Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Spot Fly

Spotted Flycatcher
It's been a quiet week bird-wise again this week, but yesterday evening I had 1 Spotted Flycatcher, 2 Goldcrest and c10+ Chiffchaff on Orcombe after work. The apparent Ridgway's Cackling Goose showed distantly off the Imperial later on and it was great to bump into Chris Townend there.
At dawn this morning the Ridgway's Cackling Goose was with 360+ Brent Geese off Mudbank, but again it was mid-river, so I have yet to get a photo. Luckily Dave Stone secured some fantastic images on Monday. The best time to see the bird is probably an hour or two after high tide when the Brent Flock moves into the Saltmarsh by the Leisure Centre. I haven't managed to get down there at this time yet though. Of course it's anyone's guess where it has come, from but I prefer to keep an open mind.
Also off Mudbank this morning - 2 Peregrine, 1 Greylag Goose, 2 Teal and decent numbers of other species of the usual wildfowl. No time to count them though.

Large numbers off wildfowl off Mudbank this morning. The Brent flock was on the sandbar - just visible in the above photo. You can just about make out Cockwood and Starcross on the opposite side of the river.
Greylag Goose is a very infrequent visitor to Exmouth. This bird was with a large Canada Goose flock off Mudbank this morning.

Sunday, 27 September 2015

Cackling Canada Goose

Field sketches - note head shape with steep forehead and angled rear crown? Possibly hutchinsii or is it too dark-breasted?
Cackling Goose - photographed by Mark Bailey off Starcross this afternoon. This shot gives an idea of the bird's size and structure. In the field it appeared to be the same size as the Brents or perhaps a little longer in the body and neck. Difficult to assess at distance though. Thanks Mark.
I got home around 0930 after covering Orcombe Point with Nick. The family were all still getting up so I had a shower, did a few jobs around the house and took a cuppa and the scope out in to the garden to enjoy the glorious sunshine. Siskins and Meadow Pipits were passing over in small numbers and I was pleased to get a fly-over Yellow Wagtail. I could see a flock of c140+ Brent Geese way out on the river so I decided to scan through them to see if the family party of 5 Pale-bellieds was still with them. I succeeded in picking up a single juv/fw bird and then a 'small' Canada Goose! It was immediately obvious as a small race bird, being the same size, or possibly a fraction larger than the accompanying Brents. It looked pretty dark and worthy of further scrutiny but Lu was by now out with the car so I had to sit tight. When Lu got back I dropped Maise at her friend's house and nipped down to Mudbank to try and get a better view. By now the flock was way off in the middle of the river and I couldn't really improve on my earlier views, though I could confirm its small stature and relatively dark brown breast and flanks. It's quite tricky to pick out amongst the Dark-bellied Brents.
Paul Gosling was able to get down for it this morning and Mark and Bob picked it up this afternoon, from Starcross. I had slightly better views late this afternoon from the Imperial. It appears to be fully-winged and un-ringed but I must stress the views have so far been very distant.
I have to be honest - I was aware that there are several races of Canada Goose, ranging from very large to the very small 'Cackling' Canadas, but I've never got my head round the ID features of all the different forms. They're not really an issue for Devon birders! Having done a little bit of reading it seems that this bird is indeed one of the Cackling Goose complex but beyond that I wouldn't like to comment. Hopefully it will hang around to be better studied.
On Orcombe this morning Nick and I recorded 14+ Chiffchaff, 5+ Goldcrest, 1 Ringed Plover, 4+ Coal Tit, 1 Great Spotted Woodpecker, 4 Blackcap, 1 Redpoll, 2 Canada Goose, 1 Grey Wagtail and small numbers of overhead Chaffinch, 'Alba' Wagtail, Siskin, Linnet, Goldfinch, Greenfinch and Meadow Pipit. We also had a high-flying Sparrowhawk and there appeared to be a good passage of House Martin and Swallow heading high East. I reckon there were probably many more higher up and out of sight.
I recorded a similar selection of birds early yesterday morning on Orcombe, along with the autumn's first Reed Bunting, 2 Little Egret, 1 Wheatear and a Stonechat.

Sunrise off Straight Point this morning.

Coal Tit - one of at least 4 this morning. This one headed quickly through a 'Top' maize field with another bird.

Juvenile Bullfinch - looks like the resident pair has had some success this year.

Dunlin - an exceptionally confiding first-winter bird off the Imperial late this afternoon.

Yesterday's Stonechat - Dung Field.

There were still small numbers of Ringed Plover, Dunlin and Sanderling on the beach yesterday morning. Today the beach was heaving with people.

Friday, 25 September 2015


A flock of c200+ small waders on Exmouth Beach this evening was exceptional. They were continually disturbed but seemed determined to rest on the beach. What's wrong with the Warren?
After a busy week at work it was good to get out this evening. A wader flock near the Lifeboat station consisted of c130+ Dunlin, c20+ Sanderling and c20+ Ringed Plover. They were difficult to count due to a constant procession of beach-goers. I got some photos but kept my distance. On Orcombe I recorded my first Nuthatch as well as 3 Wheatear, 1 Blackcap, c10+ Chiffchaff and 1 Coal Tit.

This is the first Nuthatch I've seen on Orcombe. Chuffed to bits!

Two decent flocks of Goldfinch, totalling c100+ birds, have been knocking around Orcombe over the last couple of weeks.



Mute Swan and Lesser Black-backed Gull - Mudbank.

Sunday, 20 September 2015

Turtle Dove

Juvenile White Wagtail - Exmouth Cricket Pitch - note the clean grey rump in the above shot. Despite regularly checking Pied Wagtail flocks, this is the first White Wag I've found this autumn.
Nick and I covered a fog-engulfed Orcombe Point this morning. The conditions were not conducive for overhead passage but a few bits and bobs had been grounded, most notably a mini fall of c25+ Chiffchaff. Robin numbers were most definitely up again with at least 30 logged, many in song as the sun began to burn through. Also recorded this morning - 1+ Blackcap, 2 Turnstone, 1+ Goldcrest, 3 Grey Wagtail, 1 Stonechat and 1 Wheatear. Only tiny numbers of Swallow and Meadow Pipit this morning.
Mudbank produced just 3 Common Tern and 5 Pale-bellied Brent Goose of note, but the day's best bird came around 2pm this afternoon when I popped down to the Maer to check the Cricket Pitch for gulls. A small dark dove shot low across the road in front of me and banked around a line of trees to reveal rich orange upperparts - a Turtle Dove! I pulled into the Maer Long Stay Car Park and walked around the whole area, but was unable to relocate it. Hardly surprising given the level of disturbance down there. On the Cricket Pitch I found a juvenile White Wagtail, in with about half a dozen Pied Wagtails, and a lone Wheatear.

There was a clear arrival of Chiffchaffs along the cliff-top this morning. It was a year ago today that last year's biggest fall of Chiffies on Orcombe occured - an estimated 40+ birds. Interesting to note the timings.

Saturday, 19 September 2015

Stuff Moving

Two visits to Orcombe today - an hour after dawn, before football, and a short whizz around after lunch. Plenty of stuff moving first thing - totals for the day - 5 Pale-bellied Brent Goose, 2+ Redpoll, 1 Stonechat, 6+ Wheatear, 1 Spotted Flycatcher, 1 Goldcrest, 1 Coal Tit, c10/15+ Robin (an apparent increase), 9+ Chiffchaff, c100+ Meadow Pipit, c10+ alba wagtail, 1+ Yellow Wagtail, 4+ Grey Wagtail, 13+ Siskin, c50+ Goldfinch, 4+ House Martin, 2 Whitethroat, 3 Turnstone, 1 Blackcap, 31 Ringed Plover, 24 Sanderling and 5 Dunlin. There were also small numbers of Linnet, Chaffinch and Swallow passing through.

Robins were much in evidence this morning, 'ticking' from seemingly every patch of scrub. Only 6 Wheatear though.

A family of 5 Pale-bellied Brent Geese - 2 adults (left) and 3 juveniles. These birds were on Maer Rocks at dawn and were still just offshore as I drove back for breakfast. Always a treat to see.

I was chuffed to find a mixed flock of Ringed Plover, Sanderling and Dunlin on the beach just the other side of the Lifeboat Station. They looked stunning in the early morning light but of course wouldn't allow a close approach. These images are heavily cropped.

The few grounded migrants today included this Spotted Flycatcher in the Top Fields.

Friday, 18 September 2015

Quiet Again

Whinchat - one of two in the Dung Fields yesterday evening, taking the autumn tally to 4! Orcombe is not a migration hotspot! So far this autumn - not a single Redstart, Pied Flycatcher, Grasshopper Warbler or Lesser Whitethroat. I did get the first Stonechat of the autumn though, and 6 Wheatear were also logged.

Feathered Ranunculus


Scarce Bordered Straw - the second trapped this summer.

Spindle Knot-horn nephopteryx angustella

Starling - not a common sight on Orcombe though we do get the odd flock going over later on in the autumn. This was one of a group of about 30 birds feeding on blackberries in Sandy Bay Caravan Park, on the very edge of the patch boundary.

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

LBB movement

First-summer-2nd winter Lesser Black-backed Gull - photographed a couple days ago on the Cricket Pitch. All this evening's birds were too far off to photograph.
Could have really done with some dry weather this evening as there were plenty of birds out there. A gathering of 70+ Lesser Black-backed Gulls, on a sandbar off the seafront, was a big increase in recent numbers. What's more, a good proportion of the adult birds were really black-looking so presumably intermedius birds. Also 2 flocks of Common Scoter offshore, totalling c40+ birds and 6+ Turnstone on Maer Rocks. A quick blast round the Top Fields in the rain produced 6 Wheatear, 1 Whinchat, 1 Tree Pipit and 20+ Meadow Pipit. One of those days when you wonder what you've missed!

Tuesday, 15 September 2015


An Osprey was fishing upriver at 1715. Also off Mudbank: 1 Black-tailed Godwit, 1 first-winter Yellow-legged Gull, 12 Pale-bellied Brent Goose, 73 Dark-bellied Brent Goose, 2 Redshank, 4 Ringed Plover, 1 Dunlin, 2+ Mediterranean Gull, 2 Common Tern, 4 Great Crested Grebe and 10 Siskin over.
On Sunday there was 1 Hobby, 1+ Yellow Wagtail, 1+ Siskin, 2+ Grey Wagtail, 70+ Brent Goose, 2+ Common Tern, 4 Mediterranean Gull, 1+ Tree Pipit and 2+ Great Crested Grebe.

Sunday, 13 September 2015

Round in Circles!

The above photo illustrates the extent to which the nape is streaked - a pro-Caspian Gull feature but not a diagnostic one.

I've got the sort of brain that, when it comes to birds, can easily tie itself up in knots. If I find a rarity that's at the trickier end of the identification spectrum I often talk myself out of it. Sometimes rightly sometimes wrongly. I worry about making the correct decision and only submit stuff if I'm 100% happy with it. When you make mistakes with ID as I often do, you become even more self- critical and probably over cautious. I've made mistakes in the past (including mis-identifying Casps/Yellow-leggeds) and I'm sure I'll make more in the future, but that prospect doesn't worry me any more like it used to when I was younger. Tuesday's Caspian Gull has been occupying my mind and I've been trawling the net, re-reading papers I've already read and studying countless photos to be sure I can eliminate Yellow-legged Gull from one of the easterly populations, or even a Yellow-legged/Caspian hybrid. When I received a message from a fellow birder suggesting it was indeed a Yellow-legged Gull I crumbled and decided it wouldn't be safe to submit. However, having spent more time looking at the 200 or so crappy photos that I took, I think the original identification is sound.  I'd be really happy to hear your thoughts but appreciate that the following may well bore you witless!

The structure in the above photo just looks a bit odd and unfamiliar. Hard to explain why but is in part due to a small head stuck on to a large body. The collar of streaks contrasts with a white head and the legs look long and thin. You can just about make out a wing-bar effect, caused by pale tips to median coverts and greater coverts sandwiching the dark bar created by the dark bases to the greater coverts. This effect may become more pronounced once the bird reaches first-winter plumage and is a good pro-Caspian feature. It is in transition at the moment from juvenile to first-winter plumage, arguably the most difficult and rarely encountered plumage in this species.

One of the things that bugged me most was the shadow around the eye. This photo was taken looking directly in to the sun (by necessity not choice). You don't see that characteristic dopey look that Caspian Gulls show, created by the tiny eye being set centrally in the head and quite high up, and of course a dark area around the eye is absolutely spot on for Yellow-legged Gull. There is a little dark triangle in front of the eye that makes it look further forward and larger than it actually was. When I observed the bird later on however, this shadow all but disappeared and it looked quite different.

One of the most striking feature of this bird is its crazy-looking legs. They just look wrong, as if they shouldn't be able to support the bulk of the body. Both the tibia and tarsus were very obviously longer than on adjacent Herring Gulls'. Yellow-legged Gulls can indeed look long legged but all the birds I've ever seen have had quite sturdy legs - never stilt-like as in this bird.

Again - just look at the tibia length as it pads through the shallows. I've personally never seen legs like this on Yellow-legged Gull. The bill appears tapered.

Note the bill shape - fairly parallel-sided, weak gonydeal angle and tapering from a broader base. It lacks the blob-tipped or hatchet-like bill of classic Yellow-legged Gull. Bill length and shape are obviously very variable on both species, but I would say the structure on this bird better fits Caspian Gull. Also note the tiny head relative to large body, long sloping forehead, rounded nape and attenuated rear end, accentuated by very long wings and virtually no tertial step. All pro-Caspian features though admittedly none are diagnostic.

The stripey-looking upperwing is created by pale tips to median coverts contrasting with muddy-brown bases to greater coverts which in turn have pale tips which contrast with dark secondaries. The 'window' in the inner primaries looks paler than on typical Yellow-legged Gull, but not as light as in Herring Gull.

The axillaries and underwing coverts are all pale. This used to be a more significant identification feature but recent research has shown that Yellow-legged Gull can have equally white-looking underwings and, conversely, Caspian Gulls from their core range can show quite dark underwings. It is surely the case however that your 'average' Yellow-legged should look way darker than this. Some can be really dark. On the brief field view I had, the axillaries appeared lightly freckled pale coffee-brown but I'd have appreciated a better view.

I've included this shot to show the extent of black on the outer tail. On the vast majority of Yellow-legged Gulls that I see, the black tail band narrows towards the outer retrices. This is another feature that isn't as highly regarded as it once was as both species show variability in this area. However I was still pleased to see a tail band of even width across the whole tail.

In the above shot the Caspian Gull is stood on the left of the wall. Note how much bigger it is than the Herring Gull to its right. This shot also illustrates the significant difference in leg length and neck length. Handy that both are preening the same spot! Throughout most of the period that I observed this bird it had its neck wound in but it always looked big - presumably a male bird.

From this angle the greater coverts give the impression of  a thick dark bar. Notice how the eye shadow has all but vanished in better light and note the head shape.

The above photo and the one below give some idea of the tiny beady eye which lends this bird the characteristic dopey Caspian look. At least that's how I see it - some people may interpret it differently.

Note  the shape of the tail band - even width across.

These final shots show a few interesting features. Firstly the eye looks centrally placed in the pear-shaped head giving the Caspian 'look'. There is a hint of the hanging belly behind the legs though this can often be far more apparent in Caspians and is somewhat dependent on how the bird is standing. The overall colour is rather cold-toned and insipid. Light mousey grey-brown as opposed to chocolate brown. Yellow-legged Gulls often look much darker at this time of year. The greater coverts in my opinion are still a much better match for Caspian Gull - being more 'freckled' and less strongly marked. Of the twenty or so juv Yellow-legged Gulls that I've seen this summer/autumn, or in previous years for that matter, none have shown this type of diffuse patterning.  And finally, the tertials lack the crisp fringes so characteristic of Yellow-legged Gull. A diffuse cream tip is better for Caspian Gull.

When you add all the subtle features together I feel they better fit Caspian Gull but I'll be the first to admit that my experience with this species is limited to 3 previously self-found (all photographed and accepted) Devon birds - 2 first-winters and an adult. Juvenile plumage is perhaps the hardest to suss so it has been a bit of a challenge. Below are a couple early September Yellow-legged Gulls to compare:

This bird was photographed on Exmouth beach on 6/9 2011. Note the dark underwing and more uniform and dark upper-wing. A beautiful bird. The same individual is pictured below.

Note the more proportioned look. The head doesn't look too small and is more angular. The greater coverts look nice and well-defined. The tibia look short and the tertials crisp.
This individual was photographed  on Exmouth beach on 11/9 2014. It has the most Caspian-like greater coverts of any I've seen but at no point did it give off any Caspian vibes. It's a solid, compact-looking bird with a hatchet bill. Another cracker!