Sunday, 17 December 2017

Early winter bird surveys - Dec 2017

A round up of our early winter bird surveys (and a photo series of Tom F looking very cold in different habitats at Gatwick).

North West Zone

Tuesday December 12th: 8am


We hopped out of the car to find the ground was pretty much frozen solid. At around -3.5 degrees, this was the coldest morning of the year so far.


All seemed very quiet, with our first record being Blue Tits feeding on seed heads along a tall herb stand. Down within the channel of the River Mole, a flurry of activity and some strange calls indicated that we had just spooked a Water Rail...




Taxiway Juliet, adjacent to the River Mole

Further along the river, we came to a wet field with stands of rushes. Along the hedge line, a group of three Roe Deer carefully squeezed their way through a broken fence. As we walked steadily through the field, we kept our eyes peeled in case we flushed some winter visiting waders. The lumbering ecologists enjoyed a partial success with one noisy Common Snipe...


Common Snipe (Gallinago gallinagoRSPB

Further along the river, Dunnock, Wren and Reed Bunting called from the reed beds and a small group of Fieldfare shot over our heads, their colour catching brilliantly in the morning light. Several more Common Snipe nipped off as we headed further down into the floodplain and upon reaching the water's edge a small group of Teal took flight. This is the first time we've seen Teal here since our bird surveys began in 2012.

River Mole floodplain grassland

In the grassland and scrub adjacent to Brockley Wood, we flushed another winter visiting wader; a Woodcock looks rather similar to a Snipe, except that it is a much bulkier bird and they prefer to feed under the cover of scrub and woodland.

Woodcock (Scolopax rusticola) RSPB


Winter sun, northern edge of Brockley Wood

Rounding the north of Brockley Wood, a pair of Ring-necked Parakeets were calling loudly and then making quieter sub-vocalisations. This non-native seems to be increasing its range along the transect, and so might soon become a new breeding species in Brockley Wood.

Ring-necked Parakeet (Psittacula krameriRSPB





Fieldfare and Song Thrush put on a good show along the lines of scrub of the River Mole valley, with only a few Redwing apparent today. Mixed flocks of smaller birds such as Long-tailed Tits and Goldcrests were also enjoying the dense scrub. A Great Spotted Woodpecker torpedoed past us while a pair of Goldfinches were feeding busily on the river bank teasels.


River Mole floodplain grassland

Toward the end of the transect, things seemed to go rather quiet again. Pushing through the woody vegetation on the riverbank, we caught a view of a group of small birds pursuing a Sparrowhawk above the treeline. The group about-turned and passed back over our heads, their calls identifying to us a victorious band of Goldfinches.


Final count: 36 species (just one off our winter bird survey record):

Blackbird
Blue Tit
Bullfinch
Carrion Crow
Chaffinch
Common Buzzard
Dunnock
Fieldfare
Goldcrest
Goldfinch
Great Spotted Woodpecker
Great Tit
Green Woodpecker
Jackdaw
Jay
Kestrel
Magpie
Mallard
Meadow Pipit
Moorhen
Nuthatch
Pheasant
Pied Wagtail
Redwing
Reed Bunting
Ring-necked Parakeet
Robin
Snipe (Common)
Song Thrush
Sparrow Hawk
Teal
Treecreeper
Water Rail
Wood Pigeon
Woodcock
Wren


Land East of the Railway Line

Thursday December 12th: 8am


Flood attenuation area, Gatwick Stream

A marginally warmer day, but with a stronger breeze meant the cold was still felt by this weather-hardened ornithological pair. 

Bring zipped right up to the top helps stop the teeth chattering

Being coffee-d up to the eyeballs certainly helps though, and it is always with a sense of excitement that we stomp our way through the relatively young grassland habitat here. Sadly, we didn't manage to flush any Snipe this morning, instead just a few Wood Pigeon and Carrion Crow were about as exciting as it got, and a flock of Goldfinches bouncing over our heads.

Flood attenuation area, Gatwick Stream

Things took a quick upward turn however, when I found us a new species to the airport! It was while standing next to a thick stand of Soft Rush that I saw something my brain refused to register... 

'Erm, Tom, is that a melanistic Long-tailed Tit, or a Dartford Warbler?!'

Dartford Warbler (Sylvia undataRSPB



This feisty little bird put on quite a show, so Tom clapped me on the back and I felt that warming smugness of being the first to spot a new species on a survey.

The dense stands of Soft Rush in the flood attenuation area

We left the low lying floodplain and trekked into the Upper Picketts Wood, the entrance of which was busy with ground-feeding Song Thrushes and Redwings. The center of the woodland was much quieter, and some sudden Blue Tit alarm calls caused us to look up high; a Red Kite was skimming low over the tree tops. This is another new species for the transect.

Red Kite (Milvus milvusRSPB


A roving tit flock moving through the canopy included a noisy group of Lesser Redpolls, which are becoming a more frequent occurrence here in recent winters. A skirmish between three Nuthatches caught our eye, with undersides flashing orange in the sunlight, causing us to give a double take...

But this was not the orange-coloured bird that we were looking for.

Bee hotel and dead hedge in Goat Meadow

Pushing through Goat Meadow, we unfortunately didn't turn up our trusty Marsh Tits, despite hearing them here regularly. In a clearing next to Lower Picketts Wood, I was distracted by a loudly alarm-calling Fieldfare which I then followed, hoping to spot a bird of prey. While I was busy looking the other way, it was then that Tom F spotted something sitting up proudly on a massive old Hawthorn bush...


Hawfinch (Coccothraustes coccothraustesRSPB

This was most definitely a new species to the airport! Hawfinches are incredibly elusive around these parts, with most being winter visitors and very few resident or breeding in the UK. They are rather shy and their calls are almost Robin-like, making this a tricky one to I.D. by sound. We knew there had been an unusually large influx of birds flying in from the continent this winter, with many sightings across Surrey and Sussex.


I have known Mr Forward a long time now, and he is a very honest chap, so let the record state that he recorded Gatwick's first Hawfinch (but I got the first Dartford Warbler).

Twisting Hornbeam, Lower Picketts Wood

Continuing through the woodland strip, we turn up our trusty Chaffinch calling from the same corner every year. The other finch species frequently present here is Bullfinch, and we glimpsed of a pair of white rumps disappearing away from us. At the end of the transect, by the railway line bordering the western edge of Horleyland Wood, we were treated to a mega-flock of Long-tailed Tits, Blue Tits, Great Tits, Coal Tits, Tree Creepers and Goldcrests.

So that makes 3 new species to the survey; Red Kite, Dartford Warber and Hawfinch, the latter 2 being new to the airport. These surveys never get dull, and I'm already excited about the next ones in February!

Final count = 36 species (again)

Blackbird
Black-headed Gull
Blue Tit
Bullfinch
Carrion Crow
Chaffinch
Chiffchaff
Coal Tit
Collared Dove
Common Buzzard
Dartford Warbler
Dunnock
Fieldfare
Goldcrest
Goldfinch
Great Spotted Woodpecker
Great Tit
Green Woodpecker
Grey Heron
Hawfinch
Jackdaw
Jay
Long-tailed Tit
Magpie
Meadow Pipit
Mistle Thrush
Nuthatch
Pied Wagtail
Red Kite
Redpoll (Common/Lesser)
Redwing
Robin
Song Thrush
Stonechat
Treecreeper
Wood Pigeon
Wren