Wednesday 29 June 2016

NGB at Portland Bird Obs

Portland Bird Observatory, Dorset 
~ 30th May - 4th June 2016 ~ 
Trip report by Max Hellicar

The Isle of Portland, situated on the southern tip of the Dorset Jurassic Coast, is arguably one of the best sites for bird migration in the UK. Portland is also a location which offers a variety of other wildlife as well as stunning views and is just a generally nice place to be.

Portland Bill Lighthouse (Max Hellicar)

Monday 30 May saw myself and Josie arriving on a sunny Portland at mid-afternoon. I headed straight to Culverwell, the last reported location of the long-staying first-summer Great Spotted Cuckoo which was a bird I still needed after failing to see other individuals on previous attempts, whilst Josie went to the Obs to meet everyone as she had already seen the cuckoo a few weeks ago (filthy twitcher).

Portland Bird Observatory (Max Hellicar)

After an unsuccessful two mile walk around some fields I headed to the Obs. Here I met some other NGBs for the first time (apart from Liam who was sitting happily on a coach from Yorkshire). NGB Team Portland consisted of Anthony Bentley (PBO assistant warden), Josie Hewitt, Liam Curson, Max Hellicar (not sure who he is), George Dunbar, Lewis Mitchell, and Martin Cade (the legendary Portland warden and an honorary NGB for the week).

We all headed out to Top Fields where we located the Great Spotted Cuckoo perched nonchalantly in a bramble bush and gobbling brown-tail caterpillars - with thanks to Anthony for initially finding this bird on 13 May. An inquisitive Common Cuckoo hopped in to the same bush and offered us nice scope views of two cuckoo species side by side. The cuckoos stared each other out for a few minutes before finding some more caterpillars and breaking the tension between themselves.

Two species of Cuckoo in the same scope view (Max Hellicar)

Cuckoo watching (Josie Hewitt)

Back at the Obs, the first Manx Shearwater of the trip flew east offshore and a steady stream of Gannets trickled through. Lewis saw some Linnets from the Obs. I walked down to the Bill for a solitary evening seawatch which produced six more Manxies and apart from the usual auks, nothing else of interest was seen. The resident Little Owl family were showing nicely for most of the evening and looking characteristically livid as they passed judgement on all observing as they watched from their favoured crevices in the quarry.

Livid Little Owls (Max Hellicar)

Liam arrived at around 8PM on Monday evening after spending the weekend at Spurn because he's hardcore like that. After dinner, we enjoyed playing a few bird-related games, including the Collin's game (reading a description of a bird from the book and making others guess what it is) and the BOU list game (naming as many birds as possible which have occurred in Britain whose names begin in a certain letter).

After a couple of hours, we joined Martin down at Pulpit Rock to try to lure in some unsuspecting Storm-petrels from far out at sea using Martin's deafening sound system, blasting out incessant ear piercing shrieks of Storm-petrel call. After two hours of this madness we were staring to go a little bit insane and Anthony resorted to staring at stars. Liam saw something fly into the mist net and lo and behold there was a Storm-petrel. The bird was ringed, processed and shortly released but not before a bit of top quality Stormie smelling enjoyed by all.

Stom Petrel (Max Hellicar)

With Storm-petrel under our belts (not literally), the tart's tick was now cleaned up by myself, Anthony, Liam, George, and Lewis. As there are no breeding populations nearby, the birds which are caught at Portland are ones which are feeding at sea and have nothing better to do than follow the sound of a tape lure. After a jolly stroll back to the Obs we celebrated our resounding success with a good few hours sleep.

The next morning we sifted through the contents of the observatory garden moth traps which produced some nice moths (most of which somehow ended up on my face) but nothing mega, the best of which being Eyed Hawkmoth and a few Cream-spot Tigers.

Inspecting Tuesday morning's moth catch (Josie Hewitt)

Eyed Hawkmoth (Max Hellicar)

I went on a morning walk through Top Fields and made my way to Reap Lane in hope of better views of a certain cuckoo. Just as I arrived, I was informed that the aforementioned Clamator sp. had flown in to a bush. A quick scan through the shrubbery and a few white spots were visible. Bingo! The bird soon hopped closer to the front of the bush and afforded superb views for all observers. Over the next two hours, the GS Cuckoo remained happily in this bush devouring brown-tail caterpillars and had attracted a reasonably sized gathering of twitchers.

Twitchers assemble (Max Hellicar) - Great Spotted Cuckoo video (Max Hellicar).

I headed back to the Bill and Liam showed me some pan-listing skills on a wander round Top Fields, looking at insects and plants. A walk along East Cliffs was quiet with little of interest seen bar a few pairs of Rock Pipits.

East cliffs (Max Hellicar)

Rock Pipit (Max Hellicar)

Wednesday morning began with a seawatch from Pulpit Rock, where I click-counted some Gannets. The highlight was a Great Skua moving west and Liam got Lewis his first Shag as well as getting Lewis about about 12 other lifers. The usual Razorbills, Guillemots and Shags were chilling on the sea towards West Cliffs but there was no sign of 'the' one and only Puffin of Portland Bill. 

Seawatching (Max Hellicar)

I went for a quick solo walk to West Cliffs with my binos and camera which soon turned in to a seven hour long walk across most of the island. I was witness to a murder on West Cliffs as I observed a family party of Ravens (for those who don't know, 'murder' is the colloquial term for a gathering of corvids). The usual Fulmars proved entertaining as they sheared past and a Peregrine was sat on a cliff face. Can we all just take a moment to appreciate how fantastic Peregrines are…

Peregrine (Max Hellicar)

Migrant-wise there was nothing of ornithological interest but thousands of Diamond-back Moths were present across the island, which were part of a national multi-million influx of the species, and the numbers of the species on Portland increased further in the coming days.  

Diamond-back Moth (Max Hellicar)

Searching for megas (Max Hellicar)

That evening the Great Spotted Cuckoo was back in its favoured bramble bush in Top Fields. Swifts had been migrating in moderate force all day and with us being the keen group of birders that we are, we decided to keep count of how many passed over the Portland Bill area throughout the day. Up until around 19:30, we were just shy of 500 Swifts, then a reasonable sized congregation ploughed through the sky. Panic ensued and we abandoned dinner to sprint outside and get an accurate count (apart from George who carried his food with him). The day's Swift total ended on 586, which was a result of good teamwork and a total which we were all pleased with.

Swift counting (Max Hellicar)

A dusk dash to the Bill for seawatching produced little of interest but was still worth trying, like all aspects of birding. After dark, we attempted the infamous Norwegian "Hint bird ID" quiz (Western Pal, level 4) which we of course did not at all struggle with………..

The highlight of Thursday morning's moth trap was a Four-spotted, a Portland speciality and the first of the season, as well as other goodies such as hundreds of Diamond-backs, Poplar Hawk, Small Elephant Hawk and more notorious Cream-spot Tigers.

Four-spotted (Max Hellicar)

Cream-spot Tiger (Max Hellicar)

I had a morning wander around some fields which was uneventful. A field trip to some Dorset heathland had been on the cards for a while, and Thursday seemed a good day for this with the weather conditions looking alright for raptors. Anthony, Liam, George and Lewis set off on their merry jaunt while Josie and I decided to make the most of our time birding on Portland.

As the others were frolicking on a heathland near Morden, dipping Honey-buzz and Goshawk, myself and Josie took the opportunity to photograph some of Portland's diverse range of insects. Probably the obvious highlight of this was a Painted Lady nectaring in the observatory garden.

Painted Lady (Max Hellicar)

The heathland adventurers scored most of their target birds including Nightjar, Dartford Warbler, Woodlark and of course Hooded Merganser, whilst back on Portland the Great Spotted Cuckoo was once again residing in its favoured hedge.

The infamous Hooded Merganser (George Dunbar)

I went on a very safe two hour walk along the edge of West Cliffs which is a fantastic area and perhaps my favourite part of Portland. This produced the usual common bird species and a Dingy Skipper fluttered by.

Guillemots (Max Hellicar)

West Cliffs (Max Hellicar)

Looking for Peregrines (Josie Hewitt)
Friday morning's mothing was standard with few 'new' species being caught. The GS Cuckoo made an early appearance around Top Fields/Culverwell, where a few of us twitched it.

Liam joined myself and Josie where we enjoyed an obscured view of its tail for nearly an hour. George succeeded in burning some sausages and the Little Owls were still looking livid. I once again encountered the Peregrine along West Cliffs in the evening and watched the final Portland sunset of the trip whilst the others appreciated a pub dinner. The final evening was spent chatting and the banter was immense.

Ringing was very quiet throughout the trip due to the time of year with the highlights being a few Spotted Flycatchers as well as some of the commoner resident species. 

Spotted Flycatcher (Josie Hewitt)

A quick twitch to Reap Lane on Saturday morning produced seven minutes of our best-ever views of the GS Cuckoo as it paraded around in some shrubbery before it got scared by a Herring Gull and flew back towards the Bill. This individual is (so far) the second longest staying in Britain, after one which stayed for five weeks in 1968 in Cornwall.

Great Spotted Cuckoo (Max Hellicar)

It was soon time to part ways, which was an emotional moment. After waving goodbye, I soon cheered myself up by looking at the rancid Radipole merganser on the way back.    

The final evening (Max Hellicar)

Personally I feel the trip was a great success and I'm sure this was the prevailing opinion held by all trip participants.    

Group photo (Max Hellicar)

This was not only my first NGB residential trip but was also surprisingly my first visit to Portland and was a superb opportunity to meet other similarly-aged like-minded people to talk about future ambitions as well as doing some decent birding. Massive thanks to Martin Cade for his hospitality at the Obs and for being so accommodating to everyone. Martin can be found on Twitter for up-to-date Portland news at @PortlandBirdObs. Well done and thanks to those within NGB involved with organising the trip.

If you've not been to Portland before, then I greatly encourage you to go - it's a wonderful place!    

Portland Bill (Max Hellicar)

Max Hellicar, June 2016.