Tuesday, 23 November 2010

New birds, old birds, autumn

A couple of weeks ago I was fortunate enough to be in the office when news of a 'possible' American Robin began to spread around the county. As only the fourth record for Devon, and perhaps the first on the mainland, it was quite a draw - add in the fact that the last time I was able to try and twitch (ouch) one, it was last seen the day before I got there. Despite some initial scepticism about the reliability of the sighting, there were plenty of people out searching, so I was able to take a leisurely wander to the site during an extended lunch-break, dodge some nasty, nasty rain showers and see a right beautiful bird before the ravening hordes descended at the weekend.

American Robin. Despite the poor photo, you can see the pale fringes to the greater coverts (halfway down the wing, if you didn't already know!) which age it as a 1st-winter bird. Worth wondering where it came from, as most of the Redwings here in SW England seem to be Scandinavian rather than Icelandic. Speculation all the way!

Soon after this piece of unashamed twitching, I was back on site, leading a training event about waterbird ID and ecology for some colleagues, with the help of a friend of ours. By some unaccountable event, we gathered on one of the two calm, sunny days sandwiched between howling winds and lashing rain. We started with a slow wander up the river from Powderham Church to Turf Locks... Immediately, we were faced with a mixed bag of waders and wildfowl feeding quietly on the rising tide: Black-tailed and Bar-tailed Godwits, Oystercatchers and Curlew, with a smattering of Wigeon and Brent Geese. A raft of female &/or juvenile Red-breasted Mergansers drifted gently upriver, and several small flocks of Avocet and Dunlin flew past.

Early days learning waterbirds... and just how far away waders can be.
Powderham marshes in the sunshine
Further upriver, we stopped to look at the quantity of bird footprints on the intertidal mud, coming right to the edge of the sea-wall, showing how much of the river the birds use at night when disturbance is lower - and bumped into the tracks of an otter, heading straight out across the mud, tail dragging behind it. First time I've seen evidence of Otter on the Exe myself, though I know several people who've seen the beasts themselves in the area.
Otter tracks - next best thing to seeing an Otter.

A little further on upriver, we were treated to spectacular views of a male Red-breasted Merganser feeding with utter aplomb just a few metres offshore; diving with barely a ripple, then bringing back a number of small fish to the surface where they were then squeezed and manipulated until they slipped down his throat - prompting much speculation as to the sensations experienced by both bird and fish! Can't say the fish gets much of a deal out of it, but there you go.

Drake Red-breasted Merganser, sans fish

Soon after this, we came across a flock of Lapwing doing just exactly what Lapwing do; bobbling around a grassy field amongst a herd of cattle, until a passing motorised parachute-thingy dropped down the marshes, circled the cattle and put them all to flight: a perfect demonstration of the effects of casual disturbance...

A temporary disturbance, but they all add up...
Soon after this, whilst we watched a cluster of Black-tailed Godwits probing deep into the mud, Amanda let out a cry of 'Ooh! - a Kingfisher!' and sure enough, there was a smart bird sat on the end of the jetty below Turf Locks, fishing in the canal-Exe confluence, and staying still long enough for everyone to enjoy good views through the telescopes.
Looking to the Turf Locks hotel
The gang get to grips with distant blobs, Avocets, Redshank  and godwits

which are all out there. Somewhere.
A short while later, we managed to walk past the American Robin - and it's attendant twitchers - without so much as a backwards glance; the first time I've ever managed to walk past a major UK rarity without stopping to look. Weird feeling, I have to confess! After discussing twitchers and their various habits for a short digression, we spent a while scanning the marshes and discussing freshwater waterfowl and waders,from swans to Snipe. The marshes and pools were not particularly busy, compared with how things can be in midwinter, but a liberal dash of Wigeon and Black-tailed Godwit were on the fields, with a smattering of Teal, Shoveler, Tufted Duck, Coot and Gadwall on the pools - a backing track of Water Rail and Cetti's Warblers kept us company from the scrubby ditches.

The Exe from Powderham on a rising tide. 

Finally we tracked back to the cars, then headed downriver to have a look off the back of Dawlish Warren and watch the departing roost. The weather and the tide combined to frustrate us, though, so we had to be content with views across the estuary and a very slowly ebbing tide, with a dusting of ducks up Shutterton Creek and a cloud of Woodpigeon in the adjacent copse.

A few Dartmoor autumn pictures follow, for the hell of it...:

 The ascent of fungi

 Between Hexworthy and Dartmeet


 More fungi, but not ascending - more like an exploded brain, really



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