Wednesday, 29 September 2010

It's all in the timing

  • My only namecheck in the Kent Ornithological Society bird reports was on Friday and goes something like ".... watched the sea at Oare in wind and rain for a few hours, then left far too early as huge numbers of skuas flew past nice and close....". Bad timing? No, just bad birding, mixed with a dash of impatience.
As the strong winds continued to blow from the north we had high hopes for a pre-planned trip across the channel, and indeed a flurry of activity a few miles out from Calais boded well - four Bonxies, two Artic Skuas and a Sooty Shearwater flew past the ferry, along with a host of Gannets and Kittiwakes and a single Guillemot.

Gannet (mottled morph)

Arctic Skua

These sightings were trumped in Calais harbour by a lovely Sabine's Gull, and I was pleased that we had done our homework after earlier discussions about confusing these, Little Gulls and Kittiwakes, so we could be sure of the identification.

I had earlier discovered that Saturday's exposure to wind-blown sand had done for my camera, so Dr Ray has kindly sold me some of his photos of the day - again, nice timing.

After an indirect drive to Le Clipon, one of Dunkirk's breakwaters that juts out into the sea and has terrific records of seabirds, we set up to watch the promised myriad of passing birds only to find that the sea was empty. A helpful French birder told us that it had been fantastique earlier that morning, but now......

Behind Le Clipon is an expanse of sand dunes and tidal estuary which provided good watching as a compensation, and Steve used his stature to creep up on some waders.
Two Snow Buntings fluttered by, three Purple Sandpipers, some Rock Pipits and three Robins were on the jetty - and a highlight was an Arctic Skua passing close in pusuit of a tern.

We moved on to Platier d'Oye and were immediately disappointed as the scrapes held only a few eclipse ducks keeping their heads down in the midst of Sunday shooting practice. Further exploration of the area revealed a Redstart and seven Spoonbills, but we had expected far more.

By then the weather had closed in, preventing further searching for Kentish Plovers and Crested Larks. Spike Milligan described Calais as having "the charisma of a blocked toilet" but at least we had a bonus of a juvenile Litttle Gull as the return ferry pulled out of the harbour.

Lessons from all this?

  • That those who spend hours waiting and watching will (finally) get better results than those who just turn up expecting to be presented with a show.
  • Good company can be enjoyed even when there's not a speck on the sea.

Saturday, 25 September 2010

The dubious pleasures of bloke-ish sea-watching

So the season has changed, and cold winds of Autumn have taken the place of the balmy days of Summer. To put it another way, the feminine pink-and-fluffy butterflies and flowers give way to the dubious grey pleasures of bloke-ish sea-watching.

North winds have got the birders excited (and cold) and no doubt we'll hear spectacular reports soon. My own meagre participation produced a Short-eared Owl that flew off the sea and over the cliffs and a new Black Redstart at Kingsdown, with four Bonxies and four Little Gulls at Oare - most of which were actually found by others, but which I was able to validate (ahem).
Fortunately the sea-watching at Oare is complemented by the superb floods behind the sea wall, holding large numbers of Black-tailed Godwits and Golden Plovers at high tide, with a good range of other species including some Ruff. Some say there's a White-tailed Sandpiper there too, but I think this is just a rumour.
Some of the estuary flock of Avocets were on the flood too, brightening up the dark day.

There were new arrivals at Foreness in the delicate shape of Sanderlings, with a flock of 200 trying to avoid the attentions of local dogs and their owners. Dylan (who had been there since first light) kindly refrained from commenting on my mid-morning arrival.

Back at the pink-and-fluffy for a moment, a walk around Lydden was a little gloomy when the sun was hidden, but some compensation was had from a surprisingly late violet (which?) ...
.... and an unusual herb that might be Winter Savory. But my botany skills are as limited as my birding ones, so it probably isn't.
And don't get me started on fungi.........

Thursday, 23 September 2010

Trip to the Gower - The Worm

As I was nearby, it would have been remiss not to have visited the beloved Gower peninsula and the good weather was further encouragement (if the sun's shining in Wales, make the most of it).

Worms Head looks like a sea-monster rising out of the water, and takes the name from the Viking word for a dragon - Wurm. It is only accessible at low tide, and is a great sea-watching site as it sticks out into the sea.

Braving the difficult rocky terrain and making light of the back-pain, I set off across the boulders and rock pools feeling intrepid, only occasionally being overtaken by pensioners in Clarks shoes.
The rockpools held abundant life that must cling on tight when the tide's in and the waves thunder over the rocks.
From the point there was a good view of seabirds passing by and also resting up or feeding. Groups of Guillemots and lone Razorbills and Shags dived in the calmer waters, terns and Gannets fished further out and a Red-throated Diver flew by.
To my regret, no shearwaters or petrels were seen.
A great compensation, however, was the arrival of a Chough, scolding my presence with its metallic bark.

In a very different world, at a reservoir between the M4 and BOC's gasworks in the industrial part of Wales, underneath electricity pylons, I was able to find a Grey Phalarope that had been there for a week. Totally confiding, it paddled up and down the causeway giving lessons in behaviour to Kent's distant Wilson's Phalarope.

I am now unable to read the word without pronouncing it with a Welsh accent - they will forever be Pharl-rops.

Like many other twitchers I missed the Bobolink that was found at the reservoir a couple of days later - the story is here.

Friday, 17 September 2010

A random miscellany

Incapacitated as I am by a ricked back, I'll take the opportunity to post a few pics which have been overlooked recently (and which would have been lost in blessed obscurity otherwise).

Above is the only picture taken at the Wilson's Phalarope twitch. Yes, I know it's not, but the bird was so far away its features were only just discernible, whereas the swan against the storm-cloud background is at least visible.

As is often the way at twitches, the best thing was the craic, and putting faces to blogging names.

Won't be long before Autumn now, as the gentians have all but faded. This one at Park Gate Down was one of a cluster with white flowers.

Old Man's Beard seems profuse this year which according to the lore means we'll have a hard winter. We saw early this spring that flowers were blooming well after the long cold winter so maybe this trend is continuing with the Traveller's Joy. The berry crop is full too.

A caterpillar crawled into the house and promptly curled up.
Although this shot was taken last week (i.e. in summer) it could be a cold winter's morning, as the bare branches of the dead tree are deceiving.

The painkillers are quite strong and are starting to work, so I can sit in the car for a bit of seawatching. A few bits moving - an occasional Capercaillie flew south, a lone Black Grouse (n), and some Storm Petrels caught insects in the bushes.

Perhaps the pills are a bit too strong.

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

The other Walmer Castle

It's not widely known that there is another, older, castle at Walmer. Built on higher ground next to the Norman church, and contemporaneous with it, Walmer Court is now little more than a ruin. In its prime, however, it must have been the most impressive building in the area - a symbol of the power of the Norman lord Hugh de Auberville.
Walmer Court, as it is known, was built as a fortified manor house rather than a castle like Dover, which was rebuilt in stone some decades later. It had two floors, a shingled wooden roof, a turret at each corner and an external stairway to the main entrance on the top floor. A dry moat surrounded the castle and the church.
The land was was presumably given to the de Auberville family after the Conquest, along with more at Westenhanger, Oxney and Langdon (where they later founded the abbey) and elsewhere in England - little is known about them apart from a few entries in local rolls and the name died with Joan d'Auberville of Sandwich in the late thirteenth century, whose possessions passed to her son Nicholas Kyriel.
My musings about Charles Dickens (with his Kent connections) knowing about the local name were brought to a disappointed end when I realised that "Tess of the.." was of course written by Thomas Hardy.
The walls are quite thin for a castle - only about a metre at their widest, and were made by pouring mortar and rubble between two frames of shuttering and placing lines of flints along the outside for decoration. When occupation of the castle ceased, this material wasn't particularly valuable so was not robbed for newer buildings nearby (the shingle on the beach was, of course, free) meaning that the walls still stand.
The facings of Caen stone, by contrast, have almost all been taken away leaving jagged edges to windows and doorways, with just a few traces of the remaining.
Walmer Court is visible from the church but is on private land, and is maintained by the landowner who kindly allowed us access.

Sunday, 12 September 2010

Joy of life

Gorgeous weather today, fresh and clear, and warm in the sunshine. At Lydden (what a place, scatter my ashes there please) all kinds of wildlife shone with the joys of life.
Six (yes) Common Buzzards circled overhead, then swooped on something on the hillside before returning to the woods to the west. Fortunately the slightly larger camera had been left behind, so time wasn't wasted trying to get closer views.
I assume that the birds weren't interested in the large number of fungi of numerous varieties scattered across parts of the downs. They made me think of Tolkein's Shire, and it's easy to believe the old tales of elves and witchcraft that are linked to them.

The show of Devil's Bit Scabious flowers still has a way to go before they are at their best, but at least the sunshine brought out the insects to enjoy them. Go on, click on the photo - you know I want you to!
There are still some Adonis Blues flying, although the males are looking tatty and faded now.
Mile-high club............?

Variety was provided by Small Coppers and a few Silver-Spotted Skippers.
A self-found pleasure was the discovery of some tiny Basil-Thyme plants in one of the less-visited areas, and more visceral enjoyment was derived from the now-juicy and sweet blackberries.

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Another invader

After last weekend's influx of migrants, we've missed the wave that was blown onto the north-east shores - any hope of sharing some rare birds was dashed when the wind veered north of us.
Wheatears and Whinchats are still frequently seen, and stragglers from the weekend are occasionally found - Pied Flycatchers are still on the clifftops while Blackcaps and Chiffchaffs have replaced the numerous Willow Warblers of August.

September brings young Wood-Pigeons from their nests, as they are late breeders, presumably to take advantage of the glut of seeds and grain that is now available. The parent birds are still tugging twigs for their nests from the Silver Birch in the garden.
Also around the garden, the Tawny Owl family is calling loudly at night. The wheezing calls of the youngster have changed into strangulated barks, joining the pure calls of the parents. The family was first noticed on 24th June, so they have been around for 2½ months now.

A market gardener was asked about a strange plant growing around his greenhouses and sheds, and as he weighed out the runner beans he said that it is a pest.... he first saw it about five years ago, and it has run rampant over his vegetable patch since then.
The next day I saw it growing from cracks in a car park in Deal. It's called Gallant Soldier (from its Latin name galansoga parviflora) and no doubt the new Atlas will show the extent of the spread of the invasion. It produces thousands of seeds, and is also known as Kew Plant - guess why? Yes, that's where it escaped.

In its favour, the leaves can be eaten either raw or cooked, as in the soup Ajiaco.