Tuesday 28 February 2023

February Done

So, that's February done. Bird-wise there has been little advance on January. The Patchwork Challenge totals have barely moved: West Bay & Eype is now on 68 species (84 points) and Bradpole North, 51 species (54 points). Thankfully I am easily pleased. Give me a Rock Pipit or two, or an interesting Cormorant, and I will play happily for ages. This afternoon I got out for a bit, and enjoyed the West Bay sunshine...

2nd-winter Med Gull on the river. I am 99% sure this individual has been knocking about all winter, on and off.

I was pretty confident that the combination of keen northerly wind and sunshine on the slipway rocks would provide at least one Black Redstart, but I got two...

The elusive male, on the furthest rocks. Only the third time I've seen it. Silently, I willed it closer...

The female. Again, not shy at all.

For once, my will prevailed...

The gorgeous male Black Redstart. It wasn't as close as the photo suggests, but 2000mm of P900 zoom + bright sunshine does a pretty good job. I could hardly wish for a better pic of this beauty.

Strolling along the sunny prom below West Cliff was bliss. 'Yes', I thought, 'Not long until Wheatears.' But in the meantime I will have to glean what I can. Which means looking at Cormorants, like this one just offshore...

Typical Cormorant-on-a-stick scenario.

Rightly or wrongly, I have always thought of sinensis (Continental) Cormorants as a freshwater, inland thing. I am having to revise that prejudiced view...

No ambiguity about this one - it's definitely a sinensis. And as coastal as you can get.

At the far end of the prom was a single Rock Pipit. Camera out...

Despite being unhelpfully back-lit, it is possible to make out a hint of pink blush at the base of the throat. Also a very clean ground colour to the underparts. Looking good for littoralis.

Pink blush on the throat a little more obvious here. And is that a faint greyish cast to the crown and ear coverts, or am I imagining it?

Same Rock Pipit, but it looks a lot less remarkable in this light/pose.

I haven't yet been through my Rockit library to see if I have crossed paths with this one previously, but am quite happy to label it a littoralis. Finally, a hint of spring colour in one.

Last but not least, 'hweet'-ing away at the north end of the caravan park...

Chiffchaff, with a lovely black-cloud backdrop.

Tomorrow is March. New month, new things. A bit overdue, but in the morning I plan to check out last year's Goshawk site. And in the evening I shall dust off the nocmig kit. What will the next 31 days bring, I wonder...?

It has clouded over a bit now, and I've been tempted into optimistic deployment of the moth trap. One micro so far, and it looks like a rather attractive version of Epiphyas postvittana, or Light Brown Apple Moth. Hopefully, by the morning it will have company.

On a completely different note...

Growing older is a weird experience. Mostly I don't feel my age, but there are certain things that bring home the stark reality with uncompromising frankness. For instance, whenever I see stuff from my childhood displayed in the harsh light of 2023, it looks so-o-o-o-o dated, like something from a history book. I know there are one or two anglers who read this blog, so the following may be of interest.

As a boy - and a painfully keen but unaccomplished coarse fisherman - I would visit the library every week in a quest for knowledge. The angling writers I sought, and devoured, were the likes of Richard Walker, Peter Stone, Colin Willock and Fred J Taylor. All are gone now, along with many others from my formative years. A couple of days ago I came across a video on YouTube. Featuring, and narrated by, the late Jack Hargreaves, it was filmed in the mid-1960s. The programme shows a fishing competition on the Dorset Stour, in which several children aged 9-11 are paired with famous anglers of the day (including the four listed above) and taught how to catch fish. The only fish to count in the competition are those caught by the youngsters. Everything about this film - the cameras, the people, the clothing, the fishing tackle, the black-and-white format - really, everything - dates it to another era, one long gone. It makes me feel very old indeed.

Very much of its time, with a quaint innocence that I find achingly nostalgic, here it is (you have to click on where it says 'Watch on YouTube')...


Or you can access it via THIS LINK.

Thursday 23 February 2023

Not Much?

I stepped outside this morning and surveyed the moth-less moth towel. The damp, after-rain chill crept unpleasantly down my collar and I knew there would be nothing in the trap. Just a few degrees colder than the last couple of nights but, sure enough, zero moths. I've caught moths on seven nights since first deploying the trap on 3rd February. The species count is now 11, plus two aggregates, and already there have been surprises. For example, on Monday night I caught a moth which had undoubtedly crossed the Channel very recently...

Nomophila noctuella (Rush Veneer)

I caught quite a few of these last year, and regularly encountered them in good numbers in grassy coastal habitat during the autumn. But they apparently do not survive our winters, so this one is freshly arrived. A few miles east of here, that same night produced something far more spectacular for Paul Harris...

This little cracker is almost certainly from Africa.

I find it quite amazing that swirling wisps of Sahara dust, like the one which gently coated our cars and wheely-bins recently, carry with them creatures like these. The potential for scarce and rare immigrants (and associated thrill) is undoubtedly one attraction of mothing, but I am regularly blown away by the intricate beauty of far less exotic beasties. Tuesday night was the best so far; I caught 14 moths of eight species, three of which were new for me...

Just over 1cm long, and little more than a dull smudge to the naked eye.

Dotted Border

Spring Usher. What a gorgeous moth.

A bit of research tells me that Spring Usher is quite patchily distributed in Dorset. An oak feeder, there is only one other Bridport area dot on the Living Record map. Probably I am quite fortunate to have caught one.

The forecast is predicting cold nights now, and I doubt the trap will be out again before the month's end. But it feels like I am comfortably out of the blocks already this year. While a grand total of 34 moths doesn't sound like a lot, one definite immigrant and five new species can't be bad for late winter.

I've had little time for birding these past few days, but we are fast approaching that time when all sorts of tricky species might give me a chance to add them to my Patchwork Challenge tally by flying past offshore. The lack of wetland habitat here means I am going to struggle with ducks and waders, and seawatching will be a crucial tactic. Trouble is, I find it hard to steel myself to it unless conditions look good. Unfortunately, that random Red-breasted Merganser or Goldeneye I seek is unlikely to be bothered by conditions, and just as likely to fly past in a flat calm. I simply need to be there. Conditions were rubbish yesterday, yet four single Common Scoters flew west in about 25 minutes - the limit of my endurance - and each could easily have been something better. My 'seawatching despite conditions' approach has already paid off, with a single Shag past recently - a scarce bird here. I shall try again tomorrow...if I can get up.

Some pics from this week...

I've had to butcher the contrast etc in order to make them visible, but this whirlpool of small Mullet was in the River Brit next to Rise restaurant on Tuesday. With fish at different depths, quite possibly 300+ here.

It might not keep still for long, but the female Black Redstart is not shy. Photographed by the slipway rocks, a favourite spot.

And here it is again, on the slipway rocks.

One of up to four Great Crested Grebes west of the harbour wall.

A sinensis Cormorant in the harbour yesterday morning.

So. In many ways, not much. But also, riches.

Sunday 19 February 2023

The Birdwatching Tram

I do miss living next to the Axe Estuary, but my work takes me there often enough to keep the withdrawal symptoms at bay. However, back in January I was unexpectedly offered an excuse to go there for a different reason. Would I like to be one of the Seaton Birdwatching Tram guides? I didn't have to think too hard about that one.

So. This morning I had a date with a tram. This was a 'learn the ropes' session. Steve was guiding, and I was taking notes...

Once the tram reaches the estuary, this is the view looking north.

Many moons ago - before Black Hole Marsh and the Seaton Wetlands were really a thing - clandestine, out-of-hours walks along the tram line were a naughty indulgence for some of us. I saw my first Seaton Wryneck exactly thus, expertly found by Phil. The tram line gives a unique perspective of the Axe Estuary and marshes, and superb views of its inhabitants. As well as the birds, today's sell-out trip provided a tram-full of lovely punters with a sunbathing Fox and three Roe Deer. In addition, it is just so peaceful out there...

Bird-wise, we had some great highlights. Like this...

Med Gull, one of several.

And what a treat to discover that everyone on board was absolutely nuts about gulls!


I assume that such impeccable taste in birds is perfectly normal for the Birdwatching Tram clientele.

Arriving at Seaton Marshes, we were hopeful that the long-staying Axe Patch Coot might put on a bit of a show. Sure enough, there it was on the lagoon, right out in the open. Until it saw us...

Coot. Quality Axe Estuary bird.

Best of all was this Great White Egret, loafing on Colyford Marsh, initially with a Grey Heron...

Great White Egret. Still feels pretty rare to me.

Then it was back to base. At this point we had tallied 57 species, but a brief Black Redstart on a rooftop overlooking Sheep's Marsh at the south end of the flood plain took us to 58.

In addition to aforementioned highlights, the usual spectacle of whistling Wigeon, creaking Teal and chattering Blackwits made for a splendid soundtrack. Some terrific birds on a beautiful February morning, and a friendly, appreciative audience. Two hours just flew by...

Heading south. Black Hole Marsh coming up on the right.

Obviously I am now obliged to shamelessly promote the Birdwatching Tram experience. Dare I suggest that any NQS readers might want to coincide a visit with one of the following dates, book a ticket and come say hello?

  • Saturday 18th March at 08:30
  • Saturday 1st April at 08:30
  • Saturday 15th April at 08:30
  • Saturday 29th July at 18:00
  • Saturday 12th August at 18:00

I am also due to lead a couple in September too, but the dates are not on the official website yet. Click HERE for more details and to book tickets. Like I said, shameless.

Or you could go for one of the Sunday dates, and meet Steve. To be fair, he is pretty good actually.*

Obviously the subject was not broached openly, but there might have been some unspoken agreement involving the best Birdwatching Tram find of 2023 and a nice pint.


*Okay, very good.

Saturday 18 February 2023

A Saturday Afternoon

A leisurely late-afternoon stroll around my Bridport North patch was a delightful way to spend a couple of hours. One addition to the Patchwork Challenge tally, a Peregrine...

Ropey silhouette shot as it hung in the wind on the west side of Watton Hill, upsetting the local Herring Gulls.

Best of all, though, were two Firecrests in the spot where I saw one a few days ago. This time I had a camera with me...

Hard to beat a stunning male Firecrest.

Well hidden, but this one is a female.

This afternoon's extra Firecrest brings my local winter count to a very unexpected six. Four of them are in the Bridport North patch; two locations with two birds apiece. I am no expert, but would not be surprised to learn that the habitat in both spots was potentially good enough for breeding. That would be rather lovely.

There is a lot of very nice-looking habitat in my Bridport North patch. Time will tell whether it is actually as productive as my imagination suggests, but I hope so. There were very few people about this afternoon (I expect they were all at West Bay, getting drizzled on) but I do know that much of it is very popular with dog walkers. The evidence is everywhere, and I accidentally brought some of it home on my right boot. I hate that.

The West Bay Rock Pipit count is now at a minimum of 13 birds photographed. Given a reasonable image it is amazing how individually identifiable they are. The tertials and coverts are probably the most helpful feature, and the 'face' too. Here is a little collage to illustrate this: three different head shots, and three sets of tertials...

Subtly, but significantly, different.

Not sure exactly where I'm going with this project, but at least it keeps me distracted from the lack of much else going on right now. And there is something strangely compelling about making an effort to recognise each bird. Rather than 'a Rock Pipit is a Rock Pipit is a Rock Pipit', seeing them as individuals takes things to a different level somehow, and an otherwise humdrum bird becomes quite interesting.

Gulls are on the move at last. Five Lesser Black-backed passed through West Bay on Wednesday morning (pic below) and while working in Seaton yesterday I spied a few on the Axe Estuary, along with lots of Common Gulls. My scan of the Axe gulls was at least 90 minutes too early though, and I managed to miss a brief first-winter Caspian Gull which dropped in for Steve Waite later on. Such is often the way though, especially at this time of year. Timing is everything; blink, and you'll miss 'em.

My first West Bay Lesser Black-backed Gull of 2023.

Oh yes, moths...

I don't even need two hands to enumerate the moths I've caught this year, but here are some of them...

These two are both Chestnut, I think, but the worn one on the left did get me wondering about Dark Chestnut. Any helpful comments welcome...

Hebrew Character. What a beautifully marked moth.

Common Quaker. A new one for the garden, but only because we didn't start until June last year.

Agonopterix heracliana. Well, probably. There is a scarcer look-alike, so technically this should go down as A. heracliana agg, I guess.

Finally, I think Twitter is steadily going down the pan. The evidence is mounting...

I posted a couple of tweets earlier this evening. Both appeared on my profile page, but neither of them on my regular timeline. So I tried retweeting. Same result. Tellingly, both have had very, very few views. In other words, they are probably not visible to my 'followers'. Recently I have noticed that visiting a Twitter account's profile page almost invariably reveals a number of tweets that I haven't seen on my timeline, despite 'following' that account. I wonder if Twitter has indeed broken? For me, anyway.

Ah well. Even when life is threatening to take away one of your most reliable time-wasters, one can generally find solace in the jaunty carriage of a Black Redstart...

Cheer up, Gav. There's always Mastodon.

Sunday 12 February 2023

Bits & Bobs

Too much work last week, plus a hectic weekend of this and that, equals minimal birding. Still, I did manage to add two species to my West Bay & Eype Patchwork Challenge list: Collared Dove and Mute Swan, both fly-overs. Hardly epic. And while on an errand in town yesterday I came across a lovely bit of Firecrest-y habitat which, sure enough, soon coughed up a stripy gem. That's my fifth Firecrest in the Bridport recording area this winter.

A quick pictorial catch-up...

Sunset last Sunday, and four Purple Sandpipers feeding together at the far end of the West Bay harbour wall.

Black-spotted Longhorn Beetle Rhagium mordax, found in a friend's log pile over in Lyme Regis yesterday. Impressive. I could easily get into beetles...

One of two Purple Sands this afternoon. Love the Limpets and tiny Barnacles on that rock.

The confused ducks today. I wonder what's going to become of these two...

What a surprise! Two 10lb+ Carp in the River Brit by Rise restaurant in West Bay this afternoon.

In angler's parlance, the two Carp are a Common Carp and a 'Ghostie'. I always check the river for fish here, but have never seen anything bar the occasional Mullet. Seeing these Carp was unexpected enough, but a few minutes later a smaller fish swam past from the right, quickly dropping out of sight in deeper water. It looked a bit odd, but I was rather slow to get my bins on it. If I had been peering into the Hampshire Avon or Dorset Stour, I would not have hesitated to call it a small Barbel. With its snouty head shape, greenish hue and coral-tinged pectoral fins, I honestly could not think of any other species which fitted, but my view was so brief...

So there we are. I'm stringing fish now.

As far as I can tell, my Rock Pipit photos now depict eight different birds. And finally, we have a bit of pre-breeding moult! I've just discovered that I came across Rockit 2 again on Thursday afternoon...

Rockit 2 on 9/2. Note missing centre-left tertial!

Same bird on 30/1. I last saw it on 2/2, with centre-left tertial still present.

This is the Rock Pipit that I confidently (or recklessly) called littoralis when first encountering it on 29/1. Well, at least it's doing the right things so far...

Tuesday 7 February 2023

The Great Fall

Not long now. Spring is coming and, with it, an influx of migrants. At least, we hope so. On the local coast here in West Dorset, decent arrivals seem a rare thing. And autumn is little better. In twenty years I can remember very, very few autumn days when the number of grounded migrants has been anything but underwhelming. My records tell me that my best Wheatear tally is 100 at Beer Head on 22nd August 2008; Willow Warbler, 60 at Beer Head on 2nd September 2005. And locally I've never seen more than three Redstarts or Pied Flycatchers in a day. Maybe I've just been unlucky, and there have been monster falls that I just wasn't around to witness, but I doubt it.

Still, this is the Southwest. Maybe things are a lot different on the east coast. Well, possibly. But I would be surprised if it wasn't a similar story there. The numbers might be bigger, but I'll bet they are still not a patch on what they once were.

An autumn Redstart. Always a nice prize.

An autumn Pied Fly. Just one is a treat.

On 3rd September 1965 I was six years and four months old, and blissfully unaware of the birdy drama unfolding that day in East Anglia. Following ten days of rubbish weather in Scandinavia during the latter part of August, things had suddenly changed. Anticyclonic conditions set in over central Scandinavia at the start of September, and the impatient birds responded instantly. There was a mass exodus.

At the same time, a curved band of heavy rain was stretched from south-east England and the Low Countries to north-west Germany. It moved slowly north up the English coast, as the cloud of migrants came south and west, being squeezed ever closer to East Anglia. On 3rd September, hundreds of thousands of birds were grounded by the weather, with an immense, unprecedented concentration in Suffolk.

The heart of the action (with thanks to Google)

Along that 24-mile stretch of Suffolk coast, an estimated half-a-million birds dropped out of the sky on 3rd September. Early the next day, at Walberswick, one observer (D. J. Pearson) estimated the following along two miles of coast: 15,000 Redstarts, 8,000 Wheatears, 4,000 Pied Flycatchers, 3,000 Garden Warblers, 1,500 Whinchats, 1,500 Tree Pipits, 1,000 Willow Warblers, 500 Whitethroats, and smaller numbers of Spotted Flycatchers and Robins. Oh, and not to mention at least 40 Wrynecks, 20 Ring Ouzels, 20 Bluethroats, a Great Reed Warbler, an Icterine Warbler and two Barred Warblers. Is it worth mentioning the glut of waders too, including a Kentish Plover and three Temminck's Stints? Probably.

At Minsmere, observations by  H. E. Axell (the warden) and colleagues over approximately 150 acres of the reserve on 3rd were equally staggering. The arrival began very suddenly at 12:15, just after the wind had freshened from the south-east, and birds were still trickling in come the evening. Again, numbers had to be approximate, but 7,000 Redstarts, 4,000 Wheatears, 2,000 Garden Warblers, 1,500 Pied Flycatchers, 750 Whinchats and 500 Willow Warblers are hard to count. Rarer birds included 25 Wrynecks, 25 Bluethroats, two Icterine Warblers, ten Red-backed Shrikes, three Ortolans and a Tawny Pipit.

At Covehithe the fall was estimated at a density of approximately 100 birds per acre, which closely matches the Minsmere figures. And it is this description of bird density that allows me to get some sort of handle on the frankly incredible numbers...

A regulation soccer pitch is not far off two acres, so we're talking almost 200 migrants per soccer pitch. If that's hard to visualise, try 16 migrants per penalty far as the eye can see! I don't know the Suffolk coast very well, but can certainly picture the walk out to the old lifeboat station on Blakeney Point, a bit more than three miles from the Cley beach car park. Though the Norfolk coast didn't get more than a tiny fraction of the birds, just indulge me for a moment. Imagine that shingly slog being decorated with migrants at the kind of density seen in Suffolk. Extrapolating Mr Pearson's Walberswick counts, you would wind up with c23,000 Redstarts,, ridiculous, isn't it?!

Half-a-million birds over a 24-mile stretch of coast is one bird every three inches, or 7.5 cm. Mind officially blown...

Incidentally, it wasn't just Suffolk that experienced this fall, though it had by far the biggest numbers. For a jaw-dropping read I do recommend the British Birds paper on the event. Entitled 'The great immigration of early September 1965', you can find it in BB Vol 59, no 9 (September 1966).

Sadly, after reading that paper, you are left with the overwhelming sense that this can never, ever happen again. There simply are not enough birds any more.

Saturday 4 February 2023

Puzzling On...

First, the exciting stuff. A long-awaited 2023 Patchwork Challenge tick sailed over West Bay yesterday afternoon: Lesser Black-backed Gull. Get in!

I fear that NQS posts for the next couple of months are going to try the patience of any reader with an aversion to pipits. Sorry, but I am neck-deep already...

Last night I went through all my Rockit pics so far. I seem to have photographed seven different birds. One of them I have photographed on two dates, and another on three. And both those birds were pictured in two different spots, as shown on the following image...

West Bay

Location A is a wet field, extremely popular with dog walkers, who mainly stick to the perimeter but not always. I am not much cop at botany, but am pretty sure I was told that some of the plants (grasses?) in this field are typical saltmarsh species. Whatever, Rock Pipits can often be found feeding here, and being as unapproachable as Rock Pipits reasonably can.

Location B is the pier, or outer harbour wall, with rock armour all along the west side. The far end is roughly 600m from point A. So far I have photographed three Rock Pipits here, and two of them also in the wet field. For some reason, birds are noticeably less wary here.

Rock Pipit 1

The top photo was one of the first I took, back on 29th January, and featured in this post. At the time, I noted that the bird looked fairly swarthy in the field. Certainly it never gave me any littoralis vibes. Yesterday it was on the far end of the pier, and looked quite different. For starters, it has the strongest pair of supercilia that I've seen on any Rock Pipit so far this year...

Rockit 1 yesterday.

Rock Pipit 2

The same day that I first met Rockit 1, I also met the next bird. At the time, I was so smitten by its appearance that it went down as littoralis straight away. Since then I have unwittingly photographed it twice more. But on neither occasion did it particularly stand out to me as obviously littoralis. At the moment I don't know whether this says more about the bird or about the (in)consistency of my field skills. Either way, it is a warning to avoid becoming complacent. Clearly, when it comes to the separation of littoralis and petrosus in winter plumage, I have so far solved nothing.

I am having a lot of fun though.

And I am so glad that individual birds can be identified from photos!

If this collage teaches me one thing, it is this: never trust a photograph's depiction of subtle browns and greys.

My gut feeling is that both the above are littoralis. I hope they hang around long enough to show me a bit of pre-breeding colour. We'll see...

In the meantime, there are sometimes other birds to get excited about...

108 Lapwings. They hang around in the field immediately north of, and across the river from, location A. It is largely undisturbed, thank goodness. It would be nice if someone could just buy it, please, and turn it into the wetland it so wants to be. If any reader has a few bob going spare...?

The Odd Couple. Two months now.

The droopy-winged female-type Black Redstart again.

The male Black Redstart yesterday. Two months since my one and only previous sighting, though it has occasionally been seen by others. Where does it get to?

Finally, and with apologies for this super-early lepidopteral digression, the moth trap went out last night for the first time since December. Just a single moth, which didn't even get inside the trap. A garden first though...

Pale Brindled Beauty. Very nice.

Very little birding time this weekend, and already I'm getting Rockit withdrawal. I do sometimes wonder what I would get up to without these silly puzzles to keep my brain ticking over...