Thursday, 14 April 2016

Leith Hill tower migration watch, 14th April

Every once in a while the hours of standing around in the biting cold northerlies at 1000ft seeing disappointingly few birds pays off, the wind changes, the air feels warmer and the birders gathered atop Leith Hill tower are treated to some quality birds. 
Today was one of those days. 
Robin scanning for approaching hirundines
A gorgeous dawn which saw the land below the hill largely shrouded in mist and barely a breath of wind set the scene for a tower watch which, six hours later, we agreed was one for the ages.
Robin Stride, David Stubbs, Stuart Cossey and I ascended the tower a little after 6am and quickly noted Siskins and Linnets flitting about locally along with a couple of singing Chiffchaffs and Blackcaps. Other summer songsters were notably absent though, especially Willow Warbler and Cuckoo, both of which we'd have expected by now. No matter, as there were clearly birds on the move above and around us. The first Swallow flew through fairly early on, followed by more and then later the House Martins arrived. Not the enormous flocks of autumn, perhaps, but a steady trickle nonetheless, and we speculated how far some of these birds might continue to travel before they reached their breeding grounds. 
The City skyline rising up above the mist
Finches were moving too, with a few Chaffinches, Redpolls and Goldfinches seemingly going further than just a short distance as they powered past, plus small groups of Meadow Pipits, often at considerably greater altitude than our lofty viewpoint. Raptors weren't in a mood to be left out and the first Red Kite of the day flew low east relatively early on, followed by another late morning. Meanwhile, as the air warmed, ever increasing numbers of Buzzards took to the skies; a 360 scan mid morning produced a conservative count of twenty-five. There were also at least three Sparrowhawks around, and fly bys from singles of Raven and Peregrine
By about 8 am a slight lull descended, giving us chance for refreshments. This was merely the calm before the storm though as just before 8.30 another flurry of activity occurred, with a small party of Goldfinches north and at least three Great Spotted Woodpeckers squabbling and flying around near the tower. Shortly after this I looked up to see a bird flying more or less directly overhead, quite low. It was clearly a finch, but large and flying with perceptible power, and as it opened its wings the sunlight revealed bold white wing flashes just a second or two before it dropped down into the trees just to the east of us. Hawfinch! My first in Surrey since the large flock at Box Hill in 2013. As is now traditional David Stubbs broke out his stash of orange Club biscuits in celebration!
The Dorking Gap, looking more like a river in the fog

Stuart had to leave us at 9am as he was off to tutor some NT volunteers on how to do a butterfly transect, but the tower watch team numbers were soon boosted again by the arrival of Wes Attridge at 10. Wes and I met down at the tea hatch, while Robin and David called out some new additions to the day list from the roof - 'Kestrel!...Mute Swan!' 
Very nice but not really worth sprinting back up for, especially with sausage rolls warming in the oven.
Hot air balloon - one of two up today. None of us had seen any here before
 so clearly a very good day for it
Back up the tower and things really kicked off after 11. By now there were raptors everywhere and we pointed out passing Swallows to some visitors. Just before 11.30 Wes picked up an interesting gull to the south-west, moving with four Lesser Black-backeds which were clearly at least twice the size of the bird in question. We all got on it and, as it slowly came closer, were able to make out the black head, black underwings and buoyant, tern-like flight. LITTLE GULL! Orange clubs all round again. An outrageous tick from a dry inland site, although only a while earlier I had speculated that some of the numbers of this species that had turned up at water bodies in the county recently must travel overland, even if they were 1500-odd foot up and still climbing as this one was.
By 12.30 things had started to really quieten down a bit, and after enjoying an adult Great Black-backed Gull drift high overhead and another little group of House Martins racing north, we decided to call it a day. 
An absolutely superb morning's local birding in great company. Roll on the next one!

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