This week it has been cold, real winter cold, with temperatures falling as low as minus six degrees on Tuesday. Friday saw the clear skies replaced with overcast conditions but the temperatures never pushed above five degrees, and with the added dampness it felt even colder. So as i left home Saturday morning with cloud and the temperature a little above freezing I wondered what the day would bring. When I arrived at Farlington Marshes and met up with Ian the light was nudging through, and away to the east there was a sunrise that looked like a fire raging on Hayling Island.
The cloud did not appear to be too thick, and as the sun rose there were glimpses of the red light through the cloud. We walked along the sea wall to the lake, disturbing a Kestrel from the path that went and sat in a tree, who knows what it could see in the gloom.
Low tide was at 7.00 and as we walked around the wall there was plenty of mud, and not very much concentration of birds about, everything was spread out and lost in the channels.
We headed for Point Field, and as we walked through the first gate we saw several mist nest strung up across the brambles and in the gaps between the bushes. As we approached the spot where we had seen the Short-eared Owls roosting last month we could hear voices and turned to find a group in the process of ring the birds taken obviously from the mist nets.
There was nothing unusual found, mostly Robins, Dunnocks, Wrens and Blackbirds. But with their presence in the field there was no sign of any owls. We stood on the sea wall watching and waiting to see if anything turned up, but nothing did, so eventually we decided to walk on to the hut and the reeds to see if there was anything there.
The wind was picking up from the east and it was quite cold as we headed to the information hut. The fields were empty but the odd Brent Goose would fly in overhead, and as we approached the reed bed there was a sizeable flock of Canada Geese grazing on the grass.
In the stream there was a couple of Black-tailed Godwits, and many Moorhen, but no sign of any Bearded Tits. We walked alongside the stream where we disturbed a Grey Wagtail. This took us back to the sea wall by the lake. On the mud the tide was now beginning to rise, pushing the duck closer. Teal could be seen lining the edge of the channels, but more impressive were the Pintail, for once males quite close to the wall.
They have to be my favourite duck, the chocolate brown head with the white stripe from the belly extending up the side of the neck, the beautiful grey and brown scapulars and the jet black undertail coverts extending to the thin feathers of the tail that give the duck its name.
The closeness didn't last and they slowly, calmly started to swim away.
But if you were careful you could use the bank as cover and then get closer to the birds without them moving away too quickly.
Even with a good three to four hours before high tide the birds were beginning to move from the mud into the fields and onto the lake. The sea wall is a really good vantage point to catch the birds in flight, sometimes passing quite close, like this Brent Goose.
The sun was now breaking through as a clear patch of blue sky was moving through from the east. This emerging sunlight was catching the duck as they came over the wall. Wigeon, now were flying in.
And Shelduck in flocks, and single birds.
We decided to walk around once again to Point Field. In one of the ditches alongside the sea wall were a pair of Shoveler, and as the we stopped to watch them the sun came out and picked out the wonderful bottle green colour in the head feathers.
The duck was obviously aware of this and stopped to re-arrange the head feathers!
From the south point the tide was well up, and there were Brent and Dunlin feeding at the edge, with Pintail, Red-breasted Mergansers, and Great Crested Grebes in the channel
In Point Field the ringers were now clearing up, taking down the nets in the bramble, so once again no sign of the owls. We walked up to the Deeps where the were plenty of Brent on the water. With the sky now clear the water reflected a deep blue around the grey geese.
The ducks kept coming, this time a pair of Gadwall.
As the tide rose the Dunlin were active, busily feeding in the rising water and continuously calling all the time. Every so often the Dunlin would fly up as the water became too deep, to settle back on dryer areas. This concentrated them in large flocks close to us. The birds were almost silhouetted in the low December sunshine, the transparency of the primary feathers being caught by the light as they flew in.
The tide on the east side of the marshes was almost up to the wall, but on the west side there was still plenty of mud exposed. We walked back through Point Field, again with no sign of any owls, then up on to the sea wall where Ian picked up a Peregrine flying low over the water in the direction of the roost sites to the east. With the low sun, and the southerly aspect it was difficult to get anything other than a record shot.
We could see flocks of duck and waders pouring over the sea wall to roost on the lake. There was already a good sized flock of about 450 Black-tailed Godwits present, but these were continually joined by birds coming in from across the mud.
The light now was wonderful, turning the reed bed into a golden set of stems. Teal lined the edge of the reeds and a Little Egret sat preening in the reeds, the sunshine sending a reflection in the black water.
I estimated the godwit roost to now be around 650, with them forming a tight mass in the middle of the lake. Behind them was a group of Redshank, and as we watched they were continually joined by birds coming iin from all angles. There was also a good number of Brent Geese, and many Pintail. All the time the birds would fly in over the wall. Pintail looking as splendid in flight as they do on the water.
Who wouldn't want these three drakes on their wall?
Or maybe these Shelduck?
A little Grebe dived close to the sea wall.
Our attention then turned to the flock of Avocet out on the water on the western side. Earlier we had counted 32 but now the numbers had increased. Eventually they took off and flew in closer to the wall, and I counted 59 either swimming in the water or standing on the small island.
But as the tide rose they decided to fly off, being joined by those swimming and headed back out to open water.
Where they settled on the water again, their black and white plumage making it hard to pick them out in the open water.
With the tide about an hour from high tide we decided to return to the cars for lunch, and then to head off to our second destination the Hayling Oyster beds. We had been here last in January, when the weather was very similar. From the car park we walked around the path and past the small scrape that had a couple of Redshank and Black-tailed Godwits, and a very confiding Greenshank.
It was feeding close to the path, moving quickly through the shallow water.
The stillness of the water providing some lovely reflections.
It would stop every so often to preen.
Then off again.
Out on the main water the waders had collected on the islands that form the lagoons, with the tide still high, there was no moving on as Dunlin, Grey Plover, Oystercatcher and a few Brent Geese packed together on a limited amount of space.
We made our way to the far beds where the path takes you out closer to the open water. As we walked to the furthest point ahead of us there were flashes of white against the blue water as flocks of waders continued to flock over the water, the white showing as they twisted and turned.
Out on the open water were several groups of Red-breasted Mergansers and Great-crested Grebes. We managed to find at least 5 Black-necked Grebes, there had been up to 12 reported today. There had also been a report of a very distant Long-tailed Duck, and as we continued to search the water Ian found one, a drake and then quickly after what looked to be a female. Here you can see a very distant drake.
The tide was falling, but slowly and birds were beginning to move about. Red-breasted mergansers started to move into the lagoons
Coming in low over the water in the sunshine two pairs, ladies first.
We continued to scan the water, counting Black-necked Grebes but never achieving a number greater than five. Then a small duck on the water with a striking white cheek patch, and a rather flattish head and very small bill. The view was distant and impossible to get any meaningful photographs as you can see. Here it is on the right and you can see a size comparison with the merganser.
We both watched it for quite some time as it dived, drifted and occasionally wing flapped. It was very reddish brown in colour on the head, but when it wing flapped or dived it was grey on the body, even lighter on the belly and there were white patches on the wings. We recognised that this would be under considerable scrutiny, and I did consider a female Common Scoter that could also show a light patch around the cheek, but in this bird the patch was very white and with the flat head and small bill the only bird I would be happy with was a redhead Smew.
It stayed along way out, and drifted more to the right and towards the bridge. As well as the mergansers we saw it with a female Goldeneye and it was much smaller.
We never stopped looking for the bird, mostly in the hope it would come closer, but by now things were beginning to move out on the islands and water. It seemed as if all the waders roosting on the island were spooked by fishermen, and huge flocks took to the air, all closely knitted together.
Impressive close in, but perhaps more so when looked at a distance as the turned and banked flashing white and dark grey in the afternoon sunshine.
At times through the camera the sky was just full of them.
Creating different patterns across the sea and sky, they consisted of Dunlin, Knot and Grey Plover
The Portsmouth skyline acting as a back drop to the spectacle
After a while they would slow down and look to settle back on the rocks, as they dropped back down it appeared as if they were being poured back into the roost
One lone Grey Plover obviously decided it was not one of the crowd and flew past us onto the rocks in the lagoon. The diagnostic black under wing patch showing nicely.
The sun was now getting very low in the sky and was sending a light across the water, bathing all around us in a lovely golden hue. Despite the fact that it was now two hours after high tide the waders were still in roost. On the far side of the lagoon Redshank and Turnstone huddled together on the rocks.
Brent Geese were moving now though, passing by between us and the sinking sun.
We decided to make our way back, and to search the water closer to the bridge in the hope of relocating the Smew, maybe a little closer to shore. We did find the Smew again, but it was still very distant, maybe even further away, this time with Goldeneye.
The water was now definitely falling, and allowing the wading birds to start to return to the water and edges. This Little Egret was fishing in the sunshine.
While this Redshank was maybe waiting for the tide to fall a little more. The light though was highlighting the bird, and the surrounding water.
Back on the scrape, the Greenshank was still about, this time in a golden light instead of the monochromatic views we had earlier.
This one in golden water.
Another example of the wonderful light was a drake Wigeon out on the other side of the lagoon.
There were still waders on the rocks, but these all took flight as we watched and set off around the water, feinting to return only to set off once again. As they looked to drop to the ground the sunlight picked out their wings and made the primaries glow a golden orange, beautiful against the dark shadows of the rocks.
Finally they came together and settled back down again again against the back drop of the Portsmouth sky line
Back at the car park, I missed a Kingfisher that appeared briefly on one of the posts out in the water. It had been a day of contrasts, overcast and cold conditions early on with very little about, then in the sunshine plenty of activity and photographic opportunities in some wonderful winter light capped off with a Smew,and of course the company through the day.