Saturday, December 24, 2005

More like Norfolk than Hampshire! 215 species in total

After taking a rather risky week off in the sun in the Canary Islands (all currently recognised and marginal endemic species seen, plus Blue-winged Teal, Houbara Bustard, Cream-coloured Courser, Black-bellied Sandgrouse, Trumpeter Finch etc.), it was back to the grey and cold wastes of Hampshire, where what I hoped would be one last ride to Titchfield Haven was on the agenda. Bitterns are regular at this site, and perhaps two had been seen intermittently this winter.

I rode down early in the morning, bought my ticket, and headed straight for the Suffern Hide. I settled in, with a text message telling me Julia was also on her way down by car, and scanned the reeds. Almost at once, a dark brown shape appeared off to the right, flapping unsteadily over the Phragmites! Bittern? No! First-winter Marsh Harrier! This was a species I had pretty much given up for lost - while they are regular passage migrants (not that I'd seen one in 2005), they are really pretty rare in Hampshire in winter. A nice one to round off the trio of Harriers, too.

Much scanning from the Suffern and Meadow Hides failed to turn up the bird - plenty of other birds to see, including Kingfisher, lots of ducks and some waders. Gripping news appeared in the form of a report of a 3rd winter Iceland Gull over the reserve early morning - surely the Gosport bird of last winter having returned?

Over a coffee and cake, I decided to postpone the Bittern hunt for a few hours, and to ride off along the coast to Gosport on an Iceland hunt. I followed the shore as closely as possible, checking every group of gulls - but there was no sign, even way down at Walpole Park in central Gosport. I did find at least five Mediterranean Gulls en route, and better still, a male Black Redstart by Workhouse Lake. A Christmas bonus!

Back at Titchfield by 1500, and a final hour in prospect in the hides. i chose the Meadow Hide, since the Bittern had indeed been seen that morning, but well up the valley - this was perhaps my best chance. And so it proved! After just ten minutes, a much more promising brown shape appeared over the reeds, and the heavy, almost owlish flight confirmed my suspicions - Bittern safely OML! What a relief - though to be honest I thought I had little chance of the bird at the start of the day. After just 10 seconds, it dropped abck down into the reeds, and vanished.

The ride home was once more in darkness - the highlight was getting stopped by a police patrol car. "Your back light is too dim." We examined it, and he changed his mind. "Well, it's not bright enough for a following driver." We agreed there was not much I could do about it. "You are putting your life at risk." Meek smile, Happy Christmas, carry on home.