20th November. Having missed out on the Isabelline festival two weeks with both a Shrike and Wheatear showing incredibly well in South Wales, I was champing at the bit to get out and enjoy what had been an excellent autumn migration season. I had a few choices of where to go but ended up driving through the fog near home and then down the M5 to Devon. I arrived at Man Sands just before sunrise, got my things together and headed down the slippery path towards the coastguard huts. The pools at the bottom of the hill had a few dozen Teal and I heard Snipe as well as Ravens flying overhead. Heading back up the hill, I joined a herd of cows in the field behind the huts and started to look for passerines. Pied Wagtail, Linnet, Great Tit, Dunnock, Robin, Desert Wheatear! Boom! There it was, sat on the top of the roof, pumping its black tail and dusty rump in true Wheatear fashion. The light wasn't great with the sun having just risen into partly cloudy skies. Unfortunately the cottages were between me and the sun so there was never going to be any direct sunlight on the bird but after watching it for a short while, I realised that one of its favourite areas was on the North Western side of the roof so I set up behind the wall there and waited. This chose to be a good plan as after half an hour I'd got several reasonable shots of the Desert Wheatear as it repeatedly came back to its favoured vantage point. I then heard the bird call for the first time which turned to be a series of clicking noises (resembling a Geiger counter!) and soon after realised the cause. A smart Black Redstart appeared on the roof, called, and then was immediately chased off by the Desert Wheatear. What a quality confrontation! They proceeded to chase each other on and off for 5 minutes in which time I only managed to get the camera on the Black Redstart once but still picked up a few more Desert Wheatear shots.
After having the place to myself for an hour a few other birders joined me but in the few hours I was there, there was a maximum of four and a total of less than 10 birders present. I guess most the locals had already seen it but I was still surprised at the low turnout for such a quality visitor. I waited (as usual) perhaps a little too long for better shots and when a frenetic Rock Pipit joined in to feed on the roof couldn't be frozen by the camera shutter, I realised it was time to move on. A couple of birders had mentioned they had seen Firecrest on their way down but after a quick search we couldn't find them on the way back. I pressed on back to the car but had the pleasure of seeing a Stoat run ahead of me on the path but with the murky light I could only get a record shot of it.
After arguing with my phone which refused to accept my request to navigate to Broadsands I managed to find my own way there with only one U-turn (which I was quietly impressed with!). Parking up it felt more like mid spring with the car telling me it was 16°C. It was 10:45 in the morning with 5 weeks to Christmas!!!! I walked across the car park and could hear the call and then song of Cirl Bunting and one bird was feeding in the open at the bottom of the hedge row. I set myself up and after a few minutes picked up a nice shot of a feeding bird. Again I should have left at this point because two dog walkers and their dogs then proceeded to walk between me and where the birds were feeding. The birds obviously flushed and I thought I'd give it one more chance so waited another five minutes before two children on their bikes came up to me and asked me what I was doing. I didn't mind this too much as I have a curious pair myself so explained and showed them the Cirl Bunting picture I'd taken earlier. I should really have thought that a mild and now sunny day like today wouldn't have been much good for solitude! So I moved on and after getting more love from my phone with the signal, punched in the directions to Darts Farm on the Exe estuary. The drive was fine with the usual traffic but after finally working out where the hide was at Darts farm (it's down the path marked Fishing!) I arrived to see the (is-it, isn't it) Red-breasted Goose in amongst the Brent Goose flock. It was pretty distant but still looked good (aesthetically!) in the perfect light. I stayed and chatted for an hour or so in which time it never ventured much closer but a female Kestrel flew past several times and eventually alighted on a fence post giving wonderful views. Once the Kestrel flew off I made my decision for the remainder of the day.
A Sharp-tailed Sandpiper had been seen a Chew Valley Lake but knowing what the views are like from Herriot's Bridge, decided against going and attempting to photograph a smudge. Instead I decided to go down to the nearby Bowling Green Marsh and try and photograph some Teal and Wigeon. What this proves categorically about me as a birder / twitcher / photographer I'm not sure but I guess I'd rather see and enjoy photographing any bird that shows well rather than going and ticking something. That's probably why I was so gutted about missing out on the Isabelline Wheatear and Shrike. So off I went to Bowling Green Marsh with the car telling me it was now a constant 17°C and it certainly felt like it. I walked down towards the hide and noticed another indication of the mild weather with a squashed frog on the road, not to mention another Red Admiral on the wing as well as a dragonfly! I'd just missed high tide and as such most of the birds had moved on from the hide but a small pool just observable above a blackberry bush held a few dozen Wigeon with a few Teal thrown in. Perfect! I leant over the brambles and managed to get a clear line of sight to the ducks which were happily dabbling in the water. A few of the males were calling and it was great observing the way the head goes back and then projects as the call is made, something I'd not noticed before. I then walked on to the viewing platform at the estuary where the water was still too high so only Black-headed Gulls were seen close in, although a flypast from a Cormorant and then a Red-breasted Merganser were nice. Distant flocks of Dunlin and Curlew were on the far bank but I decided against waiting for the tide and headed back to the car hearing a Water Rail and spotting a Grey Wagtail overhead. I went back for a final look at the Red-breasted Goose at Darts Farm which was now significantly closer albeit hardly filling the frame! Still I enjoyed watching it for another half hour getting a few better shots than before. It was mid-afternoon so time to head off on the drive home passing the massive Greenfinch flock for one final time (there were probably around two hundred birds feeding on a fallow sunflower field. I drove past the turn off towards Cheddar with no urge to tick the Sharpie (unless it relocates to somewhere a little more photo friendly!). A nice day out and a new species - can't be bad!
27th November. Another busy weekend but I eventually managed a little "me" time on Sunday afternoon. After a manic party with 50+ screaming kids and then hearing the numbing news about Gary Speed, I drove down to Rumney Great Wharf, arriving a little before 3 which I figured would give me an hour or so to check out Owlsville central. I walked the short distance to the sea wall and then past the annoying yappy dog to where I could see birders and various "invisible" photographers with full on camo gear. I walked along the bank and joined up with a couple of birders watching two Short-eared Owls quartering a rough field on the landward side. They were fairly distant and even when one of the birds came a little closer a landed in a Hawthorn it was still a little too far away for decent shots. I enjoyed watching at least 3 birds but as the light was starting to fade I needed a plan to hopefully pick up a few shots. Leaving the birders to the sea wall and saltmarsh I followed a footpath back to the main road but adjacent to a field where a few owls had been frequenting. This turned out to be a good move as after passing a few dozen Redwing and crossing a few footbridges I saw another Short-eared Owl perched on the final footbridge before the road. I manoeuvred as best as I could for a decent view before a combination of me and another birder stopping his car on the main road flushed the bird to the hedges behind. I then plonked myself on a damp roadside verge from where I was treated to some good views of one of at least 3 Short-eared Owls that was actively hunting and seemingly defending its patch of rough ground from others with talon grappling taking place every few minutes. Even if the light was getting poorer and the pictures not as good as they could have been say an hour earlier, the views were great and it was great observing the moth like flight and slow wing beats of the owls as they looked for their supper. The sun was just about to set when I moved off which was another delay I could have done without as heading back along the road revealed another 3 owls which gave even better views than the one I'd just been watching. I picked up a few perched shots and eventually got a decent flight shot of the final owl I saw which had been perched on another Hawthorn and then flew around me as I walked along the road. Quality entertainment in the 90 minutes I had! Hopefully they will stay for the winter as its been reported there over ten birds present and then I can have another crack with a bit more time.