Monday, 3 April 2017

1st April - Dungeness RSPB and NNR, Kent

All the girls were meeting for a shopping trip at Bluewater today, so I offered to drive, and took the opportunity to carry on into Kent to visit an area I last popped into five years ago. Dungeness.  Back in the early nineties I would visit here quite frequently, but that was when it was in easier reach from Essex, while the area has not changed that much, the facilities have, and there are now some really good hides overlooking  well developed pits and lakes.

The forecast was for slow moving showers, and on the journey from Hampshire we encountered several of these, but as I passed through Lydd and headed towards the monolith that is the Dungeness power station, the skies were clear, and the sun was shining.

Pulling into the RSPB reserve you pass the Boulderwall farm house, and a little further on there were a few cars pulled over by the side of the track next to Cook's Pool.  I stopped and got out.  A lovely male Reed Bunting was singing from the top of a bramble bush.

 On the pool were Tufted Duck, and at the back of the water I could hear the song of a Sedge Warbler coming from the reeds, a first for the year.  It was though the Tufted Duck that I was interested in, or to be accurate something that looks a little like a Tufted Duck, but isn't one.  The Ring-necked Duck is a diving duck normally found in North America, and there has been a one present on the reserve for sometime now.  After scanning the Tufted's I finally found it quite close to the track, its angular head making it immediately stand out from the Tufted Ducks.

 It retains the same yellow eye of the Tufted, but the flanks are more greyish, with a bright white flash at the front.  The bill is a steely greyish blue with two distinctive rings.

The markings can be seen clearly on the bill as the bird preened.

It gets its name from a cinnamon coloured ring around the neck, here as the light caught the feathers you can just see the colouration.

However this is usually very hard to distinguish, and in the United States it is sometimes referred to as the "Ringbill".

It is a strong migrant, and is a regular if sparse visitor to Europe.  This individual has been seen paying attention to a female Tufted Duck, pairing starts around the time of their spring migration, so it could be that this bird will soon be leaving, with or without its chosen mate.

Leaving the Ring-necked Duck I followed the track to the car park and visitor centre.  After checking in, and finding out what was about I made my way to hopefully the next target bird.

Up to two Long-eared Owls have been present throughout the winter.  They roost in the Willows at the back of the Dipping Pool which is just in front of the Firth Hide.  Depending on where they actually roost determines whether you see them or not>  I had been told that there was one visible the morning, so I approached the edge of the pond in hope.

The last time I had seen Long-eared Owl was back in the early nineties at Wat Tyler Country Park.  I used to see up to seven birds in a roost amongst the Blackthorn scrub, and I could scramble through and sit and watch them, I even took Louise once to experience it.  I scanned the willows, and at first found nothing, undeterred I continued and finally found a buff brown patch behind a branch full of pussy willow flowers.  It was the owl, but I couldn't get a very good view.  I moved a little, and then struggled to locate it again, but then found it.  The branches now were out of the way and I could see it quite clearly.

Just like the Short-eared Owl last week it was fast asleep with the eyes closed, and seemingly quite content in the sunshine.

I watched and waited for some movement, but nothing happened, it didn't look like it would be going anywhere, so decided to head off to one of the hides, and return later when it might just be a little more animated.

Close by was the Firth Hide, so I entered.  The hide looks over Burrows Pit, and large expanse of water with varying degrees of depth, dotted around were several islands that were providing roost sites for a good number of Gulls.  I could see Herring and Great Black-backed, but also Black-headed, and Common Gulls.  Close in front of the hide was a drake Pintail, and several Shoveler.  Dotted around the open water were Coots and Tufted Duck.

I was looking for Black-necked Grebe, there had been three reported, and after the success with the Ring-necked Duck, and Long-eared Owl, I was on a roll.  As I scanned the water I picked out two smaller birds amongst the Tufted Duck, they immediately dived, but when they surfaced I could see that they were Black-necked Grebe, and almost in full summer plumage.

In the US they are known as Eared Grebes as in breeding plumage they possess some lovely golden ear tufts that contrast with the black neck and head.  A regular if infrequent winter visitor to these shores, they are also an uncommon breeder.  An interesting fact about the Black-necked Grebe is that they are almost flightless for around nine months of the year, the longest period of any flying bird. Flying is usually avoided at all costs yet, even so, they still manage mammoth migrations to and from their breeding grounds each year.  The Black-necked Grebe is also the commonest of all 

I hoped that they would come a little closer, but unfortunately they never did.   So I was left with at best a record shot of these beautiful water birds.

From the hide I was drawn back once again to the Dipping Pond, and the Long-eared Owl.  It was still in the same place, but there was the odd movement, again though with the eyes firmly closed, or so it seemed.

Every so often the head would turn, just like last week with the Short-eared Owl, as if checking out movements around it through very partially opened eyes.

The photographs do not provide a sense of scale, and one thing I always find with the Long-eared Owl is that when seen in the wild they look quite small compared to the Short-eared Owl.  When disturbed they will stretch themselves to full height and stare with their fiery bright orange eyes in an attempt to make themselves look bigger but in fact it is actually smaller than a Woodpigeon, and the Tawny Owl.  

Finally there was some movement, it shook itself and then stretched out the wings and tail.

The wings are longer and narrower than those of a Tawny Owl, the wings suiting a hunting technique similar to that of a Short-eared owl, but prefers to hunt after dark unlike the Short-eared.  It feeds mainly on voles and other small rodents, but in Britain it takes more birds than elsewhere in its range, principally House Sparrows that it will take from their communal roosts

What I wanted to see were those gorgeous orange eyes, a sight that has remained with me since those days in Essex.  As it shook itself once again it threw back its head, and finally the eyes opened, only partially mind but enough to catch a glimpse of the orange.

It then settled back down again, and adopted the resting pose, so it was time once again to move on, there was one more target bird I was after, would the luck continue?

I headed off around the trail towards the Christmas Dell hide.  Along the path I could hear Chiffchaffs, and around the reed beds the insipid song of the Reed Bunting.  Over on Denge marsh there were a couple of pairs of Greylag Geese, and a Raven flew over being mobbed by Carrion Crows.

On entering the hide and looking out over the water, I realised that my luck had just run out.  Apart from Coot and Tufted Ducks there was very little else.  What I had hoped for were the long staying pair of Smew, but they were not there to be seen.  I sat around in hope, and watched a Kestrel hovering at the back of the pit and a distant Marsh Harrier just above the roof of the visitor centre.

Finally I decided they were not going to appear so I decided to walk back to the car park.  Along the way I found this Coot on the bank preening, and showing off its lobed feet.

I popped into the Makepeace hide but there was very little about, and so it was back to the Dipping pond, to once again watch the Long-eared Owl.

There was some more movement, and it started to preen the feathers once more.

Still with the eyes closed!

Then a look away across the pond, eyes slightly open and with a small show of orange

It has been great to finally catch up with one of these beautiful owls again.  As I said last week any day where you spend it with an owl is a really good day.

But the day wasn't over, and I decided to head down to the beach, and the The Patch, a part of the beach where the outflow from the power station attracts many different gulls.  As I left the reserve though I stopped at Cook's Pool and Boulderwall Farm.  There was no sign of the Ring-necked Duck at the pool, and at the farm, at first it was quiet, then I found the Tree Sparrows in the bramble that surrounded the bird feeders.

Like the Long-eared Owl it is quite sometime since I have seen Tree Sparrows in the UK, I did see some in Borneo three years ago though.  My last sightings were in Essex and while the decline of this species started in the seventies over the last twenty years it has accelerated, and is estimated to be down by 93 per cent between 1970 and 2008. However, recent Breeding Bird Survey data is encouraging, suggesting that numbers may have started to increase, albeit from a very low point, and in very localised areas.

Smaller than a house sparrow and more active, with its tail almost permanently cocked. It has a chestnut brown head and nape (rather than grey), and white cheeks and collar with a contrasting black cheek spot. They are shyer than house sparrows in the UK and are rarely associated with people, although here they seem quite content amongst the buildings and feeders.

 They constantly moved between the bramble and surrounding hedge.  It was great to catch up with yet another bird from my past.

 i turned out of the reserve and headed south into the Dungeness National Nature Reserve.  I followed the road all the way around to the lighthouse just next to the imposing power station.  As I got out of the car some other birders were returning from the area of gorse close to the Bird Observatory and informed me of two Firecrests that were in the gorse.  I walked over, but could hear any song or calls and decided as time was against me to walk down the beach, and along to the patch.

The sea was really churning, around the outflow, and there were loads of gulls both over it and also sitting on the water.  With the sun, and the sheer number of gulls it was going to be a challenge to find the one I wanted to hopefully see.

I kept moving to try and get the best views without looking into the sun, scanning both the gulls on the water, and those flying around the boiling water.  It was on one of the passes through what were mainly Black-headed Gulls, that I noticed a very pale larger Gull flying towards the outflow.  

I managed a few shots and this confirmed my thoughts, one of the two juvenile Iceland Gulls that were present.

The Iceland Gull breeds in Canada and Greenland, but not in Iceland, where it can be found in winter.  The juvenile plumage can vary from grayish brown to almost whitish.  the wing tips are paler than the wing, while the tertials are slightly patterned dark and lightOverall it is slightly smaller than a Herring Gull.

It settled on the water, and once I turned away from it I lost it.  As I continued to scan the gulls I found several Mediterranean Gulls and at least one Sandwich Tern.  Content that I was not going to get a better view I turned back, and as I walked to the car took the opportunity to photograph the Gulls as they flew overhead.  

An adult Herring Gull.

That menacing eye clearly visible

And the larger Great Black-backed Gull.

Into the sun, silhouetted birds on the wall of the power station raised hopes of maybe a Black Redstart, but once out of the sun they turned into Meadow Pipits.

I headed back to the RSPB reserve, this time though turning into the car park close the the ARC Pits.  I walked the short trail in the sunshine to the hide, but there was little out on the water.  Coming back around the Willow trail I found some butterflies at last.  I had expected to see more in the lovely conditions, but only managed one Red Admiral.

While there were at least four Peacocks along the trail.

Before I left I had one more try with the Tree Sparrows, just to see if I could get some closer shots.  I couldn't find any Tree Sparrows but did see several House Sparrows.  I also heard the call of a Stock Dove, and found the owner in the yard of the farmhouse.

As I made my way back to the car park i could see two Crows chasing what seemed at first to be another, but I soon realised it was larger and not a crow but a Raven.  The Crows gave up the mobbing and the Raven headed over towards me calling as it approached.

It had been a great visit, I could have done with a little bit longer but then I shouldn't complain, four birds I haven't seen for some time, and some great views and plenty of sunshine too.

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