Wednesday, 6 June 2018

Dragons on the doorstep

Despite spending ten hours at the Brooks over the weekend it was proving to be relatively quiet on the bird front - unsurprisingly for the time of year - so on Sunday afternoon I headed to Fittleworth in search of dragonflies. Common Clubtails, to be precise, which I had no idea were so close to home (thanks to Pete Hughes and Amy Robjohns for their Twitter tip-offs!).

A short walk from the B2138 road bridge east along the River Rother and sure enough we enjoyed fantastic views of at least 4-5 Clubtails patrolling about and occasionally perching on the riverside vegetation. There were also amazing numbers of Banded Demoiselles around, including a female we watched catch and then eat a Mayfly right in front of us!
Common Clubtail
Common Clubtail
Banded Demoiselle (male)
Banded Demoiselles
Banded Demoiselle (female) with an unfortunate Mayfly

Closer to home: Hairy Dragonfly (male) at Pulborough Brooks

Tuesday, 5 June 2018

Further adventures in Surrey seawatching

Just thirty days after the four Bonxies that Wes, Robin and I had past Leith Hill the last thing I was expecting was another inland pelagic surprise so soon, but that's exactly what happened this morning.

I'd just pulled up to the front gate at my work in Clandon and was beginning to open up when a rather distant bird caught my attention. I had my bins around my neck as usual and scanned to see a Swift dashing low over the trees, but then noticed two much larger black and white birds flapping slowly in the opposite direction in the distance. I couldn't immediately interpret what I was looking at but a few seconds through bins was enough to convince me they were something a bit unusual.

Luckily I had my scope on the back seat of my car (which, by the way, was still stopped in front of the gates with the engine running at this point!) so quickly got it out and got on the birds in question. I was then immediately in no doubt what I was looking at as the birds' brilliantly white backs and long scythe-like wings contrasting strongly with their jet black wing tips - even in the rather gloomy light conditions - and bulky bodies tapering at both ends with a yellowish tinge to the head ticked all the boxes for adult Gannets. I continued watching in disbelief and managed to get a couple of shaky-handed phonescope record shots as the birds powered slowly east-northeast over the trees, gliding quite frequently as they went.

I've had two previous records of Gannet in Surrey, both juveniles and both within a few weeks of each other in autumn and early winter 2013 but to see two full adults flying over the leafy landscape of Clandon in June was just bizarre. Presumably they were 'cutting the corner' of the south-east and heading for the Thames Estuary and had got pushed down low by the cloud and drizzle. It was interesting to note that another or one of the same two (age unknown at this stage) was seen flying west over Sutton a couple of hours later.

Tuesday, 29 May 2018

Bank Holiday birding

I made two visits to the Brooks on Friday to see if the ongoing waderfest had any more surprises in store. At Winpenny in the morning there were five Greenshank and sixteen Ringed Plover while in the evening I bumped into Anna Allum and Graham Jenner and we all enjoyed good views of a spangly Wood Sandpiper. A Water Vole swam across the pool in front of the hide which was a nice bonus. I ended the day with a watch across the Mid Brooks from behind the visitor centre which produced an impressive 75+ Rooks flying west to roost, then wandered over to the heath where a single male Nightjar churred near Black Pond and a couple of Stag Beetles flew around. Thankfully I remembered my insect repellent this time - the Pulborough midges are ruthless!
On Saturday morning I spent a couple of hours at Winpenny with Alan Baker where I finally caught up with the very smart summer plumage male Grey Plover reported the previous couple of days along with the first summer bird, now present for its sixth day. It's good to see several Redshank and Lapwing chicks around now - apparently seven pairs of the former and twenty pairs of the latter have bred onsite this year, which is great news.
Grey Plover
Also here were four Greenshank and three Ringed Plover. The North Brooks held a single Black-tailed Godwit and a couple of Shoveler and Teal, while at Hail's View I found a hawking Hobby, and the regular Great Spotted Woodpecker pair still busy feeding young. By the time I headed home it was getting very warm so I stopped at Black Pond for a bit to take in the impressive numbers of dragonflies here, mostly Four-spotted Chasers but also the odd Hairy Dragonfly and others too quick for me to identify! (Odonatology is not my strongest subject but I'm determined this year to try and learn more as Pulborough is a perfect place to do so).
Four-spotted Chaser
Just a couple of fairly brief visits on Sunday and Monday morning were enough to show the wader extravaganza was coming to an end with 'just' four Greenshank, eight Black-tailed Godwits and two Ringed Plover on Sunday and just the Godwits again on Monday. Still, it was exhilarating while it lasted, and perhaps there's still one more gem to come before things really quieten down into the summer months? But then, if birding teaches us anything, it's to expect the unexpected!
I spent most of Monday exploring some famous but hitherto unknown to me sites in East Sussex, trying to help Charlie Peverett with his attempt to record 110 species in the Newhaven/Hailsham area in a single day. I joined Charlie a few hours into his marathon at Splash Point where the sea proved to be very quiet but we still managed to add Sandwich Tern, Gannet, Rock Pipit and Kittiwake to the day list, along with a few other common bits. I'd never been here before so the Kittiwake colony on the cliffs was quite a sight to behold.
Our travels later took us to Charlie's patch of Pevensey Levels, a remarkable East Anglian-style landscape, where fellow patch watcher Chris Ball had earlier found a Rose-coloured Starling, which we soon caught up with, along with Yellow Wagtail and Hobby for the day list. We then headed to Arlington Reservoir, hoping the gathering storm clouds would drop a Black Tern or something special, but in the end the best birds here were Little Egret, Common Sand and Nightingale, plus a singing Yellowhammer which was another day tick. Charlie and I parted ways early evening and he went on to notch up 87 species in total; really not too bad for the time of year and the limited area in which he was recording. Perhaps we can try again next year with a bit more success!
Rosy Starling, Horse-eye Level - the fourth time I've seen this species but the first time in near full adult plumage

Thursday, 24 May 2018

Greenshank invasion!

An hour at the Brooks this morning produced a single Black-tailed Godwit, the Grey Plover again and three Ringed Plover. While at Winpenny with Alan Baker I picked up a flock of waders flying in which I initially took to be Godwits, but as they came into land it became clear they were all Greenshank - 22 of them to be precise! Quite a sight and certainly the most I've seen in one place in the UK, although I know there have been larger counts at Pulborough in the past.
Sadly this doesn't really do justice to the spectacle but you get the idea! 11 of the 22
Later in the day Alan Kitson reported on Twitter that the Temminck's Stint was again on show at Winpenny along with ten Ringed Plover and singles of Common Sandpiper and Snipe. The latter is interesting as I recorded one on nocmig a couple of weeks ago so perhaps they are breeding nearby.

A brief visit after work produced the 22 Greenshank still at Winpenny along with three Ringed Plover but no sign of any of the other unusual waders. A flash of movement at Fattengates Courtyard alerted me to a Blue Tit nest in the old wall here though which was nice to see.

Wednesday, 23 May 2018

Waders galore! (Part two)

Another excellent day for waders at Pulborough today with the Curlew Sandpiper and Grey Plover both still present for my dawn visit along with two Dunlin, nine Black-tailed Godwits and ten Ringed Plover. Also of note were a couple of Redshank chicks at Winpenny and a flyby Kingfisher on the North Brooks - my first here for a while.

Later in the morning news came out on Twitter via Alan Kitson of first a Wood Sandpiper then a Temminck’s Stint, all with the aforementioned crowd in front of Winpenny Hide.

By the time I got back there after work, around 6 this evening, all but the Grey Plover and Wood Sand had gone. The latter was a very welcome year tick though - I’ve missed a couple in recent weeks - taking my 2018 Pulborough list to the grand total of 140!

Tuesday, 22 May 2018

Waders galore!

A really enjoyable couple of sessions at the Brooks last night and this morning with some long awaited high quality wader action.

I headed straight out after work yesterday with the forecast thundery showers filling me with hope for a Black Tern, given the numbers turning up at various inland sites.

In the event this particular species didn't show up but a flock of thirteen Black-tailed Godwits and two LRPs on the North Brooks was a good start and, as the rain approached, I made my way over to Winpenny Hide. Here I quickly got on a Spotted Redshank - presumably the same bird that was present on Friday, although where it had been hiding all weekend is anybody's guess. As the rain got heavier a Grey Plover appeared seemingly out of thin air, followed closely by two Dunlin, looking very smart in summer plumage.

All the above waders were still present this morning and had been joined by three Ringed Plover (Gary Trew had four later on) and a resplendent Curlew Sandpiper. I was really pleased with the latter as it's one of a few species I narrowly missed out on last autumn.

Both Grey Plover and Curlew Sand were Pulborough lifers for me and take my patch year list to 139. Let's see what else this week has in store!

(Please excuse the grainy phonescope pics - poor light and distance too much even for my bridge camera)
Spotted Redshank
Grey Plover and Curlew Sandpiper

Sunday, 20 May 2018

May so far...

It's been a busy couple of weeks and, with the days getting longer, computer time has now inevitably taken a backseat to time in the field - hence the rather reduced amount of blog posts recently, particularly when it comes to the patch stuff.

It's fair to say it's been a challenging spring for birders (unless you happen to have been lucky enough to be on Shetland this past week!) and, indeed, birds. Many species have been arriving later than usual, in reduced numbers or in some cases not at all.

At Pulborough the lion's share of migrant species have arrived or passed through now, it seems, although numbers do seem rather low in many cases. There certainly seem to be three Nightingale territories as far as I can ascertain, but seemingly no more. A couple of weeks ago we were all hopeful that they and many other birds were just delayed and on their way but it does now seem as though many birds just aren't coming back this year, which is a little worrying.

Wader passage has been rather slow to get going too. After the excitement of the Black-winged Stilt at the end of April and a little flurry of LRPs, Common Sandpipers and the odd Whimbrel and Wood Sandpiper, there's wasn't much of note during the first half of May aside from the lingering Avocet pair and a couple of Greenshank. Singles of Ringed Plover and Spotted Redshank on Friday provided a little more promise though - hopefully spring has a few more tricks up its sleeve yet. In more positive news it was good this week to see the first Lapwing chicks appearing on the Mid Brooks, hopefully to be followed soon by young Redshanks.
Probably the standout bird so far this month was a long overdue drake Garganey found by Alan Baker at Winpenny on the 17th. Perhaps half of a pair that has bred nearby, they're a species I never tire of seeing - particularly the males. Typically, I missed the bird first thing as I'd opted to check out Hail's View and Black Wood before work, where I did at least find my first patch Spotted Flycatcher of the year, but thankfully the Garganey stayed until the evening. Indeed, as of yesterday it was present for its third day but there were no reports of it today.
Spotted Flycatcher
Garganey - distant but unmistakeable!
One of the male Cuckoos (there were definitely two singing for a short while a couple of weeks ago) has now paired up - if one can call the rather half-hearted relationship that Cuckoos engage in 'pairing up'! I saw them both together in Fattengates Field on the 5th and the male has not been singing quite so much this past week. The local Dunnocks must be getting nervous now! After a brief lull it was good to see and hear Lesser Whitethroats along Adder Alley and at The Hanger again this week. Also encouraging via Liam Curson was a singing male Redstart in Black Wood on the 16th. A species still absent from my Pulborough list, hopefully it sticks around and finds a mate, if not I'll probably have to wait until the autumn to catch up with one.

An evening vigil on the heath on the 13th produced my first Pulborough Nightjar, with one briefly churring rather distantly to the south of The Clump around 21:20. It actually sounded like it was probably just south of the Greatham road, but a patch tick is a still a patch tick! My Pulborough year list now stands on 137 with still all to play for, with Yellow Wagtail, Osprey and various waders still among the 'easy' additions to the list in what's left of spring.
Tawny Owl - the popular family near West Mead seem to have moved on now after the RSPB wisely chose to temporarily shut the path for the birds' protection

Kestrel at Winpenny
Away from the patch, and possibly one of my most memorable birding moments to date came on Bank Holiday Monday when, a couple of hours into an otherwise rather unremarkable visible migration watch from Leith Hill Tower, Wes Attridge clocked four 'interesting' birds tracking east along the North Downs. We Leith Hill-ers always joke about Wes's extraordinary abilities to not only pick up birds at distance but also to identify them before most of us have even got eyes on them, so for him to hesitate at the ID on these four immediately hinted at them being something a bit special.

Sure enough, I'd barely got my scope on them before he'd already ruled out Cormorant/gull/wader and exclaimed 'Are these...Skuas?!!'. As they banked around in front of Box Hill and the London skyline and started powering south past Leith Hill towards the coast, we could clearly make out the broad but pointed wings with white flashes towards the tip, the overall dark colouration, the bulky head and barrel chest and short tail of GREAT SKUAS. A Surrey lifer for me, and totally unprecedented. We had them in view for over ten minutes before they eventually disappeared into the mist towards the Shoreham Gap. Totally unforgettable and one of those heartstopping moments every birder dreams of.
The view from Leith Hill Tower on what shall forever be remembered as 'Bonxie Day'
The memory of that day was still fresh in the mind when Wes and I convened with Ed Stubbs and Stuart Cossey pre-dawn on the 12th to attempt to defend our title as Mole Valley Bird Race champions for the third year running. Despite the very worst conditions - heavy rain all afternoon - on top of the aforementioned disappointing spring, we still managed 89 species which I'm pleased to say was enough for us to secure the hat trick. As is always the way though with bird races, there's always some odd omissions - we spectacularly failed to find a Sparrowhawk all day and, rather more worryingly, not one of the teams managed to record Tree Pipit, despite the heath at Leith Hill being a failsafe location for them in all previous years. On a positive note though Cuckoo numbers seem up this year, particularly at Leith Hill where there must have been at least four or five singing males.
Tawny Owl chick, ringed in Capel by Wes and Stu during a brief break in the bird race
Finally for this round-up, I couldn't resist a bit of an excursion to the furthest corner of East Sussex yesterday to see the Terek Sandpiper at Rye Harbour. A new bird for me, it showed beautifully in the sunshine for all present. On the odd occasion I do bother to twitch it's always an added bonus to run into some friendly faces as well as the target bird, and yesterday was no exception as it was a pleasant surprise to see Oliver Simms and Steve Gale down there.
Terek Sandpiper

Whether or not May is still to deliver a flood of very late migrants or a nice local overshoot (Little Bittern please!), it's reassuring to remember the days start getting shorter again in just over a month which means the start of return migration is just a few weeks away... You're welcome!