Friday 1 January 2021

Wildlife Review 2020: Birds

A total of 185 species were recorded on site this year with 35 species confirmed breeding, including Mute Swan, four pairs of Stonechat, three pairs of Cirl Bunting and two pairs of Little Grebe. However a lone male Reed Bunting holding territory revealed another species lost.

Cirl Bunting - Lee Collins

There were no new species recorded and the annual total was around the average for the last five years, but 2020 wasn't without its highlights with several notable sightings and five new site record counts Cattle Egret (44 in Oct), Mediterranean Gull (223 in Jul), House Martin (4,806 in Oct) and Cirl Bunting (14) & Shelduck (159) both in Dec. 

Omissions from the year list included Black Tern, for the first time for at least 30 years, Turtle Dove, Grey Phalarope, Pochard and Puffin with regular no shows from Black-throated Diver, Coot, Dartford Warbler and Spotted Redshank. 

Rarities included a presumed Yelkouan Shearwater, the 5th Baird’s Sandpiper, the 6th record (and beyond) Cattle Egret, the 6th Melodious Warbler, the 7th Caspian Gull and 10th Richard’s Pipit.

Slavonian Grebe. Herbert spent a 14th year in residence on the estuary. 


2020 got off to a slow start with poor visibility and a persistent drizzle on the 1st but a respectable total of 73 species were recorded. The highlights included the first Jack Snipe since December 2017, along with the wintering Scandinavian Rock Pipit, a female Eider, the only Devon record of the winter, and Herbert the resident Slavonian Grebe; once again the only one recorded during the year. 

Highlights included two Whooper Swan north in off the sea on 5th, the first since Oct 2013 and 25 Cattle Egret roosting in the Railway Saltmarsh on 11th, the sixth site record. These were part of a flock that wintered on the estuary. Varying numbers were seen during the following week, with a new peak of 26 on 18th. 

Very high numbers of gulls were present mid-month with c3000 Black-headed and 272 Common Gull, both the largest counts since the 1980s. Snipe numbers remained high with a max of 200 midmonth. Offshore Great-crested Grebe continued to decline peaking at 70 late month with a max of just 16 Red-throated Diver. Late month the Exmouth Red-necked Grebe ventured into the Recording Area, becoming the first record since Nov 2016. The only Black Redstart of the year was on Warren Point on the 24th, a bird also borrowed from Exmouth.


The Whimbrel overwintering on the estuary spent much of the month roosting at the Warren, with a Water Pipit also making sporadic appearances. A high count of 133 Turnstone early month were presumably linked to stormy weather, and the flooded conditions elsewhere no doubt accounted for the year’s peak count of 472 Dark-bellied Brent Geese.

Grey Plover - Alan Keatley. A bird ringed at Exminster Marshes by the Devon & Cornwall Wader Ringing Group

The warm winter was reflected by the discovery of an active Collared Dove nest on 6th, a Firecrest was elusive early month and eight Tufted Duck flew south on the 15th, one of only two records this year. Late month a few Meadow Pipit and the first migrant Chiffchaff hinted at the start of Spring.


The month began with a brief visit of one of Torbay’s wintering Pomarine Skua, attracted north by trawlers and attendant gull flocks with the year’s second Firecrest the next day.  

A Jack Snipe was present on the 7th when 75 Snipe constituted the highest March count since 1987, the next day 152 Snipe were present! Black-tailed Godwit were also present in higher than usual numbers, with a peak of 530 on 12th, the second highest ever count.

Wheatear - Alan Keatley

The long-awaited first two Wheatear arrived on the 16th, a day earlier than 2019. Even more tardy the year’s first Sandwich Tern finally showed up on the next day. The first minor Spring fall was on the 19th with four Wheatear, at least seven Chiffchaff and the second earliest ever Blackcap

The month’s highlight was a female Kentish Plover on 21st – 23rd, the earliest ever, just beating one on 22nd March 2001. It was the first site record since April 2016 for this once annual visitor to the Warren. 

Kentish Plover - Lee Collins

The month ended with a Red Kite on the 23rd, the first Osprey next day, and a Little Ringed Plover on 28th.


The highlight was a male Ring Ouzel on 4th on the Golf Course fairways and even heard sub-singing. This was the 20th individual (18 records) for the Recording Area, the earliest ever and first since 2015. 

Wader migration picked up during the month the highlight of which were two Avocet that flew NE on 10th; the first April record since 2006 and one of only two records this year. Regular two-figure counts of Whimbrel from 6th with a max of c.70 (26th); a Welsh ringed bird was present at Dawlish Warren for its fourth spring visit. The first Common Sandpiper was on the seawall on 24th and a flock of 154 Dunlin on 28th were new arrivals.

Sandwich Tern passage was very light with a max of just 36 on 19th; by contrast, Common Tern peaked at 31 on 30th. Other terns that day included two Roseate, two Arctic and a Little Tern.

Offshore Red-throated Diver peaked at 11 on 4th and nine on 12th, but it was the first blank April since 1995 for Great Northern Diver.  Three Great and a Pomarine Skua passed on with a single Arctic Skua on 19th.  

Spring migrants were in short supply with 18 Wheatear the worst tally since 1994. Selected maxima included 11 Chiffchaff, five Whitethroat, four Blackcap and two Willow Warbler, although a Redstart on 23rd was a species not seen every Spring. Overhead, just six Yellow Wagtail and a Tree Pipit on 8th, hirundine passage was also lighter than average with single-figures of Sand and House Martin, and a max of 41 Swallow

Osprey - Lee Collins

Other records included up to four Raven regularly foraging on the Golf Course, a Mistle Thrush doing the same on 2nd & 6th, an Osprey on 7th, a Red Kite on 11th and an unseasonal Kingfisher the same day, the first in April since 2003.


It was the sunniest and driest May in England on record and the lack of migrants, both waders and passerines, reflected the weather; some days even failing to pass 50 species, a very poor tally for site.

Snow Bunting - Lee Collins

The month started well with a female Snow Bunting on the 4th, the first ever May record. The same day saw 17 Little and two Arctic Tern offshore with a Pomarine and three Arctic Skua.

A Red Kite passed through on the 6th with the 28th Warren Marsh Harrier over the next day, the first in May since 2004. Six more Red Kite moved through on both the 12th & 21st with two Hobby also recorded during the month. 

Red Kite - Lee Collins

The pick of the migrants were limited to a Spotted Flycatcher on 23rd and just two Cuckoo, both feeding on Brown-tail caterpillars on Warren Point. Single Mistle Thrush and Siskin on the 12th were perhaps the first post breeding movements.

Wader passage although limited, included three colour-ringed 'Sanderbling' from Greenland, Mauritania and Guinea Bissau respectively. A Golden Plover that arrived on 29th was just the tenth May record.

Other records included a Gadwall and the only 2020 Little Gull, a first-summer, on 7th, two Greylag Geese on the 9th were also the year’s only record. The first Balearic Shearwater passed offshore in the 23rd. 


Following a quiet May, June was more eventful, with 71 species, the record day list for the month, noted on Midsummers Day.

Highlights included a Red Kite with food (probably a dead Rabbit) on Warren Point on 4th, the first ever grounded record; a female Long-tailed Duck on the 10th was only the third record for the month, following a summering duck in 1983 and an immature on 25th June 1989; two Goosander on the 21st, the first ever June record; and the first ever Indian Peahen (Peacock) early month.

Other records included the Golden Plover until the 22nd, possibly a returning bird from 2019 which was the first June record since 2004; a late Spotted Flycatcher on 1st; the sixth ever June Osprey on 7th; two Mistle Thrush and a Coal Tit on 10th, the first of a good autumn for the latter species; a Cuckoo again on Warren Point on 11-12th; an unseasonal  Dark-bellied Brent Goose on 20-21st, the only 2020 Treecreeper on the 22nd and a Teal on the Dune Pond on 28th, the fourth June record, all since 2010.

The end of the month saw passage pick up in the estuary, a Polish Black-headed Gull ringed in June 2012, and this is the fifth autumn it has been seen at Dawlish Warren, the first three-figure count of returning Curlew on the 22nd was line with the early arrival of presumed failed breeders, since 1999. The first juvenile Sandwich Tern and Black-headed Gull arrived on the 25th, along with 17 Mediterranean Gull the start of a record passage. 

Breeding records included three pairs of Cirl Bunting and, for the first time, four pairs of Stonechat, two pairs of Little Grebe, Reed Warbler holding territory in all four ponds, one pair of Collared Dove, now a regular breeder, but no confirmed Reed Bunting for the first time in many years.

The male of a pair of Mute Swan nesting on the Main Pond was ringed (yellow ‘DDN’) at Abbotsbury, Dorset as a first-summer in July 2015 and has been periodically seen at the Warren since April 2018.


An early summer storm on the 4th produced some excellent sea-watching, with a Yelkouan Shearwater amongst 132 Balearic and just three Manx Shearwater. It was also a rare four skua day with a single adult Long-tailed, four Pomarine, 17 Arctic and a Great Skua. The fourth ever July Long-tailed Duck also flew through, presumably the June bird that had spent some time at Christchurch Harbour in the intervening period. 

The next day saw at least six Pomarine Skua present, with birds having presumably roosted in the bay, but only a handful of shearwaters passed in the evening. The first four Roseate Tern of the autumn were in the estuary, in total at least 12 different birds were recorded this autumn, a welcome increase.

Other highlights included a flock of ten Goosander past the seawall on 1st with three in the estuary on 8-12th; ten Cattle Egret north through the estuary mouth followed soon after by an eclipse male Tufted Duck on the 16th; and two single Green Sandpiper on 18th & 31st.

Records from the estuary included the first of the autumn’s record 19 Yellow-legged Gull on the 6th, whilst Mediterranean Gull numbers passed three-figures for the first time with at least 123 on 9th with a further influx reached a new peak of 223 on 14th. Three Little Ringed Plover dropped in on 19th with summer-plumaged Curlew Sandpiper and Little Stint on the 31st. The last time these species were recorded in July was 2012 & 2005, respectively; the last time both were seen together in July was 1987.

Curlew Sandpiper - 

The pick of the many ringing recoveries during the month was from a metal ringed Sandwich Tern. This was one of only five birds ever ringed in South Africa and recovered in Britain.  It was ringed as an adult on 1st December 2007. Remarkably this same bird was seen here at Dawlish Warren 18th - 22nd July 2019. It was also at Brownsea Island, Poole Harbour, Dorset on 11th May 2008 and 7th May 2011, presumably its breeding colony. 

Redstart - 

Passerine migrants saw the first Willow Warbler mid-month, a juvenile Redstart that remained 18th – 2nd Aug, a Sedge Warbler on 26th and a July record 20 Blackcap with a Garden and a second Sedge Warbler on 28th. The month ended with the year’s only Grasshopper Warbler on Warren Point on 31st.


A quiet start to the month although the Redstart, Roseate Tern and Curlew Sandpiper remained on the 1st with the third Green Sandpiper of the year also present.

Wood Sandpiper (and Dunlin) - Lee Collins

The 8th saw the first of the six Little Ringed Plover recorded during the month, with the first of a good run of three Wood Sandpiper on the 9th; the 41st-43rd records. Much more frequent, at the Warren at least, a juvenile Kentish Plover was joined in the evening by a second bird on the 13th, the 102th -103rd site records. 

Kentish Plover - Alan Keatley

Other notable wader records included another Green Sandpiper on 23rd, the first two Ruff of the year on 29th, six Curlew Sandpiper and a juvenile Little Stint on 30th.

The year’s most popular bird was a sadly one-eyed Melodious Warbler found near the Main Pond on 17th. It remained until the 23rd, it was at times unusually co-operative, but could equally disappear for long periods as to be expected with this species. This was the sixth Warren record, but the first since 1983. Generally migrants were however short in supply with single Spotted Flycatcher and Yellow Wagtail, five Sedge and three Garden Warbler during the month.

Melodious Warbler - Luke Harman

Other records included the first returning Wigeon on the 14th, a Short-eared Owl on 22nd, the earliest autumn record since July 1959 and only the second ever August record; two Spoonbill visited from top end of estuary on 27-28th; just one Osprey and following Storm Francis on the 25th, three Storm Petrel and a Great Northern Diver.


The year’s first Whinchat and the month’s only Garden Warbler were present on the 2nd. An Osprey was overhead on the 5th before being seen later off Powderham.

A typically elusive Wryneck was present around Greenland Lake on 6-7th, probably the 40th individual here. A Nuthatch found the same day was an even rarer visitor to the Warren with a Hobby and the first 13 Pale-bellied Brent Geese of the autumn arriving mid morning. The year’s second Whinchat arrived on the 7th.

Mid month was quiet although the first Dark-bellied Brent Goose arrived on the 9th and a third Whinchat was present on the 14th. A change in weather saw the first Chaffinch and Lesser Redpoll of the autumn overhead on the 15th along with the only Tree Pipit of the month. An Osprey departed high to the south and three juvenile Little Stint appeared in the Bight.

Vis mig continued on the 19th with 109 Siskin overhead, with 192 passing the next day, the highest count since Oct. The 20th also saw 595+ House Martin pass through, the highest count here since Sep 2006 and 13 Grey Wagtail, the highest count since Oct 2014. Away from the skies eight Avocet circled the Bight, before heading back south out to sea.

Other records included just six Yellow Wagtail and two Sedge Warbler, a Little Ringed Plover on 26th was the latest since 1983, and the first Snow Goose for the Recording Area was with Canada Geese on 27-28th.

Sedge Warbler - Alan Keatley


The month started with a Buzzard roosting on site, just the second grounded record for the Warren. Strom Alex on the 2nd saw 46 Pintail in the estuary, the third highest count here in 40 years and the year’s second record of Ruff

The morning of the 3rd saw a spectacular and unprecedented passage of 4,806+ House Martin with pulses numbering hundreds at a time. Four-figure counts have only occurred at the Warren twice before, in Sep 1983 (1,000+) and Sep 2002 (1,500+).  In total more House Martin passed through in five hours than in the past five years combined!

Whilst counting, the first Merlin of the year flew through, as did an Osprey, the first three Lapwing of the year and two Goosander.

An elusive Yellow-browed Warbler on 5-7th moved between the Main Pond and Dead Dolphin Wood, but the main feature of the month were Cattle Egret with a record 24 roosting in the Saltmarsh on the 11th; birds remained in varying numbers until the 27th with the record increasing three more times until a peak of 44 on the last date.

Cattle Egret - Lee Collins

More vis mig midmonth saw 19 Crossbill and the first Brambling of the year move through, along with 11 Coal Tit on the 15th with the next day seeing 20 Crossbill, two Mistle Thrush, the latest Sand Martin since 1997 and a Yellowhammer that remained for three days.

The year’s only Tawny Owl was seen early morning on the 17th when 10 more Crossbill move through, as well as another Mistle Thrush and the first Fieldfare of the year. The highlight though were two Great White Egret, which meant the first ever three-egret day on site. 

A single Great White Egret flew over the next day, making two three-egret days in a row, three Short-eared Owl circled Warren Point, a pair of Gadwall were the only the second record of the year and a late Reed Warbler was at the Main Pond. 

The site’s 11th Cetti’s Warbler turned up on the 25th as well as a brief Snow Bunting, the 20th individual since 2000. These were however bettered by the 5th ever Baird’s Sandpiper on the 27th, the first since 2001, it unfortunately failed to linger. 

Other records included the latest Yellow Wagtail since 1987 on 23rd, several Little Stint including the latest since 2003 on 29th, the same day as a late House Martin.

Storm Aiden on the last day of the month delivered an adult Sabine's Gull, the first since Sep 2011, a single Pomarine Skua, Storm Petrel and a Sooty Shearwater.


The start of the month saw a couple of Firecrest and a Merlin still on site, with a late Wheatear on the beach and a Goosander circling offshore on the 2nd. 

Firecrest - Alan Keatley

The annual pigeon movement started on the 3rd with 5,980 Woodpigeon overhead, the same day saw the second Yellow-browed Warbler and Yellowhammer of the year and 35 Cattle Egret returned to the saltmarsh. The next morning saw 37,575 Woodpigeon overhead with three Brambling picked out amongst the high flying finch flocks. The highlight though was a brief Tree Pipit, the latest ever record beating the previous record of 25 Oct 1958. The 5th saw a third day of movement with another 9,340 Woodpigeon, 203 Jackdaw, three Brambling and two Mistle Thrush. 

Caspian Gull - Lee Collins

Attention on the 6th was drawn back to the estuary with a 2nd winter Caspian Gull on Finger Point, the site's 7th record; all since April 2014. Back to the skies on the 7th when the tenth site Richard’s Pipit flew through. 

Last winter’s colour-ringed Scandinavian Rock Pipit reappeared alongside a second colour-ringed bird, both from Norway. The second bird moved to Exton for several days before returning to the Warren.

Scandinavian Rock Pipit - Alan Keatley

A drake Long-tailed Duck flew over the golf course and out to sea on the 16th with 690 Black-tailed Godwit the next day. This was the second highest Warren count, closely matching the timing of the max count from last November.

The first Glaucous Gull of the year flew south past the seawall on the 18th when a very late Wheatear on Warren Point. An isolated movement of 25,505 Woodpigeon occurred on the 19th.

The 22nd saw two record November counts from the seawall with 36 Great-crested Grebe and 28 Great Northern Diver whilst the third record of Great White Egret for the year flew over and the first Siberian Chiffchaff since Oct 2017 appeared in the Entrance Bushes.

Purple Sandpiper - Alan Keatley

Langstone Rock took centre stage on the 28th with a Velvet Scoter and a Purple Sandpiper present, both the only records for the year. 


The main news was the loss of access to the hide, following continued erosion of the new dune ridge. Despite several attempts to reroute the path too much material has now been lost, this came some 12 months after the geotube was first exposed, and is the first time in at least 50 years that there is no public access to this viewpoint. 

This last attempt to maintain access to the hide lasted barely a week before being washed away - Ivan Lakin

The month started with a Whooper Swan in off the sea and north up the estuary, the 13th site record (26 birds) since 1954. Other notable records included a Goosander on the 4th; another Yellowhammer and a Water Pipit; a Black-necked Grebe offshore on the 17th and again on the 30th; a female Scaup from the 19 – 27th was the first since Nov 2016 and second first winter Glaucous Gull on the 23rd.

Scaup - Alan Keatley

The year ended with a record count of 14 Cirl Bunting on the 31st with a couple of Coal Tit, a Firecrest and a Siberian Chiffchaff looking set to overwinter but wader and wildfowl numbers remained largely at a low ebb and seaduck almost non-existent. 

Happy New Year to all. Many thanks to those who share their sightings with Recording Group. Good & safe birding for 2021 and hope to see you on the Warren sometime later this year.

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