TRAVELLING NATURALIST TRIP REPORT

Alderney in spring

26 to 29 April 2001


Leaders: Tim Earl

We set off with great expectations after arriving at the hotel and a quick cuppa.

Almost immediately the first of what were to be many migrating Swallows was seen as we dropped down the hill towards Crabby Bay. A Chiffchaff was singing strangely in the woods below us - almost as if it had a speech impediment - while Wrens and Dunnocks were shouting from almost every bush.

The beach at Crabby seemed deserted until a Whimbrel moved from one spot to the other, disturbed each time by the heavy swell which was running.

As we entered the town area, studying the vast breakwater, quaint old harbour and some of Alderney's 12 forts, a Rock Pipit soared up and parachuted back to earth singing its display song.

Three Shags, showing the first-year, second-year and adult plumages, posed on a rock while a flock of Herring Gulls leapt into the air, seemingly in alarm but in fact recognising the van of a man who feeds them at the same time daily.

After watching that melee we walked across Braye beach, preceded by a White Wagtail, to check out three Ringed Plovers.

Our walk back to the hotel for lunch produced excellent views of a tail-pumping Chiffchaff and a singing Blackcap.

The Giffoine is a spectacular place to start an afternoon's walk. Ravens, Kestrels and a lone, distant Peregrine entertained us as we walked to the look-out spot, a Willow Warbler hawked flies along a fence close to us and Meadow Pipits copied their town cousin, doing their display flights above gorse bright with yellow flowers.

After examining the Gannet colony on the Garden Rocks, watching the nesting adults, roosting 'bachelors' and birds returning with beaks full of seaweed nesting material, Tim tried luring Fulmars.

Standing above their nest sites, he waived his trusty wildfowl handkerchief and shouted 'fulmar!' to get the birds' attention. As if radio-controlled, one or two sailed up the cliff on outstretched wings to check him out.

Pam found a Razorbill resting on the surface while two more, which kept diving from view, were located close to the bottom of the cliff.

A weather front which came in from the south-west made the spot uncomfortable and we set off to explore a new path down the sheltered Bonne Terre Valley. Little was seen - a few Chiffchaffs and a Willow Warbler flitted through the trees while a male Blackcap scolded us with its sharp Stonechat-like alarm call.

A young Buzzard was hunting worms on fields in the Petite Blaye, swooping from fence posts to catch its prey.

At Platte Saline small flock of Swallows had given up on migrating and were catching flies over the pond where a Wheatear and more Ringed Plovers were seen.

We tried eating Sea Kale and were lucky that Tim picked a particularly sweet leaf as a sample.

The walk ended with a pair of Song Thrushes just before we reached the hotel. Considering the poor afternoon weather, our list of 46 species seemed quite respectable.

Our reward for the weather came the following morning when thick clag - mist, fog and drizzle - brought down a fall of birds. Blackcaps were singing and showing themselves all over the place and more than 10 were seen in 30 minutes.

Willow Warblers were also feeding avidly but not singing, unlike the Chiffchaffs which made their presence known with the familiar song.

Swifts - a party of four - were the highlight of the morning, however, although only just seen. The cloud-base was so low that they disappeared into it on occasions, but the day was dry despite a forecast of showers.

The group was dropped at the lighthouse after breakfast but the fall of birds seemed not have happened in the north of Alderney. A small party of Linnets posed on wires for us with a Wheatear for company.

Close views of a super male Kestrel were interrupted by calls from the bay behind us where we found several Common Terns chatting among themselves about how good it was to be back from their winter quarters.

We took our time over the summer visitors, enjoying what were the first terns of the year for many of us, until Pam mentioned a few waders she had found roosting on rocks close by. Waders are not the most abundant group of birds on Alderney and we were delighted to record four Purple Sandpipers and a Turnstone.

Walking off towards Cats Bay a pair of Shelducks flew past and out towards France which was hidden in mist. House Martins and a few more Swifts went past, as if off out to sea, but turned back when they saw that the horizon was missing.

A singing Sedge Warbler in a Tamarisk hedge demanded centre stage until we had all enjoyed close telescope views. Sedge Warblers have a scratchy song but believe that, being warblers, they are star performers. This bird had puffed himself out and was pretending that he was the extra voice in the Four Tenors - we were delighted.

Rounding the first corner on the coastal walk from Cats Bay, a small inkling that the fall might have occurred here too was had when a male Redstart flew off down the path away from us. He was relocated in a field of mown bramble stems and nettles where more than a dozen Willow Warblers were hawking flies from the stems. At times they seemed to be performing an aerial ballet.

As the group slowly progressed along the path it became clear that there were lots of great birds around. More Blackcaps and Redstarts were seen, Willow Warblers were abundant and suddenly a female Pied Flycatcher was seen in a stand of pines. Uncommon in spring, she was being admired on her new perch - a fence post along the path - when a male joined her.

They too played to the audience and were watched through binoculars or telescopes to many oohs and ahhhs, especially when joined by another Redstart. A calling Cuckoo added the musical accompaniment.

Tim interrupted the fun by pointing out a Wood Warbler in the same pines, a mobile bird which most people saw before it flitted off. This had developed into a most exciting morning.

It was not only birds which caught our attention - two Green-winged Orchids were in bloom among a host of coastal plants along the path.

Many more migrant birds were observed but we still had time to admire Whimbrels, Common Terns and some huge skeins of Gannets on the sea side of the path.

It took two hours to walk the mile or so to Longis Bay, so many birds distracted us. And the ornithological feast continued with six super Yellow Wagtails feeding around a pond which was hosting visiting Sand Martins and Swallows which were around in quite large numbers.

We finally made it to the Nunnery and its conveniences after passing dozens more Willow Warblers on the way. Steve Collins from the hotel brought out our packed lunches and as he arrived a male Emperor Moth with its long feathery antennae was discovered.

We ate in almost silence - partly because there was so much to think about from the morning and partly so that we could hear another Sedge Warbler singing behind us. Its calls were added to by a Sandwich Tern, no doubt attracted by the contents of our lunch. Three Whitethroats were found living up to their country name of Nettlecreeper while several Blackbirds raised false hopes of Ring Ouzel.

The sun was warming us up as we walked up Barrackmasters Lane which was quiet in the afternoon birding lull. Not for long though - a splendid male Serin, singing its jangling keys song, was a first for many group members and brought beaming smiles to all.

The afternoon ended on Longis Common where, among the flooded patches remaining from Alderney's wettest winter on record, we found Whinchat and Stonechat, Skylarks and a skulking Coot on the pond.

Some of the group returned to the hotel by minibus while three walked back to see what could be found on the way. We noticed that the Swallows had disappeared with the clearing skies - they had taken the opportunity to fly off on the 70-mile journey to the south coast of Britain.

About 20 Wheatears and three more Whinchats were in a field while on Braye beach we discovered two Dunlins in their full black-bellied winter plumage.

More Whimbrels and a Ringed Plover were also on the beach and a few Common Terns were fishing in the bay.

A Cuckoo calling above Newtown could not be located but Willow Warblers and Blackcaps continued to accompany us back to the hotel.

This had been migration watching at its best.

Many of the birds which arrived the day before were still in the island this morning - unless a new batch had arrived, which might have been the case with some. Certainly our first walk down to the harbour was packed with Blackcaps and Willow Warblers. A Sedge Warbler was singing the valley behind Braye Road and a single Garden Warbler was sun-bathing with Blackcaps in ivy.

We arrived at the harbour to find that the expected boat trip was cancelled due to a strong breeze. After collecting our telescopes and packed lunches we set off for the cliff walk at Val du Sud via the path which crosses the western end of the airport.

Within a few paces we had seen four Whinchats, a Whitethroat, several Skylarks when suddenly a Turtle Dove flew across towards the cliffs, returning a few moments later. Although we had good views in flight the bird disappeared after landing in a distant field.

A big female Sparrowhawk flew out of the Val du Sud and a little later a much smaller male was spotted catching a small bird in one of the sheltered valleys.

We searched in vain for Dartford Warblers but found the stunning cliff paths with their natural, wild rock-garden appearance offered ample compensation. It seemed that Prostrate Broom, Thrift, Sea Campion, Stonecrop, Red Campion, Gorse (does it smell of vanilla or coconut?) and the myriad of other flowers were each trying to squeeze the other out.

Our attentions were soon raised as a passing Raven attracted a pair of Peregrines which proceeded to stage a superb avian air-show above our heads as they attempted to knock nine-bells out of the intruder. Having seen off the Raven, which had defended itself by turning over on its back in the air presenting its talons to the attacking falcons, the Peregrines settled on a cliff ledge to swap notes and a satisfied chuckle. We followed suit while watching them.

We had lunch overlooking a croissant-shaped island, Cocque Lihou, around which Razorbills and Guillemots were bobbing on the sea. To compensate the Raven we left uneaten sandwiches for it which were gratefully received after we left.

A strange pipit took some sorting out but was later identified as a pale Tree Pipit. It gave only brief views after bathing in puddle.

After a quick visit to the Gannet colony we stopped to sort out five Stock Doves from a flock of Woodpigeons, and watch a resting Turtle Dove found close to the road. With Collared Doves in St Anne's earlier, we had seen all the common British doves in an afternoon.

After a refreshing cuppa in the airport, the group split - some returned to the hotel by taxi while the others walked the last mile or so.

Their reward was a grey-headed race of Yellow Wagtail M.f. flava feeding around the feet of calves in a field close to the road with two of the British race.

Our last morning was to start with a pre-breakfast walk but forecast early rain forced its cancellation and we all had a lie-in. After breakfast we walked down to the harbour where our postponed boat trip took place in conditions which were still quite rough. We crossed to Burhou where a small flock of 26 Puffins were bobbing on the water in front of their grassy colony.

Crossing back to Alderney we dropped down to the Gannet colony where we were able to admire these huge birds at close quarters, examining the nest slopes, littered with dangerous fishing netting, and bachelor slopes where the non-breeding birds were to spend much of the summer.

The conditions were rough and we were please to come ashore, pick up 'scopes from the hotel and go out to the Barn Restaurant where we enjoyed a final meal together.

The Peregrines came out to bid us farewell by loafing around Fort Essex for a few minutes and we watched our final Willow and Sedge warblers at the Nunnery.

Our luggage had been taken out to the airport by Alderney Taxis and we joined it to wait for the flights.

Birding never stops at the airport, a great place for raptors, and we were able to watch the young Buzzard seen on the first afternoon, still hunting worms on the Petit Blaye while a male Sparrowhawk was flitting from one stone perch to another in the same fields.

Once again Alderney had given the Travelling Naturalists a wonderful short break and excellent opportunity to welcome the first spring visitors.

SPECIES LIST

PETRELS Procellariiformes Procellariidae

Northern fulmar Fulmarus glacialis Several responding to 'duck handkerchief' at the Giffoine. Two around St Anne's harbour

GANNETS Pelecaniformes Sulidae

Northern gannet Morus bassanus Abundant - colony of 3,000 pairs at the Garden Rocks. Seen closely on the boat trip on 29th

CORMORANTS Pelecaniformes Phalacrocoracidae

Great cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo One off Crabby Bay 27th

European shag Phalacrocorax aristotelis Common

EGRETS Ciconiiformes Ardeidae

Little egret Egretta garzetta One Longis Bay 27th

DUCKS Anseriformes Anatidae

Common shelduck Tadorna tadorna Two flying out from Cats Bay 27th

Mallard Anas platyrhynchos Common

HAWKS Falconiformes Accipitridae

Eurasian sparrowhawk Accipiter nisus Female and two males seen 28th

Eurasian buzzard Buteo buteo Juvenile hunting from a post at the Blaye 26th, 28th and 29th

FALCONS Falconiformes Falconidae

Eurasian kestrel Falco tinnunculus Three pairs recorded

Peregrine falcon Falco peregrinus One seen briefly secret location 26th, pair mobbing Raven 28th, pair loafing over Fort Essex 29th

PHEASANTS Galliformes Phasianidae

Ring-necked pheasant Phasianus colchicus Abundant

GALLINULES & COOTS Gruiformes Rallidae

Common moorhen Gallinula chloropus Several heard, one seen Rose Farm 28th

Eurasian coot Fulica atra One seen on Longis Pond 27th

OYSTERCATCHERS Charadriiformes Haematopodidae

Eurasian oystercatcher Haematopus ostralegus Common

PLOVERS Charadriiformes Charadriidae

Common ringed plover Charadrius hiaticula A few seen on Platte Saline and Braye bays

SANDPIPERS Charadriiformes Scolopacidae

Whimbrel Numenius phaeopus Common. Maximum 15 seen on 27th

Ruddy turnstone Arenaria interpres One Cats Bay 27th

Dunlin Calidris alpina Two Braye beach 27th

Purple sandpiper Calidris maritima Four roosting on rocks at Cats Bay on 27th

GULLS Charadriiformes Laridae

Great black-backed gull Larus marinus Common around the coast

Herring gull Larus argentatus Common

Lesser black-backed gull Larus fuscus Common

TERNS Charadriiformes Sternidae

Sandwich tern Sterna sandvicensis One Longis Bay on 27th

Common tern Sterna hirundo Many around the coast on 27th, two Braye Bay 29th

AUKS & PUFFINS Charadriiformes Alcidae

Guillemot Uria aalge Seven on Sister Rocks 28th, two on boat trip 29th

Razorbill Alca torda Three on the water off the Giffoine on 26th, three on Sister Rocks, four off Cocque Lihou 28th, five on boat trip 29th

Atlantic puffin Fratercula arctica Raft of 26 off Burhou 29th on the boat trip

PIGEONS & DOVES Columbiformes Columbidae

Rock dove Columba livia Common

Stock pigeon Columba oenas Five on Petite Blaye on 28th

Common wood-pigeon Columba palumbus Common

Eurasian turtle-dove Streptopelia turtur Two La Vielle Terre, one Petite Blaye 28th

Eurasian collared-dove Streptopelia decaocto A few around St Anne's daily

CUCKOOS Cuculiformes Cuculidae

Common cuckoo Cuculus canorus First heard on 27th then daily

SWIFTS Apodiformes Apodidae

Common swift Apus apus More than 20 sen on 27th

LARKS Passeriformes Alaudidae

Skylark Alauda arvensis Three seen Longis Common on 27th, singing elsewhere daily

SWALLOWS Passeriformes Hirundinidae

Sand martin Riparia riparia More than 10 seen on 27th, one on 28th

Barn swallow Hirundo rustica Common daily but numbers dropped when the island emptied on occasions

House martin Delichon urbica More than 20 seen on 27th, a few daily thereafter

WAGTAILS & PIPITS Passeriformes Motacillidae

White wagtail Motacilla alba A few seen on beaches daily

Yellow wagtail Motacilla flava Six seen at Longis on 27th, three inc Grey-headed race M.f. thunbergi near the airport 28th

Tree pipit Anthus trivialis One at Telegraph Tower 28th

Meadow pipit Anthus pratensis Common

Rock pipit Anthus petrosus Two seen in St Anne's at the harbour on 26th and 29th

WRENS Passeriformes Troglodytidae

Winter wren Troglodytes troglodytes Abundant

ACCENTORS Passeriformes Prunellidae

Dunnock Prunella modularis Abundant

THRUSHES Passeriformes Turdidae

Eurasian blackbird Turdus merula Common - singing and seen

Song thrush Turdus philomelos Common - singing and seen

OLD WORLD WARBLERS Passeriformes Sylviidae

Sedge warbler Acrocephalus schoenobaenus Singles at Cats Bay, Nunnery and Barrackmasters Lane on 27th, singles 28th and 29th

Eurasian reed-warbler Acrocephalus scirpaceus One singing at Longis Pond on 27th

Willow warbler Phylloscopus trochilus Huge fall on 27th - 1,000 or more - small numbers 28th and 29th

Common chiffchaff Phylloscopus collybeta Common - singing and seen, one carrying nesting material 28th

Wood warbler Phylloscopus sibilatrix One in pines opposite Fort Hommet Herbe on 27th

Blackcap Sylvia atricapilla Big fall on 27th and 28th - 100+ each day - fewer 29th

Garden warbler Sylvia borin Singles on 28th and 29th in St Anne's

Greater whitethroat Sylvia communis Six or more seen on 27th, one on 29th

OLD WORLD FLYCATCHERS Passeriformes Muscicapidae

European pied flycatcher Ficedula hypoleuca Six seen on 27th, one on 28th

European robin Erithacus rubecula Common

Common redstart Phoenicurus phoenicurus Six seen on 27th, male on 29th

Whinchat Saxicola rubetra Four seen on 27th, six on 28th

Common stonechat Saxicola torquata Two pairs Longis Common, one pair Les Rochers, on 27th

Northern wheatear Oenanthe oenanthe Fall on 27th - 50 plus - good numbers other days

LONG-TAILED TITS Passeriformes Aegithalidae

Long-tailed tit Aegithalos caudatus Two seen St Anne's in April 2000 but missed from the report (PM pers comm.)

TITS Passeriformes Paridae

Great tit Parus major Common

Blue tit Cyanistes caeruleus Common

CROWS Passeriformes Corvidae

Eurasian jackdaw Corvus monedula Flock of about 60 or more at the Giffoine daily

Carrion crow Corvus corone Common

Common raven Corvus corax Pair seen at the Giffoine on 26th, pair (plus young?) opp Cocque Lihou 28th

STARLINGS Passeriformes Sturnidae

European starling Sturnus vulgaris Common - some breeding, a small tail-end winter flock 27th

OLD WORLD SPARROWS Passeriformes Passeridae

House sparrow Passer domesticus Happily, common

FINCHES Passeriformes Fringillidae

Chaffinch Fringilla coelebs Common

European greenfinch Carduelis chloris Common

European goldfinch Carduelis carduelis Abundant

Eurasian linnet Carduelis cannabina Common - some breeding but a few migrating flocks too

European serin Serinus serinus Male singing above the Golf Club on 27th

Eurasian bullfinch Pyrrhula pyrrhula Single heard Bonne Terre 27th, female in St Anne's 28th

MAMMALS

Rabbit Oryctolagus cuniculus Abundant. Some black bunnies seen

Northern Mole Talpa europaea Evidence all over the island

BUTTERFLIES

Small White Artogeia rapae One seen 28th (sadly, but consistently, not photographed

Speckled Wood Pararge aegeria One seen 28th

Peacock Inachis io At least three seen 28th

MOTHS

Emperor Moth Saturnia pavonia Male seen Nunnery 28th

Brown-tailed Moth Euproctis chrysorroea Larvae watched emerging from 'tent' 28th

OTHER INSECTS

Common Pond Skater Gerris lacustris One seen 27th

Solitary Bee sp. One found us 28th


© The Travelling Naturalist 2001