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Sunday, 9 May 2021

Back with a Bang... Well, two Cuckoos and a Bonxie!

Have spent most of the last week living out of a large static caravan in north Cornwall with the family, which was really lovely.  We wanted to grab a break away before the rest of the UK descended upon the south west, think it will prove a wise move. Certainly did price-wise when you compare to post-17th May!

Thankfully I didn't miss much on patch whilst I was gone, and then Saturday, the first day I was back, turned out to be one of our best days on the patch so far this spring. Timed that well!

I must start with Cuckoos... yes, plural!  A spring Cuckoo here is a true rarity, I have only ever managed two in my 17+ years of birding the Axe patch, so to boast two on the same day is pretty remarkable.  Yesterday morning a Beer resident reported hearing one just after 7am, and thankfully at 9am when I had made it over to the village it was still calling!  Then during the afternoon during a check of the Estuary, one was belting it out from the hill above Axmouth.  I saw neither, but I can live with that - it's all about the sound and what a special sound it is.

Further evidence that yesterday was a good arrival day for incoming spring migrants, despite the grim weather, was provided when Clive came across a group of five Whinchat on Seaton Marshes.  I enjoyed good views of all five a short while later, feeding with a single Wheatear.  They were finding shelter from the blustering south west wind thanks to a line of low bramble bushes, and would often perch up on the lowest wire of the fence to help keep themselves out of the worst of the weather.  A really nice sight, and great to share with Dad.

It was a good day for hirundines too, with large numbers of Swallows arriving in-off throughout the day, particularly this afternoon. Always a thrill to watch them arriving over the sea despite the blatantly grim travelling conditions.  And whilst on the subject of the sea this is how I got on looking at it...

The morning seawatch was dire.  Despite decent numbers of waders passing both to the east and west of us, I couldn't do better than two Dunlin in-off!  I gave it an hour but really don't know why I did.

A second attempt later in the day, 17:00 - 18:15, was far more rewarding, and it was great to be joined by Richard for some of it.  Highlight was  my first skua of the year, a menacing Bonxie that I picked up virtually on my first scan, but it remained in view for nine minutes as it slowly made its way west. Wonderful to see.  The full totals for this watch were (all west):

5 Common Scoter, 24 Manx Shearwater, 1 Great Skua, 3 Kittiwake, 10 Whimbrel, 2 Sanderling (flew west with 2 Dunlin) and 38 Dunlin (one flock of 30).

On the Estuary wader-wise I saw 16 Whimbrel, 14 Dunlin and 4 Ringed Plover. Sadly missed the Turnstone seen briefly mid afternoon though.  Although most the Whimbrel remained distant, this one ventured a little closer...



A noticeable increase in gulls included a high proportion of Lesser Black-backed Gulls, one of which gave me a right fright when I first sighted it on Bridge Marsh.  The combination of a very pale head, sloping forehead and narrow bill gave it a real Caspian feel... 

See what I mean!


However upperparts clearly not right, neither was wing pattern or moult.  And after it had moved around a little it's tiny size soon became apparent...

First-winter Lesser Black-backed Gull it is.


Had another Caspian-fright a short while later, with a really large, clean and smooth-looking 2cy gull distantly viewable from Axmouth.  Never got closer to it, but prolonged views suggested it was actually a really smart young Yellow-legged Gull, one of the cleanest I've ever seen.  But then again, I don't think I have ever seen a 2cy YLG this late in the spring...  

Looking left over its shoulder- giving off Casp vibes here

A better profile shot although a bit blurry. A really hefty bird.

I tied everything to turn it into a Caspian but really couldn't.  If anyone has any comments or thoughts do let me know.

Today has been equally exciting, although more for land birds than waders and seabirds.  I have missed almost all of it due to work, and sadly didn't see the Wood Warbler Kev found on Beer Head late morning, but an hour here from 17:30 showed my first Spotted Flycatcher of the year, along with several Willow Warblers and Whitethroats.

It's turning out to be a late spring this one - and hopefully there's a bit more in it yet!

Saturday, 1 May 2021

False Hope

Yesterday morning's trudge around Axe Cliff brought back a nice memory from the dim and distant past...

It was mid to late autumn 2004 and I was stood chatting to a bunch of birders much better than me at the Warren, Spurn. This was back when the Warren was the location of the Spurn Bird Observatory.  Three chat-shaped dots perched up on a fence way off to the north, on the edge of Clubley's, and they were just that, dots.  But within seconds the mighty Mr Hutt casually remarked "Whinchat with those two Stonechats over there"...

First of all I had to check he was looking at the same three dots as me, he was, so then had to get my telescope (note he didn't have his either!) out of my room to confirm what seemed like a remarkable feat of birding wizardry.  Of course he was right... he always was!  A great learning experience for me, just like the rest of my time at Spurn.  

Anyway, yesterday morning I got out of my car at Axe Cliff, and for some reason decided to walk up the road instead of out towards the golf course.  Only a few steps in and whilst looking ahead at the numerous Yellowhammers and Whitethroats flitting along the hedges and perching up on telephone wires, there sat a shape, completely back lit on the most distant bit of hedge I could see.  Without even a moments thought, I internally congratulated myself at finding my first Whinchat of 2021...

So distinctive!

It did allow for some slightly better pics, but sadly didn't hang around for others to see.  I knew the next car along the lane would flush it.

Didn't see one during spring 2020 so much appreciated!

Just wish that branch wasn't there!

But why the title of the post?  Well as I said, this Whinchat was within practically the first minute of my visit to Axe Cliff.  A quality migrant so soon must mean there's been a fairly decent arrival, so I took a much longer route around the site than usual...  One Willow Warbler was the only other grounded migrant noted in the 1.5 hours I was there!  I did see eight male Common Whitethroats but they were all clearly on territory.

The evening before I saw my first two Swifts of the year over Black Hole Marsh, always an uplifting sight.  There's been a really good arrival of hirundines over the last few days too, lots more House Martins about in particular which is good to see.

I really cannot believe we are already in May! Really hope for some decent sea watching in the next few days, Monday maybe?  I'll be there watching that's for sure.

Thursday, 22 April 2021

Spring Progress

The persistent cold north/north easterly winds recently have really slowed down spring migration this year, but understandably so. We've had more night time frosts in April than we have had throughout the whole of the winter!

It's always hard to truly gauge the progress of a spring nationally by the number of passage migrants seen on a coastal patch, simply because there are just so many variables that determine how many migrants are grounded.  But I can see that many local breeding summer migrant species are present in much lower numbers than you'd expect by now, like Whitethroats, Reed Warblers, Sedge Warblers and Swallows. I've not seen/heard one Lesser Whitethroat yet, and Reed Warblers arrived a whole ten days later than last year into the narrow strip of reeds up to the Tower Hide on Black Hole Marsh!  A very strange spring really.

Most mornings during the last few weeks have looked exactly how Axe Cliff looked a couple of days ago...

Clear skies, frost on the ground, and although you can't tell in this pic... a bloody cold wind!


Seeing as the above photo is from 20th, I'll start with what birds I saw during that wander...three firsts of the year in fact! A cracking male Redstart, an invisible but much appreciated reeling Grasshopper Warbler and a couple of Common Whitethroats.  Also noted were three Wheatear and a Willow Warbler, as well as good numbers of the usual residents like Skylarks, Linnets and Yellowhammers

One day one of these will be a Cirl Bunting!


I went back up to Axe Cliff today, much quieter for migrants with just one Wheatear and one Willow Warbler. Four Common Whitethroats on territory now though (still well short of usual numbers).

The Wheatears are getting bigger and more upright by the day!  Suggesting more northern breeders

The distant blob of a Whitethroat on the edge of the cliff

Same bird with a sea blue backdrop. Interestingly this was a male bird as it was singing, but looked very plain and female-like.


Other notable passerine migrants I have seen since my last blog post include my first Yellow Wagtail of the year low north over Sheep's Marsh on 15th, and a cracking male White Wagtail on Bridge Marsh on 17th.  

Our first Bar-tailed Godwit of the year appeared on the Axe on 19th, with thousands seen migrating along the English Channel in the days since.  Always a delight to see in spring, even if this male still has some way to go before he is full on brick red...

One of my favourite waders


A lone Barnacle Goose has joined our Canada Goose flock in recent days, probably not all that wild but it's always good to see something different.  Sorry for my dreadful photo, taken at extreme distance and after sunset on the 21st...

They really are tiny


And to finish off this post, I am delighted to say the Glaucous Gull is still around, and this morning I enjoyed some excellent views of it as it bathed on the lower Axe Estuary.  So I will sign off tonight in the best possible way, with a flurry of Glauc pics...







Friday, 9 April 2021

A Gaudy Glauc

One of the many exciting things about this time of year is the overlap of the seasons.  

I went out this evening hoping to stumble upon possibly a Redstart, or any other exciting summer migrant, but instead a message from Phil soon saw me watching a staggeringly white and large first-winter Glaucous Gull on Sheep's Marsh...

Can't get much whiter than that!

Wasn't too sure of it's age at first, with a pink tip to the bill, and although it didn't show a truly pale iris you could see it was paler than the bird's pupil.  Thoughts of second-winter were at the forefront of my mind whilst watching it, although now am thinking that big wedge of black on the bill would support this being a faded first-winter bird.  And back to the eye, all the second-winter white-winged gulls I have seen in the past have showed clearly pale iris's, not subtly pale ones like this bird.

A big chunky bird!

Extent of pale bill tip visible here - only just the tip

I couldn't help but take a video as well, spring white-wingers don't usually linger like this on the Axe so wanted to make the most of it...


Late March/April is by a mile our most prolific time of year for white-winged gulls on the Axe, and it's been a fantastic late winter/spring for gulls in general on patch.  Glauc is the rarer of the two species though so it's great to get one under the belt.  I'd be very surprised if we don't get an Iceland at some point too - we've all been expecting one!

Other sightings from the past few days include a female Goosander on the Estuary on the evening of 7th, and a splattering of ten singing Willow Warblers around Black Hole and Seaton Marshes on the morning of the 6th.  I was pleased to see my first Osprey of the year over the upper Axe Estuary on the morning of 31st March, which I later learnt had been seen by Kev over Beer ten minutes earlier.

This is turning out to be one productive spring!

Friday, 2 April 2021

Stand Aside March, Hello April!

A raw north east wind encouraged me to start the day at Seaton Beach, there had been a few records of seafaring Garganey along the south coast the previous day so I was hoping to cash in.  It wasn't to be but three much larger ducks ensured it was well worthwhile.

I was just a few minutes in (07:10) when I first picked up three hefty ducks skirting the hazy horizon way off to the west, flying east.  Well they never really came closer just became less hazy as they passed straight out, and two of the dots were easily identifiable thanks to the super distinctive plumage of drake Eiders!  Result.  And seeing as the all dark duck between the two white knights was identical in size, shape and flight pattern - well that will be a female! Nice.

Not a common bird at all here, well scarce bordering on rare in fact, although there does seem to be a few more around the south west coast this spring so there's every chance we may see some more.  Seeing as they are a bit of a patch rare, my desire to obtain some sort of evidence became overwhelming as they powered through east. I stuck my phone on the end of my scope and pressed record. I use the word 'evidence' in the loosest possible sense...

The actual video is a bit better, as you can see they are indeed ducks and not Gannets!


Portland saw a nice bit of Eider passage this morning, three different flocks in fact.  And thanks to Keith Pritchard I was able to glean that a flock of three, compromising two drakes and a female, flew east past the Bill at 08:19.   Well if you compare Keith's tweeted photo below of the trio, with my shot above, well clearly they are the same individuals, the resemblance is uncanny...

Keith's camera time is set to GMT in case anyone is confused


Joking aside, Eiders are scarce enough down here that I'm happy to bet on the fact both sightings do indeed relate to the same flock. Seabird tracking is great fun, it's always a delight to hear when birds have been clocked from other points along the coast.  

Although Keith is clearly a far more competent photographer than I am, comparing the above two photos of the same flock of birds perfectly highlights the challenges of sea watching off here (a bay, deep in the bowels of a massive bay) vs sea watching at somewhere like Portland!  The mind boggles at just how many rarities and scarcities we miss/overlook because they pass us at 'beyond-identifiable range'. Frustrating.  

The rest of the sea watch was a bit of an anti-climax really, although a trickle of Sand Martins and Swallows flying north east, and a group of three Sandwich Terns through east were just enough to keep me awake.

Then followed a flying visit around the river valley which was actually fairly productive.  The cold north easterly was clearly grounding new arrivals making for some pretty exciting birding. Just how I like it :-)

Seaton Marshes housed a couple of Willow Warblers, too busy feeding to sing, and too busy feeding for my focus to latch on to...

That's the wrong willow!


Black Hole Marsh showed two Little Ringed Plovers and a Dunlin, which also didn't want to be photographed as after one click of the shutter, they took off...

They came back later 

Bridge Marsh showed a Wheatear, and among c90 Sand Martins my first four House Martins of the year.  And then came my highlight of the morning, yes even more of a highlight that the Eiders...

I noticed the gulls take flight right down the far end of the Estuary (I was still at Bridge Marsh), then up went the gulls at the top of the Estuary, and shortly after out of the mass of wings emerged a stunning adult male Marsh HarrierMarsh Harriers are now annual here and pleasingly appear to be on the up, in fact last winter we had our first ever overwintering bird, present from autumn 2020 through to mid January.  Most records though relate to 'cream-crowns' with adult males remaining few and far between. I think this was only the third full male I've ever seen here. It was stunning, and so so sleek.  It didn't hang around sadly, and within minutes gained height with Crows in hot pursuit before leaving high to the north east.

In line with all other photos in this post (except for Keith's) I only managed a really ropey record shot...

(it's the upper bird!)

Not at all bad for a pre-breakfast foray!  

Sunday, 28 March 2021

More March Magic

After an enjoyable and surprisingly productive Friday, the weekend carried on in similar fashion.  It's been a good weekend indeed!

All I had time for on Saturday was a mid afternoon look along the Estuary, but it proved so rewarding with a stunning example of a first-winter (2cy) Caspian Gull amongst the large numbers of loafing gulls.  The Axe's 24th, my 15th, and quite possibly my personal favourite to date...

The most striking 1w Caspian Gull possible!

White, grey, brown, black.

A snow head white, with long narrow bill and a black bullet hole for an eye

Whiter than white, even under its wings!  That's a similarly aged Herring Gull in front - so so different!


Let me use the next photo to highlight what makes this an absolute stone-wall tick all the boxes Caspian.  Match up the bullet points to the below photo...

Bill noticeably pale with dark tip

  1.  Clean white and sloping fronted head, and breast with slight grey flecking around rear of neck.
  2.  Almost pure grey mantle with little brown - advanced for a 1w bird.
  3.  Coverts (especially Greater) plain and almost solidly dark, with some narrow pale edging/tips.
  4.  All dark tertials with pale tips.
  5.  Narrow and parallel bill mostly pale with a dark tip.
  6.  An overall big and 'beefy' looking bird.
As ever though, yes it's important to study the above points and finer details of the bird, but zoom out and look at just how distinctive overall this bird is.  At this time of year many young Herring Gulls have developed paler heads, some looking pretty damn white, and they never fail to stop me in my tracks when I am scanning through a gull flock. This was something else however, it was literally radiating out like a bright white light!  And when that 'whiteness' is contrasting with such plain brown flight feathers and a clean almost silver-grey mantle - well there's just no mistaking it.  Stunning.  

And then it flew, which allowed me to see even more of the clinching features...

Just as white as its head under there! And look at those dangling long legs

Underwing compared with a similarly aged Herring Gull above and to the right

Best upperwing and uppertail shot I got. Striking tail pattern, and note the solidly dark secondaries with pale tips

Thrilled with this shot, with a second-winter Great Black-backed.  Note the already moulted grey inner primaries and once again those long gangly pale pink legs!


I was absolutely delighted to share this cracker with Phil and Ian, before it took off and appeared to land on Black Hole Marsh. Don't think it was picked up again though.  

Can't tell you how thrilled I am with this bird!  We have been blessed with really good numbers of gulls on the Axe during late winter/early spring this year, more than I can remember seeing before on such a consistent basis.  However they've contained nothing different, and despite all the effort and the fact each time I've checked I thought 'there will be something this time', they've just not been supplying the goods.

Great that that's changed though, with a first-winter Yellow-legged Gull on Friday and now this beaut the next day.  A much deserved white-winger next hopefully!?

Now to today, maybe a work day but it's shown some nice birds.  My first Willow Warbler of the year was hurriedly feeding and repeated calling from a ditch by my office late this morning, with a lunch time wander revealing my first two Wheatear of the year, and the Dark-bellied Brent Goose which has been around for a couple of days now...

Not quite a scenic as I was hoping for my first Wheatear of the year!

Dark-bellied Brent Goose showing well on Sheep's Marsh


Then tonight after work, my first two Swallow of the year were feeding with 25+ Sand Martins over Colyford/Bridge Marsh.  

What a fantastic few days, March really has surpassed all expectations!

Friday, 26 March 2021

Spring Marches On

March doesn't usually produce proper birdie days, it's not until April comes around that we usually find ourselves fully immersed in spring passage.  But today bucked that trend with a brilliant few hours out this morning. 

With a strong south westerly wind and frequent rain showers the sea was my first port of call.  Phil had already given it a good hour before I made it out, and had scored our first Great Skua and six Manx Shearwaters of the year.  I got down to Spot On Kiosk at 07:40, joined by Phil shortly after, and spent an hour watching the waves. As March sea watches go it was certainly one of my best here, full totals (all west):

4 Red-throated Diver (1 east), 1 Long-tailed Duck (west at 08:15), 3 Common Scoter, 80+ Gannet, 24 Manx Shearwater, 48 Kittiwake, 2 Sandwich Tern and 5 Sand Martin (in/off).

Three new birds for the year in that lot, with Long-tailed Duck the absolute stand out bird - a true patch rarity.  My last here were two in Nov 2013, which stayed a few weeks feeding distantly in Seaton Bay, I'd then have to go back through another six years' worth of notebooks before finding another mention of Long-tailed Duck.  

Gav informed the local WhatsApp Group that he thought he'd seen one passing Cogden earlier in the morning although didn't get enough on it, but to be honest I hadn't given it much further thought.  Not because I don't rate Gav's birding abilities or his 'hunches', but because sea bird passage just doesn't make sense on the south coast of Dorset/Devon! Something flying past Seaton can be missed flying past Beer which is not much more than a mile away, so Gav's possible sighting 17 miles from where I was watching didn't fill me with much hope!  

That all changed at 08:15 however when four ducks came flying in low from the east - three Common Scoter being led by a smaller, slimmer and narrow-winged bird... it wasn't until it was roughly straight out that the ID became obvious, when it was close enough to make out even its face pattern, upperwing pattern (is there anything plainer than a Long-tailed Ducks upperwing mind!) and as it headed more west the distinctive dual white prongs running from tail tip up the sides of its lower back.  I reckon I could actually have grabbed some sort of photo of it, but I was just enjoying watching it too much... and then it was gone!  What a result, thanks again Gav and a moment I was delighted to share with Phil.

I would have seawatched for longer this morning, but heavy rain set in which saw me retreat to the Estuary (in the shelter of my car!).  There were heaps of gulls on show, and was pleased to see a first-winter Yellow-legged Gull dip-feeding off Coronation Corner.  A look over Bridge Marsh then revealed a new-in Little Ringed Plover with a back drop of up to thirty Sand Martins hawking low over the river valley.

I have a nice little tale to finish this post off with.  Remember the second-winter Caspian Gull that graced the Axe for several hours on the morning of 24th January, this one...

More pics and details HERE

Well it reappeared at Abbotsbury Swannery on 15th March - 52 days later!  See Joe Stockwell's blog post here: https://joestockwell.blogspot.com/2021/03/abbotsbury-caspian-gulls.html?m=1

I was already looking forward to April - but I am even more now!


Thursday, 18 March 2021

Lovely Little Ringed Plover

The first trickle of spring migrants finally reached the Axe yesterday afternoon, with Mike B noting a few Sand Martins and a Little Ringed Plover at Colyford Marsh during the evening. Today Wheatears joined the mix too, with birders who made it up to Beer Head this morning recording up to five.  

I couldn't get out today until very late this afternoon and headed down into the valley where I was hoping the recent Dorset Laughing Gull might make an appearance.  Just four Med Gulls and a few Lesser Black-backs on show, which was no laughing matter.  Looking upriver however I was delighted to see my first spring migrants of the year, at least eight Sand Martins feeding over Colyford Marsh.  

Shortly after, Black Hole Marsh revealed the Little Ringed Plover that had been present for most of the day, and could well have been Mike's bird from the previous night.  I didn't get to it until after the sun had disappeared behind a massive cloud and then over the horizon, but it was showing exceptionally well...





In the words of the absolute legend that is Murray Walker, we are Go Go Go...


Saturday, 13 March 2021

Still Waiting for Spring

I write this in somewhat disbelief that I haven't actually seen a proper (ie sub-Saharan) spring migrant yet!  

The warm weather in late February and early March created the perfect conditions for some early migrant action, and right on cue Wheatears and Sand Martins were appearing elsewhere along the south coast - well the whole of the country in fact!  Even during the recent cooler weather the conditions have been ok for Sand Martins, they often stay low in the valley during cold and wet conditions in early spring where the food is, but nowt here yet.

I may not seen any of these proper spring migrants but I have seen some migrants, the most obvious being a big increase in Meadow Pipits from early March, with many grounded in the valley and others flying over.  Have also seen several Chiffchaffs at 'new' locations as well, suggesting they were passage birds.  This included one I watched fly across the A3052, feed briefly in road side bushes, then follow the River Axe north moving rapidly from bush to bush, and another calling in bushes by my work just inland of Seaton Beach.

So with not as many migrants as I've was hoping for (how often have I said that in early March!) what have I been looking at....  Thank God for gulls! :-)

During the warmer weather gull numbers actually remained pretty good on the Axe, whereas normally they'd drop right off.  Never find it as easy shifting through gull flocks on glaring sunny days however when all sorts of shades of grey merge into one.  That's maybe part of the reason I didn't find anything different - but I did try!

Since the cloud has rolled back over I have had more luck, and the recent arrival of some south westerly storms improved things a bit.  The dusk movement last Wednesday night revealed Common Gull passage is still going strong, with 300+ present, plus 12 Med Gulls (all adults now looking off the scale stunning!) and 55 Lesser Black-backed Gulls...




On Tuesday, this near-adult large gull excited me for about 0.4 seconds before I saw it's dull yellow legs.  Mantle colour didn't look right for a pure Yellow-legged either often only looking marginally darker than surrounding HerringsYellow-legged x Lesser Black-backed for me, although am not sure I can rule out a yellow-legged Herring to be honest...




Thursday gave a much better Yellow-legged Gull candidate, although again at first I wasn't completely convinced.  Views of it in the afternoon however seemed to suggest it was a bigger bird than my first impressions, and paler yellow legs on a Yellow-legged Gull of this age isn't necessarily a problem.  So I'm happy to have this one, a second-winter considering the amount of juvenile feathers in the wing...





Other snippets of interest since my last post include the continued presence of two wintering Greenshank on the Axe (although the Avocet left after the cold snap ended in Feb), a calling Green Sandpiper on Colyford Marsh on 26th Feb (presumably an elusive wintering bird) and this fabulous pair of Pintail on the river on 5th March...


Although I often find March as a month for birding extremely frustrating, as I just want real spring to get going, I do enjoy watching the seasons change.  A couple of weeks ago this frosty field was crammed with Fieldfares...


Whilst above my head a local Song Thrush was belting out its fabulous spring song...


Here's hoping my next post will include a photo or two of a stunning male Wheatear...