Undoubtedly the highlight of the month was a pair of stonechats in Tonford field on the 22nd.
This delightful little bird (right) used to be a semi-regular winter visitor, but the areas it favoured depended on what management was being carried out. Its feeding strategy is to perch atop a sturdy stem, such as a dock, that is going to remain upright through the winter, and pounce onto insects in the grass below. But in years when the hay field was mown, all the potential perches were destroyed, and the birds were less likely to be present.
As it was a mild morning, there were quite a few hatches of flies, and the stonechats abandoned their perch-to-ground approach, instead adopting aerial sallies, just as flycatchers do. Last winter I had only one record of a single bird on almost the same date (25th November). Stonechats are usually very faithful to a partner and are almost invariably seen in pairs, so the presence of the two this time gives us hope that they may now be resident. At this time of year stonechat plumage is less bright, but their spring finery doesn’t come as a result of a moult. If you look closely at the photo, you’ll see that the bird’s black head is covered with a dusting of grey. Over the course of the winter these pale tips to the facial feathers get abraded, revealing the glossy, jet-black breeding plumage beneath, all without a single feather being shed!
Four little grebes (main photo) were seen on the Stour immediately downstream from the Canterbury East railway bridge. This is one of their favoured stretches of the river, but scanning the water on previous visits had failed to detect these notoriously secretive birds, which normally arrive here in October.
Up to four jays (left) were present on the old embankment in the first half of the month. Their particular claim to fame is as creators of oakwoods. In autumn they collect acorns from beneath oaks, then fly hundreds of yards to open land, where they promptly bury them, intending to retrieve their booty during the lean winter months. However, despite an excellent spatial memory, jays fail to recover all of the acorns, some of which then sprout and can eventually turn abandoned fields into oakwood. There are no mature oaks on Hambrook, but there are several saplings developing on the old embankment, undoubtedly owing their existence to forgetful jays.
The wintering flock of snipe built up to 27, but has since dropped back to just 16, a low count for this time of year, possibly due to the birds being dispersed more widely around the county during the mild weather. Other winter birds included seven meadow pipits, 23 redwings, and 100 black-headed gulls splashing around in shallow flooding on Tonford field on November 17th. Six cormorants flying over on November 4th was the most since January, when a flock of 18 was the highest ever count.
A fuzzy photo (right) that recently appeared on the Hambrook Marshes Facebook group was just about identifiable as a helmeted guinea fowl. There used to be guinea fowls in the donkey field, and it seems likely that this was the origin of the current bird. An African species, related to gamebirds such as pheasants, the guinea fowl is often kept as a pet or for its meat. Apparently this bird has been roaming the riverside gardens for a couple of years, sustained by a diet of seeds and porridge oats that the residents put out for it.
A grey squirrel has once again been putting in an appearance on the old embankment, and Simon Pettman managed to get the photo below of it gorging on hawthorn berries. Grey squirrels can have quite a yellow or orange tinge to their fur, particularly in summer. Even so, it shouldn’t be confused with our native red squirrel, absent from Kent since the late 1950s, which is a smaller species with a proportionately longer tail, and whose pelage is generally more rufous.