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."
Ker-ching!
Thirty minutes pass...
"Tsk! It's a bit slow. Still, I've had a couple of divers. Just another half hour."
Ker-ching!
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."
Ker-ching!
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

Oh...er...Hello

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.

Views
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...

Wednesday, 17 February 2016

Collecting Books. Not

There must be something about February...

Several of my fellow bloggers have been moved to talk about their libraries. Is it the long, dark evenings? The dreary weather? An excuse to sink into the comfy chair with a nice, hot mug of cocoa? Whatever the reason, I shall join them.

I use the word 'library' advisedly, because it sounds serious, scholarly, grown-up. What in fact they have there - taking up valuable space and straining the joists - are nothing more than 'book collections'. A book collection is like a gnome collection, but not as easy to mock. After all, most would agree that books are attractive and somehow worthy. Nevertheless, 'library' is still very much a euphemism for a bit of literary hoarding.

Don't get me wrong, I love books. The smell of them, the chunky feel, the way they look so welcoming when crammed just a wee bit untidily in a bookcase; they make a house a home. On this basis alone I would condone their acquisition. However, I seem to be much more ready to part with them than some! When we moved to Seaton in 2002 I used it as an excuse to thin my collection, well aware that many of my books were almost never opened. Goodbye BWP et al. I made a few bob and relieved myself of about two tons of box carrying. Moving from Seaton to Bridport provided a similar opportunity, also taken. Even now though, a number of my books are no more than home decor. Some of those are kept for sentimental reasons, but some are simply kept...

I don't really get that precious about books, and am always ready to loan them out, sometimes for ever. One or two good 'uns have gone that way. I used to have a fairly decent collection of fishing books, including the first annual of the British Carp Study Group. I bought it in 1974 I think, at a fishing tackle show at the Royal Horticultural Halls in Vincent Square, London. I loaned it out, and haven't seen it since 1970-something. Never mind, I can always get another from a second-hand bookseller...

er...or maybe not!


There is a slightly ironic footnote to this tale. Some years ago Mrs NQS returned from a tour of the Rickmansworth charity shops and announced that she'd bought a couple of books for me. Here they are...


Published respectively in 1980 and 1983, they wound up in my 'library' in exchange for something like a £2 donation to the British Heart Foundation. A copy of The Third BCSG Book is now being offered by the dealer in the screenshot above for £150! Tucked into one of them was the scrap of paper. As you can see, it is entitled 'Carp List'. Straight away that suggests to me a juvenile hand. A list of hefty carp follows, recording the weight, what type of carp it was, and the venue. Any carp fanatic reading this would instantly pick up on the venues, 'Conservative' and 'Fisheries'. These are both Colne Valley carp waters, both operated by clubs with a waiting list of about a hundred years. In other words, highly exclusive, don't bother to apply. The initials? LL = 'Large Lake', SL = 'Small Lake' and NL = 'North Lake'. I know this because I too was once a member of the 'Cons' club, as it was affectionately known. By the time I was fishing the Cons from about 1999 it held carp to over 50 pounds, including several over 40. Huge fish, hence why membership of the Fisheries and Cons clubs was so highly sought after. Judging by the size of carp in the list above, our mystery angler was most likely fishing the lakes in the 1980s. To be honest, that little bit of paper is probably responsible for me hanging on to those books. It adds a small measure of intimacy and makes me curious. Who was the angler? Was he young like I imagine? Why did he part with the books? What's the story?

Perhaps there is some middle-aged bloke out there now, going 'You know, I once had the 3rd and 4th BCSG books...I used to keep my list of carp in one of them. Now, who did I lend them to...?'

Monday, 15 February 2016

Barbour Jackets

When I was a young angler in the 1970s a waxed cotton Barbour jacket was part of the uniform. My first was a Solway Zipper. This was the Barbour to which my angling pals aspired. It was hideously expensive but absolutely essential to angling maturity, like a Mitchell reel or Bruce & Walker rod. When birding began to dominate my outdoor activities I was still in a Barbour jacket; a Barbour Border it was by this time. Still waxed cotton.

Waxed cotton...

Of course, it is still around today, but I cannot think of any other clothing material less deserving of such longevity. It was, and I imagine still is, absolutely foul stuff. It's okay when new, and even has an attractively rustic smell - in my mind's nose I can smell it as I type, in fact - but give it some time and out come its true colours. A waxed cotton jacket is about the most disgusting thing you can wear on a cold, wet winter's day as you sit by the river, waiting forlornly in the drizzle for a bite. Pretty quickly my Solway Zipper lost its supple, slightly-oily-cloth feel and became a clammy, stiff, shiny horror. It was like wearing barely articulated cardboard tubes; it could easily stand up on its own. It also rapidly became less waterproof. Not all over, I'll admit, just in strategically unhelpful areas like the shoulders and most seams. Naturally, being an uncultured oaf I wasn't going to 'maintain' my jacket with a regular dose of Barbour Thornproof Wax Dressing. And anyway, like that was going to make any difference!

Thornproof...

Yes, that was the Barbour tag line. To be fair I don't recall ever ripping a Barbour on thorns, but barbed wire went through it like a hot knife through butter. Never mind though, because Barbour operate a repairs service, or you can buy a repair kit with dressing, spare bits of tartan lining cloth, needles and some good strong thread. Please! It ain't gonna happen, is it! We're talking smelly teenage angler here. No, a coat simply needs to be robust, reliable and comfortable, without the need for human intervention every other day.

Oh, and the fit. Dreadful. I was (and still am) a gangly 6'4". Barbour jackets were not designed for such a frame. Even in XL the sleeves were still too short by some 2" or so. And the chest was simply immense. Finally, the hood. Laughable. It clipped on with four press studs. That was fine. It pulled tight with a drawstring. This was okay, though you had to tie a knot to keep it tight. But the thing was just so small! No peak, and it barely made the front of your hairline. The only way to get any funtionality from the hood was to wind in your neck like a tortoise.

Despite all this, when my Solway Zipper finally rotted to death I replaced it with a Border. More of the same. What possessed me? I don't know, but can only assume there wasn't much else available, or I was just a sucker for the label. Of course, the label is still going strong. Still very expensive, and please help yourself to waxed cotton if you must. But I don't see many anglers or birders wearing Barbour jackets these days. Perhaps they all owned a 1975 Solway Zipper and therefore know better...

Edit: forgot I had this pic. Solway Zipper in action on the Royalty Fishery, Hants Avon in Dec 1979. Evidence that, despite my recollection to the contrary, it did actually allow me to bend my arms.

Monday, 1 February 2016

A Gull for Lunch

Whenever I'm working in the Seaton area I do try to wind up next to the Axe Estuary at lunch time. At this time of year there's always the chance of a decent gull. Today there was a good collection of birds down by the tram sheds, so after a quick look upstream I pulled over and checked them out, trying not to get sarnie crumbs all over my optics. Nothing much though, so lunch break over and back to work. Heading through the town I pass Steve going in the opposite direction...

A few minutes later, 'ding', a text: 'Nice ad argentatus cori corner'

Typical!

Thankfully I wasn't mid-way through a job, and was back by the the river pretty quickly.

Steve has already mentioned the fact on his blog, but it's worth pointing out just how scarce a bird is 'Scandinavian' Herring Gull in Devon. It is an A-list rarity, along with Red-throated Pipit, White-billed Diver and Alpine Swift, and rightly so. Including this one I have seen a grand total of just three in this neck of the woods - both the others (also adults) were on 28 January, 2011. Compare that with five Ring-billed Gulls and something like nine or ten Caspian Gulls (er, yes, I can't recall exactly. I know, shameful) and you get the picture.

Here it is on its own - and yes, I know -  looking exactly like every other Herring Gull, ever.
But here it is with an adult argenteus, significantly darker.
Argentatus Herring Gulls tend to have more white/less black in the primaries than argenteus. This bird seems to fit the bill okay, with a long white tip to p10, no black in p5 and just a bit in p6. Also interesting was how little black is visible from underneath; if this is a useful feature, I wasn't aware of it. Compare with the argenteus underwing pictured below...
[see caption to photo above]

As we know, gulls are variable, hybridise like crazy, and eat radioactive plastic, so I suppose this bird could be anything really. However, it looks alright to me and I am quite happy to call it an argentatus Herring Gull. Very nice it was too.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the estuary the Island Hide on Black Hole Marsh was apparently creaking at the seams. Why? Because there's a Green-winged Teal to be had. It hadn't been seen for at least an hour and a half when I popped over, so I didn't even get out of the van but headed straight off to work. In a way I was glad it wasn't showing. It's funny, I had kind of felt obliged to go and make an effort, yet knew I'd not enjoy it much. The gull had been in a different league. There's never going to be a crowd for that! Just Steve, Ian M and myself, watching it from the side of the river, out in the open...so, SO much better than crammed in a hide...

Maybe that's why I like gulls? Because so few others do...