Wednesday, 14 March 2018

Wheatear, Weirdo Rockit and New Marsh Harrier

With rain belting down outside as I write this, it's hard to believe the view from Beer Head late yesterday morning was this...

Looking back towards Seaton and Axe Cliff

It really did feel like spring, and this was emphasised by the joyous sight of my first Wheatear of the year, a cracking male. With the clear skies it didn't stay around long, in fact it didn't even allow me to take the annual 'first Wheatear of the year' ropey record-shot!

Other birds present included a male Stonechat, and a flock of 11+ Rock Pipits with one of them looking like this...

It proved surprisingly elusive in seemingly short grass

Interestingly Bun remembers seeing (presumably) this bird here last spring, which backs up my thoughts that these were all petrosus birds, and I guess local breeders. All eleven Rock Pipits showed heavily streaked underparts and dull olive upperparts, with no hint of any pinkness anywhere to be seen. Compare with Tim Wright's photos of a recent Colyford Common littoralis HERE.

This morning I had just under an hour out at Black Hole Marsh with local wedding photographer Matt who wanted to have a play with my Nikon Monarch scope. There was plenty to look at with a drake Gadwall on Black Hole Marsh, the Greenshank on the Estuary and a Marsh Harrier showing for most of the morning .

I haven't seen our lingering Marsh Harrier for about a week now (has anyone else?) and photos of this morning's bird shows it to be a young male. Presumably with the extent of cream on the crown it can only be a first-winter, despite the amount of grey on the bird's upperwing...

Worth clicking on this pic to enlarge it so you can see the extent of grey

And yes, that's a Water Rail it's carrying...

Monday, 12 March 2018

No Show

I spent the last half hour of light watching the pre-roosting gulls at the lower end of the Estuary again today, in the hope yesterday's two 'yellow-legged' gulls would reappear. I wanted to spend more time watching them because I'm just not done with them, I cannot make my mind up and it is driving me mad. For the record though my current thoughts are that bird one is actually a pure third-winter Yellow-legged Gull, but am having serious doubts about bird two.

There were good numbers of gulls present tonight, but nothing better than four Med Gulls (three adults and a second-summer). I say nothing better, but in truth there isn't many things better than an adult summer Med Gull...

Sunday, 11 March 2018

Gulls Only A Mother Could Love

I spent all day at work today, so once I'd clocked off at 4.30pm I had a quick whiz round hoping for my first Wheatear of the year.  Despite checking several sites I couldn't find one, so I spent the last twenty minutes of daylight watching gulls drop in at the lower end of the Estuary.

It was mostly small gulls, but among the larger ones were eight Lesser Black-backs and two birds that I am a bit puzzled by. I originally put them both down as HerringxLesser Black-backed hybrids, but now think bird one could be a pure Yellow-legged. If anyone thinks differently or has some views then please let me know. All photos were taken when it was nearly dark...

Bird one
Bird one again, with a Herring in shot to compare mantle shades

Bird two
Bird two again

Both are yellow-legged, albeit a dull yellow, which actually is fine for pure Yellow-legged or Lesser Black-backed Gulls of this age.

Bird one I'm pretty sure on bill and moult is a third-winter, but I haven't completely ruled out it being an advanced second-winter. It was the larger of the two yellow-legged birds being Herring Gull-sized, but short-legged, reminiscent of Lesser Black-backed Gull. The bird's mantle colour actually looked pretty spot on for a pure Yellow-legged Gull, I usually find these hybrids look the wrong shade of grey for YLG. I have to be honest and say I am struggling with this bird, but do think it could indeed be a pure Yellow-legged.

Bird two was built more like a Lesser Black-backed Gull in all proportions, and I think it's a second-winter despite the yellow bill. Again a short legged and cute headed gull, but mantle colour was a touch darker than bird one, more akin to the previous presumed HerringxLesser Black-backed Gulls that I've seen here.

Hmmmmmmm.... Gulls, who'd have them!

Away from these confusing gulls, there's still a decent variety of wading birds on the Estuary with Avocet, Greenshank and two Bar-tailed Godwits again present today.

Friday, 9 March 2018

Caspian Gull Yet Again

Perfect weather today for large gulls on the Axe. In the end though the numbers were disappointing and I found nothing unusual in with them, well except for the lingering first-winter Caspian Gull (last seen on 26th Feb). I'm amazed at how infrequently we are seeing this lingering bird, just where is it hiding?

I will be honest, although all views of it were distant and during dreadful weather, when I first picked it up I thought I had a new individual. It just looked big, proper Casp leggy and necky, plus it looked quite a clean bird - all unlike the lingering bird...

Look at that neck!
At rest

The whole gull flock was then flushed and the Casp took to the air...

Quality completely naff as its a video still
Ditto, but it does at least show some of the classic Casp features

A minute later once most the gulls had gone with only about 25% of the original flock remaining, I picked it up again, now a little closer. It was then obvious that on plumage it was the lingering bird, with the distinctive patterning on the greater coverts a perfect match...

Looks really beaky in this shot. Again totally different to how the lingering bird usually looks
The weather was so awful this photo almost looks black and white!

A good lesson in how different postures can alter the overall look of one gull.

Thursday, 8 March 2018

Lyme Regis Little Gull

I took a trip over to Lyme Regis today in the lovely spring-like weather to catch up with James Mc and to enjoy some of his and his wife's wonderful food. Whilst I was there I thought Id take a look at the lingering Little Gull(s) too. 

In the end though, I spent far too much time chatting and eating, and realised as I was wandering back to my car I was twenty minutes over my ticket! As a result all I could do was scurry down to the sea edge with Harry, enjoy thirty seconds of ace Little Gull action, and then hurry back to the car.  This brief encounter with an obliging and close Little Gull in such calm and pleasant weather left me wanting more, so two hours later I was back!  Obviously I can't compete with the long-lenses for pictures, but simply watching it gave me all the enjoyment I needed - what a super little bird...

And a little video...

I've seen plenty of Little Gulls, several hundred, but none quite like this bird. This first-winter is feeding often just a few feet off Monmouth Beach and the Cobb, and coupled with the amazing weather of today, it gave views that are quite simple not the norm for this species. Most the Little Gulls that I've seen over the sea off Seaton have been during strong winds and heavy rain, or as a dot a mile out to sea!  I urge you to fill your boots with this bird while it's there.

Turns out I'm going to have to do a bit of investigative work here too. Although there was just the one bird there today, for the past few days there have been two first-winter Little Gulls. BUT, I've come across a report of a third bird here either yesterday or the day before, an adult.... which may or may not coincide with the disappearance of the adult Ross's Gull from Weymouth... 

Back to the patch, and we still have a nice selection of wading birds on the Axe, including Avocet today. Having missed the three Ruff last Sunday I was pleased to see a stunning male in with the roosting Redshank and single Greenshank yesterday - a right corker too.

Looking at the weather forecast just now, all bets are off for an arrival of Wheatear this weekend...

Monday, 5 March 2018

Cold Weather Movement or Spring Passage?

It's been great to see birds behaving as they should be again today, and where they should be. Wading birds and wildfowl on the river, and thrushes in the fields and not in the middle of housing estates. There are still plenty of birds about though...

I've had three tours of the Estuary today and a visit to Black Hole Marsh. Most birds seen were lingerers from the last few days, except for a couple more Avocet and a two fold increase in Gadwall. My highlights were; 

8 Pintail
290 Wigeon
12 Gadwall (two 6's in the morning, an 8 and 4 in the afternoon)
80 Teal
7 Shoveler 
10 Avocet (a double figure Avocet count for the Axe is exceptional!)
700+ Lapwing
9 Golden Plover
1 Grey Plover
72 Black-tailed Godwit
2 Bar-tailed Godwit
2 Dunlin
4 Mediterranean Gull (all adults)
70 Skylark (in the field opposite Colyford WTW)

I was really hoping for a Bittern today, with my thinking being the increased water levels may reveal one that's been lurking in the reeds since the cold snap... If it happened I wasn't in the right place at the right time. No sign of any Ruff or the recent Spotted Redshank for me today either.

What has been so incredible about the recent cold weather movement is the number of wading birds that's been involved. Since last Thursday there has been a staggering twenty species of wading birds recorded on the Axe Estuary. To put this in perspective we usually only have nine species of waders that regularly winter on our tiny Estuary, although it's been eleven this year with singles of Greenshank and Ringed Plover bucking the trend. Twenty is usually only possible in a short space of time like this in May or September - but even in those months it doesn't happen that often. A lot of these waders are lingering too, with the Avocet flock ever building, and the Spotted Redshank, Grey Plover and Bar-tailed Godwits still here from last Wednesday/Thursday. Knot and Sanderling (four of the former, three of the latter) and a whole lot of Dunlin (193!) were the only brief visitors, being seen by new patch birder Billy on Thursday afternoon but not since (he also found the Spot Red and Barwits).  

Watching the Avocets today, and having read something on the Portland Bird Obs website the other day, suddenly it clicked. Let's just think about this, why would an Avocet sat on a snowy Estuary somewhere decide that upping sticks and flying tens/hundreds of miles was the best thing to do, instead of just sitting there and waiting for the tide to drop?

Avocets are a March species for us, no we don't usually get ten, one to four would be a more typical count. But March is clearly the month they begin to migrate back to their breeding grounds. So maybe, although for the Lapwing, Golden Plovers, thrushes and other passerines what we witnessed was undoubtedly a cold weather movement, for other species of wading birds, are we actually seeing spring passage?  We know that heavy rain showers cause migrating wading birds to drop in, so a gigantic snow front that has tracked north across the English Channel, well that's going to ground everything that's trying to fly through it right!?  

Rewind to March 2013 (blog post HERE). Many early spring migrants arrived, like Sand Martins, Chiffchaffs, Little Ringed Plovers, Stone Curlew, Ospreys and Ring Ouzels, but a brisk northeast wind and freezing temperatures meant they all stalled on the south coast and went nowhere for several days.  It was so tragic to watch so many Chiffchaffs struggling to find food on pavements and in gutters, do you remember it? Well I'm wondering whether this is something similar, but as it's happened earlier in the month its not affected the species that we think of as the early spring migrants, but the true early spring migrants like waders, gulls and wildfowl?

And discuss...

Saturday, 3 March 2018

Unforgettable Yet Unforgiving

Wow what a few days. Thursday was impressive enough alone (if you missed my post click HERE) but Friday proved just as memorable, and still today there were so many birds about. Most importantly though, thankfully today we've had a dramatic thaw and there's now plenty of grass and fresh water about.  Just in time for many, but sadly too late for others.

This is what the last two days have looked like for me...

Friday 2nd March

The heavy snow from Thursday was very much still with us, now covered in a thick layer of ice - which made quite difficult walking conditions! It wasn't just the snow covered in ice though, literally anything and everything outside was, with stunning icicles all over the place...

Frozen branches
Black Hole Marsh viewing platform
A bit closer
A viewing slot on Black Hole Marsh

I'd never seen anything quite like this. Simply stunning.  But now for the birds...

I spent three hours after dawn down Seaton Wetlands, and the whole time there were birds streaming over south west. On Thursday it was pretty much all Golden Plovers and Lapwing, but by Friday it was the turn of the thrushes. Fieldfares and Redwings were passing over at truly uncountable levels, some low, some high, overhead, to the east, to the west - just impossible to properly keep track of. Thousands upon thousands of both Redwing and Fieldfare flew over, and although I was unsuccessful in capturing any flight shots, hopefully this video gives you a taste of the action...

Lapwing were still going over at quite a rate, but very few Golden Plovers. Variety was offered by good numbers of Starling, 30+ Meadow Pipits, small numbers of Skylark and Snipe and two Brambling.

It was hard to not always look up, but there was plenty to see on the ground too. Black Hole Marsh was 95% frozen but still had birds on it. Namely an impressive six Avocet...

Six sleeping Avocet
One did wake up eventually! Novel to see it stood on the ice.

In the ditches it was clear birds were struggling with Water Rails darting about all over the place, and I felt so sorry for this Cetti's Warbler...

Cetti's Warbler looking for food

From Tower Hide, although it was high tide lots of wading bird activity included at least 100 Dunlin, and up stream a pair of Gadwall could have been the birds from the previous day. 

I then wandered up to Stafford Marsh...

The Lookout at Black Hole Marsh
Stafford Marsh
Stafford Brook

Stafford Marsh was pretty quiet with just a few thrushes and a couple of Snipe, but Colyford Common was a completely different story...

Colyford Common Hide
Colyford Common

The rising tide saw a layer of unfrozen water spill across most of the Reserve, providing unfrozen water and some much needed soft ground for the birds to feed in. And my word there were lots of birds...

Fieldfares and a Redwing
Fieldfare wading
Meadow Pipit

The highlight on the Common was a gorgeous Jack Snipe that gave me lovely flight views, but there were also hundreds of Redwing and Fieldfare, c80 Meadow Pipit, one Rock Pipit, five Snipe, 200 Lapwing, five Redshank and a Greenshank.  Looking out from Colyford Common hide on to Colyford Marsh revealed even more thrushes and Starlings, the lingering Marsh Harrier, and hundreds upon hundreds of roosting Lapwing and Golden Plover...

Golden Plovers and a Lapwing

After twenty minutes in Colyford Common hide it was time to return home. It's an easy walk home when there's so many birds to look at. Incredible scenes.

When I made it back onto our housing estate it was clear the snow and ice had forced thrushes to places they would never normally go. For the rest of the day Redwings and Fieldfares were quite simply everywhere, and clearly desperately searching for food...

A Redwing in the snow

Unreal numbers. And there were still plenty flying over south west too, along with more Lapwing and my second Jack Snipe of the day. I had to work at 3pm, and on my journey in it was clear that Lapwing were starting to get really desperate too...

Lapwing on Harepath Road!

What a day. As darkness fell the temperature began to rise - the thaw had started. Which brings us to today.

Saturday 3rd March

As Saturday went on, more and more grass and thawed out ground became available for the birds to feed on. Although sadly for many it was just too late, a mid morning trip out upsettingly revealed 17 dead Lapwing...

Such a sad sight

By the end of the day most Lapwings had returned to the fields, but there were still some randomly feeding on or besides roads - with at least four for the whole day along the road I live in, Primrose Way.  Far fewer Golden Plover evident today, I think most went south west on Thursday.

Fieldfare and Redwing were still absolutely everywhere all day today, including along Seaton Beach. A trip out around Seaton mid morning with Dad showed seven Mistle Thrush too...

Mistle Thrush in the Jurassic Play Park in Seaton
A Fieldfare from Mum and Dad's front garden
A back view
And a front view!

I have looked along the Estuary a few times today. Late morning with Dad showed an increase in Avocet numbers with eight now present, along with a pair of Pintail (Phil had eight earlier in the day) and Bearded Tits were calling again from Axe Reedbeds, sounded like more that one this time too.  A look along the Estuary later in the afternoon showed four Gadwall, a Grey Plover, two Med Gulls and excitingly 152 Lesser Black-backed Gulls.

A Med Gull in very un-Med-like conditions!

And why am I so excited about 152 Lesser Black-backed Gulls? Well during the winter we usually get just single figures of Lesser Black-backs on the Axe, the big numbers don't appear until this species make their spring migration northwards to their breeding grounds. So yes, this means these 152 Lesser Black-backed Gulls (or most of them anyway) were actually spring migrants. SPRING! Ohhhh I can't wait for that to get going properly...

Friday, 2 March 2018

Please Help!

Today I have witnessed one of the most dramatic cold weather movement of birds that I've ever seen. The spectacle has been truly amazing, but the reality is really very very sad.

It was such an epic day that I just don't have the time or energy to blog about it tonight, check back tomorrow or Sunday for this post. It will be worth checking back for I promise. But I simply couldn't go to bed without writing this...

Within Seaton alone, this evening I've been informed of numerous Meadow Pipits, Lapwing, Redwings and even a Reed Bunting being found dead. A lethargic Golden Plover was also picked up in the middle of Seaton town this evening, fingers crossed the efforts of the family who rescued it pays off.

So I'm basically pleaing that if you can help birds during this cold spell, then please PLEASE do. Oats, apples, other soft fruits, bird seed, anything that's suitable just put it out in your garden, and remember to defrost your bird baths with warm water as well. I even took a pocket full of bird seed out on my morning walk today, which came in useful...

Robin feeding from my hand at Black Hole Marsh

But it's also important to give these struggling birds space. Space to feed undisturbed, and not making them use precious energy to unnecessarily fly.  We all know most people won't think about this, let's be honest why would they? But we can at least...

Thursday, 1 March 2018

Seaton Snow and Epic Cold Weather Movement

What a day. Truly a day to remember. Here in East Devon we have seen the most significant snow fall that I've ever witnessed (have lived here since 1991) and the reaction from the birds was completely mesmerising.

With only light snow at dawn, I jumped in my car and had a scoot around the Estuary. The tide was in and there wasn't much new obvious, although a pair of Gadwall north of Coronation Corner were new arrivals and new for the year...

A distant pair of Gadwall with Wigeon

Whilst I was out I noticed a few flocks of Lapwing and Golden Plover flying over, but it wasn't until I returned home that I realised there was actually a sustained passage of these two species taking place.  A watch from my back garden 08:20 - 11:10 (whilst I wasn't needed indoors!) gave the following incredible totals (all west); 

6250 Lapwing
1720 Golden Plover
5 Snipe
12 Fieldfare
28 Redwing
2 Blackbird
12 Starling
2 Meadow Pipit

So not many passerines, presumably because they were still able to find enough food as we hadn't had any significant snow fall by this time, but the Goldies and Lapwings were just incredible. Flock after flock after flock, many very low, some pausing briefly in nearby fields, but all clearly on the hunt for non-frozen ground. An unforgettable passage.  What's even more amazing is I would have missed so many flocks, I know there were flocks passing out over the sea which I can't see from my house two miles inland. Not to mention the fact that flocks were still passing over right up to late this afternoon, so the true numbers of Lapwing and Golden Plover that have flown west over here today is probably completely mind boggling, If I had a stab in the dark guess I'd say tens of thousands of Lapwing and maybe ten thousand Golden Plover have flown west over here today.


Golden Plover

Golden Plover

And to give a bit of a flavour of this incredible passage, here's a short video clip of some Golden Plover passing over. Love their mournful call...

The time was now about 11:40, and the heavy snow still wasn't in. So I jumped in my car and gave the Estuary another look, and I'm glad I did because greeting me at the lower end of the Estuary was this...

A Spoonbill!

A rather grumpy looking Spoonbill at that - I don't blame it mind!

Spoonbill head on to the cold east wind

What a beaut!

Our first Spoonbill of the year, and not a species I was expecting to see today. Two Avocet were another bonus that briefly dropped in (Ian Mc found these), but despite excellent numbers of gulls, still no white-winger for Steve this year...

So many gulls!

Then the snow really came in. And it didn't stop until about 8pm. Incredible scenes... 

The Co-op car park in Seaton

The Jurassic Play Park in Seaton

From the moment it started snowing heavily, wherever I went Golden Plover, Lapwing, Snipe, Fieldfare, Redwing were flying around.  I even had a Grey Plover fly low west over the middle of Seaton!  But the day ended with a sad note for me, and a reminder that just how difficult this weather is for our birds. All this Goldcrest wanted was to find somewhere warm and dry to rest up after I watched it battle against the wind and snow flying through the middle of town...

This little guy was clearly in real trouble

I felt so sorry for this bird

A timely reminder that however much enjoyment and excitement us birders get from these incredible cold weather movements, at the same time countless numbers of birds will undoubtedly be losing their lives...