Thursday 26 December 2013


25th December 2013 - Topsham

A pre-dinner walk on Christmas Day took us on the traditional Topsham promenade around Bowling Green Marsh and the Goatwalk. There wasn't a great deal on the marsh but a resting group of Avocets caught my eye. Hunched up and with abstract patterns of black and white, it was sometimes hard to see where one bird ended and another began.

Avocets - Bowling Green Marsh, Topsham 25/12/2013

Avocets - Bowling Green Marsh, Topsham 25/12/2013

Tuesday 24 December 2013

The Bowling Green Marsh Fox

18th December 2013 - Topsham

By way of a change from birds and photos, here's one of the foxes that always seems to be loitering around the back of the pool at Topsham's Bowling Green Marsh. Watercolour and pencil sketches.

Fox - Bowling Green Marsh, Topsham 18/12/2013

Fox - Bowling Green Marsh, Topsham 18/12/2013

And, of course, a Merry Christmas to everybody.

Wednesday 18 December 2013

Normally I'd steer well clear of this sort of thing...

19th December 2010 - Topsham Recreation Ground


Fulvous Whistling-duck - 19/12/2010 Topsham

...but I was sorting through some old files and turned up this photo. Three years ago tomorrow at Topsham Rec I photographed this unlikely trio, all apparently unringed, wary and hungry after a long transatlantic flight/after hopping over the fence from the nearest ornamental duck pond. I'd completely forgotten about it - I can't even remember whether they were present for just one day or hung around a while - my note-keeping was patchy at the time.

I don't have the Devon Bird Report for 2010 to check but did anyone else see these in the area?

Tuesday 17 December 2013

Curlews, age and moult

4th-14th December 2013 - East Devon

A Warning: to those who think gulls are beyond the pale, look away now because I'm going to write about ageing and moult in waders. I should also add, in case it's not obvious, that I'm no expert; as with my posts on gulls, you could say that 'I know just enough to be dangerous'.

As ever, what started out with 'I wonder if that's...' turned into a major digression and an excuse to not do anything useful. While waiting for good photo opportunities with my local wintering Water Pipit or a co-operative Yellow-legged Gull, I can always find something of interest. So this week it's been mostly Curlews. I see Curlews everyday in Topsham and only bother to point my camera at them if they're fairly close. Looking at some recent photos I wondered if I could tell anything about age or moult state so I dug out a few books and did a little research. I'm going to give references so: a). it appears more authoritative and, b). it'll be obvious if and where I've gone wrong.

Like most northern hemisphere breeding waders, adult Curlews undergo a complete moult following breeding; this is typically complete by late November. Juveniles have a partial moult which involves replacing more or less all head and body feathers and scapulars as well as sometimes a few tertials and lesser coverts (Cramp et al 1983). So in December there will be two age classes of Curlew, adult and first winter. Even without age-related differences in colour or pattern, it should be possible to pick out birds of the year, which are still carrying worn juvenile coverts and flight feathers, from freshly moulted adults.

To make things a little easier, there are some plumage differences between juvenile and adult, although this could be better covered in even the best field guides. The Collins Bird Guide (Svensson et al 2009) illustrates a juvenile but only mentions 'finely streaked on breast-sides, not so spot-barred as adult'. Lars Jonsson's Birds of Europe (1992) illustrates a first winter but the text does not describe plumage differences. Looking at The Handbook of Bird Identification (Beaman and Madge 1998) actually confuses me; 'juvenile...less striped tertials and scapulars (having wider and less defined dark brown, rather than black, dark centres)'. A juvenile is depicted but lacks detail and appears identical to the adult. Help is at hand though in the BTO Guide to the identification and ageing of Holarctic Waders (Prater et al 1977). Here we're told that juvenile scapulars are 'brown, heavily notched buff'...whereas adult non-breeding scapulars are 'brownish with indistinct grey-brown barring'. There are similar differences between juvenile and adult coverts and tertials. The same authors in Shorebirds (1986) describe juvenile coverts, scapulars and tertials as having 'contrasting brown feather centres and buff notching'.

Here's an adult Curlew, probably a male based on the unexceptional length of the bill. All the scapulars, coverts and tertials are fairly fresh; the feathers are basically grey-brown with darker centres and diffuse bars. The visible primaries show pale rounded tips, these are freshly grown feathers.

Curlew adult - Otter Estuary 14/12/20
Curlew adult - Appledore 11/9/2013

The second bird - from September - is in primary moult so on that basis alone has to be a second year or older. From what I can see, all the scapulars and coverts are grey-brown and the pattern is essentially barred with broad dark feather shafts and some pale and diffuse fringing/notching. As to the bird's sex, the bill is quite long so it's probably a female.

Next is another Curlew, most likely a male, photographed in early December. It looks pretty similar at first glance but a closer look shows a few differences.

Curlew -Topsham 4/12/2013

Here's a cropped enlargement with the relevant feathers and feather tracts labelled.

Curlew - feather tracts

There are a few new and at least one old tertials, at least three new and one obviously old greater coverts, and at least three new and a few old median coverts. The scapulars look quite uniform, all dark centred with distinct buff notches and quite different to the two previous birds. This mixture of old and new coverts in December - when adults should have finished their complete moult - suggests that this bird is a juvenile. The older and more worn feathers (most obvious on the old tertial) show more of a notched pattern than the barred adult winter type newer ones. The scapulars appear to be all of the juvenile type, notched with buff rather than barred grey and brown - this pattern is actually similar to adult breeding plumage but on moult alone this bird must be a juvenile.

There's something else to notice, just visible beyond the longest tertial and above the tail is a blackish primary tip; this wing projection looks much shorter than on the adult above. Is this due to moult - the outer primaries still growing?. Here's a photo of the same bird in flight and P9 and 10 do look a bit broken to me, P8 appears to be undamaged and is quite pointed, a juvenile character (Prater et al 1977).

Curlew -Topsham 4/12/2013

I admit though that I'm still a little puzzled by this bird, there seems to be a discrepancy between the upperparts and the underparts. On balance it's a first winter - partial moult, juvenile type scapulars, some retained juvenile type coverts and tertials, and pointed outer primaries; but it also shows (perhaps newly moulted?) adult type breast and flank feathers which are barred and spotted rather than streaked. And if it's a first winter, why has it apparently moulted no scapulars yet?

As ever, comments welcome; as I keep saying, I'm no expert.


Beaman, M & Madge, S 1998 The Handbook of Bird Identification. London.
Cramp, S et al  1983 The Birds of the Western Palearctic. Vol 3. Oxford.
Jonsson, L 1992 Birds of Europe. London
Marchant, J 1986 Shorebirds: an Identification Guide to the Waders of The World. London.
Prater, AJ, Marchant, J & Vuorinen, J 1977 Guide to the Identification and Ageing of Holarctic Waders. BTO Guide 17: Tring.
Svensson, L et al 2009 Collins Bird Guide. 2nd edition. London.

Friday 6 December 2013

Lost blog, new blog and changes to this blog

I'm sure many of you will have noted the demise of Gavin Haig's blog Not Quite Scilly. It's a shame, Gavin's a gifted writer and his posts were witty, intelligent, knowledgeable and always entertaining. His example was certainly an inspiration to me to restart my blogging career, as well as being a perfect example of how it should be done. On the vast and confusing mudflats of blogland NQS stood out like a pristine first winter Caspian Gull. I've left the link in place for the time being in the hope that he might return some day.

Meanwhile it's no small compensation to be able to add a great new blog to my list of favourites. Matt Knott, a highly respected local birder has entered the field with his splendid new birdingexmouth. Matt's found a lot of quality birds on his local patch and he's documented them with fine field sketches and some cracking photos. I really hope he keeps it going so please pop over for a look and encourage him to post more.

Finally, some new content to The Two Bird Theory. The more observant will have noticed - if I've done things correctly - a few new buttons at the top of the page. These link to three extra pages containing some of my art and illustrations. I've received some very nice comments about the drawings I've posted so far so I thought people might be interested to see some more, like this.

Himalayan Rubythroat

Saturday 30 November 2013

November in Topsham

7th-29th November - Topsham

It seems like I've spent most of November chasing just one bird. I found a Water Pipit at the Rec on the 7th, got rather poor photos and virtually every day for the next three weeks it's been giving me the runaround. Here's a selection of some of my more 'successful' attempts.

Water Pipit - Topsham 7/11/2013
The first day (above) - not bad I thought, it's at least identifiable. It's likely to stick around for the Winter so I expected much better photos to come.

Water Pipit - Topsham 15/11/2013
A week later (above) and the bird is still only giving brief and distant views - though at least sometimes the light was better. It tended to fly at the slightest provocation and when it flew, it flew far. It's favoured stretch of shore was also alongside a path used by dog-walkers so even if I kept my distance, someone else would flush it sooner or later.

Water Pipit - Topsham 24/11/2013
This one (above) shows the diagnostic warm brown rump and upper tail coverts, clearly different from any Rock Pipit. There's an interesting difference in colour tones to the previous photo, due to light and me playing with the white balance to get a truer picture. Also just visible is a white-tipped outer tail feather. After nearly three weeks, and over 200 shots, these are still the best I've managed.

Water Pipit - Topsham 27/11/2013
I've been surprised at the attention this bird has attracted, I counted seven other birders at the Rec recently. Some might have been there hoping for views of the Bearded Tits still hanging around - although I still haven't so much as heard them. I can go weeks without seeing anyone but dog-walkers. It's clearly a quiet period in the Exeter area - Water Pipit is not exactly a rare bird, I find them to be virtually annual at The Rec.

Meanwhile, gull-watching goes on - someone's got to do it. Common Gull numbers are rising and often there's a Mediterranean Gull hiding among the Black-heads. Of course, the real interest is in the larger species, and here's my first michahellis of the Autumn at the Rec. I saw this bird probably on the 24th, but distantly and briefly and I got no photos, on the 29th it sat on the spit for a few minutes before flying off. There followed the usual procedure with such suspects: the bright white head draws attention, then the coverts and tertials checked out ok, I had reservations about the quite well-marked scapulars but they're certainly within the 'range', the head and bill shape isn't classic either but it'll do - actually the bill looked a lot more impressive when in flight. And when it flew it removed any doubt with an absolutely classic michahellis wing and tail; dark inner primaries and almost 'Lapwing-like' white rump, coverts and tail base with a thin, neat black band, narrowing to a point on T6. It's just a shame the light was so bad I had to do without my teleconverter and shoot at 250/sec - hence the blur.

Yellow-legged Gull 1st winter - Topsham 29/11/2013
Yellow-legged Gull 1st winter - Topsham 29/11/2013
I don't know how many Water Rails breed in the reeds across the river but I hear them nearly every day, sometimes I see one furtively creeping on to the mud on the far shore, very rarely I see one in the open on 'my side'.

Water Rail - Topsham 29/11/2013

Water Rail - Topsham 29/11/2013
Finally, we have a new addition to the already impressive collection of local birding sites, and another place to check when 'doing my rounds'. The new stretch of the Exe Estuary Cycle Route opened a few weeks ago; a raised boardwalk and a new bridge over the Clyst alongside the railway which coincidentally gives access to the RSPB's previously hidden Goosemoor reserve. Here's the new path, the fences still smelling of resin and freshly-sawn wood.

New Boardwalk/Cycle Path, Goosemoor
A view across the reserve, looking north to Fisher's Mill and up the Clyst Valley.

Goosemoor, Topsham
The water level is controlled by a 'regulated tidal exchange' device - basically a ballcock - which allows a limited amount of water in on a rising tide and lets it out when it falls. The result is a few shallows pools, low islands - for breeding terns and Avocets? - and a good extent of estuarine mud right in front of the path, nothing here today but maybe good close views of waders in the future? All the views across the pools are to the north or north-east which means none of the light problems of sunny mornings at the Bowling Green - and perhaps the birds might be closer?

Goosemoor, Topsham - exposed mud at low tide
There is a downside, the reserve can only be watched through narrow slits. I guess they're great for people of a certain height - mainly children, perhaps - but I'm a little over 6 foot tall and have to stoop to look through the highest gap, and it feels like peeping through a letterbox. The whole experience is a bit disappointing, it's potentially a great site for good close views of waders - and it's sure to get some quality birds in time. But while walking on the path there is nothing to be seen but fence, there are no wide views across and above the pools and no views at all without using the handful of viewing slits. While it's handy to be able to rest bins or camera on the wood of the openings, I've noticed that the whole structure shakes when a runner goes past. I can fully understand why it was necessary to screen the path to minimise disturbance to the birds but I wonder if more extensive facilities might still have been possible?

Goosemoor, Topsham - the letterboxes

Tuesday 12 November 2013

A Great Grey Shrike

7th - 11th November 2013 - Colaton Raleigh Common


I have a bit of history with shrikes, many years ago I illustrated 'Shrikes; a Guide to the Shrikes of the World' by Norbert Lefranc, I painted the shrike plates for HBW and have written or illustrated papers on 'Steppe' Grey Shrike and Isabelline and Brown Shrikes. They're always good value and I find it hard to resist going to see one when it's nearby. On Tuesday 5th of November Chris Townend found a Great Grey Shrike on Colaton Raleigh Common - see Cream Tea Birding for his account and photos. I haven't seen a Great Grey for a couple of years so last Thursday I went to look for it. I eventually tracked it down but got only distant views and the photos were of a quality usually described as 'record shots'.

Great Grey Shrike - 7/11/2013 Colaton Raleigh Common

Great Grey Shrike - 7/11/2013 Colaton Raleigh Common

I posted the sighting, with a photo, on Devon Bird News, Mike Langman then emailed me to question the size of the white wing-patch and wondered if this was a different bird to Chris's. I had already considered the possibility but eventually put it down to different postures and/or angles. Clearly the question would best be answered by closer views and better photos. So four days later and several hours of roaming about the common - during which I managed to get my first half decent photos of Dartford Warbler and a found a Richard's Pipit (call only unfortunately) - I caught up with the bird again.

Great Grey Shrike - 11/11/2013 Colaton Raleigh Common

Great Grey Shrike - 11/11/2013 Colaton Raleigh Common

Great Grey Shrike - 11/11/2013 Colaton Raleigh Common
Maybe they're not that much better but a slight improvement, I think. It doesn't seem to have that much of a primary patch now, more obvious in flight - see below, but I think that the secondaries are covering the widest area of white on the inner primaries. It's got an obvious pale base to the lower mandible, the lores are not solidly black and there are distinctly pale (though not white, I think) tips to all the greater coverts. Ageing Great Grey Shrikes can be tricky but those coverts are a good sign that it's a bird of the year, while adults can show neat white tips when fresh but these look a little too 'messy' and diffuse. At times I could see very faint scalloping on the breast and flanks, just visible on the next shot.

Great Grey Shrike - 11/11/2013 Colaton Raleigh Common

It moved around often, trying different perches to scout from, sometimes flycatching. At one point a Pied Wagtail took offence at its presence and followed it, at what it presumably thought was a safe distance, in attempt to drive it off. The shrike didn't care for this and flew off calling once, a harsh almost jay-like screech. I managed to get a few flight shots.

Great Grey Shrike - 11/11/2013 Colaton Raleigh Common

Great Grey Shrike - 11/11/2013 Colaton Raleigh Common

Great Grey Shrike - 11/11/2013 Colaton Raleigh Common
OK, I'll admit these photos are nothing to be proud of but at least they nicely show the spread wings and tail. Those pale-tipped greater coverts are quite obvious but there's something else interesting: that's a rather large primary patch but there's none on the secondaries. Isn't that a character of pallidirostris 'Steppe' Grey Shrike*? I admit that when I first saw the bird in flight it did cross my mind for a moment. However, nothing else looks anything like a pallidirostris, particularly a 1st winter. The structure is all wrong, the bill is not heavy and bulbous, the wings are quite short and P9 (numbered descendently) is no longer than P5 (longer than P6 in pallidirostris). The tail pattern is typical of excubitor, there's nowhere near enough white at the base of T6. And although that's an impressive primary patch, on a typical pallidirostris it would be a lot larger still, more like 2/3rds the length of the inner primaries, not less than 1/2. Of course, 1st winter pallidirostris looks quite unlike any excubitor; for a start the head and bill is much paler and there's much more white on the greater coverts. So stand down, it's excubitor after all.

The East Devon Commons are a regular site for Great Grey Shrike and I expect this bird will settle in for the winter; expect many more, and better, photos of this bird - though probably not from me.

*Not associated with steppe on either breeding or wintering ranges; pallidirostris is a bird of semi-desert scrub, a much better name is 'Saxaul Grey Shrike', if only it would catch on.

Tuesday 5 November 2013

Mediterranean Gulls

2nd November 2013 - Porthcawl

In the absence of anything noteworthy happening in my small corner of Devon - and since it's been a couple of weeks since my last post - here are some photos from a weekend trip to Wales.

I see Med Gulls most days in Topsham, but rarely close enough to take any useful photos. Beaches give much better opportunities to get nearer. These were taken at Rest Bay, Porthcawl, South Wales in a howling gale.

Mediterranean Gull - Porthcawl 2/11/2013
Mediterranean Gull - Porthcawl 2/11/2013
Mediterranean Gull - Porthcawl 2/11/2013
Ageing Med Gulls is usually straightforward. The individual above is in its second winter, in other words it's carrying its second set of primaries - second cycle would be another way of putting it. The flight feathers are pale grey and white-tipped but with markings on P7-10; on this bird the black is extremely restricted and mostly on P8 - there's a barely visible dark spot on P7 and little more on P9 and P10. I did wonder whether it wasn't an older bird - often 3rd winters show small dark marks on the outer primaries (Olsen 2004) - but the dull yellowish bill is indicative of a 2nd winter.

Next is an adult with pearly grey and white-tipped primaries - with the typical thin black line along the outer edge of P10 - and a blood red bill.

Mediterranean Gull - Porthcawl 2/11/2013
Mediterranean Gull - Porthcawl 2/11/2013
There was just one first winter bird (below), still showing juvenile wing coverts and blackish primaries; the mantle and scapulars are nearly all new with just a few remaining juvenile feathers.

Mediterranean Gull - Porthcawl 2/11/2013
Conditions were somewhat challenging with poor light and, at times, near horizontal rain, even the birds were leaning into the wind to stay grounded.

Mediterranean Gull - Porthcawl 2/11/2013
Mediterranean Gull - Porthcawl 2/11/2013

I still think of Med Gulls as fairly uncommon. This might be my local bias - in Topsham I see about a hundred Black-headed Gulls to every Med Gull and more than a handful is notable. It's more likely that I'm seriously out of touch - I used to think of the species as a rare breeder in Britain but it seems there are more than 1000 pairs now breeding along the coast from Dorset to Kent (Holling et al 2012). I'm now starting to wonder why I don't see more.


Olsen, K.M. & Larsson, H. 2004. Gulls of Europe, Asia and North America. A&C Black.
Holling, M. et al. 2012. Rare Breeding Birds in the United Kingdom 2010. British Birds, 105: 352-416.

Thursday 17 October 2013

Marsh Harrier

16th October 2013 - Topsham Recreation Ground

Maybe it's due to higher expectations - I had two birds pass through in the Spring - or maybe just unwarranted confidence, but I almost expected to see a Marsh Harrier at the Rec this week. There's been one hanging around the estuary for the last few days and I suppose it wasn't that unlikely that it would drop in from time to time on the largest reed bed in the area. When several hundred gulls took flight and scattered I scanned and saw the disturber of the peace floating over the reeds in the distance. I took a few photos.

Marsh Harrier - 16/10/2013 Topsham

Marsh Harrier - 16/10/2013 Topsham

Marsh Harrier - 16/10/2013 Topsham

Marsh Harrier - 16/10/2013 Topsham
 Presuming this to be the same individual that had been reported as both a female and a female-type over the last few days, I was interested to see whether it could be aged/sexed. The clincher is the last photo which shows neat pale tips to the upper wing coverts forming an obvious thin line across the wing; so it's a juvenile and could, of course, be of either sex.

Friday 11 October 2013

Wild West Cornwall

8th-9th October 2013 - West Penwith


Having something of an interest in shrikes, I decided a trip to Pendeen was in order to see the adult Isabelline Shrike. My good friend and this blog's official gull consultant Martin Elliott was on his way back to Penzance so I gave him a lift and took in a couple of day's birding in West Penwith. As for twitching the shrike, it's been a long time but I should have remembered that a laid back and casual approach to such things rarely pays off as we arrived a day too late. The bird was clearly not present, notwithstanding the optimist who was convinced he had it in his scope; when told he was looking at a Whinchat, he insisted that it must be the shrike as it had a dark mask!

Having got the obligatory dip out of the way, followed by the obligatory pasty - McFadden's in St.Just, highly recommended - we decided some 'proper birding' was in order and dropped in on Sennen Cove to stare at the gulls.

Real gull experts (and I'm certainly not one) seem to see far more 'don't knows' than the average birder. It may be just that the average birder doesn't really look at gulls that much; if you look hard at a lot of large gulls you'll a). realise how variable they are and b). start to see birds that just don't fit. In fact the great thing about being a novice gull watcher is that one's lack of ability to identify birds can be seen as a sign of increasing competence. Of course it helps enormously if there's a real expert on hand saying 'I'm not really sure either'. So at Sennen Cove we found three 1st years which, with varying degrees of confidence, could be identified as michahellis. Here's bird number one (next three photos).

Yellow-legged Gull 1st year - 8th October 2013, Sennen Cove
This is a big bird with a fairly hefty bill and long (and quite pale) legs; it has many replaced scapulars showing a sub-terminal anchor mark though many are darker than on a classic michahellis.

Yellow-legged Gull 1st year - 8th October 2013, Sennen Cove
 In flight it shows a good wing pattern with fractionally paler inner primaries and a solid blackish tail band (although a little broader than typical) contrasting with a lot of white on the outer tail feathers.

Yellow-legged Gull 1st year - 8th October 2013, Sennen Cove
Suspect number two (next two photos) is a much daintier bird and, to me at first, not at all obvious as a michahellis; here hiding behind an adult Lesser Black-backed.

Yellow-legged Gull 1st year - 8th October 2013, Sennen Cove
It's a slighter bird with a much less substantial bill and might conceivably be a Lesser Black-backed but the replaced scapulars, the tail pattern and the flanks/belly lean more towards Yellow-legged. It seems to me that this game is all about combinations of characters - no one feature is diagnostic of michahellis.

Yellow-legged Gull 1st year - 8th October 2013, Sennen Cove

Number three (below) is an even trickier bird. It's not particularly bulky, the legs are not very long and the feet are not particularly large. There are only a few replaced scapulars - although the new ones look good for michahellis. The odd thing is the tail, there is a solid black band and the upper and under tail coverts are whitish and sparsely marked but the usually white parts of the retrices are washed with dark grey. On balance this is probably another michahellis, but a far from classic individual; typical Mediterranean birds should be much more advanced in moult than this, possibly it's a later fledging Atlantic coast bird?

Yellow-legged Gull 1st year - 8th October 2013, Sennen Cove

Yellow-legged Gull 1st year - 8th October 2013, Sennen Cove
October birding in West Cornwall should always include a spot of bush-bashing for migrants - basically just staring at a hedge while 'pishing' hopefully. We put in a few hours at both Porthcurno and Nanquidno and found Yellow-browed Warblers at both sites, a great little Phyllosc that I don't see often enough and have never photographed before (must try harder).

Yellow-browed Warbler - 9th October 2013, Nanquidno