Monday 25 December 2023

The Year 2023

With 2023 coming to a close I have never, ever been so glad to see the back of a year in my life. It has been a very challenging year beset by funerals and ill health and I hope that 2024 sees an upturn in our fortunes. It has however been another fantastic year for wildlife but with everything going on it hasn't always been the balm to my soul that it usually is and at times I haven't really fully enjoyed my wildlife sightings and have just felt like I was going through the motions.

Being unwell throughout the year has been quite the eye-opener too, having to navigate the ins and outs of the NHS and the shocking lack of proper patient care from my GP has been an "interesting" experience and one that I was aware of but never had to deal with myself. Also as someone who has enjoyed very rude health up until now it has been quite a humbling experience, I take so very much for granted with my health and it has been a surprise to me at how impacting ill health can be on my day to day activities and how anxious and low in mood being unwell has made me feel, sadly something I was begining to forget when dealing with patients - I think leaving nursing was a good decision for me this year.

Still, forwards and upwards, let's see what the New Year brings, at least I no longer have to endure the stresses and strains of nursing in the NHS. And here are my Top Ten wildlife experiences of 2023.

1. Seawatching

I always viewed seawatching as a birding activity beyond my reach, requiring dawn starts to remote headlands in wind and rain to watch distant birds flying by but once I had purchased myself a decent telescope and had done some homework I started to take more of an interest.

I've been on a few sea watches now and yes, they have been cold, wet and windy at times but despite that I've really enjoyed them although I still have a lot to learn. I never managed to get to Berry Head this year for a seawatch but 2023 has been a remarkable year for seabirds off the coasts of Cornwall and Devon and I took full advantage of this, getting my first UK sightings of Cory's Shearwater and Sabine's Gull and a lifer in the form of Wilson's Storm Petrel in the process.

Great, Manx, Sooty and Balearic Shearwater, Arctic Skua and Storm Petrel also gave great views but the stand out sighting was the Cory's Shearwater I found on the deck of the ferry as we headed into port in Plymouth and which I released into the air off the side of the ship, I only wished I'd checked it more closely to see if it was in fact a Scopoli's but never mind!

Shearwaters (from boats)

Cory's Shearwater on The Pont Aven Ferry in Plymouth

2. Wembury

I made a concerted effort to visit Wembury more often this year and it paid off with some remarkable bird sightings and I finished the year on 114 species, knocking The Plym and Saltram into second place for the first time since starting my 100 species in a year challenge back in 2021.

My first UK Cory's Shearwaters were seen at Wembury this year with Sooty Shearwater, Storm Petrel, Turtle Dove, Black-tailed Godwit and Red Kite all Wembury firsts too and Wryneck, Curlew Sandpiper and Arctic Skua other highlights. I wonder what next year will bring?

Black-tailedGodwit, Turnstone, Curlew Sandpiper

3. Local Wildlife

This comes up every year on my Top Ten but I really am so lucky with the wildlife present right here on my doorstep. Wembury aside, I've seen a great range of flora and fauna not that far from home with highlights being Little Gull, Goshawk, White-letter Hairstreak, Black Guillemot, High Brown Fritillary, Purple Sandpiper, Spotted Flycatcher, Bee Orchid, Great White Egret and Black Redstart to name but a few.

Purple Sandpiper,  White-letter Hairstreak, Spotted Flycatcher, Great White Egret

High-brown Fritillaries

I didn't have the moth box out in the back yard very often this year, a combination of working lots of night shifts, poor weather and a lack of motivation but I did catch 3 Vestals and hopefully next year will be better.

Vestals (2 of the 3 caught)

4. Isles of Scilly Day Trip

My (mostly) annual day trip to the Isles of Scilly in 2023 was my best one ever, a long and tiring day but well worth it. I nearly didn't go because of ongoing health issues but I'm very glad I did as it was a fantastic day in perfect conditions.

Sea watching from The Scillonian ferry was fantastic with brilliant views of Cory's, Great, Sooty and Manx Shearwaters in flat calm seas. My first UK Sabine's Gulls were a lovely bonus despite being a little distant and Common Dolphins, Harbour Porpoise, a Risso's Dolphin and a Bottle-Nosed Dolphin were the icing on the cake.

My 4 hours on St.Mary's flew by but I did get to see my first UK Western Bonelli's Warbler after dipping one on my last visit in 2021, it was active and mobile in the very top of a stand of pine trees but I managed some decent views despite getting a crick in my neck from staring upwards for over an hour!

An absolutely amazing day out, can't wait for next year!

Porth Hellick Beach on St.Marys, Scillonian Ferry Crest

5. Northern Ireland

I remember watching all the troubles in Northern Ireland on the news as a kid growing up and never imagined it would be a part of the UK that I would ever visit. However things have changed and with Northern Ireland being the only place in the UK where Cryptic Wood White butterflies are found we planned a trip to go and see them.

And what a trip it was, Belfast was a delight, I saw my butterflies and we had a great time. We did visit Dublin for the day during our trip and as enjoyable as our visit was we much preferred Belfast to Dublin.

Giants Causeway, Common Tern, Black Guillemot, Cryptic Wood White

6. Dorset

My sister and brother-in-law moved to Dorset at the start of the year and gave us a Christmas gift voucher for a day trip by boat and steam train from Poole to Corfe along with an invite to stay with them and so we duly booked up a visit in June.

We were very lucky with the weather on the day of our trip and had a fantastic time with the highlight being excellent views of Lulworth Skippers at Durlston Country Park near Swanage and at Corfe Castle.

Dorset is a very beautiful county and one we rarely visit despite being next door to Devon, we had a very enjoyable few days away with some interesting wildlife sightings and it was great to spend some time with my sister.

Lulworth Skippers, Corn Bunting, Marbled White

7. Minsmere

We visited my Mum and Dad in Suffolk back in July for a few days and during our time away I managed to get an early morning visit to Minsmere. Usually I get dropped off at Minsmere mid-morning for just a few hours but this time I decided to catch an early train and then a taxi and get picked up at lunchtime giving me a much longer visit, an expensive option but well worth it.

Back in my youth I visited Minsmere regularly by train and bike and always remember having a fantastic time. However when I have visited Minsmere more recently it seemed to have lost some of its sparkle but this trip was an absolute corker, just as I remembered my visits as a teenager with some amazing sightings - Little Gull, Spoonbill, Hobby, Marsh Harrier, Avocet, Ruff, Spotted Redshank, Bearded Tit, Little Tern, Essex Skipper, White Admiral, Great White Egret, Norfolk Hawker, Bee Wolf and Willow Emerald Damselfly were some of the highlights and I was really disappointed when Mum and David arrived to take me home!

Avocets, Norfolk Hawker, Essex Skipper, Great White Egret 

8. Black-winged Stilt and Alpine Swifts

I have seen many Black-winged Stilts over the years on my foreign travels but have always failed in my quest to see one in the UK, having endured quite a few dips in my time. However with an influx of birds into the UK this spring I finally managed to catch up with one at Bude, distant views but I was very glad to see it!

There was also an influx of Alpine Swifts into the UK at the same time, again a bird I have seen many times on trips to Europe but never in the UK. Multiple birds and sightings were being reported in Devon but work, ill health and a prebooked trip to London meant I couldn't get out to try and see them. However 3 birds were regularly coming in to roost at a church tower in Teignmouth and I eventually managed to catch up with them there, seeing 2 birds on my first visit and just 1 bird on my second visit.

9. Gulls

I love to hate to love Gulls but it has been a very good year for Gull sightings. The year started off very well with a 1st winter Little Gull found feeding off Plymouth Hoe on New Years Day, I thought it might have been a good omen for the coming year but there you go. Little Gull is probably my favourite UK Gull so I was also pleased to find 4 together in Plymouth Sound in November after Storm Ciaran with sightings of 4 at Minsmere in July also a bonus.

A Laughing Gull at Beesands in January gave everybody the run around before finally giving itself up, only my second sighting of one, but Penzance and Hayle was the place to be that month with an 11 Gull species day out had on the 16th - Kittiwake and Herring, Black-headed, Common, Lesser Black-backed, Mediterranean, Glaucous, Great Black-backed, Yellow-legged, Caspian and Ring-billed Gull all logged on a great day out.

Juvenile Yellow-legged Gulls were also a feature of late summer and it was great fun picking them out amongst the assorted Gulls along the beach at Wembury. More frustrating was trying to find one on The Plym but eventually I managed to nail one, my first at this site.

No Iceland Gulls were seen this year, I dipped one at Newlyn Harbour in January, but then I mustn't be too greedy!

Yellow-legged, Laughing and Little Gulls

10. A Trip to Slimbridge

I have been to Slimbridge many times over the years and it is always a fantastic days birding and as I haven't been there for 3 years now I treated myself to an (expensive) pre-Christmas visit in December.

It was a great trip as always and while I failed to see the wintering White-fronted Geese for the first time ever I had a brilliant time with some amazing close up views of the wintering Bewick's Swans which are always an absolute delight. How much longer the Bewick's Swans will return to Slimbridge is anyone's guess as globally their numbers continue to decrease and climate change encourages them to winter further east on the continent and so I really should make the most of them while they are still visiting Slimbridge for the winter.

Bewick's Swans 

Runner Up : Hume's Leaf Warbler 

It was relatively quiet on the bird front as the year came to an end but a Hume's Leaf Warbler was found at Clennon Valley Lakes in Torbay in December and it seemed to be sticking around and showing well so I went to have a look for it. 

It was a trip reminiscent of last Decembers Olive-backed Pipit in Exmouth which likewise was sticking around and showing well, the visits were all blue skies and sunshine sandwiched between the more usual wind and rain and the birds showed exceptionally well. Both birds were also lifers for me and were nice ways to end the years although both trips were also a little bit too twitchy for my liking.

Hume's Leaf Warbler, December 2023

Olive-backed Pipit, December 2022

And so that was 2023, probably no proper birding now until the New Year so roll on 2024. There's lots to look forward too, plenty of wildlife out there to try and see and things will get better!

Merry Christmas!

Saturday 23 December 2023

A Windy Plym and a Muddy Wembury

Christmas is nearly here and it is proving to be a strange experience this year with none of the extra anxiety, worry and stress that usually accompanies it when working in the NHS. The strange part is that these feelings haven't been replaced by any others except relief and so far Christmas just seems like any other time of the year but with a hint of something different in the air. We are going to be having a very quiet Christmas time this year and have very few plans, just what I certainly need, and maybe this is why it doesn't feel overly special but I'm sure that it's going to be an enjoyable time.

Anyway, I headed out to The Plym on Thursday 21st December for a walk, it was dry but very windy and became increasingly so and as a result the birds were keeping themselves hunkered down although I still had a productive walk.

It was around 10:00am when I stepped off the bus at Marsh Mills and with the high tide not due until 12:30pm I had expected to see some exposed mud out on the estuary but there was none to be seen. However Blaxton Meadow was still uncovered and no water was entering through the sluice gates and so I settled down to count the assorted birds already present and arriving in to roost. The regular Black-tailed Godwit was present amongst a flock of 48 Curlew but just as I began to count the Oystercatchers a low flying Buzzard passed overhead and everything took to the air. A lot of the birds didn't return and those that did continued to be unsettled and I eventually realised the cause as I picked up a juvenile Peregrine buzzing around overhead. I did however manage to count 8 Greenshank, 5 Turnstone, 3 Dunlin, 7 Wigeon and 9 Snipe in the melee along with the usual Redshank and Shelduck while 2 Kingfisher were seen flying together low over the Meadow before disappearing from sight.

It was quiet around the Park due to the strong winds but a Mistle Thush, a Raven, a Kestrel, skittish Redwings, 3+ Ring-necked Parakeets and a Buzzard were of note while 2 pairs of Goosander were seen along the river and 25 Mandarin Duck (17 males) were present on the duck pond. I did have a look for the recently reported Water Rails but there was, as expected, no sign of any, I'll maybe try again on a less windy day before the end of the year.




It was another breezy day on Friday 22nd December as I headed out to Wembury for a walk but less so than the previous day. It was grey and claggy with occassional mizzle in the wind but there were a few sunny spells too, the footpaths though were the usual mudfest but I managed to negotiate them successfully.

Geological processes in action along the raised beach at Wembury

More landslip action

Hibernating Snails

I didn't take my scope with me due to the wind but I wished I had as there was a movement of Auks offshore when I first arrived, over the course of an hour around 500 passed west in small groups and fairly close in for Wembury. A look offshore at The Point though revealed around 50 Razorbills feeding quite close in along with a single Guillemot and I managed some good views despite the choppy seas. A Great Northern Diver preening and diving off the beach near the sewage pipe was also a nice find although it was difficult to track between dives amongst the waves.

It was good to see the Fulmars back on The Mewstone cliffs although they were mostly keeping themselves huddled down on the ledges. It was also good to see quite a few Gannets flying past offshore too after the recent ravages of bird flu.

The tide was heading in and along the beach were 2 Little Egret, 15 Turnstones, a Curlew, a Grey Wagtail and 2 pairs of Mallard plus the usual vocal and mobile Oystercatchers. I had a look for the Water Pipit but again it was a no show but a few Meadow Pipit were present amongst the numerous Rock Pipits.


There was no sign of any Cirl Buntings in the windy conditions but Stonechats eventually appeared including the very showy and confiding pair by the boatyard bridge.


Stonechat - same bird, different light and angle

A Buzzard, a Kestrel and a Sparrowhawk were noted overhead along with at least 6 Redwing and also of note were a male Blackcap, a Chiffchaff and a Goldcrest in village gardens and a Goldcrest and a Chiffchaff in the valley to the beach. 

Two very enjoyable walks despite the wind and mud and probably my last proper birding days of 2023.

Monday 18 December 2023

A Trip to Slimbridge

After much deliberation and procrastination I finally booked my train tickets for a day trip to Slimbridge on Saturday 16th December. It's been 3 years since my last visit and I was very much looking forward to my day out although it was grey, claggy and breezy, not exactly what was forecasted but at least it didn't rain. I used the Split Ticketing website to plan my trip which knocked the price of the train ticket down from £91 to £45, absolutely insane as I caught exactly the same trains but bought 4 separate tickets instead of just the one.

The journey to Slimbridge went smoothly and ran to time, courtesy of a 6:30am start, but the journey back late afternoon was, as expected, subject to delays. However it didn't detract from a great days birding and I eventually arrived home later than planned but very contented.

On arriving at Slimbridge I headed straight to The Rushy where Bewick's Swans were showing very well and it was good to see 6 juveniles amongst them. 

Bewick's Swans 

Bewick's Swans 

Bewick's Swans 

Bewick's Swan

A few adults were sporting leg rings too and I have had a very quick response back from WWT with their details. Left leg rings indicate females, right leg rings males, and white rings indicate birds ringed as adults (older than 2 or 3 years) and yellow rings indicate birds ringed as cygnets.

Bewick's Swan Maisie - UNN - a female ringed as an adult at Slimbridge on 19/1/2015

Bewick's Swan Demidov - BPD - a female ringed as an adult at Slimbridge on 9/1/2018

Bewick's Swan Allington - 915 - ringed as a cygnet at Slimbridge on 30/1/2019

(I also saw BUZ, a male ringed at Slimbridge on 27/1/2023 as an adult and delightfully called Lightyear!).

I carried on towards the Estuary Tower, stopping in the hides along the way and admiring the assorted assemblage of birds - Wigeon, Mallard, Coot, Moorhen, Mute Swan, Greylag Goose, Canada Goose, Tufted Duck, Shoveler, Teal, Pintail, Lapwing, Redshank, Pochard, Golden Plover, Shelduck, Black-tailed Godwit and Dunlin - and amongst them were at least 15 Ruff and a Spotted Redshank.





From the Estuary Tower a hunting Peregrine was spooking the Lapwing, Golden Plover and Dunlin present but the Barnacle Goose flock was unperturbed by it's attentions and amongst it were a Snow Goose and 2 white Farmyard Geese. Also present were 4 Common Cranes, 2 of which were unringed.

News of a poorly looking Whooper Swan on The Rushy saw me heading back there for a look but there was no sign of it when I arrived. There have been 2 Whooper Swans present at Slimbridge this winter but they have been difficult to see, spending time feeding in the fields not easily viewable from the hides so it would have been good to catch up with one on The Rushy, even a poorly looking one.

I then headed off to the South Lake for a quick look where 8 Avocet and an adult Mediterranean Gull amongst the Common and Black-headed Gull flock were the highlights before carrying on to the Zeiss hide. The usual birds were present from here too and so I headed down to the Kingfisher Hide were 15 Gadwall (10 male), a Goldcrest, a calling Chiffchaff (heard only) and 3 Grey Squirrel were noted.

I returned to The Rushy and the Estuary Tower for the rest of my time, just enjoying the birds on view and adding a brief and distant flight view of a Great White Egret, 3 Snipe, a Great Spotted Woodpecker (heard), 2 Stock Dove, 2 Water Rail and another 2 Common Crane (in flight) to the days list.

Water Rail 

Water Rail 

Water Rail 

Water Rail 

Water Rail 

Bewick's Swan 

Bewick's Swans 

Bewick's Swan 

Bewick's Swan 

Bewick's Swan 

Bewick's Swans 

Bewick's Swans 

Bewick's Swans 

All too soon it was time to catch the taxi back to the train station, the time had just flown by and for a change it wasn't too cold as I usually find Slimbridge to be. I failed to see the White-fronted Geese flock which was feeding in the fields out of view behind the hedges and the 2 Whooper Swans were reported with them (presumably the poorly looking one on The Rushy earlier in the day wasn't quite as poorly as first thought!) - it would have been nice to have seen them but sometimes you just can't have it all!

Thursday 14 December 2023

Hume's Leaf Warbler

Monday 11th December was a fine, dry and mild day as I headed off on the train to Paignton for some birding around the Torbay area. It's the first time I've left the Plymouth area to do some birdwatching since September and I finally used the Devon and Cornwall Railcard I bought back in November for the first time too.

I wasn't sure of my plans for the day but with a Hume's Leaf Warbler having been found at Clennon Valley Lakes I decided to focus my efforts there first and see how the time went as it is a bird I have never seen before and I wasn't sure how long it would take for me to connect with it (if at all). 

Clennon Valley Lakes

I walked from the train station at Paignton to the Lakes and after negotiating the very muddy footpaths towards the area where it was being seen I found a group of birders aiming huge cameras at the trees overhanging the water. I had a quick scan with my binoculars and there it was, flitting about like a demented sprite as it searched non-stop for food amongst the branches, a new bird for me (only my second one this year) and luckily seen as soon as I arrived on site.

Hume's Leaf Warbler

It gave some wonderful views and was quite unconcerned by everybody looking at it, it came quite close at times but never stopped moving for more than a second or two. It looked like a very washed out Yellow-browed Warbler and gave a distinctive call, reminiscent of a Pied Wagtails, and it was a delight to watch, so much so that I spent 2 and a half hours in its company - and I even managed to get a few record shots!

Hume's Leaf Warbler 

Hume's Leaf Warbler 

Hume's Leaf Warbler 

Hume's Leaf Warbler 

It would regularly disappear for short periods of time and during its absences I kept an eye out for other birds with the highlights being a flyover Redwing, a flyover male Teal, 4 Coot, a Goldcrest, a Grey Heron, a Little Egret and 2 Little Grebe. Chiffchaffs were flitting about in the trees too but were very active and mobile, at least 3 were present, and a Cetti's Warbler and a Water Rail were also heard.

Little Grebe


I eventually tore myself away and walked over to the beach at nearby Goodrington for a look across the Bay with my telescope. It was flat calm and birds were scattered across the water but sadly most were quite distant even with my scope, however I did pick up Great Crested Grebes, Great Northern Divers, Kittiwakes, Gannets and Razorbills along with probable Guillemots, bizarrely 2 Mute Swans and 12 female Common Scoters.

A look at the nearby Boating Lake in Goodrington Park revealed 6 male and 5 female Tufted Ducks, a Cormorant and 2 Mute Swans with Mallards, Moorhens and Gulls but it was soon time to walk back to the railway station in Paignton to catch the train home. 

Mute Swan

And so it was quite a nice day out, it was good to get away from Plymouth and visit somewhere different for a change and it only cost me £6.45 on the train. Even better was seeing a new bird although it was a little bit twitchy at times and that is never one of my favourite birding experiences.

Hume's Leaf Warbler - the best shot of it I've seen on social media courtesy of Mwills@21_mwills on Twitter/X