Monday 30 September 2013


28th September 2013 - Topsham

Some drawings for a change. After spending the last few weeks on detailed illustration work - the Black-capped Petrel and Cahow plate for the Tubenose Handbook - it's nice to be able to just please myself and draw and paint as loose and rough as I like. From the viewing platform by the Clyst I found a small group of winter-plumaged Greenshanks resting by the water's edge on the rising tide. One or two were scratching and preening, some wandered about feeding, most were just resting.

And a few mug shots with a touch of watercolour.

Thursday 26 September 2013

Why can't all waders be this tame?

25th September 2013 - Topsham

I use a modest 300mm f4 lens, usually with a 1.4x teleconverter, so in order to get anything more than 'record shots' I need to be fairly close to the bird. Like paparazzi-shy celebrities the birds usually don't want to co-operate; I've had a flock of gulls - the same birds that would cheerfully steal an ice cream from your hand - take off when they notice my lens pointing at them. But of all the waders using the Exe, from Dunlin to Curlew, it's consistently the juvenile Black-tailed Godwits that are the most confiding. Any Common Sandpiper, Redshank or Greenshank on my side of the river will fly it if even thinks I'm going to head its way. The Godwits just look up, then carry on feeding, often walking towards me. I've probably got more decent photos of Blackwits than any other wader; here's a few from the Recreation Ground, all cropped but halved in size.

Black-tailed Godwit juvenile - Topsham 25/9/2013
The first two photos (above and below) show a bird which is still mostly in juvenile plumage, just one of the longer scapulars has been replaced by a plain grey adult type feather.

Black-tailed Godwit juvenile - Topsham 25/9/2013
Here's another bird (below) still wearing almost a full set of juvenile feathers, it's hard to judge but there might be a few new scapulars appearing.

Black-tailed Godwit juvenile - Topsham 25/9/2013
This one (next two photos) is more advanced in its moult, showing a lot of new plain adult type scapulars and patches of new grey feathers on the breast sides and flanks.

Black-tailed Godwit juvenile moulting to 1st winter - Topsham 25/9/2013
Black-tailed Godwit juvenile moulting to 1st winter - Topsham 25/9/2013
To be honest, it's not just Godwits; I did manage to approach a Spotted Redshank quite closely earlier in the day. It would have been sharper - the light wasn't that low - but the early mist on the river killed all contrast, a bit like shooting through a dirty window.

Spotted Redshank juvenile - Topsham 25/9/2013

Saturday 21 September 2013

Nothing rare at all...but still good value

20th September 2013 - Topsham Recreation Ground

My excuse is usually that 'the dog needs a walk', or I tell myself that 'someone's got to check the gulls' or that 'I need the exercise and fresh air'. Whichever, it's a privilege and a pleasure to be able to just 'pop down the Rec' to see what's about and to never know what I'm going to see. I usually have the place to myself, which means that anything 'good' is usually mine to find - I suppose it also means that a lot gets missed, but that's how I like it. My nightmare scenario must be to get to my usual gull scanning spot and find someone already there gloating over a Laughing Gull or even 'just' a Caspian Gull (with one record each both equally rare at the site).

So it's only natural, as I head down the road, to sometimes fantasise about what I'm going to find. It's usually nothing unusual but the occasional surprise keeps me going back. Here's today's surprise.

Grey Seal is not particularly unusual maybe, but it's only my third sighting this high up the Exe. I guess it had followed the Mullet up river and was now heading back to sea before getting stranded on the falling tide. I wondered what the dog would make of sharing the river with that but, perhaps fortunately, she wasn't swimming that day.

I checked the large gulls loafing on the spit, where, as usual there was nothing unusual. I had a quick look up the river in case the Lesser Yellowlegs was showing, it wasn't. There were no waders in the vicinity so I turned to my fall-back option and photographed a Cormorant fishing nearby.

After polishing off a small flatfish - Plaice or Flounder? - it came up with a young Eel.

Then, full or just needing to warm up, it swam to shore and rested with wings spread to dry.

Two more Cormorants were nearby, another 2nd year bird and, behind it, a browner backed, white-bellied juvenile.

Of course there's more to be done with these birds. The two 2nd years are both sinensis while the juvenile appears to be nominate carbo. Here's a closer look at the first bird showing the almost 90° angle formed by the gape line and the rear edge of the yellow gular skin. On the carbo the angle is much smaller. These two 'Continental Cormorants' have been hanging around this stretch of the Exe for the last week or so yet, oddly enough, have not provoked the slightest interest - if I mention them to visiting birders I just get blank looks, is it me?

And as if there weren't enough good reasons to pay more attention to Cormorants, just think, one day you might find one of these...

Saturday 14 September 2013

Lesser Yellowlegs

13 September 2013 - Trews Weir/Exeter Quay

I couldn't resist this, a Lesser Yellowlegs just a few miles away and, more to the point,  confiding and very photograph-able. There'll be many better photos of this bird but here are a few of mine.

Thursday 12 September 2013

Suspect gulls, odd godwits and Cormorants under the radar.

Pressures of work, concern for my carbon footprint and a determination not to miss anything good on my own patch have predictably resulted in me seeing little of note in the last month. Still, two weeks have gone since my last post so I thought I'd drop these in before my absence is noted.

2nd September 2013 - Exeter Quay

I've still only seen one definite Yellow-legged Gull so far this Autumn. Nothing has shown up yet at Topsham so I tried again at Exeter Quay. Along with a couple of other suspects - intriguing but ultimately unsatisfying - I found this individual.

Here's what I got of it in flight - not a crop, it was really close.

Inexpert as I am, I was initially of the view that this was a michahellis but after Martin Elliott put me right on a few things our (well, actually his) conclusion was that it's most likely to be a graellsii Lesser Black-backed. In favour of Yellow-legged, the best character here is the tail, a fairly narrow, neat black band with a lot of white in the outer retrices. It's moulted a few scapulars and has replaced a couple of greater coverts and tertials on the left wing and a central tail feather (somewhat unusual for a Lesser Black-backed so maybe due to damage?). The main reason why it's probably not a michahellis is the freshness of the plumage - typically by now the coverts should be a lot more worn and there should be many more 2nd generation scapulars. So on balance of probability it's most likely an atypical graellsii; still I can't help complicating things by mentioning the western Iberian lusitanius Yellow-legged Gull, which is typically a month behind michahellis in moult and presumably extremely hard to tell from graellsii?

7th September 2013 - Topsham Recreation Ground

I don't get many close photo-ops with waders at the Rec so I grabbed a few of these obliging Black-tailed Godwits.
The first is a fairly standard first year bird showing typical juvenile coverts and scapulars with a few new adult winter type feathers on the mantle and possibly, though it's hard to tell, inner wing coverts.

The next one is a striking bird which still puzzles me. The head and body look fine for a juvenile if possibly a little well barred on the breast and flanks. The mantle and coverts show no plain adult winter type feathers, they're all apparently the same generation, again right for a juvenile. But the feather pattern looks very odd for a juvenile, the coverts, tertials and scapulars should look more or less dark with some faint barring and neat gingery fringes - pretty much as in the first bird. The strong barring - particularly along the length of the tertials - looks much more like that of a breeding adult.


Edit 14/9/2013 - I should have checked a little more thoroughly - or pay more attention to common birds; the boldly barred juvenile Black-tailed Godwit is apparently not unusual in the race islandica which, of course, is the usual subspecies on the Exe.

10th September 2013 - Topsham Recreation Ground

No identification issues here, in spite of the atrocious photo. I was surprised to see a good sized flock of Dunlin, not common this high up the river. I knew there were a few Curlew Sandpipers in the area and, sure enough, here are two of them with their white rumps gleaming as the flock took off. No prizes for picking them out but if you can spot a Little Stint - a patch tick - in there I'd be delighted, I couldn't.

11th September 2013 - Topsham Recreation Ground

Finally a nice pair of Cormorants, both apparently second year birds, and both showing the only 'safe' identification character of the form sinensis.

This is one of the few opportunities for birding with a protractor, as all birders with a nerdy tendency know. The only way to be certain of sinensis is to measure the gular angle (the gular area/pouch is that yellow skin at the base of the bill, the gular angle is the angle formed by the gape line and the rear edge of the gular skin - try to keep awake, there may be a test at the end).
So of course, I cropped and enlarged the photos and measured the angles. The top bird is pretty much exactly perpendicular, the lower not quite but close so I'm pretty confident of these angles. According to Newson et al (2004) the overlap in angles between nominate carbo and sinensis is 66-72°, these both exceed that by some way so must be sinensis.

The last Devon Bird Report (2011) contains only a single record of this form. I find them to be fairly frequent on the Exe so I guess nobody else is looking.


Newson S.E., B. Hughes, I.C. Russell, G.R. Ekins & R.M. Sellers 2004. Subspecific differentiation and distribution of Great Cormorants Phalacrocorax
carbo in Europe.
Ardea 92(1): 3-10.