Saturday, 27 December 2008

The Christmas Devon Diaries 24th-27th December 2008.

As Christmas approached my girlfriend and I were asked by my aunt and uncle whether we would like to spend Christmas down in Devon at a converted barn they had rented for Christmas week, we jumped at the chance and by the time we had put the phone down I was already packing my bags. South Pool is only a short distance away from Prawle Point, when I say short I mean 3 or 4 miles at the most. I had hoped to stop in Gosport to see the regular over wintering Ring-billed Gull and make our way along the coast stopping at Radipole to see the Hooded Merganser and then head on to Devon. Well you know what they say about best laid plans and after leaving home at 2pm my plans went out the window. We arrived at South Pool and pulled up at the barn at 6:30pm and after being greeted by my aunt we started to unpack the car. The first bird was soon added to the holiday with a Tawny Owl calling from nearby.

Dec 23rd 2008

Tuesday morning soon came round and after spending the previous evening playing Wii I was nursing a few aches and strains. It was a brisk clear morning with no wind so although it was chilly it was still pleasant. The garden at the barn hosted many of the common species of garden birds including Blue & Great Tit, Robin, Goldfinch, Chaffinch & Greenfinch and an occasional male Bullfinch. A pair of Blackbirds and a lone Redwing that spent the week feeding on a number of berry bushes around the garden, it was also a pleasing sight to see a small group of House Sparrows that could often be seen and heard in the perimeter hedgerows. Wood Pigeon, Starling, Carrion Crow, Jackdaw and Rooks were all common sightings as they passed overhead commuting from one field to another as were Black-headed and Herring Gull. From the living room window of the barn I could see the South Pool creek, this is a channel of water that starts from the English channel and dissects Bolt Head and Prawle point and makes it's way inland past Salcombe and on towards Kingsbridge. Once I had set up my scope I had great views across the low tide mud flats, an obvious white blob sat the water pools turned out to be an Little egret and I was pleased to see a number of waders feeding in the mud. As breakfast was being cooked I headed out to the wood shed to stock up on logs for the evening fire, after filling the wood basket I headed back to the barn hearing a familiar "kronking" sound coming across hills, I put the basket down and looked across the hills seeing nothing but passing wood pigeons and by the time I had grabbed my binoculars from inside the calls had stopped.

South Pool Creek

After breakfast I wandered 200 yards down the road to the creek, approaching the creek both Herring and Black-headed Gulls were present in two small groups of about 5 or 6 each but soon departed as I approached. I soon spotted 2 little Egrets that were stalking prey in the now shallow areas of the water as the tide receded, they seemed very territorial often raising the heads skywards, dancing round each other and often showing their plumes, it was something I would expect to see from a displaying pair during courtship.

Little Egret

I didn't really expect to see much so close to the village of south pool and after finding a good spot to view across the mudflats I soon found a Common Sandpiper hastily making its way along the edge of mudflats only stopping when it found something to feed on. It soon scurried past a Oystercatcher which then joined it in the race across the mud and seaweed. 2 Redshank called noisily to each other from opposites side of the creek before joining each other on one of the small seaweed and mudflat islands that were visible in the creek. I continued along the public footpath which curved around the edge of the creek until I came to another good viewing spot, from here I could see into a small bay hidden by the houses on the opposite bank. a lone Greenshank was sat preening on the edge of a seaweed bank and despite the 2 Redshank getting nervous and taking flight the greenshank remained, it gave me great views of the delicate scaly patterns to the feathering as it stood and preened. As I watched the Greenshank a flock of 25+ Meadow Pipits few over and dropped down in to nearby fields. I reached the end of the public footpath and turned round to walk back along the edge of the creek, as I reached the road at South Pool village a Grey Wagtail flew down to the waters edge and bobbed its way along in front of me.


Ever since I knew we were coming to South Pool I have been reading up about the best bird sites in the area and was delighted to read in Lee Evans "Finding Birds in Britain" that Prawle Point was one of the few areas in Britain that the Cirl Bunting could be found. With Prawle Point only being 3 miles away it was an obvious first choice to visit. After negotiating the incredibly narrow lanes we arrived at the NT car park at Prawle point and were given great views of a male Bullfinch perched in the bush directly in front of the car. Leaving the car park we followed the footpath south to the coastal path and arriving at the sea I was surprised how calm it looked and the lack of wind, although the clouds were grey and the weather was brisk it was remarkably calm. We looked out to sea spotting a lone fishing trawler slowly drifting west followed closely by a large flock of Gulls, too distant to identify. Looking closer to shore a single Shag bobbed up and down on the waves and we watched as it started to feed, diving up out of the water before disappearing beneath waves. A few Cormorant passed by out a sea with the occasional sighting of Gannet as they flew westward. We continued along the coastal path heading east and passing a sheep grazing pen I spotted a flock of birds dropping down in to the grass, a closer view identified them as Meadow Pipit and a quick count totalled 50 before they flew up and off to an adjacent field. We must have walked another 100yards when I noticed a bird sat in the top of the footpath hedgerow in font of us, a fine male stonechat which sat calmly as we approached him giving really good views. Looking out from the coastal path to the rocky outcrops that jut around the coastline 2 Little Egrets were a surprising find, I never really expected to see them at this location and always associated them with lakes, gravel pits etc. They searched the rock pools for food along with Oystercatcher, Redshank and two small waders that disappeared from sight which I believe to be Turnstones. Between Prawle Point and Langerstone Point a Great Northern Diver was fishing out at sea along with Cormorant and Great Crested Grebe.

Cirl Bunting

Further along the path I could see another bird perched up on the hedgerow but because of the cloudy skies it made it difficult to identify by sight alone, I grabbed my binoculars and just as I focused in the bird dropped out of sight. We made our way towards where we had seen the bird and suddenly a flock of birds took flight from the stubble fields next to the path, I could hear Meadow Pipit calling as the birds dispersed across the fields and hedgerows but there was also another call I didn't recognise and I adjusted my hearing to try and filter out all other ambient sounds. The call was coming from a nearby bramble/gorse thicket, a number of "brown jobs" were hidden deep in the gorse and thickets and even looking through the telescope it was still impossible to tell what they were, I had my suspicions but until I could get a better view I wasn't going to get excited. I waited patiently until slowly the birds regained composure and made their way in to view. I was now watching my first ever Cirl Buntings, a female which looked rather worn and drab and two males that although in winter plumage both clearly showed the black throat and eye stripe. It was soon evident that there was a group of about 15 or so birds together, both Yellowhammer and Cirl Bunting were sat in a stretch of about 12ft of gorse and bramble thickets and were quite shy remaining in the bushes until a male Cirl Bunting flew straight towards us and perched in the hedgerow next to the path, he remained there casually looking around until he spotted us and flew back to the rest of the group.

Cirl Bunting Video

We headed back along the coastal path hearing Raven near the car park and made our way back to South Pool. Later that evening I hooked my laptop up to the internet and learnt that a Snowy Owl was present at Zennor in Cornwall, having never seen one and the fact that I was in neighbouring Devon it seemed a very worthwhile trip. With the following day being Christmas Eve I hoped that the roads would be quieter allowing a fairly reasonable journey and the fact that I couldn't wait till after Christmas was a deciding factor.

Prawle Point

Snowy Owl-Zennor, Cornwall. Dec 24th 2008

Leaving South Pool at 9:30am we headed out towards the A379 and then along the A38 towards Cornwall. We arrived at the moors near Zennor and pulled up to ask a birder if we were in the right spot, I soon realised that he was from the Oxford area and that I had met him when watching the Cattle Egret in Dorchester-on-Thames back in November. We searched for a space to park the car park and made our way across a small footpath that lead across the moors, a pair of Ravens called noisily as they tumbled across the hillside and shortly after a male Stonechat flew across the path in front of us. We walked for what seemed ages due to the tight tracks and muddy conditions finally reaching the viewing spot, a small number of birders were watching the Snowy Owl which was sat on a rock and partly obscured by the surrounding vegetation, It stood out remarkably well even though the bird was fairly distant, a large white blob in what can only be described as a desolate heather and gorse landscape. 2 ravens flew over and were presumably the 2 birds we had seen earlier and later an extremely pale Buzzard circled overhead. The Owl meanwhile still sat quietly occasionally preening and having the odd quick snooze, often turning it's head to scan the moors around it before returning to snooze. With most records confined to the most northern parts of Scotland this juvenile female has attracted bird watchers from all over the country due to the fact it could well be a once in a lifetime experience. Having been blown way off course amazingly this Owl landed on a transatlantic cargo ship off the Cornwall coast before flying to St Marys, Isle of Scillies. There it remained until flying eastwards towards the Cornish mainland where it remains on the moors near Zennor.

I was disappointed not to be able to get any reasonable photos but to see this fantastic bird on Christmas Eve will live in the memory forever. My late father always told me about the bird he went to see in Suffolk 2001 and what a fantastic bird they are, I couldn't agree more. Snowy Owl sightings in England are very rare with only a few records on the mainland since 1990-91, they are slighter smaller than the eagle owl and their white plumage helps to camouflage them on their favoured habitats which are usually cold and snow covered tundra and grasslands in the Arctic circle. Their diet includes a varied selection of foods which includes Lemmings, Mice, Voles, Rabbits and Hares but because of their agility in flight they can also catch Ducks, Geese and even Ptarmigan in midair. Adult males have a pure white appearance where females have a distinct dark barring across their chest, body and wings. Many people would probably recognise "Hedwig" the magical owl from the Harry Potter films which is a Snowy Owl and seeing one in the wild is certainly a magical experience.

Snowy Owl Video
Dec 25th 2008

Christmas Day started rather eventfully, other than the obvious delivery from father Christmas overnight I had 2 great early morning sightings. I headed off downstairs with the log basket and made my way outside to the woodshed on my early morning, the temperature had dropped and it was certainly cold, the air was fresh and crisp and my breath lingered long in the air. The Redwing was still sat in the garden eyeing up the berries that a male Blackbird was devouring as quickly as he could, a small flock of goldfinches were chattering noisily amongst themselves from the top of a neighbouring tree and the chirping of House Sparrows could be heard coming from a Beech hedge in the garden. After loading the log basket I made my way back to the barn, suddenly hearing a bird of prey calling I dropped the basket and looked skyward, before I'd even had chance to take a quick panoramic 360 degree look a Peregrine flew straight overhead clutching a Wood Pigeon in it's claws, by it's size I could tell it was a female and it looked like it was in top condition, no doubt feeding on many of the Wood Pigeons that inhabit the Devon countryside. I watched as it flew over me chased by a dozen or so Jackdaws until it disappeared amongst the backdrop of distant hills. I bent down to pick up the log basket only to hear a "Kronking" sound from above, looking above me I watched as a pair of 'Ravens tumbled across through the sky playfully interacting with each other. This was obviously the pair I had seen nearby on previous days but unlike earlier sightings they were now overhead and what almost felt like touching distance.

Before we tucked into the Christmas dinner we decided that a family walk would be a good start to events and after suggesting Prawle Point we headed off. We arrived at Prawle point and headed off along the coastal path, it wasn't long before a male Stonechat was seen perched on the gorse adjacent to the path, it remained perched until we approached and then only flew a few feet along the pathway to another suitable perching point in the gorse. As the rest of the family continued along the path I took the opportunity to wander down to the rocky outcrop on the edge of the shoreline. Apart from the obvious Herring, Lesser B-B & Great B-B Gulls were Oystercatchers and a single Redshank. I scanned the rocks intensely and picked up on 3 small birds that were flitting from one rock to another, after eventually coming to rest I could identify them as Rock Pipits and had some really good views of them as they strutted around the outcrop. At sea 3 male and 2 female Eider slowly drifted west but relocating them became difficult as they disappeared behind braking waves, both Gannet and Shag were seen passing west and a lone Shag remained feeding just offshore. Continuing along the coastal path the calls of Curlew could be heard and within seconds 2 flew west towards the rock outcrop and then out of sight behind rocks on the shoreline. I moved down to the edge of the rocks to get a better view finding the 2 Curlews sat on the edge of the rocks preening their wing feathers with a single Redshank sleeping nearby, my views were partly obscured by rocks but I could just make out the rear end of a wader next to the redshank. I carefully and stealthily inched my way to a better viewing point and scanned round the rocks, there sitting next to the sleeping redshank were 2 Purple Sandpipers, they sat motionless facing in to the wind coming in from the sea until an Oystercatcher walking round the rocks saw me and started calling loudly. After everything took flight I made my way back along the coastal path spotting a Peregrine cruising over the hill tops as I went, most of the nearby Gulls soon took flight and ushered the Peregrine inland and out of sight.

Heading back along the coastal path towards Prawle Point and the car park we stopped next to the grazing pens, many of which have stubble in them. A female Cirl Bunting appeared perched in the gorse shortly followed by a male to end off a nice walk along the coastal path.

Before Christmas dinner started I took the opportunity to have a quick look around the South Pool creek, the tide was higher than the first time I had visited and other than a Little Egret and a calling Kingfisher it was very quiet. I decided to walk along the edge of the creek and back along a public footpath finding a Goldcrest flitting through ivy on a tree branch, continuing along the path it wasn't long before I heard the resident Ravens calling again and watched as they passed overhead with both Jackdaw and Crow in hot pursuit. I managed a short video clip as they departed over the hill and out of sight.

Dec 26th 2008

Boxing day greeted us with an even colder day, the sun did it's best to show itself from time to time and a walk along the beach at Torcross was windswept to say the least. There were few birds to be seen except Gannet, Cormorant and a few Gulls.


We left Devon Saturday lunchtime and I hoped that I would be able to head towards Radipole and see the Hooded Merganser, As we approached the M5 near Exeter the traffic started to build and tuning in to the local radio soon revealed that an accident on the M5 had closed one lane of the motorway and that the traffic build had caused mass congestion, I mulled over the root and thought about taking the A30 and then the A35 towards Dorchester and then down to Radipole, as we crawled along the M5 my diversion plans soon ended as the next traffic report informed us of major congestion on the A30 after an accident. Unfortunately there was no time for the stop at Radipole and we continued on to the M4 and headed homewards. A fantastic week with some truly fantastic birds which culminated with me seeing two lifers in Cirl Bunting and Snowy Owl.

Added To My Year List.
222. Cirl Bunting (Prawle Point, Devon)*
223. Snowy Owl (Zennor, Cornwall)*
224. Eider (Prawle Point, Devon)
225. Purple Sandpiper (Prawle Point, Devon)
226. Merlin (South Pool, Devon)

Added To My Life List

309. Cirl Bunting
310. Snowy Owl

1 comment:

Eva Dolores said...

You are making great progress!