|Posted on May 9, 2012 at 2:45 PM|
Friday May 4th
For over 20 years a bunch of my birding mates and I have booked the bird observatory at Dungeness for the first Bank Holiday weekend in May. Over the years the cast has changed a bit but Marcus Lawson, Mike Buckland and I have done the majority of them and Dave Walker the DBO warden has usually been there too. A lot of good birds have been found over those weekends by those present including several firsts for Kent like Black-throated Thrush, Black-browed Albatross and Audouin's Gull - the latter a first for Britain. I've not seen them all and it's not always been great birding but it's always been a laugh. A chance to relax, catch-up and enjoy beers, a curry, and hopefully a few good birds.
I arrived at the Pilot Inn Friday evening just in time for the food order - the legendary "large cods" were off so it was "large haddocks" instead. Marcus arrived soon after.
Over a beer or three I soon learned that once again I was late for the party. What can only be described as one of the best spring falls in recent memory had left Dungeness awash with birds. Over 300 had been ringed and numbers of common migrants included estimates of 1000+ Whitethroat, 800+ Willow Warbler and a smattering of other more scarcer migrants. Marcus and I both smiled but felt rather gripped as the others - Mike, Dave Walker, Wes Attridge, Sam Bayley and Dave the new assistant regaled us with tales from a great day's birding.
Saturday May 5th
I was up around 05.00 and soon out with Mike and Sam. It was overcast, dull, ocassionally spitting with rain but only a light north-easterly was blowing. A quick look in the moat revealed that there were still plenty of birds about and we wasted no time in driving the Heligoland traps. The moat was alive with Whitethroat's, perhaps 100 birds, and they flew from every tangle as we slowly pushed the "flocks" into the traps. Most escaped but we trapped around a dozen and carried them back for Sam to process.
Mike, Sam and I walked to the beach seeing a few Redstart and Whitethroat. We learnt that the sea was rather poor for passage and so instead swung round to bird the gorse near the RHDR station and into the trapping area. Spreading out we combed the area. I flushed a bird and immediately thought it might be a Wryneck. The three of us approached the brambles and elders it had disappeared into and sure enough out flew a Wryneck - I was very pleased and certain that it would be my best find of the weekend.
We carried on birding the trapping area and found pockets of birds - plenty of Whitethroat, a scattering of Blackcap's including 5 together and a few Garden warblers - but it was obvious that many of the previous days birds had moved on.
As we returned to the Obs the pager reported that a Little Bunting was still at Sandwich Bay. Trapped a week before it had gone missing then showed Friday after being retrapped. Despite being an annual vagrant in small numbers to the UK it remains very rare in Kent and neither Mike, Marcus or I had it on our Kent lists so we decided to twitch Sandwich.
We arrived at Sandwich Bay around 10, having approached from Deal down the Ancient Highway, a pair of Grey Partridge being the only notable birds seen along that stretch. We negotiated the toll road then parked at the Observatory and walked to their trapping area - a small wood with lots of net rides.
Several hours of mildy frustrating birding ensued. The Little Bunting was very elusive and yet called fairly regularly. However, there was rather too much playing of tapes which resulted in people rushing from one side of the small wood to the other and some birders had the odd fleeting glimpse though I'd seen nothing by 1pm. Eventually it did calm down and Mike, Marcus and I all got a good long look at the Little Bunting as it perched in a willow calling. John Brighton, Steve Broyd, Frank Cackett and his son Tom were also with us and we walked out of the wood feeling euphoric. What happened next was as unexpected as it was amazing.
I started to put my camera gear away when Frank said something like "what's that?". Almost instantly Mike was on it and I could tell they were both bemused and excited so I quickly jumped up and straight away got on the bird. By now it was going away from us heading north-east. My first thought was it was a lark, and a big one at that! White trailing edge to the wing, white outer-tail feathers, broad wings and what looked like a notable contrast between the upperwing and the underwing. It was now undulating away towards the golf course and I blurted out it's a lark, a few seconds later with my brain having processed the picture I was seeing I shouted "it's a bloody Calandra!". I stayed intently on the bird, it had passed over c20m off the ground and by the time it reached the edge of the golf course it appeared to veer slightly left and lose height but then it disappeared from view behind trees.
Within a few seconds of the bird disappearing Marcus and Steve Broyd ran up shouting "did you get the Calandra?" to which the only answer was "of course we did" ! I don't think there was a shred of doubt in our mind and we started to walk, almost run in fact, towards the spot where we hoped it had landed. Mike Puxley and John Brighton had also seen the bird and very soon the 8 of us were on the edge of the golf course scoping the area including the huge sheep-field opposite the observatory. Whilst doing all this hurried calls were going out to mates and the information services - surely we'd relocate it!
Sadly we never did. Perhaps it carried on flying north-east into the steady 12mph wind and who knows where it landed? Perhaps it did land in one of the many hollows (I was going to say dips!) on the golf course. We crossed the golf course, walked to the club house searching beside the beach road, before re-crossing the course at another point and even did a little sneaking about on the course itself. Other's joined us from the obs and further afield but alas it was not seen again.
It's the big-one! No twitchable mainland records as yet. A first for Kent if accepted. Over breakfast on Sunday morning it was interesting reading about the previous 16 accepted records; 14 have been in April or May and ours sits plum in the middle of the 14, date-wise.
We returned to Dungeness and started to watch the cup-final. At half-time Mike and I went out to look for passerines behind the obs near the power station. We were photographing Wheatear when Dave Walker phoned to say he and Gill had found a Red-rumped Swallow on New-Diggings. We raced off and found both the ARC and New Diggings covered in Swallow's in blustery overcast conditions. The Red-rumped had gone missing and after a while we decided to try the RSPB reserve which looked like it had a lot of hirrundines on it. It's difficult to estimate the number of Swallow's but it was in the region of 3000+ with small numbers of Sand Martin and House Martin and over 100+ Swift. We persevered but gave up soon after 7pm as the light was already going in the overcast conditions.
Tradition ensued and we went for the annual curry in New Romney joined by Gary Taylor. We tried not to mention the Calandra but I think it slipped out once or twice.............
Sunday 6th May
Another dawn start saw us yet again driving the Heligoland traps in the moat to capture any unringed Whitethroats as quite a good number remained. After that a look about the immediate area revealed a smart Whinchat but little else and yet again in light north-easterly's the sea was described as "dead". Marcus, Mike and I decided to check out the pits and reserve before breakfast and then head to Rye to see the Kentish Plover which had been present several days.
There were a lot less hirundines around, perhaps only 20% of the numbers seen the previous evening. Once on the reserve Mike settled down to comb through the gulls and eventually found what looked distinctly like a Glaucous hybrid. There were more Swifts to check and a few waders including Common Sandpiper, Little-ringed Plover and Dunlin. Lawrence Pitcher and Phil Saunders showed up and we had a good chat with them before hunger drove us to a cafe in New Romney.
The master holds court......Dave Walker shows Mike and Sam why a bird in hand is not necessarily as easy to identify as it is in the bush.........
After the late, late breakfast we drove to Rye to see the Kentish. We timed our visit to coincide with high tide and what a high tide!
It was probably close to the peak Spring high tide and the water looked perilously close to the top of the sea-wall as we walked out to view the new saltmarsh area that is basically "under construction".
The new saltmarsh area is presently just mud, shingle and man-made channels. It was smothered in waders. A wonderful sight.
The Kentish was on the closest shingle spit and whilst mostly asleep showed well at times. There were around 100 Dunlin in all sorts of plumages but many in fine summer dress, c150 Ringed Plover, 3 Little Stint, several dozen Whimbrel scattered around and small numbers of Knot, Grey Plover, Turnstone, Bar-tailed Godwit and Redshank. A Temminck's Stint that has been seen on and off was picked up by Mike to add to a good haul of waders.
Ringed Plover and Kentish Plover
After leaving Rye our next stop was Scotney gravel pits which straddle the border between Kent and Sussex. We concentrated on the Kent end (naturally) and found the grassland in front of the pits held a good selection of waders. Whimbrel, Bar-wits, a dozen Black-tailed Godwits, Dunlin and a couple of Ruff. On the edge of the pits we had a couple of Common Sandpiper and a distant Little Gull. Stephen Message and Dave Walker were present and before long we were again parked in a line this time on Denge Marsh where 3 Turtle Doves were feeding out in the open and being rather confiding - perhaps fresh in off the sea tired and hungry? A couple of drake Garganey were on Denge too but it was a bit quiet so we didn't stay long.
We headed back to the Obs around 5pm and Mike headed home. After a quick cuppa I was revived and headed back to search the pits, ranges and Denge Marsh. At the back of Galloways from the range road I had a few Hobby's and a Cuckoo. Further Cuckoo's flew over Denge Marsh and the reserve entrance track. I finished the day watching Swift's over Burrowes on the Reserve - perhaps 300 or more often just inches above my head.
Monday 7th May
At last after several days of the "wrong" winds for a seawatch the wind swung round to the south and I made my way down to the beach just after 06.00. My timing was good and as I sat on the shingle ridge next to Mike at 06.15 he said the first Pom's of the morning were straight out - 3 distant dots but through the scope obvious Poms. In the next 3 hours we had a total of 13; 3 at 07.40 , 2 pale phase and a dark phase, were close enough to get some good detail. We also had a few Arctic Skua's, 2 Bonxie, a Manx Shearwater, at least 8 Black-throated Diver, and a few Red-throats. Tern passage was poor; but 54 Little Tern's was noteworthy plus a few Arctic. A few Brent's a perhaps c100 Common Scoter flew east. Waders were in short supply with 20+ Whimbrel and odd Bar-wits and Grey Plover. Several Hobby flew in-off and a Merlin flew east.
Around 09.20 with the passage now barely a trickle, visibility decreasing and hunger biting we fled the beach for the cafe in New Romney.
After breakfast Mike headed home and Marcus and I set off for the gully on Denge Marsh. It was quiet, warm, sunny and still. We watched Wheatear and I spent a while photographing them and a Sedge Warbler. It was all looking settled, I'd soon wrap it up and head home. Then Marcus phoned ( we were in seperate cars and by now doing different things) he said Wes had found a Crested Lark near the Obs!
Bluebells - in the gully on Denge Marsh
Sedge Warbler - Denge Marsh
The afternoon was transformed. We arrived back at the Obs to find that the Crested Lark had flown towards the power station and been lost probably in the car park. Dave Walker and the former assistant warden David Roche got permission to enter the car park but a thorough search revealed little and the rest of us just got wet waiting.
The sun came out, I went back to the Obs. No sooner had I made myself a cup of tea than the news broke that David Roche had re-found the Crested Lark on waste ground at the far end of the beach road adjacent to the power station. In blazing sunshine I stomped off and enjoyed about 30 minutes of scope time with the Crested before it flew up high over the power station and disappeared forever. I have not had a chance to read up on it yet but it was a notably cinnamon-tinged bird.
I started to say my goodbyes and walked back to the car. I'd paused to check a few Wheatear near the old lighthouse when Steve Broyd stopped his car alongside mine and told me that there was a Red-rumped Swallow at Greatstone over the water works at the end of Dunes Road. I'm not sure where Steve went but I was the first there with Mike Puxley and we walked out to find the Red-rumped hawking over the filter beds with a mixed flock of Swallow's and House Martins.
It was a great end to a fantastic weekends birding. They simply don't get much better than that.