Friday 17 May 2024

Patch Tick - Aurora Borealis!

I have spent many hours looking up at the night sky hoping, and sometimes even expecting to see the Northern Lights.  Over the past couple of years the prospect of seeing Aurora on the south coast of England has increased, I can recall at least three nights being out knowing Aurora is a real possibility.

On two of those nights I could see nothing.  On the third night I could again see nothing, but my phone camera revealed a light green hue in the sky.  I felt cheated.  And reading some more into it I realised this is what most/all 'sub-optimal' Aurora experiences are like... not an experience at all! Such a disappointment.

Still for some reason that didn't put me off going out on the evening of Friday 10th May, as this was reported to be one of the most severe solar storms possible...

I went out at about 10:40pm, and from my vantage point west of Colyton, just above the clouds that sat low in the sky to the north, I could see a faint green hue.  It was much more extensive through my phone camera, but at least I could actually see some colour with my naked eye this time!  

Distant Aurora! A wispy green hue.


I honestly thought that was it.  I stayed for half an hour admiring this whiff of green, but just as I was about to leave... well what happened next will stay with me forever...

The only way I can explain it is that the sky quite literally lit-up.  A bit like being in a dark theatre and the spot lights suddenly turn on, with bright lights piercing through the empty blackness. But these spot lights were coloured and on a scale of epic proportions!  

The night sky, up to directly above me, was suddenly a mix of blue, green, purple and pink, in these huge and mightly impressive towers of light...

A night-time rainbow

I cannot tell you how impressive these beams were - literal towers of light.


I am not ashamed to say it moved me.  Seeing something so mind blowing on such an incomprehensibly epic scale completely knocked me off my feet.  I immediately phoned Jess who I knew was in bed, and got her up and out in the back garden (where light pollution is an issue) and she couldn't believe it!  When I got home 20 minutes later we swapped over so she could go out and admire the Aurora at a darker spot.

It varied in intensity up until when I went to bed at 1am, and at one stage I could see movement in the light.  These were my views from the back garden at about mightnight...

The beams got even more striking and bright!

So many beams!  Filled so much of the sky.

Only included this pic as it actually includes my house!  My house and the Northern Lights.


Many people are saying this was a once in a life-time show of the Aurora Borealis.  I sure hope not, but if it turns out to be I am so glad I witnessed it.  

Friday 19 April 2024

Cirl Bunting - The Seaton Story

Finally, finally, finally... bloody finally!

When I was starting out in birding in the late 90s and early 00's, enjoying frequent weekend birding trips out with Dad, the rule was you had to go west of the Exe Estuary to see a Cirl Bunting.  Sometime in the mid to late 00's, Budleigh and Otter Head became home for an isolated small population, which has steadily increased in numbers since.

In 2019, just a few miles from our patch boundary, Cirl Buntings appeared around Weston and towards Sidmouth (see blog post HERE). They've remained in the area ever since but haven't obviously spread out, with no records within approx two miles of our western patch boundary at Branscombe.  With them being SO close though we have been on the look out. 

However our efforts have proved nothing but frustrating, despite seemingly having plenty of ideal habitat.  They've even leap-frogged us, as are now present and breeding at several sites along the south coast of west Dorset, as far east as Portland Bill.  They've even gone inland of us too, with a single male (possible two) present for a second year near Axminster.  You really cannot blame us for feeling like we have some sort of Cirl deflective force field around our patch!  Well that was up until eleven days ago anyway...

I really have not been out at all much this year, it has been extremely busy at work opening a new attraction in town.  However on the morning of Monday 8th April I had a spare hour, and spent it traipsing around Axe Cliff Golf Course in the hope of turning up a Hoopoe or Woodchat Shrike.  No such luck, but on the east side of the Golf Course as I was walking along a narrow hedge-lined track, a familiar rattle sounded out.  It took me a while to see it, but there perched on the opposite side of the hedge right in front of me was an absolutely knock-out male Cirl Bunting, singing proudly. A patch tick!

Unfortunately however, as I went for my phone to grab a record shot/video it slipped away. I was convinced it was just going to pop up again somewhere nearby, but there's been no sight or sound during the ten days since! Gutting for everyone that missed it, but am sure it or another will surface soon.  Well actually, another one already has, the very next day...  

Local birder Leon came across a female Cirl Bunting on Beer Head on the 9th, and unlike me actually managed a pic, which I hope he doesn't mind me sharing here...

Female Cirl Bunting at Beer Head (c) Leon on 9th April 2024

So it looks like the force field is down! Hopefully it remains down and within a few years we will have breeding Cirl Buntings.  I did always think that as soon as one shows up the flood gates would open.

I won't leave it so long before the next blog post.  I have the whole of this spring to date to recap on, not that it has been anything that special - yet.  For now though, have this Wheatear shot, a nice Iceland/Greenland male too...

Colyford Common - 14/4/24

Friday 1 March 2024

Casp Wakes Me Up From Winter Slumber

Well if one thing was going to get some life in this blog it was going to be a Caspian Gull wasn't it!

At the turn of the year I was fully intending to do a full 2023 patch birding review, especially as 2023 was such an epic birding year on the Axe.  Certainly my (and the?) best year on the Axe in the last ten or so years.  I am still hoping to write it, even if it is for selfish reasons so I can re-live it, but am so proud of how well the Axe patch scored in the 2023 Patchwork Challenge competition.

Anyway, for now, my first decent Gull of the year.  It's been a really poor first few months of 2024 on the Axe, low numbers of winter visitors and no rares or even scarce birds really.  So I was thrilled to spy this lovely first-winter Caspian Gull out of my office window on the afternoon of 20th Feb...

Lovely grey mantle and o-so-white!

Great Casp-stance here. Long thin legs and an almost equally long neck! Lots of pale on bill too.

Nice flash of its white tail, not to mention showing off some of the plainest greater coverts I have ever seen! Solidly plain dark tertials too.

Photo shows how much it stood out from all other first-winter birds in the flock. Such a sleak and pale bird which looked really clean.

Hopefully you won't have to wait another two months for the next post... but am sorry if you do!

Thursday 30 November 2023

A Calm Seaton Bay

I had a bit of a shock when I looked out over a calm Seaton Bay on Tuesday morning... there were birds!

Not flat calm but good enough!

Go back by over a decade or so and Seaton Bay wasn't all that bad for wintering sea birds. Don't get me wrong it was never in the same league as Torbay or Portland Harbour, but it was always worth a look.  A double-figure flock of Great Crested Grebes were a constant magnet, and there always used to be a wintering Common Scoter flock off the Harbour which would sometimes attract Velvet Scoter (have managed double-figure counts of this species here before), Long-tailed Duck and Eider. Scarce grebes were pretty much annual, most often Slavs but have seen a few Red and Black-necked too, and there were always good numbers of Red-throated Diver often with a few Great Northern.  

However this is a dim and distant memory now, although it is clearly not just a Seaton thing. You only need to look at how unusual and restricted large Common Scoter flocks have become on the south coast, and as for the scarcer grebes - Slav is almost a county/south west rarity now!  Another good example of a similar decline, although neither were ever common here, is Red-breasted Merganser and Goldeneye. Really quite shocking when it is so drastic over such a relatively short period of time.

Anyway back to Tuesday.  Half-hour at the Spot On in the morning was brilliant fun.  The Wigeon from the Estuary were floating around in small flocks, as they often are when disturbed from the valley, but a young drake Eider was a surprise find tagged on to the end of one of these flocks (my second record of the year).  Three Common Scoters were on the sea closer in, with two Great Crested Grebes out towards Seaton Hole and over 40 Razorbills spread all over.  Divers were represented by two Red-throats and a lovely close Great Northern feeding well, the latter a species most often seen flying through here so a close settled bird was very much appreciated.  On the move were a Dunlin in/off, two Brent Geese east, another seven Red-throated Diver and eight Common Scoter west, as well as a small number of Kittiwake and Gannets flying back and forth presumably feeding.

So nothing earth shattering and nothing like 'the old days', but enjoyable winter birding nonetheless.

Saturday 18 November 2023

Sea Keeps On Giving

Another wet and windy one last night, blowing in for most of the night from the south west.  So the sea was yet again calling me when I woke up this morning...

Conditions were far less dramatic than I was expecting on Seaton Beach at 07:30, quite different to what was forecasted too.  Despite a load or rain during the night there was not a drop during my 1.5 hour watch, and although there was an onshore wind from the south west it had dropped in strength and sea conditions, although of course rough, were nowhere near the mighty waves we've seen with the other recent storms.    It took about half an hour for the horizon to show though, with a sea mizzle (wasn't a fog or mist so am calling it that!) not clearing until nearly 8am.

Quite pleasant to be honest!

Despite the slightly tamer conditions it was yet another really good sea watch.  It had an 'end of the season' feeling for sure, but I love sea watches that result in a variety of species going into the notebook, and this one had that!  

07:30 - 09:00 at The Spot On revealed (west unless stated):  79 Gannet (flying both ways and feeding), 64 Kittiwake, 22 Common Scoter (1 east), 18 auk sp., 10 Dunlin, 8 Brent Geese (dark-bellied), 2 Great Northern Diver and singles of Long-tailed Duck, Pintail, Arctic Tern, Red-throated Diver and Turnstone.  Also noted one Bottlenose Dolphin - my first here for over a decade! 

The Arctic Tern was brilliant, and not expected on this late date at all - my latest ever tern in the UK excluding the few over-wintering Sandwich Terns I've seen.  Although it has been a brilliant year for sea watching on patch, I haven't done well with terns seeing just Sandwich and one pair of Common Terns all year. I had accepted this as my tern-fate for 2023, but at 08:15 the lovely sight of a delicate tern appeared to the east, and as it passed by I could see on plumage it was a first-winter Arctic, not to mention its wonderful buoyant flight.   Just about managed some video of it too...


The rarest bird of the watch was of course the Long-tailed Duck, however it was so nearly 'one that got away' in more ways than one!  I was so distracted videoing and watching the Arctic Tern that I hadn't been scanning the waves for several minutes, and as soon as my eye went back onto my scope aimed  towards the horizon, a flock of five birds came though. First one was an auk sp., with three Common Scoter but at the back was a smaller paler duck.... oh crap!  And ten seconds later it was gone around the corner... 

I knew what it was on shape and structure, just didn't have the confidence to call it due to lack of plumage detail and time on it.  I alerted others there was an interesting 'small duck' on the way west with 3 Common Scoter, and put the following message on the local sea watching WhatsApp group - only included here so you can see what I was thinking...

Then at about 09:10 I received a wonderful message from Mark B that read...

"Paul d hopes nose 908am long-tailed duck with 3 common scoter".

As I already knew what it was, that was all I needed to cement the record.  However I thought I would do some time calculations just to see if the timings fit. I saw it at 08:18 and Dan had it fly west past Sidmouth at 09:31.  So as you can see from this map, that is just over 7 miles in 13 minutes...


Some calculator-cleverness tells me it was flying at about 32 mph. So let's see how far Hope's Nose is from Seaton, for a duck who is following the coast...

If my calculations are correct, which they may not be, I would say a Long-tailed Duck passing Seaton at 08:18 flying at 32mph would reach Hope's Nose approximately 49 minutes later (according to an online speed calculator).

08:18 + 49 minutes = 09:07. Seriously!

Honestly I didn't need this calculation to have this Long-tailed Duck (which is my first here since 26th March 2021) but the fact it passed Hope's Nose almost on the dot is just brilliant!  Am so pleased Paul D decided to sea watch at Hope's Nose this morning.

Other notables during the watch listed above include the female Pintail that flew close west past me at 07:48, then went past Dan at Sidmouth at 08:05 (slow for a duck!), the Turnstone which is a decent November bird for the patch and it's always good to see a flock of Brents over the sea.  The Kittiwakes weren't coming through in close tight flocks like the sea watch last week, but dripping by in two's and three's mostly at distance. 

I keep expecting each of the last few sea watches to be the last one of the year. Can't help but feel the same considering the date today, but am really hoping it isn't...

Sunday 12 November 2023

Vis Mig and Wood Pigeon Count

We've had three really nice mornings during the last week that have seen a heavy passage of Wood Pigeons fly west.  I didn't have any time to stand and count on two of the days (5th & 11th - both great days) but on 6th I did...

I spent 07:30 - 08:30 at Cliff Field Gardens in Seaton, my chosen Patchwork Challenge patch vis mig spot.  It is dreadful to be honest, although higher in altitude than the town and beach, the site is still far lower than Axe Cliff to the east and Seaton Hole/Beer Head to the west.  There isn't a view inland, although the view of the bay is really nice, but worst of all it is just too noisy with the constant sound of crashing waves to the south and traffic noise along Beer Road to the north. 

The blue arrow is pointing at Cliff Field Gardens.  Including this spot for vis mig was the only reason for that narrow extension of my Patchwork Challenge patch west along the coast.

Last time I tried watching from here the passerines were mostly too high to hear/identify, however during this watch they were much lower, presumably due to the northerly wind.  The following went into my notebook during the hour:

17,400 Wood Pigeon, 330 Chaffinch (some lovely flocks of up to 30 birds), 130 Starling, 65 Jackdaw, 40+ Stock Dove, 30 Goldfinch, 25 Linnet, 12 Siskin, 3 Brambling, 1 Redpoll, 1 Redwing, 1 Reed Bunting, 1 Great Northern Diver and 1 small goose sp. in/off (presumably a Brent but always in bad light).

Hopefully the video gives you a flavour of the Wood Pigeon passage, with all the biggest flocks out over the sea...  

And now the moment you've all been waiting for... the result of my Count the Wood Pigeons post!

Despite almost 200 post views I have only had five guesses, so many thanks to those brave enough to offer their opinions!  The guesses ranged from 550 to 1500.  The average of all guesses comes in at 914, with the mid-point (middle point between highest and lowest guess) at 1,025.  This is pleasingly close to the figure that went into my notebook when I saw the flock in the field, a simple '1k'.  

Here is the (poor quality!) video again...

And here is that video in three stills.  I have counted from the front of the flock just as I would in the field, but probably missed a few birds between capturing frames...

Just under 500 in the first frame!

500 in the second frame!

And an odd 82 following on from the last few from the final block of 100 in the third frame.

So the answer is (give or take the odd one) 1,082!  Well done Nick Page for being the closest, matching my in-field estimation of 1,000.

Another storm is coming through in the morning, but I've probably only got time for a beach walk or two so hopefully that will reveal something.

Wednesday 8 November 2023

More Super Seaton Seawatching!

If you've come back looking for the answer to yesterday's 'count the Pigeon' post, you'll have to check back again sometime because this morning I had a thoroughly enjoyable hour long sea watch that I just have to blog about!

Yet another wet weather front arriving from the south west came sweeping through this morning, another fairly rapid one too as it was calm and clear when I went to bed last night and the wind had died right off again by 10am this morning.

I only had time for an hours sea watch, from 07:30, and for much of that the visibility was seriously hampered by rain and murk. However birds were always passing and it was really hard to pull myself away.  The following went in my notebook, all west:

174 Kittiwake, 16 Gannet, 13 Common Scoter, 6 Brent Geese (two three's), 2 Dunlin and singles of Pomarine Skua (juv at 08:15), skua sp. (sub-adult either Arctic or Pom at 08:00), auk sp. and small wader sp.

The first three Brents which quickly headed out

Two of the next three Brents which were a bit closer


The huge highlight, literally, was my fourth species of skua for the year!  I was feeling a bit deflated as the skua sp. that came through at 8am, a pale-phased sub-adult, passed during a period of heavy rain out in the murk, spending as much time behind the waves as it did over them so I just couldn't clinch it.  But at 08:15, closer in another skua came into view low over the waves, it then gained height to beat up a Kittiwake, before dropping back down low to the sea and continued flying west.  A lovely pale juvenile Pom Skua, really cold toned with a pale rump and head and striking double-white underwing flash.  For a split-second after I first spotted it my brain started at Bonxie before I zoomed in and saw the pale and realised it wasn't quite that big - never ever had that with an Arctic!  

The Kittiwakes were great value today.  We rarely get a decent passage off here, and when we do they are usually distant.  This morning they were coming through mostly mid-distance low to the sea, sometimes in really tight flocks but other flocks were more spread out - the biggest being of 32 birds.  Mostly adult birds with about 10% of the flocks being juvs.  Gave me hope for a Little or Sabine's to come through with them, but wasn't to be.

The small wader sp. was a bit annoying, as it could well have been a Grey Phalarope.  A bit like the skua sp. it came through during a period of heavy rain and I only glimpsed it on three brief occasions as it flew west low over the sea, but everything looked right for this species.  Never mind, one for another day maybe!?

A walk along the beach at lunchtime hoping for something left behind showed nothing in the surf, however a flock of 30 Common Scoter flew west just at the time I was looking out towards the horizon.