Monday, 31 August 2020

Vole for Breakfast

I planned a long, slow walk along the coast this morning, and a hefty tally of migrants. In the event it looked like there were few new arrivals, and I'm fairly sure that most of the 10 Wheatears and 6 Whinchats I counted were yesterday's birds. Never mind, it was a lovely morning and there was plenty to look at...

Highlight was a cracking Barn Owl at East Bexington, hunting in broad daylight. It promptly caught a vole and perched up quite close. Camera out...!

A bit overcast and gloomy still at 07:05, but the camera didn't do too badly.

I very rarely see Barn Owls locally. My last was in early summer, while out listening for Quail one evening, but it was almost dark. The one before that was...er...years ago. So forgive me for including a couple more photos of what is for me a novelty...



I suddenly realised it was going to consume the vole right there in front of me, so switched to video mode...



Unfortunately that's as much as I got. Stupidly I attempted to shift a few feet to where I could rest the camera on a rock. The Barn Owl thought I was taking liberties, moved its meal to a more distant post, turned its back on me and did the deed off camera.

So, other than missing the big swallow, a brilliant start to the morning. Although it failed to deliver the migrant numbers I was hoping for, there was a steady flow of hirundines overhead, and by the time I headed for home I had a nice list of bits and pieces, in addition to the Wheatears and Whinchats noted above...

Best was a Grasshopper Warbler, seen really well but all too briefly, only my second of the year. Also a Spotted Flycatcher, 11 Willow Warblers, 7 Chiffs, 13 Blackcaps, Lesser Whitethroat and Sedge Warbler. 22 Yellow Wags (including a flock of 18) were all flyovers, heading E, as was my first Wigeon of the autumn, heading the other way.

East Bex Whinchat. I've a feeling this might have been a new one.
And the West Bex version.

The other day, as I was fiddling with yet another Wheatear pic, Sandra asked what I was going to do with all these photos. I was a bit stumped for an answer. The vast majority are just record shots really, and I have no plans for any of them. When opportunities arise I enjoy trying to get a photo, and I enjoy illustrating this blog with some of the results. I realise most are pretty naff, but do I care? Clearly not.

If I stop and think about it, all the shots of common birds, distant birds, birds in flight, birds I've photographed a thousand times...they're just so much practice for the day when some crippler pops up in front of me. I take photos all the time, frequently with no hope of anything decent. The camera has become as important to me as my bins are. On occasion I have reached for it first! If I scanned through NQS I can think of several birds whose photographic images are even more impressed upon my memory than the visual ones. Without the photos, the experience would be diminished somehow. The Cogden Red-backed Shrike springs to mind as an obvious example, also the Seaton Serin, and loads of gulls...

Strange isn't it? From a cumbersome, expensive luxury years ago, a camera has now become such an indispensable part of my birding kit that I would seriously struggle without it. In fact, I don't think I could bear to go gull-watching with no camera. The thought of finding a Caspian Gull and not being able to get photos is too hideous to contemplate.

Does any of this make me a photographer? Definitely not!

Sunday, 30 August 2020

Mostly Chatting

Slightly photo-heavy post coming up. Lovely sunshine today, and quite a few birds demanding camera time. Give the P900 a bit of light and it does a nice job. Not being a proper photographer I expect I am easily pleased, and I've no doubt my sense of composition isn't great, but boy, it's good fun...

I started early this morning at Burton Bradstock and Cogden, and got out again late afternoon/evening, taking in a bit of East and West Bexington. Mostly it was a day of Wheatears and Whinchats, with a few other bits and bobs to spice the mix.

Overall totals as follows: 59 Wheatears, 32 Yellow Wagtails, 10 Whinchats, 2 White Wagtails, and singles of Spotted Flycatcher, Great Northern Diver and Merlin. Waders were represented by a Sanderling on the beach at E Bex, plus Dunlin and Ringed Plover, both heard only. Regular warblers were thin on the ground, but included a Lesser Whitethroat and Sedge Warbler. Basically it was one of those days which feels quite birdy, but holds back the really good stuff. Very enjoyable though.

First, let's get the Wheatears out of the way. All photos from Cogden Beach this morning...

Almost uncropped, this one. Ridiculously obliging for a Wheatear!


Okay, so none of those were particularly 'birder's photo' type material, but Whinchats seem to be even more skittish than Wheatears, so one or two of the following are a closer fit...

Cogden Beach. A very blurry Beer Head in the background
Again, lovely blue sea in the background
East Bexington, in a maize field
West Bexington

Finally, a few odds and ends...

Great Northern Diver off East Bex
One of two White Wagtails at East Bex. Much range, much heat-haze.
Sanderling, also at East Bex.

Being the August bank-holiday weekend it is heaving with tourists down here. The nice weather has encouraged many to basically camp out on the beaches, so here are a couple of photos to illustrate what it's like right now. Both taken from the same spot at East Bex...

Looking E towards Abbotsbury...
...and W towards Burton Bradstock

The red arrow in the last photo is pointing at yesterday's Burton Bradstock rock fall. It is 4 miles away, but that massive pile of collapsed cliff is really obvious. Mind you, it turns out I wasn't in quite as much potential peril as I may have suggested in yesterday's NQS post. I had a look at it this morning, and the fall was closer to the car park than I thought, slightly E of where I actually join the clifftop path. Also, no way is the cliff as high as 160ft at that point. Mind you, it truly is an enormous rock fall, and if anyone had been on the beach below when it collapsed, well, that would have been curtains for sure...

So, finally finally, the evening draws in at West Bexington, and the birder wonders what tomorrow will bring...

Saturday, 29 August 2020

A Risky Business

It's hard to imagine a more sedate pastime than birding. Strolling about, pausing regularly to scan the hedges and whatnot, or even sitting in a comfy chair for hours at a time while peering at the sea. Hardly free solo climbing is it? And yet...

On Thursday, in a strong SE wind, Mark D was seawatching at Berry Head...



In front of some torrential rain, the wind suddenly switched from 40mph SE to 70mph N, and apparently stayed that way for about 30 minutes. At the Berry Head seawatching spot there is no protection from a northerly. I couldn't help wondering what might have happened if ten or fifteeen seawatchers had been gathered, instead of just Mark. One or two of the perches used there are precarious, to say the least. Sobering. In the event, aside from sandwich box and brolly, no harm done. But could have been much, much worse.

This morning I went to one of the spots I've been plugging away at lately, Burton Bradstock. The cliffs here are some of the first coastal high ground W of Chesil Beach, and certainly attractive to birds. So the clifftop path is frequently my first port of call. Anyway, just before 06:30 this happened...


The cliffs at this point are apparently 160ft high, which gives you some idea of the scale of that rock fall. Notice how it appears to go almost all the way to the top. However, I can tell you that I set out from the Hive Beach car park at 06:20, and was probably right there on that clifftop path at, or very shortly after, 06:30, blissfully unaware that anything had happened, and that there was now a monstrous undercut in the cliff. In places the path is just feet from the edge, a fact which keeps a bloke with a healthy respect for crumbly cliffs and vertical drops very much on the inland side of it! Even so, flippin' heck!

So, a few photos from the last couple of days, one or two of which I unwittingly risked life and limb for...

Tree Pipit hiding in the clifftop grass at Burton Bradstock, one of three which dropped in together yesterday morning. My first locally.
The ubiquitous Wheatear shot, with tastefully blurred cow's backside.

A visit to West Bexington yesterday afternoon rewarded me with the entertaining spectacle of a Common Tern feeding its two juvs. I didn't do that brilliantly at getting food-pass type shots, and this one is probably the best...

Pair of Gannets
Three of five Sanderling. A fleeting, scuttly distraction
Cogden Whinchat from this morning's walk.
And a Swift, perhaps my last one of 2020?

There has certainly been plenty to look at over the last couple of days. Adding the totals gives me some 91 Yellow Wagtails, 39 Wheatears, 2 Whinchats, 3 Tree Pipits, a handful of common warblers, a pile of hirundines (particularly today) and a Swift. A party of three alba wagtails heading W this morning looked suspiciously like White Wags...the whole birding vibe has suddenly got very autumnal. Exciting times.

Hopefully not too exciting though!*

* See above...

Thursday, 27 August 2020

Small Pieces of a Larger Picture

I only had time for a quick outing before work today, and was at Burton Bradstock shortly after six. No one was about just yet, so the clifftop path was still hosting a few freshly-arrived migrants: 3 Wheatears and a Whinchat. Not for long though...

06:30 on the clifftop path. A Whinchat and a Wheatear sense that it is almost time to vacate...

Despite the disturbance I stuck with the clifftop, and soon came across a nice flock of 25 Yellow Wagtails hanging around the small herd of cattle...

12 Yellow Wags in this shot

I spent some time watching the delightful Yellow Wags, and checking through them for anything vaguely blue-headed, or better. While doing so I was surprised to spot a small, dark falcon zip in low from my right and have a go at them. My first thought was Merlin, and then I remembered it was still August. I've never seen a local Merlin in August. As it jinked and turned in aerobatic pursuit of a Yellow Wag I could clearly see that it was dark brown, and the Merlin diagnosis persisted! Within a few seconds it had given up and continued rapidly W along the coast, quite high. Of course, as it went away I began to doubt myself. Was it just a small Peregrine? Am I rubbish at falcons? Well, the size, colour, and twisty-turny hunting style convinced me that my initial impression was correct, and it genuinely was a Merlin. So I mentioned it in my local WhatsApp group message later...and was delighted to learn that Dan at Sidmouth had likewise encountered a surprise Merlin this morning!

I love that! When your seemingly insignificant little birding event turns out to be mirrored elsewhere, to fit a pattern of something happening on a grander scale. And I'll come back to that theme again in a moment.

But first, some snaps...

Dreadful light first thing, but these Yellow Wags are doing their best to look cheery. Love 'em!
I came across the Whinchat again later. It had moved a fair old way from its original spot.
I like chats...

With a final tally of 25 Yellow Wags, 8 Wheatears, 2 Willow Warblers, a Whinchat and a Merlin, I tootled off to work for a bit. Later on I sat down to review the night's nocmig recording...

Ooooh, nice, a Green Sandpiper at 21:47! Along with Greenshank, Green Sand is a nocmig species that I've been anticipating for a while, so it was really pleasing to score finally. Still waiting for Greenshank. Another on the hoped-for list is Tree Pipit. So when the recording got to 04:16 and a teeny little squit of noise appeared on the spectrogram, I was really chuffed to hear a Tree Pipit come through the earphones. This is what it looks like...

Tree Pipit. Obviously.

I should point out that the above image is somewhat enhanced. As I originally encountered it, that squiggle would have been about half the width you see there, almost a vertical line. Also, I've filtered most of the background noise in order to make the call stand out. In other words, it would have been so easy to miss it altogether. I'm glad I didn't though, because I subsequently learned that Portland Bird Observatory recorded 746 close Tree Pipit calls last night. Seven-hundred and forty-six! Just the close ones! To have personally recorded zero Tree Pipits in the face of such news would have been so gutting. In the event it turns out that Chris Townend over at Budleigh Salterton in E Devon recorded his first nocmig Tree Pipit last night. So again, our small, insignificant birdy happenings fit something far bigger. Brilliant.

Finally then, a Wheatear photo that captures the local birding vibe quite nicely. Lovely though it is here, I do not have the local coast to myself...

There are many, many walkers of dogs.

Wednesday, 26 August 2020

Making Up For Lost Lifers

I do enjoy a bit of seawatching. And I've done a fair amount over the years, though mostly from deep within the bowels of Lyme Bay. When you first take up birding you quickly learn that not all sea is equal. This is why birders go to places like Pendeen and Porthgwarra. I guarantee that not a single birder looks at the fantastic seawatching potential of a stormy weather forecast and goes, 'Right, Burton Bradstock here I come!' Not one. And certainly not me. Which is why I went a bit off-patch last week and visited Berry Head.

I was really hoping for one or two large shearwaters, preferably Great Shearwaters. My tally of big 'uns is pretty woeful for someone who's been birding as long as I have. More than a hundred Cory's, but all during a single week in 2008, and all from Porthgwarra. But just one Great Shearwater, and pretty brief views at that. In about a million hours of dedicated examination of the mainly lifeless ocean off Seaton I had one unidentifiable 'large shearwater sp'. And I had another of those off Berry Head last week. So I did seriously think about going again yesterday. The forecast looked pukka, and I was pretty sure it would produce.

Well, it did...



Whatever it is that occasionally impels me to go birding off-patch got it seriously wrong this time. Five days wrong. And having shot my bolt last Thursday I couldn't really justify another jaunt. So. That's that then. Yep, and I also missed out on the two Great Shearwaters they had at Berry Head yesterday. Gutted.

Anyway, the local seawatching completely took my mind off it. Once I'd ungritted my envious teeth I got two hours in from 10:30, and enjoyed a breathtaking 14 Manxies, 3 Sandwich Terns and 3 Kittiwakes, and added another Balearic Shearwater to my monstrous 2020 tally. Thankfully I had my counting clickers with me, or I'd have struggled to keep up. ZZZzzzzzzzz...

This morning it was time to banish the what-ifs by going out and seeing ordinary, common migrants in the [mostly] sunshine, and getting all photographic. Initially at Burton Bradstock before work, then an afternoon visit to Beer Head while I was in the Seaton area...

Yellow Wagtails on the clifftop. Four in this shot, 20 in total.
Yellow Wags are a gorgeous late-August treat.
Juv Peregrine looking for trouble...
...and finding it!
Two Spotted Flycatchers were nice, but not very cooperative.
A 'birder's photo'. Yellow Wags, Burton Bradstock style.
Who needs Pterodromas when you've got these? ...Sob!
Sob! ...and these.

I came across 5 Wheatears at Beer Head this afternoon. I haven't done much birding here since I moved to Bridport, and it was nice to be poking around somewhere that holds so many memories of good birding and good birds. Although it was pretty quiet today, this male Wheatear made up for it by being quite approachable. Forgive the overdose. Just remember I'm in mourning...

And a nice little Beer Head 'birder's photo' to close.