Wednesday, 28 April 2021

Springing Along

Throughout the spring I've been checking the weather forecast quite carefully, not just for work but also its possible influence on bird movements. I am notoriously bad at predicting good birding from weather charts. It is a skill - more likely, art - which I lack. So it was a bit rash of me to tweet the following on Monday evening...

Precipitation/wind direction for 07:00 today, as published on Ventusky Monday evening


The rain was forecast to push slowly southwards during the early hours, and out into the Channel. My simplistic interpretation pictured a million migrants setting off from France under a clear sky, encountering unexpected rain, and so ditching on the Dorset coast at first light; tired, wet and bedraggled. In the event, it did happen...but only on Portland!

Ah well...

At least I put my money where my mouth is, heading out at dawn and getting soaked. I was home by 07:00! I did see one slightly unusual beach inhabitant...

It's 06:23, raining steadily, and both me and the Oystercatcher are hacked off about those facts.

After breakfast the rain eased. Out again...

Stuff was happening, but not as much as I had hoped. I found a distant group of 5 White Wagtails in the middle of an enormous field, but the bushes were far from leaping. A whistle-stop tour of a few local spots produced 2 Whinchats, a few Willow Warblers and just 3 Wheatears. From the beach I counted 12 Whimbrel, 4 Ringed Plovers and 2 Little Terns. The latter were a real treat. Little Tern was dead scarce on the Axe patch, and these are the first I've seen in West Dorset. It's been quite a few years since my last encounter with this delightful species.

Little Terns. Looking very, very little.

No bigger.

I initially mistook one of the Whinchats for a Wheatear. It was facing away, and running about in the grass in exactly the same start/stop way that Wheatears do. I wondered why it looked a bit odd and streaky. Was it soaking wet? A few paces closer and the penny dropped...

Definitely not a Wheatear!

This is a Wheatear.

The second bird. Surprisingly obliging for a Whinchat.

Just gorgeous...

Bad photo of Whimbrel, but I like the shapes.

It's been hard to keep the blog up to date, what with all the early mornings and late evenings. So here's a quick catch-up...

While the weather favoured it, I did a fair bit of seawatching. Since the post before last I have finally seen some skuas. Two Arctics (one pale, one dark) and one unidentifiable (mega-distant, but pale). No Poms for me yet, but there is plenty of time yet. The following list covers 23rd to 25th April...

Whimbrel 128
Dunlin 3
Bar-tailed Godwit 16
Sanderling 3
Turnstone 1
Sandwich Tern 23
Manx Shearwater 105
Peregrine 1
Red-throated Diver 3
Great Northern Diver 1
Med Gull 9
Common Scoter 90
Arctic Skua 2
skua sp (Pom/Arctic) 1
'Commic' Tern 27
Common Tern 4
Arctic Tern 3
Kittiwake 8
Shelduck 1
Yellow-legged Gull 1 (2nd-summer)
Red-breasted Merganser 1 drake

None of the seawatching was fast and furious, but there was always enough to stop me from packing it in. Also, some nice surprises. Like the YLG and Red-breasted Merganser, both of which are just the sort of distraction that momentarily stops you dwelling on the total, one-hundred percent absence of Poms...

Other than the sea, it's been slow going since Saturday. No birds of particular note at all. But I'll still point the camera at anything which craves attention...

...like this superb Whimbrel.


The rattling song of Lesser Whitethroat is good enough on its own, but the blackthorn perch just makes it perfect.

And then of course, there are Wheatears...




...and through the arched window...

The last two or three days have seen Common Terns become much more obvious off the beach. On Sunday I reached a total of 40-odd until I realised there was a bit of to-ing and fro-ing, and I actually had no idea how many I'd seen!

Although there is obvious contrast between [old] outer and [new] inner primaries, no real dark wedges yet. Bit of a trap for the unwary. Mind you, Arctic looks much 'cleaner' winged to my eye.

And just a teeny wedge on this one.

While we're looking out to sea, I'll mention that brown Gannet which featured on the previous post. I was intrigued to notice that the Portland Bird Observatory blog had posted a photo of a very similar bird which went past two days later, with a caption noting how unusual it was to see one at this time of year. Very similar, I thought...

There is just enough detail visible in my super-low-res pic to confirm that it's the same bird.

Yesterday I noted my first Wall butterfly of 2021, at West Bexington. It didn't pose. And I added another orchid to my local list. A whole bunch of Early Purple Orchids, which I stumbled across in a really obvious place that I must have walked past umpteen times while they've been in flower...

Early Purple Orchid, Cogden.

Green-winged Orchid, West Bexington. I had been told the location of these, but they still took a bit of hunting down. There weren't many.

The idea of this post was a four-day summary, but I've not even mentioned nocmig. Another time...

Saturday, 24 April 2021

Nocmig Mega and Many Birds

Well. What a day. Burton Bradstock seawatch, followed by nocmig analysis, followed by afternoon walk at West Bex, followed by Cogden seawatch. I would love to write loads, but need some sleep before another early alarm call, so...

I go through a nocmig spectrogram in 28-second bites. Mostly I skip through them extremely quickly, because 99% carry nothing of interest. I'd got to almost midnight, then this...

Well, I didn't know what it was going to be...other than loud!

It was this...


Yes, that's a very close flock of Dunlin. Easily the loudest I've recorded, and my first this year. So you can guess I was already buzzing from that, but another hour's-worth of recording produced the following bunch of squiggles, and after playing it just once I was on cloud nine!

As it appeared on the screen...

...and stretched out a bit.

I'll tell you now: it's a Stone-curlew! Exactly one year, one day, 23 hours and 41 minutes after my gob-smacking first one last spring, another of these wonderful creatures flies over my nocmig tackle and gives vent to some strangled yodelling! You couldn't make it up!

Unless some prankster knows where I live, of course...

Anyway, what a coincidence, eh? Especially when you factor in Thursday's Cogden bird, which incidentally occured on exactly the same date as my 2020 nocmig bird: April 22nd!

This is what it sounds like...


Already I have used way too many exclamation marks in this post, so I'll try to keep the rest of it measured and calm. Suffice to say that the birding has been supremely acceptable, with many so-called 'common' migrants to get excited about. Here are several pics...

Whimbrel from this morning's seawatch

Almost every Gannet I've seen recently has been a white one, so this brown job got papped 'just in case'. I do not have an encyclopaedic knowledge of the world's gannets and boobies and whatnot, and these days you simply never know what might fly past, do you?

One of a pair of gorgeous Yellow Wagtails at Bex. My first this year.

Small Copper. Another 'first this year'.

Lesser Whitethroat. One of two. Again, my first this year.

Wheatear. Not my first this year.

In the background, a couple of orchids. There is no public access, but I'll bet they're Green-winged.


Mmmmmmm...

A pipit.

Just occasionally I tie myself in stupid knots over the identification of a relatively easy bird. Maybe it's an age thing. Or just incompetence. Whatever. This pipit for example. I flushed the bird off a path and it flew - silently - to this perch. As you can see, it is horribly backlit. I managed just a couple of photos before it flew - silently again of course - into the middle of a field of crops. It wasn't very close, but binocular views told me it was a Tree Pipit. The flank streaks looked very thin, and I thought I could detect the makings of an Olive-backed Pipit type ear covert spot. So I get home, load the pics on to the laptop, and immediately start fretting. Are those flank streaks actually fine enough? The bill looks pretty robust, but is it robust enough? And where's the ear covert spot? I don't see it! And of course the hind toe is hidden! The other photo...

Anyway, I settled on Tree Pipit eventually, but if anyone wants to sort me out...?

So, I've been birding forty-odd years, and look at me! Hopefully one or two readers will find it reassuring that someone with so much experience is sometimes really useless!

A lovely (but uncooperative) female Redstart. I can do Redstarts.

Right, that's about it I think. I would love to include a list of birds seen today, but time is against me...

Good night.

Sunset from the Cogden seawatch spot.

Friday, 23 April 2021

Smiling at the Small Things

Very often it's really easy to work out why there is a big, fat grin all over your birding face. An out-of-context Stone-curlew, say. But many times the memorable and enjoyable things are small, perhaps even surprising...

These last couple of days have seen the wind strengthen somewhat, from principally an easterly direction. For me that means seawatching - if I can - even when it's blowing offshore a bit. My reasoning is that at least a few of the birds heading up-Channel will get pushed westwards into Lyme Bay, and at some point may well be visible from my local bit of coast. Certainly I've learned that Burton Bradstock, Cogden et al are a lot more reliable in these conditions than Seaton was. In three shortish watches, this is my tally so far:

Whimbrel 51
Dunlin 3
Bar-tailed Godwit 27
Sandwich Tern 15
Manx Shearwater 131
Peregrine 1
Red-throated Diver 2
Med Gull 2
Common Scoter 19
Arctic Skua 1

This evening's highlight was undoubtedly the light-phase Arctic Skua which cruised E past Burton Bradstock at 19:07. I'd been in position for no more than two or three minutes, and the only reason I'd made the effort at all was a message on the local WhatsApp group to the effect that a Pom Skua flew E past Dawlish a little earlier. So, James, thanks for getting me out!

Cogden yesterday evening. Not exactly classic seawatch conditions, but it was warm, peaceful, and there were birds...

Striding along the Cogden shingle this morning at sunrise, I noticed a flicker of movement ahead of me. A tiny bird was flying left, away from the sea, at no more than ankle height. It landed in a scanty bit of vegetation and peered at me. A Willow Warbler. I wondered how long it had just taken to cross the vast expanse of sea between here and France, and how knackered it was after tackling that stiff easterly. No more than a few grams of warm-blooded flesh and feather. What they accomplish...

Amazing stuff.

Yesterday afternoon I picked up what was clearly a falcon, far out to sea. For ages I watched it slowly approach the coast. To make forward progress against the strong ESE pushing it sideways, the bird appeared to angle itself at 45 degrees, occasionally side-slipping low to the waves as if resting briefly, but mainly flapping strongly. I suspect it was a Hobby, but when it finally reached land the range was simply too great to be sure. Again, amazing stuff. Blown away by a bird that I couldn't even identify with total confidence!

Sitting in the garden this afternoon - in between bouts of chatty, toddling granddaughter - I heard the gull alarm go off...

The garden's 2nd Red Kite of 2021. It is munching something, and couldn't care less about the agitated escort.

Birding is supremely excellent on so many levels...

Thursday, 22 April 2021

Wish-list Tick

Like most birders, I expect, I have an unwritten list of exciting birdy events that I would like to happen one day. A wish-list. Most involve finding good birds. At one end of the scale are realistic hopes like my Redstart encounter in the last post, while at the other end resides the stuff of fantasy. Somewhere in the middle are the 'very unlikely, but not impossible'. One of those happened today...

When I first got to know Cogden Beach a few years ago, I recall reading how Mike and Alan - the Bex and Cogden regulars - accidentally flushed a Stone-curlew off the beach one day. It's not hard to visualise. Cogden Beach is wide and birdy, with a rich flora. It is also very long, and first thing in the morning usually deserted. When I visit during migration season, and sense that I am probably the first person to walk the beach that day, I sometimes think about that oft-pictured Stone-curlew flush, and entertain a fragile hope. What a hopeless romantic.

This morning I arrived at 06:15, parked up and ambled very slowly down towards the beach. A couple of Blackcaps were in fine voice, but the scrub otherwise felt a bit empty. No telltale Willowy Warbling to suggest an overnight arrival. Reaching the coast path I turned left and looked along the beach. In the distance I could see a woman jogging along its crown towards West Bexington, so mentally abandoned thoughts of any large, flushable birds being left undisturbed. Still, nothing ventured...

I had barely gone 100 yards when a biggish bird lifted off the back of the beach and flew towards the sea. In silhouette it had an oddly hunched look, and my first thought was 'What the heck is that?!' Then I got my bins on it, more or less as it moved into better light, and the penny dropped. Stone-curlew! Never has a camera been ripped from its bag more rapidly. I didn't muck about with mega-zoom, just 300mm; I wanted a sure-fire photo in the can before it headed off to Devon.

Stone-curlew and Golden Cap, arguably the highest spot on the south coast.

Instead of Devon it chose to swing around and return to Cogden. I saw it touch down on the grassy field between the beach and the car park. There followed a couple of minutes of frantic phone activity, during which a woman and three dogs appeared from the direction of the car park and walked right past the Stone-curlew field. Agh!! Surely it must have flushed again? I didn't see it fly, but I was a long way off. Approaching closer I couldn't see it in the field either. Mike was on his way from Bex, and Alan from home, and the bird had vanished. Not again! Last year all my decent Cogden birds did a bunk before anyone else got to see them, and I really didn't want another one on that list...

I don't know what made me scan the coast path to the west, but I did, and there in the far distance was a leggy bird imitating the behaviour of a huge plover. It had to be, surely?! It was. Forgive the pictorial overload...



Unlike the two Stone-curlews I've seen on the old Axe patch, no colour-rings on this one.


By now Mike had arrived, and we hoped Alan would turn up before the first dog-walker loomed over the horizon from the direction of Burton Bradstock. Because when that happened, the bird would definitely be off again. Unfortunately he didn't, but the Stone-curlew considerately flew only as far as the first field inland...

Very distant, but what a wing pattern!

Thankfully Alan arrived in time to see it here. I headed off along the beach as originally intended, while Mike and Alan moved uphill for better views. Roughly an hour after its first appearance, the Stone-curlew departed north over the coastal ridge, and Mike got these final flight shots...

What a cracker!    Pics © Mike Morse

This is the first Stone-curlew I've genuinely 'found'. I was party to the discovery of one on St Agnes in Scilly in April 1986, but wasn't the first to clap eyes on it, so never counted that bird as a find. I have to say, the reality of today's events certainly matched those imagined! I am buzzing!

Apart from a nice flock of 2 Whimbrel and 4 Bar-tailed Godwits, and 2 Wheatears, the rest of my walk was uneventful. However, I will close with the tale of one of those Wheatears...

At one point in my beach walk I went down to the waterline to check for waders. A Wheatear was crouched on the shingle, about 10 yards onto dry land. I tried to get around it so the sun was behind me for a photo, but it flew to the top of the beach. I tried again...

I managed just this one shot, then it flew...

Yes, it flew. It flew across the beach, across the coast path, and across the first field, gaining height all the time. Heading north with intent, it grew smaller and smaller...and smaller. I would like to say that I watched until it melted into the sky, but instead I used mental extrapolation to visualise just that, and lowered my bins. Wow. That Wheatear had literally just arrived on our shores, and there it was, streaking away like a little rocket. Migration!

Saturday, 17 April 2021

Finding Your Own Birds

This afternoon I found my own Redstart. It didn't happen exactly as I imagined, but pretty close...

A spring male Redstart has been on my 'wanted' list for ages. The last one I saw was at Cogden on April 23rd, 2017. Which sounds dreadful, doesn't it? Four years ago! My excuse is total lack of effort in 2018 and 2019, and total lack of good fortune in 2020. Anyway, this year I have been trying hard. The local coast looks so good for migrant Redstarts, and you would imagine they'd be everywhere. But the reality is different. They might be Common Redstart by name, but common they are not. And part of the problem could simply be the sheer wealth of suitable habbo. At Bex and Cogden alone there are miles and miles of hedgerows like this one...

Lovely, isn't it?

A short, early-morning walk at Cogden had been quiet. Apart from 4 Wheatears the only signs of fresh migrants were a singing Willow Warbler and three Whitethroats - though the latter might have been birds on territory already. But at lunchtime I noticed that Portland had a few new bits and bobs, including two or three Redstarts, which gave me hope for the intended afternoon visit to West Bexington.

I stuck to the east side of the village, and worked every accessible (or visible) hedgerow that I could. I even found a couple of paths I'd never walked before, so it was a little voyage of discovery too...

I saw a phyllosc fly up into a small tree, so peered at the canopy through my bins. There was a movement, but instead of the anticipated phyllosc I could see a load of red belly through the twiggage - and way too much for a Robin! Ha! I know what you are! Yesss! My gorgeous little prize immediately flew up the field and into another tree along the hedge, and vanished. So I waited. Soon enough it popped out into view, dropping briefly into the field to grab some morsel. I snatched a quick burst of shots...

Oof! Look at that! Redstart blur

I sat down in the grass and just watched it for a while. It was rather distant but seemed at ease, so I made no attempt to get any closer. It behaved exactly as you'd expect a migrant Redstart to behave. It sat jauntily in the hedge, all pert loveliness and quivery red tail, and periodically whisked out into the field to grab some wriggly edible. Every single photo is blighted with ghastly heat-haze, but these two less than most...



I moved on eventually, ridiculously pleased with this brief encounter. I couldn't work out whether the odd sense of relief I felt was due to the lifting of some self-imposed pressure, or the satisfaction of a challenging job successfully accomplished. Whatever, my step was weirdly happy and light...

Let's face it, I could have driven to Portland and probably guaranteed myself a Redstart, but this one was a £20 note compared to what would have been a Portland penny. When it comes to value, no comparison. Which is why I am such a zealous advocate of the 'find your own' approach. It's hard to beat the feeling that comes with finding nice birds in the quieter, less-hammered spots.

By this point I had seen very few other migrants. Less than a handful of Willow Warblers was about it. In fact, a scuttling Lizard sp (presumably Common Lizard) had been the afternoon's highlight, followed by this...

My first Orange Tip of the year, being very uncooperative.

Wandering into East Bexington territory for a bit, I came across my one and only Wheatear. Obviously it needed photographing...

The heat-haze is immense, so the Wheatear remains small!

At East Bex there are a couple of ditches-cum-hedgerows which basically run straight inland from the sea. They look obvious birdy highways in the wide expanse of open farmland. Here's one of them...

Looking inland from the bottom end. Just a mass of chest-high Alexanders.

The top end includes a hedge which is currently seven or eight feet high.

Imagine an overcast, drizzly spring morning, and a mass arrival of tired little birds. That Alexanders would be absolutely leaping, surely? Hopefully I'll get the chance to find out one day.

Almost two hours after the joyous Redstart happening I was close to the end of my walk. Of course, I had continued to check every hedgerow still. Another Willow Warbler or two, but nothing else. And then...

Hello. What's this, sitting up all pert and perky? Ha!

Miles away! Rubbish light, desperate heat-haze, but...gorgeous male Redstart number two!

Unfortunately I couldn't get any closer and had to make do with these views. But I didn't care. This Redstart had definitely read the script, and fitted perfectly into my imagined scenario: scan hedge; spot bird; get excited. It moved up and down the hedge a bit, but was always distant.

Yeah, I know. Just a couple of Common Redstarts. Regular spring migrant. Nothing special.

Ha ha! You have no idea!