Sunday, 4 December 2016

Birding Blunders

It's mid December and there's a storm blowing. A howling south westerly gale is battering the south coast of Devon, with frequent heavy downpours, but that doesn't put off the dedicated patch birder from skipping breakfast and heading down to the coast. He sets up his scope which he struggles to keep still in the wind, but for the first twenty minutes sees very little passing. 

All of a sudden a small white gull flies into view. It's flying into the wind but its clearly all white and small, no bigger than a Kittiwake. The bird remains distant as it flies west but it's clear the bird has some small black flecks along its wing, but otherwise it's really is pure white and is flying almost like a tern. Ivory Gull!!  Mega!  It turns more south and the observer watches it fly away... did that just happen!?  

Still shaking with excitement the birder grabs his phone, manages to send a text out to other birders, and quickly fires of a tweet "Distant 1w Ivory Gull off xxxxxxx, seems to have flown off out to sea!"

But as he puts his phone back in his pocket and continues to scan with his telescope, he picks it up again and it's flying back into the bay.  Fantastic! It keeps on coming, and coming, before dropping on the the sea where it joins a lone adult Kittiwake. Immediately something doesn't look right. It has an all yellow bill, it's the same shape as the Kittiwake, and the 'black flecks' are actually splodges of oil.... it's an albino Kittiwake.

Just as a sinking feeling tugs on the observers stomach, an adult Great Black-backed Gull knocks the albino Kittiwake on the head, and proceeds to swallow it.  It's at this point that cars begin to arrive and the first birders are running over...

Hypothetical Person A   

The birder immediately gets his phone back out of his pocket, begrudgingly sends the tweet 'sorry folks, the Ivory Gull was actually an albino Kittiwake' and sheepishly apologises to all the birders that have already arrived.  He then spends this next 24 hours with his phone turned off and consumes the advised maximum monthly intake of alcohol in one evening. 

Hypothetical Person B

As the first telescopes arrive the birder exclaims "sorry guys, no further sign". Alas there is no more sightings of the 'Ivory Gull', but then again it did fly back out to sea so that's not a surprise. To pull off his lie he needs to carry it all the way though, so submits a remarkably good description of a first-winter Ivory Gull to the BBRC, which sails through. The birder goes down in history as the finder of the first Devon Ivory Gull since 1853!

As an outsider not knowing the truth, who is the better birder?   Well it's clearly not the Muppet that is Person A who can't even tell the difference between a common seabird and one of the most obvious gulls in the world. What a complete stringer.  Person B however, what a star, a complete legend. Managed to nail a flyby Ivory Gull, which he deserved after spending so much time out and about....

Birders are humans. And humans make mistakes, in fact mistakes are what makes us human. When first learning about birds I think you kind of learn through mistakes, and you will probably make many of them, but however experienced and knowledgeable you become as a birder, blunders will still happen. 

It's the birders that never admit to making mistakes that concern me. Thankfully I am confident all the birders I know are like Person A, honest. But I'm sure there are some out there like Person B. Their egos so ballooned and with such (deluded) high standards to uphold, their pride would just not let them back down from their first call. They simply cannot be seen to make a mistake. So, who is the better birder?

Person A. All day long.

Even the most thorough and expert birders make mistakes. The best field birder I know and have ever birded with once spent the day counting an impressive Arctic Skua passage. He returned back to base only to find out all the sea watching locations both north and south of him recorded almost exactly the same numbers of Pomarine Skuas. He immediately knew he'd ballsed up. And admitted it. Everyone makes mistakes, it's how you deal with them that counts.  

It's important to learn from your mistakes (this does make you a better birder), and you have got to expect some flack, but move on. Deal with the error like my dog dealt with the cold water that had soaked into her fur after a swim in the River Coly this morning...

Writing this post got me thinking about my biggest birding faux pas, and three spring to mind...


It must have been about 2001 or 2002, before Colyford Common had a hide and was just a slope and a platform. The previous day I'd had an Osprey fly through south at dusk, and I was stood there with Phil A and Dave H. All the Estuary birds had taken flight, and I was frantically looking around through my binoculars for the reason. As I lowered my binoculars my eyes saw a bird flying very close to us, with a dark breast band, broad wings and a slow flap. My mouth said "Osprey" about half a second before my brain said 'Lapwing'.... there was no excuse!

A Redshank on Steroids.

On 16th August 2010 at Black Hole Marsh, although I was looking into the sun, I could see a long-billed, large and elegant looking Redshank-type. I didn't have to think twice about putting the news out that a Spotted Redshank was with a Greenshank on the marsh.  Here is the bird...

That evening Phil went down, and saw it again, closer and in flight. It was a Redshank. I still maintain it was a bloody weird looking Redshank (possibly of eastern origin?), but it was a Common Redshank.

But I'm good with Gulls.

At dusk on 25th January 2010 I was watching the gulls on the Estuary when a white-winged Gull dropped in north of Coronation Corner. It was so white I was worried it was an albino or leucistic thing, but when it was settled with Herring Gulls it looked smaller, cuter headed and longer winged. A second-winter Iceland Gull, nice. Here it is...

This bird stayed for months on the Estuary. And it was a Herring Gull. This one I took particularly hard as I do consider myself a 'guller'. I thought I had checked all the salient features, well I had, yet I concluded wrong.  Am pleased to say it never put me off gulls though :-)

So folks, I've been open and honest, now it's your turn. Let's have a birders amnesty, I'd love to read about your biggest gaffs and greatest embarrassments in the world of birding. Whether via a comment on this blog, a tweet, an email or a text.  Let's celebrate the fact we are human...

Tuesday, 29 November 2016

Winter Birding

I've seen a few nice things over the last couple of days, most of them distinctly wintry. I'm also finding myself willing every good bird I see now to stay put until Jan 1st - yes I'm already getting fired up for my Patchwork Challenge 2017 year list and it's only November! 

I'll start with yesterday afternoon, and an enjoyable half an hour along the Estuary up to dusk revealed three redhead Goosander (sat on mud north of Tower Hide), two Med Gulls (adults), 24 Dunlin and a Grey Plover.  It's been such a good autumn for Goosander on the south coast, and many other species of wildfowl (especially sea faring ones), I do wonder if that means we have got a proper cold winter coming?

This morning started on the sea front where I could see my first Great Crested Grebe of the winter off towards Seaton Hole. There were also three Black Redstarts about this morning, the two female-types still at Seaton Hole and an adult male near the Spot On Kiosk (thanks Dad)...

I also popped in to Lower Bruckland Ponds this morning, where the Yellow-browed Warbler was showing well right by the entrance bridge. It spent most the time flitting about in the trees as they do...

But in the frosty conditions it did briefly come right down to ground level...

Also present was a female Tufted Duck, which has been here for a couple of days at least...

Yellow-browed Warbler and Tufted Duck.  What a dream Jan 1st duo that would be...

Saturday, 26 November 2016

Patch News

Just wanted to stick this up here on behalf of the Countryside Team at EDDC. Anyone who has been to Black Hole Marsh recently will know how much this car park work is needed!

Also note the water levels will be very low on Black Hole Marsh for a time.  James needs to drain out all the fresh water that accumulated here from the floods of last week, and get some salt back in. If it stays too fresh for too long it could be disastrous for the ecosystem of the marsh.

Really hope you're all having a great weekend and are seeing lots of lovely things :-)

Friday, 25 November 2016

Autumn's Not Over Yet

The raw north wind continued today, and it continued to encourage some decent passage.  This morning a constant trickle of small Redwing flocks were heading north, along with my first three Fieldfare of the autumn. 

A walk along the beach late morning, for only half an hour, showed a lovely group of four Red-breasted Mergansers (two pairs) fly in from way out, bomb around in all directions for about five minutes (including up the Estuary a short way) before heading off east. 

Not quite patch gold, but better than patch bronze - so can only be patch silver!!

Then my day took a downward turn.  Just before midday I picked up six geese flying in from the south, but they were miles out to sea.  Their flight path though meant they were going to eventually fly right over my head so I just watched them.  The closer they got the more they flew into the sun, so they just looked all black. Then annoyingly just as they were in direct line with the sun they turned and started flying away high east... Nooooooo!!! And it got worse, as they flew into better light I could see they were grey geese! And definitely not Greylags. Gutting. They had necks, and seemed to show a bit of paler grey mid way along the upperwing, so they were probably White-fronts but it looks like I will never know. Drat.

To cheer myself up I had a look through the gulls on the Estuary. Three Med Gulls were as good as it got, a first-winter and two adults, including this ringed individual...

Such fab birds!

Thursday, 24 November 2016

Dusky Dipping

Well this wasn't the blog post I was expecting to write today...

I'm usually pretty early to bed every night, guess it's because I'm an early riser. But for some reason last night I was still up gone midnight, and just before I headed up to bed I had a quick look at my phone for any new posts on the blogs that I follow. I clicked on the latest post on the Axe Estuary Ringing Group blog - detailing their captures during their most recent catch on Tuesday of this week - and honestly I thought I was suffering with some sort of sleep deprivation, or that I'd just gone delusional. In front of me was a photo of a Dusky Warbler, the first Dusky Warbler ever recorded on patch!

Here's the pic that was posted, thanks very much to Doug Rudge for a copy of it...

Here's the same pic, but with a few notes pointing out the features that make it the rare that it is (click on the photo to make it and the writing bigger)...

The short primary projection really is striking, although Chiffchaffs have shorter wings than Willow Warblers, they never look this short.

Doug Rudge kindly sent me another photo today, sadly still no legs on show but it's nice to see the bird in different light... 

What a thoroughly gripping photo. Naturally this morning I was out on Stafford Marsh hoping and hearing, but it was so windy I wasn't expecting any joy, and I didn't have any. Whilst out there though I did find out exactly where it had been caught, in this net ride (between two small reed beds)...

There is every chance it is still around, we just need a day of calm weather so we can have a proper look.

This morning actually felt good, the first morning this month with some decent passage. I only gave the dog a quick walk along the beach, but in that time I had four Pintail, four Wigeon and two Starling in off the sea, with four different ultra distant duck flocks flying past and a constant stream of gulls on the move. If I didn't have a Dusky Warbler to look for I would have set my scope up and had a proper sea watch.  Also saw the four Gadwall again this morning, they were on Black Hole Marsh. 

Well what a surprising turn of events. I have always dreamt of finding the first patch Dusky Warbler, but identifying it without seeing the bird was most certainly not in the script!

Monday, 21 November 2016


Blimey have we had some rain in the last 48 hours!  And that's lead to some pretty serious flooding in the river valley this afternoon...

Bridge Marsh, water as far as the eye can see!

Looking north from the road bridge over the Axe on the A3052

Looking south from the same bridge

The road ALWAYS floods here - that's one brave moped driver!

The flood from Axmouth

Thankfully this afternoon the rain had stopped, but this morning when it was lashing down I did try to go birding.  It was a struggle, but Bridge Marsh (pre-mega flood) was absolutely heaving with ducks so it was well worth getting wet.  This is how Bridge Marsh looked at 9am (compare with my first photo of this post which was taken at about 14:30)...

Great for birds, but not for birding!

Between cleaning my optics and warming myself up with my car heater, the flood water here showed 400+ Teal, 300 Wigeon, 70 Canada Geese, four Pintail (two pairs), four Gadwall (two pairs, first seen yesterday by PA) and a Dark-bellied Brent Goose (the lingering bird). That's my highest counts for four species of duck so far this autumn/winter, in fact it's the biggest flock of Pintail I've seen on the Axe for many years. This afternoon the wildfowl had spread out with the increase in flood water.

Also this morning I finally managed my first Redpoll of the autumn (about two months late!).  I was lucky to time my ten second walk from my front door to my car perfectly as one flew over calling. It really has been a poor autumn for all the finch species, Siskin and Redpoll especially.

Sunday, 20 November 2016

Helping Others

A subject I've touched upon before on this blog is the grumpy birder. Today I want to mention in particular the negative attitude some birders can show towards newbies. These birders (thankfully few and far between) are just too 'good' to bother. For some reason they can't see the bigger picture that the more people we encourage into enjoying our wildlife, the better it is for our wildlife.

Last night on Facebook there was a perfect example of this. 84 comments and one hour later thankfully the post was deleted. And I must say the original poster wasn't nasty to anyone, there was far more vile language being thrown back at him. 

It all took place on the UK Bird Identification page and the offending post, written by a very good and experienced birder, went something like this...

"I joined this page with an open mind but I find myself banging my head against a brick wall. In the last week help has been asked to ID photographs of common birds like Blackbird, Mistle Thrush, Greenfinch, Dunnock and House Sparrow. Some by so called wildlife photographers. Buy a book!"

It was actually a lot longer than that but I can't recall it word for word. 

I take great enjoyment in pitching in my thoughts when it comes to bird ID. Whether it's a tricky immature Gull or something as simple as a Robin. It doesn't bother me how common the bird is, if the observer has asked for help, they want help! I along with a couple of others man the email account, and whenever I see a plea for ID help anywhere on social media I just want to help.

Back when I started out I always found working it out for myself the most prolific way of learning.  But I'm open minded enough to know that this may not be everyone's favoured method. Some people may not want to learn at all, they just want to know what that bird is.  Others may already have an idea what it is and just want a second opinion. But surely we don't need to care about any of this. If someone is interested enough to ask "what is this bird?" Then let's help. It could be the spark that sets off a life long love of wildlife.

If however they log on to the Bird ID page on Facebook with the intentions of posting their unknown photo, only to read an expert moaning about how 'stupid' everyone is for not knowing the common birds...