Monday, 25 September 2023

Grey Phalarope

Since picking up my binoculars again after a summer of blinkered mothing, I seem to have hit one of those all-too-rare purple patches where decent birds throw themselves at you. Like at Cogden this morning. With a zillion square miles of heaving sea in front of me, I chose to look at the exact spot where a tiny bird happened momentarily to be visible. I was so convinced that the subliminal speck I saw was not some random bit of flotsam, that I immediately dug out the camera and scurried along the top of the beach for a closer look. Then followed at least two or three frustrating minutes of scanning before I eventually saw it again...

Grey Phalarope. Imagine this exact pose, but much, much smaller and further away, and that is what my initial view was like. Unmistakeable.

But the bird was an absolute pig to keep track of. Not because it was flying around or anything, but because the swell was so big. Trying to photograph it was a nightmare, and this is the best shot I managed...

First-winter Grey Phalarope at Cogden Beach, around 07:45.

It was very slowly drifting east but seemed happy enough with the little rafts of weedy debris to pick at, so I was hopeful it would linger, and that Mike and Alan would get to see it. However, shortly after taking that photo I lost it again, and another ten minutes of scanning failed to relocate it. Had it managed to depart unseen? I was a bit gutted to think it might have sneaked off. Thankfully, well over an hour later, a message from Mike confirmed that the phalarope was still present, a bit further east. Excellent. And Mike kindly sent this terrific photo...

This shot totally captures the vibe: the bird, the light, the sea... Classic. © Mike Morse

There was another refugee of the recent weather bobbing about just offshore...

Juvenile Gannet. It looked well enough, but this really is not where a Gannet ought to be. Judging by the way passing gulls occasionally paused and gave it a speculative look, I don't rate its chances.

The zoomed-in shot is deceptive. The Gannet wasn't especially close to the beach, and the Grey Phalarope was further out still.

There wasn't much else on offer, and the only other birds I bothered noting were 4 Wheatears, plus singles of Blackcap and Chiffchaff. Did I care?

It is many years since I last found a local Grey Phalarope. I know it is still September, but I can't help wondering if I've just used up all my autumn jam. Time will tell.

Sunday, 24 September 2023

Making Do

To say that I was completely unaffected by the multiple arrival of American landbirds elsewhere would be a lie. I am only human. Indeed, thank goodness I am no longer on Twitter, where my retinas would daily be seared by point-blank images of the things. My involvement in this episode is therefore limited to no more than hoping one falls in my lap locally. Oh, and lust. And envy.

Portland currently has a Red-eyed Vireo. I am not greedy, one of those would do just fine. On Friday morning I went hunting for such a bird at Cogden before work. I didn't find any, but was nicely compensated with a few bits: 26 Blackcaps, 8 Chiffs, 4 Whinchats, and singles of Whitethroat, Wheatear and Spotted Flycatcher...

Cogden Beach at 08:00. Wheatear in right foreground.

The autumn colours of a male Wheatear are as smart, in their way, as those of springtime. Especially against dewy shingle in the warm light of early morning sunshine. Gorgeous.

Sun-kissed Spot Fly.

While scanning a field for Whinchats I noticed a small bird dangling from a Dog Rose stem. From far away it looked like a Robin, possibly a dead Robin. However, as I approached to investigate, the bird wriggled pitifully. So I took a quick record shot of this bizarre event in case the Robin freed itself before I reached it. Which in fact it did.

Both feet are free; the bird's wing is presumably hooked up on the thorns. I've never seen anything quite like this.

Meanwhile, just along the coast at West Bexington, Mike and Alan had a brief encounter with a Melodious Warbler. Brilliant! I do often wonder how much is missed locally in all this wonderful habitat. If 500 birders were forcibly drafted in to comb a few miles of our local coast for a week, what might be unearthed? Instead, there is no more than a handful of us. Mind you, I do prefer it that way. You never feel that you are treading paths already thrashed by a legion of keenies, hoping they may have left some crumbs of interest. Rather, every outing is like breaking new ground. Fantastic stuff, even when there are no vireos.

Yesterday afternoon I was back at Cogden. A warm, sunny Saturday afternoon on the Dorset coast, with a fairly full car park, and yet in almost three hours I passed no more than two or three people. Okay, there were far fewer birds than on Friday morning, but sometimes it's not about quantity. Rounding a corner I flushed two birds off the deck and into some bushes. Something made me back off into a shady spot and wait. I'm glad I did, because this popped out...

Still a Dorset biggie - male Cirl Bunting.

There is a major success story involving Cirl Bunting and Cogden but, as far as I know, none had been seen there for eight weeks. Up until four weeks ago I hadn't visited Cogden for about 10 months, so a male Cirl Bunting was not on my radar at all. A passing dog walker flushed it, plus the second bird which I had not up to that point seen again. A bit of stealth got me this shot...

Not as obliging as the male, but definitely a Cirl Bunting and likely a juv. At least two juvs were seen in early August.

By sheer coincidence the local farmer appeared. Eagerly I conveyed the good news, and he was as excited as I was. As if to reward our appreciation, the male Cirl suddenly appeared on top of a nearby bush. I gave Adam my bins while I papped away...

Not a vireo, but it made my day. And not just mine.

So, in the current absence of American warblers, I will make do.

Saturday, 23 September 2023

Ramblings of a Slightly Odd Man

Thursday afternoon, West Bay. We took our two-and-a-half year-old granddaughter to visit the site of Grandad's Great Shearwater triumph the previous day. Naturally.

'Look!' she exclaimed, eyes heavenward, 'What's that man doing?'

Noting our little granddaughter's innate sense that it could only be a man, I replied: 'He's sitting in the sky', and took some snaps in order to show her more closely what the crazy fool was up to.

'Why?' was the inevitable response.

As if I have any idea why an old bloke might want to dangle from a flimsy scrap of fabric wearing not much more than an armchair-shaped backpack...

I deflected with practised ease by showing her the back of my camera...

Sky-sitting man

Our granddaughter made an uncomplimentary comment about the man's expression.

'Now, now, Gracie,' I said. 'That is not a grumpy face. That is an old man's happy face, the face of someone having an absolute blast. In fact, that's exactly what Granddad looked like when he was getting a big, fat eyeful of Great Shearwater just over there'. I pointed at the hallowed spot, neatly bringing us back to the purpose of our visit.

We see a lot of paragliders along the coast here. They must be well aware that some of the folk pointing at them, photographing them, view them and their activity as a bit odd. Still, being viewed as a bit odd is the lot of countless hobbies and their practitioners. Like birding, say. Or, even more so, twitching. Even birders poke fun at twitching, especially birders who used to twitch but now think they're above all that.

Earlier this week, Pembrokeshire became the USA's honorary 51st state when it nicked most of that nation's warblers. I have a friend in Pembs. He has been forwarding me snippets from his local birding WhatsApp group chat. At first it was like this...

But then, thankfully, the twitching antics gave us something to point and laugh at...

'It sounds like it was almost driven from the valley out into a massive blackthorn thicket, which itself was surrounded by the twitching brigade. Every now and again word would come along, it was in this bit or that bit, so a wave of birders would rush to wherever before dispersing until the next shout. Sometimes it was the bird, sometimes all I saw was a Blue Tit or a Goldcrest.'


'Magnolia Warbler. Military have cordoned off an area to view, which was basically where everyone was viewing from.'

How the ex-twitchers chuckled at the hapless plight of their slightly odd brethren. Okay, it may not have completely assuaged the gut-churning envy that such a bird was not at West Bay or Cogden instead, but it helped.

The next snippet did not...

'I can't believe I'm typing this but I think I have a Canada Warbler in willows on the road to Stack Rocks.'

Wednesday, 20 September 2023

When Shearwaters are Great

I'm pretty sure it was officially blowing a gale at West Bay this morning, and the sea looked amazing. Despite having spent the previous post moaning about the capricious nature of our local seawatching and my inability to predict it, I couldn't help a jaunty step as I strode towards the shelter. At 06:46 I pressed the start button on my BirdTrack app, and scanned the heaving waves. Straight away there were birds. Several Gannets, and a couple of very distant small shearwater sp that popped momentarily into view before vanishing forever. The subliminal shearwater theme repeated itself once or twice more, but nothing allowed identification or was even close enough to. It was very frustrating.

Despite conditions looking fantastic, in truth they were not. A SSW is virtually straight onshore here, but not quite. It actually comes in slightly from the left. Which means I have to sit at the west end of the shelter and hope that birds come from my right, i.e. head east. But today almost everything went west, essentially with the wind. Consequently they are whisked along like leaves in a storm. Combine that with the low vantage point and enormous sea, and you wind up with nanosecond views before your bird is swallowed by a bottomless trough. At 07:13 the local WhatsApp group fired up, with Ian M reporting 5 Balearics W on his first scan at Beer, 15 or so miles to the west, where the curve of Lyme Bay turns a SSW into a much more favourable wind. Meanwhile, not one of my probable Balearics made it into print.

After half an hour or so, and just a Med Gull (heading E!) recorded, I was getting a bit disheartened. At that point a close bird lifted into my scope view and hung briefly in the air before dipping behind a wave. I could hardly believe it. Despite mostly back-on views, the bird which had just occupied airspace normally reserved for gulls checking out the surf was undoubtedly a large shearwater. Frantically I tried to pick it up again with the scope, failed, and resorted to bins. And there it was! Swooping effortlessly above the breakers was a Cory's Shearwater. What else could it be? It was still mainly at eye level and back-on to me, but the underparts looked clean. I got it in the scope again. Yep, white as you like underneath. It was drifting slowly W, but then turned and headed back. At that moment I got a side-on view. What?! A stonking black cap and white collar, plus a gleaming white stripe twixt rump and tail. It was a Great Shearwater! I put a message out, but when I looked for it again there was no sign. I figured a two-minute loiter at West Bay had been enough, and it was now heading for Seaton.

The next hour or so flew by - cloud nine does that to you - and two Storm Petrels E, including one really close in, failed to register quite the level of wow-ness they deserved. Distant birds were by now only Gannets, and I hadn't seen any more shearwaters, large or small. And then, just before 09:00, a familiar shape sailed once again through my scope at close range. It was surely the same Great Shearwater, lingering just offshore like before. Last time I hadn't risked going for the camera, but now I had to try. I attempted to video it, and failed. Then it dropped on to the sea, and was occasionally visible when lifted on a wave. I shan't bang on about the difficulties of picking it up in the viewfinder, focusing and whatnot, but it was hard. The following collage features the best of a mediocre lot...

Great Shearwater on the sea off West Bay. Would you believe it?!

I've seen lots of Cory's Shearwaters, though only on a handful of occasions (most recently in 2016 from a Scilly pelagic - see here) but Great Shearwater is another story. Until today I had seen just one, from Berry Head some years ago, and very badly. So badly, in fact, that it has always felt like one of those naughty ticks that you ought really to erase. So this morning's Great Shearwater is basically a lifer.

I must find something else to moan about not seeing locally. Now, let me think...

Tuesday, 19 September 2023

The Lyme Bay Blues

I dread to think how many hours of my life have been spent seawatching here in the bowels of Lyme Bay. And for what? Certainly there have been some special moments but, in the main, no other aspect of local birding comes even close to seawatching's capacity to disappoint. When conditions look fantastic, and it's all fireworks off the Cornish headlands and South Devon, we get a dribble of Gannets and three Kitts. If I had a pound for every time I've rushed to one of the local seawatching spots, all keen and eager, for absolutely no reward...

The trouble is, when the weather dictates, you've got to do it, haven't you? Because, well, you just never know. Mind you, 'keen and eager' went out the window a long time ago. After 20 years of being thrashed by the sea, the best I can muster these days is mild optimism. And that way, if by some freak chance there are actually birds, I enjoy them all the more.

As I type, the weather is dictating quite loudly, and the strong SW is forecast to swing to SSW overnight. For the third morning in a row I shall be at the West Bay shelter first thing. I shall try not to expect much, but will probably fail. Why? Because Cory's Shearwater, that's why. Right now the blessed things are everywhere. There were even two or three off Portland today, and the Cornish coast is crawling with them.

Also, yesterday morning...

In just over an hour from 06:53 I saw 8 Balearic Shearwaters (all E) and 3 Arctic Skuas (1W, 2E), which was not bad, but around 07:50 there was a pear-shaped interlude. I was tracking a distant Balearic when something bigger popped up into view, somewhat further out. My default reaction would normally have been 'Oh, a Fulmar', but 'Oh, is that a large shearwater?' came out instead. It seemed loose and relaxed, and, try as I might, I got no hint of the contrasting white head that Fulmar shows. Annoyingly I could feel a touch of the shakes coming on, which really didn't help. My gut said Cory's, but it was literally miles out, and only intermittently in view. In the end I alerted Mike at West Bex that a very distant, possible Cory's (or badly cocked-up Fulmar) was heading his way, and tried to forget all about it. Whatever it was, Mike didn't see it.

Manx and even Balearic Shearwaters are easy enough to see off the coast here, but larger ones? Not so much. I've seen just 19 Sooty Shearwaters (across 10 dates) in 20 years, though none since 2012, and a single [submitted and accepted] Large Shearwater sp. There have been a couple of occasions when Cory's (and possibly Great?) were 'available' to local seawatchers, but I wasn't able to take advantage of them. Maybe tomorrow morning will go down as another one?

I doubt it.

Anyway, this morning I was at it again. My Balearic count was exactly 50 - which is excellent - with several very distant shearwaters almost certainly Balearics too, but there was little else happening: just 3 Kitts, a Med Gull, and a flock of 6 Light-bellied Brent Geese through in about two hours. And I put in almost another hour after work: 4 Turnstones and one Gannet. I am not joking. One Gannet.

In other news...

I was very surprised to spot a pale individual among the little group of alba Wagtails on the Brit estuary mud at West Bay yesterday afternoon...

With a rump that pale, it has to be a White Wagtail.

The Moth Diary

Sunday night, 17th September

57 moths of 26 species; two new for year, one new for garden. It seems like ages since we've had anything new for the year, but actually it's just a week.

New for the garden. This rather nondescript character is a coastal speciality and designated Nb (Nationally Scarce B) with just a handful of Bridport area records on the Living Record map.

The lovely Rosy Rustic. I was beginning to wonder if we were going to miss out this year. In 2022 we recorded this species on eight nights, all of them somewhat earlier than 17th September too!

Pale Mottled Willow is one of my favourites, and this one is pristine.

Monday night, 18th September

A puny 26 moths of 18 species; one new for year...

A common, variable species, and hopefully I've got the ID correct. We trapped just one last year, also in September.

Sunday, 17 September 2023

Clifden Bookends

A torrential thunderstorm at 05:00 had me scuttling out to bring in the moth trap. I wasn't expecting anything much, so imagine my surprise at finding this inside it later...

Our second Clifden Nonpareil. How on earth did this whopper squeeze itself into the trap?

Since my jaunt to Portland, this is by far the best moth I've caught. In four nights there hasn't been anything new for the garden, or even for the year. Tallies have ranged from 47 moths of 19 species (last night) to 16 of 9 (Wednesday night) and not much has tempted me to get the camera out. Instead I've been reading about other people's moths. Like Steve Gale's first garden-trap Clancy's Rustic for example (see here). In cases like this I find myself checking the Dorset Living Record map to see if I might be in with a chance of catching one here...

Those Bridport dots represent 23 records. So yes, I am definitely in with a chance.

By way of comparison, the Clifden Nonpareil map is encouraging. Until this year we hadn't seen one here, but now have two records...

The Bridport dots represent 35 records.

While on Portland I was introduced to Feathered Brindle, a Portland speciality...

Feathered Brindle on a PBO egg box.

Naturally I wondered about the likelihood of discovering one of these handsome creatures in the garden trap. The Living Record map reveals a good number of records along the coast between here and Portland, including a fair few in Bridport, so again I am hopeful. One day, perhaps...

The Bridport dots represent 31 records. Come on!

Right, that's enough moth stuff.

I went birding today. Once the incessant rain finally did cease, around 2:30-ish, I headed to Cogden for a long walk along the beach. I guessed it might be fairly undisturbed, correctly for once; there was hardly anyone there. I turned back just before the West Bex car park. Sadly there were very few gulls, and almost no birds passing on the sea, but 2 Ringed Plovers, 35 Wheatears and 2 Whinchats were a lot better than nothing.

Small waders on a shingly beach can be devilishly hard to see when motionless. Two Ringed Plovers.

Getting ahead of the birds, then sitting and waiting, earned me this nice portrait. Juv Ringed Plover with an immaculate set of fringes!

No such cooperation from this Whinchat.

Painted Lady on Fleabane.

One of at least three Clouded Yellows. My first this year I think.

And here's the justification for the title of this post...

Saturday, 16 September 2023

Wired for Sound Again

On the corner of my desk are two A5 notebooks full of daily moth counts, many of which are still waiting to be added to the Living Record database, and already I am several pages into notebook number three. All this moth stuff is very time-consuming, and has impacted on my birding in two main ways. One, I have found it difficult to get out for an early-morning walk before work, especially when the trap is busy. And two, I haven't bothered with nocmig since the end of May; I simply have not had the time to go through a night's recording. So a rather nice digital recorder has been lying idle for quite a while. Hopefully that is about to change.

During my recent stay at Portland Bird Observatory I tested out some new bits of kit designed to facilitate in-the-field sound recording. In previous autumns it has been fun to have the recorder running while out birding, especially on mornings with good overhead passage. However, my recording set-up, with the recorder clipped to my camera bag strap, has always felt less than ideal. It is fairly bulky, not weather-proof, and I once had a dog lunge at it, presumably thinking the 'dead cat' wind-shield was a small furry creature deserving of death. Was there a better, safer way to utilise this fairly expensive item for field recording? Yes, I think so...

Zoom H4nPro with EM272 'Clippy' mic, plus right-angle 3.5mm jack adaptor.

The EM272 is a quality microphone and, rigged as a clip-on lavalier with suitable wind-shield, is ideal for field recording. It came with an in-line jack, whereas the Zoom really needs a right-angle version, hence the adaptor. On Portland I could wander about with the recorder safely stowed in my camera bag and the mic clipped to the strap, with the lead wound around it a couple of times for security. Initial trials were encouraging. The wind-shield was very effective at minimising wind noise, and the microphone picked up bird sounds better than I did. Certainly its Siskin count was a lot higher than mine!

Obviously, the highlight of my stay was finding a Wryneck. I am aware that sometimes I quietly talk to myself when out birding, so was curious to know if chancing upon a scarce bird had prompted any involuntary outbursts. My initial view had been a fleeting glimpse when I flushed it at a footpath T-junction. I was walking the head of the T, and it flew a few yards along the stem, landing out of view behind some vegetation at the side of the path. I had no idea what it was, but through bins could just make out some well-marked feathers through the foliage. I was still puzzling over my mystery bird when it craned its neck to have a look at me. Oh! It's a Wryneck!

My recording is unexpectedly silent at this point. Not even a gasp of surprise. I am so cool. The first you hear of me is a bit of rustling as I extract my phone, then my side of a brief conversation with Martin Cade at the obs. During which, I have to say, I sound very relaxed. Like I find Wrynecks every day. Next up is a short exchange with some passing walkers who ask if they might have seen Ravens just now, and are delighted to have their tentative identification confirmed. It was almost 20 minutes before the first birders from the obs turned up, and the ensuing soundtrack is typical of any minor twitch ever. But entertaining all the same.

So there we are. I am once again wired for sound. Bring on the Richard's Pipits.

Thursday, 14 September 2023


Portland Bird Observatory is located on Portland Bill at the eastern extremity of Lyme Bay, a bit less than 20 miles along the coast from West Bay. Staying there for a couple of nights has been on my to-do list for ages, and now finally is ticked off.

I arrived late on Monday afternoon. There was very, very little in the way of migrants, but still it was nice to plod about the Bill area, seeing nothing and imagining what tomorrow might bring...

Looking south towards the Bill lighthouse. PBO is located at the old Lower Light, far left.

Tomorrow didn't bring much in fact. The habitat looks full of promise, but was not full of birds. A few pics from Tuesday...

Whinchat, one of three seen during my stay.

Yellow Wagtail. They never stop.


Many of the Bill area fields are given over to horses, so there is much tightly-grazed turf. Wagtails like it, and picking through the odd group of alba wags for potential White Wagtail is always fun. White Wagtail - especially in autumn - is one of a number of birds where, if you think possibly you've got one, you almost certainly haven't. Whereas the genuine article is usually quite obvious. Like this one...

White Wagtail. I saw five in total.

Flukey shot showing extensive pale grey rump, characteristic of White Wag.

Yesterday dawned with a shift in the wind. The fairly brisk NNE livened things up no end, with a constant stream of birds heading into it, particularly Meadow Pipits and Swallows. My morning walks produced around 50 Wheatears, and with phylloscs in the bushes, it felt quite birdy. Poking around the top fields shortly before 10:30 I got especially jammy...

Wryneck being coy.

Amazingly this is Portland's first Wryneck of the autumn (of the year?) and as such was much appreciated, especially when it later put on a bit of a show...

A major bonus for me were the PBO moths. Here are a couple I hope to see in the garden trap one day...

Delicate. A fairly regular migrant that has so far avoided our trap.

Radford's Flame Shoulder. A bit scarcer, this one.

And here's one I should like to see in the trap, but shan't be holding my breath over...

Beautiful Marbled. What a little stunner!

I think I shall be back...


Monday, 11 September 2023

The Moth Diary

Predictably it is getting harder to add new species to the garden moth lists. Even so, the totals are way beyond what I might have imagined in June last year, when this all began. The year list stands at 456 (including aggregates) and the all-time list at 532. Yet that barely scratches the surface of what is out there. Moths have got under my skin. I find myself looking for moths when I'm out birding, or out anywhere in fact. This is a story which is going to run and run.

Keeping a moth diary on the blog has been fun, and quite useful for me too, and this post simply brings it up to date...


Thursday night, 7th September

119 moths of 43 species; two new for year. Both NFY moths were very autumnal species...

The year's first Lunar Underwing. I expect to see a lot of these. This attractive version is like a poor man's Feathered Rustic.

Centre-barred Sallow, another moth of autumn leaves.

Another delicate Portland Ribbon Wave.

A fair few micros have random tufty bits, and this is one of them. Well, not random I guess. Carefully organised and in exactly the correct place, more like.

Friday night, 8th September

153 moths of 53 species; two new for year, one new for garden. I'm not sure why, but this night's catch included a bigger selection of micros than usual. Both NFY were micros. One, Bucculatrix nigricomella, avoided the camera, but the other just snuggled down in the lid of its pot and let me get a couple of shots...

Yes, another nuisance moth.

In my 'Manley' field guide, this moth looks exactly like the photo of Mompha divisella. The other two species looked quite different, so I thought, 'Excellent, job done', and wrote it down. A bit of online research soon pulled me up though. Although I have yet to see a photo of M. jurassicella that looks anything like my pic, there are plenty of M. bradleyi that are the spitting image, so I am stuffed. Another poxy aggregate. M. bradleyi was apparently overlooked until the 1990s, which is presumably why it has that silly vernacular name. Neat Mompha is pretty bad, but New Neat Mompha is another level of badness. Or am I just letting my grumpiness show?

Common Marbled Carpet is a pretty moth. I've started taking photos of nice examples simply to illustrate the variability shown by this species. Helps take my mind off the annoying aggregates too.

Saturday night, 9th September

115 moths of 37 species. Nothing new, but the Dewick's Plusia that featured in the previous post, plus an unprecedented three Blair's Mochas were highlights. Also, the first Box-tree Moth for more than three weeks.

Sunday night, 10th September

141 moths of 42 species; one new for year. Last night's catch was notable for two main reasons: our third (different) Dewick's Plusia, and a total of four Blair's Mochas! There were other highlights of course...

First of the year, following one in 2022. Does not eat clothes.

Am I going to get blasé about Dewick's Plusias? I hope not...

Dewick's Plusia #3

Looks pretty cool in plan view too.

A lovely, second-generation Maiden's Blush.

A shaggy little Pale Eggar.

The annotation should really say 'presumed Acleris laterana'. Sigh...

Yes, the above moth - of which we trapped three last night, all similar - has a look-alike, Acleris comariana, or Strawberry Tortrix. The latter is much scarcer in Dorset, and I get the impression that most don't look like our moth, though both species apparently are very variable. So anyway, I'm going with the commoner of the two.

Finally, it was nice to catch a favourite mini-tripod moth - Caloptilia semifascia - in its autumn colours. It seems that many moths with more than one brood per year also have a different appearance with each brood. Here it is in summer plumage...

Caloptilia semifascia (Maple Slender) caught 11th July 2022.

The autumn version, sans big creamy cummerbund. Our first.

Right, that's everything up to date. Now I'm off to do some serious birding...