Wednesday 28 February 2018

The Beast From The East

We may not have had any significant snow fall here in East Devon yet (that is about to change!) but like elsewhere we have had freezing temperatures and that bitter east wind. It's been seriously cold...

Black Hole Marsh pre-dawn on Tuesday

A 100% frozen Black Hole Marsh on Tuesday

Even the Estuary has had icy edges this week

More Estuary ice

Lower Bruckland Ponds today

Bird-wise we have seen the expected increase in wildfowl and wader numbers, which I will summarise below, but my highlight of the week so far is a passerine. I haven't seen Bearded Tit on patch since Oct '13, so a series of 'pings' emanating from the vast Axe Reedbed this morning, followed by brief flight views of one bird, was a real treat. Only the third time I've ever seen this species here, they are less than annual and often not twitchable.

I haven't seen as many different ducks as I was hoping, for example no diving ducks. But following on from Mike's flock of 20 Pintail (mostly males) that flew in off the sea late on Monday, on Tuesday morning at least three were still on the river. Pity the whole flock didn't stay though - would have been a great sight!

Today the two Ringed Plover and Greenshank were still present, joined by ten Dunlin and later in the day, an impressive flock of 184 Golden Plover feeding with Lapwing opposite Stedcombe Vale.  Jack Snipe and Grey Plover have also been seen on the Axe today, and am sure there's more out there to find. The Marsh Harrier is also still around.

Golden Plover and Lapwing


Back to passerines and although there have been more Redwing, Fieldfare and Meadow Pipits about, I've not noticed any major movements yet like the 2010 cold snap.

I'll finish this post with a snap I took this morning of a Fox at Lower Bruckland Ponds. It had curled itself up on the sheltered side of a small mound, with the sun shining upon it. He/she looked absolutely gorgeous and in really good condition...


Monday 26 February 2018

Caspian Gull Again

Excellent numbers of large gulls on the Estuary again today. I must have gone along the river about five times during the day, as everything was just perfect. Lots of gulls, often nice flat light to scan through them, and the tide times couldn't have been better with mud on show virtually all day...

Looking north from Coronation Corner

Sadly though, despite all my efforts I couldn't manage anything better than the lingering first-winter Caspian Gull, which I can't really complain about I suppose!  It spent most of the day (midday to 17:30 at least) down by the Tram Sheds. It's funny how whenever it is on the Estuary it is almost always at this end of the river...

Caspian Gull on the left

Although it's moulted a bit since I last saw it, still shows the pale areas on its tertials and greater coverts, the two knackered upper most tertials and all that flank mottling.

Nice comparison shot with a first-winter Great Black-backed Gull

It was nice to bump into County Recorder Kev during one of my visits, who dropped in on the off-chance on his way back from Radipole.  This was his first Axe Casp and I felt somewhat ashamed to show it to him, as this remains my least favourite of all the Axe Casps. It's such a small bodied, small-billed and 'dirty' looking individual, I like my first-winters big and bright!

This morning the Marsh Harrier was again hunting over Colyford Marsh. This is the longest staying Marsh Harrier in Axe history, and is a very welcome addition to the Axe wintering bird population...

A first-winter bird

Although the following pic isn't great, it does show the gorgeous colour of this bird's underparts. Can you get any more chocolate-brown than this...

I almost want to eat it!

Lastly, part-time patch birder Mike, who lives in Derby but often comes down here to visit his parents, texted me this afternoon with news of a locally staggering flock of 20 Pintail in off the sea late this afternoon. The start of some cold weather movement?

Saturday 24 February 2018

First-winter Argentatus?

Lots of large and small gulls on the Estuary this evening, they all seemed reluctant to fly out to sea to roost presumably due to the east wind blowing into the bay.  Looking at the forecast they are going to have to get used to it!

Considering the numbers about, surprisingly still no Axe white-wingers for me this year (there were brief singles of Glauc and Iceland (IMc) in January but nothing since). The best among the throng of gulls off Coronation Corner was this strikingly dark and large first-winter Herring Gull-type, which showed unusually solidly dark tertials and plain greater coverts...

In the middle at the back

At the back preening

One big Herring Gull!

Quite a snooty beast

A bit more detail on the wing feathers

Annoyingly throughout the whole time I watched it I didn't see it fly or flap once, so can't add much more to what these photos show.  At the time I thought a first-winter argentatus Scandinavian Herring Gull was probably the best option, but I know there's no way I could prove this. Less moult would have helped my case that's for sure, and possibly a frostier appearance.

If there's anyone out there willing to comment on its ID, or probable ID, then please do. Many thanks to Brett Spencer who has already given his thoughts.

Also on the Estuary this evening, I was surprised to see the wintering Ringed Plover (which in itself is very unusual for the Axe) had been joined by a second bird.  And although I saw neither this evening, the Glossy Ibis and Marsh Harrier have been around during the last few days.

The Axe Estuary this evening

With snow forecasted for next week, along with proper cold temperatures, we may well see some cold weather bird movements, especially with so much snow set to dump in the east of the UK. I always find it sad to see birds having to move literally to survive, but there's no argument of just how spectacular this can be. A quick scroll back through my blog reminded me of not just the best cold weather bird movement I've ever seen on patch, but the best bird movement I've ever seen here full stop, back in December 2010;

Wrap up warm folks. But be sure to keep the binoculars around your neck as during cold weather, anything really can turn up anywhere.

Saturday 17 February 2018

Moor Than Meets The Eye

Roll back to 2016, and I spent much of the summer walking across East Dartmoor with Chris Townend and Paul Kemp. The aim was to survey every kilometre of East Dartmoor Moorland, twice, between mid April and mid August. This was for a project devised by RSPB and Moor Than Meets The Eye.

It was exceedingly hard work and extremely tiring. Each 1km square had four 1km transect lines within it, and we'd try and do four or five squares per morning - that's a lot of walking!  To get the squares done we'd start at dawn and often skimp on coffee stops. And because we were walking along set transect lines and not footpaths, walls, fences, bogs, gorse, angry cattle, etc, were frequently in our way.  But my god was it all worthwhile...

Virtually every single survey gave us at least one reward. Whether it was a bird or other wildlife sighting, or quite simply a view, there was pretty much always something. I found it really interesting and enjoyable to learn so much more about Dartmoor than what I knew beforehand, and getting the chance to visit so many places that I'd never been to before.

Looking north from Rippon Tor

Some of my most memorable wildlife highlights from these surveys include seeing a Dartmoor born and bred young Curlew (a true rarity), a couple of herds of Red Deer and my best ever views of Grasshopper Warblers (we recorded so many of these!). It was just so nice though to be surrounded by birds I don't see day in day out on the Axe, with breeding (and frequently drumming) Snipe, Whinchats, Tree Pipits, Redpolls and Redstarts aplenty, along with a few Ring Ouzels and almost daily Cuckoos. Regarding the last species, I can still picture the three male Cuckoos flying around over my head chasing a 'bubbling' female. Amazing stuff, and quite frankly some really weird noises too. Thanks again Chris and Paul, and the team at RSPB and MTMTE for making this happen.

Young Curlew

Grasshopper Warbler

So why have I written this blog now? Well a few days ago this dropped on to my doormat...

Yes the final report is out, and it's fab. From cover to cover this report is full of top quality raw data, which is compared with data collected back in 1979. This reveals some very interesting results, plenty of decreases which sadly is to be expected but some surprising increases too.  Crucially, the strict methodology used to collect the data in 2016 ensures it can be easily replicated in future years and comparisons easily made.

If you want to have a browse of this report, you'll find it on the Moor Than Meets The Eye website HERE.

If these surveys are done again at some point in the future, would I conduct them again if asked?  You bet I would - with absolute pleasure. What a privilege this whole project was and I'd do it again in a heartbeat.

Friday 9 February 2018

My Axe Photo Archives

For the first time in about three years I fired up my old external hard drive this evening. It was great to see some of the bird photos on there, in fact there were some I completely forgotten I'd taken!  All my photos back then were snapped with my good old Nikon Coolpix 4500 (which still works!) through my old Kowa telescope (which no longer works).

All the photos pre-date the birth of this blog, so most haven't been posted up here. Well let's change that. I invite you to re-live Axe history with me...

1w male Surf Scoter Beer, Jan '07
And again

This is one of the four Surf Scoters that have occurred on patch, found off Beer by Gav in Dec '06.  I'd forgotten just how drake-like it became, when it first turned up it was a proper juv-looking thing with only a hint of colour on the bill.

White-fronted Geese Colyford Marsh, Feb '06

This flock of White-fronted Geese that peaked at 15 birds in Feb '06 stayed with us for about a week. Being a goose-nut they were an incredible sight, will be surprised if we get a flock of this size ever again.

Night Heron Seaton Marshes, March '06
And again

Phil found this bird, and was part of the best spring that the patch has ever witnessed. Which also included three of these...

Alpine Swift Seaton, April '06

The three Alpine Swifts drew quite a crowd, as they spent the days feeding over Lower Bruckland Ponds, before returning to roost in Seaton every evening. James Mc found these beauts, with at least one of them staying around for two weeks. Spring '06 wasn't over yet though...

White Stork Seaton Marshes, April '06

Phil and James Mc found this bird, and I'll never forget the sight of it cruising over Seaton Fire Station dwarfing the masses of panicking Herring Gulls, before it dropped in on Seaton Marshes.

1s Bonaparte's Gull Axe Estuary, April '07
And again (left bird)

Somewhat surprisingly, this remains the only record of Bonarparte's Gull for the Axe Estuary. It was here for only one day, but showed for some time meaning most got to see it.

2w Ring-billed Gull Axe Estuary, Feb '07

This was so exciting for me, my first Ring-billed Gull on the Axe. This was a really small bird actually, most Ring-bills are obviously larger than Common Gulls - this one was smaller!

Leach's Petrel Seaton Marshes, Dec '06

This Leach's Petrel sadly died in care the following day. The bird had been rescued from a cat (from a house over a mile inland!).

Stone Curlew Seaton Marshes, April '07

There's been one more Stone Curlew on the Axe since this bird, amazingly in exactly the same place! Seeing this photo reminds me of two things, the shock of finding it, and the fact Karen Woolley and Ian Mc were both birding down in the Underhooken below Beer Head when they got the text. That's a lot of steps...

Temminck's Stint Colyford Marsh, Sep '07

This was the first Temminck's Stint for the Axe, found by Kev (Bun). It stayed with us for several weeks, and in that time never left Colyford Scrape!  Who'd have though our first Temminck's would be an autumn bird - spring records are far more frequent in the UK. Amazingly our second Temminck's was also an autumn bird (well more early winter really!) with our third being a more typical spring bird.

Audouin's Gull Seaton Marshes, August '07

Well I have nothing to stay about this one. Simply incredible. Just wished I managed some better photos!

Egyptian Geese Bridge Marsh, April '06

Sorry for lowering the tone, but these Egyptian Geese pleased Devon year-listers for many years! When there was just one left it became rather tame, feeding on bread with the Mallards down by the lower Axe Bridge...

Egyptian Goose - the last one standing!

Isn't it amazing how photos can bring memories back to life, memories that you'd think were buried so deep they'd be out of reach. This blog post has been a real joy to construct, I hope you've enjoyed it too.

Thursday 8 February 2018

Caspo Number Ten!

There's been really good numbers of large gulls on the Estuary today, including notably more Great Black-backed Gulls which is always a good sign (means they're coming in from the sea). I was really hoping for a white-winger, but a text from Gav informing me of a Caspian Gull just before 3pm had me hurrying down to the Estuary.

Just as I pulled up at the lower end of the Estuary Gav informed me it had flown south, but luck was on my side as I could see it flying towards me low over the water. Pleasingly it landed again and remained here until at least 5pm...

First-winter Caspian Gull

Front to back; first-winter Herring Gull, first-winter Caspian Gull, second-winter Great Black-backed Gull

Front to back; second-winter Herring Gull, first-winter Herring Gull, first-winter Caspian Gull

Although I marvel at every Caspian Gull I see, as first-winter Casps go this isn't the best. It's bill in particular is pretty feeble, being only slightly narrower and longer than the nearby Herring Gulls. Also note how mottled the flanks are and it even has a bit of a shadow around it's eye.  Still a striking looking thing though.

It's definitely not the whiter than white bird I saw on the Axe on 9th January, but it clearly is the other Casp that's been seen here this year.  Gav thought he'd found this bird on 22nd January, but a few days later it came to light Tim White had photographed it on the Axe back on 17th January.  This bird is distinctive enough from all the points I listed in the paragraph above (bill size and mottling), but it shows a couple more characteristic plumage traits too...

First-winter Caspian Gull

The red arrow is pointing to my favourite feature on this particular Caspian Gull, that lovely little pale line formed by the tips of the median coverts. It's really noticeable on this bird at rest.  Then we have the two red 'circles'. The top one highlights the contrast between the lower moulted tertials, and the upper two unmoulted ones, which look completely knackered and are much browner in colour. The lower 'circle' highlights all that white in the greater coverts, inline with where they meet the lower tertials. This feature is really noticeable, even on distant pics of this bird. Most first-winter Casps show a neat and even white line along the tips of all the greater coverts. 

You can see pretty much all these features on all the previous photos of this bird, which Gav has put together in a blog post HERE.

So this is my tenth Caspian Gull for the Axe, I can't wait for number eleven!

Wednesday 7 February 2018

Firecrest Fun

The beautiful blue sky this morning tempted me over to Branscombe, so I could catch up with the Firecrest that's been wintering around the Water Treatment Works. It took about three seconds to find, and I enjoyed it for the best part of half an hour, showing exceptionally well at times...

After about twenty minutes, suddenly there were two male Firecrests in front of me! They had a brief stand off and chase around, then split up, with the second bird feeding around the entrance gate to the WTW. Often ON the entrance gate in fact...

Also around the WTW, 10+ Goldcrest, two Chiffchaff and this Treecreeper (never an easy species to photograph)...

No visit to Branscombe is complete without a sea scan. There were quite a few auks out there this morning, along with a lone Great Northern Diver, three Red-throated Divers and rather unusually, five Teal.

A couple of visits to some woodland near Colyton over the past week has shown Woodcock on both occasions, four and three. I also had at least three Crossbill here the other day, which is more than notable.  Nice to see and hear male Siskin song-flighting too.

And lastly, yesterday as I was driving along the A3052 between Seaton and Beer, a flock of 18-20 Golden Plover flew past going the opposite way. They seemed to land near Stafford Cross where Ian Mc had 15 today. Heaps of Lapwing around there too.