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. 

Wednesday 13 January 2021

A Wise Move

An exciting new venture.... 

I'm absolutely thrilled to have joined the Wise Birding Holidays team, a Devon based bird tour company owned by Chris Townend.  And a tour company that genuinely does give something back, as a share of the profits from all tours are donated back into conservation projects. More details of that here; 

At some stage we will see the back of this awful virus and the world will become more accessible again. But I am particularly excited by the locally focused tours now on offer, as our part of the UK is home to such a rich and varied list of wildlife.  And I am so looking forward to sharing it with others!

Stay safe everyone, and see you on the other side.

Friday 8 January 2021

A Review Of The Decade (+1). Part Two.

I won't explain the idea of this series of blog posts again, I did that in Part One.  So let's just crack on from where we left off...


At least seven Water Pipits were discovered overwintering with us, an increase on recent years, with the male Green-winged Teal and one of last autumns's two Glossy Ibis still around into March.  Despite these quality overwintering birds, the first winter period was quiet and the first wave of Wheatears, Sand Martins and Little Ringed Plovers around the 16th March were so much appreciated.  Three Goldeneye on 19th were a nice sight swimming up the Estuary, where three Ruff also pitched in, and the 22nd continued the 'in three theme' with three Black-throated Divers settled off Branscombe.  A long-awaited white-winged Gull finally appeared on 29th with an Iceland Gull on the Estuary.

April saw the usual light scattering of summer migrants, with a Short-eared Owl at Beer Head on 12th a nice highlight, although completely eclipsed by a lingering female Montagu's Harrier in the valley for a couple of days from 17th.  A Hoopoe at Lower Bruckland Ponds was a nice end to the month. A poor spring for sea watching sadly.

I spent a lot of the next two and a half months off patch, surveying for the RSPB on Dartmoor, enjoying a Scotland holiday and working in Slovenia for a week. All three incredible experiences that for me made the year, but means few Axe bird sightings from me in these months!

A Wood Sandpiper ensured the focus was on Black Hole Marsh at end of July, which ultimately led to the discovery of an adult Least Sandpiper on 2nd August.  We then won't talk about the never before heard of flurry of Cory's Shearwater sightings off Seaton whilst I was at the Bird Fair, a very painful event to miss out on.   Beer Head was excellent over the last week of August, with good numbers and a varied selection of common migrants, although the year was not made up here until the 15th September with the discovery of a Red-backed Shrike.  During September wader passage was good with numerous Curlew Sandpiper, Ruff and Little Stint, and nine Grey Plover on 22nd are worthy of mention, a great count of this Axe scarcity.  Another pulse of action at Beer Head in October included several Ring Ouzels on 9th. A Turtle Dove in the valley mid month was seen on several dates, with other oddities during the remainder of the month including singles of Barnacle and White-fronted Geese (the latter staying just one date), a juv Little Gull, a Short-eared Owl and a Yellow-browed Warbler in my road.

Early November wasn't too bad either, with a moribund Arctic Skua on the Estuary, a Pochard on Seaton Marshes, a couple of brief Spoonbills (one ringed) and a nice fall of Black Redstarts. Bird of the month was a Dusky Warbler trapped on Stafford Marsh, but sadly missed by most, but a Yellow-browed Warbler at Lower Bruckland Ponds was the opposite and often very easy to see.  In mid December Cattle Egrets begun appearing in what was an influx year, and proved the start of the spread into UK.  Three Velvet Scoters off the beach were a nice end to the year.

So two additions to my patch list, Least Sandpiper and Red-backed Shrike.  

Green-winged Teal

Montagu's Harrier

Least Sandpiper - the star of the year rarity wise!

The first shrike on any of our local lists - a juvenile Red-backed Shrike

Turtle Dove - probably won't be seeing many more of these here

The only ground feeding Yellow-browed Warbler I've seen here


Decided to year list this year, so put extra effort in especially early on.  This didn't result in any rarities in January, but there were plenty of minor highlights like Tufted Duck, PintailGadwall, Firecrest, etc.  February saw an Iceland Gull off Seaton Hole on 7th, with another on the Estuary on 14th and amazingly a third on 22nd, two Yellow-legged Gulls were noted too suggesting a good gull passage. Early March gave a Short-eared Owl on Seaton Marshes and an early pulse of hirundines included an incredibly early House Martin. Two Egyptian Geese on 12th were only notable as I was year listing.  Spring migrants continued to arrive over the month, and I remember the evening of 27th being a good one with six Little Ringed Plover, four Goosander and a Water Pipit, and the next day a young Little Gull graced Colyford Marsh.

April was very predictable, a couple of Spoonbills mid month were nice to see and several Ospreys charged through north.  Cattle Egret numbers were now up to seven, and species like Grasshopper Warbler, Whinchat and Redstart made the year list in the last half of the month.  The sea and wading bird passage was poor all month, but improved in the final few days with a good push of waders, wildfowl shearwaters and even a couple of skuas! It was just Arcitc's and Great's until the 11th May when I watched a fully-spooned Pom fly by, although this was nothing compared to the following morning when a flock of nine practically flew over the beach and will forever be one of the best things I've ever witnessed here. Another Iceland Gull dropped in on 18th May, at the same time we all missed a Ring-necked Parakeet that was hiding in Axmouth gardens for a few days.  The 24th and 25th saw a sudden Red Kite passage, I had twenty in just under two hours on the first day, with many more present on day two.  It was at the end of May our Harry was born, and the following lack of sleep ensured a reduction in birding time!

In fact there were very few posts from me in June and July, although a good run of juvenule Yellow-legged Gulls from mid July clearly woke me up again. Black Hole Marsh was ticking over nicely with Little Ringed Plovers and the typical early autumn fare. August was again light for me in birding terms, although several Curlew Sandpipers on Black Hole Marsh was appreciated, and a big Axe Cliff day at the end of the month included a count of 150 Yellow Wagtails. 9th September incredibly saw another Axe Least Sandpiper, although this one identified retrospectively from photographs so enjoyed by very few. There was plenty of other bits to be enjoyed though including a juvenile Spotted Redshank and a Grey Phalarope on Black Hole Marsh from 20th. The month ended with a Spoonbill and a great count of 14 Ruff.  October gave a Yellow-browed Warbler again in my road on 19th when six Avocets were gracing Black Hole Marsh, and the month ended with some excellent vis mig - with 15k of Wood Pigeon leading the charge!

November started superbly well with Glossy Ibis and a Great White Egret that I finally saw (had missed four during the year!), and then the Hawfinches arrived.  A national influx which made for a terrific winter, which started for us in Colyton on 5th when I found two. In keeping with the finch theme a handful of Brambling wintered on the outskirts of Colyton and stayed into 2018.  December did very little for my year list, well nothing in fact, but with Hawfinches popping up now and then it was still very much an enjoyable month!  

No patch lifers at all, the first year this has happened since I kept an Axe list. It was also probably the worst autumn for sea watching since I properly birded the Axe!  Highlights were easily the flock of Pom Skuas and the Hawfinch invasion.

Incoming flock of Pomarine Skuas

A Glossy Ibis actually looking glossy!

Grey Phalarope


January saw the best showing of Water Pipits I've ever known here, with a flock of up to twelve birds on Colyford Common almost daily.  The 8th was a good day with Caspian Gull and a White-fronted Goose recorded, and new Hawfinches continued to pop up with birds at Musbury and Colyton church now. The same or another Caspian Gull remained throughout February, and with cold weather beginning to set in at the end of the month this immediately saw the arrival of around 200 Golden Plover in the valley, as well as couple of Bearded Tits in Axe reedbed and several Pintail and Gadwall.  

When March began, instead of showing signs of spring, it snowed and freezing weather set in for several days!  Lapwing and even more Golden Plover arrived en masse, with 6250 and 3000 respectively counted flying west on 1st, and hundreds more making landfall wherever they could find thawed ground. Thrushes were also plentiful, both overhead and on the deck.  Six Avocet graced Black Hole Marsh and a Spoonbill looked thoroughly cheesed off on the Estuary.  After seeing my first Wheatear on 14th I thought the seasons had changed, but a few days later yet more snow which saw another huge rush of thrushes.  A pair of Garganey on 28th were much appreciated by all, a species that shouldn't really be as scarce as it is here, and a nice dark first-winter Glaucous Gull looked impressive on the last day of the month, with a variety of odd geese in the valley including singles of Greylag, Egyptian and Barnacle!

April saw the usual species arrive, with an Iceland Gull on 15th nice to see (even more so as I had missed three of these this year!). Although I didn't have much time to do Beer Head, pickings were slim although a singing Corn Bunting for two bays form 25th an excellent record. Pity it didn't stay longer. Another Garganey showed exceptional well on Borrow Pit on 6th May when my first two Red Kites of the year flew over.  A nice pulse of wader passage at the end of the month gave Grey Plover and several Sanderling on the Estuary.

I didn't post any blog posts in June, but July was a good month with Spotted Redshank, Ruff, two Wood Sandpipers, Knot and a good passage of juvenile Yellow-legged Gulls. I was again kept busy in August, although up to three more Spotted Redshanks on Black Hole Marsh during the month were an excellent tally, with another four or so Wood Sandpipers.  It was sad to miss a Beer Head Wryneck on 28th.  I was away much of September so have little to add, although the highlight wasn't a bird but a Northern Bottlenose Whale in bay briefly.  

Yet again, the street I live in produced a Yellow-browed Warbler, with one on 13th October, and evening looks along the Estuary around the same time often showed four or so Cattle Egrets.  A first-winter Arctic Tern that spent about a week on the Estuary in early-mid November was novel for us, but that's where my blog posts ended for the year.  

So yet another patch tick free year.  The highlight was the cold weather movement, and seeing so many Hawfinches!


And two more - just because it was so novel seeing so many!

Snow and Lapwings on a main road in Seaton!

A very fed up looking Spoonbill!

Drake Garganey on the Borrow Pit.

Juv Spotted Redshank

My new birding companion!


Nothing exciting around at the start of the year, but February saw yet another 'big freeze'.  Not quite as much snow as the previous ones but the movement of thrushes on 1st was absolutely staggering, with an estimated 120,000 over west during the day, mostly Redwing.  Completely mind blowing.  Thankfully everything defrosted quite quickly so nothing looked too distressed.  Three Mandarin off the seafront on 4th March were just crazy, but there was nothing else too unexpected over the course of the month.  April had the same theme, with a Cuckoo showing well in Colyton on 18th an increasingly scarce highlight, with the rest of the month proving poor. May started better, with a singing Wood Warbler at Lower Bruckland Ponds on 5th a true spring rarity.  But again there was little more, just too much blue sky for downing migrants!  A Glossy Ibis on 8th June was a turn up for the books, with a Wood Sandpiper already with us before July had even begun.

I spent most of July in a moth trap, but saw the error of my ways in August and was rewarded with a juvenile Goshawk over Axmouth on 17th.  Black Hole Marsh was as it often is at this time of year, teeming with wading birds, including adults of Curlew Sandpiper and Little Stint before the month was out.  This was the first time in a while we had a lingering Osprey, which kept many happy by fishing daily on the Estuary. A Honey Buzzard over Colyford Marsh on 14th September made me really happy, and a Great White Egret was viewable from my house on 18th.  The month ended with finally some decent sea watching, with a combined day total of just shy of 200 Balearic Shearwaters west on 27th, with a few Arctic and Great Skuas recorded over the next couple of days. 

A Whooper Swan on the Estuary on 14th October was only a one-dayer, and easily my highlight of a rather quiet month. Seven Black Redstarts at Axe Yacht Club on 1st November brought with them a surprising Common Redstart, with the 2nd producing the Axe's second double-dose of Caspian Gull with two on Bridge Marsh.  

And that was it for real highlights this year, with for the third year in a row no patch lifers.  The highlight for me was the epic Balearic passage and the autumn raptor fest.

Three surprising Mandarin

Adult Whooper Swan - although just a one day wonder here it spent the winter near Axminster

Male Black Redstart - this bird proved popular to photographers and you can see why

A November Common Redstart!


The quiet January was more than made up for by February, with a Serin in Seaton on 5th a unseasonable surprise, and an American Herring Gull on the Estuary on 14th a jaw-dropping surprise!  March started averagely, but then everything got even more local with lockdown starting and all effort was on the house list.  This gave me rewards, with Red Kites, a Marsh Harrier, two Ospreys (saw six in total this spring), a Spoonbill, two Cattle Egret, an Iceland Gull, a Grasshopper Warbler, a Spotted Flycatcher and two Avocet noted without even leaving home!  

Thankfully by the end of May restrictions had eased which meant we could all cash in on a singing male Blyth's Reed Warbler on Beer Head on 31st, and then the two Rose-coloured Startlings that had joined the towns Starling flocks from 6th June.  Early July saw a surprising amount of sea birds in the bay, including up to 100 Balearic Shearwaters and an unseasonal Velvet Scoter on 6th.  Black Hole Marsh came in to its own soon after too, with Ruff and a couple of Wood Sandpipers noted before the end of the month.  It proved another good summer for juvenile Yellow-legged Gulls too, and the surrounding conifer woods were alive with the sounds of 'glipping' Crossbills.

August showed a steady turn over of waders but little else (a few Curlew Sandpipers, Little Stints, etc), and September also remained rarity free - and mostly bird free too. Well that was until a Pink-footed Goose was discovered on 28th.  October began with thousands of House Martins feeding low over the patch, with awful weather blocking their southwards migration, and then there was a run of Great White Egret sightings mid month (with the now expected Cattle Egrets also present).  Over the last ten days of the month there were good numbers of gulls including multiple Yellow-legged Gulls and a couple of sightings of Caspian Gulls (on 24th and 27th).

An Eider appeared off Seaton Hole mid November, and the year ended with a beefy young Glaucous Gull on the Estuary, topping off an excellent gull year in the best possible way.

For numbers of birds, not the best year, but for patch ticks absolutely incredible with four; American Herring Gull, Blyth's Reed Warbler, Rose-coloured Starling and Pink-footed Goose.  The novelty of lockdown listing ensured there was a positive spin on the devastating situation around us.  

American Herring Gull.... oh yes!

Singing male Rose-coloured Startling

The female Rose-coloured Starling

One of the best looking Ruff I've ever seen on the Axe

Pink-footed Goose

And there we are.  That's the two parter done and I have so enjoyed it!  Reliving so many amazing memories on the Axe Estuary over the last eleven years, my true birding home.

A few things have really hit me whilst I compiling these two posts.  First and foremost, it's not just about the patch you have or the birds that use it, but it's the birders you share it with.  The main core of Axe Estuary birders are all thoroughly nice guys and girls and we all have such a want to share our sightings with each other.  If I haven't shared a good bird with at least one other person then the experience is completely tainted for me, forever.  I almost wish I had never seen it in the first place! For example the brief Gull-billed Tern in 2008 that shocked me sat on the mud north of Coronation Corner.  I literally got no enjoyment from that despite its epic rarity status, and that's because it took off and flew out to sea before anyone else arrived.

Also, almost always the birds and experiences that stick in my mind the clearest, and have made me smile the most whilst writing these posts, aren't the true rares.  Yes the biggies give me a buzz, and seeing a rarity here, which may also be a new bird for the patch, is always going to be a highlight.  However it's the massive cold weather movements that I've witnessed, and the winter when Hawfinches were 'common' that really jump out at me as being highlights. And I can't not mention the flock of nine Pomarine Skuas which will forever take centre stage in my mind's eye.    

So that's me done, I really hope you have enjoyed these two posts.  Be sure to check back soon for a 2021 update - I may even be forced to bring lockdown listing back!?