The Portland Naturalist

The Portland Naturalist

Friday, 25 April 2014

Living in a Wader Wonderland

Only five days to update, but in truth, they have been action packed!  Things are really kicking off!
I started with my usual walk round the usual mid-island sites, only to find a smattering of Wheatear and a single Redstart.  However, in the bushes by Reap Lane barns was a singing Sedge Warbler, a year tick.

Come the evening, I thought it might be worth a seawatch, as the middle of the day had seen a rich vein of passage past the Bill.  I managed a single Whimbrel sat on the beach, and a nice close Arcitc Skua, but virtually nothing else in an hour, so I gave up.
With forecast south-easterlies, the only option for me was attempt a marathon seawatching session in Chesil Cove.  I managed only 2.45 hours, as things weren't quite as busy as hoped.  Nonetheless, there was some top sightings, including 3 Little Gull, singles of Great Skua, Red-throated Diver, Whimbrel, and Bar-tailed Godwit, as well as a Grey Seal keeping an eye on me.
Another reason I had given up, was that there appeared to be a bit of overhead passage occurring.  On arrival at the West Cliffs, I was being watched from the top of my block of flats.  Yes, it's another Kestrel photo, but I just can't get enough of these confiding birds!
I settled down for a bit of vismig, and as soon as I started, 3 Whimbrel flew over low west.  More than I'd seen in far longer at the Cove!  My first at this site.
Counting was extremely difficult due to the vast front the birds were taking, as well as the rate.  A good number of Wagtail were going over, some briefly landing in the ploughed field, before continuing their journey.  These included my first british Blue-headed Wagtail, which spent 5 minutes there in the company of 2 White and 2 normal Yellow Wagtail, before too heading off north.
After an hour, I just managed to break the 300 mark with Swallow, not the best passage I'd experienced.
A little stroll to Blacknor produced newly hatched St Marks Fly, which fill the air at this time of year, so named cause they fly around St. Mark's day (April 25th).  They're distinctive for leaving their legs dangling in flight.
After lunch, I thought I'd have another go at counting the hirundines.  But, after half an hour, I gave up, not because there wasn't anything happening, but quite the opposite!  The rate of passage was far too great for me to count, as they arrived from all directions.  I got to around 370 Swallow and 130 House Martin in the 30 minutes.  I hate to think how many birds were involved in total!
A great day, not in the least bit ruined by missing a Northern Harrier narrowly!
I didn't get any Portland birding in today at all, as I was working in Bridport.  That didn't stop me finding good birds though, as I heard my earliest ever singing Wood Warbler on the slopes of Allington Hill, as I delivered below it.  Can't be too frequent in that area.

A medium-strength south-south-easterly meant that seawatching was again on the cards. 
Although there was again long periods of inactivity, my persistence paid off, and a total of 6 and a half hours put in throughout the day produced a nice list of sightings.  Best of these was a fantastic Pomarine Skua, which passed at mid-distance.  Always a thrill to see.
Also among the Skua were 1 Arctic and 4 Great, like this one.  Typical of the sort of view you get through the scope.
The weather was doing all sorts of things as I sat there, including quite spectacular fronts...
...and towering cumulonimbus, largely centred on Weymouth!
Also among the top records were 33 Bar-tailed Godwit, and 65 Whimbrel, 40 of which came in-off the sea together, before disappearing into the murk.
The most thrilling moments though came later. 
After an almost complete absence, a flock of some 170 'Commic' Tern suddenly appeared from the west, many of which then came inshore to feed.  Seeing a flock that size was awesome enough, but to then have them all react to a (unseen) passing Skua by towering up into the sky was quite spectacular!
There are always Peregrine around Chesil Cove, so I almost didn't bother to watch a bird as it whizzed through my view, but I'm glad I did, as it was actually chasing a Kestrel, which was then seen to drop something to the beach below.  A Vole!  The Falcon then descended to pick up the morsel, before finding a safe place up the beach to tuck in.  I've never seen or heard of a Peregrine robbing another bird like that.  It was at this point I noticed it was not a normal Peregrine, but a small bird with quite a dark chest, and pale-brown back.  I've scoured the books, but I still have no idea what it is!  Some sort of escaped falconers hybrid possibly.  It had no jesses (the 'dangly bits' in the shot are all from the branch it's sitting on).
Whilst creeping along the beach to get this shot, I came across my first Jurassic coast fossil!  Some sort of spiral shell.
In between my seawatching stints, I took a short walk round the island, finding only a Redstart, and a nice Whinchat.  This shot is typical of Portland.  Migrants in odd places!
Mist is always something which raises my hopes of migrant falls, and this morning was full of it.

Sadly though, it was not full of birds!  My first circuit of the usual places produced very little.  That was until I returned to Barleycrates Lane, only to find a Short-eared Owl perched on the hedge!  Sadly, as is often the case here, it was quickly flushed by a dog walker, and flew off north, disappearing majestically into the mist.
The only other notable event of the day was witnessing this from my flat window.
Someone had collapsed on the coast path.  Not sure of the outcome, but I suspect it wasn't good, sadly.
My first look at the mid-island triangle this morning was extremely disappointing, with almost nothing of note. 
Luckily, I then made the decision to look at Ferrybridge and the sea from Chesil Beach, despite a northerly wind.
Not much on arrival at the mudflats but my first Sanderling of the year.  But then, I suddenly noticed a quite leggy small wader, which appeared quite pale.  It took me a while before I twigged it was a Curlew Sandpiper, almost in full winter-plumage.  I was expected one of these to be gloriously orange!  Not complaining though, a great bird.
I was also surprised to see the Little Ringed Plover from the day before still about, and showing remarkably well.
I decided then to take a look at the sea.  It was immediately clear, that there was quite a large movement of Gannet occurring, with a total of 134 past in 45 minutes.
Also seen was a nice loose group of 7 Manx Shearwater, as well as two Arctic Skua south.  It is a bit strange seeing these birds flying over a completely calm sea! 

The best was yet to come, as a very alarmed sounding Whimbrel alerted me to these two incoming Arcitc Skua, which decided on the short-cut route!

Back at the mudflats, and it was all happening.  A few small flocks of Bar-tailed Godwit and Whimbrel going over culminated in a nice record.  I heard the calls of Whimbrel, Curlew, and Greenshank, only to find a group of c16 medium-sized waders, with two larger ones, and a single long-slim one with dark wings heading off high over Portland Harbour!  If they hadn't been calling, I wouldn't have had much clue!

The morning was complete with better views of a nice mix of small waders (though not the Curlew Sand sadly!).

That's 10 species of a wader in a day.  Brilliant going for a place with no freshwater and only a tiny bit of saltmarsh/mudflats!

Later, a quick break from work had me taking a quick peak at Reap Lane, only to find the hoped for Lesser Whitethroat

Surely Swift will be the next to fall!

It's hotting up, but I will have to take a break from Portland birding for the next four days, as I'm back at my beloved Tice's Meadow for the weekend, then working in dreaded Bridport again Monday and Tuesday! Sigh.


  1. I think your fossil is what is referred to here as a 'Portland Screw'. I don't think the term refers to any particular species, just any spiralled univalve. Roach stone (the stuff that overlies the sought after, white Portland Stone) is full of them. Roach used to be discarded and so many houses (including mine) are made of it. Great to see when they're worn away in a pebble like that.

  2. Interesting stuff. Thanks Ken!