1980 Part 2 - late winter rarities

The first twitch of 1980 also turned out to be the first dip. On the morning of January 26th, I stood on the narrow paths at Radipole Lake in Dorset along with several hundred other birders, forlornly searching every dyke and pool for the Pied-billed Grebe that had been found the previous day. The neighbouring reedbeds were quiet, a single singing Cetti’s Warbler and three Bearded Tits hardly enough to compensate for the lack of rarity. A skein of 24 White-fronted Geese that flew through were a surprise though, along with three Greenshanks.

The grebe, however, was just toying with us, as we were back again the following weekend as it had resurfaced, this time allowing us to obtain close views almost as soon as we arrived. It sat close to a Little Grebe, dwarfing its European cousin, betraying a long, thick neck and anvil shaped head that seemed out of proportion to the small body. There was a hint of colour to the largely grey-brown plumage, with a black crown and russet cheeks. The bill was thick, and pale. The bird soon disappeared, no doubt finding a channel that was hidden from our view. We did not linger, however, as the big news was of a first-winter Ivory Gull that had been frequenting the beach at nearby Chesil Cove. This arctic gull played hard to get. After patiently ‘making do’ with 14 Red-breasted Mergansers and three Slavonian Grebes on the sea, our two-hour wait was ended as it finally appeared, half a mile back towards Weymouth. It flew along the beach, passing below our elevated position on a shingle bank, just feet away, before circling twice and then landing. In flight, on long wings, it appeared casual, effortless even. It was a white ghost of a gull, on closer inspection exhibiting brown/black spots on its primaries, secondaries, and wing coverts, plus a dark tail band. The drooping grey bill was tipped fleshy-pink, the short black legs (of which the right appeared to be broken) and limpid dark eyes all contributed, along with its attenuated shape, to appear pigeon-like. We returned home via Stanpit Marshes in Hampshire, where we dipped on Serin, which was fast becoming a bit of a bogey-bird for me.

I was still being faithful to Beddington SF, my default, go-to birding place. The visits might not have been as frequent, or as long, as the ‘teenage me’ used to put in, but the old place still had a hold on my affections. The wintering Brambling flock had built to just over 100 birds and Tree Sparrows to 150, and the number of Common Snipe had reached a respectable 77 by February 17th. I had also started to revisit Epsom Common, where work had recently been completed on the restoration of an ancient stew pond, close to a smaller, existing one. I had joined Dave E on one of his work parties, but this aspect of natural history – that of habitat management – was not one that filled me with any excitement. I would join in, albeit reluctantly, spending more time watching chainsaws, hacksaws, machetes, and scythes being wafted around in wild abandon rather than joining in with such activity. I could just about be tempted to man the bonfires that were set up nearby, burning the cleared vegetation - I would zone out, hypnotized as I stared into the dancing flames, jolted awake by the fierce snapping of the branches as they submitted to ash, my eyes stinging with woodsmoke. Within just a few days of the clearing being flooded, wildfowl has started to feed and roost there, and a new place to birdwatch was added to our itinerary. One Surrey location that was not delivering the goods however was Thursley Common. A visit during the summer months could be a vivid one, populated by shining dragonflies and specialist heathland birds, but during the short days of winter the gorse and heather could be as silent as the grave. I wandered over the boggy ground, climbed up the scratchy slopes and scanned across the colour-muted, conifer fringed panorama to no avail. If there was no wintering Great Grey Shrike or Hen Harrier on offer, then it was going to be hard work, as it proved. I had to remind myself that, in just a few weeks’ time, this place would be jumping with action, alive with noise and vibrant in colour.

At Dungeness on March 2nd, there were signs of spring, with a small arrival of thrushes (50 Blackbirds, 20 Redwings and 20 Song Thrushes,) with further signs courtesy of singing Yellowhammers and displaying Ringed Plovers. ARC pit was lively, with a gathering of 34 Goldeneyes prior to departure, six Goosanders and a female Long-tailed Duck.

News broke of an odd tern that had been seen, on several occasions, along the Cornish coast at Falmouth, which had finally been identified as a Forster’s, an American species and a first for Britain. I had managed to get a lift westward with a gang of London birders who were affectionately known as ‘The Incredible String Band’. I met up with Terry Sibley, Lester, JW and Bolin, arriving at Falmouth at 01.00hrs on March 15th. We found a clifftop shelter, close to Swanpool Beach, and slept (on an off) mainly thanks to a remarkably mild night. We were, along with a few hundred other birders, able to start scanning the sea by 06.30hrs. It was all quite pleasant really, with Kittiwakes and Gannets offshore, and, from our slightly elevated height, a few auks were easily picked out in the shallow troughs, including a Little Auk that I was too slow to get onto before it disappeared.

At 09.00hrs, having moved along the cliff to scan from the terrace of a cafĂ©, a tern – THE tern - appeared just offshore. The same size as a Common, it was, however, subtly different. Long-winged and long-billed, it fancifully suggested a cross with a Sandwich Tern, exhibiting a leisurely flight. A winter-plumaged bird, the most striking feature was a black eye-patch that stood out on a white head. Dark-tipped primaries on grey wings, brown-grey mantle and wing coverts, pale rump and grey centred white tail all were committed to my notebook. After a couple of feeding circuits of the bay the bird left the arena, not to be seen by us again. I looked back along the cliff edge at the gathered clan of birders – all parkas and oiled-jackets, flared denim jeans and knitted bobble-hats – with draw-pull telescopes balanced precariously on tripods and knees. It was a motley bunch, and the locals, who were out for a morning stroll or dog walk, did not quite know what to make of this faintly disturbing invasion of men – for there was not a woman among them - that had taken place under the cover of darkness.


Russ said…
Nice reminder of the grebe and full, in my case on the 29th
Chris Janman said…
Yes got the Gull first and then struggled with the grebe until dusk, it was right over the back in a reedy channel, happy memories.
Steve Gale said…
Russ and Chris - nice to reminisce with another couple of 'old' timers...

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