Saturday, 10 December 2016

Summer Scilly Birds

A few posts back I implied that Scilly in July was birdless. Regular readers will have recognised the hyperbole and ignored it, because Scilly in July certainly is not birdless. As at all times of the year it is heaving with extremely common birds. Millions of them. My point of course was this: in spring and autumn you have to check each and every one of them in case they are accidentally not common. In October for example, you have to make sure that the Wren's head is not attached to a Dusky Warbler's body, and that the Robin which just flicked up into the hedge didn't have a blue tail. All this is massively time-consuming. The difference in July is that you can simply ignore them all and get on with sight-seeing, because not a single one of those common birds will be rare.

However, this is not the case if you head out to sea in a boat...

As we walked ashore from the Scillonian III on 19 July I was acutely aware of two things. One, there was a realistic chance of a lifer on this holiday, and two, that chance was only viable if I was prepared to endure a pelagic.

I'm not a fan of boats. I'm not a good sailor, that's all. I have vivid memories of a boat fishing trip out of Penzance when I was about 14. They haunt me still. Waving goodbye to the rest of my family as they stood on the quay to see me off, I was brim-full of excitement and optimism, just thrilled to be on a proper charter boat with proper grown-up sea anglers. Brilliant! About an hour later I threw up for the first time, and again shortly afterwards. After that it was every twenty minutes without fail, I'd be hanging over the side wretching and gagging and wanting to die. Once you've dispensed with the solids, all you have left to offer are stomach juices and loose bits of duodenum. It's hideous. And exhausting. And something I am anxious never to repeat.

Mind you, I did see my first ever Storm Petrel that day. I expect it was investigating my special chum slick...

Which kind of brings me to the subject at hand. Wilson's Petrel. In truth I had resigned myself to never seeing one, because it would definitely involve a small boat. My good mate @birdingprof has tried a couple of times to tempt me onto a Scillonian pelagic, arguing that this is a big boat, but for me the crossing to Scilly is awful enough. No thanks. My decision was vindicated last time when the weather turned out absolutely dreadful and hundreds of birders were tossed about the ship like so many rag dolls and battered against various knobbly, unyielding bits of superstructure. Still, I imagine a lot of birders got home that night - or perhaps the next week, after they were released from hospital - totally buzzing. And, I suppose, the blood a vomit spatterings would soon wash out, and the bones eventually mend...

Nevertheless, not for me, ta.

So what on earth was I thinking, walking into a shop in Hugh Town and buying two of these:

Ticket for the evening pelagic, 25 July, 2016. On the back is written 'Spectator' which is Scillonian for idiot.

In the event it wasn't as bad as I feared. But I must point out one thing for those who have yet to experience a pelagic. You know those superb, crisp shots of rare seabirds that appear everywhere? And how they make you think "Ooh, they must get brilliant views on those pelagics"? Well, just remember it's a camera which has done that, a machine that freezes 1/1000 sec into something you can peruse at your leisure for several minutes while you analyse every subtle identification feature. What your eye gets - as the boat heaves in the swell and you struggle to keep your bins even remotely steady - is not quite the same...

Here we are heading out from the islands, St. Agnes on the left and St. Mary's on the right. Mrs NQS in full pelagic mode...

There were a few Scilly stalwarts aboard. John Higginson in action here. Note that Higgo is 'braced', with his back against the cabin, feet apart, knees slightly bent. It might look calm, but that boat was going up and down like a fiddler's elbow, believe me...

Shortly after taking that last photo I was scanning ahead, past Higgo, when I spotted two petrels. I called them immediately. Within seconds Higgo was on them too and straight away said "One's a Wilson's!" As we drew closer it was obvious that they were different, and the ID features were surprisingly easy to see. That was my lifer then. Excellent. Later we had cracking views of another, as well as one or two Cory's Shearwaters.

Just as good were the sharks. Most on the boat were either shark fishing or watching the shark fishing...

Shark on! Three or four were caught I think, all blue sharks.
Sapphire skipper, Joe Pender, takes a mean 'at sea' bird photo and knows his onions. Here he is, explaining the finer points of ID: "Note how Wilson's lacks a white bar on the underwing coverts...and look at the yellow webs between its toes here..."
Arriving back at Hugh Town harbour I reviewed the experience. I was delighted to have nailed a Wilson's Petrel with just the one pelagic. Although I effectively 'found' it I wondered if I would have identified it with total confidence? Higgo's quick shout was borne of many previous encounters, and though the species is quite distinctive it is also subtle; it was good to have experienced eyes present. Seeing sharks up close was brilliant too. Impressive creatures. Best of all though was keeping my dinner down. Absolutely superb.

Thursday, 8 December 2016

A Fishy Milestone

As a fishing-mad youngster, pike were what other anglers caught. My encounters with them usually involved a big swirl in the water, a yank on the rod and then a slack, hookless line waving in the breeze. Yes, once again the little roach I was winding in had been ambushed by a lurking freshwater shark. Eventually I made efforts to catch them deliberately, but with limited success; I reckon I've caught probably less than ten double-figure (i.e. 10lb+) pike. But as they were rarely my quarry of choice even in my most enthusiastic angling years, this tally fairly reflects the modest level of application. I never did manage a 'twenty'; my biggest was 16lb 8oz. To catch a twenty-pound pike is to cross a threshold. It's probably equivalent to finding a BB rarity...

Rob and I were away to a slow start yesterday. I am struggling to shake off a virus at the moment, so our intended overnight session was shortened to just a few hours. Static deadbaits was the plan, which meant we needed something to sit on during the inevitable wait. My vintage fishing chair is missing a foot, and Rob's is with a new owner after he kindly left it in a lakeside car park for anyone to take home back in August. New chairs then. So our first port of call was a tackle shop, where we emptied our wallets. Finally, we were tackled up and fishing by a ridiculously late 3:00pm.

The sun set and all was quiet. I'd just brewed our second or third cuppa when my bite alarm beeped, and then beeped again. The bobbin was lifting an inch, dropping an inch, lifting again - a very twitchy, tentative take. I picked up the rod and felt the line; it was tightening gently. Winding down, I struck and the rod took on a satisfying curve. A couple of kicks and then it was coming quite easily. In response to a query from Rob I said "Nah, it doesn't feel very big" and he readied himself with the landing net. The fish took a little bit of line and I had to backwind a couple of turns, but otherwise it was mainly just a weighty resistance. Suddenly there was a swirl right by the net and in the light of our head-torches I glimpsed a hefty lump of pike turn and dive. Oh, I thought, that looks quite decent actually. In a moment Rob had it netted, struggling a bit to get its tail over the cord. I put the rod down and peered into the water. There lay a large pike. To my rusty eye it looked very large in fact. Conscious that I'd overestimated the size of the last one, I said to Rob "How big do you reckon?" "Upper double?" he replied, like me unwilling to voice what we were both wondering: could this be a twenty?

Leaving it in the water for a minute we gathered the necessary equipment: unhooking mat, scales, weigh sling, forceps, camera, even some water to pour over the beast and keep it wet. Not many decades ago a pike like this might have been gaffed and killed. The deep of pocket would have had it in a glass case on the wall. Thankfully, today's trophy is just a few million pixels of frozen memory. The stage set, we had another look at our leading lady. "Big, isn't it..."

Grasping the mesh, I lifted.

That's the moment you know. When you lift a fish from the water and feel that dead weight in the net. The unspoken, optimistic thoughts which you've carefully restrained suddenly come bursting out. It's a twenty! It's got to be! On the mat it looked enormous. Neatly hooked in the roof of the mouth, the forceps did their job and then it was the moment of truth: into the weigh sling and aloft. Allowing for 10oz of wet sling we settled on 24lb 14oz. A twenty and then some! Yesssss!! How did I feel? Elated covers it.

Rob did a grand job with the camera. A few snaps of each side, and then back in the water and away. Supporting the great beast while it recovers, as its gills softly pulse and its fins waft, you cannot help a feeling of complete awe. To catch such a creature and spend a few precious moments thus is a privilege indeed.

So there it is, the tale of my first twenty-pound pike. By 8:00pm we were packed up and off home. Sadly it was the only fish we caught, so Rob has yet to get off the mark. But, we will be back. And therein lies another tale...

Pike that large are rare. In our few visits to this venue we haven't seen many other anglers, and of course we want it to stay that way. I previously pondered the advisability of mentioning the location. My thoughts were: supposing we jammily catch a biggie straight off, and I've been blabbing about where we're fishing? I'll feel a right silly-muffin then, won't I! Well, it's happened, but perhaps I'll get away with it. After all, how many anglers are going to drop in to NQS? Not many I hope. This is a birder's blog, isn't it.

Isn't it?

Anyway, mum's the word...

Wednesday, 7 December 2016

Early Success, aka Jam

I can honestly say that this is the first time I have ever felt the need for suppression, but oh my word...

Sunday, 4 December 2016

The Reluctant Conservationist

If you managed to chew your way through parts 1-4 of my recent treatise on records committees you might have drawn some conclusions regarding my view of them. If so, you are probably correct:

Yes, I feel that they are a necessary institution and do a necessary job.

But my opinion is based upon a possibly dubious premise: that accurate record-keeping is itself a necessary thing. Well, is it? Do birds - does nature - really need carefully identifying, counting, measuring, recording and archiving? In a comment on Part 1 Dylan Wrathall made this thought-provoking point: "...the natural world doesn't require judges and juries - it is there to be experienced, enjoyed and embraced." I could so easily subscribe to this view at its most simplistic level. Why not simply enjoy it all without feeling the need to convert what we see into just so much data?

I am not a biologist, not an ecologist, not a scientist of any kind. I am not even what you would really call a conservationist; personally I am convinced that man's arrogant hand is quite incapable of successfully managing this planet or its wildlife. However, I do acknowledge that to many, many people this is vital stuff, and I recognise that sound data is often the driver for thoughtful, well-intentioned conservation efforts from which our environment does seem to benefit. For that and many related reasons I am happy to provide such data when I'm in the mood. And if that includes complying with some sort of vetting procedure, so be it.

So I am probably what you might call a reluctant conservationist.

For example, no one could deny that right here we have a success story...

Cirl Bunting press release dated 17/11/2016, lifted straight off RSPB website

And I imagine that a great deal of careful observation, recording and subsequent data analysis contributed to this happy outcome. As a result, in 25 years we've gone from 100-odd to 1,078 Cirl Bunting pairs. Undeniably a success. I mean, who wouldn't want to enjoy more of these little beauties...?

Male Cirl Bunting with Brambling at Broadsands, Devon in February 2008

While we're on the subject of success stories we could make reference to Red Kite perhaps. Certainly a description species when I was still a London birder, but now a ubiquitous feature of many a skyscape, including some of London's. More controversially though, Common Crane. "Between 2010 and 2015, 93 Common Cranes were hand-reared to release onto the Somerset Levels and Moors - doubling the UK population, and helping to secure the future of the Crane in the UK" says the blurb on the The Great Crane Project website.

"Why?" says the cynic sitting at this keyboard. Were they not doing pretty well on their own?

And how about Great Bustard? Earlier this year I came across some rather gloomy data re. mortality and suchlike that confirmed for me what I've always thought, i.e. that the UK Great Bustard project is a ridiculously optimistic endeavour. Unfortunately I cannot seem to find this data right now, and a careful search of the Great Bustard Group website produces nothing that we might truly call 'results'. Maybe because they are so depressing? Ah well. Anyway, when it comes to reintroducing this species I am once again forced to ask: Why?

Evidently, time, money and massive effort is invested in all these and similar projects, but sadly I can only draw this analogy: to me it is all like polishing the wing mirror on a classic car with terminal chassis rot. Is it just me who sees things this way?

And there, dear readers, I leave you with my joyous Sunday offering...

Saturday, 3 December 2016

Scilly Exercise

I do love the Scilly Isles. And it's not just the birding. It's the scenery, the atmosphere, everything; it's just a beautifully tranquil place to be. But of course our visits are always bird-oriented, and timed to coincide with a decent chance of a vagrant or two, in other words spring or autumn. Never summer. Until this year, that is...

Our younger son got married in July, an event which saw the Haig clan descend from far and wide. My sister Karen and her husband Mark flew in from Sydney, and as we hadn't seen them for years we arranged to go away for a few days together after the wedding. They both enjoy walking but had never been to Scilly, so choosing the destination was easy.

Scilly in late July is a very different place. There are no birds at all. None. So you have to find other amusements. Walking is clearly an option. You know, the same as what you would do if there were birds, but without the lengthy pauses by this hedge or that gateway. But there are other, perhaps less obvious pleasure possibilities. For example, you could rent a bike...

Rental beast-bike at Porthloo. See? No birds.

The same spot at Porthloo, looking towards the harbour at Hugh Town. And again, complete lack of birds.

Some 20-odd years ago I remember hiring bikes for myself and the boys one day during a family holiday, a fuzzy memory that holds images only of carefree delight. Well, my motive this time was different. I was not intent upon some joyous, two-wheeled frolic around St Mary's. No, I wanted the bike more as a means of exercise than sightseeing. So, early one morning I headed out into the familiar lanes...

I admit I have been spoiled these recent years. My bikes are relatively lightweight machines, their componentry slick and efficient. In other words, a pleasure to suffer on. Well, this beast was hideous in the extreme. Its monstrous weight was not the problem - that's called 'resistance training' - no, it was the little orchestra of squeaks, clicks and clunks! And the horribly untrustworthy gear-changing! And that saddle! My backside has never endured a more uncomfortable saddle. Yes, I know, it looks all big and soft and squashy, but that's exactly why it's so painful. It is perhaps paradoxical that the most comfy bike saddles are almost bereft of padding, but it's true. Anyway, I was quite relieved to get my wincing posterior off the thing for a quick photo-shoot at Porthloo.

Lesson learned. Next time I'll take my own bike over.

My brother-in-law Mark is a good runner. In fact in his youth he was a completely mad runner. He completed the South Downs 80 (yes, eighty) for example. Twice. Twenty five years ago he and my sister lived on the outskirts of Edinburgh, and several times we ran together up into the Pentland Hills from their home. Well, the last time I went for an actual proper run was in 1993, so I'm not quite sure what I was doing asking Mark if he fancied going out for a little jog round St Mary's...

We followed the road to Old Town - quite slowly - and then headed out to Peninnis on the footpath. I was doing okay, even looking forward to the climb up to the lighthouse, when suddenly Mark pulled up, limping; he'd twisted an ankle on the gnarly path. So that was that. We jogged/limped/walked back to our digs by the shortest route possible. We'd been out maybe 20 minutes, and I was thinking to myself, "Hmmm, not too bad. I'd quite like to do that again..."

What a fool.

Strolling along Porthloo Lane one day we spotted this...

Mark and Karen would be gone by the Sunday, but Mrs NQS and I had a few more days. Worthy cause, I thought. Five kilometres isn't too far, I thought. Why not? I thought.

Sunday July 24th dawned wet and dull. Perfect conditions, said the veteran runner within, as he peered out the window and nodded knowingly. I lined up, paid my fiver and received a number and some pins. Wow. I hadn't pinned a number on since...ooh...must have been that fateful Harrow Marathon when I knackered my knee. Anyway, at 11.00 we were off...

Alway, always, always, at the start of a race there's someone on the front who really shouldn't be there! There I am, sensibly (and conspicuously!) towards the back of the field. I was fiercely determined to hold on to this position.
Yes, lots of fun to watch before going for a coffee and huge cake. You can just make me out, level with the back of the bus. Notice how lots of very young girls are well ahead of me? That's how it remained.

By about 4k I was struggling. Bike-fit is not running-fit, and my poor old legs were looking for muscle groups they didn't have. A little twinge in my left calf got me worried for a moment, but that quickly eased, so as we climbed the slope past the school I was looking forward to going for it a bit on the descent past the dairy and along the Strand towards the Finish. However, topping the rise I suddenly felt a sharp pain in my right calf which almost stopped me dead...but I kept going, limping pathetically to the line. In the next five minutes my calf seized up completely. Mrs NQS was very quiet, but there are a million ways to say "I told you" that don't involve words. I heard all of them.

I was limping badly for a couple more days, and the muscle didn't heal completely for at least a fortnight. Another lesson learned.

Still, I got a nice medal...

It's the one on the left, obviously. The one on the right is another story...

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

A Poignant Moment

Last week the heater on my van suddenly went cold. Initially I was simply annoyed (and chilly) but quickly the penny dropped and a memory from the days of ancient motors past reared its ugly head and said "You're losing coolant, old son". Sure enough I was, and rapidly. So, right now I am vanless until a crucial new part is delivered and fitted.

Being unable to work is a nuisance but, with the outdoor temperatures at finger-numbing lowness just now, I can live with it. So what have I been doing instead? Earning a few brownie points here and there. Also cycling. Wrapping up and getting out on the bike is highly satisfying. Yes it's cold, but the sunshine and scenery more than compensate. Mind you, today I kept mainly to gritted roads - the lanes were decidedly iffy where the sun hadn't melted the frost. It's a long time since I've properly fallen off my bike, and I'm quite happy to extend that period indefinitely.

Early this afternoon I walked into town and completed a couple of errands. On the way back I strolled with deliberate slowness along the little river that runs down the valley just east of our house...

This is the River Asker, one of Bridport's two main watercourses
I was looking for fish. The Asker contains small trout. I say small, but who knows, perhaps there are big ones in there too? As expected I spotted one or two darting for cover as I meandered along. Then, rounding a bend, I saw something quite unexpected: a piece of wood the size of a book floating downstream towards me, with a blazing fire aboard! Watching its progress were a woman and two young boys, aged around seven and five. I could hear the boys' eager voices from some distance, and naturally wondered what it was all about. I had my quip ready for when I drew level. I was going to say "That looks just like a Viking funeral ship!" or something along those lines...

Before I could say anything though, the older boy turned to me and said, quite matter-of-fact: "We're burning it for our dead daddy's birthday." As you can imagine, I was not expecting that. After exchanging a few appropriate words with the boys and their mum I walked on, my mind suddenly on quite other matters than fish...

Sunday, 27 November 2016

Back in the Day...

If you google 'nostalgia' you'll see it can be defined 'a...wistful affection for a period in the past'. As far as I'm concerned that fits nicely. I have no sentimental longing that such times were here again, I simply enjoy the memory of them.

Given my age you might expect my nostalgia trips to reach far back in time, and of course some do. But not all. Recently I was searching online for a photo I knew I'd published somewhere, and thought I might find it on Birdforum. If you followed earlier incarnations of NQS you'll probably be familiar with Backwater Birding, a Birdforum thread which began in January 2006. Like a little soap opera it documented the fortunes of the Backwater Birders as they exploited the potential of the Axe Estuary and surrounding area in East Devon. It was quite lively right from the start, but at its peak there would be several posts a day - 30 or more in a week was not at all unusual. It is safe to say that 2007 was the big year in many ways, not least for this amazing event (scroll down to post #2795 and on...). However, change was in the air, and 2008 saw three of the principal contributors start up their own blogs. Pretty soon the writing was on the wall and Backwater Birding eventually fizzled out in 2012.

Well, I didn't find my photo but I did enjoy enjoy a delightfully nostalgic time browsing the Backwater thread...

I can't believe how rude I was about Steve Waite, who now of course is the venerable and respected ex-county recorder for Devon, but then...well...let's just say there was a reason I regularly referred to Steve as the Eating Machine, and the Doughnut Jedi. I'm sure it's just a total coincidence that he married a girl whose Twitter handle is Jessicakes!

On 27th October 2007 Steve found a putative 2nd-winter Caspian Gull on the estuary at Coronation Corner. I quickly joined him and together we watched the bird and managed a few poor photos. This was early days of tricky gull ID for both of us; if confirmed as a Casp this would be Devon's second, following a juv in Torbay in 2006. On October 30th I wrote this on Backwater Birding:

"I have done a good bit of reading up on Caspian Gull ID, and am happy enough with our bird to a) submit it, and b) tick it. I think we are getting better and better at gull ID here, so hopefully Caspian will appear again before too long..."

In the event we had to wait another two years for our second Caspian Gull (and Devon's third) but even so I cannot help smiling wryly at what seem slightly prescient words now. I'm not sure how many the Axe has had to date, but it's comfortably into double figures.

Here's one from December 2011...

And then again, here's 'possible Casp' we wrestled with in April 2007. I even posted a few photos on the Birdforum ID thread. At the time I was hopeful...but clearly also quite ignorant!

Today my 'gull eye' would filter out this poor creature in a moment, but this was more than nine years ago.

Yep, back in the day I was pretty rubbish at gulls.