Saturday, 21 December 2019

Wet Christmas

For the first time since 2013 both the Arun and the Stor have overtopped their banks and turned pretty much the entire RSPB reserve and surrounding land into one giant lake.

Looking west from Winpenny hide - hard to believe there was a White-rumped Sandpiper out there last December!
It was clearly going to be a pretty lively morning from the moment I arrived, with ducks and geese all over the place across the South Brooks. Entering Winpenny hide felt rather more like stepping onto a boat, as the water lapped up against the south and west sides. A flock of 24 Barnacle Geese and flyover Grey Plover (my only record here this year) added to the distinctly coastal feel as hundreds of Lapwings and Black-tailed Godwits wheeled about in the wind and rain, with a couple of Dunlin among them too.
Barnacle Geese

Other flyover highlights included three Golden Plover, two Ravens and a Ruddy Shelduck. The water level was visibly rising throughout the morning as the tide was coming in, and Nettley's Hide was inaccessible by the time I left. Will certainly be interesting to see what tomorrow brings!

Monday, 25 November 2019

Red(head) Letter Day!

It's got to that time of year where patch birding is a weekend-only affair once again, and even then the low light levels can be problematic until the middle of the day.

After a pretty quiet visit to the Brooks on Saturday morning I didn't have particularly high hopes as I arrived at the reserve early on Sunday.

I headed straight to West Mead and after half an hour or so was thinking about moving on when regulars Mike Jerome and Richard Cobden arrived. We chatted for a bit and scanned the usual selection of ducks on show. Suddenly a small duck dropped out of the sky onto the pool, just behind one of the islands, and I immediately realised it was a redhead Smew! A patch tick for me and seemingly the first site record for many years - possibly even this century, although Gary Trew has a recollection of one on the North Brooks a few years back, so perhaps not.
The only record shot I managed to get

Luckily, Mike's effort was a lot better than mine!

Either way it was a great sight to see, a hard bird to find in Sussex and my first anywhere in the UK for almost four years. After a few minutes it flew - I was putting the news out at the time so missed it but luckily Richard saw it flying towards the North Brooks, so I headed to the Hanger. Sure enough, I found the bird on one of the smaller pools near Jupp's View before it flew over to one of the largest pools. It seemed fairly settled and even looked like it was heading off to explore the marginal vegetation at one point but at around 09:20 it flew again, this time gaining height before it disappeared behind the trees to the east, never to be seen again.

Other highlights from the morning were four Ruff at West Mead, at least 25 Golden Plover over (3 over West Mead/25 over the Hanger/others heard), and the ringtail Hen Harrier putting on a great show hunting below the Hanger.

The Smew takes me to 143 on my Pulborough year list, so beating last year's 149 is now looking decidedly unlikely. Sunday morning is a classic example of the kind of wonderful surprises patch birding can produce though, so never say never!

Wednesday, 11 September 2019

Lightning strikes twice

With the autumnal equinox now just around the corner and the days growing considerably shorter, my pre-work patch visits are sadly almost over for this year.

After yesterday morning's total fog-off, my initial thoughts at 5.45 this morning were that it would be too dark to get in any useful birding time at the Brooks, so I almost didn't bother. I'm glad I did...

Arriving at the North Brooks at around 6.20 I set up my scope and almost immediately found myself looking at a Phalarope! The light and distance initially hampered definite ID but, moving round to Jupp's View, I was able to confirm it as a juvenile Red-necked Phalarope - only the second Pulborough record of this species and, remarkably, just three months after the first back in June!
Red-necked Phalarope - photo by George Kinnard
I hastily put the news out and was pleased to see regulars Alan Baker and Chris & Juliet Moore arrive swiftly, who I gladly put on to the bird. Thankfully it hung around all day for plenty of other birders to connect with too.

Otherwise it's been a relatively quiet few weeks since my previous post on here, although a patch tick Pied Flycatcher on 29th August and a Marsh Tit on the 2nd of this month helped nudge the year list up to 140. Not sure this year will be the one where I reach 150 (149 last year...) but if birding teaches us anything it's to expect the unexpected. One thing's for certain, I won't let a bit of a gloomy morning put me off getting down the patch again!
Pied Flycatcher

Monday, 19 August 2019

Purple patch

Great weekend just gone with a patch year tick, a patch lifer, a nocmig tick and a first for Pulborough!

One of the absolute joys of patch birding at this time of year has to be the returning Redstarts, brightening up the increasingly tired-looking landscape and drab fenceposts. The species' favourite fenceline at Pulborough, between Little Hanger and Redstart Corner, delivered the goods on Saturday morning with at least four 'firetails' flitting about the hedgerow and chasing each around. A nice way to reach 135 for the patch year list.
Redstart - photo by Andy Ashdown
The next year tick (and patch lifer) came on Sunday morning and was an altogether less expected species, as a check of the wooded edge of the heath produced a Wood Warbler lurking among a busy tit flock. It gave itself away with a burst of its unmistakable song but proved elusive, affording only brief glimpses through the rain-soaked foliage. Rather more showy was a Firecrest in the same flock; my first here for a few weeks.

On Saturday I caught up on my most recent nocmig session from the night of 12th-13th and was pleased to discover a single call from a Tree Pipit hidden among the Robins and Wrens in the dawn chorus.
And the first for Pulborough? Not a bird but a moth! I was closing up the back door on Sunday evening when I noticed a moth flying around inside. Even in the gloom I could see it was a relatively small, dark noctuid with metallic markings on its wings catching the light from the other room. I managed to capture it in a jam jar and discovered it to be a Dewick's Plusia! After taking a few photos I iRecorded it and this morning received an email from the county recorder requesting more information and later confirming it to be a first record for Pulborough. 
Dewick's Plusia

Sunday, 11 August 2019

Late July/early August

Things are starting to get distinctly autumnal now with my dewy early morning patch walks increasingly punctuated by the odd munched blackberry and occasional half-hearted bursts of song from returning Willow Warblers.

The bulk of the action these past few weeks has been on the North Brooks, as this is the only part of the reserve still holding any real water. A Garganey was a nice find among the Teal and Shoveler on 27th July, while a Great Egret was seen on 19th and 21st July.

The impressive national influx of Wood Sandpipers delivered us one on 28th July with presumably the same bird still present on and off until the time of writing.

There's been a decent selection of commoner waders too and some impressive counts. On the morning of 30th July a tight flock of shanks was huddled in a corner of the North Brooks, which only allowed themselves to be counted and identified when a passing Marsh Harrier spooked everything up into the air - 31 Redshanks and 2 Greenshanks.

Black-tailed Godwits and Green Sandpipers have been recorded in good numbers too, with up to 50 and 13 present on some days, respectively. There have also been smaller numbers of Little Ringed Plover, Dunlin, Common Sandpiper and Snipe as well as singles of Ruff and Ringed Plover on 27th July and 8th August, respectively, and a flyover Whimbrel on 19th July.
Redshanks and Greenshanks

Wood Sandpiper - photo by Paul Davy
Overshadowing even the best of the waders though has to be the juvenile Yellow-legged Gull which dropped in for a quarter of an hour on the morning of 3rd August. I was pretty sure what it was as soon as I saw it fly in but thanks must go to David Campbell, Josh Jones and Ed Stubbs for helping to confirm the ID. For previous records of this species at the Brooks one has to go back to a time prior to it being split from Herring Gull, with records on 13th January 1996 and 8th December 2000. If anyone knows of any other more recent records please let me know!

Yellow-legged Gull

A jaunt down to Selsey/Pagham on Saturday morning just gone didn't produce the hoped for seawatching fireworks in stormy conditions, with just a few dozen Gannets, a couple of Kittiwakes, singles of Fulmar and Knot and a few Terns past but it was good to get flight views of the Squacco Heron at Halsey's Farm having dipped on it during the week.


Prior to this summer I'd never seen a juvenile Cuckoo being fed by its foster parents so, after Paul's find of a Dunnock-reared one near the church the other week, it was great to stumble across another along the Arun this morning, being tended to by its Reed Warbler hosts.
Juvenile Cuckoo

Friday, 12 July 2019


Yes, it’s that time of year again when birders unsettle their friends, families and unsuspecting Twitter followers by dropping the A word into conversation as often as possible.

Meteorologically and astronomically speaking of course it’s utter nonsense but there can be no denying that the breeding season is over for many birds and return passage is now well underway, as has been evidenced by the amount of waders at Pulborough these past couple of weeks.

All the usual familiar species are beginning to trickle back through, and in some good numbers already with high counts of 50 Black-tailed Godwits (3rd), at least eight Green Sandpiper and nine Little Ringed Plover (12th), and smaller numbers of Greenshank (two on the 8th), Redshank, etc. A nice male Ruff just coming out of breeding plumage was present on the 9th while a Curlew flew over on the 10th.
Juvenile LRP
Best of all have been a group of six Avocet present intermittently from the 5th to the time of writing - my highest count of the species here. On Saturday I noticed that one of the birds is colour ringed and I've now received the report back from the ringer, Graham Giddens. The bird (a male) was ringed as a chick at Needs Ore in Hampshire on 16th June 2014. Since then it has toured around the Hampshire coast and wintered every year at Poole Harbour. This year it successfully reared four young with an unringed female at Normandy Marsh near Lymington. Interestingly, these six all appear to be adults so perhaps the male has left the female with the young and tagged on with this new group for summer break in West Sussex.

The ringed male Avocet on the North Brooks
Other non-wader bits of note recently include a very early returning Whinchat on the 6th - my first on the patch this year - and the first signs of Mediterranean Gull dispersal with three present on the afternoon of the 10th. Could this be the year Pulborough gets a Yellow-legged?

Friday, 5 July 2019

Madeira, 29th May-7th June 2019

A little more laidback than some, it took Kate and I nine months after getting married to finally get away on honeymoon. After deliberating over a few locations we'd plumped for Madeira as it seemed to be a great mix of natural beauty, coastline and a bit of city buzz. Birds were obviously a key consideration for me and, with three endemics, several endemic subspecies and a potential ten or more new birds on offer, I was more than satisfied!

The first lifer of the trip came before we'd even left the airport - though not a bird - as a Monarch butterfly gracefully glided over the terminal building as we walked across the tarmac. A species I've long dreamed of seeing, it was by no means the last one of these majestic butterflies we saw, although it took until almost the last day of the trip before we actually saw one land for any length of time. It's no wonder they're one of the strongest migrant species given how much ground they cover with seemingly little effort!

The first birds came as we picked up our rental car, with Blackcap and Atlantic Canary singing in nearby trees. Both of these species would prove to be pretty ubiquitous throughout the trip, particularly the Blackcaps which seem far less fussy than our own ones back home, seemingly everywhere from gardens to coastal scrub, and often seen singing out on fence posts or the tops of suburban trees.
We hit the road and headed northwest to Porto Moniz where we'd be staying for the first few nights. Here at the wonderful Aqua Natura hotel we had a room looking straight out onto the Atlantic so I wasted no time in unpacking my scope and immediately picked up the first Cory's Shearwaters of the trip. This proved to be an excellent spot for them as many dozens could be seen passing by relatively close in the space of a 15-30 minute seawatch most evenings, with smaller numbers of Manx Shearwaters mixed in. Common Terns were seemingly nesting on the rock out to sea and we saw a few of those flying past among the many Yellow-legged Gulls. A light stroll around the town on the first evening produced the first Plain Swifts of the trip, close views of Atlantic Canary and distant views of a couple of Trocaz Pigeons up on the hillside above the town.Three lifers before dinner on day one; not a bad start!
Atlantic Canary

Trocaz Pigeon

On our second day we headed inland a little to Lamaceiros where we started our first levada walk of the holiday. Levadas are the miniature canals that were built all over the island to divert water to the various towns and villages, and they really are remarkable feats of engineering - cutting through rock faces, clinging to cliffs and winding their way down perilous slopes. This particular walk took us around 6km into the laurel forests and back which gave us our first encounters with the ubiquitous Madeiran Firecrest as well as the very handsome maderensis subspecies of Chaffinch and several glimpses of Trocaz Pigeons; walking back we had our best views of the trip with several perched high in trees above the path. Along the way we also had the first of many Grey Wagtails of the trip - the subspecies schmitzi is endemic to Madeira - a couple of Buzzards and the first Sparrowhawk of the trip. Other species of note were innumerable Maderian Wall Lizards and a Macaronesian Red Admiral.

Macaronesian Red Admiral

Madeiran Wall Lizard
Madeiran Firecrest
Chaffinch (maderensis sub-species)
Trocaz Pigeon
In the evening after dinner, walking back to our hotel we heard a curious call which I quickly realised was a Cory's Shearwater flying straight over the town! Having never heard one before I was struck by how similar the call is to Kittiwake and couldn't help but wonder why that species got all the glory of the onomatopoeic name.

On day three we decided to head to Ponta do Pargo, the westernmost point of Madeira. The habitat was the absolute opposite to the lush forest we'd seen the previous day. Here we found a dry mix of grass and scrub atop the cliffs which I suspected would be great for Berthelot's Pipit and Spectacled Warbler, and I was right! A short walk from the lighthouse to a café yielded two very showy Pipits with many others around and calling. The Warbler was a little more elusive but with some persistence on the walk back I managed to get good views of one in the Gorse. Dozens of Plain Swifts were racing around overhead the whole time, among which I managed to pick out the first two Pallid Swifts of the trip and also two House Martins - the only time we saw this species in Madeira. 
Berthelot's Pipit

Clouded Yellow

Spectacled Warbler
Plain Swifts
On Saturday we left Porto Moniz behind and headed towards Ponto do Sol where we'd planned to spend the next four nights, although that didn't actually happen in the end, but more on that in a bit! En route we stopped off in Seixal just east along the coast from Porto Moniz. A cute little town which didn't add anything to the trip list but we did get some great views of Plain Swift and the Madeiran subspecies of Kestrel; by far the most ubiquitous bird of prey on Madeira, found even in the most unlikely of locations. It's amazing how one species can fill so many niches on islands such as this where the species diversity is relatively low.

A brief stop at Ponto do Sol also didn't add much to the trip list aside from a group of Muscovy Ducks(!). We decided not to stay here as the hotel owner had neglected to tell us about the massive concert stage and outdoor bars being set up very close to the hotel. Although he said the music would finish before midnight, as we had our pelagic trip from Machico harbour on the far eastern side of the island the following morning we decided not to risk it and hastily cancelled our booking and found a hotel in Machico itself.

Although perhaps not the prettiest place we visited during our stay, Machico was surprisingly birdy, producing our first Black-headed Gull of the trip plus plenty of Common Terns flying around the harbour.

Black-headed Gull
The next morning we headed to the harbour where we met Hugo from WindBirds who took us and the rest of the group out to the boat where the other half of WindBirds, Catarina, was waiting and, after a quick safety talk, we set off out into the Atlantic. First stop was a slow pass of the harbour wall at Caniçal where Hugo said they sometimes find migrants and vagrants sheltering. Sure enough, here we found our first waders of the trip: singles of Dunlin and Sanderling and two Turnstones.

Sanderling (and friend!)

We moved further east along the coast and the going started to get a little more choppy as we passed Ponta de São Lourenço. Catarina turned the boat further out into open water and after a while the pelagic species began to appear, a single Bulwer's Petrel to start followed by odd ones and twos of Cory's Shearwaters and the first Fea's Petrels.
Fea's Petrel

Cory's Shearwater

Bulwer's Petrel

Cory's Shearwaters

Cory's Shearwater

Cory's Shearwater

Cory's Shearwater
Further out still and the numbers increased. Turning back towards land we ran into a large flock of Cory's sitting on the sea which all flew up as we passed. Just as the sea really started to swell Hugo shouted 'Sperm Whales!' and we enjoyed fantastic views of two adults and two calves moving close to the boat for several minutes before they dived. We headed back to Machico more than a little wet but very happy, but the Atlantic had one more surprise in store as a Loggerhead Turtle appeared as we approached the harbour.
Once we'd regained our land legs Kate and I went for a wander around Machico. The drainage ditch that runs down to the sea produced the only Grey Heron and Moorhen of the trip along with two LBJs in flight which, with hindsight, were more than likely Common Waxbills as I discovered this to be a regular area for them. Luckily I've seen the species in South Africa otherwise I'd be kicking myself! Two Goldfinches with Canaries in the trees near here were another trip tick.

It was lovely to be back at Porto Moniz in the evening, as the Aqua Natura had kindly let us come back for a few nights after the Ponta do Sol debacle; and a nice welcoming treat was our first Barn Swallow of the trip which flew along the seafront as we were having a pre-dinner drink.

The next day we headed a bit further inland to Rabaçal where we walked some of the popular 25 Fontes levada walk. The 10km walk didn't produce any new birds for the trip although we did get our best views yet of some of the many Firecrests, plus our only other Sparrowhawk while having lunch at the Nature Spot Cafe. Non-bird lifers along the way included Madeiran Small Copper and Madeiran Orchid.
Madeiran Firecrest

Perez's Frog

Madeiran Small Copper

Madeiran Orchid
Back in Porto Moniz in the evening a brief seawatch before dinner produced a nice bonus in the form of a Great Skua flying east, terrorising the Cory's Shearwaters as it went.

On day seven we stayed mostly local, with just a little trip to Achadas do Cruz in the morning to take the cable car down to the tiny village by the sea where we had good views of Blackcap, Kestrel and various other familiar species. Most exciting though was a few seconds' view of a grey-backed short-tailed Falcon flying along the cliff which was almost certainly a Peregrine/Barbary Falcon - scarce on Madeira. Sadly it disappeared behind a crag before I could clinch the ID.

The afternoon was spent exploring a bit more of Porto Moniz where we found plenty of Collared Doves (nowhere near as scarce on Madeira as I expected), lots of Plain Swifts and at least ten Trocaz Pigeons again up on the hillside above the town. In the evening a Black-headed Gull flew west over our hotel; only our second of the trip.
Madeiran Wall Lizard on Pride of Madeira (Echium candicans)
Day eight saw us head into Funchal where we would be staying for the last couple of nights. The main city on Madeira, I'd already pre-emptively written this section of the trip off as being pretty birdless, but I was proved wrong! Our first day exploring Funchal proved productive with plenty of Plain Swifts and a single Pallid Swift over our hotel and only our second record of Goldfinch in one of the green spaces in the city. The Jardim Botanico produced plenty of Blackbirds, Firecrests and a flyover Trocaz Pigeon (sadly I suspect it was too busy with tourists for them on the ground), and also our best views yet of Monarch, one of which actually sat still for long enough to get some photos!

In the evening we made our way to a pre-arranged spot where the Wind Birds crew picked us up. We made a couple more pick-ups before we headed on our way to Pico do Ariero; the third highest peak on Madeira and the only known breeding site for Zino's Petrel. As Hugo drove us higher and higher up the mountain road we went first into thick cloud and then eventually cleared through the top of it. As we parked up he cheerfully announced that the outside temperature was 16 Celsius colder than it had been when we left Funchal (5 as opposed to 21!) and we sure felt it as we got out. I'd rather incredulously packed a fleece and gloves in my luggage as I had a feeling it would be cold up here but I still felt distinctly under-dressed and poor Kate was even more so. Luckily, Catarina and Hugo had plenty of spare hats and scarves which were all eagerly snapped up!

We had to hike the remaining part of the journey to the best spot to wait for the Petrels to appear. Catarina explained that it's generally the young and non-breeding birds that are most vocal around the colony, flying about and playing, basically, while the breeding adults get on with the task at hand. It took half an hour or so of waiting but eventually the birds did begin to call. Certain wildlife experiences are hard to put into words, rather like the 'Singing With Nightingales' event back home in Sussex a few weeks ago - and, as the mournful wails of Zino's Petrels began to get louder and more frequent around us, I shivered a little, partly from the cold which was beginning to gnaw a little, but more from just the overwhelming wonder at the situation we found ourselves in: up here, above the clouds, above humanity, in the Petrels' world. We tried to all stay as quiet as possible but, when one scythed through the air just a couple of metres above us, the whoosh of its wings clearly audible and its shape visible as a silhouette against the night sky, the whole group let out an involuntary collective 'wow!' The calls got more and more persistent, presumably as more birds joined in the fun. Catarina also pointed out occasional calls from Manx Shearwaters.
I completely lost track of time but, after what must have been about an hour, Hugo quietly distributed tea and biscuits to us all, which was very welcome indeed - in all the excitement I almost hadn't noticed quite how cold it was, especially now the wind had got up. Once we were all refreshed and aglow from the shared encounter with these incredible birds we made our way back to the van and headed back to Funchal. The drive up to the mountain had been an excitable, talkative affair as we shared birding anecdotes; the journey back was far more sedate as we all privately took in the astounding experience we had just shared.

A leisurely start to our ninth and last full day in Madeira saw us head out on foot to properly explore Funchal. Joe from Coventry who we'd met on the Zino's trip the night before had mentioned seeing a probable Roseate Tern from his hotel. I knew there was a small breeding population on Madeira but wasn't sure if we'd jam into any without making a special trip. As we wandered down to the harbour I noticed a few Terns feeding and immediately realised a couple of them were Roseates! They came really close at times, as we enjoyed a drink at a restaurant overlooking the water. Certainly the best views of this species I've had anywhere.
Roseate Tern
The second new species of the day (and new for the trip list) came as we crossed over one of the many bridges over the drainage ditch than runs down the centre of the Rua 31 de Janeiro. After seeing the usual Grey Wagtails, Muscovy Ducks and Feral Pigeons, Kate pointed out a small brown bird flitting about at the edge of the ditch near the bridge: a Spanish Sparrow!
Spanish Sparrow

In the evening after a tapas dinner in the hotel bar I persuaded Kate to take a trip out of the city to Ponta do Garajau which I'd been told is a reliable site for Barn Owl (the Madeiran sub-race) and Madeiran Storm Petrel. We quickly heard the former (although sadly didn't see one) and a very noisy chorus from the local Cory's Shearwaters. Even louder though, unfortunately, were the locals in a nearby bar who had their music cranked up so loud we didn't stand a chance of hearing the thin calls of any Storm Petrels. Still, it was a good excuse to see the massive Jesus statue here (which commemorates the rather unpleasant historical significance of this spot being where non-Catholics were thrown off the cliff into the sea when they died!) and enjoy the spectacle of bats (not sure which species?) chasing moths around it at breakneck speed!

Our final day was spent doing some further exploration of Funchal which didn't produce any last minute extra trip ticks, but a stroll round Santa Lucia Gardens did yield our best views yet of the schmitzi Grey Wagtails - there were loads of them about! - some very low flying Plain Swifts tearing around the chimney (remnant of an old factory which used to occupy the site) and trees and a nice bonus butterfly lifer, a Lang's Short-tailed Blue.
Grey Wagtail
Lang's Short-tailed Blue
It's always sad to head home from any holiday but nine new bird species and five butterfly lifers from what was essentially a non-birding trip was a very satisfying result indeed. I have to say what I'm missing most of all though is the Madeiran wine!

Full list of bird species seen/heard (lifers underlined)

Mute Swan (presumably wing clipped birds on pond at Santa Catarina Park)
Muscovy Duck
Cory's Shearwater
Manx Shearwater
Bulwer's Petrel
Zino's Petrel
Fea's Petrel
Grey Heron
Great Skua
Black-headed Gull
Yellow-legged Gull
Common Tern
Roseate Tern
Rock Dove/Feral Pigeon
Trocaz Pigeon
Collared Dove
Barn Owl
Pallid Swift
Plain Swift
Barn Swallow
House Martin
Berthelot's Pipit
Grey Wagtail
Spectacled Warbler
Madeiran Firecrest
Spanish Sparrow
Atlantic Canary

Full list of butterflies seen

Small White
Clouded Yellow
Madeiran Small Copper
Long-tailed Blue
Lang's Short-tailed Blue
Red Admiral
Macaronesian Red Admiral
Painted Lady
Speckled Wood