Tuesday, 29 December 2020

Norfolk, 19th-21st December

Had an enjoyable couple of nights away with Mrs Matt in Norfolk the weekend before Christmas. Aside from a very brief break on the Hampshire coast in September we've not had a single holiday together this year - understandably, given the pandemic - but as I've been on a couple of short birding trips it seemed only fair that we made time for a husband and wife excursion while we had the chance. 

As long as we've been together Kate's been keen to go to Norfolk as, despite me going on many birding day trips there over the years, she's never been.

We stayed in Walcott Green which put us within easy reach of some nice sites, including Horsey Beach, Winterton Dunes and Hickling Broad. Kate was particularly keen to see seals so we headed straight to Horsey on arrival where we were treated to adorable views of the resident Grey Seals and their pups, plus a flypast flock of Snow Buntings and a hunting male Hen Harrier. In the evening we headed to Stubb Mill at Hickling where I've previously enjoyed some spectacular winter evenings, and I was keen to share the experience with Kate. 35 Marsh Harriers and four Hen Harriers (two males) came in to roost plus ten Common Cranes and thousands of Pink-footed Geese, with a few White-fronts mixed in for good measure.

Hen Harrier, Winterton
Common Cranes, Hickling

The next day we headed to Happisburgh for an early beach walk before it got busy. Here we bumped into some more Snow Buntings (18 in total), some of which were very obliging, feeding in the sunshine near the cliff edge. An afternoon walk at Winterton produced more excellent views of seals but not the hoped for Iceland Gull.

Not quite as bird-filled as some of my previous Norfolk trips but it's impossible to have a disappointing experience up there and I always come away looking forward to the next one.

Sunday, 1 November 2020

Wet weekend - but a welcome patch tick!

What a thoroughly unpleasant weekend it's been, weather-wise, with November continuing right where the wettest October on record left off. It's fair to say I can't recall ever getting as drenched on a birding session as I did on Saturday morning, but not without valid reason.

I'd had a decent morning on the patch -  66 species recorded including 14 Crossbills, a Brent Goose, 108 Black-tailed Godwits, 3 Marsh Harriers, 2 Peregrines, Marsh Tit, Cetti's Warbler and a late Swallow, among others - and was just giving the North Brooks a final scan as the forecast rain band was arriving on the strengthening southerly wind and I knew I had a half hour walk home ahead of me.

A group of gulls loafing on a pool on the far north side of the North Brooks caught my attention. We don't see good-sized gatherings of gulls on the deck here all that often, so I scanned through them hoping for something unusual. As I did so, a small flying wader caught my eye. It seemed very skittish, and never settled for long but the fact that when it did land it did so on water combined with its obvious dark eye mask and cap told me straight away I was looking at a Phalarope. When on the water it looked buoyant and rather plump and long-bodied, oddly reminiscent of a Little Gull as it bobbed about among the nearby Black-headeds. It was being rather harried by crows at one point and disappeared behind vegetation for a while before reappearing in the centre of the pool and starting to feed in its distinctive way, pecking at the water. Now that I was happy I was looking at a Grey Phalarope I reached for my phone to put news out and try to phonescope it but unfortunately in the short time I spent fumbling in my pocket the bird had apparently flown again and I wasn’t able to relocate it, despite another hour of searching - though the rain and wind by then seriously hampered my efforts. I had another scan of the pools in that area of the North Brooks later in the day but without any joy. 

Still, it's hard to let the brevity of the sighting put a dampener on what was a long-awaited Pulborough tick for me, especially after October proved to be a bit of a disappointment in terms of the birds to effort ratio. The 2020 year list now stands on 148, with two months still to go...

Black-tailed Godwits over the North Brooks

Sunday morning started out even more unpleasant than Saturday, with heavy rain hammering on the window as I awoke. A delayed start to the day's birding produced rather fewer species and the raptors were slow to rise, though the wing-tagged, Norfolk-born juvenile Marsh Harrier put on a good show on the South Brooks along with the two Peregrines again, and a male Hen Harrier was enjoyed by others later in the day. Lapwing numbers have grown to at least five hundred now, with three Ruff to be found among them today. A frustrating 'one that got away' occurred in the form of a possible 2nd winter Caspian Gull which flew west past Jupp's View. Sadly I couldn't get my camera on it quick enough, but it would have been only my second Pulborough Casp, if so.

The wing-tagged juvenile male Marsh Harrier, born in Thorpe Marshes in Norfolk this summer

In the afternoon, Kate and I headed down to Littlehampton to get a bit of sea air ahead of the impending second lockdown. We decided to check out the West Beach which we've not visited before. A blustery walk was enlivened by a Dartford Warbler in the bushes near the visitor centre, associating with at least five Stonechats, although always rather elusive. On the beach itself were c.75 Sanderling and at least 30 each of Turnstone and Ringed Plover, while singles of Gannet and Brent Goose flew east and west, respectively.

Brent Goose

Dartford Warbler - elusive, as I said!



Friday, 2 October 2020


Despite marking the arrival of both astronomical and meteorological autumn (after three months of birders talking about the season) September can often prove to be a rather disappointing month - for the inland patch watcher at least - and 2020 has continued that trend for me. That’s not to say there’s not been some great birds - just not at Pulborough!

The month got off to a flying start when I self-found a UK lifer in the form of an Icterine Warbler while away for mine and Mrs Matt's second wedding anniversary down in Barton on Sea on the Hampshire coast. This will undoubtedly go down as one of my most memorable finds; we were just out for a stroll along the clifftop before breakfast, and I was pondering the rarity potential of the scrub below us when suddenly the bird popped out into view. A reminder that many hours of patch watching and bush bashing can sometimes be outdone by the most casual of encounters in an unfamiliar place.

Icterine Warbler, Barton on Sea, 1st September

On the subject of memorable finds, Ed Stubbs certainly takes the trophy for the best local find for September - if not the whole year - as he stumbled across a Short-toed Lark on farmland at Shackleford in Surrey on the 19th. I was on the far side of the Pulborough reserve at the time the news broke, so it's fair to say I have rarely cycled faster as I powered home and jumped in the car to go and see the bird. An absolutely epic find for an inland site, the bird performed beautifully in the warm autumn sunshine to the crowd of admirers. Ed looked buzzing, if a little shellshocked, and it was great to catch up with various familiar faces from the Surrey and Hants birding community.
Short-toed Lark, Shackleford, 19th September

Ed and I had planned a trip up to Lewis with Sam and Abel to end the month, but sadly the increasingly strict Covid restrictions put paid to that idea, so we instead decided on a few days down in Cornwall.

The trip was a rewarding one, with 103 species recorded, although we unfortunately weren't able to find any windblown American passerines after the big low that swept through early on Wednesday. Highlights included the very obliging Semipalmated Sandpiper and two equally showy Merlins at Godrevy, two Wrynecks at Botallack, two Sooty Shearwaters and a steady trickle of Balearics past Pendeen, and the odd Yellow-browed Warbler and Firecrest in Cot and Kenidjack Valleys.
Merlin, Godrevy

Semipalmated Sandpiper, Godrevy, 28th September

Pink-footed Geese, Hayle

Yellow-browed Warbler, Kenidjack

Choughs, Cot Valley

Barn Owl, Cot Valley


Herring Gull

Gannets, Pendeen

Wednesday, 26 August 2020

Turn up for the Brooks

Arriving at the reserve in a stiff north-westerly breeze this morning I looked rather despondently at the water levels on the North Brooks which had again risen after yesterday’s rain, obscuring most of the muddy margins. “Not much hope for any waders today”, I thought to myself.  

An initial scan with the scope seemed to prove my suspicions, with just a scattering of Black-tailed Godwits and Lapwings on show. Further scans revealed a single Dunlin, soon to be joined by the lingering Ruff, and singles of Snipe and Green Sandpiper were also to be found lurking in the reedy edges. 

Another medium-sized wader then caught my eye, stood on its own with its back to me, which I briefly took to be another Green Sand hunkered down in the wind, until it stood up properly and turned to reveal its orange legs, dark face and breast band - Turnstone! I blinked a couple of times to be sure I wasn’t seeing things before punching the air. A patch tick, and something of a Pulborough mega - certainly a rarer wader than Pec Sand or Temminck’s Stint here. Species number 172 on my Pulborough life list, and 147 on the 2020 year list. A fab start to the day, despite the weather.

I'm pleased to say the Turnstone lingered long enough for fellow Pulborough regulars Chris and Juliet Moore to see it later in the day. They also stumbled across a Pied Flycatcher near the tractor sheds, along with at least eight Spotted Flycatchers. This followed on from another or the same Pied Fly at Fattengates earlier in the day (John Russell). Perhaps not surprisingly given the hundreds or even thousands turning up around the country in recent weeks, it's been an amazing few days for the species at Pulborough. Today's birds represented perhaps the fourth and fifth individuals this week, following on from one near the church on Saturday morning and two on the southern edge of the heath the same day (Andrew Rodgers/Martin Parker).
Spotted and Pied Flycatchers (Photo: Chris & Juliet Moore)

Pied Flycatcher

Tuesday, 11 August 2020

Hotting up!

The weather might be doing its utmost to convince us that we're still in summer, but it's clear that we're getting into ornithological autumn proper now, and there's been a fair bit of excitement at Pulborough Brooks recently.

Waders have really got moving in the past couple weeks, with highlights including two Wood Sandpipers on 8th August (plus a couple of other heard only records), up to three Greenshank (31st July), a splendid summer plumage adult Spotted Redshank (31st July) and an impressive count of 17 Green Sandpipers (31st July) along with the usual fare for the time of year. Sadly one of this year's juvenile Avocets didn't make it, as it was looking senescent on 31st July and was finally finished off by a Lesser Black-backed Gull on 1st August, despite the efforts of the RSPB staff to catch it and take it into care.
Spotted Redshank and Greenshank

Other recent highlights have include five Cattle Egrets and three Med Gulls on the North Brooks on 30th July, the former of which I managed to get from the attic. The Egrets were preceded by their larger cousins on the 19th when three Great White Egrets dropped in on the North Brooks, followed by one on the 24th. A Curlew flew south down the Arun calling loudly early on 6th August followed by another west over the garden on the 10th (which Pete Hughes had earlier had on the North Brooks), while early on the 7th the first Tree Pipit of the autumn/year flew south over the horse paddocks just north of Wiggonholt Church. The same morning also produced a Pied Flycatcher in the Oaks near the church, found by Alan Baker - perhaps a species we'll record again this autumn, given the amount turning up in the southeast this week!
Cattle Egrets, photo: Phil Thornton

Great Egrets, photo: Mark Bloss

As many other birders have been noticing it's turned into an extraordinary summer for Crossbills. In the three years I've been patch watching Pulborough, I'd had maybe half a dozen records of the species before this summer. Since this irruption kicked off in June their unmistakable 'jupp'ing calls have become a regular feature of my visits to the reserve. Recent records include what sounded like a small flock over the visitor centre on 13th July, one south over the North Brooks on 14th July, five south on 17th July, four on 20th July, two north on 21st July, heard only records on 2nd and 3rd August, six west over the church on 4th August, two north on 8th August and one over on 10th August (David Campbell).

With my patch yearlist now on 145 and easterlies forecast for a couple more days followed by more early next week, I'm quietly confident that this could be the year I hit 150...

Garden Warbler


Spotted Flycatcher

Friday, 3 July 2020

What happened to summer?

It’s fair to say that 2020 has been a very strange year. A global pandemic, a spring in lockdown, an incredibly wet late winter followed by the hottest, driest spring on record... and now here we are in early July and weather and birding-wise it’s already feeling distinctly like autumn.

Late June/early July is traditionally the slump of the birding year, with weeks often passing without any new additions to the year list. In the past three weeks though I’ve added a handsome six species to the patch year list: Wood Sandpiper, Crossbill, Siskin, Redstart, Cattle Egret and Common Tern.

I've recently finished reading Simon Barnes' excellent On The Marsh, the following extract from which seems particularly apt...
"...we had seen a delightful gathering of golden plovers. They were still in their summer breeding plumage and yet these sumptuous colours were beginning to fade, were already a little rough round the edges.
They had gone over. They had completed their breeding: they were on the move. For them, autumn had arrived. Just think: all those people getting ready for what they thought were their summer holidays, unaware it was already autumn.
Jeremy Sorensen, former warden of the RSPB's Minsmere in Suffolk, used to claim that summer didn't exist at all. Looking at the world in his entirely bird-centred - avicentric - way, he was convinced that there were three seasons only: you might call them breeding, dispersal and survival. We were already in the second of those seasons, so far as some species were concerned."

When we went into lockdown, back in March, spring was just getting into its stride. Now, with pubs and hairdressers about to reopen, we birders are already looking ahead to the promise of autumnal delights, and recent days have delivered a very satisfactory selection of dispersing birds to Pulborough Brooks.

Waders in particular seem to be moving through earlier than usual, presumably indicative of failed breeding attempts. The Pulborough-grown Avocet family remain on the North Brooks, the juveniles now looking very grown up and stretching their wings in between extended naps. Today there were seven adults present too, let's hope some of them take a liking to the Brooks and return next year and we have more than one breeding pair in 2021. Black-tailed Godwit numbers are starting to increase again now after the first handful returned from Iceland last weekend; today there were 39 present, all still looking resplendent in their breeding colours. Other classic early returning species such as Green Sandpiper, Common Sandpiper and Little Ringed Plover have been on the increase too, with up to 9 Green Sand and 14 LRP in the past week. Less expected was the Temminck's Stint found by Jon Winder on Monday afternoon and seen again by Matt Palmer on Wednesday.

An adult Common Tern made a brief pitstop on the North Brooks on Sunday morning before flying south, while an adult Cattle Egret flew straight through heading southwest early on Monday. On Friday evening Pete Hughes broke the news of an adult Spoonbill on the North Brooks, which was still present as of this lunchtime; the third record of the species at Pulborough this year, and perhaps the fourth different individual. Then, early this afternoon, Lyn and Mike Hunt found two Redstarts in the species' eponymous Corner; a remarkably early date for returning birds, although evidently Matt Palmer also had one on Wednesday.

If it's this good in the doldrums, then my hopes are high for an excellent autumn to come!

Common Tern (honest!)


Monday, 1 June 2020

To blog or not to blog?

A short post about blogging and mental health

If you’re a regular reader of this blog you may have noticed the ever decreasing frequency of my posts, for which there are various reasons. I’ve been thinking about things a fair bit lately and, in light of the recent Mental Health Awareness Week, I felt like sharing some of my thoughts here.

My blogging and other computer-based activities always tend to take something of a back seat in the spring and summer months, with the longer days allowing for more time in the field, as well as allotmenting and tinkering in the garden at home, but I’ve found it to be even more the case this year, what with the extraordinary circumstances we've all been living through.

I started my first blog in 2012 when I was working as a gardener for the Church of England; it was a solitary role and I was keen to share what I was seeing with others so began tweeting then blogging about my day-to-day sightings. I’ve always enjoyed producing special trip reports too, to look back on in years to come, but there’s no denying that regular blogging can sometimes end up feeling a bit like just another chore. What with recording sightings, catching up on nocmig, emails and countless other computer activities, combined with a physically draining job, I've found it can be all too easy to lose sight of why one first loved something; in my case birding which developed out of a general fascination with, and love for, the natural world.

I've always been a bit of a worrier, and the recent loss of an old friend during what are already strange and unsettling times has reminded me of the importance of valuing the present even more. My wife jokes that she’s never seen me spend so much time at home as I have in recent weeks - I’m usually rushing about all over the place - but there’s no denying I’ve learned to take more time to notice and enjoy what’s right in front of me (the BWKM0 challenge was great for that and I'm aware I never took the time to blog about that once it was over either!). It turns out that sometimes it is okay to just lie flat on your back on the lawn and do nothing, which has been a bit of a revelation for me, to be honest.

I know I’m not the only one who's found the desire to blog wane somewhat during lockdown, and even before that birders and naturalists I’ve known have said they’ve struggled to maintain prolonged enthusiasm in it, as much as they love their subject matter.

I’m not sure quite what I imagine the purpose of putting these words on here is exactly, and I'll stop soon before it gets any more self-indulgent. I’m certainly not suggesting I’m going to stop blogging altogether nor wishing to detract from the continued prolific efforts of others whom I admire - Ed Stubbs, Peter Alfrey and Steve Gale to name just three - but I suppose my message if there is one at all is, if you’re finding elements of something you love are causing you unnecessary anxiety, don’t be too hard on yourself and remember to keep focusing on what it is you enjoyed about it all in the first place.

If you're anything like me many of the things you're worrying about are not as important as you might think they are, and your physical and mental well-being will be all the better if you allow yourself time to pause.
The author in rarely seen static mode, surreptitiously photographed by Mrs Matt

Saturday, 11 April 2020

Crepuscular delights

As much as I've been enjoying the BWKM0 garden birding challenge, this time last week I still hadn't actually had any new additions to the garden list as a result - unlike many others taking part. All that changed in the past few days though, with three garden ticks, one of which was in fact a new species for me in the UK!

It started on Monday morning with the classic drizzly, misty conditions producing the hoped-for Little Gull out on the North Brooks scoped, of course, from the attic. The day soon turned dry and the very calm, chilly evening seemed a good opportunity to get the nocmig recording gear out again. As I did so heard a 'twit twit twit' call which, although immediately familiar, I just couldn't place. A few minutes later I heard it again and the penny dropped, or at least sort of. I text Ed Stubbs to ask if it would be too early for a Spotted Crake, to which he replied 'early but not impossible'. Sure enough, going through the recording the next day I was able to confirm it was indeed a Spotted Crake, which sang several times up until 22:30, after which it wasn't heard again. What an amazing 'garden' record, and a lifer to boot! It's hard to imagine how I can better that on the lockdown list really.
The final garden tick of the week came on Good Friday morning. Mrs Matt and I had decided to get up extra early to listen to the dawn chorus from home. No sooner had we sat down in the garden with coffee and blankets than I heard what sounded like a Nightingale giving its 'huweet' call. Now, obviously the species breeds on the RSPB reserve, so it's always been one I'd hoped to hear from home one day, but I still struggled to contain my excitement when this one started belting out its song from the scrubby bank just below and along from the garden. A Red-legged Partridge 'singing' somewhere beyond the Arun wasn't a new one for the garden but represented an equally welcome lockdown tick. Added to a singing Goldcrest this morning, the BWKM0 list now stands at 89, out of a garden total of 129. What next, I wonder?

Sunday, 5 April 2020

Locked down....but not out

Well, what a strange few weeks it's been since my last post on here. It's hard to keep us birders away from our passion though, wherever we are and whatever challenging situations we're put into, and it's been wonderful to see the 'BWKM0' (birdwatch kilometre zero) challenge take off so strongly on Twitter. Inspired by similarly locked down birders in Italy, Steve Gale has taken on the impressive task of curating the light-hearted competition over here, posting daily updates on his blog.

The rules are simple: to see how many bird species you can record from your house or garden (seen or heard) and ultimately discover what your final tally represents as a percentage of your overall garden list. So far I'm on 78 species out my garden total of 126. I should point out this includes nocmig records as well, of which six are on the 'lockdown list' now, but more on that later.

As anyone who follows my Twitter ramblings will have probably noted, I do a lot of my BWKM0 watching from my attic skylight, which offers fantastic views across the North Brooks, with the South Downs in the background. It's ideal for a scan of the Brooks early morning but I tend to migrate to the garden mid-morning (when I'm not at work) for a better view of the sky, and to concentrate my efforts on looking south down the Arun, which is presumably a flyway of sorts.
Highlights from the attic since the lockdown listing began include a Great Egret on 1st and 5th April, a ringtail Hen Harrier on 30th March and 1st April, and my first Swallow of the year on 28th March; the latter pleasingly followed by others among a steady trickle of Sand Martins this weekend. 

In the warm sunshine this morning it was great to watch a couple of Ravens tumbling over the garden, as my first Sedge Warbler of the year started chattering away down by the Arun. Then this afternoon a drake Goosander flew south along the river, only my second garden record.
Raven over the garden
Raptor-wise, Buzzards are numerous, Red Kite and Peregrine are regular, while Kestrel and Sparrowhawk have put in occasional appearances. Sadly, I'm still yet to join either the Osprey or White-tailed Eagle lockdown club, but here's hoping! 
Peregrine over the garden
Onto nocmig, and it's been an eventful week on that side of things too. The star species at this time of year is of course Common Scoter, with many thousands of them moving overland when conditions suit. A busy night over the north of the country on the night of 1st-2nd April seemed to largely pass the southeast by, but the following night delivered the most spectacular passage of the species I have experienced since I started nocmigging in 2017. I recorded two sizeable flocks over Pulborough at 22:23 and 22:40 on the 2nd (second video below) and almost anyone in their garden or with a recorder out heard calls too - clearly helped by the reduction in traffic and aircraft noise. Other bits of note this past week were a Whimbrel over on the 1st (first video below) and fourteen calls from at least two Oystercatchers on the 2nd. 

The warmer weather has really brought out the butterflies too with plenty of Brimstones and Peacocks visiting the garden this weekend, plus the odd Comma and Small Tortoiseshell and, best of all, the first male Orange-tip of the year this morning. 
Brimstone in the garden