The Portland Naturalist

The Portland Naturalist

Friday, 25 April 2014

Living in a Wader Wonderland

Only five days to update, but in truth, they have been action packed!  Things are really kicking off!
I started with my usual walk round the usual mid-island sites, only to find a smattering of Wheatear and a single Redstart.  However, in the bushes by Reap Lane barns was a singing Sedge Warbler, a year tick.

Come the evening, I thought it might be worth a seawatch, as the middle of the day had seen a rich vein of passage past the Bill.  I managed a single Whimbrel sat on the beach, and a nice close Arcitc Skua, but virtually nothing else in an hour, so I gave up.
With forecast south-easterlies, the only option for me was attempt a marathon seawatching session in Chesil Cove.  I managed only 2.45 hours, as things weren't quite as busy as hoped.  Nonetheless, there was some top sightings, including 3 Little Gull, singles of Great Skua, Red-throated Diver, Whimbrel, and Bar-tailed Godwit, as well as a Grey Seal keeping an eye on me.
Another reason I had given up, was that there appeared to be a bit of overhead passage occurring.  On arrival at the West Cliffs, I was being watched from the top of my block of flats.  Yes, it's another Kestrel photo, but I just can't get enough of these confiding birds!
I settled down for a bit of vismig, and as soon as I started, 3 Whimbrel flew over low west.  More than I'd seen in far longer at the Cove!  My first at this site.
Counting was extremely difficult due to the vast front the birds were taking, as well as the rate.  A good number of Wagtail were going over, some briefly landing in the ploughed field, before continuing their journey.  These included my first british Blue-headed Wagtail, which spent 5 minutes there in the company of 2 White and 2 normal Yellow Wagtail, before too heading off north.
After an hour, I just managed to break the 300 mark with Swallow, not the best passage I'd experienced.
A little stroll to Blacknor produced newly hatched St Marks Fly, which fill the air at this time of year, so named cause they fly around St. Mark's day (April 25th).  They're distinctive for leaving their legs dangling in flight.
After lunch, I thought I'd have another go at counting the hirundines.  But, after half an hour, I gave up, not because there wasn't anything happening, but quite the opposite!  The rate of passage was far too great for me to count, as they arrived from all directions.  I got to around 370 Swallow and 130 House Martin in the 30 minutes.  I hate to think how many birds were involved in total!
A great day, not in the least bit ruined by missing a Northern Harrier narrowly!
I didn't get any Portland birding in today at all, as I was working in Bridport.  That didn't stop me finding good birds though, as I heard my earliest ever singing Wood Warbler on the slopes of Allington Hill, as I delivered below it.  Can't be too frequent in that area.

A medium-strength south-south-easterly meant that seawatching was again on the cards. 
Although there was again long periods of inactivity, my persistence paid off, and a total of 6 and a half hours put in throughout the day produced a nice list of sightings.  Best of these was a fantastic Pomarine Skua, which passed at mid-distance.  Always a thrill to see.
Also among the Skua were 1 Arctic and 4 Great, like this one.  Typical of the sort of view you get through the scope.
The weather was doing all sorts of things as I sat there, including quite spectacular fronts...
...and towering cumulonimbus, largely centred on Weymouth!
Also among the top records were 33 Bar-tailed Godwit, and 65 Whimbrel, 40 of which came in-off the sea together, before disappearing into the murk.
The most thrilling moments though came later. 
After an almost complete absence, a flock of some 170 'Commic' Tern suddenly appeared from the west, many of which then came inshore to feed.  Seeing a flock that size was awesome enough, but to then have them all react to a (unseen) passing Skua by towering up into the sky was quite spectacular!
There are always Peregrine around Chesil Cove, so I almost didn't bother to watch a bird as it whizzed through my view, but I'm glad I did, as it was actually chasing a Kestrel, which was then seen to drop something to the beach below.  A Vole!  The Falcon then descended to pick up the morsel, before finding a safe place up the beach to tuck in.  I've never seen or heard of a Peregrine robbing another bird like that.  It was at this point I noticed it was not a normal Peregrine, but a small bird with quite a dark chest, and pale-brown back.  I've scoured the books, but I still have no idea what it is!  Some sort of escaped falconers hybrid possibly.  It had no jesses (the 'dangly bits' in the shot are all from the branch it's sitting on).
Whilst creeping along the beach to get this shot, I came across my first Jurassic coast fossil!  Some sort of spiral shell.
In between my seawatching stints, I took a short walk round the island, finding only a Redstart, and a nice Whinchat.  This shot is typical of Portland.  Migrants in odd places!
Mist is always something which raises my hopes of migrant falls, and this morning was full of it.

Sadly though, it was not full of birds!  My first circuit of the usual places produced very little.  That was until I returned to Barleycrates Lane, only to find a Short-eared Owl perched on the hedge!  Sadly, as is often the case here, it was quickly flushed by a dog walker, and flew off north, disappearing majestically into the mist.
The only other notable event of the day was witnessing this from my flat window.
Someone had collapsed on the coast path.  Not sure of the outcome, but I suspect it wasn't good, sadly.
My first look at the mid-island triangle this morning was extremely disappointing, with almost nothing of note. 
Luckily, I then made the decision to look at Ferrybridge and the sea from Chesil Beach, despite a northerly wind.
Not much on arrival at the mudflats but my first Sanderling of the year.  But then, I suddenly noticed a quite leggy small wader, which appeared quite pale.  It took me a while before I twigged it was a Curlew Sandpiper, almost in full winter-plumage.  I was expected one of these to be gloriously orange!  Not complaining though, a great bird.
I was also surprised to see the Little Ringed Plover from the day before still about, and showing remarkably well.
I decided then to take a look at the sea.  It was immediately clear, that there was quite a large movement of Gannet occurring, with a total of 134 past in 45 minutes.
Also seen was a nice loose group of 7 Manx Shearwater, as well as two Arctic Skua south.  It is a bit strange seeing these birds flying over a completely calm sea! 

The best was yet to come, as a very alarmed sounding Whimbrel alerted me to these two incoming Arcitc Skua, which decided on the short-cut route!

Back at the mudflats, and it was all happening.  A few small flocks of Bar-tailed Godwit and Whimbrel going over culminated in a nice record.  I heard the calls of Whimbrel, Curlew, and Greenshank, only to find a group of c16 medium-sized waders, with two larger ones, and a single long-slim one with dark wings heading off high over Portland Harbour!  If they hadn't been calling, I wouldn't have had much clue!

The morning was complete with better views of a nice mix of small waders (though not the Curlew Sand sadly!).

That's 10 species of a wader in a day.  Brilliant going for a place with no freshwater and only a tiny bit of saltmarsh/mudflats!

Later, a quick break from work had me taking a quick peak at Reap Lane, only to find the hoped for Lesser Whitethroat

Surely Swift will be the next to fall!

It's hotting up, but I will have to take a break from Portland birding for the next four days, as I'm back at my beloved Tice's Meadow for the weekend, then working in dreaded Bridport again Monday and Tuesday! Sigh.

Saturday, 19 April 2014

Looking for migrants? Have a lie-in!

I realise this post is a bit 'word-heavy', but it's worth reading believe me, as it's been an incredible and breathless week!


Yet another sunny day, which didn't look ideal for migrants.  Indeed, other than small numbers of expected migrants, my first walk round the 'mid-island triangle' produced little of note.  Luckily, two reeling Grasshopper Warbler were nice at Suckthumb Quarry, even though neither could be seen.

There seemed do be a decent overhead passage occurring, with a couple of calling Tree Pipit going over among others, so after lunch I set up for a vismig session.  Counting the incoming hirundines accurately was very tricky, with a total of almost 800 in an hour!  Final numbers were 727 Swallow, 36 House Martin, and 23 Sand Martin.  I was delighted to beat my Swallow total of a few days ago (531).  Among the small numbers of other passerines was a single Yellowhammer, a scarce patch bird, and I witnessed for the first time, Wheatear heading over in the sky, in small, loose groups.

Come the evening, I was having a casual scan with the bins from my bedroom window, as I often do, when I suddenly came across a large flock of medium-sized waders flying high over the sea, towards me.  I was rather hoping they were going to be Whimbrel, so I rushed out to try and intercept them.  Some of the buildings were in the way, so I had to wait for them to appear, but they never did!  My instinct tells me that they were Curlew, which probably ended up taking the short-cut across the island, out of my view.

Anyway, while I was out, I thought I may as well take a quick scan of the panorama to the south.  I immediately came across a set of distinctive bowed wings heading toward me high along the cliffs.  I knew immediately what it was, but I just had to make sure I wasn't seeing things, with the scope.  An Osprey!  It drifted lazily south, with the surprisingly relaxed Gulls, shadowing it as it went.  I always carry my phone camera or camcorder with me when I'm out, but surprise, surprise, I didn't have them on me on this occasion!  I then rushed upstairs to see it from my bedroom window to try and get rather an epic flat tick, but sadly I could not find it again!


My first venture out this morning produced next to nothing at Barleycrates, but at Suckthumb at least had my first Whitethroat of the year, plus I actually saw a Grasshopper Warbler, as I flushed it from grass by the path.  It was when I spotted a Redstart literally fall out of the sky at Avalanche Road, that I suspected something was occurring.  Although there were only a few Willow Warbler and Wheatear at Reap Lane, on arrival back at Barleycrates, it all started to happen, as I found 3 Redstart in quick succession, as well as 2 reeling Grasshopper Warbler.  The ploughed field at the end was carpeted with at least 50 Wheatear.

With all this happening, I thought it worth doing a full census, visiting many other mid-island sites.  It was more of the same, but I'm not complaining about seeing these!

The final full total was 13 Redstart and 5 Grasshopper Warbler.

I was working the afternoon, but with a few minutes spare, I thought I'd react to the report of '3 Pied Flycatcher at several north Portland sites', by visiting Verne Common.  I didn't even know that this was one of those sites, but I was delighted to almost immediately come across a stunning male Pied Flycatcher at the Naval Cemetary!  Spot the Pied Fly!

Also a couple of Redstart even here, including one sharing the Flycatcher's tree. By now they are probably sharing a tree in a lovely Welsh valley somewhere.

Also here, plenty of the diminutive Ivy-leaved Speedwell in flower (here with Lesser Celandine).

My first experience of a proper Portland spring fall, and what an experience it was!


With South-easterlies in the offing, seawatching at Chesil Cove was the order of the day. 

As it turned out, passage was actually pretty poor.  This was more than made up for though by an incredible run of sightings.  First, my earliest ever Pomarine Skua passed by close.  It seemed to be totally lacking a tail, but was undoubtedly a hulk of a Pom.  Then, a bit of frenzied calling on the calm shoreline revealed the presence of two Common Sandpiper

A scan of the far horizon, suddenly produced a large raptor powering in-off the sea.  It was always extremely distant right up to when it made landfall somewhere between Chickerell and Langton Herring.  But, I saw just enough to prove it was a Harrier, and I'm 90% sure it was a Hen Harrier.  On top of those, a Merlin (probably the bird seen in-off at the Bill) whizzed past and up the beach, and my first three Whimbrel of the year went by.  On top of all that, an Iceland Gull made a brief appearance, before drifting south.  Only an 'also-ran' on a day like this!

Later, a quick look at the usual areas produced little till Barleycrates Lane, which had a Redstart and a male Ring Ouzel, which gave me great views, but was sadly flushed by a dog walker before I could sort out the camera!


Both yesterday, and today, I was working in Bridport, which meant virtually no birding.  Good thing I'd had a brilliant few days before!

I did however get out this evening, to Radipole in the hope of a Savi's Warbler, a species I'd dipped twice before.  Well, it wasn't to be third time lucky, as there was no further sign.  A shame, but not all that unpredictable!  I had a nice time though, seeing the likes of Cetti's Warbler, Gadwall, and Common Sandpiper.


A day which started very similarly to the 14th, with virtually nothing around first thing, only for birds to start appearing a bit into the morning.  I had got all round the usual sites seeing little, before returning to Barleycrates, only to find 2 stunning male Whinchat and a Ring Ouzel along one small section of path, which were all then unfortunately flushed by a dog walker.  

A Grasshopper Warbler was reeling again there, and the only Redstart of the day was at Blacknor.  At the latter, I found a Cream-spot Tiger caterpillar wandering on the path.

Later, I thought it may be worth seawatching from Chesil Beach.  It very much wasn't, with the highlights being the wonderful panorama.

And a fairly close Red-throated Diver, though sadly still in winter-plumage.

In the evening, I took a stroll down to Chesil Cove, to be greeted by a distant Black Tern lingering, but nothing else at all!


I only had a quick look at Barleycrates and Reap Lanes this morning before work, and was rewarded with just a calling Ring Ouzel at BC, deep in a bush.

Luckily, I was able to do a more extensive walk during my break, which took me all the way to Penn Castle Woods, which lacked any Wood Warbler, but I did find a single English Bluebell, doing it's best to poke up out of the sea of Tuberous Comfrey!

There was little about compared to recent days, but that didn't stop me enjoying my best views yet of a Whinchat, at Suckthumb Quarry, and I got my earliest ever Garden Warbler in the trees behind the former Weston Craft Centre (now a building site!).

On arrival back at Barleycrates, this Kestrel was enjoying it's lunch.  This species really is used to walkers getting close to them along the West Cliffs.  This was phone-binned.

I had a quick seawatch from Chesil Beach later, but after immediately having 3 Whimbrel go past, I saw absolutely nothing for the rest of the session!  I find that pattern repeats itself so often on seawatches!

I'm not sure things can get much better.  Then I remember, I'm off to Provence in 29 days!  The countdown has begun!

Friday, 11 April 2014

Reely Good!

Most of the last 9 days have been totally forgettable, either because I saw nothing of note bird-wise, or because I was working.  Luckily, these were interspersed with two days when everything seemed to happen at once.  Spring is just starting to get going now!

3rd - 6th

On the 4th, conditions seemed ideal for a fall of migrants, with a clear night, followed by a rainy dawn.  However, the wind was from the south, so presumably the rain came from where the migrants were, hence nothing moved.  A wander round my usual sites produced a pitiful showing of Chiffchaff and Wheatear only.

On the 5th, I had an extensive walk around several sites, but the only highlights were the plants.  At Verne Common, Dog's-mercury, normally a woodland plant, was in flower in numbers.

And, I found several 'False Oxlips' (middle).  These are a hybrid between Cowslip (left) and Primrose (right). Click to enlarge.

Later, in Suckthumb Quarry I came across a nice stand of Common Water-crowfoot in a puddle.


A day of constant drizzle, that produced the goods.

I started the day with a seawatch from Chesil Cove, as I thought the south-westerly might produce something.  As it turned out, the variety was good, but not the numbers.  Luckily, a pair of Tufted Duck passed at middle-distance, which was a Portland tick!  Otherwise, an hour and a half produced 1 Common Tern, 6 Sandwich Tern, 2 Great Skua, 1 Manx Shearwater, 1 Red-throated Diver, and 7 Common Scoter.

Later, during my break from work, I popped into Ferrybridge.  On arrival, there was nothing at all on the mud, except a few Gulls.  Then suddenly, it all kicked off, as a flock of 20 'Commic' Tern came in to take a quick bathe, and with them was 4 Little Gull, and a single Little Tern, which went on to do a bit of fishing in the shallows.  My earliest ever.  See my gripping phone-binned shot!

The bigger Terns were not around for long, and as they flew off over Portland Harbour I could clearly see the smaller, longer-tailed shape of at least two Arctic Tern amongst the Commons.  Also a new early date!  The Little Gull stayed for a bit longer, before they too headed off east.

8th - 10th
The only event of any note during these days was a quick explore down the West Cliffs on the 8th, in preparation for my Breeding Bird Survey.  It gives a whole new panorama of the island.

The only bird of note down there was a single summer-plumaged Red-throated Diver offshore.


A full day out and about, and things were really happening!

My first early-morning circuit of the 'mid-island triangle' had produced nothing of note, bar a Large Yellow Underwing caterpillar, till I got to Reap Lane.

Then, there was a sudden surge of movement along the West Cliffs, mostly from a loose flock of Wheatear.   They eventually settled in the ploughed field at the end of Barleycrates Lane, where at least 30 were counted.

With all this action, plus a light northerly wind, I thought a visible migration session was the way to go, so I settled down at the West Cliffs for a couple of hours.  Numbers weren't spectacular, but the highlights were a single Tree Pipit over with a flock of Meadow Pipit, and my first House Martin of the year.  The totals for 8:45 - 10:45 were 41 Meadow Pipit, 37 Linnet, 28 Swallow, 7 Goldfinch, 7 Pied Wagtail, 3 House Martin, 1 Skylark, 1 Tree Pipit, and 1 Sand Martin.

I then thought I may as well do another big walk, just in case the warbler/chat migration had happened post-dawn.  Certainly, there were noticeably more Willow Warbler, Chiffchaff, and Blackcap around than first thing.

Then, on walking past the Windmill Stables (on a path I only discovered recently!) I thought I heard a Grasshopper Warbler singing, but it was rather odd and quiet.  Very similar in fact to something I'd heard a couple of days ago by the derelict house at Barleycrates.  But, then it got louder and louder, till it was engaging in full-on reeling!  Even though it was in the bush right next to me, I never saw it!

During lunch, it was clear there was a good arrival of Swallow happening, as they whizzed past my window in numbers, so more 'vismig' was in order!  An hour of extremely difficult counting later (they were everywhere!) I finished on 531 Swallow, along with a small number of Sand and House Martin.

I finished the day with a short walk round Blacknor, and some courting Small Tortoiseshell.

 Top day!

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Hardly a Feast from the East

Despite the pessimistic title, it has been a thoroughly enjoyable few days.


An early morning seawatch at Chesil Cove in south-easterlies had plenty of promise, but the best birds seen were Canada Goose and Black-headed Gull!  However, the former happens to be a Portland scarcity, and a Portland tick for me, and the latter was migrating in impressive numbers.

Three Canada Goose appeared to come straight in, before heading north over Weymouth (where had they come from?!), and there were small numbers of the likes of Common Scoter, Sandwich Tern, and a single Curlew on the move.

The highlight though was a total of 240 Black-headed Gull past in an hour and a half.  A shame that I had to go to work, as who knows what the total could have been.  Its strange to think that I would hardly look twice at 130 BHGs in a field, yet seeing this flock migrating low over the sea...

...before towering up into the sky to take the short-cut across Portland Harbour, was quite spectacular!

A quick whizz round the mid-island triangle (Reap/Barleycrates/Suckthumb) saw little unusual, bar a single Grey Wagtail over.


I started the day with my usual routine, also taking in the garden of Pete and Debby Saunders, who had asked me to keep their feeders topped up while they were away.

Other than a male Blackcap, the garden itself was fairly empty.  However, a quick scan of the large hedge opposite produced something being chased by the local Robin and Dunnock.  I was surprised to eventually see that it was a male Redstart, my earliest ever!

I later got this unusual view of Verne Common (unusual, since it was taken from the prison complex, somewhere I'm allowed to go whilst on delivery!)

I thought an afternoon seawatch at Chesil Cove might be worth trying.  As it turned out, it wasn't really, but I did see a few Little Gull lingering about, plus four Bar-tailed Godwit heading up over Portland Harbour.


Being the end of the month, I put a great deal of effort into today, birding virtually from dawn till dusk.  It really is perplexing how these easterlies aren't producing more migrants.  On my extensive wanderings, I saw only a few Wheatear and Chiffchaff, plus these White Wagtail at Barleycrates Lane.

A seawatch however, did raise standards a little, with my first Arctic Skua of the year, harassing the Terns.  Also a small number of the usual stuff, including four Little Gull.
A quick scan of Portland Harbour revealed a Black-throated Diver and a transitional-plumaged Red-necked Grebe still hanging on, as well as two Mallard (don't knock 'em!).


I started the day off in Chesil Cove once more, but after an hour, and seeing one Common Scoter, I had enough!  Luckily though, a pair of Long-tailed Duck (including, I think, my first ever adult male) resting fairly close in, saved the session. 

I wonder if this sea-mist, seen just a bit earlier from the West Cliffs, had caused the ducks to ditch?

I wander round the usual sites finally got me my first Willow Warbler of the year, at Barleycrates Lane.

I thought an hour-long vismig session at the West Cliffs was in order next, and it was pretty good.  Nothing outstanding, but a Siskin was fairly unusual, along with 127 Linnet, small numbers of Sand Martin, and a single Swallow.

I next heard about a Hoopoe, that was seen in Suckthumb Quarry (where I had been earlier!!!), but flown towards Watery Lane.

I undertook a grand-tour of the area, failing on the Upupa mission.  I did however see one or two other things of interest, including this Holly Blue.

And, I took in the spectacle of a floor covered with Tuberous Comfrey in Penn Castle Woods.

But, most interesting of all, I witnessed more strange Carrion Crow behaviour.  A bird had it's wing-tip caught in the barbed wire, and all the birds around it (including a Magpie, and the local Herring Gull) were going mad!  One Crow was seen to attack the unfortunate bird, and I also saw another pecking at it's wing.  Whether it was attacking too, or trying to free the feathers, I'm not sure.

Eventually, it did escape, though that didn't stop the attack!

 In the evening, I attempted another seawatch, at a sunny Chesil Cove.

I was rewarded with a flock of ducks, which landed on the sea miles out.  After a great deal of head scratching, they eventually floated closer on the tide, and revealed themselves to be Teal.  A good record.


At work all day, so only got out into the field mid-afternoon, at Ferrybridge.  The star of the last few weeks was still very much showing off.  They do look smart in worn plumage (Iceland Gull).

I also witnessed a Kestrel catch a large rodent, possibly a young Rat, before tucking in.

Afterwards, I just took one short circuit of Barleycrates.  I had only just set foot on the path, when I heard a familiar 'chack!' from a nearby bush.  The next thing I know, a male Ring Ouzel is up in the air, eventually coming down again at Suckthumb Quarry.  I've been looking for one of these for several days, and of course, it's when you're not expecting it, when it happens!

Also at Barleycrates, this Horse wasn't the least bit worried about a Carrion Crow nicking it's hair!

I also came across a freshly-dead Woodpigeon, probably a victim of window-strike.

The neck detail.

And, I believe this little lump on the rump is the gland from which the bird exudes water-proof oil for anointing it's feathers.

Finally, this Magpie has a nest not very far away, and it wasn't very impressed by the interruption of a female Sparrowhawk!  The Magpie was making a strange croaking, and Starling-like whistles at the predator.

An action-packed few days!

I'm working solidly for the next three mornings, so I hope the real fall of migrants hold off for a bit!