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:

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...