Saturday 31 December 2022

Patchwork Challenge 2023

2022 was without doubt my leanest birding year since I started birding.  And that doesn't make for a happy Steve.

So, Patchwork Challenge 2023 it is then!  Patchwork Challenge is a national (well international now!) patch birding community, enabling comparisons of a vast array of different patches. Each species of bird earns the patch worker points, the amount of points depends on the species rarity status and whether it was self-found. More details can be found HERE.

For me in 2022, work and family just had to take the priority - which left me with very little time to bird.  And on the occasions I did have the time, if I had the desire to go out it was rarely fulfilling (mostly due to the lack of birds).  I am thinking Patchwork Challenge is just the kick up the bum I need.

For one, the chance of a year-tick can often be that added incentive to get up and go birding, it has worked well for me in the past.  But  the biggest reason why I wanted to sign up was to overcome the problem of our patch size and try something a little different.

The Axe patch is massive.  A 5km radius from Axmouth Bridge (near the mouth of the Axe Estuary) which covers most of the Axmouth - Lyme Regis Undercliff, as far inland as Musbury and Colyton, and then out to the west as far as Branscombe - it's huge! Don't get me wrong I wouldn't change it for the world as the mix of habitat is great, but having such a mix of sites often presents the "where do I go?" problem. It also gives us patch birders a heck of a lot of ground to cover!

The most productive patches are often ones that are absolutely hammered, the same fields and bushes, scrapes and lakes birded over and over again, day in day out so that nothing slips through the net.  And this is why the 3km2 max limit of a Patchwork Challenge patch may well work in my favour and hopefully means spending more time in a smaller area actually reveals more birds!  So let me introduce you to my Patchwork Challenge 2023 patch...

3km2 almost to the cm! Naturist beach not included.

What I have done is created a patch that includes the entirety of the Axe Estuary and Seaton Wetlands, as well as all the places I spend most of my time.  My office and work is within this patch, as well as my walk to work.  I have included my house (that little arm half way up on the left) as well as my 'don't have time to give the dog a proper walk so will just take her around the block' route!  The little extra block in the top right corner covers Lower Bruckland Ponds, included for its fresh water and simply because it is somewhere I love to visit throughout the year.

Once I had completed v1 of the above, I was disappointed by the lack of vis mig opportunities with it all being low ground.  I love Axe Cliff which is my favoured site for vis migging, but that is too far away to be included and defies the point of reducing the amount of ground to cover. So for v2 I added that narrow foot coming out of the bottom left corner.  This allows me to include Cliff Field Gardens, a site I have vis migged from in the past (had Crossbill and Woodlark from here!) due to its elevation above Seaton.  Nice easy access too and good potential for sea watching. 

Am really looking forward to getting stuck into this.  It should increase my blog activity too which has been woefully poor in 2022 and once again I apologies for this.  Be sure to check back soon to see my progress. 

Happy New Year everyone and may I wish all fellow Patchwork Challenge 2023 participants the very best of luck!

Wednesday 21 December 2022

Isabelline Wheatear Colyford Common

Well what a turn up for the books!  The first BBRC rarity on patch since American Herring Gull on 14th Feb 2020, and it is a BBRC rarity that is extremely rare on south west mainland! Only Devon's second ever record (first on Lundy as recently as 18th Oct 2019!) with no records at all in neighbouring Dorset.  

This is the third Isabelline Wheatear to have been found in the UK this year, with a fourth record from Ireland.  What a fantastic mid-winter treat...

I find that head/eye so endearing!

Although I saw the first messages yesterday morning about a Wheatear on Colyford Common, frustratingly there was nothing I could do about it as am getting over a really nasty chest infection - I would usually be all over a late Wheatear! The next thing I know I am woken by a phonecall from Phil asking if I had seen his pics as the word Isabelline had been uttered. So I dragged myself up, spent about five minutes with the bird then went home back to bed!  ID had been sorted by the time I got to the bird - which was handy.

I've always hoped my first Izzy Wheatear would look tall and leggy...this one really didn't! But the bird was a lovely colour, a mix of sandy browns, buffs and off-whites, reminding me of a female Desert Wheatear more than a Northern. Really loved that subtle but distinctive face pattern too.

A pale lump

Such a concolorous bird, with just a bit of black in the wing and that famous alula!  Note its short-winged appearance too, primary tips falling way short of the tail-tip. 

A better view of its wing (and the alula!) but check out that face pattern! Eye and black bill connected by dark lores forming a dark line, with a neat pale supercillium above extending from behind eye to over bill base.

The only photo I managed of it standing taller.   Doesn't that face pattern look great from the front! At some angles the bird showed a lovely warm buff wash to its upper breast contrasting with a paler lower breast/belly, as shown in this pic.


So this is the second Wheatear I have seen on patch in the month of December, thanks to a Northern Wheatear on Seaton Marshes from 2nd - 16th Dec 2011.  There's no point comparing the above Izzy Wheatear photos with a spring male Northern Wheatear, so let's compare it with a Northern Wheatear photo taken on 7th Dec...

I remember thinking at the time this looked very Greenlandy as it was such a tall and long-winged bird


Isn't it so much easier when there is actually a bird to compare it with!

Looking at the above photo after looking at the photos of the Izzy Wheatear, how different is that head! Note the darker ear coverts with orange tones, the white supercillium opening up behind the eye and a grey crown.  There is so much more grey on this bird in general in fact, and look how long the wings are - primary tips overlapping the tail completely.   You can see more pics of this bird HERE

I can't tell you how thrilled I am the Axe has finally scored with a rare Wheatear!  The least likely of the regular rare Wheatears you could say too?

Friday 9 December 2022

Axe Gulls of 2022

Although of course 2022 is not yet done, now that my laptop is back up and running I have access to all my photos (and more importantly - Photoshop!) and my urge to tell you all about the best gulls I've seen so far this year is just too great.  So, please enjoy... 

Iceland Gull

Before I go into the Herring Gull-types, I figured I had a better chance of tempting you deeper into this post with a nice white-winger.  And this is the only one that has been seen on the Axe so far this year...

I really didn't think we were going to get a white-winged this year, having missed out during the peak months (February - April). However Ian Mc found this snow white 1st-summer Iceland Gull on the Estuary on the unusual date of 3rd June...

Harsh light but clearly a slim and petite bird

It always pays to take great care identifying any pure white large gull, especially if it is June! But this bird's long sleek appearance, rounded head and squat structure make this a relatively straight forward ID.    


Caspian Gull

There were no Caspian Gull records on the Axe during the first half of this year, which hasn't happened since 2017 highlighting nicely the increased frequency this species is now occurring here. However am pleased to have found three during autumn 2022 - all within the space of two weeks!

Bird one was the least satisfactory, offering only distant views in poor weather on Colyford Marsh on 29th Oct, a 1st-winter...

I struggled to even get this shot. But note neck shawl, advanced moult on mantle/scaps, parallel bill... not much I know but was enough for it to stand out in the flock!

Thankfully I got good flight and underwing views of the above bird, and Ian Mc saw it again about 20 mins later.  I would argue this is the first Axe Casp not provable by photos alone. 

Bird two on the other hand was lovely. A really big classic 1st-winter on 5th Nov, but again it didn't offer me the best views from where I was watching from.  If only I was sat in the Tower Hide the views would have been crippling!

Note the advanced 1w moult on scapulars and mantle, solidly dark tertials with white tips, very plain greater coverts with pale base, white head contrasting with neck shawl, narrow bill, full belly-appearance.

Note the grey necklace contrasting with the pale head, and the classic neck shawl

Nice white rump and tail with neat black tail band

Luckily I fluked this underwing shot, nice and clean (although the weather conditions are making it look greyer!).  Note the venetian blind effect on inner primaries and the dark greater covert bar.


Bird three was also always pretty distant. I actually first saw it at extreme distance in the Seaton Hole gull roost after sunset on 9th Nov, but thankfully saw it again on the Estuary two days later (11th)...

The hint of a neck shawl, darker than Herring Gull mantle and slight immaturity on the bill all indicated a possible Caspian to me but no chance of taking it further

That is more like it!  So nearly an adult but not quite... note the grey neck streaking and dark mark on the lower mandible.

Poor shot but shows bill shape well

That lovely little dark eye really does stand out!
The shot I was waiting for! Shows a huge amount of white on P10 (outer most primary) and lots of black on P5 - the most classic Caspian wing-pattern going.

I cannot tell you how frustrated I was feeling, with three minutes until I had to leave to collect Harry from school and this bird stubbornly refused to show me an open wing.  Then just when I thought it was game over it gave a big old stretch which allowing me to capture the above shot.  

Ageing the bird is not so straight forward for me though. I have already pointed out the bill and neck streaking which suggests immaturity, but if you look closely at the open wing photo you can see two small black streaks on the primary coverts of its right wing.  This absolutely confirms it is not the adult I am longing for, but I cannot make my mind up on whether it is a 3rd or 4th-winter bird!?  With such an adult-type primary pattern I am leaning more towards a 4th-winter bird (similar to THIS bird?) but comments welcome.

And that makes 28 confirmed Caspian Gulls for the Axe, as long as these three are accepted.  What a result!

Yellow-legged Gull

Well 2022 will not go down as a classic summer for juvenile Yellow-legged Gulls.  Three is all I mustered, of which two I managed to photograph...

Dreadful light but a true beast - 20th July

Another view of the 20th July juvenile - upperparts as smooth as chocolate

Much better views of a juv, taken on 24th July from a tram.  A really chunky bird and great to watch it at close range.


The only non-juvenile Yellow-legged Gull I have seen this year on the Axe was a brief adult through my office window on 23rd Feb. Really surprised not to see any more during Oct/Nov when stormy weather can often produce multiple sightings.  

Little Gull

I missed out on pretty much all the stormy weather this autumn, but was pleased to get in on a little bit of the action with a Little Gull west through Seaton Bay on 9th Nov, a 2nd-winter.  It was a calm day between stormy ones, but there was a steady trickle of Black-heads going through for much of the afternoon, it was mixed in with them and a joy to see!


Although as I said in the Little Gull section I missed most of the stormy weather, I still managed to see more Kittiwakes this autumn than I have in any other autumn here!  Saw a few individuals on the Estuary, as well as many passing really close inshore...

Adult Kittiwake over the west walk!

Almost Gulls

I've seen very few terns on patch this year, only the two most common species and not many of either of them!  However a nice sight came through on 6th Sept when an evening Estuary vigil hoping for terns actually produced terns!  

They didn't hang around hence the awful photo!

These 18 Common Terns had spent the day at Chard Reservoir and I just happened to be watching when they decided to carry on with their southbound migration (19:23 down the Axe).  But did they bring with them the Black Tern they had been sharing Chard Res with ??... Did they heck!

Saturday 5 November 2022

Troublesome Egrets

Early in the summer we became aware of a new colony of Little Egrets on patch, quite a distance from the Estuary but a sizeable colony - our biggest in fact!  The colony however was really hard to see, high up in a thick conifer plantation. 

It wasn't long after the discovery of this colony that on two afternoons I saw a single adult Cattle Egret flying towards it, amongst the almost constant toing and froing of adult Little Egrets...

Kev kept checking the colony as best he could, and on 13th June found a new viewpoint and was greeted by some yellow-billed egrets!  But what were they?

The first thing I will say is that despite some long vigils once Kevin had found these interesting looking young egrets, we didn't see a single adult egret visit the nest!  It is wonder how they didn't all starve to be honest, absolutely hopeless parents.  There were sporadic Cattle Egret sightings in the valley during June/July but this maybe a moot point.

This is the egret nest in question, which in this photo shows all three of the youngsters huddled up...

What is really odd is how the three young egrets in this one nest looked so different!  And here they all are... (for the purpose of this post I will label the birds 1, 2, 3 left to right).

Bird 1

The darkest billed, and probably the youngest of the three as it seemed far less adventurous...

Bird 2

This bird showed a pale straw-coloured bill...

Bird 3

What the heck is this!?  I will let the pictures do the talking but basically it just looks like a Cattle Egret...

And to compare, here's a photo of a juvenile Little Egret from another nest, and then a photo showing a young Little Egret alongside the mystery nest...

So, some thoughts from me...

  • Despite the dazzling orange bill, look at the bill size in the lower photo compared with that young Little Egret.  Same size and shape, a bit longer if anything.  Cattle Egret whatever the age should show a short and stubbier bill.
  • Young Cattle Egrets usually fledge with dark bills, which then rapidly become pale/orange. So orange bills on birds of this age isn't even right for Cattle Egret.
  • All the other juvnile egrets in the colony (c20 birds) had dark bills.
  • Does the difference between the three fledglings indicate two different species as parents? 
  • Why were their parents so hopeless? It would have saved a lot of confusion on our side if they actually visited the nest whilst we were looking!

On one evening when Kev and I were looking at these puzzling birds, we joked that our hopeless juvenile egret knowledge probably meant a pair of adult Great White Egrets would soon fly in and feed these chicks!

What I am struggling with is that even though I am firmly in the 'these are not Cattle Egrets' camp, and actually think they are just odd Little Egrets - I then see the photo below and think how are these not Cattle Egrets!?

So in summary.... can anyone help? What is going on here?

Monday 17 October 2022

Sorry, there are no birds left...

I am afraid this isn't a nice post to write and not one that I want you to enjoy reading.  But from what I've seen and read this year I feel compelled to write it.

Tracking bird populations and trends of migrant bird species at a migration site is nigh-on-impossible, there are just too many variables when it comes to how many grounded/passing migrant birds you see on a day to day basis.  Wind direction/air pressure/weather where you are birding, wind direction/air pressure/weather where the migrant birds have set off from, food availability during their migration, etc.  For example a warm, sunny, calm and dry April will almost guarantee low numbers of grounded migrants, wherever you are and regardless of how many birds are actually passing over.

Nothing to see here, literally...

However when a trend is sustained, and when what would previously have been considered 'excellent conditions' happen often enough, and nothing happens, it begins to paint a picture. A very worrying picture.

This spring and autumn on my beloved patch here in East Devon has been dire.  Forget about the rarities and scarcities, they will always be rare and scarce, I am talking about common migrant birds.

I saw/heard 13 Willow Warblers here this spring.  That is 13 in total throughout the entire spring. Only managed one more Wheatear, with 14 in all for me.  I saw singles of RedstartSpotted FlycatcherTree Pipit and Whinchat. No Garden WarblerGrasshopper WarblerYellow WagtailCuckooTurtle Dove or Pied Flycatcher.  

Willow Warbler looking all common

Whenever we have damp and dreary weather in April/May I try and get down into the Axe Valley at least once during the day in my never-ending quest for a patch Red-rumped Swallow. Every visit in these conditions this year showed pitiful numbers of hirundines, 20 - 30,  when I would usually expect to see several hundred feeding low over the marshes. On two dates I did manage three figures just about but this was still a fraction of what I would expect to see.

Autumn hasn't been much better, well no better.  

So is it just here? Are migration routes and/or bird populations shifting?  Are they all retracting eastwards like NightingalesTurtle Doves and Willow Tits?  Well a browse of the websites of some of the UK's Bird Observatories will tell you the answer; Portland BillDungeness, even Spurn.  It is being witnessed everywhere, both spring and autumn of this year.  Even birders who have spent time on Shetland this autumn have remarked about how few common migrants were there.

Too many times this year I have walked the fields of Axe Cliff and returned having noted just one or two of a species (like Willow Warbler) that should be plentiful.  So I can't not begin to wonder what birding might be like in five, ten, twenty years time? Will 'two Willow Warblers and a Blackcap' represent a good morning of spring birding?  

A tweet of mine from earlier this the year

Add the recent outbreaks of Avian Influence into the picture, rampaging through some of our most-loved, cherished and rarest sea bird colonies this year -  honestly it is enough to make me cry. I love birding and I always will, but looking at it in a very selfish way, I really am fearful for the future of my hobby.  

Although I confess I am rapidly approaching my 40's (three years to go!) I'm not a grumpy birder, not by a long way I'd like to think.  However there is just one more point I want to add to this depressing blog post, as quite frankly I just don't get it...

Should we really be putting so much focus, money and time into reintroducing White-tailed EaglesWhite StorksGreat BustardsCommon Cranes, etc in the south of England when the basic foundations of our entire eco-system are clearly broken?  What is wrong with the 'create the habitat and they will come' method? 

White Stork showing a bit too well

Surely we need to be working from the bottom up when it comes to conservation.  Not that I am saying the complete collapse of our entire natural world is by any means an easy problem to fix.

Thursday 11 August 2022

Five New Moths!

I haven't been mothing as frequently as usual this summer, but some nights have just been too perfect to miss out on.  I've even had two traps out on a couple of nights...

My super reliable Robinson in Mum and Dad's back garden

My less reliable wooden Skinner trap, which is a bit of faff to set up. And that is why it only comes out on the very best looking nights.

And although this is probably the least mothing I have done in any year since starting out, I have trapped five new species of macro moths for the garden.  Not an easy feat after 13 years of trapping here!

During the night of 18th/19th July, 439 macro moths in the traps included these firsts...

Double Lobed - usually found in marshy habitat

Cream-bordered Green Pea - another marsh-loving moth 

False Mocha - a rapidly declining species which is now rare in Devon

And last night gave two more garden firsts...

Cosmopolitan - an immigrant that arrives in varying numbers year to year

A glimpse of the Cosmopolitan's gleaming white underwing

Tree-lichen Beauty - formally a rarity but now breeds in the UK. A cracking little moth!

The species mix really has changed now we move into mid August. Hawkmoth numbers are dropping right off, and had my first Setaceous Hebrew Characters last night among good numbers of Lesser Broad-bordered Yellow Underwings and record numbers of Jersey Tigers (26!).  

The mothing season moves fast - which really adds to the excitement of this hobby! 

Saturday 16 July 2022

Essex Skipper

Months of nothing on this blog just has to be broken for this news!

Several years ago, probably eight or nine, I heard of a rapid increase of Essex Skippers in the Weymouth area - which ever since has put this species firmly on my radar for the patch, seeing as we in the far south east corner of Devon.

I have concentrated my efforts on the one place I see most skippers around here, Lower Bruckland Ponds.  I have photographed not far off 100 skippers over the years - mostly head shots - but to no avail.  All the small skippers photographed here have indeed been Small Skippers, some even with dark-tipped antennae but still showing orange on the underside of the tip, which can fool in the field I can tell you! If you are as mad as me and fancy doing the same, be wary of Large Skipper too if you've not noticed the wing pattern, surprisingly easy to do when you're busy looking at the head-end all the time!  Large Skippers also have dark-tipped antennae but thankfully their antennae are a distinctly different shape so any confusion should be short-lived.  

Anyway, a few years ago I did start to lose hope. It really felt like it was never going to happen, but then...

In July 2019 EDDC warden James Chubb unknowingly photographed an Essex Skipper just off-patch at Trill Farm, near Axminster.  Which is less than two miles from Lower Brucklands!  

Taken from @TheTiercel twitter account

So I went back to Lower Brucklands Pond with renewed enthusiasm that summer and each summer since, but still no luck.  However last weekend I had luck elsewhere on patch...

During a family dog walk last Saturday, when I came across a beautifully unkempt and overgrown weedy corner at Axe Cliff, and noticed several skippers in amongst it, I ditched the family and spent twenty minutes getting scratched legs chasing butterflies!  Yes it was great seeing the skippers, but I was so thrilled to see good numbers of insects of all taxa considering how poor this year has been for insects.

Marbled White

And 15 skippers later, of which at least five were definitely Small, I photographed this...

Seems an awful lot of dark on the antennae tip there!

Jackpot - Essex Skipper!

Even closer and from the other side

Absolutely made up!  Had to leave very shortly after photographing the above, but hope to revisit again soon to see how many are actually there...  

So for the last eight or so years I have had the right idea, I've just been looking in the wrong place!