Wednesday 28 October 2015

A Quite Quiet Autumn Continues

Autumn slowly marches on into Winter and things remain fairly quiet on the bird front after the excitement of the isabelline shrike at South Huish Marsh - it has certainly been quieter than this time last year.

October 22nd and it was an early start to drive the Outlaws to Exeter airport for their flight to Malta. After a trudge around the shops in Exeter we stopped off at Shipley Bridge for a walk to the Avon Dam before heading back to Plymouth. I had hoped to see some ring ousels but there was no sight or sound of any but I did see fieldfares, redwings and blackbirds feeding on the hawthorns - the blackbirds were regularly chasing off the fieldfares but seemed to tolerate the smaller redwings and it was nice to see a few immature male blackbirds, all black including their bill and with no yellow eye ring and looking very smart. There were quiet a few goldcrests around too, busily feeding in the trees and bushes.

October 23rd and a dreaded night shift but a walk at Wembury beforehand was a nice distraction. It was again quiet with the highlight being 2 peregrines overhead and spooking all the corvids feeding in the fields above the horse stables. Along the beach 5 feral type mallards were amongst the more usual mallards -  a white bird, 3 pale and dainty females and a pale and dainty male.

3 of the Feral Type Mallards

There was also a large flock of gulls roosting on the rocks, mostly herring along with great black backed and black headed but including a nice adult lesser black backed gull.

Lesser Black Backed Gull

A great black backed gull showed well feeding on a dead fish washed up along the beach.

 Great Black Backed Gull

Juvenile Great Black Backed Gull with Herring Gull

October 26th and another walk at Wembury was a bit more interesting despite being half term holiday hell and a little busier than on the 23rd. It was grey and breezey with mizzley rain at times but mild. My third ever (faded) green brindled crescent in the toilet block started things off well but a large bumble bee was the only other insect seen. A surprise was a slow worm on the footpath despite the lack of sunshine - it was a bit moribund but perked up after warming up in my hand and it slithered off into the grass when I let it go.

 Green Brindled Crescent

Slow Worm

The 5 feral mallards were still present and spending all their time together - they must have escaped from someones garden nearby. Scanning through the mallards and I was pleased to find an immature wigeon amongst them, easily overlooked as it slept on the water despite its noticeably smaller size.

 Wigeon with Mallards



In the stubble field were 14 Canada geese and a male pheasant with a male cirl bunting very skulky in the hedgerow. Stonechats were seen all along the walk, showing very close at times.


After a pasty and coffee for lunch a feeding flock of small birds in the bushes on a slow walk up the valley from the beach to the car entertained me with views of goldcrests, blue tits, great tits, coal tits, long tailed tits, at least 2 chiffchaffs and 2 very smart firecrests. I had some good views of the firecrests with one bird seen flicking its wings and raising its crown in display before I found the second bird.

Tuesday 20 October 2015

Isabelline Shrike, South Huish Marsh

A beautiful sunny day on October 12th and so we headed off for a walk along the South Devon coastpath, parking the car in Thurlestone village and walking to Hope Cove and back. Heading down the road from Thurlestone church and a small group of birds moving through the hedges and sycamores caught my eye - a brief view of what I am sure was a yellow browed warbler had me scanning through the dying leaves but I never refound it and I never heard it call. While looking for the warbler I did find at least 2 chiffchaffs and at least 1 firecrest along with goldcrests, blue tits, great tits and long tailed tits.

Thurlestone marsh was devoid of birds due to disturbance from diggers dredging the drainage channel running through the golf course and dumping the mud on the marsh. South Huish Marsh did however have some birds on view - a grey heron, a little egret, a buzzard, a male kestrel, a black tailed godwit, a snipe, teal, mallard and a moorhen.

Also seen along the walk were 17 swallows heading inland and flying east, a lone gannet offshore over a flat clam sea, a small copper, a small tortoiseshell, red admirals, large whites, stonechats and a few common darters including a mating pair.

The following day at South Huish a shrike was found by a birder, initially ID'd as a red backed shrike it soon became apparent from photos it was in fact an isabelline shrike and this was confirmed on the 14th, just as I began a 4 day stretch at work! I also wondered if it had been around on the 12th when we were out walking around the area.

Anyway my day off on Sunday18th duly arrived and we headed off again to Thurlestone for a walk and a look for the shrike which had been showing up to the 17th. We parked in Thurlestone village again and walking down past the church a few goldcrest and a chiffchaff were flitting about in the trees but there was no sign of anything rarer.

A surprise was seeing Thurlestone Marsh drained and the reeds being cut down - apparently the farmer who owns the marsh is draining it to make grazing land for cows, such a shame.

There were quite a few birders around in the area and so I headed off straight away to The White House overlooking South Huish marsh as per the DBWPS and Birdguides instructions to find 2 birders photographing a bird high up in the roadside hedge - and there it was, the isabelline shrike and my 3rd British lifer of the year. I even managed to get a few (poor) photos too.

Isabelline Shrike

It was on the opposite side of a high hedge by the road with no easy vantage points, against the sun and viewing was difficult due to all the vegetation but it was only a few metres away and totally unperturbed by the people watching it. I managed some decent views but unfortunately never of the whole bird out in the open. It disappeared from view at times as it chased after wasps but it always returned to the top of the hedge and was frustratingly always partly obscured by leaves!

There is quite a bit of debate going on about its exact ID as well with the view being it is a Daurian shrike but I'm quite happy to call it an isabelline and let others debate the genetics and taxonomics. A very nice bird but a little ugly around the bill as shrikes invariably are.

 Isabelline Shrike

Isabelline Shrike
Isabelline Shrike - not my photo! (Unfortunately!) - Photo courtesy of DBWPS Website
After watching the shrike for a while we headed off to Hope Cove for some lunch, seeing a group of 20+ swallows flying west, stonechats, a few red admirals and a few large whites on the way. On the walk back a male kestrel flew over the cliffs, spooking pipits and finches and unfortunately it went on to spook the shrike too as when I returned to The White House the shrike had flown off and I never got another view of it, not helped by a birder walking along the hedge on the field side despite it being private land.

Other birds of note around South Huish marsh were a female and a juvenile sparrowhawk, 4 black tailed godwits and a chiffchaff. A few red admiral and common darters were on the wing too.

Caterpillar sp. found on the road near the shrike hedge

And so another new bird for my British (and life) list, some close but partly obscured views and not too twitchy - all in all a good day out.

Sunday 11 October 2015

Late Mothing

The weather has been pretty good since our return to the UK (as it was while we were away) and so my thoughts had turned to getting the moth box out in the back yard, especially after a trip to Bude to put the caravan to bed for the winter on October 9th.

It was a beautiful day - sunny, warm and still - and the Outlaws were busy with medical appointments so the two of us were able to get twice as much done in half the time. While packing up the annexe 2 ravens flew over croaking along with a steady stream of calling meadow pipits and skylarks. A flyover reed bunting had my heart racing as it gave a very yellow wagtail like call. A wood mouse and a toad hiding under the ground sheet in the annexe were as startled at seeing me as I was them and a smart peacock butterfly flitted past.

A flat calm sea was birdless save for a few gulls and along the river flowing over Summerleaze beach a 2nd winter and an adult winter Mediterranean gull were amongst the black headed gulls, the adult bird having a yellow ring on its right leg but it was too distant for me to read it.

Mediterranean Gull with yellow leg ring

A quick look around Maer Lake revealed 9 lapwing, 11 black tailed godwit, 32 wigeon, a curlew, a pair of shoveler, teal, mallard and moorhens with herring and black headed gulls busily bathing.

The toilet blocks came up trumps for moths with 3 lunar underwings, 2 plume moths, a large yellow underwing, a common wainscot, a setaceous hebrew character, a rosy rustic and a feathered ranunculus being found. Nettle taps were also found on the daisy flowers behind the caravan.

 Lunar Underwing

 Feathered Ranunculus

 Feathered Ranunculus

Rosy Rustic

That night I had the moth box out in the back yard although I was surprised on waking in the morning to find it raining heavily, not what was forecasted. However the trap had a good selection of moths for my back yard at this time of year - 3 large yellow underwing, a brimstone moth, a shuttle shaped dart, a garden carpet, a setaceous hebrew character, a square spot rustic, a feathered ranunculus (one of my favourite moths) and a light emerald (new for the back yard).

Light Emerald

After sorting out the soggy trap and eating breakfast it was back to Bude again for the day, this time with the Outlaws, to finish packing up the caravan. The day was totally different, it was grey and cool and breezey, but we managed to get everything done fairly quickly. I checked out the toilet blocks again and added another lunar underwing, 2 more plume moths and another feathered ranunculus to the previous days sightings.

A quick look again at Maer Lake didn't add anything new to the previous days sightings except for 10 Canada geese and 20 curlew. I did however rescue a shrew from a cat but unfortunately it was injured and had bite marks on its flanks so despite placing it in cover I doubt if it will survive.



Blackbird, Maer Lake

October 11th and we headed off to Wembury for a walk despite the grey skies. It was quite mild though with little breeze and misty, murky conditions offshore. A very nice looking green brindled crescent was found on the toilet block windows, only my second ever sighting of one, along with a brimstone moth.

Green Brindled Crescent

Birdwise it was quiet again with 6 little egrets, a singing chiffchaff, a juvenile wheatear, a single house martin hawking over the cliffs at Heybrook Bay, a kestrel and 2 adult lesser black backed gulls amongst the herring gulls roosting on the beach being the highlights.

A common lizard was trying to warm up in the occassional shafts of sunlight and a small copper, 4 large white and a red admiral were still on the wing.

And so autumn is well and truly here and so far it seems to have been very quiet on the bird front but it has been nice to see a good range of moths.

Wednesday 7 October 2015

(Dodo-less) Mauritius and Dubai - September 21st to October 3rd 2015

Mauritius was a late choice for this years holiday due to a lack of inspiration for where to go. I had noticed an advert for a holiday to Mauritius in the back of a newspaper which started things off and my Mum had been there a few years ago and had said how nice it was and that I would enjoy the colourful birdlife ( I should have done a bit more research though, the colourful birdlife were good numbers of quite tame introduced birds of just a few species). Davids Aunty had also lived there for a while back in the 1970's and had also said how nice it was and so we booked up to go without really doing a lot of planning or research beforehand. The long flight was something we weren't looking forward to either and so on the way back to the UK we added on a stopover in Dubai to break the journey up.

Black River Gorge National Park, Mauritius

An appalling Emirates check-in clerk at Heathrow Airport didn't start things off well - unhelpful, disinterested and a couldn't be bothered attitude, not what I expected especially when she casually informed me that I was on standby for the flight from Dubai to Mauritius but David was booked all the way through!!!!! She even asked me if I wanted my luggage checked through to Mauritius - of course I did - and did I want to join the Emirates frequent flyer club! It was eventually sorted out but really pissed me off and was a shame because the rest of my experience with flying Emirates was excellent.

Anyway, we eventually arrived at the Hotel Pirogue in Wolmar on the west coast of Mauritius after a 28 hour journey door to door and settled in quickly. It was dark on arrival at the hotel but I had seen my first bird on arriving at the airport as the sun was setting - a common myna - and on waking up the next morning there were colourful birds everywhere including more common mynas. However all the birds I was seeing had been introduced to Mauritius and were not quite as exciting to me because of this - David found my attitude towards them a little odd as they were now wild birds and it did make me think about why I looked at them with less enthusiasm. I realised that the introduced spotted doves I was seeing had been introduced in 1781, earlier than little owls were introduced to the UK, and I get excited about seeing them in the UK. I also get excited at seeing the introduced red kites from the train on the journey to London and so I was surprised at my snobby attitude to a birds provenance but I eventually grew to appreciate all the birds I was seeing.

The view from the room in Mauritius

Mauritian sunset

Mauritius was lovely - beautiful hotel on a beautiful beach, mostly sunny weather, not too hot with cloudy and showery spells and a cooling breeze, lots of greenery, some mountainous scenery, a very laid back attitude and some enjoyable laid back birding.

Green backed Heron

Green backed Heron - ready to strike

Green backed Heron - success!

Green backed Heron - struggling to swallow its catch

I managed to see 29 species of birds, surprisingly low considering being in the Tropics, but the ecosystem of Mauritius was totally trashed when settlers arrived (remember the dodo) and without the introduced birds there would have been very little birdlife to look at. I also did no real birding, having taken my small travelling Leica binoculars with me and not my large and heavy Swarovskis, but it was quality if not quantity.

Birds seen were :- common myna, Madagascar red foddy, spotted dove, feral pigeon, house sparrow, common waxbill, village weaver, house crow, Egyptian goose, Madagascar turtle dove, barred ground dove, mallard, red whiskered bulbul and grey francolin - all introduced - and green backed heron, moorhen, white tailed tropicbird, whimbrel, turnstone, Mauritius bulbul (endemic), Mascarene swiftlet, Mascarene martin and Mauritius grey white eye (endemic) - all native.

Common Myna

Barred Ground Dove

Village Weaver

Grey Francolin

Madagascar Turtle Dove

Red-whiskered Bulbul

Mauritius Grey White-eye

Madagascar Red Fody

Other birds seen were :- 2 parakeets flying over the car near the hotel (probably ring necked); probable laughing doves flying around the capital Port Louis (seen from the bus); sea birds offshore, frustratingly distant, but lots of shearwaters (probably wedge tailed) flying north in the evenings before sunset and a few south in the early mornings; large gannet like birds in spectacular dives, probably boobies;  large white terns diving closer to shore (Caspian or lesser crested?); and large, black, angular looking birds flying north at dusk in 1's and 2's, like a cross between a tern and a skua and probably frigate birds or noddies. Also seen were 2 waders with a small flock of turnstone flying along the reef at dusk, noticeably smaller than the turnstones but with no plumage detail due to distance and low light, probably sanderling or curlew sandpiper.

Bird highlights were :- feeding the colourful birds on our room veranda in the mornings with bread rolls snaffled from the breakfast buffet, allowing some very close views and with barred ground doves feeding from our hands; seawatching in the evenings, frustrating due to light and distance but I did manage to find a pod of spinner dolphins swimming past and spinning out of the water; Mascarene martins nesting in the roof rafters of the boat jetty on the beach; white tailed tropicbirds soaring over the forested mountains in the Black River Gorge National Park; and finding a Mauritius bulbul in the trees near the Hindu shrine at Grand Bassin, an uncommon endemic to the island and one I didn't expect to see.

"Lovey-Dovey / Birdy" 

Mascarane Martin

Spotted Dove

Mauritius Bulbul

Madagascar Red Fody

Barred Ground Dove

I didn't get to see pink pigeons and Mauritius kestrel, both endangered endemics to the island, but I didn't really look for them. I have seen them in Jersey zoo where they were being bred to be released on the island as part of a captive breeding program - my birding snobbery coming to the fore again.

The overall highlight for me though were the dolphins. We went on a boat trip to swim with them early in the morning and it was a wonderful experience but it did leave me a little uneasy come the end. A pod of spinner dolphins and bottle nose dolphins rest overnight in shallow bays inside the reef along the coast near our hotel and we set off at 7am to find them before they head off out to sea to feed. We were the first boat to arrive at the bay where they were resting and 5 of us entered the water to snorkel with them. They were very inquisitive and came very close at times, almost close enough to touch, and I even watched a pair mating, catching a glimpse of dolphin penis (!). I swam through their air bubbles as they wobbled through the water to the surface and also swam through some dolphin poo - lovely. Their clicking was very noticeable at times and the whole experience was amazing and surreal.
Bottle Nose- and Spinner Dolphins

Spinner Dolphin

Spinner Dolphin

Spinner Dolphins

Spinner Dolphin

However more boats began to arrive and it started getting a bit out of hand. I surfaced to find a boat very close to me with 10+ people on board yelling and shouting and leaping in to the water and so I decided to get back on my boat. The dolphins became more elusive and kept swimming away from the boats with one animal doing a lot of tail slapping, not a happy dolphin, and so we left and headed back to the hotel. I was glad to have had the experience and our boat operator had followed all the guidelines by letting the dolphins come to us rather than chase after them but unfortunately the other boats that arrived were not so conscientious, and I worry about the long term effects that uncontrolled and unregistered operators may have on the animals.

Other sightings included lots of very fast and colourful and active butterflies including what looked like monarch butterflys, mongoose (introduced), colourful lizards, toads, terrapins, flying foxes, Utetheisa cruentata moths that looked like larger and darker crimson speckleds (same family), Java deer (introduced) and long tailed macaque monkeys (introduced).

Brilliant Blue

Lang's Short-tailed Blue

Broad Bordered Grass Yellow

Lang's Short-tailed Blue

Dragonfly sp.

Giant Lily, Pampelmousses Botanical Garden

Flying Fox

Toad sp.

Utetheisa cruentata

Long tailed Macaque

Long Tailed Macaque

Damselfly sp.

Shore Crab sp.

Shore Crab sp.

Utetheisa cruentata

Mauritius was an amazing and interesting experience, certainly quality wildlife if not quantity, and I would certainly like to visit again although it is such a long way away. And so on the way home we stopped off in Dubai for 2 nights to break up the long flight and to see the Burj Khalifa, the current highest building in the world.

Dubai was interesting, I wasn't really looking forward to the visit but it was actually quite good. We only had a full day there due to flight times and so it was a whistle stop 24 hours in Dubai but we managed to see and do quite a bit. We went up to the 148th floor of the Burj Khalifa (£95 each!) but it was worth it for the view and the experience and walking around the old district of Deira was interesting although it was incredibly hot and sweaty, unlike Mauritius.

Bizarrely I managed to see 15 species of birds in that 24 hours without even trying! Collared doves, laughing doves, feral pigeons, common mynas and house sparrows were seen from the rooftop swimming pool at the hotel which overlooked the creek with a distant view of the Burj Khalifa. On a  boat trip across the creek I saw a whimbrel fly past, a Socotra cormorant drying its wings on a buoy and variously aged large herring-gull like gulls flying over, probably Caspian. A pied myna, 2 Indian silverbills, a graceful prinia, red vented bulbul, white eared bulbul, house crow and a swallow sp. overhead were also seen, not bad at all considering the heat and a very urban environment although again most of these species have been introduced.

Burj Khalifa skyline from the hotel pool, Dubai

Pied Myna

Socotra Cormorant

Indian Silverbill

Collared Doves and Feral Pigeons

Iranian Mosque

Burj Khalifa

And so back to the reality of cold, wet and windy Plymouth, back to work to pay for it all and a diet after 9 days of half board buffets in Mauritius but it had been a very relaxing and enjoyable holiday - and we got to see a dodo skeleton in the national musueum in Port Louis as well.