Tuesday 24 December 2019

Christmas (again)

The end of 2019 looms large, the usual Christmas frenzy is ramping up as the "big day" approaches and I can't wait for it all to be over, for the world to get back to "normal" and the New Year to begin.

Christmas Tree, 2019

The weather remains shite with what seems to be constant wind and rain and especially so on my days off so I have had no birding days out but I did finally buy myself a new telescope on Wednesday 18th December - a second hand Swarovski ATS80 with a 25-50 wide angle zoom from South West Optics in Truro. It's a bit of a beast, larger than I expected (I was originally going to get the ATS65) but it is in excellent condition and I couldn't wait to get it out in the field for a try out.

Fortunately on Monday 23rd December the weather was dry and the sun was even shining intermittently and with some free time I headed off on the bus to Marsh Mills for a quick walk along the River Plym to the Saltram Folly and back to put my new telescope through its paces. And the telescope is great, I'm very pleased with it although I do feel a little self-conscious carrying it around. I'm not so keen on my tripod though and so it's back to the internet to try and source a better one to suit my needs.

My walk was interesting on the incoming tide and with my scope I had some great views of a great northern diver fishing just downriver from The Folly, the highest point upriver I have seen one on the Plym before. A pair of red-breasted mergansers, a great-crested grebe and 3 pairs of goosanders were also busily diving away with at least 5 little grebes and later 5 of the goosanders were roosting and preening out on the mud while a single male fished nearby.

Red-breasted Merganser, River Plym





On Blaxton Meadow a lone female wigeon was feeding as gulls, ducks and waders arrived to roost on the approaching high tide and amongst the dunlin, redshank, curlew, mallard, shelduck and oystercatcher were 5 greenshank, 5 snipe, an adult lesser black-backed gull and a few adult common gulls.

Near the Marsh Mills Bridge a common sandpiper showed very well feeding along the waters edge very close to the footpath.

Common Sandpiper

Ring-necked parakeets were heard noisily screeching in the trees in the park and I had a few brief flight views of them between the trees along with a single stock dove but there was no sign of the reported peregrine that had been buzzing the birds out on the estuary.

The wind began to pick up and with the clouds beginning to roll in I headed home for a warm up and a cup of tea but I was very pleased with my scopes performance and with no real free time now until the New Year I can't wait to get out to use it again.

And so as the year closes its time to look back at another busy and stressful year but one that has again been excellent for wildlife.

Birding hasn't been particularly successful with just 3 lifers for the year - Pallas's Warbler in Cornwall, Blue-winged Teal in Devon and White-winged Scoter in Scotland. Dips have been a feature of this year - rough-legged buzzard, shorelark, hoopoe, smew, turtle dove and red-backed shrike to name a few - but I have had some good sightings including surf scoter, long-billed dowitcher, great white egret, ring-necked duck, wryneck, yellow-browed warbler, cattle egret and waxwing.

Waxwing, Plymouth

Our trip to Madeira in July was fantastic, it is such a beautiful place, and a highlight amongst many others was a boat trip off Funchal where a sperm whale swam past our yacht as Cory's shearwaters and Bulwer's petrels flew past. Our day trip from Funchal to Porto Santo on the ferry was great too with Fea's type petrels being seen.

Cory's Shearwater, Madeira

Our holiday to Sicily was another great trip too with Egyptian vulture and booted eagle sightings being the highlights along with a range of butterflies.

Booted Eagle, Sicily

Butterflying has been interesting this year with black hairstreak being added to my UK list on a trip to Oxford in June - indeed I managed to see all 5 of the UK's hairstreak species in the year which was quite an achievement. I also added large blue to my UK list and managed sightings of high brown fritillary, clouded yellow and small pearl bordered fritillary too.

5 UK Hairstreaks 2019

Mothing has been very much on the back burner this year with just 2 nights of moth boxing in the back yard but I did catch 2 of my favourite moths - large ranunculus and marbled green. The highlight though was a thrift clearwing, a teeny tiny moth that I almost overlooked as a fly as it buzzed around the clifftop at Wembury Point.

Thrift Clearwing, Wembury Point

And so to 2020, what will it bring? More butterflying trips are planned for the summer but otherwise the year at the moment is wide open, fingers crossed for another year filled with wildlife alongside all the unwanted but usual trials and tribulations and stresses and strains.

Merry Christmas! Happy New Year!

Sunday 8 December 2019

A Four Scoter Day in Scotland, Snow in Sweden and Dipping (again) in Suffolk

Thursday 28th November and it was off on our travels again, starting with a flight from Exeter Airport to Edinburgh. We caught the train to Exeter from Plymouth and as we sped across the Exminster Marshes near Turf I looked longingly at the area where the bluethroat was recently seen and imagined it was still present, lurking in the reed lined ditch by the sea wall on what was a bright and still day. And later that day it was indeed refound and showed very well but has never been seen again (so far) - oh well.

Our time in Edinburgh was great with cold, sunny and still weather and following flight cancellations and rearrangements by Flybe we ended up flying to Edinburgh a day earlier than originally planned which meant I had an opportunity to visit nearby Musselburgh for a birding day on Friday 29th November before friends Julie and Matt arrived in Edinburgh to join us for our stay there.

I caught the train to Musselburgh, just a 10 minute journey away and only costing £3.40 return. It was a beautiful winters day with blue skies, a little breeze and with a chill in the air and I was full of anticipation for seeing some good birds. The train station in Musselburgh was quite a distance away from the waterfront but after 30 minutes walking and a slight detour due to my usual crap map reading skills I arrived at the mouth of the River Esk where a small flock of wigeon were feeding on the grass and goldeneye were diving close in to the sea wall.

I had packed my tripod and telescope which came in very handy as there were rafts of ducks out on the water but there were some closer to shore and I had some nice views of velvet scoters, eiders and red breasted mergansers along with the goldeneyes.


 Goldeneye - female and male

 Goldeneye - male


 Velvet Scoter - male

 Velvet Scoter 

Velvet Scoter - female

Other birds noted were at least 2 distant Slavonian grebes diving constantly, 2 purple sandpipers feeding on a seaweed covered sewage pipe before it was covered by the rising tide, a black tailed godwit disturbed from the freshwater lagoons by an errant dog along with flocks of teal and lapwing, a female reed bunting sounding quite yellow wagtail like as it called from bushes by the path and a distant flock of 18 long tailed ducks bobbing around on the water. Also seen were greylag geese, Canada geese, turnstone, redshank, curlew, common gull, bar-tailed godwit and mallard.


I met quite a few local birders along the path and all were chatty and informative but none had seen the reported male white winged scoter or male surf scoter that morning but eventually I came across a group of local birders intently looking through their telescopes and who had found the white winged scoter while conducting a WEBS-like bird count census. It was very distant and diving amongst a flock of eider and velvet scoter and I would not have found it without their help but I managed some decent views through my telescope and better views through their higher end optics, with the larger white eye flash and different bill shape and colouring of the white winged scoter being noticeable compared to the nearby velvet scoters before it was lost from sight amongst the flock of diving birds.

The birders eventually completed their survey and moved off leaving a lone lady birder behind who very fortunately found the male surf scoter in the same area as the white winged scoter, again very distant but the white nape patch and white forehead patch were very noticeable. She described it as looking like it had bits missing compared to the nearby velvet scoters which I thought was a very good way of describing it in the bright light and at distance.

To complete the scoter set I found a small flock of around 20 common scoter out on the water before they flew off upriver towards Edinburgh, again distant but good to see - and so a four species of scoter day with the white winged scoter being my third UK lifer of the year even though the views were rather distant.

Sunday December 1st and it was time to travel onwards with a flight from Edinburgh to Stockholm in Sweden, a 3 night, 2 day visit with the main purpose of our trip being to visit the Vasa musueum showcasing the Vasa warship which sank on its maiden voyage in 1628, was preserved in the mud of the sea floor and was then raised to the surface in 1961. Over 98% of it is original and it was absolutely fascinating to see it for real, looking like something out of a Pirates of the Caribbean film and housed in a very interesting and informative musueum.

The Vasa

Being city based and with limited time (and day light) there was little birding opportunity but I did manage to see 21 species, all common and familiar UK birds but nice to see anyway in the cold and snow of beautiful Stockholm - hooded crow, magpie, jackdaw, jay, mallard, tufted duck, goosander, goldeneye, coot, blackbird, goldfinch, house sparrow, blue tit, great tit, feral pigeon, grey heron, mute swan, cormorant, herring gull, common gull and black headed gull.



Hooded Crow

Hooded Crow

Common Gull

Common Gull

Herring Gull


Stockholm from the Hotel Room

Stockholm from the Hotel Room

Stockholm Chrustmas Lights

Stockholm Christmas Lights

Medelhavsmuseet, Stockholm

Medelhavsmuseet, Stockholm 

Wednesday 4th December saw us flying back to Heathrow in the UK and catching the train to Suffolk to visit my family for a few days and on Thursday 5th December we drove out to Bawdsey Quay with my mum to have a look for a reported rough legged buzzard. Unfortunately when we arrived at the Quay it was very foggy but it eventually cleared, however there was no sign of the rough legged buzzard although I did find a very distant buzzard like bird perched in a tree with a pale looking head but way too far off to call. Eventually it was time to leave to visit nearby Sutton Hoo but before we left I did find 4 avocets and 5 brent geese along the nearby River Deben and a muntjac deer running across some fields. And so another Suffolk dip at Bawdsey (after dipping the shorelarks back in March of this year) and as expected it was seen again 2 days later on the 7th December but never mind.

Sutton Hoo

And so it was a great trip away, tiring with all the travelling and too much food and drink, but as we sat on the train from London back to Plymouth on Saturday 7th December I reflected on what had been a very enjoyable time away as I watched red kites circling overhead. Now all I have to do is survive the approaching Christmas!

Thursday 21 November 2019

A "Long" Day Out

The weather remains rank with lots of wind and rain and especially so on my planned birding days out but with a favourable forecast for the 15th and 16th November I decided to drag myself off the settee and finally head off down to Sennen near Lands End in Cornwall to look for the first for the UK Paddyfield Pipit being seen there. I planned to go on Friday 15th but on heading off to bed the night before I switched plans and decided to go on the 16th instead. This turned out to be a kind of good call as the pipit, on nearly ending up in the jaws of a cat on the 14th, was never to be seen again - oh well, should have made the effort and gone sooner!

A Bluethroat found at Turf on 20th November piqued my interest but after being found it was never seen again and so I decided to travel up to Bowling Green Marsh at Topsham on the 21st with plans to divert to Turf should the Bluethroat reappear. It was a cold and breezy day with a strong south easterly wind and the Bluethroat wasn't refound but I had a good day out anyway.

I caught a late train (the 09:25 from Plymouth so saving myself £10 on the train ticket cost) and on arriving at Topsham at 11:10 and walking down the lane to the hide at Bowling Green Marsh I found 2 Firecrests feeding in the bushes with blue tits and great tits but they were very active and mobile and quickly moved off into the branches, never to be seen again. Long tailed tits were also heard nearby but I couldn't locate them amongst the trees and bushes.

The hide was jam packed with birders due to the high tide but despite standing at the back I easily found the Long-tailed duck diving out on the water despite it spending very little time at the surface.

Long-tailed Duck with Mute Swans

Long-tailed Duck

The long-staying Long-billed Dowitcher was also easily located too as it fed, preened and slept amongst the ducks before wandering off along the waters edge and out of sight.

Brent geese flew over between the estuary and Darts Farm with one landing on the Marsh to bathe and preen before rejoining the passing flocks.

Brent Geese

Pintail, shoveler, teal, wigeon and mallard were all noted along with a grey heron, a little egret, coot, moorhen and 2 mute swans but wader numbers were low despite the high tide with just a few dunlin, redshank, curlew, lapwing and black-tailed godwit seen.





Little Egret

A quick look off the nearby viewing platform and Brent geese were resting on the water with a small flock of around 50 avocets but with the tide still high I decided to head back towards Plymouth and stop off at Dawlish Warren along the way.

The sea was very rough at Dawlish Warren and the only birds I could find offshore were a few shag, herring gulls and a single adult kittiwake. A walk around the main pond revealed a female shoveler and in the woods a female sparrowhawk dashed past low over the trees where a chiffchaff was seen with a second bird heard. It was cold in the strong wind and so after an hour I called it a day and caught the train back to Plymouth having had an enjoyable day out.

Friday 15 November 2019

Blue-winged Teal, Mansands

Tuesday 12th November was breezy and sunny but cool and so we caught the ferry from The Barbican to Mount Batten for a walk to The Guardroom at Turnchapel for lunch.

No binoculars or camera with me which was annoying as a guillemot was fishing by the Sutton Harbour lock gates as we boarded the ferry and a pristine red admiral was sunning itself out of the wind on the metal frame of a door on the ferry pontoon, and on walking to Turnchapel a razorbill showed even better off the slipway at Mount Batten, diving close to the shore as it moved out towards The Hoe.

Wednesday 13th November was cloudy but dry and with rain forecast for later in the day we drove out to Mansands near Brixham for a walk around and a look for the recently reported blue-winged Teal.

I've never visited Mansands before, it was a bit of a faff getting there but it was worth it as it is very beautifully situated by the sea at the bottom of a steep valley. On reaching the pools down by the beach I scanned around but could only find 7 teal (3 male), 1 male gadwall, 2 coot, 3 mallard (2 male), a snipe, a pair of tufted duck and moorhens. Also seen were a grey wagtail feeding by the stream flowing across the beach to the sea, a pair of stonechat feeding from various bushes, a gannet flying east offshore and an adult lesser black-backed gull amongst the herring, black-headed and great black-backed gulls resting on the beach while Cettis warblers were heard calling from the poolside vegetation.

 Coot, Mansands

 Tufted Duck, Mansands

Tufted Duck, Mansands

I wandered up along the cliff footpath to the nearby cottages where a very skittish and mobile female type black redstart was flitting about on the roofs which I tried to get a good view of while always keeping an eye on the pools below for the blue-winged teal. Eventually I noticed a duck dabbling and up-ending out on the water which at first I thought was a female shoveler(!) but on getting a better view of it I realised it was the blue-winged teal. Unfortunately a very heavy rain shower duly arrived and the bird quickly disappeared back into the reeds never to be seen again but I was able to see hints of its blue wings, pale loral area and while upending its yellow legs and feet before it was lost from sight - a lifer for me and only my second lifer of the year.

 Blue-winged Teal, Mansands - photo courtesy of Paul Albrechtsen @mansandsbirder on Twitter

Blue-winged Teal - photo courtesy of Bill Coulson @billcoulson3 on Twitter

Tuesday 5 November 2019

Wet and Windy Birding

Since my visit to Bowling Green Marsh the weather has been pretty crap especially on my days off so I have been unable to get out birding but with a hoopoe being reported at Dawlish Warren on Wednesday 30th October I decided to go and have a look for it the next day despite the rain and murk.

David dropped me off at Dawlish Warren before heading to Toby's at Exminster with a plan to meet up later at The Anchor Inn at Cockwood for lunch. It had been cloudy but dry in Plymouth when we left but it was mizzley and misty at The Warren and after wandering around for an hour and getting soaked through there was as expected no sign of the hoopoe, not helped by lots of disturbance from workmen clearing vegetation around the car park area. A pair of hunting sparrowhawks, some nervous looking linnets and a moorhen by the main pond were the only birds seen but I did see a hoopoe - a stuffed bird in a case with a great spotted cuckoo when I looked through the window of the visitors centre!

I began the walk to Cockwood and while walking along the bridleway opposite the Dawlish Sands Holiday Park I found a feeding party of small birds flitting through the hedgerow - blue tits, long tailed tits, 2 firecrest and a yellow browed warbler. Unfortunately my glasses were very rain splashed and I had put my binoculars away in their case under my coat so the views of the yellow browed warbler were brief and difficult amongst the leaves. It appeared quite pale and washed out and later I heard it calling and it sounded a little off but I never got a decent view of it before it fell silent and disappeared. The firecrests were equally frustrating too with brief and obscured views but it was nice to find them all on such a wet and miserable day.

Saturday 2nd November was another day off with an horrendous weather forecast for strong winds and heavy rain and so I decided to kit up in my waterproofs and head out anyway, this time travelling to Berry Head for a look offshore. The journey by train and bus was uneventful and I arrived in Brixham at 08:30hrs for the walk to the quarry at Berry Head.

It was very wet and very windy but down in the quarry it was quite sheltered from the worst of the wind although there was no such let up from the rain. On the walk down to the waters edge I disturbed a pair of peregrines sheltering on the quarry face, the male being noticeably smaller than the female as it flew away calling but the female did return to perch on the rock face.


As I reached the waters edge I had a quick scan offshore in very misty conditions and picked up a single gannet flying around and had a brief view of a harbour porpoise fin breaking the waters surface. After a few minutes the mist began to clear and I picked up a few more gannets and also a few kittiwakes flying towards shore and with them was an Arctic skua, flying low over the water before landing on the sea. It appeared uniformly dark in the poor light and at distance but as I moved position to get a better vantage point for viewing it amongst the swell and to wipe the rain off my glasses I lost sight of it as it presumably flew off.

More gannets appeared and I picked up a distant great skua heading towards shore before it changed tack and headed back out to sea, flying shearwater style into the wind as it moved off west and out of sight.

Guillemots and fulmars were also seen flying around along with a red throated diver flying into Torbay. Later a red throated diver was seen flying west and later again one was seen flying into Torbay again but I have a feeling that the sightings were all of the same bird. The surprise sighting though was a female/immature marsh harrier battling against the wind as it flew low over the sea towards the shore. It made very little progress and occassionally flew up high before returning down to the water as it drifted across the bay towards Hope Nose where I lost sight if it.

Eventually harbour porpoises showed very well close to the rocks and attracted the attentions of gannets which soared over them with occassional dives into the sea, there were at least 3 harbour porpoise present as they moved back and forth offshore giving some very nice if brief views at the surface.



A red admiral was seen flitting about despite the rain but with my feet beginning to get wet and cold it was time to start the journey home and on the walk back to Brixham I had a brief view of a firecrest in the woods feeding with goldcrests. A pasty for lunch was very welcome as turnstones scuttled around the quayside of Brixham harbour and the journey back to Plymouth was uneventful too although I was glad to get out of my waterproof gear when I got home - and my new waterproof gloves had at least kept my hands warm and dry this time.