Saturday 28 May 2022

The Dregs of Spring

The last eight nights of nocmig recording have delivered one Moorhen and nothing else. In fact I am on six consecutive blanks currently. But I shall persevere, never know.

And that's how birding is in late May. Spring migration is basically over, just never know. The recent Cogden Woodchat Shrike for example. It came out of nowhere, and provided some royal entertainment for four days. Very little else about though.

I paid it another visit on Thursday evening...

There was no one else present when I arrived, and this was the sight that greeted me. I sat down in the grass and got the camera out...

The Woodchat was perched on this twig for the entire half-hour plus that I watched it

Like many birders, I cannot help looking at other stuff right now. The usual distractions of late spring. For example, Cogden is absolutely stiff with orchids at the moment...

Bee Orchids are everywhere.

There are seven other spikes in shot behind this one, two in bud.

And I have never seen so many Greater Butterfly Orchids. Big patches all over the place.

Common Spotted Orchid is apparently quite scarce at West Bex & Cogden, but Mike Morse found one this evening.

And still there are birds. Following a tip-off from the local farmer, on Thursday evening I finished up at West Bex, where I came upon this beauty...

Tawny Owl keeps an eye out

I had been hoping to see some fluffy juvs too, but they were tucked away out of sight somewhere. Still, this is the first adult Tawny Owl I have ever photographed. Challenging light, to say the least, but it will do.

And so to this evening, and another Cogden visit. I knew the Woodchat had vacated, never know. As I leaned on a gate and soaked up the gorgeous view, I suddenly became aware of a sound which I hadn't heard in the field for twenty-something years: a 'singing' Quail! The following video comprises five clips from about nine minutes of recording. There was a sixth, but too faint to be worth the bother. Visually, there is a Stonechat and one or two Greater Butterfly Orchids...

Thankfully the Quail was still in good voice when Mike Morse got there a bit later, but sadly went quiet before Alan Barrett arrived. Hopefully it will hang about...

My garden has Quail on its list, courtesy the nocmig recorder in July 2020. But my own ears have not heard one since before I moved to the Southwest in 2002. Mid-1990s I reckon, and a non-birding walk with friends on the Ridgeway near Tring.

The dregs of spring are well worth sifting.

Wednesday 25 May 2022


In a list of the pros & cons of self-employment, being your own boss is clearly going to feature. Yes, being your own boss is great. But what they don't tell you is that it ought to feature under both headings, because taking time off whenever you like can sometimes be way too easy...

After a bit of a lie-in, leisurely breakfast and review of the previous night's nocmig, I was just about to head out to work yesterday when I learned that a Woodchat Shrike had been found at Cogden. A tweet from finder Paul Harris (in which I had kindly been tagged) and a call from Mike Morse, almost simultaneously, ensured I did not miss this opportunity to see one of my 'local most-wanted' birds. A quick trip to Cogden before work then? Er, wait a sec...

My schedule for the day was pretty tight, customers all booked in, and I know only too well that a 'quick trip' to see a bird is usually anything but. Despite these obvious hindrances to shrike-twitching, I was still pretty amazed to find myself heading off to work like a responsible person. Where that shred of sensibleness had come from, I do not know.

Generously, the Woodchat lingered all day in the same area, but when eventually I turned up there at about 17:45 it was nowhere to be seen. An hour later, ditto. From three searchers we were now down to two. Viv went one way, and I the other. Thankfully, Viv found it a few minutes later. I was back in a flash.

The Woodchat spent about fifteen minutes in exactly the same spot, before diving into the hedge, and out of view again...

The time is 18:53. Evening sun illuminating from the right; azure sea as a backdrop. Simply wonderful.

I assume the grey mantle, plus extent of pale area on lores/around eye, make this a female

Relaxed mode. Just look at that gorgeous chestnut cap.

All day I had been encouraged by the knowledge that shrikes will sometimes linger happily in a favoured spot, and this bird appeared to be doing just that. My only concern was that an over-zealous photographer might approach too closely and unsettle it. That didn't happen, and I am glad. The hedges of West Bex and Cogden are among the shrikiest I have seen anywhere, and I have long desired to see a spring Woodchat decorating one. I got my wish. As I type, it is present for a second day. I hope that its visitors continue to give it space, so that as many as wish to can enjoy this stunning scarcity in such beautiful surroundings.

Monday 23 May 2022

A Mixed Bag

A short lunchtime walk today. Fairly local, but new, and orchid-focused. Striding across the first field I heard a deep, hooty kind of call. A bit distant, it repeated a few times and then stopped. Ridiculously, it made me think of Eagle Owl. Not that I have ever heard one in the flesh, just the odd recording. Nothing native came to mind, so perhaps it had been a faraway cow or something? Dismissing it, I pressed on.

I failed to find the target orchids, and the best I could come up with was this...

Orchid...with spotted leaves

I am so rubbish at plants. A couple of years back I photographed some orchids exactly like this one, at Powerstock Common. A reliable informant told me they were Heath Spotted Orchids, and explained why. I have since applied this knowledge to other spotted orchids which I thought were Heath Spotted, but was told that those ones were actually Common Spotted. So now I am a bit lost...

Funnily enough I was at Powerstock yesterday. And so were these...

So yes, many orchids with spotted leaves were seen, and enjoyed, but not really identified very much. However, I was very pleased with another orchid encounter. Entirely accidental, and while I was looking for butterflies and things...

As a plant novice, I mainly think of orchids as bright and obvious, but these were the exact opposite. There was something about their structure though. Something vaguely familiar. It was their leaves which clinched it. Two leaves, or 'tway blades'...

Common Twayblade

Mainly green, and very subtle

I have a distant memory of being shown this orchid once, years ago, but so hazy that yesterday's encounter felt like a massive discovery.

Other than a couple of Dingy Skippers and Green Tiger Beetles - none of which posed for a photo - there was little else to shout about. Except for the family of Marsh Tits; very nice to confirm breeding at Powerstock...

I know it is almost entirely hidden by foliage, but that's a juvenile Marsh Tit, complete with a just-about-visible yellow gape.

Yesterday evening I was at a different local spot, hoping for Hobby, or Red-rumped Swallow maybe, when a gang of egrets flew over. Beautifully lit by the evening sun, I could see seven yellow bills. Cattle Egrets! I saw just a single local Cattle Egret last year, at West Bex, so a flock of seven was a delightful turn-up. Of course, by the time I extracted the camera they were heading away and into the sun...

Seven Cattle Egrets

Briefly side on, but against the light.

It seems they had been at Abbotsbury Swannery earlier, but their eventual destination remains a mystery. All I can say is that they were heading west towards Bridport at 19:25.

So. Back to this afternoon. Returning from my orchid fail, the low, hooty call again. I decided to try and track it down. Much to my astonishment, this...

I have to say, there was something fundamentally sad about coming across a caged Eagle Owl in the middle of the West Dorset countryside. And having my ludicrous hunch proved correct was no consolation.

Wednesday 18 May 2022

Pomless & Pessimistic

At close of play on 13th May 2017, just five short years ago, my spring tally of local Pomarine Skuas had reached a dizzying 26, including ludicrous flocks of 9 and 12. Compared with a 10-year Seaton tally of 17 (spring and autumn combined) this was unimagined bounty, and I wondered if the move to Bridport was going to see a sudden, massive uptick in the number of springtime Pom encounters. So far this year my tally is zero. Last year it was one; the year before, zero again. This is more like what I am used to. 2017 was clearly a glitch in the matrix...

The prospect of witnessing a spooned-up Pom muscling its way east is well worth putting yourself out for, so there have been several early alarms and late vigils. It is why I was sitting on the Cogden shingle yesterday evening, resignedly soaking up the light rain and trying to be enthusiastic about the measly dribble of Kitts and Manxies. The Pom season has given me three Arctic Skuas and a distant skua sp. which was almost certainly an Arctic too. I dare not total the hours.

Next year maybe.

Arctic Skua past Cogden yesterday morning. Not close!

Pom fail apart, there have been some nice things lately...

Whimbrel are always great value. According to eBird I have seen a grand total of 103 this spring, since 11th April. On the deck they are usually a bit skittish, and getting nice pics is a challenge. I saw one land on Cogden Beach yesterday morning, and a bit of belly-crawling was worth the aggro...

Initial shot, from afar


Three others flew past...

Since I last mentioned nocmig there has been a steady trickle of interest, apart from the year's first blank on 14th/15th May. The following night I almost compounded the disaster by neglecting to switch on the mains adaptor. The batteries gave me less than three hours, dying just after midnight. But that was enough to capture the nugget of nocmig gold which flew over at 23:43...

A Nightjar! My third, after two birds in the spring of 2020. And in the early hours of 14th there were two flycatcher sp, which despite the non-diagnostic sonograms were no doubt Spotted Flycatchers, a species I have yet to witness in the flesh this year. Waders continue to feature occasionally, though nothing untoward. Very entertaining.

Non-birdy stuff then...

Profusion of Greater Butterfly Orchids at Cogden

Pallid beauty

A significant arrival of Painted Ladies on 16th, all hunkered down in the damp and dismal conditions. I saw six - five flushed and one which became a Wheatear's breakfast - but there must have been countless others.

Rob, our eldest son, is visiting from Switzerland right now. Yesterday we had a stroll along the Exeter Canal, scene of many an angling adventure together when he was still based in the UK. Spotting an unfamilar dragonfly, I whipped out the camera...

Being rubbish at dragonflies, I had to look it up. Teneral male Scarce Chaser, apparently. Considering an adult is blue, it's not surprising I didn't realise what it was. I have to say, the youngster looks a good deal smarter than the adult!

So there we are, all up to date. Almost two weeks of May left, yet it feels like spring is over. Barring the ultra-slim possibility of something rare, I foresee a lot more photos like the last five in this post! Though I am happy to be proved very wrong indeed.

Friday 13 May 2022

The Beast of May

When my phone rings before breakfast and 'Mike Morse' is displayed on the screen, I am sure my pulse rate responds instantly. That was definitely the case this morning, and even more so when I learned the reason for his call.

A few minutes later I was at West Bexington beach car park, watching a superb Glaucous Gull. Not what I might have expected in mid-May, and particularly incongruous when you consider that Portland Bill was graced with a Bee-eater this morning! But I'm always up for a good gull! It isn't often I devote a whole post to one bird, with multiple samey pics, but this one deserves it...

It was on the sea when I arrived, and the first photos I got were taken as it lifted off to fly towards...

...the beach. Yes!

I've noticed that photos of birds on the beach can sometimes be enhanced mightily by what the sea is doing. I love that one above. And as a dark background to a pale bird, the sea makes the next one pop rather nicely too...

Just look at that lump! Scraggy, but so impressive!

Sorry about that, I just couldn't help myself. It seemed a shame not to overdo it a bit, pics-wise. When the Nikon P900 is given plenty of light and several bites of the cherry, it can produce pretty smart photos. Admittedly I am easily pleased, and well know that it is like a 110 cartridge film camera (anyone old enough to remember those horrors?) to a DSLR's 35mm, but it'll do me. With a -0.7 exposure compensation (pale bird/sunshine) and some post-processing tweakage, what's not to like?

I am supremely grateful for the prompt calls I get from Mike and Alan when they find something a bit unusual. Because they cover West Bex and Cogden just about every day it is far more likely they will be phoning me rather than the other way around, but I do wish I could reciprocate a bit more often. Sometime in the next week or so would be good!

Thursday 12 May 2022

Mapperton Wildlands

A few hours of homework for me today, in preparation for my first ever spot of 'guiding' over the weekend.

Can an old dog learn new tricks? Sunday morning at Mapperton Wildlands will be the proving ground. All I can say is that there is loads to look at, and I am perfectly capable of pointing at stuff and talking. What could possibly go wrong?

Seriously though, I am very much looking forward to getting involved with this fascinating project, a rare beacon of positivity in the gloom of so much ecological devastation. Coltleigh Farm was my destination today. One of five farms which make up the Mapperton Estate, and the first to begin its rewilding journey, it is already pretty impressive in terms of biodiversity, as the of photos indicates...

Heath Spotted Orchid

Green-winged Orchid.

One of the Coleoptera. Definitely. Fleabane Tortoise Beetle in fact, according to the wonderful British Insects by Paul D Brock.

Species-rich grassland. Lovely.

Burnet Companion

Common Blue

I'm pretty sure there is a geological term for these boulders,

Cute and inquisitive Fox cub

Understated beauty: Green-veined White

Southern Marsh Orchids (I hope) in a lush sea of wetland flora

Some had very spotted leaves though...

I'm on safe ground with this fragile beauty: Ragged Robin

Stonechats. Common on the coast locally, but not so much inland I suspect. Great to see. This pair had at least three young too. Brilliant.

Also lovely to see a few Yellowhammers here. This male was singing too.

Stonechat family (female out of shot) in a different field to the pair above. Not sure if they are the same birds, but would like to think not...

One for the dipterists. Not your average Cranefly though.

Two of the White Park herd...which have calves now, so respectful gap maintained!

I ended the day at Cogden, mainly for a Wheatear fix. The beach did not disappoint...

A super-skittish female, which wouldn't let me anywhere near.

Slightly less nervy male

Finally, by chance I came across a couple of Common Blues resting on a grass stem...

Simply stunning little things.