Tuesday 28 July 2020

Birds That Aren't Gulls!

With waders and gulls featuring heavily in my last few blog posts, I thought I should fill in the gaps with my other bird sightings from the last couple weeks.

As we approach the end of July, with autumn passerine migration starting to be a feature on the south coast, I gave Beer Head an early morning walk on two days last week...

Looking south west from Beer Head. Such a fantastic location to spend any time!

Both visits showed a similar amount of birds in less than ideal fall conditions.  There were between 6-8 Willow Warblers scattered across the headland on both days, all being my favourite flavoured yellow-lemon juv ones.  There was also a family of Whitethroats in the same place on both visits, as well as the usual breeding Blackcaps.  My second visit however, on 23rd July, did show one more migrant than my previous, with a very charming Garden Warbler feeding on an elder bush in the base of the hollow.  My earliest ever autumn record of this species on patch so a nice reward indeed. 

Just slightly drifting away from the bird theme of this blog post, it was nice to see up to seven Wall Browns during my second visit, which was slightly later in the morning than my first.  This is our most reliable local site for this species...

An underrated butterfly in my opinion, and scarce enough around here to be suitably appreciated

A little inland in the Morganhayes area (woodland west of Colyton), am sure like most conifer plantations in the UK at the moment, there seems to be plenty of Crossbills 'chupping'-around.  Seeing them perched up is a different story though... Why do they always land on the pines just beyond the ones in view!?  On the evening of 20th however one made an error of judgement and actually landed in view, and although it wasn't an adult male it was still much appreciated...

Hello you!  Nice to actually see the cross bill on a Crossbill for a change

Although it landed in view, he/she was never in full view!  

Back down in the river valley, during my recent gull watching sessions other birds have been rudely interrupting my fun.  Take Kingfishers for example, as usual for this time of year they seem to be plentiful, with this one in particular begging to be papped...

A token photo!  Do like the natural framing though so am pleased it stayed put for me :-)

And don't get me started on this Marsh Harrier.  Yes it's a lovely fresh dark glowing-headed juvenile, but it's been around for a week now and not only is distracting, it actually FLUSHES the gulls on occasions!  Not on at all...

My best views were on a gloomy day so pics not great!

Such a striking plumage at this age - love them!

Even a family of Reed Warblers right beside the Tower Hide have been causing me problems, loudly announcing their presence as the beg for food...

A true baby Reed Warbler

Beady eye!

Seemed to be four juvs with at least one adult feeding them

And to complete this post, the final bit of bird news is from today.  Whilst sat at my desk a tern whizzed past my office flying up river - never a common sight on the Axe.  A few minutes later I was outside watching and listening to an adult and a juvenile Common Tern calling to each other as they flew around and around the lower Estuary.  They finally departing when a juvenile Peregrine came diving in.  What a treat. There's a video of them calling away on my Twitter feed, it sure was great to hear.

Monday 27 July 2020

The juvenile Yellow-legged Gulls are here!

The arrival of overcast, damp and windy weather over the last few days has prompted an increase in gull activity on the Estuary, including a really nice flurry of (mostly juvenile) Yellow-legged Gulls.

It's been a poor summer for them here, having managed just one before this blog post. The same can be said for much of the UK with numbers well below average, but all of sudden they are here and here in style. Easily my best ever series of records for the Axe...

The evening of 23rd gave me four Yellow-legged Gulls from Tower Hide, three juvenile and a bright second-summer.  

The 25th gave two juvenile Yellow-legged Gulls from Tower Hide at about 5pm, along with my first juvenile Great Black-backed Gull and Lesser Black-backed Gulls of the season.

The 27th offered four more juvenile Yellow-legged Gulls, including one of the most photogenic ones I've ever had the pleasure of seeing, and one of the largest most brutish ones I've ever seen!

I literally have a hundred photos, so will only pick the best for this post, enjoy...

Today's showy juvenile, which was hanging around outside my office for about ten minutes mid morning

Same bird as above, showing the upperwing of a classic YLG like a treat

The final pic of today's close juv, here with two Herring Gulls and a Great Black-backed Gull - all juveniles

Another of today's, this being the big pale one. Couldn't get over how thickset the bill was!

Showing how advanced the scapular moult is, with several first-winter feathers on show

One of the juvs from 23rd

The older one from 23rd, couldn't get over how bright the legs were!

Fear not I'll make another blog post out of these birds that's for sure!  So many more pics where the above came from...

Monday 20 July 2020

Raining Waders and Juv Yellow-legged Gull

The rain during Saturday night and into Sunday morning dropped an unseasonably good number of wading birds into the Axe Valley, particularly to Black Hole Marsh.  Not necessarily a good thing mind, as seeing so many adult Black-tailed Godwits and Dunlin so early in the season may indicate some big problems on their breeding grounds. 

It's thought the north west wind and rain brought these exceptional numbers to the UK. It was a UK wide influx.

The star bird was a cracking summer Turnstone, my first of the year on the Axe, although it remained on the far side of the marsh...

Nice to see one in such smart plumage

By the end of Sunday the Dunlin flock had reached 51 birds (all adults) and Black-tailed Godwits for me 55, although 70 were present mid morning (again all adults).  Common Sandpipers were present in good numbers too, c14, but with many young birds in with them there's no worries about their breeding success.  Same can be said for Little Ringed Plovers too, with five juveniles present at dusk (eight today!).

Common Sands galore!

There were also three Lapwing, two Greenshank, one Green Sandpiper and two Med Gulls (ad and juv). Kingfishers have suddenly become 'common' again, as they do at this time of year here, and great to see another young Oystercatcher chick on the marsh after one pair have already got one off...

Odd that both pairs have only had one chick though, it's usually two or three per pair

Have been at work for most of today, but a last gasp check along the Estuary revealed a sight I have been longing, and expecting to see, for about two weeks now!  My first juvenile Yellow-legged Gull of the year, and boy was it worth the wait.  Juv Yellow-legs are so variable in appearance, but every now and then you see an absolutely corker, one that has literally been lifted out of the guide books and put in front of you.  This was one of those...

What is not to love (except for the distance and heat haze!)

In the above image note the long-winged and high chested appearance, very pale ground colour to head neck and belly (Herring's rarely show pale ground colour to underparts, they can often to head), clear dark eye patch and plain dark tertials.

I first found it on the view shown in the following picture, and can't express enough how identifiable it was just on this single view. They can be that obvious I promise...

Facing away behind the right hand of the two sleeping Great Black-backed Gulls

Even on this view we can see jet black tertials and a clear black tail band, dark eye mask and pale head.  Something not often written about juv Yellow-legs is that they just have a very 'contrasty' look to them - pale underparts, brown upperparts, black tertials and tail band and white tail. Juvenile Herring Gulls are very rarely anything other than plain brown - although I must add the caveat that a little later in the season watch out for juv Lesser and Great Black-backed Gulls.  Structure is important too, and in the second photo you can see a fairly long pair of legs and an overall bulk and stance I find more reminiscent of Great Black-backed Gull, especially the case when it's a big Yellow-legged like this one.

I really hope this is my first of many, although will be surprised if any are as stunning as this!

Saturday 18 July 2020

Local Mammals

During the last few weeks I've enjoyed some great encounters with wildlife of the furry kind. Topped off nicely after sunset yesterday with a wonderful Water Vole sat quietly munching in the ditch along the south side of Black Hole Marsh.  Well when I say quietly, yes it was sat quietly but it certainly wasn't eating quietly! The loud chomping is what gave it away, I can eat Crunchy Nut Cornflakes quieter...

It's great they are doing so well locally

And here's a video, which I thought was a better option given the low light...

A couple of weeks previous, a friend of Kev's reported a Dormouse feeding off his bird feeders at dusk for a few nights in a row. It had to be worth a go, and sure enough after all the birds had gone to roost, out came not one but two stunning little Dormice.  Such a thrill to watch them feeding in the open...

What a hooter!

Waiting for the coast to be clear

Whilst waiting for these cuties the local Badgers put on an incredible show.  They are fed here every evening so have become completely at ease with the home owners, and clearly any visitors too...

"Where's our food?"

"I'll even lie down like a dog!"

"Right we are ALL getting impatient now"

"YEAH! Peanuts!" 

A great experience.  Thanks for the message Kev and for arranging access.

Friday 17 July 2020

Wood Sandpiper

Mike B found a Wood Sandpiper on Black Hole Marsh this morning, which was already our third of the autumn migration period.  Having missed the first two however I was really keen to see this one, so headed down to the wetlands this evening...

As you can tell it showed really well for me, affording stunning views in good light from the Island Hide.  Having not seen any pics of this bird before clapping eyes on it in the field, considering the date I was certain I was 'twitching' an adult Wood Sand, but as you may be able to tell it is in fact a fresh juvenile.

In my mind, pretty much all Wood Sands in July, especially down here in the south west, are adults with juvs not appearing until early August (maybe very late July at a push).  I've looked back through my blog and indeed all the Wood Sands I've previously blogged about in July have been adults, so to see a juv in mid July is a real surprise.  An early fledger? Or maybe it was born somewhere a little closer than usual (i.e from one of the few breeding pairs in the UK?).  

If anyone has any thoughts, experience or comments about this then please do let me know!  Am genuinely surprised to be seeing a juvenile so early in the season.

Black Hole and the Estuary were really buzzing tonight.  Four juvenile Little Ringed Plovers were zooming around, noisily, all over the place, with six adult Greenshank an increase from recent days. Also present were three Whimbrel, ten Common Sands, six Dunlin, three Lapwing, two Teal and two juv Med Gulls...

Three distant LRPs. Later they were on the Estuary.

Whimbrel with a sleepy Dunlin

A very cute juv Med Gull

Distant but posing nicely and I like the composition

If Black Hole keeps up like this we are in for a great autumn!

Monday 13 July 2020

Male Ruff and Med Gulls

Wader passage is really gaining momentum now, with Black Hole Marsh proving more and more inviting as the water levels drop daily.  

It really feels like we are going to score a 'big one' in the next few weeks, but until then this stunning male Ruff will do just fine...

Best one I've seen on the Axe!

The combination or black and rich chestnut looked stunning

Lots of Black-tailed Godwits, Redshank, Common Sandpipers, a few Dunlin and Lapwing and a Greenshank were also present.  Plenty of small gulls and a couple of Teal too - it's looking so good!

Over the last few days it's been great to see a continued presence of excellent numbers of Med Gulls.  The other morning a quick look along the Estuary made me feel like I was on the Fleet...

There were 11 in total in this flock of 24 small gulls (5.5 pictured!)

Looking like a male at the back and a female

...and long may it continue. Any number of Med Gulls is never too many!

Friday 10 July 2020

A Buzzing Surprise

It's over a week late, but I just have to blog about this...

Tuesday 30th June was my last day of Furlough, and feeling like I needed to make the most of it I bundled the family into the car and drove to Dartmoor.  This was despite the absolutely grim weather - I just had an urge to go!

Our picnic near Warren House Inn was something to be forgotten about.  Wind and rain meant we had to stay in the car, and the fog ensured the usual stunning views were not in view at all.  With spirits low I suggested Fernworthy Reservoir as out next port of call, somewhere that has always been a favourite of mine, being the source of so many happy birding memories.

Arriving in the carpark it was nice to see the weather was a little less less grim here.  Drizzle and poor visibility yes, but you could still see the far side of the Res and we had managed to escape the wind.

The weather and views reminded me of being sat on the edge of a Scottish loch

Within about three seconds of stepping out of the car I proved this was indeed an excellent choice of destination.  Before I'd even had chance to shut my car door, in nearby scrub I could hear...

'Tchay - tchay - tchay'.

Willow Tit!  Although a species I haven't heard for about fifteen years, there was no mistaking that scolding-buzzy chur!

I can't lie, I instantly abandoned the family and legged it towards the call!  It took me a few minutes to track it down, but there, feeding on the inside of young willow tree (how apt!) was a super gorgeous and extremely cute young Willow Tit!  It still had that 'fluffy-headed' appearance of a youngster, and seemed to have not fully grown its tail.  WHAT A TREAT. 

After about five minutes of some super views, paired with frequent calling (which sometimes included a high pitch 'pi' in front on the buzzy notes), it flew out the back of the willow and away from the path.  For the next few minutes I could hear its calls getting quieter and quieter.

Was I annoyed I didn't have my Nikon P900 with me?  Well no actually.  It's so easy to fluff up a fast moving small bird in a densely leaved tree, and I have wasted many minutes doing this (especially warblers!).  But because I didn't even have my camera with me, I just watched it.   As it was becoming more distant I suddenly thought I should get some sort of 'proof', so I reached for my phone.  Turn your volume to the max and mute all other sounds, then you may just about hear it two seconds into this video clip...

There's a few reasons why this was SO exciting for me...

We don't get Willow Tits in East Devon, and having not been anywhere where Willow Tits occur for so long, this was literally my first Willow Tit since I was in my late teens!  

Fernworthy was actually the site of my first ever Willow Tit.  I remember birding here with Dad in the late 90's after being told they had been seen in the vicinity.  Having never seen one before I just didn't know what to expect with my first Willow Tit, as I'd read on so many occasions how difficult they were to separate from Marsh Tit.  But I will never forget walking around the far south west corner of the Res and clapping eyes on a black-cap tit that basically shocked me at how obviously Willow it was!  It's thick and almost hunched in neck along with a broad pale wing bar were just so striking it had a completely different look to any Marsh Tit I'd ever seen.  Even the way it moved felt different to a Marsh to me.

Although Fernworthy was the site of my first, I also knew this was basically a historic site for this species.  So to see a recently fledged young bird here is a significant find. An honour to find.

And finally... well they are just such a rare bird!  Estimates are they've suffered a 79% UK decline since the late 80's, and in Devon their distribution appears to be similarly shrinking with the north west corner of the county (Roadford and Tamer Lakes and Hartland Forest) being their last strong hold.  Although how many pairs are actually still there I don't know, does anyone?  Am sure there's still the odd pair tucked away on Dartmoor, as this little one basically proves, but there can't be many left. Am pretty sure they no longer occur in Cornwall or Dorset, and maybe even Somerset?

And as if this little one wasn't enough, the whole time we were there Crossbills were 'chupping' away. At least thirty surrounded us in the trees near the carpark and dam, and at one point there was an ferocious explosion of Crossbill calls emanating from the far bank - sounded like an absolute monster flock taking flight! Was nice to see a singing Tree Pipit too along with some fresh lemon yellow young Willow Warblers.  And I couldn't not appreciate the lovely Heath Spotted Orchids in flower...

If you ever needed proof Dartmoor isn't just a fair weather destination, take this blog post as it.

Tuesday 7 July 2020

Osprey 014 on the Axe

Enjoyed a wonderful evening out tonight on patch. It was just a few hours but much needed in the middle of a busy week of work.

First and foremost was the female Osprey that's been around for at least two days, which was showing well perched in a tree on Bridge Marsh, before fishing (unsuccessfully) over the Estuary.  We know it's a her because she's colour-ringed, and was showing off her '014' blue ring this evening.  As often is the case with colour-ringed birds, once the ring is read and history learnt a fascinating back story unwinds.  Blue 014 is one of the translocated birds from Scotland released in Poole Harbour in the summer of 2018.  She spent the summer of 2019, as to be expected for a first-summer bird, not in the UK, but in May this year she surprised everyone by reappearing on a Osprey nest cam in Dyfi, Wales!  Full details of her movements can be found HERE.  

And here she is on the Axe Estuary tonight...

Osprey in situ

014 on the Axe - how exciting!

A quick look over the sea showed c20 Med Gulls (so many stonking adults and second-summers) and my first independent juvenile Herring Gull of 2020...

Sadly not a Yellow-legged

I ended the night with a look along the river and a quick visit to Black Hole Marsh. This showed 15 Common and my first Green Sandpiper of the autumn (a fine adult), a beautiful fresh juvenile Little Ringed Plover, an adult Greenshank, ten super smart Black-tailed Godwits and a Shoveler

Green Sandpiper

A distant juvenile Little Ringed Plover

Can't tell you how much I enjoyed it.  And HELLO autumn!

Saturday 4 July 2020

Balearic Shearwater Passage

Although it's been a busy week for me, there is no way I could have ignored the sea considering the weather and last weeks bumper Balearic Shearwater passage off south Devon.  

It wasn't until extremely late that I made it down to the seafront yesterday, 20:20 to be precise. All thanks to a text from James Mc who was at Lyme Regis and reported lots of westward shearwater action.  Upon my arrival I was greeted by a huge feeding flock of large gulls just offshore (the whitebait and mackerel are in the bay I'm told) joined by numerous Gannets too.  And within less than a minute shearwaters came by.  In half an hour I noted; 

Manx Shearwater 44
Balearic Shearwater 27
Common Scoter 15

Pretty much all the shearwaters were at a good range, with many of the Balearics in particularly seemingly being pulled close inshore by the feeding flock, before most then turned and headed back out south/south west.  

With the wind still up this morning, I was back at the Spot On Kiosk by 05:25 and gave it just under two hours.  As soon as my eye met the telescope there were Balearic Shearwaters passing through, I'm sure if I had arrived earlier I would have added so many more Balearics to the tally.  It was  a spectacular show for this species, that far out numbered Manxies today. For the first hour and a bit all flew straight through west, but then a close flock of ten, that at first seemed to be doing the same, decided to land and began feeding offshore.  This in turn tempted most of the remaining Balearics that came in the from the east to land with them.  By the end of the watch there were about 15 birds feeding on the sea with the large flock of feeding gulls and Gannets. Fantastic to watch.

A Velvet Scoter was a real surprise, always is here but especially so considering the date, with an immature female-type high west and then back east at 05:41. I was really hoping it would be picked up further east but wasn't to my knowledge.   The Great Skua that flew west about four minutes later was however picked up again, by Mike at Beer.  My first Skua of the year FINALLY!  Wonderful to see, although distant as this dreadful photo suggests...

Was so far out!  Really restricted white in the wing too, if it were late August I would have labelled it a juv

An adult Yellow-legged Gull in with the large numbers of gulls (400+) feeding just off the beach was another great highlight, a proper heavy billed brute too.  Interestingly single adult YLG's were also seen at Abbotsbury and Portland today so maybe something of a mini-arrival?  Worthy also of a mention was my fist juvenile Mediterranean Gull of the year - always a highlight and quite an early one too.  It was one of several Med Gulls that were offshore/flying west. 

My full totals for this watch were (west unless stated); 

Gannet 200+ (uncounted so an estimate)
Balearic Shearwater 67 (last 15 birds landed and fed offshore, flock of ten the biggest group)
Manx Shearwater 7
Great Skua 1
Yellow-legged Gull 1 (close inshore with gull flock)
Med Gull 5 (1 juv, 1 2nd sum, 3 ads)
Kittiwake 4
Auk sp. 5
Velvet Scoter 1 (west then east)
Common Scoter 20 (clearly some duplication as a flock of 12 flew west then came back east about five mins later)

A very enjoyable watch. I tried again tonight, but twenty minutes showed just; 

Balearic Shearwater 2
Shearwater sp. 1
Common Scoter 3
Med Gull 7 (loitering)

To finish the post - spot the odd one out!  It's a common sight at this time of year to see gulls feeding on washed up whitebait on the beach.  But never before have I seen a Little Egret get in on the action! I even watched it have to briefly take flight on a couple of occasions to avoid the incoming crashing waves...

Look carefully and you'll see it! Was distant and in sea spray

Felt so good to enjoy some decent seawatching off Seaton, especially after the spring we've just had.  Hopefully there are more sea-based treats ahead during the remainder of summer 2020, and fingers crossed they are large ones...