SPRING & EARLY SUMMER BIRDING HIGHLIGHTS

William Legge writes:

To say that this period’s weather was mixed is probably an understatement. Following an unseasonably cold, but sunny April and a cold wet and windy May, hints of summer finally broke through in early-June. Still, truly fine days were generally at a premium and when they came the mercury sizzled! Birding-wise it was a busy few months with spring migration delivering both the expected and the unexpected and a breeding season that is turning out to be the best this century.

April-May

Despite the colder conditions, spring migrants arrived largely on schedule, with the first House Martin logged on April 1st, Willow Warbler on 3rd, Whitethroat on 5th, two Reed Warblers on 14th, Sedge Warbler on 21st, three Swifts on 25th and three Garden Warblers on 26th.  Willow Warblers, purely a passage migrant at Fleet Pond these days, put in a particularly good showing with a peak of nine present on April 13th. There were plenty of late winter migrants encountered too with an influx of Brambling between April 6th-21st, peaking at 15 on 14th, along with small numbers of Lesser Redpoll until April 14th, Siskin until 19th and the last Redwing on 15th.

Scarcer migrants included a 2nd calendar year (CY) male Marsh Harrier flying low over the Pond early on April 11th; the reserve’s third recorded bird of the species over the last 12-months after a barren decade. A female Redstart was sighted working its way through the woodland on the east side of the Reserve on April 14th.

A Dark-bellied Brent Goose seen from the Lions’ View platform was an excellent find early on April 16th, representing the site’s first record since October 2005. It is suspected of being the individual that resided at nearby Tice’s Meadow for much of this spring.

A Great White Egret dropped into the Reserve at midday on April 28th during heavy rain, and remained hunkered down in the heronry through to the end of the day. A vocal and mobile Ring-necked Parakeet was seen in trees adjoining the station car park for an hour on April 30th.

Migrant wildfowl included the discovery of a female (2nd CY) Common Goldeneye (pictured above) associating with Tufted Ducks on May 14th, representing the first May record for Fleet Pond and the first Goldeneye at the Reserve since 2014.  More expected were sightings of Hobby from April 30th onwards, Cuckoo from May 2nd and single Peregrines on April 21st and May 4th, respectively. Flyover migrants included seven Yellow Wagtails over the north on April 28th and two Ravens heading southeast on May 12th.

In contrast to Spring 2020, migrant waders disappointed with the only notables being Common Sandpipers on April 13th and May 7th; a flyover Oystercatcher on May 13th and good numbers of Common Snipe into the third week of April including 16 on 13th.

Migrant terns were also lighter than usual. The first Common Tern was logged on April 16th, with two regularly seen from April 19th into mid-May and a high count of four on May 8th. The only other tern species noted was an Arctic Tern on May 4th. On the other hand, gulls didn’t disappoint with the spring build-up of Black-headed Gulls peaking on April 19th when 1,200 roosted, comprising a mixture of migrants and the Reserve’s returning breeders. Mediterranean Gulls again flirted with the Black-headed Gull colony with a minimum of 13 individuals logged between April 1st and May 15th. There were peaks of four on April 16th and 19th, including a pair which remained in residence to April 30th.  Scarcer gulls included a brief adult Kittiwake on April 5th, two Common Gulls on April 19th and a single on May 8th.  Single Little Gulls (pictured below) were sighted on April 24th (adult), 28th (2nd CY), May 3rd (adult) and another 2nd CY between May 4th-15th which subsequently relocated to nearby Tice’s Meadow.

June and the Breeding Season

The biggest gull surprise was the persistent presence of several Herring Gulls (illustrated  below) well into the spring.

By mid-May a pair settled down to nest on Cormorant Island, hatching a single chick which was first seen on June 16th and was swimming by July 7th. While Herring Gull is a regular sight at Fleet Pond in winter and a regular flyover migrant throughout the year, this pair represents the first ever record of Herring Gull breeding at Fleet Pond. With a Hampshire breeding population of around 200 pairs, almost all centered around Southampton and the adjoining coastal area, inland breeding remains rare within the county.

Two hundred pairs of Black-headed Gull raised an estimated 100 young this year, well down on recent summers with the lack of success put down to the stormy weather experienced in mid-to-late May.

Gulls aside, it was an amazing year for breeding wildfowl and a few other species as well.  Not only were there record numbers of ducks breeding, but the survival rate of the young seemed to be higher than it has been in decades. What’s the secret ingredient this year? Well, it appears Fleet Pond’s better water quality, increased aquatic invertebrate and plant populations, particularly the growth of horned pondweed, provide some answers, in part due to last year’s fish die off. The numbers tell the story with 21 broods of Mallard (30+ young raised), 12 broods of Tufted Duck (30+ young raised), seven broods of Gadwall (illustrated below) (22+ young raised), and one brood of Pochard (four young raised).

In addition, it is believed that two pairs of Shoveler attempted to breed but were unsuccessful. The re-establishment of Pochard as a breeding species is particularly pleasing after an absence of 26 years and the stunning success of Gadwall is notable.  One pair of Mute Swan are raising five cygnets (down from seven) while there were at least eight broods of Canada Geese (15+ young raised) and two pairs of Greylag Geese, the latter producing seven young, none of which survived.  Coot also had a strong breeding season with 13 broods from ten pairs, with the Pond’s conditions attracting an influx of others. A count of 80 in mid-July is the highest Coot count at the Reserve in over 40+ years! At least one pair of Water Rail were successful.  Passerine breeding included a pair of Cetti’s Warblers adjoining Hemelite Bay, and Reserve territory counts of 30 Reed Warbler, 23 Blackcap, ten Chiffchaff, seven Reed Bunting, five Whitethroat, three Garden Warbler, two Sedge Warbler and one Firecrest (Brookly Wood).

June on-breeding scarcities were few, but a Pink-footed Goose (pictured above) which arrived with a flock of Greylag Geese on June 16 certainly caused heads to turn.  Remaining in residence until at least July 15, it undertook its annual moult with other geese at the pond, a time when geese are unable to fly for a few weeks. Pink-footed Goose is a winter visitor to northern Britain and East Anglia, and this individual should have been in Iceland or Greenland right now but for some reason, perhaps health or as a lost and inexperienced young bird, it decided to remain in the UK. Whilst it could conceivably be an escapee, the former explanation is believed to be more likely. Otherwise, June pickings included a flock of four Ravens over west on June 12th and an adult Little Grebe on the Little Pond on June 28th.

Switching to invertebrates, there were some notable butterflies encountered at the Reserve with a White Admiral (Gelvert Stream) (pictured below) and the Wood Lane Heath attracting at least nine Silver-studded Blue, Essex Skipper and several Large Skipper.

It was a packed three months and now with the autumn migration underway, anticipation is high. Good Birding!

Contributing Observers: Evelyn Auld, David Buckler, Ed Butler, John Clark, D Cox, K P Duncan, N Hayward, J Kennett, S Mansfield, S Miles, J Mist, P Rowse and Graham Stephenson.

Picture credits: Little Gulls, Common Goldeneye—Ed Butler; Pink-footed Goose—Graham Stephenson; Bird illustrations—RSPB www.rspb.org.uk/birds-and-wildlife/wildlife-guides/bird-a-z/

White Admiral butterfly—Iain Leach White Admiral (butterfly-conservation.org)

Ed’s note:  William refers to Tice’s Meadow Reserve a couple of times in his report.  If you want to know more about this site visit their website: Tice’s Meadow (ticesmeadow.org)


WINTER & EARLY SPRING BIRDING HIGHLIGHTS

The first quarter of 2021 delivered a real mixed bag of weather but the birds took it all in their stride.

January, and the first few weeks of February, were uneventful bird-wise with few reports of interest, the best being three Wigeon on 1st Jan and counts of seven Shoveler and 59 Snipe on 17th Jan. Surveys of winter roosts produced counts of 350 Jackdaws on 18th Jan and 6th Feb and 150 Magpies on Feb. 4, while the Cetti’s Warbler, first reported back in late October, remained at home in the reedbeds in the northwest corner of the Pond. As the cold weather took hold in the second week of February, the Pond froze forcing an exodus of wildfowl and other waterbirds. The exception was an Egyptian Goose whose timing could not have been worse, hatching a small brood of young at that time, with mum and two small goslings seen standing on ice on 11th Feb. Unsurprisingly, the young were not seen again.

As a non-native it seems that Egyptian Geese have not quite mastered the timing of our seasons and are still prone to nest at almost any time of the year.

Return of the wildfowl

In the third week of February the ice melted, open water returned and the spring migration beckoned. The Pond took on a new lease on life, and to everyone’s surprise quickly started to attract growing numbers of wildfowl. It was as if someone had sprinkled pixie dust on the reserve! Obviously, something good was going on in the ecosystem below the surface, creating better feeding conditions, particularly for diving ducks. As those of you who are regular readers of this column will know, we birders have been lamenting the lack of winter wildfowl at Fleet Pond in recent decades, so it is great to share a positive development.

Wildfowl started to arrive soon after the ice melted; Tufted Duck took top honours with 48 counted on 21st February, rising to 57 by 4th March, and 48 still present at the end of March. These are all the highest counts at Fleet Pond since the late 1980s.  Three Pochard joined the Tufted Ducks on 3rd March.  Normally a one-day wonder, as recent Pochard sightings at Fleet Pond have been prone to be, they stayed and attracted others with a peak count of eight present on 21st March (with six still present at the end of March).  Gadwall numbers peaked at 17 on 21st February, with 14 still present at the end of March, with Teal and Shoveler bringing up the rear with peaks of eight and four respectively.  Optimism is high that at least four of these five species will stay to breed this year.  Fingers crossed!

Highlight of the spring — so far

Oblivious to the UK and European COVID movement restrictions imposed on us humans, the spring bird migration kicked in at the beginning of March.

This year it started with a bit of a ‘bang’ through the discovery of a pair of Red-crested Pochard in the middle of the Pond early on 5th March. While there is a small self-sustaining feral population of Red-crested Pochards centered around Cotswold Water Park in Wiltshire, this pair showed all the characteristics of being a truly wild pair on migration from their wintering grounds in Southern Europe, (Spain in particular) on their way to breeding grounds in north Central Europe. A very scarce migrant to the UK, this pair spent most of the day sleeping at distance as migrants often do, recovering from their overnight journey before feeding late in the afternoon.

The highlight of the spring thus far, they were perfectly documented by John Sutton who happened to be in the right place at the right time to capture this image.

Departing that night, they were not seen the following day. This the eighth record of Red-crested Pochard for Fleet Pond, with last dating back to September 2002.

Summer migrants

The first expected summer migrants appeared mid-March with a singing Chiffchaff logged on 14th March (the same arrival date as 2020), followed by the first Sand Martin on 15th March (two days earlier than in 2020), with Blackcap on 17th March, Swallow on 25th March and a Willow Warbler on 30th March. Good numbers of Sand Martins were sighted heading over the Pond in the last week of the month with 60 logged on 25th March and 62 on 29th. Three further Swallows seen on 27th March.

Other notable migrants included two Ravens flying northeast on 15th March, 22 Meadow Pipits heading over north on 22nd March and a male Wheatear at Fugelmere Marsh on 30th March. (illustrated below)

Raptors of note included sightings of Peregrine Falcon on 9th and 28th March. (illustrated below)

Gull passage becomes more evident as March progressed but was well below 2020’s exceptional levels. Black-headed Gulls returned to claim their nesting sites on the central islands early in the month, and the first of the now annual Mediterranean Gull was logged on 11th March, with subsequent records from 15th March (two), 27th March (five) and 28th March (one).  25 Herring Gulls took refuge on the Pond in stormy weather on 10th March with several single digits counts of this species later in the month, but only a handful of Common Gulls were logged this spring. Related oddities included an early Sandwich Tern (illustrated first below) that spent most the day perched on island posts on 28th March and a brief appearance of a Kittiwake (1st winter) (illustrated second below) that afternoon.

Both species are rarely seen inland but fortunately Fleet Pond seems to attract more than its fair share.

Return of the Grebes

Thankfully, Great Crested Grebes returned to the Pond after February’s freeze, culminating in a peak count of ten on 31st March, matching March 2020’s peak count and at least four Water Rails were in residence in March. There was, however, disappointing news on our Grey Herons, with only three nests located this year down from as many as ten a few years ago.  Little Egrets were evident throughout with a high count of three roosting on 22nd March and encouragingly there were numerous sightings of Kingfisher and Green Woodpecker.

With much spring migration still to come and this summer’s breeding season full of potential, there is plenty to observe so I encourage members to get out there, get some fresh air and enjoy the wonders of the avian world right on your doorstep.

Contributing Observers: Evelyn Auld, Dave Buckler, E. Butler, John Clark, N. Hayward, J Kennett, Graham Stephenson and John Sutton.

Photo credits:  John Sutton; Bird illustrations—RSPB www.rspb.org.uk/birds-and-wildlife/wildlife-guides/bird-a-z/

 


Late Autumn & Early Winter Birding Highlights

It has been a rather dull and wet few months. Temperatures were at or above normal particularly in November, before turning colder in the last week of December and on into early January. Rainfall was generally above average, especially in October, with plenty of strong winds crowned by Storm Bella in late December.

Birding-wise it was a rather uneventful few months. October yielded few autumn migrants of note, other than the continued presence of the male Garganey, first seen on August 6th and last seen on October 21st, a late date for this summer migrant.

Good numbers of Shoveler remained into mid-October, with 40 logged on October 9th. Most moved on thereafter, with only a handful reported in November and a December high count of six on 23rd.

Other notable wildfowl included several reports of:

  • Pochard, with two on October 4th and counts of three on December 2nd and 11th.
  • Wigeon with two on November 6th and December 28th.
  • Teal numbers peaked at 17 on November 15th.
  • Gadwall at five on December 9th.
  • Mallard at 82 on December 13th.
  • Roosting geese were ever present with winter high counts of 130 Greylag Geese on December 19th and 205 Canada Geese on December 24th.
  • A lone Shelduck was an unexpected visitor on December 28. (Illustrated below)

Great Crested Grebe numbers disappointed all autumn, with up to three present to mid-January. This suggests that August’s fish die-off has rendered Fleet Pond less attractive for this avid fish eater for now. We should be expecting counts of between 10-20 at this time of year, so we will be monitoring this species carefully this year and hoping for a return to form.

A Little Grebe, a scarce but expected autumn visitor, was present between October 31st-November 2nd.

Good News

Better news included a count of 12 Water Rails in the reedbed circling the Pond at the end of October/early November. Equally pleasing was the good numbers of Common Snipe wintering this year with 55 logged on December 13th and 37 on January 2nd.

Highlight of the period was a female Marsh Harrier (illustrated above) observed hunting at the reserve mid-morning on December 8th, becoming the second record for this rare raptor at Fleet Pond in 2020.

On October 20th, a male Cetti’s Warbler announced its presence from the station car park reedbeds with its distinct and loud song; it was still being heard at the end of November. Spring 2020 saw the first establishment of a breeding territory of Cetti’s Warbler at the reserve, so optimism prevails for a repeat performance in 2021.

Similarly, Firecrest (illustrated above) is now becoming a regular in these reports, with two observed in woodland at the end of Wellington Avenue in early December and another (or the same) coming from the Brookly Wood on January 1st.

Reports of Stonechat included pairs at the MoD fields on November 9th and in Wood Lane Heath on December 8th.

Winter finches were present in average numbers with up to 300 Siskins and smaller flocks of Lesser Redpolls, favouring the Brookly Stream alders, at the end of December and into January, and other reports were received from Sandy Bay.  More notable were a flock of four Crossbills (illustrated below) and a further single overflying the reserve on December 9th and 10th, respectively.

Encouragingly there were several reports of Kingfisher and Green Woodpecker at the reserve too. Green Woodpecker used to be a regular sight here until 2018, when it is suspected the very cold ‘Beast of the East’ spring weather that year extirpated the local population, so it is good to hear they are recovering and returning!

Finally, autumn and winter roosts included peaks of 250 Redwing on November 22nd, 420 Jackdaw on October 26th and 320 on December 30th, 115 Magpie on December 30th and one or two Little Egrets inconsistently through to the end of the year.

Looking forward for us avid birders, the good news is that we only have a few more weeks until the spring migration gets underway in early March. By that time I hope COVID-19 will be well in retreat and a return to more normal times in sight.  Good birding!

William Legge

Contributing Observers: David Buckler, John Clark, Martin Pitt, P. Rowse, Graham Stephenson and Gary Watton

 



Planning Application for Northern Footpath – Important

We have objected to and made comments on the planning application that has been submitted by Hart District Council to widen the path that runs alongside Fleet Pond and the railway station car park.

Comments have to be made by 11 January. You might like to do that on the Planning Portal against reference 20/03004/FUL. Full details can be found here: https://publicaccess.hart.gov.uk/online-applications/applicationDetails.do?activeTab=summary&keyVal=QKUWPEHZFXY00.

These are the main aspects we commented on:

1)      The timing of the proposed works is unacceptable.

2)      The ecological mitigation proposed for the path works is not sufficient and is unacceptable.

3)      The edging design for the path is unacceptable for Fleet Pond SSSI and badly thought out.

4)      The general design of the footpath is poor and could be made more acceptable for visitors.

5)      No control of the loss of trees is being offered.

6)      The application does not comply with planning policy.

Full details on the above  comments: Coms on plan app for NW Path Dec 20_jsV1090121

We were quite surprised when we discovered earlier this week that the application had been submitted in early December 2020. This has made it difficult for us to communicate with you in a meaningful way. There is a substantial amount of documentation in the application. Up to this point we have had some good, constructive liaison with HDC’s Countryside Service and have achieved a number of significant changes to their original plans.

Jim Storey, Chairman, Fleet Pond Society