Thursday 31 December 2015

2015 Bumper Review

I've always loved the way that each year in the birding calendar is totally different. Exmouth in 2015 seemed very different. In fact I'd say it was a bit of an odd year but I guess that ties in to the weird weather patterns that are now becoming more the 'norm' as the global temperature creeps ever upwards.
The initial winter period was pretty awful, the spring was terrible, the summer was ok, late summer/early autumn  had its moments, but mid-late autumn was actually pretty good for a change! Early winter was perhaps a little better than expected. More bad than good. More frustration than excitement and very disappointing in terms of numbers of common birds, although again, this is sadly no longer particularly surprising.  The total number of species seen, within the Exmouth parish boundary during the year, was 164 - six shy of last year's total. I got out and about as much as possible but, as always, it required a lot of early starts to accommodate an energy-sapping full-time job and busy family life.
The only additions to my somewhat stagnating 'self-found' list were the Ridgway's Cackling Goose, which I'm sure I'll never be able to count, and Leach's Petrel, just as the year breathed its final birdy breath. There were a number of birds that I couldn't 'nail' but that's 'par for the course' with birding so I'm not going to moan about it.
'Bird of the Year' goes to a gorgeous Pallas's Warbler found by my good mate Dave Hopkins whilst I was otherwise engaged - thanks Dave!  
And thank you also to Derek and Nick for their fantastic company and continued willingness to share the often birdless dawn Orcombe 'assaults'. Thanks also to everyone that reads the blog and those that take time to comment - it's much appreciated.

January birding was pretty quiet but with so few opportunities to get out, and with such mild weather, it was hardly surprising. One of the 'Sailing Club' Black Redstarts was still present on the 3rd along with the returning adult Bonaparte's Gull, which was again seen on the 17th. A wintering Long-tailed Duck was off Maer Rocks the following day. On the 17th, nine Purple Sandpipers were on Maer Rocks - a site that is now truly established as a regular wintering site for this beautiful species.  The wintering Black Redstart was again seen in Sandy Bay on the 24th, but that was about it. No repeat of last year's 'white-winger' extravaganza!
 February continued in much the same vane, with another view of the Bonaparte's Gull on the 3rd and the Purple Sandpiper count rising to 10 on the 6th. Two Long-tailed Ducks were photographed together off Maer Rocks on the 15th and were still present there on the 20th, when the estuary provided relatively high counts of Red-breasted Merganser (54), Goldeneye (9) and Great Crested Grebe (14).

Long-tailed Ducks off Maer Rocks on 15/2
I got my best ever photos of Kingfisher, on Exmouth Quay, on February 3rd.

Last year, March was superb (Chough, Siberian Chiffchaff, Black Brant, Firecrest, Glaucous Gull, Osprey and Spoonbill). There was no way March 2015 could compare, and that was very much the case. I got my best ever photos of Purple Sandpipers on Maer Rocks on the 8th, but Mark Bailey recorded the winter's highest total with 12 on the 5th. The 12th provided me with my first spring migrants - a 'post work' circuit of Orcombe Point producing 3 Wheatear, 3 Stonechat, 1 Chiffchaff, 6 Meadow Pipit and a Black Redstart.
 Things predictably gathered pace in April, with the first Osprey heading upriver on the 5th and my first Swallow of the spring the same day. I got my first Willow Warblers (5) on Orcombe on the 6th and thoroughly enjoyed my first Redstart of the spring, which Nick found on the 7th. Two more smart male Redstarts followed - the last being found on the 19th, when I also saw my fifth Osprey of the spring, and a Red Kite. I chanced upon the year's only Grasshopper Warbler, on Orcombe Point, on the 23rd but that did little to salvage what can only be described as yet another  disappointing April, with worryingly low numbers of common migrants. The month concluded with my first spring record of Purple Sandpiper on Maer Rocks, on the 25th, and a welcome female Cirl Bunting, briefly on Orcombe on the morning of the 30th.

I took a stack of photos of Purple Sandpipers on Maer Rocks on March 8th. I was so close that I could, for the first time, appreciate the beautiful purple sheen that gives this species its name.

This Black Redstart was the star of a small flush of early spring migrants on March 12th. My first Wheatears of the year were also recorded on this date, along with 3 migrant Stonechats.

I spent quite some time with this Rock Pipit, just upriver from Mudbank on March 21st. My initial views suggested it could be littoralis as it seemed quite grey and exhibited a peachy hue to the central breast area. In the end though it just wasn't colourful enough for me to be sure. Bright sunlight left it looking distinctly more petrosus-like!

This Redstart was on Orcombe on April 9th. It was the showiest of the spring's trio.

Cirls are less than annual in Exmouth so I was chuffed to find this female on April 30th. It didn't hang around though. I failed to record any in Exmouth last year, and now that only dairy farming takes place on Orcombe, breeding is looking less likely than ever before.
May was notable for Divers (3 species), Skuas (3 species), Red Kites and Roseate Terns. On the 2nd I had a very probable (I was happy with it at the time) Black Guillemot off Orcombe and a Cuckoo. The latter was a surprise flyover as I watched my son playing  football at the Imperial rugby ground. On the 3rd it was Garden Warblers that stole the show, with an Orcombe site record 5 being recorded. Two singing Lesser Whitethroats on the same date were even more noteworthy (a third was recorded on the 12th). Thirty nine Pale-bellied Brent Geese were in the estuary on the 3rd. On the 8th, I recorded my first of 4 spring Spotted Flycatchers on Orcombe, along with a Pomarine Skua, and on the 9th a Hobby skimmed low above the sea towards the Warren. The 10th sticks in the memory as 4 Pomarine Skuas rounded Orcombe Point to sit on the sea off Maer Rocks. I enjoyed prolonged views of them before they drifted off towards Langstone Rock - 3 pale and a dark-phase bird.

Arctic Skuas - field sketches. Several birds were seen off Orcombe in May, with  7 Poms and a Bonxie also recorded.
Nine Red Kites were 'scoped' from the garden on the 16th, taking the May total to 12, and on the 31st a Black-throated Diver flew past Orcombe, as did 4 Great Northern Divers, taking the spring total to an impressive 123 birds. Despite some good birds, May again failed to produce any decent numbers of common migrants or the hoped-for rarity. I kept waiting for hirundine numbers to build but they never really did. Whimbrel counts were made on most May days with a peak of c80+ birds in the estuary in the first week of the month.

 June can be pretty good on the Exe, particularly the first week, but in Exmouth at least, it was ridiculously quiet. In fact, the only noteworthy sighting was a noisy flock of 9 Crossbills that flew over the house, westwards, on the 9th.
 July was all about the annual Yellow-legged Gull influx, and 2015 didn't disappoint! At least 12 juveniles were recorded between July 9th and August 20th. Below are some of the more cooperative individuals:

Yellow-legged Gulls aside, July was pretty quiet although 3 Goosander off Maer Rocks on the 9th was noteworthy. Things picked up towards the month's end with a highly unseasonal Avocet off the seafront on the 25th, Ruff off Mudbank on the 28th, 2 Crossbill over Mudbank on the 30th and a second-summer Little Gull off Maer Rocks on the 31st.
 August and the birding moved up a gear. None of the drama of last August's Caspian Tern but some August 'classics', including Wood Sandpipers, Black Terns and a Wryneck.
On the 2nd, 6 Teal flew in off the sea and a couple Pomarine Skuas flew south. The 13th was a red-letter day with my first Exmouth Wood Sandpiper and 4 Black Terns off Mudbank, along with 8 Mediterranean Gulls and a nice variety of waders. On the 15th I recorded 2 Green Sandpipers on Orcombe Point and on the 23rd, a second Wood Sandpiper pitched down on Maer Rocks in torrential rain. At least 13 beautiful Black Terns were seen off the Imperial. A Ruff was off Mudbank on the 24th and on the 25th a Little Gull, Black Tern, Great Skua, 2 Balearic Shearwaters and a Great Northern Diver were off Maer Rocks. On the 26th, my son's birthday, we enjoyed a birthday dinner of fish and chips, whilst c1000+ Common Terns flew in to roost off the Imperial, and with them at least 2 Black Terns. The month ended with a surprise Wryneck on Orcombe Point and a nice little fall of more common late summer migrants.

I found this Wood Sandpiper on Maer Rocks early in the morning, in a downpour. At the same time a large flock turned up on Blackhole Marsh - a site that is custom-built for them. Maer Rocks is far from ideal habitat and for that reason this bird seemed all the more special.

 This 'second' for Orcombe follows hot on the heels of last year's 'first'. It's only the fourth one I've actually found in Devon and this individual's furtive behaviour reminded me why I've found so few.
September was an unremarkable month though, as with elsewhere along the coast, Siskins featured in good numbers. Tree Pipit and Yellow Wagtail numbers were down on last year but both species passed through in reasonable numbers. On the 4th, singles of both Arctic Tern and Black Tern were seen off Maer Rocks. Twelve Pale-bellied Brent Geese were recorded off Mudbank on the 10th and on the 12th, 2 Ospreys and 2 juvenile Black Terns were off there. A Hobby shot over Mudbank on the 14th and some Lesser Black-backed Gull passage was noted on the 16th, with 70+ off the Seafront. A family party of 5 Pale-bellied Brent Geese turned up on Maer Rocks on the 19th and remained in the estuary well in to the winter. The 20th was a good day with a Turtle Dove found on the Maer and my only White Wagtail of the autumn on the Cricket  Pitch. The 25th was noteworthy for my first Orcombe Nuthatch. The 27th saw the arrival of a very smart and very tiny Ridgway's Cackling Goose. I picked it up on the estuary from the back garden. It consorted with a newly arrived flock of Dark-bellied Brent Geese and created quite a bit of interest. I knew from the moment I saw it that its origin would polarise opinion and that's exactly what happened. I last saw it on the estuary on October 13th. It vanished for a while and was later re-found at the north end of the estuary. Interest in it rapidly waned from then on, but the possibility that it's a wild bird remains.

Two adult and three juvenile Pale-bellied Brent Geese arrived on September 19th and remained on the estuary until December 24th at least. Good numbers of Dark-bellied Brent Geese were present throughout the autumn but juvenile birds were very thin on the ground, presumably indicating a poor breeding season.

White Wagtails were extremely thin on the ground in Exmouth this autumn. This was my only one!

My first Orcombe Point Nuthatch! There aren't too many places within the Exmouth parish boundary that Nuthatches can be found. Phear park has them and there are numbers in woodland bordering the East Devon Commons.
Devon's first Ridgway's Cackling Goose - photographed by Chris Townend.
October began with time spent watching geese but was more memorable for a terrific influx of Goldcrests towards the month's end. It was a far better October than last year but not without its frustrations.
I kept tabs on the Ridgway's Cackling Goose and was pleased to pick out the presumed returning Black Brant off the Imperial on the 4th. I also had a fly-over Serin at Maer Lane Water Treatment Works on the 4th, but I'm not at all keen on submitting call-only records so this record will go no further. On the evening of the 9th a Snow Bunting lead me a merry dance around a field on Orcombe but wouldn't settle long enough to have its picture taken. On the 11th Nick and I recorded the autumn's first Black Redstarts with two Birds on Orcombe. My first Redwings of the autumn flew over the house on the 12th and the only Snipe of the entire autumn was flushed from the 'Top Fields' on the same date. I was pleased to get a Ring Ouzel on Orcombe Point on the evening of the 14th but not so happy to watch a 'ticking' bunting disappear over the horizon. On the 26th it felt like something interesting was afoot. Something a bit magical in the air.  I recorded an unprecedented 3 Firecrests on Orcombe along with at least 50/60+ Goldcrests although, to be honest, there may well have been many more. The following day a Pallas's Warbler was discovered just inside the Bristol Schools Camp but Yellow-browed Warblers failed to materialise in what was, yet again, a bumper year nationally and regionally for this increasingly common species. Goldcrests continued to feature, in numbers, throughout the next week or so and a Dartford warbler popped up in the Dung Field on the 29th. The 29th also produced 2 Black Redstarts at Mudbank. The afternoon of the 30th was drab and grey but it got significantly more cheery when I found a Serin hiding in sallows at the back of our house.

Bird of the year in Exmouth but no prizes for the photograph. This Pallas's Warbler, a first for Exmouth,  was found in the Bristol Schools' Camp and was well-twitched.

In a great year for Coal Tits, this individual was the closest I got to a 'continental'. Up to 20 birds were recorded between September 6th and the end of October.

Goldcrest numbers were way higher this year than most. We enjoyed a bumper crop in Exmouth, many of which had all the hallmarks of continental birds. The influx started on the 26th of October though smaller numbers had been recorded prior to that.

Firecrest - this species turned up in higher than usual numbers too. I recorded up to 10 individuals in Exmouth between October 16th and November 7th.

This Serin drew a large number of birders to the football pitches behind our house. Dave Land captured some fantastic images including the one above.
Early November continued where October left off. Enjoyable birding with the Dung Field Dartford Warbler last seen on the 4th and the Serin last seen on the 8th. The Black Brant put in appearances throughout the month  and a Firecrest was present around the fringes of the Maer Long Stay Carpark on the 7th. A high count of 195+ Turnstone was made off Mudbank on the 10th and 5+ Great Northern Divers were off Orcombe on the 15th. I really thought I'd missed the annual Woodpigeon migration spectacle so it was a joy to witness c20,000 head West on the morning of the 21st. My only Exmouth Jack Snipe of the year was flushed from the Top Fields on the same date. The following morning Nick and I witnessed further squadrons of migrating 'Woodies', again totalling c20,000 birds. It was a far better autumn for Brambling than last year, with several noted over Orcombe, and most November days featured parties of Redwing and Fieldfare flying in all directions over the house, despite the mild conditions. Great Northern Diver numbers picked up towards the month's end, with 13 noted past Orcombe on the 29th, and an adult Little Gull went south past there on the 28th. The autumn again finished with some head-scratching. Why no Yellow-browed Warblers and why no Short-eared Owls in Exmouth, when numbers elsewhere have been exceptional?
This presumed returning Black Brant was seen regularly off Mudbank from October 4th into December. 
December is the worst time of year for me. It was an unfeasibly mild month and the short days and hefty workload inevitably limited the number of hours that I was able to get out. Throw in the need to be at football matches on Saturday mornings and it's little wonder that this section of the review  is so short. Divers were a feature on the occasions I was able sea-watch with 22 Great Northern Divers past Orcombe on the 6th and 9 Red-throated Divers on the 28th. A Whimbrel was off Mudbank on the 10th, Black Brant off there on the 11th and Slavonian Grebe on the 6th and 13th. A high count of 12 Purple Sandpipers was made  on Maer Rocks on the 21st  and the Bonaparte's Gull put in a good performance off Shelly Beach on the 23rd and 29th. I found a Siberian Chiffchaff on Warren View playing fields on the 29th and the following day storm 'Frank' delivered a long overdue 'self-found' Leach's Petrel off the seafront. A great end to the year.
 A wintering Whimbrel - photographed off Mudbank on the 10th.
 Both Spring and Autumn saw superb numbers of Great Northern Divers. This individual was photographed off Shelly Beach on 28/12.

 Bonaparte's Gull -  the year started and ended with views of this long-stayer off Shelly Beach. It has been returning to the Exe to winter since 2011.
On a final and slightly depressing note, my beloved Orcombe local patch has seen some significant changes this year. Sadly, the farmland has changed hands and now caters solely for the milk market. Gone are the stubble fields, that have traditionally sustained flocks of up to 200 Skylark. Instead we just have grass. Lots and lots of grass. The hedgerows are still stripped back mercilessly, to leave no shelter for birds, and the coastal path is heaving with joggers, ramblers and dog-walkers - all weathers and all times of day. Additionally, the small 'slither' of Sandy Bay on the patch boundary, that Nick, Derek and I cover, has been bulldozed in preparation for yet more static caravans. Birding Orcombe has always been hard work but it's just got a whole lot harder. It has none of the benefits of a well-managed reserve, complete with protected areas, managed habitat, boardwalks and hides. It doesn't stick out enough to really attract stuff or watch seabirds from, and it has no fresh water on it. You've got to enjoy a challenge to bird it! 
To add to the pain, the little corner of estuary that I watch is becoming more and more disturbed. This year I witnessed kite-surfers, wind-surfers, kayakers, paddle-boarders, jet 'boaters', dog-walkers, drone-flyers, bait-diggers, crab-trappers wildfowlers and a tw*t with a model helicopter disturb the birds that rely so heavily on the vital saltmarsh habitat. How long can it go on? Lets hope 2016 provides some positive news for the birds. 

Wednesday 30 December 2015

Leach's Petrel

Leach's Petrel - field sketches.
The day got off to a great start (see 'Cornifrons ulceratalis' post below) but a dawn sea-watch was frustrating, it being so windy that there was very little moving off Maer Rocks. I got a few Kittiwakes, 4 Common Scoter and 1+ Great Northern Diver before the rain started blowing in. I decided to cut my losses and went home for some breakfast.
Lu had woken up with a bad back so I nipped up to Tescos mid-morning for the weekly shop. The rain was by now so torrential that I figured birding would be a wash-out anyway. My in-laws were supposed to come over for lunch but they had some problems with their electrics so I thought I'd nip down to the seafront for a quick look at the sea. I parked beside the little shelter on the Esplanade, near the Grove Pub, and scanned the sea and river-mouth. I got more and more soaked and was about to jack it in when I suddenly thought I'd seen a pair of dark wings in the murk. I scanned the area and was shocked to see a petrel lift off the water and go straight back down again. Before long it was flying towards me and I was able to confirm it as Leach's Petrel - long, broad, angled wings and a clearly forked tail, coupled with its apparent large size left me in no doubt. The conditions were so abysmal that I just couldn't discern any paler areas on the wing coverts but the pale rump patch was visible on occasions. I sent out some texts and was delighted that Lee was able to get it before it disappeared. He had to leave the comfort of the hide and got a soaking for his troubles, but assures me it was worth it! The only other bird off there was a single Great Northern Diver.
Leach's Petrel is a bird I've never seen before in Devon. I guess I've usually been working when conditions were right, or doing other stuff with the family. The last time I saw Leach's Petrel was off St Ives on September 13th 1998!

Shag - Exmouth seafront.

Cornifrons ulceratalis!

Cornifrons ulceratalis

A massive thank you to Nigel Pinhorn  for getting in touch and inviting me to see this rare moth. Nigel trapped it a couple nights ago at his home in Exwick. It will probably prove to be the first Devon record and has originated from either southern Europe or north Africa. It comes after a flurry of recent sightings along the south coast, with the first for Britain, as far as I'm aware, being trapped in Bridport, Dorset as recently as December 19th. It's a great looking little moth but I guess you've got to be in to moths to truly appreciate it! I'm annoyed with myself for not running my trap recently but hopefully there will be more opportunities in the coming weeks. The micro that I trapped a couple nights ago has been identified as Crocidosema plebejana or Southern Bell - many thanks to Nigel and Nick for their help.

Tuesday 29 December 2015


Meadow Pipit - Imperial Recreation Ground.

Again not much time out today but the sun was out so I was keen to get some photographs. I didn't get out until mid-afternoon but managed to squeeze in some good stuff in glorious sunshine. The adult Bonaparte's Gull was again showing down to a few feet off Shelly Beach and nearby the two Black Redstarts were flashing their 'firey' retrices on the dockside apartment buildings.  I searched the scrub that borders Warren View playing fields and was chuffed to find a Siberian Chiffchaff. It was a sod to photograph but exhibited the full suite of 'tristis' characteristics, although it didn't call once. I'm confident this bird is new in as I've been checking the area pretty regularly over the last few weeks. At least 1 colybitta Chiffchaff was also present, along with a male Bullfinch and a Coal Tit.

Black Redstart

Bonaparte's Gull

Little Egret - Shelly Beach

Monday 28 December 2015

Very Early Grey and GND


Two Great Northern Divers showing close in off Shelly Beach late this afternoon. The photographed individual regularly coming in to within about 10ft of the beach. The second individual has a smudge of oil on its throat. Also 3 Great Crested Grebe.
A look off Maer Rocks with Nick, from dawn, produced 9 Red-throated Diver, 1 Great Northern Diver, 1 Red-breasted Merganser, 16 Common Scoter, 2+ Fulmar and 5+ Razorbill.
I ran the moth trap last night and caught 1 Dotted Border, 2 Silver Y, 1 Early Grey and 1 December Moth, as well as a 'micro' that I have yet to identify.


Dotted Border - normally on the wing from February onwards.

Early Grey - shouldn't be on the wing until March!

Silver Y - the first of 2 trapped last night.

December Moth - the first one I've ever trapped!

Southern Bell, Crocidosema plebejana

2nd Silver Y