30th April

A certain feeling of falling at the last hurdle as today became the only day of the month that we failed to catch a Willow Warbler in the garden; in fact a single Chiffchaff was all we could muster in between the sudden and intense showers. This set the tone for the day with the poorest day list for over a month. The clear highlight for the day was a 'spooned' Pomarine Skua after the first big belt of rain had passed; the supporting cast included two summer plumage Great Northern Divers, three Arctic Skuas and two Bonxies. Passerine migrants were thin on the ground with just a handful of Whinchats, Wheatears and Whitethroats to brighten up an otherwise grey and very windy day.

The Purple Sandpipers by the Bill are starting to look really smart ©Pete Saunders:

With the intermittent showers, some of the Bonxies were coming in close enough to photograph ©Pete Saunders:

In the breaks in the weather, you could be fooled into thinking that it was a beautiful spring day, then 10 minutes later the wind would pick up once more and the lashing rain would follow ©Joe Stockwell:

29th April

Yesterday it was the land that required our undivided attention but today interest switched to the sea as a weather front moving up-Channel introduced windier conditions that in turn perked up passage from the pedestrian levels of recent days. Skuas included combined Chesil/Bill totals of 9 Greats, 6 Pomarine and 4 Arctics, whilst Manx Shearwaters - that have hitherto been under strength - staged their strongest movement to date with more than 700 through off the Bill. In increasingly blowy conditions spring staples like waders and terns were all but absent, but back-ups at the two watchpoints included c100 Common Scoter, 2 Red-throated Divers, 2 Black-throated Divers and a Great Northern Diver, along with a good Chesil record of 3 Puffins settled together. After yesterday's excesses the land was very much the poor relation: there were low numbers and poor variety everywhere, with visible passage in particular almost entirely lacking.

The writer of today's post is well known for having been a big fan of social distancing before it was ever trendy, but even he was astonished during his first 'proper' seawatch of the spring (…'scopes are so great these days that seawatching from the Obs is too easy and you get out of the habit of the real thing) to not see another soul during a two and a half hour watch at Pulpit Rock this afternoon - this lockdown business so improves the quality of your countryside experience when the general public aren't about to spoil it for you!

It was a decent enough watch with the skuas the stars of the show...

...whilst routine fare included plenty of the usual suspects © Martin Cade:

There was some productive social distancing to be had on Chesil as well © Joe Stockwell

28th April

A day that was frustrating and elating in equal measures: the band of heavy rain that trudged its way slowly across the south of England for most of the morning seemed like a bad omen; however, Portland is not the sort of place to write off, no matter how inclement the weather, and as the rain turned to drizzle late in the morning the first Wood Warbler of the day emerged from the Sycamores in the garden. Heading out from the Obs in the mist and damp, the first Spotted Flycatchers of the season at the Bill were feeding at the end of the drive, the Crown Field was alive with Whinchats, Redstarts and (quite amazingly) a minimum of three Hobbys. The fields above the East Cliffs were full of summer plumage Yellow Wagtails (including at least one flava) and a pair of Tree Pipits. Due to the reduction in man-power from Covid, the Alexanders along the roadsides have not yet been cut back and as such were teaming with Phylloscs, Whitethroats, Garden Warblers and the odd Sedge Warbler. Heading towards the edge of the Obs recording area, the 8 Kings Quarry was hiding the second Wood Warbler of the day and the Water Works Quarry was busy with Lesser Whitethroats as well as the usual fare. The low cloud also prompted some novel wader movements with three Greenshank heading north as well as three flocks of Ringed Plovers amounting to 41 birds, 17 Turnstone and 18 Dunlin as well as the usual Whimbrels, three Common Sandpipers and 12 Purple Sandpipers. Two further pulses of rain temporarily dampened spirits but both prompted renewed flurries of migrants that saw the rocks along the shore at the Bill tip littered with bedraggled Whitethroats and Willow Warblers well into the evening.

Elsewhere on the island, the third Wood Warbler of the day was at Southwell School; a Cuckoo was singing above Penn Castle Woods and a fourth Hobby was hunting above Old Hill. One intrepid cyclist headed to Ferrybridge and reported a similar phenomenon to what was being witnessed at the Bill, with waders and passerines aplenty dropping out of the leaden sky; totals of 159 Dunlin, 84 Ringed Plovers, 18 Whimbrel, 15 Sanderling, 9 Bar-tailed Godwits, 2 Redshank and a Knot, along with 28 Yellow Wagtails, 20 Wheatears and a Whinchat were logged there in quick time during the afternoon.

There was plenty to get amongst at the Bill... © Martin Cade:

...and at Ferrybridge © Joe Stockwell

We get the feel that Badgers are doing quite well on Portland at the moment - this is one of two that have been visiting a garden at Sweethill for the last few nights © Pete Saunders:

There's been an interesting little conundrum afoot in recent days at the north of the island. At the weekend Andy Luckhurst discovered what he considered might be a singing Iberian Chiffchaff at Old Hill; the bird's song was certainly arresting even if its appearance left something to be desired and there were immediate suspicions that calls heard didn't make the grade for a 'true' Iberian Chiffchaff. News was circulated privately to those likely to be able to walk or cycle to the site but later a visitor from Weymouth broadcast the news more widely after apparently confirming the identification.

To our eyes, the bird's appearance was far from compelling: when seen well, the plumage tones were relatively subdued and lacked strong greens and yellows where you'd liked to have seen them, the eye-ring was rather conspicuous and the legs looked to be very dark if not black - basically it looked a lot like very many Common Chiffchaffs we handle at the Obs and fell far short of the brightness of, for example, the 1999 Verne Common Iberian Chiffchaff. During the couple of hours we spent with the bird the song sounded remarkably invariable even if later listening to the recordings made and checking the sonograms actually revealed a fair bit of subtle variety in the song phrases; as an example, here are nine song phrases edited together from a 3 minute sequence when the bird's singing more of less constantly:

We have heard that at least one observer has reported hearing 'chiff-chaffs' amongst the song phrases but that wasn't the case during our observations. For us, the most damning feature seems to be the call: although it doesn't routinely call very often our recordings are consistent in capturing notes that are more or less identical to those of Common Chiffchaff and certainly wholly unlike the 'usual' seemingly diagnostic downwardly inflected call of Iberian Chiffchaff:

27th April

 As the old saying goes, a change is as good as a rest; with the wind doing an almost complete 180 switch there was a small influx of new migrants. The majority of the action seemed focused on the obs garden with the day ringing total reaching 49 of 11 different species (nine of which were warblers), including the first Grasshopper Warbler for the lockdown list. A Hobby in-off was seen catching and plucking an unwitting migrant mid-flight, despite visible migration being limited and very much reduced compared to recent days. The millpond-like sea was relatively quiet, although seven Red-throated Divers was the highest total for over 10 days. Elsewhere on the island, 2 Pied Flycatchers were at Old Hill, while Ferrybridge saw a small influx of waders including 10 Bar-tailed Godwits, 22 Whimbrels, 17 Turnstones and a passing Arctic Skua.

It's been a good year for Whimbrels on Portland © Pete Saunders:

26th April

With the weather unchanged, a strange monotony seems to have hit the island with the net rounds becoming predictable in both their numbers and species. A slow start to the morning on the land was compensated for by the days sea passage of just over 350 'Commic' Terns, 143 Manx Shearwaters, three Bonxies and an Arctic Skua. With the clear skies, it brought little surprise that migrants highlights were limited to fly-over birds including singles of Greenshank and Marsh Harrier past Blacknor, a Hobby over Easton and a handful of Swifts, Swallows and both House and Sand Martin up the West Cliffs. Grounded Migrants were scarce but two Redstarts, four Whinchats and a single Sedge Warbler were winkled out amongst the usual Wheatears, Pipits and Wagtails.

Reap Lane was the place to be this morning for grounded migrants with four Whinchats present, including this stunning (and unusually confiding) male ©Pete Saunders:

25th April

On a mainly overcast, cooler and breezier day both land and sea ticked over in terms of numbers, with both providing nuggets of interest that included an overflying Hawfinch at Easton, singles of Garganey and Velvet Scoter through offshore and another report from a member of the public of a Hoopoe seen briefly at north Portland. A good selection on the ground saw most of the later spring migrants represented, as well as tardy oddities such as singles of Goldcrest and Bullfinch at the Bill; in the overcast conditions it was quieter overhead but a lone Hobby through at Southwell was of note. Waders provided the bulk of the numbers on the sea, including 209 Bar-tailed Godwits through off Chesil; skuas were limited to just 3 each of Arctic and Great off Chesil and the Bill. 

24th April

A bit of a disappointing day after the steady passage of the last week. The highlight was the first signs of real Sedge Warbler movement with three singing in the Bill area and two at Reap Lane. The rest of the land was noticeably quiet with a quantifiable reduction in both Hirundines at Willow Warblers. The rest of the day's passerine totals comprised of singles of Reed Warbler, Redstart, Yellow Wagtail and a pair of Bullfinches. The sea was not as much of a write-off as the land and the skua passage slowly cranked into first gear with a single Pomarine, 10 Arctic and three Great Skuas.

Despite the slow visible passage, it was the first day of the year that the Whitethroats have been seriously claiming territories, the Sedge Warblers just seem to join in for fun... ©Erin Taylor (Sedge Warbler) ©Debby Saunders (Whitethroats):

23rd April

With exceedingly clear skies and a brisk north-easterly wind, much of the morning was spent trying to tap into passage as the birds went flying up the island at a rate of knots. An early morning Hoopoe in the East Cliffs quarries was lost almost as quickly as it was found, and a fly by Bee-eater (Portland's earliest ever by nearly a week, and just 5 days later than Dorset's earliest) also disappeared north. Wheatear passage was likely underestimated due to the speed of their movement through the island, but the Bill total reached 73. Little pockets of migrants included the second Spotted Flycatcher for the year at the Hump and a Pied Flycatcher within the commoner migrants at Reap Lane. The sea was lively once more with the surprise addition of Black Guillemot to the day list, along with four Arctic Skuas, five Bonxies and a Puffin as well as the usual fare.

With the majority of spring records being fly-overs, its always a treat to get a Yellow Wagtail on the deck - even when it is surrounded by dung! © Erin Taylor:

The majority of the Wheatears passing through now are strapping, ochre-breasted Greenland or Iceland breeders © Roy Norris

22nd April

Whilst lacking yesterday's star quality today didn't fair too badly with a Hoopoe showing up in private gardens at the Grove and enough of a spread of commoner migrants to at least maintain interest. Under a crystal-clear sky numbers on the ground were never going to be a feature but there was certainly movement afoot with hirundines (Sand Martins in particular were noticeably more numerous than they have been for a while), Wheatears and Willow Warblers passing through steadily during the morning; the likes of Yellow Wagtails, Redstarts and Whinchats were all logged in small numbers to provide a bit of quality. The wind remained a little too offshore for the sea, with 3 Red-throated Divers and singles of Great and Arctic Skuas the best of it off the Bill.

At least two local residents spotted the Hoopoe when it dropped in on house lawns at the Grove but, if it is the same individual that was at Tout Quarry a couple of days ago (and apparently also elsewhere at north Portland yesterday), it continues to elude the birders that go looking for it © Michelle Lindley:

Last evening we got sufficiently engrossed in the intricacies of Woodchat Shrike plumage variation that we ran out of time to edit and post a sound recording and a few video clips to accompany the photos: 

21st April

With aegean blue skies and a crisp north-easterly wind, the day started slowly with little evidence of much of an arrival of common migrants. However, the old adage relates that 'the rarity always travels alone' and so it proved with the mid-morning discovery of a Woodchat Shrike at the bottom of the Slopes. Other migrants were rather overshadowed by the occurrence of the shrike, but the first Tree Sparrow of the year headed north up the West Cliffs along with four Swifts and Swallows moving at c75 per hour, whilst the Bill's first Common Sandpiper of the year showed up on East Cliffs; singles of Short-eared Owl and Cuckoo were also seen coming in off the sea at the Bill and the same or another Cuckoo was later heard singing above Portland Castle.

The only non-avian news was the first Wall butterfly of the year on the wing at the Bill.

The Woodchat was a good performer and, by virtue of the fact that it was both singing and possessed old (juvenile feathers, so chocolate-brown instead of glossy black) secondaries and primary coverts, rather easily aged/sexed as a first-summer male © Martin Cade:

 ...and it was also a voracious predator: along with the customary bees and beetles it took this vole that it impaled and periodically revisited to feast upon! © Erin Taylor:

Keen-eyed observers will have noticed - as Grahame Walbridge very quickly pointed out in the field - that the bird had pretty extensive white primary patches and noticeable white bases to many of the tail feathers - features that brought to mind the possibility of the eastern form, niloticus. These features are further hinted at in some of the other photos of the bird that we've seen or been sent © Pete Saunders

Without examining the bird in the hand we're struggling to see the precise extent of white in these key areas but, having scrutinised lots of online images, we're getting the feel that a true niloticus ought to be showing in particular more white in the base of the central tail feathers than is visible here. In may be that this bird falls within the variation of 'standard' senator Woodchat but, bearing in mind the easterly winds that have been so prevalent lately, it's tempting to speculate whether it mightn't be a senator from further east (these, apparently, have a larger primary patch and more white in the tail base).

20th April

With only two of us manning the obs (both frequently either in the garden or in the field) it was inevitable that we would miss an important call at some point, that point was today when a report of a Black Kite heading north up the island was missed for over half an hour. The theme of the best birds being away from the obs continued with the first Hoopoe of the year at Tout Quarry. The rest of the day list remained rather tame, although the first Greenshank for the year was at Ferrybridge. At the obs, migration kept ticking over with low single figures of Redstart, Pied Flycatcher, Whitethroat and Garden Warbler with Willow Warblers once again making up the bulk.

19th April

Had it not been for yesterday's phenomenal outpouring of birds, today would have seemed like a vast improvement on recent form. A thin layer of cloud early on ameliorated rapidly leaving clear blue skies, and the chilling breeze that kicked the day off dropped to next to nothing by the afternoon. Despite the clear conditions, the ringing totals still reached just under 70, with the majority, once again, being made up of the trinity of Willow Warblers, Blackcaps and Chiffchaffs. A Spotted Flycatcher at Southwell was the first for the year, although far from the earliest on record (8th April 1982) it was still an unexpected early addition to the year list on top of a fly-by Woodlark over Reap Lane. The rest of the land-based sightings were relatively tame with a slack handful of Wheatears, Whinchats, Redstarts, Garden Warblers and a single Bullfinch in the garden. The sea was a tad on the quiet side but three species of Skua, including the third Pomarine Skua of the year.  

Not many gardens are treated to such brilliant views of Flycatchers...©Debby Saunders:                                                                                                                                                                                        


18th April

The gods haven't been kind just lately when it comes to bringing together the many variables required to drop quantities of migrants at Portland, but today everything gelled just perfectly and we finally  caught up on a lot of the action we've been missing in recent weeks. A belt of rain arriving from over the Channel cleared to the north early in the hours of darkness and left in its wake nice heavily overcast conditions that dropped birds both overnight and throughout the day. On the ground Willow Warblers dominated, with 350 at the Bill alone; Blackcaps numbered 100 there, whilst Whitethroats staged their first good arrival of the spring and totalled a good 50. Among an almost complete suite of other routine mid-April fare all-island totals of 20 Yellow Wagtails, 5 Pied Flycatchers, 3 Grasshopper Warblers, a Nightingale and a Ring Ouzel were of particular note. Overhead, hirundines featured strongly with Swallows likely topping 500; 2 Hobbys were the best of the rest. The sea got plenty of attention and a steady if unspectacular passage included 258 commic terns, 8 Great Skuas, 6 Red-throated Divers and 2 Arctic Skuas.

Pied Flycatcher, Garden Warbler and Whitethroat were among the migrants dropping in at Sweethill © Debby Saunders:

17th April

We had almost forgotten what rain felt like: the soil and paths have become baked and dried to within an inch of their lives over the past few weeks. This morning's hefty downpour was a stark return to reality but, arriving as it did from the same direction that our summer visitors would have been travelling, it likely left today's potential arrivals grounded on the other side of the Channel. A little pulse of visible passage once the rain eased was dominated by Meadow Pipits but also included a few Swifts, wagtails, hirundines and finches, and a lone Hobby; what little that did drop in on the ground included a Mistle Thrush at the Bill and singles of Black Redstart both there and at Blacknor. It was again the sea that came up with the day's numbers, with combined Bill and Chesil totals of 330 Bar-tailed Godwits and 216 Whimbrel, along with a customary selection of other waders, terns and singles of Great and Arctic Skua.

16th April

Thick cloud for part of the morning and a fortuitous shower resulted a much more speciose list than recent days. Perhaps the biggest spectacle of the day was the passage of 118 Whimbrel, 112 Bar-tailed Godwits and 158 Common Scoter through off the Bill; other sea-watching highlights there included 17 Little Gulls, 9 Arctic Skuas, 3 Great Skuas, 2 Velvet Scoter and the first Hobby of the spring arriving in off. Passage up the west cliffs was aided by the brief shower that saw the first Swift of the year, two Tree Pipits, three Yellow Wagtails, and a handful of Swallows and House Martins. Other land-based highlights included a fly-by Serin at the Obs (already the third for the island this year), a Short-eared Owl at Barleycrates Lane, a singing Grasshopper Warbler at Reap Lane and a Lesser Whitethroat in Penn's Weare. Fingers crossed that the forecast of rain lands some surprises at our door tomorrow.

Not that rare a sight for a Portland seawatch, but today's only Curlew was unusual in its willingness to not only make landfall but also give itself up for a photograph © Martin Cade:

15th April

Just as the Covid-19 lockdown will be indelibly fixed in memories for decades to come, so we always hark back to the traumatizingly migrant-less springs of the early 1990s as being so poor as to never be forgotten. Apart from the lack of birds, the one thing they had in common was the presence of anticyclonic conditions that doggedly refused to shift for weeks on end and resulted in constant clear skies and brisk northeasterlies. Sadly, history looks to be repeating itself this spring. Today's grounded migrant selection was certainly not numerous and was largely uninspiring bar a Little Ringed Plover at Ferrybridge and the lingering Hooded Crow at the Bill; it was also strangely quiet overhead for routine passage of the likes of hirundines and finches but 2 Marsh Harriers, a Hen Harrier and a Merlin did provide some welcome interest in the sky. The sea returned another Pomarine Skua through off the Bill as well as signs of wader passage gathering momentum, including combined Bill and Chesil totals of 59 Whimbrel, 57 Bar-tailed Godwits, 9 Grey Plover and 4 Sanderling. In the novelty stakes, one of the released White-tailed Eagles from the Isle of Wight introduction project made a fleeting visit to island airspace when it appeared over Portland Harbour during the afternoon. As a footnote to what might be construed as our depressing introduction to tonight's post (...we're only telling it how it is and we still enjoy every minute of it) we might remind readers that it was 1992, the poorest of all the those early 90s springs, that also produced the Lesser Short-toed Lark - every cloud has a silver lining!

Today was a lovely day to be out with a camera. Whimbrels and Sandwich Tern at Chesil © Joe Stockwell...

...the Hooded Crow at the Bill © Geoff Orton...

...Bar-tailed Godwits at Ferrybridge © Pete Saunders...

...and Orange-tip at Easton © Ken Dolbear:

And finally - and nothing to do with birds - thanks to Dave Foot for a lovely little video clip that he took post-dawn as he paused on Chesil a couple of days ago:

14th April

A very mixed day with sprinklings of magic in an otherwise very ordinary morning. Despite the dearth of birds in the garden (it took a herculean effort to reach the grand total of 8 birds trapped in the nets between 6:30am and 3pm) there were a couple of real spring highlights across the Bill. The first Cuckoo of the year was heard singing then seen being mobbed by a flock of angry Meadow Pipits, the second singing Grasshopper Warbler for the Bill was reeling away below the coastguards station and the Bill Quarry was harbouring three Chat species. Other minor highlights included the lingering Hooded Crow, eight Purple Sandpipers under the Pulpit Rock and an arrival of Bar-tailed Godwits at Ferrybridge with 31 in the afternoon, accompanied by four Knot.

There was a veritable Chat-fest happening in the Bill Quarry ©Erin Taylor:

13th April

With a strong offshore wind, it seemed unlikely that the morning's seawatch would be productive, but the freshening breeze finally lifted the thick layer of haze that has been coving the sea in recent days to reveal the first Pomarine Skua of the year. On the land, the Hooded Crow remained in the Crown Field (feasting on the freshly sown seeds with the rest of the crow flock) but the rest of the morning was spent scraping the barrel migrant-wise. Wheatears put in a reasonable show, but the stream of hirundines had largely dried up and only a single Yellow Wagtail was happened across in the Obs area.

Such has been the dearth of arrivals in recent days that the local Sparrowhawks must be finding times rather less bountiful than they're accustomed to during the spring migration season © Pete Saunders: