Saturday, 17 February 2018

Moor Than Meets The Eye

Roll back to 2016, and I spent much of the summer walking across East Dartmoor with Chris Townend and Paul Kemp. The aim was to survey every kilometre of East Dartmoor Moorland, twice, between mid April and mid August. This was for a project devised by RSPB and Moor Than Meets The Eye.

It was exceedingly hard work and extremely tiring. Each 1km square had four 1km transect lines within it, and we'd try and do four or five squares per morning - that's a lot of walking!  To get the squares done we'd start at dawn and often skimp on coffee stops. And because we were walking along set transect lines and not footpaths, walls, fences, bogs, gorse, angry cattle, etc, were frequently in our way.  But my god was it all worthwhile...

Virtually every single survey gave us at least one reward. Whether it was a bird or other wildlife sighting, or quite simply a view, there was pretty much always something. I found it really interesting and enjoyable to learn so much more about Dartmoor than what I knew beforehand, and getting the chance to visit so many places that I'd never been to before.

Looking north from Rippon Tor

Some of my most memorable wildlife highlights from these surveys include seeing a Dartmoor born and bred young Curlew (a true rarity), a couple of herds of Red Deer and my best ever views of Grasshopper Warblers (we recorded so many of these!). It was just so nice though to be surrounded by birds I don't see day in day out on the Axe, with breeding (and frequently drumming) Snipe, Whinchats, Tree Pipits, Redpolls and Redstarts aplenty, along with a few Ring Ouzels and almost daily Cuckoos. Regarding the last species, I can still picture the three male Cuckoos flying around over my head chasing a 'bubbling' female. Amazing stuff, and quite frankly some really weird noises too. Thanks again Chris and Paul, and the team at RSPB and MTMTE for making this happen.

Young Curlew

Grasshopper Warbler

So why have I written this blog now? Well a few days ago this dropped on to my doormat...

Yes the final report is out, and it's fab. From cover to cover this report is full of top quality raw data, which is compared with data collected back in 1979. This reveals some very interesting results, plenty of decreases which sadly is to be expected but some surprising increases too.  Crucially, the strict methodology used to collect the data in 2016 ensures it can be easily replicated in future years and comparisons easily made.

If these surveys are done again at some point in the future, would I conduct them again if asked?  You bet I would - with absolute pleasure. What a privilege this whole project was and I'd do it again in a heartbeat.

Friday, 9 February 2018

My Axe Photo Archives

For the first time in about three years I fired up my old external hard drive this evening. It was great to see some of the bird photos on there, in fact there were some I completely forgotten I'd taken!  All my photos back then were snapped with my good old Nikon Coolpix 4500 (which still works!) through my old Kowa telescope (which no longer works).

All the photos pre-date the birth of this blog, so most haven't been posted up here. Well let's change that. I invite you to re-live Axe history with me...

1w male Surf Scoter Beer, Jan '07
And again

This is one of the four Surf Scoters that have occurred on patch, found off Beer by Gav in Dec '06.  I'd forgotten just how drake-like it became, when it first turned up it was a proper juv-looking thing with only a hint of colour on the bill.

White-fronted Geese Colyford Marsh, Feb '06

This flock of White-fronted Geese that peaked at 15 birds in Feb '06 stayed with us for about a week. Being a goose-nut they were an incredible sight, will be surprised if we get a flock of this size ever again.

Night Heron Seaton Marshes, March '06
And again

Phil found this bird, and was part of the best spring that the patch has ever witnessed. Which also included three of these...

Alpine Swift Seaton, April '06

The three Alpine Swifts drew quite a crowd, as they spent the days feeding over Lower Bruckland Ponds, before returning to roost in Seaton every evening. James Mc found these beauts, with at least one of them staying around for two weeks. Spring '06 wasn't over yet though...

White Stork Seaton Marshes, April '06

Phil and James Mc found this bird, and I'll never forget the sight of it cruising over Seaton Fire Station dwarfing the masses of panicking Herring Gulls, before it dropped in on Seaton Marshes.

1s Bonaparte's Gull Axe Estuary, April '07
And again (left bird)

Somewhat surprisingly, this remains the only record of Bonarparte's Gull for the Axe Estuary. It was here for only one day, but showed for some time meaning most got to see it.

2w Ring-billed Gull Axe Estuary, Feb '07

This was so exciting for me, my first Ring-billed Gull on the Axe. This was a really small bird actually, most Ring-bills are obviously larger than Common Gulls - this one was smaller!

Leach's Petrel Seaton Marshes, Dec '06

This Leach's Petrel sadly died in care the following day. The bird had been rescued from a cat (from a house over a mile inland!).

Stone Curlew Seaton Marshes, April '07

There's been one more Stone Curlew on the Axe since this bird, amazingly in exactly the same place! Seeing this photo reminds me of two things, the shock of finding it, and the fact Karen Woolley and Ian Mc were both birding down in the Underhooken below Beer Head when they got the text. That's a lot of steps...

Temminck's Stint Colyford Marsh, Sep '07

This was the first Temminck's Stint for the Axe, found by Kev (Bun). It stayed with us for several weeks, and in that time never left Colyford Scrape!  Who'd have though our first Temminck's would be an autumn bird - spring records are far more frequent in the UK. Amazingly our second Temminck's was also an autumn bird (well more early winter really!) with our third being a more typical spring bird.

Audouin's Gull Seaton Marshes, August '07

Well I have nothing to stay about this one. Simply incredible. Just wished I managed some better photos!

Egyptian Geese Bridge Marsh, April '06

Sorry for lowering the tone, but these Egyptian Geese pleased Devon year-listers for many years! When there was just one left it became rather tame, feeding on bread with the Mallards down by the lower Axe Bridge...

Egyptian Goose - the last one standing!

Isn't it amazing how photos can bring memories back to life, memories that you'd think were buried so deep they'd be out of reach. This blog post has been a real joy to construct, I hope you've enjoyed it too.

Thursday, 8 February 2018

Caspo Number Ten!

There's been really good numbers of large gulls on the Estuary today, including notably more Great Black-backed Gulls which is always a good sign (means they're coming in from the sea). I was really hoping for a white-winger, but a text from Gav informing me of a Caspian Gull just before 3pm had me hurrying down to the Estuary.

Just as I pulled up at the lower end of the Estuary Gav informed me it had flown south, but luck was on my side as I could see it flying towards me low over the water. Pleasingly it landed again and remained here until at least 5pm...

First-winter Caspian Gull

Front to back; first-winter Herring Gull, first-winter Caspian Gull, second-winter Great Black-backed Gull

Front to back; second-winter Herring Gull, first-winter Herring Gull, first-winter Caspian Gull

Although I marvel at every Caspian Gull I see, as first-winter Casps go this isn't the best. It's bill in particular is pretty feeble, being only slightly narrower and longer than the nearby Herring Gulls. Also note how mottled the flanks are and it even has a bit of a shadow around it's eye.  Still a striking looking thing though.

It's definitely not the whiter than white bird I saw on the Axe on 9th January, but it clearly is the other Casp that's been seen here this year.  Gav thought he'd found this bird on 22nd January, but a few days later it came to light Tim White had photographed it on the Axe back on 17th January.  This bird is distinctive enough from all the points I listed in the paragraph above (bill size and mottling), but it shows a couple more characteristic plumage traits too...

First-winter Caspian Gull

The red arrow is pointing to my favourite feature on this particular Caspian Gull, that lovely little pale line formed by the tips of the median coverts. It's really noticeable on this bird at rest.  Then we have the two red 'circles'. The top one highlights the contrast between the lower moulted tertials, and the upper two unmoulted ones, which look completely knackered and are much browner in colour. The lower 'circle' highlights all that white in the greater coverts, inline with where they meet the lower tertials. This feature is really noticeable, even on distant pics of this bird. Most first-winter Casps show a neat and even white line along the tips of all the greater coverts. 

You can see pretty much all these features on all the previous photos of this bird, which Gav has put together in a blog post HERE.

So this is my tenth Caspian Gull for the Axe, I can't wait for number eleven!

Wednesday, 7 February 2018

Firecrest Fun

The beautiful blue sky this morning tempted me over to Branscombe, so I could catch up with the Firecrest that's been wintering around the Water Treatment Works. It took about three seconds to find, and I enjoyed it for the best part of half an hour, showing exceptionally well at times...

After about twenty minutes, suddenly there were two male Firecrests in front of me! They had a brief stand off and chase around, then split up, with the second bird feeding around the entrance gate to the WTW. Often ON the entrance gate in fact...

Also around the WTW, 10+ Goldcrest, two Chiffchaff and this Treecreeper (never an easy species to photograph)...

No visit to Branscombe is complete without a sea scan. There were quite a few auks out there this morning, along with a lone Great Northern Diver, three Red-throated Divers and rather unusually, five Teal.

A couple of visits to some woodland near Colyton over the past week has shown Woodcock on both occasions, four and three. I also had at least three Crossbill here the other day, which is more than notable.  Nice to see and hear male Siskin song-flighting too.

And lastly, yesterday as I was driving along the A3052 between Seaton and Beer, a flock of 18-20 Golden Plover flew past going the opposite way. They seemed to land near Stafford Cross where Ian Mc had 15 today. Heaps of Lapwing around there too.

Monday, 5 February 2018

Early Marsh Harrier(s) and More Meds

A few snippets of interest to report from the patch today...

Earlier today local wildlife watcher Fran Sinclair was lucky enough to see two Marsh Harriers hunting over Colyford Marsh. At least one was still present late this afternoon, it was nice to see but I blame it entirely for flushing a large gull that deserved a closer look. Only locked on to it ten seconds before it upped and flew off south.  Drat.

I spent the rest of the evening on Beer Beach, hoping to see a raft of white-winged gulls roosting offshore. Well there were six Med Gulls, which is quite an increase on recent counts, suggesting the first signs of spring passage maybe? All but one were well on their way to showing full hoods.  But no big white-winged gulls sadly. Still.

Earlier in the day, but off-patch, it was nice to have some wonderful views of this lovely Fox. It could have been closer, but was an awesome looking specimen...

And come on, you didn't really think a super blue Moon would pass without a Moon pic appearing on this blog...

Sunday, 4 February 2018

Additional Axe Bean Goose Record Accepted... 21 Years Later!

Before today there was only one accepted record of Bean Goose for the Axe patch, a lone Tundra Bean Goose at Lower Bruckland Ponds in January '05, but I have seen four more.

Although many things that happened during my childhood are now nothing but a fuzzy haze within my brain-space, I have always remembered well the sight of a flock of four Bean Geese that Dad showed me, feeding in the field just south of Seaton Marshes sometime in the mid 90's. Donald Campbell had found them a few days before during a tram trip.  I recall seeing mostly the neck and upper body of these geese as they fed among juncus, with the birds often sat or stood in a large dip in the field, meaning we only got glimpses of their bright orange legs. Their beaks with black with small orange patches midway, and overall they were very dark looking grey-geese.  

A month or two ago, soon after Taiga and Tundra Bean Goose had been split, the Devon birding community hurried together to gather evidence to get an old record of two Taiga Bean Goose on Exminster Marshes in 1997 accepted. With talk of these supposed Taigas then dropping in on the Axe, I thought I'd do some digging on the off chance this report coincided with our four Beanies.  Turns out they did, and after hours of rummaging through Dad's old birding diaries, we found these entries in the 1997 diary...

I don't for one moment think our birds, or two of them, were Taigas. I would say it was just a coincidence these Bean Geese were on the Axe when the supposed Taigas where on Exminster, but it turns out 1997 saw a big influx of Bean Geese (almost all Tundra) into the UK, with small flocks like this dotted around throughout the length and breadth of the country.

I showed the above page of Dad's diary to County Recorder Kevin Rylands, who thought there was enough in the short entries to warrant submitting them to the DBRC. This evening he told me the great news that they have been accepted as Bean Geese sp. probably Tundra. Awesome. Well done Dad and many thanks Kev.