Saturday 18 March 2023

Summer Migrants and Tufted Ducks

Well it certainly feels like spring now!  

Much milder air has dominated since last weekend, and although the weather hasn't been particularly nice whenever the sun has emerged from behind the clouds its warmth has been apparent. The sight of these have also helped with the spring-feeling too...

It's only a few pixels of Wheatear but doesn't that image just make you feel warm inside


I have seen more Wheatear in the last week than I did throughout the whole of last spring on the Axe (14 my spring 2022 total).  

My first were six (all males) from work, feeding on Sheep's Marsh on the morning of Wednesday 15th - the same day quite a widespread arrival occurred along the south coast (see Portland blog).  I didn't see any on Thursday but on Friday there were nine in the field to the north of Seaton Marshes (including my first female) and six on Beer Head at last light - so that's 21 and we are not even on the 20th of March yet!  It is so great to have them back!

Male and female Wheatear

Following my two early Sand Martins last week, a flock of 50 over Seaton Marshes on Thursday late afternoon became 90+ by Friday morning.  It was amazing to be stood under the flock listening to their almost constant chattering calls as they fed, often low over the marshes. A true delight...

Sand Martin flock

Although I haven't seen any other new species of summer migrants aside from Wheatear since my last post, Chiffchaffs are arriving in seemingly good numbers at the moment.  There were a couple of singing birds around the Borrow Pit on Friday morning as well as several others dotted around in ditches, hedges and even one just up the road from my house.  

There's clearly been a few Stonechats passing through too, I have seen more in the last few days than I have all winter.  This bird on Seaton Marshes - with huge white wing patches and a white-looking rump - looked particularly striking encouraging me to contemplate rubicola...

Presumably within range for hibernians though - a paler/white belly would have made it look more convincing

It was nice to enjoy a bit of seawatching on Tuesday morning. I only had an hour but it was good to see Fulmar, Kittiwake and Gannet passing in reasonable numbers - many quite close.  Two flocks of Golden Plover came flying through west low over the waves, a nine and a four, not a species I have seen migrating low over the sea much at all.   Year ticks came in the form of a Great Northern Diver which flew west shortly after a trio of Red-throats went by, and a Skylark which flew in off the sea in true spring vismig style!

Gull passage is still very much underway on the Estuary, with large gull numbers high including a good turn-over of Lesser Black-backsCommon Gulls are also passing through in excellent numbers still, but Black-headed Gull numbers have noticeably dropped off now.   There are still a few Med Gulls dropping in though, including a lovely pair of adults that flew in off the sea calling on Thursday morning. I will never get bored of adult summer Meds, they just look so clean cut and crisp amongst the carpet of white, grey and brown...

Leading the flock, both in position and looks!

And then today came a real nice spring highlight - four Tufted Ducks on The Borrow Pit, Seaton Marshes.  They were found by Susie earlier today but thankfully remained until I managed to get to them at about 4:30pm...

Three drakes and a female

...and they weren't always asleep!

Although Tufties are our most regular of the diving duck species on the Axe (not counting sawbills - we get more Goosanders) it is a species that still could be missed in a 12 month period. Four together is a high count for us, more often than not spring records relate to single birds.

So with the addition of Wheatear, Skylark, Great Northern Diver and Tufted Duck my Patchwork Challenge year list stands at 115 species, amounting to 146 points.

Hopefully one of the many Alpine Swifts currently in the UK will now do the decent thing...

Friday 10 March 2023

So Much for Snow!

Despite much of the UK getting a good dumping of the white stuff over the past few days, as usual for us down here in Seaton there's not been a sniff.  Not even sleety rain, just rain.  Not that I have minded this as it has been such a dry year so far.

Although no snow it has certainly been cold. An icy cold northerly wind has been blowing, with the grey skies adding to the chill factor.  So, as was the case when I wrote my last post, seeing summer migrants is not something I am thinking about right now, even though I have...

This afternoon two Sand Martins were flying and feeding high over the confluence of the Axe and Coly, and earlier today I had my second lookings at the lovely male Little Ringed Plover that has been on Black Hole Marsh since Tuesday (which is when I saw it for the first time).  Such a lovely little bird, the cold wind probably the reason why it is lingering with us...

Electric yellow eye-ring

Seen in the year before Common Ringed Plover which is unusual. My earliest ever LRP for the patch

A better view of those stripes


A lone Avocet was around at the start of the week, although I haven't seen it today so think it has probably moved on.  At least one Great White Egret is still around, but possibly two as I watched one flying east up Stedcome Valley yesterday morning not long before one was photographed fishing on a garden pond in Beer (a couple of miles west of where I was).

I am ofcourse keeping a close eye on the gulls at the moment as now is the time for a white-winger if we are going to get one at all.  There are really good numbers of Common Gulls passing through, and Lesser Black-backed Gulls are present daily often in double-figures, plus a handful of Med Gulls most days...

Mediterranean Gull looking dapper in full summer plumage

And to complete this post I will not be mentioning how I managed to miss Little Gull for the third time this year...


Sunday 5 March 2023

Firecrest Finally Falls

Well February was a disaster for Patchwork Challenge.  Just so so quiet, and two of the best birds - Little Gull and Red-breasted Merganser - I missed! The latter only by a couple of minutes at most which was particularly gutting.

Anyway just to remind you, my February year ticks were:

Water Pipit, Mistle Thrush, Blackcap and Caspian Gull

So a measly four compared to January's 102! Quite the come-down.

Am pleased to say March has started with a bit more oomph - although spring it does NOT feel like!  It has been colder here since March begun that at any time during February, which is a shame as cold weather in February would have been ideal!

With the current temperatures, just thinking of species like Wheatear, Little Ringed Plover and Sand Martin feels wrong. So summer migrants aside, in the month of March birds just have more of a habit of moving around. Young birds get driven out of their parents territories, wintering birds in Western Europe head back north/north west/east, breeding birds start getting horny and vocal, etc, etc..  

So five days in and where am I at? Well I've chalked up three new species for Patchwork Challenge - so looking promising I would say! The three species being:

Greylag Goose. Found by Phil on Bridge Marsh on 2nd, I saw it that evening and again the following morning. March is a really typical month for this species here, for whatever reason!?

The outsider!


Siskin. These funky little finches have been scarce this winter, outside of conifer woodlands that is.  I would usually see and hear odd birds flying over, anywhere really, but not this year. So a pair flying in to feed on alders at Lower Bruckland Ponds on 3rd were much appreciated.  

Firecrest. A species I have been putting a lot of effort into finding on my Patchwork Challenge patch.  There are singles wintering between 3 and 400 metres either side of my patch (Seaton Hole and Axe Cliff Golf course car park) but I haven't had a sniff of one actually on my patch, despite plenty of ideal habitat. 

Well that was until this morning, when the wind-less conditions (although grey - so very dull and grey) revealed a lovely male Firecrest in trees and bushes alongside Axmouth Harbour, just beyond where the houses are on the east side.  Although you can't tell from my dreadful attempt at photography, but the views were absolutely fabulous as it busily fed right in front of me...

Still my favourite bird!


Currently find myself on 109 species for patchwork challenge and a grand total of 139 points.  Let's hope March makes up for February!  

Thursday 2 March 2023

A Day Out with Dad - Slimbridge WWT

I'd promised Dad a day trip to Slimbridge WWT one day this winter, a reserve well-known for its accessibility.  And seeing as spring was fast approaching, last Monday everything aligned (tides, weather, work schedule, Dad's diary, etc) so off we went for what turned out to be thoroughly enjoyable day.  

I was worried I had left it too late in the season, and although we were told wader and wildfowl numbers had dropped off in recent weeks as to be expected, there was still more than enough to see. Bewick's Swan numbers actually increased on the day we were there, which is lucky as in other years all have departed by the end of February! The cold north easterly wind presumably the reason for their delayed return migration - the wardens at Slimbridge can tell they are ready to go through their behaviour and eating habits (apparently they diet before they migrate!).

The Bewick's Swans were of course the stars of the show for me, being a huge fan of waterfowl and birding a part of the country where we don't see many winter swans.  There were a handful on the Rushy in the morning, at least 46 resting on the Tack Piece late morning, four on the Dumbles shortly after and then over 50 came back in to Rushy for the evening swan feed. 

Typical Bewick's bill pattern although they are all different!
They pair for life - the larger male on the left here

The young birds still showing grey plumage but bills have turned yellow (start off pink)

Strange colour due to taking this photo through glass!

Bewick's sleeping on the Tack Piece


Another high point for me was seeing the Eurasian White-fronted Goose flock, numbering 172, feeding along the back of the Tack Piece.  Amazing that this is still such a reliable wintering site for the species, considering how far south and west it is and how their numbers have declined here for decades...

What a lovely sight, those stunning black belly bars

Always on the fair side of the field

Living and birding on a patch where, except for Wigeon, Teal and Shelduck, we don't see ducks in any numbers, seeing so many Shoveler, Pintail, Tufted Duck and Pochard was just amazing!  At least 700 Wigeon still present too despite the late date.


Two dapper drakes

Couldn't stop photographing these to be honest!

A mass of Shoveler!

I know many birders find the whole swan feeding-thing unappetising, but I love it! Such a great way of engaging the 'semi-interested' and for me it is just so novel to see so many wildfowl...

Ready for their grub!

Feeding time!


However, the one thing about Slimbridge that does make me question myself and all things birding was nicely summarised by Scaup.  

It was great to see the drake Greater Scaup that has been wintering onsite, showing distantly on the Rushy. A really smart bird but never came close...

Drake Greater Scaup - what a looker!

Such a great looking duck!

I then walked around the corner and took this photo with my phone...

More Scaup!

Yes these are of course captive, but they unequivocally look exactly the same!  Just not quite sure how to deal with this, as seeing that wild drake Scaup (albeit distantly) gave me such a buzz and then I clapped eyes on these!  Not sure what to make of it, all I can say is I find it confusing for my (wild) bird-loving brain.

A drake Smew, lots of Eider and Goldeneye were in the same pen too, although we did see a wild Goldeneye on South Lake as well...

Note the Avocet - a returning breeding pair

Whilst on the subject of non-wild birds, nine Common Cranes were on the Dumbles.  Although two weren't ringed so maybe these were of wild stock?

All these were ringed

But the left hand bird here is unringed

Also on the Dumbles a big flock of feral Barnacle Geese, containing a Ross's Goose and a Snow x Bar-headed hybrid.  There were two single Barnacle Geese in with the White-fronts too, presumably also feral but who actually knows?

Ross's Goose in with Barnacle Geese

And here's the Snow x Bar-headed


There were heaps of Golden Plover, Lapwing and Dunlin here as well, and about 90+ more Pintail distantly viewable on the Severn...

Waders on the Dumbles

I have only been to Slimbridge twice before. Most recently in February 2003 on the way back from Norfolk to see a first-winter Lesser White-fronted Goose in with the White-front flock.  My first visit was in 2002 when I was thrilled to see a Greenland White-front, two Bean and three Pink-footed Geese in with the 400+ strong White-front flock. This was the holy grail of goose flocks as far as I was concerned, although not a shadow on what Peter Scott used to record in the 40's/50's when he could count two thousand grey geese (mostly White-fronts) wintering on site. 

I really do look forward to visiting this place for the fourth time.  A great reserve and a truly memorable day out with Dad. 

Accessibility Review

I thought I would add this little section at the bottom of my post, as Nature Reserve accessibility isn't something most birders need to think about, but it is absolutely critical for the ones that do need to think about it.

Am pleased to report Slimbridge ticks all the right boxes, a great network of flat paths, spacious and well designed hides (including a hide with a lift in it*), several accessible loos and a very clear and informative accessibility section on their website.  

Nature can't be much more accessible than this!

*The lift in the Estuary Tower Hide wasn't actually working on the day we visited, although as you can see from the below screenshot the website told us this well before our visit.  My only point to note on that would be that it would have been good for the member of staff on the welcome desk to mention this to us, just in case we hadn't been on the website pre-visit.

A screenshot from the website homepage