Sunday, 21 February 2021

More Meds

I am absolutely LOVING the gluttony of Med Gulls passing through the patch at the moment.  This afternoon out of my office window, nothing more than a modest gathering of gulls included seven of these beauts, one first-winter and six adults...

One of the adults was ringed. Yellow 2P44 looks to have been ringed in the UK, but I am waiting to hear exactly where and when...

Something I would love to know is just how rapid the turnover of Med Gulls currently is?  Yesterday I saw 19, today I saw nine in all - but how many of those nine were in yesterday's 19?  Well I can say that I didn't knowingly see 2P44 yesterday (although didn't see all their legs) and today I didn't see any of yesterday's four full summer plumaged adults or either of the two second-winters.

I suspect it's very rapid and wouldn't at all be surprised if most, if not all of today's birds were different to yesterday's.  And this theory is supported nicely by recent Lesser Black-backed Gull counts, last week I had 87 one day but no more than six the next!  

However rapid it is long may it continue!  Makes February a far more enjoyable month that's for sure :-)

Saturday, 20 February 2021

Why Always In Threes?

Gulls have been my main focus since the cold snap ended, with several days of rough weather producing good numbers on the Estuary... happy Steve!

However it's not all been happy or gone to plan, on three occasions to be precise! Last Monday I had naked eye views of what looked all the world to be an adult or near-adult white-winger fly up the Axe Valley with two Herring Gulls.  Size wise an Iceland for me, but it's a record that's not going anywhere unless it's seen again.

Then there was the evening before (14th) when a last ditch scan through the gulls in near darkness revealed an ok-looking first-winter Caspian Gull.  I managed a couple of photos before the whole flock lifted up and most the gulls flew off out to sea.  

Also on the Sunday evening, the gull flock where the probable Caspian was, also hosted at least 13 Med Gulls.  However to get to this flock before it got too dark I drove past an Estuary full of Black-headed Gull flocks.  How many Med's were in with them the mind boggles -  it could have been a really good count.  What was a good count were the 87 Lesser Black-backed Gulls, nicely proving spring gull passage is well underway...

Lots of LBBG's and at least eight Meds in this pic

So many Black-backed of the yellow-legged variety :-)

And this is the best shot I managed of the possible Caspian.  Certainly looks promising but without seeing its spread wing, underwing or tail another record that's sadly going nowhere...

Pale head, narrow bill, grey uppers and dark tertials. Looking ok despite the gloom!

There's also been heaps of Common Gulls about.  Had 710 fly south down the valley in under twenty minutes at dusk on 18th, and tonight over 450 did the same.  Love looking through Common Gull flocks, although Ring-billeds have become so rare nowadays there's still always a chance...

Mostly Common Gulls

Been plenty of Med Gulls too.  On the evening of Sunday 14th when I fluffed the Casp, the thirteen I counted could easily have been 30+ considering how many more small gulls were gathered down river.  On 18th eight Med Gulls flew down river at dusk with the 710 Common Gulls, and tonight I had 19 in an hour from 4:15pm.  The vast majority of them have been adults, with just a sprinkling of second and first-winters. Not that I mind at all because many of the adults are looking so smart now...

Full summer adult Med Gull, with a winter version to the left

So there you go.  Plenty of gulls but no cherry on top, well not quite.  Frustrating. So bloody frustrating.

I will leave you with something a bit more colourful, and you could even say cute?  During a wonderful evening walk around Seaton Wetlands on Thursday, I enjoyed super views of this lovely Roe buck in velvet.  Simple but beautiful. And just for a change, not a gull...

Hoping my gull luck changes soon!

Saturday, 13 February 2021

Plenty of Plovers

Not quite as cold in air temperature today, but the freezing easterly wind continued (although with a good degree of south in it now).  The waders have kept coming as well, in fact today saw the most significant increase in Lapwing and Golden Plover numbers.

Flocks of Lapwing were all over the place, with many fields on west facing slopes harbouring huddled groups.  My highest count of Golden Plover for today was 150; I really hate it when a count comes out at a round number, but I literally had one flock of 86 and another of 64! I really enjoyed seeing them up close for a change...

And with this increase came a Ruff, which spent the day opposite Stedcombe Valley.  Thanks for the message Kev...

And now to summarise the best of the last few days. Yesterday a drake Gadwall was with the Wigeon north of Coronation Corner, maybe not a new arrival as it could well be the same bird responsible for sporadic records since 1st Jan...

Four Shovelers (a drake and three females) have been around for a couple of days now, and on Thursday the Greylag Goose flock which has been at seven for months, suddenly numbered nine!  Staying with Thursday, offshore a few Red-throated Divers and a Common Scoter flew west, 12 Dunlin flew east with five Med Gulls loitering.  A Ringed Plover was a new arrival on the Estuary, the first of the year, and at home a Redpoll flew over calling whilst I was in the garden.

All week the Axe has been blessed with incredible numbers of gulls, and I mean really impressive numbers.  But despite all my looking there's been no stand-out highlights...

Although on Thursday afternoon this big, dark and very juvenile Herring Gull gave me all the impressions it was probably an argentatus, but at the range it was I couldn't do anything with it...

And finally I was lucky enough to see one the local Otters again on Friday, albeit briefly.  At the back of Bridge Marsh I noticed all the Canada Geese stick their necks up and semi-flush, then an Otter came bounding across the grass and disappeared down into the River Coly!

The temperatures are rising quite rapidly now, it's going to be 9 degrees here tomorrow.  Am hoping the recent movement will keep producing some decent sightings however as birds reorientate.  Be sure to keep checking in here to read all about it.

Tuesday, 9 February 2021

Day Two

The raw east wind wind kept blowing all day today and with it came more wading birds.

Half an hour out this morning showed little new, except for a few more snowflakes and the Dunlin flock now numbering 38 (up from 24 the previous day).  

This afternoon Lapwing have been more numerous, and a last ditch look up the valley after work showed a neat little flock of 55 Golden Plover opposite Stedcombe Valley...

These golden beauties were a sure sign birds are reacting to the cold, but so far it's only really waders.  Still waiting for wildfowl to get going properly, although Clive had a couple of Brent Geese in-off today and Teal have been turning up in odd places, with a small flock on the lower Estuary outside my office all afternoon.  The local Wigeon however seem completely unfazed...

I won't lie, I wouldn't mind a diving duck or two out of this cold snap. And a good dumping of snow :-)

Monday, 8 February 2021

Time To Turn The Heating On

If only the title was indeed true, because my bank balance would look a lot healthier if it were!  

What has been labelled 'The Beast from the East Two' is currently blasting most of the UK with freezing cold winds and snow.  We've even had a few flakes down here late this afternoon but nothing serious yet (looks like Thursday/Friday may deliver this though?).   And like I'm sure every local patch birder in the country, I'm excited, very very excited.  A decent spell of cold weather can often produce bird movements even more impressive that what spring or autumn delivers.  A good cold snap just shakes things up a bit during the dullest and dreariest months of the year, especially February by which time the winter doldrums have often set in and spring is still too far away.

Of course when the weather becomes too cold it's just plain devastating.  I will never forget the sight of tens and tens of dead Lapwing that I found during the first Beast from the East.  Sickening.  Hopefully this one will not get this bad, and from the forecast it looks like it won't with signs of things warming up from Friday onwards.

So today was day one for us, with parts of the east of the UK and Scotland under a layer of the white stuff, and more falling as I type this.  And over the North Sea wow things are really cold - although the early signs are that many of these birds are escaping it by flying south west into Belgium and France and not west towards us.  Do think this will still give us some oddities though at some stage.  Woodcock are clearly coming west for example - Flamborough in East Yorkshire recorded over 180 a couple of days ago, which is by far their highest ever day count.  A clear sign of birds coming in and only about a month before they'd usually be thinking about heading off east!

A walk along the beach first thing this morning showed a constant northerly/north westerly passage of gulls.  Mostly small ones, and as I could see them coming from miles out, or from around the corner (Dorset) I knew they weren't the local birds.  Mostly Black-headed and Common with the odd Med Gull involved. A couple of Red-throated Divers flew west, but no sign of any wildfowl movement yet.  Although that's wasn't all that surprising, as they are a bit bigger it usually takes a couple of days of cold before they get moving. Most large water bodies are probably still unfrozen too.

The rest of the day I have been at work, but even from there I could see cold weather movement in action.  Namely Dunlin.  

Although we had one or two Dunlin on the Axe at the turn of the year, I haven't seen one for a couple of weeks now.  So when I saw five just outside my window mid morning I knew they were new arrivals.  Ten minutes later there were six.  Thirty minutes later there were nine.  I went for my lunch time walk and when I came back there were now 24...

Just makes me wonder where they have all come from?  Presumably quite a long way away as all the Estuary's along the south coast of UK and in the south west are still unfrozen.   Possibly they have come from Holland, or up the east coast of the UK somewhere?  Just amazing.  And as they arrived in dribs and drabs, there's a good chance most of them have never met each other before! Love it.  Migration, be it cold weather induced or just seasonal, its quite simply mind blowing.

Also noted a few Lapwing flying in-off today, with plenty huddled down in the corners of marsh I can see from work late this afternoon.  No Golden Plover for me but Mike reports a couple this evening near Musbury. 

As expected after what I saw offshore this morning, there's been lots of gulls about all day, although nothing better than a small turn over of Med Gulls.  This one was doing its' best to rock a summer vibe despite the temperature... 

So let's see what tomorrow brings.  It's another work day for me, not that that's necessarily a bad thing considering my incredible office view!  

I'll sign this post off with a picture of one of our wintering Cattle Egrets, which I snapped about a week ago on Bridge Marsh. It's amazing how quickly they've gone from being RARE to being not worthy of a blog post. - well not even a tweet to be honest...

Sunday, 31 January 2021

Find your own Caspian Gull with minimal effort... catchy right!?

Last week Gav over on NQS published a post titled Caspian Gulls in the Southwest.  A great post which was well received across the board, his natural and witty writing style hitting all the right notes as ever.  But there's a few points I want to touch on, as well as a little project I'm excited to announce...

Like Gav I bloody love Caspian Gulls. I love to see them, find them, write about them, analyse them - the full works.  They just add another dimension to birding, especially in the dull damp and dire winter months, and down here in Devon it can get really dull damp and dire believe me!

First-winter Caspian Gull on the Axe 8/3/12.

Personally I think there are some really interesting questions to be asked about Caspian Gulls and in particular their distribution/occurrence in the south west, such as...

1/  How much of the recent increase is down to an increase in birds versus an increase in observer awareness?

2/  How much their distribution and occurrence is forged by the distribution of 'genned up' observers?

3/  How rare are they actually in this part of the world?

Regarding point one and two, a key factor here is why do so few people find Caspian Gulls?   Well the obvious explanation is that many birders just don't look at large gulls...  but I know this isn't the case. 

Just look at white-winged gull records, most birders have had their find share of Iceland and Glaucous Gulls, but is that because they basically look like Snowy Owls? Well not wanting to sound in any way patronising, but yes I think it is. 

If you are not passionate/interested/bothered about gulls, then why would you spend an hour going through a load of grey and brown feathers?  Probably in the rain, and probably after you've failed to see any 'proper birds' which is why you are now looking at gulls! 

Glaucous Gulls simply are not shy!

However my counter argument to this is that a pristine young Caspian Gull is as obvious as a white-winged gull.  Six of my eleven Casp finds were through my binoculars not my scope, another one was with my naked eyes. In fact for two of them I didn't even have a telescope with me - not recommended though I do not promote this!

So I am going to try something new, in an attempt to open more eyes to the world of Larus cachinnans. I will endeavour to bridge that gap between the 'gull-unenthused' and Caspian Gulls...  But how I hear you ask?

Well we've all seen the blog posts with simple text, big bold headings and photos of one or more Caspian Gulls with red arrows and uneven circles graffitied all over it. I have posted many of these myself, but to be frank they're not working. What I'm planning is different, very very different...

The title will be 'Find you own Caspian Gull with minimal effort' and the emphasis will be not on the finer ID points, where the median coverts are, or where to draw the line between a rough Casp and a CaspxHerring hybrid. It will simply be - in the absolute easiest to digest and 'apply in the field' format - whether a 'tick all the boxes' classic young Caspian Gull is in the flock of gulls in front of you.  I am not interested in the duffers, the 'german muck' or older birds that are far less regular in this neck of the woods. Of course they interest me personally, but I really do get why they probably wouldn't interest many birders.

There is a Casp in here.... Taken 17/09/13 on the Axe Estuary

OK Steve I hear you ask, where is this fantastic new game changer of an ID paper? Let's see it! We want it now!  

Well you'll have to wait I'm afraid, and here's why...

On my laptop I have a Caspian Gull database - sad aren't I!? And thanks to the speedy and sharing nature of the Cornwall, Dorset and Somerset County Recorders, last week the database went from being an Axe and Devon Casp database, to an Axe and the south west Casp database! And from this database, with just a few clicks of the mouse I was able to produce this...

As the chart title suggests this is the monthly distribution of all south west Caspian Gull records.  I've laid the graph out July to June to show the trend better, as both July and June are blank months with zero Casp records. This is all accepted Caspian Gull records in the four counties in the south west, along with 2020/2021 yet to be accepted (but photographed and looking good) Devon Casp records.

As you can see we are just coming out of peak Caspian Gull season in the south west, so there would be less value in publishing anything just yet.  I want maximum impact and maximum results.  So mid autumn 2021, be ready to ready yourself to find your very own Caspian Gull! And who doesn't like to find a rare bird!?  And they are rare, just consider this...

I reckon over the course of the year - well a normal year - I probably look along the river on average five time a week.  This was really hard to work out, because in foul weather I can look along the Estuary four times in one day, but then in May/June I don't look along it as often as I should, plus throw into the mix busy periods at work.

Any Axe birder will tell you how large gull numbers vary here, sometimes there are disappointedly few (occasionally none at all!) but on another day there can be over 800 present! However if I had to give a rough guesstimates I'd say on average you see 150 large gulls on the Estuary. By large gulls I mean HerringGreat Black-backed and Lesser Black-backed Gulls.

So this means over the course of the year on the Axe I (very) roughly look at 39,000 large gulls, which is 260 days x 150 gulls. That is not 39,000 different individual gulls, as am sure we see many of the same birds day after day, and colour-rings have proved this to some extent, but it's essentially 39,000 gulls checked a year....ish!  

And in 2019 I found two Caspian Gulls.

So that's one Caspian Gull per 19,500 large gulls. Caspian Gulls are indeed still a rare bird in the south west, clearly increasing yes, but still very rare.  

Caspian Gull on Axe Estuary 20/10/14 - 19,500 gulls 'til the next one!

I really do think once you've found a Caspian Gull, it will not only prove a light bulb moment but it will create a spark, a new excitement for a genus that maybe in the past has only ever made you want to smash up your scope, burn the books and hide in a cave.  Maybe it will even make you want to find more?  

And let me close this already far too wordy post with a tale of an email I received from one of the Dawlish Warren regulars back in April 2014. This email included a photo of a half obscured large gull that had refused to show the observer most of the vital parts (underwing and tail if I remember rightly).  It was a Caspian Gull, a cracking first-summer bird and the Warren's first.  Seven years later and Dawlish Warren is the second best site in Devon for Casps, and fourth best in the south west.  I'd like to think that back on 6th April 2014 that Casp was the catalyst, the starting point of a learning curve and quest for more, just like my first Casp was for me back in 2007.  

As I said earlier, they are still a rare bird, and who doesn't like to find a rare bird?

Sunday, 24 January 2021

Lovely 2w Caspian Gull

Over recent weeks the Axe has been blessed with good numbers of gulls, both big and small.  But no quality within them, even though every time I have gone through them I've been fully expecting to jam into a white-winged gull of one flavour or the other.  

Well still no white-winger, but a lovely, and I do mean truly lovely Caspian Gull, that spent the best part of 45 minutes outside my office window late this afternoon...

Hunched up but striking as always

The above was my first view of it.  Well actually I suppose technically it wasn't, because about thirty minutes earlier I was convinced a 1w/2w Casp flew past my office window heading upriver, but as it was a naked eye only view I couldn't be sure.  

Flight view aside, it was 15:30 when I scanned through the small gathering of gulls on the lower Estuary (about forty birds) and this beady eye on a clean white head stopped me mid-scan.  After a minute or so of studying I noted light brown flank spots and chevron markings, a darker grey mantle than surrounding Herrings, plain greater coverts, narrow bill (albeit not at all long) and after a quick flap a lovely white uppertail with broad black tail band and ice white underwings.  The Axe's first Casp of 2021 - but what age?

My immediate thought was second-winter with that pale bill, but the upperparts weren't as advanced as you'd expect (not that much grey and much more brown) for a second-winter Casp in January.  So I started veering towards first-winter, but an open wing shot clinched it.  A second-winter bird (3cy) it was thanks to the single white mirrors on P10 of each wing...

Horribly over exposed, but see the little white dot just down from the tip of the outermost primary feather on each wing

Here's a few more shots of it, some taken in flat dull light others with a hint of sun on them...

Love those chevron type markings on the lower flank, and look at that tiny dark eye

Best shot I got of the tail

Bill still looking unremarkable but see how white headed it is compared to every other gull in shot!

And to the bill, it may not be long but it is narrow and parallel.  Check out the goyns angle on that ad/near-adult Herring (the angle along the lower edge of the beak where the red spot is) and how curved the bottom edge of the lower mandible is. Compare with the Casp behind.

Despite it's fairly delicate/reserved structure for a Casp, now and then when it became aggressive or was excited by something, its neck would shoot up like a giraffe and strike a very typical Casp-pose!  You'd be forgiven for thinking this was a different bird!

I can't reiterate enough just how distinctive (I'd almost say unique)  that grey-brown necklace is for a young Casp. Extends around the back of the head and part way down the neck sides, contrasting so strikingly with the white head and breast. Sometimes it can form a complete necklace but most often it doesn't meet in the middle.

At about 16:20 part of the flock took flight, and although some landed again sadly the Casp didn't.  Hopefully it will hang around though, I for one would love to see it again, such an interesting example of a second-winter Casp.  

This is mine and the Axe's fifth second-winter Casp, I've been lucky enough to have found them all.  I am still waiting for an older bird though - and with all the adult Herrings now developing clean white heads as we head towards spring, I feel that's become a bit trickier this winter.  

From my records this is the Axe's 23rd Caspian Gull, my 14th.  For anyone interested, maybe there's one or two of you, here's my Axe Casp spreadsheet showing all Axe records. For long-staying birds the month listed is the month it was first seen...

I wonder what 2021's final tally will be? Will it be greater than four? 

Tuesday, 19 January 2021

January Birdie Update

Thought I should bring everyone up to date with my local patch sightings in recent weeks.  I consider myself extremely lucky to live a five minute walk from the Estuary, a three minute walk from Black Hole Marsh, a 15 minute walk from the seafront, and have an office practically on the Axe Estuary!  

I have done a little driving, but only taken myself to completely deserted places where I know I am going to be alone.  And one of those trips was to woodland on the edge of Colyton on the 7th, very early on what was a beautiful cold and frosty morning. It was stunning...

And there was plenty of bird life too.  All the usual woodland species, like Nuthatch, Great-spotted Woodpecker, Jay, Raven and Treecreeper were seen, along with the full flush of less guaranteed winter species.  And by that I mean several Siskin, a single Lesser Redpoll, at least eight Crossbill and two Woodcock.  All in all a very enjoyable woodland wander.

I haven't done any proper sea watching since lockdown three came into force, basically because we are not allowed to.  However I have spent plenty of time at the beach because I just love the sea. Always early in the day though to avoid the crowds, which is my favourite time of day anyway...

There's actually not been a lot on it, despite the cold weather we experienced early in the month and the often flat calm conditions.  Up to five or six Great Crested Grebes seem to be wintering in the bay, with anything between one and ten Red-throated Divers usually on show.  No sea ducks at all yet for me, although I have seen some duck here.  On 9th three Shoveler were huddled up riding the waves, with five Wigeon and two Pintail over the sea east. The Pintails weren't a year tick though, because I'd seen three fly east on 3rd including two splendid drakes.

One of the Great Crested Grebes

Along the Estuary, we've been graced by an Avocet which is often with Black-tailed Godwits mid way along the Estuary at low tide, or roosting north of Coronation Corner at high tide.  Usually only a species we see here during migration times, so to have a lingering winterer is a bit of a novelty...

Love watching Avocet feed

A drake Gadwall (presumably the bird from the 1st) and a couple of Greenshank are also hanging around, as well as the seven Greylag Geese.

There have been good numbers of gulls most days, but the 14th saw a real peak in numbers, with an evening Estuary check revealing over 360 Common Gulls and eight Med Gulls - by far my highest counts of the winter for both species...

There's five Med Gulls in the shot, four adults and a much harder to spot non-adult.  Can you see them all?

Although I have always stayed close to home, there's been plenty to see really close to home.

The cold snap at New Year brought more birds than usual into the housing estate I live on, but when the weather warmed they didn't go back with many of them still here. It's been great to see Redwings feeding right in front of my front room window, and a good selection of finches have included several perched up Siskins (see them often here but almost exclusively fly overs) and even a Brambling. The latter has been visiting a nearby birders feeder daily for almost three weeks, but I didn't jam into it until  the 16th...

Hope to see it again sometime - a nice male Brambling

A Redwing

Two male Siskins almost gleaming!

And there we are.  That pretty much brings you up to date. I'll try and keep things more regular now, but as January birdie updates go I am quite pleased with this one.

Stay safe all.

Saturday, 16 January 2021

An Otter Encounter

One of those absolutely magic wildlife moments happened to me today. A proper take your breath away experience.

Shortly after 9am I was walking along the banks of the Axe, near Boshill Cross, having a wonderful time in my own little wildlife-filled world.  I'd flushed several Snipe, seen the wintering Marsh Harrier slowly quartering over the reeds, had a Water Pipit flying around calling above my head, startled a Cetti's Warbler that alarm called from deep inside cover, had a glimpse of a Kingfisher and was even treated to a flyby from our lingering 'skein' of Greylag Geese...

So as riverside wanders go it was already a pretty productive one.  But it got even better when I was stopped in my tracks by the calls of an Otter, and was amazed to see one, well some of one, just a short distance in front of me. Make sure the sound is up when you watch this...

I only wish I had kept the camera rolling, because a few seconds later it was on top of the bank no more than 15 feet away...

I then spent the next five or so minutes watching not one, but two Otters hunting along the river edge, in a graceful but very methodical way.  They were catching plenty of food and were virtually always on the go - this made photography a bit tricky. However they didn't take a blind bit of notice of me, yes I crouched down and remained stationary, but I certainly wouldn't have described myself as being inconspicuous - the great lump that I am hunched up on top of a barren river bank! 

Most of my pics looked like this...

But a few came out OK...

Wow. Quite simply wow.