Thursday 11 May 2023

One Thousand and Five

I've just had a trawl through my old seawatching records and discovered two 400+ counts of Manx Shearwaters from Seaton. Both on 19th May (2006 and 2009) and both amassed over several hours; the higher count was 492 in 2006. I was pretty sure my Manx tally from West Bay on Tuesday evening was a personal record, but didn't appreciate it was more than twice my previous best Lyme Bay count! Between 17:00 and 18:35 I counted 1,005 Manxies past, all east bar five. A very unexpected passage in the modest NW and rain. And they were still going by when I packed up.

Briefly I must revisit the lovely Lesser Black-backed Gull which featured in Saturday's post, i.e., this bird...

LBBG L. f. intermedius

In addition to Thomas Miller's observations I have had some fantastic feedback on this beauty from Mark Golley, a fellow gull nut in Norfolk but far more knowledgeable than me. Hopefully Mark won't mind me quoting from his illuminating comments...

As you've already concluded, the bird appears not to have a moult contrast in the primaries (they're all 2nd generation, though the presence of tiny white mirrors in both p10s is a bit of a curious one). There is a moult contrast in the secondaries (the innermost appear to be 3rd generation). This is at odds with fuscus at this time of year. Again, as you know, fuscus should have a moult contrast in the primaries and not the secondaries. The corresponding coverts are quite worn and brown. The tail is ok for fuscus as is the (arguably chunky for fuscus) bill.

The 'blackness' does have a grey hue as opposed to the typical & rather characteristic brown/black of fuscus (even allowing for the vagaries of assessing true colour tones from images, although these excellent images seem to be very true, to my eyes at least).

I always like as little contrast as possible between upperparts and the black primaries and here I see a degree of contrast that is just not there for L.f. fuscus. That is very subjective of course, and may not be to everyone's liking. 

It does look, superficially, like fuscus, but if the moult state is reliable, then it just can't be. But it's a bird worthy of at least a 2nd look.

Ran it by Ian Lewington and his thoughts aligned accordingly.

Great bird. Educational and lovely too.

It is so refreshing when birders like Mark and Thomas willingly respond to random queries from the likes of me, and I am very grateful that they do.

A brief visit to West Bay this evening revealed a few graellsii Lesser Black-backs on the river. Very different gravy...

Basically adult, though the dark mark on the bill possibly hints at immaturity.

Presumably 3cy

It was good to see some mud showing on the estuary. I have recently learned that the river level is usually kept high deliberately (by shutting sluices that would otherwise allow it to flow into the harbour) unless there is a risk of flooding due to heavy rain etc, in which case the sluices are opened and it becomes properly tidal.

The mighty Brit Estuary. Taken with 24mm WA lens. In life it is tiny. Typical gull 'flock' gives scale.

A couple of other pics from this evening...

The odd couple seemingly back together again. It's a while since I last saw the Mallard with our boy.

Nice Rock Pipit on the West Pier. One of my winter lovelies?

Yesterday morning I was at West Bay so early that I even beat the dog walkers. And - miracle of miracles - there was a wader on the beach!

Oystercatcher. Definitely the first wader I have ever seen on the little West Beach

More typically, there was a Whimbrel on the rocks...

That's Lyme Regis in the background, reminding us that Lyme Bay is indeed a bay.

The Whimbrel eventually flew to the next beach along. Having nothing better to occupy myself with, I tried a bit of sneaking up...

Monday 8 May 2023

Bank Holiday Blues

It's not like I didn't try. From first light until 07:15 in the seawatching shelter, as the precipitation developed from 'spitting' to 'steady', Pete Forrest and I were blessed with 3 Gannets, 1 Oystercatcher and a flock of 7 Whimbrel. A seeming lull in the rain had me out again at 10:00. Single Reed and Cetti's Warblers, 2 Lesser Black-backed Gulls and the loopy harbour Wigeon were hardly bounteous fare. With a band of rain stretching from here roughly to Antarctica, I doubt many migrants fancied a day out. And in this weather, neither did I. So this blog post is borne entirely of stir-craziness. Which probably shows...

Yesterday afternoon was lovely, and West Bay was rigid with human. It was Pirates Day. Live music, sunshine, a beer tent... Weaving through the noisy crowds, en route to quieter spots inland, I felt like someone from another planet. At 10pm, the firework show. Three miles inland it was incredibly loud, and my nocmig kit bore witness. Hundreds of explosions - from staccato volleys to thunderous booms - peppered the sonogram. As one of the local birders mentioned on WhatsApp, our small Fulmar colony no doubt had a grim night. Just one trivial example of the myriad ways we demonstrate almost zero consideration for this planet's other tenants.

A little inland from the Bank Holiday weekend fun, I was poking around a lovely bit of habitat which I have belatedly decided to include in the West Bay + Eype Patchwork Challenge patch (amended map HERE) and my attention was wandering...

Recently I have once again taken to carrying a few screw-top pots in my camera bag. As last autumn, my intention is to collect any interesting moths I encounter while out birding. Anyway, this 'new' inland bit of my patch is leaping with tiny life, and the pots were soon filled. Here is my prize catch...

This microscopic moth is just 4mm long.

To the naked eye, this moth is a tiny speck. Not many years ago there were so few references available that I would have stood no chance of identifying it, and yet look at me now. Newbie moth-botherer posting annotated image of a creature so small that eight of them, end-to-end, would barely stretch an inch. How times change.

Modern-day ID Process as follows...

From previous experience I was pretty sure it was a Phyllonorycter - or very close relative - so went straight to the relevant pages in 'Manley' (a photographic field guide). I couldn't find a good match, so tried running a photo through ObsIdentify (an AI identification app on my smartphone). That got me 'Phyllonorycter sp', but no further. Next, a visit to the UK Moths website, where I again went through the Phyllonorycter moths, one by one. This time I did see a match: P. viminiella. I double-checked 'Manley' (which shows a much fresher specimen) for flight time, food plant etc; looked at several online photos of the species, etc, etc, and was finally satisfied that I had a sound identification.

Mooching about in this morning's dreary weather, I couldn't help pondering a sad irony. Undoubtedly we have never been better able to put a name to the millions of creatures that share our planet, or better equipped to record and analyse their geographic and numerical status. So, as we impotently watch their populations shrink and wither, at least we will know what they were called, where they lived, and how many there once were...

Yep, weather like this does me absolutely no good at all.

I shall close this joyous epistle with a few pics of other things I've been able to name...

Common Carpet. And common it is, though rarely as pristine as this one, our first of the year.

First Ruby Tiger of the year.

A small (7mm) Tortrix moth that I recall catching last year too.

First for 2023. According to Living Record, the nine we had last year makes our garden the best site in Bridport for this species! I'm not sure I believe that.

Scorpion Fly Panorpa communis - one of yesterday's distractions.

Saturday 6 May 2023

Small, Dark and Handsome

The less said about this morning's almost birdless seawatch, the better. By midday the incessant rain eased a bit, and in a misguided moment of optimism I headed out again, this time for a walk around West Bay. It was like birding inside a cloud, and I got very wet. Bird of the day was this...

Sub-adult Yellow-legged Gull on the left, with Lesser Black-backed (centre right) and two Herring Gulls. Photographed at considerable range, through dismal rain and murk.

Again in the field just east of the old West Bay Station car park, this bird looked very much like the sub-adult from May 1st and 2nd. Sure enough, it was...

Too much gull stuff for May? Sorry, but the rest of this post is also about gulls. Or rather, one particular gull...

I have a soft spot for Lesser Black-backed Gulls. LBBG is currently split into three forms. We have Larus fuscus graellsii, the familiar slate-grey one, which includes our breeding population; we have L. f. intermedius - very dark grey, almost black - with its more Scandinavian distribution; and we have the proper black one: L. f. fuscus, or Baltic Gull, which breeds in North Norway and Sweden, Finland, etc.

I love seeing this migratory species pass through our neck of the woods. Especially welcome is the occasional passage of intermedius birds, with their extra-dark-and-dangerous plumage. However, the ultimate prize is Baltic Gull. Officially, Baltic Gull is a British Birds rarity still. I have never knowingly seen one and there are very few accepted records, mainly because identification is so difficult. By and large, the best way to ID a Baltic Gull is by its Finnish colour-ring! No ring? Sorry mate.

In April, Mike and Alan found a Finnish-ringed Baltic Gull at West Bexington, which I think is now set to become Dorset's first official record of the form. As far as I can recall, all my local Lesser Black-backs have thus far been L. f. graellsii, the slate-grey kind, and I've never needed to concern myself with the intermedius/Baltic conundrum. That is, until last Wednesday.

Among the small gull flock on West Bay's River Brit was a dinky, super-dark Lesser Black-backed Gull. Instantly smitten, I don't think I have ever taken more photos of a single bird...

What a stunning gull!

The black markings on the bill tell us it isn't an adult, and note the dark tail feather.

That's a standard graellsii LBBG behind it. Very much paler.

The open wing confirms its age as 3cy or '2nd summer'. Note the tiny speck of white in each outer primary, stronger on the right wing (see next photo).

My understanding was that you can frequently get some idea whether a small, dark LBBG is a good candidate for Baltic Gull by the state of its wing moult, but I had to turn to more knowledgeable sources to find out the details. My thanks to Thomas Miller of Oxford, who helped me out with this bird and passed on some excellent reference material. Apparently a 3cy Baltic Gull in May should possess both new (inner) and old (outer) primaries, and the fact that this individual's primaries are all the same age - old and unmoulted - suggest that it is L. f. intermedius rather than L. f. fuscus.

Am I disappointed? Certainly not. As is so often the case with tricky birds, by delving a little deeper I have learned new stuff, and that is never a bad thing. And anyway, how could I be disappointed with such a splendid gull?!

Friday 5 May 2023


Spring seawatching here is such a hit-and-miss affair. I find it impossibly hard to accurately predict a good seawatch, so constantly err on the side of optimism in case I miss out through apathy. Which means regular doses of disappointment! However, on occasion it can also be delightfully entertaining, and so the last few days have proved...

With an easterly wind forecast, Wednesday morning looked decent for something at least, if not skuas, so I was at West Bay by 06:00. It turned out to be a wader morning. A tight flock of 11 Bar-tailed Godwits held some gorgeous, brick-red males. In addition, 2 Oystercatchers, a Turnstone, 7 Whimbrel, 3 Sanderlings, 7 Ringed Plovers and 3 Dunlin went past, the latter two being Patchwork Challenge ticks. Surprise of the morning flew east at 06:35. The first Avocet I have ever seen on a seawatch looked utterly incongruous as it laboured into the headwind, several times dropping on to the sea for a brief swim. Mad! In fact it is the first Avocet I have seen anywhere along the coast locally. Bizzarely, while seawatching at Lyme Regis, James M had a flock of four Avocets do likewise that afternoon; they were seen also by Richard P at Charmouth, and predictably were patch ticks for both.

No skuas though.

A good seawatch always raises hopes for the next day, but reality was typically harsh, with almost nothing of note past in yesterday's early watch. So the pics taken at Beachy Head that morning were a bit gripping. Because a muscly flock of Poms is a wondrous thing to behold, even in some other fortunate birder's photo. But East Sussex is not West Dorset and, while it was obvious that Pomarine Skuas were on the move in numbers, the key question was: did any of them come this way? No morning news from Portland or Chesil, Pom-wise, so a late afternoon/evening watch was clearly a no-brainer. Just in case...

The first sign of skua action was the awesome sight of a light-phase Arctic in hot pursuit of some Sandwich Terns. I so rarely see them in full-on pirate mode. A total joy to watch. After a five-minute rest on the sea, it came past close enough to tempt me into photographic effort...

Arctic Skua. If you think this is bad, wait until you see this morning's pixellated mess.

Next, another Arctic Skua. Very nice try, but no cigar. Then, shortly after 6pm, news of 4 Poms which had landed on the sea off Charmouth, a few miles west of here. Brilliant! It would simply be a matter of time before they lifted off and carried on me. The wait was tense. And long. And ultimately futile. Because the darned things never came.

Apart from the 2 Arctic Skuas, the stand-out highlight from yesterday's pm seawatch was yet another bit of bizarreness. Scanning around with bins, I suddenly caught sight of 3 Tufted Ducks heading rapidly out to sea. They had evidently come over the seafront from inland somewhere. Excellent. When it comes to Patchwork Challenge ticks, Tuftie was definitely not on my list of bankers!

And so we come to today...

With a slight possibility of the four lazy Charmouth Poms coming past this morning, obviously I needed to be in the seawatching shelter at first light. Didn't quite manage that, but the timer says I started at 05:43, which is not bad for me. At 05:51 a Bonxie flew east. At 05:58 a light-phase skua flew east; it had no spoons, but was a bit too far out to ID with confidence. Having seen two Arctics yesterday, this bird's flight action suggested Pom, but I put it down as an either/or. Which took some self-discipline, I can tell you. Thankfully, at 06:07 a massively spooned-up Pom flew E. A long way out, but that tail is unmistakeable. Magic!

So, wow! Three skuas in just over 15 minutes. This was going to be a mega morning!

Two hours later, the skua tally was still three, and the sea would have struggled to be quieter.

I'm not sure why I bothered in virtual darkness, but for some reason I did point the P900 at this morning's Bonxie. This is what happened...


Tuesday 2 May 2023

Mostly Moth

This post is basically the last week in moths. First though, I need to revisit yesterday's Yellow-legged Gull because - to my astonishment - I saw it again this morning. The Brit estuary just across the road from the harbour is a favourite spot for a wash and brush-up, and frequently there are a few gulls to check. At 06:25 today, one of them was the sub-adult YLG.

Yellow-legged Gull is a scarce bird here, and I always worry about the possibility of confusion with Herring Gull x Lesser Black-backed Gull hybrids. However, despite its rather dull legs, yesterday's bird seemed the real deal to me. In my [admittedly limited] experience, hybrids are usually a touch darker than pure YLGs and have a somewhat manky 'look' about them. So it was good to see the bird again, and get a couple of nice pics...

YLG in foreground. Note the red orbital ring, compared with HG's bright yellow.

Jammy open-wing shot. Comparing with several examples on the excellent Gull Research website, primary pattern absolutely spot-on for sub-adult (prob 4cy) YLG.

Right then. Moths...

These Diamond-back Moths were caught on consecutive nights. I assumed it was a recapture, but no, definitely a different moth.

Garden Carpet. A common moth, but rarely as immaculate as this one.

First White-spotted Pug of 2023. I like pugs.

The rather lovely Streamer. A garden first.

Oak-tree Pug. Another garden first.

Powdered Quaker. This rather battered individual was actually the second for the garden. The first was pristine, but it performed a Houdini-esque trick when I tried to photograph it.

Lunar Marbled Brown. A garden first.

Second for the garden, but too cool a moth to leave out.

A common micro, and delightfully easy to ID.

Pale Mottled Willow, the first this year.

Another first for the garden.

Common, and endearingly weird.

Such a distinctive shape to this common micro. Even really worn individuals are still easy to ID.

Okay, I think that's everything up to date. Can't believe it's May already. Pom time*!

* I hope.

Monday 1 May 2023

Mellow Yellow

It feels wrong to write about gulls on May 1st. Migrant chats and warblers, yes, fine, but gulls are for winter, right? All I can say is sorry, and there will be some mitigation later in the post. Until then, well, this morning I was very chuffed with a gull.

West Bay gulling is definitely a long game. I have checked probably thousands for little reward, but am well aware that it's only a matter of time...

In recent weeks there has been a regular small gang of loafing gulls in the field east of the station car park. They are never close, but I always check them for anything obvious, like a late-season white-winger, say. But I've seen nothing more exciting than a few Lesser Black-backed Gulls. This morning's walk took me along the coast path towards Burton Bradstock, and back across the golf course. Coming off the golf course and descending towards West Bay, I scanned the distant gull flock. I say 'flock', but there were no more than about 25 birds. No Lesser Black-backs today, but...wait a that bird a shade darker than the others, or am I imagining it? I took a quick photo from miles away and checked the image. Yep, I'm pretty sure that's a slightly darker bird. I hurried down the hill and along the road to get closer...

It's the one in the middle...

Yellow-legged Gull is not rare or exotic, but I think I have only ever seen one previously at West Bay, just over two years ago. This bird looked a very good candidate for my second. It sat down, stood up, walked around, sat down again, but I couldn't see its legs and it would not open its wings. Eventually something upset them all, and they departed. At least the camera got a good look at its legs and wings...

That subtle shade of grey. Darker than argenteus Herring Gull, but paler than any Lesser Black-backed.


The patchy grey wing feathering and blackish fleck in the tertials give away its sub-adult vintage.

Second from left. Not the yellowest legs ever, but that's okay. Lots of black on p5 and a little on p4, plus a white mirror only on p10; dark marks on the primary coverts. All good for a sub-adult Yellow-legged Gull. I'll take it.

Yellow-legged Gull is a nice addition to the Patchwork Challenge list, for sure, but not everyone's cup of tea when it comes to blog content. Thankfully the golf course had already provided a universally acknowledged beauty...

Male Yellow Wagtail in dewy grass at 07:08. In perpetual motion and really hard to photograph!

Spring Yellow Wags are an uncommon treat down here. I love their eye-popping brightness. The West Bay & Eype PWC2023 list moves on to 107 species and 131 points.