Tuesday, 13 April 2021

Twenty-three Thousand Steps

I have one of those Garmin watches which detects long periods of idle sloth and periodically instructs me to 'Move!' Obviously I ignore it. On the other hand it also senses when I am trudging the local area in search of migrants, and counts my steps. Today I managed well over 23,000 - which is massive - and my watch was quick with the commendation:

'You are moving more than a typical Tuesday'

Thanks, watch. Or maybe it wasn't commendation exactly..? Anyway, Burton Bradstock to East Bexington and back, with a couple of detours, is a long and lovely stretch of West Dorset coast and countryside. But first, some catching up...

These last few days I've been a bit slack, or otherwise engaged, and outings have been short and sweet. Not birdless though...

My first Red Kite of the year, inland of the coast road at West Bexington on Saturday afternoon.

With less heat-haze and more skill this might have looked pretty good.

Very distant Red-throated Diver at Cogden, thinking seriously about summer plumage.

P900 focus mechanism threads through much twiggy stuff and finds Wheatear.

Fence posts can look pretty cool.

I keep seeing bee-flies at West Bex, so have made an effort to photograph them. Accidentally I found there are at least two species present...

Dark-edged on the left, Dotted on the right. Not sure I've knowingly seen the latter before.

And so to today.

Slept right through my early alarm, so decided to have breakfast, review last night's nocmig and keep an eye on the local birdy WhatsApp group. There was little of note in the way of nocmig until 04:31, right in the middle of the dawn chorus...

Most of those squiggles are made by Robins, but some are made by a migrant wader (see below).

Meanwhile, out in the field, local birders were enjoying a big arrival of Willow Warblers, along with a few other bits and bobs. Eventually I got amongst it too, but I suspect that many (most?) of the Willow Warblers had already pushed on inland. Still, when the scenery looks like this it's hard not to want to spend a lot of time in it, birds or not...

Look at that sky! That sea! The distant white bits on the left are the chalk cliffs of Beer Head.

For all the hours spent, and the 11 or 12 miles walked, a species list would look a bit slim, but it was just so delightful to be out there today. And to be fair, my count of 58 Wheatears is by far the most I have seen on a spring outing since I've lived in this part of the world. The only other birds I bothered putting a number to were Swallows (5), Whimbrel (6) and Whinchat (1). The last two were my first of the year. Some pics...

Yes, that dark, unpleasant-looking stuff behind the Wheatear is dung. That field has been subject to some serious muck-spreading!

I thought the plumage on this presumed 1st-summer male made a nice change from the spanking adults which usually hog the limelight on here.

Unfortunately a typical NQS fly-by photo, as 6 Whimbrel are spotted a bit too late. More accurately this shot should be called a flown-by photo.

Here's an NQS oddity. A plant. More specifically, an orchid. The gen on this rather lovely thing was kindly given me by the local farmer. To be honest, if I had stumbled across it myself I would have assumed it was an Early Purple Orchid, but that's because I don't know any better. However, it's a Green-winged Orchid, and a new one for me.

Green-winged Orchid

Just the one spike, which somehow makes it even more special.

Oops! Sneaked in another Wheatear. My excuse? The background is the sea. Good enough?

Birdy prize of the day. Distant Whinchat. I watched this bird for several minutes, willing it to move. It remained in that exact spot from start to finish, and barely turned its head. Fat, idle thing.

Finally, here's that nocmig wader again...

Did you spot it?

Certainly the loudest, clearest Common Sand I've recorded so far, and my first of the year. This is what it sounds like...


Today was a nice little taste of spring migrant action. In reality it is still relatively early days, and there must be many millions of birds yet to come. All I can say is, one of them had better be a Redstart with my name on it!

Friday, 9 April 2021

Some Nocmig Quality

Managed two outings to Cogden today, early and late, both a bit rushed. I think it's been three days without a Wheatear, so what a relief to see three this morning!

The first one...

...which quickly joined another. All beach concrete should be decorated like this.

The third one. Already we're getting some very different-looking birds to those a few weeks ago. A bit rusty on the mantle and russet-tinged below.

There had evidently been an arrival of Willow Warblers. I heard a couple singing briefly, and saw six or more; this evening another six, though none singing. Getting photos was tricky this morning, and the only phyllosc which succumbed was a singing Chiffchaff...

When we attempt to vocalise the 'chiff' and 'chaff' sounds which come out of these little beasties we barely part our lips. Look what a Chiffchaff has to do!

Thankfully a Willow Warbler was a tiny bit more cooperative this evening...

Willow Warbler and flowering Blackthorn. For me this combo is synonymous with early April.

Nicely showing off the longer primary projection of Willow Warbler. On Chiffchaff it's probably not much more than half that.

Despite keeping an eye out for them, I have so far failed to see a local Peregrine this year. So it was great to have one dash past this evening. Quite a small bird, so presumably a male, I absolutely nailed the photo...

Peregrine, showing well.

Couldn't resist some non-birdy photos today...

Spot the hare.

To get the most from them, Cowslips are really a hands-and-knees job.

This way to relative solitude, great scenery, and a bird or two.

Or maybe this way...

So, a couple of nice walks, a few birds, but nothing unexpected. And arguably it was rather quiet for the time of year. However, there is always nocmig...

I forgot to switch on the recorder's mains supply last night, so only got what the batteries gave me, which wasn't a lot. With the new microphone on 'phantom power' mode - which drains the batteries even quicker - the recorder died at 00:58. Thankfully my best bird so far this year chose to fly over calling at 00:33. It wasn't loud, but perfectly visible on the sonogram, and when I played it my first thought was 'Excellent. A Fieldfare.' I played it again...and again. Hmmm. Not Fieldfare, I think. Sure enough, a bit of investigation confirmed my suspicions. It was a Ring Ouzel! I've had one previously (October 17th/18th 2020) - it was my best bird last autumn - but I can't help feeling that a spring Ring Ouzel is even better. Here it is...

Ring Ouzel. At the scale I have displayed on the screen when reviewing a night's nocmig recording, these four notes look much nearer to vertical lines. Just over half a second for the whole call. There is plenty of potential to overlook stuff like that!

And this is what it sounds like. Somewhat amplified from the original...


By the time I got to the Ring Ouzel I was already buzzing for a different reason: Common Scoter. Last spring I had a single occurence, and this spring also so far, but both were fairly brief and unspectacular. So I was chuffed to discover a whole minute's worth of Common Scoter on last night's recording. Not loud, but prolonged enough to note the subtle Doppler effect as the birds flew towards, then away from the mic. Here's about 18 seconds' worth of the louder bits, though unfortunately there's a fair bit of background noise too...


So there you go. Not a bad 24 hours of birdy stuff. I genuinely look forward to reviewing a nocmig recording, and the fact that I do not hear the birds 'live' makes absolutely no difference to the pleasure I get from it, nor to the intensity of exhilaration on discovering I've bagged a good 'un. Weird, isn't it?

Tuesday, 6 April 2021

Shotgun Shoot-Out

Recently I took the plunge and upgraded my nocmig microphone to a Sennheiser MKE600. It cost a lot more than the trusty Depusheng A2, which set me back a princely 25 quid back in April 2020. Out of curiosity I've been running the old and new mics side by side for a bit, plugging each into one of the stereo channel inputs on my Zoom H4n Pro recorder. Hopefully this is a fairly objective way to compare their performance. I thought the results might be interesting to fellow sufferers, hence this post...

Until recently, this was my kit:

£25 bought me the mic, which came with two mounts (ie. clips to hold it) - which incidentally are both broken now - and the cable. The fluffy windshield was extra (via eBay).


As you can imagine, the Sennheiser is in a different league, but before we get into that I just want to make an important point. It might be cheap, but the Depusheng A2 has done a fantastic job getting me started in nocmig. Last June it was good enough to nail a Night Heron, and here is a compilation of another three of my 2020 favourites: Stone-curlew, Nightjar and Quail...


So yes, the Depusheng is not just some useless toy.

How exactly do the two mics compare? The Sennheiser is a lot shorter, and annoyingly is only 20mm in diameter (compared to the Depusheng's super-handy 22mm) so won't fit snugly into my Heath-Robinson mic mount made from plumbing pipe clips. A massive downer which almost made me send it back, of course.

The Sennheiser MKE600 comes with a mount and a foam windshield only, so you still need to shell out for a cable and a furry windshield.

Right, to the nitty-gritty...

I simply plugged both mics into my recorder, using cables with standard XLR (3-pin) mic connectors. Mostly the Sennheiser went into channel 1 (left) and the the Depusheng into channel 2 (right), though I did swap them over once or twice.The Depusheng is switched to 'normal'.

Results
In a nutshell, the Sennheiser is far more sensitive, and has less background hiss. The upside of that is its ability to pick up sounds which the Depusheng misses. However, the obvious corollary is an increased tendency to be affected by unwanted, non-birdy noises, and by wind. Even so, bird sounds were always discernible - quite obvious on a sonogram, and perfectly audible too. Here are few direct comparisons of specific bird sounds recorded by both mics over the last couple of weeks...


And a spectrovid comparison of the loudest calls (the two double-pillars on the right) - MKE600 first...


So, that's an example of something loud and obvious. In reality the Depusheng was just fine really. Obviously I would certainly have noticed those calls while reviewing the sonogram on Audacity. That Moorhen was nailed, whichever mic I was using.

How about something not quite as loud, like the lovely Golden Plover vocals from a couple of nights back?

Golden Plover. The scale and 'noise' in all these sonograms is exactly as it would appear on my laptop when reviewing a night's recording.
Detailed comparison of the loudest Golden Plover phrase (the third set in the image above)

The Sennheiser's sensitivity is beginning to tell now. Interestingly there is still some nice detail in the Depusheng sonogram, despite its reduced volume. This is what the two sound like...


Now for some much trickier ones. Redwing, Common Scoter and Wigeon follow. Rather than discuss each individually, I shall let the images and spectrovids do the talking. However, it will be pretty obvious that in each case I would have struggled with the Depusheng mic alone. I would have missed a whole flock of Wigeon, the Scoter, and probably two or three out of the seven Redwings.




 

Needless to say, this comparison has been a bit of an eye-opener for me. I was especially surprised at the Wigeon. They are basically invisible on the Depusheng sonogram, and inaudible on the video, but easily detectable (and identifiable) on the Sennheiser recording. Very telling I thought. It makes me wonder what I've missed over the last 12 months. That said, considering the quality birds I didn't miss, I'm certainly not complaining. And that cheap mic is a fine way to dip a toe in the nocmig water without breaking the bank.

PS. Apologies for the dreadful hiss on some of the vids. In order to make them louder I turned up the gain a bit too much I think!

PPS. On the videos you will notice a regular clicking sound on the Depusheng recordings. I don't know what is causing it, but it's just a nuisance rather than a major problem. Certainly the Depusheng has been perfectly okay up until now, and I'm happy to keep it as a reserve mic.

Hope that's been helpful to at least one or two readers.

Sunday, 4 April 2021

So Much To Learn...

It was Monday, 13th April 2020. That was the date I first switched on a nocmig recorder and stuck it outside for the night. In a bucket. With batteries. It was all a bit of a disaster if I'm honest. But that faltering step was the first on a long, steep learning curve which I have thoroughly enjoyed. And here we are almost a year later, a few steps further along.

Following the odd night's effort in February, I started in earnest on March 1st. The kit has been out every night bar one (weather too awful) and I thought it might be interesting to share the results so far...


No megas in that lot, but several pleasing records, and one or two surprises. Like two occurences of Common Gull on 29th, and Jackdaw twice. Curlew on five nights, Oystercatcher and Wigeon on three, Redshank on two, and a lovely Golden Plover call on 5th are all worthy of mention. Of the rallids, Coot and Water Rail are both scarce, but Moorhen is almost expected. And it's been good to get a spring passage of Redwing; those seven on 28th are my most recent, so perhaps they're finished now. And finally, a single occurence of Common Scoter on 26th, the species which originally got so many of us out in the garden after dark last spring.

If you had asked me a year ago what species I thought might fly over my garden at night, few on that list would have occured to me. Not only has nocmig opened my eyes to new things, it has also taught me so much about vocalisations. For example, today I really surprised myself. Someone on the nocmig WhatsApp group posted a mystery recording, and before he had even typed out his question I knew it was a Stone-curlew! Yet I never hear Stone-curlew locally. In fact I need only two or three fingers to count the number of times in my whole life that I've heard one in the field! But the nocmig bird I had here last year is etched indelibly in my mental sound library, and I recognised the similarity instantly. On the other hand, nocmig reveals the many, many gaps in my knowledge too. Analysing last night's recording earlier, I came across this...

So, what's this, warbling away at 02:46?
[PS. That's a faint Moorhen at 14:46:35]

Even before I played it I knew this was something new to me; the shapes were totally unfamiliar. I was none the wiser after playing it. Here it is...


I needed to tap the expertise of the WhatsApp group members, who identified it as Golden Plover song. Sure enough, I found near-enough identical recordings on Xeno Canto. However, later today I learned that our local wintering Golden Plover can be heard making this sound in flight. I can honestly say I have never consciously heard it before. Is that simply because I've never actually listened properly? Nocmig has opened my ears, for sure.


I've done a lot of birding in the last couple of days. Three outings, probably eight or nine hours in total. My tally in all that time comprises:

Willow Warbler 1
Blackcap 21
Chiffchaff 25
Sandwich Tern 4
Swallow 4
White Wagtail 1
Great Crested Grebe 1

Obviously there was other stuff, but that's all I recorded. No Wheatears at all, hardly any hirundines. Bit of a struggle really. And yet it hasn't bothered me one bit. Firstly, I know it's a temporary thing, and migration will get going again soon enough. But secondly - and mainly - I've come to appreciate that the getting out and walking is at least as important to me as seeing birds. And as I pottered around Cogden and West Bex this evening I found myself looking at common birds and realising how little I know about their breeding habits. Strewth, I am so ignorant! Take Linnet. Where does it nest, exactly? On the ground? Off the ground? I could make an educated guess, but I don't actually know. What do its eggs look like? No idea. How many does it usually lay? Do both sexes sit on them? How many broods? Er...

Pitiful.

As regular readers will know, I can give you chapter and verse on the tricky nuances of Caspian Gull ID, but when it comes to basic knowledge of our commonest birds, there are big empty spaces. It's actually quite humbling.

Anyway, this is what happens when the birding is a bit tepid. You get to thinking about things you shouldn't. Once the migrants begin to flow again I shall forget all about how little I know. And will probably think I'm quite clever if I am fortunate enough to find something scarce.

Anyway, enough introspection. Here is why the simple action of getting out and walking is such good medicine...

Looking west this evening. NQS readers must be getting tired of photos like these. Sorry.

Looking east.

In the last two days I've taken photos of just two birds. One was yesterday's White Wagtail. The other was this...

Great Crested Grebe off West Bex this evening.


I've posted both these photos because they are from the same burst of three shots, and illustrate another situation which benefits from the P900's 'high speed burst' setting: a bird bobbing up and down in lumpy water. For obvious reasons.

Saturday, 3 April 2021

Subtleties...

Recent nocmig has been interesting if not spectacular, but this morning I had a pleasing moment. Normally you get a few hours of nice, relatively clean background against which to spot birdy utterences, and then around 03:00 the first Robin gets going. From that point on it becomes increasingly difficult to pick out the nocmig birds from the dawn chorus. But I've been persevering with it, in the belief that constantly exposing my poor eyes to the background dross should enable them to effectively tune it out, allowing the nocmig gold to stick out like the proverbial. So, at 04:43-ish, this...

Straight off my laptop screen. Tucked away in there is a little gem. A pint on me if you can find it.

To be honest I was pretty gobsmacked to spot it, but I think the fact I did supports my theory at least. Mind you, I probably still miss lots too! I did have to check Xeno Canto to confirm the ID though. Anyway, all is revealed later in this post.

Meanwhile...

In January last year I found a wagtail at Kilmington which I quite happily called a White Wagtail, a rare thing in the UK in winter. The relevant NQS post is HERE. Having boasted about it, I was then quickly brought down to earth when someone tactfully pointed me towards the definitive Dutch Birding identification paper on White and Pied Wags. I had never come across it before, but anyone can access and read it via THIS link. Thankfully my bird still made the grade, but the paper makes it clear that Pied and White Wagtails are not always straightforward to identify, and that some birds are best left unassigned. I mention all this for a reason...

When it comes to spring White Wagtails I have always been quite confident about identifying them, so felt no qualms about posting recent photos on here and on Twitter. However, one or two comments have made it apparent that even at this time of year these birds have the potential to provoke a bit of head-scratching. Early this morning I photographed another at West Bexington. In the field it looked a nailed-on White Wag to me, but I was curious to see if anyone felt differently, so posted it on Twitter for discussion.

This is the bird...

Pied, White or indeterminate?



I was pleased to get a few responses; they all reckoned White, and a couple said why. The rather clean flanks (just a dusting of grey) and extensively grey rump are clinchers. Also, to me the mantle looks too pale for Pied - it did in the field anyway. The lack of black crown and nape theoretically makes it a female (though I guess it's probably still moulting, and more black feathers may yet appear) and the moult contrast in the greater coverts (old, worn, brownish outers versus fresh, white-fringed inners) makes it a first-summer I think. None of the foregoing is down to my genius - I can read an ID paper like any other person!

So far this spring I haven't seen any White/Pied Wagtails which have had me struggling, and as far as I can recall I've yet to see a spring bird that hasn't been fairly obvious one way or the other. Maybe it's just me? Or maybe I'm a bit too slapdash? Ah well...

So, back to the nocmig puzzler. Here's the solution...

There it is. A Water Rail's 'pip...pip...pip' among the Robin and Great Tit mess

And this is what it sounds like, after a bit of high-pass filter and gain boost...


I know it's only a Water Rail, but I am highly chuffed to have visually picked it out from the dawn chorus. Hopefully any early-morning megas will be a lot less subtle than that though!

A few posts back I mentioned a certain microphone upgrade. I've been running the old and the new mics side by side for a few nights now, and slowly compiling a post of comparisons. Soon...

Friday, 2 April 2021

A Day of Idling

This morning I had a seawatch planned, but when the alarm went off nothing happened. Well, things did happen, but none of them was consistent with getting to Burton Bradstock nice and early. Tomorrow maybe...

As I sat in cozy warmth, munching toast and drinking coffee, hardier birders than me were out there braving the frigid air and seeing stuff. Steve had 3 Eiders fly E past Seaton (they later went past the Bill at Portland) while Mike and Alan turned up a Little Ringed Plover on the Mere at West Bex. Finally, just before ten o'clock, I arrived at Cogden. Blue sky, a brisk, chilly north-easterly. It was beautiful...but didn't look very birdy. By lunchtime my notes told me I'd seen 3 Wheatears, 1 Cirl Bunting, 2 House Martins, 1 Sand Martin, 1 Little Ringed Plover, 4 White Wags, 2 Swallows and a Red-throated Diver. Superb! By now the Cogden car park was almost full, and I was happy to head for home.

There was an afternoon of gardening planned, but when I stepped outside nothing happened. Well, things did happen, but none of them was consistent with getting compost into pots. Instead I settled down comfortably in the garden's prime sun trap and spent an idle time scanning a virtually birdless blue sky. Absolutely no raptors flew over. The compost bags stared at me reprovingly, so I moved them slightly.

Some pics...

Plenty of female Cirl Bunting ID features on display here: the rump, the ear covert spot, the streaky crown etc. It's great to have at least one bird locally still, but with no male presumably it will move off soon.


The LRP was on what remains of the Mere, with 4 super-smart White Wagtails. To be honest the wagtails were quite a distraction; I do find them so captivating. Not only are they stunning to look at - and especially so when bright sunshine brings out their lovely plumage - but they are just such busy little things...

White Wagtail - just immaculate!

Same bird

I am so chuffed with that first shot, and will be very surprised if I ever get a better photo of White Wagtail. And it gives me an opportunity to share a tip (though admittedly an obvious one) with other Nikon P900 users. My default 'U mode' settings include 'Single Exposure', ie. when you press the shutter button you get one shot. However, when confronted with a bird that is continuously on the move (like the White Wags) I generally switch to 'High Speed Burst'. Depending how long you press the shutter button, you now get from 2 to 7 shots. DSLR users always have that rapid-fire thing going on, but with the P900 you do have to wait a few seconds for the camera to process a multi-image exposure, so I use it judiciously. However, it can be well worth the bother. That first White Wag shot is one of a burst of three. I know the bird looks like it's standing still, posing, but it's not. No, it's very much on the go, and the other two shots are rubbish!

This tip is also very useful if you're trying to photograph a stationary bird that is constantly turning its head. Or if you want to capture that moment when a gull finally opens its wings! And so on. For those who like to fiddle with their P900 settings, I have the single/multi-exposure choices stored on the 'function' (Fn) button. All I need to do is press it, drop down one step on the list (H) and that's it, I'm in high-speed multi-exposure mode.

While I'm at it, if any readers are still in the early stages of getting to grips with a camera like the Coolpix P900, I'll briefly mention 'exposure compensation'. On a bright day like today I habitually use anything up to -1.0 exposure compensation. Otherwise there is a real danger that your photo's 'highlights' (ie. white bits mainly) will be too bright and get burned out. If the resulting image does end up a touch dark, it's dead easy to brighten it up with simple photo-editing software. But I've learned the hard way that it's not so easy (or impossible) to recover blown highlights.

Right, sorry for that little digression. Have a Little Ringed Plover...

What a cracker! Look at that eye-ring!

Nicely shows the LRP's attenuated rear end

Even common birds have their moments...

This Yellowhammer is just ridiculously yellow!

In a minute I'm going to step outside and deploy the nocmig kit. When I did that last night I had the most unexpected surprise - I could hear a Red-legged Partridge 'singing' in the distance! I would never have predicted getting Red-leg on the garden list, and before it went quiet I just managed to capture a short burst on the recorder. Never a dull moment with birds...