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Thursday 30 November 2023

This and That...

I seem to have embraced the sentiments of the previous post's title a bit too zealously, and have done virtually no birding in the fortnight since. Even so, there is a ton of stuff to blog about. Here is some of it...

First, a nice bit of good news. Almost three years ago I was fortunate enough to get this photo...

Female Cirl Bunting (foreground) and Yellowhammer, West Bexington, January 2021.

Several weeks back I had an email from Ed Stubbs at Birdwatch magazine, asking if they might use the image in an upcoming article. And if you turn to page 38 of the December edition, there it is, in an inspirational piece about winter bunting flocks. As well as the obvious fame bestowed by such exposure, there was fortune too, and I am fifteen quid to the good.

In an earlier edition of the same magazine (November? October?) was a thought-provoking opinion piece by Matt Phelps, in which he bemoaned the negative tone that pervades much of birdy Twitter. I've recycled the relevant Birdwatch mag but my memory tells me this was the gist of it: Matt suggested that the depressing tendency of 'older' birders to dwell on the glory days of yore - when Tree Sparrow flocks were a driving hazard and every suburban garden was carpeted in Turtle Doves - is essentially a discouragement to younger folk taking up the conservation cause, and that we should focus more on the success stories.

I cannot help wondering if Matt has underestimated the ability of youthful enthusiasm to triumph over adversity. I am sure that most twenty-somethings regard the doom-mongering utterances of grumpy has-beens as exactly that. And rightly so. I mean, what do they know? Okay, so there might well have been Redstarts and Wood Warblers bursting from every leafy glade fifty years ago, but there were virtually no breeding Peregrines in the whole of southern England. But look at them now! So put that in your wrinkly old pipe and smoke it, Mr Fart.

That latter fact was brought home to me by some other recent reading material...

Cover image nicked from web, but I do have the book and have just finished reading it.


Although the name rang a bell, I think Kenneth Allsop was just before my time. His star rose principally in the '60s, as a journalist and TV presenter mainly of current affairs, but his first book (Adventure Lit Their Star - published 1949) was about Britain's first breeding Little Ringed Plovers. Kenneth Allsop was a birder. For the last three years of his life he resided at West Milton Mill, just down the road from where I live, and was a vigorous environmental campaigner. Prior to reading this book I had no idea he was largely responsible for the preservation of Powerstock Common's oak woodland. The Forestry Commission were already in the process of felling it for conifer planting when Kenneth Allsop and a couple of friends intervened. The book cover features nearby Eggardon Hill, an area which in the early '70s was being prospected for oil and gas. I find it hard to believe that 120ft drilling rigs were blotting the landscape of the lovely West Dorset AONB (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty) back then, but apparently so, and KA was instrumental in galvanising local opposition.

The book is about those final years, and how he used his various public platforms (including the BBC and Sunday Times) to turn a spotlight on individuals, companies and organisations wreaking - or allowing - environmental havoc. It is also about the resistance and opposition he faced, and about the almost inevitable emasculation of his influential voice. Kenneth Allsop took his own life in May 1973. He was more than ten years younger than I am now. He was not a saint, but I know two people who worked for him at that time, and both have only fond memories and kind words.

The book is both inspiring and depressing. Plenty that KA railed against is as much an issue today as it was then, but there have also been many environmental battles fought and won in the last fifty years. I don't think Matt Phelps need worry too much. Clearly there are always willing combatants, and the grumpy old moaners aren't going to change that.

Thursday 16 November 2023

Winding Down

As the year winds down, so do I. Winter is my least favourite season, and with advancing age seems ever longer and more unrelenting. I am definitely not built for it.

Winter isn't even here yet, and look, already I am moaning about it. You would think I might use the remaining six weeks of the year to seek out those chilly-season specialities currently missing from my Patchwork Challenge list, but I really cannot be bothered. Instead I shall just plod about as per usual, wherever the mood takes me. I'm not going to add to the PWC 2023 tally by visiting Cogden or West Bex but have been to both in the last few days...

The West Bexington Mere is in fine fettle right now, and pulling in the gulls.

On this particular occasion the pre-roost Med Gull count reached 160 on the Mere, though more were on the sea. I still haven't quite got used to such abundance.

Storm Ciarán has ripped a significant breach in the shingle bank at Cogden, and dumped a heap of pebbles on the beach flora.

We had our granddaughter Gracie today, and while she took an afternoon nap I popped down to West Bay to see if any Black Redstarts had taken advantage of the welcome break in south-westerlies to visit the beach. And yes, three had. At the time I wasn't sure how many of them I'd managed to photograph, but it turned out that I had caught them all...

Black Redstart #1. Note split fringe in shortest right-hand tertial.

Black Redstart #2. Photographed in the act of heading E towards the harbour with #1.

Black Redstart #3. This one remained on the rocks just W of the West Pier throughout.

Black Redstarts were a fixture in West Bay last winter, with at least four birds involved, including a gorgeous male. Three female types today was a promising sign that this winter too will be rewarding in that regard. I hope so.

Black Redstart #1 or #2 on the West Pier wall, prior to heading off towards the harbour.

Black Redstart #3 again.

Another winter feature of West Bay is the small population of Rock Pipits. Today I counted 15, all but one in the West Pier area. Knowing that Mark Cutts is engaged in a colour-ringing programme on Portland, in association with the Bird Observatory, I eagerly checked each one for a black plastic ring. Or any ring actually. Predictably, nothing.

I am confident that some of these Rock Pipits will be littoralis birds (the migratory, so-called Scandinavian Rock Pipit) but will not be getting too obsessed with them this winter.

There was just a single Rock Pipit on the wet field inland of Rise restaurant this afternoon, and from some angles its supercilium was quite striking. Could well be littoralis...

The same Rock Pipit.

A recent feature of West Bay winters has been Purple Sandpiper, with up to four at the start of the year. I couldn't find any today though, despite the West Pier rocks looking superb with the tide out. Actually the low tide encouraged me to photograph the harbour for posterity...

The inland half of West Bay harbour at low tide, from part-way along its western side. The wide-angle shot makes it look bigger than it is The swollen River Brit gushing into it mid-shot.

And the seaward half, ditto.

Birding-wise the only plan I have for 2024 is to have no plan. Next year I'll be back to pottering around the local area; no targets, no goals, no boundaries, maybe a silly project or two as the fancy takes me.

Next year? I think I've already started.

Wednesday 8 November 2023

Leach's Central

The forecast said SSW gusting to 40-odd mph from the early hours, plus loads of rain. A seawatch this morning was inevitable.

I arrived at 07:07 and, as per usual, the first things moving were ex-roost gulls, mostly Black-headed. Exactly eight minutes in I picked up a small, dark bird amongst the gulls, very close inshore but off to my right. It was a Leach's Petrel. I expected it to head east past me and provide some crippling views, but it failed to make any headway and ended up drifting slowly away west instead. I also expected it to be the first of a few, but it was the first of one. The rest of the seawatch was dire: 21 Med Gulls, four Dunlin together and singles of Red-throated Diver and Gannet. I am almost desperate enough to include the probable Common Scoter, but not quite. By 09:00 I'd had enough.

I really was not surprised to see another Leach's Petrel, but honestly...

What is it about West Bay?!

I've said it before, but will repeat here for context: in all my years of seawatching from Seaton I saw just two Leach's Petrels, both on the same stormy November morning in 2005. Up until Sunday, even Steve had only recorded the species once on a Seaton seawatch (see here). West Bay has been way more productive:

  • 2nd November 2022: 10+ Leach's Petrels (probably 14 or 15).
  • 8th November 2022: 3
  • 24th November 2022: 1
  • 3rd January 2023: 1
  • 1st November 2023: 2+ (a third petrel sp was almost certainly Leach's too)
  • 8th November 2023: 1

Based on my previous Lyme Bay seawatching experiences at Seaton, a total of 18+ Leach's Petrels across six dates in just over a year is nothing short of amazing. I'm not sure what West Bay's secret is, but look forward to seeing if it continues to be as generous. I hope so.

View from the West Bay shelter this morning. Rain and murk meant visibility was rarely more than about 400m, so it was bins only for most of the time. Although this photo suggests that only a thin sliver of sea is available for inspection, the yellow circle illustrates the field of view of my 10x32s. Today's Leach's was just over those rocks to the right.

 
Taken with 500mm zoom, which I think is roughly equivalent to 10x magnification. Sadly no birds to look at here, but then there rarely were.

Elsewhere in West Bay...

Looks good for sinensis Cormorant.

First Purple Sandpiper of the autumn clearly visible in this photo. Vainly it sought sanctuary on the West Pier rocks and the West Beach rocks, but eventually I lost it. Probably flew back to Lyme Regis in disgust.

Purple Sand heading for another soaking on the West Beach rocks. Amazingly the Axe patch has never recorded Purple Sandpiper, so this photo is a cut-out-and-keep search image for Seaton birders.

West Pier froth.

Rock Pipit, pipitting on a rock.

Monday 6 November 2023

Whodunnit?

I had to get on with some proper work today. Catching up after a load of rough weather is normally a bit of a slog, but today was better than usual because of something that happened before work...

It was just a short visit to West Bay. Maybe 20 minutes around the seafront - where I saw almost nothing - followed by a quick look at the Melplash Showground flood. Not much of a flood now though, rather a soggy field with big puddles. Still, there were a few gulls. And it was here that I saw what is actually a new West Bay bird for me, though it took me a day of periodic pondering to feel happy with it.

So this post is a kind of whodunnit? As you read through the clues, see how quickly you can work out what the bird is.

So, there I am by the showground entrance, coffee perched on a handy wall while I scan the gulls with bins. I'm guessing there were about 20-30 Herring Gulls and 40-odd Black-headed Gulls scattered around, along with four Med Gulls, two of which were first-winters. Since the field flooded I've counted up to 24 Med Gulls at a time but so far no first-winters, so I wouldn't mind a photo or two. I reach down to unclip the flap of my camera bag. Unfortunately, at that very moment the gulls flush.

Dog walkers normally enter through the gate and head right, which is away from most of the gulls. Eventually they may circle around to the far side of the floodwater, behind the gulls. Either way, any gull flush caused by dog walkers - even when dogs off the lead run into the wettest areas, right among the birds - is partial, beginning at the periphery. Normally birds flush in a falling-dominoes kind of fashion, and not too panicky. They just fly out of harm's way, frequently dropping back down somewhere they feel safer. This flush is not like that. It is instant and total. Also, apart from the sudden rush of wings, virtually silent.

I glance quickly around the field, but already know it isn't going to be a dog. So I look up, expecting a Peregrine maybe. Sure enough, there is a bird of prey gliding left over the flood, but it is totally the wrong shape. Surely a mere Sparrowhawk didn't cause that panic?

The bird is gliding quite rapidly south with wings half closed. Too distant to get much detail on it, but I am pretty sure the tail is rounded. It is quickly losing height, though heading away towards the coast. Suddenly it turns, quite low now, and doubles back, landing on the far end of a stone wall that runs east to west, a bit left of my position...

Yellow blob = me; white dot = bird

Just before alighting on the wall, four or five wingbeats. They are ridiculously slow wingbeats, like flapping in slow-motion, and not the slightest bit Sparrowhawk-like. At the range involved (around 180-190 metres according to Google Maps) I am struggling to get a feel for the bird's size, but it certainly doesn't look huge. Obviously I am thinking now of something other than Sparrowhawk! It is basically brown, though too far away to make out feather detail. Try as I might, not even a hint of a supercilium.

How I wish I had decided about two minutes earlier to photograph those Med Gulls. Now I really must get that camera out. But before I can even switch the thing on, the bird is gone. With my naked eye I see it leave the wall, but cannot pick it up again with bins. So presumably it is away low and out of view, perhaps along the river.

Looking up towards West Cliff, I spy a figure at the vismig watchpoint. A quick heads-up phonecall to Tom, and he guesses what I've seen as soon as I describe the flush. In fact, less than 20 minutes earlier he had a possible/probable flying east over Bridport. After our chat I scan the flood once again. Apart from a Pied Wag it is utterly birdless.

So, yes, I have spent a pleasant day on autopilot, replaying this morning's events over and over again. And I have added Goshawk to my West Bay list, presumably a juvenile male.

Friday 3 November 2023

First Impressions

I like to dispense with specs for seawatching. My scope eyepiece is easier to use without them, and on a rough day it's a constant battle with salt spray anyway. All good, until I need to look at my phone. And then I have to dig out my glasses from wherever they are stowed, put them on, fire up the screen, etc, etc, followed by the reverse procedure. Obviously I can't be using my phone and seawatching, so I try to spend as little time with specs on as possible. Which explains why my response to Viv's query on the WhatsApp group on Wednesday morning was rather knee-jerk.

Viv had photographed a tern at Lyme Regis and wasn't sure what it was. I took one look at what seemed to be white secondaries and replied with the word 'Arctic' and a 'thumbs up' emoji. Here's the photo...

Viv's tern  ©Viv Keene

I did register the extensively red bill, but for me the white secondaries trumped it. I put my specs away and returned to the Leach's hunt.

Yesterday morning I discovered that 'people seem to think [the tern] was a Common'. Oh pox. Like anyone else I dislike being wrong, and vowed to avoid future knee-jerk ID pronouncements. Single photos can be so misleading, and evidently I had been caught out. Like an idiot I revisited Viv's pic with that mindset and saw that yes, perhaps I'd been fooled by a photographic effect and those secondaries are actually grey, and the darker trailing edge to the underside of the primaries is broad and fuzzy rather than thin and sharp. And, of course, the bill of a juv Arctic Tern is blackish, not red. Doh!

I don't know who those 'people' were but gather there was some Twitter chat, which of course I am not party to these days. Anyway, I bowed to their expertise. And then Steve sent me a link to a video that Viv had posted there. Hmmm...

Viv kindly sent me a copy.

I clipped out a load of stills and made a collage with them...

Viv's tern (stills from video ©Viv Keene)

Many years ago I learned how to separate juvenile Common and Arctic Terns at Queen Mary Res in West London. Following a regular diet of Common Terns, my first juv Arctics were surprisingly obvious, with their white secondaries effectively a continuation of the pale primaries into a long, narrow triangle on the trailing half of the wing. This contrasting pale area is obvious in lots of those stills, and Common Tern does not have it. Viv's tern is an Arctic.

There are supporting features too. Some of the sharper underwing shots show a narrow, dark trailing edge to the primaries. The rump is white, not pale grey as in Common Tern. Also the short-necked, small-billed jizz suggests Arctic. One photo can be misleading, but 21, less so. However, there is one more to show...

Also from Viv's video, this still is from a short clip where the bird dropped briefly to the beach, allowing Viv to zoom in (©Viv Keene).

I can see where the Common Tern worries came from. Arctic Tern is supposed to have a faint carpal bar, stubby little legs...and look at that bill! Actually the legs are short if you focus just on the tarsus length. And the carpal bar probably isn't particularly dark, plus it is all exposed rather than hidden beneath scapulars. If the bird's head was relaxed and tucked in I suspect it would have a very different feel to it, and look less Common Tern-y. Anyway, whatever one thinks of the various features revealed in this perched shot, the flight shots have already nailed it. The bird is an Arctic Tern.

As Jono Lethbridge commented on a recent post, first impressions, even when brief, are often good. In this case my first impression was indeed good, but then I spoiled it by wavering too easily. I suppose the long and ever-growing list of ID errors that we all accumulate over time inevitably dents our confidence to some degree. When you know all too well how wrong you've been in the past, you also know it's only a matter of time before the next one. Which could be the very bird you're puzzling over right now!

Still, many years of experience ought really to make those first impressions increasingly reliable. I should remember that.

Thursday 2 November 2023

Storm Ciarán - Before & After

Around 11:30 last night I was wading through kerb-high water in our street, clearing drains of accumulated leaves. A neighbour was helping with the final gully when another downpour hit. I was back inside within seconds but still looked like I'd had a few buckets tipped over me. Thankfully our torchlit toil had done the trick, and the flooding abated. Storm Ciarán gave us thunder, lightning and torrential rain, but not the worst of the wind. By the morning it was long gone, leaving a modest NNW that promised little in the way of seabirds. Even so, I tried. The sea was enormous, and I quickly realised the need to be away long before high tide; it was definitely going to be up over the seafront soon. Predictably, no birds. My early-morning highlight was a Curlew on the new flood, my first on-the-deck record for West Bay.

I've no doubt the storm wreaked havoc in places, and its mark was evident in West Bay this afternoon...

That's the seawatching shelter in the middle. There was no debris to speak of first thing. That's all a consequence of high tide and huge waves.

Seafront debris and damage.

View east at low tide. The amount of fine shingle that Ciarán dumped on the prom has made it as much of slog to walk on as Cogden Beach.

As the day progressed, news filtered through of much ado up-Channel, with a wreck of Leach's Petrels along the Sussex and Kent coasts: 203 past Dungeness gives a flavour of it. Oh, plus 84 Storm Petrels, 49 Little Gulls and two Sabine's. I know I wasn't the only Lyme Bay birder who had entertained hopes for something locally but the forecast winds didn't really justify them. Absolutely the wrong direction for us.

Thank goodness for yesterday!

Arriving at the shelter just before 07:00 I was greeted by a strongish southwesterly, or maybe a notch towards SSW. Either way, I couldn't help but liken conditions to a toned-down version of this time last year. Even so, I could hardly believe it when a small, dark shape appeared in my scope at 07:42, skipping quite rapidly eastwards. Despite the hefty sea it was easy to keep track of due to a fairly high flight line. Not close, but clearly a Leach's Petrel. About ten minutes later, brief views of what was almost certainly another, though back-on, as if lingering. It was lost before I could clinch it. Finally, one more at 08:29. Like the first, it went rapidly E, though somewhat closer. Great views. The final tally was 2+ Leach's Petrels, 1 Pom or Arctic Skua (probably Pom), 3 Brents, 1 Sandwich Tern, 4 Med Gulls and 68 Gannets.

One bizarre incident. Shortly after 09:00 I picked up a distant falcon heading very rapidly out to sea from the vicinity of West Cliff. It zipped low over the waves, suddenly climbed and then dived. I missed the crucial moment due to a dog walker inconveniently filling my scope, but next saw it flying back towards land with a small bird in its talons. In my excitement I assumed I had just witnessed a Peregrine taking a Leach's Petrel, but the cold light of day forbids that sort of conjecture. Even so, it was pretty awesome.

In the afternoon I visited again. No seawatching, but I did glimpse a/the Black Redstart briefly.

Taken from a similar spot to this afternoon's pic. Not calm exactly, but definitely before the storm.

Tuesday 31 October 2023

A Beautiful Mongrel

The West Bay patch has suddenly grown some amazing new habitat. I first noticed it yesterday afternoon, and this is what it looked like this morning...

Lovely, lovely floodwater. And this isn't all of it.

Lying between the River Brit and West Bay Road, these fields are home to the annual Melplash Show, one of the Southwest's top agricultural exhibitions. On a more mundane note, they are also home to a million dog-walkers (who actually pay a fee for the privilege) and therefore normally birdless. I assume the combination of rain and a big tide has caused the Brit to burst its banks, and hope sincerely that it will take a very long time (like, all winter please) to subside. Thankfully the flood is extensive enough that birds are not necessarily spooked by the dog-walkers around its fringes. After discovering this Mecca late yesterday, I stayed until it was too dark to see. Apart from two or three Med Gulls, there was a steady trickle of big gulls dropping in for a pre-roost wash and brush-up. Nothing of note, but a heady scent of promise!

A grainy, high-ISO shot of one of yesterday afternoon's adult Med Gulls.

As well as a sheet of water there are several lines of robust fencing for gulls to perch on. The morning sun illuminates them beautifully...

Just one Med Gull this morning.

Adult Med Gull

There were also decent numbers of large gulls. When I have the time to do it properly, picking through a load of big gulls is one of my favourite pastimes. Mostly they will be argenteus Herring Gulls in various plumages. With adults (or near-adults) I am on the lookout for any that might be a shade darker, which is usually the first step to bagging a Yellow-legged Gull. And this morning there was just such a bird, noticeably darker than nearby adult Herring Gulls. However, it was no Yellow-legged Gull...

That bill betrays its immaturity straight way. So, not an adult. Also, with that coarse dark streaking on neck and head, not a Yellow-legged Gull either.

Here it is alongside an adult Herring Gull. Slightly darker, and a different sort of grey altogether.

Size-wise it was in the 'small Herring Gull' bracket.

So, darker than argenteus HG but definitely not YLG. What other options are there? Well, one is argentatus, or so-called Scandinavian Herring Gull, which is a lot rarer down here than YLG. But argentatus HG is normally a big, heavily-streaked brute of a gull, which this is not.

The final option that I know of is Herring x Lesser Black-backed hybrid. I haven't knowingly seen one for ages, but recall that they tend to be on the small side. It would be nice to see the wing pattern...

There we go! Note lack of mirrors in outer primaries; just a tiny white spot on the left wing.

Black in the primary coverts and in the tail feathers, plus a brownish tinge to some of the wing feathers, indicate a bird in its third calendar year, i.e. 3rd-winter plumage. A pure Herring Gull of this age ought to have obvious mirrors in the outer primaries (Yellow-legged Gull too) while a pure Lesser Black-backed Gull would be significantly darker, and probably have more extensive black on the inner primaries, rather than just a speck on p4. So I am pretty confident in calling this a Herring x Lesser Black-backed hybrid. And rather beautiful it is too.

I can't believe we suddenly have all this lovely gull habitat. I am so excited!

On a different note...

Last week was half-term, and West Bay had many visitors. Having lived here for a while now, I am well aware of the hazards associated with our rugged coastal scenery. But visitors may not be. So there are plentiful signs in prominent places, warning of the dangers. Like cliff-falls, for example. Mind you, one scan of the East Cliffs is enough to tell you that cliff-falls are frequent, and often big. But hey-ho, it won't happen to me...

The East Cliffs, with the remains of at least three recent falls in this shot.

Cliff-falls often obliterate the beach below, from the base of the cliffs to well beyond the low-water mark. Anyone caught in that would undoubtedly be a gonner. Sometimes the beach is closed after such falls. Eventually the sea washes away the rubble furthest from the cliffs, leaving just a steep mound at the very foot of them, and the beach is opened again. But it is only a matter of time until the next massive collapse...

Following a night of torrential rain... Russian roulette, with rocks.