Tuesday 29 November 2016

Winter Birding

I've seen a few nice things over the last couple of days, most of them distinctly wintry. I'm also finding myself willing every good bird I see now to stay put until Jan 1st - yes I'm already getting fired up for my Patchwork Challenge 2017 year list and it's only November! 

I'll start with yesterday afternoon, and an enjoyable half an hour along the Estuary up to dusk revealed three redhead Goosander (sat on mud north of Tower Hide), two Med Gulls (adults), 24 Dunlin and a Grey Plover.  It's been such a good autumn for Goosander on the south coast, and many other species of wildfowl (especially sea faring ones), I do wonder if that means we have got a proper cold winter coming?

This morning started on the sea front where I could see my first Great Crested Grebe of the winter off towards Seaton Hole. There were also three Black Redstarts about this morning, the two female-types still at Seaton Hole and an adult male near the Spot On Kiosk (thanks Dad)...

I also popped in to Lower Bruckland Ponds this morning, where the Yellow-browed Warbler was showing well right by the entrance bridge. It spent most the time flitting about in the trees as they do...

But in the frosty conditions it did briefly come right down to ground level...

Also present was a female Tufted Duck, which has been here for a couple of days at least...

Yellow-browed Warbler and Tufted Duck.  What a dream Jan 1st duo that would be...

Saturday 26 November 2016

Patch News

Just wanted to stick this up here on behalf of the Countryside Team at EDDC. Anyone who has been to Black Hole Marsh recently will know how much this car park work is needed!

Also note the water levels will be very low on Black Hole Marsh for a time.  James needs to drain out all the fresh water that accumulated here from the floods of last week, and get some salt back in. If it stays too fresh for too long it could be disastrous for the ecosystem of the marsh.

Really hope you're all having a great weekend and are seeing lots of lovely things :-)

Friday 25 November 2016

Autumn's Not Over Yet

The raw north wind continued today, and it continued to encourage some decent passage.  This morning a constant trickle of small Redwing flocks were heading north, along with my first three Fieldfare of the autumn. 

A walk along the beach late morning, for only half an hour, showed a lovely group of four Red-breasted Mergansers (two pairs) fly in from way out, bomb around in all directions for about five minutes (including up the Estuary a short way) before heading off east. 

Not quite patch gold, but better than patch bronze - so can only be patch silver!!

Then my day took a downward turn.  Just before midday I picked up six geese flying in from the south, but they were miles out to sea.  Their flight path though meant they were going to eventually fly right over my head so I just watched them.  The closer they got the more they flew into the sun, so they just looked all black. Then annoyingly just as they were in direct line with the sun they turned and started flying away high east... Nooooooo!!! And it got worse, as they flew into better light I could see they were grey geese! And definitely not Greylags. Gutting. They had necks, and seemed to show a bit of paler grey mid way along the upperwing, so they were probably White-fronts but it looks like I will never know. Drat.

To cheer myself up I had a look through the gulls on the Estuary. Three Med Gulls were as good as it got, a first-winter and two adults, including this ringed individual...

Such fab birds!

Thursday 24 November 2016

Dusky Dipping

Well this wasn't the blog post I was expecting to write today...

I'm usually pretty early to bed every night, guess it's because I'm an early riser. But for some reason last night I was still up gone midnight, and just before I headed up to bed I had a quick look at my phone for any new posts on the blogs that I follow. I clicked on the latest post on the Axe Estuary Ringing Group blog - detailing their captures during their most recent catch on Tuesday of this week - and honestly I thought I was suffering with some sort of sleep deprivation, or that I'd just gone delusional. In front of me was a photo of a Dusky Warbler, the first Dusky Warbler ever recorded on patch!

Here's the pic that was posted, thanks very much to Doug Rudge for a copy of it...

Here's the same pic, but with a few notes pointing out the features that make it the rare that it is (click on the photo to make it and the writing bigger)...

The short primary projection really is striking, although Chiffchaffs have shorter wings than Willow Warblers, they never look this short.

Doug Rudge kindly sent me another photo today, sadly still no legs on show but it's nice to see the bird in different light... 

What a thoroughly gripping photo. Naturally this morning I was out on Stafford Marsh hoping and hearing, but it was so windy I wasn't expecting any joy, and I didn't have any. Whilst out there though I did find out exactly where it had been caught, in this net ride (between two small reed beds)...

There is every chance it is still around, we just need a day of calm weather so we can have a proper look.

This morning actually felt good, the first morning this month with some decent passage. I only gave the dog a quick walk along the beach, but in that time I had four Pintail, four Wigeon and two Starling in off the sea, with four different ultra distant duck flocks flying past and a constant stream of gulls on the move. If I didn't have a Dusky Warbler to look for I would have set my scope up and had a proper sea watch.  Also saw the four Gadwall again this morning, they were on Black Hole Marsh. 

Well what a surprising turn of events. I have always dreamt of finding the first patch Dusky Warbler, but identifying it without seeing the bird was most certainly not in the script!

Monday 21 November 2016


Blimey have we had some rain in the last 48 hours!  And that's lead to some pretty serious flooding in the river valley this afternoon...

Bridge Marsh, water as far as the eye can see!

Looking north from the road bridge over the Axe on the A3052

Looking south from the same bridge

The road ALWAYS floods here - that's one brave moped driver!

The flood from Axmouth

Thankfully this afternoon the rain had stopped, but this morning when it was lashing down I did try to go birding.  It was a struggle, but Bridge Marsh (pre-mega flood) was absolutely heaving with ducks so it was well worth getting wet.  This is how Bridge Marsh looked at 9am (compare with my first photo of this post which was taken at about 14:30)...

Great for birds, but not for birding!

Between cleaning my optics and warming myself up with my car heater, the flood water here showed 400+ Teal, 300 Wigeon, 70 Canada Geese, four Pintail (two pairs), four Gadwall (two pairs, first seen yesterday by PA) and a Dark-bellied Brent Goose (the lingering bird). That's my highest counts for four species of duck so far this autumn/winter, in fact it's the biggest flock of Pintail I've seen on the Axe for many years. This afternoon the wildfowl had spread out with the increase in flood water.

Also this morning I finally managed my first Redpoll of the autumn (about two months late!).  I was lucky to time my ten second walk from my front door to my car perfectly as one flew over calling. It really has been a poor autumn for all the finch species, Siskin and Redpoll especially.

Sunday 20 November 2016

Helping Others

A subject I've touched upon before on this blog is the grumpy birder. Today I want to mention in particular the negative attitude some birders can show towards newbies. These birders (thankfully few and far between) are just too 'good' to bother. For some reason they can't see the bigger picture that the more people we encourage into enjoying our wildlife, the better it is for our wildlife.

Last night on Facebook there was a perfect example of this. 84 comments and one hour later thankfully the post was deleted. And I must say the original poster wasn't nasty to anyone, there was far more vile language being thrown back at him. 

It all took place on the UK Bird Identification page and the offending post, written by a very good and experienced birder, went something like this...

"I joined this page with an open mind but I find myself banging my head against a brick wall. In the last week help has been asked to ID photographs of common birds like Blackbird, Mistle Thrush, Greenfinch, Dunnock and House Sparrow. Some by so called wildlife photographers. Buy a book!"

It was actually a lot longer than that but I can't recall it word for word. 

I take great enjoyment in pitching in my thoughts when it comes to bird ID. Whether it's a tricky immature Gull or something as simple as a Robin. It doesn't bother me how common the bird is, if the observer has asked for help, they want help! I along with a couple of others man the email account, and whenever I see a plea for ID help anywhere on social media I just want to help.

Back when I started out I always found working it out for myself the most prolific way of learning.  But I'm open minded enough to know that this may not be everyone's favoured method. Some people may not want to learn at all, they just want to know what that bird is.  Others may already have an idea what it is and just want a second opinion. But surely we don't need to care about any of this. If someone is interested enough to ask "what is this bird?" Then let's help. It could be the spark that sets off a life long love of wildlife.

If however they log on to the Bird ID page on Facebook with the intentions of posting their unknown photo, only to read an expert moaning about how 'stupid' everyone is for not knowing the common birds...

Thursday 17 November 2016

Patchwork Challenge 2017

As we near the end of autumn 2016, the over whelming feeling I have regarding my birding is of frustration. A lot of leg work on the patch did give me some nice sights and a few finds, but I really feel like I deserved more. 

We have such a massive patch that in reality I don't think we could ever say we have it well covered. Having a big patch is good in some respects don't get me wrong, I love having so many different habitats on offer, it means there's always somewhere to go whatever the weather. But you cannot be everywhere at once, and on the good days you really want to be! It can make an exciting day, frustrating. So many good birds must go through here unseen, let's be honest if a Black Stork can sneak though then so could a hundred rare passerines!

At least 8 Yellow-browed Warblers have been found on patch this autumn, but how many were really here?

So next year I thought I would try a different tactic, instead of covering lots of ground rather infrequently, I am going to cover limited ground much more thoroughly.  And I have found the perfect means of doing this...

Patchwork Challenge has been running for many years now, and watching it from the outside since its start has been great fun. Patch birders all across the UK submit their monthly patch totals, and they are compared with others in many different ways. There seems to be great banter within the 'players' too and a genuine interest in each others progress.  One of the rules though is your patch cannot be bigger than 3km2 - the Axe patch is about 45km2!!

So where will my 3km patch be? Well I have put a lot of thought into this, and at first I was going to pick a nice coastal strip from Beer Head to Branscombe. But the one thing we have that really sets us apart from most other coastal sites is an Estuary. It may not be big, but it is our greatest asset so I would be daft not to include this.

Gav entered Patchwork Challenge (PWC) about three or four years ago, and if you ask me he picked the perfect patch. A neat square following the three major roads surrounding the river valley (Seaton Road/A3052/B3172) . I was going to do the same, but after much thought have decided to tweak it, basically for my convenience and enjoyment. At the end of the day birding is a hobby, so why limit the enjoyment it gives me? These are my tweaks and why:

Living within your Patchwork Challenge patch gives so many benefits! So I have pulled the boundary out a little to include my house.

I own a dog, and so much of my time outside is walking her. Within Gav's PWC patch there is really limited dog walking potential, as quite rightly all the reserves are dog-free areas. I have stretched the boundary to include the whole length of the beach from the river mouth to Seaton Hole, a little way up Seaton Hole valley, and the main road through Axmouth up to Springhead. These are all places I walk Honey regularly.

I have no bird ringing sites within Gav's PWC patch, which is a pity as I do not want my bird ringing to suffer from my PWC effort. Lower Bruckland Ponds is one of my best ringing sites, so I have encompassed that into my PWC patch.

'Vis mig' is one of my favourite birding pastimes, but down in the valley where there is no height and no pinch points, there is simply nowhere good for vis migging. To fulfill my vis mig needs I have included a bit of Axe Cliff in my PWC patch, the best vis mig watch point on the patch. This also gives me some nice stubble fields to kick in the autumn, and the sycamore lined road up to the Golf course (although I've never seen anything here!).

So with all the above in mind, here is my 2017 Patchwork Challenge patch (measuring 2.989km2)...

One thing I do want to stress though is my patch will always be my patch. Beer Head will always be on my patch, as will Branscombe mouth, Colyton, etc. And trust me if a Waxwing is seen at any of these places I will be there quicker than anyone! But for 2017, I just want to see if concentrating on a smaller area makes a difference. In my blog posts next year to try and keep things clear I will call the patch, the patch, and my Patchwork Challenge patch, the PWC patch.

And yes I haven't forgotten my first child is due in mid May! This I am sure will hamper my progress, but who knows, maybe the prospect of a PWC year tick will be exactly what is needed to encourage me to put my boots on and head out after a disturbed night, and not just back to bed...

Monday 14 November 2016

Wildlife in the Limelight

I love Christmas. An event that brings so much joy and happiness to the world in the midst of winter is always going to sit well with me. I am one of those annoying people who can't get enough of it, and it doesn't matter what the date is!  Within the last week various retail outlets have been showcasing their 2016 Christmas adverts, and anyone who has any interest in wildlife and conservation MUST be delighted at what is on offer.  

Although the main character in the John Lewis ad is a dog, two foxes, a badger, a squirrel and a hedgehog play major roles. In fact John Lewis have partnered up with the Wildlife Trusts - they are their chosen charity campaign partner, superb news!

Already being delighted by this, imagine my excitement when I first saw the Waitrose Christmas advert. The whole advert is about the treacherous autumn migration of a Robin from its breeding grounds in Scandinavia to its winter home in the UK (yes, nothing to do Waitrose!).  Back of the net for UK wildlife.

You may well be a Christmas humbug, but if you are a nature lover then please just be happy that our wildlife is taking center stage in something that is so much anticipated, far reaching and positive. Result.

And now usual service resumes...

I only need a paragraph to summarise today's bird sightings. A lovely male Goosander that flew up the River Coly at Colyford mid afternoon was the highlight, with the Estuary offering the Little Stint, two Grey Plover, 13 Dunlin, an adult Med Gull and a large dark mantled Gull that could only have been a hybrid of some sorts (it was too pink-legged, streaky headed and the wrong shade of dark grey for a Yellow-legged).

Thursday 10 November 2016

A Little Little Stint

It was nice to see the lingering first-winter Little Stint again this morning, it was feeding with a group of five Dunlin half way up the Estuary at low tide. There were two more Dunlin further up river, to have a Dunlin to Little Stint ratio of 7:1 in November is pretty impressive! Be nice if it stayed as it would provide a handy year tick on January 1st, if one was that way inclined.

Little Stints always look small, but for some reason I often find the late autumn/winter birds appear really tiny...

No sign of either of our two recent Spoonbills today or yesterday, but I did manage to see the unringed bird briefly on and over Black Hole Marsh mid morning Tuesday.

This morning I also enjoyed another encounter with the lingering first-winter male Black Redstart, he was at Axe Yacht Club. In flight the pale wing panels were so striking I thought I had finally jammed into the elusive adult male, but when he turned and began flying back towards me I could see his underparts were grey and not black. I got some nice views though when he touched down, no Black Redstart could ever disappoint they are such characterful birds...

Tuesday 8 November 2016

BIG News!!!

I really have put a lot of time and effort into birding the patch this autumn (albeit with little reward!). This is the first autumn I've enjoyed for six years without the pressures of being County Recorder, but it's also been on my mind that I may be a little busy for the next few...

Yes, another pair of wellies and binoculars will be required in the Waite household, as I'm absolutely delighted to announce that Jess and I are expecting our first child. How exciting!!!!

Although Jess is only 13 weeks gone, I am already experiencing some pretty serious cravings...

The little one should be making an appearance mid May 2017.  Which still gives me a Waxwing-filled winter (hopefully!) and half a spring... 

Monday 7 November 2016

A Lovely Late Autumn Day

I had a lovely wander around town and along the sea front this morning, the clear blue skies and chill in the air made it such a pleasurable outing. Really seasonal. 

Wood Pigeons have been moving in fairly small numbers each morning since my last blog post, but the stronger northerly wind this morning ensured they were all sticking tight to the coast and remained fairly low.  Flocks were still of mostly between 200-400 birds, so no massive flocks or really impressive numbers yet, but it's always great to see Pigeon passage whatever the numbers...

The sea was quiet, with my first Red-throated Diver west the only notable sighting. There was a distinct lack of birds on the flat calm sea, I do hope we get some settled sea duck off here again this winter.

Over the last week there's been up to four Black Redstarts around Seaton. Sadly I didn't find the adult male that Phil had yesterday, but I did see three female/first-winter types...

The situation is much the same in the valley. Waders include the lingering Little Stint (will it over winter?), three Grey Plover and about a dozen Dunlin. Among the Canada Geese the first-winter Dark-bellied Brent Goose is still with us, and two Shoveler were on the upper section of the Estuary mid morning.

On Saturday morning four Golden Plover were with Lapwing along the A3052 by the Honiton turn off, a typical cold weather sighting.

Lastly, here's an absolutely stunning first-winter male Blackbird from the Borrow Pit this afternoon.  The all dark bill suggests it's a Scandinavian bird, which is probably true as so many of our wintering thrushes originate from here...

Thursday 3 November 2016

Patch Pochard

It was nice to see the first frost of the autumn this morning, the windscreen needed a good scrape first thing. And this unprecedented scene on the Borrow Pit (Seaton Marshes) not long after 9am complimented the weather conditions perfectly...

Patch gold!

As I've said before on this blog, any diving duck here is notable. Tufted Duck are annual on patch with 1-5 records a year. Pochard however has gone from being almost as regular as Tufties to a real patch rarity, and we have no idea why as the habitat hasn't changed (probably actually got better!).  The last Pochard here was three years ago, when I had a female flying around over the Estuary on 31st October 2013. Before that you've got to go back another two years for the previous record.

Drake Pochard (left), drake Tufted Duck (right).

Prior to this excitement the day was already a good one as I had seen a gorgeous Firecrest at Lower Bruckland Ponds. Although this site is an excellent one for warblers all year, and good for Goldcrests too, this was amazingly my first record of Firecrest here.  Firecrest numbers have been increasing annually on the south coast for quite a few years now, but this autumn has been a really poor one. This was my first of the autumn, and I don't think anyone else has seen one on patch.

The only thing I need to mention about yesterday was the first wave of Wood Pigeon passage, the clear skies and chill in the air meant it was almost inevitable. From where I was (Beer Head) I didn't see any flocks bigger than 600 birds, with most being of 100-300, so it wasn't a massive passage but good to see nonetheless.  I also had singles of Reed Bunting and Yellowhammer west, but surprisingly little else.

Let's hope the prediction from the Met Office of a cold winter comes good. The Waxwings continue to arrive on the east coast with a load more reported today, so all we need now is a nice bit of snow and ice to ensure they venture down here.

Tuesday 1 November 2016


When I received a text from Dad mid afternoon yesterday that read 'Arctic Skua stuck in the mud on the estuary from tower hide' my day took a complete change of direction...

Although I have seen Arctic and Long-tailed Skuas fly inland whilst being stood on Seaton Beach, in all my years birding here I've never actually seen a Skua on the Estuary. I also wanted to check it was definitely an Arctic, on this late date Pomarine or possibly even Long-tailed could be as or even more likely. I also wanted to see if it needed help.

As soon as I got to Coronation Corner I could see it in the mud, and could see it was indeed an adult-type Arctic Skua.  But I could also see it really did need help, the rising tide would almost certainly have drowned it. So on went the wellies and off I trudged out into the middle of the mud flats. Thankfully it was easy to pick up and I managed to avoid all contact between its bill and my fingers!

I got it home and Jess and I gave it a full body wash and dry...

I was hoping that by this morning all his feathers would have dried out so I could release him, but he wasn't quite as lively as I was expecting. Although there was certainly plenty of life in him he just didn't seem to be sitting right in the box, so I used Plan B.  I have a friend Catharine who volunteers at RSPCA Westhatch every Tuesday (she took 'Marti' from our hands back in the summer) and she kindly dropped by this morning to collect him.  Archie is no doubt now receiving some first class treatment in the best place he can be. Here's a few more pics that we took this morning...

What a stunning bird to see close up. I absolutely love Skuas, and this is the first time I have ever handled one.  I was really surprised at how small he was, really felt the same as holding a Black-headed Gull to me, not much to him at all.  They always look so powerful and strong when flying over the sea.

Although yesterday I was sure the only reason he needed rescuing was because his flight and body feathers had become clogged up with mud, thinking about it there's really no reason why a healthy Arctic Skua would be up the Axe Estuary on a calm day like yesterday. Very little wind, it was warm, and it was the last day of October! These guys should really be off the south west coast of Africa about now.  I will keep you posted if I hear any updates from the RSPCA. Good luck Archie.