Friday 10 May 2024

May Rewards

Since the visit to Portland Bird Observatory I've been birding four times, and it's fair to say that migrant land birds have been like the proverbial rocking horse poo. Presumably they are arriving at necessary destinations inland, but I've seen hardly any on the coast. A Cogden outing on May 3rd was typical: four Lesser Whitethroats - quite possibly territorial birds - and a lone Wheatear. May 5th was even worse. From sunrise to 08:30 the only migrant I noted was a Swallow. Though nothing special, an afternoon jaunt on 7th was birdy indulgence by comparison, featuring my first Spotted Flycatcher, Garden Warbler and Whinchat of 2024, 3 Wheatears, a Willow Warbler and the dregs of a Red Kite movement that had already seen well over 250 heading west just inland of the coast. My 12 birds were significantly north of the coast road, and little more than Red Kite-shaped dots.

A few snaps...

What a joy, finally to catch sight of a freshly-arrived Whinchat on the beach (roughly a third of the way up, bang in the middle).

Female Whinchat.

Nice to see some cracking Wheatears passing through still.

Spotted Flycatcher is always a treat, especially when perched up all perky like this.

Once upon a time I would occasionally encounter breeding Spotted Flycatchers while out working in East Devon, but that hasn't happened for many years now.

The 'one Swallow' morning was brightened by my first local cetacean for a while...

A single Common Dolphin heading E with attendant Black-headed Gulls.

Red-throated Diver is not what the early-May birder is particularly after.

This morning dawned calm and clear, and I really hoped an early beach walk would produce a few waders. With just a handful of Whimbrel and a Sanderling to my credit so far this spring, things could only get better. And they did. The final tally was 43 Sanderling, 25 Whimbrel, and singles of Dunlin, Oystercatcher, Turnstone and Grey Plover. That's more like it. The latter two species are less regular than the others, and both look fantastic in summer plumage...

Turnstone with Sanderling.

Sum-plum Grey Plover, a classy stunner.

Walking E from Burton Bradstock this morning, I could see a distant flock of Whimbrel by the water's edge at Cogden. By the time I arrived I could hear them calling, though they were hidden below the shingle ridge. Without any prompting from me or anyone else, they took off and flew N, away over the coast road and out of sight. A few years back I saw a flock of 60 Whimbrel do exactly the same thing. I wonder how many blissfully oblivious inland birders missed a decent patch species heading over today, presumably at considerable height. I have many nocmig Whimbrel records, but don't so readily think of them as daytime migrants over land.

It's 06:25, and 17 Whimbrel are taking an overland trip north.

Incoming. Two Whimbrel dropping in to the beach.

The Sanderlings were at various stages of progress into breeding plumage.

For anyone not aware of this feature, note lack of hind toe on Sanderling. On at least one occasion that I can think of, this handy field mark has been used to nail the correct ID of a what had optimistically once been a Red-necked Stint.

Walking back along the beach this morning I helped out with the rescue of a couple of badly-snagged Great Black-backed Gulls. A discarded mackerel feather trace had tethered the birds, one hooked in the foot, the other in the lower mandible. Without assistance they would certainly have died. We managed to unhook the foot, but I had to bite through the line on the bill-hooked individual. It was 1st-summer bird, and looked pretty done in, flopped awkwardly on the shingle. Feeling sorry for the poor thing I lifted it upright, whereupon it pecked me energetically before flying off without a backward glance.

First non-DIY blood blister for a very long time. GBB Gull packs a punch.

I cannot believe that this kind of tackle winds up on the beach 'accidentally'.

There haven't been many lepidopteral shots for a while so here is a Wall butterfly from this morning...

Wall is a pretty smart insect anyway, but I can't help thinking that the underwing is its best feature.

Finally, this Stonechat gave me an absolute peach of a photo-opportunity...

That azure backdrop is the sea. Not bad...

Thursday 2 May 2024

Portland Delivers

Pre-booking two nights at a bird observatory is always going to be a lottery. Will it be birdy fireworks, or a damp squib, or something in between? It is easy to assume that the number and quality of birds seen will be what make such a trip enjoyable or not, but reality is more nuanced than that...

Prior to Monday, the last time I went seawatching from Portland Bill in spring was almost exactly 20 years ago. And there is photographic proof, with a date stamp and period brown hair...

May 3rd, 2004. At the Portland Bill Obelisk. That's me on the far left.

I've written about that particular seawatch previously, but it was too good not to revisit occasionally. One highlight was a rare dark-phase Pom Skua - the only one I can recollect seeing - but the icing comprised two adult Long-tailed Skuas, my first ever in that plumage. All skuas are pretty awesome, but some especially so. On Monday morning I was surprised to overhear a birder in the Obelisk crowd talking about that seawatch. It sounded like he had been there too, and that those birds had left as vivid an impression with him as with me. On Monday afternoon I bumped into Seaton birder, Mike, at the Obelisk, and learned that he too had been present on May 3rd, 2004. There are only a dozen or so birders in that photo, and three at least were there again on Monday. Small world.


Monday's weather forecast made seawatching the obvious option. I started at 05:45 and packed up at 10:00. Initially there was just Somerset birder Paul Marshall and myself, but soon quite a crowd, including a guided party...

April 29th, 2024. The Obelisk crowd at 10:00.

More than four hours standing in one spot is not really my kind of birding, but it was okay. However, fast and furious it was not. My tally was 2 Arctic Skuas, 4 Bonxies, 8 Bar-tailed Godwits (flock), 29 Common Scoter, 25 Manxies, 4 Red-throated Divers, 13 Sandwich Terns, 1 Common/Arctic Tern and 1 Puffin. Thank goodness for all the to-ing and fro-ing of local auks, along with plenty of Gannets and Kittiwakes. There was always something to look at. Even so, the 'quality' birds were few and far between.

A lengthy plod around the Bill area produced 35 Wheatears, a female Redstart, 2 Whimbrel and a single Willow Warbler. Clearly the bushes were pretty dead. Back to the sea then...

Paul and Mike had been rewarded with a Pom just before 15:00, so hopes were high for an evening bird, but it wasn't to be. I added another Artic Skua and Bonxie to my tally for the day, plus 130 Manxies, and spent a fair bit of time mucking about with the camera...

This incredibly obliging Whimbrel was on the Bill rocks, looking fantastic in the early-evening sunshine.

Passing Kittiwakes. A novelty to have them at such close range.

Adult Gannet. Always impressive.

Photographing the passing seabirds was ostensibly so that I might get my eye in, and be ready for that Pom when it came. Photographing birds in flight is not the P950's strong suit but, hey-ho, I am ever the optimist.

At 19:30 it was back to the Obs for a curry, alcohol, and a fitful sleep. And a masochistic 04:30 alarm.


Once again the forecast dictated a seawatch. The first skua, an Arctic, passed at 05:54. Just over 20 minutes later, a message from Joe on the Chesil: 'Close Pom East 06:17'. Excellent. How long would it take to reach the Bill? Just minutes, surely. Ten? Fifteen? Anyway, I prepped the camera and waited. And waited. Finally, at 07:28 Roly spotted it. The bird was close-ish, but I found myself more anxious to scope it than worry about a rubbish photo. It had stumpy little spoons but looked awesome all the same. A Pom at last. By now there was quite a crowd at the Obelisk, including the previous day's guided party, and it was clear that more than a few had missed the bird entirely. Having arrived before sunrise I had a prime viewing spot, and felt a tiny bit guilty that others were less sheltered or had an obscured view. By 09:00 three more Arctic Skuas had gone by, including a lovely light-phase adult, and a fair few missed one or more of them too.

I have to confess, although birding in a crowd is very much not my thing I do enjoy eavesdropping on the chatter. Often I learn something, or hear entertaining stories. I sympathised with the bloke who lamented how he'd arrived moments after the Pom passed, but not so much with the one who grumbled about poor directions being given - there was literally not a single marker out there.

I had planned to pack up at 10:00 again, but as the crowd dwindled I found myself chatting with Julian from Somerset and enjoying his fascinating tales of overland skua passage in autumn. Whereby, in certain weather conditions, skuas fly overland from the Wash to the Bristol Channel, allowing clued-up Somerset birders to roll up at Minehead around midday and enjoy some terrific seawatching. Anyway, I decided that while Julian stayed, so would I. And unbeknown to me, Julian had decided that while Gav stayed, so would he. At 10:20 Julian declared, 'Skua! It's a Pom!' I raised my bins and saw there were actually two.

Julian had spotted the first bird early enough that I could prep the camera. And they were nice and close...

What a bird! Adult Pom Skua with a lovely set of spoons.

Well, that's about as good as I could reasonably expect with a superzoom and, as very few skuas indeed pass within half a mile of shore locally, about as good as I'll get for the foreseeable future! Incidentally, opportunities like this absolutely beg for some sort of 'burst' setting. All the above were taken with a single press of the shutter release.

Interestingly, the last three frames had no bird in them, and demonstrate one of the harsh realities of seawatching in a lumpy sea. Even when birds are close, they can vanish. You could so easily be looking at exactly the right spot, but at exactly the wrong moment...

This is about 75% of the full frame, and the final shot where the bird is visible.

Literally a fraction of a second later, this...

Note circled bit of foam, and compare with photo above. The Pom is still comfortably in that frame but hidden in a trough, behind a wall of water that to my eye is not even slightly obvious in the photo. It simply vanished!

So the Tuesday morning tally was 3 Poms, 4 Arctics, 4 Sanderlings (flock), 3 Whimbrel (flock), 8 Sandwich Terns, 5 Common/Arctic Terns, 180 Kitts, 3 Manxies, 1 Red-throated Diver and 14 Common Scoters.

And on the rocks were 2 Purple Sandpipers and a Turnstone...

Two Purps and a Turnstone.

In the end, Julian and I stuck it out until 10:45, but that was plenty. Despite the undoubted highlight of 3 Poms and 4 Arctics, there was an awful lot of not much in between.

In the afternoon I did a bit of lazy watching from the Obs, and jammed a 3cy Yellow-legged Gull. There are a million gulls around the Bill, and though I had looked carefully at lots and lots and lots of them, a needle in a haystack would be easier.

Land birds were very few and far between. I don't think I saw a single Wheatear on Tuesday, and the Obs nets had been woefully quiet. Then, out of the blue, a Pied Flycatcher appeared in the garden, and eventually in a net...

Not the most dapper of Pied Flies, but this first-summer male will surely look fantastic next year.

Tuesday evening was great. No birds, just people. Peter, the PBO Chairman; John, a writer from Wales; Pete and Nicky from St Albans, and me. And a drop or two of wine. Entertaining and memorable, and an unexpected trip highlight.

Another 04:30 alarm...


Calm, and a bit dismal...

Sunrise from the Obelisk.

Apart from a nice trio of Arctic Skuas past at 06:35 (one light-phase, two dark) there was almost nothing moving apart from Gannets and a few Kitts. The Gannets were dribbling by at a slow enough rate that I decided to count them, and to pack up when I reached 200. At roughly 199 I spied a distant pod of 10+ Common Dolphins, so stayed a bit longer than intended. At 07:19 I surrendered: 215 Gannets, 3 Arctic Skuas and a Med Gull.

Light but annoying rain made for a rather miserable and birdless plod about the Bill area. Though I did come across one of the colour-ringed Rock Pipits from a project which began last year...

Though never close, 'black AAJ' was quite readable with the help of a camera.

Despite talk of it being 'oriole weather', the closest I got to gaudy yellow thrills was this lot...

This bizarre convoy of oriole-coloured tankers followed one another into the Bill car park, before returning whence they came.

And so, home.

A great trip. I shall go again.

No Portland trip account would be complete without a snap of one of the Obs Quarry Little Owls.