Thursday, 31 December 2020

And Finally...

It is a still, blue, crisp morning, and there is almost 1cm of ice on the garden pond. At least the year 2020 is closing prettily. This post is intended to wrap up twelve months-worth of NQS output, and right here in the third sentence I'm not yet sure how it will pan out. A bit random I suspect...

My final bit of 2020 birding has been entertaining, if unspectacular. Yesterday I spent a fair bit of time in the field adjacent to Colyton WTW, staring at a muck heap. Periodically the steaming pile would fill with Chiffchaffs, until they reached a bursting-point of jittery unease which sent them whizzing back to the safety of cover in a hedge. Obviously I was hoping to find a Siberian Chiffchaff among them. It didn't happen though. Well, not really...

The closest I got to tristis was the bird on the left. Very brief, rather distant views, and just this single photo. It caught my eye, and looks quite promising in the pic, but I'll reserve judgement. With all the to-ing and fro-ing I was sure I'd see it again eventually. Unfortunately not.

Still, I got a nice shot of a standard collybita Chiff...

I love that we have a few of these to look at through the winter months.

At one point I noticed a high-flying raptor heading over, and thought it looked a bit harrier-ish. Sure enough, it was...

Significantly enlarged from the original, and definitely a Marsh Harrier.

So that was a nice surprise.

The last three or four days have also produced...

Green Sandpiper at Water Lane Fish Farm, near Burton Bradstock

Portuguese Man-of War on West Bexington beach

Avocet on Black Hole Marsh, Seaton Wetlands

So, a nice selection of locally notable birds to wind up the year. What next then?

Well, tomorrow I plan to walk a long way, starting at my back door. I have no preconceptions, no targets, and only a sketchy route plan, but there will definitely be a lot of coast. If there is one thing I have come to appreciate even more during these strange times, it is the local coastline. When you spend the first forty-odd years of your life living well inland, moving to the coast is initially odd. You constantly have to remind yourself that no, you're not on holiday, you actually live here. I'm well past that stage now, but still the coast is a wonderful delight for which I am truly grateful...

Reed Bunting in Thrift, with the blurred sea as a backdrop. West Dorset at its finest.

West Bay, my nearest bit of coast. So many seaside places have that weird mix of beauty and ghastliness, and West Bay is one of them. It's growing on me, but I have to be in the mood. This photo was taken in early June, before the hordes descended.

I first used this photo in NQS to illustrate the differences between juv Yellow-legged Gull and Herring Gull (foreground) but this is the uncropped version, illustrating a different aspect of coastal life. Thankfully not a year-round scenario.

An October view from East Bexington. Stunning...

2020 was not all about the birds. Some tentative forays into the lepidopteral world were a lot of fun. And even a few plants featured. One small triumph was nailing Essex Skipper for the first time. Oh, and a classy moth too...

A local male Essex Skipper, with diagnostic short, straight scent mark highlighted bottom left. Our Essex Skippers are currently among the most westerly in England.

Jammy encounter, jammy photo. Sandra first spotted this Lunar Hornet Moth during a country walk in June. A species which until recently was impervious to all known pheremone lures, and really tricky to see.

That'll do, I think. I'll wind up the final post of 2020 with a thank-you to all NQS readers for your continued support and assorted comments. I'm confident that 2021 will produce plenty of bloggable moments, with hopefully some terrific surprises among them. So whether your interest is birds, plants, fish, inverts, or whatever, I hope your 2021 will be memorable for all the right reasons...

Tuesday, 29 December 2020

Hello...What's This?

The title of this post is a reference to what frequently comes out of mouth when I stumble upon a good bird. Jammy jam is a feature of 2020 that I've been trying to find a way to write about without sounding all boastful, because I firmly believe that tales of good fortune can be a genuine source of inspiration for others. Well, they have that affect me. So this is such a post, and my apologies if it sounds big-headed in any way - that is certainly not my intention. Mind you, anyone who follows this blog will know that my 2020 finds do not involve a glut of megas. But in the context of coastal West Dorset and East Devon the list is not too shabby, and much better than I normally manage!

Always looking at gulls has its rewards, and 2020 was generous...

Five Caspian Gulls. From top left, clockwise to centre:
Jan 7th, Axe Estuary
Jan 26th, West Bexington Mere (2nd-winter)
Jan 28th, Axe Estuary
Oct 5th, East Bexington
Dec 17th, Axe Estuary

Five Casps is easily my best tally in one calendar year. I'm really chuffed to have images of each one, something I've so far managed with every single Casp I've seen. The 2nd-winter West Bex bird is the only non-1st-winter I've found, and along with the December bird on the Axe was recorded using my camera's video function, an invaluable facility. I'm especially pleased that two of my Casps were just down the road from where I live, and therefore Dorset birds, at East and West Bexington.

To be honest I now have a level of expectation with Caspian Gull. These days I would be disappointed not to find one in the course of a year. But they are still very scarce down here, and a super prize for anyone picking through the local gull flocks. And as I've repeated to the point of tedium: If I can find them, anyone can.

To be fair I spend a lot of my birding time actively searching for Caspian Gulls, so to some degree it's an effort-equals-reward kind of bird. Another bird which fits that category lately is Siberian Chiffchaff...

One of my favourite Sibe Chiff pics of 2020. Kilmington WTW on Jan 15th

Kilmington again, Jan 8th. A rather more prosaic habitat view, with filter bed backdrop

In 2020 I found five Sibe Chiffs I think. Again, way more than ever before. Though I've never made so much effort before either.

Other good finds have been far more a case of being jammy. The Golden Oriole which flew across my path at West Bexington on May 28th is a case in point. And my favourite find this year, the jammiest of all, was this...

Belter! Male Red-backed Shrike at Cogden Beach on June 8th.

That total fluke was the culmination of a very strange but productive spring. Summer gave way to autumn without too many fireworks - unless you count juv Yellow-legged Gulls - and it wasn't until September 11th that things got pretty exciting again...

A Wryneck poses cooperatively at Cogden Beach

And then, on October 1st, again at Cogden Beach, and again a Wryneck...

The distant product of some careful and regular scanning. Slow birding.

That's it really. Caspian Gull x5, Siberian Chiffchaff x5, Wryneck x2, Golden Oriole and Red-backed Shrike. I rarely find much, so for me that's a mega-haul. Technically I could maybe add a fly-by Pink-footed Goose at East Bexington and a Glaucous Gull on the Axe, but both birds had been seen before, though admittedly the goose not locally. Personally I don't count stuff like that as a pukka 'find', but both events were still great fun for different reasons. And of course I came across many 'lesser' birds, which still provided a good buzz even if they weren't quite in the same league as some of the above.

A couple of other species which I would like to list among my best 2020 finds involve two birds which I never saw...


Nocmig Stone-curlew, April 22nd

Nocmig Night Heron, June 4th

Of course these weren't finds at all in the accepted sense, but both were almost as thrilling as if I'd come across them in the field, and testament to the worth of nocmig recording.

The biggest downer this year was the fact that hardly any of my good finds were seen by anyone else, just one (I think) Casp and a couple of Sibe Chiffs. Especially frustrating were the oriole, shrike and Wrynecks, because they were on someone else's patch! On the other hand though, I did get photos of everything bar the Golden O, so I think people still believe me when I claim stuff...

On Twitter earlier today, a birder I follow posted a photo-collage and list of his best finds of the year. It was a jaw-dropping tally. Admittedly, many were the result of holidays on Shetland and Scilly, but a good number were not. Rather, they were the result of on-spec birding in locations which have the dual assets of good potential and low birder density. To a great extent my local coast meets those criteria. I know how fortunate I am to have that on my doorstep, and cannot emphasise enough how exciting it can be. Striding out in the early morning, or even late in the day, knowing that probably no other birders at all have trodden this way for hours, perhaps days. Why so many birders neglect such places and instead choose locations that get thrashed incessantly really puzzles me. I can't help thinking they are missing out...

Not that I'm complaining.

Sunday, 27 December 2020

The Bringer of Joy

As we approach the end of this singular year I've been trying to work out how to review it without actually writing a review of the year, and this is the first of possibly a few posts intended to do just that. Mainly, but not entirely, this one is about Wheatears...

As winter draws to a close and the first buds of spring burst, peppering our hawthorn hedges with optimistic little sprinkles of green, birders begin to lust after the first Wheatear. Well, this one does anyway. There are other birdy harbingers of spring which may come earlier, but for me the first Wheatear is the only one that counts, the only one that stirs something akin to joy in my cynical old heart. And so it was, in early March, with the looming spectre of a deadly virus just off-stage, that I and many others began to search with realistic hope for the bouncing white bum of a flushed Wheatear. Personally I had to wait until 18th, and an early-morning arrival at East Bexington. The next day several more were closer to home, at West Bay...

March 19th, West Bay. Perfection-on-a-stick.
 

And then there was Lockdown. The first couple of weeks were tricky, but soon enough I got into a routine of coastal walks, usually starting at first light. It was utter bliss. Empty.

It's 08:50 on April 11th. This is the car-less car park at Hive Beach, Burton Bradstock.

Wheatears were a constant companion on these walks. Almost without fail there would be one or two, or several. Oblivious of their power to cheer, they hopped up on to fence posts and walls, and sometimes posed for portraits. They made me very happy.

This one was on the wall pictured above, on the same morning

Another wall, another April male

One April morning as I walked east, someone else was doing likewise, more or less parallel to my route. I could see him in the distance and wondered if he was a birder too, though he seemed to have a rucksack but no bins. Due to my dawdling pace he was soon ahead and out of view. Some time later I saw him again, close to my path. He was toting a camera and appeared to be creeping up on something in the vegetation. Intrigued, I called out a greeting and asked if he was photographing insects. Slightly startled, he looked across at me and said, bluntly, "No." Naturally I had paused briefly, but as he was so unforthcoming I thought it prudent to simply carry on, with a slightly lame "Er...okay then..." However, I had carefully noted the location...

I don't know what I was expecting exactly, but certainly not this...

A stunning pair of Adders.

As the spring rolled on, Wheatears continued to be a regular distraction and source of joy. I met them on the empty beach, the empty car park, the empty camp site, the empty golf course...

I occasionally encountered a greenkeeper cutting the grass, but never any golfers. The course was closed, so I don't know what this slightly soiled Srixon no 4 was up to exactly.

And then it was May, and the end of lockdown imminent...

I took this in Bridport on May 12th, unsure when we would ever see the like again...

One of my favourite May Wheatear shots. Looking at it, I am transported straight back there...

Of course, Wheatear passage begins to dry up quite badly as May draws to a close. A late May Wheatear is always a bit special, and very welcome, but all too soon it is June, and you assume that's that. No more Wheatears for a few weeks...

And then out of the blue, on June 8th, a spanking male pops up in front of you at the back of Freshwater Beach...

Oof! What a cracker!

You'd almost forgotten what a spring Wheatear looks like, and yet here's one performing just for you on a gorgeous June evening...

I was so chuffed to come across this beaut, and it put such a smile on my face. I was still savouring it half an hour later, when I was stopped in my blithe, carefree tracks by a super-stonking male Red-backed Shrike! But that's another story.

And so it ends. The northward surge is done.

I'll be frank. Autumn Wheatears are not the same. For me, the Wheatear is synonymous with spring, with the fresh greens of new foliage. The returning birds are still lovely, but carry less import somehow. Nevertheless, seeing the first birds in late July is a nice reminder that other, scarcer autumn migrants will soon be here. And lets face it, migrants are migrants, and all are welcome...

Cogden Beach, July 30th

Much of July and early August was spent scouring the gulls for juv Yellow-legged, so there were plenty of Wheatear encounters on the beach at this time. But one of my favourites was on my old stamping ground, Beer Head, where a smart male was quite confiding. However, I prefer this 'birder's photo' depiction...

Beer Head, August 26th

And so, September comes. For me it's a month which always promises great things but rarely delivers. Mind you, two days before this next bird I'd found a Wryneck at Cogden, so no complaints here...

East Bexington, September 13th. Look at the fringes on that bird! Mmmmm! That blue stuff in the background is wet sea. I am so fortunate having the coast as my birding playground.

Finally then, October. As the month goes on it becomes progressively more difficult to get a decent Wheatear fix. Not for want of trying though. This year there was a lot of October birding. Not without reward either. Literally ten minutes after this next bird I found another Wryneck at Cogden!

It's 07:48 on October 1st, and that light is your actual, genuine, early-morning-sunshine warmth

In the past I have seen Wheatears in November, but not this year. The latest 2020 bird I photographed was on October 17th at West Bexington. I may have seen one on a later date, but I suspect not. So that's it, the 2020 Wheatear journey is at an end. And here I am, tapping away at this keyboard on December 27th, conscious that the annual epic that is Wheatear migration will begin again really quite soon. Right this second, within tiny balls of flesh and feather currently domiciled in distant parts of Africa, the nascent urge to travel rapidly to Pembrokeshire, or the west coast of Scotland, or Iceland, or Greenland, will soon take hold.

And once again they will come. And once again they will bring joy.

Friday, 25 December 2020

Not Blanking

Early this morning I packed the bins and camera into a rucksack and took them east to a nice spot on the River Frome. I took some other stuff too...

...like the wellington boot visible in this pic.

I snapped that photo just after casting out at 08:04, and immediately WhatsApp'd it to Rob in Switzerland. Three years ago to the day, we were supposed to be doing exactly this but got badly rained off. It was a beautiful, crisp, winter's morning, and I wanted to share it with Rob, knowing he was with me in spirit. However, I certainly wouldn't have predicted that I'd be sending him another photo exactly three minutes later...

This is possibly the smallest Grayling in Dorset

Yes, it might be tiny but it is a Grayling, and it meant I wasn't going to blank. Result.

The last couple of times I fished the Frome I caught nothing, and talking to other anglers at the time it seemed I wasn't the only one struggling that winter. I didn't go at all last season and have no idea what the fishing was like, but judging on today's return, this winter looks promising. I ended up with 7 Grayling and a little Trout. None were much bigger than half a pound or so, but it didn't matter. It was just good to get some bites...

Grayling are beautifully marked.

This pic shows the odd, snouty head shape

No other anglers to compare notes with today. The riverbank was empty. Perfect.

I spent all day with my bins around my neck and the camera within reach. No decent photo opportunities came my way, but there were a few birds to look at. A Cetti's Warbler in riverside reeds was nice, and a totally appropriate Kingfisher dashed across the flooded meadow. Flyovers included a Green Sandpiper heading upstream and two Egyptian Geese downstream.

And finally...

Instant feedback from the excellent Med Gull man, Camille Duponcheel, on yesterday's colour-ringed adult at West Bexington. Turns out it is an 11 year-old bird...

Just 4 sightings in 11 years. White 35ET has kept itself under the radar*.

Hopefully the angling urge will occur again before the winter is out. Mind you, gulls can be a bit distracting...

*Ah...I've just worked out why. It didn't get a colour-ring until May this year!

Thursday, 24 December 2020

White Lies

A short, afternoon gull fix at West Bex today. It was cold and sunny, with a brisk NW wind, and there were gulls all over the place. Loads of Common Gulls and a good number of Meds, plus a reasonable helping of everything else. The largest group of Med Gulls was about 40, but many others were scattered about. They were on (and over) the sea, as well as the mere and one or two inland fields. I found one colour-ringed bird on the beach...

I only got this one photo before they all flew, but had read the ring already. White 35ET is from a Belgian project. Details awaited.

At least three Red-throated Divers lurked offshore, but the main attraction by far was the constant to-ing and fro-ing of gulls. However, nothing unusual caught my eye. Walking slowly back towards the car park I noticed a very pale gull flying across the beach towards the mere. Larger than a Med Gull, even before I raised my bins I knew what it was. It was a Herring Gull.

A Herring Gull, Jim, but not as we know it...

Leucistic Herring Gull, with regular 1st-winter and adult.

This bird has been around for at least four days now, and despite appearances it is not pure white. It has been well photographed in flight by Mike Morse. His photos reveal pale, buffish markings on the primary coverts and elsewhere. I was definitely looking at the same bird...

Note buffish markings/wash on primary coverts and underwing

 

Herring Gulls that exhibit leucism to this extent are very scarce. Certainly I can only recall seeing one other like it. So I was intrigued to know whether this was the same bird that Tim Farr discovered at Sutton Bingham Reservoir back in October, and which featured in this post. It had a similarly scraggy look, but then white feathers do have a tendency to wear rapidly. It also had a similar 'expression' to my eye. I know that sounds a bit daft. I mean, how can gulls have an expression? Good question, just humour me. Anyway, the bill pattern looked familiar as well, but the only way to be sure was to compare photos...

Tim's bird bottom left and top right.
 

Size-wise, both are similarly small for a Herring Gull. But note the three obvious dark scapular markings on Tim's bird (arrowed in bottom left pic) - they are absent on the Bex bird. Have they been moulted? Or is it a different bird? The Bex individual also has a slightly cleaner bill base. Is that just what happenes with ten weeks-worth of development? Or is it a different bird? Unfortunately Tim didn't get a photo of the open wing, so I don't know if it had markings like the Bex bird. But...

Buff primary coverts visible below secondaries (arrow) on the Sutton Bingham bird.

So, are they one and the same? I don't know. Probably, is my verdict. You decide.

I love little puzzlers like this, and always like an interesting gull, but am less thrilled at the prospect of this bird getting strung left, right and centre as an Iceland Gull. Seen poorly, or at long range, it's a cock-up waiting to happen.

Still a smart and striking bird though, even if it is a bit deceitful...

Wednesday, 23 December 2020

Fishy Plans

Our eldest son, Rob, lives and works in Switzerland. He's been there a couple of years now, and I really miss his infectious enthusiasm for fishing. A few years ago it rekindled my own interest and fuelled a couple of successful campaigns on the Exeter Canal, for Pike and Tench, both documented in this blog. Last year I struggled for motivation in his absence, but eventually found a local lake which fired me up a bit. Small and intimate, quite lightly fished, with a nice head of modest Carp which were challenging to catch...

Not large, but very pretty.

This year I was looking forward to getting involved again, but Covid-19 happened. And then, just as things were set to ease, and anglers able to venture forth again...the lake went syndicate. So that was that.

Thankfully it didn't matter really, because birding was pretty much full-on throughout 2020. But just occasionally I still get this real hankering to get the rods out again. Like now. And the fish that beckons is Grayling...

I've only caught a few Grayling, and never a big one. I've written about that before. The last time I went Grayling fishing was with Rob, almost two years ago. We blanked with spectacular proficiency. But...

...it turned out a beautiful evening.

So anyway, I want to try again, and this time will be alone. Before I committed to a plan I thought it wise to go and inspect the river, because there's a lot more water around than last time, and I needed to check there was still some accessible river bank...

The view from a famous old bridge this afternoon. In normal conditions the only water visible would be running down the centre of the photo, rather than all over the surrounding fields!

 
Better, but not great. At least I could walk the river bank. Well, some of it. Just.

That was good enough for me, and there is now a box of maggots in the fridge, oblivious to their imminent fate. A purist would fish for his Grayling by skillfully guiding a float down the river, with the bait suspended below. This is float-fishing, or more specifically, trotting. I've caught a few this way, and heartily approve; it's my favourite method. But I'm afraid my heretical plans involve a lazy bit of feeder-fishing. I will plonk down in my seat, lob a block-end feeder along the near bank, stick my rod in a rest, and wait for a pull. The weather is threatening a cold northerly, and that way I can keep my sensitive, old-man's hands stuffed in warm pockets, or wrapped around a hot coffee.

So this is what I'm hoping for...

December 2017. A nice, pound-plus Grayling in its element.

Well, I wasn't expecting to write a fishing post. And if there isn't another before January 1st...er...just pretend this one didn't happen.

Monday, 21 December 2020

Not Quite the End of the Year

Just lately I've been trawling through the year's photos in preparation for some kind of 2020 review type post. Unfortunately my shortlist of images totals more than 50, so maybe I'll write a few themed posts rather than a single monster.

NQS-wise it's been a good year. An exceptional year. This blog is about as active as it's ever been, and rarely lacks the material required to make that happen. Life-wise it's been a strange one though. Sure, there's been the usual mix of happy times and sad, but played out against the most unexpected backdrop. Anyway, before I get too philosophical I'll bring the birdy stuff up to date...

Following last Thursday's jammy Caspian Gull I was impelled by a strong urge to revisit the Axe on Friday, despite a dire weather forecast. My plan was to sit in the car, eat a ve-e-e-e-ry leisurely lunch and enjoy a steady parade of quality gulls. Er...

Usually such a pleasant spot.

The Axe Estuary just S of Coronation Corner, with a good six or seven gulls on it.

The gulls were clearly elsewhere. Some were sheltering in a virtually unviewable field across the river, but the vast majority had apparently chosen another county or something. It was desperate.

On Saturday I had another excuse to be in Seaton, with Sandra this time. We arrived in time to get very distant views of the hulking great Glaucous Gull on its third visit to the Axe. Moments later the whole flock spooked and flew, and we lost the Glauc almost immediately in the melee. We tried Beer beach, just in case it had dropped in there, but there were no gulls at all. However, I had forgotten that an Eider recently made itself at home offshore, so was pleased to realise that a distant brown dot looked the right kind of shape for one...

Young drake Eider. I certainly couldn't see this amount of detail with bins, through which it genuinely was a dot. And mostly an invisible one, buried in the troughs.

Heading home, two white blobs in a field at the far north end of the estuary turned out to be...

...Cattle Egrets.

Yesterday afternoon I went for a walk on Cogden Beach with a non-birding friend. A Great Black-backed Gull caught our eye, hacking away at a very large, inanimate lump of something...

I've come across dead Harbour Porpoise once or twice, but I think this is my first dead dolphin. I'm not sure if it's a Common or Bottlenose Dolphin, but the question seems academic somehow.

And so to this afternoon. At lunchtime I was at West Bexington. A flock of 22 Brents east over the village was a nice surprise, but I had gulls on my mind. A local birder reported seeing Caspian Gull on the West Bex mere a couple of days ago, an Iceland Gull was photographed over it last Thursday, and anyway, gulls is gulls, and the mere seems to pull them in. In all the comings and goings the best I managed was a count of 17 Med Gulls on the water together. Still, it was a pleasant 90 minutes of idling on a windy, spray-shrouded beach. Heavy rain was forecast, so I plodded back to the car before it arrived.

Anyway, before I start picking the bones out of 2020 I should remember that it still has ten days to run. Anything might happen...