Thursday, 6 October 2016

An Avian Black Hole

A word you won't read very often on any of the Axe patch birders blogs is the word Undercliff. We tend to pretend it doesn't exist.

Roughly 2/3rds of the coast line of our patch is completely unbirdable. Which is a right royal pain in the butt.  Underneath all our large cliffs is a deep and dense jungle of trees, shrubs and bushes that you can barely get among, and even if you do find yourself on one of the few paths through it, you can basically only see what is right next to you. 

East of the Axe it is known as the Undercliff. Below Beer Head and to Branscombe it is called the Underhooken. I call it the Axe Avian Black Hole.

The Underhooken this morning

I honestly think this is the reason why there are no Hippolais or rare Sylvia Warblers on the patch list, and could well be why we have only seen one Long-eared Owl in the last 30+ years!  The rarest bird ever seen in any of the Undercliff was the Beer Head Iberian Chiffchaff on 28th April 2007. I was only able to find that because it was right on the upper edge of the Underhooken and was audible and (very briefly!) viewable from the top of Beer Head.

The only scarce species its seem to be good for us for is Ring Ouzel, and that's simply because they are big enough to see from a distance. They can be flipping elusive though and often disappear for hours at a time.

So our Undercliffs are probably fantastic for birds (the amount of Blackcap song from down there in spring is amazing!) but completely pants for birding. This strong easterly wind though has proved hard work to bird in, and seeing as it edged a little more north east this morning, I did what I haven't done for about five years - I went in...


And what a waste of time it was. One Stonechat and one Chiffchaff was the 'highlight' of the mile walk through all this lush and sheltered habitat from Branscombe to Beer Head. It's a bloody hard path too, one minute you are right next to the beach...

And then you are massively high up...

And the amount of these really don't help, they make it so much more painful...

So although I saw nothing today, I'm glad I tried something different this morning. Before I descended into the jungle, the best on top of Beer Head was a moderate visible migration, just Meadow Pipits, alba Wagtails, Swallows, House Martins, Goldfinches and Linnets though.  All were flying east tight against the cliff edge.

In my previous post I predicted my first Redwings weren't far away, and I was right! Unusually they were day time ones too which was nice. I had seven (a flock of five and two singles) fly low east during a short dog walk around where I live yesterday morning. I also noted ten Song Thrush during the same wander so yesterday was clearly something of a thrush day. There had also clearly been an arrival of Chiffchaffs too as I saw a good handful at all the places I visited during the morning. Still no stripey ones though.

I should also mention the lone Barnacle Goose with the Canada Geese on Colyford Marsh on Tuesday afternoon, I found it during a quick pre-work tour of the Estuary.  Although there has been an arrival of 'Barnies' in the north over the last few days, the chances are it was in fact this bird;

Right I'm probably going to head out again in a minute. Not sure where I'll be going, although I certainly know where I won't be going...


  1. Is it not possible to do some ringing down there, Steve?

    1. Highly doubt it. Would need to first cut ringing rides, and getting all the kit there would be a nightmare! Also it is an SSSI so there may well be some restrictions in place.

  2. Great Post Steve - Axe Avian Black Hole sounds intriguing.

    I do a lot of my birding in Hong Kong in close scrub like this. No question that its tougher than wetland/open country birding, but pishing, patience and plodding (very slowly) can deliver great results. Given the good coverage of the rest of the Axe Estuary /Seaton area it seems like a great potential patch for someone looking to find their own birds. Unfortunately it's a bit far from Hong Kong.

    I agree with Tim - and indeed your own observations/frustration - that anyone ringing there would likely get a hatful of birds. Whoever manages the SSSI might even welcome data collection that demonstrates a previously unknown ecological value of the site.
    Mike Kilburn

    1. Hi Mike, thanks for your thoughts - and yes you are right mist netting there could prove very valuable. It would be a logistical nightmare, and the amount of work required to clear rides would be immense. But it really is a mystery as to how much passes through down there and ringing would help solve that.

      Amazing to see I have a reader as far away as Hong Kong! Thanks for following, and many many thanks for the comment.

      Heppy birding,


  3. Many thanks for the reply Steve.

    As an avid patch birder I enjoy following blogs of other committed patch birders, especially those that have a decent site with the potential for good birds, and are interested to find their own birds. I started following the Axe birding group on BirdForum several years ago, then followed you when you switched over to a standalone blog. I have long posted my patches on the China section of BirdForum and have at times wondered about making the same switch without ever quite finding sufficient motivation.

    Also, as a kid (1980s) I lived in Plymouth (my patch was the Plym Estuary), went to school in Dorset and had grandparents in Penzance. As a result most of my formative birding was in the Southwest, using the seminal Where to Watch Birds in Devon and Cornwall as guide to a superb range of sites I visited mostly by public transport, so I have some context for your records, which also evoke the occasional fond memory.

    As for the recommendation about ringing/birding the Underhooken, its all too easy to suggest to someone else "You should . . . (fill in the blank)" where there is not the slightest possibility of having to do any of the actual hard work yourself. I'm not a ringer and honestly have no concept of the logistical difficulties of setting up to ring there.

    My patches, which I write up in the China section of BirdForum under MKinHK, are predominately of this close quarters scrubland habitat, so I am at least familiar with the difficulties and frustrations - and the rewards - of trying to get views of something skulking in the bushes long enough for it to be identifiable or, even more rarely, photographable!


    1. Mike - so you are MKinHK! I remember that name from my keen Birdforum days, it is great to chat more directly to you. Nice to hear you spent some time in Devon too, so many Devon birders started off in Plymouth, but the place never seems to hold birders for long!

      I had another look at the Undercliff today and part of it does look possibly accessible so will see what I may be able to sort out. It could well be a very interesting study.

      Thank you for reading my blog, and yes, take the step and launch your own blog - you won't regret it!

      Wishing you all the best,