Thursday 31 March 2016

Easter Monday Wash Out

March 28th and a very early Easter Monday found me with the day off to myself for the first time in years and with a cool, breezey and showery day after Storm Katie blew threw overnight causing damage and chaos. I am not a fan of Easter anyway and when it is in March it is a bit too early for migrants and the weather is usually crap.

I headed off for a walk around Plymouth Hoe in the morning, hoping to find something blown into The Sound following the overnight storm but there was nothing much around other than the usual gulls and shags. A raven flew over cronking and tumbling, 6 Canada geese were on Drakes Island and 2 male mallard were sleeping on a jetty in Sutton Harbour but there was no sign of Sandwich terns which had been reported the previous day - not surprising as in the spring they often pass through quickly whereas in the autumn they often hang around for a while.

I then headed up to Marsh Mills on the River Plym for a look around on the outgoing tide, hoping to see the immature glaucous gull again as it is still being reported in the area but there was no sign of it amongst the herring, black headed, lesser black backed and greater black backed gulls. A greenshank and 2 female red breasted mergansers were seen along with the usual redshank, curlew, oystercatcher, shelduck and mallard.

I had some close views of a little egret feeding at the outflow from Blaxton Meadow, it caught and ate a small flat fish before finding a large crab which it shook for a while to dislodge some of its legs before swallowing it whole, looking a little uncomfortable for some time after. I have never seen an egret eating such a large crab before and also on my visit to Laira Bridge last Thursday I had watched a little egret eating lugworms it was pulling out of the mud, another feeding behaviour I haven't noted before.

Little Egret

Little Egret

Two mistle thrush with a song thrush were seen feeding together in Saltram Park and a skylark was singing over the Tip. I lifted up a large piece of windblown felt on a grassy area and was surprised to find a vole looking at me, it was more surprised than I was and remained stock still for around 10 seconds before scuttling off. Two toads were much more chilled and just sat there watching me before I covered them back up.


Heading home and it began to chuck it down and I got absolutely drenched in the heavy rain and cold, strong wind but at least I had got out and seen stuff despite the Easter crowds.

Saturday 26 March 2016

Cirl Buntings and Sand Martins at Slapton Ley

A trip to Gatwick Airport on Sunday 20th March with an overnight stay in order to pick up the Outlaws on March 21st and as usual there was the familiar and sad sight of dead badgers, foxes and pheasents by the roadside on the journey there and back. More pleasent were the sightings of 3 roe deer (M3), fieldfares in a bare field (A303) and 7 red kites (M3/A303 area and M25).

A walk at Wembury on March 23rd and it was still quiet with a chiffchaff singing and busily catching flies in the valley to the beach being the only summer migrant. A pair of shelduck on the beach and yet more mating bloody nosed beetles were more hints of Spring along with a singing cirl bunting. A male yellowhammer seen in the HMS Cambridge hedgerow was my first of the year and my first at Wembury for some time. A nice summer plumaged great crested grebe close to shore was my first at Wembury for some time too.

 Great Crested Grebe

Sloe Blossom

A stop at Laira Bridge over the River Plym on the way home and a chiffchaff was heard singing in the pine trees by the bus depot. 8 little egrets and a curlew were along the river at a very low tide and a female goosander was feeding in the river channel with a cormorant.

David had bought a gooseberry plant from Wilkinsons and on getting it home an angle shades moth was found in the plastic wrapping which I photographed and released outside in the backyard - most bizarre.

Angle Shades

March 24th and I headed off to Slapton Ley for a walk on a grey and cold morning  and I managed to see a few birds before the rain arrived at 11:30. Amongst the coot, gadwall, tufted duck, mallard and great crested grebes were 3 male and a female pochard, 2 male and a female wigeon and 3 male and 2 female goldeneye. There were 64+ mute swans around the Ley, quite mobile birds with a mix of adults and immatures and with 2 birds on nests in the reedbeds.

There were 6+ sand martins buzzing over the Ley looking out of place on what was a cold and dreary day, I bet they wished they were still in Africa. They were very mobile too and it was difficult to assess numbers accurately.

Along the Leyside were a very confiding pair of cirl buntings along with a male reed bunting.

 Cirl Buntings

 Cirl Buntings

Cirl Buntings

From the bridge a chiffchaff was heard singing along with Cettis warblers and I managed to get brief and obscured views of at least 3 Cettis as they skulked in the vegetation. 2 water rails were heard squealing in the reeds but I couldn't catch a view of them.

A large peregrine flew down the Ley spooking the ducks and gulls, it had pale grey/brown upperparts and based on size was probably a female bird.

Offshore a great northern diver was busily diving and an adult gannet flew west but then the rain arrived and it was time for a bacon sandwich and a cup of tea in the Seabreeze Cafe before heading off home.

Monday 21 March 2016

Glaucous Gull on The Plym - at last!

Friday 18th March and a short walk along the River Tavy at Lopwell Dam on a bright, hazy and cool day was all we were in the mood for - I was still feeling rough from my lurking cold
and David had been sick again overnight with a fever (the third time in the past 3 weeks but still can't pinpoint what is causing it).

At the dam a female mandarin showed briefly along with 3 mute swans, 2 moorhen, mallards, Canada geese and a grey wagtail, while along the river 3 little grebe, shelduck, redshank, a little egret and black headed gulls were noted.

Overhead ravens, jackdaws and buzzards were displaying but there was no sign of anything more unusual, and there were quite a few male pheasents around looking resplendent in the sunshine.

Male Pheasent

Saturday 19th and it was overcast and cold and with low tide in Plymouth at 08:30 I headed off to the River Plym again to look for the elusive glaucous gull. At Marsh Mills there was no activity at the sewage treatment works and no gulls but at the outflow into the main river a male goosander was snorkelling for fish, eventually catching and swallowing a decent sized fish after quite a chase with lots of leaping and splashing about in the shallow water.

Male Goosander

Off Blaxton Meadow I continued watching the goosander as it swam downriver along with 3 little grebes before noticing a large white bird all alone out on the mudflats which I dismissed as a little egret. However when I checked it out with my binoculars I found it was the 1st winter (or 2nd calendar year) glaucous gull, a large, very pale bird which almost appeared to glow in the dull light - finally I had seen it!

 1st Winter Glaucous Gull with Black Headed Gull

Glaucous Gull with Herring Gulls

It eventually flew downriver to join the flock of gulls roosting and preening where I watched it for a while. It appeared almost white but on flapping its wings it showed some patches of the pale coffee colour of immature plumage. A beautiful bird indeed.

Also seen were a greenshank, a common sandpiper, 3 adult and 2 juvenile common gull, redshanks, shelduck and mallards.

Heading home and I decided to have a look around Ford Park Cemetery after chatting to a birder while watching the glaucous gull who had given me some info on where to find the black redstarts. Arriving at the Cemetery and a noisey buzzard was being mobbed by a carrion crow and a sparrowhawk overhead while a second buzzard called from a nearby tree. A raven flew in and landed between the gravestones but was seen off by 2 carrion crows. 2 jays were quietly moving through the trees and a lone redwing was very skittish as it frequently flew up into a pine tree from the ground whenever anybody passed nearby.

I eventually found a pair of black redstarts feeding amongst the graves in the area I was advised to look for them.They just seemed to suddenly appear and they showed very well before moving off and seeming to just melt away but a nice end to the day and a nice end to a very birdy week off work.

 Male Black Redstart

 Male Black Redstart

 Male Black Redstart

 Male Black Redstart

Female Black Redstart

Saturday 19 March 2016

Willow Tit at Lower Tamar Lake

My week off work continues and with the glaucous gull reappearing on the River Plym and showing well I headed off to Marsh Mills on March 16th for a look. Arriving at 10am and the tide was an hour off being high. There were a few gulls loafing about on the water and a tiny bit of exposed mud off Blaxton Meadow but scanning through them and there was no sign of the glaucous. The nearby sewage works has been a good place to see the gull too but it was busy with workmen and the rotating arms over the tanks were not operating and so there were no gulls to be seen.

I headed off to the woods and fields for a walk while waiting for the low high tide to turn and drop and found 2 green woodpeckers, my first of the year. A flock of around 20 redwings feeding in a grassy field were a surprise along with 4 mistle thrush. The usual woodland birds were seen along with a jay and a nuthatch.

An Early English Bluebell

Heading back to the River and the tide was finally ebbing. Blaxton Meadow had 37 shelduck and 26 curlew roosting while along the railway embankment 2 greenshank, 50+ redshank and 20+ turnstone were distantly seen. A male white wagtail was quietly singing to itself on the saltmarsh at Blaxton Meadow, keeping itself apart from a small group of around 10 pied wagtails nearby, and 2 meadow pipits were also found.

Male White Wagtail

Gulls started to arrive as the mudflats became exposed but there was no sign of the glaucous gull. I did find 4 adult and 2 1st winter common gulls and a few adult lesser black backed gulls amongst the black headed, herring and greater black backs.

 Canada Geese - smaller female on the left

 Canada Geese

 Summer Plumaged Cormorant

First Winter Great Black Backed Gull with Herring Gulls

2 little grebes and a common sandpiper were also seen along the river near the sewage treatment works which was still full of workmen and not operating and so it was time to head off home to catch up on other things and to lick my wounds after another big old dip.

Thursday 17th and it was off to Lower Tamar Lake on the Cornwall/Devon border, not far away from the caravan at Bude but somewhere we have never visited. My target bird was willow tit with regular sightings on the webpages over the winter period of birds feeding on the bird food put out by local birders by the bird hide. I have only seen willow tit once - or have I? I have one record of willow tit in my bird notes, a single bird feeding high in a tree at Brandon on the Suffolk/Norfolk border back in 1989 - I was 99% certain it was a willow and not a marsh and it has remained on my British list at a 99% certainty since. Today was about changing that percentage to 100%.

It was a bright but cold and breezey day and on arrival I headed off straight away to the bird hide and bird feeders while David went off for a walk. On the Lake were a female goosander, a great crested grebe, a summer plumaged cormorant, mallard, moorhen and tufted ducks, and 5 grey heron were resting in the lakeside reeds. A few blue tits and great tits and chaffinch were around the well stocked feeders but after 15 minutes there was no sign of anything else except for a nice male reed bunting and so I decided to go for a walk instead and to return to the hide later.

Male Reed Bunting

Heading off along the footpath towards the Upper Tamar Lake and after a short walk I noticed a bird feeder hanging in the trees close to the path and a quick look gave me a brief view of a marsh/willow tit as it flew away. And so I settled down on a nearby concrete slab to watch and wait and see what would reappear. Coal, blue and great tits came and went, most dashed in, grabbed some food and flew off into cover but a few were a little more showy. Chaffinch, a jay, a nuthatch and a grey squirrel were also seen along with brief views of marsh/willow tits as they swooped in before dashing off and out of sight.

The birds were resolutely quiet until I heard the distinctive sneezey pitchou calls of marsh tits. Soon after I heard the distinctive call of willow tit, 2 short notes followed by 4 lower and longer notes and with a buzzing quality - zi-zi-tah-tah-tah-tah - quite unlike a call I have heard before - and then I watched as the bird making the call was seen flitting through the branches chasing after a second bird with a third bird also interacting with them nearby - 3 willow tits!

I managed to get some decent but brief views (and some poor photos) of the willow tits along with marsh tits on the feeders and was able to pick out the diagnostic features for willow tit - pale wing panel, extensive white cheeks, dull black cap, buff brown flanks and lack of white at the bill base - but it was difficult with the birds very active and mobile and the light very bright and harsh. But I had properly seen (and heard) willow tit at last and so we headed off to Bude for lunch and a walk around before driving back to Plymouth.

 Willow Tit

Marsh Tit

Starling, Bude

Thursday 17 March 2016

Spring in the Air and my first Devon Barn Owl

With high pressure over the UK giving sunny, cool and dry conditions with an Easterly breeze it is a good time to be taking a week off work. No real plans other than pottering about and getting out for walks is just what I need after a busy few months but having a stinking cold is kind of putting a crimp on things a bit.

Sunday 13th and we went for a walk at Wembury. It was sunny and cool and absolutely packed out, the busiest I have seen it so far this year. Walking along the coast to The Point and things quietened down but it was also quiet birdwise with the highlight being a female type black redstart feeding amongst the boulders on the beach below the clifftop footpath, constantly flitting about but showing its beautiful red tail in the strong sunlight. A few sloe flowers were out and there were quite a few bloody nosed beetles mating in the grass again. 2 common lizards were basking in the sun and the toilet block held my first moth of the year although its ID has me a bit puzzled - I thought it was a male dotted border but it has distinctive spots on its forewing which dotted border doesn't have - maybe a faded early moth? I also found a caterpillar on the footpath which I think is a cream spot tiger moth.

 Sloe Blossom

Faded Male Early Moth?

Cream Spot Tiger Caterpillar?

Monday 14th March and we drove up to Dozmary Pool on Bodmin Moor for a look around. David dropped me off at the Pool before heading off to a nearby farm to see if there were any goose eggs for sale - unfortunately there were none with the farmers wife saying that the girls hadn't been laying due to the lack of recent sunshine.

At the Pool the best birds were 2 pairs of goldeneye and 2 male tufted ducks but there was no sign of the regular overwintering male lesser scaup or wintering female smew.

We drove back to Siblyback Reservoir near Liskeard and walked around the waters edge, a pleasent easy walk of around 2 miles. I found a group of tufted duck close to the shore near the bird hide and amongst them was the male lesser scaup, last seen by me in 2013. The birds appeared nervous, probably due to nearby fishermen wading into the water to fly fish and by the time I had walked further along the footpath to get a better view of the birds in better light they had flown off. I refound the lesser scaup amongst the tufted ducks further along the walk but it was much more distant and difficult to view.

 Male Lesser Scaup with Female Tufted Duck

Male Lesser Scaup

There was no sign of the female smew but I did find 2 coot, 2 Canada geese, little grebes, teal and mallard and amongst the bathing herring and black headed gulls were a few lesser black backs.

Tuesday 15th March and it was off to Stoke Point for a walk and it was much better underfoot than our last wet and muddy walk back in February. There were lots of stonechats along the walk including quite a few singing males but I couldn't find any Dartford warblers. A singing chiffchaff and a singing cirl bunting were seen along with a small tortoiseshell, my first butterfly of the year. 2 snipe flew over and landed in a boggy area on the cliffside and a raven flew overhead in wide circles as it slowly gained height before drifting off. 8 red legged partridge were disturbed by the footpath, all flying off into the cliffside vegetation in pairs but even better was a very smart male wheatear feeding amongst the gorse, my first proper summer migrant bird of the year.

 Male Stonechat

Male Wheatear

3 peregrines flew along the coast together as the light began to fade, 2 large female birds feignting with each other and a noticeably smaller male bird - one of the females flew off and the remaining pair circled higher and higher before drifting off west.

Peregrine - zoomed and cropped shot

Even better was a barn owl flying along a hedgerow by the roadside near Collaton Cross outside Noss Mayo as we drove home at around 16:45 hrs, my first ever Devon sighting in the nearly 30 years I have lived here. It looked very pale in the sunlight and flew right over the car before heading off over the fields and out of sight, a complete surprise and a nice end to the day.

Monday 14 March 2016

Hudsonian Whimbrel Dip - Again

Back in November 2015 I visited Marazion in Cornwall and dipped on Hudsonian whimbrel, getting wet, muddy, bloodied and bruised in the process, and since then I have been following its progress on the internet sightings pages as it overwinters on a 2 mile stretch of rocky, seaweed covered shore near Marazion. Some days it is seen very well, other days it is a no show and I finally decided it was shit or bust time and so on Saturday March 12th I headed off to try and see it. Being a Saturday the train fare was only £10 instead of a weekday price of £20 so I figured if I was going to dip again it would be a bargain at half the price! The day was cold and sunny but calm so good conditions but the tide wasn't great - high tide at around 7am and ebbing rapidly by the time I arrived at Marazion at 11am.

I headed off along the coastal footpath towards Perranuthnoe where the bird has most often been seen and a chiffchaff singing was nice to hear. 2 rock pipits were songflighting amongst the boulders and a couple of surprisingly well camoflagued curlews feeding amongst the weed covered rocks had my pulse briefly racing. Oystercatchers, turnstones, 2 or 3 redshanks and 3 ringed plovers along with little egrets and grey herons were also seen before 3 paragliders with noisey motors flew over putting everything up and despite checking out all the birds flying around I couldn't find the Hudsonian whimbrel amongst them. And so it was to be another Hudsonian whimbrel dip trip.

Offshore and a few distant gannets were seen diving for fish. A group of 3 great northern divers together with a fourth bird further out were a nice find but even better were 2 black throated divers, one close to shore and the other quite a way out. I tried to turn the closer bird into the overwintering Pacific diver but it showed a distinct white rear flank patch although it did disappear at times as the bird energetically preened itself in the gentle swell (the bird further out was too distant to get any real plumage detail on).

I did smack my shin, whack my binoculars and jar my wrist when I slipped on the rocks as I clambered over a small stretch of beach. Fortunately my binoculars were OK but my shin was bloodied and bruised and my wrist swollen and tender - I guess it wouldn't be a Hudsonian whimbrel dip without injuring myself!

Heading back to Marazion Marsh and a male gadwall with teal and 2 male mallard was my first for the Marsh. 3 snipe, 3 Canada geese, a little egret, 4 grey herons, a male reed bunting and 2 male stonechats were also seen. A chiffchaff was heard singing along with 2 Cettis warblers and I had a brief view of a Cettis flitting about in some bramble bushes.

Male Gadwall

Best of all though was a bittern which appeared at the edge of the reeds before taking flight and disappearing from sight, the best views of a bittern I have had at Marazion but unfortunately a little distant.


 Bittern with Teal

Record Shot of Bittern in flight

Offshore a first winter Mediterranean gull was being chased by a first winter common gull but it was time to head back to Penzance for the train back to Plymouth - no Hudsonian whimbrel again but a nice day out with some good birds (the Hudsonian whimbrel was reported later that afternoon after I had left, maybe I'll try again another day? - the Pacific diver has also been reported recently in the area as well).

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 cafĂ© 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.