Wednesday 31 December 2014

2014 - the good bits

31st December 2014 - Topsham


As is customary at this time of year, here's my brief, personal and mostly photographic round up of 2014 at Topsham Rec - a few hundred yards of river I think of as my own patch. If 2013 wasn't bad at all with Caspian Gull, Bonaparte's Gull and Lesser Yellowlegs, 2014 was, if anything, even better with two gulls I never realistically expected and a Christmas bonus that was my only self-found rare of the year, although I expect I'll never know which two (or all three?) of the group I can claim!


The Black Redstart was a surprise when it turned up in October 2013 - my first for the patch - and stayed well into 2014, though it never allowed particularly close views.

Black Redstart - 14/1/2014 Topsham Rec
Likewise the usual winter Water Pipit, annual these days at the Rec, but typically flighty.

Water Pipit - 27/1/2014 Topsham
Small parties of Bearded Tits were seen a few times by others, but only ever heard by me.


Bird of the month was a Yellow-browed Warbler that frequented some of the gardens at the back of the Rec. First seen by a visitor on 29th January, it was elusive and, despite some serious searching, I didn't get a look at it myself it until 18th February.

Yellow-browed Warbler - 18/2/2014 Topsham
A couple of Little Gulls dropped in briefly on the 26th, an adult and a 1st winter/2cy.

Little Gull 2cy - 26/2/2014 (I know it says 25th on photos) Topsham

Little Gull adult - 26/2/2014 Topsham


A Slavonian Grebe on the 25th showed well at times and hung around for a week or two.

Slavonian Grebe - 29/3/2014 Topsham

A 2cy Yellow-legged Gull on the 26th.

Yellow-legged Gull 2cy - 26/3/2014 Topsham


April Fool's Day produced a big surprise, a 2cy white-winger than turned out to be a Kumlien's Gull.

Kumlien's Gull 2cy - 1/4/2014 Topsham

Kumlien's Gull 2cy - 1/4/2014 Topsham


Three sightings of apparent hybrid gulls caused the usual head scratching. Here's a composite of one bird.

Larus sp. - 14/5/2014 Topsham


June was quiet with the main interest being the gull fest at nearby Bowling Green Marsh. At The Rec hybrid gulls and Mediterranean Gulls warmed things up for July's star attraction. This informative 4cy (small black mark on P9) was one of the few minor highlights.

Mediterranean Gull 4cy - 21/6/2014 Topsham


The BGM Ross's Gull finally showed up at The Rec and eventually gave great views. Unfortunately it didn't hang around to complete its moult and had disappeared by the end of the month; surely a bird in this state wouldn't go far? I wonder if one of the local Peregrines may have been responsible.

Ross's Gull 2cy - 21/7/2014 Topsham

Ross's Gull 2cy - 21/7/2014 Topsham

Ross's Gull 2cy - 22/7/2014 Topsham


My first juv/1cy Yellow-legged Gull of the season on the 6th August, always a pleasure.

Yellow-legged Gull 1cy - 6/8/2014 Topsham
A different bird on the 18th.

Yellow-legged Gull 1cy - 18/8/2014


A quiet month, more Hybrid Gulls and a Kingfisher taken by Peregrine.

Peregrine with Kingfisher -17/9/2014 Topsham


An early Water Pipit on 22nd which only stayed a week.

Water Pipit - 22/10/2014 Topsham

As usual gulls were the main object of interest. I found this argentatus Scandinavian Herring Gull (seriously rare in Devon) on the 28th October but didn't clinch it until 2nd November.

Scandinavian Herring Gull 4cy - 2/11/2014


My Bird of the Year? Got to be the three Penduline Tits on the 19th. Also my worst photos of the year.

Penduline Tits (three - count them) 19/12/2014 Topsham

My resolution for 2015? To find a nice obliging Caspian Gull - one that hangs around and sits for a few nice photos please.

Get out there and have a good one everybody.

Friday 19 December 2014

The Five Bird Theory - Penduline Tits at Topsham Rec

19th December 2014 - Topsham

I'd just spent a frustrating hour hoping to get a better look at a Med Gull in order to read it's colour ring and wishing I'd brought my scope. I was on the point of leaving when the gulls all took flight briefly so, hoping my Med Gull had resettled somewhere closer, I turned back for a final scan before giving up. Behind the gulls I picked up three small passerines at the edge of the reeds, small for Reed Buntings I thought, and there was something familiar about the way they moved. Without a scope the only way I was going to get a better view was with my camera. Luckily the light was good and I could use a low ISO and not worry too much about motion blur, all the same I steadied my lens against a tree and blasted off a couple of dozen shots. Cropping in massively on the back of my camera I saw a couple of pale nondescript shapes and then a tiny masked bandit - pretty much as I saw at BGM on Sunday last week - Penduline Tits!

After a couple of minutes they disappeared and unless they prefer to feed on the edges the chances of seeing them again must be slim.

I expected my photos to be poor - the distance was a little over 100m - and they were, but they did reveal something interesting. At BGM on the 7th I saw one bird with a solid dark mask and two with only a faint ghost of a mask. All three of my birds appear to have prominent masks. Here's the photos - and though they may well be the worst I've ever posted I make no apologies. [edit - just realised I've labelled all photos with wrong date, should be 19/12/2014]

Penduline Tits - 19/12/2014 Topsham Recreation Ground. How many can you see?

Penduline Tits - 19/12/2014 Topsham Recreation Ground

Penduline Tits - 19/12/2014 Topsham Recreation Ground

I went through all the photos and cut and pasted to group images for each bird, I've labelled them A,B and C. I've also enlarged them for 'easier' viewing.

Penduline Tit - 19/12/2014 Topsham Recreation Ground - Bird A

Penduline Tit - 19/12/2014 Topsham Recreation Ground - Bird A
Penduline Tit - 19/12/2014 Topsham Recreation Ground - Bird B
Penduline Tit - 19/12/2014 Topsham Recreation Ground - Bird C

Finally here's a composite of both B and C together - I found them hard to separate in these shots.

Penduline Tits - 19/12/2014 Topsham Recreation Ground - Birds B and C

The apparent head pattern of each bird varies considerably between photos but each at times shows a strong dark mask; clearly the two faint masked birds from BGM are not here, and two new birds are. The obvious question now is: can they be aged and sexed?

Svensson (1992) states that Penduline Tits in autumn can be aged by the extent of the facial mask, 'small, short' in 1Y, and crown and nape 'largely brownish' (also by a moult limit in the greater coverts but we can forget about that from these photos); mask prominent and crown and nape 'grey, in some tinged brown' in adults. On the other hand Blasco-Zumeta and Heinz (date?) in their excellent guide to ageing and sexing Penduline Tits (for PDF see References) have photos showing 1Y males looking a lot like adults in the extent of their mask; whether this is just a feature of Iberian birds is not clear. So none of these three look like 1Y's according to Svensson at least. Two of the birds I saw last week certainly were not adults, as was a bird photographed by Dave Stone at Dart's Farm on the 15th, see Devon Bird News (his other bird, an adult, looks like a female to me). Incidentally, since all 1Y's will have undergone a partial moult by now they will be 1st winters rather than juveniles.

If they aren't 1Y's can they be sexed? According to Svensson there are three main features:

Mask - extensive and onto forehead in males, narrow and little on forehead in females.

Mantle - deep rufous in males, yellowish red-brown in females (from photos there should also be greater contrast with the nape in males).

Breast - much rufous flecking in males, no or little rufous in females.

While there is a definite mask on all three birds, on none does it clearly extend on to the forehead. There is a suggestion of a contrast between pale nape and dark mantle on some shots but I'm not confident about it. As for the difference in breast flecking, clearly not visible on these images. Frankly I think I may be pushing a little hard on what are some really poor photos but if anyone has other opinions I'd love to hear.

At the very least I can confidently say I've seen at least five Penduline Tits in Topsham this December, not to mention a new patch bird. Now we just need some more photos.


Blasco-Zumeta, Javier, and Heinze, Gerd-Michael. Identification Atlas of Aragón's Birds - Penduline Tit. PDF available here

Svensson, Lars. Identification Guide to European Passerines, 4th edition 1992.

Wednesday 17 December 2014

Black Brant

16th December 2014 - Topsham


Those who know me may be a little surprised at the subject of this post. My attitude towards wildfowl is, at best,  one of casual indifference - I'm not saying I wouldn't cross the road to see a Green-winged Teal, just that I'd have to seriously think about it. I do make exceptions, Smew, Long-tailed Duck, and in fact most sea ducks would be allowed a page or two in my ideal personalised field guide. As for the rest, Shoveler, Wigeon, Mallard and their mutant progeny, even Garganey; just know that they're ducks and then leave well alone. I know a lot of people like ducks, but then a lot of people don't care for gulls, it takes all sorts. There, that's just my opinion and you don't have to like it, just don't get me started on Mute Swans!

So why then am I bothering with a post about a goose. Well I'll also admit to enjoying the sight of a decent flock of wild geese, somehow impressive numbers makes up for a lack of individual interest. At this time of year we often get several hundred Dark-bellied Brent Geese on the fields between the Bridge Inn and Dart's Farm - Topsham Flats as it's sometimes called. In previous years this flock has been accompanied by a Red-necked Goose but for the last few weeks the odd one out has been a Black Brant. I spent a fruitless three hours by the pools hoping the Penduline Tits might show up for a photo opportunity and as I was leaving took a few minutes to look through the geese.

While it was only a little blacker than many of the nom. bernicla, I found it fairly easy to pick out by it's large bright white flank patch. As it wandered across the field from distant to close I took a few photos.

Black Brant (with Dark-bellied Brent Geese) - 16/12/2014 Topsham
Sometimes appearing a little stockier than the others, the white necklace broad and complete with the big white flank showing on most views.

Black Brant (with Dark-bellied Brent Geese) - 16/12/2014 Topsham

Black Brant (with Dark-bellied Brent Geese) - 16/12/2014 Topsham
Not obviously different in size or shape here - they are alleged to be a little bulkier than Dark-bellied on average.

Black Brant (with Dark-bellied Brent Geese) - 16/12/2014 Topsham
Only marginally darker on the mantle than Dark-bellied and showing just as much contrast between the neck and breast. Black Brant are also supposed to be browner on the breast and mantle - I couldn't detect any difference.

Black Brant  - 16/12/2014 Topsham
Blackish on the belly extending well beyond the legs towards the vent, but no more so than on the Dark-bellied nearby.

Tuesday 16 December 2014

It's been a while...

14th December 2014 - Topsham

I never meant this to be a regular thing, I only wanted to post when I had something of note to write about - with pictures. Still, it's been over a month since my last post and I decided not to wait any longer. I saw the Penduline Tits sure, so luckier than some, but at 300m distance photos were never an option; they seem to be hanging around and popping up here and there so there's still chance. Meanwhile, here's a Kingfisher from Topsham Rec, close but poor light as usual this time of year. The orange base to the lower mandible makes it a female.

Kingfisher - 14/12/2014 Topsham
Oh, and have a great Christmas everybody.

Friday 7 November 2014

Colour-ringed Med Gull

6th November 2014 - Topsham

Most visits to the Rec of late have produced at least one Mediterranean Gull, occasionally up to four. Such numbers are pitiful compared to some Dorset sites less than 50 miles along the coast, or even North Devon - haven't yet figured out why they're so scarce on the Exe. I get the impression there's been a regular turn over of birds this autumn, sometimes one bird will hang around for a few weeks but, while numbers rarely get above 2 or 3, I think the total numbers involved could be a lot higher. Whatever, they're always a pleasure to see and doubly so when they sport a readable colour ring. No scope today so I had to do my best from photos.

Mediterranean Gull 2cy H9A4 6/11/2014 Topsham

Mediterranean Gull 2cy H9A4 6/11/2014 Topsham
It's a second winter (2cy) of course - just like an adult but with some black in primaries, much more obvious when flying.

Mediterranean Gull 2cy H9A4 6/11/2014 Topsham

Mediterranean Gull 2cy H9A4 6/11/2014 Topsham

The big question is; where did it come from? Recent (since 2008) Med Gull colour rings should indicate the country of origin by their colour and initial letter; so a red ring beginning H should in theory come from Hungary but await confirmation (now confirmed - see below).

This wasn't my only colour ring of the day, I took a couple of shots of Lesser Black-backed Gulls - interesting difference in grey tone between the adult and the 3cy - and only later noticed the yellow ring on the Black-headed Gull strolling past. The first one I'd ever noticed and I had no scope with me. The photo is far too poor to give any clue as to the code and I'm not even sure if I can work out the country.

Black-headed Gull (with Lesser Black-backed Gulls) - 6/11/2014 Topsham

Update 9/11/2014 - just received this information from the good people at the Hungarian Bird Ringing Centre: H9A4 was ringed as a pullus on 15th June 2013 at Bugyi near Budapest, Hungary. This is apparently its first subsequent sighting.

Tuesday 4 November 2014

Otter at Topsham Rec

3rd November 2014 - Topsham

One of the things I like about birding is you never know what you're going to see. Yesterday I was at The Rec early to catch the morning low tide. A commotion of gulls over the river had me expecting a passing raptor - a Peregrine perhaps. The cause of their anxiety turned out to be an otter, leisurely heading up stream after a night's fishing.

All the usual excuses for the poor photos - bad light, high contrast etc. But only my second otter at the Rec - I tend not to visit at the right time, i.e. at night.

Otter 3/11/2014 - Topsham

Otter 3/11/2014 - Topsham

Otter 3/11/2014 - Topsham

Monday 3 November 2014

Scandinavian Herring Gull, mystery gull, and a Pallid Harrier in Somerset

2nd November 2014 - Topsham

Carolyn and I took a trip to Steart in Somerset on Saturday to look over the new reserve and fortunately jammed into the long -staying Pallid Harrier; fine bird but photos rather poor so I won't dwell on that.

Meanwhile, back home I had the pleasure of finding this individual at the Rec.

Herring Gull argentatus 2/11/2014 - Topsham

Herring Gull argentatus 2/11/2014 - Topsham

The most obvious feature was the darker grey mantle compared with nearby argenteus Herring Gulls. Yellow-legged Gull was never an option due to its pink legs and heavily marked head and neck (not to mention its structure). In fact the best fit is nominate argentatus Herring Gull. Before too long the gulls all took flight and I got a good look at the primaries.

Herring Gull argentatus 2/11/2014 - Topsham

Herring Gull argentatus 2/11/2014 - Topsham

It's a 4th winter bird - a few dark spots on tail and dark marks on primary coverts - and so probably shows a little more black in the primaries than it will when fully adult (this may also explain why it's rather advanced in its moult - P10 fully grown or nearly so). Even so, it has a large mirror on P10 (the black band is broken so not far off a complete white tip), a decent mirror on P9 and very little black on P5. All consistent with both argentatus and our local argenteus but, given the darker mantle, argentatus is the best fit; certainly no need to bring out the hybrid hypothesis.

Meanwhile, here's a puzzle from Exmouth a month ago - any suggestions?

Larus sp. 6/10/2014 - Exmouth
Herring Gull in front of course, but what about the one behind? Here are a couple of flight shots.

Larus sp. 6/10/2014 - Exmouth

Larus sp. 6/10/2014 - Exmouth
I'm still not sure what to make of this bird - though I have suspicions - and any comments would be most welcome.

Before I forget, here's the best I could manage of the Pallid Harrier at Steart on Saturday. We'd spent a few hours wandering around the fantastic new reserve and I'd more or less given up on seeing this bird when it flew in from the west, across the marshes and disappeared over the Parrett.

Pallid Harrier 1/11/2014 - Steart, Somerset