Wednesday 25 April 2018

Corn Bunting

A patch-twitch with baby in tow was required this morning, after a text from Phil alerted me to the presence of a singing Corn Bunting on Beer Head. A fine reward for Phil who - despite the dire returns he, and everyone else along the south coast, are getting from looking for grounded migrants this spring - is still giving Beer Head a daily wander.

With-baby twitching!

I only had a short amount of time and managed what can only really be described as 'untickable views'...

A brown streaky blob!

But this experience for me was all about the sound, it was a real treat for my ears. Although he was tricky to see when I was there, he was a he, and he was very vocal indeed! Hearing that distinctive 'jangly keys' song at a place I've been birding at for so many years was really quite special. Such a thrill, thanks Phil. This was my second Corn Bunting on the patch, with the first also at Beer Head back in September 2010 found by Gav.

I had another look for the bunting later in the morning after it had showed well for others, but couldn't see or hear it during a 45 minute look. There were very few migrants about too with just a westward trickle of Swallows and a lone female Wheatear...

Since my last post, I may have gained a bit of a tan, but I haven't seen all that many birds. Reed Warbler and hirundine numbers have increased, a male Lesser Whitethroat has been singing by the entrance of Black Hole Marsh since last Thursday, and the 20th saw the best Willow Warbler passage of the spring with good numbers flitting through Beer Head during a late morning visit.

I really hope there's a lot more of spring 2018 to come, and it's not the case that this is just how spring birding is going to be from now on...


Wednesday 18 April 2018

A Few More Spring Migrants and Pale-bellied Brents

I enjoyed an hour and a half out birding at each end of the day today, which produced a few more nice little highlights.  

A pre-dawn wander around Black Hole Marsh revealed, at last, my first Reed Warbler of the year chuntering away. I then headed down to the Spot On Kiosk for an hours sea watch from 6am, the conditions were far from perfect though with blue skies and almost no wind by the end of the watch! Still it wasn't a complete write-off, although I'm yet to decide whether it was truly worthwhile!? All west unless stated; 

34 Common Scoter
5 Manx Shearwater
3 Kittiwake (all east)
5 Whimbrel
3 small wader sp. (in off)

During a wander along Seaton Beach with the family a little later in the morning, I picked up a flock of about 40 Pale-bellied Brent Geese flying west offshore, although only just before they disappeared around Beer Head. This was at 09:38, and precisely 29 minutes later they seen off Dawlish Warren where they continued to follow the coast south, which is slightly unusual as most spring Pale-bellied flocks fly in to the Exe. 

Tonight's trip out starting very frustratingly. There was no passage over the sea this evening but there was a group of 6-8 'Commic' Terns feeding some distance out, viewing conditions though were atrocious with a blurry haze offshore.  Three of them came above the horizon in a tight group for about ten seconds, revealing a clear cut Arctic Tern with two Commons, but as for the other three or more am not sure. I did get the feeling there was more than one Arctic in there though.

Once I'd got completely fed up with straining my eyes I had a look up the river valley. Two Whimbrel and the Dark-bellied Brent Goose were on Estuary, singles of Wheatear and White Wagtail were viewable from Bridge Marsh gateway, and on Axe Marsh our first Whinchat of the year - a cracking male.  To say it was distant though is something of an understatement...

It was on the fence posts in the middle of this pic

There it is...just!

Off-patch, during a family trip to Budleigh early this afternoon, it was nice to see a Yellow Wagtail bombing around on the beach just east of the fishing boats with a couple of Pied Wags. It didn't really settle though and headed off north soon after I first noticed it.

Tuesday 17 April 2018

Even More Sea Passage

Jess had a few cakes to deliver this morning so I didn't get out for an early morning sea watch. If the wind had had a bit of west in it I probably would have found some time, but we rarely do that well in straight southerlies with viewing conditions tricky and birds often far out and flying away.

Phil and Ian Mc did give it a go from Beer, and gripped me off a bit with our first passing Pale-bellied Brent Goose flocks of the spring (49 and 13) but otherwise variety and numbers were pretty poor.

I did manage to get out at 10:50 and have a 25 minute look from Seaton Beach which rewarded me with my first skua of the year, always an exciting event! My totals were (west unless stated);

50+ Manx Shearwater
24 Whimbrel (one flock)
1 Arctic Skua (distantly west at 11am - so good to see again)
1 Kittiwake
5 Sandwich Tern (feeding close in)
12+ auk sp.

Not seen anything different during two brief looks along the Estuary today, although yesterday's Dark-bellied Brent Goose was still with us in almost exactly the same place.

Monday 16 April 2018

Some Sea Passage

Notched up a couple of new species for the year for me today, both courtesy of the sea although neither that exciting.

During a dog walk at Seaton Hole mid morning looking out to sea showed my first three Whimbrel of the year fly east with three Sandwich Tern and a Kittiwake west.  This evening a twenty minute look off the Spot On showed a few flocks of distant Manx Shearwaters west and a Common Tern (year tick number two) feeding in the bay.

A look along the Estuary late this evening revealed two more Whimbrel and a Brent Goose, which surprisingly was a Dark-bellied. April is the peak month for Pale-bellied Brent passage, most Dark-bellied have already gone through by now.

Off-patch, but very much on-topic, it's been great to hear of so many people seeing the East Budleigh 'Italian Sparrow' since Friday's blog post. It's a stunning bird whatever the DNA analysis might tell us.

Sunday 15 April 2018

First Redstart and Iceland Gull

Yesterday morning was a dull and misty one, often conditions we don't do that well in during migration time. Still I thought it was worth a wander around Seaton Marshes, so took little Harry out for an early morning walk...

Next month he'll be a year old, how did that happen!??

Although in general the bushes were quiet, a cracking highlight came in the form of a smart male Redstart in the north west corner of the Borrow Pit, our first of the year. And it really was a stunner. Many spring male Redstarts actually have quite restricted orange on their breasts, with a mostly white belly, I've always put these down as second-year birds. This one though was orange the whole way down the breast to the vent area, so presumably a full adult male.  Pity it didn't stay put for another ten seconds as I'd be able to post a photo of it if it had!  Half an hour later Phil and Ian Mc had a female Redstart here, and Kev had a third bird (another male) in Couchill Woods later in the day. Clearly something of a Redstart-day!

Otherwise all I saw in the bushes were four Chiffchaff and two Blackcap, but the skies above were busy with low flying hirundines, about 50, and they spent lots of time perched up on overhead wires...

All three species here

Can you spot the two House Martins among the Sand Martins?

A House Martin flanked by Sand Martins

Three White Wagtails at Cowhayne Lane during the afternoon was the only other highlight during the rest of the day.

Today the weather has been tasty, but sadly I've had such little time out - I reckon the sea would have been worth a watch, especially this evening.  I did just about manage a look along the Estuary mid afternoon, which showed there had been a decent influx of gulls. Not the Little Gull I was hoping for but 69 Common and a first-summer Med Gull were north of Coronation Corner, and among the large gulls was - hugely pleasingly - my first Iceland Gull of the year...

It was always pretty distant from my viewpoint

Always love a white-winger!

Despite the distance, I'm happy it's a second calendar-year bird, and to me it looked a fairly hefty and especially long-winged individual. I could see it wasn't the bird Tim Wright had on the Estuary at the start of the month, and when Ian Mc twitched it he was certain it wasn't any of the three Iceland Gulls that he's seen on the Axe this year (he has done really well for them!). So I'm happy it's a 'new bird'.

This Iceland Gull just proves that even if you only have the shortest window of time to go out birding, use it...

Friday 13 April 2018

East Budleigh Italian Sparrow

Since early November 2017 a male Sparrow showing characteristics of Italian Sparrow Passer italiae has been residing in East Budleigh with a House Sparrow flock. The bird was first found by local home owner and wildlife enthusiast Dave W and identified as a possible Italian Sparrow by local birder Chris Townend, who after careful liaison with locals, announced the news on Devon Birds on 11th Nov.

Possible Italian Sparrow in East Budleigh (c) Chris Townend - 16/12/17

Italian Sparrow is now treated as a full species, but relatively recent DNA research confirmed what many thought, that the species originated from hybridisation between House and Spanish Sparrows. They can be found throughout most of Italy, being one of the commonest birds in the country, with smaller numbers also breeding in France, Greece, Switzerland and Slovenia in regions neighbouring Italy. They're considered to be quite a sedentary species, although ringing studies have shown some sort of northward movement in the autumn. To cloudy matters though, House and Spanish Sparrows also hybridise in North Africa, but these aren't considered Italian Sparrows.

There have been several UK sightings of male Sparrows resembling Italian Sparrow over the years, some looking pretty convincing but others not so. The East Budleigh bird could well be described as being the most complete-looking candidate to date. Other recent records include single males in Cambridgeshire in November 2017, North Norfolk in August 2013, then again during the next two autumns, and  Hampshire in May 2014. There are many theories as to what these birds actually are and why they keep popping up. Are they simply odd House Sparrows? TreexHouse Sparrow hybrids? The results of a female Spanish Sparrow or two lurking in UK House Sparrow flocks? True Italian Sparrows? No one really knows.

Due to the complexity of this relatively new species and all the uncertainty around its identification, there have been no accepted British records of Italian Sparrow. In response to the submission of the above listed Norfolk bird, BBRC decided upon a 'Not Proven' verdict, although used the following wording in their published reply; 

"Ultimately, it was decided that while there was nothing wrong with the plumage of this individual, a 1st record of this species would require DNA evidence and it was unfortunate that this eluded us on this occasion"

This gave Chris an idea. He contacted me around Christmas last year, and once I'd obtained all the necessary paperwork and permission from the Special Methods Technical Panel of the BTO's Ringing Committee, a couple of weeks ago the green light was given for me to trap, ring, and remove three flank feathers from the East Budleigh possible Italian Sparrow for the purpose of DNA analysis. Approved special method projects like this always come with strict guidelines and rules, all of which I ensured were adhered to throughout the whole process.

Thanks to the kindness of local home owner Dave W, and almost ideal mist netting weather conditions, the morning of Monday 9th April saw the first attempt take place in a private East Budleigh garden. Amazingly a mere 45 minutes and three House Sparrows into the session, the possible Italian Sparrow flew into the only mist net set. No tapes or sound lures were used.  The bird was quickly extracted, ringed, processed (with a multitude of biometrics taken), three feathers were then carefully removed and the bird was briefly photographed for research/identification purposes, before being released.

In short, the bird looked as good in the hand for Italian Sparrow as it does in the field. I'm not going to go into great detail here, but I do have a couple of comments to make regarding the above photos and following my in-hand observations.

1/ Although Sparrows do tend to have slightly longer upper mandibles, this bird clearly has a slight deformity with an even longer and more hook-tipped upper mandible than expected. It hurt more than any Sparrow I've ever handled before that's for sure!

2/ The chestnut crown, as can be seen in the middle photo above, showed lots of buff flecking throughout. It wasn't grey and was only present at the very tips of the feathers. Sparrows often show pale fringing to crown feathers, particularly early in the season, so the presence of this is not at all surprising.

For anyone interested, the possible Italian Sparrow is still present today in the same general area. For viewing directions see Chris's original Devon Birds post here;

I just want to again thank Chris Townend for being the catalyst of this project, the home owner Dave for his hospitality, bird ringers Mike (my trainer) and Peter (a local A ringer) for accompanying me during this ringing session, and all the other individuals and organisations who offered their support and/or advice during the build up. Of course special thanks and recognition must go to the BTO for allowing this exciting and potentially highly educational development to take place, for which I've been humbled to be a part of.

See also Chris's post about Monday on his blog Cream Tea Birding.

Thursday 12 April 2018

A Few More Migrants and an Otter

Spring still appears to be taking its time to get going here on the Axe, although the last few days have seen a bit of movement.

The rain and grey skies of Tuesday offered the best day, with several singing Willow Warblers dotted around the valley, a flock of three Bar-tailed Godwits that flew in off the sea joining a fourth on the Estuary, a Sandwich Tern on the Estuary and at last large numbers of hirundines, several hundred, including 40+ House Martins.  The first two Whimbrel of the year were also noted by Clive on Black Hole Marsh that afternoon. 

Sandwich Tern

Wednesday was quieter for us, although Ian Mc saw an Iceland Gull in the morning and in the afternoon I managed my first White Wagtail of the year along Cowhayne Lane...

White Wagtail

Today I started the day with a quick sweep of the Estuary, where at Coronation Corner twenty or so alarming Herring Gulls alerted me to the presence of an Otter! Although one has been seen on several occasions during the past month or so, this was the first time I've lucked in on it.  She (I think?) spent 15 minutes hunting in the water just off the far bank, often remaining submerged for several minutes at a time, popping up briefly to eat the catch, then disappearing again. Its busyness didn't make photography easy...

It did briefly come to shore once to munch, but within ten seconds was off again...

After fifteen minutes she swam pretty rapidly upstream and off around the corner in front of the Tower Hide.  Wish I had been sat in there at that point!

Saturday 7 April 2018

Rebellious Gypos!

Sorry this blog has been a bit quiet this week, it's been a busy one! It's been a bit of a life-changing one too with some exciting news to blog about in the near future. For now though, the birds...

The wildfowl theme from last month continued, with the Barnacle Goose lingering on, a flock of four Greylag Geese on Colyford Marsh on Thursday, and another two Egyptian Geese on Bridge Marsh today. I have to say I can't ever remember seeing any species of goose perched on a fence post before...

There's also still been regular Goosander sightings, with Tim Wright seeing up to four on several evenings during the last week.

Monday night was great fun. Thanks to news from James Mc at Lyme and Dan J at Sidmouth, just before 7pm I scurried down to Seaton seafront where it was an absolute delight to watch Manx Shearwaters streaming past.  In half an hour I had 254 fly west, along with two Sandwich Terns and a first-summer Med Gull. Early spring evening Manx movements off here used to be an annual thing, often over flat calm seas, but for some reason it's been many years since a movement like this has occurred - presumably a food related change?

I finally saw my first Swallow of the year on Wednesday, and have seen another four or five today. Also today Clive had our first two House Martins of the year over Bridge Marsh, and Kev pulled a bit of a gripper out of the bag this afternoon with an early Cuckoo calling on and off in Couchill Woods. The first (real) UK Cuckoo record of the year?

I might give Beer Head a go in the morning. I won't have long, but hopefully long enough to see some spring migrants.

Sunday 1 April 2018

April Dawns

Easter Sunday started with surprisingly pleasant weather conditions, in fact we even saw some sunshine here!  This enticed me down to Seaton Marshes where the Borrow Pit showed itself to be alive with singing Phylloscs, including my first ten Willow Warblers of the year...

Always exciting to hear the first Willow Warbler song of the spring

This afternoon the weather took a turn for the worse. Quick looks around mid and late afternoon showed a few Sand Martins had arrived, with four over Colyford Marsh and 18 over Lower Bruckland Ponds. I've still not seen a Swallow yet this year though, something is clearly holding a lot of migrants up somewhere south of us.