Crane – Horton Inn, Dorset

After a day out with a friend, when I’d added Wood Warbler for the year, a pair of Cranes were reported in Dorset at Witchampton in fields south of Loverley Lane. The Bird Guides map pin which shows where the birds were seen didn’t seem to match the description and neither the words nor the pin gave me any confidence that I’d be able to find the Cranes. I decided I would go the next morning if the birds were seen again and any new directions seemed clearer. Just before I went to bed Hampshire Bird News reported them again, settled in fields near the Horton Inn.

I was woken up by the dogs at 5am and checked my phone and was disappointed to see that the Hampshire Bird News Crane message had been deleted by Hampshire Bird News (presumably because Horton is in Dorset!) and so I now had no record of the directions. Thankfully I had opened the original map onto a separate browser page and this page was still available to view. I took a screenshot before clicking backwards to see if the written directions were still available, they weren’t but I decided to gamble on trying to find the bird from the map pin and I also had to gamble that the pin had been accurately positioned. Sunrise was at 5:45am and birds like Cranes and Storks are likely to move off early and so I thought I would head off straight away.

I arrived at the Horton Inn at 5:45am and scanned westwards over the meadows which lie to the south of the River Allen, roughly where the pin had been positioned. No luck and so I drove around to the utility buildings on the hairpin bend as I seemed to recall there was a track along there which might get me better views of the fields. It was all locked up and so I went back to the original layby. I scanned again and this time noticed something tall standing in the field. I grabbed my scope thinking it may just be a Grey Heron but thankfully it was one of the Cranes and the other was close by. 

Fairly soon a car pulled up next to me and I got chatting to the driver. He worked at the farm and said that they had been here for a week or so. He also said it would be OK for me to climb over the gate and walk the few hundred yards along the edge of the field to get closer views. I thanked him and headed off. The Cranes were in a field with cattle. Even with the ‘permission’ I still felt uneasy about entering the field and so tried to keep a low profile, however, as I got to what I thought was a sensible distance away the cows all started stampeding towards me, so much for the low profile! Thankfully, there was a fence between me and the cows.

I got much better views from this position and finished some sketches. The Cranes seemed very relaxed feeding leisurely before occasionally stopping to preen. From this closer position you could really see just how tall they are. The black and white neck and red flash above the eye was really striking as were the rather Ostrich-like tertial plumes. I’ve only seen 2 Cranes before in Britain. One in Dorset in 1994 and my first was on Shetland in 1990.

The birds were colour ringed and part of the Great Crane Project re-introduction programme which finished 5 years ago. The project was a partnership between the RSPB, WWT and the Pensthorpe Conservation Trust and successfully hand-reared and released around 100 Cranes into the Somerset Levels and Moors between 2010 and 2014. This means the birds I saw were released anything from five to nine 9 years ago.

A risky dawn trip, without full location information, had worked out really nicely. On the way home I also saw Swift for the year and with Wood Warbler and Crane that is 205 in total for 2019.

American Wigeon – Paxton Pits, Cambridgeshire – 2nd May 2019

I was due to stay with my sister Aly for a few days birding in early May. A male American Wigeon had turned up on Sunday 28th April and as this was very close to Aly’s house I planned to visit, there was also a Red-crested Pochard at this location. The long staying Long-billed Dowitcher was the main bird on the itinerary although this was slightly further north in Lincolnshire. I travelled up on Thursday and decided I would try and get both birds (the American Wigeon and the Long-billed Dowitcher) before I got to Aly’s house near Cambridge. Aly had seen both of these birds before and me seeing them first would free us up to do other things on Friday and Saturday.

I left Southampton at 11:30am and got to Paxton Pits at around 1:45pm. I walked to the edge of Pump House Pit and fairly soon had distant views of the drake American Wigeon. The creamy forehead, green eye band and pinkish flanks were all visible even at long range. Over the next hour I had slightly better views but spent most of the time searching for the Red-crested Pochard as this would be very difficult to see later in the year in Hampshire. Unfortunately there was no sign despite an extensive search of the lake. I did have great views of a Hobby and a distant Ruff showed briefly on the far side of the lake. At around 3pm I decided I needed to head off to Frampton Marshes to see the Long-billed Dowitcher.

Long-billed Dowitcher – Frampton Marshes, Lincolnshire – 2nd May 2019

I travelled to Lincolnshire as a northerly detour on my trip to stay with Aly. The Long-billed Dowitcher first arrived at Frampton Marshes on 24th August 2018 and so had been resident for over eight months. It had showed daily and had settled into a very predictable routine almost always being seen just inside the sea wall in the south east corner of the reserve. I had looked though the online latest sightings reports at Frampton Marshes where they helpfully post a photo of the sightings board each day showing you where on the reserve various birds had been seen. On almost every photo I’d seen the Dowitcher favoured this south eastern corner. 

I arrived at 4:30pm and was somewhat startled to see that there was no sign of the Long-billed Dowitcher on the sightings board which had been drawn up for the day. I briefly spoke to the warden and she confirmed the best place was in the south east corner. I spent the next four hours searching but there was no sign and the bird was never seen again! The dowitcher had left on the day I visited having been resident for more than eight months, absolutely gutting! 

The pain was only very slightly relieved by a pair of Garganey, a lovely black Spotted Redshank and a Barn Owl perching up nicely on a fence post. Although Long-billed Dowitcher isn’t a new bird for me this was one of the most disappointing birding experiences I’ve had for a long time.

Red-crested Pochard – Marsh Lane, Cambridgeshire – 3rd May 2019

After the dowitcher disappointment I arrived at Aly’s house at just after 9pm and enjoyed a late Spaghetti Bolognese and a slow calm down although I slept very badly as I was still pretty worked up! 

In the morning Aly took me to the Marsh Lane Reserve near Hemingford Grey in the hope of seeing a drake Red-crested Pochard which she had found there previously. We walked to the edge of the lake and thankfully the male Red-crested Pochard drifted into view with a female alongside. Red-crested Pochard takes me to 207 for the year. Aly then headed off to order some large rockery stones for her garden and I headed back to her house to wait for her. 

A Baikal Teal had been seen at March Farmers on the Ouse Washes and we would head there next, a potential new British Bird for me!!

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