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.

Friday, 2 June 2017

So. June.

Well, that was interesting. My last post about birding reputations received approximately 7X more traffic than a bog standard one about the usual tosh. I think mainly because it was punted around Twitter somewhat. This surprising response taught me a couple of lessons.

1. I need to grow up and stop poking fun at the mighty Scopac. You won't see any such teasing in the current version of that post, but an early draft did contain what could easily be considered a rather sneery reference. I didn't mean to come across like that. I do appreciate that they must be a boon to many. And perhaps one day my ageing bones will demand I go and buy one. In the meantime I will stick with the shoulder while I can. When I can be bothered to carry a scope at all...

2. Despite one or two on Twitter espousing the "Who cares what anyone thinks of you?" sentiment, I get the feeling most do. I'm glad about that because I certainly do. Birding-wise, I would not like to think I had a reputation as dodgy in any way. Is it not fairly normal to care about that?

So, many thanks to those who commented, 'liked', retweeted etc. Much appreciated.

Well, here we are in June, easily my most hated birding month.

Having fairly limited play-time I like to get maximum value from it. In June I struggle to get any at all. One of my best ever June finds down here was a pair of Ruddy Shelduck on the Axe. Bla-a-a-ah...

On the other hand, my only two local Turtle Doves were both in June. But that is it. I cannot think of any other proper quality birds that have come my way while patch-birding in June.

In this part of the country June is when you might get the odd Woodchat Shrike, Rose-coloured Starling, maybe Bee-eater or (this year anyway) one of those myriad Red-footed Falcons. Perhaps. But not for me. Not in more than a decade of uncompromisingly half-hearted effort.

But it was hopes of one of the above (or similar) that got me up early this morning and out to the patch. Approximately 25 Common Scoter flew E over the sea, and 2 adult Med Gulls flew W over the land. I made a note of nothing else whatsoever.

Admittedly it was still May when I took this, but, Canada Geese. Does any other species convey the spirit of June so fully?

Monday, 29 May 2017

The Birding Reputation

So you want to be a birder? You've just forked out for some bins, a Collins Bird Guide and maybe a scope, and you're wondering how to go about acquiring a birding reputation? One definition of the word 'reputation' is 'the beliefs or opinions that are generally held about someone or something'. Those beliefs and opinions are of course held by other people, so when you very first head off down the local marsh or gravel pit with your shiny new optics it follows that you initially have no birding reputation at all, because nobody knows you yet. But don't worry; once you begin to interact with other birders your reputation will just come along naturally...

The question is, what kind of reputation do you want?

I suppose there are a few birders out there who couldn't care less whether or not they interact with anyone, and maybe have no interest in what kind of reputation they have. This post isn't for them. No, it's for you, the budding birder who wishes to become a respected member of the wider birding community. Incidentally, don't worry, if like me you do have mildly misanthropic tendencies you can still spend most of your birding time in your own wonderful company and yet still be an active (and hopefully respected) part of that community. Win-win, in my view. Anyway, I digress...

I am going to assume for the purposes of this post that the kind of reputation you wish to acquire is a good one. You would like to be known as a reliable, trustworthy birder. Yes? Okay, this is normal. Please read on.

Your reputation will be based on three main factors.

1. Your Ability to Identify Birds Correctly

First, understand this: everyone mucks up. There is not a birder alive who hasn't dropped a good few glorious clangers. Which is reassuring. And everyone accepts that beginners will get it wrong more often due to lack of experience. Time in the field should sort that out. I say 'should' because if it doesn't, your reputation will suffer. So if you don't want to be known as the eternal noddy, make an effort in this area. It's no surprise that some of the most solid bird ID reputations belong to artists, because they look very closely, they know their feather tracts and bird topography. To illustrate a particular age or plumage phase they have to learn it. Yes, effort. So, if you gain a reputation as rubbish at ID, well, that's probably down to you.

2. Your Ability to Find Good Birds

You will find good birds. Guaranteed. 'Good' = birds that are rare or scarce in your particular birding context. An Avocet or Grey Plover on an inland gravel pit would be decent finds, or a Snow Bunting on the concrete apron of a London reservoir. And so on. And when you find something a little trickier like, say, a Temminck's Stint, and correctly identify it, well, you are laying the foundation for a fine reputation.

Some birders excel at finding good birds, and are most definitely better at it than others. Why? Time in the field is no doubt a factor, combined with a dogged persistence, a robust work ethic and a knack of knowing where to look and when. Such birders can earn themselves an enviable reputation. Do you want one like that? If so you might be tempted to think that the more you find, the better your reputation will be. Well, possibly. Read on...

3. Your Ability to Verify Those Good Birds!

Twitchers love patch birders. Why? Because patch birders find really good birds in obscure little backwaters which the twitchers can then hurry along to look at and add to whichever list applies. Getting others to see your birds is one way to verify them. And let's be frank, sharing your good birds with others is also the most generous and satisfying way to verify them. If you don't agree then you are probably much further up the 'misanthrope' spectrum than me. The second way to verify your birds is to photograph them. Also good, and sometimes the only way.

First-winter Caspian Gull on the Axe Estuary, Dec 2009. Verified both ways.

Okay then. Taking all three factors into consideration gives us...

The Not Quite Scilly Birding Reputation Rule
Find and correctly identify lots of well-verified good birds, and you will certainly build a solid reputation as a reliable, trustworthy birder. That's a promise.

So, there we have it, just follow the NQS Birding Reputation Rule and your future acceptance as a respected member of the wider birding community is guaranteed.

Oh, but before I go, just a few words of caution...

There is another kind of birding reputation, a kind far less desirable. There are several words for it - all of them pejorative - and believe me, you don't want it. As I mentioned earlier, your reputation will be based on the three main factors outlined above, so how exactly do they have a bearing on this exceedingly bad kind of reputation? Is it factor number 1? Is misidentifying stuff going to earn it? No, not really. It won't do you any favours, but hey, nobody's infallible. Is it factor number 2? Will you become a birding pariah if you don't find good birds? No. Lots of good birders don't find much, and everyone finds something. So is it factor number 3?

Oh yes, matey. It is factor number 3.

Now I cannot tell you exactly what kind of birding reputation I personally have, but I can tell you fairly precisely the degree to which my good birds are verified. For example, I just had a scan through the list of Devon Rarity descriptions I've written over the years. Excluding Yellow-legged Gulls and intermedius Lesser Black-backs (honestly, you don't want me to include them) I've written 36 descriptions for birds found and identified by me. Of that total, 23 were verified by other birders (and in several cases photos also) and 4 by photos alone. Of the 9 not verified, 3 were flyovers and 5 were while seawatching alone; the other was a Continental Coal Tit at Beer Head.

So my percentage verified = 27/36 = 75%

Over the years I have been privileged to know some very good birders, a few of them quite well. Birders whose reputations I would say are exceptionally good. I'll name a few. In the W London area: Andrew Moon, Chris Heard, the late Pete Naylor and Rupert Hastings. In Devon: Steve Waite, Phil Abbott, Ian McLean, Mike Langman, Matt Knott. This is not an exhaustive list, but simply intended to illustrate my point. I have known more than one of these birders to make a classic howler ID-wise, but such events do not in any way detract from their reputation (in fact quite the reverse) because the real cornerstone of that reputation is integrity, honesty. So, so many of their good birds are verified, and that is the crucial factor. Their birds are seen by others, photographed, some of them even stick around for a few days. You get the picture...

I would be curious to know their percentage verification, but in each case I would imagine we're looking at around 75% or better. And let's be clear, we're not just talking county or national rarities here, we're talking good birds generally.

An autumn Dartford Warbler on Beer Head. Not rare, but a decent bird in a local context...and verified both ways.

Finally then, let's suppose you are no longer a birding novice. A few years have elapsed and you now have a long and enviable list of self-found and correctly identified quality birds. Well done you! And periodically you add a few more little gems to that list. Marvellous! But how are you doing with factor number 3? What's your verification percentage like? Pretty high? 80% you say? Excellent! You will have earned a sound reputation as a reliable, trustworthy birder.

Or is your verification percentage in fact pitifully low? Like, close to zero? We'll assume for argument's sake that you do interact with other birders in some way, yes? Oh, but there are several good reasons why other birders never see your birds, you say? And your camera is never to hand, you reckon? Well unfortunately - and whatever you might think otherwise - in that case I'm afraid your birding reputation is not the good kind...

Apply forthwith the NQSBRR and avoid such folly.

Sunday, 28 May 2017

The Purple Patch is Over

Despite no blog posts for five days I have been out and have seen some birds. Best were 2 local Hobbies on Thursday - including my first from our house - and 2 of the many thousands of E Devon Red Kites on Wednesday. Visits to the Burton/Cogden patch were dead quiet. I tried a Red Kite vigil on Wednesday evening, but knew all along that I had missed the boat by several hours. Never mind though, because there is always a view...

Looking some 15+ miles SE: the greedy bird-magnet that is Portland Bill. I have hardly ever seen it as clearly as this; normally there is a haze or shimmer that makes it all blurry, whereupon it becomes just that little bit more distant and less enviable...

My most recent walk around the patch was in the blazing sun on Friday afternoon. Again, I took some photos...

Regular readers will know that I am a dragonfly dunce, but female Broad-bodied Chaser is just about within my compass.

"Oh, sweet painted lady..."

Significantly, no birds of note at all. It's now the time of year when locally I would expect pretty much nothing for the next few weeks. That expectation is based on experience in E Devon. Perhaps W Dorset will surprise me, but I doubt it. Mind you, everywhere is not the same. As I type birders at Spurn have been doing a bit of viz-migging today. Birds heading S so far include an Alpine Swift, a Red-rumped Swallow and four different Red-footed Falcons. Yes, four. A first-summer male, an adult male and 2 adult females. And yes, that's right, Spurn isn't normal. Normal right now is a lot of barrel-scraping and Lepidoptera.

Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Spring, Reps & Purple Patches

Although I hadn't visited the patch for a couple of days, I think this morning was my first Wheatear-less trip. So is that it? Is spring finished? Thankfully, no...

Turnstone in breeding finery. Legitimate spring migrant.

Apparently Turnstone is quite a scarce bird for the patch. This is my second, but the first one on the deck. It was also the best bird from this morning's walk. There were some other waders though: flocks of 1 and c.30 small ones flew W beyond identifiable range. So I guess spring is still very much with us in a sense, but I must admit that it's getting harder to stay motivated now. Still, there's always that chance of a late spring rarity. But how much of a chance? The answer's in the noun: rarity!

Ah well, there are plenty of modest Patchwork Challenge species to get excited about. Like the Jay I saw this morning. Jay takes my list to 101, and the single point puts me on 122, which I think is still 18th= on The Coastal South mini-league. And I can also work on my ever-growing portfolio of grainy #recordshots.

Green Woodpecker #recordshot. Although I've heard several already, this is the first I've clapped eyes on.

It has been mentioned that I've recently been enjoying something of a purple patch. And it's true, I have. Especially considering how long I'd been 'resting'. So here it is, roughly two weeks of jammy happenings:

2 May: Hoopoe
3 May: Cuckoo
5 May: Hobby in off
6 May: flock of 12 Pom Skuas
9 May: pod of c.20 Bottlenose Dolphins (not birds I know, but for me very scarce)
10 May: Hobby in off
12 May: 14 Pom Skuas (including flock of 9) plus an Arctic
16 May: Short-toed Lark (found by Mike and Alan)

I've included Cuckoo because it is genuinely scarce around here, and Hobby because they're always such a treat...and aren't exactly common. And anyway, birding value is always about context, and that little lot collectively felt like quite a jackpot.

And an interesting aside: apart from the Cuckoo, 1 Pom Skua and the Arctic there is supporting evidence for every single bird. They were either photographed, or witnessed by others, or both. Such evidence gives that whole list the ring of truth; who isn't going to believe my extra Pom, or the Arctic Skua or Cuckoo? This is an aspect of birding I find absolutely fascinating. One's reputation as a reliable, trustworthy observer is usually built on a solid foundation of authenticated records, whether we like it or not. And of course, a consistent lack of corroboration has the exact opposite effect. Quelle surprise! Come on you stringers! Wise up!

Ah, the Birding Reputation...

One of these days I shall write a post about this intriguing aspect of human nature...

Anyway, if you think that lot comprises a purple patch, allow me to share with you my favourite Local Patch Purple Patch, courtesy Steve Waite. I cannot recall all the dates but, starting 19 Feb, in just six months Steve found the following on the Seaton patch in 2007...

19 Feb: Ring-billed Gull, 2nd-winter on the Axe
Feb: Laughing Gull, 1st-winter off the seafront, paying us a visit from Exmouth
April: Stone-curlew, Seaton Marshes, first for the patch and first twitchable in Devon for a thousand years.
28 April: Iberian Chiffchaff, Beer Head
30 April: Bonaparte's Gull, 1st-summer on the Axe
Then there was a little pause [imagine a quiet drum roll, slowly building...]
14 August: Audouin's Gull, adult (or nearly), Seaton Marshes

And it's quite possible I've forgotten something. Anyway, that is a purple patch.

And in all that time I think I managed to find a Glaucous Gull...

So, if you ever catch Steve moaning on his blog about how grim things are for him birding-wise right now or something, just pop a comment in there reminding him how he used up most of his allowance ten years ago!