A birding trip to Portland Bird Observatory – Part I

I have spent the last few days based in the lovely Portland Bird Observatory on the southern coast of Dorset. It has been a fantastic week of birding, moth-trapping, ringing and photography. I joined fellow ‘Next Generation Birders‘ Josie HewittSorrel LyallEphraim Perfect and Billy Stockwell to enjoy a few days at this superb location, and we all had a brilliant time. I shall try to summarise the week in a couple of blog posts, starting with the birding and ringing side of things…

I arrived in Weymouth by train on Tuesday afternoon, after a long but pleasant journey from Falmouth, meeting Sorrel and Billy at Castle Cary on the way in. We were all picked up by Josie in Weymouth, before heading along Chesil Beach causeway, over the steep hill and down the other side to the southern-most point, where Portland Bird Observatory resides in the lower lighthouse (one of three). It was dark by the time we arrived, and so there wasn’t much birding to be had, but the weather was promising for the following day, and so we were eager to get out early the following morning.

28th October

Most of us were up at 0600, ready to open up the mist nets around the garden at first light. With calm conditions and clear skies, we could already hear birds passing overhead. Josie and I spent most of the morning running the various netting sites around the obs, including the double-panel nets in the nearby crop fields, where many of the passing finches were dropping into. It was a busy morning, with plenty of Goldcrests and Firecrests finding their way into the mist nets, and a few other smart birds like Starling, Reed Bunting and Linnet. In terms of passage, I logged the following numbers during the morning: eight Song Thrushes, 17 Blackbirds, 28 Goldcrests, 152 Skylarks, five Woodlarks, 25 Meadow Pipits, 123 Goldfinches, 13 Pied Wagtails, 160 Linnets, 80 Starlings, 57 Woodpigeons, one Stock Dove, four Reed Buntings, 14 Chaffinches, 15 Greenfinches, seven Firecrests, two Dartford Warblers, five Swallows, five Lapwings, a Continental Coal Tit, and a Sparrowhawk
Linnets and Portland Bird Obs

After this superb visible migration and a busy morning’s ringing, a birder walked into the obs with news of a Pallas’s Warbler in a quarry near Southwell. It isn’t every year you get a chance to see these stunning little leaf warblers, and so most of us jumped at the news and head briskly off in the direction of Southwell. It took a while of scanning the large jumble of scrub and bushes before Martin Cade picked up on the bird, flitting about near the upper reaches. We all reassembled at overlooking the quarry, where we were treated to reasonable views of the beautiful little warbler at regular intervals for the rest of the afternoon. Afterwards, we headed up to Top Fields, where we were treated to fantastic views of Short-eared Owls emerging for a night’s hunting at dusk. 
A great first day.
The super little Pallas’s Warbler, Phylloscopus proregulus

This Short-eared Owl flew right past Ephraim and I, well before the other four birds emerged after sunset. It was brilliant to see these birds hunting on silent wings around the rank grassland around dusk

29th October

The conditions turned a little inclement on Thursday, with a howling south-westerly wind picking up during the night, and bringing with it heavy rainy until late morning. There wasn’t a great deal to be seen in the earlier part of the day, although it was great to see three or four Firecrests flitting about the garden, along with plenty of Goldcrests. I headed for a walk along the coast towards the Pallas’s quarry after lunch, coming across a nice selection of species along the way, including Black Redstart, lots of Kestrels, a Continental Song Thrush, 20 Skylarks, Rock Pipits, over 80 Goldfinches, a Stock Dove and an adult Mediterranean Gull. It was cool to look at the amazing geology of the landscape, with its rocky rock strata and chiselled bays. I ended up at the quarry near Southwell, where the Pallas’s Warbler was still present and showing occasionally. 
We headed back up to Top Fields and Sweet Hill in the evening to look see the emerging owls hunting around the fields. We weren’t disappointed, with at least five Short-eared Owls appearing and giving great views until the light faded into darkness.
Firecrests were a daily sight in the obs garden! 

There were plenty of Goldcrests about, with in excess of 50 on some days (not quite the 100s recorded last week!)
Some landscapes from around the bill

30th October

Despite a calming in the winds the previous evening, conditions were once again a bit grim in the morning, with strong winds and a dull grey covering of cloud blanketing the isle. The morning was largely spent seawatching from the obs veranda, and the following species were logged: 37 Gannets, 22 Razorbills, 29 Kittiwakes, 24 Great Black-backed Gulls and eight Common Scoters. I went for a quick walk around the coast towards the active Lighthouse on Portland Bill midday, where at least eight Black Redstarts were flitting around the beach huts and scattered boulders. On my way back from the bill, I was walking past a flock of House Sparrows near the obs quarry, when I heard an unusual call coming from above me. It took a couple of seconds before realising it was the ‘tick-tick’ of a bunting, which promptly appeared and dropped into the flock of sparrows in front of me. I got my bins on the bird, and was immediately treated to superb views of a LITTLE BUNTING! I watched the bird for a couple of minutes, taking a few images and trying to phone Josie (with no luck). Just at the point at which I was about to head back to the obs, the bird flew up and headed westwards, before circling around and heading over the obs and into the crop fields. Further efforts to relocate the bird unfortunately drew a blank…
I have had a mixed past with these emberizias– I have never actually seen one ‘one the deck’, only having brief glimpses of birds flying overhead in the murk, giving the characteristic ‘tick-tick’. After perhaps three such instances, it was brilliant to finally nail one down!! Just a shame that it didn’t stick around for others to see
The wind eased in the afternoon, and made for a very pleasant evening, which was again spent saw us making the daily pilgrimage to the top of Sweethill to anticipate the emergence of the owls. This particular evening was superb, with a Barn Owl shooting out from between one of the hedges, and spending the next half an hour giving sporadic views as it floated around the surrounding fields. Superb. No fewer than four Short-eared Owls appeared too, with three together in the same scope view at one point! A Little Owl could be heard calling in the distance as we watched the two larger owl species flying about.
One of the things I really enjoyed about the Portland area, in particularly the bill, was the amazing abundance of Kestrels. The density in this small area was ridiculous, with perhaps 20 individuals present within two kilometres squared! It made for some good photographic opportunities, as most of them were relatively non-plussed to human presence, remaining focussed on their small mammalian quarry as prey…
A selection of images from my stay

31st October

Our final morning was a very productive one, with a fresh south-easterly wind and clear skies encouraging a brilliant movement of migrants once again over the bill. The garden was also alive with Goldcrests and smaller passerine migrants. Josie and I opened up the nets fairly early, and hit the jack pot in the first net round, coming across a superb Pallas’s Warbler hanging in one of the nets! We duly fitted a small ring to its leg, before showing the bird to a crowd of admirers, and finally releasing it once again into the obs garden. Other passerines present in the garden and surrounding bushes included a minimum of 42 Goldcrests, six Firecrests, four Redwings, five Song Thrushes, nine Blackbirds, three Chiffchaffs and two Blackcaps
In terms of visible migration, the sky was once again punctuated by the calls of larks, finches and other passing migrants, and so it was great fun trying to keep track of what was flying over. Frequent visits to the crop fields revealed a little more of a passage than was taking place over the obs, and I managed to note down the final tallies: 179 Starlings, 72 Skylarks, five Siskins, five alba wagtails, 15 Meadow Pipits, three Bramblings, three Reed Buntings, 79 Woodpigeons, 310 Linnets, a Lesser Redpoll and a Short-eared Owl. After a last walk up Sweethill, I packed up my few personal effects, and blagged a lift to the nearby Southwell, from where I caught a bus and said goodbye to the delightful Portland…for now at least.
Some more landscapes 

Short-eared Owl

Looking north-east to the Purbeck Heritage coast
Squabbling Great Black-backed gulls

Stonechat in front of the upper lighthouse

One of the two Little Owls that pop in and out of the holes in the obs quarry throughout the day. This bird enjoying the brief patch of sunshine at the end of a duller day

The Ringing

It was great to do some ringing whilst at the obs, helping Josie every day with the conglomeration of mist nets that are positioned around the garden and surrounding crop fields. We trapped and ringed 178 birds during our time there, including some nice species such as the Pallas’s Warbler, Redwings, Starling, Reed Bunting, Song Thrushes, lots of Firecrests and Linnets to name some. By far the most numerous species was Goldcrests.
The ringing station (above), and a few of the highlights below, from top left to bottom: Firecrest, Starling, Reed Bunting, Goldcrest, Pallas’s Warbler and Redwing
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