Sunday, 23 December 2012

Birding in the West of Hampshire

Over the last few weeks bird ringing activity has been non-existent, mainly due to the waves of torrential rain and high winds that have been sweeping the country. Even just getting out to do a spot of birding has been difficult, unless, that is, you are covered from head to toe with waterproofs. However, over the weekend of 8/9th December I did manage to get in a spot of birding in the west of County.

Wetland Area with Lapwing, Wigeon, Black-tailed Godwit and Glossy Ibis (the small black dot in the middle)

I had not recently been birding in this area and with the arrival of a few unusual birds it seemed like a good place to go on the one day it wasn't raining, although it looked like it was going to at any minute. My first port of call was Bickerley Common, a flooded meadow to the south of Ringwood. Most of the river valleys in Hampshire are swollen at the moment, and the River Avon is no exception. Water has spilled from the main river channel into the adjacent floodplain creating some interesting wetland habitat for birds. On the plus side this has created sanctuary areas that have become inaccessible to humans thereby limiting disturbance, but on the negative side, there are so many of these flooded areas that birds are widely spread and often difficult to find. But this is not the case at Bickerley Common, where the flooded meadow has become a haven for wetland birds, with the two most noteworthy species being glossy ibis and great white egret.

Great White Egret

Arriving at the site the closest bird was the great white egret, this species has become semi-resident in the area over the last few years, with a colour-ringed bird, originally of French origin, spending most winters at the nearby Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust (HIWWT), Blashford Lakes reserve. Unfortunately this bird spent all of its time feeding in thigh deep water and so it was not possible to see if it was the colour-ringed individual.

Great White Egret

In contrast the glossy ibis was happily feeding right at the back and was virtually the furthest bird, giving acceptable scope views but useless for photography (as can be seen in the first picture). There was also a good mix of other wetland species including black-tailed godwit, snipe, green sandpiper, lapwing, kingfisher, Canada and greylag goose, teal, wigeon, gadwall, shoveler and tufted duck. So a good variety of species to start the day. I next headed up to the Avon causeway and Harbridge in search of a Bewick's swan, a species which used to winter in large numbers in the Avon Valley, but those days are long gone. With no sign of the Bewick's and not much else to see in the area I headed back to the HIWWT's Blashford Lakes reserve.

Little Grebe

I started at Ibsley Water and more wetland birds. The middle of the day is not the best time to visit since all of the goosanders will have dispersed across the valley, but nonetheless there were still birds to see, pochard, tufted duck, goldeneye, pintail and good numbers of shoveler. Another noteworthy species for its scarcity these days was ruddy duck, an introduced species  from North America into the UK, that has recently undergone a massive decline due to a licenced cull. The species' fate was sealed due to its interbreeding with the closely related and much rarer white-headed duck in Spain. Ruddy ducks are the more dominant species, as with many North America species, and have been identified as one of the causes of the decline of the now endangered white-headed duck. The licenced cull has been very effective and now only very small numbers of this species exist in the UK.

Wigeon, Gadwall, Coot and Red-crested Pochard

My next stop was Ivy Lake, and the usual location for a very obliging bittern, but not this day. A drake red-crested pochard was causing some interest among the local birders but otherwise the species present were much the same as seen on Ibsley Water. One of the highlights of visiting Blashford Lakes is the excellent views of lesser redpolls and other finches and woodland birds drawn in by the abundance of food provided by the Trust. Identification of the different redpoll types can be very tricky when they are feeding at the top of an alder tree, but here the birds are drawn down low to the feeders.

Lesser Redpoll Carduelis flammea cabaret

Lesser Redpoll Carduelis flammea cabaret

Lesser Redpoll Carduelis flammea cabaret

The redpoll sub-species cabaret, which is the common race in the UK, is generally smaller and darker than the flammea race, which occurs in Fenno-Scandia. Occasional birds of the race rostrata have been recorded at Blashford lakes in recent years, these birds generally larger, darker and more heavily streaked than the race cabaret.

Lesser Redpoll Carduelis flammea cabaret

Lesser Redpoll Carduelis flammea cabaret

Lesser Redpoll Carduelis flammea cabaret

The variation in colour and size of individual birds can make identification of the different races very subjective, and things are not helped by variations in lighting conditions. I did not see any birds that even vaguely resembled a common (mealy) redpoll, maybe one will turn up later in the winter.

Brambling Fringilla montifringilla

Of course redpolls are not the only species visiting the feeders bramblings, chaffinch's, siskins and nuthatch's are all attracted in and give excellent views.

Female Chaffinch Fringilla coelebs

Eurasian Nuthatch Sitta europaea caesia

So if you are visiting Hampshire and want to get to grips with identifying lesser redpolls, there are not many better places to visit than Blashford Lakes in the winter.

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