Lapwing etc are now getting sizeable - best appreciated when a passing raptor sends the whole lot piling up into the sky with an almighty whoosh! As has become the norm here the wintering Black-tailed Godwit numbers are now well into three figures too, former warden Pete Hughes reckoned there were around 300 first thing this morning.
With actual patch birding now restricted to (often wet) weekend-only sessions my attentions have turned rather more towards nocmigging, the dark and stormy evenings of late providing the ideal opportunity to catch up on a backlog of recordings from earlier in the autumn. With more and more birders venturing into this new extension of ornithological study this autumn in particular has proved revealing in terms of the nationwide scale of some species' movements. A busy night for Redwings on the 14th-15th November was accurately reflected in Pulborough when I recorded 322 calls in ten hours.

Redwing/Wigeon duet

Assuming each call represents at least one or two birds, but likely many more, it's fair to assume at least a thousand birds passed over the house that night. Likewise, when Simon Gillings and Jon Heath - both Cambridge-based 'nocmiggers' - reported an unusually high count of Dunlin the following night (15th-16th), I was keen to discover if my own recording reflected this, which it did indeed as a total of 148 flight calls were logged from a bare minimum of 38 birds. The true count was likely far higher. Take this clip below, for example. It's quite evidently more than one bird (I put it down as two) but as others have pointed out it could be four or five or more.

It's really quite incredible to think about such swathes of birds moving above our heads while we're sleeping. As I've said before, migration is for my money the most fascinating aspect of bird study - and so intrinsic to our understanding of birds in general - and nocmigging is, I'm discovering, an opportunity to glimpse just that little bit further into their world and start to fill in the gaps in terms of what birds are moving, when and why.

Sunday, 11 November 2018

Approaching 150

2018 has been my first full year patching at Pulborough. While I'm not interested in competing with anyone else I did think it'd be fun to try and do a bit of a 'big year' and see how many species I could record here in twelve months, which is why I registered Pulborough as my patch on Patchwork Challenge.

Not long into the year, Dave Buckingham suggested I should have a good chance of getting 150, which I promptly scoffed at. Having only patch watched Surrey sites before, anything much over a hundred seemed good going to me. Come late spring though and Whinchat took me to 140 and I began to realise perhaps it wasn't such an impossible total after all. Things got decidedly stagnant in the summer and there have been some gripping dips along the way for sure, most notably Cattle Egret and countless Ospreys, but yesterday I notched up species 148 in the form of a female/immature Merlin causing havoc on the Mid Brooks - always an exciting bird to encounter. This one even had the good grace to perch for a couple of minutes in a tree (obviously didn't get the memo about Merlins not doing that) where it gave great views before being chased off by Crows.
The recent rain has really boosted the water levels and it's good to see the Brooks bursting back to life now, with Pintail and Black-tailed Godwit numbers in particular beginning to get impressive - 110+ and 42+ today, respectively.

Other bits of note this weekend have been the continued presence of Short-eared Owl. One was seen quartering over the North Brooks from home on Saturday afternoon while this morning one drifted in high from the south and over my head near Winpenny - evidently a newly-arrived migrant as by dusk there were three hunting together over the North Brooks along with a couple of Barn Owls. A Woodcock flew up through Hanger Wood as I passed this morning - not a bird I've seen a huge amount of at PB, surprisingly - while a male Marsh Harrier was quartering down at Hail's View.
Short-eared Owl coming in this morning

Wednesday, 31 October 2018

Pulborough round-up, late October

Great to finally complete the set of British Owls on my Pulborough list recently with the addition of Short-eared Owl, seen first from behind the visitor centre on the evening of the 23rd then subsequently added to the garden list the following evening, seen over the North Brooks from my attic - then again on Sunday evening quartering up and down the banks of the Stor.

Short-eared Owl over the North Brooks on Sunday. Photo by Istvan Radi
Keeping with the (sort of) nocturnal theme, the nocmig adventures continue as I'm still working through the past week's backlog of recordings. A recent highlight was what sounded like at least two or three Brent Geese flying over not long after midnight on the 19th. There's always a few vismig records of this species in the southeast at this time of year as they 'cut the corner' from the east coast to the south coast, but still a nice one to get on nocmig and only my second record since I started recording at the end of last year.

Other highlights from the past weekend were at least three each of Marsh Harrier (including an adult male) and Red Kite on Saturday plus two Shelduck, a Little Egret and a heard only Water Rail below the Hanger. Duck numbers continue to increase with at least four hundred Wigeon and eight Pintail on Sunday. Eighteen hundred Woodpigeons flew southwest in an hour on Saturday morning, while down on the South Brooks a White-fronted Goose bearing a red leg ring was in with the Greylags - presumably not a wild bird as I believe it's been seen on and off a few times in recent weeks.

Meanwhile, on Sunday morning Paul had a Ruff with the Lapwings at Hail's View; a species that has been notable by its absence at Pulborough this autumn, especially compared to last year when we had a pretty remarkable count of 26 together on one day in late September. Presumably not a good breeding season for them, as has been the case for many shorebirds it seems.

Gary Trew had a ringtail Hen Harrier over the South Brooks yesterday and a Dunlin with the Lapwings on the North Brooks, while the Hen Harrier showed again today for Russ Tofts followed by another Short-eared Owl sighting and Woodock over the car park via Gary T.

Sunday, 21 October 2018

Nocmig gold - YBW!

I've been nocmigging pretty much every other night so far this month, weather permitting, which means I've inevitably ended up with a bit of a backlog of recordings to go through. A dark and rainy evening last Sunday provided the perfect opportunity to do a bit a of catching up and I set about working my way through the night of the 8th/9th.

A nice and clear Water Rail was a good start but there wasn't a huge amount else of note until an odd little 'V' shape at 23:25hrs caught my eye. Clearly rather quiet, I initially took it to be a slightly odd Redwing call, but then the penny dropped. I checked on Xeno-canto and, sure enough, the recordings and sonograms on there proved that mine was a perfect match for Yellow-browed Warbler. Given the numbers in the country at this time of year I suppose it's inevitable that many must fly straight over at night, but it's still quite extraordinary to imagine this tiny little bird calling as it cruised over Pulborough. A Sussex, Pulborough and garden tick triple - or at least it would have been had I not been asleep at the time!

Sonogram of the YBW over Pulborough and one from Xeno-canto to compare (below)

And here's the Water Rail from earlier in the night

Pulborough, 20th-21st October

A mixed weekend at Pulborough. Water levels steadily increasing along with Wigeon and Lapwing numbers (conservative counts of 220 and 400 today, respectively). Yesterday there were three Black-tailed Godwits and a single Redshank on the North Brooks, with another two Redshanks seen at Hails View. Noticeably more Goldcrests around but surprisingly few thrushes, with just fifteen Redwing, ten each of Blackbird and Song Thrush and a single Fieldfare. A good selection of flyover bits with singles of Crossbill and Brambling the highlights. A Little Owl was calling loudly but remained unseen on the east side of the reserve. A couple of hours this afternoon produced a Barn Owl at Redstart Corner, a heard only Water Rail from the Hanger and a flyover Green Sandpiper near Winpenny while highlights on the North Brooks (among the Lapwing and Wigeon) were two Pintail, two Common Gulls, six Gadwall, 10+ Snipe, a Little Egret and a striking leucistic Black-headed Gull. Friday's Redstart was reported again at West Mead but I didn't see it. A rather faded Clouded Yellow was on the wing in Brook Field.
Distant and grainy phonescope shots as is the norm at Pulborough but clear enough to see the overall slim build, thin bill, pointed wings and total absence of black in the wing on this presumed leucistic Black-headed Gull on the North Brooks this afternoon
Possibly the most entertaining moment of the weekend was watching a Grey Heron wrestling with an Eel at Winpenny on Saturday morning. The Eel was near enough the same length as the Heron's body and although the Heron managed to swallow it whole on several occasions the Eel managed to wriggle its way back out every time. Eventually the Heron stabbed the unfortunate creature a few times with its bill before carrying it off, bloodied, into the reeds.

Saturday, 6 October 2018

Pulborough, late September

Well, what a quiet September that was. The continuing low water levels and an almost total absence of easterlies didn’t help and I spectacularly managed to get through the month without a single patch year tick. It's been good to see some signs of the seasons changing though with a few Wigeon around now and the welcome return of at least two Marsh Harriers, again a regular sight quartering over the Brooks. The bulk of the hirundines and summer passerines cleared out pretty sharpish towards the end of the month, meaning we are now in that rather odd limbo period as we await the arrival of most of the wintering ducks and thrushes.

The month ended with a bang for some though as lucky regular Paul messaged me first on Saturday evening while I was in London informing me of two Great Egrets on the North Brooks and then again Sunday afternoon asking what looks like a Little Egret with a yellow bill that hangs around cows... Cattle Egret of course! Evidently two were briefly on the North Brooks that morning before flying east. Particularly galling that one as they would have been a Pulborough tick and also because I was actually on site that morning! Fingers crossed there'll be more to come, given how many are in the country at the moment.
One of the two Cattle Egrets on the 30th (photo: Paul)

The two Great Egrets on the North Brooks on the 29th (photo: Paul)
Now we’re past the equinox and the nights are growing longer than the days, before and after work birding time is limited so it’s full on nocmig season again! I put the microphone out most nights in the last week of September and was rewarded with my third Common Scoter of the year on the 22nd, the first Redwing of the season (25th) and another Oystercatcher (28th). I'm excited to see what else I manage to pick up in the coming weeks, this being my first full autumn of nocmigging.
Common Scoter