Monday, 26 July 2021

Pishing Out a Good 'Un

Every year I experiment with pishing. For the uninitiated, pishing is literally making 'pish...pish' sounds with your mouth in an effort to coax small birds out of cover. Google it. Once you persuade Google that yes, you mean pishing, not phishing, you'll get some handy links to browse. And straight away you will notice that they are nearly all American. As far as I can tell, pishing is a technique which gets little publicity on this side of the Atlantic. The only place I've seen anyone else try it properly is Scilly. I don't know who it was, but I was mightily impressed by his utter lack of self-consciousness. Because standing by a clump of bushes, loudly going 'PISH-SH-SH...PISH-SH-SH!' makes a person look pretty odd. Thinking about it though, maybe pishing is actually practiced a lot more often than I think...but only in private. I mean, I doubt very much anyone has ever seen me do it. Maybe we are all secret pishers?

Pishing, for me, is mainly an autumn thing. Certainly that is when it seems to be most productive. And I wonder if that's because the mostly young birds of autumn are especially inquisitive. At its best, you can pish at silent, 'empty' bushes, and instantly have three or four birds pop out for a look. At its worst, no amount of pishing has any effect whatsoever, to the point where I have occasionally wondered if I am just useless at it.

Anyway, here we are in early 'autumn', with the first trickle of juvenile warblers coming through. Pishing is back on the agenda.

Cogden is a great place for pishing. Nice bushy clumps, hedges and whatnot, and frequently a good view in all directions to reassure you that an unsuspecting member of the public isn't suddenly going to appear round the corner and catch you mid-pish. This morning I tried it first at the start of the coast path and got a Willow Warbler. Then at the boardwalk. Just a couple of Blue Tits. To be honest my efforts were somewhat half-hearted. Pishing requires a bit of work from your facial muscles, and mine are still a bit flabby from months of inactivity during the pishing off-season. Arriving at the turning-point of my morning walk, I paused briefly at the sallows and waited for something to move. Nothing.

'PISH-SH-SH...PISH-SH-SH...PISH-SH-SH...'

Almost instantly a warbler popped out on to some close, twiggy branches. It was in full sun, and the obvious yellow wash told me straight away that I had another Willow Warbler. Instinctively I checked the legs. They were very pale in the sun, but not the warm, yellowy pale of Willow Warbler; a colder, greyer tone altogether. And hefty-looking too! What?! The penny was beginning to drop. I checked its head. A plain, open face; no real supercilium at all...and with that, the bird flicked back into the bushes. Three, maybe four seconds of binocular view at point-blank range, and I hadn't registered even its bill colour, let alone primary projection. But surely this was a Melodious or Icterine Warbler?

I backed right off and pished some more. A few rubbish, fleeting glimpses, and then it appeared in the canopy, partially obscured, peering at me. I was desperate for some sort of photo, but really didn't want to mess up any chance I got. So, minimal zoom (300mm) to maximise the likelihood of something in focus. I managed one burst of four shots...

There it is, the lovely little dot. Full frame, uncropped.

The pale bill and plain, yellow-washed face are obvious here

This is the first shot in the series of four, and the best view of the wing. What can be seen of the primaries suggests a short projection, the greater coverts lack obvious pale fringes and there is no strikingly pale wing-panel on the secondaries. All points favour Melodious Warbler of course.

Without photos I would have been stuffed. To be honest, within moments of that bird first zipping back into the foliage I was already doubting what my eyes had told me. Mike and Alan joined me after a while, and searched for some time after I left, but it never showed again. Sedge and Reed Warblers showed, and a Garden Warbler. I do wonder, would I have talked myself out of it eventually? That yellow wash though...

Yes, without the photos I have a sneaky feeling that this would have been one of those horrible, nagging near misses.

Martin Cade at Portland Bird Observatory sees more UK Melodious Warblers than most birders (like the one five days ago for example!) and was kind enough to cast an eye over the photos. Timing-wise, Icterine Warbler is extremely unlikely anyway, but Martin can see nothing in the pics to suggest anything other than a typical, early-autumn Melodious Warbler. I'm more than happy to go along with that.

A bit of context. Most birders will think of Portland as the Melodious capital of Britain - which it probably is - but Dorset records average just three a year currently. And I was surprised to learn that neither Melodious nor Icterine Warbler is on the West Bex and Cogden list. Since I've lived in the south-west I dread to think how many hours, how many bushes, with Melodious Warbler all the while on the radar... For zilch.

And then this morning, out of the blue, mind not really on it...a bit of pishing...and pow!

Sunday, 25 July 2021

The Spoiler of Fun

A heads-up for the squeamish: this post is about low-carbon birding. Well, kind of...

The topic first appeared on this blog about a year ago. More than two years prior to that, in April 2018, Javier Caletrío's 'BB eye' piece, 'Are We Addicted to High-Carbon Ornithology?' was published in British Birds. So the conversation had been going on for quite a while before I joined in. The fact is, although I was aware of the discussion, for a long time I had no interest in engaging in it. When I wrote that NQS post, 'The Elephant in the Room', Javier's Twitter page had a paltry 899 followers. It now has 1,575. Better, but clearly many birders are still not willing to talk about low-carbon birding. Like I wasn't. So, briefly, I want to outline what changed my mind...

In February 2020 I wrote a post entitled 'The Twitching Thing'. Although I haven't been an active twitcher for decades, essentially it was a tribute to twitching. Written in the light of impending Covid-19 it was meant to be an upbeat post, and this was the closing paragraph:

'One occasionally sees twitchers getting knocked, and twitching itself dismissed as some kind of less worthy activity. I think this is very unfair. In my experience at least, twitching has rarely been about a number, but rather about a bird, a location, and good company. That is the magic mix, and it can truly be enormous fun. Why knock it? If there's one thing all of us need in this world, it's a bit of light relief..'

As usual I promoted that post on Twitter. But among the comments I received were two killjoy efforts which basically said, 'What about climate change?' The implication was obvious. Twitching is a high-carbon activity which impacts negatively upon our environment, so should I really be singing its praises? I am pretty sure that one of those comments was from Javier, the other from Norfolk birder Tim Allwood. I responded like many do when faced with something they don't much like. I ignored them.

But the point had been made, and got me thinking...

I'm not blind to the parlous state of the world but have zero confidence that mankind will fix it. However, I'm a relatively old bloke, and younger generations deserve a crack. They don't need us lot setting a rubbish example. So, okay, low-carbon birding then. I was willing to talk about it at least. It took a while, but cue 'The Elephant in the Room' about four months later.

And what was it that got me involved initially? A couple of mildly provocative tweets. I say 'mildly provocative', but others might say annoying, irritating, or worse. Tim is still at it on a regular basis, and I have seen him told on Twitter that he will 'never change people's behaviours by telling them off'', by someone who has 'studied campaigning theory professionally'. Well, presumably I am a rare exception to that rule.

Anyway, what exactly has prompted this post? This Twitter exchange, earlier today...


So, there's Tim getting in with a mildly provocative tweet once again, and a not untypical response. More often though I think it's fair to say Tim meets with silence. As in my case. But now there is an opportunity to engage. How does it go?

Like this...



I have never met Tim, and certainly don't know Josh. However, assuming what I glean from the internet is correct, Tim is a teacher, probably in his 40s (?? - hope I'm not doing him a disservice there) and Josh is a 22 year-old conservation student and president of Nottingham Trent University's Conservation Society. I think I get what Tim is doing - using whatever means he can to engage birders in the low-carbon birding discussion. And if being a bit in-your-face is what it takes, so be it. In this case his approach is 'moaning' and 'ruining other people's posts'. I have also seen it described as 'preaching'. Whatever you call it doesn't really matter. What matters is the nature of the response. And low-carbon birding appears to be something few are willing to talk about, fewer still to embrace. Doesn't bode well really, does it?

Also today I was skimming through a certain birder's Twitter page. It was exactly like so-o-o-o-o many others. In reverse chronological order the last two months went like this: Western Sandpiper, Pacific Golden Plover, Oriental Turtle Dove, Elegant Tern, Black-browed Albatross, Roller, Lesser Grey Shrike, River Warbler, Great Reed Warbler. That's some fair old mileage there. There was a bit of local birding too, but basically it was one long list of twitches. To be fair, if Twitter had existed 35 years ago my page would have looked quite similar to that, but in the mid-1980s we were less aware of the cumulative consequences of such activity, and less still the dire state of things globally.

I mentioned earlier that I have zero confidence in mankind's ability to fix things. The above illustrates why.

Thursday, 22 July 2021

Hat-trick

The local Herring Gulls love a flying ant hatch. We've had three or four in the last few days, and the first time it happened I was on hand to check out the wheeling flock for any oddities. Just the one small gull among them, and by a minor miracle it was an adult Med Gull, a long-awaited garden tick. Also an adult Lesser Black-backed Gull and, among the Swifts higher up, a Hobby. That was Sunday evening, and since then the best ant-eater I've managed is a Black-headed Gull or two, which isn't bad for here.

Finally I've managed a couple of early morning jaunts too. On Tuesday I arrived at Burton Bradstock at the same time as a pod (or several small pods) of Common Dolphins. Probably 20 or more individuals. Lots of action, but boy are they hard to photograph! Quickly they moved away east and further out. Off Cogden were also at least three or four Harbour Porpoises, one of which breached fully (vertically!) which is a first for me. They were quite distant and proved impossible to photograph.

At Cogden his morning I saw my first juv Willow Warbler of 'autumn', but little else. I still haven't chanced upon a juv Yellow-legged Gull...

The closest I got to the 'perfect' shot. Burton Bradstock at 06:00 on Tuesday.

Cetaceous action

It's not often you'll see the Scoters' reflections as they pass by over the sea.

Marbled Whites have been everywhere lately. This one on a teasel.

More Common Scoters. These nine from this morning.

At lunchtime today I got a dragonfly tick. For some time now I've been hoping to see Scarce Chaser one day. Previous 'possibles' have always proved to be Black-tailed Skimmers but, finally, the real thing...

Male Scarce Chaser. The blue eyes are a major feature. I couldn't see them in the field, but there they are in the photo, large as life.

This evening I scratched an itch. Since nailing Lulworth Skipper the other day, I've had a hankering to find one at Cogden. I wasn't sure whether Lulworth Skipper was actually on the West Bex and Cogden butterfly list, but as Cogden's western border isn't far from the Burton Bradstock colony I figured there was a possibility it might be found there too. I guessed a crucial factor would be the presence (or not) of Tor-grass, the food plant. Only one way to find out...

And so commenced a very enjoyable couple of hours this evening. Straight away I could see that Tor-grass was indeed present, though not loads. Eyes down...

Lots of Silver Y moths underfoot...

...also a few Ringlets...

...billions of Gatekeepers...

...and slightly less than billions of Marbled Whites.

An early skipper. This one looks really good for Essex Skipper, with what appear to be neatly black undersides to the antennae tips.

There were certainly decent numbers of skippers about. They all seemed to be Small/Essex types, and in the apparent absence of Lulworths I made it my goal to try and clinch an Essex Skipper. Getting photos of the skippers was as tricky as always, and I was just tracking one individual when it landed alongside another. And, surprise, surprise...

No doubting the identity of the top one, with that little circle of golden marks on the forewing: it's a female Lulworth Skipper! And I cannot help thinking the lower one must be a male. Though I wouldn't stake my life on it. That's Tor-grass they're perched on.

Well, that was a nice reward for a bit of speculative effort. I only got the one photo of both together, so here's the female alone...

Lulworth Skipper. Subtle, but quite classy.

It just remained to get some record shots of both Small and Essex Skippers...

Small Skipper. A male, with the longish, curved scent mark on the forewing. Also, it's obvious that the antennae tips are orange underneath.

A good Essex candidate, with those black under-tips. An excellent candidate in fact. A bit uncooperative though.

Definitely an Essex Skipper. A male, with the diagnostic short, straight scent mark, parallel with the outer edge of the forewing. The antennae tips look great too of course.

Comparison of male Small (on the left) and Essex Skippers, showing the difference in shape of the scent marks.

I certainly hadn't expected to score a hat-trick of skipper species at Cogden, but finding Lulworth Skipper there was really the icing on the cake. Down on the beach I could see lots of activity, as folk enjoyed the balmy evening in various ways. Meanwhile I was prodding about in the long grass completely alone and undisturbed, barely even thinking about birds. I can think of worse ways to pass a couple of hours...

Monday, 19 July 2021

Hot Stuff

Something bad has happened to my ability to get up early. So, following another morning of failure, I finally got out for some birding in this afternoon's heat. West Bexington to East Bexington was predictably quiet but, as so often happens, there was still a surprise or two...

The first surprise. This Red Kite drifted W over Labour-in-Vain Lane at around 2pm.

I haven't often been birding in such hot weather and, like me, the countryside was wilting a bit. Barely a breath of wind...

This view towards Portland from East Bexington sums it up. Very hot. Very still.

And down to the sea from East Bex Farm. Almost flat calm.

Surprises two and three were in the sea. The water was crystal clear, and pulsating around just of the beach were several small jellyfish. I don't know what species, but they were pretty smart...

Although these jellyfish were alive they were recklessly close to the shore, and a few of their mates had washed on to it.

Clearly a different species, and there looked like one or two other varieties as well.

Also in the sea were some fish. Not far offshore I could see a few backs out of the water. It was like a carp lake in the languid torpor of high summer. And like carp these backs were slightly humped. Sizeable beasties too, and I am pretty sure they were sea-bass. I left them to their sunbathing and headed back towards West Bex.

Surprise number four...

Two of a trio of Great Crested Grebes. You know what I was saying about a carp lake in high summer?

There were disappointingly few gulls, and my hopes of coming across a juvenile Yellow-legged Gull rapidly shrivelled to a crisp.

Still, heading for home I thought of a way to make the most of the afternoon. If you've read this post you'll know about my abortive search for Lulworth Skipper a couple of weeks back. I hadn't tried again since, but surely this was now excellent weather for a butterfly hunt?

So, just after 5pm I was striding optimistically through the Tor Grass at Burton Bradstock. I've done my identification research, and knew to look for a small circle of pale marks on the forewing. I also knew that Lulworth Skipper was supposed to be quite dull in comparison with Small Skipper, and of course the first couple of skippers I saw were bright orange jobs. I pressed on...

The garishly vibrant Small Skipper.

I assume this is a female Great Green Bush Cricket, but am a bit unsure because of its lack of proper wings. Maybe not a full adult? It was pretty hefty though.

Lots of these about. The day-flying Six-spot Burnet moth.

And heaps of these. Marbled White. Lovely to see so many. Like this one, most were lurking in the grass. They tended not to fly very far when flushed.

Marbled White again. A last feed before roosting perhaps.

So yes, there was lots to distract from the task in hand. However, pretty soon I began to see the occasional dull-looking skipper, and eventually one settled well enough for a proper look and a triumphant photo...

Lulworth Skipper. A female.

In the end I saw plenty. Perhaps 10-15 or more. Mostly they were right in the Tor Grass, and I only saw one feeding, briefly, on Bird's-foot Trefoil. Smart little things, with those subtly attractive markings on the forewing.

These two photos of a second individual illustrate how those pale markings are almost translucent. Neat.



Last year I saw my first Essex Skippers, and it's gratifying to add another skipper species to my feeble butterfly list, especially this Dorset speciality. Although I did have a pretty good idea where to focus my local search for Lulworth Skipper, both butterflies were the result of effort rather than having them pointed out to me. I'm not saying this in order to toot some personal trumpet, rather to illustrate one of the many, very simple ways to extract great satisfaction from local wildlife. A fine way to while away the heat of summer and, if you ask me, much better than this...

Burton Bradstock beach and car park just after 6pm this evening.

Saturday, 17 July 2021

Prime Wader Habitat?

In the last post I stated that locally we have very little in the way of wader habitat. While this is true, it is also not true. Certainly we have nothing obvious though. No local marshes, no wader scrapes, no vast expanse of estuarine mud, ie, no location where you might roll up and routinely expect to see a nice collection of waders. We do have several miles of beach though, a tiny estuary at West Bay, the odd bit of seasonal flood and a few little pockets of other stuff. Thursday's Little Stint was on one of the latter. However, we do have stacks of that habitat frequented by all birds capable of flight: the sky.

Like any other group of birds which migrate, or for other reasons use their wings to travel from A to B, waders use the sky on a regular basis. Admittedly their appearances in it might be fleeting, few, and depressingly far-between, but you can absolutely guarantee that waders will at some point be flying over your head. Of course, from a birdwatching point of view, the challenge lies in detecting the blasted things.

Enter nocmig.

Since the beginning of March I've recorded at least 13 species of wader over my home, which is situated three miles inland from the West Dorset coastline and nowhere near any traditional wader habitat. Since recording my first 'returning' wader in the early hours of June 24th, up until dawn this morning a total of eight species have occurred. Here they all are, chronologically in medley format, like a beginner's course in flight-call identification...


The quality is a bit variable, depending on range, weather conditions, etc, but for me this does not detract even a tiny bit from the sheer wowness of them all. Seriously, just brilliant! So, just in case you are a beginner, and want to know whether you identified them all correctly...

1. Curlew. A regular migrant along the coast here, but I can't recall whether I've seen one on the deck yet.

2. Common Sandpiper. Another regular migrant encountered on the coast, and sometimes on or close to the shore.

3. Redshank. I can probably count on one hand the number of times I've seen Redshank locally. Not common. You can just about detect that two or more birds feature in the recording.

4. Green Sandpiper. This is only my second nocmig Green Sandpiper, and the only place I've actually seen them locally is the Bride Valley Fish Farm, near Burton Bradstock.

5. Oystercatcher. Again, a fairly regular sight on the coast, and one of my most regular nocmig waders too.

6. Whimbrel. Commonly encountered in flocks on spring migration, but in autumn I reckon most local records will be ones and twos. This recording clearly involves at least three or more birds. They were audible for more than four minutes! Such an evocative sound.

7. Dunlin. Quite a faint recording, and just a single bird I reckon. A regular migrant locally, but again like so many others, usually coastal fly-bys or briefly decked on the beach.

8. Little Ringed Plover. A lovely clear recording at 02:08 this morning, these are the loudest two of a nice series of calls. It's so good to hear the volume increase as a bird approaches, and fade away as it flies past. Thus far I have seen just one local LRP, at the West Bex Mere in April this year. And I have three or four definite nocmig records from 2020, beginning July 14th.

One lesson from all this is that nocmig might significantly influence a species' perceived local status. For example, I wonder how many Bridport records of Stone-curlew there are? Very few I'll bet. Yet just my nocmig records alone reveal that it is possibly annual, or has been for two years at least!

And just as everyday birding can throw up the occasional exciting rarity, so can nocmig. Wader-wise I would like to mention two recent stunners. The first is Mark Pearson's amazing American Golden Plover up on the east coast of Yorkshire on May 13th, which Mark has written up here. The second is even more staggering. Recording in Ireland, Seán Ronayne had already struck nocmig gold on June 24th with a Baillon's Crake in County Wicklow, but topped it in spectacular fashion just a few days later. Posting on the nocmig WhatsApp group I belong to, Seán wrote that on July 2nd he had recorded a Semi-palmated Plover over Lisagriffin on Mizen Head, at the south-western tip of County Cork. Along with the recording was a detailed account of the identification process. Fascinating stuff.

Fascinating stuff indeed. If you believe it...

One thing that appears to go hand-in-hand with the relatively recent popularising of nocmig is a big fat dose of scepticism. I suspect that some of that is based on little more than an almost instinctive resistance to something 'new' by a minority of old stagers, but that aside, isn't it quite reasonable to view with great caution a rarity record that consists of just a few brief noises and some squiggles on a laptop screen?

Back in late May I think, a heard-only Little Crake was reported from Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire. By all accounts it was distant and faint, but eventually it was sound-recorded using a parabolic reflector. Unfortunately the Little Crake proved to be actually a Shelduck. At which point the eye-rolling sceptics could have smirkingly pointed out the folly of all this sound-only nonsense. However, I can't help feeling that the Little Crake episode has exactly the opposite effect, and in fact reinforces the case for the defense. Because, in the end, a correct identification was made. The same as happens on a regular basis with sight records, careful investigation by experienced birders revealed the error. No big deal.

And sound-only records can be analysed to a minutely forensic degree. If the sound quality is good enough (and it doesn't have to be brilliant) a sonogram (aka spectrogram) can be as diagnostic as a wing formula. My Night Heron last year proved that to me. And personally I have no doubts at all about the veracity of Mark's AGP or Seán's Semi-P. Both have been approached with a healthy caution, and demonstrate to me the amazing potential of nocmig recording. I do sometimes wonder why nocmig seems to have such a minority appeal though. As hinted at by my own Stone-curlew records, there is so much to be discovered...

Talking of scepticism: Ortolan Bunting. [winking emoji]

Thursday, 15 July 2021

A Nice Little Wader

What a lovely day! Sunny and hot. Hot! To be honest I would rather have been lazing than working, but at least I got to sit next to the Axe Estuary at lunchtime. I wasn't in birding mode at all though. Didn't even get my bins out, just sat there soaking up the scenery. Lovely.

When I arrived home there was a new porch light waiting for me, so I got that fixed up and wired in before dinner. Our loft was like a sauna, and the thought of a long, cool walk on a beach later on really began to appeal. But where? Dinner came and went, and I still hadn't decided on a venue. And then I got some news which decided it for me. Not a beach.

Wader habitat is at an absolute premium locally. Really, there is almost none. Almost.

Little Stint. An adult, already moulting into winter plumage (note the grey scapulars).



This is my first local Little Stint. A very relaxed and confiding individual, and these are easily my best ever shots of one. The location is a bit sensitive, so I shan't give it away here. But I am grateful for the heads-up, and the reminder that I have optics in need of some action...

Friday, 9 July 2021

Doing it Yourself

For more than 18 months now, this blog has been ticking over nicely. Every two or three days there is usually a post because every two or three days there is usually something to write about, be it birds, bugs, or bees in the bonnet. Once in a while though, I find it harder...

While typing this, I couldn't help noticing how dusty the keyboard is. How dusty everything is. For many months I have had a long, complex, DIY to-do list. When it gets that way I sometimes default to do-none-of-it mode, and go birding a lot instead. And this is how things were until about a week ago. But now the tools are out and stuff is happening. And there is dust.

DIY and I have a complicated relationship. Generally speaking I'm confident enough in my own abilities to have a stab at just about anything, and often really enjoy it once I get stuck in. But overcoming the inertia to get started is...er...yes, sometimes a problem. And finishing things off completely...er...yes, also sometimes a problem. Be warned. Don't marry me. Anyway, in this last week I've been hard at it, and the blog has consequently suffered. However, there is absolutely no good reason why I shouldn't write about DIY, is there?

On Tuesday I plastered our hall ceiling. Only the second time I've dabbled in this dark art. Until a couple of years ago I'd always shied away from plastering, but when the time came finally to do something about the vile overhead Artex in our bedroom I gave it a go. Like everything else, you can learn how to plaster properly by watching YouTube vids. What you can't learn is the knack. Which I still don't have. Plastering is hard, and a ceiling doubly so. It came out okay though. Decent tools helped. And shoulder muscles. Actually I could have done with a bigger set of the latter. Years of window cleaning has given me the ability to support a pair of binoculars and peer through them for ages without fatigue, but I reckon the plastering birder could probably scan non-stop all weekend with a pair of 10x80s.

Today I wired in some downlights, which gave me the opportunity to rectify some appalling bodgery hiding in the loft. I've lost count of the eye-popping horrors my DIY has unearthed here, but here are today's two lovelies...

Left: 240-volt cable wrapped in tape is never a good sign. Right: Yee-haw!

Still, I suppose I should be grateful our place hasn't burned down already. We had a new consumer unit installed (professionally!) a while back, and the wiring all tested okay despite little nasties like these still lurking in dark corners.

Well done if you've got this far. You really deserve some bird stuff, and I wish I could oblige. Is nocmig any good? I could tell you about the recent exciting flock of Common Terns. A nocmig first for me. Or my second-ever Green Sandpiper which called once at 03:23 on Wednesday morning. No? You're right, nocmig isn't proper birding, and I really shouldn't get so much enjoyment from it.

Now then, where's my angle grinder...?