Monday, 31 October 2022

It's All Too Easy

Shortly after 07:00 this morning I sat down in the West Bay shelter and unsheathed the seawatching tool. With its 82mm objective and 25-75x zoom eyepiece, not much gets away. Typically, today there was very little to get away. Still, the few passing birds that bothered with this bit of Lyme Bay were nailed good and proper with my 21st-century glass. In the old days I would have been struggling with poor light transmission, feeble magnification, psychedelic colour-fringing, and the inevitable consequence of repeated drenching - a steamed-up interior. My distant young Gannets would no doubt all have been possible Great Shearwaters, and consequently my pulse rate up and down like the proverbial. Yes, back then a seawatch was an excellent cardio-vascular workout, rather than the sedentary artery-clogger that it is today.

Just as I was thinking of packing up in disgust, a WhatsApp message from Ian McLean in Seaton: 'Two Velvet Scoter east'. So I didn't pack up. I parked my disgust and waited. And 24 minutes later they hove into view. Velvet Scoter is a decent seawatching prize locally. Had I not known they were coming, I certainly would not have seen them. Disgust would have won out, and I'd have been at home. Later I would have heard about them, how they'd passed Seaton and then West Bex, and been thoroughly gripped. Just think of all the emotions I would have experienced: frustration, envy, anger, self-pity. Overcoming the disappointment of frequent grippage was meat and drink for birders of yore, and built a hardy resilience sadly missing today. WhatsApp caused me to miss out on a potentially character-building experience.

As the Velvet Scoters passed me, my modest camera captured this...

The 2 Velvet Scoters that I knew were coming.

Birders always enjoy the cut and thrust of a lively discussion. What sex were those Velvets? What age? Putting your observations into words or - even better - field sketches, making a case for conclusions drawn, arguing that case... Never mind the facts, in the absence of photos it all came down to who was the the most articulate, the best artist, or the loudest. These are not just handy attributes for the bullish birder of course, they are life skills.

Digital cameras have taken all that away. Your wordy description; your clinical artwork; your bold, unassailable argumentation... All for nought.

'Mate, that's rubbish. You're wrong. Just look at the pics. Both pale on the belly; they're first-winter birds. The one on the left is browner, with the face pattern of a female. The one on the right is blacker, without that face pattern; it's a male.'

First-winter male (R) and female (L) Velvet Scoters.

Naturally, as a southern softy I am already at a disadvantage when it comes to strength of character, and modern technology has simply made things worse. Perhaps I need to ditch the camera, leave the phone at home, and search eBay for a nice Nickel Supra. A few months of olde worlde birding hardship might do me some good. Possibly I have forgotten the art of turning blurred, hazy birds into species they are not. Can I still write a feather-perfect description from the briefest of mostly-obscured views? Or dash off an intimate 'field' sketch with really not very much reference to a field guide? These are skills once universal among birders of a certain age. But now? All lost, I suspect.

Aren't they?

Friday, 28 October 2022

Location, Location, Location

I understand that 2022 will go down in mothing history as a pretty good year* for immigrant species. Obviously I have no previous years of experience to compare it with, but mothy Twitter is all a-buzz with such talk. Especially right now. Why now? Well, Crimson Speckled is one reason. Recent days have seen warm winds from far, far away reaching these shores, carrying with them moths from southern Europe and even Africa. Apparently the 2022 Crimson Speckled tally is already more than twice that of any other year, ever. Naturally I have picked up on the vibe here, and wondered if I might be fortunate enough to encounter one. No. More than that. I have hoped for one. Which is totally unreasonable really. After all, I've only been mothing five minutes.

Still, if I look at my own collection of migrant moths so far, it is pretty amazing. Even I can see that. Another new species this week...

Palpita vitrealis (Olive-tree Pearl) is literally see-through, and its scientific name presumably derived from 'vitrus', the Latin word for glass.

That flimsy moths like this are carried here intact from hundreds of miles away - or thousands in some cases - I find astonishing. On Wednesday night there was clearly an arrival of White-point. I caught four here. My first since summer, and I don't think I ever caught more than one at a time. Two at the most.

One of the four White-point caught Wednesday night...

...plus a bonus Vestal.

Of course, I am well aware of the reason for our enviable collection of migrants moths.

Location.

With our little garden situated on the West Dorset coast just three miles from the sea, you could hardly ask for a better spot to put a moth trap.

Or could you?

This morning I took up an invitation to join a moth-trapping session at Abbotsbury Subtropical Gardens. More accurately, the traps were located in what I guess is the nursery yard. On the face of it an unprepossessing spot, with polytunnels and whatnot, situated on the seaward side of the Gardens, a few hundred yards up a grassy slope from the sea. Luke drove me over, where we joined Steve to empty the traps. I'm not sure what I was expecting, but, after such a blowy night, probably not that much if I'm honest. After all, before first light I had counted just 14 moths of 11 species in our garden trap. Sure, there had been some migrants: Vestal, Rusty-dot Pearl and two White-point. And a Blair's Mocha might have been, but was perhaps more likely from local stock. Anyway, considering how much the night's potential had been talked up, I was a bit disappointed. Was Abbotsbury going to be that much better?

Er...yes.

In the very first trap was this...

Small Marbled - a rare immigrant.

It was still gloomy enough that I needed the light from Luke's head torch to get any sort of photo. A tiny moth, and new for me. A very good start. We pressed on, wading through Rush Veneers, White-points, Scarce Bordered Straws... Another new one for me: Delicate. My photo is appalling, so I shan't bother, but it was around this point that I realised I ought to reassess my expectations. As well as the migrants, local speciality, Oak Rustic, was plentiful. I brought one home to photograph properly...

Abbotsbury Subtropical Gardens have many evergreen oaks, food plant of Oak Rustic.

We opened up a small actinic trap which at the beginning of the month had bagged a Death's Head Hawk-moth, and found this...

The legendary Crimson Speckled.

Judging by the numerous colourful expressions prompted by its appearance, I think my companions were quite chuffed to catch this belter. What a stunning moth! As someone on Twitter aptly put it, Crimson Speckled looks like it's made from a shredded pack of playing cards. It is a decent size too; no need to squint to appreciate its beauty.

Steve kept a list of names and numbers. Forty-something species in the end, with immigrants including Small Marbled, Cosmopolitan, Golden Twin-spot, Radford's Flame Shoulder, Delicate, Vestal, Pearly Underwing, Convolvulus Hawk-moth, Turnip, Palpita vitrealis, Rusty-dot Pearl, Silver Y, Angle Shades, 25 White-point, 33 Scarce Bordered Straw and 60+ Rush Veneer. Astonishing! Along with the Crimson Speckled, the first five species in that list were all new for me.

Blown away, I was...

I hadn't been home long when a message came through from Luke. The Golden Twin-spot wasn't a Golden Twin-spot after all. Golden Twin-spot is a very scarce immigrant, and a real prize catch. But, it is possible to go one better. Our Golden Twin-spot was in fact a Tunbridge Wells Gem, a species resident in North Africa. Since the first record in 1870 it has occurred just 20-odd times in Britain. Its exoticness is hinted at by the caterpillar food plants, which include banana, tobacco and Canna Lily!

Wow!

Tunbridge Wells Gem

And here is the Radford's Flame Shoulder...

Radford's Flame Shoulder. Another scarce immigrant.

So, what was my take-away lesson from today? That, yes, there are some good spots for moth trapping, and our garden in Bridport is likely in that category. And then there are ridiculously BRILLIANT spots for moth trapping...

Location, location, location.


*Exceptional?

Sunday, 23 October 2022

Blair's Wainscot

The sound of hammering rain woke me this morning, much too early, and during a brief lull I trotted outside to bring in the moth trap. Among the 14 moths were two I didn't recognise. One was a micro, which turned out to be Plodia interpunctella, or Indian Meal Moth. I'm not sure where that came from, but there are only two dots on the Dorset Living Record map - both near Dorchester - so I'm guessing it is pretty uncommon locally.

The other new moth was obviously a wainscot of some description, and I had a hopeful suspicion of its identity due to a very recent 'first for Portland' which featured on my Twitter feed on Friday morning. The field guide appeared to confirm it, but I waited for a bit of expert feedback before I got too excited. So, here it is...

Blair's Wainscot

This is a genuine rarity. A little bit of research tells me that there is a very small breeding presence in East Dorset, but otherwise we are talking rare immigrant. For example, Devon had its first in 2020, not far from Exeter. Here it is again, alongside a Large Wainscot...

Large Wainscot and Blair's Wainscot

And finally, here is the slightly tatty Indian Meal Moth...


I don't know whether my first few months' moth-trapping experience is in any way typical, but it strikes me that the occasional scarce, or even rare, moth is almost to be expected, certainly more so than with birds. Is that because there are simply so many species out there? Or have I just been ridiculously jammy? At the end of the year I intend to put together a rare/scarce/immigrant summary. I think the numbers and diversity might surprise me...

A quick bit of birding this morning was worthwhile. Though I couldn't find anything new, the Barred Warbler showed quite well, if not that close. The light was a bit dire, but a couple of pics nonetheless...

Barred Warbler in typical pose just prior to diving into cover.

Friday, 21 October 2022

Wonder of the Day

Last night's forecast predicted a decent onshore blow for the morning, so I made plans. As a veteran of countless dire seawatches in conditions of great promise I ought to know better, but cannot help myself. I was up at first light, and hurried outside to get the moth trap in. I would cover it for now, and see to the contents later. Oh, but look, there's a moth clinging to the underside of the funnel. I'll just quickly check to see what it is. Looks like an upside-down Black Rustic perhaps...

Oh my...

Not a Black Rustic.

Since this autumn speciality first began to appear on my Twitter feed, I have been hoping. And hoping some more. The larvae feed on oak, so I've been worrying that perhaps there aren't enough oak trees nearby to make its appearance a realistic possibility. But clearly there are...

Just look at that! A fresh and gorgeous Merveille du Jour.

What a moth!

Merveille du Jour translates to 'wonder of the day'. Very appropriate. It has certainly been the wonder of mine.

The seawatching was going to have to go some to top that.

In the end it wasn't bad at all. In an hour I counted 136 Med Gulls, 14 Common Scoters, 3 Brents, 2 Balearic Shearwaters, and one each of Kittiwake and Commic Tern, mostly heading east. The latter was easily close enough to ID to species, but I couldn't keep the bird steady in the scope for long enough and failed to clinch it. Annoying. Add in the many Gannets and auks, and it was a nicely bird-filled hour. A great little seawatch in fact.

As the day progressed, the weather upped its game somewhat. A howling gale and tanking rain are easy to stay indoors for, but if the Met Office rain map was correct there was a dry spell due around 3pm. Sure enough...

I thought it would be good to check on the Barred Warbler, and made my way slowly in that direction. The weather had certainly stirred up the birds, and a few bits and bobs were where they wouldn't be normally...

A plug-ugly GBBG on the river in West Bay. One day I hope for a Casp here. I shan't hold my breath.

Of the 34 small gulls here in the dog-walked-to-death field behind Rise restaurant (the first I've ever seen on the deck in this spot) 10 are Meds.

6 Brents heading out to sea after a flight along the promenade.

The sea was spectacular, and a few keenies had come for a look...

The harbour wall. It was possible to get very wet if you fancied it.

A more sensible viewing spot.

Heading up the cliff path was a tiny bit hairy, and approaching the Barred Warbler bushes I could see they were totally blown out. Still, a quick poke around revealed a few birds in residence. I saw three or four birds flit from one bit of deep cover to another. One was probably a Blackbird; the others, all small dark things. Like Robin, or Dunnock, or Radde's Warbler. I didn't see any of them well enough to say for sure...

Then a large, pale warbler flew effortlessly past me and landed in the open, twiggy top of a wind-battered Elder, just a few yards away. Seemingly unfazed by the buffeting hoolie - or my nearness - it paused and peered at me. I had time to get the camera out, fire it up, zoom it, raise it to my eye...

I have come to the conclusion that Barred Warblers are super-hard and super-cool. With what can only be described as nonchalance, it dropped out of view approximately .0001 seconds before I pressed the shutter button.

On my way back down the hill, the heavens opened and emptied. My so-called waterproof is not very. Passing this lot on my way back to the car, I knew exactly how they felt...

Perfect weather for ducks. And Cormorants.

Thursday, 20 October 2022

West Bay Barred Warbler Again...

The West Bay Barred Warbler was present again this morning. That's three days so far. A fair few birders have come to see it, though I've met only a handful. Twitter has made it easy to get the news out each day, with a map and 'dropped pin' for those unfamiliar with the location (that's everyone, probably) and the bird has obliged by showing regularly. One of Tuesday's visitors was Dorset photographer, Peter Coe, who kindly sent me the fruits of his labour and gave me the thumbs-up re posting them here. I'm not sure I've ever seen better photos of a Barred Warbler...

Every Barred Warbler field character you could wish for is on view here. Except the undertail covert chevrons of course.
(photo ©Peter Coe)

Oh...wait a minute...
(photo ©Peter Coe)

There you go!
(photo ©Peter Coe)

I am really chuffed to be able to feature these amazing shots on the blog, and very grateful to Pete for such a lovely memento of a special bird.

So, what next? Does the Bridport recording area have any more surprises up its autumn sleeve? I hope so.

Yesterday morning's oddity was two vismig Goosanders flying east, well inland from the viewpoint. They were a bit of a struggle to identify, but we clinched it in the end. To my amazement, Tom even got recognisable photos. Roughly three pixels per bird. Definitely a #LocalBigYear tick, and possibly my first local Goosanders ever. I can't be bothered to look it up, and my memory is a complete blank, so we'll leave it at 'possibly'.

This morning's oddity was two distant geese flying east over the sea at 08:10. Just too distant for bins, but they looked very interesting. Especially in view of the fact that several extralimital 'grey' geese were out and about in Dorset during yesterday's blasting easterlies. I put a message out, but don't think anyone else picked them up. Ah well...

Just the one new moth recently...

Red-line Quaker. Another autumn speciality.

I'm still going through last night's nocmig recording, but thought I'd better interrupt proceedings to get this post done. It was a busy night. Currently 645 Redwings and counting...!

Tuesday, 18 October 2022

Barred Warbler et al...

The moth trap didn't take long this morning. Six moths, none new. Breakfast done, and out at first light. I reckoned on a couple of hours birding at West Bay before needing to head for work. A Kingfisher on the river was nice, then a pleasant but fruitless walk along the harbour wall. It felt good though. The wind had changed. An easterly, blowing offshore at an angle. 'Maybe it bodes well?' I thought. Plus a clear sky. Some good vismig potential too...?

Heading uphill towards the West Cliff vismig spot takes you across an open area of rank growth running back from the cliff top. I spied two small birds flying across it, into the breeze. One was a Stonechat; the other was not. The Stonechat's mate had a long, scraggy tail.

Ha! I know what you are...

Right of centre (and up a bit) - a quick record shot in case I never saw it again. Dartford Warbler.

Quickly I phoned Tom, who I guessed would be at the vismig spot, roughly 100m further ahead. Sure enough, he was, and we had decent views together before it went to ground. There have been a few Dartford Warblers along the coast just lately, but this is my first for many years, and a local tick.

It showed again a bit later. I say that, but wouldn't rule out a second bird. Anyway, here it is...

Always the annoying twig!

Lovely to see these dispersing autumn birds along the coast.

I joined Tom at the vismig spot and set up my digital recorder. It is my hope that any unusual vismig birds are nicely captured for posterity in audio format. Like Woodlark, say.

'Woodlark!' said Tom, with some urgency.

I didn't hear a thing. It is audible on the recording, but only just. I am completely in awe of Tom's hearing. Thankfully both birds - for it was two - showed well, with their short-tailed, bouncy flight. Unusually for West Bay, they went east, or maybe north-east.

Moments later...

'Brambling!' Tom again.

I heard that one okay, but literally no more than 0.2 seconds before Tom called it. Astonishing! Here is proof of Tom's uncanny reaction times...


The Brambling was close enough to see lots of orange on it. A smart male.

While Tom is busy counting flyovers and scribbling numbers into his notebook, I am free to relax, gaze around and have my socks blown off. Like this...

A dog walker coming east towards us along the coast path flushed a small bird from low down by the path up into the leafless twigginess of a small Elder bush. I raised my bins and looked at it. I know exactly what I then said, because the words are etched onto the memory card of my recorder, and I've just listened to them. I shan't transcribe it all here, just the first bit...

'Ooh, a Barre... Flippin' 'eck!... Looks like a Barred Warbler...'

Tom sounds very calm as I point out where the bird is, and amazingly I can detect in my voice absolutely no hint of the utter disbelief that I know I felt! Barred Warbler is a very scarce bird in this neck of the woods. In the three Dorset Bird Reports I possess, records as follows: 2020 (0), 2019 (0) and 2018 (1). Suffice to say, Barred Warbler has never really been on my radar.

Barred Warbler, West Bay. Photo taken 08:36, when first seen.

Unfortunately, despite some really excellent views subsequently, the bird never really gave itself up for the camera. At one point I watched it preening, at close range, but deeply buried in a bush. Here it is, reaching for a blackberry...

Barred Warbler in typical pose.

Tom got a few shots of it in the open after I left for work...

West Bay Barred Warbler  ©Tom Brereton

West Bay Barred Warbler    ©Tom Brereton

Perhaps the most satisfying aspect of this morning's jammy find was the fact that the bird involved wasn't a subliminal flyover, but rather an obliging stayer. As I ambled back down the hill towards my car, and work, I met local birder Steve Crimp heading towards me. And I know that he and others later had great views of this classy Dorset rarity.

Excellent.

Sunday, 16 October 2022

Moths, McLarens, Megas

Autumn moths continue to fall, one by one. Some recent lovelies...

Green-brindled Crescent. An absolute belter, and right up there with some of the best-looking moths we've yet encountered.


Feathered Thorn, presumably named after its spectacular antennae.

Last night's new moth, the Red-green Carpet.

Our third Beaded Chestnut, a beautifully caramel-coloured individual.

A migrant which we've had a few times, but this is our first Turnip Moth since August.


For some reason I completely forgot to mention in the last post a recent successful seawatch. Exactly one week ago today, 59 Balearic Shearwaters flew east past the West Bay shelter. That compared favourably with my thus-far 2022 total of zero Balearic Shearwaters, so was...er...noteworthy, to say the least. Factor in a Bonxie, 24 Common Scoters, 15 Kitts and at least 37 Med Gulls, and you have what was - for me at least, in this year of largely dire seawatches - a pretty epic event.

I was out again this morning for a potter around, and encountered this at West Bay...


Across the harbour, what appears to be a small gathering of the McLaren Owners Club.

Is there such a thing as Rare Car Alert? Flock of eight must surely be unusual?


Anyway, I am whatever is the polar opposite of a petrol-head, so was happy with distant views. Curiosity got the better of me later though. Googling 'McLaren sportscar' taught me that at least some of these practical, everyday runabouts were (I think) the McLaren 720S, which retails for a cool £220,000 plus. So, had they all been brand spankers, we are talking the fat end of two million quid's worth of tin and plastic right there. Funny old world...

Skylarks were heading west in good numbers this morning. In the 45 minutes I hung around the West Cliff vis-mig spot I reckon a few hundred went through, and I almost wished I had bothered counting. I heard - but didn't see - Siskins too, and a smattering of other common migrants. Nowt in the bushes though. The only other thing which made me get the camera out was this...

Clouded Yellow. One of a few seen this morning.

Which reminds me. Another recent photo that deserves inclusion...

Taken on October 8th, I'm not sure I've ever seen a Wall butterfly quite this late. And no, I couldn't get any closer!

Finally...

For some reason I was absolutely delighted to see news of this beautiful little beastie light up my Twitter feed this week...


Scilly has long been my (or should I say 'our') favourite holiday destination. It's been a while since the last October visit (2015) but I always find myself subconsciously rooting for that lovely archipeligo every autumn. As mega after mega is coaxed from the scant cover of Shetland's vast acreage, I feel for the ever-loyal Scilly regulars who spend a week or two of their holiday time there each year, hoping to have their retinas melted by just such a creature. And this year it has happened. Good for them.

Friday, 14 October 2022

Early October Thrills

Last night was quite chilly, and I wasn't surprised at the meagre moth tally. Yet among the 13 caught, three were migrant species: Rush Veneer, Rusty-dot Pearl, and this pretty little Vestal...

A subtly pink-blushed Vestal.

New moths have been hard to come by in the last couple of weeks, but I'm hanging in there in the hope of a Merveille du Jour. Here's why...

What a stunner! A real Merveille du Jour laughs at its washed-out image in our old field guide. This beauty was supplied (for photographic purposes) by fellow blogger Karen Woolley back in 2009. I've yet to see another.

Some highlights...

Our first Large Wainscot. Love the line of dots and dusting of fine black pepper.

The one and only Beaded Chestnut so far. Its superficial resemblance to the common Lunar Underwing almost caught me out.

Box-tree Moth. Had a couple recently.

A pleasing nocturnal find in the garden's new wildlife hedge: Brimstone Moth caterpillar.

Another magnificent Black Rustic - our fourth now I think. I really struggle to capture the colour in a photo. Almost looks like a purple tint here.

Plutella xylostella. This poorly-marked one not really living up to its vernacular name of Diamond-back Moth.

That's about it on the moth front, and there isn't a lot to say about birds either. Nocmig has been ticking over gently, with just enough interest to keep me hopeful. Grey Wagtail was a surprise new species on Tuesday night, but otherwise it has been the usual suspects. Max counts of Redwing and Song Thrush in the mid-thirties so far, but it is early days.

In order to give a feel for what it might look like when you come across the various blips and squiggles generated by the audio software in response to bird's nocturnal call, here is a spliced-together selection from various recent nights, exactly as they appeared at the time...

The scale (28 seconds' worth on the screen) is what I use when going through a night's recording, and each example is unedited. Note differences in background noise. For example, Redwing and Song Thrush both during quiet moments on a still night.

Experience is a great teacher. Even a very faint Barn Owl usually leaps off the screen at me these days (this example is not faint) and many of the above were instantly identifiable to species before I even listened to them. The single Snipe call, though, looks very non-birdy, and I'm not sure what made me stop to check it out. Glad I did. Snipe is a nice prize here.

The month of October is famously excellent for assorted migration events, so any self-respecting birder is obviously going to ignore all that thrill potential and photograph Cormorants...

Cormorant on the river at West Bay. Its gular pouch angle looks pretty good for sinensis.

A different bird. It too has a gular pouch, and an angle, but those vaguely reptilian good looks are far too distracting, and I cannot be bothered to ponder for even a second longer the topic of its subspecific identity.

No protractors were harmed in the production of this post.