Saturday, 1 April 2017

Rise of the Cattle Egret

Got out to try some serious birding for the first time in a while yesterday morning. Done so little birding so far this spring that the only migrants I had seen were Chiffchaffs and a Swallow inland at The Mounts on 30th. Went to Start Point first of all but it was windy and blown out so I soon left. I decided to head towards Chivlestone Cross on the way to East Prawle where 18 Cattle Egrets had been reported during the week. I soon found them in the field below the turbine. They had now gone up to 19, amazing. Watched them as they fed in an arable field quite wary of me though I was distant. After watching this record breaking count for Devon ( but unlikely to last as long as Bob Beamon's famous Long Jump Record ) I headed around to Beesands Ley. Mute Swan's and Canada Geese ruling the roost here, nearly 50 of each making it look like a zoo. Best of the low number of other wildfowl was a male Shoveler. A couple singing Willow Warblers were nice but the highlight was a singing Sedge Warbler by the hide, the first March record I have ever had. Next stop was Slapton. It would have been rude not to look for the whale but there was no sign. Went around Ireland Bay and of course most of the wildfowl has now left but a male Wigeon remained. Highlight of the Lepidoptera was a Brimstone in Ireland Bay Quarry. Stopped at Torcross on the way home where there were just 4 Sand Martins and a Swallow.

What about the Cattle Egrets then. As I was watching them one of those Birding coincidences dawned on me.The first British record of what was then called ' Buff-backed Heron' was obtained at South Allington in late October 1805. South Allington is really just a Country House, a Farm and a couple cottages and it is less than a kilometre from where I was watching this flock ! A man named Cornish shot the bird apparently having to have two go's at it. Perhaps he knew there would be a good reward and suffered some kind of assassin breakdown as the bird was said to be approachable so no excuse. The bird then found its way to that past giant of British ornithology, George Montagu who lived in Knowle House, Kingsbridge. He recorded it as the 'Little White Heron ' and announced the record in the Transactions of the Linnean Society. The specimen, an immature female, still resides in the Natural History Museum at Tring, Hertfordshire. It would be over 100 years before the next acceptable British Record in Norfolk in 1917 and over 180 years to the next Devon record. This was again in the local 10k patch in November 1986. The South West Water employees who worked at the Gerston Sewage Works on the Kingsbridge Estuary opposite Kingsbridge saw an Egret in a cattle field by the Works, realised it was unusual but thought it was a Litlle Egret ( itself still very rare then ). They contacted top TV birder of the day Tony Soper who only lived around the corner. He put the id right but it swiftly moved on. I just managed to catch up with it at nearby Easton Farm, only about 4 birders saw it so along with the long deceased Mr. Cornish we had a Devon blocker ! Since then of course things have really changed. I'm pretty sure there were no more 10k records until January 2007 when about 5 were around the Kingsbridge Estuary and winter 2008 saw even more with a brief flock of 8 one January morning near Easton ( these soon dispersed to other localities nearby ). It was thought these would be the harbingers of greater numbers ( like the Little Egret colonisation ) but it was a false dawn as records became more sporadic and scarcer thereafter. Perhaps this current ' invasion ' is the one that sees them ensconsed for good in our area. Good old Colonel Montagu would never believe it !


If you count them there are 18 Cattle Egrets but the top bird between the two that are flying is actually 2 Egrets.

The 1805 record is the only definite time as far as I am aware of the local 10k patch adding a bird to the British list. The first accepted record of a Long-billed Dowitcher ( known then as Brown Snipe ) in Britain however was announced by George Montagu as being obtained somewhere on the Devon coastline one October around 1801. Could it have been in the 10k patch or does the vagueness mean it was taken somewhere Montagu was not familiar with making a nearby locality unlikely ?

EDIT. Thinking about it Colonel Montagu would have added a few others to the British list from around here I would have presumed eg Cirl Bunting. So maybe I should have stressed in a vagrant context only.

Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Retro April's, Hoopoes and lost Phoebe.

I've done next to no birding in March, but not all my fault. Time taken up with other more pressing things, and when I have had the chance the weather has put the mockers on it. Got down the road a few times for the Humpback Whale which has been amazing ( http://seaskywatch.blogspot.co.uk/ ). Great that so many people have seen it and I think it has turned a lot of people onto wanting to see more local wildlife and learn more about it, what a result.
No getting a birding fix means I will be tearing at the leash a little in the coming weeks to get out more and as can be seen below there is always hope in April of seeing some good birds ( not to mention good falls of commoner migrants ).

April, 1967

On the River Avon the long staying Whooper Swan was present until the 18th. A Hawfinch was present in West Charleton from 11th-16th and a Ring Ouzel was in Kingsbridge on the 27th ( whilist Ring Ouzels are not too rare in spring locally, they are almost exclusively coastal and inland records are unusual ). A Hoopoe was at Start Point on 28th.

April, 1977

Another long staying Whooper Swan, this time remaining at Slapton Ley through the month, more colourful was a Hoopoe here from 22nd-24th. Another was at Prawle Point on 24th and a Nightjar was at South Milton Ley from 25th into May. 

April 1987

A well watched Whiskered Tern was found along the tidal Road at Aveton Gifford on the 12th quickly moving to Thurlestone Marsh staying around the area until 15th. The next day it relocated to Slapton Ley where it stayed until the 17th. A male Garganey at Beesands Ley on 16th moved to Slapton Ley on 17th staying until 21st when it was joined by a female. Also at Slapton a Hoopoe from 19th-21st, another was at Prawle Point on 17th. Other highlights this month included a Montagu's Harrier at West Charleton Marsh on 13th, a roaming second calendar year Glaucous Gull seen at Slapton early month, Lannacombe on 15th and around Prawle from 19th-26th, 2 Black Guillemots at Start Point on 19th, a Nightingale at Prawle Point on 20th and a Subalpine Warbler at Start Point on 21st. The later are surprisingly extremely rare in the 10 km patch, off the top of my head just 3 records and this I think the last. Would have been a 'comfortable' Subalpine Warbler at the time but now the species has been split into three, I've no idea which one this bird was, ( Western Subalpine, Eastern Subalpine or Moltoni's ) Western would always be the most likely in spring but in birding anything is possible.

April 1997

Contra 10 years earlier a quiet month, only highlights 2 Bitterns at Slapton Ley early month, an Iceland Gull here on 5th, Garganey at Beesands Ley on 15th and 2 Blue-headed Wagtails at South Huish on 19th.

April 2007

Surprisingly just one highlight, a beautiful Glossy Ibis originally seen at Easton and then nearby at Woodcombe Farm, West Alvington from 22nd till the end of the month. Glossy Ibis still a very rare bird then and I think the first in the 10 k patch for over 20 years ( now pretty much annual ). Found at Woodcombe by the farmer, my good friend David Horton, he amazingly found another different bird ( a first calendar year bird ) in the same small muddy corner of his farm six months later, coincidence or what !

Going back 30 years to 1987, perhaps the biggest rarity ever in the patch just slipped through the net and I had a small part to play. I went to Slapton on the 19th where a Hoopoe had been by the Higher Ley and had good views. I went back out the next day and it had been seen by the Memorial Car Park but reported as last seen flying across the ley and landing on the other side. Access to this private part of the reserve by birders seemed to be tolerated by the Field Centre in those days and I went off in search and relocated it near the edge of the Hartshorn Plantation on America Road. That is where my small part ends. The next day some visiting birders ( I believe from South Wales ? ) looked for it but without success. They were good birders and did see something in the trees by the edge of the plantation that they could not id however ( I have to say this is from memory, if anyone can correct or enlarge on anything please do ) .  When they had access to the relevant books and checked against their notes they came up with Eastern Phoebe, a type of North American flycatcher never before seen in the Western Paleartic let alone UK. At this point that probably would never have been enough to get the record accepted as such by the relevant national committees but hope sprang eternal when an Eastern Phoebe was found about 120 Kms. northwest on Lundy Island on the 24th. It stayed into the following day allowing good views so excellent notes could be taken. Eventually the Lundy record was accepted and the Slapton bird sadly was not. The latter originally passed the British Birds Rarities Committee ( BBRC ) test and fell at the final hurdle , the British Ornithologist Union Records Committee judgement. That committee felt two birds were involved ( from ' slight' differences in the description though surely that could be just a difference of colour judgement by individuals ) and that the description of the call of the  Slapton Bird was wrong for Eastern Phoebe ( calls for most birds are notoriously difficult to translate to a written description - no call was mentioned for the Lundy bird ). All in all the ultimate one that got away ! ( see the BBRC and BOU write up here    https://www.britishbirds.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/article_files/V89/V89_N03/V89_N03_P103_107_A019.pdf

What of local 10k April birding then, always hope of a Hoopoe on warm southerlies pretty much anywhere around the coast and occasionally inland and if lucky the same warm southerlies can bring rare Herons and other southern European rarities ( eg Black Kite ) to the local headlands. A twitchable Western Subalpine Warbler is long overdue on one of our migrant hot spots. Later in the month hopefully some good falls of migrants eg at Start Point with some easterly component in the wind , clear skies over the near continent and local overnight rain or drizzle clearing by dawn.  Southeast winds in Thurlestone Bay can produce superb wader passage through that area mid April onward. Plenty to look forward too, hope you see lots.       

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Retro Marches

March is a month when you really can get everything from mini heatwaves to widespread blizzards via all other imaginable extremes of British weather. Birding wise it is not usually so unpredictable. In prolonged mild, benign weather the birding can get in the doldrums with most winter vistors gone and summer visitors still on their way. Early warm southerlies can produce early migrants and sometimes exotic species ( eg rare herons, Hoopoes etc ) and consistent easterly winds can bring surprises but it is very much the exception rather than the rule as can be seen below..........

March '67
Just a few good wintering birds remaining such as 3 Scaup at Slapton Ley and a Whooper Swan still on the River Avon. 2 Ruff were also at Aveton Gifford between 18th-23rd.

March '77
A young Whooper Swan was still at Slapton Ley where there were also up to 3 Marsh Harriers during the month, an Osprey on the 8th and a Glaucous Gull on the 28th. Elsewhere the wintering Surf Scoter was last seen on the Kingsbridge Estuary on the 7th and a Hoopoe was at Prawle Point from 11th-13th.

March '87
Very quiet month the best being a Bittern at Slapton most of the month with a Glaucous Gull there from the 8th.

March ' 97
Quiet again, Bittern at Slapton on 21st and a Long-eared Owl there on the 6th. The Little Bunting at South Milton remained all month.

March '07
Best bird was an adult Night Heron on Moorwell Pond, East Prawle on the 11th. An Iceland Gull was seen intermittanly on the Kingsbridge Estuary until the 8th and an adult Ring-billed Gull was at Thurlestone on the 24th.



Sunday, 26 February 2017

The Humpback of Start Bay

No doubt who the A-list superstar of the natural world has been locally these past few days. I have never seen so many people at Slapton for a wildlife event and I am old enough to remember Britains 5th ever Little Swift there in 1985, the halcyon days of twitching.  The Humpback Whale has enthralled many hundreds of people and maybe the majority have been inquisitive people from around the South Hams and beyond who would not neccesarily bother to go and look at whats around in the Natural World so that's great.  The manner in which I first saw it was slightly surreal. I was at work last Thursday afternoon and driving on the coast road from Dartmouth to Torcross when the Bluetooth told me I had a missed call. To take it safely I pulled into the memorial car park and sorted it out. I was parked by a photographer ( who turned out to be Robert Telford whose excellent photos went on the Devon Blog that night ) and like all birders could not resist a usual ' anything about ? ' question. Imagine my surprise when he said a whale had gone by earlier and greater surprise when the gentleman stood next to him called Matt then said ' there it is !'. Let me say at this point I know little about whales ( a bit more now its fair to say ) but knew a Minke had been reported the day before so thought this was probably the same. Matt had his doubts and thought maybe Humpback at one point but we were unsure ( it was a fair way off ), I definatly would not know even if it was closer. I knew a few people would be interested though and made some calls and headed back to work. As I work as a Lineman for Western Power, and as it was my day to be on stand-by for faults and as we were getting the back end of Storm Doris I could not get back out there that evening but got word that it was a Humpback Whale. I had no idea quite what a whale twitch would ensue and when I managed to go late on Friday afternoon I was amazed that there were a couple hundred people in the car park till dusk. The car park was full and leaving was like leaving a concert or football match. The evening was still, the sea calm and the Humpback showed superbly with a cast of many Porpoises and a few Dolphins.  It was magic to see all the kids looking on so enthusiastically and well done all the parents for getting them out there. Maybe a future Marine Biologists or Conservationists had the inspiration sparked into them right there. The only downside has been the awful press coverage in some quarters, all dome and gloom about the Whales health when it is perfectly healthy. The best comment on the whale I have heard was on that Thursday afternoon when somebody on seeing it said ' that's one more than I saw on The Rhode Island Whale Cruise last year '



                                       Dusk whale watching along Slapton Sands

Sunday, 12 February 2017

Winter's here

Very cold, gloomy morning with the temperatures brought right down by a fresh easterly wind. Wrapped up and went down the estuary early this morning deciding to go down the marsh and around the foreshore to Curlew Drive which meant shelter from the wind.
14 Chiffchaffs were still in the sewage works including the Siberian type. It is a hard place to photograph birds, especially as you are looking through a fenced gate and I have never heard any of the birds call this winter.I could hear a Blackcap chacking however and the Grey Wagtail is still there.


      The only photo of the putative tristis I've managed so far ! ( just below the rotating arm, slightly right of centre ). In reality its undertail coverts are white, its legs are very black though its bill a bit paler. It's a very grey and white bird, especially in todays light, so maybe has not come as far as a tristis. Guess it could be an individual whose provenance cannot be proven.

Not a lot on the marsh today though it was ironic given the above that a Chiffchaff half way down was calling readily. Spent an hour in the hide waiting for the tide to recede enough to get on the shore. Some Little Grebes and Mergansers gave good views as I waited. Scanning the estuary gave a great highlight in the shape of a second calendar year Little Gull watched flying around the Saltstone for a few minutes before disappearing up Frogmore Creek. Its amazing how tiny they look. A rare bird on the estuary, probably less than a dozen records.





     Red-breasted Mergansers and Little Grebes were showing well just outside the hide this morning.

In Charleton Bay a few Redwings came out off the Blackthorns and a Greenshank flew off. A curlew with some small aberrant paler markings on its nape was on the point, I first saw it last month. Despite the wind a Skylark rose and started to sing in defiance of winters late appearance, good on you mate. Towards Rowden Point around 250 Golden Plovers were flying around and on the water the wintering Slavonian Grebe was getting a free ride downstream on the tide. Things were then pretty quiet until I got near the small bay below Curlew Drive when I heard a Whimbrel call. One has been reported a few times this winter in Charleton Bay so not a great surprise. A couple minutes later it flew by proving itself not to be Hudsonian Whimbrel. If it had been it would have been bitter sweet finding one so soon after they had been downsized from being a full species !


     Looking North up the main channel of the estuary towards Kingsbridge from near CharletonPoint

Friday, 10 February 2017

Cold Easterly

Went to Slapton Ley this morning and it was raw with a fresh easterly coming right in off Start Bay. There was little on the sea, one Great Northern Diver off the Memorial Car Park and 10 Common Scoter and an unidentified diver flew south in about 30 minutes. The walk around to Ireland Bay was nice and sheltered but there was nothing tearing birdwise. A Greylag Goose was near the pillbox. Probably just about annual at Slapton but not a bird to quicken my pulse, bit better than a Canada Goose I guess. Elsewhere just 9 Little Grebes and 5 Goldeneyes including 3 males throwing their heads back in display, great birds. The walk along the boardwalk was quiet as it has been every time i've been lately, not even a Chiffchaff or 'crest this time just a Grey Wagtail and a handful of Redwings. I drove down to Torcross and walked a couple hundred metres up the line. Saw a male Scaup on the ley in front of the car park hide but little else. Few gulls around which is disappointing considering the easterly wind which sometimes brings a few in.


                                                        Greylag Geese by no means regular locally...yet.

After Slapton went around to Beesands. Started off by having a look at the sea from the village and it was great that a flock of about 50 Common Scoter were present. Flocks of these are hard to find in Start Bay these days. I have been a bit envious of the Scoter fest around the coast off Mansands. Perhaps they are 50 short, would have been great if the Surf Scoter came around, even just for one day. The ley still has a load of Mute Swans, I counted 66 today with 55 Canada Geese, great. There was just a lone Coot ( Coot are argumentative birds, this one will probably end up fighting itself ), 2 Shovelers and 2 Teals. The highlight were 3 Goldeneyes, a male and 2 females. From memory I have only seen a handful of Goldeneye here before so three is a very good record.


                      Mute Swans are loving something about Beesands Ley this winter, 66 counted today.


                                                                     3 Goldeneyes may be a record count for Beesands.

Sunday, 5 February 2017

Blowin' in the Wind

Drove out to the Memorial Car Park along Torcross Line on Friday morning for a lazy seawatch. It was a near gale force SSE wind, seen it a lot worse but it was near high tide and from the car you were pretty much eye level with the sea. Felt a bit like being on the Roscoff ferry what with the car rocking which made seeing things hard. In truth there did not seem to be a lot moving, good numbers of Kittiwkes and a few Fulmars well out, quite a few auks closer in, all heading south. I abandoned the car park and headed home when the rain got torrential.
By the afternoon the weather had improved a little and I ventured down to Charleton Marsh. The Grey Wagtail was still in the sewage works and now 14 Chiffchaffs including the probable Siberian. Tried to photograph it but no luck. If its not on the filter bed its furthur away at the back of the compound but I reckon it will stay a while yet. Spent an hour and a bit in the hide. 77 Wigeons, 7 Teals and 6 Pintails were on the scrape. On the estuary a couple Greenshank, 3 Bar-tailed Godwits and 200 Dunlins were the highlights. Anyone wanting to get a good view of a Water Rail should head for the hide, if you wait a while there is one that invariably shows well below the feeders. Some reed cutting will be taking place on the marsh on Tuesday, work means I can't do my share but I hope the weather is good for the people who go.
The weather today could not be more of a contrast. I went to Slapton, still on a Scaup hunt. Did the Ireland Bay walk where there are still good numbers of wildfowl along with 18 Little Grebes and an adult Mediterranean Gull. Highlight was a male Scaup just off the pillbox.


                                                       Male Scaup in Ireland Bay, off the Pillbox

Then tried the Stokeley Hide. Again good numbers of wildfowl including 20 Pochards which is encouraging. Also another Scaup, a distant female north of the hide. Nothing amazing seen but a nice trip out and good that Slapton Ley is having a reasonable winter, its had some poor ones recently with hardly any birds wintering. Hope this is the new norm but I won't bet on it.


                          View of the day, looking south over the Lower Ley towards Torcross and Start Point.