Trip reports

October coach trip to Hook-with-Warsash nature reserve

October coach trip to Hook-with-Warsash nature reserve
Ben Hall (rspb-images.com)

Saturday, 19 October 2013

Our coach trip in October was to Hook-with-Warsash nature reserve on the River Hamble in Hampshire. This is a trip of two halves. After being dropped in the village of Warsash we first walked up-river to a jetty from which a curiously homemade looking Barbie pink ferry plies across the river (according to Wikipedia there has been a ferry on this site for 1000 years - hopefully they have replaced the boat once or twice in that time). Here we all stopped to watch rock pipits on the shore until the ferry came in and we found we were completely blocking the jetty with bodies and tripods. After some embarrassed shuffling the bemused passengers were able to disembark, the rock pipits had flown and we moved on.

The trip had been meticulously timed to coincide with high tide - in fact there is a double peak of high tide here due to the influence Isle of Wight which means that high water lasts a little longer. This pushes waders off the mudflats. When we reached Bunny Meadows we had excellent views of curlew, dunlin and greenshank, grey, golden and ringed plover, snipe and black-tailed godwit, as they were concentrated onto islands in the flooded areas until the tide fell. While we ate lunch in a sudden shower of rain, a kingfisher perched fetchingly on a dead tree and skeins of brent geese lent an autumnal feel.

The rain stopped. The sun came out and sated with lunch and waders, we headed back to our starting point and from there began part two of the trip, down-river towards Hook Links. Here there is rough grassland dotted with dense, scrubby bushes, mostly of gorse - ideal territory for Dartford warblers. It is said that if you want to see a Dartford warbler, first find a stonechat. I have to say that I have seen lots of stonechats, and up till this point none of them had been associated with Dartford warblers. This time however, they seemed to have read the script.

Finding the stonechat was easy enough. He was standing sentinel on top of a gorse bush, shining orange in the sun. And sure enough, rummaging around in the bush below was a Dartford warbler. When the stonechat moved to a nearby bush it followed, flying low to the ground. This continued for about half an hour. At first it appeared that the warbler was simply following, but more than once it appeared to come to the top of the bush and harass the stonechat until it flew to another bush, and would then follow it.

The explanation usually given for this behaviour is that the Dartford warbler benefits from the stonechat acting as lookout, allowing it to feed without worrying about predators, while the stonechat feeds on insects disturbed by the warbler. However in the course of the half hour we watched, the stonechat only appeared to feed once. Perhaps it wasn't hungry, but the relationship did seem a bit one sided. Indeed a study by Zamora et al (1992) in Spain concluded that this behaviour was of little benefit to the stonechat, which was trying to shake off the Dartford warbler when it moved perches.

All in all, it was an excellent day out to a beautiful place with some interesting behaviour to watch. But if you want to see it you have to be there - if you have not been on one of our coach trips why not give it a try. You never know what you might see.