Tuesday, 22 June 2021

What doldrums?

June is typically the month when birding can get rather slow and repetitive, especially on a local patch. Quite apart from the extraordinary run of megas on a national scale in recent weeks, it’s also been pretty good at Pulborough, despite the fact I’ve not had a year tick since the end of May. 

Missing the Sanderling on the 11th was pretty gripping to say the least, especially as as far as I’m aware it’s the first record for the reserve since 2013. Still an excellent find by the Friday crew, just a shame I was halfway to Yorkshire at the time!

Sanderling, 11th June. Photo by Warren B

The Shelduck family are still present on the North Brooks, the six ducklings growing bigger by the day, while the lingering female Pintail is also still about - presumably here for the summer now. 

The lingering Pintail

The best news this past week has been the arrival of the first Avocet chicks of the year, after two failed attempts in the spring. Three chicks have been seen on the pool at West Mead since the weekend, and the adults have been doing a great job of chasing off any passing Lesser Black-backed Gulls and Carrion Crows. The hide at West Mead is still closed, so the best place to get a glimpse of them is with a scope from the tea terrace or by the dipping pond behind the visitor centre.

There have also been up to eight adult Avocets on the North Brooks of late, so perhaps we'll see some more chicks in the coming weeks. West Mead is also hosting a reasonable number of Lapwing chicks at the moment too, which is great to see. Redshank numbers seem to be increasing although I've still not seen any chicks as yet. 

Avocets at West Mead, photo by Andy Ashdown

The first returning Green Sandpipers are starting to trickle through with singles seen on the 17th and the 20th. A Wood Sandpiper on the North Brooks on the 14th was a little unexpected, although strangely the third year in a row we’ve had a mid June record of the species here. Presumably failed breeders returning from Scandinavia.

Highlights along the Arun recently have included regular Kingfisher sightings, good numbers of Reed Warblers (attracting the attentions of a Cuckoo or two) and presumably the same Great Crested Grebe I've seen from time to time here since April. I've only seen one on its own but have heard anecdotal records from a dog walker of two together recently.

Great Crested Grebe

The heath is always good value at this time of year with several recent evening visits producing at least three Nightjars, a roding Woodcock plus the delightful background soundtrack from the Field Crickets, more of which have been recently translocated here from Farnham. 

After a bumper spring for singing male Nightingales around the reserve (at least ten), the scrubby areas around the main trail are now busy with whistling and croaking adults tending to fledglings. The best areas to see or hear one are Adder Alley, the Hanger, or anywhere between the top of the Zig Zag path and Fattengates.

Whilst it isn't exactly a popular topic of conversation among non-birding friends and family, now we've passed the Summer Solstice, we can really start thinking about autumn and the first dispersing migrants. Waders should really get going in July, followed by the first proper waves of returning passerines in August. I'm still missing the likes of Whinchat, Redstart and Tree Pipit for my Pulborough year list, so these will be among the species on my radar in the next few weeks.

Friday, 28 May 2021

Seasoning

I feel like I’ve been saying 'what a weird year' a lot lately, but it’s hard to disagree. The driest, coldest April for decades, dominated by northerlies, clearly held back a lot of migrant species and the exceptionally wet May has undoubtedly taken its toll on both residents and migrants who have managed to breed. Of course, these extreme shifts in weather patterns are sadly no surprise and will only intensify in years to come. One can only imagine the challenges climate change will throw in the way of birds traversing Africa and mainland Europe to reach us each year, but that's a much larger topic for another blog post, perhaps.

From a patch birding perspective, I knew in January if I was going to reach 150 at Pulborough this year then I needed to be hitting 140 by the end of the spring. Having failed to connect with the likes of Whinchat, Redstart and Tree Pipit in the past few weeks, it’s fair to say I didn’t have Brent Goose and Hawfinch on my radar as potential additions to the list come late May. Indeed, the Brent Goose on the 26th was my 140th Pulborough species this year, with this morning’s flyover Hawfinch taking me nicely into the 140s, leaving me with seven months to find another nine. Not quite home and dry yet but feeling quietly confident!

Brent Goose on the North Brooks, 26th May

Photo by Chris and Juliet Moore


The Brent Goose was long overdue after an oddly quiet winter for them at the Brooks, especially considering there had been several records by this time last year. I perhaps should’ve expected to find it on the reserve in the morning as I’d actually thought I’d heard one through the bedroom window the previous evening, but I decided I’d imagined it and thought nothing more of it until my usual early morning scan of the North Brooks.

The Hawfinch was a real bonus, and my first on the reserve since the unforgettable 2017/18 influx. I actually heard it several moments before I saw it. I was walking through the narrow section of Adder Alley and heard what sounded a little like a Reed Bunting call to the north of me, but straight away knew it wasn't quite right for that species, followed by a loud tick slightly reminiscent of a Grey Wagtail. That species is not a particularly common sight on the reserve at this time of year so it was enough to make me look up just in time to see the unmistakable chunky, big-winged, short-tailed shape of a Hawfinch flying straight over my head, quite low, calling several more times as it carried on south over the trees towards the South Brooks. 

With a week of settled weather and easterly winds ahead (at last!), I'm excited to see what surprises this peculiar year throws up next.

Sunday, 2 May 2021

Accidental Big Day

I hadn't planned to do it. In fact, I headed out birding in a very leisurely fashion this morning. I'd glanced out of the window at around 05:45 and seen the fog so opted instead for a coffee and a browse through the latest British Birds in bed, before setting out at around 07:15. Quite unlike my normal dawn raid on the patch!

I've only ever managed to record over 80 species in a day at Pulborough Brooks once before, while taking part in the very socially distanced Mole Valley Bird Race in May 2020, when the various teams competed remotely from their respective patches. That day I achieved what I considered to be a very respectable total of 83 species from 04:00 to noon. I'd often wondered if I could beat it and had talked about giving it a go with Ed Stubbs at some stage. 

In the end, today turned out to be that day. The morning started well with a flyover Little Ringed Plover near home, a Great Crested Grebe asleep on the Arun (only my second record here this year) and the usual singing Cuckoo, Yellowhammer and a noticeable increase in Sedge Warblers and Reed Warblers.

Great Crested Grebe

A scan of the North Brooks revealed a Wood Sandpiper with the assembled Greenshanks and Redshanks; my first of the year here and always a nice bird to find locally. Soon after finding the bird I pointed it out to Jackie Day and other visiting birders, including Steve Baines, with whom I birded the reserve for most of the rest of the morning, notching up another year tick in the form of a Hobby over Winpenny. That took the patch year list to 135, which felt like a very satisfying morning's effort. 

Distant Wood Sandpiper and Greenshank

After saying goodbye to Steve at the car park and hello to various other regulars and RSPB staff, I decided the North Brooks was worth another scan with rain imminently forecast. In the end it didn't produce a great deal, but as I thought about heading for home early afternoon, it struck me I had topped 80 species for the day list for only the second time. A few more additions including Stonechat and Meadow Pipit took the list to 84, my best ever day tally! Now I could really head home feeling smug, I thought. Halfway down the footpath towards the village, the call of a Greenshank had me looking up to see one being chased by a Peregrine - the latter taking the list to 85!

Peregrine vs Greenshank!

After a brief pit stop at home, a bit of a gardening and a trip to the allotment, I decided a return visit to the Brooks had to be done. Could I reach 90 in a day? There were still so many common bits I was missing. I started with a loop of Black Wood where I soon added Willow Warbler, Jay and Coal Tit, before returning to the North Brooks. An earlier reported Yellow Wagtail was nowhere to be seen but suddenly a Curlew appeared; only my second record here this year, and 89 for the day! By this time, I had been joined at the Hanger by legendary former Pulborough Brooks regular, Jon Winder, who said he'd seen a Great Black-backed Gull earlier, and also heard a Tawny Owl which I'd missed. Gripping! With the light fading we both agreed to head for home, but not before a check of the field by the church produced the hoped-for Barn Owl. 90!

It turns out I also missed the first Spotted Flycatcher of the year earlier in the day, so with that, Tawny Owl and the various other omissions, I'm now wondering whether it would be possible to reach 100 in a day. Maybe one day...

Monday, 5 April 2021

It begins...

After a dribs and drabs sort of affair for much of March (quite apt after my last blog post), migration has at last stepped up a gear in the past week with some real goodies turning up at Pulborough in recent days.

The undoubted star of the show was the stunning male Pied Flycatcher which has been present since Saturday morning until the time of writing. It was performing particularly well this morning along the fence line in the northeast corner of Brook Field, and this evening was flicking around one of the large Oaks up Green Lane. Although we've had a couple of good autumns for this species on the reserve, this certainly wasn't one on my radar to add to the year list so soon. Indeed, it's the first one I've seen in the spring here, and the first adult male I've seen anywhere for years.

Pied Flycatcher

One of the true harbingers of spring at Pulborough, the first Nightingale of the year rather hesitantly announced its arrival along Adder Alley on Easter Day, followed by another singing very briefly at the Hanger this evening; three days earlier than my previous earliest record here. 

There's a nice selection of waders to be seen on the North Brooks now, with up to three pairs of Avocet looking very settled, plus up to three Little Ringed Plovers, several pairs of Redshank and Lapwing and five Ruff. 24 Black-tailed Godwit stayed for a few days last week, many resplendent in breeding plumage, but these have since moved on. A Grey Plover on the North Brooks this morning was the first I've seen on the reserve since 2019. Sadly, its stay was short-lived as it met its end at the talons of a Peregrine this afternoon. 

Wildfowl numbers have really dropped now. There were a couple of drake Pintails lingering into this weekend and a dozen or so Wigeon and Shoveler as of yesterday but otherwise it's only really the Teal hanging on in reasonable numbers. The first Garganey of the year, a splendid drake, showed well on the North Brooks on Wednesday and Thursday but hasn't been seen since.

Garganey. Photo: Dave Carlsson

Warbler numbers continue to increase, with dozens of Chiffchaffs around now, many paired up and already nest building, and Blackcap numbers are steadily building too. The first Willow Warbler turned up on 31st March, followed by at least two more this past weekend. Strangely no Sedge Warbler or Whitethroat yet, although it's still early days, but the Cetti's Warbler persists below the Hanger.

Chiffchaff

It took until the last weekend of March for me to see my first Sand Martins, and Swallows only began trickling through last week, but this past weekend has seen good numbers of both, plus the first House Martin of the year on Easter Day.

Other highlights from this weekend included a year first Great Crested Grebe on the Arun on Saturday and Sunday, a fly-through male Hen Harrier on Saturday and a sloughing male Adder enjoying the sun (out of the wind!) most days.

Great Crested Grebe

Adder

After such a great ten days or so, my patch year list now stands on 119, out of a total of 121 for the reserve so far. Hopefully once this icy spell has passed the flood gates will really open!

Monday, 8 March 2021

Patience

Another relatively quiet (and cold!) morning in Pulborough and Clandon got me thinking a little bit about patience - surely one of the most important traits for any birder. When Kate and I were last in South Africa a few years back, the owner of one of the guest houses we stayed at commented on my patience as I sat out in the garden for several hours watching thousands upon thousands of Cape Cormorants streaming past to roost. It was just a friendly, passing remark of course but it occurred to me that sitting in one place watching one landscape for one particular reason would seem to some people a terribly boring thing to do, I suppose; rather like being dragged to a gallery if one had little to no interest in or understanding of art, there's a certain kind of headspace that needs to be tapped into for one to appreciate something like watching birds for any real length of time. 

There are many kinds of patience required to be a birder, whether local patch workers hoping for the arrival of a particular species to add to the year list, vismiggers staring hopefully at empty skies or twitchers waiting for hours for a rarity to reappear. Right now, after months of cold, darkness and lockdown, most of us are eagerly awaiting the return of the early spring migrants. Few things can lift a birder's spirits at this time of year than the first Wheatear or Sand Martin, although the proliferation of bird news and social media posts can lead to a distinct feeling of FOMO and, yes, impatience, especially if we find ourselves a few days behind our peers in seeing that first returning sub-Saharan visitor

Today, after the cold start, turned into a pleasant, calm and relatively mild day, thanks to the shift in the wind direction to west/southwesterly after over a week of northeasterlies. Indeed, it may only have been a subtle change but there was an unmistakeable hint of southern promise to the air. As I strolled round the field at work during my teabreak, it had the feel of a quiet theatre just before a grand performance is about to begin. The stage is set, the audience are seated and the actors are on their way. All that’s needed is a little patience and all will be revealed. 

Good things come to those who wait... Wheatears in Clandon last spring


Sunday, 28 February 2021

Snow on the last day of Winter

Well, not really, but tomorrow is the first day of meteorological Spring and this morning did deliver two white gifts from the heavens in the form of an Avocet and a Mediterranean Gull, both on the North Brooks and both year ticks (102).

The Avocet spent much of the morning feeding in the larger back pool before wandering over to the shallow edge to roost. When it did so I caught sight of a red ring on one tibia. Despite watching it for quite some time I didn't see the other tibia to confirm that one had a matching ring but it seems very likely this is last year's breeding male returning, as that bird had red rings on both tibias. It will be great to have them back again this spring, if so.

Avocet

The Med Gull was an adult moulting in to breeding plumage. It dropped out of the sky with a bunch of Black-headed Gulls and Common Gulls, then hung around for a while before flying off south.

Mediterranean Gull

Other highlights from this morning's 77 species total included five Tufted Ducks (three drakes), four Ruff (including one with a smart white collar), five Dunlin, a single Golden Plover, four Black-tailed Godwits, two Red Kites, two Peregrines and at least ten singing Chiffchaffs. Full checklist here.



Saturday, 27 February 2021

Spring?

Despite the cold and frosty start, today turned into a beautifully sunny and quite warm day. It was still icy as I headed out down the river from home at first light though, but as I approached the tree line from the Pig Run, the sound of a Chiffchaff singing came drifting through the crisp air. There had clearly been quite an arrival overnight as it turned out to be one of at least seven around the nature trail, plus another on the edge of Black Wood.

The North Brooks was fairly quiet, with a noticeable reduction in ducks, particularly Pintail. Two Black-tailed Godwits were the only waders of note here. I headed round to check the Mid Brooks which produced five Dunlin and singles of Ruff and Golden Plover among the hundred or so Lapwings. There was a clear distinction between the wintering flock and those preparing to breed onsite, with much displaying going on among the latter. 

Down at Hail's I sadly wasn't able to find the Red-legged Partridge that Paul Davy had yesterday afternoon, but it was nice to see the lingering male Hen Harrier again, quartering briefly before heading off to Greatham, flushing dozens of Snipe in the process.

Mid-morning I met up with Anna, Rob and Paula from the RSPB to help with a Woodlark survey. We each took up a post at likely spots between the visitor centre and the Triangle for an hour and confirmed the presence of two pairs. Rob also imparted news of a pair of Crossbills on the heath - a year tick for me - so I pretty hastily headed that way after saying my goodbyes and connected with three munching on pine cones near the new access gates. The male was even singing occasionally in the now very pleasant sunshine. A very nice way to reach 100 on the patch year list - the first time I've reached that milestone before March.

Woodlark

Crossbill

Full eBird checklist here: https://ebird.org/checklist/S82437322

On my way home I also saw my first Small Tortoiseshell of the year near Wiggonholt Church.

Small Tortoiseshell