Beardies, Buntings and Shorties

Being the Trust’s Strategy Lead for Planning, means that I don’t get out of the office much and when I do it is usually to attend a meeting at a Council office, and not to visit one of our nature reserves. Weekends however are completely the opposite and I try to spend as much time as I can possibly get away with out in the field. I am an enthusiastic birder and have been a qualified bird ringer for 20 years, and as such spend most of my time up to my knees in mud or in reed beds.

I have lived in Hampshire all my life and know the coast extremely well, and particularly some of Trust’s coastal reserves. Farlington Marshes has been a regular haunt of mine since 1980 and over the years it has fulfilled the role as a great birding and ringing site for me. The variety of bird species I have recorded over the years is probably only matched by another of my regular haunts, Titchfield Haven, although I must admit I haven’t actually ever tallied up the lists.

This last weekend (31st Oct – 1st Nov) was one where I had planned to ring at Farlington Marshes on the Sunday morning and met up with a colleague at 06:30 in order to set our nets. It was a damp and dreary morning and the marsh was shrouded in dense fog when we arrived. Undeterred we persevered and by the end of the session had ringed around 30 birds. The bulk of our catch was made up of Reed Buntings and given the fact that most of the birds were caught first thing, we assumed that they had been roosting in the vicinity of our nets.

Reed bunt

Reed Bunting (male)

As would be expected in a reed bed, the diversity of species ringed was low, and other than the reed bunts our catch consisted of a Robin, Wren, three Cetti’s Warblers and two Bearded Tits. Bearded Tit was one of our target species; good numbers breed at the marsh, but recently they have been feeding in the reeds at the head of the lake, so we were really chuffed to catch some. Male Bearded Tits are truly stunning species and one that you never get bored of handling.

Beardie

Bearded Tit (male)

After the session I headed home to dry out and have a spot of breakfast, but within an hour I was back on the marsh. By this time the fog had lifted, it was calm, warm and sunny and the tide was rising, the ideal conditions for a spot of birding. I had been birding on the marsh on the previous Sunday (25th October) after news broke of the White-rumped Sandpiper, and on that visit had seen a cracking view of a Short-eared Owl. It had been reported that there could be as many as four now frequenting the marsh, and it was really that and the desire to get some flight shots of them, that had lured me back.

I had been on the reserve for less than five minutes when I picked up the first one, and over the next hour and a half was treated to some fantastic views. Four birds were out in various locations, but periodically their paths would cross and I would be treated to spectacular aerial sorties and vocalisations. They were ranging widely over the reserve, sometimes flying high like a giant bat, only to drop back down a quarter over the grassland. I was intrigued to note that three of them were more richly coloured and when I got home decided to read up. It appears that adult birds tend to be distinctly paler, and males paler than females. The dark markings are much bolder in male birds also, and this has led me to believe that one of the birds may be an adult male.

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Short-eared Owl

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Short-eared owl

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Short-eared Owl

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Short-eared Owl homing in on prey

As I worked my way around the marsh back towards my car, stopping at the lake to take in the roosting waders, I found it difficult to ignore the owls that were constantly feeding in the background. In the distance I could see a bird quartering over the islands beyond the sea wall, so it could be that as many as five birds were present, but I couldn’t rule out that one had flown over there. The frequency with which Short-eared Owls turn up on the marsh varies from winter to winter, but this is undoubtedly one of the best years for a while. I would urge you to get down and enjoy the spectacle whilst it lasts as they are such tremendous birds.

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