Friday, 1 September 2017

and so it begins......

Having been away for pretty much all of August in Sri Lanka, I've now come back to the most exciting time in the birding year - the Autumn migration. At this time of year, anything can, and frequently does, turn up. It also marks the start of my having a bit more time to catch up with them, as from now on I'm down to 3 days a week a work!
The precursors of the main migration rush are often the waders, returning back south from their breeding grounds in the Arctic. On their way north in the spring they are in a rush to get to the best breeding sites. In the autumn they are a bit more relaxed and can hang around for a few days feeding up. This certainly applies to one pretty rare bird, a long-billed dowitcher, which has taken up semi-residence at Oare Marshes in Kent. This is a pretty small reserve in north Kent, on the edge of the Medway estuary. I've been a few times before so I knew the way and got there about 7 to a beautiful sunny morning.

The reserve is right at the end of a road leading to Harty ferry and is basically just one large pool surrounded by reeds. This view is from the road looking across the reserve to the river at the back of of the marsh. The centre ground at high tide, which was 8 today so just after I arrived, is covered with waders. The downside though is that you are looking straight into the rising sun making for, how shall I put it, challenging viewing and photographic conditions.
Still, I got out my 'scope and set up next to the 4 or 5 other birders already scanning the marsh. There were hundreds of golden plovers, dozens of black-tailed godwits, dunlin and ringed plovers as well as  smaller numbers of ruff, greenshank, redshank, spotted redshank, turnstones and avocets.

The first good bird we got onto was one which dropped in the day before - a red-necked phalarope. These are gorgeous, delicate waders, breeding in very small numbers in Scotland but normally a classic migration bird. These are horrible photos into the Sun, but hopefully give the impression of what they look like.

 They are always busy, spinning around in shallow water picking flies off the waters surface. They often do this in deep water, so swim rather than wade. They have a characteristic "jizz" of seeming to be peering curiously at the water in front of them, hunting by sight for their breakfast.
Close by was the second of my targets, the long-billed dowitcher. I haven't seen one for a few years, since a long-staying bird at Lodmoor in Dorset, and they are rare if not actually mega in this country.
They are a more typical wader, long-legged, feeding by probing the mud. Size-wise they are larger than a redshank but smaller than a godwit. The thing to look for though is the bill which is, well, long!!

The top picture here gives you an idea of size - its the 6th bird from the right on its own, with lapwings for comparison. The lower one shows you that long, dagger-like bill.

These two gives you a bit more detail, albeit you may have to take my word a bit! A medium-sized bird, with a long, slightly down curved bill. The plumage is quite brown, with distinct markings and you can just about make out a white supercilium. I was on site for well over an hour and it only moved a few feet from this spot, feeding then sleeping, but never coming out into decent light. Still, a cracking bird, indeed a good pair of birds. Despite the best efforts of myself and the other birders on site we couldn't find any other rare waders, such as little stints or curlew sandpipers, but I should be able to pick them in then next couple of weeks.
After this, with not much else around in Kent, I braved the southern M25 - awful as usual - to go to Staines reservoir.
 The south basin has been drained for repairs, turning it into a magnet for waders. It is vast however, and all the waders were on the far side, again with the sun in totally the wrong position and a heat haze making viewing awful. Luckily a couple of the locals including "reservoir Dom" were on site and over an hour of ruining our eye-sight we managed to pull out 5 or 6 wood sandpipers and a probable, by dint of it not being anything else and being there for the last few days, pectoral sandpiper. Not the most satisfactory of views but I may try again later if it stays, as the reservoir isn't due to be filled for a few weeks yet.
A good day all round - 4 new year ticks taking me to 246 and way ahead of my best ever year with the main part of Autumn still to come. Would be nice to get a few lifers in the mix though!!