Sunday, 24 September 2023

Little Stint Up Close

Been a nice selection of wading birds about over the last week, including two each of Little Stint and Curlew Sandpiper, up to ten Ruff (with a couple still remaining), a Bar-tailed Godwit and the odd Greenshank and Green Sandpiper.  Still no American wader for me but I feel like it is close now.

In the meantime I hope you enjoy this Little Stint video (but I am sorry about the wobble mid way through!).  Don't forget to click on settings to improve the playback quality...



Wednesday, 20 September 2023

Great Shearwater - Patch First!

Wow it really has been a day of all the emotions when it came to birding... or lack of!

With neither species of large shearwater on my patch list, this summer/autumn I have put as much time in as possible during the right weather in an attempt to change that.  So far though no luck despite the record numbers in UK waters. Then came today, a day that I didn't have much time, and what happened today? The remanence of Hurricane Lee delivered big shears a-plenty deep into Lyme Bay, with double-figure Cory's count off Dawlish Warren, several of both species off Portland Bill and Budleigh (!?), as well as a Great Shearwater behaving like a Herring Gull off West Bay!  

This is where the frustration and exasperation came into play.  I was at work with all the news coming through and there was nothing I could do about it.  Ian M did watch Seaton Bay for a couple of hours first thing, but he missed out on big shears too although he did have a good count of Balearics.  So although I hadn't missed any that were actually seen here, it didn't help with my mood and I still felt like I was missing out.

Late this afternoon I managed to get out of work a bit early, so hot-footed it to The Spot On Kiosk where Ian and Phil were already in situ.  By this time the wind had dropped right down rounding off the top of the waves but it was still lumpy out there and there were still frequent rain showers passing through.  Over the sea though there were no birds, other than a few Gannets.  Things were looking bleak. 

Yet another heavy shower came through at about 5pm, encouraging Phil and Ian to head home for tea, which to be honest sounded like a good move.  However my lift was still over an hour away so I sat it out.

The rain stopped and within moments I picked up a Storm Petrel.  It was close too which was nice, although I kept losing it in the swell.  A few minutes after that (now 5:22pm) I was scanning further to the right to see if I could pick up the Stormie again, when the underside of a shearwater flashed up into my scope view from below, extremely close in. It dropped behind a wave and then emerged again to reveal itself as a pristine Great Shearwater!  A first for the Axe patch!

This is where sheer joy and jubilation came in, as well as utter shock, surprise, disbelief and the shakes! 

However I then completely fluffed up, as I spent about thirty seconds rummaging around in my rucksack for my camcorder, before remembering it wasn't even in there!  I grabbed a couple of 'barely' record shots with my phone camera, quickly messaged it out on WhatsApp and phoned Phil, before going back to my scope and enjoying it again.  

To my surprise, over what was now a fairly smooth (and otherwise completely bird-less) sea, it kept flying deeper into the bay - behaving nothing like any shearwater I have ever seen here!  It got about half way along the beach towards Seaton Hole, before it veered out south and headed for Beer Head.  Absolutely incredible views.  

As it got to Beer Head another rain shower came in and I lost it.

Yes that is a Great Shear! The Axe's first!

A few minutes later Ian and Phil returned... no sign.  I felt gutted for them both, and really disappointed, it honestly completely dampened the buzz I'd felt ten minutes earlier.

Ian and Phil left again, and I alerted birders further west along the coast in case the Great Shear had kept going.  I wasn't so sure though, I knew there was a chance the band of rain may have stopped it in its tracks.

About ten minutes later a second Storm Petrel flew west (a bit further out this one), and then at 6:12pm I saw the Great Shearwater again! Flying east and further out - but it was lingering!  My phone kicked into action again...

I then felt nervous and anxious, as the Great Shear would sporadically drop on the sea and disappear completely, or worse on occasions it would fly even further out...

But then I heard the sound of cars as Phil and Ian arrived (again!) and am so so pleased to say all was put right.  Complete and utter joy and relief plus the buzz from the bird returned! Kev, Tim and Tim made it down too, with the shearwater remaining in view until I left at 6:40pm.  I know Tim managed some proper photos of it, I will put a link to them when they are online. 

It is not often that a seabird can be twitched! Especially not a shearwater and not here!

Although I cannot of course be 100% sure, I am as good as that this was Gavin's earlier bird at West Bay as it just did not behave how a big shear should, especially not a Great!  This made it even more perfect for me, knowing it was enjoyed by him too.

An absolutely amazing experience, watching such an epic and rare bird casually gliding over the bay backwards and forwards for so long, not to mention the ultra close first flypast. Quite sureal really. No waves, no other birds, just us and it.  Incredible.

Patch birding really is the best.

Friday, 15 September 2023

A Good Wader Autumn

Black Hole Marsh has been terrific at pulling in wading birds this autumn.  Any spare time I've had in a morning or evening it's been hard to go anywhere but here!  Well why would you when the potential is so vast!?

I managed to miss our (hopefully) first American wading bird of the autumn, with a Pectoral Sandpiper found by Tim late afternoon on 10th.  It flew off a couple of hours later, which was a bit annoying as I managed the miss the equally brief bird Phil found 366 days before too!  

I did see the second best wading bird of the autumn though, with a juvenile Spotted Redshank here for a couple of days from 7th.  Unfairly scarce on the Axe now, especially considering the fact we used to have at least one wintering bird every year up until the early 2000's.  The only view I had of this bird was distant and well after sunset, hence this appalling record shot...

Still identifiable - just!

And now for some better footage!  This morning Black Hole Marsh held a juvenile Little Stint, two juvenile Curlew Sandpipers, five juvenile Ruff and a Green Sandpiper.  All of these species featuring in this little video clip...


Also in recent weeks we have had a couple of Knot, two different Bar-tailed Godwits, five or so Greenshank and up to 19 Ringed Plover.  Not bad at all!  Could do with more Dunlin though, numbers well down in general.

Non-wading bird highlights for me in the valley since my last post includes my first two Wigeon of the autumn on morning of 7th, a couple of fly-through Ospreys, up to 13 Cattle Egret seen daily and a lovely first-winter Yellow-legged Gull on the lower Estuary for several hours on 10th...

Phone-binned photo! Saw all the critical features including nice open wing views, but that body shape very typical of YLG.

Looking forward to what else September brings...

Friday, 25 August 2023

Icterine Warbler - First for the Patch!

Well I was quite content with my couple of hours of birding in my Patchwork Challenge patch this morning...  

I'd seen good numbers of warblers on Seaton Marshes, along with several Yellow Wagtails and three Kingfishers. And on Colyford Marsh, having missed three less than one-day birds this year, finally Marsh Harrier made it on to my Patchwork Challenge list...

Think this photo just about rules out Golden Eagle?

But then, just before 08:30, for the first time this year I had to abandon my Patchwork Challenge patch and twitch Beer Head as Kev had found a patch first - of one flavour or another...

Kev had stumbled upon a hippolais warbler, either an Icterine or Melodious, luckily for me who didn't have much time, in a large area of scrub not all the far from where we park.  Twenty minutes later I was there, but as I walked to join the trio of birders who had seen it, they reported they had last seen it fly out of the isolated scrub patch it was in and towards Beer Head Caravan Park.  I immediately felt like I was in a dipping scenario. 

I was wrong. A few Willow Warblers appeared right beside me, and soon after Clive turned up, out emerged a plain looking face - followed by a bloody Icterine Warbler!!! 

I say 'bloody' as this was NOT expected! Far rarer than Melodious down here, and we are on a stretch of coast that in late August during southerly winds you'd almost describe as optimum for this Mediterranean species - but we are yet to record one.

I had two clear and decent bin views of it, then for the third time it showed I fired up my camcorder.  At the end of this very short bit of film, it jumps out to the left of frame and very sadly was never seen again.  Here is the vid...

Note the tail-dipping, almost flycatcher-like behaviour and even the fact it is at the top of a tree! All good Icky behavioural traits.  

And here's a couple of stills from this video, quite pleased how they have come out...

Such a prominent almost solid pale wing panel

The yellow on this bird was restricted to its throat and face, with maybe a touch on its breast 

Tail down and head up

A tail-pump in action!


And now for a proper photo of it!  Taken by finder Kev, thanks for the great find Kev...

What a pic of a patch first! And of a warbler - better than any warbler photo I have EVER taken!

Kev's photos show so many of the good pro Icky ID pointers.  The steely blue legs, really long bill and pale wing panels can be shown by Melodious, although all three would be unusual I guess.  However those lovely pale edged/tipped greater coverts, tertials and primaries, as well as the long primary projection are solid Icky features.

Then there was how it looked and behaved in the field.  I have always found Melodious to be a bit Garden Warbler-like. Fat and lazy.  And rounded, with round heads and blunter more rounded wing tips.  Whereas, just like this bird, Icterines look a bit un warbler-like, almost Flycatchery, and just very pointy with long wing-tips and a long bill.  

Additionally, although I don't at all think this is proven it's just something I have found in the past, I find Melodious tend to show more of that 'open face look' that you expect from a hippo, whereas Ickys display darker ear coverts and sometimes a more noticeable supercillium, so giving slightly less of that 'open face' appearance.

So, that was that. Field birders happy with ID, others on local and county Whatsapp groups happy with ID (including a wonderful annotated copy of Kevs photo by Mike Langman). But then this comes out on BirdGuides...

Oh, really!?

This took me right back to the Beer Head Blyth's Reed Warbler that Kev also found back in 2020.

That was reidentified as a Marsh Warbler on BirdGuides whilst all onsite birders were well down the Blyth's Reed route...  It did then slow down its song during the afternoon so it is a good job a tiny winged dark brown acro appeared hoping around the bottom of the bush at the end of the day otherwise the doubt probably would have been the death of that record (the full tale can be read about on THIS blog post).

So, with some doubt added to the mix today, although many were well on the Icterine side of the fence, I knew I had to ask a man who has seen and handled a lot more Melodies and Ickys than me. I hope Martin Cade doesn't mind me copying some of the contents of his response on here...


"This is an Icterine: the secondary panel is way too white and conspicuous for a Melodious, the primary projection is long, the primaries are strongly tipped pale, the tertials are very clean-edged and dark centred, the greater coverts have decent pale edges and tips and, on the video, it dips its tail quite conspicuously. For me this all equals a certain Icterine.

I’m usually ultra-conservative but for me there’s no doubt about this one – wouldn’t it be funny if new evidence emerges that completely refutes all I’ve just written!!

Hope that’s useful and doesn’t put a cat amongst the pigeons if everyone’s decided it’s a Melodious".

As you can see from the last line, I did not include in my email what I thought it was or what the field views suggested.

Thank you again Kevin, just reward for your continued perseverance with this site. Am just sorry that more didn't connect with it - I consider myself extremely lucky to have arrived just in the nick of time.

Thursday, 24 August 2023


Well I wasn't expecting that!

Spent a lovely evening at Black Hole Marsh last night. And it started really well as a Wood Sandpiper was calling as I walked through the entrance gate, not that I could see it (and didn't for the rest of my visit!). 

From the Island Hide there were three lovely juvenile Ruff, two Greenshank, plenty of Black-tailed Godwits including a big increase in gingery juvs and a few Dunlin and Ringed Plover.  So lots and lots of birds.  But then, just before 8pm, something put everything up, although it was an odd flush with very little noise but a huge reaction. 

I soon saw why...

A juvenile Goshawk was chasing a Wood Pigeon low over the boundary of Black Hole Marsh and Colyford Common, before giving up, gaining some height and powering on off to the west. What an awesome sight.

A video grab

Such a distinctive shape - as ever when you see a Gos you know it is a Gos! If you are ever not sure then it isn't one!

And off it went...

What was almost as incredible as seeing the Gos, was seeing the effect it had on the birds on Black Hole Marsh!  

For the next twenty minutes after the Gos flew through, literally nothing moved.  Pretty much all the wading birds clumped together and formed a super-flock on the far side of the marsh, with the entire northern half of the marsh remaining bird-less, that was except for one of the juv Ruff which was literally cowering underneath a wooden bridge - I have never seen a bird look so petrified!  It took half an hour for the Black-headed Gull flock to return too.  Just amazing, I have never seen anything quite like it before, and I have seen all sorts of flushes here from White-tailed Eagle to White Stork and Common Crane

Sorry - there are no birds here anymore!

What an amazing way to end a day, quite possibly the best way...

Monday, 21 August 2023

Caspian Gull, Garganey, Curlew Sandpiper, et al.

As the title suggests it has been a good few days!  

We have been blessed with good wading bird numbers over the last week or so on the Axe, particularly on Black Hole and Colyford Marsh. An adult Little Stint that lingered for almost a week was probably the highlight, but there has also been two juvenile Ruff, two juvenile Knot, a juvenile Turnstone, up to six Greenshank, seven Avocet, double-figure counts of Dunlin and Ringed Plover, plus the odd Little Ringed Plover and Green Sandpiper.  Add to that the first returning Yellow Wagtails and Wheatears, as well as a couple of Ospreys passing through (which unlike everything else above I have missed) the birding has been excellent!  

And then came the Birdwatching Tram on Sunday evening (20th)...

Midway through the trip when we were by Tower Hide, a large gull on the Estuary caught my attention during a cursory scan of the modest-sized gull flock. It looked large, white-headed, white-fronted, and showed several moulted scapulars...

So a Yellow-legged/Caspian Gull... but something just didn't feel right for YLG 

When I am leading the birdwatch trams I don't carry my telescope, so with just bins I knew my camera was the key to getting any real detail on this bird.  So I started papping and spent less time looking, not what I would usually do but necessary considering the circumstances.

About two minutes later, and once I put the camera down - it flew!  Gleaming white underwings were obvious, so I scrambled for the camera again and managed to fluke a flight shot by just pointing it in the general direction it was flying!

Once back home a quick review of the pics showed promise for it being a Caspian Gull, so I sent the photos to Rich Bonser (who shared it with others) and all came back with 100% Casp! RESULT!

The flukey flight shot!  Shows very pale underwings and critically the perfect 'venetian blind' 
inner primary window

Note big grey moulted scaps, plain greater coverts and all black tertials

A very familiar shape, nice full chest, a bit of a 'saggy nappy' appearance and a relatively parallel bill with minimal goyns angle. Am just not used to seeing so much streaking on a Casp but that's because I have never seen one so young! 

Long tibia, and the makings of a neck shawl I would say... Lovely mousey brown juvenile feathers too, a really nice colour (as brown goes!)

This, if accepted, will be the 30th Caspian Gull for the Axe.  But for me it is one of my favourites as a juvenile has been high on my wanted list for years.  The (and my) previous earliest autumn date for an Axe Casp is 3rd Sept (although I didn't actually fully confirm it until late October - read HERE for all the details!) so this is the first August record.   Am absolutely chuffed to bits and a very educational bird for me.

And as if this lump of brown wasn't enough excitement for the 22 passengers onboard the birdwatching tram last night, about twenty minutes later I found them another lump of brown! A slightly stripey one...

An autumn Garganey - a real treat!

At first, like the 16+ Teal it was feeding with on the mud on Colyford Scrape, it was surprisingly elusive and hard to keep tabs on.  But by the time we left the scrape (about five minutes later) it had ventured closer and was the only duck on the water...

What a beaut and what a view!

Maybe an adult female?  Not too sharp on autumn Garganey ageing/sexing though, thoughts please?

What a fabulous double-whammy!

And today it got even better, as Clive found a Curlew Sandpiper on Black Hole Marsh.  I haven't seen a Curlew Sand on the Axe for many years, we just haven't had good numbers of them in the UK for several autumns now.  

When I saw it it remained distant on the far side of the marsh, so please excuse this awful phone-scoped record shot...

Always knee-deep in water! This shot shows the bill shape really well if nothing else.

Am looking forward to seeing what else August 2023 brings us!  Hopefully a proper rare wader is on the cards...

Saturday, 19 August 2023

Seawatching Seaton Style!

Following the absolutely epic day of seawatching in Cornwall in early August, I knew I had to return to normal birding expectations as soon as possible.  And what better way to do that than instead of pointing my scope on the Runnel Stone off PG - pointing it at the horizon from Seaton Beach!  

Still, this hasn't been without highlights, and we have had some pretty wild weather at times. In date order...


4th August

It wasn't actually seawatching weather at all, with a flat sea thanks to a gentle north west wind.  I was there to scope behind any distant boats incase a Storm Petrel or two might be visible.  There weren't, but my searching was interupted by bird-shapes flying through my scope view far more often than I was expecting - including my first Balearic Shearwaters for Patchwork Challenge! 

19:20 - 20:20 from Spot On Kiosk produced: 3 Balearic Shearwater (1 w with a Manx at 19:52 and 2 w together at 20:10), 58 Manx Shearwater (4 w, 54 e), 11 Sandwich Tern, 1 Mediterranean Gull and 1 Ringed Plover.


5th August

This was a proper rough day, with lots of rain, gusting south westerly winds and big big waves!  I was keen, really keen, watched from Fisherman's Gap 05:20 - 09:50 and saw (west unless stated): 6 Arctic Skua (an awesome group of 5 and a single e), 1 Skua sp. (e), 54 Common Scoter, 41 Kittiwake, 15 Manx Shearwater, 2 Sandwich Tern, 3 Mediterranean Gull and 1 Yellow-leged Gull (juv).

Love Seaton Beach when it looks like this!


So not a dreadful haul, infact those Skuas were really nice to see, but considering Dan just along the coast at Sidmouth had 18 Storm Petrels, with a Sooty Shearwater seen just west of him, and a Pom Skua seen flying my way 13 miles east of me - I was really disappointed with the lack of quality.  

12th August

Conditions not all the appalling but a south westerly breeze and some overcast skies were enough to have me watching from Spot On Kiosk 07:10 - 08:40 showing (west unless stated): 1 Balearic Shearwater (07:40 and fairly close), 90+ Gannet, 12 Kittiwake, 6 Manx Shearwater, 1 Sandwich Tern and 1 Mediterranean Gull.

Had another look in the evening 19:05 - 19:50: 6 Balearic Shearwater (two 3's), 17 Manx Shearwater and 24+ Shearwater sp.  All distant and all west.


14th August

Another wet and wild morning so I watched from Fisherman's Gap.  The entrance to the public toilets isn't the most pleasant place to stand early on a Saturday morning, but the cover is much appreciated especially during the wet bits!  

06:00 - 09:40 produced (west unless stated): 1 Storm Petrel (finally! Came through at 09:05 nice and close which meant all my scanning on 60x zoom was futile!), 1 Balearic Shearwater (09:25), 5 Arctic Skua (a single and two 2's within a fourty minute period - lovely prolonged views), 110+ Gannet, 46 Kittiwake, 42 Common Scoter, 11 Shelduck (one flock), 6 auk sp., 5 Sandwich Tern, 3 Mediterranean Gull, 2 Whimbrel (1 e, 1 out) and 1 Turnstone (flew out, possibly flushed off the beach).

I have done more birding than just seawatching, but I will leave that for another post.  But there is one more thing I'd like to add to this post, and please take this as your reward for reading all of the relatively mundane sightings above...

Back to my Cornwall seawatching post, and in particular that Fea's-type Petrel that I was really fortunate to get on as it quickly flew west past Porthgwarra.  Well next to us in the front row of seawatchers were the supreme duo of Ryan Irvine (who was expectionally helpful to all present, loudly announcing directions) and Mike McKee.  Mike has a brilliant video recorder setup on his telescope, and he filmed the Fea's for exactly the period of time I was watching it.  Well I picked it up at the same time but I did see it for an extra couple of seconds as it chased a Manx Shearwater before going out of view to the right (I was sat a little further left than Mike).  His clips shows that I watched it for about a minute, which oddly felt more like twenty seconds at the time...

What a brilliant reminder of this nugget of seawatching gold, and I love how the video captures how frantic the situation was with many struggling to get on it. That is mostly Ryan you can hear trying to help all.

And back again to reality! As always, thanks for reading...