Romney Marsh Birding Year
Looking back over the past twelve months it is plain to see that 2014 was yet another eventful year full of surprises and some wonderful birds for guests to enjoy, both in quantity and rarity value. The total species count for the year of 221 is not the best we`ve managed over the past nine years, but who cares, as there have been so many memorable days in the field.
The first winter period was dominated by the weather with mild, wet conditions raising the water levels across the Marsh with areas such as the Dowels almost completely flooded. The shingle peninsula was not exempt, and even the Trapping Area at Dungeness became a willow swamp, much to the liking of the years first major rarity, a Hume`s Leaf Warbler that lingered well into the spring. Along the foreshore a Glaucous Gull was a popular attraction along with one or two Caspian Gulls and a number of Little Gulls at the Patch; while the main prize, a single observer fly-through Ross`s Gull proved to be an addition to the Dungeness list. Offshore Great Northern Diver sightings were regular amongst the abundant Red-throated Divers, Great Crested Grebes, auks, gulls and Gannets.
Much attention was paid to the RSPB reserve where flocks of Smew delighted visiting birders along with wintering Black-throated Divers, Great White Egrets, Bitterns, Marsh Harriers and a Glossy Ibis, but a pair of Penduline Tits proved frustratingly difficult to locate. On Walland Marsh two Tundra Bean Geese, and flocks of White-fronted Geese and Bewick`s Swans wintered, and a Long-tailed Duck took up residence on Scotney where large flocks of Golden Plovers lingered. Elsewhere, Short-eared Owls showed well at Littlestone golf links, along with a Slavonian Grebe on Lade pits and Purple Sandpipers at Hythe; the location for the comedy episode of the year when a Chinese Pond Heron attracted the nations` twitchers to town.
By mid-March all thoughts turned to spring migrants and there were some early records of Wheatear, Sand Martin, Garganey and Little Ringed Plover across the Dungeness NNR. The expected Med Gulls, Red Kites, Black-necked Grebes and Avocets trickled through along with an increase in Black Redstart, Chiffchaff and Firecrest numbers. At sea the first Sandwich Terns arrived, while Brent Geese departed, at times in spectacular numbers, and the two Penduline Tits put in a final appearance at the ARC reedbed.
And so to April and the main spring passage period which for passerines was a faltering affair with poor numbers of certain migrants such as Willow Warbler and Whinchat, while Turtle Dove and Spotted Flycatcher were almost rarities. On the plus side Ring Ouzels were up in numbers and a Yellow-browed Warbler was found in the lighthouse garden. Around the bird reserve a one day Purple Heron proved popular as was an unprecedented influx of Black-winged Stilts with a flock of ten followed by a pair that lingered into May raising hopes of breeding as they commuted between the hayfields and Scotney. Offshore the seabird passage was well underway, although numbers of skuas, terns and waders were low to start with. However, this was more than compensated for by the Pomarine Skua passage that peaked in early May when over 100 individuals clipped the point delighting the many birders present on what was Bank Holiday Monday.
May delivered some cracking birds commencing with a Red-rumped Swallow and Montagu`s Harrier on the local patch at Lade, a Hooded Crow at Dungeness, then four Bee-eaters at St Marys-in-the-Marsh, a Great Reed Warbler at Tower Pits and a personal lifer in the form of a singing Blyth`s Reed Warbler on the margins of the Trapping Area. Terns eventually surged through providing a memorable spectacle when hundreds of Common, Arctic and Black Terns dropped onto the ARC lake. On Lade bay summer plumage Arctic waders paused a while including good numbers of Tundra Ringed Plovers and Sanderlings in breeding plumage. Around the peninsula more Bee-eaters were reported along with Wood Sandpipers, Honey Buzzard, a Crane and an all too brief Long-billed Dowitcher on Dengemarsh.
By and large the warm, dry summer weather was beneficial for breeding birds where across the wetlands grebes did particularly well, also Reed and Cetti`s Warblers and Bearded Tits. A Bittern `boomed` in Hookers reedbed and several `pairs` of Marsh Harriers were successful. Common Terns raised young on the Dengemarsh rafts and elsewhere Mediterranean Gulls nested within a Black-headed Gull colony. On the Desert scrub both Whitethroat and Cuckoo fared well. Around Dungeness power station site Black Redstarts, Raven and Peregrine all bred with varying degrees of success, while at Brett`s Marina a pair of Egyptian Geese raised young for the first time. The Lydd heronry attracted five pairs of Little Egrets, delighting those able to climb the church tower on open day and gaze down upon the nest site.
On the debit side Tree Sparrows and Corn Bunting just about maintained their slim status quo across the Marsh farmland, while waders such as Lapwing and Oystercatcher fell foul of increasing predation from crows, gulls, foxes and badgers. Along the foreshore breeding Ringed Plover and Wheatear suffered disturbance from the public and their dogs. The breeding picture was particularly gloomy on the arable hinterlands with traditional farmland birds such as Grey Partridge, Turtle Dove reduced to a mere handful in number.
The eagerly awaited return wader passage was something of a damp squid this summer due to stubbornly high water levels on the bird reserve with only a trickle of Little Stints and Curlew Sandpipers noted, and an absence of `peeps`; although a Red-necked Phalarope on ARC was well received by one and all. A Glossy Ibis reappeared and three Cattle Egrets heralded a profitable second half of the year for this former rarity.
As we moved into August passerine migration went into overdrive with large numbers of Sand Martins and Willow Warblers on the move and by the months end an unprecedented fall of warblers, chats and flycatchers across the peninsula. Within the mix were several Wrynecks, Barred, Wood and Melodious Warblers and a Red-backed Shrike, while at Cockles Bridge a juv Montagu`s Harrier performed well. The fun continued into September with Pied and Spotted Flycatchers recorded in the hundreds, plus a large influx of Buzzards and Kestrels.
Dungeness seawatchers enjoyed an autumn to remember with a record breaking run of Pomarine Skuas and Sooty Shearwaters, plus sub-rarities such as Sabine`s Gull, Leache`s Petrel and several each of Grey Phalarope and Long-tailed Skua. On the land October yielded large movements of Ring Ouzels and House Martins, plus several Yellow-browed Warblers and a showy Woodlark. A trip down to Castle Water delivered a stunning adult White-winged Black Tern.
Rarities into November included a Great Grey Shrike, that tarried all too briefly at Dungeness, and a Dartford Warbler at Galloways. On the negative side the overhead autumn passage of pipits, finches, buntings and larks was once again almost non existent, and Yellow Wagtails were low in number.
The year finished with Snow Buntings along the coast; Hen Harrier, wild swans and Bean Geese on Walland Marsh; Cattle and Great White Egrets on Dengemarsh; sawbills on the bird reserve, plus a Lesser Yellowlegs down at Pett Level.
During the course of the year we also made five day trips to northern France, enjoying such gems as Kentish Plover and Crested Lark along the coast; Middle Spotted Woodpecker, Crested Tit and Hen Harrier in Crecy; Bluethroat, White Stork and Black-winged Stilt in the Somme valley and seabirds at Cap-griz-nez. And I haven't even mentioned the butterflies, dragonflies, moths, wild flowers, mammals etc...
2014 certainly was a memorable year.