Tuesday, 29 June 2021

River Warbler Twitch

Well this spell of bloggers-block had to come to an end eventually.  I ceased blogging before the end of spring and we are now only a couple of days from July!

I still have some of spring 2021 to relive, but to ease me back in gently I have a tale to tell of a rare Axe Birding twitch...

A River Warbler made itself at home at Ham Wall on the Somerset Levels from early June. Being a species I hadn't seen before, as well as the fact it was clearly performing very well in an area that is always teaming with wildlife, I was keen. Unusually keen.

In a strange twist of fate, less than an hour after my planned twitch to Ham Wall fell through, out of nowhere Jess suggested we spent my next day off at Clarke's shopping village, near Glastonbury.  And get this, she even suggested a walk on the Levels afterwards! That was without me saying a thing about it - how fine tuned are we!  I was only too happy to agree with her proposal...

So mid afternoon on 11th June, Mr, Mrs and Master Axe Birder could be seen wandering along the path at Ham Wall, with Mr Axe Birder being completely blown away by the bird-life!  And I don't just mean the pin-up species like Marsh Harriers, Great White Egrets, Cuckoos, Hobbies, etc. Being quite a strict patch birder, even the likes of Pochard and Gadwall were a treat to see.  

Pochard and Tufted Duck in the same photo! The stuff of Axe dreams.

It is just so amazing at how 'common' Great White Egrets have become on the Levels. I literally got bored counting them.  What a success, a simple 'create the habitat and the birds will come' story.

A nice male Marsh Harrier, saw at least three of these and a couple of females

And then came the star bird.  What a star.  Singing the whole time we were within ear shot, even still going as we walked back towards the car on the opposite bank.  An amazing sound, but it was the fact it just sat out in full view that really blew me away, not a view you'd expect from any locustella warbler...

A habitat shot, always seemed to perch on more substantial bits of scrub within the young reedbed it favoured

Singing its heart out

Those undertail coverts and rounded tail tip are such a distinctive locustella feature, as is that streaked breast. It looked quite a stocky bird too, although it's not always easy to judge size on a lone dark bird in a rather feature-less landscape.

I must be honest though, I did go away feeling incredibly sorry for it.  A lone male warbler singing as much as this bird is clearly desperate to find a mate. He sang daily, practically all day long (and probably well into the night) for over two weeks. Poor fella. On the last day or two he was reported to be looking the worse for wear, but hopefully his eventual departure was down to realising he had no chance and not because he had fatally overdone it. If he is still going next summer, fingers crossed he chooses somewhere with other River Warblers!

Something I did keep thinking was just how amazing it was this lone small (and usually secretive) warbler chose to set up territory right alongside this footpath, when it could have chosen anywhere else on the vast expanse of the Somerset Levels. And anyone who knows the Levels will know just how much of that expanse is well away from any public areas.  Very fortunate indeed, and I know this stroke of luck made many birders very happy over the course of its stay.

Oh, and as for the shopping trip? Well that wasn't all that bad either...

Home from home

Wednesday, 12 May 2021

Some more Seawatching

A quick update post as I have managed a few sea watches since my last blog post.  With some success too which is nice :)

On Monday morning I spent 06:05 - 08:30 at the Spot On, joined by Phil for some of it.  It was a bit gripping to hear multiple points in Dorset had recorded a couple of Pom Skuas, but in all honesty I was more than happy with my haul:

14 Great Northern Diver, 1 Red-throated Diver, 7 Manx Shearwater, 13 Common Scoter, 42 Kittiwake, 1 Great Skua, 3 Sanderling and 100+ auk sp.

All of that lot flew west, except the Kitiwakes that were passing east.  The Great Northern Divers were fantastic to see, some really close (including two almost over the beach!) with others being complete dots (well dots with long necks and big feet!).  The Great Skua powered through really quickly at 06:35, and reached Sidmouth 17 minutes later where Dan was watching.  

Two of the Great Northerns powering through

Flock of Scoter flying west

I tried a sea watch on Tuesday evening with little success, just a couple of Manxies passed, but I tried again this morning from 05:30am.  The weather was not really suited for sea watching off here, a gentle south westerly wind with lots of blue skies! However there were some birds...

There's clearly some good feeding conditions out there at the moment, with Kittiwakes and Gannets on every scan.  I was hoping these birds would attract something better, well they didn't, as the 'something better' flew right on by without stopping!  

The time was 05:55, and that was exactly the moment I went from not seeing a Pom Skua this spring, to seeing one!  I picked up the distant but distinctive shape of a skua, quite a way above the horizon, flying steadily east.  A quick zoom-in revealed it was a pale-phased bird.  I was already pretty sure it was a Pom on structure and flight-style, but I had to wait 'til it reached the 12 o'clock point before seeing the whacking great spoon sticking out its backside (although only viewable with the scope set on 40x plus zoom)!  So with the ID sorted, I just enjoyed watching it very steadily make its way east. A true unit of a bird, and clearly on a mission to migrate!

There is no such thing a bad a Pom. But I will admit, the distance of this bird did dampen the excitement a little.  Still, a spring including a Pom Skua will forever be better than a spring lacking any Pom action!

Only other notable birds this morning during the sea watch were 11 Whimbrel, 4 Common Scoter and a couple of Manxies.  I remained in place until 7am before throwing in the towel.

I added Common Tern to the year list on Tuesday morning - whilst on the phone in my office!  I happened to be looking out the window when one flew low south down the river towards the sea, thankfully I managed to grab my binoculars in time to get a look at it to rule out an Arctic.  The only other species worthy of note that I have been seeing outside my office lately is Whimbrel, with two or three feeding daily on the lower Estuary at low tide...

One with lunch!

I'll sign this post off with a pic I forgot to attach to my last post.  This is the Spotted Fly I saw at Beer Head, which was not far from where the Wood Warbler I was twitching was supposed to be! 

Quite like the atmosphere of this shot, despite the fact the bird plays such a small part in the overall image

Goodnight all!

Sunday, 9 May 2021

Back with a Bang... Well, two Cuckoos and a Bonxie!

Have spent most of the last week living out of a large static caravan in north Cornwall with the family, which was really lovely.  We wanted to grab a break away before the rest of the UK descended upon the south west, think it will prove a wise move. Certainly did price-wise when you compare to post-17th May!

Thankfully I didn't miss much on patch whilst I was gone, and then Saturday, the first day I was back, turned out to be one of our best days on the patch so far this spring. Timed that well!

I must start with Cuckoos... yes, plural!  A spring Cuckoo here is a true rarity, I have only ever managed two in my 17+ years of birding the Axe patch, so to boast two on the same day is pretty remarkable.  Yesterday morning a Beer resident reported hearing one just after 7am, and thankfully at 9am when I had made it over to the village it was still calling!  Then during the afternoon during a check of the Estuary, one was belting it out from the hill above Axmouth.  I saw neither, but I can live with that - it's all about the sound and what a special sound it is.

Further evidence that yesterday was a good arrival day for incoming spring migrants, despite the grim weather, was provided when Clive came across a group of five Whinchat on Seaton Marshes.  I enjoyed good views of all five a short while later, feeding with a single Wheatear.  They were finding shelter from the blustering south west wind thanks to a line of low bramble bushes, and would often perch up on the lowest wire of the fence to help keep themselves out of the worst of the weather.  A really nice sight, and great to share with Dad.

It was a good day for hirundines too, with large numbers of Swallows arriving in-off throughout the day, particularly this afternoon. Always a thrill to watch them arriving over the sea despite the blatantly grim travelling conditions.  And whilst on the subject of the sea this is how I got on looking at it...

The morning seawatch was dire.  Despite decent numbers of waders passing both to the east and west of us, I couldn't do better than two Dunlin in-off!  I gave it an hour but really don't know why I did.

A second attempt later in the day, 17:00 - 18:15, was far more rewarding, and it was great to be joined by Richard for some of it.  Highlight was  my first skua of the year, a menacing Bonxie that I picked up virtually on my first scan, but it remained in view for nine minutes as it slowly made its way west. Wonderful to see.  The full totals for this watch were (all west):

5 Common Scoter, 24 Manx Shearwater, 1 Great Skua, 3 Kittiwake, 10 Whimbrel, 2 Sanderling (flew west with 2 Dunlin) and 38 Dunlin (one flock of 30).

On the Estuary wader-wise I saw 16 Whimbrel, 14 Dunlin and 4 Ringed Plover. Sadly missed the Turnstone seen briefly mid afternoon though.  Although most the Whimbrel remained distant, this one ventured a little closer...

A noticeable increase in gulls included a high proportion of Lesser Black-backed Gulls, one of which gave me a right fright when I first sighted it on Bridge Marsh.  The combination of a very pale head, sloping forehead and narrow bill gave it a real Caspian feel... 

See what I mean!

However upperparts clearly not right, neither was wing pattern or moult.  And after it had moved around a little it's tiny size soon became apparent...

First-winter Lesser Black-backed Gull it is.

Had another Caspian-fright a short while later, with a really large, clean and smooth-looking 2cy gull distantly viewable from Axmouth.  Never got closer to it, but prolonged views suggested it was actually a really smart young Yellow-legged Gull, one of the cleanest I've ever seen.  But then again, I don't think I have ever seen a 2cy YLG this late in the spring...  

Looking left over its shoulder- giving off Casp vibes here

A better profile shot although a bit blurry. A really hefty bird.

I tied everything to turn it into a Caspian but really couldn't.  If anyone has any comments or thoughts do let me know.

Today has been equally exciting, although more for land birds than waders and seabirds.  I have missed almost all of it due to work, and sadly didn't see the Wood Warbler Kev found on Beer Head late morning, but an hour here from 17:30 showed my first Spotted Flycatcher of the year, along with several Willow Warblers and Whitethroats.

It's turning out to be a late spring this one - and hopefully there's a bit more in it yet!

Saturday, 1 May 2021

False Hope

Yesterday morning's trudge around Axe Cliff brought back a nice memory from the dim and distant past...

It was mid to late autumn 2004 and I was stood chatting to a bunch of birders much better than me at the Warren, Spurn. This was back when the Warren was the location of the Spurn Bird Observatory.  Three chat-shaped dots perched up on a fence way off to the north, on the edge of Clubley's, and they were just that, dots.  But within seconds the mighty Mr Hutt casually remarked "Whinchat with those two Stonechats over there"...

First of all I had to check he was looking at the same three dots as me, he was, so then had to get my telescope (note he didn't have his either!) out of my room to confirm what seemed like a remarkable feat of birding wizardry.  Of course he was right... he always was!  A great learning experience for me, just like the rest of my time at Spurn.  

Anyway, yesterday morning I got out of my car at Axe Cliff, and for some reason decided to walk up the road instead of out towards the golf course.  Only a few steps in and whilst looking ahead at the numerous Yellowhammers and Whitethroats flitting along the hedges and perching up on telephone wires, there sat a shape, completely back lit on the most distant bit of hedge I could see.  Without even a moments thought, I internally congratulated myself at finding my first Whinchat of 2021...

So distinctive!

It did allow for some slightly better pics, but sadly didn't hang around for others to see.  I knew the next car along the lane would flush it.

Didn't see one during spring 2020 so much appreciated!

Just wish that branch wasn't there!

But why the title of the post?  Well as I said, this Whinchat was within practically the first minute of my visit to Axe Cliff.  A quality migrant so soon must mean there's been a fairly decent arrival, so I took a much longer route around the site than usual...  One Willow Warbler was the only other grounded migrant noted in the 1.5 hours I was there!  I did see eight male Common Whitethroats but they were all clearly on territory.

The evening before I saw my first two Swifts of the year over Black Hole Marsh, always an uplifting sight.  There's been a really good arrival of hirundines over the last few days too, lots more House Martins about in particular which is good to see.

I really cannot believe we are already in May! Really hope for some decent sea watching in the next few days, Monday maybe?  I'll be there watching that's for sure.

Thursday, 22 April 2021

Spring Progress

The persistent cold north/north easterly winds recently have really slowed down spring migration this year, but understandably so. We've had more night time frosts in April than we have had throughout the whole of the winter!

It's always hard to truly gauge the progress of a spring nationally by the number of passage migrants seen on a coastal patch, simply because there are just so many variables that determine how many migrants are grounded.  But I can see that many local breeding summer migrant species are present in much lower numbers than you'd expect by now, like Whitethroats, Reed Warblers, Sedge Warblers and Swallows. I've not seen/heard one Lesser Whitethroat yet, and Reed Warblers arrived a whole ten days later than last year into the narrow strip of reeds up to the Tower Hide on Black Hole Marsh!  A very strange spring really.

Most mornings during the last few weeks have looked exactly how Axe Cliff looked a couple of days ago...

Clear skies, frost on the ground, and although you can't tell in this pic... a bloody cold wind!

Seeing as the above photo is from 20th, I'll start with what birds I saw during that wander...three firsts of the year in fact! A cracking male Redstart, an invisible but much appreciated reeling Grasshopper Warbler and a couple of Common Whitethroats.  Also noted were three Wheatear and a Willow Warbler, as well as good numbers of the usual residents like Skylarks, Linnets and Yellowhammers

One day one of these will be a Cirl Bunting!

I went back up to Axe Cliff today, much quieter for migrants with just one Wheatear and one Willow Warbler. Four Common Whitethroats on territory now though (still well short of usual numbers).

The Wheatears are getting bigger and more upright by the day!  Suggesting more northern breeders

The distant blob of a Whitethroat on the edge of the cliff

Same bird with a sea blue backdrop. Interestingly this was a male bird as it was singing, but looked very plain and female-like.

Other notable passerine migrants I have seen since my last blog post include my first Yellow Wagtail of the year low north over Sheep's Marsh on 15th, and a cracking male White Wagtail on Bridge Marsh on 17th.  

Our first Bar-tailed Godwit of the year appeared on the Axe on 19th, with thousands seen migrating along the English Channel in the days since.  Always a delight to see in spring, even if this male still has some way to go before he is full on brick red...

One of my favourite waders

A lone Barnacle Goose has joined our Canada Goose flock in recent days, probably not all that wild but it's always good to see something different.  Sorry for my dreadful photo, taken at extreme distance and after sunset on the 21st...

They really are tiny

And to finish off this post, I am delighted to say the Glaucous Gull is still around, and this morning I enjoyed some excellent views of it as it bathed on the lower Axe Estuary.  So I will sign off tonight in the best possible way, with a flurry of Glauc pics...

Friday, 9 April 2021

A Gaudy Glauc

One of the many exciting things about this time of year is the overlap of the seasons.  

I went out this evening hoping to stumble upon possibly a Redstart, or any other exciting summer migrant, but instead a message from Phil soon saw me watching a staggeringly white and large first-winter Glaucous Gull on Sheep's Marsh...

Can't get much whiter than that!

Wasn't too sure of it's age at first, with a pink tip to the bill, and although it didn't show a truly pale iris you could see it was paler than the bird's pupil.  Thoughts of second-winter were at the forefront of my mind whilst watching it, although now am thinking that big wedge of black on the bill would support this being a faded first-winter bird.  And back to the eye, all the second-winter white-winged gulls I have seen in the past have showed clearly pale iris's, not subtly pale ones like this bird.

A big chunky bird!

Extent of pale bill tip visible here - only just the tip

I couldn't help but take a video as well, spring white-wingers don't usually linger like this on the Axe so wanted to make the most of it...

Late March/April is by a mile our most prolific time of year for white-winged gulls on the Axe, and it's been a fantastic late winter/spring for gulls in general on patch.  Glauc is the rarer of the two species though so it's great to get one under the belt.  I'd be very surprised if we don't get an Iceland at some point too - we've all been expecting one!

Other sightings from the past few days include a female Goosander on the Estuary on the evening of 7th, and a splattering of ten singing Willow Warblers around Black Hole and Seaton Marshes on the morning of the 6th.  I was pleased to see my first Osprey of the year over the upper Axe Estuary on the morning of 31st March, which I later learnt had been seen by Kev over Beer ten minutes earlier.

This is turning out to be one productive spring!

Friday, 2 April 2021

Stand Aside March, Hello April!

A raw north east wind encouraged me to start the day at Seaton Beach, there had been a few records of seafaring Garganey along the south coast the previous day so I was hoping to cash in.  It wasn't to be but three much larger ducks ensured it was well worthwhile.

I was just a few minutes in (07:10) when I first picked up three hefty ducks skirting the hazy horizon way off to the west, flying east.  Well they never really came closer just became less hazy as they passed straight out, and two of the dots were easily identifiable thanks to the super distinctive plumage of drake Eiders!  Result.  And seeing as the all dark duck between the two white knights was identical in size, shape and flight pattern - well that will be a female! Nice.

Not a common bird at all here, well scarce bordering on rare in fact, although there does seem to be a few more around the south west coast this spring so there's every chance we may see some more.  Seeing as they are a bit of a patch rare, my desire to obtain some sort of evidence became overwhelming as they powered through east. I stuck my phone on the end of my scope and pressed record. I use the word 'evidence' in the loosest possible sense...

The actual video is a bit better, as you can see they are indeed ducks and not Gannets!

Portland saw a nice bit of Eider passage this morning, three different flocks in fact.  And thanks to Keith Pritchard I was able to glean that a flock of three, compromising two drakes and a female, flew east past the Bill at 08:19.   Well if you compare Keith's tweeted photo below of the trio, with my shot above, well clearly they are the same individuals, the resemblance is uncanny...

Keith's camera time is set to GMT in case anyone is confused

Joking aside, Eiders are scarce enough down here that I'm happy to bet on the fact both sightings do indeed relate to the same flock. Seabird tracking is great fun, it's always a delight to hear when birds have been clocked from other points along the coast.  

Although Keith is clearly a far more competent photographer than I am, comparing the above two photos of the same flock of birds perfectly highlights the challenges of sea watching off here (a bay, deep in the bowels of a massive bay) vs sea watching at somewhere like Portland!  The mind boggles at just how many rarities and scarcities we miss/overlook because they pass us at 'beyond-identifiable range'. Frustrating.  

The rest of the sea watch was a bit of an anti-climax really, although a trickle of Sand Martins and Swallows flying north east, and a group of three Sandwich Terns through east were just enough to keep me awake.

Then followed a flying visit around the river valley which was actually fairly productive.  The cold north easterly was clearly grounding new arrivals making for some pretty exciting birding. Just how I like it :-)

Seaton Marshes housed a couple of Willow Warblers, too busy feeding to sing, and too busy feeding for my focus to latch on to...

That's the wrong willow!

Black Hole Marsh showed two Little Ringed Plovers and a Dunlin, which also didn't want to be photographed as after one click of the shutter, they took off...

They came back later 

Bridge Marsh showed a Wheatear, and among c90 Sand Martins my first four House Martins of the year.  And then came my highlight of the morning, yes even more of a highlight that the Eiders...

I noticed the gulls take flight right down the far end of the Estuary (I was still at Bridge Marsh), then up went the gulls at the top of the Estuary, and shortly after out of the mass of wings emerged a stunning adult male Marsh HarrierMarsh Harriers are now annual here and pleasingly appear to be on the up, in fact last winter we had our first ever overwintering bird, present from autumn 2020 through to mid January.  Most records though relate to 'cream-crowns' with adult males remaining few and far between. I think this was only the third full male I've ever seen here. It was stunning, and so so sleek.  It didn't hang around sadly, and within minutes gained height with Crows in hot pursuit before leaving high to the north east.

In line with all other photos in this post (except for Keith's) I only managed a really ropey record shot...

(it's the upper bird!)

Not at all bad for a pre-breakfast foray!