Saturday, 12 November 2016

Mopping up

With the country still in a bit of of the doldrums as far as birding is concerned, with very few truly good birds around (excepting the lingering Sibe accentor in Scotland) I had a hard time trying to work out what to do with a Saturday "off". A band of heavy rain from midday onwards across southern England didn't help either. In the end I decided to try and do a bit of mopping up of outstanding year ticks and the best option seemed to be Kent.
I set out early, though my plans were slightly put off course by over running road works on the M20 meaning I was sat in a traffic jam for 15 minutes waiting for it to open again. Still I got to my first stop by just gone 8, with the dawn being pretty grey with rain in the air.
I was heading to South Foreland, which is a National Trust lighthouse just long the coast from Dover. Despite having the postcode in Satnav it was a swine to find, as you go into a small village, down a very small road which turns into a rutted track which turns into virtually a path through a wood! NT properties are normally well signed, this one wasn't. Still, I got there ok and refreshed myself with  coffee and set off on a short walk to the lighthouse.

In the Summer I think it is open to the public to look around, but not today. It was all locked up.

Being so close to Dover you could see the ferries pottering off to France.

My main target was a shore lark, which was apparently lurking in this field, which was right next to the lighthouse. The wind was blowing a hoolie though and it was not a nice day.

Another birder arrived just as I did, so we started to work the field edge and almost immediately a small bird flew up and landed in the field about 10 yards away.

Looking a bit like a skylark or woodlark the shore larks are also known as horned larks but they only get their horns in breeding plumage. This one was still nicely marked though with it's black and yellow mask.

It brought to mind the sibe accentor in some ways. They are not uncommon birds, and at the moment there are some flocks of 50 or more birds in Norfolk. They are typical of late Autumn or Winter though. They are also quite confiding and this one was no different. It eventually moved from the field onto the path, where you could almost stand on it.
It finally moved off to the field edge where you could approach to to a few feet.

You can just about see the remnants of it's horns, the black whispy bits on the side of the head! We did wonder if it was unwell with it letting you get so close, but it was feeding well so I think it was ok. There were some snow buntings around the day before but despite a thorough search by myself and three other birders we couldn't find them.
With the weather closing in even more, I moved about 30 miles down the coast to Dungeness. I started off on the beach with a bit of sea watching. The wind was really strong and the rain starting to get quite vigorous. I was particularly pleased to pick out one of the caspian gulls by the old boats but otherwise a great northern diver and some kittiwakes were all I got on the sea.
Finally I went to the RSPB reserve, or more precisely the entry track at Bolderwall Farm. A cattle egret had been hanging about with the cattle there for a week or so. As I pulled off the road there was a small cluster of 4 or 5 cars with birders, hunkered down in the rain, peering at the cattle.

You could just make out a lone egret by the waters edge near the cattle. Just being near cattle though doesn't make it a cattle egret.

What does it that yellow beak which you can just make out in the flight shot - little egrets have black beaks. You can also make out the rain coming down. When it landed it disappeared from view into a ditch. I waited for 15 minutes or so, but it didn't reappear so I gave up and came home to watch England stuff the South Africans at rugby.
A good day all round then. Three more year ticks, so the mopping up worked well. I'm at 235 now, though 250 seems too far away with only 6 weeks to go. I have a few ticks I should be able to get like crossbill and Bewicks swan, but 240 seems more likely. Still, mustn't grumble.

Eton rifles

After all the excitement of the last few weeks, everything seems to have calmed down on the birding front. With no lifers within reasonable striking distance I've not really been out much. Still, a velvet scoter within 20 miles or so did stir me into action this morning.
Velvet scoters are the rarer versions of the common scoter, an archetypal sea duck normally seen at great distance flying past rocky headlands in gales. Strangely though, a few do crop up inland and without any scientific evidence to back me up, it seems like velvets do so more than common's. Last year 3 hung around for over a week at Grafham and this year there are 2 long-stayers in Bedfordshire and one, my target, at the Eton rowing club lake at Dorney.
I don't think I've been here since 2012 when we watched some Olympic rowing. It's a very long, 2km artificial lake split into two parts, the main bit they do the rowing on and what is termed the return lake where they can potter back to the clubhouse for a refreshing pink gin. It can be quite good for birds along with the nearby Jubilee River, and I've had roseate tern whimbrel and pectoral sandpiper in the past.
Anyway, I got to the lake about 8 in crisp Autumnal sunshine with a bit of mist on the lake. I parked up and strolled along the lake.
Everything was pretty quiet. There were no rowers on the lake although a member of the UK Nordic skiing team was going round and round the lake on what was a cross between skis and giant roller skates!
I first walked down the main lake.

There were small numbers of ducks, mainly mallards, wigeon, gadwall and a couple of tufties as well as cormorants, grebes and a few gulls mooching around but no sign of the scoter. Birdguides suggested it was near the 1250m marker, and there were a lot of ducks there as well as a cut-through to the return lake! So, I walked round the end of the lake and started off down the path separating the two lakes.
Immediately you could see there were many more ducks around, including this little group of Egyptian geese and wigeon on the far bank. It's still amazing how the Egyptians have now become part of the scenery from being rare escapes only 15 or so years ago.

 I quite quickly got onto one lone duck though, diving happily in the middle of the stream.
 Now you see it, now you don't!!

This was the velvet scoter. A classic of the type, media sized with the classic white tear-shaped mark behind the eye.

The other real characteristic which separates them from common scoter is the white wing-bar they show when flying.

As I had to get back I couldn't spend much more time pestering it to get better photos but a good bird and a lovely, if short, morning.