Red-necked Phalarope – Fishtail Lagoon, Pennington Marshes, Hampshire

Sarah had taken her Mum up to Minehead to visit Di for a few days and she was due back mid afternoon on Friday. I had been minding the house and the dogs and catching up with painting a few of my field sketches.  At 11.40am a message came through the Hampshire Rarities WhatsApp Group reporting a Red-necked Phalarope at Fishtail Lagoon. As Sarah wasn’t back yet I decided that I would wait and go the next morning assuming it was still present. At 3pm Sarah rang to say that she had been delayed with awful traffic and that she wouldn’t be back for at least an hour. I decided that I would walk the dogs as they were keen to go out and I didn’t think they would be prepared to wait another hour or more!

I had almost finished the walk when the WhatsApp Group reported another bird from Fishtail Lagoon, a Gull-billed Tern!! It was 3:45pm. I decided that I had to go immediately and messaged Sarah and also asked my Dad if he could go, he couldn’t and so as soon as I was home I jumped into the car and headed to Lymington. The traffic wasn’t too bad and I made it in 35 minutes and even found a place to park at the end of Pennington Lane (not easy when there are interesting birds about). It was all going so well, however, as I got out of the car another message reported that the tern had just flown off! I had done really well to make it from Southampton and only miss it by 10 minutes or so. 

Had there not been the prospect of a female summer-plumaged Red-necked Phalarope I really would have been gutted. In a strange way it was the Phalarope I wanted to see most as it was likely to be great to sketch and paint. This is despite the fact that I have seen Gull-billed Tern only once before, near Swansea in July 1996, and it is much the rarer bird. 

I bumped into Clay who had been on site a while and was sympathetic about my narrow miss and pointed out where the phalarope had been found. As it was the afternoon and we were looking westwards the light was poor and so I moved around to the sea wall which runs along the south side of Fishtail Lagoon. Here I would be closer and not looking into the sun. 

After a few anxious minutes of thinking that it had also flown I located it feeding along the edge of the nearest spit. What a gem of a bird, with phalaropes females are brighter than males. Immediately obvious were the golden tramlines formed by the edges of the scapulars and mantle feathers, a dark blue grey head, neck and breast sides and a lovely chestnut panel running down the middle of the neck bordering a bright white throat. The forehead showed a little more white than it would show in full summer plumage.

Sketching is tricky with birds like this which appear to be turbo charged on high octane fuel never stopping, feeding frantically. Added to this the fact that several adult Avocets were hassling it and so it was also flying regularly. 

Red-necked Phalaropes winter at sea, far from land on bodies of water like the Arabian Sea. In the spring they head North West into Europe to breed in Iceland and Norway and small numbers breed on the Western and Northern Isles of Scotland with Shetland one of the more reliable places to see them. The 31st May does seem fairly late for migrant waders but I remember visiting Fetlar (one of the Shetland Isles) on the 24th May 1990 to see a Snowy Owl and we also tried the Loch of Funzie to see the Red-necked Phalaropes but were disappointed to discover that no breeding birds had returned yet and this was fairly normal for the fourth week of May. If this female heads directly to Shetland (or Norway or Iceland) from Lymington then she wouldn’t be particularly late. 

This is my fourth Red-necked Phalarope in Britain and my second in Hampshire following one at Hook-with-Warsash in 1999. 

May finishes with my year list on 218. At this stage in 1996 I was on 204 and finished on 289. In the last 7 months of 1996, however, I continued to travel widely throughout Britain twitching regularly and so I don’t expect to beat the 289 total. In 1998 I was on 179 at this stage and finished on 238 and so overall I think I’m well on track to beat my target of 250.  

Montagu’s Harrier – Salisbury Plain, Wiltshire – 3rd June 2019

Martin had arranged a trip out for Dad and Mark to try for Montagu’s Harrier in Wiltshire. I asked if I could tag along as an extra set of eyes to help find them. Montagu’s Harrier is probably Britain’s rarest breeding raptor and the closest site would be the chalk farmland around Salisbury Plain. Around seven pairs breed in Wiltshire.

We parked up in the road side layby at around 8:45am and began scanning. We knew the rough area that a pair had returned to this year but not the precise location. On my first scan I managed to pick out a Stone Curlew and soon afterwards we saw a second. There were plenty of Corn Buntings singing from various posts and there were three or four Red Kites in the area. We also heard a Quail calling briefly from the crops.

At around 10:20am Martin picked up a flying raptor which he quickly identified as a male Montagu’s Harrier. It took a while to get it in the scope but once I had the diagnostic features were obvious. The most obvious initial feature were the very long thin wings with a very long ‘hand’ which was angled back significantly to give the bird a real rakish feel. Combined with its very buoyant flight it looked strikingly tern like. As it banked it revealed its grey back and narrow white rump. The grey was darker than Hen Harrier and a darker bar across the base of the secondaries was also noticeable. It disappeared behind a bank of trees and did not reappear at the other end.

We continued to scan for the next 20 minutes or so before I finally picked it up again. It gradually flew closer and I began to wonder why this second bird wasn’t a Hen Harrier. It continued to get closer and ended up giving us excellent close range views making the identification as a male Hen Harrier straightforward. The wings were wider and so appeared relatively shorter, the flight was buoyant but nothing like the earlier Montagu’s Harrier, the grey was very pale almost white, the upperwings had no secondary bar and the underwings were clean with just a darker trailing edge to the secondaries.

I had hoped that, with some effort, we may see Montagu’s Harrier but a Hen Harrier in June was an unexpected bonus. On the way back we spent an hour or so at Pipers Wait near Nomansland in the New Forest trying to see Honey Buzzard but without luck.

Both Harriers were year ticks taking me to 220 for the year.

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