Saturday 31 December 2016

Happy New Year

As the sun sets on 2016 I would just like to wish everyone a Happy New Year.

This is where I should also post a long review of the birds seen on patch in 2016, but to be honest my greatest highlights of 2016 have come from elsewhere. Saying that though, any patch tick is worthy of a mention in an end of year post, of which there were two for me this year. An overdue one with a Red-backed Shrike on Beer Head on 15th September...

And a unexpected one with a Least Sandpiper on Black Hole Marsh on 3rd August...

These two birds take my patch life list total to 257. But now for the real highlights...

It's been really exciting teaming up with Nikon and working alongside them this year, especially regarding the once in a life time project in Slovenia filming this. What an experience it was, so many incredible sights, sounds and people that have touched me forever. 

During the summer of 2016, although it was VERY hard work, being part of a small team that mapped pretty much all the breeding birds on the whole eastern half of Dartmoor was a challenge, but so SO rewarding - a proper monumental, important and historic survey. Getting up to the Moor at dawn meant we saw some incredible sights and so many birds. Hopefully the final report will be out soon, but I for one was encouraged by the numbers of birds like Cuckoos, Grasshopper Warblers, Redstarts, Tree Pipits and Whinchats that we came across.  Thanks to the RSPB and the Moor Than Meets The Eye project, and of course Chris and Kev for this opportunity.

I couldn't not include becoming an expectant father - this really is life changing. Now I suppose is a good time to mention that yesterday we went for our 20 week scan, and it was quite clear to see that we are expecting a..... BOY! Such thrilling news!  Although we've got a lot to sort out, we really cannot wait for May 2017.

It's easy to pick out the two low-lights for me this year, neither I want to dwell on, in fact one I don't want to mention at all. Missing a completely unprecedented movement of Cory's Shearwaters off Seaton on 20th August was seriously gutting, I was at Rutland all day!

So tomorrow is a New Year, and I cannot wait to get stuck into Patchwork Challenge. Today the Cattle Egret, Grey Plover and Tufted Duck were all still present, so I am hopeful of a good start to the campaign. Needless to say, you can watch my progress here on Axe Birding, and as ever thanks for reading.

Saturday 24 December 2016

Merry Christmas

Following the shock joint announcement from BTO and RSPB, that in order to promote the less appreciated species of birds, from next year Robins are to be banned from all Christmas cards and decorations, I thought I'd start the ball rolling early here on Axe Birding....

A Christmas Caspian Gull!

I really do wish all readers of my blog (whether you've read it once or read it weekly) a very Merry Christmas. I hope the festive period is filled with love, laughter and happiness for you all. And maybe even some birds if you get the chance!  Plenty of food of course too :-)

Monday 19 December 2016

Velvet Scoters

When I went down to walk the dog on the beach this morning, seeing a flat calm sea encouraged me to get my scope out and give it a scan. Good move!

On the first scan I picked up seven duck flying into the bay from the south west, they were four Common Scoter being led by three fantastic Velvet Scoters.  They flew into the bay and I thought were going to carry on east, but then made a large sweeping u-turn and flew off back west.  My first patch Velvets since 14th Nov 2013 so they were very much appreciated, hardly a surprise though given the numbers currently on the south coast. Hopefully we may get an Eider or two next?

I also must mention the Dartford Warbler that Ian Mc had on Seaton Marshes this morning, from the hide.  One was seen along the west walk of Seaton seafront a couple of weeks ago, so there's every chance it's the same bird and it's lingering. This is potentially very good news as it could be another target for Jan 1st.

The only other birding news I have to tell is that on Saturday I saw the Cattle Egret come into roost again in Axmouth (despite not seeing it in Colyton on Thursday or Friday), it flew in at 16:31. The Grey Plover was still on the Estuary as well.

After sunset on Saturday looking from Axmouth to Seaton.

Monday 12 December 2016

Found it!

My first attempt at finding where the Cattle Egret is spending the daytime began at 07:30 this morning.  At 07:41 it flew out of roost in Axmouth, but it was still so dark and it flew upriver so surprisingly quickly that my plan of following it north just didn't work.

So this afternoon I drove around looking for cattle, and from a distance saw a bunch of egrets drop in near a farm in Colyton.  I soon realised it was the farm where the three Cattle Egret were back in January 2009, and a closer look showed these egrets to be 13 Little and the Cattle. Gotcha!

It's Colcombe Farm, but please don't drive down the farm track. View the egrets from the Colyton to Shute road. There's a bench on the left just after turning on to the Shute road from the Colyton to Whitford road, just before the upper track down to the farm and virtually opposite a lay-by.

I'd had a good morning as well. Was really pleased to see the Yellow-browed Warbler, Tufted Duck and Grey Plover all still waiting patiently for Jan 1st. And a wander around Colyford WTW showed there has been a sudden explosion in Chiffchaff numbers, with at least 45 feeding along the northern edge of the WTW and around the neighboring fields. 

Who said December was a quiet month?

Sunday 11 December 2016

Cattle Egret

With not much to see over the past week on patch (mostly due to the horribly mild weather I presume) other than gulls, there's only really been one rarity on my radar. 

It's turning out to be the best UK Cattle Egret influx since 2008/09, with small numbers appearing (mostly in the south west) during the past week.  Back in 2009 we all thought it was the start of 'another Little Egret story', but since then they have become somewhat rare. So it's really nice to see a good flurry of records and reports of small flocks on the bird news websites again. Even better is the fact it's half a month away from my Patchwork Challenge year listing attempt!

Although we've not got many cattle in the river valley at the moment, we do have some, and plenty of Little Egrets so I've been optimistic for one here within the last week. But with no luck during the days I knew my next best chance was to watch the evening egret roost at Axmouth, the bonus is this will include birds that have been feeding outside the patch boundary during the day. My first free late afternoon slot was Saturday (yesterday), so at 16:10 I parked up at Coronation Corner and waited. And isn't it nice when a plan works...

The weather was really cloudy and grim, so by 16:20 it was almost completely dark. I'd seen about 25 Little Egrets come into roost (they always fly in from up river) when I picked up another egret flying in that I immediately knew was going to be a Cattle.

This shows that getting your 'eye in' really does make a massive difference. Because in the previous five minutes I'd seen numerous Little Egrets on the very same flight line, when this one came into view I could tell it was smaller and flying with quicker and shallower wing beats.  It was so dark that it wasn't until it flew over the road and into the roost site that I could see the crucial bits, but thankfully I could see it all clearly enough (completely different head and bill shape, all yellow bill, shorter legs, etc).  I found it interesting that it came down river and into roost all on its own, does this mean it had used this roost before?

This was my first patch Cattle Egret since 11th April 2014 (have missed one in between) so it was really great to see, but I doubt any will ever beat this beaut from June 2008...

Breeding plumaged adult Cattle Egret on the Axe Estuary 02/06/08

Bun probably had the Cattle Egret again tonight. Sadly it was too late and it was completely pitch black, so all he saw was a 'smaller egret' drop in, he just didn't get enough on it.  Hopefully tomorrow though I will be able to find where it's hanging out in the day...

Tuesday 6 December 2016

Dusky Thrush (no not that one!)

More drivel today I'm afraid, blame this mild winter weather. Don't worry it's nowhere near in length as my last post! Oh and thanks for the responses to that one, been great to read all the honest accounts of Birding Blunders

You may remember a couple of weeks ago I wrote a post about how a 'grumpy birder' had logged on to the Bird ID page on Facebook and basically had a good moan about being asked to ID common birds. There were many phrases within his long rant like "buy a bird book" and "banging my head against a brick wall".  Here's my original post:

Go forward fifteen days (to 15:35 on Sunday 4th) and on the very same Facebook page a lovely lady called Rachel from Derbyshire posts three photos with a simple...

 "Just three for you today 😄 thankyou!"

Photo one shows a Starling, and would you believe it, the third photo is a good picture of a regular every day Blackbird.  Oh dear, 'Grumpy birder' would not be happy about this one bit. Rachel buy yourself a bird book and start working things out for yourself.  Unbelievable. 'Bangs head against brick wall'.

Oh yes, of course, there was also photo number two...

Photo (c) Rachel Jones

I have to be honest and say when I first saw this photo I wasn't sure if it was a wind up or not. But I told Rachel what the three species were, and she replied with two further photos of this absolute mega - a Dusky Thrush. It was no wind up.  And within a few minutes the Facebook Bird ID page went absolutely mental.

Fast forward two days and many happy twitchers and birders have seen this bird thanks to all the work put in by Rachel in sorting the access and parking arrangements. And of course because she felt comfortable enough to post this photo, with her two others of common birds, on Facebook.

So 'grumpy birder', and all others who think it's a good idea to go to places designed to help those who want help, only to have a good moan about the very people asking for help, well let this be a valuable lesson. If you take the time to encourage, who knows what will come of it one day.

Although personally I am not fussed about seeing this fantastic bird, I do have one question... Can I count it as a find tick??

Sunday 4 December 2016

Birding Blunders

It's mid December and there's a storm blowing. A howling south westerly gale is battering the south coast of Devon, with frequent heavy downpours, but that doesn't put off the dedicated patch birder from skipping breakfast and heading down to the coast. He sets up his scope which he struggles to keep still in the wind, but for the first twenty minutes sees very little passing. 

All of a sudden a small white gull flies into view. It's flying into the wind but its clearly all white and small, no bigger than a Kittiwake. The bird remains distant as it flies west but it's clear the bird has some small black flecks along its wing, but otherwise it's really is pure white and is flying almost like a tern. Ivory Gull!!  Mega!  It turns more south and the observer watches it fly away... did that just happen!?  

Still shaking with excitement the birder grabs his phone, manages to send a text out to other birders, and quickly fires of a tweet "Distant 1w Ivory Gull off xxxxxxx, seems to have flown off out to sea!"

But as he puts his phone back in his pocket and continues to scan with his telescope, he picks it up again and it's flying back into the bay.  Fantastic! It keeps on coming, and coming, before dropping on the the sea where it joins a lone adult Kittiwake. Immediately something doesn't look right. It has an all yellow bill, it's the same shape as the Kittiwake, and the 'black flecks' are actually splodges of oil.... it's an albino Kittiwake.

Just as a sinking feeling tugs on the observers stomach, an adult Great Black-backed Gull knocks the albino Kittiwake on the head, and proceeds to swallow it.  It's at this point that cars begin to arrive and the first birders are running over...

Hypothetical Person A   

The birder immediately gets his phone back out of his pocket, begrudgingly sends the tweet 'sorry folks, the Ivory Gull was actually an albino Kittiwake' and sheepishly apologises to all the birders that have already arrived.  He then spends this next 24 hours with his phone turned off and consumes the advised maximum monthly intake of alcohol in one evening. 

Hypothetical Person B

As the first telescopes arrive the birder exclaims "sorry guys, no further sign". Alas there is no more sightings of the 'Ivory Gull', but then again it did fly back out to sea so that's not a surprise. To pull off his lie he needs to carry it all the way though, so submits a remarkably good description of a first-winter Ivory Gull to the BBRC, which sails through. The birder goes down in history as the finder of the first Devon Ivory Gull since 1853!

As an outsider not knowing the truth, who is the better birder?   Well it's clearly not the Muppet that is Person A who can't even tell the difference between a common seabird and one of the most obvious gulls in the world. What a complete stringer.  Person B however, what a star, a complete legend. Managed to nail a flyby Ivory Gull, which he deserved after spending so much time out and about....

Birders are humans. And humans make mistakes, in fact mistakes are what makes us human. When first learning about birds I think you kind of learn through mistakes, and you will probably make many of them, but however experienced and knowledgeable you become as a birder, blunders will still happen. 

It's the birders that never admit to making mistakes that concern me. Thankfully I am confident all the birders I know are like Person A, honest. But I'm sure there are some out there like Person B. Their egos so ballooned and with such (deluded) high standards to uphold, their pride would just not let them back down from their first call. They simply cannot be seen to make a mistake. So, who is the better birder?

Person A. All day long.

Even the most thorough and expert birders make mistakes. The best field birder I know and have ever birded with once spent the day counting an impressive Arctic Skua passage. He returned back to base only to find out all the sea watching locations both north and south of him recorded almost exactly the same numbers of Pomarine Skuas. He immediately knew he'd ballsed up. And admitted it. Everyone makes mistakes, it's how you deal with them that counts.  

It's important to learn from your mistakes (this does make you a better birder), and you have got to expect some flack, but move on. Deal with the error like my dog dealt with the cold water that had soaked into her fur after a swim in the River Coly this morning...

Writing this post got me thinking about my biggest birding faux pas, and three spring to mind...


It must have been about 2001 or 2002, before Colyford Common had a hide and was just a slope and a platform. The previous day I'd had an Osprey fly through south at dusk, and I was stood there with Phil A and Dave H. All the Estuary birds had taken flight, and I was frantically looking around through my binoculars for the reason. As I lowered my binoculars my eyes saw a bird flying very close to us, with a dark breast band, broad wings and a slow flap. My mouth said "Osprey" about half a second before my brain said 'Lapwing'.... there was no excuse!

A Redshank on Steroids.

On 16th August 2010 at Black Hole Marsh, although I was looking into the sun, I could see a long-billed, large and elegant looking Redshank-type. I didn't have to think twice about putting the news out that a Spotted Redshank was with a Greenshank on the marsh.  Here is the bird...

That evening Phil went down, and saw it again, closer and in flight. It was a Redshank. I still maintain it was a bloody weird looking Redshank (possibly of eastern origin?), but it was a Common Redshank.

But I'm good with Gulls.

At dusk on 25th January 2010 I was watching the gulls on the Estuary when a white-winged Gull dropped in north of Coronation Corner. It was so white I was worried it was an albino or leucistic thing, but when it was settled with Herring Gulls it looked smaller, cuter headed and longer winged. A second-winter Iceland Gull, nice. Here it is...

This bird stayed for months on the Estuary. And it was a Herring Gull. This one I took particularly hard as I do consider myself a 'guller'. I thought I had checked all the salient features, well I had, yet I concluded wrong.  Am pleased to say it never put me off gulls though :-)

So folks, I've been open and honest, now it's your turn. Let's have a birders amnesty, I'd love to read about your biggest gaffs and greatest embarrassments in the world of birding. Whether via a comment on this blog, a tweet, an email or a text.  Let's celebrate the fact we are human...