Birding Back in Blighty
In the middle of August, it took three flights to get from Stewart Island to Auckland, and two long flights to Singapore and then London, the planes getting progressively larger with each leg of the trip. After thirty-odd hours travel I arrived at London Heathrow Airport at 5pm on a Friday night. Rush hour was not the best time to arrive and I spent the next two and a half hours on the M25, laughingly referred to as the biggest car park in the world. When I finally arrived at my family home in Kent I was pretty shattered. I was wide awake at 4am the next morning but spent the day chillaxing and adjusting to British summertime.
A Sunday afternoon family BBQ was planned which gave me the opportunity for some morning birding. By 7am I was at Sevenoaks Wildlife Trust Reserve reconnecting with common British species and enjoying the lakes and deciduous woodlands in the company of Blackcaps, Chiffchaffs, Willow Warblers, Wrens and Robins. Deeper into the woodland I encountered Great Spotted Woodpecker, Great Tit and Blue Tit. In the reed beds I found my first Reed Warbler in two years and on the open water, Great Crested Grebe, Tufted Duck and Pochard swam around. A flash of electric blue caught my eye and a Kingfisher whizzed by and settled on a low branch, perfect to get him in the scope and surely one of the UK's most stunning birds.
Mid-morning I moved on to Bough Beech Causeway, a good inland site to connect with waders but as I got out of the car the first bird I raised my bins to was a Red Kite, drifting high above the adjacent woodland. Kingfisher and Red Kite within 30 minutes of each other, not too shabby! In my old Kent birding days a Red Kite would have been a noteworthy bird but with a lot of reintroduction programmes throughout the UK they are a more common sight. Common Buzzard has also become very common in the south-east of England. I remember many years ago twitching a Common Buzzard to get it on my Kent list! Common Sandpiper and Green Sandpiper were plentiful along with Lapwing, Redshank and Ruff. Little Egrets were everywhere and I got nice views of Grey Wagtail and a bit of searching rewarded me with views of skulky Mandarin Ducks. Swallows and Sand Martins hawked insects above the small lake joined by the less common House Martins, so not a bad morning's birding.
Next day in the field was to one of my favourite reserves in the UK- Oare Marshes. A small reserve with a big reputation that sits on the southern side of the Swale Estuary looking across to the Isle of Sheppey. I connected with the long-staying Bonaparte's Gull when I was last here in 2013, and amazingly the bird had been reported again this year.
As I walked around the reserve on a beautiful sunny day there was no sign of this diminutive American gull. To be honest I wasn't too phased as there was plenty to keep me happy. A huge flock of 3000-plus Black-tailed Godwits were the main species on the the scrape but the most enjoyable part of the day was spent scanning through the flock to find other species. Common Snipe, Golden Plover, Curlew Sandpiper, Red Knot and Bar-tailed Godwit. In the reed beds Bearded Tits pinged their presence and a skulky Water Rail eventually gave itself up.
As I walked back along the road my first Sedge Warbler of the trip called from a bramble bush and a Yellow Wagtail flew overhead. I bumped into my old mate Howard Vaughn who is a Kent-based birder and RSPB Warden at Rainham in Essex. "Hey Matt, I've got the bird in the scope", he called. Expecting to see the Bonaparte's Gull, I was surprised to find a flock of Dunlin in view, with a smaller bird amongst them. "I haven't seen one of those for a few years, it looks like a White-rumped Sandpiper".
"That's right," replied Howard, "that's why everyone's here. What were you expecting? The Bonaparte's Gull?"
"Yes," I replied, "I haven't got access to Rare Bird Alert, I've only been in the country three days!" which amused Howard greatly!
As we continued to watch the rare American wader, six high flying Whimbrels called and a flock of 100 Grey Plover in their summer plumage came to land in at the far bank not to mention a couple of European Oystercatchers, and the end of another good day's birding.
One of the reasons for this UK visit was the British Birdwatching Fair at Rutland Water, a three-day ornithological event. On the New Zealand stand I was representing Ulva's Guided Walks on Stewart Island. Lynette and Gary from Albatross Encounter, Dave and Chris from Heritage Expeditions, Sav from Wrybill Birding Tours and Wendy from Oamaru Blue Penguins.
Friday was the busiest I've ever known, Saturday just as good, and Sunday stuck to its tradition of being the slower day. It was good to meet new people, chat with previous clients and catch up with old birding friends that dropped by; John Gates from Norfolk, Alan and Ruth from The Biggest Twitch, and Kent birders Barry Wright, Gary Howard and John Tilbrook. After a busy three days it was time to pack up - amazing that it takes 4 hours to set up and an hour to take down.
Monday morning we said our goodbyes as the rest of the team headed their separate ways home to New Zealand. I had another few days in the UK and on my way back to Kent popped in to see highly acclaimed wader expert, Richard Chandler for a cuppa - how very English! Richard has very fond memories of Stewart Island and the time we spent together photographing Southern New Zealand Dotterels back in 2011.
My county-hopping next took me to see my good mate Pete Moore in Dorset. He'd been home alone for a week as the family were away camping and Pete informed me that the local pub was cooking tea for us that night. We chatted and drank the night away over fish and chips and I woke the next morning feeling a bit fuzzy. Thankfully Pete was onto it with bacon sarnies for breakfast. Black clouds loomed outside and although the forecast wasn't great Pete suggested Middlebere where there was a chance of migrants - and it had a bird hide in case it rained. It was a good call - as we arrived the rain started. The hide overlooked a tidal estuary and we got Osprey, Spoonbill and Yellow-legged Gull. The rain got heavier and the birds kept showing; Greenshank, Spotted Redshank and a couple of Curlews showed up as the tide started to drop. A break in the weather allowed a walk along the track and the bushes alongside produced Common Redstart, Common and Lesser Whitethroats, Bullfinches, Robins, Mistle Thrushes and a lone Dartford Warbler. A pair of Raven flew above us with their familiar clonking call. We dodged the rain showers at a couple more sites and were rewarded with a family of Woodlarks, Hobby, Northern Wheatear. An awesome day birding proving whatever the weather good birds can be found, thanks Pete!
Next morning was a different venue and a different Pete, this time Essex birder Pete Merchant. I met Pete at "the Patch", the famous sea watching site at Dungeness, on Kent's south coast.
Heaps of Northern Gannets were flying past when two small shearwaters were spotted. As they came closer we made out the smudgy brown underwing of Balearic Shearwaters. As we tracked them in the scope John Tilbrook arrived and we got him onto the birds. In the foreground a close Kittiwake flew past and my first and only Turnstone of the trip flew along the beach. I picked up a lone Arctic Skua distantly harassing a Black-headed Gull, the Skua was quickly followed by a second bird then Pete called another shearwater. As soon as I had it in the scope the shape and flight was very familiar to me … a Sooty Shearwater! Always good to see a bird from another hemisphere.
After about an hour the sea passage started to slow but there were reports of a good selection of birds on the ARC Pit so we headed there. First species of note was a couple of Spotted Flycatchers just outside the hide. The small islands outside the hide had an awesome selection of waders and wildfowl, Black-tailed Godwits, Golden Plover and Red Knot. New birds for the trip list included Temminck's Stint and Little Stint, Wood Sandpiper, Red-crested Pochards and a flock of Black Terns.
On the way to get a coffee at the visitor centre we found Tree Sparrows at the feeders, Marsh Harrier and two Great White Egrets flew around. As I said my farewells to Pete there was time for one more species - four Winchat sitting in the bushes on the entrance track. Dunge really came up with the goods and fine company, cheers Pete!
On my last full day, local patch Tudley Woods got me a few more birds for the trip list; Coal Tit, Goldcrest and Tree Creeper and at 7am the next morning I was drinking coffee at Heathrow Airport with 131 species on my Trip list. As the huge A380 airbus accelerated down the runway towards Abu Dhabi and Sydney I noticed a lone starling flying alongside trying to keep up. No chance! We disappeared into the grey clouds ...