My recent visit to Dungeness got me thinking about the avian changes that have taken place over the (almost) forty years that I have been going down to the shingle. I have already touched upon the egret explosion two posts ago - it is not everywhere that a fly over Great White Egret barely warrants lifting one's binoculars, but that is the situation at Dungeness!
Gulls have seen an enormous surge of interest, largely down to one or two pioneering birders, including Peter Grant, one of DBO's very own. Back in 1976 large immature gulls were virtually unidentifiable, so sifting through any such flock was largely an exercise in trying to find a Glaucous or Iceland (the term 'white-winger' was not then common currency). PJG's obsession has been passed onto current warden Dave Walker, who studies the gulls avidly. He is responsible for finding all three Audouin's Gulls, plus a Ross's, fair reward for the many hours that he spends staring down his telescope. A 'new' species on the radar is Caspian Gull, unknown back in '76 but now perfectly findable on the shingle, if you put in the effort.
The Greenfinch was a staple of a winter trip as a large flock used to assemble on the beach close to the old lighthouse, as many as a thousand birds providing a diverting spectacle. Last week I saw just two. In fact, away from the RSPB reserve, passerines have drastically reduced in number. Migrant falls are all but a thing of the past. In 2013, the observatory ringing total of Willow Warblers was 162. I have trapped over 250 in a day there on several occasions (in the 1970s). Regular falls of 400-500 used to occur during August - such figures are but the stuff of dreams in the 21st century. I could regale a similar tale for most warblers, Redstarts, Whinchats, Tree Pipits, flycatchers and don't even get me started on Turtle Doves - oh alright then, I've started so I'll finish - we used to sit on the banks of the moat during spring and watch small flocks flying low over the shingle heading northwards. Now gone, possibly never to be repeated.
The autumn was a time of overhead, visible migration, and if the wind was NW then there would be a guarantee of thousands of birds, mostly finches. In the skies of 2015 this event will be missing, although the odd day might see several hundred birds go overhead. I have seen 2,000+ Tree Sparrows stream through in the first two hours of daylight (early 1980s). To record 20 nowadays would be notable.
There are plus points. Bittern, Marsh Harrier and Bearded Tit were all notable species back then. All are now resident and breed on the reserve. Cetti's Warbler was still a screaming Dungeness rarity, whereas now it breeds freely. Ravens and Peregrines have returned. But we are still seeing the fall of species that we once took for granted. With Spring upon us, we wait for that siren of the warmth, the Wheatear, to return. The Dungeness breeding total seems to be suffering a slow fall into, what? Extinction? Will it go the way of the Stone Curlew? I certainly hope not.
There are plenty of other examples of change in the Dungeness avifauna over the past forty years. This can be traced at every other site in the UK. Change happens and always has, but not at this speed.