There's a general feel that things are a bit late this summer in terms of returning gulls. Certainly that seems to be the case with Yellow-legged Gulls, as alluded to in my last post, but also the relentless westerlies of July seem to have stemmed the westward march of Caspian Gulls, too.
Still, a few began to pop up after the first in (where else but) Norfolk on 21st. It was welcome to see Rich pick up the first London juvenile on 23rd. So, all of a sudden, I felt confident for the weekend.
Arriving at the pier mid-afternoon on Saturday, it became apparent that it wasn't going to be a vintage session. Overall numbers were quite high, particularly when birds left the tip (which closed around 1 pm), but the Yellow-legged tally was down on the previous weekend and it just didn't 'feel' like a productive day.
Greenhaven Drive was also a bit poor, and it was absolutely tipping it down by the time I returned to the pier late afternoon. Several more loaves went into the Thames and then, after some time (yet quite suddenly), the distinctive sound of a young Casp came from within the melee. And there it was. It's often the way, they sneak in unnoticed and, when the bread is shelled out, you hear them before you see them.
It quickly transpired that this was the bird from 23rd, with a very impressive bill on it and the same nick out of the greater coverts on the left wing, plus the obvious individual features in the rump and tail pattern.
Last year, I had my first juvenile Caspian of the summer on 28 July. Several more followed in the first half of August, all giving great views at the pier. Hopefully 2020 provides a similar story!
I've been down in London a little more of late, which means gulls are back on the cards. July brings with it the start of a new season of gull watching in the capital, with the first juvenile Yellow-legged Gulls really marking this as they begin to arrive in the opening days of the month. Numbers of this species and our commoner residents begin to swell as July progresses, with returning adults accompanied by a good crop of fresh youngsters. In short, it's a dynamic time to be birding on the Thames.
Rich, Jamie and Dante scored a June juvenile Yellow-legged this year, when they had one fly through at Thamesmead on 28th. That aside it's proven a relatively slow build-up for this species, with cool westerlies dominating the opening couple of weeks of July and stemming the usual flow of michahellis into the capital.
In fact it was only on 16th, after a couple of blank outings, that I finally clapped eyes on a juvenile Yellow-legged at Erith Pier. By Sunday, a much-improved picture saw Rich and I tally 20 birds at the pier, including 17 juveniles. More of what you'd expect.
The early signs would suggest it's set to be a better year for Mediterranean Gulls, with a greater proportion of juveniles coming and going up the Thames in mid-late July. Last year was a poor summer for breeding success among both these and Black-headed Gulls, with parts of Europe suffering a particularly wet season and this seemingly having a knock-on effect on productivity. Of those seen in recent days, one at King Henry's Wharf on 19th wore a white ring '3461'. Slightly unsurprisingly, it had been ringed in June near Antwerp, Belgium.
The signs were that things were hotting up yet further when I visited Rainham with Niall and Rich on 23rd. At least 55 Yellow-legged Gulls, most of which were juveniles, plus adult and second-summer Caspian Gulls. Rich later gripped us off with the first juvenile Casp of the year at Erith Pier at high tide.
Highlight of the day, though, was an unringed White Stork that seemed to lift off Rainham tip at around midday and, after gaining height, drifted off south towards Crayford Marshes. It is presumed to be one of three birds from the White Stork Project, which have also been seen at Bowers Marsh in Essex and latterly at Crayford. The other two wear the project's coloured darvic rings.
Birding in June quickly died down locally, although the breakdown of the spring's dry conditions eventually happened in the opening week of the month, with the rain and heavy cloud producing some nice visitors, including two patch ticks for me.
The month opened with a Common Quail singing for around five minutes in barley fields north of Wader Pit early on 1st, followed by a second-calendar-year Red Knot late evening on second. Then, early on 3rd, my first-ever BLGP Little Tern was an exciting arrival, although it was typically brief. Flushed by a Lesser Black-backed Gull, it flew around the pit calling for a few minutes before motoring off to the north-east. On 7th, another patch tick – a Spoonbill – flew through (after leaving Deeping Lakes around 15 minutes previously, thanks to Hugh Wright for the tip off!). The latter then settled at Baston Fen for a couple of days.
Two different male Garganey made appearances during the first half of June, with one regularly spending the afternoons dozing on the east bank of Wader Pit. Things naturally quietened after 10th, although two Black Terns on 13th were a nice midsummer surprise. The first Green Sandpipers were already moving back through by the second half of the month, and a count of nine Common Sandpipers on 30th was amazing for June.
With a major invasion of Rosy Starlings underway, especially early in the month when they were still arriving, I spent quite a lot of time cycling or driving around housing estates and other suburban settings during June. Lots of scenes like the below – but no pink prize, of course.
With birding taking a back seat, attention switched to orchids and insects. I did plenty of moth trapping throughout June, with some decent catches enjoyed including Lime Hawk-moth and numerous Eyed Hawk-moths in the Langtoft garden, plus other entertaining beasts such as Leopard Moth, Small Ranunculus and various beautiful 'micros'.
I found good numbers of Bee Orchids at BLGP this year, although unfortunately many were bulldozed by ongoing quarry workings before I had the chance to transplant them. I did manage to rescue a couple, though, and there were plenty more flowering safely some way away from the works. The dry spring had evidently restricted numbers at Swaddywell Pit, where they were both a bit weedy and few in number.
A visit to Leicestershire on 6th found three Frog Orchids flowering at the only known site in the county, although they were inconspicuous and somewhat singed from the hot weather. A stop at a nearby site in south Lincolnshire produced a couple of Greater Butterfly Orchids in flower, although the strong winds had caused the largest to be rather floppy and limp towards the top.
After such a glorious spring, June proved a bit of a poor month weather wise. Days were often cool, cloudy, windy or a concoction of all three. Nevertheless, there were some brighter days and I made the most of these to look for Purple Emperors at Castor Hanglands. They don't very co-operative here, rarely floating down to earth in the manner that so many seem to enjoy at established sites like Fermyn Wood, but with patience it was possible to enjoy nice flight views of battling males, and a female that briefly came down to head height.
Earlier in the month, I had an overdue butterfly tick in the form of Black Hairstreak. I had intended to try them at a few local sites, but decent weather wasn't in particularly plentiful supply.
The bright and breezy conditions proved to be a theme of mid-late May, which in turn had a big impact on one of the month's big features for the inland patcher – wader passage.
Out on Deeping Fen, the flooded field at North Drove quickly dried up in the drought-like conditions, although not before it gave me a few great sessions to remember it by (for various reasons, this field will never likely flood again in the way it did in 2020). One of these was on 18th, when a beautiful summer Sanderling dropped in with a handful of tundrae Ringed Plovers.
Strong winds on 22nd produced the best day of the month for waders, with another Sanderling at North Drove alongside Ringed Plovers, Dunlin and three Greenshanks.
That day also produced a few Greenshanks and a couple of different Sanderlings at Baston & Langtoft Pits, including a bright bird which spent time feeding around a single tiny island until pressure from the local gulls got too much and it was tossed eastwards in the relentless gale.
Avocets also took up residence at North Drove and decided to try and nest, although the dwindling water there means they're most likely doomed when it dries up. Ironically, this site (which wouldn't have existed were it not for one of the wettest winters on record) would no doubt have attracted more interesting visitors in a more typical, wetter spring, and would have also retained water for longer. As you tend to find with patching, you can't have it all!
Nicholas Watts' fields on the south side of Baston Fen have been producing a trickle of waders since late April, and this spot also has good numbers of breeding Redshank, Lapwings and Oystercatchers, plus regular Avocets and the odd visit from up to two Garganey. 'Build it and they will come', as they say.
On the sometimes very warm days, the slower pace of birding meant a change of focus at times. Probably the biggest surprise was finding Green Hairstreak at BLGP. As far as I can tell this is not only a site first but also a bit of a range expansion.
The Black-headed Gull colony seems to be having a better year than last, no doubt spurred on by the favourable conditions. As is usual for this site, the first fledged youngsters started appearing in the final few days of the month.
I spent quite a lot of time walking likely spots for unusual 'Acros' during the final week of May, buoyed by an influx of both Blyth's Reed and Marsh Warblers to southern and eastern areas. Just the common species, though ...
All in all, it's been a decent spring on patch. The weather wasn't conducive to any big movements and lots of stuff must have gone straight overhead, unnoticed. On the other hand, the beautiful weather encouraged songsters and good shows of raptors overhead. It's been an amazing year for Garden Warblers, of that there is no doubt. Hearing a Nightingale at the pits again was a red-letter moment. Scarcities such as Cattle Egret, Grey Plover and Sandwich Tern kept me going, and the trickle of migrating waders – always my favourite family of birds – was dynamic enough to keep me interested day to day.
Rediscovering the joys of patch birding has been a real revelation for me this spring. It was an opportunity I wouldn't have foreseen even as recently as February, but I've loved it. Appreciating the intricacies and nuances of a patch, understanding how it works, finding the best spots and observing the advancing spring at an altogether more relaxed pace than I am typically accustomed to in London has made this a truly memorable couple of months.
In this fast-paced, sometimes chaotic world in which our consumption all too often outweighs what we give back, it is so easy to forget what great pleasure the simplicity of watching a local spot can bring through the seasons. It is a highly rewarding pastime. Every slow, unproductive visit makes the good days even sweeter when they come. There is huge satisfaction in finding a locally interesting species (bird or otherwise!) close to your front door, even if it might be common in nearby suitable habitat, on the coast or otherwise.
A great deal can be learned from patch birding and, if you're lucky enough to live close to somewhere accessible and with even a modest array of habitats, I would urge you to give it a go if you don't already. Although re-calibrating individual expectations is an inevitable part of the process, there is little doubt that, in time, you will find that birding can be just as enjoyable within a few miles of home as it can be anywhere else on this planet. That's certainly been the case for me.
The final week of April and first 10 days of May produced some steady patch birding around Langtoft. Weather conditions haven't really been ideal for most of this spring and passage wasn't as good it might have been. Nonetheless, the week started with a new species for the patch – two Common Cranes, which slowly made their way south over the site and over Langtoft village (although agonisingly just a few hundred metres away from being visible from the garden). I was fortunate that they were so vocal, as I suspect they would have just circled high overhead and remained unseen if I'd not heard them calling.
A small trickle of Northern Wheatears continued to appear until the last, two males on 1-2 May. On 3rd, a fantastic male Whinchat appeared by the Cross Drain, and was even giving some sub-song for a time.
At sunrise on 7th, a rich song floating across the site transpired to be a male Common Nightingale – having checked notes, my first here since 2008, and certainly not a bird I thought I'd be hearing this spring. This is a species on the brink of being lost from Lincolnshire; its remnant site near Lincoln had only one pair in 2019. So, the significance of this bird setting up territory cannot be underestimated, at least at county level. With the weather so balmy and calm, conditions were perfect for making recordings. Here's seven minutes' worth for your ears – press play and keep reading ...
Baston Fen is looking in great condition this spring, with the recently created wet fields attracting good numbers of breeding and migrant birds. Highlight was a breeding-plumage Cattle Egret on 4th, although it appears to have been a one-day bird with no sign since. A few small groups of Dunlin and Ringed Plovers have been dropping in here, with Common Sandpiper and Greenshank also making the odd appearance. A lingering Whooper Swan also remains, having been injured earlier in the spring and presumably now set to summer locally.
On the subject of waders, which always play a big part in the local birding here as April turns to May, things have been fairly steady, although the best movements have tended to come on clearer days when the north-easterly has picked up throughout the afternoon, dropping birds in. BLGP has seen a small turnover of Dunlin and Greenshank (the latter enjoying a good showing this spring). The first Wood Sandpiper of the year dropped in briefly on the evening of 27 April, followed by a second flying straight through the following morning. Another appeared on the evening of 9 May, which I managed a fairly poor recording of as it flew around the pit.
A Black-tailed Godwit also dropped in on 3rd, but the highlight of early May was a beautiful Grey Plover on 5th. It was fairly tame and, with a bit of careful stalking (during which I managed to sink up to my waist in quicksand), I had the bird within 10 metres and enjoyed easily my best views of this species locally.
There have been precious few visits from any notable terns or gulls over the past two-and-a-half weeks. On a good day for the species across the south, I had four very brief Arctic Terns drop in on 28 April – in fact, so brief that I picked them up just as they were circling up to into the stratosphere and powering off to the north-east. I'd scanned the pit fully no more than a minute or so before and seen no terns at all. I wonder if anyone else finds that with Arctic Terns, that they're so inconspicuous in their arrival sometimes that they seem to appear from nowhere, and then disappear again just as effectively?! I had the same happen a few times last year, too. They make it look so easy, even into a brisk headwind. Thankfully a group of five hung around for a while on the afternoon of 10 May, allowing the first opportunity to really appreciate the species at the pits this spring.
There are plenty of brown fields around this spring, which will make the odds of winning the lottery that is finding Dotterel across the fens of Cambridgeshire and Lincolnshire even longer than usual. However, one such field on Deeping Fen, just a couple of miles from the pits as the bird flies, is still quite extensively flooded after the winter's rain and is attracting a few migrant waders. These have so far included Dunlin, Greenshank and Ringed Plover in the main, although a beautiful male Ruff dropped in on 9th. Two Whooper Swans were also a late surprise, but quickly moved off to the north, and a pair of Garganey also called in one day. There must have been so many birds using it during the winter; wish I'd known about it at Christmas!
Meanwhile, back at the pits itself, there are at least four male Cuckoos about and I've heard females bubbling on a few occasions. While its national trends make for grim reading, it does seem that they are persisting and even thriving in areas of regenerated gravel pits, at least around here, which offer a variety of habitats and are gradually expanding across the fens of the Deepings area, replacing the monoculture of crop fields (hopefully for the better in terms of biodiversity). It also seems a real boom year for Garden Warbler – I can't get over how many are singing at the pits at the moment, with 19 territorial males counted on 3rd.
The Bittern I included in my last blog post has resurfaced, now singing at a private site a few miles from where I originally had it. It's great to listen to, but his transient wanderings would suggest that he is unfortunately unpaired this year. I was, however, able to make a nice recording, this time uninterrupted by gulls, woodpeckers and a nearby generator!
Recent warm weather has made things feel very summery, and (prematurely no doubt) there's been a real end-of-spring feel locally. However, the weather has today [10 May] turned almost wintry, with a bitter northerly and icy showers quickly taking hold. For waders at least there's still a good few weeks to go, although as we go further into May it's more about the occasional, big bird rather than the good all-round spread of migrants that the past few weeks has produced. Still, it's exciting times ahead ... and hopefully there'll be more to talk about towards the end of this month.
I've been getting out on my bike for a little while each day throughout the past couple of weeks, which makes a nice break from working and being sat inside. I'm very fortunate to have such a fantastic array of gravel pits just out the back of Langtoft, the closest of which are little more than a few hundred metres away from the front door. There is also no-one about, especially early in the mornings, which is a far cry to the bustle of Tottenham, where I normally reside.
This is, of course, where I cut my teeth as a birder. So, almost 20 years on, it feels like I've come full circle somewhat. I could never have envisaged such an opportunity at the start of this year, and likely would have been doing the minimum of birding in London at the moment had this been a 'normal' year.
There are so many joys to birding a patch throughout the year (see Ed Stubbs' article on this in the May issue of Birdwatch) – but particularly in spring, when common summer migrants are returning. Following a well-trodden route around your patch brings with it a remarkable dynamism, as species composition changes daily. Since coming back to Lincs over a month ago, I've been really looking forward to April, and in particular from mid-month onward. These are very much the good times for inland patchers especially, with the list of possibilities growing rapidly as the month progresses.
After such a wet winter it seems outrageous that we could already be facing a drought, but the recent blocking high that has been causing sunny and dry conditions throughout late March ended up persisting for much of April. As such, the two weeks of mid-April were bright, sometimes very warm and almost entirely rain-free. Not much use for grounding passing migrants of course, and indeed it was only on 18th that I finally managed my first Northern Wheatear of the spring! A great count of seven that day, including a flock of six in fields on the fen to the east, was most welcome, and proved the start of a decent run of at least a dozen different birds over the following week.
No redstarts, Ring Ouzels or Whinchats, yet at least, but it was nonetheless great to chart the arrivals of the familiar summer species. In my last update I mentioned the early arrivals of Common Whitethroat and Reed Warbler. Well, there weren't any other particularly outstanding early records, although my first Common Swift of the year on 22nd was only a day later than my earliest ever (in 2007).
Sedge Warblers started piping up on 11th, when there were suddenly six in song, most of which were clearly migrants. A welcome sound on 12th came in the form of a reeling Grasshopper Warbler in the same spot as last year; this bird lingered until 22nd, when two were there, but this proved the last day they were present. Garden Warbler is always one of the latest migrants to arrive in my experience; the first was singing on 21st, with this quickly building to a handful in the following days. Lesser Whitethroat was a bit late this year, on 23rd, while there was also a clear and obvious arrival of both Reed Warbler and Common Whitethroat from around 20th. I heard my first Common Cuckoo on 21st, and there are now three males between the village and pits (I also heard a female bubbling one morning).
Meanwhile, wintering birds were gradually slipping away, typically in far less detectable fashion than the summer songsters. A few flocks of Fieldfare were still passing mid-month, with the odd Redwing sound-recorded over the garden until 22nd. Wildfowl included a single Pink-footed Goose that called in for a day on 21st (not one of the recent pair). A single Goldeneye remained at the pits; Wigeon, Teal and Shoveler also dwindled to the point you could count each species on one hand.
Another highlight in the local area was a booming Bittern for a couple of weeks mid-month, which I even heard distantly from the house at dusk one evening. Early one morning I saw two birds flying around at great height, seemingly in a display flight, with the male, with his neck feathers puffed out, vigorously chasing a presumed female, who looked utterly unimpressed by her hopeful suitor. On another morning I was able to get within perhaps 30 metres as he boomed, which allowed me to make a decent recording of his remarkable song. Have a listen below – you can hear a series of clicks, followed by the bird inhaling, before he booms four times. Sadly the male seems to have now moved on, but is another sign that this once-critical species is really bouncing back. Contra to common belief, Bitterns don't need huge reedbeds to feel at home, and will happily set up shop in reedy ditches or – as with 'our' bird – patches of marshy waste ground.
Then there are the Marsh Harriers. One particularly fine male has been skydancing in the area on a few occasions now, and really threw me the first time I heard him one morning. He was remarkably high, a silver-and-gold speck glinting in a sea of blue, catching the light as he somersaulted. Awesome to watch and listen to. At least five different birds are in the area, one of which has lost its tail; I'm sure it must have been shot at not too long ago.
Despite the almost unbroken sunshine of the fortnight, wader passage did at least start to pick up. Three Greenshanks on 17th were followed by singles on three further dates by 24th. The first Common Sandpipers (three of them) dropped in on 22nd. My favourites, though, were the seven Ruff which dropped in on the afternoon of 18th, including a few males, already sporting plenty of breeding colour. A Whimbrel grounded on 19th gave a rare opportunity to appreciate this underrated species on the deck here; it was seen alongside one of two individual Icelandic Black-tailed Godwits (on 17th and 19th). What will probably be the final Green Sandpiper for a couple of months dropped in on 22nd. Our early-breeding Oystercatcher pair had two well-grown chicks to around 20th, but both were scoffed in quick succession after that date by the local large gulls. A graphic reminder of just how tough waders find it to get their young to fledging.
Every April, inland patchers look forward to connecting with that Holy Trinity of passing Laridae: Little Gull, and Arctic and Black Terns. Each is a perennial birders' favourite, and without doubt they all sit highly on my list of most-loved species. Every encounter is one to be cherished, with all three being the classic pin-ups of that dynamic April-May period that patch birders look forward to each year.
April 2019 was a brilliant month for Little Gull. As well as seeing nearly 30 at Walthamstow Reservoirs, I had groups of seven and 21 at BLGP in a couple of visits when I was back over Easter, the latter mixing with a handful of Black Terns to create a pit full of eye candy. Conditions this year haven't been all that different to 2019, with prevailing north-easterlies and largely clear skies – but the Little Gulls have been significant in their absence. I was therefore very pleased to connect with a first-summer in among the Black-headed Gulls hawking over the Wader Pit on the evening of 19th. A few days later, the first Black Tern of the spring – an all-too-brief bird on the Wader Pit, which disappeared a couple of minutes after I picked it up. Fortunately, two more on 24th were a little more co-operative, even if too distant for good pics (as they always seem to be here). Meanwhile, just one Arctic Tern was seen in the two weeks – bizarrely picked up coming across fields one morning, past me and gone again in a matter of seconds. The first Common Terns showed up on 12th, with both local breeders and a few obvious migrants in evidence since then.
Completing daily visits, it's interesting to note how things have changed since I first covered the pits properly in the early 2000s. There are some obvious winners – for example, Chiffchaffs and Blackcaps are well up in terms of territories, while we now have Cetti's Warblers right across the site, breeding Lesser Black-backed and Herring Gulls, Little Egrets and so on. However, there are some losers, too. Common Nightingale is long gone (last record was 2004) and, although there's still time for a surprise, it seems a safe bet that Turtle Dove is extirpated here (I think around 2010 was my last territorial male). Willow Warblers are down on 15 years ago, perhaps by a third. Corn Buntings are down (albeit Yellowhammers seem stable). Common Tern has no islands to breed on now (60 pairs bred in the mid-2000s). What is really shocking is the lack of Meadow Pipits – they seem to have almost totally disappeared from here as a breeding species.
And so that was mid-April over all too quickly. A very enjoyable – if not exceptional – two weeks of patch birding around my home village, with a good spread of classic species of the season showing up, but just not really lingering long in the glorious spring sunshine.
The end of March and first third of April have been dominated by a blocking high, causing dry, sunny and at times very warm conditions across much of Britain. As such, it's been a real struggle for most inland patchers, with migration having been rendered largely invisible as birds pass straight through overhead.
This has meant relatively little reward (at least in terms of unusual sightings) for the hours invested in birding the Baston and Langtoft area. Still, it's been a couple of weeks to savour the weather and spend time exploring the area for the more difficult local breeders, some of which just about cling on locally. I've come across pairs of Little Owl and Grey Partridge, for example – neither of which I've seen in the immediate vicinity for a number of years. Simple pleasures, but great examples of those personal moments that make watching a patch such a rewarding exercise.
In terms of arriving summer migrants, late March was a real struggle. Although Blackcaps and Chiffchaffs were singing in force by the turn of the month, and I lucked upon a fly-through Swallow on 26th (which I think is my earliest ever), I didn't see my first Sand Martin until 2nd – my latest ever.
Fortunately the weather turned very quickly after that and, demonstrating just how fickle migration can be, the second wave of summer migrants was actually very early. I had my earliest Common Whitethroat by some 10 days on 7th, when a bird was singing on the rough ground opposite ARC Pit. Then, on 9th, a Reed Warbler was singing at the pocket park – again a good week or so before I can remember seeing the species previously here. The first two Willow Warblers were in song on 5th, a slightly later than average date (but only by a day or two).
Bird of the fortnight was a Sandwich Tern early morning on 5th. It had evidently been roosting, unknown to me, on the ARC Pit 'beach', as I only noticed it flying from there, over my head and away to the south as I approached the pit. It all happened a bit suddenly and quickly, not being the species I expected to see on a crystal clear morning, and my camera was still in my bag. A lesson that I should have learned a long time ago: always anticipate something decent, even when it seems most unlikely.
With days of unbroken blue skies, wader passage was lean at best. Add to that the record rainfall over the past 10 months absolutely flooding out the Wader Pit (the old islands are now at least a couple of feet under water, perhaps more) and the site actually has greatly reduced wader potential this year. It's a great shame for this previously brilliant site. Nonetheless, a couple of Avocet records (a pair on 27th and a single bird on 7th) were pretty typical for this time of year and groups of three Black-tailed Godwits were seen on 8th and 11th. A small trickle of Green Sandpipers passed through as normal, while Redshank numbers quickly dropped away after a peak of 11 on the final day of March. Meanwhile, the local waders are wasting no time in settling down – an Oystercatcher was already sitting on eggs in late March and these hatched overnight on 8-9 April, easily the earliest brood I've seen here (and by some weeks). Little Ringed Plovers arrived back on 26th, which is a fairly typical date, and at least two pairs seem to be about.
A wintry arrival concerned a couple of Pink-footed Geese on 9th. I tend to find that any sort of prolonged coverage of the pits between September and March usually produces one or two of this species, but it was a surprise to see these turn up so late in the season.
I've also dipped my toes into the murky waters of noc-migging since the end of March. On the first night I stuck the recorder out at home in Langtoft, on 30 March, I had a flock of Common Scoter fly over, as well as some Teal. A bit of beginner's luck, perhaps, but some interesting bits have been recorded subsequently. Water Rail, Moorhen, Coot, Barn and Tawny Owls, Wigeon and Golden Plover have all been passing over East End during the hours of darkness.
With our office upping sticks and relocating to 'work from home' mode, I left London on 18th and headed back to Lincolnshire. At the time I was thinking that it might just be for a few weeks or so ... how wrong I was.
Prior to lockdown coming in to force on 24 March, I was able to get out and do a bit of birding locally, although weather was generally clear and cold, with an at-times biting north-easterly airflow.
This wasn't exactly optimal for an early rush of migrants, which was a shame after mid-March's big push of Northern Wheatears. That said, there was a fantastic movement of Whooper Swans on 19-20th. This seemed particularly pronounced on the latter date, when I had 233 in six flocks move over Baston & Langtoft Pits (BLGP) in two short sessions, one in the morning and one in the evening. Imagine how many must've moved during the entire day! In the darkness later that evening, some time after 10.30 pm, we had a big flock fly low over the house, audible even inside.
Wildfowl was pretty much the main order of the day(s); late March is a very dynamic time for ducks especially and it was interesting to watch how numbers varied as the days passed. By the end of the month the last Goosanders had departed from local spots, particularly Deeping High Bank but also various pits.
Highlight of the pre-lockdown period, though, was a stunning juvenile Rough-legged Buzzard between Deeping St Nicholas and Deeping High Bank, first found by Jake Williams on the evening of 19th. He watched it gradually moving north-east until it was lost from view, and we all feared it was a migrant that'd never be seen again. But the chilly north-easterly was at least good for something, and that was keeping the buzzard in the area for at least a few days. Mike Weedon and I had some great views on the morning of 20th of this wide-ranging bird. A really pale individual, the head looked almost white at distance, especially when it was sat against the dark of the many tilled fields.
I had one check of the Peterborough gulls on 21st, although it was a bright and blustery day. As usual when conditions are so, the birds were nervy and restless, rarely settling and not really allowing the option for scrutiny.
Probably the best bird I saw at BLGP prior to lockdown was a male Bar-tailed Godwit at lunchtime on 21st. This was all a bit random, being the first March record I'd had at the pits and dropping in on a sunny day. It had gone by mid-afternoon. The bird was just beginning to colour up, with a reasonable amount of brick-red flecking appearing on the breast and belly.
The evening of 22nd was productive, with a female Ruff bearing a lime-coloured leg flag (identifying it as a Norwegian bird; alas I couldn't get close enough to read the lettering) and a winter-plumaged Water Pipit at Wader Pit (alas now not much of a pit for waders, with very high water levels after the winter rains), plus a migrating Short-eared Owl moving at considerable height to the north.
Then, on 23rd – the final day of 'freedom', if you like – I headed to Willow Tree Fen for dawn, with Garganey in mind. It was a stunningly crisp and clear morning, with gorgeous golden light illuminating the scrape. Very satisfying it was, too, to locate a pristine drake Garganey asleep among the mass of Teal and Wigeon. This has always been one of my favourite species, and every encounter is something to be cherished. However, frostbite was soon getting the better of my fingers, so I left fairly quickly – but not before a half-dozen Whooper Swans had moved through and a Eurasian Curlew flew overhead calling.
And then came lockdown ... naturally, birding becomes a luxury at such times and I am blessed that my short daily route can take in at least some of BLGP. So, I'm fortunate that spring is far from totally written off, even if it won't be as bird-filled as it might have been if I'd been able to get out around the Peterborough area during April and May. Any highlights from the short forays that the situation allows will appear here in due course.
I re-visited the west coast Ireland from 13-15 March, this time heading north to Sligo and Donegal, before continuing back south to Kerry for the final day.
One bird I was really keen to see was the American Herring Gull at Sligo Harbour, found by Séamus Feeney while we were over in late February. It was actually a bit of a pain, with several visits to the harbour area throughout my first morning producing only a five-minute showing before it disappeared once more. That said, the bird was every bit as impressive as it had appeared in Séamus' photos. It was big, bulky and dark, with amazing detail in the rump, tail and upperwing. Not pretty, but spectacular nonetheless.
While I was waiting for the smiths to put in a performance, I paid a couple of brief visits to Doorly Park, on the other side of Sligo Town, where the regular adult Ring-billed Gull kept me entertained. It was a nice bonus to come across a second bird, also an adult but clearly different on head moult alone, back at the port while searching for the AHG. The decline in the species has been stark over the past five years especially, as I recently bemoaned in the February trip blog, so finding one anywhere in Europe now makes for a good day.
Leaving Sligo at lunchtime, I birded up the coast to Killybegs and saw next to nothing of interest. So, it was a relief to quickly find a couple of Iceland Gulls and a Glaucous Gull at the head of the tidal estuary on the approach road into the famous fishing town. I was starting to become a little worried that it was going to be a quiet visit prior to this, so was pleased to find the port full of trawlers and plenty of gulls about. Numbers were in to the low thousands, the vast majority being Herring Gulls. Given the dreadful winter for both white-wingers, a total of seven Iceland and three Glaucous Gulls by dusk was probably not a bad result in the end.
Despite its obvious track record and continued potential, I have to admit that I find Killybegs quite a frustrating site to work. Views are often not great: birds are mobile, often distant, and have a habit of disappearing. They're often skittish, especially in the inner harbour. If there are lots of boats in, as on this visit, viewing is quite difficult and restricted. If only you could still get in the port compound itself, where there's loads of free quay space and lobbing bread out would no doubt quickly concentrate lots of birds and views would be so much better.
I gave the area another go the following morning, but it was clear that several trawlers had left, taking a good proportion of the birds present yesterday with them. Just two apiece of Glaucous and Iceland Gulls had revealed themselves by mid-morning, so I got back on the road south. Calling in at Sligo again, the weather had deteriorated significantly and it was now dull and windy, with squally showers. Nonetheless the American Herring Gull put in a much better performance than the previous day, this time almost exclusively on the ground.
I then headed over to the Mayo coast and worked Achill Island and the south Mayo loughs until dark. It was really rather quiet everywhere; not a single winger to be found, and my efforts were saved by the continuing presence of the Green-winged Teal at Keel and Lesser Scaup on Lough Doo, both of which were additions to my non-existent Achill list. Otherwise, it was a female Greater Scaup at Lough Baun, west of Louisburgh, that represented the next-most significant bird. The sight of a massive female Peregrine finishing off a freshly caught adult Lesser Black-backed Gull was impressive, if sobering. And at least the sunset was nice.
I drove down to Kerry during the evening, arriving in Tralee a short while before 11 pm. The next morning I started at Dingle Harbour, where a subtle adult Kumlien's Gull was among the good numbers of Herring and Great Black-backed Gulls in the harbour itself. The demarcated grey was most apparent in p10 and could be seen in the field at times, but was also obvious in photos on p9 and, in the close-ups, a tiny bit was on the outer web of p8, too. Nearby Milltown produced a couple of juvenile Iceland Gulls. Unfortunately, the rest of the peninsula was a bit quiet.
Having dipped it in February, I was keen to see the adult Kumlien's Gull at Tralee, so retraced my steps back there for late morning. I saw it a couple of times, but generally overhead as it hung in the wind; it never seemed interested in coming down for the loaves. A bit more contentious was a near-adult Iceland-type here. It had been around a few days but seemed to show faintly darker outer webs to p9-10 in most photos (although not all), with an apparent darker leading edge to p10. In addition, the upper-part tone was perhaps a bit darker than typical Iceland (accounting for the bright sun at the time). On this basis it's a Kumlien's too, admittedly a pretty crap one, but it feels like it falls in a bit of a grey area and perhaps I'm looking too hard and some of these things are photo artefacts.
I spent the early afternoon covering the prime gulling sites on the Iveragh Peninsula. There were good numbers of birds at both Reenard Point and, especially, Portmagee. The regular adult Iceland was still at Reenard but, despite perhaps 400 birds present around Portmagee, no white-wingers were to be found.
Castletownbere in Cork was the next port of call, where I bumped into Fionn Moore, but the American Herring Gull appeared to have gone – two Iceland Gulls floating about there, though. A couple of Med Gulls in Bantry Creek were the best in that immediate area, but Baltimore was deathly quiet on Sunday evening. And that concluded another entertaining – if not spectacular – few days out west.
There are, as always, plenty more photos of the star birds in the photography section of my website.
March is as good a time as any to be out checking London's gulls for unusual visitors. There's always plenty of turnover at the numerous sites we keep an eye on, but especially so at this time of year as birds are very much on the move. As such, it can be particularly hit and miss along the Thames.
Rich, Dante and I met up at Greenhaven Drive, Thamesmead, on Saturday morning and after an hour's bread chucking got the feeling that, in the mild and spring-like conditions, that it wasn't going to be a 'hit' day. Aside the usual posse of Yellow-legged Gulls – 12 in total here throughout Saturday – there didn't seem to be all that much doing, so we decided to relocate to Erith Pier.
Erith is another site that suffers from patchy form in the winter months – those glory days of late summer 2019, when the surrounding river was swamped with Yellow-legged Gulls and it proved such a reliable bastion for close Casps, seemed a long time ago. Despite plenty of birds about, we'd seen nothing after the best part of an hour and so it was a bit of a surprise when Dante authoritatively announced: "Iceland in the melee!"
A small bird, this dainty, dove-like glaucoides is a very similar but nonetheless different juvenile to that seen at Thamesmead earlier in the year (which was also found by Dante at Erith). It had been at Rainham on a couple of days in the week, so it wasn't hugely surprising to see it come in and chow down on the sliced wholemeal. Naturally, views were decent, if a bit frustrating for photos, and it even had the decency to pose on the famous jetty for a short period.
Buoyed by this, it was back to Greenhaven Drive for high tide. As is normal, it took a while to concentrate birds and it was only after a half-hour or so, just after Rich left us for afternoon family duties, that the first Caspian Gull came in. A first-winter with strongly marked scaps and distinctive covert moult, I quickly recognised it as a bird I'd seen on Rainham tip on 28 January but not since.
A short while later a second arrived, a year older this time. Quite crisp and pallid in appearance, it only had the faintest residual markings on p10 but otherwise looked pretty nice.
Final stop of the day was Jolly Farmers at Crayford, which has been more miss than hit this winter. However, among the big numbers of gulls present (perhaps the most we've seen here this winter), two different second-winter Caspian Gulls were found, including the returning P:895 – the first time I've seen it since at Rainham in early December.
After the success of Saturday, hopes were high for Sunday. And it really felt like Greenhaven was going to come into its own at any moment, with more large gulls there than any of us had seen previously. But, despite lots of turnover and hundreds of Herrings, we could only muster a handful of Yellow-legged Gulls. Such is the fickle nature of London gulling.
In fact it was just as we were packing up that bird of the day appeared, a near-pristine adult Mediterranean Gull. This superb bird transpired to be sporting colour rings (as this species so often is!) and the red ring had us excited – ZHJ9 was a Czech bird! This is the first Czech Med Gull that any of us have seen, and the data indicates that it was ringed as a chick at the nest near Šenov, in the far east of the country, on 8 June 2017. So, a young adult only in its third winter, and the final of nine gull species seen over the weekend. Not bad at all, and a good advertisement for March gulling in the capital.
The musings of a wildlife enthusiast, usually armed with his camera.