Sunday, 15 January 2017

The Davina Wydegirth Interview: Michael McIntyre

Regular readers of my column in Bird-Spotter's World will be aware of the recent stir caused by a pale Stonechat in Kent. We at BSW were as surprised as anyone to learn that DNA sampling had proved the bird to be a very rare Stejneger's Stonechat, from some far-off foreign place. After all, we had all thought it was exactly like one of our Stonechats, but just rather washed-out looking, as if its mother had laid one too many eggs and had run her pigment gland a bit dry. Even the cognescenti were surprised. While many of them pointed out afterwards that they had always known it was some kind of Siberian Stonechat thing, they struggled to reconcile its plumage with their understanding of what a Stejneger's Stonechat should look like. And then, only yesterday, a major new development unfolded...

But I shan't spoil it by revealing all here in the introduction! Instead, let me tell you that this morning I was privileged to catch up with Michael FL McIntyre, leader of the twitching fraternity, and asked him to untangle this intriguing episode for us.



DW: Michael, thank you so much for talking to us today. Before we tackle the Stonechat case, do you mind if I ask you a cheeky personal question? I know that many readers refer to you simply by your distinctive initials MFLM, but I'll bet very few know what the 'F' and 'L' stand for. I certainly don't! Would you be kind enough to enlighten us?

MFLM: Of course, Davina. They stand for Fulsome Largesse. It's almost as if my parents knew that a famous comedian would one day hijack my name, and so made sure that we could never be mistaken for one another. And we aren't. Ever.

DW: Thanks Michael. Lovely names. So, the Stonechat. What happened?

MFLM: Well, Davina, it was found late last year on Romney Marsh in Kent, and its pale plumage got birders worried that they might be missing out on something.

DW: What do you mean?

MFLM: Although it looked like a washed-out Common Stonechat there was always the possibility that it might be something rarer, because rare birds are often pale and frosty-looking. But unfortunately its plumage was no help at all and didn't match anything in any of the field guides. In cases where a bird's identification features don't correlate with any rare species known to man, it's now accepted policy to test its DNA. This strategy has given us a lot of nice ticks. So a local expert collected a faecal sample to send off for...

DW: What, poo?!

MFLM: That's one way of putting it, Davina, yes. Faecal matter is chock-full of genetic material and much more amusing than a tissue sample. In addition, whereas collecting, say, a good feather for analysis might involve catching the bird and subjecting it to all sorts of unneccessary stress, getting a faecal sample simply means waiting until the bird perches on a post and then scaring it just the once, very loudly. It's all over in a flash and the bird is hardly any the wiser.

DW: Fascinating. So what did the DNA test prove?

MFLM: It proved that the bird was a Stejneger's Stonechat.

DW: Ooh, that's interesting. I've heard that word pronounced so many different ways, and your way is different again! How do you say it?

MFLM: Stejneger's.

DW: I'm sorry Michael, could you say it phonetically for me?

MFLM: Of course, Davina. It's 'Stedge-knee-jerz'.

DW: 'Stedge-knee-jerz'? Okay, thank you. I feel so silly when I don't know the correct pronunciation. I always used to say 'Curl' Bunting until someone put me right last week! Ha ha! Anyway, what happened then?

MFLM: Mayhem, Davina. Mayhem. As you probably know, Stejneger's is really rare and looks nothing like the Kent bird. Some birders immediately burned their field guides. Those who had seen Stejneger's elsewhere gave thanks. Those who hadn't, well, they simply had to bow to the omnipotence of the DNA Gods and go to Kent for the tick.

DW: The tick? But I thought Stejneger's was just a subspecies?

MFLM: Well, Davina, it's true that some authorities are behind the times on that one and don't yet consider Stejneger's a full species, but even those birders who subscribe to such archaic views will have gone to see it for insurance.

DW: Insurance?

MFLM: That's right. It means they can't tick it just at the moment, but hope to be able to one day. Preferably before they die. Then they'll get it as an armchair tick.

DW: Really? Twitchers do that? Amazing. What's an armchair tick?

MFLM: It's a tick you can mark on your list long after you've seen a bird, when it has finally been given full 'tick' status by whatever authority you subscribe to. And you can do it right there at home in your favourite armchair. Admittedly some twitchers use a sofa, or sit up in bed to do it, but it's still officially called an armchair tick. Personally I get very few of these. The authority I follow allows you to tick absolutely everything right now.

DW: So, Michael, take us through the latest developments.

MFLM: Well, January 1st arrived, and the bird was still there at Dungeness. This meant another trip for the year-listers. Let me tell you, Davina, they were the grumpiest-looking bunch you've ever seen! Because by now there were loads of birders on the internet getting seriously heretical with the DNA Gods, even suggesting that there might have been an error and it must surely be just a Common Stonechat! Who wants to have travelled hundreds of miles to Kent for one of those?! Me, I kept out of it. As you know, Davina, I don't like controversy.

DW: Of course not...

MFLM: Anyway, lo and behold, and we get this message from the DNA Gods that it was all a big mistake - the Kent Stonechat was just a Common after all! Someone had mixed up the DNA samples on their journey to the altar. Mortals call this 'human error', of course.

DW: So what can we learn from this episode, Michael?

MFLM: I don't think we've seen all the fallout from this yet. I heard a rumour that the whole thing was a prank by some lacky at the Genetic Temple, just to see how many birders would blindly go and see a bird on the say-so of a DNA identification, in spite of a ton of plumage evidence to the contrary. I am glad to say that I wasn't fooled for a second. My several journeys to Kent for other birds enabled me to drop in on the Stonechat and confirm my suspicions. And the field guide ashes on my compost heap aren't mine...

DW: Michael, many thanks.

Saturday, 14 January 2017

Snow Joke!

One of my customers got home yesterday from visiting relatives in Canada, where 'winter' is more than just the name of a season. As she described life in a land of -30°C daytime temperatures and real snow I shuddered in horror. As far as I was concerned, yesterday was plenty cold enough. Around 4 or 5°C at best, with a hefty wind chill factor, I was togged up for work in fleece and body warmer, proper red hat and neoprene gloves. Meanwhile, in the midst of my suffering, one or two birders I know (who work indoors I should add) are lusting for freezing weather and snow. Why? Because it's great for birding. Unfortunately, this I cannot deny.

Back in 2010 we had a freeze at both ends of the year. The snow began on Jan 6, and on that day I walked from my home in Seaton, down to Black Hole Marsh, out onto the tramway and up the Axe valley to Colyford. There were just a couple of inches of snow, but it was enough to transform the landscape...

Black Hole Marsh that morning. That dark shape out there is an otter. It was diving through holes in the ice and catching small mullet.

The accompanying freeze saw an absolutely massive hard-weather displacement of birds, the biggest I've ever witnessed. Thousands and thousands of Fieldfares, Redwings, Meadow Pipits, Skylarks, Lapwings etc passed through our patch in just a few days. Axe biggies included a Smew and Bittern, the latter a patch tick for everyone I think. I recall watching a flock of c300 Lapwings fly purposefully southwards out over the sea; next stop: France. It was a few days of truly spectacular winter birding.

And then, in December, it froze again. At the start of the month a flock of up to 18 Woodlarks appeared in a field down in the valley, presumably driven off their normal wintering site on higher ground.

This bird - and its mates - avoided clumsy boots by scuttling out of the way.

On Dec 18 there was some more proper snow, tempting me once again to walk the forbidden path out to the tramway and up to Colyford...

View S across Black Hole Marsh from the naughty path.

Skylarks were on the move big-time. I counted some 11,250 passing through, many of them touching down for a short time in the Woodlark field, and fluked a Lapland Bunting among them too. Another six inches of snow on 20th pushed our Lapwing tally to 3,000...

Yep. No doubt about it, a good freeze-up is brilliant for birding.

But I doubt the birds themselves are too keen. Also, ice and snow are rubbish for cycling and fishing. And outdoor jobs. It's funny how your perspective changes according to circumstances. When I am once again fully up to date with work (and a birder!) then I shall welcome a big freeze with open arms. Meanwhile the prospect of such is snow joke!

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Murder on the Common

I'm not quite sure what has prompted this post. I am turning the clock back almost 40 years to an event that remains to this day quite painful. Like most unhappy tales there is a moral in it, but I doubt that's the reason for my getting it down in print. If I was writing a memoir it would have to be in there, so perhaps the scope of this blog is broadening even further? Anyway, all I can say is that over the years I have shared this episode with very few, because I'm not proud of it, and yet now for some reason I am doing quite the opposite...


It is 1978. I have just turned 19 and am approaching the end of a three-term flirtation with university. I can boast few notable consequences of this brief dunk in the waters of academia, but it was at university that I received my initiation into proper birding and for this at least, I thank it.

The story begins with a green parrot in the tree outside my window in early May. I could identify many birds, but had no idea what this was. Surely an aviary escape? I knew that a keen birdwatcher lived upstairs so I sought him out. And so it was that Nick Green told me all about Ring-necked Parakeets, as well as what else I could expect to see in and around the grounds of our hall of residence. Roding Woodcock, for example. Really?! It took me until May 18 to see my first, and it was brilliant! The little birding seed within had germinated and sprouted almost overnight. From an Egham bookshop I bought John Gooders' Where to Watch Birds and How to Watch Birds, and the 1976 reprint of Peterson, Mountfort and Hollom's A Field Guide to the Birds of Britain and Europe. In that late spring of '78 a proper birder was born. Through Nick I was introduced to the Royal Holloway College Ornithological Society, which ran field outings at weekends. I still have the Peterson Field Guide, and there are many revealing dates pencilled in its checklist. On Sunday, May 14, 1978, for example, I saw my first Lesser Whitethroat, Reed Warbler and Wood Warbler. This was a jaunt to Hampshire with the RHC OrniSoc. On June 18 we went to West Wycombe in Bucks. As a result there is a neat 'x' in my book next to Cirl Bunting. A cracking male. There's nothing in there about the celebratory pint afterwards, but I remember it quite well.

And then there is Sunday, May 21.

The RHC OrniSoc was driven principally by the two Daves, students a little older than me. They were very knowledgable and led the field trips together. Our outing on this particular Sunday was more local than usual; we were off to Chobham Common for Woodlark and Nightjar. I had seen Nightjar before, but not Woodlark. Nick and I had cycled to Chobham the previous day and although I ticked Stonechat, we couldn't find a Woodlark. Consequently I was pretty keen.

My memory tells me there were maybe nine or ten of us, and that we scattered across the Common in small groups to search. We covered a lot of ground, and found Stonechats and Tree Pipits, and probably other things too, but to be honest my recollection is a bit hazy in all areas except one: the moment we found a Woodlark. It was perched low down in a small tree, on a slope overlooking a lot of quite long, dryish grass. I can see it in my mind's eye quite clearly, perched there nervously on a gently-swaying, twiggy branch. One of the Daves was calling out the ID features. See the little black and white mark on the bend of the wing? And how the supercilia meet round the back of its head? And... Oh no, it's dropping down...! And sure enough, it flew a short distance into the long grass and vanished. Never mind though, what brilliant views!

Unfortunately, not everyone had enjoyed brilliant views. In fact some of our number were only just now arriving, a bit out of breath, and hadn't seen it at all. Not to worry, it'll appear again in a minute...

We waited.

And waited.

After what seemed an age those of us who had seen it were getting restless. Time was marching on and we needed to be across the Common and in position for Nightjar pretty soon. Eventually our leaders arrived at a solution. We had seen it fly into the grass. We had not seen it fly out. So it must still be in there. All we needed to do therefore was string ourselves out in a line and walk slowly through the grass. Yes, that should chivvy it up for all to see...

If you are reading this and cringing in horror, I don't blame you. All I can say is that at the time it seemed a perfectly reasonable plan to me.

And so, slowly, we advanced...

A few yards in, and I was expecting it to explode from the grass any second. But nothing happened.

Someone slightly behind and to one side of me made a joke: "Gav, you've trodden on it!"

Looking back after all these years I can't honestly say that those were the exact words spoken, or even whether or not I did think it was a joke. I just needed some words for this narrative right now, and that sentence is close enough. Because I had indeed trodden on it, and as I turned around and followed his eyes I saw the crouched Woodlark expand slightly and at the same time crumple sideways a little, like a very soft, very tired old foam ball recovering from a squeeze. Except there was no recovering for this Woodlark. My Doc Marten had killed it. No! Surely this wasn't possible? Why on earth had the stupid bird not flown? Why had it just sat there and let me step on it?! Well, because it was on a nest is why. Beneath the dead Woodlark lay a clutch of eggs...

Revisiting this scene in my head is quite strange. It is like a badly edited series of home movie clips - there is no sound, but each jumpy fragment is tinged with a musty trace of emotion. Our successful, carefree afternoon had just collapsed around us in a messy heap. I know I was deeply upset, quite possibly to tears if I remember right. I can clearly see everyone gathered round and gawping, some crouched right down close to check that there really was no sign of life. One of the Daves gently picked up the Woodlark, fully revealing the beautiful eggs. It was all so pitiful. I can picture how vividly the black and white wing marking stood out, how someone remarked upon it, and how it felt so inappropriate to be discussing ID features in the face of this little tragedy. With hindsight I can appreciate that we were all very young, just verging on adulthood and ill-equipped to handle such an awkward situation. I think the two Daves were horrified at what their jolly plan had wrought, and they and one or two others offered some kind words. But oh how I wished it hadn't been me.

Life goes on though, and a decision was made. The corpse went back with us to the university - I've no idea what happened to it subsequently - and the nest and eggs were left in place. We expressed optimistic hopes that a single parent might manage somehow. The hopes of the guilty.

Some weeks later I returned to Chobham Common with a friend and we chanced upon a small party of recently fledged Woodlarks. It was in a different part of the Common and I knew there was no chance that these could be from our eggs. But I did very much want them to be.

Monday, 9 January 2017

Fishing, But Not...

Although I'm still loaded with virus my intention today was work...until I saw the rainy forecast. And then my intention became fishing. I thought I might sit quietly beneath my brolly and nurse myself back to health with a massive pike. But things didn't quite pan out that way...

It did rain though, and I did sit quietly. To pass the time until the massive pike I did a lot of birding, adding 11 species to my 'Birds While Fishing' list. Some were drossy stuff like Chaffinch and Rook, etc. but some were proper quality!

At one stage I was fishing virtually underneath the M5, and glancing behind me noticed four egrets flying away at an angle. Through the bins I was astonished to see a pale bill and the jizz of a Cattle Egret on at least two of them. I didn't get a chance to look at the others because within about three seconds they had all gone out of view, seemingly up and over the motorway. I waited anxiously for them to reappear, but they didn't. However, I refused to believe they had headed west via the M5 and sure enough, finally I spotted four egrets dropping into a distant field to my right. They had obviously flown behind me unseen before reorienting themselves a bit further north. It had to be them. Unfortunately though, they were dots. I hurried up the towpath to get closer. Even then they were much too far away to see the bill colour, plus I was getting battered about by the wind and couldn't find anything to rest my bins on. Thankfully they had alighted next to a Little Egret, and as they all prodded about in the grass together their shorter necks and slightly smaller size soon became evident; they looked a lot 'busier' than the Little Egret too.

So, confident of the ID at last, and not yet being a suppressor, I put the news out via Twitter. To be honest I couldn't see anyone rushing down to see them; as far as I could tell they weren't near anywhere that you could roll up in a car and view from, and Cattle Egret hasn't been a crowd-puller for some time now. So imagine my delight when I later learned that Martin Elcoate, a Topsham resident who follows me on Twitter, had managed to scope them from his bedroom window. I felt positively virtuous.

Other birdy quality came in the shape of a single adult Med Gull among a haystack of BHGs and Commons, some Knot flying around with a Barwit, and this beauty on the canal itself...

Drake Red-breasted Merganser. Obviously.
It was way up the canal from me, fishing away and minding its own business. Until I raised my bins I thought it was going to be a Cormorant, but when I saw it was a Merg I went into stealth mode. The instant it dived I hurried up the bank, hiding behind vegetation as it surfaced. Eventually I drew level and it popped up right in front of me. I got two quick shots like the above where, as you can see, it is totally relaxed about the hulking oaf that's suddenly appeared on the bank, and not looking nervous or wary at all. So I was dead surprised when, two seconds later, it did this...


I met three other pike anglers today. One of them caught one pike. All the rest of us didn't.

Sunday, 8 January 2017

Two shades of Twitter

Mrs NQS and I have just had a couple of days away at Lyndhurst in the New Forest on one of those short break hotel deals. If the weather was okay we wanted to try for Great Grey Shrike and Hawfinch, both of which we haven't seen for many years. It struck me that Hawfinch in particular was one of those species where local birders might know of a reliable site that doesn't necessarily make the bird information services on a regular basis, if at all, so I thought I would try Twitter. My request for gen on both species received several responses and we ended up with four Hawfinch sites and one for GGS. In the event we scored at the first Hawfinch site we tried, with good views of 3+ birds, and spent the rest of the day predictably yomping across a million acres of New Forest for no shrikes at all. A single Dartford Warbler was some compensation I suppose. At last knockings we tried a Hawfinch roost site, along with a dozen other hopefuls, but they didn't show.

Of course you can never rely on birds to play ball, but it's nice to know that you can rely on a good response from birders on Twitter. Although I'm not a huge social networking fan I have had very positive experiences with Twitter, especially whenever I've tried using it for something constructive like the above.

So there you go, a big thumbs-up for Twitter there, and for my fellow Dorset/Hants birders.

However, Twitter isn't all sunshine and roses. For example, here are a couple of very recent tweets from Portland...



To put these two tweets in context it is helpful to read the following clip from the Portland Bird Observatory website...


I have every sympathy with the obs warden, Martin Cade; it cannot always be easy balancing the welfare of birds against the release of bird news information. So when you are repeatedly faced with individuals who ignore your well-publicised requests to stick to rights-of-way etc, well, there's only one option really.

Back when I first started birding the PBO warden had a reputation for being less than friendly towards visiting birders. Birders today simply do not appreciate how fortunate they are in comparison, and an inconsiderate minority abuse that goodwill on a depressingly regular basis. In recent times it always seems to be rogue photographers who get the headlines, so what is it about carrying a camera/long lens combo that gives them some weird sense of self-exemption from the behavioural standards which responsible birders accept for themselves, and expect of others? Is it that they are not in fact birders at all, and are therefore simply ignorant of such standards? I can't accept this. After all, they must get much of their information from birdy websites, so even if they're not birders as such they cannot possibly be unaware of how to behave. No, I can only conclude that they are just horribly selfish people.

Evidently they cannot see that they are simply peeing into their own well.

Suppression, what's not to like?

Friday, 6 January 2017

This and That

Late on Wednesday afternoon I added Water Rail to my 'Birds While Fishing' list and a little 3lb jack to my pike campaign tally. I was keeping Rob company for a few hours; he went on to fish through the night and well into Thursday. Unfortunately Rob managed no better than a dropped run and has yet to catch a pike here. Meanwhile I've had seven. This is the cause of hardly any jolly banter or laughing at Rob's expense. That would just be unkind.

I thought it might be interesting to post photos of the two jacks I caught the other day. They are both about 4lb, but notice how different their markings are. I think I'm right in saying that they more or less retain the same patterns as they grow. This is just one of the reasons that they're such great fish to catch; they're simply stunning...


These last few days I've been bemoaning my miserable lot in that I am once again hosting a bloomin' virus. This is my fourth in about as many months. The latest two have clobbered me immediately following my first bike ride after recovering (or so I thought) from the previous bug. So here I am, sore throat, cough, feeling a bit lousy, wondering how long I should leave it this time before I get back in the saddle. I don't often get ill and I'm not very good at it...

Anyway, at 7:30 this morning I had a phone call that put things in perspective for me. It was from a friend in need of a lift. He is a year younger than me and has type 1 diabetes, diagnosed when he was 16. Amongst other consequences of this disease his eyesight has been seriously affected and his kidneys don't work; he undergoes haemodialysis three times a week. This basically takes up his whole day, and the next day is spent feeling pretty unwell. Most weeks he'll have one or two other medical appointments also. So whereas your life or mine might revolve around work, family responsibilities, recreational pursuits etc, his revolves around hospitals and surgeries. Fairly recently he found himself at the top of the kidney/pancreas transplant list and just before Xmas went up to Oxford for the 8-hour operation. It was cancelled - the pancreas was damaged. I am on his emergency call list in case he needs urgent transport to Oxford. That's what this morning's call was about. Half an hour later he phoned again; it had been cancelled again.

And here's me feeling sorry for myself because I've got a cold...

Gissa maggot!

Tuesday, 3 January 2017

Things to Do on a Bank Holiday

Yesterday was a bank holiday. I am sure many people plan well in advance exactly how they are going to spend their time on such occasions. No doubt some of you had earmarked the day for some birding and were delighted to see the Met Office predicting cold, crisp and sunny. Personally I had a full day's piking planned and could not have wished for a less inspiring forecast. Still, a plan is a plan and 'you have to be in it to win it' is a cliché, so there I was on the canal at first light. Pretty soon I was noticing what other people were doing with their bank holiday...

Some were propelling a quad skull through the water as fast as possible. Those things can fly. The first came by while most decent citizens were still in their dressing gowns, and the crew were clearly experts. Eight oars in perfect harmony is very impressive. I doubt they improve the pike fishing though. However, people doing strenuous exercise on a thin boat in scanty clothing on a freezing morning were in the minority; far more popular were walking the dog, walking off the festive bloat, jogging, cycling and birding. There were so many people around that I couldn't avoid having to talk to one or two. None of the passing birders stopped for a chat though, which surprised me a bit because I spent quite a lot of my time scanning around with bins and looking vaguely birder-like. Yes, I had decided to write down a list of 'Birds Seen While Fishing'.

My final tally was 44 species. It probably would have been higher if I'd worked at it a bit harder but I did spend a few hours trying very hard to catch a pike, which involves active effort and concentration. Once I'd resigned myself to the inevitable blank which the weather had made so likely my list increased rapidly. I wonder if a birder would be able to work out where I was fishing simply from my bird list? Of course there are already too many other clues in both this post and recent NQS in general to make that question much of a challenge, but how many places in the UK could you be fishing for pike and see this particular combination: Brent Goose, Grey Plover, Redshank, Dunlin, Golden Plover, Avocet, Cetti's Warbler, Tufted Duck, Shoveler and Barnacle Goose? Of course, there must be loads of places where you might see most of that lot. But where else could you see all of them? Now that is a challenge.

So, I spent a nice bank holiday soaking some dead sea fish in a canal. Dusk came, darkness fell. The sky was amazingly clear. I brewed up a fresh cuppa and leaned back in my chair to gaze upwards. In a short space of time I saw four shooting stars, one the brightest (though not the longest) I've ever witnessed. Stunning. I packed up around 7pm. Everything was already covered in frost...