Another day and another new spring migrant for me - a Willow Warbler at Lower Bruckland Ponds this morning. No photos I'm afraid as it was frantically feeding, uttering a few quiet bursts of subsong and the odd call as it went.
I always find the first Willow Warbler of the year a phylloscopus slap in the face. After spending the first three months of the year looking at scruffy Chiffchaffs ranging in colour from grey to dull olive green, when the first Willow Warbler head pops out in front of me it's like a breath of fresh air. That yellow and white throat and breast, long yellow supercilia and overall fresh and bright plumage makes them as obvious now as they ever are. I really can't wait to start ringing a few up Beer Head again - they are even better in the hand!
Aside from a few more new in Chiffchaffs I've not seen much else today, and no Iceland Gull.
One of the things I love about birding is how just one bird can make all the difference.
The first three months of this year have been some of my most frustrating for 'gulling' ever. Although we didn't have good numbers of gulls in January, much better numbers in February and March just wouldn't produce anything scarce. Many days seemed so promising, and each time I set my scope up to look through a gull flock I thought it was going to be. But no matter how many times a day I scanned through our Larid flocks they remained stubbornly rare-free zones.
At 13:38 today though this all changed, and all the unrewarding hours I've spent gull watching so far this year were instantly forgotten...
Yes an absolute beaut of a first-winter Iceland Gull. What a cracker.
Also today there seems to be more hirundines about, have seen many more Swallow and Sand Martins but still no House Martin for me.
Yesterday a lone Sandwich Tern off the sea front which gradually made its way west was my first of the year. Fresh spring Sarnies always look so sleek and smart compared with the scruffy individuals that over winter with us.
Yesterday gave me the opportunity to see more Wheatears - brilliant!! I had one on Bridge Marsh and eight on Beer Head, including my first two females of the year (which were in the more distant group that I didn't photograph)...
I just love Wheatears! Looking at these photos, particularly the lower one, fills me with so much happiness that it probably isn't 'normal'. Is there anything better at kicking the winter blues to touch than migrant Wheatears fresh in on the coast?
I haven't seen much else yesterday or today, except for a Mediterranean Gull on each day, an ad summer yesterday and a first-summer today.
Had a great hour at Branscombe this morning with Bun, looking for divers and hoping for something more. Well the something more never appeared (except for one Mute Swan, four Canada Geese and 18 Common Scoter) but the divers were absolutely fab!
We were surprised to say the least when we realised the group of three divers we spied soon after our arrival were all Black-throateds! I know, it sounds so stringy, the number of mis ID'd Black-throated Divers reported is frankly frightening, and even though I was looking at them, my County Recorder head just wasn't having it... but they were!! I knew I had to get some photos to prove we weren't having a funny five minutes, it's just a shame the birds were about a mile away...
And you thought my LRP photos were bad!!! They were always gradually drifting west but remained in a tight flock, at first just resting on the sea but later diving quite frequently.
Thankfully these weren't the only divers that we saw, there were also two Great Northerns and at least four Red-throats (including one in summer plumage).
The only other birdie highlight of the day was my first Swallow of the year that leisurely made its way north over Bridge Marsh late morning.
I'm pleased to say today has seen another pulse of spring migration. Although we've had plenty of sunny weather recently today was the first day it actually felt warm, Beer Head was lovely in the late morning sunshine.
The day started in brilliant fashion, with the main pool on Bridge Marsh heaving with birds early this morning. At first there was just one Little Ringed Plover, but a second bird joined it an hour later - both probably new birds which takes our spring total to three...
Slightly better than Saturday's photo!
Best of all on these pools were the Water Pipits. This is the first time I've seen them for about a month, and wow! There were at least six, one in winter plumage but the other five in summer plumage - real beauts. Summer plumaged Water Pipits always remind me of the close link between wagtails and pipits, their blue heads and completely unstreaked breasts make them look so wagtail-like. Wish I could have got closer views, but I was dead chuffed nonetheless.
A look over the sea showed it was quiet as usual (no flocks of Garganey here!) but a nice highlight came in the form of a Goosander that flew in high from the east and came into Seaton Hole, before heading off west.
Late morning Dad and I gave Beer Head a good stomp. I have already endured seven Wheatear-barren treks around this place in the last two weeks, and I was dammed if this was going to be the eighth. It really was not looking good, but thankfully this ploughed field did indeed produce my long-awaited first Wheatear of the year...
This field is just inland of the lookout
Not just one, but five, and all fine males. Sadly none came close enough to photograph but it was just so fantastic watching them hopping about and flycatching off the bare ground.
Finally, whilst up Beer Head, we were treated to a nice view of the Sea King flypast, their final day at work after 36 years with the RAF...
I won't lie, the birding last week (from Monday to Friday) wasn't great, in fact it was highly frustrating. Despite the dates, the mostly blue skies and apparent ideal weather for north bound migrants, it just didn't happen. This wasn't only the case on patch, but all across the UK there were Sand Martin-empty skies and millions of fence posts without Wheatears on. I did see a few bits of interest but I had to work hard to get these scraps.
On Tuesday there was a pretty decent northward passage of Meadow Pipits, especially on Beer Head, and on the Estuary two Greylag Geese were new in (at a very typical time of year for this species on the south coast).
Two Greylag with the local bullies
Wednesday and Thursday were pitiful, but Friday was better. We did actually have some migrants on Friday, two Wheatear on Bridge Marsh and three Sand Martins over Black Hole Marsh, but I didn't see either! I did though see my first Dunlin on the Estuary for about four months, and two Green Sands on Bridge Marsh, which although we haven't had any wintering with us this year, had the 'feel' of being wintering birds as opposed to true spring migrants. I also gave Seaton Marshes a visit and was pleased to see both the Glossy Ibis and the Green-winged Teal...
It was nice to see the Teal on the Estuary
All week there's been really good numbers of big gulls on the Estuary, and I was sure I'd eventually turn something up in with them. But not yet...
Then Saturday comes along, and probably because of the cloud cover it all happens. I only had about an hour out in the field today, but in that time I saw a Little Ringed Plover, four Dunlin, three Sand Martin and three Goldeneye! The Little Ringed Plover was on Bridge Marsh and found by Phil late morning, the Dunlin were on the Estuary, the Sand Martins flew north from the farm gate late this afternoon, and the three Goldeneye (including a stunning male) were found by Clive from the Tower Hide. Goldeneye is a pretty decent patch rare, you can normally see them in a given year, but only with a bit of jam as they are most often seen flying past at sea, or settled on it, but they are not a regular bird on the Estuary by a long way. The only photographic evidence I got of any of the above four species was this shocker...
There is a LRP in this photo!
As well as what I saw, three Ruff, numerous more Sand Martins, a Wheatear and a Yellow-legged Gull were also seen by various local birders here today, so today really was a pretty good day. What really gripped me off though was an Iceland Gull off Exmouth early this morning, this should have been mine in the week!
One of the least enjoyable aspects of being County Recorder is telling people they've made a mistake. To be honest 95% of people take it very well and just accept they've come to the wrong conclusion, but there is that 5% that aren't quite so accepting. They openly admit they are not experienced bird watchers, but will not accept they are wrong - I'm sure this says more about their personality than anything else, but please, Google is not always right!
Early spring is an exciting time of year, and optimism is in the air. Sadly though this seems to tip some over the edge, and I can categorically say that February and March are the two worst offending months for inaccurate bird records. As a bit of fun I thought I'd put together my top five of the most frequently wrongly reported species...
5/ Yellow Wagtail. To be honest this is an all winter problem, which I blame mostly on the fact that Grey Wagtail is a bit of a misnomer.
4/ Willow Warbler. From late Feb through to mid March way more Willow Warblers are reported than would be expected, and the ID features mentioned (if any) are 'looked really green' or 'had pale legs' and never the longer primary projection, whiter belly or longer bill.
3/ Tree Pipit. It's simply amazing how many Tree Pipits are on territory and displaying from mid February. I mean, what else would a parachuting Pipit launching itself off a small heathland tree be? This is a mistake made even by fairly experienced birders.
2/ Osprey. The difficult one with Ospreys is that they can arrive very early, as early as Sand Martins and Wheatears. But reports of Ospreys sitting in the middle of fields, or on road side telegraph poles does make sifting the 'iffy' ones out fairly easy.
1/ Cuckoo. This is always a non-birder's mistake, and no doubt mostly down to the fact that people just don't hear Cuckoos any more. It is surprising just how many February and March Cuckoos get reported, only ever heard and only ever by non-birders.
Now to help make this post more of a constructive and informative one, let's do 5-1 again...
5/ Yellow Wagtail. This species is very rare in the UK out of April-October, although the last few days of March could see the first few arrive. As you can see from the below photo they really are yellow (the males anyway) and are a bird of open marshes and open fields, they particularly love feeding around cattle. This is quite unlike Grey Wagtail, which are much longer-tailed and are most often found on fast flowing streams or around large ponds.
4/ Willow Warbler. Here's a pic I took in 2014 showing a Willow Warbler on the left and a Chiffchaff on the right. Chiffchaffs can look very yellow and show pale legs, but the face of a Willow Warbler is pretty striking, as are the paler underparts.
3/ Tree Pipit. First and foremost, Meadow Pipits do perch on trees, they sing from trees and even parachute off trees during song flights. You really have to hear a Tree Pipit's song to realise how much more varied it is than a Meadow Pipit's, but also listen out for the buzzing call of Tree Pipit. When perched up, note how little streaking the Tree Pipit below shows on its flanks...
2/ Osprey. To be honest there isn't much to say when it comes to pale Buzzard v Osprey, just take a look at the below photo. They are so much longer and overall bigger with a very distinctive head pattern...
1/ Cuckoo. Well this is an audible one so a picture won't help, but the 'Cuc' in the Cuckoo is on another level - so strong and gutsy and puts the 'koo' to shame. Also bear in mind that Collared Doves don't always sing three notes, sometimes it is just two, but they do always sound like a dove (soft and coo-ey).
Yes it may be true that I have become far more cynical now, but in reality you have to be if you are vetting bird records. But it is SO important to also keep in mind than anything can happen and nothing really is impossible. Thankfully it usually is pretty easy turfing out the inaccurate records, but I would challenge anyone who says they could get it 100% right.
I often find March a month of frustration when it comes to birding. You feel like you've turned the corner from winter to spring, but nothing actually happens... and that's exactly what is going on at the moment. Usually though there is an obvious reason why nothing is happening (snow, a blasting cold northerly wind, storms on the migration routes, etc) but at the moment there seems to be no apparent reason. Every day a check of BirdGuides shows an almost complete void of early spring migrants which just seems really odd, yes there's been the odd Sand Martin, LRP, Garganey, plus a bit of obvious spring stringing - but way short of what I have been expecting. Really hope things pick up soon.
Despite the lack of any spring migrants elsewhere, I did give Beer Head a wander late morning yesterday but came up with nothing more than five Stonechat...
I've included this photo more for the blue sky!
It's not just the summer migrants in short supply, with a new moon this week I've been expecting some wader passage on the Estuary (maybe an Avocet, Barwit, Ringo or Grey Plover?) but I've seen absolutely nothing new.
The sea has also been dire, mind you it has been dire all winter. We usually have double-figure counts of Great Crested Grebe here, but three has been my max count all winter, and there only seems to be one left now. These, along with Cormorants and Shags, are the only species of sea birds I've seen settled on the sea in Seaton Bay ALL winter! Dreadful. I did have another look this morning, but after seeing nothing except, surprise surprise, one Great Crested Grebe, I decided to give Branscombe a look...
Finally some birds! Although many were off to the west (with five being too far away to positively ID) there were divers. 12 Red-throated and three Great Northerns to be precise. The second closest of all of them was a stunning full summer plumage Red-throat - what a treat! Also 10+ distant auks on the sea but nothing else. There was nothing really moving over the sea at all, so two Common Scoter east and a flock of 15 west were notable indeed.
Once I had given the sea the attention I felt it required, I wandered up to the sewage works. Several Goldcrests, a green Chiffy and an absolute stunner of a tristis Siberian Chiffchaff - a real pallid grey bird - greeted me. Sadly it was never close enough for pics, but you should know by now that never stops me...
Awful pic, but not a hint of green or yellow anywhere!
I didn't need any convincing yesterday to go and see the Pallas's Warbler currently over wintering at Portesham in Dorset. Pallas's are my favourite of the 'regular' sibes, I saw several at Spurn and Dunge in the early 00's - some exceptionally well. But in the ten subsequent years of birding this patch I have seen just one, that was in 2007 and for about twenty seconds! So it was high time I saw another, even though seeing what in my head is a late autumn specialty, in March, could well play havoc with my inbuilt birding body clock!
It was actually dead easy. James Mc and I parked up in Portesham shortly before 10am, casually strolled up to where we thought we should go, and there it was...
Count the head stripes - that's a seven-striped sprite alright
Showing it's Wood Warbler-like white underparts
The yellow tones to the face also reminded me of Wood Warbler colours. Often looked bull-headed too.
In coming - I just love those stripes!
Check out it's arse! Surprised I managed this with my bridge camera.
What a stunning bird, and mind blowing views. No stiff necks looking at tree tops, it spent virtually the whole time feeding at eye level, and for the twenty minutes we were there it remained in view for about 17 of those. It was so easy to follow as all the trees and bushes were completely bare, and it shared the surrounding cover with only a couple of Robins, Dunnocks, one Goldcrest and a Chiffchaff (which looked huge compared to it!). It really seemed to love this bush, the first bush on the right...
It did move into the small copse to the west and across the track south of this bush. But it did seem to like this bush, there were plenty of small flies buzzing around it which may have explained why.
The rump really is amazing. It is virtually impossible to see when perched, but the moment it flies it's like a light bulb. It's even obvious when you just glimpse it flitting about with your naked eye at a distance.
My advice to anyone thinking of going for this bird, go.
Here's a few short videos that I'm sure will tempt even the most stubborn...
I can confirm to you all that without doubt seeing a Pallas's Warbler is an excellent cure for the winter birding blues - almost as much as a male Northern Wheatear (they can't come soon enough!).
As we were Portland way, I couldn't leave without some diver and grebe action, so we headed to Sandsfoot Castle for a quick scan over a nice calm Portland Harbour...
Looking south to Portland
This proved a very worthwhile stop, as a scan from the Sailing Academy, and through some builders fencing a little way back east along the road, showed a pretty decent selection. For us fairly loyal patch birders, Red-breasted Mergansers are exciting enough as they are scarce on our patches, it was great watching the males displaying.
My previous visits here have shown the Black-necked Grebes to be in one or two pretty tight flocks, but today the 12+ present were spread out everywhere; a four, a few pairs and singles. Most were in or coming into summer plumage which was nice, unlike the four Slavonian Grebes - three of these were in winter plumage with the fourth just starting to get dusky down the front. There were stacks of Great Crested Grebes too, all of these were in the far north east corner of the harbour (where one of the Slavs was, another was towards Ferrybridge with two together in the middle of the harbour).
Four Great Northern Divers were all spread out singletons, but the closest diver was a stunning Black-throated Diver. It was quite a hefty one to be honest, looked quite thick-necked and bulky, so am pretty sure it's the one that was showing well from the southern shore of the harbour over the last couple of days. Sadly my photos aren't quite as good as Pete's...
A blurry phone-scoped Black-throated Diver in awful light!
One fat bird!!
With work looming it was time to head back west. But on the way home we called in at Abbotsbury for a look over the Swannery...
The light wasn't too bad when I took this, but the sun soon came out which made viewing more difficult
We were really impressed with the amount of wildfowl here, heaps and heaps of Pintail in particular. All the Pochard were sat out on the bank probably wondering where their lunch was - no wonder they are so rare here now, they are clearly getting lazy! In contrast the Tufties were busy getting their own grub out on the water, and among these were the the two wintering Long-tailed Ducks and at least one and a half Scaup. I say one and a half because I know there's a hybrid ScaupxTuftie here, and I couldn't rule this out on one of the birds - probably because it was the hybrid.
As ever it's not just the birds that make a twitch, but the company. James M is an ace twitching partner as we are both as laid back and relaxed about it as each other - and neither of us actually like twitching! Especially the crowds. We really are bad twitchers, and will only twitch a bird if the chance of seeing it is up around the 100% mark, plus there has to be other birds around to see as well. In general we also have a similar taste in birds and what we think is worth going to see, well that's with the exception of big white things. James seems to think all egrets may as well be Little Egrets (just smaller or bigger versions), and all swans are Mute Swans just with different coloured bills...
Last Thursday saw an early afternoon low tide, and calm weather conditions. This, coupled with an apparent increase in Purple Sandpiper numbers at our two nearest sites (Sidmouth and Lyme Regis) within the last week, encouraged me to try again and walk the rocks on the beach east of Axmouth Harbour.
Looks so right!
It all looked so perfect. So much exposed rock covered with weeds, and I saw more wading birds than I ever have before; 47 Curlew and 11 Oystercatcher, plus three Little Egrets...
A good Purp-carrying species
And for a few seconds I thought I'd done it. I'd very nearly got to the point that I turn back, and three more Oystercatchers lifted off from a large, gently sloping and smooth surfaced rock. As I got closer my eyes caught sight of two small grey birds shuffling about on the weed - Purple Sands!! It took probably just over a second for my binoculars to get to my eyes, but in this short space of time I was already celebrating - all the effort I have put in had finally come good. Local birders would be queueing up to buy me drinks at the pub and my name would go down in history as the birder that finally got Purple Sandpiper on the Axe patch list. What an amazing feeling it was. But then my binoculars got to my eyes...
I immediately felt very very flat. All the elation, even though it was fake, evaporated into thin air in an instant.
Isn't it funny that when you are so so focused on one particular species, your brain can so easily come to a premature and wrong conclusion without any real thought process. Thankfully there was no one with me, otherwise I could have looked like a right plank if I'd open my mouth before the bins came up.
On the plus side, I managed to see a very distant Red Kite during the boring walk back, thanks to a phone call from Bun - he had just seen it fly north east over Beer.