Tuesday, 28 February 2012

A flying visit to the Otter

I was going to have a birding-free day yesterday, but I'd forgotten about Simon's art class in the afternoon. As his class is in East Budleigh, a stone's throw from the River Otter, it would be have been rude not to pop down to River whilst he was there!

I took Vera for a wander up the path on the East side of the estuary. I was planning to go in the hide, but V didn't seem to like the idea, so we just carried on walking. I thought I heard a Crossbill in the tall pine trees lining the bank. I played my App & it certainly sounded like one, but I wasn't sure enough to count it for the Year List without a sighting.

I set up the scope to look at the gulls on the estuary through a gap in the trees. The very first gull I focused on was a Mediterranean Gull! I scanned across to the next bird & it was another Med Gull! For the first time I actually submitted the sighting to the Devon Bird News blog. It was time for V's tea, so I took her back to the van and after she'd been fed & watered, I left her digesting in her basket & went back to have another look for a Crossbill. I didn't even hear one this time.

There are 2 Med Gulls down there, honest!
I carried on, planning to climb the path onto the small outcrop overlooking the sea. The short path across the top that I used years ago was no longer there, having slipped down to the beach. I managed to set up the scope across the sloping path up, but it was a bit precarious & I had to do the splits to look through the lens!

Where the path used to go.....
I gave up & walked further along the cliff to get a good view of the cliffs & the sea. There were only gulls & Shag on the cliffs, no Fulmars yet. The Shag were looking great with their dark glossy plumage, yellow gape, and punk 'hair-do'.

Looking East towards Sidnouth....
...and West towards Budleigh & the mouth of the   R Otter

I then dashed back to the van to go & collect Simon.

Monday, 27 February 2012


Yesterday I went to Broadsands, Paignton for my 3rd DBWPS field meeting. About 16 of us met up in the car park at 10am & headed straight into the unused rear-car park to look for Cirl Buntings. They are regular visitors as seed is put down for them every few days. I've only ever seen a Cirl Bunting in Spain, so I was hoping for an addition to my UK Life List as well as the Year List.

As we walked into the car park a chap was just leaving with his dog & no birds were to be seen. We all lined up with scopes & bins & were amazed by a woman that insisted on walking her dog right across the seeded area in front of us, despite our request that she walk around. There's always one.....

After she'd gone we waited a while with only a few Dunnocks appearing for the seed. Then I spotted a bright yellow blob deep in the hedge, which was indeed our first glimpse of the Cirls. 13 of them then descended on the seed, including 5 gorgeous males. I was now a happy birder!

Admiring Cirl Buntings feeding under the hedge

Broadsands Beach & location of Cirl Buntings
We admired them for a while before moving up to the sea front to look for divers & grebes. A Black-necked Grebe had been seen earlier (which I need), but all we could find were a few Shag, Cormorant, Great Crested Grebe & a small flock of Common Scoter. And a seal! I have no idea what type. Again we were amazed by another 'friendly' local. We were lined up on the pathway, but it was very wide with plenty of room for people to pass. A large chap on a mobility scooter headed straight at us and wound his way between us complaining that he was blind and that we get in his way every weekend! Why he didn't just scoot past on the 5 feet of empty pavement is a mystery!

Broadsands Bay looking North

Looking East towards the headland
A novel way to take the dog out....
It's quite difficult to get your head round compass directions, looking out to sea you feel that you should be looking South, but you are actually looking East due to the fact that you are on the West side of Torbay.We walked East onto the headland, which had a lovely rocky shore with crystal clear water, a Rock Pipit & a Kestrel.

Just like the Med....but colder

At the next bay we turned back across the headland towards the car park, admiring a Buzzard on a post & a playing 'hunt the Blackcap' after hearing a male starting to sing in a hedge. After a while we finally found a pair.

We lunched in the car park in the sunshine. Some of the group left, but most of us then went on to the Clennon Valley, also in Paignton. I'd been there once before with Mary in April 2003 when we twitched a Dusky Warbler.

We walked across the playing fields into the wooded valley, which was unfortunately a bit quiet. There were a few ducks & Mute Swans on the pond, but nothing exciting. We had a close encounter with a Coot on the path which climbed the bank to munch on a Tongue Fern. I just love those feet!

The Clennon Valley pond
Beware, Coot crossing

We had a bit of excitement when 2 Peregrines flew overhead, one carrying a pigeon.We saw them again about 20 mins later, still with one carrying a pigeon & leaving a trail of feathers.

The only other interest was a couple of Chiffchaffs & an unusually large group of about 22 Magpies ( I looked it up & the collective noun is apparently a 'tidings'!).

We had walked quite a way during the day and it was beginning to tell.....

Slacking birders!
It was about 4pm & as everyone headed for home I had a quick look at the 'Where to Watch Birds' book & decided to stop at Preston Sands, between Paignton & Torbay, on my way back. I had a quick scan but didn't find anything new on the water. There were 14 Turnstones on the rocks below. I was watching them through the scope when I saw a movement out of the corner of my eye. There were 4 more Turnstones standing beside me on the pavement!!

Preston Sands looking North towards Torquay
It's behind you....................
Just the 1 new species for the Year List; Cirl Bunting, the 'Devon Joker' as Dom of the 'Year List Race' called it! In the UK they're only found in this part of Devon, so the chaps will have to make a trip down here to get one! List now on 136 & 1 Sub-species

Saturday, 25 February 2012

A Short Day's Work!

This morning Vera started moving about at 545am. I got up to take her for a quick walk as we have no lawn & she prefers to 'do her business' on grass. As we walked through the graveyard across the road I heard the 'hoooooouh' of a Tawny Owl. As we can count birds previously seen in the UK if heard but not seen for the Year List, that was a tick before 6am!!

Thanks V!!

Year List 135 + 1 Sub-species

A Full Day's Work

Yesterday we got up early & headed for Wales on the postponed Common Yellowthroat hunt. We travel about in a Combo van, otherwise known as Vera’s Boudoir, as its main function is to carry her around in comfort.  She has a basket (with duvet), additional travel blanket, an 18" Basil Brush, towels, food, treats, water and a selection bowls that take up most of the back. As a consequence, it cost £12.10 to cross the Severn as opposed to the £6 for a car... but she’s worth it.

We arrived in Rhiwderin, just West of Newport at about 1030. We left V guarding the van & crossed the well used muddy style into the fields where the Yellowthroat has been living. I’d found a useful map on an excellent local blog that showed which hedges the bird has been frequenting & highlighting its favourites.  

Bird's usual hangouts. Style top right corner.  (taken from Gwentbirding.Blogspot.com.......hope he doesn't mind)
There was a smattering of people with bins & scopes, but not the numbers that were there during the first few days & at weekends.  The bird had been seen earlier & put on Birdguides at about 08.30. First thing I did as we entered the field was play the call (which I’d loaded onto my iphone) as a reminder. As I played it a bird called back which was either it, or something amazingly like it. Unfortunately, it didn't do it for long & we couldn't find the source. We stayed put for about 45 mins watching the bushes, but didn't hear or see anything. Did we imagine it? Simon said it was the same call & he wasn't fussed whether he saw it or not, so it can’t have been wishful  thinking.  We made our way up the field a little way, then Simon went back to the van to take V for a wander & keep her company. As it was such a large area & there were only about 30 people spread about, it looked like it may be a long day.

The path in (top right) 
The reports all described it as being very skulky, keeping low in the brambles & occasionally feeding in the grassy tussocks below, before flying close to the ground to another hedge. I had a slow wander around the main field, circuiting its favourite hedge before meeting up with Simon for a quick butty & brew in the van. He'd chatted to a bloke that had seen the bird at about 09.30 in the same hedge that we'd heard that call....

There had been no sightings since we arrived. Still it was a while before it would start getting dark.....

The favourite hedge

Back to staring at hedge bottoms & adjoining tussocks.  There was a fair turnover of people arriving & giving up & leaving. I was beginning to resign myself to a Yellowthroatless day. Simon was off with V again, & I was standing watching the 'favourite' hedge at the top of the field (ie the far left of the hatched area on the map) when I heard a shout & a bloke in the field on the other side of the hedge suddenly pointed & started waving his arm in the air. Scramble! There had been another chap standing a few yards away from me & both of us started legging it up the field to get round the hedge, being careful not to get too close. Nothing flew out of the back of the hedge towards us, so hopefully it was still in there.  I was one of the first to get there as I’d only been about 80 feet away, all be it that I’d had to run around the hedge. The guy that had waved said he’d been listening to the bird making a quiet noise for about 5 minutes in a patch of brambles, was fairly happy that it was the Yellowthroat & that it had just flown low across the 20 feet of open ground & disappeared into the hedge. It would have been nice if he’d waved before it moved! More people kept arriving as the word spread that it had finally been seen & we all stared at the hedge willing it to come out. And stared. And stared. And waited. And waited. There was a chap of about 25 or 30 next to me on the bank, his bins & scope were probably older than him! Every 5 mins he sighed, humphed, muttered, & then, by way of a change, farted! Charming!  It was driving me potty. 

It must have been about 3.40 in the afternoon when it was sighted & by about 4.30 people had drifted off to peer into other hedges nearby. I decided to give it a bit longer. There were only 3 or 4 of us left when I saw a bird fly up from the tussocky grass about 2 feet from the brambles & go into the hedge. I just saw the movement & had no idea what it was, but it was in the right place & flying out of a tussock. I moved down the slope a few yards so that I was opposite the bit of hedge where it had disappeared, followed by the remaining birders. I looked into the hedge with my bins & was blinded by a luminous yellow throat!!  GOT  IT!!!  To say I was happy would be the understatement of the century!! It was quite a way into the hedge & I was trying to help the other chaps to find it, so didn’t get as good a look as I would have liked. Still, the others got on it, so we were all happy! It then moved & I saw its greeny back & watched it flick its tail just as it's supposed to.

I wonder how long it had been ferreting about in the grass right in front of us without being seen! After 6 hrs searching, I must have had it in my sights for all of 3 or 4 seconds. It was worth it!

Simon appeared shortly after & I think he knew from a distance that I’d seen it. That enormous grin is a bit of a giveaway! We stayed for another 10 mins to see if it would reappear, but there were some real idiots getting far too close to the hedge so it was never going to come out.

Originally it had been in the brambles on the right & flew into the hedge on the left. Those idiots came after.....

 I moved down to here from where the group is to the left. It had flown up from where those pillocks are now standing into the hedge in front of them. Like it's going to come out again now! 
We decided to head home. I was frozen. I was also bursting for the loo. I'd been needing to go since lunchtime - there were too many people with binoculars looking into the hedges for me to have made use of one! Finally got to a loo in the services at 6.30pm.

We finally got home at about 7.30 & I cooked tea. I think the 'cross-legged' carrot was taking the pi**!!

Simon says he actually quite enjoyed his first experience of a twitch, even though he didn't see the bird! I can't believe I didn't get a photo of him in action, or indeed inaction when he found a 'Murphy' sized seat  in  the form of a large wooden horse jump!

Year List now on 134 plus 1 Sub-species.

Thursday, 23 February 2012


I'd planned to go to Wales yesterday in search of the Common Yellowthroat that should be in the US, but I'd forgotten to check the weather! I'd made butties before I heard on the Radio 2 forecast that it was going to rain, so decided to postpone that trip. I couldn't possibly waste the butties so came up with another cunning plan.

Lesser Spotted Woodpecker (LSW) are permanent residents in the country, but are few & far between, and even in their strongholds are pretty hard to find. In Devon they are mostly found around Dartmoor, with Yarner Wood & Dunsford Wood being 2 hot-spots (or at least tepid ones). I'd been to Yarner Wood once, years ago, so decided to try Dunsford, a Devon Wildlife Trust reserve on the Eastern edge of Dartmoor, near to Moretonhampstead. I thought I'd be able to give it a few hours before the rain was due.

I parked just West of Steps Bridge & walked back to the reserve. There is no circular route, just a path that runs alongside the River Teign through mainly deciduous woodlands, although there is an area of coniferous woodland on the opposite bank at the North end of the valley.

The River Teign from Steps Bridge
I walked in a short way & stopped on the bank for a while just to see what was moving, & there was quite a lot! A flock of about 20 Redwing in the trees opposite, Blue, Great & Long-tailed Tits, & 2 tits which were either Marsh or Willow Tits. They're very similar & the easiest way to tell them apart is by call. I hadn't heard them & they vanished. I waited a while hoping that they would come back, but then a tiny bird appeared in the tree next to me. From the size of it I thought it would be a Goldcrest, but then I got it in my bins & I was pleasantly surprised (massive understatement!) to see a stunning white stripe over it's eye! It was a Firecrest! Excellent! I've only ever seen one before & that was as the result of a 'twitch'. This was now a great day, whether or not I found a LSW!

The riverside path

I moved off, but didn't get far before I saw a white blob in the middle of the river. I'd been  fairly optimistic that I'd find a Dipper, and there it was! In fact there were at least 2 & I saw them quite regularly as I walked along the bank. They even disappeared behind a tree stump together, so maybe they're a couple!

Then I found 3 of the Marsh/Willow Tits. The probability was that they were Marsh as Willow are getting quite rare, but I needed to be sure as a Marsh Tit would not only be a new bird for the Year List, but a UK tick too. My only confirmed Marsh Tit was in Berne, Switzerland in May 2001. I've probably seen a few in the UK but never been sure. Now, with my decent bins & more importantly my iphone App which gives me bird calls at the tap of a finger, it was much easier! They were indeed Marsh Tits.

I walked to the end of the reserve before the drizzle started, although it didn't actually last long. I then headed back.

Looking back down the valley
I was just thinking that it was amazing, considering the number of trees, that I hadn't even seen a Great Spotted Woodpecker (GSW) or Nuthatch, let alone a LSW. Then something landed in a tree in front of me.....a lovely male GSW! As I was admiring it in my  bins, a Nuthatch walked into view! At the same spot I also saw Goldcrest, Coal & Blue Tits, Blackbirds & 2 Goosander which flew by along the river!

Bracket fungus 
Grass 'waterfall'

By now it was about 1:30pm, I'd been in the woods for about 4 hrs & was dying for a brew & a butty! When I got nearly back to the road a couple walking in with their dog said that a few weeks ago they'd seen a few birders in the car park watching a LSW!  I ate my butties beside the van in the drizzle whilst staring into the tops of the surrounding trees, but unfortunately Sods Law failed to strike!

As I was going to be passing close to Bowling Green Marsh on my way home, it seemed rude not to drop in. An RSPB volunteer ranger was in the hut sorting out the notice boards. She was very knowledgeable & I now know where to go to look for Wood Lark & Dartford Warbler.

3 new birds for the year. List total 133 + 1 Sub-species

(The ruling was that we can count birds heard but not seen as long as they have been seen before in the UK. Therefore the Cetti's Warbler heard at Ham Wall on 17/2 counts)

Monday, 20 February 2012

"Isn't that a Heron?"

My able assistants......

Yesterday we did our second 2 Tetrads for the Devon Bird Atlas survey. The first was a couple of kms South of Culmstock. We parked up near to Leigh Hill Farm & saw a Nuthatch before we’d started the clock. We took Vera for a nice wander across the fields but didn’t see anything too exciting, just a few Jackdaws & Rooks, some tits & Chaffinches & 3 Buzzards circling overhead. 

We didn’t want to walk V too far, so headed back to the van to change locations. Simon spotted a bird, which I identified as a Goldcrest, in a tree by the van. It’s definitely handy having an extra pair of eyes.

The terraced fish farm 

We drove through a ford to a road opposite a fish farm. I couldn’t actually see much water surface & everything was netted, but I was disappointed at seeing no birds at all. After about 10 minutes I decided to relocate & commented to Simon that I was surprised we hadn’t even seen an optimistic Heron.  “Isn’t that a Heron” he said, as one flew behind my head & landed in a tree overlooking the fish ponds!

Great views..... 

We then drove through an area of woodland to a footpath for the remainder of the hour. There were fantastic views as we were right on the edge of the Blackdown Hills. The footpath passed behind a house with feeders & as is usually the case, the birds were congregating in the vicinity, so notched up a few more Blue Tits & Chaffinches along with a single House Sparrow & at least one Goldfinch which I could hear but not see.

As we walked back to the van a farmer came over to see what we were up to as we’d parked near his house. We explained & he was quite interested, telling us about the birds that regularly visit his garden & feeders.

We’d seen 18 species in the hour, plus the Nuthatch & a Song Thrush that we’d seen before & after. By now it was almost time for lunch, so we relocated to a lay-by next to the first footpath we were planning to try in the adjoining Tetrad.

A controversial lunch spot

We had our butties & a mug of tea whilst watching the birds flitting about in the hedge along the road up ahead. Directly ahead was a tall hedge so we couldn’t see into the garden of the house there, but judging by the amount of activity, there must have been a few feeders. Top of the visitors list was a Siskin, only the second time I’ve seen one this year, and a White Wagtail, the Continental version of the Pied Wagtail.

We’d been there about 20 minutes & were just waiting for a sleet shower to stop when a red faced chap stormed across the road from a house to our left. It was an immaculate house behind an immaculate wall, all a bit ‘biscuit-tin’; he probably moved there after watching ‘A home in the Country’ or one of the other property shows. He demanded to know what we were doing, sitting there with binoculars.  Apparently, we were making him feel uncomfortable. I explained about the Bird Survey, at which he blustered and said once more that we were making him uncomfortable & demanded that we leave forthwith. I said that we were actually about to walk down the Public Footpath to conduct our survey. He was literally trembling and looked as if he might burst into tears at any moment. Simon suggested he may have been a Vauxhall enthusiast and the fact we hadn`t washed, hoovered or changed the pollen filter in the van for four years was too much to bear.  But we just smiled and I told him we would be off soon enough. I could have mentioned that we were on a Public Highway, about to walk down a Public Footpath, and that he was a knob; oh, and the fact that we would be back 3 more times this year, but I didn’t. Any extra twisting of his knickers could have resulted in permanent damage.

OK, fair enough to come and enquire what we were doing, but something of an over-reaction to a couple of people eating sandwiches in a lay-by in broad daylight. I hope he never meets a villain. 

We went off for a walk as planned & there was a nice mix of woodland & open fields, a nice view & quite a few birds, including a flock of 25 Stock Dove, 6 Redwing & 2 Bullfinch.

Back to the van & off to another footpath. This one was a bit difficult for Vera as the first half was a bog, the second half was rocky, then the way was blocked by an electric fence. Just scanned for a while before going off to find our last footpath. This one went through a sheep field so we left V in the van as we had to cross another electric fence. We’d parked in the entrance to the field, and as we came back the farmers arrived and parked beside us to check the sheep. They were friendly, interested in what we’d seen & told us that they quite often get Lapwings in the cold weather.

A rocky path
and a sheep field

We’d seen 24 species, 22 during the hour.

Headed for home having seen a variety of birds & met a variety of ‘locals’......

Saturday, 18 February 2012

Reeds galore

I've been to lots of reedy reserves around the country, but I think Ham Wall RSPB in Somerset takes the biscuit, so I'm not surprised that it's billed as being a nationally important wetland. The reserve is in the northern part of the Somerset Levels & Moors near to Glastonbury & has been created from old peat workings. We went in search of a Great White Egret that's been at the reserve for a few weeks, well I went in search of it & Simon & Vera came along to keep me company!

The Egret had been on Birdguides as being near the 1st viewing platform the day before. We arrived late morning, walked into the reserve along the old railway line to the first viewing platform & there it was! The Great White Egret was at the back of the lake, but being very accurately named, it stuck out like a sore thumb! One of my easier birds!

It's the white blob at the back taken on my 5x zoom Lumix
Simon & Vera stayed at the viewpoint whilst I walked around the 1.3km Loxton Marsh Trail. I'm not very good with bird calls, but Cetti's Warblers are very distinctive & even I can recognise them. There were several calling from the reeds, but unfortunately I didn't manage to see one. Normally when I list birds for a day or trip, I count a bird I've heard but not seen as long as I've seen it in the UK before. I'm currently waiting for clarification as to whether this is also the case for the Year List Race. I was really hoping to see a Bittern with all those reeds, but the closest I got was a large buff coloured bird flying behind trees at a distance,  it could have been one, but then again......certainly not good enough to count.

Open water & reeds, with Glastonbury Tor a little bump in the background.
Headed back to the viewpoint without seeing anything new, just a few Cormorants, ducks, tits & finches. Simon & Vera had just made it back to the van, so I joined them for a quick lunch. Ham Wall was on one side of the Car Park, and on the other side was Shapwick Heath National Nature Resreve. It would have been rude to leave without having a quick look, so I nipped in whilst Simon & V listened to the Testostatones Doo-Wop singers on radio 2. They were excellent.

More reeds, unsurprisingly, but also some  very wet woodland. I walked in as far as the first hide where I saw a couple of lovely male Goldeneye in among the other ducks. Still no Bittern or Bearded tits, but it was a flying visit as we had to get V home for her tea!

Noah's Lake from the hide
Wet woodland

I was impressed with both reserves & will definitely be making a return visit.

Year List on 129 & 1 Sub-species (maybe 130 if I can have the Cetti's!)

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Schoolgirl error.....

Yesterday we popped up to Hayes Barton, the birthplace of Sir Walter Raleigh on the edge of Woodbury Common, to take Vera for her evening stroll. The fact that some Crossbills had been seen at the pig farm there the day before was purely coincidental! I only took my bins to make it easier to scan the tops of trees, as the scope can get in the way.  I didn't find any Crossbills, but on the way to the woods I had a fleeting glimpse of a Red-legged Partridge in an adjoining field. On the way back I spotted a couple more Partridges in a distant field, which I was fairly sure were Grey Partridges, but not sure enough! What I needed was an optical device for enlarging distant objects.........

At least the Red-legged Prtridge takes my Year List to 128  (& 1 sub-species)

Simon & V in Hayes Wood

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Powderham Marsh & Dawlish Warren

I had a busy day birding yesterday. I started off at the RSPB’s Powderham Marsh reserve in search of 3 European White-fronted  Geese that had been reported on Birdguides.  It was only my second visit, & the first time I only went half way in. There is no circular route, but a 1200m walk to a viewpoint through fields of grass, stubble & dead sunflowers! The hedges & trees were full of Reed Buntings, Chaffinches & Linnets, & Linnets also lined the telephone wires.

The viewpoint is at the top of a bank beside the road & gives a great view over scrapes & across the railway lines to Exminster Marsh. I scanned the scrapes & it didn’t take long to find the White-fronted Geese, although there were only 2 & a Barnacle Goose in amongst a flock of Canada geese beside the railway. There were also quite a few waders including 4 Ruff. With the 2 geese that made 3 new Year List species.

Powderham Marsh from the viewpoint
On my way back out, a Skylark was twittering away overhead, another first of the year. I was watching a flock of about 40 Redwing by the entrance when a Pied Wagtail joined them, although a closer look revealed it to be a White Wagtail, a sub-species from the continent. We haven’t decided how to treat Sub-species in the Year List Race yet i.e. whether  it is to be counted as just another species, ½ a species, or only come into play in case of a tie.

Off to Dawlish Warren to check the sea for Black & Red-necked Grebe, although I stopped off at Cockwood on my way, crossing the railway line to check the estuary. There were lots of Red-breasted Mergansers, but no Goldeneye, a duck I need for the List.

Up the Exe from Cockwood
Exmouth from Cockwood

At Dawlish Warren I had lunch before heading for the sea wall. The wind was getting up although it was still fairly mild. I found the Surf Scoter in it’s usual spot near Langstone Rock, along with quite a few Common Scoter & about 20 Great Crested Grebe. I had a brief view of what I think was a Red-throated Diver, but it disappeared behind the rock before I got a good look. I spoke to a chap that had seen a Slavonian Grebe in the bay beyond the rock, so I went for a look but only found lots more Great-crested ones. I decided to wait a while to see if anything would turn up as it was a bit windy to walk round to the hide. Last time I did that my bins & scope got covered in sand despite my efforts to shield them & they crunched for days every time I focused.

Langstone Rock on the seafront at Dawlish Warren
Only a couple of Razorbills turned up, so I headed for home. I couldn’t resist stopping at Cockwood for another crack at the Goldeneye. The tide was now out, but I managed to find 2 distant juvenile Goldeneye. That made it 5 new Year List species  & a sub-species for the day!

Up the Exe from Cockwood.....spot the difference!
and across to Exmouth

On my travels during the day I encountered this lovely chap.....

Spot the Long-eared Owl
Year List 127 & 1 sub-species.