Sunday 31 August 2014

Hopping down in Kent 30th August 2014

A Melodious Warbler decided to take up residence for the last week in a location going by the name of Dengemarsh Gully which is part of the Dungeness RSPB Reserve. I have seen this species in Spain but never in the UK so I was particularly keen to add it to my ever growing UK list currently standing at 452. Melodious Warblers breed very close to the UK, just across the English Channel/La Manche, in France and thence southwards down into Spain.They occur fairly regularly in the UK but for one reason or another I have never been in the right place or found the right time to go and see one. Now, finally, here was my opportunity even though I had to nervously wait a few days until Saturday to make the trip to Kent.

A flurry of texts on Friday afternoon resulted in myself, Andy, Terry and Mark departing Oxford in the Telmobile at just after 6am on Saturday to make the long and somewhat tedious journey down to Dungeness. The familiar conversational drivel ensued between us in the car ranging from Tesco's inadequacies and the dire state of their meat counter to the frustrations of i-phones with relation to the internet and then on to learning a lot of technical information about different road surfaces from someone who shall remain nameless. The best that can be said for this is that it passes the time and the early hours are not really conducive to intellectual repartee.

Flurries of rain on the way down did not augur well but the forecast was for matters to slowly improve through the morning so we arrived at just before nine am in an optimistic mood but to a strangely deserted RSPB Dungeness car park. I would have thought there would have been more people here for the Melodious Warbler?

It had become apparent on the way down that none of us was exactly sure where the aforementioned Dengemarsh Gully was. There was no information or guidance on the internet and the section on Dungeness in my book 'Where to watch Birds in Kent, Surrey and Sussex' was worse than useless. We therefore assumed it would be where the Denge Marsh Hide was on the reserve but we were completely mistaken.

There was one other vehicle in the car park when we arrived containing a similarly bewildered birder who had come from Surrey and was also wondering the whereabouts of Dengemarsh Gulley. The Visitor Centre was closed. It did not open until 10am. This is the RSPB after all!  We headed for the Denge Marsh Hide. 'Follow us' we confidently cried to the other birder and then we all proceeded to walk round the entire reserve spectacularly failing to find the Dengemarsh Gully. Our circuitous route brought us back to the approach road to the Visitor Centre which was now around a mile away from us and to add to our misery it commenced to rain whilst we animatedly, to put it mildly, discussed our options and just where the elusive Dengemarsh Gully might be. We stopped other cars coming onto the reserve and enquired of the occupants as to its whereabouts but no one seemed to know where it was or had even heard of it. Even the local farmer was bemused. Eventually Terry and the other birder went back to retrieve their cars and we went back to the main road where there was another Car Park for birders visiting the ARC Pit. Maybe we could try our luck there to see if we could get any information about the elusive Dengemarsh Gully. 

I waved down a startled departing birder who informed us we were in totally the wrong place and the gully was miles away on the other side of the marsh. He gave me detailed directions. Andy called Terry telling him to get a move on as we now knew where the gully was. We waited for Terry to arrive and duly piled into the car, still followed by the other birder, and headed off for the gully armed with directions. Inevitably we managed to make one wrong turn but finally found ourselves driving down a potholed and uneven road heading for the sea and into the unknown. The uneven road went on and on. Could this really be it? Doubts began to set in but we carried on and then espied a line of cars and a scrum of birders which told us we had finally made it.

Dengemarsh Gully turned out to be a deep and wide ditch about three hundred metres long with its banks thickly covered in gorse and scrub on either side and a weedy water filled bottom. It looked and indeed is, an absolute magnet for migrants, with an impressive past record of turning up very rare birds.

Dengemarsh Gully with Andy modelling some retro head gear and waiting
for the Melodious Warbler to put in an appearance

Dengemarsh Gully looking towards the sea. The Wryneck was in the elders
near to the concrete barrier across the gully
We parked alongside the gully and got out. Leaving the un-necessary scopes in the car we lined up at the edge of the gorse overlooking the gully with bins and cameras at the ready. Almost immediately a yellowish olive warbler flew past us and dived into the gorse to our left. 'That's it!' We followed to where it had disappeared into the gorse and in a minute or two the Melodious Warbler hopped up into view out of the tangle of gorse. It was not there for long before descending back into cover. I got a few record shots. Then for the next hour or so in the company of about fifty birders the warbler played peek a boo with its ranks of admirers. 

The glimpses were often brief and obscured but on a couple of occasions it remained perched right out in the open and came as close as only a few feet away seemingly untroubled by the birders ranged along the edge of the gorse. Despite the numerous blackberries, it ignored these and seemed totally focused on invertebrates such as earwigs.

Most people behaved themselves and did not encroach into the gorse but inevitably there was the odd one or two who could not restrain themselves but fortunately the warbler did not appear to react apart from remaining hidden in deep cover.

While he stood here the warbler never showed itself. I wonder why?
It remained on our side of the gully virtually all the time, probably because it was more sheltered from the strong southwest wind and only once flew off over to the other side to perch in the open but returned quickly once it realised that it was exposed to the wind.

It was larger than a Willow Warbler, quite yellow underneath and with slightly darker brownish green upperparts. I noted all the salient features such as the short primary projection and the lack of a pale wing panel both diagnostic differences from its close relative and very similar looking Icterine Warbler. Its 'open faced' appearance and its grey legs and feet were also distinctive. All our frustrations about the fruitless earlier yomp around the distant parts of the RSPB reserve on the other side of the marsh disappeared in a trice with the appearance of this beauty and we relaxed safe in the knowledge that Melodious Warbler was now well and truly in the proverbial bag.

Mark just checking 'its a wrap ducky'
A lifer for both Terry and Mark and a British tick for all four of us made for a great morning after a very inauspicious beginning to our day in Kent.

Talking of frustration, buoyed by our success with the Melodious Warbler we now put our nerves on the line yet again by attempting to see a Wryneck which was also inhabiting the gully but some hundred metres further down towards the sea. Birders who had their fill of the warbler were now clustered at the top of the bank looking down on a couple of small dead elders growing up amongst the brambles and gorse. We joined them but there was no sign of the Wryneck. I gave it forty minutes but there was not a flicker of birdlife. It was there alright but these blighters can sit for ages, motionless, often hidden in the dense vegetation and/or virtually invisible due to their amazing cryptic plumage.

I went back down the track for some more Melodious action. Half an hour passed with just one glimpse of the warbler. Then glancing to my right I noted people making a purposeful exit towards the Wryneck location. A phalanx of birders on the opposite side of the gully were looking intently at the elders on my side of the gully. The Wryneck had obviously shown itself. I hurried round to the other side of the gully only to be told the Wryneck had just dropped down into cover but then it popped up again and was just about visible as it sat motionless in a tangle of bare elder branches. 

It's a Wryneck - honestly!
Not the greatest of views but enough to be getting on with. We had done the double.The Wryneck then dropped out of sight again and I returned back to the other side of the gully. I walked along until I was opposite the birders I had left on the other side and the Wryneck was now feeding on the grass on my side of the elder but not for long. The minute it noticed me it flew and that was the last I saw of it.

All of us were now happy. Terry and Andy were keen to go back to the RSPB Reserve where we had started this morning and see the Red necked Phalarope at the ARC Pit. This was a lifer for all but me so it was imperative we gave it our best effort and so we made our way to the hide with yours truly briefly detouring to unsuccessfully chase a Clouded Yellow through the grass. In a few minutes we were all looking out on the bird filled lagoon that is the ARC Pit.

ARC Pit viewed from the Hide
There was a tremendous variety of water loving birds present and at first we could not find the phalarope but then it was located over towards the other side of the extensive lagoon and through the scope it could be seen in adequate detail as it went about its business feeding, preening and finally becoming motionless amongst the other resting birds. A juvenile Little Stint, diminutive, dapper and looking even smaller than usual, due to the close presence of a flock of Lapwing, ran about on a muddy scrape. A few Dunlin and Common Redshanks busied themselves on scrapes amongst the loafing ducks as did a lone Black tailed Godwit. I swung my scope around to another scrape and found two Ruff feeding quietly amongst some sleeping Mallards. Sand Martins, easily a thousand in number, swarmed after flies over the water and two Yellow Wagtails put in a brief appearance on one of the scrapes before flying off. The lagoon was alive with ducks. A huge flock of Northern Shovelers kept to themselves sieving the water as they swam in circles but smaller numbers of Common Teal, Mallard and Gadwall readily mixed in with the large numbers of Coot bobbing around. I found two Garganey amongst the teal and then four more. Suddenly the Coots scittered across the water in alarm as a Marsh Harrier flew overhead but peace and quiet soon resumed as the harrier carried on and disappeared from sight. 

We watched the constant activity of the birds until we felt we had enough. The hide was getting crowded. 'What shall we do now? It's only just after twelve', I enquired of the others. Just at that very moment of indecision, as if fated, Terry's pager announced a Tawny Pipit had been found at  Bockhill Farm just beyond the quaintly named town of St Margarets at Cliffe which is just the other side of Dover and was only about forty minutes drive away.

Shall we, shan't we? A brief discussion ensued. I was very keen as it would be another UK tick for me and long desired but never until now practicable. Andy was of the same opinion. Terry and Mark were also up for it so that was our afternoon decided

The four of us departed the hide and soon we were on the road to Dover and beyond. With the aid of the Satnav we soon found the car park at the Memorial Column leading to the entrance to Bockhill Farm which is owned by the National Trust. We noted The Bluebird Cafe (White Cliffs of Dover - get it?) that was adjacent to the car park for possibly taking refreshments after our successful twitch of the Tawny Pipit. We were now super confident after our triumphant morning.Nothing could stop us now-could it? Nothing could go wrong-surely?

We contemplated the scene before us after passing through the gate. I swallowed hard my confidence in finding the Tawny Pipit fading rapidly. It was daunting. Before us lay a huge area of fallow arable land comprising two huge fields running down and then up the sides of a shallow valley. I have never seen fields bigger except in Cambridgeshire. A footpath ran between the boundary of the nearest field and the famous white cliffs. Somewhere in the arable vastness to our left presumably lurked the pipit but where on earth did we start? It was proverbially the needle in a haystack. Where, just where do we search to find a tiny bird in such a vast trackless waste of stubble and rolled ground.

There's a Tawny Pipit out there - but where?
We set off down the footpath and met two birders coming back up it. We stopped as birders do to exchange information only to learn from them that the fields were 'virtually birdless down there. Just a few hirundines but not much else'. Now birders have to be optimistic and as we were here we had to go on despite this depressing news but it was with a sinking feeling that we circumvented the huge fields via grassy paths. The path by the cliff led down into the shallow valley and turning left we came to the biggest field which was encompassing the far slope of the valley and facing us. We walked down then up the path to where yet another grassy path ran along the bottom of the huge field. 

The path which I walked followed by Andy
Andy found the pipit way out in the field to the right
 from the first bush  visible down the grassy footpath
I decided to walk this path whilst the others debated whether to carry on up the original footpath and we would all meet up on the upper side of the huge field. Heading off I soon became aware that there were a good number of Northern Wheatears feeding in the stubble and bare earth. Their pastel shaded plumage of fawn and buff camouflaging them until they flew when their white rumps and black and white tails betrayed their presence. There must have been at least twenty scattered along the lower and middle reaches of the field and they seemed to be following each other in a loose formation. I then saw a Whinchat perched low on a stubble stalk. This looked much better than I had feared but there was no sign of the Tawny Pipit. I carried on, passing windswept, isolated, stunted trees and hedges. Swallows coursed low over the flat brown earth and stubble. Looking back I noticed Andy had followed me down the same path but was half a mile back scoping the huge field. Five minutes later my phone rings and Andy is excitedly telling me he has got the Tawny Pipit in his scope.

I turn and run, oh boy do I run. Never has a scope, camera and bins seemed heavier. I can see Andy looking through his scope but he seems to be getting no nearer as I cover the ground. This is senseless, of course he is. I am covering the uneven ground at a ridiculous speed and finally arrive wheezing and hyperventilating. 'Have you still got it? I gasp. 'No I lost it when I called you and the others. I took my eye off the scope and it was gone when I went back to look!'

My world contracts. A dreadful sinking feeling drains through my body. So near, so close and yet now the Tawny Pipit has seemingly been snatched from the jaws of victory. We jointly and methodically scope the huge area of featureless stubble and earth where it was last seen. Nothing. 'It was with the wheatears' advises Andy. We find the wheatears still moving as a loose flock. We find one, possibly two Whinchats. We even find some Linnets but no pipit. Mark and Terry join us. We all fruitlessly look for the pipit. Minutes seem like hours. Time stands still. The umpteenth scan. Eyes straining and watering in the wind. Still nothing. It must still be here. Mark suddenly exclaims he thinks he has got it in his bins!!  He is not sure. Then Andy gets it in the scope again! I make a dive for his scope and there it is slap bang in the eyepiece in all its pale fawn glory, much smaller than imagined, wandering along by a strip of green leaves far out in the middle of the vast field. Thank heavens. I unwind but Terry has not seen it as he cannot locate it. No one can relax until we have all seen it, so we make a supreme effort with directions for Terry. The pipit disappears again before Terry can locate it and minutes again turn to what seem hours.The problem is that its plumage is an overall grey fawn colour just about exactly replicating the colour of the chalky earthy terrain it is frequenting and rendering it very hard to distinguish. Couple this with the fact that the ground is uneven with ruts and folds that the pipit regularly disappears into and you can appreciate our problems.

Another birder joins us and tells us he is a local. He does not have a scope but just bins and tries to play it cool by pretending a Tawny Pipit is nothing to get too excited about and starts regaling us about how many Richard's Pipits he has seen here. I am happy for him to stick around if he must but wish he would keep quiet. We tell him we were just looking at the Tawny Pipit but it has now been lost to view. He hangs around hoping we can relocate it.

Terry at last relocates the tawny beauty to his and all our relief. The local birder cannot find it in his bins but we are not willing to relinquish our scopes as having seen so little of it ourselves we want to get our fill after having searched so hard for it. Sorry but he really should have brought his own scope. Andy sends a text to RBA advising we had found the pipit again after their initial alert, to which we  had responded, was sent out at lunchtime 

We look at the pipit for an extended period as it feeds with the wheatears before it suddenly flies off right but not too far, settling once again in the vast field. We follow it in flight and move back up the path to get closer or at least opposite to where it landed. No surprise then when we cannot find it again. More scanning, more wheatears, the Whinchat again and then I find it in my scope walking along a threadbare grassy strip well out in the field. I increase the zoom on the eyepiece and now get really good views of its pale almost white underparts and streaked upperparts. The boldly marked tertials stand out as does the black eyestripe and white supercilium

The local birder still cannot locate it and comes and stands next to us obviously hoping one of us will let him use a scope but we do not offer him the opportunity as he is a little annoying. Perhaps we are being selfish but he arrived uninvited and unprepared. It's not our fault. The local birder then walks off to look for it from the footpath running up the side of the hill..

The pipit disappears again and this time we cannot relocate it despite extensive searching. The wheatears have also moved off so probably they and the pipit have flown further back into the huge field. We are by mutual consent satisfied with our views and decide to call it a day.

We walk back up the hill to the clifftop. Looking back we see the local birder now sneakily walking out into the field obviously trying to flush the pipit despite this being an absolute taboo. We are all upset by this as his thoughtless actions will spoil the chances for any other birder coming to see the pipit. Sure enough a few minutes later we meet another birder coming down the path in response to our text. We point out the selfish birder to him and also give him explicit directions as to where we last saw the pipit. If I had not been so tired I would have walked back to the birder in the field and given him a reprimand but it was just too far. 

On the way back we decided to award ourselves a cream tea to round off an absolutely superb day of birding but the Bluebell Cafe shut its doors at 4pm. We were fifteen minutes too late. This on a Saturday and at a well known beauty spot. What is it with this country? Do they want the business or not? 

We load up the car and go in search of another cream tea establishment that is apparently nearby.We get there at 4.30 only to find it has just closed! Unbelievable! Grumbling we decide to head for home but at a nearby crossroads what do I espy but a tiny little shop tucked away offering CREAM TEAS! and crucially this time it is open. 'Quick Terry, over there!' I dive out of the car in a panic in case they close their doors and immediately order four cream teas whilst Terry parks the car. A very pleasant young lady brings our order. The cream teas turn out to be huge and one of the best we have encountered. There is a notice on the wall saying the establishment has been voted by The Times as one of the top thirty places in the UK for tea. Amen to that. Huge, home made currant scones, proper cream, strawberry jam, the works. A pot of Earl Grey and I am in dreamland. Superb and our unbelievable day comes to its climax with a culinary delight that fortifies us for the long drive home.

No comments:

Post a Comment