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

22 Nov 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.

20 Sept 2020

20 Sep 20 - A Long Awaited Dream

My favourite Wader on the UK List is Buff-breasted Sandpiper. However, it's a species I've not had a good track record with seeing. My first failure was Sep 80 when Pete Aley & I managed to get a lift from our edge of Kent/London homes down to Cornwall for a Semi-palmated Sandpiper. After seeing it, we carried on to Predannack airfield for a couple of Buff-breasted Sandpipers that had been showing well in previous days. However, there was no sign when we arrived. After a long wait, we picked up two small Waders flying high over the airfield. They looked hopeful, but a Merlin appeared from nowhere, caught one & the other disappeared. A few days later Pete heard the remains of a Buff-breasted Sandpiper had been found. Almost certainly that was what we had seen, but untickable views (UTVs). The following month, I was in the Cley area with my Southampton Birding mates. As we got out of the car & started walking behind the beach, we could see a lone Wader in front of us. Rather than stop & check it with the telescopes, we tried walking closer. As Dave Bishop identified it as a Buff-breasted Sandpiper, it took off West, was seen soon after flying over the East Bank as it left the area. My third set of UTVs. In 1981, things got even worse when we tried for one at the Perry's Oak Sewerage Farm, near Heathrow, but it had left before we arrived. I finally saw one at Pennington after a blow in Sep 1982. We arrived & were pleased to find a Pectoral Sandpiper, until we met the local Combridge brothers who had found my first Buff-breasted Sandpiper. After breaking the duck, I managed to see a couple more on Scillies a couple of weeks afterwards & then two more singles on Hayling Island & the Scillies, in the following year.

It was a long wait to my next Buff-breasted Sandpiper, as I didn't spend a long of time on the Scillies after the mid 80s & I wasn't interested in going a long way to see rarities I had seen before. In 1996, I moved to Dorset & started paying attention to my Dorset list. But circumstances meant I didn't connect with my first Buff-breasted Sandpiper at one of their traditional Dorset sites at White Nothe until Sep 15: in a ploughed field on a high stretch of the Jurassic coastline.
Buff-breasted Sandpiper: White Nothe (17 Sep 15)
In 2011, Nick Hopper found Poole Harbour's first Buff-breasted Sandpiper on Brownsea. It was late afternoon & I was off work for a week of Birding. But I had also put my back out & could hardly walk that afternoon. Normally, I could have made it to the hide within the time available, albeit I would probably have had to run & rely on Nick to be there with a scope. But I had no chance with my bad back. The back wasn't so bad the following morning, but I was too late as it had left overnight. A few years later, Poole Harbour's only other record again departed very rapidly from Lytchett Bay. Had I left when I heard, I should have connected, but getting ready for work & having breakfast cost me the Bird. Clearly, I was back to my standard track record of little success with this species, especially, as I would rather go Birding on my local patches, than twitch another, elsewhere in Dorset.
Redpoll: Not the best of photos, but this early morning individual dropped into the weedy field at the top of Pier Bottom valley with three mates was one of the best species seen on 20 Sep. A good view for St Aldhelms, where typically they flight straight over this area, calling as they disappear
Jumping forward to 20 Sep 20. I was out on the St Aldhelms patch again. Since the August Bank holiday, I have been trying to spend as much time as work & the weather will allow on the patch. I had been out on the previous day, where despite a noticeable NE wind, it had been a good day's Birding with some migrants around. My first Harbour Porpoises off the Head had been a significant bonus. But the NE wind seemed colder on the 20th and there were few migrants around. Around early afternoon, I decided to give up & head home for a very late breakfast. The quickest route was back along the coast path and to cut back up Pier Bottom valley, as it's a stiff walk up the hill to the Chapman's Valley path. Cutting up the valley, gives me the excuse of avoid the steep steps, whilst allowing me the opportunity to check the bushes in the valley.
Pier Bottom Valley: The bushes on the top of the left hand slope can sometimes hold migrants
Given the lack of migrants, I decided I might as well keep to the footpath as it would be quickest route to the car. There is an excellent field to the North of the valley, but I was dismayed to see the farmer had cut the plants in it during the previous week. For the last few years, it's had what looks to be a nitrogen fixing plant perhaps Lucerne in it, which had made it attractive to Autumnal Butterflies. With it cut, I expected I wouldn't be stopping as I walked along it, unless there were some Wheatears & Whinchats in it. When I was about half way along the field's length, I could see four Golden Plovers with a smaller pale Wader in with them. Although I couldn't see it well, I was already speculating that the most likely species was a Buff-breasted Sandpiper. Fortunately, there was nobody else on the footpath, so little chance of the Waders being disturbed before I got to them. I stopped early & grabbed some photos, as I didn't want a repeat of the Cley scenario. I quick look at the back of the camera confirmed the id. Superb: a long awaited dream to find a Buff-breasted Sandpiper & equally good, it was the first St Aldhelms record. I made a few photocalls & put the news out. I wanted to wait until a few others arrived to ensure it didn't move before the first people arrived. First on the scene was Phil Saunders. Phil would typically have also been at St Aldhelms that morning, but had switched to Durlston. The news from Phil wasn't good. Despite the cold wind, both the St Aldhelms & Worth Matravers car parks were full. He had finally found an on road parking place in Worth Matravers, but it would be nearly an hour's wait before he arrived. Peter Moore also was on his way from Portland and experienced similar parking problems. A few more Birders started arriving by mid-afternoon, but were more lucky to find places in the car parks.
Buff-breasted Sandpiper: With a couple of the Golden Plovers. At this point, they were the closest I was to see them. In hindsight, I spent too much time getting the news out compared to getting photographs
Buff-breasted Sandpiper
Buff-breasted Sandpiper: Showing how it gets its name
Golden Plover: This was a darker, less golden, individual than the others
I finally made it home & had my first food for the day about 15:30. It had been a much longer day than I had expected, but I'm not complaining.

14 Sept 2020

14 Sep 20 - The Changing Faces Of The St Aldhelms Patch

The pressure of work & windy weekends made weekend visits to St Aldhelms in August largely impossible this Autumn. It wasn't until the Bank Holiday weekend, that the pressure of work started reducing back towards normal hours & the weather improved. That provided a chance to get out onto the patch, with the added bonus that I could head out for pre-work visits to St Aldhelms (as far as Trev's Two-barred Greenish quarry). So, far in Sep, I've been able to get out on a bit over half of the weekday mornings, as well as, longer visits at the weekend. But this morning, I'm fogged in with 200 metres visibility in the house. This happened on the 3 Sep, but I went anyway just for the exercise: a couple of miles of exercise with less than 100 metres of visibility & nothing of note seen.

The start of the track at St Aldhelms: Normally, I should be able to see for 2 or 3 miles in every direction, whereas the tree in the middle of the track was 30 metres in front of me (3 Sep 20)
This is what the visibility should be like at this point
: Visibility of over two miles, albeit without the snow (2 Feb 19)
Trev's quarry: I never thought I would tire of looking in Trev's quarry, but maybe that changed on 3 Sep

Fortunately, the visibility on other visits has been much better. One of the great things about the St Aldhelms patch is it is a stunningly beautiful site to watch.

St Aldhelms: Looking down Pier Bottom Valley from near to Trev's quarry (30 Aug 20)

The coastal footpath: The Southern end of Pier Bottom descends down steep steps, before ascending again equally steeply on the other side

Pier Bottom Valley: Social distancing on the coastal footpath isn't easy, so I tend to roll under the barbed wire fence & walk through the field to the sets of bushes I'm interested to check out in the valley

The Front Quarry or Quarry Ledge to give its other name: This always looks like it should be an excellent migrant trap, but migrants rarely stick in it

Hopefully, the weather will be better tomorrow.

13 Sept 2020

13 Sep 20 - Ticky Tick, Clicky Click Click Click

Since the August Bank Holiday, I've visited the St Aldhelms patch for short pre-work visits most mornings, with longer visits at the weekends. There has generally been a steady selection of  expected migrants, but in small numbers with Wheatears, the occasional Whinchat or Redstart, as well as, the standard Warblers, Whitethroat, Blackcaps, Willow Warblers, Chiffchaffs & a few Lesser Whitethroats. All three of the regular Hirundines were on the move a couple of weeks ago, but is now largely Swallows. Overall, it's been hard work, although the Bank Holiday Monday was good with my first St A's Dartford Warbler and a Short-eared Owl that flew in off the sea just to the East of the front quarry. The Short-eared Owl was distant & as I was going to struggle to confirm it wasn't a Long-eared Owl at the range it was, I lifted the camera & hoped the photos would help. They did: as well as confirming it was my second patch Short-eared Owl, they also revealed it flew past a Hobby sitting on a fence post that I hadn't seen. Can I add that to the patch Year List?

Last weekend, Phil Saunders, AKA @BeardyBirder, was back on the patch. While Phil is great Birding company, it's quite depressing Birding with Phil as it highlights how many calls, I'm now missing with the tinnitus that has developed in recent years: especially Tree Pipits, more distant or higher species. The worst of which was a Lapland Bunting that Phil heard call (I didn't) & we watched disappear into the distance: I couldn't get anything on it in flight & I had to throw it away. A patch Tick missed.

This morning the alarm went off to get me up again & onto the patch. It had been a tough morning yesterday with a F4 SW wind, a bit too exposed in most areas at St Aldhelms & not a lot of note. The forecast was for a light F2-F3 SW wind. It had looked like the wind hadn't dropped as much as forecast when I got up, so I decided on another cuppa tea, before heading out. Yesterday, I had been on the patch about 06:30, today it was 08:10. I stopped as I always do on the road by the My Time centre near Renscombe Farm to scan the fields. I've seen a few Wheatear in these fields this Autumn, but little else of note. No Wheatears today, but seven Meadow Pipits flew out of the first field & landed on the fence, close to the car. I drove on to check the next field. The seven Meadow Pipits flushed, but landed on the fence again, but had encouraged another eight to join them. I checked them again & the first individual I looked at was a Lapland Bunting: Patch Tick. Fortunately, the camera was on the passenger seat & it was quickly lifted, powered it on, removed the lens cap & poked out of the car window. I'm afraid I'm a Birder & not a togger. Had I been the latter, I would have rushed out of my car, wearing an all in one camo suit & booted everything. But being a Birder, I stayed in the car & blasted away with the camera, hoping the previous day's settings were OK: they were. 
Lapland Bunting: A species I wanted to find locally for many years
It dropped off the fence & onto the grass verge, which allowed more photos. After enjoying a quick view with the bins, I texted a few locals, tweeted a photo out & looked up: no sign of the Lapland Bunting or any Meadow Pipits. They had probably decided to drop back into the field, but further back, as I couldn't see them near the fence. Time to leave it in peace & head onto the car park, as I was keen to get on with the walk to the coastguard's lookout. After about a half mile walk, there is a left hand track, by an open sided metal barn. This is often worth a look. Today it held no migrants, apart from a lone Whitethroat. Just as I was leaving, I heard a call I didn't recognise. I looked up to a chunky Passerine flying over, it looked about the size of a Yellowhammer, but shorter tailed & bulkier bodied, but not as chunky as a Corn Bunting. The flight was strong & level. It carried on SSW over the field for over a mile before I lost it over the coast path to the West of the coastguard's lookout. I couldn't see if it had come down or carried on. I can't be certain if it was the Lapland Bunting, but I've struggling to think what else it could have been. Later in the morning, I had a good look in that area, but with no joy. But the coastal walkers had already been walking past by the time I reached the area. Presumably it reached the coast & then coasted West or been disturbed by walkers.
Lapland Bunting: I may struggle to hear them, but the eyes still work as does the camera trigger finger

6 Sept 2020

6 Sep 20 - A Gorgeous Pec

I had enjoyed the previous week with daily visits to the St Aldhelms patch. Finally, as it was a nice Sunday evening, I popped down to Kimmeridge to see the Juv Pectoral Sandpiper that had been found the previous day. I'm glad I made the effort. It was happily feeding on the tideline and with care was reasonably approachable.
Pectoral Sandpiper: Juv
Pectoral Sandpiper: Juv
Pectoral Sandpiper: Juv
There was a Pectoral Sandpiper found on the RSPB Arne Moors on 10 Sep. Given the lack of public access to Arne Moors, then it could well be the same individual and have been there since it left Kimmeridge. It was present until 12 Sep, when it crossed the river onto the more accessible pools at Swineham. Two days later it was joined by a second individual until 23 Sep when one departed. The final sighting at Swineham was on 26 Sep.
Pectoral Sandpiper: Juv
Pectoral Sandpiper: Juv
Pectoral Sandpiper: Juv
One of the most obvious sights of Kimmeridge Bay is Clavell Tower. It was built around 1830 by the Rev John Richards Clavell as an observatory and folly. Clavell lived in the nearby Smedmore House, which still owns the estate today. It is 35 feet high and has four floors. The Tower is now owned by the Landmark Trust. By 2000, the Tower was in real danger of falling into the sea due to coastal erosion. Fortunately, it was saved by the Landmark Trust, who used specialist builders to dismantle it stone by stone, move the tower 25 metres further away from the cliffs and rebuild it again. The stones were all numbered, so that they could be replaced in their original position. The work started in Sep 06 and finished in Feb 08. The Tower is now let by the Landmark Trust as a holiday home to raise money for its ongoing maintenance. It is a reasonable price to stay there considering how unique it is.
Clavell Tower

8 Jul 2020

8 Jul 20 - Socially Distancing Seawatching

During the coronavirus lockdown, I stayed at home & only left the house for the weekly shop. After the lockdown was easied, I was still not travelling far. Work was keeping me busy during the week and weekends were largely revolved around the house and garden, with a few carefully chosen sites within the Isle of Purbeck, where there was little chance of bumping into people. Sadly, the Spring migration in Dorset was largely over before the lockdown was easied, which also meant I wasn't rushing to get out. The only potential British & Irish Tick was the putative Cayenne Tern in Ireland, but given that would mean breaking lockdown rules in Wales & Ireland, it was never a trip to consider. Clearly, that didn't deter a few self-centred idiots who then tried claiming after the event that they hadn't broken lockdown. Clearly, they had and should have quarantined themselves in Ireland for two weeks on arrival and also the UK on their return. But being self-centred enough to go, they clearly just don't care & just deserve the contempt of the Birding community in my opinion. Not only did these selfish twats break Irish self-quarantine rules, but they also failed to self isolate on their return. They should still have been in isolation, when at least three of the four individuals who were publicly named as having visited Ireland, turned up at Portland Bill.

From early July, there had been a good feeding party of Balearic Shearwaters feeding off Portland Bill. No surprise about that as July and early August is a good time to see Balearic Shearwaters in Dorset waters. However, the numbers had grown to about seventy which is much higher numbers than normal. On the late evening of the 7 Jul, the Portland Bill Obs website posted photos of a putative Yelkouan Shearwater which had been photographed with the Balearic Shearwaters. There have been a number of reported records in recent years, but only one accepted record of one photographed off Berry Head, Devon on 29 Jul 08. Given the Balearic Shearwater flock was sticking around, then there was a reasonable chance that the putative Yelkouan Shearwater would be relocated. But there wasn't anything I could do, due to a busy set of morning phone calls. Everything changed around mid morning, when I had three rapid calls to my landline from my Plymouth mate Pete Aley. We had already discussed options after the initial posting on the Obs website. I was on a works call with my boss so I couldn't answer any of the calls, but I could tell from the Pete's persistence, it must have been refound & confirmed. A quick check on the RBA website confirmed the fact. There was still nothing I could do until early afternoon, but after that I was free for the rest of the day. As the putative Yelkouan Shearwater was still showing, I asked my boss if I could head off for a few hours & I arrived just after 15:00. I quickly found most people were on the ledge by the Pulpit Rock. Everybody was very close & clearly ignoring the two metre rule. Two of the individuals, Steve Gantlett & Steve Webb, who were still supposed to be in quarantine after visiting Ireland were getting well into huddle. But given they broke Irish & UK quarantine rules, it's no surprise to see them in the huddle. Clearly, twitching in their eyes is as valid a reason to break social distancing rules as driving to Durham with coronavirus & then onto Barnard Castle on your wife's birthday.

I certainly wasn't going to join the crowd. I knew Pete was also following the two metre rule and found him away from the main group. I joined him at a safe distance. There were good numbers of Balearic Shearwaters off the Pulpit Rock, sitting on the sea & occasionally getting up to flying around. Pete had arrived about two hours before me, but hadn't had any sightings. It was time to set up by folding seat, scope & start scanning. After an hour, there had been a few shouts from the throng on the main Pulpit ledge, but we were too far away to have any idea if they were reliable sightings or not or to figure out where they might have been looking.

After about an hour, I picked up a smaller Shearwater sitting on the sea in front of a line of Balearic Shearwaters. It looked consistently smaller and slightly paler brown with a long, slim bill. That was all I could see for the several minutes as it bobbed up & down on the choppy water. I tried giving Pete directions, but unfortunately, he failed to get onto it. Then it flew, briefly circled when I could see a shorter tail, trailing legs & heavy wing moult before flying towards me. I quickly lost it in the scope, so switched to the camera & fired away in the right direction. As it wasn't particularly close, it wasn't too hard to point the camera in the right direction. Fortunately, it continued to fly towards me before banking & finally flying out of shot. The photos aren't great, but they do confirm that I had seen the putative Yelkouan Shearwater.
Putative Yelkouan Shearwater: This first uncropped photo provides an idea of how far it was: the effective magnification of my 100-400 lens & Canon 7D is about 13 times. It is the small Shearwater image in the foreground. The brown dots behind are the line of Balearic Shearwaters
Putative Yelkouan Shearwater: The first of a number of harsh crops with this one being from the previous photo. All the photos were taken in the same sequence & nearly all were consecutive frames. Each looks different to the last & if one photo is seen in isolation, then it's easy to think there might be more than one individual involved. Therefore, it's easy to see how some visitors have claimed that there was more than one individual present, ignoring the misidentifications of Balearic and Manx Shearwaters
Putative Yelkouan Shearwater: Note the clean underparts, short tail, collar patch & trailing legs. The trailing legs has been stated as a variable feature & but given it had just taken off, it might not have tucked them in yet
Putative Yelkouan Shearwater: Clearly signs of heavy moult on the outer secondaries & inner primaries
Putative Yelkouan Shearwater
Putative Yelkouan Shearwater: The wing moult is more apparent & looks very similar to much better photos on the Obs website on 7 Jul, 8 Jul and 9 Jul. But I'm still happy to have some photos of my own
Putative Yelkouan Shearwater: Again showing the wing moult
Soon after this sighting, I suggested to Pete we try & get a bit higher up & ended up climbing onto the rocks above the start of the Pulpit ledge. Pete had already been forced to move one when some unknown Birder had decided to stand close to him. When Pete moved, the guy asked why he had moved & seemed surprised when told why. Clearly, another twat who doesn't seem to have been aware of coronavirus & was also wanting to stand close to others to help him find the right bird. Self-isolating was a lot easier once we had found comfortable positions on the rocks. The next hour resulted in a lot of unsuccessful looking for me & I missed a sighting Pete got onto as it flew close past the Pulpit Rock. Around 17:00, the Balearic Shearwaters all seem to get out & fly about a kilometre or more off out to sea, with only a few finally returning. By 18:10, I started thinking I really needed to head home, given I had a lot of work I needed to do that evening & the Shearwater flock didn't look like it was going to return. I said goodbye to Pete & a few others, before walking a bit closer to the Obelisk to find an easier path up to the top of the slope, another ten metres above where I had been sitting. My mate, Pete Moore, saw me & gave me a shout. I hadn't seen him since the lockdown, so wandered back for a natter with him. He was standing with a few other Dorset locals & it was good to see they were being sensible with their social distancing. I had only been there two or three minutes, when Wyke Regis Birder, Dave Foot announced he had just located it sitting on the sea in a group of about twenty Balearic Shearwaters and a Manx Shearwater. We all got onto the putative Yelkouan Shearwater on the water & then enjoyed a flight view. It was closer than my earlier sighting and the added elevation helped to confirm we were looking at the right individual. As I lost it in the telescope, I picked up the camera and took a lot of shots in the area of the Shearwater flock. Three were good enough to confirm the identification, despite turning out worse than the photos above. It must had taken off again without us seeing it & headed towards the Obelisk. Suddenly, there was a charge past us, from people closer to the Pulpit Rock. We carried on looking from where we were, when two Birders appeared next to us, looked quickly & got very excited when they found it sitting in the Balearic Shearwater flock. They had seen & strung the lone Manx Shearwater in the flock and ignored our quiet comments about it being a Manx Shearwater. This was emphasised by their comments of how distinctive it was. Well the Manx Shearwaters did stand out from the Balearic Shearwaters off the Bill, but despite looking a bit browner due to wear than previous sightings, the Manx Shearwaters were still fairly distinctive (unless you were desperate to claim it & fairly clueless about what you were looking for). It sounds like they were the only people to misidentify the bird during its stay at the Bill. After another ten minutes when we had failed to relocate it & people at the Obelisk we looking in different directions, it was clear it had disappeared & that was a sign I should also leave.

I've only seen Yelkouan Shearwater once before, back in 1986 on a crossing from Turkey to Turkish Cyprus. Clearly, not a species I can consider to be familiar with. Reading up about identification of Yelkouan Shearwaters before heading to Portland & looking at the photos on the Obs website, helped me a lot on the features I should be looking for. Yelkouan Shearwater is an Eastern Mediterranean breeding species which is geographically separated from Balearic Shearwaters which breeds on the Balearic Islands of Mallorca & neighbouring islands. However, what also became clear is identification is clearly complicated by a population of Shearwaters that breed on the Balearic island of Menorca. The excellent Petrels Night and Day by the Sound Approach team, states the Menorcan Shearwater population look like Yelkouan Shearwaters, but DNA studies have indicated that may be a hybrid population. That book was published twelve years ago & it will be very interesting to read the thoughts of Bob Flood & Ashley Fisher in their new Shearwaters, book which should be arriving in the next few days. Whether it will be possible to identify the Portland individual definitively & whether it will be finally get accepted, are still questions for the future. However, it was a nice opportunity to get me to look at the Balearic Shearwaters & clearly it will be an interesting learning experience. Finally, after four months since the start of lockdown, my fuel gauge is showing half full. At this rate I might need to fill the fuel tank up by the end of August.

10 May 2020

10 May 20 - An Unpreceded Movement For Dorset #BWKM0

This morning I was happily entering old sightings from a trip to South Africa in Nov/Dec 90, with Keith Turner & Jerry Warne. I had been looking out of the window at regular intervals, but it seemed quiet. About 12:20, Westbourne based Phil Saunders rang me to say Sophie, Durwyn Liley's wife, had seen a White-tailed Sea-eagle with some Red Kites, over Swyre Head whilst out cycling. Durwyn had said it seemed to be heading East. There are a few miles between Swyre Head & Swanage, with lots of attractive coastline, including the St Aldhelms cliffs to tempt a White-tailed Sea-eagle to linger. Alternatively, it might end up coasting. It would almost certainly be one of the White-tailed Sea-eagles that were released on the Isle of Wight last Autumn, so clearly not wild or tickable for Dorset, but it was still worth a look. I rang local Durlston Birder, Phyl England, to alert her in case it went over the Durlston part of Swanage. While on the phone, Phyl said she had missed out on seeing any of the Red Kites that had been passing over Dorset this Spring. I then had to apologise as the next Bird I looked at was a Red Kite heading East over Swanage. That was 11:25. I had two more East at 12:05. Then it started getting silly with the following: four at 12:10, five at 12:17, eight more kettling at 12:35, two at 12:40, one at 12:43 & four at 12:45. At this point, it quietened down, until the final one at 13:15. These numbers & times were as they moved over or past my house. On several occasions, I was able to follow & keep track of the individuals that had already moved over the house as they followed the same general route East over Swanage. The maximum I saw at any one time were the eight kettling individuals (which had drifted past the house in the previous ten minutes). Many of the earlier individuals eventually turning North to avoid flying over the sea. They were doing that as I was watching others coming low over the house. None of the individuals were seen to double back. I suspect I might have under counted by one of two individuals, but I'm confident with a minimum total of twenty five in under two hours. This compared to eight all spring over the house. To reinforce these were different individuals, some had extensive wear in the flight feathers & were very tatty, whilst others were in better condition. 

As I watched them, they were flying East towards Western Swanage, before turning North as they saw the sea & reached the more urban centre of the town. A few were in the valley bottom, but still turned North without flying over the town. The eight kettling individuals were particularly interesting, as this seemed to be more a way to get high to check out the lie of the land. They then dropped in height again & like the others I had seen, flew low North towards the Ulwell Gap. I followed a number well towards the Ulwell Gap, where the Swanage road cuts through the gap to Studland, but ultimately, lost them before the pass itself, which is just out of my view. I assume they continued through the pass & either headed over Studland at the Poole Harbour or possibly turned West again over the Rempstone Forest. Not for the first time in local Vis Migging, I've wished I could be in several places at the same time
Red Kite: I did photograph a couple of close individuals today, but they are still in the camera. So here is one that was over the house on 8 Apr 20
After some food, I was back in the study & facing West again. I had a few casual looks out of the window with my naked eyes & bins and picked up another Red Kite heading North East. This individual was further away and would have bypassed Swanage completely. 

Quite a few other Birders in Poole were picking Red Kites up over their houses, include Shaun Robson, who had twenty three heading South West over Upton, Poole around late morning/early afternoon. About 14:15, I rang Phil Saunders to thank him for the earlier call & to hear more about his sightings. Phil had seen amazing sixty three Red Kites heading West over his Westbourne garden Vis Mig site between 10:55 & 12:05, including about thirty in the air at one point. Even more interesting all his Red Kites were moving before I was looking: so how many had I missed? In the twelve minutes we were on the phone, my scanning with the bins picked up another four moving North East. The wind was slowly strengthening, but it wasn't particularly strong, but perhaps it had changed direction & they were coasting more into the wind & missing Swanage.

I was particularly impressed with Phil's total as that was a new Dorset site record. Well the record lasted until mid afternoon, when I saw a tweet from Mike Morse at West Bexington with a hundred & twelve West between 13:00 & 15:15. Later, Tom Brereton had another seventy nine North West between Bridport & Higher Eype between 13:15 & 14:15 & a further eight over Bridport later on.

It was a very enjoyable & amazing movement. But it raises an interesting question: why weren't the Swanage individuals following the same West route as most of today's other Dorset individuals. My guess it they were individuals that perhaps had been going West, but hit the coast around Swyre Head or St Aldhelms & having seen the sea, they started coasting into the wind, until they reached Swanage when they were forced by the local geography to head North again. As I said earlier, it would have been great to head to Studland or the Godlingston viewpoint near the Studland golf course, to figure out what was happening there. But with the lockdown in place, I'm not going to re-interpret the mix messages from this lousy government & use it as an excuse to head out Birding: when it isn't essential travel.

It was a great spot of Birding from the house. A lot more enjoyable that seeing a presumed released White-tailed Sea-eagle. To be honest, I just can't get that excited about most of the recently released species in the UK. Perhaps a bit of irony there, given all today's Red Kites originated from reintroduced schemes. But they started the Red Kite reintroductions a bit over thirty years ago and most of the individuals I saw today would probably be able to trace their family tree back for several generations of breeding in the wild.

21 Apr 2020

21 Apr 20 - Checking The Whites #BWKM0

My notes for 21 Apr produced a good selection of species for my Birding & wildlife database. Given the list of sightings, I must have had a few work conference calls in the morning. I can get on & work in the background on some calls & try to keep listening enough to stay in touch with the conversation, in case it's something that is more important to me or my area of responsibility. However, on other calls I need to pay a lot more careful attention to the discussion. When I can't multi-task on the laptop & if nobody is presenting on the screen on these more important calls, I can allow my eyes to wander to what's happening outside of my window. It's either that or watch my colleague's photos on the screen. Fortunately, I can cope with staying focused on the call, while watching something flyby. Not all the time & that's when I end up having to throw something interesting away. This has included at least two probable lockdown Ticks: Yellowhammer & Tree Pipit. I can accept that I won't identify everything and work obviously has to remain the priority.
Green-veined White: Westbere (3 July 14)
This time, I did get a good view with the bins of the highlight of the day: a Green-veined White which was seen from the study during another work conference call. This is a species that took me over a decade to add it to the garden list. In the last decade or so, it is still only my fifth garden record. I think it is a combination of not spending enough time looking at the Whites in the garden, apart from the Orange-tips, coupled with it being a scarce visitor. I am looking at the Whites more this year with the lockdown. Many are flying through my garden & not stopping. So, clearly there is still a reasonable chance I'm overlooking them, but I've not seen any Green-veined Whites during the lockdown. It's still only at the start of their flying period for this brood, so perhaps I will see one or two others in the next few weeks.
Green-veined White: Old Harry (24 May 15)

Check tomorrow to see the next day's wildlife sighting at #BWKM0.

19 Apr 2020

19 Apr 20 - Little Brown Job #BWKM0

There were quite a few wildlife highlights from a short look in the garden with the camera at lunchtime. The Bird highlight was my seventh migrant Red Kite from the lockdown which I enjoyed. However, the local Herring Gulls were less impressed, judging by their heckling.
Red Kite: Number 7 for the year which isn't bad considering I've only seen one a year, apart from a couple in 2019. It was circling over the garden before drifting off East over Swanage
There was a good selection of other garden species that have cropped up in recent posts, including both species of Newts, Roe Deer, a few Butterflies & a variety of Bees. But the wildlife highlight of day was the first of the next generation of Dark Bush Crickets for the year. Dark Bush Crickets are probably my commonest species of Orthoptera in the garden. In many gardens, it would perhaps be one of the Grasshopper species. However, Grasshoppers are scarce in my garden, given nearly all has been converted to flower beds, apart from the two ponds & bog garden.
Dark Bush Cricket: The nymph bodies are only about three or four mm long at this time of year
Dark Bush Cricket: A larger nymph, with some of my small pea gravel for a size comparison (21 Jun 10)
Dark Bush Cricket: Male. Photographed in the garden (5 Aug 10)
Dark Bush Cricket: Female. They get to be around an inch long body when fully grown. Alner's Gorse (4 Aug 13)

Check tomorrow to see the next day's wildlife sighting at #BWKM0.

18 Apr 2020

18 Apr 20 - My Large Spring Visitors #BWKM0

One of the first things I did with the garden after I bought my house, was to dig a nice large pond. The previous owners had a wendy house for their kids. Fortunately, they were removing the wendy house as I was moving in, which saved me the hassle to get rid of it. This left me with a big patch of bare ground & a lot of long rank grass. A nice large pond was the best way to start sorting that mess out. I refused to put the obligatory Goldfish or Carp in, as it was planned to be a wildlife pond. I expected the Frogs to find it & start breeding. Frustratingly, while there are often one or two Frogs in the pond, they have never bred. After a few years, the Smooth Newts found the pond and are generally visible, especially at night. I was very excited at the end of May 13, when I checked the pond & found my first Great-crested Newt. Numbers at this time of year are always tricky to count, as they generally are only visible after dark & are fairly shy. A few nights each Spring, I pop out with a torch after dark to count the Great-crested Newts. The peak count has been five in May 14 and two so far this year: but it's still early.
Great-crested Newt: Male (31 May 13)
Great-crested Newt: Male (18 Apr 14)
Great-crested Newt: Female (18 Apr 14)
Great-crested Newt: Female (9 May 15)
Like many kids of my generation, I got into wildlife by looking at Frogs, Tadpoles & whatever we could in some of the local streams in school holidays. This was several years before I started birdwatching. My interest in pond life have never left me & it's a real privilege been adopted by the local Great-crested Newts. I found out soon after I moved down to Dorset, that all three Newt species occur locally. I've got two species & I keep checked each year in the hope that a Palmate Newt or two will appear. That would be fantastic, but I'm not complaining with what I have.

Check tomorrow to see the next day's wildlife sighting at #BWKM0.

16 Apr 2020

16 Apr 20 - One Of My Favourite UK Butterflies #BWKM0

I saw my first Orange-tip flying in the garden on 12 Apr & I've been seeing one or two daily since them. While many Butterfly fans get excited by Purple Emperors or some of the scarcer Butterflies, I personally prefer Orange-tips. It's even better when one of your favourite species is a garden resident. This was the wildlife highlight of the day.
Orange-tip: Male (4 May 15)
Orange-tip: Female (19 May 19)

Check tomorrow to see the next day's wildlife sighting at #BWKM0.

15 Apr 2020

15 Apr 20 - My Little Residents #BWKM0

One of my occasional & very pleasurable activities at this time of the year is to check what's going on after dark in my big pond. My little residents are the Smooth Newts in the pond. It is a real treat to have good numbers in the pond & I will never tire of watching them: albeit I only look quickly to avoid disturbing them. One or two are often visible during the day & it's easier to watch them in the daytime. The numbers that are visible vary night to night, but my peak on 12 on 8 Apr 20, is close to be best single night count of 14. However, in late Summer 2011, I had to drain the pond to replace the liner & caught 22 over a couple of days: they were safely transferred to my small front garden pond.
Smooth Newt: Male. This individual has a wavy crest along the length of the body & tail. Males only develop this during the breeding season, so sexing individuals without this crest isn't easy (20 Jun 10)
Smooth Newt: Male. (18 Apr 14)

Check tomorrow to see the next day's wildlife sighting at #BWKM0.