Sunday, 23 October 2016

Birding the Troughs

For most of this year I have felt almost no desire to go birding. I am neither surprised nor dismayed by this, it's just how I am. It has happened before.

My most enduring birding 'trough' lasted from the early 1990s to around 2004, some ten years or more. Nevertheless, during this hiatus I managed to find a Thrush Nightingale at Dungeness, a Black Kite on Scilly, and to co-find a Radde's Warbler at St. Margaret's Bay in Kent. The irony is not lost on me! However, these brief instances of birdy endeavour and consequent 'success' were respectively precipitated by a father-and-young-son stay at DBO, a holiday, and a day out with an old friend. But as soon as each was over, the optics were back in mothballs. At the time I was living in Rickmansworth, Herts, and my enthusiasm for local birding was basically nil.

I'm pretty sure my return to the fray in 2004 was prompted by our move to Devon a year or so earlier, and becoming aware that I was now living right on top of an underexploited patch with immense potential. The subsequent ten years saw that potential realised in spades. Seaton, the Axe Estuary and Beer Head are very much more on the birding map these days, and I'm happy to have played at least a small part in this. Still, that chapter is now closed. What next then?

In the last two or three years I have mostly struggled to get the juices flowing. The Cogden patch is undoubtedly good, and has gamely coaxed and cajoled, but with limited success thus far. Perhaps I have tried too hard to make it work. So, I've decided to stop pushing it and to simply let nature take its course. By that I mean just go with the flow, just pursue whatever does motivate me right now. And see where it leads.

During the last week I spent a couple of days working in Seaton. A cursory glance at the estuary revealed a decent crowd of gulls in front of the Tower Hide. Gulls still motivate me a bit. On Tuesday I ventured to the hide and picked out an adult and 1st-winter Med Gull, on Thursday a single 1st-winter. I am conscious that at this time of year the big gulls could easily be hiding a Yellow-legged or even a Casp. I am also conscious that a hide-full of birders could easily be overlooking either...

Thursday, 20 October 2016

Signs of Life in Blogland

Is it true that blogging is dead, and if so, why do bloggers give up?

This was the basic theme for a couple of recent posts from Jonathan Lethbridge, aka Wanstead Birder.

Well, is blogging dead? No, despite an evident decline in bloggish activity, I don't think so. That said, it cannot be denied that many blogs are dead! Which brings us to the second question: why do bloggers give up? For me, this is the interesting one, because I have 'given up' on more than one occasion but never thought to analyse why. So, prompted by JL, I have done so, and am slightly surprised by my conclusions...

Right now I am well into middle age. Never, in all my years, have I not had an active hobby. There have been several. Some are history and will remain so, but one or two are, for want of a better expression, in my blood - birding and fishing, for example. Yet there is something about my personality which renders me quite incapable of pursuing any hobby at a steady, consistent level of effort ad infinitum. I am all peaks and troughs. And in the troughs I stop enjoying it, and therefore stop doing it.

So. Blogging. It's taken me a while to get it, but just recently the penny dropped: writing has become one of my hobbies! Mind you, I have never been one to keep a journal or diary, so why now, so late in life, and why blogging? Short, brutal answer: narcissism. The creative medium of blogging provides a budding writer with an instant audience and, through this, enough feedback to let him know whether his output has any merit. To me this is important. In any hobby I've ever pursued I have always tried to be as good at it as my potential will allow, and I guess writing is no different. An audience allows you to gauge the quality of your writing effort. And in the same way that a skillfully caught fish, or a pleasing half-marathon result, or finding and correctly identifying a scarce bird, all provide a sense of accomplishment, so too a good response to a blog post does likewise. Although I write for myself in the sense that I get satisfaction from the process of putting a post together (dare I say 'crafting a post'?) and do enjoy reading old posts from time to time, if I'm honest I am writing mainly for the reader. Let's be frank: rationalise it any way you like, but a public blog on the internet is a blog looking for an audience...

Anyway, none of this introspection has exactly answered the question 'why do bloggers give up?'

Re other blogs I can only speculate, though I expect the reasons are many and varied. But in my case the answer is easy. Now that I realise writing is one of my hobbies, it fits perfectly the pattern of every other hobby I have ever embraced. Peaks and troughs. Hardly auspicious perhaps. However, those hobbies where the bug has bitten deep have always - eventually - risen like a phoenix from the ashes. NQS is currently fluttering weakly with new life...

Monday, 17 October 2016

It's Good to Have a Hobby or Two

On Saturday afternoon I drove to Blandford Forum in glorious sunshine with my bike in the back of the van. Eight of us had arranged a ride in the picturesque countryside between Wimborne and Shaftsbury. We had a circuit of some 65 miles before us; a few testing hills in the first half, then a coffee stop at Compton Abbas airfield before a flattish run back to Blandford. Nice. Conscious that the evenings are drawing in a bit now, I took my lights. Just on the off-chance...

Ten minutes before arriving at the café the heavens opened. We traipsed wetly in and sat down to big slabs of cake and various hot beverages. The talk was cheerfully gung-ho; we knew the weather forecast was bad, but we were men. Heading out again the rain was heavy. Very heavy. One consequence of a downpour is that all the razor sharp little flints which dry tyres normally shrug off with ease suddenly find themselves nicely lubricated, facilitating effortless passage through the sturdy tread of even a Continental Gatorskin. Soon: Pfftsssss-s-s-s-s...

Puncture #1

It's always the back wheel, the one where you have to manipulate the chain. It's mucky. It's fiddly too, and 10x more so in the wet. Anyway, the mood was "Ah well, not to worry...", a bit of banter and whatnot.

A short while later it was my turn. The routine is familiar, if thankfully quite rare: remove wheel, prize off one side of tyre, winkle out knackered tube, carefully check tyre for cause of puncture, dig out guilty flint, pop in new tube, curse tyre for reluctance to go back on, inflate, hope, refit wheel. As you can imagine, a rear wheel puncture takes several minutes to rectify. I noticed that the tips of my fingers had gone numb, and one or two of the lads were a bit chilled. Standing around in the rain in skimpy togs you certainly feel the temperature dropping as the afternoon heads rapidly toward evening. Anyway, off we went again, quite anxious to get the circulation going once more.

No chance of that.

Suffice to say we totalled six punctures between us, flirted with varying degrees of hypothermia and arrived back in the pitch dark, well after 7pm. All agreed: a truly memorable ride. Eager plans for the next are already afoot.

Cycling is one of my hobbies. Reading the above account, anyone can see the attraction. As well as the exciting risk of mild exposure in this particular case (sadly not guaranteed every time out) factor in the lung-busting joy of a long, steep hill, the exquisite agony of thighs that have been asked too much of, the little thrill as you realise you left your pump at home again...

Yes. Irresistible.

I have other hobbies of course. Birding is one. I suppose blogging kind of is too. In fact this post was going to be all about blogging...and then I had that brilliant ride.

Sunday, 1 May 2016

Short, Sweet and Late

Tuning in to North Downs & Beyond yesterday evening I found a reference to my birdy indolence of late. Suitably chastened, I awoke early, de-iced the windscreen and hurried to the patch, hoping that a Wheatear might have crossed the freezing Channel in order to pose for me. I found four - none in posing mood....

A 'wee, sleekit, cow'rin, tim'rous beastie'
Freshly arrived, and bound for somewhere well north of here I'll bet...
Shingle, Sea Kale, fishing rod, distant cliffs. Context is everything.
Better late than never I guess.

Sorry about the ropey quality, and for blog neglect. Life is to blame...

Monday, 11 April 2016

Good Value!

Every spring a zillion birds pile up the English Channel en route to their northern breeding grounds. Ducks, terns, skuas, waders etc. I don't know exactly how it works, but for more than a decade I have been persuaded that what they do is head up the French coast until the Cherbourg peninsula points them at Portland Bill, then do a sharp right so they can parade past the over-indulged patrons of the Dungeness seawatching hide. My evidence for this is hard to refute - simply compare the figures of PBO and DBO with the pathetic gleanings recorded past Seaton. Anyway, I have a theory: given a very strong E wind I suggest that a number of those birds might just get nudged far enough W into Lyme Bay that they might actually fly past me for a change. When I lived in Seaton this happened once or twice, and is the reason I made for Burton Bradstock in yesterday evening's howling easterly. Unfortunately I forgot to allow for the well known fact that birds don't fly in heavy rain. Instead they just sit on the water, pointing and laughing at the distant fool on the land, huddled miserably behind his dripping scope. Still, ever the optimist I reasoned that there may yet be many birds languishing deep in Lyme Bay, desperate to escape its clutches come first light...

First light eluded me (eyelid malfunction) but I was back in situ by 06:40 and gave it two and a half hours.

Seawatching is a funny game. It's a bit like spending money, but instead of coins you use thirty minute portions of your life...

"Right, I'll give it half an hour."
Thirty minutes pass...
"Tsk! It's a bit slow. Still, I've had a couple of divers. Just another half hour."
Twenty nine birdless minutes pass...
"Okay, that's it then...oh, hang on, what's this? Ah, nice, a little flock of Manxies. Perhaps something's starting to happen."
Thirty minutes and no more Manxies later...
"Right, that's definitely it!"

And thus are 90 of your precious minutes of life spent on 2 Red-throated Divers, 12 Manxies and a little assorted dross.

I realise that many birders can't abide seawatching, but for me the temptation to part with another 30 minutes is often very strong. The above scenario is just the kind to sucker me into frittering away valuable chunks of my life. However, this morning I happily spent more than I could really afford and for once felt I'd got some decent value!

The Numbers
235 Common Scoters, 2 Velvet Scoters, 22 Common Terns, 41 Sarnies, 30 Manx, 1 Arctic Skua, 4 Shoveler and a Great Crested Grebe. The whole lot (bar a couple of Manxies) flew E.

The Context
my largest spring passage Scoter count from Seaton was 152 on 18/4/2005. This was my one and only three-figure tally, but unhappily comprised 77 birds W and 75 E, so who knows how many there actually were! It was notable that many of today's Scoter groups were initially heading towards the coast at a slight angle rather than along it, evidently coming in from further out in Lyme Bay. No wonder Steve drew a blank at Seaton.
As far as I can tell from my scant records, although I had spring Velvets fly past on a handful of occasions off Seaton, only once were birds among a gang of Commons - 2 in a flock of 55. Off Burton I had 2 singles: one with 4 Commons and another with 28. A great deal of motivation to carefully grill every flock!
When it comes to spring tern passage, well, what a delight to have 'commic' types actually close enough to ID to species without resorting to max zoom!
Skuas. Well, a skua is always a seawatching moment, so the first pale phase Arctic of the season is never going to be less than a joy to behold, and even more so when it is close enough to clearly see every detail, from bill tip to pointy central tail feathers!

Burton Bradstock is probably less than 20 miles from Seaton but, as one Twitter correspondent put it: "The difference a few miles makes!"

A lunchtime walk at Cogden added another 81 Manx, 12 Sarnies, 2 Brent Geese, 45 Common Scoters, 5 Common Terns, and a loafing flock of 40-odd Kitts on the sea. Also my first Whitethroat of the year (three days earlier than my earliest at Seaton!) and a few of these...

Sunday, 10 April 2016

Here I am, tippy-tapping away on the laptop within the cosy confines of my nice new man cave. Life is sweet. Aside from the weather I have little to moan about. Except the seawatching of course - that's always ripe for a good moan. Here's a photo I took earlier today...

At around 5pm I drove to the Hive Beach car park in Burton Bradstock, positioned the van at a jaunty angle and pointed my optics seawards for an hour. The coast here faces more or less SW, and with the wind in the east I was hoping for a bit of late afternoon/early evening movement from right to left. Needless to say I didn't get any. Never mind, I am used to rubbish seawatching from years of regularly dashed hopes at Seaton. A flock of 50 or 60 Common Scoters was loafing offshore, and as I zoomed up to try and string something better from among them a gang of half a dozen largish waders flew distantly past in the murk. I'm pretty sure they were Grey Plovers, but pretty sure isn't tickable sure so I had to let them go. Shame. Grey Plover is probably not an annual gimme in this bit of Dorset. But Burton Bradstock isn't part of your patch, you say? Well it is now, for seawatching at least. I can easily add it as a little extension of the Cogden patch without troubling the 3km² limit.

Incidentally, have you ever tried seawatching from a vehicle? I'm useless at it. It's okay with bins I suppose, but when most stuff flies past just off France a scope is handy. Trying to coax my two legs and the tripod's three into some kind of spatial coexistence is a challenge I have yet to master...

The other day a fellow blogger asked if I was phasing again. After all, my only public face is this blog and Twitter, so a period of quietness in both media might be bound to prompt such a query. I thought about it and decided that it was too early to say. These past two months have been pretty stuffed with other things, meaning that yes, the birding, cycling and internettery have been moved onto a back burner, but have they been dropped entirely? No. I've managed a few rides, I've added Wheatear, Sand Martin, Chiff and Willow Warbler to my patch list, and I've been following Twitter and reading blogs, if not actually writing anything myself. So, quiet yes, but phasing? I don't think so.

One recent distraction was an unanticipated journey into the world of juicing. Mrs NQS made me watch a documentary she'd discovered on Netflix called 'Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead'. It's by a bloke called Joe Cross, a very overweight Australian with assorted chronic illnesses who goes on a 60 day road trip in the States, consuming nothing but freshly extracted fruit and vegetable juice. The results are a real eye-opener. My quackery radar is hyper-sensitive, yet I could detect none. Intrigued, I did a bit of research and found more, like this video on YouTube: 'Super Juice Me!' by Jason Vale. I was hooked, and with a 'nothing ventured, nothing gained' kind of attitude embarked on a 28-day experiment, living on virtually nothing but freshly juiced fruit and veg. It was totally fascinating! I figured NQS readers most likely already suspect I'm slightly not right, so resisted the day-by-day chronicle that would have confirmed the worst.

Consider yourselves spared.

Friday, 19 February 2016

Brightening Up a Dull Day

As I type it is raining again, a thin drizzle. The sky is grey, visibility is poor. All is gloom...

Or so it appears. We live towards the edge of Bridport. In fact, technically we live in Bradpole, and the view N from our bungalow includes a swathe of pretty hillside - green fields and trees no more than half a mile away, a constant reminder that we live in a truly beautiful part of the country. On a dismal day like today it is worth remembering that. And the best way that I can think of to appreciate just how beautiful is to get out and cycle it.

I shan't do that just now, but will type a few words instead.

Who doesn't like a nice view? Tastes vary, but a high vantage point embracing a sweep of distant horizon does it for most people I'd guess. Less than 15 miles away is the Hardy monument. Not (as you might expect in Dorset) a celebration of the famous writer, but a memorial to the other Thomas Hardy, the Royal Navy officer who features in Nelson's reported last words: "Kiss me, Hardy". At almost 800ft above sea level its location on Black Down commands a magnificent view, and not too long after moving here last year I worked out that it was a fairly easy bike ride from home. I am pleased to say that my first ever visit to the monument was therefore human-powered. I have been several times since, most recently a couple of weeks back...

This photo wasn't taken to illustrate the view particularly, but even so there's Portland on the left, and a sliver of Chesil Beach and the Fleet on the right - maybe at Abbotsbury?

Basically I ride up here, stop, go Wow! and then cycle home again. There are loads of places around here where I do something similar. Always the stopping, always the Wow! You could do it in a car I suppose, but it wouldn't be the same. On a bike you earn the view, and I suspect you therefore appreciate and savour it more.

The Journey
Even getting to the views is usually a delight. Grinding uphill has its own attractions (arguably) but is not everyone's cup of tea. However, leafy country lanes mostly are, and there is no shortage of them in this part of Dorset. This year I will make more of an effort to record my journeys along them. Watch this space...

Last June I cycled to Portland...

Approximately half the journey there was really nice, but the latter half was horrible, mainly because I found myself on, or right next to, far too many busy main roads; I simply couldn't find any back lane routes at all. When you get to Weymouth there's only one way on to the island - and that's pretty unpleasant - but once down at the Bill it's not so bad. There's even a bird observatory...

Notice how it looks warm and sunny? That's because it was. I'm glad I dug out those pics and wrote this post - it's cheered me up a bit. Every year I seem to get a little more stir crazy in late winter. Right now I am absolutely gagging for spring, sun, heat, dryness, light evenings, lycra shorts and chamois cream. Like any normal person...