Friday, 19 April 2019

The Slacker's Lot

A few weeks ago Kev Hale, one of the Seaton birders, started a patch WhatsApp group and kindly asked if I'd like to be included. Although I haven't contributed much, I have enjoyed keeping tabs on what's being seen on my old patch...

[Ha! Literally as I was typing that last sentence, the following appeared on the WhatsApp message board: 'A boat's just sunk off the Spot On. All people been rescued by lifeboats'. I expect you realised my sentiment mostly relates to bird news though...]

The daily mention of migrant sightings, etc, has prompted me to keep the optics dusted, and I've even made a couple of brief sorties into the field when I've been working in the area. But apart from a few Willow Warblers and the odd Swallow I haven't seen much. Nevertheless, I think the steady drip, drip of bird news - relevant bird news at that - has kind of kept me plugged in, so to speak, and was probably a contributing factor in getting me out seawatching just recently. Which reminds me...

The events of the previous post were not my only seawatching endeavours that day. In the evening Steve posted on the WhatsApp group that a pale phase Arctic Skua had gone E at 19:04. Remembering the Pom-sharing events of two years ago I thought I'd try and see it from Burton Bradstock. I was there by 19:20 but unfortunately the Arctic was a no-show. Even so, I sat there until it was too dark to see, and added c.75 Dunlin (in four groups), 9 Ringed Plovers, 25 Manxies, 3 Common Scoter and 8 Sandwich Terns to the morning's tally. Shortly before I packed up at 20:15 I had a distant flock of what looked like Whimbrel, about a dozen birds. I mentioned this to Steve, who replied that 11 Whimbrel had flown E past Seaton at 19:40. Nice. Incidentally, a quick check through my old Seaton records tells me that 75 Dunlin is the most I've ever seen on a Lyme Bay seawatch!

Anyway, I didn't start this post to talk about seawatching again, but rather to get the birding stuff up to date. Because, finally, this morning I got my finger out and went for an early morning stroll from Burton to Cogden and back...

Last year I saw my first Wheatear on March 20th. Here it is...


20/3/2018. Wheatear at Coronation Corner on the Axe Estuary. Lunch-break jam.

This year there's been no such fluky encounter. Minimal birding effort = no Wheatears at all so far. Serves me right, of course. But honestly, how can a so-called birder get most of the way through April without seeing a Wheatear?? However, I made up for that this morning. At least 15 Wheatears were my first of 2019. Also new for the year: 1 Whinchat, 1 Lesser Whitethroat, Whitethroat, Sand Martin, House Martin, Reed Warbler and a fly-by White Wagtail.

I'd forgotten how exciting it is to see freshly-arrived Wheatears on the beach, and to watch a tiny warbler zip across the shingle into the first bit of cover following its cross-channel epic.

Stuff it! This isn't right! Where's the lighthouse???

There is an urgency to many new arrivals, a need to hurry on inland, and frequently Wheatears on the beach don't stay there long. On my return I bumped into a few of these, plus a cracking little Whinchat...



I'm not saying I'm properly back birding again, but this morning's walk certainly didn't do any harm...

Monday, 15 April 2019

A Little Crisis of Confidence

Some birders have no time at all for seawatching.
I get that.
A slow seawatch is a terrible thing. Irretrievable minutes of precious life tick away as you sit there in futile anticipation. And before you know it, a whole hour that could have been joyously spent on YouTube puppy videos has been frittered on a dribble of Gannets and Fulmars...

But me, I like seawatching. A lot.

One of the attractions is the ever-present possibility of massive surprise. And it doesn't even need to be something rare. Of course, there are birds that you'll struggle to see at all without doing the occasional seawatch - skuas and shearwaters spring to mind - but quite often the seawatch highlight won't be a pukka seabird at all. Take this morning...

Like many a south coast birder I'd been watching the forecast, and today's looked quite promising. A strong wind from the SE or thereabouts; mostly cloudy. I struggled to get out of bed though, and wasn't at Burton Bradstock until 06:40. Things were not fast and furious, but a few Gannets were moving through, which always gives me hope. Shortly after 07:00 I picked up a small flock of ducks, or should I say a flock of small ducks? At least, they looked small. Admittedly, the only ducks I'd seen thus far were three Common Scoter, but this lot definitely looked smaller than Scoters. I'd picked them up rather late, and though they weren't far out I only had about 15 or 20 seconds to sort them out. My knee-jerk analysis was 'Garganey'. They were fast and tight, and I couldn't decide whether there were 8 or 9. I could see several pale upperwings, but they were zipping past so rapidly that I couldn't really swear I'd got the drakes' head pattern...and then they were gone.

Ooh, I thought, conscious of some biochemical stuff going on, that's a little adrenaline rush there. Cool.

Aware that there would be birders situated off to the east of me, I composed a tweet: 'Flock of 8 or 9 Garganey E past Burton Bradstock'...

My thumb hovered over the 'Tweet' button...and suddenly I had a small crisis of confidence.

Were they definitely Garganey?
Definitely?
After all, you've only been watching about 25 minutes, and seen just 3 Scoter, right? Your only ducks so far. Have you got your eye in properly yet? That's right: no, you haven't. And how many times have you seen Garganey on a seawatch exactly? Just three times, ever, yes? Precisely. So what are the chances that they truly were Garganey then, eh? You know, probability-wise??

Er, very, very low indeed?

Correct.

And so my draft Tweet was never sent.

I have this vivid memory of standing in a phonebox adjacent to Staines Res in June 1983. I have been watching a stonking little Red-necked Phalarope on the drained north basin. A female in full breeding plumage. A proper stunner, and totally unmistakable. And there I am, 10p in hand, hesitating to make the first call. Why? Because this ludicrous thought has wormed its insidious way into my head: why isn't it a Grey Phal in breeding plumage, rather than Red-necked? Are you 100% sure you're not dropping an almighty clanger?
Yep, I know. Ridiculous. And thankfully, reason quickly returned. But I've never forgotten that lesson in how easily the mind can sow seeds of doubt. So there I was this morning, almost sure I'd just seen a flock of Garganey, but...

Anyway, you can probably guess that I very much hoped someone further east would see them too. A bit later, this...

This photo genuinely made my day!

So there we go, a classic example of a seawatch being made especially memorable by non-seabirds.

My first Arctic Skua of the year - a rather distant dark-phase bird - was also a highlight, but somewhat shaded into second place this morning...

Tuesday, 29 January 2019

Croxley Script

Sometimes I wish I was more inclined to write uncomplicated, diary-esque posts, because so often when I sit down at a blank NQS page what I have in mind is too long for one entry, and probably of very little interest to anyone else. Like this one...

A couple of years back I met up with my old buddy Ric and we cycled around some haunts of our youth...

River Gade at Croxley, near Watford, in October 2016

As a boy I would catch the Met Line train from Preston Road station and get off at Croxley Green. A short walk down a gravelly lane led to the Grand Union Canal, and over a bridge was the River Gade. The little weir pool pictured above was a favourite spot, and in 1972 I caught a 12oz roach here, trotting a float along the far bank. Bait was silkweed, which we pulled off the face of the weir and wrapped around the hook. A few small roach were usually up for it, but that three-quarter pounder was my biggest by far. Also on offer in this stretch of the river were gudgeon, the odd perch, some modest chub, very rarely over 2lb, and the occasional surprise, like a crucian carp or bream. To us kids it was fishy heaven, and there was healthy competition for the best swims. Every weekend the river was lined with young lads. Quietly contemplating the scene in my mind's eye brings it back so clearly...

Anyway, just recently I came across a website called Britain from Above, which specialises in old aerial photographs, and out of curiosity I entered 'Croxley' into the search box. Would there be any photos dating from the years I fished there? Nothing that recent, but there was this...

This photo was taken in 1953   (link: www.britainfromabove.org.uk/image/EAW048397)   ©Historic England

The photo is dominated by the John Dickinson Paper Mill (ever heard of 'Croxley Script' paper?) which was demolished around 1982. In my day it was still a bustling place, and every morning a proportion of the workforce would arrive via the canal bridge, and then along the river to the point where it seemingly disappears in the middle of the photo; just here was a pedestrian gateway and security office. The river was off-limits beyond this point, the spiky fence along the edge of Croxley Common Moor marking the works boundary. The weir in question is visible half-way along the river.

When I came across this pic I was amazed at how little had apparently changed by the early '70s. So much is exactly as I remember it! Even the massive heap of coal between the river and the canal lock was still a feature.

My next job was to see if Google could show me what it looks like now, and of course to make a collage...

Slightly different perspectives but almost exactly the same view, separated by about 65 years.

Visiting the area with Ric was as you might expect. There's enough there to help you picture the scene as it was, but the nostalgic sadness at what's gone is visceral. I guess it's recognising that it isn't just the physical place that is irretrievable, but also the younger you.

Sigh...

Anyway, as I say, that old photo brought it all streaming back. In fact I was able to revisit one particular memory with incredible accuracy. An occasion of unparalleled angling triumph that played itself out one June day in 1973. But that's for another post...

Wednesday, 16 January 2019

Looking at the Gulls Properly

Originally I planned to begin the NQS year with a very non-birdy post, but writer's block and this morning's birdy stuff have put paid to that notion...

So, just before midday I bumped into Phil alongside the Axe Estuary. Apparently it is the worst start to the year that he can recall on the Seaton/Axe patch. No local scarcities at all, unless you count Greenshank; I don't. Which means my gull-related jam a little earlier was even more welcome. Let me talk you through it...

I'll be honest. This winter so far, I have probably passed my bins very half-heartedly over the Axe Estuary gulls on less than a handful of occasions. I haven't even had my scope with me for ages. This morning I took all the optics. This morning I took my aged little FinePix. This morning I was going to make a proper effort, and have a proper look. I was pleased to see a good bunch of big gulls half way up the river, roughly in line with the Seaton Marshes hide, and stopped opposite them. Now, in order to look at them properly, you don't just lean over and peer through a drizzle-speckled window. No, you get out of the van for a proper, unobscured view. If it's going to be a proper look, that's what you do. So that's what I did.

For some reason I scanned them in the opposite direction to what my instincts usually dictate, so I didn't spot the interesting one until I'd almost done the lot. Being well to my left, it wasn't properly side-on, plus it was preening hard, its head buried somewhere in its scaps. But a brief view of that head prior to burial had stopped me in my tracks and made me wait patiently for its reappearance. Why? If you've ever read any of my Caspy witterings before, you will know why. Because that head looked gleamingly white.

Mind you, at this stage, with all the upperpart feathers waving around at odd angles, I couldn't even be sure of the tone of its back. It might yet turn out to be a first-winter Great Black-backed Gull, though I didn't really think it was quite big enough. Anyway, finally it came up for air and there it was: a white head and a grey mantle. I reached for the scope.

Within seconds the scope confirmed my suspicions. It was a first-winter Caspian Gull, my 12th on the Axe. Conscious that I have (amazingly) managed at least a record shot of every single Axe Casp that I've seen, I hurried to get my camera. Sure enough, the bird was still there, so I immediately put the camera to the eyepiece and took two quick shots. The settings were rubbish, so I fiddled around to adjust them, checked again for the bird and realised it was gone. Thankfully I got straight on it, heading away down the river, but it was clearly intent on the open sea rather than the tram sheds.

So there we have it. More Casp jam.

Excellent!

A surprising amount of feather detail in this photo. It looks to have replaced a couple of inner greater coverts and (I think) several inner median coverts too, which probably makes it the most advanced 1st-winter, moult-wise, that I've seen. The mantle and scaps are nice and pale, and very finely marked, and there is very little in the way of dark streaking on what you can see of the underparts. A nicely saggy 'full-nappy' look too!

Sorry, much less sharp, this photo, but it shows that Casp 'look' to the head very well. Very clean, very white, just a hint of its darkly-speckled 'shawl'. Note the obvious pale areas on the bill too. Nice.

Tuesday, 25 December 2018

Rivers

Rob's car blew up last night. It's a right old banger anyway, and he's had more than his money's worth from it, but choosing to die on a single-carriageway section of the A35 at 10:30pm was a bit naughty. I trundled over in the van and towed him home. At least it was the right side of Dorchester and the traffic was light. So this morning I gave Rob a lift in to work. He's cooking the Christmas lunch menu at The Thimble Inn, Piddlehinton. On the way back through Dorchester I pulled over in order to take a look at the river. It's the River Frome, and regular readers may remember that it provided Rob with his first-ever grayling back in February, though further downstream at Wool...


Rob with our only fish of the day. The 'Beast from the East' was biting hard, which meant the grayling weren't.

The Frome is narrow where it flows through Dorchester, and while it was certainly tanking through at some pace, there was very little colour in it, which I guess is the norm for a chalk stream. I wandered in the drizzle along a riverside footpath until I came across an ancient sluice, took a photo, and then retraced my steps...


I would imagine that a photo taken in the same spot, when those sluice gates were all shiny and new, would likely have featured no houses at all in the background.

The river splits at this point, and as you can tell from the ironwork, there were once a set of sluice gates across the other branch of the stream too. As I stood there in the murk, carefully avoiding a seriously-pancaked dog turd, I surveyed the weathered steel, the remnants of old masonry, and wondered what had once been their purpose. A bit of googling tells me that they were used to divert water from the main river out onto the adjacent water meadows. Regular flooding of the meadows in winter apparently allowed more grass to be grown to feed the local dairy cattle. And if your imagination is vivid enough, you might be able to see a heavily-moustachioed chap in Edwardian flat cap, shirt-sleeves and waistcoat, clay pipe smouldering gently, using a heavy crank to winch open the sluices...

And that's one of the endearing things about rivers. Very frequently you encounter signs of by-gone times, interesting artefacts that give you a glimpse into the past. That's just one of many reasons why I love rivers. Whenever I am beside one, whether standing, sitting or strolling along, I cannot help but be struck by their timelessness.

Hopefully this is something I'll come back to in future posts...

Sunday, 23 December 2018

The Ruddy Duck Question


If you began birding only recently, here's a species you possibly don't yet have on your list...

Ruddy Ducks, otherwise known as 'dead birds floating'

I took the photo at Staines Res in December 2010, and haven't seen a Ruddy Duck since. In my active West London birding days of the 1980s and early '90s they were a pretty common sight, especially in winter when they gathered in double-figure flocks at several localities. According to what I've read (and I'll take it at face value) the whole UK population originated from seven individuals imported in 1948. They and/or their offspring began jumping the fence shortly afterwards, and when I saw my first (during a YOC trip to Tring Reservoirs in the early 1970s) they had been at large for maybe 25 years. By the year 2000 the population was around 6,000 birds...

If, at this stage, you are thinking "Oh, good for them! What a fine success story!" well, think again.

Perhaps you have in mind the ubiquitous Canada Goose, similarly 'at large', and highly successful. And while you personally (and sensibly) believe that the Canada Goose is evil incarnate, and clearly set to replace homo sapiens as the dominant species on the planet, you cannot help but marvel at its fecundity and its ability to persuade man to tolerate swarming herds of the things. Ruddy Ducks, on the other hand, are small and cute, and make you smile involuntarily at their ludicrously blue bills and ridiculous tails. If anything deserves a shot at success, the Ruddy Duck does. So, "Yes," you are thinking, "Go, Ruddy Ducks!"

But, O foolish naïf, you have reckoned without White-headed Duck, and the fact that Ruddy Duck has a very acquisitive eye on the position of its Eurasian congener. Arriving on the continent, it explained - like the Borg - that resistance is futile, and proceeded to begin assimilation by diluting the genetic purity of its cousin through hybridisation. Spain had just spent vast sums of money on improving the lot of its dwindling stock of White-headed Ducks by controlling shooting and protecting habitat, and there was no way the Ruddy Duck was going to be allowed to poop that particular party. Cutting a long story short, the upshot of all this was a decision to exterminate the entire UK Ruddy Duck population, beginning around the turn of the century. Since then, several million pounds of UK and EU money have gone into this eradication programme, and thousands have been shot.

Which means that nowadays it's a right stinker to get on your year list.

Opinions are divided on what to do about the last few remaining. An all-out effort to track down and shoot each and every one? Some see that as the righteous path, and would like any sightings of this now-scarce bird reported to the 'authorities'. Others, though, would rather protect them through suppression. Occasionally the debate surfaces online. Like this recent tweet...




I think it would be nice if the last few remaining Ruddy Ducks were left alone. My own reasons for that view are admittedly sentimental, but I can offer some argumentation for the scientifically inclined...

If you are convinced that evolution is the mechanism which drives the various changes in all forms of life on this planet, surely you've got to admire a bird that has evolved to look so cute that it can induce another species to pick it up and carry it halfway across the globe to facilitate the spreading of its genes. And if White-headed Duck is so genetically feeble that just a whiff of robust Yank DNA causes it to crumple so pathetically, well, it's doomed anyway isn't it? And who are we to get in the way of all that? So yes, of course Ruddy Duck fully deserves its crack at being the fittest for survival.

On a slightly more serious note, it is quite thought-provoking that we have the power to decide what species or habitats deserve our help, or not. We'll spend huge sums and loads of time and energy on some creature that is actually not threatened at all, while others (including many that we're probably quite oblivious to) are blithely allowed to disappear without trace. And still others are quietly taking over the planet without hindrance from mankind. It's all very arbitrary...


Resistance is futile...

Sunday, 16 December 2018

Working With What You Have

There's a Lidl store just down the road from here. I can walk there easily, and often do. In town there's a Waitrose, but very rarely do I shop there. Yes, when it comes to the contents of my wallet, the basic principle of 'working with what you have' guides me unerringly to Lidl every time.

Working with what you have...

It's an interesting principle. But not necessarily a popular one. For example, at this time of year just about every commercial enterprise that you might care to name is hell-bent on persuading you otherwise. Even Lidl is stacked to the rafters with the rich and sticky wares of seasonal excess. Go on, it's only once a year. Load up, splash out. You. Deserve. It...

In the face of all those tempting goodies, and as you watch cheery, dimple-cheeked families wheeling their mountainous trollies through the check-out, it would be so easy to get down-hearted. Envious perhaps. Decidedly unhappy with your sorry lot...

Which is why Mr Visa invented the credit card.

Actually, you can take that principle and apply it to all sorts of things. Like your best-loved hobbies, say...

Birding
It's autumn. Every bush on the east coast is dripping with drifted quality. Your inland patch, on the other hand, has been dead for weeks. Dead. Dead-dead-dead. And then one morning as you walk round the pit...what's that out on the water, spinning like a little top? Bins up. It's a phalarope! A gorgeous juvvy Red-necked Phalarope! You can hardly believe it, and your hands are shaking a bit as you reach for your phone. There'll be a twitch...

If you've ever experienced something similar, you will know exactly what I mean. Such moments are priceless. It doesn't even take a rarity. Working with what you have helps you see birds in the context of your patch, wherever that may be. And it stops you wasting emotional energy on pointless envy every time you (unwisely) study the BirdGuides map.

Fishing
I no longer live in West London's Colne Valley, where every gravel pit is home to bulging pods of gargantuan carp. In fact, Bridport is at least an hour's drive from almost all the sort of fishing which appeals to me. So I have to work with what I have, ie. distant venues. And I can forget huge carp. As it turns out though, I can have huge pike instead, which is fine. Very fine. And there are plenty of other appealing fishy targets too. It's just that the distance involved means I cannot go as often as I would like. So it's just as well that I have other hobbies. Like...

Cycling
To be honest, when it comes to cycling I am spoiled. The only way I could be unhappy with my lot is if my heart's desire was mile after mile of pan-flat, super-smooth tarmac on which to bash out very rapid miles. Yes, it would look great if I was clocking up a 20+mph average for every ride, but thankfully I am not interested in that. And I love the hills. Love 'em...

August. Inland of Abbotsbury, looking towards Portland. What's not to like?

Which leaves...

Running
With running I have recently been forced to accept an undeniable truth. Not counting nine months of womb, my body is more than half way through its 60th year. At this point in its career, many unwelcome physiological inevitabilities are at work. Like the fact that my muscles are much more eager to shrivel than grow. That recovering from a hard work-out takes two or three times as long as it did 30 years ago. That my maximum heart rate is endeavouring to be lower each year. And worst of all, that connective tissue takes so much longer to beef up than all the other stuff you need for injury-free running. The reality is that although I am technically capable of running farther and faster than I currently am, I simply dare not, because every time I open the throttle I get injured. Right now, for example, I am nursing a touch of plantar fasciitis. Basically this is a sore foot - pain on the underside of the heel/arch - a connective-tissue injury that requires careful management to facilitate recovery.

Cycling is different. It's perfectly possible to hammer yourself into the ground on the steepest of hills all afternoon, mentally begging for mercy at every summit, and then do it all again a couple of days later with nothing worse than sore muscles and a bit of cramp maybe. Brilliant. But try any of that masochistic stuff with running and you'll be out for weeks, as your tendons, ligaments, bursae, and other assorted gristly bits cripple you totally.

It's a shame really, because now that I've discovered I can still run, I want to see what this knackered old frame can do. Which means pushing it, testing it, stretching it. But it won't allow me to. Not yet. I need to be patient.

I'm trying hard not to get down about it. I need to remember to work with what I have...

Sigh...

I think a glass of wine might be in order. I can work with one of those...