Thursday, 20 January 2022

Bogey Bird Bites Dust

On Tuesday I finally made it to the Seaton area. I already knew the four Glossy Ibis were still present, but was in no rush to visit them. I wanted the sun to get round a bit first, so they could live up to their name properly. A morning's work was followed by a lingering look at lots of Larids. All dross. On to the ibis then. The early-morning gen had them almost within touching distance of the cycle path, by the church. This was going to be good.

I certainly didn't need bins. Glossy Ibis are easily identifiable with the naked eye. Especially when very close, like they were first thing. And, yes, even when distant dots, like they were right now. Sigh... They couldn't have been any further away while still being in the same field. And in the short time I had available they basically did nothing but eat...

One accidentally has its head visible here

Standard pose.

A bonus Dark-bellied Brent was nice...

A fairly unusual sight on the Axe

It was good to bump into Tim and Sue, a couple of the Axe regulars. Such a nice vibe among the local birders there.

So, on to yesterday afternoon and the meaning of this post's title...

Bearded Tit is a species I have seen just once since living in the Southwest. And that was in Hyde Park during a trip to London! In other words: zero local birds. I've had chances, but failed to connect. Beardy is a scarce bird locally, for sure. Evidently more regular at West Bex and Cogden than on the Axe, but I've missed them there too. I've missed them everywhere, and feel like the only long(ish)-time local birder who hasn't seen one. Mind you, I've never been too frantic about twitching them because I'd much prefer to find my own. Well...

Mid-afternoon I was sploshing around a West Bexington spot in search of #LocalBigYear ticks, specifically Common Snipe and Jack Snipe. Common Snipe was quick and easy (and expected) but soon enough a Jack Snipe (hoped for but not expected) popped up too, and I watched it come down in an area of short grass and a bit of Juncus. I'd seen exactly where it landed, and fancied my chances of an on-the-deck experience if I was careful. So I began edging my way over there, along the side of some reeds. Suddenly a small, annoyed thing burst from the reeds with a staccato volley of 'pings', landing just a few yards away. Bearded Tit! The sun was in my eyes but a quick look with bins confirmed it was a female. It looked jittery, so if I was going to get a photo, now was the time. I could barely see through the camera for glare, so basically guessed where it was and got two short bursts before it flew. This is the best shot...

Female Bearded Tit at West Bex

I don't know who discovered the Beardies I saw in Hyde Park that time, but I reckon I have a good idea how they felt. Well, almost. I suppose West Bex isn't Central London, is it?! Still, local birding definitely adds value to birds that might be fairly commonplace elsewhere.

I saw (and heard) the Beardy a few times after that, but it didn't perch up for me again. I never did see that Jack Snipe on the deck though, but found a second some time later. So, Bearded Tit, 2 Jack Snipe, 19 Common Snipe, singles of Chiffchaff and Goldcrest. Not bad. Not bad at all.

Monday, 17 January 2022

Record Shots

These past few days I've added a few more species to the #LocalBigYear tally, and immortalised their arrival with some dire photography. The first was Dipper, which I thought was going to be really difficult. However, some excellent gen from a fellow local birder paid off at the first attempt. And it was a spot I would never have thought of checking...

Dipper. Very flighty, so this was all I got.

That was Saturday. Yesterday afternoon I tried the Brambling stake-out again. Success this time, but the few I saw were distant and tricky...

The back of a female Brambling, in all its tiny glory

I'm afraid they only get worse. I spent the dregs of Sunday afternoon scouring the high farmland to the north-east of Bridport. My targets were Corn Bunting, Golden Plover and - very optimistically - Merlin. It was hard work. Eventually, and by complete fluke, a mixed flock of about 50 Yellowhammers and Corn Buntings flew over me as I stood at the side of the road in the middle of nowhere, and perched up in a distant treetop...

A few of those dots are Corn Buntings - mostly the higher ones. I think something awful has happened to the white balance on this shot.

I couldn't find any Golden Plovers, or anything else for that matter. Still, at least 17 Corn Buntings (counted from photos) was a nice total.

This afternoon I visited West Bexington. The plan was to sit on the beach and check the pre-roost gulls as they dropped on to the Mere for a wash before heading out to sea. In the event it was so slow I decided to try the bunting flock instead. The buntings were most uncooperative, feeding much further up the field than is ideal. Even so, I saw the female Cirl Bunting several times and - for the first time since last November - the male twice. I was glad I'd bothered with my scope, because without it I definitely would not have seen the male. Unfortunately only the female posed for photos...

Female Cirl Bunting in its usual hedge, and playing very hard to get. Cryptic rump view, top left.

Face pattern looks really strong in the shade here, but varies so much in different lights...

Olive-grey rump visible on this one.

Looks quite different in the late afternoon sun...

...and in this one, taken at 16:17, the rump even looks a warm brown.

And finally, a few extra-curricular pics...

Fallow Deer herd viewed from Eggardon Hill at sunset yesterday.

Roe Deer caught by the final rays of this afternoon's sun before it dipped below the horizon

The #LocalBigYear total stands at 82 species now, with the sole addition of Goldcrest at West Bex this afternoon. Last year I didn't see a local Goldcrest until August or something, so at least I've avoided that patheticness.

As dusk descended, and a miraculous Barn Owl didn't happen, the Wolf Moon looked bleakly impressive in its wintry sky...

West Bex - the end of the day...

Friday, 14 January 2022

Lesser Scaup

This recent fine weather has been great for catching up with work, so last night's sore throat and below par-ness were most unwelcome. A precautionary day off then. At 11:01 the local WhatsApp group informed me that 3 Glossy Ibis had just dropped in to Sheep's Marsh on the Axe. Typical! Not much I could do about that from Bridport. At 12:19 they flew off, heading high west. So, that was that.

After lunch I felt well enough for a walk, and headed north from home along the River Asker in optimistic search of Dipper. I'd just added Greenfinch to the #LocalBigYear total when my phone rang. Seeing the caller was Mike Morse, for some reason I absolutely knew that the three Glossy Ibis had about-turned and dropped in at West Bex. Good thing I don't do betting...

'Female Lesser Scaup at Bex, on Big Pond', said Mike, but used a few more words in real life.

Big Pond is actually a small pond, and a dream location. If the Lesser Scaup stayed, views would be very good. Mike and Alan had found it with Tufties, and it was a new bird for the West Bex and Cogden recording area. I was hugely grateful for the shout, and instantly retraced my steps. Not long after...

This is how I like my ducks: close and sunlit. Female Lesser Scaup in the foreground with a pair of Tufties. That little 'bump' at the back of its crown is consistent in all the photos. There appears to be a hint of pale auricular patch too, or am I just imagining it?

Nice comparison with female Tuftie. From the side it was virtually impossible to see any black on the bill tip. Perfect.

White secondary bar, switching to grey across the primaries. Perfect again.

That white/grey wing bar contrast is even more obvious on this shot



One of my favourite pics. If ducks were a thing here instead of gulls, I'm sure I would constantly be going 'always look at ducks'. Because even a small gang of common ducks might contain a subtle gem like this one.

The whole occasion was a delight. Apart from the bird itself, which was an enjoyable object lesson in tricky Aythya identification, it was great to meet up with a few fellow birders for a change. Nick Senior was there when I arrived, with Ian McLean and Alan Barrett (co-finder) turning up a little later. As the four of us watched the Lesser Scaup and chatted in the warm, late afternoon sun, the real world and all its woes seemed far away. I like this hobby...

News of the bird had evidently drawn one or two other would-be admirers. Unfortunately they were over on the beach. Due to current water levels in the nearby reed bed, the pond is not really accessible from the beach without some serious wading.

Lesser Scaup twitchers? They could see us, so hopefully made it round to the right spot okay.

So, that was an unexpected development. A new duck for my #LocalBigYear effort. In fact it was almost a new duck, full stop. I've only seen one Lesser Scaup before. It was quite a significant one though...

Lesser Scaup at Chasewater in 1987 - the first for Britain!

Thursday, 13 January 2022

Dross

It is now almost 40 years since I began to look at gulls properly. 1982 was the year of revelation. In the autumn of that year I saw my first Mediterranean Gull, in Norfolk, and very soon afterwards found my first, at Staines Reservoir. Med Gull was still a very scarce bird in the London recording area. That individual was an adult in winter plumage, but the following spring I discovered a 1st-winter - again at Staines Res - and realised that youngsters were perfectly doable. In 1984 I learned about the Wraysbury Reservoir roost. Late on a winter's afternoon you might have seen me climbing the gates and hurrying up the bank to get out of view. Glaucous and Iceland Gulls were the sought-after prizes. As my interest grew, less obvious gulls like the darker-mantled, yellow-legged Herring Gulls (now Yellow-legged Gull) began to register, and the properly black Lesser Black-backed Gulls...

Almost invariably, digging out any of these gems required the same approach: pick carefully through a flock of gulls. Although I am much older now, I haven't found a better way.

Yesterday I was finally able to get some work done. This put me in the Seaton area, where at lunchtime the Axe Estuary beckoned. This was the lovely view from Coronation Corner...

A few hundred gulls in glorious sunshine. Wonderful!

Bright sunshine isn't the best light for assessing subtle shades of grey, but it would certainly make an adult Ring-billed Gull's yellow legs stand out, and its pale eye easier to see. Of course, Ring-billed Gulls are like hen's teeth nowadays, but you have to dream. So, once the big gulls had been sifted for Casps etc, every single Common Gull got a grilling, including the youngsters. The Black-headed Gulls too - Bonaparte's Gull is still one of my most wanted. And of course, on the Axe a winter Med is always a nice reward.

This number of gulls feels quite manageable, and I honestly felt like I did the lot. But there was nothing. Not a thing. The whole lot were so much...er...dross.

Or were they?

It is true that any search through a gull flock is a hopeful quest for the odd one out; something unusual, something special; ideally something rare. You select each bird, examine it, discard it - toss it on the dross pile. That's how it seems, but really it's not like that at all. Sure, you might whizz through them a bit dismissively in that hunt for a goodie, but once you realise there isn't one, you relax and begin to appreciate them in their own right. The incredible variability in Herring Gulls for example. Not just in plumage, but size, structure, even facial expression! And how the sun brings out the intense redness of an adult BHG's legs. And that even 1st-winter Common Gulls are not all the same...

Instead of the usual grey saddle of second-generation feathers, this 1st-winter Common Gull has retained its brown, scaly juvenile scaps. Is it from somewhere with a short, late season, way above the Arctic Circle? Possibly. Who knows? Interesting though.

And of course, sifting through all these regular gulls helps you become more and more familiar with the 'look' of the commoner species, so that the 24-carat gull can be more easily separated from its drossy mates. Like in this shot...

Lunchtime today. Spot the classy gull.

Hopefully a bit more obvious now: 1st-winter Med Gull hiding behind that preening Herring Gull, just left of centre.

Yes, when I use the seemingly disparaging term 'dross' to refer to everyday gulls, it is always with an underlying note of affection. I love gulls, all of them. Drossy gulls have helped me while away many very pleasurable hours in the last 40 years. Long may they continue to do so.

Always look at gulls!

Tuesday, 11 January 2022

Weather

There is progress on the #LocalBigYear front. On Sunday afternoon I failed to see Brambling at my Brambling spot, but did glean some Barn Owl gen from a friendly farmer, and followed that up with two Green Sandpipers at the Green Sandpiper spot. Swings, roundabouts. And today there was a Coot, which gets me to 75.

The weather has been a pain though. Yesterday was too wet for work and, because I'm a wuss, too wet for birding. This morning it wasn't raining per se, but damp and foggy. The air was just sodden. I went to West Bex for a walk on the beach. Visibility was frequently less than 200m...

A single Red-throated Diver was about it on the sea.

Gulls showing well on the West Bex Mere

When the weather is grim I guess you just have to take what you can get. If that includes a gull or two, I shan't moan...

Murky Med

Possibly the shortest NQS post ever.

Saturday, 8 January 2022

Listing for Dummies

What exactly is listing?

Listing is simple enough. For example, on January 1st I tried to keep a list of all the species I encountered that day, writing each down as it came my way.

You mean, as you saw each species, you wrote it down?

Well, yes and no. Some species I didn't actually see at all. Like Water Rail, which I only heard.

So it's okay to count a species you didn't see?

Yes. Hearing it counts.

Does that mean some birders' lists might include birds they've never actually seen?!

Er...well, that probably depends which list you're talking about. And what you mean by 'never'...


And so the rabbit hole beckons...

Listing is only simple when you don't keep any. The moment you decide otherwise, welcome to a world of pain. On January 1st I just couldn't help myself. I kept a list. In fact, throughout 2021 I couldn't help myself either. I kept a list. I am actually a hypocrite. For all my talk of eschewing the very idea of list keeping, I keep lists.

Lists used to be very important to me. I once knew my British List exactly, but not now. Mind you, I could still tell you my biggest London Year List, and well remember the grief involved in getting it. Nowadays I keep lists simply out of idle curiosity. Yes, idle curiosity informs me that on January 1st I tallied 51 species, and throughout last year, 165. And therein lies a fundamental truth about lists...

A list is not a list

A list is actually a number. When someone asks what your British List is, they are not expecting a roll-call of bird names - they want to hear a number. Ditto every other list. A list is only a list when it is totted up to produce a number. Fine, so when someone asks what my 2021 list was, and I say '165', they're happy now, yes?

No. Because the number needs context...

Do you mean 165 in Britain? In Dorset? On your patch?

Actually, none of those. I mean 165 locally.

Well, that's your patch then. You must mean your patch.

No, locally.

Okay Mr Pedantic, so what boundary do you use? Five km? Ten? Five miles? Your 10km square?

None of those. I don't have a boundary.

You have to have a boundary!

Well, I don't. Also, I counted White-tailed Eagle.

Not one of those Isle-of-Wight birds?!

Yes. And I counted a couple of species that I didn't actually see and didn't actually hear.

??????

Nocmig.


At which point I am written off as a complete loser.

Well, against the sage advice of the sensible bloke who usually writes NQS, this loser is going to keep a 2022 list too. Another local one. It's the #LocalBigYear challenge what made me do it guv. And unlike the super-relaxed idle curiosity type list I kept in 2021, I plan to make a bit of an effort this year. Let's see how it goes...

Fieldfare - in at number 65

Thursday, 6 January 2022

Bird News - Part 7: BIRDLINE - THE ORIGINS by Roy Robinson

NQS has been a pleasurable way to keep mentally active, and it is nice when I get feedback that suggests others enjoy it too. Once in a while though, I get more than I bargained for...

The recent series of NQS posts relating the development of the bird news industry introduced a chap called Roy Robinson. Roy appeared in this post, as the friendly warden of Walsey Hills Info-Migration Centre, situated near the start of the East Bank at Cley, Norfolk. I did say that Roy would feature again later in the series, but in fact that never happened. The reason for this omission was my unreliable memory. I had a feeling that Roy was the first to set up an answerphone system for bird news, that it was initially located in the Walsey Hills bunker, and that he called it Birdline...but I wasn't completely sure, so skipped it. Well, I shall skip it no longer.

Out of the blue, Roy got in touch. He had read the blog, liked it, and offered to send an account of how Birdline really began. Here it is, in Roy's own words...


BIRDLINE - THE ORIGINS

In Spring 1980, on a days birding trip from March in Cambridgeshire, I called into Holme Bird Observatory. In a chat with  Peter Clark, the warden and leading light of the Norfolk Ornithologists Association (NOA), I talked about  my interest in birds, nature and desire to work in this field. He said he might have some seasonal work later in the year.

I kept in touch and later applied for wardenship of Walsey Hills. Moving to Norfolk was very tempting, so I moved to Melton Constable before being offered the post, not so silly in those employment times! All went fine and I reopened Walsey Hills Information Centre and Migration Watch Point on 1st September 1980.

During the following six years, many visiting and local birders, and members, would call in before or during their visit to the great Cley reserve and surrounding areas. There were queues out of the door for rarity photos etc on holiday weekends.

I was now phoning around fifty telephone numbers with special local news. Memory fails me now (well it was around 35 years ago) - did I get an answerphone to save phoning all those numbers, or was I planning Birdline? The answerphone, powered by a car battery - as there was no power supply - was set up early in August 1986 and Birdline was in operation a little later.

I had decided to develop Birdline as I was already experienced in bird news, liked the idea of my own business and earning a fair living. I was not looking to earn a fortune, having been on very low income at Walsey hills, but where I had had some of the best years of my life.

I was gaining subscribers at £10 a year and so I decided to offer Birdline to the NOA, who turned down the idea but kindly wished me luck. The answerphone was now struggling to cope with so many callers, not helped by some subscribers giving out the number to non-subscribers, and even telling me so. A basic flaw, showing my naivety.

Help was at hand in the form of Adline, based at a BT research and development facility at Martlesham Heath in Suffolk. Again, I forget how I discovered this. I think it might have been a BT employee who visited Walsey Hills. Adline could handle 30 simultaneous calls and be updated remotely. I had no choice if I was to continue Birdline and signed the rental agreement. I then sent a letter to all subscribers to inform them of Adline and asking them to keep the number to themselves or the system might not cope. I also raised the subscription to £12 a year, just £1 a month, to help cover extra cost. I think it was the end of October when I left Walsey Hills and started to operate Birdline from my third floor bedsit flat in Cromer, where I had installed a second phone line, one for incoming information, the other as a backup to Adline.

ADLINE

Week Ending 3/10: 4 CALLS.

Week Ending 10/10: 264 CALLS

WeekEnding 17/10: 1299 CALLS

Week Ending 24/10: 1520 CALLS

Week Ending 31/10: 1514 CALLS

[Does not include number of calls to the established answerphone.]

I was kept busy updating news, correspondence, membership, even TV, radio and newspaper articles, keeping an eye on Cromer from the third floor. Unfortunately no Peregrines then. I found it was impractical to update Birdline except from my flat.

It was some time in the following January that I learnt there was now a competing service (Bird Alert) with a companion magazine - Twitching - run  by Richard and Hazel Millington, Steve Gantlett and Lee Evans.

This of course added to my costs and workload, more advertising, monitoring their service etc.

They approached me later in the year, with the  offer of joining the partnership. 

Much soul searching, for many reasons, but Birdline joined the partnership on 20th May 1987, about 10 months after I launched it on the birding world. It was not a totally new idea as there were USA bird news services, but a first I believe anywhere else.

I left the partnership mid 1997

Many thanks to those who helped along the way.

All Best Roy Robinson


I am very grateful to Roy for delving into old paperwork and putting this account together. For birders of my generation it provides a nostalgic glimpse of an era long gone. Roy was always really helpful with gen when Sandra and I used to visit Walsey Hills in those early days, and it is nice to know that Birdline was begun in such a relatively innocent way by a bloke who had happily dispensed bird news at no cost for several years already. Its development into a grasping, premium-rate money pit came later...