Friday, 21 July 2017

The Patch Birder's Lot

Today was earmarked for seawatching. The forecast has been promising since Wednesday. Strong, gusty southerly, a lot of rain. Great. So I stuck to my plan, was up early, and down at Burton Bradstock by 05:40...

To be fair, 21 July is quite early in the season and, although I am no seawatching expert, if pressed for predictions of likely quality I would have said Balearic Shearwater definitely, a good chance of Cory's and/or Great, but not much else. But again, when I say 'good chance' I don't mean for me. No, because Cory's and Great Shearwaters almost never make it into the bowels of Lyme Bay where I live. Balearics, sure, but not those big 'uns. In 12+ years of fairly regular seawatching from Seaton my tally stands at well over 200 Balearics, but just one 'unidentified large shearwater sp.' So, if not for me, then for whom? Well, for any birder planning to seawatch from Berry Head, at the western end of Lyme Bay. July conditions like those forecast for today would make Cory's or Great, or both, a very realistic prospect there.

To sum up: I know my chances of a large shearwater locally are slim to nil, I know that Berry Head may well get them, and I have taken the day off specifically to go seawatching...

I can hear the obvious question. Why, oh why don't you just go to Berry Head??!!

It's the patch birding thing isn't it. The patch is king. And when, as the morning progresses, you learn that Berry Head seawatchers are so overwhelmed with Cory's and Greats they need clickers to keep count, well, you simply shrug and are glad that there are lots about. Because you are loyally sticking to your patch and taking your medicine, and perhaps one of those beauties might stray as far as Burton Bradstock. Little nuggets of hope come your way via text and Twitter. Dawlish has had a few, both Lyme Regis and Seaton a couple of Cory's each. And Charmouth?! Wow!! A Cory's, 2 Greats, 2 Balearics, 2 Bonxies and a blinkin' Sabine's! But then Charmouth is special, which is why you long ago resolved to ignore it for Patchwork Challenge purposes, remember? And then you hear that even Portland Bill is getting big shears, which is almost unknown. So you try harder. You slog it out even when the rain becomes torrential and visibility non-existent. And at the end of the day you add up the numbers from three separate sessions totalling about five and a half hours, and you get...

9 Common Scoters, 19 Med Gulls, 15 Manxies, 16 Whimbrel, and 2 Sandwich Terns. There were also Gannets of course, but it's a long time since I counted Gannets. Even when I'm desperate.

This is, by all measures, pretty dire.

A single Balearic passed West Bexington in six hours of effort there. I did have a probable (pale) Balearic myself, but too briefly. And that was it.

I own a vehicle and I can drive; there were no constraints on my time. Given today's conditions and potential, it was rather like being led to the door of a banqueting hall and shown the sumptuous offerings within, only to spend all day at a table laden with cream crackers, in the vague hope that someone might accidentally have left a cupcake among them.

It's funny what patch birding makes you do.

Burton Bradstock is half way between West Bay and West Bexington, and a long way from large shearwaters. Berry Head is the pointy bit by Brixham, on the left there, and extremely close to all the quality birds on offer. Anyone is free to drive straight over and fill their boots, and I have no doubt that many did. Not me though, I like cream crackers.

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

An Aberration Revealed

Monday 17 July (05:30-07:30)
First patch walk since 23 May. Virtual absence of birdsong very noticeable. Peregrine on beach briefly major highlight. Also noted: 2 Herons, 4 Canada Geese E, c10 Manxies likewise. A few hirundines and Swifts moving. Autumn feels close.

Yes, it was my first visit to Burton Bradstock/Cogden for nearly eight weeks, and yes, it felt very different. Back in May the early morning air was bursting with song. Skylarks, Cetti's Warblers, Whitethroats, Reed Warblers, a single manic Sedgie, to name just a few. Yesterday it was so, so quiet. Autumn really did feel close. I wasn't expecting much, but I did have a target: Yellow-legged Gull. Juv YLGs were a summer feature on the Axe, and the occasional bird is to be expected along the coast here too. In fact one flew W offshore past West Bexington at 07:17 and no doubt past me shortly afterwards, but I was blissfully unaware and certainly not looking in the right direction at the right time. There'll be more, I'm sure...

Unlike a large percentage of my fellow birders I have not spent the intervening eight weeks hunched over a trap-full of flying weeds (as some wit on Twitter described moths) nor pursuing any other of the myriad bird-substitutes which fall in your beer and spatter your windscreen. No, like any sensible 58 year-old I have joined a gym.

I truly hope that some poor, unsuspecting NQS reader just sprayed an involuntary mouthful of coffee all over their screen...

Some blogs out there are pure reportage. Went there, saw this, and here's a photo/lots and lots of photos. They're okay I guess - if the subject interests you. But the ones I enjoy most are those that give you a bit of insight into the blogger, some clues to what makes him/her tick, a hint of human frailty here and there. Like a susceptibility to toe injuries, say. Yes, I like blogs of that kind.

Which is why I am sharing this news. I have never before been a member of a gym, my experience of them is minimal in the extreme, and it is quite likely that this aberration will reveal all kinds of interesting human frailties. In fact, I suppose it already has.

More anon...

It occurred to me that I've never featured the man-cave, so here it is (most of it anyway) taking up a hefty chunk of our tiny garden, and now the location of almost all NQS production.

Saturday, 15 July 2017

That Phasing Thing Again.

Well, Tuesday's sore throat has matured into a full-blown summer cold. So I am cooped up indoors. Boring! Once again I've amused myself on Twitter with vintage twitch photos and whatnot. All good fun. However, also on Twitter I came across a tweet from a young birder who lives not far away. In part it read:

"Help! Totally disinterested in birding currently!...Never been here before..."

I sympathise, because I have been there before. Often. Approximately half of my birding life has been spent phasing.

Understandably this tweet prompted several replies. Most offered some sort of advice, which I read with interest. Some of it was of the 'just get out there and enjoy it' kind, which made me wonder if these particular respondants had themselves ever phased. I can recall a few occasions when I've tried to 'just get out there and enjoy it' - for example twitched a very rare bird with absolutely no enthusiasm. Pointless. Despite 'success' such efforts have left me with rather empty, joyless memories. Compare that with, say, the events described in the last post. Equal 'success' but also euphoria and hence treasured memories. Personally I cannot see any point in pursuing a hobby (or even just an aspect of that hobby) if you are no longer enjoying it.

I suppose my advice to anyone experiencing an unaccustomed lack of zeal for birding would be just to roll with it. Chances are that birding is in your blood, and the urge will return. Maybe I am just a lightweight, but changing tack and letting nature take its course has served me well over the years. I thoroughly enjoyed my little patch-birding flurry this spring, and am confident that a similar wave of enthusiasm is imminent. These days though, I know not to force it...

See also: this post.

Anyway, let's conclude on a high note. Via Twitter I am currently trying to track down any colour photos of the 1984 Titchwell Ross's Gull. Not a lot of joy so far, but in the meantime here are some superb coloured sketches by Mike Langman. Thanks Mike!

Arguably even better than photos. See what I meant? PINK!!

Tuesday, 11 July 2017

A Day to Remember

This is what happens when it's pouring with rain, you've got a sore throat and are going a bit stir-crazy: you get a bike out and tinker with it...

Fiddle, tweak, fuss, fuss...

Also you actively promote the exchange of birdy trivia on Twitter. This is pretty good fun, and reading tweets about the unseemly ticking of rare birds before common ones has cheered me up no end. My favourite so far is Mike Langman's Great Snipe before Jack Snipe when he was just 13 years old. The fact that it was youthfully optimistic string makes it even better! Best grippage goes to Wallcreeper before Guillemot, and Tennessee Warbler before Redstart.

Anyway, all this bird stuff has fired me up with the urge to share a little story. Although my twitching career was fairly short it gave me a lot of terrific memories. Here's one...

It is Sunday 13th May, 1984. Long before the sun has risen I am heading round the North Circular to collect my friend Tim and his girlfriend Jacquita from their flat in Bounds Green, in my stylish 1984 wheels...

Vauxhall Viva HC estate posing nicely at Walsey Hills, Cley.

Our target for the day is Ross's Gull. A summer-plumaged bird has been at Cley since midweek, so will surely be a doddle now that it has settled into a routine. But en route we plan to take in a Little Egret at Thrapston GP, a lifer for us all. Yep, them was the days.

We head off up the A1, and the sky begins to pale as dawn approaches. Coming to the top of a modest rise there is an ominous hesitation from the engine, then a cough, a splutter...and silence. Pox! The fuel gauge doesn't work and I've neglected to fill the tank for the journey! I drop the clutch and we manage to coast at virtually walking pace over the brow of the hill, then gather speed on the downward slope. As the road flattens out and bends to the left we slow again, hearts sinking. And there, right there before us like a desert oasis, is a petrol station! Stupid o'clock on a Sunday morning, yet it's open. We have just enough momentum to roll onto the forecourt and up to a pump. Just. I apply the handbrake and climb out to fill the tank like it's all part of the plan.

I have absolutely no doubt now. Today is going to be brilliant!

Little Egret in the bag and we're soon at Cley, where there is no sign of the gull. I and many others doze on the shingle overlooking the North Scrape. Jacquita goes to buy lunch from the Coastguards Café, and while she's away there is suddenly a distant sound of scrambling shingle. Sure enough, the furthest end of the crowd is hastily gathering its stuff together and beginning to run. We do likewise, though not knowing why. We soon find out. The Ross's Gull is at Titchwell! Now! Jacquita meets us at the car with blisteringly hot pasties and we join the back end of a frantic convoy. The journey is unreal; the coast road is playing host to some kind of pony and trap rally and progress is painfully, painfully slow. At Titchwell we leap from the car, all frayed nerves and scalded tongues, and scuttle seawards. Within seconds I crack and start to run. And run...and run...

That Ross's Gull is right up there with my all-time favourite birds. It was absolutely pristine. And pink. I mean PINK. It is undoubtedly the most gorgeous gull I have ever clapped eyes on. Somewhere out there must be some colour photos. And if there are, they will be stunning. The light was simply fantastic and the bird performed like a star, hawking back and forth over a bright blue lagoon. In the absence of colour, here are a couple of B&W versions from Steve Young. I hope he won't mind me illustrating this post with them. The originals are here and here.

Ross's Gull at Titchwell, 13th May, 1984. Both the above by Steve Young.

Eventually we are satisfied, and there is still plenty of day to play with. What now? There is news of a Thrush Nightingale at Landguard in Suffolk. Shall we? Of course. Much, much later we arrive at Landguard and learn that it hasn't been seen for hours, but there is some consolation: a rather elusive Bluethroat has been found. Okay then, we'll join the Bluethroat crowd. We do, and wait...

After a while a shout goes up: the Thrush Nightingale has been seen again! Everyone hurries towards the compound...except for me and one or two others. A bit of a gamble, but I was dead, dead keen to see my first Bluethroat. We stand quietly, and out it comes, at point-blank range. What. A. Crippler. After a fine performance it melts away into the scrub again and finally we too head for the compound. I find Tim and Jacquita.
Any sign?
Nope. Bluethroat?
They don't really have to ask. It's written all over my face.
At that moment there is a hasty rustling from the crowd as dozens of bins are raised. There it is! Freshly-minted bling on leg, it gives us a front view, pauses, gives us a rear view, pauses, and hops behind a bush. And that's it.

May 13th, 1984. Absolutely nothing could go wrong on that day. Four lifers. Priceless memories...

Friday, 16 June 2017

A Small World

Everyone has a few 'it's a small world' stories. Here's one of mine...

As I mentioned a couple of posts back, at the start of the month I visited some old haunts near London. My secondary school lies at the foot of Harrow-on-the-Hill and a caretaker chap allowed me to nose around the grounds and take some photos. In my day the first and second year classrooms (years 7 and 8 in modern parlance) were located in what used to be a grand old house...

'The Red House'. My first-year classroom lived behind that ground floor bay window from 1970-71

One wall of the building is peppered with these unsightly craters and crevices.

It seems this damage is so severe that one or two bricks have needed replacing and a few courses repointing. I wonder if modern-day observers have any idea how it was caused? Well, just around the corner on the left there used to be a stable-door type affair that would open at break times. Behind it lay what we quaintly called the tuck shop, which stocked the truly enormous Mars Bars and Wagon Wheels that existed in those days. There was always a queue, and it formed along the wall. Boys stood there impatiently, and while waiting would furtively gouge and scrape the soft red bricks with their coins. That's decades of cumulative coin abuse you're looking at there in that photo.

The Red House main entrance. The main school buildings lie on the opposite side of the street - behind me as I took the photo. The metal safety barrier wasn't there in the '70s...

One freezing morning in my final year there was a horrifying noise outside, a loud and crumpled bang. It was obviously a car crash, and as our classroom was right next to the road we were all out in the street within seconds. It was clear what had happened. A Volkswagon Beetle had come up the slope from South Harrow, hit a patch of ice and careered across the road and into one of the brick pillars of the Red House gateway. Initially we couldn't see the driver, but found him wedged in the footwell. With the impact he'd broken off the gear stick with his chest. He'd seen it all coming, so had immediately ducked down to avoid going through the windscreen - this was long before mandatory seatbelt wearing of course. Anyway, two of us helped him out of the wreckage. He was a bit cut and bruised but otherwise okay, so we took him to the school medical room. The Beetle was a write-off.

Scroll forward twenty-odd years and I'm sitting in a pub near Chorleywood with two mates I've known for a decade or so. Conversation gets around to schoolday stories. After a bit one of my friends pipes up...

"Gav, I didn't know that's where you went to school. When I was at Harrow Tech I used to drive up from Surrey every day and take a short-cut over Harrow-on-the-Hill, right past your old school. In fact, one day I smashed up my car right outside it! Straight into the wall! Write-off!"

"It wasn't a Beetle was it...?"

It was.

Sunday, 11 June 2017


After a wet and windy October night on Fair Isle many years ago, I came across an exhausted Storm Petrel in the soggy grass. I gently picked it up, nestled it in my beanie hat and carried it back to the obs. It was so, so tiny...

And tiny is exactly what they look whenever I've encountered them while seawatching. Ludicrously so, especially if you've been watching larger birds go past - Fulmars, Manxies and whatnot. And yet that diminutive scrap of flesh and feather always looks perfectly at home on a heaving sea. They generally appear as a miniscule dark speck skittering quickly through your field of view. And just as you realise what you've got, it jinks, turns and is gone. They are not a common sight off the E Devon/W Dorset coast. My Seaton tally of 153 might suggest otherwise, but 125 of those were in an exceptional 9-day spell during late May 2006. They always head West off here. They might dither about, go back and forth a bit, feeding, but ultimately off they go, relentlessly westwards. I have 153 data points that say so. Or I did...

As I mentioned in the previous post, although there were evidently Stormies around, Monday's effort drew a blank. A pre-work stint on Tuesday did the trick though, and I managed four by 07:00. Or maybe just one. Though it could have been two...or three...

My notes say 1E at 05:30, 1W at 05:55, 1E at 06:17 and 1W at 06:59. How many is that? I can only guess. However, one thing I am confident about: they all/both (or it) will have headed W in the end.

Later that day I had another go. In two hours I had 1W at 16:07 and 1E at 16:09. In this case I am happy to record just the one bird. And I know it will have retraced its steps and gone W again eventually!

Whatever the actual count, Storm Petrel is another two very welcome patchwork challenge points.

Stormies are very, very rarely close inshore here. In my experience they are almost never closer than 200m. If you can detect a hint of white rump through your scope, well, relish the crippling view! Half a mile plus is probably the norm. When I say "miniscule dark speck" I mean it. Spotting these dots at all requires a steady scope, but finding decent shelter when the wind is blasting straight in is really tricky. Unless you take your own seawatching hide...

Monday, 5 June 2017

Seawatching and a Random Grave

At Burton Bradstock is the Hive Beach car park, where I am learning the art of seawatching from a van. The wet hoolie that blew up today was an ideal opportunity to get some practice in. There are so many variables to master. Exactly where to position and point the van, the angle and extension of each tripod leg, which buttock to sacrifice to pins-and-needles...

Here's a tip for anyone with a Manfrotto fluid head: cut the pan arm in half.

I've owned a Manfrotto tripod for more than a decade now and it has served me very well; the super-smooth fluid head is terrific for seawatching when you need to keep track of a distant dot. And then - if you have a zoom lens like mine - you reach up to zero in on your target and claim the Sabine's Gull you are confident it is going to be, when...Aaagh! You accidentally knock the pan arm, jarring the whole scope off target and irretrievably losing your dot! Or you suddenly find the scope won't swing any further because the pan arm is now jammed against the bins on your chest. Both have happened to me countless times and cost me innumerable E Devon Sabs. Why? Because the pan arm is about a yard long, and gets in the way of absolutely everything. If, like me, you've spent well over ten years swearing that you'll cut that annoying arm in half when you get a minute, well, just do it. I did it a few weeks ago and the difference it makes is fantastic. The arm still functions perfectly and now doesn't get in the way at all. So far I haven't missed a single Sabs.

Anyway, I gave the sea a couple of efforts today. An hour this morning got me 21 Manxies and 7 Kitts, and a longer session this afternoon added 40 Manx, a single Kittiwake, 6 Common Scoters, and the highlight, a distant pale phase skua sp. E at 14:25. Mind you, realistically what could I have expected in a June seawatch here? A Storm Petrel perhaps? Yes, maybe. Secretly I was hoping for Long-tailed Skua. Everyone needs a fantasy.

And yes, the best bird had to remain unidentified. Which is June's way of sticking the boot in even when something decent does come along.

Me: "Ooh, hello, what's this?! Looks good...looks like a skua..."
[successfully reaches up to zoom in without knocking scope off-line]
Me: "Hah! Yes! That's right, pan-arm stump, your power is no more!"
Me: "Hmm, definitely pale phase, but...just...too...far..."
June: "Ha-ha-HAAA!"

At the weekend I was in London, and on Saturday toured some old haunts. It was a bit of a nostalgia trip really, and included a visit to my old school, which lies at the foot of Harrow-on-the-Hill. At the top of the hill is St Mary's Church, and I decided to search for a gravestone that I dimly recalled from my youth. To be honest I wasn't sure if my memory was playing tricks, but no it wasn't. I must confess, I'd forgotten that it included some of the most macabre lines of verse that a monumental mason has ever carved I reckon.


The story

The verse. Nice.