Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Plan B

Today, Plan A was ringing at Beer Head. I've been desperate to get in a good session up here, so was up there at 5:30 this morning and walked out to my ringing spot.  I have absolutely no idea why I bothered walking out there though as the moment I stepped out the car I could see it was far too windy to even contemplate mist netting.  Bugger it. Plan B it was then - but I didn't have a plan B! Seeing as I was up, and there was an east wind blowing, I headed to the beach for a sea watch.

I arrived way before dawn, but could already see Gannets streaming east close in. Within an hour and a bit at least 160 Gannets flew by, but sadly not much else did, with just three Common Scoter, one Teal, three Oystercatcher, four Dunlin, two Common Tern (juv and ad) and a Sandwich Tern in the note book.  

The best bird was this cracking first-winter Yellow-legged Gull settled on the beach, but sadly it disappeared before the sun came up so apologies for the dull and grainy pic...

A nice white-headed example

The sunrise was quite odd. Well there wasn't one due to the cloud cover, but there must have been a gap somewhere as the white cliffs of Beer Head became red...

No sun anywhere else. Made the chalk look like sandstone!

I had another look over the sea late morning during a rain shower. There was still very little/nothing passing, but I was pleased to have much better views of the first-winter Yellow-legged Gull on the beach...

Pale almost white ground colour to the underparts, very white head with hints of a darker eye-mask, rich brown uppers (making it look very contrasty) and crucially lots of moulted first-winter scapulars.

See what I mean about the contrasty look to it, flanked here by two juv Herring Gulls (note how the left hand Herring has moulted some scapular feathers already). Also those long and mostly dark tertials really stand out. It was a bigger bird too, although doesn't look like it in this pic as it's slightly further away. That's a juvenile Great Black-backed Gull in the foreground, these nearly always show that 'frosty' appearance.

In flight it showed the typical white tail (clean white in the top corners) with neat and fairly narrow black tail band, and a restricted pale inner primary window. Watching it flying around with Herring Gulls showed it was obviously longer winged, and the paler underparts really made it stand out.

Later I saw it again on the Estuary, along with a decent number of Great and Lesser Black-backed Gulls (some of the latter looking very dark backed), 19 Dunlin and 11 Ringed Plover. The biggest surprise was seeing a flock of 14 commic Terns flying rapidly south down river and off out to sea. I got on them too late to ID, and have a feeling we may have missed several more groups doing this as all the Tern passage in south Devon was southward.

And that's pretty much my birding day. So although it didn't go at all to plan, and we missed out on a lot of the action seen elsewhere in Devon, it was still an enjoyable one. 

I'll finish this post with a photo I took a few days ago, when the weather was much calmer...

Taken pre-dawn at Black Hole Marsh

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

A Quick Update

Not had much time since my last blog post as have been working day shifts. Am back on nights now so hopefully will be able to get out a bit more (although have got weeks worth of laptop work to catch up on too!).

Last Friday, this is what the start of the nightly Portland Bird Obs update read: 

"With any luck today's dismal showing will represent something of a low point in this autumn's birding..."

Sadly this was also the day I woke up at 5am and headed to Beer Head with my mist nets!  It was dismal, the bushes were empty as were my nets. I did manage to catch two migrants, singles of Chiffchaff and Willow Warbler, and they were the only migrants I saw whilst up here so that's a migrant catch rate of 100%! I knew I would have duff sessions up here sooner or later, and am glad it took so long to come - still disappointing though. Especially when considering that during a quick walk up here a few days before (Wed) the bushes were full of Willow Warblers, Chiffchaffs, Whitethroats, Blackcaps and even two Garden Warblers right by my net rides...

One of the two Garden Warblers

I have managed a couple of early morning visits to Black Hole Marsh since my last blog post, lovely views and sights but nothing better than a couple of Ruff, a Little Ringed Plover and the usual array of other waders, gulls and ducks...

Little Egrets at dawn

It's not just been Little Egrets about, as last Friday a Great White Egret spent most the day in the valley. There's some cracking photos about of it, all I managed was a distant view from the Farm Gate.

There's still good numbers of gulls about, with a sweep of the Estuary last Thursday giving two lovely juv/first-winter Yellow-legged Gulls. One was a big classic one, the other a small and slighter individual but so contrasty and pale - it was a stunner.  There was also this thing that I scratched my head about for a while, but have decided it can only be a Herring Gull...

Heavy-billed and strikingly pale headed
Just a Herring Gull though.

I think the biggest surprise though was seeing the last two air-worthy Lancaster Bombers fly low east over the patch on Saturday evening. I'm not into planes like many I follow on Twitter, but they took my breath away and I felt very privileged to see them...

Pity it took me so long to get my camera out!

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Beer Head

So I've been able to give Beer Head two more visits with the mist nets, last Friday and Monday just gone. Both sessions were fairly brief (dawn until mid morning), and both involved just two mist nets (a 60ft and a 40ft).

Friday started breezy and clear, but thankfully the wind soon died down and the session turned out to be quite a success.  Although the variety could have been better, I was more than pleased with 37 new birds trapped and ringed;

My able helper for the morning Peter, with the haul from the second net round (all two nets!).

Pleasingly, 18 of the 37 birds were Willow Warblers (4 ads, 14 juvs), with the other migrant birds trapped being six Blackcaps, four Chiffchaffs and a surprise juvenile Swallow.  I think most/all the Blackcaps and Chiffchaffs were probably Beer Head (or nearby) breeding birds, and the Swallow could even have been too, but the Willow Warblers would all have been on their southward migration.

Later that day I was pretty chuffed to learn the ringing team operating at Durlston Head (a migrant hot spot in south Dorset) that morning caught fewer birds than me (29). Sorry chaps, but to a backwater ringer at a new site which attracts far less migrants - that's very pleasing to hear!  It will probably never happen again though.

Monday morning was even windier, and sadly the wind never dropped. Wind + sun = not good mist netting conditions.  A nice bonus thanks to the early start was seeing Venus and Jupiter low to the east...

Venus is the brighter looking dot
This is the closest they've been to each other (looking from Earth) since 2000

Only caught ten birds in the couple of hours we were ringing - not the best session for local C ringer Doug to have joined me for the first time!  There were clearly very few migrants around, with singles of Willow Warbler, Whitethroat and Sedge Warbler trapped and ringed...

The Sedge Warbler (a young bird) was the first I've trapped up here - so made the session worthwhile.

Interestingly, amongst the ten birds ringed were five 'new' young Robins (all had completed their post juvenile moult), which i think were migrant birds. We didn't catch any during the Friday session which would also support this theory.

Birds that I saw but didn't ring during these sessions included on Friday a surprise Green Sandpiper over, along with a Ringed Plover and a Yellow Wagtail. And on Monday my first Tree Pipit of the autumn lingered for about half an hour before flying west, with two more Yellow Wags over.

Sunday, 17 August 2014

Down The Beach

Over the last week local fisherman have been on cloud nine.  For some reason absolutely huge numbers of whitebait have come close inshore, and these have been followed by thousands of mackerel. Locals who've lived here for 40 years haven't had it like this before, with shoals even coming in to the harbour where people have been able to catch them with nothing more than landing nets! It was amazing watching the whole harbour 'boil' with fish.

Bizarrely, many of the whitebait were even jumping out of the water and on to the beach, presumably to escape the mackerel...





It's not just people who have come to get some fish, large numbers of Gulls have been here daily with up to 2000 along the beach most of the time...



Despite regularly checking them, I haven't found anything better than two different juv Yellow-legged Gulls.  The second one was actually on the Estuary, and I just about managed to get a picture of it...

The one coming in to land.  You can see a dark secondary bar, and a very white tail with a narrow black tail band


Gannets have also been loving the food, with 300 in an hour early on Thursday. The biggest surprise came on Thursday afternoon though, when whilst out driving in the works van I spotted an Osprey fishing just off the beach!  And amazingly it's still here - I've seen it fishing out there every day since...

It was raining and very gloomy when I took this pic

Sorry chaps, you will never be as good as the bird flying above you!


Friday morning of last week I had my second Beer Head ringing session of the autumn. I will update all on that another day as it's time for bed...

Sunday, 10 August 2014

Grrrrrrrreat Shearwaters

Over sleeping wasn't an option for this morning, as I knew there was a chance of a Large Shearwater patch tick.

Impressive numbers of Cory's and Great Shearwaters have been reported from the pelagics off the Scillies for about a week or so, with numbers peaking just a couple of days ago. During the early hours of today the tail end of Hurricane Bertha was forecasted to hit our shores, which had the potential to push some of these birds this way.  Unfortunately it could have been a lot better, the wind turned westerly at about 9am which killed all passage, and more cloud cover was needed as the sun shone from about 08:30 here.  There was plenty of rain though, and the wind up until 9am was perfect for sea watching.

I was up at 05:30, but despite the above paragraph I didn't go sea watching straight away.  It was absolutely lashing down and knew that I probably wouldn't be able to see the sea let alone birds over it - so I went to Black Hole Marsh.  Here were my first two Little Ringed Plovers for almost a month (juvs), along with a Wood Sandpiper, four Ringed Plovers and 18 Dunlin.

Could only see the one today, there have been two for a few days.

Then it was to the sea, and the Beer shelter at 7am.  Here I found Ian M, who had been sat for some time but hadn't seen much due to the heavy rain. Luckily though from when I arrived, the visibility improved for the most.  There were still some showers during the first hour but they all moved through fairly rapidly.

The first half hour was quiet, only a couple of Manxies and the usual Gannets. But when it cleared a little more, an Arctic Skua came through west along with a few more Manx.  Then came a text from Lee "Great Shearwater lingering off Dawlish Warren". This was the best news - at least one big shear was in the bay!  And if one was in the bay, there could be more...

We continued watching, a Balearic (my first of the year) came through with some Manx, 27 Common Scoter flew by (2w, 25e), then another two Balearics passed close west.  But no big shears.

At about 08:30 my phone rang, it was Lee who had kindly phoned to let me know Matt had seen a further two Great Shears past Exmouth, which he had also seen from the Warren.  For some reason though this news didn't excite me further, but totally deflated me. I just knew we had blown it; the sun was beginning to shine and sky turning blue, the wind had started to veer west and as a result sea passage had dried right up.  We were just that little bit too far east. And even if Matt's two Great Shears had come past us, it would probably have been when we were engulfed with heavy rain.  Gutted - absolutely gutted. So near yet so far.

There are still only three species of Shearwater on my patch list. 

Still need to work hard on that "Find the Great Shearwater" command...

Before I sign off for the night, must just mention a few nice highlights from Black Hole Marsh over the past week. The Curlew Sandpiper that was first present on Monday was joined by a cracking summer plumaged Knot the following day (see Tim's excellent pic of it HERE).  Gull passage seems to have eased off a bit lately, with this Med Gull being the only one that I've seen all week...

I have seen it several times though

Monday, 4 August 2014

Back To Beer

My first ringing session of the autumn up Beer Head was supposed to happen at the end of last week, but due to a poorly pup it got postponed to today....

I didn't have long, so only put up a single 60 foot net for a couple of hours.  Really wish I had more time as I reckon a couple more nets and a couple more hours would have given me 50+ birds.  It was one of those mornings that the bushes often looked quiet, but then all of sudden a little group of birds would flit through and quickly head off, with another group moving through say ten minutes later, and so on and so on. I probably saw about 30 Willow Warblers and five Whitethroats, but if I had walked around more I'm sure I would have seen much more. 

I'm pleased to say I did catch some migrants, with the first migrant netted being a new one for the list of species ringed on Beer Head. It's a very predictable one though, and I was amazed I didn't ring one in the spring...

Common Whitethroat

And in keeping with my thoughts of birds moving through in tight groups, the five Willow Warblers I caught were all in the net at the same time! 

Will never get bored of ringing Willow Warblers - I just hope I get some recoveries out of them.

The two Blackcaps I caught clearly weren't passing migrants, as one of them was a juv still in full juvenile plumage (a '3JJ' in ringers talk).

There were lots of Swallows flying low overhead, along with a few Sand Martins, but I soon realised I wasn't going to catch any of them...

It's a pleasure to provide you with a resting spot Mr Swallow.

They aren't daft - especially with clear blue sky behind the net and sun shining on the net.

Later on in the day after a text from Dad, I nipped to Black Hole Marsh to see a stunning adult Curlew Sandpiper, you won't see many redder than this one - it's a cracker!  There were fewer Dunlin and Ringed Plover on the marsh today, but still singles of Wood Sand, Greenshank and adult Med Gull. Looking south from the marsh I was delighted to pick up a juv Yellow-legged Gull circling low over the fields - my long awaited first juv of the year!  It flew north towards Black Hole before turning west overhead and landing in a nearby field. I went to where it appeared to land afterwards and soon picked it up amongst 300+ Herring Gulls feeding behind a plough. It was always too distant for pics but great to see never-the-less, mostly because I was beginning to worry why I hadn't found any yet this summer. It hasn't been a great year for them so far (probably due to the lack of stormy weather?) but I had started to double and triple check gull flocks that in previous years I'd only need to look through once, just in case I was going a bit gull-blind!

Wood Sandpiper