So it has been a while since our last outing, but here we are on the cusp of Spring awaiting those first migrants to alight upon our shores. Still a bit early yet though so John and I decided to move onto the next bird on our ‘to-see’ list, which happens to be a very tricky bird indeed; the Lesser Spotted Woodpecker. After much research I decided that to have the best chance of seeing one we should go to Blean Woods; these woods cover a vast area to the north of Canterbury and although rather fragmented still represent a decent portion of the once expansive and ancient Blean Forest. The woods here have a good mix of habitats, including some heathland, and support many interesting and some rare species of plants, insects, mammals and birds – including a certain Woodpecker.
We were very fortunate with the weather as it was a blindingly sunny, clear blue sky all day, and as birders know, if you want to see woodland birds on a grey rainy day then you may as well give up! As it happens this time of year is the best for seeing LSW’s because there are no leaves on the trees and they will have started calling and drumming (at least that’s the theory). Upon arriving at the main car park for the RSPB owned section of Blean the first thing we heard was a yaffling Green Woodpecker; we both took this as a good sign. As I mentioned, Blean is a large area of wood so it took us the best part of three hours to walk around on the main paths, on the way we did see some good birds (the woodpeckers were conspicuous in their absence) including a cracking male Bullfinch, Coal tits, some Redwings, a very low and very fast Sparrowhawk and Stock Doves. There was certainly no shortage of Blue and Great tits however; which were being very vocal, very active, and were to be seen in nearly every tree – cute as they are I admit to becoming a tad sick of the sight of them.
Around half way along our walk we were traipsing along a less-trod, quiet, wilder woodland ride which was flanked by some mature, thick Oak wood when John suddenly expostulated. He was looking at a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker he said, upon the bough of a tree in front of us (rather obscured by glaring sunshine) but as I was about to raise my bins he cried again gasping that it was flying – looking up I could see a small bird silhouetted against the sun flapping quickly away and over the tree tops. Burned into my retina for ever will be that view of a woodpecker-shaped bird, the sunlight shining through its black and white barred wings, sodding off over the Oaks never to be seen again. Fortunately after waiting in shocked silence for a few minutes we did actually hear the surprisingly distinctive call of the LSW not far off, however despite much searching and waiting around we failed to see or hear another one that day.
Feeling slightly cheated, seeing as it was undeniably a LSW that we had seen, yet it was the briefest and most un-satisfying view possible, we got back in the car. Wanting to make the most of the day we drove to the other side of Canterbury to the well-known reserve of Stodmarsh. This is a great birding area; especially in Summer, it has vast (to the horizon!) stretches of reedbed along with some scrub, open water and grazing meadow mixed in. We had been here before but never this early in the year, so did not quite know what to expect from this secluded valley. The first hide was pretty good; there were a couple of Marsh Harriers floating over the distant reeds, several beautiful Teal were dabbling in the muddy shallows and a pair of dapper Gadwall displayed then copulated right in front of us (Tis’ the season!). The highlight was undeniably a stunning male Bearded Reedling that shuffled into full view out of the reedbed to poke at the water, if only for thirty seconds. The relative quiet was broken briefly by an interesting gentleman who introduced his presence in the hide by booming “Hello twitchers!”, he then proceeded to look not out of the hide but at us, asking what the rarest bird that can be seen here is (a man replied Bittern, but for what it was worth he might as well of said ‘Stejneger’s bimaculated lark-sparrow’) this provided an interesting view of how the general public view birders.
Probably second-best bird of the day was Water Rail; for the first time in my life I actually heard a Water Rail call – an odd sort of rasping squeal emanating from the dense reeds. They took some spotting but two loud and clearly excited Rails did burst out of the undergrowth to briefly chase each other around before melting back into their damp kingdom. This was only the third time I have seen this species and John had not seen one for years so understandably we were both ecstatic. Stodmarsh is also a good place for Cetti’s Warblers; a small chocolate-brown bird more often heard than seen, surprisingly we actually did see one flit across the path after emitting its explosive song.
So all in all a great days birding in the lovely spring sunshine, with some lovely species under our belts. Yet it ended bittersweet, for that deviously difficult to see species the LSW (not really its fault seeing as it has declined by 75% since the 60’s) had rather halfheartedly revealed itself to us; we had seen one, yes, but it was the briefest glimpse possible and understandably I feel that we have unfinished business.