Where have all the Balearics gone!

Earlier this year I wrote quite a 'large note' in British Birds, showing 10-years' analysis from counting passing Balearic Shearwaters through West Lyme Bay (WLB is basically the bit between Berry Head and Start Point). I'm a bit of sad-do - when others are out doing other things I'm starring at the sea hoping I might see this critically endangered tubenose fly by and strangely I get a kick out of seeing this bird. The crux of the note was WLB had been very good in three out of the last five years, with Devon passage records tumbling in 2015.

Well this year its back to normal! Yes, its not been an exceptional year for the best conditions, but even when we had them, the birds just weren't there in numbers. Portland had a 'spike' that looked promising but it just didn't materialise further down our way. Last year during a watch on 26/08/15 I had the amazing spectacle of 528 passing in just 4.5hrs. This year I didn't hit triple figures once, with a best of 63 in 8hrs on 24/08/16. As we're now through the WLB passage peak I did a quick tot up and saw just 298 in 109hrs!

So how does that compare? If we look at birds per hour, which takes into account effort we're back to the norm, before those exceptional years of  2011, 2013 and 2015! Lets see what 2017 brings?

 And another sad-do stat, I thought I'd crack seeing 10,000 Balearics in Devon this year and I'm at 9981!! Sometimes November is OK but I don't think so this year.

A 'big' Merlin at last!

Last week I was on Lundy, never been there in October before. Now October to me means Merlin month and Lundy is fabled for its Merlin passage. Having written the rap bit of the DBR many times, Lundy always comes out as tops! And Lundy certainly didn't disappoint, we saw Merlins on four out of five days. On the 21st October in one area we saw four different birds within 10 minutes - so difficult tell how many were going through with the Redwings etc.

I watched one Merlin go after a Snow Bunting. If you've ever watched the classic Merlin hunt, the prey often tries to out-climb the Merlin which rings up in circles flat-out (used to be the falconers 'classic' chase after Skylark). Anyway this Snow Bunting just climbed and climbed, with Merlin ringing up frantically trying to out-climb it. If the Merlin is fit enough it gets above its intended victim and then they both dive for the ground, where the Merlin usually wins! In this case the Snow Bunting won, out climbed the Merlin which gave up and drifted down. Later I watched a Merlin chasing a Goldcrest around Lundy's Old Light, it missed! I then realised, this bird was using the structure to launch its hunts. I sneaked up and it took no notice of me as the pictures show! It even used the top guard rails, bracing itself in the wind!

  Now its always been suspected that some of Devon's passage Merlins include the 'Islandic' form Falco columbarius subaesaon - they're meant to be darker, bigger and look longer-winged. In fact two ringing recoveries have proved they do move through Devon. Given that female Merlins (like many falcons) are larger than males, probably your only likely in-field candidate, is going to be if you see a big dark looking female or a big 'blue' male. I didn't on Lundy! We saw brown males and females together, but nothing that looked like, well anything other than just a Merlin (see photos).

Now today I was walking around Start (very pleasant) and just scanning a field with a few alba Wagtails and Mipits, when through dashes a falcon after them. At first I was thinking juv tiercel Peregrine, but this was clearly a large, long-winged dark looking Merlin. She came around for another go and clearly was 'big' for a Merlin. One of the best 'Islandic' candidates I've ever seen!