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.