Saturday, 30 October 2021

A Redpoll

Since the last NQS post there have been precious few birdy thrills to write about. Until today...

Honestly, recent efforts have produced almost nothing of note, and I was reduced to the prospect of a questionable 'opinion piece' or something. So imagine my delight when this afternoon's walk at Cogden produced this...

Meadow Pipit. Result!

That Meadow Pipit was just one of SIXTEEN! Amazing!

Seriously though, it was a pleasure to enjoy a bit of sunshine, to have the wind dialled a couple of notches down from 'hoolie', and to find a few things to point the camera at. My target bird recently - a modest and realistic hope I think - is Snow Bunting. There seem to be a few around, and to me the beach here always looks perfect for them. So I walked the length of it. Well, from Cogden to the end of the West Bex Mere field. Naturally it was a Snow Bunting fail. But resting on the shingle was a little flock of gulls, maybe 15 birds. Five were Med Gulls, and eventually I was close enough to see that one wore a white ring. A bit closer...and I tried a photo at full zoom. Would it be readable? It was...

Adult Med Gull - white 3HAP

With binoculars I could see the ring, but absolutely no way could I read it. When the gulls eventually flew I paced out the range. It was 85 yards away. Before they flew I approached as close as I could. They let me get to 45 yards. Still impossible to read through bins. Too much shake. Once again the camera proves its worth. It's indispensable really.

From 45 yards at full 2000mm (equivalent) zoom

However, the star of this afternoon's show was yet to appear. Walking back along the coast path I flushed a small bird from almost beneath my feet. It flitted up into a sallow and looked at me. A Redpoll. Ah. I knew about this bird. It was first seen yesterday, and featured in a few pics on Twitter. Redpolls are far from common down here, and mostly encountered as fly-overs. Birds on the deck are very unusual. I probably don't need more than two hands to count the number of times I've seen Redpoll at close quarters since I've lived in the South West. So I backed off, waited, and enjoyed the performance...

Right, I'll say this now, before the many photos that follow. Probably this was because it was so ridiculously close, but it felt bigger than I would have expected for a Lesser Redpoll. Not that I ever see Lesser Redpolls up close, but still, it didn't strike me as a diddy little thing. There was nothing to compare it to of course, but I was almost tempted to retrieve a stalk it perched on for later measurement. Almost.

Also, it looked rather dark too, especially on the flanks. More so than I would normally associate with Lesser Redpoll. Not that I ever see Lesser Redpolls up close, etc...

Anyway, here are many photos. At times it was so close I could almost have reached out and touched it. And tweaked out a feather or squeezed out a little poo for a nice DNA test. I didn't though...











This amazingly tame Redpoll was easily the highlight of my afternoon. Recent birdy challenges have involved many tricky gulls, the tristis Chiff conundrum, and identifying a White Wagtail in winter. I am now pleased to welcome this Redpoll to the club. I sent these photos to an up-country birder who sees (and rings) a lot of Redpolls. I was told that if it was in Shetland, birders would not think twice about calling it a Northwestern type. I assume that probably means rostrata, or Greenland Redpoll? But it's in West Dorset, and I'm sure Greenland Redpolls don't come to West Dorset.

Ah well, whatever its identity, it was a lot of fun. And after all that, maybe it is just a Lesser Redpoll. But what do I know? Because I never see Lesser Redpolls up close, etc...

Friday, 22 October 2021

Of the Season

The local glut of gulls didn't last long. Two days after the swarming mass documented in the previous post, this was the scene from the West Bay harbour wall...

I can pick out just two birds that might be gulls, both up in the sky. Absolutely nothing over the sea. As an aside, despite all the warning signs and obvious clues that recent rockfalls have occurred, people still poke about right beneath those cliffs. Gives me the willies being anywhere near the base of them!

Still, I enjoyed a nice potter around West Bay on Wednesday afternoon, and eventually came across a small handful of gulls on a damp field. Among the half-a-dozen big ones was an obviously white-headed 1st-winter job. Interesting...

It's the one on the right, partially hidden by the adult Herring Gull

Sadly it came to nothing, and turned out to be just another Herring Gull [At least, I think so! See edit, just below the last gull photo]. I suppose it might have had a little genetic 'influence' from more interesting quarters, but who knows? A few more pics...






In the absence of anything better to do, it was fun to watch this bird and take a few photos. Mind you, I did spend quite a lot of my time thinking 'If only...' and sighing a lot. A West Bay Casp would be jolly nice

[Last-minute edit A good friend who likes gulls a tiny bit has pointed out that much of the plumage (except maybe the strongly marked upper tail/rump and lack of eye mask) fits Yellow-legged Gull. He has a very good point. If it is a YLG then it's a small and annoying one. My gut tells me it isn't though. But my gut has betrayed me often. So. On the off chance that any NQS readers sometimes think 'You know what? I ought to get into this gull watching lark'... Well, yes, if you want your brain fried it's a great idea. Welcome aboard.]

The last couple of days have been dry and pleasant, so I've been catching up with work. Mostly there has been little time for birding. Mostly.

A few minutes before I clocked off yesterday, a WhatsApp message: 2 Whooper Swans on Seaton Marshes. And I was about 200 yards from the entrance! Perfect...





White birds in harsh sunlight I find extremely challenging to photograph, but I'm quite chuffed with the results here. Such magnificent birds. I assume they are a pair. I don't know whether I'm making this up, but one appears to have a slightly more swollen base to the bill, and possibly a thicker neck. The male? Whatever the case, it was a genuine privilege to enjoy these recent arrivals from Iceland at such close quarters.

I finished a bit earlier today, and had a late-afternoon walk at West Bexington. One hundred percent routine fare, except maybe this...



Possibly my final Wheatear of 2021? I think my last one in 2020 was on 17th October. Today's was in almost exactly the same spot. A bit depressing to think I might not see another for five months...

Monday, 18 October 2021

The Opportunist Horde

For a number of days the local coast has been hosting enormous shoals of fish, often very close to the shore. And when I say 'very close', I mean it...

Whitebait on the shingle at West Bexington last Thursday afternoon

The Whitebait shoals are chased by Mackerel shoals, which sometimes push their prey so close to the shore that the panicking tiddlers literally leap out on to the beach. Long, wavy, silver ribbons of fish have recently become an everyday sight along the local strandline. It is a bit of a sad spectacle, but I doubt they go to waste. For one thing, I've seen a couple of enterprising folk scooping them into carrier bags for tea. Also - crucially - this glittering bounty has not gone unnoticed by the Lyme Bay gulls.

I can't remember when I first twigged it, but suddenly I noticed there were small feeding flocks of gulls along the coast, and then last week some quite big ones. It seems the news has travelled, because there are now loads of gulls about. But thus far I haven't managed to find anything of interest among them. The largely calm conditions and blazing sunshine have not helped, with gull flocks hugely mobile, not very approachable, often staying a bit too far out and in unhelpful light. However, today that changed...

We've had a brisk SSW all day, and a lot of rain. Not normally conditions I'd be pleased about, but this afternoon I decided to brave it. During a family social at West Bay yesterday I couldn't help noticing a milling throng of gulls offshore; it looked like Whitebait shoals were still around. So that's where I tried today. And there's a handy shelter at West Bay if the weather is too awful. Which it mainly was.

Uncharacteristically I paid for two hours of seafront parking, but then foolishly went for a walk out on the pier and along the prom, and got soaked. But there were gulls all over the place. Loads of big ones close in, and a constant passage of small ones further out, including a stack of Meds. Retiring to the shelter I decided to count the passing Med Gulls. I got to 100 in just nine minutes! I tried another nine-minute slot a short while later, but only counted 35 this time. I assumed the movement was drying up, so went for another walk, searching for oddities among the big gulls. Apart from a decent but all-too-brief candidate for 1st-winter Yellow-legged Gull, I found nothing but another soaking. Back to the shelter, and another Med Gull count. In 15 to 20 minutes I counted 110, still all going east. Approaching 17:00 the passage had definitely tailed off, but I would guess the total count for my two hours would be in the region of 5-600 or more. Which is pretty staggering!

And I haven't even mentioned the Common Gulls. Certainly a three-figure tally. Or the Gannets. A good number passing, but also a trio of juvs loitering just offshore, shallow-diving continually. They were there for the duration, so presumably finding plenty to eat.

2nd-winter Med Gull

1st-winter Med Gull and a bit of sea

Definitely among the smartest of gull plumages

And finally, a couple of adults. Just lovely.

Nothing rare, nothing scarce even, but boy, what a great time I had! Thousands of gulls, a constant turnover of stuff to look at, and goodness knows what I missed beyond binocular range. Yep, it was a bit special...

A small fraction of the opportunist horde!

Sunday, 17 October 2021

Not Mainstream, Possibly...

Since Tuesday's Portland jolly I have managed four local outings to various points along the coast between Burton Bradstock and East Bexington. More than ten hours of birding, most of it in the afternoon. I can tell you that only once during that time did a bird have me ripping frantically at the flap on my camera bag. It was yesterday, at West Bex. Circling with a Kestrel was a surprise Hobby, which headed rapidly west along the coastal ridge the moment it saw me trying - and failing - to focus on it. If I kept proper records I could tell you for sure that it was my latest Hobby ever, but as I don't...

Anyway, nothing else has even tried to get me excited. If I reveal that my efforts have produced exactly 1.5 Chiffchaffs and 0.2 Goldcrests per hour, does that tell you anything? I could go on, but I'm sure you get the picture. So that's West Dorset. But a similar vibe is apparent elsewhere too, and reading between the Twittery lines it is obvious that many birders are currently underwhelmed by the goods on offer, even at popular birders' holiday locations with a good track record.

Social media exacerbates the issue of course. Reading that East Yorkshire is hosting a Taiga Flycatcher and Two-barred Greenish Warbler does not help you feel better about your patch's empty bushes. And when gripping photos (which you feel grudgingly obliged to 'like') are posted by friends and acquaintances who were quick to respond to the urgent prodding of their mega-alerts, well, it almost makes you want to join the circus doesn't it...?

And yes, that's one option.

It's funny. When I sit down to write a blog post, usually I know exactly where it's going. But sometimes not. And this is one of those times...

Before I wander too far off-piste though, a few local bits and bobs...

Wednesday lunchtime, and 2 Red Kites sail over the garden like it's May. Superb!

Foul weather put a stop to nocmig at the end of September, but I allowed the brief pause to develop into a long one, and it wasn't until October 8th that the kit was deployed once more. However, since then I have recorded almost 2,500 birds! Most of them have been these...

Redwing calls

The nocmig tally for the last nine nights includes 1814 Redwings (918 on 12th/13th), 589 Song Thrushes, 17 Blackbirds, a small flock of Common Scoters, 2 Skylarks, and singles of Snipe, Meadow Pipit and Golden Plover. Here's the Golden Plover...


At East Bexington yesterday I could see a very distant flock of ducks offshore. I was sure they were Common Scoters but took a few photos for insurance purposes. And yes, Common Scoters. But...

7 Common Scoters, almost all males...

...but this one has more yellow on the bill than I'm used to

I must admit that my main reason for taking these photos was the Surf Scoter possibility, and Black Scoter never entered my head. It has now! Clearly this is just a Common Scoter with a little bit more yellow on the bill than usual, but I must confess it made me realise how easy it would be to overlook a very rare bird that was hiding in plain sight!

Right then, where was I...?

Social media. On Twitter I follow many birders who post terrific photos of birds they've seen, and I am used to long-staying rarities featuring multiple times on my timeline. And some of those pics will be stunning. I am also used to the tendency for birders to congratulate one another when they 'connect' or 'catch up' with some rare bird they've twitched. I do get it. It is just birders expressing their pleasure at a friend's success. And what's wrong with that? Thirty years ago I'd have said: 'Nothing.'

Recently I was chatting to someone very well known in the birding world, and it was refreshing to realise that I am not the only birder who feels a measure of dismay at the seeming 'as you were' behaviour of so many, including a sizeable (and influential?) contingent of young birders. The recent Long-toed Stint in West Yorkshire is a case in point. By lunchtime on its first full day as a correctly-identified mega, 2,000 twitchers had reportedly 'connected'. Strewth! Anyway, cue ensuing glut of pics on Twitter. Normally I would simply enjoy them all but, let's be frank, hardly any of them are better than record shots, and most are simply rubbish, even worse than you might find on this blog. So, what is it that drives loads of birders to post on Twitter very poor photos of the same bird as everyone else? I really do not know...

If you have managed to get this far, and have concluded that I am just a moany old fart who begrudges others having fun, well, fine. But really, I'm not, and I don't. I simply find it very difficult to reconcile what one might call 'mainstream birding' with evidence of concern for our environment. I feel like I'm enjoying a different hobby somehow...

Right. Enough of that.

Going back to how this post began, I would like to conclude with a photo that emphatically illustrates the truth of that old saying: it only takes one bird...


Never give up, and always look at gulls thrushes.

Tuesday, 12 October 2021

Hello Portland. It's Been a While...

The last time I went birding on Portland was 3rd May 2004, when two adult Long-tailed Skuas and a dark-phase Pom were the stand-out highlights. So why the 17-year wait? I've written previously about my tendency to go there almost never, and it is something I've been meaning to rectify since publishing that post. And finally, a mere nine months later, I have...

My last October visit was almost exactly 25 years ago. I referred to that day in the post linked above, and remembered to mention the several Firecrests, the Lapland Bunting and the unwelcome lack of Northern Waterthrush. But I had completely forgotten about the smart male Subalpine Warbler in the Obs quarry! Even my Portland dips are nicely decorated.

Today was not a twitch though. Just a straightforward on-spec visit, with no expectations beyond a nice walk and dry weather. The Portland Bird Observatory terrace at 06:30 was a fine spot to watch the sun rise and begin the day's caffeine-loading. In the half-light a distant, idling diesel engine was briefly misidentified as a churring Nightjar. It could only get better...

At first light there were birds everywhere, especially at the Bill. Loads of Pied Wags, Meadow Pipits, Linnets etc. A Golden Plover went over at the head of a Woodpigeon flock. Lots to look at. As the morning progressed, the sun rose higher and grew hotter. The afternoon was absolutely gorgeous, though unsurprisingly not that birdy. Some pics etc...

At 09:15 I accidentally flushed a Short-eared Owl from some stubble right next to the track I was on. It plonked down further away, and I could see its eyes peering at me and its stubby little 'ears'. Unfortunately this Crow was on it straight away, and chivvied it into the air...

Short-eared Owl getting grief

I didn't get a photo of the Golden Plover, but I did get this...


I had my recorder switched on for the duration, but sadly didn't capture anything else to get excited about. Not that I'm aware of anyway. Mind you, there was certainly some potential around. Like this, for example...

Bird of the day for me - Yellow-browed Warbler

Seeing Yellow-browed Warbler in the hand was a personal first, and the result of a beautifully timed coffee break. Just wonderful.

During the afternoon sunsine there was plenty of non-birdy stuff on the wing, and occasionally settling...

Comma

Migrant Hawker

Unfortunately the three Clouded Yellows I saw failed to cooperate, but were definitely the best of the inverts. For what it's worth, my bird tally: 20 Chiffs (undoubtedly a huge undercount), 8 Blackcaps, singles of Whitethroat, Yellow-browed Warbler, Golden Plover, Heron and Wheatear. Needless to say, there were thousands of other birds, and so there should be in about 12 miles of walking! Talking of Wheatear, I almost forgot...

Obviously there's a Wheatear photo

Finally, it was great to chat briefly with fellow Dorset birder Joe Stockwell and PBO warden Martin Cade. I thoroughly enjoyed the change of scenery and look forward to visiting again, and maybe next time I'll ponce a cup of Obs tea to go with my choc-chip muffin...

Monday, 11 October 2021

No Siskins

Yesterday was glorious again. A sunny afternoon plod round Cogden and West Bex was predictably lacking in birdy thrills, but 2 Whinchats were nice to see, and 4 Clouded Yellows. Actually, it was really a day for butterflies. And dewy bottles of beer.

This morning I made an effort. Out reasonably early, I walked from Burton Bradstock to the far end of Cogden and back, with the recorder going. Lots of birds on the move. I tend to be a lazy counter, but 300+ Jackdaws heading west made it into print. My first Redpoll of the autumn too. No Siskins though. Well, not until I sat down this evening and had a flick through my recording. I only checked a fraction of it, but at least three times I spied the tell-tale shapes, and sure enough...Siskins. Whatever birding skills I once had are definitely on the way out...

However, I can spot big white things. So when a Great White Egret tried to sneak across Cogden airspace I was on it in a flash. Mind you, the camera was a bit slower than me...

My first GWE since this time last year, when two flew W past Cogden, just offshore


They might be an everyday sight in many places - in silly numbers too - but Great White Egret is still a pretty scarce bird locally.

Finally, for a change it wasn't a Wheatear which perched up in obliging fashion this morning...

Meadow Pipit

Meadow Pipits never let me get that close. Presumably that's a look of astonished pity...

'Seriously? You can't hear those Siskins?!'

Saturday, 9 October 2021

Not Quite the Horn of Plenty

Since the last post there are five new entries in my smartphone's notes app, one each for Tuesday to Saturday. One of them is quite unusual...

5/10 West Bexington 15:40 -

And that's it. It was so uneventful that I didn't even bother with a finish time. I'm not sure when I last noted absolutely nothing at all, but to be fair it is a very rare event. Birding on the coast is not necessarily a daily cornucopia of feathery wonder. That said, there is usually (apart from 5/10) something to photograph...

6/10 A Cogden Wheatear

6/10 Flavour of the moment - Cogden Meadow Pipit

6/10 Autumn Thrift, a sad shadow of its vibrant springtime glory

7/10 East Bex Wheatear on WWII beach furniture

7/10 West Bex Guillemot

7/10 This year's Med Gulls looking too cool for their socks

7/10 West Bex Phalacrocorax phalanx

8/10 Cogden Scoter

There's a story attached to a couple of the above...

Guillemot. Crunching along the West Bex shingle, I spied in the distance an auk corpse stretched out pathetically on the beach. It was lying on one side, its head flat against the pebbles. I strode towards it to check for rings, digging out the camera for an in memoriam photo. As I drew near, the bird's head suddenly reared up. Next, it scampered rapidly towards the sea, rushed in and instantly disappeared below the surface. Fairly soon it popped up, and then paddled about in a worryingly lop-sided fashion. Mind you, this is the first time I have been fortunate enough to witness a resurrection.

Common Scoter. Distant, black, sleeping blob. Obviously a Common Scoter. There's been a few about I hear. I walked away and ignored it. Several minutes later I could see it had woken up, following the close passage of a motor-boat. It was just beyond binocular range, but surely a Common? Once upon a time I found a young drake Surf Scoter off Beer. It too was alone. So I walked down the beach again for a closer look. Still too distant. Resting the camera on the beach for stability, I took some shots at maximum zoom and checked the results with restrained optimism. Sigh... No glory today.

9/10 Oh look! Another Cogden Wheatear

9/10 Cogden Whinchat...

...times two

It's funny. Here we are in October, the season of seriously rare, and my last five outings have produced nothing more than a modest tally of common migrants. A quick perusal of BirdGuides or Twitter tells me that I am missing out, and would do a lot better here, or here, or perhaps there. So why am I not dissatisfied with my paltry lot? How on earth can I see barely anything at all and say it's actually enjoyable?

In truth I cannot really answer those questions. But I'm not dissatisfied. And I really have enjoyed my recent outings, even 5/10 West Bexington 15:40 - ...

In the last 24 hours I've watched a Temminck's Stint become a Least Sandpiper (not for the first time!) and then finally a Long-toed Stint, a species which almost everyone 'needs'. This is a metamorphosis which at one time would have got me all the way to Yorkshire. Why not now? I really do not know, but am very happy to remain unmoved. I often wonder at this apparent dichotomy between the old me and the current version, but know which I prefer.