Sunday, 5 November 2017

Scarce Herons

Well that's autumn just about done and dusted. Hard going with the lack of any notable east wind so not a vintage one. Might just be time for a big rare yet but not much time left, not quite all over but there are some people on the pitch.
Had a great morning out at Start Point last Monday ( October 30th ). seemed to have the whole place to myself, not another soul around. Vis mig was poor, best birds were 3 Bramblings and 5 Lesser Redpolls. Been a good autumn for Lesser Redpolls and not bad for Bramblings. Bullfinches also good but I have not seen any decent flocks of Chaffinches going over yet and I must be the only birder in the country to have missed out on Hawfinch so far. Also saw 3 Reed Buntings, one had ring bling and bearing in mind a bird was controlled at Portland this week that was ringed in Norway maybe this bird was a distance traveller to.
Had a good wander around Mattiscombe Beach. Loads of seaweed thrown up but could not find anything much apart from a Portuguese Man 'o War which is seemingly obligatory on every strandline at the moment. There is a bench above Mattiscombe dedicated to ' Naturalist and Ornithologist ' John Barlee. I believe he was a career naval man who spent some time at Dartmouth Royal Naval College. I have a book he wrote called 'Birds On The Wing'  published in 1947. I have wondered what he used to see at Start, probably saw nesting Red-backed Shrikes, plenty of Turtle Doves spring and autumn, possibly Corncrakes but never a Yellow-browed Warbler.
In the afternoon went down to Charleton Marsh for the first time in a while. Definatly changed to winter with some calling Water Rails and a good count of 50 Teals.

                 The right hand Reed Bunting was ringed and may have come a fair way.

       This boulder on Mattiscombe Beach is about 10' high and takes everthing the ocean throws at it.

                                                           Hello Janet, whoever you are.

View southwest from Mattiscombe. Distant headland is Prawle Point with the coastguard look out on top. Right hand side is Maelcombe House above the cliff and Hines Hill, East Prawle above the woods.

                             Photo of John Barlee, from his book ' Birds On The Wing '

On Friday I was back out at Start first light. Again the vis mig was disappointing with the exception of Brambling which reached double figures. Small numbers of birds going in all directions with little purpose. I think as Start is a headland with a prominent projection birds sometimes do this here as if they are not sure what their next bearing should be. On normal clifftops they seem to head and stay in one direction. Sometimes at Start they just keep going low over the car park and these are the best days. There was to be a big highlight and surprise however when at 07:30 I got onto a Spoonbill,  well offshore and high above the sea going north. Could have been so easy to miss that you wonder just how many birds like this go through unseen. Ignorance is bliss. I would be surprised if anyone has got Spoonbill onto the Start list before now but I know there have been similar records from Prawle Point before.

                       Chill time for a couple of Grey Seals on the Sleadon Rocks last Friday.

Went to Start first light this morning but it was windswept, grey, unwelcoming and had a feel of being devoid of birds so I headed for Slapton Ley to see if I could catch an early rising Bittern from the bridge. There was to be better than that though ! Firstly it was nice to see a big flock of around 10000 Starlings heading south behind the ringing hut. I got sight of them late and presumed they had left their roost in the reeds at Strete Gate or somewhere in the Gara Valley. Looking back up the Higher Ley a bird was flying south which looked like a Cormorant. Putting my bins on it I could see it was nothing less than a Glossy Ibis, brilliant. It even called a couple times which was new to me. Unfortunatly I could not age it as I followed it down towards Torcross. Like the Spoonbill, could have easily been missed. This is possibly only the second modern record for Slapton Ley, the last in October 1986. There is an old record of 2 shot here in 1837. In November 1981 as a teenager I had a Spoonbill fly over me whilist stood on Slapton Bridge. It was a special moment for me because it was the first rarity of sorts I had ever found myself. It might still be the only Slapton record. The status of Spoonbills on the 10k patch has never changed much. Perhaps not quite annual. Glossy Ibis, Little, Cattle and Great White Egrets were big rarities then. The latter have all gone from 'county megas' ( certainly for Glossy Ibis, Great White Egret and Cattle Egret ) to just  'patch gold ', if that. Who would have thought that by now Spoonbill would be by far the rarest of them all.
What was meant to be a quick look from the bridge turned into a longer stay as there was a good movement of Woodpigeons going on heading anything between south-southwest. by 09:45 6800 had gone through, the largest flock about 700. Finches were few but included 2 Bramblings and 11 Lesser Redpolls including a flock of seven. Also seen below the bridge a couple Kingfishers, Firecrest and a little Egret flew through. What a great few hours.

                                              It ain't over for Woodpigeons yet.

Saturday, 28 October 2017

Woodpigeons......and more woodpigeons

Late October and early November is a great time, and for me THE time for watching the vis mig...visible migration. Any local spot on the cliffs will do and many inland possibly as well if it were ever tested. My favourite place for watching vis mig is Start Point, anywhere near the car park. An early start is essential, bit of cloud cover handy and no rain or to strong a wind.

Got out to Start before dawn yesterday. Beautiful to hear Redwings and Song Thrushes calling in the dark. Odd birds started to fly out of the cover in the twilight and eventually they totalled 108 Redwings and 47 Song Thrushes.  Sadly the vis mig never really got going, what birds there were flying in all directions. Highlights included around 3000 Woodpigeons, 40 Siskins, 15 Bullfinches, 12 Bramblings and 4 Reed Buntings. Elsewhere a Golden Plover called, a Merlin put in an appearance, 2 Firecrests were down at the light and 2 late Swallows passed through.
Female Reed Bunting by the car park yesterday. As well as their familiar call they can make some buzzing notes in flight which can catch you by surprise.   

This morning was another pre dawn visit. Not so many thrushes calling with the clearer skies. I set up north of the car park and the Woodpigeons soon started pouring through just after dawn. If you have ever witnessed birds pouring through like this morning then you will appreciate how hard it is to keep tabs on them, all the time listening out for other stuff. The commoner finches were in fairly short supply  though, also flying high  so many probably missed. I reckoned around 15000 Woodpigeons had passed by 08:00, headed south-southwest, many right over the car park others over the BBC field. The passage was then phenomenal for an hour , another 55000 through in that time, almost 1000per minute ! Some flocks must have mumbered around 5000 and been strung out over almost a mile.  Things started to quieten then and the movement was more inland, birds cutting across on a more direct line behind the BBC field towards Lannacombe / Prawle Point. By 10:15 the passage was starting to dry up and the total had reached an incredible 94000 birds. At this point I know some people are saying how the hell can you confidently say there were 94000 birds. Well you can't and it must be innacurate to a degree. All I can say is I have taken photos of odd flocks before, estimated the number in situ as you do and later accurately counted them on a screen at my leisure. It seems I always underestimate, sometimes considerably so another observer may have got a far higher total. All the same if the way I count the birds is consistant year on year, which I am confident it is, this is the biggest movement I have witnessed, I think my previous best is in the mid 30k's. Where are these birds from / going ? A source of much discussion. My personal opinion is that ringing has proved British Woodpigeons to be highly sedentary. Surely these late autumn birds are from Fenno-Scandia on their way to France and Iberia. Whatever goes on it's a great spectacle to witness on a local headland.
As suggested, in comparison the rest of the vis mig was unspectacular. Low numbers of Goldfinches and Chaffinches. Highlights did include 66 Starlings, 22 Siskins, 8 Greenfinches ( not always easy to pick out on vis mig watches, I don't know why ), 21 Bullfinches ( sometimes completely missing right through the autumn - any double figure count is excellent ) and a Reed Bunting. No Hawfinches yet for me in what seems to be a record breaking year for them but I did think a small flock got through, could not clinch them but there is plenty of time yet this autumn to see some. The hedgerows etc were fairly quiet. 12 Redwings, 5 Song Thrushes, the first 5 Fieldfares of the autumn, Blackcap, 7 Goldcrests and 2 Firecrests in the farm. Saw a Merlin which I think is probably the same female that has been around for a few days, a Golden Plover called pre dawn and a Great Spotted Woodpecker passed through.

Photo of a few hundred Woodpigeons passing overhead. Either that or some mould inside my camera lens

                         Backside of a Fieldfare atop a rock on the way to the light

Rough bit of filming from this morning here

For anyone interested in vis mig this website is superb. I would urge people to add their own counts to it. Information very lacking for the south-west.




Tuesday, 24 October 2017

Brian arrives, big seas and a fake sibe.

 The weekend was really one big blow. Storm Brian arrived and as predicted produced a gale. Either side the winds stayed strong, from the west and made birding hard. This all put the kibosh on any vis mig. A saving grace with Start is that at least the road between the car park and the light is fairly sheltered. The tamarisks may be blown to hell and no birds are in because its a westerly but its a bit of hope. As it was last Friday a couple each of Fire and Goldcrests were in the tamarisk, the former may have been remnants from the previous sundays influx. Up at the farm there were another 7 Firecrest along with a couple Redwings, 4 Chiffchaffs and a flyover Lessser Redpoll.  Headed down to Beesands Ley for the October WeBS count. It is too top heavy with Mute Swans and Canada Geese for my liking. 17 Gadwalls and 23 Coots were counted.

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 Firecrests. 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.