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A first taste of spring in Dorset & Devon

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Old Wednesday 2nd April 2003, 15:06   #1
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A first taste of spring in Dorset & Devon

Tuesday 1st April

I decided to take advantage of a day off work and travel to the South-West, over the weekend a mouth watering selection of birds had been seen in West-Cornwall including at least 1 Hoopoe and an adult Pallid Harrier, and I was looking forward to spending the day in what is my favourite part of the country. An early start was the order of the day and I was away from Nottingham by 3:30am, I had agreed to meet up with some friends on the way down and before 6:00am 5 of us had squeezed awkwardly into my car and were off down the M3. One of my travelling companions had been in discussion with people in Cornwall the previous evening and thought that the Hoopoes had moved on, so we rapidly changed our destination to Portland Bill where 1 or 2 birds had been seen yesterday.

Arriving on the Isle of Portland the weather was cold, very windy and overcast with occasional bursts of rain, a far cry for the balmy spring weather we had enjoyed of late. Our first stop was around Pennsylvania Castle and we parked in the car park and set off to search the area. We searched some of the gardens by the road with no success and set off down the steep wooded valley towards the cliff tops, everywhere seemed devoid of bird life with just the occasional Greenfinch & Goldfinch moving. The whole area looked to be a cracking migrant trap and we were very disappointed not to connect with any more birds, we peered into private gardens and spent a lot of time searching the cliff top area of scrub and disused quarries, all to no avail. Quizzing a local birder he informed us that the Hoopoe yesterday had been extremely mobile and elusive and we began to lose heart somewhat, with our group its always a sign that things are going slowly as we start to spilt up and go off in separate directions. I was somewhat heartened to hear the scratchy song of a Blackcap in a small Elder tree and was able to locate a cracking Male Blackcap, my first of the year! We eventually rendezvoused back at the main road and spent some time peering over a wall into a garden that held good numbers of Chiff-Chaff, while watching them flitting and feeding in a sycamore, we spotted a Willow Warbler, looking brighter and sleeker than its companions. We agreed that we had given the area thorough coverage and decided to move on to the Bill itself.

Portland Bill is a long peninsular jutting out into the English Channel, at the end it is very barren and exposed and this morning the wind was like a gale, driving across us from the West, all the birds seemed grounded and we took shelter behind the lighthouse buildings while we had a brief seawatch. Later in the spring Portland Bill can offer fantastic seabird passage as Skuas migrate up the English Channel on their way to their breeding grounds but we were here a few weeks too early. A couple of hardy souls already there had been rewarded with an early Manx Shearwater, but we gave it half an hour and saw only reasonable numbers of Gannet & Fulmar, a single Puffin, a couple of Razorbill and a couple of Red-throated Diver all passing by distantly offshore. Bravely peering over the cliff edges in the high winds we saw 4 Purple Sandpiper tucked into the base of the rocks taking what shelter they could from the wind and waves. The grassy area by the car park held a couple of Rock Pipit and 5 Northern Wheatears, my first of the year, running to & fro` across the short turf looking smart grey above, cream below with their distinctive narrow black eyestripe.

We walked up through the beach huts towards the observatory buildings in the hope of finding any birds taking shelter from the winds but it was very quiet. There were no birds in the quarry which can often hold a Little Owl, though a smart male Stonechat was active in scrub close by. Calling in at the observatory to ask about the latest bird news we checked the observatory gardens, while one of my (more experienced) companions regaled us with tales of all the mega-rarities he’d seen there in the past including Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Northern Waterthrush and Olivacious Warbler, I know I would give my right arm to have seen some of those! It turned out that everyone else had been finding it slow today with very few birds moving through, no doubt due to the heavy winds. Apparantly the previous days Hoopoes had all been elusive or seen only briefly so it looked like we had little chance of connecting with one. Nevertheless we hadn’t given up hope and decided to check The Verne.

We had hoped to find it more sheltered at the Weymouth end of the Isle of Portland, but walking along past the Naval Cemetery we could still feel the full force of the wind. The neat turf in the Cemetery looked an ideal habitat for Hoopoe but there was nothing to be seen. Even scanning the high rocky cliffs above The Verne, normally a reliable site for a Peregrine Falcon came up blank, so we walked as far along as the path allowed and then retraced our steps back to the car. A debate now ensued amongst us as to our next destination. Our pagers had been ominously quiet and West Cornwall seemed a long way to go without news on any of the birds. One of my friends had yet to see Cirl Bunting and was keen to connect so we decided to head for the Exeter area, we would be sure to see some good birds and would be well placed to move on if any rarities cropped up.

As we left the Isle of Portland over the causeway we stopped briefly to check the exposed mud at Ferrybridge, a small party of Red-breasted Merganser were showing in the deeper water whilst on the muddy area in front of us where good numbers of Ringed Plover and a party of Dunlin. Then it was off down the A35 and A30 towards Exeter and our next stop, Bowling Green Marsh.

Bowling Green Marsh is turning into a fantastic little reserve, whose profile has been raised by the long staying Glossy Ibis, which I am sure will not be the last top grade rarity to grace this site. The tide was out when we arrived so the main pool was lacking in waders as we viewed from the main hide, no doubt they were feeding on the Exe estuary itself. The immediate point of interest was a large flock of hirundines swooping and swirling above the pool. Their fast and acrobatic flight is a real sign that spring has finally arrived. There were about 20 Sand Martins but they were also accompanied by a single Barn Swallow, my eye was then caught by a slightly more compact bird with a bold white rump and getting my binoculars on it confirmed my suspicions, an early House Martin mixed in with its close relatives. On the pool itself where good numbers of Teal and Shoveller and also a beautiful drake Pintail accompanied by 2 females. Feeding on the grass by the waters edge was a cracking White Wagtail. White Wagtail is the migratory, continental form of the more familiar Pied Wagtail, identified by a clear cut contrast between black cap and pale grey mantle and its cleaner unmarked flanks. This was a real classically marked individual and we were able to observe clearly all the identifying features. A single Raven, looking massive and angular was seen briefly in flight over the trees at the back. Leaving the hide and walking down to the viewing platform over the river Exe we walked along the path checking the adjacent ditch for the long staying Glossy Ibis, this has become one its favourite daytime feeding haunts. Sure enough, there it was, feeding confidently right next to the path, seemingly unconcerned at the presence of birders so close by. Close up I was struck by how small it was, it is certainly no bigger than a Curlew, its plumage is a beautiful iridescent chocolate brown and its head was beginning to acquire the white flecks of its breeding plumage. It fed actively probing the waterside mud and vegetation with its long curved bill. We had to pass by it to reach the viewing platform and at one point we watched it from no more than 4 feet away! The platform over the estuary gave us excellent views of a huge expanse of food-rich mud dotted around were good numbers of waders and Shelduck, there were also 2 elegant pure white Little Egrets visible, small numbers of Red-breasted Merganser were swimming in the deep water channels. Curlew were most numerous, but there were also good numbers of Black-tailed Godwits. A party of about 20 Knot stood stationary on a raised area of mud and we also picked out a couple of chunky looking “spangly” plumaged Grey Plovers, while seen flying upstream was a group of about a dozen Bar-tailed Godwits.

One of my friends was very keen to see Cirl Bunting so we returned to the car and drove round to Exminster. I was a little bit worried about our chances of connecting with Cirl Bunting here, as Andrew had been unsuccessful on a recent visit and the lovely area of dock and weed had been ploughed up. We walked down the slope towards the bottom of the fields checking carefully the hedge and trees bordering the field but the only birds seen were a small party of about a dozen Goldfinch. A medium Passerine flew over our heads calling and landed on the freshly turned earth of the ploughed area. Getting our scopes on it revealed a single Woodlark, its short tailed upright appearance, bold supercilium running onto the nape and the chestnut wash to its ear coverts immediately identifying it. It flew off high over the motorway to the West as we continued round the field. We reached the bottom with no sign of any birds so we decided to retrace our steps along the edge of the field. Heading back towards the top of the field, one of my friends pointed toward a bird perched in the outermost branches of a bare tree. Great news! It was a male Cirl Bunting, moulting out of winter plumage, it perched in full view for about 5 minutes allowing us to get our scopes on it and enjoy it fully, its bold striped head pattern, lemon wash to its colour and the chestnut feathers on the wings and mantle its most obvious features. As we returned to the car we were surprised to see the same bird perched openly on a hedge where we had pulled up the car and in the same field of view was its drabber plumaged mate, so we left the site happy in the knowledge that at least one pair of birds remains in the area.

Our next destination was Powderham Castle, a large pool viewable from the road often holds the Spoonbill when they aren`t present at Bowling Green Marsh and the road running alongside the railway also is an excellent vantage point to scan the whole estuary. Viewing the pool, revealed a large number (50+) of boldly plumaged Shelduck and a single Little Egret. Scanning the estuary revealed the usual abundance of waders. Scanning back across the river Exe in the direction of Lympston we were able to pick out the 4 Spoonbill feeding on the mud, they are always a cracking bird to see with their large size, bright white plumage and comically large bill. 4 Birds had over wintered here so we were more than a little surprised when a fifth bird flew in to join them, a first winter bird because of the black markings in its primary feathers. Scanning up and down the river I picked up 3 Sandwich Terns perched on a narrow sandbar, rapidly being swallowed up by the advancing tide, another summer migrant I had not connected with this year.

It was late afternoon by now and there was no inspiration for us on the pager so we decided to make our way back into Dorset and try for the long staying Chough at St Alban`s head. A stop at the watercress beds at Winterbourne Abbas didn`t produce any Green Sandpiper because of the high water levels. After a long drive back east we arrived at the coastguard cottages after a long drive down a ridiculously rutted and potholed approach track, with five people weighing down my car the bottom was scraping along the road with every bump and bounce, ouch! We weren’t sure whether the Chough here was a new arrival from the thriving population over the Channel in Brittany or one of the Cornish birds dispersing away from the breeding area, but the habitat here looked excellent with high rocky cliffs for nesting and plenty of short, grazed grass for feeding, it would be nice if it could meet up with a mate in the area and perhaps stay here to breed. Getting out of the car, the strong wind took our breath away, it was blowing a gale and not the sort of weather to be going too close to the edge of the cliffs! The first birds we saw were a stunning pair of Peregrine Falcon’s which slowly cruised along the tops of the cliffs, they were practically at eye level and afforded stunning views, the male slate grey, the female browner but both having the heavy, muscular appearance and broad based wings narrowing to a point, angled back sharply at the carpals. Other than that birds were in short supply and though we scanned carefully across the grass and checked the more sheltered area’s we couldn`t find our quarry. Our spirits were lifted by a Raven which swooped rapidly across the fields and disappeared inland, but we eventually decided to give up and head home.

So ended a day of mixed fortunes, we didn’t connect with Hoopoe nor catch up with any rarities but I had seen a nice selection of returning migrants and got excellent views of Glossy Ibis , Cirl Bunting and Peregrine Falcon.
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Old Wednesday 2nd April 2003, 16:30   #2
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A well detailed report and very fresh to me as it covered my tracks. I am a teeny bit jealous about you getting the Wood Lark and Cirl in Deepway!!! I was also impressed seeing the high number of Shelduck in Powderham pool, I counted sixty eight when I was there. There were also summat like nine Little Egrets. Your report was so good many of us, me included, will be the sixth person in the back of your car!!!
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Old Wednesday 2nd April 2003, 16:51   #3
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I enjoyed your report Jason, of course i share your feelings about Bowling Green Marsh and it is a real gem of a place, i know Portland very well and i hope to stay in the Obs for a night or 2 in the future and it gets very wild up there. I think i walked every step with you in your report, thank you for sharing it with us.

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Old Wednesday 2nd April 2003, 18:01   #4
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Thoroughly enjoyed the report and like Andrew and kingfisher, was with you all the way, bar Deepway.

I am envious of the Cirl Bunting as I tried, and failed, at Prawle Point for them earlier in the year. ( I will have to get Andrew to show me this Deepway as I don't know it).

You gave yourself a bit of a drive going all the way back to St Albans head. I know you got the Peregrine there but it was a shame you missed out on the Chough. I have walked around there and Durlston head a few times myself, but it can get a tad windy there can't it: LOL

Hoopoe are my bogie birds in this country and I have failed on every attempt to get a true wild bird here in Britain. I did see one at Harpenden in Herts in Nov 2001 but that bird was considered to be an escapee.

I love the detail you put into your reports Jason. I can virtually picture the birds you see. Hopefully your next trip out will be more productive, and we will benefit from another excellent report.
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Old Wednesday 2nd April 2003, 18:06   #5
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For a modest fee, John! LOL
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Old Wednesday 2nd April 2003, 18:06   #6
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What a fantastic report. And what a great day out. You are clearly a dedicated lot in Nottinghamshire! Every time I read a report about my own area I learn something new.

Thanks a lot.
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Old Wednesday 2nd April 2003, 23:41   #7

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Well done on the Glossy Ibis. I missed it two days before you and also saw no sign of hirundines which surprised me a little.

Gripping report

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Old Monday 26th May 2003, 19:53   #8
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I am visiting S Devon later this week. Can anyone on the forum help me with directions for the woodlarks at Exminster - I know where Deepway lane crosses the M5 but am a bit confused about which fields to look in and whether there are footpaths to the lower fields etc etc

Any help much appreciated


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Old Sunday 25th April 2004, 19:59   #9
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Can anyone tell me how one starts a new thread please in a section?.There used to be a box which said,start new thread,but I cannot seem to be able to find it.

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Old Sunday 25th April 2004, 20:49   #10
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Hi Christine,

If you go onto the main 'Your Birding Day' page, there's a red icon at the top left hand corner of the list of threads that says 'new thread', I think.

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