Turtle Dove – Martin Down, Hampshire

Chasing a year list target of 250 is likely to be difficult this year given that the virus lockdown has me 28 behind my total this time last year even after a record breaking start in January and February. To catch up I’d need to see more than a few vagrants and doing that safely with social distancing wouldn’t be easy. I don’t think it’s a good idea to put myself under pressure to travel and undoubtedly come into contact with lots of other birders just so that I can keep on track with each month-end target.

I decided to spend Sunday morning looking for sketching opportunities rather than year ticks. I headed to Martin Down again for the chance to sketch Europe’s only migratory dove. On my previous visit eight days ago I had spent two hours on location, heard a purring male Turtle Dove on several occasions but glimpsed him only briefly.

There are three main sections of thick scrub on the reserve. I arrived at 7am and walked up to the centrally placed copse but unlike last time there was no purring male to greet my arrival. This may have been because it was much cooler this time. I walked around the whole thicket with no luck. I then dropped down the slope towards the scrubby thickets and hedgerows further to the north-west. There were Yellowhammers, Whitethroats and Lesser Whitethroats but no purring doves.

Turtle Doves are birds of the woodland edge preferring Hawthorn trees for nest sites and so the scrubby tickets are attractive. I headed up the slope again to the southeastern edge of the downland where there is another fairly large rectangular shaped thicket. I had almost completed a circuit and just as the sun was coming out I finally heard my first purring Turtle Dove. I moved slightly away from the trees and up the slope to get a better view over the top of the scrub and soon found him perched up nicely on some bare branches. It became obvious that this was his favoured song post. When they are singing close to the nest site males tend to prefer more exposed branches like this one and so, if he had a nest, then it was probably close by.

They get their name from their purring song ‘turrr turr turrr’ which is an increasingly rare and evocative sound of hot summer days. He performed well, singing almost constantly. Occasionally he would fly up high into a wing-clapping display flight before parachuting back down to land in the same branches. He was certainly making an effort to keep or attract a mate but each year fewer and fewer of these birds make it back from Africa.

It was pretty windy and I found it especially difficult to keep my sketchbook still as it acted like a sail. The Turtle Dove, itself, was also moving around significantly in the breeze. Nevertheless, I spent several hours watching and managed to capture various poses. When singing he didn’t appear to open his bill at all but instead inflated his throat, arched the back of his neck, leant forward and pumped his tail slightly.  

Turtle Dove is on the Red List of Birds of Conservation Concern with the UK population having fallen by an astonishing 95% since 1970. This roughly corresponds to a halving of the population every ten years contracting into an ever shrinking corner of the dry and warm south-east corner of England with East Anglia and Kent the strongholds. UK extinction is a real possibility. There was also a 73% decline across Europe in the 30 years to 2010. They winter in Africa south of the Sahara in the Sahel region ranging from Senegal to Sudan.

Declines are probably due to a range of factors. Increased agricultural intensification meaning that the seeds from wildflowers which they feed on are in short supply. Drought and creeping desertification on there wintering grounds in the Sahel and the shooting of birds on migration in Mediterranean countries such as Italy and Malta. It is estimated that around three million Turtle Doves are shot annually in southern Europe.

This is a difficult species to survey accurately. The Hampshire Bird report in 2018 states that 14-21 purring males were recorded throughout Martin Down based on several combined counts in June. Perhaps it was still too early in the season for me to achieve a higher count but I couldn’t say for certain that I had any more than one purring male during my two extended visits.

There were good numbers of Corn Bunting, Skylark, Whitethroat, Lesser Whitethroat and Yellowhammer and several Grey Partridges were also good to see but I left wondering just how many Turtle Doves would be back next year. 

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