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Thursday, 2 April 2020

Lockdown List Update

Well today it finally felt a bit warmer didn't it, much more spring-like. The day was tarred for me however because somehow I managed to not see an Osprey, despite the fact at least five were seen this morning between the Exe and Charmouth. This included one that flew north over the west side of Seaton at 9am, whilst I was looking over the east side! Am surprised the gulls didn't react where I was but they didn't.

Wasn't all bad though, because finally I managed to get Cattle Egret on the lockdown house list! Every evening I have been checking the egrets flying down the valley at dusk, and haven't lucked in, but mid morning today suddenly there was one in flight almost above my garden, before landing in a nearby sheep field out of view...

Amazed it has taken me nine days to see one of these from the house, seeing as though two or three have been in the valley the whole time.


Also today Ringed Plover was a nice addition, with one in flight with a large Black-tailed Godwit this morning, along with a single Siskin east over mid afternoon.  The lack of Osprey wasn't the only annoyance today, as a Ruff was feeding this evening on mud underneath the airspace I can see, and I had a probable Little Ringed Plover fly in early afternoon, but at distance and non-calling.

Yesterday I managed just one lockdown tick, a last gasp Redwing over the house looking for somewhere to roost, just after dusk.

The day before (so Tuesday - not that I really know what day it is at the moment... mind you does anyone!?) I managed a few more ticks.  A Barn Owl decided to be vocal for a few minutes after dark, and I finally added Teal thanks to several calling also after dark. Another night time tick came at the other end of the day (just after midnight) when at least one of the local Tawny Owls actually decided to call.  Am sure many lockdown listers have noticed just how quiet Tawnies are at this time of year, as the females are egg laying.  My fourth tick on Tuesday was actually during daylight hours, with two Pied Wagtails north over the garden.

On Sunday a Moorhen was the only tick for me, again a heard only after dark. With a Great Spotted Woodpecker drumming on Saturday the one tick for that day - although I have heard him drumming most days since.

...and that brings everything up to date. As I sign off tonight my lockdown list is on 62.


Saturday, 28 March 2020

Lockdown Listing Day Five

Finished the day on a bit of a bum note really, as am pretty sure I let a Cattle Egret through the net.  We have at least one in the Axe Valley at the moment, but it's not flown past whilst I've been looking and I think it's spending most the daylight hours north of us. At about 18:50 I got on to a flock of eight or so egrets ten seconds too late, just as they disappeared behind a house. On size, one right in the middle of the flock was probably the Cattle, but just not enough to confirm. 

The day started off much better, with a phone call from Phil who kindly thought of me when three Med Gulls were flying around over Tower Hide with a small flock of Black-heads.  I rushed out and despite the absolute appalling light, they were easy enough to pick out with my bins...

Awful light but an easy little flock to study

I was actually really impressed considering the conditions that the P900 was able to pick all three out...

Here's two two of them leading the flock - you can see the pale wing tips.

The third - the sun shining through the wing tips helping ID this one, but I think I can make out some slight dark tips making it a second-summer.


You'll be surprised to hear that the Black-headed Gulls were also a new one for the list, their numbers have dropped right off on the Axe over the last couple of weeks (as usual for late March). So that's 51!

52 was a nice surprise, as it was an all-time garden first!  Wheatear.  Yes, over the years I probably could have seen plenty if I'd scanned the distant fields and salt marsh for long enough during spring and autumn - I've just simply never bothered. Today I did, and for ten minutes late morning I watched one feeding in the corner of Norcombe's field. Delightful. But it's a good job they're pale and stand upright - a pipit or such like I would never have seen considering the distance.

Hopefully tomorrow's post will be titled 'Cattle Egret'...

Friday, 27 March 2020

Lockdown Listing

Well what strange times we are in.  Just as the birding calendar starts to look interesting we all have to stay in!  Quite rightly too though I must add.  

I will start by saying how lucky I feel in the midst of all this anxiety and unknown, for three main reasons; 

1/ I still have a job.
2/ I haven't been told I need to completely self-isolate for three months.
3/ I live where I live.  A four minute walk from Seaton Wetlands (perfect for daily exercise) and we have a nice view from the house.

Speaking of the house... Like many birders up and down the land I am pumped full of pre-spring anticipation, it's been gradually building since early February. Instead of letting it all go to waste I am going to re-direct it. And that's where 'Lockdown Listing' comes in!  We can't really leave our homes so let's see what we can see from them.  So for as long as this goes on my new patch is my house.

I live in Primrose Way, Seaton, which is right at the top of town.  We are basically the last line of houses before town becomes fields, where this red dot is...

Basically in grey, but surrounded by green


When Jess and I were looking to move to Primrose Way, we had the choice of two houses.  The first was finished to a much higher spec and had a slightly larger garden, but the view was nothing - surrounded by tall trees and other houses.  Then there was the second house, not quite as well finished, but when I saw the view from the bedroom window I knew it was the one...

Looking east

What you can see there is the large hill above Axmouth.  In front of that and behind those houses is the upper most section of the Axe Estuary, Axe Reedbeds and Black Hole Marsh.  Frustratingly due to trees and houses, you can't see any mud on the Estuary or the Marshes, but it's tantalising close because in the gap between the white and red brick house above you can see tram track...

That patch of green in the foreground is a small section of Seaton Cemetery (through which is the Black Hole carpark)

So nearly mud!

At high tide I can see water, especially during floods as all that salt marsh behind becomes submerged, but nothing at all is visible at low tide.  So to see a bird from the house that happens to be on the tiny section of Estuary in line with my house, or on Black Hole Marsh, it needs to be all of the following;

1/ Flying.
2/ When I'm watching.
3/ Not flying too rapidly or far as it would quickly go out of view, and
4/ Be a fairly large and easily identifiable species, as we are talking about a distance of almost half a mile!

Luckily for me water birds are often noisy, especially at night when sound travels far.  Many species have been added to the house list thanks to their night time calling - a handy tactic to add some of the harder to ID at distance in flight species!

With such an open view to the east, there's a lot of sky so it's an excellent raptor view point, especially as the Axe valley seems to act as a funnel.  The view out to the west is pretty sky-rich too...

So much sky! Plus there's a Rookery in those tall conifers in the distance.

Also looking out the west side of the house, from my house you can see two small green spaces bordered by large trees (one of them is viewable in the pic above). This is where I've found four Yellow-browed Warblers over the years. 

Looking back out the east side of the house, if you turn to the north you see this...

Not just the communal parking spot

The fields behind are a bit of an eco-dessert for most of the year, although in late summer/autumn after they are rolled they become inviting for wagtails, pipits, larks, thrushes - and I can't help but slip in I've had Cattle Egret and Glossy Ibis on them!  The trees in the foreground however are often very lively, as they seem to form a much used corridor for passing birds. I know I am going to get something really good in them one day - Firecrest and Lesser Whitethroat the best so far.

So this ladies and gentleman is where I will be doing pretty much all my spring birding from in 2020. And Lockdown Listing is already four days in...

I haven't actually been able to give it much time over these four days as I've been working most of them, albeit in the conservatory with the double-doors wide open!  Have still had some nice highlights though, and here's a day by day account thus far;

Day One. (Tuesday). A cream-crown Marsh Harrier circling low over the river valley at 10:45 easily the highlight. A good local record on any level so a really great start! Also Peregrine, displaying Sparrowhawks and Kestrels over the house, and absolutely stacks of Buzzards - surprised to have not picked up a Red Kite. A lone Sand Martin flew north just before dusk.

Day Two. Still no Red Kite but again plenty of raptors up. A Greenshank calling mid afternoon from Black Hole was a nice a bonus as there's only a couple around at the moment. I gave the evening gull movement some time, which gave me Great, Lesser Black-backed and Common Gulls.

Day Three. Finally Red Kites - four of them! One flew low and lazily up the Estuary at 12:35, another single flew high south west at 13:25 circling as it went, and finally two flew low north together at 17:00.  Good to see a large flock of Black-tailed Godwits flying around in the evening.

The second of the four

Day Four. I filled a few holes in the list today, namely Jackdaw which has been strangely hard to get!  Also Linnet over today, and finally saw some Redshank in flight.  Still haven't seen/heard a Teal yet, even though I know there's at least twenty on Black Hole Marsh at the moment!

So I end day four on 49 species.  It's good fun and some nice light relief during such troubling times - plus it's not like we haven't all got lots of time at home ahead of us! Give it a go yourself and I hope you enjoy my future reports....there will be many!

Stay safe everyone.

Tuesday, 17 March 2020

Firecrest and... It's Spring!

Felt sorry for this lovely Firecrest today, found by one of my team on the ground near a tram parked up outside Seaton Station.  She took this snap on her phone, but when she subsequently went to pick it up it flew off strongly into nearby bushes.



Am pleased to report that about an hour and a half later I was watching it busily feeding in bushes alongside the track a little way north of the Station (at the back of Tesco). I've not seen one in the centre of town before!

I managed a whilst-at-work Wheatear yesterday too, on a day there had been a significant influx of this species on the south coast.  I could only spy one on Sheep's/Seaton Marshes, but he was much appreciated.  I saw/heard four Chiffchaffs yesterday too.  Spring has clearly stepped up a notch within the last couple of days, with Dad seeing a few Sand Martins and a Swallow at Black Hole Marsh mid morning today as well.

Am leading a bird watching tram this Saturday. Hopefully... More migrants please!


Friday, 21 February 2020

Seaton Hole Gull Roost

Came back from a family day out today (more on that later) at about 4:30pm, and headed straight to the river for a last gasp look at the gulls.  The tide was high however and as a result numbers weren't great, so I nipped to Seaton Hole. Well I say 'nipped' but I actually ended up spending almost an hour there!

This was my first dusk visit to Seaton Hole this winter, and the gull roost was really impressive.  Numbers were constantly building right up to dusk, and the main small gull flock was pretty close in (probably due to the south west wind).

A small part of the flock


Although there were few large gulls (most seemed to head around the corner to Beer), among the small gulls were 680+ Common Gull and by the end of my stint 56 Med Gulls.  There's at least seven just in this shot...



I thought this was a good scenario to test the capabilities of the P900 out, as I was wondering if I did manage to pick something subtle out like a Bonaparte's or Ring-billed Gull, what kind of quality image would I be able to get?

This is a no zoom shot...



This is with about 25x optical zoom (with a single gull circled)...



And this is at about 95x zoom (so using full optical zoom of 83x with some digital zoom as well)...



Yes that's the Med Gull that's circled in the above pic, which is also in theory in the shot above that.  So to answer my own question, yes, I would be able to get a more than identifiable pic if there was a Ross's Gull sat out there with the Black-heads!  Seriously impressive kit. Especially when you consider the poor light conditions as well as the lumpy sea.

Rewinding a few hours, we'd enjoyed a lovely day on Dartmoor and at Stover CP.  As ever it was a lovely walk around the lake, and good to see Mandarin have really made themselves at home here.  A couple of years ago they'd often be around, but hidden away in quiet corners, but today...

Harry feeding the ducks! 

There were nine in total

Love 'em or hate 'em - they are lookers!


There were a few Tufted Duck out on the lake, no Goosanders today but a single female Pochard...

Don't see many of these being an Axe birder!


There were plenty of Siskin around in the trees as well, along with the usual woodland-species that always seem abundant here.

Tuesday, 18 February 2020

Rapidly Revisting a Recently Revisited Gull

Well that lasted long....

I want to highlight this comment that I made in my post yesterday, the post where I proclaimed how I thought I had dug out a few old photos depicting a sub-adult Caspian Gull on the Axe...

"When you decide you are going to take an interest in gulls, you go on a journey.  It's a never ending journey really".

It really is a never ending journey, because this morning I woke up to some surprising messages from some well respected 'gullers'; "Looks more like a Yellow-legged to me".

What really is interesting, is this isn't the only messages I've received.  In all eight people have commented about the gull pictured yesterday, through various means.  Four of these have said they think it looks better for a Yellow-legged, whereas four have agreed with my Caspian Gull ID.  So at four all does that mean I have the casting vote?

Well, no.

Needless to say I will no longer be submitting this as a Caspian Gull, too many people think it isn't one. What I think is now irrelevant. 

So to completely summarise this and my last blog post... 11 years ago I was right. I was right to leave this gull unidentified, and that's how it shall remain...

Monday, 17 February 2020

Revisiting a Gull of the Past

I'm about to do something I have never done before, submit a description to the Devon Birds Records Committee of a bird that I saw over 11 years ago!

Let me explain... When you decide you are going to take an interest in gulls, you go on a journey.  It's a never ending journey really. At first you bumble your way through the flocks, getting over excited by gulls that 'look like X' and of course, you will make mistakes. But as the years go by, experience comes on your side, and that is why I need to revisit this bird.

On 23rd Dec 2008 I saw a gull that at the time had me scratching my head.  First I thought I had a sub-adult Yellow-legged, but its legs had no hint of yellow and the mantle didn't quite seem dark enough, so Caspian came to mind. However when it revealed its bill I was put right off that idea, not a bill to brag about.  I took a few photos, but then the darn thing took off and flew out to sea.  Gone for good, and I was convinced at the time with the few photos I had nothing would ever come of it.

11 years more experience and I can see I was wrong. When I look at the photos now, it's a Caspian Gull..

Axe Estuary 23rd Dec 2008

I am practically banging my head against a wall as I write this...

Bill aside -  this is a Caspian Gull.  And looking closely at the pics, I actually think there is enough here to present a plausible case to the DBRC. I will keep you updated with how the submission goes, but why bother I hear you ask?  Well, this is at least a third-winter bird, maybe even a fourth-winter?  Which would constitute the most mature Casp to have graced the Axe to date - we are still waiting for an adult.  But most of all, back in 2008 Casps were still proper rare in the south west, and this would become just the third record for the county. So it's got to be worth a shot.  

I am hoping to find the original pics buried away somewhere on an external hard drive, but for now will have to use the pics from my original blog post to help explain my change of heart...

Looking at this pic I'm thinking...WHAT WAS I THINKING... even more!

Let's concentrate on its overall structure in the above pic, and this is where hybrids or Caspian Gull-lookalikes often let themselves down.  I wrote at the time how long-winged it looked at rest, and that can clearly be seen in this pic. Note also it's high and 'puffed up' chest, giving it the distinctive cachinnans-look.  The legs are also classic Casp, long and thin compared to the first-winter Herring Gull front left. Whilst on the topic of legs, they are the perfect sub-adult Casp straw-colour too, not pink like a Herring of similar age.

Heads-up Steve's made a balls-up

Let's look at mantle colour now, a shade darker than the adult Herring Gull behind, and lacking the blue-tinge of this species.  This is paler however than an adult Yellow-legged Gull should look, and once again perfect for a Casp.  

The best view of its head

So let's look at its head now and isn't it white!  Not a speck or blemish, which is fairly unusual for an adult large gull pre-Christmas. Even an ad Yellow-legged usually shows some flecking, but this is completely clean.  And of course we have that typical small beady black eye that you find in adult and near-adult Casps. Head shape certainly looks nice and rounded as well, although I don't think any of my pics show its head shape well.

But now it's time to talk about the elephant in the room.... the bill. Well it's certainly not going to poke anyone's eye out, but it is narrow and parallel. Not every Caspian Gull is as well endowed as the next. 

Time to zoom in on the wing...

Bit blurry I'm afraid

 So here we can see the upperside of its wing, and note the great big chunk of black on p5. 

Having a good old preen

In this pic you can just see the underside of the nearest wing, and note the large window on p10, a typical Caspian trait.   Look again at mantle colour compared to the Herring Gull, it's darker and greyer but not by much. Legs are also showing well in this pic, strikingly long and thin.

The one thing that I still can't make my mind up on is it's age.  Clearly not an adult, with that black smudge on one of its tertials and a bit of a darkness on the beak above the red spot - but is it too 'adulty' for a third-winter?  I think I would have expected a pinker bill with some hints of a necklace if it were a third-winter, and possibly a bit more evidence of younger feathers in the wing?  But maybe I'm wrong. Again.

As ever, if you have some thoughts do share them with me. Oh and here's the original blog post, which illustrates nicely my naive chain of thoughts at the time; http://stevesbirdingblog.blogspot.com/2008/12/one-for-larid-enthusiasts.html