Friday, 29 January 2016

The Age Card

A couple of months ago I made a small effort to unearth blogs written by young birders. By 'young' I mean under 25 or so. I found no more than a handful, and have come to the conclusion that the vast majority of regularly updated blogs with a mainly birdy theme are written by those who might be described as middle-aged. Middle-aged is a handy tag that fits anyone from 40-ish to...well, I expect the upper limit will stretch infinitely to accomodate whatever age I might currently be.

Is this dearth of prolific young bloggers real, or is it just that I didn't look hard enough? Whatever the truth of the matter I have to admit that I don't really care that much, because my preferred reading material is generated largely by the older bloggers anyway. There is something about the output of older writers that sits well with me, though to be honest I am struggling to put my finger on exactly what it is. Maybe it's a measure of wisdom that comes with years? Or that ability to sometimes draw material from days of yore? Perhaps it's as simple as the fact that many are my contemporaries and I can therefore easily identify with their experiences? Yes, that's probably it. For example, if any of them were to tell me that they'd been shifting and leveling several tonnes of scalpings over the last couple of days and were now aching in muscles they didn't know they had, I would know exactly what they meant. Because I've been doing precisly that, and only a middle-aged person would be able to empathise with the resultant agony!

As well as building a base for the Man Cave I have been converting the front lawn into a car park. These days you don't have to have concrete, tarmac or brick pavers, you can opt for the more eco-friendly (porous) plastic grid pavers filled with gravel. But you still need a solid sub-base, thus...

Yesterday. Loads of scalpings.
And today. All neat and tidy, ready for a good whacking.
Round the back is a large shuttered area, also filled with scalpings, which will be the base for the Man Cave. However, there will be no photos just yet because the attentions of a 1.5 tonne Takeuchi excavator have left our so-called garden looking like the Somme. Later...

Another thing about older bloggers. All of them will no doubt recall how, back in the 80s and early 90s, everyone (and I mean everyone) was into jogging/running. It was the thing. Any village with a population of more than ten held its own marathon. Like everyone else, I got caught up in this craziness. Here I am in the Oxford half marathon in 1992...

Notice how I'm winning. Obviously.
This photo was sent by my old mate Ric, who has known me since I was about 12 and knows where all the bodies are buried...

Ric also sent me the following.

As I said, everyone was into jogging back then, so it was perfectly normal to see people going about their everday affairs dressed in short-shorts and singlet. Honestly. Really, I cannot understand why you are chuckling at these pics, because it was quite natural to go fishing in your running kit...

These were taken in 1990, and my elder son Rob, pictured here, is now older than I was then. Hmmm...sobering.

Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Man Cave

Two weeks without a post...what's going on? Can't be phasing already can he?

I'm not quite sure how that happened, but I must confess that I am struggling for material at the moment. Well, I am if I want NQS to maintain a predominantly birdy theme. Perhaps the solution is simply not to worry what I write about? Yes, I think that will have to be it, just talk about anything.

The weather, say...

The weather is currently playing havoc with my life. Relentless rain is not good for window cleaners, so any dry days are mostly earmarked for work right now, which is a pain. Can't say I'm thrilled at the prospect of birding in the stuff either, so there hasn't been much of that. Or cycling in it, so there hasn't been much of that. However, I've not been completely idle...

Moving from Seaton to Bridport last March was more than just a change of location; it also meant some significant downsizing, from a four bedroom house to a two bedroom bungalow. This is what pragmatic folk do just prior to old age, before they are so irredeemably knackered that the only viable move remaining to them might involve an urn. However, the truly pragmatic would downsize all their various needs as well, so that a smaller home doesn't cramp their style too much. Well, things have worked out okay in the main - I have a garage for my fleet of bicycles, and the front room is easily big enough for both the 'his' and 'hers' sofas. Unfortunately though, I did overlook one crucial need - I didn't foresee quite how much I would miss having my own space. In Seaton I converted one of the smaller bedrooms into an office/study. It had a bulky desktop computer with a widescreen monitor and I would retire there for most of the summer to watch the Tour de France highlights on catch-up, slouched in a big comfy chair with a glass of wine. I miss it hugely. I expressed this concern to Mrs NQS, in the slim hope that she might bequeath me the spare bedroom. Not. A. Chance. To her credit though, she did offer a solution: "What about a big shed?"

My scant knowledge of outdoor buildings led me to presume that a 'shed' wouldn't really be practical for year-round use. Wrong. A bit of Googleage introduced me to log cabins, Black Friday introduced me to a 25% discount, and now the garage is full of a massive wooden jig-saw puzzle waiting for the weather to let me convert it into this:

It's insulated, it's double-glazed, and I can heat it...
I have learned a new term: Man Cave. Apparently that is what it will become once it is appropriately kitted out and stocked with wine. Who am I to argue?

Perhaps I can add DIY projects to the scope of this blog? Actually, I think I shall have to...

Tuesday, 12 January 2016

Extracurricular Activity

I've just returned from a couple of days in The New Forest. The route took us right past Blashford Lakes near Ringwood, and it seemed only sensible to have a look. We visited on Sunday afternoon, and again this morning. Blashford Lakes is a complex of gravel pits, some managed by the Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust. There are footpaths, hides, a handy leaflet with a map for visitors, and millions of birds. Impressive! For example, some 200 Pintail on Ibsley Water, along with masses of more everyday floating stuff. Also, single Black-necked and Slavonian Grebes here, plus - on Kingfisher Lake - a typically skulking Ferruginous Duck. This was the tip of the iceberg, and I reckon you could easily spend all day on this complex and not cover it all.

Ibsley Water is regularly hosting an adult Ring-billed Gull at the moment, and on Sunday afternoon we coincidentally timed a visit to the Tern Hide with the early arrivals at the gull roost. There it was among them...

It's the one in the middle, and there's an adult Common Gull far right for comparison. How can I tell it's not just dross? Ok, even though it's glaringly obvious to anyone, I'll elucidate. Differences from Common Gull: paler grey (like BHG), with far less prominent tertial crescent; chunkier head, bit like a mini-HG. Plus, in this photo you can easily pick out lots of clinching detail: the heavier, bright yellow bill with its broad, black subterminal band (or 'ring'), pale iris, smaller white primary 'mirror', bright yellow legs and diagnostic banana-shaped spleen. Sorted.

It's got to be 25+ years since I last did an inland gull roost, so it was great to sit there for a while and watch some of the big stuff arrive. I tracked a darkish looking adult bird with very limited white in the primary tips as it flew all the way to the front of the raft. I paused just long enough to check the mantle colour and note the clean white head, then announced to the hide: "Adult Yellow-legged just dropped in on the far left," making sure my voice had exactly the right level of relaxed gravitas and didn't squeak with excitement. 'Still got it, hotshot' I thought to myself. I didn't say it out loud of course. That would have been pathetic...

By now the hide was beginning to fill with the evening shift, the gull roost specialists, and it was a shame to have to leave. But Mrs NQS was worried that the one correct ID might go to my head and I'd start blurting out all kinds of guff and embarrass her. So, at 15:30 we left, my reputation intact.

Back again this morning, counting Pintails. Look at the little beauties...

Pintails...with some pretty ducks attached
On Sunday afternoon the place was crawling with birders, but today we were predicting an empty car park. Wrong! It's funny, Blashford Lakes is undoubtedly a superb venue, with huge potential I'm sure, but I'm so glad it's not my patch. Too many people, too much hide-based birding, and too much scanning through floating goods. This afternoon I had time for a walk at Cogden. I didn't meet a single person, entered no hides, and the only scanning was hedgetops and sea. I didn't see a lot, admittedly, but for me there is much, much more to enjoyable birding than birds...

Monday, 11 January 2016

Mud and Memory

Yesterday morning there was time for a quick jaunt down to Cogden. One Coot and four Teal comprised my only year ticks, and the best bird was an adult Little Gull lingering distantly offshore. Also nice were two 2w Med Gulls, two Red-throated Divers and three Fulmars...or maybe the same Fulmar three times!

I also had a look for the Firecrest seen recently. No joy, but never mind, because nothing beats a gentle stroll through ankle-deep mud...


So far for me it's been wellies only at Cogden. How different from the Axe Estuary and the nice hard footpaths at Black Hole and Seaton Marshes, say. Very glad I invested in some Muckboots a while back!

As I lounge here in a nice New Forest hotel room, tapping this out with one finger, David Bowie is all over the telly. It's one of those 'remember where you were when you heard they'd pegged it?' moments. I don't have many of those, but my most vivid is 9 Dec 1980. It was early morning and I was driving to the River Colne near Uxbridge to go pike fishing. The radio newsreader announced that John Lennon had been shot dead just a short time ago. I went on to catch about ten pike that day. Mrs NQS would find some irony here. How is it that I can clearly recall something which happened 35 years ago, yet fail to do likewise with a thousand far more vital things within ten seconds of her telling me?

One of life's little mysteries...

Saturday, 9 January 2016

No Pain, No Gain!

It's a rare thing these days to find me browsing BirdForum, but that is the unlikely place from where I received inspiration to get out birding this afternoon. It happened this way...

After a busy-busy morning I had a little flick through my Twitter feed over lunch. The original intention this afternoon was a bike ride, but the relentless clattering rain put paid to that idea. The most tempting plan B involved a great deal of sofa. Anyway, there amongst my Justin Bieber tweets was a delightfully apalling record shot of a Glaucous Gull off Sidmouth (thank you @Sidmouthnature!), which had possibly flown E, ie., my way. Hmmm.

There's this BF thread about a Pacific Diver in Cornwall...often very distant and hard to ID...some chap musing that he'd like to go see it, but whether it's worth risking the long trip because he might not see it, etc, etc... The thread concludes with another contributor suggesting that matey definitely won't be seeing it from his couch at home!

This pearl of wisdom is called a truism. A truism is a statement that is so screamingly obvious that only someone wanting an immediate poke in the eye would make it. It's in the same genus as 'you've got to be in it to win it' and nearly as annoying.

In the mid-80s I went to watch the London Marathon a couple of times [note: 'watch'. I'm not an idiot]. On the first occasion there was this track-suited bloke standing on a traffic island at around the 23 mile mark, cupping his hands to his mouth and yelling at the oncoming runners as they staggered, grimacing, towards him:

"NO PAIN, NO GAIN!! HAW HAW HA-A-AWWW!!! NO PAIN, NO GAIN!!"

He wasn't there the next year. Gleefully murdered, probably...

But sadly, as any athlete will admit, there is indeed no gain without pain. All these horrendous clich├ęs were telling me basically the same thing: "If you think there is even the slimmest chance of that Glauc coming past Cogden, then get off your fat backside and hurry on down there; wind, rain and all!"

So I did.

By 2:30 I had trudged grimly along the beach to my lump of seawatching concrete (see here) and sank gratefully onto the shingle in its meagre shelter. I was drenched. It was pouring with rain, the wind was a minor hoolie, and I'd pretty much been walking right into it. I sat there for ages for no more than a trickle of gulls. No Glauc, obviously. As the light began to dim I shuffled back again. The wind was even stronger. A few more gulls now. Six Meds, a Kittiwake...no Glaucous. I lingered until my wet fingers had gone completely dead, sighed, and headed for the car park.

No Glaucous Gull. Not even a single Patchwork Challenge point.

Nevertheless, I was glad to have followed the wise advice outlined above. Because it's true! I couldn't have seen that Glauc from my sofa...and you do have to be in it to win it...and there is rarely gain without pain. However, despite leaving my sofa I failed to see the bird, so I most certainly did not 'win it' and there was a degree of pain.

Worth it then?

Oh yes! Well, six Med Gulls ain't bad, is it, but the sea was brilliant! The wind, exhilarating! Look at the new NQS header shot! Where else would I have wanted to be on a stormy January afternoon?

Love it!!

Friday, 8 January 2016

Patch Ethics - Part 1

I've a feeling I got a bit above myself in yesterday's post, and think I should clarify things re my new patch.

Firstly, Cogden is not a discreet patch in itself; it is merely a part of the much larger 'West Bexington & Cogden' area, which is a birding patch of long standing. The fact that I see Cogden as separate is neither here nor there, and is just my own approach to birding there; at this stage I think it's unlikely I will stray over to West Bex much. That said, another Caspian Tern might get me walking along the beach a bit further than usual...

Secondly, Cogden isn't just my patch. Despite having so far met just two other birders there (and one of those by arrangement) and suspecting this will probably be the norm, I am very conscious that Cogden has seen a lot of dedicated effort over the years, and still does. In the excitement of wading into a new birding chapter I think I've overlooked that point to some extent. Regretfully I think it shows in some of what I've written on this blog, in that I may well come across like some sort of pioneering trailblazer, which of course I am not.

The reality is that I am very much the new boy.

If there is one thing I have learned in well over 30 years at this game it is the importance of getting on with your fellow birders if at all possible. So far I've been dead fortunate in that regard. In all the patches I've shared with others I can - not surprisingly - think of several trivial issues, but not a single case of anything serious. We're all different of course, but by making allowances and compromises accordingly it tends to work out okay.

When we are young I guess there can be the petty jealousies and whatnot that are a consequence of youthful vigour and misguided enthusiasm, but I suppose the fact that most birders these days are also bus-pass carriers means they've pretty much mellowed out with age, and in any case daren't risk anything that interferes with their hypertension meds...

Without doubt one of the greatest pleasures to be had from working a patch is in sharing your finds. To do that, of course, you have to find stuff. I'd better try and pull my weight.

Yes, massive joy, both in the giving and the receiving. Thus...

Sharing 1.   Guess who found the Surf Scoter!
Sharing 2.   Guess who needed - and was especially grateful for - the Stone-curlew!

Finally, an observation. In the blogs that I read the most - the very active ones anyway - there seems to have been a comments explosion! Why is this? Since I resurrected NQS a couple of months back I am pretty sure the number of comments I am getting is far above what I remember previously. There is actual dialogue going on. A few posts that I've read elsewhere in recent times have lamented the apparent shrinking of the blogosphere, and hinted at it being an ailing medium. To me - at the moment anyway - it appears in rude health!

Thursday, 7 January 2016

Patch Grippage

Gripped on my new patch yesterday. Cogden lies just W of West Bexington, and one patch segues into the other. There are a couple of West Bex birders who are out in the field lots and lots, and who fairly often include some Cogden in their circuit. One of them kindly texted yesterday: 'Marsh Harrier & Firecrest at Cogden this morning...' Good to know, but...nnngggshhh...

I'm pretty sure that mostly I'll have Cogden to myself when I'm out, but there is a small number of birders who are liable to give me a right good gripping from time to time. The risk of missing a stupendous bird on your hallowed patch is an occupational hazard, and you simply have to accept it. Hmm, having said that, actually you don't have to accept it. No. I can think of at least two alternatives.

1.  Throw toys out of pram, go nuts, give up birding. This does happen.

2.  Move to remote NE Scotland. You will definitely have the place to yourself. Forever. However, you will also be rewarded with many rare birds that only you will see. This brings its own issues, as a chap named Alan Vittery discovered. If you opt for this solution and don't want to feel like a pariah, buy a very good camera.

Personally, I'll just bite the bullet.

Today I was on someone else's patch, some place called the Axe Estuary in E Devon. I frequently pass it as I travel between jobs and have heard it gets birds sometimes. I was just scoping through some distant gulls from a gateway to the N of Axmouth when I had a nice little surprise...

Ha! Look! A Glossy Ibis! Moments later it was gone.

Apparently this bird has been around the Axe valley since just after the war, but nicely illustrates what can so easily happen on your very own patch. Joe Dodgy rolls up and bags a mega which has just that second dropped in. And then, as quickly, it vanishes. You get to hear about it somehow (probably via BirdGuides or something) and instantly write it off as total string. Of course, you also hope it is total string. Desperately. Then a photo emerges, probably from some dudey blog like this one. Now is the time to seriously consider options 1 and 2....

Tuesday, 5 January 2016

Another Day...

This is how my day ended...

The chalk cliffs W of Seaton Hole, the sun going down
This was the view from my last job of the day. As well as the scenery there was tea and chocolate-chip shortbread. Earlier I'd enjoyed my lunch by the Axe Estuary (just like old times) as I casually scanned the gulls for anything obvious. This is work, you understand. I can't really complain, can I.

This is how my day began...

Once again this morning I got an hour in on the Cogden patch. There was a WSW breeze and, miraculously, no rain. In fact the sun even came out for a bit. The sea was very quiet, though a Shag flew W and a Red-throated Diver came in from the E and plonked on the water. Very little moving apart from a handful of Gannets and some gull dross along the shoreline.

My recent visits to the patch have mostly been in pretty awful weather, so checking what's happening offshore has been my priority. In fact, land-based activity has seemed minimal, to the extent that the fields and hedges have appeared fairly birdless. This morning I changed my mind about that. It's amazing what a bit of sunshine can do. In just a small area, all sorts of stuff was leaping about. I had at least two singing Cetti's Warblers, maybe three; several Stonechats were nipping from perch to perch; three Skylarks chased each other over some rough grazing; little groups of Linnets and Meadow Pipits buzzed around, and three Song Thrushes and a couple of Blackbirds fed along a single fence line. I suddenly realised the air was full of 'potential' and that this is going to be a very rewarding patch...

The Cetti's and three fly-over Mute Swans added two ticks and three points to the Patchwork Challenge list. Current totals: 46 Species, 56 points.

Walking along the beach in an easterly direction, you cannot help noticing the long, low wedge of Portland sticking far, far out into the English Channel. Positioned as it is at the far side of Lyme Bay, and virtually dead N of the Cherbourg Peninsula, it is in prime position to soak up 99% of the decent birds heading for the Dorset coast. A bit like the fat, greedy child at a kid's party, gathering armfuls of sticky goodies and elbowing out the quieter children, it's hard not to slightly resent Portland's domination of the coastline, and its insatiable appetite for quality birds. The vast majority of Dorset birders live elsewhere than Portland, their various patches lying in the island's cold shadow, hideously malnourished bird-wise. This morning it looked like they'd finally done something about this injustice by clubbing together to purchase a Nuclear Device...

Ker-boo-o-o-o-m! Portland gets it.

Monday, 4 January 2016

Context

Perhaps we don't always consciously acknowledge the fact, but a good percentage of the buzz many of us get from birding is directly linked to context. That is, the circumstances surrounding each bird we see. Context makes it special, or leaves it merely mundane. The obvious case is the common migrant that is so out-of-range that it becomes a vagrant, viz. rarity. But there are many, more subtle examples: the notorious skulker seen really well; the summer visitor in the middle of winter; the dirt-common bird in vast numbers; the seabird inland, etc.

Let me illustrate...

Before heading off to work this morning I nipped over to Cogden for a quick look at the sea. Again, the walk from the car park gave me some patch yearticks: Great Tit, Bullfinch and a singing Skylark. A little black blob offshore turned out to be a summer plumaged Guillemot, and fly-bys included 4 Kitts, 2 Fulmars, and singles of Brent Goose and Red-throated Diver. Eight new birds, bringing my total to 44 species and 53 points. A lone Shag was on the sea briefly before flying E, and a 1W Med Gull went W. All in all, a pleasing start to the working day.

Context played a major role in my enjoyment of that hour. The passerines were all yearticks, making each just a touch more notable than normal - the Skylark especially, due to singing its little heart out on 4 January and instantly raising my spirits. Guillemot, a common bird in places, and guaranteed for the year here, but here was one close enough for me to rule out Razorbill without teetering into the dark world that is 'string'. Thank you, close Guillemot, for keeping my conscience intact. Kittiwake, Fulmar, Brent Goose and Red-throated Diver similar, status-wise - all a given here, but not that common along this stretch of coast apparently. Also the RTD was reasonably close compared to the generally distant views I am used to off Seaton. When the Axe was my patch a lone Shag wouldn't have got a mention, but it is scarce here. Med Gull? Just being a Med Gull as opposed to dross immediately elevates the bird to another plane.

I don't think I'd ever quite made the connection before, but birders of a certain age have a system that describes exactly how special the context has made a particular bird. It's the 'value' system. You don't hear it so much these days, but I'm sure we subconsciously use our own version of it all the time...

Jack Snipe, right out in the open, point-blank range...excellent value!

Sunday, 3 January 2016

Onwards. Slowly.

Twitter is awash with @PatchBirding retweets and #PWC2016 hashtags. The 400+ participants in the 2016 Patchwork Challenge have been out there and doing it since 00:01 Jan 1, and their collective tallies and finds are plastered across the ether for us all to enjoy. And that's 'enjoy' in the 'without irony' sense. I am actually quite inspired by it all. The enthusiasm is very infectious and should last until...ooh...early February, which, as every yearlister knows, is the killer month...

Anyway, in the meantime I will continue to enjoy the buzz. Even though I was busy with other things nearly all weekend, dipping into the tweetage encouraged me to hurry down to Cogden the moment I was free late this afternoon. Only an hour of light left, but I didn't care. Walking down from the car park I heard a Blue Tit calling and spied a Kestrel over the field to the W, both new for the year. A pretty strong SW kept me back from the beach a bit; I set up the scope in the lee of a hedge and hoped something decent would fly past. There seems to be a nice bit of gull movement off Cogden in the early morning and late afternoon, and I had at least four, maybe six Med Gulls - all adults - head W. A little party of three Cormorants comprised the third and final addition to my 2016 list. So, as the gloom deepened and the weekend's birding drew to a close, my Patchwork tally stood at 36 species and 41 points. Compared to many this is puny, but as I cast an eye over the patch's fields and hedgerows I wondered just how many species were tucked away out there. Not that many I reckon. Perhaps a focus on the sea at this time of year might be the best use of time?

Other stuff that came to me via Twitter today included gripping pics of an adult Ross's Gull off the Lizard and an adult Glaucous-winged Gull in Cork. Wow!! To birders who shrug their shoulders at gulls I just have to ask:

What is WRONG with you??!!

My goodness! Just think where these birds have come from! The journeys they've undertaken to get here! Gulls are such impressive travellers. Most of them need little more than a bit of wet stuff and some grub, and they can find that virtually anywhere. Factor in some inclement weather and they can be persuaded to up sticks and drop in at the most unlikely places. If they can find a few cousins to hang with, great, they're happy. I can think of no bird family with greater potential to give the sagging patchwatcher the Great Grandaddy of Adrenal Emptyings...

Please, give Gull a chance. You can only benefit, I promise.

Way over in London E11 the Wanstead Dandy has been owning up to sartorial dreadfulness. Most amusing! A quick trawl of old NQS photos has got me weighing in with this example of late 80s cringe...

Mmm, the cap-sleeve t-shirt. Really, really cool.

Friday, 1 January 2016

Kick-Off!

New year. New start. Up at 6:30, coffee and toast, then off to the Cogden patch.The first six birds were all heard: Carrion Crow, Wren, Robin, Blackbird, Herring Gull and Dunnock. And they needed a bit of volume too, because the roar from the beach was pretty loud! The surf was getting ripped up by a brisk SE and giving the Chesil shingle a right pounding.

By the time I got down there a nice pink glow suffused the sky over Portland...

That's the closest we got to actual sun all day
I mooched along the beach, without much reward beyond a calling Water Rail, and eventually came to what was clearly the seawatching shelter...


I can tell you, this is perfect for a SE, which basically comes straight along the beach. The wind got progressively stronger, yet I was completely sheltered from it here. If it had rained I'd have got wet, but I have nevertheless earmarked this spot for springtime Pom joy (given the right conditions) and noted the need for a brolly! This morning's prize was a spanking adult Little Gull, which came in from the E and slowly worked back that way. I love Little Gulls. There's always a chance of one along this coast when it's stormy, yet even in a howling hoolie they never look even slightly stressed. Captivating things! A real quality bird to get on my Patchwork Challenge list so early. Nice.

Soon the forecast rain arrived, and I headed home for a proper brekky. However, just before I turned away from the beach, two Shags flew E, close in. Result! Shag was easy-peasy off Seaton, what with there being a breeding population on the Beer cliffs, but off Cogden the species is rated 'scarce', and these were my first here. Again, nice.

Mid-afternoon, and I was back. By now it was tanking down, so I donned the full wet-kit, removed specs and shuffled forth across the fields and into the wind. Blinkin' horrid it was! Despite being bent double I still managed to add Song Thrush, Pheasant and Chaffinch. I came to a sheltered spot with a view of the sea and blow me if there wasn't another adult Little Gull moving slowly E just beyond the surf! I say 'another' and, as it kept going never to reappear, assume it probably was. Brilliant!

Eventually the rain stopped and I finished the day with a walk along the beach from E to W with the really strong wind at my back. Three Med Gulls E - one of each age class - topped off a great first crack at the new patch for 2016. The first of, hopefully, many...

Blimey, a proper birding post, no padding...I'm not quite sure what to do now....er...