31st October

Wildly windy conditions that peaked around dawn did nothing for the quality of the birding, with what coverage there was revealing precious little new on land or sea. Hope of storm-driven strays on the sea were perhaps a pipe dream given the position of the culprit weather system that had no great reach out into the Atlantic; as a result, 4 Balearic Shearwaters and a steady procession of Gannets and Kittiwakes were all that could be mustered by the seawatchers. Shelter was at a premium on the land so the total of 7 Firecrests shared between the Obs garden and Pennsylvania Castle was a respectable return; the odd ones and twos of Bramblings, singles of Merlin, Short-eared OwlWheatear and Black Redstart and the lingering Treecreeper also featured on the day tally, along with a handful of Wood Pigeons and Siskins attempting to move overhead.

 Today's Wheatear at the Bill © Debby Saunders:

And a Barn Owl from yesterday at Southwell © Pete Saunders:

The sort of damage that winds gusting up to 87mph does: tiles lifted and broken, and a long chunk of fascia and drainpipe ripped from the Cottage - not helpful!

30th October

Although hardly conventional vismig conditions - it remained buffetingly windy after a weather front cleared through after dawn and the sky was still full of threatening cloud - a decent passage developed over the Bill that included 8550 Wood Pigeons, 750 Goldfinches, 600 Starlings, 410 Linnets, 350 Chaffinches, 180 Siskins, 150 Meadow Pipits, 75 Skylarks, 75 alba wagtails and 25 Bramblings, with 3 Woodlarks and singles of Merlin and Hawfinch providing some bonus quality; a Snow Bunting also passed over at Easton. On the ground, the Hen Harrier lingered on but numbers bore no relation to was what was happening overhead: a Treecreeper at Pennsylvania Castle was a nice local highlight, but 3 Firecrests, a Black Redstart and a late Common Redstart were all that could be mustered by way of quality amongst the paltry spread of commoner fare around the centre and south of the island. Some concerted watching of the sea for two hours at the Bill returned totals of 1173 Gannets and 652 Mediterranean Gulls along with a  single Balearic Shearwater

A late-ish Sandwich Tern at Ferrybridge © Debby Saunders:

The discovery of this Treecreeper at Pennsylvania Castle caused a mini flap because the initial image posted indicated it had noticeably dirty rear flanks - a fact quickly confirmed by those who rolled up to see it. Sadly, thoughts of something more interesting fizzled out once its seemingly rather short bill and long hind-claw were visible...

 ...and scrutiny of the wing-pattern doesn't seem to show up anything amiss for a Common Treecreeper: amongst other even more subtle features, there's a noticeable step in the pale wing-bar between primaries 6 and 7, primary 4 has a decent-sized spot at the distal end of the wing-bar and the spacing of the tips of the longest primaries look to be conspicuously uneven. Of course, the call would have been a welcome complete clincher but it wasn't heard to utter a sound © Martin Cade:

29th October

Another day that ticked over with a thin spread of newcomers amongst the lingerers. The Bill Hen Harrier and the Ferrybridge Black Brant were the pick of the long-stayers, whilst amongst the arrivals a strong passage of more than 150 Rock Pipits at the Bill was of particular note. There were clearly a few more migrants about than in recent days, with at least 34 Siskins, 10 Bramblings, 5 Redwings, 4 Black Redstart, a Merlin and a Snipe at the Bill, 9 Redwings at Old Hill and 2 Firecrests at Pennsylvania Castle. The sea was also a tad busier than of late, with 9 Balearic Shearwaters, 2 Brent Geese and an Arctic Skua through off the Bill along with an upsurge in Gannets that included 750 through in 30 minutes at the peak of the movement.

We rather hope that the forthcoming winter's interest ups a notch from the likes of Black Brant (...after 15 years of winter presence they're not really that big a deal any more), Hen Harrier (...they really wouldn't be a big deal if the Neanderthals up North didn't shoot or poison most of them) or Short-eared Owls (...goodness knows what'd be found if all the man-hours wasted on photographing them for no good reason other than likes on social media were spent on some meaningful birding) but for the time being the former two provided some interest today © Debby Saunders (Black Brant) & Pete Saunders (Hen Harrier):

And finally, just to flesh out yesterday's inconsequential little observation on the similarity of one of the calls of Common Rosefinch to the 'typical' call of Chiffchaff, today a Chiffchaff happened to burst into a bout of calling right in front of us and invite a comparison recording (the recording posted below is of two Chiffchaff calls followed by two Common Rosefinch calls). The sonogram clearly shows there are subtle differences but to our ears - and certainly at any distance - these calls really are amazingly alike. This is all probably perfectly well known already but it's just some silly little thing that we'd never really taken on board before now:

28th October

Very little new to report today but the rediscovery of the Common Rosefinch beside the Obs and the continuing presence at the Bill of the likes of the Hen Harrier, 2 Merlins, 2 Black Redstarts, a Short-eared Owl and a Firecrest (2 more were also at Church Ope Cove), along with a Balearic Shearwater through on the sea, at least offered the chance of a reasonable day's birding for visitors. After they'd been on the move in pretty good numbers overnight a few Redwings were grounded at dawn but there was little else of consequence on the deck. Overhead, some small flocks of Wood Pigeons and a selection of finches at least looked at the possibility of leaving although it looked like most didn't chance it; a lone Little Egret also passed over at the Bill.

In recent times autumn rosefinches at Portland have been mist-net specials that turn up unannounced in nets and rarely show after release; it's taken several days since it was trapped last weekend for it to be chanced upon again but today's bird was showing really well at times © Debby Saunders (still) & Martin Cade (video):

Our experience of autumn rosefinches is that they're invariably pretty silent, only just occasionally delivering a nasal, somewhat Greenfinch-like call. Today's bird was most unusual in calling an awful lot and this call was so Chiffchaff-like that for a time we'd assumed that what we were hearing was a nearby but unseen Chiffchaff. Our recordings of this call (they're edited together in this sequence - in life they were given 10-30 seconds apart) were made at very close range with a parabolic that maybe accentuates a slight twanginess that wasn't apparent to the unaided ear:

The Hen Harrier's made it into its second week in residence © Pete Saunders:

27th October

So little's changing at the moment that a cut and paste of yesterday's report could very well suffice for today. The dreary, blustery Atlantic influence that's seen routine passage reduce to a trickle remained firmly in charge and the best on offer were the lingering Hen Harrier and 3 each of Merlin, Black Redstart, Firecrest and Brambling on the land/overhead and singles of Balearic Shearwater and Arctic Skua through on the sea. The numbers - save perhaps for the steady passage of Kittiwakes offshore - were sufficiently inconsequential as to not merit dwelling on. Tomorrow's another day!

Since it's been a pretty duff birding day we've finally been able to make a bit of time to look out some photos of the White's Thrush that was found dead in Weymouth on 12th October - even though it's a near miss from the Portland point of view it's well worth documenting for posterity. Credit has to go to Lawrence Dagnall for being inquisitive enough about the bird in the first place: Lawrence was engaged in some property maintenance in Roundhayes Close - a wholly unexceptional street in suburban Weymouth -... 

...when he discovered a freshly dead large thrush laying next to the house he was working on (later examination showed it to have a broken neck so it'd presumably flown into a window or wall); being so large and obviously golden-spangled he assumed it must be a young Mistle Thrush. 

Several days elapsed before Lawrence happened to call in at the Obs and mention this unexpected find; our curiosity piqued, we asked if he had any photographs of the bird and these quickly revealed its true identity. Remarkably, the corpse had remained in situ for four days and Lawrence offered to pop back to Weymouth and pick it up for us. 

With a wing length of 165mm it seems likely to be a female (Svensson gives lengths of 169-176 for males and 164-173 for females), whilst age-wise the pointed, pale-tipped tail feathers and apparent moult-contrasts in the upper wing-coverts (longer and differently patterned inner greater covert, and differently patterned inner median coverts) indicate it's a bird of the year

Closer examination of the tail reveals the curiosity that it's got 14 tail feathers - White's Thrush is unique amongst Western Palearctic passerines in having 14 feathers (Cetti's Warbler has only 10 and the rest have 12; evidently some of the other races/species in the White's/Scaly Thrush group also have only 12 tail feathers).

Whilst this was the saddest of ends for such a fabulous vagrant there was still something very exciting about seeing it and appreciating the awesomeness of it having strayed to such an unlikely place in Dorset (it's the first county record) rather than to a vagrant-hotspot offshore island. Maybe it was also that we felt we had some sort of vested interest having once been sufficiently gripped by the idea of seeing White's Thrush in the breeding season that we travelled to The Urals to fulfil that ambition - and it'd turned out to be just as compelling an experience as we'd imagined! 

Ending your days so ignominiously in a Weymouth back garden seems like a bit of a raw deal when you've been born in this sort of countryside...

For such a usually furtive species they weren't actually that hard to see in the early breeding season when they'd quite readily perch atop high trees to sing:

However, for full value they needed to be heard in the dead of night when all the Arctic Warblers, Bluetails and the like had shut up and literally the only sound to be heard in the gloaming was the mournful, ethereal whistles of White's Thrushes singing in competition with one other - utterly gripping! © Lawrence Dagnall & Martin Cade:

26th October

Samey mild, blustery conditions continued and the birding remained at a samey level, with little better on show than the lingering Hen Harrier that entertained from time to time, a Lapland Bunting overhead at Wakeham, a Balearic Shearwater through off the Bill and ones and twos of Merlin, Black Redstart and Firecrest knocking about on the land. A small flurry of overhead passage included 100-300 totals of Wood Pigeon, Goldfinch and Linnet, a handful of Redwings and 4 Bramblings, whilst on the ground it was only really the mist-nets that drew attention to there being, for example, a few new Robins, Song Thrushes and Blackcaps.

There used to be a time when rarer immigrant moths were the preserve of coastal headlands like Portland - when we recorded our first two Maize Moths Spoladea recurvalis on consecutive nights in 1995 there had been fewer than ten British records - but times have changed to the extent that this was our 13th records, the British total stands at more than 250 and they even turn up in all sorts of Noddy inland locations - climate change has got a lot to answer for, not least the devaluing of a lot of these former goodies!...

...A fair proportion of moth undersides are drab, anonymous affairs that don't attract attention but a good few of the rarer pyralids look as great from underneath as they do on top; it's of course no more than an anecdotal observation but we'd venture to suggest that a disproportionate number of these rarities in our moth-traps are first seen from underneath as they're scuttling about on the underside of the perspex lid of the trap (today's recurvalis certainly was) - maybe they have more of a migratory urge and are less inclined to settle quietly deep inside the trap? © Martin Cade:

25th October

Lovely mild albeit a little too breezy conditions were the order of the day and did little for the quality of the birding, with migrant numbers remaining well below what might be hoped. The lingering Hen Harrier at the Bill was the choicest of the highlights, with 6 Firecrests (4 at Church Ope Cove and 2 at the Obs), 2 Merlins and a Black Redstart providing further interest. A presence of a few bands of showery rain out in the Channel perhaps put off many prospective diurnal migrants, although 360 Wood Pigeons, 225 Goldfinches, 55 Jackdaws and 27 Siskins did chance their arm and go for it. Nocturnal arrivals were few in number and low in quality, with no particular surprises amongst what odds and ends were discovered. Sea interest concerned just the rump of the recent gull influx, amongst which 300 Mediterranean Gulls would usually constitute a really good total were it not for the excesses of recent days.

For such a big, conspicuous bird frequenting a relatively small area the Hen Harrier can be remarkably unobtrusive, mainly through spending ages settled out of view; we're presuming this is because it's finding plenty of food so there isn't much reason for it to spend long on the wing © Martin Cade:

Up-island Great Spotted Woodpeckers do at least have a greater choice of trees than those that visit the Bill but even then you get a odd dozy one like this bird at Southwell that decided a TV aerial was an appropriate perch © Dan Law:

24th October

A very low-key day of poor coverage and, after a fair start, a deterioration into unhelpfully wet conditions. The early brightness saw a limited array of seasonable fare logged on the ground but little on the move overhead and only the continuing gatherings of Mediterranean Gulls offshore. A Hobby was a late surprise at the Bill, with 2 each of Black Redstart, Firecrest and Brambling providing further morsels of interest around the centre and south of the island. A lone Great Skua tagged along with a steady passage of Kittiwakes that developed after the afternoon rain had cleared.

23rd October

A few hours of relative calm under a heavily overcast sky afforded some prospect of tapping into new arrivals after dawn, with the trapping of the third Common Rosefinch of the autumn (like the other two, this was again at the Obs) the principal reward. A fly-over Snow Bunting at the Bill was a first for the season, whilst further scarcity interest there came in the form of the reappearance of one of yesterday's Caspian Gulls, the lingering Hen Harrier, 3 Black Redstarts, 2 Short-eared Owls, at least 1 Merlin and a Firecrest. There were extra common migrants about but they were hardly a spectacle to behold: with so much cloud cover overhead passage was largely a non-event, but the first multiple arrival of Goldcrests (...where are they all?) was noteworthy on the ground. The day's spectacle was undoubtedly the extraordinary numbers of Mediterranean Gulls lingering offshore, with the logged minimum of 2000 looking at times to be very conservative.

This autumn's Common Rosefinches haven't exactly been co-operative and although today's bird did remain visible for a while after release it wasn't exactly showy © Martin Cade:

We happened to have the nocmig recorder still running when the Snow Bunting flew over:

22nd October

A day with plenty going on although it was all overhead or offshore - the land remained firmly in the doldrums with new arrivals on the ground few and far between. A strong movement of Wood Pigeons was already underway as dawn broke and set the scene for the day's migration happenings that were all skyward: the pigeon total eventually reached a respectable 12,500, with the varied vismig tally also including 650 Goldfinches, 200 Meadow Pipits, 200 Jackdaws, 130 Starlings, 125 Chaffinches, 60 Siskins, 11 Bramblings and 3 Merlins. The offshore happenings were less about movement and more about voracious feeding: the gatherings of gulls along East Cliffs and off the Bill that have been such a feature just lately continued and included both Black-headed Gulls and Mediterranean Gulls in their hundreds; these in turn attracted 2 Caspian Gulls and a Yellow-legged Gull, while 13 Balearic Shearwaters, a Red-throated Diver and a Great Skua passed by or lingered for periods. The Hen Harrier, at least 2 Short-eared Owls and the Black Redstart lingered at the Bill but, even allowing for the dreary sky and strength of the pretty chilly wind that made for uncomfortable birding, the bushes and other cover on the ground looked to be genuinely bereft of new arrivals. Finally, the Black Brant (or hybrid, depending on how minutely you wish to dissect its features) was again at Ferrybridge.

Wood Pigeons: mundane they might be in everyday life, but seeing the dawn sky full of them on active migration is enough of a spectacle to up their value quite considerably © Martin Cade:

For a good part of the morning it was hard to know whether to concentrate on the sky or the sea for they both had so many competing attractions, with the latter chipping in with the likes of Gannets diving at point blank range and Balearic Shearwaters lurking on the periphery of the feeding flocks © Martin Cade:

It was the gulls the provided all the numbers offshore. Although we'd been secretly hoping for something like a Bonaparte's Gull amongst all the Black-headed Gulls, this Caspian Gull was a nice compensation © Martin Cade...

...however, when we nipped down to have another look at it when it was found again late in the day we struggled to reconcile some of the plumage details with what we'd seen during the morning - a closer look at the photos after the event shows the reason for this is that they're two different individuals! © Joe Stockwell:

21st October


A reminder that there's an InFocus field day at the Obs between 10am and 4pm this Sunday, 24th October.

A most turbulent of nights saw a few hours of gale force winds and torrential rain introduce much cooler air that in turn prompted of pulse of departing migrants to develop once clear skies returned after dawn. Variety was to the fore, with 400 Wood Pigeons, 250 Goldfinches, 175 each of Linnet and Siskin, 150 alba wagtails, 100 Chaffinches, 23 Bramblings, 21 Greenfinches, 2 Merlins and a Woodlark among the movers over the Bill; later, 2 Glossy Ibis snuck through over Thumb Lane but escaped attention elsewhere. In terms of numbers, the returns from the ground fell far short of those from overhead, with Blackcap the only reasonably well-represented arrival (there were surely several hundred about the island in total but this species is so difficult to census here in autumn!); quality came in the form of a Hen Harrier at the Bill and a Jay at Fortuneswell, as well as totals of 3 Short-eared Owls, 3 Firecrests, 2 Ring Ouzels, a Black Redstart, a Dartford Warbler and the first Fieldfare of the autumn dotted about the centre and south of the island. Gulls continued to dominate offshore, with at least 750 Kittiwakes and 500 Mediterranean Gulls amongst the mix off the Bill where a lone Balearic Shearwater also passed by; the lingering Common Tern was also still at Ferrybridge.

20th October

Freaky weather always opens up the possibilities for freaky bird arrivals and Pallid Swift had been spoken of more than once during the ongoing extreme mildness; when visitors dropped in at the Obs with news of a 'noticeably brown' swift passing by along the Grove cliffs it seemed like the predictions had come to fruition; however, subsequent searches for it drew a blank so it'll likely prove to be one of those that got away. With the mildness accompanied by plenty of wind the sea got a lot of attention, with 4 Great Skuas, 2 Gadwall and a Little Gull the pick of the returns from Chesil Cove and singles of Balearic Shearwater and Pomarine Skua the best off the Bill; also of note was a late Common Tern that dropped in at Ferrybridge. The land had its moments, albeit not many of them: the Black Brant paid another visit to Ferrybridge, the late Hobby lingered on at Verne Common and 50 Siskins and singles of Merlin, Black Redstart and Firecrest were logged at the Bill.

The Hobby would have given some great views at Verne Common but was always a long way off from our viewpoint at Fancy's Farm © Martin Cade:

Spending some time on the viewpoint at Fancy's Farm reminded us yet again of how fantastic the habitat looks on this part of the undercliff and how absurd it is that there's no public access to this whole area: it all falls within the estate of Portland Port who evidently deem that providing public access would be some sort of security risk - we're not quite sure to whom, but what's abundantly clear is that providing access would open up for scrutiny the extent to which the insidious creep of industrial development is eking into the greenery that overran this area once its previous custodians - the Royal Navy - departed in 1999 © Martin Cade:

Heavy rain and cloud cleared by1100hrs and ringing with restricted netting at Portland Bird Observatory produced 8 birds before closure and a new heavy storm from 1800hrs. Only 2nd Firecrest ringed this autumn with 3 Siskin,Blcap and 1 new juv. male Sparrowhawk. pic.twitter.com/m41JmJc3zQ