Wednesday, 17 July 2019

Spring 2019 - Patch Roundup

I recently tweeted "What a poor spring migration that was! I hear you say ..." And it generated a few really interesting comments, with a general feeling that Willow Warblers in particular were poorly represented here. Thanks again for those comments which were and are really appreciated. Here are some more thoughts.
I love the sights and sounds of Spring migration on the Lyme Bay coast. So was it a "good" spring passage? Was it above or below average? My gut feel was that it was a bit slow (in quantity) for the common passage migrants on the land but thanks to some nice sightings on the coast during the latter half of May the passage of waders in particular was pretty good. Anyway, here's a roundup of some of my Spring birding highlights on the local patch.

2 Whimbrel visited the outflow to the river on the morning of 6th May. They didn’t stay long but left flying high over the beach car park heading north over the village whistling goodbye with their distinctive call of 6 or 7 flutey notes. “7 Whistlers - nice”.
4 more Whimbrel touched down at low tide on the 9th.
2 Turnstones and a Ringed Plover were seen on the beach on 14th May.
There was another (or the same) Ringed Plover present for 4 days from 17 - 20th May. Favouring the area of beach around the high tide mark in front of the blue beach huts it spent a lot of time feeding with 30 or 40 Pied Wagtails. The photo below shows this lovely little bird.

When this individual was stationary it would “disappear” into its stony surroundings, presumably a very successful survival technique! Feeding on sand hoppers and flies in its deliberate way, it seemed relatively unconcerned by the proximity of the busy car park only 30 or so metres distant and with all the consequent bustle and activity. It was great to observe this confiding bird at such close quarters. Although strikingly marked (see photo), the banded plumage to its head and neck helped it to blend in surprisingly well with the shingle and rounded pebbles on our stoney beach. And it was only when it moved that it became more visible.

2 days later on 22nd May, I recorded my highest count to date of another lovely small wader when 17 Sanderling paid a visit to the west beach. Smaller flocks were present in the following few days with 14 on 24th, 7 on 25th and 10 on 31st – a really good spring passage for this bird species. Very different to the Plover's more measured, deliberate feeding method, it was great to watch the Sanderling's all action approach to feeding, rushing to and fro, running backwards and forwards over the wet sand and seaweed to peck at tiny food morsels.  Most of these small flocks of Sanderling were very flighty, frequently taking fright to fly out over the waves, before returning as a group to a quieter area of the beach. One group however were very confiding and approached fairly close to where I was sitting quietly on the beach.

I was quite pleased with how this photo turned out. It shows a beautiful adult Sanderling coming into full summer breeding plumage complete with lovely red eye-patch (thanks Steve @axebirder for those words!). Plumage variations were amazing in this flock, some clearly with moult much less advanced and still winter birds.

Just along the coast at Lyme Regis the regular flock of Purple Sandpipers and the immature male Eider Duck which have been around for most of the winter months were still showing until late May. The former are interesting local specialities and the latter a good and unusual record for here.

Away from the coast, I found a Garden Warbler on 6th May and 2 male Common Redstarts on Stonebarrow Hill on 8th May.
A Hobby flew by nearby Chideock on 7th.
2 Nightjars were seen and heard “churring” at Trinity Hill on 13th May - quite an early date for here I think.
Although I saw my first Swift on 7th May it wasn't until 14th May that I was delighted to get a report that they had returned to their regular nesting site in a house on the west side of Charmouth village.
The first Common Whitethroat appeared on Stonebarrow bang on cue on 18th May. 

So there’s been some decent activity in our local area this spring. Although with good weather and clear skies during peak migration time the numbers of migrants grounded here on the headlands, hills and farms were low. Probably good news for the birds!

But what, for me, was the highlight? There have been quite a few! Maybe it was the first Wheatear arriving in/off the sea and landing on a rock next to me on the beach. Or maybe, after the long winter months, it was seeing the first Swallow hawking for insects around some farm buildings? Or maybe that moment in early May, as dusk settles, hearing the eerie “churring” of the first returning Nightjar? All these are great moments and encapsulate what spring birding can be about.

But there was one other highlight for me this Spring. My best birding moment of Spring 2019 came unexpectedly on the 16th May when I witnessed part of a strong passage of Pomarine Skuas here in Charmouth. Talk to most birders and they will say that yes, Skuas are very special birds indeed. And Pom Skuas although regularly seen on passage are rare birds and the views are generally fairly fleeting (and often distant) making them extra special. They are hunters and predators wintering off the coast of W. Africa and breeding on the arctic tundra. In spring, like so many birds, they are compelled to track northwards. Earlier in the season I’d been fortunate to see a Great Skua and a few Arctic Skuas flying past Portland Bill, Dorset. But on 16th the reports I was getting on the birding grapevine had added spice! That day there had been sightings of Skuas all along the Sussex and Kent coast of the English Channel. From Selsey to Dungeness reports were coming in to say that Pomarine Skuas were also on the move, travelling in small flocks of up to 9 or 10 individuals. The only trouble was that all the reports earlier that day would, as one would expect, confirm that these Poms to the east of me were travelling EAST and away from me! Still, they were definitely on the move. Perhaps I could find my own? So here in Dorset, despite being many miles to the west of these earlier sightings I thought I would have a go at seawatching and so that evening I took up station at the seafront on the bench down by the Coastwatch Lookout.

Despite these encouraging reports, I settled without much expectation into my evening seawatch, binoculars and telescope at the ready. After all, this is not Dungeness or the Hebrides, this is a quiet corner of the English Channel tucked away at the top of Lyme Bay. Have to say it was a bit slow in the first hour with only a few gulls, 1 or 2 Cormorants and 22 distant Manx Shearwaters to show for my efforts. Still it was a pleasant evening. And recalling the last flock of Poms I played my part in finding at Seaton (account here), why not give it another hour or so?

And my intuition and persistence was rewarded when at 18.05 checking a group of gulls flying midway between Charmouth and Lyme Regis suddenly there they were, 4 Pomarine Skuas complete with long tail “spoons”.

Unmistakable! Superstar birds on their way from the southern Atlantic Ocean and flying in a small flock up passed our little village of Charmouth. A quick check with the telescope and binoculars but faffing about with the bins and camera I managed to lose them! Still shaking, I got the word out on the phone to the immediate local birders and posted the news on Twitter. Shame, but they were gone all too quickly. Don't think they came past me heading east. No one, to my knowledge, picked this group up to the west of me either. So did they go up over Black Ven, over Lyme Regis Golf Club and overland? I really can't say. But it would be really interesting to hear from anybody in the birding world who has sightings of overland passage of Poms?
Anyway, that was it, a few fleeting seconds to admire their powerful and graceful beauty. These are rare migratory birds and as luck would have it, I was in the right place at the right time to experience this very special moment. And hopefully next year I’ll be lucky enough to see some (even 1 would do) again, however fleetingly.  Brilliant birds, showing that migratory drive, pushing them close by and flying past our village on their way to breed and complete the circle of renewal. Spring migration! Can’t wait for the Autumn but first the long summer months.

So to return to my original question, I think Joe S @Joe_stockwell put it nicely when he commented in response to my original tweet  " ... coastal patching is a terrible gauge of what's really going on, you'll get a run of good weather and a huge number of birds will overfly the coast and end up on territory ... Good springs for us (ie coastal patchers) aren't necessarily good for birds .." Wouldn't disagree with that, Joe!

< The core of this blog appears in the Summer edition of Charmouth's Shoreline magazine >

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