Sunday 29 April 2012

A Big Dip - Part 2

Back in April 2006 I spent a week on holiday in Ghana and while there saw plenty of black-winged stilts on the coastal lagoons near the hotel. While I was in Ghana a black-winged stilt appeared on the River Plym and on my return to Plymouth I spent the next day wandering around The Plym looking for it. Unfortunately it had decided to move to Thurlestone Marsh in South Devon that day and as I had to start night shifts that night I was unable to go and see it for a few days and by the time I had finished my run of night shifts it had gone. I have seen many black-winged stilts on my foreign travels but have still never seen one in the UK.

Fast forward to April 2012 and on checking the sightings pages on the inty-net on Wednesday evening (25th April) there were 3 black-winged stilts reported on Exminster Marshes. Oh, Crap! I was working the next 2 days so was keeping my fingers crossed that they would stay around until Saturday which would be the earliest I could go to see them.

And so Saturday 28th April arrived and I headed off on the train to the River Exe. It was sunny on leaving Plymouth but by the time the train arrived at Totnes it was cloudy and wet - not the forecasted weather at all, it was supposed to be overcast but dry. By the time I arrived at Exminster Marsh it was drizzly with occasional showers and it felt cold, I wished I had brought some gloves with me. The first birds I saw were swallows and my first house martins of the year flying around a small group of trees by The Swans Nest pub, desperately trying to find something to eat in the miserable conditions.

The road to the canal was flooded on the S-bend where a swans nest had apparently been washed away but I managed to get across without getting my feet wet as the water wasn't too deep. The Marshes were well flooded, ironic considering the Authorities had called an environmental drought for the region a few days ago and since when it has rained quite regularly hence the flooding.

Flooded road at Exminster Marsh

The most notable birds were whimbrels. There have been some very high counts of whimbrels on The Exe this week and there must have been about 200 birds on the Marsh today. They were flighty and mobile, regularly giving their whistling call and I have never seen so many whimbrels together.

Another bird that was very noticeable were sedge warblers which seemed to be singing and song-flighting everywhere despite the weather, again I have never seen so many sedge warblers and I managed to get some very good close views of them as they sang.

On the Marsh I was surprised to see a few ducks, expecting them to have moved to breeding grounds by now. A male pochard, a male pintail, 2 pairs of tufted ducks, at least 6 male and a female wigeon, teal, gadwall and mallard were seen across the Marsh. A lone lapwing and a winter plumaged dunlin were also seen amongst the curlew, coot, shelduck and Canada Geese. A bar-headed goose was found with the Canada geese, presumably the bird I saw in Powderham Park last month and I also found a lone greylag goose. An Egyptian goose was reported but I failed to see it. A 2nd Winter Iceland gull was also reported amongst the large gull flock but again I failed to see it although I did find a first summer Mediterranean gull and a few adult Lesser black-backed gulls.

And talking of failing to see things, I failed to see the black-winged stilts because they had gone! Oh, crap!  On getting home and checking the sightings pages the stilts had not been seen at Exminster all day but 2 birds had appeared in North Devon and a single bird had appeared in North Cornwall so I guess these are the 3 Exminster birds moving on. 2 of the stilts had been seen mating on Friday, maybe they will return South at some point so I may get to see them yet - hope springs eternal. If they had any sense though they would fly south and back to Southern Europe to get away from the cold, wet and windy Spring weather we are having here in the UK, I bet the hirundines on the Marsh wish they had stayed South too.

However there were plenty of good birds to see on the Marsh as compensation and the best bird of the day was a short-eared owl flying around the Marsh near the small reservoir, a different area to where I saw one back in December. It was noticed by a local birder while I was chatting to him and it showed well if a little distantly before flying off towards Turf and out of sight, being mobbed by a few gulls and crows as it went. A close follow up for bird of the day were 2 yellow wagtails feeding around the feet of the cattle on the Marsh, a bird I rarely see in the Spring here in Devon and one I struggle at times to see in the Autumn.

Yellow Wagtail

Other highlights were 3 reed warblers singing and showing very well, Cettis warblers singing and showing briefly and 2 skulking whitethroats. Swallows, house martins and sand martins buzzed all over the Marsh and small groups of swifts flew low overhead looking very dark and surprisingly large. A peregrine was perched on the electricity pylons and a buzzard flew over being mobbed by a carrion crow. Blackcaps were heard and seen including a few females. 2 winter plumaged bar-tailed godwits flew over the estuary calling and a summer plumaged great crested grebe dived for fish near the Turf lock gates.

I did walk along the estuary to Powderham Church as I could see a large group of people with tripods stood along the embankment near the railway crossing and wrongly assumed they were birders looking at the stilts on the flooded fields - wrong! They were in fact train enthusiasts and were assembled together to take photos of a steam locomotive that chugged past in a cloud of smoke, nice to see but not stilts!

Walking back to The Swans Nest to catch the bus to Dawlish Warren meant I had to cross the flooded road again, the water level had risen by now and this time my feet did get wet which wasn't very pleasant. Trudging around Dawlish Warren wasn't much fun with wet, cold feet but I did see a few interesting things to keep me going. Best bird was a bedraggled looking female redstart, its red tail looking amazingly bright in the dull weather. A pair of blackbirds were mobbing a male kestrel perched in a tree and a male stonechat sang from a bramble bush. A whitethroat sang briefly from a small area of shrub near the car-park and showed briefly and a second unseen bird was later heard on the reserve. Swifts flew low over the reserve and a small flock of 12 birds were seen coming in low off the sea. Swallows and house martins also flew over and I thought I saw 2 sand martins resting on the man-made sand martin bank before I realised they were models to attract the real thing in to the bank! A smart summer plumaged little grebe was on the pond and a moorhen was sat on a nest. 2 reed warblers were singing away hidden in the reeds and a grey heron flew off from the reeds as I walked by. Offshore 3 summer plumaged great crested grebes were on the sea and gannets and Sandwich terns were diving for fish offshore. 5 eider, 3 male and 2 immature males, flew past East before appearing to head up the River Exe.

Man-made Sand Martin bank with 2 model Sand Martins - but I didn't see a single real Sand Martin here!

Brown tail moth caterpillars were seen in their cocoons on the bramble bushes but there were far fewer seen than last year, presumably due to the poor Spring weather.

Brown Tail Moth Caterpillars

Brown Tail Moth Caterpillars

Some small Forget-Me-Nots were flowering, I think it is Early Forget-Me-Not.

Early Forget-Me-Not

Portland spurge was seen growing around the reserve including this large, bright coloured plant in the marram grass dunes.

Portland Spurge

Portland Spurge

And so I headed home stiltless but I had had a very good days birding despite the weather and wet feet, I had seen 7 new birds for the year and both my trains were First trains and not Virgin trains, so I can't complain. And maybe 3rd time is a charm when it comes to seeing stilts in the UK.

Wednesday 25 April 2012

Yarner Wood, 24th April 2012

The weather continues to be dire - wet, cold and windy - but summer migrants are appearing in the UK and so today I persuaded David to take me to Yarner Wood with the promise/bribe of cake in The Brookside Cafe in Bovey Tracey. Davids assistance is required as I can not get to Yarner Wood by public transport and it seems to be the only reliable place in Devon to see one of my favourite birds, the wood warbler, which has all but disappeared in the usual haunts I used to see them in near Plymouth.

After a piece of toffee and almond pavlova (amazing!) and a cup of tea at The Brookside Cafe David dropped me off at Yarner Wood where I had a 2 hour wander around while he went to Trago Mills and Mole Valley garden centres. It was breezey with a few showers but the sun did shine on occassion and I managed to see 6 new birds for the year.

First new bird was a very smart male Mandarin duck on the pond by the car park with a female then seen with the male when I left along with a male mallard.

Male Madarin Duck

Male and female Mandarin Duck

Second new bird was a male pied flycatcher heard singing in the trees nearby and walking through the woods provided good sightings of singing males and 2 females, one of which was carrying leaf matter in to a nest box and it also had a silver ring on its right leg. It is surprising how tame the pied flycatchers appear at Yarner Wood, the nest boxes are very close to the path and the birds show amazingly well at times.

Walking around the heathland and after slipping over twice on the muddy path I saw my third new bird, a tree pipit, singing and songflighting from the top of a pine tree while a second bird was heard singing nearby. A male redstart was also heard singing briefly, my fourth new bird, and later I managed excellent views of a male and female feeding together in a clump of holly bushes.

Having just finished night shifts my eyes were feeling tired and I struggled at times to keep track of the small birds as they flitted through the emerging foliage but I was pleased to find 2 treecreepers feeding on mossy tree trunks, these being new bird number five.

Other woodland birds seen were 2 mistle thrush with 1 later heard singing, 1 song thrush, willow warbler, nuthatch, great spotted woodpecker, coal tit, great tit, blue tit and long-tailed tit, wren, robin, woodpigeon, chaffinch and blackbird. 2 marsh tits showed very well by the footpath as they busily fed in the trees, giving their sneezey call. A raven was heard overhead and a green woodpecker yaffled away noisely. Chiffchaffs and blackcaps were heard but not seen. A peregrine was seen soaring high overhead being buzzed by a swallow before it drifted off fast and out of view.

I had not heard any wood warblers and was starting to feel a bit dispondent as I headed back to the car park via the heathland but then I saw new bird number six, a smart wood warbler, feeding in the birch trees along the path. It threw me at first as I have never seen them in this area before and a willow warbler was busily singing away nearby but its beautiful lemon face and breast and a sharp cut-off with its pale belly soon gave it away and I was very pleased to have finally seen one. Unfortunately I did not hear it singing so I will have to track down more wood warblers in the next few weeks in order to fully get this years fix.

Other wildlife seen included a few bright yellow brimstones, grey squirrels, various bumble bees and a brief view of a small dark micro-moth with very long antennae and a pale mark on its wings flying by, possibly nemophora degeerella. Many red wood ants were seen busily gathering food in large trails leading to busy nest mounds.

Red Wood Ants

And so it was time to head home as David arrived with excellent timing to pick me up just as the heavens decided to open and it had been an excellent 2 hours despite the weather. And we took away 2 pieces of coffee and walnut cake (amazing!) from The Brookside Cafe to have for tea! And I have also now got my new binocular eye-piece and it didn't cost me anything!

Thursday 19 April 2012

Aurora Borealis photos, 28th March 2012

The guide from our trip to Finland has e-mailed some photos he took of the Aurora we saw on the 28th March including the aurora corona which indicates we were right beneath the auroral curtain on that night.

My Aurora, Luosto, Finland, 28th March 2012

More of the Aurora

Aurora corona, 28th March 2012

And I have had my Swarovski binocular booster repaired - £90!!!! And I have now lost one of the screw in eye caps on my binoculars while on my walk yesterday at Wembury so I will have to buy a new one - more expense!

Wednesday 18 April 2012

Wildlife Roundup

The weather continues to be dire - cool, breezey, overnight frosts, grey skies, rain and heavy showers with occassional sunny spells - typical April weather I suppose.

Sunday 15th and we headed out for a walk along the coast path at Stoke Point with our friend Julie. As it was Sunday and the last day of the Easter school holidays and was occassionally sunny the coast path was busy with walkers. The Ship Inn at Noss Mayo was also very busy, noisy and chaotic, the busiest I have ever seen it, but the walk and lunch were very pleasent despite the crowds.

A willow warbler was heard quietly singing along with 2 blackcaps and chiffchaffs, and 2 swallows were seen flying overhead. A raven flew along the cliff top and a peregrine made an unsuccessful chase over the sea after 4 noisey and completly panicked oystercatchers. A small copper butterfly was unfortunately found squashed on the footpath.

Squashed Small Copper

A pair of noisey stonechats close to the path caught my attention and I managed brief views of 1 or possibly 2 Dartford Warblers flying over the gorse bushes before diving in to cover. Eventually a very smart looking male Dartford Warbler appeared on top of the gorse and gave great views before flying off and out of sight. I failed to see any Darties here last year after the cold Winter and I have not seen Darties in this particular area of the coast path before so it was a very nice surprise to see one today. It also shows that when stonechats are about in suitable habitat its worth looking for Dartford warblers following them around, apparently the Darties benefit from the stonechats looking out for predators but its unlikely the stonechats benefit from being followed around by Darties.

Green Alkanet, Noss Mayo

Yellow Archangel, Noss Mayo

Monday 16th and we headed out to Slapton Ley for a walk. Around 6 swallows were seen around the buildings at Torcross and chiffchaffs, blackcaps and Cettis warblers were all heard. A reed warbler was heard singing quietly low down in the reeds by the bridge but failed to show itself. 10 Sandwich terns were offshore in a noisey loose flock with 2 birds seen to settle on the sea where they were lost to sight in the swell. On the Ley 3 pairs of gadwall were seen and there were quite a few tufted duck around, more than I saw here in the winter. A fish, a chub I think, was seen swimming under the bridge, it kept turning on its side and even swam upside down at one point but it appeared to be in good health.

Sun bathing Chub?

Tuesday 17th and a quick walk around Burrator reservoir in between the showers provided good views of siskins singing from the treetops and songflighting. A mistle thrush was seen feeding on a grassy bank and another bird was heard singing. Willow warbler and chiffchaff were heard singing along with 2 blackcaps which were seen. A smart adult lesser black backed gull was preening amongst a small flock of variously aged herring gulls and a female mallard had 10 small ducklings in tow.

Mallard and ducklings

Wednesday 18th and I caught the bus to Wembury for a quick walk along the coast despite the strong wind and heavy showers. 22 whimbrel were feeding amongst the rocks but were very nervous and flighty, regularly giving their lovely whistling call as they flew across the beach. 6 adult lesser black backed gulls were roosting and preening on the rocks amongst the herring and great black backed gulls. Offshore fulmars and gannets were battling against the squally winds and rain. A grey heron was seen fishing amongst the rock pools and a raven flew overhead. Chiffchaffs were busily singing away despite the poor weather and 3 song thrushes were seen.

Bugle?, Wembury

In the toilet block I found a Hebrew character moth, the lights kept turning on and off while I was inside, I wonder if they are light activated as the cloud cover at times was quite dark. Walking along the road to the beach from the bus stop I found 2 early grey moths resting on the wall of the electricty sub-station, there is a street lamp nearby which might have attracted them and they were very difficult to see against the concrete wall.

Early Grey

And I have had the moth box out in the backyard twice in the last week and have had an impressive haul of moths - 2 light brown apple moths on one night and one on the other night! I hope it starts to get a bit warmer soon!

Saturday 14 April 2012

Mixed Spring Weather

The weather had changed by the 5th April and a walk along the coast path at Wembury was a complete contrast to my walk on the 30th March - grey, dull and a brisk, cold Easterly wind. As a result the only insect life on show were 2 sluggish bloody nosed beetles. Bird wise it was quiet too with the best sighting being a winter plumaged bar-tailed godwit feeding on the sandy piece of beach near the sewage pipe. 3 blackcaps were heard singing despite the grey and cold day along with a few chiffchaffs.

My next free day was the 10th April, the sun was shining at times in between the showers but it was still breezey along the walk from Hope Cove to Thurlestone and back. Again it was quiet bird wise with a late male teal on South Huish Marsh and 2 Sandwich terns fishing offshore being the highlights. Unfortunately a dead female oil beeetle was found squashed by a car on the road.

April 14th and the weather was much improved and despite a forecast of rain/heavy showers for later in the day I headed out to Wembury on the bus. It was bright and sunny and pleasently warm although it did become cloudier and by the time I got home it was thundering and lightning and very dark but with no rain!

First stop was the toilet block where I found 2 Hebrew characters, 3 water carpet, a shoulderstripe and a streamer, a moth I have only seen once before (in the toilet block at Wembury last April) and one I was hoping to see again. I also found a micro-moth which I think is an Agonopterix alstromeriana.

Agonopterix alstromeriana?



Water Carpet

While walking along the coast path I found a recently emerged brimstone moth drying out on a grass stem near Heybrook Bay and 4 species of butterfly were seen flying by - a small tortoishell, a holly blue, a small white and a speckled wood.

Newly emerged Brimstone Moth

Speckled Wood

Surprise bird of the day was a mute swan on the sea at Wembury Point by The Mewstone, it slowly drifted towards Plymouth Sound before being lost from sight. It is only the second time I have seen a mute swan at Wembury since my first sighting of 2 birds off the main beach during a cold spell in January 1996! Best birds of the day were the swallows that flew in off the sea and hawked for insects over the coastal fields, my first of the year and a great sight. It was difficult to count numbers as they flew up and down along the coast but there must have been at least 20 or so birds in total.

Other birds included 19 oystercatchers roosting at Wembury Point with a surprise winter plumaged grey plover, a little egret and 2 shelduck. 2 Canada geese were feeding on the new shoots of wheat in the wheat field and 6 male and a female mallard were roosting and feeding along the beach. A male blackcap was seen singing in a garden by the road leading down to the beach and a further male was heard singing near Wembury Point. 2 ravens flew out to The Mewstone, presumably a nesting pair, and fulmars flew around The Mewstone cliffs. Chiffchaffs were seen and heard all along the walk and a Sandwich tern fished close in to the main beach.

Grey Plover

A pair of oil beetles were seen along with 2 bloody nosed beetles. Common lizards were basking in the sunshine but were much more active and skittish in the warmth and were more difficult to approach to photograph.

Common Lizard - a green individual

Common Lizards - a more usual brown colour

Plenty of flowers were in bloom including thrift and bladder campion.


Bladder Campion

While waiting for David to arrive to have a pasty and coffee lunch a robin sang quietly just behind the seats overlooking the main beach and I managed to get some nice photos of it. It was singing away quietly without opening its bill but I could see its throat moving as it sang. Later it fed on some pasty crumbs we dropped on the ground before displaying aggressively to another robin that appeared nearby.

Robin singing for some pasty crumbs


And so Wembury had come up trumps again with some nice wildlife sightings, some sunshine and a pasty - not a bad morning!

Sunday 1 April 2012

Spring time round-up

Driving home from Heathrow Airport on the evening of 28th March and it felt more like a summers evening in July as it was so warm! Temperatures here in the UK while we were away in Finland have been hitting 23c! Dusk was falling as we headed off to the M25 and I saw a few small flocks of ring-necked parakeets flying over in a general Easterly direction, presumably heading to roost somewhere for the night. I haven't seen them here before but then I haven't travelled at dusk in this area before.

The 29th March was hot and sunny again so we headed down to the allotment on The Barbican to check out the seedlings where I saw a holly blue butterfly. A walk around Plymouth Hoe provided views of another 2 holly blues and a smart Sandwich tern diving for fish quite close to foreshore. A small white butterfly was seen flying over as we walked into the city centre.

I decided to get the moth box out for the first time this year as the night time temperatures were quite good due to the hot days and I was very pleased with what I found in the trap the next morning (30th). I had forgotten I had put the trap out until I got out of bed at 9 O'clock! However there were some moths in the trap including 2 new moths for me -  2 small quakers and a very attractive oak beauty.

Small Quaker

Oak Beauty

Also in the trap were 2 light brown apple moths, a plume moth and 4 early greys, of which none had the pinky flush to them that the ones I caught last year had.

Early Grey

31st March and I headed off in the sunshine on the bus to Wembury. It was cooler despite the sunshine and eventually it clouded over. The beach was busy as Easter school holidays have started but the cloud probably kept a lot of people away as it wasn't too bad. The cafe is now open everyday until October so I enjoyed a pasty for my lunch.

The lights were on in the toilet block when I arrived and as a result there were quite a few moths inside including two new ones for me, a water carpet and 2 brindled pugs.

Water Carpet

Brindled Pug

Also seen were 3 dotted borders (and I managed to get a photo this time), an early grey (with a pinky flush), a tatty looking shoulderstripe and 6 Hebrew characters of differing shades and sizes.

Dotted Border


Hebrew Characters - variable sizes and colouring

As I was looking around the toilet block a cleaning man arrived and the lights went off, I didn't see him turn the lights off so I don't know if they are operated remotely or if they are on a timer but it was nice to see them back on.

While out walking I saw 3 ruby tiger caterpillars warming up in the sun along with an early speckled wood butterfly. An orange butterfly flew past and I assumed it would be a comma but when it landed on the path and basked in the sun I saw it was a wall brown, a very early date for one

Ruby Tiger Caterpillar

Speckled Wood

Also along the walk a large grey seal was seen poking its head out of the water for brief periods before diving, its chin area having quite large white blotchy patterning. A pair of oil beetles were found, the male being much smaller than the female, and also some bloody nosed beetles mating, again the male being smaller than the female.

Grey Seal

Oil Beetles - smaller male and larger female

Bloody nosed beetles

2 common lizards were sunning themselves on a fence post and allowed quite close approach, allowing a nice close up shot.

Common Lizard

And so to the birds! Best bird was a female black redstart feeding amongst the foreshore rocks below the cliff top path at HMS Cambridge. A little egret fed amongst the rock pools and 18 oystercatchers roosted at Wembury Point. Rock pipits were songflighting along the beach and skylarks were songflighting over the hillside. Chiffchaffs were singing away everywhere with a few seen, a blackcap was heard singing along with a song thrush and a cirl bunting and a pheasent was heard calling. A pair of cirl buntings and 2 male stonechats were seen. Around 8 willow warblers were also seen and heard, the singing being quite quiet and low key as they busily fed on the insects attracted to the masses of sloe flowers. A Sandwich tern flew West offshore and a pair of kestrels patrolled along the coast path.

Sloe Blossom

Sloe Blossom

Chaffinches were much in evidence along the walk, mainly females with only a few males. One male was chased around by a rock pipit while it fed on the seaweed mass on the beach but the rock pipit ignored the 6 female birds with it. Linnets were also noticeable and a male was seen collecting some feathers for a nest.

A raven flew out to The Mewstone being mobbed by a carrion crow and later it or another was seen flying back to the mainland. 2 Canada geese flew across from The Mewstone to feed on weed along the beach. A fulmar was seen circling around The Mewstone. Along the beach 2 female and 5 male mallards were roosting on the rocks near the sewage pipe.

And so I eventually headed home on the bus after 4 hours of natural history bliss, having had a very enjoyable and productive Spring walk.