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Saturday, 5 November 2022

Troublesome Egrets

Early in the summer we became aware of a new colony of Little Egrets on patch, quite a distance from the Estuary but a sizeable colony - our biggest in fact!  The colony however was really hard to see, high up in a thick conifer plantation. 

It wasn't long after the discovery of this colony that on two afternoons I saw a single adult Cattle Egret flying towards it, amongst the almost constant toing and froing of adult Little Egrets...

Kev kept checking the colony as best he could, and on 13th June found a new viewpoint and was greeted by some yellow-billed egrets!  But what were they?

The first thing I will say is that despite some long vigils once Kevin had found these interesting looking young egrets, we didn't see a single adult egret visit the nest!  It is wonder how they didn't all starve to be honest, absolutely hopeless parents.  There were sporadic Cattle Egret sightings in the valley during June/July but this maybe a moot point.

This is the egret nest in question, which in this photo shows all three of the youngsters huddled up...


What is really odd is how the three young egrets in this one nest looked so different!  And here they all are... (for the purpose of this post I will label the birds 1, 2, 3 left to right).


Bird 1

The darkest billed, and probably the youngest of the three as it seemed far less adventurous...


Bird 2

This bird showed a pale straw-coloured bill...



Bird 3

What the heck is this!?  I will let the pictures do the talking but basically it just looks like a Cattle Egret...



And to compare, here's a photo of a juvenile Little Egret from another nest, and then a photo showing a young Little Egret alongside the mystery nest...



So, some thoughts from me...

  • Despite the dazzling orange bill, look at the bill size in the lower photo compared with that young Little Egret.  Same size and shape, a bit longer if anything.  Cattle Egret whatever the age should show a short and stubbier bill.
  • Young Cattle Egrets usually fledge with dark bills, which then rapidly become pale/orange. So orange bills on birds of this age isn't even right for Cattle Egret.
  • All the other juvnile egrets in the colony (c20 birds) had dark bills.
  • Does the difference between the three fledglings indicate two different species as parents? 
  • Why were their parents so hopeless? It would have saved a lot of confusion on our side if they actually visited the nest whilst we were looking!

On one evening when Kev and I were looking at these puzzling birds, we joked that our hopeless juvenile egret knowledge probably meant a pair of adult Great White Egrets would soon fly in and feed these chicks!

What I am struggling with is that even though I am firmly in the 'these are not Cattle Egrets' camp, and actually think they are just odd Little Egrets - I then see the photo below and think how are these not Cattle Egrets!?


So in summary.... can anyone help? What is going on here?


Monday, 17 October 2022

Sorry, there are no birds left...

I am afraid this isn't a nice post to write and not one that I want you to enjoy reading.  But from what I've seen and read this year I feel compelled to write it.

Tracking bird populations and trends of migrant bird species at a migration site is nigh-on-impossible, there are just too many variables when it comes to how many grounded/passing migrant birds you see on a day to day basis.  Wind direction/air pressure/weather where you are birding, wind direction/air pressure/weather where the migrant birds have set off from, food availability during their migration, etc.  For example a warm, sunny, calm and dry April will almost guarantee low numbers of grounded migrants, wherever you are and regardless of how many birds are actually passing over.

Nothing to see here, literally...

However when a trend is sustained, and when what would previously have been considered 'excellent conditions' happen often enough, and nothing happens, it begins to paint a picture. A very worrying picture.

This spring and autumn on my beloved patch here in East Devon has been dire.  Forget about the rarities and scarcities, they will always be rare and scarce, I am talking about common migrant birds.

I saw/heard 13 Willow Warblers here this spring.  That is 13 in total throughout the entire spring. Only managed one more Wheatear, with 14 in all for me.  I saw singles of RedstartSpotted FlycatcherTree Pipit and Whinchat. No Garden WarblerGrasshopper WarblerYellow WagtailCuckooTurtle Dove or Pied Flycatcher.  

Willow Warbler looking all common

Whenever we have damp and dreary weather in April/May I try and get down into the Axe Valley at least once during the day in my never-ending quest for a patch Red-rumped Swallow. Every visit in these conditions this year showed pitiful numbers of hirundines, 20 - 30,  when I would usually expect to see several hundred feeding low over the marshes. On two dates I did manage three figures just about but this was still a fraction of what I would expect to see.

Autumn hasn't been much better, well no better.  

So is it just here? Are migration routes and/or bird populations shifting?  Are they all retracting eastwards like NightingalesTurtle Doves and Willow Tits?  Well a browse of the websites of some of the UK's Bird Observatories will tell you the answer; Portland BillDungeness, even Spurn.  It is being witnessed everywhere, both spring and autumn of this year.  Even birders who have spent time on Shetland this autumn have remarked about how few common migrants were there.

Too many times this year I have walked the fields of Axe Cliff and returned having noted just one or two of a species (like Willow Warbler) that should be plentiful.  So I can't not begin to wonder what birding might be like in five, ten, twenty years time? Will 'two Willow Warblers and a Blackcap' represent a good morning of spring birding?  

A tweet of mine from earlier this the year


Add the recent outbreaks of Avian Influence into the picture, rampaging through some of our most-loved, cherished and rarest sea bird colonies this year -  honestly it is enough to make me cry. I love birding and I always will, but looking at it in a very selfish way, I really am fearful for the future of my hobby.  

Although I confess I am rapidly approaching my 40's (three years to go!) I'm not a grumpy birder, not by a long way I'd like to think.  However there is just one more point I want to add to this depressing blog post, as quite frankly I just don't get it...

Should we really be putting so much focus, money and time into reintroducing White-tailed EaglesWhite StorksGreat BustardsCommon Cranes, etc in the south of England when the basic foundations of our entire eco-system are clearly broken?  What is wrong with the 'create the habitat and they will come' method? 

White Stork showing a bit too well


Surely we need to be working from the bottom up when it comes to conservation.  Not that I am saying the complete collapse of our entire natural world is by any means an easy problem to fix.


Thursday, 11 August 2022

Five New Moths!

I haven't been mothing as frequently as usual this summer, but some nights have just been too perfect to miss out on.  I've even had two traps out on a couple of nights...

My super reliable Robinson in Mum and Dad's back garden

My less reliable wooden Skinner trap, which is a bit of faff to set up. And that is why it only comes out on the very best looking nights.

And although this is probably the least mothing I have done in any year since starting out, I have trapped five new species of macro moths for the garden.  Not an easy feat after 13 years of trapping here!

During the night of 18th/19th July, 439 macro moths in the traps included these firsts...

Double Lobed - usually found in marshy habitat

Cream-bordered Green Pea - another marsh-loving moth 

False Mocha - a rapidly declining species which is now rare in Devon

And last night gave two more garden firsts...

Cosmopolitan - an immigrant that arrives in varying numbers year to year

A glimpse of the Cosmopolitan's gleaming white underwing

Tree-lichen Beauty - formally a rarity but now breeds in the UK. A cracking little moth!

The species mix really has changed now we move into mid August. Hawkmoth numbers are dropping right off, and had my first Setaceous Hebrew Characters last night among good numbers of Lesser Broad-bordered Yellow Underwings and record numbers of Jersey Tigers (26!).  

The mothing season moves fast - which really adds to the excitement of this hobby! 


Saturday, 16 July 2022

Essex Skipper

Months of nothing on this blog just has to be broken for this news!

Several years ago, probably eight or nine, I heard of a rapid increase of Essex Skippers in the Weymouth area - which ever since has put this species firmly on my radar for the patch, seeing as we in the far south east corner of Devon.

I have concentrated my efforts on the one place I see most skippers around here, Lower Bruckland Ponds.  I have photographed not far off 100 skippers over the years - mostly head shots - but to no avail.  All the small skippers photographed here have indeed been Small Skippers, some even with dark-tipped antennae but still showing orange on the underside of the tip, which can fool in the field I can tell you! If you are as mad as me and fancy doing the same, be wary of Large Skipper too if you've not noticed the wing pattern, surprisingly easy to do when you're busy looking at the head-end all the time!  Large Skippers also have dark-tipped antennae but thankfully their antennae are a distinctly different shape so any confusion should be short-lived.  

Anyway, a few years ago I did start to lose hope. It really felt like it was never going to happen, but then...

In July 2019 EDDC warden James Chubb unknowingly photographed an Essex Skipper just off-patch at Trill Farm, near Axminster.  Which is less than two miles from Lower Brucklands!  

Taken from @TheTiercel twitter account

So I went back to Lower Brucklands Pond with renewed enthusiasm that summer and each summer since, but still no luck.  However last weekend I had luck elsewhere on patch...

During a family dog walk last Saturday, when I came across a beautifully unkempt and overgrown weedy corner at Axe Cliff, and noticed several skippers in amongst it, I ditched the family and spent twenty minutes getting scratched legs chasing butterflies!  Yes it was great seeing the skippers, but I was so thrilled to see good numbers of insects of all taxa considering how poor this year has been for insects.

Marbled White


And 15 skippers later, of which at least five were definitely Small, I photographed this...

Seems an awful lot of dark on the antennae tip there!

Jackpot - Essex Skipper!

Even closer and from the other side

Absolutely made up!  Had to leave very shortly after photographing the above, but hope to revisit again soon to see how many are actually there...  

So for the last eight or so years I have had the right idea, I've just been looking in the wrong place!


Monday, 11 April 2022

Spring Skuas!

There were four reasons why I wasn't particularly excited by the sea watching potential of this morning:

1.  The wind was south easterly, we often fail spectacular in anything with east in it.

2.  The sun was out.  Poor visibility seems to be the primary reason seabirds accidentally venture this far into Lyme Bay.

3.  The wind didn't really strengthen until just before dawn. Often need a good half-the night of gales to blow birds in here.

4.  94% of times I am excited about birding potential because of weather conditions, I end up being hugely disappointed.

But this proves just how unpredictable birding can be, even when watching a patch you think you know pretty well!  It was actually a really enjoyable watch.  I could only give it 90 minutes, in hindsight wished I had started earlier and of course that I didn't have to leave for work at 08:30. Pleased to have had the company of Phil for most of it, always helps having another pair of eyes and someone to talk to during the quiet times.

Gannet - as close as they ever come here!

For me the highlight were the skuas. I have gone entire springs here without seeing a single skua, so to see five Arctic Skuas in one watch was a nice result indeed. Saying that, three were a bit underwhelming, as I only saw them when they briefly pursued a (presumed) Kittiwake up from the horizon somewhere between Seaton and France, and then disappeared when the four birds dropped back below the horizon. The other two however were far better value...

An intermediate sub-adult flew in from the west, and spent about twenty minutes in the bay including looping right into the Seaton Bay and then back out, which is when it then tagged onto a lone dark-phased adult that was steadily flying east and both went on their way.

My full counts (all east) were: 70+ Gannet, 11 Manx Shearwater, 5 Arctic Skua, 24 Common Gull, 14 Sandwich Tern, 9 comic Tern, 7 Common Scoter, 1 Wigeon, 2 Teal, 2 Whimbrel and 20+ auk sp. 

So although nowhere near the quality and quantity seen further east (the sea watching in Lyme Bay in easterlies dramatically improves the nearer to Chesil Cove you are) it was still great fun for us!  Well all except for this tern...

I thought it was a Common Tern, it just didn't look floaty and dainty enough for an Arctic to me. I watched it for a minute or so with a Sandwich Tern, sometimes close, but on my last view looking back west away from the sun, a pale grey upperwing and clean underwing suddenly worried me that I had thrown away an Arctic! And that's when it flew off...

Please let me know if anyone can do anything with the below pics. I really don't see anyway near enough Sternas to be confident either way...

Lower bird

Not this one, this is the close Sandwich Tern I saw

This one! Worryingly long-tailed looking in this pic, but is it bill a bit too long?


Tern aside, more of the above would make for a very enjoyable spring!  Check back to the blog soon for more news...


Saturday, 9 April 2022

Green-winged Teal

A nice little spring treat popped up in front of Phil yesterday morning on Bridge Marsh, and gladly stayed put for the day.  The Axe's third Green-winged Teal...

You can't beat vertical white stripes on a Teal

Always distant and the light was just weird

This was literally the closest it came - the nearside of the scrape!

Handy comparison

Full display mode!


I have to hold my hands up and say after watching it for a while, I did actually stutter with the ID. Enough so that I shared my concerns with the only other observer on site at the time (Kev).

Like gulls, hybrids are always something to be weary of when dealing with wildfowl, and this bird often showed a distinctive pale horizontal line too! In fact it was to the extent that if I scanned over the scrape and saw this male Teal asleep (angled just a little more away) I don't think I would have given it another look.  Would you?

But that is the male Green-winged!


On balance I just can't see a hybrid having such a dazzling and broad set of vertical stripes.  Be keen to know others' thoughts, although do appreciate the quality of the pics do not help.  

To complete the picture, the previous patch records of Green-winged Teal are as follows:

Drake on Colyford March 29th January 2013 (one day only).
Drake on Bridge Marsh 19th December 2015 remaining in the valley until late March 2016.

Assuming this is a spring migrant heading back north with its Eurasian cousins, it would be great to know where it spent the winter. Presumably somewhere in southern Europe or maybe even further south?  

My next post will be a summer migrant update... unless something else unexpected appears in the meantime!  In one sentence though, the cold wind seems to be stalling spring just like last year.


Tuesday, 5 April 2022

A Right Barney on Patch!

Bit of a backlog to get through having been so silent on here lately, but for me there's only one place to start...

First there was just the one Barnacle Goose in the valley, I found it feeding with the Canada Geese on Bridge Marsh on 16th March.  But on 20th there were three, increasing to four from 24th...

The usual view of them!

Although they were often distant, and who knows where they originated from, they were an absolute joy to have with us.  Watching them call to each other in the evening light, literally having a barney, is not something I can say I have ever witnessed before.  

To my surprise they stayed with us as a foursome until 30th March, when I had the absolute privilege of watching them soon after dawn on the closest part of the closest island to the Island hide on Black Hole Marsh...





Such a stunning species of wildfowl with an endearing quality about them.  And what made this encounter even more precious is that about half an hour later they were seen to fly off and have not been seen since, well not here anyway...

Later the same day four Barnacle Geese appeared on Lodmoor, Weymouth. Next stop Svalbard?