TRAVELLING NATURALIST TRIP REPORT
Thursday 22 - Sunday 25 April 2004
NO four days could come any brighter than the sunny quartet enjoyed by the Travelling Naturalist group on the Channel Island of Alderney during late April 2004.
With its small dimensions 3.5 miles by 1.5 miles a generous helping of sunshine over a four-day period can be regarded as much as a necessity as it is a God given blessing. When it comes to some serious birdwatching, however, there can be a downside to clear blue springtime skies, particularly where migrating birds are concerned.
We know that migrants wishing to get to their UK nesting territories as quickly as possible will be hoping for favourable weather conditions. Obviously, if the conditions are dark and dismal, a day of shadowy rest and recuperation is highly likely. On the other hand, the advantage of clear bright days, with the added bonus of a comforting tail wind, will be seized upon with great relish.
Despite the gift of four 'bird-weather-friendly' days, a fair sprinkling of avian travellers nevertheless gave the group the benefit of their welcome company. Like a tap with a dodgy washer, Swallows, Swifts and House Martins came 'dribbling' into the island almost on an hourly basis.
After a brief fill-up, and a check of the compass, they were off out to sea again on the journey north. It was a similar situation with other in-transit species such as Wheatears, Redstarts, warblers and Cuckoos, all seen, recorded and given the customary round of applause.
Two other species totally relaxed but with nowhere to go, were Alderney's duo of specialities Gannets and Puffins. While numbers of the former are increasing quite dramatically, the diminutive Puffin is just about hanging on at its tiny Burhou island residence. With a raft of some fifty plus seen from the wave-dashed deck of the good ship Lady Maris, however, both Puffins and passengers appeared equally contented.
Once again, the combination of seabirds, migrants, blue skies, wild flowers and genial, island hospitality has gone a long way to hopefully ensure another springtime visit in 2005.
Thursday April 22.
BY lunchtime, our group of five, plus leader, had all arrived safely and settled into our comfortable accommodation at the Belle Vue Hotel.
Despite a grey morning mercifully the only one we had the early group arrivals briefly sampled Alderney's northerly coastline at Platte Saline where the first of many sightings of Gannets were recorded. Equally abundant were a variety of gulls Herring, Greater and Lesser Black-backed plus numerous Shags. Smaller in scale, though nonetheless just as appreciated, were single numbers of Rock Pipits and Pied and White Wagtails. Hirundines were also well represented with the intermittent flypast of Swallows, House Martins and Sand Martins.
After a satisfying sandwich lunch at the Belle Vue, the full complement took off again to explore Braye Bay and its surrounding grass and scrubland. This leisurely stroll was enjoyed as much for the social company as it was for the appearance of some warm sunshine. Certainly, comment was passed on the density of the grassland buttercups that added more yellow to our group members' shoes than would be found on a Little Egret's foot.
Although many of the wading birds associated with this sandy bay had already dispersed to their northerly breeding grounds, noisy groups of Oystercatchers and the odd appearance of individual Curlews were gratefully added to the checklist. Further along the bay, the steady climb up to the scrubland known as Les Roches was amply rewarded with the overhead flight of Common Buzzard and Kestrel. It was here, too, that Stonechats were seen in quite healthy numbers.
A late afternoon pause for a welcome cup of tea was also blessed with the sight and twittering sounds of a small flock of Linnets each looking quite resplendent in the last of the day's sunshine.
It was then a quick return to the hotel, a look at our check-lists, an ample meal and the prospect of a good night's sleep.
Friday April 23.
A gloriously warm and sunny breakfast was quickly followed by a likewise benevolent start to the day with the weather prospects forecasting a further rise in the daytime temperature.
The morning was spent exploring the Giffoine, a sloping grass-tracked headland on the island's south west coast. The over-worn tracks on this delightful gorse-clad cliff top are due to the popularity of the nearby Gannet colony of Garden Rocks.
Almost 3,000 pairs of these majestic seabirds return each year to find a cherished spot somewhere on this high offshore sea-stack. Further out to sea could be seen the second gannet colony of Ortac, a slightly smaller stack that is home to another 1,500 breeding pairs. Also seen just below this vantage point was a small cliff-face colony of Fulmars, splendid barrel-chested seabirds that only come ashore to breed during the summertime.
After savouring the splendour of these seabirds plus appearances from a trio of Ravens the return to lunch at the hotel was made via the famous zig-zag footpath, a track that gently leads down to the Landmark Trust self-catering unit of Fort Clonque.
Best tick recorded along this route was a Redstart, a splendid female that flaunted her cinnamon under-tail in fine style. The rocky seashore path taking us back to Platte Saline was further complemented by sightings of Grey Heron and Little Egret.
The afternoon was eagerly awaited as the benign weather conditions made a round-island boat trip a guaranteed certainty.
By 2pm, it was all aboard the Lady Maris for some close encounters with the Puffin colony on Burhou plus some even closer encounters with the Garden Rocks Gannet colony.
Despite a thorough soaking as the LM ploughed through the strong currents of the Alderney 'swinge', this maritime diversion was deemed a true success by the damp but exhilarated members of the group.
Not surprisingly, the excellent evening meal was swiftly followed by a sound night's sleep.
Saturday April 24
Our penultimate day on Alderney dawned bright and sunny and, temperature wise, proved the warmest of the four days.
Following a decision taken on the previous evening, a duo of stalwarts joined their leader for a brief early morning meander around the confines of the hotel. Many birds were in full voice with Chiffchaff and Blackcap proving particularly tuneful.
Plans for the main morning schedule included a visit to Longis Common, a delightful grassy strip with adjacent freshwater pond and reed-bed, situated on the Island's south east coast. The bonus here is the delightful little bird-hide that has been built and funded by the Alderney Wildlife Trust.
Just about squeezing our six-some in, the peaceful pond area proved a little disappointing with only Coot and Little Grebe seemingly in attendance. However, good numbers of Swallows and martins made an appearance in characteristic dipping and weaving mode.
Also, as in previous years, a 'Longis' Cuckoo made its distinctive vocal presence well and truly known while the first of a bevy of Swifts arrived and departed in a matter of seconds. A leisurely stroll along the sandy beach further added a pair of Common Terns to the morning's list.
Prior to reaching Longis Common, a short but delightful walk through the woodland tracks of Barrack Masters Lane gave further enjoyment with singing Blackcap, Chiffchaff and Willow Warbler. Because of the high temperatures, a decision was made for a spell of afternoon relaxation that, with unanimous approval, took the form of an island coach trip.
Although no new species were added to our checklists, this informative diversion took the group to a number of island 'corners' not previously visited.
Sunday April 25.
OUR last day in the relaxing atmosphere of this northerly Channel Island which, yet again, dawned bright and cheerful.
Due to the return flights later in the day, a vote was taken as to which site should be revisited in the limited time available. A show of hands quickly proved Barrack Masters Lane and the Longis Pond to be outright winners.
This proved a good decision as a return to the bird-hide delivered quick bursts of song from Cetti's, Reed and Sedge Warblers.
Finally, heard but not seen, was the now familiar call of a cuckoo and, vice-versa, seen but not heard, a Whitethroat. An alfresco lunch in the gardens of the Georgian Hotel plus a last minute stroll around the quiet lanes of St Anne's and it was back to the airport to bid our fond farewells.
A last minute lingering look around the airport perimeter fields admirably gave us our final 'tick' of the trip a Tufted Duck in a nearby farmyard pond.
Not a huge list of bird species, admittedly, but sharing their sunny company in an island of such quiet peacefulness has hopefully ensured that everyone's batteries have been well and fully charged. I know that mine have!
Finally, I would like to thank each member of the group for their splendidly enthusiastic company it really was a great personal pleasure to have introduced you to the charms of one of our Channel Islands.
My very best regards to you all.
Little Grebe Tachybaptus ruficollis
Northern Fulmar Fulmarus glacialis
Northern Gannet Sula bassana
European Shag Phalacrocorax aristotelis
Little Egret Egretta garzetta
Mallard Anas platyrhynchos
Tufted Duck Aythya fuligula
Common Buzzard Buteo buteo
Common Kestrel Falco tinnunculus
Grey Partridge Perdix perdix
Common Pheasant Phasianus colchicus
Common Moorhen Gallinula chloropus
Eurasian Coot Fulica atra
Eurasian Oystercatcher Haematopus ostralegus
Eurasian Curlew Numenius arquata
Herring Gull Larus argentatus
Lesser Black-backed Gull Larus fuscus
Great Black-backed Gull Larus marinus
Common Tern Sterna hirundo
Razorbill Alca torda
Atlantic Puffin Fratercula arctica
Feral Pigeon Columba livia
Wood Pigeon Columba palumbus
Eurasian Collared Dove Streptopelia decaocto
Common Cuckoo Cuculus canorus
Common Swift Apus apus
Sky Lark Alauda arvensis
European Sand Martin Riparia riparia
Barn Swallow Hirundo rustica
Common House Martin Delichon urbica
White Wagtail Motacilla alba
Meadow Pipit Anthus pratensis
Rock Pipit Anthus petrosus
Winter Wren Troglodytes troglodytes
Hedge Accentor (Dunnock) Prunella modularis
Common Blackbird Turdus merula
Song Thrush Turdus philomelus
European Robin Erithacus rubecula
Common Redstart Phoenicurus phoenicurus
Common Stonechat Saxicola torquata
Northern Wheatear Oenanthe oenanthe
Cetti's Warbler Cettia cetti
Sedge Warbler Acrocephalus schoenobaenus
Reed Warbler Acrocephalus scirpaceus
Willow Warbler Phylloscopus trochilus
Common Chiffchaff Phylloscopus collybita
Blackcap Sylvia atricapilla
Common Whitethroat Sylvia communis
Great Tit Parus major
Blue Tit Parus caeruleus
Carrion Crow Corvus corone
Common Raven Corvus corax
Common Starling Sturnus vulgaris
Common Chaffinch Fringilla coelebs
European Greenfinch Carduelis chloris
European Goldfinch Carduelis carduelis
Common Linnet Carduelis cannabina
House Sparrow Passer domesticus
Rabbit Oryctolagus cuniculus
Small White Artogeia rapae
Speckled Wood Pararge aegeria
Peacock Inachis io