Autumn garden birds

Between one thing and another I haven’t been able to get out in the field as much as I would have liked so here’s a selection of photos of birds from my garden in late autumn. Enjoy.

Blue Tits and House Sparrow (Cyanistes caeruleus & Passer domesticus)

Wren (Troglodytes troglodytes)

Blackcap (Sylvia atricapilla)

Great Tit (Parus major)

Chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita)

Song Thrush (Turdus philomelos)


Ouessant, 14-20 October 2017

Time for the annual LATT trip to somewhere in the north-west and Ouessant was the destination of choice again this year. Things had been looking good with a decent selection of birds seen there in the preceeding week but, as ever with birding, nothing is guaranteed. We arrived and while organising access to our rented house the first good bird turned up: a gentle, bubbling “bruuuup, bruuup, bruuup” indicated a Bee-eater somewhere overhead but try as I might I couldn’t pick it up. Throughout the day this bird toured the island while calling constantly and was recorded by most of the birders present but actually only seen by a handful.

As usual I did my own thing over the following days but it soon became clear that most of the good birds from the previous week had departed. A group of Whooper Swans (Cygnus cygnus) were an interesting sight having apparently arrived last week in an exhausted state (presumably from Iceland ?). One of the juveniles had succumbed to the rigours of migration within a day and the rest of the family party installed themselves in the marsh below the Creac’h lighthouse where they showed pretty well most days.

Most of the rest of the week was a little disappointing though still enjoyable. The weather wasn’t particularly favourable for bringing migrants to the island being rather windy from the north-west and showery at times. However, the lure of seawatching in these conditions meant that most of the birders on the island were up at the Creac’h lighthouse on 19th where a minimum of 29 Cory‘s (Calonectris borealis) and 16 Great Shearwaters (Puffinus gravis) were noted, the latter a French tick too. The weather continued to deteriorate to such an extent that we decided to leave the island a day early as there was some risk that the ferry would not operat on the Saturday due to the conditions. All in all not a bad week but next year I think we’ll go there earlier in October !

Spot that !

22 September, right time, right place, nice conditions. A visit to the ringing station at Donges Est in the morning in calm sunny weather produced the usual birds in the nets but as the team weren’t overburdened with birds I decided to have a wander around. The obvious spot were the recently created pools along the embankment which I approached with the sun behind me. While still about 75 m away I set up the scope for a quick look at the pools and lo and behold, a Spotted Crake (Porzana porzana) was feeding at the edge of the reeds. The bird was moving in and out of the edge of vegetation so I fired off a couple of shots, none of which unfortunately show the bird in the open. A couple of seconds later it disappeared and despite watching the area for the following hour it didn’t show again.

It’s in there somewhere !

Yes, that dark blob at the edge of the reeds really is a Spotted Crake !

Red-necked Phalarope, 13 September 2017

The past few days have proved interesting for seabirds around here and, along with a few friends, I’d planned on going to Le Croisic in the hope of catching up with some skuas and maybe even a Wilson’s Petrel. Then I received an e-mail from a collegue asking me to confirm that he’d indeed photographed both a Grey and a Red-necked Phalarope in the same spot near Port du Collet and just over the départemental border in north Vendée. And indeed he had, super photos of both species and quite close too. Looking at the weather forecast again it seemed a good seawatch was perhaps doubtful so I made a plan with Anthony to try for the phalaropes. Early on the Tuesday morning Anthony sent me a message to say both birds were still there so I finished preparing my gear and headed off south ASAP.

When I arrived I noticed Anthony was looking down into the canal where the bird was seen and yes, there not 5 metres away was a stunning first-winter Red-necked Phalarope (Phalaropus lobatus). It was happily feeding away, oblivious to our presence, and even when we got down to water level the bird would approach to within 2 metres of it’s own accord. We spent several hours there in total just soaking up the views, often without the use of bins’, and making the most of the opportunity. Given that I’d only seen one Red-necked Phalarope previously I was certainly in no hurry to leave but eventually we wandered up to the port in search of the Grey Phalarope, which had flown off in that direction just before I arrived. Anthony eventually refound it in the main channel but again it flew off before I reached the spot. A beautiful juvenile Sabine’s Gull (Xema sabini) feeding along the channel provided adequate compensation, without doubt the best views I’ve ever had of the species.

We then headed inland checking out a few waders spots, to no avail I might add, then back to the coast via Bouin where a fly-over Short-toed Eagle (Circaetus gallicus) was a nice year-tick. On our return the phalarope was still present so another hour was spent in it’s company. A truly delightful bird, not the most colourful, nor the rarest but for sheer charisma it’s hard to beat. Failing something else later in the autumn this is quite likely to be my bird-of-the-year !


Red-necked Phalarope (Phalaropus lobatus)

Sabine’s Gull (Xema sabini). Photo: Anthony Oates


Ringing, 29th August 2017

Ringing again at Donges East today with the team from ACROLA  in excellent conditions. On my arrival there were already dozens of birds waiting to be processed so I took over doing the rounds of the terrestrial nets. There were lots of Willow Warblers (Phylloscopus trochilus) among all the usual suspects during the morning plus a few Whinchats (Saxicola rubetra), Garden Warbler (Sylvia borin), a total of 6 Wrynecks (Jynx torquilla), out of a site record of 10 that day,  but the real star of the morning was a first-winter Woodchat Shrike (Lanius senator) which proved to be quite a brute ! Not only was it slightly larger in the hand than I had imagined but it wasn’t averse to trying to take a chunk out of any fingers that came within reach ! While being processed the ringers remarked that the body plumage seemed extremely fresh (although the tail was a bit worn) and there was some speculation that the bird hadn’t been raised too far away from here. It is undoubtedly the individual seen in the area the previous week by another observer not associated with the ringing station and is the first record for the site and a decent rarity for the Loire-Atlantique département overall.

Woodchat Shrike . . . ouch !

Pelagic, 26th August 2017

For the last few years the local LPO group have organised a number of pelagic trips into the waters off the Loire estuary in late summer, usually departing La Turballe with a stop-over of several hours on the small island of Hoedic before the return trip. This year Anthony and I were aboard for the first time and hopes were high as recent weeks have seen an unprecedented number of Wilson’s Petrels (Oceanites oceanicus) and Great Shearwaters (Puffinus gravis) in the area. The usual tally from these trips includes a few skuas and Sabine’s Gulls (Xema sabini) plus the ubiquitous Balearic Shearwaters (Puffinus mauretanicus). Setting off around 8.30 am we slowly headed west and picked up several Balearics, 3 Sooty Shearwaters (Puffinus grisea) then 2 Sabine’s Gulls and later 2 Arctic Skuas (Stercorarius parasiticus). There were decent numbers of Storm Petrels (Hydrobates pelagicus) further out but no other large shearwaters and, worst of all, no Wilson’s.

On Hoedic we scoured the migrant spots but only turned up a couple of Pied Flycatchers (Ficedula hypoleuca), some Wheatears (Oenanthe oenanthe), Garden Warblers (Sylvia borin) and a couple of resident Dartford Warblers (Sylvia undata).

Back on the boat we had pretty much the same as before: 2 Sabine’s Gulls, lots more Storm Petrels, a Sooty Shearwater again and several hundred Balearics right up to the coastline back at La Turballe. Not a bad day really but a pity we didn’t connect with the goodies that were surely still out there.

Some photos below courtesy of Anthony Oates.

Sooty Shearwater

Balearic Shearwater


Garden List gets an addition

24th August, nice weather conducive to migrants, time to check out La Jallais. On arrival it’s clear that some birds are on the move as there were Whinchats (Saxicola rubetra) perched on bushes and fence wires here and there along the main track, a couple of Yellow Wagtails (Motacilla flava), but no warblers, and I mean none. I spent an hour scouring the reedy ditch along the embankment fully expecting an Aquatic Warbler (Acrocephalus paludicola) or at least a few Sedge Warblers (Acrocephalus schoenaebanus) but nothing . . . zero. Around midday I gave up and returned home, made a coffee and sat down at my desk. There were a few birds in the garden including the usual House Sparrows (Passer domesticus) and and a couple of Great Tits (Parus major) which have been making the most of the seeds in the ripened sunflower plants. Then I half noticed a bird on the path in the garden and fully expecting to see one of the House Sparrow I was VERY pleasantly surprised to see it was a Common Redstart (Phoenicurus phoenicurus) ! With it’s quivering tail it hopped about feeding on the ground then moved to the clothes line and the apple tree where it remained for another minute or so before disappearing. It returned later in the afternoon for another brief visit then, I presume, continued on it’s journey heading south. Great bird to see and it brings the garden list up to 64.

Whinchat (Saxicola rubetra), La Jallais, Donges.

Redstart (Phoenicurus phoenicurus)

Needle in a haystack time

Sunday 8th August: news breaks late in the day of an adult Red-necked Stint (Calidris ruficollis) in the Baie du Mont-Saint-Michel. Not only was the bird found by one of France’s top birders but there are photos too. Nice ! Hmmm, should I stay or should I go ? Monday comes and there’s no news until the evening when the bird is seen again at high tide. Game on. My friend Anthony and I decide to try for it on the Tuesday so we head off early afternoon for the 3 hour drive to northern Brittany. On arrival there are plenty of other birders, the tide is rising and the bay is already full of small waders; Dunlin (Calidris alpina), Ringed Plover (Charadrius hiaticula), Sanderling (Calidris alba) plus a few Little Stints  (Calidris minuta). The Little Stints, mostly adults coming out of summer plumage, and showing rusty tones around the head area, give us plenty of scary moments but there is unfortunately no sign of the Red-necked Stint. Within a couple of hours the tide has risen and there are thousands of small waders just in front of us. Still no rare stint though. Then the waders start heading off to roost, some in a long lagoon at the top of the beach where they are easier to ‘scope but in the end the much-anticipated stint didn’t put in an appearance. Oh well, such are the joys of twitching !

Mont-Saint-Michel, a spectacular backdrop for a day’s twitching.

The scene that greeted us on our arrival.

Lots of birds to check through including several Little Stints

Sanderling (top) and two Dunlin.

First ringing session of 2017

Today, 6th August, I went ringing at Donges East for the first time since the ringing station opened on 20th July. Nice weather, calm and sunny and plenty of migrants in evidence when I arrived with the ringing team in place already busy. During the morning two Aquatic Warblers (Acrocephalus paludicola) were caught, both adults. Typically for adults at this time of the year they were very grey & black on the body (worn) while the head, with fresher feathers, showed lovely yellow tones. Hopefully there will be a lot more of these over the coming weeks.

Aquatic Warbler (Acrocephalus paludicola), adult.

Solitary scoop !

19th July 2017. Spent the day with my good friend Anthony Oates in and around the Marais Breton area which is on the border between the Loire-Atlantique and Vendée départements. This wild open landscape if full of old salt pans, little pools, ditches, areas of scrub and numerous little roads giving good access to the general area. In fact one can often see some birds such as waders particularly well here and in summer it’s not too difficult to find breeding Redshanks (Tringa totanus), Black-winged Stilts (Himantopus himantopus), Avocets (Recurvirostra avosetta) and the area is also very good for Montagu’s Harrier (Circus pygargus). Recent years have also seen the spread of Glossy Ibis (Plegadis falcinellus) which have now firmly established themselves here. On the day we saw a minimum of 21 birds, mostly in one large group. We also recorded 3 Montys, several Purple Herons (Ardea purpurea) and there was a decent selection of returning waders on show with Black-tailed Godwits (Limosa limosa), Curlew (Numenius arquata), Dunlin (Calidris alpina), Ringed Plover (Charadrius hiaticula)and Grey Plover (Pluvialis squatarola) all available.

We had spent several hours inland before visiting the coast for a look at the waders on the mudflats at Port Collet and then decided to return inland again. Scouring the various pools here and there we’d clocked up several Common Sandpipers (Actitis hypoleucos) and Green Sandpipers (Tringa ochropus) and were standing by the car near “Les Furets” south of St. Cyr-en-Retz when a rather different call made us look up. Flying overhead was a small to medium sized wader with a rather twittering call. “Wood Sandpiper ?” I ventured as it passed us but as it flew away it was clearly darker than one would expect for this species and the underwings were dark too. Eh, and a dark rump ? WTF ??? Alarm bells started ringing and I checked with Anthony; no, I wasn’t imagining things. He too had noted the dark rump as the bird had dropped down towards a pool about 250m away. As the bird was not visible on the pool from the road we asked at the nearest house for permission to cross the land we were lucky that the bird got up of it’s own accord from about 70m away as our passage was impeded by a deep water-filled ditch. It again passed just overhead, very close in fact, and again it was calling constantly. I was able to confirm all the features we’d seen earlier: dark underwing, dark rump, slighter build than Green Sandpiper, different call, feet projecting just beyond tail, no wing bars, greyish breast band with inverted white V in the centre. Wow, Solitary Sandpiper ! It flew off behind some farm buildings and landed out of view and in another area that was inaccessible so we’d didn’t pursue it further but what a stroke of luck we’d just had. This constitutes just the 6th or 7th record for France and the first one for the Loire-Atlantique département.

A bit of research over the following days shows that the date is not particularly unusual as Solitary Sandpipers (Tringa solitaire) apparently start their post-breeding migration rather earlier than many other species and ther was another record from the Azores a few days later. Unfortunately the bird was not seen again despite several observers scouring the area in the following days.

My notebook sketches from the day.

This photo taken from the internet gives some idea of the type of views we had. Photo from Antshrike.blogspot


Edit: This record has since been accepted by the French national rarities committee (CHN)