Wednesday, 27 June 2018

O What a Beautiful Mo-o-o-orning...!

Well, what a glorious morning for a run! I really ought to get a post out while the mood is upon me, especially in the light of what I wrote a couple of days ago...

I was up at six, and at Burton Bradstock by about half-past. Apart from a solitary dog-walker the vista was human-free. Perfect. After a gentle trot round a clifftop field to warm up I headed off towards West Bay, via the Freshwater Beach Holiday Park and Bridport Golf Course. It was simply sublime, the morning air cool and crystal clear, the sea calm and as blue as you like. Apart from a lone golfer and a greenkeeper, fairway life was mostly avian: a few Pied Wags, Crows and other typical June stuff. Coming off the golf course, you drop down through a rough field into West Bay. The view was well worth pausing for...

West Bay is far from my favourite seaside resort, but just look at that coastline...

Then it was round to the sea, and up that vicious cliff path which featured distantly in a photo in the previous post. Arriving at the top I stopped to catch my breath, using the excuse that it was only polite to at least have a cursory look for the plant which Steve Gale mentioned in a recent comment: stinking goosefoot. I had actually checked out some photos online, so knew it was green. Well, there was a lot of green stuff on view. Loads. All of it supremely cryptic. I gave up and headed on, soon coming to the 'stairs'...

The steps on the far side of the dip are actually much steeper than these ones. Even so, a controlled descent is required here; those are proper cliffs, with a proper vertical drop.

After climbing that far slope you drop down the other side to the Freshwater Beach Holiday Park again. Arriving there I was reminded once more of something that they never tell you about running. Not before you first start anyway. No, they let beginners find out all about it when they are out for a run one day in the middle of an extremely public, built-up area, far, far from the nearest loo. Yes, that's right. One of the joys of running is the occasional digestive malfunction...

The prudent runner knows the precise location and opening times of each and every public loo on his/her patch. Well, let me tell you, The Freshwater Beach Holiday Park has a sumptuous shower and toilet block. Well-maintained and delightfully clean. For which I am very grateful.

There is a stiff climb up the cliffs again from Freshwater Beach, and then a smashing path along the top, back to the car. I finished off with another brief jog around the field where I started, a bit of a stretch, and then home.

As a birder - even a pretty shabby one - you can't help noticing birds, wherever you are. In Bridport town centre recently I glanced up and spotted a Peregrine circling, only the second I've seen away from the coast here. Likewise, this morning I couldn't help noticing birds everywhere. As it's still June I didn't bother looking too closely - except at Starlings - but I'm very conscious that autumn will soon be here, and anywhere along the Lyme Bay coast can potentially produce just about anything. I have very fond memories of Beer Head, near Seaton, and the many good birds I saw there, and running along this local stretch of coast reminded me of it very much. In fact, I remembered that we used to see runners at Beer Head quite regularly, and back then I did used to wonder how many decent birds they must have run past during the course of a year...

Which brought another memory flooding back. A runner at Beer Head. A female runner. Late August 2006. Yes, she ran right past a good bird that day. A really good bird. And flushed it...

Beer Head Ortolan
Disclaimer: may not be actual bird on actual date

Should I apologise for finding yet another reason to trot out this lovely little bit of grip?

Nah!

And anyway, it might just happen again. Right here on this beautiful stretch of coastline, while I'm out for a run. So, stay tuned for some sweaty-browed, bins-less stringing...

Monday, 25 June 2018

The Joy of Offroad

There is a satisfying, unpretentious pleasure to be had from running offroad. Tracks, footpaths, bridleways...all provide an unambiguous connection with the proper outdoors that roads and pavements cannot. The River Chess valley near Rickmansworth provided just such jollies for a much younger me - you could go miles and miles with barely a hint of tarmac - so it will come as no surprise to learn that I've been seeking similar routes locally. But I am beginning to draw a depressing conclusion: away from the coast the footpaths are mostly dreadful. Frequently overgrown, unsigned, so rock-strewn and rutted that you daren't raise your eyes from the ground and can't really run at all, or in some other way deeply unsatisfactory.

Here's a typical example...

This photo was taken on May 29th, following three weeks of bone-dry weather. Prior to that it was a lake.

However, when you get near the sea it's a very different matter. I've barely scratched the surface yet, but already feel quite spoiled by what is on offer locally. And there is so much scope for exploration along the coast here...

Clifftop view from Burton Bradstock, early morning. Just me and the odd dog-walker. Bliss.

Roughly 7:00am last Saturday morning, the East Cliffs at West Bay. Twice, so far, I have run up that slope. Well, not 'run' exactly... Anyway, it is as steep as it looks, and demands three lungs at least. On the top is a golf course, and a great view.

Regular readers will hopefully forgive the weeks of utter silence, and the blithe segue into running mode. Standard NQS protocol of course...

Sunday, 27 May 2018

Several Things

Several things then, starting with birds.

May 15th, and it's the second day of the now-annual Red Kite convention in the west country. En route to darkest Cornwall the delegates meander wherever the weather dictates, and at least seven of them pass over chez NQS. This is unprecedented, and if I'd been looking skywards more often (or even spent the whole day at home) I'm sure the count would have been twice that, or more. I managed a couple of dire photos, so here's one...


Now that I've managed to photograph (however poorly) a Red Kite or two from the garden, I doubt I'll bother again. I'm satisfied with a record shot. I do understand the desire for the Ultimate Capture but, not having the gear for such an image, there is no point me trying. However, I do struggle to understand what drives photographers to visit Colin the Cuckoo at Thursley Common. Please correct me if I'm wrong, but published pics of the situation there appear to depict a set-up which is basically staged, with 'nice' mossy perches carefully positioned so that Colin is 'pleasingly' lit and has a complimentary background. Ooh, I've just had a thought. Is he tempted in with bait too? Please tell me he's not. Anyway, whatever, the whole scenario stinks. Photos of the gallery of snappers in attendance I find quite depressing. Maybe there's something wrong with me and I am missing the point, but to me wildlife should basically be just that. Wild. Difficult. Challenging. Dare I say that photos taken in such circumstances are slightly fraudulent? That's my opinion of course, and I suppose I ought to acknowledge that other viewpoints are equally valid. Well, maybe not equally...

Please feel free to argue the toss; this blog is not an echo chamber.

So. Back in December or thereabouts, I entered a proper race, the Egdon Easy 10k. This somewhat reckless move was precipitated by my happy discovery last summer that I could still run. The race was not until May 26th, so there would be plenty of time to sharpen up speed and endurance before the fateful day. That was the plan, at least. Then I got a niggling groin injury and my progressive running routine went out the window. In the last couple of weeks I'd begun to get out regularly once again, but approached last night's race under no illusions. The course was billed as flat and fast - a couple of laps of RSPB Lodmoor in fact - and I set myself a target of under 53 minutes, which would equate to 8:30 min/mile or less. My secret desire was to go sub-8:00 min/mile (ie. under 50 minutes) but I thought that highly unlikely, and subdued such inappropriate lusting.

This was the scene about 20 minutes before the start. Runners gathering in little clubby clusters. I was feeling pre-race nerves at this point, a weird sensation that I hadn't experienced for a very long time indeed.
Trying to listen to the completely inaudible 'safety briefing'. I hoped I hadn't missed any good advice, like "mind the bollards right in the middle of the path" and suchlike. Notice I am well away from the front. Wisely...

And then we were off! Deliberately I tried not to get carried away in the excitement and set off too fast. It worked, and after a few minutes I could tell that the breathing was still easy, and settled into a steady rhythm. My Garmin kept telling me that I was trotting along at roughly 8-minute mile pace, and after three or four kilometres I realised that sub-8s might be on the cards after all. Very gradually it got harder and harder to maintain the pace, a feeling I remembered from those many races of years ago. A nice feeling though. Satisfying in fact, knowing that pace-wise I had got it spot-on, and in the final few hundred metres was even able to wind it up a bit for a final sprint to the line. Okay, 'sprint' might be a bit strong, but definitely 'very quick shuffle'...

Totally oblivious of Mrs NQS capturing this historic moment, I hammer past in a speedy blur...

Strava has all the numbers. Look at that epic pacing!

So, 10k in 49:41 or 7:57 min/mile. I can honestly say I was delighted with that. Much better than expected. I felt fine afterwards too, and today there are no aches or pains. Onwards and upwards then...

I came 77th out of 302 finishers, and 10th out of 37 in my age class (m50). Next year I will be a brand new m60, but to win that category I will need to beat some bloke who did 43:20 yesterday! Bit of a tall order I think. Actually it's very sobering to consider how age affects athletic performance. At the peak of my powers, aged 33, I would potentially have finished in, or very close to, the top 10 of this race. So I'm very pleased that my friend Ric told me about something called 'age-graded performance' where your times are seen in the context of your age group. Old people are slower, and that's that. "Live with it" said Mrs NQS, sympathetically...

Friday, 11 May 2018

Skua Fix

When it comes to skuas I am quite easily pleased. It could never be said that Lyme Bay is crawling with them, so the odd one or two here and there generally does the trick for me. Despite an almost 100% birding hiatus so far in 2018 I have been keeping an eye on the weather with a view to getting a seawatch in at some stage this spring. I had an abortive go back in April, but the rain and lack of visibility saw me scuttling home after about twenty minutes. This morning, however, looked very promising I thought...

We've had very little wind with much east in it so far, but the forecast predicted a swing from SW to SSE overnight, and a breezy SSE (more or less) for most of the day. My fairly limited seawatching experience at Burton Bradstock tells me that anything with west in it is a bit of a trial at best, while a raging SW (a potentially excellent wind at Seaton) is basically a straight-onshore nightmare. Anything from S through to E, however... yes, please. The orientation of the coast here seems to encourage almost everything to fly from right to left in such conditions as well, which is extremely helpful.

So, alarm set for 05:15; in position at 05:40...

Almost immediately it felt promising. Auks and Manxies were already passing in little groups, and a few Gannets very close in. The trickle built to a gentle flow, and I can honestly say that the next four and a half hours flew by. No boredom whatsoever. And there were skuas. The first was an immaculate dark-phase Arctic at 06:15, just 2-300 yards out and superbly lit by the low morning sun. Its chocolate-brown loveliness even made me exclaim out loud: "Oh yes, you beauty!" Bit sad, but there you go. Hopefully I will always feel that way upon reacquaintance with nice close skuas after a little break.

Next up was an equally close Bonxie at 08:00, plus another, more distant, some 15 minutes later. Lyme Bay clearly was not packed with skuas, and a couple of tweets from observers further west suggested likewise, with just a few Arctics and Bonxies reported. This helped me feel that at least I was getting my share, but didn't quite prepare me for 08:43...

Panning right I glimpsed a dark shape low among the waves. In the nanosecond before it dipped out of sight I knew it was a Pom, and sure enough, as it heaved upwards, there was a stonking light-phase Pomarine Skua in all its spooned-up glory. Superb! It was a little further out than any of the previous three skuas, and appeared to forge a path straight into the wind and gradually away from the shore. Too soon it was gone.

I packed it in at 10:10. There were no more skuas, but it's not often that I've had three species in one seawatch along the coast here. And there was plenty of variety in the chorus line. Although I didn't bother with much counting, here is a list of the rest of this morning's action...

Great Northern Diver, 4
Manx, 500+ (I actually counted to 200 before remembering how lazy I am, and stopped immediately).
Gannet, lots (200+?), many really close
auk sp, hundreds, many more than Manx.
Kittiwake, 10+
Sandwich Tern, 25+
'commic' Tern, 5
Common Tern, 2
Roseate Tern, 1
Common Scoter, 21
Sanderling, 4
Whimbrel, 5
Bar-tailed Godwit, 11
Grey Plover, 3
Gadwall, 1 female, a seawatch surprise!

Did you notice the Roseate Tern hidden away in that lot? Bit of a Lyme Bay biggie there, and only about my fifth or sixth local bird I think. I picked up a little group of Sandwich Terns coming slowly towards me from the west and quickly noticed that one of them was a bit small and had a ridiculously long tail. It was clearly as white as a Sarnie though... Er... My poor little cogs were struggling a bit, but finally the penny dropped and I eagerly awaited the close fly-past that was imminent. It didn't happen. Instead they all gradually drifted back W again and that was the last I saw of it.

There was also brief excitement when I tried hard to turn a distant single auk into a Puffin, another local rarity. It all looked okay except that I couldn't get any colour at all on the bill, and I thought I should have done at the range involved. So, safer to let it go.

Anyway, I enjoyed it so much that I might even return later. I've done this kind of thing before though, and I know exactly what 'anticlimax' means...

In other hobbies, well, I hooked and lost a single tench on Tuesday, while Rob caught one. I was rather disappointed. The area we've put a bit of effort into doesn't appear to be rewarding us to the expected degree, though Rob is happy enough with a fish or two each time. Me though, I'm greedy, and want more. Still, I certainly can't complain at the lovely surroundings...

The Exeter Canal, late evening on Bank Holiday Monday. Lovely.

Our set-ups are a bit different, and while I am mostly using a combination of fake and real maggots for bait, Rob is only using fake stuff, bits of foam and plastic designed to mimic sweetcorn and red maggots. The upside of his approach is that Rob is not pestered by small fish, which home in on my real maggots like moths to a flame. On the other hand, at least I get a few bites to keep things lively, while Rob gets very, very few! A couple of my maggot-raiders were bootlace eels, which are never welcome, but the rest have been gorgeous little rudd, and I've yet to tire of them...

5lb 12oz of immaculate canal tench

Tuesday, 1 May 2018

Tench Through the Ages

I wonder how many anglers read this blog? Few, I suspect. Very few. So fishing posts like this one are a bit self-indulgent really, a kind of online diary that I can browse at some future date, smiling at the ups and downs of this or that venture...

Tench then. Well, the campaign continues. I was too busy with work to get involved last week, but Rob managed to get off the starting blocks with two modest fish of around 4lb apiece. This was well away from where most anglers head for tench, which makes it feel like we're ploughing our own furrow; always a satisfying thing. This week I joined him though, in the same area, and yesterday evening managed a couple myself.

A pristine male fish of 4lb exactly. Just behind my right shoulder you can see the Exe Estuary. Right of shot is the canal. It is hard to imagine a more delightful spot to go fishing. Despite the beautiful evening sunshine it was very cold!
Another male, slightly bigger at 4lb 10oz. It is said that the potential size of the biggest female tench in a water is double that of the biggest male. If that is true, our hope that we might better our tench personal bests of 8lb-odd is a realistic one.

Rob managed a couple of bream yesterday, but no tench. However, this afternoon he WhatsApp'd me a few phone camera self-takes. Here's one...

The bigger of two fish Rob caught this afternoon. At 6lb 2oz this is his best of the campaign thus far.

We're up to nine tench between us now, with two six-pounders. And they've all been super-looking fish. Still early days really though, and we both feel like we've only scratched the surface in terms of getting to know the venue and how to extract its inhabitants.

Yesterday afternoon it was really windy, and many small rafts of floating (and semi-floating) weed were drifting down the canal, constantly wiping out our carefully-positioned rods. In the end we resorted to back-leads [I must include an angling glossary one day...] but before we did that I decided to take a long walk to note interesting spots for future carpy intentions. I can honestly say I covered every inch of the canal from the Double Locks to Turf and back. At least a six-mile walk, it took me four very pleasant hours. En route I photographed an Orange Tip and Comma with my phone, and must have walked (unknowingly) within fairly close proximity of a Black-winged Stilt that was frequenting Exminster Marshes for the day. Ironically I was wearing bins, but the best birds I managed were my first Swifts of the year. The only other fisherman was on the far bank at the Lime Kilns, but was gone by the time I got round there myself. Hammered, the place is not! I didn't see any birders either, but I expect they were all over on the marshes!

Comma, and (above) Orange Tip. Not bad for a phone camera. I can remember one of my work colleagues getting a mobile with a camera in it about 15 years ago. How we laughed at the stupid, primitive thing. That'll never catch on, we thought...

Finally then, the reason for the title of this post. Shuffling through my old photos the other day I realised that tench are a constant feature in angling-related pics. So here is a collage of more than 45 years-worth...


Clockwise, from top left:
  • Probably 1971 or '72. Barn Hill Pond, Wembley. I'm not sure, but this might be my first tench ever.
  • 1974-ish. Hemingford Grey pits, which used to be under LAA control (London Anglers Assoc)
  • 1978. Langham Pond, Runneymede. Now a SSSI with no fishing. Back then, the perfect place for a so-called student to idle away some pleasant hours.
  • 1979 or '80. Springwell Lake, Rickmansworth. Another ex-LAA water.
  • 1988-ish. Bury Lake, Rickmansworth. Returning a nice 6lb+ fish early in the morning. There was no fishing allowed on Bury Lake. I was poaching.
  • Early '90s. A small and incongruous tench from a tiny tributary of the River Kennet known as Fisherman's Brook. This overgrown trickle that you can easily jump across is still on the LAA ticket and very much not the place you might expect to catch a tench!
  • Late '90s. A hefty lump from North Troy gravel pit in the Colne Valley. In the late '70s/early '80s North Troy was controlled by Long Life Angling Club and was one of the best tench waters in the land, arguably second only to Wilstone Res. It was still very good when I fished there in the 1990s, and produced 8lb+ fish for both Rob and me.
  • 6lb 10oz, the Exeter Ship Canal, 2018. Bringing it up to date.
  • In the middle: what happens when both rods go off at the same time. North Troy, late '90s.

And before I go, one for Dyl...

Former British tench record-holder Tony Chester bent into a nice fish. Lester Strudwick waits with the net. This is the car park bank at Wilstone Res, early '80s. Tench Mecca. This is one of the 'hot' areas, hence the proliferation of Brolli-camps, rustic predecessor of the myriad bivvies available today. I hope everyone got on okay, because they are all pretty close to one another!

Friday, 27 April 2018

Old Photos

The weather forecasters got it dead right today. Wet. Knowing about the impending rain inspired me to get a bit ahead with work so that I could relax today. What did I do with the time? Frittered it shamelessly. More specifically, I got out some boxes of old photos and had a good wallow. This is one of the best ways to fritter that I know.

Anyway, I thought I'd share a few snaps that I found. Birds first...

Least Sandpiper, Porthscatho, March 1986
This obliging little beauty was poking around a damp gully on a Cornish clifftop. My old mate Ric reminded me of it a couple of posts back, so I was pleased to find this photo. Note the mirror lens 'donuts' in the out-of-focus background. Still the primitive Russian Zenit B and Helios combo, but I was experimenting with slide film and had a few prints made from the best shots. The Least Sand was a supplementary twitch following the mega Gyr Falcon at Berry Head that same morning.


Female Little Crake, Cuckmere Haven, 1985
A ridiculously tame bird, this. I recall it was a midweek twitch and that I went alone because my usual twitch companions were all at work. I also remember driving back through central London straight afterwards as I had to be at work myself that afternoon. And I made a couple of gloaty phonecalls too. Yes, I did that. Bad. Several years ago I posted a very poor colour photo of this bird on BirdForum and quipped about how this Water Rail just would not pose properly. Bit naughty really. It nearly got out of hand...


And back to 1984 now...


The friendly Pectoral Sandpiper, Staines Res, September 1984
Rear view of the cracking Pec that featured a couple of posts back.


Lesser Yellowlegs, Beddington, September 1984
I haven't been to Beddington for 25 years, but I don't miss it one bit. For one thing, Beddington was a nightmare to get to from where I lived in the NW segment of the London area. Yet I have seen some very good birds there. This Lesser Yellowlegs for example, a London tick at the time. Also Tawny Pipit and flight views of Quail. But it's the birds I didn't see that leave the most indelible memories. And not good ones...

It's February 1984 and I'm on night shifts. Just before leaving for work I get a call from John Herbert: Garry Messenbird had found a Killdeer at Beddington that afternoon. A Killdeer!! If I remember right, it had flown around a bit and he'd eventually lost it, but of course there would be plenty of hopefuls there at first light to look for it. I was now in a dilemma. After a night's work I didn't relish the ghastly drive to Beddington on the off-chance. But suppose it was still there and I didn't go? In the end I asked John to call me if it was relocated. Stupid. Stupid. Stupid. I got home, went to bed, and was woken a short while later by the inevitable phonecall. Half-comatose I crawled through the hideous traffic to Beddington. I was about 30 minutes too late. A flock of White-fronts later that morning were scant compensation.

Fast-forward almost a decade and Beddington is now a very different place. In the early '80s you could stroll down Mile Road, over the railway bridge and walk straight in. By the early '90s it was Fort Knox. Key-holders only. Which was no big deal until a Rustic Bunting turned up and decided to stay for the winter. This was a London tick for everybody, but now available to only a privileged few. I wasn't too bothered really, being on a bit of a birding hiatus at the time. However, one of the key-holders assured me that if I turned up on such-and-such a day, at such-and-such a time, someone would be there to escort me in and help me look for the bird. I duly turned up and was met as agreed. However, I was then informed that due to my 'known' friendship with certain West London birders (with whom some of the Beddington crew were evidently at odds) I was deemed persona non grata, and could therefore go whistle. The key-holder then stepped through the gate, locked it behind him and walked off. I couldn't believe it. Some stupid, petty, immature little feud that I knew nothing about had led to a grown man behaving like this towards a bloke he'd never met. Pathetic. Ironically, arrangements were made shortly afterwards to provide open access to non key-holders for a weekend in order to twitch the Rustic Bunting. I think there was even a Little Bunting present as well! But I didn't go. In fact, I doubt I'll ever go there again.

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...