Tuesday 31 October 2023

A Beautiful Mongrel

The West Bay patch has suddenly grown some amazing new habitat. I first noticed it yesterday afternoon, and this is what it looked like this morning...

Lovely, lovely floodwater. And this isn't all of it.

Lying between the River Brit and West Bay Road, these fields are home to the annual Melplash Show, one of the Southwest's top agricultural exhibitions. On a more mundane note, they are also home to a million dog-walkers (who actually pay a fee for the privilege) and therefore normally birdless. I assume the combination of rain and a big tide has caused the Brit to burst its banks, and hope sincerely that it will take a very long time (like, all winter please) to subside. Thankfully the flood is extensive enough that birds are not necessarily spooked by the dog-walkers around its fringes. After discovering this Mecca late yesterday, I stayed until it was too dark to see. Apart from two or three Med Gulls, there was a steady trickle of big gulls dropping in for a pre-roost wash and brush-up. Nothing of note, but a heady scent of promise!

A grainy, high-ISO shot of one of yesterday afternoon's adult Med Gulls.

As well as a sheet of water there are several lines of robust fencing for gulls to perch on. The morning sun illuminates them beautifully...

Just one Med Gull this morning.

Adult Med Gull

There were also decent numbers of large gulls. When I have the time to do it properly, picking through a load of big gulls is one of my favourite pastimes. Mostly they will be argenteus Herring Gulls in various plumages. With adults (or near-adults) I am on the lookout for any that might be a shade darker, which is usually the first step to bagging a Yellow-legged Gull. And this morning there was just such a bird, noticeably darker than nearby adult Herring Gulls. However, it was no Yellow-legged Gull...

That bill betrays its immaturity straight way. So, not an adult. Also, with that coarse dark streaking on neck and head, not a Yellow-legged Gull either.

Here it is alongside an adult Herring Gull. Slightly darker, and a different sort of grey altogether.

Size-wise it was in the 'small Herring Gull' bracket.

So, darker than argenteus HG but definitely not YLG. What other options are there? Well, one is argentatus, or so-called Scandinavian Herring Gull, which is a lot rarer down here than YLG. But argentatus HG is normally a big, heavily-streaked brute of a gull, which this is not.

The final option that I know of is Herring x Lesser Black-backed hybrid. I haven't knowingly seen one for ages, but recall that they tend to be on the small side. It would be nice to see the wing pattern...

There we go! Note lack of mirrors in outer primaries; just a tiny white spot on the left wing.

Black in the primary coverts and in the tail feathers, plus a brownish tinge to some of the wing feathers, indicate a bird in its third calendar year, i.e. 3rd-winter plumage. A pure Herring Gull of this age ought to have obvious mirrors in the outer primaries (Yellow-legged Gull too) while a pure Lesser Black-backed Gull would be significantly darker, and probably have more extensive black on the inner primaries, rather than just a speck on p4. So I am pretty confident in calling this a Herring x Lesser Black-backed hybrid. And rather beautiful it is too.

I can't believe we suddenly have all this lovely gull habitat. I am so excited!

On a different note...

Last week was half-term, and West Bay had many visitors. Having lived here for a while now, I am well aware of the hazards associated with our rugged coastal scenery. But visitors may not be. So there are plentiful signs in prominent places, warning of the dangers. Like cliff-falls, for example. Mind you, one scan of the East Cliffs is enough to tell you that cliff-falls are frequent, and often big. But hey-ho, it won't happen to me...

The East Cliffs, with the remains of at least three recent falls in this shot.

Cliff-falls often obliterate the beach below, from the base of the cliffs to well beyond the low-water mark. Anyone caught in that would undoubtedly be a gonner. Sometimes the beach is closed after such falls. Eventually the sea washes away the rubble furthest from the cliffs, leaving just a steep mound at the very foot of them, and the beach is opened again. But it is only a matter of time until the next massive collapse...

Following a night of torrential rain... Russian roulette, with rocks.

Thursday 26 October 2023


You're pretty sure what you've just seen, but couldn't quite clinch it...

UTVs. Untickable views.

Definitely one of the most frustrating scenarios in birding, especially if the bird was potentially a bit special. What to do in such cases? Unfortunately there is only one sensible option. You might report a 'possible' this or 'probable' that, but essentially you have to let it go.

Just occasionally though, such birds can be recovered. This has certainly happened to me. A couple of local seawatching UTVs spring to mind: Long-tailed Duck and Pom Skua. Both were picked up by others along the coast, and the IDs confirmed. But supposing your bird is never seen again? Mostly, that will be goodnight Vienna, but not always...

At lunchtime yesterday I braved the West Bay half-term crowds and went hunting for my first Black Redstart of the autumn. I tried all the obvious spots, but without success. However, while scanning likely hangouts from the far west end of the promenade, I noticed a bunch of Rock Pipits about 60m away on boulders at the base of the seawall. They were flitting around busily, too distant to check for rings but entertaining all the same. Suddenly I realised that one of them had incredibly pale underparts. Sideways on, its belly looked white. Seaside rocks are hardly classic habitat for the species, but it couldn't be a Water Pipit could it? I would imagine they're like hen's teeth locally, but what else could it be? The birds were a bit too far away for bins, but a photo would nail it. With one eye on the pipits I dug out the camera. They were bouncing around the rocks like mad things, in and out of view. Finally the camera was ready. I found the bird again, then tried to get it in the viewfinder. Yep...that's it. At least, I think so...

I managed three quick bursts, then had that horrible sinking feeling which goes hand-in-hand with photographing the wrong bird. Bang in the middle of the frame was a Rock Pipit. I cast around with the bins to relocate it, but pipits were already flying off in twos and threes. Very quickly they were all gone, and I never saw it again.

What to do?

Let it go, Gav. Let it go. I messaged Tom and Pete that I'd just had a 'v good candidate for Water Pipit' blah, blah, and then did exactly that. All I'd seen on it was a pale belly. Goodnight Vienna.

So, this morning's vismig was all Woodpigeons and no punchline. Apart from the Woodpigs there were dribs and drabs of other species, but no outstanding highlights. Perhaps recent scarcities have spoiled me and I am expecting too much? There was one 'interesting bunting' to investigate on the recording when I got home, but even that proved to be a damp squib because I'd somehow managed to switch off the recorder after only nine minutes. Strewth...

Thank goodness for this...

My first Black Redstart of the autumn. Encountered in typical habitat as I walked back into West Bay after the vismigging, unfortunately it didn't hang about for better shots.

When I uploaded the camera's contents to the laptop, I included the pics taken at yesterdays pipit fail. To be honest, apart from a quick check on the back of the camera that confirmed my cock-up, I hadn't looked at them very closely. Here is the very first frame from the initial burst of three...

Full frame at 1600mm zoom. Four obvious Rock Pipits's that pale-bellied thing flying out of shot, bottom right?

With hindsight I suspect that I did actually point the camera at the correct bird, but assume it immediately flew, and was perhaps replaced(?) by a Rock Pipit. Whatever, that bird is not in the other two shots. The next burst - just seconds later - features only the Rock Pipit in the middle. And the final burst ditto. Or so I initially thought...

First frame from the final burst. 2000mm full zoom. Wait a sec! What's that bird on the left, peeking over the top of the rock?

It looks remarkably like a Water Pipit!

Despite already suspecting that I was papping away at just a Rock Pipit, this burst comprises six shots. Thank goodness for that! Here are two of the others...

It is a Water Pipit!

Jammy or what?!

Jammy it may be, but so satisfying to have those initial suspicions confirmed. It does make me wonder how many of the countless other birds that I've let go in the past were exactly what I thought them to be. Perhaps I should no longer worry about UTVs? Just count them all, common and scarce alike? Not rare stuff though, birds that need a description. But wait a minute. Even then, I know what the bird would have looked like if I'd seen it properly, don't I? So I could certainly write a convincing description, couldn't I? Yes, of course I could. Nothing wrong with that at all.

In the next post: How to Cope with Ostracism from the Birding Community

Tuesday 24 October 2023

Vismig Riches

For a while I've been meaning to join Tom Brereton for a bit of West Bay vismig, especially as the season is hotting up now. And already I've missed some gems: Hawfinch, Corn Bunting, a bunch of Tree Sparrows, several Woodlarks, etc. So it was good to be able to spare a couple of hours yesterday and this morning, and very much worth it.

For me, West Bay vismig basically involves nothing more than a bit of idle sky-scanning and bush-watching. It's Tom who does all the hard work. I never hear birds before Tom does, and often not even then. My ears have clearly had it, especially when it comes to higher frequencies. I struggle hugely with the background wash of sea-on-shingle, which I find swamps a lot of the fainter calls. Though interestingly I can hear many of them well enough on a recording, especially with the visual prompt of a sonogram, so perhaps I will get better with practice. I hope so. Meanwhile I simply wait for Tom to tell me what birds he can hear, then look for them. Tom also does all the counting and all the writing down, though I do try to help with Stock Doves in Woodpigeon flocks. Apart from Stock Doves though, what use am I?

Well, for one thing I am an extra pair of eyes. Also, as I discovered today, the sound recordings made by my Zoom H4n Pro can be rather handy sometimes. And finally, I am someone to share celebratory moments with! And yesterday there were a couple of those. Kind of.

I last saw a Swift about two months ago, so was instantly on it when Tom called 'Swift!' at roughly 08:30 yesterday. Although it seemed to be coming coastwards from inland, the bird was also drifting west in the wind. Obviously we knew the potential attached to a late-October Swift, but it never came close enough to allow anything better than a 'Common/Pallid' label.

We had already seen a Little Egret go through, so when I clapped eyes on another egret a bit later, its bulk was immediately obvious...

Never close, but this Great White Egret was a West Bay first for me.

Back on 30th September I saw a Barn Owl go to roost in the West Cliff quarry. It has since become a regular feature, and Tom has discovered that its roosting spot is just about visible...if you stand in exactly the right spot, crouch slightly, and bend 20 degrees sideways...

The product of such precise contortions: a ropey shot of a comatose Barn Owl.

This morning's vismig was also very rewarding.

To start with, there was this...

Juv Cirl Bunting in the Barred Warbler bush!

Expertly spotted by Tom, perched on the very same twiggy Elder in which last year's Barred Warbler first appeared, this is my first West Bay Cirl, though Tom has seen the species here previously. It called several times (though I couldn't hear it) and flew to another bush, before heading purposefully east.

West Bay Cirl Bunting in a spot of sunshine.

Here are the three strongest calls, spliced together...

Yep, the call is high-pitched. I can hear them alright on the recording, but in real life it was a case of 'the beak is moving, but nothing is coming out'.

A bit later, Tom said: 'It's probably nothing, but sounded like a Lapland Bunting calling just now.' I had heard nothing. Then Tom heard it again, faintly. I still couldn't hear it, and neither of us could see it. And that was it. Faint, brief, unsatisfying. I made a note of the time, and resolved to check the recording when I got home.

The recording was a revelation.

Initially there are three calls quite close together. They are perfectly audible - especially after cleaning up the background noise a bit - and very obvious on the sonogram. There is then a gap of 17 seconds before Tom voices his thoughts as described above. Six seconds after that, and right in the middle of a load of questions from me, more calls. They are no louder, but slightly more numerous. I have played about with them and done some digging, and reached the conclusion that it was actually a Snow Bunting...

The main reason for this conclusion is the sonogram itself. the multi-note call of Snow Bunting is often described as a 'rippling' sound, and that of Lapland Bunting, a 'rattling' sound. And there are corresponding differences in the sonograms, with Snow Bunting calls showing a blunter, rounder profile. Subtle, but also quite obvious...

Sonogram comparison of Snow and Lapland Bunting (with thanks to Steve for access to his Beer Head recording).

So, next up is a spectrovid of the West Bay Snow Bunting, with all the gaps edited down and the majority of extraneous sounds clipped out. And on the end I have added the four calls shown in the above image, in the same order. It takes a few listens to get your ear in, but Lapland Bunting is a drier sound. Forty-odd years ago I dubbed a long-staying Staines Res Snow Bunting 'Tiddles', on account of its call. To me, Snow Bunting makes a rapid 'tiddle-iddle-iddle' sound, whereas Lapland Bunting goes 'diggi-diggi-diggit'. Yeah, well, it works for me.

As for the other common call of each species - 'tew' or 'tiu' or 'chew' or 'however you like to write it' - well, you'll be pleased to know that I've absolutely no reason to go into that.

A really excellent West Bay record, nicely verified by sound recording. Result.

Heading back down the hill, I decided to have a stomp through a load of rank, weedy grass, just in case the 'Lap Bunt' had dropped in. Imagine my shock when a Short-eared Owl lifted off right in front of me! It looped around to my left and up towards the quarry - and Tom - before heading for the clifftop and dropping below the skyline. I hadn't had time for a photo or a phonecall, but did get an eyeful. What a bird!

This vismig lark is okay.

Sunday 22 October 2023

Firecrest x2

Well, no amount of rash fantasising ever produced scarce seabirds out of thin air, so, needless to say, last Thursday morning's seawatch had to do without a Long-tailed Skua. A nice juv Arctic Tern was the best of it, and a Med Gull count of 98. Since then it has mainly been slim pickings locally, with afternoon visits to Cogden contributing excellent step counts but not too many birds. However, two Firecrests today were only my second record at Cogden and therefore a major highlight...

Firecrest at Cogden, one of two together.

Late yesterday afternoon, my fruitless efforts to kick up a Richard's Pipit were scornfully watched from afar...

On Friday we entertained our eldest grandaughter for the day. She turned four in July, which is not quite old enough to handle a pair of 8x30s. Still, she was game to try. A brief visit to Seaton Wetlands seemed an appropriate choice, specifically the Island Hide on Black Hole Marsh. While I spent a couple of minutes with an obliging Grey Plover, Amilia found a bird to look at through her bins, which I then photographed for her...

Juv Grey Plover at Black Hole Marsh

Amilia's bird. Good choice.

Finally, a Moth Diary update...

Friday night, 20th October

A paltry eight moths of seven species, but one was new for year.

Feathered Thorn. Not uncommon locally; we caught three last year.

Saturday night, 21st October

Another puny tally. Eight moths of seven species again, though two were new for year and one was a nice migrant.

Always nice to catch a migrant Vestal. Unlike the others caught so far this year, the stripes are definitely not pink on this one.

Red-line Quaker is new for year; we trapped 14 in 2022.

After two in 2022, this is our first Green-brindled Crescent of the year. Status-wise this attractive species seems to be on a par with the likes of Sallow and Merveille du Jour locally.

Wednesday 18 October 2023

Talking it Up

Tomorrow evening I may regret this post and need to rename it 'The Kiss of Death', but here goes anyway...

Long-tailed Skua is a major seawatching prize along this stretch of Lyme Bay coast, so I am particularly fortunate in having seen eight in total, all from Seaton and Beer; seven autumn juvs and a superb spring adult. Four of those juvs were in August 2012, when there was an exceptional influx, but the most memorable by far was almost exactly 14 years ago: 20th October, 2009. There is a great write-up of that encounter on Steve's blog which totally captures the vibe and includes a photo of Steve impersonating the bird, so I shan't repeat the tale here. Instead, here is the description which went into the notebook I still used in those days...

Small and dainty – seen up close with naked eye (down to 20-30ft) looked small. 2 white primary shafts obvious – no other white noted [in upperwing]. Overall cold brown (greyish tinge?). Intermediate phase – dark breast band, slightly paler head, and very pale belly, which contrasted quite strongly with sharply cut-off breast band. Upper and under tail coverts strongly barred. Tail had blunt central feathers, quite prominent. Upperwing (and upperparts generally) had strongly marked pale edgings to dark feathers. Underwings strongly barred. Bill quite short and dainty, bluish base and dark tip (outer1/3). Slim bird – not deep chested at all.

There were three of us - Steve, Ian and me - and our views were ridiculous. In my mind's eye I can clearly see that bird coming towards us along the beach, into the wind, slowly passing just a few metres away. Unforgettable. It eventually headed away NW, inland over the town!

I haven't seen a Long-tailed Skua since the four 2012 birds, but plan to rectify that tomorrow. The juv described above occurred on a day of strong (force 6-7?) SSE, quite unusual conditions here, and tomorrow is forecast to bring a southerly wind of reasonable strength (though I think not force 6-7) following brisk easterlies and a lot of rain, also quite unusual late-autumn weather. Apart from the date and the 'quite unusual' weather bit, there is absolutely no other similarity between the two situations, so my implication that there is some logical basis for the prediction of a Long-tailed Skua sighting tomorrow is pathetically tenuous. There is actually no basis whatsoever, beyond a fervent wish.

So, as I say, probably the kiss of death.

Meanwhile, a quick mothy update...


Monday night, 16th October

This is the only time the trap has been out since the last update. The catch was tiny (11 moths of nine species) but two were new for year, and one new for the garden. Definitely worth the trouble then...

Although a first for the garden, the Sallow is clearly not uncommon, with 24 Bridport area records on the Living Record map. A pretty moth.

The Sallow may be pretty, but Merveille du Jour deserves a far more generous adjective. It really is a beautiful moth. Very slightly more numerous locally, but we only caught one in 2022. I thought we might have missed our chance of one this year, but thankfully not.

Between now and the next NQS post there should have been some seawatching. And probably a serious reality check.

Monday 16 October 2023

Success Stories

I saw a Cattle Egret this afternoon. It flew east over the tramline at Colyford while I was waiting with a few other cars at the crossing. It was comfortably close enough to identify with the naked eye, and got me thinking...

Not too many years ago I would have felt compelled to turn around as soon as possible and chase it, to send several text messages, even make a phone call or two. But now? Cattle Egret? Pfff. Had it been a Great White Egret, then yes, that might have prompted a bit of action. Well, a group WhatsApp message anyway.

When I first moved to Seaton as a somewhat phased birder in late 2002, it was still a novelty to see Little Egrets on the Axe Estuary every day. Well, it was for me. As a very on/off birder through the 1990s, I had largely missed their invasion. In July 2005 I saw my first local Cattle Egret, at Colyford Common. Then in 2008 there was a little flurry of Axe records, and we talked optimistically of imminent colonisation. But it was a false start. It didn't take much longer though, and the Somerset Levels are now sinking under the weight of the things. Great White Egret has been sluggish by comparison. My first local bird was in September 2005, on Colyford Marsh. I was five miles away in the middle of a job, which I dropped instantly in order to twitch it. I'm not sure when my next came along, but not before at least 2011 or 2012. But now even Great White Egrets barely raise an eyebrow - and certainly not a pulse - lovely though they are.

In common with many other long-time birders, I have seen all three of the above species go from BB rarity to regular breeder. Whether this is actually the celebration-worthy success story it might appear to be is a matter for debate, but I shan't go there just now.

Meanwhile, of course, many formerly common species have gone the other way. It would be easy to spend the rest of this post lamenting their demise, but there's more than enough bad news around at the moment, so instead I want to talk about Cirl Bunting.

Splendid male Cirl Bunting, photographed at Cogden on Sunday afternoon.

I saw my first Cirl Bunting on 18th June, 1978, at West Wycombe in Buckinghamshire, also a male. I am not familar with the species' current status in Bucks, but I'll bet there haven't been many records in the 45 years since. The next time I saw Cirl Bunting was around 1984 or '85, at Wembury in South Devon, in the heart of their UK stronghold. I say 'stronghold', but it wasn't really. By 1990 the species was on the brink of extinction in this country, with around 100 pairs remaining. All the populations outside of Devon had shrivelled up and died years earlier. For example, Dorset's last breeders were as long ago as 1971.

However, in 2016 a full survey revealed 1078 pairs, including the satellite population in Cornwall, grown from youngsters translocated from Devon during 2006-2011. It had taken a quarter of a century of collaborative effort from various bodies, including the RSPB of course, but what a result! Since then, Cirl Bunting has been slowly creeping eastwards in Devon. It can only be a matter of time until it once again breeds in the Seaton area. I have a vintage copy of Devon Birds magazine, dated October 1966. The main article in it is The Birds of the Axe Estuary by R. T. Cottrill and P. A. Hill, which records Cirl Bunting as a breeding species in 1964: one pair on the west side. For those who know the area, 'the west side' means somewhere between the Seaton to Colyford road, and the river Axe. I can't imagine that happening now, but who knows?

The Dorset story gives reason for hope though. Without the need for any human intervention, Cirl Bunting has suddenly bred again in the county after an absence of 52 years! Two pairs that I am aware of, at Portland and Cogden.

So, a lovely success story, but I doubt that Bucks birders will be holding their breath until Cirl Bunting breeds there again!

Meanwhile, birding continues in unspectacular fashion, with nothing particularly noteworthy the last couple of times out.

On Sunday afternoon I counted 14 Chiffs, up from four on a similar circuit the previous day. So things are quietly happening...

Finally, I forgot to post this earlier in the week, but better late than never. This is the sound you want to hear as you walk past a late-autumn thicket...

That's a Ring Ouzel* complaining that you're too close!

* Recorded Monday morning, 9th October 2023, at Cogden.

Saturday 14 October 2023

The Day After

Sometimes I have to pinch myself...

Cogden, looking west. Photo taken from roughly the spot where the trio of Ring Ouzels were on Monday afternoon.

This is what my local birding country looks like. I worked it slowly and carefully this afternoon, conscious that mid-October can produce almost anything anywhere. In the event, ten thousand bushes produced almost nothing anywhere. Just four Chiffchaffs in fact, but who cares? Being out there and in it is almost reward enough. Almost. Let's face it, you always need a few birds too...

This rather unsharp Marsh Harrier was Bird of the Afternoon. Clearly a male (2nd-summer?) so not Wednesday's individual, and only my second of the year.

The afternoon's only Wheatear. I doubt there'll be many more chances for Wheatear-on-the-beach pics this year.

Strikingly broad white fringes to the greater coverts on this Pied Wag. Definitely worth a photo in the evening light.

In the sunshine and light north-westerly it was hard to believe that a convoy of large shearwaters had trundled through Lyme Bay yesterday. In fact the sea was almost deserted today, with just a sprinkling of gulls and the odd distant Gannet. I read this morning that a staggering 10,000+ Great Shearwaters had passed Start Point, at the south-western tip of the bay. And yesterday's Portland Bird Observatory blog post is definitely worth a look.

While I'm on the subject of blog posts that are worth a look, here is a belter from Mark Pearson's blog. I have never experienced an East Coast fall of this nature, but it sounds amazing. And Mark's tale has a brilliant ending.

Moth Diary

Thursday night, 5th October

29 moths of 11 species; one new for year...

Nationally common, but we trapped just one last year. There are five other Bridport area records on the Living Record map.

Friday night, 6th October

A mild night, producing 41 moths of 14 species. Nothing new, but 21 Box-tree Moths equalled the recent new record count.

Saturday night, 7th October

30 moths of 14 species. Another Blair's Mocha was notable, but nothing much else.

Monday night, 9th October

21 moths of 10 species; one new for year and garden. Feathering and brindling appears to be a common autumn theme...

Brindled Green. New for the garden, and less than 10 Bridport area records on the Living Record map, but listed as nationally common.

A nice Feathered Ranunculus.

Another gorgeous Feathered Brindle.

Tuesday night, 10th October

45 moths of 13 species. Another mild night. It produced nothing new, but 22 Box-tree Moths was a new record, and migrants were represented by a Vestal, Rush Veneer and Silver Y.


The trap has not been out for a few nights, and I can sense a lack of zeal on my part. The clear sky and dropping temperatures are doing little to enthuse me right now, but I know the show isn't over just yet...

Friday 13 October 2023

The New Normal?

Towards the end of yesterday's post I mentioned that the forecast predicted a wet and windy night, and that I hoped a morning seawatch would be good. Well, the forecast was correct. The seawatch...?

By 07:35 the overnight southerly had veered to a south-westerly, which is straight onshore at West Bay. It was quite strong but a long way from gale force, and still carried some rain. I started up the BirdTrack app and had a scan. Two or three Gannets west in the gloom. Then a couple of Kittiwakes. A close Arctic Skua west. Nice. Very quickly the trickle became a small flood, as myriad auks, Mediterranean and Black-headed Gulls joined the fray. A distant small shearwater turned into a Balearic, then two Balearics, and I stopped trying to count Gannets and Med Gulls. It was all a bit hectic, and I began to worry about quality birds slipping past unnoticed. A distant shearwater rose into view momentarily before dropping into a trough after a couple of shallow flaps. Instant alarm bells! That was no Balearic. I tried to match my panning speed to its invisible track and guessed correctly. Up it came again, looking all stiff-winged like a big Manxie. It had to be a Great Shearwater, but was much too distant to make out any plumage detail.

Messages from Steve at Seaton: single Cory's and Great Shearwaters, a Balearic; plus even more Gannets, Kitts and auks than I was getting. It was all kicking off. Around 08:15 I had another large shearwater, this one close enough to clinch as a Great.

And so it continued, with good numbers of mostly routine fare but the occasional mega-range large shearwater defying specific ID. And then, around 09:30, a sudden pulse of large shearwaters. Almost every scan produced one or two, though mostly a very long way out. A couple gave good enough views to confidently ID as Great, but the rest were simply out of reach for me. No definite Cory's unfortunately. The closest shearwater of all was also a good one: my first Sooty Shearwater for many years headed W at 09:40.

I tried a lunchtime session, and another late in the afternoon, but added no more large shearwaters. The day's tally as follows:

3 Great Shearwaters, 27 unidentified large shearwaters, 1 Sooty Shearwater, 6 Balearics, 11 Arctic Skuas, 1 Bonxie, 117 Common Scoters, 1 Sandwich Tern. Plus uncounted Gannets, auks, Kitts and Med Gulls, all of which were well into three figures.

On its own, that list represents a fairly epic local seawatch. But in the light of what has happened elsewhere in Lyme Bay today, and at other points along the South Coast, it is nothing. For example, Portland Bill saw a movement of hundreds of Cory's Shearwaters this morning, followed by hundreds of Greats this afternoon! At Durlston (even further east than Portland): 350+ Greats and 50+ Cory's. At Berry Head: almost 800 Greats but not a single Cory's!

To give some context to all of this: in the most recent Dorset Bird Report (2021) there are no records of Cory's or Great Shearwater. In 2020, three records of Great, involving four birds; zero Cory's. Up to and including 2021, there had been just 21 Dorset records of Great Shearwater, ever.

Of course, further west, in the waters off Cornwall and Scilly, there have been ridiculous numbers of large shearwaters for many weeks now. Given a reasonable excuse, like weather or food, it wasn't difficult to imagine some of them heading this way eventually. But still, is this all just a bizarre one-off, or are we seeing the beginning of a new normal?

Thursday 12 October 2023

West Bay Casp & Other Tales

Today looked unlikely to yield any birding time, but an afternoon visit to West Bay with our granddaughter at least allowed an opportunity to take bins and camera. As we arrived I noticed the river level was down, so suggested that Sandra wheel Gracie to the seafront while I checked out the little gang of gulls on the mud.

'Won't be a minute', said I.

What a liar.

From the bridge they were mostly head on, or nearly so, but among the 30-odd birds present, one stuck out like a sore thumb. I had to double-check it wasn't a Great Black-backed Gull, but no, definitely not. It was a monster Casp...

What a beast! That is a huge male Caspian Gull. It really has the 'look' in this photo, but it's also worth noting the fine sub-terminal anchors on the visible scapulars, compared to the coarser versions on the two Herring Gulls. It also sports the 'saggy nappy' in the vent area (visible between its legs) characterisitic of some Casps. The legs were strikingly pale too, though I'm not aware of this particularly being a feature of Caspian Gull. The rather long tibia are though.

I could hardly believe my good fortune, and hurried round to the little green on the west side of the estuary to try and get a more side-on view...

The best side-on photo I managed.

I've seen whiter underwings on Caspian Gull, but these aren't too bad.

So, everything was going very nicely. I was sitting on a handy bench, close enough to need only 800mm of zoom; the light was good; the bird preening happily...

And then something spooked the lot of them. It caught me completely off-guard, and the best nearly-in-flight efforts I managed were not that great...

The tail is spot on, there is a nice 'Venetian blind' effect on the visible inner primaries in that right-hand pic, and the fully raised underwing is actually paler than it first appeared. No question at all about this bird's ID. It's a nailed-on Casp.

There is less than five minutes between my first photo and my last. And once again I found myself wondering at the serendipitous nature of so many of my recent encounters with good birds. What were the chances...?

Anyway, I stuck a message on the local WhatsApp group, caught up with Sandra and Gracie and - as soon as I could - reviewed my photos. At which point my heart sank. I can only put what happened next down to the fact that I had deliberately underexposed the photos a touch so as not to blow out the whites, and was fooled by their apparent darkness, but I rapidly came to the conclusion that I had just cocked up a first-winter Yellow-legged Gull. So I berated myself for being such an idiot, and immediately WhatsApped a correction.

Back home I got the photos up on the laptop.


So I WhatsApped a correction of the correction, and felt a bit stupid.

Still, all's well that ends well. This Caspian Gull is my first for two years, and a long-desired first for West Bay. I particularly wanted to find one on the tiny Brit estuary too, with the point-blank views it offers. That bird will keep me going for quite a long time, I reckon.

In other news...

On recent visits to Cogden I've noticed an obvious increase in birdy activity offshore. For example, early yesterday morning I counted 134 Med Gulls heading west as I walked the beach, and recorded my first Red-throated Diver of the autumn. Gannets and large gulls have been conspicuous - ditto off West Bay this afternoon - as well as distant flights of auks. There is obviously food out there. Tonight is forecast wet and windy, so I am hoping that a morning seawatch will be good. Of course, I always hope that a morning seawatch will be good, but once in a blue moon it actually is.

Best Cogden bird since the Ring Ouzels and Woodlark is this...

Early-morning Marsh Harrier yesterday, my first of the year.

I completely mucked up the exposure, but at least it was reasonably well in focus.

I was going to add a Moth Diary to this post, but I think it's long enough already. And anyway, I want to drool over my Casp shots for the rest of the evening...

Monday 9 October 2023

Rouzels & Lulu

Cogden this morning was as birdy as you like, and a steady overhead passage of Meadow Pipits, Skylarks, alba wagtails and assorted finches was a constant feature. Climbing the slope below Othona I heard a Woodlark, and looked up to see a lone bird flying west almost overhead. Having seen hundreds of Skylarks already, the Woodlark looked almost tail-less in comparison, and a touch smaller. It called twice, a really distinctive sound. The French name for Woodlark is Alouette lulu. Very appropriate, because the flight call sounds just like a flutey, yodelled 'lulu'. I was confident that the recorder would have caught it, but back home I really struggled to pick it out. I can hear (and see) just one of the calls, but it's a bit weedy, and sadly not worth the bother of turning into a spectrovid for the blog. Last year's West Bay Woodlarks were similarly disappointing in that respect. Ah well, hopefully there will be further chances.

There were birds in the bushes too: 35 Chiffs and 2 Goldcrests were certainly new in. Even better, there were Ring Ouzels. The first two flew NE together up a hedge-line, pausing briefly for the camera...

Ring Ouzel #1. Full frame at 1200mm zoom.

In flight I had seen that one bird had a whitish bib, presumably this one.

Ring Ouzel #2, possibly a juv. Even with these poor views, the silvery fringes on the wing are obvious.

I've seen Ring Ouzel at West Bexington a couple of times, but these are my first at Cogden. And a short while later I added two more, both singles in different patches of scrub. One of them had a nice bib.

The Woodlark was a Cogden first too, so I went home pretty chuffed.

Somehow I wangled a late-afternoon visit today as well. Sticking mainly to the sunny upper slopes, it was obvious that most of this morning's birds had not lingered, and my Chiff count was just eight. However, imagine my delight when I managed to spot this before it spotted me...

One spanking male Ring Ouzel.

Actually, I'm sure it had spotted me too, but at least I'd noticed it while still far enough away to be tolerated!

Best of all though, it wasn't alone...

Three Ring Ouzels!

Both the other birds had white bibs too, but I got the impression they were not quite so clean and pristine as the obvious male. Certainly adults, but I'm not sure if I can safely say much more than that.

These Ring Ouzels were a bit further east than any of this morning's birds. I definitely hadn't seen such a smart male earlier, and highly doubt I'd seen the other two either. Seven Ring Ouzels it is then!

That'll do.