Holmethorpe Sand Pits ... Wednesday 31st March 2010

Arriving at my local patch at about 8 a.m., in drizzly and breezy conditions and with the temperature definitely on the chilly side, I was not expecting to find much in the way of migrants.

Fifteen Sand Martins were skimming over one of the pits and I noticed a white rump amongst them belonging to the first local House Martin seen this year. The birds were often perching on the twiggy branches of a partially submerged small willow in the middle of the pit.

Soon I was joined by local patch birder Jerry and we scanned the Sand Martins, which had been joined by 4 Swallows, but we could not relocate the House Martin.

We slipped and slid our way along the muddy path of the north bank of Mercers Lake but, apart from a couple of singing Chiffchaffs, there was little of note.

At Mercers Farm, around 50 Stock Doves and a male Pheasant were feeding on the field and, as we headed towards Spynes Mere, an Egyptian Goose flew east. A couple of Swallows were feeding over Mercers West Pit but these may have been two of the birds seen earlier.

Heading back towards Mercers Lake in the drizzle, we heard a singing Willow Warbler, another local first for the year.

With two more species added to the Holmethorpe year list, which now stands at 102 species, we called it a day.


Holmethorpe SPs ... Monday 29th March 2010

I met up with Gordon Hay today and we walked the very muddy paths of our local patch again in search of migrants.

Overnight rain had given way to a dryish morning and our hopes were high that something may have dropped in on the southerly breeze. As always seems to be the way, the apparent ideal weather conditions failed to produce the goods.

Migrants consisted of 18 Sand Martins, 3 Swallows and 12 Chiffchaffs, which were pretty much on a par with the weekend's totals.

Four Red-crested Pochards and 3 Wigeon had dropped in on Sunday, but there were no signs of them today.

Fieldfare numbers are still quite good locally, with around 30 birds seen, but Redwings were hard to find with just a handful flying over. Gordon had heard a Green Sandpiper calling and there were still 4 Common Snipe showing.

Wildfowl consisted of 5 Gadwall, 6 Teal, 8 Shoveler and a female Goldeneye. Four Egyptian Geese flew in and a Little Egret was trying to hide in the brook.

Around 7.45 a.m., it became very misty but this cleared quite quickly and it was shortly after that the highlight of the morning appeared. At 8.20 a.m. I noticed a large raptor flying along the ridge in the distance. Gordon quickly got onto it with his scope and announced it was a Red Kite. It flew closer and crossed Mercers Farm fairly low, giving superb views before gaining height again and flying off to the west over the local landfill site. This is the third local sighting of this species so far this year, Gordon having seen the previous two birds as well, but this was a welcome addition to my year list.

As anyone who digiscopes will know, trying to get shots of birds in flight is not easy and this bird was no exception. The only shots I managed were a couple of really poor ones as the bird disappeared into the distance.

A Little Owl was calling from an oak on the farm as the kite flew over and on the farm fields 6 Pheasants and 45 Stock Doves were feeding. The only other birds of note around the pits were 12 Linnets and a pair of Bullfinches.

One oddity we have at the pits at present is a Song Thrush that incorporates an almost perfect rendition of Willow Warbler's song into its repertoire. No matter how many times I hear this bird singing, I have to check it out, just in case.


Holmethorpe again ... 27th March 2010

Meeting up with Gordon Hay at 5.45 a.m., we decided to search our local patch for spring migrants, but the morning proved far quieter than we had anticipated. A few decent birds were on display though with a Swallow amongst the Sand Martins, a pair of Shelducks and two male Mandarins in flight, spotted by Gordon, being the best of the bunch.

We were joined by Steve Gale and, after a while, Gordon had to return home, so Steve and I wandered the pits, but it was still pretty quiet.

Later in the morning we met up with Kevin Guest, one of the Beddington SF regulars, who had come in search of the female Black Redstart seen yesterday. Unfortunately, we were unable to find it today, but we did pick up at least 4 Common Buzzards in the distance.

When the rain started, Steve and I decided that we had just about run out of enthusiasm for the day and headed off to our respective homes, Kevin deciding to stay on as he wanted to add Shelduck to his Holmethorpe year list.

I had just arrived home and was about to prepare that birder’s culinary delight, the bacon butty, for myself, when the phone rang. It was Kevin, who had just found a pair of Garganey on Spynes Mere.

A quick call to Gordon had him rushing to pick me up in his car and we set off in pursuit of yet another local year tick. Kevin rang again to say that the birds had flown to the nearby Mercers West Pit.

When we arrived Kevin had located them at the pit and informed us that top Surrey year lister Johnny Allan was on his way to add this species to his year list. Unfortunately, Johnny had a nightmare journey from Beddington SF, first being delayed on the A23 by roadworks and also missing a Little Ringed Plover that had arrived at Beddington after he had left.

Luckily, the pair of Garganey stayed put and we all had reasonable, but distant views of them. Five Wigeon had also dropped in during the showers and the female Goldeneye was still present.

Kevin spotted a Little Egret in flight and there were four Egyptian Geese on one of the pits.

A slow start, but Kevin’s perseverance paid off and, thanks to him, we all added another species for the year.


Gordon, Kevin and Johnny.

Holmethorpe Sand Pits, Surrey ... 26th March 2010

It is strange how, every so often, even an inland local patch can turn up good and unexpected birds. Today was one of those days, although the last couple of days at Holmethorpe Sand Pits have hardly been unproductive.

On Wednesday 24th March, a male Black Redstart was found by Matt Farmer and the same bird was seen again late in the afternoon by Neil Randon. The same day produced 12 Sand Martins, a female Goldeneye and 2 Shelducks.

Yesterday, the 25th, had Matt recording a total of 28 Sand Martins feeding over one of the pits plus the first local Swallow of the year.

Then, early this morning, at 5.50 a.m., I spotted a female Marsh Harrier slowly flapping over Mercers Lake and heading south, its cream cap clearly visible, even in the less than perfect early morning light. It headed into the distance, disappearing over Nutfield Ridge briefly and then reappeared over the ridge with several corvids mobbing it before disappearing again below the horizon. The last thing that I was expecting at this early hour was a large raptor. This was only the 4th site record of this species at Holmethorpe.

As if that wasn't enough, a while later I found a female Black Redstart near to the same spot that Matt had found a male on Wednesday.


A phone call to local birder Gordon Hay had him joining me briefly to add this species to our local year lists and not long after, I was joined by Johnny Allan from Beddington SF who is trying to beat the Surrey year list total (which is a record already held by Johnny - see
http://surreybirding.blogspot.com/). As is always the way, by the time Johnny arrived, the bird had disappeared and it took some time for us to relocate it some distance from where I had last seen it.

Mike Spicer, also from Beddington, managed to locate the bird again later in the morning.

A Swallow and a few Sand Martins were over the nearby pits and a pair of Shelducks flew over.

Later in the day, Gordon noted that the female Goldeneye was still present on one of the pits and he also logged the pair of Shelducks and exactly 100 Stock Doves and a Little Owl at Mercers Farm. He also saw 20 Sand Martins, plus the Swallow, 9 Shoveler and 5 Chiffchaffs.

A day that produced a few good birds for an inland local patch. What will tomorrow bring? I can't wait to find out.


Holmethorpe Sand Pits, Surrey ... 22nd March 2010

An early morning walk around the local patch produced the first local Wheatear of the year.
I had spent 20 minutes scanning the fields at the farm for Wheatears and was surprised that none had seemed to have dropped in overnight. Deciding I had failed miserably, I turned around and there behind me was a Wheatear perched on a post in the sheep paddocks!

Further on, at one of the pits, 3 Sand Martins flew low over my head, the first I have seen this year.

A few other good birds were around, including a Green Sandpiper, 5 Chiffchaffs, 2 Snipe, 4 Teal, 4 Shovelers, a female Goldeneye, 2 Egyptian Geese and a pair of Bullfinches.

Yesterday, Gordon (one of the local birders) had seen 2 Red Kites at Holmethorpe, so hopes are high that more will be seen during the coming weeks.


East Sussex ..... 17th March 2010

My wife and I decided to pay a visit to Arlington Reservoir and Birling Gap, both sites in East Sussex, today.
On arriving at the reservoir, we were greeted with the song of a Chiffchaff and about a dozen Rooks noisily nesting across the road from the car park entrance.


Apart from four Common Buzzards (including the darkest bird I have ever seen), there was very little else of note at the reservoir, despite walking its entire perimeter, although the displaying Great Crested Grebes were entertaining.



We drove on to Birling Gap and parked in the hotel car park. A half hour seawatch was pretty fruitless with just a couple of Fulmars of note.


Not far from and just to the east of the car park, a Chiffchaff was fly-catching from scrub and this proved to be the only migrant present, although a Firecrest high in the trees at Belle Tout Wood may also have just flown in.

A sub-adult Peregrine flew in from the north and disappeared over the edge of the cliff.

Shortly after this, a gentleman walking his dog pointed out a Tawny Owl roosting in an ivy-clad tree in Belle Tout Wood. We definitely would have missed this bird as only its belly was on view.

TAWNY OWL (well, belly of Tawny Owl, if you can spot it)

As we headed back towards the car park, a Weasel shot down a rabbit burrow and despite waiting for what seemed an age, it failed to reappear so I think it must have found another way out.

Heading west from the car park we walked up to the area called Crowlink and were immediately greeted with the cronking sound of three Ravens which were tumbling in display flight just above the cliff. They quickly disappeared below the clifftop and that was the only view we had of them.

At least five Fulmars were cruising the cliffs and as I scanned the sea, I noticed a group of gulls loafing on the water.


Getting the scope on the gulls, I picked out one bird that seemed very pale and seemed to be lacking any black on the primaries. It looked larger than the Herring Gulls nearby.

My immediate reaction was that it was a possible first-winter Glaucous Gull, so I attempted to digiscope a shot of it. Bearing in mind that I am high on a cliff-top and the light is hazy and also that the bird is at a great distance (all good excuses for a terrible couple of photos) these were the best shots I could get (both very heavily-cropped).


Is it or isn't it a Glaucous Gull?
As far as I am concerned, the jury is still out on that one. I have sent the shots to those who are more familiar with this species (which is just about everyone as this is one species I have yet to add to my life list) and I will post the outcome on this blog.


(Any comments you may have about this bird would be appreciated.)

(So far, three birders suggest that it is a Glaucous Gull, three suggest that it is a likely candidate for being a Glaucous but that it is difficult to be certain due to the poor photos and one has suggested it is a leucistic Great Black-backed Gull.)

Dungeness and Rye Harbour ...11th March 2010

My good friend Gordon picked me up at a quarter to five in the morning, our destination being Dungeness on the south Kent coast.
An hour and a quarter later we were up on the beach near the power station for an early seawatch. A bitterly cold and brisk north-easterly wind meant watery eyes and runny noses but we positioned ourselves in front of the hide for shelter. An offshore wind wasn't ideal for seawatching but we did log a Common Scoter distantly flying west, around 10 Red-throated Divers and two Shelducks all flying east. At least 2 Porpoises were hunting close inshore.
We decided that, although it was unlikely, maybe a migrant or two may have appeared at the Moat at the Bird Observatory, but there were no birds to be seen there, apart from a Dunnock in the Heligoland trap, and it was obvious that no migrant in its right mind would have attempted to cross the Channel in this wind.
Deciding that we would be better off getting out of the elements, we headed for the Hanson-ARC Pit and the shelter of the hide, and as we pulled into the track to the ARC car park, 3 Red-legged Partridges were perched on straw bales near the road.
At the hide, 3 male and 5 female Goldeneyes were diving continuously and a male Marsh Harrier gave a close fly-by view, but not much else of note was showing, apart from large numbers of Shovelers and the nesting Cormorants on the island, so we decided to have a walk round the Willow Trail by the hide.
Suddenly Gordon shouted "Bittern!" and pointed skywards. Sure enough a Bittern was fairly low overhead being mobbed by a couple of gulls. It flew round for a few minutes, gaining height, trying to give the gulls the slip before dropping lower and disappearing out of view. Two Cetti's Warblers were shouting at us from the scrub but refusing to show themselves so we headed on to the viewing screen where 2 female Smew were showing.



Back to the car park and we noticed a Tree Sparrow amongst House Sparrows near the road, always a welcomed sight these days.
Time to get onto the main reserve and as we drove along the access track, 2 Curlews and 3 Common Snipe were flying over the fields.
On arrival at the visitors centre, we were told that the return trail on the reserve was flooded and impassable so we decided to head as far as the Dengemarsh Hide and then retrace our steps.
At Burrowes Pit it was very quiet but another 2 male and 3 female Goldeneye were present.
At the New Excavations, a splendid Slavonian Grebe was on show, but distant. A few attempts at digiscoping the bird proved a waste of time in the windy conditions so we headed for the Christmas Dell Hide. Just before reaching the hide, Gordon spotted a Peregrine heading over quite low and we watched it head towards the power station, within a few minutes another, probably a male, headed over in the same direction.
At Christmas Dell Hide, not much was on view except for another female Smew so a short stay there was followed by a walk to the Dengemarsh Hide. On the way, 2 male and a female Pintail circled above us and 2 Black-tailed Godwits were also overhead and a couple of Oystercatchers were on the fields.


At Dengemarsh Hide, a Black-necked Grebe was seen distantly and another Bittern flew in and dropped amongst some vegetation and spent a couple of minutes sky-pointing before flying across to the large reedbed and dropping out of view. Two female Marsh Harriers quartered the reedbed continuously and, in the distance, a flock of 300+ Golden Plover were wheeling round.




We retraced our steps and on arriving at the New Excavations, the Slavonian Grebe was much closer and I managed to get a much better shot of it.


Leaving the reserve, we drove to Dengemarsh, where a small flock of Wigeon were feeding near the road.


On to Scotney Gravel Pit, where huge numbers of gulls were present, but none appeared to be of the scarcer varieties. A Redshank and 6 Ringed Plovers were only the waders we could locate there.

Gordon then suggested that we might as well head for Rye Harbour reserve, but we stopped off at Jurys Gap on the way where there were about 5 Sanderling scurrying along the shoreline.
At Rye Harbour reserve, only a couple of Herring Gulls and Mallards were on a flooded Ternery Pool but there were birds visible from the new hide nearby. Around 10 Dunlin, 2 Grey Plover, 2 Redshank and about 10 Oystercatchers were present.


Neither of us had previously been to the Castle Water viewpoint at Rye Harbour, so we decided to search out this site. We found it quite easily and were surprised at what a good site it is.
A superb reedbed with a raised viewpoint to look over the area. No Bitterns on view here this time, but 2 Cetti's Warblers were announcing their presence near the ramp and 2 Marsh Harriers were seen distantly. Around 60 Snipe were seen flying into roost towards the main reserve and 30+ tree-nesting Cormorants were present.


Heading home, we took a wrong turning at Rye and managed to add about another half an hour to our return trip, but after such a good day we weren't too upset by that.
Thanks Gordon for a superb day in such good company.