A Grand Old Age for a Godwit

Regular readers of this blog and visitors to the coast will be very aware of the various colour-ringing schemes carried out on the wildfowl and waders of the Solent. These schemes have generally been undertaken by Farlington Ringing Group and over the years many hundreds of birds have been captured and ringed on Farlington Marshes in Langstone Harbour, as well as several other sites. Periodically we publish posts of interesting sightings, the last one being the Common Sandpiper Actitis hypoleucos that was found breeding in Norway after initially being ringed at Farlington Marshes.

The Black-tailed Godwit Limosa limosa is a familiar and perhaps iconic species of the Solent and along with the dark-bellied brent goose Branta bernicla bernicla, is one of the primary reasons for the Solent’s designation as a Special Protection Area. The black-tailed godwits frequenting the British Isles in the winter are of the Icelandic race L. l. islandica. The species only began regularly wintering in Hampshire in the 1940’s: numbers increased initially but levelled off in the 1970’s. Despite this population undergoing a sustained growth for many years, with the national wintering population showing a similar growth, the Hampshire population has not shown a corresponding increase.

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Black-tailed Godwits – Farlington Marshes

Colour-ringing studies on Black-tailed Godwits began in the late 1990’s, driven by Pete Potts of Farlington Ringing Group and his dedicated team of volunteers. The aim of the studies was to increase the number of sightings, in order to build up a picture of how birds move around during the winter months, and establish where birds wintering in Hampshire were breeding in Iceland. The sightings generated and subsequent data gathered has been tremendous and the movement of birds is now well understood.

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Black-tailed Godwits with colour rings

One of the earliest birds colour-ringed in Hampshire was ES74718 (or B+BL according to her colour rings). She was caught at Farlington Marshes on 16th November 1998 and was aged as an adult female. She has been recorded almost every year since her original ringing date and has been sighted 117 times. Unlike many other colour-ringed godwits, she has never been recorded outside of the UK, but has been recorded at some point most winters in Hampshire. On the rare occasions she has been recorded outside of the county, she has been recorded in West Sussex, Thorney Island July to August 2000, August 2001, August 2002 and September 2012, Pagham Harbour July 2001 and February 2014, Fishbourne Channel, October 2003 and September 2008, Chichester Harbour September 2011, Emsworth Harbour October 2015 and Pulborough Brooks, January 2016, Isle of Wight, Newtown Harbour December 2002, Motney Hill, Kent, July & August 2011.

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Black-tailed Godwit (ES74718) – Originally ringed in November 1998 and one to look out for over the coming winters

I first encountered her on 19th December 2007 from Port Solent in Southampton and re-sighted her only this week (10th January 2017) in Portsmouth Harbour at Porchester. This latest sighting must make her nearly 20 years old, and if she is recorded over the next four winters she will claim the national longevity record for Black-tailed Godwit, so one to look out for over the next few years.

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To Norway, Farlington Marshes and Norway again….

Members and regular readers of the summer 2016 edition of our Wildlife magazine will have hopefully read my short news article about the Common Sandpiper that was ringed as part of a long term study at Farlington Marshes. As mentioned in that article, Duncan Bell from Farlington Ringing Group ringed an adult Common Sandpiper on 10th August 2013, and fitted it with a unique combination of coloured leg rings. These were used to increase the chances of the bird being recovered would enable the bird to be specifically identified in the field.

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Common Sandpiper – Farlington Marshes. August 2013 (Duncan Bell)

On 6th March 2016 Duncan received an email from the International Wader Study Group requesting information on this bird. Rune Nilsson, a Norwegian birder had recorded it breeding on 1st July 2015 on the River Vismunda near Lake Mjøsa, in Norway, and submitted an image of the bird to confirm his sighting.

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Common Sandpiper – Norway. July 2015 (Rune Nilsson)

On 21st July 2015, Rob Skinner (our Reserves Officer at the time) saw the same bird back at Farlington Marshes, feeding along the stream, which we were pretty excited about. Whilst this was not the first Common Sandpiper movement between Hampshire and Norway, to our knowledge this was the first time that a Hampshire ringed bird has been recorded on its breeding ground and back at the place of ringing. But the story doesn’t end there….

In July 2016 Rune contacted Duncan again to inform him that the same bird was indeed back at its breeding ground. He included a series of photos and maps of its location, the site  where the bird breeds and the bird itself.

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Common Sandpiper – Norway. July 2016 (Rune Nilsson)

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Breeding location in Norway (Rune Nilsson)

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The 2016 nest site is approximately 100m downstream and in the bushes on the left bank, in the distance is the busy E^ highway which connects Norway south-north. (Rune Nilsson)

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View of river from the same location as above but looking towards Lake Mjøsa (Rune Nilsson)

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Common Sandpiper on 15th July 2016 in Norway (Rune Nilsson)

We suspect that this bird is a male since it has now returned to the same breeding site for two consecutive years, and hope that it will do so for many years yet. The Common Sandpiper is a moderately common passage migrant in Hampshire; with a few birds regularly wintering. The national longevity record is 15y, 1m, 5d set in 2007, with the oldest recorded bird in Hampshire being 8y 0m 0d (18/08/1977 – 18/08/1985), a bird ringed and retrapped at Farlington Marshes. We are very grateful to Rune for keeping Duncan informed with sightings of this bird and hope to be able to give further updates in the future.

Sandpipers and Stints on the Marsh

As Chris eluded to in his last post, autumn migration is now in full swing, and that is particularly evident in the wading birds on Farlington Marshes. Over the weekend I noted that impressive numbers of Curlew Sandpipers and Little Stints were being recorded along the south coast of Hampshire, so on Saturday evening I nipped down to the marsh to see if I could get in on the action. High tide was around 8pm so I arrived at 6:30pm and headed straight to the stream, a favoured place for waders.

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Curlew Sandpipers – Farlington Marsh

As it turned out I had made a good choice and the first two waders I saw were two Curlew Sandpipers, followed by a Little Stint. They were feeding along the stream edge and giving some excellent views. They all appeared to be juvenile birds, unfortunately in the failing light my pictures do not highlight the striking plumage of them, particularly the Little Stint.

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Two Curlew Sands and a Little Stint

The birds were feeding in close proximity to each other and at one point a Curlew Sand stepped on a Little Stint pushing it completely under water – needless to say the stint looked a little put out by this incident. I continued to watch the group, and try and get some reasonable images in the failing light when a couple more Curlew Sands joined the group, followed by three more Little Stints.

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Little Stints – Farlington Marshes

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Little Stints – Farlington Marshes

With the light failing fast and the tide rising I worked my way along the stream to the lake and added another Little Stint to the tally; four Curlew Sands and five Little Stints. A mobile Ruff was a welcome addition to the list, but that was the only other species of note for me. Amongst the usual suspects the other wader species recorded included over 300 each Black-tailed Godwits and Redshank, over 100 Lapwing, Grey Plovers, Oystercatchers, Curlew, Dunlin, Turnstone, Ringed Plover, Common Sandpiper, Green Sandpiper and Greenshank, well worth a visit if you have the time.

A blizzard of Med Gulls on the marsh

Spring is a busy time at Farlington Marshes; migrants are moving through, breeding birds are staking claim to their territories and fences need to be checked in readiness for the arrival of our grazing stock. This year things have been even busier, as Rob Skinner our reserves officer for the area, after nearly four years with the Trust opted to return to his homeland in Somerset; we would like to wish him well in his new role and will hopefully see him back on the Marsh from time to time. In the meantime Emma Hunt is standing in, so if you are out and about on our southern reserves and bump into her, do say hello.

Last night and after a very busy and productive day in the office I took advantage of the glorious weather conditions and headed down to the marsh for a bit of birding. It was a perfect evening with calm and sunny conditions and a rising tide, which I hoped may force a migrant wader or two onto the marsh to roost, although the primary purpose of the visit was to look for Northern  Lapwing chicks. The water levels on the Lake were still high and as such there was little exposed mud, a lone Northern Wheatear was feeding at the back, and a lapwing sitting next to a tussock near the water’s edge, were the only birds of note. I continued around the seawall heading towards the point, Sandwich, Common and Little Terns were all feeding over the shallow water and a flock of eight Whimbrel and a single Bar-tailed Godwit appeared from the south, circled over the marsh and headed east.

Sedge Warblers appeared abundant in the point field, and as I re-joined the seawall I was greeted by a Little Tern feeding over the calm water just offshore. I took advantage of the good, but gradually dimming light to get some action shots of this diminutive species.

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Little Tern – Farlington Marsh

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Little Tern – Farlington Marsh

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Little Tern – Farlington Marsh

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Little Tern – Farlington Marsh

I had previously noticed a flock of around 60 Mediterranean Gulls feeding on the mid marsh and there was a constant stream moving overhead. By the time I reached the Deeps the flock had grown to more than 100, occasionally they would take flight, looking like what I can only describe as a blizzard of Med Gulls. There was a mixture of ages, 1st and 2nd summer and full adult birds; the gentle mewing call was a joy to be heard on an otherwise tranquil evening.

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Mediterranean Gull – presumed 2nd summer with black tips to some of the primary feathers

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Part of the flock of Mediterranean Gulls; mainly adults but also 1st and 2nd summer birds

The Deeps provided more in the way of variety than the Lake, a roosting flock of 54 Oystercatchers, four Common Redshank, Tufted Ducks (at least 2 pairs), Pintail, Shelduck, Gadwall, a pair of Eurasian Wigeon and a single Dark Bellied Brent Goose. A scan over the marsh produced five Lapwing chicks of varying ages; two in a wet pool closest to the Deeps appeared to be only a few days old.

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Lapwing chick (background) presumably with parent in the foreground

As I headed back to the car park a family of Coot were busy at the eastern end of the Stream, and several Common Whitethroats were present in the bushes.

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Family of Coots on the Stream

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.

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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.

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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.