Tuesday, 1 February 2011

New year bird race

This is a very late report from Weds 5th January, when Rob and I joined Nigel and Jim for the annual January big birding day. We do a more-or-less dawn to dusk birdwatch on a designated day in early January, following more-or-less the same route. All birds seen or heard by anyone in the group go on the list.

Rob saw a Woodcock flying across the A21 on our way down to Nigel's, I unfortunately was looking out of the side window and missed it. We reached Nigel's just after 8am and had tea while watching the bird feeders in the garden. Nige had already added the usual stuff plus a bonus Redwing flock, and I found a Nuthatch straight away, soon followed by a Treecreeper. However, the semi-regular Marsh Tit refused to show itself. Jim then arrived and we set off for Fairlight cliffs for a seawatch.

It was very windy and, though sunny for now, looking like that wasn't going to last. We struggled up a muddy track to the cliff edge and began to scan the sea. Red-throated Diver and Great Crested Grebe quickly joined the list, the latter in large rafts far out among the big waves. Jim spotted a couple of Guillemots flying low westwards, while Rob looked the other way and found a Kestrel struggling against the high winds. Nige found a distant Fulmar, then I found a couple closer in. However, overall it was disappointing - we have in previous years had Gannet, scoters, Eider, Black-throated Diver, Peregrine and Raven from here. A Green Woodpecker on the trudge back was some consolation.

Next stop was Pett Level, where Nige had found a Red-breasted Goose among a big flock of White-fronted Geese a few days before. Sadly most of the White-fronts had moved on, and there was no sign of the Rough-legged Buzzard that had also been seen here a couple of days ago. We walked alongside the canal, noting Curlews, Lapwings and Golden Plovers in the field, and got to a point where we could scope the distant geese. There were maybe 15 Whitefronts as well as Greylags and Canadas. From the small hide here we added Shoveler, Gadwall, Marsh Harrier and Reed Bunting, but a bit further on were gutted to be told by other birders that we'd just missed a Merlin.

We headed back for the car. I was trailing a little behind the three chaps at this point, and noticed a flock of corvids mobbing something bigger over the fields by a small patch of woodland. Expecting to see another Marsh Harrier I raised my bins and was delighted to see that it was in fact a Red Kite. I yelled into the wind and got the guys onto the bird just in time.

We drove on, pausing to check the pools (not much there) and the beach (ditto). It was high tide and waders were feeding on the roadside fields. We stopped to look at them, finding Knot, Dunlin and Grey Plover. Further along were a small crowd of Brent Geese, mainly dark-bellied but with a few pale-bellieds. Nige found a Black Brant (the North American subspecies of Brent Goose) among them.

Next was Scotney Gravel Pit, a massive gravel pit straddling the Kent and East Sussex border, close to the sea. We've had some great birds here over the years, such as Long-tailed Duck, Scaup, all three divers, all three rare grebes... but not today. Few birds were braving the choppy water, and the islands held nothing new for the list. We did get a flock of Stock Doves, though.

We drove down past Dengemarsh, next to RSPB Dungeness, in search of Red-legged Partridges in the fields - no luck. This was getting depressing. Nige helped cheer things up by phoning in our lunch order to the Pilot Inn, famed purveyor of fine fish and chips. We headed there via Lydd where we hoped to get a Mistle Thrush on the green - we didn't, but got a bonus flyover Sparrowhawk instead. We also paused on the way to look at the ARC pit from the road, and were rewarded with a quartet of new duck species (Smew, Goosander, Goldeneye and Ruddy Duck). There were an impressive 10 Smews on the pit, all of them redheads. At least one of the two Goosanders was a handsome drake.

The Pilot had our lovely food ready when we arrived, enabling an efficient lunch stop. We were only in there half an hour, but in that time the sun disappeared and we emerged to leaden skies, threatening rain at any moment. We drove on past Derek Jarman's famous cottage by the beach, and stopped to check a couple of flocks of large gulls, hopeful of finding the Glaucous that has been here for a month or so. We drew a blank though, and while we were checking (from the car) the rain began to fall. I spotted a Merlin zipping along the beach behind the gulls but no-one else saw it.

We carried on to the RSPB reserve, whereNige found a Black-necked Grebe from the visitor centre. Word was that Bitterns had been showing well from Scott hide so we hurried there, full into the driving wind and rain, and slumped with some relief onto the benches. It was the kind of weather where any sensible Bittern would be hiding in the most sheltered spot it could find. Undaunted, Nige scanned the waters and found a few Pintails. Then Jim quietly drew my attention to something creeping along the shore right in front of us - a lovely Water Rail, which we all watched with great enjoyment.

It was nearly 4pm by now, and getting dark as well as miserable. We were hurrying back to the car park when a Firecrest called loudly from thick bushes by the track. Cue Nige and Jim stalking around the bushy area and peering into it, but without sight. Then the Firecrest called again from another bush on the other side of the track. How the cheeky blighter crossed the track unseen by all four of us is a mystery, but we still couldn't find it. However, it joined the list as the last bird of the day. Jim totted up the list on the way back and made it 78 - one of the worst ever (best was 98) but we declared it a most enjoyable day nonetheless. Nige emailed the day after with an improved total of 83.

Cameras mostly stayed under wraps, but here are a few piccies - Black Brant, Stock Dove flock and a load of Wigeons.

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