Tuesday 30 December 2014

2014 - Bumper Exmouth Review


First-winter Kumlien's Gull - Exmouth Beach 9/2/14.
So there goes 2014. It was overall a pretty good year for me bird-wise, but as usual I had to put the hours in, combining a full-time teaching job, busy family life, co-managing a football team and maintaining a couple blogs. I find getting the right  balance  difficult, and I pretty much fail miserably to maintain a happy equilibrium. Thankfully however, I find it relatively easy to get up early in the mornings, often getting a load of school work done before getting out at dawn, a tactic which means I enjoy a lot of sunrises, some of which I've tried to capture for this blog. Apologies if I've overdone it. I am invariably home for breakfast because my favourite birding spots are on my doorstep.
I did quite a bit of birding with good friends Derek and Nick, who were fantastic company.  Their companionship meant that those all too frequent quiet and birdless mornings were all the more enjoyable.
I probably shouldn't do it but I tend to judge a year primarily on the good birds that I find, and 2014 was better than an average year for me. Kumlien's Gull, Great White Egret, Caspian Tern and Red-breasted Flycatcher were all additions to my most important list, but Chough and Black Brant didn't quite tick all the 'self-found' boxes. Dotterel and Hume's Leaf Warbler were 'almost rans' but I don't really want to talk about them!
The year can be summed up as good winter, terrible spring, fantastic summer and poor autumn. The following is a look back at some of the best bits:

January was predictably quiet but a Jack Snipe at West Lodge warmed the winter cockles on 6/1, and I was pleased to find a nice white first-winter Glaucous Gull on 10/1, stood on Bull Hill. A Red-necked Grebe, one of my favourite birds, off Exmouth Quay on 18/1 was a really good Exmouth record.
February was a busier month, starting with two Scaup and an unseasonable Manx Shearwater past the Lifeboat Station on 8/2. An impressive gathering of gulls along the seafront, following winter storms, eventually re-paid hours of searching with a first-winter Kumlien's Gull on the estuary and then Exmouth Beach. It was at the pale end of the spectrum and it wasn't until photos were studied later, that its true identity was secured. Remarkably, the next day (10/2) Terry Smith found, an adult bird off the Lifeboat Station that was subsequently re-located on the River Axe. A couple of showy Little Gulls close in off the Coach Park and a 'new' juvenile Glaucous Gull stood on Warren Point continued a quality spell of 'gulling'. In a really fine year for 'glaucs' it wasn't too much of a surprise to finally add the species to the house list - a fine adult was present on the 10th and duly scoped from my son's bedroom window, thanks to a timely call from Lee Collins.

First-winter Kumlien's Gull - Exmouth Beach 2/9/14. What was presumably the same bird put in very sporadic appearance around the Exe with further sightings off the Warren and Topsham Rec. I saw it again briefly in Exmouth on 7/4.

Adult Little Gull - Exmouth Coach Park. Strong winds forced this bird very close to the shore providing prolonged views at close quarters on Valentine's Day. It was joined by a second bird the following day.
March was a way better month than usual for me with the undoubted highlight being a Chough on 23/3! It was a moment of pure serendipity, with the bird circling above calling, just long enough for me to grab a single record shot, before it curled its wings and 'rocketed' off along Exmouth Beach. I was walking the dog with the family at the time and was left in a state of shock, finding myself pointing the bird out to complete strangers who must have thought I was completely nuts! The disbelief was however,  tempered by knowledge that the bird was almost certainly the individual that had been seen a month earlier near the river Otter. Other March highlights included the Black Brant that spent some time on the Orcombe patch, a Siberian Chiffchaff that was seen on a number of occasions in scrub at the back of our house, a gorgeous spring Firecrest on Orcombe and a wonderful second-winter Glaucous Gull that sat and posed on Exmouth Quay to all-comers for a good few days. I managed Spoonbill, Osprey and Wheatear before the month's end but the end of March marked the beginning of a very slow and ultimately unproductive spring.
April was such a disappointing month, as common migrants were conspicuous by their absence. The best spring bird on Orcombe was a relatively early Pied Flycatcher that materialised out of the murk on 5/4. The Kumlien's Gull made another brief appearance in the estuary and another one or two Ospreys, including a bird 'in off' and over Orcombe, were great to see. A family holiday to Morocco towards the end of the month was great, as was my first twitch of the year for a 'huge' Devon tick - a simply wonderful and rather dinky Collared Pratincole at Skern, Northam Burrows, on 27/4. A pink-washed Roseate Tern off the seafront, capped an otherwise underwhelming (in Exmouth at least) month.

Black Brant - Orcombe Point.

Firecrest - Orcombe Point on 12/3.

Second-winter Glaucous Gull - Exmouth Quay.

Chough - Orcombe Point - 23/3/14. This was probably the most unexpected sighting for me in 2014. A chough had been photographed a month before near the river Otter. I had just walked on to the beach near Orcombe Point, with the family and the dog. Above the howling of the wind I could hear what I first thought was a jackdaw, but something wasn't quite right. I glanced up and this bird was directly overhead. I pointed my camera at it and pressed before it curled its wings and hurtled the entire length of Exmouth beach, in seconds. The relief I felt to see this image on the back of the camera was huge, as I doubt anyone would have believed me otherwise!

This incredibly obliging second-winter Glaucous Gull was first seen at the Warren, but it saw sense and made Exmouth Quay its home from 22/3. I felt compelled to keep visiting it, as it's so rare to be able to get so 'up close and personal' with this species in Devon.

What a bird!

This Siberian Chiffchaff was first picked up from its Bullfinch-like 'fee' call on March 11th, although I had probably first seen it in a fuschia next to my front door, way back in January. I am convinced it's a female as it didn't sing in warm spring sunshine, when all around it its more familiar cousins were 'testing their tonsils'. The above photograph was taken on 29/3.

Female Pied Flycatcher - Orcombe Point 5/4.

Collared Pratincole - Skern 27/4.
May was generally quiet with a few Roseate Terns, Spotted Flycatchers, Storm Petrels and a fine adult Black Tern spicing things up just a little. The high point though was a gorgeous first-summer Ross's Gull on Bowling Green Marsh, eliciting my second twitch of the year. It was a deservedly popular bird and I became a bit obsessed with adding it to my house list, convinced that it would, at some point, get a bit adventurous and move to the south end of the Exe. The day that actually happened was the 10th June. I was thrilled to watch it fly in, and land on a mid-river sandbar whilst I was sat, scanning the river from the Imperial Rugby Club. I rushed home and was able to scope the bird from my back garden, with a first-summer Bonaparte's Gull thrown in for good measure!
June was otherwise quiet, the highlights being a beefy, pale phase, fully-spooned Pomarine Skua, an unseasonable drake Eider and a Red Kite, picked up from the back garden, heading north up the opposite side of the river.

First-summer Ross's Gull - Bowling Green Marsh.

July and August produced some really good spells of birding. In fact the summer months beat the autumn months hands down, but I suppose that was due in part, to the amount of time I could get out and about. Being in Exmouth for the summer holidays meant I could get out pretty much every day before the rest of the family was even awake. I also managed to look for a few butterflies and moths.
As has become a bit of an annual tradition, I searched diligently for juvenile Yellow-legged Gulls, finding the first of many on July 1st off the seafront. They kept on popping up, with the last one  recorded on 11th September. My searches for Yellow-legged Gulls lead to the thrilling finding of a Great White Egret on July 6th and, better still, an adult-type Caspian Tern on August 5th.
Other special summer sightings included 10 Goosanders on July 7th and 2 Great Shearwaters off Orcombe point on August 10th.  Additionally I saw a few Little Terns, Balearic Shearwaters, Arctic Terns, Black Terns, fantastic numbers of Common Terns, a Little Stint, a juvenile Curlew Sandpiper, a couple of Little Gulls (including a smart juvenile), singles of Osprey and Roseate Tern and a couple of early Grasshopper Warblers.
 Another good bird on Bowling Green, this time a Temminck's Stint, got me twitching again on August 22nd.

This Great White Egret was a brand new 'self-found' species for me, and one of my highlights of 2014. It later transpired that it was almost certainly ringed on May 10th 2013 at Lac De Grande-Lieu in Loire Atlantique. This was the first sighting since it was rung. It flew in off the sea, over Maer Rocks and then towards the Warren before veering off over Exmouth, and later relocating to Powderham, where a photograph was taken revealing the colour ring combination. The rings are just visible on the original images that I took if you zoom right in.

It was a good year in Exmouth for juvenile Yellow-legged Gulls. I photographed 10 individuals and recorded several more. All were either off the Seafront or Mudbank Lane. Some were big 'classic'-looking birds and others were small and not at all obvious. Presumably the smaller darker birds at least were Spanish birds, and this assumption seems to be backed up with a colour-ringed bird that was observed off the Seafront on 20/7 - see details below.

Juvenile Yellow-legged Gull - Exmouth Beach.

Juvenile Yellow-legged Gull - Exmouth Beach. A small, dark and presumably Spanish bird.

This juvenile Yellow-legged Gull (20/7/14) sported a green plastic ring on its right tarsus, and was therefore from one of the Spanish ringing projects. Correspondence from Antonio Gutierrez suggests it was almost certainly a Catalonian bird (NE Spain) which is a potentially a very exciting record. It spent some time stood on Dawlish Warren beach after it had first landed on Maer Rocks briefly, and then loitered off the Seafront (where I snapped this photo) but, frustratingly, no birders were on the Warren to read the ring.

First-winter Yellow-legged Gull - Exmouth Beach - the smartest of the bunch.

My best find of 2014 was undoubtedly this huge Caspian Tern, one of only 2 records in Britain in 2014. I first picked it up briefly off Maer Rocks early in the morning, but had to endure a few hours of self-doubt before I scoped it on a sandbar in the river from my son's bedroom. I then enjoyed great views of it patrolling majestically off Mudbank, along with a number of other birders, before it disappeared upriver - a very memorable day for me.

Big numbers of Common Tern were present around the Exe at the end of August. I enjoyed close views of a number of birds off Exmouth Quay.
Sandwich Tern - off Exmouth Quay.
Second-winter Little Gull - Mudbank. This bird was seen on a number of occasions over the summer. 2014 was really good for this species in Exmouth with several long-staying individuals putting in appearances.
After a good late winter and fantastic summer, I suppose it was always going to be a bit much to expect a bumper autumn. In fact the autumn was probably the quietest I can remember, with low numbers of many common migrants, such as Chaffinch, Redpoll, Brambling, House Martin, Swallow and Redwing  and complete 'no shows' from the likes of Redstart, Black Redstart, Fieldfare and many expected scarcer species like Pied Flycatcher, Ring ouzel, Jack Snipe and Short-eared Owl. The two prime 'Top Fields' that traditionally pull in larks and pipits, when left as stubble, were planted with maize and grass. This 'nightmare' combination failed to pull in the usual numbers of Skylark and Meadow Pipit.
That said, it was a good autumn on Orcombe for Tree Pipits, Yellow Wagtails, Reed Buntings, Yellowhammers, Stock Doves and Stonechats, and a couple Merlins and a Firecrest were noteworthy as they are by no means guaranteed on Orcombe in the autumn.
On the river, wildfowl numbers built up earlier and faster than usual, with numbers of Pintail, Wigeon and Mallard combined, at times seeming overwhelming.
There was a short 'golden' spell in mid-September, when the birding was probably the best I've ever experienced on Orcombe. On the 20th and 21st of September,  we recorded Wryneck, c30/40+ Chiffchaff, Lesser Whitethroat, 13+ Yellow Wagtail, 2/3+ Jay, Spotted Flycatcher, 3 Stonechat, 1 Greenshank, Red-breasted Flycatcher, 16+ Wheatear, Hobby, Tree pipit, 2 Dark-bellied Brent Goose and c40+ House Martin among other, commoner species.
October was extremely quiet. In fact it was so quiet that the lone Dartford Warbler, present on the 29th October was the 'stand out' bird.
November was similarly dire, though some good birding was enjoyed on the 1st when 16000+ Woodpigeon and at least 180 Stock Doves passed over, heading northwest. The November highlight on Orcombe was a Snow Bunting, that called several times and flashed white wing patches as it flew west past Nick and me on the 8th November.
Later in the month I spent more time looking at the estuary (where the presumed returning adult Black Brant and 4 Spoonbills were the highlights) and I was left scratching my head as to why I hadn't been able to find a single Yellow-browed Warbler, while the rest of Devon seemed to be heaving with them! Thanks to Chris Townend, I did at least see one, in Budleigh on 29/10.  Budleigh also provided a gorgeous  Grey Phalarope (26/10).
Grey Phalarope - Otter Estuary on 26/10.

A nice grey and pale primrose Yellow Wagtail - Orcombe Point. Up to 200 birds were recorded on Orcombe Point between 19th August and 12th October, although a degree of caution is required here, as some birds may have lingered and consequently been re-counted on successive days.

Wheatear - Orcombe Point. Reasonable numbers were recorded throughout the autumn. This bird was exceptional in that it allowed me to approach quite closely.

Tree Pipit - Orcombe Point. It was a good autumn for this species on Orcombe, with up to 32 recorded.

Putative Baltic Gull - Mudbank. This bird provided me a bit of interest in September. It shows some features of Baltic Gull, but not enough to get me reaching for and rarity submission forms!

Yellow Wagtail - Orcombe Point.

Presumed Blue-headed Wagtail - Orcombe Point. I'm pretty sure this is indeed Blue-headed as there is a lovely lavender-blue cast to the crown, a bright white supercilium and a white throat. The presence of some olive in the crown and ear coverts complicates the matter somewhat, but may not be a bad thing.

Wryneck - Orcombe Point. It was wonderful to finally add this long-anticipated species to my Orcombe list. It afforded incredible views and consequently attracted a lot of admirers.

First-winter Red-breasted Flycatcher - Orcombe Point. This was a personal highlight of the autumn for me. As far as I'm aware it represents the first record for the Exe Estuary recording area. It certainly attracted the crowds, being present at the same time as the Wryneck. A real purple patch for Orcombe, seeing far more birders on site than I've ever seen before. I foolishly hoped it would mark the beginning of a memorable Orcombe autumn but birding went distinctly downhill afterwards!
Reed Bunting - near the Slurry Pit, Orcombe Point. One of up to 90 birds recorded on Orcombe in a bumper autumn for this species. Four Yellowhammers represented a good total for Orcombe too, but a lack of stubble in the top fields prevented more species variety.

Dartford Warbler - Orcombe Point. The 4th record of this species for Orcombe point and the best bird of October 2014!

Adult Black Brant - off the Imperial Rugby Ground on 15/11.

Adult and 3 juvenile Spoonbills off the Imperial Rugby Ground on 16/11.

First-winter male 'paradoxus' Black Redstart - Sailing Club.
First-winter male Black Redstart - Sailing Club.
December was, unsurprisingly, the month where birding fizzled to a much slower pace, although in truth it had started to fizzle out way back in September! My birding patterns changed dramatically and I spent some time chasing 2 Black Redstarts around the Sailing Club/Marina area (and finding a third at Sandy Bay) and trying to photograph Purple Sandpipers on Maer Rocks. On the 6th December, Paul Gosling and I enjoyed two late Swallows feeding over the Maer Cricket Club as our sons played football, but short winter days reduced the number of available birding hours and reduced the number of birds seen.
The year ended on a bit of a bum note as I failed to clinch a very likely Hume's Leaf warbler at Countess Wear and I went looking for Penduline Tits in the wrong place, on the day that 3 turned up at Bowling Green, but that's birding for you.
I don't year list but I did a quick count up and reckon I saw 170 species in Exmouth in 2014. I've no idea how that compares to other years but I think it's a pretty respectable total for a seaside town that sits very much in the shadow of Dawlish Warren.
I'm looking forward to 2015. No targets, just more Exmouth birding and a bit more blogging.

Monday 29 December 2014

Cold but Quiet

Sunrise from the Lifeboat Station.
I was out at dawn and dusk in bitterly cold weather today but the birding was disappointing. There is nothing of any note to report, other than the goldeneye count has gone up to 5, there were 3 shoveler off Mudbank and there were 15 lapwing off Mudbank yesterday. Oh and I've stuck my Exmouth list on the menu bar - 220 seems a bit low and I can't work out whether or not I've seen a moorhen in Exmouth. Stay tuned for tomorrow's 2014 Bumper Exmouth Review.

Little Egret - Exmouth Quay.

Warren Point from Exmouth Quay.

View from Mudbank late afternoon.

Sunset from Exmouth Quay.

Tuesday 23 December 2014

Another Black Redstart

Black Redstart - Exmouth Sailing Club.
The black redstart was still near the sailing club this afternoon and I found a very similar looking individual on rocks near the bottom of the access ramp at Sandy Bay - the same spot that held one last winter. There was also 9+ turnstone and 1 purple sandpiper on Maer Rocks late afternoon.

Black Redstart - Exmouth Sailing Club.

Dark-bellied Brent Geese - Shelly Beach.

Dark-bellied Brent Goose - Sandy Bay.