Wednesday, 18 February 2009

A Trip To Devon

One of my target birds that I wanted to see this year was cirl bunting and I was recently inspired by reading another blog (Ash's Bird Blog) to consider going down to Devon to see if I could find this lovely but highly localised bird. In addition I was sent a copy of Lee Evans' Birding Diary for January (as I'd provided one of the photos within it). As part of his amazingly hectic birding schedule he'd spent an afternoon down in Devon, connecting with a great variety of birds in a comparatively small area. With this in mind I started to plan a trip down there. I soon gave up the idea of persuading the rest of the family that they wanted to have a little day trip down there it was decided that I would head down there on the Monday evening after dinner, stay overnight there so I could have a full day's birding before heading back home in th evening.

Things didn't start out too well as there was a huge traffic jam on the M5 just a few miles from my destination and I spent a frustrating hour and a half sitting more or less stationary in the car. I eventually arrived at my overnight accommodation in Kenton, a small village close to Powderham where several of my target birds were located. I decided to stay at the Chi Restaurant which had very nice rooms and very reasonably priced though at 08:30 breakfast was served too late for my purposes as I was out of the door by 07:30. In Powderham the birds that I was after were a spoonbill on the castle lake and some nearby cattle egrets before heading down to Dawlish Warren for the over-wintering female surf scoter. I started out in Starcross checking out a flooded pool near the car park where there were some curlew, a few black-tailed godwits and a little egret, before having a quick look out into the estuary where the tide was coming in. There were several red-breasted mergansers out on the river as well as a diving little grebe. Down on the shore line there was a flock of turnstone busily working over a seaweed patch. An oystercatcher flew along the river calling loudly.

Curlews waiting it out on a flooded field at high tide

A flock of turnstone feeding on the shore line.

I next took a small back road which went around the back of Powderham Castle. From here it was possible to see the lake within the grounds but despite careful scrutiny I couldn't find the spoonbill, only several more little egrets, quite a large flock of shelduck as well as a good variety of other ducks including several pintails. Disappointed, I carried on round past Powderham church to the location where the cattle egrets had been seen the previous day. I pulled up in a layby and soon found the birds consorting with a small herd of cattle. From this vantage point I could also look out to the river Exe estuary where I could just make out a large number of different wading birds. There were large numbers of brent geese, dunlin, avocet, oystercatchers as well as quite a number of birds which I couldn't make out. I did contemplate going back to the church from which there was a footpath leading down there but I only hadn't limited time and these weren't my main target birds so I decided to leave it. Instead I tried to find the Turf Inn which also overlooked the same area but I must have taken a wrong turn because I found myself going along an unmade track when I came up against a digger re-levelling the surface. It was going to be hours to get through so I turned around and headed back to Powderham. Back in Powderham I went in the front entrance of the Castle to see if I could find the spoonbill but it turned out not to be open to the public as I had hoped so I left again and decided to head off to Dawlish Warren, noting a flock of brent geese on the golf course as I left Starcross.

By now it was quite sunny with only a moderate breeze and it was most pleasant by the sea. An initial scan around found several great crested grebes and a couple of red-throated divers as well as a cormorant very close in which had just caught a large flat fish which it was struggling to get down it's throat. Comically when it was half way down, it had a huge flat bulge in its throat though it seemed to manage to get it all down eventually. There were several rock pipits hopping around on the sea wall. Scanning around more I couldn't seem to locate any scoter other than some very distant black blobs. By now another birder had joined me and we scanned together for a while. I was trying to work out what the distant birds were and went off to a sheltered spot to get a better view whereas my companion stayed put. After a rather frustrating time I decided that the birds I was looking at were common scoter. As I walked back toward the car park I met up again with the other birder who informed me that he thought that he had found the surf scoter. I quickly had a look and it did indeed look like the bird. The sun was more or less in front of us now so that it was difficult to make out the colours but the profile of the bill clearly seen and was unmistakable.

Pleased to have connected with one of my target birds I was also interested to hear that the other birder had in fact seen the spoonbill that morning so I decided to head back there for another go. Some fifteen minutes later I was back down the small side road once more looking at the lake and this time there was a likely looking white bird. Unfortunately it was asleep with its head tucked in but a few minutes later it woke up to reveal it's enormous spoon-like bill. It flew around for a minute or so before settling on the small island where I managed a few digiscoped record shots.

The spoonbill at Powderham Castle Lake

Very pleased now to have located all my target birds so far I decided that it was time to head south towards Broadsands and Paignton where my two remaining birds were located. I stopped off at a local shop to buy lunch (a pasty, since I was in the west country) and headed off. Unfortunately there was a lot of traffic around the Tourquay turn-off and also the road that I wanted was closed so we were diverted along some minor road before being abandoned to our fate in the middle of some housing estate. Fortunately my instinct as to where I was proved to be correct and I eventually found myself pulling up at Broadsands Car Park to look for cirl bunting. I had been told that the birds were located in the "second car park" but it took a few minutes to figure out what this meant: there was an over-flow car park off to the left which was closed off at this time of year. I started to wander around and set up my scope to scan the far bushes where after a few minutes I saw the distinctive head pattern of a male cirl bunting. At this point a cyclist pulled up in a day-glo fluorescent top right by the location where the birds were. He seemed to be a birder as he got out some binoculars. Given that the birds were probably not going to come out again I thought that I would go over to chat with him anyway. It turned out that he was there for the cirl buntings as well and that his brother-in-law had been there yesterday and taken some good photos. He also reckoned that the birds would come back despite his standing so close so we waited together. Some seed had been put out nearby and sure enough after only a short while birds started to come back down. There were several chaffinches, dunnocks, a couple of reed buntings and a few cirl buntings all feeding on the grain. I didn't really do their closesness full justice with my digiscoping but below is a sample photo of a male bird.

A Cirl Bunting feeding on grain in Broadsands Beach Car Park

I next decided to head up to the coastal path to east my lunch and to see what was out on the sea. Apparently there'd been some good birds there previously but when I went to have a look all I could find was one distant flock of mixed birds which definitely included some velvet scoter, recognised by their white wing patches.

It was time to go for my last bird, a male penduline tit which had been spending some time in the Clennan Valley lakes but the last couple of days had re-located to a small boating lake just across the road. I drove to the the boating lake car park and had a look around. I'd been told that the bird was very active, ripping the bull rush heads to shreds as it fed but could see no sign of it. I did meet a fellow local birder who suggested that I look back on the original lakes and he explained how the bird would feed on the bull rush heads on the first lake but would feed down by the base of the reeds on the second lake and would be relatively secretive in doing so. He also kindly guided me to the best place to part in the nearby estate, thus avoiding the car park charges. It was very boggy and I was starting to wish that I'd worn my walking boots instead of my everyday shoes as I made my way over to the lakes. After a bit of searching I found the second lake and started looking around. I soon spotted a bird flying around in the reeds but on closer inspection it turned out to be an incredibly blue-grey looking warbler and I realised that I was looking at the (probable) Siberian chiffchaff which had been seen there recently. Pleased with this I kept on searching and after a short while I found the penduline tit skulking around the base of the reeds as it fed. As I watched it I was surprised at just how small it was and I later read that it is smaller than a blue tit. I managed a few digiscoped shots but it was always on the wrong side of the reeds to get a clear image. I watched it for several minutes before a nearby little grebe startled it and it flew off.

The penduline tit in skulking mode at the base of the reeds.

Having connected successfully with all my target birds I contemplated what to do next. There was a recently-seen glaucous gull that had been seen on the other side of the River Exe which I could possibly go for on the way back but it was getting late and I was quite tired by this stage so I decided instead to head home. Fortunately there were no traffic problems and the journey back was uneventful.

So a great trip down to Devon with four new lifers for me as well as a good number of national year list ticks. If I was being really fussy I could bemoan the fact that I'd missed bar tailed godwit (which were probably on the Exe estuary but were too distant to see) and although I'd seen all three different scoters I'd not see any of the rarer grebes but this is really nit picking and I was more than delighted with the birds that I'd managed to see.

2009 National Year List
A wonder addition of 16 ticks to the national year list with a fantastic four new lifers.

116 little egret 17/02/2009 Starcross, Devon
117 red-breasted merganser 17/02/2009 Starcross, Devon
118 turnstone 17/02/2009 Starcross, Devon
119 oystercatcher 17/02/2009 Starcross, Devon
120 cattle egret 17/02/2009 Powderham, Devon
121 avocet 17/02/2009 Powderham, Devon
122 tree creeper 17/02/2009 Powderham, Devon
123 red-throated diver 17/02/2009 Dawlish Warren, Devon
124 rock pipit 17/02/2009 Dawlish Warren, Devon
125 common scoter 17/02/2009 Dawlish Warren, Devon
126 surf scoter (L) 17/02/2009 Dawlish Warren, Devon
127 spoonbill
(L)17/02/2009 Powderham, Devon
128 cirl bunting
(L)17/02/2009 Broadsands, Devon
129 velvet scoter 17/02/2009 Broadsands, Devon
131 penduline tit
(L) 17/02/2009 Clennan Valley Lakes, Devon
132 chiffchaff (Sib.) 17/02/2009 Clennan Valley Lakes, Devon

L = life tick

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