Tuesday 31 December 2013

Diver 'n' Glauc

I should have gone for the diver before but the brunnich's guillemot, family life and apathy kind of got in the way. I've seen white-billed diver before but 'need' it for Devon. The problem is I'm not that fussed about my Devon list and Brixham is a fair old trek from Exmouth. I do of course love seeing rare birds regardless of whether I've seen them before so I finally headed down to Brixham first thing this morning and I'm really glad I did. The diver was first picked up in the inner harbour by a couple other birders so a short walk ensued before I clapped eyes on it - a tremendous bird with a mammoth 'banana' bill. I did a couple sketches but it was raining and my fingers got frozen so not much was achieved - see below (colour added at home).

I then got a call from Mike who was on the opposite side of the harbour so we met back at the breakwater and went in search of the black guillemot. Bionic-eyed Mike almost immediately got on the darker of the two birds that has moved across from Hope's Nose. It showed down to a few feet!

The heavy black markings on the wing coverts of this individual are noteworthy but it's presumably within normal range of variation for black guillemot. Mike then picked up the first winter iceland gull on the opposite side of the harbour and everywhere we looked there were divers - absolutely fantastic!

black-throated diver - 1 of four in the harbour

So totals for Brixham harbour were: white-billed diver, c5/10+ great northern diver, 4 black-throated diver, long-tailed duck, 4+ turnstone, 4 purple sandpiper, rock pipit, fw black guillemot, juv iceland gull, 1 guillemot and 2 razorbill.
I was supposed to then head straight home after Brixham but I couldn't resist a quick look at the Teign estuary - a place that still holds a place in my heart. A place where I cut my birding teeth, spending countless hours in sub-zero temperatures seeing very little!
After a number of scans from Lower (I think) Netherton Lane I fixed on a large gull facing me, stood amongst great black-backed gulls. It turned its head sideways to reveal a pink bill tipped black - it could only be a glaucous gull. I hurriedly walked downriver and was soon able to confirm it as a juv glaucous gull and a gigantic one at that, dwarfing the great black-backs! 

Gives some idea of size next to great black-backs

I birded the Teign for years but didn't see too many glaucous gulls, even when Fosterville tip was drawing the gulls in. I can't think of too many occasions when I've seen both 'white-wingers' in Devon on the same day so the odds are there will be more turning up in the next few days.
Great to catch up with Mike Langman and Mark Bailey today and a big thank you to Bill McDonald for finding the diver - a Devon 'biggie'!

Sunday 29 December 2013

Half Mile Velvet

I spent a bit of time on Orcombe early this morning. My Orcombe patch includes Maer Rocks which is where I do most sea-watching from (see the 'Patch' page for the boundaries I use). It was a clear morning so the sunrise was beautiful, prompting me to try some arty shots. They look much better on the back of my camera than on the computer screen though which is really annoying. Birds seen included 69+ brent goose, 6+ turnstone, the 2 female eider, 1 red-throated diver, 1 great crested grebe, the female velvet scoter, 2 mistle thrush and 3 song thrush.

Looking east'ish from the tip of Orcombe Point with the Geoneedle in the foreground, which marks the start of the Jurassic coastline.

I scanned the sea from where the above photo was taken but it was pretty dead. However with a bit of patience, an apparently blank sea produced the female velvet scoter, a single red-throated diver and a great crested grebe. 

Continuing with the field sketching this distant velvet scoter wasn't an obvious subject but subtle detail like head shape is discernible even at range. The white secondaries were only visible during a wing flap but early brightness from the sun made even this feature quite tricky. On an overcast day with leaden sea this would be ten times more obvious. Velvet scoter is a really good bird for Orcombe (they much prefer the Warren) and although this is not my first I'm really chuffed to see it!

Please note I've recently added a load more sketches to the 'field sketches/artwork page.

Saturday 28 December 2013


I very rarely twitch because the driving feels like such a boring waste of time, I feel guilty about leaving Lu and the kids without the car and, of course, it's costly. However some species, like Brunnich's Guillemot, just niggle me. I fought the urge to go for this yesterday but came to the conclusion last night that I simply wanted to see it, could go for it and would regret it if I didn't. I left with a green light from Lu at 6am this morning and was there for 730'ish. It was a sod to get good views of, diving and travelling huge distances only to resurface for nanoseconds, and consequently my sketches are dreadful. It's weird how the black guillemot barely shifted position in all the time I was there but the brunnich's guillemot was like a bloody willow the wisp! Eventually I decided to sit on Osprey Quay (I think that's where I was) and just wait whilst the crowd charged up and down in a game of cat and mouse. It paid off with the bird bobbing up just feet in front of me, but I would still have preferred longer views and the opportunity to really study it. I was back in Exmouth before 1030am.

 Yes! Just stay.......

This afternoon I did a quick scoot around Orcombe and then Maisie and I walked the dog along the river. Orcombe was quite quiet with 1 pied wagtail, c10+ meadow pipit, c50+ skylark, 6+ snipe, 3 song thrush, c40+ linnet, 1 red-throated diver, 1 diver sp, 1 female velvet scoter and 6 common scoter.

common gull - Mudbank

Tuesday 24 December 2013

Colour-ringed Great Black-backed Gull

This first-winter bird is hanging around by the Imperial rugby ground beside the river. I'm guessing it's a Portland-ringed individual but will try and find out. Lee if you're reading this can you shed any light? I notice on the Dawlish Warren blog that they have recorded Portland and northern France birds recently. Notice,  from the lower photo, how difficult it is to read the darvic ring, even at close range - full credit to Lee and the Warren lads for putting in so much time and effort into reading colour rings - I'm not that patient I'm afraid.
Also this morning this pied wagtail allowed a close approach - I absolutely love this species.

Another 45 minute dawn sea-watch off the raised beach huts produced the 2 female eider, 55+ gannet, 15 auk sp, 9 common scoter, 6 kittiwake and 6 diver sp that probably comprised all three species but all were picked up as they were heading away from me and were distant.
On a family trip back to Torquay this morning we managed to squeeze in a quick walk around Hope's Nose where 8 great northern diver were sheltering in the bay.

great northern diver - Hope's Nose - check out the white-looking bill - too much sun bouncing off it!

Evening update - many thanks to Kev and Lee for getting back to me so quickly. The GBBG was ringed on 28th of June this year, in Portland Harbour, by Terry Coombs. It has been seen at the Warren on at least four occasions in the last few weeks.
On a less pleasing note it turns out we were just a bit early for a black guillemot at Hope's Nose this morning. I did have the strong urge to sit down with the scope and do some proper birding there this morning but didn't have the scope and didn't have the time - c'est la vie!

Sunday 22 December 2013


I spent fifty minutes, from first light, seawatching from the raised beach huts just beyond the lifeboat station. Birds seen were 3 red-breasted merganser, 2 female eider, 14+ gannet, 12+ auk sp, 14 red-throated diver (all west), 15+ kittiwake, 1 great northern diver and 3 diver sp. I notice the Warren has been getting a single eider from time to time so I reckon these are different birds as they seem 'joined at the hip' every time I've seen them. Both were present yesterday too.

                               sketches of red-throated divers

                                            the long-staying female eiders

Divers are one of those groups that I sometimes find perplexing. Great northern and black-throated can be difficult in flight, especially when seen distantly or briefly. I find red-throats relatively straightforward as they habitually raise and lower their heads and they always look skinny. However a diver species this morning (great northern or black- throated) raised its head too but nowhere near the height of a red-throat. I find high-flying great northerns in the spring quite easy, their sheer bulk giving them a goose-like quality. Black-throats are the rarest of the three in Devon so I don't often get the opportunity to study and sketch them. As with any bird a lot rides on the quality and length of views.

Saturday 21 December 2013

Spain 2013

In the absence of any birds locally I've decided to post some birds and butterflies highlights of this summer's family camping trip to central Spain and the Picos mountains in the north. What little birding was done was mainly around the campsites early in the mornings but I did manage a couple trips into the wonderful Monfrague Park for white-rumped swift. The last time I was there in March 2005 it was way too early for them. The avian highlight, apart from the white-rumped swifts, was my very first alpine accentor at Fuente De in the Picos de Europa.

                               black kite
                               azure-winged magpie
                               western subalpine warbler
                               long-tailed blue
                               spanish gatekeeper
                               iberian marbled white
                               spotless starling
                               juv black vulture
                               griffon vulture
                               short-toed eagle
                               spanish imperial eagle
                               white-rumped swift - honestly!
                               booted eagle
                               juv black stork
                               lang's short-tailed blue
                               iberian grey shrike
                               alpine chough  
                               alpine accentor

Monday 16 December 2013

Ivory Gull

Don't panic - not a Devon ivory gull ............yet! This is the 1999 Aldeburgh bird. When local birding is slow I sometimes get the old logbooks out for a bit of reminiscing - another good reason to keep detailed notes. I make quite detailed diary entries for good birds or just good days. I did a big write-up for this particular day as it was quite eventful. Lu and I were staying up in London with her sister at the time and I left the city shortly after 4am to be at Aldeburgh for dawn. The ivory gull, a much wanted tick for me, showed brilliantly on the beach allowing me to get some sketches and photos. I was surprised at how large and how oddly structured it was - peculiarly short-legged and dumpy. I was also taken aback when it flew onto a rooftop with the local black-headed gulls - imagine that on your house! The day went decidedly downhill after that. Next to Benacre Broad for white-tailed eagle. I approached the Broad along the beach and almost immediately, with the bins,  picked up a large eagle-shaped lump way off in the distance. I excitedly extended the tripod legs and locked the scope on to the exact spot only to find no lump there. Every duck on the Broad took off in panic but despite frantic scanning I couldn't get on the now airborne eagle. I continued to the hide where a birder confirmed that the lump had been the eagle and that it had now disappeared. I couldn't count it on those views and to this day I still need white-tailed eagle! Five shorelark on the beach were some compensation but I'd dipped a bird I'd actually seen! The day got worse because despite getting back to London in good time I could not find the house in Fulham that we were staying in. I drove around large chunks of West London for nearly 2 hours before Lu's sister was able to direct me home over the phone - it was a nightmare but worth it for an ivory gull!

Sunday 15 December 2013

Scandanavian Herring Gull ?

I had a quick look at Hayes Barton Pig Farm this morning. The weather was really foul, and visibility not great, but this herring gull stood out from the flock on account of its mantle colour, being a shade darker than all accompanying 'argenteus' herring gulls - quite a neutral grey but definitely darker. It was nothing special size-wise but sported heavy head streaking and really large white tips to the primaries. The distance and dampness wouldn't allow any photographs and annoyingly the whole flock was spooked by the sound of an air rifle echoing around the farm. I couldn't pick it up in flight so couldn't get the all-important wing tip detail (see photo in previous post). It was a distinctive individual with extensive black markings on a dull yellow bill and noticeably dark ear covert crescents. The bill colour, coupled with an apparent faint brown wash across the greater coverts, presumably makes it a fourth winter bird? 
Hayes Barton is the nearest thing to a landfill site locally, with regards to gulls. I love the place but gull watching is a bit hit and miss with birds remaining airborne for ages if spooked. Most of the gull 'traffic' seems to come from the Otter but there is presumably lots of interchange between there and the Exe. The good thing is that a public footpath bisects the farm allowing you to scope flocks wherever they are on the farm. The photo below was taken last weekend from the entrance to the farm when an adult mediterranean gull was the only bird of note.

 Most winters a sizeable chaffinch flock takes advantage of the game-cover crops and that tends to draw in reed buntings and yellowhammers with good numbers of brambling some years. The farm also attracts good-sized flocks of pied wagtails, meadow pipits, stock doves, woodpigeons, starlings and corvids so there's always something to look at. I've also had stuff like crossbill, redpoll and black redstart there. Red-legged partridge numbers are quite high but they're all released for shooting.

A flying visit to Orcombe Point before football yesterday produced 15 dark-bellied brent goose, 7+ turnstone, 1 redshank, 29 curlew, 1+ purple sandpiper, 1 red-throated diver, 1 diver sp (prob black-throat), 1 great northern diver, and 5 shelduck - all Maer Rocks/offshore. The top fields held 14+ snipe, c50+ skylark, 1 meadow pipit and c20/30+ linnet. This morning, first thing, there were 2 female-type eider off Maer Rocks, 2 red-throated diver flew West and 8 dark-bellied brent goose were feeding on the rocks.

Photographing purple sandpipers on slippery Maer Rocks is a bloody risky business - not sure the results are worth it!

Off Mudbank yesterday - 1 ad mediterranean gull, 12+ teal, 27+ redshank, 7+ ringed plover, c200+ pintail, c300+ wigeon, 46+ turnstone and 44+ shelduck.

Friday 13 December 2013

Baltic Gulls

A frustrating and difficult week with zero birding, lingering cold, tonnes of work and little sleep. I'm hoping to get out to look for gulls this weekend but already the number of available hours looks limited. Here are a few gulls photographed in the Baltic on a family, non-birding holiday last summer. Baltic Gull is a very beautiful gull and one that I'm always on the look-out for locally.

                              ad baltic gull 

                              ad 'argentatus' herring gull 

                               juv 'argentatus' herring gull

                               common gull

                               baltic gull

                               juv 'argentatus' herring gull

                               juv common gull