28 Feb 2015

28 Feb 15 - February: The Monochrome Month

Well, February was always going to be a tough month around the Studland/Ballard patch. After the stunning start to the year in January, then there was little in the way of potential new Year Ticks for the patch. Just a small chance that something would turn up as the Winter wore on, unless there was a cold, snowy snap to bring a few Birds in. But that didn't happen. But the arrival of a lone Coot meant the patch Year List didn't stand still. This one new Year Tick brings me up to 124 BOU species for the year, ignoring Crap Pigeon (Columba trafalgarsquarensis).
Coot: I was really pleased to add this now tricky species to the patch Year List (21 Feb 15)
The best species for February was easily the Great Grey Shrike which I saw distantly on the 14 Feb and really well on the 21 Jan at South Haven. A real delight as it allowed me to carefully walk up to about 20 metres to it on the latter occasion.
Great Grey Shrike: I've not got this close to a Great Grey Shrike before. There are more photos here (21 Feb 15)
I've spent a lot of time at weekends in Brands Bay looking through the Waders & Wildfowl as this was my best chances of a second patch trip. But unfortunately, no joy. But it has been filled with Birds on most visits on the low or rising tides. It is great that after a frustrating January with more shooting in the bay than I've ever seen in the last 17 years, to get to February & have no further shooting taking place. Whilst the shooters showed little understanding of basic fieldcraft & didn't seem to hit anything, they were responsible for up to 3000 Birds being disturbed off feeding grounds with most leaving the bay completely. Given this is one of the most important feeding areas in Poole Harbour for both groups, then it is incredibly selfish to the Birds. On a more positive note, there have been good numbers of tricky species in Brands Bay this Winter. In previous years, I've only seen Spoonbills on a couple of days a year feeding in the bay. February continued where January left off with one or two Spoonbills on most visits. This year has seen a new feeding record of six Spoonbills for Brands Bay on 20 Jan 15. While it doesn't match the regular recent Arne roost counts of around the mid thirties, it is really a noteworthy Studland record.
Spoonbill: The month finished off with two 1st Winter Spoonbills feeding in the Bay today
Spoonbill: Number two
It was all a bit surreal walking into the Brands Bay hide. Immediately, on arrival I saw the two Spoonbills feeding in the near channel. Looking further towards the mouth of the channel was the Great White Egret.
Great White Egret
This is the first time I've seen it in Brands Bay this year, although I've seen in on Littlesea or the Eastern Lake on a few occasions. Something I wouldn't have predicted a year ago that I would have been totally unsurprised to find Spoonbills & a Great White Egret in the bay on my arrival. How times have changed. The Great White Egret wasn't happy with the Spoonbills & flew closer to them several times in what appeared to be an attempt to move them on. When this failed, the Great White Egret headed off, presumably towards Littlesea.
Great White Egret: It didn't like the Spoonbills. It is just possible to see the buff edges to the secondary coverts on the right wing confirming this is the first of the GWEs that turned up in the Autumn. The latter didn't stay around for more than a few weeks before moving on
Finally, whilst it was all monochrome on the Bird front this month, at least there was a touch of colour from the Butterflies: with the second species for the year appearing & posing for photos.
Red Admiral: (8 February 15)
Hopefully, there will be more colourful Passerines in March with the arrival of the first Spring migrants.

21 Feb 2015

21 Feb 15 - South Haven Hat Trick

The very Northern tip of the Studland Peninsula is South Haven. Soon after I started Birding the Studland/Ballard patch seriously, I subdivided the patch into a number of sub-patches. This has proved interesting as it has helped to highlight some of the local boundaries for a number of species. It has also spurred me on to Bird the different sub-patches. The boundary of South Haven is the land North of the nudist beach track to the East of the road & North of Jerry's Point to the West of the road. The total land area is about a square km, albeit there is easily another 10 square kms of sea & bay views. Up until this morning, the South Haven patch was only 1 Bird ahead of the Brands Bay, Greenlands Farm & Godlingston sub-patch, by after a stunning 5 minutes this afternoon, it is now 3 Birds ahead on 172 species (ignoring Crap Pigeon). This compares to my Studland/Ballard list of 215 species seen & Nightingale heard.
The view looking South from the Pilots Point high dune: Taken on a misty morning on 22 Jan 15. The Great Grey Shrike was about 400 metres away
I had planned to spent the afternoon out at Brands Bay for the falling tide, but a pager message indicating the Great Grey Shrike had moved to the heath near Shell Bay, gave me a different plan. I couldn't get out till mid afternoon, 2 hours after it had been seen & I wasn't that optimistic. There was no real directions & its a large area of heath to scour. Also there were a number of people walking around on this part of the heath, which is unusual at this time of the year. But I walked out to the high dune by Pilots Point & tried another scan. Bingo: it was sitting on a small bush about 400 metres further South of Pilots Point. After putting the news out, I was about to start walking towards it, when I saw a distant Egret flying towards the Eastern Lake. I figured it was most likely to be the Great White Egret & putting the scope on it, it was. My second South Haven Tick in 5 minutes.
Great Grey Shrike: It also good to get these photos as my photos of this individual on Godlingston Heath in Mid Jan were only record shots
A bit of careful walking up the dunes & some shots on the way in case it flew. But it stayed put & allowed me to approach to 20 metres. Don't think I've been that close to a UK Great Grey Shrike before. Not having the Canon 7D with me probably helped as I doubt it would stayed put with the good camera. Still I was able to get some reasonable photos with the SX60.
Great Grey Shrike: Great to add this to my South Haven list
As to the third species in the South Haven hat trick, that will be revealed tomorrow.
Great Grey Shrike: It relocated with a bit of the sea behind. An unusual background for a Dorset Great Grey Shrike

21 Feb 15 - An Unexpected Reversal Of Views

A few years ago, if anybody would have told me I would be more excited about seeing a Coot on the Studland patch than a Great White Egret, then I would have laughed. But under the rules of patch Year Listing, these strange things which seem to defy the laws of normal Birding can happen. Coot used to be a species it was difficult to not see on a visit to Littlesea. They were mainly Winter visitors, with the numbers building up in the Winter to 50+, with my peak count being 140 individuals in Jan 2009. Come the Spring most would disappear, with just a handful hanging on during the Summer. But I haven't seen any on Littlesea since April 2011. In recent years, the numbers of very large Carp has been very apparent & I suspect they have largely been responsible for the removal of much of the water plants that the Coots used to dive for. As a result, the Gadwall which tended, to follow the Coots around have also gone (although a few still occur in Brands Bay). Not being a Diving Duck, they had to wait for the Coots to bring the weed up to the surface. But the Coot never seemed to be upset about feeding the Gadwalls. Since then I've only bumped into Coots on a couple of occasions in Spring 2013 on the South Haven lake, but I know at least one Coot was around the same area last year.
Coot: This takes me to 124 for the Studland/Ballard Year List
Given their massive decline, I was really pleased to see a Coot feeding unobtrusively on the water near the South Haven boardwalk. After a strong showing in Jan for the Studland/Ballard Year List, I wasn't expected to get any additional species in Feb. But the recent arrival of this Coot has saved the day. It's also a species I only gave myself a 50-50 chance of seeing for the Year List. 5 years ago I would have only expected to miss it on the first Studland visit of the year, if I didn't have time to look at Littlesea.
Coot: I'm sure there are a lot of Birders doing the Patchwork challenge who will get equally excited about seeing a good patch species, which is common away from their patches
In comparison, while I only saw my first Great White Egret on 8 Sep 2014, the Great White Egret dropping into the Eastern Lake (just after seeing the Great Grey Shrike) was my 21st Studland/Ballard sighting (although it was my first sighting for the South Haven sub-patch). How times change. Hopefully there will be a few more bonuses like this Coot to help me get to my target of 180 species for the patch Year List.
Coot: With a 50-50 chance of seeing this for the Year, then I went away happy, especially after the great views of the Great Grey Shrike (see the last Post).

14 Feb 2015

14 Feb 15 - Article: The Studland Great White Egrets

Back in October, I wrote an article for the Poole RSPB group newsletter (which was published a couple of months ago). I have reproduced it on the Blog as this was one of the highlights of 2014 on the Studland/Ballard Down patch.

Since 1987, Little Egrets have been a common sight in Poole Harbour. Prior to that time, they were a rare visitor to Dorset. They are easily identified by their small size, compared to a Grey Heron, black legs with yellow feet and long thin black bill. They are now the commonest of the Heron species in Poole Harbour.
Little Egret: Middlebere (30 Sep 14)
Up to this Autumn, Little Egrets were also easily identified as they were the only white Heron in Poole Harbour. However, on 15 Aug 14, local Birder Graham Armstrong found a Great White Egret at South Haven, Studland. Unfortunately, this disappeared within an hour & despite a fair bit of searching, it wasn't relocated. Then on 7 Sept, I found a Great White Egret in front of the Harrier hide at Middlebere. This stayed around for about 3 hours, a Poole Harbour record as normally they are seen in flight or fly off soon after being found. When it did fly, it was tracked flying to Littlesea, Studland, where it was watched by observers there that afternoon. It was assumed to be Graham's bird. The following day, I managed to see it feeding from the High hide on Littlesea. The High hide can be accessed by roadside parking at the Greenlands Farm & then following the track opposite to the hide which overlooks Littlesea.
Great White Egret: First individual. Littlesea, Studland (9 Sep 14)
Over the following days, it was clear that it had a routine which involved feeding around Littlesea, as well as, occasionally appearing in Brands Bay. But it has also been seen at Middlebere and as far away as Lytchett Bay. Often on the high tide it can be seen from the High hide, as it roosts with the Little Egrets in the NE corner of Littlesea: a telescope is essential as the roost is 1/2 mile away. But it sometimes dropped into Brands Bay to feed & when it is here, the hide is the perfect place to watch it as unlike the Little Egrets, Great White Egrets are shy birds which are easily flushed.
Great White Egret: First individual. Brands Bay (16 Sep 14)
The key features to look for on a Great White Egret: the large size (they are the size of a Grey Heron); the stout yellow-orange bill; the long black legs & importantly black feet; a very long neck which has this distinctive kink giving it a question mark shape. Note, at times it will keep its neck straight & on these occasions it is actually taller than a Grey Heron. When seen next to Little Egrets they are at least 50% larger. But beware trying size comparisons alone on Egrets when one is hunched up & the other has its neck outstretched. In these circumstances, you need to look for the bill colour & shape and the neck shape.

Having just got use to there being a resident Great White Egret in the Studland area, there was an even more exciting news update: two were seen together on Littlesea on 28 Sept. The new bird quickly settled in and has been a frequent visitor to Littlesea, Brands Bay & Brownsea since that date.
Great White Egret: Second individual. Brands Bay (5 Oct 14). Note the black feet (Little Egrets have yellow feet)
So how do we know that there are two birds present around the Studland area. Firstly, by the easy answer we have seen two birds together. But, also because we can tell them apart. The second bird has gleaming white wings. But if seen well in flight, it is just possible to see that the first bird has buff edges to some of the secondary coverts in the wing. This seems to be an unusual plumage marking, but which does occur in some juvenile birds. It will disappear if these coverts are moulted later in the year, when it will be more difficult to separate the two birds.

So the obvious question is will these Great White Egrets stay & breed. At this stage, this is unlikely as both are juveniles and even if they were a male & female, it is likely that they wouldn't breed in their first Summer. More importantly, the pattern for most Great White Egrets is they frequently turning up in the UK during the early Autumn, spending the Winter here and departing back to Europe in the Spring. At the end of Sept 14, there were thought to be about 40 or 50 birds in the UK, so they remain a scarce species. But they have settled down & bred on the Somerset Levels in the last few years and therefore, there is always a chance of breeding in Poole Harbour in a few years time. But for now if you get the chance, get out to the Studland area or Brownsea and enjoy seeing this once very elusive Great White Egret while they are around.

Update, since writing this article, the second Great White Egret has moved on. However, the first individual is still around the Studland area. It mainly frequents Littlesea & the Eastern Lake, but is still a wary individual. There are more photos of the Studland Great White Egret on the Blog:
First individual 9 Sep 14, 14 Sep 14, 16 Sep 14, 11 Jan 15
Second individual 30 Sep 14, 5 Oct 14.

8 Feb 2015

8 Feb 15 - An Admiral Visits The Patch

With the Studland/Ballard patch being a coastal site & right next to the entrance to Poole Harbour, then there are a lot of ships & boats which pass through the patch ranging from commercial ferries & merchant ships, down to Sunseeker luxury boats, fishing boats down to canoes & often irresponsible jet-skis. I guess it's possible that occasionally there has been the occasional off duty Admiral on one of the ferries or Sunseekers.
Condor Ferry: Passing the Studland Chain Ferry. Maybe there has been an Admiral as a passenger on board over the years (6 Oct 14)
But this Post isn't about senior naval officers, but about a Red Admiral. Last month, I managed to photograph a hibernating Peacock Butterfly that had emerged on a mild, sunny January day for a quick fly around & feed at Greenlands Farm, at the Southern end of the patch. A close relative is the Red Admiral, which is another species which over-winters as an adult. Like the Peacock, there is a chance one might fly past on a sunny day, before returning to a sheltered location to hibernate again. Today was a still day and despite being a cold start, there was a bit of warmth in the sun by late morning. This sun encouraged a Red Admiral to fly past & fortunately, stop for a feed. The highlight of an otherwise quiet visit to the patch (assuming you agree a mere 18 Black-necked Grebes as a quiet visit, given I had probably missed about 50% of them in the choppy coastal waters).
Red Admiral: There are few flowers out locally at the moment, but there is a reasonable amount of flowering Gorse
I can see a new challenge coming on to try & photograph at least one species of Butterfly on the Studland/Ballard patch in every month this year. Clearly, the first two months are covered with the Peacock & this Red Admiral. There are usually late Butterflies around in October & November, so that leaves just two potentially tricky months of March & December. Challenge set.

2 Feb 2015

2 Feb 15 - January Summary For The Studland/Ballard Patch Year List

In the last Post, I provided an overview of the Studland/Ballard patch. In the last few years, I have found I haven't been as motivated to get out onto the Studland/Ballard Down patch as often as I was getting out when I was doing a patch Year List. So to incentivise myself, I've decided on another patch Year List. I won't be registering for the Patchwork Challenge15 as it is too large a patch & I don't want to narrow my attention down even further to a smaller sub-patch within the Studland/Ballard patch. I won't be competing against anybody other than my younger self from previous years (2008, 2009 & 2011). I will aim for monthly patch updates on the Blog as to how the Year List is going, but will put occasional extra Posts in when good birds warrant them. It will be possible to follow all updates on the Year List by clicking on the Label Studland15 on the right hand side Label list.
Great White Egret: This was the highlight of the first few hours on 1 Jan. Two Great White Egrets turned up during the Autumn & this one was still around in January. Quite remarkable given there were only a couple of previous records & they stayed minutes before moving on from both Studland & Poole Harbour (11 Jan 15)
My best Studland/Ballard Down patch Year List is 176 in 2009 (following BOU taxonomy). This excludes Crap or Feral Pigeon which I saw, but I ignore all of the Crap or Feral Pigeon individuals I see in the UK as I don't believe there are any wild pure Rock Doves, left in England. My target for 2015 is 180 (again ignoring Crap Pigeon).
Black Guillemot: The second stunning species for the patch Year List & only my second Studland & Poole Harbour Black Guillemot. After being incredible elusive with only 3 brief sightings in about 3 weeks around Studland (including my refound sighting off Old Harry on 19 Dec 14), it was then finally pinned down on the Poole Harbour Pelagic on 1 Jan in the Brownsea Channel. It was often in that area in the first half of Jan & visible from the Studland Houseboats. Photo taken on the Poole Harbour Pelagic (1 Jan 15)
I have had a great start to the Year List. I've been able to get out on the Studland/Ballard patch on all, but three days in January. Overall, I managed to spend about half the daylight hours out Birding. The patch is about 3 miles from top to bottom and about 3 miles from East to West at the bottom, but it tapers to a narrow point at the Northern end at South Haven, which is the Southern side of the Poole Harbour mouth. The land area is about 4.5 square miles, but there can be a lot of exposed mud at low tide, especially in Brands Bay and there are extensive bay & sea views from the Studland peninsula & Ballard Down. This makes the overall area considerably larger, but like the PWC rules, I'm happy to count Birds seen from inside the patch boundaries, even if the Bird is outside the boundary (e.g. on Furzey Island or closer to Brownsea than Studland). Given it is possible to see a long way out to sea from Old Harry & Ballard Down, then it seems inconsistent to have a fairly narrow boundary on the inner boundaries.
Red-necked Grebe: A species I would expect to see sometime in the year on the patch, but they are erratic & I've often had to wait till late Autumn/early Winter to see one. Typically there is only one individual a Winter, so to have had up to three individuals around on the between South Haven & South Beach for most of Jan is excellent (Jan 15)
Despite its relatively small size, the variation in habitats within the patch is impressive. There are tidal mudlflats, sandy beaches, a freshwater lake known as Littlesea, with a couple of smaller lakes. These are surrounded by heathland, dunes, deciduous & coniferous woodland and wet marshy areas. Greenlands Farm is mainly grassy fields, which through grazing has been changed to grassland from the surrounding Godlingston Heath (heathland). Ballard Down is a mixture of chalk grassland, farmland and chalk sea cliffs. There is also the small urban development of Studland village, albeit it is a very leafy village. Overall, it has micro versions of nearly all of the habitats found in Poole Harbour, with the exception of open wet fields for Waders & dense urban sprawl (not surprisingly I don't miss that, although it would make Waxwing a potentially easier species). As a result, it is easily the best local patch within Poole Harbour.
Spoonbill: Another erratic species with usually about one wayward individual in Brands Bay for a few days in a year. Some years, I've only got them on the Studland patch Year List, by seeing Spoonbills flying in or out of Brownsea. But this year, Spoonbills have been regular feeding visitors to Brands Bay with a peak of six individuals on 20 Jan 15 representing a new Studland record count. Brands Bay (22 Jan 15)
Another reason to try for a patch Year List was the presence of some good species on the patch in late December: the wintering Great White Egret, an erratic & rarely seen Black Guillemot & the Green-winged Teal found on New Years Eve. Unfortunately, despite spending an hour or two on a near daily basis scanning & rescanning the Teal flock in Brands Bay, I was unable to refind the Green-winged Teal. Previous individuals have been elusive in Poole Harbour, but a couple of previous Poole Harbour individuals have been relocated in different locations (to their original location) in Poole Harbour, so perhaps it is still lurking somewhere else locally.
Great Grey Shrike: Easily the Bird of Jan on the patch. Only the second record in the last 25 years (the other being in Mar 11). Godlingston Heath (24 Mar 11)
As I was running out of new species to add to the Year List, one that I was struggling to find was Grey Wagtail. Whilst being an erratic Winter visitor, I have usually seen one in Jan. But I hadn't been able to track any down at their usual haunts, so I thought I had missed it. Finally, I found a lone individual feeding quietly on a frozen, flooded pool on the Littlesea Nature Trail.
Grey Wagtail: It would be hard to miss this in a Year List, but I was glad to get it in Jan. Littlesea (23 Jan 15)
I finished on 123 species in Jan (BOU of course), not counting some distantly scoped Crap Pigeons flying over Poole. I had expected that it should have been possible to get to 120 species & had set myself an ambitious Jan target of 125. So to get 123 was an excellent Jan total given how small the area is. I am already over 2/3rds of the way to my end of the year total of 180 species. It will now get difficult to add more than one or two species before the Spring migrants arrive.
Peacock: I've also started the Butterfly patch list, although I won't be keeping a patch Year List. At some point, I will probably see the completely untickable & feathered Indian Peacock as they occasionally appear on the Brownsea shoreline. Greenlands Farm (Jan 15)
I managed to miss Kittiwake & Redpoll. Additionally, there was also a pager report of a Velvet Scoter at the South Haven (from an unknown observer on one occasion, but the news was slow getting out & it had moved on by the time I looked soon after hearing). There were a handful of other potential species that could have occurred including Eider, Spotted Redshank (only about one or two records a year), Golden Plover (generally only a cold weather species in the Winter, but also an erratic Autumn visitor), Siskin & Crossbill. Potentially, the Green-winged Teal could have put in another appearance, so the 125 total could have been feasible.