Monday 30 March 2015

Another Good Gull

Well spring migration still appears to be on hold, I've not seen anything remotely summery since my last blog post. In fact the only new migrants I've heard off around here were three Swallows over Seaton Marshes last night, seen by Tim Wright. Tim also found a Slav Grebe last Friday off Seaton Hole, and I was pleased to see it this afternoon - what a stunner! It's virtually in full summer plumage and wasn't too far out either.

With a pretty hefty weather front looming I had to check the gulls on the Estuary this afternoon. A second-summer Med Gull was obvious off Coronation Corner, but I needed to change vantage point to scan through the decent numbers of Common Gulls to the north, there were about 90, a notable increase.  I had a proper look through them from the gateway just north of Axmouth village, and was a bit shocked to find exactly what I was hoping for - Ring-billed Gull!  Despite the distance, the paler grey mantle, size and build of the bird, and almost complete lack of tertial crescent made it a pretty easy call...

My only slight hesitation was that its bill and legs weren't exactly bright yellow, but I suspected this was because it wasn't an adult but a second-summer.  Conveniently it then flew...

Extensive black on the wing tips, some dark marks on the primary coverts and remnants of a tail bar confirmed my thoughts, a third calendar year bird it was. On the lower photo (above) it's the lower bird.

It spent about ten minutes flying around and occasionally dropping down on the river just north of Tower Hide, before returning to the mud flats. This is when Ian M and Tim Wright turned up, and they arrived just in the nick of time.  I put the digi camera up to my scope and took this snap...

 ...which is shockingly out-of-focus (but still shows mantle colour, lack of tertial crescent and overall size). I changed the settings on the camera and went to take another pic, but it had gone, and wasn't seen again today. Common Gulls were always coming and going, and I think it sneaked off north whilst I was camera faffing.

Once a regular bird in Devon, and I have seen three in as many years here, but this was the first Ringer on the Axe for a whopping seven years! It's was about bloody time as I always scan through Common Gull flocks on the off chance.  Today it paid off.

Friday 27 March 2015

Cutesy Caspo

After a very wet night on Wednesday I thought the Estuary gulls would be worth a look on Thursday morning.  This immediately seemed a good move as there were decent sized gatherings of large gulls both at Coronation Corner and down by the tram sheds. The flock at the top of the Estuary showed nothing better than both species of Black-backs, but the lower flock had a white-headed belter shining out - a first-summer Caspian Gull...

Middle bird facing right, such a distinctive head and bill shape.
A tighter crop of the upper pic.

The cropped photo above, although grainy, is actually quite a handy pic as you can easily compare the Casp to a similarly aged Herring Gull just to its left. Pretty much all Herring Gulls of this age have a dark eye mask (at least) which hides the eye, compare this to the beautifully clean white headed Caspian Gull and notice how its eye really stands out. This bird almost completely lacked the characteristic neck shawl that first-winter Caspians show (see THIS bird to see what I mean by neck shawl), but that is expected in a first-summer bird. Be wary of second-summer Herring Gulls though, they often look very white-headed and beady eyed, it is always important to age a gull correctly first. Also compare bills, it wasn't the longest-billed Caspian that I've seen, but see how the lower edge of the bill is pretty much straight, whereas the Herring has a distinctive kink (known as the goyns)

Much to my dismay, after about a minute of watching it and taking a few snaps, it stretched its wings and flew off. Bugger. At least it allowed me to get the useful under wing shot (just)...

Lovely white axillaries and a very pale underwing.

It looked like it was going to fly off north west, but thankfully it banked round and dropped down where gulls often gather in the corner of Seaton Marshes. I zipped round there and soon relocated it...

No where near being a sharp photo, but it shows the head and bill shape and the solid black white-tipped tertials really well.
Showing here the typical Caspian gait, standing tall with a nice bulge on upper neck.

It wasn't a very big Caspian, being only slightly larger than the Herring Gulls, so maybe a female? I've still not seen a Caspian as big as the second one that I ever saw on the Axe, which was found by Gav back in 2011 (see HERE).

At 09:40 the whole flock of gulls were flushed, and I sadly had to leave.  Ian M saw it in the same place about ten minutes later though, so hopefully it is going to linger.  

Although the number of large gulls always seems to drop off in mid March, late March and early April often gives us some gull goodies, and there always appears to be a pretty rapid turn over of birds changing day to day (maybe even hour to hour!).  I really wouldn't be surprised if we get a white-winged Gull in the next couple of weeks.

This gull has fired me up nicely, which got me out of bed early this morning. That is despite the fact spring migration has seemingly ground to a halt on the south coast of England. A quick sea watch was pretty pointless, so I headed to Seaton Marshes...

Nice and atmospheric

And here I was rewarded for my early start, with the sweet sound of Willow Warbler song coming from the southern most trees around the Borrow Pit. There were two together, and they moved north pretty quickly, constantly feeding giving just the occasional burst of song.  

A true 'record shot'

Hearing the first singing Willow Warbler of the year is up there for me along with seeing the first Wheatear, they are the sound of summer.

Monday 23 March 2015

Cool Clouds, Shy Sun and Mega Moon

Beer Head this morning didn't show any summer migrants, but the sky looked pretty smart to the east with low cloud perfectly mirroring the coast below. My photo doesn't do it justice as it looked spectacular, but Assistant Warden Glen at Portland Bird Obs did a much better job of capturing it over Portland (see here).

Cloud from Beer Head

I've been doing a lot of looking up lately, namely to see the stunning partial eclipse last Friday.  Cloud threatened and it wasn't looking good on the morning - but in fact the cloud actually helped!  It acted as a natural filter and made the event far easier to see and photograph...


The moons been looking stunning most evenings recently too, with a waxing crescent moon showing low to the west at dusk with Venus just above...

Bird wise it seems as though spring has halted somewhat, and the cold weather that's coming doesn't bode well for the rest of the week.  Best bird today has to be the lovely male Ruff that I've seen a few times at various locations in the river valley.  Sadly never anywhere close though...

Spot the Ruff!

Thursday 19 March 2015

Lessers and Littles

I can see the headlines now; "Hospital beds full as Axe Birding blog readers all injure themselves falling off their chairs due to shock of new blog posts on four consecutive days - the first time in years!".  Simple reason is because I've had the week off work, I've got a bit more time to put finger to keypad - oh and I've actually seen some birds!

This morning I spent a few hours off patch, which was nice as I saw these...

I was there about two and a half hours, and in that time had about eight sightings of at least three of these beautiful Lesser-spotted Woodpeckers.  I saw three birds on two separate occasions (may have even been four on the second time), with two birds on one occasions and several sightings of single birds.  

They really are amazing birds that have an incredible ability of just melting into the canopy. To me it looked like a settled pair, with a second 'outsider' male.  Both times the second male flew in, all three birds went berserk, flying around all over the place, wing flicking, calling, etc. But as soon as the second male flew off, the pair just disappeared into nothing but bare branches!  I've also never really realised how quiet their drumming is, the first time I heard it this morning I thought I had a lot of walking to do as it sounded a long way off, but the bird drumming was actually in the tree right next to me! Nothing like the echoy tones of a drumming Great-spot. Talking of Great-spotted, I had a couple of these and a Green Woody here too - the full suit of UK Woodpeckers from one spot.

I did spend a bit of time out on patch today, but all was looking a bit grim with no summer migrants to be seen despite visiting Beer Head, Black Hole Marsh, Colyford Common, Colyford Marsh and the Estuary this afternoon. But on my last stop of the day at Bridge Marsh I was delighted to spy two Little Ringed Plovers feeding on the edge of the main scrape.  Apologies for the shockingly poor unpostable pic, but it does show both of them...

All in all another great day!

Wednesday 18 March 2015

Warblers and Wheatears

Thought it was about time I went to see the Branscombe Yellow-browed Warbler that Phil found on Saturday, our first ever true spring Yellow-browed. Yes we've had over winterers before, but this is the first one that's actually turned up in March. It must have arrived with the load of Chiffchaffs that came in at the end of last week, and stayed around until the start of this week.  

Presumably because of the nice weather, it spent the whole time I was there this morning high in the conifers, so I really can't compete with the photos on other local birders blogs.  But still...

And just to prove my excuses for the poor photos aren't, well, excuses, here's a quick video...

It was a really interesting bird to see.  I guess I am used to seeing Yellow-broweds when they are fresh first-years in pristine plumage.  This is a right scruffy bird, and it makes it look quite different in my eyes - it's a dull one as well. It was very vocal at times, I heard it call about six times as I was first walking up to the WTW.

I didn't see anything new around and about the Estuary today, but at Beer Head four Wheatear included my first female of the year, so at least one was different to yesterdays birds. The female never allowed close approach though, unlike this chap...

I didn't realise we were going to have a frost this morning, if I knew that I wouldn't have put the moth trap out last night!  Only one moth in it this morning, an Early Grey. Complete waste of time and electricity.

And to end this post, which bucking recent trends is my third in three days, a photo of Branscombe mouth at dusk this evening...

Tuesday 17 March 2015

Migration Moving Up A Gear

Today was forecasted to be the day the recent colder weather was to be replaced by a milder air flow, so I had high hopes we might see a nice pulse of spring passage - and I was right! 

First thing this morning I had 11 Sand Martins circling over my head which was nice, but they soon moved off north.  It was also evident early on that there were still good numbers of Chiffchaffs about, but judging by the amount of fat on them (I caught seven during a short ringing session) they won't be around much longer.

Spring Chiffchaffs often arrive in to the UK with this thick black substance on the feathers around the base of their bills, it's dried pollen that they've acquired whilst feeding up to fuel their migration.

A late morning walk around Beer Head showed more passage, in particular Meadow Pipits with birds arriving in off the sea almost constantly, although very few appeared to land and they continued on northwards. I counted 200 in an hour, but I bet they were arriving in far greater number earlier in the day.  It was nice to see some more Wheatears too, with five males together along with a single Stonechat...

A fine male Wheatear and a bit of gorse!

Best of all up here though, and it was the reason why I counted Meadow Pipits arriving for an hour, were a pod of about ten Bottlenose Dolphins. At first they were well to the east, somewhere off Branscombe, but they slowly moved westwards, passing Beer Head probably between 1/2 and 3/4 a mile out.  Not a common sight off this part of the coast, so they are always a treat to see...

This is part of the pod seemingly actively hunting - it was so interesting watching so many different behaviours.

In the pod were three or four young ones, and they seemed to spend a lot of time just messing around!  I only saw one or two adults do a full breach, but the young'uns were constantly jumping about...

What a spectacle!  And to finish, here's a short video showing most of the pod...

Monday 16 March 2015

March Moths

Before I write about the smaller flying beasts that interest me, I missed out from Saturday evening's blog post the most notable bird that I've seen all week! Too busy thinking and writing about Wheatears and Sand Martins...

On Saturday I felt a bit rough so we didn't get out and walk the dog until late morning, and we didn't go far from home either. But whilst out the local gulls started making a bit of a ding, nothing too much so I was just expecting a Buzzard to come over - but it was a Marsh Harrier!  A nice dark bird (so I presume a second calender year, possibly a female?) which headed purposefully north east over Seaton.  About two hours earlier James Mc had a Marsh Harrier fly west at Charmouth, but it clearly doesn't take two hours to get from there to here! I still think it was the same bird though, as a quick chat with him revealed his Harrier was also a very dark individual. Maybe it went west past us then came back, or had spent some time loitering somewhere between the two sites? 

To tie up all the bird news in this post, I was a bit disturbed to witness this behaviour on the Estuary yesterday evening. An adult that should know better, trying to impress and get it on with a minor...

Adult and first-summer Med Gull

And now to the moths.  Last Wednesday night was the first night this year that I put a moth trap out at Mum and Dad's - wooooo!  And although it wasn't exactly busy, I've had quieter 'first sessions of the year' with 8 moths of 4 species (though most not actually in the trap!):

5 Common Quaker
1 Twin-spotted Quaker
1 Early Grey
1 Double-striped Pug

The larger Twin-spotted Quaker flanked by Common Quakers

Saturday 14 March 2015

The Week That Spring Sprung

It doesn't really feel right mentioning spring when there's such a cold wind blowing outside - but clearly the birds think spring is here. It's always so exciting seeing the pioneers of the spring migration, heralding the end of winter (and this winter has been especially quiet one for birding here!).

A male White Wagtail on Bridge Marsh on Tuesday was the first summer migrant for me, although not a full species the adult males in spring always looks so striking and are a real treat to see.  Also on Tuesday (and on other days this week) up to three Med Gulls have been feeding with Black-headed Gulls on the field next to our house, a first-winter, second-summer and adult summer.

Didn't really see anything of note on Wednesday, except for a migrant Redwing that dropped in to the trees opposite our house. But Thursday was the main day for me, with an early morning look at Lower Bruckland Ponds showing my first three Sand Martins of 2015 feeding - welcome back chaps!  A wander along Seaton Beach and around the town showed a female-type Black Redstart which was presumably a passing migrant, and then my first Wheatear of the year, a stunning male too!

Wheatears winter in Africa, and during their migration pass through stunning locations such as the Sahara desert, Atlas mountain range and the gorgeous Mediterranean coast.  Sadly this one decided to make land fall in England, here...

Yes they are building houses on sand - but that's another matter!

It's just about viewable in this pic, not quite the rolling sand hills of the Sahara there!

Friday it was the tern of Sandwich Tern to be added to my 2015 list (not that I'm keeping one!) with one on the Estuary late morning.  It was a lovely smooth summer plumaged beast too, not a white-flecked winter plumage potential over wintering looking one.

And that's that.  Oh, except that I feel I should inform all of the Devon-departure of patch birder Gav. At the end of last week he upped sticks and moved to Dorset, although he has threatened a return if a decent gull shows up on the Axe.  All the best in your new home Gav and see you soon.

Monday 2 March 2015

Move Over February, March Is Here

Hello all, I'm back!  Not been anywhere mind, just haven't had much to blog about and no time to do it.  It won't be hard to sum up my February though... 

We had something of an invasion of Greylag Geese mid month, with a couple of different flocks dropping in on the Axe, the biggest being 22!  These records tied in nicely with an increase in Greylag sightings elsewhere along the south coast, so am certain they relate to genuine wild birds. Best guess is that they are Spanish wintering birds migrating back north. The first small group seen by Tim Wright didn't stay long at all, just one night, before flying off north. Only one lingered, one of the 22, it remained with the semi-resident Canada Geese until nearly the end of the month.  

The increase in temperature part way through the month seemed to fool the birds into thinking spring had come early. So many of the resident species started to sing, and sing well. It even encouraged a couple of the wintering warblers to break out in song, with both Blackcap and Chiffchaff giving it some nearer the end of the month.  

Beautiful blue skies at Lower Bruckland Ponds. You can just about see the white buds appearing on the willow to the right.
These white buds! Lovely to see.

So that's February. Thankfully March has already proved better...

The one I didn't see was an Iceland Gull found by Phil on 1st.  A great find really as there hasn't been many white-wingers about, although a few do seem to be appearing now.  March/April often proves the best months for white-wingers here, when birds that have been wintering south of us head back north.

The quality I did (finally!) see (third attempt!) was the Short-eared Owl  first seen by Mike Lock on Friday evening at Axmouth.  It was seen over the weekend, but it wasn't until this evening that I saw it. Well WE saw it, as Jess is a big Owl-fan, and this was the last of the five regular UK Owls that I needed to show her.  I have tried to show her Short-eared Owl before, just a month or so ago at Wyke Down, but we dipped spectacularly, so to get one on patch is magic. Although I have seen quite a few here over the years, they have pretty much all been passing migrants that have stayed between 5 mins and an hour, so I didn't for a second think I'd be able to get Jess on to one here. But I did, and flipping heck did we see it well. 

Within seconds of arriving at a sunny Axe Cliff Golf Course at 5pm today Dave Helliar pointed it out hunting over the rough grass, and about two minutes later it flew past us about 10 feet away! Despite only having my point and shoot Lumix in my hand on automatic mode, and in the same hand that I was holding the dogs lead, I somehow manage to fluke this...

What a beaut!

We watched it for another twenty minutes or so, and it showed very well almost continuously, but it didn't come that close again...

And here's a short video...

Jess kept saying after we dipped this one twice, and the Wyke Down disaster "it wasn't meant to be - when I do see one it will be extra special". She was dead right. I must learn to be this positive when it comes to dipping...