Tag Archives: Dunlin

Wetting my lips: the call of the Quail

On the Patch it already feels like June is on us. I was out early this morning, but it did not feel very rare at all. Tony and I stood in the Brooms watching nothing, bemoaning nothing, and then went our separate ways. My Patch story from today was short, but didn’t quite end there as I got a lucky patch year tick from three Shelduck flying low over the School Scrub as I walked home.

My ‘way’ took me back to Rainham. This time to Stone Barges and the three mile walk to Rainham Marshes – as I arrived too early to park in the reserve.

Wheatear dotted along the path kept me company on the walk, as did the omnipresent sound of singing Skylarks on the tip, and a steady stream of Swallow that whipped past me as I walked East, and the occasional screams as large numbers of Swift gathered.

But it is also a long, and rather odd walk: past the concrete barges; alongside the rising tidal Thames lapping at the mud with the occasional Common Sandpiper, Oystercatcher, or Whimbrel to break the monotony; gulls circling over the landfill site and – depending on wind direction – the odd whiff of the stench of waste; a smell replaced by a strange sickly molasses odour as I walked past hundreds of old damp wooden pallets mixed in with the brackish smell of the estuarine Thames. The strange combination of industrial and marshy wildness is occasionally decorated with the bizarre; perhaps a statement of the uncertainty that exists in urban fringes.

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Eventually the marshy reserve stretches out in front of you with the mud of Aveley Bay to your right and the pregnant grassy mound of filled-in-tip to the left. It was here that I saw Shaun; a super guy as well as being a good birder, but looking slightly agitated. I was greeted with a question: “is that your phone? Are you playing Quail James?” Before I even had time to answer, the distinctive, but short, song of Quail reached my ears too. There were a few tense minutes of slight uncertainty before others joined us and louder bursts of the song of this elusive summer bird sealed the deal. Despite a reasonably sizeable twitch of watchers for much of the day, nobody saw the diminutive galliforme, but my lips were wet (apologies if the birding in-joke doesn’t make sense): this was a big London-first tick for me and a lovely addition to my UK year list. I think I owe Shaun a pint in the not-too-distant-future as this is not the first excellent bird he has found that I have enjoyed.

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The view from ‘Quail hill’ with the reserve to the extreme left, the mud of Aveley bay to the centre left and the Thames stretching away to the sea

When I left, I focused more on waders. I had some good scope views of three Wood Sandpiper on the reserve and was then treated to a super mixed flock of waders on Aveley bay (where last week I had watched Little Gull).

This time Black-tailed Godwit, Bar-tailed Godwit, Grey Plover, Dunlin, and Redshank were also joined by some super smart Knot – all in breeding plumage.

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Red Knot (Calidris canutus), female Grey Plover (Pluvialis squatarola), and Dunlin (Calidris alpina)

Whilst, again, I missed lots of good birds I had hoped to see (Little Stint, Curlew Sandpiper, Ring ouzel, Grasshopper Warbler being first in mind, and if I were a better birder I may have been able to nail a probable first year Caspian Gull) I still nudged my patch year list up to 92, and took my UK year list up to 140 with four new additions.

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The Saxon Shore

A couple of days ago, I went for a walk with a friend. We walked for just over 13 miles from the outskirts of Canterbury, through Blean woods, then up to the North Kent Coast, along the Saxon Shore Way (by the Swale and then down alongside the creek) to Faversham where we inhaled some much needed beer and food. A very rough map of our journey is set out below:

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The highlight of the walk was in the South Swale reserve in the North Kent Marshes (around points A-C in my makeshift map). Before we reached Saxon Shore Way, we walked through fields (point ‘A’ on the map) that were alive with Skylarks in full song flight (I swear winter only lasted for about one week this year!) In fact the number of Skylark and Fieldfare (with the latter in the hundreds) were close to UK records for me. The fields were bordered by water-filled ditches and reed beds with Little Egret, Snipe, and Reed Buntings all showing. We watched Buzzards, Kestrels, a Marsh Harrier, and a probable, distant, Merlin (unfortunately I won’t be counting the latter for my year-list) hunting.

When we reached the Swale, I was a little disappointed at first that it was high tide – the mudflats here are so huge that they even have names (like the South Oaze), but that disappointment soon dissipated when we saw a seal (point ‘B’ on the map). It was as curious of us as we were of it, and resurfaced many times closer to watch us:

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Harbour (or Common) Seal (Phoca vitulina)

Walking along the Saxon Shore Way – named after some of the fortifications built to protect late Roman England from Saxon invaders from the Continent, at a time when the coastline looked very different indeed – we realised another benefit of the high tide: many of the water birds were concentrated in quite small areas of reeds and pebble banks (point ‘C’ on map).

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The Swale

We saw large numbers of Teal and Brent Geese, and huge numbers of Wigeon collecting in a banked off lagoon section, while large flocks of Lapwing flew over.

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Brent Goose (Branta bernicula)

Even greater numbers of Grey Plover and Dunlin, with some probable Knot as well, were huddled together on the pebble banks, at first looking like rocks or weeds:

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Grey Plover (Pluvialis squatarola) and Dunlin (Calidris alpina)

There were also reasonable numbers of Curlew, Redshank, and Oystercatcher. We didn’t stop long to look at them – as we were getting thirsty and hungry at this point – and so I entirely failed to see what had put a large flock of Oystercatcher up in the air. It was only when looking at my photographs that I noticed the raptor amongst the flock. At first, I just assumed it was a Peregrine Falcon even though its shape confused me, but comments below made me look again and realise this is almost certainly a Sparrowhawk (I am assuming that it wasn’t hunting the Oystercatcher, which would be out of the size range for prey even for a female, but Redshank or Dunlin were possible targets – who knew Sparrowhawk hunt waders? Not me it seems!) There is also a single Bar-tailed Godwit towards the back of this zoomed-in section of the flock:

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Oystercatcher (Haematopus ostralegus), Sparrowhawk (Accipter nisus), Bar-tailed Godwit (Limosa Lapponica), and Common Redshank (Tringa totanus) – The latter two may take some careful studying to find

A flock (or ‘time step’ to choose the very cool collective noun) of one of my favourite waders, Turnstone, whipped past us and settled on a small patch of grassy shoreline where they were belted repeatedly by the waves:

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Ruddy Turnstone (Arenaria interpres)

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Turnstones (one of which is ringed) playing Canute

When we reached the Faversham Creek, we looked across the water at Oare Marshes, and further across at a pub we had our sights set on (point ‘D’ on map). Unfortunately, we hadn’t quite bargained on the lack of mechanism for crossing the water. There were no bridges in sight, and we could see quite a long way. If it wasn’t for cameras and the fact that it was winter, we might have contemplated swimming (that is an opening scene of Casualty right there) or ‘borrowing’ a rusty upturned boat we had found.

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Faversham Creek

So we followed the creek upstream (does a creek even have a ‘down’ or ‘upstream’?) Either way, we were walking away from the Sea towards Faversham in an exaggerated bow. It was here that we saw my first Goosander for the year – apologies for shoddy record shot:

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Goosander (Mergus merganser)

And we ended our rather epic walk in a great pub in Faversham (point ‘E’ on the map) where we drank ales brewed in the same town by the famous Shepherd Neame  – Britain’s oldest brewer.

As this is my first real trip in the UK off the patch this year, a number of the birds listed above were inevitably year ticks. Overall, four species of raptor (not counting the possible Merlin) and ten species of wader is not bad for a morning’s walk.

Ruff weather birding

The great thing about early year birding is that it is relatively easy to find birds to add to your year list.

Ignoring the weather warnings, I drove to three of the best birding sites in the South East to boost my list: Rainham Marshes (a very brief visit, looking through a fence before they opened); Elmley Marshes; and Cliffe Pools.

At Rainham I quickly ticked off:

  • Common Shelduck
  • Eurasian Teal
  • Northern Pintail
  • Northern Lapwing
  • Eurasian Collared Dove
  • Redwing
  • European Goldfinch

… and then (because I was too impatient to wait for it to open) promptly drove on to Elmley Marshes on the Isle of Sheppey …

Elmley Marshes

I first visited Elmley Marshes Nature Reserve in January last year. The wildlife was fantastic despite the terrible weather. Yesterday, it was a bit windy, but a lot nicer. However, when I had a walked a for a couple of miles and turned around to walk back to the car, the strong winds had brought some stormy weather with them. It was like being hit by a wall of stinging vertical rain and hail that was thrown into my face with gale force winds that, at times, stopped me from moving.

I eventually got back to the car, changed my soaking trousers, and drove on to Cliffe.

But, before this, and aside from the 20-30 minute long weather adventure, I also saw some great birds:

Little Egret (Egretta garzetta)

Little Egret (Egretta garzetta)

Common Redshank (Tringa totanus)

Common Redshank (Tringa totanus)

Dunlin (Calidris alpina)

Dunlin (Calidris alpina)

Eurasian Curlew (Numenius arquata)

Eurasian Curlew (Numenius arquata)

Black-tailed Godwit (Limosa limosa)

Black-tailed Godwit (Limosa limosa)

Ruff (Philomachus pugnax)

Ruff (Philomachus pugnax)

Western Marsh Harrier (Circus aeruginosus)

Western Marsh Harrier (Circus aeruginosus)

(That last photo was taken hastily through my car windscreen once I had time to stop the car and grab my camera from its bag. By the time I had wound down the window for a better shot, the Harrier had plunged into long grass)

Aside from these birds, I also added the following to my New Year list:

  • Common Chaffinch
  • Rook
  • Meadow Pipit
  • Reed Bunting
  • Stonechat
  • Pheasant

On the way between sites I stopped to look at an estuary and take a picture of a bridge:

Bridge

Before watching some enormous but very distant flocks of Lapwing and other waders at Cliffe:

Flock

I didn’t get any good shots of birds at Cliffe, but I did add the following three to my year-list:

  • Common Kestrel
  • Pied Wagtail
  • Common Goldeneye

I finished the day with a year list of 58 and watched the Sun set over the Thames Estuary:

Thames

A Big British Birding Year: Part X (distant dots)

We are now in Spring. The weather shows it, the flowers show it, and the birds know it. However, the calendar tells us we have another 5 days to go in the UK. The calendar is wrong, or rather, it is inflexible. I spend enough time out in the wild to back my judgement on this one.

Two weeks ago today was also a beautiful day, but there was a definite sense that we were still within the grip of Winter. But even in the dying days of Winter, the harbingers of Spring were starting to break through, such as the first Bumblebee I have seen this year:

Buff-tailed Bumblebee (Bombus terrestris)

Buff-tailed Bumblebee (Bombus terrestris)

Cliffe Pools is part of the scientifically important Northern Kent marshes. They sit on the Hoo Peninsula in the Medway right next to the Thames Estuary.

Cliffe Pools

Sheep

Rather like the song, Moon River, the Thames at Cliffe is, quite literally, wider than a mile:

Thames

Everything here is big: the sky, the river, the lakes, and the wild marshes. Unfortunately, this scale has implications for a birder: the birds I photograph are often far, far away. My bid to photograph as many species of birds as possible in a year went well on the day, but, as you will see, the shots of birds are sometimes atrocious quality or distant dots.

It was a great day for raptors. The first of four birds of prey to be added to my year list on the day was the Kestrel (seen below in two merged photos silhouetted against the sky and being harried by a Black-headed Gull):

Common Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus)

Common Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus)

Also in the sky, doing its best impression of a vulture, was a Common Buzzard – the most common British raptor:

Common Buzzard (Buteo buteo)

Common Buzzard (Buteo buteo)

The Buzzard caused havoc amongst an enormous number (well into the thousands) of waders attempting to roost on islands deep in the centre of one of the lakes:

Flock

Peering slightly deeper into the swirling cloud of waders, I was able to identify two new birds for the year, albeit admittedly two of our commonest water birds, Dunlin and Redshank. There were well over 1000 Dunlin present – the smaller bird consisting of a sizeable majority of this flock – and a few of the much larger Redshank to the bottom of the shot:

Dunlin (Calidris alpina) and Common Redshank (Tringa totanus)

Dunlin (Calidris alpina) and Common Redshank (Tringa totanus)

Whilst both of those waders are a fairly common sight on wetlands, less common is the iconic Avocet, which I could only photograph at the other side of one of the largest lakes:

Pied Avocet (Recurvirostra avosetta)

Pied Avocet (Recurvirostra avosetta)

As well as waders, there are also hundreds of ducks at Cliffe, most of which I have already photo-recorded this year. However, I photographed my first Shelduck of the year:

Common Shelduck (Tadorna tadorna)

Common Shelduck (Tadorna tadorna)

… and my first ever photo of a the sea-faring Goldeneye duck:

Female Common Goldeneye (Bucephala clangula)

Female Common Goldeneye (Bucephala clangula)

So Cliffe added 7 new species to my year list of photographed birds, but it should have added 8. I heard a familiar song and scanned the sky to find a distant speck rising vertically with its call: despite the great distance, it was unmistakeable in song and behaviour as a Skylark. I lined it up in my lens and got a few snaps. Back at home, going through my hundreds of photos, I had just finished deleting a set of images of an unrecognisable dot in the sky when the memory of the skylark came flooding back. I cursed… a lot.

I left Cliffe in the afternoon and drove back to Elmley Marshes which I had visited a few weeks earlier. The weather on my two trips could not have been more different. Last time I struggled to walk in the driving rain and icy wind. This time the water was as flat as a millpond and the sky was blue.

Elmley Marshes

I got some more snaps of friends I made there last time, such as Curlew:

Eurasian Curlew (Numenius arquata)

Eurasian Curlew (Numenius arquata)

… and more Little Egrets than I have seen before (I got a great video of the Egret hunting, by stirring up the silt with its colourful feet in a sort of shaking dance and catching a couple of fish and a snail, but unfortunately I can’t upload videos on to this blog, so you shall have to make do with a photo):

Little Egret (Egretta garzetta)

Little Egret (Egretta garzetta)

Elmley also delivered a new wader for me for the year, a couple of distant shots of the colourful Oystercatcher:

Eurasian Oystercatcher (Haematopus ostralegus)

Eurasian Oystercatcher (Haematopus ostralegus)

I got somewhat closer to a Reed Bunting (although I have already photographed this smart species this year):

Common Reed Bunting (Emberiza schoeniclus)

Common Reed Bunting (Emberiza schoeniclus)

I met a ‘peering’ of birders (I have decided that should be the collective noun for birdwatchers) gathered around spotting scopes (normally a good sign) who told me there were a couple of “short-ears” around and who also kindly let me see a Peregrine about half a mile away on a post through their powerful scopes. Unfortunately, I had left my iphone in the car and so had to try and snap it with my 300mm lens. The main photo below is at maximum zoom and in the digitally further-zoomed section, you may be able to see a grey/blue shape on top of a post with a patch of white near the head. This was the first time I had ever photographed the fastest bird in the world – it was just a shame it so distant and fuzzy:

Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus)

Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus)

I left the birders (seen below with billowing chimneys behind them) to go in search of the Short-eared Owl – which would be a lifetime first for me.

Birders

Last time I came to Elmley (click here) I was lucky enough to photograph rare Marsh Harriers with their distinctive low-flying hunting technique. Two weeks ago I spotted another doing exactly the same thing way off in the distance. I swung my lens towards the movement and snapped away, taking many shots. I then looked at my view screen and zoomed in on the harrier to see it was strangely pale and had a wide round face. It wasn’t a Harrier at all, it was my first sighting of a Short-eared Owl:

Short-eared Owl (Asio flammeus)

Short-eared Owl (Asio flammeus)

I had walked for several miles in two bleak but beautiful wetland environments in Kent and added ten new species to my year list, taking me to a total of 72 species so far for the year. As I left Elmley with an amazing Kent sunset, I could not have been happier:

Elmley sunset

Elmley sunset 2