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 and fortuitously, 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 just 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 prematurely 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 aren't actually that hard to see in the early breeding season when they'll 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 have shut up and literally the only sound to be heard in the gloaming is 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

19th October

The turbulent but extremely mild conditions introduced by yesterday's weather front resulted in spells of rain before dawn and towards evening but, the strength of the wind aside, it wasn't too bad a day for getting amongst some more sea passage and a hatful of winter arrivals of Ferrybridge; sadly, the migrant situation remained firmly on the bleak side. Gulls again dominated at sea, with a sample 90 minute total of 700 Black-headed Gulls through off the Bill adequately reflecting their continuing unprecedented passage; plenty of other small gulls were sucked in, along with two Arctic Skuas and singles of Great Northern Diver, Balearic Shearwater and Great Skua. Ferrybridge was positively rammed, with the huge numbers of Dark-bellied Brents and Mediterranean Gulls joined by amongst others the Black Brant, at least three Pale-bellied Brents, four Bar-tailed Godwits, two Sandwich Terns and a Sanderling. The continuing Siskin  displacement included flocks of 65 at Verne Common and 21 at Pennsylvania Castle, whilst other odds and ends in the migrant line included singles of Merlin, Black Redstart and Firecrest at the Bill and a late Hobby at Verne Common.

There's no denying that the arrival of the wintering brents afford a real spectacle at Ferrybridge, all the more so when there are a thousand Mediterranean Gulls mingling amongst them; of course the presence in their midst of the odd Black Brant and Pale-bellied Brent doesn't do any harm either © Ralph Todd:




The Black-headed Gull passage continued apace © Andy Swash WILDGuides.co.uk

18th October

Although it remained very mild there was a profound upheaval today as the progress of a weather front saw wind and rain set in and, towards evening, thick fog cloak the island. A few hours of fieldwork were possible before the rain arrived but the rewards on the land were low-key: what's presumably one of the returning Black Brants showed up for the first time at Ferrybridge but migrant numbers showed no great improvement, with two each of Merlin and Brambling, and singles of Golden Plover, Snipe and Firecrest as good as it got at the Bill. The sea was considerably more productive, with 13 Arctic Skuas, six Great Skuas, two Pomarine Skuas and a Manx Shearwater through off the Bill along with a constant procession of gulls that included, at times, Kittiwakes at 400 per hour and Black-headed Gulls at 100 per hour.

One of the day's Merlins © Andy Swash WILDGuides.co.uk


We have absolutely no clue as to what's going with Black-headed Gulls just at the moment, save to say that the numbers being logged at the Bill - where there have been many hundreds passing on some days in the last fortnight - are unprecedented in modern memory, if not ever © Martin Cade:


17th October

Just like the acceptance that more than 100 folk a day dying of Covid is somehow normal, so it seems to be being accepted that the presence of a few Short-eared Owls and odd mini-scarcity make for a good day's birding at Portland in mid-October - they really don't and it should be miles better than this! In more of what can only be described as ridiculous weather for the time of year - in the blazing sun, shorts and tee-shirts were the order of the day within a couple of hours of dawn - a lot of common migrants that ought to be featuring everywhere were all but absent: barely more than single figures of Blackcap and Chiffchaff made it onto the day-sheet and was there really not a single 'crest anywhere on the island? The first Jay out of what sounds to be a significant influx elsewhere was a nice sight at Ladymead, whilst three Little Egrets, two Short-eared Owls and at least one Dartford Warbler entertained at the Bill where off-passage flocks of finches provided the best of the grounded migrants. It was far busier overhead where not far short of a thousand Starlings arrived from the south and two Merlins were amongst a typically varied seasonable array leaving in the other direction. Offshore, the continuing influx of gulls and other seabirds provided such a quick-fire post-dawn movement past the Bill that the counters were barely able to keep up: more than 1000 each of Kittiwake and Razorbill were excellent totals for October, with the likes of three Balearic Shearwaters, two Arctic Skuas, a Great Skua and a Yellow-legged Gull all nice additions to the tally. 

A Vagrant Emperor dragonfly was at Suckthumb Quarry during the morning.

A concerning sight in recent days has been the number of grounded Siskins looking as though they're really struggling, with no apparent reason as to why this should be. Portland isn't some sort of godforsaken Northern Isle where sights like this are commonplace and a fair proportion of the hapless passerine migrants that make landfall probably end of dying - rather, Siskin's a common enough migrant here and even in influx years when their usual food source has failed we simply don't see behaviour like this; indeed, the vast majority are so seemingly fit and healthy as to be active visible migrants that don't even bother to pitch in © Martin Cade:

16th October

In continuing benign conditions migrants were in far shorter supply than might be hoped in mid-October, although the sea provided unexpected interest with large numbers of gulls offshore. A strong movement of smaller gulls off the Bill included a Sabine's Gull amongst 600 Kittiwakes, 200 Black-headed Gulls, 180 Mediterranean Gulls and 120 Common Gulls, with singles of Red-throated Diver, Balearic Shearwater, Great Skua and Arctic Skua providing some more conventional interest there. It was hard work on the land with many usually productive patches of cover seemingly devoid of even common fare such as Chiffchaffs; 4 Short-eared Owls and singles of Black Redstart, Siberian Chiffchaff and Dartford Warbler were of note at the Bill, with further single Black Redstarts at both Reap Lane and Blacknor, a Ring Ouzel at Church Ope Cove and a Lesser Whitethroat (presumably on date alone most likely an 'eastern' bird of some sort) at Wakeham. It was only marginally busier overhead, where a Woodlark over the Bill and a Short-eared Owl over Ferrybridge were the best of the bunch.

Orthoptera interest came in the form of what's believed to be the first documented record of an Oak Bush-cricket for the island, even if the fact that it was found inside the Obs perhaps suggests the possibility of it being an unintended introduction (perhaps amongst the belongings of one of our guests?).

15th October

Summer lingered on for another day although not before more cloud in the sky at dawn had offered some promise on the migrant front; sadly, this proved to be a false dawn and, with a few exceptions, migrant numbers were their lowest of the week. The Siberian Chiffchaff tally at the Obs increased to two and 4 Short-eared Owls, a Marsh Harrier, a Jack Snipe and a Dartford Warbler at the Bill, a Firecrest at Tilleycombe and a Black Redstart at Blacknor provided additional scarcity interest, but beyond a total of 40 Stonechats at the Bill there was precious little worth a comment on the ground; just into three figure totals of arriving Starlings and departing Wood Pigeons were of note overhead. Enormous numbers of large gulls - estimated at 7-8000 - were ashore on Chesil gorging on whitebait washed ashore, with more than 200 Kittiwakes and 100 Mediterranean Gulls lingering off the Bill perhaps also associated with this event; singles of Balearic Shearwater and Great Skua also passed by off the Bill.

A Vagrant Emperor dragonfly was seen in the Obs garden briefly during the afternoon.

We've mentioned this before but this autumn has thus far provided more evidence that the population(s) of Firecrests that we get passing through Portland have never fully recovered from the extraordinary events of October 2017 when, for whatever reason, there was a profound disruption of their usual migration pattern that led to unprecedented numbers pitching up at Portland (indeed today's the anniversary of 150 being logged at the Bill in that year). Today's Tilleycombe bird was only the third logged on the island so far this autumn © Joe Stockwell:



Although we didn't realise it at the time the Siberian Chiffchaff trapped at the Obs during the morning was a new arrival...



...later in the day the usually rather super-elusive lingerer appeared in its usual haunts and was revealed to be unringed © Martin Cade (photos and video) and Joe Stockwell (sound recording):



14th October

The continuing summer-like conditions were great for getting out birding (...it's not often that we get so many moans from visitors in mid-October that they're flagging in their endeavours through being over-dressed) but far from ideal for dropping migrants - fortunately there were a couple of new scarcities to save the day. A Red-breasted Flycatcher that turned up unannounced in a mist-net at the Obs was the second for the year but the first this season, whilst less of a surprise was the second Dartford Warbler of recent days; the lingering although always elusive Siberian Chiffchaff at the Obs completed the face-saving trio. It really was just too fine for commoner migrants: the nocmig recorder logged a steady trickle of Redwings overnight (at just over one/minute overall although there was a distinct peak either side of midnight and passage dwindled away later in the night) and the evidence from the ground was that the majority of other nocturnal migrants must have carried on without stopping. It was busier with diurnal migrants overhead, including the first signs of arriving Starlings along with a steady procession of departing pigeons, Skylarks, finches and Reed Buntings. Finally, three Short-eared Owls were again at the Bill towards dusk.

Red-breasted Flycatcher, Dartford Warbler and Siberian Chiffchaff © Joe Stockwell: