Stone Curlew – Porton Down, Hampshire

While I was at Ashlett Creek looking for Nightingales Clay mentioned about the Stone Curlews on Porton Down and gave me directions and so I decided to head off there next. I had to recee the bluebell woods near Micheldever for an upcoming photography workshop and the Stone Curlews wouldn’t be too much of a detour. They are obviously a very sensitive rare breeding bird and precise location details aren’t published online and so I won’t give the precise location here. Stone Curlews arrive from their wintering grounds in Spain in mid March.

I arrived just before a heavy rain shower and once it had cleared I located the specially created bare ground that they favour and found a pair displaying. For part of the time they lay low to the ground dozing and were then perfectly camouflaged and very difficult to find. Surveying numbers then becomes difficult although their presence is best given away by their nocturnal calling.

Stone Curlew have crashed in numbers with the UK population falling from 1-2,000 pairs in the 1930s to an all time low of 170 pairs in the 1980s. The decline is due to the loss of suitable grassland habitat through lack of grazing by cattle, sheep and rabbits and also the conversion of grassland to arable farmland. While Stone Curlews have adopted working farmland this then makes them vulnerable to agricultural machinery. The RSPB have helped bring about a recovery by working with farmers to ensure that nests and young are protected from destruction in this way. The Hampshire population is around 20-30 pairs with most of the population breeding on specially prepared plots, like at this location, which provide safe areas away from farm machinery. Even so the average productivity only just exceeds the critical 0.6 chicks per pair necessary to maintain the population and so the population increase has been small and gradual.

A good day with seven new birds for the year – Arctic Tern, Arctic Skua, Great Skua, Sandwich Tern, Little Tern, Nightingale and Stone Curlew. That takes me to exactly 200 for the year and the first time I’ve achieved this total in April. 

Bonaparte’s Gull – Blashford Lakes, Hampshire – 26th April 2019

A 1st summer Bonaparte’s Gull was found on Ibsley Water at Blashford Lakes on Thursday afternoon. It was nearly 4pm by the time I noticed the message and I was already on my way back home from checking out the bluebells for a photographic workshop near Winchester. I decided I would go on Friday if it was seen again in the morning. Gulls are usually very distant at Ibsley Water and Bonaparte’s Gull is tricky to separate from Black-headed Gull and so I knew it could be challenging.

The gull was reported again in the morning and so I headed off. I arrived in a fairly empty car park and with surprisingly few people in the Tern Hide. It wasn’t on show and nobody in the hide had seen it at all. Over the next 30 minutes it became clear that no-one in the hide had any confidence that they could pick it out from the very distant Black-headed Gulls. 

Thankfully, the Warden, who had seen the bird last night and this morning, arrived and from chatting to him it seemed that this bird was trickier than the Bonaparte’s Gull that was at Blashford a few years ago as the earlier record was of a much smaller bird, not much bigger than Little Gull and so was easy to pick out on size alone. This current 1st summer bird was only marginally smaller than Black-head Gull and so size was a difficult feature to use.

He said that the features birders were finding useful at this range were its clean white head with only a small ear covert spot and its subtly different feeding technique, behaving more like phalarope, with its head held high and forward and regularly upending and turning in a tight circle. He scanned the lake several times but couldn’t see it and he then had to leave to supervise the contractors over some of the final work on the hide. I then felt that it was up to me to find the bird.

Given the characteristic feeding technique I decided to restrict my search to the Black-headed Gulls that were feeding on the water and ignored the many hundreds of gulls that were loafing and resting on the distant islands. After a while I got onto a promising gull although I was at 60x magnification and the heat haze made things even more difficult. I managed to get the whole hide onto it and we picked through the main features. It fed in a slightly different manner, at times recalling a Grey Phalarope. When the sun was hidden the flat overcast light made the grey nape look very obvious and I then found this to be a good feature to pick it out quickly. It was difficult to assess the comparative size of the bill at this range but in 2 hours I never noticed any paler reddish base. I could hear that several people doubted my identification (and some had already left in frustration that my bird wasn’t distinctive enough!) Eventually the bird flew revealing white primary undersides and the hide burst into spontaneous applause!   

This is my 5th Bonaparte’s Gull in Britain but my first in Hampshire. With a Common Sandpiper this takes my year list up to 202.

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