Tuesday, 2 March 2021

Twenty-two Thousand Steps

When I take a few days off work I like to do constructive things with the time.

I like to...

Still, exercise is constructive, right? According to my clever watch I've averaged 9,263 steps per day for the last seven. And I expect today's 22,764 contributed mightily to that figure. A few mid-stride snaps...

I'm pretty sure this is only the second Pochard I've seen locally. By 'locally' I mean anywhere west of the Fleet and east of the Axe patch. A surprisingly scarce bird.

Drake Pochard, looking good.

The Misses Unobtrusive. Both our local Cirl Buntings

When they're in a good mood, the West Bex Cirls are frequently the closest two birds. And even if they're not together - like they briefly were this morning - there is still a chance of one of them taking pity on the bloke kneeling in the mud, trying to blend in with a fence post...

A late afternoon excursion provided me with a very frustrating moment...

Walking east along a quiet, hedge-lined lane, a hirundine suddenly appeared in front of me and flipped over the hedge and out of view before I could get the bins on it properly. There's an open field on the other side of the hedge, so if I could just find a gap or a gateway I might get a second bite... No gaps ahead, so I turned to look behind me, only to see a second hirundine do exactly the same thing! By the time I'd run to the closest viewpoint (not close) there was no sign of them. I've never seen a hirundine of any flavour earlier than about a week into March, so that was a bit annoying...

Cursing my ill luck, I then came across a surprise group of 6 Golden Plovers. Which felt like a consolation prize...

This was a common enough sight during the February freeze, but I haven't seen any Golden Plovers for a while now.

Those golden-spangled scaps are gorgeous.

Thanks to another handy fence post, the birds had absolutely no idea there was a huge person crouching nearby.

This morning I managed to miss a small flock of 6 Greylags which flew east. Greylag is quite uncommon locally, and of course they would have added another digit to the yearlist that I'm not bothering with. So it would have been nice if I'd seen them. Oh. Hello...what's this?

Well, look at that. Three Greylags heading W at considerable range, having moments earlier passed very close and laughed at my pathetic camera-extraction skills.

I saw this next lot coming a long way off, and was ready...

Unfortunately they weren't Greylags though.

The winter storms have done a pretty brutal job of reprofiling the local beaches, but this sight was an entirely new one for me...

Rough ground at low tide. I had no idea that all this clay and stone was lurking beneath the shingle in places.

Apparently I've seen off more than 3,000 calories today. So this bottle of beer is just a drop in the ocean really. Like the one I finished a few minutes ago...

Monday, 1 March 2021

Good Riddance

In Bridport, the first day of meteorological spring was about as good as it gets. Cloudless blue sky, wall-to-wall sunshine, and old blokes faffing about cluelessly in the garden. I was in my element. Last week I blitzed the work backlog and consequently have a beautifully lightweight week ahead. The only thing missing, as I carefully prepared our little raised beds for a future of nectar-rich luxuriance, was a Red Kite or two. Still, all in good time. Meanwhile...

Beefy-looking Sparrowhawk; presumably a female.

One of three noisy, high-flying Ravens.

A yaffling Green Woodpecker, a fly-over Great Spot and Bullfinch, plus plenty of twittering Goldfinches all added to the blissful vibe. Winter is over. Definitely. And good riddance to it.

I will concede that winter has its attractions, but the short days, endless rain and finger-numbing chill are less and less palatable with each passing year. I expect it's just a function of getting older, so I probably ought not to be quite so eager to see the back of three of my ever-diminishing stock of remaining months...

I briefly skimmed through recent NQS posts to see what the winter highlights looked like. Best bird was the January 1st female Cirl Bunting that I co-found at West Bexington, and seeing it quickly become two was great. Predictably, gulls played a major role in keeping me going, with a very brief Casp video-recorded on the Axe, the mahoosive Glaucous there too, and three Yellow-legged Gulls: at West Bay, West Bex and the Axe Estuary in that order. Catching up with the elusive West Bay Purple Sandpiper was nice, and then there were a few little birds: Black Redstart at West Bay, Sibe Chiff at Kilmington - the only definite tristis I saw all winter - and single Firecrest at Colyton WTW. A pleasing collection, but far from epic.

In February I began to try nocmig recording again. Seven nights in total. Oh boy it was slow. Even so, there was one significant highlight...

February 19th at 20:37 - Grey Plover. There were actually 40 seconds between the two calls.

Grey Plover is not a common bird locally, and probably even less so over Bridport. This was my second; I had one nocmig bird in May last year. Apart from this goodie, Redwing and Moorhen featured twice each, and Song Thrush once. The local Tawny Owls are getting fruity - though I've yet to hear any with my ears - and at least one Robin gets going about 03:00 each day. Compared to nocmiggers on the east coast, or much further north, it is slim pickings here. Still, I have happy memories of spring/early summer 2020, and the jaw-dropping surprises which came my way. Let's say I am optimistic...

One sunny morning last week I went for a pre-work shingly trudge, starting out at first light...

Not even fully dressed yet, but he's belting it out. He knows. Not long now...

Saturday, 27 February 2021

A Dodgy Birder's Book - Part 3: Mistrust

This post has taken an age to write, and before it gets going I just want briefly to say why. In a UK birding context alone, A Date With a Bird documents many sightings which will provoke a raised eyebrow in even the most credulous reader. It would be all too easy to focus solely upon those records and thereby add fuel to the 'dodgy birder' fire, but I am at pains to avoid any such possibility. In sending me a copy of his book and agreeing to my request to write about it, Alan Vittery invested in me a measure of trust, and I have no intention of betraying it by stitching him up. At the same time, I wish to be candid. I am not a credulous reader, and Alan's book has worked my eyebrows pretty hard. In part 2 I listed a few examples of birdy joy resulting from a thrilling find or exciting passage movements. Believe me, they barely scratch the surface! However, I hope I am open-minded enough to see the bigger picture that this fascinating book paints...



So, then. Mistrust...

'I have been informed via a local recorder that the British Birds Rarities Committee refuses to consider my 2003 Fea's Petrel record for Brora, or any other single-observer record from me unsupported by a photograph.'

Thus begins an open letter to the BBRC from Alan Vittery, as published in the article 'A Single Mind' in the January 2005 edition of Birdwatch magazine. The bird in question features also on p127 of A Date With a Bird, in the entry for 29th August:

'In 2003, after 2 Cory's Shearwaters had passed, a Fea's Petrel flew slowly north-east, very close in, with that exaggeratedly looping flight action which seems to take it almost back to its point of departure. I later discovered the same bird had been seen off Fife Ness and then reached North Ronaldsay in the Orkneys, yet the BBRC, cutting off their nose to spite my face, refused to acknowledge it had also been seen from Brora!'

The Birdwatch article adds further details. For example, that rather than driving north to the next headland for another look at this 'close-in gem' as he puts it, Alan had gone home to telephone observers in Caithness and on the north coast of Sutherland to alert them to its approach, and that the first he had known of the bird's appearance at other locations was from the recorder himself when Alan later rang him about it.

This one bird neatly illustrates an unhappy thread which runs right through Alan Vittery's book: the evident mistrust of his sightings...

Having taken up birdwatching in 1951 at the age of seven, it became the raison d'etre of his life, dictating his choice of careers and retirement addresses. Imagine what a foundation of foreign living and birding in the 1960s and '70s would do, not just for your familiarity with species very rare in Britain, but also for your approach to the hobby in your home country. Is it any wonder that Alan chose to plough his own furrow, shunning crowds and the burgeoning twitcher ethos? I guess it would be safe to say that AV has not been a part of the contemporary birding 'scene' since his youth.

So, having chalked up 70 years of largely pioneering-type birding, and by his own estimates 100,000+ hours in the field, is it surprising that the man has likewise tallied a huge number of rarities? Obviously not. But his solo approach has undoubtedly contributed to the plague of mistrust. In the book's introduction, Alan writes:

'Seemingly suspected by my doubters of 'seeing too much', I am a victim of my own success.'

Earlier, in the book's preface, we get some idea of the motivation behind its publication:

'As one enters the twilight of life, thoughts turn to the practical.'

And then, after admitting that the nomadic nature of his life perhaps reduces the value of his records in terms of monitoring a single location over many years, he writes...

'Nevertheless, I have made major discoveries in several little-known countries and even some British 'firsts' will die with me unless I publish them now. Some of these are almost certainly indicators of new trends in our rapidly changing climate, further emphasised by several extraordinary (but new norm?) sightings in southern Portugal in the last four years.'

So. Here we have a serious birdwatcher who has dedicated a very large portion of his life to the hobby, and yet is forced to operate 'outside the system' because he is not trusted. I find this immensely sad. Alan Vittery is clearly a skilled, knowledgeable, experienced, very sharp observer. Reading between the lines, to me his integrity is obvious. This is not a man who makes stuff up or embellishes a description with details that...er...would have been nice to see.

I have written previously of meeting Alan on Tresco in 1987, and how that encounter led to my seeing a Spotted Sandpiper which he had found on the Great Pool. And how Mike Rogers asked me to submit a description of the bird because Alan Vittery was dodgy. In the cold light of 2021 I have to ask myself what exactly Mike meant. Did he mean that AV had misidentified a Common Sand? No. Because it seems Mike trusted my skills sufficiently to believe that the bird was indeed a Spotted Sand. Rather I suspect Mike meant that any description from AV - no matter how diagnostically complete - would get nowhere without verification from another observer. Just think about the implications of that...

I have tried hard to put myself in Alan Vittery's shoes. He is all too aware of how he is regarded by the birding 'establishment', but to some extent downplays the consequent effect upon himself, instead lamenting how the official record is now somewhat impoverished by the absence of his records. However, I do not think many readers will be fooled by this seemingly unemotional, matter-of-fact view...

Ask yourself: how would you feel to come one day to the horrible realisation that people didn't trust your sightings? How would you feel to have what is surely a watertight description rejected, with no explanation as to why? How would you feel to be told that basically your records won't even be considered without photographic evidence or the corroboration of another observer? Personally - and this is an understatement - I would find it hurtful. Anyone would. And no amount of shoulder-shrugging matter-of-factness will persuade me otherwise. Which is why, as I read A Date With a Bird, I was not surprised to see the hurt showing on occasion. How could it not? I'm not going to make a big deal of it, because the main thrust of the book is essentially a celebration of a lifetime's birdwatching adventures, and I don't wish to detract from that too much. But Alan Vittery's book has had a profound effect on how I view so-called dodgy birders going forward - a subject I want to address in a future post.

In the meantime, allow me to test your eyebrows...

During Alan's 19 years in Sutherland, seawatching (his 'addiction'!) features prominently, and many epic seawatches are documented in the pages of this book. Rarity-wise, among the highlights are Giant Petrel (twice), Crested Auklet (three times), a Cassin's Auklet, and a putative Short-tailed Shearwater. Incidentally, both auklet spp are illustrated by notes and sketches. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that Alan has not invented these birds, and is convinced of their veracity. And as far as the integrity of this book is concerned, to me that is all that matters.

One type of dodginess which can be a trap for the unwary is the inability to let a bird go. You know what I mean. You didn't get enough on it for a solid identification, but just force it into a box regardless. Is that Alan Vittery? Have decades of solo birding sabotaged his self-appraisal system? No, and no again. I don't think so. In one account he relates how he lets a probable Bonelli's Warbler go because he cannot clinch it, and in another he withdraws a claimed Lanceolated Warbler because he realises he's made a mistake.

As I said at the beginning, this post has taken a long time to write. There have been a couple of drafts, and much tweaking. A better, more succinct writer would skillfully have persuaded you to read A Date With a Bird, but I hope you do anyway because the book deserves a wide and thoughtful audience. I will leave you with a final quote. Not from the book, but from one of its readers, a bloke called Ian Wallace. Ian Wallace (DIMW to many) is a birder whose enthusiastic writing has inspired me through the years. Interestingly, he too has been judged a dodgy birder....

This is his take on A Date With a Bird:

”A Date with a Bird” came yesterday and I have not been able to put it down. So total thanks and frequent cheers . . . it really is a splendid romp with Vittery spirit and effort, hence avian harvest fully distilled and intoxicating. And as a personal statement about birding ethos like no other that I can recall, except some of my own logs and note files - to which it is sending me to check like experiences and attitudes . . . constantly!

Do let me know how other readers react to its freedom of perceptions, so refreshing compared to e.g. the Jan 21 issue of ‘British Birds’ with ever more bureaucratic nitpick but little joy or interpretation.

In part 4: Lessons

Postscript: There have been technical problems with the Kindle version of A Date With a Bird. In connection with that issue, on Wednesday 24th February Alan wrote:

My Printer, Nick, is still trying to sort the problem. Amazon's technical support (or lack of it) not helping.. He assures me that the people who were unable to access the book will either get their money back, or a free copy from him.

Friday, 26 February 2021

A Dodgy Birder's Book - Part 2: Joy

Alan Vittery has distilled seven decades of notes and records into a remarkable book. There are one or more highlights for every single date on the calendar, including February 29th, and not in a 'went there, saw that' kind of way either. Peppered throughout are interesting little nuggets of this and that: observations, insights and opinions based on a unique life experience. Between 1964 and 1978 Alan's Foreign Office postings included Bulgaria, various African countries, Turkey and Pakistan. Then, after several years living in Cley, with Blakeney Point as his local patch, he was medically retired and became a full-time birder. If our own circumstances presented us with such an opportunity, where would we choose to live, I wonder? Brora, Sutherland (1990-2009)? Santa Maria, Azores (2009-2016)? Algarve, Portugal (2016 - present)? The results of such pioneering choices are a major highlight of the book.

I like that the publisher's name is Quirks & Foibles.

As you can imagine, 30 years of full-time birding in largely remote, unexploited locations with amazing potential - plus the previous part-time 40 - have produced countless birdy thrills. And reading about them is one of the pleasures of this book. Alan is a sober writer and could never be accused of sensationalising the narrative, but his account of discovering the first breeding Killdeers in the Western Palearctic does include a double exclamation mark! The thrill and excitement is palpable, as it is on many, many other occasions. Here is a birder who delights in finding the unexpected rarity, or witnessing spectacular passage, and that delight shines through. A few examples from the UK which most readers will be able to relate to...

Alan spent many holidays on Scilly. On Tresco in 1980 he found Britain's third Sardinian Warbler, and in 1989 a Common Nighthawk, both gratefully twitched by Scilly regulars. One Scilly date which resonated with me personally was September 14th 1986. On Saturday 13th I had endured a hideous Scillonian crossing with Sandra and our two young sons, en route to our first autumn trip to the islands. A blasting, south-easterly hoolie and non-stop rain, which didn't relent until the next day. My memory tells me the sun appeared. Anyway, we stuffed Baz (14 months) into a pushchair and headed out, with Rob (three and three-quarters) in tow. Of necessity we travelled slowly and were largely restricted to the lanes, but nevertheless stopped and scanned frequently. Every single hedge had something in it. There were Redstarts, Whinchats, flycatchers, assorted warblers everywhere - St Mary's was leaping with migrants. Although I no longer have the figures, it was a pretty amazing fall. On Tresco, Alan Vittery was busy:

'...over 100 Spotted and 20 Pied Flycatchers, 10 Tree Pipits, 8 Yellow Wagtails, 7 Whitethroats, 5 Sedge and 3 Garden Warblers, plus numerous Redstarts, Whinchats and Willow Warblers. Wryneck, Tawny Pipit, Common Crossbill and 3 Ortolan Buntings were the only scarcer species found.'

In later years I often wondered what we might have turned up that day had we been able to bird St Mary's a lot more knowledgeably and intensively. Now I have some idea!

Alan is well known for finding a White's Thrush (1991) and Daurian Starling (1998) in Sutherland - both birds twitched by others. And both obvious moments of joy!

One birding activity more capable than most of providing the odd massive surprise is seawatching. Alan calls it 'my addiction', a fact which quickly becomes obvious. There are many examples of such surprises in the book, and here are two from the Sutherland years...

Weather conditions on 8th September 2007 prompted a speculative visit to Strathy Point on the north coast of Sutherland. In the preceding 17 years in Scotland, Alan's biggest day count of Great Shearwaters was five. That day he had 1410 fly past! However, that was nothing compared to Martin Scott's total of 7000 from the Butt of Lewis, the northernmost tip of the Hebrides! On 9th August 1994, in calm, cloudy conditions, a completely unanticipated passage of Long-tailed Skuas past Brora included flocks of 10, 12, 16 and 26! To put this in perspective, the day's total of 69 was greater than Alan's lifetime aggregate for the species!

The examples thus far have been deliberately chosen because most are verifiable. The rarities in particular were all seen by others. However, they are in the minority, and therein lies the crux of the book. A Date With a Bird is far more than a happy romp through a lifetime's birding. There is a depth to it, a sadness even, which on occasion makes for poignant reading. And that will be the focus of the next installment...

In Part 3: Mistrust

Wednesday, 24 February 2021

Late Winter Gulls

A quick birdy update...

Finally, a break in the relentless wet and/or cold weather means I have a massive backlog of work that needs attention. This is frustrating, because lots of gulls have been passing through the Axe Estuary in the strong southerlies, and they all need checking. Lunch breaks have therefore been brief, highly focused, and carefully spread through the working day. Checking the several hundred migrant Common Gulls for Ring-billed feels like a necessity, despite the very slim chance of success. Herring Gull numbers are well up too, and they all need sifting. Some of the Lesser Black-backed Gulls are now looking comfortably dark enough for intermedius, and Med Gulls always demand at least a few moments of appreciation, and maybe a photo...

First-winter Med Gull looking very cool

Adult Med Gull approaching summery perfection

Second-winter Med Gull.

Lesser Black-backs are coming through in numbers now, though a steady flow rather than a flood. And there is quite a variety in mantle shade...

Both Lesser Black-backed Gulls of course, but the left hand bird I would happily label intermedius, with a graellsii on the right.

The only oddity I've seen during the week was this bird yesterday...

Initial views

Its bright yellow legs and upperparts shade (a touch darker than Common Gull) suggests Yellow-legged Gull, but I was slightly concerned about its modest proportions. Age-wise it is sub-adult, and in flight showed extensive dark markings in the primary coverts, so I would go for third-winter (4cy). A few more photos...

Just discernible is a p10 mirror - though it is very small - which I think backs up the age diagnosis. A nicely saturated yellow bill, with obvious blackish sub-terminal markings, also fits a third-winter bird.

Nice white tips to p4 and p5, some dark markings in the tertials. Yep, a third-winter, I'm pretty sure.

I have to say, despite the less-than-gargantuan stature, its beautifully clean white head, hefty bill and facial expression do look great for Yellow-legged Gull. I assume it is therefore a female. Look at those legs. Proper yellow!

The Axe Estuary is quite short, but some areas are nonetheless better for gulls than others. And on its day, one of the better spots for large gulls is right in front of what we have always called the 'tram sheds'. There is a raised gravelly strip in the mud here, and for some reason large gulls like to stand on it, or even go to sleep on it. A year ago Steve found the American Herring Gull on it, and I have old photos of Caspian and Iceland Gulls revelling in its stony welcome. This morning there were lots of big gulls loitering in the area, though all standard fare this time. I took a phone snap...

Big gulls crammed on to the gravelly strip. That long, low building is technically called the tram depot, but to me 'tram depot' doesn't sound quite as birdery as 'tram sheds'!

Saturday, 20 February 2021

A Dodgy Birder's Book - Part 1: Introducing Alan Vittery

Some years ago I was researching the rare bird adjudication process for this blog when I came across references to Alan Vittery in the BBRC (British Birds Rarities Committee) entry on Wikipedia. I quote:

One of the observers who Wallace claimed was blacklisted, Alan Vittery, also contributed to the debate, stating that he had been informed by the BBRC that they would not consider any single-observer record he submitted, unless supported by a photograph.

This refers to a Birdwatch magazine article written by Ian Wallace, entitled 'Questions that won't go away' (2005 - Birdwatch 153:19-20). There are references also to three Birdwatch articles by Alan Vittery: 'String theory' (1996 - Birdwatch 47:13), 'A Single Mind' (2005 - Birdwatch 151:22-23) and 'Give lone birders a chance' (2005 - Birdwatch 157:22-23).

It seems clear that the BBRC had judged Alan Vittery a dodgy birder.

Back in October and November 2019 I wrote a series of NQS posts about the dodgy birder phenomenon, in which I mentioned meeting Alan many years ago. I want to begin by revisiting our first encounter...

It is December 1981. Sandra and I have been married just over a year and are in North Norfolk, enjoying our first birding holiday together. We are little more than beginners, so Norfolk's winter regulars are giving us superb value. Exciting times. We decide to try Kelling Quags, and our OS map suggests there is an access track off the coast road through Kelling village.

In those days I drove a 1972 Bedford van, which was based on the Vauxhall HA Viva. It was an 'estate conversion' with rear side-windows and a fold-down back seat - spartan, but perfect for two young adults and a black labrador. And I was quite happy to take that rugged little thing down all sorts of bumpy lanes. Which is how the Kelling Quags access track started out. However, it soon morphed from a bumpy lane into a rutted bog and we became stuck fast. Sandra didn't drive so was lumbered with pushing duties, but her then seven-stone frame didn't get us anywhere! We badly needed help, but no one was about. In the distance we saw a birder walking west along the shingle ridge towards Salthouse. Slowly he faded into the distance, and we laboured on...

Nothing worked. I tried to build a ramp out of random bits of wood and some old carpet we found somewhere, but the rear wheels just buried themselves deeper and deeper into the mud. Eventually we were up to the axles and I was a bit desperate. The short afternoon was heading rapidly towards dusk, we were hot and sweaty, covered in mud and now very tired. The birder we had seen earlier - an hour ago? two? - was retracing his steps now, heading homewards we guessed. How surprised we were to see him again a while later, striding up the track towards us.

'Can I help?' he asked. Or so my memory imagines...

I was 22 years old, this chap was in his late 30s. He had lived abroad, he told us, and was familiar with this kind of vehicular predicament. However, even the extra weight and muscle he brought to bear could not shift us. Not to worry though, he had a couple of tricks up his sleeve. His first suggestion was to empty the van of everything possible. Out came my heavy toolbox, the spare wheel, the jack, the ton of other stuff I used to carry 'just in case'. Obvious really, but I hadn't thought of it. His other suggestion was to deflate the rear tyres a bit. I cannot recall whether or not we needed to do that in the end, but it's immaterial - we were quickly out of those hellish ruts and back on firm ground. Our rescuer bade us farewell and headed off, but not before introducing himself. His name was Alan Vittery.

So my first encounter was with Alan Vittery the man, the person, not Alan Vittery the birder. His thoughtful act of kindness made a lasting impression.

In September 1987, Sandra and I met him again, on Tresco. I don't know whether he recognised us initially, but he did remember that December afternoon in North Norfolk six years earlier. He told us about a Spotted Sandpiper he'd found on the Great Pool, and we managed to see it later that day. Back on St Mary's, Mike Rogers asked me to submit a description and inferred that Alan Vittery was not a trusted observer. I really didn't know the half of it...

That 'dodgy birder' label makes its presence felt many times in Alan's new book A Date With a Bird: A birdwatcher's life. Alan is in his late 70s now, and the book documents a lifetime of birding - seven decades of it anyway. I first mentioned A Date With a Bird in this post a few weeks ago, and that a Kindle e-book edition was planned. Well, that has now happened - it was published on Amazon three days ago. 

Alan sent me a hardback copy, and I intended to write a post about it. However, having read it in dribs and drabs I found myself going back to the beginning and starting again, this time with a notebook to hand. This book has struck an unexpected chord with me, and I want to give it a few posts, not just one. Hopefully it will become clear why.

In the meantime I would like to publicise its availabilty. Firstly through Amazon, and this link will hopefully take you to the relevant Kindle e-book page. [EDIT: Link currently broken, presumably due to technical problems with the Kindle version. I'll aim to restore it when the issues are fixed]

In addition, Alan has told me that 50 original hardback copies are for sale on a first-come, first-served basis, directly from him. I can highly recommend the book in terms of 'build quality' as well as content. The price is £25 including post and packing, with all sale proceeds going to OSME (Ornithological Society of the Middle East). You will need Alan's email address in order to contact him, which I can provide via a direct message on Twitter (this link should take you there) or by text/email if you already have my contact details.

Alan has mentioned that a paperback edition might be in the offing at some stage, but that's all I know right now.

If the Amazon link takes you somewhere that looks like this, my work is done.


Finally, I shall leave you with a taster...

The book is arranged in month-by-month order from March, with an entry for every date on the calendar. Here is August 13th...

August 13th 1996. From a moving vehicle in Dornoch, Sutherland, Alan identifies a first-summer Laughing Gull on the roof of a mobile home.

Exactly ten years later, on August 13th 2006, Alan spots a Laughing Gull flying towards Brora from the south-west. It lands in the river-mouth and has a wash.

Classic dodginess right? Poor bloke hasn't even got the sense to choose a different date or species! However, both birds hung around until October, to be enjoyed by many. And both were last seen on exactly the same date! 

In part 2: Joy!

Thursday, 18 February 2021

While Waiting for Wheatears

Driving between jobs today I spied a field of Mute Swans, so pulled over to quickly check them for stray Whoopers or Bewick's. Needless to say, no chance. However...

Cattle Egret

It's amazing how rapidly this species has become part of the scenery. Not many years ago (ten? fifteen?) my discovery would have sparked a local twitch. But now? Well, I did reach into the car and dig out the camera this time, but one day...

Anyway, on to the main point of this post...

Spring is on the horizon and birders' thoughts turn to migrants. Like anyone else, my little heart swells at the prospect of plucky Wheatears flitting across the Channel very soon, but in the meantime there are other migrants to enjoy right now. No waiting. Now. Sounds good, right? Interested?

Yesterday my working day was cut short by a thick band of rain sweeping in from the west. Its arrival coincided with lunchtime, so while waiting for it to clear I sat in the car and watched the birdy comings and goings on the Axe Estuary. In just over an hour the Lesser Black-backed Gull count went from 35 to 90. Back in the days of regular note-taking I would write down any LBBG count which was bigger than nine, because the Axe norm is single figures. Today for example, no more than five whenever I checked. Yesterday's count was a big one. My Axe record is 162, on 23rd March 2006, and I've had just two other 100+ counts: 100 on 3rd March 2009 and 120+ on 23rd February 2010. Notice how they were all late winter/early spring? That's because Lesser Black-backed Gulls are migrants. Migrants!

So where did all those birds come from yesterday? In December last year I came across a colour-ringed LBBG on the Axe Estuary. It was ringed as a nestling on the North Sea coast of Germany on 3rd July 2014. Look where it's been since...

Lesser Black-backed Gull Yellow HXJ60

Yep, they might breed up here, but they winter on the Iberian coast, or even as far south as West Africa. And given the right conditions we can get a nice little arrival from mid-to-late February onwards. The magic of birdy social media revealed that my own LBBG thrills yesterday were not an isolated incident. For example, lots through Abbotsbury and a big pulse through London during the last couple of days. Exciting eh?

But Lesser Black-backs have even more to offer. Because they come in different flavours you see. Those that breed on our shores are Larus fuscus graellsii, and most of our migrants are of this race, but we also get the continental version which breeds up as far as W Norway: Larus fuscus intermedius. Intermedius birds are much darker than graellsii, closer to the shade of Great Black-backed Gulls. So, not only do you get the pleasure of watching migration in action, but also the happy delight associated with assessing shades of dark grey! Yesterday's birds all looked like graellsii to me, though some were definitely on the darker end of the spectrum. A few pics...

LBBGs beginning to gather. On the bird with open wings notice the obvious contrast between the black primaries and the rest of the upperparts.

A new arrival

From a distance I initially wondered whether the bird on the left was going to be a Yellow-legged Gull. It isn't. Great Black-backed Gull in the background - note the much darker plumage.

Nice shade comparison: GBBG on the left, graellsii LBBG on the right.

I had a little trawl through the NQS archive for some shots of intermedius birds. Here is a selection. They are quite old and the quality not great, but the much darker plumage is nicely obvious...

Graellsii on the left, intermedius on the right.

Intermedius again, possibly the same bird as above.

Definitely an intermedius on the left. Not sure about the other one...

Okay, I've done enough work. You decide.

Look at this stunner! A right hefty intermedius.

Intermedius in the sun.

I'd forgotten all about this next photo. It was taken on 5th March 2012 at Trew's Weir on the River Exe in Exeter. There were a few of these birds present and initially I had to do a double-take because they looked superficially like Yellow-legged Gulls. But they weren't. Rather they were graellsii Lesser Black-backs.

Graellsii Lesser Black-backed Gull in Exeter, 5th March 2012

So there you go. While waiting for Wheatears, what can we do?

Look at gulls.