Thursday 24 September 2020

A One Eyed Warbler! 22nd August 2020


A Melodious Warbler had been found at Dawlish Warren in Devon in midweek and had performed well for a succession of admirers until Friday. We had only seen one Melodious Warbler before, at Lands End in Cornwall, and that sighting was way back in 2008, well before I ever carried a camera as part of my birding kit. I did take a photo of that bird with a rudimentary compact camera but the results were utterly useless. I also remember that we stared at a clump of sallows for nearly five hours before the Melodious Warbler gave itself up! Going by tweets that had emerged the bird at Dawlish was generally a little bit easier to see. We had never actually been birding at Dawlish Warren and had missed its most famous bird, the Long-billed Murrelet found in November 2006, because we had taken a late autumn holiday to Scotland. We weren't really into twitching in those days anyway.

On Friday a photo was posted on Twitter that appeared to show that the Melodious Warbler had a damaged left eye, which would explain why it was staying loyal to Dawlish Warren. Considering that it was still very much peak holiday season and that Dawlish is a very popular destination, we decided that an early start was required on the Saturday morning so that we could get down there before the holidaymakers hit the beaches. We left home by five-thirty on nice empty roads. The M4 was almost devoid of traffic although the M5 was a little busier. We pulled into a service station for a coffee pick-me-up and were startled by the amount of folk already there! I guess most drivers have the same idea at the same time. It wouldn't be too much later in the day, promising to be a lovely sunny one, before the motorways and service stations became very busy indeed, our friend Jim travelled down a few hours after us and had to endure a very slow crawl southwards. As it was we made good progress and were parked up by eight o'clock. After wasting ten minutes battling to retrieve my parking ticket from an extremely reticent machine, we took the path that I knew, I do my homework, would lead to the favoured area where the Melodious Warbler should be. Five minutes later we joined the handful of other twitchers who were lined up watching a particular Hawthorn bush on the boundary of the golf course. I recognised Steph who had very kindly found the Laughing Gull in the roost at Chew Valley Lake back in March for us and everyone else present. She was pointing at the bush and it took me less than five-seconds to locate the Melodious Warbler which was perched preening on a sunlit branch. I do like an easy twitch but this was just too easy and called for none of my rudimentary skills, which could be counted as a blessing. A quick look and a quick record shot, which was blurry, so another few shots. Thankfully in the five minutes that I messed around the settings on my camera the Warbler barely moved.

Melodious Warbler, good side.

Melodious Warbler, not so good side.

One photo did indeed show that the Melodious Warblers left eye was damaged, in fact it was pretty much gone and was rendered completely useless. The Warbler suddenly sprung into action and was on the move, its lack of binocular vision didn't appear to hamper it as it moved deftly through the thorny branches, and it became difficult to track and follow. The bird had moved through the Hawthorn from left to right so all views were of the not so pretty left side, which may explain why it was happily feeding just metres away from us since it couldn't see us!

The Melodious Warbler dropped out of the Hawthorn and into a patch of tangled brambles. That would be that for a while I thought but instead, to our collective surprise, it then appeared right at the top of the nearest clump of brambles! Getting a good view was tricky because the brambles and bracken was taller than I am but I managed to find a gap to peek through. The Melodious Warbler was actively feeding and I watched it secure a Shield Bug of some sort. The insect was quickly dispatched and the Warbler at last gave us a good view of its best side.

We now had really clear views of the Warbler but it was once again showing us that damaged eye side, which really didn't look good at all. I couldn't envisage any rosy future for this bird at all since any predator approaching from its left would snare it for sure. But it had survived for a few days at Dawlish already so hopefully it would for a while longer, at least until Jim made it to site, which wouldn't be soon since the traffic on the M5 had ground to a halt. The Warbler returned to the Hawthorn again and gave us amazing views as it searched for food in the upper branches. 

With no warning and with no obvious stimulus the Melodious Warbler took flight from the Hawthorn and flew fifty metres into a heavy stand of trees back along the path. We had watched the bird for maybe twenty minutes in all but the views had been terrific and I now have some photographs of the species. It seemed pointless hanging around waiting for the bird to return so after a chat with a couple of Dawlish Warren regulars we set off for a wander around the reserve. There were other birds that we wanted to see during the day, both here and elsewhere. We walked into an open area of sand slack and were almost gobsmacked at the amount of birds that were around. In our local area there is a paucity of birds these days but here they were everywhere. Flocks of Goldfinches and Greenfinches adorned bushes and thistles. Stonechats popped up on grass stalks in every direction and both Green and Great Spotted Woodpeckers were seen. There were Linnets and Meadow Pipits feeding on the open grassy areas but we were looking for something more special. 

male Greenfinch

juvenile Stonechat

I had noticed a couple of tweets recently from other birders trips to Dawlish Warren that had mentioned Cirl Buntings. Normally we see Cirl Buntings either on our way to our holiday in Cornwall in October or on our way home afterwards. We habitually go to Labrador Bay for the fix and will probably still go there again this year but the chance of adding the species to our year list on this visit was appealing. We didn't have to wait long when first a juvenile Cirl Bunting flew onto a prominent perch at the top of a bush and was quickly followed by a male which even sang quietly for a while. Views were distant but the species was duly added to the year list making it 207 for the year so far.

juvenile Cirl Bunting

male Cirl Bunting

I wanted to have a look at the sea so we climbed the small dune barrier, passed through a gate, and made our way to the edge of the low cliff. It was high tide so there was only a narrow strip of pristine sand left between the wooden groynes. A few holidaymakers were setting up for a days sunbathing and I could see many more further along the beach towards the main hub of the Warren. A small flock of wading birds flew past below us and settled on the sand. I managed to grab a few shots as the flock flew past. The group of maybe fifty birds was composed of mainly Dunlin but also contained a couple of Sanderling.


Sanderling & Dunlin

The birds had landed a short way along the beach and were now feeding just metres away from the sunbathers and their children and even a dog. Despite the proximity of potential disturbance and danger they didn't seem at all perturbed, the need to feed must have been strong. To be fair the folk on the beach paid no attention to the birds at all, they probably didn't even notice them. We walked along the top of the dunes to get closer to the birds and I took a few more photos. 

There was a steep sandy path down the bank onto the beach so we half walked and half slid down to sea level. Now we were only metres from the darting, and daring, wader flock. I settled down with my back to a fence post while Mrs Caley made herself comfortable on a ready made seat on a groyne. Typically, apart from a single Dunlin, the flock scarpered away further up the beach as soon as we sat down. A Turnstone must have felt sorry for me though since it flew in and landed close and then set about exploring small piles of washed up seaweed. A Ringed Plover also ran past but, by the time I'd lifted the camera, it had flown off to join the rest of the birds. A young Pied Wagtail stood preening in the marram grass covered bank. In the warm morning sunshine, sitting on the beach watching the birds was absolute bliss and I allowed myself to dream of an idyllic future whereby we'd be able to spend time sitting on a sandy beach watching wading birds like this every day. Farmoor doesn't quite cut it in the same way somehow.


juvenile Pied Wagtail


Getting down at the same level as the birds proved to be a worthwhile exercise as did sitting still. We adopt similar tactics at Farmoor back in Oxfordshire where, by sitting on the embankment walls, wading birds will approach you and stay focussed on feeding along the shoreline rather than become nervous and run the other way. Here on the beach the birds saw us as no threat and fed readily along the edge of the water and at times were actually running between Mrs Caley and myself, sometimes just feet away and too close for my camera to focus! It allowed me to take some very pleasing low angle shots of some of the birds. The sandy base to the images made for a pleasant change to the concrete of Farmoor as well.

One of the Sanderling was feeding at the vanguard of the flock and was very adventurous, running right up to the small pool created by the groyne where we sat. Nobody can ever not like a busy Sanderling with their clockwork toy style action. Specially adapted for fast forward movement by lacking hind toes the Sanderling hurtle along in their pursuit of the tiniest insects, crustaceans and other invertebrates that make up their diet. This particular Sanderling had already begun its moult into winter plumage and would soon be a plain grey and white bird compared to the stunning rich reddish-brown spangled bird of just a few weeks before. Sanderlings undertake massive migration journeys travelling almost from one end of the planet to the other twice a year to and from their breeding grounds in the high Arctic. Whatever plumage state that they are in, they are still frenetic little birds and that energetic gait will always be enough to identify them by.


We spent a thoroughly enjoyable hour or so in the close company of the Dunlin and Sanderling. For a lot of that time I was singing "National Shite Day" by Half Man Half Biscuit in my head because of its Sanderling reference, even though this was far from being a bad day. In fact it was turning into a very good day. We had so far seen everything that we wanted to, and had a couple of nice bonus birds too. I think if I had access to a place like Dawlish Warren every day then I'd need a new camera every month since I'd regularly wear them out! I have included only a small fraction of the photos that I took in just a few hours in this blog.

We walked back to the Melodious Warbler bushes, pausing to photograph a very beautiful Dunnock perched atop a blackberry sprig. Jim had finally made it but the Melodious was nowhere to be seen. We had a brief chat, shared our sightings with him and where he should expect the Warbler to pop up, and then made our way back to the car.  Thankfully, some three hours later, the Melodious Warbler put in another appearance and Jim had his tick.


We had a plan to twitch another bird, which like the Melodious Warbler we had only seen once before, near Bridgwater and wanted to get there before the M5 became too busy which it undoubtedly would do with Saturday being a changeover day. Incidentally HMHB's eighth studio album is titled "Trouble over Bridgwater", which is a pun on the famous song by Simon and Garfunkel which unfortunately was reverberating around my tiny mind as we negotiated the unfamiliar road network and sending me just a little bit more mad.

We found the reservoir at Durleigh, a couple of miles outside Bridgwater, parked in the lay-by and located the gateway from which we were to view the site from and then played it incredibly cool by spending fifteen minutes eating our packed lunch in the sanctuary of the car. There were no other birders on site so we'd have to find the bird we had come to see ourselves. I began scanning the far bank, some enterprising birder had used a GPS app to find out that, from the gate, we were one hundred and thirty metres away from the reed and tree covered bank so the scope was an absolute necessity. Fifteen minutes later, the only birds I had seen were a few Gulls, some Great Crested Grebes and a Grey Heron. There was no sign whatsoever of the target bird. I looked again at Twitter to check that I was in the right place, since those old self-doubts were resurfacing once again, as they always do when you can't find the bird that you're looking for. A new tweet announced that the object bird, a juvenile Purple Heron, had still been present, in exactly the area that I was scrutinising, just five minutes before we arrived, so we must have missed the previous birder and the bird by minutes. I returned to my survey of the far bank but still drew a blank. The tweet had also mentioned that the bird was very difficult to see "if you didn't know exactly where it was" so I looked even harder. The result was the same, nothing. Then, as often happens, just as we were considering chucking it in, another sweep along the bank and I saw it! Just the head but it was definitely the Purple Heron. I trained the scope on the bird and moved aside for Mrs Caley to see it. "Where is it?" she said. Almost unbelievably the Purple Heron had disappeared in the time that it took for us to swap places! I took the scope again and almost immediately the Purple Heron flew up a few feet and landed on a waterside willow tree and disappeared from sight yet again. So I had seen it twice and my wife had yet to see it at all. Unless we both see the bird then it wouldn't really count and Mrs Caley would go home a little bit disappointed, as would I because sharing the bird with my constant partner is important.

Luckily a few minutes later the Purple Heron obliged by flying out of the willows and then even more obligingly took a fairly lengthy flight across the reservoir before landing in trees to our left. As Mrs Caley called the flight pattern while watching through the scope, I began firing off a volley of shots with my camera. I knew that the results wouldn't be great because of the distance but it was only the second of its kind that I'd seen so it was worth taking the photos. The first Purple Heron that we saw, also a juvenile, on Otmoor was just as far away, if not further. Hopefully one day we'll get a closer view.

juvenile Purple Heron

When the Purple Heron had settled into the trees again it proved once more just how hard it can be to see. It rather ungainly moved around the wispy branches for a while, its position could be monitored by noting the movement of the trees but then just disappeared in the darkness behind the foremost trees. 

We didn't see the Purple Heron again for the extra half hour that we stayed, but were entertained by two Great Egrets that were flying around and a Little Egret. The trees it seemed were growing on an island and all of the Herons were obviously using the heavily vegetated banks to conceal themselves from their fish dinners. I was reminded of a similar tactic being adopted by a Black Crowned Night Heron that I saw in Cheltenham last year.

Great Egret

Great Egret & Little Egret

We drove home very satisfied with our days birding and weren't even bothered by the increased volume of traffic that made for slow going past Bristol. We'd seen two birds for only the second time, I'd gotten photos of each, added another year tick and spent a wonderful hour in the company of some fantastic wading birds. If only every day could be like it!