Sunday, 14 March 2021

Birdwatching 2020 - a lockdown listing year

I’m sure everyone is now fed up with the same line “2020 will live long in the memory for the wrong reasons” and obviously in some respects it will but it was also the year for getting back to basics. From simple garden watching to heading out locally for daily exercise walks we all as birdwatchers came together in the face of adversity and made the best of a particularly bad situation. It had always been my plan to take a year off county year listing, 5 out of the previous 7 years I’d raced all over the place in search of 230+ species, a certain hinderance during the spring made this pretty easy, a serious change to my birding was in order for 2020 and this is how it unfolded.

January started off in its usual vein, the first weekend of the month is the county bird race and our team who’ve been together since 2012 were fully prepared as usual. I split our route up into 4 and the days leading up to the race I cover these sites so come race day we know where to look and don’t waste too much time. By the 5th all of the county’s goodies had been moped up, the Wareham Forest Great Grey Shrike, Hen Harrier, all 5 Grebe species, a wintering Garganey at Lodmoor RSPB, various sea ducks including Long-tailed Duck, Scaup and Velvet Scoter. Our day list total was 127, one shy of the winners but a record for us, nonetheless. The rest of the month was quiet although did include a rather painful dip on the West Bexington American Herring Gull on the 26th, its true identity wasn’t realised until too late and several days launching bread out to sea between Abbotsbury and West Bexington drew a blank, a fly-by 1st winter Caspian Gull on the 26th was scant consolation. 

A rather smart male Penduline Tit at Lodmoor on the 5th February was always going to be the highlight of what’s typically a quiet month, a return to work at the Swannery in the middle of the month saw my local birding reduced somewhat but the first week back did include 2 Firecrest, Red-necked Grebe and Merlin so it wasn’t all bad, prodigious numbers of Common and Mediterranean Gulls were present too proving an awesome spectacle most days.
 
March should always be an exciting time for any birdwatcher but we were learning new phrases like Social Distancing and self-isolating, a trip to Cyprus was looking more and more in doubt as the month progressed 2 more 1st winter Caspian Gulls at work, a Black Redstart and the arrival of a few summer migrants lightened the mood considerably, it was inevitable that on the 15th our Cyprus trip was cancelled but we quickly arranged a trip to Norfolk instead, perhaps naively not realising the significance of the impending disaster! We had a bloody good time though! 






Returning after filling our boots with Norfolk’s winter goodies we immediately learned what a Lockdown was all about, I’m happy to be honest with any readers of this article that at the end of Boris’ speech on the 23rd I sat and cried a little bit, life as we knew it had just changed and despite its message, I was so upset that I couldn’t go birdwatching it bought me to tears. Further updates of what we could and couldn’t do made me feel much better though with a daily exercise walk permitted I knew I could bird the harbour and Ferrybridge… Hard! The last few days of the month were a combination of local walks, nocturnal recording; whereupon I place a microphone pointing to the sky with a recorder attached and recording migrating birds at night! This proved to be one of the biggest sensations of lockdown with many hundreds of birders investing in sound recording equipment to join the now regular recordists in different parts of the country, I also took to staring out the bedroom Velux, the latter proved to be one of the highlights of the year.

Early April is always great, I was missing being able to visit Portland and enjoy the early arrivals like Willow Warblers, Pied Flycatchers and Redstarts but word from Martin and Erin was not good, the weather though enjoyable for us all wasn’t doing anything for the birding, this too was represented from home although the 3rd yielded Willow Warbler, Swallow and Sand Martin so things were beginning albeit slowly. Spectacular movements of Wildfowl were taking place at night with Common Scoter and Wigeon being represented in unprecedented numbers. The 6th saw my first seawatch of the season off the chesil, it’s 2 miles from my house and after the walk I had a sit down and looked out to sea, a Little Tern flew east and a 2nd was lingering for a while, 9 days earlier than 2019 I was absolutely chuffed. The next week saw more hirundines arriving, a flock of at least 3 Little Ringed Plover flew over the garden just after dusk while I was out having a glass of wine with my wife, several Red Kites started touring the area and both Tree Pipit and Yellow Wagtail made the list. A flock of 18 Knot over the garden on the 12th was a huge surprise while lounging in the sun, even my neighbours looked up when I shouted “WOAH THEY’RE KNOT” rather too loudly. The 15th was a quiet, beautiful sunny day, I headed out early in the morning as the sun rose over Portland Harbour a few more year ticks were added from a short watch off the Chesil, back home while doing the housework I received a call from Paul Morton he was alerting me to the fact a White-tailed Eagle from the Isle of White reintroduction program was heading right towards Weymouth, excited by this news I phoned a few mates and a vigil began, it wasn’t long before it flew directly over the house! sadly for those on Portland who might have wanted to see it, the bird took a U-turn and flew back north, right past the house again, reintroduction or not this was the highlight of my year so far. Moving on to the 22nd and an all-day session from the Velux was in order, it was clear right from dawn that birds were moving and by the end of the day I was so excited I could barely contain myself; it was now I’d realised lockdown or not I would always love my hobby and make the best of what I could. 


 
The rest of the month continued in the same fashion, get up early, go for a walk, get home and bird from the garden or bedroom, a routine which I began to get accustomed to and the number of birds I could see or hear from home was just astounding. 

May was always going to be difficult, there was clearly going to be lots of birds around, it’s just that time of year but being restricted to short walks was going to be a hinderance, or so I thought! A Roseate Tern sound recorded over the house on the night of the 2nd was incredible and beyond my expectations, the 5th was an excellent day, it rained a lot in the morning so I stayed in to write an article for Birdguides, as I looked out the window I picked up a diver heading straight for me, rushing upstairs I fired off a few shots and it was a summer plumage Great Northern Diver, these things always look insane past the bill let alone your house, It also was a day for waders with 2 Avocet the highlight at Ferrybridge along with a big increase in Sanderling and Little Terns. Going to bed full of excitement for the next day I woke at 5:10 and looked out onto a freezing cold clear dawn with a blasting North-easterly, a feature that had been present since about mid-April, a Tree Pipit flying over calling wasn’t enough to draw me away from a warm bed and wife and so I slept in until about 7:30. Eventually I was out the door walking to Ferrybridge, apparently nobody told the birds it wasn’t a good day to move and upon my arrival at the Chesil Beach Centre a male Redstart came in off the sea at height and flew north east over the harbour, the carpark contains a few tamarisks and those tamarisks each held a handful of Willow Warblers and what seemed to be a Spotted Flycatcher in each one. A walk across the grass towards the tern colony revealed a few Wheatear and a Whinchat and then, as I turned back to walk back a slim shape appeared over the beach, it was quite apparent it was a harrier straight away but there was something odd and incredibly dark about it, It was a dark morph male Montagu’s Harrier! the next 30 seconds were immense, I was watching such a rare bird. Amazingly given the panic I managed a few photos and some video before it carried on its journey, independently picked up by Dave Foot further down the fleet. 


Things remained fairly quiet as the month carried on, the clear north-easterlies weren’t doing anything for the birding, so I turned to gardening more than I had been doing previously. Towards the end of the month, we were given permission to drive a bit further to take in exercise, a Squacco Heron at Lodmoor was new for me in Dorset on the 22nd and I started to be able visit Portland, a Turtle Dove on the 26th was my first in a few years and a massive invasion of Rosy Starlings in France perked my interest so visits became daily. 




Early June saw Lockdown pretty much end as we knew it and that signaled the return to work. The 8th heralded a call I remembered from early May and in with the Common Terns a Roseate stood out like a brightly shining apparition, Crossbills began to move in huge numbers across the country in the latter half of the month and I picked up birds both at work and home, a spectacular moulting male Ruff at the Swannery on the 27th was nice to see.  

July is one of those weird months, it’s clearly summer, but the birding takes on a real autumnal feeling and various waders like Green Sandpipers and Greenshanks started to turn up in numbers at the Swannery. The evening of the 7th saw the unbelievable discovery of a putative Yelkouan Shearwater potentially settled with Balearic Shearwaters off Portland Bill, its identity wasn’t appreciated until photographs were sent to the Obs in the evening and by the time they hit the blog I’d gone to bed and missed the mega message until the following morning. A stressful day ensued given it was too late to arrange leave to see the bird, I wouldn’t do it often but the magnitude of this one would have warranted it. I finally made it to the bill in the evening to witness a weird event if I’m honest, for those there it was like Covid never existed and a rather large crowd was gathered, I joined Dave Foot and Richard Newton, distanced of course and we picked out the bird sat on the water. After a few minutes we were treated to a fairly close flypast and all features were able to be noted, an exciting and educational bird. More waders as the month moved on also a few Yellow-legged Gulls started to appear at the Swannery, we managed to record more than 12 species of wader in July which given we don’t have too much mud is pretty decent. 


A really good arrival/movement of Pied Flycatchers occurred in August both seen during the day and sound recorded at night, the afternoon of the 17th saw a frustrating little event at work, I picked up a really small looking skua almost subliminally as it came up over the beach and disappeared down the fleet, luckily the 21st was stormy and windy, 3 Long-tailed Skuas and plenty of other seabirds were recorded on a near all day session at Chesil Cove. Returning again on the 25th things felt good, a depression from the south-west was battering us at dawn and the forecast showed the rain should clear away by late morning, I’d texted John Down and invited him to join me “just before the rain was due to clear as it would be good” 11:20 and it stopped raining and the sun began to shine, 11:29 I pick up a Great Shearwater, you couldn’t have written it better! The seawatch was brilliant, hundreds of waders were moving after being downed by the rain, loads of gulls and terns also an hour passes and another Great Shearwater flies south, sometimes we look at the weather and think it will be alright, this was different as it looked good from the outset and it delivered the goods. A colour ringed Osprey at the Swannery was a great bird to see, it was a juv having been ringed in the lake district just weeks earlier. 


September started with a bang, the weather remained unsettled 2 Curlew Sandpipers dropped in at the Swannery after having arrived from inland, several ospreys were present and on the 3rd lots of us were treated to a juvenile Sabine’s Gull at Ferrybridge/Chesil Beach, a White Stork of unknown origin flew west over Abbotsbury on the 4th, I was on a roll. The good fortune was ultimately going to end, and it did so in catastrophic fashion, 12:35 on the 8th and I pick up what’s either a Pallid or Montagu’s Harrier flying down Shipmoor Point at work, absolute panic set in as I both needed to see it well, photograph it and get Steve Groves on it too. The rest is history as sadly I failed to do any of these things and its identity will forever remain a mystery. The next day added a bit of a county bogey bird to my Dorset list, Dave Chown had found a Dotterel at White Nothe which remained until the end of the day which left me enough time to twitch it after work. 3 Spoonbill flew past the house on the 15th constituting the 1st record here, that and I realised lockdown might be over bird the house birding certainly didn’t need to be. On the 17th a trip over to Wareham added a duo of Pectoral Sandpipers, my “easiest” county tick notched off During the last week of the month a Lapland Bunting over top fields on Portland was expected given the large arrival of them further north in the weeks previous, a couple of early Whooper Swans at work and another Caspian Gull was logged. 


Now we come to October, I have 3 things to be incredibly grateful for in my life, a very accommodating boss and job, an extraordinarily understanding wife and where I Live - 3 Weeks booked off work, Frances fully aware I wasn’t going to be around much and Portland just down the road, what could be better. The 2nd was really windy, the hoped for seabirds didn’t materialise in Portland Harbour like I expected but Bob Ford found a juv Kentish Plover at Ferrybridge which was duly seen, back to work on the 3rd and it was damp, windless and felt incredible, at least 5000 House Martin flew north in 90 minutes, lots of snipe on the move along with a few other waders, the mistle was hard going but I flushed a Jack Snipe at lunch which amazingly was my first of the year, the 5th was the start of my 3 week Portland birding binge, the first week was largely unproductive barring an Eastern Lesser Whitethroat and a flock of Crossbills, the second week however was a bit good…
A Whooper Swan west on the 11th was a Portland tick for myself and various other island observers, the morning of the 12th added Ring Ouzel and Woodlark to the holiday self-found list, I then received a call about a Red-breasted Flycatcher trapped at the Obs which was nice to see, an hour later and “tck” “tick” “tick’ “tck” a bunting was flying over the slopes I picked it up pretty quick and noted smudgy marks down it’s flanks, a big supercilium and malar stripe, RUSTIC BUNTING! I fired off a few shots in the hope I could obtain a few record shots, they’re not great but they’ll do, I retuned for coffee a while later only to be told there was a Radde’s Warbler being processed in the ringing hut, what a day! On the 13th there was a Fall of Yellow-browed Warblers, the 15th saw a massive movement of finches but also, I saw a Short-eared Owl, several Ring Ouzels, a Dartford Warbler and a Lapland Bunting. On the 17th disaster struck, it had been a quiet day until I received various phone calls alerting me to the presence of a Great Grey Shrike at Southwell, I struck out with Erin Taylor to look for it but failed miserably, we took a walk back in different directions, she saw it, I didn’t, and it got dark. Pre-dawn on the 18th and this happened… 


The first Great-grey Shrike to be ringed at Portland Bill, an amazing experience and regardless of what some may thing of ringing this is superb way to be able to observe often elusive of skittish species. A Couple of days rest before things kicked off again a dawn Glossy Ibis was the harbinger of a south-coast influx on the 20th it lingered for around an hour before heading off north, the 21st was wet, and I mean wet! I arrived at the bill late as Martin Cade took a phone call regarding a Swift Sp. Erin had just seen, jumping into action I helped her look for it but ultimately it had either flown out to see or simply died in the atrocious weather. We returned for tea and a towel to dry off, eventually the weather looked to have abated enough and I headed out again, I’d barely walked 300 meters and flushed an Olive-backed Pipit! I shouted as I was in earshot of the Obs and it was watched to drop in the garden, running back I picked up my sound recording gear and deployed it just in case it flew out, no more than 5 minutes passed before it did so and called beautifully right over the microphone, result. A few decent seawatches also added Sooty Shearwater and a Little Auk to the year list both of which tend to be pretty tricky to catch up with every year. 


November started a bit stressfully, an impending second lockdown did not help so I finished work early to be able to tie off a few loose ends and be available to help out my Grandparents during another lock in, managing to get out for a few mornings here and there I tapped into some decent vismig including 1000’s of Pidgeon, decent numbers of finches and even a Goosander at Ferrybridge. The morning of the 12th I decided to take it easy as I was heading up to Blandford to shop for my grandad, I then get a call about a big pale Redpoll, after deliberation and trauma I managed to get to Portland before I left for Blandford, the bird however was nowhere to be seen. A shout that they it was flying with some Lesser Redpoll saw me back at the Obs to be told it headed to Culverwell, a ringing session was taking place but no sign, I wandered along a little further and nearly trod on the thing feeding at the side of the path! It was a stunning adult male Coue’s Arctic Redpoll, I ran back to the Obs as phone signal was poor and left everyone to enjoy the bird, I eventually made it to Blandford on time with shopping complete. On the 15th the wind blew up and the usual position looking for leach’s Petrel was taken at the harbour, I failed all day sadly, but it was softened with a call halfway through the day to say the Arctic Redpoll had been trapped and would I like to see it. 


A few days later a very grey looking Yellow Wagtail led us a merry dance but sound recordings proved it was just a Western, the same day also saw a Pallas’s Warbler pop up right next to myself and Richard Newton and on the 24th I found another along with a flyby Serin. 


December is very often my least active month of the year and this one was no exception, what with festivities and the fact it’s pretty miserable waking up at 8 and finding it’s still half dark. A consolation however was finally pinning down a White-winged gull which had been tormenting several locals for around a week, I managed to eventually find it settled at the Stone Pier where I could confirm its Identity as a first year Iceland Gull, the last county tick of the year for me came following a phone call from Steve at the Swannery, a Ferruginous Duck had Joined the Pochard flock which showed really well. 


So that was 2020 for me, 220 species in Dorset, loads of decent self-found birds, very little twitched and given the desperate situation a really nice years birding made it shine.

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