Thursday, 15 October 2015

Top notch autumn birding at Gibraltar Point!

This post is slightly tardy as I wanted to first finish a job application I'd been working on. Now I've completed and submitted that (first job I've applied for since finishing my degree last month, eek!) I can relive the fantastic day of birding we experienced on Sunday!

I was off once again with the West Midland Bird Club, and it was my first outing with them for a while having missed their September trip due to being in the Lake District. We were heading to Gibraltar Point, one of my favourite destinations, and I'd been looking forward to it for a while - anticipating getting a strong start on my autumn/winter birding! The easterly winds that had been blowing prior to our visit created very promising conditions. Things started very well with a completely unexpected sighting from the coach; we were driving along the A16 somewhere between Peterborough and Spalding when Carl and I spotted a very large bird up ahead, flying away from us parallel with the other side of the road. This meant we had some time to observe it, but the combination of the restricted view (we could only see it from the back) and its unexpected true identity meant we were stumped for a while. Could it be a Swan? Too grey. Some kind of massive goose?! As the coach drew level with it, it wheeled around and people on the other side of the coach got a full faceful, confirming that it was actually a Crane! Probably my best ever 'from a moving vehicle' sighting :o)

The birding action started immediately upon arriving at Gibraltar Point! As well as the steady trickle of Yellow-browed Warblers that had been arriving over the past few weeks, there was major excitement at the news of a Rustic Bunting, spotted along the cycle path beyond the plantation. As we made our way through the plantation, there were Goldcrests everywhere - there had been a huge fall overnight thanks to the easterly winds and as a result the trees and bushes nearly everywhere we went on the reserve were stuffed with Goldcrests. We kept our eyes and ears peeled for Yellow-browed Warblers but they proved elusive; however on our way down the track to look for the Rustic Bunting another small stripey-faced fellow was to be found - Firecrest! The first time I have seen one in the UK, having previously only spotted them in France. I also saw my first Redwings and Fieldfares of the autumn. We loitered awhile in the area where the Rustic Bunting had been seen by a lucky few, but there were increasing amounts of disturbance from passing dog walkers and joggers and the Bunting, if it was still around, stayed hidden. While we were waiting a large flock of Pink-footed Geese wheeled around several times above the adjacent field - more heard than seen due to the thick hedge between us, but still a nice sighting.

We headed down to the hides overlooking Tennyson's Sands, where we had nice views of Spotted and Common Redshank, Greenshank, Black-tailed Godwit, and a few distant raptors - Buzzard, Marsh Harrier and Kestrel. We also saw a lovely big flock of Golden Plovers flying about - one of my favourites. Then it was over the road to the dunes and saltmarsh to see what we could find there. From the hide overlooking the Mere we found a Snipe; otherwise things were fairly quiet. The Sea-buckthorn was in fruit and its orange berries were everywhere, ready to provide a feast for incoming birds - we saw a few Blackbirds tucking in, and even a Moorhen partaking. We sampled a few ourselves but they were slightly on the bitter side. I've heard you can get Sea-buckthorn ice cream in some places though which I would love to try!

Sea-buckthorn (Hippophae rhamnoides).
Down at the viewpoint overlooking the beach we found more waders - Grey Plover, Oystercatcher and Ringed Plover - as well as Herring and Black-headed Gulls. Out on a sand bar we could see large numbers of Grey Seals chilling out! The tide was quite far out so seawatching was a bit of an effort, but we did find a couple of Gannets. We then bumped into a couple of other members of our group who'd seen a Great Grey Shrike from the other viewpoint next to the beach so we walked down there pretty quicksharp! I always enjoy this walk as there is an expanse of low-growing, stressed vegetation that reminds me of tundra, and that I'm sure must be stuffed with Snow Buntings and Shorelarks just a bit later in the year.....

View from the viewpoint.

Tundra-like landscape, with some kind of Glasswort (Salicornia) alongside various other plants that probably looked a lot better earlier in the year.
We couldn't find the Shrike from the other viewpoint, so Mike decided to try again for the Rustic Bunting back near the plantation, and also Brambling which had been reported on the feeders. The birders who'd seen the Shrike had also said they'd been shown a Firecrest in the hand at the ringing station, so Carl and I took a brief detour over there to see if there was any ringing still going on. It turned out the ringers had packed up, but we found the Great Grey Shrike - hurrah! Excellent views were to be had from the viewpoint by the ringing station. We then went to catch up with Mike, swinging by the feeders first to see two Bramblings, then spotting a Firecrest (maybe the same one as earlier?) again in the same place as before. Mike hadn't had any luck with the Rustic Bunting, and time was running out, so we went back to the coach. However the day was not over yet, as a few others from our group had found a Black Redstart around the building site that will become the new visitor centre, so we all went and grabbed a look at that before jumping on the coach for a well-earned snooze on the long journey home.

This post has been conspicuously light on photos and drawings - I didn't take my zoom lens as it's rather weighty, but I wish I had as I was probably close enough to a few of the birds we saw to get some good photos. I need to rethink my gear carrying strategies - I think maybe more pockets could be the answer!

We'd had an excellent day, probably my best at Gibraltar Point, and it's got me all fired up for wintery birding after having a bit of a lull over summer and early autumn. Despite the disruption it would cause I'm privately hoping for a really epic winter (like 2010/11, good times) with loads of snow, sub-zero temperatures, Waxwings, Short-eared Owls and Snow Buntings....we'll see how things pan out though!

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