Thursday, 24 May 2018

Dungeness Flora

Although any stay at Dungeness will be primarily focused on birds, it would be foolhardy not to pay attention to the splendid flora on offer - here are a few tasters...

Clustered Clover - a new species for me, and 're-discovered' close to the observatory
Bird's-foot - there was a fine show on the sand at Littlestone
Sand Catchfly - happy to flower in the hundreds close to beach huts and holidaymakers
Annual Knawel - underwhelming, un-showy, yet a firm favourite of mine, at Littlestone
Burrowing Clover - if you are at Dungeness, look down - it is all over the peninsula
Sheep's Sorrel - literally millions of plants turn the grassland red
Thrift - on the western side of the point can be found extensive drifts

Monday, 21 May 2018

I must go down to the sea again

I really should do more sea watching, but when you spend most of your birding time in land-locked Surrey then there is a major flaw in that plan...

Anyhow, the day started cloudy with just the merest hint of precipitation. First bird after stepping out of the observatory back door was a Hobby, quickly followed by a Grey Plover - birds were moving and the day seemed to possess promise. Fast forward seven hours and I had spent a largely fruitless morning on the point and reserve. Dave W had had some sea watching success however, so from 13.30 hrs I took myself off to the beach for what turned out to be a splendid four hours.

At first there was little to suggest that much was going to happen, but then the terns started to move, mostly Commics, and a steady eastward passage was underway. There then appeared to be a logjam in this onward movement, as a mass of birds gathered to the west of the patch and started feeding. Scope views revealed further birds way out. I estimated at least 800. The release of these birds was just as sudden as their gathering, as flocks started to break off and carry on eastwards, coming closer in the process and revealing Black Terns to be in their number (81 passed east), along with two Little Terns and a few Arctics. It was tremendous birding, with the Commic Tern total reaching 1700. To add icing to this ornithological cake was a single, splendid, light-phase Pomarine Skua which showed off its spoons as it magestically headed east. Marvellous stuff.

Sunday, 20 May 2018

Good birds

Part of the allure of spending mid-to-late May at Dungeness is the possibility of unusual birds. As already laid out in a recent post, the last four years has been kind to me at this time of year here. On Friday the first success came via a flighty Hoopoe at Galloways, courtesy of the ever-searching Martin C. The bird did not stay long, bounding away deeper into the Army ranges, although it was later relocated on the Dengemarsh Road to the relief of the many observers who had not been as quick off the marks (or as close) as Mark H and I had.

Saturday was starting to resemble a day of unfulfilled promise until news broke of a Terek Sandpiper just over the county boundary at the superb Rye Harbour reserve. I weighed up the options - stay put scanning an almost empty sky - or indulge in the uncharacteristic behaviour of a filthy twitch. The latter won hands down. After picking up Martin C we arrived on site to be greeted by distant and heat hazed views of the bird, although we were able to take up a much better vantage point further along the Salt Pool's edge and, in good light, the Terek played ball and walked right up to us, giving scintillating views and enabling all present to happily click away on a variety of photographic products. It had turned into a Dungeness away day, with most of the regulars present, and it was good to see Mike B and Matt P there too. Back at Dungeness, the Hoopoe was allowing all comers a chance to watch it again and a Bee-eater that had been seen briefly earlier in the day was relocated, and decided to perch up on bushes close to the Hanson Hide, much to the delight of a local gathering of birders in the evening light. Some of us - alright Mark H and myself - missed out, due to having already got stuck into an evening of FA Cup Final / food and alcohol. Our resolve would have been sorely tested had it been a Blue-cheeked...

And then this morning, in overcast conditions, I found myself walking along the sandy track to the Water Tower when my daydreaming was rudely interrupted by the liquid 'prrrp' of a Bee-eater. The bird circled above me before heading out eastwards over ARC and being lost to view. Another birder had independently picked this bird up from the screen hide and he too lost the bird in the distance. Before there was time to reflect on my 'rainbow interloper' I was made aware of a Kentish Plover (found by Liz H) on Burrowes. Now, back in my youth this would not have warranted such a frenzied response, but this was, unbelievably, the first Dungeness record since 2005! Cue a procession of birders who were able to watch this dainty plover that remained faithful to a small shingle island.

So, three days and four birds (albeit one away from Dungeness). Is it being greedy to hope for a bit more?

Thursday, 17 May 2018

Two more

Clovers, that is.

After yesterday's blank on Clustered, the observatory assistant Jacques went out to check an historic site close to the observatory, and came up trumps with several hundred flowering heads on show. Images at a later date. Clearly with the bit between his teeth, he then tracked down several plants of Suffocated, a species that I have not seen for several years. This trip is turning into a bit of a 'clover fest'.

The birds remain quiet, although a dribble of waders continue to pass over the point (Whimbrel, Bar-tailed Godwit, Sanderling, etc). I'm still holding out hope for something unusual to come sailing on by...

Wednesday, 16 May 2018

In clover

With a nagging, cool northerly wind the birding was never going to creep above mundane, and it didn't. The beauty of Dungeness is that if the birds are a no-show then you can fall back on plants and insects - we chose the former.

The sand dunes of Littlestone beckoned, with public land on the seaward side of the golf course chosen to explore. This area is well known botanically, and we were delighted to find a good number of notable species. The main target was Clustered Clover, a plant that I have failed to find here a number of times. Despite clear directions, and knowing that we were in the right place, it took an hour's searching before we had to admit defeat. Our sixty minutes of crawling around on all fours had paid off however, as some of the other clovers present were not so difficult, with Burrowing, Knotted, Birdsfoot, Rough, and Haresfoot also being recorded. There was masses of Bird's-foot (not the clover), Annual Knawel and plenty of Smooth Cat's-ear to feast our eyes on. A few naturalised plants added a splash of colour, including Duke of Argyll's Teaplant and Portugeuse Squill. Flowers, not for the first time, had saved the day.

Tuesday, 15 May 2018

From volcanic rock to shingle

After a four-day family break in Edinburgh - where ancient volcanic rock outcrops loom over the city - I soon found myself back on the shingle ridges of Dungeness. It may well be quiet on the bird front here, but mid-May with blue skies and NE to SE winds (as forecast and lessening in strength) is usually an indicator of a good bird or two. Over the past five years, staying at the bird observatory at this time of year has been very profitable indeed, with my notebook having been populated by Great Reed Warbler, Bonaparte's Gull, Rose-coloured Starling, four Black-winged Stilts, three Bee-eaters, Serin, two Montagu's Harriers, two White-winged Black Terns, Black Kite, Honey Buzzard... all good stuff!

I arrived in a gentle easterly breeze, sunny and warm, the air perfumed with the profuse flowering of plants on the shingle. The ground is stained rusty red by millions of Sheep-sorrel; Gorse and Broom add splashes of yellow, whilst white is supplied by Snow-in-Summer and Sea Campion. It is an understated spectacle, but a spectacle never the less. It is one of the reasons that I keep on coming back.

Thursday, 10 May 2018

'Sky watching' - the inland birder's 'sea watching'


I was going to start this post by mentioning that us birders in land-locked Surrey cannot obviously indulge in the ornithological pastime of sea watching, but then remembered that this is not strictly true - I took the photograph above from the top of Leith Hill a few years ago that clearly shows the sea, believed to be at Shoreham. It would, however, take a fantastic telescope, plenty of imagination and an awful lot of fabrication to come up with any meaningful observations...

Instead, us inlanders can use the sky. As a surrogate sea this is quite a good compromise. The same rules apply - find a clear view, take up position and wait. The birds come to you. There is the need for good flight identification (like the sea), it can be weather dependent (again, like the sea) and can throw up the unexpected. In addition - and unlike the sea - bird calls are an important component of the birder's armoury.

Sky watching has the advantage of being able to be participated in from almost anywhere (although I've always found the cupboard-under-the-stairs to be pretty useless). There are hot spots (hill tops, gaps in hills, river valleys) with my closest site to home being at Canons Farm, which has big skies and relative height. We also believe that the nearby A217 acts as a navigational aid to birds, as we have seen flocks of birds (including patch-scarce waders and ducks) flying along its line. You can relive a couple of my memorable sky watches from the Farm here and here.

This morning it was quiet, but the Farm (and sky watching) always has something to offer, with six Red Kites, all singles, heading between south and west.