Sunday, 23 April 2017

A Patch of Yore

I've probably done more birding in the last week than the rest of the year put together. How come? Who knows. It is spring though, so perhaps my sap is rising? There is also the constant drip-drip of birdy gen trickling through Twitter and the like, keeping me abreast of migrant action all along the nearby coast. This is inspiration in itself. Anyway, whatever the cause, I have had the optics out.

It's all been a bit lightweight though. I mostly can't be bothered to drag a scope around. Or a camera. It's been more 'walking, with bins' really...

On Tuesday afternoon I had to drive to Heathrow Terminal 5. I didn't need to rush home so, tempted by the evening sunshine, I dropped in at an old haunt...

This is at the E end of the causeway. Back in the day my visits always began at the other end. And I never, ever remember being welcomed!

The view W along the causeway. A much younger bloke spent most of the 1980s gazing hopefully from this vantage point. He probably looked just as earnest as this.

I don't recall noticing in years past but the place is far from salubrious. That's probably because I was distracted by the consistently amazing birding. Well, that's how I remember it anyway! My tenure coincided with a couple of lengthy drainings. Here's a sample of the quality that I enjoyed back then: Collared Pratincole, several Pec Sands, Lesser Yellowlegs, Baird's Sand, all the phalaropes (including a female Red-necked in full nuptial attire), 2 Kentish Plovers, 3 Temminck's Stints, Long-tailed and Pom Skuas, Ring-billed Gull, 2 Ferruginous Ducks, and even one or two decent passerines like Ring Ouzel, a few Snow Buntings, and (though technically it was on King George VI Res) Tawny Pipit. I've even watched a Guillemot fly over that causeway!

It wasn't bad on Tuesday either. Upon arrival I was blasted by a cold NE wind, which in former times at this juncture would have raised the possibility of Arctic Terns. Sure enough, there were at least a dozen or so doing feeding runs on the S basin, which was quite frankly crawling with birds. Loads of BHGs, and a smattering of Common Terns too. A Great Northern Diver on the N basin was a speck, as in fact were a myriad other floating things. I only had bins. Thirty-something years ago I used to think that birders who turned up at Staines sans scope were manifestly complete noddies, which is probably why I received a fairly terse response from the proper serious-looking birder hunched over his enormous scope at the W end of the causeway...

"Hello. You haven't counted the Arctics have you, by any chance?"
"No, I haven't." [Barely a glance in my direction, though no doubt he'd noticed me approaching, conspicuously scopeless]
"Any Black Terns at all?"
"Not that I've seen." [subtext: "Please just move along now..."]
He was probably a regular. [Eye to scope, eye to scope...he'll soon get the hint]
I remembered I too was a regular once. Also with a lamentably low noddy threshold.

I looked quite hard for Black Terns. And Little Gulls. No joy with either, but I did flush a Little Ringed Plover from the water's edge of the N basin as I sauntered by. It did the decent thing and landed further along, allowing me nice views. Nice bins views.

And then, blow me down if there wasn't a stonking Staines tick waiting by the S basin water tower...


Saturday, 1 April 2017

All-purpose Update

First, birds. Although I saw four Sand Martins on the relatively early date of March 10th, I haven't managed much else in the way of summer migrants. To do so would involve birding effort, of which there has been none. Jolly poor show really. Just this morning my little heart was swelling appreciatively at the sight of so much green in the sunny hedgerows, with their thick froth of blackthorn bloom, a sight I always associate with the arrival of Willow Warblers. Soon their sweetly plaintive song will be everywhere. Lovely. And yet, there was no accompanying urge to hurry home, grab the optics and head off birding somewhere.

In a way it's a shame that I just cannot seem to get the birdy juices flowing right now, but I take consolation from the fact that it has happened before; the interest has merely diminished, not died. And anyway, I still pull up next to the Axe Estuary for a quick look whenever I am working nearby. One day I might even find something...

Before we leave birds... Finally (after I don't know how many attempts) I cycled past Rowden Farm, near Long Bredy, and spotted cattle in the field across the lane, along with, yes, Cattle Egrets too. At least six. I say 'at least' because I forgot my little monocular, and so they were all just white things. Six were definite Cattle White Things, but there were a few other White Thing sp. present also. Here are the 'at least' six, and one indeterminate...

Photo taken with my phone at max zoom. It didn't help.

Last summer I bought a rather nice bike frame on eBay. My intention was to build it into a Sunday-best machine over the cold and dreary winter months. Unfortunately I was rather unwell for most of the winter and failed to summon the necessary enthusiasm for such a project. The onset of spring did the trick though, and in just one week I turned a pile of bits into this:

One Canyon AL SLX with Shimano Ultegra groupset. Drives superb.

As you can see, it has already seen a bit of action down the primrose-studded Dorset lanes. There was minor disappointment when I discovered that it failed to convert a winter of sloth into magical uphill personal bests, but I nevertheless hauled it up Eggardon Hill (the least steep way!) for some pretentious phone camera-work...

Birding from the bike is much harder than I anticipated. There are so many things working against you. The wind, for example. Riding into a headwind renders you deaf to birdsong as the air rushes noisily past your ears. In fact any speed of more than about 12mph generally has the same effect. So the only way I am going to add heard-only birds to my list is when I'm grovelling uphill. Oh, but then there's all the gasping and groaning, which drowns out anything less strident than a Cetti's Warbler. Also, there's not much scanning of the fields, sky and horizon, because you mostly have to look where you're going. Mind you, that does have its compensations, like when a pair of Grey Partridges scuttled across the road in front of me several weeks ago. I'm pretty sure they're nearly as rare around here as they were in the Seaton area.

I shall just have to cycle very slowly on occasion.

Angling-wise, well, spring is here, so the pike tackle has now been stashed until late autumn at least. It is time to think about the Exeter Canal carp. Rob and I have been planning our campaign for some time, and stocking up with bait. Though I haven't managed any fishing time yet, Rob has been down twice. His first trip produced a 5lb tench. As far as we can tell there have only been about half a dozen carp caught since the beginning of the year, despite a lot of effort from the regulars. So we were both mightily chuffed when this happened on Wednesday night...

Rob with a 24lb 8oz Exeter Canal mirror

Apparently this is also the biggest out so far this year. An encouraging start. And, so I am told, not jammy at all.

Although I have caught a few hefty carp in a previous life, it was a long time ago. So I've been trying to get up-to-date with modern rigs and tactics by watching some of the frankly first-rate videos available on YouTube etc. It makes me feel positively antique. The popularity (and ubiquity) of carp fishing has produced a massive and flourishing industry, intent on selling you a vast collection of horribly expensive bits. Years ago we used to joke that if you were a carp angler you could go into a tackle shop, part with a hundred quid, and need nothing more than a small paper bag to carry your purchases home. It's even worse now. I am trying hard to glean as much useful information as possible in order to maximise my chances at minimum cost. This has been huge fun, and I can now tie all sorts of interesting, modern, effective-looking rigs, with zippy names that I had never even heard of a few months ago. I look forward to chucking some of them into the canal soon.

A few things haven't changed though. What anglers call 'watercraft' is one. Like 'fieldcraft' in birding, watercraft cannot be bought, and its shrewd employment can give you a massive edge. Hopefully I still have some. Future blogs will reveal whether that is the case!

Incidentally, the photo above doesn't really do justice to the size of Rob's carp. Apart from the fact that this was his first attempt at a self-take with my camera (hence top of head missing) and that it was pouring with rain, Rob is quite a large chap. Here's a shot of it on the unhooking mat...

Fat as the proverbial...

I never thought I'd ever again get excited at the prospect of catching one of these gorgeous lumps, but this one has got me all fired up...

Saturday, 11 March 2017

Lessons For the Perennial Hobbyist

Today there has been a significant arrival of Wheatears, that perky herald of spring promise. In times past this blog would have tried quite hard to feature a nice early Wheatear photo. That's because its author was a keen birder back then. Quite what he is now I am not exactly sure. I wonder if there is a technical term for a fickle multi-hobbyist?

Not wishing to be accused of navel-gazing I shan't dwell on this thought any longer, but instead offer a couple of lessons from my long and seemingly capricious pursuit of various interests.

1. The Pleasure Principle
I've hijacked this Freudian term in order to state the blinkin' obvious: when the fun stops, change tack. You'd think this would be simple really, but surprisingly it is not. It is quite easy to pursue your hobby down a path of diminishing joy until you reach a dead end, at which point chucking it all in will seem like a good option. I have done this a few times. Here's one of them...

I took this vintage photo at Wilstone Reservoir, Tring, in (I think) 1983. Attached to a tench is Tony Chester, former UK record holder for that species with a 10lb 1oz 4dr fish from probably this very spot in June 1981

The scene pictured above depicts what I had aspired to, angling-wise, a couple of years previously. Like many kids of my generation I started fishing as a young boy, serving an 'apprenticeship' on ponds, rivers and canals which had modest potential when it came to really big fish. Slowly though, pursuit of the whoppers became an important goal. Tring Reservoirs was an obvious venue; despite being a lengthy drive away it was home to the biggest tench in the land, as well as monster bream, roach etc. However, in 1981 I was newly married, with the added responsibilies of a mortgage and a house in need of much DIY. At the age of 22 these circumstances precluded any serious involvement in the world of specimen hunting. What I should have done was adjust my focus and forget Tring. Instead I pressed on regardless and joined the Tring syndicate. Inevitably I wasn't able to dedicate either the time or the resources needed for success on such a challenging venue, and soon burned out. Fishing had stopped being genuinely enjoyable some time before this point, but I had failed to heed the warning signs. I'd like to say "lesson learned" but judging from the next 30-odd years it clearly wasn't!

Anyway, soon I was flogging all my fishing gear and taking up birding in a big and proper way. Within a short time I'd swapped Tring Res for Staines Res, and the rest is history.

2. Pass it on if you can
The love of a hobby is a precious thing. Having a passion that gives pleasure and a sense of fulfillment is a terrific antidote to many of the harsher realities of life. In addition, any 'success' in your chosen pastime surely builds confidence and self-esteem, never a bad thing in this thankless world. For example...

Me, aged 11 or 12, with 2 perch and a tench from Barn Hill Pond. Yes, I was taking the place apart with consummate skill, and feeling pretty good about it too. I was quite independent and would walk there from home with my sarnies, my bottle of squash and my serious fishing hat, and the day would fly by...

Here's a photo taken 20-something years later...

Rob, aged 12, brings a hefty Startops Reservoir perch to the waiting net wielded by Baz, then 9 years old.

Baz never caught the fishing bug, but Rob certainly did. Passing on that love of fishing is one of my great satisfactions in life. I've been pleasantly surprised at the positive effect on our relationship as adults provided by having a common interest in this simple pastime.

So, nothing profound there really, just a couple of lessons from many hours spent in the idle pursuit of various pastimes.

Oh, and Baz, meanwhile, shares my passion for carefully folding and knotting empty crisp packets, chocolate wrappers etc. To be fair, I am not sure if I deliberately passed this on or it's simply an inherited tendency to dispose of rubbish with obsessive neatness, i.e. a genetic thing. Whichever, apart from the obvious fact that the world would benefit hugely from having its waste packaging thrown away nice and tidily I cannot in all honesty advocate it quite as heartily as fishing, birding, cycling, golf, squash, running, playing the guitar, etc, etc, etc, etc...

Friday, 10 March 2017

The Haig Men Get Competitive

Well, this must be a bit tedious for the birders who drop in here. Fishing again. Rob and I recently joined Dorchester & District Angling Society and over this past week have tried a couple of their waters. The club has access to some of the Dorset Stour upstream from Blandford Forum, plus a host of small lakes and ponds. On Wednesday we spent a wet day on the Stour, catching just a few small fish - roach, dace and gudgeon. It was hard going on a very full, fast and coloured river, made more difficult by our unfamiliarity with it. Rob tried one of the lakes last night and had a small carp and a bream of almost 6lb. So this afternoon I skived off work and headed for the same venue, a lovely spot hidden away in the folds of land NE of Bridport. I took two rods, one for catching carp off the surface, the other a lightish spinning rod set up for 'drop-shotting', a method completely new to me but apparently superb for perch. I didn't know if I could get any carp to feed off the surface this early in the year, but as it's always been one of my favourite methods I couldn't resist having a go. And as for drop-shotting, well, I rather fancy catching a decent perch or two and, though I was going to be out of my comfort zone, felt it was time for an old dog to at least try some new tricks...

I was fishing by about 1:45pm, and by the time I packed up four hours later had tried three different lakes and caught two carp and a perch. I found the first carp in the margin, sucking delicacies from the raft of weed covering the surface. I plonked a dog biscuit nearby and watched it disappear with a loud slurp. Very exciting stuff.

12lb 6oz of lovely common carp

Meanwhile I was struggling with the drop-shotting. The rod I was using was far from ideal - too stiff really, and designed for heavier lures than the flyweight drop-shotting outfit. And then, out of the blue, a wallop on the rod top resulted in this little beaut...

1lb 9oz of prickly perch

I say 'little' but in fact this is the biggest perch I've caught in well over 20 years. Mind you, I haven't done much fishing in that time! Although I caught just the one, it was a massive confidence booster. In angling, as in many pursuits, confidence is everything; it breeds success. I already knew that drop-shotting catches perch - I've seen enough published evidence - but now I know that this strange and unfamiliar method works for me, and that makes all the difference.

I managed to get some carp feeding off the top later, but their caginess and my ineptitude meant I caught just one more, a small mirror carp of about 7lb.

Rob and I have decided to spice things up for the year by adding a competitive element. The biggest fish of every species earns a pint. Here's how things lie as of 10th March:

Pike: 16lb (Rob)
Carp: 12lb 6oz (me)
Barbel: 7lb 7oz (me)
Bream: 5lb 14oz (Rob)
Gudgeon: currently no winner - both of us caught some, but neither off us stooped to measuring their size in any comparitive way. This will change though. After all, a pint is a pint.
Dace: c.2oz (me) No dace for Rob yet.
Roach: 20cm (me - the length of my hand from middle finger-tip to wrist crease). Back in the day a roach of 20cm (or rather, 8") would have been known as a 'goer'. A prize to anyone who can tell me the etymology of that term. If you can, I guarantee you'll be older than 45!
Perch: 1lb 9oz (me)
Minnow: Rob has caught one of these and, as I have not, is claiming the species at present. This grates, and clearly smacks of desperation.

So, I am leading 5:3 right now. All that skill for just two pints... More effort required I think.

This little competition has encouraged us to broaden our horizons somewhat. Rather than narrow our focus to just a few species of fish (which is where we initially saw things going, with mainly carp and pike on the agenda) we're all of a sudden rather interested in every species!

Finally, a token birdy snippet: I saw my first proper migs today when 4 Sand Martins briefly visited the lakes, pausing just long enough for a bit of twirling and dipping. All the way from Africa. Never less than awesome.

Saturday, 4 March 2017

Gulls. And Memories...

I wish I was a bit more disciplined when it comes to blog post regularity, because I wind up with more material than I can do justice to. Anyway, here we go again...

It's been pretty good for gulls down here of late. If you read Steve Waite's Axe Birding you'll already know that. Although my occasional 'lunchtime' perusal of the Axe Estuary hasn't given me a white-winger yet it has been nice to bump into Steve once or twice, and a couple of weeks back we shared a 2nd-winter Yellow-legged Gull and a whole bunch of intermedius Lesser Black-backs. One of the latter wore a Danish colour ring - a nice confirmation of its sub-specific status. Back in 2006, on 23rd March, I counted 162 LBBGs on the Axe, and reckoned 100+ were comfortably dark enough for intermedius, though who knows, perhaps all of them were? There's clearly a hefty passage of this subspecies to be witnessed in E Devon, given the right conditions.

It's probably a function of getting older, but I do find myself reminiscing more often. Sometimes there is very good reason. Like yesterday.

Rob has long fancied a trip to the Royalty Fishery, on the Hampshire Avon at Christchurch. It's not exactly the most scenic fishery in the country, but certainly one of the most iconic. Over the years I would imagine that just about every angling 'name' has fished there; it is steeped in piscatorial history. To coarse fisherman it is most famous for its barbel, a powerful species that fights like stink and grows big enough to pull your arm off. I have caught a few barbel from the Royalty, but until yesterday had not wet a line there for 36 years. However, my first acquaintence with the place was even longer ago...

As a mad-keen teenage angler in 1976 I was desperate to catch my first barbel. In July that year I finally got a decent crack at them, a week-long holiday on the Royalty with two fishing friends. We stayed at a B&B just around the corner from the fishery gate and were on the water at opening time every day. 1976 was the famous drought summer and the water level was very low, the fish hard to tempt. Nevertheless, after a couple of days getting the measure of the place we finally began to catch barbel. By the end of the week we'd all had several. The biggest jammily fell to me. Here it is in all its sepia glory:

The original B&W photo (on the apalling 'silk' paper) suffers from camera shake and the print has gone all faded, discoloured and spotty, as you can see. To me, none of this matters. The barbel weighed 7lb 9oz and was caught, uncharacteristically, in the heat of the day. My rod, with much-loved (and long-gone) ABU Cardinal 44 Express reel attached, lies on the ground. The elbow on the left reminds me that there was quite an audience on that sunny afternoon. Yes, this rather tenth-rate image brings it all back...

Visiting the Royalty after all this time truly was a trip down Memory Lane. There were many subtle changes, but the course of a river doesn't change a great deal in 40 years, and much was familiar. Rob and I favoured a roving approach, trying many swims from the top end of the fishery all the way down to the bypass bridge. But it was hard. Very hard. We could not buy a bite. Despite our own lack of success there was ample compensation in the morning when we witnessed someone else's! I mentioned earlier that the Royalty is most famous for its barbel, but to a game fisherman it'll be for the salmon and sea trout. Some enormous salmon run up the Avon, as the following sequence of photos proves...

Salmon on! Rob waits with net.
The angler measured the fish and consulted a length-to-weight table to gauge approximately how heavy it was. 37 inches long translates to roughly 21lb apparently.
Absolutely stunning creature, fresh from the sea...
...and gently returned to continue its journey upstream...

The only other salmon I've seen caught was in 1977, also on the Royalty, also around 20lb.

Anyway, Rob and I pressed on, but without reward. I saw a chap on the opposite bank catch a barbel, but other than that it seemed most, like us, were struggling. Late afternoon came and we split up, both of us choosing different spots to sit out the last hour of light. By now the weather had deteriorated to torrential rain, and I was sitting hunched up in my not-so-waterproofs, willing the rod to hoop over. Just on dusk, it did. The battle was immense, the fish making full use of the swollen river to surge away downstream several times. Eventually though, it was mine, and surprisingly not the monster the fight had suggested. Just for posterity, here is a pretty lame 'in the wet grass' trophy shot of my first Royalty barbel for 36 years...

It weighed 7lb 7oz, and just to add to the day's nostalgia-fest, it was caught literally across the river from the 7lb 9oz fish in that vintage photo above, and in fact the very spot where I caught my first barbel ever. More than 40 years later and here I am landing a barbel which must have picked up my luncheon meat bait within just a few feet of riverbed from where those two historic fish snaffled lumps of the very same disgusting stuff.

Mind you, a lot of water has flowed over it in the meantime. The riverbed, that is...

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Blogging From the Waterside

Well, this is novel - live blogging! The photo above depicts the view as I type, if poking a phone's keypad with one finger can be called typing. Yes, I am once again sheltering from the rain beside the Exeter Ship Canal, gently soaking a couple of dead fish in the hope that a pike might take a fancy to one. Preferably a massive pike. The rain is a nuisance, as it's forcing me to stay in one spot rather than move every hour or two and try a new one. Still, a static approach might work I suppose...

While waiting I've been steadily adding to my waistline. Two months with very little bike hasn't helped in that regard, and the irresistible temptation of fresh-cooked bacon baps and 2-finger KitKats means an awful lot of uphill cycling very soon.

Bird-wise I've seen Kingfisher and Chiffchaff this morning, but as I'm not adjacent to Exminster Marshes or the Exe Estuary today my expectations are low.

Right, that'll do for now. I can always update later if anything much happens...

Time for a brew...

Sunday, 12 February 2017

Should Not Have Gone To Specsavers

"Well, Mr Haig," explained the Specsavers eye bod, "here it is: all of us develop cataracts to some degree or other, but, for your age, I'm afraid you're a little bit ahead of the game. For this reason, and the fact that you work outdoors - where the sun's ultraviolet rays are busily wreaking ocular havoc - I must recommend that you purchase a pair of our Reactions® lenses."

"Are they more expensive than standard varifocals?"

"Of course. Quite a bit more. Which is the third reason why you need some."

Thus was I once again suckered by a plausible sales pitch. Reactions® lenses are Reactolites by another name. The brighter the light, the darker they get. As well as for work I imagined they'd be dead handy for driving and cycling. Well, first of all, a heads-up to my fellow knackered-of-eyes: they don't go dark in the car. That was a surprise. They do however go dark in normal outdoor situations. Very dark. Excellent! I thought, and several days ago headed out on my first bike ride this year, confident that my eyes would be suitably protected and in tip-top shape for nailing the identity of every bird I saw because, yes, this was the official inauguration of my 2017 'Birds from the Bike' list...

Straight away I noticed a problem. My specs darkened up quickly and sucked the colour from everything. The lenses turn grey, rather than that nice warm brown that makes the world all bright and cheerful, so birds flying out of the roadside hedges became dark, colourless silhouettes. I began to regret my choice of eyewear.

I had this sneaky plan to cycle past a certain farm near Litton Cheney where a Cattle Egret had apparently been loitering some days earlier. Approaching the farm I slowed and was astounded to see a field full of loafing egrets. Thirteen of them. Through my Reactions® lenses they were all small and mid-grey and sharply in focus. Unfortunately they were also just that bit too far off to do without bins. I craned forwards as far as I could. They edged away suspiciously. I lowered my specs, hoping for a teeny hint of yellow bill somewhere. They all turned a helpful white, an unhelpful blurry and remained just as small. I squinted desperately. To no avail. And their collective inactivity rendered them all devoid of jizz. I was snookered...

Despite cycling past the farm many times previously, I have never before noticed a single egret in that field, let alone thirteen. Four more were in a nearby field, even further away. Since that day last week I've tried another three times and - you've guessed it - no egrets whatsoever.

Would clear lenses have made a difference? Possibly not. And perhaps they were all Little Egrets anyway. I hope so. Stupid glasses.