Thursday 30 November 2023

A Calm Seaton Bay

I had a bit of a shock when I looked out over a calm Seaton Bay on Tuesday morning... there were birds!

Not flat calm but good enough!

Go back by over a decade or so and Seaton Bay wasn't all that bad for wintering sea birds. Don't get me wrong it was never in the same league as Torbay or Portland Harbour, but it was always worth a look.  A double-figure flock of Great Crested Grebes were a constant magnet, and there always used to be a wintering Common Scoter flock off the Harbour which would sometimes attract Velvet Scoter (have managed double-figure counts of this species here before), Long-tailed Duck and Eider. Scarce grebes were pretty much annual, most often Slavs but have seen a few Red and Black-necked too, and there were always good numbers of Red-throated Diver often with a few Great Northern.  

However this is a dim and distant memory now, although it is clearly not just a Seaton thing. You only need to look at how unusual and restricted large Common Scoter flocks have become on the south coast, and as for the scarcer grebes - Slav is almost a county/south west rarity now!  Another good example of a similar decline, although neither were ever common here, is Red-breasted Merganser and Goldeneye. Really quite shocking when it is so drastic over such a relatively short period of time.

Anyway back to Tuesday.  Half-hour at the Spot On in the morning was brilliant fun.  The Wigeon from the Estuary were floating around in small flocks, as they often are when disturbed from the valley, but a young drake Eider was a surprise find tagged on to the end of one of these flocks (my second record of the year).  Three Common Scoters were on the sea closer in, with two Great Crested Grebes out towards Seaton Hole and over 40 Razorbills spread all over.  Divers were represented by two Red-throats and a lovely close Great Northern feeding well, the latter a species most often seen flying through here so a close settled bird was very much appreciated.  On the move were a Dunlin in/off, two Brent Geese east, another seven Red-throated Diver and eight Common Scoter west, as well as a small number of Kittiwake and Gannets flying back and forth presumably feeding.

So nothing earth shattering and nothing like 'the old days', but enjoyable winter birding nonetheless.

Saturday 18 November 2023

Sea Keeps On Giving

Another wet and windy one last night, blowing in for most of the night from the south west.  So the sea was yet again calling me when I woke up this morning...

Conditions were far less dramatic than I was expecting on Seaton Beach at 07:30, quite different to what was forecasted too.  Despite a load or rain during the night there was not a drop during my 1.5 hour watch, and although there was an onshore wind from the south west it had dropped in strength and sea conditions, although of course rough, were nowhere near the mighty waves we've seen with the other recent storms.    It took about half an hour for the horizon to show though, with a sea mizzle (wasn't a fog or mist so am calling it that!) not clearing until nearly 8am.

Quite pleasant to be honest!

Despite the slightly tamer conditions it was yet another really good sea watch.  It had an 'end of the season' feeling for sure, but I love sea watches that result in a variety of species going into the notebook, and this one had that!  

07:30 - 09:00 at The Spot On revealed (west unless stated):  79 Gannet (flying both ways and feeding), 64 Kittiwake, 22 Common Scoter (1 east), 18 auk sp., 10 Dunlin, 8 Brent Geese (dark-bellied), 2 Great Northern Diver and singles of Long-tailed Duck, Pintail, Arctic Tern, Red-throated Diver and Turnstone.  Also noted one Bottlenose Dolphin - my first here for over a decade! 

The Arctic Tern was brilliant, and not expected on this late date at all - my latest ever tern in the UK excluding the few over-wintering Sandwich Terns I've seen.  Although it has been a brilliant year for sea watching on patch, I haven't done well with terns seeing just Sandwich and one pair of Common Terns all year. I had accepted this as my tern-fate for 2023, but at 08:15 the lovely sight of a delicate tern appeared to the east, and as it passed by I could see on plumage it was a first-winter Arctic, not to mention its wonderful buoyant flight.   Just about managed some video of it too...


The rarest bird of the watch was of course the Long-tailed Duck, however it was so nearly 'one that got away' in more ways than one!  I was so distracted videoing and watching the Arctic Tern that I hadn't been scanning the waves for several minutes, and as soon as my eye went back onto my scope aimed  towards the horizon, a flock of five birds came though. First one was an auk sp., with three Common Scoter but at the back was a smaller paler duck.... oh crap!  And ten seconds later it was gone around the corner... 

I knew what it was on shape and structure, just didn't have the confidence to call it due to lack of plumage detail and time on it.  I alerted others there was an interesting 'small duck' on the way west with 3 Common Scoter, and put the following message on the local sea watching WhatsApp group - only included here so you can see what I was thinking...

Then at about 09:10 I received a wonderful message from Mark B that read...

"Paul d hopes nose 908am long-tailed duck with 3 common scoter".

As I already knew what it was, that was all I needed to cement the record.  However I thought I would do some time calculations just to see if the timings fit. I saw it at 08:18 and Dan had it fly west past Sidmouth at 09:31.  So as you can see from this map, that is just over 7 miles in 13 minutes...


Some calculator-cleverness tells me it was flying at about 32 mph. So let's see how far Hope's Nose is from Seaton, for a duck who is following the coast...

If my calculations are correct, which they may not be, I would say a Long-tailed Duck passing Seaton at 08:18 flying at 32mph would reach Hope's Nose approximately 49 minutes later (according to an online speed calculator).

08:18 + 49 minutes = 09:07. Seriously!

Honestly I didn't need this calculation to have this Long-tailed Duck (which is my first here since 26th March 2021) but the fact it passed Hope's Nose almost on the dot is just brilliant!  Am so pleased Paul D decided to sea watch at Hope's Nose this morning.

Other notables during the watch listed above include the female Pintail that flew close west past me at 07:48, then went past Dan at Sidmouth at 08:05 (slow for a duck!), the Turnstone which is a decent November bird for the patch and it's always good to see a flock of Brents over the sea.  The Kittiwakes weren't coming through in close tight flocks like the sea watch last week, but dripping by in two's and three's mostly at distance. 

I keep expecting each of the last few sea watches to be the last one of the year. Can't help but feel the same considering the date today, but am really hoping it isn't...

Sunday 12 November 2023

Vis Mig and Wood Pigeon Count

We've had three really nice mornings during the last week that have seen a heavy passage of Wood Pigeons fly west.  I didn't have any time to stand and count on two of the days (5th & 11th - both great days) but on 6th I did...

I spent 07:30 - 08:30 at Cliff Field Gardens in Seaton, my chosen Patchwork Challenge patch vis mig spot.  It is dreadful to be honest, although higher in altitude than the town and beach, the site is still far lower than Axe Cliff to the east and Seaton Hole/Beer Head to the west.  There isn't a view inland, although the view of the bay is really nice, but worst of all it is just too noisy with the constant sound of crashing waves to the south and traffic noise along Beer Road to the north. 

The blue arrow is pointing at Cliff Field Gardens.  Including this spot for vis mig was the only reason for that narrow extension of my Patchwork Challenge patch west along the coast.

Last time I tried watching from here the passerines were mostly too high to hear/identify, however during this watch they were much lower, presumably due to the northerly wind.  The following went into my notebook during the hour:

17,400 Wood Pigeon, 330 Chaffinch (some lovely flocks of up to 30 birds), 130 Starling, 65 Jackdaw, 40+ Stock Dove, 30 Goldfinch, 25 Linnet, 12 Siskin, 3 Brambling, 1 Redpoll, 1 Redwing, 1 Reed Bunting, 1 Great Northern Diver and 1 small goose sp. in/off (presumably a Brent but always in bad light).

Hopefully the video gives you a flavour of the Wood Pigeon passage, with all the biggest flocks out over the sea...  

And now the moment you've all been waiting for... the result of my Count the Wood Pigeons post!

Despite almost 200 post views I have only had five guesses, so many thanks to those brave enough to offer their opinions!  The guesses ranged from 550 to 1500.  The average of all guesses comes in at 914, with the mid-point (middle point between highest and lowest guess) at 1,025.  This is pleasingly close to the figure that went into my notebook when I saw the flock in the field, a simple '1k'.  

Here is the (poor quality!) video again...

And here is that video in three stills.  I have counted from the front of the flock just as I would in the field, but probably missed a few birds between capturing frames...

Just under 500 in the first frame!

500 in the second frame!

And an odd 82 following on from the last few from the final block of 100 in the third frame.

So the answer is (give or take the odd one) 1,082!  Well done Nick Page for being the closest, matching my in-field estimation of 1,000.

Another storm is coming through in the morning, but I've probably only got time for a beach walk or two so hopefully that will reveal something.

Wednesday 8 November 2023

More Super Seaton Seawatching!

If you've come back looking for the answer to yesterday's 'count the Pigeon' post, you'll have to check back again sometime because this morning I had a thoroughly enjoyable hour long sea watch that I just have to blog about!

Yet another wet weather front arriving from the south west came sweeping through this morning, another fairly rapid one too as it was calm and clear when I went to bed last night and the wind had died right off again by 10am this morning.

I only had time for an hours sea watch, from 07:30, and for much of that the visibility was seriously hampered by rain and murk. However birds were always passing and it was really hard to pull myself away.  The following went in my notebook, all west:

174 Kittiwake, 16 Gannet, 13 Common Scoter, 6 Brent Geese (two three's), 2 Dunlin and singles of Pomarine Skua (juv at 08:15), skua sp. (sub-adult either Arctic or Pom at 08:00), auk sp. and small wader sp.

The first three Brents which quickly headed out

Two of the next three Brents which were a bit closer


The huge highlight, literally, was my fourth species of skua for the year!  I was feeling a bit deflated as the skua sp. that came through at 8am, a pale-phased sub-adult, passed during a period of heavy rain out in the murk, spending as much time behind the waves as it did over them so I just couldn't clinch it.  But at 08:15, closer in another skua came into view low over the waves, it then gained height to beat up a Kittiwake, before dropping back down low to the sea and continued flying west.  A lovely pale juvenile Pom Skua, really cold toned with a pale rump and head and striking double-white underwing flash.  For a split-second after I first spotted it my brain started at Bonxie before I zoomed in and saw the pale and realised it wasn't quite that big - never ever had that with an Arctic!  

The Kittiwakes were great value today.  We rarely get a decent passage off here, and when we do they are usually distant.  This morning they were coming through mostly mid-distance low to the sea, sometimes in really tight flocks but other flocks were more spread out - the biggest being of 32 birds.  Mostly adult birds with about 10% of the flocks being juvs.  Gave me hope for a Little or Sabine's to come through with them, but wasn't to be.

The small wader sp. was a bit annoying, as it could well have been a Grey Phalarope.  A bit like the skua sp. it came through during a period of heavy rain and I only glimpsed it on three brief occasions as it flew west low over the sea, but everything looked right for this species.  Never mind, one for another day maybe!?

A walk along the beach at lunchtime hoping for something left behind showed nothing in the surf, however a flock of 30 Common Scoter flew west just at the time I was looking out towards the horizon. 

Tuesday 7 November 2023

Count the Wood Pigeons

These few days of clearer, calmer and slightly cooler weather have provided the perfect opportunity for Wood Pigeons to migrate along the south coast, in numbers.  Always an incredible spectacle to witness.

Yesterday morning (6th) I enjoyed a terrific hour of vis migging from Cliff Field Gardens, which I will post about in greater detail soon enough.   However in the meantime, take a look at this video...

The video shows one of the flocks of Wood Pigeons that came past me heading west during my watch. And I am intrigued to know how many birds you think are in this flock?  

Counting large flocks of birds is always a great challenge, especially when they are flying through quickly and when there are several flocks passing at the same time, all in different directions and at different distances. And flocks of all different shapes too!

As vis miggers and sea watchers will know, it can get a quite frantic and almost overwhelming at times, so I cannot recommend enough honing your flock-counting skills.  Saves valuable time getting a semi-accurate count at a glance.

Try not to pause the video, just watch it through in one go, although feel free to watch it a few times as you'd usually get that chance in the field. Probably best to make the video full screen for ease, sorry the quality isn't great.

Answers in the comments or via Twitter please, don't be shy.  However if you aren't confident enough to announce your best guess, I hope you still think of one and check back here in a few days time for the answer!  

Sunday 5 November 2023

A Tale of Two Storms

I would like to thank the author of the Dawlish Warren Blog for the following line, which was posted on the eve of Thursday 2nd. I couldn't have put it better myself...

"Storm Ciaran blew through overnight and took all the birds with it".

The southerly element of the storm came through during the hours of darkness, and a couple of hours before dawn the eye of the storm passed and the wind switched to a north westerly.  I knew this epic storm wasn't going to produce a lot of birds but did hope it would leave something interesting behind, but nothing at all here!  Lots of big waves though despite the wind direction at daybreak, and plenty of flooding which caused a fair bit of damage in Seaton.  

Looking west along Seaton Beach

The road behind the sea front a couple of days after Ciaran

This was an hour before hide tide on Thursday so a lot more destruction still to come.

The mind boggles at how much more severe the damage would have been if the wind stayed southerly for a few more hours, or if this storm came during the larger tides of the previous weekend. We dodged a bullet I think, but we will not keep dodging them.

I did sea watch 06:45 - 08:00, then checked the very flooded valley.  Literally nothing of note to report.  

Later on in the day storm-driven sea birds, mostly Leach's Petrels, were being reported from sites mostly east of the Isle of Wight.  By the end of the day several places reported three-figure Petrel counts, and it is clear to see from the track of the storm why.  Storm Ciaran followed the black line in the below map and that is exactly where the seabirds were pushed too, hitting land just east of the Isle of Wight where they then carried on flying/being pushed east...

Thanks to @danholley_ for this image

So Ciaran came and went and underwhelmed, but I could see in the forecast something else on its way.  Due to make landfall on Saturday morning, a blustery southerly with lots and lots of rain expected to clear within an hour of dawn.  I could just see what was going to happen... 

During Friday all the places that had seen the Leach's and Euro Stormies fly east on Thursday reported several flying back west.  The birds had a nice calm day and the first half of Friday night to fly west in an attempt to reorientate, and my thinking was they'd then get trapped by this fast moving very wet front forcing the already tired and battered sea birds up into Lyme Bay.  

So me and my high expectations were on Seaton seafront 6:50 - 08:30 on the morning of Saturday 4th... and I was wrong. 

Seven Skylark low west over the waves were the only birds smaller than a Black-headed Gull over the sea.  It wasn't a bird-less sea watch, just highlight-less one with no obvious storm-driven sea birds evident. 

The following went into my notebook (all west): 15 Brent Geese (all dark-bellied, flocks of 7, 2 and 6), 8 Common Scoter, 3 Kittiwake, 2 Med Gull, 1 Great Crested Grebe and several Gannets

All a bit disappointing to be honest.  I was really feeling like my hopes of a patch Leach's Petrel, a bird I haven't seen here (or anywhere) since 29th November 2009 were fading, yet again. 

However, as the day went on, and whilst I was off enjoying some family-time at Budleigh Salterton, it became apparent my predication was at least semi-correct, I was just six hours out!  From late morning onwards Leach's Petrels were being seen in Chesil Cove and off Portland Bill.  

We were back home at about 3pm and didn't really know what to do next. The only thing I did know was that Harry was hungry and I was feeling ornithologically frustrated, so...  

Shortly after 3:30pm Harry and I settled down for a picnic on Seaton Beach, as you do on a windy November day with frequent rain showers!  Harry had a fully stocked lunchbox and I had my telescope...


I knew I had as long as it would take for Harry to eat his lunch, but it turned out I didn't need that long at all!

During my second scan, over a lovely pale-coloured and far less rough sea, there was a Leach's Petrel!  Mid-distance so the views were really nice as it slowly made it's way west, not in any hurry at all. I enjoyed great views of its upper side in particular, the grey carpal bar really standing out its otherwise dark upper wing, and could even make out the tail-fork and white in the rump! Having not seen a Leach's for so many years but plenty of Euro Stormies in that time, I think this made the overall shape and flight-style even more striking.  It always looked in complete control, cutting through the air above the waves with ease and grace, unlike a Euro which I always think look like they are frantically flapping to remain airborne!  

After a minute of good views I lost it as it dropped into a trough between waves and I just couldn't pick it up again.  I used this time to message out the news, checked in with Harry who had just polished off his yoghurt, then went back to the scope.  Just under five minutes later, it or another Leach's Petrel came into view.  This was on the same line out from me but at a much greater distance.  I couldn't pick up any plumage features on this bird, it was just a dark Leach's Petrel-shaped bird, flying like a Leach's Petrel, distantly low over the sea.  From as soon as I picked it up it seemed to be flying out slightly south and I lost it about thirty seconds later.  It could easily have been the same bird as the first so I will be recording it officially as '1+', but I guess it could just have easily been a second bird (which is how BirdGuides reported it!?).

About ten minutes later lunch was finished, which coincided perfectly with the arrival of a nasty squall, so we packed up and headed off.  It was probably one of the best picnics I have ever been on, even though I didn't eat anything!   

A happy birder and a six year old with a full tummy!

This just proves to me that that you really do make your own luck. 4th Nov 2023 could so easily have gone down as yet another disappointing day of sea watching off Seaton, were it not for this fifteen minute window that I managed to snatch.  A terrfic and highly satisfying result - my best ever Leach's Petrel views on patch! 

Wednesday 1 November 2023

Here Comes Ciaran!

As I write this I can see and hear Storm Ciaran taking hold outside.  It is going to whip through really quickly overnight and by dawn will be a north westerly but there's got to be chance of sea birds lingering in the bay for daybreak.  I'll be trying that is for sure - I've not seen a Leach's Petrel on patch for over ten years!

The reason I wanted to blog was because I had a lovely morning of vis migging on Monday morning. The skies were mostly blue, very little wind and from before dawn Wood Pigeons were moving west along the coast - with more flying south down the valley to join the westward route.  Plenty of Stock Doves mixed in too, as well as several flocks of Jackdaws and Starlings. 10,700 Wood Pigeons was my final count for the morning.

Wood Pigeons looking cool!

A distant flock passing Seaton Clock Tower

The downside of vis migging in Seaton is that it doesn't have the elevation.  I would usually head to Axe Cliff to vis mig at this time of year in these weather conditions, but I wanted to stay within my Patchwork Challenge patch hoping to add some species to the list.  However any passerine hopes were quickly dashed with all the small dots too high to hear, flying west.  Out of the small percentage that were low enough to ID, three were Bullfinch which was a nice sight flying west together.  But no hoped for Brambling, Woodlark, Crossbill, et al.

The day improved even more during my lunch break, as I stumbled upon my first Black Redstart of the autumn - a stunning (presumed) adult male!  

Took this with just my phone camera! No optical assistance at all.

Wish me luck for the morning...

Sunday 29 October 2023

The Casps keep coming and so does the rain!

Nicely following on from my last but one blog post a brief look at the Estuary gulls eary afternoon on 28th revealed... a first-winter Caspian Gull.

I watched it briefly over and in the water from Coronation Corner, but it slipped off just before Clive arrived.  Thankfully when I changed position I could see it again, it had landed just around the corner up river.  Photos are beyond dreadful but I could see it was a new first-winter Caspian Gull for me.  Not as lumpy as the previous two and more advanced in first-winter plumage, stonking white-head too...

Worst Caspian Gull photo I have ever taken

So although I certainly hadn't seen this bird before, it could have been one of Phil Bentley's birds from the 23rd.  In short it was my third first-winter in a week but possibly not increasing the overall Axe Casp total.  Looks like the total has gone up by another one today though as Tim had a colour-ringed cold toned first-winter from Tower Hide this afternoon.  

It has not just be raining Caspian Gulls here recently, but raining rain too!  A heck of a lot of rain, with the most severe flooding of the autumn in the valley this morning...

Day-break was still a long way off when I took this

As ever the excess water brings out more ducks than we can usually see.  110 Teal, 45 Wigeon and singles of Shoveler and Pintail (a female - poorly pictured below) were on Bridge Marsh this morning.  Just over the road opposite Axmouth FC (site of the sole Axe Dowitcher record!) were 115 Lapwing, 55 Black-tailed Godwits, a Ruff, a Green Sandpiper, a Greenshank and five Cattle Egrets.  

Female Pintail


With the strong south westerly wind and overcast skies today I gave the sea some attention too.  My main goal being a Little Gull having missed at least three on patch this year.  Still not my day for one of these, but am hopeful the winds forecasted during the week ahead will do the trick. I did put another previously dipped species for the year to bed though thanks to a message from James Mc who was sea watching from Lyme Regis.  

I actually had just left the sea as a heavy shower moved in and was desperate to check the flood water in the valley, but I'd got as far as Coronation Corner when a WhatsApp flashed up...

"Mega alert RB merg heading your way"

I went straight back to the sea, set my scope up, phoned James and literally as I was saying hello a female Red-breasted Merganser zoomed west through my scope view - at great speed! Eight minutes it took to get from Lyme to Seaton, that's a flight speed of about 40mph! I was expecting it about five minutes later so very nearly missed it. Many thanks James.

Also during my morning seawatch I logged singles of Balearic Shearwater, Great Crested Grebe and Great Northern Diver, 7 Common Scoter, c25 Kittiwake and plenty of Gannets. All flew west except for five of the Scoter and the Balearic.

I went out again mid-afternoon today for a quick sweep of  the remnants of the flood and the Estuary, with a look through the gulls revealing a rather interesting second or third-winter Yellow-legged Gull-type.  Need to do some more digging but thankfully Tim got some excellent pics of it from Tower Hide.  My current thinking is a Yellow-legged Gull from the Atlantic coast (NOT Azorean) although I could so easily be completely wrong - it doesn't even have yellow legs!  Probably another post to follow on this intriguing bird.

For now, batten down the hatches as Storm Ciaran is on its way, and it looks like it is going to be something quite spectacular...

Friday 27 October 2023

More Wryneck

The Wryneck I blogged about here stayed for two days, and I was pleased to get some better views of it before it departed...

Still a pretty poor photo - but it's an improvement!

And heres a short video.  Sorry for how shaky it is, plus the distance as I wanted to keep plenty of space between me and the bird.  But I count myself extremely lucky to have been able to even get this considering where the bird was spending most of its time...

Wednesday 25 October 2023

Caspian Gull Influx

I finished work on Monday (23rd) and headed straight for Coronation Corner where the only flock of gulls on the Estuary were loafing.  About ten minutes later out of nowhere this absolutely stunning first-winter Caspian Gull appeared right in the middle of the flock...

Such a lovely bird and absolutely massive! 

Looking a lot like it has eaten too much! Typical Casp belly right there

Nice flukey underwing shot


This was a big, full-bodied bird, and at the time I thought looked similar to my bird on 20th October - which was also a bit of a brute whilst still showing classic Casp structure.  However thanks to some comments from Gav regarding some feather detail, and the fact the bill of the 23rd bird is clearly so much paler (which by the way is a great first-winter Casp feature at this stage of the autumn/winter) I am inclined to think it is a new bird.    

Earlier on the 23rd, visting birder Phil Bentley reported two Caspian Gulls (both first-winters) and an adult Yellow-legged Gull on the Estuary from Tower Hide.  He later shared a pic of one of the Casps on Twitter...


Glad you got the pic Phil - not bad at all for a phone-scope shot!

Amazingly it was clearly a different bird to either of my two!  So that is three different first-winter Caspian Gulls in just four days - possibly four if Phil's first bird wasn't any of my two (although he thinks it may have been the bird from 20th).   

It must be all these east winds! Let's hope it continues...

Sunday 22 October 2023


I absolutely love leading the Birdwatching Trams at Seaton Tramway, an add-on from my day job there as Commercial Manager.  This is the fifth year I have been guiding them and this morning I led our final one of the 2023 season...

Photo courtesy of today's driver, Wendy

As each season goes by, we learn and alter this special event (like of all our events) with a view to constantly improving the experience for our customers. One such change for this year was that we held many more trips in April, July, August and September, with the July and August dates being evening departures.  Although during these months we don't have the quantity of birds on the Axe (wading birds, wildfowl, etc), the variety of species is much broader with a load more potential - and it has worked a treat!  

Running them at various times during the year also offers the customer something a little different each trip.  For example this morning we were under clear blue skies so it was great to show and explain to everyone the autumn passage of Wood Pigeons, Jackdaws and passerines that were flying west over our heads throughout the morning.   

Such lovely weather this morning!

Whilst guiding on these trams there is always the chance of finding something decent too, especially as the tram offers a slightly different view of the patch.  I have actually done ok with tram-finds this year, my best year in fact, with Great White Egret, Caspian Gull and Garganey - but I took it to another level today. A long-hoped for tram-find fulfilled even though it isn't all that rare.

I think I was waffling on about Oystercatcher bill shapes as the tram was slowly trundling north up the line from Riverside Halt, when a low flying grey shape with dark stripe down its back triggered me to yell to the driver to stop the tram... "Wryneck!".  I managed just one point and click record shot at this stage...

In my defence the sun hadn't even come up yet!

As ever when guiding, the stress then is trying to get everyone on the bird - but am pleased to say we managed it!  Even though only a few people saw it when it initially flew in front of the tram, we then went beyond it and stopped the tram again to look back.  It was soon picked up perched on the (wrong) side of a bush and stayed there for a couple of minutes allowing all to see.

Love that stripe!

Even better is that I have been able to share it with most of the other patch birders now, as it has been scopeable from the other side of the Estuary.  It has been flushing up most times a tram has gone past throughout the day, which at the moment is every twenty minutes!

This is amazingly my first Wryneck on patch since September 2010 - although I have missed three brief ones since (Colyford Common Sept '15, Beer Head Aug '18 and Beer Head August '19).  There was a decent influx of Wryneck earlier this autumn so it has very much been on the cards, and I have lost count of how many times I have traipsed around Seaton Marshes hoping for one, but I really thought I'd missed the boat seeing as though we are nearing November!

Just shows it is never too late... Well, unless you want to go onto a Birdwatching tram in 2023 because then you really are too late!  Pleased to say of course though they will be returning for 2024, led either by myself or Gavin with dates to be released soon.


Friday 20 October 2023

Lapland Bunting, Ring Ouzel, Caspian and Yellow-legged Gulls

I wasn't expecting to do any birding this morning due to other commitments and parental duties, but the opportunity presented itself for a morning dog walk so I grabbed that opportunity around the neck and took Harry and Honey for a long stroll over Beer Head.  

We got there at 08:30, leaving at about 10...

Looking east, the valley was covered in fog

And looking west, plenty more fog that way too!


The bushes were great value, containing lots of fresh-in Robins, Blackbirds and Goldcrests, a few Chiffchaffs and two Redwing.  Absolute classic mid-October birding and proper soul-fulfilling stuff.  A Ring Ouzel that started chakking from behind the Sheepwalk and then showed briefly was a really nice highlight, we never get many of them here.  I didn't know at the time but Clive had seen it too from a different angle.  

The sky was also busy, although passage was really high in the clear skies.  Siskins, Linnets, Skylarks, alba and Grey Wagtails and Meadow Pipits were most numerous, with several Lesser Redpolls over too including a nice little flock of around a dozen.  

There was one absolute monster vismig highlight though in the form of a Lapland Bunting north east at 09:30.  I heard the 'chu' a couple of times first which got my attention, thankfully then followed by the classic rattle.  As it shot through I quickly turned my camcorder on hoping it might have the reach to record some sounds from the bird, and am pleased to report it did!  

It recorded plenty of Harry's mutterings too, as well as my following phone call to Clive who I figured was probably still somewhere onsite...


This is the and my first Lapland Bunting on patch for a staggering twelve years - twelve years to the day in fact! See here.  

One of my better dog walks that was, for sure.

At the other end of today I had just enough time to give the Estuary a look late afternoon.  Not as many gulls as I was expecting however there were still two goodies among them...

I first picked up the first-winter Caspian Gull just as it was taking off thanks to a dog flush on the near bank, however thankfully it landed again opposite of Coronation Corner.  And oh my what a beaut...

A really big bird, but still with the classic Casp high neck and rounded head. Some of the biggest Casps can lose this and look all round beefy almost GBBG-like, but this the best of both - huge and classically Casp-shaped!


The other brilliant thing about this Casp was its gait.  From my experience not many Casps actually show the ultimate front-heavy full-nappy appearance, but this one was so front-heavy it could hardly even walk! A proper 'old school' Casp...

Just ridiculous!

Shortly after this bird flew south at 17:30 (found it at 17:00) I picked up a sub-adult Yellow-legged Gull way up river.  I still think it is probably a third-winter bird, but don't feel I can be absolutely sure it isn't an advanced looking second-winter.  These awful photos probably won't help figure it out either...

The YLG is the only gull looking right

One thing this pic does show is its brutish size!

Also saw several Med Gulls (had 53 yesterday, there has been a big increase in these and Common Gulls locally since the easterly winds picked up midweek) plus singles of Bar-tailed Godwit, Grey Plover and Ruff.

What a thrilling day!  Am really looking forward to the morning, when I am actually going out birding...


Sunday 15 October 2023

Friday 13th October 2023

Even though I have had a couple of days to recover, my brain still can't compute what I witnessed off Seaton Beach on Friday 13th.  And as I cannot even comprehend it myself I have no idea how well I am going to put it into words, but I'll try...

Sea watching on a patch that is so deep in Lyme Bay without any proper headland sets a certain level of expectation, a very low one.  And I can honestly say having watched this patch for twenty odd years now, that level of expectation continues to only get lower.  We seem to be the poorer relation to everywhere else on the south coast of Devon and Dorset when it comes to sea birds, scarce and common. I would say in general it is only Manx and Balearic Shearwaters and spring Great Northern Divers that we seem to do comparable ok for. 

A spring Great Northern Diver.  We must be in the right place in relation to their moulting areas to get a decent passage of these in late April/May each year.

Does this mean sea watching off Seaton is a waste of time?  Not at all. In fact over the years some of my most memorable patch moments have been thanks to birds over the sea, however these moments of magic are brief little nuggets of joy interspersed with many hundreds of hours of being bitterly disappointed. To be honest this is probably one of the main reasons why they are just so special - you have to work for them!

In short, when a Seaton birder goes sea watching, they really are going to watch the sea and only occasionally will a bird interrupt the view.  And this is why Friday has completely wrecked me, in a good way.  It had everything, and I didn't even have all that much time.  I look forward to telling the tale, hope you enjoy the read...

After a mild and rather wind-less week, Thursday evening brought a load of rain with a gusting south veering south-west wind.  I actually had some hope for Friday morning, this was because we had food in the bay.  Over the previous few days large numbers of gulls had been feeding just offshore with Gannets ever present a little further out, plus the beach has been lined with fishermen which is always a good sign. 

My first watch on Friday morning started at 07:40, although I was only able to stay until 08:15 as I had to take Harry to school.  So it was only 35 minutes long, but it was the only time I have ever found sea watching off here to be frantic, yes, frantic...

Gannets were streaming through at all distances, as were flocks of Kittiwakes and auks.  My counts of these three in the 35 minutes were 370, 128 and c200 respectively.   It was like being back at Pendeen - absolutely thrilling but also quite stressful.  Two single Balearic Shearwaters came though west at close range, and small groups of Common Scoter went bombing through in both directions.  

At 07:50 as I was watching a load of Gannets flying west, another bird came into view amongst them.  A few slow and languid shallow flaps later, I realised it was a Cory's Shearwater virtually clipping the tops of the waves as it flew west.  It was distant yes but not that distant.  I watched it for thirty seconds before zooming up for some plumage details, however this coincided with the arrival of a weather front and viewing became instantly difficult.  I knew what it was, but decided to relegate it back to large shearwater sp. without any plumage details.

Ten minutes later however, a little further out but during a period of better visibility, a second large shearwater sp. came into view flying west, but this one flew with stiffer and far less bowed wings. To be truthful from the moment I clapped eyes on it Cory's didn't even cross my mind - this was a Great Shearwater

This perfect comparison of imperfect views of the two birds in similar conditions gave me the confidence needed to re confirm the ID of the Cory's, and confirm bird two as a Great.  Seeing several thousand Cory's and over a hundred Great Shears within the last few months helped too of course!  Cory's Shearwater is a full fat patch tick for me, having missed out on all previous records (was not on patch for most of these).  Great Shearwater was only my second for the patch following my first a little over three weeks ago.

So that watch in itself was something quite special, but the sea still had a lot more to offer...

I returned to Seaton Beach at 10:30 and stayed for an hour. Conditions were now completely different from earlier with the wind having dropped and the sun mostly out except for the odd passing cloud. Appalling viewing conditions really!

Took this when there was a decent amount of cloud cover towards the end of the hour watch

Within this watch was a five minute period that I can only describe as being ridiculous, completely and utterly ridiculous.  At 11:16 I picked up a distant Great Skua flying west whilst watching a group of four distant large Shearwaters flying the same way, it was my first Bonxie of the year.  As I was watching it a falcon flashed through my scope view really close in low over the sea. It looked small but up until the point I latched my scope on to it I presumed it was just one the local Peregrines - it wasn't it was a stunning juvenile Merlin!  A second year tick and a species that can easily be missed in any given year here. 

Once I had followed the Merlin as far as I could I started scanning back over the sea and at 11:20 was met with an at first puzzling small gull-like bird that was flying through the worst of the glare. I couldn't figure out what it was for a moment, clearly smaller than a Kittiwake, much narrower winged, but long in the body/tail and not a tern despite flying a bit like one. As it flew a little more west it came out of the glare - it was a skua - a bloody Long-tailed Skua!  It kept flying west but then turned and flew more south heading out into the bay. At mid distance it was close enough (when it got into better light) to show it was an intermediate plumaged juvenile, an absolute beaut of one too.  Only my third Long-tailed ever here, following a stunning spring adult on the evening of 23rd May 2006 and a juvenile practically over the beach on 20th Oct 2009.  Both shared with Gav, who I think has had at least another two here since?

Other birds during this watch included (and I cannot believe I am including the first as a side note) nine very distant large shearwaters, singles of Great Northern and Red-throated Divers (both first of the autumn for me), Arctic Skua, Sandwich Tern and two Brent Geese (dark-bellied) west with twenty Common Scoter east.

After a fairly fruitless look along the Estuary, I returned to the beach for a final bit of sea watching 12:05 - 12:30.  I wasn't expecting my first scan to show a single spread out flock of 35 large shearwaters flicking up over the horizon as they went west. And they kept coming...

Over the next 15 minutes I counted 130 large shearwaters west.  The light was still awful, in fact worse than the 10:30 sea watch, and although at the time I felt like the nearer ones were giving Cory's vibes, on reflection I can't bet my house on the fact they were so will be keeping them all as large shearwater sp.  All I was seeing was them rising up as they glided so couldn't really get a true feel for their flight action, and even the closest ones were a good deal further out than the earlier two.

One shearwater that was identifiable to species level was a single Sooty Shearwater that came sweeping through a group of seven large shearwaters, towering above the horizon several times as it flew west. This was at 12:17 and was my first here for a surprising ten years - the first one that has ever gone through with a flock of even bigger shearwaters though!  By 12:21 the shearwater passage had stopped, or more likely drifted further out and over the horizon.  A close Arctic Skua, a pale sub-adult bird, flew south east just before I finally had to go.

So there we are... Exactly two hours of sea watching off Seaton on a day that didn't just give me four species of shearwaters (including a patch first and second for me) and three species of skua (including a patch third for me), but a three-figure passage of large shearwaters and a passage of common species on a scale that I have never seen here before. Just incredible.  

Another factor that made all this feel a bit surreal was that other than Gav at West Bay, it literally felt like there was no one else sea watching along the south coast up until about mid-late morning.  For several hours no news came out out of the main sites like Berry, Start and Portland, and there seemed to be no one watching from the less prime spots like Dawlish, Exmouth, Budleigh, etc.  I was really grateful for Gav though (who was chalking up big shears on his patch - read about it here) as on the frequent occasions I found myself in a state of shock at what I was witnessing, I just had to phone someone and verbally express my utter disbelief!  Think I called Gav about four times during the morning and am certain that during not one of these conversations did I make any real sense - I just uttered random noises with the odd expletive and species name thrown in.  Sorry for that Gav, but I had to share it with someone!

So, does this mean the low bar of Seaton sea watching standards has risen for me?  Not a chance. Bloody awful place to sea watch from, usually.

Friday 29 September 2023

A Patch Lifer - Barred Warbler on Colyford Common!

I had just booted up and set off on a four mile walk with Jess over Golden Cap when my phone rang, it was Tim C. As soon as I answered I could hear excitement plus a touch of panic in his voice...

"Steve can you take a look at the photo I have just sent to you, think I might have a Barred Warbler on Colyford Common...."

A few phone taps later and sure enough - a nice photo of a Barred Warbler! A superb record for the Axe patch, only the second following a brief bird on Beer Head in the late 00's only seen by the finder. Am sure it is one of those species we've probably missed a few of over the years, we have a lot of suitable habitat and they are such a skulky and often silent warbler - which makes this find even more brilliant in my view.

From then on in during our walk I was remarkably calm considering a patch tick was in the offing!  I can only presume it was because all my previous experiences of Barred Warblers have shown they are never really in a rush to go anywhere - and knowing the stock of berries on Colyford Common at the moment and the amount of Blackcaps feeding on them, I was certain it would at the very least stay the day, if not a week or two! So we enjoyed the wonderful walk in stunning weather, giving us plenty of views like this...

Looking towards a patch Barred Warbler from Golden Cap

We even stopped off on the way home for a pub lunch at Hunters Lodge!  Playing it cool had reached a whole new level - especially when I also ordered a dessert!  Well how could I skip the chance of a Toffee Apple Crumble Pie?

I finally sauntered down to Colyford Common at 13:30, with the bird last seen around 11am.  The lack of news since then became obvious when I turned up - there was no one looking for it!  I spoke to Tim over the phone for a bit more gen, then found my spot and just sat and waited...

The hedgeline where it was seen was mostly very quiet, but then out of nowhere Blackcaps would pop up and feed - up to 12 in all. But then a few minutes later all would be quiet again.  It is a thick hedge with some big trees - I lost count of how many times I raised my bins for movement only to miss the cause completely.  

At 14:10 a movement much closer to me caught my eye, about ten metres away. Thankfully the cause of it stayed put just long enough - it was the Barred Warbler!  

The view was brief, lasting no more than five seconds before it ghosted deep into a huge holly bush, but the imprint of the bird will be on my mind forever.  It was a perfect field guide worthy view - undertail coverts facing me, tail up and then it even turn its head to the left - which is when I think it saw me and made a hasty retreat! It is a really pale eyed bird, making me wonder if it is actually an adult?  I think a first-winter male a more likely explanation, I just can't recall seeing an autumn bird so pale-eyed before.  

Here are some of Tim's photo of it, which he has kindly allowed me to share here...

Love this photo of it (c) Tim Clark

This was the first show he sent me, look at that eye! (c) Tim Clark

The best part of an autumn Barred Warbler (c) Tim Clark

A video-still (c) Tim Clark


I stayed until 14:55 but no more views.  Would have loved to get a picture myself, but in this case the picture is very much in my mind.  Thanks again Tim for a top top bird! 

Just to catch up with other bird news, I have a few sightings to mention off the back of Storm Agnes.  I didn't manage much on the sea, a possible and extremely brief Sooty Shearwater was frustrating, I did see a couple of closer Balearic Shearwaters, four Ringed Plovers west plus Gannets and Kittiwakes have clearly increased in numbers and seem to be feeding offshore.  My sea based highlight were two Arctic Skuas lingering off Spot On yesterday afternoon, chasing gulls for food.  Always a delight to watch - probably not so much fun for the gulls though!

The day before (the 27th - the day of the storm and my birthday!) a two hour late afternoon look about didn't show anything new on the Estuary, Colyford Common or over the sea, but on Black Hole Marsh I was surprised to see a whopping 12 Curlew Sandpipers!  There were two with the Ringed Plover flock right next to Island Hide, plus a flock of ten with Dunlin that looked like a freshly arrived tight flock.  They were flighty and never looked that settled, but here's seven of them...

Also two Dunlin and two Ringed Plover in shot

And to close this post, how could I not include a photo of this...

Thankfully it didn't cost me a patch tick!