There have been some amazing birds found over the years in peoples gardens during the RSPB sponsored "Big Garden Birdwatch" weekend in January. One year somebody in Bedfordshire found an Ovenbird (no, not a Chicken but a Pipit like Thrush from North America) in their back garden. Others have found Hawfinches, Hoopoe's and Turaco's (escapee) and even a Puffin. For our part we once found a Coal Tit in our own garden. We were giddy for weeks afterwards. Anyway, this years big story centred around another rare North American bird when a Northern Mockingbird was discovered feeding in a Holly tree in the back garden of a house in Exmouth, Devon. There had only been two previous records of Mockingbirds in the UK and the last was back in 1988 so this was a bird that most if not all Twitchers and Listers would want to see, Myself and Mrs Caley included. However the whole country was in its third Lockdown owing to the Pandemic and non-essential travel was discouraged, in fact it was illegal. So for most birders the Mockingbird was strictly off limits unless you were lucky enough to live locally to Exmouth. Not that any of that prevented many of the major twitchers from travelling to see the bird, including a few that I know. Some of them even fell foul of the law and ended up paying an extra two hundred quid for their troubles. Mrs Caley and I did not travel. For responsible people it was out of the question.
When the Mockingbird remained in Exmouth throughout February and into March, the possibility of it staying for long enough raised the chance that we'd be able to go and see it once the Lockdown was lifted. The date for the easing of restrictions was the 29th of March when travel would be allowed again providing no overnight stays were taken. As I mentioned in my previous blogpost, I should have been working but fate conspired so that I'd have most of the week off. On the Tuesday we'd dipped out on seeing the Rustic Bunting at Thursley which had fled as soon as it heard that the Caley's were on route. The next day I had a bit to do but that evening, with the rest of the week free, we made plans to drive to Devon and see the Mockingbird for ourselves.
The Mockingbird had been reported as being present most days by just after seven in the morning so we'd have its presence confirmed before we got halfway there. Naturally, just to stretch my nerves even more tautly than they usually are, the message of it still being there was late in coming on the Thursday and we were only around thirty miles away when we finally had those nerves settled. I was well aware of it being April Fools' Day too so wasn't taken anything for granted. We parked in the street directly opposite the row of back gardens where the Mockingbird was usually seen. It was well known by now that viewing the bird was problematic to say the least. The favoured garden was protected by an eight foot high fence and it couldn't be seen from the alleyway that passed behind the garden unless you were either made of gigantic proportions or were a window cleaner or such like and just happened to have a step-ladder with you. Many people had become window cleaners for the day and had taken small ladders with them so that they could peer over the fence. Otherwise more distant views could be had by looking across the road and over slightly lower fencing. There were just four other birders looking for the bird when we arrived and we joined them on the wide pavement next to the busy main road. The bird was not showing but we were pointed towards the Holly tree, right next to the fourth closest house, where it would most likely be seen when it appeared again. We crossed the road and set up our scope and trained it on the Holly. I still had to stand on tip-toes for a decent view and I'd taken a small hop-up so that Mrs Caley could see better too. We had heard a few stories about some rather unpleasant and unhelpful locals who had become a trifle annoyed with the birders visiting to see the Mockingbird so were more than a bit taken aback when a chap came out of his own back garden and invited us to stand on his driveway from where there was a much better view of the Holly tree. Just a few moments later one of the other birders also stood on the drive announced that the Mockingbird was in the Holly again. A momentary panic in trying to find the bird and we had the latest addition to our life lists. It had taken less than ten minutes to see the bird.
The Mockingbird remained almost motionless and peered around its adopted home. Maybe it was counting the attendance, "Mmm, a few this morning then, my popularity must be waning". It resembled a miniature Shrike without the fierce looking bill or maybe a really plain and washed out Barred Warbler. Our initial view was of the front and the underparts of the bird which presented a rather sombre pale buff and grey bird. The long tail was evident and the merest hint of a white wing bar could be seen. The black bill, quite long and slender, was set into a pale grey head into which was set striking and piercing black eyes.
Happy with those initial views and record shots I nevertheless wanted some better photos so left Mrs Caley on the driveway while I walked down the alleyway where there were another four birders. To my great fortune, one of them was an actual Window Cleaner, and he had a ladder with him! Breathing excitedly in my face mask (don't go there) I politely asked if I could have the next stint on the ladder to grab a few images. The kind fellow immediately gave up the ladder to me, telling me that the Mockingbird had moved into a Palm tree. It took me a few seconds to even find the Palm and it wasn't straightforward hanging onto a ladder while trying to stabilise the camera enough but after yet another slight panic I did find the Mockingbird. It was at the back of the tree and obscured by the berries that it was feasting upon.
Fortunately the Mockingbird adjusted its position slightly, meaning that I didn't have to dangle perilously off to one side of the ladder. To be fair I was only four rungs and therefore around three feet off the ground so I wouldn't have fallen far. I took a few more frames of the once again stationary bird, then vacated my spot, thanked the chap for the loan of the perch and returned to Mrs Caley who was having some cracking views through the scope.
I went back to the alleyway after I noticed three of the four birders in the alleyway leaving and the kind man with the ladder allowed me another look at the Mockingbird which was now perched in the top of a twiggy tree and once again was just staring around. My view now placed the bird against a backdrop of the house chimney and brickwork which in the photos almost resembled autumn foliage (something that was pointed out to me by a Twitter Troll later who reckoned I'd nicked the image from somewhere else and that it must have been taken in New England in the Fall even though the Mockingbird was perched in a newly budding tree!). I stayed this time for less than a minute despite being told to "Fill my boots, there's no rush". Like a lot of other birders, staring into somebody else's garden is not my preferred method of birdwatching, so I was determined to keep our stay to a minimum. I do think some people do misunderstand the birders aims, after all we are there for the bird and not to peer into folks lives or bedrooms. High zoom optics don't allow for wide-angle views anyway and they are trained purely on the bird. My single-mindedness of seeing the bird meant that I didn't notice any salient points of the house or garden or anybody in them except for the trees that the Mockingbird perched in and the chimney.
I collected Mrs Caley and my scope just in time. Another, far less charming resident had emerged from his own back garden and ordered us in a very direct and impolite manner to get off his drive! I tried to explain to him that we had been invited onto the shared driveway by his neighbour but he became even more animated and directed his anger towards the neighbours garage door instead. Reminding him calmly not to touch my scope again and to tone his language down a shade or two, we hurriedly left, the volley of abuse following us as we crossed the road. I've never been able to fathom how some people can become so stressed at such an early hour in the day, it was still only half past nine, but I guess that particular chap had become fed up of the intrusions. It was disappointing though to become the target of such obnoxious behaviour since we hadn't overstepped any marks and had merely taken advantage of another persons generosity. But I guess it does make you realise just how difficult it must be to be a celebrity or royalty and have to put up with Paparazzi every single day. We had been in Exmouth for barely half an hour and were very glad to be leaving so quickly. We had other plans now we were in the area anyway.
The area of Devon on the opposite side of the Exe Estuary is a stronghold of Cirl Buntings. We usually drop into Labrador Bay, a small RSPB reserve set high on the cliffs, between Standen and Torquay, on our way to Cornwall in October for our Cirl Bunting fix and we've rarely seen them in the spring so this trip would give us an ideal opportunity to do just that. Labrador Bay is probably about five miles from Exmouth as a Cirl Bunting or Mockingbird flies but required a twenty-five mile drive around the estuary to get to. There is a small council run carpark and as my luck would have it the parking attendant was in attendance so I had to part with eighty of my good pence to park for a couple of hours. I hate paying to park. We could hear a Cirl Bunting singing as soon as we left the carpark, choosing to walk around the designated pathway that takes you through some of the thick hedges that the Buntings depend on for nesting. Similar to the set-up at Thursley Common where we dipped on the Rustic Bunting on Tuesday but did at least get a couple of Little Buntings, the Cirl Buntings here are given supplementary food throughout the year and a thriving population has been established. On one visit a few years ago we counted at least seventy feeding in an adjacent stubble field. It only took me a few minutes to find a fine male Cirl in the hedge by a gateway.
A little further on, where the path begins to dip down a very steep path towards the sea, we heard a Cirl Bunting in full song, which is like a mixture of those of the closely related Yellowhammer and Corn Bunting. The Cirl Bunting was perched in the top of one of the tall trees and the singing of its song appears to take a fair bit of effort and is delivered with much gusto since the bird tosses its head back in order to generate as much volume as possible.
Another birder (togger really) wandered along and said that he could hear the Cirl Bunting singing but couldn't see it. I directed him to where the bird was perched at the top of the tree and was met with an incredulous, "That's a Linnet (you idiot)". People like that chap raise my ire very quickly so I snapped back (too much stress in my life lately which I need to get a grip on), "Linnets don't sing Cirl Bunting style though, do they!" Eventually he found the Cirl Bunting which was on a branch about three feet away from the Linnet and then proceeded to set up his tripod and camera right in front of us and thus rudely ignoring any Covid protocols. We left him to it and went for a stroll part way down the field but not going too far because that would entail returning back up that aforementioned steep slope!
Our unwelcome friend had gone, thankfully, so we looked along the field edges again but there was no further sign of any of the Cirl Buntings that we'd found before although plenty of Linnets remained. We had got our year tick, the 135th of a tricky 2021, so were happy enough to move on. As we walked slowly between the hedges I heard another Cirl Bunting singing. I swung around and spotted the bird right at the top of a bramble patch close to the tree where the one had been before.
This looked to be an opportunity too good to pass up so we walked steadily back, through the gate and back into the field. As we neared the bramble the Cirl Bunting remained still but watched us warily. My method in these cases involves walking towards the bird a few paces, taking a few photos, then take a few more steps and a few more shots and so on. Usually the bird will either dive for cover or fly off before you can get anywhere near it but on this occasion the Cirl Bunting just stood there and incredibly allowed me to approach within twenty feet which was close enough to obtain virtually full frame images. Easily the best photographs of such a beautiful species that I've ever managed to take. After taking a few more, I walked backwards and left the bird in peace. It remained perched on the bramble and was still there as we walked back along the hedgerow path towards the car.
We had another close encounter with another male Cirl Bunting just yards away from the car. Interestingly we had only seen one female bird during our visit, possibly denoting that they were already involved in incubating eggs and hatching out more of these lovely birds. Credit is due to the RSPB, other nature conservation groups, and local farmers, for doing such good work in helping the Cirl Buntings to thrive.
After paying homage to our boat that was parked out in the bay, sadly we're not able to make full use of it during the pandemic and the skeleton staff of fifty are costing us a fortune, it was time to move on. At least I've been able to have the logo repainted on the front while it sits idle.
We pulled into a rough carpark in a heathland area high above Teignmouth thinking it would make a nice spot to take our sandwich lunch and maybe get lucky and see a few birds while there. As I reversed into a spot, I noticed a familiar face walking across the carpark. Our friend Colin had done exactly the same as us but had been a couple of hours ahead! He'd also stopped at the same place with exactly the same thoughts that it looked like a likely place to see some heathland birds. But as happens when we meet the next hour was spent discussing everything birds and birders and the only birds we saw were Stonechats and a Siskin. A Short-eared Owl was reported from the RSPB's Exminster Marshes which was back across the other side of the estuary and presumably found by a twitcher to the Mockingbird which was only a couple of miles away. I decided though that a Shortie flying around at midday would have been flushed and would soon go to ground again so chose not to return around the circuitous route and instead we hit the M5 and headed northwards towards home.
We had another bird that we wanted to see anyway which was conveniently about halfway home so we'd be able to take a break from the drive at the same time. The drive was undertaken with a fair bit of angst though since regular updates of the Short-eared Owl still flying around the marshes were being posted on Birdguides. It's fairly typical that I make the wrong decision when choosing where to go these days. Anyway I'm sure we'll get to see a Short-eared Owl somewhere this year eventually even if they have been very thin on the ground locally this winter and spring. Our diversion was to Barrow Gurney Reservoirs and to year tick the long staying Long-tailed Duck that we'd twitched on the way home after seeing a Melodious Warbler at Dawlish Warren last August. That time we'd parked in the main carpark and had an arduous walk, so it seemed at the time, up a ton of steps and then around two of the three tanks (as they are known) to see the Duck. While there I had noticed a small carpark for the use of Fisherfolk and Church Goers right next to the tank that the Long-tailed Duck frequents. So this time I pulled into that parking spot, whether legitimately or not, I didn't care, jumped out of the car, took a quick scan of the water and couldn't see the Duck at all. Undeterred I set the scope up and scanned again and found the handsome Long-tailed Duck, #136 for the year, right under the furthest bank. With no intention of walking anywhere to get closer views, I took a crappy record shot and left for home. We'd come back again the next time we travel to the south-west.