Tuesday, 28 January 2020

Siberian Chiffchaff at Kilmington WTW - 28 Jan 2020 .... and a Caspian Gull on the Axe

A cold morning (6 degrees) but feeling much colder with a wicked wind chill. Between the rain and sleet showers there were abundant flying insects around and within the treatment centre. Here's a (very) brief videoclip - this bush was jumping with Chiffchaffs as they searched for food.


[ To follow]



Nearly all were regular Chiffchaffs like this one:


I spent a good hour patiently working through the Chiffs and Goldcrests until I found this pale beauty which in the field, stood out from the crowd exhibiting enough of the classic Tristis features for me to be happy enough with my ID to run it by the members of the local Whatsapp group:

Siberian Chiffchaff - Tristis

The bird was actively feeding above me in small trees and much of the time against a bright sky. Note the classic black legs and bill, which show up much better here in the photos than I noticed in the field.




Shouldn't be greedy but it would have been nice to hear it call too but it remained silent while I was there.

An enjoyable and rewarding morning. Now what shall I do in the afternoon I thought. Answer a quick snack, a hot drink and then a bit of gulling.

I drove to Coronation Corner, parked up next to the River Axe and was just about to starting eating my lunch when Gavin tapped the window and said that he'd just found a Caspian Gull. (I hadn't been paying attention to the Whatsapp group so having missed several Axe Caspian Gulls before, this was very fortunate timing). Gav wondered how I'd arrived so quickly after he'd sent his post!! Lucky timing! The day was just about to get even better.

1w Caspian Gull


Most of my early birding was in an inland, land-locked county. Have to say that in common with quite few Birders I still do not find Gulls easy even though I've been trying hard to catch up. So my thanks to Gav for pointing me at my first confirmed Caspian Gull and for talking me through the key features. Just got to go and try to find my own Casp now ... with emphasis on the trying. Have to give it a go.  We'll see!!

By the way, he also picked out (and got me onto) a 2w Yellow legged Gull which dropped in briefly. What a pro !

Sunday, 5 January 2020

Siberian Chiffchaff and Firecrest at Chideock WRC, Dorset - 5th Jan 2020

Siberian Chiffchaff: On 13th December I paid a visit to the Wastewater Treatment Centre at Charmouth run by Wessex Water. As I was wandering around the pretty much smell-free and birdless site (a fairly modern pumping station) I got chatting to a couple of their operatives who, when I described the filter beds at Colyford WWT suggested I might like to try my luck birding at the Chideock sewage works. They described it as having above ground level filter beds, with public access all around and screened by mature trees. Chideock is a small village about 5 miles to the east of Charmouth and I had no idea until that conversation that it had its own Water Recycling Centre. So getting directions, I thought I'd give it a go. I found the place easily enough which was set in some interesting habitat, surrounded with a mature screen of coniferous trees, brambles, hedgerows and Alder trees. My first visit gave 2 Firecrests, maybe 15 or so Chiffchaffs, several Long tailed Tits, 2 or 3 Goldcrests and also a "pale and interesting" Chiffy. Bingo! Staggering. An absolute birding treasure-trove hidden away, off the beaten track. And I don't recollect ever seeing a birding report from this location before. Posting the highlights on the local Whatsapp group I was delighted to hear later that day that Gavin @NotQuiteScilly had quickly followed up the post and had re-found the latter. Hats off to Gavin for the work he's put in, reading round the problematic subject of Fenno-scandian and Siberian Chiffchaffs which he's described in his various blogs over the last few weeks.

So, although "not a 'classic' tristis", we think the little gem that I photographed today has been around since at least 13th December 2019 (see also Gavin's blog 17th December Here which contains photos and a description of how the bird responded to a 'tristis' song recording).

This morning was the first chance I've had to re-visit the location this year and I was not to be disappointed. As well as loads of Chiffchaffs, Long-tailed tits and Goldcrests, I also saw a Firecrest flitting about in the brambles. Best of all though, the "pale and interesting" Chiffy was still around. Never easy to photograph, the Sibe Chiffchaff was actively feeding on the plentiful supply of flying insects near the main vehicle entrance. Although very active, it did occasionally perch up for a few moments on the chain link fence, long enough for me to get these record shots:






And under the same flat lighting conditions with the same camera settings here are some additional photos of  regular "collybita" Chiffchaffs for comparison.




I'll be visiting the site again!

Thursday, 12 December 2019

About Birds, Birding and Twitchers


Reproduced here is my Article from the Winter 2019 edition of Shoreline Magazine (with minor edit):

I think it was my father’s interest in the birds on the bird table in our suburban garden that got me started - that and this wonderful little book “The Observer’s book of Birds”. How many of you remember it, I wonder?





I re-found my well-thumbed copy a few months ago and was somewhat intrigued to see that my boyhood-self had been sufficiently organised and interested to neatly underline some of the species in that wonderful introductory guide. So maybe the need to list and record has always been there or maybe it’s a boy thing if we are still allowed to utter such words in today’s pc world. Fast forward to the year 2019 and because of family and city work commitments it is only latterly that I have been in the fortunate position to be able to pick up on my boyhood interest. And so, since retirement I’ve replaced a desk and stuffy office in central London with the fantastic coastal scenery and bracing, changeable weather of our local neighbourhood. And I go out and find those birds I remember first seeing in that Observers guidebook.
When out Birding I travel fairly light. A pair of decent boots, Binoculars (of course), a Bridge camera, fleece or waterproof as needed, hat - maybe a bottle of water if I’m going to be out for a few hours. I meet a lot of people, dog walkers, hikers, villagers and visitors alike. Most on the footpaths and cliffs are walking their dogs. And most I would have to say are in a hurry. My pace is much slower. On one such outing in a village, not far away, I had found a Spotted Flycatcher in a farm orchard and was concentrating so hard on trying to get a photograph that I was oblivious to the horse and rider who had come around the corner of the field. So intent was I looking through the camera viewfinder, that they had both seen me long before I was aware. And the horse was not happy at the sight of this motionless figure. The rider was struggling to control the spooked creature. And so the friendly farmer called out to me “Can you move a bit or do something! He needs to know you’re a human being!” I did and the horse settled. The farmer chatted for a few minutes about the birds she’d been seeing on her farm and then they moved on.
A couple of days later, in the same village, I drove up a lane to the vineyard, realised my mistake and was turning the car when a different villager stopped to chat through my open window. Usual pleasantries, “Are you lost? Can I help you? Etc.” “Eh, no, I’m just out, exploring, doing a bit of Birding, looking for autumn migrant birds”. “Oh!” she said “you must be the Twitcher. Pleased to meet you. My friend said there was a Twitcher about.” Word gets around quickly in a village!

Spotted Flycatcher - photo taken August 19 at Lambert's Castle, Dorset

So what am I? It got me thinking. Am I a Birder or a Twitcher? I’ve always thought of myself as a Birder but this exchange got me wondering. As I say I usually go out locally and find my own birds. Readers of this blog will probably have built up a fairly accurate picture of my birding pastime. But for those who have not (and are unfamiliar with the terms), perhaps I should try to explain the difference between the two, if you’ll bear with me. So what is the difference? Well Twitching is the pursuit of a previously located rare bird. The term Twitcher, sometimes misapplied as a synonym for Birder describes those who travel long distances to see a rare bird that would then be ticked, or counted on a list. Birdwatching or Birding is a form of wildlife observation in which the observation of birds is a recreational activity or citizen science. It can be done with the naked eye, through binoculars/telescope (I have both), by listening for bird sounds or by watching public webcams. It’s different to ornithology which uses formal scientific methods but there’s probably a bit of an overlap here.

So we’ve already established that I recorded the things I saw back in my youth. But do I still? And do I keep a list? To be truthful, those lines in my bird book don’t really paint a picture of the “how many” or the “what time of the year” or even the “where was it seen”. So as a snapshot of how our wildlife was doing at that time, it’s not much use as a historical record.

Well I do now have a birding diary notebook. To be honest until recently I’ve been a bit of a casual lister. But spurred on by a good friend of mine (who is somewhat more organised than I) who sent me the complete list of the birds likely to be sighted in the UK, I have paid a bit more attention to the what, the where and the when. And so for what it’s worth here’s what I found out.
In the UK the total number of bird species is in the region of 650. Not that many really!  How's the 2019 Year list going? Well, of those 650, I’ve seen less than a third this year; 205 to be exact, mainly in Dorset but also with a few trips out of county to Devon, Somerset, Cornwall and Sussex. And I’ve had to work pretty hard to ‘achieve’ that ‘score’ this year.
Since I've been birding our immediate local area or “patch” I’ve managed to record 155 different species of birds – my patch list.
Incidentally, the corresponding totals for dragonflies in UK are even fewer at 56 and for butterflies 60. But I don’t systematically record my sightings so I don’t have my personal numbers for 2019 and the patch. Which perhaps should be a challenge for me in the future?
So am I a Twitcher then as the lady asked? Well No and Yes! She seemed pretty reassured that I was ONLY a Twitcher mooching about the local highways, byways and footpaths pursuing their hobby. And from her viewpoint I gathered that she seemed to have a fairly tolerant and positive attitude to the hobby. But in the strict sense, as I don’t drop everything to zoom off to the other end of the country to see some stranded rare feathered waif, I can’t really claim to be a Twitcher in the true sense of the word. So I think it’s a no. But just to confuse the reader even more, I have been known (on occasions) to jump in the car and drive 3hrs down the A30 road towards Land’s End to twitch an American vagrant bird or 2 (Grey Catbird and White rumped Sandpiper). So it’s a definite No …. and Yes!

Autumn Local Patch Sightings
What birds have I found on the local patch and what should the reader be looking out for in the coming winter months. Well I can report that October 2019 has been a fantastic month bird-wise with some terrific sightings in the village as follows:

21st October - Scandinavian Rock Pipit (Ring Number A94), feeding well on Charmouth Beach, 21/10/19, ringed in Norway




Cropped Image of  A94, White on Green
A really quick response from the Sunnmore Ringing Group in Norway. A94 is a female Rock Pipit, ringed on 18.07.2016 at Maletangen, Norway and found at Charmouth 1484km SSW, 3 yrs 2mths old. A great patch record of the sub species!
25th October - 2 Turnstones, sheltering from an Autumn storm, Charmouth Beach, 25/10/2019





26th October - Grey Phalarope, River Char at Footbridge. Brilliant views and a fantastic record for Charmouth!






 
31st October - 1 of a record 6 Black Redstarts fly-catching around Beach Huts Green above West Beach, Charmouth. Brilliant to watch.



 And to round off an interesting couple of weeks on patch:
2nd Nov 2019 - always expect the unexpected? A female Common Scoter in a puddle in Charmouth Beach Car park; exhausted by the violent storm she was taken into care for a few hours and released later that day

 Common Birds to look out for on patch over winter months

Garden and woods: Siskins, Redpolls, Goldcrests, overwintering Blackcaps,  Bramblings, Chaffinches and also winter Thrushes, Redwings and Fieldfares will come into the garden to feed on any left-over windfall apples or berries they can find. Foreshore and Beach Huts Green: Rock Pipits, Black Redstarts. On the sea and beaches, look out for rare GullsTurnstones, Purple Sandpipers, Ringed PloverOyster Catchers, Dunlin, Brent Geese, Gannets, Auks, Ducks (Mallard, Eider, Scoter) and Divers. Overhead: Buzzards, KestrelRavens, possible Marsh or Hen Harrier. Fields and Cliffs: Cattle Egrets, Stonechat, Meadow Pipits, Linnets

POST SCRIPT
But what struck me recently is that although I’m switched on to birding there’s so much more out there in the natural realm. I see such a diversity of nature; land and sea birds, mammals, reptiles, butterflies, moths, insects, bees, dragonflies, sea creatures, and fish. It’s all still there. On our doorstep. You just have to go out and look. Sad to say not in the numbers I remember as that boy growing up in the 50’s and 60’s but it IS still out there. When was the last time you saw a flock of Yellowhammers, or had a good view of a Hare or a Blue butterfly? We need to cherish what we have. Wouldn’t it be great if we could have an area set aside for wildlife, flowers, trees and fungi? A small wildlife sanctuary area would build on what we have already in our beautiful village of Charmouth.

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 ...

...support 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.