Spring has arrived with a bang in the past week, with near-record March temperatures, prolonged southerlies and bucket loads of common migrants arriving in England (and indeed Surrey). This has given a late burst of life to an otherwise average month locally and, coupled with our new-found freedom (sort of!), it’s been a fun few days.
|The Wheatears have arrived ...|
A day of April-like showers had seen the first proper fall of Wheatears in the county – and indeed South-East England – and I headed out to Shackleford after work to try my luck. It’s not often such plans come off but today it did, with a rather soggy and tired looking female Wheatear perched in the set aside. To think that, just a few weeks ago, this bird may have been dodging the feet of elephants on a central African savanna – and could be on a Highland mountain by mid-April – is a concept that will never cease to captivate me. I watched her for a while as she became more alert, zipping around the mounds of earth looking for food while the sun began to set. And at this flick of a white-rumped switch, spring migration was officially underway …
|The first of the year at Shackleford.|
It was rather cold and breezy this morning, but stunningly bright and I headed to Tuesley first thing. The Green Sandpiper was again in roost – I’d love to know where it spends the daytime. Things were otherwise rather quiet, until a dapper male Wheatear flicked up from the bank and onto a fence. I observed him for a while as the sun gradually rose, unveiling the wonderful pastel shades of his plumage. What a stunner. A female Kestrel was hunting the wider area too.
Shackleford was up next, and I circuited the main fields. The wind had picked up a bit but heaps of Skylarks were in voice, with some birds fighting over territories on the alfalfa. The flock of Fieldfares was still about, a male Sparrowhawk received grief from two Carrion Crows and a couple of Red-legged Partridges included one in cumbersome flight over Cuckoo Corner.
|Fieldfares and Skylark at Shackleford.|
When things had warmed up a little the female Wheatear popped up and looked much more sprightly compared with yesterday, as she busily zipped around the set aside, feeding up before the next leg of her journey.
|More Wheatear action ...|
With spring most certainly in my step, I went on to Thursley and worked my way around High Ground, avoiding the inevitable big crowd at Bunting Bushes. There wasn’t heaps to shout about, though a Greenfinch over Will Reeds was very notable and there were at least eight Chiffchaffs in voice, suggesting a recent arrival. A female Sparrowhawk soared over Shrike Hill and a male Crossbills sang from Pine Avenue.
Later in the day, having looked at a couple of houses with my partner in the Arun Valley, we decided to take a pitstop at the parking area by the ‘Triangle’ at The Burgh before heading home. We got out the car to lean on the gate when one of those freaky moments of fortune struck, as an immature White-tailed Eagle cruised overhead, being mobbed by Buzzards and Red Kites!
|White-tailed Eagle at The Burgh.|
Up to two of the Isle of Wight reintroduction birds have been frequenting the valley for about a fortnight (though none had been seen for four days) but this was extreme fluke – I’d been there for literally four minutes when it went over. I didn’t have my bins with me, but thankfully the camera was in the car and I was able to get some record shorts. It lazily headed off to the north-east. A truly jammy and unexpected spectacle over the Sussex countryside.
A rather lazy day, with a very strong south-westerly for the most part. At Frensham Great Pond mid-morning 22 or more Sand Martins were swirling over the water in the breeze, joined briefly by a Swallow – my first of the year and the second earliest I’ve ever seen the species in Britain. There was no hoped for Sandwich Tern or Osprey, with four Pochard, 42 Tufted Duck, a singing Firecrest, three Chiffchaffs and a Little Egret making up the numbers.
There was a big push of Swallows through the county and it was no surprise to see two over Unstead SF later that afternoon, where I quickly popped my head in during a casual walk along the river. Other highlights from the outing included a Little Egret on the Lammas Lands and pleasant numbers of singing Chiffchaffs.
A glorious day out west. I’m not a fan of twitches in residential areas but this was required at sunrise in Exmouth, where Britain’s third – and the Western Palearctic’s third – Northern Mockingbird had been present for a couple of months. This is a common bird in the US but it was rather novel watching this individual emerge from it’s holly bush roost, before disappearing onto a garden lawn. It was a bit of a tick and run job, as a few more folks appeared and it seemed right to move on …
|Mockingbird at first light.|
The next destination was the picturesque harbour of Newlyn, in western Cornwall, for the main target of the day. Here a cracking first-winter American Herring Gull had been in situ for a little while and it performed insanely well on the pebbly harbour, showing down to a couple of feet as it feasted on tinned tuna and bread. At times, it was too close for the camera.
Such views allowed for close examination of the densely barred upper tail and under tail coverts, the dark band on greater coverts, a very dark tail, the velvety brown plumage and a long, Glaucous-like bill. What a cracker, and the first properly twitchable individual in England for 12 years … other bits noted in and around the harbour included two Shags, a Rock Pipit and a small flock of Turnstones.
|More AHG action.|
With both prizes in the bag the pressure was off, allowing for a splendidly relaxed and enjoyable rest of the day in the West Country. I decided to pop my head in a St Gothian Sands and a female White Wagtail was one of the first birds noted, pottering around on the grass. On the pool, an adult Iceland Gull was rather unexpected, especially as an adult Glaucous Gull has been here for weeks (though I later found out than this Iceland has been a sporadic visitor here recently). Two Shelduck and a singing Skylark were also present.
|Bonus Iceland Gull ...|
The scenic route home was taken, winding through the picturesque country lanes of Dartmoor. The day of luck continued when prospecting a suitable bridge with a fast-flowing stream underneath: a Dipper bobbing away, splitting its time between singing and snorkelling under the water.
|... and Dipper.|
Peregrine, a Yellowhammer pair and a male Stonechat were nice observations from the car in the general area, concluding a wonderfully successful and enjoyable outing. It doesn’t feel like twitching when it’s like this – more a memorable day out, going for a suite of birds at a range of sites, while birding at a relatively relaxed place. Hopefully there will be a few more outings like this during what looks set to be a year-long ‘staycation’.
It was misty and still at Tuesley first thing. The wintering Green Sandpiper was on the far shore but there was little else doing, so I headed to Thursley, where visibility was poor. Despite that, plenty of birds were in song and it felt mild – perfect for an early Willow Warbler I thought, and to my delight I soon heard one singing its lazy song near Will Reeds. A March ‘wilwa’ is always good value … another was singing at Francis Copse later on, too.
Pudmore held at least two Water Rails and a Snipe, as well as some 16 Black-headed Gulls – if the boardwalks remain down then there's no reason why the latter couldn't attempt to breed here, given the suitable small islands. Pleasingly, the male Curlew seems to have been joined by a female – two birds were seen briefly in flight over Ockley and the other bird looked good for a female, but I couldn’t be sure. A late Redwing hissed overhead, a few Crossbills sang and excellent numbers of Woodlark (12) and Skylark (10) were notched up.
|Crossbill and Black-headed Gulls.|
Dartford Warbler numbers, however, remained very poor, with only four noted. A couple of Blackcaps were new for the Thursley year list but I failed to score my first ever March Redstart or Tree Pipit, despite both being reported on other south-west Surrey heaths later in the day!
It felt pretty good at Shackleford first thing, with rather hazy conditions in the gentle south-easterly. A male Wheatear flicked out and over the ploughed field early on and I thought my luck could be in for something like a Ring Ouzel or Black Red. As it happened, the Wheatear was as good as it got, though two flyover Ravens and a Cormorant (notable here) weren’t bad.
|Wheatear, Raven and Cormorant.|
Other bits included three Red-legged Partridges, singing Chiffchaffs (two) and Blackcap, a northbound Lesser Black-backed Gull and a late, lone Fieldfare. Later on, in the almost May-like muggy and mild conditions, I checked out Tuesley. It felt birdy and indeed three Swallows and two Lesser Black-backed Gulls hinted at movement.
|Lesser Black-backed Gulls.|
Three Mandarin flew west and some 56 Black-headed Gulls included a copulating pair, while a Linnet was singing near the mobile homes. At home later on, I heard a Grey Wagtail from the kitchen window.