Monday, 7 March 2016

Surprise Scaup on Dartmoor and a Chilly Day on the Exe

A sunny but chilly afternoon on Friday 4th March and we decided to head out for a quick walk, choosing to go to Burrator Reservoir on  Dartmoor. It was a cold day and we braved the occasional sleet and hail shower but at least it was dry underfoot on the tarmac road surrounding the reservoir. The woodlands held the usual birds - siskin, robin, nuthatch, a buzzard, 2 jays, blue tits, great tits and coal tits, and a roe deer - and on the water were the usual wildfowl - a male and 2 female goosander, 2 cormorant, Canada geese, mallard, 4 Muscovy duck and a white farmyard goose. However a pair of ducks caught my eye just before they dived and I expected them to be tufted ducks but was very surprised when they resurfaced to see that they were actually scaup, my first Burrator sighting.

They were a little distant and were constantly diving and I checked out the male bird carefully as the regular overwintering male lesser scaup is still present and mobile around the reservoirs in Cornwall.

Nice birds to find and totally unexpected!

 Male Greater Scaup - cropped and zoomed record shot

Female Greater Scaup - another zoom and crop shot

Sunday 6th March and it was an early start to head off to the River Exe for my annual birding boat trip with my mate Mavis, postponed from January. It was clear and very cold when I met Mavis at Crownhill in Plymouth at 07:30 for the drive to Exmouth and it remained cold all day although it did cloud over at times. I wasn't sure what the birding would be like as we have never done such a late trip together in March before and despite the current cold snap it has been a fairly mild autumn and winter but I needn't have worried as it was an excellent trip as usual.

After a much needed cooked breakfast at the caf√© in Exmouth we boarded the boat and headed out to sea for a brief cruise around before heading upriver. The guide had seen the Bonapartes gull off Exmouth as we set off but couldn't refind it and despite looking out for it all along the trip it wasn't reseen. A distant diver species (probably great northern) was also seen flying over Dawlish Warren and into the estuary but we didn't find it again either. 

The lower reaches of the estuary were relatively quiet but things livened up as we arrived off Powderham Park where we saw a very nice spotted redshank feeding with a greenshank and redshanks along the shoreline, getting some excellent views. A Slavonian grebe popped up nearby before continuing to dive as it headed upriver. At Turf a large flock of dark bellied brent geese were resting on the mudflats and I finally managed to see my first black brant when the guide picked it out amongst the mass of birds - a very dark backed looking bird with bright white flank markings but it was walking away from the boat and only gave brief and obscured views of its large white neck collar but I was very pleased to see it after dipping it so many times. We had also seen 4 pale bellied brent geese amongst the dark bellied brent geese off Exmouth earlier so it was a three sub-species day for brent geese.

 Spotted Redshank

 Spotted Redshank (left) with Redshank

 Redshank (left) with Spotted Redshank

 Spotted Redshank


Slavonian Grebe

Nearing Topsham and we had excellent views of bar- and black-tailed godwits with some of the black tails in summer plumage and some sporting coloured plastic leg rings. Avocets, knot, dunlin, grey plover, curlew, redshank and oystercatcher also gave good views along with another (or the same?) spotted redshank found off Topsham Quay and a flyover snipe from Exminster Marshes.

Teal, mallard, red breasted merganser (with the males busily displaying), great crested grebe (some in summer plumage), shag, cormorant and 2 female goldeneye flying upriver near Topsham were also seen.

Heading back downriver to Exmouth as the tide raced in and the common/harbour seal we had seen on the journey upriver hauled out on the sand banks had been joined by a grey seal - the harbour seal has been resident for a few years now and is thought to be visually impaired but it certainly wasn't keen on the inquisitiveness of the grey seal. A flock of 19 sanderling were feeding along the waters edge of the sand banks and turnstones were feeding along the pebbly shoreline bringing the wader species count for the cruise up to 14.

 Harbour (Common) Seal

 Harbour Seal with Exmouth in the Background

 Grey Seal

Harbour Seal (left) with Grey Seal

After the trip we stopped off at Bowling Green Marsh for a look around and had some good views of the waders coming in to roost at high tide - avocet, grey plover, dunlin, a knot, redshank, black - and bar-tailed godwits, curlew and lapwing (wader species 15 for the day) - and we had good views of at least 6 snipe feeding around the Marsh. Pintails, shovelers, teal, wigeon and a pair of tufted ducks were also seen feeding across the Marsh with a buzzard occasionally spooking the wigeon flock as it soared and mewed overhead before settling in the nearby trees. A pair of stock dove displaying and a water rail feeding out on the grass by the hedgerow were also good to see.

 Snipe, Bowling Green Marsh

Redshank, Bowling Green Marsh

We headed off to Darts Farm for a quick look in the fading light but it was very quiet with a flyover kestrel being new for the day but with the temperature dropping again we headed off back to Plymouth, having had an excellent if very cold days birding. 

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