The Devon Lammergeier – a long shot and lotsa laughs.

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The old shepherd’s glassy eyes, reddened by years of wood-smoke and hound howls, narrowed over his pewter beer tankard as the rain sluiced down the windows of the Baskerville Arms…you could hear a hinge creak at 400 paces.

“When you’re out on the moors, just stay on the road and you should be alright, the beast doesn’t like the roads…just stay on the roads.”

Okay, that bit didn’t happen, but then the mist was lower than a snake’s belly out on Dartmoor, with constant rain and no bird gen for 24 hours – we realised this twitch was gonna be tough enough without ghostly hounds…
Neill and Trops pulled up at 4.30am today outside Dempsey Towers, and we all knew the odds were a tad on the long side.
Thing is, when a Lammergeier is floating around the West Country, even if it is only being seen occasionally, you gotta have a punt.
A detour via Wiltshire and Cotswold Water Park bolstered spirits with singing Cuckoo and Garden Warbler (top pic), Common Terns, and wild as mild as milk Red Crested Pochards, the latter best seen and then moved away from as quickly as possible.

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Best of all we had brief, but glorious views of the gorgeous female Red Footed Falcon that has been lingering at the site this week as she slipped out of the trees on the path in front of us, flashing her barred slaty upperparts and orangey buff undercrackers before disappearing behind a line of willows as the lunatic blasts of Cetti’s Warbler song dominated the morning chorus.
From there we headed south west and spent the rest of the day quartering the landscape between Holdsworthy, Tavistock, Okehampton and Exeter, hoping against hope that the Lammergeier of fate would break the skyline – what was visible of it anyway.

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The day was hugely entertaining as ever, but conditions were dire – visibility was rarely better than zero and once we got up onto Dartmoor proper, things got really bad.
It was like the school geography field trip from hell… voices from the past came echoing back down the years, over the swish of the windscreen wipers and Neill’s unceasingly optimistic rallying cry of “It’s brightening up lads”.
It really wasn’t.
Wet kagouls and soggy egg sandwiches and the desperate cry of teachers from 40 years ago returned to haunt the happiest dip going: “Keep up 2Y, it’s only a bit of rain…stop bothering the livestock…don’t touch that” etc etc.
Not even a Lammergeier in a dry-suit and chest-waders would venture out in this.

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Can’t win ’em all, but it was a great laugh fellas – as per usual thanks for the excellent company, driving and fun, I wonder how soon we’ll be summonsed to the moors again?

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It’s been too long….

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Spring passage is of course, absolutely brilliant, especially as the months of April and May have been such stonkers this year, but really, you can’t beat a good seawatch.
So I was delighted to walk out into a freshening westerly early doors this morning and decided to give Ainsdale a quick hour on the rising tide before work, and more importantly, before the shimmer started on the horizon.
A clear southerly movement of birds was taking place offshore – nothing major, but steady.
It was enough to put a smile on my face and give me my first Manxies of the year.
Sand, salt, seabirds – bring it on.

20/5/16, Ainsdale 0800-0900, W’ly f4:

Gannet 80+
Manx Shearwater 32
Fulmar 5
Razorbill 7
auk sp 24
Kittiwake 9
Common Scoter 6
Great Crested Grebe 2

If anyone is free today – the tide is high at about 1120 (depending on where you’re sitting), and the birds are still moving….

Late start

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Arriving mid-afternoon at Marshside today I wasn’t expecting too much, but it was pleasant enough as the warm sun fought the cold wind.
The Glossy Ibis was at the bottom of Marshside One, and nearby the Blackwit flock also held two Whimbrel and three Ruff.
Warblers singing away in the SSSI ditch (Reed, Sedge, Whitethroat and Blackcap), while the Avocets in front of Sandgrounders were looking just dandy.

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There were still three first summer Little Gulls zooming around over the Sandplant Pool, rarely landing to catch their breath.
While they whizzed about a Herring Gull swept into the BHG colony, grabbed a chick and powered off, gulping it down in a single fluid motion as the BHGs screamed around it.

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Dalmatian Pelican, Cornwall: “Quick, where’s the bucket of fish heads??!!?”

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The long haul down is never easy, but by 7am this morning we’d scorched south over the tarmac, and I was birding the scrub, but mainly the skyline, at Land’s End, Cornwall with Neill Hunt, Jason Stannage and Rob Pocklington in hot sunshine.
Whitethroats squawked their brains out alongside Chiffies and Willow Warblers, Peregrine patrolled the cliffs and even a nice Black Redstart was silhouetted by the early morning sun.
We’d detoured to year tick Cetti’s Warbler at Marzipan Marsh on the way.

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The great big target was nowhere to be seen, which was a tad unsettling, and after a pleasant hour or two we headed a short distance back up the road to walk onto the gentle brow of a hill above Trevilly Farm to scan the rolling landscape between Sennen and St Buryan.

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All a bit quiet even after the usual dancing, agricultural disco and general horsing around, with no sign of the Dalmatian Pelican that’s been circling the south western edge of England since Saturday at least.
Worryingly the pelican was only seen until 11am yesterday and Land’s End is a long long way to go to dip.
Think, think, what would Johnny Morris do?
Apparently Dalmatian Pelican needs up to 7kg of food every day, and having ruled out a prolonged stake-out of the fishmongers of Penzance and all points west, we continued to scan the skies.
Suddenly the bird filled the heavens and pagers as the temperatures got warm enough for thermalling after 10am, and following an anxious few minutes Rob picked it up circling, before the local buzzards began battering the pelican above our heads – yup, that’s how big it was…

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Look at the gob on that!
The bird drifted about in the hot, shimmery skies, barely flapping its massive 320cm wingspan – most impressive.
It was hard to approximate the size of the thing in the skies, but we gave it a go anyway on the track up to Trevilly Farm…

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That’s about as scientific as we get, and as the pelican began to drift off east, we decided to give chase, driving ahead of the bird and waiting as it circled over each of our new positions, until it performed a cool circuit over the rooftops and church tower of St Buryan.

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Having been identified as an individual that has already darkened the skies of Poland, Germany and France this year, it’ll be fascinating to see what the “grown-ups” make of its credentials in the future.
All I know is that the trip to see it was a blast – thanks to Neill (top driving buddy), Jason and Rob (list in tatters) for the excellent company.
Meanwhile best leave the last word, and probably best field description, to the one and only Dixon Lanier Merritt, way back in 1910:

“A wonderful bird is the pelican,
His bill will hold more than his belican,
He can take in his beak
Enough food for a week
But I’m damned if I see how the helican!”

The terns that ate my morning

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I’d only meant to sit and watch the five Black Terns at Marshside for a few minutes this morning.
An hour and a half later I was still staring as they swept over the water at Rainford’s Pool, stalling and stooping low into the wind.
Their wings turned from silvery white to the colour of oil as the hard morning sun bounced off ’em.
Mesmerising.

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Before I was sucked into a marsh tern black hole, I’d checked the golf course at 8am, but the wind was stronger and cooler today, and it was quiet apart from the singing warblers that have been in place for a fortnight or so already.
A scan of the marsh from Hesketh Road gave me brief views of the Glossy Ibis as it dropped out of sight just north of Wheatear Corner (approx 0845), while Grey Wagtail, 2 Stock Dove and a Common Sandpiper went through.
Swifts were screaming about overhead, mostly paired up and forced low by the wind, and Little Egrets were still on the morning commute.
Up at Sandgrounders, small parties of Dunlins were moving through and another Common Sandpiper whirred in.

“You ain’t seen me right?”

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I had to take a film production team out to the shipwrecks on an early morning low tide first thing today and once we’d established the high likelihood of a “seriously eventful” shoot on the coast, given the short period of time the wrecks are safely exposed, less ambitious targets than the Pegu were agreed upon and I said my farewells.
This meant I had just enough time to whistle up to Marshside for a quick look at the Black Tern (I didn’t hear about it till last night) that had been on the Sandplant lagoon yesterday, before punching in at the work/dune interface for more computer-wrangling and ladybird-poking.

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A Black Tern was fishing over the water as I arrived, darting amongst the squawking BHGs.
Such an elegant bird, even when you’re looking at them into the morning light, when they look like “blacked-out” ninja stealth falcons, sweeping about picking snackettes off the surface.
After a few minutes a second bird appeared and a small group of us, who had yet to start work, rejigged timetables, made excuses, or just sagged off, were treated to an aerial show long before the day turned cool and wet.
When the sun broke through at times and the birds were silhouetted, it was like watching a fork-tailed Transit of Mercury.

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Black Tern numbers swelled to four later in the morning (see comment from Bazzo on the previous post) as this year’s heavy spring passage of these superb little birds finally came to Marshside in force, but I was safely clocked on and driving a desk by then.
Brrum brrum.
We just need a great big Pelican now, and life would be perfect…
With the easterly still blowing humid and promising at lunchtime, I took a quick walk around Sands Lake, where yesterday’s Common Sandpiper was still present, and a Gropper was reeling at the top end, although I think the bird was actually on the other side of the Coast Road.
Willow Warblers, Chiffies, Whitethroat, Sedge Warbler and Blackcap singing away too of course, and the Gadwall continue to look very much at home.
Bogbean, Birdsfoot Trefoil and Flag Iris all flowering as the rains set in.

Two good legs and a pair of beady black eyes.

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Working today (well, doing a “pier birdwatch” over the high tide for the Southport Festival), so I could only watch from afar in awe as Marshside had what was probably its best day ever in terms of multiple quality birds – Golden Oriole, Glossy Ibis and Broad Billed Sandpiper, with Garganey and all those wonderful singing warblers and waders, as well as all the groovy regulars.
Just stunning.
Walking down Southport Pier at about 1415, I looked over the balustrade to check out about 20 large-ish gulls on the water below the north side and spotted this critter.
It was very bleached out, but the beady black eye and long primaries, combined with the snowy white head and subtle streaky boa had me giving it a second look.
Big dark-tipped bill and deep, deep gape, but NOT on the drooping, all dark “big nose” scale of Stumpy the Caspian Gull at Ainsdale.

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Big black terminal band (too big and messy?), with a white tail and bum, and white underwings (not really visible on these pics).
Forehead was quite slopey, but that wasn’t always obvious either – it certainly wasn’t as marked as Stumpy down the coast, but it had a nice flat back on the water, and a touch of the “Venetian Blinds” to the primaries.
The dark primaries projected far beyond the tail on the water.
Long-winged in flight (it flew a few seconds after I got the camera on it).
Some elements of the bird looked good for 2cy Caspian Gull, others didn’t.
What do others think?

The soundtrack to, and cure for, a hangover

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After a fairly lively (and most entertaining) night in the Legless Arms last night I was a bit slow out of the traps today.
Conditions looked superb though – humid with a lovely south easterly wind, but Plex was obstinately quiet – a few Wheatears and White Wagtails, the usual warblers and Yellowhammers, Orange Tips and Peacocks in Haskayne Cutting, and one or two singing Corn Bunting.

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Much as I love the streaky tubsters, the “song” of the Corn Bunting is probably the worst soundtrack to a hangover going – all those twisted and strangled high pitched squeaks were like a Brillo pad being shredded through a cheese grater inside my skull. Not good.
I headed off Plex and went up to Marshside for a break – finally the Glossy Ibis was showing at the same time as I was there and I watched it feeding at the top of Marshside One/Rimmers for about 45 minutes under dark thunderous skies.

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The bird was sifting through the shallows of the flooded area at the north end of Marshside One, beside the public footpath between Marshside Road and Hesketh Road. Great views as it strode about in the gloop, quite unconcerned by the people watching it 50 metres away.
The only time it got jittery was when one of the resident Coots began hassling it, chasing the Ibis out of the water several times – you can’t beat a good Coot.

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It quite took my mind off the throbbing behind my temples.
Even shot a video of the Ibis, but I haven’t worked out how to load that onto You Tube yet – where’s Uncle Ron when you need him????

Friday Hawking

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Good day at work today – led a walk in the morning and managed to bump into Common AND Sand Lizard, with a bonus Natterjack Toad in the heat of the dunes. The Sand Lizard was the first I’ve encountered this year – a small beastie, born last year going on size.
It’s always good to see recruitment into the population.
With the last few minutes of the afternoon, I slipped into Sandgrounders at Marshside to watch the two first summer Little Gulls hawking over the Sandplant pool.
I know my pics are crap, but Little Gulls, well, they’re fab aren’t they?

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Morning rounds

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Once we’d established that the ever-reliable Tropical Thomason had his troosers on the right way round and remembered his binolikars, we got down to Hesketh Road this morning for just after 8am, but a cold westerly didn’t bode well.
Plenty of Blackwits and about 200 Dunlin (with a few Ringed Plovers) off Wheatear Corner, and as we paused to admire the pair of Scaup from the platform, a male Garganey came steaming out from under the bank before paddling like stink further out onto Marshside One.
Very bad digiscoping followed as the cold westerly buffetted us.

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Out of the wind, Brown Hares were enjoying the sun and a female Sprawk kept an eye on things, while from Hesketh Golf Course, we could hear Chiffchaff, Blackcap and Whitethroat, but no Willow Warblers (the latter probably keeping out of the wind).
Reed and Sedge Warbler were singing in the SSSI ditch, and small numbers of Swifts battled through.

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We drove up to Sandgrounders, where the younger of the two Little Gulls was still bobbing about on the Sandplant Pool, occasionally taking to the air and becoming a dazzling white in the sun.

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More than 20 White Wags feeding along Marshside Road too.
Not too bad for a chilly morning when the wind was in the wrong direction…apparently it swings to the S/SE later in the week, so who knows what’s coming down the pipe??