Friday 31 January 2014

Devon Flashback 5 - Lesser Grey Shrike

May 26th 2002 - the day Lee Collins tested my marriage!
 Lu and I had been married exactly a year and Lu was pregnant with Maisie, who is now eleven years old - can't believe it. A big day for us - our first wedding anniversary and exciting times. We planned  a lazy lie-in and a relaxing morning followed by lunch out. I was going to prepare a nice big romantic breakfast when the phone rang. I just knew it was going to be a rare bird. It was simply inevitable. I prayed it was nothing too special but John Fortey's prophetic words were still ringing in my ears "Why get married at the end of May? Something good always turns up at the end of May". I answered the phone to Tom Whiley who relayed the message "Lee's got a grey shrike sp at Dawlish Warren - probably lesser grey". Bollocks!!!!!
I'd dipped the Otterton bird and badly wanted to see this one. Shrikes are simply must-see birds and although I was familiar with lesser grey from trips abroad (and a Norfolk individual twitched with Kev - see 'field sketches' page) a Devon bird was too big a pull! Being the incredibly understanding wife she is, Lu said "just go". I vowed to be quick and was as good as my word - back home in Exeter for 1015. 
A speedy twitch was only possible because I ran the length of the Warren, catching up with John and Tom and meeting Lee on Warren Point. He was understandably dead chuffed with his discovery. We lined up on the dune ridge looking down on to the point but it was the warden, a little way behind us, who picked the bird up first. We hurried back towards him and the bird looped up onto a bramble - Magic! I watched and sketched the bird for a short while as it shifted from bush to bush, occasionally dropping in to the marram grass for a prey item. I wanted to study it for longer but there was no way I was going to push my luck any further on my first wedding anniversary, so I jogged back to the car and sped back home. 
The rest of the day was lovely - funny how the day always takes on a particularly warm glow after a good bird!
This was Devon's third and last lesser grey shrike following the Otterton bird in July 1992 and one on Lundy in September 1961. (The Birds of Devon - M Tyler). I think a lot of birders got the Otterton bird but some, like me, presumably dipped and were very grateful to Lee for his find.
Incidentally it has been four years since John Fortey passed away. A truly lovely man and amazing birder. He was extremely modest, always playing down his capabilities and incredible finds. Pete Dennis once said to me "if John ever tells you he thinks he's seen something - go and see it because it will be what he thinks it is". I can honestly say I've never heard a bad word said about him and everyone who knew him remembers him with great fondness.

Wednesday 29 January 2014

Still Quiet in Exmouth

I managed a quick trip down to the river this afternoon after work. Best birds were 10 goldeneye off the Leisure Centre, comprising 3 drakes and 7 females. The numbers appear to be creeping up. At the end of last year and during the early part of this year the best I could manage was just four females. The oystercatcher below is a ringed individual but I couldn't read any details. Also present two peregrine, c20+ linnet, 40+ red-breasted merganser, 2 great crested grebe and a tonne of gulls too far upriver to go through. Off the lifeboat station still two eider, 1 razorbill and 1 red-throated diver.

ringed oystercatcher

2nd winter herring gull

black-headed gull

view from Shelly Beach earlier in the week - bad light for gulls

Monday 27 January 2014

White-billed Diver Painting

I've just completed a painting of the Brixham white-billed diver - acrylic on canvas (40 x 50cm). If anyone is interested in purchasing prints or buying the original please see my contact details on my 'for sale' page.

Saturday 25 January 2014

Devon Flashback 4 - Gyrfalcon

April 2nd 1986 - I'd not long gone to bed on the evening of April 1st 1986 when the phone rang downstairs. A few minutes later and Dad came up to tell me the fantastic news that he had just spoken to a friend who'd heard about a gyrfalcon turning up at Berry Head! Dad said he'd take me early in the morning but his work commitments meant we'd only have a narrow window of opportunity to get the bird. Minutes later he came back up and reminded me of the date - it was surely a hoax! I was utterly deflated and needless to say got very little sleep.
Up before dawn the next day and as we approached Berry Head we genuinely didn't know if we were completely wasting our time or about to encounter the bird of a lifetime. As we headed along the approach road we were greeted with the incredible spectacle of masses of twitchers silhouetted against the skyline - my first proper twitch and surely a sign that this was no hoax! Excitement however soon turned to crushing disappointment when we discovered we'd just missed it. I was to experience for the first time that horrible gut-wrenching feeling that accompanies a dip. Frustrating minutes ticked by and I tried to ignore the fact that we would soon have to leave but leave empty-handed we did.
To my intense relief however Dad promised to bring me back later in the day and so it was at 4pm that I finally clapped eyes on the magnificent gyr. We scoped it from the fortress wall as it sat in the sunshine on the quarry face. I was able to sketch it and soak up the atmosphere of the big twitch but I remember that by the time we had to leave, at around 5.40pm I was dead keen to see it fly. I'd heard the stories of it predating jackdaws and wanted to see it in action but it sat tight and my lasting image is captured in the above sketch.

The bird was found by Nick Ward on March 31st and stayed until April 9th representing the 8th record for Devon. What was presumed to be the same bird was then on Lundy from April 11th to 12th 1986. Nick then famously found another white gyr at Wembury on April 6th 1998 but I was abroad at the time so missed it.

I always think of the Berry Head gyr as my first Devon rarity and first proper twitch. I had seen the Exe lesser white-fronted goose earlier in the year but that has since not made the grade as a wild bird and it can't compete with the majesty of a white morph gyr. I've always fancied the rugged coastline around Bolt Head and Soar for Devon's next but the north Devon coastline is more likely I suppose given that five have now been seen on Lundy (The Birds of Devon - M Tyler).

Friday 24 January 2014

Devon Flashback 3 - Greater Sand Plover

April 29th 1988 - an early morning visit to the Warren, thanks to Dad, for Britain's 7th and Devon's first greater sand plover. The bird had been discovered two days earlier on April 27th by Andy Bond, Dave Stone and Ernie Davis. I can't remember how I heard about it but I remember it being an exciting time in Devon with a little bittern at Starcross three days later, hot on the heels of another at Slapton on April 16th (I dipped the Starcross bird and didn't even try for the brief Slapton individual). I'd also seen the East Allington black stork on April 14th.
Shortly after our arrival in the hide the bird flew in with a whirlwind of small waders. I remember being distinctly underwhelmed by its pallid, fairly featureless appearance but I'm pleased how my field sketches captured some nice subtle features such as a pencil-thin necklace across the breast and some fine chin speckling. It was aged as a first summer but I seem to recall I was expecting a nice summer-plumaged adult, hence a slight tinge of disappointment. I don't have much other detail in my logbook, probably because I had to dash back in time for school, but I can see the bird now, crouching nervously from time to time and exhibiting an impressively hefty bill.
I've only seen greater sand plover once since - a group of seven on Paphos headland, Cyprus in 1998. I really feel I should make the effort to go and see the next one that arrives in the South West. If it's going to turn up anywhere the Warren has to be the best bet.
A couple days earlier I had found my first ever BBRC rarity - a little egret on the river Teign. It was twitched by a few people back then but a couple of years later of course it was turning up in numbers along the south coast. It wasn't long before the BBRC stopped assessing the species altogether and the rest is history!

Monday 20 January 2014

Devon Flashback 2 - Roller

May 29th 1989 - A phone call from Mark Bailey around 1pm came completely out of the blue (pardon the pun). The shock news was that a roller had been discovered on East Budleigh Common and Mark was going for it. Would I like a lift? I didn't have to think too long before agreeing to meet him at Penn Inn roundabout! On arrival we could see no roller and in fact there were no other birders to point us in the right direction so we struck out, full of nervous anticipation, across the Common. Within a mercifully short time we had located the bird perched high, shrike-like, on a tall dead tree. We watched in stunned silence for about three minutes before it flew, a burst of brilliant turquoise blue, back towards where Mark had parked. We soon relocated it and watched it for a long time from the road. Other birders started to arrive and the bird flew directly over us before perching on gorse bushes and affording more scintillating views.
 After about an hour we headed up to Dartmoor for a male red-backed shrike that had the decency to start singing whilst we watched it - a really special and memorable afternoon with Mark great company as always.
Three days later, being a pushy, bird-obsessed youth I convinced Mum and Dad that they had to see the exotic Mediterranean vagrant so I got to see it again, this time sheltering from rain on the lower branches of a conifer. The colours took on different hues compared to when seen in the brilliant sunshine on the 29th.
The bird was present from the 28th May to 17th June 1989 (I'm pretty sure it waited for Bob to get back from France ) and was the twelfth record for Devon ( The Birds of Devon - M Tyler). Despite its long stay there must be many younger birders that haven't seen one in Devon. The record from Teignmouth on May 1st 2012 must have been very tantalising for a few but I reckon roller will occur again before too long - there has been a good recent run of birds nationally and Devon is blessed with loads of suitable habitiat for holding another - ever the optimist!

Sunday 19 January 2014

Around Exmouth

Yesterday on Warren View football pitch an adult mediterranean gull and c500+ black-headed gull (there was a 'new' 2w bird midweek). A forty five minute sea watch starting at 0825 from the raised beach huts produced c20+ kittiwake, 3 diver sp, 1 great northern diver, 2 fulmar, 16+ auk sp, 1 razorbill, 1 red-throated diver, 6 pintail and the 2 female eider. I then scooted round the top fields of Orcombe and got 16+ snipe, 1 song thrush, c50+ skylark, c20/30+ meadow pipit and c20+ linnet. A late afternoon look from the Rugby club and then Exmouth Quay failed to produce the glaucous gull but I was more than happy with a red-necked grebe, adult mediterranean gull and 5 goldeneye. Up until yesterday I'd only ever seen a little group of four female goldeneye so I was really chuffed to find a smart adult drake has joined them.

The moon was big this morning - photographed from Mudbank.

Sunrise looking towards Orcombe Point.

Two curlew heading inland.

Good numbers of black-heads at Hayes Barton.

Chiffie at Hayes Barton.

This morning off Mudbank there were 5+ goldeneye, 2 great crested grebe, 88 wigeon, 26 redshank and 1 long-tailed duck. On a flat calm sea there was little to see from the beach huts but 1 great northern diver was present along with the regular pair of female eider. About 30+ curlew headed inland. I thought Hayes Barton pig farm might be good this morning but the gulls were mainly black-headed gull with only c100+ herring gull. Also with them was 1 adult mediterranean gull and nearby 1 chiffchaff, 3+ red-legged partridge and 9+ meadow pipit.

Saturday 18 January 2014

Devon Flashback 1 - Great Spotted Cuckoo

March 23rd 1990 - the serendipitous absence of my physics teacher and a phone call to Birdline lead to me catching the 1536 train from Newton Abbot to Dawlish Warren for a great spotted cuckoo. I ran the length of the Warren (I ran for every bird back then) and soon caught up with two Liskeard birders heading out towards Warren Point. My initial views of the bird were brief as it flew low, obscured by marram and I was struck by the startling flashes of bright rufous-orange in the wings. Soon we were watching the bird settled at the base of a small bare tree where I was able to make some sketches (see above). After a while it drew the attention of a carrion crow and it flew further towards the tip of Warren Point. It was soon relocated but my logbook entry recalls that I felt it was being unnecessarily pushed by some birders so I left, bumping in to the warden who told me the bird was now in residence for its fourth day. It had been originally found by Dave Price and Keith Grant. It looks like I wasn't a part of an effective grapevine back then!

I went back to the Warren to see the bird again with my Dad the following day but a few days later the bird was sadly found dead. I've seen many great spotted cuckoos abroad since that magical first but it remains a very rare bird both nationally and in Devon. This was the second for Devon, the first having been seen just a month before on Lundy on the early date of February 23rd. Remarkably Devon's third and last record was also from the Warren on the even earlier date of Febraury 22nd 1998 (The Birds of Devon - M Tyler).
March 1990 saw an amazing arrival of spring overshoots in the South West that included a number of woodchat shrikes, night herons, a squacco heron and a sardinian warbler. I was lucky enough to catch up with a couple of woodchats. The bird immediately below was sketched at Hope's Nose on March 28th and the one below that at Jennycliff, Plymouth on March 19th.

Are there any long-term Devon listers that missed the cuckoo? I doubt it. Those that didn't see it alive may have seen in stuffed in the DW visitor's centre!

Friday 17 January 2014

Glaucous Gull

The 'frustrating white-winger' again this evening only I'm now happy it's a glaucous gull. It was over on the mudflats in front of the Warren tonight and ticked all the boxes for me although I'm acutely aware of the pitfalls out there. A couple years ago there was a leucistic/albino great black-backed gull around but tonight's bird had the feel of a glauc - a swaggering rolling gait, seemingly an effort to lift its rear end off the ground. Large-headed and pondorous. Side-on it dwarfed herring gulls and despite its white appearance it clearly has the pale pink black-tipped bill of a first or second winter. You'd have to go with second winter on the whiteness but the first-winter Teign bird could appear very white at a distance so I wouldn't rule a juv out. Lee Collins got some record shots from the Warren so I'll probably update this post later if Lee doesn't mind. Also this evening the 2 female eider off the Lifeboat Station and 1 prob GND.
Edit - huge thanks to top birder and good friend Lee Collins for the record shot below - taken at range from the saltmarsh.

pale juv for me! 

Tuesday 14 January 2014

Ye Olde Devon List

The Brixham white-billed diver prompted me to have a long overdue look at my Devon list. I've been through a lengthy period of indifference towards it, preferring for years now to just look for my own stuff. I kind of regret this attitude now because I've missed out on some fantastic birds - sometimes because I just couldn't get to the bird but more often because of my pig-headed 'I'm a birder not a twitcher' attitude. I'm much more likely to go for a bird if it's a new bird for me but I think I should make more of an effort to go for species that I 'need' for the county list or simply species that I haven't seen for a long time.
I am also planning on recounting some of my diary entries for famous Devon rarities over the years. I love the Devon birding scene and its many characters and I love the way that the county's top listers, those on 345+ (some are on 360+), maintain an air of secrecy and intrigue around their lists, often playing them down and pretending they don't really care about it.
I've stuck my list on a separate page (see pages menu at the top of this page) in case anybody is interested but I suppose I might as well produce a list of species I haven't seen in the county - there are some shocking gaps and I really do regret not going for some species that I could quite easily have got if I'd tried!

Saturday 11 January 2014


The sunrise from Exmouth seafront was magnificent this morning and it has remained sunny all day. I watched the sea for half an hour before I had to take Joel to football. Best bird was a long-tailed duck (female-type) which flew from Orcombe towards the Warren. On and around Maer Rocks were 99 brent goose, 1 curlew and 3 turnstone. No purple sandpipers and no sign of the eiders either.

 I had a quick and unsuccessful scan from the Imperial rugby ground for yesterday's presumed glaucous gull and tried again later this afternoon with Chris Townend but to no avail.
This family group of seven dark-bellied brents seem to keep themselves to themselves. They're often around the Imperial rugby ground area and I sometimes see them around Orcombe Point. It's funny how they seem to prefer their own company to that of the large flocks that are currently frequenting the north and west parts of the river.

This was the sunny view, looking back towards the Warren, from Orcombe Point late this morning and I also managed a quick look at Hayes Barton pig farm where the low gull count was disappointing. All I saw during my brief visit was c5+ meadow pipit, 1 stock dove, 1 red-legged partridge, 1 grey wagtail, 2 reed bunting and c20+ chaffinch. The red admiral pictured below was nice though if a little early!

-Like the odd-shaped reflections on these brents photographed off the Imperial rugby ground this afternoon.

Friday 10 January 2014

Frustrating White-winger

I was really good to bump into Chris Townend and Russ Eynon this evening near the Imperial rugby ground. We spent the last half hour of daylight (plus a good deal of near darkness) trying to suss a white-winged gull roosting on Bull Hill. We zipped round to the docks for a better view of it but it remained frustratingly distant. Initial thoughts were that it had to be glaucous gull - a hefty bird clearly bigger than accompanying herring gulls. However it looked undeniably long-winged at times and there were moments when the larger size was not so obvious. To compound the difficulty we were mostly viewing it back-on when size can be deceptive. As far as age goes it was always difficult. A very white-looking individual with perhaps some pale grey in the mantle? The bill looked dull but we couldn't detect the classic 'pink dipped in black' of an immature so perhaps a third-winter or older? Difficult to say! It is probably best left as a probable glaucous gull. It never appeared small and dainty as the majority of icelands do and often looked really big but it was a bit of a chameleon to say the least. Hopefully it will reappear tomorrow.

Wednesday 8 January 2014

Purple Sand influx!

It seems reasonable to assume that all the rough weather and associated big tides account for the additional purple sandpipers on Maer Rocks this evening. I counted at least eight with about fifteen turnstones. Counting the birds is really difficult on Maer Rocks because the birds spend the majority of time on the edge of the rocks, down and out of view. I think there is a very good chance there are more present. My highest count before now has been five back in November 2011 and the most I've seen this winter has been three. Maer Rocks is not a regular wintering site. I saw none in the winter of 2012/13 and before November 2011 I had never seen purple sandpiper there although there are old records going back about 20 years.
Yesterday after work I disturbed a grey-looking chiffchaff from a fuschia bush right beside our front door. I saw it briefly in flight across our next door neighbour's garden and very briefly in our back garden just before dark. I think there's a good chance it's a tristis-type but obviously need proper views. The wind was keeping it low and flighty.

Monday 6 January 2014

Another Jack Snipe

A late afternoon post work dog-walk produced mixed emotions. Dramatic skies over the river before torrential rain rolled in was heart-warming as was a titchy jack snipe that hung in the wind above me after Coco (our dog) flushed it from beside the footpath. I was gutted I didn't have the camera ready as this is a species I've never managed to photograph.

There was also sadness and anger as two tough wildfowlers set out across the estuary to blast some poor unsuspecting duck or goose out of the air. I can't honestly see how they can know what they're shooting when it's nearly dark!

Sunday 5 January 2014

Long-tailed Ducks

I did a sea-watch with Nick Pratt this morning (0810 - 0930). We watched from the raised beach huts and recorded the 2 female eider, 7  red-throated diver, 4+ diver sp, 3 auk sp, 1 razorbill, 2 kittiwake, c5/10+ gannet, c5/10+ common gull, 1 fulmar, 1+ great northern diver and best of all, 2 long-tailed duck. The first was zooming around distantly with a guillemot or razorbill and it looked very auk-like at times (see above sketch). Almost as soon as we'd watched it pitch down way off Orcombe Point Nick picked up the second bird close inshore. I managed a quick sketch before it took off, heading back towards the Warren. From behind in flight it's pretty indistinguishable from a guillemot or razorbill! The majority of birds we get on the Exe are immature or female-types like the above bird. Below is a painting I did of an adult male breeding-plumaged bird that was an unseasonal shock find on Bowling Green marsh back on August 23rd 2008.

On Warren View football pitch, behind the house, this morning 2 adult mediterranean gull and below is a selection of images of a preening pied wagtail taken at Exmouth Docks late yesterday afternoon.

I love the changes in body shape and the energetic contortions the bird makes to maintain its plumage. Brilliant birds!

Saturday 4 January 2014

Grotty Corner Black Red

I went back to Sandy Bay this afternoon, primarily for the gulls, but I was also keen to see how reliable yesterday's black redstart might be. I wasn't disappointed because it soon popped up and showed really well in what I now call the 'Grotty Corner', complete with an overflow pipe cascading a torrent of water down on to the beach. In the top photo you should be able to make out the bird on its favorite log perch, below an imposing set of warning signs! In this tiny area a number of other birds were present - a couple rock pipits, wren, robin, grey wagtail and 2 pied wagtails - all very nice.

Offshore were 3 great crested grebe and 1 guillemot. There was still a reasonable gathering of large gulls and the 2 female eider were visible distantly off Orcombe Point. Highlight of the day though was captured in the photos below - made me chuckle!