I was leading the group walk at Dungeness this weekend, but as I left home on Saturday morning for the drive to Dungeness I had to question the sense. It was -7.5 degrees, and the thought of standing on the shingle ridge scanning the patch for vagrant gulls made me shiver. I anticipated probably half a dozen people and an early end, but I was pleasantly suprised as 22 people turned up with the enthusiasm that only our group can bring.
At the lighthouse the car park was icy but driveable. The temperature was -5.5 – positively balmy after the journey down, which had been as low as -8.5 for most of the way.
The sea was flat-calm and with the sun out, this is probably the only time in 30 years of my visiting that there was no wind and it almost felt warm. Common gull, herring gull, lesser black-backed and great black-backed were packed onto the shoreline looking like a foamy edge. A huge number of lesser black-backed also floated on the patch – most of the gulls are usually in the air. Red-throated divers flew past, about a dozen in all and cormorants were also sighted. Great-crested grebe were bobbing about on the water.
Some people were starting to feel the cold so we moved on to the moat to see if anything was sheltering in the scrub and as we walked we started to thaw out, the feeling returning to our fingers and toes. As most of the bird reports were centered around Long Pits and the trapping area we broke with tradition and strode out for potential firecrest and woodcock. A nice walk to warm us up, but not a bird in sight.
On the way to the RSPB reserve a few of us stopped to scan the gulls near the fishing boats to try to find the glaucous gull which had taken up residence a couple of years ago – no luck there either. Moving on to the ARC pits, and just as I was starting to think that the day would be a bit of a damp squid, we found large numbers of wigeon, pochard, gadwall, shelduck and coot. A quick stop at the reserve entrance and John, Pauline and I easily found tree sparrows, lots of them sitting in bramble showing really well in the sunlight. Lunch at the reserve centre, with more tree sparrow, reed bunting, great tit and blue tit taking advantage of the feeders. A moorhen pecked around below.
We had arranged to meet up for the afternoon session at 1.45 pm, about 10 minutes before we were told that a male smew was showing well in front of one of the hides, so I suggested we start off there. Unfortunately a few folk had already gone through the centre, but the rest of us had good, if a little distant, views of the male and a couple of females. In the nearer pool several female goosanders were seen with one smartly plumaged male. Grey heron were standing along the edge of the reeds, their sharp bills catching the light. Long-tailed duck came next and as we finally re-grouped a male sparrowhawk was seen sitting in the sun low in a bramble just feet from the hide. A bittern flew in and gave great views, with the sun on the plumage it was hard to imagine how cryptic they can be. We continued around the reserve towards Denge Marsh Hide, with two female and a male marsh harriers going overhead, a bittern flew across the reed bed twice whilst we were in Christmas Dell Hide. I had a bit of telescope trouble when I tried to twist the telescope around to let a small boy look at the ducks, but I eventually managed to find the birds for him. His enthusiasm and joy was a real boost to a cold day. His list had previously held “ducks” and he managed to identify mallard, teal, coot and little grebe, his ‘explorers’ binoculars had obviously let him down on the clarity front previously!
From Denge marsh there were several swans, all of the mute variety, a large number of pintail were upending as they fed, greylag, bearded tit and more wigeon were also present.
From the viewpoint we scanned the greylags in a distant field, but again only mute swans and one brent goose were present. A female marsh harrier flew in and perched on the side of a dyke looking impressive against the geese.
We finally returned to the car park, flushing a snipe on the way, then it was time for home. The sunset was superb with a red ball of fire reflecting in the water.
Apologies for any omissions, my record keeping was hampered by the desire to keep my fingers from frostbite. Thanks to all those who turned out in this very cold weather, and to all the photographers whose pictures will appear in the gallery. The one below pretty much sums it up!
p.s. a select group saw kingfisher and bearded tit too!