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.