Wise Birding Holidays

Tuesday, 9 June 2020

Marsh Warbler River Otter, Devon

Last month (Friday 29th May) local friend and wildlife photographer David White called me to say that he had heard a "strange" singing Reed Warbler alongside the River Otter. The other significant thing was the bird was singing from rank vegetation and not reeds. I have known Dave for a few years now and he is always very observant, so I knew that this was definitely worth checking out. In light of the unprecedented influx of Blyth's Reed Warblers into the UK this year, I was hopeful that lightning might just strike twice!? 

By the time, I received Dave's voicemail it was already mid morning and it was getting hot, so I quickly drove the 10 minutes to the spot he described in the hope that the bird would still be singing. Almost as soon as I got out of the car I could hear the distinct song of the bird which clearly was no Reed Warbler! As I listened to the song it seemed too fast and erratic for a BRW and I was sure I could hear some African Cisticola / Prinia calls within the numerous mimicry calls. The Marsh Warbler winters in South Africa so birds often mimic species from that region of the world. After a few minutes of listening, I was confident it was a Marsh Warbler as the song was very fast and animated with no obvious multiple repeated fluty notes. However, I took a sound recording just to be sure as I had only seen the bird very briefly. Once home, I listened to the recording and I was still happy on song alone, that the bird was a Marsh Warbler and I put the news out locally. I also reviewed a couple of Dave's photos that he had sent me (with appreciated input from Mike Langman) and these showed the strong pale primary tips of MW.

The bird was singing from prime breeding habitat with a mix of Nettles, Grasses, Hemlock Water Dropwort and Willows. Although the chances of a breeding attempt were low, the potential breeding habitat was just perfect! Due to the recent arrival of numerous Marsh Warblers into the UK this year, if there was going to be a breeding attempt, it would be this year! Therefore I thought it best to be cautious, so the news of the bird remained within the county. Interestingly, there was a historical record of a pair of Marsh Warblers summering on the River Otter from 1925! Despite my hopes, the bird remained for only four days from 29th May until the 1st June and it was the first accessible bird in Devon since 1990. 

I had the relatively easy job of  identifying the bird, so all credit to David White for recognising the bird was something different and for taking time to call me! Thanks Dave.

You can listen to my sound recording of the bird by clicking on the video link at the bottom of this post. Amongst other species being mimicked, there is some nice European Bee-eater from 32 seconds and also what I am pretty sure is one of the African Cisticolas (Red-faced Cisticola and/or Tawny-flanked Prinia) from 59 seconds.

Singing Marsh Warbler, River Otter May 2020

Singing Marsh Warbler, River Otter May 2020

Singing Marsh Warbler, River Otter May 2020

Singing Marsh Warbler, River Otter May 2020

The area the bird was singing from 




Singing Marsh Warbler, River Otter May 2020
Singing Marsh Warbler, River Otter May 2020


Marsh Warbler, River Otter Devon May 2020 from Chris Townend on Vimeo.

Thursday, 28 May 2020

Golden Oriole and Garden Quail

Well it seems that things do come in threes and I have now used up all my good birding fortune with a very welcome male Golden Oriole at Squabmoor Reservoir. Incredibly, my third local rarity find in just 12 days and all within a couple of miles from home!

I was out birding the East Devon Commons on Tuesday 26th May and once again, very optimistically, I was hoping for a Red-footed Falcon. However, that soon changed when I heard the distinctive fluty song of a Golden Oriole! It was singing from the trees above Squabmoor Reservoir from 08.50hrs until mid morning. It was heard again in the same area from around 5.15pm until about 6.15pm. Sadly, I never actually saw the bird but I managed to get a couple of sound recordings of both the song and the Jay-like / Squirrel-like call. See video and Sounds below.
I was particularly pleased that Helen also managed to hear it in the evening - She has now done the Budleigh Treble!😂

Other excitement from Budleigh Salterton was recording my first Quail over the house on the evening of the 26th May at 11.26pm. It passed over quickly giving the "Mau-Wau" call as described by the excellent Sound Approach website: https://soundapproach.co.uk/common-quail/  

On the River Otter on Monday 25th May, Helen and I had a great encounter with one of last year's Beaver Kits and a Tawny Owl too!


Tawny Owl, River Otter

Beaver, River Otter

The Budleigh treble in context - 12 day Purple Patch!






Monday, 25 May 2020

Singing Blyth's Reed Warbler!

During the late afternoon of Saturday 23rd May, Helen and I headed out for a walk to the East Devon Commons. As always, the walk had a hidden birding agenda with ever optimistic thoughts of Red-footed Falcon possibilities, following the current UK influx. Little did I know just how things were to turn out!

About halfway round the walk, taking one of the many narrow Devon tracks that we have been exploring during lockdown, an odd bird song had us both stop and listen. It was coming intermittently from the hedge bank and I was confused by the number of fluty notes interspersed with harsh scolding notes. I didn't have my phone with me, so asked Helen to try and get a recording on her phone. At this point the bird appeared in a holly tree very briefly and gave me enough of a view to see it was an Acrocephalus warbler. Though very odd habitat for a Reed Warbler, I have seen migrants in a number of strange places, but it was the song that really bothered me! Despite the bird singing in a somewhat subdued way, the phrases it was coming out with were way too fluty for just a normal European Reed Warbler. The song didn't seem manic enough for a Marsh Warbler but surely Blyth's Reed Warbler was a ridiculous possibility? I knew I had to get a better recording as the more I thought about it the more I pondered Blyth's Reed Warbler, though my only memory of a singing bird was from a trip to Finland some years ago. Certainly a species more arboreal than other Acros.

So the walk was cut short and we headed home. At this point I have to say how lucky I am to have Helen as my partner! She already knew our walk was over and totally understood that I now had the bit between my teeth to get to the bottom of the identification! To be fair, she too was intrigued by the song. 

Once back at home, I grabbed my sound recording gear and headed back to the site. It was still very windy, not ideal for sound recording and I was under pressure to be home for a Zoom chat with the family that I could not miss! Therefore, I was relieved to hear the bird still singing in the hedge bank and amazingly it actually sang continuously for around 2 -3 minutes, giving the best song I had heard. It then went quiet again! In the rush I forgot my headphones and I just had to hope the microphone was pointing at the correct spot! By now it was around 5pm and I had to leave.

After finishing various important family commitments I did some brief comparisons with the song and I felt sure it must be a Blyth's Reed Warbler, though it still seemed a ridiculous claim, particularly as I had only seen the bird so briefly! I was therefore keen to at least see the bird better before putting any news out and to see if there was a better place to view from - the narrow lane was certainly not great for social distancing! I was also a little concerned my sound recording was distorted by wind, so I returned at about 8pm. It was still very windy but I was hoping the bird would still be singing as the species is known to sing during the night, but all was quiet. Then, just as I was about to leave, at 9pm the bird appeared in the holly tree. It was in silhouette but I managed to get some very dark record shots! More importantly, the bird called about 10 times giving a fairly soft "teck" that I managed to record on my phone and reminded me of birds I have heard on their wintering grounds in Sri Lanka.

The following morning I returned at 05.30hrs and watched and listened until 10am with no luck. I was disappointed that the warbler had not stayed so I could share this exciting bird for Devon with other birders. So much so, I returned again in the afternoon for three hours and again in the evening, but sadly it seemed the bird had moved on. 

I put the news out on Twitter and the local WhatsApp group. Despite the narrow lane and restricted viewing being very poor for social distancing, I felt confident that I could have arranged access to the adjacent private field to view the hedge where the bird had been frequenting.

Assuming the bird is accepted, it will be only the fourth record for Devon and the first ever spring record. 
Previous Devon records:
Lundy 3rd October 2013 and 25th October 2016 
Berry Head 4th-6th October 2016 - See Here

The irony of this totally unexpected find for me is that due to the Covid-19 lockdown restrictions, like many other birders, I have been exploring local footpaths that I wouldn't ordinarily visit and so the bird would have gone undiscovered. Secondly, if I hadn't recently joined the Nocmig world, I wouldn't have my sound recording equipment, so essential to confirming the identification! Needless to say, the sound recording gear is always with me now and I now wonder how I survived without it!

It has certainly been an incredible week for me with the recent excitement of the patch Bee-eaters (See Here). If ever there was motivation for birders to get out locally and explore, this is it, as you just never know what is around the next Devon corner..............

I would like to say particular thanks to my Estonian friend and Bird Guide, Tarvo Valker who hears many Blyth's Reed Warblers in his home country. I was very pleased to hear he considered the recording to "fit BRW perfectly", though he did comment that the habitat, where Helen and I found the bird, was far from ideal! I also must mention friends Matt KnottPeter Alfrey and Darryl Spittle who had to deal with my over excitement from various phone calls!
The Devon lane where we found the Blyth's Reed Warbler

The Devon lane where we found the Blyth's Reed Warbler and the Holly tree

The location of the BRW - East of East Budleigh Common
Distance from coast approx 2 miles


You can hear the measured rhythm of a Reed Warbler but with diagnostic repeated fluty whistles interspersed with 
clicks and tecks. It turns out the recording was not too bad despite the loud distortion of the wind, though I wish I 
had used my "dead cat" wind diffuser! The FULL VERSION can be heard below


Blyth's Reed Warbler in Holly Tree at 9pm

Blyth's Reed Warbler in Holly Tree at 9pm

Blyth's Reed Warbler in Holly Tree at 9pm - Though not the best photo, I think it still shows the short-winged appearance.
You can hear the "teck" call which it gave at around 9pm

THE Hedgerow!

Saturday, 16 May 2020

Patch Bee-eaters!!

Well it has been an exciting 24 hours in Budleigh Salterton! It all started yesterday with news of a great find by a local Exmouth birder with a group of 13 Bee-eaters (flocks of 6 and 7) in his garden at 10am for just 2 minutes before they flew off east. 
Most birders in the UK are very aware of how notorious the species is for never staying long and so often being seen by only the finder!
As a result, I wasn't very optimistic about seeing them, but as the east side of Exmouth is only 3 miles away, I felt compelled to jump on my bike and spend an hour checking suitable farmland and the Golf Course at Budleigh. However, it did not take long for a reality check when I realised just how much suitable Bee-eater habitat there was between Budleigh and Exmouth! I started to accept that the birds were probably long departed and I headed home at around 1.30pm.

Fast forward to 7pm that evening when I visited the beloved local patch on the Otter Estuary. My aim was to look for Spotted Flycatchers in an area where birds had successfully bred last year. Of course, Bee-eaters were still on my mind, though very much at the back of my mind as it was now 9 hours since the sighting in Exmouth. I cycled along the wooded lane above the River Otter and spent some time watching the Flycatcher trees. Whilst standing in the lane I thought I heard the distant "pprruk" call of a Bee-eater! It is a sound, like most birders, I am very familiar with but surely it was my mind playing tricks? Somehow, I concluded it must have been the noise of my bins against my jacket!! 

I headed round towards South Farm where I knew there were some "Bee-eater friendly" telegraph wires, just in case it was real! Then, as I cycled around the bend by the lone cottage I could clearly hear Bee-eaters calling without doubt!! I looked towards the nearest trees and there sitting at top of them was a stunning Bee-eater! I was then aware of at least 4 birds hawking for insects along the tree line and out over my head - What an incredible sight to behold on my patch!! I immediately rang the Mrs who I knew was setting off  for a run and her route clearly needed to divert this way! I then phoned Matt Knott, Doug Cullen and a few other locals with the exciting news and it was good to know people were on their way to share the experience. 

However, just as I could see Helen running down the road towards me, the birds vanished! Now, that was just cruel - Surely, the Mrs couldn't dip on this technicolour patch mega!!?
We quickly headed back along the wooded lane hoping we could re-find them. Luckily, after a nervous 250 metre walk, there they were hawking over a golden sunlit grass field. 
I passed the bins to Helen and the immediate "Wow" confirmed she was watching them! Incredibly, there now seemed to be more Bee-eaters than before and I counted at least 10 birds! In hindsight it seems to make sense there were in fact two small flocks and the first birds I found then joined these other birds to make the complete flock. 
The rest as they say is history! It was great that so many local people were able to enjoy views of this notoriously difficult bird to see in Devon. 

This morning (16th May) 13 Bee-eaters flew out from their roost at 06.40hrs on what was quite a chilly overcast morning. They were typically vocal and gained height on a number of occasions, heading south and east and then back and then eventually heading out SSW and were lost to view at 07.40hrs.

Ordinarily, I would have put this exciting bird news out far and wide, but with this very strange time with Covid-19 and the first weekend free from travel restrictions since lockdown, I felt it was right to simply keep the news local. Particularly as the birds had roosted and were therefore sure to attract more attention and from further afield.

I visited the patch again this evening and it almost seemed like yesterday was a dream! No Bee-eaters calling tonight, but the magic of yesterday will remain with me for a very long time!! Now time for the celebratory Cream Tea - cream first of course!

Amazingly, the Bee-eaters are thought to be the same flock of 13 birds that were seen in North Wales on the Lleyn Peninsula last week. Last seen on the 13th May! 
See Maps below.  

European Bee-eater facts for Devon:
Thanks to County Recorder Kev Rylands for the data

Previous largest flock size: 
12 birds in 1995. Brixham 12th May & Holsworthy 18th May
Previous twitchable birds staying long enough for people to see:
Although nearly annual in Devon, not many stay long enough for people to see.
Axmouth in 2014
Bideford 2004
Ottery St Mary Oct 1963
Then not until 1949 when 4 birds spent three weeks around Beer/Seaton during June!

European Bee-eater, Budleigh Salterton May 15th 2020

European Bee-eaters, Budleigh Salterton May 15th 2020

The trees where I first clapped eyes on the glorious colour of these amazing birds!

European Bee-eater, Budleigh Salterton May 15th 2020

European Bee-eater, Budleigh Salterton May 15th 2020

The trees where the whole flock relocated - I have since found out there were Bee hives behind the ridge!
European Bee-eaters, Budleigh Salterton May 15th 2020

11 of the 13 Bee-eaters on Saturday morning before they departed!



Bee-eaters from Exmouth sighting to the patch - approx 3.5 miles East

Bee-eaters from Lleyn Peninsula to Exmouth - approx 165 miles SSE

Tuesday, 12 May 2020

Nocmig 5 weeks on

The Nocmig set-up ready for another evening in the garden!
It is now approximately five weeks since I started recording the nocturnal flight calls of birds over our garden. Therefore I thought I would summarise the results to date. 

Species positively identified = 20 
The list below shows the number of nights each species has been recorded over a minimum of 25 nights between the 9th April - 12th May 2020. Sometimes more than one bird was recorded during the night.

Tawny Owl - 16 (only species not actually flying over)
Moorhen - 13
Whimbrel - 9
Canada Goose - 7
Dunlin - 5
Mallard - 3
Oystercatcher - 3
Nightjar - 2
Little Grebe - 2
Coot - 2
Stone Curlew - 1
Arctic Tern - 1
Common Tern - 1
Sandwich Tern - 1
Spotted Flycatcher - 1 night up to 3 birds
Little Ringed Plover - 1
Ringed Plover - 1
Teal - 1
Black-headed Gull - 1
Grey Heron - 1

I find it quite fascinating and incredible that in a relatively short period of time, I have managed to record such a diversity of species! I am certainly hooked and although migration is now slowing down, you just never know what might fly over next - Still time for a Quail!



Other exciting news from the garden was witnessing the now regular movement of young wandering Red Kites as they venture west along the coast. On Saturday the 9th May we enjoyed a total of 9 birds (garden record) including a single group of 7 birds! 
One of the 9 Red Kites over the garden on the 9th May








Monday, 27 April 2020

Nocmig Nightjar

So the nocmig garden list continues!The best of the bunch being a calling Nightjar at 04.55hrs this morning! This is only the second time we have recorded Nightjar in the garden, the last time was on the 29th May 2011 when one was over the park at dusk. 


Other recent highlights over the garden have been Teal and a very close Barn Owl which you can hear on this link: https://soundcloud.com/user-436430468



Monday, 20 April 2020

Stone Curlew over Garden!

Since my last post the garden lockdown list has increased to 38 species with some of the latest additions being Great Black-backed Gull, Heron and Swift. The swift was on the relatively early date of the 16th April. This appears to be 6 days earlier than Devon's first record for 2018 in the Devon Bird Report.

I have continued with the addictive "Nocmig" recordings and had some nice wader passage in the early hours of the 19th with Ringed Plover, Dunlin and Whimbrel moving through - Listen below.

However, the biggest shock was getting a faint but pretty distinctive Stone Curlew at 10pm last night! Ironically it was the only bird I recorded before it became too windy. 
You can here the recording below, though I would suggest listening with headphones, as it is a distant call. Despite the unwanted "noise" on the recording, to my ear I still think it is distinctive enough to identify. My suggested id also received a positive response from other more experienced sound recorders.
The sonogram, though pretty poor, also seems to be a similar fit to a couple of calls from the Xeno-Canto website. See below.

So, in the the last 10 nights the more notable birds I have recorded  flying over the garden include: 
Moorhen
Barn Owl
Common and Arctic Tern together (id thanks to Nick Hopper)
Sandwich Tern
Dunlin
Ringed Plover 
Whimbrel
Stone Curlew

I find this quite amazing, particularly as I am not even using an external microphone at the moment, simply the recording device only. It is certainly very addictive and I can thoroughly recommend getting involved. A simple recorder like mine only cost £100. 

I look forward to the next few nights analysis.......
You can listen to more of my recordings HERE


Sonogram of my recording (top) versus one from Xeno Canto 
 You can listen to the above Xeno Canto recording HERE which is most similar to my recording below.

Wednesday, 15 April 2020

More Nocmig

As we are all very much tied to our homes more and more with the current Covid-19 pandemic, I have become somewhat obsessed with recording nocturnal migration (Nocmig) over my garden. I find it fascinating and very educational too, as so many birds give some very different calls at night. 

I only started less than a week ago and have already added some species that I have never recorded anywhere near the house in daylight during 10 years of living here! These include 3 species of Tern, Barn Owl and Moorhen, the latter being surprisingly regular over the house at night. Though this is often the case for most Nocmiggers around the country. You can here some of the recordings below:

The mixed tern flock is particularly interesting as I first thought the recording was of a somewhat distant group of Dunlin. However, when you listen more intently, you can just make out they are tern calls and thanks to Nocmig Guru Nick Hopper, he identified them to Common and Arctic Tern. "the higher pitch call Arctic Tern (along with an accompanying kip call at 2.5 seconds) and the lower pitch Common Tern"

I cannot wait to see what passes over next......



Saturday, 11 April 2020

Raptors and Nocmig

Spent much of the day scanning the sky today with the Mrs and we finally managed to catch up with one of the numerous Red Kites that are being seen around the county. We narrowly missed a presumed Kite or Osprey yesterday when nearly every gull in the town was alarm calling like crazy, but we just could not get a view of the gulls or any raptor from the garden! During my daily excercise walk from the house this evening a single Wheatear and more significantly, a singing Firecrest in breeding habitat.

Being in "lockdown" has also prompted me to finally join the numerous "Nocmiggers" (Nocturnal Migration) around the country. Recording calls of migrating birds that pass over the garden during the night. Best bird to date is Moorhen which is a surprisingly regular species recorded during nocmig sessions. The nearest breeding birds to home are probably 1.5Km as the moorhen flies.
Surprised at the quality of the recording considering it is just the recorder with no shotgun microphone as yet. 

Lockdown Garden List: 32 species since 23rd March
Plus Nocmig Species: Canada Goose and Common Moorhen

Sound Recording of Common Moorhen below.

Female Sparrowhawk over the garden

Pale Common Buzzard over the garden

Typical Common Buzzard over the garden

Red Kite over the garden


Sunday, 5 April 2020

Staying at Home and a year older!

Another day at home at this strange time. We are so lucky to have a garden and be able to walk to the coast as part of our day's exercise. Highlight birds from the garden today included Peregrine, Sparrowhawk, Buzzard, Willow Warbler, House Martin and a Swallow during our walk. Great to see so many House Sparrows and Starlings breeding around our neighbourhood this year too.


House Sparrows using our box

Great to be able to walk to the coast today