Monday, 26 October 2020

Garden Listing Tales

I was sitting in our garden cabin this morning, chatting on the phone and peering idly out of the window. Between the cabin door and our little conservatory is about four yards of gravel and slabs. A small, dark bird hopped into view and flicked up to nab a fly off the conservatory door, in the process fanning a rich, red tail. A Black Redstart! It turned out there were at least two birds, at one point both together on the roof of a nearby building...

This one on the ridge...

...and this one by the gutter

This was the first one I saw, photographed on a property just behind ours.

 

Black Redstart is a new bird for the garden, and number 63 on my #BWKM0 list, the first addition for months. I didn't get out birding at all today, but I wonder if there were a few more of these lovely little characters out there among the local rooftops?

The appearance of that first one, on the modest span of ground between the cabin and conservatory, gives me the opportunity to recount the story of another nice garden bird...

It was November, in 2016 I think, though I never did note the exact date. I was in the cabin very early, catching up on some paperwork. Just before dawn there was a torrential downpour. When it finally relented I stepped outside, intent on brewing a coffee. Pausing briefly I looked around. The air was clean and fresh in the weak light, the ground still very wet. It is just four or five strides to the conservatory. As I took the final step, a bird exploded off the gravel, just inches from the conservatory, and shot away over the neighbouring gardens, climbing rapidly. It was a Jack Snipe! Presumably a migrant downed by the heavy rain, it is undoubtedly one of the most ludicrous garden birds I am ever likely to see.

The astute reader will probably have wondered how I could be so sure it wasn't just a Common Snipe. No binoculars, obviously, and the light's not too great at that time in the morning is it? And of course they are right to be dubious. So. Here's why it's a Jack Snipe, now and forever...

Although my views were pretty grim, there was no doubting it was a Snipe sp. Jack Snipe are considerably outnumbered by Common Snipe, so I know where the statistical probability lies. However, I almost trod on it. It didn't call. It gave the impression of a smallish bird. To me that suggests Jack Snipe. My garden is very small, three miles inland, and nowhere near any marshy, Snipe-ish habbo. The likelihood of ever getting another is very slightly greater than zero. If you think I'm going to have 'Unidentified Snipe sp' on my garden list, well, think again! My gut said Jack Snipe, and I went with it. And as the saying goes, it's my list and I'll count what I want! Oh, and did I mention how it was quite clearly looking for a reedy spot to quickly drop back into? No...?

Sunday, 25 October 2020

No Gulls

Yesterday we had some proper wet and windy stuff. It was horrible. I mentally weighed the options. Seawatching? Nah. In late autumn it never seems to deliver in these conditions. A hearty slog around Cogden or the Bexingtons? Nah. I didn't fancy wiping salt off my specs all afternoon. A trip to the Axe for gulls? Now we're talking. A late autumn hoolie can do wonders for the Axe Estuary gull demographic, pulling in all sorts of quality. Yellow-legged Gull is virtually guaranteed, and Caspian Gull a real possibility. Twice, I think, Steve has nailed two Casps in a day in such conditions.

So yes, I went to Seaton and had a great time. And I thought I would be forced to test the patient NQS readership with yet another gull post today. But no, not yet...

On Thursday morning I popped over to West Bexington to help look for a pale chat which had been spotted late the previous afternoon in wet and gloomy conditions. It turned out to be a Whinchat, but walking back through the village I chanced upon this beauty...

Male Black Redstart. A very classy looker.


Just lovely...

And here's the Whinchat. Getting late for them now...

Probably the last Whinchat I'll see this year.

Friday afternoon I managed a quick walk to East Bexington. Back in July I heard a Cetti's Warbler calling there. Since then I've heard it a few times, and once or twice a burst of song too. On Friday I finally saw it...

Cetti's Warbler, accidentally out in the open for a second.

At West Bex and Cogden, where Cetti's are quite common, they are ever so skulky and I've never managed a photo of one. So I was quite pleased to get this, and headed back along the Burton Road with a jaunty step. A flock of gulls over the surf made me pause to check them, and they were all Med Gulls - 30 birds! Could the afternoon get any better? Yes it could. I realised they were loitering a bit, which made me scan the sea below them...

You'll have to take my word for it, but that's a Grey Seal (notsrils on the right!)

Grey Seal is a rare sight in this part of Lyme Bay. I haven't kept a record, but I would be surprised if I've seen them locally on more than about ten occasions in the umpteen years I've lived here. This one was on a mission, heading W with purpose, and surfacing only occasionally. I decided to hurry along to get ahead of it, and then try for some more photos. I'll cut a long story short. I never did get ahead of it, and eventually gave up. Clearly they can shift a bit.

And so to yesterday, and the Axe Estuary gulls. Oh, that's right, I said another time...

Today then. Yesterday a local birder discovered two Grey Phalaropes at a nearby fish farm. One was still present this morning, and a couple of birding friends sent enticing photos. I was free after lunch and decided to give it a try. To be honest I didn't much fancy a crowd, but I needn't have worried. There was one photographer present when I arrived, and no one else turned up during my visit. We introduced ourselves and simply enjoyed the bird...

Er, confiding. At times it vanished beneath the overhanging grass on the near bank!

The light was absolutely perfect, and the Nikon did itself proud...





And a habitat context shot...


What a little stunner! I've seen quite a few Grey Phalaropes over the years, and some really close like this, but for some reason today's bird felt special. A really confiding bird betrays a certain innocence, a level of trust that it really shouldn't have. So many birds are notoriously wary, belting away over the horizon at the mere hint of a human at 400 yards. Sensible, especially when you ponder for a moment the way mankind has raped and pillaged the natural world, and shot, trapped, bludgeoned and butchered its feathered inhabitants. But not this phalarope. I found the experience of being so close to this unconcerned bird oddly touching today. I don't know why. I'm probably going soft...

And finally, a short vid...

Tuesday, 20 October 2020

You Never Know...

It's frustrating when stuff happens quicker than you can blog it. I end up with a backlog, and then a post like this...

I'll start with nocmig. Autumn has been a challenge. I got to the end of September with very little to show for it. I began to not bother, to miss nights. I drew the conclusion that while my home might be situated in a favourable spot to record spring goodies, it was in a late-season dead zone. However, now that it is thrush time I am getting a few. Up to about 35 Redwing calls in a night, a handful of Song Thrush and a couple of Blackbirds. Saturday night was typical, with about 15 Redwings and 5 Song Thrushes, plus a nice example of a 'chack-chack' type call which I assumed was my first Fieldfare. Nice, thought I, as I played it a few times and compared the sonogram with those in my new book, 'Identifier Les Oiseaux Migrateurs Par Le Son' by Stanislas Wroza. I also compared it with recordings on Xeno Canto. I asked for opinions on the nocmig WhatsApp group. I made a little Spectrovid...


My suspicion was aroused by its sharp harshness, and sure enough, it's a blinkin' Ring Ouzel! Living where I do, it just seems to me incongruous that a Ring Ouzel would choose to fly over my neighbourhood at 22:04 on Saturday, 17th October, but it did. Just like all those spring-time oddities did. Nocmig is full of surprises...


Lately I've been in the Seaton area quite a lot. Sometimes that has its drawbacks. Like this morning, when Mike called from West Bex to tell me that a Glossy Ibis was over my head at Cogden. Mmm, yes. I missed that one. Apparently only the second West Bex record. I carefully checked the nicely flooded Axe Estuary and adjacent marshes in case it had kept going, but two 2nd-winter Med Gulls, a Barwit and a Greenshank do not a Glossy Ibis make. Annoyingly I had a good candidate for 1st-winter Caspian Gull head downriver and away without stopping, but it was too distant for more than a shrug and a question mark.

Other times, being in the Seaton area is dead handy. Like yesterday evening, when I was able to take a nice photo to confirm beyond doubt that the Axe Pink-footed Goose is the exact same one I recently had fly past me at East Bexington...

Same bird. No question.


Work has taken a toll on my morning walks, but I managed a couple of afternoon outings at the weekend. Sunday was notable. Before I got to Cogden I'd already hatched a plan. I was going to count Robins. Work every hedgerow that I reasonably could, and count Robins. I thoroughly enjoyed myself. I doubt that I covered 50% of the available habitat by the time I needed to leave, and my tally was 30 Robins. Nice. I'm sure you could comfortably double that, or more, for a true picture of the number present at Cogden that day. More surprising was a count of 27 Chiffchaffs, loads more than I would have anticipated. Other stuff included a Merlin bombing over, single Goldcrest and Blackcap, 4 Green Woodpeckers and 2 Jays. Late in the afternoon I noticed a party of Swallows overhead and cast my eyes skywards for a while. The 'party' was actually hundreds. Hundreds and hundreds, probably 1000+ Swallows feeding across a wide area below the ridge. Quite a sight on a mid-October day. Sunday's other highlight was the flock of Golden Plovers which kept popping into view above the coast road. I counted them by taking a photo...

212 Golden Plovers

They were evidently trying to settle somewhere on the farmland north of the coast road. I don't know whether they managed to do so, but judging by the frequent appearance during the afternoon of some or all of the flock, perhaps not very happily.

Itchy plover feet...

 

There were plenty of other birds on offer, as illustrated here...

Quite a number of Meadow Pipits flitting around. The Red-throated awaits.

Front to back: Meadow Pipit, Green Woodpecker, Stonechat.

Blackbird. Doubtless a migrant, judging by its lame attempt to look rare.

One of probably 1000+. This is my first published Swallow-in-flight photo, and is quite close to being in focus.

 

You can probably gather from this that I had a brilliant time on Sunday afternoon. Nothing rare, or even scarce. Just good, solid, birding fun. If you read this blog on a regular basis, you will know I am based on the West Dorset coast. You will realise too that West Dorset birders do not habitually work their local hedgerows in October and have Red-flanked Bluetails hop out in front of them. Or Pallas' Warblers, or Dusky Warblers, or anything much at all really.

But you never know...

Saturday, 17 October 2020

Out of Sync

During this morning's second cup of coffee I opened up Twitter and discovered that it had finally happened. A Rufous Bush Chat went and burst its own mythical bubble by turning up in Norfolk. The last UK occurence was the very day that Sandra and I got married: August 9th, 1980. Forty years, two months and eight days ago. Birding wasn't my main hobby back then, so I didn't get the gen until I read about Richard Millington's August 10th dip in A Twitcher's Diary, some 18 months later. As the years clocked up, and Rufous Bush Chats resolutely avoided British soil, it became one of my most wanted. So what did I do about this morning's revelation?

Tucked it away for blog post material later.

It's at times like this that I most feel completely out of sync with so many of my fellow birders. And indeed, with my former self. If my desire to rush off to Norfolk and see this bird could have been measured on a gauge, the needle would not have flickered. I see all the photos and read the euphoric tweets of triumph, and feel...nothing. Well, not nothing, I suppose, but certainly not envy, regret, longing or lust. Rather I feel utterly disconnected from it all. Like the last place I would want to be right now was Stiffkey in Norfolk...

At lunchtime yesterday I spent an hour or two poking around Seatown, a coastal hamlet between West Bay and Charmouth. I was hoping for Yellow-browed Warbler. I got Goldcrest, 2 Coal Tits, 2 Siskins, 2 Redpolls feeding in a silver birch, and 7 Clouded Yellows in a single field. There were quite a few folk out walking in the sunshine, but they were easy to avoid. There were no birders at all.

Seatown. Basically a few houses, a caravan site, a pub and a car park.

This afternoon I ventured out to West and East Bexington again. Just 3 Chiffs, a Blackcap, a Clouded Yellow, and this...

My first Wheatear in a while.

Again, a few out walking, lots of anglers on the beach, but no birders. There is quite a long stretch of rough habitat between the beach and coast path, and I thought it unlikely that anyone had explored it this afternoon. I flushed the Wheatear from it, but fancy it for a Snow Bunting or something.

Beach on the left, coast path on the right, quiet zone in the middle. Containing who knows what? Today, a Wheatear and some Meadow Pipits.

In the main I have little interest in chasing someone else's birds. That's not to say I won't, but I rarely get anything meaningful from doing so. In fact, frequently it's been a massive anti-climax. I would much, much rather find my own. That's where I get my birding jollies. And it doesn't have to be something scarce or rare. Context is everything. I am realistic enough to appreciate that my chances of finding a local Pallas' Warbler or Red-flanked Bluetail are super slim, but a Yellow-browed Warbler is on the cards. And if that happens it will seriously make my day, because I have never found a local YBW while birding! Yesterday I was chuffed at the perched Redpolls (a rare local sight for me) and today the Wheatear was enough to put a big smile on my face.

In the last two days I've put in a few hours for what might seem scant reward. Many of today's Rufous Bush Chat twitchers might think I'm daft. That's fine. I'm happy with these few miles of beautiful coast, and the amazingly low birder density. I don't get upset or frustrated when it's quiet. If the birding is slow, there is always a lovely walk to enjoy. And as we all know, it only takes one bird...

Thursday, 15 October 2020

In the Absence of Bluetails

Right now a migra-blitz is blasting the east coast and peppering much of this land with highly desirable feathered shrapnel. With all that Sibe vibe I feel rather cheap, offering just a couple of gulls on here. Not even particularly exciting ones either (and yes, that is actually possible) merely interesting.

On Tuesday there was a very big lunchtime skive, involving me and a whole load of Axe Estuary gulls. First up, a striking 1st-winter Yellow-legged Gull. Due to amazing ineptitude it took three or four attempts to find the thing with my camera, and I hadn't even managed to focus when it promptly upped and went. I got this...

Note the many diagnostic features...


I don't see a lot of 1st-winters, so was disappointed to watch it fly away towards the coast. Still, glancing upriver I could see plenty of potential loafing about, so made my way round to the Tower Hide on Black Hole Marsh. It commands a grand view of the upper estuary, and on Tuesday, of a lot of gulls. Fairly quickly I found another one which made me get the camera out. Momentarily I thought it was an adult (or near-adult) Yellow-legged Gull. The upperparts colour looked bang on, and it even had reasonably bright yellow legs. The bill was a bit dull, with some blackish marks, but that's okay on a bird which isn't quite a full adult. However, I was very unhappy with the extent of streaking on the head; typically they are unmarked white, or nearly so. Anyway, I took loads of photos, and in my mind dismissed it as a probable hybrid.

Back home I got out my Spotters Guide to Seagulls, and delved deeply among the Yellow-legged Gull pages of the Gull Research Organisation website. And now I am thinking it might actually be a YLG after all...

Primary moult-wise it fits mid-October YLG perfectly. P8 is fully grown, P9 is roughly same length as P8, and P10 is coming along nicely (that big white mirror visible on the furthest wing is on P10)

It certainly has the 'look'. Butch and beefy, big-billed. Not a huge bird though.

The outer primary coverts are visible here, and complete absence of black means that it is basically an adult bird. The innermost primary with black on it is P5. So wing is currently only as long as P8, and has a few mm to grow yet.

Those legs and feet are really quite yellow. The bill suggests a bit of immaturity though. Typical full-adult bill is bright, buttery yellow with a big red blob extending onto upper mandible too.


Without all the head streaking I wouldn't have thought twice, but maybe I'm being over-cautious. Anyway, dear NQS reader, until Dorset translocates to the east coast, this is what you get in October. In fact, this is what you get until mid-March or later. Gulls.

Monday, 12 October 2020

Fetching the Ball Back

If you read Friday's post about the dropped ball, it was probably obvious I was a bit miffed. Pink-footed Goose is rare in Dorset. How rare? West Bexington & Cogden boasts a list of some 273 species, and has been worked for decades. When Alan Barrett let me know that Pink-footed Goose would have been a new bird for that patch, it put things in perspective. So. Since Friday I have been hard at work trying to put together a rescue package...

Size and plumage-wise, PFG is unique among the grey geese. So despite their low quality, my side-by-side photos with Canada Geese are actually very useful. I'm not going to post them all again, but here is a standard NQS annotated collage with some pertinent features highlighted...


In one of the notes I mention the Seaton Pink-foot. Phil Abbott kindly sent me a couple of flight shots so that I could confirm one or two things...


The Seaton Pink-footed Goose © Phil Abbott

In a nutshell, the only species which fits the photos is Pink-footed Goose. All the others would in some way be found wanting. So I'm having it. It flew over the coastguard cottages into West Bex airspace, so if it passes muster with the Dorset Records Committee I hope the West Bexington & Cogden patch list can have it too.

Not the ideal way to identify a bird, but I do quite enjoy this kind of photographic analysis, so am delighted that it has paid off. Also, once again I am reminded why a camera has become a vital part of my birding kit.

Incidentally, talking of photo-analysis, today I discovered that the lovely 3rd-winter Yellow-legged Gull I saw on Saturday afternoon (previous post) was also seen on October 1st. There are photos on Twitter, and a quick bit of sleuthing proved it to be the same bird. I shan't publish them on here (they're not mine, and I don't have permission) but it is interesting to see how much the outermost primary (p10) has grown in nine days.

No. Really, it is...

Saturday, 10 October 2020

Always Something for the Notebook

Another late-afternoon yomp from West to East Bexington and back today. My sources of local birdy information had been very quiet, and my expectations were low. Even so, it only takes one bird...

Years ago I noticed that even the 'quietest' outings will usually produce something noteworthy, so I never fret about lack of news. I hadn't poked around East Bex Farm for a while, so gave that a go. Nothing much...until I noticed a flock of ducks heading N towards the ridge, quite high. They were Pintail, my first for ages. They did a big loop and headed away SE, probably towards Abbotsbury Swannery. Nice. I figured they were my 'something noteworthy'.

12 Pintail, all juvs or females.


Working my way back along the coast path, I was just about to cut inland and back towards my car but thought I should first have a look at the small group of gulls on the beach. They were rather backlit, but even so, one of them made me stop and check it out properly. It looked good for a sub-adult Yellow-legged Gull. Initial views were like this...

Yellow-legged Gull. Clearly not an adult though.

A little closer.

I'm always a bit wary of the hybrid possibility these days, but nothing rang alarm bells. The shade of grey seemed spot on, and the size and 'look' of the bird fitted well. It even sported pale yellowish legs. I headed down on to the beach for a proper look from a better angle, light-wise...

...and it unhelpfully sat down.

Unfortunately I couldn't get it to stand up for me; it chose to fly past instead...

Although barely visible in the photo, the basically white tail had two or three feathers with darker marks.

So that rather smart Yellow-legged Gull ended up being the especially noteworthy bird after all, with the Pintail flock coming in at second place.

 

Late afternoon yesterday I managed to get in a quick walk at Cogden. Like today, I struggled to find anything much in the bushes, just a single Blackcap. I thought I was going to be heading home with almost nothing in the digital notebook apart from a couple of Clouded Yellows. And then this happened...


At Fair Isle Bird Observatory I once saw Merlin in the hand. It had the baddest attitude I've ever witnessed in a bird trapped for ringing, screeching non-stop and taking big chunks out of its unfortunate captor. So I've seen Merlin closer. But I've never seen one better. Definitely best views ever!

Juv Merlin. What a cracker!
 

When it had finished its meal and flown off, I walked over to see if I could find out what the victim was. There was hardly anything left. Just four primaries and a few breast feathers. Nothing else. In the video it appears to consume something long and hard (a bone?) so I can only conclude that virtually everything is eaten! Amazing...

Judging by the rusty tips to the breast feathers I guessed Robin. The primaries are the outermost four, and apparently the length of p1 (the short one) fits Robin too.


This month has just been ridiculous. The jammy Wryneck on 1st set the bar, and it has continued to produce bird after quality bird. Two Short-eared Owls, two Whooper Swans, a brilliant Casp, that goose, my best ever views of Merlin, and today's Pintail flock and Yellow-legged Gull. Surely this run cannot last? But I don't mind if it does...

Friday, 9 October 2020

The Sound of a Dropped Ball

Since birding regularly along the Lyme Bay coast from Cogden to East Bexington I have become used to Canada Geese passing by all the time. When their direction of flight is west I assume they have recently departed from the Fleet at Abbotsbury Swannery, which is choc-a-bloc with waterfowl. Conversely I assume all those heading east are on their way to the Swannery. Because of the obvious possibilities, ninety-nine times out of a hundred I will check the flocks to make sure they're not carrying something a bit more interesting. So far they never have. With the result that I have become complacent, and today was the one time in a hundred when I didn't look. Or rather, didn't look early enough.

What follows is an audio version of a cock-up, recorded for posterity by my merciless and unsympathetic Zoom H4n Pro. The setting is East Bexington, at approximately 08:45 this morning. Here is an interpretation of what you are going to hear...

0-10secs: Approaching Canada Geese clearly audible. NQS bloke oblivious.

10-11secs: Idle glance at little group of 6 geese reveals that one is small. Small!

11-14secs: Geese are passing right now. Bins are up. Light is rubbish. Angle is rubbish. The little one is a grey goose sp. but I cannot see enough on it to ID. Realise that photos will be needed, so...

14-19secs: Camera bag chaos! (warning: LOUD) Ripping velcro etc...

19-31secs: I now know how long it takes to prep the camera for a shot. Switch on. Zoom. Frame. Hold breath. Focus...

31secs approx: Burst of 7 shots.

32secs: Exhale.

32-35.5secs: Final, forlorn squint through bins at receding, unidentifiable local biggie.

35.5-36secs: Massive sigh of disappointment.

36-42secs: Brief period of reflection upon woeful bit of complacency.


A bit of context. Any grey goose is very scarce, or even rare, in this neck of the woods. The most regular is White-fronted Goose, which I assumed was the likeliest candidate today. But then I remembered the Seaton Pink-foot...

It arrived on the Axe Estuary on September 28th, initially on its own. It soon began associating with Canada Geese (as wild geese often seem to do here) and was still around yesterday, when it took an afternoon trip to Chard, appearing at (and departing from) two locations there. I assumed that was the end of its local visit.

Could today's bird be the Seaton Pink-foot? When I got home and enlarged the photos, and lightened them up a bit, this was the result...

Obviously the bird in question is top, second left


 Here's an uncropped version...

Perhaps it's clear why the big sigh...

Size-wise, Pink-footed Goose fits nicely. But what else do the photos tell us? In both cropped pics the upperwing is visible, and so is the upperwing of the adjacent Canada Goose. The grey goose definitely has a paler upperwing than the Canada Goose. Quite obviously so. Which fits Pink-footed Goose too. One more thing. This afternoon the Seaton Pink-foot was back on Black Hole Marsh! So was that the bird which flew past me, heading west (towards Seaton) at 08:45?

It seems very likely.

However, as the flock headed over the Coastguard Cottages into West Bexington territory, I failed to raise any West Bex birders on the phone. It later transpired that none were there. Pink-footed Goose is a Dorset rarity. It would also be a new bird for the well-watched West Bex and Cogden patch. In other words, Pink-foot is an 'important' bird locally. Based on those photos I've had feedback varying from 'Can't tick it on those' to 'It's a Pink-foot. Wouldn't think twice'.

It certainly livened things up this morning!

Wednesday, 7 October 2020

It's Not Just the Birds...

On Cogden Beach...

Ringed Plover. Today's attempt at a birder's photo.

Walking the beach this morning reminded me once again that birding, for me at least, needs to be a holistic activity. Perhaps too often I can get a bit preoccupied with this kind of approach...

The bird, the whole bird, and [almost] nothing but the bird.

A steady plod along the Cogden shingle is accompanied by the constant, gentle roar of surf. Traffic on the coast road is audible too, and less agreeably so, but the natural soundtrack of sea, wind and birds mostly drowns it out. And the whole - the sounds, the scenery, the birds - is so much more than the sum of its parts. A bit of a sanctuary really...

There was a steady movement of birds going west this morning. Meadow Pipits, Skylarks in loose groups, Siskins in tighter, writhing flocks. The only birds I bothered trying to count were Siskins, though my 115 will be no more than the tip of the iceberg. Actually, not true: 2 Ringed Plovers. Surprisingly no Wheatears or Chiffchaffs. Bird of the morning was a Merlin which hadn't read the script and dashed east.

Towards the end of my walk the sun came out, and with it, butterflies. At least 11 Clouded Yellows, one of which was a helice type...

Clouded Yellows - helice on the right.

The digital recorder was running and ready, but no 'Ooh! What was that?!' moments, unfortunately. I have no doubt it will happen though, sooner or later. And when it does, I do hope I'll have remembered to switch it on and make sure there was enough charge in the batteries...

Meadow Pipit in autumnal mood.

Yesterday afternoon I finally managed to get this far...

The East Bexington tamarisks.

I'm not sure why I bothered really. I knew it would be rubbish in the blasting wind, but was probably looking for an excuse to pass the Caspian Gull field again...just in case. Well, there were gulls, but very few, and all small...

Just look at that. The little stunner...

There were less than a handful of Med Gulls present, but I know the numbers will soon build. It's a species which never fails to cheer me up when I see one, a bird for smiling at...