Easter birding memories


Even though my free time is thankfully no longer dictated by public holidays, I can't help but feel a warm glow of anticipation when Easter appears around the corner on my calendar. As a young birder, the Easter holidays usually coincided with the magical early stages of spring migration when chats, terns and waders would appear out of nowhere on showery days, and there would often be something worth travelling to see.

Now that I've built up almost 20 years of birding records, I have some wonderful memories of Easters in the field over the years to look back on. Five Easter weekends stand out in particular.



My first serious birding Easter fell on a classic mid-April date, making my first trip to Minsmere RSPB all the more special. After a year or two fantasing about visiting the famous reserve, I'd managed to convince my parents to book a cottage on the Suffolk coast and spend the pretty much the whole long weekend gazing out of hides.

In my mind, Minsmere was in a class of its own. I recently dug out a notebook that my 11-year-old self had allocated solely for use at the reserve over the Easter weekend, and I was taken back in time as I entered the sightings into eBird. Memories flooded back of sitting contentedly in the East Hide as April showers poured outside, dropping in Little Gulls, Green Sandpipers and Sandwich Terns.

Island Mere offered memorable early experiences of Eurasian Bittern, Bearded Tit and Western Marsh Harrier, but the excitement of a Shore Lark appearing on one of the islands on the scrape has always stayed with me as an early unexpected encounter.

David's first Shore Lark was seen during a family Easter break at Minsmere RSPB, Suffolk (Mike Parker).



By the time Easter 2009 came around, I had just discovered the joys of a local patch and county birding, while my enthusiasm for twitching had been cemented by mixing with the birders at Beddington Farmlands. This was the local site that introduced me to more serious birding, with some of the sewage farm and landfill site's regular birders having enviable local and national lists, as well as plenty of knowledge on identification and migration for me to absorb.

The Saturday of the Easter weekend started with some of my first Western Yellow Wagtails and Northern Wheatears of the spring bringing the area around Beddington's main lake to life. A grounded Red Knot was found on one of the beds, sparking a small-scale twitch and introducing me to the thrill of witnessing coastal wader species in an inland setting. But there was far more excitement to come.

My parents weren't yet comfortable with me going on trips with other birders, so I needed to channel my teenage rebellion, and test my ability to pull the wool over their eyes, if I were to see the White-throated Sparrow that everybody was suddenly talking about. I jumped in to Beddington stalwart Roy's window-cleaning van and we made our way to Hampshire.

The White-throated Sparrow at Old Winchester Hill, Hampshire, was the author's first American landbird (James Packer).

Roy was pretty old school when it came to navigation, but in 2009 it didn't seem that backward to buy an Ordnance Survey map from a petrol station and call now-defunct rare bird service BirdNet for directions. After several wrong turns, we parked up and found the crowd waiting for the bird at Old Winchester Hill. Roy gave the shout when the sparrow appeared and the crowd rushed over to our side, where my first American landbird was in full view. My luck ran out when I reached for my camera, which had chosen this moment to give up the ghost, but I knew to just enjoy the moment.

Being dropped at home would give the game away, so Roy left me back at Beddington and I called my dad to pick me up, explaining I'd been so long there because I was searching for a 'possible Wryneck'.

Easter Monday completed the trinity of patch, national and county twitches that weekend, with my dad taking me to see five Velvet Scoter at Staines Reservoir for my newly started London list. There were two dapper drakes among the flock, offering some of my best views of the species and, with the inland context and Little Gulls dancing around them, they were just as good as the sparrow.

This flock of Velvet Scoter at Staines Reservoirs was an Easter treat for a young London lister (Andrew Moon).



This Easter fell in late March – hardly a peak period of movement – but just three weeks after I started my season as Assistant Warden at Dungeness Bird Observatory in Kent, so I was ready for anything to happen. Despite the early date, the weekend delivered one of the only true falls of migrants that I've ever witnessed, with more than 100 Firecrests littered across the hallowed shingle. With birds probably moving through during the day, this may even have been a significant underestimate.

I also look back at the weekend fondly for the visit to the RSPB reserve at Dungeness with my partner Ingrid and sharing the sight of a flock of five Smew, one of her favourite ducks, including two adult drakes. However, it is a sobering realisation that the species has become a genuine scarcity in the area in the seven years since.

An Easter arrival of more than100 Firecrests while working at Dungeness was one of the only dramatic falls that the author has witnessed (David Campbell).



Good Friday saw one of my most memorable seawatches. I had moved from Surrey to Worthing in West Sussex just a few months before and was lucky enough to now have the sea just a five-minute walk away from the front door.

The wind was blowing from the south-east on 30 March, the ideal direction for witnessing spring migration off the Sussex coast. Instead of driving some distance to one of the county's better-known seawatching locations, I headed for a shelter along the promenade just around the corner from home.

First up, a stunning pair of Red-necked Grebes slowly drifted by on the sea, and once they had disappeared from view they were replaced by a pair of Black-necked Grebes in breeding plumage. The Black-neckeds were quite close in, so I ran to the shore in an attempt to digiscope them, but I managed to lose my multiple-tally click counter to the waves in the process.

David lost his click-counter in the sea when digiscoping these Black-necked Grebes off Worthing during a hectic seawatch (David Campbell).

My good friend Gareth James joined me in the shelter and I picked up a distant white-winged gull in line with the Rampion wind farm. Its slim build identified it as an Iceland Gull and we enjoyed better views of the bird later in the day when it joined the loafing gull flock at nearby Goring Gap. This was my first sighting of the species in my new home county, but it wasn't the only good gull of the session, with a third-winter Yellow-legged Gull flying along the beach providing a welcome bonus.

The Iceland Gull seen during the Worthing seawatch was relocated as it loafed in the fields at Goring Gap (David Campbell).

A flock of six Common Eider, always a treat on the Sussex coast, powered past, only to be followed by a group of seven that pitched down on the sea. Always scarce east of Selsey Bill, a Great Northern Diver provided another highlight as it crashed onto the sea and dived, never to be seen again. Common Scoter trickled through in reasonable numbers, as did Red-throated Divers and newly arrived Sandwich Terns. Four Common Terns, my first March sighting of the species, also flew east.

For once, it all seemed too easy. A curious dog-walker even spotted us a migrant male Northern Wheatear, fresh off the Channel.



After the challenges of lockdown, being able to go on an Easter twitch with my fellow Sussex birding friend George Kinnard was an exciting prospect. The stay at home order had been relaxed, so we were free to head west for two rarities that had been testing our resolve for weeks.

Our first stop was Newlyn for a quick win at the more distant of the two sites on the itinerary. I will readily take any excuse to visit Cornwall, but throw in an American Herring Gull in a pictureseque little harbour and I'm in heaven. The bird was ready and waiting for us on a tiny beach behind the harbour arm, allowing us to soak in every salient feature. My painful dip in Argyll seven years previously didn't matter all of a sudden.

It doesn't get much better than a rare gull in a tranquil harbour, like the American Herring Gull (right) at Newlyn, Cornwall (David Campbell).

Next up was Exmouth, Devon. I don't relish birding around where people live, so we were delighted when Britain's third Northern Mockingbird appeared without too much trouble. Even though COVID-19 restrictions had officially been eased, we couldn't help but feel an extra degree of unease about being there. We needn't have worried, though, as everybody who stopped was welcoming, and one local woman came back to hand us a bottle of wine.

Little did I know the bird would turn up in Pulborough, only 20 minutes away from home, just a few days later ...

The Northern Mockingbird stayed put just long enough to be twitched after lockdown was eased (Ian Bollen).

Written by: David Campbell

David Campbell works for BirdGuides and co-runs Wildstarts Nature Ltd, a Sussex-based guiding company: www.wildstarts.com