Monday, 31 January 2022

#LocalBigYear - January

Apart from work-related visits to the Axe patch and Kilmington WTW, the whole of January was #LocalBigYear birding. While I wasn't too fussed about chasing down tricky species I did make some effort for one or two. A generous tip-off gave me an easy Dipper, while Purple Sandpiper succumbed to sheer persistence. My first Lesser Scaup for 35 years was an unexpected rarity, and a local-tick Bearded Tit was an unexpected find. And that is pretty much how birding so often goes: some effort, some reward, a little gen, a little jam. My final outing of the month involved a couple of hours at West Bexington yesterday afternoon. Descending the slope to the bunting hedge I was thrilled to spot a jagged bunch of pointy feathers in twisty-turny pursuit of a Skylark high overhead. A female Merlin. I saw just one last year, a passage bird at West Bay on 2nd November, and it is a long time since I last watched a Merlin do that relentless, never-give-up pursuit thing. The protagonists eventually went out of view and I didn't get to witness the outcome. Merlin is my 89th species for 2022.

Shortly after the Merlin I got this instructive photo of a female Cirl Bunting with a female Yellowhammer...

Cirl on the left.

And just to complete the month's gallery...

Local Green Sandpiper on Saturday afternoon. One of two.

January was great. Here's to February...

Friday, 28 January 2022

Small Rewards

Lunchtime by the Axe Estuary and a leisurely pick through the gulls is a regular winter thing whenever I'm working in the area, and today was no exception. Lesser black-backed Gulls have been very few and far between, so a smart adult this afternoon was welcome, and reminded me that passage birds should be turning up in two or three weeks. And then I realised this bird looked really dark...

A lovely intermedius Lesser Black-backed Gull

A typical intermedius has a very crisp look, and makes a standard graellsii seem rather insipid. And when they take to the air, even better...


Like GBBG, not much contrast between the very dark slate-grey upperparts and black primaries.

I wonder what it's doing around here? Wintering, or an early migrant? Whatever, a pleasing reward for the ritual gull sifting. Nothing else stood out among the big 'uns, nor among the Commons and BHGs, so I spent a little more time with the intermedius...


The gull put me in a good mood. Good enough for another pop at the West Bay Purple Sandpiper before heading home. What's the worst that could happen? Another rebuff? Bring it on...

Approaching the end of the pier I could almost see the rock I photographed it on last year. January 27th that was, and likewise my umpteenth try. Today is January 28th; appropriately it was on the rock next door!

What a little cracker! I assume it's the same bird as last winter. Billy no-mates.



So there we go. Nothing fancy, just a nice bit of part-time birding...

Thursday, 27 January 2022

Nah, Mate. Just the Usual...

Many years ago, in my first winter as a proper keen birder, I approached a wizened old geezer at Wraysbury Gravel Pits and innocently enquired, 'Anything about?'

He turned towards my friend Larry and me, paused for effect, and replied, 'Anything about? Anything about? Why, yes there is. That Song Thrush for example, and this nice flock of Tufted Ducks...'

And so it went on. Clearly my question had pressed a button which engaged some kind of 'bitter & twisted' mode and compelled him to lay into us for lacking appreciation of everyday birds in our headlong rush for rare and unusual. I must have been 22, and Larry I think still at school; this bloke was much older, though looking back, probably younger than I am now. When he'd said his piece, I explained how I'd only been birding a few months and come to understand the question 'anything about?' to be essentially a greeting, one birdwatcher to another, and an invitation to exchange sightings. In other words I was a novice, and hadn't deserved that tirade. He did soften somewhat, and ended up telling us about a nearby Red-necked Grebe. Result. However, mainly I remember the outburst...

My number one lesson from that day: Don't EVER be like wizened old geezer.

Another lesson from years ago. I was unsuccessfully twitching a Collared Flycatcher in Kent one evening. There was a crowd, and it was all a bit fraught. A handful of teeny birds high in the leafy canopy giving tantalising half-glimpses, but just one of them super-rare. Concentration was vital. A passing member of the public asked what all the fuss was about. With my eyes fixed above I sincerely hoped she hadn't been asking me personally, and pretended I hadn't heard. And then I listened, slightly ashamed, as Geoff Burton politely explained how there was this rare bird called a Collared Flycatcher, etc, etc...

My number one lesson from that day: Be more Geoff.

Sometimes when a birder asks if there's anything about, and you tell them about the nice birds you've just seen, their reaction can seem rather dismissive. Sure, they might not actually say, 'What?! Is that all? Why are you telling me about that trivial rubbish?' but it feels like they do. Sad, but it's their loss, isn't it?

This afternoon I tried the Puncknowle sewage works again. The Chiffchaffs weren't on the filter beds at all this time, but in the surrounding trees. Much trickier, but I did get a fairly brief look at the Sibe Chiff again. At least two or three Goldcrests were nice too, and perhaps the site will produce a Firecrest eventually. Still, bird of the afternoon was up in one of the trees, with a handful of other finches...

Female Brambling, tucked away a bit


I was dead jammy to pick it up, almost invisible among the branches. Very satisfying though, and a nice result for scanning through the tree properly. It did move around a bit later, and I got one more shot before it flew...


Had I chanced upon another birder shortly afterwards, and been asked if there was anything about, I would have related my Brambling encounter of course. And my tone would have betrayed the buzz I felt.

'Brambling? Oh, okay mate, yeah, seen millions this winter. They're everywhere aren't they?'

'Er...no,' is what I would have thought but not said.

So, a pleasant hour, and I followed it up with a visit to West Bay...


At West Bay it's not uncommon for members of the public to notice you peering around with bins and ask what you're doing. And I'm very glad of those valuable lessons of long ago, because they help me to reply in a polite and civil manner, instead of spitting out what's really in there:

'I'm looking for a poxy, stupid Purple Sandpiper, that's what!'

Which is exactly the bird I didn't see. Again.

Sunday, 23 January 2022

Purposeful Birdwatching...or Not

The late Ian Wallace wrote an inspirational little book entitled Discover Birds (1979) which I devoured with enthusiasm in 1981. I've been a fan ever since. Wallace always encouraged 'purposeful birdwatching' (he probably coined that term) and that little primer planted all the seeds necessary for such: the need to take notes, to count, to describe; to record and report. In the ensuing four decades I am painfully aware how far away from that ideal I have mostly been. Purposeless birdwatching might better describe much of my participation in this hobby...

A wonderful introduction to birding. Worth seeking out even now, if only for the evocative account (and lovely illustrations) relating a magical spring day at Flamborough: 1st May, 1978.

Sure, I've had my moments. Periodic bursts of note-taking, counting and record submission. Just recently for example. Though I haven't used a physical notebook for years now, a notes app on my phone has done the trick, and today I emailed a 630-odd row spreadsheet to the Dorset Recorder. But I detest compiling spreadsheets, and have always found the whole process a dreadful chore. In a way, the tiresome administrative slog is a sacrifice I offer to try and offset the guilt of many years of no records at all. Yes, guilt. I hope I'm not alone here, and that at least a few other birders feel a similar twinge of conscience because they're bad at sending records in. Last year I wrote a post about Caspian Gulls in the West Country. Afterwards it was tactfully pointed out to me that four of 'my' Axe birds were not part of the Devon record, because I had never submitted them. Guilt galvanised me into writing four retrospective descriptions.

What I'm trying to get around to is this: I genuinely want to be a 'purposeful birdwatcher' - up to a point - but I also want it not to be a chore. I wish to enjoy it. Is that too much to ask? And so much the better if I get something out of it too.

To that end I've been investigating ways to contribute records directly - ideally while actually birding. At least two platforms I'm aware of - BirdTrack (run by the BTO) and eBird (run by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in the US) offer such a facility, and in a bid to find out how other birders got on with them (and/or other platforms) a few days ago I asked birdy Twitter...


The response was brilliant, and in a coming post I'll report back on the outcome, and what I am now doing as a result. Watch this space...

Saturday, 22 January 2022

The Subtle and Interesting Stuff

Still a bit fragile, so didn't feel like going outdoors until late afternoon today, and fancied somewhere very quiet. How about Puncknowle WRC? A tiny, tucked-away sewage works, quite close to home. I've tried it a few times in the past, but not done better than a half-dozen or so Chiffs. Two winters ago I seemed to find Sibe Chiffs almost anywhere I tried, but Puncknowle WRC held out on me. Last winter was harder and I struggled for Sibes everywhere, with just one I think, at Kilmington. This year ditto, with a brief 'probable' at Kilmington the sum total.

Viewing at Puncknowle is tricky, but eventually I found some Chiffs visiting a nice, mossy filter bed, and clambered through the wooded surround to a reasonable spot by the perimeter fence. I could see maybe half the filter bed, and settled down to enjoy the Chiffy comings and goings. It was very therapeutic to watch the Chiffs, as well as Blackbirds, a Song Thrush, Dunnocks, Pied and Grey Wagtails poke about in the coarse gravel and dodge a soaking from the slowly-rotating sprinkler arms. Two or three times I had brief views of what looked a suspiciously pale Chiff, but on each occasion it flicked out of sight before I could properly take it in. Finally...


Not the best photos, but that's it at the back, with standard collybita Chiffs front and right. It looks pretty good for Sibe Chiff to my eye, and certainly did in the field.

Very pleased I made the effort. There were 8+ Chiffs in total, which is more than I've previously counted at Puncknowle. Definitely worth another visit I think.

I've not gone crazy with work this last week, but was pretty knackered by close of play yesterday. Still, I couldn't go home without giving the Axe Estuary a cursory look. When sifting the big gulls, basically I am looking for white-headed youngsters - Caspian Gull candidates. Very quickly I came across this interesting beast...

It certainly has an arresting look. The pale head, and grey/brown/black plumage as you move from scaps to coverts to primaries is very typical of a 1st-winter Casp. Hmmm... 

Here's a photo with a 1st-winter Herring Gull in shot. The difference is pretty obvious...

That's a pretty bog-standard 1st-winter HG on the left. Very different aren't they?

Structurally it was a small bird - smaller than most HGs - though attenuated, with quite a long primary projection. The coverts all looked quite worn, though largely plain, i.e. Casp-ish, rather than the more checquered look of HG. The tertials maybe didn't look too bad for Casp either. But there were still some retained juv lower scaps (not good for Casp) and the head and bill just didn't have a Caspy vibe. The bill was pointy, not blunt, with quite a prominent gonys for a small bird. The scapular markings were a bit coarse for Casp, though possibly not a deal-breaker on a better bird.

After watching it for a while, and realising I was on to a loser, I swung away and checked the other gulls present. Finding nothing else of interest I came back to it, hoping for a flash of open wing and tail. In the 40 minutes it took me to chill off to the point of defeat, it flapped once! For the tiny number of readers who might like this kind of stuff, here are a few more pics...


Again with a standard 1st-winter HG


On a typical Casp the inner primaries would have much darker outer webs I think. Can't quite make out whether the underwing is particularly pale or not. Unfortunately I didn't manage a shot of the tail.


So there you go. He shoots; he doesn't score. Though I might be wrong, I cannot see this bird being just a straightforward Herring Gull, and it certainly isn't a happy-making Casp. Hybrid? You decide.

Again - as is so often the case with gulls - despite there being no obvious goodies out there yesterday afternoon, the dross provided its own entertainment.

Always look at...

And finally, this is where the local Penduline Tits will be. Possibly...

It is built, but will they come?

Thursday, 20 January 2022

Bogey Bird Bites Dust

On Tuesday I finally made it to the Seaton area. I already knew the four Glossy Ibis were still present, but was in no rush to visit them. I wanted the sun to get round a bit first, so they could live up to their name properly. A morning's work was followed by a lingering look at lots of Larids. All dross. On to the ibis then. The early-morning gen had them almost within touching distance of the cycle path, by the church. This was going to be good.

I certainly didn't need bins. Glossy Ibis are easily identifiable with the naked eye. Especially when very close, like they were first thing. And, yes, even when distant dots, like they were right now. Sigh... They couldn't have been any further away while still being in the same field. And in the short time I had available they basically did nothing but eat...

One accidentally has its head visible here

Standard pose.

A bonus Dark-bellied Brent was nice...

A fairly unusual sight on the Axe

It was good to bump into Tim and Sue, a couple of the Axe regulars. Such a nice vibe among the local birders there.

So, on to yesterday afternoon and the meaning of this post's title...

Bearded Tit is a species I have seen just once since living in the Southwest. And that was in Hyde Park during a trip to London! In other words: zero local birds. I've had chances, but failed to connect. Beardy is a scarce bird locally, for sure. Evidently more regular at West Bex and Cogden than on the Axe, but I've missed them there too. I've missed them everywhere, and feel like the only long(ish)-time local birder who hasn't seen one. Mind you, I've never been too frantic about twitching them because I'd much prefer to find my own. Well...

Mid-afternoon I was sploshing around a West Bexington spot in search of #LocalBigYear ticks, specifically Common Snipe and Jack Snipe. Common Snipe was quick and easy (and expected) but soon enough a Jack Snipe (hoped for but not expected) popped up too, and I watched it come down in an area of short grass and a bit of Juncus. I'd seen exactly where it landed, and fancied my chances of an on-the-deck experience if I was careful. So I began edging my way over there, along the side of some reeds. Suddenly a small, annoyed thing burst from the reeds with a staccato volley of 'pings', landing just a few yards away. Bearded Tit! The sun was in my eyes but a quick look with bins confirmed it was a female. It looked jittery, so if I was going to get a photo, now was the time. I could barely see through the camera for glare, so basically guessed where it was and got two short bursts before it flew. This is the best shot...

Female Bearded Tit at West Bex

I don't know who discovered the Beardies I saw in Hyde Park that time, but I reckon I have a good idea how they felt. Well, almost. I suppose West Bex isn't Central London, is it?! Still, local birding definitely adds value to birds that might be fairly commonplace elsewhere.

I saw (and heard) the Beardy a few times after that, but it didn't perch up for me again. I never did see that Jack Snipe on the deck though, but found a second some time later. So, Bearded Tit, 2 Jack Snipe, 19 Common Snipe, singles of Chiffchaff and Goldcrest. Not bad. Not bad at all.

Monday, 17 January 2022

Record Shots

These past few days I've added a few more species to the #LocalBigYear tally, and immortalised their arrival with some dire photography. The first was Dipper, which I thought was going to be really difficult. However, some excellent gen from a fellow local birder paid off at the first attempt. And it was a spot I would never have thought of checking...

Dipper. Very flighty, so this was all I got.

That was Saturday. Yesterday afternoon I tried the Brambling stake-out again. Success this time, but the few I saw were distant and tricky...

The back of a female Brambling, in all its tiny glory

I'm afraid they only get worse. I spent the dregs of Sunday afternoon scouring the high farmland to the north-east of Bridport. My targets were Corn Bunting, Golden Plover and - very optimistically - Merlin. It was hard work. Eventually, and by complete fluke, a mixed flock of about 50 Yellowhammers and Corn Buntings flew over me as I stood at the side of the road in the middle of nowhere, and perched up in a distant treetop...

A few of those dots are Corn Buntings - mostly the higher ones. I think something awful has happened to the white balance on this shot.

I couldn't find any Golden Plovers, or anything else for that matter. Still, at least 17 Corn Buntings (counted from photos) was a nice total.

This afternoon I visited West Bexington. The plan was to sit on the beach and check the pre-roost gulls as they dropped on to the Mere for a wash before heading out to sea. In the event it was so slow I decided to try the bunting flock instead. The buntings were most uncooperative, feeding much further up the field than is ideal. Even so, I saw the female Cirl Bunting several times and - for the first time since last November - the male twice. I was glad I'd bothered with my scope, because without it I definitely would not have seen the male. Unfortunately only the female posed for photos...

Female Cirl Bunting in its usual hedge, and playing very hard to get. Cryptic rump view, top left.

Face pattern looks really strong in the shade here, but varies so much in different lights...

Olive-grey rump visible on this one.

Looks quite different in the late afternoon sun...

...and in this one, taken at 16:17, the rump even looks a warm brown.

And finally, a few extra-curricular pics...

Fallow Deer herd viewed from Eggardon Hill at sunset yesterday.

Roe Deer caught by the final rays of this afternoon's sun before it dipped below the horizon

The #LocalBigYear total stands at 82 species now, with the sole addition of Goldcrest at West Bex this afternoon. Last year I didn't see a local Goldcrest until August or something, so at least I've avoided that patheticness.

As dusk descended, and a miraculous Barn Owl didn't happen, the Wolf Moon looked bleakly impressive in its wintry sky...

West Bex - the end of the day...

Friday, 14 January 2022

Lesser Scaup

This recent fine weather has been great for catching up with work, so last night's sore throat and below par-ness were most unwelcome. A precautionary day off then. At 11:01 the local WhatsApp group informed me that 3 Glossy Ibis had just dropped in to Sheep's Marsh on the Axe. Typical! Not much I could do about that from Bridport. At 12:19 they flew off, heading high west. So, that was that.

After lunch I felt well enough for a walk, and headed north from home along the River Asker in optimistic search of Dipper. I'd just added Greenfinch to the #LocalBigYear total when my phone rang. Seeing the caller was Mike Morse, for some reason I absolutely knew that the three Glossy Ibis had about-turned and dropped in at West Bex. Good thing I don't do betting...

'Female Lesser Scaup at Bex, on Big Pond', said Mike, but used a few more words in real life.

Big Pond is actually a small pond, and a dream location. If the Lesser Scaup stayed, views would be very good. Mike and Alan had found it with Tufties, and it was a new bird for the West Bex and Cogden recording area. I was hugely grateful for the shout, and instantly retraced my steps. Not long after...

This is how I like my ducks: close and sunlit. Female Lesser Scaup in the foreground with a pair of Tufties. That little 'bump' at the back of its crown is consistent in all the photos. There appears to be a hint of pale auricular patch too, or am I just imagining it?

Nice comparison with female Tuftie. From the side it was virtually impossible to see any black on the bill tip. Perfect.

White secondary bar, switching to grey across the primaries. Perfect again.

That white/grey wing bar contrast is even more obvious on this shot



One of my favourite pics. If ducks were a thing here instead of gulls, I'm sure I would constantly be going 'always look at ducks'. Because even a small gang of common ducks might contain a subtle gem like this one.

The whole occasion was a delight. Apart from the bird itself, which was an enjoyable object lesson in tricky Aythya identification, it was great to meet up with a few fellow birders for a change. Nick Senior was there when I arrived, with Ian McLean and Alan Barrett (co-finder) turning up a little later. As the four of us watched the Lesser Scaup and chatted in the warm, late afternoon sun, the real world and all its woes seemed far away. I like this hobby...

News of the bird had evidently drawn one or two other would-be admirers. Unfortunately they were over on the beach. Due to current water levels in the nearby reed bed, the pond is not really accessible from the beach without some serious wading.

Lesser Scaup twitchers? They could see us, so hopefully made it round to the right spot okay.

So, that was an unexpected development. A new duck for my #LocalBigYear effort. In fact it was almost a new duck, full stop. I've only seen one Lesser Scaup before. It was quite a significant one though...

Lesser Scaup at Chasewater in 1987 - the first for Britain!

Thursday, 13 January 2022

Dross

It is now almost 40 years since I began to look at gulls properly. 1982 was the year of revelation. In the autumn of that year I saw my first Mediterranean Gull, in Norfolk, and very soon afterwards found my first, at Staines Reservoir. Med Gull was still a very scarce bird in the London recording area. That individual was an adult in winter plumage, but the following spring I discovered a 1st-winter - again at Staines Res - and realised that youngsters were perfectly doable. In 1984 I learned about the Wraysbury Reservoir roost. Late on a winter's afternoon you might have seen me climbing the gates and hurrying up the bank to get out of view. Glaucous and Iceland Gulls were the sought-after prizes. As my interest grew, less obvious gulls like the darker-mantled, yellow-legged Herring Gulls (now Yellow-legged Gull) began to register, and the properly black Lesser Black-backed Gulls...

Almost invariably, digging out any of these gems required the same approach: pick carefully through a flock of gulls. Although I am much older now, I haven't found a better way.

Yesterday I was finally able to get some work done. This put me in the Seaton area, where at lunchtime the Axe Estuary beckoned. This was the lovely view from Coronation Corner...

A few hundred gulls in glorious sunshine. Wonderful!

Bright sunshine isn't the best light for assessing subtle shades of grey, but it would certainly make an adult Ring-billed Gull's yellow legs stand out, and its pale eye easier to see. Of course, Ring-billed Gulls are like hen's teeth nowadays, but you have to dream. So, once the big gulls had been sifted for Casps etc, every single Common Gull got a grilling, including the youngsters. The Black-headed Gulls too - Bonaparte's Gull is still one of my most wanted. And of course, on the Axe a winter Med is always a nice reward.

This number of gulls feels quite manageable, and I honestly felt like I did the lot. But there was nothing. Not a thing. The whole lot were so much...er...dross.

Or were they?

It is true that any search through a gull flock is a hopeful quest for the odd one out; something unusual, something special; ideally something rare. You select each bird, examine it, discard it - toss it on the dross pile. That's how it seems, but really it's not like that at all. Sure, you might whizz through them a bit dismissively in that hunt for a goodie, but once you realise there isn't one, you relax and begin to appreciate them in their own right. The incredible variability in Herring Gulls for example. Not just in plumage, but size, structure, even facial expression! And how the sun brings out the intense redness of an adult BHG's legs. And that even 1st-winter Common Gulls are not all the same...

Instead of the usual grey saddle of second-generation feathers, this 1st-winter Common Gull has retained its brown, scaly juvenile scaps. Is it from somewhere with a short, late season, way above the Arctic Circle? Possibly. Who knows? Interesting though.

And of course, sifting through all these regular gulls helps you become more and more familiar with the 'look' of the commoner species, so that the 24-carat gull can be more easily separated from its drossy mates. Like in this shot...

Lunchtime today. Spot the classy gull.

Hopefully a bit more obvious now: 1st-winter Med Gull hiding behind that preening Herring Gull, just left of centre.

Yes, when I use the seemingly disparaging term 'dross' to refer to everyday gulls, it is always with an underlying note of affection. I love gulls, all of them. Drossy gulls have helped me while away many very pleasurable hours in the last 40 years. Long may they continue to do so.

Always look at gulls!