The weather during 2013 commenced with a cold and protracted first winter period (including snowfall across the Romney Marsh) followed by a cool, wet spring that did no favours to many of our breeding birds. Summer was short and hot with a mild, wet and windy autumn and second winter period to follow, dominated by low pressure systems sweeping in from the Atlantic.
The winter scene around the Marsh was notable for large numbers of wildfowl on the gravel pits with plenty of Smew and Goldeneye on the bird reserve but few Goosander. Scarce grebes, Bitterns and Great White Egrets were obvious and a couple of Penduline Tits were noted in February. At Dungeness a Glaucous Gull present for its third winter proved popular, with another first winter bird briefly at the Patch, while offshore over a thousand Great Crested Grebes wintered amongst the auks, scoters, Gannets and Kittiwakes along with the odd Bonxie, Caspian and Yellow-legged Gull.
On Walland Marsh large flocks of Golden Plovers and Lapwings, winter thrushes, raptors, White-fronted Geese and Bewick`s Swans proved the main attraction, but few farmland passerines were noted apart from at a seed dump near Brenzett that attracted three species of buntings. Tree Sparrows depended on hand-outs at their traditional sites while Grey Partridge have all but disappeared from the Marsh avifauna. Inevitably with such a foot-fall of birders one or two goodies were discovered in the shape of Hen Harrier, Tundra Goose, Common Crane, Scaup and several flocks of Waxwings, including up to 30 at Johnson`s Corner.
On the local patch at Lade, Black-throated Diver, Red-breasted Merganser and Jack Snipe were the highlights while several Snow Buntings showed well on the beach at Littlestone. At Hythe sea front Purple Sandpipers remained faithful to the sea defence blocks.
Black-throated Diver, Lade
Purple Sandpiper, Hythe
With lengthening daylight hours attention was centred on the up-Channel spring passage off Dungeness. Brent Geese provided the spectacle along with a record one day passage of over 3,000 Red-throated Divers and plenty of ducks, terns, gulls and waders to keep the seawatchers busy, although Barwits were in short supply. The much anticipated skua passage was somewhat disappointing as many of the Poms passed well offshore. On the land the first Wheatears pitched up on 20th March followed by a light passage of Firecrests, Black Redstarts, Blackcaps and Chiffchaffs.
In late March a dash down to Rye Harbour paid off handsomely with two Kentish Plovers. Elsewhere around the Dungeness Peninsula, Avocets, Red Kites and Black-necked Grebes moved through along with a trio of rare ducks: Long-tailed at Scotney, Ring-necked at Lade and a Green-winged Teal on ARC. Two Penduline Tits continued to frustrate birders on the reserve and as Smew were replaced by Garganey spring had at long last sprung.
And so to the true summer migrants of which there were few and far between. At Dungeness a trickle of Common Redstart, Whinchat, Ring Ouzel and Pied Flycatcher were located amongst the more numerous Willow Warblers and Common Whitethroats, while Spotted Flycatcher and Cuckoo were in short supply and Turtle Dove largely absent. On the rarity front several Serins were found, a single Bee-eater performed well by the Light Railway Café and a stunning male Red-spotted Bluethroat led twitchers a merry dance across the shingle foreshore by the fishing boats. Elsewhere, at least six Red-rumped Swallows passed through the bird reserve, plus a Cattle Egret, Spoonbill, Little Stint and Pectoral Sandpiper, while a male Montagu`s Harrier `coasted` off Dungeness. At Lade a showy one day Alpine Swift delighted many locals and visitors alike as it hurtled over the adjacent caravan park hawking insects.
Alpine Swift, Lade
As already mentioned it was a stop-start breeding season for many birds due to cool, wet conditions. At Rye Harbour the Sandwich Tern and Mediterranean Gull colonies failed entirely, although Common Terns fared better there and at Dungeness, while Little Terns produced only a handful of young at Rye. On the plus side a colony of Black-headed Gulls at a working gravel pit site on the peninsula was largely successful and also contained two pairs of Mediterranean Gulls. Breeding waders did poorly (despite strenuous efforts by RSPB staff to help Lapwings on the bird reserve) largely due to predation and human disturbance with only Oystercatcher producing fledged young at Dungeness. On the plus side reed-bed warblers, Bearded Tit, Marsh Harrier, Water Rail and a pair of Bittern all prospered. Several pairs of Black Redstarts nested on the power station complex, along with Raven and Peregrine, while ever decreasing numbers of Wheatears just about clung on as a breeding species on the hinterland shingle. At Lydd Little Egrets once again nested in the heronry.
Black-tailed Godwits, Burrowes
Ruff and Pectoral Sandpiper, ARC
Autumn passage commenced with post breeding waders on the wetlands which also included Spotted Redshank and Ruff in breeding plumage. Wader aficionados enjoyed a rich seam with attractive habitat in front of Hanson and Firth hides pulling in flocks of common waders, plus Black-tailed Godwits, Little Stints, Curlew and Pectoral Sandpipers, and for the second year running a trans-Atlantic Semi-palmated Sandpiper was identified; while Scotney delivered a Dotterel amongst the Golden Plovers. At Dungeness, Roseate Tern and Balearic Shearwater were noted while one of the craziest records of the year went to a flock of 11 Goosanders over Dengemarsh on 3rd August!
While it was generally a wretched autumn for passerines, with little viz mig, there were two stand-out days. The first was on 23rd September which involved a huge passage of southward bound hirundines, mostly Swallows, along with many common warblers including Lesser Whitethroats, pipits, wagtails and chats, while with winds from the east in mid October `hundreds` of Ring Ouzels dropped in along the coastal scrub. An Ortolan showed all too briefly in Dengemarsh Gully, a Wryneck proved elusive at Galloways and several Yellow-browed Warblers were noted.
Dungeness is notable for the numbers of Sand Martins that move through the Peninsula and this year was no different with many thousands passing south well into the autumn. Yellow Wagtails however were lower in numbers with Turtle Dove and Goldcrest largely absent. Black Kite, Glossy Ibis and Jack Snipe showed well on the bird reserve and a large mixed flock of egrets, herons, Cormorants and grebes feeding on fish shoals provided an amazing spectacle.
Couses`s Arctic Redpoll, DBO
Fish-feeding frenzy, Burrowes
Glossy Ibis, ARC
At Dungeness Bird Observatory an afternoon in November will live long in the memory as three `species` of redpoll were studied in the hand, including a fine Coues`s Arctic Redpoll which was new for many a Dungeness list. As we moved into the second winter period Black Kite, Glossy Ibis and Great White Egrets lingered around the bird reserve and a Long-tailed Duck settled in at Scotney. Bewick`s Swans arrived in early November on Walland Marsh and two Short-eared Owls hunted the rough at Littlestone golf links. The year petered out with the expected sawbills on the gravel pits and wintering seabirds off Dungeness.
tally for the year was 211 species, which was slightly down on recent years but still delivered some memorable days birding across the Romney Marsh.
Let`s hope for another bird-rich year in 2014 and the very best of birding wherever you may be.