Saturday 29 March 2014

Great Grey Shrike on Dartmoor

Returning from Malta and with a few days of annual leave left before returning to work we headed off out and about Devon in sunshine, showers and a breezey and cold wind.

Friday 21st and we had a look around Killerton House near Exeter, a National Trust estate that we have never visited before. 2 chiffchaffs singing in the gardens despite the wind and chilly temperatures and a flyover stock dove were the highlights along with the house which was surprisingly small but very liveable in.

Saturday 22nd and a walk along the coast at Wembury was again quiet birdwise with 2 singing chiffchaffs and an unseen singing cirl bunting being the highlights. My first oil beetles of the year were a pleasure to see along with bloody nosed beetles and a common lizard. The sloe bushes were beginning to flower and some violets were flowering by the footpath on the cliff below the old HMS Cambridge guns.

 Oil Beetle
 Common Lizard
Sloe Blossom

Sunday 23rd and I managed to persuade David to go for a walk at Warren House on Dartmoor. The wind was again cold but the sun was shining and on parking the car in front of the pub I had a quick scan of the valley below and soon found the recently reported great grey shrike. It was perched at the top of a small tree in the valley, looking very pale in the strong sunlight and gave some nice views although it was typically flighty and mobile before disappearing from view. It was in exactly the same area where I saw my first UK bird back in 2008 and is my third UK sighting with the second having been at nearby Bellever Tor in 2010. 2 male reed buntings, 10 fieldfares and a common lizard were also seen and it was interesting to see that yet more of the conifer plantation has been chopped down at Soussons.

Tuesday 25th and we headed off to Slapton Ley for a walk. It was again sunny but cool and breezey but 2 chiffchaffs were busily singing near the Bridge along with 3 Cettis warblers. On the Ley amongst the tufted ducks and coot were a few pochard and great crested grebes along with a male gadwall, 2 female goldeneyes and a pair of scaup. 2 buzzards were soaring overhead with 1 bird being very pale and having a very pale buff rump with a black tail band, very rough legged buzzard looking. On the sea a great northern diver was busily diving for fish but there was no sign of any sand martins until we were just about to leave when a group of 7 birds flew over heading North and bringing my year list total to 145.

Sunday 23 March 2014

Malta, 15th - 19th March 2014

With the Snowbird Outlaws enjoying a long stay in Malta to avoid the rigours of English winter weather we decided to head out to join them for a few days and to assist them on their northerly migration back to the UK. With Malta being a hotspot for bird hunting it was with mixed feelings as we drove up to Heathrow Airport on the 14th March in the sunshine - I had been reading the Birdlife Malta website pages and 2 spoonbills had been shot and wounded on the island the previous week - but I thought it is best to go and see things for myself in order to make a proper opinion.

The drive to Heathrow was pretty quiet with the best birds being 2 red kites seen briefly overhead at the A303/M3 junction. It was quite sad to see so many dead badgers along the roadside on the drive, presumably young badgers moving away from their birth setts to pastures new and encountering roads for the first time. A stop at the new visitor centre at Stonehenge was interesting but there were no rock buns so we had to make do with a sausage roll instead.

Arriving in Malta on the 15th March and it was cold and grey but the weather did improve and it was hot and sunny by the time we headed back to the UK on the 19th. The Outlaws met us at the airport and on driving them back to their hotel in our hire car birdlife was noticeable by its absence. I thought it may have been due to the weather but as the weather improved birdlife still remained thin on the ground. The only birds seen on our first day on Malta were Spanish sparrows and feral pigeons, common everywhere throughout our stay, and my first swallows of the year over some salt pans near the Outlaws hotel.

 Male Spanish Sparrow
Male Spanish Sparrow

During our stay I never heard or saw any hunting but the hillsides were dotted with small shooting huts and bird traps and I did find an air rifle shell on a flower covered cliff top. Very sad considering the dearth of birds in general and contravening the EU bird directive but Birdlife Malta are doing a lot of good work to try and change things for the better.

Flowers at the Hagar Quim Cliff Temples
I did however see some good birds during my stay, a grand total of 21 species, but quality not quantity is sometimes best! I did see some very smart blue rock thrush along the clifftops, the national bird of Malta, with birds singing and songflighting and chasing each other across flower covered cliff sides. Fan tailed warblers were noticeable around the island due to their annoying "zitting" songflight. A highlight was a very smart male spectacled warbler singing and songflighting and equally smart looking Sardinian warblers were quite showy at times too.

Fan Tailed Warbler
Valletta Harbour provided sightings of adult and juvenile yellow legged gulls with the adults not appearing to have particularly dark upperwings in the strong sunshine. 1st Winter Mediterranean gulls and 1st winter/1st summer black headed gulls were also around the Harbour along with winter plumaged Sandwich terns and a female type black redstart feeding along the Harbour battlements.

Adult Yellow Legged Gull in Valletta Harbour
Best birds however were Yelkouan and Scopolis shearwaters offshore, seen from the hotel balcony one late afternoon as we enjoyed a glass of wine. The Scopolis shearwaters were seen singly close to shore, their long wings and languid looking flight very noticeable, while further offshore small flocks of Yelkouan shearwaters were seen also heading North, their smaller size, brown looking upperparts and more rapid looking flight action being noticeable. Both breed on islands in the Maltese archipelago and I was very pleased to see them - Scopolis is believed to be either a separate species or sub-species of Corys shearwater and Yelkouan is believed to be a separate species from Balearic shearwater.

Other birds seen were 2 collared doves, robins, a male blackcap, 3 swift, mallards ( typical - and farmyard types with a Muscovy Duck, presumably all feral) and 2 spotless starlings, and a Cettis warbler was heard singing. And so we had a very pleasant few days away in Malta, an interesting place with lots of history and sights, and some very beautiful but quite birdless countryside. I hope the hunting issue gradually gets resolved and maybe birds will become more varied and noticeable on the islands and I will follow Birdlife Maltas campaigns with interest.

 Dodder sp.on the Clifftops
 Maltese Pyramidal Orchid - recognised subspecies
 Maltese Pyramidal Orchid
 Terrapin in the Palacio Parisio gardens in Naxxar
 Maltese Wall Lizards
 Maltese Wall Lizard
Maltese Wall Lizard

Friday 21 March 2014

Spring arrives early

The weather finally improved and on March 7th with the sun shining and the wind blowing gently I headed off on the train to Dawlish Warren for a walk. I caught the train to Newton Abbot and then the rail replacement bus service to Dawlish Warren but on arriving in Dawlish I decided to get off the bus and walk along the coast path. Unfortunately the coast path is shut from Dawlish Warren to Dawlish due to the storm damage and so I had to pay for a bus to Dawlish Warren instead!

Despite the weather I was in a shitty mood which didn't really improve as the day progressed. It was high tide and a quick scan of the sea revealed nothing so I headed off to the hide, seeing a chiffchaff and a male stonechat along the way. Arriving at The Bight and a flock of brent geese were feeding close to the waters edge and I had some lovely close views. I checked through them but there was no sign of the black brant among them but on arriving at the hide a pair of birders there had seen it earlier and so I headed back to have another look but still did not see it. There was a flock of brent geese on the river near Cockwood with birds flying too and fro between The Bight and Cockwood so I guess it had flown across to the flock on the river before I arrived - typical!

From the hide I saw 11 knot, my first of the year, along with a bar tailed godwit and 7 grey plover amongst the dunlin, oystercatcher and curlew, and on the river red breasted mergansers were busily displaying in small flocks.

Rechecking the sea on the walk back to the train station and a great northern diver, a red throated diver, a Slavonian grebe, 8 great crested grebes and common scoters were seen. The common scoters were spread out distantly across the bay but a male and 4 females were close in to shore along with bizzarely a male and a flock of 10 teal.

Sunday 9th March and I was in  better mood and so I headed off to Wembury in the warm sunshine. It was quiet bird wise with no sign of any cirl buntings but I did see my first small tortoiseshell and peacock butterflys of the year along with bloody nosed beetles. The café was open too and I had my first Chunk pasty of the year.

 Kestrel at Wembury Point
 Peacock at Wembury

Heading home and I decided to walk along the River Plym as yet again Jack snipe had been reported but yet again I failed to find any! The highlights were a greenshank, 2 ravens, a stock dove, a mistle thrush and a redwing along with more peacocks and small tortoiseshells. It was very busy with walkers, dogs and children and so I soon headed off home, deciding to give up on looking for Jack snipe on the River Plym until I manage to find out where they are being seen!

Peacock in Saltram Park

Thursday 13th March and a days annual leave so with the sun still shining we headed off for a walk along the coast path at Stoke Point. The footpath wasn't too bad after all the Winter rain and it was a beautiful day with more small tortoiseshells and peacocks on the wing. 2 chiffchaffs and 2 green woodpeckers were heard but not seen and I saw my first yellowhammer of the year, a stunningly bright yellow male. 2 peregrines were resting on the cliffs, a small male and a much larger female, and a raven flew over with a large crop full of food, probably for a brood of young in a nest.

Stonechats were noticeable along the walk with males singing and song flighting and I carefully checked them out for any nearby Dartford warblers. Eventually I found a female bird near a pair of stonechats, flitting about in the gorse, a distant view in hazy conditions but nice to see. And to finish off the walk a female type black redstart was seen feeding from a fence post close to the footpath.

Monday 3 March 2014

Wembury and the River Exe

February 25th and I decided to have a quick walk at Wembury, somewhere I have surprisingly only visited twice since October, mainly due to the awful weather. It was very muddy as expected with more slips along the coast path cliffs and damage around the main beach.

Damage to the Main Beach at Wembury

Bird wise it was quiet with a pair of cirl buntings, 2 curlew with oystercatchers, 3 pairs of mallard, a pair of Canada geese and a little egret being the best bird sightings. A lot of flotsam and jetsam has been washed up along the beach and having a look through it I found a dead guillemot, a green sea urchin and lots of small lumps that looked like insulation foam but seemed to be some sort of sponge or soft coral. Bizarre sight was a dead conger eel being eyed up by a pair of great black backed gulls and carrion crows.

 Cirl Buntings
 Male Cirl Bunting
 Dead Guillemot - one of many washed up along Devon beaches due to the severe gales of late
 Washed up Fan Coral
 Fan Coral
 Washed up Sea Urchin
 Sea Urchin and Sponge/ Soft Coral lump
 Conger Eel
 Conger Eel
Conger Eel

A common lizard sunning itself at the bus stop along with three cornered leeks coming in to flower were a hint of Spring to come, very welcome after what has been a wet and windy and mild winter.

Common Lizard, Wembury Bus Stop

Thursday 27th February and it was time for my annual boat trip along the River Exe with Mavis and Mike and after a cooked breakfast at the café in Exmouth we headed off in the sunshine and heavy showers. We were on the small boat this time and there is no shelter or protection on the top deck so we did get soaked in the showers but it wasn't too bad. This years trip was later than usual and we only saw about 20 avocets as most have departed back to their breeding grounds but we did see a male goldeneye, lots of red breasted mergansers, a bar tailed godwit with black tailed godwits including a very smart summer plumaged bird very close to the boat, and a spotted redshank with 3 greenshank at Powderham. Best of all were around 300 brent geese on the mudflats near Turf, their gentle honking being heard as we sailed along the river through them. A common seal was resting on the sandbank as we headed upriver but was gone on the return trip.

We stopped at Bowling Green Marsh on the way home where there were frequent rainbows due to all the showers. The damage to The Goatwalk was quite extensive and the viewing platform was closed but from the hide we saw a pair of pintail, a pair of tufted duck, a little grebe, 3 male and 2 female pochard, lots of shoveler, a little egret with lovely breeding plumes and a lone lapwing. As the tide came in waders arrived to roost with 25 avocets, dunlin, redshank, curlew and bar- and black tailed godwits being seen. And as we left a stock dove was in display flight over the trees, ending a very enjoyable day out.

 Bowling Green Marsh from the Hide with Rainbow
 Double Rainbow over Bowling Green Marsh

Roosting Avocets and a male Shoveler, Bowling Green Marsh