Wednesday, 29 September 2021

A Typical Caspian Gull?

As any gull enthusiast based in the South-west will tell you, Caspian Gull is still a rare bird down here, or at best very scarce. For example, the Dorset totals for the last few years look like this: 2015 (2), 2016 (1), 2017 (5), 2018 (8) and 2019 (5). The count of 8 in 2018 is the highest one-year total so far. In a brief Twitter exchange with Mark Golley I learned that 2018 was the best-ever year in Norfolk too, with a staggering total of almost 140! Even so, and despite the big numbers, until a couple of years ago Caspian Gull was still a description species in Norfolk. As far as Dorset is concerned (plus Devon, Cornwall and Somerset of course), Casp is likely to remain a description species for a long time yet.

However, Caspian Gull is spreading inexorably westwards in Europe, and occurences on this side of the North Sea are bound to increase. Great. But unfortunately its tendency to interbreed on occasion with Herring Gull means that we will doubtless see a corresponding increase in hybrids and backcrosses, and the identification challenges they pose. What does this mean in practice? Basically, encountering a candidate Caspian Gull in the field presents us with just two choices:

1. Look away immediately. If that is our favoured approach, we need read no further!

2. Get stuck in. Try to nail it one way or the other.

Caspian Gull ID is a topic with the capacity to bore like few others, and this post should already be ringing all kinds of alarm bells. If gulls are not your thing, er...clang, clang, clang!

I have written this post for a very specific reason. At West Bexington, on Saturday 25th September, I found (very badly) a Caspian Gull. I would be the first to say that it was hardly a textbook bird, a 'classic' example of the taxon, but in this post my intention is to prove that it was a 'typical' example. My intention is to demonstrate that a Casp candidate can be analysed in sufficient detail to establish its identity to a degree which will satisfy not only you the observer, but also any records committee tasked with assessing your bird for the purposes of posterity.

A Caspian Gull is identified by a combination of features, which all examples of the taxon will show to some degree or other. But that phrase 'to some degree or other' implies a level of variability, and therein lies the challenge. Hybrids and backcrosses (and Herring Gulls...and Yellow-legged Gulls!) also will show these features to some degree or other. In January 2020 I wrote a post entitled How to Measure Your Caspian Gulls. It referenced a 2011 Caspian Gull identification paper written by Chris Gibbins et al, which aimed to objectively quantify some critical features, in order that you could numerically 'score' an individual bird. The reason I wrote that post was to make a case for the identification of a striking (but not classic!) Casp I had discovered on the Axe Estuary. A Devon or Dorset Caspian Gull is a major prize, and no matter how much they might wriggle I am not going to let one go without a fight! So...

In the Gibbins et al ID paper, 95% of their sample of 63 1st-winter Caspian Gulls scored between 12 and 24, with a mean of 18. So I reckon it is fair to say that a typical Casp will score around 18. The authors concluded that the upper limit for 'safe' identification as Caspian Gull should be 21; anything higher might not be pure, even though genuine Casps did score up to 25. What I intend to do now is analyse Saturday's bird, feature by feature, scoring each trait as we go. So this could easily wind up the most tedious NQS post ever... 

 

1. Extent of scapular moult

0     no first-generation feathers remaining
1     a small number (< 1/3) of first-generation feathers remaining
2     a significant number (>1/3) of first-generation feathers remaining

Score = 1

So this bird would score 1 for 'extent of scapular moult'.

At this point I should mention that the Gibbins et al trait scoring for 1st-winters was aimed at birds in the period October to March, so at least one week older than this individual. I reckon it is highly likely that those few first-gen lower scaps will be moulted out very soon, so a score of 1 is a bit harsh. A nice, round zero would be the generous option, but we'll stick with 1 for the moment.

 

2. Greater-covert pattern

0     simple pattern with brown centres and sharp white edges, with no white vermiculation or notching
1     white edges with delicate notches or vermiculation; or dark brown centre with white tip to 1/3 of length (i.e. white restricted to tip or distal third)
2     clear white notches/barringcreating a delicate 'piano key' pattern along the whole edge/feather; but much of feather dark
3     lots of white (more than 1/2 of coverts looking white) distributed along the whole feather, or a bold notching ('piano key' pattern)

Score = 2

A score of 2 for greater-covert pattern is probably fair. If the inner coverts were still first-generation they would definitely be quite chequered, so despite the outer coverts being largely plain I couldn't give a score of 1. Even 1.5 would be a bit too generous I reckon. 

 

3. Ventral bulge

0     present
1     absent

Score = 1

 

4. Primary projection

As measured on a photo. This was about the best photo I had for assessing primary projection.  More or less a side-on view, and just about scrapes a zero score.

Score = 0

 

5. Moult: greater coverts

0     all or almost all new (>75%)
1     51-75% new
2     34-50% new
3     10-33% new
4     one or two feathers moulted
5     no moult

Score = 3


6. Moult: median coverts

Same scoring criteria as greater coverts above.

Score =3


7. Moult: tertials

0     3 or more new
1     2 new
2     1 new
3     all old

Score = 3


8. Darkness of head and body

0     totally white
1     reduced grey wash or streaking (confined to flanks and/or single streaks around nape)
2     light streaking/wash to head (incl. some dark around eye); isolated streaks/blotches on body. Overall, body looks more white than brown
3     well streaked: dark mask around eye and/or streaking covering the whole head/face; body with extensive but moderately dense streaks/mottles
4     strong and dense streaking/mottling on body and head making it appear almost wholly dark

This is another trait where my bird suffers due to youth. A few weeks older and it is likely to look a lot whiter. Even so it's not bad, and I am happy to give it a score of 2.


9. First-generation tertial pattern

0     Diffuse white tip (like Common Gull Larus canus)
1     fine pale fringe around distal portion (like classic michahellis), possibly also with some vermiculations
2     edges moderately notched
3     edges strongly notched and/or some dark barring or pale patches across the feather on some or all tertials

[See photo in 7]

The white part of the feather is restricted to the tip and does not extend very far down the edges. Also there is no notching. So although it doesn't quite match the description in score = 0, I still feel comfortable giving it nil points.


10. Second-generation scapular pattern

0     uniformly silvery-grey, darker patterning absent or very faint
1     silvery-grey background, pattern stronger than on 0, but lacks strong barring or central dark diamonds (only dark shafts and subtle anchors), with only a minority of such feathers (one or two) admixed
2     strong, contrasting shaft-streaks, anchors and/or dark central diamonds, but these more patterned feathers are less than half of all; ground colour creamy or silvery grey, possibly with some grey feathers mixed in
3     strong pattern described in 2 on most (more than half) of feathers, but possibly also one or two plain grey feathers or feathers with grey ground tone.
4     all feathers contrastingly patterned (with dark cross bars or diamonds), lacking plain grey feathers; feather centres buffy brown

Score = 3


Final score

Totalling up the scores for each trait gives the following:

1+2+1+0+3+3+3+2+0+3 = 18

As mentioned above, the date of 25th September means this bird hasn't really completed its post-juvenile moult. Which means it would likely score zero for 'extent of scapular moult' rather than 1, were we to revisit in December, say. Even so, a score of 18 puts it comfortably below the 'safe' identification threshold of 21. In fact, as 18 was the mean score of all genuine Caspian Gulls in the ID paper's sample, it would not be stretching things to call this bird an average, or typical Caspian Gull.


Additional evidence

Before we leave this bird, take a look at this pic...

Caspian Gull at rear, Herring Gull foreground - both in 1st-winter plumage

Notwithstanding the bird's slightly deformed bill (looks like a swollen lower jaw in fact) this gull has a very Caspish structure. High-chested (as if holding its breath), with drooping, attenuated rear end; quite long legs. All quite normal - and good pointers - for Caspian Gull.

Finally, that head and bill...

I took one of the photos, printed it out and literally performed surgery - with scalpel and sellotape - to produce this...

As the inset shows, not a particularly long bill, but slim, and with minimal gonydeal angle.

The 'bill shape trait score' was one of the characteristics which Gibbins et al used to help identify adult birds (not 1st-winters) and again it is a case of the lower the score, the better. I think I could have been a bit more generous with the scalpel, reduced the gap between the mandibles a little further and given the bird an even slimmer bill. This would have given a ratio greater than 2.47. In the ID paper, 87% of genuine adult Caspian Gulls (sample size = 100) scored 1, and the remaining 13% scored 2. Of the 12 confirmed hybrids examined, 43% scored 1, 25% scored 2 and another 25% scored 3.

Personally, I see nothing about this bird's head and bill to make me doubt its identity as a Caspian Gull, and the bill measurements support this view. 

Late Edit...

How could I forget the underwing?!


The superbly white underwing is a massively pro-Casp feature. Not all 1st-winters display such a clean underwing as this. The tail pattern is also spot on. Neither characteristic was used in the Gibbins et al trait scoring system, so all I shall say is that in the case of this individual, both unequivocally support the identification as Caspian Gull. As does the 'Venetian-blind' effect on the inner primaries, with sharp contrast between the dark outer webs and pale inner webs.


Conclusion

The conclusion actually is very simple. An objective analysis of this bird's characters, by means of the trait-scoring system devised by Gibbins et al, gives an unambiguous result: it is a typical Caspian Gull.

Question: do you think I applied the trait scores in a fair manner? After all, I did have a vested interest in a pro-Casp result. I would argue that even the most stringent application of this system would still leave you with a final score of 21 or less, and the nagging feeling that you'd been unduly harsh.

Lastly, a small soap-box...

All this talk of 'German muck' is doing the lovely Caspian Gull a massive disservice I think. The expression is unhelpfully pejorative, insinuating that any Casp which fails to display textbook or 'classic' (rather than 'typical') features, is genetically tainted. And if it is known to originate from a mixed colony...well...kiss of death! This is grossly unfair. In the preparation of the Gibbins et al paper, pure Caspian Gulls from the core range, with known provenance, scored as high as 25 on the trait score test. In other words, birds which are much muckier-looking than the one above can still be pure Caspian Gulls. And all of them deserve a warm hug.

Saturday, 25 September 2021

How Not to Find Good Birds

A busy week of work has played havoc with important stuff, and the last time I managed an early-morning beach inspection was Tuesday...

Three Whinchats bottom left, and the chalk cliffs of Beer Head in the distance, further round the bay. Exactly 17.04 miles (27.43 km) as the Whinchat flies.

These next two from Sunday morning...

Even when the birding is a bit quiet, it doesn't matter.

Reed Warbler. Still a few birds to be coaxed out, but no Sedgies for a while now.

The main highlight from the last couple of outings was a game of hide-and-seek with at least two Grasshopper Warblers in dense sedge at West Bex. Not the best views, but better than the zero encounters with the species I'd managed so far this year.

Which brings us to this afternoon...

A gentle stroll from West to East Bex and back was punctuated by the very occasional 'hweet' from the bushes and little else. By the time I began the return leg my Chiff tally was a very modest six, and a single Whinchat had felt like a major prize. Thankfully there were a few gulls to look at. The East Bexington fields have all been harvested, and several turned over a bit (harrowed?) which definitely pulls in a few birds. It was nice to see double figures of Med Gulls decorating the countryside again.

Mostly my walk had been very lazy, with barely any effort to deviate from the path and have a poke around, but at West Bex I thought I should at least head down to the waterline and check the beach properly. I was pleasantly surprised to discover a decent bunch of big gulls hiding behind the lowest shingle ridge. In the distance was an interestingly white-headed bird with obviously white-tipped, black tertials. As far as I could tell it was definitely a bird in its first calendar year. Through binoculars it appeared to have quite boldly marked second-generation scapulars, so I decided it looked a good candidate for a Yellow-legged Gull in well-advanced 1st-winter plumage. Immediately I got the camera out and began to take photos, gradually creeping closer. I did consider the possibility of Caspian Gull, but the scapulars put me off, plus the head/bill combo didn't have a very Caspish vibe. Mind you, there was clearly something amiss in that area because the bird seemed unable to close its bill properly.

As I slowly approached, the nearest gulls began to lift off and head west along the beach. Eventually the target bird took off also but, unlike the others, flew east and away. Turning around I spotted Mike Morse behind me. Mike had timed his arrival well and, though he missed seeing the bird on the beach, had managed some flight shots. We chatted briefly, and when he had gone I had a look at the burst of photos I had taken when the gull took flight. Hmmm...

The first thing I noticed was a prominent, 'venetian-blind' type inner-primary window, quickly followed by a gleaming white underwing. Neither is a good feature of Yellow-legged Gull. But both are good features of Caspian Gull! Oops. There wasn't much more I could do until I got home and uploaded the pics to the laptop. Here is a generous selection...

Initial views. Looking at these photos now, I'm not sure why Caspian Gull alarm bells didn't ring more loudly...

The tertials are much more Casp than YLG, with those broad white tips rather than thumbnails.

With that ever-open bill it is difficult to get a true idea of the bird's 'look', but I think it's obvious that the bill is not a heavy one.

Those scapulars are quite heavily marked, but within the Casp spectrum. Considering it is still only September there is an amazing amount of moult in the wing coverts! The inner greater and median coverts are all new. Some of the first-generation greater coverts are a bit chequered, but again within variation for Casp.

That white underwing is absolutely spot on!

The inner-primary 'window' is more prominent than you would expect on Yellow-legged Gull.

Tail pattern looks great. Very black terminal band contrasting strongly with white tail. Just a few blackish flecks elsewhere.

Most of the greater coverts look nice and plain.

So. Plumage-wise I'm pretty happy to call this a Caspian Gull. But...

I did run some photos past a gull enthusiast who encounters far more Caspian Gulls than we do in this part of the country. He thought it had the feel of a German type Casp, and that the head shape possibly let it down. Looking at all my photos now, the bird does appear to have a swollen lower jaw, and the right side of its face appears lumpy too. So it is difficult to accurately assess its 'look'. Possibly the safest plan is to let it go as a possible hybrid. If I'm being honest I am a bit loath to do this because Caspian Gull is still a very nice find in Dorset. However, the way I 'found' it was hardly a stellar performance in bird identification, so...

Anyway, I'll close with Mike's excellent flight shots...

© Mike Morse

Look at that underwing! Persil white!! © Mike Morse

© Mike Morse

© Mike Morse

After the thrilling gull stuff it was all a bit of an anticlimax, until my one and only Wheatear of the afternoon injected some welcome pizzazz...

Sunday, 19 September 2021

Enormous Garden Tick

For more than a year I have been aware that seeing a White-tailed Eagle locally was now a possibility, due to the wanderlust exhibited by young birds from the Isle of Wight reintroduction scheme. A couple of times at least there has been a social media 'heads-up' along the West Dorset and East Devon coast, as satellite-tracked individuals have been noted heading this way, but thus far nil contact. I have wondered how I would feel about seeing one. Now I know...

At 14:20 yesterday afternoon I set off on a walk at West Bex. Normally this would be the whole afternoon gone, but for a variety of reasons I cut it short. It was really hot, there were very few birds, and I was still feeling a bit rough. The heat, stillness and blue sky got me thinking about comfy chairs, long cold drinks and a bit of back-garden skywatching. By 16:30 I was home.

From the cool, shaded spot with my back against the garden cabin I get a well-lit but fairly limited vista. Nearby roofs and trees cut out quite a lot of sky, but what's left is enough to keep an eye on quite easily and has provided plenty of decent birds. The weakest aspect of my position is the total blind spot behind me. Any bird that comes through the airspace hidden by the cabin is likely to be missed...unless the gulls go off. Our local gulls have been a life-saver many times, but they cannot always be relied upon. As we shall see...

A trickle of hirundines and a couple of distant local Buzzards were all I managed in the first 20 minutes or so. Honey Buzzard is very much bird of the moment right now, so both Common Buzzards triggered a mental reference to the relevant search image, which was still on my mind when the next bird went over.

Coincidentally I had just been viewing a Twitter photo of a dark juvenile Honey Buzzard which had been misidentified as a Common Buzzard, when a large shape flew from left to right over the garden. Its altitude seemed to be as low as the local Buzzards ever get, it was gliding rapidly and directly, and was going to be out of view over the treetops in just a few seconds. I hadn't picked it up until it was heading away, in fact I almost hadn't picked it up at all. Had its flight line been just a few metres different it would have gone behind me, unseen. As it was, I was struggling a bit. The underparts were in shadow, but I was sure they were dark. Where were the pale areas of a Common Buzzard? But the wing shape...? Definitely a bit arched, like a regular Buzzard, not the flat profile I imagined a Honey Buzzard would present.

All this talk of Buzzards gives away the telling fact that I simply had not got an accurate impression of the bird's size. With hindsight I can only surmise that its flight attitude and lack of company had hoodwinked me. Anyway, it sailed over the trees to my right and - thank goodness - began to bank left and rise slightly. At this point (and still thinking Buzzard) I could see it was entirely dark brown, and that the tail looked very unbuzzardy. It began a wide, slow loop...

No, not just slow. Ponderous! Strewth! This bird was huge! And, finally, I got there.

'Come out in the garden! Quick!'

'Why? What is it?'

'An eagle!'

[Sound of scurrying, gasping and dropping jaw...]

'It isn't...?!!'

Together we watched the beast circle a few times, low, beautifully lit, and no more than 3-400m away. Then it switched back in to 'motoring' mode and headed away in exactly the same fashion it had arrived: fast and direct.

I managed four bursts of photos, and there is just one minute and nine seconds between the first and the last...

Oof!

Catching the sun absolutely perfectly

Probably my favourite shot. Like something taken on North Uist

And away it goes

At this point I became aware of some gulls alarming. Just four of them, up over our little estate, and a very half-hearted effort it was. There are low hills either side of our valley, bordering a band of habitation (where the gulls also reside) perhaps 300 or so metres wide. I reckon the eagle was across the estate so low and rapidly that the gulls didn't really notice the bird until it reached the farmland beyond us and began to circle. And it struck me how close I had been to missing it entirely...

Just a guess, but I reckon this would be the approximate flight-line, with the circle marking the spot where it...er...circled. Erroneously I reported the bird as flying east. I always forget that our garden actually points SW.

Had that White-tailed Eagle not paused to inspect the local sheep for a potential meal (or to admire their fine, glossy fleece) I am pretty sure that the biggest garden tick I am ever likely to get would have slipped through unnoticed. Sobering.

Thursday, 16 September 2021

Pockets

Small children are toxic. Less than seven weeks after going down with a dose of manflu that scuppered me for a fortnight, my tiny grandchildren gave me the cold from hell. Thankfully my immune system seems to be functioning a bit more effectively this time, and I only had a couple of really grim days. I'm still a bit fragile, but this afternoon my itchy, itchy feet took me to West Bex and made me walk a short, flattish route for what they called 'a bit of active convalesecence'...

It often strikes me that even on a good day, birding can be very patchy. This autumn I've noticed it many times. You get a few decent birds in one spot, then nothing for a while, then another little cluster. Birds simply are not evenly distributed. Rather, they are in pockets. That was very much a feature of today's little outing.

There's one area of West Bex which always reminds me of birding some of the 'inland' parts of St Mary's in the Isles of Scilly. If I called it 'gateway birding' I'm sure you'll get what I mean. There's a dead-end lane which runs parallel to the sea, and both sides of it are lined mainly by hedges with the occasional gateway, and give views over fields running either down towards the beach or up towards the coastal ridge. For me it is simply a case of ambling along, stopping at every gateway (or anywhere else which gives you a view) and carefully scanning every field, plus every distant hedgerow, treetop and skyline. It's a slow, easy way to bird, and today was a perfect option for someone feeling well below par.

The very first gateway overlooks a small paddock. I've always fancied it, and one August day last year I had a single Pied and two Spotted Flycatchers from this spot, so it always gets at least a few patient minutes. Within a short time today I'd seen a Chiffchaff and a Blackcap, then a flitting shape up the far end became a Spotted Flycatcher, which was soon joined by second. And then...

Probably well over 100m away, so maximum zoom, but when it's a lovely male Redstart, who cares?

I loitered here for a good 15 minutes, by which time I'd added another Chiff and Blackcap, plus a Lesser Whitethroat. And I'd barely started. Naturally enough I concluded that I was in for a migrant-filled walk. Well...

The rest of the lane provided me with a hefty acreage of lovely fields, hundreds of metres of absolutely impeccable, sun-kissed hedge and panoramic views in all directions. But by the end I had added no more than another Blackcap or two, a handful of Chiffs and a couple of Kestrels. I could hardly believe it.

And then I spotted a distant shape flit up above the hedge top briefly. I deviated off my route a little to look at the area properly and suddenly found myself knee-deep in Chiffchaffs! By the time I'd finished, my Chiffchaff count had gone up by more than 40! Plus at least another 7 Blackcaps. All in no more than about 150m of hedge and scrub.

The flavour of this afternoon: fresh Chiffchaff

My tally looks like this: 50+ Chiffs, 10 Blackcaps, 2 Spotted Flycatchers, 1 Redstart, 1 Lesser Whitethroat. Which sounds like a nice sprinkling of autumn migrants. But a 'sprinkling' it certainly was not! Basically it was two discrete pockets about half a mile or more apart, with hardly anything in between. Fascinating...

Anyway, a few bits and bobs from the last time I was out, pre-lurgy...

Two White Wagtails on the beach at West Bex

Still the odd Sedgie to be coaxed from the reeds. Too late for an Aquatic?

One of five Whinchats at Cogden

Friendly Painted Ladies always worth a snap

And before I close, the garden has provided me with what I'm pretty sure is a bee tick. We tried a Sea Holly cultivar in a pot this year, and it is flowering nicely just now. These bees don't seem to be interested in anything else...

If I've got it right, this amazingly stripy job is an Ivy Bee Colletes hederae

Sunday, 12 September 2021

Notching Up Some Good Grades

This afternoon's plod around Cogden was the only birding I managed all weekend. Although it was generally quiet, the modest tally of migrants included another 2 Redstarts and a Pied Flycatcher. Last year I saw just one Redstart all year. One. This year I am up to 23 so far: 6 in spring and 17 since August 23rd. Either it's a very good year or I've got much, much better at noticing them...

The first of today's two Redstarts. The second would not perch up for me at all.

Last Friday morning (another two-Redstart day at Cogden) I saw my first autumn male...

Male Redstart. Even when they do perch in view for a moment, it will likely be at considerable range and partially obscured.

The Pied Fly was my fifth, and an absolute pig as usual. Only one of those five has given me any kind of photo opportunity, and today's was impossible, almost completely hidden by foliage. The moment I moved to try for a better angle, it was gone. Again, five feels like a decent total. In 2020 I also saw five, but all on August 11th and 12th, following a fairly widespread influx.

I always think of Redstart as a B+ kind of 'common' migrant, and Pied Flycatcher as a solid A, so this year's grades are already looking very good.

Whinchat is another species which seems to be quite numerous this year. Although I only counted three today, last Friday morning there were at least 11 at Cogden.

One of today's Whinchats

Three photos from Friday to end with...

This beefy Yellow-legged Gull was among a good number of gulls on the beach. It was pleasing to match the bird to one of the two I photographed eight days earlier, on September 2nd.

A bit distant, but the camera still managed to nail that colour-ring: Yellow 2N69. The only other yellow-ringed Med Gull I've seen had been ringed at Pagham Harbour. I've yet to hear back on this one.

A young Cormorant. But...

Yes, a young Cormorant. But...

What is even more of a niche activity than cricket identification? Sub-specific Cormorant identification. I couldn't help thinking it looked quite diminutive in the field, and when I examined the photo, well, that gular pouch angle...

The Dorset Bird Report doesn't appear to bother much with sinensis Cormorants. Which is probably the sensible way to go.

Friday, 10 September 2021

A First For Dorset

The story begins on 31st August, at roughly 16:30, with a discovery that is related in this post.

While trying to photograph some distant Whinchats at West Bexington it seems I had chanced upon a good candidate for Tree Cricket Oecanthus pellucens. Unfortunately I couldn't find it again on 2nd September, and put the event down as a one-off. I didn't write it off completely though, but opened an account with iRecord and entered the record for posterity.

On 6th September I was in the same area once again, in the early evening this time. It was hot and still, with an almost flat-calm sea. Approximately 150m from that encounter a week previously, I heard the sound again. It was close to the path but just the other side of a fence, and quite loud. Once more I recorded it with my camera's video function. The resultant mp3 was much better quality than last time, and there was quite a surprise in store when I looked at the sonogram closely...

A second, much quieter cricket was singing too!

I hadn't heard a second cricket in the field, and even on the recording it was quite hard to detect by ear because the close one was so loud, but it is perfectly visible on the sonogram.This little discovery was just the encouragement I needed, and the following evening I was back down there. This time I took my nocmig kit, the digital recorder and Sennheiser microphone. I was going to do this properly.

Tuesday evening was delightfully warm, but very breezy. The recordings are somewhat blighted by wind noise, but the outcome was still better than I could have hoped: I heard and recorded at least four different individuals.

All good, but what next?

Mike Morse kindly sent me an email address to try. It turns out there is a very good recording scheme for grasshoppers and related insects which has been running for more than 50 years. I composed an email, attached my recordings, and the following day received an exciting reply...

First: yes, these are definitely Tree Crickets.

Second: yes again, they are the first records for Dorset.

Third: the fact that there are at least four 'singing' males suggests the possibility that there may already be a small population in place. But even if that isn't yet the case, it soon could be.

Just to put things in context, this is basically the story re UK Tree Crickets...

The first for Britain was one at Cambridge in 1996. The next was at Sittingbourne, Kent in 2005. Then a breeding colony was found on Jersey in 2010, and another at Dungeness in 2015. According to iRecord, the only other records are two from 2018, either side of Brighton. Here is the iRecord map...


So there it is. Tree Cricket Oecanthus pellucens at West Bexington. The first Dorset records of a species which is actively expanding its range in Europe. Found by a birder. While birding. Talking of birds...

Now, if this had been a bird and not a cricket, some of Dorset's birding population would have been all over it. A county first usually prompts a major mobilisation, and I imagine West Bex would have been stiff with twitchery for a few days. But a cricket? Yeah, okay. Yes, the fanfare might be muted, but I have to confess that I've thoroughly enjoyed the whole event. The initial discovery, the detective work...and as the story unfolded it became increasingly satisfying. Though I am not yet morphing into anything other than a birder. At least, I don't think so.

Before I forget, I must acknowledge Steve Gale's part in this. Firstly, in putting me on the Tree Cricket trail. Until he suggested it, I was stumped. And secondly, in sending me a copy of Dave Walker's account of his discovery of the Dungeness colony.

And while we're talking 'firsts'...

At West Bex this afternoon I was watching a Wheatear and a Pied Wagtail feeding on an area of short grass when I noticed some odd-looking plants poking out of the sward. Many recent photos on my Twitter feed helped me recognise them - or at least I thought so. Thanks again to Steve Gale for confirmation...

Autumn Lady's Tresses


Autumn Lady's Tresses is a new orchid for me. There was quite a big patch of them, with several outliers too. Unfortunately they were on private land, so I couldn't give them the usual 'close-up' treatment.

An insect and a plant. On a birder's blog in the height of the autumn migration season. Should I be concerned...?

Wednesday, 8 September 2021

Birds...and Only Birds

The last two or three of days have been lively, so I'd better get some writing done or there'll be a depressing backlog...

Monday was lovely, which allowed for an al fresco lunch and some garden-based idling. The sky was very quiet though, until this dark shape that wasn't a Buzzard...

Female or juv Marsh Harrier, a delightful garden first.

Sadly the bird was not hanging about, and I just about managed to grab a burst of shots before it vanished. This happy event galvanised me into a fairly protracted bout of skywatching, for which I was rewarded with 2 Black-headed Gulls.

A late afternoon visit to West Bex was pretty good, with 7 Spotted Flycatchers, a typically uncooperative Redstart, 5 Whinchats, 2 Wheatears and singles of Chiffchaff and Blackcap. Also a Clouded Yellow, and an orthopteran encounter which I'll return to in a bit...

Spotted Flycatchers have been a very welcome presence this year

Always the annoying twig...

Typical Whinchat view

Not sure if the focus fail on the bottom bird is heat-haze or...er...focus fail

Yesterday was mostly spent building Ikea wardrobes with my son in Lyme Regis, but there was still time for an early jaunt, and for a change I went to Burton Bradstock. In autumn 2020 I was there quite often, but this was my first visit for ages. The problem is how busy it gets. A massive holiday park and a million dog walkers. But it does get birds, and an early start always bags a few.

Yesterday's prize was an elusive Pied Flycatcher, my fourth of the autumn. Burton Bradstock seems to have an attraction for them, with up to three together last year. Back-up was provided by 13 Wheatears, a Spot Fly, 20+ Yellow Wags, a Garden Warbler, 2 each of Chiff, Willow Warbler and Blackcap, and my first 3 autumn Meadow Pipits.

The sun's first rays illuminate a clifftop Wheatear. Lovely light...

Spotted Flycatcher with touring caravan backdrop. I wish Pied Flycatchers posed like this.

I know. Another Wheatear. But just look at it!

And in the evening I was at West Bex again. I did see approximately 15 Yellow Wagtails going to roost in a field, but I wasn't there for birds...

And so to this morning. For some reason I fancied a seawatch. After a bit of a walk at Cogden I plonked myself on the beach and spent almost an hour and a half just chilling. The seawatching was dire really, and from a purist's standpoint probably a waste of time, but there was enough going on to keep me sitting there, quietly content.

The main event was a steady stream of hirundines - mainly Swallows - heading into the brisk easterly. They were skimming the waves up to well over half a mile out, and if I turned around I could watch them pass along the beach too. A broad-fronted movement of driven migrants is a compelling sight, and had there been nothing else happening I would have been quite okay with that. But there were several gulls on the move too, including a few Meds. A Dunlin, a Little Egret and 3 Teal all made it into my notes for the morning too. Rarity-wise though, this was the prize...

Such a slender bill is an unusual sight in this neck of Lyme Bay...

..and I'm pretty sure I didn't see Shag locally at all last year.

The morning's tally is completed by 14 Wheatears, 2 Whinchats, 3 Chiffs, a Willow Warbler, 2 Blackcaps, 12 Yellow Wags an 2 alba Wags. Which brings the birdy happenings up to date once more.

In other news...

Tree Cricket happenings have been happening. But I won't sully a nice birdy post with six-legged shenanigans. Another time...