Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Snow Bunting

This morning I popped over to Turf on the Exe Estuary to have a look at the Snow Bunting that's been around there for a couple of days now. It was beautiful and sunny when I left Sidmouth but with heavy showers forecast. By the time I reached the bird one of the showers had arrived. It absolutely thrashed it down and I got soaked. The Snow Bunting didn't seem to mind the rain at all though and just sat there out in the open toughing it out. Instead of simply waiting until the shower passed I decided to take some shots of it in the rain and I'm really pleased with how well they came out considering the lack of light. I thought the rain had set in and made my way back to the car but once there it began to clear up and when my friend Dave arrived I decided to go back with him and take a few more shots in the better weather. The sun even came out for a while. The bird was really very confiding as Snow Buntings often are and gave some lovely views.

It was that close I could even get it in this photo taken with my phone. It really liked sitting on the sea wall alongside the estuary and periodically came down onto the footpath to feed.

Dave's in this one to show just how close the bird would come.
It's the nearer bird of the two the other is a Pied Wagtail.


Something tells me someone has put some sunflower seeds down for it!

Monday, 12 January 2015

Penduline Tits ....Second Helping

Knowing that the three Penduline Tits that have been visiting RSPB Darts Farm rather erratically over the last few weeks have now started to stay for the majority of the day, I decided to pay them a second visit. Although they haven't been arriving there very early, I still decided to get there for 9am yesterday morning, the reason being I was concerned that being a Sunday the car park would soon be full. I wasn't the first to arrive and the hide was already quite full of birders who were all looking at the Black Brant. I stood outside and to the side of the hide and as luck would have it I didn't have the long wait that I'd expected. At exactly 9.08 the three Penduline Tits flew into the tree beside me and then dropped down into the reedmace to feed. Everyone from the hide moved out and enjoyed superb views for just over and hour before the birds flew off high to the north. Half an hour later they were back and were still feeding in the reedmace when I eventually tore myself away at 1.30. They were very entertaining and easy to photograph. It was great to see Roger, Dave and Andy (Chard Birders) there seeing them on their fifth attempt, they looked quite happy. See Roger's write up and superb video footage here.

Penduline Tit incoming.

All three in this one...well just!

..and two here

Some of the many happy birders, one of whom had driven up from Dungeness overnight!

I've tried to get photos of each of the three birds to see if I can tell what sex /age they are, but I think it's a very hit and miss affair. Initially after having seen and photographed them on December 30th I thought there were two females and a first winter. None looked well marked enough to be an adult male. Yesterday though, the most well marked bird with the biggest mask did look a bit different than it had 12 days previously, I still thought it was a female though until I looked at my photos when I got home. I now think this one is a male and that it's slowly developing into a more striking breeding plumage. The bird which looked like a first winter bird with a barely discernible mask on the 30th of December now looks very much like the female bird having developed a much more defined mask in the 12 days since I last photographed it.

The male bird.

There are some very colourful russet patches forming on the mantle, which I didn't think were as prominent last time I saw the bird. The black around the eye also seems to be getting broader.

In these two front on views there is also a very noticeable russet patch on the forehead and a few russet coloured spots on the breast are beginning to show. 


 I think this might be an adult female due to the black but less extensive (straight sided) eye-mask and drabber colouring.

First winter bird

This bird has a much less clearly defined mask, but still looks quite similar to the bird above. 
It is however the same bird I photographed on the 30th of December when it looked like this....

Obviously the same individual but the mask is much duller and more grey than black.
In fact in some lighting conditions on the 30th this bird looked like it had no mask at all, as seen here...

The mask is all but invisible, especially from a distance.
Therefore this bird is highly likely to be a first winter bird which is now developing an adult's mask.
At no time yesterday did the bird appear not to have a mask whatever the light was like.

It was also very fascinating to discover what the birds were feeding on. It would be easy to assume that they were feeding on the seeds from the reedmace (which they may well do) but  they were also finding and eating the larvae of Limnaecia phragmitella, the Shy Cosmet Moth (or Bulrush Cosmet Moth).

There are lots of seeds available but the bird is digging after the juicy caterpillar hidden within the seed head.

Nearly there...

Got it!

Dave and I were wondering how the birds detected if there was a caterpillar in the seed head. We wondered if they listened for them. I suspect so, because it certainly looks like what is happening here.....

There were also several Chiffchaffs and a pair of Stonechats in and around the ponds. It would have been rude not to photograph them too especially as they kept posing nicely and were by and large ignored.

Fed up with being ignored this Chiffchaff tried the photo bomb approach.

Last but not least the ubiquitous and ever obliging Stonechat.

Saturday, 10 January 2015

A Bit of Luck on Aylesbeare Common

After spending almost all the daylight hours available on Tuesday at Aylesbeare Common and only getting a brief view of the very elusive Great Grey Shrike, my luck changed somewhat yesterday morning when I got superb views not long after arriving there. On my way to the shrike's favoured area (if indeed it really does have one, because it's usually very mobile) I heard the familiar scratchy call of a Dartford Warbler and started scanning the gorse bushes for him. After a minute or to he unexpectedly popped up right beside me. I managed to get a few shots of him before he realized his mistake and made for cover.

A bit of foreground gorse bush in the way on this one but I like the position he has his legs in, 
 looks most uncomfortable!

After this delightful encounter with the Dartford Warbler I walked on to have a look in an area where I've been lucky enough to see the Great Grey Shrike in a particular tree on a couple of previous occasions. At first I couldn't see it and my attention was taken away momentarily when I spotted the small herd of ponies which graze on the common. I hadn't seen them around for a while and whilst I was was standing there admiring them I glanced back at the tree in question and there it was, the shrike! It hadn't been there just a moment before... it really is very mercurial. Fortunately it didn't seem at all bothered by my presence even though I was nearer to it than I've been on previous occasions. I think because I was in amongst the group of ponies it just saw me as one of them. I got some nice shots of it but the strong light/low morning sun caused a few blown highlights as I was taken a bit by surprise and didn't have time to alter my camera settings. Still I'm pretty happy with them.

 It soon flew off to a much more distant tree where it stayed for a long while. I watched as first a Chaffinch and then a Meadow Pipit tried to mob it. When it moved trees again the Meadow Pipit shrewdly followed it and sat in an adjacent tree. I fancied it was thinking along the lines of  "The closer we are to danger, the farther we are from harm." as said by Pippin in The Lord of the Rings.

A more typical view of the bird. 
It stayed in this tree for a good twenty minutes.

Amazingly a few minutes later I stumbled upon it again sitting in a tree on the edge of one of the main tracks and again I got reasonably close to it, not as close as when I had ponies for cover! The light was  a lot better though.

 It then flew low into some gorse where I'm pretty sure it caught something, before flying out again and into thick cover. It was too quick for me to see what it was though... I'm betting it wasn't that canny Meadow Pipit... and I'm hoping it wasn't a Dartford Warbler.

Saturday, 3 January 2015

New Year Plant Hunt

Yesterday I took part in the BSBI (Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland) New Year Plant Hunt. The idea of which is to see how many species of native or naturalized plants are flowering in the first four days of 2015 across Britain and Ireland. I decided to look in Sidmouth but having only moved here a couple of months ago I'm not all that familiar with the town and didn't really have much of an idea where to look. If I'd been doing it in Seaton I'd have known all the best places to see flowering plants having noticed many in previous winters. Seaton also has the advantage of having more than its fare share of waste ground and the stabilized shingle bank at the Axe Yacht Club is also an ideal place. Still, I thought I'd give Sidmouth the benefit of the doubt and ventured out at 9am not really knowing what to expect. I had three hours to find as many flowering plants as possible.

First stop was a local nature reserve called The Knapp, this was rather a poor choice as I already knew that most winter flowering 'weeds' are to be found in more built up areas. I wasted a fair amount of time here and only picked up two species.



The nature reserve backed onto the cemetery but this wasn't any good at all for my quest because  Sidmouth cemetery isn't like most other cemeteries I've been in. It was more like an ornamental garden 'brushed and combed' is an understatement! Next to the cemetery were some allotments and they looked superb but unfortunately were fenced off so I couldn't go inside, I wonder what I missed in there?

Next I went to Peak Hill road on the western side of the seafront. Firstly right up to the top to get...


Further down the hill I picked up quite a few additions including..


Red Valerian 
Naturalized in these parts, it's blinkin' everywhere!

Winter Heliotrope
 It was worth going out just to smell this naturalized plant, simply exquisite!

Red Campion

I realized I could have done with going to search in the town centre but when I got there it was heaving with new year shoppers ( I can think of better things to do on a New Year myself) I couldn't find anywhere to park either so had to give up. What I did instead was drive around a bit and see if I could spot anything from the car. This proved to be quite successful and I added a few more species this way. Unfortunately I got some pretty awful photos (and some bemused looks) as I stopped jumped out snapped and jumped back in.
My drive by additions are..

 Lesser Celandine

Mexican Fleabane
 Another naturalized species, as is..

Yellow Corydalis

Where the River Sid flows though the town is a park called The Byes and this is where I tried next, again all a bit too 'brushed and combed' for my liking and there were very few areas which looked suitable. However, having said that I did get a few more species here so it can't be that bad.

Cow Parsley


Petty Spurge

Finally I spent a good while in an area near to my house, an area with houses, a small supermarket a recently built community centre and a new doctors' surgery in the process of being built. Lots of recently disturbed ground means lots of seeds brought to the surface where they can germinate even if it is still mid-winter! I got my highest number of species in this area. Including...


 Complete with nectaring Hoverfly...it could be summer!

Common Field Speedwell

Black Medick

 Creeping Buttercup

Curled Dock

Red Clover

Common Ragwort
 Okay, only just!


Shepherd's Purse


Wild Radish
I identified three grasses in flower but there were probably many more to find. Much too difficult for me though. I took one home to key out and that took long enough! That was Tall Fescue. I also recorded Cock's-foot Grass and Annual Meadow Grass. For grasses to count as in flower the anthers and/or stamens must be visible like so...

Cock's-foot Grass

Tall Fescue

I saw a few flowers that I didn't record as they were most likely garden escapes, but they were nice to see anyway.

 This Stinking Hellebore was on a verge but near to gardens and a park.

This white form of Lesser Periwinkle was on a verge in a car park.

This one was puzzling as it looks like a Wild Strawberry but has the wrong amount of petals.
It was next to a garden hedge so I put it down as a garden escape.

This one is definitely a wildflower but unfortunately still in tight bud so doesn't count.
Common Knapweed ...'Close but no cigar'

An enjoyable but very tiring three hours, trying to search in so many places. I'll plan my route better if I do it again next year and make sure I spend more time in built up areas where most of the winter flowering action is!

Below is my complete list of 30 recorded species. * Not Photographed.

Achillea millefolium - Yarrow

Anthriscus sylvestris - Cow Parsley

Bellis perennis- Daisy

Capsella bursa-pastoris- Shepherd's Purse

Centranthus ruber - Red Valerian

Cerastium fontanum - Common Mouse-ear*

Corydalis lutea - Yellow Corydaylis

Corylus avellana - Hazel

Dactylis glomerata - Cock's -foot Grass

Erigeron karvinskianus - Mexican Fleabane

Euphorbia peplus - Petty Spurge

Festuca arundinacea - Tall Fescue

Ficaria verna -Lesser Celendine

Hedera helix - Ivy

Heracleum sphondylium - Hogweed

Medicago lupulina - Black Medick

Petasites fragrans - Winter Heliotrope

Poa annua - Annual Meadow Grass*

Primula vulgaris - Primrose

Ranunculus repens - Creeping Buttercup

Raphanus raphanistrum - Wild Radish

Rumex crispus - Curled Dock

Senecio jacobaea - Common Ragwort

Senecio vulgaris - Grounsel

Silene dioica - Red Campion

Sonchus oleraceus  - Smooth Sow Thistle*

Taraxacum officinale - Dandelion

Trifolium pratense - Red Clover

Uulex europaeus - Gorse

Veronica persica - Common Field Speedwell.