Sunday 29 August 2021

Little Stint, Red Kite and Merlin

So I closed my last post with the sentence "Two blog posts to go until I am bang up to date I reckon, but sorry all you feather-lovers it's going to be insects next... ".  

Well that was actually a lie because before I have had chance to complete my insect-themed catch-up post, I have some present time bird news to fill you in about!  There's no point getting this blog up to date then ignoring the real time bird news.

Black Hole Marsh continues to be delivering, and I was really pleased to see my first Little Stint of the autumn yesterday morning. Ian Mc found it the previous day, a cracking juvenile and my first here since autumn 2019...

Little Stint - looking nice and rare!

More distant but in better light

The day before I saw the two juvenile Ruff that have been around recently (three reported one evening) with other birds present including a lone Wood Sandpiper still, up to three Greenshank, 40+ Dunlin, heaps of Black-tailed Godwits, an adult Med Gull and up to 40 Teal (big increase in recent days).  Been pleasing to see some young Water Rail about recently too, proving local breeding once again.  The biggest surprise for me whilst I was sat in the Island Hide yesterday however was a Red Kite!

Not what I was expecting

Seeing all the gulls on the Estuary lift off, followed by all the birds resting in the Tower Hide corner of Black Hole Marsh, I had almost convinced myself an Osprey was about to cruise into view, so when I saw the distinctly graceful wing-beats of a Kite I was a bit surprised.  I even momentarily considered Black due to the size of the flush (Red Kites will often only trigger some half-hearted alarm calling from local Herring Gulls) but a quick count up of primary tips, as well as the tail fork and plumage rapidly put pay to that, sadly.  Still, being only my second Red Kite of the year, and a species not often seen in late summer/autumn it was still very much welcome!  It circled up just south of Black Hole, partially into the clouds, and then powered north west losing height as it glided.

Following on from the out of character Wood Sand that spent a couple of days on the Estuary in July, there was a Green Sandpiper in front of Seaton Marshes hide yesterday on the Estuary.  The light was atrocious, but I took a snap because for some unknown reason we see far fewer of these now than we used to.  Double-figure counts in July/August ten plus years ago were not unusual at all, but you'd be lucky to get to double-figures over the whole of an autumn now. I don't really know why because virtually every other species of wading bird has gone the opposite way here, thanks to the much improved habitat.

Green Sandpiper not in usual habitat!

I am trying to not mention anything about autumn passerine migration, which is building rapidly, as this is the theme for my final catch-up post.  But I will sneak in the surprise Merlin that flew over Sheep's Marsh and rapidly east up to Axe Cliff last Thursday.  I saw Kestrel, Sparrowhawk and this brown-backed beauty within about five minutes of each other, all no doubt drawn to the Tesco-owned waste ground which is currently heaving with Linnets, Goldfinch, and on that morning 15 Meadow Pipits and two Wheatears.

Wheatear Seaton Marshes

Right'o, catch up soon! I'll be posting the previously promised insect blog within the next couple of days :-)

Monday 23 August 2021

Wading Birds, Wildfowl and Raptors

Before I start talking about the 'autumn' am going to have to tie up spring first...

It was actually a pretty poor spring for wading birds in the valley, not helped by the fact water levels on Black Hole Marsh remained high throughout.  There was a bit more action off the sea front and on the beach though.  Mostly Dunlin and Sanderling flying by (26 of the latter on 24th May my highest count), but a wet and windy walk along the beach on 13th revealed two Turnstone seeking shelter. Being my only record of this species on patch so far this year they were well worth getting wet for!  

Two Turnstone - one in summer plumage and the other out of focus!

I am never sure if the wading birds we see in late June are late spring migrants, early autumn returners or just non-breeding layabouts!  A single Whimbrel and Ringed Plover on the Estuary on 21st June I suspect were the latter, as they both stayed a week or so.  

When it gets to July I am more inclined to suggest the wading birds we see are on autumn passage, whether they've had a failed breeding season or have been really successful and managed to get young off early.  Four Black-tailed Godwits and a Dunlin on 7th got the month going, but as expected towards the end of the month variety improved considerably.

A Sanderling took off from Seaton Beach then flew south west with a Dunlin for company on 23rd July, which is a very early autumn record for this species on patch.  And with Black Hole Marsh water levels now looking very inviting, up to four Little Ringed Plover, two Greenshank, numerous Black-tailed Godwits and Common Sandpipers and a lovely male Ruff were present during the second half of the month.  The Ruff was present 17th - 19th July, and on appearance I would not bet against it being the very same Ruff that graced Black Hole Marsh in 2020 from 12th July for three or four days...

A cracking male Ruff

Male Ruff on 13th June 2020 - in almost exactly the same spot!

My first Wood Sandpiper of the year, highly unusually, was on the Estuary in front of Seaton Marshes hide, and remained here for at least two days from 25th July.  A lovely spangly juvenile which unfortunately from the tram didn't offer any better views than the below suggests.  I actually think this is the first Wood Sand I have ever seen settled on the Estuary south of Coronation Corner (have seen a couple upriver from Tower Hide).

Wood Sandpiper on the Axe

Since we have moved into August, Black Hole Marsh really has delivered on variety, numbers and views!  Colyford Scrape has been really good too, this is where you will usually find the Lapwing and the Whimbrel/Curlew flock. Wood Sands peaked at four earlier in the month, with one still hanging around, Dunlin numbers rose to just shy of 80 within the past couple of days, and the Black-tailed Godwit count has shot up with the recent arrival of multiple juveniles...

A wonderful juv Blackwit

Love the rich peach colour to the neck

I have missed a couple of brief Ruff and a Bar-tailed Godwit, but we are still waiting for the arrival of Curlew Sands, Little Stint, and hopefully one or two rares!

Wildfowl won't take long to cover, as recently it's just a few of the first returning Teal to mention.  However back in June on a rainy 21st I was surprised to see four Gadwall and two Shoveler on the Estuary from Tower Hide.

Two Shoveler on the right with four Gadwall

The Shoveler stuck around for a couple of days and came onto Black Hole Marsh...

Both drakes

Rewind even more, and out of all the things I was expecting/hoping for on 16th May a goose influx wasn't one of them!  We'd had up to seven or eight Greylags lingering, but on this morning the scrape on Bridge Marsh was almost full to the brim with 15 Greylags and a Barnacle Goose!  I later learnt seven Greylag and a Barnie flew south through Sutton Bingham Reservoir the day before, so add that to our lingering group and you have a match. Or a coincidence.

So many geese!

Not a bad example of a Barnacle Goose either! 

A week earlier I managed to just get to Black Hole Marsh in time to see a lone Egyptian Goose fly off north.  Thanks to Phil for the timely call, who informed me it had taken flight soon after I arrived on site...

A truly awful photo! This is an Egyptian Goose dot though

Right, I think I am all water-birded out now.  So let's just wrap this post up with some raptor news...

It's been a very poor year by recent standards for Red Kites here, personally I have only seen one which was circling high over town on 27th May - a date when several were seen passing over Colyton.  It was a poor spring for Ospreys too, but thankfully the autumn period is looking much better as I've already seen two!  The first spent one night with us 17th-18th August (I saw it on the second day), then on 22nd I watched one fly north over work being chased by a very angry and persistent Herring Gull. It then spent twenty minutes in the valley before flying off south west never to be seen again. Well not here anyway, I didn't mean it to sound that final!  

Osprey over the Axe on 18th

A Marsh Harrier, which has now sadly left us, spent several weeks in the valley from mid July, it was a cracking juvenile too.  It was often seen hunting around Black Hole and Colyford Common, but also regularly showed pretty well perched up. With the Somerset and Dorset breeding population increasing, let's hope this is an annual late summer sight in the Axe Valley.  

What a looker!

Right, am really feeling like I'm catching back up with things now thanks to my recent purge in blog activity.  Two blog posts to go until I am bang up to date I reckon, but sorry all you feather-lovers it's going to be insects next... 

Night all.

Thursday 19 August 2021

Summer Gulling

Gulls really can save the slowest months in the birding year for me.  Whatever the season there's always gulls coming and going, not necessarily always loads but there is usually some movement going on - that's just the nature of gulls.  They are my key for getting through every winter, when all other birds are settled, insects aren't about and spring is still a long way off. 

Mid-summer is another time of year when gulls are the main reason I keep my scope in the car. The annual dispersal of post-breeding gulls is often the first sign that autumn is coming, although this year it wasn't as prolific as usual.

Juvenile Yellow-legged Gulls have been really few and far between this year, not just here but right across the UK.  Suspect it has something to do with the lack of south westerly winds?  I've seen more in a day many times before than I have during the whole of this year!  My grand total is two. And neither showed particularly well.

Bird one was on the Estuary late on 28th July, fairly close but always against the light which was rapidly fading...

The brute on the right! Check out the structural differences to the Herring Gull, especially head and bill shape

Looking a bit GBBG-like, as juv Yellow-legs often do

Really pleased with this one, that open Herring Gull wing allowing a great comparison!  Look how restricted the pale is on the inner primaries of the YLG compared to the photo-bombing Herring.

My second came just two days later, but remained frustratingly distant. And that's it, no more for me sadly.  Let's just hope the remainder of August and September delivers a few more.

Med Gulls are the other species of gull often associated with mid summer, and unlike juvenile Yellow-legged Gulls, a breeding plumage adult Med Gull will excite even the most gull-averse birder!  Although I can't say my first of the season on 29th June looked pleased to be here...

A cheesed off first-summer

Numbers slowly crept up during the following week, with this stunning adult from the office a real treat on 4th July.  Not sure you can beat a full summer Med...

Perfection in a gull

And then my first juvenile, which also kindly decided to drop in right in front of my office, on 19th July...

One day you will look like the bird above

Probably less than two months old!

So although I have seen some Med Gulls, just like the Yellow-legs there are fewer than usual this year.  In previous years small flocks can be seen flying west offshore during July/August, with double figure counts often easily achieved.  Far from that this year though unfortunately, but still, even the odd one is not to be sniffed at. It's a species that will always perk me up that's for sure :-)

My most recent (an adult) taken from a tram on 15th Aug

And if somehow gulls still aren't your thing, check back soon for a wading bird update...

Monday 16 August 2021

A First For Devon!

Rewind back to Monday 2nd August, and the still blue dawn encouraged me up to Beer Head to see if there were any early autumn migrants around.  It was a beautiful morning which warmed up surprisingly quickly...

Looking east from The Summit

On the bird front there wasn't much variety (well one Whitethroat and a flyover Redshank to be precise) but the still conditions had clearly encouraged Willow Warblers to move.  I counted 28 during my hour and a half wander, although I suspect there were more like 50 on-site.  Autumn Willow Warblers aren't the easiest subjects to photograph, so I was dead chuffed when this one stayed still for more than three seconds...

The uncropped version, nothing wrong with a bit of shrubbery in shot!

The cropped version which I also love! A sherbet-lemon beauty.

It was about two minutes after I took the above photo that my morning went to another level. Stratospheric in fact.  And it happened along this hedgerow at 07:55...

'The Gorse Hedge'. Yes we didn't really think too hard about the name of this part of Beer Head!

I was suddenly aware of a vivid blue and green-thoraxed dragonfly hawking in the lee of the hedge.  My immediate thought was Emperor, but once my brain had caught up with the fact I'd never seen an Emperor up here before, and that it didn't quite look long enough in the body, my pulse began to race. I was willing for it to land... which thankfully it did!  This was my first photo...

That's no Emperor!  It's a bright blue Hawker... with bright blue eyes!

I'd done it.  After years of searching and hoping, and when I really wasn't expecting it, I'd only gone and found my first Southern Migrant Hawker! A stunning male too...

Just look at those eyes! Hypnotically blue. Lovely reddish pterostigma too which I wasn't expecting


The key identification features in the above photos being:

  • Blue and black body
  • Green thorax sides
  • Blue eyes
  • Restricted antehumeral markings (that's the small green marks between front wing base and head)
  • Triangle marking on segment two

Unfortunately after only a few minutes of enjoying this beast I really had to leave as was already running late for work, but this didn't hamper my enjoyment of it, not one bit.  I was disappointed though that it didn't stick around for others to see, in fact Kev looked for it less than half an hour later and there was no sign.

Now I could spiel off my own interpretation of the distribution of Southern Migrant Hawker in the UK, but the fantastic British Dragonfly Society website will do it much better than me...

"This rare migrant appears to be becoming more frequent in the UK, and is a potential colonist. After a single confirmed record during the twentieth century, four individuals were observed in southern England during 2006. During 2010 many individuals were then seen in south Essex and north Kent, with oviposition being noted at two sites."

Further afield, Southern Migrant Hawkers are found in southern and central Europe and all around the Mediterranean, in North Africa, the Middle East and across Asia to China. So quite a widespread distribution globally, and with our warmer climate it's no real surprise they have now colonised the UK. However it is primarily the south east of the UK where some have settled, this far west they are still pretty rare. However I didn't know just how rare...

It was later in the day when Dave Smallshire informed me this was actually the first confirmed Southern Migrant Hawker for Devon. Which I won't lie made the whole experience even more satisfying, what a result and thanks for the gen Dave. Another great result for the Axe patch too!

Next on my Odonata hit list is Vagrant Emperor, a species that Dawlish Warren can boast four records of. Am not sure why I am struggling so much with this one to be honest, as I clearly don't have a problem finding Lesser Emperors... Oh go on then, let me just slip in here that on 21st July I was thrilled to turn up my fifth Lesser Emperor, at Lower Brucklands Ponds of course just like the previous four. As you might be able to tell from my photo it wasn't quite as photogenic as the Beer Head blue-eyed beauty though...

Still just about identifiable!  Note the mostly plain dark abdomen with blue restricted to upper sections.

It's encounters like the above that make me really cherish the fact wildlife is such a big part of my life.  The effect it can have on me, actual real physical effect, is absolutely priceless.

Saturday 14 August 2021

A Bad Blog

There seems to be four routes a successful wildlife blog can go down, in order for it to be a successful wildlife blog...

1/  A photography blog. And I mean a proper portfolio of top quality images from a professional wildlife photographer.  These blogs are all about the photos, but a picture is worth a thousand words and with the quality of wildlife photography ever improving, there are so many that just blow my mind.  Graham Catley's blog is one of my favourites.

2/  A proper blog, with each post being more like a carefully crafted article. The topics are frequently controversial and current to entice as many readers, with the aim being to create as much reaction and engagement as possible.  The content is often of such high quality it wouldn't be out of place in a hardback!  And if the author goes through a wildlife-dry spell, that won't stop the posts as the author's need to write will always win through (expect a trip down memory lane-type post!). Our Gav over on Not Quite Scilly a classic example of a proper blog.

3/  A specialist blog that focusses on a particular and precise subject matter (e.g. a group of species like raptors).  The authors are experts in their field so the blog content is often highly educating, there are some cracking Gull ones out there for example like GullDK.

4/  A regularly and routinely updated wildlife news blog.  Nothing too elaborate on the text front, but a reliable source of information if you want to know what is around. Bird Observatory blogs are a great example of this, I rarely go a day without logging in to see what has been seen at Portland and Dungeness.  Dependable and highly informative.  The Dawlish Warren blog another excellent example of one.

And here is why I am completely failing at all four...

1/ My photos are always mediocre (at best!).  I am not patient enough to be a proper wildlife photographer, simply because I always want to know what is around the next corner. This is more of a pull to me than getting 'the shot'.  

An Axe Birding kind of shot!  Capturing the exact moment three Eider flew past Seaton on 2nd April this year, a patch rarity so it needed a pic! I know it's a bad pic but you should have seen how far out they were, the fact I have captured anything is something of a miracle!

2/  I attempt this every now and then, but thought-provoking blog posts always take me about two weeks to write. And when I do finally hit publish, the only interaction I get is a comment a week later from a 'bot' trying to sell me and my readers a pill that claims to 'enhance' certain body parts. N.B. They don't work it's a complete lie... so a friend says.

3/  My interests are too broad to even consider this. I used to have a Caspian Gull section but I didn't update that for about two years because I didn't see any new Caspian Gulls! I tried a bird ringing/birds in the hand section too but there were too many others far better than mine. 

4/  Now this is the one I was ok at.  For many years I was proud of my rapid on the same day updates, sharing the raw passion and telling the story of the seasons in the Axe Valley in real time, along with countless ropey record shorts to annotate in a somewhat 'authentic' way.  Go back through the years and you'll see months stuffed full of basic but hopefully excitable content, which is something I am really disappointed to have let slip.

Look at all those posts!

I think I have demonstrated in detail just why Axe Birding is not a successful wildlife blog, or any sort of blog of any kind! But I am proud of one thing, and that is that I am still here... 

I consider this a long-standing blog, with my first post way back on 24th September 2008 which was three days before my 23rd birthday!  Looking back through the years this blog acts as a diary for me, but it doesn't just remind me of all the fantastic wildlife moments I have experienced here, it allows me to almost physically relive them.  And that is not something I want to give up. And neither is my passion of wanting to share what I see.

To get Axe Birding back on track I really need to clear the news backlog before autumn 2021 really kicks off, so I better get on with it! And I already know the title of my next post: 'A First For Devon!'.  

Now if that doesn't make you want to come back, nothing will!