Thursday 28 September 2017

Ruff Influx and Spoonbill

Today is the first day this week that I've managed any time out birding on patch. And that's with the whole week off work!  I managed two looks along the Estuary at mid tide (early morning and mid afternoon) and an early afternoon visit to Black Hole Marsh.  It was quite a fruitful day really with my totals being; 

42 Wigeon
50+ Teal
1 Spoonbill
7 Ringed Plover
2 Dunlin
1 Curlew Sandpiper
1 Little Stint
19 Ruff
1 Bar-tailed Godwit
2 Green Sandpiper
5 Common Sandpiper
1 Spotted Redshank
3 Greenshank

There's two stand outs on that list, Spoonbill and the exceptional Ruff count.  The Spoonbill was completely jammy as I saw it with my naked eye from the kitchen window flying south west away from Black Hole Marsh. Doubt soon crept in with such a brief and distant naked eye only view, but sure enough when I went down to Black Hole an hour later... "there was a Spoonbill here about an hour ago, didn't stay long though and flew off towards the Estuary". Presumably this was also the bird that dropped in briefly at Abbotsbury today.

As for the Ruff. Wow. Just wow. I had at least ten early morning on Black Hole Marsh, Dad had 14 mid morning and when I went down there early afternoon there was an incredible 19 on view. All were juveniles, and they were mostly hanging out in two flocks of seven with the rest loosely dotted around.  Not sure if this is a record count for the patch, I highly doubt it as 'back in the day' am sure Phil saw loads together at times, but my previous highest single count here is of 17. Can't remember the date off hand but it was in the winter during a very cold snap with lots of snow and ice around.

Six of the 19 Ruff on Black Hole Marsh this afternoon

The Spotted Redshank was the lingering juvenile on Colyford Scrape, and the Curlew Sandpiper (juv), Ringed Plovers and my highest count so far this autumn of Wigeon were all along the Estuary this morning.

In other news, it's that time of year when I need to edit my mini-bio to the right of this page, and increase my age by one. Though to be honest life is going by so quick it feels like I'm changing this at least three times a year!  At the age of 32, well, I can't even begin to explain just how happy and content I am with life, it would take pages and pages of text. But the source of it all is simple...

My world

Saturday 23 September 2017

More Grey Phalarope

Although the Grey Phalarope remains on Black Hole Marsh, I've only managed another five minutes with it. That was on Thursday afternoon just as the sun came out...

What a great bird! It's no surprise that it is proving so popular with photographers as it is showing so so well.

Also reported today a new juv Little Stint, and I've seen lots of lovely pictures on Twitter of three juvenile Ruff feeding together on Colyford Common, two males and a female.

Thursday 21 September 2017

Grey Phalarope

Considering it has very much been a Grey Phalarope autumn on the south coast of the UK this year (with for example eight together at Abbotsbury Swannery last week!) one was always on the cards here, but it's taken longer than I expected.

I was absolutely delighted the first-winter Grey Phalarope Phil found on Black Hole Marsh last night stayed for me to enjoy early this morning. As you can see it showed exceptionally well in the dull and sometimes wet conditions right by the entrance to the Island Hide...

This was when it was at its furthest...

Showing well!

First-winter Grey Phalarope with Dunlin

If the weather brightens up a bit and the bird stays around, there's going to be some proper nice pics of it. What a stunner.

I was amazed to learn this was a patch life tick for Tim Wright, but thinking about it they have been really scarce here in recent years. These are my last three records of Grey Phalarope for the patch (click on the date to take you to the corresponding blog post);

9/11/10 - one in flight off the sea front before flying high upriver. Subsequent searching for it resulted in the discovery of our first and only patch Long-billed Dowitcher!
5/10/10 - one on Black Hole Marsh all afternoon and evening.
5/10/08 - one on Colyford Marsh scrape all day (third record of Grey Phal that year).

I'm pretty sure Ian Mc has seen one during a sea watch since my last 2010 individual, but it's certainly been a while since one in the valley!

Tuesday 19 September 2017

Patch Update

This won't take long. Well it can't to be honest as I've got to go....

Our first Little Stint of the autumn appeared mid morning today on Black Hole Marsh, found by Clive (it wasn't there at 9am!). Also present two Ruff (a second juvenile joined the lingering bird yesterday morning - present at first on Colyford Marsh but now both are on Black Hole), the juvenile Curlew Sandpiper (for its fourth day) along with small numbers of Greenshank, Green and Common Sandpipers, 26 Dunlin and seven Ringed Plover.  The Spotted Redshank wasn't on Colyford Scrape this morning, but this is where it has been most days.

Here's some (poor) pics of the star birds...

Juvenile Little Stint - it remained distant but no doubting this one!

Dreadful pic of the juv Curlew Sandpiper

Ruff number one

Ruff number two - with a Snipe in the early morning sun on Colyford Marsh. Why wasn't it a Buff-breast!?

Juvenile Spotted Redshank

And that's that.  I'll leave you with the view from Colyford Common hide early yesterday, the sun rising over the Axe Valley on a lovely mid September morning...

Sunday 17 September 2017

Black-tailed Godwits

As promised a few posts back...

There are three sub species of Black-tailed Godwit Limosa limosa in the world. L. l. melanuroides, which breeds in eastern Russia, Siberia, China and Mongolia, has never been recorded in the UK so we can forget about that one, leaving us with these two...

The Icelandic Black-tailed Godwit (L. l. islandica) breeds mostly in Iceland, but also the Faeroe Islands along with a few pairs in Scotland. The majority winter in the UK, Ireland, France and Holland.

The small number of Continental or European Black-tailed Godwit (L. l. limosa) that breed in the UK (East Anglia) are at the western limit of their breeding range, with most breeding in western and central Europe to central Asia and west Russia. They winter around the Mediterranean and as far south as the west coast of North Africa, mostly Senegal.

So to summarise the above information, it would seem that islandica is an abundant winter visitor to the UK, whereas limosa is a very rare breeding bird and probably a fairly scarce passage migrant. And this is what the case seems to be on the Axe Estuary, through my observations and the on going Black-tailed Godwit colour-ringing project undertaken by the Axe Estuary Ringing Group. In fact I can't say I've ever seen/noticed a limosa here before.

Separating the two sub species is far from easy though, especially in winter plumage when on plumage they are identical.  Spring birds in breeding plumage are do-able, as are fresh autumn juveniles, and this is why I have been paying extra attention to our Black-tailed Godwit flocks this autumn as they've contained a high proportion of juvenile birds. Everything I've seen though has  looked fine for islandica, well until last Saturday morning...

A small flock (c12 birds) of juvenile islandicas have been feeding on Colyford Common at high tide over the past couple of weeks, but last Saturday morning (9th Sept) one bird really stood out and stood up! Bingo, surely my first limosa...

Juvenile/first-winter L. l. limosa on the left and juvenile  L. l. islandica on the right

The structural differences are pretty striking in the above photo. Longer necked, bigger headed, longer billed with a broader bill base and longer legged (noticeably the tibia).

Sadly the L. l. limosa at the back is out of focus in this shot

Check out the bill size difference!

L. l. limosa at the front

The above photo shows the neck difference nicely. All the islandica in the flock lacked any sort of neck bulge when they held their heads tight to their body, whereas the limosa always showed a noticeable bulge along the lower edge of the neck. Presumably this is simply down to the fact it's a larger bird with a longer neck?

L. l. limosa at the front

Looking at the actual plumage of the bird, I'm not sure how useful this is as there was so much variation in moult and wear within all the Godwits in this group. But I'm sure it's not a coincidence this was the palest and blandest bird in the flock, lacking any orange tones to the head, neck or mantle - just a buff wash. This fits well with the literature for the limosa as they are far less colourful as juveniles than the often almost bright orange islandica. Just a pity it wasn't a month earlier though when they'd all be in much fresher plumage.

It's also worth mentioning that when the flock took to the air, the size difference was just as notable in flight. It was always easy to see which one the limosa was even if you couldn't see any plumage features.

Because all I've got for sub species specific identification of this bird is structural differences, and no real plumage traits, I reckon that means I can do no more with it that write this blog post. This limosa Black-tailed Godwit would (on paper) be the first record of this sub species for Devon, and for me to submit this as a county first I would need all the boxes ticked, not just a few. Annoying yes, but when it comes to bird ID I am strict. Oh well, at least I've got a blog post out of it!

If you're after your own limosa it's very important to remember that overall size and bill length varies between sexes (and maybe age?) in Godwits like most other wading birds, so be aware that islandica will show a variety of bill lengths and body sizes. As with many things, a direct comparison makes it so much easier so it's best to study Godwit flocks, lone birds will always be tricky unless they show a particularly striking plumage.

And here's some useful links on the subject:

Birding Frontiers

Northumberland & Tyneside Bird Club

Handbook of the birds of the world

Thursday 14 September 2017

More Least Sandpiper and Update

Following on from my last post, thanks to Richard Phillips (@cork_head) some more photos of the Axe Least Sandpiper from 7/9/17 have materialised. These were also taken when the bird was on Colyford Scrape, so the distance and light means the quality is again dodgy, but what some of these pics show well is the general colour of the bird (quite fawny brown), along with pale legs...

(c) Richard Phillips
(c) Richard Phillips
(c) Richard Phillips
(c) Richard Phillips

Thanks Richard! The second one in particular  I think will prove very useful and help with the BBRC submission.

Now time for a brief summary of the bits and bobs I've seen on patch lately, with my second and the Axe's third Osprey of the autumn yesterday afternoon - thanks to texts from Ian Mc and James Chubb.   Phil had our second Osprey of the autumn fly straight down the Estuary and out to sea last Sunday, the day after our first Osprey left us. Also on Sunday Phil found a juvenile Spotted Redshank (amazingly our first since Nov 2013!) which remained until Tuesday at least when it was feeding on Colyford Scrape during the afternoon.  A lone juvenile  Bar-tailed Godwit has been kicking around as well for a few days now, often feeding at the bottom end of the Estuary as they usually do here...

Bar-tailed Godwit

Despite all the recent wind and rain the sea has been really disappointing. I am amazed we haven't even managed a Grey Phalarope, let alone a Leach's Petrel or Sabine's Gull. Very disappointing.  The only slightly notable thing that I've seen whilst looking over the waves was a very early Great Northern Diver that flew west on the morning of Saturday 9th. I even managed a picture, just...

Really impressed with the P900 on this one, it was miles out! Love the feet on flying GNDs

Black Hole Marsh is looking good again now, with wading birds staying on the marsh feeding even at low tide. There's still plenty of time for goodies, and with an amazing trio of American waders just along the coast at Weymouth/Portland, we have to be in with a chance of some more...

Tuesday 12 September 2017

A belated Least Sandpiper - third Axe record in two years!

At the end of my last post I mentioned a 'Little Stint' that was present here last Thursday evening (7th), and how I wished I'd had the chance to see it and give it a closer look. Well now I really wish I'd had that chance! Here's the bird again...

(c) Phil Abbott

Phil is one of our most experienced birders, I was at work when I read this text from him last Thursday evening, and I shuddered...

"Stint sp. probably little juv from tower hide distant"

I knew from that wording Phil wasn't happy with it, and although his views of it all that evening were extremely distant and only in dull light, after it got dark I received another text from him...

"not 100% convinced, rubbish light but bill looks wrong for little stint"

Sadly I couldn't find the bird anywhere on Friday morning, but it was obviously still playing on Phil's mind as it wasn't even 7am when he texted me asking whether I'd seen it yet!

Fast forward four days and photos appear online of the Lodmoor Least Sandpiper - Phil recognised the bird immediately from Brett Spencer's excellent photos.  He then went through all his photos of the Axe bird, including the very worst ones, and came across this...

(c) Phil Abbott

It had yellow legs!

In the field the birds legs looked dark, which is why Phil was thinking more down the Western Sandpiper route than anything else. But this is the game changer, and he was so right to have those niggle, which only comes from a birder with experience. It's got to be a Least Sandpiper - third Axe record in just two years!

Because the views were so poor, so are the photos (which has made this all so much harder!). But I've highlighted a few things visible in Phil's photos...

(c) Phil Abbott

1. Pale V down the birds mantle, which enables us to confidently age this bird as a juvenile.
2. Apparent faint streaking on upper breast.
3. Lacking an attenuated rear end which is shown by Little Stint.

(c) Phil Abbott

4. Slightly longer, more tapering and decurved bill than Little Stint. Personally I thought Least Sands had beaks similar to Little Stint, but they can indeed look like this. This is the feature that bothered Phil the most.
5. This could just be a photo artifact, but notice that dark line around the birds neck. Least Sands do have darker faces than Little Stints, and there are photos online showing juvenile Least Sands with this almost collared look.

(c) Phil Abbott

6. Unequivocally yellow legs, well at least one anyway!
7. Although again picture quality is poor, looks to me like the tertials pretty much reach the wing tip and it lacks any obvious visible primary projection, unlike Little Stint. Rear end also looks quite short, it's clearly not a long-winged bird.
8. Obvious dark ear covert spot.

And although the picture quality doesn't match Brett Spencer's excellent photos of the Lodmoor bird (thanks for use of photo Brett) here's the Axe and Lodmoor birds side by side...

(c) Phil Abbott (left) (c) Brett Spencer (right)

Well they look pretty similar to me! Same bird? Discuss...

Whether there is enough on the Axe bird to gain acceptance by BBRC I am not sure, this would be a shame but what can we do. I really am so so gutted to have missed it but full marks to Phil Abbott for all his hard work and not letting those niggles rest.

Saturday 9 September 2017

Osprey and Continental Black-tailed Godwit

Although we see several Ospreys each year on the Axe, both in spring and autumn, we've not had a lingering bird since mid August 2014 - this one unusually preferred fishing over the sea not the Estuary!  Before that we had two lingering birds in 2012 (though neither for very long) and the most watched was THIS colour-ringed juvenile that stayed for over a week back in September 2010.  So it was high time we enjoyed another loitering bird, and that we have...

Thanks to a tweet from Martin Bennett early Thursday afternoon (a lovely chap from the New Forest who I'd met that morning in the Island Hide) we were made away of the presence of a fishing Osprey on the Estuary. It remained all of the Friday, and was around today until late morning when it flew off south west.  I though it was leaving us earlier in the day as at 9:20am it flew west over Stafford Marsh with pace...

Gladly though it came back east to offer the gathered crowd some more fishing views...

There's nothing like an Osprey to pull in the crowds! Pity it left us so soon but hopefully we will see some more before the autumn is out.

The bushes were deadly quiet this morning, and the wading bird situation isn't much better now Black Hole is full of water. All I noted here and on Colyford Marsh were four Greenshank, two Green Sandpipers and a couple of Ringed Plovers.  The highlight for me this morning was without doubt one of the 90+ Black-tailed Godwits that are currently on the Axe.  Among a small flock of Black-tailed Godwits feeding on Colyford Common I was delighted to notice a larger bodied, billed and legged bird, a Continental limosa Black-tailed Godwit (as apposed to Icelandic islandica race which are the norm for the Axe).....

Limosa Black-tailed Godwit (front bird)

I have got several more pics of this beast, but am going to save them for another post within the next couple of days which will be about all things Blackwit.

Since my last post, the only other sightings I have to add are of a drake Gadwall that I've seen on the Borrow Pit twice, and good numbers of migrants around the Wetlands on Thursday morning which included singles of Wheatear, Whitethroat, Lesser Whitethroat and Willow Warbler, six Yellow Wagtail, 15 Blackcap and 20 Chiffchaff.

Colyford Common Wheatear

I have missed a few birds since my last post, mostly thanks to work. Tim White reported two Knot from the Tower Hide on Friday, and I was annoyed to miss a juvenile Little Stint found by Phil on Thursday evening which sadly didn't stay the night.  The most annoying thing about missing the Stint was that I really wanted to give it a good grilling as Phil reported that night, that it was a particularly long-billed individual. Hope Phil doesn't mind me sticking one of his record shots of it up here...

Little Stint (c) Phil Abbott

As you can see, quite a long-billed bird. But nothing else suggested it was anything other than a Little Stint.

Be sure to check back here soon for that Black-tailed Godwit post, which who knows may even prove educational!?

Sunday 3 September 2017


South easterly winds coupled with rain is exactly what you want to see in the forecast when September comes around. Perfect conditions for bringing waders, gulls, terns, wildfowl and seabirds in to the south coast. So no surprise I was up early today and could not get out of the door quick enough!  In reality though by the end of the day I'd got very wet for very few new arrivals. Well there was one excellent new arrival, but I managed to let it get away...

Mid morning whilst sat in the kitchen chatting on the phone to James Mc I noticed a large wader flying towards the house, still a fair way off to the east.  It instantly looked odd.  It continued flying west and as it got closer I literally threw down my phone and ran to my binoculars. Annoyingly they were in the car outside, and when I finally grasped them away went the wader over the roof tops to the west.  Thanks to this species fairly distinctive size, proportions and flight style I know it was a Stone Curlew. But having seen no plumage features with naked eye views only in the pouring rain, it was gone for good... so so so annoying. And what a house tick that would have been!

What I have seen today, and managed to actually conclusively identify, include a drake Gadwall on the Estuary this morning, and the following on Black Hole Marsh at dusk; 

50+ Teal
1300 Black-headed Gull
1 Mediterranean Gull (adult)
130 Herring Gull
8 Great Black-backed Gull
11 Lesser Black-backed Gull
1 Common Tern (adult) 
12 Ringed Plover
c50 Dunlin
6 Greenshank
6 Common Sandpiper
3 Green Sandpiper
5 Snipe

Sadly the Ruff seems to have left us now, but I did manage this pic before he went...

Juvenile male Ruff

And I couldn't help but snap this juv Ringed Plover showing at stupidly close range...

Really hope I've not missed the Black Tern boat for the year - thought that was virtually a dead cert today. Oh well, maybe tomorrow?