Friday, 9 June 2017

Storming away

Around mid June the birding scene starts to dry up. Most of the commoner or regular birds are all breeding or have been here for some time, and without any change in the weather systems not much new turns up.
Last week though there was one of these weather events, with a large storm in the English channel and on-shore winds forcing lots of displaced marine birds onto the South coast. Among these were good number of storm petrels. This in one of my bogey birds - I've been on the coast when they are around but not connected and I was starting to think I might have to make the long trip to Mousa Broch on the Shetlands where you can visit a colony in an old building on an out-island. The chance therefore to make the slightly shorter trip to Dorset was not to be spurned. Although they were being seen from Dungeness to Cornwall, the best spot seemed to be Hengistbury Head in Dorset, where over a dozen were seen on the Thursday feeding in the surf. So, another early morning trip had me in Dorset before 7 (I was up early anyway to catch the election result, so the radio kept me entertained with analysis on the way down!!). I had set my satnav for the postcode for Hengistbury, but when I was about 5 minutes away I realised it had gone wrong. Hengistbury is a spit of land on one side of Mudeford harbour, and satnav thought I could drive across the estuary mouth - no more than 30 yards wide - to get to it. Damn, I thought. It was a 20 minute drive round, but the birds were also seen off Mudeford quay and I needed a coffee so I went into the carpark there first - a good call as it turns out. A local birder was already there and got me onto the stormies almost immediately. They are also known as sea-swallows, and were displaying why as they flitted across the surface of the sea catching small insects and the like. They are tiny birds, dark with  characteristic white-rump and always active. We saw at least 6, probably more though, as they did oval circuits around the river mouth where the water was churning around. On talking to the other birder I realised I had been doubly lucky. Although you would probably have been a bit closer to the birds if I had gone to Hengitsbury Head, it was a long, 30 minute walk from the car park there to the point!
With all that time saved I had time to catch up on another local speciality, or specialities - goshawk and honey buzzard in the New Forest. My new friend gave me a suggestion of a good site for honeys - Pig Bush car park in the New Forest. Sat nav this time worked and it was only about a 30 minute drive to get there. This a typical southern heathland area - woods surrounding open heath and is perfect for honey buzzards, which are summer migrants to these shores. The heath was alive with birdsong - woodlark, tree pipits, dartford warblers - but it was a very windy morning and so not good for raptors. Whilst scanning the treeline though I picked up two large raptors  - long tail, short neck, big wide wings. Although I couldn't see the breast pattern it was clearly a pair of honey buzzards. As with the stormies though you couldn't get close to them. As I walked nearer, the woods also got closer and they were actually further back in the forest than you thought so they disappeared from view. You may think, why would buzzards be over a wood and not over an open area hunting? Well, firstly it is probably their nest site. Secondly, they feed not on rabbits but on honey - hence the name. So, they prefer wooded sites where they can plunder bees nests. No sign of goshawks though so I headed off the sort distance to Acres Down, which is the premier raptor watching site in the area.
It looks similar to the first site but you have an open area on a ridge to look out from over the forest. There were three other birders already there, locals and very knowledgable. Almost immediately we had a honey buzzard on the ridge line opposite us - again very distant but this time you could see the mottled underbelly. Over the next hour we also had at least 3 goshawks in the air. I would have struggled to ID them, but my new friends gave the jizz you look for. Firstly, sparrowhawks are almost totally absent, which are the main confusion species, but you can't just go on that. Whereas sprawks flap, flap, glide, goshawks are very infrequent flappers and glide much more. The females are also very much larger than any sprawk would be.
No photos I'm afraid as everything was so far away in record shots were out of the question, but a really good day with my third lifer of the year and two other really good year ticks.