An overview of the season with a selection of some of the highlights from 2009
March began with the continued presence of a long staying Iceland Gull, which remained throughout the month, lingering until April 7th. One of two birds seen during the first winter period, which also produced an immaculate adult Glaucous Gull. A seldom seen plumage, and not something that I have ever seen myself. Having done nearly all my seawatching in the dunes at Holme, North Norfolk (cold winds, blowing sand and lack of suitable shelter) it makes a welcome change to sit down in a T shirt, watching lines of Brent Geese, mixed flocks of dabbling ducks, and tight clusters of Terns all moving past you on migration. Where else could you sit on a beach and watch 15 Garganey passing offshore, mixed in with flocks of Teal or Common Scoter?
Three different Caspian Gulls all seen on the RSPB reserve on the islands from Makepeace hide.
April 17th Was a morning of grey skies and light rain, the perfect combination for grounding overhead migrants. Having spent all morning in the field, routinely checking all suitable cover on the point I was more than a little gripped to be told (whilst cooking my well deserved breakfast) that there was a male Red breasted Flycatcher in the gorse near the Old Lighthouse... An area I had walked through not five minutes before, for the 2nd time that morning! Other migrants included 85 Song Thrush, 21 Willow Warbler, four Ring Ouzel, single Firecrest, a male Pied Flycatcher in the lighthouse garden (my first male to be seen away from breeding grounds) and a Hawfinch overhead. The Flycatcher remained hidden from view for the rest of the day.
After spending the next morning watching a highly mobile Hoopoe, we made the treck to Hampshire for a look at the long staying White throated Sparrow. A slightly bizarre experience, considering the large numbers I would encounter over the coming days!I returned from Canada on the 17th May, having already learnt about the presence of the Crested Lark, during the daily evening radio updates "Oh David, theres a Crested Lark at Dungeness" Unfortunately he was being serious...
May 20th proved to be a memorable day, although largely for the wrong reasons. Concealed within the Heligoland trap, cutting back the net ride and hidden from view, I was completely unaware of the onging events being watched from the bench at the top of the moat, just a stones throw away from where I was working. After hanging up the phone, and realising that I had a missed call from David Walker (who was with Barry Chambers, watching from the top of the moat) I retreated back to the bench, only to find that I had missed a Black Kite, which had flown almost over my head. Thankfully the bird was still on view, albeit at a greater range, circling over the northern end of the Long Pits with a Marsh harrier and a Buzzard. After a couple more spirals it started to drop, losing height and eventually drifting out of sight, into the haze and over the firing ranges.
June 4th A decision to head to the reserve and look through the previous nights Moth catch, proved to be the start of a remarkable day, that would finally bring to an end one of the longest running Observatory Sweepstakes. After walking through the trapping area and meeting up with John Knowler at the top of the Long Pits (a devoted Moth trapper, staying for his annual visit to Dungeness) we arrived at the reserve, ahead of visitor centre opening hours, with enough spare time on our hands for a walk around the main trail. After sitting for a few minutes in Denge Marsh hide, I picked up a single bird, as it swiftly broke the skyline and quickly disappeared from view... was that what I think it was? A second appearance confirmed by initial suspicions, and I was soon on the radio to let the reserve know that they had a Pratincole sp feeding over the reeds at Hookers Pits! After a few frantic phone calls and a mad dash to the viewing ramp, I arrived, quickly followed by reserve staff and locals, to find the bird showing at much closer range, where the rufous coloured underwing and short, shallow forked tail could clearly be seen. Knowing of the recent Oriental Pratincole at Pagham Harbour, it seemed more than likely that this was going to be the same bird. After changing position and obtaining further views from several different angles, the identification was finally settled. We were looking at Dunges first (and Kents 2nd) Oriental Pratincole.
The bird remained on site for the rest of the day, finally giving itself up on the deck when it touched down on the islands in the corner of Denge Marsh late afternoon. Unlike the previous British records, which have nearly all involved long staying birds, this decided to opt for an overnight departure, much to the disappointment of those that traveled down the next day. Fortunately birders were offered a second chance in the summer of 2010, when an Oriental Pratincole decided to linger at Frampton Marsh in Lincolnshire. Given its rarity status (the 2009 bird becoming the 6th British record) and the past habits of returning Collared Pratincoles, it would seem logical to assume this was the same bird returning.
Merlin sat on the beach below the seawatch hide with prey
Roseate Terns were a regular feature of the short summer months, with a peak of 5 birds occurring together at the patch on July 19th. No sooner had the spring ended, that the first signs of Autumn migration had already begun, with the first Sand Martins (a flock of 50 birds) moving south and out to sea on July 10th. In contrast to movements of the past, when most birds passed through in August, the last few years seems to have shown a change in the timing of migration, with July becoming the busiest month for Sand Martin passage. Whatever the reasons behind it, there is no doubt that 2,600 Sand Martins, (as there were on July 13th) feeding in swarms over the shingle, and resting together on the beach, always make for an impressive spectacle. Willow warblers also showed up in good numbers, with a steady passage of birds occuring from the end of July and throughout August.
Single Honey Buzzards were seen on August 6th and 8th with a third bird passing through on September 4th, whilst a Nightjar appeared in the Trapping area on September 15th, gliding silently through one of the net rides, before being flushed from the ground. 24 Baleric and 13 Sooty Shearwaters (September 2nd) were part of a good birthday seawatch. Scarcities were few and far between, with a Red-breasted Flycatcher (Sept 15th) being about the only notable passerine of the Autumn. Having spent several long hours, creating an open clearing in the corner of the Trapping Area, this was a most welcoming and deserving find! Despite thinking to myself "this looks perfect for Flycatchers" that remained the only individual of any species, that I saw during my three seasons at the Observatrory! A second bird was trapped and ringed on Oct 13th (a day which also included 3 fly over Cranes, 2 Woodlark, and a couple of Lapland Buntings) Elsewhere on Dungeness, a Spotted Crake commenced a 5 day stay on the RSPB reserve (Sept 6th) playing a game of hide and seek amongst the reeds in front of the ARC hide. With the water levels so low, and the reed edges fringed by dry mud, seeing the bird often far from straightforward!
An interesting run of birds from the greater Dungeness recording area, began on September 21st when an all too brief Buff breasted Sandpiper was found on Scotney Pit. This was quickly followed by a group of 5 Glossy ibis, which eventually settled onto the reserve, often favouring the pools along the entrance track close to Boulderwall farm. The most interesting bird however, appeared on September 22nd, when a raptor seen over the RSPB reserve managed to leave observers with a severe identification headache!
Cycling down the entrance track, I had not gone far past Boulderwall farm when I was alerted to a large raptor disturbing the resting gulls from the open shingle, flying low towards me. Expecting it to be the usual Buzzard or Harrier I was somewhat taken aback, when I found myself faced with something completely unfamiliar. Although the shape of the tail and the proportions of the wing seemed out of character, the white flashes to the base of the primaries, combined with the body's rufous tones and the delicate bill and small head, led me to the conclusion that the bird could only be a Black Kite. Opinions were, however, soon divided, with numerous observers discussing the strong possibility of the bird in fact being a Booted Eagle. With Black Kite seemingly ruled out of the equation, there was just one option left. As unlikely as it may have seemed, the bird had to be a Booted Eagle. Numerous queries were raised, concerning the lack of visible "landing lights" and pale window to the primaries, though it wasn't until the bird was seen on the deck, sat in the ploughed fields opposite Cockles Bridge, that serious questions started to be asked. Is it possible for a Booted Eagle to show bare yellow legs?? Not really... OK, so it may have not been the mega we were hoping for (im not going to complain about a self found Black Kite!), but this bird was certainly an eye opening and educational experience for all those present. As probability dictates, the most likely answer is nearly always the correct one...
Further Autumn highlights included a long staying Great White Egret and Red backed Shrike, (both on the RSPB reserve) a high count of 25 Firecrest on October 9th, and a Cattle Egret, found on the outskirts of Lydd, which remained in the Dungeness area throughout October. An elusive Dusky Warbler, was found on the reserve (Oct 23rd) in the vegetaion beside the path to the water tower, but remained very difficult to see over the course of its three day stay. A day out accross the channel to Cap gri Nez failed to deliver anything on the sea, but was more than made up for by a spectacular overhead passage of migrants. Two vast flocks of Starlings moving west over the sea, were almost impossible to estimate (one being in excess of 100,000 birds) whilst further numbers were provided by roughly 700 Skylark, 24 Woodlark, and at least 15,000 Chaffinch. Bramblings, Redpolls and Siskins were all moving past in good numbers, whilst the clifftop stubble fields were alive with Reed Buntings, Skylarks and finches. A single Bullfinch, moving west along the cliffs with a small group of finches was my first example of the species, as a visible migrant.