1980 Part 3 - spring

I was close to completing my final year at Art College. The Easter break of two weeks was upon us, and I had just one place in mind as to where I would spend it – Dungeness. Teaming up with Tim Collins, we travelled down via Otford Field Pits (four Green Sandpipers, two Redshanks and 80 Common Snipe) and Shirley Moor (a Little Owl), arriving at the bird observatory after dark. It was a fortnight of heavy birding, with our horizons stretched across the greater Dungeness area, walking many miles over the energy-sapping shingle, building up our calf muscles as some compensation for the birding being, at times, slow. But we did have some success. In the observatory recording area we experienced a steady, if unremarkable, passage of migrant passerines, with peaks of Wheatear (20 on March 29th, 26 on April 2nd), Willow Warbler (30 on April 11th), Chiffchaff (15 on April 11th), Firecrest (five on March 28th and April 2nd), Meadow Pipit (100 on March 29th) and Black Redstart (five on April 9th). We recorded DBO’s earliest ever Yellow Wagtail on March 27th, and had a relatively early Common Redstart on April 11th, plus two Tree Pipits on April 12th. Up to three Short-eared Owls briefly paused their journey at the point, and on one memorable evening we watched a Long-eared Owl as it hunted, and called, outside of the Britannia Inn after nightfall. Passage at sea didn’t really get going until April 12th, when a good selection of wildfowl and waders were on the move, backed up by two Black-necked Grebes, four Bonxies and four Little Gulls. Away from the observatory we recorded a Slavonian Grebe on ARC, a female Long-tailed Duck at Scotney, Greenshank and Spotted Redshank at The Brooks, three Avocet on ARC, a Jack Snipe at Burrowes, and a first-winter Glaucous Gull on ARC, more than amply backed up by a superbly marked and brightly coloured male Kentish Plover, that appeared on the ARC sand bowl on April 4th and stayed in the area for eight days.

On April 13th Beddington was at its best, on a day of warmth and sunshine, fanned by a light south-easterly wind. A flock of nine Ruffs were the star attractions, with six Redshanks, a Swallow, two Wheatears, a male Black Redstart, four Sedge Warblers, a Willow Warbler, 100 Linnets and two Corn Buntings. Days like these were a reminder of why Beddington retained my primary affection, against stiff opposition from other places that, although they might provide more surprise and variety, could not be regarded as my spiritual and ornithological home. Throughout the month several of the Ruff, and the Corn Buntings, remained on site, being joined by incoming Little Ringed Plovers, and Yellow Wagtails. Stodmarsh was also visited, where the semi-resident Glossy Ibis had been joined by a second bird, with a male Marsh Harrier, 10 Cetti’s Warblers, a reeling Grasshopper Warbler, 35 Sedge Warblers and 10 Bearded Tits also being recorded.

On an overcast and cold May 3rd, with a stiff north-easterly wind, Dave E and I experienced a most fulfilling day’s ‘local’ birding. Starting at Beddington, a passage of chats was apparent, with 12 Wheatears and three Whinchats, the latter including two beautifully attired males. Up to 15 Yellow Wagtails included a candidate Blue-headed. Singles of Common Sandpiper and Turtle Dove rounded off the visit nicely. Onto Bough Beech Reservoir, where a choir of assorted warblers was joined by a single Cuckoo and Nightingale, with three Common Sandpipers bobbing around the water’s edge. We then stopped at Chathill, near Godstone. This unremarkable piece of farmland went on to prove how even the most unassuming of places could spring ornithological surprises on those who dared to bird along the roads less travelled. Our initial scan of the hedgerows uncovered several Whinchats perched on top, each sweep with the binoculars revealing more – four became five, five became six, and then a final total of eight was reached. Four Wheatears looked on from the sparsely vegetated fields to the accompaniment of a reeling Grasshopper Warbler. We left with a firm agreement to return to this place and check it out in the future. We never did. This area was obviously known by the locals who named it as a place where chats gathered – whether they were wintering Stonechats or, as we had found, passage Wheatears and Whinchats, we will never know, but it had been named with precision and care. The following day we were on Epsom Common, where the new stew pond had attracted a Common Sandpiper. The surrounding common land was starting to scrub up, something that was apparent even in the few years that I had been visiting. We were still able to locate three reeling Grasshopper Warblers though, along with a Turtle Dove, 2 Cuckoos, a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker and two Willow Tits. These emblematic species were hanging on, but, unbeknown to us, their days were numbered.

I spent six days at Dungeness during the first half of May, but not on the day that I would dearly have loved to have been present - May 7th - when, on a wet morning of NE winds, a minimum of 1,500 Willow Warblers were forced down onto the point, along with double figure counts of Wood Warblers, Common Redstarts and Pied Flycatchers. Many were in song; “It was just like being in a Welsh woodland” I was told by an awe-struck Nick Riddiford the following morning, a morning when my Willow Warbler total would reach a meagre six, as almost all the birds had moved on. These were the sort of avian spectacles that I sought, and, unlike a rare bird, they were not twitchable - you needed to be there, the very moment when they were happening. I was 24 hours too late.

The six days that I was present however provided plenty of excitement. The 5th was buffeted by a strong ENE wind, but the birding was kind, with a showy Wryneck that spent all day haunting a shingle ridge with drifts of railway clinker at its base; a very bright and beautiful male Ortolan Bunting, with a freshly painted apple-green head; a female Kentish Plover on the close ARC sand bowl; and a single Pomarine Skua passing east. These highlights were ably backed up by a Little Stint, a Black Tern, 60 Wheatears, two Whinchats and a flock of six late Fieldfares. A duller male Ortolan Bunting was located by the old watch-house, just yards away from the observatory front door, on the morning of 8th. It was the first bird that I focussed my binoculars on as I got out of Frank Lockwood’s car, a fine welcome. The Wryneck was still present and subsequently trapped on 9th, when two Jays (scarce at Dungeness) a Common Redstart and a Ring Ouzel were also recorded. With the continuing ENE winds our attention became focused more fully on the sea. Ducks, waders, and terns were to the fore, along with three Pomarine Skuas on 10th, the same date as an incredible total of 195 Velvet Scoters moved eastwards, including a mind-boggling flock of 180. A flock of eight spooned Pomarine Skuas were recorded the next day. These mid-May sea watches were a delight to undertake, with the birds that were moving through, by and large, in splendid summer plumage, their desire to arrive on northern breeding grounds almost palpable. The mixed bejewelled wader flocks sparkled as they hugged the top of the waves, with the flashing silvery-white of tern’s wings and the dull black menace of skuas overloading even the most jaded of birder’s vision. Poetry in motion.

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