Wednesday, 22 January 2020

18th January - Keyhaven to Lymington, Hampshire

After rain and very high winds at the start of the week, it was finally nice to see the sunshine on Friday.  The clear skies and lack of any wind though led to the first real frost of the year.  Leaving home just before 6:30 there was ice on the cars and a little mist but the temperature was just above freezing.  As I drove west to meet Ian at the Lower Pennington Lane car park the temperature fell below freezing and there was quite a bit of hoar frost about on the fields.  I arrived around 7:30, there was still about thirty minutes to go before sun rise and with the clear skies and orange glow to the east it promised to be a special one, the main reason for getting there early.

Getting out of the car I was immediately aware of a Song Thrush singing its heart out in the bushes on the other side of the lane, it was difficult to see him in the gloom but by the time I was ready to set off I could just make him out in the hawthorn bush.

We walked across the old Tipon the Fishtail side, the amount of water on Fishtail Lagoon was amazing and the footpath was very sodden underfoot.  Approaching Butts the lagoon was bathed in the glowing light of dawn.

The footpath drops down alongside the ditch leading to the sea wall.  Here you get a lower perspective of the reed bed and with the orange tinged sky in the background it looked special.

Looking north with the rising sun behind us you get an idea of how flooded Fishtail Lagoon was.

The birds were moving, there were plenty of Wigeon, Teal and Pintail on the lagoon, and the duck were moving from the saltmarsh to the lagoons as the tide fell.  Our attention though was directed skywards as the sun began it journey above the distant downs of the Isle of Wight.  Here Butts Bay calm and serene.

Looking across the saltmarsh in a similar direction.

Above jets produced vapour trails in the cold air as they headed in southerly and westerly directions, the vapour tinged with pink from the sun hidden behind the hills to the south.

The moon was a perfect quarter and always fascinating to observe the crater marked surface.

Sunrise was at 8:00 am, but the arrival of the sun for us was delayed by the Isle of Wight.  The sky was now a heavy orange.

Then the first sign of the sun breaking over the hills.

Then very quickly it made its way above the hills, emphasising the speed at which the earth turns and of course nothing to do with the sun moving.

The saltmarsh at Keyhaven was bathed in morning sunshine.  Out in the middle a Peregrine sat on its post, distant but vigilant.

Just time for some creativity with the rising sun, a "fisheye" take on Keyhaven Marsh.

With the sun now up it was time to turn our attention to the birds.  We had walked to Keyhaven in search of the Semipalmated Sandpiper that had been reported since the start of the year, assumed to be the same bird we had found back in November of last year.  The water levels were very high and scanning throughout there was no sign whatsoever of any small waders.  There were though plenty of duck again, Teal close in as we approached.

While Wigeon were a little further away bathed in the golden light.

Pintail too were present in good numbers.

The whining and splashing sound of a Mute Swan taking off directed us to the bird, it made its way past us the early morning sunshine catch the wings as the huge bird beat hard to get lift.

It circled the lagoon as if trying to get height and came back around, this time passing through the orange sky away to the south east.

It was at this point Ian remarked that he felt we might be taking a lot of photographs today, I had to agree with him.

With no waders other than Lapwing present we decided to head back and start the walk to Normandy Marsh just outside Lymington.  The large bush on the corner to Fishtail held at least half a dozen Reed Bunting, all taking in the warmth of the sunshine.

At the sluice in Butts Bay a Little Egret and Greenshank were feeding, taking advantage of what ever the fast flowing water would deliver.  The Little Egret with its usual prowl and pounce approach.

While the Greenshank was probing deep looking to pick up anything at the bottom of the water.

An elegant wader, it was unusual to see it feeding in such away, almost similar to the behaviour adopted by the Spotted Redshanks.

While the Greenshank stayed in the quicker running water the Little Egret moved into the calmer still waters and threw, once again, some lovely reflections.

As the Little Egret moved away the Greenshank became more prepared to venture into the deeper calmer water.

We walked to the corner of the sea wall over looking Butts Bay.  A largish wader flew in with no visible wing stripes, once landed it was confirmed as a Bar-tailed Godwit.  It then proceeded to feed on the far side of the bay amongst the Dunlin and Grey Plover.

The reason we did stop here was to scan the bay for Shags, two had been reported offshore and we were able to find them hauled out on one of the spits.

A little further on we appeared to get our Cormorants mixed up with our shags.  This juvenile Cormorant did a very good job of confusing at first but the white gape and heavier set bill point to Cormorant.

Here it shows the flexibility and dexterity of the neck.

The mirror like qualities of the water were just perfect, and the low sunshine highlighted the features of the drake Teal's plumage.

Wigeon too, while always being a stunning duck up close, were transformed by this light.

Moving on Ian picked up four Slavonian Grebe off the shingle spit just beyond the jetty metal wreckage.  With the tide very low we decided to walk out onto the shingle to see if we could get closer.  The light now was not in our favour turning everything almost into a silhouette.  Here all four Slavonian Grebes together.

Walking out onto the spit disturbed the roosting cormorants.

But we were able to get closer to the grebes.

The last ones I saw were in Iceland in their stunning breeding plumage that gives them their American name of Horned Grebe.  The name Slavonian comes from a region in eastern Croatia where they are fond.

Three of the grebes were happier to stay close together while the other drifted away.  All four though slowly started to move away with the current.

We moved on to Oxey Marsh, and at the back of the lagoon Ian picked up a small wader at roost, and completely on its own.  We gave it a careful viewing and were both comfortable that we had found the Semipalmated Sandpiper.  All the features we had struggled with back in November were present.  At that time the sandpiper was with a Dunlin and we thought the larger bird was maybe Curlew Sandpiper and the smaller Dunlin.  The primaries appeared brownish grey with pale fringes and the scapulars showed dark centres just inthe November bird.  The problem today was the distance we were viewing from.  In November it was much closer making it possible to consult photographs, today they were not 100% clear.

There is a dark patch around the ear coverts and the supercillium extends beyond the eye.  The bill looks similar in size to the November bird and there is a dark V on the back, something that was clearly visible when we re-found the bird later in the afternoon.

We were happy with this as the Semipalmated Sandpiper, but later as we walked back we met someone who claimed it was just a Dunlin.  Subsequently both Ian and I have scrutinised the poor photographs we have and also those of Dunlin.  Here is one Dunlin I photographed in Oxey Creek, I do not see any resemblance, the head looks bigger and the bill much longer and decurved in proportion to the body

Both of us are still convinced this is a Semipalmated Sandpiper and until somebody can categorically tell me why this is not a Semipalmated then this is what it is.

Further discussion on the topic has revealed that those in high places have determined from the photographs that this is in fact a Dunlin, the main reason being the lack of a cute stint like structure.  There is also a lot of scepticism and doubt about any of the New Year records.  We shall wait and see what transpires

Moving on I was fascinated by the reflection of Brent Geese as they flew over the lagoon.  This photograph is the right way up, its a reflection in the deep blue lagoon waters.

In the bay around Oxey Creek there were 14 Avocet and a male Goldeneye and like all Goldeneye it stayed at a difficult distance.

In the corner of Oxey Marsh near to Moses Dock three Spotted Redshank were standing in the water.  They were completely unconcerned with the dog walkers and cyclist, but as another photographer tried to get closer they flew of just after this picture was taken.

The tide was well out and all the water was a stream in the middle.  An Avocet fed in the stream leading around to Oxey Creek and I was able to walk down to the exposed beach to get closer.

It worked the water at belly deep backwards and forwards, swishing the curved bill back and forth.

A single Brent Goose stood reflecting in the water on the other side

On the other side of the creek there was a Greenshank feeding on the mud, but as I moved closer Ian called a Kingfisher that was sitting on the wall.  As I picked it up it dived, but fortunately returned to the same spot and with a fish.  I managed this shot before it flew off across the marsh behind us.

With the Kingfisher gone I returned to try and find the Greenshank that had moved with all the fuss.  Fortunately it hadn't gone far and was standing on the mud.

As I said earlier an elegant wader made all the better by the dark background of the mud and its long shadow.

Eight Acre Lake had Little Grebes as usual, we counted at least twelve, but there maybe more.  As well as a good number of Little Grebes there were also Tufted Ducks, here mostly drakes they appeared to be concerned about something on the shore.

Heading for Normandy Marsh we came across a single immature Spoonbill feeding close to the sea wall with a Little Egret.  This is as close as I have been to the Spoonbills here on the reserve.

Just recently the number of Spoonbill has increased in the area, they may very well have been about locally spending time at Needs Ore or along the Beaulieu River.  This is an immature bird, identified and aged by the extensive yellow or flesh colouring on the bill, this is one of last years birds going now into its second calendar year.

The light was awful, looking directly into the sun.

Slowly it moved away but continued to show very well, pausing to preen showing off the flesh coloured bill.

Like all the white plumaged herons that are gradually invading the United Kingdom they are now becoming  commoner here in the south.

With the bird so close it was a case of taking the chance to get as many shots as possible.  As mentioned the light was not wonderful, but in a way added to the scene.

The thin layer of water on the mud provided the perfect mirror.

Eventually it became bored with entertaining and flew off across the mud showing the black wing tips on the primaries that further confirmed the aging.

Walking around to view Normandy Marsh there was the usual fare, plenty of Teal, their calls providing the soundtrack to the area, Wigeon, Pintail and Shoveler.  Of the waders there were Avocet and Dunlin, the latter moving back and forth from the exposed mud in Oxey Creek.  We walked to the corner where we could see another Spoonbill in the Saltmarsh and Red-breasted Mergansers in the bay.  As we stood an adult Mediterranean Gull flew in and settled on the water where it proceeded to upend to feed, maybe the water is not that deep here.

Normandy is the end of our walk and it was time to turn back. As we came through the dock we noticed somebody looking down in the tidal sea weed, getting closer we could see Turnstone feeding by pushing the sea weed about and then a single Purple Sandpiper in amongst them.

I am sure if we hadn't have seen the Purple Sandpipers at Southsea last week we would not have found this one today.  It did though present a different habitat to view them in and the chance to see the different techniques employed by the two waders in search for their food.

The Turnstone forcibly push the sea weed out of the way to expose what is underneath, while the Purple Sandpiper is just jabbing it beak into the weed and surrounding sand like a sewing machine.  This means the sandpiper seems to disappear amongst the weed, sometimes as a result of the Turnstone pushing the weed on top of it.

I tried to get a little closer but the Turnstone called and they all flew, fortunately not to far, the Purple Sandpiper settling on the beach.

We decided to leave them and continued the walk around the sea wall.  The tide was now rising and surprisingly quickly.  At Oxey Marsh there was another Spoonbill, but different from the one we had seen earlier.  The amount of pink or lighter area on the bill is much less, and there is a throat patch and start of a crest which probably ages this bird as going into the third calendar year, not quite yet adult.

We watched as it fed in the lagoon, sweeping the head from side to side and then throwing up the catch to swallow.

Moving on, as mentioned earlier we found the loan wader once again, but no more needs to be said there.  On the other side of the sea wall one of the Slavonian Grebes was much closer in, so we slipped carefully down the sea wall to get even closer and to get more level with the bird.

It was diving frequently and fortunately was coming closer with each dive.

In autumn, Slavonian grebes head south from their northern breeding areas to spend the winter off our southern coasts. Its winter plumage could hardly be more different from its breeding plumage of a mahogany and dark grey plumage, set off by crimson eyes with golden tufts of feathers sprouting behind.  

In winter it has a mainly black-and-white appearance, at first glance wintering Slavonian grebes may resemble an auk such as a guillemot or razorbill. But a closer look reveals the characteristic red eyes, white cheeks and dark cap.

Aside from its American name, the Horned Grebe, the species also has several intriguing folk-names, possibly because of its bright red eyes: these include "devil-diver", "hell-diver" and "water-witch".

Back on Oxey Marsh the Cormorant was still drying out its wings in the sunshine.

A drake Red-breasted Merganser seemed to be using the fresher water for a wash and brush up.

As we watched the merganser the cormorant went from resting and drying to active fishing mode, coming close to the sea wall.

it was continual diving and despite the dark murky water with every dive it seemed to come up with something to eat which was swallowed quickly.

This was full on diving, the cormorant being above the surface for a few seconds before diving again.  The water is shallow and you could see the movement of the Cormorant by bubbles and its water footprint.

The Cormorant is known as the black Killer by fishermen, and in the past was hunted to nearly extinction due to it being seen as a competitor for catching fish.  Studies have shown that the average weight of fish taken by great cormorants increased with decreasing air and water temperature, being 30 g during summer, 109 g during a warm winter and 157 g during the cold winter (these figures being for non-breeding birds). 

Cormorants consume all fish of appropriate size that they are able to catch in summer and noticeably select for larger, mostly torpedo-shaped fish in winter.  It may be just opportunity in this case, or as a result of the recent warmer weather that his bird was picking off small fry.

From Oxey we walked on to Jetty, time was getting on and my stomach thought my throat had been cut!  The footpath from the jetty was flooded as well and we had to negotiate the bank by the side of the path, once on dry ground we were stopped by a flock of Long-tailed Tits that were fly catching from the bramble bushes.  We watched as they would launch themselves upwards after the midges that were coming out in the sunshine.  Long-tailed Tits never fail to surprise me, their inquisitive nature means they will explore anything in a search for food.  This is the first time I have seen them flycatching but I suppose I shouldn't be surprised they are natural acrobats.

There was a small flock (by recent standards) of 112 Golden Plover on the flooded Pennington Marsh, and in amongst the many Lapwing were three Ruff, one of which was the very white plumaged male.  As we ate our lunch a Marsh Harrier cruised over the marsh and then turned back and headed over towards Oxey.

After lunch we set off down the Ancient Highway, we whispered it quietly but we were hoping yet again to come across the Short-eared Owl that has been seen in the Keyhaven area on and off over the last few weeks.  On Efford Lake there was a group of Tufted Duck, while on the other side at the back of Fishtail we came across a group of Roe Deer.

The buck was sporting an impressive set of antlers which at this time of year are covered in velvet as they grow.

The velvet is a hairy skin that covers the developing antlers before they calcify.  Velvet antler is big business and is farmed and sold as traditional Chinese medicine and dietary supplements.  New Zealand is one of the biggest producers.  As is always the case with these traditional methods there are outlandish claims as to the properties and benefits of the velvet.

Antlers are extensions of a deer's skull and are true bone and are a single structure.  In contrast, horns, found on animals such as sheep, goats, bison and cattle, are two-part structures. An interior of bone (also an extension of the skull) is covered by an exterior sheath made of keratin, the same material as human fingernails and toenails, grown by specialized hair follicles. Horns are never shed and continue to grow throughout the animal's life whereas a deer will shed its antlers each year.

As I think we secretly expected there was no sign of the Short-eared Owl, a quick visit to the observatory only went as far as confirming how high the water levels were and having the opportunity to watch a Brown Rat shin up the feeder pole and show its acrobatic qualities to access the seed!

Walking around Keyhaven harbour there was no sign of any Black-tailed Godwits, I can't recall the last time I saw Bar-tailed Godwit ahead of the commoner cousin.

The sun was now sinking fast and the sky was riddled with cloud that was sending wonderful reflections across the lagoon.

Out on one of the banks off shore a Common Seal was hauled out, probably waiting for high tide to set off.

Two Spoonbill flew from the marsh and settled at the back of Keyhaven Lagoon, while out on the marsh there at least five birds, possibly six as Ian and I thought we counted six but couldn't relocate the sixth bird.

As the sun slowly sank in the sky the landscape around us took on an ever changing mood.  Here looking out towards the Needles on the Isle of Wight.

There were plenty of duck both on the lagoon and on the lagoons created around the saltmarsh.  Wigeon and Pintail mostly there were also Shelduck, Gadwall, Teal and Mallard.  There would be Wigeon and Pintail flying in and flying out.

A Peregrine had been present first thing this morning on a post on the saltmarsh, now one of the usual pair was sitting on the block on the edge of the saltmarsh.

Another birder pointed out a small flock of six Common Scoter offshore

The sky continued to turn a shade of orange.

And sent some interesting reflections into the water that had flooded the path below the sea wall, water droplets catching the light from the setting sun.

As we passed Fishtail a pair of Wigeon were swimming towards us, usually they will move away and keep the distance, but this pair kept coming...and coming until the drake was close enough to show off its detailed vermiculated plumage, and the water still enough to provide a superb reflection.  Its at times like this that you really appreciate winter light, despite the cold it is really warming.

Making our way past the flooded path from the sea wall I turned to take one more look back into the setting sun.  Wigeon were silhouetted against the orange water, their whistles rolling over the water, the perfect end to a perfect day.

Invariably you look back and consider the day, if the measure of the a good day is the number of photographs taken the today was a stand out day, its not always the way, but if the objective is good birds and great photographs to start with then today ticked oth those boxes.