Cooling Marshes, Kent, 7th December 2014

Saturday, 28 September 2013

Lesser Yellowlegs at Cliffe

Lesser Yellowlegs (Tringa flavipes) RSPB Cliffe Pools, 27/9/13

I finally caught up with Cliffe's Lesser Yellowlegs yesterday evening, at the third attempt. Having first ventured out during the peasouper on Tuesday morning, only to find two other birders staring at a thick wall of fog, and managing a frustratingly brief view late on Thursday evening, yesterday it showed well on the second Black Barn pool until around 18.20 when presumably it went to roost.

This bird was a first for me and I was surprised to note just how 'dainty' it was compared to the few Redshanks that were around. The combination of slender yellow legs, fine, dark bill (which I have read described as being approximately equal to its 'head length') and particularly its visibly sharp, attenuated rear end, were all good features in the field where the light was otherwise pretty weak. The number of Ruff on the pool, that ever shape-shifting wader, kept things interesting, the variability of that species amazes me. Still, the american wader was the star of the show, ably supported by the seasonal fare of passage birds, the first Wigeon flocks of autumn and a Barn Owl that hunted with typical grace over the causeways on Thursday.

Friday, 20 September 2013

The Eagle Isle

As an island, Mull is largely defined by the presence of water, and water was a recurring theme on my first visit there last weekend. It smeared glasses, closed roads and seeped into socks, but it never once dampened an amazing trip. The plan was to spend a couple of days walking, cycling and visiting some of the islands but it was quickly apparent that the latter two at least would be foolhardy. But after pouring over the maps and hiring a car, we were soon able to explore the island and its stunning wildlife.

It started off fair and easy, with a millpond crossing of the Lorn on a CalMac ferry that was heaving with Iona daytrippers. From a spot on the side deck I was soon able to pick out the distant shape of a Black Guillemot in streaky-white winter plumage in the outer reaches of Oban's sheltered harbour. A flash of its wings lending a hand. Gulls loafed here and there, Herring mostly with a few commons, while further out some juvenile Kittiwakes appeared. The highlight of the crossing were two Harbour Porpoises that surfaced briefly alongside us before disappearing beneath the bow waves.

The journey north from Craignure was via the unlikely form of a an open-topped double decker that took us headlong into a cool mist, past Salen where Grey seals were hauled out on the rocks. And so we arrived in the pretty village of Tobermory, with its picture postcard harbour front and smell of whisky on the breeze - just as it should be in places like this. 

Using the excellent Cicerone walking guide to Mull, a path out beyond the last building on the far side of Tobermory harbour led along a wooded hillside to the Rubha nan Gall lighthouse. Coal Tit and Goldcrest foraged along the way while numerous Rock pipits poked about on the grass covered rocks. Offshore a lone Guillemot croaked its call and the odd Gannet soared past. North of Rubha nan Gall is 'Bloody Bay' - so called from a clan battle in 1480 which it is said saw the sea turn red. Apparently, it this event that the author Jim Crumley describes gave the Oystercatcher its red legs and bill, on account of those that waded along the shore that day. There's no blood now that I can see but I wondered if the Raven tumbling about a distant cliff edge knew something else.

Following a night of rain, on Sunday morning the streams were crashing down, including the Tobermory River which shot a spectacular torrent of white water into the harbour. Watching from the side, the gulls were nae bothered but I was in the right place at the right time to see two Dippers darting about on the rocks, at one point landing just a few metres away.

Setting off  for Calgary Bay, the weather changed every 20 minutes or so. During a sunny respite alongside Loch na Keal, a female Red-breasted Merganser drifted close to the shore and, following a tip-off, we spotted an Otter on the rocks right in front us - something we nearly missed! It was brief but great to see. Scoping the loch, a flock of four more mergansers flew past in the distance and ten+ Greylag geese were perhaps the real deal arriving for winter, unlike the zombie geese I see in London. The winding road to Calgary was interrupted by diversions caused by flooding so it was no surprise that the white sandy bay we eventually arrived at resembled a war zone. Still, wildly beautiful, the beach was strewn with seaweed and scattered stones with a single Redshank making the best of it all. Tucked behind a clump of marram grass was a dead Gannet, washed up sometime ago. In a flooded field across the road, oystercatchers probed and pottered along with several Curlew; despite the drizzle, swallows constantly swooped about.

Rubha nan Gall, near Tobermory, 14/9/13
Dippers (Cinclus cinclus) in Tobermory harbour, 15/9/13
Hooded Crow (Corvus cornix)
Common Buzzard (Buteo buteo) hanging out, Loch na Keal, Mull

Later that afternoon, as the winds dropped and the sun shone meekly, we stopped for a walk through the pines at a Forestry Commission site just off the main road. From the rutted track coal tits were ever-present while a flock of 7-8 Crossbill overhead was nice to see. Our arrival back at the car was well-timed as the next front swept in and decided the sun had its day. But as the sky darkened to breaking I caught a pale jolt in the glooming periphery of the hillside below; slowly jinking it's way across the field was a male Hen Harrier, pearly grey with ink-dipped wings. Then the rain became hail and it disappeared from view. I always love to see this bird, a supreme bird of this land. In fact, over the course of the weekend, I saw more hen harriers (seven) than I did chaffinches (four); maybe this says a lot about the kind of place Mull is and the kind of place others are sadly not. 

Although the hills and mountains remained shrouded in mist, Monday was calmer and we went for a walk on Loch Ba. Being less exposed I thought it might provide some shelter and also be the kind of place eagles might be forced down to in poor weather. Thankfully, most of that proved to be true. 

Loch Ba is a beautiful spot, surrounded by steep mountain sides with streams and waterfalls flowing from the summits like jagged veins down to the loch at its heart. Following the gravel track along the water, we passed through thin strands of Oak, Willow and Ash, pale bushy lichens clinging to their twisted trunks and branches. Somewhere near the middle of the loch, we walked across a soft, grassy area guarded by a fly fisherman in the distance. Crossing here, we flushed a flock of small birds into the air nearby. They called incessantly and Linnet crossed my mind, but straight away I felt the calls were subtly different from what I expected. As I moved closer to the birds low in the grass by an old cattle feeding station I was as sure as can be that I was looking at my first flock of Twite. I hadn't been sure I would see them here so that was a real bonus.

The form continued as a short way further along the track I picked out a large raptor coming off the mountainside to our right. Getting on it there was no doubt that it was a Golden Eagle and coming head on towards us too! We watched as it descended into a low copse ahead of us for a few minutes, presumably for shelter, before it took off again, banking high to the right. As it did so, it succeeded in flushing a Hen Harrier from a lower slope and for a few moments I was able to enjoy both majestic birds in the same binocular view.

I guess anyone visiting Mull hopes for a glimpse of possibly their most famous residents and I was no different. Further on up the track, near where the loch tapered to a thin beach, I saw movement over the water to the left. My first thought was that it was probably a Grey Heron crossing the loch but when I raised my bins I realised I was looking at my first White-tailed Sea Eagle - an adult and an immense beast of a bird! It moved past us, perhaps a hundred metres off over the loch, battling the headwind with all the power of the feathery doors strapped to its back. A minute or so later it was lost to the murk but what a privilege it was to see.

Before heading back we left the loch for a while and followed the path up the glen. A victory lunch of Irn Bru and Skips was had in a ruined farmstead where the tall crags of Glen Cachaig peered over the crumbling walls at us.

The track from Knock to Loch Ba, Mull
The mists rolling in
Boom. White-tailed Sea Eagle (Haliaeetus albicilla) Loch Ba, Mull, 16/9/13.

What a fantastic few days. Leaving the next afternoon after a tour of the distillery and a complimentary dram, we could only laugh as the sun came out as soon as we bordered the ferry home. 

Mull Trip List, 14th-17th Sept 2013:

Herring Gull, Black Guillemot, Kittiwake, Shag, Cormorant, Common Gull, Pied Wagtail, Hooded Crow, Black-headed Gull, Great Black-backed Gull, Grey Heron, Lesser Black-backed Gull, Blue Tit, Coal Tit, Feral Pigeon, Robin, Wren, Goldcrest, Rock Pipit, Raven, Gannet, Guillemot, Treecreeper, Chaffinch, House Sparrow, Dipper, Common Buzzard, Greylag Goose, Mute Swan, Mistle Thrush, Red-breasted Merganser, Curlew, Stonechat, Dunnock, Common Whitethroat, Kestrel, Oystercatcher, Redshank, Swallow, Meadow Pipit, Grey Wagtail, Common Crossbill, Hen Harrier, Mallard, Twite, Golden Eagle, White-tailed Sea Eagle, Lapwing, Skylark, Goldfinch, Starling.

Thanks to everyone who gave me tips on Mull beforehand - the good folk of twitter and particularly Kev Parr (and Martin S) Cheers!

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Thursday, 12 September 2013

Dot Dash

Looking through my photos from a trip to Bockhill Farm by St Margarets at Cliffe on Sunday is a bit like 'Where's Wally':

You can all spot the Dotterel right? (clue - top of field, just left of centre)

Upon arrival I was told that the bird had been flushed by a falcon thirty minutes before and hadn't been seen since, this is what normally happens when I go anywhere. But I got directions to the area it was last seen in and walked round to the lower half of the field anyway. Getting there I realised finding a small, streaky-buff bird in an ocean of stubble wasn't going to be easy - a couple I passed on the way down had no luck. Still, it was a nice afternoon and I got down to business scanning the surrounding fields. After 15 minutes and nothing, I was feeling a bit resigned but was boosted a bit when I started picking up a few wheatears along the brow of the field. While scanning these, another head popped up in the view and scuttled off to the right, partridge-like. Getting on it again I was pleased to see the bold, pale supercilium of a superfine young Dotterel. After half an hour it worked its way closer, giving myself and another birder some good views:

Dotterel (Charadrius morinellus) Bockhill Farm, nr Dover, 8/9/13
 - the top photo shows the extent of the supercilium at the rear of its head

A pretty smart thing, I was really pleased to catch up with one at last.

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

St Mary's Bay

The estuary, looking north towards St Mary's Bay from the top of Decoy Hill, Hoo, Kent

Having worked to some extent over each of the last four weekends, watching in frustration as bushes everywhere seemingly groaned under the weight of scarce migrants, Sunday was a day off that I gladly wrestled free of my diary. As the early weekend showers parted and left a fresh, bright autumn morning, I made an early start and temporarily ditched my plans to head out to east Kent in favour of somewhere closer to home.  

The walk out to St Mary's Bay from High Halstow is one of my favourites. Walking down from the farm at the top of Clinch Street, the view is underrated - looking north the estuary spills into the low ground between Kent and Essex and large, irregular arable fields amble downhill to be met by livestock grazing the marshes below the sea wall. A short way along I stopped and took a detour by the Hill, scattering numerous warblers as I pushed through the dense banks of hawthorn. Common whitethroats and Blackcaps tutted their frustration at being disturbed from their foraging as tits pinged here and there. A male Sparrowhawk sunned itself on a discreet perch before spotting me and bolting off with a loud, repetitive cry. Further down the lane a Willow warbler whistled and swallows buzzed by continuously, a Green woodpecker hugged a telegraph pole.

I took my time along the track at Swigshole to Egypt Bay, checking the bushes on the way. A young Reed warbler that hopped from cover momentarily was probably a local bird. Several Yellow wagtails flew over, their little sneezing calls giving them away. Scanning the fields to the east over Decoy Fleet, bought a large harrier that momentarily confused me as it soared to a great height, but there was no mistaking the male Marsh Harrier as he descended over his kingdom. As I reached the top of the wall overlooking Egpyt Bay, five Red-legged partridges flushed from the beach and thudded past me. The tide at Egypt Bay was lower than I've ever seen it and I fancied I could even wade across to Canvey at a push. But out on the distant tide line, amongst the vast tracts of rich, exposed mud, shapes flicked about and calls passed me on the breeze. Curlews were notable in number, pushing forty easy, it was good to see these birds back for winter.

Heron Meat: St Mary's marsh, south from the sea wall
The London Gateway container port from Egypt Bay, dominating the river.

I love the vantage point that following the seawall from Egypt Bay to St Mary's Bay brings; the river on one side, the marshes on the other. I always remember the misty morning two winters ago that Simon and I found a pair of Shore Lark here. This morning, from the same spot, a Wheatear pops up on the rocks and proceeds to leapfrog down the track ahead of me. In the field, I picked out a Hobby perched conspicuously in the short grass and two kestrels squabbling with each other in the distance. Save for a small group of Black-tailed godwits and some listless Black-headed gulls, St Mary's is empty, so I sat a bit, messing about with some digiscope shots of a Wheatear - probably the same one, as it darted among the debris of the high tide line in the bay.

I continued looking for chats along the access track that runs back south from St Mary's but it was rather quiet until I spotted a small, dark raptor zipping low over the fields to the left. I watched it alight on a distant fence post and, through the scope, discounted hobby and kestrel before clinching a female Merlin in the scope. Great stuff. Moments later I was buzzing again as I caught a brief chat-shaped bird shooting across the field. Scanning the fence posts in the direction of flight I quickly landed on four spanking Whinchats, jostling together on a strand of barbed wire. All lined up like that, the views were great.

Heading back up the lane to complete the circuit, my progress was followed by noisy squadrons of rooks overhead. There were a thousand and more, shifting this way and that; and it occurred to me that perhaps this more than anything else that morning, reminded me that autumn is here again.

Wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe), St Mary's Bay
Rooks in flight over St Mary's marsh