Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Spring, Reps & Purple Patches

Although I hadn't visited the patch for a couple of days, I think this morning was my first Wheatear-less trip. So is that it? Is spring finished? Thankfully, no...

Turnstone in breeding finery. Legitimate spring migrant.

Apparently Turnstone is quite a scarce bird for the patch. This is my second, but the first one on the deck. It was also the best bird from this morning's walk. There were some other waders though: flocks of 1 and c.30 small ones flew W beyond identifiable range. So I guess spring is still very much with us in a sense, but I must admit that it's getting harder to stay motivated now. Still, there's always that chance of a late spring rarity. But how much of a chance? The answer's in the noun: rarity!

Ah well, there are plenty of modest Patchwork Challenge species to get excited about. Like the Jay I saw this morning. Jay takes my list to 101, and the single point puts me on 122, which I think is still 18th= on The Coastal South mini-league. And I can also work on my ever-growing portfolio of grainy #recordshots.

Green Woodpecker #recordshot. Although I've heard several already, this is the first I've clapped eyes on.

It has been mentioned that I've recently been enjoying something of a purple patch. And it's true, I have. Especially considering how long I'd been 'resting'. So here it is, roughly two weeks of jammy happenings:

2 May: Hoopoe
3 May: Cuckoo
5 May: Hobby in off
6 May: flock of 12 Pom Skuas
9 May: pod of c.20 Bottlenose Dolphins (not birds I know, but for me very scarce)
10 May: Hobby in off
12 May: 14 Pom Skuas (including flock of 9) plus an Arctic
16 May: Short-toed Lark (found by Mike and Alan)

I've included Cuckoo because it is genuinely scarce around here, and Hobby because they're always such a treat...and aren't exactly common. And anyway, birding value is always about context, and that little lot collectively felt like quite a jackpot.

And an interesting aside: apart from the Cuckoo, 1 Pom Skua and the Arctic there is supporting evidence for every single bird. They were either photographed, or witnessed by others, or both. Such evidence gives that whole list the ring of truth; who isn't going to believe my extra Pom, or the Arctic Skua or Cuckoo? This is an aspect of birding I find absolutely fascinating. One's reputation as a reliable, trustworthy observer is usually built on a solid foundation of authenticated records, whether we like it or not. And of course, a consistent lack of corroboration has the exact opposite effect. Quelle surprise! Come on you stringers! Wise up!

Ah, the Birding Reputation...

One of these days I shall write a post about this intriguing aspect of human nature...

Anyway, if you think that lot comprises a purple patch, allow me to share with you my favourite Local Patch Purple Patch, courtesy Steve Waite. I cannot recall all the dates but, starting 19 Feb, in just six months Steve found the following on the Seaton patch in 2007...

19 Feb: Ring-billed Gull, 2nd-winter on the Axe
Feb: Laughing Gull, 1st-winter off the seafront, paying us a visit from Exmouth
April: Stone-curlew, Seaton Marshes, first for the patch and first twitchable in Devon for a thousand years.
28 April: Iberian Chiffchaff, Beer Head
30 April: Bonaparte's Gull, 1st-summer on the Axe
Then there was a little pause [imagine a quiet drum roll, slowly building...]
14 August: Audouin's Gull, adult (or nearly), Seaton Marshes

And it's quite possible I've forgotten something. Anyway, that is a purple patch.

And in all that time I think I managed to find a Glaucous Gull...

So, if you ever catch Steve moaning on his blog about how grim things are for him birding-wise right now or something, just pop a comment in there reminding him how he used up most of his allowance ten years ago!

Friday, 19 May 2017

One Hundred Up...

At sunrise I ticked off my 100th species for the Burton/Cogden patch. I now have 121 Patchwork Challenge points, putting me around 18th for the Coastal South mini-league. Budleigh is currently nowhere...

The landmark bird was a Grey Heron.

Heron is designated a 'scarce visitor' to West Bexington and Cogden, and I first spotted this one circling high before descending to land on the seaward edge of Burton Mere - basically a big reedbed - where I am sure the resident Marsh Frogs were delighted to see it. Within a couple of minutes it was up again and gone.

This little episode is yet one more which illustrates the many differences between my new patch and my old one. The status of Grey Heron on the Axe is somewhat different, and is influenced by the presence of a thriving heronry! Another is the beach. Cogden beach is simply wonderful. The combination of shingle with a mass of vegetation - Thrift, Sea Kale, Yellow Horned-poppy, Sea Campion, as well as a myriad others whose identity is beyond me - reminds me ever so much of Dungeness. I haven't been to Dunge for 20-odd years I guess, but nevertheless that's the vibe I get. The Dungeness shingle attracts the occasional bird, and it seems like Cogden should too. Oh look! A Short-toed Lark! See? Seaton beach does not compare. There is a promising stretch from the Yacht Club to the river mouth, but Cogden it ain't. This morning's beach walk produced a single Wheatear, the tamest yet for me. So...

Uncropped. Well close! But still a #recordshot
Still uncropped. Even closer! I reckon we could get a portrait out of this...
Et voila!
So eye-wateringly close that you can see it's little tummy feathers are damp with dew, bless it.

And while we're on cute little birdies, here's a photo I took last week...

Fluffy Ball Thing. A solid Patchwork point there.

Actually I was rather chuffed to find this, because a short while back I had a very fleeting view of a Tawny Owl which I'd inadvertantly flushed, and then moments later spotted the nest box. Of course I put two and two together and was much more careful when next in that location. Result!

There is still much to learn about my new patch. For example on Wednesday Alan showed me a nice patch of orchids which I had unwittingly walked past several times. Here's one...

Southern Marsh Orchid apparently.

The Axe patch may well have had Southern Marsh Orchid (up on Axe Cliff perhaps?) but I cannot recall for sure. However, one thing it definitely didn't have was any of these little stunners...

Marsh Frog. Serious paintwork.
Heron? What Heron?

Finally, dear reader, if you were very quick off the mark it's just possible that you saw an early and ill-judged version of the last post. If so please erase it from your mind. As Jonathan Lethbridge intimates in his comment, not all patchworkers subscribe to the ethos outlined therein, and it's all too easy to allow oneself to be wound up by such folk. But of course the wisest approach is simply to ignore them. And...slowly, slowly...I am learning wisdom.

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Patchbirding Ethos...Some Thoughts

The weather forecast for today was spot on. Rain. Loads and loads of rain. Sometimes a late spring downpour and a bit of murk has brought us waders. So I grabbed my wellies, my bins, my ancient and inadequate waterproofs and headed for Burton Bradstock. The plan was a long walk of the beach to sift the vast flocks I would doubtless find there...

It's exactly like this all the way to Portland, except the pebbles gradually get larger...

Well, I soon got fed up with that plan! No waders on the beach, no decent birds on/over the sea. Perhaps predictably I found myself shuffling along the top of the beach and turning up the Short-toed Lark, in pretty much the same area that it favoured yesterday. And I'm pretty sure the Wheatear not far away was yesterday's bird too. As a nice bonus I could hear a Cuckoo up on the inland slope somewhere. I tweeted out the Short-toed Lark and Cuckoo gen, and trudged onwards...

Richard from Charmouth let me know he was planning to come over and try for the lark, so I loitered around until he arrived. When looking for a needle in a haystack, two pairs of eyes are certainly better than one. The bird eventually gave some quite good, if distant views, and Richard got some #recordshots. As Short-toed Lark was a lifer for him I was glad it had performed okay. We also heard the Cuckoo again, came across 2 Wheatears that seemed to be new in, and in the end discovered actual waders on the beach - a Ringed Plover and a Sanderling. So, hardly a wealth of abundance and variety, but it certainly beat sitting indoors!

I think at this point the sea and I are equally wet

Richard mentioned that he would publish on Twitter any reasonable photos of the Short-toed Lark, so I had a browse later and found this:

Well, the photo is delightfully #recordshot in every possible way, but it was the caption which caught my eye. As I said, this was a lifer for Richard. Last week he found the 9 Poms Skuas which then gave us all a thrill from Seaton to the Solent. Pom was also a lifer. I hardly ever get lifers these days and maybe I've forgotten what it's like to be at that stage in birding when there are potential ticks popping up all over the place because your list is still so slim. As an on/off birder (and ex-twitcher) of some 40+ years standing I have seen quite a few Short-toed Larks. I've just had a mental tot-up and surprised myself: at least 16. So while seeing the bird again today was great, the real pleasure for me was helping Richard see it. Which got me thinking...

When I was living in Seaton and birding the Axe Estuary etc, I can recall lots of occasions when other local birders really put themselves out to make sure that as many of us as possible got to see a good bird. For example, instead of heading off and continuing their birding circuit they would wait, hang around, and if necessary even keep the bird in their scope, until you rolled up and they could point you at it. Or, for a bird in cover, or where there was a risk of flushing perhaps, patiently delay until everyone who was available had arrived, and then together try and find it.

This is the kind of patch birding ethos which I am used to, and it was also evident yesterday at Cogden. Mike Morse had wasted no time in texting me about the (at the time 'possible') Short-toed Lark. Alan was able to wait and help me look for it, as well as point out where they'd seen it, etc. Mike had also publicised it on Twitter, despite the lack of a solid ID, to alert a wider audience. And the reason for this effort to be helpful? Because when you see a decent bird, and maybe especially when you find a rare or scarce one, you want others to see it! It is perfectly natural that you want to share the occasion, and most will put themselves out in order to do so. In my experience making the effort to share a good bird does in fact give you a great deal of pleasure, and at least part of the reason for that is because it gives others pleasure. Everyone wins.

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Happy as a Lark!

I was out early again this morning, down to the sea for a quick look and then a fairly brisk walk to Cogden and back. The sea was very quiet indeed, with a single Great Northern Diver flying W the major highlight, and the walk was no better. I did manage 2 Patchwork Challenge points via a lone Shag bobbing about offshore and a vocal Red-legged Partridge [Edit: 3 points actually. Shag is worth 2]. The beach was conspicuously devoid of Wheatears, which reminded me that we are now getting just the last dribblings of the spring flood. However, about half way along the beach I learned from a glance at Twitter that Portland Bill was hosting a Golden Oriole, which in turn reminded me that along with those dribblings you also get the occasional great big glob of quality. I wondered if one of those might be hunkered down on the patch somewhere...

It's 10:40. A text from Mike Morse:

'Possible Short-toed Lark on beach at Cogden east of line with boardwalk...have made six passes of the beach and can't relocate it though...if it's flown inland we're stuffed...'

I phoned Mike for the gory details. It sounded really, really good. Certainly much better than a 'possible' to my ears. A 'very probable' in fact, though I could understand exactly why he felt it was not quite claim-worthy. I arranged to head down there straight away. Although Mike needed to leave, I would help Alan search for it.

And search we did. Up and down the beach, walking nice and slow, several yards apart. Nothing. Eventually Alan too had to go, so I walked with him all the way to the West Bexington mere, a long way past my usual limit. We parted, and I turned back towards Cogden. Although I was resigned to the big fat dip, I also had a strong feeling that the bird might well still be on the beach somewhere and my intention was to try and cover as much of it as I reasonably could; the habbo is just so perfect for something like a Short-toed Lark. After a while I came across a Wheatear. Well, that had managed to avoid me thus far, so perhaps there was still hope for the lark. Suddenly a small bird flew from the ridge of the beach on my left, away ahead of me at a slight angle, landing 50 or 60 yards distant behind a clump of sea kale. I'd got nothing on it apart from 'small', so just trained my bins on the spot, more or less expecting the inevitable Linnet. And then I realised I could see its head through a gap in the leaves. Not a Linnet! It was alert and motionless for several long seconds, then seemed to relax, and slowly walked into view. Quite distant for bins alone, but no question, it was a Short-toed Lark.

Job number one: #recordshot...

Short-toed Lark, in almost all its very small and pixellated glory

Job number two: make the calls!

After what seemed an age, Alan, and then Mike, reappeared. I had stayed well away from the bird, but within a minute or so of my refinding it the lark had flown another 15-20 yards and out of view. I thought I knew roughly where it was, but when we tried to locate it there was no sign. Once again we began to comb the beach, and finally, finally, it showed properly for Alan and Mike. By now I was pretty rain-soaked, and left them to it. Mike too got a #recordshot with his proper camera...

Nicely captures the blobby black smudge on the side of the neck (photo: Mike Morse)

Arriving back at the van I bumped into Ian McLean from Seaton. West Bexington & Cogden is Ian's old patch, and he is evidently still intent on keeping the ex-patch ticks coming! Yes, Short-toed Lark is a perhaps overdue addition to the Bex/Cogden list. I am delighted to have been involved. Happy as a lark in fact...

I later heard that the little cracker was successfully twitched by several, and a lifer for at least one. I was chuffed at that too. Brilliant.

Finally, Ian M remarked that I seem to be enjoying a bit of a Purple Patch at the moment. I cannot deny it!

Monday, 15 May 2017

Patchwork Challenge 2017

Patchwork Challenge is a friendly competition based on points scored for each species that you record on your chosen patch. The commonest birds score 1 point, the rarest 5, and for birds that score 3 or more you get double points if you are also the finder. Hoopoe is a 3-pointer, so if I'd been competing in the Patchwork Challenge my thrilling encounter on 2 May would have earned me 6 Patchwork points. It is quite impossible to live a happy life knowing that you are missing out on such bounty, so of course I've signed up and registered a patch.

I've called the patch Burton/Cogden.

As I said, Patchwork Challenge is a friendly competition, so I was quite eager to see who my competitors in the Coastal South Mini-League might be. To give it some relevance I focused only on those patches that fall between Portland and the Exe (that's the eastern two-thirds of Lyme Bay) and which appear to be currently active. Starting at the western end we first have Chris Townend at Budleigh Salterton, then Steve Waite with Axe Estuary & Seaton, Brendan Sheils with Charmouth, myself at Burton/Cogden, and finally Joe Stockwell with Ferrybridge to Weymouth. Five local patches of diverse nature and potential, but all within around 40 miles of coastline.

As a keen competitor my next move was to see how my fellow patchers were doing thus far. I don't know them all personally but that doesn't matter; it is those all-important lists that I'm interested in! What had I missed during the first winter period and early spring as a result of my late start? What envious goodies did they have? But before I got carried away with close analysis I thought I had first better look at the numbers...

As of this morning, here are the current scores:

Patch Species Score
Ferrybridge to Weymouth 154 200
Axe Estuary & Seaton 152 194
Charmouth 105 126
Budleigh Salterton 97 113
Burton/Cogden 94 111

Having effectively started in late April it is hardly surprising that I'm last. Joe and Steve are miles out in front at Weymouth and Seaton. Given the superb mix of habitat on both patches this is no shock either.

Next then, what goodies? I thought I'd begin with 3-pointers or better...

Ferrybridge to Weymouth
Joe has a terrific collection: Spotted Crake, Serin, Red-rumped Swallow, Sibe Chiff and Cattle Egret, all 3-pointers. No finds as far as I can see, so no bonus points.

Axe Estuary & Seaton
Steve has self-found Sibe Chiff and Cattle Egret, so an extra 3+3 bonus points for those.

Brendan had a Cattle Egret fly past on 5 Feb, which means 3 bonus points too.

Budleigh Salterton
No 3+ pointers yet for Chris.

The Hoopoe on 2 May earned me 6 points including the bonus.

In practical terms Burton/Cogden is in no position to compete with either 'Ferrybridge to Weymouth' or the 'Axe Estuary & Seaton'. Both patches are simply too rich in habitat and potential, and each is no doubt worked by several other birders likely to turn up goodies for Joe and Steve to add to their lists. So I shall set my competitive sights somewhere more realistic...

How about Charmouth?

Charmouth is the nearest patch to mine. Potential-wise I would have thought it is fairly similar. A lot of passerine habbo, a nice stretch of coast and not much fresh water. Yes, perhaps Brendan will unwittingly be a worthy adversary...

With 105 species in the Charmouth bag already I thought it might be instructive to see what I was missing. Well, I was in for a shock. Charmouth is absolutely on fire!! Brendan's haul predictably includes the complete set of regular spring passerine migrants like Tree Pipit, Redstart, Whinchat, Spot Fly etc, but also scarce ones like Ring Ouzel and Pied Flycatcher. Nice. But this isn't all. Sifting through the list I also found Woodlark, Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, Wood Warbler and Nightingale, Twite and Corn Bunting! In order to appreciate why I am so blown away I should probably give the reader an idea of the local status of some of these species. My old haunts the Axe Estuary, Seaton, Beer Head etc are not a million miles away from Charmouth, and I would say compare pretty well in terms of relative status:

Lesser Spotted Woodpecker I don't know any birders who have seen or heard one locally for at least ten years. [Personally I thought they were all gone from this part of the country now, so a drumming, calling male was a bit of a surprise.]
Wood Warbler Just one spring bird in at least the last ten years.
Nightingale Forget it! None, ever. They used to breed on the Axmouth to Lyme Undercliffs until a few years before I moved down here. Since then a total drought.
Twite Steve had an autumn flyover at Beer Head once. Much envy. Otherwise - again - forget it! A lot of E Devon birders would move very quickly for a Twite. And maybe some W Dorset ones too??
Corn Bunting An autumn bird on Beer Head once. First for the patch, that we knew of. Twitched from at least Exmouth. [They do breed near Dorchester, and are scarce visitors to Portland.]
Ring Ouzel Very scarce in spring; one every 3 or 4 years maybe?

You get the idea. As I said, on fire...

When I'd recovered from this battering of quality I had a look at the gaps. Again, some real surprises. No Pheasant? Must be an error. Also I distinctly recall Brendan tweeting about a flock of 16 Waxwings back in January, along with the #PWC2017 and #patchgold tags (a cry of triumph if ever there was one!) but Waxwing is a glaring gap on the current Charmouth patch list. Another oversight, surely? The only waders are Snipe, Jack Snipe and Woodcock. And finally, no seabirds! Apart from Med Gull and Cormorant there is not a single bird that you might have to look offshore to see. No Gannet, no Common Scoter, nothing.

Given its current amazing form I dread to think what will be found when eyes on the Charmouth patch turn seawards...

Altogether a very singular list. Perhaps in a league of its own.

Somehow I really don't think I am able to compete with Charmouth, and will henceforth ignore it...

Which leaves Chris Townend at Budleigh Salterton. Admittedly Budleigh does have an estuary and on paper might have a better list potential than Burton/Cogden, but we shall see. If you read this, Chris, game on!

Standing on Cogden Beach, looking W and contemplating the gruelling task ahead. #PWC2017

Saturday, 13 May 2017

The Final Tally?

After the morning's Pom bonanza yesterday, I couldn't resist another look in the evening. In previous springs I've sometimes done okay late in the day. It was worth the effort, with a distant pale phase Pom Skua past E at 17:35 and a nice dark phase Arctic at 18:11. So my skua total for the day was 15, comprising 14 Poms and one Arctic. That's a ridiculous 26 Pomarine Skuas in the last week, compared with my Seaton total of 17 in countless hours of seawatching across 10+ years! I am slightly mind-boggled...

Burton Bradstock, yesterday morning at 06:45. As you can tell from the old towel hastily fetched from my van as a concession to my protesting backside, I haven't yet sussed a comfy seawatching perch at Burton...

Friday, 12 May 2017

Sharing is Caring

I should definitely play my hunches more often. I was down at Burton Bradstock beach not long after 05:00 and, despite the pathetically gentle onshore breeze, was absolutely brimming with confidence. Yesterday morning I did an hour and twenty minutes in two bites, and my highlights were flocks of 6 and 22 Common Scoters. Poor. Yet Pom Skuas were reported here and there; Steve had one at Seaton finally! Even 2 Long-tailed Skuas popped up along the S coast - the nearest at Berry Head, Devon. I just had a strong hunch that there would be some more Poms pitching up in Lyme Bay later in the day, making an early start essential...

However, by 06:00 I'd managed no more than just a few Common Scoters and a Great Crested Grebe. It was very slow. I began to worry that if there were going to be any skuas I might only get one chance, and I didn't want to accidentally miss it because I was looking at Twitter or playing Minesweeper or something. A heads-up from the West would be nice. I texted Steve...

06:02 'R u seawatching Stevie??'
06:03 'Do I need to be? Is it busy?'
06:03 'Ha ha! Not so far!'
06:04 'Just doesn't seem as good weather conditions as forecasted?'

Steve was right. Hardly a breath of wind. It didn't look promising at all. And yet...

At that precise moment a very distant bird appeared above the horizon and climbed rapidly, coming straight towards me. "Is that a Whimbrel?" I thought. It then stopped abruptly, turned E and sailed gently down to land on the sea. A skua! Too far out to ID, but definitely a skua.

Some more tippy-tappy...

06:06 'Mind you, just had my first v distant skua, has landed on sea...'
 [note 'first' skua. Confidence!]
06:07 'Oh there's no harm in me popping down for an hour is there...'
06:08 'Let me know when the Long-tailed comes past!'

Ah, if only...

I kept an eye out where the skua had landed, and after a little while picked up two familiar shapes cruising E, low to the waves. I had to zoom right up to clinch them, but definitely 2 Poms; I assumed my initial sighting had been one of these two.

06:16 '2 distant Poms E'

Soon we were chatting on the phone, talking up the potential and generally being wishful, when my scope eye was suddenly full of Pom! Another two fully-spooned stunners were muscling E at no more than 2-300 yards! I rang off a bit abruptly. Brilliant!

Then it was Steve's turn...

06:29 '9 Poms on sea off Spot-on'

Steve was so excited he inadvertently sent it twice!

NINE!! Shortly we were talking on the phone again. All nine had evidently taken off, circled over the Spot-on kiosk, directly above Steve and Richard, the only two birders seawatching there, and then headed my way! To say Steve was ecstatic would be an understatement. I now had the heads-up I had been hoping for.

At 07:05 they came past me. Simply superb. Probably 400 yds plus, low to the waves, powering eastwards with seemingly no effort. All pale phase birds except one, which I guess was intermediate-ish, and I reckon all or nearly all of them had full spoons. In a previous post I promised birdy #recordshots, so duly made the effort...

I reckon a couple of those specks actually look Pom-shaped. Amazing. I can only make out 8 in the photo, but even that's a minor miracle.

With the aid of the technological marvel that is Twitter, those 9 Poms were tracked all along the S coast from Seaton, via James McCarthy at Lyme Regis, via me at Burton, all and sundry at Portland Bill, and on round past Hurst Point in Hampshire and into the Solent. I'm not sure how far they got after that, but they do appear to have stopped for a breather somewhere before Selsey Bill. It was great to be aware of the shared experience and, as I've yet to meet a birder who isn't fired up by seeing skuas, to know that a lot of fellow birders were on cloud nine this morning!

Something weird is happening. Has birding changed dramatically while I've been away, or something? Because I am seeing LOADS more decent birds than used to be the case.