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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 one-day bird (6th Oct 2016) 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...



Tuesday, 12 May 2020

Turtle Dove

I undertook my daily exercise a lot earlier than usual today, as Mike B who found a Turtle Dove last night, reported early this morning it was still present in exactly the same spot.

When I walked past about five hours later, thankfully it was still in exactly the same spot. And what a stunner.  I do hope you enjoy this little video...




And here's a still...

They are rare yes, but they are absolutely beautiful too


The Turtle Dove, as am sure you are all aware, is a rapidly declining UK species. Sadly it really is a bird that when you do get to see one, you must appreciate that it may well be your last.  Well in the UK anyway, thankfully they still seem to be fairly numerous abroad.  This was only my third ever Turtle Dove in these parts, my first was a purring male in Beer on 13th May 2012, and the second a very showy autumn bird on Bridge Marsh in October 2016.

I have also got a lockdown house list update to report.  After 12 days of no additions, today I have added two species to the list bringing the total up to 87.   One of them, Reed Bunting, being completely expected given the fact they nest about 1/4 mile away, the other however a full fat house tick!  At about 8:30 this morning a Spotted Flycatcher flew in from the south, pitched up for less than a minute in a tree on the edge of Seaton Cemetery (as viewed from my bedroom window) before flying off low north east.  Result.

Stay safe everyone.


Monday, 11 May 2020

Another Osprey

Sometimes you just get lucky.

So many of the blue sky days that we've enjoyed I have spent them in the garden looking up. Luckily for me this is also where Jess and Harry want to be when it's sunny.  Yes I have accumulated a pretty decent haul of raptors during lockdown by doing this, but many of these days also returned a nil result.  

Today I spent 98% of the time I was at home inside, but when I walked into the conservatory for literally the first time of the day, at about 12:30, I glanced out the windows to see all the gulls in the air.  I shot inside for my bins and immediately picked up an Osprey gliding slowing north east into the wind.  Another dash in for my camera and I managed to grab a few shots before it appeared to drop down into the valley just north of Black Hole Marsh.  Quite a late date for a spring bird so presumably a non-breeder.

It's certainly been a good spring for Ospreys on the Axe

My sixth of the spring - but I have appreciated every single one of them


When something like this happens, it always makes me wonder just how often we aren't in the right place at the right time.  As far as I'm aware no one else saw this Osprey, so if I had gone into the conservatory just one minute later, a bird with a five foot wing span that sends every gull in town into a frenzied panic, would have flown over Seaton and the Axe Estuary unnoticed.   When you start to think about small birds, the mind truly boggles at how much we must miss.  We know when were are in the right place at the right time - but can we even comprehend how often we are in the wrong place at the wrong time?

Having spent far reduced time at home recently, I don't have anything to add for my lockdown house list.  The only news is negative really, as the Grasshopper Warbler hasn't been reeling for about four nights now,  This ties in with the day the fields either side of its hedge were cut and sprayed, so basically it's either been spooked or killed. I hope it's the former, but either way I miss him.

I also haven't seen a Red Kite for a few days, which isn't normally something I'd mention, but as West Bexington counted 112 fly west yesterday it is noteworthy.  With so much north in the wind it looks like they have been passing to the north of Seaton, taking the same route the satellite-tagged White-tailed Eagle took last month.

Before I go I just need to update yesterday's lepidoptera post.  The whole paragraph I wrote about seeing plenty of Orange-tips during every one of our daily lockdown walks, but not being presented with the opportunity to photograph a single one...  Guess what posed for me about an hour after I posted that blog post, during our daily family walk...

A stunning insect; male Orange-tip


Stay safe everyone... or is it now stay alert?

Sunday, 10 May 2020

Lockdown Lepidoptera

Well where did that week go?  Normal-ish life resumed for me last Monday as I had to work from the office for the week - but it went like a flash!  I should be off again now for a few weeks so hopefully there will be a bit more life in this blog again.

This is actually a post I was going to put up at the start of last week, but the delay has given it a bit more content.  It's not about birds either!

As we all know, except for the blip at the end of April, we have been blessed with some incredible weather during lockdown.  And as a result our daily walks have revealed good numbers of butterflies, although as we often take the same/similar route variety has been limited.  It's always good to appreciate the commoner species though, and it's given me ample opportunities to introduce Harry to some of them... 

The shade-specialist; Speckled Wood

A tad tatty - but it's not just wear that's shaped those wings; Comma

Seem to be very numerous this year; Holly Blue (a female judging by amount of black on forewing)


Sadly I never managed a pic of Harry's apparent favourite species - the Orange-tip.  I think it's the striking colour of the males that has attracted him to this species, but not one would land for me! Actually thinking about it, maybe they are Harry's favourite because of all the laugh's he's had watching Daddy running off down a track after one! 

Just before I went back to work, we did go on a different walk and headed down to the Harbour.  This revealed a whole new selection of butterflies, and whilst Harry and Mummy watched the mullet in the harbour, Daddy went off for a little bit more a walk...

There were really good numbers of Dingy Skippers around, always nice to see, along with my first Common Blues of the year.  I recorded at least five different Wood Whites as well, although in keeping with my luck with white butterflies during lockdown, not one posed for a photo!  I also spent time looking for Small Blue, as historically this has been one of our two local sites for this rare species (see HERE).  Sadly though Karen has since told me this site was lost to storm damage in c2015ish, likewise our other local Small Blue site.  So that's Small and Chalkhill Blue both gone from patch now, just shows how vulnerable these small isolated populations can be.  Plenty of their food plant remains though so fingers crossed they will eventually recolonise.

Managed a double-figure count of these; Dingy Skipper

My first of these recorded on 2nd May; Common Blue

A view of the underside; mating pair of Common Blues


Although not one Wood White landed for me, I managed to grab this absolutely dreadful shot as two flew close past by.  They are such a beautiful butterfly, such a delicate and fluttering flight.  Not that you can tell in this abysmal effort...

Does kind of show wing shape in two different positions - if you squint; Wood Whites


I have done far less well for Odonata, which is surprising considering we are going to the Wetlands almost daily.  I did see an extremely early Beautiful Demoiselle back on 9th April in Colyford, my earliest ever and not something I was at all expecting to see - I hadn't even seen a Large Red Damselfly before then! Later I read online a few other early emerged adults of this species had been seen, including one in Kenton (South Devon) the previous day. 

I saw my first Broad-bodied Chaser about a week later, also in Colyford, and yesterday was hoping to add Scarce Chaser to this list as I walked to the upper reaches of the Axe near Colyford - a reliable site for them.  But nothing, which is a shame because the colour of immature and females Scarce Chasers is one of my favourite colours in the natural world.  All I saw were a couple more Beautiful Demioselles, a few Large Red Damselflies and one Common Blue Damselfly.

Oh it's so good to be back in regular blogging land. Stay safe everyone...