Lyme Bay Humpback - updated

Setting the scene
Western Lyme Bay including Start Bay and Tor Bay
Start Bay is the area between Start Point (bottom left) and the entrance of the Dart (middle). It is a smaller bay within Lyme Bay, which stretches from Start Point to Portland Bill (see natural area profile here).  There was a large concentration of shoaling fish in the area during February, in fact Mackerel (and some Anchovy) were being caught in large numbers even in the entrance of the Dart, very unusual in the winter. While Herring (Sprats and Anchovy) are more regular winter visitors, clearly all species were around in large numbers. The topography of Start Bay meant these fish were getting concentrated in large shoals close to the shore. The beach is of small pebbles and shelves quite steeply, while further out the skerries bank acts as a shallower barrier. On 22nd-23rd February the UK was hit by a big winters' storm 'Doris'. By 23rd the winds had gone round to a northwesterly. Perhaps 'Doris' had nothing do with what appeared in Start Bay around the same time and might have just have been a red herring (pardon the pun) of the food driven event that was about to happen.

One Humpback only!!
 On Thursday 23rd February two friends (Mike Langman and Perry Saunders, who know I'm particularly interested in seabirds and cetaceans), both phoned to say there was a whale off Slapton beach, presumed to be a Minke Whale. A whale close inshore was not to be missed so we set off straight away, arriving mid-afternoon. There was clearly a large food source close inshore with many Gannets and gulls feeding (probably in the hundreds spread-out in Start Bay). Underneath were many cetaceans, mostly Harbour Porpoises but further out we were also seeing Common Dolphins attracted to the food. All a great spectacle in itself.
The Start Bay Humpback Whale dive sequence 23rd February. The front of the animal appears with the blow, the back arches revealing the hump (with reduced dorsal fin) and then the tail flukes appear as the animal dives. As the water off  Slapton beach is relatively shallow, the flukes were only seen occasionally as many feeding dives were shallow.
 We met a few people telling us the 'Minke' was still there and we located the whale feeding southeast of the memorial car park. Expecting to see a 'Minke' I was very excited to see the whale was actually a large Humpback feeding on the shoaling fish. I quickly phoned a few people saying what it was, as this was in a different league. We watched the Humpback until dusk and hoped it and the food source would stay, so others would be able to witness this unique event.

Now it was interesting a probable 'Minke' had also been claimed on the 22nd, as well as a 'Minke' feeding close in on the 23rd February on local online 'Wildlife in Devon' news service. My own theory is it was the same animal all the time, a Humpback, but would love to be proved wrong. So if anyone has any photos of the 'Minke' please put them on Devon Birds News to prove me wrong. As there has been no evidence of a Minke, let's assume its the same animal from at least the 22nd February.

In later days there were also reports of two Humpbacks! Also a Humpback and a calf! Given the speed the animal was moving at times it was easy to think may be two, but all my photos and those of others show unique markings on either side of the animal consistent with one Humpback only. The reports of a calf, once again I believe this was confusion with Harbour Porpoises which at times were close to the Humpback. From what I've read given the time of year it would be exceptional for a mother and calf to be this far north; a few non-breeding Humpbacks do winter further north but most of the breeding animals are further south.

The right side of the Humpback showing characteristic marking. All photos of Humpback show the same animal not two and no calf!

A Herring and Mackerel - two casts worth!
The Humpback was feeding on the abundant fish which were attracting the feeding frenzy. It was covering quite a large area quickly, the shelving beach forming the perfect fish trap. At times it would appear just off the beach with the blow being quite audible. Watching a local angler on 23rd February confirmed what it was feeding on - he was catching Herring and Mackerel on every cast and described it as highly unusual to be catching Mackerel in such large numbers in winter.

The food source remained in the area and so did the Humpback making use of the glut of fish. I personally went down to watch the Humpback Whale on 23rd, 24th, 25th & 27th February; 3rd, 6th & 9-10th, 20th & 22nd March. On the 25th February it is was ranging over a large area going down to Blackpool Sands to nearly off Start Point, but at times was still coming in close to feed. I also noticed at times it would go further out and rest near the surface. I believe on the Sunday 26th it was mostly distant but did come closer to shore feeding late afternoon. On Monday the 27th February we went down again to see if the Humpback was still present. It had not been reported all morning and there were still no sign in the afternoon despite much feeding activity in Start Bay, with Gannets, gulls and many Harbour Porpoise still present. Then at 15:30 Adele picked up a blow in the deeper water at 80 degrees from the memorial car park, probably 2-3 miles offshore. I managed to pick up two more big blows in same area, consistent with Humpback, but saw no more despite scanning.

I believe this was the last sighting until 2nd March when seen feeding again off Strete Gate late afternoon close in. We went down again on 3rd March and picked it up by the blows, distantly north on the 'bell buoy' from Torcross around 11:00. It headed north towards Blackpool Sands / Dartmouth, being lost for long periods before picking up the blows again. In the afternoon it came in closer (viewed from the memorial car park), when seabird feeding activity increased and was there until early evening working its way south feeding. Same pattern 4th-5th March with best views towards evening (off Strete Gate 16:30).

We went down gain on the 6th March. The whale was difficult to see being picked up very distantly around 14:00, well to the northeast. It slowly worked it way in closer in north Start Bay, only getting in as far as Blackpool Sands direction in the failing light. A huge number of gulls and Gannets starting feeding in the north end of the bay during the late afternoon with several Harbour Porpoise. Obviously the food source is still there.

On the 7th March it was seen feeding between the memorial car park and Strete Gate from 15:15.

Talking to Stephen Marsh of  BDMLR on 7th March he was asking for good photos of the underside of the tail flukes. These markings act as a finger print. The best I could find were taken by Bob Telford (see last photo here) . Bob  kindly sent on some more copies which have been sent to the The North Atlantic Humpback Whale Catalogue (NAHWC) at the College of the Atlantic, Bar Harbour, Maine, USA. (http://www.coa.edu/allied-whale/research/) . There are some very distinctive marks on the left fluke, I was unable to find a match, but hopefully NAHWC will, or at least they've got a new animal for the catalogue. We'll post the results if there's a match.

On the 8th March it was seen feeding between memorial car park and Strete Gate 16:45.

I went down again on 9th March. I located the Humpback off Strete Gate late morning where no one seemed to be watching! The animal was feeding  mid-distance, but even better it did two full breaches coming right out of the water, showing the whitish pectoral flippers (fins) as it span. The first time I'd seen this behavior in all the days I've watched it. It was also doing more deep diving today (and tail slapping) with tail flukes appearing high out of the water more often than I'd seen on previous days. The Humpback then moved south in Start Bay getting close to memorial car park and appeared to feed off Torcross  / Beesands for some time, where the main seabird activity increased. It ended up coming back, very close past the memorial car park heading for Strete Gate. Due to calmness of the sea a series of 'footprints' could be seen just off the beach markings its progress. An amazing day's watching in more benign conditions and great to meet Henry Kirkwood (who's dad I used to seawatch with at Hartland Point). Excellent photos and a video of the dive sequence (actually showing the animal's head and blow), taken by Henry can be seen here.

On the 10th it was foggy clearing late afternoon. Had the briefest of views 15:19-16:00 from memorial car park, although later heard  it was off Strete Gate until dusk. Not so many birds feeding but still plenty of Harbour Porpoise in the bay.

Still present Start Bay on the 11th March.

On the 12th it was seen east off Berry Head up to 09:30, disappeared, then reappeared in Tor Bay during the afternoon to evening. Breaching more now and tail slapping - a change in behaviour! On the 13th March it was still off Berry Head from 07:05 then gave fantastic views to people up until 12:45, see photos here and videos here and here. Then headed off south 13:30 and was back in Start Bay 15:45-18:30.

Sightings then became less predictable with no confirmed sightings on 14th March, but on the 15th it was back in Start Bay 16:30-19:00 at least.

The Humpback makes it into its 4th week with sightings in north Start Bay late on 16th March in mouth of the Dart and off Blackpool Sands and a similar pattern from 17th-19th.

Just a distant blow seen mid morning on 20th March while we were seawatching at Start Point, was the only possible sighting reported. On the 21st March it was off Strete Gate 16:40 then  Slapton memorial car park from 17:12, then by off Torcross 18:40.

On the 22nd March we headed down again, as it was the Humpback’s one month anniversary of being in Lyme Bay (Start Bay). Sadly things took a turn for the worse when the animal was reported to be tangled in static pot gear (one of the ropes with pick up buoys) off Blackpool Sands, from around 12:00.  The fishing boat Maverick stayed with the whale (at distance) until help arrived from the British Divers Marinelife Rescue with the RNLI (Dartmouth inshore rib and later the Salcombe lifeboat), supported by the Coastguard on shore. Putting many rescuers on Maverick ferried out by the RNLI rib, they pulled the whale in close to the boat using the offending rope with buoys. After several attempts, at around 17:20 Chris Lowe (of BDLMR) managed to cut the rope wrapped around the whale and we watched it swim off fast. The inshore RNLI rib then monitored its progress, after two passes up and down (probably re-orientating itself after the ordeal) it headed south towards Slapton. Fantastic work by these two great charities, we're are so lucky to have their expertise to deal with these situations. A blow by blow account by BDMLR can be read here.

Humpback Whale off Blackpool Sands entangled in rope with BDMLR attending on Maverick with RNLI in support.
BDMLR cutting rope
 
RNLI monitoring Humpback Whale after freed.
Markings on the whale show its the same animal that has been around since 23rd [22nd] February and there is no calf, despite yet more claims on the 22nd March there was. Folk are getting mixed up with Harbour Porpoise, a Humpback calf is a big animal, much larger than a porpoise and would stay with its mother, this just wasn't happening! The whale has been around for a month now with no sign of a calf, so why should one turn up now? On calm days such as the 9th March, when the whale has been easy to watch all day (including using high powered telescope) we've seen no calf. Also the BBC started calling the animal 'she', I cannot see how it can be sexed. It is just as likely to be a 'he'. In fact its been called Doris, Horace and Engelbert! I'm sorry I started the name Doris, it was joke after the storm!!

There were no sightings on 23rd-25th March. With a run of northeasterly–easterly winds over the next two days, which will make Start Bay rough. It will be interesting to see if this breaks up the food source and the whale moves on.

Well the Humpback is still around, with sightings on 26th March from memorial car park and again on 27th March, when it was also seen breaching, showing its fit and well after it entanglement. Also seen distantly evenings on 29th–31st March.

On 1st April it was reported caught in static pot gear again around 17:30, at first I thought it was a bad April fool, but Pete Moore (FaB) confirmed it was correct! Freed by RNLI at 18:00 with images of the rescue appearing on their twitter feed. Getting caught up a second time in not good news and there is now more pot gear going out!

Not seen on the 2nd April but then distantly in morning on 3rd. Then mainly afternoons on 4th–7th - all Start Bay.
On the 8th April it (or a Humpback at least) was seen distantly breaching off Bolt Head at 11:10. Given the seasonal increase in static pot gear going out in north Start Bay it might be a blessing in disguise, if it moving off at last. There was a possible sighting late on in Start Bay on 9th April.

Confirmation the Humpback has moved on with sightings in Falmouth Bay on 11th April. The animal was beaching and the scars from the recent entanglements in Start Bay were visible on the base of  the tail.

Summary of events:
  • A perfectly healthy single Humpback Whale was/is feeding in Lyme Bay.
  • The whale was most likely present in Start Bay from 22nd–27th, at least 23rd–27th February, then re-sighted 2nd–11th March. It then visited Tor Bay 12th–13th March, but was back in Start Bay later on 13th and 15th–22nd, 26th–27th & 29th March, 1st & 3rd–7th April. Seen off Bolt Head on 8th April. It was then off Falmouth on 11th April.
  • On the 22nd March the whale became entangled in pot gear off Blackpool Sands, but was released by the BDMLR with the RNLI. But the same thing happened again on 1st April with RNLI releasing the animal! There was some scarring to the tail stock following these events, but otherwise the whale seemed none the worse.
  • Humpbacks are known predators of shoaling fish such as Herring, Mackerel and Anchovy, known to be present in large numbers and will enter shallower water to hunt them.
  • The topography of Start Bay and Slapton beach was acting as a fish trap, so close views of the Humpback Whale were afforded at times.
  • This was a unique event for the public to witness from land close inshore, with no risk to the whale.
  • There was a possibility boats might spook the animal into beaching, generally watercraft were well behaved and a warning for them to stay away was issued by the Police and Marine Management Organisation. One cabin cruiser (there's always one!) was reported on morning of 24th February getting too close. Also on 13th March another was getting too close to it off Berry Head.
  • People have been thrilled by this unique sight, including the local primary school children and many families, hopefully inspiring a new generation of conservationists for the future
  • Slapton beach was the perfect arena for watching such a spectacle, with good parking and plenty of space for people to spread out.
Start Bay Humpback showing double blow hole, which is why they have a 'bushy' or 'mushroom' shaped blow. That's close for a big whale, but it not in trouble, its feeding!

The hump and dorsal fin of Humpback Whale
Last updated 10:00 12/04/2017

Winter seawatching past and present

Winter seawatching is hard going, I used to do far more than I do now - as I seem to feel the cold more - age! Compared to other times of year the rewards are slim, a Great Skua or even a Pomarine Skua or a Balearic Shearwater if you're lucky. A good winter watch is usually dominated by a good movement of auks, Gannets and Kittiwakes which can be spectacular. My simplistic definition of winter is December–February. So what were some memorable watches and some snippets of information from my experiences?

Ah 1998!! In early January that year we had a series of SW to W winter gales (winds 80-100mph at times) that went on for a few days pushing birds up into the English Channel and Lyme Bay, blowing from way out in the Atlantic. On the 3rd Hope's Nose watchers had an amazing 77 Great Skuas, while I only managed to get to Berry Head for 2 hours that afternoon, I still saw 30. The next day we had 64 past Berry Head. There was probably c150 during early January 1998 through west Lyme Bay - pretty good for winter. Great Skua is a nice bird to see in winter but quite regular, although the January 1998 numbers were exceptional. When I worked on a boat fishing in the English Channel (2010–2013), in the winter Great Skua was a frequent attendant, showing the channel to be a regular wintering area. The most we had around the boat at any one time was 15 on 10/12/2011, which included a colour ringed adult (breeding bird from St.Kilda), a nice 'at sea' recovery.
St.Kilda ringed Great Skua off Devon from angling boat 10/12/2011
In January 1998 seeing the Great Skuas was good, but there were some more unusual visitors driven up in those storms. While Pomarine Skua is also regular in winter, it is less so than Great Skua; when I worked on the fishing boat I only saw one winter Pomarine. Back in January 1998 Hope's Nose recorded three on the 4th; while at Berry Head  I saw five different birds between 5th–9th ranging from adults (with and without spoons), immature and first-winter. Although Pomarine isn't an exceptional winter sighting Arctic Skua is. We had two sightings from Berry Head on the 5th and 8th. I'm usually quite sceptical about January–February (even December) sightings of Arctic as they winter much further south than Pomarine (and you need to be very careful to rule out a small Pom), but these were witnessed by a few of us. Adding further evidence as to how far away these winter storms had originated was an unprecedented influx of European Storm-petrels (also usually wintering further south, e.g. off southwest Africa). We saw one on the the 4th which was good, then 10 on the 5th (amazing), followed by an exceptional 41 on the 8th and three the next day. Just to put this in context, below is a graph plotting the monthly average number of Great Skuas and European Storm-petrels attending the boat (attracted to 'chum') I worked on 2010–2013. As you can see Great Skua was regular, but European Storm-petrel was absent in winter from the channel. So early January 1998 was pretty special off South Devon for out of context seabirds.
European Storm-petrel and Great Skua: monthly trip average of birds attending angling boat 2010–2013. Two very contrasting yearly distributions. European Storm-petrel is usually absent in winter, while Great Skua's lowest numbers are June-July in the English Channel and regular through the winter.

Shearwaters in winter off South Devon are a fairly scarce sight and can be the highlight of a winter seawatch. Balearic Shearwater being the most likely. Over the years I've had 15 winter Balearic sightings, but only two were of multiple birds, both in February 2008 (a two and a four). 2008 was perhaps the best year for Balearics wintering off Devon in small numbers and is still the only year when I saw a Balearic Shearwater in every month! Manx Shearwater is much rarer in winter off Devon and I've only seen two winter Manx to date in 2005 and 2007. Sooty Shearwater again is pretty rare in winter and to date I've had six winter sightings. Probably the most bizarre was one flying past Brixham breakwater heading out of Torbay on 01/01/2011 - a great and unexpected start to that seawatching year!
A 'pale' Balearic Shearwater, Berry Head, 30/01/2009. A pale bird like this might be mistaken for something else! But a Balearic it is on structure.
 In winter there can also be some good movements of Fulmars (our normal 'light' phase birds) and amoung them if you're lucky some 'blue' phase birds. I've seen most (23: 14 from land 9 from boat) of my 'blue' phase birds in this time of year, always a nice variation to look out for. Best count was six in a good passage on 31/12/2012. But by far the most striking bird was a 'double dark', that came past Berry Head on 29/01/2009. What a cracker, a bird worth getting cold and wet for!

'Double dark' Fulmar, Berry Head, 29/01/2009.
 But what was my best ever Devon winter seawatch? Well there is one that beats all others really due to one species! In early December 2006, a series of early winter gales hammered the UK. Winds remained in the SW-WSW for days with low pressure systems following on one after another. Being persistent with an WSW average direction, meant many Leach's Storm-petrels from far out in the Atlantic were driven up into the Bristol Channel, being seen from a number of locations - it effectively acts as massive 'heligoland trap'. I continued to watch the forecasts, hoping the wind would go NW or WNW and ease and allow an exodus of Leach's. The forecast for 08/12/2006 looked like it was going to do exactly that, so Hartland Point seemed a must. I managed to get to the lighthouse just after first light around 08:00, there was an ideal NW5 blowing and within minutes of setting up the telescope Leach's were moving through. I rang some of the locals who came down later to witness the event. In all I counted 155 Leach's passing by 14:00, setting a new record count for Devon. But the supporting cast wasn't bad ether: 51 Red-throated Divers, 18 Great Skuas, two Little Auks and a Puffin (rare bird in winter) in with the usual winter fare. It still remains my best Devon winter seawatch to date!  

This winter has been fairly quiet, although a strong force 6 southerly blow on 02/02/2017 was worth the effort of walking out to Berry Head. A Pomarine Skua, two Great Skuas and 'blue' Fulmar were the best of it, with supporting cast two each Great Northern and Red-throated Divers, Red-breasted Merganser, c250 Fulmar (normal phase), c500 Gannets, c200 Kittiwakes and many auks.

Hopefully before February is over there will be another good winter seawatch, but really looking forward to spring!

Splitting and lumping - what's a species anyway?

I'm glad to say I've never been a 'hard core' bird lister. Of course I use a notebook, so any seawatch or raptor-watch in effect becomes a list, where numbers and weather conditions etc are all duly written down - so I suppose I am a lister in a small way. Certainly when on holiday I always note the number of raptor or seabird species seen. But I've never been a great one for chasing after birds for the sole purpose to add to a list....and in fact if I was ever to make a Devon (forget UK) list it would be notable by the amount of species that have occurred in Devon that were easily twitchable (and I knew about) that I've not bothered to go and see. This is usually because the particular species didn't really interest me, so perhaps I'm a selective lister. Yet I've probably seen more Balearic Shearwaters in Devon than anyone else (so what!), each to their own as they say.

So it was with a wry smile when I read the BOURC's recent announcement here. Yes, they are adopting the IOC Word list. Seems to make a lot of sense to me, why not have a world-wide standard, as long as its a good standard using robust data! I imagine for many listers this throws a bit of a spanner in the works. Suddenly they are losing birds on one hand (being re-lumped), while on the other they might be gaining (being split).

For me there was one particular item of interest and that was the splitting of Fea's Petrel to [Fea's Petrel] Pterodroma feae and Desertas Petrel Pterodroma deserta. This split was waiting in the wings so to speak for some time, as suggested by some authorities. But then there is always the problem when such splits of cryptic species occur - no one can now say they've seen either [Fea's] or Desertas at sea, as there's too much overlap of in-field identification features and overlap of range (from translocater based studies). [Except in the unlikely event a bird is caught and DNA sampled, but then this seems to depend on what criteria are used!]. Same thing happened when the 'Band-rumped Petrels' were split, the UK lost its accepted Maderian Storm-petrel. So the Fea's Petrels I saw off the Desertas, Maderia back in 2015 were more than likely to be Desertas, but will now have to go down as [Fea's] / Desertas, or better remain as Fea's (more on the [Fea's] in a moment), likewise, same would apply to the handful of accepted UK Fea's seen from  Scilly pelagics - no longer a species anymore! Interestingly in Flood & Fisher's (2013) Pterodroma Petrels, they did not split Fea's (into separate species) and to avoid confusion used the term Fea's to describe the two taxa (sub-species): with separate names Cape Verde Petrel  Pterodroma feae feae and Desertas Petrel Pterodroma feae desertas; a similar approach to Howell 2012. To me this seems a better way forward as the two taxa have names associated with their breeding sites and should they be deemed separate species as IOC suggest avoids confusion. But.... Flood & Fisher stated that the genetic work by Gangloff et al. (2013), which used five genes (not just the usual one mitochondrial gene), two mitochondrial and three nuclear introns, showed a family tree that only warranted the split of Zino's and Fea's Petrel to species level! So on whatever grounds the IOC has split Fea's, it would be better to use Cape Verde Petrel and Desertas Petrel to avoid confusion over names. But is IOC's criteria robust enough if others disagree and what are the rules? So get ready to call your next, "think I've got a Zino's / Fea's / Desertas Petrel"! Fea's-type is probably easier!!

But lets take a step back. One thing I ask is what is a species anyway? I wonder how many listers ask that question, they should as its fundamental to their list. An interesting take on this here (especially the last sentence). Looking on IOC's website I couldn't (easily) find a definition of what they call a species. Surely the most important thing to have available. Are many gull [species] that interbreed and have fertile hybrid young really separate species, or just one super-species? If Yelkouan Shearwater and Balearic Shearwater are breeding on Menorca and producing fertile hybrids ('Menorcan Shearwaters') are they really separate species or is it just a cline across the Mediterranean (as some authorities suggest)? Should they go back to Mediterranean  Shearwater? I'm doing myself out of a species or two here!

Some nice introductions!

There are some bird species which were introduced into the UK that have become naturalised, which somehow fill a niche without major problems and become a 'nice' accepted addition to our avifauna. But before I go further lets define introduced species. They are the ones we never had in the first place (not natural), so if and when their populations die out and we want them back we reintroduce them. Case-in-point are pheasants (and Red-legged Partridges), were introduced and then are reintroduced every year at numerous shoots throughout the UK. So why is the term reintroduced used for birds like Red Kite, Osprey, White-tailed Eagle, Cirl Bunting (also falconers gave us Goshawk back on unofficial releases) etc, surely they were never introduced in the first place? They were once part of our natural native avifauna, so they are not reintroduced when brought back, merely re-established or trans-located from suitable donor sites. [Glad to say the Devon Bird Atlas 2007-2013 available here, at least referred to Red Kite and Cirl Bunting (in a Cornwall context) as re-established].

So back to my starting point. There are some 'nice' real introductions or reintroductions. For me at least two, Little Owl and Mandarin Duck (remember Ruddy Duck, but they didn't fit in!). Sadly I hardly see any Little Owls now, as many of their former haunts in Devon are unoccupied, e.g. I remember three territories around Prawle now vacant. Something has affected their breeding ecology; just look at the BTOs abundance change map for 1968-72 vs 2008-11 here, quite striking isn't it? A large decline in the west of its former UK range. Yet Mandarin seems to be doing well , particularly where I live. When taking a local walk by the river they add a welcome splash of colour. But how many are there on my local river now? In 2012 I chanced upon a private residence, where the lady owner had started winter feeding the local Mallards and Muscovy Ducks (another introduced species here!). But what it was also attracting was 'wild' free-flying Mandarins from up and down the river. In 2012 we had a peak count of 48 there, pretty good. But in 2013 we had a peak count of 88 on 16/01/2013! We didn't quite hit those levels in 2014 just high 60s. But in 2015 again we hit 88 on 06/02/2015. 2016 was marginally lower with 80 on 04/03/201. I expect there's actually over 100 as there's a lot of coming and going and probably not all the same birds are seen on subsequent days. I.e. there is at least one uniquely plumaged 'pale' male that was not present during one of the 88 counts. In a Devon context these numbers are very high! Come spring and they spread out along the river favoring the upper reaches and some tributaries, where if you're lucky you see family parties of ducklings later on. This winter I've not seen so many, perhaps its due to a new kayak launch site that started near the feeding site!

A Mandarin melee! River Dart 20/01/2013


Wish this was my birdtable!
The handsome drake Mandarin a worthy introduction!!

Highs and lows of 2016

Well we all have our best bits of a year and for me, finally getting the Yelkouan Shearwater accepted by BOURC/ BBRC, Mike Langman and I saw off Berry Head way back takes some beating. To be honest as nearly 8 years had past, I had all but written it off (due to perceived taxonomic issues). Then for the two of us to be asked by British Birds to write a 'New for Britain' was a great honour. For a seabirder (probably) a once in a lifetime opportunity to do this!
British Birds: 109: 448-459
In fact I seemed to be on a bit of a roll with British Birds as they also published my article on Balearic Shearwaters numbers through west Lyme Bay, Devon. Its great to see some use made of 10 years' (2172 hours) of seawatching observation, for this critically endangered seabird. I added in the 2016 data (not a good year), on this blog here. I hope to do some more analysis of seabird passage this year on this blog, perhaps looking at Arctic Skua, which is cause for concern!
British Birds: 109: 350-352
But.....my 2016 Devon seawatching year was not great and 2016 will not go down as notable. I did see two Cory's Shearwaters at separate headlands, and four Great Shearwaters (a two and two singles); and two Long-tailed Skuas. To think I was seawatching at Berry Head when a Black-browed Albatross went east past Prawle and I know where I should have been. No unusual raptors seen in 2016 and the fact a Lammergeier probably went over my house while I was away was bit off. I did find an unringed White Stork low over Exminster and a Dusky Warbler at Prawle (what a rare warbler for me was quite good!). Ending the year with three Siberian Chiffchaffs at my local sewage works was nice. Of course I saw lots of good birds, too many to list as rarities for me are not everything!
Unringed White Stork over the car, Exminster 10/05/2016
[Siberian] Chiffchaff one of three near home 29/12/16. 
One great project to be involved with was WildGuides new Britain's Birds: An Identification Guide to the Birds of Britain and Ireland, which was published in 2016. It set a new standard for a photographic guide, even pushing more conventional greats like the Collins Bird Guide hard. In fact the two together are a great combination for all birdwatchers. Its a great privilege to know your photographs (mainly seabirds, but some raptors in my case) are being used to help others in Bird identification. I think I ended up with 60 or so photographs in there. However, the book is not perfect and a couple of my photos have wrong labeling, but I doubt most people would notice unless you really know your stuff! Its 99% perfect and I'm sure a 2nd edition will be spot on. In 2016 there was a lot of 'grumpy old men' talk of buy a book, in relation to some internet postings, too right and this is a good one to get. Yes, this is what books are for, to help us all with our bird identification, then if you're still unsure and need help (as we all sometimes do) consult an expert, but at least have go yourself first. Books help with our spelling of bird names too, a bugbear of mine on certain blogs! I need help too as I'm dyslexic!!

It was also a privilege to get some Fulmar (mainly dark phase birds but also variation in bill colour) shots in Bob Flood and Ashely Fisher's latest Albatrosses & Fulmarine Petrels multimedia guide, in their North Atlantic Seabird series. I've been a great fan of their book / video combinations. What was even better the excellent illustrations within were all done by friend and local artist John Gale.

One of the lows for me was the 2015 Devon Bird Report which came out in 2016, hence in this review. Having been heavily involved in the past (1994-2009), I was also co-editor 1996-1998 (what a dyslexic editor!!). But there's more to editing than just spelling and grammar!! We once had an amazing editor in Pete Reay et al. - the halcyon years from 1999–2009. The report won 'best' award a few years on the trot and it was a honour to have been part of a great team. It was always going to be a hard act to follow. I was coaxed back in for DBR2015, but certain aspects relating to the use of my own records, are to be frank embarrassing, I won't say anymore as this review is generally upbeat. But before moving on there were couple of interesting things I found in 2016 while researching for writing the raptor account. (1) 2015 was the first year since 1969 with no accepted Honey-buzzard records! (2) It was the best Red Kite year, with a 'super' influx. But when it came to writing Red Kite, on receiving the data I thought hey there's a lot of sightings missing here, including that of 28 I remember seeing on the blog! So I painstakingly went through the Devon Bird news blog and extracted all the Red Kite records into excel. I seem to remember it added c120 new records, almost doubling the database. Guess what, many people put their sighting on the blog but then don't send them in! Perhaps people think putting things on the blog means it automatically gets into the DBR database. Well it did for Red Kite for one year only (as I passed the extract on to the data manager) and I've moved on. One thing the report always contains is excellent WeBS data etc and photographs, just needs a dam good edit and more consistent approach. Surely my five counts of 60+ Mandarins on the river Dart near home are worth an individual mention, like 88 on 06/02/2015 (I'm not after initials its the big counts that are important). Hopefully Devon Bird's new recorder will influence this and I wish him well.

There was also the Devon Bird Atlas published in 2016 with much pomp and ceremony. I'm not a great fan of atlases but of course did my bit to help, bit of surveying, then validating at the data collection stage, and then writing etc. The problem with Atlases the day they are produced they are already out of date. One thing the Devon atlas showed me is how flawed some of Sitters data was (just look at Kestrel, massive observer bias and that applies to other species). At the end of the day we still see the trends of what we already know is happening. But as birds don't recognise county boundaries, for me the National BTO Atlas 2007-11 is far more meaningful. Mark Avery wrote a review of Devon's, a bit harsh but to the point here. Its OK Mark I certainly wasn't offended. In Mark's review he called Sitters Atlas excellent, but how can it be if the data is flawed?

But what about my other great passion, monitoring raptors? Well a mixed year. At my local site the Peregrines produced four young (well four were present just prior to fledging). So that was the first time in 28 years of my monitoring (and the site being occupied) they had produced a four! I was really looking forward to watching four young playing over the town. But we never speak too soon with this site as they can be targeted just post-fledging (poisoned by folk who do not like Peregrines, as they have been in a least four times in the past). Well the young seemed to fledge OK, but something was wrong, I was not seeing them playing around as they should. Subsequent visits located just two young females, not flying well and unable to get any height! I first suspected mild poisoning and monitored them intently over the next days, although I wasn't altogether convinced their symptoms matched poisoning. From previous experience, with the modern pesticide abuse (Aldicarb & Carbofuran as used in 2005 & 2011), which sadly I've seen here, death is usually pretty quick and you just find the corpse. Anyway, their condition was not improving, they would just sit around low down with no major flights or play. So I contacted some falconer friends for advice and asked if they could help me catch them and take them in, to assess their condition and possibly keep for treatment. This meant seeing whether suitable facilities were available, Dave Scott could do it and Leonard Hurrell at a pinch!
They look like two healthy juvenile females, full cropped because the adults are feeding them. But they're too thin! Time to call an expert.
So friend and raptor rehabilitation guru Dave Scott came over and we managed to catch one of the two. On examination, there was little pectoral muscle on her breast bone, hence her inability to fly well (we couldn't catch the other). Poor bird had a bad parasite infestation of worms, seen when looking down her throat. Despite the parents feeding them well, the worms were taking all the nutrition before it could be assimilated into muscle - no muscle and can't fly to build muscle either.  Two days later I managed to catch the 2nd female who had become weaker and took her over to Dave's. He ordered up the right treatment from consulting his contacts and the slow process of de-worming these fine girls began. If I (we) had not intervened they would have died, the presumed fate of their other two siblings. Sadly in all this they missed that vital window with the adults of being taught to hunt. Although it was hoped to get them back quickly it took too long for them to be de-wormed properly and regain their condition, so now Dave has taken on the role of parent and will teach them to hunt for release into the wild. An unsung hero largely financed by himself, though I was able to arrange a donation towards their upkeep and treatment.

So last but not least to my passion for Goshawks. Over many years I've built up very good working relations with many landowners and forestry organisations. Finding breeding sites, helping plan around the birds. E.g forestry operations to take place so they don't affect the birds breeding success; and where possible putting in retentions (safe mature stands to keep the birds nesting in). Its a good relationship and we've had much success to the point where the birds are doing OK. One particular valley though had a major setback a few years ago when the area was taken over by a massive pheasant rearing shoot and my single productive pair there, unsurprisingly disappeared!! Luckily the area was subsequently bought by a conservation friendly organisation. Great news and I located two new pairs there after two years, but..... also there was now much better public access. Move on to 2015 and unfortunately one path passing close by a nest had a bad effect as with increased public access the site failed and the other site raised just a single. So one from two pairs in 2015 was not good. So for 2016 with the kind cooperation of the landowners I asked if we could close the track for the breeding season, as the birds had built a new nest that was easily looked down into, to see if it made a difference. The outcome was very successful and this pair reared four and the other three. That's seven more young in that valley and they take many Grey Squirrels as this family portrait shows. I should say of course I'm licenced to work with Goshawk and Peregrines.
In all my years of monitoring I seldom find a nest that can be looked into by a track. Closure of the track meant four young fledged - a great success.
 

Lets see what 2017 brings! Happy New Year.