Tuesday 31 December 2013

The Big Year

....or not!  Sadly I didn't hit the 200 I was after for my 2013 patch year list, in fact I've fallen along way short.  Still, it was a very enjoyably year, with only a little stress (surprisingly!).  And this is roughly how it went...


The year soon got cold, with freezing temperatures and snow rising expectation for a cracking first month - and I wasn't disappointed!  The first couple of weeks of January were probably the most fun of the entire year, tacking down all the easy species and enjoying the lingering Bewick's Swans and Woodlark.  But mid month the goodies started appearing thanks to the weather, namely wildfowl, with Greylag Goose, Red-breasted Merganser, Pintail, Gadwall, Shoveler, Tufted Duck and Goldeneye (the latter not an easy bird at all on patch) all added to the year list. The 17th gave what should have been shock of the month, with a surprise Hen Harrier west over town!  This was only my second ever on patch - so to say unexpected is an understatement. The real shock of the month was still to come though, with the patch's first EVER Green-winged Teal on Colyford Marsh on 29th!  Could the year have started any better? Well yes... I could have seen the Goosander that roosted on the Estuary for four nights in a row, it was never there in the morning, and didn't turn up the first available evening I had! And don't even mention Waxwings...

Bewick's Swans


A snowy scene

Ended the month on 112.


A few days away in Wales early in the month thankfully weren't costly (although gladly the Hen Harrier reappeared for a  few to see), with a Firecrest at Branscombe WTW a nice coming home present!  Sea watching remained frustratingly disappointing despite the flat calm seas, with two Ruff on Bridge Marsh on 9th my next notable year tick. It felt like I spent most the month driving around looking for patch Waxwings, but failed spectacular, although it did turn up a Brambling in Colyton on 12th. And that was that!  Despite all the effort, at the end of the month I'd not seen any interesting gulls despite looking (there were actually very few gulls full stop), nothing of note on the sea, and no bloody Waxwings!!
Not a Waxwing, but a distant Brambling.

Ended the month on 117.


March started well, with Gav finding me a couple of twitchable Goosanders on the Estuary on 3rd - unblocked!  The 5th was a double-tick day, with a Merlin over Morganhayes and a welcome Avocet on the Estuary, but the 7th produced the real corker, with an adult Spoonbill on the Estuary. Water Pipit was the next year tick, a species that used to be a regular winter visitor (and in good numbers), but is now a scarce migrant. Spring was introduced to my year list on 18th with the first Wheatear, although a Spotted Redshank the day before was a far more valuable year tick!  Then came a very frustrating week, where migrants were arriving en mass, but I only had very limited time out in the field. I still managed to add Sandwich Tern, Swallow, Sand Martin, and Little Ringed Plover though, but I really regret not being able to go out more during this spell - I bet there was a Stone Curlew lurking somewhere.  The 27th did give something better, a cracking male Ring Ouzel on Beer Head found by Ian P, but more memorable were the large numbers of Chiffchaffs literally everywhere, and the flock of Little Ringed Plovers! The 29th gave two more year ticks, both raptors and both from my bedroom window!  James M phoned with news of a male Marsh Harrier quartering over Colyford Marsh, and a glance out the bedroom window showed it. Less than an hour later James then phoned with news of an Osprey over the Estuary, I did the same and had the same result - a year tick! The last day of the month gave me Grey Plover, but I painfully missed a drake Garganey.

Ring Ouzel

Chiffchaff in the garden!

I ended the month on a pleasing 133.


The month began as March ended - with dipping.  I had been keeping a close eye on the gulls as we often get goodies in April (I've seen many Iceland Gulls during this month). Annoyingly the two times I wasn't looking at them, Gav was, and had a Glaucous Gull and Caspain Gull, neither being twitchable. A Yellow-legged Gull on the 12th wasn't really satisfactory compensation, but it was still a year tick.  The expected spring migrants such as Hobby, Redstart, Tree Pipit, Sedge, Reed and Willow Warbler and House Martin were next on the list, along with a couple of reeling Grasshopper Warblers. Although Groppers are annual here, if you don't get this species during a few weeks in spring, chances are you've missed it for the year! One of my favourite birds of the spring was a cracking male Pied Fly at Seaton Marshes on 17th - a scarce spring migrant for us.  The 18th gave what turned out to be a rarity this year - some decent sea watching weather, with two Great Skua and 16 Manx Shearwaters.  Then there was more dipping, with a Wryneck in a private garden in Rousden being particularly painful, along with a couple of brief Red Kites. Thankfully a Red Kite did finally decide to fly over me, on 23rd. The 26th saw a coupe more decent spring birds for the patch, with singles of Lesser Whitethroat and Garden Warbler. Surprise of the month was not just a patch year tick, but a patch life tick - a jammy Montagu's Harrier that flew west over Black Hole Marsh on 26th. Complete and utter jam! Finally the sea came good on 27th, with a cracking drake Velvet Scoter sat close in for all to twitch (and photograph!). There was one last surprise in the month, with the 29th giving a singing male Wood Warbler in Colyton. Although this doesn't sound that exciting - only the second one in recent times for the patch!  A proper patch rarity, and completed a pretty successful April.

Garden Warbler

Pied Flycatcher


Willow Warbler

Wood Warbler

I ended the month on 156, over three quarters of the way towards my 200 target!


What a disappointment May was. A month that promises so much, and most years gives so much, but not in 2013. An Egyptian Goose was a very welcome start to the month, but missing another two Garganey certainly wasn't - I even got up at 4am for them!!  Some welcome wader passage on 9th added Sanderling and Wood Sandpiper to my list, and finally we had some good sea watching on 14th with two species seen that could easily not be seen in a year, Storm Petrel and Pomarine Skua. The last year tick in May was a summer plumaged Curlew Sandpiper - but that was it.  No rarities at all, not one. Wader passage was overall VERY poor, and as for the sea - just one species of Tern all month! For a 200 year I'd need them all!


Pomarine Skua

 I ended May on 164.


Well June is a month you'd expect little, and it gave little, not one year tick.  Moths distracted me a bit too much maybe, but every time I went out birding it felt like there was nothing to be found! There was some excitement late in the month though, when Jess and I got engaged!

We are getting married in July 2014

Another month that doesn't usually give much, but I managed to scrape four year ticks out of it, first of all a surprise Mandarin on the Estuary on 1st! A proper patch rare!  I spent most of the first couple of weeks out birding this month down the river, as waders such as Little Ringed Plover and Greenshank were beginning to pass through, but the next year tick for July came whilst studying moths - a fly over Crossbill. Mid summer is turning out to be the best time of year to get this species on patch now.  Balearic Shearwater is another species you have a good chance of adding during the summer doldrums, and sure enough three flew passed me on 25th. The month concluded with our first scarce wader of the year, a Pectoral Sandpiper on Black Hole Marsh found by James M.

Little Ringed Plover


I ended the month on 168.

August started with a shock - although an overdue shock!  Phil found some (presumed) breeding Nightjars on the edge of our patch, in habitat that is only been recently been made suitable. This was a patch first for all of us, and for me my 250th bird for the patch ever! Black Hole Marsh really was superb this month, with Turnstone soon added to my patch year list - but the rare wader never happened despite everyone looking, and despite constant scanning of the Teal no Garganey.  Cuckoos are scarce now days on patch, and as I'd missed them in the spring I thought I'd missed them for the year, but no, a juvenile appeared at Black Hole Marsh - in fact this autumn we had two, with one remaining for several weeks.  There rest of the month was mostly frustrating, how ever much time I or anyone spent out in the field, there wasn't any goodies despite lots and lots of common and scarce birds. Finally another year tick came, with a brief juvenile Black Tern on Black Hole Marsh that I was fortunately able to twitch, I twitched a Little Gull too the following day but missed it by minutes.

Yellow-legged Gull



I ended the month on 175.


Over all another very frustrating month, the amount of time we spent in the field should have produced more rares, and at least one Wryneck! Wrynecks were literally turning up everywhere, but we didn't have one. It wasn't all gloom though and there were some highlights in the month.   To go a year here and not see a Knot would be disappointing, so thankfully three were on the Estuary on 5th. Both Beer Head and Black Hole Marsh were dripping with common migrants, but it took until the 17th until my next year tick, a pleasingly one too after missing one in the spring.  Caspian Gull is fast becoming a regular annual visitor to the Axe, but still a joy to find. It was three ticks in three days, with the 18th producing a fabulous Spotted Crake on Stafford Marsh, only my second ever for the patch!  And on 19th, my first Arctic Terns of the year were feeding off the sea front.  The last ten or so days of the month should have produced more than they did, but the one year tick it did give was a real surprise - a twtichable sat out in the open Bittern, on the Estuary found by Tim Wright on my birthday - the 27th.


Spotted Crake

Caspian Gull (the one looking left in the middle)

I ended the month on 180, so twenty to get in three months - possible if it's a good three months!


This is the month that would make or break my year....and it broke it!  It started well though, with two Yellow-browed Warblers at Lower Buckland Ponds on 2nd. Although this species is something of a patch rarity, we were bound to get some this year considering the incredible numbers that arrived in the UK in the autumn, amazingly though these two were our only ones (that were seen anyway)!  I was hoping for about ten year ticks in Oct, as I felt we must finally be due some rarities and some decent sea watching. Well it just didn't happen, and all I got were three more year ticks in the entire month - all good ones though! I had a phone call from our Reserves Warden Fraser about four Bearded Tits on Black Hole Marsh on 19th, and a few minutes later I was watching them - only the second time I've seen this species on patch! The 21st saw a double whammy of year ticks, both superb birds, with the mornings year tick, Garganey, being extra pleasing after dipping this species twice in the spring, and having spent the entire autumn scanning through Teal flocks!  The afternoon saw the sea finally come up with something better than average with a cracking juvenile Sabine's Gull feeding close in - only my second for the patch. 


Sabine's Gull

Yellow-browed Warbler

I ended October on 184.


Well I was hoping the lack of year ticks in Oct meant for a surge of year ticks in Nov - but overall it was another disappointing month, but started quite well.  On the 7th a Pochard (the first here for two years!) flew up and down the valley much to my delight, but was eclipsed by the year tick the next day.  Glossy Ibis is a bird you can hope to see most year with numbers ever increasing, and one did the decent thing and spent a few hours on Seaton Marshes. It only stayed a few hours though, and showed how easily a year tick could slip through.  There was some excellent birding to be had mid month, probably my most enjoyable of the year, with lots over a very busy sea and an east coast like thrush arrival. Although I did manage a year tick, Black-throated Diver, I couldn't believe I missed out on Little Gull! Portland had well over a thousand, yet despite sea watching off here for most of the same day, I had none!  Little Gull clearly wasn't to be in 2013 for me.  The month ended with a nice high though, with constant scanning over a flat sea revealing two Long-tailed Ducks. Pleasingly they hung around, unusual for us, and rare too - only my third ever sighting of LTD on patch ever. And before I knew it Nov was over.

I ended the month on 188.


This is the month I needed to catch up with all the wintering birds that we hadn't had in Jan, Feb and March. I needed all the three species of sea Grebes, Eider, either white-winged or Little Gull, any grey Geese (except Greylag), Whooper Swan, Snow or Lapand Bunting, either rarer Egret (Great White surely a possibility with the numbers in the south west)..... I saw NONE of any of these!!!  What a crap month December was for birding here, hours of seeing diddly squat.  And that brings me to here - the end.

Steve's 2013 patch year list total: 188. Which means, ANDREW is the winner!!! Congratulations mate, I'll be in touch :-)

So, where did it all go wrong?  Why was I so far off the mark? Well I didn't miss much that was seen, maybe six species, there just wasn't the birds. The two winter periods were very poor, the sea especially, in fact the sea was disappointing all year, with only one good day of spring sea watching, and none in the autumn!  Dismal. Spring and autumn migration on the land gave us good numbers of birds, but just nothing rare and very few scarcities.   I have to be honest and say it was one of my most frustrating years birding I've ever had here, as places all around us were picking up goodies, but however much we looked, nothing... not even a bloody Wryneck!  

So, did I enjoy it?  Yes I really did, I think it's something that just has to be done once in a while, not too often, but now and then. I'll probably do it again sometime, but probably not for a good few years with marriage and hopefully children around the corner (don't worry Mum - not around the next corner!).

So, what was my highlight?  Black Hole Marsh was incredible this autumn, with a superb variety and number of wading birds - just such a shame the rare one never happened. The individual birds that stood out for me were Green-winged Teal, Spotted Crake and Sabine's Gull.  It's always nice to find a patch first, and I love Teal, so that's why the Jan Green-winged Teal is up there. To be honest though, the Sabine's Gull gave me even more of a thrill! To get such superb views of stunning patch rarity (and possibly the prettiest gull?), over a sea that had been total pants throughout - awesome. And lastly, the Spotted Crake. I love Crakes, and the views this beautiful one day wonder gave certainly earned it a place in my top three birds of 2013.

So, is 200 in a new possible?  Well yes, I was 12 birds away, and if any of these had visited the patch I would have done it; Great White Egret, Cattle Egret, Slavonian, Black-necked and Red-necked Grebe, Roseate and Little Tern, Iceland and Glaucous Gull, Sooty Shearwater, Whooper Swan, Long-tailed Skua, Hoopoe, Wryneck, Snow and Lapland Bunting and any BBRC rarity!!  

So, although I didn't do it, I think I've proved it is certainly possibly if you chose the right year.

So, what's happening with Steve and his birding next year? Well we'll have to wait and see. I'll still be very much focused on the patch, but something tells me much more off patch birding will be done in 2014...


  1. A great read Steve!
    Even with all those gripping shots of birds I missed! ;-)

    1. Thanks Karen - actually enjoyed writing it which makes a change! Hope you get blogging again soon.

  2. You've got a great patch there Steve - tonnes of variety - great effort and huge congratulations on your engagement - fantastic!

    1. ....and tonnes to cover! Making the task impossible. I really wish we had a smaller patch to be honest, as at least I'd feel happier it was getting better coverage. Getting married THIS year, very exciting!

  3. Wow, I am surprised at my guess still standing from a point when there was enough time in the year for a few more ticks. Nice one.

    Happy New Year!

    1. I'm genuinely surprised too! Was sure there would be a couple more ticks in the year, but no, it was that bad!! Happy New Year and well done!

  4. Nice write up Steve, I think since Sept youve been doing the patch near enough on your own which didn't help,
    Happy new year to you and Jess

  5. Cheers Phil, and a very Happy New Year to you and the family.