Friday 25 August 2023

Icterine Warbler - First for the Patch!

Well I was quite content with my couple of hours of birding in my Patchwork Challenge patch this morning...  

I'd seen good numbers of warblers on Seaton Marshes, along with several Yellow Wagtails and three Kingfishers. And on Colyford Marsh, having missed three less than one-day birds this year, finally Marsh Harrier made it on to my Patchwork Challenge list...

Think this photo just about rules out Golden Eagle?

But then, just before 08:30, for the first time this year I had to abandon my Patchwork Challenge patch and twitch Beer Head as Kev had found a patch first - of one flavour or another...

Kev had stumbled upon a hippolais warbler, either an Icterine or Melodious, luckily for me who didn't have much time, in a large area of scrub not all the far from where we park.  Twenty minutes later I was there, but as I walked to join the trio of birders who had seen it, they reported they had last seen it fly out of the isolated scrub patch it was in and towards Beer Head Caravan Park.  I immediately felt like I was in a dipping scenario. 

I was wrong. A few Willow Warblers appeared right beside me, and soon after Clive turned up, out emerged a plain looking face - followed by a bloody Icterine Warbler!!! 

I say 'bloody' as this was NOT expected! Far rarer than Melodious down here, and we are on a stretch of coast that in late August during southerly winds you'd almost describe as optimum for this Mediterranean species - but we are yet to record one.

I had two clear and decent bin views of it, then for the third time it showed I fired up my camcorder.  At the end of this very short bit of film, it jumps out to the left of frame and very sadly was never seen again.  Here is the vid...

Note the tail-dipping, almost flycatcher-like behaviour and even the fact it is at the top of a tree! All good Icky behavioural traits.  

And here's a couple of stills from this video, quite pleased how they have come out...

Such a prominent almost solid pale wing panel

The yellow on this bird was restricted to its throat and face, with maybe a touch on its breast 

Tail down and head up

A tail-pump in action!


And now for a proper photo of it!  Taken by finder Kev, thanks for the great find Kev...

What a pic of a patch first! And of a warbler - better than any warbler photo I have EVER taken!

Kev's photos show so many of the good pro Icky ID pointers.  The steely blue legs, really long bill and pale wing panels can be shown by Melodious, although all three would be unusual I guess.  However those lovely pale edged/tipped greater coverts, tertials and primaries, as well as the long primary projection are solid Icky features.

Then there was how it looked and behaved in the field.  I have always found Melodious to be a bit Garden Warbler-like. Fat and lazy.  And rounded, with round heads and blunter more rounded wing tips.  Whereas, just like this bird, Icterines look a bit un warbler-like, almost Flycatchery, and just very pointy with long wing-tips and a long bill.  

Additionally, although I don't at all think this is proven it's just something I have found in the past, I find Melodious tend to show more of that 'open face look' that you expect from a hippo, whereas Ickys display darker ear coverts and sometimes a more noticeable supercillium, so giving slightly less of that 'open face' appearance.

So, that was that. Field birders happy with ID, others on local and county Whatsapp groups happy with ID (including a wonderful annotated copy of Kevs photo by Mike Langman). But then this comes out on BirdGuides...

Oh, really!?

This took me right back to the Beer Head Blyth's Reed Warbler that Kev also found back in 2020.

That was reidentified as a Marsh Warbler on BirdGuides whilst all onsite birders were well down the Blyth's Reed route...  It did then slow down its song during the afternoon so it is a good job a tiny winged dark brown acro appeared hoping around the bottom of the bush at the end of the day otherwise the doubt probably would have been the death of that record (the full tale can be read about on THIS blog post).

So, with some doubt added to the mix today, although many were well on the Icterine side of the fence, I knew I had to ask a man who has seen and handled a lot more Melodies and Ickys than me. I hope Martin Cade doesn't mind me copying some of the contents of his response on here...


"This is an Icterine: the secondary panel is way too white and conspicuous for a Melodious, the primary projection is long, the primaries are strongly tipped pale, the tertials are very clean-edged and dark centred, the greater coverts have decent pale edges and tips and, on the video, it dips its tail quite conspicuously. For me this all equals a certain Icterine.

I’m usually ultra-conservative but for me there’s no doubt about this one – wouldn’t it be funny if new evidence emerges that completely refutes all I’ve just written!!

Hope that’s useful and doesn’t put a cat amongst the pigeons if everyone’s decided it’s a Melodious".

As you can see from the last line, I did not include in my email what I thought it was or what the field views suggested.

Thank you again Kevin, just reward for your continued perseverance with this site. Am just sorry that more didn't connect with it - I consider myself extremely lucky to have arrived just in the nick of time.

Thursday 24 August 2023


Well I wasn't expecting that!

Spent a lovely evening at Black Hole Marsh last night. And it started really well as a Wood Sandpiper was calling as I walked through the entrance gate, not that I could see it (and didn't for the rest of my visit!). 

From the Island Hide there were three lovely juvenile Ruff, two Greenshank, plenty of Black-tailed Godwits including a big increase in gingery juvs and a few Dunlin and Ringed Plover.  So lots and lots of birds.  But then, just before 8pm, something put everything up, although it was an odd flush with very little noise but a huge reaction. 

I soon saw why...

A juvenile Goshawk was chasing a Wood Pigeon low over the boundary of Black Hole Marsh and Colyford Common, before giving up, gaining some height and powering on off to the west. What an awesome sight.

A video grab

Such a distinctive shape - as ever when you see a Gos you know it is a Gos! If you are ever not sure then it isn't one!

And off it went...

What was almost as incredible as seeing the Gos, was seeing the effect it had on the birds on Black Hole Marsh!  

For the next twenty minutes after the Gos flew through, literally nothing moved.  Pretty much all the wading birds clumped together and formed a super-flock on the far side of the marsh, with the entire northern half of the marsh remaining bird-less, that was except for one of the juv Ruff which was literally cowering underneath a wooden bridge - I have never seen a bird look so petrified!  It took half an hour for the Black-headed Gull flock to return too.  Just amazing, I have never seen anything quite like it before, and I have seen all sorts of flushes here from White-tailed Eagle to White Stork and Common Crane

Sorry - there are no birds here anymore!

What an amazing way to end a day, quite possibly the best way...

Monday 21 August 2023

Caspian Gull, Garganey, Curlew Sandpiper, et al.

As the title suggests it has been a good few days!  

We have been blessed with good wading bird numbers over the last week or so on the Axe, particularly on Black Hole and Colyford Marsh. An adult Little Stint that lingered for almost a week was probably the highlight, but there has also been two juvenile Ruff, two juvenile Knot, a juvenile Turnstone, up to six Greenshank, seven Avocet, double-figure counts of Dunlin and Ringed Plover, plus the odd Little Ringed Plover and Green Sandpiper.  Add to that the first returning Yellow Wagtails and Wheatears, as well as a couple of Ospreys passing through (which unlike everything else above I have missed) the birding has been excellent!  

And then came the Birdwatching Tram on Sunday evening (20th)...

Midway through the trip when we were by Tower Hide, a large gull on the Estuary caught my attention during a cursory scan of the modest-sized gull flock. It looked large, white-headed, white-fronted, and showed several moulted scapulars...

So a Yellow-legged/Caspian Gull... but something just didn't feel right for YLG 

When I am leading the birdwatch trams I don't carry my telescope, so with just bins I knew my camera was the key to getting any real detail on this bird.  So I started papping and spent less time looking, not what I would usually do but necessary considering the circumstances.

About two minutes later, and once I put the camera down - it flew!  Gleaming white underwings were obvious, so I scrambled for the camera again and managed to fluke a flight shot by just pointing it in the general direction it was flying!

Once back home a quick review of the pics showed promise for it being a Caspian Gull, so I sent the photos to Rich Bonser (who shared it with others) and all came back with 100% Casp! RESULT!

The flukey flight shot!  Shows very pale underwings and critically the perfect 'venetian blind' 
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Note big grey moulted scaps, plain greater coverts and all black tertials

A very familiar shape, nice full chest, a bit of a 'saggy nappy' appearance and a relatively parallel bill with minimal goyns angle. Am just not used to seeing so much streaking on a Casp but that's because I have never seen one so young! 

Long tibia, and the makings of a neck shawl I would say... Lovely mousey brown juvenile feathers too, a really nice colour (as brown goes!)

This, if accepted, will be the 30th Caspian Gull for the Axe.  But for me it is one of my favourites as a juvenile has been high on my wanted list for years.  The (and my) previous earliest autumn date for an Axe Casp is 3rd Sept (although I didn't actually fully confirm it until late October - read HERE for all the details!) so this is the first August record.   Am absolutely chuffed to bits and a very educational bird for me.

And as if this lump of brown wasn't enough excitement for the 22 passengers onboard the birdwatching tram last night, about twenty minutes later I found them another lump of brown! A slightly stripey one...

An autumn Garganey - a real treat!

At first, like the 16+ Teal it was feeding with on the mud on Colyford Scrape, it was surprisingly elusive and hard to keep tabs on.  But by the time we left the scrape (about five minutes later) it had ventured closer and was the only duck on the water...

What a beaut and what a view!

Maybe an adult female?  Not too sharp on autumn Garganey ageing/sexing though, thoughts please?

What a fabulous double-whammy!

And today it got even better, as Clive found a Curlew Sandpiper on Black Hole Marsh.  I haven't seen a Curlew Sand on the Axe for many years, we just haven't had good numbers of them in the UK for several autumns now.  

When I saw it it remained distant on the far side of the marsh, so please excuse this awful phone-scoped record shot...

Always knee-deep in water! This shot shows the bill shape really well if nothing else.

Am looking forward to seeing what else August 2023 brings us!  Hopefully a proper rare wader is on the cards...

Saturday 19 August 2023

Seawatching Seaton Style!

Following the absolutely epic day of seawatching in Cornwall in early August, I knew I had to return to normal birding expectations as soon as possible.  And what better way to do that than instead of pointing my scope on the Runnel Stone off PG - pointing it at the horizon from Seaton Beach!  

Still, this hasn't been without highlights, and we have had some pretty wild weather at times. In date order...


4th August

It wasn't actually seawatching weather at all, with a flat sea thanks to a gentle north west wind.  I was there to scope behind any distant boats incase a Storm Petrel or two might be visible.  There weren't, but my searching was interupted by bird-shapes flying through my scope view far more often than I was expecting - including my first Balearic Shearwaters for Patchwork Challenge! 

19:20 - 20:20 from Spot On Kiosk produced: 3 Balearic Shearwater (1 w with a Manx at 19:52 and 2 w together at 20:10), 58 Manx Shearwater (4 w, 54 e), 11 Sandwich Tern, 1 Mediterranean Gull and 1 Ringed Plover.


5th August

This was a proper rough day, with lots of rain, gusting south westerly winds and big big waves!  I was keen, really keen, watched from Fisherman's Gap 05:20 - 09:50 and saw (west unless stated): 6 Arctic Skua (an awesome group of 5 and a single e), 1 Skua sp. (e), 54 Common Scoter, 41 Kittiwake, 15 Manx Shearwater, 2 Sandwich Tern, 3 Mediterranean Gull and 1 Yellow-leged Gull (juv).

Love Seaton Beach when it looks like this!


So not a dreadful haul, infact those Skuas were really nice to see, but considering Dan just along the coast at Sidmouth had 18 Storm Petrels, with a Sooty Shearwater seen just west of him, and a Pom Skua seen flying my way 13 miles east of me - I was really disappointed with the lack of quality.  

12th August

Conditions not all the appalling but a south westerly breeze and some overcast skies were enough to have me watching from Spot On Kiosk 07:10 - 08:40 showing (west unless stated): 1 Balearic Shearwater (07:40 and fairly close), 90+ Gannet, 12 Kittiwake, 6 Manx Shearwater, 1 Sandwich Tern and 1 Mediterranean Gull.

Had another look in the evening 19:05 - 19:50: 6 Balearic Shearwater (two 3's), 17 Manx Shearwater and 24+ Shearwater sp.  All distant and all west.


14th August

Another wet and wild morning so I watched from Fisherman's Gap.  The entrance to the public toilets isn't the most pleasant place to stand early on a Saturday morning, but the cover is much appreciated especially during the wet bits!  

06:00 - 09:40 produced (west unless stated): 1 Storm Petrel (finally! Came through at 09:05 nice and close which meant all my scanning on 60x zoom was futile!), 1 Balearic Shearwater (09:25), 5 Arctic Skua (a single and two 2's within a fourty minute period - lovely prolonged views), 110+ Gannet, 46 Kittiwake, 42 Common Scoter, 11 Shelduck (one flock), 6 auk sp., 5 Sandwich Tern, 3 Mediterranean Gull, 2 Whimbrel (1 e, 1 out) and 1 Turnstone (flew out, possibly flushed off the beach).

I have done more birding than just seawatching, but I will leave that for another post.  But there is one more thing I'd like to add to this post, and please take this as your reward for reading all of the relatively mundane sightings above...

Back to my Cornwall seawatching post, and in particular that Fea's-type Petrel that I was really fortunate to get on as it quickly flew west past Porthgwarra.  Well next to us in the front row of seawatchers were the supreme duo of Ryan Irvine (who was expectionally helpful to all present, loudly announcing directions) and Mike McKee.  Mike has a brilliant video recorder setup on his telescope, and he filmed the Fea's for exactly the period of time I was watching it.  Well I picked it up at the same time but I did see it for an extra couple of seconds as it chased a Manx Shearwater before going out of view to the right (I was sat a little further left than Mike).  His clips shows that I watched it for about a minute, which oddly felt more like twenty seconds at the time...

What a brilliant reminder of this nugget of seawatching gold, and I love how the video captures how frantic the situation was with many struggling to get on it. That is mostly Ryan you can hear trying to help all.

And back again to reality! As always, thanks for reading...

Thursday 3 August 2023

Seawatching in Cornwall

It's certainly not that I haven't wanted to go for a seawatch in Cornwall, but on at least one day in each of the last eight plus years, James Mc has invited me to join him for a Pendeen or Porthgwarra jolly and I just haven't been able to go.  Yesterday I realised why - it was because I was waiting for yesterday - the absolute perfect day!

There has been exceptional numbers of big shearwaters off Cornwall and Isles of Scilly for the last week and a bit, and last weekend the weather for yesterday was looking promising enough to clear the diary for a day of seawatching!  So at 2:30am yesterday (Weds 2nd) James picked me up from home, we collected Dan from Sidmouth and got down to Porthgwarra for shortly after 5am!

Looking east from the main Porthgwarra seawatching point


We spent the next four hours at PG, before relocating to Pendeen (the north coast) as the wind was due to switch from WSW to W and then NW.  We watched from the bottom of the slope at Pendeen 11 - 2 with seawatching royalty, Mark and Del, before making our way back home. I was even home for Harry's bed time!

The view from the lower slopes of Pendeen

What my eyes witnessed during these eight hours of sea watching was simply mesmerising.  Literally overwhelming numbers of passing and feeding shearwaters, some skuas for good measure and even two rarities!  I will list the totals first before going into more detail...

Porthgwarra 05:20 - 09:50

5,000+ Cory's Shearwater (split between passing and feeding birds), c100 Great Shearwater, 40+ Sooty Shearwater, 2 Balearic Shearwater, 10,000+ Manx Shearwater, 1 Fea's Petrel (07:20), 6 Storm Petrel, 1 Wilson Storm Petrel (09:30), 1 Great Skua, 3 Pomarine Skua (all immatures), 3 Yellow-legged Gull (ad and 2 juv) and 1 Ringed Plover.


Pendeen 11:00 - 14:00

100+ Cory's Shearwater, 12+ Sooty Shearwater, c100,000 Manx Shearwater (passing at 800 a minute at times!), 35 Storm Petrel, 3 Arctic Skua (1 pale, 1 dark, 1 imm), 22 Whimbrel and 1 Ringed Plover.

A Cory's Shearwater with Manxies

Sooty and Manx Shearwater

Cory's Shearwater is a bird that is a real highlight on any seawatch, you'd watch all day in the hope of seeing one or two, and if you are really lucky you might just get to double-figures. So what we saw was really something else.  The big feeding flocks at Porthgwarra remained distant, but passing birds came in really close at both sites, and the opportunity to see them so well and to study so many was incredible.  Being on the north coast the light was much better at Pendeen, so although there were fewer birds here (not that 100+ is anything to be sniffed at!) the views were even more pleasing to the eye!   

Although I was expecting to see Great Shearwaters, I was not expecting to see as many as we did!  Some of these showed really well too, passing in close at PG.  The Sooty Shearwaters were good value as always, with good views of at both sites and then there was the Pendeen Manx passage - exceptionally close and constant!  Counting in the field was impossible, so I took a thirty second video which when counted revealed 400 birds!  Although it wasn't always that heavy, it was always happening so 100,000 in three hours is probably actually an undercount - even though it sounds absurd!

Storm Petrels are always good to see, and the views at Pendeen were really nice.  Views more distant at PG however the Wilson's Storm Petrel really did put on a show. Once called, it didn't take long to get on and it spent about five minutes feeding close in and in near-constant view. A bird I have always wanted to see in the field from land just to know what it looks like - big and 'paddle-shaped wings' come straight to mind!  It really did behave like a butterfly over the sea, not in full panic mode like Euro Stormies always seem to be in!  

When the shout of 'Fea's' went up I cannot even describe the panic.  Not just myself, it was palpable within the entire crowd of watchers!  I am pleased to say I managed to get on it, although not until it was in line with the Runnel Stone so I probably only got 40 seconds of views.  Lovely grey upper parts (like nothing else really) with darker wings and a paler rump, and then those tell tale black underwings contrasting with a clear while belly.  Wing shape I found not at all dissimilar to Cory's with an obvious kink in the wing, but it wasn't doing the high-arcs often associated with this species (or group of species I should say!).  The holy grail when it comes of seabirds so I do feel somewhat jammy!

Finally I must give the skuas a paragraph.  They've been so few and far between this year, so to get three species was a real treat.  As we all know Great Skuas (Bonxies) are in real trouble with Bird Flu having decimated the breeding population, so it actually felt like a bit of an honour to see one off PG.  The Pom's were great, although not sporting the spoons of an adult they had all the feel of big bruisers.  The closest skuas were the Arctic's at Pendeen, which included two adults.

Thankyou to James and Dan for the company, and it was good to see a few down there that I knew, including our very own Kevin plus Mark and Del as mentioned above.  Shout out to the Cornish seawatchers too, really friendly and helpful to all present with no elitism or snobbery at all.

Three was not a crowd. Great company all around.

The scene when we left Porthgwarra

This is where most seawatch from at Pendeen, the lighthouse.

And to give you a true feel of the day have a watch of the video below.  It doesn't include any of the rarities or skuas, when they came by I just wanted to watch them with my own eyes. However I wanted to capture a 'flavour' of the day and am quite pleased with some of the Cory's and the Sooty footage...


Now all I need is a Cory's off my part of the coast...