Anyway. Thursday 4th Feb and we (the Helm team) finally got together for what's usually the New Year bird race. Snow, work and other hazards got in the way throughout January but dawn (OK, 8am) saw four of the five of us birding through the windows of Nigel's conservatory. Jim was absent, having been unable to start his car (because he'd lost the keys).
Nige's garden had already yielded some good stuff including Goldcrest and Jay, and the trusty Marsh Tit showed up soon after Mike, Rob and I arrived. We set off for Fairlight under menacing rainclouds, making a couple of fruitless stops en route in the hope of Redwings and Fieldfares. The rain was really coming down by the time we reached the seawatching stop, a situation for which Nige expected me to shoulder the blame just because I'd said the forecast was for a nice day. Damnit. We set up on the edge (behind a new fence) and quickly found the usual large gangs of Great Crested Grebes on the sea. The first diver found caused much debate - we expected Red-throats but this was a dark-crowned, straight-billed Black-throated. A couple of Red-throats flew by. Then a large corvid rounded the cliff edge and said 'kronk' - an almost-in-Hastings Raven!
I was going to lighten up this photo but decided not to so you can see just what a miserable day it was. But what a brilliant bird.
What else? Gulls, Fulmars, Oystercatchers, Curlews. And then on to the Pannell Valley, not one of our usual stops but this year there is a Great Grey Shrike there which Nige had seen a few days before and which, he assured us, would be 'easy'.
So we parked up, negotiated the cattle grid and headed into the boggy, soggy fields, scanning tree-tops as we went for Shrikey. Without success. And it was still raining. A Redwing was a consolation prize. Nigel, as the only welly-wearer among us, went on ahead to an even soggier field and flushed a couple of Snipes, both of which resisted my efforts to turn them into Jack Snipes. Then, on the way back and with the rain finally stopping, Nige had a last scan of the trees and on one distant shrub there sat a little pale blob - Shrikey! Views through the scope were good, though I haven't bothered to post any of R's 'record shots', ahem. We watched the shrike fly to another tree, stopping for a bit of a hover on the way, then it was on to Pett Level.
The fields around Pett Pools were full of Curlews, Lapwings and Dunlins. We went up to the sea wall and from there saw Turnstones and Grey Plovers on the beach, plus a few Common Scoters on the sea. While we scanned, Rob trundled off to try to get closer to the waders on the beach, eventually making this Turnstone cry.
We drove on a little bit, finding Wigeons and a nice little flock of White-fronted Geese. We also found a Jim, who had found his car keys. Then Mike found a Merlin, which was in hot pursuit of a Dunlin. We watched the chase for ages - the birds never got very close to us but it was a thrill to see - the Merlin gaining fast on the Dunlin on the straights then losing it all as the wader did a dazzling hairpin turn. Cue much oohing and ahhing from us spectators. They finally disappeared from view and we never saw whether the Merlin caught its prey or not. I'd have thought it must have been close to giving up though, as the chase had already lasted several minutes.
Scotney yielded the first Smews of the day - a couple of redheads and one boy. We had great views of a male Marsh Harrier here (one of about eight seen over the day), and lousy views of a very distant Black-necked Grebe. Nigel wisely phoned our food order in to the Pilot at this point, and we headed to Dunge, with a very quick detour to Dengemarsh to collect Red-legged Partridge and Kestrel.
Giant helpings of fish and chips consumed, we hit the RSPB reserve. By now, the sun was out which made me feel vindicated and everyone else feel a bit more cheerful. The reeds and the Wigeons glowed most photogenically.
Burrowes Pit yielded Goosander and Goldeneye. We didn't linger here too long but headed onwards to where there were rumoured to be both small rare grebe species. We had better views of another female Smew on the way, though 'better' is a relative term. Almost all the birds around today were far, far away, disappointing for Rob though it was great to be able to bring them closer courtesy of Nige and his Swarovski scope.
This was the best pic Rob got of Mrs Smew, from Christmas Dell hide, she just wasn't coming close enough.
We found the Slavonian Grebe soon after, it was about the only bird on one of the small lakes and was skulking right at the back, out of the reach of the camera though showing its lovely red eyes through the scope. Then into the Dengemarsh hide, where a Black-necked Grebe was very obligingly feeding right in front of us, although the light was pants from this direction.
It gradually drifted off, and a showboating juvvie Marsh Harrier held our attention for while but the light was obviously going so we carried on, soon finding the other side of the Slav Grebe's lake and much closer views of the bird itself.
They might not be the best-lit photos in the world but hey, that's a good thing as it enables you to compare the jizz of these two oft-confused species without getting all distracted by plumage detail. The differences are pretty clear here - tip-tilty bill in BN versus straight in Slav, steep forehead and crown peaking near the middle in BN, flatter and peaking near the back in Slav, puffy Little Grebe-style bum in BN but tidy, big-grebe style in Slav.
And that was about it for the day. We went on to the sandy beach at Littlestone and added a Knot, but no Sanderlings nor any Barwits. The full list was, according to Nige, 92 species. Which is good, but not our best. And the elusive ton still eludes us, even though the 15-year cumulative list is 145. Raven and Great Grey Shrike were new for this overall list, with Ruff and Common Buzzard making only their second appearance. I can't actually remember when/where we saw a Common Buzzard this year, which serves me right for taking ages to write this blog.