Archive for the ‘Cirl Bunting’ Tag

April – early May 2018: a few spring migrants   Leave a comment

I returned from Vietnam at the end of March and for the first time in several years I was at home during the peak spring migration period.

That said I didn’t benefit much from it. Cold weather at home and in particular bad weather in Europe and North Africa has delayed or aborted spring migration. Many species, most notably the hirundines (swallows and martins) have arrived in very small numbers and although early arriving migrants like Blackcap and Chiffchaff are here in good numbers, many of the later arriving species are not. Seawatching, at least for me, has been poor. Most of my visits to Portland have been on days when seabird passage was light or I manged to miss the key species like Pomarine Skua by scanning the horizon when they were in fact passing just under my nose!

That said April and early May was not without its benefits. Here are a selection of the most memorable birds I have seen this spring.


There has been a Bonaparte’s Gull hanging around Longham Lakes near Poole for some time. I visited on 7th of April when it was in winter plumage. Hearing that it was rapidly moulting into summer plumage and gaining a full black hood, I returned on the 26th and took these shots.


Bonaparte’s Gull wasn’t named after Napoleon Bonaparte but his nephew Charles (1803-1857). Born in France, yet raised in Italy Charle Bonaparte later moved to the USA. He is known for discovering Moustached Warbler and Wilson’s Storm Petrel.


Superficially like a small Black-headed Gull, Bonaparte’s has blackish rather than chocolate-brown head, all black bill and whiter underwings. The isolated dark mark in the outer primaries indicates that this is in third-summer plumage rather than a full adult. This species seems to have a got a lot commoner in the UK in recent years but whether this is due to one or two wandering individuals I’m not sure.


Also at Longham was this lovely Greater Scaup, seen her with two Tufted Duck. This species was once regular on Littlesea at Studland but the (? deliberate) introduction of predatory fish has changed the ecology of the lake and now there are no ducks at all wintering. A few Scaup often winters at Abbotsbury Swannery but views are usually distant. Good views of this drake were therefore greatly appreciated. Photo by my friend Chris’s father Tony Minvalla.


I usually find Portland Bill to be the best area in the county to experience spring migration. Sticking seven miles out into the Channel it acts as a magnet for birds flying from the Continent. In autumn larger numbers seem to congregate along the Purbeck coast, eg at our ringing site at Durlston.


This spring has been unusually poor for migrants at Portland and elsewhere see There was only one large fall and that was on a day when I wrongly judged conditions to be unsuitable for migration and only birded locally rather than go to Portland or Durlston! However I have managed to see a reasonable selection of spring migrants and of course the usual resident species like this Common Kestrel.


The highlights of this spring were this Hoopoe that graced the ‘top fields’ and the Crown Estate fields opposite Portland Bird Observatory. Photo by my friend Roger Howell.


Hoopoes are common over much of southern Europe, Middle East and North Africa in summer and migrants sometimes ‘overshoot’ and end up on the British south coast in spring. Resident populations in tropical Africa are often treated as a separate species, African Hoopoe based on differences in wing pattern. Photo by Roger Howell.


This photo, also by Roger Howell, of the Portland bird shows the typical wing pattern of Eurasian Hoopoe. African Hoopoe’s wing pattern lacks the broad white band in the outer primaries and has much more white on the secondaries and greater coverts.


Another highlight of the spring was a pair of Golden Orioles seen in the ‘top fields’. During my visit the female showed very well but the male appeared only briefly. There was a time when it looked like Golden Orioles might colonise parts of the UK with regular breeding occurring in East Anglia. Unfortunately they have ceased to breed in the UK, despite suitable habitat remaining and are now no more than a scarce migrant. The female of the pair was photographed by Chris Minvalla.


I have only been on one out-of-county twitch this spring and that was to see a rather dodgy bird that had taken up residence in this small cul-de-sac at East Budleigh in east Devon.


Italian Sparrow is a rather dodgy recently evolved species formed by hybridisation of House Sparrow and Spanish Sparrow, but it has been decided that it is valid and has been accepted as a species by the IOC. The question is – is this individual a genuine Italian Sparrow from the core of its Italian range or the  the hybrid offspring of a vagrant Spanish Sparrow that just happens to breed with a British House Sparrow? Add to that the question whether it could have got here on by its own steam or hitched a ride on a ship and the significance of the deformed bill (that could indicate captive origin) and you can see why opinions are highly divided about this bird. Photo from Devon Birds


I was persuaded to go by my friend Olly but although I didn’t rate the sparrow very highly I enjoyed the trip partly because of the lovely scenery on the nearby Devon coast.


Part of the world Heritage Site Jurassic Coast, these sandstone cliffs are actually from the earlier Triassic period when the first dinosaurs were evolving. I have walked the coast from near Beaulieu in the New Forest to Beer in Devon but have yet to walk this section. One day ….


The detour to the coast was well worthwhile as we had great views of a male Cirl Bunting. Careful management and a Cornish reintroduction scheme is helping the threatened Cirl Bunting regain territory lost to agricultural ‘improvement’ in recent decades. Apart from a single bird seen in west Dorset a few years ago, all my sightings have been in south Devon, however the species has now crossed the Exe River and is now breeding in the coastal habitat between the Exe and the Dorset border. This photo was taken near Exeter in 2011.


There is no good news to report about Turtle Doves though. It has never been common during the 40 years I’ve been birding but there was always a realistic chance of seeing one when out birding, either on its breeding grounds inland or on migration on the coast. Now the triple whammy of habitat destruction at home, desertification in the African wintering grounds and relentless hunting pressure in autumn and spring (especially in Malta) is driving this lovely bird to extinction. I now know of only one location where it can be seen locally, just over the border into Hampshire at Martin Down, where we saw and heard four individuals a few days ago.


Of course I’ve carried on with the ringing program at Durlston this spring, but eight visits in April and three in May resulted in the capture of just 137 birds. It was not all bad however, we retrapped birds that ringed in almost every year between 2011 and 2017, including an eight year old Great Tit plus Lesser Whitethroats, Common Whitethroats and Blackcaps that had returned from Africa to breed at Durlston, some for several years in succession. Gathering information like this concerning longevity and natal philopatry (returning to your birth place to breed) is more important than ringing a large number of birds, that will never be heard of again. The commonest migrant was of course Willow Warbler. Willows have a longer and more pointed wing shape than Chiffchaffs but as any trainee ringer soon learns it is the lack of emargination on the 6th primary that is the clincher.


Olive-grey coloured Willow like this one may be Scandinavian birds of the race acredula

The movements of Firecrests at Durlston is a bit of a mystery. As can be clearly seen in the above graph, the vast majority occur in late October and November and probably mainly represent post breeding dispersal of British bred birds and birds from the near continent, The very few records in August and early September may be of locally bred birds. There have only been two records in spring on 21st April 2014 and 28th April 2018 – so where might they have come from?


This bird was ringed on 28th April this year. It looks in bad condition but it’s not. The black matted feathers around the bill is due to pollen which it has either fed on directly or has picked up whilst feeding on small insects attracted to the pollen. Chiffchaffs often arrive in the UK in spring looking like this and it is a generally held opinion that they pick up the pollen from stop-over sites in Spain (I haven’t got the actual reference so I’m being a bit cautious about the location here). It could be that this female Firecrest, which didn’t have a brood patch so was not yet breeding, had arrived all the way from wintering grounds in Spain.


Two Common Whitethroats, a female on the left and a male trapped at Durlston. The female was newly ringed but the male was ringed as a 1st year bird in August 2017.


Ringing at our site at Canford Heath was successful throughout March (although I wasn’t around to enjoy it) so it was decided we would continue into April. Three visits in the first half of the month produced the goods but another on the 19th after a spell of fine weather produced little, showing that the birds ringed earlier had migrated elsewhere as soon as the opportunity presented itself. A few Siskins hung around to breed but most departed with the change of the weather.


A comparison of the wing pattern of a first year male (age code 5) Siskin (top) and an adult male (age code 6) below with some welly boots included for good measure.


But an outstanding feature of the ringing at Canford this spring was the Lesser Redpolls. we catch a few throughout the winter but numbers really built up in  early April with 31 ringed compared to 3 during the rest of the winter. These must have been birds migrating through the area to points further north. Some had the classic red ‘poll’ whilst other had an orange ‘poll’. It’s not clear if these ‘orangepolls’ are all first year birds as some had adult type tails.


An adult male Lesser Redpoll in breeding plumage is a bit of a stunner.


I have neither the time or space to go through the complex vagaries of redpoll taxonomy except to say that Lesser Redpoll is the form (now usually treated as a species) that breeds in UK, Western Europe and the Alps whilst  Mealy Redpoll breeds all around the northern hemisphere in the temperate zone. Mealy (or Common) Redpoll is a scarce winter visitor the UK (but in some years it is irruptive and occurs in much larger numbers). Here in the south of the UK we get very few Mealies so the bird we caught on 9th April and again on the 11th was the first undisputable Meal;y Redpoll to ringed by our group. Its frosty appearance, pale pink breast and large size (wing of 78 compared to 68-73 of the Lesser Redpolls handled the same day) all confirm it as a Mealy.


Ringing of migrants is just about over for the spring. Some ringing of chicks in the nest and an important Nightjar study is about to start but I’ll be taking a break for a little while.

Early January and early February 2015 – A brief account of our bird race and two trips to west Dorset.   Leave a comment



To the regular readers of my blog an apology for not updating this blog since early January. I have spent three and half weeks in return Brazil and since my return a week ago I have been busy with shopping, decorating and other onerous tasks.

This post covers the first few days of January and a couple of trips to west Dorset over the last couple of days. I have yet to edit the many photos taken in Brazil, let alone update them to the blog, but they will follow eventually.

IMG_1325 Poole Harbour at night

We had a couple of birding trips before I left for Brazil, to Blashford Lakes and to Wyke Down but the best by far was the intensive birding on our annual bird race on 4th January. Postponed from the day before due to bad weather, we had an excellent day, travelling from the Poole area to Weymouth and back again starting at 0500 and ending at 1730. Three teams took part and we won with a score of 126 species seen/heard during the day, three ahead of our nearest rivals and only 3 short of the all time winter record. Our first destination was Shore Road, Poole Harbour in hope for Bar-tailed Godwit. Why visit the foreshore of Poole Harbour in the dark, when the birds could be so much more easily later in day? Simple, if we could see Barwits before dawn we could later avoid the northern shore of of the harbour and all the potential delays that traffic and the Studland car ferry could produce. I’m glad to say we were successful, seeing the birds by the light of street lamps.


On 7th February Margaret and I had a day out in west Dorset. Our first destination was Tincleton near Dorchester where we located the single Bewick’s Swan in a flock of Mute’s. Bewick’s Swan was once a regular visitor to Dorset and adjacent areas with counts of up to 120 at Tinkleton and similar numbers at Ibsley in Hampshire. Milder winters have allowed more Bewick’s to winter on the continent and feeding at the WWT reserve at Welney has induced most of the birds that reach the UK to stay in East Anglia. The bird we saw at Tinkleton was hidden by trees so I have added a photo of a Bewick’s Swan I took at Ibsley in the Avon valley last year.

IMG_2509 cress beds

Earlier we called in at the cress beds at Bere Regis, a good spot for Green Sandpipers, Grey Wagtails and if you are lucky Kingfishers and Water Pipits, although we had no luck with the latter two.

IMG_2529 Martinstown

We then travelled westwards to Abbotsbury, on the way we passed through the picturesque village of Martinstown ….

IMG_2534 Martinstown

… which comprises a series of charming cottages with a stream for a front garden.

IMG_2528 Harrdy's Monument

From here the road climbs up to Hardy’s Monument with panoramic views in all directions.

IMG_2512 west Dorset

The road that leads from Hardy’s Monument to Abbotsbury is narrow and progress is slow, however the view more than compensates. This is perhaps my favourite drive in all of Dorset, but in the morning the view to the south is always into the sun. The Fleet and Portland can just be seen in the distance. Someday I’ll drive this way on a clear summer’s evening and take some better shots.

IMG_2515 Langton Herring

Abbotsbury Swannery is closed for the winter but distant views are available from the Rodden road. We saw the Greenland Whitefronted Goose briefly before it swam out of view and later we drove on to Langton Herring and walked down to the Fleet at Rodden Hive. The view to the north from Langton Herring is shown above.

IMG_2526 Rodden Hive

The Fleet, the 12 mile long brackish lagoon, separated from the sea by a shingle bank is one of the most outstanding features of Dorset, if not the entire UK. Rodden Hive is the most northerly point that is accessible on foot, with the exception of the Swannery itself. Large numbers of wildfowl can be seen on the Fleet in winter ……

IMG_2522 Barnacle Geese

…. but we had come to see this flock of 16 Barnacle Geese. Barnacle Geese from Svarlbard and Greenland winter in Scotland but there is also a substantial number that winter in Holland It is debatable whether the occasional flock that turns up in Dorset in winter comes from the Dutch wintering population or from the feral population.

IMG_2525 Barnacle Geese

The fact that these birds were wary and flew off soon after we arrived, were unringed and don’t associate with Canada Geese indicate to my mind that a wild origin is probable. In fact using those criteria they are more likely to be wild than the Greenland Whitefront which has been associating with Canada Geese!

IMG_2538 west dorset

Rare bird news seldom breaks when it is convenient. I had just got home when I learned that three Cirl Buntings had been located a few miles from Abbotsbury. This species was once widespread in south of the UK but the range drastically contracted from the 1960’s onwards with agricultural intensification. The last breeding in Dorset was in 1971 and since I’ve been birding they have been lost from Somerset and almost lost from their stronghold in south Devon. Vigorous conservation measures, including a reintroduction program in Cornwall have turned their fortunes around and maybe, just maybe, they are beginning to recolonise west Dorset. The birds had been present for some time but local observers wished to keep this quiet until the site could be made secure from disturbance. This is the same view as above in much cloudier conditions, taken when I returned to see the Cirls on Monday morning.

Male Cirl Bunting - Exeminster

The three Cirl Bunting showed well, if a little briefly. Far too far away for photos, I have included a shot of a male taken in Devon in June 2011, which was I think the first bird photo that I ever uploaded to this blog.