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...