Monday, 20 January 2020

Winter Doldrums, and a Soapbox

Today is January 20th. In two months exactly it will be March 20th. Assuming I can maintain my current level of birding enthusiasm I would expect to have seen a Wheatear by then. Two months. And by April 20th many other common migrants should have joined Wheatear on the year list that I am not doing. Three months. By that time the flood gates will be open, and a gush of arrivals will be pouring onto the S coast just down the road from my home. Exciting times. There's little to beat the buzz you get from watching tired little passerines flitting over the breakers and across the shingle, and then diving into the first available bit of cover. Very exciting times. And there'll be sea passage too of course. Skuas! Super-exciting times!

But...

Those times are ages off yet. Weeks and weeks. And between then and now are the winter doldrums.

I suppose that old-time sailors caught in the literal doldrums would have needed a survival strategy. A way to eke out their meagre, limited rations until a rich variety of fresh provisions could be found and taken aboard. A way to view the exact same scenery each day without letting it drive them mad. Note the birdy parallels. Perhaps I too need a survival strategy.

In years past I found that year-listing would get me through most of January. There would be the special efforts required for Dipper, Jack Snipe etc, and then it would all come to a grinding halt for about 6-8 weeks until a burst of way-too-premature visits to Beer Head in the vain hope of an early Wheatear. However, now that I don't feel constrained by a patch there are several options open to the ornithologically becalmed...

Gulls
Obviously. Always potential with gulls, and in fact there can often be some good passage - think extra-dark Lesser Black-backed Gulls to compare with the 'intermedius' spectrum on your Kodak Grey Scale - and a decent chance of white-wingers. I've seen Casp and Ring-billed on the Axe in February, and expect to unwrap a lot of sarnies alongside that estuary between now and Wheatears.

Niche stuff
Admittedly there's probably only so much you can squeeze from alba wagtails and tristis Chiffs, but that won't stop me trying. Regarding the Chiffs, I hope eventually to record one calling, or even singing, and there's always the search for more. I've learned today that a Bridport site has two or three tristis present, which gives me hope that there are yet more to discover.

Local Exploration
When it comes to this option I have been deluding myself. I am coming to realise that all the little nooks and crannies that I am 'discovering' (or am likely to 'discover') have, in all probability, long ago been discovered by someone else. It's just that the birder density in this part of W Dorset is so low that you never meet anyone else. Especially inland. So I'll keep at it anyway, if only for the peace and quiet.

Camera Practice
A great way to extract added value from everyday birds. I really enjoy playing around with the P900, and will continue to do that through the next couple of months. Here are a couple of shots from yesterday afternoon. I couldn't face the coast, with all its people and dogs, so pottered around the high farmland E of Eggardon Hill...

Bud-munching Bullfinch, its bill covered with evidence.
One of a decent number of Corn Buntings, maybe 30+

While I'm on the subject of photography, let me share a big disappointment. Remember the Seaton Hole Black Redstart to which I paid homage at the back end of last year? I learned today that photographers have been baiting it with mealworms. I have only heard this, and not seen it with my own eyes, but sadly I have no trouble believing it. Regular readers of this blog will know that I very rarely get on a soapbox about anything (unless you count being a gull apologist) but in this case I'm going to make an exception.

If you are reading this, and have been baiting that bird with mealworms in order to set it up for a nice image, for the purpose of 'likes' and kudos, let me ask you a question: Where is your conscience? If your response is "What do you mean? It's not doing any harm," allow me to share with you just some of the consequences of your actions...
  • For others, you reduce what should be an exciting jaunt to see a confiding wild bird to something cheap and shallow
  • You cause those who put the news out to wish they hadn't
  • You tempt others - especially those who might not know better - to imitate your own selfish ways
  • Togs struggle with bad press as it is - you just add fuel to the fire
  • You decrease the likelihood that future photogenic birds will be publicised
I could have speculated wildly about the negative effects your actions would have on the bird itself, but because I am not so sure of my ground I shan't even go there. However, when it comes to what at least some of your fellow humans think about the matter, I am in absolutely no doubt about that. Please just pack it in.

Saturday, 18 January 2020

A Ton of Chiffs

For many months my exercise regime has been ticking along at 'non-existent' level. Everything went to pot some time before last summer began, and the consequences are visible right there in the outer reaches of my belt. We are in no-spare-holes territory. Desperate straits... So yesterday I dusted down my trusty old Orbit America and mounted it on a turbo-trainer in the man cave. This morning, before the sun had risen, I climbed aboard and cranked out 20 minutes of feebleness...

It was pathetic. But it was a start.

After lunch I burned some more calories by going out birding. But at the pace I walk, not many calories, and certainly not enough to offset the several shortbread rounds that troubled me for their attention at coffee time. So yes, that's something else that's got to change - the biscuit intake. Sigh...

Anyway, once again I tried to do something a little different this afternoon, and spent most of it investigating the Bride Valley, which runs from Burton Bradstock towards Litton Cheney. The stand-out highlight was Water Lane Fish Farm, again somewhere I had previously spotted on the map but never visited...

Water Lane Fish Farm

There is no general access to the place, but a footpath crosses it, so at least you can view across the ponds. Overhead there is a massive network of fine lines, presumably to dissuade birds like Herons and Cormorants from dropping in for freebies, and a modern otter fence surrounds the entire site. Bird-wise there wasn't much to see, but I did spot a Kingfisher, 3 Tufties and these...

Not fish farmers. So the overhead lines don't make the place burglar-proof...

The best feature of the fish farm was its approach road...

Track to Water Lane Fish Farm. Chiffies live here.

I spent quite a lot of time along this track, and counted about 10 Chiffchaffs. Try as I might (and I did) none was a tristis. I know it's a bit wrong, but I felt slightly diddled. So spoiled have I been that anywhere with a double-figure Chiffy count I am almost expecting to hold a Sibe Chiff too. There were also a couple of Goldcrests and a few Long-tailed Tits. Clearly there is plenty of food hatching out of that little ditch.

This Chiff sat here in the sunshine for ages. As soon as I got nearer though...gone.

I just wanted to include this next photo to demonstrate how effectively the P900 can focus past the foreground 'interference' on occasion. A good reason why it is worthwhile setting both the metering and focus on 'spot'. It doesn't work every time, but if you can get close enough to pick out a bit of bird through the twigs and leaves the camera is pretty good at focusing on it. And if you are too far away for that, chances are at least fair to middling that the depth of field will take care of things anyway...

In-focus Chiff through the twigs. Incidentally, it is notable how the legs of a regular collybita Chiff generally look rather red-brown, compared to proper black in tristis.

Nowhere else I tried this afternoon produced anything of interest, but it was nice to investigate these quiet corners anyway. The fish farm site was a pleasant surprise though, and one to note for the future. I finished the day at Cogden Beach, where I saw the orange-fire sun slip all too rapidly below the horizon, but very little else. All in all, a very relaxing bit of birding...

One final thought. Today's bunch of Chiffs got me wondering how many I've actually seen this winter. Adding up the counts from Colyton and Kilmington WTW, Chideock and Puncknowle WRC, the Water Lane Fish Farm and a couple of single birds here and there, I reckon a total of 100 birds is not an exaggeration. One hundred Chiffchaffs! And that's just me. How many others are out there?

Thursday, 16 January 2020

Alba Wag Tales

Well, I was aware that alba wagtails could be tricky, but I really didn't know the half of it...

Here in the UK we are used to our common breeding alba, the Pied Wagtail. Basically a black and white bird, particularly the male. I've always believed that picking out the migrant White Wagtails which pass through in spring is a fairly straightforward affair. With their clean, mid-grey upperparts they usually look quite distinctive to my eye. Come autumn, with loads of young birds around, things get trickier. We still get migrant Whites, but I've always understood them to be quite doable, given good views and some caution. However, my somewhat relaxed attitude to alba wags has been blown out of the water after reading this...


My jolly mission to find myself a winter White Wagtail and thereby add a little spice to the chilly season's birding was tantamount to opening the proverbial can of worms. Confirming a [presumably] rare winter White among a horde of its common cousins is actually not for the faint-hearted.

First of all you need a 'Kodak Grey Scale'. Then you need to compare various bits of your candidate bird to said scale and see what numbers you get. This is hard. The blasted things do not let you get close enough unless they have just that moment died. They run away, and often will fly to the next field. Next you put your results through the 'Adriaens Criteria' listed in the ID paper above. Following that you either stake a claim...or creep quietly away.

The following features need assessment...

  • Rump colour (in a specific area of the rump) 
  • Colour of mantle/scapulars
  • % of blackish colour on mantle/scapulars
  • Colour of flanks
  • Extent of flank pattern (scores 0-2)
  • Pattern of belly
  • Head pattern

Then you crank a handle and out pops a result...

Well I did my best with the photos I'd taken, and I still reckon yesterday's bird is a White Wagtail according to the 'Adriaens Criteria'. However, you will not catch me claiming winter White Wagtails in such a carefree fashion again. I have learned a bit of a lesson here, and will be a lot more circumspect in the future. The reality is that the alba complex is, er, complex.

But will I go through this rigmarole again if I spot a likely candidate? You bet.

Wednesday, 15 January 2020

A Winter Mission Accomplished

Well, at least I think so...

Since picking out what I thought to be a White Wagtail at Colyton WTW a few weeks back, I have been on the lookout for them. I had another candidate at Kilmington WTW more recently, but it was brief and didn't give me the chance of a photo. This morning I tried Kilmington again, and eventually found what I was looking for. I am no alba wagtail expert, but from what I have read, this bird fits the bill...

Virtually unmarked grey crown, and grey rump almost concolourous with the mantle.

Best of all, it wasn't alone. Loads of Pied Wags nearby gave me a few opportunities to photograph them side by side...

It looks so neat and clean beside the Pied Wags. That is certainly how it caught my eye.
Nice rump comparison.

I will admit that finding and photographing (convincingly!) a White Wagtail in mid-winter is a little bit niche, and not going to be on everyone's birding agenda at this time of year. But since getting into tristis mode in December I have found myself more and more attracted to these sewage works locations, because they are teeming with birds. Kilmington is the best I've found, but Colyton is very good too. And with all these alba wags around, I simply had to find a way to get excited about them. Job done...

Also at Kilmington WTW were two Sibe Chiffs and a Firecrest. I am really struggling to get a photo of the Firecrests I see - mostly I get a green blur or birdless vegetation - but today I did at least manage a decent shot of both the tristis. In fact it was checking the photos that told me I'd definitely seen two different birds...

Gorgeous, pallid little Siberian Chiffchaff
Tristis #2, and the reason they like to hang around the sewage works

By the way, as I mentioned at the beginning I am not an alba wagtail expert by any means, and would welcome any feedback either way on this bird. Obviously I think it is a White Wagtail, but if it isn't please tell me. I'd rather learn than be left in blissful ignorance!

Tuesday, 14 January 2020

The Best Local Twitch Ever!

Sitting here I am accompanied by the sound of gusting hoolie, and the air is full of drizzly murk. Thankfully that's all outside, and I'm not. We seem to have been afflicted by similarly grim conditions on a far-too-regular basis right through the late autumn and winter, though today for some reason it has triggered a memory. A memory of similar weather, but on a summer's day, just over 12 years ago. Like today, I'd been out birding first thing, hoping for some storm-driven goodies, and been disappointed. Like today, I'd returned home and battened down the hatches. The date was August 14th, 2007...

It's late morning and my phone rings. It's Steve...

"There's an Audouin's Gull at Seaton Marshes!"

I'll just pause there for a moment. Assuming you are a birder reading this, and no matter where in the country you are situated, I think I am safe in assuming that receiving such a call from a fellow local birder would trigger a cascade of utter chaos in your body. Like it did in mine. If I had been wired to a device for measuring the many physiological processes happily chuntering away within, there would have been a sudden explosion of spikes. Big, big spikes.

"Really?" I said, somewhat inadequately.

Because that's how I respond to chaos. I also hurtled round the house like a madman, grabbing optics, camera, car keys...and was at the Seaton Marshes car park very rapidly indeed. The only other vehicle there was Steve's. A quick phone call confirmed that he was in the hide and the bird still present. I am not ashamed to admit that I ran. I ran to that hide like the gangly, scope-carrying, middle-aged man I was. The indignities we suffer for a bird...

Two fields to the north, a large flock of gulls was sheltering from the horrible weather. They were at least 500m distant, and between us and them was a load of rank vegetation and a barbed-wire fence. Much of the flock was hidden from view, and the birds themselves at least partially obscured one another. Buried in the melee was an Audouin's Gull. How Steve managed to get me on it I don't know, because the only bits visible at that moment in time were its mantle, its wing tips, and the back of its head. A few seconds later the gulls all shuffled around a bit, and it was completely hidden. We waited. And we waited. Nothing.

Steve had an appointment elsewhere and reluctantly was forced to tear himself away, leaving me alone. Alone with an invisible, stonkingly mega-rare gull, somewhere out there in that seething mass of dross. I felt a heavy responsibility not to lose it, and dared not take my eye from the scope...

And then, after what seemed an age, I realised I could see it. Not all of it. Just a white, beady-eyed head, and a bill like deep-red lipstick. For the next 90 minutes it was cat-and-mouse, as the Audouin's kept vanishing and reappearing. Three times it flew a short distance, shifting position in the flock, and gradually I pieced together a description. And then suddenly it was in virtually full view, preening, for about ten minutes. By now the hide was rammed solid, and it was a challenge getting some digiscoped shots now that there was finally an opportunity. But I did, and here are three of them - screenshots from the BBRC description which still resides on my laptop...

These photos give some idea of the viewing conditions. Compared to some parts of the flock, this lot were remarkably unobscured! Hopefully it's apparent which one is the Audouin's, but in case not, it's the 23 pixels just left of the fence post.


Finally I relinquished the prime spot I had, and exited the hide. Since other birders had begun to arrive I'd been on a bit of guilt trip, knowing that latecomers would be struggling to get any view at all, let alone a good one. The bird was frankly a nightmare to see.

Steve, meanwhile, had returned from his errand and was watching the bird from a house which overlooks the marshes. I'm sure he won't mind me including a photo he took through the window; it's my favourite image of the whole event...

Steve Waite's photo of a massive OOF!! Just imagine the adrenaline rush!

Not long after my departure, the whole flock did likewise, and around 14:00 the Audouin's was lost. By now the area was full of birders twitching the gull, and they spent the afternoon searching far and wide. Two young twitchers were among that eager throng, but despite a reported 'possible sighting' of it flying down the river at 20:00 there had been no sign, and as the evening began to draw in and the light fade, they decided to hunt out the local Tesco for something to eat. In 2007 there was no such thing as a Seaton Tesco, but there was a holiday camp along Harbour Road which had a rather utilitarian, Tesco-like appearance. They spotted the buildings and pulled over to investigate. A few gulls were perched on the roof, so, a quick scan...

I can only imagine the resulting euphoria!!    (Photo: Dan Pointon)

Ironically, the holiday camp was later demolished, and the site is now where the Seaton Tesco lives.

I am fortunate to have been party to some terrific birding moments over the years, but the Seaton Marshes Audouin's Gull is right up there among my favourites. The excitement, the difficulty, and the unexpected little twist at the end...it was brilliant. I know I've related this tale before, but hopefully it's one that bears retelling...

Monday, 13 January 2020

One Lump, or Two?

When birding really got its hooks into me in the early 1980s I'd be on the Staines Res causeway as often as possible, bothering all the regulars in a quest for gen. Gradually I got to find out about the lesser-known spots, and frequently bumped into the same pair of birders at such places: Andrew Moon and Pete Naylor. They were W London fixtures really, and the London Bird Report was peppered with their initials. For example: Caspian Tern, Staines Res (AVM, PN), Little Bunting, Poyle (AVM, PN), Collared Pratincole, Staines Res (AVM, PN), and so on ad infinitum. As a duo, they found an awful lot of good birds. I would sometimes meet up with birding mates and we'd do a few W London sites together, but the vast majority of my birding even back then was solo. I enjoyed some pretty good finds, but not in the same league as AVM and PN, and I can remember wondering if Pete and Andrew did so well as a result of pairing up. And the 'solo versus duo' question interests me still. Which is best?

Actually, that's a really poor question. I mean, best for what, exactly? So, rather than try to tackle such a vague and open question I'll just think out loud for a bit...

As an habitually solo birder, I am always in tune with my companion. When he's up, so am I, and when he's down, I am right there, rooting for him. He wants to linger by this weedy field for ten minutes? Me too! And breeze past this perfectly inviting hide like it doesn't exist? He must be reading my mind...

One reality when birding in company is the need to compromise. Whether in conversation, route, speed, or whatever, it will always be at least a bit different to how you'd go about things alone, and possibly sometimes that will grate. That said, when there is something like a big raft of ducks to go through, a pair of you can each start from opposite ends and halve the time and effort. That's a plus. Hold on though! Suppose the newly-arrived Ring-necked Duck is in the right-hand half, and you started on the left...?

This is a problem. Unfortunately, finding stuff is a prime source of birding jollies for me. Mates finding stuff when you're with them is very nice of course, and if it's rare enough the buzz is so terrific it hardly matters whose eyes arrived first, but generally I want them to be mine.

Is that bad?

There. I'm being honest. I'm just a selfish finds hog. And flying solo is a guaranteed way to find your own birds. Except when you overlook them...

And that's where two pairs of eyes are potentially better than one. While you're being distracted by a fly-by 1cy Yellow-legged Gull candidate, your mate (who hates gulls) can get on with finding the Chestnut-sided Warbler you would have missed. And though you didn't personally find it, you will at least be in on it, as opposed to "... that divot who walked straight past it. I saw him! He was looking at some poxy gull, and me an' my crew found it in the bush right behind him!"

In truth I can think of several occasions when I would have missed really good birds had I been alone. And here is one scenario where many pairs of eyes is usually (and I mean 'usually') an advantage...

A lovely morning at Berry Head, autumn 2010

Anyway, the aching, desperate, pathetic desire to find good birds by myself is not the main reason I prefer birding alone, honestly, but who's going to believe that now...?

So which is best? One lump or two? I guess it's a matter of taste...

Sunday, 12 January 2020

Some Chiffs, a Walk, and a Puzzle

This afternoon I visited Puncknowle, a small village inland from West Bexington. Just down the hill lies a little sewage works, a facility with which I've become quite familiar this winter. Obviously this was a Sibe Chiff hunt, and in fact my second attempt at this location. Last time the weather was lousy, and I managed maybe six Chiffs and a few Goldcrests. This time the weather was nice, and I managed maybe six Chiffs and a few Goldcrests, so at least it's being consistent. All the Chiffs were non-tristis. A couple came quite close at one point, and out of curiosity I played some tristis song to them. No reaction whatsoever; they were oblivious. So I tried some collybita song. Wow! They both went bananas, coming closer and wing-quivering like the Kilmington tristis birds did. A short while later a single bird was quite near, so I tried some abietinus song on it (which sounds just like collybita to me) and had the very same response. Interesting...

Anyway, Puncknowle Water Recycling Centre has had its chance and been found wanting, so I doubt I'll bother again this winter. I'm not upset, because access is rubbish.

Puncknowle WRC. I mean, where else would you want to go on a sunny Sunday afternoon?

From Puncknowle it's an easy drive to Cogden, where I parked up and strolled down to the beach, then slowly E towards the West Bexington Mere. There was hardly anyone about. Perfect.

I was barely birding really, it was more a walk with bins and camera. If there had been a Snow Bunting on the beach it would need to have mugged me to get noticed. I was hoping for a few gulls to check out, but it was absolutely dead, and soon the metronomic step after step of shingly trudge became almost hypnotic. Bliss-s-s-s-s...

Before you reach the Bex Mere there are a few fields lying back from the beach. I've had Corn Bunting here a couple of times, so wandered over to check them out. Two or three modest flocks of Linnets went past, and then I came upon something a lot more interesting - a bunch of Yellowhammers. Popping up and down between their feeding spot and adjacent hedge, they were too distant to go through properly with bins. There were at least 60+ birds, and I looked carefully for anything obvious, like male Cirl Bunting, and I think I would have picked out any Corn Buntings too, if they'd been present. I think. Just to be on the safe side I took several maximum-zoom photos of birds on the deck, intending to check them out on the laptop when I got home...

...photos like this one. Lots of lovely Yammers.

On the way back to Cogden I followed the seaward edge of Burton Mere, which is basically a reed bed, and flushed a Snipe, and then a Water Rail - the first I've actually clapped eyes on at Cogden - and listened carefully for Bearded Tits. No joy with the latter, but I know that one local birder has seen birds here on a couple of occasions quite recently. A nice Bullfinch up near the car park...then home.

So, it's been quite fun sifting through the Yellowhammer pics, looking for a nice surprise of some sort. I don't know what I was hoping for really, but I did get this little puzzler...

Hmmmm. That doesn't look like a warm, chestnut rump to me.

The only other species I noticed among  the Yellowhammers were a few Chaffinches and a single Linnet. So what's this? I can't see a likely culprit on any of the other photos. Answers on a postcard to: Mystery Bird Competition, NQS...