28th February

One of these days spring's going to come - unfortunately it wasn't today as February ended as uneventfully as it's progressed throughout. The day's only reports were of one of the Black Redstarts still at the Bill, the c30 Common Scoter still settled offshore and a single Red-throated Diver passing by; elsewhere, a Chiffchaff was at Weston.

27th February

Just a handful of winterers making up today's dismal return: 40 Common Scoter settled off the Bill and singles of Black Redstart and Chiffchaff still about on the land. 

26th February

Nothing of note today. There still looked to be a few extra Stonechats about but other than it was just regulation winterers on show including single Black Redstarts at the Bill and Southwell, a Cetti's Warbler at Verne Common and 5 Black-necked Grebes in Portland Harbour.

25th February

With the weather apparently firmly stuck in a samey, chilly vein for the foreseeable future the prospects aren't looking great and if today's pitiful selection is anything to go by there's going to be very little to report until it turns milder. The Stonechat tally at the Bill remained in double figures but the only other sighting of even minor interest was the continuing Knot at Ferrybridge.

24th February

A little bit of movement today saw a few extra thrushes and Stonechats logged at the Bill but numbers and variety remains very low. A Water Rail at the Obs was the first seen there this year but was just as likely a very furtive winterer than a newcomer; a Firecrest also showed up at Pennsylvania Castle for the first time in a while. A Red-throated Diver through off the Bill, singles of Black Redstart and Chiffchaff were also still about there, another Black Redstart at Church Ope Cove and 4 Black-necked Grebes still in Portland Harbour accounted for the rest of the day's interest.

A Hummingbird Hawkmoth was on the wing at Church Ope Cove.

Passerine passage remains very slow but Stonechats are continuing to trickle through with a couple of small concentrations at the Bill today taking their total there into double figures for the first time this spring © Martin Cade:

Of no interest to anyone away from the Bill, this Rook dropped onto the Obs bird table from time to time today - a similar visit by two birds last spring was the first time we'd ever seen a Rook on the bird table! © Martin Cade:

23rd February

A grey day and increasingly cool in a brisk northeasterly breeze. Odds and ends of interest included 5 Red-throated Divers and 3 Brent Geese through off the Bill, singles of Grey Heron, Purple Sandpiper and Chiffchaff on the land at the Bill, another or the same Grey Heron at the Grove and c2000 Mediterranean Gulls, 9 Curlews and a Knot at Ferrybridge.

Although never remotely numerous in these parts in the winter months, random single Knot do pop up quite often at Ferrybridge © Martin Cade:

22nd February

Overnight rain was a novelty after more than a month of mainly dry weather and it introduced a noticeably cooler but bright northwesterly airflow. A rash of newcomers - several of which were firsts for the year - saw 2 Canada Goose and a Teal pass through off the Bill, a Red Kite appear overhead at Easton and the Grove, and a Shoveler drop in at Ferrybridge but new passerines weren't in evidence at all. Five more Red-throated Divers passed through off the Bill, whilst winterers still on show included a Black Redstart and a Chiffchaff at the Bill and 400 Brent Geese at Ferrybridge.

Never a regular settled bird in our recording area, this Shoveler was an incongruous sight at the end of the day amongst the mergansers at Ferrybridge © Martin Cade:

21st February

A nice still, overcast day but minimal bird interest. Six Black-headed Gulls and 3 Red-throated Divers constituted the only obvious movers off the Bill, where there was no change on the land save for the apparent absence of the singing Cetti's Warbler that had taken an awfully long time to realise that there really weren't any of its kind within earshot. Seventy Brent Geese and the 4 Eider at Portland Harbour were the only reports from elsewhere.

20th February

Not the easiest day for looking with misty low cloud more or less throughout and occasional mizzle blowing in the breeze, but there were a few new Stonechats in evidence today which was very welcome. Otherwise there were just a few regulars about, including 2 Black Redstarts at the Bill and 9 Black-necked Grebes and an Eider in Portland Harbour.

What with war, contagion, Tory corruption and similar concerns it's not that we haven't had other things to dwell on over the last couple of years but one matter that had occasionally nagged was pondering on just what that Lesser Whitethroat in June 2019 was. As a reminder, this was part of the blog post for 4th June of that year:

How do you identify a Siberian Lesser Whitethroat in the spring/summer? We'd been immediately struck in the field by how brown-backed today's new arrival at the Obs had looked and made a bit of effort to cajole it into a net to get a better understanding of its features © Nick Hopper...

...it did indeed turn out to be appreciably sandy-brown on the upperparts and had what seemed to be a rather poorly defined mask. The tail possessed a peculiar mixture of old and new feathers that could be taken to suggest that the bird was a first-summer although we weren't completely convinced that the old feathers were actually juvenile © Martin Cade:

Anyway, back to the present and now we have an answer - thanks as ever to Professor Martin Collinson and his team at the University of Aberdeen who were clearing a backlog of older samples and recently got round to our dislodged feather from this bird - that it was a blythi Siberian Lesser Whitethroat. Martin informs us that this is only his lab's third genetically confirmed spring blythi - the other two were both from Bardsey Bird Observatory, the first in 2016 and the other just last year in May 2022. Here's another in-hand photo, together with a selection from the few times it afforded any sort of views in the field. It was singing pretty constantly but annoyingly/ineptly we can't at the moment lay our hands on the recordings that seem to have vanished into the bowels of one or other external hard-drive in our office © Martin Cade:

19th February

It was perhaps a tad too breezy anywhere that wasn't really sheltered to take full advantage of today's beautifully sunny weather but some random early spring oddities included the year's first Siskin overhead at the Obs and 2 Mute Swans that dallied about on the sea off West Cliffs before later flying over Portland Harbour; a likely Goshawk overhead at Easton would have been of a lot more interest but sadly it couldn't be completely clinched on the views it permitted. Other than that everything was entirely routine, with the likes of the Cetti's Warbler still singing at the Bill, one of the Black Redstarts still there and further singles at Easton and Chesil Cove, 3 Eider and 2 Black-necked Grebes still in Portland Harbour and 270 Dunlin still at Ferrybridge.

The first Peacock butterfly of the year was on the wing at Penn's Weare.

Today's weekend exploration took us back to Penn's Weare where the cliffs - a veritable poor man's Les Baux when viewed from right down on the shoreline - yet again didn't host a Wallcreeper, the impenetrable scrub didn't echo with the calls of a Dusky Warbler and the boulder beaches didn't have a grip-back wintering Pied Wheatear hopping about on them. This undercliff really does look so good but we always seem to be utterly unrewarded there! © Martin Cade:

18th February

A shocker: the only entries on the day-sheet were the Cetti's Warbler still singing at the Obs and the 40 or so Common Scoter still settled off the Bill.

17th February

In the face of uninspiring blustery westerlies and having plenty of other things to get on with interest in fieldwork dwindled and the only reports were of the 40 Common Scoter off the Bill, a Red-throated Diver through offshore and the Cetti's Warbler still singing at the Obs.

16th February

The morning wasn't quite a write-off but frequent poor visibility hindered seawatching and the stronger wind and sporadic drizzle spoilt attempts on the land. An unquantified trickle of up-Channel gull passage continued and 7 grounded Lesser Black-backed Gulls were also new. Regulars included 3 Red-throated Divers through and 40 Common Scoter lingering offshore and 7 Purple Sandpipers, one of the Black Redstarts and the Cetti's Warbler on the land.

A small party of Bottle-nosed Dolphins were lingering off the Bill during the afternoon.

After west-bound movements dominated all winter suddenly pretty well all the Red-throated Divers - and everything else for that matter - are heading east:

Stonechats are typically one of the first spring passerine arrivals at this time of year but thus far the majority if not all of those about look to be the local winterers that are still on station:

The present faintly promising immigration conditions don't look to be doing anything much on the moth front, with this Pearly Underwing at the Obs last night - the first record for the year - the only migrant trapped in recent nights © Martin Cade:

15th February

For the most part another lovely mild and sunny day although just as darkness fell some light rain showed up that evidently heralds the change to more unsettled conditions. Off the Bill small gulls were again moving concertedly, with 125 Mediterranean Gulls, 80 Kittiwakes, 57 Common Gulls and 3 Black-headed Gulls heading up-Channel through the morning; 5 Red-throated Divers - several already in summer-plumage - also passed through there. Two Rooks, singles of Redwing and Fieldfare and the first Greenfinch of the year were the only non-winterers on the land at the Bill, where 2 Black Redstarts, 2 Chiffchaffs and singles of Grey Heron and Cetti's Warbler were still present; elsewhere a Lapwing passed over at Blacknor.

14th February

A few snippets of minor interest today included a Fieldfare and the first Rook of the season at the Bill where a noticeable eastbound movement of small gulls offshore - 93 Kittiwakes, 43 Common Gulls, 32 Mediterranean Gulls and 7 Black-headed Gulls - was presumed to relate to early movers; 2 Red-throated Divers also passed by on the sea. Elsewhere, improved coverage saw wintering singles of Black Redstart at Freshwater Bay and Goldcrest at Avalanche Road reported for the first time in a while.

Today's balmy, windless and misty dawn at the Bill looked more like something out of April or May than February © Martin Cade:

13th February

Not for want of looking there was precious little to report today: the Common Scoter flock remained off the Bill, a lone Red-throated Diver passed by and singles of Black Redstart and Chiffchaff were still about on the land.

Pretty well whatever we'd have found today would have been trumped by Simon Craft's Ross's Gull in the most unlikely of spots on the watermeadows just outside Dorchester - we'd couldn't think of one that'd been seen inland in Britain before this. Anyway, our late afternoon dash up there was highly successful © Martin Cade

12th February

A few more scraps of movement today, with singles of Redwing and Fieldfare at the Bill and 27 Brent Geese, 6 Shelducks, 2 Red-breasted Mergansers and a Curlew through off Chesil. In increasingly breezy and at times even damp conditions what other coverage there was revealed just a few of the regulars.

There's far from any concerted momentum to the little snippets of passage logged so far but it's nice to see some birds like today's Fieldfare have been minded to get moving © Martin Cade:

Moth happenings have been very limited indeed, even in last night's calm and mild conditions, and what firsts for the year have been showing up aren't in any way early: last night's first Hebrew Character from the Grove moth-trap was a month later than last year's first emergence ©  Martin Cade:

11th February

A mini arrival of Redwings - a total of 9 trickled through at the Obs from dawn - didn't really qualify as a fall but at least gave us heart that spring passage really is getting underway. There was precious little else to give encouragement with an otherwise typically samey selection from the Bill including nothing better than the 40 Common Scoter offshore, 3 Red-throated Divers through and 2 Black Redstarts, 2 Chiffchaffs and the Cetti's Warbler on the land. The millpond calm waters of Portland Harbour were populated with 58 Red-breasted Mergansers, 13 Great Crested Grebes, 12 Black-necked Grebes and 4 Eider but seemingly no divers at all.

A party of 30 or so Common Dolphins lingered offshore around midday.

Today was staggeringly calm, to the extent that this evening the view across Portland Harbour resembled something akin to a Whistler Nocturne on steroids. The vista also begged the question as to whether all those lights are entirely necessary - there probably aren't many moths straying across from the mainland at this time of year but if there were the chances of any getting past this phalanx of illuminations and making it out to the Obs moth-traps must be slim indeed © Martin Cade:

10th February

Despite very bird-able conditions the returns continue to diminish by the day. A total of 74 Red-breasted Mergansers represented a winter peak at Portland Harbour where the 4 Eider were also still about. At the Bill 4 Red-throated Divers passed on the sea and singles of Black Redstart and Chiffchaff lingered on the land. 

9th February

 A very mundane selection at the Bill today that included nothing new: 5 Red-throated Divers through on the sea, 30 Common Scoter settled offshore and 5 Long-tailed Tits, 2 Black Redstarts and singles of Grey Heron, Cetti's Warbler and Chiffchaff on the land; elsewhere, 13 Great Crested and 11 Black-necked Grebes were in Portland Harbour.

8th February

Still plenty of temptation to get out in the continuing lovely weather but no evidence of any changes afoot. A nice selection of winterers in the Church Ope Cove area included the first sighting of 2 Firecrests for a while along with the regular Black Redstart. The 11 Long-tailed Tits reappeared again at the Obs with the otherwise samey selection from elsewhere around the Bill including 11 more passing Red-throated Divers and the regular 30 or so Common Scoter offshore and 7 Turnstones, 2 Purple Sandpipers and single Black Redstart on the land.

And now back a couple of weeks to a rather gruesome discovery that's led us on an interesting little voyage of discovery. On 23rd January Pete and Debby Saunders came across this dead diver on the shore of Portland Harbour and gave us a call to see if we'd be interested in having a closer look at it, particularly because although they'd initially taken it to be a Great Northern Diver on close looks it seemed to have a quite pale bill with a marked gonys angle © Debby Saunders...

The paleness of the bill was perhaps an artefact created by the strong sunlight and the dark background as on close inspection it was actually steely-blue, as it should be on a Great Northern Diver. The bill shape was indeed striking but the features we thought were the ones to check both backed up an ID as Great Northern Diver: the culmen was dark (should be pale on a White-billed Diver)...

...and the primary shafts were dark (should be pale on a White-billed Diver)

These flight-shots - Great Northern on the left, White-billed on the right - show the real-world difference in primary shaft colouration (we hope Marlin Harms and Markus Varesvuo won't mind us lifting these portions of their photos off the web for our education)

Having got that far with our poking around at the bird we thought we may as well go the whole hog and check out what other in-hand differences there are. The best source of information relating to these seems to be David Burn and John Mather's 1974 clarification of the British status of White-billed Diver in BB from which we took the liberty of copying this diagram:
Our bird looked to have the extent of the feathering above the nostril - the maxillary feathering - spot on for Great Northern...

...but the extent of the gonys fusion - the groove on the underside of the bill - looked a lot more like it should be on a White-billed Diver; this puzzled us until we measured the distance from the end of the groove to the end of the lower mandible (32mm) and discovered that was bang in the middle of the range for Great Northern (25-36) and way outside the range for White-billed (42-58) - it seems the diagram in the BB article gives the impression the groove is longer than it is in reality.

The final feature to check out was the one that's perhaps the oddest of all: Great Northern has 20 tail feathers, whereas White-billed has only 18 - what's all that about and what's the evolutionary advantage to one having two more or two less feathers than the other? Weirdly, this turned out to be the trickiest feature to check. We're used to handling passerines in which the tail is a doddle to check (and besides, unless you were handling a White's Thrush or a Cetti's Warbler you wouldn't bother to count the number of feathers anyway), but there was a whole mass of vaguely similar length feathers at the back end of the diver and for a while we had difficulty working out which were tail feathers and which were various upper or under tail coverts. 

Eventually, the best approach turned out to be actually pulling out the individual feathers which not only revealed there were 20 (= Great Northern) but also showed it was actively moulting this tract - we nearly overlooked two of the feathers which were only just bursting out from their sheath; the longer, well-worn feathers are juvenile ones, whereas the darker feathers with white tips are the next generation, adult-plumage feathers © Martin Cade:

7th February

Another lovely day saw the first spring arrivals show up, with 3 Wood Pigeons watched coming in from the south at the Bill. It was otherwise all very routine with 13 Red-throated Divers and a Black-headed Gull through off the Bill and 2 Purple Sandpipers and singles of Snipe, Black Redstart and Cetti's Warbler logged on the land there. Elsewhere, a Black Redstart was at Easton, whilst another at the Verne Moat was in a spot where hitherto none had been reported this winter .

6th February

With high pressure well established today's glorious sunshine and waft of a breeze were inviting fieldwork conditions. Some movement was apparent, with 21 Red-throated and a Great Northern Diver through off the Bill and 3 Lapwings, 2 Mute Swans and a Grey Plover through at Portland Harbour; on the land a group of 11 Long-tailed Tits pitching up at the Obs included a few ringed birds so were presumably the group that last visited there a week ago. The Cetti's Warbler and Chiffchaff at the Obs, the Black Redstart at Chesil Cove and the Black-throated Diver in Portland Harbour were among the established winterers reported.

Although hugely numerous further up the Fleet Mute Swans are always infrequent visitors to our recording area © Pete Saunders:

With unfinished business there we took advantage of the quiet conditions to have another nip over for the Richard's Pipit at Chickerell at the end of the afternoon in the hope that it'd be calling as well as on our previous visit when we didn't have any recording gear with us. Although more or less ever-present in its seemingly now favourite field it was always at 'scope views' distance but did make one nice fly-round when it called quite a few times and later called sporadically when settled on a hedge; the initial calls on this recording are of it flying and the last three are of it settled - to our ear the settled calls are perhaps a teeny bit higher-pitched and so maybe a little bit more House Sparrow-like. 

We can't remember anything much about the vaguely Richard's Pipit-like calls that the Portland Blyth's Pipits in 1998 gave (most of the time they gave the much more distinctive chip or chup calls which, incidentally, the fabled 'Portland Pipit' in 1989 also did all the time!) but Stanislas Wroza's handy comparative sonogram with the captions Google Translated - Richard's on the left and the two Blyth's calls on the right - in Identifier les Oiseaux Migrateurs par le Son shows they're reasonably different to the typical Richard's call:

5th January

Altogether nicer birding conditions and one or two different sightings to show for the day's efforts. Fifteen Pintail and a Great Northern Diver through off the Bill were additions to the more customary 14 Red-throated Divers on the move, whilst a rare visit to an off the beaten track part of Easton produced 15 Redwings and a Chiffchaff. Routine fare included the Common Scoter flock still off the Bill, the single Black Redstarts still at the Bill, Blacknor and Chiswell, the Blackcap at the Grove and the 4 Eider still in Portland Harbour.

By virtue of it being such a nice day we went for a longer weekend ramble than usual and visited all manner of obscure spots that don't get looked at from one month to the next let alone one day to the next. Apart from dwelling on what might be discovered in these places at migration times if folk broke new ground instead of just trailing around from one already known scarcity to the next we were struck by how incredibly abundant Robins are these days - they seemed to be literally everywhere we went and, assuming they behave there in the same manner they do in the vicinity of the Obs garden where each one looks to hold a discrete little winter territory, by extrapolation the island population at this time of year must be way into the many hundreds. It'd also be interesting to know where they all come from: none that we looked at seemed at all oddly-plumaged that might indicate really distant origin; the evidence from ringed birds at the Obs garden suggests that not only is the local breeding population resident (...the adults, at least) but that in winter various 'outsiders' appear that stick around for the whole season - in fact we have plenty of evidence of individuals returning winter after winter but have never yet had a recovery of one of these birds from wherever it is that they breed © Martin Cade:

4th February

Dreary skies didn't enthuse today and coverage was pretty limited for a weekend day. There were no surprises on the land where a few of the established winterers did continue to entertain; offshore, another 17 Red-throated Divers passed through off the Bill and the 2 Slavonian Grebes made another of their seemingly quite infrequent visits to Portland Harbour. After dark, a Snipe calling overhead at the Obs was slightly unexpected.

3rd February

A Woodcock flushed from Penn's Weare wasn't quite a first for the year since the observer reported flushing what was presumably the same individual from the same spot three days ago. Otherwise it was a more of the same selection, with singles of Grey Heron, Black Redstart and Cetti's Warbler at the Bill, a Red-throated Diver through on the sea there, 5 Long-tailed Tits at Sweethill and 4 Eider amongst the waterfowl in Portland Harbour.

Also some Obs admin news: we seem to have a glitch with our email account that we've just discovered hasn't been sending replies for the last few days - apologies if you were expecting a reply to a message you've sent us this week but hopefully it'll come through just as soon as we sort the issue.

2nd February

Still firmly in the late winter doldrums with just a handful of reports from the Bill: 7 Red-throated Divers through offshore where 43 Common Scoter were still settled and c1000 Kittiwakes were amongst the feeding aggregation; onshore, the Cetti's Warbler and Chiffchaff were still at the Obs.

A local-ish bird that we were quite keen to see - well, actually we weren't bothered at all about seeing it, we really only wanted to hear it calling - was this Water Pipit that's been parading about at point-blank range at Bowleaze Cove in Weymouth this week...

Our take was that we really wanted to try and get to grips with what Water Pipits sounded like since we're guessing we must be missing/overlooking the odd ones that must surely turn up - or perhaps more likely fly over - at the Bill at migration times. Back in our junior days at Lodmoor, Water Pipit was a bird that we were totally familiar with - they were common winter visitors that we'd see and hear on a daily basis and we thought we were tuned in to how their calls differed subtly but noticeably from the calls of the Rock Pipits that were also surprisingly frequent visitors to the saltmarsh there. Once we'd moved to Portland we completely lost familiarity with them and, besides, it seems they've now become quite infrequent in Weymouth. We had a similar 'try to get to know Water Pipit again' session ten years ago when several showed up on some flooded fields beside Radipole Park Drive when we were able to get a few lame photos and some much better recordings of them:

As we alluded to earlier, in the past we can remember being confident we could tell Water and Rock calls apart but as that knowledge faded we also became aware that in fact many authorities considered them altogether more tricky - "generally indistinguishable" according to Per Alstrom in Pipits and Wagtails; however, latterly the differences have been elucidated by Thijs Fijen (PDF) Flight call identification of Rock Pipit and Water Pipit (researchgate.net) and the sonograms of our recordings from these encounters do at least bear this out, with Rock being that little bit higher pitched, noticeably rising and peaking towards the end of the call; in comparison, Water is not only lower but also more evenly pitched. Without daily familiarity we seriously doubt whether we'd be confident enough these days to claim a fly-over Water Pipit at the Bill so hopefully an encounter of that sort will be when the recorder's running and we'll have some tangible evidence to scrutinize after the event © Martin Cade:

1st February

Seemingly very little fieldwork around the island today and the only sightings were of the Cetti's Warbler and Chiffchaff at the Obs, single Black Redstarts at Church Ope Cove and Blacknor, and 4 Eider and 3 Common Scoter in Portland Harbour.