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

Monday, 1 May 2017

Montagu's Harrier

With a fresh easterly blowing and grey skies with rain in the air I set out for Slapton Ley yesterday morning thinking there was a chance of big numbers of hirundines and Swifts over the ley with some skuas and terns passing offshore.......there was nothing. The forecast rain soon arrived and I left.
In the afternoon it started to clear and the wind was now a moderate to fresh South-east. Good conditions for Thurlestone Bay, especially for arriving waders though perhaps they prefer clearer skies ( to guarantee an easier sea crossing ? ). I got to Bob's Car Park around 14:15 where Mike Passman ( http://thurlestonebaybirds.co.uk/ ) had been ensconsed for about an hour. He had seen a couple of Arctic Skuas and 7 Eider before my arrival so there was some promise.
Spent a couple of hours gazing out in the bay and birds flying south included 62 Manx Shearwaters, 25 Common Scoters, 2 Whimbrels, a dark-phase Arctic Skua and 2 Great Skuas. There was a major highlight however. At 15:20 Mike picked up a very distant 'skua' out beyond Warren Point and swiftly changed his mind to raptor. With few buoys etc on the sea he could not give me much direction and I could not find it and by now he could see it was a harrier. Thankfully it was coming closer into the bay and proved to be a superb female Montagu's Harrier ! It flew across the bay and landed in a distant field in from Beacon Point. Thankfully it was flying strongly and not getting hassled by any gulls. One autumn from Bolt Tail I watched a tired Marsh Harrier arrive in Thurlestone Bay in a strong easterly getting chased by gulls and it really struggled to make landfall. It could not be seen once it landed in the field and we do not know how long it stayed there, or if it soon departed.
Always humbling to remember the distances these birds cover and the difficulties they overcome on migration as this twitter account confirms. https://twitter.com/UKmontagus?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw&ref_url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.rspb.org.uk%2Fbirds-and-wildlife%2Fmultimedia-and-discussion%2Fsatellite-tracking%2Fmontagus-harrier%2F

Recently I wrote about the link between Cattle Egrets and Colonel George Montagu, well here is the ultimate one, a bird named after you ! The good Colonel of course spent his last years ( 1798-1815 ) living in Kingsbridge and is credited with confirming that the 'Ash-coloured Falcon' was different to the Hen Harrier and developed from a 'ringtail' plumage. No doubt a few pairs bred around the 10k patch back then. Here's to you George, maverick soldier and cutting edge birder.

Colonel George Montagu, 1753-1815

Sunday, 30 April 2017

Retro Mays

Birding in April has been a bit of a non-event for me unfortunately. Whenever I have had a bit of time for birding the weather was not great. Seen a few nice birds ( Garganey, Cattle Egrets etc that have hung around ) but Start Point, my favourite migration watch point,  has been fairly blown out the few times I ventured out there. A Red Kite moving through early last Saturday morning was the best I've seen there. Portland Bill has had some good falls ( just 90 Kms across Lyme Bay ) so we have missed out a little so far this spring. All is not lost however and early May can witness big falls if all the necessary bits fall into place ( for Start Point light winds between SE-NE, not to strong to make it blown out, good cloud cover through the night with some overnight rain lessening to drizzle or nothing by dawn and conditions on the near continent conducive to encouraging the birds to set out in the first place). Time is running out though, once the first third of May has gone big arrivals of common passerine trans -Saharan migrants tend not to happen whatever the conditions, though a big rarity could arrive alone.

What could we expect in May ? Warm southerlies can produce overshooting rare european herons, raptors and terns through the month. Best month to find a major exotic like Bee-eater, especially late month, time will tell. Below is a flavour of what May has produced in the past.

May 1967

Nothing to great 50 years ago this month, Spoonbill on the Kingsbridge Estuary most of the month and a Montagu's Harrier at Prawle on the 30th.

May 1977

Strangest record a Whooper Swan , previously at Slapton in April and then on the Avon Estuary all month. Continuing a wintry theme a Long-tailed duck remained on Slapton Ley to the 15th. More spring like rarities were a  male Little Bittern at Slapton on the 14th, Honey Buzzard through there on 18th and a Savi's Warbler singing there from 14th-21st. Also a Savi's present at South Milton Ley ringed on the 10th and then remaining all month. Savi's Warblers started to turn up regularly at Slapton and South Milton Leys in the early 70's to early 80's. It was thought they would colonise but sadly it never happened and they reverted back to being a big rarity. One Hoopoe reported in the month at Slapton Ley on the 30th.

May 1987

Montagu's Harrier at Slapton Ley from 3rd-4th ( I seem to recall this female talon grappling with a Marsh Harrier in Ireland Bay one morning ), Blue-headed Wagtail at Soar on 5th, Purple Heron at Slapton Ley from 23rd-28th and around Prawle Point late month was a Quail and male Red-spotted Bluethroat on 25th and a Serin on 30th-31st.

May 1997

A Cory's Shearwater flew west off Prawle Point on the 4th. More typical spring rarities included Woodchat Shrike at Prawle from 5th-9th with a Red-backed Shrike and Serin there on the 18th, the same date that 2 Bee-eaters spent a couple of hours on power lines behind the main road through West Alvington ( I missed them by 5 minutes ! ). A Blue- headed Wagtail was at Bolberry Down on 22nd.

May 2007

Not a great month, a Glossy Ibis at Woodside Farm West Alvington first seen in April was still there on the first. Otherwise just a Blue-headed Wagtail at Slapton Ley on 9th and a Red-backed Shrike at Lincombe on the Kingsbridge Estuary on 23rd.

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 Little 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.

Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Retro Febs

February is usually pretty quiet for us. Sometimes produces the worst weather of the winter but spring is getting ever closer, ( very rarely an early Wheatear or even Hoopoe can turn up in late February ). Storm force gales or cold weather movements can make things interesting but usually a quiet month.

February '67.

Very quiet, only highlights the wintering Whooper Swan on the River Avon and a Hen Harrier at East Soar on the 18th, the same day  22 Goldeneyes were at Slapton Ley.

February '77.

Another quiet one. The wintering Surf Scoter on the Kingsbridge Estuary the best bird. A Whooper Swan was at Slapton all month and there were 3 Long-tailed Ducks there on 5th.

February '87.

A Bittern was seen at Slapton on 22nd and a Smew was present from 8th - 12th. On the beach 2 Snow Buntings remained from January. Elsewhere 7 Bewick's Swans remained at Aveton Gifford from the previous month and on the Kingsbridge Estuary Scaup were down to 12 from their January peak of 26. Water Pipits used to be a familiar sight on Charleton Marsh and 4 or 5 were seen through the month.

February '97.

The big rarity was the Little Bunting that remained at South Milton Ley all month having been ringed there in January. The other main rarity of the month was a Taiga Bean Goose at Beesands Ley from 23rd-25th. Also at Beesands at least one Smew remained from January and an adult Iceland Gull showed on the 15th ( maybe the same bird at Slapton on 20th ).  Elsewhere 6 Scaup were on the Kingsbridge Estuary and unseasonal Great Skuas were seen off Prawle Point on 19th with a dead bird found at Thurlestone on 26th and nearby an oiled individual at South Milton on 28th.

February '07.

Extremly quiet, just a Red-necked Grebe in Start Bay and an Iceland Gull seen intermittently through the month on the Kingsbridge Estuary.

What of this February ? The strongest winds so far this winter are forecast and could mix things up a little this coming weekend if they arrive. It would be great if a few Waxwings ( which have got as near as Buckfastleigh and Plymstock so far this winter ) turned up and hung around but it will not help if the weather gets mild.

Sunday, 29 January 2017

Rain stopped play

Went to Slapton Ley this morning, that mystery Scaup should still be around. Plenty of birds on the ley at Torcross, north off Stokeley and in Ireland Bay. Managed to do a count for Torcross and Stokeley, parked in the Memorial Car Park to count the birds in Ireland Bay Saga style from the car but the rain came in too heavy. Selected counts included 11 Wigeons, 164 Gadwalls, 12 Teals, 6 Shovelers, 176 Tufted Ducks, 16 Pochards ( a welcome continued albeit small increase ), 7 Goldeneyes, 7 Great Crested Grebes and 311 Coots. Obviously a complete count should yield a good few more. Offshore a Black-necked Grebe off Torcross was maybe the bird that has been seen off the Memorial Car Park recently. Around 100 Gannets were feeding just south off this car park closer to shore than I have ever seen a number like this fishing before. No sign of any Scaup anywhere.

Saturday, 28 January 2017

West Charleton Marsh

Time has been at a bit of a premium recently with not much to spare. Did get over to South Milton Ley last Saturday morning with my son Rory to help out with a very successful mornings reed cutting. There was a great turn out including many non-birding locals so a special thanks to them.
Mid afternoon today I wandered down to Charleton Marsh. Was hoping to give the Chiffs in the sewage works a good look and there were at least 11. One looked very good for Siberian but the sun was making viewing difficult and then it started to hail so I left them for another day. A Moorhen on the circular filter bed was a first for me and a Grey Wagtail is still wintering in and around the compound.
Got to the hide and it was high tide in the bay. In the small Curlew roost towards Wareham Point were 6 Bar-tailed Godwits and a couple of Turnstones. A squally wind was picking up with an approaching shower so I shut the window, and concentrated on the marsh. A Bittern has been seen a few times since December. Too much to ask ? My luck was in and at 16:00 hrs it got up from the ditch near the sluice and flew across and landed in the middle of the reed bed. Typical Bittern sighting, brief and fortunate. This is the third I have been lucky enough to see on the marsh. As the rain stopped I headed back home just as a couple female Pintails flew in and a Cirl Bunting started singing. I gave the Chiffs another go but the light was bad and a Mistle Thrush flew out making its rattling call as if annoyed by me.


Sunday, 15 January 2017

Mid-winter birding

It's halfway through January so for me that means it's half way through winter. The first wheatears could be here in 7 weeks, time flies.
I went to Beesands Ley yesterday to do the monthly Wetland Bird Survey ( WeBS count ) for the British Trust for Ornithology ( BTO ). The ley has been a shadow of its former self for waterfowl in recent years, one month I scored a flat zero, nothing on site, no more than a diesel rainbow coloured pool in an abandoned urban lorry park would have got. Things are not so bad these days and Mute Swans are currently mad for it. The 70 on site yesterday is probably a site record. Unfortunatly they are too lazy to see of the 48 Canada Geese they shared it with. Also present were 7 Teals, 2 Mallards, Gadwall, 2 Tufted Ducks and a Coot. The major highlight was a female Goosander ( perhaps the one from Slapton Ley last month ). I saw it catch a small fish so maybe there is life in the old ley yet.
This morning I had a good walk around the estuary doing the Charleton Marsh - Geese Quarries circuit. 11 Chiffchaffs and a Grey Wagtail were a good start in the sewage works but there did not appear to be any 'tristis' candidates. As the tide was high I had to kill an hour in the bird hide, no bad thing as a Bittern has been seen from here recently. Not today though. The scrape held 54 Wigeons, 51 Teals and a pair of Pintails. A Water Rail was calling and one showed beneath the bird feeders.

                                                            Water Rail, squealer of the Marsh.

Heading out onto the foreshore and towards Wareham Point there was a raw NNW wind. The mud, water and sky was monochrome. A small flock of roosting Curlews took off towards their feeding area and a couple of Bar-tailed Godwits emerged from within. A loud 'ffissstt ' call announced the arrival of a Rock Pipit. Anonymous and unobtrusive, one or two turn up at this spot each winter, about as far inland as they usually prefer to go. Some Rock Pipits here could be Scandinavian in origin but unless they stayed into spring and started acquiring summer plumage we would not know. Anonymous and mysterious.

                              Rock Pipit, Charleton Bay. Like me it always wants to live near the sea.

Going around Wareham Point and into Frogmore Creek was welcome as it gave shelter from the wind. Out on the water were 7 Great Crested and 11 Little Grebes. 8 Red-breasted Mergansers did a fly-by and the Devon Air Ambulance did a fly-by overhead and landed at Salcombe. I hope whoever needed it is soon healthy and telling everyone who will listen about their helicopter ride. In an arable field across the creek near Halwell Farm was a flock of 92 Brent Geese. Adding these to the ones I had seen already meant there are at least 128 present this winter. A kingfisher whistled and landed on top of a distant channel marker. A blaze of colour on a grey, cold day.

Old pre World War Two cart tracks still visible in the soft Devon slate in Charleton Bay. Horse and carts would have come down to collect seaweed for fertiliser on the fields. Who knows, maybe Colonel George Montagu hitched a ride on one once but that's a story for another day !


Monday, 9 January 2017


Went around the estuary yesterday on the rising tide from Geese Quarries to Charleton Marsh. Same old same old, several hundred Wigeons in North Pool Bay then flightling out onto the main estuary, always a great sight and sound especially on such a still day. A few Lapwings in North Pool Bay as well, the day before I saw around 45 in the fields around the top of North Pool Farm so probably some of them. I was hoping to see the Bittern in Charleton Marsh but nothing doing, you need a bit of luck for them. There were at least 12 Chiffchaffs in the sewage works, numbers always rise sharply here in the new year for some reason. By now it was raining so I could not grill them for a wintering Siberian Chiff. A Yellow-browed would not go amiss either.
Seeing the forecast for today ( which they got spot on ) and having a day off work I thought I would give Slapton Ley a go and try for last weeks possible Lesser Scaup. My plan was to get to the bridge for first light, often a good time to see an elusive Bittern if one is around  (but not this time ),do Ireland Bay and check the sea whilst it was still dry and shelter in the Stokely Bay Hide when it rained as the light could then be quite good. I went around Ireland Bay to the boardwalk and there were still good numbers of waterfowl, the best being 13 Wigeons, 8 Shovelers, 127 Tufted Ducks and 12 Little Grebes at one time in a little tight flock. Only 4 Gadwalls and 3 Teals though. Lots of gulls dropping in and out, well over 500 Black-headed and 4 Mediterraneans. Getting back to the bridge I looked up the higher Ley and bingo, a Bittern flew up and then straight back in, very lucky for me and definetly one of my favourite birds. I waited another 20 minutes but nothing doing. It was now threatening to rain so I checked Start Bay out from the Memorial Car Park. No scoters but 2 Great Northern Divers together close in. The rain was getting heavy now so I headed for the Stokeley Bay Hide. Selected counts from here included another 14 Wigeons, 128 Gadwalls, 83 Tufted Ducks, 8 Pochards ( very welcome increase, however small ) and 7 Goldeneyes including 3 males ( displaying in the rain ). I saw a Scaup but it was an adult male Greater Scaup and distant with Tufted Ducks. A couple possible female scaup sp eventually came close enough in better light to prove themselves to be nothing more than Tufted pseudo Scaups. I'm sure the first winter male and his companion are still around and will give themselves up on a nice still day with good light.

Sunday, 1 January 2017

Charleton 10k 2016 Birding Awards

It's the start of a new year and its time to put on the Gucci birding jackets and Luois Vuitton binocular cases to attend the inaugural Charleton 10k 2016 Birding Awards.
These awards have been decided by a committee of one and in future years this committee will be open to every conceivable type of bribery and corruption.

Birding Event of the Year.

Has to be the numbers of Yellow -browed Warblers which passed through in the autumn as written in a previous post http://charletonbirding.blogspot.co.uk/2016/11/rise-of-yellow-browed-warbler_10.html
One day there were so many calling I thought I had tinnitus and when I got home and could not hear any in my garden I thought I had gone deaf.

Birding Non-Event of the Year

When the unprecedented numbers of Yellow-browed Warblers arrived on the east coast in the autumn we received a fair share of the onward movement. When good numbers of Bluetails and other Sibes ( White's Thrushes, Siberian Accentors etc ) similarly arrived we waited with baited breath but nothing came. The last two weeks of October into early November should have produced a mega sibe locally but nothing turned up better than a Pallas's Warbler.
Pallas's Warbler, Start Point, 24th October 2016 ( Michael Brooking )
Patch of the Year
Has to be the brilliant still relatively new Devon Wildlife Trust Reserve at South Efford Marsh. Some great birds this year especially in autumn. Highlights included a Great White Egret in March and in Autumn a couple Wrynecks, Pectoral Sandpiper and new to the 10k patch a superb adult Spotted Sandpiper. Add to this a Woodchat Shrike and a couple of Cattle Egrets and you have a great year.

Twitch of the Year
No doubt about this one, the obliging Desert Wheatear at Thurlestone which must have been seen by many hundreds of birders since it was first found in early November. Elusive at first when it eventually settled for a prolonged stay on Leasfoot Beach it drew a steady stream of admirers. As it has stayed into the new year it could be twitch of the year 2017 as well

Desert Wheatear, Leasfoot Beach, Thurlestone, 29th November 2016 ( Mike Langman )
Bird of the Year
This is the big one. Unless I've forgotten something there were only three main candidates.
3rd Place, The aforementioned Thurlestone Desert Wheatear. First found on his garage roof by Mike Passman late on the afternoon of 8th November, it then disappeared until he saw it again at home on 13th November. Eventually it settled down on Leasfoot Beach for a long stay  into 2017. Probably bird of the year in the 10k patch for most people but only 3rd place as there have been at least 2 previous local records.
2nd Place, a new bird for the 10k patch, a superb adult Spotted Sandpiper at South Efford Marsh from 6th to at least 14th August. Never easy to see and usually quite distant from the hide on South Efford it disappeared for long spells presumably going out on the Avon Estuary ( where it was originally seen on 6th by Rod Bone ). About the 12th record for Devon so one locally was overdue.
                                                Spotted Sandpiper, South Efford Marsh, August 2016 ( Barry Rankine )
2016 Bird of the Year

Prawle Point Seawatch

Seawatch from 7.05am till 11.50 in 4-5 going 6 , wind direction S/SSE/S to SW with rain, heavy at times, the highlight being a Black-Browed Albatross seen very close gliding majestically east at 8.15am.!(No signal from the Point so was unable to alert other seawatchers till returned to the village at 12.30)
Also 2 Cory's ,1 Sooty,16 Balearic Shearwaters. And 2 Arctic Skuas and 1 Bonxie. 3 Whimbrel, 27 Kittiwakes ,2 Common Scoter and 6 Fulmars made up the rest of the cast.
Posted August 19th at 7:35 pm by Tony Marchese in Scarce / Rare Birds & Passage Counts
The above is taken from the Devon Birds News Blog. It must be every British seawatchers dream to have a Black-browed Albatross glide by and that is exactly what happened to dedicated Prawle Point seawatcher Tony Marchese at 08:15 on 19th August, I would say more of a Supernova than a highlight, and as if 2 Cory's Shearwaters was not good enough ! There was a spate of Albatross sightings around UK waters around this time and it was thought at least 2 birds may have been involved. Tony's bird was the first in Devon for over 50 years, the only previous record being off Morte Pt., N. Devon on 25th April 1965. Would have taken a hell of a bird to beat this one so well done Tony and well deserved for all the times you spend getting drenched seawatching at Prawle when you don't see anything.
Unsung Heroes
Finally there should be an unsung hero award to be shared amongst the many people who gave up a lot of their time to produce the brilliant 182 page 2015 Devon Bird Report, especially the county recorders Julia Harris and Steve Waite. Thanks to Kevin Ryland for taking over from Steve going into 2017. All the section writers, checkers etc deserve gratitude from people like me who just pick it up off the floor when it arrives and read it. What a brilliant achievement for a group of volunteers to get together and somehow manage to get the report collated, edited and into our homes before the following year has ended, thank you and take a bow all of you.