Saturday, 11 November 2017

Hunting the Unicorn

One of the joys of my new job is working on animals and habitats I find really interesting, either with students or without. Next month, I will be responsible for taking 50 second year's birding at a site that was, until Tuesday, a complete unknown to me. Farlington Marshes is a Wildlife Trust reserve in the Langstone and Chicester Harbour protected area. An amazing mix of grazing land, mud flat and fresh and saltwater ponds, it is well known for winter migrant wildfowl.

In the interests of delivering an excellent field trip, I thought it a good idea to go for a walk around the reserve and identify the best sites and key species. The tide was in when we arrived and the freshwater lake was full of teal and dunlin, with a smattering of turnstone and grey plover. Brent geese were bobbing in the harbour and grazing on the marsh, accompanied by curlew and canada geese.

As we walked round the seawall an onshore breeze was driving spray onto the path, and we could sea another large wader flock on an island that barely broke the water's surface away to our right. Linnet were present in the scrub and a pair of stone chat sat upon the barbwire. At the second pond, shoveler and wigeon mixed in with the teal, and black tailled godwit fed in the shallows. Edging further around the path we heard Cetti's warbler in the reedbed.

We waited there for a while, hoping for a view of the Cetti's, a chance bearded tit or silent short eared owl, but we were not in luck, and before long the cold wind drove us back to the car. 

I can see why the reserve is popular with both birders and migrants, the habitat mix and location are ideal. I'm just hoping for less of a breeze when the students and I are back in December. With the right conditions, who knows what we might see!

Unsurprisingly, there were plenty of brent geese

G plover and dunlin were present in large numbers.

A few lectures, a little marking, and one very long meiofauna practical later, and the weekend rolled round again. After seeing the numerous reports of hawfinch from all over the county, and the supposed influx following the Saharan dust storm, I decided that my next target would be my unicorn bird. Long standing readers will know that I try to get this bird each year on my birthday, heading out for a walk around Cromford or Clumber Park back home. These annual escapades clearly weren't working. Hoping for a sure thing, I went back to Lee Evan's site guide; finding two odds on sites in the Hampshire area, both of which generally host flocks of around 30 from mid-November onward. With fingers definitely crossed, and a longer than usual lie-in under our belt, Jack and I bundled into the car on Saturday morning and headed of to Rhinefield Enclosure, tucked away in the new forest. 

The guide suggested waiting for dusk for incoming roosters, but we arrived at 11; wandering aimlessly around the arboretum and surrounding forestry land, keeping an eye on the treetops. After an hour we'd seen very little (I'm not a fan of birding in woodland, the trees get in the way); coal tits, GS woodpecker, siskin and goldcrest. But no hawfinches. My hopes weren't up to begin with, and when Jack suggested lunch I was more than happy to bail to the Swan Inn for a fantastic hot lunch and dessert, returning to the Enclosure around an hour before dusk. 

Now the midgies were out, rising from the drizzle-damp glass to cloud around our faces. We walked another lap of the arboretum before settling in beside the gate to wait for returning birds. We sat/stood around for another 45 minutes, and I was almost ready to wrap it up. A few birds had come and gone, mainly siskins, but there was no sign of my unicorn.... Then something flashed into a dead pine just obscured from view. Jack went one side of the tree and I went the other, just in time to see the flash of a white terminal band on the tail. That was it right?! That white tail bar? Another bird flashed up, a black bib obvious under its beak, and I was finally confident enough to shout across to Jack that I was on the bird. 

Over the next few minutes we watched around 10 birds in the Enclosure, before finally giving up after a particularly noise group flushed the flock. The pictures weren't great, I was midge bitten and cold, but I had found the unicorn. Not only that, but in the last week we had added this, grey phalarope, dartford wabler and cattle egret to Jack's life list. That's before sand martin or greenshank; wish I'd gotten that kind of running start!

Hawfinch record

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