Sunday, 23 February 2014

Dungeness winter Kitiwakes

A first-winter Kittiwake roosting on the beach at Dungeness.
Kittiwakes patrolling the Dungeness shoreline.

Walking along the beach at Dungeness I'm more often than not greeted with Kittiwakes to-ing and fro-ing along the shoreline looking for fishermen's handouts. In winter, the Dungeness Kittiwakes have learnt to survive alongside the larger gulls by feeding on fishermen's ofal and the discards of sea anglers who line the beach daily. This February, there seems to be plenty of Kittiwakes present, sometimes in their hundreds. Most Kittiwakes winter far out to sea, with new evidence that some birds failing to breed on UK coasts fly to Canadian waters before returning to British waters the following spring. It's also suggested that successful breeding birds stay closer to UK shores in the winter, like these birds at Dungeness.

At Dungeness there are Kittiwakes of all ages - from first-winter to adult birds. In size, they're similar to a Black Headed Gull, but more stout. They're much smaller than a Herring Gull and, because of this, they can hold their own when scavenging, out-manouvering Herring and Black Backed Gulls for discards. Patrolling the surfline, the Kittiwakes' agility enables them to slowly glide and watch the surf, quickly dipping into the water for a variety of prey. Kittiwakes have a large beak gape enabling them to swallow surprisingly big fish quickly, lessoning the chance of a Herring Gull steal.

Adult Kittiwake showing-off its bright red gape.
Gutsy juvenile Kittwakes rarely loose out to the fury of the Herring Gull
This Kittiwake has caught a Sea Mouse, a hairy marine worm often seen washed up on the tide line after storms.
Here, a fisherman's discarded Whiting becomes the Kittiwake's meal.
.. and here before a larger Gull gets a sniff, the Kittiwate is swallowing a bulky Ling.

Through from late summer to winter adolescent Kittiwakes have striking 'W' shaped markings across their wings and back. As the birds twist and turn in flight they look striking.
A first winter Kittiwake with 'designer' W plumage and black tail tips.

A first spring Kittiwake developing a yellow bill.
Kittiwakes don't seem particularly perturbed by people. They will sit and roost on the beach, reluctant to fly up when people walk by. A mixed flock of Kittiwakes with Black Headed Gulls will always see the Black Headed Gulls fly up first before a Kittiwake feels the need to make a move. In winter, adult Kittiwakes have a lemon/yellow bill and a designer silver collar on their necks - making them appear a pretty and attractive gull.

Adult winter Kitiwake, it will loose its grey head markings for its breeding summer plumage soon.

First winter Kittiwakes.

Kittiwake fishing in the surf at Dungeness.

Kittiwakes take four years to mature - many at the beach are this age, with the bill almost yellow.
Adult and first winter Kittiwakes just weeks away from moving north to UK and European breeding grounds.

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Passing Marsh harrier and fallen trees at Packing Wood

This afternoon, we had a walk around Packing Wood to view the damage done by the recent storms where a great many conifers have fallen or simply snapped in the wind.
 In the standing Pines there were small flocks of Siskins and Redpolls and over-head a fine Marsh Harrier hurried by to avoid a local Buzzard unsettled by its presence.

There are many dozens of fallen Spruces in Packing Wood

Female Marsh Harrier flying high over Packing wood 19-2-2014

Sunday, 16 February 2014

Secretive Crossbills and 'Peckers in Orlestone

With a rare morning of sunshine and calmness ahead, I decided to head to the plantations of Orlestone Forest in search of our more interesting birds. Top of my list was to check whether the winter Crossbills were still to be found. Orlestone, even at the best of times, can be a dis-spiriting birdwatching experience; patience and time are needed to find anything other than an unwelcome Squirrel. What's more, as I arrived early in the morning, I wondered if there would be anything avian left in the woods after the wind and rain endured week after week. I spent two hours looking and listening in the conifer plantation and then scanning high above and silence prevailed. Still, after an hour, plenty of common woodland birds including, Song Thrush, Bullfinch, G.S woodpeckers, Green woodpeckers, Nuthatch and Treecreeper plus a small party of Siskins - but no sign or sound of Crossbills or anything else out of the ordinary. 

Walking beyond the plantation, with views over Romney Marsh, again not a great deal to report - one pair of Buzzards took to the air. I continued to watch and and listen intently from the plantation edge. With another hour ticking by, I was resigned to a poor mornings' birdwatching but then to save the morning a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker burst into call close by. Frustratingly, I couldn't locate the bird. Keeping to the mean spirit of the forest the Woodpecker was never to call again. Still, the one call was enough and adds a new location for Lesser Spotted Woodpecker within the forest, painting a picture of a bird holding its own in numbers and distributed thinly and wildly across the forest. So at last, a good find for the morning.

As I walked back to the woodland entrance with my car in sight, two plump finches flew from the top of a large spruce in front of my feet.  They followed the path and landed high in an oak above my car, disappearing into the canopy.  As I walked towards them, I couldn't relocate them and thought they'd flown away. But as I arrived at my car I checked through the tree canopy once more, and refound them. A fine pair of Crossbills and, even better, so close that I could see the female carrying a beak-full of twigs in her bill. I think this is a 'Eureka' moment as I now have evidence that Common Crossbills are attempting to breed in the forest.

Looking down on my car, a female common Crossbill