Sunday, 15 April 2018

Lesser spotted woodpecker at Yarner Wood

I have recently been visiting Yarner Woods NNR on the eastern edge of Dartmoor near Bovey Tracey in the hope of finding lesser spotted woodpeckers. March and early April is an excellent time to find these fast declining and elusive woodpeckers as they can often be located via their drumming and laughing calls. 

Yarner is a large wood though plenty of great habitat for them so seeing them is still a big challenge. 
I was recently lucky to see a pair for most of the morning near the top of the wood and along the edge of Trendlebere Down. They were still difficult to see well though. 

(Lesser spotted woodpecker Yarner Wood) 

(Lesser spotted woodpecker Yarner Wood)

(Lesser spotted woodpecker Yarner Wood) 

(Lesser spotted woodpecker) 

I also heard another bird calling from the other side of the wood though never saw it. There was plenty of activity from other woodland species around the site though and I also heard my first pied flycatcher of the year. 

(Blue tit from the valley hide at Yarner) 

(Male bullfinch at Yarner Wood) 

(Male bullfinch at Yarner Wood) 

(Coal tit at Yarner Wood) 

(Siskin at Yarner Wood) 

(Nuthatch at Yarner Wood) 

(Great spotted woodpecker at Yarner Wood) 

Sunday, 1 April 2018

Somerset Starling Sensation

It’s always difficult to rate wildlife experiences against each other, but starling murmurations have to be one of my favorite. In early February I witnessed my largest ever with 750,000 starlings coming to roost in the reedbeds of Shapwick Heath National Nature Reserve on the Somerset Levels. The wetlands here have all been created from old peat workings that are now carefully managed to support many rare reedbed and wetland species.

Over the years I have seen many starling roosts around the country at locations such as RSPB Otmoor in Oxfordshire, Brighton Pier and Slapton Ley in Devon. However the Somerset roost is probably the largest in the country and on occasions has thought to contain up to million birds!

Our quest to see this spectacle began with a day trip to Ham Wall RSPB Reserve.
It was a bright but bitterly cold day and there were good numbers of the usual wildfowl on the areas of open water such as tufted duck, pochard, teal, wigeon gadwall and mallard. From the first viewing screen we picked up lots of skulking snipe before a bittern made by a flypast giving a nice prolonged view.

(Pochard at Ham Wall) 

(reeds at Ham Wall)

(Great white egret at Ham Wall) 

Moving on we found one of the resident great white egrets hunting on the edge of the marsh and later saw it next to a little egret for size comparison. Later on we saw numerous marsh harriers quartering low over the reedbeds and also encountered a small flock of lesser redpoll feeding in alders. After a break for a pub lunch we visited the Shapwick Heath National Nature Reserve side of the wetlands, just across the road from Ham Wall.

(Lesser redpoll Ham Wall)

Earlier in the day we had called the Starling Hotline (07866 554142) which gave details of the last location that the roost took place so we made our way along to the extensive reedbeds on the reserve. As we waited for the starlings to appear, numerous harsh harriers drifted in to view across the reeds and a sparrowhawk gave a close flypast. The numbers of other starling watchers grew as dusk approached. We were beginning to get nervous that we were in the wrong location as there was no sign for ages, but eventually a few starling flocks did start to appear in the golden light of the evening.
(Starlings at Shapwhick Heath)
Soon after some truly enormous flocks started to appear in the sky above us and they came in from all different directions and soon merged to form a giant super flock. This super flock must have contained several hundred thousand birds and filled most of the visible sky. It was hard to really scale the numbers by now, but at points the flock was so dense with birds it blacked out the sky. Everyone watching was speechless and the only noise to be heard was the swooshing of thousands of wings. The flocks kept coming and the mass kept growing. They then began to murmur and created extraordinary shapes that moved like liquid. It was breath-taking to witness.

(Starling murmartion at Shapwick Heath)

The flock then descended just as the light really started to fade. As we made our way back to the car, we could hear the chattering of the roost in the nearby reeds. 

Friday, 30 March 2018

Common Dolphins in Torbay

For most of the winter of 2017/2018 at least two pods of common dolphins numbering around 40 -50 individuals in total have spent time feeding in Torbay in south Devon. 

They have regularly been reported from headlands such as Berry Head, but also from more less likely locations such as Broadsands, Goodrington Sands and Brixham. 

It is wonderful to have these enchanting marine mammals on my local patch and it is also an encouraging sign that the marine environment in Lyme Bay and South Devon is improving. I have been lucky to watch the dolphins and also harbour porpoises on several occasions. But on a blustery day back in January I had some particularly good views of the dolphins closer in shore as they sheltered from the worse of the weather. 

(Brixham Breakwater)

(Common dolphin Torbay)

(Common dolphin Torbay)

(Common dolphin Torbay)

(Common dolphin Torbay)

(Common dolphin Torbay)

(Common dolphin Torbay)

(Common dolphin Torbay)

(Harbour porpoise off Berry Head, Devon)

Sunday, 4 March 2018

Hawfinches of Haldon Forest

The autumn and early winter of 2017 saw one of the largest eruptions of hawfinches into the country for decades. Impressive numbers of these stunning finches were seen across much of England and Wales during the early winter and Devon also had its fair share. A private woodland in the county recorded over 100 birds leaving roosts on several occasions and sightings were then soon reported from Haldon Forest.

Haldon is a very large area of mixed coniferous and deciduous forest and heath run by the Forestry Commission near Chudleigh. It is a very large site though, so even locating the area where the birds were frequenting was a challenge. After going down the wrong tracks several times, I eventually bumped into other birders and found the area the birds were last seen. 

(Haldon Forest)

However there was no sign of them at first in the usual hornbeams they regularly feed in, so I started exploring other areas of suitable habitat. After some 45 minutes of exploring, I found a male and female bird in an oak tree at the edge of the wood. These birds showed brilliantly and even posed for a few pictures. I then decided to explore some of the nearby conifer plantation area for crossbills but was soon distracted by the croaks of ravens. 

(Hawfinch Haldon Forest)

I found a small window in the canopy above me to look up at the sky and spotted two ravens circling, but they appeared to be mobbing something else out of sight. I then suddenly caught sight of a raptor. Even on first glance through my binoculars at this bird, it made my heart skip a beat. With a very deep body, boldly streaked under-parts with a slightly buff colouration and a powerful head and piercing golden eye, I could see I was looking at a juvenile northern goshawk. 

(Goshawk Haldon Forest)

I only managed one record shot and the sighting was fairly brief, but I was left with a huge smile on my face for the rest of the day. Seeing this rare and secretive forest dweller is always a red letter day, especially in Devon. As if that wasn’t good enough a firecrest then even put in an appearance, working its way along a hedgerow close by.

(Firecrest Haldon Forest)

After all this excitement, I headed back to the hornbeans where the hawfinches were frequenting most. This time I found a flock of at least 20 birds perching up and then feeding on the remaining seeds.

The day was finished with a flyover common crossbill and a great view of a herd of fallow deer in the forest clearings. 

(Fallow deer Haldon Forest)

(Fallow Deer Haldon Forest)

Thursday, 4 January 2018

Birding Alicante

On a visit to southern Spain with friends in September I arranged a day visit to the fantastic El Honda wetlands near Alicante with Pau from Birdwatching Spain. It was a fantastic day and we recorded 69 bird species, plus many dragonflies and butterflies including plain tiger butterflies. We started in the dry steppes inland from Alicante which is the domain of black wheatears of which we saw several first thing, although they unfortunately remained too distant for pictures. 

Other sightings included blue rock thrush, crested and thekla larks, Sardinian warblers, red-legged partridge, stonechats and a large mixed flock of hirundines with crag, sand and house martins and barn and red-rumped swallows. 

(Red-veined darter) 

(Common bluetail damselfly) 

Moving on to the El Honda de Elche Reserve, the heat of the day was starting to get to us, so we retreated to the shade of the hides overlooking reed fringed pools. on the first lagoon were several species of duck including the now very rare marbled duck which has been reintroduced to this site and is very slowly recovering. 

(Marbled ducks and purple swamphens)

Marbled ducks are now very rare in Spain and rely on shallow brackish or freshwater pools with plenty of aquatic vegetation to feed on, plus reedbeds to breed in. Sadly most of this wetland habitat in southern Spain has been drained for agriculture and even at the carefully managed El Honda Reserve the population still suffers from water loss in some dry years. 

Walking further into the reserve, it was a delight to see so many species in relative abundance; purple gallinules, glossy ibis flocks, reed warblers, red-rumped swallows, squacco herons, whiskered terns and marsh harriers. Autumn migrants were also very evident with winchats, yellow wagtails and huge flocks of European bee eaters passing overhead. 

(Red-knobbed coot)

(Purple swamphen)

At one of the larger lakes we found a female white-headed duck as well a pair of hunting ospreys that gave superb overhead views. 

(Female white-headed duck)


We then moved through an area of farmland finding booted eagle, hoopoes, spotless starlings, serins, Iberian grey shrike and an incredible movement of European bee eaters. They were coming down to a wet field to drink and there must have well over 100 of them. 

(European bee eaters)

Pau knew of a fantastic hide around the back of the El Honda Reserve, where there was much more exposed mud and this produced a true wader migration fest. I cant ever remember seeing so many European migrant wader species all from one hide view before. We had curlew sandpiper in exceptional numbers, plus dunlins, temminck's and little stints, wood, green and common sandpipers, spotted redshanks, redshanks, black-tailed godwits, ruff, ringed, little ringed, Kentish and golden plovers, turnstones, whimbril, black-tailed godwit, avocet, black-winged stilt all on view simultaneously.  


(Curlew Sandpiper)

(Preening curlew sandpiper)

(Ringed plover)

(Black-winged stilt)

(Temminck's stint)


(Wood sandpiper)

Our final stop of the day was the Saltpans of Salinas de Santa Pola where the numbers of greater flamingo feeding in the saline lagoons made for pink haze in the distance. We had wonderful close views of these birds as well as many slender-billed gulls, yellow-legged gulls and a few waders. 
(Greater flamingo)

(Greater flamingo) 

(Slender-billed gull)