Monday, 31 May 2021

Sprung

Summer will be here in a few hours. As forecast, the final day of meteorological spring has been sunny, warm and dry. In fact the whole bank-holiday weekend has been good, attracting visitors from far and wide. As I went past Freshwater Beach Holiday Park at about 05:20 this morning the campsite looked about as full as it can get. By 08:30 I was home again. Such anti-social hours are certainly one way to beat the coastal crush.

It was worth the early start. A nice bunch of waders on the beach - 30 Sanderlings and a Turnstone - and a west-bound Red Kite which was hassled out to sea for a while by two Crows. I didn't venture inland very far, but I reckon any Golden Orioles would have been perfectly audible. A few pics...

Grey Seal heading away east with purpose

Turnstone on the left; Sanderlings on the right, ignoring it


Turnstone. Not a common wader locally...

...but a very attractive one.

West Bay in the distance. It's 07:05, but already a few non-fisherman bodies on the beach at Burton Bradstock, just before the cliffs.

07:07, and my third backpacker of the morning checks out some of the waders.

Red Kite makes its way back to land, yelling crossly...

...and up towards the coastal ridge.

Another way to avoid the coastal crush is to sit indoors and review the night's nocmig recording. This is a terrific idea if you fancy having your eardrums perforated by a Little Grebe bellowing down the microphone...


And finally, a third way to avoid the coastal crush is to not go there at all. After lunch Sandra and I headed inland a bit for a stroll around a local nature reserve. In a couple of hours we encountered just two other couples. Perfect. Even perfecter, we got an unexpected butterfly tick. Grizzled Skipper. Because I've never really bothered with butterflies there are many gaps like that one.

And it wasn't just butterfles...

Green Tiger Beetle, the first I've seen for years.

Female Broad-bodied Chaser.

There were a few Dingy Skippers, all a bit camera-shy



Grizzled Skipper. What a smart little butterfly.

And again, set off nicely by a few speedwell and forget-me-not flowers. At least, I think that's what they are.

And that's about it for spring. June will soon be here, with its flimsy promise of rare stuff and little else. Last year was too good to be true, so I suspect the next few weeks will go like this:

Non-birdy distractions.

Thinking about autumn.

DIY.

It could be a long summer...

Saturday, 29 May 2021

Winding Down

And here we are at the end of May. For me, a time of winding down and relaxing a bit, and doing something about the accumulated sleep deprivation of way too many early alarms. Yesterday was the first time since Monday that I've bothered getting up before normal people, but I must admit it was worth the bother. Cattle Egret is no longer the novelty it was, but still very scarce along the coastal strip between Abbotsbury and Seaton. So I was delighted when the egret which flew over my shoulder and away along the beach between West Bex and Cogden, giving frustrating glimpses of a probably pale bill and what looked like dark feet, veered right and dropped in among some cattle. Sorted.

Cattle Egret. A new bird for me along the coastal strip locally.

The morning's other highlight was a sure sign of imminent June. A flower...

Greater Butterfly Orchid. At least, I hope so.

A lie-in this morning, then a lazy afternoon in the garden, soaking up the long-awaited sun and a bit of heat. And scanning the sky. Two or three Sparrowhawks, at least 4 Red Kites and a distant Peregrine made things interesting...

First garden Peregrine of the year.

Red Kite, heading for Cornwall no doubt.

Driving to work yesterday it was obvious that the bank holiday weekend was almost upon us. The A35 was heaving. This evening I was curious to see what the coast looked like, and popped over to West Bexington for a walk. Well, as usual it was quite easy to find a quiet route, but down on the beach...

The view looking east towards the Abbotsbury Beach encampment. Glorious.

Naturally I checked all the hedges for Woodchat Shrikes, and naturally there were none.

...and no cheeeeeeeeeese

This rather dense Roe buck took ages to work out how dangerous I was

Arriving back at home I wondered why my feet felt so uncomfortably hot. As my boots released their screaming captives, I thought I'd better take a look...

Ooh, my word, they're very red aren't they?

Yes. Yes, they are.

Ha ha! That's what happens when you sit bare-foot in the garden all afternoon. Idiot.

Monday, 24 May 2021

The Last Hurrah

Locally this spring I have used seawatching spots at West Bay, Burton Bradstock and Cogden. Each has its pros and cons, but yesterday morning I chose the West Bay shelter, and here's why...

When a Bridport birder is slobbing about indoors and procrastinating about going seawatching, this is just the rocket he needs.

Steve made sure we all got the news, and I was out in a flash. To be honest I thought the chances of a Long-tailed Skua rounding the Bill and heading towards the coast were pretty slim, but if it did I wanted to give it the best possible chance of coming within viewing range. West Bay is not only my nearest spot, but also the furthest west of my options. Between 06:50 and 08:05 I was entertained by 2 Arctic Skuas, 14 Common Scoters, 5 Kittiwakes, a Great Northern Diver and a Sandwich Tern. All very nice, but top spot went to a 2nd-summer Yellow-legged Gull which was feeding offshore with Herring Gulls, and surprisingly easy to identify in the excellent light. Neither I nor anyone else who had been galvanised into action by the Portland news had even a sniff of a Long-tailed Skua, but I doubt there were any regrets about making the effort. I certainly had none.

By lunchtime the wind had escalated to something approaching gale force I would say, and was accompanied by driving rain. I was confident that any skuas would be sitting this out, so a mid-afternoon message that James M was getting the odd Arctic Skua past Lyme Regis was a surprise. Out again then...

The West Bay shelter was just about viable. If the wind had swung a little further west of south I would have been getting very wet. As it was, the view was pretty decent, though visibility limited by the soggy murk. There was always something to look at, with a constant turnover of feeding gulls providing at least a handful of birds at a time. The only gull of note was a brief 1st-summer Med Gull, but thankfully there was also more traditional seawatching fare, including 19 Manxies, a Kittiwake and an Arctic Skua. But the principal players were much smaller. At 16:22 the first of five Storm Petrels skittered effortlessly past into the wind, close enough to follow it for a few seconds in the hefty sea. The last - two together - went by at 17:20. Stormies are always a treat, but especially good value in rough weather. Watching them make light work of a gale is pretty awesome.

West Bay yesterday afternoon. A ropey phone pic, but look at that sea!

This morning I was up at the crack, hoping that yesterday's weather had pushed loads of seabirds into Lyme Bay and that they would all parade past me at Cogden. I was encouraged by a Storm Petrel heading east quite close in at 06:04, but apart from a single Great Northern Diver, in an hour a forty minutes there were only three other entries in my notes, all flocks: 11 Common Scoter E, 12 Sanderling and 14 Dunlin W. It was achingly slow, and I had to sit out a lengthy downpour beneath a brolly. By 07:30 I'd had enough.

I think that was the last hurrah, and my spring seawatching might now be over...

This evening I was at Cogden again, just for a walk on the beach. I honestly thought there would be no birds worth mentioning, but a couple of Swifts heading west were obviously migrants and, best of all, this...

Gorgeous Wheatear in the evening sun. My first since May 15th!

Look at the colour of this beaut! Definitely not one of ours, I suspect it still has a long journey ahead.
 

I thoroughly enjoyed my walk on the beach, and discovering that despite the appalling recent weather a passerine migrant had made the effort to cross the Channel was quite exciting. Last year, the next 16 days provided me with Golden Oriole, Blyth's Reed Warbler, 2 Rosy Starlings and a male Red-backed Shrike. While I'm not expecting lightning to strike twice, I'd like to think that this evening's Wheatear was a harbinger of something a little more exotic very soon...

Friday, 21 May 2021

Five and a Half Hours

There is something hypnotically compelling about a rough sea. That's not just an opinion; it is fact. It must be, because there is no other way to explain my spending 5.5 hours of the day staring at it...

As forecast, it was a stormy night. Very windy, the odd shower. The sea off Cogden looked and sounded absolutely magnificent as it heaved and roared. Hunched in my old fishing chair and sheltered in the lee of a hedge, with brolly close at hand, I was warm, cosy and ready to note down a massive tally of birds. A flock of 7 Kittiwakes struggled past, then a Manxie, and then...and then...a great big long gap...

The 2.5 hours between 06:00 and 08:30 slipped away surprisingly quickly considering how few birds there were. I was pleased to see 2 dark-phase Arctic Skuas resting offshore. If they hadn't lifted off a couple of times I might have missed them, but they thought better of going anywhere and plonked back down, slowly drifting away eastwards. Also notable was a tight group of 19 Swifts which weaved its way west through the troughs like a flock of waders. The final haul comprised 8 Kitts, 2 Great Northern Divers, 15 Manxies, the 2 Arctic Skuas, 11 Common Scoter and 23 Swifts. Highlights from fellow WhatsApp group seawatchers along the coast included 2 Poms, a few Arctic Skuas, several Great Northern Divers and a possible Sooty Shearwater, so there were a few bits about. Which guaranteed that I'd be tempted out again later.

At 16:30 I was once again in position, determined to stick it out, come what may. The first hour yielded a single Manx Shearwater. After two hours I had added 4 more Manxies and a Great Northern Diver. Hotting up massively. The next 30 minutes were completely frantic: 4 Manxies and a STORM PETREL! I almost missed the Stormie. It was so close that it nearly slipped beneath my scope's field of view. So close that I could actually see its white rump with binoculars alone. So close that I got the camera out and went for a record shot. Unfortunately I couldn't pick it up in the viewfinder so ended up taking a calculated guess at where it must be and firing off a burst. Here's the best one...

Sadly I missed, and there is no Storm Petrel in this photo. But the sea looks great doesn't it?

Actually the Storm Petrel saved the day. For starters, it's a few years since I've seen one locally. So that's nice. And secondly, yesterday's post could easily be read as a tentative prediction of the species' appearance today as a result of the current weather. And if you did read it that way, well, good, and I feel duly vindicated. However, if you thought I was predicting Long-tailed Skuas, I'm sorry but you would be quite wrong there...

Anyway, the final 30 minutes of the late seawatch produced a flock of 4 Common Scoter. Totalling the notables gives me 15 individual birds, or one every 12 minutes. When you consider they didn't all come one at a time, or at evenly-spaced intervals, it gives you a little insight into exactly how stubborn one needs to be to endure an average Lyme Bay seawatch. And proof beyond doubt that a rough sea casts a spell.

Thursday, 20 May 2021

The Sea

Today I twice went and looked at the sea. An hour and a quarter this morning produced 1 Great Northern Diver and a Kittiwake. Apart from a few auks whizzing about, that was it. This evening was better. An hour and twenty minutes for 47 Manxies, 39 Kitts and a lovely dark-phase Arctic Skua which briefly interrupted its journey west to hassle a gull. I have to say, the sea looked absolutely splendid...

The view at Cogden this evening.



The wind is set to continue blowing hard all night from a south-westerly direction. That fact, combined with the date, takes me back to my early days on the Axe patch. The night of 18th May, 2006 was quite similar, and the following morning delivered a nice Seaton tick for some of us: Storm Petrel. It was the beginning of a crazy 10-day period which saw an unprecedented spring influx of Stormies pushed into the English Channel. According to the Dungeness Bird Observatory website, the 43 birds they counted on May 21st shattered their previous all-time total of just 19 individuals over 54 years, none of which were in spring!

Out of curiosity I looked up the pressure chart for 18th May, 2006...

Top: 18/5/2006  Bottom: today. Not identical of course, but similar enough to get me fired up a bit.
(With grateful thanks to Metcheck.com)

Tomorrow is May 21st. A special date. On the same day 15 years ago, during that 2006 red-letter period, Steve and I were privileged to witness a rare and special spring seabird. The following accounts are copied straight from the Backwater Birding thread which still lurks in a quiet corner of BirdForum. Hopefully Steve won't mind my lifting his bit too...

Steve first...

Two sea watches today, morning and evening. Gav will tell all, but tonight absolutely unbelievable!!! Ten minutes after two Arctic Skuas came by.... At 19:48 these were my exact words... "Skua.... (brief pause)....It looks like a long-tailed.... (another brief pause)... SH*T IT'S A LONG-TAILED!!!!!" A full tailed adult Long-tailed Skua flew west, first for Seaton area. Unfortunately just me and Gav were seawatching at the time so we were the only lucky ones. I cannot describe the excitement and the....WOWNESS!!!! An absolute dream Seaton bird! Also had another year tick tonight in the form of an Arctic Tern which was offshore for a few minutes, but this has somewhat paled into insignificance!

And mine...

This morning was a bit of a let-down after recent events. Not much wind, not much sea, and not much birds. 05:30-07:00 produced just 9 Manxies, 22 Common Scoter and a probable RTD. Storm Petrels were still on the move though, with 3 to me, plus 3 or 4 more seen by the others (4 of us this morning).

Otherwise engaged throughout the day, but not so out of touch that I didn't notice the change in the weather! Very strong S or SSE, plus loads of rain, clearing mid-afternoon, but still windy. Thought I'd sit down to a cuppa when I got home around 17:30, relax, get out later, but a quick look at Birdguides convinced me to get down the seafront pronto.....Long-tailed Skuas around, including one at Hope's Nose, and, more crucially, one at Portland late afternoon (mistakenly thought it said 'flew W', but have just noticed that was a Hants bird - no matter, it got me out!). In position at 18:00......Steve phoned: "How's it going?" "It's worth it - Manxies, Terns, plus Portland had a LTS that flew W - get down here!" He did.

That bird was such a wonderful prize, and I have yet to see another adult Long-tailed Skua. I'm not deluded enough to suggest that there will be another tomorrow, but given a couple more days of these weather systems, who knows? Whatever, it'll be another early alarm in the morning...

Saturday, 15 May 2021

The Beach

I clearly remember the first time I went to Cogden beach. Not a birding visit, it was for a barbecue with friends. As we walked down from the car park I heard a Lesser Whitethroat rattling away in the scrub, and then a burst of Cetti's Warbler. Arriving at the beach, my curiosity led me to the reedbed. It was further away than I realised, and I recall thinking how horrible the fine shingle was, what a chore it would be to walk any distance on it. Yuk. Imagine birding here...

Yesterday evening I was in dire need of a chill, and headed straight for Cogden. Chore? The shingle? Not for a second. After a short time poking about the fields and hedgerows I was straight down the beach. Eagerly, I might add. The weather has not been kind just recently, and I had guessed there would be very few birds. Correctly. One Spot Fly in the hedges and two Wheatears on the beach...

Spotted Flycatcher

The time is 20:15, it's overcast, and the camera is plonked on a pile of shingle for stability!

I was there again early this morning. Half an hour of wind-blown drizzle was enough. Too much, actually. It drove me home for a pre-breakfast nocmig review. A flock of Ringed Plovers was the stand-out highlight, but most of the night was a soggy washout.

This afternoon, back down the beach once more. I walked as far as the West Bex Mere, which with all the rainfall is again a mere. No Black-winged Stilts or anything, but on the beach...

...a Wheatear


And that was it. Nothing else of note. I'm sure there are plenty of other spots which would have given me more birds, but I didn't really want that. I wanted a walk on the beach. On the fine, laborious shingle. A trudge. A plod. More and more I am finding that birding is not just about seeing birds.

Cogden beach this afternoon, looking east.

Chesil Beach runs from West Bay to Portland. The Cogden bit is my favourite and, as far as I'm aware, the most vegetated. There are always small birds, even if only Linnets or the odd Reed Bunting, but I'm sure the total list of birds seen on, or from, the Cogden and West Bex shingle is huge and enviable. Just in my brief acquaintance it has held Short-toed Lark, Stone-curlew and the recent Tawny Pipit. From it I've seen Laughing, Caspian and Glaucous Gulls, and even a Wryneck. That lot will barely scratch the surface of its rich bounty though. But that's just the birds.

In addition to birds there is the solitude, the beauty, the incessant, rolling surf. The beach is therapy.

Thursday, 13 May 2021

Getting Up to Date

Just after writing the last post, a bit of news came through on the local birding WhatsApp group: Pom Skua E from Seaton. This is where a local message group really proves its worth. When birds are picked up flying along the coast, any observers downstream can hurry to their nearest watch-point with a realistic hope of scoring. I was at West Bay very quickly, but for whatever reason the Pom was unfortunately a no-show. Never mind though, because I enjoyed cracking views of a light-phase Arctic Skua, and more distant views of a dark-phase bird. Well worth the effort.

So, what else has been happening these last few days?

The inscription on this buoy, which is directly in front of the West Bay shelter, reads (as far as I can make out): West Bridport Bay Long Sewer Outfall. A bit of googling tells me it marks the far end of the sewer outfall (nice...) and lies approximately 0.8 miles offshore. Handy to know.

Apart from acquainting myself with useful seawatching markers, I have also been seeing birds...

4 Whimbrel at Cogden

A few pics from today...

Wheatear at Cogden

Barely a record shot! Whinchat at Cogden.

When it comes to Med Gulls, you'll always hear me speak in glowing terms. However, it is true that some first-summer birds gradually acquire a scragginess that only a mother could love. This one might be well on the way...or maybe it's just the pose.

Mind you, it looks pretty swish in this shot.

Spotted Flycatcher at West Bexington this evening.

Apart from another Med Gull, two more Wheatears and three Swifts, those photos depict every single noteworthy bird I've seen today. It has not been hectic. Still, last night it rained non-stop, and I was a bit surprised to see any passerine migrants at all this morning. I did think there would be loads of waders though, and saw none!

Last night's nocmig was several hours of solid rainfall, which sounds like so much white noise, varying in volume with the intensity of downpour. Even so, bird sounds do cut through, and are perfectly visible on the spectrogram. A single Moorhen was no trouble to pick out and, to be honest, the only thing I needed to! The heap of waders that weren't visible in the field this morning had definitely not flown through during the night. So here is a short clip of one that featured a couple of nights ago - my clearest Ringed Plover yet...


A single Painted Lady at West Bex yesterday was the first local indication I've seen of what sounds like quite an influx along the south coast. And today I came across this rather photogenic Orange Tip there too...

Orange Tip underwing is pretty cool.

Once in a while, an NQS post serves no more purpose than to bring the blog up to date. Like this one.


Tuesday, 11 May 2021

A Private Audience

Early this morning I gave half an hour to the sea in exchange for a Kittiwake and two Common Scoters. Sensing a bum deal I hurried to Cogden to try and beat the dog-walkers to the beach. I did, but it was very quiet indeed. Apart from 4 Whimbrel and a flimsy thread of Swallows, nothing really. Slowly I walked the beach with the sun at my back. Nothing. No Wheatears, and more crucially, no Tawny Pipit. It may have been on the beach further east, but certainly it appeared to be absent from the Cogden section. No reports today as yet, which means I might actually have been the last person to see it...

Yesterday evening was lovely. Sunny, with a very fresh onshore breeze. Though it isn't something I normally contemplate, a secret corner of my mind has been harbouring a quiet hope. A hope that one day I might get the Tawny Pipit to myself, in good light. And here I was, acting on it.

The beach was pretty much empty, but en route I bumped into another birder. Nick, from Somerset, told me that he'd just come from watching the Tawny Pipit, and helpfully suggested where I should search. I made sure to have the sun behind me, and quickly found it. The time was about 19:20. Knowing how wary it had been on previous occasions, I kept my distance and just stood still. I took a few so-so photos, then realised it was slowly coming closer. Daring to hope good things, I knelt down quietly and waited...

Halving the size of my silhouette clearly helped. I kept as still as possible, occasionally taking a short burst of shots. The light was...how can I put it? Warm and dreamy. I absolutely love the golden tones of early-morning and late-evening sunlight. Sure, it doesn't necessarily convey the true colours of a bird, but do I care? It is beautiful, which in this case trumps chromatic accuracy. A few photos follow. The first is timed at 19:25...




I love the way the primaries typically hang slightly away from the immense tertials. It gives the bird a relaxed, vaguely sloppy look. For some reason not what I'd expect from a Tawny Pipit. And see how the rump area is totally unstreaked? That surprised me when I first noticed it the other day.



This next photo was taken at 19:35. The pipit had walked into a dense mat of sea campion, and just stood there, looking around...

Time: 19:35

I waited for it to move on, but it didn't. Five minutes later it was in the same spot, and if you check out the position of the bird in relation to the flowers adjacent to its belly, it appears to have settled itself down somewhat...

Time: 19:40

I have no idea what time Tawny Pipits go to bed, but after a 20-minute private audience I wondered if it was trying to tell me something. Was it contemplating a nap, or did it simply want a rest? I didn't know, but nevertheless felt I was now somehow intruding. So I thanked it, carefully backed away and bade it farewell...

What a fabulous bird. Not one I'll forget in a hurry.

A very special evening.