Sunday, 12 July 2020

Lepping Around

Most of my birding involves a longish walk. And if for some reason the birding is a bit rubbish, what are you left with? Just a longish walk. I am fortunate that my surroundings are almost invariably lovely, so I've been trying to diversify a little bit this year, looking at other things when the birds won't play. Looking at butterflies for example. And anything else that catches my eye - even plants on occasion. And taking photos of it all.

Anyone who follows my Twitter output will already know my ID limitations when it comes to non-birds. I am hopeless. However, I'll make the effort if it's relevant. For example, just recently Sandra and I have been visiting a local spot which has Silver-washed Fritillaries, and I now know how to tell the difference between the males and females. Modest stuff, I realise, but after 61 years you've got to start modest...

Siver-washed Fritillary - male...
...and female

It occured to me just recently that I have never knowingly seen an Essex Skipper. How is this possible? Indifference I guess. Plus they are not easy. Anyhow, I thought it would be a nice challenge to set myself - see if I can find my own Essex Skipper. Unfortunately a quick online check revealed that they are not all that common in West Dorset. Never mind, I do like my challenges to be...er...challenging. And let me tell you, trying to suss the colour of a tiny, restless butterfly's antenna tip is indeed a challenge. Strewth! To be honest, my eyes alone aren't really up to it, and the camera has been essential. Still, with all this nice weather recently the skippers have been active. Just need to find some nice, neat black antenna tips...

Large Skipper. Black tips, wrong species.

So this morning I was at Burton Bradstock. The birding was a bit duff, and I soon found myself crouching in the grass, sneaking up on slightly drowsy skippers. I nailed two of them. Here's the first...

Black tips? Well...

I was pretty confident with this one, and posted it on Twitter. However, it was pointed out that the butterfly's right hand antenna tip (ie, the left hand one as you look at the photo) has a touch of dull orange visible, so probably it's not an Essex Skipper. Ah, right. Never mind, I had another candidate...

Well, definitely one neat black tip...
Same butterfy. Er... Not sure about this one either really.


Which brings me to this afternoon.

So I am still without a 100% unequivocal Essex Skipper. Sandra and I went for an afternoon walk locally, well away from the coastal scrum, and came across a patch of wild marjoram (I think) on which several skippers were feeding. In the hot, sunny weather they were constantly on the go, and I had to take photos with the P900's zoom rather than macro. Among the many shots was this one...

Third candidate Essex Skipper


In addition to neat black tips to the antennae, a male Essex Skipper can be identified by the size, shape and orientation of its scent mark. Again, new knowledge for me, but basically on Essex Skipper the scent mark is small, thin, straight and parallel with the leading edge of the wing. On Small Skipper it is long, thick and obliquely angled. So, a closer look...

See inset - scent mark circled. Small, thin, straight, parallel. Essex. Sorted.


So that was nice, a new butterfly for me. And then I remembered I'd taken some skipper photos at Burton Bradstock a few days ago too, but hadn't really got round to looking at them properly...

Those antenna tips look pretty good from underneath...
...but from above we can see it's also a male, with a short, thin, straight, parallel scent mark! Essex Skipper!


Apparently an Essex Skipper at Burton Bradstock would make it the most westerly ever recorded in Dorset. Nice. I'm glad I made the effort now.

So, yes, I'm well chuffed with this little diversification into the world of leps. But the best is yet to come. While I was trying to photograph the busy little skippers this afternoon, something caught Sandra's eye. She called me over and said she'd just seen what looked like a large moth fly into a bush, adding that the way it flew reminded her slightly of a Hummingbird Hawkmoth. We peered into the foliage and soon spotted it. I could see it was a clearwing of some kind, but the light was really awful and I couldn't make out any detail at all. Unfortunately it carried on through the bush and vanished.

Sandra kept watch, and a few minutes later it reappeared. This time we were ready, but it was quickly out of view and into the foliage again. Momentarily it paused and I managed a single photo. Then it was gone, and didn't reappear. I had a look at the back of the camera...

Wow!

Just lately, Twitter has been crawling with shots of Lunar Hornet Moth, and I realised we had a photo of a very good candidate right here. I uploaded a crop to Twitter and asked for ID confirmation. 'Yes!' came the reply. Excellent!

I know little about moths, but reading between the lines I get the impression that until recently, Lunar Hornet Moth is one of those species that even a super-keen moth enthusiast might never have seen. But this year there is apparently an effective new pheremone lure (I've seen it given the epithet 'The Game Changer', so it must be good!) and many moth'ers have consequently added a new species to their list. Us too! Here it is...

Lunar Hornet Clearwing. Corker!


The bush is a sallow, which is apparently the species' food plant. It all fits. A female maybe? Looking for somewhere to lay eggs? Anyway, whatever the case, a cracking moth.

So that's Essex Skipper done and dusted. Plus a chemical-free Lunar Hornet Clearwing (the only proper way, right?). What next...?

Saturday, 11 July 2020

Sound Stuff

For a while now I've been threatening to rig up my sound recorder for in-the-field use. Finally it is done. With the assistance of a couple of cheap little gadgets purchased on eBay, and some decent Duracell rechargeables to avoid premature death, I can now clip it to the strap of my camera bag and have it permanently switched on. So this morning was the test run...

Arriving at Burton Bradstock I carefully noted the time, and switched it on: 05:28. On a few occasions during the course of my walk I also noted the time when a particular bird flew over calling, so that I could check it out on the recording later and see how well (or not) it had come out. So, listed on my phone is Linnet at 06:12, Goldfinches 06:54, Meadow Pipit 07:01, and so on. I was secretly hoping for Crossbill, but that didn't happen. Anyway, below is the Meadow Pipit. Picture the scene. I'm walking along the clifftop and a Meadow Pipit flies past, calling. It's not that close, not mega-loud, but it makes me stop, raise my bins, have a look. And it continues calling for a few seconds. This is what all that sounds like...



I think you'll agree, that's not bad at all. Now imagine it was actually a Richard's Pipit. My only self-found Richard's Pipit since living down here was indeed a fly-over, at Beer Head in November 2005. My description was basic in the extreme. Silhouette views only, so I've got the structure, shape, size, flight attitude and whatnot, but no plumage detail. Plus a transcription of the call. Happily it was accepted. However, when it comes to any future single-observer records, a decent recording is going to provide the same convincing stamp of authentication as a decent photo. I look forward to that happening one day!

As far as practicalities are concerned it was noticeable how loud I am when just walking around. Footsteps, stuff rubbing and bumping about... However, although it translates to an awful lot of background noise on the recording, it didn't drown out the birds. At one point I thought I heard a brief bit of Whimbrel amongst a clamour of Herring Gulls. I stopped immediately, but heard nothing more. Going through the recording later I discovered that I'd been mistaken; it was a poorly heard, staccato bit of gull, and I was able to say that with confidence, despite all the background noise going on.

I have a couple of minor niggles with exactly how to position it for optimum effectiveness, but basically it was a roaring success.

There was a terrific passage of Swifts first thing, with 630+ going W or WNW, also a good number of gulls moving W offshore, including at least 46 Med Gulls. I probably missed a lot through spending some time checking the bushes, but with 16 Sand Martins and 3 Common Terns it all added up to a decent bit of pre-breakfast passage. Great stuff!

After breakfast I went through last night's nocmig recording. It has to be said, July's been slow. One Water Rail, five Moorhens, a Coot and a Common Sandpiper have been the highlights. So, with just a brief Moorhen at 23:34, by the time I got to 03:00 without anything else of much interest I had basically written off last night too. And then at 03:05 there was a massive, out-of-the-blue 'Oh wow!!' moment...

Back in May, both Jonathan Lethbridge and Chris Townend recorded nocmig Quail. Being, like me, nocmig beginners, I was pleased for them both, but also envious. And with 2020 turning out to be a bit of a Quail year, I have really, really been hoping to get in on the act. But the rest of May came and went, then the whole of June. Time was running out. As well as that, in the back of my mind was a concern that I might have had my chance and missed it. If you visit Chris and Jonathan's relevant blog posts linked above, you cannot help but notice how...er...subliminal are their Quail events! Blink, and you've missed it. Had I in fact overlooked the faint squiggle of a 'wet-my-lips'? Or the blurry smudge of a 'mau-wau'?

I need not have worried...

This is the full recording. There is a very faint, introductory 'mau-wau' and single 'whip' at 2 or 3 seconds (which I initially missed) before some real letting rip later. I don't know why, but all the really good nocmig birds I've had thus far have performed brilliantly. Long may that continue.



Incidentally, the fact that I have only 'heard' this Quail electronically has not diminished my pleasure one iota. Strange as it may seem, the buzz was as good as if it I had heard it live. A few months ago, one of my criticisms of nocmig would have hinged on exactly that issue. It is in fact a non-issue.

Wednesday, 8 July 2020

Sea. Gull.

Struggling a bit for keyboard time at the moment, which means there is loads of blog material unblogged. So here's a follow-on from my previous moany one about the rough seawatching deal we get here. And it's not moany at all...

At Burton Bradstock I have finally sussed a little spot which provides some shelter from a south-westerly. I've used it now in wind speeds up to somewhere in the twenties (mph) and it's been okay. Not brilliant, but not bad. Though in a gale I think it would probably get blown out. Mind you, the more west and less south there is, the better the shelter, because as I've mentioned before, a south-westerly is basically straight in. There is no cover from rain, so I employ the brolly technique which I learned at Berry Head. For comfort and stability I use a vintage fishing chair - an original Fox Adjusta Level item which must be around 30 years old - and keep low. So far, so good...

When the wind initially got up a few days ago I began to test things out, and have now put in six short sessions. Rather than enumerate them all, here are the grand totals from all the seawatching I've done since last Friday evening...

Balearic Shearwater 36
Manx Shearwater 184
Common Scoter 219
Arctic Skua 2
Bonxie 2
Kittiwake 11
Common Tern 2
Sandwich Tern 4
Mediterranean Gull 30+
Curlew 1
Whimbrel 1
Mallard 6

I rarely (read 'never') count Gannets or auks, but the former have certainly been numerous, and I did see a Razorbill on the sea close in, with its youngster (a tiny little thing) which was a first for me in Lyme Bay. I've also seen my first juvenile Black-headed and Med Gulls of 2020.

I am actually very happy with that tally. Mostly it has felt reasonably busy out there, and dead spells have been relatively few. All the skuas were this morning, and very welcome. I have missed them.

This evening I popped down again, and the wind promptly dropped. Also, due to the pattern of cloud cover, the light was absolutely dire. With the horrible glare and lack of birds I wondered if I'd even last 30 minutes. And then some gulls appeared...

Presumably there were whitebait shoals close in, because a constant stream of gulls were passing W, close in, on occasion gathering into a noisy flock and pausing a while, before moving on and being replaced by more. The first bird of interest was a worn 1st-summer (2cy) Common Gull, and then I spotted a 2nd summer/3rd-winter (3cy) Yellow-legged Gull, my first local bird since January. It was a right pig to pick out of the flock, and I lost it twice, but I really wanted a photo. My first effort produced a Lesser Black-backed Gull! Oops. Then it went missing. Eventually I found it again, loitering on its own, a bit beyond the melee. I got one pic on the water, then it took off and I somehow managed a single burst of flight shots...

They're a bit rubbish, but I reckon this might be the first YLG of this age that I've seen in July, so definitely worth a nice NQS collage...

Note virtually adult bill colouring, and shade of grey in comparison with Herring Gull

So there we go. While many of my fellow birders were at Portland Bill, wrestling with the intricacies of Yelkouan Shearwater identification, I was up to my ears in gull again. And loving it...

Sunday, 5 July 2020

When West is Best

While not a fanatic, I do enjoy a bit of seawatching. Like many birders I completely missed out on almost all of the spring season, so am hopeful that summer/autumn might offer some compensation. However, there is one problem. If the seawatching in my part of Lyme Bay is any good at all, it will be a hundred times better in a different part. The prevailing south-westerlies of autumn can be immensely productive at, say, Berry Head and Start Point in S Devon, but local pickings will be meagre in comparison. To illustrate, take yesterday's movement of Balearic Shearwaters. Start Point produced a monstrous day count of 1068!! I put in almost 2.5 hours from first light at Burton Bradstock, and saw five.

Out of curiosity I had a hunt around for counts from other Lyme Bay locations and stuck them on this map...



My old patch at Seaton did amazingly well compared to what might normally be expected there, but look at Lyme Regis, Burton Bradstock and even Portland Bill. Slim pickings. Admittedly some of those counts will be from relatively short watches, but even so, there is no way those birds were evenly shared yesterday. And in the 17 years I've lived down this way I have come to learn that this is simply how things are...

It's rather like being offered a couple of Maltesers, while someone else gets a whole box. A large one. And when you later discover that Dawlish Warren was also graced with a double-figure count of Arctic Skuas and an adult LONG-TAILED, well...

If you think it's difficult to teach a small child how to be content with its lot, and not to eye the other kid's goodies, get screamingly jealous and spit its dummy out, try an east Lyme Bay seawatcher.

Tuesday, 30 June 2020

The Elephant in the Room

Like most human pursuits, birding has the potential in some of us to trigger a level of obsessive behaviour which overrides real-life responsibilities. The neglected family, reckless spending, illicit sickies and so on, all bear testimony to that fact. My own record in this regard is dismal. One minor example. Thirty-three years ago, another London birder and I twitched a pair of Slender-billed Gulls in North Norfolk. We went in his car, a pretty rapid Vauxhall Cavalier SRi. We met at Hanger Lane in NW London, and made it to the Cley beach car park in under two hours, arriving just after first light. If you know the roads, you will appreciate how hazardous a night-time drive it was at that speed. It was truly scary. It was also utterly stupid and irresponsible.

One makes excuses of course, but when you strip away the rationalising, all this kind of behaviour boils down to selfishness, pure and simple. Occasionally you see it taken to another level, like when English birders twitch a vagrant tern in the Republic of Ireland, circumventing the nation's 14-day Covid-19 quarantine policy in the process. Again, take away the ifs, buts and feeble justifications, and what are you left with?

I rarely visit BirdForum these days, but made an exception for the Irish tern and read the whole thread. One contributor, Jonathan Dean, wrote this...


The strength of feeling evident here is palpable. The birding ethos against which he rails was embraced and promoted by my generation, decades ago, and it seemed okay back then. But in the sober light of my later years and a very different world, it doesn't look okay at all. And I agree with him: it belongs to a bygone era.

Jonathan Dean is the age of my sons. Birders of his generation, and their children, will formulate their own ethos. Amongst other things, I doubt it'll include burning vast amounts of fossil fuel for a tick on a list. Birders of my generation, meanwhile, have a choice. Continue as before in dinosaur mode, or listen to the younger voices, think about what's happening to the planet, and change.

In 2018 British Birds magazine published a 'BB eye' piece entitled Are we addicted to high-carbon ornithology? by Javier Caletrío. It was referenced in a more recent 'BB eye' written by former RSPB CEO Mike Clarke: The changing nature of bird conservation - some reflections. Both articles are a thought-provoking read. Javier goes by the Twitter handle @BirdingClimate and his page has the tagline: 'Talking about climate and equity in the world of high-carbon ornithology'. That's all, just 'talking about...' Currently he has a paltry 899 followers. In two years. Is this because so few wish to engage in that conversation? Possibly. I don't know. But I do know that until recently, I didn't.

What's changed?? Good question. I'm not sure really, but the stupid Irish tern episode certainly figured. And there are other factors which aren't really for this blog. Anyway, I'm not quite sure where I go from here, but as regards the low-carbon birding elephant in the room, I'm happy to talk about it at least...

Sunday, 28 June 2020

Plan A

This evening I headed over to Burton Bradstock for a couple of hours. The first 30 minutes I gave to the sea. In return it gave me three or four Gannets and a couple of Fulmars. It therefore owes me.

Next, I had a good poke around for a satisfactory seawatching-in-a-south-westerly spot. This has always been an issue at BB, but I might possibly have found somewhere at last. Admittedly the wind tonight was probably more WSW than SW, so I may have been fooled, but we'll see...

Following that, I went for a walk out over the back of Burton cliffs, and down to the Freshwater Beach Holiday Park. This whole area has slowly grown on me. Some of it reminds me of Beer Head, with a lot of open fields and scattered scrub. Most of the latter hangs off the inland side of the cliffs, where they slope down to a little tree-lined stream. Whenever I visit this area I cannot help see potential everywhere. There are lovely stone walls, plenty of fences, the scrubby bushes and stream I mentioned. In addition there is currently a vast, open area of short grass where the tents and camper vans would normally live. That will change eventually, but right now it looks brilliant.

I have birded here a bit, but never given it the attention it deserves. It provided my only Grasshopper Warbler of the spring, and many Wheatears, plus a Spotted Flycatcher two days ago. A few autumn efforts have produced Whinchats, Yellow Wags and a Pied Fly. So this year I think I'll try and make a bit of a campaign of it. It's probably my closest bit of sexy coast to home, but if boredom sets in I've always got the option of dropping in to Cogden, or East and West Bexington for a change of scenery.

A few photos from this evening to give some idea of what we're talking about...

Walking east. The left hand skyline is the top of vertical cliffs. Holiday Park static vans in the distance.
Looking back west from the same spot. Burton beach is in the dip beyond the white buildings.
The inland scrub. Cliffs are beyond skyline.
Looking west again. Trees on extreme left follow the stream.

There is plenty of cover, but unlike some areas along the coast here it doesn't feel overwhelming, like you're only ever going to see about 0.2% of the birds present! I've noticed in the past that you quickly know if there is much about, and if something really good has dropped in, I like to think there's a good chance I'll see it. That's another reason the place reminds me of Beer Head, which to me has a similar vibe.

Anyway, that's plan A. Watch this space...

Parking at Burton beach means there is a seawatching option, plus the beach itself, where you might see one or more of these...

Stonking adult Med Gull this evening
NOT-stonking first summer Med!

Right, that's it then. The nocmig kit is rigged for action, all fired up and listening carefully. In the last four nights I've had three Common Sandpipers and an Oystercatcher. The 'autumn' wader passage has begun. Bring it on!

I'll close with last night's Common Sand...

Wednesday, 24 June 2020

The Rough and the Smooth

Most of the time I have little trouble writing NQS posts, but right now there are a couple of draft efforts on my laptop, unfinished. It's no problem to write about going birding, seeing birds, stuff like that. But there are other things.

In this cosy corner of West Dorset it is not difficult to stick your head in the sand and ignore those other things. This blog normally does. One example. A few months ago I wrote a post about twitching, which basically concluded that it's just a bit of harmless fun. Yet we have right now the unedifying spectacle of English twitchers reportedly flouting Irish lockdown rules in order to tick Cayenne Tern. Not to mention the planet burning. Low carbon birding? That's the first time I've typed those three words together. Because I've avoided it. Another example. Living where I do, it's dead easy for me to champion the local patch approach. Because I have never been mugged, threatened with a knife, had my phone smashed to prevent me calling the police, or had my optics damaged or nicked while out birding. Those things have all happened, and probably worse that I've not heard about. When your local patch offers that possibility, is it any wonder you'd rather travel elsewhere?

Anyway, this post isn't going to tackle any of that, but maybe I just need to get my head out of the sand once in a while.

Quite probably the reason for the less-than-cheery preamble is yesterday's visit to East Bexington. The plan was a short evening walk with Sandra, hopefully to see some hares. You park at Abbotsbury Beach and head west...

On arrival, around 8pm, the car park was heaving. That was unexpected. A few tents were pitched too. Up on the beach it was like a mini festival, with tents everywhere, many in little clusters. Perhaps it normally gets like this in good weather, even midweek, but it's certainly a first for me. Due to Covid-19 the beach toilets are closed. So what are hundreds of people, all eating and drinking, going to do?

As you walk west, towards relatively deserted beach and lonely fields, you pass a couple of big tamarisk clumps. Just a glance - and your nostrils - tell you everything. It is foul.

Abbotsbury Beach from about half a mile away. Several hundred people in that shot.


Many years ago on the Isle of Lewis, I remember meeting a couple who had moved there to get away from people. Even my mild intrusion into their lives was not very welcome. I totally get it.


Right, that's enough unpleasant reality for the moment. We did see some hares, but none close. We also saw a couple of Corn Buntings. I would guess they were a pair. One was perched on an umbellifer, the other on a fence wire, and they were calling to one another. So I got my recorder out and switched it on. Since the H4n Pro has become part of my kit I have found a few opportunities to make use of it, and really enjoyed doing so. A nice sound recording provides exactly the same pleasure as a decent photo. I think I am gradually working towards having the device rigged so that it is actively recording the whole time I am in the field. We'll see...

This Corn Bunting had no problem vocalising through that mouthful of cricket

Later that evening I ventured east of Bridport, on to some high farmland around Eggardon Hill, West Compton and Compton Valence. I was on a Quail quest. Many stops, much listening. Quail fail, sadly. But before it got too dark there were some nice consolation prizes: several roe deer, a badger, and great views of a Barn Owl, a bird I see all too rarely.

If I can get my aged carcass to respond tomorrow morning, there will be an early jaunt, well away from my fellow man, many of whom I don't much like right now...