Tuesday, 17 April 2018

Too Many Birds and Not an Eel

Have you ever visited the Somerset Levels? No? Very sensible. Keep it that way, because birding the place will mess with your head. Up until Sunday afternoon I still got quite excited about Great White Egrets, Bitterns and the like. Such previous gems are now completely devalued. I probably wouldn't even raise my bins.

"Ooh. Hello. What's this white thing/brown thing?"
"Tsk. Just another stupid Great White Egret/Bittern/Marsh Harrier."
"Pah..."

I blame our friends. Innocently accepting an invitation to go birding with them at the weekend, they drove us to Ham Wall RSPB and dished up an unhealthy surfeit of quality birds. As well as the Marsh Harriers, Bitterns and Big Egrets, they also picked out a distant flock of 8 Cattle Egrets and led us to a pool with 4 Garganey on it.

Pair of Garganey failing to hide

One of my other favourite ducks, Pintail, were represented by two lovely drakes, and Birders I Know were present in the form of Mr and Mrs Sidmouth Clive. There is a reason why I'd never previously visited the Somerset Levels. All-in-all the place is just too much, and I am now utterly spoiled. Apart from the odd seaward glance for skuas I can't imagine I'll bother birding again until autumn at least...

In other news I went fishing last night. The tench campaign continues. Rob had already done Sunday night, though for eels not tench, and mentioned that the area where I caught three tench last week was a bit crowded. So we chose a much quieter section of the canal, a very long walk from anywhere...


The surroundings were magnificent, with the Exe estuary like a choppy sea just behind us and Exminster Marshes across the canal. It was windy, it was fresh and chilly, double-figure flocks of Whimbrel whistled past in the evening (numbering up to 17) and a drake Red-breasted Merganser joined us for a spot of fishing this morning. The stove roared and the kettle boiled. Often. Mix up all that lot and it's pretty hard to beat for atmosphere...

Tench-wise it was dire, our new-location experiment a total failure. I caught one mini-rudd, and Rob nothing at all. Well, nothing on his tench rods anyway. But Rob had a third rod out, for eels again. At 04:45 this morning he woke me up to tell me that his eel rod had scored. Only the culprit was not an eel. It was toothy and stripey and weighed a phenomenal 22lb 8oz!!

22lb 8oz canal pike. A photo simply cannot convey just how impressive are pike of this size in the flesh. 'Awesome' is a dreadfully overused word but entirely appropriate in this case. 'Knackered' is another word, equally appropriate to describe the state of Rob's overtrousers.

In our piking efforts I was the first to score a twenty, also the second, 11 months later. At that point I was feeling a bit sorry for Rob, who had never caught a twenty but witnessed both of mine. This year he's caught FOUR!! Between us we've landed six (four different) twenty-pound pike from the venue in 17 months. The tentative plans we hatched at the back end of 2016 have succeeded beyond any reasonable expectation. And I no longer feel sorry for Rob.

On a different note...

Like some other bloggers I have always adopted the practice of capitalising bird names and highlighting them in the text with bold font. The capitalising thing is simply what I've always done with birds, and the bold font dates from BirdForum days, where I did it to help species names stand out in a post so that anyone speed-reading could instantly home in on the important stuff. With fish I do neither. It just doesn't seem right somehow. I can't explain why not, it just doesn't. So, there we are, a nice little idiosyncrasy to close with...

Wednesday, 11 April 2018

Starting a New Campaign

I think it's fair to say that coarse angling today is very different to the hobby I so loved as a boy. There are heaps more fisheries now. Lakes and ponds stuffed with silver fish and small carp are legion, and available to all for the price of a day-ticket; a netful is virtually guaranteed. Many species are far more widespread than they used to be, and grow much, much bigger. The fishing tackle industry has morphed into a monster that will provide you with absolutely any item you could ever imagine needing. And I would never have guessed that there would one day be a similarly vast empire dedicated to the supply of bait. In my youth it was basically maggots, bread, worms, hemp, cheese and luncheon meat; in 2018 the array available is ridiculous.

So, if one's idea of improvement involves various aspects of  'more' and 'bigger', then I would imagine the modern coarse angling scene looks a good deal better when compared to what it was four or five decades ago. For me though, fishing is not solely about 'more' and 'bigger'. Big fish - and more of them - is nice, but at least as important are surroundings, a degree of mystery, a tricky challenge, stuff like that...

Less than 18 months ago I wrote a post entitled A First Love Rekindled, and mentioned my intention to try the Exeter Canal for pike and carp with my son Rob. At the time I'd never caught a twenty-pound pike. Just a few weeks later I landed only my second pike of the campaign; it weighed 24lb 14oz! This winter also, I managed a twenty-plus, and Rob caught two! Unqualified success! The carp have proved much more difficult though. Much! In fact I have yet to catch any, and Rob has only managed the one...

March 2017 - 24lb 8oz

Compared to some of the locals we are very much part-timers, but even they struggle to get among the carp sometimes. One of the regulars managed carp to 32 pounds last year, but had gone eight months without any at all! Anyway, neither of us fancied another spring and summer of frustration, so decided that this year we would target the Exeter Canal tench instead.

Tench-wise, both of us have a similar personal best. Rob's is 8lb 2oz, and although I can't remember exactly what mine is, it's about the same. Now, a canal tench of 8lb+ is pretty huge, but from what we can ascertain, the Exeter Canal does contain such fish. Quite how big they go is still a mystery though. Which is good. I like a bit of mystery.

So, Monday afternoon we headed west...

The forecast was appalling. Lots of rain. I arrived first, and by about 17:30 had picked a swim, found a relatively weed-free area and baited up. I fished two rods, one with maggots, the other with sweetcorn. Rob was about 50 yards up the bank from me, and got his rods out before darkness fell. Then the rain started. It's a nice, cosy feeling, all warm and dry in a bivvy as the raindrops rattle down, but I wouldn't have minded being roused from my slumbers by a noisy bite alarm. It didn't happen though. Not until about 06:30. Beep-beep-beee-e-e-e-e-e-p!!! It was light by this time, and I frantically pulled on my crocs and hurried to the rods...and fell flat on my backside in the mud! The fish was still on though, and after a good scrap I landed a lovely tench of 4lb 10oz. I was chuffed to bits. The first outing of a new campaign and already we were off the mark. Brilliant! I packed up about 19:00 yesterday, adding two more tench in the meantime. Here's the biggest...

6lb 10oz of gorgeous Exeter Canal tench

This is the biggest tench I've caught for probably 20 years or more, and is an absolute beauty. Long and muscular, with very little gut on it, I would imagine this fish has the potential to carry a lot more weight, and I reckon the possibility of Rob and me catching a new personal best from this venue is very real. Unfortunately Rob didn't get among the tench this time, but at least between us we've made a start on the learning curve.

And learning curve it is. We have no idea what is going to be the best area to fish, the best bait, the best time of day, etc, etc. Apart from a few snippets of gen gleaned from the carp anglers and one or two pleasure fisherman, we are fishing blind. We have yet to meet anyone who specifically targets the tench.

Three fish so far then: 4lb 10oz, 6lb 10oz and 4lb 1oz (a current average of around 5lb 2oz) all caught during the daytime, with two falling to maggots and one to corn. It's highly satisfying to actually catch what you're fishing for, and I could not have asked for a better start to this new campaign. I'm quite excited about it!

Friday, 30 March 2018

The Birder vs. Photographer Issue

Back in September 1984 I took this photo of a Pectoral Sandpiper...



The location was Staines Res, on the drained N basin. My photographic kit was primitive in the extreme: a cheap, Russian, fully manual Zenit B coupled with a cheap, Russian, fully manual Helios 500mm mirror lens. That hefty lump of iron was mounted on my regular birding tripod, and getting this shot entailed climbing the reservoir fence, scuttling down the concrete apron, and slowly creeping up on the happily feeding Pec. Then I just waited, hunched and uncomfortable, as it moved towards me. I think I used a whole roll of film, but almost every shot has slightly blurred bits because the bird was either out of focus or moving too rapidly for the slow shutter speed to freeze. It was totally relaxed in my presence, and at times came too close.

If memory serves correctly, the only other person around that day was my old mate Ric, watching from the causeway. Eventually I'd used up my film and quietly withdrew, rejoining him there. I think it was the above photo that was subsequently published in the 1984 London Bird Report.

All good.

The following year, in late May, I found 2 Temminck's Stints at Staines, this time on the drained S basin. There was one other birder present and he let me put the news out via his carphone - a major novelty in 1985! At some point that day I was alone on the causeway, so tried to repeat my Pec Sand success with the stints. Over the fence, down the concrete apron and then a lot of creeping and crouching. It didn't work. The birds simply wouldn't play ball, and were never in a position where I could get ahead of them and so let them approach me. Eventually I gave up and retreated with a whole bunch of 10th-rate exposures. Rubbish.

Arriving back on the causeway I was instantly taken to task by a newly-arrived birder. "There's always some selfish photographer chasing the birds and spoiling it for everyone else!" he complained. My reaction was not good. After all, hadn't I just found these birds and put the news out so that the likes of him could come and see them? The ingratitude! But also, if I'm honest, I felt a large twinge of guilt that I'd been 'caught' in the act of trying to creep up and get very close to the birds and bag myself a frame-filler; I shouldn't really have done it with the likelihood of other birders turning up to twitch those Temminck's Stints. This unhealthy combination of emotions led me to respond in a shamefully immature way, and I gave him a right mouthful that he didn't deserve.

Recently a Snowy Owl in Norfolk has once again raised the birder vs. photographer issue. As you can see from the above, it is not new, and with the advent of internet forums and social media it often gets wide publicity these days. I think it is safe to say that it will never go away...

Actually, calling it something like 'the birder vs. photographer issue' misses the point, because they're not really against one another at all. Such a label is just a simplistic way of describing one of many, many scenarios in life where the differing needs of two or more interested parties bring potential for conflict. I'm sure the birder is perfectly happy for the photographer to get his 'superb image', as long as it doesn't interfere with the birder's 'crippling views'. And vice versa. But this will rarely happen, because in the real world the needs of each party don't allow it. The birder wants to get his views and then chat with his mates, and is happy to stand at scope range to do so. The photographer would be content to wait for the bird to come close while he crouches quietly, waiting, but knows it will never do so with all this racket going on. So he tries creeping up on it, gets yelled at, and later sees his face go viral in a 'name and shame' type post. Bad. The very next week he's sitting quietly in a hide with a few of his buddies, waiting for a bird to show. Three hours he waits. Suddenly, there it is! It's on view for about 30 seconds. He snaps away, tweaking his settings, desperate to get a good shot before it disappears. Success! That night, there he is again, his dodgy fizzog illustrating another cry of outrage. This time it's about photographers hogging the slots in hides. 'Name and shame', it says...

A couple of posts back I mentioned a preference for solitude. Alone, with my modest camera, I can creep up on birds whenever I choose. I can do it slowly, gradually, skilfully. Or I can throw caution to the wind and blunder up as inept as you like. If I flush the bird, who's to know? If I don't, well, great.

Alone.

There's a lot to be said for it.

Wednesday, 28 March 2018

The Best-laid Plans...

Ah, it's all gone to pot rather...

By far the most frustrating right now is my running, or rather, lack of it. Everything was going so well...and then I picked up a groin injury of some kind. Nothing crippling, but it just won't go away. It isn't painful to run with it, but afterwards there is soreness and limping. Not good. So I've eased right off, with just four outings in the last 6 weeks. The most recent was on Monday, and thus far I am pain-free. We shall see, but it's nevertheless a frustrating set-back.

The wisest course would probably involve going to see a sports injury specialist, but the 'hobbies' budget doesn't really stretch to 'Physiotherapy Fees'. In lieu of that option there is of course the internet, where suggestions for diagnosis and treatment of absolutely everything are legion. Sadly this hasn't helped as much as I hoped it would; groin injuries seem to be tricky customers. Typical. Hopefully a slow and cautious return to action will see me right...

And then there is bike. As we all know, the weather just lately has been perfect for cycling, with snow, ice and hideous wind chill. Even when it is possible to remain upright, the body switches instantly to survival mode, and within moments of setting out every extremity is shrivelled and bloodless. I'm getting too old to flirt with frostbite, and my woeful tally of just three rides in the last 6 weeks bears testament to that reality.

You'd think I'd be getting fat with the lack of exercise, but an interesting experiment with a largely plant-based, whole-food diet since early February has kept the waistline in check. In fact I am the lightest I've been in about 25 years, and only a few pounds heavier than when I got married. The upside of this situation is the fact that there will be less of me to propel uphill come the cycling season proper. I look forward therefore to some Strava glory! The downside, though, is that with less insulation I definitely feel the cold far more than I used to. Roll on shorts-weather...

However, not all is gloomy. For example, I have seen a Wheatear. It even posed for me...

Wheatear rudely interrupts gull-watch, Coronation Corner, March 20th

Yep, that was more than a week ago, and I'll bet there are a few readers who still haven't seen a Wheatear this year. So for once, birding-wise, NQS is there or thereabouts with what's happening right now. Well, not really. I've yet to see another Wheatear. No hirundines either. I kind of got current again today, when I had distant views of what I'm 90% sure was a pair of Garganey disappearing north up the Axe Valley at around 3:00pm this afternoon. They'd been seen by others earlier, so were on my radar, but 90% is a bit too shy of 100 for my liking.

Finally, angling. This too has fallen by the wayside somewhat. Again it's been mostly the weather to blame, but the piking season came to an end without my troubling the creatures further. Rob meanwhile has set his sights on a big perch, and I joined him for an unsuccessful foray to a small, local club lake. We caught plenty of fish - which is always nice - but no perch. And then we learned that a small commercial lake less than a mile away has produced perch well over 4lb. It is called Mangerton Lake, and there are even photos of such beasts on its Facebook page. Rob has been quick to get a couple of short sessions in, and though he's had no perch yet, while he was there a carp angler jammed one out on a pellet, which is most definitely not a standard perch bait. It weighed 4lb 1oz. Perch of this size are far more regular and widespread in recent times, but to me this is still a massive fish. And yet I cannot get excited at the prospect of fishing a murky, over-stocked commercial pond in pursuit of such a specimen. To be honest, angling of this kind is the very antithesis of what appeals to me. Give me a tricky, clear-water venue like the Exeter Canal any day. The mystery of what might swim in such a place is so much more compelling...

I've been picking through some of my old angling photos and came across a couple of monochrome efforts that I printed up in the camera club darkrooms when I worked at Kodak. Photos are so good at bringing it all back aren't they? The scene is Startops Res (one of the Tring reservoirs) some time in the very early '80s I think. I remember it was cold, and windy, and the fishing so dire that I nodded off behind my brolly. That's Ric there on the left, and the woefully underdressed Mark on the right wishing he'd worn some actual winter clothing; in fact I don't think he even had a brolly. Anyway, Ric, if you read this please remind me of the date!

Evidently I didn't worry about a little dust on the negs...

Fibreglass rods, Mitchell reels, the ubiquitous camping bedchair. All very vintage!

Ric modelling a nice, stiff and smelly Barbour jacket. My brolly in the background.

Wednesday, 14 March 2018

The Solitary Man

I have a nasty cold right now. After a virus-free year or so it was inevitable that I would catch something eventually, because all around me have been dropping like flies this winter. But instead of resting yesterday I foolishly took it to work with me, whereupon it beat me up a bit and made me come home early.

Before I did that though, just a quick look at the estuary...

Yes, it's that Caspian Gull again.

With the tide rising, the best bunch of big gulls was on the island just north of Coronation Corner, and there amongst them all was the Caspian Gull which I first saw on 22 Jan, in almost exactly the same spot. I had my scope this time, and took a few record shots as it preened. I only had it for a few minutes before something spooked the gulls, with the majority departing downriver. I departed also, sniffing wetly...

I am in my element with this kind of birding. First of all, it's gulls. Always a plus. Secondly, economy of effort. If I were to tot up the time I've spent checking the estuary this year it wouldn't amount to more than a handful of hours I expect, yet I've done pretty well out of it. Thirdly, I am alone, and I like being alone.

When I first got the birding bug as a young man I did a lot of twitching. Wherever large crowds of Barbour-clad men and women hurried awkwardly at dawn along woodland paths and seawalls, and then gathered, steaming and murmuring, in worship of some lost waif, so did I. Sometimes a twitch would be good-natured and relaxed, with the bird easy to see and the viewing unrestricted. Other times, quite the opposite. On such occasions many would allow their desperation to turn them into something quite unpleasant, resolutely oblivious to anyone's interests but their own. I found myself despising such people and their affect on me, and the herd mentality which spawns them. Perhaps unsurprisingly, in just a few years the thrill of twitching palled...

I am now a lot older and almost entirely solitary in my habits. If you should encounter me in the field, actually birding, the chances are that I will actively avoid you. Exceptions to this rule are if I know you, or have a good bird to share (I'm not a complete oaf) but otherwise I generally keep to my own company. At this point you may well be thinking "Sad old so-and-so...", and perhaps you're right, but sadder still is the fact that there are quite a lot of us around. Last year for example, I uncharacteristically approached another birder while visiting Staines Res, and received an unmistakeably cold shoulder. Probably he was a decent enough bloke, and assuming he was also a Staines regular it's likely we had a bit in common and could have enjoyed a good old natter. Instead we both missed out.

Saddest of all though is why this happens. Why should a perfectly gregarious young birder gradually become less so with time, to a great extent withdrawing from active engagement with his/her fellow hobbyists? A clue is contained within Jono Lethbridge's recent thought-provoking post, The Echo Chamber. It sounds like facets of our internet age have merely compounded those challenges and difficulties inherent in birding generally, and twitching in particular. We live in a basically selfish world that lacks kindness, and many allow these traits to rub off on them, to influence their thinking and actions, and I suspect that what happens as a consequence is this...

There will be some who put up with it for a while, maybe even join in to a degree, but who eventually realise that they are finding it increasingly distasteful. Arriving at a twitch, they stand off to one side, well away from the scrum. One day, utterly wound-up by some hideous behaviour or other, they walk away and go somewhere else, all interest in the rarity lost. Eventually they don't bother going at all. In time even a hide full of birders becomes hard to cope with, and nowadays they are to be found only where the sky is big and the risk of company small. Are they overly sensitive? Perhaps. But they have my understanding.

And I can tell them this: it'll get worse as they get older!

Thursday, 1 March 2018

Hard Weather

Some of the most spectacular birding I have ever enjoyed has been a consequence of very cold weather. For example, the events of 18 December 2010, recounted in this post. Skylarks that time; at others it has been winter thrushes, Snipe, Lapwings etc, basically whatever species were induced by the cold to move. Today it was Lapwings and Golden Plover...

Despite the recent freeze, locally we were still in a snow-free pocket this morning. So I got up early and ventured to Burton Bradstock to look at the sea for a bit. My theory was that assorted wildfowl might be frozen off their usual freshwater haunts and come piling along the coast in vast and interesting flocks. For at least the first hour of daylight my theory was proved wholly incorrect, so I went home for some breakfast.

While out for a walk around 09:30 I noticed a few straggly groups of Lapwings passing over. Tweets from further W suggested this might be part of a larger movement, so at 10:15 I was back at Burton Bradstock and soon heading along the coast path towards Cogden. En route in the van I'd noted Lapwings and Golden Plovers grounded on the roadside fields W of Burton, and it was quickly evident why. Flocks of both were streaming by, sometimes 40 or 50-strong. It was hopeless trying to count them; birds were passing left and right of me as I progressed, some well inland and some coming in off the sea, having been forced offshore by the relentless, freezing wind. Mostly they were staying quite low too, sometimes appearing in front of me suddenly, and gone just as rapidly.

It was spectacular, but at the same time pitiful. I knew they were heading for weather at least as bad as that which they were trying to escape. Scattered among the plovers were scores of Fieldfares and Redwings, up to maybe 15 at a time, along with a few Meadow Pipits and a single Snipe. By the time I got back to Burton at around 12:15 I estimated 2000+ Golden Plovers and many more (6000+??) Lapwings had gone past in two hours. If someone told me it was double that I wouldn't be surprised. And still they came, though in much-reduced numbers now.

I did get my wildfowl in the end: a little flock of something like 11 Wigeon and 3 Teal E offshore, and a handful of Shoveler plus a couple more Teal trying to find some wobbly water among the reeds of the Burton Mere. Unbeknown to me, the West Bexington Mere briefly played host to a couple of drake Garganey, which would have been a terrific test of my adrenal system had they flown past Cogden!

Golden Plovers heading west. My camera (and photo-skills) no match for the situation...
Beside the coast path at the caravan park W of Burton.

These were the most unpleasant birding conditions I have experienced in many years; the wind was especially vicious. Despite gloves I can honestly say my fingers were numb within 20 minutes, and never recovered. Consequently it was very difficult trying to photograph anything. There was also some mild frustration when I couldn't clinch what looked like a 'small grebe sp' that was too distant for bins. Nevertheless, great birding. But at what cost to the weather-driven travellers...?

Although I haven't posted for a while, I have been checking the Axe Estuary gulls whenever I can, but with little reward. The best I can offer is two adult Med Gulls that were close enough together to just about squeeze in to the same photo...

I never tire of these beautiful gulls. Always a pleasure...

Finally, fishing news...

On Monday Rob and I finally got out on the River Frome at Wool to try for grayling together. Our original plan had been to do this in December, but illness, work and awful river conditions have conspired against us. The stretch concerned closes to coarse fishing on 28 February, so we had just a few days available still, and plumped for Monday. Virtually overnight the temperature plummeted and we knew we were in for a bitterly cold, windy day as the so-called 'Beast from the East'* arrived. I managed three sessions in December and caught at least a few grayling each time, up to 1lb 4oz, so had earmarked three 'banker' swims for Rob to try in order to catch his first grayling. Predictably, in the conditions, not a single bite from any of them.

So we moved downstream a bit, to a stretch I hadn't fished before, and put a brave face on it...

Very cold. I am wearing six layers, and wishing it were more.

Eventually, it happened...

Rob's first grayling. At 1lb 9oz it is also bigger than any I've ever caught!

And that was it. No more grayling for either of us...

We've got a little friendly competition going again this year. Similar to last year in that the biggest of each species that we catch earns a pint, except this year we are limiting it to 'specimen'-sized fish only, so no minnows or tiddlers. Prior to Monday's outing we agreed that to qualify as a specimen a grayling would need to weigh 1lb 8oz or more. Typical. Rob is also winning on pike, with his 23lb 1oz lump. Technically the jammy so-and-so has actually had three twenties this year, as he caught the 23-pounder twice! Clearly, I taught him well...

* 'Beast from the East' = journalistically hyperbolised cold snap originating in Russia.

Friday, 16 February 2018

A Long Shingly Slog

It's been a long time since my last Glaucous Gull. Four years almost to the day in fact. I was still living in Seaton then and twitched this beauty which Tim Wright found on the Axe Estuary on 13 Feb 2014...

Shortly after I took this photo it departed, and I'm pretty sure there are no other published pics.

So when the urge for a long walk unexpectedly took hold of me this afternoon I decided to make my way from Burton Bradstock to West Bexington to see if I could jam the nice white Glauc that's been appearing recently at Bex.

It's a massive, shingly slog from Burton to Bex. Three miles of it. Bird-wise it was dead quiet until just before the West Bexington mere, where the sloping fields had attracted good numbers of small gulls. Mostly Common and Black-headed, but with the odd Med Gull dotted about, maybe six in all. On the distant mere itself I could see a small gang of Herring Gulls. No Glaucous though. I walked on.

Level with the mere now, I checked the Herring Gulls a little more carefully. I couldn't recall if Caspian Gull has occurred at Bex, but needless to say it's constantly on my radar these days. No such luck of course, so I had a quick scan to my right, where there were several Tufties and Shovelers, neither of which (especially the former) are exactly everyday ducks on the Axe patch. Glancing at the gulls again with my naked eye I realised that one of them was suddenly huge and white...

Spot the sore thumb

So, an excellent bit of jam after all. I didn't see the Glauc arrive but assume it flew in from the sea behind me (the mere lies just inland of the beach). After a nice, restful float it had a wash and then flew west for a short way before heading up over the shingle ridge towards the sea...

What a superb gull! Across the mere...
...and away.

Fantastic! Much more successful than I'd expected, particularly as I wasn't even sure that the Glauc was still about. And of course, you can never tire of Med Gulls. An adult and 1st-winter kindly dropped onto the mere for me...



So, that was it really. I carried on to the West Bexington car park, turned around for the return leg. It was a relief to now have the cold wind on my back instead of in my face, but the three-mile walk seemed no shorter. I hadn't gone far when the Glaucous Gull came past just offshore, heading east. I watched it until it was very, very small. It was still going. Apart from a couple of adult Meds on the beach the return journey was uneventful. Just very knackering...