The Portland Naturalist

The Portland Naturalist

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Blewits, Balearics, and Bird Racing

If you're not interested in my Surrey Bird Race, do skip down to yesterday.  I realise my blog is rather hard going when there is a lack of pretty pictures!


Today, I was back in my old stomping ground of Surrey, to take part in a fledgling bird race for what was once my local RSPB group.  Only ourselves (me and two others) were racing this year, in order to set a benchmark to try and beat, hopefully with more teams, next year.

I'd never done a bird race before, but it has always been something that appealed to me.  I have to say it well and truly lived up to expectations, and was tremendous fun!  Due to the rather frenetic style of the day, there wasn't really any time to take pictures, sorry!

We had considered cancelling as the forecast was poor, but in the end we decided to chance our arm.  We started first thing at Staines Reservoir with the sun just rising.

There had been a suite of goodies seen yesterday, so we began scanning for birds on the water.  No problem with the common wildfowl, which we mopped up in no time, but where were the scarcities?  Whilst scanning a distant flock of Tufted Duck in the south-west corner of the south basin,  I noticed a bird with very white cheeks, and a reddish head.  Smew!  We weren't expecting to get one of those!

Soon enough we had managed to find a Black-necked Grebe, and I also spotted a very distant small grebe with very white cheeks on the far shore, which I thought looked good for Slavonian Grebe.  I subsequently learnt that other birders saw it better, and confirmed my suspicions!

Just as we were about to leave, I found the male Scaup, against expectations, in one of the closer flocks of Tufties!  I was concentrating on the distant flocks!

28 species straight on the list (without any of the small birds of course, no bushes at 'The Res'!).

Site No. 2 was the small car park at Papercourt, which got us a myriad of passerines, including a large flock of Redwing, Fieldfare, and Mistle Thrush, as well as one of the only Buzzard of the day sitting on a pylon. 

Up to 45 now.

Next, we just popped round the corner to Papercourt Farm, which is where we hoped might be some Little Owl.  Incredibly, We were immediately greeted by a pair, in full glare mode!  Also in a nearby field was a bonus pair of Egyptian Goose.  The weather was holding nicely.

51 was the score.

Onto Puttenham Common, and a quick glance at Cutt Mill and The Tarn lakes.  The main target at Cutt Mill was worryingly absent on arrival, though a small flock of Mandarin were no problem. 

The first Mallard of the day was seen (!), and in the surrounding trees were Treecreeper and NuthatchSiskin and Redpoll were only fly-overs.

We were just about to move on, when a sudden splash announced the arrival of 5 Goosander!  We needn't have worried, as a brief look at next door Tarn lake produced 11 more!

On a respectable 58 now.

We weren't planning it, but we thought we better quickly pop to Frensham, just to be able to say we had Glossy Ibis on our list!  The bird was no problem, and this area was really alive with other birds in addition.

62 by lunchtime.

As we arrived at the centre-piece of Surrey birding, Tice's Meadow, the rain started, plus The Mound was very exposed to a strengthening wind!

Even so, we added another 10 species, though it was frustrating that we missed Skylark, Water Rail, and Green Sandpiper, which were all present.  Chiffchaff and Snipe were the best additions.

The rain had now stopped, and we had a ponder as to what to do next, then decided to stick to our plan, and head for Crooksbury Common.  This unassuming little heath has surprised me on more than one occasion, and today was no exception, as it initially appeared rather lifeless!  We did manage to see Stonechat and Coal Tit on the walk out, but I wasn't expecting much more than that.

Then, a rather frantically-flying Feral Pigeon going over drew my attention to what was on it's tail, a Peregrine

Finally, we managed to witness a nice spectacle of the Finch coming to roost, including the hoped for Brambling.  At least 30 seen, and some close views too.

77 was the score now, but that was it surely?

Well, we thought so, but as we still had a little light left, we took a chance of possible Barn Owl back at Papercourt Water Meadows.  The wind was now quite strong, and a combination of that, plus the fact that the meadows were flooded, meant there was never going to be much chance of Mr Alba.  However, in the half-light, we jammed a last minute Kingfisher on the swollen river!  A fitting finale.

So, we finished on 78 species, and a cracking effort I think.  The only glaring omission then was Skylark, but it was disappointing we didn't get Water Rail, Little Egret, Grey Wagtail, or Linnet.  We were very lucky with the weather!

Nonetheless, I think we'll find it tough to beat next year! 

We raised £50 for the RSPB, and had a wonderful time.


Another afternoon watching Portland Harbour from Weymouth Watersports, another unexpected storm-driven seabird!

After work, I was scanning the harbour for seaduck etc., when I came across something dark shearing in the distance towards the Marina.  My initial reaction was a small Skua, but I was equally delighted to realise it was in fact a Balearic Shearwater!

It was rather an odd sight, as it flew back and forth along the south shore of the harbour, desperately looking for an exit!  At one point is was even amongst the kite-surfers!

Interesting to note this bird's behaviour, as a Skua for instance would think nothing of heading up over the beach.  Shearwater clearly will not go over land, even as thin as Chesil Beach.

A quick look from The Bill later, and I had a Balearic go west past only just beyond the rocks!  The closest one I've ever seen.

I feel sure it was the harbour bird, that had managed to get out by going back on itself.


A quick look from Weymouth Watersports and at Ferrybridge produced little to shout about (except the patch tick of Ringed Plover!).  Seems odd that I barely care to mention the likes of Great Northern Diver and Red-necked Grebe these days!

I briefly popped into Chesil Cove next, where I witnessed the 'destruction' from the storm.  I put that in quotes, cause all I could see was a scatter of pebbles over the seafront path, plus the presence of Environment Agency vans.

Even though the wind has eased, the sea is still pretty spectacular.

I headed for The Bill once again. 
On the way I found a good flush of Field Blewit on the fields, which I think is in fact a lifer.  Nice to be able to report a non-bird sighting now and again!

On arrival at the obelisk, I couldn't resist more stormy sea shots.

There was absolutely nothing on the sea, except the usual Gannet, Kittiwake, and Auks.
But, I was delighted to finally see the wintering flock of 5 Purple Sandpiper with a few Turnstone.
They found a snug roosting place behind the cliff-edge, and they were obviously determined to play hide and seek with me!

They did eventually pop down the cliff to feed, as a news cameraman, obviously attempting to film the stormy seas, watched.  Perhaps the birds managed a 'photobomb' and will be on the news later?
I look forward to some calm weather to explore the Bill a bit more!

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