Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Birds, for a change, and in France (9 years ago)

Now that we have autumn upon us, I thought I'd share with you a tremendous day's birding that I had just over the English Channel, at Cap Gris Nez, on October 19th 2004 in the company of Sean McMinn. I have lifted the narrative straight from my notebook.

"Weather: Wind SE f2-3, light overcast, dry and cool.

We arrived and parked just as the first shards of daylight appeared in the eastern sky. Even though it was far too dark to bird, the birds themselves were already on the move. From the blackness above came the calls of Chaffinches and Bramblings, at first just isolated calls, then small flocks and as the daylight finally broke an unending procession of contact calls. The day had promise (we had already flushed a Long-eared Owl as we approached the headland, seen in the car headlights). Single Ring Ouzel and Woodcock alighted nearby as we were finally allowed to see the birds streaming overhead and assess their numbers. Chaffinches were the dominant species, but Bramblings were also passing in impressive numbers. 95% of birds were coasting south, but the odd flock peeled off the avian conveyor belt and alighted in the few bushes available. Other species were caught up in the movement, but in smaller numbers: Fieldfare, Grey Wagtail, Dunnock, Siskin, Tree Sparrow, House Sparrow, Skylark, Reed Bunting and Starling. Most welcome were those 'special' additions to the list - Lapland Bunting (1, which landed nearby and adhered itself to a Yellowhammer flock for the rest of the morning), Serin (4, all singles within mixed finch flocks), Crossbill (4) and Woodlark (4).

At 10.00hrs the birds were still streaming through, but we decided to check woodland 'south' of the headland. What was obvious was a distinct lack of birds in the woods but also that the overhead passage was still apparent half-a-mile inland. Three Firecrests and a Short-toed Treecreeper finally gave themselves up. We then headed out from the wood, through scrub and over open farmland towards the beach, half-a-mile from the headland. The finch passage had not abated, but increased. We sat at the cliff edge and enjoyed the spectacle, and at one point 750 Chaffinches and 250 Starlings were in the air together, above, level and below us. Each scan with the binoculars revealed birds moving both out to sea and inland from our position, as well as overhead - all at varying heights. The vast majority of the birds were Chaffinches, whose loose flocks varied in number but were generally 25 - 100 in size. Many flocks passed at eye level, or lower than our vantage point where the sex composition of the flocks could be ascertained. They were generally mixed. Starling numbers had by now increased, whilst the Bramblings had tailed away.

The fields inland were not ignored. A Merlin entertained us for a while as it toyed with three Carrion Crows. Each flock of Reed Bunting, Yellowhammer and Skylark was diligently scanned.

Final day totals were: Woodcock (1), Grey Partridge (12), Merlin (1), Long-eared Owl (1), Mediterranean Gull (2), Skylark (250), Woodlark (4), Meadow Pipit (25), Grey Wagtail (8), Fieldfare (4), Ring Ouzel (1), Redwing (20), Dunnock (20), Mistle Thrush (1), Stonechat (1), Black Redstart (1), Cetti's Warbler (2), Blackcap (1), Chiffchaff (3), Firecrest (3), Short-toed Treecreeper (1), Starling (10,000), House Sparrow (150), Tree Sparrow (125), Chaffinch (60,000), Brambling (1,400), Siskin (135), Serin (4), Crossbill (4), Bullfinch (5), Lapland Bunting (1), Corn Bunting (1), Yellowhammer (105), Reed Bunting (50)."

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