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Monday 8 April 2024

Woodchat

March came and went in a soggy flash, and April is threatening to do the same. Birding time has been difficult to wangle. At the very end of the month I have a couple of nights booked at Portland Bird Observatory, and cannot wait. Meanwhile I shall scrape what I can get. And on Saturday afternoon there was finally a little window, through which I jumped quite eagerly.

Earlier that morning, Mike Morse posted news of a Woodchat Shrike at West Bex. By late afternoon it had moved west to Cogden. I really didn't think I was going to find time to visit, but somehow did. And boy, was I glad...

Gorgeous! Woodchat Shrike.

At one point it came close enough to get a few proper frame-fillers - like the one above - but mostly it was further away. The resultant photos reflect that, with a lot more habitat in shot. Much as I like to see rictal bristles in my birdy pics, my favourite photos are always those which show the bird in its environment; they seem so much better at conveying that feeling of what it was like to be there...


It was finding plenty to eat. Here with a hefty bee.

Same bee, demolition underway.


What a bee sees, moments before death.

Probably my favourite shot...or maybe that first back-on photo above. Hard to choose.

So yes, this post has just been an excuse to give my choicest Woodchat photos an airing. A lovely bird, and worth every minute I spent with it. Most of which, by the way, were on my own. En route to the bird's location I passed two birders heading back from watching it, and on arrival there were four more. But they too were soon gone, so most of my half-hour there was blissful solitude. I've no idea how many came and went earlier in the day, but I'll bet it wasn't many. If this bird had been in North Norfolk...

West Dorset is such a quiet place to go birding. And so rewarding.

Wednesday 27 March 2024

The Problem with Self-Found Listing

I have a love/hate relationship with 'self-found' listing. There is an appealing purity to the idea of keeping a list of birds which are all your own work, so to speak, but for me that idea is notional at best. There are a thousand reasons why I struggle with the whole concept of self-found, and here are a few of them...

First, the term itself. I mean, self-found has more than a whiff of tautology about it, surely? Why not simply keep a list of your finds and call it a Finds List? Why add the 'self' bit? After all, who else's birds would you include in your finds list? The term 'self-found' conveys a teeny bit too much 'Look! I found that bird! Aren't I clever!' for my liking, and doesn't sit comfortably.

Right, that's my Pedants Corner soap-box issue dealt with. So let's get on with the practical problems of keeping a self-found list.

Over the years I have noticed that the main concern of birders interested in keeping a self-found list is this: what exactly can you count?

This is such a burning issue that a whole set of rules was once compiled to address it. It must be almost 20 years ago that the fabled Punkbirders published their self-found rules, to wide acceptance at the time I think. If - like I did just prior to writing this - you google 'punkbirder self-found rules', you will be disappointed. There is no active link, and I suspect the old website may be defunct. However, there is a ton of other stuff on self-found. Hampshire Ornithological Society has its own self-found rules, three-and-a-half pages of them. Various scenarios are dealt with, illustrating what you can and cannot count as self-found. The writer points out that it is just a bit of fun and acknowledges that some birders will choose to be stricter with themselves, or more lenient. And this is one reason I struggle, because when it comes to rare and scarce birds I simply know if I found it or not, and a load of rules (to bend or not bend) are superfluous.

For example, if I am birding in company and someone else claps eyes on the Calandra Lark three seconds before me, then I didn't find it, did I? Or, suppose I walk up to someone peering at what they think is a male Pied Flycatcher, and I happen to realise that it is actually a Collared Flycatcher, well, I didn't find that either. Of course, chance would be a fine thing, but honestly, how could I in good conscience add either bird to my self-found list? Yet the rules allow both.

And then we have the grey area of scarce breeders and winter visitors, where the rules state that your bird must be well away from known sites in order to count as self-found. How well away? I have no idea. Rock Dove must be tricky to self-find. And I do struggle with the notion of self-finding common birds. 'Yep, I managed to add Coal Tit to my self-found year list today', said nobody, ever, puffing out their chest a little. I suppose these birds just have to go on the list in order to inflate it as much as possible, so that when you compare your list to someone else's...

And it is here that I completely lose interest. The whole idea of competitive self-found listing seems pointless to me, no matter how much 'just for fun' it is claimed to be. With all sorts of rules being applied - or not applied - at the whim of each individual, how can any comparison be valid?

Still, I am well aware that some birders consider their self-found list to be a sacred document, and totally get that.

Stone-curlew at Cogden, definitely on the finds list that I don't keep.

Obviously, the main reason for my stance on self-found listing is so that no-one ever asks me what my self-found list is.

Tuesday 26 March 2024

Avalon Awayday

Yesterday we enjoyed a guided tour of Somerset's Avalon Marshes, courtesy of friends who live in the area. It is hard to believe that this collection of reserves is mostly less than 30 years old. What was once an industrial wasteland of peat extraction is now home to a ridiculous number of quality marshland birds. A quick photographic summary of the day's highlights...

Great White Egrets are a common sight on the Avalon Marshes. This one has the black bill of a breeding-plumaged adult.

Hen Harriers are definitely not a common sight, especially pristine males like this one. Its close pass was totally unexpected, and I was way too slow with the camera. The first 'grey ghost' I have seen for many years.

Two Snipe, probably resting up until nightfall.

Drake Pintail. Always a winner.

Spotted Redshank at Catcott Lows. Sheltering from the wind, it was almost always partially hidden by tufts of sedge etc.

Spotshank is quite a scarce bird locally. Occasional on the Axe Estuary and marshes, but I have yet to see one in West Dorset.

Great White Egret, sporting the more familiar yellow bill.

Marsh Hariers were everywhere; frequently there would be more than one on view at a time.

Another Marsh Harrier...

...and Marsh Harrier again, a 2nd-summer male I think.

This pair of Ring-necked Ducks was accompanied by two other females. Haven't seen many of these locally either. Well, none actually.

We had a great day out. The accompanying soundtrack of booming Bittern was a regular reminder that we were somewhere special. At one point, a tight flock of 50+ Cattle Egrets whisked distantly past like a tattered sheet in the wind. Totally surreal!

Back to reality today, and a local lunchtime walk. A couple of West Dorset buntings...

Lovely male Yellowhammer.

Female Cirl Bunting, showing rump nicely.

In order to separate female Cirl Bunting from female Yellowhammer, field guides helpfully point out that you should be looking for an olive-grey rump. In the photo above, the bird certainly has an olive-grey rump, but it clearly has warm, chestnut upper tail coverts too. I've only checked two field guides (the ubiquitous and excellent Collins Guide, plus the oldie-but-goodie MacMillan Field Guide to Bird Identification) but the Cirl Bunting illustrations in both depict a totally olive-grey area from tail to lower back, including the upper tail coverts. When a birder relatively unfamiliar with the species (like I was a couple of years ago) comes across a putative female Cirl, I guess it might be a bit discouraging to see a bunch of chestnut feathers where the Collins Guide is telling you there shouldn't be any. All I can say is: don't be put off.

Finally, there were three Wheatears. So of course there's a photo...

Thursday 21 March 2024

Kick-Off

Locally, nothing quite says spring like a Wheatear on the beach, preferably in the first half of March and not too long after sunrise. And nothing quite says idle slacker like waiting until March 20th to make your first effort, and turning up at 2pm. Yep, it's taken a while to get my birding act in gear, but finally I made it to Cogden yesterday afternoon to hunt Wheatears. And amazingly I found three. No, of course they weren't still on the beach...




It was a calm, grey afternoon, and the rather listless mood was deepened by some woefully half-hearted Chiffchaff song. Deceitful flotsam littered the shimmery sea, most of it lifting momentarily into view at the corner of your eye and looking exactly like a scarce grebe. I walked miles and miles without seeing a single proper bird offshore. Drossy gulls don't count.

The Wheatears were good though. As they always are.

Tuesday 19 March 2024

Bluesky Social

It is now seven months since I ditched X (formerly known as Twitter), which is more than enough time to ponder the pros and cons of such a move. Almost the only aspects I miss relate to bird and moth news/information, and admittedly I do feel rather out of the loop in that regard. Still, I was coping okay. And then the other day I noticed that a couple of tweet-like links on the Portland Bird Observatory blog were not actually tweets - in fact they were nothing to do with Twitter/X at all - and soon found myself investigating something called Bluesky Social.

Bluesky Social looks rather like the Twitter I remember, and appears to work in similar fashion. Several of the birdy contacts I once followed on Twitter now feature on Bluesky, which was enough to get me dipping a toe at least...

So this is me on Bluesky Social

Setting up my Bluesky profile was fun, especially choosing photos for the banner and avatar. Soon I was reminiscing about my almost nine years in West Dorset, and reliving some of the natural history highlights. It has been something of a blast really, with many top-class birds - and not a few moths - but one of the events with which I am most pleased is undoubtedly the accidental discovery of West Bexington's little colony of Tree Crickets. Hence my Bluesky avatar.

First impressions of Bluesky suggest that it is advert-free. It can't last, but yippee while it does. Also, the few birders I have thus far connected with seem largely to post snippets of news and information, links to new blog posts, etc. Great. I will do likewise.

I have no idea whether the birders I have found on Bluesky have likewise ditched Twitter/X, or are simply doubling up while they test the new waters. Back in 2022 I tried a social media platform called Mastodon, as did several other Twitter users. I found it awkward and clunky, and closed my account ages ago. Perhaps Bluesky will go the same way. We'll see. But in the meantime, find me here: https://bsky.app/profile/notquitescilly.bsky.social

Sunday 25 February 2024

An Evening Out

I can rarely be bothered to attend birding-related 'events', so Friday evening was rather out of character. However, the title - In Conversation with Magnus Robb and Killian Mullarney - was hard to resist. And as the venue was just down the road, at Wareham in Dorset, well...

L to R: Lucy McRobert, Magnus Robb, Mark Constantine, Killian Mullarney; in the foreground, rear views of Paul Morton and René Pop.

It was basically a showcase of some of the work carried out by the Sound Approach team, and 'in conversation' aptly describes the evening's vibe. Just in case you don't know, a brief sketch of the main protagonists...

Magnus Robb is a bird sound-recording nutter who conveys his passion with infectious enthusiasm. In 2007 he responded to an email from me about a suspected Iberian Chiffchaff discovered by Steve on Beer Head. I had attached a handful of sound clips extracted from a video that Karen Woolley made, and Magnus helpfully confirmed the ID for us, at the same time introducing me to the term 'plastic song'. He lives in Portugal, and for some reason I had always assumed he was Dutch or Scandinavian or something, so the Scottish accent was a bit of a surprise. Among other roles, he looks after the ever-growing Sound Approach library of recordings.

Killian Mullarney is one of my bird-illustrator heroes. I first encountered his work 40 years ago in a seminal BB paper about the identification of stints and 'peeps' by himself and Peter Grant. The plate of Black-tailed Godwits in the photo above (from the upcoming Sound Approach book on waders) is an example of his astonishing skill, though anyone who owns a copy of the Collins Bird Guide will already be familiar with it.

Mark Constantine is a keen Dorset birder, based in Poole. He is also a founder of Lush Cosmetics and, along with Arnoud van den Berg and René Pop (co-founders in 1979 of the Dutch Birding Association, and both present in the audience), founder of The Sound Approach. His fascination with bird sounds (along with the ability to facilitate expeditions and research) has resulted in a lot of new knowledge in this area.

I took a few photos through the evening, but they're a bit samey. Still, one or two are worth a look, if only for the screen in the background...

Magnus telling us about a close encounter with Little Curlews, or Little Whimbrels if you're stuck in the past like me.

Killian inadvertantly imitating a Little Curlew in flight, as depicted on the screen. His tale involved mucking up a golden opportunity to capture the bird's song by forgetting to switch on the recorder. I could empathise.

Those two Little Curlew stories took place in Australia and Outer Mongolia respectively, and one aspect which came through strongly during the evening was the profligate consumption of aviation fuel involved in the Sound Approach endeavours. And once again I found myself at odds with how some of the 'birding community' goes about things. Sigh...

So yes, a fascinating evening - very much so - but...

Anyway, a nice bonus was meeting David Darrell-Lambert, who plonked down next to me. Though a lot younger than me I was aware of his name from my London birding days, and more recently from Twitter. And through him I met Nick Hopper, a Wareham-based nocmig enthusiast. Again, a name I was familiar with, Nick has been at it since 2011. He has three Ortolans to his credit, one of which occurred while he was listening live. Not envious at all, I gripped him off with my Night Heron and two Stone-curlews. I thoroughly enjoyed chatting with Nick after the event. Like me, he gets pretty excited about the amazing discoveries you make through nocmig recording, and cannot understand why so many birders just don't seem to get it. I've heard the criticism a number of times: 'You don't actually hear the birds as they call; it's all done from analysing a recording the next morning, or the next week, which means you can't count them, can you? So what's the point?' Nick and I were very much in agreement on exactly what the point is. Ah well, their loss.

Mind you, it was evident that Mark Constantine isn't particularly enthusiastic about the idea of analysing nocmig recordings. Listening live, yes, that's okay, and he was clearly delighted to share the story (and play the recording) of his May 2020 Night Heron, the first record for Poole Harbour in 30 years. Mine was coincidentally a month later. Like Mark, initially I didn't know what it was (he identified his bird as Grey Heron, and Magnus put him right) but I'll bet my surprise and pleasure at discovering my bird's true identity was no less intense than his had been. Anyway, Mark's opinions in this area mean that the nocmig section of the Sound Approach website - brilliant though it is - is not so much of a priority for him and hasn't been updated for a while. And, as in any company, I guess what the boss says, goes. Which maybe gives an insight into how the level of effort made in new areas of learning and discovery could easily be subject to the whims of a few wealthy and influential individuals. Possibly.

Talking of nocmig reminds me...

Seán Ronayne is an Irish birder who got into sound recording during the first COVID-19 lockdown in April 2020, like I did. However, he has taken it to another level. Among other things, his nocmig discoveries are simply fascinating. One example involves Yellow Wagtail, a scarce migrant in the Republic of Ireland, with normally around 20-30 records a year. Seán's nocmig tally of 70-odd (crack-of-dawn birds) in an autumn was therefore something of a revelation. And did you know how much mimicry there is in a Whitethroat's song, and what that can tell you about its migratory route? No, me neither. I heartily recommend his 'Wild Mind' talk, on YouTube HERE. It's not only about nocmig, and seeing a young birder get really enthusiastic about his topic is just 100% feelgood. So what are you waiting for?

Thursday 15 February 2024

Winter Sunshine

Winter sunshine is like an early sniff of spring; it's good for the soul and stirs the blood. I wasn't expecting any today, but when it happened I was out like a shot. Cogden called, for the second time this week. The first was uneventful - and dankly grey, and windy, and thick with salt spray - but not so this morning...

I hadn't explored the inland parts of Cogden since last autumn, but gave it a try today. Very, very squidgy. The ground is sodden, and I wasn't surprised to flush a Snipe from one of the meadows. Otherwise just a few Meadow Pipits and the odd Stonechat, but overlaid with an evocative backing track of surf-on-shingle and singing Skylark. Nice.

Then I arrived at the spot where I encountered two Firecrests last October. And, what do you know? Two Firecrests...

Initial view of Firecrest #1. A very nice surprise.

The same bird. Firecrest #2 was nothing like as obliging.


I wonder if they were the same two birds I saw last year. Quite a coincidence if not. Anyway, I pressed on down towards the sea, serenaded all the way...

A rubbish pic, I know, but I can almost hear that uplifting voice.

Thanks to a helpful heads-up from Mike Morse, I was aware that Cirl Bunting was on the cards. There had been none on my previous visit, but I had left it much too late in the day. Today's timing was a lot better...

Hard to believe that this has become almost an expected happening in recent times. A male Dorset Cirl Bunting, with female tucked away top right.

Better view of the female Cirl Bunting. Bright ear covert spot and that fine dark streak curling forward over the eye aid identification. The latter feature was first brought to my attention by Devon birder/artist Mike Langman, and it seems ever so reliable.

Male and female Cirl in the stubble (on the left) plus a male Yellowhammer top right. The female bunting at top right might be a Cirl too, but I wouldn't stake my life on it.

There were at least three Cirl Buntings present (one male) and it is such a treat to have them so local. I hope they go from strength to strength.

The trudge back along the beach was quiet, bird-wise. The late-autumn storms have reprofiled the shingle quite dramatically, and I am curious to see how much the previously-abundant flora has taken a battering. All will be revealed come spring, no doubt.

This insignificant lump of concrete used to provide a nice bit of shelter for seawatching. Not this year.

Same spot, January 2016