Sunday, 23 April 2017

A Patch of Yore

I've probably done more birding in the last week than the rest of the year put together. How come? Who knows. It is spring though, so perhaps my sap is rising? There is also the constant drip-drip of birdy gen trickling through Twitter and the like, keeping me abreast of migrant action all along the nearby coast. This is inspiration in itself. Anyway, whatever the cause, I have had the optics out.

It's all been a bit lightweight though. I mostly can't be bothered to drag a scope around. Or a camera. It's been more 'walking, with bins' really...

On Tuesday afternoon I had to drive to Heathrow Terminal 5. I didn't need to rush home so, tempted by the evening sunshine, I dropped in at an old haunt...

This is at the E end of the causeway. Back in the day my visits always began at the other end. And I never, ever remember being welcomed!

The view W along the causeway. A much younger bloke spent most of the 1980s gazing hopefully from this vantage point. He probably looked just as earnest as this.

I don't recall noticing in years past but the place is far from salubrious. That's probably because I was distracted by the consistently amazing birding. Well, that's how I remember it anyway! My tenure coincided with a couple of lengthy drainings. Here's a sample of the quality that I enjoyed back then: Collared Pratincole, several Pec Sands, Lesser Yellowlegs, Baird's Sand, all the phalaropes (including a female Red-necked in full nuptial attire), 2 Kentish Plovers, 3 Temminck's Stints, Long-tailed and Pom Skuas, Ring-billed Gull, 2 Ferruginous Ducks, and even one or two decent passerines like Ring Ouzel, a few Snow Buntings, and (though technically it was on King George VI Res) Tawny Pipit. I've even watched a Guillemot fly over that causeway!

It wasn't bad on Tuesday either. Upon arrival I was blasted by a cold NE wind, which in former times at this juncture would have raised the possibility of Arctic Terns. Sure enough, there were at least a dozen or so doing feeding runs on the S basin, which was quite frankly crawling with birds. Loads of BHGs, and a smattering of Common Terns too. A Great Northern Diver on the N basin was a speck, as in fact were a myriad other floating things. I only had bins. Thirty-something years ago I used to think that birders who turned up at Staines sans scope were manifestly complete noddies, which is probably why I received a fairly terse response from the proper serious-looking birder hunched over his enormous scope at the W end of the causeway...

"Hello. You haven't counted the Arctics have you, by any chance?"
"No, I haven't." [Barely a glance in my direction, though no doubt he'd noticed me approaching, conspicuously scopeless]
"Any Black Terns at all?"
"Not that I've seen." [subtext: "Please just move along now..."]
He was probably a regular. [Eye to scope, eye to scope...he'll soon get the hint]
I remembered I too was a regular once. Also with a lamentably low noddy threshold.

I looked quite hard for Black Terns. And Little Gulls. No joy with either, but I did flush a Little Ringed Plover from the water's edge of the N basin as I sauntered by. It did the decent thing and landed further along, allowing me nice views. Nice bins views.

And then, blow me down if there wasn't a stonking Staines tick waiting by the S basin water tower...


Saturday, 1 April 2017

All-purpose Update

First, birds. Although I saw four Sand Martins on the relatively early date of March 10th, I haven't managed much else in the way of summer migrants. To do so would involve birding effort, of which there has been none. Jolly poor show really. Just this morning my little heart was swelling appreciatively at the sight of so much green in the sunny hedgerows, with their thick froth of blackthorn bloom, a sight I always associate with the arrival of Willow Warblers. Soon their sweetly plaintive song will be everywhere. Lovely. And yet, there was no accompanying urge to hurry home, grab the optics and head off birding somewhere.

In a way it's a shame that I just cannot seem to get the birdy juices flowing right now, but I take consolation from the fact that it has happened before; the interest has merely diminished, not died. And anyway, I still pull up next to the Axe Estuary for a quick look whenever I am working nearby. One day I might even find something...

Before we leave birds... Finally (after I don't know how many attempts) I cycled past Rowden Farm, near Long Bredy, and spotted cattle in the field across the lane, along with, yes, Cattle Egrets too. At least six. I say 'at least' because I forgot my little monocular, and so they were all just white things. Six were definite Cattle White Things, but there were a few other White Thing sp. present also. Here are the 'at least' six, and one indeterminate...

Photo taken with my phone at max zoom. It didn't help.

Last summer I bought a rather nice bike frame on eBay. My intention was to build it into a Sunday-best machine over the cold and dreary winter months. Unfortunately I was rather unwell for most of the winter and failed to summon the necessary enthusiasm for such a project. The onset of spring did the trick though, and in just one week I turned a pile of bits into this:

One Canyon AL SLX with Shimano Ultegra groupset. Drives superb.

As you can see, it has already seen a bit of action down the primrose-studded Dorset lanes. There was minor disappointment when I discovered that it failed to convert a winter of sloth into magical uphill personal bests, but I nevertheless hauled it up Eggardon Hill (the least steep way!) for some pretentious phone camera-work...

Birding from the bike is much harder than I anticipated. There are so many things working against you. The wind, for example. Riding into a headwind renders you deaf to birdsong as the air rushes noisily past your ears. In fact any speed of more than about 12mph generally has the same effect. So the only way I am going to add heard-only birds to my list is when I'm grovelling uphill. Oh, but then there's all the gasping and groaning, which drowns out anything less strident than a Cetti's Warbler. Also, there's not much scanning of the fields, sky and horizon, because you mostly have to look where you're going. Mind you, that does have its compensations, like when a pair of Grey Partridges scuttled across the road in front of me several weeks ago. I'm pretty sure they're nearly as rare around here as they were in the Seaton area.

I shall just have to cycle very slowly on occasion.

Angling-wise, well, spring is here, so the pike tackle has now been stashed until late autumn at least. It is time to think about the Exeter Canal carp. Rob and I have been planning our campaign for some time, and stocking up with bait. Though I haven't managed any fishing time yet, Rob has been down twice. His first trip produced a 5lb tench. As far as we can tell there have only been about half a dozen carp caught since the beginning of the year, despite a lot of effort from the regulars. So we were both mightily chuffed when this happened on Wednesday night...

Rob with a 24lb 8oz Exeter Canal mirror

Apparently this is also the biggest out so far this year. An encouraging start. And, so I am told, not jammy at all.

Although I have caught a few hefty carp in a previous life, it was a long time ago. So I've been trying to get up-to-date with modern rigs and tactics by watching some of the frankly first-rate videos available on YouTube etc. It makes me feel positively antique. The popularity (and ubiquity) of carp fishing has produced a massive and flourishing industry, intent on selling you a vast collection of horribly expensive bits. Years ago we used to joke that if you were a carp angler you could go into a tackle shop, part with a hundred quid, and need nothing more than a small paper bag to carry your purchases home. It's even worse now. I am trying hard to glean as much useful information as possible in order to maximise my chances at minimum cost. This has been huge fun, and I can now tie all sorts of interesting, modern, effective-looking rigs, with zippy names that I had never even heard of a few months ago. I look forward to chucking some of them into the canal soon.

A few things haven't changed though. What anglers call 'watercraft' is one. Like 'fieldcraft' in birding, watercraft cannot be bought, and its shrewd employment can give you a massive edge. Hopefully I still have some. Future blogs will reveal whether that is the case!

Incidentally, the photo above doesn't really do justice to the size of Rob's carp. Apart from the fact that this was his first attempt at a self-take with my camera (hence top of head missing) and that it was pouring with rain, Rob is quite a large chap. Here's a shot of it on the unhooking mat...

Fat as the proverbial...

I never thought I'd ever again get excited at the prospect of catching one of these gorgeous lumps, but this one has got me all fired up...

Saturday, 11 March 2017

Lessons For the Perennial Hobbyist

Today there has been a significant arrival of Wheatears, that perky herald of spring promise. In times past this blog would have tried quite hard to feature a nice early Wheatear photo. That's because its author was a keen birder back then. Quite what he is now I am not exactly sure. I wonder if there is a technical term for a fickle multi-hobbyist?

Not wishing to be accused of navel-gazing I shan't dwell on this thought any longer, but instead offer a couple of lessons from my long and seemingly capricious pursuit of various interests.

1. The Pleasure Principle
I've hijacked this Freudian term in order to state the blinkin' obvious: when the fun stops, change tack. You'd think this would be simple really, but surprisingly it is not. It is quite easy to pursue your hobby down a path of diminishing joy until you reach a dead end, at which point chucking it all in will seem like a good option. I have done this a few times. Here's one of them...

I took this vintage photo at Wilstone Reservoir, Tring, in (I think) 1983. Attached to a tench is Tony Chester, former UK record holder for that species with a 10lb 1oz 4dr fish from probably this very spot in June 1981

The scene pictured above depicts what I had aspired to, angling-wise, a couple of years previously. Like many kids of my generation I started fishing as a young boy, serving an 'apprenticeship' on ponds, rivers and canals which had modest potential when it came to really big fish. Slowly though, pursuit of the whoppers became an important goal. Tring Reservoirs was an obvious venue; despite being a lengthy drive away it was home to the biggest tench in the land, as well as monster bream, roach etc. However, in 1981 I was newly married, with the added responsibilies of a mortgage and a house in need of much DIY. At the age of 22 these circumstances precluded any serious involvement in the world of specimen hunting. What I should have done was adjust my focus and forget Tring. Instead I pressed on regardless and joined the Tring syndicate. Inevitably I wasn't able to dedicate either the time or the resources needed for success on such a challenging venue, and soon burned out. Fishing had stopped being genuinely enjoyable some time before this point, but I had failed to heed the warning signs. I'd like to say "lesson learned" but judging from the next 30-odd years it clearly wasn't!

Anyway, soon I was flogging all my fishing gear and taking up birding in a big and proper way. Within a short time I'd swapped Tring Res for Staines Res, and the rest is history.

2. Pass it on if you can
The love of a hobby is a precious thing. Having a passion that gives pleasure and a sense of fulfillment is a terrific antidote to many of the harsher realities of life. In addition, any 'success' in your chosen pastime surely builds confidence and self-esteem, never a bad thing in this thankless world. For example...

Me, aged 11 or 12, with 2 perch and a tench from Barn Hill Pond. Yes, I was taking the place apart with consummate skill, and feeling pretty good about it too. I was quite independent and would walk there from home with my sarnies, my bottle of squash and my serious fishing hat, and the day would fly by...

Here's a photo taken 20-something years later...

Rob, aged 12, brings a hefty Startops Reservoir perch to the waiting net wielded by Baz, then 9 years old.

Baz never caught the fishing bug, but Rob certainly did. Passing on that love of fishing is one of my great satisfactions in life. I've been pleasantly surprised at the positive effect on our relationship as adults provided by having a common interest in this simple pastime.

So, nothing profound there really, just a couple of lessons from many hours spent in the idle pursuit of various pastimes.

Oh, and Baz, meanwhile, shares my passion for carefully folding and knotting empty crisp packets, chocolate wrappers etc. To be fair, I am not sure if I deliberately passed this on or it's simply an inherited tendency to dispose of rubbish with obsessive neatness, i.e. a genetic thing. Whichever, apart from the obvious fact that the world would benefit hugely from having its waste packaging thrown away nice and tidily I cannot in all honesty advocate it quite as heartily as fishing, birding, cycling, golf, squash, running, playing the guitar, etc, etc, etc, etc...

Friday, 10 March 2017

The Haig Men Get Competitive

Well, this must be a bit tedious for the birders who drop in here. Fishing again. Rob and I recently joined Dorchester & District Angling Society and over this past week have tried a couple of their waters. The club has access to some of the Dorset Stour upstream from Blandford Forum, plus a host of small lakes and ponds. On Wednesday we spent a wet day on the Stour, catching just a few small fish - roach, dace and gudgeon. It was hard going on a very full, fast and coloured river, made more difficult by our unfamiliarity with it. Rob tried one of the lakes last night and had a small carp and a bream of almost 6lb. So this afternoon I skived off work and headed for the same venue, a lovely spot hidden away in the folds of land NE of Bridport. I took two rods, one for catching carp off the surface, the other a lightish spinning rod set up for 'drop-shotting', a method completely new to me but apparently superb for perch. I didn't know if I could get any carp to feed off the surface this early in the year, but as it's always been one of my favourite methods I couldn't resist having a go. And as for drop-shotting, well, I rather fancy catching a decent perch or two and, though I was going to be out of my comfort zone, felt it was time for an old dog to at least try some new tricks...

I was fishing by about 1:45pm, and by the time I packed up four hours later had tried three different lakes and caught two carp and a perch. I found the first carp in the margin, sucking delicacies from the raft of weed covering the surface. I plonked a dog biscuit nearby and watched it disappear with a loud slurp. Very exciting stuff.

12lb 6oz of lovely common carp

Meanwhile I was struggling with the drop-shotting. The rod I was using was far from ideal - too stiff really, and designed for heavier lures than the flyweight drop-shotting outfit. And then, out of the blue, a wallop on the rod top resulted in this little beaut...

1lb 9oz of prickly perch

I say 'little' but in fact this is the biggest perch I've caught in well over 20 years. Mind you, I haven't done much fishing in that time! Although I caught just the one, it was a massive confidence booster. In angling, as in many pursuits, confidence is everything; it breeds success. I already knew that drop-shotting catches perch - I've seen enough published evidence - but now I know that this strange and unfamiliar method works for me, and that makes all the difference.

I managed to get some carp feeding off the top later, but their caginess and my ineptitude meant I caught just one more, a small mirror carp of about 7lb.

Rob and I have decided to spice things up for the year by adding a competitive element. The biggest fish of every species earns a pint. Here's how things lie as of 10th March:

Pike: 16lb (Rob)
Carp: 12lb 6oz (me)
Barbel: 7lb 7oz (me)
Bream: 5lb 14oz (Rob)
Gudgeon: currently no winner - both of us caught some, but neither off us stooped to measuring their size in any comparitive way. This will change though. After all, a pint is a pint.
Dace: c.2oz (me) No dace for Rob yet.
Roach: 20cm (me - the length of my hand from middle finger-tip to wrist crease). Back in the day a roach of 20cm (or rather, 8") would have been known as a 'goer'. A prize to anyone who can tell me the etymology of that term. If you can, I guarantee you'll be older than 45!
Perch: 1lb 9oz (me)
Minnow: Rob has caught one of these and, as I have not, is claiming the species at present. This grates, and clearly smacks of desperation.

So, I am leading 5:3 right now. All that skill for just two pints... More effort required I think.

This little competition has encouraged us to broaden our horizons somewhat. Rather than narrow our focus to just a few species of fish (which is where we initially saw things going, with mainly carp and pike on the agenda) we're all of a sudden rather interested in every species!

Finally, a token birdy snippet: I saw my first proper migs today when 4 Sand Martins briefly visited the lakes, pausing just long enough for a bit of twirling and dipping. All the way from Africa. Never less than awesome.

Saturday, 4 March 2017

Gulls. And Memories...

I wish I was a bit more disciplined when it comes to blog post regularity, because I wind up with more material than I can do justice to. Anyway, here we go again...

It's been pretty good for gulls down here of late. If you read Steve Waite's Axe Birding you'll already know that. Although my occasional 'lunchtime' perusal of the Axe Estuary hasn't given me a white-winger yet it has been nice to bump into Steve once or twice, and a couple of weeks back we shared a 2nd-winter Yellow-legged Gull and a whole bunch of intermedius Lesser Black-backs. One of the latter wore a Danish colour ring - a nice confirmation of its sub-specific status. Back in 2006, on 23rd March, I counted 162 LBBGs on the Axe, and reckoned 100+ were comfortably dark enough for intermedius, though who knows, perhaps all of them were? There's clearly a hefty passage of this subspecies to be witnessed in E Devon, given the right conditions.

It's probably a function of getting older, but I do find myself reminiscing more often. Sometimes there is very good reason. Like yesterday.

Rob has long fancied a trip to the Royalty Fishery, on the Hampshire Avon at Christchurch. It's not exactly the most scenic fishery in the country, but certainly one of the most iconic. Over the years I would imagine that just about every angling 'name' has fished there; it is steeped in piscatorial history. To coarse fisherman it is most famous for its barbel, a powerful species that fights like stink and grows big enough to pull your arm off. I have caught a few barbel from the Royalty, but until yesterday had not wet a line there for 36 years. However, my first acquaintence with the place was even longer ago...

As a mad-keen teenage angler in 1976 I was desperate to catch my first barbel. In July that year I finally got a decent crack at them, a week-long holiday on the Royalty with two fishing friends. We stayed at a B&B just around the corner from the fishery gate and were on the water at opening time every day. 1976 was the famous drought summer and the water level was very low, the fish hard to tempt. Nevertheless, after a couple of days getting the measure of the place we finally began to catch barbel. By the end of the week we'd all had several. The biggest jammily fell to me. Here it is in all its sepia glory:

The original B&W photo (on the apalling 'silk' paper) suffers from camera shake and the print has gone all faded, discoloured and spotty, as you can see. To me, none of this matters. The barbel weighed 7lb 9oz and was caught, uncharacteristically, in the heat of the day. My rod, with much-loved (and long-gone) ABU Cardinal 44 Express reel attached, lies on the ground. The elbow on the left reminds me that there was quite an audience on that sunny afternoon. Yes, this rather tenth-rate image brings it all back...

Visiting the Royalty after all this time truly was a trip down Memory Lane. There were many subtle changes, but the course of a river doesn't change a great deal in 40 years, and much was familiar. Rob and I favoured a roving approach, trying many swims from the top end of the fishery all the way down to the bypass bridge. But it was hard. Very hard. We could not buy a bite. Despite our own lack of success there was ample compensation in the morning when we witnessed someone else's! I mentioned earlier that the Royalty is most famous for its barbel, but to a game fisherman it'll be for the salmon and sea trout. Some enormous salmon run up the Avon, as the following sequence of photos proves...

Salmon on! Rob waits with net.
The angler measured the fish and consulted a length-to-weight table to gauge approximately how heavy it was. 37 inches long translates to roughly 21lb apparently.
Absolutely stunning creature, fresh from the sea...
...and gently returned to continue its journey upstream...

The only other salmon I've seen caught was in 1977, also on the Royalty, also around 20lb.

Anyway, Rob and I pressed on, but without reward. I saw a chap on the opposite bank catch a barbel, but other than that it seemed most, like us, were struggling. Late afternoon came and we split up, both of us choosing different spots to sit out the last hour of light. By now the weather had deteriorated to torrential rain, and I was sitting hunched up in my not-so-waterproofs, willing the rod to hoop over. Just on dusk, it did. The battle was immense, the fish making full use of the swollen river to surge away downstream several times. Eventually though, it was mine, and surprisingly not the monster the fight had suggested. Just for posterity, here is a pretty lame 'in the wet grass' trophy shot of my first Royalty barbel for 36 years...

It weighed 7lb 7oz, and just to add to the day's nostalgia-fest, it was caught literally across the river from the 7lb 9oz fish in that vintage photo above, and in fact the very spot where I caught my first barbel ever. More than 40 years later and here I am landing a barbel which must have picked up my luncheon meat bait within just a few feet of riverbed from where those two historic fish snaffled lumps of the very same disgusting stuff.

Mind you, a lot of water has flowed over it in the meantime. The riverbed, that is...

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Blogging From the Waterside

Well, this is novel - live blogging! The photo above depicts the view as I type, if poking a phone's keypad with one finger can be called typing. Yes, I am once again sheltering from the rain beside the Exeter Ship Canal, gently soaking a couple of dead fish in the hope that a pike might take a fancy to one. Preferably a massive pike. The rain is a nuisance, as it's forcing me to stay in one spot rather than move every hour or two and try a new one. Still, a static approach might work I suppose...

While waiting I've been steadily adding to my waistline. Two months with very little bike hasn't helped in that regard, and the irresistible temptation of fresh-cooked bacon baps and 2-finger KitKats means an awful lot of uphill cycling very soon.

Bird-wise I've seen Kingfisher and Chiffchaff this morning, but as I'm not adjacent to Exminster Marshes or the Exe Estuary today my expectations are low.

Right, that'll do for now. I can always update later if anything much happens...

Time for a brew...

Sunday, 12 February 2017

Should Not Have Gone To Specsavers

"Well, Mr Haig," explained the Specsavers eye bod, "here it is: all of us develop cataracts to some degree or other, but, for your age, I'm afraid you're a little bit ahead of the game. For this reason, and the fact that you work outdoors - where the sun's ultraviolet rays are busily wreaking ocular havoc - I must recommend that you purchase a pair of our Reactions® lenses."

"Are they more expensive than standard varifocals?"

"Of course. Quite a bit more. Which is the third reason why you need some."

Thus was I once again suckered by a plausible sales pitch. Reactions® lenses are Reactolites by another name. The brighter the light, the darker they get. As well as for work I imagined they'd be dead handy for driving and cycling. Well, first of all, a heads-up to my fellow knackered-of-eyes: they don't go dark in the car. That was a surprise. They do however go dark in normal outdoor situations. Very dark. Excellent! I thought, and several days ago headed out on my first bike ride this year, confident that my eyes would be suitably protected and in tip-top shape for nailing the identity of every bird I saw because, yes, this was the official inauguration of my 2017 'Birds from the Bike' list...

Straight away I noticed a problem. My specs darkened up quickly and sucked the colour from everything. The lenses turn grey, rather than that nice warm brown that makes the world all bright and cheerful, so birds flying out of the roadside hedges became dark, colourless silhouettes. I began to regret my choice of eyewear.

I had this sneaky plan to cycle past a certain farm near Litton Cheney where a Cattle Egret had apparently been loitering some days earlier. Approaching the farm I slowed and was astounded to see a field full of loafing egrets. Thirteen of them. Through my Reactions® lenses they were all small and mid-grey and sharply in focus. Unfortunately they were also just that bit too far off to do without bins. I craned forwards as far as I could. They edged away suspiciously. I lowered my specs, hoping for a teeny hint of yellow bill somewhere. They all turned a helpful white, an unhelpful blurry and remained just as small. I squinted desperately. To no avail. And their collective inactivity rendered them all devoid of jizz. I was snookered...

Despite cycling past the farm many times previously, I have never before noticed a single egret in that field, let alone thirteen. Four more were in a nearby field, even further away. Since that day last week I've tried another three times and - you've guessed it - no egrets whatsoever.

Would clear lenses have made a difference? Possibly not. And perhaps they were all Little Egrets anyway. I hope so. Stupid glasses.

Friday, 27 January 2017

A Right Farrago

So far the year has not panned out quite as I would have liked. A virus offensive which began towards the end of 2016 has not yet let up. Although I've felt okay-ish for a couple of weeks now, I can sense it lurking in the background, waiting for a weak moment. I have that feeling of not quite firing on all cylinders. A day's work is leaving me pretty knackered, so I simply do not dare get back on the bike in case the exertion lays me open to another bout of lurgy. I have never been a sickly person and am not used to being ill, but I can honestly say I have never felt so fragile.

Yep, my bike plans have gone to the wall. So much for getting 2017 off to a flying (and uphill) two-wheeled start. My winter goals included building a new 'best' bike from scratch, but I've not been able to summon the enthusiasm even to get started on it. The frame and a box of bits lie neglected in the garage.

The pressing need to earn some money has meant that days of decent weather must be devoted to work, not fishing. My last outing with the rods was therefore January 9th.

Reviewing the above I must confess this post lacks the usual NQS joie de vivre. So let's see what we can do to remedy the situation...

As recommended by Steve Gale I have been reading Home Country by Richard Mabey. Very enjoyable. Also, a little challenging. Quite early on I came across a word I didn't know: numinous. Against my better judgement I ignored it and moved on. Shortly, another: prelapsarian. By now I was slightly annoyed, and metaphorically reached for the dictionary by googling them both. I also wrote them on my bookmark because I had a sneaking suspicion that they would soon be joined by more evidence of my ignorance, and I wanted to see just how big a list it was going to be. With at least a quarter of the book still to read I have so far added the following: farrago, larding, bosky, hibernaculum and tump. I thought I knew what a hibernaculum was, and one or two of the others suggested their own meaning by context, but I wanted to be thorough. Incidentally, if you enter 'tump' into Google it surprisingly assumes you have made a typo. Very odd. Anyway, my vocabulary is now somewhat bigger, bolstered by seven words that I am sure will see frequent use.

Well then, to continue with this farrago of a blog post...

I've been toying with a sketchy idea for a future NQS missive. Not far from here is a local patch that is absolutely on fire. The list of birds seen by its one observer since late August last year is incredible. It is approximately a kilometre from the coast and has produced Greenish WarblerHawfinch, Great White Egret, Yellow-browed Warblers, Sibe Chiffs, Pied Flycatchers, Firecrests, a possible Icterine Warbler, good numbers of Brambling, gangs of up to 30+ Redpolls, and flocks of four and 16 Waxwings. In the context of SW Dorset this is simply amazing. So amazing, in fact, that I wondered about making it the subject of a blog post, perhaps entitled 'The Hotspot Phenomenon'. At the moment my thoughts on this topic are not fully crystallised; I'll wait and see how things progress this year. It's a shame that the site is private, and therefore out of reach to other local birders.

Over the years I'm sure many of us have experienced the odd occasion where an otherwise unassuming block of habbo seems to attract an inordinately vast legion of quality birds, often to just a lone observer. Is it just the geographical position of the site? A unique conjunction of habitat types and migration flyways? Something else entirely?

Finally, gulls. Whenever I am in the Seaton area I try and check the Axe estuary, even if superficially. So far nothing of note. Not many gulls at all really. Still, it only takes one. And while I'm waiting, there is Twitter, where other deviants occasionally share gull pics. Like this one from Somerset birder Chris Gladman, of an interesting lump at the Wimbleball Lake roost...


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...