Looking back 2012 was another bird-rich year during which we recorded 230 species on our travels across the Romney Marsh with visiting birders on Plovers Birdwatching Breaks and day-to-day birding; an annual tally which is about normal, although full of unexpected encounters and memories as testified below.The first winter period was notable for wintering Short-eared Owls at Littlestone golf links and on the Lydd Army ranges, in contrast to a shortage of resident Barn Owls following another cold winter. On Walland Marsh flocks of Bewick`s Swans and White-fronted Geese concealed themselves amongst their feral cousins, testing birdwatchers` identification skills, while healthy numbers of harriers and Common Buzzards hunted the sewer margins and grasslands. A Dotteral was found within a Golden Plover flock near Lydd Airport, while on the Dungeness RSPB reserve Bitterns and Great White Egrets were regularly noted along with a wintering Long-tailed Duck, Slavonian Grebes and thousands of common wildfowl including Smews, Goosanders and Goldeneyes. Site faithful visitors such as Purple Sandpipers and a Glaucous Gull took up their seasonal stations at Hythe sea front and Dungeness fishing boats respectively.
Bewick`s Swans, Walland Marsh
In the heat wave of mid-March the first Wheatears, Garganeys and Little Ringed Plovers heralded the arrival of spring across the Marsh along with good numbers of pipits, wagtails, Firecrests, Stonechats and Black Redstarts at Dungeness. Offshore, thousands of Brents moved up-Channel along with a variety of sea ducks, divers, waders and the first of the terns. The skua passage proved to be a memorable one, in particular for a large movement of Bonxies and some stunning close flocks of ever popular Pomarine Skuas. In early May the Peninsula also played host to an unprecedented fall of passerines comprising hundreds of warblers, flycatchers and chats, as well as cracking rarities in the shape of Crested Lark, Bee-eater and Ortolan Bunting. Spring also hosted two Iceland Gulls, Wood and Melodious Warblers, Red-breasted Flycatcher and several Woodlarks at Dungeness, two White Storks at Scotney and decent numbers of passage Whimbrels and Bar-tailed Godwits on the hinterlands. Not to be out done, on the bird reserve we recorded singles of Bean Goose, Spoonbill, Glossy Ibis and Penduline Tit, while a Red-rumped Swallow was located in the salubrious surroundings of New Romney sewage works amongst hundreds of Barn Swallows. Rye Harbour proved popular with twitchers when a Kentish Plover and Temminck`s Stint were discovered in a large flock of Ringed Plovers. Once again Dengemarsh delivered two top rarities when a Ring-necked Duck and a gorgeous Squacco Heron visited all too briefly.
Moving into the summer months reed bed bird such as Marsh Harriers, Bittern, Water Rail, Bearded Tits and Cetti`s Warblers all nested successfully on the RSPB reserve and elsewhere around the Marsh, while Black Redstart, Wheatear, Peregrine and Raven produced young from the sanctuary of the nuclear power station. An immature Purple Heron only briefly graced Dengemarsh, dashing hopes of any further nesting. Once again summer visitors such as Yellow Wagtail and Turtle Dove were in short supply across the Marsh farmland, while Lapwings and Ringed Plovers had another poor breeding season; likewise resident Grey Partridge, Yellowhammer and Corn Bunting proved difficult to find. On the plus side the woodlands on the Low Weald were full of summering Nightingales and Blackcaps, while down on the coast the first migrant Crossbills and Green Sandpipers began to appear, along with a singing Golden Oriole in a garden at St Mary`s-in-the-Marsh.
The autumn wader passage proved to be a stilted affair mainly due to a shortage of habitat as water levels remained stubbornly high following the wet summer. However, Pectoral and Curlew Sandpipers and Little Stints occurred on the bird reserve along with a controversial stint/`peep` which may have been a rare trans-Atlantic Semi-palmated Sandpiper. A Montagu`s Harrier loitered on the Army ranges and a Cattle Egret visited Dengemarsh. Record numbers of Sand Martins continued to stream south throughout the period along with a steady flow of Yellow Wagtails, plus a trickle of Whinchats, Redstarts, flycatchers and singles of Wryneck, Barred Warbler and Red-backed Shrike across Dungeness. At Lade migrant Osprey and Honey Buzzard were noted following the coastline south where they received a` warm` welcome from the local Herring Gulls!
At Dungeness Pallas`s and Yellow-browed Warblers delighted rarity hunters amongst the late autumn migrants, which also included a few Ring Ouzels and Lapland Buntings within the thrush and finch flocks. At sea there was a memorable passage of Long-tailed Skuas with a supporting cast of Leache`s Petrel, Grey Phalarope, Sabine`s Gull, Sooty and Balearic Shearwaters. A movement of Jays off the continent in search of food proved exciting with small flocks seen coming in off the sea and occurring at atypical locations along the coast. A small influx of Long-tailed Ducks was noteworthy at Lade and Burrowes pits, a Black-throated Diver temporarily settled on New Diggings and the short-tailed Glaucous Gull returned for its third winter at Dungeness.
As the daylight hours decreased another welcome invader headed our way as large numbers of Waxwings crossed the North Sea from Scandinavian forests in search of their staple diet of berries. Mobile flocks of Waxwings delighted birdwatchers across the Marsh from Rye to Hythe, but perhaps the most watched group was at Hamstreet. The year ended with returning wild swans, sawbills and Common Crane at their traditional haunts, Snow Buntings at St Mary`s Bay, Purple Sandpipers at Hythe, five Great White Egrets and another Ring-necked Duck briefly on the bird reserve.
It is always difficult to select a standout memory from a birding year as so much happens throughout the seasons. Often it is the regular stuff that impresses visiting birders, such as the Channel passages of Brents, skuas, waders or terns and roosting harriers. I`m always a sucker for those first Wheatears on the beach and Swallows zipping in off the sea in early spring - and is there a smarter British bird than a Firecrest? The vast numbers of Sand Martins passing across the Peninsula from mid-summer onwards is always a sight to behold and this year we had an incredible fall of spring warblers at Dungeness, while late autumn was memorable for Pallas`s Warblers, Jays and Waxwings.
But if I had to select a single birding memory to treasure from 2012 then it would have to be `that eagle`. Back in February reports came in of a White-tailed Eagle at West Hythe. The following day it was relocated near Cheyne Court Wind Farm and provided local birders unique views of a bird unseen before on the Romney Marsh. As it flew across the Guldeford Levels we all marvelled at the sight of this massive bird of prey as it disappeared inland over the Isle of Oxney.
What will the New Year deliver? Well, we`ll just have to wait and see, but surely it`s about time one of those continental woodpeckers crossed the English Channel...
Good birding to one and all in 2013.
ps: I`ve had quite a few e-mails concerning my hairy companion during the year, especially after his operation. Well, I`m pleased to report that he is fighting fit and looking forward to more bush-bashing in 2013, but less of the static stuff like seawatching!