Monday, 16 October 2017

Foggy mornings, hot afternoons and a noonday red sun

Boards on the window, mail by the door,
What would anybody leave so quickly for ?
Ophelia, Where have you gone ?

Some lyrics to a great song by my favourite Band......The Band, a bit before my time but great music is timeless. Very apt today for the Irish, not so much perhaps for us now as some had suggested last week, but more of that later.
Birding wise I have been really going for it the last few days, had some highlights as well. Started off last Friday but an early morning vis mig watch at Start was euchered by thick fog. Walked down to the light and there was a nice little fall of around 20 Blackcaps and 6 Goldcrests. Waited patiently for anything rarer to emerge from the tamarisks but nothing came. Gave Mike Langman a ring to see if there was anything doing at Berry Head, he said a Sooty Shearwater was heading my way, should be 30-35minutes. Kept an eye on the Blackcaps and at 25 minutes looked out to sea and the Sooty was roaring past, a new record time for Berry Head to Start. Must be an average speed in the mid 30's MPH. A pleasant afternoon stroll around Hallsands got me a Kingfisher and a handful of Chiffs.
Next day, same routine but this time the vis mig was on. A Woodlark was almost the first bird over. In the next 90 minutes headed south were 95 Swallows, 720 Linnets and 640 Goldfinches amongst other things. This time of year something is usually happening with the vis mig and it is sometimes the best birding available when things are quiet and in a bit of a static birding rut. Good hearing is handy and if you learn the calls of about 10 species you should be able to put a name to 95% of what goes over within reason. You also have to be good at getting out early. Usually all over within 2 hours of sunrise.
Onto yesterday which in the 10k will now forever be known as Firecrest Sunday. The vis mig was again dominated by Linnets ( 690 ) and Goldfinches (650).  Firecrests were being reported at Berry Head so I made my way down to the light and on arrival the tamarisks were full of noisy Firecrest, at least 20, probably double that. Also 10 Blackcaps and a load of chiffchaffs of various colours and the first Black Redstart of the autumn was in the compound. By the end of the day I had logged at least 33. Nearby 60 plus were seen at Soar and 40 plus at Prawle. I would think the heaviest passage of these beautiful birds ever through the area.
A Chiffchaff in the lighthouse tamarisks. Beautiful birds but overshadowed and outnumbered yesterday by the Firecrests, the bird below was at Start Farm.

Days like yesterday make up for the inevitable quiet ones and have to be cherished. Flogging local patches is hard going more often than not !

And so onto the aforementioned Hurricane / Storm Ophelia. Looking at the always reliable Magic Seaweed wind charts, produced for surfers, it was never down as something that was going to hit us hard. ( Magic Seaweed by the way is based in Kingsbridge, great success ). Nonetheless it promised to be windy, perhaps enough for a good seawatch and too windy for vis mig or small passerines so I got to Start Light first light. I was soon joined by a visiting birder, Richard Thomas from Cambridge and at 09:33 he picked up the bird of the day, a Leach's Petrel in close heading south. Other birds seen before we gave up at 14:30 included 3 Balearic Shearwaters, 3 Pomarine Skuas, 3 Great Skuas and an Arctic Skua. A female Merlin frequently rounded the point harassing a flock of Linnets. In the tamarisk 4 Firecrests were present along with yesterdays Black Redstart flitting around the walls.
While Ophelia has not hurt us to badly she did leave a real memory. Mid morning the sun was a strange orange red colour thanks to all the atmospheric particle debris she drew up from the south be it dust or forest fire related particles. Sure was strange, a bit like the eclipse a few years ago. Whilst Ophelia kept her worst away from us a look at the Magicseaweed charts for the end of this week suggest we may be rockin' a bit more then, just like The Band.

Obviously the strange atmospherics this morning was a natural phenomenom with a scientific explanation. Likewise the tilt was nothing to do with End of Days Revelations, just bad photography.

Monday, 9 October 2017

When birding was Black and White

Thirty years ago to this day I saw a Black and White Warbler in the woods below Hines Hill at East Prawle. I cannot believe it was so long ago but I can remember it as if it was last week. A stunning bird, only a Snowy Owl would rival it for me as the best bird I have seen in the UK. It had been found by Norman Trigg the day before in a big westerly blow. About four people got it that evening, i tried but too late, I was one of the lucky viewers early the next morning. I lived in Kingsbridge then and got home late afternoon to find a message from my good friend Alan Doidge pinned to my front door with the details. Not even an answerphone indoors back then. The Warbler stayed for the best part of a week and was part of a great collection of rarities that graced Prawle in October 1987 which included Red-eyed Vireo, Black Kite, Little Bunting and a Desert Wheatear in Horseley Cove. This wheatear was the first Devon Record.
Enough of reminiscing though, its the present that counts. I have done a fair bit of birding the last few days but its been hard going. A couple vis mig watches at Start but only the usual early October suspects. I prefer vis migging towards the end of October and into November. Yesterday was beautiful at Start and there was an elusive Yellow-browed Warbler in the farm, just heard calling. Nowadays just reffered to as the first of the autumn, what an injustice to such a great and well travelled bird. Also in the farm was a Treecreeper, maybe the first i have seen in here. The biggest miss may have been what looked like a plain sandy coloured Dragonfly up the road from the farm. I saw it briefly and gave it a while as there had been sightings of a rare Vagrant Emperor on the Scillies and they looked pretty straightforward to me. It did not show again though. When i got home i saw there was one at Dawlish and this morning learnt a visiting birder at Start yesterday had brief glimpses of what he thought had to be one by the car park. What's hit is history, what's missed is mystery.
Had another go at Start this morning but again quiet, a female Merlin flying past the light was the highlight. The birding could be hard going for a while yet. Westerly dominated winds are all or nothing down here. Only seven American landbirds have occurred in the 10k patch, we need easterlies and birds coming down from the east coast to give us a reasonable shot of finding rares here, not on the cards yet but my favourite birding time in autumn is always the last two weeks of October so all is not lost.

Treecreeper, Start Farm. I got the magnifying glass, slide rule and calculator out and reckon its a Common Treecreeper. Would not be the first time i have been wrong. 

A beautiful Comma butterfly out in the beautiful sunshine yesterday.

Devil's Coach Horse, frequently seen scurrying across the lighthouse road and if you stop and look at them they like to make out like a Scorpion. They are actually a type of rove beetle and one supposedly ate the core of the apple that Eve threw away. Because of this if you kill one you are forgiven seven sins. I could never bring myself to step on one and besides it would take way more than one beetle to wash all my sins away.

The lighthouse garden with the old pig houses and wonderful tamarisks belts. Over the years it has had Hippolais Warblers, R-B Flys, Pallas's Warblers, tonnes and tonnes of exhausted migrants, possible Pallas's Gropper and unlimited potential. This morning i heard a single Chiffchaff calling somewhere in there.

This one is especially for my fellow vis miggers  Dan J and Steve Waite. Taken from near Start Point car park looking across Lyme Bay. The headland just poking out on the left is Scabbacombe Head. I reckon the white cliffs are Branscombe with Beer Head just to the right of them ? About 40 miles away ( or 3 hours travelling as the Pallid Harrier flies in a couple weeks hey fellas ! ). Don't think Salcombe Hill is visible Dan but stand to be corrected. I would have to walk further down towards the light to see it and then i am losing a lot of height and it mostly disappears. On a good day i can see Portland Bill.

Monday, 2 October 2017

Mipipitive count syndrome

Got out to Start about 06:45 this morning with low expectations and it felt unrare but it is the month of the vagrant so you never, ever know. I always get out for first light if I can simply to catch any visible migration that might be going on. If you are just looking for rares you may as well hang on if you want as they seldom seem to be around first thing. If you want to catch the vis mig it's essential you are there early. As soon as I got out of the car I could hear the odd Meadow Pipit going over, always a good sign. I headed along the coastpath towards Hallsands where I knew there would be a nice sheltered spot from the fresh southwest wind. Between 07:00 and 08:00 there was some outstanding movement. Meadow Pipits were going through fast and furious and I got a total of 1010. Other good counts were 470 Linnets and 310 Goldfinches. Also seen a low count of 6 alba Wagtails, Grey Wagtail, 17 Swallows and a Siskin. At 08:00 the movement stopped quite suddenly. As always the birds were headed into the wind, going south to southwest. I think this is the first four figure count I have anywhere before. Obviously counts are a little subjective, different observers could have way different counts from the same time and place if a comparison was made. I know when counting Woodpigeons moving through in late autumn from photos I have proved to myself I tend to underestimate. Add to that the rate the birds were coming through at times made it impossible to keep up with them and many were going by below cliff level then I know my counts are conservative. With species always going through in good numbers ( Meadow Pipits, Goldfinches etc ) I tend to ignore the ones, twos and threes and round numbers in flocks up or down to the nearest 10, works for me. Less numerous species eg Brambling later this month I get the exact number.
With this passage over I walked down the sheltered road to the light where a Blackcap was exiting the compound which was birdless. The farm held a handful of Chiffs and Goldcrests and the birds of the day, 2 Firecrests . Leaving Start a Wheatear had arrived in the car park.
I drove around to Hallsands checking the overgrown pond, the marshy valley etc but only Chiffs and Goldcrests. The more I go there the more I think Hallsands is a potential untapped goldmine re rare birds. It has had its moments , trouble is when Start is good you tend to stay there, when its quiet try Hallsands which by nature would then be quiet as well. Must try and break that habit sometime. Back on the beach there was a Grey Wagtail and a Wheatear. Good numbers of Red Admirals going through all day by the way.

Top end of Start Farm

Prime marshy habitat at Hallsands, criminally underwatched. This spot is only about 2km NW of Start Point lighthouse and less than 300 metres inland from Hallsands Beach.                                

Part of the overgrown pond behind Hallsands Beach. Noisy Cetti's Warbler in residence.

This Wheatear has found Hallsands to it's liking over the past few days.

Friday, 29 September 2017

Let the good times roll !

I suspect like me autumn is the favourite birding time of the year for most birders. Like many I have put a fair bit of time aside for looking for rares in the next four or five weeks. Right now as in many previous years I am full of optimism that this is the year I will find the mega and my little stake outs will rival St Agnes, Porthgwarra, Portland Bill , Flamborough, North Ronaldsay and Fair Isle. Every year I usually struggle to find anything much better than a Yellow-browed Warbler, Firecrest or Black Redstart and as the autumn closes I usually think why did I not just go somewhere else for a week. Time dulls the memory however and the optimism batteries are again charged to 100%
This morning I headed out to Start Point first light after a night of showers that were still going intermittently after dawn. It was not bad enough to write off some vis mig but little was going overhead, the best a couple of Siskins. The farm held about 4 Chiffchaffs and 10 Goldcrests with a lone Blackcap. The road down to the light was sheltered and on reaching the lighthouse compound the first bird I saw was a Firecrest. Although nothing else seemed to be present just by waiting 30 minutes 4 Blackcaps and a chiffchaff showed. Other birds seen at Start included Grey Heron, Sparrowhawk, Great Spotted Woodpecker, 2 Grey Wagtails, 60 Swallows and 5 House Martins.                                                                                                     
Kestrel overlooking the lighthouse gully.
I left Start and headed around the short distance to Hallsands. This is sheltered in winds with a westerly element when Start can be blown out and is full of potential. Today it was quiet, just a lone Wheatear on the beach and a Cetti's Warbler singing loudly from the overgrown pond behind the beach. It is a very atmospheric place when looking at the old village taken by the sea a hundred years ago in January 1917.


Over 170 people lived in the old Hallsands village at its peak. Many a good session must have been had in The London Inn which once brewed its own ale. I bet the lighthouse keepers stumbled their way back to the light on a frequent basis.
As a last throw of the dice I went to Beesands where a Yellow-browed Warbler ( no doubt the first of many locally this autumn ) was reported yesterday. It was predictably quiet for migrants and duck numbers ( exclusively Gadwall, Tufted Duck ) were down on a couple weeks ago. A nice sight was a flock of around 100 House Sparrows on the Village Green, not such a common sight as it should be. There were also a flock of 30 Starlings. I always assumed flocks this time of year would be made up of fairly local birds, would explain why they are not easy to find now. Speaking to Keith Grant who I bumped into at Slapton last week he told me he inadvertently trapped a Starling at Torcross recently which was a juvenile and it had been previously ringed, amazingly in Lithuania ! What a recovery.

Part of a seemingly healthy Beesands House Sparrow population. These can be good at drawing in scarcer visitors so worth keeping an eye on in the next few weeks.

Monday, 25 September 2017

American Landbirds in the 10k

'The Pepperpot' at mid-Soar. A 200 year old Admiralty Signalling Station originally built to keep an eye out for French ships. Must have been the odd Upland Sandpiper nearby sometime.            

Parasol Mushroom sp, Soar Warren

Whinchat, Soar Warren

Looking towards Start Point from Hallsands Beach

Portuguese Man 'O War, Strete Gate
I've been out birding a few times since the last post but not tearing up any trees regarding seeing anything rare. No falls, no scarce migrants and no major early morning visible migration. Plenty of nice walks and views all the same and the wildlife highlight probably a Portuguese Man 'o War on the strandline at Strete Gate.

It is of course that time of year when most birders are getting a bit twitchy about what rarities might turn up late September, through October and into early November. Certainly been some good birds in the SW including from North America Red-eyed Vireos on Scilly and in West Cornwall and a Yellow Warbler at Portland. The latter got me thinking about the handful of Yank passerines that have occurred locally in the 10k patch. Seven in total and none since 2001. We are long overdue another though it is a sad fact sightings in the SW as a whole have plummeted in recent years compared to the heady days of the 80's when Scilly in particular was an autumn birding Mecca, seemingly replaced now by the Northern Isles. The reasons behind this are complex and probably not proven beyond doubt. There is certainly less coverage on the Scillies in autumn now, some populations have noticeably decreased in America, the autumnal Atlantic jet streams have moved farther north and if ship assistance plays a role ( probably more saving birds well offshore than bringing them all the way ) there may be less marine traffic. I thought it would be nice to recap the few that have turned up.

The first American landbird found in the 10k patch was a Blackpoll Warbler found in the car park scrub at Prawle Point on 18th September, 1976. There was a mini invasion of 4-5 birds in Britain and Ireland in autumn 1976 and this may have been the precursor of these. It was also the first mainland record for Britain. It was seen until the 20th and then again on the 29th. Found by the late Dave Norman it was trapped and ringed by Alan Searle which was a relief to prove it was not a Bay-breasted or Pine Warbler....not so much literature available then and not so many birding trips to Canada and the USA. As an aside an ex work colleague of mine who lived at Beesands told me he picked up a couple twitchers one day who i'm sure had travelled some distance for this bird but had pranged their car on Bowcombe Bridge. He gave them a lift to Beesands, put them up for the night in the football club changing rooms and ran them out to Prawle the next morning. Great hospitality and I seem to recall from what he told me it must have been for this bird. Certainly before my time. Don't know what happened to the car.

The next bird was found in the same place, a Red-eyed Vireo found by John Nicholls on 27th September, 1981, remaining into the next day. I think this was also a first mainland record and only about the fifth or sixth for Britain ( I stand to be corrected on any of this ). Like the Blackpoll Warbler, identification then was not so straight forward as now and other Vireos had to be eliminated. Many Monarch butterflies were around at the same time, presumably also from North America. I was birding in 1981 but knew few other birders and I don't think there was even a phone in my house. I can remember reading about a ' Red-eyed Vireoux ! ' in the local paper and went out to Prawle but it was long gone. I would get another chance however !

October 1987 was a great month for rarities at Prawle, worth a post of its own. My personal all time favourite bird I have seen locally was found in the woods below Hines Hill by Norman Trigg on 8th October, an amazing Black and White Warbler. It was blowing a howler that day and Norman had persevered all day and after seeing little went into the shelter of the woods. He found the bird moving through with a flock of  Chiffchaffs and Goldcrests and the rest was history. He got a good description and selflessly legged it the not inconsiderable distance ( about a mile ) back to his car, drove back up the village and got the news out. Three or four lucky people saw it that evening, I had to wait until the next day and what a bird. Lots of people from far away were there and it stayed until 15th, a whole week. Incredibly it was not a first for Devon, an unusual record of one in Tavistock in March 1978 preceding it. The extra weekend visitors produced rumours and claims of all sorts, some seemingly Jackanory and some pretty certain for eg an elusive Swainson's Thrush that got away from some observers. One definite was another Red-eyed Vireo found in Pigs Nose Valley ( Merivale Lane to locals ) by Pat Mayer on the 11th staying until 17th.

The next bird was the first and still the only one to be found away from the Prawle area. Again a first British mainland record it was a Bobolink found on the Warren at Soar by Alan Doidge on 17th September 1991. It stayed until 21st giving great views to hundreds of grateful visiting birders, the farmer kindly opened a field up for additional parking. I remember Alan telling me it was so quiet at Soar that day that he was going swiftly back to his car taking a short cut and found the Bobolink, you never know !

October 1995 produced the biggest mega in modern times for the 10k patch. On the afternoon of 18th Britain and Irelands second ever Chesnut-sided Warbler was found by a visiting birder , looking for Cirl Buntings, in the lane by Prawle Point car park. The only previous British record was on Fetlar, Shetland in October 1985. In the mid 90's I was lucky enough to live and work for a couple years on the Scillies. I vividly remember I was birding on Bryher that day when a birder next to me looked at his pager and said anyone know where Prawle Point is, yes and why I replied. The answer was that someone had found a type of American Wood-Warbler there and was asking if there was anyone nearby who could help with the id. Soon it came back on the pager as a Chesnut-sided Warbler and panic ensued amongst the premier league twitchers there. It was seen by about 20 people that evening, hundreds were there the next morning but it had disappeared. None have occurred since.

The last record to date was another Bobolink in the fields at Langerstone Point, Prawle from 9th-16th, October 2001, another Pat Mayer find and like Alan's bird very popular. Unbeleivably 16 years ago, about time for another yank, we can all dream !

On You Tube someone recently pointed me in the direction of an old television programme called Twitchers filmed on the Scillies in October 1995. It's very tongue in cheek and does use quite a bit of producers license but it shows a clip of twitchers at the airport trying to get a flight off for the Prawle Chesnut-sided Warbler and you may notice famous Devon birder Bob Bailey at 24 minutes in. Fast forward to 51 minutes 54 seconds and yours truly is standing on a hedge ( blue fishing smock and rucksack ) looking at a Yellow-billed Cuckoo. I  can safely say this was filmed before they invented Doritos ! You can find it here

Tuesday, 29 August 2017


Its been a scorchio few days and I've had some enjoyable mornings around the coast over the Bank Holiday weekend looking for southbound trans-Saharan migrants. Late August can be the best time for numbers, the key being to get out early, first light,  and get home before the bumper crowds arrive, a mantra I followed in the days below. There have been good numbers of some species, perhaps surprising given the settled high pressure dominating. Such conditions often produce birdless days when anything is a bonus. Last Thursday (24/8 ) I went to Start Point. There were good numbers of phyllosc warblers namely 43 Chiffchaffs and 31 Willow Warblers. The highlights were a flyover Green Sandpiper ( not a first here, i'm certain I have had one at Start before ), a fly through Hobby trying to do a fly by killing of a hirundine, ( Swallows must love these guys keeping them company all the way to Africa ), and a Grasshopper Warbler showing briefly but well in the bracken below the lighthouse road. Other birds included 12 Yellow Wagtails, 6 Tree Pipits, Whinchat, 5 Wheatears, Sedge Warbler, 7 Whitethroats, 4 Blackcaps and 4 Spotted Flycatchers. An adult Little Grebe was on a pond in a private area I have permission to look at. I reckon they have bred here for the third year running which is nice.

The 25th saw me at Soar Car Park from where I went and checked out The Warren before going around to Starehole Valley and back via East Soar Farm. There was another quirky wader record, this time a Greenshank over The Warren. Otherwise the highlight was 26 Tree Pipits. Birds elsewhere included 16 Yellow Wagtails, Sedge Warbler, 5 Whitethroats, 5 Blackcaps, 20 Chiffchaffs, 4 Willow Warblers and 4 Spotted Flycatchers. Bit of a fright by the dipping pond where I heard a pfhisss and looked for the source to see an Adder moving behind me almost touching the heel of my boot. I must have nearly stood on it.

On 27th I was back at Start Point. Highlights were a late high flying Swift and a Lesser Whitethroat. Other migrants present were 10 Tree Pipits, 23 Yellow Wagtails, 6 White Wagtails, 5 Wheatears, 20 Blackcaps, 23 Chiffchaffs, 2 Willow Warblers and 2 Spotted Flycatchers.

To round the Bank Holiday weekend  went to Bolberry Down yesterday morning. The Old Portlight has been redeveloped and the work almost finished. Personally I think they have done a good job and it will blend in well, this day and age some awful looking places are being built so well done all involved. As for the birds I saw 3 Tree Pipits, 10 Yellow Wagtails, Redstart, 11 Whitethroats, 12 Blackcaps and 2 Spotted Flycatchers.

All in all I was surprised at the reasonable number of Chiffs going through given the high pressure. Bodes well that they have had a good breeding season. Tree Pipits have shown up well to. Yellow Wagtails have been easy to find though not in the numbers seen in east Devon. Whinchats and Redstarts seem to get fewer on migration every autumn and no Pied Flycatchers seen. Always amazing to think of the journeys these small birds undertake. The Yellow Wagtails following the hooves of Farmer Ansell's Red Devon bulls at Start now may well be walking behind an elephant in Mali at the end of next month.

Start light from the south side of the spine. You can find better photos of this view taken in the 1880's. I will try not to upload any phone shots again.
Redstart, Bolberry Down

Spotted Flycatcher, Bolberry Down

Sunday, 23 July 2017

Big Shear Fest

The blog has been in hibernation for a little while. Not given up on it, just nothing to write about for a while. Once the spring migration is finished that is generally it for me, a close season until it kicks off again in the autumn ( ie birders autumn ). Back in May whenever I had a bit of time to get out the weather was naff etc etc so no birding for a while.
Things changed on Friday though. I had a day off work and the weather was going to be bad. Thought I would amble out to Start when I woke up and have a seawatch until the predicted heavy rain arrived. Things were so organized it took me 20 minutes to find my waterproofs and I reached the tip of Start Point, bottom of the lighthouse compound at about 08:15. I put the scope up, looked through it and there were 3 Manx Shearwaters heading my way with a huge towering Cory's Shearwater behind looking like a World War 2 bomber with accompanying fighter planes. What a start !. I gave Mike Langman a shout just as I picked another up. He was not too impressed, he had been with others at Berry Head for much longer and had seen 50 plus and a good number of Great Shearwaters. That leaked on my fireworks !
The next 5 and a bit hours were tremendous. I soon picked up my first Great Shearwater and it seemed like everytime I scanned the sea I would pick up a large Shearwater or two. Unfortunatly few were close, definatly scope jobs instead of bins and a few had to go down as either or. They were mostly on a line much farther out than the majority of the considerable number of passing Manxies. By 13:00 the rain was threatening and shelter was nowhere to be had. I retreated back up to the lighthouse road but the skies eventually poured with rain and at 13:30 I left, soaked but happy.
My final totals were 82 Cory's and 21 Great Shearwaters. Back on the lighthouse road I bumped into Douglas Stannard, we must have been watching yards apart unaware of each others presence. He had noted similar numbers of Greats and Cory's to me but in addition saw Great Skua, Sooty Shearwater and Balearic Shearwater. I had seen an Arctic Skua. Shows how birds can get missed ( especially by me ).
Elsewhere on the 10k patch a friend of mine, Paul Roberts on holiday in Torcross had 27 Cory's and 3 Greats from there, a superb record though they must have drifted a fair way back out to sea by the time they reached the Point as none were close in. I got a text to Pat Mayer who managed to get to Prawle Point late morning and up until 15:00 saw 50+ Cory's but only 3 Greats.
These numbers are way behind Berry Head but I think that is explained with hours of observation and numbers of observers. It is interesting however that the ratio there was roughly 2 Cory's to each Great and Start was more 4:1. With few Greats seen at Torcross and Prawle do a big percentage move like skuas and head farther out channel once they round Berry Head ? Food for thought.
Big shearwater passages have been recorded at Prawle Point in the past, the largest for Cory's being 199 on 30/7/08 and 280 on 20/7/2005. For Greats 39 passed Prawle on 17/8/1999 and 35 seen at Start Point on 5/8/1999. There was a massive movement of 320 Great Shearwaters through Berry Head on 23/9/1999 but no record locally for that day so presumably no one was watching else there would have been a big count.
All in all a great morning. When the birding stars align and these big local birding events happen it always seems to be on week day when I am busy working so I felt lucky and priveliged to have been able to witness it. Happy days !

I think every blog post needs a photo, promise I will improve