Josh from Colorado asked us to take him on a big day of guided birding out from London so we picked him up from Kensington at 4am and started birding!
His first lifer of the day came while still on the road, with a Red Kite flying over the M3 at dawn — a good start!
Downland birding in Wiltshire delivered both Grey Partridge and Red-legged Partridge, as well as several Corn Buntings and wall-to-wall Skylarks, with some carrying food. A small patch of woodland hosted a Firecrest and Coal Tit. A flock of Long-tailed Tits worked their way through the bushes while House Martins and Swallows picked off insects over the fields. Just before we left, we heard the piercing cry of a Stone Curlew.
We arrived in the heart of the New Forest, Hampshire, mid-morning, to the sight and sound of Woodlark song-flighting and Dartford Warbler calling in the gorse.
An initial scan of the treeline in the distance detected a large raptor which we soon identified as a pale-morph male Honey Buzzard! It was some way off but circled around long enough for us to really take the bird in through the 'scope.
At this point, Willow Warbler and Cuckoo joined the chorus and we enjoyed watching Goldfinches, Chaffinches and Linnets along the edge of the woodland. A Marsh Tit announced itself as it flew into one tree but it soon vanished — perhaps there would be more later?
Most of the walk was enlivened by families of Meadow Pipits and Stonechats in the low vegetation along the path.
An adult Willow Warbler had a demanding fledgling of its own in tow, so it continued busily gleaning from the branches above us as we stood and watched these charming birds.
Making our way into the cool shade of a wooded area, a wall of bird calls hit us: Treecreeper, Nuthatch, Firecrest and a fly-over Siskin. After watching the Firecrest and Nuthatch for a while, we found a pair of Redstarts feeding in the dappled light on the other edge of the trees. We really were racking up some cool birds!
Retracing our steps proved a good move as a noisy family of Marsh Tits, the young not long out of the nest, passed us on their feeding circuit, pausing long enough for some photos when they dropped down to eye-level. Another couple of Redstarts and a skittish family of Siskins followed, while the Cuckoo started up singing again.
Returning to the car, a couple of Crossbills 'glip-glipped' as they flew overhead and a Spotted Flycatcher appeared in the treetops. A quick scan of the horizon revealed Buzzards in the distance and a passing Grey Heron as our final New Forest birds of the tour. But the day was far from over!
Dropping down to the Hampshire coast, Pennington and Keyhaven Marshes greeted us with the songs of Sedge Warbler and Cetti's Warbler, the former showing rather nicely. Skylarks, Greenfinches and Whitethroats were also along the track to the pools.
The Fishtail Lagoon was full of life, with two Little Ringed Plovers, plenty of Avocets (including young), Shelducks, Ringed Plover, Redshank, Pied Wagtails and a family of Mute Swans among the birds present.
The Avocets objected strongly to a high-flying Marsh Harrier, soon pushing it out of the area with their relentless mobbing.
The channel towards the sea wall had a Little Grebe feeding young and a Little Egret. As we looked back when we reached the Solent, we found a Common Tern was hovering just feet away, peering into the channel for small fish. Just as it flew away, the first Little Tern of the day whizzed by and Sandwich Terns vied our attention, calling noisily as they flew along the Solent.
The tide was fairly high, concentrating a lot of the wading birds that hadn't left the Solent into a small area of saltmarsh. There were a couple of Whimbrel and flocks of Curlew, as well as scattered Lapwing and Redshank. A trio of Great Crested Grebes seemed to be taking a break from feeding a little way out.
The highlight here though was a group of four Eider loafing on a small with a few Cormorants and Herring Gulls. A few of these large seaducks make use of this sheltered coastline to moult in the summer months.
Checking out more of the pools, we came across around 70 Black-tailed Godwits and a large flock of Great Black-backed Gulls, with a couple of Lesser Black-backed Gulls mixed in.
Several Swifts hawked above us, sweeping the air for flying insects and some could be seen accumulating a bolus of insects in their crop, to deliver to chicks in the eaves of a house somewhere an unknown distance away.
The walk back gave further views of many of the species, including finally getting a good look at Greenfinch for the day. Another lifer for Josh came when two Mediterranean Gulls passed overhead.
We checked out the nearby Normandy Lagoon, where we had some really special encounters with Little Terns, which were communting back and forth to deliver food to their hungry chicks on the islands.
It's rarely that an Avocet gets a taste of its own medicine, but a female Shelduck did just that by hounding one that had dared to wade too close to its ducklings. Avocets will chase away anything that approaches their young too, even harmless species, but this bird didn't seem to know why it was being asked to move on!
Redshanks had young too. The adults kept a close watch from their sentry points on posts along the reserve's fence line.
Staying in Hampshire for now, we moved east to Farlington Marshes. A good mix of birds in the scrub included a singing Lesser Whitethroat, and Mediterranean Gulls started passing over occasionally when we reached the embankment.
Scanning the lake produced some additional species for the day, the standout being a Curlew Sandpiper in 'winter-like' plumage, showing its clear white rump as it circled before pitching back down on the shore. Two Snipe were also visible as they snoozed on the edge of the reeds.
The water was also busy with Black-tailed Godwit, Avocet, Shelduck, Redshank and Lapwing. A group of seven Teal was a new species for the day. Reed Warblers sang in the fringes and a Sandwich Tern passed by with a fish, but there was no sign of any Bearded Tits, so we headed round to some other pools.
Passerines kept us entertained, with a Sedge Warbler belting out its song while a Song Thrush sat quietly in a bush. Reed Warblers flitted to and fro but the main event came when Josh managed to see a male Bearded Tit flying over the top of the reeds — bingo! Farlington gave us one extra species with a female Shoveler landing on the pool before we headed back. We had time for one more location.
Knepp Wildlands was up next for some evening birding. We scored another lifer for Josh early with two singing Yellowhammers showing nicely in the scrub.
A Barn Owl swept past us on three occasions in its search for small rodents, presumably having the pressure of a nest with young somewhere in the area. Yaffling calls in the distance put us of the first of a couple of Green Woodpeckers, perched on the side of a telegraph pole.
The rest of our walk featured Garden Warbler, Bullfinch, Great Spotted Woodpecker and House Martin, though for some time our target species for the site was eluding us. Just as we were heading back and the light was beginning to dim, the shape of a Turtle Dove appeared on a dead limb of an oak tree — result!
The drive back to London added one final bird for the epic day as a male Sparrowhawk dashed over the car with a prey item clutched in its talons.
We finished with a total of 107 species of bird encountered on the trip that covered Wiltshire, Hampshire and West Sussex. It was a delight birding with Josh, who enjoyed some 58 lifers during the birding day tour!