Sunday, 11 March 2018

Two go to Hampshire 9th March 2018

Friday duly arrived, a gloomy overcast kind of a day, the fag end of the snow still lying in drifts by the roads in this comparatively elevated part of Oxfordshire and the mild air combining to create a mist sufficiently opaque to require fog lights as I left home.

Friday has now become something of a tradition for me and Moth as we attempt to find something of interest in the birding line to keep us occupied and for today I decided a visit to Hayling Island on the coast of Hampshire appealed, as at this time of year hundreds of Mediterranean Gulls (Med Gulls) congregate at Hayling Oyster Beds, prior to breeding. As a spectacle it is quite something as they are all in, or almost in, their beautiful summer plumage and combined with the Black headed Gulls, that are also present in similar numbers, the constant movement of flying gulls and the unceasing noise of their calls is a sight and sound well worth experiencing. Unfortunately the overcast conditions would not allow any chance of a good photograph but there is little one can do about the British weather other than just get on with it.

The world population of Mediterranean Gulls is estimated at between 120,000-300,000 individuals with 99% being found in the former USSR. Their core breeding area is the northern part of the Black Sea where 245,000 pairs nest, mainly in Ukraine whilst the main wintering area is the southern Mediterranean where up to 700,000 individuals spend the winter.

From the late 1950's the species commenced expanding westwards from the Black Sea but was still rare in Britain and up to 1962 they were considered a reportable rarity by the British Birds Rarities Committee ( BBRC) but since then were no longer considered, as records became more frequent. They first bred in Britain  at Needs Oare Point, co-incidentally also in Hampshire, in 1968 but remained uncommon in Britain until the late 1980's, when the population in England increased rapidly so that by 2014 there were about 800 breeding pairs at 41 sites and up to 1800 individuals wintering in Britain. In both summer and winter they are found predominantly on the east and south east coasts of England although birds have also been recorded in Scotland relatively recently. Foreign ringed birds have been recorded in Britain from The Netherlands, Germany, Poland, Hungary and the former Yugoslavia.

As we had agreed, I collected Moth at seven in the morning and we set off for the South Coast. However I had devised a late developing plan that we could divert on the way down to have an encounter with the Hawfinches at Romsey. I got my best ever views of them there recently and felt certain Moth would enjoy the experience. Hawfinches have become something of a cause celebre for me this year and despite concerns being expressed by birding colleagues about my obsession, like any addict in denial I was unrepentant.

The location of the Hawfinches  was just off the very Motorway we would be taking to Hayling Island so it could not have been more convenient. 'We will just give it an hour at Romsey Moth. You should get really good views' I said rather too confidently.

Ninety minutes later we were at the small area of trees and parkland sandwiched between a railway and a housing estate that was Hawfinch heaven in Romsey. Walking to the particular area of cherry tree woodland that had been so productive for me before, we saw one immediately. A bulky bullet shaped finch flew past us at speed to another row of trees on the other side of the path that crossed the parkland and linked the housing on either side. Two more Hawfinches flew up from the ground as we arrived at the precise spot from which to best view them below the trees. Then it went quiet, well not exactly quiet as we could hear their tzick-it contact calls coming from the cherry trees but there was very little action on the ground, just an occasional glimpse of their distinctive profiles in the tops of the trees or of them flying over.

One finally flew down to the ground near to us, into a tangled undergrowth of ivy and dead leaves below the trees. No good for a photograph but I got great views through my bins of a handsome male, his orange head and pale gold forehead, poking up through the ivy, almost luminous in the dull light. It flew up and across in front of us to a line of trees fifty metres away. We followed and it sat in a tree chewing a cherry stone before flying further away.

Then Moth saw another, close and to our right, hopping out from cover into the grass and this was our opportunity. Another lovely male, his colouring, as the breeding season fast approaches, now rich and lustrous. His bill had changed from ivory white to the pewter grey that both male and female adopt in the breeding season, his black bib sharply defined against rounded underparts that were coloured like the brownish pink bloom found on a peach.

Male Hawfinch
He was not on view for long, as after two or three minutes he flew back into the trees.The hour we had planned here actually extended into three, as we were continually frustrated in getting close to the Hawfinches due to almost constant disturbance by dog walkers. Every time we were getting near to a close encounter a dog walker would appear as if on cue. We did see some males on the  celebrated earthen track that ran through the trees, fussing around looking for their beloved cherry stones but it was hard and frustrating work and required inordinate patience. How many Hawfinches were present was difficult to estimate as they were regularly being disturbed but we reckoned about twenty, not all together but in small parties flying from one small  area of cherry trees to another.

We walked around the entire area, which is very small and took little time to achieve and found groups of Hawfinches feeding in the leaf litter on the ground with others perched high in the bare trees. A female came out from one line of trees and hopped around, stiff legged in the grass, searching for the coveted cherry stones. We watched it as another dog walker then proceeded to end our encounter. I sighed. It was so frustrating. 

Female Hawfinch
Redwings and Blackbirds were also here in good numbers feeding on the wet grass, while a pair of Bullfinches nibbled the emerging blossom in the tops of the trees and a Long tailed Tit carried off a large white feather to line its nest in the bushes.

The time was now getting on for eleven thirty. Rain was forecast for about one o'clock so we decided to head for Hayling Island, forty minutes drive away, to see the Mediterranean Gulls. Frankly it was with mild relief I left Romsey and the continuing frustrations of our Hawfinch experience.

When we were well down the M27 Motorway the rain arrived, a light drizzle, not enough to be unpleasant but just inconvenient.We could handle this and pressed on into a grey and damp future. Parking the car in the last available space in the tiny car park at Hayling, currently being occupied by a swarm of Environment Agency vehicles, doing I know not what, we  got ourselves together and headed off on the short walk towards the viewpoint and the long defunct Hayling Oyster Beds

The tide was well out, exposing a  depressing area of wet grey mud and a similarly uninviting expanse of sea beyond.The wind had dropped to a whisper but there were spots of rain in the air and the sullen clouds hanging above us were threatening worse. Even here at the car park we could hear the Med Gulls, their distinctive two note, nasal yeah call coming from the sky above us. An unexpected adult Common Gull floated on the sea as we neared the point and the noise from the gull colony increased to a cacophony of combined calls, the two note exclamatory calls of the  Med Gulls and the harsh, grating squawks of the Black headed Gulls. 

Common Gull
The gull colony is based on two bunds that are part of the ruined remains of the former Oysterbeds and separated from the land on which we stood by a not very wide channel of sea, keeping them secure from predators and human interference. The whole area is now the West Hayling Nature Reserve, owned by the Borough Council and managed for them by the RSPB.

We dropped down onto the stony beach and stood in the lee of the bank and just enjoyed the spectacle of hundreds of gulls before us, a constant coming and going, a calling and displaying throng of white motion. You could never be bored as the activities of the gulls changed the scene literally every second.

Adult Mediterranean Gulls
The Med Gulls are arguably one of the most complete and beautiful of British gulls in breeding plumage. Slightly larger than the Black headed Gulls, in whose colonies they appear to deliberately choose to breed, they also have longer legs and a slightly drooping bill giving them an attenuated elegant symmetry. Their hood, unlike the brown hood of the misnamed Black headed Gull really is black, complemented by a scarlet eye ring and two white crescents, one above and one below the eye.  The bill is crimson with a black sub terminal band before the tiny yellow tip. A really pleasing combination. Some individuals were not quite in complete breeding plumage, still retaining some white winter feathering on their foreheads but it will not be long before they too are picture perfect. 

It is, however, the plumage of the body and wings  that imparts them with such a delicate grace, as it appears almost totally white. It is not, though, as the mantle and wing coverts are the palest grey in tone, appearing more white than grey in some lights, whilst the flight feathers both on their upper and undersides are totally white. In the misty pale sky of this morning the birds became almost ethereal and ghostly as they flew overhead, betrayed by their constant calling as they flew out towards the Solent, whilst others of their kind returned to settle back in the colony. A never ending procession back and fore.

The activity is ceaseless and there is never a still or quiet moment as the two colonists prepare for the breeding season, bowing and displaying, calling endlessly, fighting and squabbling for their tiny piece of territory on the bund whilst others settled on the sea to vigorously bathe, fluttering briefly upwards to shake the water from their feathers. 

At this time of year the Black headed Gulls also take on a beauty of plumage unseen outside of the breeding season. Just for a very short time some gain a faint pink blush to their breast to go with their brown hoods and white eye rings and they too are transformed.

Black headed Gull with pink flush to its underparts
There were other birds here too. A small group of Dark bellied Brent Geese wandered the sea's edge or swam just  offshore. They will soon be on their way north to their staging post in The Waddensee, there to fatten up on Eel Grass before the time comes for the long flight to their breeding grounds in Novaya Zemlya. 

Dark bellied Brent Geese
Little Grebes, nothing more than small dark dumplings on the grey seawater came and went. Two Common Redshank called complainingly as they flew from our approach as did two plump, black and white Oystercatchers, their piping calls ringing out over the sea and above the cries of the gulls.

The drizzle was increasing and we retreated to a small half shelter where we were out of the rain but could still view the gull colony. A pair of Red breasted Mergansers came swimming on the incoming tide, passing us and following the sea channel around the bunds harbouring the colony.

The drizzle increased, turning to rain and was decidedly unpleasant. It was surely time to go and at two thirty we returned to the car and headed north, just in time to almost beat the dreaded traffic jams around Oxford on the A34. Almost but not quite. 

1 comment:

  1. I think your hawfinch obsession is perfectly reasonable!!! Thanks for another ace day!