Wednesday, 17 July 2019

Spring 2019 - Patch Roundup

I recently tweeted "What a poor spring migration that was! I hear you say ..." And it generated a few really interesting comments, with a general feeling that Willow Warblers in particular were poorly represented here. Thanks again for those comments which were and are really appreciated. Here are some more thoughts.
I love the sights and sounds of Spring migration on the Lyme Bay coast. So was it a "good" spring passage? Was it above or below average? My gut feel was that it was a bit slow (in quantity) for the common passage migrants on the land but thanks to some nice sightings on the coast during the latter half of May the passage of waders in particular was pretty good. Anyway, here's a roundup of some of my Spring birding highlights on the local patch.

2 Whimbrel visited the outflow to the river on the morning of 6th May. They didn’t stay long but left flying high over the beach car park heading north over the village whistling goodbye with their distinctive call of 6 or 7 flutey notes. “7 Whistlers - nice”.
4 more Whimbrel touched down at low tide on the 9th.
2 Turnstones and a Ringed Plover were seen on the beach on 14th May.
There was another (or the same) Ringed Plover present for 4 days from 17 - 20th May. Favouring the area of beach around the high tide mark in front of the blue beach huts it spent a lot of time feeding with 30 or 40 Pied Wagtails. The photo below shows this lovely little bird.

When this individual was stationary it would “disappear” into its stony surroundings, presumably a very successful survival technique! Feeding on sand hoppers and flies in its deliberate way, it seemed relatively unconcerned by the proximity of the busy car park only 30 or so metres distant and with all the consequent bustle and activity. It was great to observe this confiding bird at such close quarters. Although strikingly marked (see photo), the banded plumage to its head and neck helped it to blend in surprisingly well with the shingle and rounded pebbles on our stoney beach. And it was only when it moved that it became more visible.

2 days later on 22nd May, I recorded my highest count to date of another lovely small wader when 17 Sanderling paid a visit to the west beach. Smaller flocks were present in the following few days with 14 on 24th, 7 on 25th and 10 on 31st – a really good spring passage for this bird species. Very different to the Plover's more measured, deliberate feeding method, it was great to watch the Sanderling's all action approach to feeding, rushing to and fro, running backwards and forwards over the wet sand and seaweed to peck at tiny food morsels.  Most of these small flocks of Sanderling were very flighty, frequently taking fright to fly out over the waves, before returning as a group to a quieter area of the beach. One group however were very confiding and approached fairly close to where I was sitting quietly on the beach.

I was quite pleased with how this photo turned out. It shows a beautiful adult Sanderling coming into full summer breeding plumage complete with lovely red eye-patch (thanks Steve @axebirder for those words!). Plumage variations were amazing in this flock, some clearly with moult much less advanced and still winter birds.

Just along the coast at Lyme Regis the regular flock of Purple Sandpipers and the immature male Eider Duck which have been around for most of the winter months were still showing until late May. The former are interesting local specialities and the latter a good and unusual record for here.

Away from the coast, I found a Garden Warbler on 6th May and 2 male Common Redstarts on Stonebarrow Hill on 8th May.
A Hobby flew by nearby Chideock on 7th.
2 Nightjars were seen and heard “churring” at Trinity Hill on 13th May - quite an early date for here I think.
Although I saw my first Swift on 7th May it wasn't until 14th May that I was delighted to get a report that they had returned to their regular nesting site in a house on the west side of Charmouth village.
The first Common Whitethroat appeared on Stonebarrow bang on cue on 18th May. 

So there’s been some decent activity in our local area this spring. Although with good weather and clear skies during peak migration time the numbers of migrants grounded here on the headlands, hills and farms were low. Probably good news for the birds!

But what, for me, was the highlight? There have been quite a few! Maybe it was the first Wheatear arriving in/off the sea and landing on a rock next to me on the beach. Or maybe, after the long winter months, it was seeing the first Swallow hawking for insects around some farm buildings? Or maybe that moment in early May, as dusk settles, hearing the eerie “churring” of the first returning Nightjar? All these are great moments and encapsulate what spring birding can be about.

But there was one other highlight for me this Spring. My best birding moment of Spring 2019 came unexpectedly on the 16th May when I witnessed part of a strong passage of Pomarine Skuas here in Charmouth. Talk to most birders and they will say that yes, Skuas are very special birds indeed. And Pom Skuas although regularly seen on passage are rare birds and the views are generally fairly fleeting (and often distant) making them extra special. They are hunters and predators wintering off the coast of W. Africa and breeding on the arctic tundra. In spring, like so many birds, they are compelled to track northwards. Earlier in the season I’d been fortunate to see a Great Skua and a few Arctic Skuas flying past Portland Bill, Dorset. But on 16th the reports I was getting on the birding grapevine had added spice! That day there had been sightings of Skuas all along the Sussex and Kent coast of the English Channel. From Selsey to Dungeness reports were coming in to say that Pomarine Skuas were also on the move, travelling in small flocks of up to 9 or 10 individuals. The only trouble was that all the reports earlier that day would, as one would expect, confirm that these Poms to the east of me were travelling EAST and away from me! Still, they were definitely on the move. Perhaps I could find my own? So here in Dorset, despite being many miles to the west of these earlier sightings I thought I would have a go at seawatching and so that evening I took up station at the seafront on the bench down by the Coastwatch Lookout.

Despite these encouraging reports, I settled without much expectation into my evening seawatch, binoculars and telescope at the ready. After all, this is not Dungeness or the Hebrides, this is a quiet corner of the English Channel tucked away at the top of Lyme Bay. Have to say it was a bit slow in the first hour with only a few gulls, 1 or 2 Cormorants and 22 distant Manx Shearwaters to show for my efforts. Still it was a pleasant evening. And recalling the last flock of Poms I played my part in finding at Seaton (account here), why not give it another hour or so?

And my intuition and persistence was rewarded when at 18.05 checking a group of gulls flying midway between Charmouth and Lyme Regis suddenly there they were, 4 Pomarine Skuas complete with long tail “spoons”.

Unmistakable! Superstar birds on their way from the southern Atlantic Ocean and flying in a small flock up passed our little village of Charmouth. A quick check with the telescope and binoculars but faffing about with the bins and camera I managed to lose them! Still shaking, I got the word out on the phone to the immediate local birders and posted the news on Twitter. Shame, but they were gone all too quickly. Don't think they came past me heading east. No one, to my knowledge, picked this group up to the west of me either. So did they go up over Black Ven, over Lyme Regis Golf Club and overland? I really can't say. But it would be really interesting to hear from anybody in the birding world who has sightings of overland passage of Poms?
Anyway, that was it, a few fleeting seconds to admire their powerful and graceful beauty. These are rare migratory birds and as luck would have it, I was in the right place at the right time to experience this very special moment. And hopefully next year I’ll be lucky enough to see some (even 1 would do) again, however fleetingly.  Brilliant birds, showing that migratory drive, pushing them close by and flying past our village on their way to breed and complete the circle of renewal. Spring migration! Can’t wait for the Autumn but first the long summer months.

So to return to my original question, I think Joe S @Joe_stockwell put it nicely when he commented in response to my original tweet  " ... coastal patching is a terrible gauge of what's really going on, you'll get a run of good weather and a huge number of birds will overfly the coast and end up on territory ... Good springs for us (ie coastal patchers) aren't necessarily good for birds .." Wouldn't disagree with that, Joe!

< The core of this blog appears in the Summer edition of Charmouth's Shoreline magazine >

Tuesday, 22 May 2018

Turtle Doves at Martin Down NNR, - 22 May 2018

I haven't seen a Turtle Dove since Autumn 2016. That was a passage bird which stopped to refuel at Bridge Marsh in Seaton; a bird found by Tim Wright. It is well documented that numbers of this delightful summer visitor to the UK have crashed. I'm not aware of any breeding sites near Charmouth and once again this Spring, I failed to see a migrant bird hence the trip to Martin Down NNR, near Blandford Forum.

Although one of the largest areas of chalk grassland in the country, Martin Down represent a small remnant of the downland which once covered the geological Cretaceous Chalk.

Chalk Grassland unploughed for centuries ... a huge variety of downland flowers.

This was my first visit to the site and the birding day list as well as the 2 (possibly 3) Turtle Doves included tens of Skylarks, Cuckoo (first of the year), Red Kite, Buzzard, RavenWhitethroat, Blackcap and Linnet. Sadly in the time we had available on the day, we didn't manage to find Corn Bunting or Grey Partridge, both of which had been reported this morning. The Turtle Doves were easy to locate with their iconic purring call carrying considerable distance. They were seen mainly perched conspicuously. They were seen to the take to the wing to give their display flight over their chosen territory.

Iconic Turtle Dove

Purring and displaying Turtle Doves

The weather was sunny and dry, temperature +20 degrees, with a thin high cloud and a light Northerly breeze.
Butterflies on the wing:
Gizzled and Dingy Skipper, Brimstone, Burnet Moth, Small Blue, either Chalkhill Blue or Small Heath.
Grizzled Skipper

Small Blue - they really are this tiny!!

Terrible photo of either a Small Heath

Monday, 21 May 2018

Cirl Bunting - Dawlish Warren - 18 May 2018

Situated so close to Labrador Bay, RSPB and a stronghold of Cirl Buntings, I suppose I shouldn't have been so surprised when this popped up onto a dead branch as I was walking around the Warren. Good but distant views of Cirl Buntings at Dawlish Warren, Devon. Love to find one of these near Charmouth!

Red Spotted Bluethroat - Lodmoor, Weymouth - 14th May 2018

A planned trip to Weymouth and Portland was given an extra bit of spice when news broke early that a Red Spotted Bluethroat had been found at Lodmoor RSPB Reserve. On arrival we heard that the bird had been flushed earlier by some joggers and was now proving very illusive, to say the least! So, so fortunate that a few minutes after arriving a voice was heard from the far side of the bush saying in an excited tone "I've got it here!" And there was a superb male Red Spotted Bluethroat giving crippling views (albeit brief) in full sunshine, perched lowdown on some brambles. He stayed for no more than a few seconds, flew up to the top of the bush, and always with his back to us, gave a quick burst of song before promptly disappearing for most of the remainder of the morning. Here's a couple of shots I managed to grab on what turned out to be a very lucky twitch.

Wednesday, 2 May 2018

Bonxie - 1st May 2018, Portland Bill, Dorset

A couple of photos of the Bonxie which powered round Portland Bill around 10.25 on 1st May heading up channel. I think that's a Herring Gull in hot pursuit.

Monday, 30 April 2018

Golden Oriole (female type) - 30 Apr 2018 - Portland, Dorset

Early reports that the Golden Orioles had remained on the island overnight prompted a little trip over to Portland with Justin T @Woodworser

We arrived around Midday and after making enquiries at Portland Bird Observatory (PBO) headed in the direction of the Top Fields to be told that the bird (a Bird, possibly the male) had been seen heading away from the Observers. Pausing briefly to take in a gorgeous male Common Redstart we wandered over in the direction of Sweet Hill. No Golden Oriole but quite a few Common Whitethroat were evident in the hedgerows. A beautiful male Greenfinch flew through against the cold northerly wind and one or two Swallows were also heading north. We returned to the Barn area of Top Fields, which we decided afforded our best shot at connecting with the Golden Oriole.

While we waited the male and also now 2 female Common Redstart were feeding in the adjacent paddock areas, giving fantastic prolonged views. We didn't have too long to wait and after a couple of false alarms, at 1pm, a beautiful female type Golden Oriole flew along the hedge, affording great flight views. Flying across the next field it perched up about 100 metres away for a few minutes in good light. Thanks to the original finders and the usual great location information from PBO! A fantastic bird and the second I have now seen on Portland - the first being a (sub-adult male I think) bird-in-the-hand last year on 18/05/17. I'm sure others will have fantastic photos which will emerge over the next few days but anyway, here's a few snaps I managed to get which will help me to remember this successful mini-twitch. (Wouldn't want to be greedy but what a pity we dipped the male bird! (see below))

Post Script - Returning to Portland on 1st May, I struck very lucky on my second visit. A couple of minutes after I arrived in Top Fields with the female type Golden Oriole showing really well on the top of a hedge, the male bird flew in, along the hedge giving brief but scintillating views and then the pair of them promptly disappeared out of sight. "Stunning" is a much overused word but the male really is a STUNNER! And all the more so for seeing it set against grey Portland Stone as a passage bird. A great couple of days spring birding.

Tuesday, 24 April 2018

Ravens - Chardown and Stonebarrow Hill.

Ravens - there's a lot in the press about Ravens at the moment. This is a short piece in support of our largest passerine.

A Raven on a Coastal Cliff ...

... Inhabiting Remote hilltops ...

Walking on my local patch, a loud and echoing call rings out above me, drawing my attention to one of the resident Ravens. The call is described in the guides variously as Korrp! Korrp! or Prruk-Prruk-Prruk. What I hear is Gronnk!-Gronnk!-Gronnk! But anyway its an unmistakable call and I "always" stop, look, and marvel as one of these magnificent bird sails past.  Its a fairly familiar sight around the rocky hills and cliffs near Charmouth and around Lyme bay and Portland.

A familiar silhouette

In flight (see photos above), it's often difficult to judge just how big this monumental bird really is. Seen on the ground though and it's a different matter. Once, very early one morning, I was very fortunate to catch this early morning opportunist raiding the Charmouth car park bins. Ravens are huge birds!

A wonderful Raven - in its more usual clifftop surroundings

Ravens really are impressive birds, particularly if they show their shaggy throat feathering as these birds are doing:

On the cliff edge, showing throat feathering

Glossy all black, almost oily back feathers 

For me, it's a privilege to have these impressive birds on my doorstep.