30 Dec 2020

30 Dec 20 - 2020 Last Knockings

A couple of days ago, I popped out to St Aldhelms with the telescope. There had been storm force winds 24 hours earlier, albeit as the winds had moved through overnight, it failed to produce much in the way of interesting Seabirds in Dorset. However, there was a large relatively tight feeding group of about 250 Razorbills, with at least 20 Guillemots and a handful of Gannets, Kittiwakes and Mediterranean Gulls offshore. So, clearly there were a lot of fish close inshore to attract them. There had been similar good numbers of the same species off Durlston and Portland recently. I had hoped to return yesterday, but it was a wet start to the morning, so I gave St Aldhelms a miss. However, as this morning was cold and dry with a F2 - F3 SW wind, I was keen to have another visit in the hope the good numbers Auks were still present. I was hoping that a Bonxie might be hanging around, given there have been one or two off Portland Bill recently.

I arrived a bit before 11, but there was no obvious feeding flock off the Head, just a few Gannets and quite a few distant parties of unidentifiable Auks flying past a long way out. I tried scanning with the telescope further out and easily a mile out and South West of the Head, I briefly picked up two fins. It took a couple of minutes before I saw them again, but this view was long enough to confirm they were Dolphins and not Harbour Porpoises. Any sightings of Cetaceans are a real bonus for me as firstly, all Cetaceans are a treat for me and secondly, this is only my third Cetacean sighting from St Aldhelms. I had seen at least fifteen Bottlenose Dolphins back in the late 90s heading East and a Harbour Porpoise feeding a long way out earlier this Autumn.

They were only occasionally surfacing, but they were heading North East and slowly approaching the waters off the Head. Steadily I was picking more individuals up in the pod. I could see the curved fin was long, but narrow based, and they looked to be a small, slim Dolphin. By this time I was up to twelve in the pod. Their size, structure and fin shape had me leaning towards Short-beaked Common Dolphins, rather than the bigger and heavier Bottlenose Dolphins that are the most likely species in Dorset waters off Durlston and Portland. Finally, I saw the first one side on and a good look at the body shape and the pale sides. Most of the time, they were only showing their upper bodies, but every now and then, one broke the surface and it was possible to see the long pale lower body and small beaks. The pod were getting steadily closer and were more compact and I could see there were at least eighteen individuals. By now, they were under a half mile offshore and I was getting a few more views as individuals broke the surface, showed off their pale sides and reconfirmed their smaller size and less bulky bodies.

I popped up to the coastguard viewpoint above where I was watching from, to let one of the volunteers know. He had been chatting to a couple of fishermen who mentioned that had seen them earlier in the morning. After another few minutes of watching them, I decided to have a look around the nearby Quarry Ledge. As I was leaving Quarry Ledge, a large mixed group of Seabirds had gathered about a quarter of a mile offshore, involving about thirty Gannets, a couple of hundred Kittiwakes, forty to fifty Mediterranean Gulls, lots of Herring Gulls and over a hundred Auks: about a half of which were Razorbills with the rest being unidentified, but probably mainly the same. I picked up a couple of the Short-beaked Common Dolphins at the same range and a few hundred metres West, heading for the feeding Seabird party. I had a final look about 12:30 from the coastguards watchpoint as the coastguard volunteer hadn't seen them, but couldn't relocate them. After about ten minutes of looking, I decided it was time to leave.

Not having expected to see much this morning, I hadn't bothered taking the camera with me. So, you will have to make do with one of my old photos.

I've yet to confirm how good a record this is for the Purbeck coastline. It is only my second sighting of Short-beaked Common Dolphin in Dorset: the previous one was a single individual Paul Morton found off Brownsea on 5 Feb 17 and sadly which was found washed up on the island's shoreline a couple of days later. I've checked with Steve Morrison who has spent many springs in the past religiously seawatching from St Aldhelms and more erratically watching in the autumn. It is a species he hadn't seen at St Aldhelms. I've just heard from Tom Brereton that there were forty to fifty Short-beaked Common Dolphins seen off Lyme Regis this evening: so clearly an arrival into Dorset waters.
Common Dolphin:  It would have been nice to have had them give views like this, but they were more interested in feeding rather than enjoying themselves. Northern Bay of Biscay (9 May 18)

24 Dec 2020

24 Dec 20 - Happy Christmas 2020

Well 2020 turned out very differently to how I thought it would this time last year, albeit with that back of my mind worry about what happened if C19 did the same as SARS as it was starting to get out of hand in Wuhan. As we all know, C19 has done a lot more damage to the world and people's lives that SARS did. When the stories of C19 started emerging I did worry about it getting bad, given I learnt the hard way about the impacts of SARS due to a trip to Tibet that year that had to be cancelled. However, in the early days, I didn't expect C19 to cause the chaos that it did.

I've spent the last year, staying very local, only going to shops as the food runs low & doing my best to avoid people. On the upside, I've been lucky to be able to work from home & having a good reason not to commute has been a positive. Fortunately, there are enough good local Birding spots that I've been able to get out Birding this Autumn, albeit I missed the Spring this year as I stayed at home throughout the lockdown and beyond. I had four foreign Birding trips that I had planned to do this year. A couple have been cancelled (with no likely prospect of them being replanned when I can go) & the other two rebooked in the future. I should have been at sea between the Falklands & South Georgia as I write this Post, but hopefully I will finally get there & Antarctica in the future. But it would be nice if the floor was moving around at the moment.
King Penguins: I should have been catching up with these friends this Christmas, South Georgia (3 Apr 2018)

I'll leave you with this song that I think sums up 2020 for me. It was written & sung by Laura, who is the youngest daughter of very good and old friends of mine from the late 80s. Laura & her music partner have formed Colour Formation & in the 2020 way, they haven't been able to meet up in person yet. But the video is superbly edited and even more special to me as her parents Nita & Steve are in the video, along with a cameo appearance from one of their chickens. Just as importantly the words sum up Christmas 2020 for many people. Please take the time to listen to the song & enjoy the video. The song can be downloaded from Amazon if you want.

I'll wish all the readers of this Blog a Happy Quiet Christmas & a Good and Safe New Year

5 Dec 2020

22 Nov 20 - This Autumn Keeps On Giving

I had been out at the St Aldhelms patch on the previous day and had ended up taking the scope & trying a seawatch. This was particularly difficult as it was gusting to F5 to F6 South West at the head. A bit over an hour of seawatching was all I could face & I wasn't able to find much more than two Kittiwakes heading West, about twenty five Gannets moving East & West and low number of Auks: some of which were possible to identify as Razorbills or Guillemets, with the rest being too far out to identify.

Sunday 22 Nov was a great contrast, with mild, still, overcast conditions. I took the telescope with me for another seawatch: this time from my normal viewpoint overlooking Billy Winspit's Garden. Billy Winspit was the owner of the cottage in Winspit closest to the sea until his death in 1966. Apparently, he also cleared the ledge below my seawatching position as a garden. It has long since become overgrown.
The Garden: The Garden is the closest ledge of vegetation, before the cliff drops down to the bushy bolder field at the base of the Head (6 Nov 20)
With the still conditions, the seawatching was considerably more pleasant. The highlights were a couple of Great Northern Divers East and a flock of sixteen Common Scoters West. There were less Gannets, but better numbers of Auks seen: with most about a mile out. Not a great return for over an hour of seawatching, but having been unable to visit in the Spring due to the lockdown, the GNDs and Common Scoter were patch year ticks. Eventually, I decided I had had enough and it was time to head home. I had a quick look in the nearby fields behind returning to the coastal footpath, immediately East of Quarry Ledge.
Quarry Ledge: one of my favourite parts of the St Aldhelms patch. It always looks like it should have something good & has yet to produce my first star species (1 Jul 14)
As I got back to the coastal footpath, I saw a small pale brown & white Passerine, about 25 metres away. With the naked eye, I assumed was going to be a Chiffchaff or Siberian Chiffchaff (although I hadn't seen any Chiffchaffs during the previous fortnight at St Aldhelms). Raising the bins, it was immediately clear it wasn't a Warbler & an RBF was the first thought. Before I had had chance to check the head on features that I could see, it flicked up a metre or two, before landing in the same bush. The white in the tail in flight was obvious and the identification was settled down to RBF (Red-breasted Flycatcher) or Taiga Flycatcher: wow.

It stayed in the same patch of bushes close to the footpath for the next 20 minutes or so, only moving away from the footpath when a couple of groups of walkers passed by. It was generally perched, but with occasional flycatching sorties. When still it was noted to pump its tail on occasions.
Red-breasted Flycatcher: The original cropped photo was very misty, but my mate Steve Morrison has managed to clean up the image, albeit it is still a horrible photo & the processing has resulted in a much more vivid colouration than it really was
Towards the end of the 20 minutes, it moved about 15 metres away from the footpath & inland. Soon after that I lost sight of it: I initially thought it had dropped to the far side of the bushes & out of my view. After about a half hour of waiting with no further sightings, I was fairly confident it hadn't moved inland, but it had left my immediate area. There is a line of bushes along field edges where Birds bush hop off the Head towards the main track & Trev Haysom's quarry. As I couldn't see it there, the most likely option was it had gone down into overgrown upper undercliff of the Garden. I walked back to my seawatching viewpoint overlooking the Garden & quickly picked it up flycatching from the back of the lone Sycamore on the ledge below me. I saw it fly catch several times, but it always landed out of view. After about five minutes, it disappeared & I suspect it dropped down into the bottom of the undercliff. Despite searching by Peter Moore, Phil Saunders (both of who arrived after it disappeared) & myself, we couldn't relocate it. We gave up about 15:15. I had rung a few local Birders who watch the site & Poole locals, but didn't spread the news too far initially given the combination of the current lockdown restrictions and my initial expectation that it was going to move through within a few minutes, as migrants don’t stop in this area. Perhaps the combination of a short light shower, kept it in the area for a bit longer than I expected.

While it was still showing close to where I had found it, I decided to try getting a photo with the IPhone & Leica 25-50 x 82 scope. Whilst being a cracking scope, it has always failed miserably at phone scoping, even when I used an adaptor with my old IPhone. So I'm amazed I managed to get anything at all with it. The colour balance is poor, but it does confirm that the upper tail coverts are slightly paler than the tail & the pale edging of the largest tertial. Both features which also rule out it being a Taiga Flycatcher, along with the milkier warm brown colouration of the upperparts, the pale buffy upper breast band & sides to the breast and the paler base to the dark tipped bill.

I believe this is only the second record for St Aldhelms, although there are seven records for Winspit/Worth Matravers. All previous records are detailed by Steve Morrison's All Time St. Aldhelms Head List on Bubo: which includes Winspit, but excludes Chapmans Pool.