Friday, 27 March 2020

Close to Home

I've never been a garden lister. I can tell you some of the smart birds we've had in/from our various gardens over the years, but I can't tell you numbers. Not even roughly. It's never interested me. However, this lockdown lark has prompted me to join in with Steve Gales's #BWKM0 Garden Birdwatching Challenge. I can't be involved in a competitive way (you need a current garden list for that) but certainly in spirit. So, how's it going?

Pretty slowly if I'm honest. Having lived here for five years I already know we don't reside beneath some birdy M1. If there is a flight line above us it is one of the migrant map's 'unclassified' roads. Skywatching from the garden is akin to the seawatch of death. You know the kind. You sit there, willing it to happen, just another 15 minutes, and another, and another...oh okay, ten more minutes, tops... And before you know it, hours of nothing have passed. Still, I did get a fly-by garden tick on Wednesday. Little Egret. Not a surprise really, because the River Asker runs just to the east of us, a regular haunt of at least one individual. Three Red Kites on Monday were delightful of course, plus I've had Raven most days, and Sparrowhawk a couple of times. But invariably, when the local Herring Gulls go off, it'll be a Buzzard or three.

Our garden is tiny, and extremely unattractive to birds, but at least we have one. I feel for birders stuck in garden-less appartments. After all, I can sit outside...

Mind you, there's been much less sitting than I'd like. Being at home all the time is a fine way to spot the myriad jobs which need doing. Or have them spotted for you. Which is a right nuisance. Today's #BWKM0 tick came during a tea-break. Jay. It takes my total to 30 species.

Being stuck at home is never good for me. I am well aware of this fact, and have struggled to keep the stir-craziness in check. Last night I finally cracked, and decided to take advantage of the 'exercise' concession this morning. I set the alarm and was out pretty early. In my whole circuit I encountered just six other people, all dog walkers. I met the local Little Egret, and was probably its first human of the day. It flew up from the river and perched rather obligingly in a nearby tree...

Little Egret, waiting for me to pass so it can get on with breakfast. Probably wondering why I have no dog.


On some high ground I came across a flock of 50+ Fieldfares, which was a surprise...

Fieldfares. Standard views.

And returning home I spotted something bobbing about in the long grass up ahead of me on the path. I was absolutely delighted to discover that it was a Stoat, the first I've seen in years. And the first I've got any kind of photo of...

Stoat. The only photo I managed.

Other highlights were 16 singing Chiffs, my first 2 singing Blackcaps of the year, a Yellowhammer, and nice views of a pair of Great Spotted Woodpeckers.

It was nice to get out for a walk, and I shall certainly do it again, but probably not every day.

In the spirit of making the most of the situation, I photographed a bee yesterday. We have three pots of rosemary, and their abundant flowers attract the odd bee now and then. Tentatively we identified this one as a female Hairy-footed Flower Bee, so I was delighted to have this ID confirmed by a helpful chap on Twitter this evening...

Hairy-footed Flower Bee (female)

So that's it. The bee list is off and running...

Tuesday, 24 March 2020

Lockdown Rulebook. Not.

Mrs NQS and I haven't bothered with regular TV for about 35 years, so missed the PM's broadcast to the nation yesterday evening. Our son Baz sent a video clip and the transcript. As predicted, it's lockdown, if a somewhat soft version.

Like many, many others, my immediate concern was how it would affect me. Me. Because, regrettably, like many, many others, the first person I think of is me. Would I be able to work? Go birding? What did Boris say that might have a bearing on such matters?

Predictably, my interest focused in on this bit...

'That is why people will only be allowed to leave their home for the following very limited purposes:

  • shopping for basic necessities, as infrequently as possible
  • one form of exercise a day - for example a run, walk, or cycle - alone or with members of your household;
  • any medical need, to provide care or to help a vulnerable person; and
  • travelling to and from work, but only where this is absolutely necessary and cannot be done from home.
That’s all - these are the only reasons you should leave your home.'

NQS regulars may well know that I clean windows for a living these days. It has its pros and cons. Flexible 'lunchtimes' are handy for the birder in me of course, but rain is a killer. I simply cannot work in wet weather. After the most relentlessly wet autumn and winter I can recall since earning a crust in this fashion, I was so looking forward to this settled spell of dry stuff we're having right now. I actually want to go to work. I need to, if you get my drift. So, what guidance did Boris have for me?

Hmmm...what does 'only where this is absolutely necessary' mean? Travelling? Well, obviously I have to travel to jobs in order to work, so yes, it is 'absolutely necessary' to do so. Actually no, that is not what the sentence is saying. The grammatical object of everything after the comma is actually work, not travelling. Is window cleaning 'absolutely necessary'? Er...

Okay, so I'm not a key worker after all, but what about my birding? Decent seawatching is going to kick off soon, and the local coast will be jumping with migrants. Ah! Look at that! 'One form of exercise a day - for example a...walk...' Winner! I can walk and bird at the same time.

And then the icing on the cake. This guy...

Screen-grab from a BBC clip which appeared on Twitter this afternoon

Her: 'A question from Dave about exercise...'

Dave wants to know if his half-hour drive to the start point of his walk is okay, or must your exercise begin from home, ie, no driving. How does our...er...pundit respond to this?

Him: '...I think it's fine to drive and take exercise. There's no new regulations or new rules about that...and certainly there's no law that's going to stop you driving to take exercise.'


Cheers pal! Right, where are my car keys?

Perfect, eh? I can drive down to the coast, take my 'exercise' with bins and camera - steering well clear of all the others doing likewise of course - and upload my haul of goodies on social media later. My fellow birders will love that, won't they? Especially those stuck in some pokey little apartment in the middle of a city. Nothing better than a big fat dose of what you're missing out on.

Dave's question is an interesting one. It's the sort of question I would ask if I was looking for validation of an action I knew in my soul was a bit questionable. And that's exactly what matey on the TV gave him.

I'll be honest here. When the lockdown was announced, my initial thoughts revolved around what I might still be 'allowed' to do. That's because I'm basically a bit selfish and am keen to know what benefits me. One's instinct is to want rules. What can I do? What can't I do? Please draw the line for me...

But this is not about rules. It's about principles. And the underlying principle in this whole horrible mess is this:

Covid-19 is super-contagious and kills people.

And I'm perfectly aware that if I do everything in my power to be guided by that principle, then I hopefully won't even catch it. And if I have it already, keeping that principle in mind all the time will ensure I am much more likely to keep it to myself.

And when we operate on principles (rather than rules) we don't need anyone else to draw the line for us. For example...

Shall I stay at home or go out?
Principle: Covid-19 is super-contagious and kills people.
So then, which action shows that I am being guided by that priciple? Staying at home or going out? Staying at home or driving for half an hour and then taking some essential exercise?

It ain't rocket science.

But that's me. I realise everyone's circumstances are not the same, nor their viewpoint come to that, and it certainly isn't for me to judge. But if the infection/death rate doesn't slow down pronto, I guess we can expect restrictions to become more draconian. And go on for longer.

So, basically, I am at home. Do pop in for a cuppa. Oh, wait a minute...

Anyway, today's birdy highlights were a Raven and a Meadow Pipit. Yesterday I had 3 Red Kites over, and was really expecting one or more today in the superb high-pressure conditions, but no. In the absence of Red Kites today then, have one of yesterday's, and a House Sparrow...

Not quite stratospheric, but pretty high
Nice to have a few of these chirpy little oiks on the estate.

More about the from-home birding, Lockdown List, #BWKM0 etc shortly...

Monday, 23 March 2020

Thoughts For a Point in Time

Yesterday I did a stupid thing.

Keen for an afternoon walk I headed for Burton Bradstock beach with the intention of a long, shingly trudge to West Bexington and back. Unfortunately I hadn't thought this through. Alarm bells began to sound the moment I saw how full the car park was. Foolishly I pressed on regardless and ventured onto the beach, giving everyone as wide a berth as possible. By the time I got to Cogden I was fed up with zig-zagging back and forth to avoid people, and about-turned...

Burton Bradstock Beach. Taken with my phone, and therefore a wide-angle shot, this photo grossly understates how busy it actually was. 

I'll be candid here. I don't want to catch Covid-19. Both my wife and I are 60+ and I am sure it would at the very least be extremely unpleasant, at worst terminal. Our eldest son Rob lives in Switzerland right now. He is 37, but at 18 months of age he underwent open-heart surgery to correct something called Fallot's Tetralogy, a congenital condition. If he caught Covid-19 he would almost certainly do very badly. He is keeping away from people as much as possible. Both Rob and I are optimistic by nature, never melodramatic about risk or danger, yet both of us are trying to be cautious and prudent when it comes to this poxy virus. To me it is simply a no-brainer.

But all around me I see people seemingly oblivious to it all...

I must admit it's got me thinking. In W Dorset it is actually quite easy to go birding without crossing paths with anyone. The other day I took a couple of scenic shots locally which illustrate this...

West Bexington from the coast road. West Bex Mere on the right, village and beach car park on the left. 

East Bexington, viewed from the Abbotsbury end. 

Both locations pretty quiet and off the beaten track, especially first thing in the morning. But, like almost anywhere else in the country, a very rare bird could suddenly make them rather too popular. I have already noticed some birders on Twitter stating that they are no longer going to be posting their bird sightings - presumably because they don't wish to encourage twitching - and their stance has made me consider my own position on this.

If a full lock-down is as imminent as it seems, this may be an academic issue anyway, but if I am fortunate enough to find a singing Sardinian Warbler, say, suppression is not my default position. It will be hard.

I realise this is the kind of post which is just begging for a comment loaded with well-meaning counsel and advice from folks with their own views on various matters coronaviral. If you feel the urge, please resist it. I am simply sharing the thoughts of an average middle-aged bloke in strange times which are evolving extremely rapidly. Tomorrow? The next day? Who knows what I'll think then?

Saturday, 21 March 2020

Context and Communication

A tweet from this afternoon...


I realise there are coastal locations where a passing Eider is no big deal, but the bowels of Lyme Bay is not one of them. Context is everything! Including today I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times I've seen passing drakes on a seawatch here. Exactly five. The most memorable occasion (21st April, 2007) involved a superb flock of 22 Eider, containing 9 adult males. So the reason for the tweet was more than a virtual air-punch, it was also a heads-up to any Dorset birding Twitter followers who might be in the field that a decent local bird was passing through. However, there was an unexpected response...


The best thing about Richard's message was the fact that the very reason I was out seawatching at all this afternoon was because of his own earlier WhatsApp report of a dozen Manxies past Charmouth, and now I was able to offer a little pay-back by confirming the ID of a bird which had almost slipped through his fingers. Cue warm, fuzzy glow...

I also began the day with a seawatch. I had no expectations really, which was just as well, because the hour or so from 06:30 at East Bexington was not brilliant. It was also flippin' cold. Passing birds were 2 Common Scoter, 83 Common Gulls, 2 Med Gulls, c20 Gannets, a rather distant wader which in mid-April I would definitely have called a Whimbrel, and not much else that I bothered counting or remembering. On the sea were another Scoter and a Red-throated Diver. The East Bex highlights were 2 newly-arrived Wheatears, 2 or 3 phylloscs which were presumably Chiffs, and 3 Blackcaps...

So fresh the paint is barely dry...
Cannot have too many Wheatears.
Male Blackcap catching some rays.

There is often a frenetic urgency to new arrivals on the coast. Those Wheatears were off and away up the fields and inland within minutes of hitting the beach, and the Chiffs too were zipping around madly in the strong wind.

On the drive back I stopped in a lay-by above West Bex for a quick scan, and immediately spotted a Red Kite just below me. It drifted away westwards, and I texted the Bex regulars. They'd already seen it over the village a few minutes earlier. Great.

Next stop: West Bay. I wanted to check out the wet field where I saw the Blackwit and Redshanks on Thursday. Today there was a Dunlin. Nice. While there is still potential I shall keep trying. Strolling back to the car I noticed a bit of gull panic going on and had a scan. Nothing. I walked on. Suddenly a Red Kite sailed over...

Not a great pic. I was a bit slow with the camera and botched my chance...

Naturally I assumed this was the Bex bird from earlier, and watched it continue westwards...and become two!

Such striking birds, and a real joy to watch.

Conscious that these beauties might hug the coast and therefore become available to my birding buddies further west, I sent both a tweet and a message on the Patch WhatsApp group. Much to my delight, these or others were seen by at least four or five birders between West Bay and Seaton. Once again, communication proves its worth.

And context? Well, a couple of weeks back I had to visit Aylesbury, the county town of Buckinghamshire. The place is crawling with Red Kites! I spent half my time there peering at the sky. At one point a flock of 15, plus a Buzzard, were circling above a small cluster of houses! I suppose you get used to Red Kites at roof-top level eventually, but for a birder who's lived in the southwest for 17 years it was simply amazing. Which is why news of  the West Bay birds was broadcast, and why its recipients kept an eager eye out. Down here, Red Kite is still a nice prize.

Which takes me back to the beginning, where Richard's WhatsApp message had got me out hoping to see my first Manxies of the year. In the end I didn't. But I did see bird-of-the-day drake Eider, plus 13 Common Scoters, 3 Shovelers, 2 definite Grey Plovers and 3 rather distant probables.

Today I was pretty jammy, bumping into the Red Kites like that, but I was able to share my jam with others. And because Richard generously alerted us all to a small afternoon movement of Manx Shearwaters, I also jammed a cracking drake Eider! Grey Plover is quite a decent local bird too.

Context.

Communication.

Two factors with which to enhance your solo, socially-distanced birding exploits...

Thursday, 19 March 2020

West Bay

In the past I've said disparaging things about West Bay, and could never see myself doing much birding there. However, my view has changed a bit. In the few years we've lived nearby I've come to see the place with a less snobbish eye, and even the tackier aspects have somehow endeared themselves. Recently I've made an effort to investigate the birding potential too. Snagging a few Black Redstarts last autumn certainly did no harm, and this year I've been trying to suss the various habitats. This afternoon I had another go...

Because West Bay is a small harbour village rather than a remote beach, there are people. Sometimes lots of them. Strolling along it was evident that nobody else was toting bins and a camera, and I could tell from the earnest faces and solemn tones that people's thoughts and conversations were largely focused on expanding their currently woeful stock of bog rolls, and suchlike. Hand sanitiser was far from my mind (in my left coat pocket in fact) as I mooched about, initially seeing not much. Mind you, to be fair I had already seen a nice bird before getting among the local populace. The other day I spied this wet area out in the middle of the valley, and thought it looked good for a Little Ringed Plover perhaps. The first thing I did this afternoon was scope it from afar. No LRPs, but there was a Black-tailed Godwit and 2 Redshanks. Smart. Later on I was able to get a bit closer and take photos, and courtesy of Twitter (and Mark Golley) I learned that it was a moulting islandica Blackwit...

I've no idea how scarce or otherwise is a Blackwit in West Bay, but I certainly enjoyed it.

With the chilly wind coming from a northerly quarter I recalled that 4 Black Redstarts had found the shelter of the West Cliffs to their liking in similar conditions last year, and went for a look. Seven Wheatears! Very nice. I spent ages with them, viewing from below initially, and then discovering that you can get alongside them via the cliff path. Some popped up on to the clifftop above too. Wheatears are such good value...

Viewed from below...
...and from the side...
This shot isn't pin-sharp, but I like the 'ghost' shadow Wheatear in the background.
...and even from above.
On the clifftop

Finally I worked my way back down into the valley and out onto the wet fields beside the river. Initially there was nothing much to see, and then out of nowhere a Wheatear flew past me. A quick scan revealed five, presumably new arrivals. They were dead flighty, and seemed intent on moving quickly through, but then three alighted together on the bank of the river, and I got my favourite two photos of the day...

Pausing briefly...
Sleek and flighty. This lovely Wheatear might be stationary, but clearly is not going to be hanging around.

So, 12 fabulous Wheatears and a smart Blackwit. Well chuffed. If you read this through with a heart full of unbounded joy and barely a thought of deadly viruses, then I am pleased. That's what NQS is for.

Wednesday, 18 March 2020

And Still They Come...

March 2020 is theoretically my 61st opportunity to score an early spring Wheatear. Back in March 1960 (my first as an air-breathing creature) I was barely weaned, and not really in a position to enter the fray, but I'm sure there were still plenty of birders carefully scouring the West Dorset coast for their first Wheatear of the year. No doubt some are still active today. Perhaps one or two were out this afternoon, like me, as keen as ever for a glimpse of that handsome harbinger of spring.

I honestly could not tell you how many times I've eagerly anticipated my first Wheatear, but even allowing for the years of pre-birding, non-birding and phase, it is lots. I mention this for a reason. Because it is very easy to take such a simple little once-a-year ritual for granted, and yet many things I have taken for granted all my life are being turned on their head right now...

It is tempting to follow this line of thought down the dismal path it inevitably leads, but I'm not going to. I have just spent a weekend in the company of my granddaughter, who is slightly more than 60 years my junior, and such a rude reminder of my own mortality always makes me a bit introspective. However, I refuse to give in to it. What's the point? All that does is suck the joy from the frankly amazing spectacle of your first Wheatear of the year hitting the beach, and who wants to do that?

Just a Wheatear? Not really...

I finished work early today and went to East Bexington. It strikes me as a pretty Wheatear-friendly place, and it was a Wheatear I wanted. I know all about the other early spring possibilities, like Sand Martin, Swallow, White Wagtail and so on... but only Wheatears actually count. For me, none of the others really hits the spot. There is a magic little buzz about that first Wheatear which nothing else can produce...

13:46 on 18th March, 2020. First Wheatear photo of the year.

I ended up with a total of four birds; three together and a singleton. Very little else of note, but who cares? Naturally there were Stonechats, and as ever I could not resist pointing the camera at them, despite the gloomy, overcast weather...



The lone Wheatear was an absolutely pristine male, feeding at some distance in a field of sparse stubble...

Spring perfection.

So, while the world teeters on the edge of something quite unprecedented in all our lifetimes, NQS will continue to bring little nuggets of joyous, upbeat positivity.

While it still can...

Anyway, I'll close with this bunch of ruthlessly abused pixels, depicting two humans of approximately 60 years and two months difference in age. I like to think the older one still has a few first-Wheatears-of-the-year in him yet...


Monday, 16 March 2020

Wheatear Invasion. Apparently.

A close inspection of the NQS Bird-o-meter reveals a sorry tale. Recent readings have been low. Depressingly low. There are reasons. Like the relentless march of one Atlantic weather system after another. Strewth! Surely the most tedious winter conditions ever? Another reason is my current inability to turn up anything decent. Take gulls, for example. My go-to taxa for regular doses of winter-time birdy buzz. But what's going on? The odd Med Gull here and there is all I can manage right now. Where are the Casps? The white-wingers? The Ross's and Laughing Gulls? Elsewhere is where.

I will confess to lower effort levels of late too. I think my enthusiasm must be a bit needy. If it isn't regularly nourished with good birds, the occasional nice find, a little tristis-type challenge, and so on...well, it shrivels up a bit. And recently it's not been getting much at all. Until today...

Today the Wheatears came. Wave upon wave of them, streaming across the Channel. Throughout the working day my Twitter feed was clogged with reports of the invasion, and mouth-watering photos of the little beauties. I couldn't wait till knocking-off time...

Rather than head for a location already covered by other birders I thought it would be a bit more enterprising to find my own Wheatear somewhere. West Bay seemed like a good shout, with maybe a quick look up on the golf course too. I had about an hour or so, from 5:15pm. Result: nil Wheatears. Absolute poxness.

NQS will be go down in history as the only S coast [mainly] birding blog which didn't feature a Wheatear on 16th March, 2020. Poor bloke. What a loser! Oh, wait a minute though... Wasn't it also the only S coast [mainly] birding blog which did feature two Red Kites together over Bridport at 13:54 on 16th March, 2020? That day when everyone else was being distracted by stupid Wheatears everywhere? Yes, I think so. Jammy beggar...

Admittedly this is just one Red Kite, but the pics with two in the frame are a bit blurry. Just trust me.

Interestingly these birds were high enough that they didn't set the local gulls off. I simply happened to be scanning the sky at the right moment. Yep, jammy.

Oh, okay then...

Full frame off the camera. Both birds. Just.