Tuesday 21 November 2023

No proper time of day

There's a poem I've shared at least once on a previous blog that succinctly sums up the feeling of October giving way to November - written by Thomas Hood in 1844 - as follows:

No sun — no moon!
No morn — no noon —
No dawn — no dusk — no proper time of day.
No warmth, no cheerfulness, no healthful ease,
No comfortable feel in any member —
No shade, no shine, no butterflies, no bees,
No fruits, no flowers, no leaves, no birds! —

Still. it's not all doom and gloom, especially when the autumn weather gods conspire to deliver something a bit tasty. It won't have escaped anyone's notice that we are experiencing a very wet autumn indeed, with the latest batch of spring tides and bouts of torrential rainfall seeing the River Arun overtopping its banks in many places from Pulborough down to the South Downs and beyond. Even so, the standout weather event of the season this year was undoubtedly the fierce Atlantic storm system, named Ciarán, which battered the south of the UK overnight on 1st/2nd November, resulting in a wreck of Leach's Storm-Petrels and a few European Storm-Petrels and Sabine's Gulls being seen along the coast all the way from Cornwall to Kent. Thanks to being recovered enough from my shoulder injury to drive (but still not back working full time) I was very lucky to be able to get to the coast to be part of this once in a lifetime birding experience. My write-up of that day and more included in this summary of the first ten days of November.

1st November

The arrival of the low pressure weather system associated with Storm Ciarán brought intermittent heavy rain and increasing winds this morning. I decided to stretch my driving muscles again with a trip over to the private reservoir near Petworth. A dozen Pochard were newly arrived here since my visit on 29th October, but I couldn't initially find the Long-tailed Duck. After a while it appeared (how do they do that?) and eventually showed quite well, preening for several minutes, though always distant. In fact, I worked out it was around 220 metres or more away from my viewpoint for the most part. Nonetheless, I am confident that it is an adult female bird moulting into winter plumage. I could also see as it preened that it appeared to be unringed. Interestingly, a different Long-tailed Duck was at a farm reservoir near Pagham yesterday. As another wave of heavy rain arrived from the south-west I decided to make a dash for the car, but was halted in my tracks as an adult Swallow flew over my head and leisurely hawked around over the fields and the little sewage works by the reservoir. It was presumably the same bird I saw here on Sunday and really didn't look in any hurry to get anywhere today. This represents my joint latest record of the species in the UK, following on from one over Leith Hill on the same date in 2015.

Long-tailed Duck - always distant!
Red Kite
In a break in the weather early afternoon I took the opportunity to head over to check Waltham Brooks which was seriously flooded even since my last proper visit a couple of days ago. Indeed, access around the lake was impossible coming from the railway line side, with paths totally flooded back up towards Greatham Bridge and the river bank back towards Thorndale Bridge. Unsurprisingly, there were a lot of ducks around including over a hundred Teal, plus at least seven Snipe and the ubiquitous squealing Water Rails (at least two). Three Marsh Harriers battled their way downriver, including a smart adult male again, and at least 25 Black-headed Gulls were doing the same, all looking distinctly Little Gull-esque at a glance as they skulled low over the floodwater, but sadly I wasn't able to find yesterday's Pulborough LG here today. 
A very flooded Waltham Brooks
2nd November

The calm after the storm, or in the middle of it, as we unexpectedly woke this morning to patchy cloud, no rain and almost no wind. It seems the eye of Storm Ciarán was right above us at this point as, by 09:30 or so, the rain was starting again and the wind beginning to pick up. After dropping B off at nursery I decided the best course of action was a quick tour of local water bodies which didn't produce a great deal aside from the continuing Long-tailed Duck. With reports of multiple Leach's Storm-Petrels starting to come in from the coast I felt like I was really only delaying the inevitable by waiting for something to happen inland, so headed down to Goring for an impromptu seawatch. I had barely parked my car on Marine Drive and wound down the window before I picked up the first Leach's Storm-Petrel powering east, fairly close in. This turned out to be the first of an extraordinary 20 that passed in the next 95 minutes or so, including a loose group of four just before 12:30. It was good to see Lyn and Mike Hunt here briefly and get them on a couple of Leach's, including one lingering fairly close to shore, plus a bonus European Storm-Petrel which I'm ashamed to say I only picked up when reviewing photos when I got home. It was hard to keep track of any one bird for very long in the swell.  

Soon after 13:00, with the rain getting heavier and the wind picking up (and my injured shoulder aching) I decided to head for home. I hadn't got further than the sharp bend on Amberley Drive though, before I stopped again, as I picked up an adult Little Gull on the flood right by the road, through the car windscreen! I didn't even have to get out of the car to enjoy great views of it just a short distance away through the window. What a remarkable couple of hours! It will be interesting to see what effects this storm has on inland birding in the coming days, with surely a few seabirds and other bits displaced and attempting to reorientate. 
Little Gull
European Storm-Petrel
Leach's Storm-Petrel
Leach's Storm-Petrel
3rd November

The calm after the storm the day before. This morning began clear with light winds, so I headed out early for a bit of a skywatch from the local farmland. It was fairly lively, with 54 species recorded in a little over an hour. It was tricky to establish the true movers from the local roosting species with light trickles of the likes of Goldfinch, Meadow Pipit, Pied Wagtail, Stock Dove, Herring Gull and Greenfinch in various directions. Rather more noteworthy bits included two Ravens south (picked up by the sound of their wingbeats!), five Lesser Black-backed Gulls west/south-west and at least one Dunlin heard flying west - my 110th species for this eBird hotspot!
After a bit of work at home I headed back out to Pulborough which I discovered had become one giant lake since my last visit a few days ago. Indeed, water was still gushing in over the river banks on both the North and South Brooks. As such, avian interest was somewhat limited, aside from a lot of geese and dabbling ducks. At least two or three Marsh Harriers were hunting along the remaining vegetated ditches and bits of exposed land. A Redpoll flew over the Hanger while a Peregrine was back in the favourite big willow tree near the viewpoint there. It was good to catch up with Chris and Juliet Moore here and, as another band of unforecasted rain moved in, we decided to all make a swift exit and headed for Rackham Viewpoint. Amberley Wildbrooks was looking equally flooded but despite a good scan we couldn't pick out anything particularly unusual among the geese and Black-headed Gulls, aside from a single Cattle Egret, strangely associating with a Little Egret, flying in from the north-west before dropping in by the favourite eagle tree.
Red Kites
A flooded Amberley Wildbrooks
4th November

Not loads of birding today but I did a manage an hour locally in the afternoon, though the floodwater has risen to such an extent that Waltham Brooks is mostly inaccessible, with the main lake essentially now extending as far west as the railway line in some places. Highlights were the usual Water Rails (at least two), two Marsh Harriers, 20+ Shoveler, and two Stonechats gleaning insects from patches of detritus on the flood water near the railway. As I headed back through the farmland towards home a single flock of 60 Fieldfares flew over heading south. 
Flooding at Waltham Brooks
5th November

Remember, remember, your last hirundine of the year. Or was it? It's been a pretty extraordinary few days here in the Pulborough area, with my latest ever Hobby, my joint latest ever Swallow and, today, my joint latest ever House Martin. The way things are going though, I have a distinct feeling it won't be the last. How many hirundines must have been blown back in their tracks by Storm Ciaran?

It was a glorious bright autumn morning with clear blue sky, although a brisky west/north-westerly wind. As it was the first fine day after a spell of stormy weather I decided to check a few water bodies locally, in the hope of stumbling across any reorienting storm-blown birds. The reservoir near Petworth still held the female Long-tailed Duck, present for at least a week now, plus a 'new in' Green Sandpiper. It was also very apparent that today was a big Woodpigeon day, with a minimum of 1,080 flying south-west here in just over half an hour. Moving on to Burton Mill Pond, which was sadly lacking in any wildfowl at all (I didn't have enough time to walk round to check Chingford Pond) but again produced several big flocks of Woodpigeons, a couple of Redwings. plus showy Marsh Tit and Firecrest near the car park.
My final stop on the way home was Hadworth Farm in West Burton, where I also found the now very flooded scrape entirely devoid of waterbirds. There were again lots of Woodpigeons moving overhead (450 in about 15 minutes) plus a few other bits. Just as I was about to leave, I picked up a hirundine coming towards me from the west which turned to reveal its white rump. It then fed over the fields and scrape briefly before continuing on its way east/south-east. 
House Martin
6th November

Timing, patience and luck are three very important factors when it comes to enjoyment and success in birding. Some days it feels like everything has gone in your favour and you are rewarded for the choices you make. Other days, choices or circumstances can lead to a less than satisfactory time in the field. Today was an example of the latter, unfortunately. 

With messages streaming in from friends in Surrey of massive Woodpigeon movements and other vismig delights, I was eager to get out birding ASAP. I wasn't able to get out until just after 8, which normally would still leave an hour or two of lively migration activity to enjoy, one would think. Today I headed up Amberley Mount for the first time in two months and have to say it was really rather underwhelming, relatively speaking. An early push of 1,200 Woodpigeons moving south down the river valley soon fizzled out and there was hardly any vismig of any description thereafter. A local congregation of Yellowhammers and constant soundtrack of Skylarks, plus a trio of Stonechats were nice, and a Great Black-backed Gull west was actually a new species for me at this site, but it still never felt like fireworks were imminent. A brief check of the floods at Greatham Bridge and Fittleworth also produced very little of note. Tomorrow is another day!
An afternoon check of Waltham Brooks in between errands proved productive, with highlights being a flyover Peregrine, three Marsh Harrier, five Tufted Duck, 20 Fieldfares, and a very showy Great White Egret dropping in just 30 metres or so from where I was stood on the edge of the flood. 
Great Egret
7th November

The weather forecast suggested another decent morning for vismig today, especially after yesterday's  big push of Woodpigeons. I again was a little later heading out than hoped and it was immediately clear that if there had been another such push today then I had again missed it. Indeed, it was one of the quietest vismig sessions I've done this season, at least for the first part - up on Alban Head just to the west of home. Highlights were single flocks of 80 Fieldfares and 130 Starlings west. Continuing the watch from a lower level - the farmland along River Lane - proved a clever move, as there was a clear upturn in movement, starting with a single Brambling low west with one Chaffinch, another 35 Fieldfares and 118 Woodpigeons west. 
Late morning I headed down to the coast. I was due to give a Knepp talk in Worthing early afternoon, so decided to take the opportunity for another seawatch at Goring Gap. As I parked up on Marine Drive, a scan of the flooded fields revealed a lot of gulls, especially Mediterranean Gull - a theme that continued throughout the session with perhaps 150 or more either moving purposefully west down the coasts or occasionally dropping in for a while. There was also a lone Brent Goose on the field which later flew west along the beach. Seawatching proved to be fairly quiet, with last week's Leach's fest already feeling somewhat like a dream. A Rock Pipit flew west down the beach, while much further out eight Gannets, six Great Crested Grebes and a single Red-throated Diver flew west. It was also good to bump into Nick Bond here and have a good chat. 
Mediterranean Gull
8th November

Another foul morning of wind and rain saw me do a whistle stop tour of a few local water bodies. First up, Amberley Wildbrooks, viewing from the southern side (trying to shelter from the worst of the weather!) and my target species was White-fronted Goose, with up to three seen here regularly by Paul Davy and others recently. Viewing conditions were less than ideal, to say the least, but after a while I picked the Russian trio up, feeding in among over a hundred Greylag Geese. Otherwise there wasn't much going on here, aside from an impressive 130+ Pintail, by far my highest count of this species so far this autumn. Interestingly, they were more or less the only ducks present, aside from about 50-60 Wigeon. White-fronted Goose takes my local year list to 158. 
Truly woeful record shot of the three White-fronted Geese!
Next up I checked Widney Brooks from Greatham Bridge. The water levels here have dropped a little but surely not for long given the hours of rain forecast today and more spring tides coming later in the week. Usual fare was on offer here, with around 40 Shoveler the best, on the flood to the south (so actually Waltham Brooks). 

The private reservoir near Petworth was almost unbirdable with the wind driving waves of rain straight towards my viewing position on the north side. The Aythya flock has grown since my last visit, with 28 Tufted Duck and 22 Pochard both pretty good counts here, particularly the latter. The lingering female Long-tailed Duck was still present too, sheltering among the other diving ducks. 

A brief stop-off at Waltham Brooks late afternoon proved rather interesting. The floodwater had receded a little, though still not enough to enable proper access close to or around the main lake. From the grassy peninsula on the western side I watched and listened as various birds flew to roost - singles of Little Egret and Marsh Harrier downriver and a swirl of over a thousand Starlings heading to Amberley. A lively mixed passerine flock was moving through the sallows nearby, including Chiffchaff, Blue Tits and Long-tailed Tits, all identified by their familiar calls. After a few minutes a less familiar call caught my attention, sounding somewhat like a weaker and more squeaky Pied Wagtail. Surely it couldn't be? Luckily I had my recorder running and, despite the rain, managed to get a half decent recording which others have agreed sounds good for Hume's Warbler - my third in Britain and first in West Sussex if so! Unfortunately I never saw the bird as the rain and darkness closed in. 

9th November

An early start at Waltham Brooks this morning where I met up with Paul D and Andrew R, all of us hoping to relocate yesterday's mystery caller. Sadly, it wasn't to be, despite good numbers of Chiffchaffs, Goldcrests and a Firecrest in the sallows and other scrub between the main lake and the railway line. A heavy burst of rain halfway through the 90 minutes I was on-site didn't help. A Great White Egret flew upriver, a Marsh Harrier was about towards the end and at least 20 Fieldfares left roost. I wouldn't be surprised if the probable Hume's Warbler is still about somewhere, hopefully it might reappear in the coming days. 

The rest of the day was spent at Woods Mill as I started my new job as Species Recovery Officer with Sussex Wildlife Trust. A short lunchtime walk here produced a Firecrest in trees near the car park, a Little Grebe on the main lake and a Common Gull flying north. As I was leaving late afternoon a male Tawny Owl was calling near the car park. 

10th November

I was back at Knepp today, leading my first safari there in six weeks, for a group of Oxford uni students. En route, I couldn't resist quickly stopping off at Pulborough Brooks to twitch the Slavonian Grebe found by Chris and Juliet Moore earlier in the morning; a long awaited Pulborough tick for me, my first in thirteen months. It was an elusive bird, not helped by the un-forecast torrential rain, but I eventually managed to pick it up from Hail's View, albeit rather distantly. The first record for the reserve since 2010! Also testament to the depth of the water here at the moment were eight Pochard on the South Brooks - not quite as rare as Slavonian Grebe but still fairly unusual here. 
Pulborough South Brooks floodwater
Slavonian Grebe - pic by the finders Chris and Juliet Moore
Back at Knepp in the evening for a staff party I heard a male Tawny Owl calling near New Barn Farm and also another one when I got back home. 

Monday 6 November 2023

The season of letting go

So then, farewell to October. At a pinch one of my absolute favourite months of the year and which this year produced five local year ticks and a pleasing selection of memorable moments, in spite of birding with my arm in a sling for the most part and being unable to drive. 

This last ten-day period of the month always feels somewhat tinged with melancholy. It's hard not to feel as though autumn has peaked somewhat by the last week of October and that we are inescapably careering into the long darkness of winter, especially when the clocks change and any last hopes of evening birding are extinguished for the next three or four months. 

This year, October went out with a bang, as a series of Atlantic weather systems brought torrential rain which, combined with a period of spring tides, saw the Arun overtopping its banks in many places in the Pulborough area. The flooding in turn attracted my first local Little Gull of the year on the 31st - just a couple of days after my second local record of Long-tailed Duck in two years - and I finally joined the Short-eared Owl party in what looks to be the best autumn/winter for the species in several years. 

21st October

Not loads of time for birding today owing to family stuff but the loop from home to Waltham Brooks and back through the farmland produced a few bits of interest. Over 200 ducks were on the main lake at Waltham, mostly Teal and Mallard though with a handful of Shoveler (2), Gadwall (3-4) and Wigeon (8) mixed in. They were very flighty and at one stage had a single Snipe among them as they flew circuits around the place. Oddly, the only raptors noted were two rather distant Red Kites, so I'm not entirely sure what the wildfowl were getting upset about! A few Siskins and Redpolls were about and there were two Stonechats in the scrub near the railway line.

22nd October

No real birding today but notable by their movement at both Bignor and Fittleworth during family activities were a steady stream of Red Admirals moving through, mostly south-west.

23rd October

I was at Knepp all day today for an excellent beaver workshop so not much birding time, but of note here were three Fieldfares and a single Siskin over towards the western side of the estate (near the beaver enclosure, in fact). 

Here be beavers!

24th October

A mixed bag this morning started with 80 minutes' vismigging from the high ground above Watersfield. It was generally fairly quiet, certainly in terms of thrushes and finches, though there was a distinct increase in Woodpigeons and Stock Doves moving south-west, though still only modest numbers (150 and 69, respectively). Best of all were 20 Pintail (15 south/5 north) over Lodge Hill which may have been local wintering birds arriving in the area, but it was still quite cool to see them 'migging' over open country.

A stroll over to Waltham Brooks later in the morning produced a Great White Egret dropping in near the main lake, a few Skylarks and Siskins over, and a flock of 40 Wigeon flying towards Widney Brooks. A Woodlark flew north-east over the farmland near home. My seventh record of this species within the 1km area in the past four weeks - pretty remarkable!

An evening vigil at Thorndale Bridge proved to be enjoyable but didn't yield the hoped-for Short-eared Owl, despite one seen upriver near Pulborough this afternoon. At least six Marsh Harriers flew past to roost, while one of the adult White-tailed Eagles was upsetting the geese over at Amberley and a Yellowhammer flew over among the many Reed Buntings heading to roost. 

25th October

Rain early morning was slow to clear but mid-morning I headed up to Alban Head for a couple of hours' vismigging which proved quite lively. Highlights were two more single Woodlarks east, 54 Wigeon north (20, 11 and 23), 31 Fieldfare north/north-west and a few Redpolls about. I also heard Crossbill but didn't see it. Back home for lunch and another Woodlark flew north/north-east past the bedroom window. It really is remarkable how many records of this species I've had locally recently.

Another late afternoon session on the river bank at Thorndale Bridge wasn't quite as exciting as yesterday but produced a single juvenile Marsh Harrier, a White-tailed Eagle in the usual tree over at Amberley, around 100 Teal flying upriver and a pair of Mandarins flying downriver. 

26th October

A late start this morning owing to unwelcome rain which put paid to any planned attempts at another proper vismig session. I decided instead to head to Waltham Brooks via the local farmland. Almost immediately I realised there were actually a few bits moving after the rain with first a couple of Grey Wagtails west followed by a Peregrine circling briefly overhead before flying towards Amberley. Even better, this was followed around ten minutes later by a smart adult Mediterranean Gull cruising south with a couple of Black-headed Gulls - my fifth 1km area record this year and the first since June. 

As I approached the railway line at Waltham Brooks I heard a Golden Plover calling somewhere to the east but never got eyes on it. Still, it was my 133rd species for the reserve. It proved quite lively here this morning, with 57 species recorded in two hours including Kingfisher, Marsh Harrier, Water Rail and two Stonechats. Wigeon numbers have really increased locally now, as evidenced by the flock of ~200 which flew north, in addition to the 11 kicking about on the reserve. A distant second winter Great Black-backed Gull south-west over Lodge Hill was only my second record for the reserve. 
Looking west from the river bank at Waltham Brooks
Greatham Bridge
Late afternoon I again headed over to Thorndale Bridge in the hope of a Short-eared Owl but no such luck. In fact the only real highlight here was a lone juvenile Marsh Harrier which powered south over Amberley, presumably heading to roost.

27th October

Kate kindly dropped me at Pulborough Brooks this morning for a couple of hours, my first visit here for almost three weeks! It's amazing to think that once upon a time I could barely tolerate missing a day here. The water levels had increased a great deal since my last visit and all the action was on the now very wet South Brooks which held two Ruff, five Dunlin and around 80 Black-tailed Godwits among the usual Lapwings and wildfowl. It was nice to see quite a few Pintail among the ducks here (at least ten) including my first proper smart drakes of the season. At least five each of Redpoll and Fieldfare were about around the trail while the North Brooks was curiously quiet save for a couple of hundred Canada Geese and a lone Shelduck. 

Another early evening stakeout on the river at Thorndale Bridge again proved fruitless on the owl front but I was rewarded for wading almost up to welly depth through flood water by a smart adult male Marsh Harrier (plus sub-adult male and juvenile) hunting just the other side of the river, flushing 25 Snipe in the process. 
Marsh Harrier
Nocmig has been very quiet so far this autumn, but last night the microphone picked up a nice Barn Owl calling close to the garden. 

28th October

Family stuff today so no real birding but a short local walk early afternoon produced a Marsh Harrier briefly circling over Watersfield before drifting north-west over Lodge Hill. 

29th October

A very wet night gave way to a morning of sunny spells and squally showers. A short break in the downpours allowed for a quick check of the private reservoir near Petworth (thanks to a lift from Mrs Matt) which produced a couple of surprises. Firstly, a late Swallow over the ploughed field to the north of the reservoir which also held 25 Pied Wagtails and a few Meadow Pipits and Linnets. Secondly, a Long-tailed Duck on the reservoir itself. This was particularly unexpected, as it's coming up a year to when I found one here during a WeBS count in November 2022, that bird went on to stay until the end of December. I really struggle with aging and sexing female type Long-tailed Ducks in winter garb, so would welcome any comment, but have included photos below of today's bird and last winter's bird. Could it be the same one? If so, the likelihood is it surely must be a roaming feral bird. If not, perhaps today's is a genuine storm-blown individual which by some extraordinary coincidence has found its way to the same site as its predecessor. Otherwise, it is was usual fare on the reservoir, though a Great Crested Grebe was my first here since July. 
Today's Long-tailed Duck
And the 2022 bird...
Pied Wagtail
30th October

More heavy rain this morning delayed me heading out on foot from home, and scrapping my planned attempt at a vismig session. Instead I did the full loop out to Waltham Brooks, around the main lake and down the river bank. The water levels had increased dramatically since my last visit, with some of the paths entirely impassable (I had to get out onto the road in order to access the river bank from the north-western corner of the reserve. Avian highlights included a late group of eight Swallows feeding over the river and the north-western side of Amberley, a flock of ~40 Fieldfares over Greatham Bridge and good numbers of ducks - perhaps unsurprising given the water! Around 90 Wigeon flew north while at least 140 Teal were flying about plus a few Shoveler and Gadwall. As I was heading bak from the river bank towards the sewage works a Hummingbird Hawkmoth whizzed past heading purposefully south towards Amberley. 
Looking across the swollen River Arun towards Amberley
A very flooded Waltham Brooks
Continuing the theme of summer migrant stragglers, while working on the computer at home mid-afternoon I glanced up and out of the window towards Waltham Brooks and noticed a bird that on initial appearance seemed to be moving like a large hirundine. When I got bins on and realised it was a falcon and that it was clearly feeding on flying insects, the penny dropped that I was looking at my latest ever Hobby in the UK! I watched it for a minute or two before it drifted off south and I lost it behind trees. 

Late afternoon I decided to attempt my first drive for over a month. I didn't go far but had a quick look at the now very flooded scrape at Hadworth Farm in West Burton (my first check of this site since it dried up back in May) which produced a distant Green Sandpiper, a pair of Gadwall and seven Red-legged Partridge - the latter a good bird this close to home. I don't tend to see many of them away from the Downs round here. I then carried on a bit further to Burton Mill Pond, for my first visit here since before my accident (so around six weeks). An hour stakeout from the viewing platform produced the usual Cormorants flying in to roost (51 tonight) plus a few Little Egrets (9), Pied Wagtails (at least 25), Starlings (70) and Jackdaws (230). Two Water Rails were squealing in the reeds and a Kingfisher flew across the pond a couple of times.
Green Sandpiper
Little Egrets
31st October

A mostly fine morning after overnight rain and seemingly the last calm one of the week, with stormy conditions on the way as October gives way to November. I started this morning's local birding session with a relatively short vismig session up at Alban Head to the west of Watersfield. Despite the clement conditions, there really didn't appear to be much moving at all, despite some large counts of Woodpigeon in other locations in the south this morning. Highlights from 90 minutes here were singles of Crossbill and Yellowhammer north-west and a few Skylarks going in various directions, and two Red Admirals

I decided to head up to Watersfield Common and Waltham Park for a bit of a change, in the hope of finding some finches and other passerines. Watersfield Common delivered straight away with a single Crossbill and a flock of at least 15 Lesser Redpoll, followed by two showy Firecrests. Crossbill featured again at Waltham Park with one flying south at the same moment two late House Martins flew high south-east - not quite my latest ever in the UK but it's still pretty remarkable I've had Hobby and two hirundine species on the last two days of October! Other bits from here were seven Siskin and 11 Redpoll flying over, presumably all Lesser.             

A great little afternoon session up at Pulborough proved to be a perfect way to finish my October local birding campaign. I'd actually just popped up to the village to get a few bits from the shops when news broke of a Little Gull over the floodwater between the North Brooks and the village hall. I dashed down to near our old house and quickly picked up the gull - an adult - resting on the water, before taking flight again and hawking for a few minutes. It repeated this routine a few times before eventually flying off with a small group of Black-headed Gulls. While this was going on my attention was drawn to a bird sailing right over my head which I quickly realised was a Short-eared Owl! Steve Chalmers reported one from his nearby garden a few days ago and presumably the same bird was seen over the North Brooks at the weekend, so it wasn't a surprise to see, but something about an SEO always gets the blood pumping! It dropped in towards the river bank where it was promptly chased off by a Magpie, then it gained height and flew towards the North Brooks. Here it continued to gained height, with an irate Rook in tow, until it was just a dot, then drifted off south - presumably in search of somewhere less flooded to hunt.
Short-eared Owl
Little Gull

Thursday 26 October 2023


My shoulder injury recovery continues so it was pretty much exclusively 1km from home birding on foot again for this ten day period. It certainly feels as though we have turned a corner, seasonally speaking, as we move into the second half of October. There were still a few summery stragglers making an appearance but I also finally recorded my first Brambling of the autumn (of the entire year in fact, so dire a finch winter as we had last year!). The unusually warm weather has also all but gone now, as I write this, and we have had the first couple of frosts of the year plus the expected October wind and rain. Indeed, parts of the 1km area are getting decidedly soggy now, though not entirely impassable yet.

11th October

A grey and drizzly start to the day saw me checking the moth trap which held a respectable 39 individuals of 21 species, including new for the garden Red-line Quaker, Black Rustic (x 4), Large Wainscot, Barred Sallow, the spectacular Merveille du Jour (x 2) and the migrant Rusty-dot Pearl. Talking of migrants, it seemed relatively quiet on the vismig front overhead while I was emptying the trap, but I did note a couple of Redwings over and eight Swallows powering south.

Merveille du Jour
Rusty-dot Pearl
Black Rustic
Once the trap was emptied I headed out for a loop of Thorndale Bridge, the local farmland and Waltham Brooks. Aside from another group of Swallows heading south-east and a couple of Skylarks south, the low cloud and mizzle seemed to be hampering any migratory activity, so I didn't linger too long at Thorndale Bridge. Highlights here were four Snipe flying about (presumably the same group seen yesterday), a Stonechat, and a female Marsh Harrier which flew upriver. Up at Waltham Brooks the best were two Pintail, three Little Grebes and a single Tufted Duck among the usual wildfowl on the lake plus heard-only Kingfisher, a couple of Swallows and Redwings over. It was also noticeable that Chiffchaff numbers are on the up, with a conservative count of 15 recorded, especially congregating in the sallows on the western side. There was again a curiously calling individual here giving the plaintive 'hew' call, as heard at Thorndale Bridge recently. 

12th October

A similar morning to yesterday. A check of Waltham Brooks again produced two Pintail on the lake along with 10 Shoveler, 13 Gadwall and 15 Teal. Presumably the same quartet of Snipe were again flying about overhead, around 50 Lapwings were up in the air over Widney Brooks and two Green Sandpipers flew over my head near the railway line and dropped down towards the main lake. 

It had been decidedly quiet overhead early morning but on the way home I noticed a bit of a movement of hirundines, so decided to stop off for a skywatch, which proved to be fairly lively. Aside from over 100 House Martins and 20-odd Swallows moving south, the clear highlights were a heard only Golden Plover and a beautiful adult male Merlin which flew fast and quite low over the field where I was watching from, before turning, gaining height and powering off south towards the Downs. Actually my first record for this particular eBird hotspot, although my third record of the autumn locally. 

13th October

A proper October day of wind and rain. Late morning a break in the rain saw me heading out to the local farmland for a bit of a skywatch, perhaps rather over-optimistic given the brisk south-westerly (F5, gusting 6-7). Surprisingly, it was actually a decent 90 minutes, with highlights including three Woodlarks east together (it really is turning into a good autumn for them locally) and a light trickle of hirundines pushing straight into the wind. Particularly impressive was a group of ~20 Swallows which after making one failed attempt to get through fairly high up then dropped down to just a few metres above the ground and powered on into the headwind. 

14th October

The cold morning after the squally night before. Today felt like the first proper crisp morning of the autumn, and I headed out on foot just before 7am wondering if I had under-dressed given the brisk westerly. An hour's skywatching from the local farmland proved fairly lively with a steady stream of Siskins and a few Redpolls, Meadow Pipits, Chaffinches, etc, mostly heading south-west. One species I certainly didn't have on my radar for the third weekend of October was Common Redstart so it took me a moment or two to process what I was looking at when I noticed a passerine flicking about in a nearby hedgerow. Indeed, the way it was lit in the morning sunlight initially brought to mind Red-flanked Bluetail, and it was a heartstopping couple of seconds before I realised I was looking at something rather more mundane, albeit very late. My first record of the species locally since 7th September and undoubtedly my last one of the year. Strangely enough, Ed Stubbs also had one this morning up in Surrey, so perhaps a little late push of Scandinavian ones moving through?

The rest of the day didn't include much birding, although a trip down to Worthing with Kate and B (primarily to deliver a Knepp talk) did also include stopping at Marine Gardens for lunch, which featured flyover Siskins (5) and Redpolls (3). 

15th October

WeBS count day today so Kate kindly drove me over to the private reservoir near Petworth to carry out the survey; my first visit here for four weeks (I normally tend to visit at least once a week). It was usual fare on offer really, though 55 Tufted Ducks represented my highest count here, while 20 Pochards was one short of equaling the record count. Otherwise, highlights were 54 Egyptian Geese on the shore of the reservoir and at least 15 Swallows and a couple of House Martins feeding over the nearby farmland.

Later in the day I went for a stroll from home, highlights of which included at least five Lesser Redpolls at Thorndale Bridge plus the three White-tailed Eagles thermalling together distantly towards the Downs. Despite the chilly air temperature the warm sun was clearly coaxing plenty of raptors into the sky, as I also had a Goshawk sparring with a Buzzard to the south of Watersfield. Single Stonechats were at Thorndale Bridge and Waltham Brooks while a few Swallows, Siskins and a couple of Skylarks were noted flying over, heading south/south-west.

16th October

A lively morning of local vismig, first from the farmland near home and then up on the high ground to the west, began with two vocal Merlins briefly dogfighting overhead a couple of hundred metres from home before separating and flying off west and south-east. Another Woodlark flew high-northeast, while there was just the slightest hint of some early Woodpigeon movement. Finches were clearly moving in good numbers but seemed to be for the most part too high, hence the change in watchpoint an hour or so into my watch. From here, almost immediately I was seeing and hearing Chaffinches, while after 15 minutes the distinctive call of Crossbills signalled the approach of a flock flying from north to south which I somehow never managed to get eyes on, but it sounded like quite a few. Just a few minutes later another flock of 14 flew south. Finch totals from the morning included 87 Chaffinches (mostly west), 50 Siskins (mostly west) plus a few Redpolls, Linnets, Goldfinches, etc. Curiously notable by their absence again were thrushes with just five Redwings leaving roost along River Lane the only ones noted. 
Looking south-east from the high ground above Watersfield

17th October

With this welcome spell of easterlies continuing, this morning saw me back up at the high ground to the west of Watersfield for another vismig session. Initially the wind was calm and it was a surprisingly brighter morning than had been forecast, which didn't necessarily suggest much in the way of movement. I was wrong though as, twenty minutes into the watch, I noticed a line of geese approaching high from the north/north-east which I quickly realised had to be Brent Geese, owing to their dark colouration, short necks and generally compact shape, plus the distinctive wavy line flock formation. They weren't calling or, if they were, I couldn't hear it over the strengthening breeze, and because they were really pretty high I also spectacularly failed to achieve anything in the way of a useable record shot with my one-handed bridge camera attempts. Still, one of those memorable vismig moments that put it all into context, as these Arctic travellers near the end of the journey, likely bound for the south coast via Watersfield! Other highlights this morning included the first clearly moving Grey Herons I've seen locally this autumn (two lots of three west), a few Redwings and Fieldfares west (60 and 54), three Swallows south, four Crossbills west and a steady trickle of Skylarks. 

A check of Thorndale Bridge late afternoon produced three Marsh Harriers over Amberley, including a beautiful adult male hunting low over the marsh just the other side of the river from where I was stood, plus a White-tailed Eagle briefly in flight and a female Mandarin flying downriver. 

18th October

A remarkable 58 species in just over an hour at Waltham Brooks this morning including my first Brambling anywhere this year (!) heard flying over, a first winter Goosander on the lake and two Great White Egrets which came in from the west and dropped down near the main lake. There has been clearly been quite an arrival of this species in Sussex as there were also records of seven at Arundel WWT this morning and five at Pulborough Brooks later in the day (perhaps all relating to the same birds) following on from a count of 11 flying past Climping yesterday. 

A rather late flock of House Martins flew over towards Amberley with a Swallow in tow and, on a more wintry note, the easterlies had clearly delivered more ducks to the reserve, especially Wigeon, of which at least 25 flew to the main lake. A flock of 11 Fieldfares were flying about in the scrub while around 30 Siskins were near the sewage works. A few gulls were flying over too, including two Common Gulls.
Goosander (another ropey record shot with my little bridge camera)

19th October

I was giving a Knepp talk in Staines last night, after which I stayed with friends in Surrey before making my way home mid-morning. The walk home from Pulborough station took me past Widney Brooks and through Waltham Brooks and the local farmland. It was all distinctly less lively than yesterday, with barely 30 species recorded at Waltham Brooks this time around. Teal numbers had increased to at least 130 but otherwise waterbird diversity was rather poor with just 80 Mallard, 3 Gadwall, a few Coots and a single Little Grebe. Away from the lake, there were two Stonechats in the scrub and a Mandarin flew downriver. 

20th October

A loop of Thorndale Bridge and Waltham Brooks this morning produced a few bits, especially at the former looking over towards Amberley where there were clearly lots of Black-headed Gulls on the flood water, evidently having just been flushed by a White-tailed Eagle. A Kingfisher flew upriver and several Skylarks flew west. Waltham Brooks was relatively quiet aside from the two Great White Egrets again which circled over the main lake briefly before flying off towards Widney Brooks. Again, several Skylarks flew over and a flock of 17 Redpolls flew over the sewage works. There has been a real absence of winter thrushes the past couple of days, aside from five today over the local farmland.
River Arun near Thorndale Bridge, water level getting high now!
An evening stroll out to Thorndale Bridge revealed another Great White Egret feeding in a ditch just across the river and a smaller egret species in flight over Amberley Wildbrooks which was probably a Cattle Egret. Two fast flying raptors caught my eye and quickly revealed themselves to be an adult male Merlin being chased by a female. They dashed off low through the trees past Quell Farm at high speed and off towards Parham. 

Friday 13 October 2023

The wider horizon more clearly seen

While obviously less than ideal from the perspective of not being able to drive or lead Knepp safaris, etc, I have to say I am weirdly enjoying this period of enforced reduced travel and hyper local nature study. I have always said I am someone who would struggle to ever become bored and have kept myself busy the past couple of weeks with regular 1km area walks as well as rekindling my love for vismigging and nocmigging, and occasionally moth trapping when time allows (although this is a little trickier to manage with only one fully functioning arm!)

From a migration point of view, it's clear we have very much turned a corner now from the dregs of summer to the days of peak autumn proper. It's still a little on the slow side but as I write this I have just enjoyed a spectacular day of Redwing passage as well as my first Fieldfares and Merlins of the season, while the straggling hirundines are still to be seen trickling south most days. It's not just migrant birds that have featured either. This morning there was another Hummingbird Hawkmoth in the garden (my third record of the autumn after a relatively poor summer for them) and southward Red Admiral migration on a scale I haven't seen for many years has been a daily feature of late. A few migrant moths have been turning up in the trap too... All in all, perhaps not the most spectacular or memorable autumn so far (albeit not for good reasons!) but it's always nice to see the seasons changing gear at this point in the year.

Again, sadly rather a lack of decent photos this time, due to not being able to use my proper camera. 

1st October

So, a whole week into my shoulder injury recovery, and with the weather looking good I decided to give one-armed moth trapping a bash. It proved a worthwhile decision as it produced various new for the garden species, including Red-green Carpet, Lunar Underwing and the migrant Clancy's Rustic.

Clancy's Rustic
Red-green Carpet
Before emptying the trap I tried a spot of vismigging from the high ground to the west of home, which proved quiet aside from 55 Meadow Pipits mostly west and a few Swallows south. Late morning, Kate dropped me off at Pulborough for a whizz round, where I had a catch up with Steve B and Josie N. Highlights here included the lingering Curlew Sandpiper (my first anywhere this year!) among the usual waders, increased numbers of ducks, a Marsh Harrier and two Hobbies.

2nd October

A walk from home to Waltham Brooks this morning was fairly quiet. Highlights on the reserve were two Little Grebes, 20 Swallows, singles of Kingfisher and Snipe and a rather late Willow Warbler among the Chiffchaffs by the main lake. Down at Thorndale Bridge were a Stonechat, a flock of 25 Siskins spooked from Alders by a Kestrel, and another 17 Swallows south. 

While having lunch in the garden I picked up an Osprey circling quite low just to the east. It was in view for a couple of minutes as it gained height before drifting south. My first record anywhere this year, and just in time as it was one that I thought was going to evade me altogether as I'd reached October without seeing one. Unfortunately I was only able to get a very ropey one-handed record shot with my little bridge camera - better than nothing though I suppose! 

3rd October

A check of Waltham Brooks this morning produced my first Pintail of the autumn here among the Teal, Shoveler and Gadwall on the main lake, plus a single Little Grebe and heard-only Kingfisher. A few Swallows were moving south which bode well for a follow-up skywatch from the field near home. In an hour, around 160 hirundines moved south here, roughly half and half Swallow and House Martin. The only other movers during this session were a single Linnet and two Herring Gulls south, and a few Siskins south-west. Another hour vismigging later in the day proved very quiet in almost summer-like conditions, with just a few hirundines and Meadow Pipits south, although two Lesser Black-backed Gulls going the same way were my first locally for a while. The warm sunshine also encouraged a few raptors into the air including a trio of Buzzards, a Red Kite and one of the White-tailed Eagles over Amberley.

4th October

Following on from my first Merlin of the autumn north-west over the garden first thing, a lively skywatch from the high ground on the western side of Watersfield produced a pleasing selection of species including a single late Sand Martin among 114 Swallows and 62 House Martins heading south, three Skylarks west and the first Redpolls of the season here (two north-east and three south). I had planned to have a good go at vismigging locally this autumn and it's already proving rewarding, although by all accounts not a vintage vismig autumn yet.
My vismig watchpoint this morning
5th October

In sharp contrast to yesterday, this morning's skywatch from the high ground near home failed to produce much excitement, despite early promise in the form of a Snipe flying north-west. Swallows and House Martins were in notably smaller numbers. 

Late afternoon I headed over to Thorndale Bridge which produced a juvenile Marsh Harrier flushing at least three Snipe from the near side of Amberley Wildbrooks, a light southerly passage of Swallows and House Martins (16 and 7, respectively) and a weird calling Chiffchaff in the scrub by the railway, which seemingly was just a vocally aberrant collybita rather than anything more interesting. 

6th October

A skywatch from the local farmland produced a bit of movement in the form of 30 House Martins south, four Skylarks west, a couple of Siskins south and a Chiffchaff 'bush hopping' its way south through the landscape. 

Waltham Brooks, meanwhile, held singles of Marsh Harrier, Snipe and Little Grebe, a couple of Stonechat, 34 House Martin and three Swallows flying south and a single Redpoll flying south-west.
7th October

An early morning stroll out to Thorndale Bridge to skywatch from the river bank here proved reasonably lively with a pleasing trickle of Swallows, House Martins, Meadow Pipits and Siskins overhead plus a couple of Redpolls. Two Stonechats were kicking about and a Kingfisher briefly perched up on a post near where I was stood. The alarm call of a Green Sandpiper alerted me to two birds flying up from just across the river on the near side of Amberley with a Sparrowhawk in hot pursuit, which narrowly missed catching one of them. As I was heading for home a Yellowhammer flew west, not a particularly common bird here.

Mid-morning, Kate kindly dropped me off at Pulborough Brooks where I met up with Steve Baines (and later Paul Davy) for a stroll round the trail. Highlights included the continuing Curlew Sandpiper on the North Brooks with two Ruff, around 80 Lapwing, 50+ Snipe and 550 Teal; the whole lot flushed by a passing Marsh Harrier a few times. A rather late Yellow Wagtail flew south over the Hanger, while the South Brooks held three Cattle Egrets among the cattle and a couple of Stonechats. Three Clouded Yellows were noted during the circuit.

Early after a cream cap Marsh Harrier made an appearance drifting south high over the garden, my first record of the species from here.

8th October

Despite huge numbers of Redwings arriving further north yesterday and this morning, the conditions just weren't in my favour in Watersfield and an hour up above the recreation ground in clear skies and virtually no wind produced little in the way of movement aside from 20 Linnets south-west, 18 Swallows, a few Meadow Pipits and a single Skylark south. Perhaps most interesting was a single flock of 13 Lesser Black-backed Gulls high south, which tallied with similar movements over Capel in Surrey (per Wes Attridge). Clearly a few of these on the move today. 
Looking east from the hill above Watersfield
Fast forward a couple of hours and I arrived in Merrow in Surrey to visit my mother-in-law. A 15-20 minute watch from her garden proved lively, with a few Swallows, Linnets, Meadow Pipits and Siskins over, topped off by my first two Fieldfares of the autumn chuckling their way south. 

9th October

Well, it had to happen at some point. This morning was evidently the day that the vismig tap was turned fully on in the south-east. Heading out on foot from home at around 07:45 I immediately started seeing and hearing Redwings - my first of the autumn. Fast forward two and a half hours later and I had seen over 1,500 of them, streaming mostly west in waves, with around 200 being the biggest single flock. Watching from Thorndale Bridge, it was far and away my most enjoyable local vismig session to date, with 52 species recorded including a Merlin powering west, two Woodlarks south-west (and one grounded at Waltham Brooks), Cattle Egret and Peregrine south, plus Fieldfares, Skylarks and Swallows among many others. 

A rather frustrating moment came towards the end of the session, when I noticed a line of geese tracking south-west distantly over the Downs. I'm sure they had to be Brent Geese, but the distance, lack of scope or DSLR camera and only being able to hold bins with one hand, meant I just couldn't get enough on them to be 100% certain. Still, an amazing session and a timely reminder of just how enthralling vismigging can be when it's good! It also nicely took my Thorndale Bridge eBird hotspot list to 100 species with the addition of the various aforementioned goodies!

10th October

After yesterday's vismig fireworks I was hoping for more of the same but it sadly never quite delivered despite two bites of the cherry, first at Thorndale Bridge then later up on the hill to the west of Watersfield. After an initial flurry of 70 Redwings west between 07:50 and about 08:10, no more were recorded. Indeed, there were considerably fewer birds moving in general. A few late hirundines were drifting south/south-west late morning and Skylarks were trickling south-west throughout the morning. The main mover in the second session though was Red Admiral, with 31 flying strongly south in around 90 minutes. It really has been a remarkable year for this species and the spectacle of so many of them vismigging at this time of year never fails to impress.