Here on Guernsey the late autumn is usually just as good, if not better than, earlier in the season. Just when you think migration is slowing down, we often get bursts of winter birds arriving, bringing with them the odd scarcity or rarity. One of the best sites around here for good birds which hardly gets any coverage, is the Common on the north end of Herm. Of course, the lack of coverage is because you have to catch a ferry to get there, but it is one area that I would love to be able to check on a regular basis.
There are barely any records of good rarities from there in recent years but the location and habitats are superb. It sticks out northwards and so is an ideal landing site for birds coming from the north and east. It has quite a wide variety of habitats, from very short turf, to areas of more longer grass for skulkers to hide in. It has dense areas of bramble and bracken, but also larger blackthorns and a few patches of willow. There are even a few marshy areas with reeds and, along the hillside just next door, there are sycamores and other larger trees. And, more importantly for finding stuff, no gangs of bloody dog walkers to scare off everything before you even get there! At the moment, my visits during autumn are rare, but it is somewhere I would like to scour more regularly when I am able.
So, on 29th October, I visited Herm with Wayne and Mark G to find some quality birds. As usual, we headed straight for the common, passing a few Brent Geese along the west coast beach. As we reached the edge of the common it was clear that there had been a bit of an arrival with lots of Redwing, Blackbirds and Song Thrushes flying all around us, unsettled, as if they had just arrived. A pair of Buzzards were perching so close on the tops of the bushes, we tried and failed at photos. A few Skylark went overhead and we had a late Wheatear on the turf. It felt really good as we pushed on further north, with plenty of common birds like Robins and Meadow Pipits scattering in front of us. A few Chiffchaffs were present in the scrubby areas and we had three Golden Plovers calling as they flew above us.
As we criss-crossed the grassy area at the northern tip of the island, Wayne put up a bunting-like bird which dropped down thirty yards further on which we all suspected was a Lapland Bunting. We soon came across it again and it flew up, confirming its identity, especially as it called, but was then followed by a second bird, and then a third. We never got very good views of this flock of three as they stayed in the long grass out of sight, but we were chuffed with a flock of Lap Bunts, as we only usually see singles.
Climbing the hill towards the crest of the island, we found ourselves amongst birds straight away with plenty of tits and a few Blackcaps in the scrub. The Sycamore plantation tucked in on the northern slope had a few Chiffchaffs feeding in the crowns of the trees, and a Yellow-browed Warbler calling from somewhere, which we never saw. It seemed that most of the interesting birds were concentrated in this northern section of the island, as we spent the rest of the morning covering the central woods and fields seeing very little else apart from a couple of Firecrests. A super morning's birding was had, but a shame we didn't grab a mega-beauty.
On 31st October I was back at work, but called in at Rousse on the way home to see if anything had arrived in the gardens during my week off. There were 3 or 4 Chiffchaffs feeding lively in the Tamarisks which was encouraging, and I noticed another warbler elusively hopping around the bases of the reeds in the small reedbed at the back of the rectangular pond. It was difficult to get a decent view of it as it was deep in the reeds, but was clearly very brown in colour, and I was having thoughts about a possible Dusky.
It did eventually give decent views at the front of the reeds and I was sure, from the plumage alone, that it had to be a Siberian Chiffchaff. It was pale brown all over the upperparts, and whitish below, with only a hint of a brownish wash on the flanks and breast sides. There were no green tones at all and no apparent yellows, and it had a clear and bright supercilium, just as they are supposed to. However, the bird didn't call, and I needed it to call. No matter how "standard" it was for a Sibe on plumage, one must really hear it to be 100% sure. It was notable that this bird was behaving very differently than the other Chiffies on site - I wonder if tristis prefers watery areas?
I went down again the next day hoping for more views and photos, but it was really dull and overcast, and I couldn't find it. Then, just as I had to go, I saw it in a stunted sycamore-type tree along the edge of the garden, where I tried and failed to get a photo (well I got half a bird - see below). It was again so elusive and skulking and soon flew back into the reedbed, where yet again, it failed to call for me. I never saw it again, but reading about late-autumn Chiffchaffs, it appears that these pale brown-and-white Chiffchaffs in late autumn in the UK have 'always' (?) eventually proved to be tristis when the DNA has been studied. Apparently, abietinus-raced birds are extremely rare in Britain, especially this late on. Personally, I am sure this bird was a Siberian Chiffchaff - it just had the 'feel' of one.
A couple of days later on 2nd November, I noticed on the website that a Snow Bunting had been recorded at Fort Hommet, a species I had not recorded on the patch this year. So, after school, despite the sun setting in the west, I popped down to take a look at it. Unfortunately, I didn't know where it was but I suspected it was near the Fort itself and I left the camera in the car. When I bumped into it, it was so tame, feeding on the track in front of me, and I managed a shot on my phone.
I had a free morning on 26th November, and with a bit of an easterly wind-flow, I thought I may still have a chance at seeing something decent at Pleinmont despite the late date. The wind was very light, the sky was dull and the air was clear - it was a superb day to be out in the field. The birds were there too when I started my walk around the Mont Herault fields, with about 30 Skylark putting up from the first stubble field. There were lots of Chaffinches, Linnets and the like, and pretty soon I picked up a large flock of Lapwing to the east. I counted about 150 birds as they flew south - the first I had seen in Guernsey this year. They turned and flew east along the cliffs.
There was plenty of thrushes around with about 50 Fieldfare flying over and I picked up a Golden Plover as it called above me. As I walked towards the Mont Herault approach road I flushed a bulky bunting-like bird which dropped over a bank. Despite heading straight for where it landed, I couldn't find it, until it suddenly flew up again from a different spot and flew westwards. I thought it was probably a Lapland Bunting but it was again nowhere to be seen. Mark G drove up and we had a chat and he went off to check another field. He immediately returned as he had also seen the bunting-like bird, which he had fly back to the original spot. As we chatted, 3 more Golden Plover flew over and we had an unusual flock of 5 Barnacle Geese go over. We have a feral flock in the northern part of the island but I have never see them way down in the south-west. I'd like to think these were a lost wild flock from the Arctic but I am sure that no-one else would agree!
Mark drove back to where the bunting had landed and he finally managed to nail it as a Lapland Bunting. He phoned me to let me know, and just as I clicked off the call, I almost walked into a Snow Bunting on the track in front of me. It has been a pretty good year for these species here in Guernsey but I didn't expect to find both within an hour.
After a few snaps of the Snow Bunt in the dull light, I drove back to get a proper look at the Lap Bunt which was feeding very tamely along the edge of a stubble field. If I had the photographic skills I would have been able to get some cracking pics.
I spent quite a while after that checking the valleys for any late rare warblers and the like but all I found was three Firecrests. On the way home I stopped at Rousse and saw two Slavonian Grebes swimming in Grandes Havres.
Buzzards are definitely becoming more frequent around my neighbourhood. Whereas I used to only ever see them soaring high above the house, I am seeing them more and more regular at low levels and this month saw my first one perched from the front window. There is a small group of really tall trees just to the north of the house and I wonder if they are checking them out as a possible nesting area. I hope so.