Friday, 18 September 2020

Happy Times

Up early this morning, off to Cogden, and once again loads of overhead movement. Love it! I counted 46 Siskins, 1 Grey Wagtail and 2 Redpolls. The latter were together, and again I captured a recording. Who knows how many Siskins there really were? A couple of times I could hear but not see them. It almost seems fatuous to write '46 Siskins' when that is nothing like a true record of their number. Things I didn't count include a horde of hirundines, a mass of Mipits, and a big bag of bits and bobs. Instead of counting, I just bathed in it all. Watching wave after wave of small birds move steadily into a stiff ENE wind, calling to one another occasionally, is a humbling experience. As they pass overhead, and to the left and right, in unquestioning obedience to some inner driving force, movements like this are one of my favourite birding spectacles...

And then I was shaken out of my reverie by a ringing telephone. It was Mike, telling me that two Great White Egrets were heading W from Bex, just offshore. They soon appeared, glaringly white against the blue sea. Once or twice in the past I've thought I might have a GWE in my bins. On such occasions it's always been a Little Egret. When it's a Great White, you don't think, you know. The ponderous, lollopy wingbeats are unmistakeable...

Two Great White Egrets moving W off Cogden at 07:50. Photo taken at approximately 1km range. Yellow bills nicely on show.

I also had a Little Egret go past nice and close, also this Heron gave me an opportunity to imagine it was a Purple job, and to see what kind of flight shots I'd have got if it was...

Quite satisfactory ones... Grey Heron

There were even more Chiffs in the bushes than yesterday, and I counted 34. Also 14 Blackcaps, plus a Spotted Flycatcher which had somehow found a sheltered spot, right where the Wryneck was last week. No Wheatears or Whinchats at all though. At 08:54 I heard a couple of piping calls which may have been one or more invisible Golden Plovers, but upon reviewing the morning's recording I discovered that the batteries had amazingly run out at 08:53!

A fun couple of hours.

I am very conscious that this blog has a modest number of regular readers. I assume that most will also be birders. They will no doubt have noticed that I am currently on a birding high, with regular outings and some 'success' in the shape of good birds now and then. NQS inevitably reflects this happy situation, and of course I hope very much that it continues. However...

Be warned. The winter is coming, a season which tests the mettle of every NQS reader. Because there will be gulls. A lot of gulls.

Finally. A gardening tip from the rubbishest gardener on the planet...

A few weeks ago I realised that our back garden buddleia had completely shot its bolt. Every single flower was finished and gone to seed. So I carefully clipped them all off. All of them. Lo and Behold! It has miraculously grown a whole new swathe of flowers, and the butterflies have been delighted. This afternoon our rejuvenated buddleia received the lepidopteral gold seal of approval, and I managed to badly photograph the occasion...

A Hummingbird Hawkmoth approves

Thursday, 17 September 2020

A Small Triumph of Sound

I've been quite consistent in getting out early recently. At Cogden right now this is a good ploy, because apart from a small number of dog walkers the place is pretty much deserted for a couple of hours after first light. It truly is a privilege to have such a beautiful spot virtually to yourself. Much of the coast here is quiet, picturesque and birdy. And good for the soul I'm sure.

Autumn migration is shifting up a gear. Being mid-September it is noticeable how many more birds are overhead now. This morning was brilliant. Lots of vismig passage, mostly House Martins and Meadow Pipits, with a smattering of other players. To be honest I was so intent on bashing the bushes that I failed to fully appreciate the scale of the movement, but literally thousands of House Martins were heading into the stiff ENE breeze, many lingering for a while in spectacular swarms. I made some effort to count Meadow Pipits for the first 15 minutes or so, but stopped at 150, knowing I was already missing quite a few more distant birds. I haven't done any real 'vismigging' for years now, and cannot motivate myself to count properly otherwise; I see little point in recording 477 Meadow Pipits from a half-hearted bit of skywatching when I know the true figure would have been double or triple that with a concentrated effort. Instead I just enjoy the spectacle and hope that my ear picks up the goodies. Like today...

At 08:00 I suddenly became aware of the mechanical 'jit...ji-jit' of a Redpoll. Looking up I detected just a lone bird, though it's possible there were more. Redpoll was a fairly scarce autumn bird for me in E Devon, and usually picked up calling overhead like this one, but this is actually my first in W Dorset! Admittedly my autumn birding has been slack in recent years, which explains why. Anyway, because I was carrying my recorder there is hard evidence of the happy event... 


 

In the field I heard a total of maybe ten or a dozen individual call notes over a few seconds. But what is especially interesting to me is the number on the recording. Careful analysis reveals some 40 individual notes over more than 50 seconds! The recorder picked up the bird ages before I did, and probably heard it for longer too. Which suggests to me that I am probably missing a lot of interesting bird sounds. With a 'daymig' recording I do not sit down and listen to the whole thing from start to finish. What I do is make a note in the field of the exact time that I hear an interesting call, and then review that part of the recording back at home. So then, what about the distant Richard's Pipit that my ear doesn't pick up? Well, if I miss a flyover Richard's Pipit I think I'd rather it stayed missed. I don't really want those kind of surprises!

Another feature of this morning was an evident arrival of Chiffchaffs. I counted 28 without really trying, and thought it would be nice to get a photo of one in order to capture the morning's vibe. Pointing the camera at a tangled thicket which clearly held a shifty little warbler I waited for it to emerge into view. And when it did...

...it was a Sedge Warbler!

Eventually I got another chance...

It was a Chiffy sort of morning

Finally, just for interest, here are the first three call notes on the above recording, stretched out a bit. The sound which emerges from a bird might sound like a short and simple 'peep', 'tic', 'sip' or 'jit' to us, but frequently there is hidden structure. And a sonogram brings that out amazingly...

Redpoll calls. The Zoom H4n Pro records in stereo, so what we have here are the left and right channels.


Wednesday, 16 September 2020

Meeting an Old Friend

Lunchtime last Friday found me sitting on the bank of the River Axe estuary, stuffing my face and scoping gulls. Mainly this is a winter pastime, but whenever there is a good number of birds present I am often tempted. My unsuccessful search for a Caspian Gull was briefly interrupted by a colour-ringed Herring Gull. Zooming up to read the ring, I was chuffed to realise that here was an old friend...

MG6T...I know that ring looks red, but apparently it's orange.

I recognised the code straight away. I couldn't recall the exact year, but remembered first seeing this bird on Black Hole Marsh, back in the days before any hides. A bit of archive-trawling located the photo...

28th March, 2009 - MG6T as a yoof.

MG6T was ringed as a 2cy (2nd calendar year) on 9th January, 2009 at Pitsea Landfill Site, by the Thames in Essex. It promptly relocated to the Axe, and my encounter with it in March was the first of many Axe sightings over the years, a few of them mine. I don't know when we last met, but it has definitely been a while...

Curiously, despite 35 reported sightings, it has never been recorded anywhere except the Axe. There have been blank years (2013, 2014 and 2019) but basically this 12 year-old gull has spent its life in E Devon. I don't blame it.

Tuesday, 15 September 2020

Happy With One's Lot

I needed to be in Seaton this morning, so for a change began the day at Black Hole Marsh. I had the Island Hide to myself, and was 100% ready to take on the responsibility of finding, putting a name to, and circulating news of, a rare Nearctic wader. While I waited, this Curlew Sand crept right under the hide, nearly...

Juv Curlew Sandpiper, Black Hole Marsh

That photo was taken in pretty dismal light at about 07:00. The poor camera had to struggle with ISO1000 and 1/30sec shutter speed. I'm amazed it captured anything remotely sharp.

No Nearctic waders, but I still had time to play with, so ventured up Beer Head...

Beer Head, looking west. I love this place...

I was amazed to see zero Wheatears. In fact it was very poor for grounded migrants, but overhead there was a fair bit going on. Lots of hirundines moving W, and Meadow Pipits. I didn't count anything properly, but Mipits were certainly in excess of 500, and shortly before 09:00 I made an effort to estimate House Martin passage at the time; it was 'hundreds' of birds per minute, which is quite a spectacle.

I forget what this derelict chunk of WW2 concrete was actually for (a radar mast or something?) but it's a bit different to the usual pill-boxes, bunkers and whatnot that litter this coastline.
Spotted Flycatcher in the Beer Head sheep walk. Best bird by far.

Results from this morning's Beer Head plod were typical for your average E Devon/W Dorset coastal walk I guess. Yesterday I was at Cogden first thing and did much the same, with 4 Wheatears and a dozen Chiffs for my pains. On Sunday morning Cogden gave me 5 Wheatears. On Sunday afternoon I managed a few Yellow and White Wagtails at the Bexingtons (East and West) plus a meagre helping of Wheatear, Chiff and Blackcap. And largely, that's how it is. Much slog for a few bits and bobs...

Probably I could do better if I worked harder, or perhaps worked smarter. You know, covered more ground, different habitats, scanned the sea more often, carried a scope, etc, etc. But do you know what? I don't care. I am happy in my little world, and as far as I'm concerned that is all that matters.

Cogden Wheatear. Almost the perfect pose.
Looking towards Portland from the East Bexington high ground. Abbotsbury Swannery and the Fleet in the foreground.
Spot the Curlew Sand. Last Monday at Black Hole Marsh.
Also last Monday, a smart juv Ruff.
Juv Ruff again.

Friday, 11 September 2020

Jam, Thickly Spread

Bird-wise it's been a good year. I've probably had more than my fair share of jammy stuff already, but that didn't prevent another big helping today...

I was a bit slow getting out, and when I switched on my recorder at Cogden it was 07:08. There was barely a breath of wind, and the sea was almost flat. So ambient noise was minimal. The 'seep...seep' of Meadow Pipits cut cleanly through the morning air, and the 'hweet' of a Chiffchaff in the bushes. Two Chiffchaffs. Three.

It felt birdy...

I was well along the beach when Mike called with news of 17 pale-bellied Brents heading west. Normally when Mike calls, I am at home, at work, or in some other way a million miles from the action. This time I simply had to raise my bins and look...

17 pale-bellied Brent Geese heading W
Adult, juvenile, adult

A lone Wheatear on the beach, and very few gulls, but there was constantly something going on overhead. Mostly Meadow Pipits, but several Swallows too, and lots of distant unidentifiables. I heard Siskin occasionally but didn't see any until I was on the return leg of my walk, when 25 belted past just overhead. Silently. Honestly, I have checked the recording and there wasn't a peep out of them. Even though I probably exaggerated things in the last post, it's true that I have been a bit concerned about my hearing. However, as I made my way through the boardwalk sallows I heard a crest calling. Heard! And it didn't sound like a Goldcrest. Sure enough, in the canopy above me was a cracking little Firecrest. Much too mobile for photos, but there is this...



Shortly afterwards I climbed a stile and headed inland a bit. Plodding slowly along the edge of a field I was suddenly aware of a bird flipping off the deck and onto a bramble. Bins up, and...a Wryneck! Get in! It was back on, and peering at me over its shoulder. Although I was nowhere near it, the bird clearly thought I was way too close, so hopped through a gap and disappeared into the foliage.

I've had Wryneck encounters like this before, where I've disturbed a bird but not actually flushed it, and my memory told me that if I were to back right off, it might reappear. So I did. And...eventually...it did...

It's a long way off, but I don't care! It's a Wryneck!

I'm fairly sure I saw three Wrynecks during my Axe patch years. One on Beer Head, one on the Seaton tram line and one at Seaton Marshes. This is my first since moving to Dorset, and it was very, very welcome! And of course, to find your own is the icing on the cake. What a brilliant morning!

I thought I'd close with one final photo. I'm sure I'm not the only birder who regularly scans hedgerows for pale blobs, or who, when spotting such a blob with the naked eye, instantly raises their bins to check it out. Well, here's why...

Just a little pale blob, patiently awaiting a 10x lens and massive appreciation

Tuesday, 8 September 2020

Not Hearing Things

My Twitter time-line has been busy with quality birds lately. Autumn is upon us...

Locally, there has been modest excitement. Today I was working in Seaton, so news that Joe Stockwell had a juv Montagu's or Pallid Harrier heading W along the beach from Abbotsbury didn't galvanise me into action like it would if I'd been at East Bexington, say, but I still contrived to have lunch next to the Axe Estuary and look at the sky a lot. Twelve years ago to the very day, I had a juv Monty's fly W through Axmouth village and out over the estuary, and I would have been thrilled to repeat the experience. Instead I tried to be thrilled about my cheese & pickle roll, cold pizza and lots of drossy gulls. A challenge, that.

Richard found a Wryneck at Charmouth yesterday, a fine reward for many hours of patch birding. My own autumn reward is as yet undisclosed. I have been making an effort though, and most mornings have seen me pounding some nearby coastal habbo. However, I think the early starts have caught up with me. This morning my eyes wouldn't open, so here's a hotch-potch from the last few times they did...

Last Friday morning I had my first autumn Siskins, a flock of 18 W through East Bex. Another flock of 20-odd small finches were almost certainly Siskins too, but they didn't call. Or rather, I didn't hear them. I suspect the latter, and as you will see, this is going to become a theme. Also at East Bex were two Great Northern Divers together offshore, a couple of Ringed Plovers, and single Wheatear and Whinchat...

East Bexington Whinchat, version 1
...and version 2
When the record shot actually is not a record. GND x 2. Or whatever you want, really. Grebe sp? Auk sp? Plastic flotsam sp?

On Saturday I gave East Bex another go, intending to walk to West Bex and back from the Abbotsbury Beach car park. A highlight was meeting Dave Chown for the first time. He's been doing autumn vismig here for 22 years, and was a fount of interesting gen. After a chat, I left Dave to his counting and headed off, my secret, furry-headed weapon clamped to the camera bag and switched on. I was eager to see how the recorder performed on a day when there was a bit of bird movement, and Saturday was ideal. Just to give you a taste of what it can do, here are four clips from that morning, pasted together in a single spectrovid. See if you can tell what the four species are. Nothing too tricky, I promise...



The first three clips are passing migrants (although one did choose to land right in front of me) and the last involves two birds on the beach. Answers at bottom of page...

So, was it worth lugging the recorder around? Yes. Yes, it was. Up until now I've been a bit lax when it comes to daytime use, but now that autumn is up and running I really should make the effort. One obvious reason is the possibility of recording a super-cool flyover, like a Lapland Bunting or Dotterel or something. That would be brilliant of course, but there is another, rather more prosaic reason...

The recorder hears better than I do.

When you are standing right next to a fellow birder who picks up a flyover on call, while you hear nothing, or at best a faint, unidentifiable squeak, it is time to admit the obvious. Your hearing is knackered. Maybe not fully, but enough to be a handicap. This has happened to me twice recently, and I can no longer fob it off. However, I'm already on the varifocals (cf the 20/20 vision of youth) and am very reluctant to further bolster my dimming senses with technology. Therefore I have chosen a birdy yardstick to tell me when hearing aids are a must-have. Cetti's Warbler. When I can no longer hear a Cetti's at 10ft, yes, that's the day.

In the meantime, my recorder can pick up the flyovers for me. At Cogden yesterday morning I had a flock of 20 Yellow Wagtails go past. I didn't hear a single call, but could nevertheless see what they were. I made a note on my phone: 06:44 Yellow Wag 20. Back home, and the recording at this point was full of faint but very obvious Yellow Wagtail calls! Strewth! There were also two pairs of flyover wagtails which I left unidentified. Again I noted the time. Checking the recording revealed them all to be Yellow Wags, calling merrily. Not good, is it...?

Anyway, among the bits and bobs of recent days are a Rock Pipit which paused briefly at West Bexington (quite scarce there I believe), a Kingfisher flying through Cogden, and a sprinkling of Wheatears and Whinchats. When I returned from my walk on Saturday morning, Dave Chown had tallied well over 300 Siskins, and 49 Grey Wagtails. Without trying, I'd managed 100+ Siskins and 10+ Grey Wags. It's great to witness birds on the move, and to hear a couple of them occasionally...when they're really close and loud.

West Bex Rockit
Wheatear on the West Bex shingle
Burton Bradstock Yellow Wag
Cogden on Sunday evening. Pretty much had it to myself. Bliss.

Birds in the vid: Grey Wagtail, Rock Pipit, Siskin, Common Sandpiper.

Thursday, 3 September 2020

Just Cattle Egrets

I popped in to Black Hole Marsh after work yesterday. It seems hardly possible that until a few short years ago this was a damp field with three or four sedgy ditches. It was quite popular with autumn Whinchats I recall, and at least one jammy local has a patch Corncrake from those days, but now...

Well, it was heaving. I didn't count much, but loads of Black-tailed Godwits and Redshank, more than 50 Dunlin, 20-odd Ringed Plovers, 2 Little Stints, 2 Curlew Sandpipers, 3 Knot, a Greenshank, a couple of Common Sands, and whatever I missed. And that's just the waders. Among them was a colour-ringed Dunlin. Even with a scope I struggled to read the ring, but in spite of the range, unhelpful light and a Dunlin's typically jerky movements, the camera nailed it...

Yellow 27E appears to be from a Welsh ringing project. Details awaited...

While I was fiddling about with waders I heard my phone beep a couple of times. One function of the modern smartphone is to let you know exactly what birds you are missing right now. And as a rule, after waiting until I'm back in Bridport after a day's work, that's precisely what it does. However, on this occasion it boobed, because I was only a few minutes walk away from the action. I'd bumped into Tim White just a short while earlier, so it was great to go and enjoy the seven Cattle Egrets he'd just found on the estuary from the Tower Hide. Initially they were in the middle of the river, but as the rising tide covered their gravelly ridge they were forced to move...

Six on the left, one on the island. Seven is the most I've seen on the Axe patch.
Cattle Egrets always strike me as looking a bit shifty...


Around 18:25 they all headed S down the estuary together. Although eventually obscured from view, they did seem intent on departure. Apparently there were two on Black Hole Marsh at dusk, but I'll bet they were not from this party. Presumably they all (and a juvenile seen at Colyford Common the previous evening) were from the ever-growing Somerset Levels population...

Coincidentally there is currently a thread on Twitter which makes reference to some of the depressing changes in status and population of several formerly common species. Frequently this negativity is contrasted with the rise and rise of Little, Great White and Cattle Egrets, as well as Red Kites, Buzzards, and many other species. In other words, 'Look at these fantastic success stories! It's not all gloom and doom you know!' I'll admit, I do enjoy things like the spectacle of Cattle Egrets locally, because they were until very recently a genuine rarity. And I enjoy the relative ubiquity of Buzzards and Red Kites, and so on. But I also lament the loss of many small birds which used to be more abundant when I was younger. And I get the feeling that they were much, much more abundant. If I had to choose, I know which I'd rather have...