Monday 22 February 2016

A Local Catchup

Well it's about time I blogged about what this blog is about - Axe Birding! There's been a few pics sitting on my memory card for a week or so, and today I had an enjoyable couple of hours out and about on patch.

Clearly the star bird locally is (sorry Mr Ibis) the stunning drake Green-winged Teal that's often on Black Hole Marsh. I say often because some days it just isn't there, like yesterday sadly. He was showing exceptionally well this afternoon though in the far north west corner of the marsh, best viewed from the screen at the start of the walk way to the Island Hide.  Obviously my old Lumix can't compare with the big lenses, but still...

Easily the best views I've ever had of this species. Not only does it show well and close, but it's doing a lot of displaying at the moment - what a show off!  Those white stripes aren't simply white, they're like flipping glow sticks!  A flock of Green-winged Teal in the dark could look surprisingly similar to a rave crowd I reckon.

I best mention the Glossy Ibis now, which is spending pretty much all it's time at Seaton Marshes at the moment.  In any other winter this would easily take the title of 'star bird', but it's picked a winter with stiff competition.

The Water Pipits are still wintering with us too.  It usually takes time to see them, but given patience you should be in luck (really helps if you know the call).  Today I saw seven in the same area as usual, I even managed to get one in the view finder...

Looking typically pale

Another bird that was wintering with us this year was a lone Dark-bellied Brent Goose. I say 'was' because I haven't seen him for a week or so...

And now to gulls. Yes lovely gulls.  Well sadly they haven't delivered for me despite there being a good turn over, we are clearly in the middle of some pretty heavy passage.  There were at least 200 Common Gulls on the Estuary today, along with six Lesser Black-backs, but nothing rare.  Best (or worst?) lately was this ugly hybrid from last week...

Third from left, it was smaller than Herring with yellow-pink legs and a Yellow-legged Gull mantle shade, so I guess a HerringxLBBG?

We've also had small numbers of Med Gulls which is to be expected, although I'm surprised I've not seen more with no more than three on any given day...

Adult Med Gull coming in to land

But quite possibly the best birding news I have to give flew over my house at 8am today, a Meadow Pipit. I know it is just a Meadow Pipit, but this is the first Meadow Pipit over my house since the last bird last autumn - Nov 2015. This means passage, SPRING passage. Wheatears and Sand Martins next... 

I've got a bit of time off work this week which is nice, and the weather is looking pretty decent too.  It's a win win!

Friday 19 February 2016

A Surprise Red Kite

I nearly made a right balls up yesterday.

Whilst walking the dog around one of our local greens early yesterday afternoon, willing her to empty her bladder/bowels before I headed off to work, I heard the gulls making a slight noise.  It wasn't a major kick off, but enough for my ears to register something was up.  I could also though hear some sort of low flying light aircraft going over, and I think that, plus the time of year, meant my brain came to the unconscious decision that it wasn't worth making the effort to move around a row of trees and look up...

A few minutes later I'd walked off the green and was wandering up the road when I was stopped in my tracks by a stunning Red Kite flying low north.  And when I say low, I mean low. It was probably only a metre or two above roof-top height, seriously cool. 

I just wish I had saw it coming as I could have lined the camera up for a superb shot. Morale of the story is always look up!

Thursday 18 February 2016

Looking Back; My First Shrikes

After reliving the excitement I felt from the Dawlish Warren Lesser Grey Shrike - a superb find by Lee Collins - I thought I'd have a reminisce of all my first encounters with the three most regular species of Shrike found in the UK. 

Dartmoor ~ Monday 19th April 1999

After a rather uneventful morning walk around Yarner Wood, Jean, Dad and myself headed on to Warren House Inn hoping for some Ring Ouzel action.  We were in luck with good views of a pair - such a shame they have become so scarce in the county now.  We also saw a couple of Wheatear and a stunning male Whinchat surrounded by numerous Stonechat, my first of the year.  Best bird of all though came as a complete shock - we knew one had over wintered on the Moor but didn't have a clue it was still knocking around, or where.  As we walked down to the short turfed area at the bottom of the valley, we were struck by a bright white bird perched up on a dead tree along a dry stone wall at the base of the opposite slope.  I'll never forget the next few words that came out of Jean's mouth "It's a Shrike!".  It was indeed - a pristine and absolutely stunning Great Grey Shrike facing us in bright sunshine, the dark eye mask looking really tidy and it was amazing to see that small but fierce looking black beak for the first time.  We watched it for a good half and hour perched up and flying about. Pure ecstasy. And a good example of how the surprise factor added to what would already have been an incredible experience.

Exmouth ~ Wednesday 20th October 1999

A juvenile Red-backed Shrike had been residing near Mudbanks for several days, Jean and Dad saw it on the Monday of this week whilst I was at school.  Much to my surprise when Dad collected me from the bus stop after school on Wednesday all my birding gear was in the car - we were off! And about 45 minutes later we were parking up at Mudbanks Lane in Exmouth.  It was almost 17:00 and the light was fading fast, you could certainly have described the conditions as dimpsy (what a great word!).  We rushed from the car up to the small green a short distance to the north, where the Shrike had been hanging out. Despite the light, there it was, my first Red-backed Shrike and in a rather un-shrike like place!  I can still remember watching it in the half-light chasing a late flying bumble bee for a good 15 seconds, it was remarkable to see how agile it was in flight..

St. Levan ~ 29th March 2002

This was part of an extraordinary days birding in Cornwall with Phil A, Jeremey Mc and Dad. This day will probably make up the next 'looking back' post, but to complete this entry I must mention the fabulous Woodchat Shrike we saw.  We walked from the car park at Porthgwarra, and as soon as we arrived at the small field surrounded by a dry stone wall and scrubby hedges where a small crowd was waiting, we could see it.  Shrikes are great birds anyway, but to see such a beautifully coloured one was a real treat - the rich chestnut cap looked amazing in the sunshine, a colour I'd never seen on any species of bird before. I also remember being amazed at just how small it looked, although this didn't stop it looking like a beast of a bird.

Not the same Woodchat, I photographed this bird in Plymouth on 3/5/09

I've seen several of all three species since, but what truly fulfilled my shrike needs was being part of the protection team around the breeding Red-backed Shrikes on Dartmoor.  Getting to know such a charismatic bird so closely, and to watch them hatch and fledge young was just so so special. I helped out on two seasons, sadly the second season wasn't a good one at all, but during the first my personal highlight was scanning left to right in the telescope and seeing no less than TEN Red-backed Shrikes!! Completely nuts.

Thursday 11 February 2016

Control Goldcrest

You may remember that within my blog post that featured the ringing of a stunning Green Woodpecker at Lower Bruckland Ponds last month (see here), I mentioned that one of the four Goldcrests I caught that morning was wearing a ring with a number I didn't recognise.  Well late yesterday I'm pleased to say I got all the info back from the BTO. I must say I really applaud the BTO at how much quicker they are at getting data like this back to us ringers these days - bravo ringing HQ!

Goldcrest CPX749 was ringed on 18/10/15 at Seacroft, Skegness, Lincolnshire. No doubt ringed soon after it made first landfall to the UK after completing that treacherous flight across the North Sea. Here are the full details and a map:

As you can see there were 94 days between ringing and recapturing, and a distance of 217 miles (350km) travelled. It wasn't weighed up at Skeggy, so I presume it was caught on a day of pretty intense ringing. A quick check on the Gibraltar Point Bird Obs website (link here), which is a bird observatory a mile or two south of Seacroft, shows that the 18th Oct 2015 was indeed a very busy day. Hope they don't mind me copying and pasting this on to my blog:

"October 18th. A new Pallas's Warbler was found during the morning at the North End along the sycamores along the northern boundary of the reserve. Other birds around, including those trapped, were a Richard's Pipit, a Yellow-browed Warbler, a Great Grey Shrike at the Wash Viewpoint in the afternoon, a Firecrest (East Dunes), a Grey Wagtail, a Redstart, an adult Caspian Gull (on the beach in the morning), a Short-eared Owl, a Marsh Harrier, 2 Merlin, a Kingfisher, a Treecreeper and a late Grasshopper Warbler. On the Mere were a Jack Snipe and a Water Rail, and on Tennyson's Sands another Water Rail. Flying south were 24 Siskin.
At Aylmer Avenue another 600 Redwing moved south and west during the morning along with 30 Fieldfare, 20 Song Thrush, 30 Blackbird, 10 Brambling, 8 Siskin and 6 Lesser Redpoll. There were 300+ Goldcrest around through the morning before they quickly moving on south. Interestingly none of the 194 Goldcrests ringed yesterday at Aylmer was retrapped today, amply demonstrating the rapid turnover of birds through the reserve when we have north-easterlies.

A morning ringing session in East Dunes, with James Siddle, provided 93 new birds: 36 Goldcrest, 3 Wren, 11 Robin, 5 Blackcap, 8 Goldfinch, a Grasshopper Warbler, a Reed Bunting, 4 Lesser Redpoll, 8 Song Thrush, 10 Redwing and 6 Blackbird; and 8 retraps: 2 Robin, 3 Goldcrest, a Blackcap, a Dunnock and a Goldfinch.

A longer ringing session at Aylmer Avenue by Mick Briggs and David Vincent, who were assisted in the morning by Neil Hagley of the Charnwood Ringing Group (Many Thanks, Neil), resulted in 241 new birds and 18 retraps.
The new birds were 138 Goldcrest, 48 Redwing, 19 Robin, 11 Song Thrush, 7 Blackbird, 5 Blackcap, 3 Fieldfare, 3 Greenfinch, 2 Wren, 2 Brambling, a Reed Bunting, a Dunnock and a Chiffchaff. The retraps were 9 Greenfinch, 2 Robin, 2 Dunnock, 2 Blue Tit, a Goldcrest, a Blackbird and a Chaffinch.
Ringing during October so far has resulted in 2333 new birds ringed - the best monthly total since October 2012. There have been an amazing 1266 new Goldcrests."


So although not a surprising movement for a migrant Goldcrest, for me it's so special, as it is for the Ponds. And with so many Goldcrests ringed on the east coast during the autumn of 2015, its another recovery that helps paint the picture of how they then spread out to spend the winter across the UK and Western Europe.

Monday 8 February 2016

Looking Back; Dawlish Warren 26/5/02

My second looking back post and it's the second one from Dawlish Warren. I remember this day so vividly as I should have been revising for my Geography GCSE exam the following morning! Mum wasn't best pleased when Phil Abbott phoned with news that an adult Lesser Grey Shrike was at Dawlish Warren, and that he was leaving now and asked if I wanted to come.  Thankfully I managed to do some serious negotiating and Dad, myself and my Geography revision books were in Phil's car ten minutes later...

To carry on this post I am just going to copy what I as a sixteen year old wrote in my diary, word for word;

"A.M. Phil took us to Dawlish Warren where were saw a Lesser Grey Shrike. Had superb views of an ad (prob male) at Warren Point. An absolute cracking bird and it gave cracking views sat on top and on the side of small bushes. Watched it at different distances on many different bushes, it stayed up on the bushes for long periods of time but did occasionally go on to the ground presumably to feed. A brilliant little bird being just a bit bigger than a near by Dunnock. Like Great Grey Shrike but more black on forehead and no white, clearer white-wing patches which were very obvious, and a lovely pink tinge to its breast. Also obviously smaller than a Great Grey and seemed to sit up straighter than Great Grey. In flight striking white outer tail feathers and again very obvious wing flashes. It was a very sweet bird, a brilliant bird, brilliant rarity, absolutely brilliant views and a good Devon bird. Between exams too! Truly sensational, one of my favs. Seen 4 shrike species now, commoner ones in 1999 and Woodchat and now this in 2002. Amazing!  Also saw: Reed Bunting (male), Skylark (loads) and Whitethroat (2). We didn't hang about. Park - Shrike for an hour - back to the car!"

To brighten up this post a bit here's a pic of the star bird, taken by my mate Jez whose name will pop up from time to time on these looking back posts - he twitched it later that day...

Lesser Grey Shrike (c) Jeremy McClements

Oh and by the way I managed a B in GCSE Geography, which is hard solid evidence that birding actually helps with revision! Take note any young birders reading this, birding is good for you whatever the circumstances.

Thursday 4 February 2016

Winter Swans In Somerset

I have a real soft spot for wildfowl, especially geese and winter swans. On Tuesday afternoon I noticed on the web that a Southlake Moor on the Somerset Levels had both Bewick's and Whooper Swans. Having not seen either for a good few years I was immediately tempted, and when I googled where Southlake Moor was - not that far away at all - I was even more tempted! 

I know many birders who don't really 'get' winter swans - big white birds that, let's be honest, 90% look like Mute Swans.  But for me they are just so emotive, a real symbol of winter. When I was at Spurn, the sight of a flock of Whoopers flying south over the North Sea on a cold November morning, heading for their winter retreat (probably Norfolk), was one of the greatest spectacles of the year.  And living down here in Devon now, I don't see many of them any more.  So, Wednesday morning came, and without thinking twice I was loading up the car and off to Burrowbridge...

Burrow Mump

I parked up in the car park just below the mump, where I was greeted by a vast expanse of water...

Wildfowl haven

...and the stunning sight of eight Whooper Swans on the very nearest bit of it!  I couldn't believe my luck at just how close they were, especially considering how much water they had to choose from...

All eight Whoopers, five adults and three immatures

Such an awesome sight

A phone-scoped pic

Not the usual view of a Whoopers bill

They were absolutely top value, frequently calling to each other, wing flapping - completely and utterly fulfilling my winter swan-needs. And then it got even better...

Scanning further afield I picked up two more adult Whooper Swans with Mute Swans on the flood up towards Burrow Wall Farm, and then spied six more winter swans even further away - these were looking Bewicky.  I jumped back in to the car and tried looking at the flood water from the village of Stathe...

Success!  A short walk along a public footpath gave me an excellent view point where six adult Bewick's Swans were in full view. Unfortunately they weren't as close as the eight Whoopers but nevertheless great to see, especially as there are so few in the UK this winter...


Phone-scoped Bewick's showing the bill pattern

I know they're naff pics but I just can't help posting them!

So that's the swans dealt with, but this place was about so much more!  I was absolutely staggered by the sheer numbers of wildfowl present, really jaw-dropping.  There were easily 8-10,000 Wigeon spread around, along with c500-800 Pintail, a thousand or so Teal, c250 Shoveler and a few Gadwall.  I can tell you this is quite something when you are used to looking at no more than 300 Wigeon day in day out! 

So many ducks!

This spectacle really opened my eyes. I am such a dedicated patch birder, and have been for so long now, that the bird scene here completely sculptures my birding. Checking a flock of 300 Wigeon say two or three times a week is my birding, I scan through them once or twice, nothing rare, job done. Flipping heck at Southlake Moor you could scan the Wigeon daily for a month and still not find a lurking American Wigeon! 

And that's got me thinking, does this mean I have become a lazy birder? Am I so settled in a birding routine that I am no longer (to quote the very sadly recently departed Martin Garner) 'pushing the boundaries', or my boundaries anyway...

I think I need to embark on a few more off patch forays...

Wednesday 3 February 2016

Water Pipits

Just a quick one.  Yesterday whilst stood at one of the Bridge Marsh gateways, three Water Pipits dropped in not too far away. Was just a pity the light was so awful...

Although a crap photo, just look how white the underparts are which is typical for Water Pipit

There's just about two in this photo

I'm afraid I've got a bit more about Scandinavian Herring Gulls now.  Many thanks to my mate Brett who sent me this link to a very interesting paper on argentatus, it explains well why they are so rare down here - cheers Brett! Well worth a read if you are that way inclined;

I've had a bit of a different morning today, I fancied a change of scenery. All will be revealed in my next post...

Monday 1 February 2016

Scandinavian Herring Gull

There are many unknowns in life. And one of my biggest is why oh why are Scandinavian argentatus Herring Gulls so scarce in the south west?

Roosts of Herring Gulls 'up north' (i.e. the Midlands and above) can be made up of up to 70% argentatus whereas down here it's all argenteus (the British race of Herring Gull).  I have to be totally honest and say when I first got into gulls I thought this was simply because people weren't looking for them, but many years later and I've seen more Caspian, Iceland, and before today, Ring-billed Gulls on the Axe Estuary than definite Scandinavian Herring Gulls!  They are truly a scarce bird and rightly deserve their status as a Devon A rarity.

There's been loads of gulls about today. This morning on the Estuary excellent numbers produced no goodies, but this afternoon smaller numbers pleasingly included a wonderful adult argentatus Herring Gull. It was duly twitched by Gav and Ian Mc and remained for about half an hour before flying off south.  Here's some pics with comments and ID pointers below...

Mantle shade is usually the standout feature in the field for this sub species, but as it's on its own here that isn't much good. There are still some pointers though, particularly the big white tips to the primaries, the nice broad white tips to the tertials and secondaries, and that 'mean' looking head.  Those thick grey streaks around the head and neck really made it stand out as most of our argenteus are already in summer plumage with clean white heads.

The above photo doesn't show much more, except for that strong and fairly heavy bill, and a slightly longer-winged appearance than the immature argenteus Herring Gulls in front and behind. Although we can't compare mantle shade here, it has that more slate-grey appearance than the more blue-grey appearance of adult argenteus.

Way more distant, but check out how dark it looks compared with the other Herring Gulls in this shot.  I have to say it wasn't always this obvious.  Let's have a closer look in different light...

Neither of the gulls here are playing ball, but the mantle shades although I wouldn't say are vastly different, are certainly noticeably different.  This isn't the darkest argentatus I've ever seen, but they do vary - they are gulls!

This horribly over-exposed photo was taken when the sun was out.  Again the difference in mantle shades can just about be detected, but most notable here is the long winged appearance and the overall slightly more brutish look. Also note how the primary tips show more white and less black compared with the three adult argenteus Herring Gulls in shot.

Talking of wing tips, this is the best photo I managed of an open wing (Gav has got a cracker of a shot). Crucially look at the outer most primary tip (P10) which is solidly white and there appears to be little or no black on P5, although that is hard to make out on this dodgy pic. 

Aren't gulls great!