Somehow it felt like the last two days’ birding were a bit disappointing. This was supposed to be a last late autumn / early winter birding blow-out, a two-day, 100 species extravaganza that would see life birds raining down onto all of our lists, Richard passing the magic 200 and Helen finally seeing a Dartford warbler. We all three looked forward to seeing several spoonbills sashaying on the sand and mud banks of Poole harbour. Alas, we failed on all those counts.
We only saw 94 species, all told. At Stanpit Marsh in Christchurch Harbour, Dorset, we stopped off for a fantastic glossy ibis, probably the most purple-bronze bird I’ve ever seen – and spectacularly dipped on a shore lark which flew off straight and true toward the horizon minutes before we arrived on site. Further into Dorset, at Arne, we only walked two of the magnificent visitor trails, observing merely tens of grebes and mergansers in rafts on the harbour. Right in the middle of the harbour, we picked out a distinctive dark duck, with yellow on the beak, white round the eye and a white flash in the wing, diving occasionally with a small flick, rather than an athletic jump. A velvet scoter, displaying all the characteristics we needed for a confident identification, but no common scoters in sight.
Between shifts squinting at distant blobs on the open water, all we saw were flocks of avocets 20 to 50 strong: long, fast blue-grey winged waders, their black-tipped wings looking at once pointy and oddly club-shaped as they flocked tightly over the waves.
All we saw in the woods were goldcrests: everywhere you looked and openly feeding amongst the small birch trees, golden stripes blazing away. Oh, and the most confiding wild deer you could ever hope to meet. How disappointing.
Waiting for the avocets to perform at roosting time, we were again disappointed to be viewing an empty expanse of mud just at the promised hour. All we saw at 3:30pm was a ghost-grey male hen harrier quartering the edge of the channel and away upstream. And, a little later, a sturdier female marsh harrier powering up the same channel – another bird whose golden crown was on fire in the winter sun. Meanwhile wild cries came up from the wood and heath, echoing from the heather-clad Purbeck hills: sika stags making one of the most unusual sounds you’ll ever hear from a mammal:
Having waited an hour for the avocets with, as I’ve pointed out, hardly anything to see or hear whilst we did so, we only saw 700 fly in and roost, mere ‘yards in front of us’ (as reserve posters promised). This in a harbour where budding birders once travelled in the hope of seeing perhaps half a dozen:
The next day, at favourite haunts on the Hampshire coast, there was not much around. Just a dozen snipe buzzing overhead and nestling down in tussocks. Just skein after skein of Brent geese struggling into the wind, tens or hundreds at a time. Just handfuls of pipits crossing the sea wall, back and forth. One bigger and pale underneath, with a higher intermittent call: a water pipit, bobbing on the shoreline dressed in grey and white for the winter. There weren’t that many ducks, just teal coming up from the marsh in constant streams, wigeon (otherwise known to those in the know as custard ducks) a chocolate brown headed male pintail on the lagoon and his slender lady friend flying overhead.
Not many waders either, just two unique ruffs, one orange of leg, the other yellow and paler in the feather, scooting about among gorgeous sleeping lapwing. An elegant spotted redshank alighted all leggy and silver, glamorous next to its un-spotted kin. And all of the above spooked when a merlin grazed the flooded fields and marsh, perhaps seeing in its silhouette the shape of a peregrine, its larger and more feared cousin. Exhilarating blasts of wind passed overhead at the Hurst shingle beach as dunlin and turnstones fought the gusts, making little progress into the wind. A graceful greenshank sat warily below amongst the turnstones’ comic feeding troupe.
At Blashford, a reserve liberally festooned with hides, there was also very little activity. Apart from more ducks diving everywhere, like a pochard we added to our list on the enormous Ibsley Water. And then all those ducks with geese, gulls and lapwings swarming up as a genuine enormous peregrine cruised past, no mini imitation this time, wings sideways on and head turning, illuminated perfectly in the winter sun. ‘Wow,’ we all muttered. Wow. What absolutely magic views.
So aside from a glossy ibis, 700 avocets, multiple other wader species, a velvet scoter, rafts of mergansers, goldeneyes, ducks of all other shapes and sizes, elegant egrets, wonderful wild winter geese, pipits and larks aplenty, cheeky robins, marauding falcons, hovering harriers and at least one first of a lifetime bird each, it was a fairly disappointing two days’ birding. Hang on a moment…