Snow Bunting – Salterns Park, Hill Head, Hampshire

On the Wednesday, in the middle of our week in Cornwall, a Snow Bunting had been found on the grassy area to the east of the Salterns Car Park near Hill Head. Snow Bunting is a very scarce autumn passage migrant and winter visitor in Hampshire with only a few records each year. It was likely that I would see Snow Bunting on our long weekend in Norfolk in two weeks’ time but it’s always good to get decent birds when you can and any chance for sketching opportunities I’m always grateful for.

Over the subsequent three days the bird was seen regularly in a small area of sandy soil in the centre of a large playing field popular with dog walkers. It was still around on Friday evening and while I was watching the Semipalmated Sandpiper at Oxey Marshes on Saturday morning it was reported again. It took me an hour to get to Hill Head, I parked the car, grabbed my scope and sketchbook and headed to the edge of the car park and to the grassy area just beyond the children’s play area. I was amazed to see how small the bare area of sandy soil was. It was probably no more than 10 feet across but there was no Snow Bunting!

It had gone missing on occasions before as it was regularly flushed by dog walkers. Fifteen minutes and still nothing and so I decided to check the shingle beach (a more likely looking area for Snow Bunting) and I also walked around the sailing club but there was no sign. I returned and joined a couple of photographers who were waiting 30 yards from the bare area. He had seen it the day before and had now brought his wife to show her. We chatted for a while and then I noticed a flash of white and a smallish bird dropped into the bare area, it was the Snow Bunting!

Over the next 45 minutes we had amazing views, the bunting was very confiding and we could have got much closer. It seemed to be feeding happily probably on seeds left by previous photographers. There were lovely russet patches on the breast, ear coverts and nape. The bill was a bright yellow colour. A bright white flash rang along the length of the wing made up of the median coverts, greater coverts and the secondaries. The alula and tips to the primary coverts were a contrasting black colour, the tertials were dark centred and rufous fringed and the primaries were white edged and very long extending almost to the tail.

Because I’ve been out of birding for a while this was my first Snow Bunting for 14 years and a Hampshire tick, what lovely birds!

I noticed that the Velvet Scoter had been seen again off Hill Head and so we left the Snow Bunting who was still enjoying his small bare patch.

Velvet Scoter – Hill Head, Hampshire – 23rd November 2019

After seeing the Semipalmated Sandpiper at Oxey Marshes and the Snow Bunting at Salterns Park near Hill Head I noticed on Bird Guides that the Velvet Scoter had been seen off Hill Head again and so I walked back to the car and drove another mile along the coast to park in the parking spaces just past the Titchfield Haven Visitor Centre.

The scoter had been associating with 11 Common Scoter, I scanned for 45 minutes but there was no sign although I did see 20 or so Eider and a Great Northern Diver. I spoke to one of the wardens at Titchfield Haven and she said that the warden who was now on duty had been watching the Velvet Scoter just before he started his shift. I decided to walk back to the visitor centre and managed to speak to him.

The scoter flock had been drifting further out as the tide had been dropping and they had also moved further to the right (west) up Southampton Water towards the deep water off Fawley. I returned and scanned in that direction but only found the same groups of Eider as I had seen before.

Another few birders arrived and eventually someone picked out the scoters who had now moved well to the left and were back in front of the Isle of Wight, they had probably drifted back on the falling tide. They were a long way out but we believed that the right hand bird of the 12 was slightly bigger and although there is some size overlap Velvet Scoters are usually noticeably larger than Common Scoter. Thankfully, after around ten minutes, the whole flock took flight and the right hand bird appeared to show a flash of white in the wing. Luckily the flock banked and flew towards us back up Southampton Water. As the flock flew alongside we had great views of the obvious white secondaries on the Velvet Scoter. This is only the 7th time I’ve seen Velvet Scoter in the UK and it’s a Hampshire tick. Velvet Scoter breed on Scandinavian coasts particularly northern Norway and they winter along the Baltic Coasts and some reach the south and east coasts of the UK.

It was now 2:45pm and the end of great day with three year ticks all of which were also Hampshire ticks. This takes me to 258 for 2019 and my Hampshire list up to 247

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