My daughter Nicola has recently started a Master’s Degree in Travel and Nature Writing run by Bath Spa University where she did her undergraduate degree. She is studying for this alongside her full time job as a Portfolio Manager with Taylor & Francis in Oxford. Her tutor at Bath Spa for the MA is Stephen Moss who is a well-known nature writer.
As part of her course work she wanted to write a birding piece and so while Nicola was visiting us for the weekend we spent a morning at Titchfield Haven. We didn’t really have a plan for what she was going to write about but as we walked from the car towards the visitor centre a perfect situation developed. I noticed Mark Francis and Amy Robjohns watching something from the bridge which stands above the sluice gates which separate the River Meon from the tiny harbour at Hill Head. Below the road here a system of sluice gates maintain the water level upstream so the harbour is really the only tidal part of the Meon.
I felt sure they must be watching a Kingfisher and sure enough we arrived to be shown one not more than 15 yards away. Despite them being fairly widespread it’s not often you see a Kingfisher this well. It’s usually no more than a shrill piping call followed by a flash of turquoise and orange as it disappears down the river.
This male (all black bill) was perched motionless watching the river. They like clear, still or slow-moving water with reeds in the shallows where they can perch and hunt from overhanging willows or alders on the banks. I got it in the scope and Nicola enjoyed some amazing views. I decided to jog back to the car to get my sketchbook. At one stage it reappeared from the water with a large fish before flying across the channel to land on the ‘no fishing sign’.
After a coffee and a cake in the visitor centre café we wandered around the harbour and as high tide was approaching we spent some time watching the Sanderlings which roost at Hill Head in the winter. They were flighty but we approached very carefully and managed to watch them for 25 minutes from only 20 yards away without disturbing them. There were around 45 birds and most were in winter plumage although two or three had retained darker juvenile scapular feathers.
When they weren’t scampering up and down the advancing tide line they were roosting in a tight group usually on one leg which they do to minimise heat loss.
Sanderling breed in arctic Greenland returning from their breeding grounds to winter anywhere from the UK all the way down to Namibia in southern Africa with these southern winterers making 30,000 mile round-trips each year.
Three of the Sanderling had colour rings and this revealed that one of the birds was more than six years old. All three individuals spend each winter along a fairly short section of the Hampshire coast between Hayling Island, Hill Head and Ryde on the Isle of Wight. As a younger bird the six year old tended to use Hayling Island but now favoured Hill Head and the other two birds also favoured the area around Hill Head.
All three birds return to Greenland in the spring each year and one of the birds was seen in the Wadden Sea in the Netherlands in early May this year, a known stop off point on their migration route. This small detour seems worth it, there must be good opportunities for fuelling and moulting during the autumn, conditions that compensate for the costs of the detour. Other UK-wintering Sanderlings are believed to fly directly to Greenland or stop over on the Scottish west coast or in Iceland.
Colour ringing studies of Sanderling have also shown that a bird that wintered in Namibia could have saved itself an accumulated migration distance of more than 25,000 miles each year by wintering in England without affecting its probability of survival – the annual survival rate is 85% if they winter in UK and the same in Namibia. UK birds would also have the advantage of returning earlier to Greenland each spring thus improving their breeding chances by having more time for a second brood if required.
Another strange fact is that while virtually all of the juveniles which spend their first winter in the UK migrate north to breed in Greenland in their first spring a staggering 90% of those which winter in western Africa (Mauritania) remain in Africa as non-breeders thus missing out on the chance to breed.
Smew – Needingworth Lakes, Cambridgeshire – 5th December 2019
When I started 2019 I set myself the target of seeing 250 species during the year and felt that this would require a concerted effort. Dad went to Norfolk for his regular three day January trip with Martin and Mark and this put him well ahead of me on our January year lists. I then decided I had to organise a similar trip in December so that I could catch these up and Peter said he would come along too. I also felt that I might need these extra year ticks in order to reach my 250 target. Dad also said that he wouldn’t mind a repeat visit to Norfolk.
In the end I reached my 250 target by mid October but it will still be great to visit Norfolk again. In terms of year list targets (seven) I was hoping for Long-eared Owl at Deeping Lakes on the way to Norfolk, Rough-legged Buzzard at Wells near our Bed & Breakfast, Shorelark at Holkham Gap, Twite at Thornham, Merlin at the Warham Greens Harrier roost, Taiga Bean Goose at Buckenham Marshes and Caspian Gull at Nunnery Lakes near Thetford although the gull might be dropped given the extra driving distance. Other interesting birds but not year ticks could be Hen Harrier and Snow Bunting.
We arranged to stop over at Aly’s house near Cambridge on the way up and as a bonus an eighth possible year tick, Smew, had been found within a mile of Aly’s house in Needingworth. We left Hampshire at 11am and arrived in the small car park near Needingworth Lakes at just after 2pm. Although the Smew hadn’t been reported since the 1st December we thought it was worth trying anyway as birder coverage here is fairly light. We spent the two hours up until dark and saw 50 Wigeon, 20 Gadwall, 10 Teal, 6 Little Grebe and heard Green Sandpiper but, unfortunately, there was no sign of the Smew.
Long-eared Owl – Deeping Lakes, Lincolnshire – 6th December 2019
Peter met us at Aly’s house on the Thursday evening and we headed up to Norfolk from there on Friday morning. There is a well-advertised roost of Long-eared Owls at Deeping Lakes in Lincolnshire often with four or more birds. Dad had seen them in January on the way to Norfolk and so I planned to do the same on our trip.
We left Aly’s house at around 8:15am and were in the hide overlooking the island roost site at around 9:30am. There weren’t any obvious birds on show but they are often well hidden and so we settled down for a long search. After 45 minutes or so another birder came into the hide and said that they were usually in the area of the dense ivy bush which was above the obvious wooden stake at the water’s edge. We had been concentrating in that area anyway but we redoubled our efforts, however, at around 11am and with the thought of how short day length is at this time of year we gave up and headed off to Norfolk.