Monday, 29 June 2020

Third-summer (4cy) Mediterranean Gull

Following on from my last post, I have received the details of green-ringed Med Gull RX2P.  A cracking looking bird that I saw on the Axe Estuary at 9am on 27th June.  It makes interesting reading...

Firstly, incredibly this bird was also sighted in Weymouth on 27th June!  Looking at the EXIF data of the Weymouth photograph it was taken at 5:15pm, and although not all that surprising a gull has travelled 30 miles along the coast in a day, it's gone the opposite way to what I'd expect!  The Med Gull passage off the south west coast at this time of year is usually a westward one so it's gone the wrong way!

Secondly, and something that really excites the guller in me, is that it was ringed as a pullus in Paris on 02/07/17. A quick tot up on my fingers tells me this bird is in it's fourth calendar year (4cy) and it's third-summer plumage.  This is not something I have ever written before for a Med Gull as it shouldn't be an identifiable age-class, with the usual ageing process as follows;

Juvenile - First-winter - First-summer - Second-winter - Second-summer - Adult.

Or if you prefer using calendar years (cy) and not plumage cycles;

1cy - 2cy - 3cy - Adult.

However in the past I've seen some second-winter/second-summer Meds with such a restricted amount of black in the primaries that I've wondered if they were actually a year older. From how RX2P looked the other day, it turns out they probably were!

This is a typical second-summer Med Gull taken on the Axe Estuary on 29/03/11...

Not the best photo but black and white primary tips obvious

And here's a typical looking second-winter Med Gull taken on the Axe Estuary on 2/12/11...

Clearly overcast when I took this photo!

Here is RX2P...

Nearly adult but not quite! Small black streak on otherwise white primaries

A more distant view but shows how little black there is

So what does this mean for the 'second-winter' and 'second-summer' labelling of Med Gulls? Well a bird with a typical amount on black I suspect the ageing remains correct, but for anything showing less 'second or third winter/summer' would probably be a more accurate caption.  For example, let's look at the unringed Med Gull that RX2P was accompanied by...

Looks quite similar doesn't it!

It has a bigger black smudge than RX2P on its otherwise white primaries but it's only one smudge and is far less than the average second-summer.  It has to be a good candidate for another third-summer surely?  

I'm going to have to do some more digging I think and see what other colour-ring sightings have shown.

Gulls, is there no end to the happiness and wonder they give me?  If there is I am a long way from it that's for sure.

Saturday, 27 June 2020

Marvelleous Meds

As we approach July, we are heading towards the peak passage period for Mediterranean Gulls on the Axe.  

Most the big flocks tend to fly past us over sea but we still get our fair share in the valley.  What's best though is how they look, with the adults/near adults often sporting full summer wear, and the super fresh juveniles looking like butter wouldn't melt.  It's still a bit early for the latter (mid July onwards) but at 9am this morning a small flock of Black-headed Gulls on the near shore off Coronation Corner contained these two beauts...

Colour-ringed, awaiting to hear back the details

Its non-blinged mate

The non-ringed bird again to show how brutish it looked - presumably a male

Today's windy weather gave some seawatching promise, and there was some success for those who were able to get out early.  Five Manx Shearwaters and a Whimbrel was all I added to the tally from two short watches during the afternoon, when conditions were less than ideal as the sun decided to put in an appearance.  

With a record June count of Balearic Shearwaters made in south Devon today (425 at Start Point by MD) let's hope it's a precursor for an excellent summer and autumn of seawatching in the English Channel.  Big Shears for me please!

Thursday, 25 June 2020

High Brown Fritillaries

Spent this scorcher of a day on Dartmoor with the family, enjoying a very relaxed afternoon around Venford Reservoir. It's not an area of Dartmoor I have explored much before, although have no idea why because it's a truly stunning part of the moor...

Looking north from the north east corner of Venford Res

Venford Brook

Whilst we were here Fritillaries were forever frustrating me by zipping around without stopping for breath. When I did eventually get a good look at one I was shocked to see it was a High Brown Fritillary - one of the rarest butterflies in the UK! 

High Brown Fritillary

The three Frits I saw settled were all High Brown, and the other 7-10 insects that I only saw in flight looked similar in every way, although am well aware of the Dark Green pitfall.  Am sure it's a known site, but a real delight to stumble upon without prior knowledge that's for sure.  

I think this one simply had to land because it was in such a state!  The wing shape was more akin to a Comma...

Sadly a bit distant, and that blade of bloody grass!

I also saw several Small Heaths and Large Skippers, along with singles of Brimstone and Green Hairstreak.  Bird-wise, Crossbills stole the show with almost constant calling and frequent small flocks flying over.  Hardly surprising though considering the movement that is underway at the moment - I bet Dartmoor is absolutely bursting at the seams with them!

Back to Fritillaries, and on Tuesday we visited the other Moor that Devon boasts, Exmoor.  I didn't see many birds to talk about, except for a lovely family of Garden Warblers, but it was great to see numerous Dark Green Fritillaries (too quick for photos) and my first Silver-washed Fritillary of the year...

Silver-washed Fritillary

Well that was a Fritillary-heavy post, which can't ever be a bad thing! I do have more content stacked up ready to blog, but it's late now so will have to wait for another day. Check back soon...

Saturday, 13 June 2020

An Odonata Update

Been meaning to post this one for a while, although seems a bit late now that we have lost the stunning sunshine of April and May.  Just what has happened to the weather!?

Once lockdown was eased I was able to spend more time looking around the patch for dragonflies and damselflies. Really enjoyed seeing plenty of the usual species, including an impressive mass emergence of Scarce Chasers in late May. Hope you enjoy these pics...

Scarce Chaser

Same insect different angle

Broad-bodied Chaser male

Broad-bodied Chaser female

Black-tailed Skimmer immature male

Beautiful Demoiselle

Banded Demoiselle


Teneral White-legged Damselflies

Really pleased with some of these shots, a credit to the P900.

I fancied an off-patch Odonata foray too, looking for the rare Southern Damselfly. About 15 years ago I found my own site for this extremely rare damselfly on the East Devon Commons, but haven't been back since. I had no idea if they were still there but on 29th May was very happy to confirm they indeed were.  What a delicate little insect and so beautifully marked, fantastic to see again...

Southern Damselfly

Another Southern Damselfly

Isn't nature beautiful.

Saturday, 6 June 2020

Rose-coloured Starlings

Sometimes success can be even sweeter if you re-visit past pain.  So to do that, here's a post I wrote on the old Devon Bird News blog nine years ago...

If you can't read it here's a direct link to the post;

On 9th June 2011 the local birding community found out about a stunning adult Rose-coloured Starling that had been flaunting itself around Colyford for several days. Unfortunately it was last seen on the 8th.  If I remember correctly it was then seen in mid Devon, before winding up on the Otter Estuary in July.  A completely gripping event, can remember the pain even now.

Every year since we've hoped for redemption.  Obviously a summer adult would be most appreciated, and during influx years we've put the effort in, but even an autumn juvenile would suffice to plug the gaping gap on all our Axe lists.  Not a whiff.

And that makes today a very good day indeed.

With the current Rose-coloured Starling influx picking up pace, a couple of days ago I posted this on Facebook. Well us birders can't find one for love nor money, so I thought I'd see if the local non-birding community could do better..

It clearly wasn't shared enough.  This morning Kev phoned with news a friend had tagged him in the following post...

Fairy Liquid and a Rose-coloured Starling!

Soon after we gleaned the exact location we descended. Phil managed to see it perched up but it didn't hang around, Kev and I only managed brief flight views.  I (with Jess and Harry in the car - Jess was just as keen as I to track it down!) followed it in flight across half the town before it seemed to head off west.  We thought that was it, but a few birders sat it out and almost three hours later news came through it was back in the same spot.

We jumped in the car and ten minutes later were treated to this...

Rose-coloured Starling!
Pink punk
It even began to sing!

Turn the volume up for some singing Rose-coloured Starling action...

A singing male Rose-coloured Starling - amazing!  But even more amazing than that, it soon became apparent there were two with a duller bird also present. I managed to drop in briefly later in the afternoon, and didn't even have to get out the car as this was sat on the roof next to me...

Rose-coloured Starling number two! 

The singing male can only be described as being ridiculously flamboyant.  Black, pink and full of punk.  This bird however had paler and dirty looking pink bits, pale tips and edging to most the darker feathers, a dark-tipped bill and just a bit of a shaggy head lacking the large plumes.  We have a male and a female then... they couldn't could they?

A further twist today (which could have been very unpleasant had today not have happened!) came when I found out that there was also a Rose-coloured Starling in a private garden in Colyton nine days ago.  "A baby Magpie that was bright pink and black with a crest" is pretty conclusive for me!  No pics sadly so we can't compare.

Rose-coloured Starling is remarkably my third patch tick of the year, with American Herring Gull in February and the Blyth's Reed Warbler (both patch firsts).  Before 2020 I had suffered three blank years for new birds here, with my last addition being the Beer Head Red-backed Shrike in September 2016 (a month after Least Sand).  Have said it before and it will be said again, a funny old game this birding. Completely unpredictable.

Before signing off I must just mention Crossbills. I had one fly very low west over Seaton early afternoon yesterday  (unfortunately not from my house!) with several more today calling from the Morganhayes Wood area.  They've clearly had a good year, with lots of Siskin around too.

What a day.  A ridiculously pink one.  Take care all.

Thursday, 4 June 2020

Yarner Wood

I want to start this blog post with a bit of a disclaimer and some (hopefully) common sense nature-watching advice.  Even during my short visit I saw some questionable behaviour, so just wanted to stress...

It is VITAL that anyone watching any birds nest, particularly those of scarce species, does so at a suitable distance and in a way that the birds are unaffected by your presence.  Listen for alarm calls from adults and juveniles and watch the adults behaviour. If there's any change in that, like for example adults flying around with beaks full of food but not actually going to the nest, then get the hell out of there!  It's a crucial time when young are in the nest, the adults need to get food down their gullets in such high volume that any delay could be costly, plus there's always a danger that a frequently disturbed nest could be completely abandoned.  

On the other side of the coin though, and despite my big red text, there does seem to be something of a taboo about watching birds nests.  With good field craft it shouldn't be a problem and can prove so educational, engaging and rewarding.  Be aware of the law though, stay well away from any Schedule 1 species (even though I think the list is in need of a bit of an update!).

Right, let's crack on with the post...

At the end of May I spent a few hours one morning at Yarner Wood for a change of scenery.  I am as devoted to my patch as any patch birder, but still sometimes think it's good to have some 'away time'. Especially in a spring that for much of we were locked down for!

Such a species-rich woodland

As a coastal patch birder, a place where spring and autumn migration is such a major factor in the birding calendar, it's easy to associate species with the 'wrong' habitat.  Redstarts and Pied Flies for example, well for me that's April, or mid Aug - early Oct on Beer Head, in thickets of scrub on the edge of open ground.  But of course that isn't their true habitat at all.  Taking the time to see these species in their breeding sites actually serves as a good lesson, this is the reason they make the epic journey here from South Africa and why we sometimes are lucky enough to see them on the south coast.  

I don't think I've actually explained the above paragraph very well, but hopefully you kind of get my thinking?  Seeing them in their true home, in the middle of the breeding season frantically feeding young, actually completes the bigger picture.  I just need to go and seem them in their wintering quarters now! Jess? :-)

Anyway back to this visit and Yarner Wood was absolutely superb.  I have been there many times but never have I seen it so busy with birds.  I think in the past I have timed visits to coincide with a good amount of song, whereas during this visit there was very little in song.  That was clearly because everything looked so busy feeding young, and due to the late May date I should imagine many of the young were only a day or so off fledging. Big young need big amounts of food!  I have also heard it is a good Pied Fly season, with just under 100 nest boxes occupied by this species here. Redstarts and Spot Flies seemed numerous and active too but I don't know the numbers of these.

Hopefully these few picture will set the scene better than any of my blurb...

Male Pied Flycatcher - I saw at least 16 Pied Flies during my quick loop walk

This female Pied Fly bringing a Large Yellow Underwing back for breakfast

A super male Redstart - saw five Redstarts in total (3m, 2f)

A lady Redstart with bling!

I knew it was going to be a good visit even before I'd entered the wood.  From the entrance gate itself opposite the upper Trendlebere Down car park, there were two Pied and a Spotted Flycatcher, a Garden Warbler, then about ten paces inside the gate a male Redstart. Magic!

A great start!

So that's 16+ Pied Flycatcher, five Redstart plus four Spotted Flies, five Willow Warbler, one Garden Warbler, heaps of Siskin, two Lesser Redpoll, and...

The other reason for my visit at this time of year was to catch up with a rapidly declining species that I just don't see enough of.  The only reason I am posting this is because I know they have now fledged and disturbance to the nest can no longer be an issue.

Although early spring is often quoted as the time of year to find this species, it's this week for me when the young are noisily advertising their presence. To be honest, how any nests of this species are successful is a miracle to me - the young literally don't stop calling and if I can find them then any potential predator can too! 

I must stress, in keeping with my opening paragraphs, the hour I spent watching these adult Lesser-spotted Woodpeckers coming and going, I did so from a considerable distance (as can be seen by the amount of foliage in the pics between me and the nest hole!).  The only time I heard them alarm call, when the male also gave a bout of song, was when a Great-spotted Woodpecker landed on the top of the nesting tree. My heart was in my mouth as Great-spotted Woodpeckers will happily raid a nest, but gladly this one flew off without causing any damage.  

You can see from the quality of my pics that my aim was to watch and enjoy. Photos were almost an after-thought...

The male - or some of it anyway!

The female and one of it's offspring just

Such a privilege to find and be able to study this rare species.  These were my first Lesser Spots for so many years and what a way to see them.

The adults really do not hang around the nest site, they were in and out in less than ten seconds on most occasions, with a nest visit roughly every four minutes.  Interestingly the male visited far more often than the female.  On the occasions that both parents arrived at similar times, one would wait out on a nearby tree for the other to feed the young before moving in themselves.  In typical Lesser Spot fashion I loved the way they appeared and disappeared, so ghostly-like. Out of nowhere there'd be one on the nesting tree, and after a quick visit to the nest hole it would fly back into the wood and simply melt into the canopy.

What a fantastic morning and I hope you've enjoyed me reliving it :-)

Sunday, 31 May 2020

Bun Bags a Blyth's

Absolute full marks to Kev today, for a top quality find and a much-deserved reward.  He has been visiting Beer Head every single day since early April (he came here for his daily exercise allowance during the strict lockdown) but has actually seen very little.  Far less than any other spring that's for sure, but he didn't give up.

Last week he stumbled upon a couple of late singing male Reed Warblers.  Then mid this morning he scored with a patch first - Blyth's Reed Warbler!

There's an interesting story though, and a great lesson to all birders within I think. Am sure I am right in saying that from the moment he stumbled upon it he was thinking Blyth's Reed Warbler over Marsh Warbler, and during my time with it (about 45 minutes) I was convinced it was Blyth's Reed on song so put the news out as such.  But then over the course of the afternoon, more and more individuals on site and over social media seemed to favour Marsh. To the extent that BirdGuides officially re-identified it as Marsh Warbler, I believe primarily based on some South African species it was apparently mimicking (Blyth's Reeds winter in India so shouldn't come across these species ever, Marsh Warblers winter in Africa).

No one had still really seen it properly.  I managed a two second view of the middle part of the bird (behind its eye to middle of the secondaries so missing the crucial elements!) but nowhere near enough to add any weight to the identification.

When I heard it this morning it was giving an often steadily-paced and structured song (not rushed like Marsh) with some chuntering, tacking and amazing Nightingale-esque fluty notes interspersed.  Have a listen to this short clip I recorded on the P900. Fairly classic Blyth's Reed I thought...

There was quite a lot of mimicry involved though and it did at times speed up.  For anyone who has a spare two and half minutes, here is some out of focus grass with the Blyth's Reed singing in the back ground. A much longer and varied clip than above...

Anyway as I said, after I had left and gone off to spend the day with the family, it then became much less of a certainty, and by the end of the afternoon I had several messages saying it was a Marsh Warbler.  I did however also have some still saying definitely a Blyth's Reed!  I have been involved with many identification debates in the past where there's been if's and but's with opposite sides disagreeing - but never have I been in one where both sides were claiming clinching features (albeit only in the song) and each being so confident in their respective conclusions.  Any bird that creates this much uncertainty amongst experienced folk is clearly a tricky/a-typical individual.

Despite my Blyth's certainty at first all the debate made me wobble, especially around mid-afternoon after hearing more sound clips of the bird on social media and reading others' opinion. I virtually convinced myself we had all been fooled by a Marsh Warbler in sub-song and was preparing to hold my hands up - to the extent I had drafted the apologetic blog post out in my head.  I even began feeling guilty for all the birders who had trekked over on my duff gen. Blyth's Reed is a proper good bird for Devon, although Lundy have had a couple I believe only a recent autumn Berry Head bird (4th-6th Oct 2016, thanks for the correction Mike) has been available for the current county birding crowd.  Chris T did find one on the East Devon Commons last week, but it didn't hang around long enough for others to see. You can read his blog post about it here.

But then...

Tonight, although I couldn't get back up there, several of the local birders did and it showed much better. Revealing itself for sure as a Blyth's Reed Warbler.  Thanks to Kevin for allowing me to use his photo, which I must add was taken in strong evening sunlight making it appear a warmer shade of brown than it actually was...

(c) Kevin Hale

Short-winged with evenly spaced primary tips which aren't broad and pale-tipped.  In other photos head shape perfect too with a spiky bill, and overall posture and colour supports Blyth's too.  James Mc heard it give a very harsh and sylvia-like tek earlier as well which was handy.

This whole episode was such a good reminder that this birding lark isn't always straight forward, even on the occasions you think it is. Especially the case when it comes to these skulky little brown ones.  I do love birds like this though, even if they can be highly frustrating at times!

Thanks everyone for all your comments and thoughts today, and although I didn't see any visitors it was good to catch up with many of you over the phone.

Thanks again and well done Kev. The third rarest bird to be found on Beer Head in terms of UK records, and gladly another rare warbler which I always think we should do better for here considering the habitat and location. 

Saturday, 23 May 2020

Skua-less Spring

Spring 2020 will go down as my worst in history for seawatching in Seaton Bay.

You'd have thought being in the midst of a global pandemic, and a forced lockdown limiting all outdoor activity, would be the main contributing factor right? Wrong.  It's all about the weather - and it's been completely pants for seawatching all spring with way too much north wind and nowhere near enough cloud or rain.  Just look at sites like Portland that have had daily coverage all spring and how many Pomarine Skuas they've reported, very few. Look at all the skua species in fact, there's not even been a good Arctic or Bonxie day.  So ironically lockdown probably didn't make a blind bit of difference to the seawatching story here this spring, there was nothing to miss.

Yesterday offered one final (half) chance for some spring sea action. Although it wasn't overly windy it was from a south westerly direction, backed up with a decent coverage of cloud just not enough of the wet stuff.  I set my alarm for 5am and watched 05:25 - 08:25 from the Spot On Kiosk.  I was joined by Phil for a chunk of it- at a distance greater than 2 meters of course  I only really wanted him there to open up the Kiosk but he didn't get the hints!

Anyway, back to the seawatch and although there were no skuas, at times it was actually quite busy even if it were just the commoner species. In the three hours I was there I noted (west unless stated);

Great Northern Diver 1 at 08:15
Diver sp. 1e
Gannet 155w, 13e
Manx Shearwater 2
Auk sp. 68w, 3e (c70/30 Razorbill/Guillemot)
Common Scoter 28w, 25e
Black-headed Gull 3
Common Gull 2
Kittiwake 11
Sanderling 2 (flew in and landed on beach)
Swift 3

Highlight of the watch for me, two Sanderling on the beach

Love how they just melt into the pebbles! Nice to get a pale one and a red one.

The biggest single flock of Common Scoter recorded - 19 west

Although not taken yesterday, this Great Northern Diver flew close past the seafront during a beach wander in late April...

I know it doesn't look close but for us it was - full breeding plumage too!

Fingers crossed I can get my skua fix in the autumn...

Tuesday, 19 May 2020

Nightjars Return

It's been about nine years since Clinton felled a large area of larch between Southleigh and Beer, cleared to help prevent the spread of a disease called Ramorum.  Less than a year later, Nighjars found this now suitable habitat, which had been created almost by default (simply by clearing a load of trees!). 2013 was the year we all added Nightjar to our patch lists.

The following year the Nightjars returned, and brought with them other species suited to this habitat, namely a pair of Tree Pipits and several pairs of Stonechats. The Tree Pipits lasted another year (2015) and Stonechats were breeding here until last year.  I am pleased to say Nightjars have returned every year, and last night I was delighted to confirm they were back for their eighth year...

There were two males present, vocal from 21:10 but neither showed until 21:20.  The churr of the Nightjar wasn't the only treat for my ears, as at 20:40 a Cuckoo called several times from the direction of Southleigh.  Only my second spring record for the patch - a proper local scarcity.

Back to the habitat, and nine years since the larch trees were felled, this is how it looks...

A carpet of 8-10 foot high conifers

As a result of this growth there's no Stonechats to be seen, but warblers have moved in.  There's more Blackcaps than I have seen here before, along with a Willow Warbler (not a common breeding bird around these parts) and three Whitethroats.  Most surprising of all however was the sheer number of Siskins.  Yes if go into any woodland with a bit of conifer at this time of year you'll probably see or hear a Siskin or two, but there were singles and pairs bombing around all over the place last night.  These young trees must be offering plenty of nesting opportunities for this small finch, and there's clearly more than enough food in the vicinity to support a healthy population.

I am finding it really interesting watching how the change in habitat of this site is reflected in the birds using it.  Year on year.  This winter I'm secretly hoping for Great Grey Shrike, and who knows, breeding Redstart next summer?

Stay safe everyone...

Saturday, 16 May 2020

Spoonbill and Dippers

Although we are not really in lockdown any more, my lockdown house list lives on. Well things aren't completely back to normal yet are they!?  

I added the 88th species to the list on Thursday, although it took a couple of hours of watching and waiting.  A Spoonbill (that was earlier seen over Eype and Abbotsbury) dropped into the Estuary late afternoon on Wednesday, and was still with us the following morning. I was determined not to let this species avoid the list again, as the one I found on Black Hole Marsh on 10th April had left us before I'd made it back home!  Anyway, finally at 09:45 on Thursday, from my bedroom window I spied the distinctive shape of a Spoonbill flying high downriver, before it circled up and seem to head off south west.  I don't often say I deserved a bird - but I think I did this one!

Thursday afternoon, our family walk took us along a stretch of river home to at least four Dippers - two adults and two juveniles.  One of the juveniles was loitering in the area we had stopped for lunch and showed extremely well throughout.  What an absolutely superb bird, and a true delight to be in such close proximity of it for so long.  Good to see it being so independent too with not a single visit from either of its parents during the hour we were there.  I do hope you enjoy this photo overload, from what was a very special hour for me...

And to finish a short video clip, but before playing be sure to click on settings and change the quality to 1080p HD...