Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Duding in Dorset and Devon

It’s been a week since my family and I returned from our holiday down in Devon and Dorset, so I better get a crack on if I’m going to write a blog about it…

This summer’s family holiday in Dorset (in a tipee, no less) and then Devon (in a caravan) gave me the chance to go in search of a couple of birds I’d never seen in the UK or abroad: Dartford Warbler and Cirl Bunting. I’d spent some months reading up on the area and planning my early morning jaunts to likely sites. Unfortunately, my wife had forgotten I was a birder (again) and seemed surprised when I revealed my modest plans to see these species while in their national hotspots. So, with my plans scaled back somewhat, I ended up spending a lot of time on the beach and in cafĂ©’s feeling like a bit of a dude*, wondering how I was going to get to see anything.

(*dude - a posh bird-watcher, who doesn’t really know all that much about birds
- Bill Oddie’s Little Black Bird Book, Bill Oddie, 1980)

Day 1 – It appeared to be starting quite well. During the six-hour journey from Bradford to Dorset, I persuaded my wife that it was a great idea for all the family to visit Lodmoor RSPB near Weymouth, to see the Stilt Sandpiper that was reportedly there. I spent two hours at staring at some mud. I did a Green Sandpiper on the mud. For about five seconds. Some nice Dunlin, Common Sandpiper, Oystercatcher and Lapwing, and the usual gulls, crows and ubiquitous Little Egrets too, further west on the reserve, but no unusual North American waders. Meanwhile the kids spent two hours on the very pebbly beach, apparently loving it.

My wife was particularly happy: she thought we’d “done” the birding now, so we could get on an enjoy the rest of our holiday…

Day 2 – Studland beach, near Poole harbour. Ah, getting closer to Dartford Warbler territory here, but not close enough. We walked through the woods and dunes to Littlesea Lake, some lovely Butterflies (Speckled Wood, Comma, Large White, Common Blue), plus a Black-tipped Skimmer and a Sika Deer by the lake.

Day 3 – I spent some time enjoying the birds on our campsite (Longthorns Farm – highly recommended, if you don’t mind tanks driving past until midnight every night), including ace views of Pied Wagtail family groups bobbing around, a couple of fat Mistle Thrushes, and cool low-flying Swallows. We got to Arne RSPB late afternoon after another day on the beach (not my favourite pastime…) and my two-year-son was asleep. So it was just me and my Dora-the-Explorer daughter Rowan who ventured out to find some Dartford Warblers.

Arne RSPB, Purbeck, Dorset - August 2011

The warden told us how the Dartford population had dropped by 70% since last year because of the severe winter weather, and therefore the birds were not easy to find this summer. Undeterred, we set off hoping to return with great news of a hitherto undiscovered Dartford Warbler population on the reserve. Things didn’t quite go to plan. We found a pair of Stonechats (“to find a Dartford, first find a Stonechat”, so the saying goes), but not much else. Fortunately, Rowan seemed happy to the free of the car and enjoyed finding all kinds of weird bugs. Alas, while I was watching a Meadow Pipit that was seemingly trying to shoo me away, my scope blew over in the wind. The scope’s focussing mechanism broke! Arrgh! The pipit immediately let out a wittering, cascading call as I ran over to assess the damage, and my daughter said, in a glorious dead-pan voice: “That bird is laughing at you”. Thanks for that, Rowan.

Earlier, my daughter had already made feel foolish while I was “pishing” for birds near some gorse. I was having no success whatsoever, when I realised we were stood right next to a hide. She pointed at a sign on the side of the hide: Quiet Please, it read.

So this was the only Dartford Warbler we saw at Arne:

Dartford Warbler!, Arne RSPB, Dorset - August 2011

It was just as we arrived back at the car park that we realised we’d left the badge a kilometre back up the path. Rowan wanted it back, so… Luckily we got some great views of Sika Deer and Green Woodpecker as we walked back around the reserve, and the badge was found too. Despite being  a quiet day, there was no doubting it is a lovely reserve.

Sika Deer, Arne RSPB, Dorset - August 2011

Day 4 – Hmmm, I was enjoying this holiday up until now. It had rained overnight and the tipee was not as waterproof as I’d been led to believe. I hadn’t slept much because of the rain pouring on my face, and when I got up we found most of our clothes were wet. Then I remembered my scope was still bust. Grrr.

So, let’s all go to town for breakfast while our clothes dry, eh? What could go wrong? While walking through rainy Wareham to a launderette, I managed to knock my BAHA (bone-anchored) hearing aid out of its metal prong that’s drilled in my head. The very expensive, and practically irreplaceable) hearing aid bounced twice then fell down this drain:

Drain, Wareham, Dorset - August 2011

Without it I’m pretty much completely deaf. And silence is not golden, I can tell you, so I wasn’t happy. There was a car packed over the grid at the time too... But while I fell to my knees in the street, cursing my luck, my wife popped into the fishing tackle shop we were next to and emerged 30 seconds later with a long-reach gripper thing. A minute later the hearing aid was back in and working Perfectly. (Well, it was working as well as it has done since someone stood on it in the mosh pit at a Godflesh gig in Birmingham last October…)

The weather cleared and Lulworth Cove was great. I even managed to get the focussing on my scope to sort of work again.

Shore Crab, Lulworth Cove, Dorset - August 2011

Day 5 – Today was the time we were to leave Dorset and head off for a week in Devon. I'd be leaving the prime Dartford Warbler territory. Using all my negotiating skills, I wangled a solo trip to Studland Heath, west of Poole Harbour, first thing in the morning while the rest of the family visited Monkey World.

It was a beautiful morning. No sooner had I walked to the top of the slope from the layby where I’d parked, and I saw a pair of Dartford Warblers! Fantastic! Two bobbing little shuttlecocks, floating from a gorse bush to the heather and thistles. In flight, each bird looked like a tiny grey Long-tailed Tit on the end of a string. The big head, slight body, and long cocked tail were obvious as they perched. Ha! Lovely stuff. Very happy.

So, I was grinning as we set off for East Devon, and even more so when my wife agreed that another trip to Lodmoor RSPB. The Stilt Sandpiper was apparently “showing well” on the western end of the reserve. My luck was in, and I got some great views of that bird and lots of others. Click here for a full write-up with photos and video.

Stilt Sandpiper, Lodmoor RSPB, Dorset - August 2011

Day 6 – Pretty much a birding-free day, as we enjoyed the delights of the West Somerset Railway Association Steam Fair, near Taunton. My son Luke sat awestruck and watched the tractors, while Rowan drove a train: a full-sized diesel shunter from the docks of the Manchester Ship Canal…

Day 7 – Now then, this is how to go birding: from a tram! Seaton Tramway travels between Seaton and Seaton and Colyton (near to where we were staying) and passes through the nature reserves of Seaton Marshes and Colyford Common, along the lovely Axe estuary. You get such a great view over the mashes from the top deck of the trams – they even run special bird-watching-by-tram trips, using the trams as mobile hides. Even though we weren’t on one of these specials, we had great views of Common Sandpiper, Oystercatcher, Curlew, and the ubiquitous Little Egret, plus loads more.

Day 8 – Common Buzzard over our farm in the morning. The afternoon was spent on the beach at Lyme Regis and I managed to sneak off for a while to check out the birds around the harbour. I’d bought Dr Colin Dawes' great book Bird-watching Where Dorset Meets Devon, and he recommends checking out the area around the Cobb.

Me sat on the Cobb at Lyme Regis, Dorset - August 2011

From here, looking west over the shingle, I could pick out at least five Rock Pipits among the Pied Wagtails. Taking a closer look I came across a lovely female Northern Weather feeding on the tideline.

Northern Wheatear, Lyme Regis, Dorset - August 2011

Day 9 – While my wife and kids visited a friend on their farm near Honiton, I went deep into Devon in the hope of seeing a reported Black Kite at Kennerleigh. To cut a long story short: I didn’t see it, despite there being plenty of food for it:

Black Kite food? - Ashridge Farm, Kennerleigh, Devon - August 2011

But, I did have an excellent few hours at Ashridge Farm. I’ve never seen so many Common Buzzards in one place. Or seen so many Ravens in one place, and so close.

Common Buzzards, Ashridge Farm, Kennerleigh, Devon - August 2011

Common Buzzards, Ashridge Farm, Kennerleigh, Devon - August 2011

Common Buzzard and Raven feathers, Ashridge Farm, Kennerleigh, Devon - August 2011

The sun was out and I took the opportunity to lie back and watch the Buzzards and Ravens soar overhead and the butterflies flutter through the wheat, while listening to the hoo-weet of the Willow Warblers and the chitter of Swallows. Idyllic.

Ashridge Farm, Kennerleigh, Devon - August 2011

Sunflower, Ashridge Farm, Kennerleigh, Devon - August 2011

Day 10 – Pecorama! Brilliant, brilliant place. The kids loved it too.

Small Tortoiseshell, Pecorama, Beer, Devon - August 2011

Day 11 – The last chance of the holiday for me to get to see that Devon speciality, the Cirl Bunting. And there are few places better to try than Labrador Bay RSPB, near Teignmouth. Successful? Oh yes – full story, photos and video here.

Cirl Bunting, Labrador Bay RSPB, Teignmouth, Devon - August 2011

Days 12 and 13 – Some fossiling at Lyme Regis and whatnot, and then making our way home.

A top, top holiday in fabulous countryside. The family activities were great, as was the birding. Must get back down there again soon.

Friday, 19 August 2011

White-winged Black Tern at Nosterfield Quarry, North Yorkshire

Happy days... Another new bird for me this week: a White-winged Black Tern (Chlidonias leucopterus) at Nosterfield Quarry, near Ripon in North Yorkshire, UK. After work on Wednesday this week, I was lucky enough to be able to make the quick trip up the A1 to see it.

White-winged Black Tern, Nosterfield Quarry, near Ripon, North Yorkshire - 17th August 2011

White-winged Black Tern, Nosterfield Quarry, near Ripon, North Yorkshire - 17th August 2011

It was flying over the far side of the reserve’s Lingham Lake when I arrived, jinking madly as it dipped down to the water for food or took evasive action from the chasing gulls. Each twist and turn made the black and white of the plumage flash like a signal. It appeared to be in adult plumage, although moulting into its winter form.

It finally came to rest on a pontoon nearer to the lookout that's provided for visitors, though this was still some way off. This is why my photographs aren’t so good, but at least I got some record shots.

Surprisingly, there were no birders around when I arrived, and the ones that did turn up were not aware of the scarce migrant tern in front of them until I mentioned it. Still, there was enough to keep any birder happy, the highlight being the great views of a Common Crane on the near shore.

Common Crane, Nosterfield Quarry, near Ripon, North Yorkshire - 17th August 2011

Common Crane, Nosterfield Quarry, near Ripon, North Yorkshire - 17th August 2011

I managed some video, although by this time the warden had come to lock up and he obviously relished telling people about the reserve. He was certainly a very helpful bloke, but he did talk incessantly for ages... At present I don’t have the ability to remove the audio track from my Samsung point-and-click video output; I use YouTube Video Editor in the “Cloud” to edit my videos at the moment – and there’s no permanent mute function available. So, there’s a fair bit of irrelevant talking on the audio…

There was an impressive number of Lapwings around, somewhere in the order of 750 around that one lake, I reckon. Plus at least five Ruff, 10+ Curlew, five Great Crested Grebe, Little Grebe, Little Egret, lots of gulls (no time/inclination to count these), and many Greylag Geese (lots of noisy movement from these as they came in to roost -  a great sound and sight),

I’ve heard a lot of good reports about Nosterfield Quarry and its wildlife, and there have certainly been some good birds found here. Looks worthy of a longer visit sometime. Nice looking reserve, with plenty of places to explore and all in the middle of a working quarry. If you’re looking for an unassuming nature reserve with some hidden working-quarry-danger, try a visit to Derbyshire Wildlife Trust’s Willington Gravel Pits reserve

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Stilt Sandpiper at Lodmoor RSPB, Dorset - August 2011

Stilt Sandpiper, Lodmor RSPB, Dorset - 5th August 2011

In a similar way to the Marsh Sandpiper at Blacktoft Sands, I caught up with this Stilt Sandpiper at the tail end of its stay, after assuming it would be long gone before I got down to the area for my family holiday.

The Stilt Sandpiper (Calidris himantopus) is bird of the Americas, breeding in the arctic north and wintering in Central and South America. It’s rare in Europe, but not unknown. Well, it was unknown to me, in the sense that I’d never seen one before. So I insisted (well, pleaded) that the family visit the reserve where one had been sighted as soon as we arrived in the area.

A quick look on the Internet convinced me that adult Stilt Sandpiper’s on passage in Europe do not hang around. Luckily for me I got to see the bird, and had plenty of time to study it, but not after dipping at the first attempt. Common and Green were the only “sandpipers” I saw, plus their calidrid cousin, the Dunlin.

The Stilt Sandpiper was present at Lodmoor RSPB, Weymouth, from the morning of 24th July to 7th August 2011. Initially, the bird favoured eastern area of the reserve. But this is a difficult area to view, and after a couple of hours (as long as my wife was prepared to give me) on Monday 1st August I had failed to see it.

Fortunately for me, the weather was hot and sunny in Dorset all, meaning we had a great holiday, and the western scrape at Lodmoor dried up enough to force the birds to the wetter western end. I was here on Friday 5th August.

Stilt Sandpiper, Lodmor RSPB, Dorset - 5th August 2011

Stilt Sandpiper, Lodmor RSPB, Dorset - 5th August 2011

The Stilt Sandpiper stuck out like sore thumb. Not because of its long, yellowy legs, its clear supercillium, or its long, black, slightly decurved bill. No, because of the barred pattern that extended from on the bird’s chest right down its belly and flanks to the tail, leaving only a clear white area around the vent – an unusual pattern for a sandpiper, with perhaps only the much, much larger Eurasian Curlew having a similar(-ish) pattern.

The other feature of note was the bird’s size. It is similar to Curlew Sandpiper (Calidris ferruginea) in being larger than the “stints”, like the Dunlins it was feeding near, yet smaller that the other non-plover waders, like the Godwits, ‘Shanks and Curlews. It had this lovely rufous cheeck patch too.

A really interesting and attractive bird. Fortunately, I also managed to get some video footage of the bird feeding, showing it’s feeding technique quite well.

Holidays in unfamiliar places often means you get to see unfamiliar birds, but I didn’t expect to see this in Dorset when I booked the holiday! Bonus.

Monday, 15 August 2011

Cirl Buntings at Labrador Bay RSPB, Devon

Cirl Bunting, Labrador Bay RSPB, Devon - 11th August 2011

The Cirl Bunting is a rare breeding bird in Britain, confined the south west of England: a remnant population in Devon and an introduced population in Cornwall. So, while visiting the area this summer, I couldn’t miss the chance to see these birds, so I joined up with a couple of volunteer RSPB wardens for a tour of the reserve.

Labrador Bay RSPB, Devon - 11th August 2011

Labrador Bay is one of the RSPB’s newest reserves and is managed specifically for the benefit of Cirl Buntings. The area itself is a working farm, criss-crossed by public footpaths; but the RSPB owns land and they sanction all decisions concerning its use, ensuring it is for the good of conservation.

It certainly has some of the most striking scenery as any RSPB reserve, even though my visit was on an overcast morning with heavy rain forecast. We were fortunate with the weather, and with the birds.

We had only walked a hundred metres or so south from the car park before we spotted some likely finch/bunting-like birds across a wheat field. Family parties of Greenfinch and small post-breeding flocks of Linnet were active in the hedges, but flying from these was a smaller, yellow/brown bird. And there high in a solitary hawthorn tree was a male Cirl Bunting, resplendent in full summer plumage.

Cirl Bunting, Labrador Bay RSPB, Devon - 11th August 2011

The plumage is immaculate, with the striking black and yellow head pattern, and the very obvious red-brown coverts and scapulars on the wings. Through the scope I noticed a duller female and an even paler juvenile close by in the same tree.

Before long a second male arrived, calling from a higher branch, forcing the first male to move on. Apparently, the birds have very small territories, often centred on the corner of a field; so several pairs can have territories around the same small cereal field. Although Labrador Bay is a small reserve, there are an estimated 14 breeding pairs here this year.

We toured more of the reserve, going on a circuit that took us down closer to the sea. A single Common Swift and plenty of House Martins were steadily making their way south along the cliffs. Out at sea a couple of Gannets were also moving south, while closer in a Little Egret was going in the opposite direction. We were lucky enough to get on to a Peregrine, high over the cliffs to the north, while another sat on the red cliffs, its dark moustache and yellow talons clearly visible.

Labrador Bay RSPB, Devon - 11th August 2011

Up at the north end of the reserve we saw another male Cirl Bunting, calling on its territory. The birds were once common in much of England, particularly the South and Midlands, but their range has reduced to this tiny stronghold. Unfortunately, Cirl Buntings are very sedentary, so even though they are doing well here and on other parts of the south Devon coast, they need a helping hand to get re-established in other parts of Britain. A reintroduction programme is underway in nearby Cornwall, using young birds from this reserve and elsewhere.

Cirl Bunting nest, Labrador Bay RSPB, Devon - 11th August 2011

The nest was no longer in use - birds from this nest were reared and transported to Cornwall recently. The nest was only just inside a hawthorn hedge, apparently just the way Cirl Buntings like it. By the way, I was given permission to photograph the nest.

My guides finished their work for the day, so I took another hour or so to explore the reserve alone. Before long, in the corner of a wheat field, I found another a pair of Cirl Buntings, this time carrying food - obviously raising a second brood of chicks this year.

Both the male and female brought insects to the nest, particularly grasshoppers that their young prefer - I guess this is the reason Cirl Buntings are more likely to be seen in on the ground in summer than the closely-related Yellowhammers. I watched for a while, getting some photographs and video, but didn’t hang around in case my presence was deterring the adults from feeding their young.

Cirl Bunting, Labrador Bay RSPB, Devon - 11th August 2011

Cirl Bunting, Labrador Bay RSPB, Devon - 11th August 2011

Cirl Buntings, Labrador Bay RSPB, Devon - 11th August 2011

Somewhat frustratingly, the birds showed better in duller light, and then took cover whenever the sun came out. I did manage to get some video of the birds around the reserve.

August is generally a quiet month for birds, so I’d been lucky with my sightings today. As well as the buntings and other birds, we enjoyed views of a Common Buzzard from the reserve’s breeding pair gliding over the fields, and plenty of butterflies (Green-veined White, Meadow Brown, Speckled Wood, and loads of Gatekeepers).

Thanks to the RSPB volunteers who took the time lead the tour and gave me the VIP treatment (as I was the only person on the tour!).

Labrador Bay RSPB is situated 1.5 miles (2.4 km) south of Teignmouth in Devon on the A379 coast road, between Shaldon and Maidencombe. Click here for more information.